The Girl in the Cage – Dark Fantasy Short Story – 1/4

The Tooth was an unmatched fortress, from the outside.

It stuck out of the Trinacrian shore like a bent nail, a tower of stone and hard-pressed wood and cast-iron chains, each ring holding onto its neighbor for dear life, as thick as a man’s arm, the results of long-lost forging techniques that today’s men could only hope to retrace, the best of their wits a shade of their former selves.

From its foundations, reaching down into the saltwater depths where no Fae would ever dare to trod, to the wind-battered rock where its only entrance mouthed a challenge towards the main land, to the heights of bent stone and studs moaning and mewling together their linked agony, the Tooth was a maul pointed at the reaches of the Old Country, the bent shapes and not-trees that lingered only a few miles from the sparkling city of Zug. A promise of ceaseless watch.

From atop the tallest roof, Captain Robior looked past the stormy sea and the encroaching clouds towards the firelights of the rich settlement, which has seen two Fae Wars and still stood, living through the past Fimbulwinter and its return.

He bit on his broken lip, curling his old hands, their sable skin as much covered with pale scars as the fortress itself. The weary stones beneath his boots creaked this way and that, a soft vibration like a slumbering beast.

The Tooth settled, using its own weight and age-old stubbornness to withstand the wind and the sea. These old stones had faced everything the Old Country threw at them, and held unperturbed like a cave bear pelted by hail. A memory flashed in his mind of his old Master puffing out his chest and showing him the bas-relief on the bottom of the isle, depicting the very Winter Queen coming out herself to throw the fortress unto the sea – and failing.

As far as Robior was concerned, anything that had managed to scoff at the power of the Snow Hag herself would last long after his duty had passed, probably long after the city it had protected for so long.

His nails scratched over the stone.

A bit of a whimsical wish, on their part.

“Captain,” came a voice against the wind.

He sighed. His break was over.

“I’ll come back shortly,” he said, showing no signs to do so. He looked down once more at the men hanging from ropes, covering the chains and stones in tar and hex-mixtures to protect the old iron from salt and more insidious kinds of corrosion. Torches sizzled against the first light showers of freezing rain. “Recall the cleaners,” he told the retainer, his voice cracked with weariness. “Every man has to go back and be at the ready. Put a fire on – I want the molten mouths running and every line of defense manned.”

“Captain?” The man quirked one eyebrow. He was not one to discuss his orders, but in his youthful and handsome face Robior saw a hint of his past, likely a noble cadet of some minor House of Zug, sent here to atone for some sin, like being third in line for succession. No talent, no experience, too much of a brain.

“Did I stutter?”

“N-no,” he replied, gulping. The little dolt had yet to properly learn how to shave – dark patched of hairs stuck out form under his helmet. He’d make sure to give him a proper lecture as soon as he had a little more time on his hands. “It’s just… I’m just asking, sir. Curiosity.”

“Bad habit. And yet today’s ignorance is tomorrow’s death, so ask away,” Robior replied, going back inside. He pulled on his cape and briefly checked the straps of his armor were safe and secured, covering his body completely. From his neck hung a string of baleen figurines, carved in the shape of protective spirits – rosemary and incense lined his garments and he had bathed in sanctified oils. He could probably walk a day in the Old Country and not get a second look from anything up to the freaks from the Autumn Court.

But each step felt like running towards a lion, naked.

“She’s just a girl,” he said.

Robior chortled.

“You still believe your eyes? You won’t last long out here, boy.”

They passed through a short tunnel and walked downstairs. The kid left to relay his orders and he did the same to every soldier he met, assessing the state of the fortress as it shifted and turned under his steps. Batteries prepared. Hidden chains oiled. Protective wards refurbished earlier that month, cleaned and at the ready – the white paint still glistened under the wavering light of the lamps.

Every guard he met acknowledged him with a nod, the older the scruffier – most of them had lost at least an organ in the latest battles with the Old Country, and they would sooner sell their fathers for a handful of salt than let go of their bows.

People he could trust.

And still his heart beat uneasy.

They kept her in the lowest belly of the fortress, the place where she was closest to the sea, the farthest from the powers of the ruined roots that fueled the Old Country.

He clicked his tongue as the warden of the bowels saluted him, standing up from his post. He was covered from head to toe in spiked iron slabs, soldered to his leather armor. Through the sliver cut in his helmet Robior caught the same worried look he must possess.

“Did she try anything?”

“Not that we can see.”

That might bode well. But Robior’s experience knew better than his hope – had been for the past forty years.

“Once more into the fray,” he muttered. An old saying his father used to quote whenever he was mustered to the battlefield. Or so his mother said. He liked it – it gave him a bit of comfort.

He walked past the iron gate – as thick as the chains outside, and probably even older – the gatekeeper sat back at his post, leaving him with a few more paces of dark corridor to walk through.

The only light they dared to lit was a tiny flame burning from consecrated oil; the priests worked better in the dark, as counter to his wit that might have been. Nevertheless, they seemed be able to hold her back for the time being, so he’d have to amuse them and interrogate their prisoner in the darkness.

A primal fear rose in his chest – the hallway ended in a round cage, hanging from the ceiling, surrounded by four tall priests. They passed iron beads between each other and repeated a low litany, throwing sacred oils and salt behind themselves, discharging the evil powers of the being held by the cage.

Inside, he corrected himself. She was merely inside the cage – the face iron could hold back remained to be seen. Every technique they had tried so far encountered only relative success.

Robior took a long breath. Wet air, salty and with a hint of storm bit his nose – here the fortress stood still, as if it was also holding its breath.

“Welcome back, Captain,” a thin female voice said.

She sounded raspy – as if air somewhat got caught into her throat. She shifted – her silhouette changed to display the profile of a head. Now that his eyes were getting used the cell’s darkness he recognized the thin strands of blonde hair sticking out of her head, her self-assured smile, curved this way and that, and the hole inside her face where her nose should have been.

He had seen more than his fair share of Fae in his fifty-three years and all of them have been inhumanly beautiful, the women especially so.

But the thin figure sitting in the cage was a ruined remnant of a girl – he caught a glimpse of her face when they brought her in and as much as he tried he could not push the image of burnt skin, barely held together by pale overgrowth out of his mind.

Like tumorous bark growing out of an old trunk.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” She mockingly asked.


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