Chapter 10

Content Warning: Click here for details.

For two weeks, the Silent Sisters continued to torture Rowan, trying to break her and for two weeks, they failed. Amran remained strong of mind in the face of adversity as always. With Seres, they had slowly started introducing more and more physical elements to her torment. Fortunately, she had been managing relatively well, all things considered. She had made sure to follow Amran’s advice and it had clearly helped her. Rowan was also glad for the conversation. Anri, however, continued to deteriorate. 

Rowan felt like she was failing as a friend as she found herself unable to support Anri in any meaningful way. Their conversations only provided her with some small relief that barely lasted. It was as if that small bit of positivity pushed her enough over a lip of depression to fall down into a deeper pit of despair. She wanted to do more for Anri, but everything else she had went to resisting her own torment at the hands of the torturers. 

On the fifteenth day, the schedule changed. The wardens arrived that morning and took Rowan, Anri, Amran and around half of the other prisoners away. The Næmyrans and those that had been tortured the day before were left behind along with a couple of others, including Seres. Rowan hadn’t really considered it before, but with the exception of her first week and the Næmyrans’ first week, there would be days in which the wardens would show up a further two times throughout the day to bring and return a large group of the prisoners much like there were doing that particular day. Rowan hadn’t really paid attention to it because none of the new arrivals were every part of the group. 

Now she was in a position where she wished she had thought about it more. The more she thought about it, the more she realised that there were quite a lot of things that she hadn’t considered. Up until then, she had only ever been taken away at noon, but that was only one of three times that people tended to get taken away. They would also take a small group away at the same time that they brought in the meal for that day. Whatever happened to that smaller group would continue to remain a mystery. For now, however, she was about to get a different set of answers to questions she had never thought to ask.

They were taken to a large cavernous chamber lit with crystals of myriad hues, all blending together to give off a soft ambient light. It was by far the largest chamber in the caves that she had seen in the caves, barring the cavern she had arrived in. The chamber had been divided into quadrants with a large amphitheatre in the centre where everyone had been gathered. Almost five hundred prisoners from all throughout the caves had been thrown into the amphitheatre. Rowan could see all the blood that had seeped deeply into the dirt floor of the amphitheatre; it was a combat arena. Her face blanched at the thought of how much blood it would take to stain the dirt so thoroughly.

The wardens started to divide everyone into five equally sized groups. Those in Rowan’s group were kept in the amphitheatre while the others were taken to the four quadrants. As they were directed away, Rowan and the rest of her group were given new clothes and ordered to change. A whip was cracked at the feet of any who refused, which combined with a large detachment of well armed guards watching over the amphitheatre convinced even the most adamant to listen to the command. Rowan, resolute in her defiance, was amongst the last of the prisoners to change. Some, however, didn’t need convincing; well groomed individuals, compared to the other slaves at least, who stood with purpose. The outfits they were forced to change into were little more than sturdy form-fitting vests and a loincloth. Some of the older prisoners had shorts or trousers of a similar construction to the vests instead of the loincloths.

While everyone was changing, a caged weapons rack was brought into the amphitheatre. The weapons confirmed everyone’s growing suspicions that they would be made to fight. A small part of Rowan wanted to encourage everyone to rush the cage. Thankfully, the rest of her crushed the highly suicidal notion before it could gain any traction. Even if she could get every single prisoner in the chamber to take up arms, it would be suicide. The guards were simply too well prepared and focused as well as armed to the teeth. She even discarded the idea of smuggling out a weapon. There was no way they wouldn’t be expecting that.

Before she could think of any other stupid ideas that could get her killed, a large and exceptionally well decorated guard shouted, “Everyone, sit! Today marks yet another step in your paths to becoming weapons for The Good Masters. Those who refuse to fight will suffer great pain, either at the hands of your opponent or by the steel of the guards. Now ready yourselves for the first round of lots.” With every word, his voice radiated throughout the cavern.

It quickly became apparent that the lots the guard mentioned were used to determine everyone’s opponent as well as the nature of the engagement. Rowan’s lot dictated that her first bout would be an unarmed fight against one of the individuals that Rowan was sure was a plant of some kind. He was on the smaller side, but clearly better fed than everyone else. He seemed to be eyeing up one of the girls with a predatory gaze as he took position. Rowan couldn’t help but feel disgusted with her opponent and was concerned for the girl he had looked at. Her face was white with horror. As Rowan and her opponent had experience at the very least, likely honed by their time fighting in the amphitheatre. Rowan knew that he had the advantage, but she hoped her training would outweigh his experience.

In the beginning, Rowan hesitated and was instantly forced on the defensive. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to fight back, even if he was already on the other side, but then she remembered the guard’s words. She didn’t want to suffer any more than she already was. Even so, it wasn’t that that pushed her to fight back. She saw the girl her opponent had looked at give her a pleading look, as if something terrible would happen if he won. Rowan couldn’t let that happen so she started adding in some attacks in between her dodges.

It was an exhausting fight. As it dragged on, Rowan’s lack of any significant sustenance began to take its toll on her. The only thing that was keeping her from being outright defeated was her own training. Thanks to that, she was more skilled than her opponent, but he was surprisingly strong for his size. Every time she went on the offensive, she risked being overwhelmed and pummelled to the ground; a fate she didn’t want to share with those that had come before her. She needed to take a different approach to tip the scales back into her favour before she lost the war of attrition.

Think, Rowan! Think!

She wished she knew more about what she could do with her Ardent powers. Anger was out. Every time she drew on the heat of anger she grew tired even quicker. She didn’t really remember the day she Awakened well enough to even attempt to parse what was doing what. Then something clicked, a memory from before she had Awakened. The risk of what she was doing had always helped with her reactions and in training her muscle memory. That was the answer.

Anticipation.

Rowan dropped all pretences of a defence and faced him almost face on with her hands down by her sides. It worked better than it probably should have as it also incited his arrogance. He swung heavily at her head and overextended as Rowan danced under his arm. Now facing him from behind, Rowan went to kick his legs from under him. However, in her haste, she kicked with much more force than necessary, causing her to miss her mark and strike the side of his knee instead. What followed was a resounding crack as the foot remained anchored in place and the leg collapsed inwards at the knee.

With the fight won, the overseer of the fight gave Rowan an expectant look, as if to say, “Go on, finish what you started.” Instead Rowan stood still, taking in several deep breaths. The overseer’s expression changed quickly as he held up three fingers and motioned to a guard. A whip cracked into Rowan’s side. Then again. And again. Three times the whip cracked, biting deeply. Winning clearly wasn’t enough, they wanted more, they wanted to forge a viciousness into their weapons.

*****

The cycle of torment continued. Within another two weeks, Rowan had been shown everything that the caves had to offer and already people were starting to fall to the hammer. One of the Næmyrans accepted Lord Fein’s offer almost instantly. Even if Rowan didn’t know the girl, it hit her deeply. She couldn’t blame them especially knowing the pain that the torture would have brought them. Even after a month under the crystalline needles of the Silent Sisters, there was no getting used to it. Even so, it was a loss worth lamenting as much as any other.

Thankfully, they weren’t tortured daily, but the cavern with the amphitheatre offered little respite. She hated being forced into the arena. Yes, she would fight when she needed to, especially against the people that had already fallen or took some perverse enjoyment from the fighting. However, she refused to beat her opponents to a pulp like the wardens seemingly expected, even if it meant that she would be lashed or would suffer more the next day. She felt like doing so would just serve to bring her closer to their ideal. Instead, she intended to use the arena to train up her body and her skills so that one day, she’d be able to fight back against her captors.

Likewise, she intended to fully capitalise on the rest of what the exercise cavern, as she and Seres had dubbed it, had to offer. Granted, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice. None of them did. Any and all failure to comply would result in several lashings at the very least. Fortunately, all the other activities weren’t dependent on fighting others, though Rowan highly suspected that those that performed less well were punished for it. Those suspicions were all but confirmed when Anri was having significant difficulty in following along with some combat training in the plainest of the four quadrants. She cried for an entire day when she was released from the torture that followed.

The exception to the whole thing seemed to be Seres. A few days after the rest of the Næmyrans arrived, they started bringing her torment to the same level as everyone else. However, they rarely brought her to the exercise cavern. Even after a full month of the exercise cavern being in the rotation, she had only ever been there a grand total of three times compared to Rowan’s seven and Anri’s six. At first, Rowan just thought that Seres was being taken while she was being tortured, but Seres had confirmed it herself that she had only been there once when neither Rowan, Amran or Anri had been there to see. 

Instead of the exercise cavern, Seres was typically, discounting torture days and rest days, taken at the start of the day. This was by far the smallest of the three main groups that were taken throughout the day. It also had a purpose that Rowan hadn’t expected; teaching. It was such a simple thing and it completely blindsided her. They had a weirdly well functioning school system and Rowan couldn’t understand why. They would sort everyone into groups that actually suited their individual learning styles and then divided them even further down based on their own intellectual abilities and acumen. 

She and her friends were given a curriculum centred around combat strategy, tactics, and theory and supplemented by a more general education. They were also given extensive lessons on Særan geography and politics. Beyond that, Rowan wasn’t sure if everyone else was taught similar things, but she was able to form a solid idea of who it was they were supposed to be fighting. It was tough. They were tested ruthlessly at the higher levels and Seres was at the top. For some reason they were more interested in training her mind than they were training her physically.

*****

On one rare afternoon when Seres had been sent to the exercise cavern with everyone else, Rowan was assigned to by far the strangest of the four quadrants. It was a labyrinth of jagged stone which gave it the appearance of a gaping demonic maw or the back of a monstrous leviathan. The objective seemed simple enough; navigate the labyrinth and get to the other side unscathed. Of course, it was anything but simple as it was laden with traps and sharp rocks and you had to get a significant distance from your starting point which was also easier said than done. To make matters worse, everyone was encouraged to make it harder for everyone else and whoever was last would get a number of lashes based on their performance. Everything was a contest designed to forge vicious warriors after all.

In spite of all that, Rowan was actually growing to like it. That is to say, she would have absolutely loved this kind of exercise in any other circumstance. Instead it was tainted by the bitterness of pain and torture. Even so, that wasn’t actually enough to completely sour her enjoyment of it and she was one of the best at it. Granted she had the unfair advantage of having already Awakened, but she wasn’t the only one, though she was one of the few that hadn’t been broken. From what Rowan could tell, less than one in five of the people that Awakened remained unbroken for any meaningful amount of time. Though one thing that did strike her as odd was that there was at most no more than ten percent of the group that had Awakened. It was as if most of the Awakened were shipped off somewhere else once they were broken.

This time in the labyrinth, something unexpected happened. Running through the jagged maze and narrowly missing a trap, Rowan caught a glimpse of some long brown hair touched with gold. 

It couldn’t be.

But, what if it was?

Rowan’s heart was racing. She had put all hopes of seeing Kiriin behind that she hadn’t even considered it a possibility. She hadn’t even bothered looking for her amongst the other prisoners. Yet here she was, convinced by what was probably just a random person. Then she heard two voices cry out from behind a few nearby rocks. It was in the direction that the hair was going. Rowan hurried over to see Seres on her backside and standing in front of her was a girl with long brown hair.

“K-Kiriin?” Rowan asked hesitantly.

The girl started to turn around but all Rowan could hear was Seres. “Owie! Sorry, I didn’t mean to run into you. Oh, hi Rowan. What’s with the face? Do you know this person?”

Before Rowan could say anything, the girl jumped right into her arms and hugged her with tears streaming down the girl’s face.

“Rowan! It is you isn’t it? I’m not hallucinating, am I? I’ve missed you so much.” Rowan had her answer, and as she hugged Kiriin back, Kiriin had hers.

“I’m so lost,” Seres said, still on the ground and looking at the two childhood friends.

“Sorry, Seres. Um, this is Kiriin. We grew up together and we were kind of…”

“In love,” Kiriin interrupted with a melancholic laugh.

“That’s great,” Seres responded. “Hello, I’m Seres. I arrived at the same time as Rowan.”

“Seres?” Kiriin asked, a few cogs turning in her head. “As in Lanafae?” 

“Um…”

“I knew it. You’re the princess, aren’t you? You’re the reason why the raiders are pulling out.”

“I don’t think this is the time for this conversation, Kiriin.”

“What do you mean, Rowan? Also, since when did the second princess look like she could be related to you? I swear it would only take some Ferran ears for the two of you to look like you could be sisters. If I didn’t…”

“Kiriin!” Rowan interrupted her very excited friend. “If we don’t get out now, they’re going to punish us real bad.”

Seres’ ears drooped at the mention of punishment and a look of realisation crossed Kiriin’s face. “Oh,” she said once she understood what Rowan was saying.

“Rowan’s right. I don’t want to ruin your reunion, but can we talk later?”

After acknowledging the truth of the matter, the three girls parted ways and rushed to find their respective exits. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been quick enough and they each received thirteen lashes. After that, they sought each other out again to finish their reunion with Seres acting as sort of a fifth wheel. Fortunately, she was significantly more wanted than a fifth wheel usually would be.

Seres was crying as they sat down and she was cradling the end of her tail in her hands. “They got my tail,” she sobbed. It was fairly common knowledge the Ferran tails housed a surprising number of nerves and Seres’ was clearly bleeding from where the whip had cut into it.

“I could stab those bastards,” Rowan growled.

“Is it always this bad?” Kiriin winced.

“Worse,” Rowan spat.

“They’ve never lashed me before,” Seres cried.

“I’m sorry, it was my fault,” Kiriin apologised.

“No, I should have realised this would have happened. I’m the one with the experience. Can you forgive me, Seres?”

“You don’t need to apologise,” Seres sniffed in response. Rowan gave her a gentle hug.

“You two really do look like sisters. Is Tehri okay? I haven’t seen her.”

“I helped her escape. They were going to kill her and then I Awakened. I’m an Ardent, Kiriin. I couldn’t let them hurt her, so I killed them.”

“Oh, Rowan, I’m so sorry.”

“I’d do it again and again if I had to. I just hope she’s safe.”

“I’m sure she is,” Seres said.

“What about Kyr? Is he here?”

“He was. We were being sorted out in that chamber when we arrived. He was examined just before I was. They said he had no worthwhile Potential so that man, Fein, said that he would be shipped off to the Ru’eni or something.”

“That makes no sense. Surely they would have found some use for him? It’s not like he’s useless or anything.”

“Why are you getting upset about your friend not being turned into a slave?”

“Because he’s just going to be enslaved in another part of the continent and because now I won’t be able to break him out when I’m strong enough.”

“You aren’t seriously planning on breaking out are you?”

“Along with you, Seres, Anri, Amran and anyone else I can.”

“That’s a goal I can aspire to,” Kiriin responded.

“Me too,” Seres added quietly.

“Have you been holding up okay?”

“Barely. It’s been so difficult without you or Kyr around. I’ve been so lonely, And I miss Mum and. Oh Goddess.”

Rowan hugged Kiriin as she broke down into tears. “It’s okay. Kiriin. I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere.”

*****

Some time later that evening, one of the ‘prisoners’ walked into Lord Fein’s. “Draka reporting in as requested, sir. I believe I have some information about the Ardent girl you asked me to keep an eye on. It has become clear to me that she is close to a Næmyran girl from Cell 5; a human girl with brown hair named Kiriin. It seems likely that if we keep them separated, this Kiriin will quickly fall to your hammer and it will also help in the breaking of the Ardent girl. The warden on duty for the Labyrinth today also overstepped his bounds and had the princess lashed alongside the Næmyran and the Ardent. Thus concludes my report, sir!”

Fein looked up from his desk with a sinister grin. “Thank you very much, Draka. This information will be very useful going forwards. As a reward, find a girl or boy that is to your liking from Cell 13. You can do what you want with them until they break or get shipped out to the Ru’eni Empire.”

“Yessir!” Draka saluted and turned on his heel. When he left, Lord Fein started making notes in journal. He saw an opportunity to fell three birds with one stone.

*****

After being finally reunited with Kiriin, Rowan didn’t see her again for another three weeks and even then it was only at a distance. On that day, the inevitable happened. Rowan had been paired against Anri in the amphitheatre. To make matters worse, they had been armed with knives and it was a fight to first blood. The overseer wouldn’t be satisfied until one or both of them were bleeding. Despite knowing what the wardens and overseer expected, and the consequences for not meeting those expectations, Rowan could not bring herself to act. Anri was similarly frozen, tears rolling down her cheeks. When it was clear they weren’t going to act, the guards moved to strike the two of them with their whips. As Anri was struck, the guard holding the whip seemed to wince as she cried out, whereas Rowan fell to a single knee from the pain when the whip bit into her flesh.

Tears continued to stream down Anri’s face. “Please, just let this end!” she sobbed. “I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” 

Rowan hesitated as she saw Anri’s face contorted from all the pent up pain and torment she was suffering. “Anri, calm down. It’s going to be okay.”

The whips cracked again.

Anri screamed again. “No it isn’t! It’s not going to end, not ever,” she cried before her voice fell to a whisper, “is it?”

“I’m sure it will,” Rowan replied, trying to comfort Anri.

“I-I-I just want to go home,” Anri whimpered.

The guards readied their whips again, pausing only due to sudden motion from Anri as she turned to the wardens and shouted, “If it’s blood you want, you can have it!” Then, as if out of nowhere, she slashed her knife straight across her arm, Rowan looking on in horror. 

A crimson tide flowed from the deep gash. Within seconds another gash opened up, alarming the wardens significantly. “Stop her!” one of them shouted, urgency weighing heavily on his voice.

Guards rushed in as another cut opened up on Anri’s arm, and then another. With each new cut, another soon followed, quicker than the last. It wasn’t long until the flow of blood started to spray down on the amphitheatre. Anri looked at her arm with abject horror while Rowan stood mortified as her friend’s arm disintegrated from a thousand cuts propagating through to the shoulder. Rowan saw Anri’s eyes grow unfocused and all of the colour in her skin fade away, first turning white before quickly becoming a sickly grey.

Anri collapsed as the first guard reached her. Seeing the state of her arm, they looked up to the warden and shook their heads. She had lost too much blood and preventing any more loss would be nigh impossible.

Rowan stumbled forwards towards Anri, falling to her knees. Her legs and hands were soon painted red by the pool of blood forming from Anri’s mangled arm. 

“Someone do something!” Rowan cried.

“Why? She is beyond saving,” the guard responded.

“No, that cannae be. The cuts have stopped, so there’s gotta be a chance.”

This time the overseer replied, “Even if we could save her, that arm is forfeit. Without it she would make for a most defective weapon. Someone clean this up and inform Lord Fein.”

“Yessir!” several guards saluted simultaneously, before unceremoniously removing Anri’s body.

The overseer then turned back to Rowan, “And you girl, what shall we do with you, this loss is after all clearly due to your failure to act. Had you been the one to make the cut, you would have been victorious and her hate would have lashed back at you. Instead, you let her cut herself and the hate had nowhere to go other than inwards. What a terrible friend you are. We must have you punished. Tell me girl, the Silent Sisters are in charge of your forging, correct?”

“Fuck off you heartless bastard or Goddess help me, I’ll gut you.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Take her away.”

Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone that has boosted Ardent Tears on Top Web Fiction. As of publishing this chapter to the public, we have reached the top 20. If you you can continue to boost me at this link, I will greatly appreciate it. With it also being the start of a new month, I hope some of you will consider supporting me on Patreon. For £5 a month, you can get early access to the next chapter as a chance to vote on upcoming Side Stories.

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Chapter 9

Content Warning: Click here for details.

Three days had passed since Anri returned to the cell and Rowan was almost entirely healed. It had only been seventeen days since the strange symbol had been carved into her back. Such rapid healing for a wound that large was unfathomable. Rowan originally chalked it up to her Awakening, but the others were healing just as fast, if not faster. Out of the six who underwent the scarring ritual alongside Rowan, only one had fallen to infection. One of the boys had reached the same point as Rowan was now on the eleventh day and another on the thirteenth. It was from them that Rowan knew that the time for her torment was upon her. 

At noon that day, the moment she had been waiting for in grim trepidation had finally arrived in the form of wardens carrying chains and manacles. They took her away through the labyrinthine caves. How anyone could navigate them was beyond her. She had only been in the caves a few times and she had either been barely lucid or was going to and from the medical chambers which were relatively nearby. This time, however, Rowan fully took in the sheer scale of the maze-like structure of the caves, lined with a myriad array of crystals which, in a different context, would have been rather beautiful. Instead, Rowan felt all the pain and despair of the caves Resonate from within the crystals. 

It’s gotta be a placebo. 

There’s no way it’s real.

 It cannae be possible. 

But maybe it is? 

Maybe the crystals are part of the torment?

In that moment, paranoia gripped Rowan and her thoughts began to race. For eleven days she had managed to stop herself from being overwhelmed by fear. In the cell she felt a small sense of security, as if it protected her from being made to suffer any further. She used that superficial shield to hide from the full extent of her grief and terror. The tentative bonds she had formed with her three new friends of circumstance helped with fighting away the crippling loneliness that had been creeping up on her. Now she had been stripped of the security of the cell and the companionship of her friends.

Rowan’s senses exploded from the proverbial slap in the face as the immediacy of the suffering that was about to befall her stripped away all the small deceptions she had wrapped around herself. Every footstep became a deafening cacophony; every glint of a candle as blinding as the sun and every scent a dizzying concoction of soap, perfume, stone, and bodies ranging from sterile cleanliness to putrid sweat.

As Rowan’s senses pummelled her mind with a thousand sensations, she dropped into a ball and clenched her eyes. She also tried to cover her ears, though the chains that bound her wrists made it so that she practically had to choke herself to reach them.

“Move!” a bellowing voice demanded from behind her as someone grabbed her by the shirt and jerked her back to her feet. Pain rippled from where the coarse fabric dug into her flesh.

Oh gods, it hurts!

Never before had Rowan experienced this level of sensory overload and it terrified her even more. That fear served only to further amplify her senses.

“I said move!” the voice bellowed again, followed this time by someone pushing her forwards. Rowan fell to the ground, once again setting her nerves on fire with pain as she cried out in agony.

Someone. Please. Help me.

“Hah,” one of the guards laughed, “If she’s like this on her first day, she’ll be broken in in no time.”

“Ro…”

“Assuming someone this weak-willed will be of any use to the boss,” replied another guard.

“…’re… lon…”

Amidst the overly loud exchange between the guards and wardens, a whisper reached Rowan. She only managed to catch the odd fragment in between the small breaks in conversation.

“…I’m here with you.”

The whisper came again, this time a full sentence. The voice was strange, yet weirdly familiar. It was that of a young girl, who sounded like she was a similar age to Rowan. Furthermore, she spoke in Midiiran and used the same accent that Rowan had inherited from her mother. Rowan tried to find the source of the voice to no avail.

“I’ve always been with you.”

Rowan hadn’t realised beforehand, but unlike every other sound, the voice wasn’t deafening and it had no direction. The voice was in her head. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was within her very soul.

“Be strong, sister.”

Sister?

It didn’t seem possible. There was no way Rowan’s sister was speaking to her. It wasn’t Tehri; the voice was wrong, which meant it had to be Rina. But that made absolutely no sense. Rina was dead. 

Why does it being Rina make less sense than Tehri?

Rowan’s mind was racing with thoughts and a cacophony of pain as she tried to make sense of it all. She tried talking to the voice in her soul to no avail. It was too distant. Try as she might, Rina couldn’t hear her. Even so, she could still hear the occasional word or even sentence from Rina and it gave her some small token of strength. It was a painful reminder that lifted her heart. Unfortunately, it had once again stopped her in her tracks. She couldn’t tell what happened first; the guard in front of her pulling on her chains or the one behind pushing her.

Fuck!

Rowan let out a silent, yet audible cry. She was pulled into a room and Rina said some last words of comfort before falling silent. The guards started stripping her much like she had been when the man, who she believed to be an Al’duur, had carved the symbol into her back. Once she was deprived of almost all of her clothes, the guards left her in the company of three grim figures. A man stood before her, dressed in fine clothing of a deep azure blue. Rowan recognised him from the day she arrived. He had been there when they were sorted into groups. This time, however, he was flanked by two women wearing dark, blood red robes.

Rowan quickly turned away, trying to hide her body. There was no one else in the room other than herself, the man, and his attendants. She wanted to run, but her hands and feet were still bound. And even if they weren’t, it would be a futile endeavour. With her fear enhanced senses, she could hear a significant amount of activity in the caves beyond and that was all before considering that she still had no idea how to navigate the caves.

This is wrong.

“Hello there, little lady,” the well-dressed man said from behind her, his voice possessing a quality as genteel as his appearance. “My name is Lord Fein, overseer of this facility. May you grace me with your name?”

Rowan looked over her shoulder at the man. “Can I have my clothes back first?” she asked.

“They shall be returned to you soon enough. However, I would still appreciate your name before we continue to converse.”

“You cannae be serious, acting all polite like that whilst leering at me. I can tell you think I’m beneath you or something.” Rowan tried to bite back with her words, drawing on whatever fragmented emotional strength Rina had given her to keep her fear and despair at bay. The effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that she was still trying to hide her body from the man.

Rowan felt wrong. The man felt wrong. Everything felt wrong.

“While it is true that a great canyon lies between us in terms of status, we should not let that fact leave us bereft of our manners.”

“Last time I checked, it was bad manners to strip someone without their consent.”

