Madeline wanted to scream, but her voice forgot how. She watched as one of the soldiers casually threw the unconscious Jack over his shoulder and walked away with the rest of the group. Jack’s backpack lay strewn open on the ground.
Madeline wanted to do a hundred things at once. She wanted to hide Jack’s backpack. She wanted to follow the soldiers. But, most of all, she wanted to cry. Her body would not comply.
Her hands were shaking; her subconscious had allowed at least that much. It was not even 10 AM (at least she thought; her watch had stopped working) and it had already been the most traumatic day of her life.
Something jolted Madeline awake. She hadn’t even remembered falling asleep.
Footsteps. Loud ones. Madeline tried to push her head out of the bush, but the branches gave way and she fell to the ground, the thorns scratching her face.
She pushed the bushes aside and tried to stick her head out.
“Ahem,” said a voice.
Standing above her was a small boy.
“Are you going to come out?”
“I’m … I’m stuck!”
A gloved hand appeared and grabbed her by the jacket. With one fluid motion, the boy jerked Madeline out of the bush.
Madeline lay crumpled on the ground. She felt drops of blood dripping down her cheek. She looked up at her rescuer.
The boy had a full brown beard, long bushy hair that was worked into several messy braids, and a hard, grizzled face. He looked like something out of one of her and Jack’s comic books.
“Are you a dw.. dwarf?”
The boy looked up at her.
“Well, a’course I am, sure as a dragon’s breath smells like turnip. Name’s Grort.”
“I’m Ma.. Madeline.”
“Pleased to meet ya, Mamadeline.”
“Just Maddy will do…”
“Maddy it is. How did ya end up stuck in that bush?”
Maddy recounted the harried events of the morning, as Grort listened with a silent face.
“That’s quite a tale, lass. If only ya would have come down the mountain a little later. I’d a given those soldiers a taste a’what they deserved. The good news though is that I know where yer brother is.”
“Sure. Those soldiers took your brother for a deserter. They’d a likely thrown him in the brig back in town.”
“Yep, all human boys once they come of age are expected to serve. There’d be no reason for yer brother to be out here by himself if he wasn’t desertin’.”
“Jack’s no deserter! We’re not even from here!”
“Best keep that to yaself, Maddy. Ya tale is odd enough, you don’t want people asking too many questions. They’re already going to be wonderin’ enough about yer clothes.”
“That’s a funny thing to say, coming from a dwarf.”
“What do ya mean, ‘Coming from a dwarf?’ Who taught ya to think like that..”
“I didn’t mean it like that, Mr. Grort. It’s just, where I come from, dwarves are only in books.”
“Only in books? I don’t know what sort of crazy land ya come from, but we dwarves were already here for many ages before you humans first arrived on our shores. Maybe even longer than the elves, although they’re wont to admit it.”
“Yes, elves,” said the old man.
Jack’s head was still pounding from the bayonet butt. The stink of his cell mate was bad enough, but all this talk of dwarves, elves, and dragons certainly wasn’t helping things. Jack felt like he had fallen into one of his comic books.
“The elves live in the forests on one side of the river, the dwarves in the mountains on the other. We settled the isle in the mouth when we first arrived here and have been slowly working our way down the river and around the islands ever since.”
Jack squinted at the old man and rubbed the back of his head.
“That blow to the head must have knocked out all your learning, boy. Although, maybe you didn’t have much to begin with. What kind of deserter gets caught walking around in broad daylight? You could have at least tried to find one of the undergrounds. I guess I shouldn’t be talking though, seeing as how much good that did me.”
“Deserter? Me? You can’t even join the army until you’re 18!”
“Well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? That might be a luxury they can afford back in the motherland, but here, our esteemed council needs every man they can get. Even youngins like you and old salts like me.”
“For what, a war?”
“No, but you would be right to think one was brewing. A’course, starting a war with either side of the river would be suicide. We’ve been hopefully outmatched for centuries. I guess that’s one of the reasons they left us alone for so long. We’re not a threat to either elf or dwarf.”
“How long are they going to keep us here?”
The old man laughed.
“You’re here not half a day and you’re already itching to get out? I’ve been waiting weeks for my trial, with no end in sight.”
“Do I have to explain everything to you? They’re going to trot us out there in front of a judge, we’ll get to say a few words that no one will give two shits about, and then we’ll be sentenced. Frankly, I wish they would just get it over with, I can’t take the waiting anymore.”
“What’s going to happen after we’re senten..”
“After we’re sentenced, they’ll probably send us to work in the mines. Although from the looks of it, you might be of use to them, so they’ll send you back to the capital after a whipping or two. Me, I won’t be as lucky.”
“Whipping? That’s barbaric!”
“Would you prefer they cut off one of your hands? Thankfully, the council thought better of that practice. You can still mend a boy into a soldier, even after a whipping. Can’t say the same about a bunch of one-handed cripples though.”
Jack started to say something and then stopped. The old man seemed relieved that the questions had finally ceased. From the long shadows cast by the window bars, Jack figured it was well into the afternoon, although who could be sure in this crazy world he found himself in. He resigned himself to a long, uncomfortable night in the cell. At least his cell mate seemed somewhat normal that he needn’t fear being murdered in his sleep. He could hear the uncanny screams from further down the block and did not want to imagine what was languishing down there.
A door creaked open and heavy footsteps approached. Jack saw three soldiers appear through the doorway. They walked past the rows of empty cells before stopping in front of Jack and the old man.
“Cell 151, your trial awaits!”