The stone of the window sill is rough against my palms. My shoulders are aching and as I glance down my head swims. The fall seems farther than it did when I was standing at the window. I have half a mind to start climbing back up, but my grip is slipping. I grit my teeth, eyes slamming shut as fear washes over me. I am going to tumble noisily and be discovered. My entire escape plan is about to crumble to dust because in my excitement I overestimated my own abilities.
I almost shriek as my arms finally give out. My limbs flail, trying to grasp anything but finding only air. I careen towards the ground below and with a slight ‘oof!’ land in the fluffy hay bales as I had planned. The wind is momentarily knocked out of me, but as I stare up at the high window that has been my prison, I realize that I am no longer inside.
Footsteps shuffling in my direction along with the clang of armor make me tuck in. I burrow into the hay, trying to make myself small and quiet. I watch a guard stride past me while glancing around curiously. He is dressed in warm leathers with a deep blue crest upon one shoulder and shined metal boots. I suppose he heard my spill, but since nothing seems amiss he continues on his way, one hand resting on the hilt of a gleaming sword. I shall stay here for a few more moments before making for the stables. I have spent too long devising this escape to be thwarted by a lone night watchman.
The night is quiet save for a few howls in the distance. I hear no people chattering or owls hooting; it’s almost ominous. Through the gaps in fragrant stalky bits covering my head I glance to the sky. The twin moons are shining brightly, almost touching one another. It is a night for the Gemini. If there was ever a good time to begin my pilgrimage, it is now. Closing my eyes I say a prayer within my mind, “Thirteen Gods and Goddesses bless and keep me. This night I set out upon the pilgrimage to the Great Well Spring. I begin my journey to pray at the Stone of the Gemini. Twin Souls keep your eyes upon me as I traverse this land in search of my true self.”
My eyes remain closed as I savor a feeling of peace that floods my being. Then, as if something inside of me sent a jolt, I bolt from my hiding place and dash towards the royal stables. My heart is thundering in my ears and no matter how much the wind stings at my cheeks; I find it difficult to draw a breath. Having never left the confines of the castle without an armed escort, this venture leaves me both frightened and deeply exhilarated.
The fear of being caught and dragged back to my gilded cage has me running as if devils are on my heels. I manage to cross the grounds and throw open the stable door. All is quiet inside, save for the mewling of a few Naba, so I shut the door behind me and look over the beasts. The Naba are swift and cunning pack animals that stand upon two legs and have enormous ears that resemble a rabbit’s. They are normally only kept by wealthy merchants, clergy and nobility. Though traversing upon a Naba may draw attention, using a slower animal or walking on foot could triple the time necessary to make the journey.
I opt for one of the shabbier looking beasts towards the back of the stable. With it I can probably pass for a mediocre merchant or clergyman. My intent is to stay off the main roads and try to look as inconspicuous as possible. Thankfully the beast has been ridden frequently. He is friendly and allows me to swiftly place a humble blanket and saddle upon his humped back. I lead him out the exit which opens into the pear orchard and hope the night conceals me as I move about the trees. It is not likely that someone would be looking for a mount thief to enter the royal stables, but who knows.
Fallen branches and leaves crunch beneath my booted feet. Every snap threatens to make my heart leap from my chest. Both my arms are shivering as I try to hold onto the beast’s reins as we walk. This is a terrifying jaunt. I can see the outer wall right in front of me, but my mind keeps concocting scenarios where someone grabs me and stops me before reaching it. It is as if that wall represents my entire life. Years have been spent staring at this wall, at my freedom, so close and yet so far away.
I have wanted to do this for years, with or without my family’s approval. However, fear, uncertainty, even their words have kept me from trying. I remember when I was a boy of twelve, telling my mother and father that I thought myself a Gemini Spirit. Proudly I announced my wish to embark upon the Pilgrimage, only to have my feelings denounced a ‘phase.’ As I got older and continued to express how I felt inside, my parents became angry and venomous. “The people do not need a Gemini King! They need a strong, fully-male king with a good head on his shoulders. Put aside these childish notions and start preparing to choose a queen!”