Lord Fein seemed to smile smugly as he responded, “We did ask and you did not resist. I must say, this exchange would have been much easier if you had remained docile.”

Rowan didn’t remember being asked, and she certainly didn’t answer. “You’re sick!” she exclaimed, a look of horror painted on her face. 

“I prefer to think of myself as more pragmatic. If you don’t give me a name, I cannot offer you any reprieve. Instead I will have to leave you to your fate.”

As Lord Fein continued to speak, he came across as more and more of a monster. Even the sailor Luut with his hollow voice seemed less depraved. If anything, Fein’s courteous and personable demeanour make him all the more monstrous. This man spoke with a silver tongue coated in fool’s gold.

“I-I’m not scared of whatever you plan on doing to me.” Rowan responded with a few quivering notes of hesitation.

“Please, I’ve already heard of your episode in the caves. Fear already seeps through your every pore. Furthermore, instead of facing me, you cower. I can, however, grant you release from that fear.”

“Fine! I’ll tell you, but dinnae expect me to go along with whatever you’re plannin’ to offer me. My name’s Rowan.”

“A beautiful name,” Fein replied. “And, I am merely offering you a way across the canyon that separates you and the other slaves from what some would call freedom. If…”

“Some?” Rowan interrupted. “Sounds like a loose definition. And you call us slaves, yet last time I checked, slaves were made to do gruelling tasks and the like.”

“It is true that that is the path that most slaves follow, we have a different purpose in mind for this operation. If you just agree to work for us, you will be spared all the pain that awaits you.”

“I’d rather die, than work for you,” Rowan spat defiantly. 

Though she knew it was likely futile, she coiled her body and tried to launch herself at Lord Fein, hoping to maybe catch him off guard and strangle him. In the blink of an eye, one of the robed women stepped between Rowan and Fein and with blinding speed, drove her leg into Rowan’s ribs, sending her flying across the chamber, and the air quickly escaping her lungs.

“It seems you are set with that response,” Fein responded, brushing some dust off of his shoulder. “A truly regrettable decision.” Fein seemed genuinely disappointed by the fact that Rowan had rejected his offer. “I wish you had declined in a way that did not risk you suffering physical harm. I do hate my future weapons experiencing more pain than is necessary. Alas, it is clear that I must wait to temper your steel. Until then, this room shall be your forge and these fine women shall be your smiths. I leave you in their care.” With that, he turned away and started walking to an exit on the far side of the chamber. When he arrived at the door, he stopped. “One last thing,” he said before making his exit, “try not to fight back. The ladies are trained to combat Ardents and you simply lack the energy to threaten one of them, let alone both of them.”

Still winded, Rowan was dragged by the robed women to a table much like the one she had been strapped into for the scarring ritual. Once Rowan was secured, one of the robed women brought over a tray lined with various crystal spikes and needles while the other started lighting incense around the room. They also had a Light Crystal Array that was not too dissimilar to the one that Rowan owned except that it was attached to a strange device that she didn’t recognise. They placed it in such a way that Rowan would be forced to either look at it or keep her eyes clamped shut. For their final steps of preparation, they gagged Rowan, and then one of them pulled a pair of gloves with a crystalline array sewn into the fabric onto their hands.

Rowan braced herself for the torment that was finally upon her as the Light Crystal Array started to move, creating a disorienting assortment of colours. The light was accompanied by an awful droning sound punctuated by an intermittent and slightly irregular pulse of a low drum. The combination overwhelmed Rowan’s senses and bit into her lingering fear as a cold shard of crystal touched down on the bare flesh of her back between the shoulder blades. The sensation was a lot tamer than she had expected. However, that only served to momentarily lower her guard as needles were stabbed all over the canvas that was her body. The pain that followed was immense; words could not describe the agony she felt in that instant. Even the fear-ridden pain she had suffered earlier could not compare. 

The entire time, in the back of her mind, Rowan had wondered why, apart from the scars on their backs, everyone always returned with minimal injuries despite carrying such pain and defeat in their eyes. Now she knew; these monsters had found a way to cause pain without causing any apparent external harm. It just radiated through every inch of her mind, body and soul. And whenever Rowan felt like she was getting even slightly used to the pain, the robed women would tap on a needle causing a burst of pain to emanate from it or they would twist one which would send ripples of shock through her body. When that didn’t work, or even just because, they would change the orientation of crystals and needles to completely change the nature of the pain entirely; from burning to stabbing to freezing.

The needles were only the beginning of the torment. With the different crystals at their disposal, the women were able to cause Rowan to suffer in uncountable ways. They were able to enhance her feelings of hunger and make her feel absolutely ravenous or her sensitivity to temperature, making her painfully aware of the bone-chillingly cold air of the chamber. They could strip away any and all of her strengths; going from agonising pain to feeling lethargic and sickly. It was as if they were trying to say, “With these crystals, we are the masters of your body,” and they did it all in complete silence, the only sound being Rowan’s cries and the ever present droning.

As Rowan’s torture continued, time became meaningless to her. The droning, pain and lights all weighed down heavily on her, trying to eat away at her will. Nothing could have prepared her for this horror.

This is too much. I-I cannae do it. I cannae…

I cannae give up!

Rowan understood now. Almost painfully so. She understood why people would be tempted by Lord Fein’s offer; why they would want to escape this pain. She knew that if she wasn’t careful that she would also be tempted to do the same. However, she dared not let it come to that. She had made a promise to Tehri that she would return to her and Rowan refused to break that promise.

We’ve lost too much. I will not let us lose each other as well.

Amidst all the pain, Rowan tried to think. Her torturers made sure she had not a single moment of relief and focusing on anything other than her torment was nigh impossible. How could she overcome this pain? Amran had his ways, but he had already said how such methods wouldn’t work for an Ardent. He had mentioned how she leaked emotional intensity. Perhaps that intensity was the answer. ‘Overwhelm the torment and pain with even stronger feelings.’ Rowan drew on all of the emotional strength she could muster to remember anything she could to awaken any feeling that the women weren’t trying to carve into her being, be it joy, love, or even sadness.

If this is to be my forge then so be it. Let ‘em forge me into the weapon that’ll destroy them.

*****

Rowan was exhausted when it was finally over; they had to drag her back to the cell. It had taken everything she could muster to fight the pain and overwhelm it with even stronger feelings. She protected herself by turning her mind and soul into a maelstrom of emotion. In her enervated state, she collapsed onto a cot, her eyes too heavy to see the new arrivals. 

The cell was dark when Rowan woke up several hours later. She tried to find her friends. It didn’t take long to find Amran as he slept against the far wall. Anri and Seres, however, were nowhere to be seen. 

I was gone for too long. They’re already gone. I just hope they’re okay. Please don’t make them go through what I just did. I dunno if they can handle it.

There wasn’t much that Rowan could do for the two girls now, at least not until they returned; if they returned. Rowan wasn’t sure which would be the better option. Out of the two of them, Rowan was most fearful for Anri. She had already suffered greatly and it would be so easy for her to accept the offer. Perhaps then she wouldn’t need to suffer. But it would also mean joining them and fighting in whatever war they were planning. Or perhaps the end goal was even more nefarious. After all, Lord Fein’s words were far too honeyed to not be dripping with a sweet and seductive poison. Even if he was genuine in his lament of the suffering of ‘his’ slaves, it was impossible to deny that suffering was at the core of this operation and it went much deeper than the suffering of said slaves. Everyone involved would suffer, be it the slaves, their families or the people that they would be wielded against. Rowan just prayed that the operation would ultimately fail before it was too late and that everyone would gain their freedom.

As for Seres, Rowan hoped that her identity would hold them back. Whatever they had planned would probably be hindered greatly if they used an actual princess. Rowan was sure that Seres’ capture had been a massive mistake on the part of the raiders. On the other hand, it might not even matter. It all depended on who the so-called “good lords” were and who they intended to go to war against. 

Maybe they’d find a way to ransom her off. 

But, that’s probably really risky for them. She knows too much.

At least they won’t kill her. Will they?

Shit!

So many possibilities and there was little Rowan could do about any of them. All she could really do was to be there for the girls when they came back.

*****

For hours Rowan grew restless, finding herself unable to sleep and without anything to occupy her mind in the long hours until morning. With everyone asleep, time dragged and the walls of the cell closed in, leaving Rowan claustrophobic. To fight that feeling, she sang quietly to herself; one of the old songs, just like her mother used to. It wasn’t much, but it helped her feel less alone, as if she was once again in her mother’s embrace.

The feeling of comfort was short lived as a small whimper interrupted Rowan’s song. At first glance, Rowan didn’t recognise the crying prisoner. He lay on the floor with his back to Rowan, the bandages making it clear that he was a new arrival. Rowan walked softly over to him to see if he was okay. When she reached his side, her eyes opened wide; the boy was from Næmyris. Rowan didn’t know him well, but she did recognise him. He was the son of the proprietor of The Crimson Drakiir Inn. It looked like he was still sleeping. Perhaps he cried because the song reminded him of home.

Why is he here? Why is anyone from Næmyris here? It’s been weeks since the attack. I thought we were the only ones.

Question after question popped into Rowan’s mind. It gave her a weird sense of Deja vu. She had been asking the same questions when she had arrived. The only difference was that back then, she was asking them because there were far too few people from Næmyris. She had hoped that she hadn’t been as bad and foolishly pushed the questions to the back of her mind. Of course the raiders had split into smaller parties to avoid detection or risking the entire catch if one of the groups were followed. The ship captain had even told Malin that they had arrived early.

Rowan thought about it more and more. Discounting any naval travel, it had been around a month since she had been captured. If anything, it was surprising the others were this far behind. After all, even with the breakneck pace that Malin had used, there was a limit to how fast a horse could move. From Rowan’s best guess, they couldn’t have been more than a week ahead of schedule. It was possible that they had to ship everyone off from a different location, but there had to be a limit to the number of secure coves that they could moor in without being seen.

 Rowan almost cried out in frustration before muttering to herself, “Why does my mind have to be as restless as my body?”

I just hope there wasn’t a second attack. 

Needing answers, Rowan shook the innkeeper’s son awake. “Hey, are you okay?” she asked as he wearily opened his eyes.

“W-what? Why? Who?” he stuttered in a confused fugue. “Wait! I know that hair. Miss Hæra’s daughter? Why are you here? You weren’t on the ship.”

“Easy there,” Rowan said softly, trying to remember his name. “I’m here to help.”

“Truly? Or is the pain making me delirious?” 

“It’s okay, Ros” she said, her pitch rising towards the end, unsure if she got his name right, “I’m real. Do you remember my name?”

The boy gave her a look of recognition when Rowan spoke his supposed name. “Uh — Rowan, yes? How’d you recognise me? We’ve barely spoken.”

“It’s not that impressive. You were able to recognise me just as easily.”

“Well your Mum was always performing at our inn and you really stand out with that hair.”

“You say that like we were the only redheads in town,” said a slightly confused Rowan.

“Hardly, but you and your mother were particularly famous for it.”

“We were?” Rowan exclaimed probably a little too loudly, surprise colouring the remark. “I never knew.”

“I was also dreaming of one of the times that your mother performed at my family’s inn for some reason.”

“That’ll probably be my fault. I couldnae sleep so I was singing a wee bit. But that’s of no matter,” Rowan said, moving on. “You asked why I’m here, aye? Same reason as you most likely. I just got here sooner. Now, do you think you can answer some of my questions?”

Ros nodded with a look of pain. Rowan felt bad for getting him to move around.

“Okay, so how is it that you only just got here? I’ve been here for around three weeks already. There weren’t any more attacks, were there?” Rowan realised she was probably speaking far too quickly, but her burgeoning emotions pushed the words out of her mouth.

“I only know of the eclipse attack,” Ros responded, horror slowly flashing across his face as he recalled that night, “oh gods, the eclipse. How could the Goddess let that happen?

“I dinnae ken, Ros. I wish I could say something that would make things easier for you, but I’m at a loss.”

“I’m sorry, that was unfair of me. How have you coped with all this for three weeks?”

“You’ve experienced the worst of it until you heal up.” Rowan wasn’t sure if that was a cruel thing to say; she only hoped it would give him time to prepare.” Do you think you could answer my other question?” 

“Right, yes. There was a storm, I think. They made us take shelter in some lowland base on the east side of the Kærinsiir mountains. Then some massive confrontation happened between two of the raider groups. Something about a princess? Whatever it was, they said they were pulling out of the island after they were rid of us. I was so scared that they were going to kill us, but instead they threw us onto those black ships around a week ago.”

It was a lot to take in. Unknowingly, Ros had pretty much confirmed Rowan’s suspicions about Seres disappearing causing problems for the raiders. She wasn’t, however, expecting that it would be enough to drive them off of the island. It was a silver lining of sorts, but it also meant that they would be focusing their efforts elsewhere. Rowan knew that she couldn’t worry about it so she asked her last question. “How many?”

“A hundred or so. Maybe more? I’m not sure.”

“Thank you. Take the cot; it’ll be better for your back.”

*****

Morning eventually touched the crystals that lit the cell. The newly arrived Næmyran slaves woke slowly and painfully. Rowan noted five of them, including Ros, not that she really knew any of them. Though seeing them, she realised that she hadn’t asked about Kiriin or Kyr.

Why are they here? Do the groups have meanings or are they just random? 

She was largely just prevaricating with the questions she kept asking herself. She didn’t have the answers and she would only learn if she asked the right people. Even so, she didn’t want to go back and ask Ros questions. It felt too awkward after having already asked him so much and she didn’t feel comfortable enough asking the others. If she had realised sooner, she would have asked Ros before giving up her cot, but now she would need to wait. She just hoped that the two of them had managed to avoid capture, but she knew how unlikely it seemed, especially with Ros and the others being here. Unfortunately, that still didn’t give her much hope of seeing them as she was still yet to encounter any prisoners from the other cells except on that first day when they had been divvied up. That was another reason why she didn’t want to ask about them.

As for the questions regarding the group divisions, she could only think of two people to ask; one who would know for sure and one who might know. Her options were Lord Fein and Amran respectively and she knew which one she preferred. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only questions she had.

Is it really only torture and endless days in these cells that await us in this hell? There must be something more. If only someone would answer my questions about what happens outside of the cell, even Amran gets obtusely tight-lipped when I ask anything about the operation.

As Rowan pondered, the wardens arrived, returning her two friends and a few others. Thankfully, Seres mostly just looked tired. Granted, there were some hints at the terror she must have seen or experienced. Rowan was still surprised at how well Seres appeared to be doing. Perhaps her hopes that Seres’ status would keep her at least somewhat safe had been answered. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for an ashen-faced Anri. Something was wrong. Even if Rowan could understand, having faced the torture herself, the cracks in Anri’s psyche tore at Rowan. It was horrifying to see. If anything, it seemed likely that this was the reason for the slight terror on Seres’ face as opposed to anything she had seen out there. To make matters worse, Rowan was at a loss for words, unable to think of what she could say to help her.

*****

The three girls sat in silence well into the day until they were disturbed by an unexpected individual. Amran stood over them with an almost unreadable expression. “I’m impressed. The mood has become so dour that it is almost tangible so I thought I would remind you three girls that talking is an option. Trust me when I say that you are being less talkative than a babble of Stoics. Even now, I’ve said more than the three of you have said all day combined. So what do you say? Let’s talk.” They looked up at him, each one wearing a different flavour of confusion; Rowan wanted to object, Anri was aghast, and Seres almost looked thankful.

“Talk about what exactly?” Rowan eventually settled on asking.

“Anything,” Amran responded. “I’m not exactly an expert on conversation, but I hear it can work wonders when it comes to shifting moods.”

“What’s it like being a Stoic?” Seres asked before things could get awkward again.

“An interesting question and not an easy one to answer,” Amran said somewhat evasively. “I would say it is like having a different perspective to things. Of course this is just my experience and it’s difficult to remember what it was like before my Awakening. It was two years ago after all.”

“Two years?” Rowan asked.

“Yes. I had been here for four months when it happened.”

Rowan gulped in response, but it was Anri who spoke next. “Does it get better?” 

Neither of the girls were expecting it, but Amran was prepared for it. “Yes and no. It depends on the individual. For me it has been fairly stable. If you want it to get better I will give you the same advice I gave Rowan. Be strong and talk to your friends. They can help you with your feelings. Not me though. Not my strong suit.”

“Yet here you are offering advice,” Rowan remarked. “Still, he’s right, Anri. We’re here for you. Aren’t we Seres?”

“Of course!”

“Thanks,” Anri replied sullenly. It almost sounded like there was a small improvement, but not much.

“Well I don’t think we can go much further with that conversation,” Rowan said after a moment of silence. “What’s next?”

“What about the weather?” Seres joked.

It was enough to make Rowan crack a smile and she could swear that there was a slight upwards turn. The humour was somewhat ruined yet also enhanced when Amran spoke up after glancing at the ceiling. “Grey, with light showers and some strong gusts coming in from the west.”

“How do you know that?” Anri asked.

“Yeah! Is it some Stoic power?” Rowan added.

“It must be. None of the Lunar Gifts provide weather detection abilities,” remarked Seres.

“I just listened and extrapolated from what the new arrivals were saying,” Amran responded with a slightly hurt expression.

“Oh,” the girls said back in disappointment.

The rather inane conversation continued for the rest of the day and Amran could sense significant improvements in Rowan and Seres. He hoped it was enough for Anri as well, but that would largely depend on the three girls going forwards. Rowan on the other hand was sure that it had gone exceptionally well for Anri. She had smiled after all, which was a marked improvement. Rowan was smiling to herself as she settled down for the night when she remembered that she hadn’t asked Amran any of the questions she had been meaning to ask him.

Shit!

Author’s Note: Hello everyone. Just wanted to say thanks and let you all know that I am now on Top Web Fiction. I would really appreciate it if you could follow the link and give the story a boost.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Interlude: A Silent Voice

For what felt like hours, Tehri ran, her body growing weaker with each passing moment. She was confused and terrified. Everything that had happened since she woke up made no sense. Cruel people had surrounded her while she lay with her hands bound and mouth gagged. They wanted to kill her or sell her and they nearly did when they dragged her away. Then Rowan appeared.

Sis saved me. She killed someone.

Because of Rowan, Tehri had been able to escape. But escape from what? The last thing she remembered was falling asleep before the eclipse. Maybe this was a nightmare? She wanted to be home, back with her mother and father and with her sister. If she was in a nightmare, she would wake up eventually. However, if it wasn’t, she had no choice but to run and find her way.

Where am I? This forest all looks the same.

It was getting harder and harder to keep running. Tehri lacked the athleticism that her siblings and mother possessed. Instead, she had been cursed with a weak constitution and emotions that swung on a pendulum. To make matters worse, the undergrowth clawed at her arms and legs, sapping her of what little strength she had.

I’m going to die.

However, light breaking through the trees in the distance granted her a small degree of hope. Drawing on everything she had left, Tehri sprinted blindly towards the light, oblivious to the sound of crashing water.

Tehri let loose a silent cry as she ran off the precipice she had failed to see. For a second she lingered in the empty air before plummeting into the swirling flow of water beneath her. Almost instantly she was caught in the wild and treacherous current of the river rapids. She struggled to keep herself above the surface as she was thrashed into the rocks, span around and ragged like a doll. Bones cracked and blood gushed. Every danger of the rapids competed to be the cause of Tehri’s death. Each time she cried out in pain, the river sought out her lungs. 

After a couple of agonising minutes, everything went dark.

*****

“Byrdin! Come quick!” 

Byrdin, the young newlywed blacksmith, looked over to see his wife running towards him. “Hana, what’s wrong?”

“There’s no time for questions. Hurry up!” 

It was rare to see Hana this riddled with worry. He placed down the knife he was polishing so that he could go to her. “Slow down. It can’t be so bad that you can’t catch a breath.” 

Instead of taking a second, she instead grabbed his hand and started pulling him towards the river bank. She was her father’s daughter all right, as stubborn as the iron he had worked and strong enough to work the anvil herself. There’d be no stopping her so Byrdin let himself get pulled along.

They soon arrived at the river. A young girl with strawberry blonde hair had been swept into the bank, her body broken. Immediately, Byrdin understood Hana’s urgency; if the girl was alive, it would be a miracle.

Byrdin rushed over, expecting the worst. Instead he detected a weak, faltering pulse. He was no doctor, but it was clear she didn’t have much time. He cursed himself for not having anything clean that he could staunch the bleeding with.

“Hana, I need one of your sleeves. Then find the healer. We might still be able to save her.” 

Time was of the essence as Hana ripped off her sleeves and rushed off to find the village healer. Byrdin used the sleeve to apply pressure to the most serious of the girl’s open wounds, whilst keeping an eye on her breathing, which was slow but relatively regular. He was unsure of what else to do; bleeding was one thing, but she clearly had broken bones and water had likely made its way into her lungs.

Byrdin grew anxious with each passing moment, his heart beating like a drum as he feared that the girl wouldn’t survive. It felt like an age had passed by the time Hana returned with the healer.

Looking up, Byrdin asked him, “Is there anything you can do?”

“I’ll do what I can,” he replied. “However, the skills required to treat the more serious injuries are beyond my ken: she likely needs a surgeon.”

“So there’s no hope?” Hana asked, tears starting to well in her eyes.

“I didn’t say that. I have poultices that will help with any external bleeding and a medicine that will slow down her metabolism and induce a long sleep in her. That may allow enough time to get her to a surgeon. As for the nearest branch of the College of Surgeons, you have two options. You can get to Tærin by river or Talaran by road. With Tærin you can decrease the likelihood of causing further injury. However, you will need to wait for a boat and the journey itself will be slow. Talaran, on the other hand, is much closer, perhaps only two days in a wagon with good horses, but you’d be going towards the mountains. The risk for further injury will be much higher.”

The healer continued to explain things as he started some preliminary treatments. They then took her to the infirmary for more extensive treatment. She was given medicine to help encourage her body to replenish the blood that she had lost and poultices were applied to her various wounds. Finally the medicine to place her into a medically induced sleep was administered.

As the healer did his work, Byrdin and Hana were left with a terrible choice. If they took the girl to a surgeon, the cost of her treatment would fall on them. For a young newlywed couple, such a cost would leave them with almost nothing, if anything at all. On the other hand, if they didn’t take her, her death would be on their hands. They would also need to work out what route would be best if they did decide to take her.

“What do we do?” they asked each other.

*****

A sterile white room; that is what Tehri saw when she woke up. Her eyes felt heavy and her head was spinning. Tehri remembered falling into a river and a few moments of chaos before blacking out. Now, she lay in this strange room, painfully aware of every facet of her body and of the fact that she wasn’t actually in any pain, instead feeling a weird discomfort.

To her side, Tehri heard some movement. She struggled to look in that direction when a young woman with light brown hair that Tehri didn’t recognise came into view carrying a bowl and a towel. 

Seeing that Tehri was awake, the woman called out, “Doctor! Byrdin! She’s awake!” In response to her call, a young man with strong, muscular arms and a middle-aged woman with a pinched nose and glasses entered the room.

Looking at the three strangers, Tehri opened her mouth and went to ask “Where am I?” only for no sound to escape her small lungs.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 8

The days that followed Rowan’s rather awkward first encounter with the Ferran boy passed much as the rest had, except for the embarrassment that she felt towards the matter. After some encouragement from Anri and Seres, she worked up the courage to approach him again and apologise for her awkward behaviour.

This time, the boy was looking straight at Rowan when she approached. “I’m sorry about before,” she apologized. “I know I was acting really strange with all those things I said. I hadn’t even introduced myself. I should probably do that now, shouldn’t I? Sorry,” Rowan apologised again, looking slightly downcast. Then, before the boy could even blink, she looked up with a mercurial smile and offered her hand. “Let’s start over. Hello, I’m Rowan.”

“Hello, Rowan. I’m glad to see your cheeks are no longer the same colour as your hair. My…”

“My face wasnae that red!” Rowan interjected before he could continue, a slight blush rising in response.

“If you say so,” he responded again before continuing on to his own introduction. “My name is Amran.”

“Hey, that’s the same as my brother’s name!”

“It’s a fairly common name,” Amran replied somewhat dryly.

“You dinnae have to brush me off like that.”

“My apologies.”

“Well you can apologise by answering my questions. Especially now that I’ve introduced myself.”

“I can do that.”

“First! Why are you always meditating?” 

“It helps me focus.” 

“Focus on what?”

“Honing my emotions. It’s a technique that I learned from a Kairosi Fire Monk that passed through my hometown before it was raided.”

“A Kairosi Fire Monk? You’ve actually seen one? You’re sure?”

“As sure as can be.”

Rowan couldn’t help but give Amran a look of incredulity when she considered what he was saying. “But aren’t the Kairosi, like, really rare this far north? My Da told me he’s only seen a few and they were all merchants. I was sure that the Fire Monks pretty much always stayed near The Ashen Eye and that’s if they even exist.” 

“You clearly know more of their existence than I,” Amran replied. “That is to say, before he arrived, I believed that the Fire Monks were merely legendary warriors from Terian’el with skin like obsidian. I didn’t even know what they were capable of or how they got their name. I’m not sure that I will continue to think of them as legends now that I have met one.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Because, while he was certainly impressive, imposing even, he still struck me as just a man. True, he looked vastly different from what I was familiar with, but that is the nature of people, is it not? To be different? Perhaps if I had seen what he could do without seeing the man, I would think differently. But that is not how things developed and now I owe him more than my life for his teachings. It is through his techniques that I have survived this long.”

