Once upon a time, there was a ravishingly handsome prince. He was a mighty warrior, with a magical sword that could cut through any metal. He would travel through the land, protecting his people and fighting evil everywhere he went. But one day, ogres invaded the land. The prince led the army against the ogres, fighting valiantly. But the ogres had stone weapons, that the magic sword could not cleave. Seeing their prince being defeated, the men of the army fled. Abandoned and beleaguered, the prince fought on, but a blow from a club broke his sword. The ogres took the prince captive.
They took him back to their lair in the mountains, blinding him and setting him loose in the caves to wander and die. But the prince was clever, he slipped away from the ogres. He would spend his days exploring the caves, learning each system by heart, building a map in his head, until he was as familiar with the cavern system as with his old haunts. The ogres never found him, for he was as light on his feet and silent as a cat, while he could hear their lumbering tread a mile away and could always easily evade them.
Then one day, as he was exploring a new part of his territory, he heard a sound made by no ogre. Curious and cautious and suspicious, he edged toward it, trailing his fingertips along the rock wall. As he entered the cavern where the noise was loudest, he stopped, facing the source of the sound. It continued a few minutes, the sound of a young girl sobbing, until it stopped abruptly with a faint gasp.
"Who are you?" a maiden's voice gasped, faint and fearful.
The prince stepped into the cave, hands out and open and empty. "I am the Wanderer of the Caves. Who are you?" As he spoke, he settled crosslegged on the ground in front of the girl.
She hiccuped once before answering hesitantly. "I am Elena. I did not know there were other humans here, else I would not have been crying."
"There is no shame in tears," the prince said gently. "Why are you here?"
"The ogres keep me here as a pet. They have chained me here with an iron chain that no metal can break," she answered sadly, before her tone turned gently curious. "Why are you here?"
"I am a captive of the ogres as well. They left me to die in the darkness, but the darkness has become my friend and protects me. I seek the way out, but I do not fear the caves."
"I know we are not far from the entrance," Elena said thoughtfully. "They come daily to bring me food and water, and to play with me, but I do not know exactly where it is. If you seek to avoid them, you will have to be very careful – they are always about and the sound distorts terribly… down… here..." she trailed off.
The prince nodded. "I know about the sound. Do not worry, I have lived a long time in here, I know tricks to avoid the monsters." He stood, reaching down, hand turned slightly and open, inviting. He heard the chains clink, and a small hand slipped into his. Kneeling again, he kissed her knuckles lightly. "Maiden Elena, this I vow to you – I shall find the entrance, and then I will return and break your unbreakable chain. And then we will leave this place together."
He started slightly as her other hand laid lightly along his jaw. The chains moved again, and her whisper was closer this time, her breath lightly tickling his face. "Brave warrior, go well. Be careful, for our enemies are all about – find the exit, and be free."
"I will not leave you," he returned, voice deadly serious with intent. "I swear it."
Her thumb stroked his cheek once. "Go find the exit. Please," she whispered.
He gave her hand a light squeeze and stood, walking through the cavern, bare toes gripping the ground, fingertips brushing the wall. Behind him, he could feel her gaze pinned on his back, hope and longing and fear mingled. Before him, darkness beckoned him on, concealing him, guiding him, and he followed.
In eternal darkness, no way to know how much time had passed, he wandered, constantly dodging ogres. Several times he became a little disoriented, forced constantly into hiding and unknown passages to avoid detection. But even the close calls helped him, the map swiftly building inside the prince's head. Many times he was almost caught, his human scent alerting the monsters to his presence, but his skill in evasion paid off well. Many times he was almost discovered, but gave his pursuers the slip in each instance.
Time had long since stretched into eternity when he finally felt a cool breeze on his face, a whiff of air fresher than any he'd caught in a long, long while. Ogres guarded the opening – perhaps not intentionally, but their constant presence was as effective a barricade as any. The prince sat concealed in a crevasse for some time, observing all that went on, sound and smell telling him all he needed to know. No sounds from outside entered, save the moaning of the wind – no living creature would or could live near and ogre's lair. Nonetheless, he knew it was outside, knew he'd finally found the escape.