Words can wound more than a sword, axe, or crossbow. I carried that trauma with me as I married and had children. I care about my wife very much, and I love my children more than my own life. However, ours was an arranged marriage and therefore we are not ‘in love.’ Neither of us had a choice about our future. We have accepted this fact of our lives and moved on; mostly content to be friends and come together for the production of our offspring. We enjoy one another’s company, but only on a platonic level.
I tried to put my inner awareness aside and be the man that my wife and children seemed to need. However, I was never happy and the uncomfortableness of my body, mind and spirit got worse. I trusted and cared for my wife, so with our third child on the way, shared my true self with her. I told her about my feelings and how my parents had treated my desire to commune with the Gemini Spirits. It was her reaction that drove me to run away.
Instead of showing me support or even trying to understand my situation, my beautiful wife and mother of my children rejected my feelings, rejected my view of myself and ultimately, rejected me. She said there was no place in her life or my children’s life for a Gemini Spirit. She said there was no place in this kingdom for a Gemini King.
I have not spoken to her since and have refused all contact this past week. It is tearing at me, because in her womb rests my baby and I want desperately to connect to that child, but I can no longer connect with her. I cannot trust her. I feel utterly betrayed and alone.
Hoarding bits of bread from my meals, I began building rations tucked into a pillow case. On a riding trip I stole a few water skins and kept them in my room. I made several trips to the library within the castle and constructed copies of maps by hand as I painstakingly planned my pilgrimage. What is meant to be a celebrated affair has turned into a solitary trip with me having to literally run away from my home, my duties and my family. No one knows I am leaving. No one knows where I am going. And if all goes well, no one will see me again until after I commune with the Gemini Spirits and discover for myself whether my desires are true or some delusion.
I take a deep breath and slow my steps as I am nearly close enough to the wall to touch it. Swallowing hard, I turn my eyes towards the skies, and look for some sort of sign to continue. My entire life I have been told that what I feel inside is wrong. Sometimes the feelings blend together with what others say and uncertainty fills me. Are they the ones that are mistaken or is it me?
Unshed tears sting my eyes as I stare at those two moons. They are how I feel. I feel split down the middle with half of my body as a man and the other as a woman. I want the outside of me to represent the inside. I want to feel as if I am no longer a stranger to myself. The tears swell, collecting at my lashes and the corners of the eyes. I want to say something, to beg the Gods and Goddesses to save me but a voice cuts through the silence before I have a chance.
“You there! Who are you!? Stop right there!”
Without a thought I lunge forward, one hand landing on that short stone wall. It is but waist high and more for decoration than anything. I use my other hand to tug the reins of the Naba. He moves without much coaxing and jumps the wall. I am standing on the stone as he vaults forward and I swing a leg up and over, landing comfortably in the saddle. I have never considered myself athletic, but the act felt as natural as breathing.
As the Naba lands on the other side of the wall I turn my head to look at the guard that is trying to give chase. My hair comes loose from under the hat where it was piled and hidden. Bright blood red and silver strands stream out behind me. It is the one thing I have never allowed my family to dictate; the length of my hair. I have always kept it impossibly long. The streamers of my hair cause the guard to slide to a stop. His green eyes lock on mine and his youthful freckled face looks awestruck. Obviously he did not expect to find the High Prince stealing a Naba in the dead of night.
As the creature’s feet pound the ground beneath us I lift a single finger to my lips. “Ssshhh…” I manage, before winking in the guard’s direction. The Naba’s speed kicks in and I’m jerked, barely able to grasp my hat as I tuck forward. I cling to the beast while he leaves a trail of dust behind us.
