Scarlet hair flew in the wind as she ran, a small wooden box held almost protectively in her arms. Behind her, in the large country manor, alarms were already blaring and spotlights swept over the grounds. The search had begun.
She dove into a thicket and forced herself through the dense greenery; arms that reached and pulled and made to ensnare. She had cut herself a fair few times already, brambles and twisting fingers had attacked whenever, wherever they could. Running. Hair constantly caught by those fingers that tugged. Running …
The surroundings were unfamiliar. Lost. How did she get so hopelessly lost? The trees; they all looked the same.
Through the leaves and branches lights winked leeringly at her. The Guard had reached the clearing. In the distance the hungry baying of hounds drew near. Her heart beat a frantic tattoo and she was off again – a blur of fire that crackled softly on the night air.
She needed only find the tree she had marked earlier that evening. Her way out.
Ducking, sprinting through the trees and the shrubbery she searched for the black scarf tied round the trunk of a spreading chestnut. She made to climb the tree before she noticed another tree, not too far off, tied with a near-identical scarf. Another one behind her. Another near the boundary wall. Only one of them could get her safely over the wall, for the other side was treacherous – barbed wire that snaked, hugged the curve of the wall, and shards of glass waiting for an intruder, a deserter like her.
Voices, far too close now, as torchlight surrounded her. She panicked, dropping the box, and tried scrambling up the wall, smooth and cold and unyielding stone, tearing part of a fingernail to the quick.
And then that voice. His voice. Soft, calling you, the warmth in its timbre, his love, so soft …
‘The crimson girl in chase we had,
What was her crime, was she so bad?
Where will she run, that little girl?
Where now will the skein unfurl?
Under that spreading chestnut tree,
Where they sold her and she’ll sell me?
Or in the river; flowing, cold –
Her mother’s grave – so young and old?
Whose blood will run? And will it be As red as hair as has she?’
It had been amplified over the grounds, his voice. Calling her in. A bleeding hand slowly raised itself, reaching to be with him. Bright, white light obscured her vision and then, suddenly, she seemed to lose all sense of reality as pitch-black seized her senses. Muffled voices, a distant sensation of movement, and the cold, numbing her fingers, her hands as her finger continued bleeding. It seemed as if she existed outside her own body. Maybe she did not exist at all.
A cold that burned into her flesh and had her mind reeling broke into her darkness and an immediate, desperate need to breathe tore her back into reality.
Her arms were tied to her back and large, calloused hands were woven far too tightly into her hair. She was bent over a trough of water and ice, the cold air stinging her wet face. A voice behind her said, ‘Again,’ and her head was plunged into the water yet again. She struggled weakly, accidentally inhaling some of the water that burnt like fire as it ran down her throat. Her lungs begged for release and her mind could not comprehend what was going on. As the fight started leaving her body, her head was pulled harshly from the water.
She was forced into a chair a steel table. She was aware, dimly, of her dirty environs. An Information Chamber. She was being tortured inside one of the Information Chambers. And no-one ever survived the Information Chambers. The Tremon-Mor made sure of that.
The Controlman, who had forced her into the chair, crossed to flank someone hidden in shadow opposite her, his muscles rippling threateningly as he crossed his arms.
‘Why did you run?’ The figure in shadow asked. His voice was soft and filled with concern, not angry. That made it worse.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ she gasped. ‘Please believe me, Brother.’
Brother sighed sadly and said, ‘I wish I could, Ex-Intelligencer Mirana. I wish I could.’ There was such regret in his voice. His hands were tied.
‘Surely you know I would not willingly betray you, Brother. I was twisted into rebellion. Tainted by words that sought to destroy you and your great society. I could not see the truth. Only the falsehoods with which I was poisoned. You know—you must know that my wish is only to serve you.’
His voice, again leaded with sorrow and sympathy. ‘Oh, Mirana. You should’ve known better than to put your faith in those who would corrupt you.’ In a tone that suggested a secret shared only amongst the two of them he whispered, ‘There are people who would defile pretty little roses like you. Bend you and … do most terrible things to you. You should have come directly to me,’ he added in a reprimanding voice.
‘I—I tried,’ she stammered, desperate for Brother to understand. ‘I tried to see you, but the Sister would not allow me. And then … And then Mollind and Veth—’
‘Mollind and Vethr made you turn against your Brother?’
‘Yes, Brother,’ she sobbed. ‘They told me to steal the box and bring it to them. They said the box would help them. That you – and the Tremon-Mor – had conspired to do most terrible things. And I, shamefully, believed them. I believe myself to have been hypnoti—’
‘Box?’ he whispered. He hadn’t known about that.
‘The Elder Box. I lost it,’ she realised. ‘Lost it … Lost it … Lost it to the Rowan. Don’t know where. Don’t know—’
‘Do you know where Mollind and Vethr are?’ he cut in, his request urgent.
‘Then you must tell me. Lest they attempt to infect more minds less susceptible than your own. Our entire organisation could fall apart. Everything would be for nothing. Do you understand that? If they infect even a small part of the Tremon-Mor, then we will all be in danger.’
‘I understand, Brother.’
‘Will you tell me where they are?’
A pause. Had she not trusted them . . ? ‘I will.’
‘Tell me everything.’ And she did.
‘Thank you for telling me, my precious little rose,’ Brother said afterwards. ‘You’re going to help us a lot in this battle against evil and outrageous hypocrisy.’ He turned to leave.
‘Brother?’ she asked. ‘Will you forgive me?’
There was a moment of silence and then Brother answered, amusedly, ‘Perhaps.’ He left, the door shutting quietly behind him. She broke down.
Huge, wracking sobs that had her gasping for breath as she softly pleaded, ‘Forgive me, Brother. Please, please, please. Forgive. Forgive …’ Over and over and over again she repeated her wish for absolution. And she received it. Dragged from the Information Chamber to the Chemical Foundry, she found her release in the liquid fire they injected into her system. A fire that slowly burned her insides to nothingness.
All hope to run had left her.