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Do You Still Believe?

by Lassarina Aoibhell

Shana perched on a high rock outcropping in the forest above Seles and looked around. Greenery and life surrounded her, soothing her in some elemental way. Small animals rustled through the trees, a few even daring to venture near the slender girl who stood so quietly. Straining her eyes, she scanned again. She didn't see any soldiers, but that didn't mean she could let her guard down. She'd brought several magic items with her as well as her bow and arrow-magic worked better than physical fighting did for her. Stretching to the limits of her meager height, she peered through the dense green foliage again, this time in search of a set of bright red armour.

He will come back, she reminded herself. He promised you.

But what if he had found some other woman on his travels? She was only his "baby sister" and "childhood friend." Shana fretted, chewing on her lip as she settled down to sit on the edge of the rock. And Dart had been gone for five years now.

Chasing a dream of revenge.

She remembered how it had chilled her soul to see the cold black rage in his eyes when he spoke of the Black Monster that had destroyed his home village of Neet and all who lived there. He was not in balance, neither his soul nor his body. She could only heal his body with her restorative items; her healing skills were useless for soothing the deep pain in him.

Disgusted with herself for her failings, she plucked leaves off her white shorts and glared at nothing. If she had insisted on being taught the healing skills earlier, perhaps she could have learned enough soul-healing to make Dart stay.

It is not fair to take away his choice, the little voice in her head reminded her, making her droop again.

No, it wasn't fair, but she wanted Dart back. She wanted him here.

"Do you still remember me, Dart? It's been five years." She spoke to no one in particular, but her voice was so soft it didn't even chase away the wild forest creatures. A rabbit had crept closer and sat a few feet from her knee, watching her with dark eyes.

"Do you love me? Did you ever?" she wondered aloud. She had once thought he had, but it could well have been a thirteen-year-old girl's desperate crush on an older boy, turning his every action into some subtle proof of his devotion to her. Yes, Dart had protected her, but he always protected people.

He had been gone five years. She didn't even know if he was still alive.

The quality of the light around her was changing subtly. Twisting around on the rock afforded her a clear view of the slowly setting sun. With a sigh, she jumped down, taking her weapon with her. She'd better return to the village before sunset. Even for her, whom the small creatures seemed to love, the forest was dangerous at night.

Plos, the mayor of Seles, was waiting for her when she returned to the village. He had been kind enough to take her in when her parents were killed in a hunting accident three years before. Now he waited at the village gates for her, lips thin with disapproval. "Shana, you told no one you were leaving the village. You know it is not safe in this time of war for anyone to wander around alone, especially not an eighteen-year-old girl."

"I am sorry," Shana said contritely. "I did not mean to make you worry."

The old mayor sighed. "Shana, dear, I know that no Imperial troops have been seen near the village, but that does not mean we are safe. Please be more careful."

"I will."

Plos turned and led the way back to the small stone cottage where they lived. "No sign of Dart?" he asked.

"No," Shana murmured.

"A pity," Plos said.

Shana froze in the midst of taking her next step. The small sounds of life from the forest, which she was always peripherally aware of, had suddenly ceased. "Mayor--" she began.

That was when the terrible ear-rending shriek echoed over the tiny valley that housed Seles. Shana whirled toward the sound, shading her eyes with her hand as she gazed up at the forested slopes above the town.

Some....thing was crashing through the trees. It was green, but a sickly acid green, not the fresh verdant green of healthy living things. In many ways it resembled a vastly oversized praying mantis. And it was headed for the village.

"Mayor..." she whispered, her throat suddenly dry.

Mounted Sandoran soldiers began to pour out of the forest and down the slopes toward Seles.

"Shana! Run! EVERYONE! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!" Plos bellowed.

Shana resettled her bow across her back and raced toward the village's item repository, her long legs carrying her quickly over the unevenly cobbled streets. All around her the people of the village were screaming and rushing around in a panic. Shana grabbed the handle of the item repository door and twisted. Nothing happened.

