The small group sighed in relief as they stepped out into the soft blush of dawn. Freedom! They had finally done it. Gone were the hellborn caves that had come so close to breaking them. They had been destroyed by Illyria’s wrath. The first part of Rowan’s quest was complete. She hadn’t saved everyone, far from it, but she had made a start and Lord Fein was dead. Rowan also took solace in knowing that Maro could have also lead people to freedom.
Out of the thirteen individuals in their group that had escaped, not one was without scars. They weren’t all physical. In fact most of them weren’t. Rather, the majority were of the mind and soul. Even the brands on their backs also branded their souls. Yet, despite knowing pain and suffering beyond their years, they hadn’t given in.
Many would consider them to be poor broken souls. Rowan might have been inclined to agree, but she saw the truth of things. She had seen people break in the caves. She had seen people shatter like glass, only to be forged into a grim and horrible weapon. Instead, she and the others found themselves on the other side of the gauntlet battered and cracking at the seams but still whole for the most part. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that none of them had been changed by their experiences. For better or worse, they were not the same people they had been before they had been taken. Now they had to make a choice.
Rowan turned to the last member of their group, the only one who hadn’t been a slave, Lord Ædarik. “You came here from the castle, right?” she asked.
“I did, but I really can’t recommend taking you there,” he replied.
“That’s not what I’m asking. Castles tend to have settlements nearby to help support the family living there. Can you take us there?”
“I can do that.”
“Good. Then you’ll need to get us some food from the castle.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“You got out didn’t you?”
“Then you can get back in. You might want to get some other supplies as well. Maybe a change of clothes.”
“You’re giving me a lot of opportunities to betray you,” said Ædarik with a quizzical look.
“Do you want me to stab you?”
“Then don’t say stupid things. You said you wanted to save us. I’m going to hold to that. Now show us that not all lords are evil sadistic fucks and see this through to the end.”
“You got me,” he finally responded, having seen how serious Rowan was. “You have my word as a lord and on my family’s oath to the king. With that said, call me Arik. What is your name?”
The journey to the nearby village was long and slow. Amran couldn’t walk and the others barely had enough energy to support him. Rowan was only managing to stay active through sheer force of will. Her body was drained and breathing was difficult, but they weren’t home free yet.
The sun was nearing its peak by the time the village came into sight. Rowan almost collapsed from relief when they saw the villagers; Seres only just managed to catch her. They circled round to approach the village from the other side to avoid anyone from the castle seeing them. Arik suggested it as he wasn’t sure how many guards were in the know.
When they came into view, a woman with a wicker basket saw them. “Som’n come quick,” she exclaimed, “there’s another group of them there children.” Some other people came hurrying over in response to her call and someone went running into the village.
“I hope this is a good sign,” muttered Seres quietly when she saw the congregation of men and women waiting for them.
“Me too,” Rowan groaned.
Back amongst the villagers, a younger man looked at the woman that had called them over. “They be a lookin’ like they be needin’ some help, Geta,” he said.
“Then go then there helpin, lad,” the woman responded. Shamefaced he took a few of the younger men and women to help the strange group. As they approached, Ædarik walked forwards to greet them.
“Salutations, sir. My name is Lord Ædarik and we are in need of your assistance.”
The young man man and his friends stepped forwards to start helping people along. “Right you is, yer lordship. You isn’t the first such group to come here wandering.”
“We aren’t?” Ædarik responded, somewhat surprised.
“No, yer lordship. The other came a wanderin’ in with the first beatin’ of the heart.”
“The first beating of the heart?” Ædarik asked with a rather perplexed expression.
“Just as I said, yer lordship.”
“What does that mean?” Ædarik said again, this time making sure to clarify his confusion.
“First light o’course,” the man replied confidently, as if it was obvious.
Rowan’s heart soared at the news. Another group had gotten out and from the timing, it was likely Maro and the others in her cell. “Are they safe?” she asked.
“That they is, young miss.”
With the confirmation, she finally passed out.
“Is she there okay?” one of the young women asked.
“She needs a bed,” Ædarik ordered, “and water.”
After that, more people came to help and they were led into the village. It was in shambles. The earthquake had destroyed several buildings and Ædarik could see the bodies laid out to rest. Even so, the villagers faced the disaster with a smile and those that could worked together to get everything back in shape. Some were clearing away rubble, others were rebuilding and those in the fields were harvesting the damaged crop.
In the village, they were reunited with the other group who were for the most part, in remarkably better condition. As Rowan had suspected, the group had been lead by Maro, a girl of around sixteen years of age. When they escaped, they had also found the young girl that Ædarik had saved. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t stopped crying.
