A bird was chirping happily in a somewhere nearby tree, a brook was caressing smooth rocks and grassy banks while it playfully made its way down a slight hill. Alongside it was a road of gravel and dirt, wide and stomped down enough to obviously be a main road, but she hadn´t passed or seen another person for quite some time. It might possibly lead to a once big town of much traffic that had wound down to quiet… Nothing unusual about that.
Tall trees on both sides of the road were almost a solid wall, but as the road took a sharp left turn, that wall started to thin out on the right. The mountain she had seen from far distance and then been hidden from view when she entered the woods, was now surprisingly close.
As she walked further and the woods were down to a few trees on the right side of the road, the mountain side of the road, everything seemed to quiet down even more. No birds were hopping from branch to branch, no cracking of twigs and leaf indicating small animals shooting around in the cover of tall grass and trees… Not even the trees themselves were making a sound. No gentle hissing of movement in the sunlit canopy, nothing at all.
She watched the mountain while she walked, studied its landscape, and came to a sudden halt when she made out what seemed to be a manmade structure on it. A wall was leading from just above the roots of it and across a small distance of open land before it dipped into what looked like a canyon. And the road seemed to lead right there.
She picked up her pace, despite the loud protesting of her weary feet, eager to find out what this was. To find out if it was true.
There were myths, stories about a city inside Triplepeak mountain. They said it was a magical place of bounty and prosperity. A place where people lived in perfect harmony and where laws of war and struggle were unknown. Utopia. They also said it was hidden from view to every soul not born within it´s walls.
She didn´t actually think she would find Triplepeak City, or that if it existed it would be anything close to utopia. She imagined, if she assumed it was real, that it was simply a well hidden and well protected city of possible wealth- and hidden because it knew the laws of war, not ignorant. Why else would people isolate themselves. It was surely a way to armour against attacks.
She was almost running now, her mind spinning possibilities into a clear song of determination. She had to see for herself where that wall led, what it was protecting, hiding. This was why she decided to come here, to this part of the world, in the first place.
She didn´t hear him coming until it was too late. Hooves thumped rapidly onto the ground and before she even managed to turn her head, she was swept up and roughly landed on a moving horse, facing it´s rider.
She felt tiny.
She was bouncing uncomfortably, even if she was being squashed against a strangers body. The horse was moving fast and the rider leaned forward. His voice carried to her from above her head, deep and coarse, as he urged the animal to go even faster. She hung on to him, forced to wrap her arms around him if she didn´t want to go flying. His arm was no longer a safety belt around her back.
The insanity of her situation started to sink in and she twisted as much as she could without losing her grip. She couldn´t turn enough to see his face, but he was huge. When she was about to shout at him to stop and let her go, she was faced with what she could only assume was the reason he was in such a hurry.
At first it seemed like a dark cloud, but as it came closer she made out shapes and movement. It was a flock of large black birds, silently gaining on them with such accuracy it was clear what their target was. And soon enough, the first bird let out a rough cry and plunged towards them. It had barely moved from the flock when a few more mimicked its move and then the whole bunch was shooting down.
She reached for her knives, secured by her hip, but was stopped by the rider. He grabbed her arm and put it back around him as he leaned even further down, basically pinning her to the horse.
“Hold on,” he growled, muttered something and the horse broke into a gallop that seemed to be closer to flying than running as it´s feet barely met the ground. The birds missed their target but kept following them and she was about to point that out, somehow, when the rider added:
“Ravens are the least of our problems, it´s the dogs we need to worry about. The guys better have that damn tunnel ready.”
Her eyes widened, both at his warning and what he had said next. Who were ´the guys´ and what tunnel were they getting ready? Who was this guy!
A howl broke her thoughts and made her tighten her hold. It was followed by another howl and then a loud answer from the ravens, crying and screeching and barking at the…
Wolves. No damn dogs; Grey, big wolves on both sides of the road and clearly circling them. She was now certain the rider was a friend rather than a crazy, kidnapping murderer. She would´ve been a snack for either a flock of ravens or a pack of wolves had he not taken her with him on the run. Why she would even need to worry about that did not become a question at that moment, but how to get out of this on the other hand…
The wolves were creeping closer, new ones appearing as soon as they outran the first. Her heart was racing and she couldn´t figure out how she would defend herself if the animals got close enough to attack. She could reach her knives pretty easily, but what good would they do if the horse was targeted?
