There were layers to the thunder. The crack and rumble of the approaching storm, the weapons fire from the warships of the home worlds testing the shield that had sealed the planet to them, and the rumble of footfalls as the army of black dragon-scale armoured soldiers moved out onto the plains.
“Quickly, now,” the big silver haired man gestured to the caves.
The press of bodies propelled me on. Mostly children, their fear a sharp scent on the air, and their tearful enquiries echoed hollowly.
It was like walking down the throat of a beast, I thought, as if this cave system harboured a dragon and we were the sacrifices to satisfy its voracious hunger. It was cold within the throat, smelled slightly damp, and the light that oozed from the veins that threaded the rock cast eery shadows.
“All the Arcana, in here,” an older man in homespun smiled reassuringly, holding open a door.
There was a staircase off to the side. I slipped into it whilst the movement of bodies disguised my disappearance and felt my way down a few stairs, until the darkness hid me from them. “Is that all?” the silver haired man asked the older one. The rumble of the soldier’s foot falls was fading.
“I think so, Ash,” the other man replied.
“Right. I have allocated someone to each of the chambers. The doors don’t lock, but if they send someone after the children, and if they work out where they are, hopefully we can fight them off.”
“Let’s hope they don’t work it out,” the older man said grimly.
A stillness settled above, that made the storm outside and the weapon fire against the shield louder.
I began to work my way down the stairs. The light from the stair entrance faded. I felt my way along, the stone cold and smooth beneath my hands. The stairs were regular, a small mercy, making it easier to judge the next step down.
My hand encountered flesh. I drew back with a gasp. Eyes glowed green in the darkness, picking up the slight fall of light, like a cat... or a dragon. A hand closed on my arm, and drew me against a body; man, I identified, though I felt the brush of long hair. That was not unusual amongst these people; none of them seemed to cut their hair. His hand closed over my mouth and he breathed something against my ear in a language I did not know.
I heard footfalls and yells above, a scuffle, and then someone ran down the stairs, pausing as they reached us. The man who held me growled, low in his throat, and the other person ran on. He pressed his face into the curve of my neck, breathing in, and moved us down a few more stairs. My heart hammered in my chest.
Another voice murmured from the darkness further down the stairs. The man holding me replied, with a hint of a laugh. He released my mouth. I did not scream. There was no use to doing so; no one would hear me, and there was no one I wanted to come to my rescue.
He lifted me off my feet, cradling me against his chest like a child, and began to make his way down the stairs at a pace I thought foolhardy. I gripped his shoulders afraid he would drop me. The darkness greyed as light filtered from below, and I caught the occasional flash of reflective eyes; the one below looking over his shoulder, and the one holding me as he looked ahead.
As the light increased, I could make out more details of the men. They were both dressed in the black cloth of the soldiers, without the armour. They were built similarly to the soldiers, tall and broad of shoulder, but their hair was dark, where the soldiers were white, silver, or grey in shade.
They were not the others, the ones from the castle, with their homespun clothing, many weapons, and two-toned hair; the Arcana they called themselves. In colouring, these two were more like my own people, but of such size that few of my people could reach, and with their flashing eyes, they were definitely from... somewhere else.
The man at the bottom said something and sent the one holding me a grin, revealing sharper canine and premolar teeth. The one holding me laughed, his chest rumbling with it. The man below paused in the entrance to the stairs, which was disguised by the angle of rocks outside, looking out along the valley floor. He signalled all clear, and we headed out.
The bridge that had strung across from one side of the gorge to the other, now smouldered on the valley floor. The air smelled of smoke. Looking up, I could see the shutters in many of the windows of the houses carved into the rocky sides of the gorge burnt. People ran along the exterior walkways that connected the four levels of the houses, up and down the many stairs between levels.
On the plateau above, battle waged.
The man holding me ran lightly along the cavern floor, until the buildings and the battle were behind us. Surely now, I thought, he would release me, and I could continue my own escape plans. But he did not. I decided not to struggle; so far, their plans aligned with mine. What happened next... well, I would have to wait and see, and if he wanted to carry me, it would save my energy for when I escaped them.
They slowed to a walk, as the sounds of the battle faded. The two men spoke between themselves but ignored me. It was as if the one who carried me had forgotten he did so. They were both handsome men, something I was getting used to; I was yet to see an unattractive grey, white or silver person, and the Arcana with their two-toned hair and solemn eyes were unattainably beautiful. It seemed that there was a sudden abundance of good-looking men everywhere I found myself.
It began to rain, turning the slightly sandy earth below their feet into treacherous mud. I felt the man carrying me slip several times, but he never lost balance. As the rain eased into an annoying drizzle, he put me down, transferring his grip to my wrist instead. He towed me along behind him, without trying to talk to me, or even really looking at me. Finally, as the shadows grew long, and the sun began to sink on the horizon, they stopped, sitting down where the rock overhang had kept the earth dry, the one holding me pulling me down beside him, before releasing his grip on me, apparently trusting that I wouldn’t run.
They sat, their backs against the rock, elbows on their knees, talking casually, as if this were a stroll around a village.
I was hungry and thirsty. They didn’t seem to share the same needs. As the sun set, they lay down, the one who had carried me tugging me onto my side, positioning himself so that my back was almost against his chest, but not touching in any way. I waited until they both seemed to be asleep and got to my feet. Neither moved. I tiptoed along until they were out of sight and then picked up my pace.
I was alert for a yell or a sign of pursuit; but none came.