Ædarik decided to wait until nightfall to return to the castle. He could have left earlier and tried the front gate, but he didn’t feel confident explaining why he was outside the castle walls. Instead he planned on using the same route that he and the slavers had taken to get outside.
“I swear I’ve gotten more active use out of my Gift in the past twenty four hours than have I in the rest of my life,” he muttered to himself as he took to the shadows en route to the castle.
The secret entrance to the castle was extremely well hidden, even more so than a standard postern. On the flip side, it was also less well defended than the postern as it appeared to be largely forgotten. When Ædarik found it again, he could feel how thick the air was with dust and cobwebs. He was surprised that he didn’t notice it the first time with how suffocating it felt.
Ædarik continued on through as the passage led him into the castle’s wine cellar. In hindsight, it made him laugh a little bit. He remembered how in the stories he used to read, the secret passage always led to the wine cellar. The smell as he entered the room was dizzying. Countless broken bottles made the air thick with alcoholic fumes.
“This has got to be a liquid fortune,” Ædarik winced as he stepped into a sticky red. Each time he moved through the cold cellar he was treated to a sickly squelching sound.
He hurried through, not wanting to linger lest he get himself drunk on the fumes. When he ascended to the ground floor of the keep, he saw the remnants of the carnage that the quake had wrought. Just small bits of broken ceramics that had been missed or damaged frames. Beyond that, the keep was surprisingly clean.
The servants must have been working overtime.
Ædarik’s plan to get in and out without being seen soon came to an end as he stumbled into the path of a maid. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “Lord Ædarik? Is that you?”
“Ah, yes. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get in your way, Miss Tama?” He flubbed the last part, trying to remember the maid’s name.
“That’s correct, Lord Ædarik. Where have you been? The castle staff have been trying to find you all day.”
Ædarik had to improvise fast. “That’s my bad,” he apologised, “It seems that, in my drunken stupor, I wandered into one of Lord Feilan’s wine cellars. I think I remember an earthquake and everything crashing down around me. Something must have hit me on the head because I don’t remember much else.” He pointed towards the crusted blood on his scalp to give some credence to his lie. It was hasty, but she seemed convinced.
“Oh no! We need to get you to the castle healer immediately.”
“It’s fine. I just need a bath.”
“I’ll have one prepared, but I must insist on you being seen by the healer. She can check in on you while you bathe.”
“Very well. I will acquiesce. In return I would like you to do me a favour.”
Her response came with a smile, “And what would that be, milord.” Ædarik couldn’t help but notice the not so subtle change in her tone.
“None of what you are probably thinking, sorry. I’d like you to prepare me a hamper for tomorrow morning.”
Thankfully the maid didn’t seem too disappointed at the rejection and was instead more curious about the actual request. “May I ask what for, milord?”
“The village, Miss Tama,” Ædarik explained, “I imagine they were hit hard by the earthquake and a little charity never hurts. I will of course pay if need be.”
Tama smiled more at that. “I’m sure a little bit of food won’t be missed too much, milord. Now let’s get you that bath.”
With that said and done, she led him towards the East wing of the castle and into his quarters. Once there she started to draw the bath while making sure there was nothing else he needed or wanted.
He was soon soaking in hot water contemplating the events of the past day. He felt sick remembering what Lord Feilan had done. He had to wonder if Landras knew, if any of his family knew, and if they did, how could they be okay with it? There was also the strange situation with Lady Ashlin. Landras had never mentioned her being adopted.
Such thoughts continued for the duration of his soak. He had hoped they would be interrupted by the healer like Tama had suggested, but she decided to wait until he was finished bathing.
When she finally made an appearance, he was greeted by an older lady with grey hair kept in a neat bun and weirdly high cheekbones. Her uniform was notably different to that of the maids. From what Ædarik could tell, it was an older style of dress made from a sturdy grey wool and covered with a white apron. In her hands she held a small bag filled with medical implements.
“Greetings, Lord Ædarik. My name is Latria and I am the resident healer of this castle. Miss Tama informs me that you were injured during the earthquake. I can’t say I’m surprised. It was particularly vicious and few people had the sense to get underneath a table. Now tell me, was it pride or inebriation that led to your injury?” She spoke with a clear and crisp tone that did well to hide how tired she was from dealing with idiotic lords and ladies all day.
“The latter, ma’am,” Ædarik admitted, staying true to his earlier lie. “I found myself rather intoxicated and in a wine cellar when the earthquake hit. Something hit me in the head and I passed out.” Once again, he motioned to where the rock had hit him on the head.