I don't have time for this! She backed up several steps, raced forward, and threw her weight, slight though that was, against the door. The flimsy, rotted frame splintered and she tumbled through the door, landing painfully on the same shoulder she'd thrown against the door. Ignoring it, she scrambled to her feet and looked around. Think, Shana, think. What items would be most effective? She didn't know, so she grabbed a handful of Healing Potions and items of every element. The village was running low on Water items, she noticed. What she had taken filled her item bag to overflowing, but better that than not enough. She raced out of the small building and headed toward the place where the Sandoras were still headed for the village.

"Surrender at once!" shouted the dozens of soldiers who flowed down the slopes in a determined mass.

"We of Seles do not surrender," Plos said with great dignity. "Prepare to fight, everyone!"

It was an unequal contest at best, and that was putting it mildly. The Sandoras were better armed, better trained, and outnumbered the villagers two to one. Shana flung her items desperately, trying not to damage any of the village's property in the process. She was bruised and buffeted about, but no worse than that. She shut off the part of her brain screaming helplessly and focused instead on getting these bastards out of her home!

At first the crackling went unnoticed.

A loud moan rose from all the villagers as they realized that the Sandoras were flinging torches, fire items, anything of that sort onto the dry thatch roofs of the houses. Shana tried to douse the flames with her water items, but it was like trying to build a dam to hold the ocean.

A large piece of timber tumbled toward her from the house next to her and clubbed her firmly on the head. She staggered and fell, too dazed to keep to her feet.

Someone lifted her--a soldier? She was dimly aware that her light sleeveless shirt caught on the fastenings of light armour. He set her down on a hard, flat surface. She could hear voices, but they didn't make any sense to her.

"So, this is her," she heard. Something cool, yet intangible, brushed her forehead. She could sense bright light even through her closed eyes.

"Hm. Indeed. Put her in custody." Footsteps receded.

Iron chains locked around her wrists. Dazed, she tried to resist. They responded by pouring some thick, vile liquid into her mouth, and she had to swallow it or choke. Swallow it she did, and felt her thoughts growing fuzzier, her eyes heavy.

I hate sleeping potions...

~*~

She didn't know if it was the headache that woke her, or the taste in her mouth. Both were equally foul, as was the smell of the air she breathed--a combination of unwashed bodies, damp woolen clothes, rotting something-or-other and the choking smell of decay, with a little rancid food and stagnant salt water thrown in for seasoning.

The next thing she became aware of was the fact that her wrists and ankles were bound with heavy iron chains that chafed and bit into her soft skin, and she was blindfolded. She was also being carried by two or more men, who were undoubtedly the primary source of at least one component of the stench. They smelled as though they hadn't bathed in years. Shana breathed shallowly through her mouth, hoping she wouldn't have to deal with the fetid air for long.

The men carrying her stopped. Metal scraped on metal, and she heard the protesting groan of a poorly oiled lock. Hinges screamed, accompanied by the groan of wood, as though a seldom-used door was being forced to open against the wishes of its warped frame.

"All right, whut th'hell're y'all waitin' fer? Th'Warden'll be right pissed if'n that'un ain't locked up proper!" a twangy male voice snarled.

"Keep yer goddamn britches on," someone growled near her ear. "Th'bitch'll be locked up soon's you get the friggin' door open so quit wastin' our time."

Metal screamed again. "Well, put 'er in then," the first voice whined.

She was carried a very short distance and unceremoniously dumped on what felt like a pile of straw. "Th'Warden said we was to take th'chains off, an' take that-there blindfold off too," a third man said.

She made sure her eyes were closed and feigned unconsciousness. The heavy chains were roughly removed, scraping her arms and legs more, and the blindfold ripped off her head. It took some of her short brown hair with it. She bit the inside of her lip hard to keep from crying out.

"Well, git out then. Three guards on this'un!" It was the first man who spoke. Booted feet clumped over the floor. The hinges screeched as the door was forced shut.

Shana lifted her eyelids just the slightest bit and tried to look around. The light was too dim. She opened her eyes the rest of the way.

No one was in the tiny room with her. A single weak torch sputtered and wavered, dimly illuminating the rest of the room. Massive spiderwebs draped every corner and most of the ceiling. Long trails of mold crawled down the dark, rough stone walls. She was nearly certain she heard the squeaking of rats.