She was beginning to plan how to survive if the horse was brought down, being pinned to it and on her back was not the best position to take control of her fall, when the rider hissed „yes!“ and made a turn that was so sharp she could almost touch the ground and wondered how the horse even kept its balance. She didn´t see where they were going but she saw walls of rock and felt a gust of chilly air. They slowed down and the rider sat up straight, allowing her to move freely in front of him again. Tall walls of a narrow canyon reached for the sky on both sides.
She twisted to look in the direction they were headed, just in time to see a round opening into a dark tunnel and a few men on horses holding guns and flashlights. In a second, they were all inside and a solid metal gate closed silently behind them. Lights flickered on, a string of them running the length of the tunnel, fitted into the ceiling. The tunnel walls seemed surprisingly smooth and the floor, even if obviously dirt and gravel, was solid.
Her savior swung lightly to the ground and she immediately followed. Her butt was killing her and her back wasn´t in the best shape either. The other men followed the riders example, leading their horses further into the tunnel. She trailed behind, watching the little group with interest and wondered what the hell she´d gotten herself into this time. Fleeing from wolves and birds and hiding in a tunnel? And to where?
She couldn´t help but grin. Triplepeak?
“Hurry up, kid,” the rider said with a quick glance over a broad shoulder without slowing down.
Kid, she thought and grinned. She was twenty seven, hardly a kid, but it wasn´t the first time she was mistaken for a much younger girl. Or boy, for that matter… She didn´t really mind. Much.
“What were you doing out there anyway?” He asked when she caught up. He sounded angry, more than curious, and she wondered if there were rules about going “outside”. Assuming where they were headed was “inside”.
“Walking,” she answered smiling and added, “where are we going?”
Her words, spoken easily and without any dubious intent, might as well have been a bomb threat. All five men stopped and turned to look at her with the same priceless expression of startled surprise. Then they glanced at the rider, hesitating to speak up but obviously wanting to. Finally he cleared his throat and crossed his arms, taking a deep breath so his wide chest got even bigger.
“Where were you going when I decided you shouldn´t become easy lunch?”
His voice was rough and deep, even if he´d made an effort to soften it. She should pale up at the thought of getting on the wrong side of him, but instead she flashed another easy smile and shrugged.
“I heard there was a good spot to camp in the area. And the myth of Triplepeak City. So I thought I´d make a day of it.” Or three. “Is that where we´re going? Triplepeak?”
The men glanced between Chase and the girl, almost making him regret bringing her to safety. They hesitated to say what they were thinking but he knew what it was. He was supposed to know better than to bring a stranger to the tunnel. The entrance was supposed to be hidden from outsiders, kept secret to make sure their home was safe from the dangers lurking in the woods.
He shrugged, grunted and squinted his eyes at the girl, then glanced briefly at the other men before answering her question.
“You‘re gonna find out in a little while anyway, so I might as well tell you. Yes, we are going to Triplepeak.” He walked a few steps, towered over her. “You better be telling the truth, kid,” he added in a warning tone. She straightened her back and he practically felt her annoyance. He also felt an urge to walk that last step between them and feel her against his body again. That one he shook off but he did lean a little closer in an almost mischievous effort to annoy her even more.
“Keep up. We need to hurry.” He turned away just as a grin started tugging on the corner of his mouth and signaled the men to move.
They walked for a few minutes before he decided they should get on the horses again.
“You take the kid, James,” he said as he heaved himself into the saddle and patted the horses neck fondly. He didn´t look to make sure his order was followed, and he didn´t look at the woman he knew very well was no kid. That much he´d found out when she was wrapped around him and then squashed beneath him on the way to the tunnel.
He heard James offer to help her into the saddle, heard her refuse, and in a minute all five horses were moving fast in a double row. He glanced at Julius, riding next to him with a grim expression and fierce body language that told him in no uncertain terms how the man felt about the addition to the party. She was a risk.
