In a far off land there stood a great tower constructed of mostly animal bones. Certainly not the bones of the animals commonly found in our world, the bones used to build this tower were the size of dinosaur bones. The tower had five pentagonal platforms each on top of the other, and each supported by five pillars. The first four platforms were essentially the same as each other, each had a broad ladder running up to the next platform; with the exception of the fourth platform. The ladder for this platform was lying flat across the decking, both its ends protruding over the edges. Without the ladder in place it was a four metre drop from the fifth platform to the fourth platform below. Thus no one could get up to the fifth platform, and more importantly, no one inside the fifth and final level of the tower could get out without risking a deadly injury.
The fifth platform wasn’t a simple flat deck of ribbed bones like the others, but a room with five walls insulated with mud tightly packed between the ribbing. The room protruded out from the central axis giving the tower the shape of a lollipop. Indeed during the daytime the tower might have looked a little like a lollipop perched atop a crag in the middle of the stony desert, but only to a keen observer because thanks to the yellowing of the old bones the tower merged almost completely into the surrounding landscape and sandy coloured sky. At night time the desert was particularly dark because this world lacked a moon like our own. The tower was hidden in plain sight, the perfect place to keep prisoner a fourteen year old girl.
Bella stirred in her slumber. She rolled over onto her stomach and grumbled before attempting to doze off again. From somewhere near her in the darkness came a faint scratching sound. The young girl’s body instantly stiffened and her eyes shot open. The sun’s rays had not yet started to peer over the horizon. Without a torch or even a candle, there was nothing Bella would use to dispel the darkness enveloping her high in the bone tower. She stayed still, alert, and listening. Hoping she had simply imagined the sound.
A few moments later she heard it again. A kind of scratching scurrying sound. It was coming from the direction of one of the five windows. Was there someone outside? But how could that be; I’m so far up? Puzzled Bella. She imagined all the animals that it might have been. Her first idea was that it must be a bird. Yes, a bird had flown up onto the window sill in the night. It was just wiping it’s beak on the window frame; she told herself. In the darkness Bella frowned; in all the months she’d been on this world she’d never seen a bird: she wasn’t sure if there were any birds here at all. Each window in the tower had a pair of big shutters, Bella usually kept them all closed at night except for one to let in the cool evening breeze as she slumbered.
The first silky strands of sunlight fluttered over the horizon. She still couldn’t see anything except for faint dancing patterns in the darkness. She aimed her eyes in the direction of the window and concentrated. She thought she could just make out the edges of the window, but something wasn’t right. One of the edges of the window wasn’t properly straight. There was a bulge. Bella’s eye’s widened in horror as the bulge move slightly and the scratching sound was emitted from it. Her imagination spun into activity again. The bulge on the window sill was the head of a very long snake, she imagined, that had crawled all the up to the top of the tower, and it was about to crawl in and bite her to death.
Faced with a vision of her imminent demise in the clutches of the shadow snake’s venomous fangs Bella reacted by making herself change from a wooden statue into a stone statue: still not moving but now her muscles were a tight as knots. Maybe, she reasoned, if I don’t move it can’t see me? She stared intensely at the bulge and gradually more drops of sunlight started splashing over the horizon and the bulge started to take shape. It moved slightly along the window frame making the scratching sound as it did and Bella instantly realised that it could not possibly be a snake any more than it could have been a bird. Whatever it was, it was as big as a rabbit.
Mentally she started going through all the contents of the cell she was in. Searching for something to pounce on and use to whack this intruder. A few pots, some bone carved utensils, some spare blankets, but nothing close to the size and weightiness of a club she could use to smack the thing with hard. Sunlight was now starting to flow up over the horizon revealing the colour of the thing for the first time. It was blue. A silvery blue. It was easy to distinguish against the yellow bones the window sill was carved out of. It had legs. Lots of legs. Each time it moved the legs rubbed against the window frame creating the scratching sound. It was some kind of bug, Bella realised, but it was by far the biggest bug she had ever seen. Realising that since she could now see the bug, it could probably see her as well. Staying true to her statue strategy she remained completely frozen in terror despite a growing desire to pee. When the bug started leaning into the room flailing four of its legs in the air as though searching for something in the darkness, Bella used every ounce of strength she had to stifle the screams she wanted to unleash. There wasn’t any point of her screaming anyway: she was alone in the tower and no one nearby to hear her last sounds.
Then, without warning, the bug fell off the window ledge and plummeted head first onto the bonework floor. But instead of a simple “thud” sound the bug cried out in a shrill and remarkably articulate voice, “ow! My face! My beautiful crab face!”
