ON TWO GOOD FEET
The life I once led was a pit. A bottomless chasm I had carelessly plunged into. I'd already forgotten how it all began, but there was no use climbing out of this pit. Until now.
I felt a pulse through my body, followed by soft breathing. Then a voice... a girl by my side?
``Can you hear me? Alden? Wake up!''
I opened my eyes to a welcome sight. My colleague and best friend, Vanessa. She must have called me back from the brink when I'd given up. How long has it been?
``Thank goodness you're alive! I thought we'd lost you that time!''
As I sat up to look around, I surveyed the area. Her luxurious home, the estate of a noble family. For a moment I thought it was the heaven I didn't deserve. But then I heard sobbing. She nearly cried from concern for my life... what did I do to her this time?
``Please don't throw your life away like that. You have so much to live for...''
Is that right? I tried to recall the incident that had wounded me. The sharp pain in my chest jogged my memory... a bullet, perhaps more. I had challenged the local mayor to a duel, to solve a silly dispute. At the time I believed it was the best option for Vanessa and me... that I would get that corrupt man to back off from his claims against her family and perhaps pay them back for caring for me. It should have been the best, but I couldn't do it.
``That look on your face... oh no, you're not going back out there!''
She stopped me with her soft hands. I couldn't resist the look of concern in her eyes... she's the one woman I never wanted to hurt, but that seems to be all I'm doing these days. I'm sorry you have to deal with a man like me... I just can't think of any other way to help you out in such trying times.
``Look, just lay low for now! He's still out there and if he sees you, he's gonna finish what you started.''
So, the mayor is still looking for me? Hmm... my mind says I should pick him off now, but my gut's telling me to do what Vanessa wants. I sigh and lie back down on the bed. A soft pillow on the back of my head just might make this easier to think through. ``Has he shot anyone else?''
``No. He thought making an example out of you will be enough. But please stay there... he made his point already.''
I didn't even know how long it had been since I was shot. I was afraid to ask too... I'm no slouch when it comes to these duels, but the mayor was something else. I could have sworn I saw him move very quickly for such a big target... like I was seeing a ghost.
My thoughts are interrupted when I see her ears twitch. Vanessa rushed out of the room, but I couldn't hear the reason why... all I could do was wait for her return. At least for now, the silence was another welcome sight... an invitation to curiosity. I could never get enough of it.
Some time passes before Vanessa returns. She seemed disturbed...
``Sorry to do this to you so soon, Alden... but you have to leave.''
... what? First she tells me to lie down, but now I have to get up? What's going on out there? ``Is the mayor here or something?'' I struggle to get on my feet, even after she approaches to help.
``There's an exit by the library. Let's hurry.''
I still didn't understand, but I follow her as she guides me out of the room. By now I can feel my legs again... my two good feet still work, thankfully. Guess I'm lucky the mayor never thought of aiming lower.
Vanessa walks with me to the library. I see the faces of other people, surely fellow members of the estate. I don't recognize any of them, but I could tell from their distant looks that they didn't envy my situation.
``What's the meaning of this, lady Vanessa? Are you escorting this man to his lessons?''
``No, Heinrich. It's an emergency... I need the key.''
I hear a gasp from the man she addressed. Some shrewd fellow who fancied himself a butler, he was more polite than the rest of them. He handed Vanessa a broach and bid us farewell... all I could make out of this situation at the time was how lucky I was to be her friend.
She approached a bookcase that seemed to have nothing special on it. I rested against a wall while she reached for a peculiar book. "How to Make Your Enemies Hate You", by Ruth Riley? ... they had books like that one all this time? Now I wish I'd visited this place more often... but it seems Vanessa wasn't planning to read. She pressed the broach against a peculiar page, causing both to glow. I see a circle manifesting around the broach... she uttered a phrase I didn't recognize.
``A river flows in endless time. It carves its path and reaches the eternal sea. So too shall this will I inscribe. Guide me to my fate!''
As she spoke, smaller circles formed around the broach with peculiar symbols. When she finishes, she raises her hand and the broach floats along her palm. She gently pushes it against the bookcase... and I watch as it slides, books and all ... through a wall? I take a second to process what just happened, but then I see that a hallway had opened where the bookcase was just now. ``Vanessa? What did you do?!''
She just smiles at me. ``Come with me, Alden.'' She even offers a hand, which I take as I get back on my feet. Break time's over.