“Yeah, yeah,” he murmured under his breath and frowned, returning his gaze to the road. They´d see the exit soon. What the hell was he supposed to do, anyway? Leave the kid, knowing she´d get killed or worse?
He allowed himself a sneaky glance over the shoulder to look at her. She sat behind James on the horse, arms wrapped loosely around his waist. Chase´s eyes moved up to look at her face. He met hers and was captivated for a short gut-wrenching moment. When it was over, and his eyes were on the rapidly approaching exit door, he clenched his jaw and prepared to explain to everyone why he was bringing an outsider. Again. The people he´d have to explain it to were not as quiet about their opinion as the men he rode with now. They´d remind him what happened last time. They´d remind him of the law. They´d remind him of his own past errors of judgment. Fuck. Too late to throw her back out there?
The tunnel ended at a big metal wall like the one they´d used to close the entrance. She didn´t know what to expect when one of the men leaned to press a button on the tunnel wall and the metal started sliding into the ceiling without making a sound. Daylight flooded the tunnel and blinded her. She covered her eyes with a hand and when she lowered it in a few seconds they were outside.
“Oh my god!” She exclaimed and then cleared her throat a little embarrassed when all five men turned to look at her. Even James twisted in the saddle to raise an eyebrow and she squirmed a bit.
What greeted her eyes was a large bowl-like valley, closed off by tall mountains that stretched into the sky and ended in three peaks. The mountain sides were steep and seemed to be bare cliffs from about midway to the top. The lower halves were grassy fields and patches of woods, little houses scattered all over them. In the middle, on the floor of the bowl, was a beautiful castle.
Summer had clearly found it´s way here sooner than outside the circle of mountains. Everything was already in bloom, fields of yellow and red flowers up one hill and around the castle. And the air felt like summer. Fresh and lazy at the same time.
The castle itself was like out of a fairytale. It wasn´t one of those dark grey ones you´d find all around Europe. The walls were tall and seemed to be a perfect circle. Inside was a cluster of towers, the highest one biggest with a row of large windows lining the cone-like roof and another row just below it. The other towers were simply what you´d expect in a fairytale castle. Little windows scattered here and there under colourful roofs and houses huddled on the ground. Red and blue roofs like a floor below the towers, telling her it really was a city.
All the walls, all the towers, were bright white and seemed to sparkle in the sun.
She finally looked back at the rider, Chase.
“It´s beautiful”, she simply said and tilted her head a little. She felt like bouncing up and down with excitement, but kept her calm. No need to embarrass herself any further. Instead she caught grey eyes and was pleasantly surprised to see a hint of warmth there before he steeled up and met her gaze with determination.
“You better ride with me,” he said without answering her statement. “I have to take you to the council.”
She bit back a reply and jumped rather clumsily off the horse. James tried to help but she didn´t accept it, didn´t notice his outstretched hand- to be accurate. She moved over to Chase and James instantly got off his own horse and held his hands in front of him for her to use as a step. She raised an eyebrow and grinned, grabbed his shoulder and then Chase´s hand he´d streched out when she got ready to move. The warm, firm hold of his fingers and palm around hers made her pause for a moment. She met those grey eyes again and the unreadable expression did nothing to calm her suddenly racing heart.
Like she´d never done anything else her whole life, she stepped into James´s hands and heaved herself up onto the horse with the help of Chase´s firm pull. She put one arm loosely around his waist and waited. Her heart was still racing and she was intensely aware of the man in front of her. She couldn´t really help it- leaning a little closer was more a natural instinct than a conscious action.
Chase raised a hand to say goodbye to the other men and rode off towards the city. He shrugged off the urge to pull her arm tighter around him, or guide the horse straight to his house and…
“What´s your name?” He asked to give his brain something else to process. “I have to introduce you, and not knowing your name would be…” He stopped talking, didn´t like where the sentence was going. He would handle the introduction just fine, with or without a name. Hell, he´d introduce her as the kid if he had to.
“It´s Dani Turner,” she answered and cleared her throat. “Daniela, actually. What´s yours? Chase what, I mean”.
