Chapter 10

Content Warning: Click here for details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think, Rowan! Think!

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

Anticipation.

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

It couldn’t be.

But, what if it was?

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

“K-Kiriin?” Rowan asked hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could stab those bastards,” Rowan growled.

“Is it always this bad?” Kiriin winced.

“Worse,” Rowan spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Rowan, I’m so sorry.”

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

“I’m sure she is,” Seres said.

“What about Kyr? Is he here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Seres added quietly.

“Have you been holding up okay?”

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

The whips cracked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone do something!” Rowan cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 9

Content Warning: Click here for details.

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

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

It’s gotta be a placebo. 

There’s no way it’s real.

 It cannae be possible. 

But maybe it is? 

Maybe the crystals are part of the torment?

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

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

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

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

Oh gods, it hurts!

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

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

Someone. Please. Help me.

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

“Ro…”

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

“…’re… lon…”

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

“…I’m here with you.”

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

“I’ve always been with you.”

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

“Be strong, sister.”

Sister?

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

Why does it being Rina make less sense than Tehri?

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

Fuck!

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

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

This is wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannae give up!

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit!

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just hope there wasn’t a second attack. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“Two years?” Rowan asked.

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

“What about the weather?” Seres joked.

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

“How do you know that?” Anri asked.

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

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

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

“Oh,” the girls said back in disappointment.

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

Shit!

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

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Chapter 7

Content Warning: Click here for details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hardly,” Malin replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancestors! Why? 

You were supposed to be watching over us!

I’m sorry.

This is my fault.

I deserve this.

I have to be stronger.

For Tehri! For Ma! For Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 6

Content Warning: Click here for details.

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

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

*Knock!*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t be calling for backup. Please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash!

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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