The Baron’s Daughter

And here it is!

This is ‘The Baron’s Daughter’ A short story I did for LegendFire’s annual ‘Legends contest.’ In all honesty, it was a bit of a rush job (especially the ending) and I got it in just in time.  That said, I’m rather proud of what I was able to achieve working with the restraints I was working with – time, word limits and from a prompt. I have a fear of mandatory prompts, a symptom of English at high school I’m afraid.  I may spend some more time on this, fixing her up. I still have the deleted scenes and know I need to work on character and most of the style. If nothing more, to keep it consistent. But then, that takes time from my already overwhelming projects. Tomorrow (or sometime within the next few days) I will post a more in-depth analysis to explain what I was trying to do, and why I did what I did. Watch out for that if you want a window into the way a (read: this) writer does things.

Please remember this is not me at my best. So, here we go – The Baron’s Daughter, Third place winner of LegendFire’ 2011 ‘Legends contest’ for fiction.

Yes, My LegendFire pseudonym is PenPen. Does anyone know what it’s from?

Title: The Baron’s Daughter
Genre: Fantasy
Word Count: 3494

Aralia of Gastonia stood in front of her father’s throne.

‘Do you have any idea what you’ve done?’ The baron lounged to his side, using a free hand to toy with an extravagant wedding dress held up beside him.

‘I don’t want to marry him!’ Aralia tried to sound strong, but her voice came weak and hoarse.

‘That is not your choice!’ The baron snapped, his bloated face red with anger. ‘It was decided sixteen years ago, when you were born!’ The baron stood, almost tearing the dress as he rose, and stepped towards his daughter. ‘How dare you be so selfish and ungrateful of the blessings I have given you!’ He took another step forward, and Aralia braced herself for what was coming. ‘This is how you repay me?’ The baron raised his arm and slapped Aralia across the face, but the girl knew it was coming and rolled her head to soften the pain. ‘I should have thrown you out when I wasn’t given a prince.’ The baron stared at his daughter’s white face, her charcoal hair ruffled and her blue eyes red with tears. ‘You will marry the prince.’ He turned, stepping back to his throne. ‘The contract has already been signed.’ The baron sat back in his throne. ‘But first you must redeem yourself.’

‘For what?’ Aralia snapped, fuming with anger. ‘The breach of your contract or my breasts?’ Her father smiled.

‘Both,’ He said finally, ‘A week in the dungeons will dullen that wit. Guards!’  A pair of guards latched onto Aralia from behind.

‘Father no!’ She screamed and tried to break free, but the guards restrained her.

‘Wait’ the baron commanded, and from his throne he smiled and waved a hand, considering the girl in front of him. ‘Not the dungeons,’ He paused, as if taking a moment to savor the next thought before he released it. ‘Take her to the mines.’ Aralia felt her knees give way, and she would have dropped if it weren’t for the two guards holding her up.

‘The mines…’ her lips trembled as she echoed the order.

‘Perhaps that will teach you some respect.’ He said, and waved her away.

***

Aralia could feel the heat of the northern sun bearing down on her, burning through the prison uniform that scratched over her skin. A vile wind tore at her balance as she stepped from the prison airship onto the reddish cliffs, the cry of birds screeching at her ears. Ahead, Aralia could see the prison-mine. A steel fence surrounded a rocky courtyard, black tunnels lead into the mountain side. She could see tan uniformed prisoners drawing ore-filled carts while guards stood in the shade with rifles.

‘Welcome your Highness!’ A commanding voice cut through the wind. A man took confident steps towards her. ‘It is an honor to have you here!’ He called, making no effort to hide his laughter as he extended a hand. ‘Come, Milady.’ He said. ‘Just because you are here to serve does not mean I count you among the common scoundrel.’ The man gestured to a line of prisoners being lead off the airship, their arms and legs in chains. Aralia could see men and women of all ages, from the innocently young to the frailly old. The prisoners shuffled in their bindings as guards urged them on with the steel points of their bayonets.

‘You don’t count me among those you can get away with pushing around.’  Aralia retorted confidently, and the man let out a sly laugh.

‘Milady your father has given me full permission, I assure you, but I am hoping I needn’t use it.’  Aralia said nothing, only turning to the man in front of her. She examined him – graying hair still worn as if he were younger, crows’ feet at his eyes and roughened skin. Aged, perhaps, but only a fool would excuse the muscular body and sparkling grey eyes.

‘Warden Panax.’ She started. ‘Or should I say Slaver Panax’

‘So you’ve heard of me?’  Panax replied, lifting an eyebrow.

‘Gutter trash in the eastern marsh know of you.’ Panax smiled.

‘Well, Perhaps Ladies of the west really are no better than gutter trash.’ Aralia frowned and said nothing. Panax stepped aside and gestured to the gates.