“How long is that?” Rowan was almost scared to ask, but she couldn’t help herself. She needed to know.

“I would say at least two years. Time is difficult to follow down here.”

“I can imagine,” Rowan replied glumly. “Was it the Fire Monk who made you do that pain test thing? Why would he do that?

“Not exactly. As far as I’m aware, he was a travelling hierophant, giving advice and teaching people about the world whilst helping people for food and board. I found him interesting so I asked if he would be willing to teach me a few things. He obliged and started by teaching me about the Fire Monks. I was positively intrigued and hungered to learn more. That was when my lessons regarding certain Kairosi techniques began. It was almost as if he had some foresight of what was to come. However, he never actually gave me the trial of pain. He merely mentioned that it is a maxim that he followed. I made the choice to personally follow it when I first arrived here.”

Rowan looked blankly at Amran for a second. “Congratulations! You answered my questions only to give me several more.” She then gave him a hopeful look. “Do you think I could learn some of those techniques?” Any tool or technique that could help her survive and be true to her promise was a gift.

“No,” he answered immediately.

“But…”

“No.”

“I could…”

“No.”

“What if…”

“No.

“You…”

“No!”

“Meanie!” Rowan threw her arms up in despair before wincing in pain. “Ouch! Can’t you think about it?”

“Sorry, I should have been clearer. It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re an Ardent.” Even with Amran’s strangely mellow tone, Rowan could feel the hint of a rhetorical question, as if his answer was obvious. Unfortunately, he didn’t give her a chance to respond as he continued with his explanation. “Ardents feel too strongly to quell the storm of emotion inside of them and to try would only blunt their edge. It would be akin to expecting a moth to be not drawn towards the flame. Thus, while you may learn, such a technique would fail to serve you.”

Amran’s explanation took Rowan a little off guard. “That was a rather colourful way of explaining things,” she responded, giving him a thoughtful pout.

“Thank you,” Amran said appreciatively.

“It wasn’t exactly a compliment you know. It’s really bizarre when you give a really poetic explanation after being so short or concise before. Actually, you’ve been a little cryptic at times. Wait, what was that about me being an Ardent?” Rowan had been so caught up in his explanation that she had forgotten the point that had led into it.

“You are an Ardent, yes?”

Is it really that obvious? 

“I am, but ― how did you know?”

Amran looked at Rowan quizzically. “You mean apart from the fact that you are practically leaking with emotional intensity?”

Rowan nodded.

 “I was unable to calm down your embarrassment. If anything, I believe that you actually got more embarrassed when I tried.”

“You tried to calm my embarrassment?” Rowan asked as she tried to work out what exactly he meant.

“Wait!” she said as it clicked. “That means you’re a Stoic! I think.”

Rowan’s response surprised Amran a little bit, which gave her a slither of satisfaction.

 “You’re rather well learned for a country girl,” Amran noted, “I’m impressed. The mechanics of Ardent Amplification and Stoic Dampening aren’t exactly common knowledge. I believe it is an area of study limited to the educated elite, government and of course Ardents and Stoics who have had the chance to explore said mechanics.”

“Well I am not a Country Girl!” Rowan almost shouted in a slightly offended tone, garnering the attention of some of the other prisoners.

Why am I getting needlessly offended by this. Time to switch mounts.

“My apologies,” Amran responded. “I didn’t mean to offend. Granted, I was sure my nature as a Stoic was as obvious as your own as an Ardent. I’m actually surprised it took my comment on dampening to make you realise.”

“You would be,” Rowan said, this time with mock offence, her disposition completely different to what it had been a second ago.

“That was quick.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think it likely that I would meet another Awakened so soon, especially with how rare we’re supposed to be. It was stupid of me considering what this place is. I knew about it because my father is an internationally established merchant, so he made sure I received the best tuition possible.”

“Then you have been blessed by a good education, though I fear it will do you little good here. I also recommend that you rid yourself of the notion that we are rare in these caves. It seems like you’ve caught on to the purpose of this operation. They intend to force as many of us as possible to Awaken so that they can forge us into weapons for use in some war. You are fortunate to have already Awakened as you will at least be spared the torments that await the others. Unfortunately, that is only the beginning. Be strong, Rowan. Don’t let them break you. The moment you give up, they will seize your shattered will as their own. Those scars guarantee it.”

Amran’s warning reminded Rowan of her mother’s dying words and it filled her with dread and tears as the memory flashed before her. Rowan wanted more answers, hoping that they may steady her shaken heart, however a cry from the other side of the cell stole her attention.

Rowan turned quickly towards the entrance of the cell. Anri lay by the gate, curled up in a ball, with Seres kneeling over her and crying. Rowan instantly ran over, fearing what could have happened or gone wrong. Anri was shivering while clutching at her left hand. It had started turning blue with frost at the fingertips.

Rowan heard some shuffling behind her, so she turned to face it. A prisoner that she hadn’t noticed before was trying to get away from them. “What happened?” she demanded.

“She fell,” the prisoner replied, trying to hide the guilt in his voice.

“She just fell?” Rowan asked with a cold stare.

“Well not exactly. We had a small disagreement,” he said as he glanced at another prisoner by his side, almost as if to shift the blame.

“Rowan, stop. It was my fault,” Seres cried from behind her.

“Yeah, what she said.”

“This isn’t your fault, Seres.” Rowan’s anger began to flare. She knew a bully when she saw one. ”So let me guess, one of you pushed her over because of this disagreement?”

“You don’t understand. She was hiding away food. If she doesn’t need it, she should give it to those of us that have been here longer,” the second prisoner responded. The other prisoner was giving them a look as if to tell them to be quiet.

“She’d been giving it to me, Rowan,” Seres admitted sadly with a voice dripping with underserved guilt.

“Are you two more important than Seres or Anri? No? Didn’t think so.” Rowan’s voice rose with every word and her eyes glinting with anger from the light of the crystals.

The first prisoner took a step back as if feeling slightly threatened by the heat that was starting to radiate from Rowan’s body. “Here, take the food back,” he stammered before turning to his accomplice, “this isn’t worth a couple of scraps.” The other prisoner threw down the scraps of food that they had taken with notable indignation before the two of them then hurried away.

Rowan was about to shout after them when a hand landed on her shoulder. Amran had walked over during the confrontation and now stood just behind her. As Rowan turned to look at him, he shook his head looking at Anri and Seres. While he spoke no words, his message was clear, “Get your priorities straight. She needs care.” Rowan nodded trying to calm her anger.

Rowan did her best to treat Anri’s frostbitten hand and stop Seres from falling into hysterics. She felt like she was grasping at straws with the frostbite and calming Seres down wasn’t much easier. Unfortunately, she was half convinced that she was making Anri’s hand worse. It wasn’t like she had ever learned how to treat frostbite. She was limited to the very basics of first aid and she couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t enough. At least with Seres she was sure that she was at least stable and Amran looked like he was playing his part in ensuring that she didn’t get any worse.

Still, there was little Rowan could do apart from try. If she failed, Anri would lose at least two fingers, but she was going to lose them even if Rowan didn’t do anything. At least by trying there was a chance she could stop it getting worse while they waited for someone to arrive. She hoped that they wouldn’t need to wait for a scheduled visit by one of the wardens. The next wouldn’t be until later in the day when they took away the prisoners for that day to suffer whatever foul torments they were using to break them.

Thankfully, one of the guards had heard the screams and had sent for a warden. They arrived not too long after with a small detachment of guards and a medical team. Rowan promised Anri that she would be okay when she and Seres were telling her goodbye. In reality, Rowan was terrified that Anri wouldn’t return.

*****

The wait for Anri to return was long. After a week she gave up all hope that she would be back, only maintaining a positive front for Seres. Her fear was further compounded when one of the boys that had arrived at the same time as them fell ill with an infection and died. They were already so weak from the healing and lack of food. Maybe if she hadn’t been giving away some of her food to Seres, her odds would be better. From the look of Seres, it was clear that she felt the same. She had been quiet ever since the incident. 

“What should I do, Amran?” Rowan asked the older Stoic boy quietly one day after he had returned from torment.

“Why do anything?” he responded with some confusion.

“Because she’s my responsibility,” Rowan stressed.

“Since when? Is she a relative?”

“No, but I don’t think she’s eating. I won’t let her die like Dakaa. I won’t fail her.”

“It sounds like you are putting too much of a burden on your own shoulders. Do you want to break yourself?”

“I don’t, but if I don’t do anything and I could have made things better, I would be failing everyone doubly.”

“I understand that you probably have your reasons, Rowan, but this is too much.”

“You don’t understand! I’ve failed too much already. I need to make things right.”

“Okay, perhaps I don’t. Well there is nothing I can do to help. You have tried talking to her, haven’t you?”

“Um, no,” Rowan admitted sheepishly.

Amran gave her a flat look. “Are you being serious? That’s the first thing you should have done.”

“I was hoping there was some special Ardent technique that I could use to make her feel better.”

“You do realise that our powers don’t include miracle solutions for every situation, don’t you“

“Well yeah, but maybe…”

“Even with Amplification it wouldn’t work. Neither of you are feeling the appropriate emotions so there is nothing to Resonate. Just talk to her.”

“But talking is hard. What if I mess up?”

“Rowan.”

“Fine! I’ll try talking.”

Rowan stomped away to prepare herself to talk to Seres, as if it was some great trial, and Amran returned to his meditation. Meanwhile, Seres was curled up into a ball near the gate. She was almost close enough for it to sap away all of her body heat. It was the punishment that she felt she deserved, not that she had any metric for what was reasonable. She had always been a good princess, responsible and caring. How could she let so many get hurt trying to help and protect her. It wasn’t right. The royal family should be the ones doing the protecting and she had failed on every front there.

“I just wanted to help people,” she cried quietly to herself.

That had been the entire reason for her trip north; a relief mission for those less well off towns and villages in the north and east. She had begged her mother, the queen, to let her do it. Before then she had spent her childhood helping people in the capital and the rest of the heartlands. She used her position as a princess to make sure those in need had food and shelter, be they orphans or the elderly with no children to look after them. Many saw it as a heavy burden for one so young and overall unnecessary. She was inclined to disagree. Her duties were nothing compared to the working folk. So what if people kept telling her that everyone was taking advantage of her. She was sure that for every fraud, she was helping at least a thousand legitimate people in need. She was further vindicated when she received her mother’s seal of approval.

She had been so happy that her mother had agreed to the mission. Seres didn’t even want to think about how many Gold Chains her mother had set aside. Now she felt like it would all go to waste. The situation was so much worse with all the raids that had been going on. How had their attacks gone on for so long without anyone in the capital knowing? Seres only hoped that her disappearance would lead them to discovering the truth. Then at least some good would come from her failure. 

Unfortunately, that thought did nothing to comfort her on her most recent failure. Anri was hurt because of her. Why didn’t she realise where things were going? Why didn’t she think about how dangerous the gate was? She could see the Resonance. She knew what it did, even more than anyone else here. Such was the blessing of her two coloured eyes. But instead of trying to intercede when they started pushing, she cowered in fear. She was…

“Rowan to Seres. Rowan to Seres,” said the older girl who glowed like the morning sun, interrupting her thoughts. Seres couldn’t remember ever seeing an Ardent shine as brightly as Rowan, at least not quite so close.

“Yes, Rowan?” she asked hesitantly. She wasn’t equipped to handle Rowan’s rather mercurial energy.

Instead of responding with any words, Rowan knelt down and hugged her gently.

“Rowan, you’re being weird,” Seres told the girl who insisted on keeping her arms wrapped around her.

“You needed a hug,” Rowan said matter-of-factly.

“N-no I don’t. Please let go.”

Rowan begrudgingly let go. “You’re sad. Hugging always helped me when I was feeling down.” The girl offered a warm, yet melancholic smile.

“I’m fine, honestly,” Seres lied.

“I would always tell my Ma the exact same thing when I was anything but, so that isnae gonna work on me.”

“Well, okay. No I’m not fine, but it’s what I deserve,” Seres said with depressing conviction.

“Drakiir shit” Rowan swore.

“Excuse me?” Seres wasn’t really sure how else she should respond to that. People typically didn’t swear in her company.

“You don’t deserve to suffer, I can promise you that. And before you argue with me, you’re going to tell me exactly why you think you do and I’ll tell you exactly why you are wrong.” 

Seres was even less prepared for that than the swearing and she couldn’t really argue with it, so she relented. She told Rowan everything she could without mentioning who she was, though she was sure Rowan had already guessed. As promised, Rowan told her how she was wrong every time. She used a firm but calming tone that seemed rather uncharacteristic of her, as if she was trying to emulate someone else. By the end of it, Seres was crying and the pair of them were getting strange looks from the rest of the people in the cell.

“I think I could use that hug now,” Seres admitted quietly.

Once again, Rowan took Seres into her arms, only this time she started singing a familiar song.

Hush now little one
the day is won
Sleep now little one
The sun is gone

Mama’s here
to wash away your fear
Mama’s here
to wipe away your tears

By the end of the song, tears were streaming down Rowan’s eyes as well and the two girls cried their pain away. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to tide them over while they continued to heal and wait for Anri. Seres started eating all of her food again and started to feel better.

There were some details that Rowan didn’t mention to Seres, however. With each passing day, it was becoming clear that the wardens were using everyone’s healing process to determine when it was time for them to be taken away along with the senior prisoners. Rowan was scared that they would take advantage of Anri’s position to start the so-called forging process early. Furthermore, her own scars were almost healed, which was concerning in its own right. What if she wasn’t there when Anri returned, or what if she couldn’t be there for Seres when she was taken? She tried to get answers from Amran, but he refused to answer, likely to try and stop her from worrying more than she already was.

After another three days, Anri returned to the cell. Seres was the first to notice as she excitedly shook Rowan awake. Rowan was elated to see Anri seemingly safe and sound. The only thing that Rowan could see was different about her was a mitten that she was sporting on her left hand. Seres, on the other hand, noticed the distinct lack of colour to Anri’s face or the notes of horror that danced across her eyes as Rowan rushed over towards her. Rowan took Anri over to an empty cot so that she could rest. Meanwhile, Amran looked up from his meditation and in perfect sync with Seres, muttered, “She’s Awakened.”

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 7

Content Warning: Click here for details.

For several days, perhaps even a week after the attack, the raiders rode hard and fast. It was difficult for Rowan to say for sure, especially with the canvas sack over her head. After the first day, it became even harder when the raiders replaced the sack with several layers of cloth, wrapped tightly around her eyes and ears. From that point on, Rowan lost all sense of time and it compounded with a growing fever to send her into a state of delirium. Even if they had done nothing to keep her bound after her fight in the forest, there was little she could do to escape.

The only perceivable change during the journey happened near its end when Rowan tasted salt in the air. It was enough to send her nausea spiralling out of control. She threw up what little remained in her stomach as they continued to gallop. When they finally arrived at their destination, Rowan was on the brink of starvation and the taste of salt in the air was heavy. She felt oh so terribly weak. Her Awakening had eaten away at what little energy reserves she had. The only thing keeping her from passing out as they removed the layers of cloth was the salty spray of the sea. Light flooded her field of view as the last layer was removed. It was blinding despite it being the middle of the night and the only light sources were the Eyes of the Goddess and a few lamps.

As her eyes acclimated to seeing again, Rowan found herself having difficulty believing the sight before her. She saw a throng of raiders and shackled adolescents in the shadow of a large, slender, black ship that was quite unlike anything she had ever seen before. Next to the gangplank, one of the raiders looked like he was arguing with one of the sailors as his captives were being manhandled onto the ship and thrown below decks. For the time being, Rowan was yet to be touched by the men. Instead she had been chained to a post, waiting on the conclusion of the argument before her.

“What are you doing here, Malin?” the sailor shouted at the raider. “You weren’t supposed to arrive until the next shipment.”

“We had no choice. The girl Awakened and killed two of my men,” Malin responded, pointing towards Rowan. She tried to retreat from their gaze to no avail.

“You risked this entire operation for a single girl?” The sailor sounded almost incredulous at the idea.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me when I said she killed two of my men, Captain. She’s strong.”

“And practically dead. You’re lucky the other raids weren’t as successful. What would you have done if I didn’t have any room?”

“Asked you to take the girl at the very least. If they can break her, she’ll be worth the entire trip.”

“Well it’s a good thing we have Luut on board. I’ll have him tend to her.”

“Great,” Malin said dryly. “Explaining this to him isn’t going to be fun. I love the man, but he takes his job very seriously.”

The sailor walked on board and after a few minutes he came back with a surprisingly young man. He was significantly better dressed than a lot of the sailors, barring the captain, and he had stark white hair. In his hands he held a bag not too dissimilar to the one often carried by Doctor Bræn. He walked over with Malin to inspect Rowan.

“Were you trying to kill her, Malin?” the sailor asked after finishing the examination.

“Hardly,” Malin replied.

“So she’s starving for the hell of it?” the sailor asked in a hollow tone.

“We couldn’t risk feeding her anymore, Luut. Even as a fledgling, she killed two people and that was after a day without food. It’s been a good few years since I’ve seen an Ardent with this much potential.”

“You could have avoided this if you had an Empath in your squad.”

“We only have so many Empaths to go between the squads. Now what about her leg? Or her gut?” 

“Both have begun to fester. The leg is particularly bad. See the infection? We can treat it, but it’s going to cost you. Even for such rare cargo, this is an unacceptable condition. The good lords won’t be pleased.”

“I know. I know. Just get her healed up as best you can before you reach the Caves.”

“I will. Now high tide is upon us so we need to be leaving. Until next time, Malin. Captain says you’ve got your work cut out for you with covering those tracks,” Luut said calmly, bidding Malin farewell. 

Malin returned his own goodbyes, and with that, the conversation was over. Luut ordered some of the other sailors to take Rowan onto the ship. As far as she could tell, it seemed like she had been placed in a room away from the other captives. 

Some time later, Luut entered the room, holding his bag and a plate of food. He placed the plate down in front of Rowan. Most of the food, barring a spoonful of honey, was unfamiliar to her. She eyed it nervously as Luut ordered her to eat. 

“Start with the honey; it will help you collect your wits,” he said in a calm tone.

Whilst Rowan didn’t trust the man, her hunger was overwhelming and couldn’t resist the food for long. She ate quickly, banking on the fact that her captors seemed to want her alive as a reason for why they wouldn’t try and poison her or something.

“Good,” he said simply as she finished. He then approached her with a needle in hand. “Now don’t be scared,” he continued, “this is just a simple sedative to keep you relaxed while I treat you.” 

Rowan couldn’t help but feel scared of this man. His calm words did nothing to comfort her. In fact, it was more the way he spoke than the needle he held that scared her. Rather than being gentle and caring like her mother’s voice was, it seemed empty, or perhaps muted, as if his voice was calm due to lack of emotion behind it. Rowan tried to fight him off, however, he was considerably stronger than seemed possible for a normal human.

“That won’t do,” he said as he pinned Rowan down and placed the needle into a vein and injected the liquid from the attached container. The drug started to take effect quickly and Rowan slipped into unconsciousness within the minute.

*****

When Rowan awoke, she was being carried down the gangplank in a litter. She found herself in an exceptionally large cavern housing a fully functioning dock laden with black ships. The people carrying Rowan’s litter had seemed to not notice that she was awake and she did her best to keep it that way. As surreptitiously as she could manage, Rowan glanced around the cavern. It was guarded well. Even if Rowan was at full strength, she wouldn’t have stood a chance if she tried anything. She saw at least a hundred well armed men and women and she knew better than to hope that was it. Not that it mattered as she was still incredibly weak and the sedative still coursed through her veins.

It was clear that the guards knew she was too weak to be a threat, for she was the only captive not in chains. She wanted to run, but she could barely move her legs. It was as if her mind had woken up before the rest of her body. If anything, that idea was more horrifying to her. She was a prisoner in her own body until she could move and even after that, she was a captive. The people carrying her litter brought her to where the other prisoners were converging before being led down a long meandering path up the side of the cavern. Nearing its end, the path turned into the rock face and down into a small network of caves.

Finally, after twenty or thirty long minutes, they arrived in a large and surprisingly well lit chamber with four exits that Rowan could see. With her carriers noticing that she had woken up, Rowan was forced off the stretcher to stand with everyone else. Now standing, she could properly look around. Unsurprisingly, they were once again surrounded by armed guards. The exits to the chamber were especially well guarded. In front of the group stood a rather large man with large shoulders and a horseshoe moustache. He was accompanied by a notably more genteel and well dressed man. The two were talking quietly, and then the inspection began.

One by one, the larger man looked over each of the captives whilst consulting some sheets of parchment. After a small moment of consideration, he leaned down to talk quietly into the smaller man’s ear. With each examination, the captive in question was divided off from the main group and placed into smaller groups. At the same time, Rowan’s anxiety over what was going to happen when they looked at her started to rise. By the time they reached her, she was practically shaking in her non-existent boots. 

The larger man muttered to himself in a strange accent, almost as if he was reading from a checklist. “Already Awakened. Strong. From Næmyris. Malin’s group. Someone, chain her up” He didn’t even need to consult with the smaller man to know where she needed to go. She was soon chained up and sent to stand with the smallest of the groups.

Now in her place, the anxiety having passed by a small degree, Rowan started looking around, desperate to find people from Næmyris. Amongst the other groups, she saw all the ones that had been with her since the attack. She also saw a few more that she didn’t remember being there in Malin’s captivity. Still, it was only a tiny fraction of the amount that Rowan expected. Even if Malin had rushed, surely some of the other groups should have arrived as well, perhaps by a different boat. Rowan knew that Malin’s group only represented a very small number of the raiding force that had attacked Næmyris. Yet, a small part of her held hope. That night had been so chaotic, so surely she was mistaken.

It would have been easy if that hope was the only thought that haunted her. Unfortunately, her emotions were as conflicted and chaotic as the night that had ingrained itself so deeply into her memories. On the one hand, there was the hope that it was just the people here and that everyone else was safe. On the other, there was the very real possibility that they had been slaughtered or that they were yet to rise. Then there was also the fact that it was very clear that they had attacked more than just Næmyris and from what Rowan could tell, they had been doing this for a while. And seeing how everyone was below the age of seventeen, Rowan could only come to one conclusion. They were in an Awakening farm. Rowan had Awakened in the worst way possible and this was a place engineered with that in mind. She just didn’t know why.

The anxiety started to rise again. Rowan could only imagine what they intended to do to them and what it meant for her in her Awakened state. Intense feelings of dread stabbed into her core as the last person was examined. With everyone sorted, the groups were led down the different exits until only Rowan’s group was left. She stood there with 6 others. The larger man then approached them and ordered some of the guards to take them away. Now that he was speaking louder and more clearly, Rowan realised that his strange accent was actually Særan, the sister language of Midiran. Somewhat fortunately, Rowan had learnt to speak Særan from a young age alongside her native and ancestral tongues. However, knowing that they were likely in Særis didn’t really tell her much as they were led away. If anything it only gave her more questions.

It was all so overwhelming. The questions. The feelings. The despair. All of it. After Awakening, everything had become a polychromatic storm of emotion. Rowan just wanted it to stop. But this is what she had asked for. She would give it all up if she could have her family back. 

Ancestors! Why? 

You were supposed to be watching over us!

I’m sorry.

This is my fault.

I deserve this.

I have to be stronger.

For Tehri! For Ma! For Everyone.

Rowan was crying when they arrived in a small decorated chamber. Compared to the rest of the caves, this chamber seemed artificial, as if it had been carved out completely from the rock to look like a room. Cabinets lined the far wall and there was a large stone table like structure in the centre of the room. Attached to it were several straps that made Rowan feel extremely uncomfortable. It was also surrounded by an elaborate Crystal Array, though Rowan didn’t recognise the Resonance Crystals that had been used.

The guards started blindfolding the group when a giant of man walked in. He was large enough to dwarf the man that examined them before. When the guards went to blindfold Rowan, the man interrupted them in an extremely thick and broken accent. “Not her,” he said, “she goes first.”

The guards nodded and pulled her towards the device. Rowan tried to struggle out of their grasp only for their grip to become firmer. “Let go of me,” she cried.

“Stop that,” the large man said as Rowan cried and struggled. “Now strip,” he ordered.

Rowan looked aghast at the order, noticing that the guards had released her as if to allow her to follow it. “W-w-what?” she stammered, fearing what twisted desires the man had. With his overwhelming stature and muscular form which Rowan could now see was covered in strange tattoos, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to fight him off if he forced her to follow his orders.

“Strip,” he repeated. “Do not fight or you break.”

“I’m not going to strip, pervert,” Rowan responded defiantly. In spite of her fear, she wanted to fight back.

“Pervert?” the man said, seemingly confused before laughing. “You think me interested in body of one not even big enough to be Kin’duur?” he asked rhetorically before nodding to the guards. One of them grabbed her as the other ripped her shirt almost completely off before dragging her to the table, strapping her down to it face first. After they had secured her in place, the man then approached her with a belt. “Bite on this,” he ordered, “so you not bite on tongue.”

Once again, Rowan refused to obey so the guards pried her mouth open and placed the belt between her teeth. While she struggled, the large man went over to one of the cabinets with methodical intent. From within it he took out an obsidian knife, a leather bag, and a cloth towel before bringing them over to another table next to the one Rowan was strapped to. He then looked to one of the guards who brought him a bowl filled with water.