We walk down this hallway for about a minute, hearing nothing but the sounds of her heels against the floor. Now I realize that I had no shoes and I was missing my shirt... perhaps this is why those people at the library looked at me funny... the bandages around my chest were fresh too. I must have gotten used to them while I was sleeping. ``Do you mind telling me what's going on here? It's not like you to-''
``I'm still trying to figure that out myself, but I don't want you getting caught up in this... please trust me.'' She seemed a bit sad as she told me that. Maybe she knows something but doesn't want to say it?
Suddenly a light at the end of the hallway catches my attention. I could see a desert and feel heat pouring into the hallway, but she didn't stop until we stepped outside. I look around and see that we were now outside the estate, by the city walls.
``This is as far as I can take you for now, Alden. A carriage should be arriving here soon.'' She turns to walk back down the hallway. ``... I'm sorry I can't help you anymore. But I'll see you again someday!'' Before I can ask her, she steps into the hallway and bricks slide in to block it. Just another wall protecting the city now.
Vanessa was nice enough to take me to a desert area under the shade, but there was no carriage. Did she lie to me? As curiosity gets the better of me, I walk along the city walls and peek around a corner of the estate. And there he was... the man himself, that crooked mayor.
``So I'm only gonna say this one more time. Get him back here in one piece and I'll give you the best shelter in town.''
``Dead or alive, mayor?'' He was addressing some goons, one of whom had just spoken out of term. He and his colleagues laughed at his crude joke, but the mayor was not amused.
``Alive, if you think you can pull it off.'' He had a weapon holstered... it must be one of his golden revolvers. He never leaves his office without those things... I'm kinda surprised those goons haven't swiped them off his belt by now.
``Sure thing, boss man!'' The goons run off right after that. I duck behind a barrel as they pass near me to leave the city. Normally I would follow them and pick them off outside the walls, but I just couldn't afford that right now.
``Ah, miss Bennett! I wasn't expecting you so soon.'' The mayor's voice catches me by surprise, but I stay behind the barrel for now.
``Forgive me, mayor. Busy schedule. You understand, correct?'' I tremble as I recognize the voice... that was Vanessa! That was enough to drag me out of my spot... I just had to keep an eye out for her.
``Yes, well, let's get down to business.'' The mayor cleared his throat. ``... where is it?''
Vanessa sighed. ``Right here, mayor.'' She handed him a bag of what I assume to be coins. The mayor must be collecting tax from the residents, as usual... but why would he do that in person? Perhaps it was something else?
I am nearly spooked out of my spot when I hear a peculiar voice behind my back. A horse's neigh, it seems. ``Since when do you skulk like a thief, good sir? Such behavior is unbecoming of you...''
He takes a moment to realize that I hadn't answered. ``S-Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you.'' I look back and see the carriage Vanessa was talking about. I recognize the horse pulling the carriage... my old friend, Harvey. How fitting that he would be the one to get me out of whatever mess I must be in. ``Do we really need the carriage?''
``To hide that sorry state of yours, yes. Now come along.''
I chuckle as I board the inside of the carriage. Guess Vanessa wasn't kidding about laying low... there was no one else inside either, so the place was all mine. If only I could savor that...
``Sit tight, sir. This is going to be a long ride.''
I still don't know what's in store for me, but I do what Harvey says and wait for him to ride out of town. I was trying not to make any noise that might give me away. It was mere seconds after Harvey rode the carriage over a drawbridge that I hear a gunshot. Then another.
Harvey winces for a moment, but continues. I, on the other hand, spring to my feet and nearly peer out the carriage. I was tempted to yell and see who opened fire just now, but I knew better. All I had now was a sense of curiosity. ``What was that...?'' I couldn't help but worry that perhaps... the mayor shot Vanessa.
Harvey clears the drawbridge and steadily picks up the pace. I hear him step onto a road when he finally speaks up. ``Did you check that chest yet?'' Huh? What chest? I look around the carriage and spot something under my seat. There really was a chest here... how did I miss that?
I open the chest and find a set of clothing and what appear to be some gauntlets. I get it now... Vanessa must have prepared me for a journey ahead. I even find a note from her. I take a moment to read it after getting dressed.
``There's always someone looking out for you. No matter how hard life seems, you can count on them. In good and bad times, love can prevail. It's there for you whenever you need it.'' Hmm... I guess she's been reading those cheesy romance novels of hers. There's more. ``While I can't go with you on this life, I promise to see you again someday. In this day or another, just a matter of time. When we meet, I hope you are an even stronger man than yesterday.'' I smile and put the letter away. Maybe I will see you again.