Not that getting away would be easy. Even if he could break the chain, even if they managed to pass the ogres, he and the maiden must still traverse the mountains, fleeing to safety. His land had been ravaged, but still, it would be away, and perhaps they could find someone to help them. His sharp ears caught all the sounds of the ogres' movement in and out, their erratic schedule and labored breathing. Disquiet grew in him – the ogres themselves had difficulty with the entrance. What unseen perils would he and Elena face?
The trip back to the captive girl's cave was short, a far shorter time than it had taken to explore. But the prince was uncertain, there was no sound of Elena when he arrived at the grotto where he thought he'd found her. Pausing to listen, despite his silent tread, he strained his ears for some sound of breathing, movement – anything. Fear blossomed in him, what had they done to her? Where had they taken her? Was she even still alive? Her words returned to him, filling him with hot rage – they play with me. What had they done? Ogres were not above eating their captives, he knew, when they grew bored with the prisoners.
"Elena," he whispered into the darkness, desperate and hoping against hope.
"Wanderer?" Her voice was sleepy, desolate, but the chains clanked dismally as she moved. He flew across the cavern, dropping to his knees beside her, reaching out and pulling her close even as she reached for him. "You didn't return – I thought they had caught you." A sob caught in her throat, but she swallowed it down. "It's been a month. I thought you were dead."
"A month," he whispered, staring blankly into darkness, holding her close. So long? Time had ceased to have meaning for him, but a dim recollection returned, plans and schedules. A month, she said… "Sh, it is alright, I have returned. I am alive," he whispered, bending his head down towards where hers rested against his shoulder. "It's okay, relax, please." She let out a shuddering breath, and he felt her go limp in his arms.
"Did you find it?" she asked quietly, desperately.
"Yes. It will not be easy," he warned, but she shook her head.
"You will manage it. You are clever," she cut him off. He felt her head move against his arm as she looked up, her voice full of desperate hope. "You'll be fine."
"Elena, little lady, I'm taking you with me," he said sternly. "I swore it, and I don't break my promises."
She shook her head. "I will not hold you to promises you can't keep, my lord. You must go."
He reached down, tilting her chin up. "I do not make promises I cannot keep. I will free you and we will escape together."
Something wet splashed onto his hand, and when she answered her broken voice was full of empty despair. "It is not only the chain that holds me here. That is but a needless precaution on their part. My lord… I cannot leave. If I do, the ogres will destroy all that I've given my freedom to protect. That is the deal – I stay, and they will leave my village alone. If I leave, nothing will stop them from destroying everything."
He cupped her face in his hands. "Elena, my lady, I will not leave you here, if it means I must slay every ogre in this foul nest. We shall break your chain, and your bond, and you need not break your word. Only say yes, love, and we can both be free." He waited, in silence, for a long minute, before her face gently pulled away from him as she tilted her head down, unanswering.
"I don't know," she finally answered, after a long, long period of silence. "I don't know."
He took her chin in his hand again, tilting her head up. "Let me try." After another moment, she nodded.
His time was soon filled with stealing the bits and bobs of metal the ogres had stolen and left in the cave, as he fought to find some way to free her. The chain was forged of a curious iron, utterly unyielding to any pressure and always cold, even the manacles on her wrists. It had been fused into the rock wall, making it impossible to pull loose. Often the Wanderer would return from one of his forays to find her hands wet and sticky with blood where desperation had overcome her and she'd struggled to free herself. Often he'd find her weeping, rage and despair and overwhelming sadness overcoming her. Many was the time he'd wiped the tears from her cheeks, kissed her softly and promised her freedom. More and more, she'd urge him to go and save himself, but he was adamant – he was not leaving her. And though her conviction never grew less, her acceptance of his refusal grew greater. When he slept, she would hold him, watching for the patrolling beasts who held them captive.
