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 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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