I have to get back to Atraya. It was the first thought that crossed Jerica’s mind when she woke up, before she even opened her eyes. She didn’t know how the war was going – but it’d be going better if she were there. And now that Aerik had healed her, she had no reason to not to try an escape. All it would be was a matter of timing.
Jerica brushed the nail on her right thumb, still dumbfounded that such a powerful healing magic existed. She’d need to figure out a way to learn more about this R’hyk and how she could learn it once she got back to the Palace. But, first, she had to plan out how she was going to escape.
She scrubbed her eyes and rolled out of bed, stretching as she changed into her tunic and trousers from the day before. Her left forearm was still sore but the rest of her body felt better, aside from the exhaustion that clung to her bones. She tried to brush away thoughts of the war. She wasn’t there. She was here, and she needed to focus on this problem first.
Jerica silently strode across the room and into the hall, looking around for Aerik, but he was nowhere to be found. She walked outside and peeked over the cliff towards his mushroom patch, then spun in a slow circle when she didn’t see him. There was a staircase off to the left leading upwards, opposite the one that led down to the mushrooms. Where’s that one go?
She walked up the stairs and then hesitated at the top. A huge clearing stretched out before her with various plots scattered across it, each one planted with different crops. Beyond the gardens was a huge stretch of empty grass, and behind that a rocky incline that led up to one of the biggest caves she had ever seen in her life. The entrance of the cave was dark and it had jagged rocks guarding it.
To her right was the gorge she’d seen the day before, and to the left was the menacing forest the Nykerians had dragged her through. She turned so that the cave and gardens were on her right, and saw that opposite them the roof of the house extended the clearing even further. She could see the rocky outcrop Kyrek had shoved her off, her chains still piled on the ground.
The sun was rising over the trees. Atraya was north and east. She’d need to angle through the forest and head back in the direction the Nykerians had eventually emerged from after all their circular wandering. Her eyes flicked across the ominous wall of trees that stretched out before her, trying to think of a strategy.
I could go right for a bit, be sure to leave some footprints, then climb a tree and head back the other way to throw him off my trail. That part would be easy. The hard part would be trying to navigate her way through an unfamiliar forest in the dead of night without so much as a compass to guide her. But she could do it. She had to.
“Princess!” Aerik’s voice called from somewhere behind her. She spun around just as he reached the top step. He walked towards her. “What’re you doing?”
“Just admiring the view.” She crossed her arms over her abdomen, feeling strangely defensive. As if he’d barged directly into her thoughts. “That’s allowed, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Aerik stopped in front of her. “Just making sure that’s all you’re doing.”
“What else would I be doing?”
“Trying to figure out how to escape,” he said simply, shrugging.
She scowled. “I’m not.”
“You are,” his voice was firm, certain. “You know how to navigate. I’m certain of it. Derik probably taught you how to navigate before you knew how to read.”
She snorted, but he wasn’t far off. Derik insisted that the singular most important skill a person could have was a good sense of direction. To know where you are – and where you want to go – and how to get there.
“Which means you know you need to go northeast, and now you know that that way is east.” Aerik gestured vaguely at the direction of the sun. “And let me guess – you’re not an amateur, but you’d pretend to be and leave me some prints off that way….” He gestured the way she’d been planning to go. “And then head off that way, hoping I’ll buy it and waste time searching in the wrong direction.”
She pressed her mouth into a straight line as she looked at him. She was clearly going to have to be cleverer if she wanted this escape to go well. He was a Ranger after all. She supposed that it made sense that he’d know what she was thinking. Maybe she’d just head southeast to confuse him, then circle back once she got out of the forest. She’d need to think about it more.
“That about right?” Aerik asked when she didn’t answer.
“As I said, I was merely admiring the view.” She wasn’t going to rise to his bait.
“Right.” He smirked, clearly not buying her story. Still. “Come on in the house.”
Aerik turned and led the way back into the house. He stopped at the door on the right side of the hall and pushed it open. Jerica stepped inside after him but stopped short, gaping at the room that unfolded before her. It was massive – easily three or four times the length of what she’d imagined the entire house was.
The wall opposite her was covered in weapons of every shape and size. There were longswords, half swords, daggers, maces, bows, throwing knives, staffs, shields – she looked in wonder as she realized the wall all the way down to the bit of the house that extended under the mountain was covered in weapons.
The far end of the room was filled with odd contraptions. They were tall wooden posts that had crossbeams attached, but she couldn’t have guessed what they were for. On the end of the room nearest her were various weights and pieces of equipment for exercising. In the center of the room was a sparring block – about a hand-width tall and maybe 10 meters across by 10 meters long. Jerica turned her gaze towards Aerik as he stopped near the weapons.
He smirked at her and gestured vaguely. “My weapons room. Impressive, yeah?”
It was impressive. Jerica crossed her arms and shrugged, nonchalant. “It’s okay.”
He snorted, but his expression widened into a grin. “Alright. Your job for today is to clean the weapons. There’s rags and polishing cream in that chest.”
Jerica looked past him at the weapon’s wall. “Which ones?”
“All of them,” he answered. “It should keep you out of trouble for a while.”
Dread settled in Jerica’s stomach. That would take hours. She hadn’t cleaned so many weapons all at once since that time she’d shouted at Biryn in front of visiting dignitaries, and got assigned to cleaning the entire Palace Armory as punishment. “I don’t want to.”
“I don’t care,” Aerik said, striding towards the door.
She scowled at the back of his head as he walked away. “I’m not your servant.”
“No,” he agreed. “You’re my prisoner. And I expect you to have at least half of this room done if you want to join me for lunch. I'll be upstairs if you need anything."
Jerica kept glaring several moments after he closed the door behind him, then turned towards the wall with a deep sigh. She didn’t have much of a choice but to comply if she didn’t want to anger Aerik. And she needed him to lower his guard – think she was obedient – so that she could make a run for it tonight.
She dug through the chest in the corner to get the rags and cleaning creams that she needed to care for the weapons, then pulled a few of the swords off the wall. None of the weapons seemed particularly dirty, but the way the metal was growing tarnished made it was clear that they’d been sitting for many years without use.
Jerica sat on top of the chest as she cleaned each one in turn. It was almost cathartic to have the familiarity of cleaning weapons. This place was new. Aerik was new. Being a prisoner was new. Cleaning weapons was second nature. And it gave her time to think as she went through the mindless repetition again and again.
Why would he trust me with a room full of weapons? It didn’t make sense. She looked at the options in front of her, easily within her reach. She could have an arrow ready to sink in him the instant he walked back in the room. He knew that. So why give her full access to his armory?
She absently polished the sword in her hands. The dragon was going to be a much bigger problem for her. Aerik wouldn’t even see the arrow coming – and even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. But the dragon was more of a mystery. Could an arrow pierce his skin? Probably not. But, then, she didn’t have the first idea what a dragon might look like. She hadn’t thought they existed at all until two days ago.
I bet I could beat it with a sword. She looked at the blade in her hands, contemplating the option. She’d managed to kill a Chijurru single-handedly. How much harder could it be to kill a dragon? She stood and wandered back to the wall and plucked a more elegant sword from the rack, swinging it through the air to ensure it was well balanced.
It’s not like I have to fight it the instant I see it. She could go take a peek now – see what she was up against – so she’d know how to fight him once it was actually time to do so. She swung the sword a few times to ensure she had a full range of motion. Just in case she needed it. But as long as it doesn’t attack me first, I’ll wait to kill it until after I take out Aerik. For now, I just want to see.