By Rosemary E. Johnson
For all his bone-shuddering exhaustion, Tyr couldn’t sleep. In the ruddy half-light, he could make out his brother’s prone form, huddled on the thin blanket they used as a bed. His breathing was slow, steady.
At least one of them would be rested before they escaped.
Tyr curled his knees to his chest. Outside their lean-to, the volcanoes rumbled, causing the ever-flickering red glow that was the only light they knew.
The few elders that remained told stories on nights that weren’t as hot. Stories of a land outside the volcanoes that encircled them, away from Lord Ekren’s Shadowmasters and the everlasting darkness blocking the sky. There was something called “sun” there, a sphere of yellow light in a blue sky. He only knew blue from memories of their mother’s eyes. But when he tried to imagine a sky that color, he couldn’t. All he saw were roiling black clouds and the glow of volcanoes. Most days, he worked too hard in the mines to daydream of skies and suns.
What intrigued him most, though, were stories of forests and meadows. Lush, green and growing, swelling with life. Sunlight rippling through trees. Soft moss and grass that tickled when one ran through it.
Tyr glanced at his brother. Ren’s eyes were green. Tyr wanted to see those forests, to immerse himself in the color that signified life. Here, no one lived. They survived.
“Ren.” Tyr nudged his brother’s shoulder.
They shouldered the packs they’d buried beneath the blanket, filled with what food they could save and a waterskin. They’d stolen knives, too. Tyr stuffed their blanket under his pack’s straps.
Silent as stones, they crept through the maze of lean-tos toward the mountainside. Stories told of a passageway—a tunnel that led to the outside world.
Tyr tripped his knife, but no guards stood by the mountain base. No Shadowmasters to drag them back. Exchanging a glance with Ren, they started climbing.
“Look.” Ren pointed to the crudely fashioned stairs etched into the rock.
Tyr puffed out a sigh of relief. The stories told of such stairs.
Torches stirred in the camp below by the time they reached the top and the yawning cave that waited there.
“Hurry, before they realize we’re gone.” Tyr pushed Ren through the entryway. In a few minutes, complete darkness enveloped them.
Tyr groped until his hand bumped Ren. “All right?”
“Tripped.” Ren gave him a small nudge. They moved on, as quickly as they could, hands pressed against the stone walls to guide them.
Time slowed. Hours passed, or maybe only minutes. Each step made freedom more attainable.
The eternity ended with a growl from behind. A Shadowmaster hunted them.
Stumbling, they hurried on. The knife was sweaty in Tyr’s hand.
Light flickered behind them, and Tyr’s stomach plummeted. The Shadowmaster appeared, whip in one hand and a torch in the other, eyes blazing flame. It was said Lord Ekren made them by merging the volcanoes’ power into his slavemasters, but they were still mortal. Once, a captured slave had struck one with a stone, and blood ran down its face. Tyr brandished his knife, Ren mirroring his action.
The Shadowmaster laughed. “Slaves all think they can fight us. They never win.”
They’d strategized an attack, in the all-too-short nights. They both knew the plan. As one, Tyr and Ren charged.
With a smooth motion, the whip curled around Ren’s ankles and slammed him to the ground.
Tyr hacked at it but missed as the Shadowmaster snapped Ren closer.
But Tyr had moved nearer to the Shadowmaster, too. Slashing at the monster’s wrist with one step, he went for the whip next.
The Shadowmaster grunted, blood gushing from the wound, and in that split second of delay, Tyr cut through the whip.
Dropping the torch, the Shadowmaster grabbed Tyr by the neck and squeezed.
Tyr choked and pawed at the hands around his throat, blood pounding in his ears.
The sound of a knife rending flesh echoed through the cave, and the Shadowmaster’s eyes bulged in surprise. Its grip loosened enough for Tyr to break free and collapse.
Screaming, Ren plunged his knife into the Shadowmaster’s back again and twisted.
The Shadowmaster grunted and fell, the flame vanishing from its eyes.
Ren crawled to Tyr, tears mixing with the grime on his face.
At first, Tyr couldn’t get words past his aching throat, but finally he rasped, “I’m all right.”
Ren buried his head in Tyr’s chest. They stayed that way for a while.
“We need to keep going.” Talking hurt, and maybe he’d always have a rasp, but he’d heal.
Ren picked up the torch. Eventually, it died, but a speck of light now shone ahead. They groped and stumbled toward it.
As it grew larger, it became brighter, nothing like the surly glow of the volcanoes. Tyr’s entire body quivered. Soon he’d be standing in it. Free.
He peered out the exit, squinting against light so blinding his vision went fuzzy. After a while, though, the brightness grew bearable.
He saw trees.
Tall, majestic, green trees that swayed in a cool breeze and made a rustling sound like music. He stepped from the cave, gasping as grass brushed his legs. There were flowers scattered in bright, happy colors he didn’t have names for. He ran his hand over them, breathing air sweeter than he thought possible.
Ren by his side, they ran to the forest. The ground changed to spongy wet leaves that smelled rich and earthy. Lacy, light green plants poked up, tips curling gracefully. A leaf brushed his cheek. Birds sang from the branches—not huge, black birds that waited to devour the dead, but small, fluffy ones.
Sunlight, purer than he’d imagined, made the foliage glow. When the breeze blew, he glimpsed blue sky.
Ren put a hand on his shoulder, leaf-green eyes wide in wonder. “We’re free.”
Above them, the trees rustled their agreement.