Having seemingly finished his preparations, he wiped down her back with the water and the towel. He then took the knife and pressed it against her back. Rowan tried to cry out in pain, however the belt served to muffle her cries. Despite her pain, Rowan felt every cut. He carved into her flesh with morbid precision, starting in the middle of her back and working his way up and out. As the procedure dragged on, he would stop and wipe the blood away. In those moments, Rowan prayed that it was the end, only for him to take a strange crystalline powder from the leather bag and rub it into her open wounds. The pain was like none she had ever experienced before and it nearly drove her to the point of passing out.

When the procedure was completed, Rowan was removed from the room and cleaned. They gave her new clothes, little more than cloth rags, but they were clean. They also made a slight effort to bandage up her back, but the rough cotton bandages only served to make the pain even would. Once they were done with her, she was thrown into another chamber full of dishevelled humans and Ferrans. The pain from landing on the cold stone floor was immeasurable. It felt like every inch of her back was being stabbed over and over again. Even with all that agony however, she was not granted the release of passing out. If anything it had the opposite effect.

Rowan rolled over and got a clear view of the room she had been thrown into as she struggled to get up onto her knees. The guards had slammed the entrance to the chamber shut. She saw a heavy metal gate that had been infused with a Heat Crystal Array barring the way out. There was frost coming off the metal bars. Just looking at it made Rowan shiver, so she turned with considerable effort. Against one of the walls, several cots had been placed somewhat sporadically. It was depressingly clear that there wasn’t enough for everyone. On the far side of the chamber, there was a small, crystal clear spring framed by a crystalline structure that radiated light in such a way that made it seem like a window to the outside, though how, Rowan couldn’t tell, as they weren’t Light Crystals.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all the chamber had to offer. Throughout the room, perhaps thirty prisoners lay scattered in clusters of both boys and girls. For the most part, they all shared a look of defeat, as if they were on the verge of breaking. A couple of them acknowledged Rowan’s entrance into the chamber, though it was clear that they were used, perhaps even numb, to new arrivals.

There was, however, one prisoner that stood out to Rowan. A Ferran boy, perhaps only a year older than her, sat on the far side of the chamber meditating. Despite it being clear that he was heavily malnourished, much like everyone in the chamber, he showed no signs of weakness. In fact he seemed to express serenity more than anything. Rowan wanted to speak to him, to see how long he had been here and how he managed to stay strong. However, she could barely move due to the pain radiating from her back. It felt like she was being licked by fire. Instead, she struggled towards one of the empty cots so that she could hopefully rest.

*****.

In roughly hour-long intervals, the remaining six captives from Rowan’s group were thrown into the large cell-like chamber. From their heavily bandaged torsos, it was clear that they had been put through the exact same process as she had been. Like her they all tried to find a place where they could recover, though not all the cots were available so they were forced to lie on the stone floor.

It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that the older prisoners had undergone a similar scarring ritual to Rowan and the others as their backs sported highly elaborate designs formed from scar tissue. Everyone seemed to have the same core design with slight personalised variations. Strangely though, some of them had entire segments that the others did not.

The central design was composed of two perfectly symmetrical and vertically aligned segments. The top segment had a core of six diamond-like claws from which fiery tendrils erupt to coil around two crescent moons which rested above the lower segment of what seemed to be an unusually abstract tree. Rowan found herself both awed and horrified by the scars and the significant skill that had to go into perfecting the highly intricate design on a canvas of flesh.

Rowan spent much of the rest of that first day regaining her strength and agonising why they had all been scarred in such a manner. She wasn’t usually one for morbid curiosity, however, she found that against all reason, over analysing the horror of her situation was all she could do to keep her fear and grief at bay. The only other strength she could find came from remembering that Tehri was safe from suffering the same fate.

After that first day, it started to become clear what Rowan could expect while her cuts healed. The prisoners were fed a single meal a day.to prevent them from dying from starvation and ensure that they had enough energy to do whatever they were made to do. It also ensured that they would never have enough energy to fight back. Water was notably more readily available with the spring at the back of the chamber. Furthermore additional water was given to Rowan and the other six that had just undergone the scarring ritual. They were also taken away every other day to have their wounds checked and their bodies were cleaned. It seemed that the cell was also cleaned while their wounds were being tended. 

As for the other prisoners, each day ten or so were taken away with around half of them returning by the end of the day and the rest trickling back in the days that followed. Most of them acquired minor injuries and small amounts of bruising during their time away and while they all carried different emotions on their faces, they all expressed notable pain and a look of defeat. 

Usually, the longest it took for a prisoner to return was three days, however, on one occasion a prisoner didn’t return. From the muttering of the others, it seemed like they had finally given up. Rowan didn’t understand what they meant by, though she could hear a hint of temptation in their voices and it chilled her to the bone. What had they suffered that they felt that giving up could be the better option?

Over the course of that first week, Rowan tried to shake her fear, loneliness and sadness that she had been feeling. She also managed to talk with some of the other prisoners, though most of them were unwilling to talk to any of the newcomers, let alone Rowan, especially when she tried to find out what their captors were trying to accomplish. In hindsight, she realised that asking them such questions might have been lacking in tact. She had however managed to make a connection with the two girls that had arrived alongside her. One was human and the other, Ferran. 

The human girl was around a year younger than Rowan and was called Anri. She spoke with a notable accent that Rowan recognised as being from the northern half of Llen Færa. In a few small ways, she almost reminded Rowan of a mellower and older Tehri, though not quite. Though Rowan also realised that she was probably making connections where there were none. The only real similarity was a similar hair colour and the same coloured eyes. Apart from that, she was more bubbly than anything, despite the pain Rowan knew she was definitely suffering. Apart from that, she was rather plain in a pretty kind of way.

The Ferran girl on the other hand was especially noteworthy. For one, she was surprisingly young, perhaps only just eleven and the only reason Rowan could guess that was because of how adamant they were that Tehri was too young. She was by far the youngest person Rowan had seen since arriving in the caves. What really stood out about her, however, were her eyes. She had one blue eye and one golden. Heterochromia, also known as the mark of the Goddess for Her differently coloured eyes. Her eyes, along with her long coppery hair made Rowan very suspicious of her identity. When Rowan learned her name she was almost sure. The age, appearance and old Ferran name of Seres matched the with the second princess of Llen Færa to a tee. Anri, however, seemed none the wiser and instead thought that Rowan and Seres could have been cousins or even sisters.

Rowan had also hoped to talk to the Ferran boy, however, he had been taken away before she had the chance. Instead she was left with the two girls, which she wasn’t exactly complaining about. If anything, she enjoyed their company as much as one could in their situation.

During one of their conversations, which was all they could really do, the topic of where they had come from came up. Anri thought it might help if they talked about the experience, as if letting it out would ease their pain. And as she suggested it, she opened up with her own story. 

“They was attacking each night like moths to the flame. For more than a week they were. We tried to send for help, but it never came. I think we was the only survivors. Those of us they took on their black ships. ‘Twas a slaughter, I swear. The lady in charge dint seem happy when she found out. Killed all the leaders she did. Then sent us on our way to be shipped off and now here we is.” She spoke with an incredibly heavy accent and a quivering quality to her voice. All the times she had spoken before, she had tried to avoid speaking in the northern dialect, but now it didn’t matter. She spoke in the way that best expressed her feelings.

Rowan was mortified when Anri finished her story and from the looks of it, so was Seres. She had only suffered the one attack, but Anri had suffered them each night until no one was left. If anything, Rowan understood why the Raider in Chief had killed all the other leaders. That kind of thing would draw the eyes of the capital, Then again, the capture of the second princess would do that anyway.

“I think I must have been going past either your village or a nearby one when my caravan and I were attacked,” Seres opened up in a notably more refined, yet still clearly scared tone. “The dates match up with when we were on our return journey from the north. They killed every last person except me just because we drove too close to their camp. I just know that they would have killed me as well if… if they didn’t…”

“It’s okay, Seres,” Rowan interrupted before she could give away any unnecessary information. “You don’t need to say if you don’t want to.” Seres gave her an appreciative look and fell quiet. Rowan felt like it could be dangerous if more people caught on to her identity. Then she realised that both pairs of eyes had fallen on her to fill the silence. She recounted her story as best as she could without breaking down into tears. It was a challenge beyond imagining and when she was almost at her limit, Seres awkwardly tried to give her a hug in such a way as to not cause either of them too much pain. The conversation died after that.

*****

On the final day of that first week, the Ferran boy returned. His eyes were black and blue and his ribs were just as bruised. Even from a distance, Rowan could tell that they were broken. She was horrified to see him with injuries that were much worse than those of any other prisoners had returned with that week. The only only contender for his injuries were those that had arrived that week and undergone the scarring ritual.

Rowan hesitated in approaching him. She wanted to ask him some questions, but her concern for his injuries took priority. She ripped off a strip of cloth from the hem of her shirt and soaked it in the spring before heading towards him. He had returned to his meditation by the time she reached him.

“Are you okay?” she asked in Særan, taking a gamble that he’d understand. It seemed likely that he would as she was yet to encounter someone that didn’t speak at least a smattering of the language following her arrival in the caves.

The boy opened his eyes. “Yes,” he replied, “I’m quite well, thank you.” He spoke softly with a slight lilt and despite his injuries, his words gave no hint that he was in pain.

“But, you’re clearly hurt,” Rowan said, offering the cloth.

“This pain is but a test of my resolve,” he said before accepting the cloth and dabbing his eyes with it.

“If it’s a test, why did you accept the cloth? Wait, that’s not important! Isn’t that a really messed up test? Who would even give a person that kind of test?”

“The test is in accepting the pain, not suffering from it,” he explained, unfazed by Rowan’s sudden exclamation. “Besides, it would be rude to decline aid so graciously offered.”

Rowan, with a blush creeping up her cheeks, found his response rather disarming. “How can you be so calm?” she practically demanded in an attempt to hide her fluster.

“How can you be so excitable?” he asked back.

Again, his response disarmed Rowan. “B-because that’s just how I am,” she answered.

“I’m glad that you were able to answer your own question.”

Rowan felt her cheeks become even redder with embarrassment. She didn’t know how to respond to his calm and measured, yet slightly musical way of speaking. So instead, she fled to the other side of the chamber where Anri and Seres were sitting.

Author’s Note: I wonder how this chapter is going to be received. It has had one massive change from my original draft. Seres was originally going to be introduced quite a bit later in this arc, but I realised it would feel more natural here. I hope you all agree, All I know is that it is going to change this arc quite a bit having her here already and I must say, I’m excited.

For people that are interested, I have an official design for what the giant of a man carved into Rowan back. The design was drawn by me and is actually one of the first things I did for this story. It might be on the grim side, but I’m sure at least some of you will appreciate it.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 6

Content Warning: Click here for details.

Rowan’s mood improved little as evening approached on the day of the eclipse. If anything she felt confused and conflicted and her mood was a cacophony of emotion. If only apologising were easy. If only things had never gotten to this point. Such thoughts flooded her mind and she knew it wasn’t that simple and her determination to make amends did little in the face of fear and overwhelming exhaustion. Had she been more cognisant, she may have put some more faith into the eclipse and into her prayers to the goddess. Instead she waited, trying to write up an apology, and growing progressively moodier in the absence of sleep.

After what felt like an eternity, the sun set and Rowan felt her heavy eyelids drifting towards slumber, yet she was unable to take the final step and then…

*Knock!*

Rowan’s eyes shot open and she was suddenly very alert.

“Rowan, we’re leaving,” Hæra’s voice came from the other side of the door. Rowan had forgotten that they were going to the waterfront for the eclipse and she wasn’t happy; why couldn’t they just say their prayers at home? Even so, she tried to hold back her complaints as they promptly left.

It seemed almost impossibly late as they stepped outside with a half asleep Tehri in Hæra’s arms. Rowan last remembered the sun setting, but now the stars lit the canvas of the night sky. It was odd as she couldn’t recall falling asleep. If anything she had little more than blinked before being called by her mother and yet, here they were nearing the lakeside. 

On their arrival, Rowan caught a glimpse of the twins further to the west. For a second, Rowan and Kiriin’s eyes met, only for Kiriin to immediately look away with a tear glistening in the moonlight. That sight alone almost broke Rowan and her mood started to crumble and words of dismay soon followed, even if only to put up a fragile barrier to hide behind.

Seeing her daughter’s pain, Hæra did what she could do to ease her suffering. At first, Hæra’s words did little to pierce Rowan’s prickly shell, but the barrier she had put up was not equipped to contain all her emotions at once. So it cracked. And then it exploded. Rowan’s poorly contained feelings came flowing out and Hæra listened to every word. When it was over, she took the crying Rowan into her arms and sang her a lullaby.

Hush now little one
the day is won
Sleep now little one
The sun is gone

Mama’s here
to wash away your fear
Mama’s here
to wipe away your tears

Rowan was roused by a voice calling out from amongst the townsfolk; the eclipse had begun. Rowan warily opened her eyes and looked up to the crimson moon as it underwent totality. In that frozen moment, the witching hour of the eclipse, Rowan prayed to the Goddess and to her ancestors so that she might make amends.

However, what should have been a moment of silence was broken by screams and shouting to the west. A wave of fear suddenly spread through the lakeside congregation. Pandemonium soon followed as people began to flee back into town. Amidst the thundering footsteps, Rowan caught the sound of hooves from the direction of the screams.

Something was very wrong, yet it felt like they were frozen in place, unable to retreat and Tehri remained in a deep slumber. Instead they clung together as the townsfolk began to stampede around them. It was absolute chaos and Rowan couldn’t begin to fathom why; it had been so peaceful.

Amidst the chaos, Rowan strained her eyes, trying to see what was happening past the mass of bodies to the west. Through a fortuitous break in the crowd, Rowan saw the riders in the distance, weapons in hand and bodies dropping all around them. Fear gripped her heart as she tried to tell her mother what was going on. As she drew Hæra’s attention to the riders, she saw the twins fleeing with their parents. They seemed to be making good headway when Kiriin fell behind and tripped. Rowan cried out as only Kyr seemed to notice. He called after their parents, but they remained oblivious in their fear-gripped retreat. 

Rather than follow them, Rowan kept her eyes locked on Kiriin, praying for her safety until she let out a visceral cry with a look of horror on her face. Fearing what had caused Kiriin to cry out, Rowan looked towards Kyr. He was thankfully unharmed, but his face shared the same look of horror as Kiriin, which could only mean… 

Rowan kept her head turning towards the town. What she saw was a new kind of chaos. The attackers had swept round and intercepted the retreat. Yet they weren’t just cutting people down. True, a lot of people were cut down with swords and stabbed with spears, but a considerable number were captured with nets and bolas and an even larger number were either let past or herded back into the oncoming horde. In hindsight, the ensuing trampling probably caused more death than the raiders themselves. However, in spite of the chaos, Rowan’s eyes quickly befell the scene that had caused Kiriin to cry out. One of the raiders had struck the twins’ father. He lay there dying in his wife’s crying arms, a discarded spear rammed deep into his chest. Kyr was running towards them as a raider galloped past him and struck her head clean off.

Rowan threw up as she saw the head land several feet away from the body. Her hand drifted down to the dagger strapped to the leggings underneath her tunic. She wanted to hurry over to the twins, to hold them in her arms, but she couldn’t leave her family. She was too afraid that they would suffer the same fate if she left so she instead huddled close to them, praying that the raiders wouldn’t notice them. Hæra was trying to wake up Tehri with great difficulty, but it was futile. Not even the calamity and chaos all around them was enough to wake her. So they waited, hoping the opportunity to flee would find them. 

It took what felt like minutes for the area around Rowan and her family to clear. Finally they would have the chance to flee without fear of being trampled. However, with the fall of one risk, another rose. They were no longer surrounded by the people that had been keeping them hidden from the raiders. With no one to conceal them, Rowan feared that it was only a matter of time before they were targeted.

 “Ma!” she cried in her fear, “we’ve got to go.”

Hæra looked around in response to Rowan’s cry. “We’ll run east. Pray that we make it to the river before we’re seen,” she said quietly, taking Tehri up into her arms.

They kept low as they ran, their Ferran eyes helping them navigate through the darkness. The guilt from leaving the twins was tearing at Rowan’s heart. She longed to take them with her, but she could only spare them a single glance. She saw Kiriin fall down a second time, this time at the hands of a weapon. Tears streamed her eyes as she looked back. Kyr was nowhere to be seen and Rowan was too distraught to notice Kiriin struggling.

As grief and despair misted up Rowan’s eyes and ate away at her, a sharp rock bit deeply into her calf. She couldn’t help but cry out in pain, causing Hæra to turn back and see her daughter’s bleeding leg. She placed Tehri down and ripped off her sleeve, hoping to bind the wound and stem the flow of blood.

Unfortunately, Hæra wasn’t the only person to hear Rowan’s cry. Two of the raiders broke off from a larger group and started riding towards them bearing the visage of demons and armed with sabres. It was Hæra who saw the raiders first. She placed herself between them and her children. “Stay back!” she shouted.

The raiders paid her no heed as they continued their charge with grim intent. It became clear that they wouldn’t stop, if anything Hæra’s actions only seemed to hasten them, so she prepared to fight. She knew she had no chance of winning, but she could at least create an opening for Rowan and Tehri. “Get ready to take Tehri and run,” she whispered, “I’ll be right behind.”

“I can’t leave you, Ma! My legs, they aren’t working,” Rowan whimpered back.

Hæra could feel Rowan’s fear, it was palpable, so this time she turned to face her. “You’ve got to be strong, Rowan. I know you’re scared and in pain, but Tehri can’t protect herself right now.” She was running out of time. The raiders were almost upon them, so she did the only thing she could. She attacked first.

The raiders were completely unfazed by Hæra’s charge, knowing it was futile. They did not, however, expect her to leap up the air with terrible force. She crashed into one of the raiders and knocked him off of his horse. He landed with an unpleasant crack, his body spasmed once before becoming still, whilst Hæra’s arm snapped backward as she landed. The other raider stopped and whistled, looking almost impressed.

With one threat down and the other now fixated on Hæra, she cried out, “Go now, Rowan! Run!”

Rowan lifted Tehri into her arms and staggered away as fast as she could. She only hoped it was fast enough. Yet for all she tried, she felt like she was only going slower and slower. Tehri was too heavy and the gash on her leg was sapping what little energy she had left. She wished that Tehri was awake so that she could run on her own, but at the same time she was glad that Tehri couldn’t see the horror and carnage that surrounded them. Alas, there was little Rowan could do but stagger onwards with just under a mile to the river.

It didn’t take long for a series of whistles to find Rowan’s ears. They were coming from behind her and within a couple of moments more sounded from towards the town. Rowan feared that they might be signalling each other. 

Please don’t be calling for backup. Please!

Rowan could feel her heart tighten with trepidation. She couldn’t take another step. Not with her mother in peril. Instead, she kept low, trying to keep her and Tehri out of sight. After what felt like an eternity, Rowan heard some footsteps approaching her. Fear stopped her heart for a second as she froze completely. Slowly, she turned to face the person who the footsteps belonged to, fearing the worst. Instead, she saw a miracle. Rowan could barely believe her as Hæra stumbled towards them. Despite all the odds, she had survived, though not without cost. Hæra’s right arm hung limply and her left hand was mangled beyond repair. Furthermore, she had a deep cut across her left eye that was bleeding heavily.

“Ma!” Rowan exclaimed, tears in her eyes. “What happened? Your hand? Your eye?” 

“It’s okay, Rowan, don’t cry,” Hæra smiled warily, “I’m here now. I said I would be, didn’t I?” She wrapped her one working arm around Rowan and Tehri and hugged them as best as she could manage.

Rowan cried heavily in her mother’s embrace. She hadn’t lost her. The nightmare wasn’t becoming a reality. She had hope. Hæra hummed softly to her. It was a comforting sound, and one that made Rowan deaf to the sound of the approaching raiders.

Suddenly, Rowan found herself and Tehri pushed back as the raiders galloped towards them. Hæra followed from putting all her weight into pushing them away. By chance, the raider charging forwards with a brandished sabre hadn’t anticipated Hæra’s move, resulting in a much shallower cut across her back. Her luck didn’t last, however, as she saw Rowan try and run away again with Tehri, only to be caught by a bolas cast by a raider from the south.

Hæra’s face was aghast as Rowan fell with a yelp. ”No!” she cried.

Once again, the tides had turned and once again, Rowan’s hope crashed back down into the depths of despair. They had been caught with no more chance to escape, her mother had been seriously hurt and she had failed to protect Tehri. 

This can’t be happening… It’s all my fault.

Tehri felt so far away. Rowan had dropped her as she fell and now the distance between felt insurmountable as Rowan tried to crawl towards her. In her despair, Rowan barely noticed the raiders dismounted. One of them grabbed her by the hair and another intercepted Hæra.

Tears streamed down Rowan’s face as the raider forced her to look at Hæra. They whispered to Rowan, “Skulking kittens need to be punished,” with a snarl, “now be a good girl and watch, little kitten.” The raider gave a nod and the other took a knife from their belt and pulled Hæra back, exposing her throat. 

For a brief moment, Hæra broke free. “Be strong Rowan. I’ll — always be — by your side. I love…” All too suddenly, it was over. The raider was back in control and with grim determination, they slowly drew the blade of the knife across Hæra’s throat, its edge biting deeply into her flesh and severing arteries. Blood sprayed from the open wound like a fountain as Hæra dropped to the ground. 

Crash!

The world fell around Rowan, her mother’s blood dripping from her face like tears. She sobbed and sobbed. “Ma,” she said, almost choking on her tears, “don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.” 

The raider let Rowan crawl over to Hæra’s side. Tears and blood mixed and crystallised as they fell on her limp body. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll be a good girl, just please… Don’t go…” 

“It seems like our work here is done,” the raider snarled, seemingly satisfied by Rowan’s despair. “It won’t be long before this kitten breaks.”

“What will Awaken on the other side, I wonder.” 

“As do I,” the raider smiled as the Witching Hour came to a close. “Time to sleep, little kitten.” The raider struck swiftly, knocking Rowan out.

*****

At least several hours had passed by the time Rowan came to, woken up by a throbbing pain coming from her calf and a dull ache from her neck. She opened her eyes to a sunlit, forest clearing somewhere near a mountain range, though she couldn’t tell which one. She wasn’t alone in the clearing; there were a number of people who appeared to the raiders that attacked Næmyris. Furthermore, there were roughly two dozen people from Næmyris tied up alongside her, all of whom appeared to be no older than seventeen. 

The scene was a painful reminder of the attack, of all the loss Rowan had suffered only hours before. Grief struck her right to the core. She prayed that it was all a nightmare, that she would wake up in bed. Alas, she knew it was futile; everything felt too real, visceral even.

Rowan looked for familiar faces amongst the captives, hoping to find Tehri or the twins. She recognised a couple of them from her local neighbourhood, some that she was relatively friendly with such as the granddaughter of the old couple that always handed out sweet treats to all the children and the butcher’s nephew. The others she recognised from around the town, though she didn’t know them personally. It was clear, however, that neither Tehri or the twins were in sight. 

As Rowan confirmed her fears, loneliness weighed heavily on her heart. She cried out in despair, only for no sound to escape her small body. With the exception of the raider keeping watch over the captives, no one paid heed to her silent cry. Instead the raiders engaged each other in conversation, seemingly discussing a captive that Rowan couldn’t see. 

“She’s too young for the good lords and ladies. Last time we brought a child, they had him killed on the spot for not being worth their time,” the one closest to Rowan was saying.

“Should we kill her now, then?” a Ferran raider asked.

“That’d be a waste. I’m sure that we’d find a buyer for her if we looked around,” a third raider responded. 

“That could work,” the first raider piped up. “I know a few people in The Azure City that might be interested, especially with how docile she is when she sleeps. 

The last comment caught Rowan’s attention. She looked over to the raiders and by chance saw a struggling young girl with strawberry blonde hair between them. It was Tehri, there was no mistaking it. Before, Rowan had been too detached to care about the prospect of the mystery girl being killed or sold to a pervert in a foreign land. However, with the realisation that it was Tehri that they were talking about, she found her conscious self crashing back to the here and now. 

The thought of what might happen to Tehri made her angry, yet the bindings prevented her from acting. Then she remembered the dagger her brother had bought her eleventh birthday. She could still feel it strapped to her leg. They didn’t know that she was armed. Or perhaps they didn’t care. With how many there were, that didn’t seem too unlikely. Even so it gave her a little spark of hope.

I can save her! Please just give me a chance.

If only she wasn’t being watched. All of her plans collapsed if she was seen breaking loose, so she waited and contemplated on the rest of her plan. As she did so, the conversation between the raiders continued. “We can’t sell to perverts. She’d be better off dead.” The Ferran raider said, seeming repulsed by the idea.

“Stop trying to be all moral, Dan. We kill and torture people for hire,” the third raider laughed.

A fourth one interjected, “Leave him be, Malin. He’s overly sensitive about anything that isn’t directly involving blood,” a familiar sounding voice purred. It belonged to a young woman with long, raven black hair and fair skin. Unlike the voice, Rowan couldn’t recognise the woman’s appearance. It wasn’t until she spoke again that Rowan was able to identify her. “Personally, I think we should keep her. The little kitten was holding onto her so dearly before we killed its mother. We could use her to break the kitten.” There was a cruel, sadistic glee to her voice and Rowan knew that she was the one.