‘Enough of this snarking, how rude of me. Come.’ He put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her towards the mine. ‘You cannot redeem your father’s trust standing sentry on the cliffs.’

***

The days where marked by scorching heat, the nights a frigid cold. As a prisoner of the mines, Aralia slept on stone beds with sheets that made her skin itch and crawl with rash. She was fed half a bowl of gruel twice a day, the raincloud colored slop felt like iron-laced cement in her stomach, but it kept her alive long enough to beg for more. In the mines, electric lamps buzzed loudly as Aralia struggled to breathe the soot-encrusted oxygen, her eyes bloodshot and irritated as she swung her pickaxe at the stone. For five days it was the same; She would be woken by a loud siren, and collect her bowl of gruel. And then to the mines until the sun had long before dipped behind the mountains, when she was given a second serving of slop and crawled onto a stone block for sleep. Then, on the sixth day…

A rocky clang echoed through the mine as Aralia struck the stone with her pickaxe, sending a crack through its surface as chips crumbled around the wound.  Aralia heaved the heavy tool back, over her shoulders ready to make a second strike.

‘Aralia.’  The sudden call of her name almost made her let go of the pickaxe mid-swing, but she held the handle tightly as it fell to her side. She turned around, tired eyes scanning the mines.

‘Aralia!’  Warden Panax stepped from the darkness, flanked by guards, an oil lamp held out in front of him. Some of the prisoners looked at him, envious of his plump belly, but none dared linger their eyes or cease working. ‘Follow me.’ He said calmly. The guards made no move when she dropped her equipment and stepped from the cavern walls, but the other prisoners sneered. Wordlessly, Panax turned and began to walk the way he came, the lamplight glittering off pickaxes’ as the prisoners worked.  Aralia followed, and the guards stepped in line behind her.

‘You’ve been here almost a week.’ Panax said as they stepped through the mouth of the mountain and into the courtyard. ‘How do you like the facility?’ Aralia made no reply. ‘A shame you’ve lost that quick tongue, but I suppose it happens to everybody.’  A steel door opened automatically as they approached, controlled by watching eyes above. It slid closed behind them.

They entered a small cube-shaped room in the side of the mountain, and Panax pulled the door closed, trapping them inside. He pressed a circular button on the wall, and Aralia heard the clank of unseen gears beginning to rub against each other as the room began to slowly ascend. Aralia eyed a revolver at the warden’s belt. It seemed to invite her to try something, but she stayed her hand. The room was cramped, and his fingers feathered over the gun. Suddenly the ascent stopped. Panax pulled open the doors, flooding the room with cold air. Aralia shivered, compared to the cramped sweat of the mines and blazing heat of the cliffs, it seemed like a blizzard.

‘Pleasant, isn’t it?’ Panax said as he led Aralia from the ascending room and into an iron corridor.  ‘We have a machine that draws hot air from the outside, cools it, and pushes it in here.’ He spoke proudly. ‘There’s a vent now, you can feel the cool air coming in.’ He pointed a metal vent on the wall.

‘Why am I here?’ Aralia spoke bluntly, and the warden’s smile turned to a frown.

‘I spoke to your father this morning.’ He said, and pushed open a set of doors. Inside, Aralia could see a large room with a huge glass window across one wall, overlooking the entire prison courtyard, and the mountains beyond. She could see the Prison Airship moored to the cliffs outside, and more air vents on the walls. A long table sat across the room, topped with charts and levers, while men in uniform studied the papers or watched the window. Panax interrupted her observation,

‘He has proposed a way for you to redeem yourself.’ Panax led Aralia across the room with the glass window and into a smaller one next to it, where he sat behind a desk and offered Aralia a chair.  ‘You would be allowed to leave, and take back your old life.’ Aralia suddenly forgot the ache in her bones and sting of her cuts, grinning widely.  She would be able to leave – No more work, No more gruel, No more guards. All she had to do was…

‘What do I have to do?’ Aralia asked, though it was clear she had already made her mind.

‘The ore here has run dry, and your father has decided to close the mine.’ He took the revolver from his belt, and placed it in a drawer. ‘Unfortunately, we have nowhere to move the prisoners. We cannot keep them, the costs are too high, and we cannot kill them, as the Emperor is watching. The only option left is an [i]accident[/i].’ Panax opened a second draw at his desk and retrieved a small metal cube, about the size of his clenched fist, and placed it on the table. Aralia could see its gears and pistons at rest.

