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.
You were supposed to be watching over us!
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.