“Very well. Any signs of nausea, dizziness, memory loss…” She continued to list various symptoms as she examined him and concluded that he had a concussion. Then she went on to properly clean the injury and ensure it was free from any debris or shrapnel before stitching closed.
“Thank you, Miss Latria,” said Ædarik when she announced that the job was done. “Before you go, I was hoping I could ask about Lady Ashlin. I was rather enchanted by her at the party and wanted to make sure she was well amongst other things.”
“Apart from a sprained ankle and some bruises, she is well. Though she and your friends were rather distraught when you didn’t show up for breakfast.”
“Damn. I’ll need to apologise when I see them.”
“That would be wise.”
“Thanks. I also wanted to ask about Lady Ashlin’s rather unique appearance. Has she always had such magical hair?”
“Her hair has been that colour for as long as she has been in my care. Before then I cannot say for sure, but I would assume so.”
“You mean you weren’t the one to deliver her?”
“I was not, though I have been told that it was a traumatic delivery for Lady Larissa. I was actually hired just before Lady Ashlin was born due to the previous healer tragically passing away.”
“It is indeed. Should your symptoms worsen or you need anything, send a servant right away.”
“Will do. Thank you, Miss Latria.”
After that, Latria bowed her head and took her leave. Once again, Ædarik was left to his own thoughts. Not wanting to face them, he retreated to his bed and collapsed from exhaustion.
The next morning, Ædarik was woken by a loud knocking at his door. He groaned as the knocking got even louder. “I’m awake. Who is it?”
Instead of getting an answer in words, the door flew open and his friends came running in. “You’re alive!” Deilin cried. “We thought something terrible had happened to you.”
“Easy there, Deilin,” Ædarik smiled. ” It was just a small bump on the head.”
“Are you really okay?” Alena asked.
“Sure he is,” Davra answered in his place. “It’ll take more than that to end the tale of Arik, heartthrob extraordinaire.”
Ædarik blushed at that. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t.”
Not wanting that particular conversation to go any further, Ædarik quickly tried to change the subject. “Where’s Landras?” he asked.
“Talking with his father,” Deilin answered, still sniffling slightly.
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
“He said something about staying behind,” Davra added.
“What if there’s an earthquake?”
“We said the same thing,” responded Alena.
Davra shook her head. “He seems to think it will be fine. We’re leaving, however. Ashlin will be coming with us. We managed to convince Lord Feilan and Lady Larissa that it would be much safer in the capital and a learning experience for her.” She winked at the last line.
“I agree, it will be a good experience for her. When are we leaving?”
“As soon as you’re ready.”
He was afraid Davra would say that. “I’ve got something I need to do first. I’ll meet you at the docks.”
“And what is that?” Alena asked.
Ædarik hesitated. “I thought that I would bring some food down to the villagers.”
Alena’s tail started to swish as the idea. “We can help with that.”
“Honestly, I can do it myself.”
“Fine!” He knew there would be no persuading Alena in any meaningful way.
His friends left after that to allow him to get dressed and pack his things.
Before long, Ædarik, Davra, Alena, Deilin, and Ashlin were walking out of the castle gates with two guards and a wagon full of food and supplies. It was significantly more than Ædarik had expected, but Ashlin had insisted that this was the bare minimum they could do.
Unfortunately, the soldiers were going to be a problem. When they were out of earshot from the castle, Ædarik approached them. “Gentlemen, I would like to offer each of you the deal of a lifetime.”
Rightfully so, the two men gave him a cautious look. “Go on,” one of them said.
“I am offering a full year’s pay plus an additional gold sovereign for each of you and all you need to do is not report anything that does not directly threaten Lady Ashlin to Lord Feilan or Lady Larissa.”
The two guards looked at each other and then in perfect sync said, “We can do that.”
When they arrived at the village, they were quickly surrounded by a babble of farmers and other such workers. The five of them had their hands full when the Ferran girl that Rowan had been especially protective of walked over expectantly. Ædarik handed her a large bag of food and she scampered away.
“I’m going to look around and see if anyone needs help,” Ædarik called out.
“Go ahead!” the four girls chorused.
With some food in hand, Ædarik went in the direction the Ferran girl had run off to. Finding himself at the door to one of the houses, he knocked. The woman that had called out to the others when they arrived opened the door. “Yer late,” she said brusquely. “Get inside. They is waiting for yet.”
With little choice other than to oblige, he stepped into the squat house. Inside he saw the Ferran girl, the Ferran boy, Maro, and Rowan who was still sleeping. Out of the three conscious people, it was the boy that spoke. “Seres tells me that you didn’t come alone.”