‘This is an Electro-mechanical oscillator.’ he said. ‘It is small enough to fit in your pocket, so take it. Tomorrow morning, wake before the rest of the prisoners and place it in the mine. Then, press this button.’ He pointed to a button on the machine’s surface ‘That will activate a timer. You will then have fifteen minutes to escape the mine while the prisoners enter to work. Once the time runs out, the machine will create an earthquake that collapses the mine. The Emperor will have no choice but to accept it as a natural earthquake.’  Panax paused, and smiled. ‘And you will have redemption.’

***

Aralia could hardly sleep that night. The heat of the day still hung in the air, and she could feel the metal cube hidden under her pillow. She heard the piercing cry of a Pterosaur outside, and knew the sun was peaking above the mountain tops. Aralia slowly slid from under the thin sheet and onto the stone floor. Despite the heat in the air, the stone was cold on her feet. She grabbed the earthquake machine and tip-toed from the sleeping quarters, unaware newly awoken eyes followed her steps.

Outside was still dark, but the sky was brightening fast. Aralia slipped across the courtyard, guards paying her no mind, and into the mine. She grabbed a lamp and struck it light, then entered. Soon, Aralia had reached the deepest reaches. She placed the device gently on the ground, hiding it in a pile of rocks. With the trap placed, Aralia pushed the button. She could see a gear whir to life, each revolution bringing the device closer to activation. Then, she turned.

‘Hey, Princess!’ Aralia heard a voice echoing through the mine as a woman stepped from the darkness, a band of thugs forming a crescent behind her. ‘What ‘cha doing?’ she asked, arms crossed.

‘I got up early.’ Aralia told a half-truth. She tried to push past the barricade, but the thugs held ground, dirty faces staring at her.

‘No one gets up early here.’ The woman spat and grabbed Aralia’s collar. ‘What were you doing here?’

‘Put her down Meryta.’ A voice came from the darkness. Meryta rolled her eyes and dropped Aralia.

‘Following the Princess around, Rauk?’ She said, and a hulking man stepped from the darkness, using his arms to part the thug barricade.

‘Just passing by.’ He muttered as he stepped through. Meryta laughed.

‘She’s not one of us you know, she’s a blueblood.’

‘Everyone bleeds red in the mines.’ Rauk said as he stepped in front of Meryta.

‘She was doing something here in the mine, I saw her creep out.’

‘I saw you creep out.’  Rauk responded, and Meryta smiled.

‘Why are you defending her Rauk? Want to be her Prince Charming? Think she’ll get you out of here?’

No one heard Rauk answer.

The Earth around them began to shake violently as if it were an airship caught in a hurricane. Loose rocks fell from the ceiling as Aralia lost her balance, the quake throwing her to the wall. She grasped at a wooden beam and looked up – this section of the mine was strong, the rock glued tightly while a latticework of wooden beams held it high. Aralia took advantage of the confusion and leapt over a thug who struggled to pick himself up. She ran, her feet beating against the stone. She dodged a falling rock as the ceiling grew weaker, but a second struck her in the shoulder, sending her to the ground. Blood trickled from a gash where her neck met her shoulder, but Aralia desperately tried to scramble to her feet. Then, with a wail to rival a banshee’s cry, the wooden beams splintered, giving way to a torrent of rock from above. The Electro-mechanical oscillator ran out of steam. Its pistons eased pumping, its gears ceased whizzing, and the Earthquake cut out almost as suddenly as it began.

Aralia could breath. She slowly opened her eyes to see a rocky ground stretching out before her, a pool of sticky red blood growing around her head. She craned her neck and shifted her legs, but her right arm wouldn’t move – she couldn’t even feel it.

‘Help!’ She Cried, ‘I’m stuck!’ She could see figures pulling themselves off the ground in the half-collapsed mine. She turned her head to peek at her arm; it was pinned by fallen rock, blood oozing though the cracks.

‘Stay still.’ Rauk had appeared next to her. He carefully parted the rocks around her arm, and pulled her from the trap. ‘Your arm is broken.’ He said, examining the limb.  Aralia felt warm tears seep form her eyes as Rauk lifted her up. More People were standing now. Meryta was scrambling from the ground, but some of her thugs never stood up.

‘I’m sorry.’ Aralia muttered as Rauk bound her arm. If the man heard her, He said nothing. ‘This is my fault, I’m sorry!’ She screamed louder. From across the cavern, Meryta scowled.

‘What were you doing here?’  The woman stepped closer.

‘Warden Panax told me if I set the earthquake machine, I would have redemption and freedom!’ Meryta’s scowl flashed with anger and grabbed Aralia by the collar, pushing her against the rock fall, her bare feet sliding in the blood puddle.

‘You did this for redemption?’ Meryta spat, confusion overtaking her anger. With tears dripping down her cheeks, Aralia could see the dead men still sprawled on the ground. Blood dripped from a gash across Meryta’s left eye, and she knew more would be dead and wounded throughout the collapsed mine. A fresh wave of tears burst forth.