Sparks flew as a sharp snap echoed through the cave, and the prince hissed a curse. The maiden reached out, taking his injured hand between both of hers before kissing it gently. "Wanderer, rest now. You can't keep this up indefinitely."
With a whimper, he slumped into her lap. Her fingers gently combed through his hair, sorting and rearranging it. "Don't worry, my love," she whispered tenderly, bending over him. "Do not fret. We will find something eventually. There must be something to break it." There was a soft chinking sound as she examined one of the links. "It's a most curious metal," she mused. "I've never seen one marbled like this..."
The prince lifted his head. "Marbled…? Dark grey with very pale grey flecks and swirls?"
Elena lifted her head quickly, mystified. "How did you-? Where are you going? Wanderer?" Behind him, he heard her lift to her knees, but he was already flying down the passage. He knew of only one instrument made of an unbreakable metal, marbled grey. How they had melted down and forged his broken sword into a chain, he didn't know – but neither had he forgotten what had broken it.
Back to his old haunts, long since abandoned, the caves he'd first explored and learned to survive in his harsh new home, he ran. Nimble sensitive fingers ran over natural cracks and shelves until something clattered a little. Clenching the smooth oblong in his hand, he took off, back to Elena. Darting into the cave, he slid across to her, dropping to his knees.
"A knife?" she asked in confusion as he caught one of her wrists. "We already tried picking the lock, they fused it shu-" She broke off with a gasp. Sharper than any needle, the small stone knife he'd crafted upon his escape sliced through the charmed iron. Wordlessly she held her other wrist out to him, her blood dripping languidly to the stone floor.
Clenching the knife in his teeth, the prince pulled the maiden to her feet and took off again. Her steps pattered behind him as they ran, leaving behind the dim light of the single torch in the captive chamber. The Wanderer of the Caves led the girl unerringly, each step blazoned into his memory. Her breathing grew ragged, turned into harsh panting, but neither stopped.
In the last empty cavern before the exit, he halted. "Sit, rest," he whispered, barely breathing hard. Without argument, she slid bonelessly to the floor, struggling for air. He crept to the arched opening, listening intently for any sound from the next cave over. For once, though, the door seemed unattended. "Elena," he murmured, turning back. "You must tell me, can you see any of them?"
A moment later, he felt her presence beside him as she looked into the other chamber. After scarcely a second, she caught her breath."Yes," she breathed. "But it's asleep. We may be able to – erp!" Behind him, he could hear her swallow and easily envisioned her hand pressed to her mouth. He could not blame her, the sight and stench of ogre blood was nauseating, especially to those unused to it. He too preferred as little gore as possible, but now was not the time to be picky.
"Come on," he said, half turning back, but she was already moving across to join him, hopping rivulets of noisome viscous liquid.
"I'm here," she said bravely, and he took her hand in his free one. Leading her quickly across the cavern, he didn't even pause before stepping outside. The cold fresh air was sharper than any slap, the tang of evergreen assailing senses used to the smell only of dirt and rock and must. For a moment, both stood, drinking it all in, she with her eyes and he with all the sharpened senses life and wits had given him.
She felt when he turned towards her, looked up unafraid for her first good look at him. The silvering moon flooded down on them, full to bursting and painting the whole world in icy light. A feather touch beneath his eye had him twitching back, but then he stilled. Her words were barely audible, soft and horrified and infinitely tender. "Oh my love..."
The kiss was soft and sweet as a butterfly's touch or the first snowflake of winter, and as brief. There were still ogres to flee, the harsh rigors of mountain travel in the winter with which to contend. There was no time for wasting. But as they parted, neither regretted the second spent in that one kiss. And as he ran barefoot down the path, she in her satin slippers right behind, each privately acknowledged the impossibility of their survival – and scorned it.