Bella watched with bewildered incredulity as the silvery blue bug stood up on its dozen or so legs and started rubbing its head and antennas with its ‘hands’ crying, “my face! I have broken my beautiful crab face!” Bella didn’t know if she wanted to scream or laugh now. Her eyes told her to scream, but her ears told her to laugh, and after listening to the bug repeating its lamentations over its imaginary facial injuries her ears eventually won out and she erupted into a fit of giggling.
Her laughter however hit the bug like a tidal wave as it scrambled backwards away from her shouting in its shrill little voice, “who’s there? What’s this about? Stay away from me! I will spit at you!”
The sight of the dozen tiny legs moving rapidly across the floor silenced Bella’s chortling and she found herself screaming at last. The bug responded by screaming back at her in its own high pitched little way. Bella echoed back with her much louder screams. For several moments girl and bug screamed back and forth at each other taking turns each time there was a pause. After a few rounds they both ended up mastering themselves and just stared dumbfounded at each other.
The bug regained its composure first and tilting its antennas forward slightly as though tipping an invisible hat, it said nervously, “hello?”
Bella blinked several times before responding with her own, “hello?”
The bug said “hello” again.
Bella replied by saying, “hello” more steadily than before.
There was a long pause before the bug said, “hello?” A third time. Thinking that saying “hello” back was a safe reply Bella responded in kind for the third time.
The bug looked right at her and said so articulately that Bella swore she must have been talking to a person and not a bug, “Funny. You don’t look like a cave, even though you talk like one.”
Bella felt slightly raffled by this comment and sitting herself up straight she responded, “pardon me Mr. Bug, but I am not used to having conversations with food. Even if they are delicacies.”
The bug’s antennae shot upward in what Bella guessed was a display of surprise, “don’t be silly. Witches don’t eat Yabbies. Everyone knows that.”
Bella’s eyebrows shot upwards in reply, “but I am not a witch, you must be confusing me with those other people who live here.”
The yabbie scurried out from the corner and right into the centre of the room. Bella couldn’t tell what its lidless eyes were actually focusing on from looking at it; but she guessed it was examining her carefully.
“You sure look like a witch to me,” the silvery blue yabbie said at last, “and if you weren’t a witch how could you understand what I am saying?”
Bella went to answer him but soon realised she really didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t know why she could suddenly understand yabbie. Eventually she recalled a more important matter, “hey, what is a yabbie doing climbing up into a tower at night?”
“Oh! I smelled water up here, and I am very very thirsty.”
Bella responded with an pleasantly surprised “oh” and invited her visitor to stand back, which it dutifully did. She then took one of the bone bowls and poured some water from a jug out into the bowl. She put it down in the middle of the room and crept back to the security of her bed.
“Go on, have something to drink Mr. bug.”
The yabbie ran up to the water filled bowl and dunked his whole head into the water face first. Bella watched as the yabbie drained the bowl dry in a matter of seconds. Watching the yabbie carefully, she noticed how a pair of its legs were in fact arms with powerful pincers at the ends. She decided it was best to keep her distance from the blue talking bug for now in case it tried to pinch her. When the yabbie had finished drinking it slipped sideways off the bowl and lay on the floor on its back. It seemed to Bella that it was greatly relieved to have some water at last. Standing up she peered out the window and reminded herself that she was living in the middle of some kind of stony desert. The few trees she could see were covered only in a light canopy of brown curly leaves. She wasn’t even sure if the trees were alive or if the leaves simply looked brown here. The tower that she lived in, was imprisoned in, was almost the only structure that she could see. However, just at the top of a distant crag she could make out another bone watchtower that looked just like the one she was in. She had wondered if they were part of a series of watchtowers and if long ago the garrisons used to send signals to each other along the length of the chain of towers.
Turning back to the yabbie she knelt down and gave it a gentle poke. The yabbie startled and jumped back onto its feet.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. My name is Bella. What’s yours?”
The yabbie looked up at her with his tiny black beady eyes and said, “Egbert. Ketchup Egbert.”
“Pleased to meet you Egbert. What is a talking yabbie doing so far away from water?”
The yabbie hesitated for a few moments, just standing completely still in the middle of the room. “I will answer your question if you answer one of mine first.”
“Look at my crab face. Is it still beautiful?”
Bella looked at the weird pointy shaped lobster face of the yabbie and suppressed an impulse to grimace. “It’s beautiful Egbert. You have a bonnie little crab face.”
The yabbie let out a squeal of relief, “thank goodness, I thought I had broken it during the fall. I was so weak from thirst you see.”
“So why were you out in the desert?”
“I was just in my cave with my tribe when the others that look like you, came and started taking us away.”
“The others? You mean the lizard people?”
“Yes, not you soft skins; witches that is. Your people don’t eat us. But the lizard people do. We fled onto the surface and I got lost in the darkness. I smelt water up here so I started to climb towards it. It took a long time, but sometimes you don’t know if you should give up or keep on walking. Well, I didn’t smell any other water nearby so I just kept on climbing.”
