Short Story: Prisoners of the Dark

It was dark. When Cillan opened his eyes, he felt like nothing had changed. He breathed in stuffy, humid air and let out a quiet groan. Are there hammers pounding my head? He pushed himself painfully onto his elbows and looked around. All was pitch-black.

“Where in the kingdom…” Cillan began, but stopped abruptly. A noise had arrested his attention. The sound of breathing, only a few feet to his left.

Stay calm… Cillan pulled himself to his feet, biting his lip and backing away from the sound. He couldn’t remember how he had gotten here, or why it was so dark. A warning feeling in the back of his throbbing head seemed to be tugging at him, trying to gain his attention, but he couldn’t focus on it. Then, as he took another step back, his heel caught something and he fell backwards, hitting the sandy ground hard. He clenched the sand in his fists. It was cool. In fact, the whole atmosphere was cold. Was he perhaps…underground?

A sudden panic rose up in Cillan’s chest and he clambered onto his hands and knees. Why was he underground in a pitch-black cave? What did he trip over?

As soon as he thought it, something groped up his arm and clamped around his wrist. He let out a startled yell and jerked away.

“…Cillan?” a faint, gravelly voice asked.

“Gral!” Cillan whispered. Memories came rushing back. He and his two friends, Gral and Natalia. Horses. They had been riding across the desert. What were they doing? Oh, yes. They had been pursuing someone. A group of people. Rillax! They had been chasing a group of Rillax across the Tobian desert, to stop them from…assassinating the…king of Tobian.

Cillan stood, helping Gral up with him. “If you’re here…the breathing sound must have been Natalia!”

Gral and Cillan carefully moved toward the sound of breathing. Cillan bent over and his hand brushed across a thick mat of wavy hair. “Natalia!”

“Mm?” Natalia’s grunt answered his whisper and he shook her shoulder.

“Natalia, get up! We need to get out of this…place.” Cillan turned to Gral. “How did we get here, anyway? I can’t remember…”

“We caught up to the Rillax band. We fought them as best we could, remember? Then they flanked us and pressed us to the loose sand over this cavern. We broke through and fell in. I think…I think they blocked the exit. Then I passed out.”

“I must have been knocked unconscious before you. I can remember falling…faintly. How are we going to get out?”

Just as he asked this, there was the sound of a match being struck against leather, and a flame flared up, illuminating the impenetrable dark. Cillan squinted and saw Natalia’s face over the flame. Blood was dried on her temple. She stared at her friends glumly. “Well, we certainly got into a mess this time.”

“What are we going to do?” Cillan asked, feeling panic rising in his chest again.

“Let’s get a torch lit first, so we can see each other,” Gral said sensibly. “Then we’ll think about getting out.”

“Some Border Rangers we are,” Cillan grumbled as he and his friends groped about the sand cave, only aided by matches, to search for a stick of some sort. “We have to protect the king, but we failed as soon as we caught up to the band of assassins. We have to get out!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get through. Here, I found something.” Gral stood, holding up a dry branch that had fallen from a dead bush in the corner of the sand cave. He tore a strip of his tunic and tied it around the top of the branch. With the match, he lit it. After lighting a few more, the three Border Rangers had sufficient light in the cave. It was large and went back a long ways. The light only penetrated so far, leaving a large black gap a few yards away, leading deeper into the cave.

“Shall we try to dig our way out?” Natalia asked. “Where’s our swords?”

“I think we lost them in the fight. We’ll have to use our knives,” Gral sighed. Cillan studied his strong, bearded face. The tone of his voice was not normal for the large ranger. Usually he was full of wisdom and hope. Clearly the dark, humid cave was getting to him.

The three set to work on the side of the cave they were sure they had fallen from. Large boulders and clumps of sand now covered it, where the Rillax had crumbled the opening.

Cillan dug into the rough, slanted side of the sandy cave with his long knife. Sweat slid down his brow and he grunted each time he wedged his knife into an opening, struggling to push away the rocks to create an opening. He heard a metal snap and turned to see Natalia staring at her knife, now only a hilt and an inch of blunted metal. The point had completely broken. She grumbled under her breath and threw the useless tool to the side.

In only minutes, both Cillan’s and Gral’s knives broke as well. They struggled to dig with their hands, but soon they were cut and bleeding. Hardly anything had changed to the collapsed opening.

“It’s no use,” Cillan yelled in the dim cave. “We’re trapped!” His voice cracked with emotion and he let himself slide onto the ground, sweat dripping down his face.

Natalia and Gral exchanged glances and sat down with their backs to the sandy rock wall, staring at their feet.

Cillan closed his eyes, breathing heavily, struggling to hold in the sobs that rose from his lungs. All hope was lost. The king would be killed if they couldn’t warn him in time. There was nothing they could do.

Then, just as Cillan was ready to give up, he felt a faint tickle on his damp forehead. It was…wind? He hadn’t felt the wind the entire time he had been down here. Everything was closed off. Where had it come from? Or…was everything closed off?

Cillan sat up quickly.

“What is it?” Gral whispered, but Cillan held up a hand. He waited, eyes squinted, deathly still. Then he felt it again. It was definitely a cool breeze of air.

“Guys, come on! I can feel wind! There must be…another opening in this cave!”

“Where?” Natalia rose, brushing her hands on her pants.

“I don’t know, but I think it’s coming from…back there.” Cillan pointed at the dark depths of the cave.

“There? But there’s nothing back there but more sand.”

“How do you know?” Gral asked, moving forward. “Let’s go find out.”

The three hurried through the darkness of the cave, hefting their torches to light the way. At first there was nothing but sand. Only a few yards later, however, Cillan could feel the wind again, and this time, Natalia and Gral felt it too.

“There’s definitely an opening,” Gral said. As he said it, his torch sputtered and flickered out.

“Great. We have to find this opening, and fast, before we’re left in the dark again! We’re so far from the entrance of the cave, we may never get back!” Natalia warned.

“Hurry,” Cillan said.

They searched high and low, but could find no opening to the cave. Both Cillan and Natalia’s torches began to dim, and in only minutes, they went out.

Cillan stared at his torch, now mostly coal and ash. He threw it on the ground and sighed. They had tried, at least. But all of the hope he had first held was completely gone. It was useless.

They sat in the sand, once again in pitch-dark.

“Look,” Gral whispered. Natalia and Cillan glanced up, frowning.

What can we see in this darkness? Cillan wondered. Then he saw it, and gasped. Light! There was light coming from the side of the cave! It was the opening!

“Only when our torches failed us were we able to see the opening,” Natalia whispered.

“Come on!” Cillan scrambled to his feet and rushed toward the light. It was an opening all right. Doubling his efforts, using his hands in a clawing motion, he ripped away the thin wall of sand and rock around the opening in the side of the cave. Only moments later, the border rangers were stepping out into the setting sunlight of the desert, breathing in great gulps of fresh air.

“We did it,” Gral said, joy radiating from his voice.

“We did,” Cillan said. “Never did I think we would have found the way out because of the darkness that blinded us to everything else.”

“But we did,” Natalia laughed. “And now we have a chance to warn the king. But we have to move.”

“I’ll bet the Rillax left our horses somewhere nearby,” Cillan said. “Come on.”

The three rushed off, a new drive in their minds, and a new hope in their hearts.

Copyright © 2020 Caleb E. King

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