Rowan’s anger exploded and heat began to radiate from her body. Slowly the heat concentrated around her wrists and ankles. One of the raiders noticed something was awry and asked if the others smelled burning. None of them seemed to notice the smell as they finished the conversation. After some further back and forth, they decided to kill Tehri in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed and people to watch over. From what Rowan could hear, it sounded like they planned on making it seem like an animal had killed her to help hide their tracks.

Two of the raiders, including the woman with the raven hair, dragged a struggling Tehri out of the clearing. As they left, the anger continued to build up deep within Rowan’s very being. Slowly at first, but nothing could hold back the flames once they had been stoked. Not even ten minutes had passed when Rowan’s anger erupted from her very being, causing her bindings to violently combust. She barely noticed how the fire had burned away at the flesh of her wrists and ankles. She didn’t care. The only thing that was on her mind in that moment was killing that woman and saving Tehri.

The raiders that had remained in the clearing to keep watch over their catch were caught completely off guard by the seemingly spontaneous combustion. Knowing that she had mere seconds to act, Rowan bolted after the raiders that had spirited Tehri away. She bounded through the trees at a speed she didn’t even know was possible. Her anger elevated her strength to new heights and left behind a trail of fire in her wake. In the middle of a leap, Rowan drew her dagger from its sheath, ignoring the shouts behind her.

In less than a minute, Rowan was hot on the tail of Tehri’s captors. The closer she got to them, the louder her run became as her sadness and despair was dominated by anger and the will to protect her sister. As she was almost upon them, the raven haired woman turned to face the approaching storm. Rowan gave her no quarter, not even a second to react, as she lunged at her.

 The woman’s gambeson offered little protection against the thrust of the dagger as its fine point penetrated through the layers of cloth and slipped past the ribs. The thrust didn’t stop there; Rowan was going too fast. She couldn’t stop her momentum from carrying her forwards. An audible crash soon followed as the two of them went flying into a tree. Rowan clambered back up to see the woman lying dead against the tree, her face contorted in shock. The dagger had been driven deep into her breast. Rowan tried to pull the dagger out, but the impact had caved in the woman’s chest cavity and lodged the blade straight into bone. Even with her enhanced strength, Rowan wouldn’t be able to free the blade in any reasonable time.

Left with little choice, Rowan took hold of the first weapon she saw, drawing the woman’s sword free. It felt unwieldy in her hands; the hilt was too large for her and the balance much further down the blade than she was used to. Still, it was her only option for defending Tehri. Knowing what she had to do, Rowan turned to face her opponent.

The other raider had drawn his own sword, looking notably more competent with it than Rowan. He stood in a low guard, waiting and ready for her to act. She knew that she couldn’t act rashly against a more experienced opponent despite how much she wanted to in her hate-fuelled rage. Instead, she played it as slow as she could, placing herself between him and Tehri whilst keeping the point of her sword level with his chest. 

With her offhand, Rowan pulled her necklace free from her neck. She then weighed her options and decided to take an incredible risk. She turned towards Tehri to cut her free of her bonds and place the necklace in her hands. The risk paid off as the raider’s caution had held him back. Turning to face him again, Rowan spoke to her sister. “Tehri, I want you to run. Please. Try and find a town or a village. Get home to Da. Go to Tyris in the capital if you need to. A-a-and Tehri — I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you when you felt so alone. I won’t ask you to forgive me, just live!” 

Tehri looked up to Rowan, her expression suggesting she hadn’t quite processed what had just transpired. “S-s-sis?” she stammered as Rowan started engaging the raider.

“Go now! I’ll protect you and I promise that I’ll be back with you before you know it,” Rowan said to Tehri as she attempted to parry the raider.

Still in shock, Tehri struggled to her feet. She still hadn’t processed what was going on, just that fear was gripping her heart. The only words she could manage in response were, “I’m sorry too.”

“Go!” Rowan cried, begging Tehri to run.

Hearing the plea in her sister’s voice, Tehri turned away. Before fleeing, she said a few simple words in farewell. “I love you, Sis.”

Tehri’s parting words struck Rowan to the core as it resonated with her mother’s last words. Anger started slipping away, only to be replaced with courage reinforced by love and hate. In that instant, while she may have been alone, she had not been abandoned. The pain in her leg became a distant memory and Rowan felt her strength surpass the heightened limits that had been granted by her prior anger. 

With her resolve tempered, Rowan rushed her opponent with an overwhelming burst of speed. The raider only just managed to bring his sword up from his low guard to block the attack. His rapid reflexes barely managed to save his life as the sword managed to offset her balance and edge alignment. Even so, she managed to blow through his guard. As her blade struck his core, it twisted in her hands from the poor alignment. With her momentum, she was once again reminded that her newfound strength was more than she could handle. She had committed to her attack, so she had no choice other than to keep moving, each step causing her balance to deteriorate further. She fell, dropping the sword as the raider gasped for air. Rowan struggled to recover quickly enough to take advantage of the raider’s momentary incapacitation.

 Despite her best efforts, the raider had recovered and was upon her. She struggled free of his grasping claws, not caring that her clothes were being torn. Her hand found a chance rock in the undergrowth as he grabbed hold of her leg and started pulling her back. She couldn’t let him get on top of her again. He was far too heavy, weighing considerably more than three times the amount that she did. So she took a chance throw with the rock. It missed, but it was enough to knock him off balance. Rowan kicked him to the ground and pounced. She wrapped her small hands around his neck and squeezed as hard as she could. As she strangled him with all her might, the remnant of her anger returned to burn his flesh.

Unfortunately, Rowan hadn’t realised that she was losing strength. All too quickly, however, she found herself growing tired and her grip began to weaken. Taking advantage of Rowan’s weakened state, the raider threw her off in a last ditch effort before drawing his knife. Back in control, he drove his knife into her abdomen, just above the hips. As the blade bit into her flesh, Rowan winced in pain, which was only made worse as the raider suddenly collapsed on her. His gambeson was quickly becoming wet from blood as he lay there, almost as if had been stabbed in the same place as Rowan.

Unable to move, Rowan heard footsteps in the distance. The other raiders were upon her. “She’s a feisty one,” the raider called Malin scoffed. ”The good lords will pay excellent money for her.”

“What about the other one?” another raider asked.

“Let her run. A fledgling Ardent with this much strength is easily worth a dozen potentials. Now get the chains; she is not to go unwatched for the rest of the way to the coast.”

Two of the raiders rushed on back while another two grabbed Rowan firmly by the arms. At this point she was too weak to fight back. Back at the clearing, she was chained up in a way to prevent her from getting any leverage from her muscles. She noticed that a couple more people had escaped in the confusion she caused. Knowing that she had been able to help people escape in addition to protecting her sister, gave her some small satisfaction which kept her going as the raider’s placed a canvas sack on her head and threw her over the back of a horse before gathering the remaining captives and riding out.

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Chapter 5

Two and half years had passed since Hæra had told Rowan the truth about her long-lost twin sister, Rina. That in and of itself was quite the shock. However, it also held a deeper meaning; that Rowan had lived meant that she would likely one day Awaken as an Ardent and she was determined to make it so, lest Rina’s death have been in vain. With that in mind, she had tried to learn as much as she could about Ardents from Master Idyr. She managed to quite a bit out of him on the relationship between the Awakened and Resonance. Resonance was, after all, one of his specialties. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly the information she was looking for. Knowing that it is the Resonance between the Awakened individual, their respective moon and the spiritual embodiments of emotions told her nothing on how to awaken. So she turned to the books.

Rowan asked Master Idyr and her father to get her what accounts they could find and give them to her. Master Idyr gladly fuelled her academic fervour, though he didn’t seem to understand the reasoning. For Gyren, it was a more challenging endeavour as he didn’t have much in the way of academic contacts and he didn’t do much in the way of academic trade. Even so, he tried whenever he was away on one of his ventures to Midiris or Særis. By the end of the first year, she had a veritable wealth of records on the subject; so much so that she found it difficult to even scratch the surface.

The literature was dense and difficult to read and lots of it felt incomplete. Rowan surmised this was likely due to how rare Awakening was. It was rather difficult to study a group that was less than a percent of the population at the best of times. There were still some rather significant things that she learned. One particular fact that she found interesting was that practically every recorded Ardent and Stoic had their Awakening before their seventeenth birthdays. For some reason, as you got older, Awakening became increasingly less likely. Rowan also found a potential answer to her question and it sent a chill down her spine. It actually made her want to just wait and let it happen naturally. No one should need to go through what she read and it wasn’t even a guarantee. She tried not to think about that part of her research as she looked for other ways to encourage her Awakening.

Of course, Rowan had done much more than just studying since that emotional Midsummer’s Day. She practiced with her mother practically every day to get better at singing and dancing. In addition to wanting to spend time with her, Rowan also valued the strength, flexibility, and athleticism that dancing offered her and she really enjoyed singing. It also helped show that her Ferran ancestry was holding fast as she remained slender despite her growing strength. Instead of her muscles getting larger, they got denser, especially in her legs. This was further aided by her continued training out in the forest which she was now doing with the twins as well.

The three of them had also all made leaps and bounds with the training regimen that Tyris had given them, even going so far to further personalising their approach and focus with the training. Kiriin succeeded in her goal of surpassing the other two with her respective weapons and she had also started training with the hunters to capitalise on her Gift. Kyr on the other hand had focused much less on weaponry and more on strategy and into ways he could innovate during combat. He had also started training in what he liked to call an offensive defence and was under the impression that spinning was a good trick when you were using a large two-handed sword. Rowan thought it was rather silly but he swore it was effective when you were outnumbered. 

Rowan had also made leaps and bounds with her training. She had fully begun capitalising on the explosive strength in her legs to outmanoeuvre the twins. With her specialty being in light, nimble weaponry, she found that she tended to have the advantage whenever she had the initiative. Unfortunately, the increased intensity of her fighting style did tend to tire her out much quicker so she quickly lost that advantage in more drawn out fights. The twins were much more patient which often frustrated Rowan when it led to her loss.

On top of all the training and studying she had done, Rowan also noticed the years bring other noteworthy changes. Her body had started to mature and she even managed to grow a wee bit taller, though she was still dwarfed by Kiriin and Kyr. Thankfully, with Bragi out of the equation, Rowan had grown to be much happier and she liked how it was changed. Granted, the compliments that she had been getting from Kyr, and Kiriin for that matter, certainly helped. If anything, she couldn’t help but glow upon being given the compliments, even if she didn’t completely understand the reason for the sudden influx in them. 

That isn’t to say that growing up was all good; seeing the blood at the beginning of her first cycle freaked her out massively and the cramps certainly didn’t help, regardless of the fact that she was expecting it. Time had lessened the pain somewhat, but there was a tenderness to both her body and heart that the inevitable flow of her cycle never ceased to bring.

There were other issues that Rowan had noticed during those years. Unfortunately, these issues were even worse than her period or any other factor of growing up. As Rowan grew more independent, Tehri started distancing herself from her and Rowan couldn’t fathom why. It wasn’t as if Tehri was also going through the same changes, she was still a couple of years too young for that, but it was like she was an entirely different person. It was painful to see. Rowan even missed Tehri’s manic episodes. It beat seeing her depressed and feeling so far away. Unfortunately, Rowan could only think of one solution to the problem and that was to also pull away. It was easier than the pain of failing to get closer even if it meant losing her little sister.

Alas, Rowan’s solution wasn’t perfect as often her thoughts would return to whether or not she was doing the right thing. Such was the case on that one winter’s day as she wandered through the frozen streets of Næmyris. Though she had a destination in mind, she found herself meandering more than a particularly adventurous river. She felt lost, but she knew she couldn’t let herself be defeated by her thoughts, not until she won the battle that awaited her, so she made her way to the edge of town where a sea of white befell her eyes. There lay the path to her much needed distraction. She trekked forwards towards the war of snow and ice that she knew to be taking place over the crest of the next hill. On the precipice of the battle, she clapped her hands to her face.

“Right! That’s enough wallowing for me!”

“I hope.”

Before her eyes the battle between the twins and some twenty others that Rowan recognised to be from their class. To a casual observer, the ten to one disparity would seem to be massively unfair and, in a sense, they would be correct, just not in the way they were thinking. Granted, it was true that some of their classmates had the same Gifts as them, they hadn’t been spending the last two and a half years engaging in combat training or learning how to take advantage. Instead they apprenticed with craftsmen or helped in the farms and lumber mills and they were thoroughly unprepared. 

One by one, the larger group fell to either the unrelenting assault from Kyr or the stealth strikes from Kiriin. Even Rowan was amazed by the speed and accuracy at which Kyr was able to throw the perfect spheres of snow from the veritable mountain beside him. It was difficult to deny the efficacy of his offensive defence as he supplemented his attack by bunkering down in a fortified position. He also served as a perfect compliment to the equally impressive Kiriin. She wore white furs, using the camouflage to fade into the snowy backdrop and striking before anyone knew what had hit them. Whenever they tried to focus on her, they left themselves open to Kyr with his fortified position and pre-prepared arsenal made him equally difficult to attack. Furthermore, whenever they tried, Kiriin would hit them from behind.

Had Rowan been there earlier, things may have gone somewhat differently, but despite it being a Day of Rest, she still had her dance lessons. Fortunately, it also meant that she was primed for action as she discarded her heavy coat and leapt into the fray. As she weaved through the crossfire, Rowan quickly formulated a plan. She knew that making snowballs would be futile; she’d never be able to make them fast enough or throw them accurately enough to hit Kiriin or strong enough to break through Kyr’s fortifications and it would make her a sitting duck.

Twice, Kiriin attempted to throw a snowball in Rowan’s face to no avail. Rowan would have chased after her but a clump of snow from Kyr just narrowly missed her and the moment was gone. Like the others, she knew there was no way she could keep her eyes on Kiriin with Kyr’s relentless assault. He would need to go first. Turning on her heel Rowan capitalised on her superior speed, smaller frame and lighter clothing to charge Kyr.

Keep moving. Left. Right. Jump. If I don’t stop, Kyr won’t hit me.

Rowan did all she could to move as unpredictably as she could, zigzagging at seemingly random intervals and in fluid motions she slid, jumped and rolled, her silhouette bearing no consistency of form as she ran. The closest Kyr came to hitting her was from the odd glancing blow and before he knew it, she was upon him. In the last few seconds of her charge, Rowan accelerated to a significant speed and at the lip of Kyr’s fortified trench, she flipped over him, spinning in the air. As she landed, she used her full momentum to carry on spinning, her foot striking the mountain of snowballs, causing it to collapse on an unsuspecting Kyr. 

In just those few moments, all of Kyr’s prep was brought crashing down. His classmates had already started making their way towards him with a predatory look in their eyes. In the time it would take him to escape the snow, they would be upon him and he was without any snowballs to defend himself. Rowan took a second to bask in her initial victory, a rising laugh washing away the thoughts that had been plaguing her. She couldn’t bask forever, however, as Kiriin was still at large. 

To most humans, Kiriin was practically invisible when she remained still, the white furs blending in with the snow and the small flecks of grey fur breaking up her silhouette. Rowan, however, bore the eyes of her Ferran ancestors, and with them she saw a much greater range of colour and could better distinguish the finer subtleties between shades and to her, the greys were so much darker, and the whites featured a pale violet tint quite different to that of the snow. It wasn’t long before she found Kiriin in her hiding place. The chase was on.

Kiriin was a significantly more challenging opponent, primarily due to her mobility and the odd instance of the snow being especially blinding when the sun caught it in just the wrong way. Typically, Rowan would have a clear speed advantage, but Kiriin was running towards the treeline in the direction of the setting sun, slowing Rowan down to a more manageable pace because of the glare. Alas, the sun soon ceased to be an issue as they reached the shade of the forest.

Everyone else was out of sight as the chase reached its climax, as was Kiriin. In the moment that Rowan’s eyes adapted to the shade, she had slipped beyond the trees. Suddenly, she burst out from behind a particular large oak, a snowball in both of her hands. Rowan only just dodged in time before she tackled Kiriin to the ground, sending her hat flying several feet away. With the hat gone, Kiriin’s hair flared out and her hazel eyes twinkled mischievously. Looking down at Kiriin, Rowan’s heart skipped a beat and butterflies fluttered in her stomach. The soft blush on Kiriin’s cheeks painted her in the most beautiful light. Rowan instinctively leaned in closer, quickly noticing the faint smell of perfume; Kiriin almost never wore perfume. Even if it was only for the briefest moment, she was absolutely stunning.

In Rowan’s moment of pause, Kiriin closed the gap and their lips touched. That brief moment extended into an eternity. A kiss had never felt special before, but this time, Rowan’s heart wouldn’t stop racing, and from the sound of it, so was Kiriin’s. Furthermore, the kiss lit a small flame within her heart that invigorated her very being and all her fatigue slipped away. She was feeling the power of her Gift for the first time and it was magical.

But what does this mean? I can’t have feelings for Kiriin, can I?

The eternal moment passed and the kiss came to a close. They lingered ever so briefly and their noses bumped together softly. Giggling filled with mirth soon followed as they smiled at each other and rolled around in the snow. Suddenly, Kirin sprayed Rowan in the face to hide her reddening face. Instead of retaliating in kind, Rowan leaned in for a kiss of her own.

When Rowan eventually pulled back, she opened her eyes to see Kiriin sporting a blush as deep a red as Rowan’s crimson locks. “Y-y-you k-kissed me,” Kiriin stammered.

“You kissed me first.”

“Well, yes. But. Well. You see. You were really cute and really close and I hoped you wouldn’t mind and and…” Kiriin struggled to find the right words to convey her feelings and in the end they failed her. “Gah, I’m so embarrassed!”

It was rare to see Kiriin so flustered. In fact, Rowan was sure that this was yet another first and it tugged at her heartstrings. ”I didn’t mind. You surprised me, but I really didn’t mind. I actually kind of liked it.”

Kiriin let out a large sigh, “I’m so relieved. I was scared you might reject me because I’m a girl or because maybe someone else had caught your eye.”

“Wait! Does that mean?”

Kiriin nodded.

This time it was Rowan’s turn to blush a deep crimson as the realisation struck her. “I think I like you too.” 

“If you’re sure,” Kiriin responded hesitantly 

“I am.”

A simple admission, but one with a significant meaning to the two adolescent girls. It didn’t matter to Rowan that Kiriin was a girl, nor would it have mattered if she was a boy. What mattered was that it was Kiriin as it was Kiriin that had touched her heart.

The pair soon walked back to the others after they had collected themselves. They agreed to keep it a secret for the time being, in part to minimise any teasing and also because it made it feel all the more special. By the time they returned, Kyr was, in a sense, free from his snow tomb, though it seemed like he was wearing it more than anything as the snow clung to his clothes.

“What took you so long?” His question got little in the way of a verbal response. Instead, the girls awkwardly looked away from each other, trying their hardest not to blush. “Fine! Don’t tell me then,” he sulked, kicking at the snow as he stomped away.

*****

“Love is an incredible feeling.” A simple conclusion that Rowan had come to and was further proven every moment that she spent with Kiriin that winter. It was like a blissful dream; so much so that the two had difficulty containing their young love despite how hard they were trying to keep it secret. At Kiriin’s request, they took extra care to hide it from Kyr, though it was clear that he was growing suspicious. In hindsight, his suspicions were likely an unfortunate side effect of how much time they had been spending alone together. They didn’t mean to exclude him, but they knew if he was around them more often, he would know for sure. That idea didn’t bother Rowan so much, but Kiriin insisted.

Their parents caught on quickly which resulted in a rather awkward conversation, but all in all, it went considerably better than expected. Kiriin’s parents were already aware of her inclinations and Rowan’s were largely unsurprised by the whole affair. That isn’t to say that their relationship was the norm, but their parents made sure that they knew it wasn’t unusual despite what some might say.

Besides Rowan’s and Kiriin’s relationship, winter continued largely without incident. They continued with their training, their education and of course with playing and embracing their youth. And like any other winter, it soon passed into spring. In the week between the seasons, word came from the high temple in Midiris bringing news of an upcoming Crimson Eclipse, causing quite the stir. To many, the news in and of itself was worthy of celebration. Rowan, however, wasn’t particularly excited, especially as she barely remembered the last one and she was largely preoccupied with her fourteenth birthday which was little more than a fortnight away.

Just before the announcement, Gyren had told Rowan that he was going to take her downriver to Tærin City so that she could choose her own gift. Of course, there would be more gifts that’d be kept as a surprise and, in truth, the trip was part of the gift. It was for this reason she was excited if that aspect of the trip was left as an unspoken fact for the sake of tradition. Rowan was also looking forward to spending some quality time with her father. He was so often busy with work and went on business trips throughout the year so time with him was special. This was especially true now that she was older. In the years after Tehri was born, Rowan would often play in his store while he worked as Hæra was often busy looking after Tehri. For a while, some of his customers even saw her as an adorable little mascot. Unfortunately, that was no longer viable as she had grown a lot since then and was often very busy herself.

As the trip drew ever closer, Rowan could barely contain her excitement. She rarely ever had the chance to leave Næmyris, the last time being when Tyris was granted the rank of Junior Captain in the Navy just under four years ago. She envied her brother and father for how much grander their worlds must seem from all of their travelling, though she understood the reasons why she could so rarely travel. Tehri was unfortunately not the best at travelling long distances, especially with her tendency towards a weak constitution and Rowan wasn’t old enough to accompany Gyren alone when he went off on one of his business ventures. But now it was her turn to go on a grand adventure, one that would take several days if everything went according to plan.

Rowan spent much of the time before the trip talking to the twins about what she should get while she was there. There was much to consider and much to be excited about. Should she buy any souvenirs while she was there? What would Kiriin like? Or Kyr? Would buying souvenirs be weird, considering the reason for the trip? These were all questions she could obviously only ask herself, but the twins were still a great help. It was also significantly less awkward than it could have been considering the strange relationship dynamic between them. Rowan was sure he knew at this point, but any reaction he may have had was overwhelmed with excitement.

“You should ask for a sword!” he said enthusiastically while they were all drinking some tea at the twins’ house.

“She already has a sword, Kyr,” Kiriin reminded him.

“Well yeah, but she probably won’t get that one until she’s much older.”

“That’s not the point. Plus, swords are expensive.”

“Kiriin’s right. I don’t need a sword. Especially when we already have the practice weapons that Tyris gave us.” Rowan spoke in a neutral tone as to not give the impression of favouritism.

“What about a knife?” he asked.

Rowan patted her thigh, “already got one.”

“Right,” Kyr said in a rather deflated manner.

“You really do carry that around everywhere, don’t you?” Kiriin interjected.

“It’s useful to have around and I like it.”

“Even if… Ouch!” Kyr didn’t get to finish whatever he was going to say due to Kiriin elbowing him firmly in the ribs.

Rowan laughed with mirth “What about a teddy bear? Da wouldn’ be expecting that.”

“Yes!” Kiriin exclaimed. “A big fluffy one. Maybe a Giant Mandra?”

“That would be absolutely perfect!”

“Why would you want a teddy bear? Doesn’t sound very useful”

“Stop being such a bore, Kyr,” Kiriin laughed. “Teddy bears are cute.”

“And cuddly.”

“Presents don’t need to be useful.” 

Kyr was blushing with embarrassment as Rowan and Kiriin chided him playfully.

“There’s no need to blush, Kyr. We’re only teasing. Isn’t that right, Kiriin?”

“Well sorry,” Kyr interjected before Kiriin could answer, “but I’m clearly not needed here. I’m sure you two would much rather be alone with how in sync you are.” He punctuated his remark by standing up suddenly and turning to leave the room.

“That’s not what we were saying,” Rowan objected.

“I don’t want to hear it!” he interrupted before fleeing.

“Kyr!” Kiriin called after him. “I’m so sorry, Rowan. This is why I didn’t want him to know.”

Kiriin then went after her brother, leaving Rowan alone in the room. She said her goodbyes not long after that and while the day had ended on a sour note, she’d still had tremendous fun. 

The air was crisp as she walked home. It was a beautiful evening, all things considered and Rowan felt as if there was little that could get in the way of her excitement. With a burst of joy, Rowan opened the front door of her house.

“I’m home!”

Her words were meant for no one in particular, but Tehri had just so happened to be in the middle of walking down the stairs. “So you are,” she responded distantly, her face haunted by a deep melancholy.

Rather than be phased by her little sister’s sadness, Rowan gave her a smile. “Good evening, Tehri. You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

It was a simple response, yet one with a hollow depth and complexity. Tehri was anything but fine. It was as if she had gone to the absolute bottom of depression, reached the other side and sunk right back down again; a profound despair that Rowan couldn’t even begin to fathom.

“Are you sure?” Rowan didn’t need the answer. Something about Tehri’s sadness resonated with the core of her being and could feel it seep through the cracks. Her heart ached and all of her excitement bled away. Rowan didn’t understand why it was hitting her so hard. She had barely thought about or even interacted much with Tehri for pretty much the entirety of winter. Even as Rowan recalled how Tehri had been, those memories paled in comparison to what she saw now.