“Just Chase”, he grunted and started planning his defences for bringing Daniela Turner to Triplepeak.
Dani admired the view, the surroundings, while they rode towards the city. Once they were threading the streets the sparkling white buildings revealed details of fine cracks and chipped surface, as well as painted murals depicting what Dani assumed to be the city´s history.
The images were like beacons, each one a guiding point towards the council, she realised as they drew nearer. Chase had pointed out a specific tower before they passed through the city gates.
The other thing she noticed about these streets, was that they seemed to be going in circles, smaller and smaller until suddenly they were on a beautifully decorated square. On one side was a village of tents and people buzzing back and forth between fishmongers, jewelry booths, fruit stands… It all seemed like a step back a hundred years, like she´d dropped in on a medieval market square. That is, until she noticed the electrical appliances, the cd’s, the handbags…
On the other side of the square was the tower Chase had pointed out, easily recognizable by the spectacular purple roof and top windows.
“Right.” Chase growled and told her to get off the horse. When they were at the huge wooden door he hesitated and squinted at her, leaning a hint closer.
“You don´t speak unless they ask you something directly. No cocky attitude. We clear?”
Dani nodded and tried her best to suppress a grin. That may not have worked completely, because Chase clenched his jaw and cleared his throat before pushing the doors open.
The grand hall filled Chase with dread as he crossed it with the kid in tow. He didn‘t look at the floor, the artfully decorated two-square-feet tiles, or the paintings that hung in viewing height and created a border from door to stairway on both sides of the room.
His large frame was squared and tense, shoulders set back and chin up. He was going to face some serious music this time.
He glanced at the kid as he reached the wide staircase straight across the room from the door. He only hesitated a second, only looked at her long enough to frown, but her image was burnt into his mind. He knew what the council would decide on, and that it was his fault. With a few muttered curses under his breath he started climbing the spiral stairs, one hand locked around a thin wrist.
He let go of her when they were half way up and slowed down a little. Not much, just so she‘d have any breath left when they reached the top floor. He saw her rub her wrist but she didn‘t complain. Maybe she felt the weight in the atmosphere. The finality.
The walls started creeping in as they neared the top, ending close enough to the stairs to easily cause claustrophobia. When the couple finished the hike, Chase‘s shoulders were touching the walls on both sides. This was for security reasons, of course. An entrance like this was easily guarded and there was no other way in or out.
Follow me, Chase said quietly and meant for it to sound commanding but it came out like a plea. Damn nerves, he thought and mentally kicked himself. He couldn‘t afford any mistakes now. He had to stay cool and composed.
He stopped a couple of steps from the tall archway into the front room where they‘d wait for an audience with the council. He should tell her what to expect.
“I, uh…” He started and cleared his throat when his voice sounded cracked and insecure. Well, to be fair it probably sounded just as grumpy as always to others, but he cleared his throat anyway.
“There are laws”, he started again, not sure how much to explain. “No one from the outside is supposed to know how to get to the city, or to see it.”
He looked her directly in the eyes now, hesitating a moment when her grin faded. He focused on her hands until she tucked them in her pockets and then looked her in the eye again, the whole thing taking only seconds.
“What they do”, he said and then corrected himself, “what we do, is execute the outsider”. She didn‘t break eye contact when he growled the last words, but she flinched. Of course she did, who wouldn‘t? Someone from outside these walls wouldn‘t understand the meaning of their secrecy. The way of life depending on it.
“There hasn‘t been an outsider for over twenty years, though. So we‘ll see what they…” He stopped without finishing and frowned. She probably didn‘t believe they‘d kill her, so why give her reason to wonder? Might as well let her discover the severity of the situation herself.
He ran his hand through his hair, leaving it even more tousled, and turned to enter the front hall. He heard her follow… Not going to admit to feeling her follow, that was for sure… And headed for a plush-clad bench near the double doors to the council chambers. They had barely sat down when one of the guards standing on each side of the door leaned his head a little down and to the side, held a hand to his ear and then looked at them.
“They are ready to see you now.”
His partner immediately stepped forth, pushed the door open and waited for them to enter.