She was lying on a pile of hay covered with dirty, rough wool. The hay smelled like it was several years old and moldy in the bargain. The wool wasn't any better, and had the added stench of sweat and unwashed humans. Also, it was cold. Shana shivered in her sleeveless shirt and cropped shorts.

Where am I? The accents she'd heard were indicative of the lower classes...the lower classes of Sandora.

Oh God, I'm in Hellena Prison.

The thought nearly made her vomit. That was it, then. She would die here. No one ever left Hellena alive.

Dart will come for me.

Shut up, she snarled silently at that childish hope. Dart would not come for her. He wasn't stupid, nor to her knowledge suicidal. He would not come chasing into Hellena Prison after her.

That meant she was on her own for an escape. Her item bag was gone, as she'd expected, and so was her weapon. Perhaps she could steal a bow. It wouldn't do much, given her lack of physical strength. Shana sat back and considered her options coldly. She could try to escape or she could sit here waiting.

She would almost certainly die in an escape attempt, and she knew she didn't have the strength to try it right now. Frowning, she examined her wrists and ankles. The cuts and scrapes oozed blood sluggishly, and didn't look particularly clean either. Shana knew some first aid, but not enough to help without clean water to wash the cuts. Or bandages.

The sheer hopelessness of her situation hit her then, and she curled into a small knot on the lumpy bed. She was alone, in Hellena Prison, obviously heavily guarded. She was injured and had no way to deal with her injuries, nor did she have a weapon. Even if she could get a weapon, she would never be able to get out of this place alive. Her skill with bow and arrow wasn't sufficient to take out all the guards, and even if it was, objectively she knew her body was too fragile. Any blows they landed would take her out easily.

Oh God....Dart, where are you when I need you? You promised me you'd take care of me.... Shana buried her face in her hands and wept.

~*~

She must have cried herself to sleep. It was the noise outside that woke her. Shouts, clashing weapons. She sat up, pushing her hair out of her eyes, and bit back a scream as an enormous cockroach began to crawl up her leg. She kicked violently and it soared across the room. Shuddering violently, she looked around to be sure no more vermin were approaching her.

"Stop them!"

She scrambled to her feet, bracing herself. "Double Slash!"

Dart?

That was Dart's voice!

"Harpoon!" She didn't recognize that voice, deeper and rougher than Dart's. Someone groaned and she heard something heavy crash into the door of her cell. Then there was silence.

Oh God, Dart hadn't been killed had he?

"We'd better throw their bodies down into the ravine," the deeper voice suggested. "The less obstructions to our escape with your friend, the better."

"You're right, Lavitz." That was Dart's voice again. Thank God. Shana leaned back against the stone wall for a moment, weak-kneed with relief. Then she forced herself to straighten and rubbed her hands over her face, hoping the evidence of her earlier tears was gone. She wanted Dart to see her as a young woman now, not a child.

A key scraped in the lock.

The hinges squealed.

There he was, in shining red armour. His blonde hair still poked up at all angles in untamed spikes, and his blue eyes searched the cell.

She launched herself into his arms. The armor was hard and dug into all the wrong bits of her when he wrapped one arm around her, but she didn't care. He had come for her, and she was safe.

"Come on, Shana, we'll get you out of here," he said gently.

Oh, not THAT tone! She knew it meant he was thinking of her as his baby sister again. She sighed faintly.

"Lavitz and I will protect you," he said, starting to lead her out of the cell.

She picked up the bow that lay on a crate nearby and aimed it carefully away from them, testing the string. It was a decent weapon. "I can fight too!" she protested.

The shock in his eyes slowly turned to an assessing gaze. Secretly she smiled. She'd just jogged the first of his assumptions about her.

It would take time, but her knight in red armour would see her for the woman she now was, not the child he had left behind.

She smiled as she began to follow him and the blonde man in green, the one he called Lavitz.

~*~

Author's Commentary: Well, I got kinda stuck there at the end, but I don't mind how it turned out ^.^; Please C&C if you read this far!

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