Written by Caeruleus
The cage. Its shape, with its twisting, thorny bars and the forever screeching wall of birds, etched itself in his memory and would haunt his dreams for many years to come.
They pushed roughly him inside so that he lurched towards the back. Beaks, frozen in stone, nipped at his arms as he stumbled against them. He quickly spun himself around, thrusting himself away from the wall. To his dismay, he saw the bars fuse together, a feathered elf woman directing their movement as she pressed her palms against the long rods.
There are rock shapers here! The knowledge filled him with trepidation and he wondered briefly if she had pulled this structure out of the stone just for him, or if it had been used before.
As she finished, she glanced into the cell but quickly looked away, her lips trembling. She turned to Winnowill, who stood with the two Chosen. Reevol kept his eyes averted, staring at the floor, while Kureel managed to glare in his prisoner’s direction without actually looking at the archer. Winnowill, however, smiled sweetly at the rock shaper, her expression one of concern.
More of your twisting snares, Strongbow thought darkly, his anger pulling his lips into a snarl. He stepped back and, hooking the leather bonds around his wrist on the nose of a bird head, began to work on freeing himself. He knew he could not escape the chamber, but at least he’d have his hands free.
“It is finished,” the rock shaper stated in a timid voice. “May I go, please?”
“Ammerel, are you afraid of this… creature?” Winnowill asked, clasping in hands at her waist. From his vantage point in the cage, the Wolfrider could not see her eyes, but he guessed that her irises had turned golden again. She hunted for more prey again, he realized, viciously raking their emotions open and feasting on their pain.
And I ran right into her trap, like a stupid ravvit!
Clasping her arms around her, the other elfin woman glanced at the cage again, then back at the floor. “I – yes, Lady,” she answered quietly. “His… ferocity is frightening.” She pressed a shaking hand to her cheek, adding, “May I go, please?”
The black robed elf reached out and touched the maiden’s face, brushing something away from her skin. “Tears?” The snake steeped closer with a hiss of her hair and robes. “You aren’t actually concerned for this… beast, are you?”
Strongbow started, looking at the rock shaper curiously just as she glanced at him again. Her eyes, big green orbs full of tears, were wide with fear, and something else…guilt? She lifted her head, and looking back at Winnowill, shook her head adamantly.
“No!” she insisted, straightening her back, and gripping her hands into tight fists. “Of course not! He disgusts me! And I don’t want to be near him! That is all!”
“I see.” Winnowill studied the rock shaper for a moment, and then waved a hand imperiously. “You may go.” The other elven woman floated up into the air, just like Reevol and Kureel had, and started away.
High Ones, how many of them have that power?
“But Ammerel,” the black robed elf called out, stopping the girl, “don’t ever forget that he is an animal, not a true elf like the rest of us. And, as such, is not worthy of your pity. Remember that.”
The rock shaper paled to snowy white. “Of course, Lady. I won’t forget.”
“Good. Now go.” The maiden fled, flying down into the dark depths of the mountain where, somewhere, Strongbow’s tribe mates were held.
“You two may go, as well,” Winnowill waved a hand at the two Chosen without looking at them.
“Yes, Lady,” Reevol answered and both took off heading up towards the aerie.
With her robes and hair whispering against the stone, Winnowill turned to face the caged elf and studied him in silence for a moment. She shifted her weight and crossed her arms over her torso, pressing the fingers of one hand against her lips thoughtfully.
“You didn’t think she was going to help you, did you… Strongbow? That is your name, correct?” she asked sweetly, dropping the hand to rest on her other arm.
Strongbow glared at her without responding. He didn’t bother to hide his attempt to cut his bonds on the sharp beaks of the stone birds behind him. He felt the leather straps loosening as rips formed, and this spurred him to work even more furiously.
“No one in Blue Mountain will help you,” she continued. “No one, not even your tribe mates, would even dare.” She inclined her head to the side slightly and her irises shifted from blue to brilliant gold. “You are alone.”
He paused, his heart suddenly racing.
“Does that frighten you?”
With a silent snarl, Strongbow yanked on the cords around his wrists, snapping them apart at the breakage. He caught the leather strap deftly as it untwined from his wrist, then defiantly flung it at the bars of the cage.
Winnowill let out a mocking laugh that echoed in the chamber. Anger filled him, and he fought a sudden urge to fling himself at the bars, knowing such a futile act would only bring himself more derision. He didn’t drop his gaze, however, and glowered at her in quiet rebellion.
Her lips pulled into a cruel smile, and her golden glittered darkly. “I think you are ready to begin our game.” She stepped towards his prison. “Aren’t you?”
His only response was the sound of his breathing; long, deep, angry breaths as he fought to control the turmoil inside him. I am not afraid of you.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, her expression brightening. “But perhaps I should explain the rules of our game. Would you like that?” Without pausing for an answer, she curled her slender fingers around the spiked bars that surrounded him.
“If you cry out,” she began in a slow, quiet tone, her eyes a cold stone gray now. “If you plead for mercy, or even scream in pain, I win.” Her eyebrows rose, and she nodded for emphasis. “And I will win. I always do.”
Her voice took on an air of confidentiality as she added, “I know a thousand subtle shades of pain. All manners of hurt that you’ve never even dreamed of. You will have no choice but to scream.”
Strongbow shuddered in spite of himself; her matter of fact tone so unlike anything he’d ever heard that it sent chills down his spine. He took a deep breath and, clenching his fists, steeled himself for whatever she was about to do.