 Loneliness. Tehri’s affliction was becoming clear to Rowan now, a deep all consuming loneliness had been weighing deeply on her heart. How had she not seen it? Her eyes had been open, but blind to see what really mattered. Perhaps she may have if she had spent the time to look instead of turning her back on Tehri. She had walked forwards with her own life and then blamed Tehri for being unable to keep up. What had happened to being a good older sister and helping Tehri when she stumbled through life? In hindsight it was all so obvious, and Rowan didn’t want to believe it. She fled to her room and tried to hide from the revelation.

Ignorance was bliss, knowing is a nightmare.

*****

Sleep failed Rowan that night. No matter how far she ran, Tehri’s haunted loneliness caught her. Because of her somewhat poor constitution and strange moods, Tehri had never had many friends growing up. Not many people understood the pendulum-like nature of her moods, the depression and the mania, especially children. 

When Tehri was depressed, she tended to be withdrawn and rather apathetic, not really wanting to spend time with anyone and the lack of a smile was never too welcoming. Then there was the mania, which was arguably harder to deal with, especially if it happened directly after a depressive episode. To see someone go from despair and sadness to having boundless energy and a lack of inhibitions to stop them from acting on some of the thoughts that had struck them while they were down was a terrifying sight. Yet, despite all she suffered, she still had the support of her family and she had friends in Rowan and the twins. It wasn’t the same as friends her own age, but it was enough for Tehri, and Rowan had taken that away from her.

Guilt played a scornful melody on Rowan’s heart. She had failed as a sister. She had failed Tehri and no one else could see it. Tehri probably hated her now, not that Rowan would blame her, she’d probably feel the same way in her shoes. Already, a small part of her being, down in the depths of her soul, hated herself for abandoning Tehri, but what was she to do? Could she have done anything differently? Probably. Definitely. Not that it mattered now. She had already failed. Her thoughts kept coming back to that, like a circle. She needed to break free, but, was she even deserving of that? Of being forgiven?

No!

Even so, Rowan had to make things right, for Tehri’s sake.

*****

After what felt like an eternity, they crept over the horizon and Rowan stepped onto the boat with her father to the dissonant sound of birdsong.

“I know it’s early, Rowan, but it’s almost twenty leagues to Tærin. I’m sure you’ll be able to sleep on the boat and this way, we can get a nice meal at the inn when we arrive.”

Rowan nodded glumly as they found some seats. Gyren wrapped his arm around her shoulders as she slowly drifted asleep, her guilt no longer enough to hold back her exhaustion. She eventually woke up a few hours later at around midday with her head resting on her father’s lap. It seemed as though he hadn’t even moved whilst she had been sleeping. He smiled down at her. “Feeling better?” 

Rowan nodded in response and she even felt that it wasn’t even that much of a lie. While it was still true that she felt pretty awful, a small speck of not so bad shined within, like  a lone star amidst the sablest of night skies.

After a moment Rowan decided to speak up and ask her father a question. “Am I a bad sister?”

“No, of course not,” he responded. “What’s brought this on?”

“Tehri’s depressed because of me.”

“That’s nonsense. We don’t know why she goes through her phases like she does.”

“But they never last this long,” Rowan said sadly.

“That doesn’t make it your fault.” Gyren sounded confused as he tried to rebut Rowan’s feelings of guilt.

“I made it worse by not spending time with her. She’s lonely, Da.”

“She is? How do you know that? Did she say something?”

“I felt it clear as day. It was like a terrible abyss. I can still feel it and I know it must be so much worse for Tehri.”

“I can see why you feel it’s your fault then but it sounds like you were just overwhelmed with empathy.”

“Like an Ardent,” Rowan muttered under her breath without even realising.

“What was that, dear?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Rowan responded with a confused look on her face.

The conversation didn’t progress much further after that, so instead of letting it drift into an awkward silence, they had a light lunch. They then spent the rest of the journey playing Ruun and a few other board games that were available for use on the boat. They arrived at Tærin Port as the sun was setting, which was admittedly rather early at the beginning of spring. With a chill in the air, they made their way to the Twin Moons Inn, a rather wealthy establishment decorated in both blue and red. It was a design familiar to most of the larger cities on the island. Despite its splendour, however, it still paled in comparison to an inn of the same name in the capital.

When they eventually finished their dinner, it was clear that it would be too late to do any shopping so instead, they decided to just go for a walk. It was a welcome distraction as they explored the city. Rowan was surprised by how different it felt. They were only twenty leagues away from home yet it felt like a completely different world to her. She actually found it intimidating with how much stone there was in the city, especially with the towering walls. That isn’t to say the city was grey. In fact, the stone buildings in the wealthier districts were surprisingly colourful as it seemed like each one was painted in a myriad of different styles and fashions. Unfortunately, some of them clashed rather badly as the owners apparently had no regard for their surroundings. 

The city also seemed to have an aversion to greenery. Which is to say that there was a severe lack of trees or gardens. Much more value was placed in efficiency and packing in as much real estate as possible. It made sense with the walls making it difficult to expand outwards, but the few trees and feeble attempts at gardens didn’t quite cut it in Rowan’s eyes. 

There was, however, one part of the city that truly impressed her and that was Fountain Square at the centre of the Commercial District. True to its name, a fountain sat in the middle of the square and it was clear that it was the pride of the city. The craftsmanship was flawless and they had somehow managed to keep it in a pristine condition for whoever knows how long. It had been made to show a beautiful depiction of a family of Tærans, the mythical race of people that the river and by extension, the city had been named for. The Tærans were believed to be the original inhabitants of Llen Færa and the surrounding islands long before the humans and Ferrans arrived.

The spectacle of the fountain and the distraction of exploring the town definitely helped Rowan sleep that night. When she woke up the following morning, she thanked the Goddess that her sleep had only been restless and not haunted with nightmares. A part of her was even excited to go shopping after breakfast, though her heart still ached.

Breakfast that morning was short and sweet as they got ready to hit the town. Just before they finished, Rowan made a passing comment on how she had joked about asking for a teddy bear before disregarding the idea. Gyren hadn’t really reacted much to the suggestion, so she let it lie. 

When they were ready, they set forth on their mercantile adventure. The first few shops were a bust; nothing in them called out to Rowan especially. Then they arrived at a small Jeweller’s by the river. From the wares, Rowan found a beautiful pair of earrings that definitely sparked her fancy and an idea that took them to the workshop next door; Rowan had a commission in mind. After talking to the Silversmith and Jeweller, they left with the order of a pair of silver bracelets in their capable hands. While they would take some time to complete, Rowan hoped that she would be able to share them with Tehri when they were done; a peace offering to help bridge the gap between them.

After that, they visited a couple more stores and bought a few more things. When they eventually returned to the inn at the end of the day, Gyren surprised Rowan by giving her a small teddy bear. “I thought it might help,” he said softly as he handed it over. Rowan hugged it close to her chest and cried a little bit. And then it was time to sleep. Tomorrow, their journey would come to an end and they would return home. As Rowan lay in bed, she realised she was once again alone. After a full day in the company of her father, being apart from him hurt even more. She clung tightly to her new teddy bear to try and banish the heavy burden of isolation and the rising feeling of nausea. She clamped her eyes shut, hoping it would disappear. Instead she only felt more anxious as voices from the common room echoed all around her. They spoke to her, filled her head with dread. To Rowan, they were a chorus that sang a grim lullaby as she fitfully drifted off to sleep.

That night, Rowan lived through some of her greatest fears. Everyone was leaving her, walking away as if she didn’t even exist, or worse, in spite of it. No matter how far she chased after her friends or family, even her enemies, they just drifted further and further away into a deep, impenetrable fog. All the while, the voices chanted within her mind, telling her that this is what she deserved, that it was only a matter of time. As she reached the fog, the voices twisted into a cacophony and the scene before her eyes shifted. Rowan saw herself crying in a field of blood, as her friends and family were killed again and again and again. 

“Don’t let it end like this.”

*****

Since that night, Rowan barely slept and what little sleep she did get was marred by the most horrific nightmares. Even so, she was still able to smile on her birthday, if only barely. And then spring passed into summer. Rowan kept her torment a secret from her family, fearing how they might respond, but they weren’t idiots. They could see the pain in Rowan’s eyes and they did their best to help. It only made things worse.

On the night before the eclipse, Rowan felt like her head was imploding. It was too much and when Kiriin tried to comfort her, she felt broken. Instead of feeling exhilarated when Kiriin kissed her, she felt sadness. Instead of feeling joy when Kiriin confessed her feelings, Rowan could only feel like it was a lie. Instead of responding with her own true feelings, Rowan lashed out. She didn’t want to be alone, but her nightmares had convinced her that she would lose everyone, so she had started pushing them away, to make it quick and then she couldn’t lose them anymore. It only made her feel worse, but there was no stopping it now, was there?

“Don’t let it end like this.”

There it was again.

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Chapter 4

The afternoon following Rowan’s confrontation progressed with everyone busying around her like bees. Hæra gave her advice on other options she could take in the future, suggesting that a defensive approach may be more prudent. Rowan couldn’t help but roll her eyes in response as she knew her mother would have acted in much the same way had it been Bragi’s father, if not worse. Actually, the more Rowan thought about it, a similar exchange between the two of them would border on cataclysmic. They hated each other with an untold passion that their children could only emulate. But Hæra wanted to at least put on a show of being a responsible adult and performance was her specialty.

While Hæra talked to Rowan, Gyren went to find their family doctor, Doctor Bræn, to inform him of what had happened to both Rowan and Bragi. Somewhat strangely, he was yet to hear about Bragi’s condition. Granted, he didn’t have much interaction with the An’Teags due to them being out of his standard range and because they were signed up with a different practice, but he was the best in town and it had been at least an hour. Unfortunately, he felt there wasn’t much he could do for Bragi without knowing more so he sent out an assistant to investigate. That left him free to check in on Rowan. 

Based on what he had heard from Gyren, the doctor brought a selection of medicines so that he could be sure that Rowan was getting the treatment she needed. Following a thorough examination, he was able to confirm that she had bruised two of her ribs, Rowan was surprised they weren’t broken, as well as a sprained ankle. He also discovered the bruising and the small cut from her fall earlier in the day. Unsurprisingly, Hæra and Gyren were quite put out that Rowan hadn’t told them about that particular accident, but they chose not to comment on it. Satisfied with his exam, Doctor Bræn gave her some rather strong pain medication and a poultice to be used on both her ankle and ribs.

After the doctor left, Hæra soon followed suit to talk to the Town Council before it was too late and Gyren had to return to the store, so it was Tyris’ turn to be the watchful big brother. He spent that time telling Rowan and Tehri stories of legendary Ardents and Stoics. Rowan was fascinated by stories which she was sure were heavily embellished; there was just simply no way a Stoic Kairosi Fire Monk could devour a blazing inferno single-handedly no matter how strong they were. Tehri on the other hand was markedly less interested so Tyris tried to engage her in a Ferran game called Ruun. What amazed Rowan almost as much as the stories is that it actually worked.

As afternoon said its goodbyes and evening came waltzing in, Rowan came to the conclusion that it was a good day. Compared to the last encounter she’d had with Bragi, she was feeling ecstatic, over the moon even. For the first time in her short life, she had won against her great and terrible tormentor and it was a victory to end the war. Though something did confuse her about the blow she had given Bragi. When the rumour mill delivered the news of what had actually happened when his crotch popped, all the men around her turned dead white.

*****

Rowan expected to be out of action for a few weeks at least due to her ribs. However, Doctor Bræn’s poultice worked miracles and Rowan was active within a few days. Not only did the poultice bring down the swelling, it also did wonders at clearing up the bruising. Unfortunately she still hadn’t fully recovered and had been banned from visiting the forest until she had been given the all clear from the doctor. She was still free to be physical in other ways as long as there was little risk of any blunt force trauma to her ribs, but she was still rather disappointed. That is to say, right up until she came to a realisation; she could still, in theory, learn the basics of how to fight with a sword or some other weapon if she could convince someone to teach her.

Following the fifth day of recovery, Rowan hunted down Tyris to try and persuade him that giving her lessons was an excellent idea. It turned out that this battle would be just as hard as her last conquest against Bragi as it turned into a war of attrition. Tyris’ resolve was ironclad. Rowan found it admirable, though she totally wasn’t jealous. That is until his resolve finally broke after a week of Rowan chipping away at it. 

“Come on, Tyr!” Rowan sighed indignantly. “It’s been a week already; what’s the worst that could happen?”

“You could get hurt again, make your injuries worse.” Tyris’ voice was wary as he responded. He had forgotten how insistent his sister could be.

“We both know that’s not gonna happen if we’re only practicing the basics.”

“What about sparring?” Tyris asked. ”That’s an essential part of learning.”

“Who says we need to spar until I’m ready?”

Tyris wasn’t sure how to respond to that so he tried a different argument. “Well you still don’t have your strength back.”

“Do you want me to do a handstand?” She had responded before Tyris even finished his sentence. “I’m fine. Honest.”

“What about…”

“Irrelevant. I’ve heard all of your arguments and you won’t change my mind. I’ve seen you doing exercises outside and they aren’t that far off dancing in terms of intensity. You do know that Ma let me start back up with my dance lessons over five days ago, don’t you?” She took a second to breathe after that to see if Tyris would respond, but he knew she wasn’t finished. Smiling to herself, Rowan revealed her trump card. “I’ve also seen enough of your routines and exercises to try it myself, but that would be incomplete and probably be beyond my level, especially without any fundamentals. Now that would be dangerous. So doesn’t it stand to reason that I should have someone teach me so that I don’t mess up?” Rowan felt a little guilty using that line as it was a touch on the manipulative side, but she felt it was important that she started young and if she waited until she was fully recovered, Tyris would have likely already left.

“Fine!” he sighed in exasperation. “But only under a few very important conditions. First, we clear it with mother and father. If you can’t convince them, you haven’t convinced me yet. Second, we will only cover the absolute basics and fundamentals until you have recovered more. I will talk with Doctor Bræn to work out suitable parameters. Thirdly, I insist that Kiriin and Kyr partake in the training as well. That way I can trust that you will watch each other and keep each other safe. Plus, having people to train with is the best way in my opinion.” 

Rowan nodded in acknowledgement of all three of Tyris’ conditions. They made sense and she was only responsible for fulfilling two of them. To Tyris’ surprise, Gyren took more persuading, but Rowan knew it would play out that way. Hæra just needed to hear the points in a concise manner and get Tyris’ assurances. Gyren, however, hated the idea of either of his daughters getting hurt. Rowan felt like he worried too much at times, but she loved him all the more for it. Even so, he relented and the twins didn’t need any persuading, nor did their parents, except for requiring that it didn’t get in the way of school.

*****

Unsurprisingly, the early lessons were on the boring side. Tyris was being especially careful to not strain Rowan, to the point where it was all theory at the start. It made sense, but there were times where it felt like she was being lectured at by Master Idyr. She still learned a lot, especially the pros and cons of different swords or how drawing back a bowstring is more in the back than in the arms. 

Following the initial theory, they started on footwork which seemed trivial to Rowan as she had already had tonnes of practice with footwork through dancing. She was, however, somewhat mistaken, at least where the fundamentals were concerned. It was all about keeping your movements tight and controlled as well as your centre of mass low and stable. It was a weird experience in all, but she still excelled in it compared to the other two. 

However, when they actually began working with actual practice weapons, it soon became clear that Kyr was an exceptionally fast study. This may have surprised some people, but Rowan was fully aware that both he and Kiriin had been born towards the end of the Warrior’s Lunar Cycle, which should grant them the Gift of the Elite. What surprised Rowan, was that Kiriin was actually falling in behind her, as their Gift was supposed to supplement their ability to learn and improve combat related skills. Even accounting for individual differences, they should have been closer in natural skill with the Gift of the Elite. It made Rowan’s head spin. They should have had the same Gift, but it was very clear that they didn’t. 

Then she realised that they were born on the last day of the Elite. She’d never considered the possibility that the transition between cycles didn’t occur in the middle of the night. However, the more she thought about, the middle of the night in Næmyris wasn’t the middle of the night everywhere, so it would be unlikely for transition to be perfectly synced up with her home. Upon coming to that realisation, it was becoming more and more obvious that Kiriin had been born at the start of The Hunter, granting her the Gift of the Stalker. In hindsight, it was obvious from all the times Kiriin had snuck up on her.

It was worth noting, however, that Kiriin wasn’t satisfied being left behind in the dust. Instead she put in the work to ensure that she may one day surpass Rowan and her brother with a couple of weapons of the very least. Seeing Kiriin work so hard ignited Rowan’s competitive spirit, prompting her to go into overdrive until Tyris stopped her. Kyr on the other hand was a lot more level headed in his approach.

After that initial excitement, the first few weeks of lessons soon passed, and it was becoming clear that everyone was developing different preferences when it came to weapons. Rowan was becoming particularly focused on swords, mobility and to a lesser degree, daggers. Kyr on the other hand discovered his interest lay in polearms, greatswords and strategy, having excelled in theory as well. And last but not least, Kirin focused on archery, daggers, and short spears. Their overly narrow enthusiasm frustrated Tyris to no end. He insisted that it was paramount to have a wider appreciation for the basics before focusing on particular weapons, especially when you didn’t have any ideas beforehand. Tyris tried to convince them to wait, but they all had their reasons and were far too stubborn to change their minds.

Rowan was looking forward to seeing how they would improve going forwards. She knew that once she was fully healed, they’d be able to go all out with their training. Well almost all out.

Towards the end of the month, just before the Solstice, Rowan finally asked the question that had been bugging her ever since she read his letter to her on her birthday. Why had he decided to pass on the right to inherit Elan Fiir to her and why then? Hæra had explained it, but she still didn’t understand that well.

“Why, you ask?” he responded. “That’s a good question.” Having responded, Tyris paused dramatically causing Rowan to sigh and palm her face, an act which caused him to deflate a little bit. “Well I’ve got a couple of reasons I guess; the first of which is fairly easy to explain.”

“Okay?” Rowan said expectantly

“So first of all, the blood of our Ferran ancestors is strong in you, stronger than me or Tehri for sure. Neither of us inherited the Ferran eyes, after all, and I know for sure that I couldn’t deliver a kick like you did to Bragi. Does it not make sense then, that you should inherit the sword?”

“Maybe? I don’t see why that’s relevant.” Rowan was still rather confused by his reasoning.

“Resonance, my dear Rowan!” Tyris exclaimed with an uncanny enthusiasm. “Elan Fiir was forged from the crystallized tears of ancestors so it stands to reason that the stronger our connection to the bloodline, the stronger our Resonance to them and the sword. I think that is the key to drawing upon the sword’s power. Are you following?” he asked, taking a moment to catch a breath and make sure he hadn’t lost Rowan. She nodded, so he continued, “Right! Second reason: you wear your emotions on your sleeve, Rowan, much like the Ardents that the Naliir of old were known for and you have their strength. It is my hope that one day, you will embody the legacy of our ancestors, my little crusader.”

Tyris’ explanation left Rowan’s jaw hanging. She wasn’t sure of how to respond, especially as something seemed odd about his tone when he mentioned Ardents. Kyr and Kiriin were also listening with bated breath. After a moment, Rowan finally responded. “Aren’t I a wee bit young for such lofty expectations?” she asked. 

“Perhaps. However, I believe you are strong enough to bear it on your little shoulders. There is another factor that I’m yet to mention that makes you rather unique. You see, a few very important factors aligned on your birthday to create a special kind of Resonance that is extremely rare. Primarily, both of the Goddess’ Sacred Primes were in Resonance, I swear, the only way it could have been more perfect would have been if it were a double eclipse…”

As Tyris rambled on, Rowan stared at him blankly. “I didn’t understand a word you just said,” she stated flatly.

“Sorry, let me explain. On your birthday, several Resonance Factors came into alignment. The most important of these Resonance Factors were tied strongly to the Resonance of the Goddess’ Sacred Primes of three and eleven. I’m sure you can already see how it being your eleventh birthday is significant. So then we have the second Factor — you’re still confused, aren’t you?” Rowan nodded. “Is it the Resonance Factor?” She nodded again. “Well that complicates things slightly. So Resonance Factors are the metaphysical interactions that allow for especially strong Resonance to occur. These Factors can then further Resonate with each other to amplify the effect even more. Does that make more sense?” Rowan nodded for the third time before letting Tyris continue. “In the correct circumstances, Resonance Factors can fundamentally change the world. Nations have collapsed and races have been born because of the proper Resonance Factors aligning.

“Anyway I think that covers the basics of Resonance Factors. If you want to know more, I recommend asking Master Idyr, but it should suffice for now. I’ve already covered the first factor and the second is somewhat related as we were born eleven years apart. The third and final factor lies in the fact that you are mother’s third child”

“Wait!,” Rowan suddenly interjected, “What do you mean? Tehri is Ma’s third child isn’t she?

Tyris flashed a look that made it clear that he had said something he shouldn’t have. “You should ask mother about that,” he responded, trying to cover for the mistake. “Now that’s enough long-winded explanations. It’s only a day until the solstice and then I’m leaving so back to lessons.” Tyris moved on without finishing his explanation on why he’d chosen to give Elan Fiir up and now he only left Rowan with more questions and while the twins engaged in the renewed lessons with enthusiasm, Rowan couldn’t shake Tyris’ words. What did he mean by ‘third child’ and why had he mentioned Ardents in such an odd tone? She wished that she could ask her mother, but she was busy preparing for the Solstice Festival.

*****

Over the next day, Rowan found her mood dropping to a new low, even rivalling Tehri’s demeanour for most of the past couple of weeks. Because of what Tyris had said, she was sure that her family had been keeping some great secret. It hadn’t been the first time that Rowan picked up on something odd when Ardents had been mentioned; there had been the look her mother had earlier that week amongst other times. Then there was the heavy implication that she had an older brother or sister that she knew nothing about. As she thought about it more and more, dark and horrible thoughts.

Why? Why haven’t Ma and Da told me anything? Did I do something? Am I the reason that they aren’t around? Did I hurt them? Is it Bragi? Please don’t be Bragi? Does that mean that Ma was unfaithful? 

No! She wouldn’t do that!

But, what then? Did Bragi’s Da hurt her? Ma did say that bad people sometimes forced themselves on others. He could have. He does hate half-breeds.

The thoughts were driving Rowan to the brink of despair and tears flooded her eyes. No matter what she did, she couldn’t make them go away; they just kept getting worse and worse and as evening approached, she found the relentless doubts and thoughts to be unbearable and Rowan struggled to think of any options that would help. In the end, she hoped that asking her mother would at least answer a couple of her questions. She found Hæra practicing a song for the dance around the bonfires at the end of the festival. When Rowan entered the room, Hæra turned quickly and hurried over to Rowan when she noticed her red and puffy eyes.

“What’s the matter, dear? Are you okay?”

“It’s my head,” Rowan explained, tears in her eyes, “I cannae stop my thoughts from racing, No matter what I do I keep thinking awful things like maybe Bragi’s Da hurt you a really long time ago, and —and.” Rowan’s voice trailed off into a sob

“What made you think that?”, Hæra asked, looking rather concerned.

“Tyris mentioned that I was your third child and I thought maybe Bragi — I mean it would explain why you hate them and they already hate us. And then I thought if that wasn’t true then maybe I did something wrong and because of that I’m not allowed to know about my other big brother or sister. Maybe I hurt them?” At this point, the tears in her eyes were flowing free.

Hæra quickly brought the sobbing Rowan into her arms as she tried to comfort her. “Oh, Rowan, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think keeping this secret would hurt you so much. I should have known. I thought that if you knew, you would blame yourself. Perhaps if I’d told you when you were younger it wouldn’t have been so heavy a blow. I can’t promise that knowing the truth will make you feel any better, but you deserve to know. Are you okay with that?” 

Rowan nodded meekly and buried her face into Hæra’s shoulder. “Now, before I tell you, know that it wasn’t your fault and no matter what, I love you. We all do.”

“Mhmm.”

Hæra started to stroke Rowan’s hair as she began to explain the truth behind the long kept secret. “Your father and I have been holding onto this secret since you were born. The truth is that you weren’t alone. Just before you, your twin sister, Rina, was born. I still remember the day. She was much quieter than you were, but she was still a healthy little girl and in any other family, she would have remained that way. Unfortunately, we aren’t any other family. Long ago, something happened to one of our ancestors following a double solar eclipse. By all accounts it was a freak occurrence that caused all manner of changes and bizarre Resonance to the area that was touched by the totality of the eclipse. That’s what led to the birth of the Ferran. 

“Amongst the first Ferran was the ancestor in question. He and a few others engaged in a ritual to capitalise on the intense Resonance caused by the eclipse. They were Imbued by Rowan’el and forever changed by it and that change held strong with their children and their children’s children. Even now it affects us. Our bloodline is known for producing incredibly strong Ardents, as are the others, though I don’t know if any have survived to this day. However, their connection to Særan’el was also damaged which has resulted in not a single Stoic from those bloodlines. Everyone who Awakens always does so as an Ardent and this brings us to why your sister isn’t with us. You were identical twins, and when one identical twin has the potential to Awaken, so does the other. However, this is guaranteed to result in an Ardent/Stoic. It’s random which one ends up as which, but it is set in stone long before they Awaken. In yours and Rina’s case, she was set to be the Stoic and the Resonance of that potential and our bloodline caused her body to quickly deteriorate and she passed away a few months later.” 

There were a couple tears twinkling in Hæra’s eyes as she finished explaining. It was a lot for Rowan to take in; she felt like her world had simultaneously been shattered whilst also being cleared of the haze that had plagued her for the past day. 

