Strong hands pushed her over the edge, and Ann found herself plummeting toward the bottom of the shaft. She heard herself screaming but her mind was reviewing the jumble of things that happened in the last few days. That meeting with the Elders, shrouded people who told her about the truth of her background. Then the Guide, who pushed her just now. He was disguised as one of the prisoners of the fortress, not saying much and, at one time, also bullied her inside that prison. But after Ann met the Elders, the Guide revealed himself to be an ally, telling her important things that she must know before getting out. Things to look out for. The Guide was the one who planned the entire escape.
When Ann asked if the Guide was coming with her, he said no. “I have a different role to play in the great scheme of things.” And he had Ann rehearse the escape plan again until she almost vomited with the intensity of the crouching and running and jumping that the Guide told her to master.
It would be very hard to escape the fortress once someone was sentenced to spend the rest of their days in there. This was a fact known throughout the Land. Surrounded by a moat that was teeming with crocodiles and set in a barren landscape made white by perpetual winter, the Fortress had a reputation aside from the horrible fate of those imprisoned within: no one before Ann who has attempted to escape ever survived.
But some prisoners said that it would be better to meet death courtesy of the crocodiles or the bitter cold of a winter night that be caught by the guards and brought back to the fortress. Torture. Ridicule. And more torture. Others who tried to escape and were brought back by the guards went insane first before being killed for their insubordination. For their gall to presume that they are more cunning than the Fortress. They weren’t. And they died.
These thoughts raced in her head as Ann dropped several hundred feet to the floor of an old oil shaft that was secretly mined inside the Fortress during the Dark Ages. The oil had long dried and a floor was installed by one of the Old Warders to prevent questions from the Monarchs who might come nosing around.
Around her, sirens blared their shrill broadcast that someone was trying to escape the Fortress. It made Ann’s heart thud faster, making her dizzy. What if she can’t make it? And wasn’t the floor coming closer?
Just before the cold stone floor could break her body into several painful pieces, a parachute bloomed over her and Ann landed with both feet planted firmly on the flags. She undid the straps that held her to the chute. Around her, the blare of the sirens was punctuated by howls and barks.
Great, they had to send the dogs to the party, Ann thought as she scrabbled at the wall of the shaft, just like she was told to do. She will, the Guide told her, find a small button there that was supposed to open to a passage that leads out of the fortress, bypassing the moat.
She found the button and depressed it.
Snarls were coming closer. She could hear them above her, guards shouting instructions and dogs whipped to frenzy.
She glanced up and saw a guard peer down the shaft. She knew they saw her down there.
She pressed the button again. Still nothing.
“Call in the Belayers! Bring ropes! We’re coming down!”
Ann was trapped. She pressed again, but the button did not yield the result she expected. Around her, the shaft walls were as dark as the oil that once seeped through. No small passage opened.
Then, a flame dropped from above. The guards were throwing torches!
“Halt the Belayers! Bring in gasoline! We’ll roast her alive.”
Ann’s tears mingled with the soot and the dust, creating muddy track on her cheeks. She believe the Elders. She believed the Guide. She believed what they told her — that she had a destiny waiting for her out in the open. And now, this is what she’s going to get for believing. Roasted alive.
She heard the clank of gasoline drums being set in position. A few moments later, gasoline sloshed on the walls from the opening above the shaft. The acrid smell burned Ann’s throat. It would not be long now before the gasoline reached her ankles, and then the guards would throw in another torch.
Burned alive. Burned alive. Flesh melted. Would smell like barbecue. Food for their dogs.
No. She can’t allow it. She slammed her palm on the button.
Could it? A small yield in the rocks. A paper-thin crack appeared between stones. She pressed the button one more time but nothing happened again.
The gasoline already reached her ankles. The dogs were snarling above.
Ann sat on the gasoline-soaked floor. She kicked on the stones where the crack appeared. She kicked and kicked.
“Give me the torch!” Ann recognized the voice of the New Warder. Hearing him and remembering all that she went through in his hands gave new strength to Ann’s kicks. The crack widened. But she could not fit through that small wedge.
The New Warden tossed the torched. Ann saw it make a full circle in the air, then it hit one side of the wall, ricocheted to the other side and dropped flame first into the gasoline. The shaft burst into a raging inferno.
In the gray light of dawn, a lone figure was seen walking in the outskirts of the Fortress. Villagers avoided the wayfarer; there were wary of any strangers traversing those parts. They didn’t want any trouble with those of the Fortress.
It was exactly what Ann wanted. She did not want to answer any questions.
After fifteen years of enduring the horror inside the Fortress’ dark walls, she finally saw skies again. Although leaden gray, the winter clouds brought a smile to her lips. The wind picked up, blowing a cold welcome across her pale cheeks. For the first time in many years, Ann laughed.