‘Yes.’ Aralia answered. Meryta rolled her fist into a ball and threw it at Aralia, catching the girl in the jaw. Aralia dropped to the ground, The stinging thud of the punch echoing through her flesh, as Meryta raised a leg to deliver a second blow –

‘Stop.’ Rauk spoke out again, and Meryta lowered her attack with a sigh.

‘She tried to kill us.’

‘And she admitted to it.’ Rauk’s soft blue eyes were fixed on Aralia. ‘Now that she has realized the true meaning of what she has done, I think she understands it was a poor choice.’

Meryta watched Aralia stand with wobbling legs, one broken arm bound to her chest. Once silky black hair was now matted and tangled with blood and dirt. Aralia said nothing, she simply turned, and began to dig away at the rock. Meryta smiled.

After an hour of digging through the rockfall, small rays of light began to filter through the wall. They could hear shouting and heaving on the other side, and soon a hole large enough to crawl through had been created.

‘Rauk!’ A large man with a rust-colored beard shouted with joy as Rauk crawled through the hole. ‘I’m so relived your okay.’

‘I’m fine brother, what has happened out here?’

‘The Earthquake killed about a hundred in the mine, the guards another half of that. They started shooting anyone who didn’t die in the shake.’

‘I heard this was the warden’s doing, the little Princess told us so.’ Rauk left out Aralia’s own hand in the matter, and Meryta made no verbal contradiction. ‘Where is the warden now?’

‘After we stole the rifles from the guards he sent down here, he locked himself in the cliff with the rest of his mercenaries. I don’t know what he’s doing, but the gates are still closed, and the fences are still lit up with lightning.’

Rauk frowned. ‘If we do nothing, he will only send for help. We need to find a way into his fortress and open the gate.’

‘The elevator is on the other side, it’s impossible to get up.’

Then, Aralia spoke. ‘I know a way.’ All eyes turned to her. ‘The Warden uses air vents to cool the air pumped inside, and one of the vents opens up here, on our side of the gate.’ Murmurs, and the prisoner’s looked at each other. ‘The vent is small, only I will be able to fit.’

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Rauk turned to her, and Aralia nodded.

‘No one else can.’ She said.

The air vent was a vertical shaft with metal walls, just small enough to fit Aralia inside. Climbing it was no easy feat, especially with a broken arm, but she was able to slowly crawl up the shaft by pushing her back and legs against the walls. Soon, she had made it to the top, and crawled into a connecting horizontal shaft with the metal blades of a fan spinning above her. She silently thanked the designer for putting the fan above the turn off, and not below it.

Just ahead, through the vents, Aralia could see the interior of the control room. Panax stood at the window, flanked by two rifle armed guards. Aralia inwardly cursed, how could she distract them? Then, she noticed the warden’s empty revolver holster, and had an idea.

She crawled further into the ventilation system, trying her best to stay silent. After rounding a corner, she found herself faced with the interior of the warden’s office.  She lashed out at the metal covering with her foot, kicking it off its screws with a loud clatter. Swiftly, she jumped down from the vent and landed on the ground. She peered through the window into the control room – as she had thought, the guards heard the clatter and were approaching fast. Aralia bit her lip and scrambled to the Wardens desk. There, she opened the top left draw.

Aralia grinned. She grabbed the revolver, checked its chamber, and hid behind the door.

Two guards burst into the room, rifles raised. The two men spotted the open vent, and moved further into the room to investigate. With the revolver in hand, Aralia snuck though the open door and slammed it closed behind her. The door locked with a click, and Aralia fired a shot into the mechanism, trapping the guard’s inside.

She turned – Warden Panax stood, wide eyed and open mouthed, staring at her in astonishment.

‘You…’ he muttered. ‘Why are you…’ The Look of shock swiftly reformed into anger. ‘You won’t get away with this!’ He roared, and made for Aralia. The girl raised the revolver, and fired a single shot. An iron bullet cut though the air, slicing past Panax, it embedded itself deep within the wall behind him. But the sound had been loud, and Panax stopped in his tracks.

‘Open the gate.’ Aralia demanded, and she heard a thud behind her as the guards tried to break down the door. ‘I won’t hesitate to fire again.’ Aralia shouted. White-faced with terror, Panax side-stepped to a control panel and pulled a lever.  In the courtyard below, Aralia could see the main gate begin to slide open. The prisoners poured through like a torrent breaking through a dam.

‘Stupid girl, you’ve lost your last chance to redeem yourself.’ Aralia heard a crash as the guards broke through the window behind her.

‘I don’t need another chance.’ Aralia said. ‘I already have.’ She felt the butt of a rifle come crashing into the back of her head.

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