“Ah good,” she dropped her hands, clasping them in front of her again. “I see we understand each other. Let us begin, shall we?”
Light burst behind his eyes, the same sensation he had felt back in the aerie after she first lock-sent to him, only far stronger. One hand flew to his forehead as he staggered backwards. He felt the cold stone of a bird head fall under his flailing hand, and he grabbed it to keep from falling. For a long, agonizing moment, he knew nothing but fiery pain in his mind.
Then she stopped, and Stongbow heard his own ragged breathing ringing in his ears. Though his entire body trembled, he pushed on the stone creation to straighten himself, and raised his head to stare at his tormentor again.
Winnowill gave him a serene smile. “You aren’t giving up are you?”
He shook his head slowly, baring his teeth in an angry sneer. Never!
“Good,” she replied as if he had spoken aloud.
He rocked back against the wall at the force of her new attack. His legs gave way, and birds bit at his skin as one knee hit the floor. His fingers tightened around the stone beak under one hand while his other hand dug into his temple.
He sensed her amusement behind her black sending. That, and her utter disdain for him; the dirty, near animal that it was her duty, no, her pleasure, to destroy. He felt these things, and they stoked a fire deep within him. At the moment, though, he could only focus on keeping his control of himself.
After a while she released him again, and he sat huddled, against the wall of birds, gathering his wits. Looking…
There it is!
“You are awfully quiet,” she commented and laughed at her joke. “I haven’t broken you already have I?”
*No.* He smashed his thought against her barrier, and the sheer force of his will pushing him through. His raised his head, and saw her blink in surprise. With wild abandon, Strongbow followed up the sending with an attack of his own. She took a step back, her hand fluttering up to her head. Then, her mind closed him off sharply.
*Filthy animal!!!* she sent furiously, her face twisted in anger. Again, she violently assaulted his mind, tearing at his senses so viciously that he was forced to retreat, and to barricade himself around his center, his soul. Winnowill lay siege to him, there, tearing at his incidental memories, and pulling on his pain centers, but he held her back. His being, his Wyl, was the only thing he had left to him, and he remained determined to keep it.
He had no idea how long they battled around his tiny mental fortress, but suddenly she left him alone.
“We are going to have company,” he heard her say after a moment. He became aware that he lay on his side with his back against the wall. One arm covered his head, while the other stretched out in front of it.
The sound of wings flapping drew his attention, and he weakly pulled his arm away from his face, uncovering his eyes. A pair of clawed feet landed outside the cage, and bat-like wings drew closed in front of the bird elf.
“I have brought him as you asked.”
“Thank you, Tyldak,” Winnowill answered.
Now, the archer heard the sound of feet running up the stairs.
“Come back here, you bat-elf!” a new voiced shouted. Treestump!
Painfully, Strongbow pushed himself up on his hands, then, reaching up to grab a bird head, he slowly drug himself onto his feet. Every muscle in his body screamed in protest, but he refused to let his tribe mate see his weakness. He managed a stooping stance, steadying himself against the wall, and watched as the stocky Wolfrider’s head appeared above the edge of the landing.
The archer took a deep breath, then stepped up to the bars. His movement drew Tyldak’s attention, and the bird-elf glanced towards the prisoner, then looked away again immediately.
Treestump came to an abrupt stop, a couple steps down from the top when he saw his friend. “Strongbow!” he exclaimed with great concern. “I didn’t know where they’d taken you… I—“
“I understand you have a grievance,” Winnowill interrupted. She stood with her hands clasped in front of her still, though now she faced the steps. The blond elf pulled his gaze away from his friend to look up at the tall elf woman.
“Yes,” he answered, his features tightening with anger as he recalled his purpose. “That one,” he shouted, pointing at Tyldak. “He took my daughter and locked him in his den! I demand that she be released now!”
The black robed elf laughed, bringing a hand up to her chest. “You demand?” She drew her robes around in front of her augustly. “Have you forgotten your place in these halls?”
“I—“ Treestump began, but she cut him off with a wave of hand.
“Let me make this more plain to you,” she said sternly. “We have power over you. Not the other way around.” She smiled at him. “Let me demonstrate.”
The agony lashed at him again, and Strongbow collapsed against the bars of his cell. He struggled to remain standing, gripping the stone rods tightly to hold himself up.
“Strongbow!” he heard the other Wolfrider yell through the violent cacophony in his head. “Please! Stop it!”
“Let this be a lesson to you,” Winnowill’s authoritative tone sharply cut into the prisoner’s tortured senses. “He will pay in pain for your folly as well as his own. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” Treestump responded in an uncharacteristically submissive voice. The archer hated hearing his friend sound like that, and anger at the stocky elf’s humiliation stoked the embers of rebellion that quietly burned at the center of Strongbow’s being.
“Good,” Winnowill replied and Strongbow felt her relax her grip on his mind. “Leave now. Return to your work. And don’t forget our… discussion.”
“Yes… Lady.” Leather rustled as the Wolfrider turned and started back down the stairs.
In the cage, Strongbow let out a slow breath, almost a sigh of relief, as his head cleared of white-hot fire. He inhaled again, and his eyes snapped open as he realized that the barrier blocking his sending was gone. Raising his head, he saw Treestump’s broad back he moved away.
*Treestump!* he lock-sent. *Get the tribe out of this place! They will destroy us all if you do not.*
The blond elf looked towards the cage, his expression full of anguish. “I can’t leave.”
“I’m sorry,” Treestump glanced up at Winnowill, then turned around and continued down the steps with a bowed head.