Much Ado About Freedom
The castle is growing smaller and smaller at my back. The wind swirls my long hair about my face. I keep glancing behind me, but there is no one following. I’m not sure how long the Naba has been running, but soon I start to laugh. My chest swells with a feeling that I have never known. Overhead an owl flies, darting from one tree top to another and giving a hoot. My laughter grows louder and while gripping the Naba with my thighs I throw my arms out to either side. There comes an understanding of the feeling in my chest. It is the wondrous feeling of being free.
Awareness washes over me lifting a great weight from my body. Until this moment I had no perception that something was suppressing me to the point I barely dragged from day to day. I feel light, almost weightless; as if I could lift up into the air with that owl and fly through the skies without a care in the world. There is no voice of my father telling me all the things I must do. My mother is not screaming at me to be the perfect prince. There are no disapproving stares, no scoffs, no glares or snorts. There is only me, the sky, and the breeze through my hair.
Sighing heavily I lean forward and rest my head against the Naba’s back. The beast is warm and the air above is cool. The rhythmic beating of its feet against the ground is soothing and I am free. A smile plays against my lips and I rub my cheek against the course fur. I cannot remember ever feeling so comfortable. I am completely unaware that I slip off to sleep until I roll off the beast and collide with the ground, startling myself awake.
Gasping, my head pops up and I look around in astonishment. Rubbing at my eyes, I try to understand where I am and what happened. There are trees all around and nothing seems familiar. A lightning shock of fear shoots through me and I feel so disoriented that I want to shout for my guards. It takes me a moment to remember that there are no guards and I am completely alone. That makes me even more afraid.
Swallowing hard I look up to see that the Naba is ducking his head and drinking from a stream. The creature must have run until it got tired and then stopped for a drink. The first sun is peeking out over the horizon. I slept for hours while the Naba kept running due to lack of direction from me.
I draw in a breath and try to calm myself. I should probably get a drink and have a bit of food. Rising to my feet, I tie the Naba to a nearby tree. He can still reach the water and after a moment he rolls to his side, settling down and chewing on some branches. The beast seems at ease, so we are most likely in a safe area.
I just need to keep telling myself that.
The day is warm, so I decide not to start a fire. I do not wish to alert anyone of my presence. However, as I stare at the stream I realize how uncomfortable I am. I have never gone a day without a nice long bath. A quick glance around produces no sights save for miles of trees. Surely I can strip off and quickly wash myself amongst the water without incident. It seems indecent to be nude outside, but also a bit exciting. I have never done anything like this before.
Trying to be smart, I tuck all my belongings near the Naba. He is close to the water and will be close to me. I brought a sword and it is going into the water with me. One can never be too careful. Fluffing out my clothing, I lay them on a rock directly in front of me where I can reach them quickly but they will not get wet. Clutching my sword with one hand and holding the other across my front, I glance around nervously. I still neither hear nor see anything threatening, so quickly I step into the water and sink down to my waist.
The water is slightly cool, but I felt sticky and warm from sleeping against the Naba, so the cool water is not unwelcome. Groaning I brush the water against my body and duck my head to get my hair wet. Bathing outside is not so bad after all. I smile at my own reflection in the water. The sun is creeping higher at my back and it warms my wet flesh.
I am almost finished with my bath when the Naba raises his head and lets out a spitting snort. His abrupt animation causes me to snag my sword up out of the water. Spinning in a circle I notice something dark moving in the foliage nearby. Standing up I hold the sword out in front of me. Squinting, I try to decide what is swaying several paces away. Then, much to my horror, the figure stretches up and turns. It’s a person!
“Who goes there!?” I cry out angrily. A sword hilt glitters and then a man’s back in dark clothing becomes visible. “Disgusting pervert! How dare you sit and watch me bathe!” I call out while taking a step forward as if to pursue the stranger who had been watching me, only to stop. Looking down my entire body flushes as I realize I am still naked. Darting out of the water I hide behind the Naba while brandishing my sword. “If I set eyes upon you again I shall run you through!”