“There was no helping it,” Ædarik apologised. “They insisted on joining me. I guarantee they won’t be a danger. They may even be able to help get you out of here.”
“What about the guards?” Maro asked.
“I bribed them. As long as Lady Ashlin isn’t in danger, they won’t say a thing.”
“That’ll have to do, Amran,” said the girl now identified as Seres. It was a strangely familiar name and not just because of its similarity to Særis, his home country.
Amran relented and looked at Ædarik again. “So how can your friends help us?” he asked.
“We’re going back to the capital. I’m sure I can convince them to take you with us.”
“Which capital?” Seres asked.
“Særis, of course,” Ædarik responded as if it were obvious.
“Through what means?” asked Amran.
“By ship. Going through the Straights of Fire.”
Seres brightened up at that. “You mean we’ll be going past Midiris?”
“If you take there, I’ll make sure you are rewarded.”
“That’s not important,” Amran interjected. “Can you do it?”
“I’ll give it my all,” Ædarik responded honestly.
“Good. Now go.”
Nodding, Ædarik turned on his heel and left. Just before stepping outside, he noticed Seres shake Rowan awake.
“Well this is going to be a challenge,” he muttered to himself as he walked on over to the others.
“Oh, you’re back,” Ashlin called to him. “We’re almost done here.”
“That’s great!” Ædarik replied.
“You better not have been lazing around while we were doing all the hard work,” Davra teased.
“Hardly. I actually found some people I think we can help.”
“I thought that is what we were already doing?” Deilin asked.
“Even more so. Yesterday a group that suffered greatly from the earthquake arrived in the village. Some of them are barely fifteen and they need help that the village can’t provide. I was thinking we could take them with us.”
“Why not? I’ll cover the expenses. You just need to agree.”
“I say we allow it,” said Ashlin with a smile while Davra muttered something to herself immediately after.
“If you’re paying, we can’t exactly complain,” responded Deilin.
“Sounds good to me,” added Alena.
“I guess you have your answer,” Davra conceded.
“Excellent. I’ll let them know. I should probably see about hiring another wagon as well.”
Within the hour, they were on their way to the nearby port town with twenty-nine adolescents and young adults. Ædarik spent the better part of the afternoon trying to haggle for a reasonable price. He was on his third failure when a passing Midiran captain took one look at Seres and immediately barged into the conversation, kicking the female captain he was trying to bargain with out of her chair
“Get out here, you sea cow,” the large captain shouted. “The lad here isnae gonna take an offer like that.”
“Fuck you, Dralik!” the female captain shouted back.
“Shitting hell, Mari, and go shove a spyglass up yer pisser while yet at it.”
The two of them threw expletives at each other for a good few minutes. Ædarik was beginning to think he should leave when the captain turned to face him. “Sorry about Mari, lad. She’s a lovely lass once you get past the drinking and the foul mouth, but you cannae fault her for trying to take a lad such as yerself for all he’s worth. Thing is thirty-four passengers that cannae help on deck is an expensive proposition.”
“I can help,” Ædarik interrupted defensively.
“Even if I believed that, the others cannae do shit. Now back to what I was saying before you interrupted me. I will offer you the voyage at a more than reasonable price. All you need to do is tell me that girl’s name.”
Ædarik turned to see who Dralik was pointing at when he saw a pair of auburn ears twitch. “That’d be Seres,” he responded after identifying her.
“In which case I would like to offer you travel for no more than half the cost of any additional food that will required to accommodate the lot of ya.”
Ædarik was flabbergasted by the offer. “That’s beyond generous.”
“That it is,” the large captain bellowed. “People will be calling you a pirate with a deal like this.”
“Well I’d be a fool to decline. When do we leave?”
“First tide on the morrow. Load yerselves onto my ship, The Wind Rose. As you may have heard, my name’s Dralik. If anyone causes you and yours any trouble in port, drop my name and they should back off.”
Dralik then spat into his palm and proffered it towards Ædarik expectantly. Fearing he had to do same, Ædarik decided to get it over and done with, spitting into his own palm and clasping the man’s hand.
The next day, they set sail.
Author’s Note: From this update onwards, I intend to start building up my backlog for patrons, By the time I’m done, patrons will be five chapters ahead of the public release. Unlocking these chapters early will only cost £5 a month and is by no means mandatory, but it is greatly appreciated. It will also give you access to some other exclusive benefits. Once I’m done with rebuilding my back log, I will start work on the first side story “The Merchant and the Bard” which will cover how Gyren and Hæra met and fell in love