Rowan cried for the sister she never knew she had and smiled for the future she was now determined to live for the two of them.

“Thank you for telling me, Ma,” Rowan finally said after she finished crying.

“I should never have kept it a secret from you, “ Hæra responded, wiping away Rowan’s tears, “I only hurt you more by doing so”. She then smiled at Rowan. “ Now let’s get you cleaned up ready for the Festival. We’ll sing and dance your sister’s memory together.”

Rowan nodded quietly as Hæra carried her through to the bath. It was at times like this, that Rowan was reminded of how surprisingly strong her mother was. Barely two fingers taller than five feet and slight of build, she had no difficulty carrying Rowan with a gentle grace and while Rowan was small, she was still only a foot shorter than Hæra.

Like a river, Rowan let the bath wash away her worries and the scent of roses soon warmed her heart. It was time to get ready for the Festival.

Rowan stood in her room wearing a beautiful white dress that fell just above her knee. It was held with a belt around her waist and in the right light, she was positively incandescent. About her feet she wore sandals that wrapped around her ankles. As always, her neck was graced by the twin moon pendant which was even more meaningful to her now as she felt it represented her and Rina. To complete her ensemble, she wore her hair in a loose ponytail held by the hair clip she had received from Kiriin and Kyr. All in all, she barely recognised herself. Especially as Hæra had insisted on doing her makeup. She looked in the mirror and smiled, her rosebud lips and large violet eyes shining. She was ready to leave.

*****

The sun had just started to set when Rowan and her family arrived at the park outside of town where the festival was being held. To Rowan’s young eyes it almost looked like the entire town had gathered around the unlit bonfire, though she knew how unlikely that was. Some folk preferred more private celebrations and others were too old, young or unwell to attend. Not that it made the event any less awe-inspiring or jubilant. The sound of music filled the air as children played and adults made merry with wine and ale, while a troupe of fire dancers dazzled any and all spectators as they made their offering to the sun, the Heart of the Father.

To any other in attendance, the Festival wasn’t much different to how it usually was. To Rowan, however, it was near overwhelming. With how her emotions had been bombarding her heart, everything was infinitely more intense. She couldn’t help but stare into the flames in breathless wonderment.

Rowan was snapped out of her bedazzlement by a hand landing on the top of her head. A slight turn to look over her shoulder revealed Tyris, his hand unmoved. “Why is your hand up there?” she asked, somewhat confused and unaware as to how long she had been in a daze.

After a moment of letting the question hang, he responded dramatically, “I merely noticed my dear little sister entranced by the flames. I took it upon myself to bring you back from the land of dreams. Now fly, little robin and dance the night away.” He looked down towards Rowan to see the effect his words and melodramatic delivery had had on her. She blinked a couple of times in response, caught completely off guard by her brother’s melodramatic outburst. His words were so completely unexpected and outrageous, that she couldn’t help but laugh. With her silvery peals laughter, Rowan’s emotions flowed free and she found herself somewhat grounded. She smiled and went searching for Kiriin and Kyr before Tyris started another embarrassing tirade to encourage her to have fun.

Amongst the setting sun, Rowan danced her heart out with Kiriin and Kyr and then her family. She danced with wanton abandonment and she flowed with the grace and fluidity of a river, caring not for pain or exhaustion. In that eternal moment, there were no sad memories, no hateful words, only the warmth and joy of friends and family, both living and dead, remembered and forgotten.

When darkness finally descended on Næmyris, the bonfires were lit and Hæra started to sing the Lament of the Sun God, marking the last phase of the Festival. Hæra’s song reached everyone and resonated deeply with Rowan who chose to dance alone, though only in a sense. In truth she was dancing with the memory of Rina and their unspoken and renewed bond. As Rowan danced, the Lament of the Sun God evolved into a new melody with a profound emotional complexity and a deep sadness layered into the song. To most it was merely a beautiful song; to Rowan, it was a lament for her lost sister. As her mother sang the final song of the night, Rowan danced with glistening tears that seemed almost like crystals in the light of the fading bonfires.

An eternity passed and the lament came to a close. The bonfires were little more than embers and everyone had stopped dancing. After a night full of music it was eerily sombre. The townsfolk that still remained started to slowly drift off back home. Rowan, however, was dead on her feet, completely exhausted from the night’s festivities. She tried to walk towards her family only for her legs to fail her. Tyris caught her just in time and brought her into his arms. There she fell asleep as he carried her home with the rest of the family in tow.

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Chapter 3

A couple of months had passed since Rowan’s birthday and the summer solstice was fast approaching. Now officially an adolescent, Rowan was embracing her newfound freedoms, namely being allowed to go further afield on her own. Thus, when she was left to her own devices and the twins weren’t able to play, she found herself venturing to the nearby forests west of Næmyris. Thanks to the hunters and rangers, the edge of the forest where Rowan spent a lot of her time was relatively safe, though she had startled them on occasion. At first, Hæra was rightfully concerned, especially as Rowan had almost been shot by one of the hunters after startling them accidentally when she first encountered them. It was the rangers that eventually eased her mother’s trepidations by promising her that they would keep their eyes on Rowan after the first few times. They even promised to keep it a secret from Rowan so as to not intrude on her freedom to explore.

Rowan would venture into the forest at least once a week, drawn to the large oak trees that were perfect for climbing. She was determined to become stronger, and in and around the forest, she had found the perfect playground to do so. There was plenty of space to run around and she could jump from tree to tree for hours, taking full advantage of all that the canopy had to offer. And the delectable treat to top it all off? The fact that there was seemingly no one around to see if she embarrassed herself, but were always close enough if she was in danger. The rangers had given her a whistle that she could use if such an occasion did arise.

What really sold Rowan on the idea of playing out in the trees was how much progress she had made in such a short amount of time. Already her legs were significantly stronger, reaffirming what Hæra had said about her being a match for any full Ferran. But that was a given. The improvements to her core and upper body strength were also highly impressive. She was still petite and her muscles were more toned than they were big, but she was much happier with her size now and she didn’t want bulging muscles. She was destined to be lithe and agile and she was starting to realise that that was what she wanted to be.

This particular summer’s day, Rowan was partaking in her favourite exercise at the time. She was high up in the trees, high enough that many would consider it dangerous, not that she cared too much. That’s not to say she didn’t try to be careful, but she felt like she did a lot better and made better progress when there was a notable risk factor involved. Most of the time at least and soon; soon she would be strong enough to stand up for herself, she was confident of that. 

The wind brushed through her hair as she leapt from branch to branch with tremendous speed and an impressive sense of balance. There was a strange grace to her movements that was difficult to place. It was so unlike her usual fluid steps that had oft times been described to be akin to the dancing of leaves on a gentle breeze. This was more focused, like a river determined on finding the most natural path to its final destination. Except, Rowan had no particular final destination. She was finding her path in the moment until it was time to stop.

The ranger on watch duty was completely awestruck by the display and it was only through his expertise that he was able to keep up without potentially alerting her. He was scared he might accidentally startle her if he wasn’t careful. To distract her focus could be catastrophic.

What the ranger hadn’t realised, was that Rowan’s mind had begun to wonder. Only slightly, not enough to be noticeable to an outside observer, but that small slither of distraction was dangerous. Her confidence brought that small part of her mind to think about Bragi, one of the main reasons she wanted to get stronger. Thinking about him hurt right down to her core. Remembering all the times he had bullied her was like tearing open an old wound. She didn’t understand. How could he hate her so much? Why? Because of her heritage? That made no sense, even if he had almost managed to convince her. It wasn’t like he hated Ferran and he certainly didn’t hate humans, yet he seemed to think that together, they were worth less than the sum of their parts. 

Each moment, more and more of her mind was being devoted to thinking about Bragi and each moment, she remembered a different time he had bullied her. With each memory, her confidence slipped away until finally, she arrived at the memory of just a few months ago. It was the last time she had seen him, as he and his friends had been sent to assist the farmers with planting that spring. It was also his first time getting so violent as to draw blood. Sure, she had been bruised every so often, but never this. It was as if he wanted to break her down before she reached adolescence. They failed, but the cracks were starting to show again.

Almost unconsciously, Rowan reached towards her scarred brow. At this point, very little of her mind was being devoted to the task at hand. Snap! Rowan landed on a branch far too narrow to support her and she found herself plummeting to the ground.

“Eek!” 

Rowan cried out as clarity came rushing back. There was no hindsight. Rowan didn’t have time for hindsight. She managed to find her feet just as she hit the ground. Instinct took over as she used her forward momentum to collapse into a roll. Thanks to that, she was able to save herself from a significantly worse fate. Thankfully, due to the soft undergrowth, she didn’t seem to be too badly injured barring a graze down one leg and what would likely end up to be a fair bit of bruising. She sighed in relief before noticing the ranger rushing towards her.

“Little Miss! Are you okay, little Miss? Are you hurt?” There was an uneasiness to his voice, as if he wasn’t used to speaking with people and it was further marred with panic as he reached into his pack. 

Rowan felt like she must have injured herself more than she had realised because she could swear that the ranger was upside down. “I’m not sure,” she responded hesitantly.

“It’s okay, I have some bandages and medicine.” His voice started to calm down as he started to take control of the situation. No longer filled with unease, he sounded kindly and he had a deep aged tone weathered by experience fitting his years, though it was clear from his expression that no amount of experience had prepared him for this. He gave Rowan what he hoped was a comforting smile. “Let’s get you upright.”

Rowan found herself being gently adjusted into a sitting position. She had rolled between the roots of a tree and ended upside down with her back against it. The ranger started tending to the cut on Rowan’s leg. He was old, much older than Rowan would expect from one of the rangers. The local rangers tended to be younger folk, still in their prime, but this man was a veteran of the wilds with his leathery sun-touched skin and callused hands. 

“Thank you,” Rowan stammered awkwardly

“It’s okay, my dear,” the ranger responded calmly as he cleaned Rowan’s leg. He was notably less nervous now that he was on task.

“I don’t mean to… Ow!” Rowan whimpered as the ranger touched a damp cloth to her leg. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?”

“Me? You can call me Sen’a. I live out here in the woods as a caretaker of sorts.”

“Hello. I’m Rowan.”

“So I’ve heard.” That surprised Rowan, but before she could say anything, the old man continued. “The youngins asked me to keep an eye on you in case you hurt yourself or one of the animals or something.”

Rowan pouted. “You can’t just explain why like that without giving me the chance to ask!” she complained.

“I can’t?” Sen’a responded with a confused expression.

“Of course not!” Caught in the moment, Rowan had seemingly forgotten what had led her to this point and was instead swept up into her own flow. “How else am I supposed to feel satisfied from the answer to my question if I never get to ask the question?” Sen’a didn’t really know how to respond to that. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before Rowan came to some kind of realisation. “Hang on a second! What do you mean you were asked to watch out for me?”

“The youngins, they said a little girl called Rowan might come to play in the forests and that it was my turn to watch her if she did. To be honest, I don’t know why I said yes, but I’m glad I did. The youngins are never prepared for emergencies like this.”

“This was nothing. Just a wee little fall. Honest.” Rowan tried to sound earnest as she failed to downplay her fall. She was lucky it had been as minor as it had been considering how significant a fall it actually was.

“Nonsense!” he scolded her before his tone turned melancholy. “You could have been gravely injured or worse. Please keep better care of yourself.”

It seemed weird for a complete stranger to show such concern but he did and Rowan didn’t want to respond in bad faith. “I’ll do my best,” she said sincerely.

“Good. Now I think it’s about time you go home, don’t you?”

“Yes!”

The old man helped Rowan up and guided her back to the edge of the forest. As Rowan walked back to the town, he mumbled. “I wonder if my little girl would have grown up to be like her,” to himself with a tear in his eyes.

*****

Rowan wasn’t sure what to feel after her strange encounter with the old ranger. Yes, she was disappointed in herself for messing up and she still hurt from the memories of Bragi. Yet the conversation itself had been pleasant, even if slightly awkward. So her mind, unsure of what to settle on, drifted from emotion to emotion. Maybe she’d be able to see the twins. They had been especially busy that week studying for tests, but they usually had some free time to play before dinner. That thought tinted her emotions with excitement for the rest of the way back into town. 

In what felt like no time, Rowan found herself firmly in the Field District on the South-Western side of the town. She took a second to catch a breath or two. In her moment of rest, she felt a chill run down her spine. She was being followed, she was sure of it. Instead of bolting, she stepped behind a wall, praying that it was just her imagination.

The longer she spent thinking about it and praying, the harder it was to deny the truth of the matter. In her hopes of seeing the twins, Rowan had taken the faster path that went by way of the Farmers’ Road which ran right past the fields where Bragi and his friends had been working. Now she heard three sets of lumbering footsteps coming in fast behind her. If she was right, she knew she could easily outrun Bragi and his two human friends for sure, but about the Ferran? Rowan had absolutely no idea and that terrified her. Should she hide? Or run? Confront them maybe? Not knowing what to do, she froze, leaning against the wall in panic.

“What am I doing?” she muttered to herself in terror. Feeling weak in the legs, she slid down the wall into a ball, trying to make herself as small as possible.

I’m a coward. 

No! No, I’m not! 

Or am I? 

Go away! I’m not ready.

I have to be ready,

Has it all been for nothing, this training? This empty resolve?

No!

But I’m so weak.

Yes.

I want to be strong.

I am,

I’m not.

I’m lost.

I hate this.

Who am I?

I am me!

Who is that?

Rowan!

For what seemed like an eternity, Rowan’s subconscious battled with itself. She slapped her face with both hands and warily stood up. She was still afraid, her thoughts were a mess. She wanted to run away. But more than that, she wanted to be free of Bragi and his violent torment. Rowan steeled herself for what was to come, her heart racing and adrenaline rushing through her veins. 

Rowan stepped out and instead of running away, she turned down the street and approached her dreaded foe. Bragi and his friends had bulked up notably since last time, their skin weathered and tanned from working the fields and lumber yards. The Ferran friend was still out of sight, though now Rowan could hear the sound of footsteps fast approaching from just ahead of where she had been hiding. 

It took a moment for Bragi to notice Rowan. He had been too busy in his predatory pursuit of her to consider that she would willingly approach them. At first he seemed surprised and then disappointed, as if Rowan had robbed him of the thrill of the hunt. 

“So the half-breed chooses to reveal herself,” he growled, “and without her lackeys no less. She must be feeling confident. Right, boys?” The irony of Bragi referring to Kiriin and Kyr as ‘lackeys’ when he was surrounded by cronies was momentarily lost on Rowan as she was somewhat cowed by them jeering at her.

The moment of fear passed; Bragi was the only one who was truly dangerous. She put her foot down and spat at him through clenched teeth. “That’s rich, considering your friends seem incapable of any autonomous action or thinking,” she retorted bitterly

Bragi’s lips flickered momentarily into a snarl before he composed himself again. His friends took a little longer to do the same. Rowan had always been so meek, an easy target, and typically only responding in an extremely quiet or self-deprecating manner. “What a joke,” Bragi almost spat, “the brat thinks she can talk back now does she? Because what? She’s got a little more freedom?”

The three of them had started closing in on her when the Ferran arrived. Her chance to run away had vanished, not that she dared even think of trying, lest her tentative resolve crumble. They soon surrounded her. Not really thinking it through, Rowan tried to punch Bragi in the gut. Unsurprisingly, he was able to grab her by the wrist mid swing and wrench it aside with his vastly superior arm strength. Then with the other hand, he grabbed her by her hair and lifted her off the ground. “That scar isn’t nearly ugly enough for vermin,” he growled, “perhaps we should add to it.” He punctuated his remark by driving his fist into Rowan’s stomach, forcing the air out of her lungs. Tears started to pool in her violet eyes.

Bragi punched Rowan again, this time accompanied by the sound of cracking ribs. She winced and cried out in agony as pain shot through her. She struggled and then struggled some more in a futile attempt to wriggle free. She soon regretted the action as her broken ribs shifted and her hair felt like it was being ripped from her head. When she relaxed, Rowan felt one of Bragi’s lackeys, the Ferran, touch her, sending an uncomfortable shiver down her spine as he seemed to caress her lower leg. “Look here boss!” he snickered, “she’s got a midget knife strapped to her little leg.”

Bragi looked down to Rowan’s thigh where the dagger from Tyris was peaking just past the hem of her tunic. “So she has,” he smiled and reached towards the dagger. Rowan tried to kick his hand away, but she couldn’t get a good angle. “Now what can we do with this?” 

The dagger was now in Bragi’s free hand, the one that had twisted her arm, while the other was still holding Rowan up by her hair. All of the colour drained from Rowan’s face, fear gripping her wavering heart. 

This is bad! This is really bad!

Rowan’s thoughts were racing, mostly in terror. However, in the depths of her soul, one quiet thought Resonated within her. 

Fight back, Rowan!

If she did nothing, Bragi would use her own knife against her. She had to fight back In the blink of an eye, adrenaline coursed through her body and she pulled her leg back and kicked with all of her might. Bragi had made the mistake of holding her in a way that directed her foot right between his legs. The kick landed with an audible popping sound. In an instant, Bragi let go of Rowan and the dagger as he collapsed to the floor, face white with pain and hands going straight to his crotch. 

Rowan flailed about as she fell and landed on her backside. Pain was starting to well up in her ankle from the strain of kicking Bragi so hard. Just across from her, Bragi’s friends were horrified to see a bloody patch forming on his pants near his crotch. “What did you do?” one of them cried to Rowan.

“He was going to attack me again,” Rowan responded in the levelest tone she could manage, “so I kicked him first.” It was all she could do to contain all the emotions she was feeling as clambered up and limped towards her dagger. A dark pit in her heart was tempted to go further, that the kick wasn’t enough to satiate her anger or drive away her fear. Rowan felt sick as she tried to rid herself of such dark thoughts. She turned away, hoping that not looking at them would help. “I would go find a doctor if I were you.”

As she turned away, she noticed someone running towards her. It was Kiriin. “Are you okay?” she asked, visibly concerned for Rowan.

“I’m okay,” Rowan wheezed. “It’s just a little bit of bruising.”

“You don’t need to push yourself in front of me. It’s obvious you’re hurt. What happened?”

“Bragi was going to ambush me with his friends. Instead of letting him get the drop on me, I confronted him first. He didn’t like that, so he started attacking me. Then he got my dagger.”

“That bastard!” Kiriin interrupted.

“I kicked him before he could do anything with it and well um then… then you appeared out of nowhere. Hang on a second! Why are you here?”

“Well I may have bribed the younger kids with sweets and cakes to be my personal spy network just in case something like this happened. I came running as soon as word got to me.”

Rowan was quite surprised at that. She was almost speechless when she considered the full scope of Kiriin’s plan to help keep her safe from Bragi. “Well look at you, Miss Spymaster,” she said with no small amount of strain.

“I said don’t push yourself,” Kiriin scolded her. “Come on, Let’s get you home. Can you walk?”

“Probably not,” Rowan answered honestly.

“Well at least it looks like you won’t need to worry about Bragi hurting you ever again. That kick looks like it left a mark.”

Rowan giggled slightly in response and then she coughed. Her body hurt all over, but at least this time she wasn’t on the verge of fainting. She considered that to be a win at the very least. After some fussing, Kiriin offered her shoulder so that they could get to one of the main thoroughfares. There was no way that Rowan could make it all of the way home on a sprained ankle and a couple of broken ribs. Thankfully, the height difference between them wasn’t so great as to make it too awkward.

They eventually were able to get help from a wagoner carrying pelts that had likely come in from the hunters. Rowan had hoped that the wagoner would drop them off at the edge of the River District. Then they would be able to walk the rest of the short distance back to Rowan’s home. Unfortunately, the wagoner somehow recognised Rowan as her father’s daughter. Apparently she worked for one of his suppliers and had seen Rowan at the store a couple of times, so she insisted on bringing her there.

As they pulled up, Rowan glanced into the store, hoping that Gyren hadn’t noticed them. She took a sigh of relief when she noticed that he was engaged in conversation with a customer. She then soon realised the folly of her hope while Kiriin as the wagoner rushed straight in to tell him that something was wrong. Rowan palmed her face in mock despair as her father left his customer in the dust. He was always so protective when it came to his daughters. Still, it was enough to convince the wagoner that the situation was being dealt with and she took her leave.

“Rowan! What happened to you?” he called out in an overly loud voice.

“Da! I’m right here!” Rowan complained. “You don’t need to shout”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” he said after calming down a little bit. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Meanwhile, Rowan took in a deep breath to respond, which wasn’t her smartest idea considering her ribs. “I kinda sprained my ankle aaand — I cracked a couple of ribs,” she answered quickly, not wanting to dwell on the subject. Then, looking to divert her father’s attention she spoke up again. “Shouldn’t you finish serving your customer, Da? He’s not looking too happy.” 

“No, you’re hurt. I can’t just leave you, If only I hadn’t sent Mana and Beren off on errands.” Gyren’s face was creased in worry and hesitation as he considered what to do. He relaxed after a moment or two when he finally relented, “You’re right, I can’t leave him unattended; not while I have my pride as a merchant, at least. Wait here, I’ll be right back. Make sure she doesn’t run away, Kiriin.”

“I’m not running anywhere, Da!” Rowan exclaimed in a somewhat exasperated fashion as her father hurried back into the store. 

After five or so minutes, the customer had finished his business and left the store with Gyren following suit not long after. Before he had the chance to ask what had happened again, Rowan asked that they went home first. She didn’t want to explain things twice and she was still experiencing a fair bit of pain and discomfort. Understanding his daughter’s reasoning, Gyren closed up the shop, leaving a note for his employees to continue business as usual when they returned. Then, somewhat understandably, he picked Rowan up so that she wouldn’t need to walk the rest of the way home. 

“Da, my ribs!”

“Oh, sorry.” Gyren adjusted his hold and carried her home as gently as he could manage. In hindsight, Rowan realised that not letting her father take in the nature of her injury wasn’t exactly her smartest decision. Then again, she could say the same for much of the events that led her to be in such an injured state. As he started to walk away, he turned to Kiriin and asked her to go find Hæra.

In response, Kiriin rushed off in the opposite direction to The Crimson Drakiir Inn where Hæra had been performing over lunch. Shortly after, Gyren arrived home with Rowan. He fumbled with the door, trying to open it whilst still holding onto Rowan. His efforts went completely unneeded as Tyris opened the door, joined by a distant looking Tehri peeking through from behind him with mild disinterest. Seeing Rowan, Tyris quickly moved out of the way to allow Gyren past, who made his way in so that he could lay Rowan down on the divan in the living room. Rowan couldn’t help but feel like everyone was making too much of a big deal out of a probably minor injury.

*****

After twenty or so minutes of Gyren pacing frantically, Tyris watching confused, and Tehri sitting about listlessly, Hæra strode in with Kiriin in tow. Hæra sat herself on the edge of the divan next to Rowan, her stern expression a sign that Rowan would need to start explaining what had happened soon. If she’d had it her way, she wouldn’t be explaining anything at all. Instead she would rather have been resting in her room and forgetting it had happened, but she knew that wasn’t going to work, especially when Tyris broke the silence. 

 “So my dear little Rowan, what happened?”

Rowan sighed deeply before explaining how Bragi and his friends had sought her out on her way home, seeking to ambush her; how they surrounded her and punched her to the point of cracking her ribs; and finally, how she kicked him. For a reason Rowan didn’t quite understand, both her father and Tyris winced in pain as she described the popping sound that resulted from her kick. While they were wincing Hæra sensed that Rowan was hiding something, namely the part about Bragi having taken her dagger. It didn’t take long for Hæra to get the information out of her and when Rowan finished explaining she, much to Rowan’s surprise, held her in a soft embrace, taking care not to cause her any pain. 

The two men of the house soon recovered and Tyris suddenly burst out laughing. “It would seem that our little Rowan acted like a champion, conquering a most dread foe,” he stated with what seemed like a flourish. For a soldier, he was awfully dramatic.

Hæra released Rowan and turned to Tyris. “She may have done, but it should never have come to this. Had Sværig listened, he would know to keep his child on a leash. I have no choice but to get the Town Council involved before Sværig pleads his own case.” Hæra spoke in a serious tone, her accent getting stronger as it tended to do when she was angry.

Tyris was just about to respond when Rowan started complaining that they were talking about her when she was right there. 

“Sorry, Rowan,” Tyris apologised, “we didn’t mean to. I must clarify, however, that the dread foe I was referring to was fear, not Bragi.”

“I wouldnae say that. I’m still practically shaking in my boots.”

“Don’t say that, Rowan,” Kiriin interjected, “I think you were really brave to stand up to them.”

“That’s because I didn’ have a choice.”

“You didn’t? I’m sure you could have easily gotten away from them once you knew that they were coming.”

“Well yes. Maybe? I didn’t know where they all were so they may have ambushed me or something. And even if I did get away, all it would’ve been doing would be delaying the inevitable. I just wanted it to stop and I knew it wasn’t going to if I just did nothing. I guess maybe wanting and knowing that outweighed the fear? I cannae say more than that.”

“And so it should be!” said Gyren from across the room. “Conquering emotion isn’t about making emotions go away, assuming you aren’t a Stoic, it’s about acknowledging your emotions and not letting them defeat or overwhelm you. I’m sure that’s what Tyris meant.”