Bella thought against mentioning that she had often caught and eaten yabbies with her father before arriving here. However, those yabbies didn’t talk, so they weren’t the same ones at all, at least she convinced herself of this. Bella hesitated before going on, “Egbert. The lizard people are keeping me captive in this tower.”
Egbert pulled all his limbs in suddenly and swiveled around in a circle as though expecting to see a lizard person materialise suddenly and snatch him away for breakfast.
Anticipating Egbert’s next question Bella answered, “They aren’t here yet, but they will arrive in about an hour like they do every day.”
“What do they do to you?”
“I don’t know. They take me away to some place underground and put stones on my forehead that make me dream of seeing my home, family, and school. They feed me and then take me back here again for the night. I think it’s been months since I slept in my own bed at the farmstead. I used to help my parents look after the bees.”
Egbert waved his antennae in a peculiar fashion that Bella guessed meant that he was concerned about hearing this.
“Lizard people bad. Witch people good,” he said at last, “use your magic to escape the lizard people.”
Bella shook her head, “I don’t have any magic.”
“That’s strange. All the other soft-skins like you do magic. Lizard people fear soft-skins and their magic.”
Bella’s eyes widened, “Egbert, have you met others who look like me before?”
“Of course. All the time.”
“At the stone circle in the chandelier room.”
“It’s a big room. Deep underground. So deep lizard people never go there. There’s a big lake with an island in the middle. On the island is a circle of white stones. That’s where Egbert and his tribe see witches all the time.”
Bella’s hands flew to her mouth in shock. How could she have forgotten?! The day she was taken away from home she’d woken up in a place just like that. She lost consciousness shortly afterwards and woken up here in the tower. All this time she thought the stone circle had been a dream; but it was a real place.
“Egbert. I need to escape. I need your help to find this place: the chandelier room.”
The yabbie stared at her silently and still as a statue. Bella asked if he had heard her.
“Umm, I think I need to go now soft skin. Thank you for the water.”
Egbert started walking sideways towards the window.
“No please! Please don’t go! I can’t bear being a prisoner in this tower! I want to go home. I want to hug my mother and father again! Please help me!”
Egbert paused. Sensing her pleading was working Bella continued.
“Even if you could just get me something I could use to cut through ropes. Like one of your pincers. They look sharp, I could use one of those to free myself when they’re taking me away to the caves.”
Egbert tensed up and started backing away from the young girl. Bella realising that she had said something wrong, she recounted her words to herself and realised that asking a yabbie for a pincer was the same as asking for a severed hand. Bella instantly hooted in dismay.
“No, no, no, I don’t want one of your pincers. Just an old one that nobody wants anymore,” Bella instantly realised how macabre her words must have sounded and admonished herself for being so tactless.
Egbert reached the point where the floor joined the wall and started scrambling up the bone wall towards the window.
“Please don’t go. You’re the first pleasant company I have ever had here.”
Egbert reached the window sill and upon seeing how high up he was froze gripping the window sill hard with fright. He hadn’t realised how far he’d climbed during the night.
“At least let me help you down!”
“No!” the yabbie’s shouting voice was so shrill and quiet that it seemed too comical for Bella to resist laughing again.
Egbert sighed at the laughter and drooped his head in surrender, “ok, take my pincers, but promise me that you won’t hurt my beautiful crabface.”
“O Egbert, bless you, I won’t hurt you. I don’t want to take your pincers.”
“Even if it means that you won’t escape?”
Bella frowned, “even if it means I won’t escape,” Bella choked on the last words and she started crying.
Egbert watched in horror, “Miss! Miss Bella! Stop that, please stop that at once!”
“O Egbert, you’re such a darling little crab face but it’s ok. I am only crying.”
Egbert raised his pincers in the air dramatically as he spoke, “but Miss Bella! The water! You’re wasting so much water! Please stop wasting so much water!”
Bella snorted out a laugh at the realisation that Egbert was only concerned about the water her tears were wasting, but the spray of droplets from her snorting caught the yabbie by surprise and instinctively he reached up to grasp the precious water droplets only to lose his balance and fall from the window ledge and off the tower.
Bella ran to the window in a vain effort to snatch him from the air as he fell. But she arrived only in time to watch the silvery blue crustacean tumbling down towards the rocky floor of the desert below; the whole way down he was shrieking in panic. Bella flinched as she heard the soft thud of Egbert’s distant impact. Worried for his safety she called out to him and stuck her ear over the edge with a hand wrapped around it in an effort to capture more sound.
There was silence from below for several seconds until at last she heard the familiar faint wailing, “my crab face! My beautiful crab face! It’s broken! Woe! Woe is me! I have broken my beautiful crab face!”
Bella frowned, “well I guess I will just have to wait for the next opportunity to escape.”