“Aye, Father, I did indeed. I must say though, dear Rowan, the way you described that kick, it reminds me of the strength I’ve heard fledgling Ardents are capable of.” The statement from Tyris seemed innocent enough, but Rowan couldn’t help but notice how her mother shot him a glance when he mentioned Ardents.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 2

Rowan woke up with a sharp pain above her left eye and a splitting headache. Panic gripped her. “Where am I?” She was confused. Bragi had targeted her like he had so many times before, only this time he had gotten violent. She had passed out and woken up in a dark room that, in her dazed state, felt  unfamiliar. Then she realised, “Oh! I’m home…” That made her feel a little bit more comfortable. How long had she been out for? It was difficult to say for sure. Her curtains were closed and she was notably lacking for any time keeping devices; clockwork was still a new and incredibly expensive technology. With that in mind, Rowan struggled out of bed and stumbled towards her window. As she drew back the curtain, Rowan was greeted by the soft blush of dawn painting the clouds.

The sight was a shock to be sure. It had been hours. Rowan’s head reeled from the thought of it. She suddenly felt very dizzy. The reality of what had happened was assaulting her mind violently. Every word that Bragi said struck her like the rock he had thrown while the memory of Kyr and Kiriin lifted her up. It was too much for her as the feeling of nausea filled her and an unmistakably wet feeling trickled down her leg. All things considered, it was a miracle that she didn’t collapse then and there. Instead, she managed to make it almost all of the way back to her bed. However, before she was able to get all the way, the world span around her and she tripped over her feet. She came down with a crash, half landing on the mattress.

Barely a moment had passed when Hæra came running into the room, garbed in a silk robe and a face creased in worry. ”Rowan! What…” The question trailed off when Hæra saw Rowan half draped over the bed looking pale.

Rowan was seeing double as she looked up to her mother. “I’m okay,” she said none too convincingly.

“You most certainly are not!” she responded, her singsong voice marred by notes of blatant concern. “Trust your gods’ given metabolism to burn through that sedative. I thought it would be safe to check on Tehri while you were sleeping; you weren’t supposed to wake up for another few hours yet. Seriously, dear, it’s far too soon for you to be moving about.” Hæra walked over with impossibly long, gliding strides. It was then that she noticed Rowan’s little accident. “Oh dear…” 

Rowan turned crimson from embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled into her blankets, trying to hide the shame on her face.

“It’s okay, Rowan,” Hæra responded softly, “let’s get you cleaned up.” She lifted Rowan up softly and carried her out. It was an odd sight to see; whilst Rowan had clearly outgrown being carried by someone of Hæra’s petite stature, she was deceptively strong and managed it with only a little difficulty. She didn’t care that her robe was getting slightly damp from carrying Rowan; getting to the bath was more important. She passed by her bedroom on the way to ask a half-asleep Gyren to clean up the spill in Rowan’s room.

They soon arrived in the large and lavish bathroom. It was split into two halves, a dry entrance room room for undressing and a wet room that held the actual bath. It didn’t take long to draw the bath. Næmyris was a rich town with a complex plumbing system and most of the buildings could access it. Rowan’s also had the necessary Resonance Crystals to keep the water nice and hot. Hæra started undressing herself and Rowan in the dry room and placed their clothes into a laundry basket while they waited for the bath to fill up. She also quickly checked the cut on Rowan’s brow to make sure it hadn’t gotten any worse. “I can’t believe that bastard did this to my baby girl!” she muttered to herself angrily.

“What was that, Ma?” Rowan asked quietly. 

“It’s nothing, dear,” she covered up quickly. “Now let’s get you all cleaned up.” 

They headed into the bathroom and Hæra sat Rowan down on a stool. Rowan yelped as a bucket full of water from the tub was dropped on her head. The soap came next as Rowan found herself lathered in silken bubbled; it was a pleasant, comforting experience. Then it was time for the water again. Another yelp. It was too hot for her. Or was it? It shouldn’t have been any different from how it usually was.

“Why’s it so hot!” Rowan complained with a slight note of confusion.

“I’m sorry, Rowan, I’ll try to be gentler,” Hæra assuaged softly. “Is this any better?” she asked after having adjusted the temperature.

“Much!” In reality, it wasn’t that big of a change, but it made the world of difference to Rowan and she was soon sparkling clean. That could only mean one thing! It was time for arguably the best part of bathing; soaking in the actual bath! Whilst Rowan sat in the bath, Hæra finished washing herself and then she hopped in beside Rowan. Rowan quickly settled against Hæra, her head resting on her mother’s chest. Hæra stroked her hair absently. It was a soothing gesture, one that Hæra knew would calm herself and Rowan right down and she wanted them both to be relaxed for what she was about to ask. “If you’re okay with it, dear, can you tell me what happened?” she asked as gently as she could manage. 

Rowan paled slightly at the question. “It was nothing, Ma,” she mumbled quietly, half mirroring the comment she had made earlier in her room.

“It’s okay, Rowan, you’re safe here,” Hæra smiled softly only to then mutter a little too loudly, “No bastard spawn of An’Teag will hurt my little girl while I’m around!” For a brief moment, Hæra was akin to one of the great cats of the Ru’eni Empire or the mother bears of Northern Særis before she composed herself again. This is why she wanted to be as relaxed as possible; just thinking about the An’Teag family made her blood boil. “Ah. Sorry, Rowan, you didn’t need to hear that. I just want to know what happened and make sure that you’re okay. You were out cold when the twins’ father carried you home. The doctor said you had lost a substantial amount of blood and that you were on the verge of hypothermia. You don’t have to tell me everything, just what you’re comfortable with.”

“It was Bragi, but you already know that.” Rowan sounded a little hurt. It felt like her mother was asking for things she already knew.

“I heard as much from Kyr, but he ran off before I could ask for details and watching over you was more important.” 

Hearing that made Rowan feel a little better. She started to recall what had happened as best she could, starting from how she and the twins had been swimming in the lake. It took so long to finish her account that they had to get out the bath before Rowan’s fingers shrivelled up like prunes. Hæra had just finished brushing her hair as she neared its end. “What if he’s right, Ma?” she finally asked, somewhat meekly. It was one of her greatest fears. That she wasn’t good enough and deserved to be hated. That the scar Bragi had given her would mark her as the disgrace she was. She held back the tears that were starting to well in her eyes.

“Of course he isn’t, Rowan! That’s a ridiculous notion.” There was a snap to Hæra’s words, not at Rowan but at the idea and in her haste to rebuke it, she missed the fear in Rowan’s eyes.

“Why else would Bragi and the others be targeting me? It’s because I’m worthless isn’t it?”

“You most certainly are not!” Hæra was shocked that Rowan was saying such things and it pained her to hear it.

“I feel wrong,” Rowan responded solemnly. She really did.

“Oh, Rowan…” Hæra was at a loss for words. “Dear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you, I promise.”

“How can you know that?” 

“It’s not even a question!” The response came so naturally to Hæra, yet Rowan was still filled with doubt. 

“But I’m so short, Ma,” she cried.

“Why does that matter? So what if you’re shorter than everyone else. It just means that everything you are is concentrated into a smaller package, not that you’re any lesser.”

“What about my eyes?” The complaint in Rowan’s voice had significantly less bite that time. She actually liked her eyes, but it was still one of the things that Bragi had focused on. 

“They’re beautiful, Rowan, capable of seeing things that Bragi and his bigoted goons can only dream of.” 

Rowan brightened up a little at that, but she wasn’t about to stop with her self-loathing. “Well my legs aren’t as strong as they would be if I was a full Ferran.” It was another point that Bragi had brought up. One of the so-called flaws of being a half-breed.

“They aren’t? I’ve seen you outrun grown men, Ferran included, and you’re only ten years old!” Hæra beamed; she didn’t even bother trying to hide the pride in her voice. 

“B-b-but…” Rowan’s willingness to hate herself was starting to fall apart.

“There’s nothing wrong with having mixed heritage, Rowan. Bragi says that we have the worst of both halves; that our strengths have been dilutes? Who made him or his father the expert?” When Hæra said it like that, it actually made a little bit of sense. She carried on dismantling all of Bragi’s biting words. By the end of it, Rowan’s self-loathing was gone and she was finally able to let her tears flow, pain be damned. She was starting to feel better, Hæra pulled her into a warm, comforting embrace. “It’s okay my adorable little Rowan, I’m here. Just remember that you are my beautiful daughter and any spawn of An’Teag can’t hold a candle to you.” She smiled warmly at Rowan and started tucking her back into bed before mixing a light bluish powder into a glass of water. “Here, drink this. It will help you sleep,” she said, offering Rowan the glass.

Rowan gave the drink a dubious sip, not fully trusting the strange powder that had been mixed into it. “It’s bitter!” she exclaimed, almost spitting it out.

“I know dear, but you have to drink it all. You’ll have sweet dreams. I promise.”

Rowan felt like that may have been a bit of a white lie at the end, but she still braced herself for the bitterness and drank the water as quickly as she could. It didn’t take long for the medicine to kick in. Her eyes started to feel heavy as her mother hummed a relaxing tune. This time, Rowan drifted off not into oblivion, but into the realm of dreams, a  multi-layered melody fighting away any nightmares that might have preyed upon her that night.

*****

Rowan remained bound to her bed for the better part of the day, That isn’t to say she didn’t have any company after she had woken up in the afternoon. The twins visited as soon as they were able and Hæra popped in regularly to check on her. That made her feel much better and the awkward highlight of her day came when Gyren came in to see her after he had finished work early. “Hello, my little princess! How are you doing?” he asked as he stepped into her room, his left arm concealed behind his back.

“Better, I think?” Rowan said contemplatively before looking affirmatively at her father with a smile. “Aye! Definitely better.” She was beaming as her father walked over to her bed, not bothering to comment on his concealed hand.

Gyren sat down and smiled at Rowan. “I’ve got something for you; a special little treat I found on my way home.” 

Rowan practically glowed with excitement as Gyren pulled out a small box from behind his back. He removed the lid to reveal six bite-sized balls of sugary goodness. “These are all for me? Rowan asked as she looked down at the sweet rainbow coloured Alyren Raindrops in the box. 

“Of course,” he confirmed, his eyes twinkling mischievously, “just don’t tell your mother.”

Rowan returned the mischievous look as she started reaching for one of the raindrops. “Don’t worry…” She was interrupted mid breath by the sound of a throat being cleared from the other side of the room. They both looked guiltily to the doorway, where Hæra stood staring down at them with her arms crossed disapprovingly.

“Go on, you can keep talking. Just ignore me and I promise I won’t listen to your little secret,” Hæra told them with a completely straight face and a level tone.

“Well you see, dear, I was just thinking,” Gyren stammered, “that Rowan could…”

“Yes?” 

Gyren trailed off and Rowan pouted at her mother. “It’s just a wee treat, Ma!” she complained, glancing down hungrily at her prize.

“You can have it when you’re better. If you have any now you’ll be running up the walls before nightfall; they make you far too hyper.”

“They do not,” Rowan mumbled sullenly. 

Hæra walked over to the bed, still cowing her husband, and grabbed the box from atop the blankets, spiriting it away from Rowan’s grasp. Then, smiling mischievously, she popped a raindrop into her mouth and sighed euphorically as it started working its magic.

The sigh that followed from Gyren on the other hand, was filled with mock despair. “I should have expected that. You know, dear, you’re just as excitable on those as Rowan is.”

“Am I now?” Hæra responded in a flighty voice. In her bed, Rowan was rendered speechless by the exchange. Hæra turned briefly to Rowan. “Don’t worry dear, you’re not to blame here, “ she smiled at Rowan before giving Gyren a predatory look. “You on the other hand, are in need of a scolding.” Rowan knew what that look meant just as much as her father did. It was an adult look, and adult sounds would follow from her parents bedroom soon enough. She was rather proud of the fact that she had been considered mature enough to be given the all important talk on relationships and growing up at a relatively young age; younger than the twins at least.

True to form, Hæra led Gyren out of the room, raindrops in hand. At the door, she looked at Rowan and apologised. “Sorry, dear. Dinner might be a little late tonight.” 

Rowan had no real response to that, other than, “Okay.” Hæra closed the door and Rowan was alone again. Sulking slightly, her head hit the pillow and she tried to go back to sleep.

*****

For the most part, the week that followed Rowan’s injury was quiet. She was strong enough to walk about the house, but the medicine took away most of her energy. Hæra had cancelled the dancing component of their lessons that week and even Master Idyr had been taking it easy on her. It was frustrating; she was only a wee bit fatigued, not an invalid. What made everything all the worse was the simple fact that Tehri had recovered from her own bout of sickness. 

Typically, Rowan would not begrudge her little sister’s improved health, however she found her patience wearing thin due to a sudden explosion of energy from Tehri. The rational part of Rowan would have told her that it was only natural. Tehri had been bedridden for the better part of the month and had likely been feeling what Rowan was now, only more keenly. Rowan, however, was not in the mood to be rational. Tehri’s energy bordered on what lay beyond mania and it only served to rub salt into the wound.

This wasn’t Rowan’s first time seeing one of these episodes from Tehri. In actuality, Tehri had been having them, along with the complete inverse, for as long as Rowan could remember. Past experience, however, didn’t make it any easier for Rowan, or anyone for that matter, to deal with. There were times when the manic episodes were less extreme. This was not one of them. When Tehri was like this, it was like she was operating at more than maximum energy and everything seemed all the more extreme. For someone as young as Rowan, it was almost impossible to deal with. Usually, when it got to be too much for Rowan, she would go out and play with the twins. This time, she had nowhere to run.

To make matters so much worse, ever since her recovery and newfound abundance of energy, Tehri had seemingly forgotten the existence of personal space or the fact that Rowan was very much still recovering. She had taken it upon herself to spend almost every waking moment by Rowan’s side wanting to play, talk, run around, jump on her bed or some weird combination of all four. It got to the point where Rowan’s only respite was when their mother was around or by some miracle, something else had caught Tehri’s attention for a brief moment. Not even sleep could save Rowan, for in those days, Tehri was a stranger to anything resembling rest.

With Tehri zooming about life at a hundred leagues an hour, Rowan felt that her recovery would last an eternity. With her birthday just round the corner, it felt like hell. Thankfully reality was a different matter. In the last few days before Rowan’s birthday, her mother had somehow found a suitable distraction and she was left to recover in peace. She still kept to her room right up until the day before her birthday where she was taken, half asleep, to the doctor’s office to have her stitches removed. 

Rowan yawned as the doctor walked in with a kindly smile after his assistant had removed the stitches to give her a check up. He was an old man wearing dark red clothes and a brilliant white coat with equally white balding hair. “It seems that you are nearing the end of a full recovery, young Miss Rowan,” he said towards the end of his examination. “It is very apparent that your mother has made sure you’ve been taking your medication. Yes, very good!” He looked rather pleased with himself as he reflected on his handiwork. 

“Is she good to go, Doctor?” Hæra asked with a look of trepidation.

“Yes. Yes, of course. As long as she doesn’t push herself too hard she’ll be near enough back to her young self again by tomorrow morning at the very latest.”

“Excellent! Thank you, Doctor.” Hæra smiled appreciatively at the old man.

“Thank you,” Rowan yawned a moment later, adding her own thanks to her mother’s.

Hæra stood up and helped Rowan out of her chair. At the door she looked down at Rowan. “Could you be a dear and wait for me in the waiting room?” she asked. “I have something I need to discuss with the doctor.” Rowan nodded slowly in acknowledgement and started walking to one of the chairs. “You can have an Alyren Raindrop when we get back home,” Hæra called after Rowan, who immediately perked up a little bit, and then closed the door.

“Your fee, Doctor?” she asked, turning to face him.

“It’s free of charge,” he said happily, seeming to enjoy the surprise on Hæra’s face.

“But, what about the medication? I know you,,,”

The doctor raised his hand, cutting Hæra off. “Consider it a birthday present. No child should miss their special day because of sickness or injury.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course. Now take young Rowan home and treat her. She has a big day tomorrow”

*****

Hæra had insisted on Rowan having an early night on the eve of her eleventh birthday. She would wake up to the new world of adolescence and new found freedoms. That was what she had expected at least, and her dreams that night were filled with wonder at how things would be different. What she did not expect, however, was how much the house could change in a single night. She woke to an enticing aroma that invigorated her very bones. Rowan was about to run straight out of her room when she noticed the sign that had been left on the door.

Happiest Birthday to our Dear Little Rowan,

We know you’re excited so we have a couple of presents ready for you before you come downstairs. The first of which is a bath which will have you sparkling and full of joy. The second is a set of brand new clothes which we both know you will absolutely adore.

Love from Ma and Da.

Rowan wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea of having a bath as a present. She continued to wonder as she dipped her toes into the water, not even realising that the alluring scent had guided her there. The warm water invigorated her in a way that was almost magical. The fatigue that had plagued her during her recovery was gone and she felt stronger for it. Once clean, Rowan stepped into her brand new clothes; a white tunic dress accented with a gold trim around the hem and red silken sash around the waist.

Walking out into the hall and down the stairs, Rowan was able to truly appreciate the transformation that had taken place throughout the house. Taking full advantage of Spring, her parents had gifted her with the visage of first bloom. Rowan couldn’t help being anything but charmed by all of the tactfully placed flowers. They brought a wonderful sense of colour and fragrance to the house that was further enhanced by the brilliantly woven flags and banners that hung from the walls. Brightening the house even further were some gloriously scented candles and the glinting of silvery chains set with gems of crimson and azure placed amongst the myriad decorations. 

It was perfect for all but one factor. Something was missing. Tyris. Rowan’s brother was nowhere to be seen. News had arrived early that morning that his Division had been sent on an emergency deployment to assist against a group of raiders based around the volcanic island of Færich Lan. As such his request for leave from the navy had been denied. Even so, he didn’t intend to leave Rowan with nothing on her birthday, so he sent her a letter and a small package for her along with the news. Unfortunately, she was unable to open it immediately because of the, in her mind, stupid laws of tradition dictating that presents should be opened no earlier than the hour of the person’s birth. So she waited and shortly after breakfast, the twins and their parents arrived bringing gifts and enough games to entertain an army of children, let alone four. That brought a smile to Rowan’s face.

With the bountiful energy of morning, Rowan, Tehri and the twins started with the notably more physical games under the watchful eye of Hæra. In one such game, a game of contortion and balance,  Rowan became the undefeated champion until the others started cheating to gain the upper hand. It was nearing lunchtime as they started to get bored of such games. As such, they started to shift towards more mind focused games, though due to Tehri’s complaints they made sure that there was still at least some physical component. During the first of these games, just past noon, Master Idyr appeared at the front door as if summoned by the inkling of an intellectual pursuit. In his hands he carried a heavy looking box wrapped in cloth. Rowan didn’t even need to look at it to guess that an extremely dense, knowledge filled tome lay inside. Hæra invited him in for some tea, but he declined as his own family were waiting for him.

Following lunch, the afternoon, much like the morning, was laden with fun activities as the children played game after game while the adults talked about life and the kids. Unfortunately, this led them to reminisce about all of the embarrassing things their children had done in the past, much to the chagrin of the young ones. One tale in particular had Rowan’s face turn almost as red as her hair as Hæra described in excruciating detail how Rowan and the Twins were playing the part of legendary heroes fighting giant beasts, with a victorious Rowan claiming a kiss from both Kyr and Kiriin as a reward for the successful completion of her quest.

The embarrassing tales finally came to an end as it finally struck the fifth hour since noon. Which meant that it was finally time for Rowan to open up her presents. Strangely enough, Hæra almost looked as excited as Rowan when she handed over the first present. Equally strange was how Gyren was the voice of caution, warning Rowan to be careful as she unwrapped it. Begrudgingly she paced herself as she slowly unveiled a lute. It was beautiful, Rowan didn’t know how else to describe it, with its three cursive knotwork holes and a floral filigree inlaid with gold and rose gold. It had rendered her speechless. In her hands was a work of art that she felt unworthy of handling.

“Well that’s a stronger reaction than I expected,” Gyren spoke up, breaking the silence. “Wouldn’t you agree, Hæra?” he asked his wife who was still sitting next to Rowan, practically jumping with joy.

“Oh, aye. Definitely!” she responded, smiling  gleefully at Rowan, “Though, perhaps we shouldn’t have started with that. But, I couldn’t resist and just look at her. Don’t worry, Rowan, this memory is the least I could give to my special little girl.” Upon hearing this, Tehri pouted slightly, to which Hæra erased without missing a beat by saying, “and so are you, dear little Tehri.” 

Even amidst all the talking, Rowan still sat there speechless, unable to do little more than smile awkwardly with her mouth hanging slightly until someone broke her stupor by placing the next present into her hands. Any other present, and she may not have realised, but the sheer weight of the package was beyond imagining. It was the box shaped present from Master Idyr and as Rowan had predicted, it was an extremely large and intimidating leather bound tome. The attached note said that it was a collection of academic records that Master Idyr had compiled himself from The Azure University. He apparently deemed it suitable reading material for one of her academic calibre. Rowan appreciated the compliment, but she felt that he might be overestimating her abilities just a wee bit.

The other presents soon followed. She received a really pretty hair clasp and rosewood comb from Kyr and Kiriin which she was adamant she would use regularly going forwards. From the twin’s parents she was given some hair care products to go along with their children’s gift and a few dancing accessories. Then, out of nowhere, Tehri presented her with a piece of art that was beyond masterful. It was the work of a prodigy, showing a level of skill far beyond her years. The painting itself revealed a beautiful landscape featuring Rowan dancing alone in the shallows of Lake Emyr under the light of both moons, a scene she was sure had never actually happened.

Finally, after what had felt like an age, Rowan settled on the package from Tyris, the opening of which was no easy task. Rowan battled with it for ten minutes, refusing all aid, before she finally managed to breach the inner layers to reveal a rather petite dagger that was rather elegant in its simplicity. The handle fit nicely in her hand and the blade was barely the length of her rather diminutive hand span. The blade was of course sharp, proven almost immediately by the beads of blood forming on her fingertip where she had tested it. That only led to the immediate realisation of the irony of receiving a package that would have been much easier to unwrap if she already had the gift inside. She was pulled out of her musings as a few drops of blood from her finger landed on the envelope still waiting on her lap. Reminded that there was still one last thing to open, Rowan placed the dagger aside and put her wounded finger into her mouth to help stem the bleeding. Then forgetting her previous lesson, she tore open the envelope to get at the letter inside and began to read.

“Dearest Little Sister Rowan,

“I’m sorry I’m unable to make your birthday. I tried to get the leave, only for it to fall through when a couple of merchant vessels went missing off the shores of Færich Lan. I won’t be able to visit now until the summer solstice I’m afraid, but make no mistake, when the holiday comes, I’ll play or train with you and Tehri as much as you want, even if my legs fall off. 

Now I had hoped to do this in person. Alas, I’m forced to do it in writing. I, Tyris Amran Naliir, hereby relinquish my right to inherit the Naliir family sword, Elan Fiir. Furthermore, on the day marking her eleven years on this world, with the Goddess as my witness, I hereby name Rowan’efrii Alyris Naliir to be the one who shall inherit Elan Fiir.

Now until the time comes where you inherit that sword, I am giving you this dagger. It’s small, compact, and strong, just like my pocket-sized champion. I’m sure it will protect you well. Extend my love to everyone and remind father to give Tehri the sweets I bought her.

Your loving brother, Tyris.”

“Huh?” Upon finishing the letter, Rowan found herself completely and utterly confused. She was having difficulty trying to understand what her brother was trying to say. It seemed like he was relinquishing his right to inherit the family sword, but with his weird flowery language he could have been saying any number of additional things as well. Also seeing her full name written down just felt wrong. Unable to find an answer herself, she looked to her mother, the current owner of the sword. 

Hæra took the letter from Rowan and read over it and then again, Rowan failed to notice the significance of the action. “It seems fairly clear to me,” she said after a moment. “Granted he is speaking to our answers as much as he is to you. That’s why he’s using such colourful language; it’s ritualistic. Elan Fiir is a rather unique sword after all. It is the magnum opus of Tælla Naliir and forged from the crystallised tears of our ancestors after the tragedy of our exodus from Ferran. He was calling upon them to give you their blessing and acknowledging you as the heir to their tears. The timing and language all make for stronger Resonance in the ritual. Why he’s chosen to relinquish his claim to the sword though, I can’t really say.” Whilst still somewhat confused, Rowan nodded her head somewhat blankly and accepted her mother’s explanation, not realising she hadn’t told the full story.

During the explanation, Gyren also gave the letter a read. As he reached the bottom he struck his forehead with his  palm. “How could I forget the sweets?” he asked himself, standing up suddenly.

The outburst caught Rowan, Tehri and the Twins completely off guard. Tehri in particular asked about the sweets with probably a bit too much enthusiasm. She darted to Gyren’s side and glanced over the letter. “This has too many big words,” she noted with distaste before reaching the bottom. Then, without pausing to even  take a breath, she suddenly exclaimed, “Wooh! They’re for me!” Her excitement from the realisation had her bouncing up and down. “Can I have them? Can I have them?” she asked with boundless enthusiasm.

“After dinner, Tehri,” Hæra responded sternly.

Tehri’s excitement helped to distract Rowan from her earlier confusion and she once again let herself be swept into the joy of the celebration. By the end of the evening she found herself positively exhausted.  She said goodbye to the Twins and bid her family goodnight, promising to herself that she would be stronger in her adolescence, strong enough to stand up for herself.

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