Chapter 13

Content Warning: Click here for details.

Ædarik was face-first on the ground and seeing stars. The earth shattering quake had brought the cave ceiling down around him and his escort. One of them was crushed from the waist down by a large boulder. The other went running for the hills and he was alone. He could feel the blood trickling down the back of his head. 

“Fuck!” His head was still ringing. “Get up, Arik. You still have a job to do.”

The way back was closed off from the cave in. His only option was to go further in, maybe find a ‘warden’ to help him. He also needed to save at least a couple of people lest his mission be in vain.

I hope she’s okay.

He limped down the cave, feeling faint. Before long, he started to feel dizzy. That rock had hit him really hard. Thud! Once again, he had collapsed face-first onto the ground. Only difference was that he hadn’t even noticed it happening this time. The loving grip of consciousness let him pass into oblivion.

*****

“We need to go now!” Rowan shouted. She wasn’t going to wait around for another earthquake. With the exception of Seres and Amran, nobody got up. Some were crying. Others were shaking with fright. None of them looked ready for action. “What are you all waiting for? We have a chance to be free of this place. Take it!”

“But.”

“No buts. Do you want to die? Do you want to be slaves? No? Then get off yer damn asses before you get fucked sideways. And before any of you think we’re insane for trying, you’re probably right, but we would also be crazy if we stayed. We also learned of a couple escape routes from a girl in another cell so we have a chance. This is your chance to say ‘fuck it’ and reclaim your lives.” Rowan’s time in the caves had done interesting things to her vocabulary. She saw some people rouse. Feeling like her work was done, she grabbed Seres’ hand and ran. Amran followed closely behind.

Once they were outside of the cell, the three of them started making their way to the training chamber. It was the one landmark that everyone knew and from there, they would be able to trace a path to the route that they had been given by Maro, a young girl with the Gift of the Wayfarer from another cell. She had been through much to memorise the different routes and Rowan wasn’t about to waste her suffering. Her story had reminded Rowan of one of the fates that had been suggested for Tehri back when they had been captured. 

They ran onwards to their destination.

Why couldn’t this have happened after breakfast?

Rowan could feel the hunger rising. She wouldn’t be able to channel her anger effectively without a meal in her.

It didn’t take long to find the first casualties on the other side. Some of the guards and wardens had been crushed or killed by falling rocks. Some had been killed by the sheer violence of the earthquake. One of them, however, gave Rowan pause. The guard had been thrown into one of the cell gates. She was frozen solid. Rowan remembered when Anri had nearly lost her hand to the heat sapping crystals. It made her feel sick. It was a twisted way to die, just like the entire operation that had engineered it.

Rowan armed herself from the corpses and handed Seres a knife so that she could defend herself if absolutely necessary. Amran refused. Even in the chaos and danger of the situation, he stayed true to his pacifist ways. Instead, he offered to scout ahead. Then, without a hint of fear, he walked forwards with serene determination. With each step, he slowly sped up until he was moving at a comfortable jog. Then he did something that truly surprised Rowan. Instead of vaulting or jumping over the first obstacle he came across, he stepped onto the cave wall and continued onwards as if nothing had changed, he was jogging upside down. Well, almost upside down. 

“Since when could he do that?” Rowan exclaimed.

“Does it really matter?” Seres responded hesitantly. “We should hurry up already.”

The two girls followed Amran at a more measured pace. They weren’t alone; some of the people from their cell had caught up and they were being joined by others. Everyone was weak and afraid. They were all so thin. Some of them looked like they hadn’t eaten in days, as if they had been forgotten. Rowan knew this was their last chance. There were few that would be able to handle being captured again if the escape failed. It was an all or nothing gambit. Even so, it granted them the smallest flicker of hope. Rowan felt it too. She let her hope Resonate with everyone. Everyone looked that little bit brighter and Rowan literally started to glow. It was a dim but comforting light that guided their way and banished away all the small cuts and bruises that they had acquired.

Seres smiled gently at Rowan. “We’re actually doing this, aren’t we?” she asked.

“Of course we are,” Rowan smiled back, “I made a promise after all.”

Then, as if to prove her wrong, Amran came running back, all the confidence he had before gone to the winds. “Quick! Turn back,” he shouted. “They’ve started the round up.”

“What? No, we can’t turn back,” Rowan responded. “If we don’t get to the training cavern, how are we supposed to find our way to Maro’s cell? All of her routes are from there.”

“It’s too dangerous. They’re using their Awakened.”

“Shit!” 

On hearing that, people started to falter. Rowan was still glowing, but she couldn’t bolster an emotion they were starting to lack.”

“What do we do now?” Seres asked with a face full of worry and a quivering voice. She still clung to hope, but only barely.

“I don’t know,” Rowan admitted. “I doubt I can fight any of their Awakened one on one like this.”

“We should have stayed back,” one of the other prisoners cried.

“This is all your fault,” another shouted at Rowan.

“We have to go, Rowan, now! I can see the cracks. These people are starting to break.” Amran was already moving. He had made his verdict as both a Stoic and an Empath. Rowan was forced to agree. Her priorities were getting Seres out. If other people could escape with them, it would be great, but she couldn’t let them endanger the mission. If they all broke, Rowan, Amran and Seres could end up in a sea of hostiles. She didn’t want that, not when they could be saved.

“If you still have your resolve, try and keep up,” she shouted. “If you cannae do that much, escaping is on you.” It was all that she could offer them. One last chance to those who still had the strength of will to run. 

One of them turned to Rowan before she could leave with Seres, and gave her a grave look. “I will remain here and do my best to hold them back; give you a head start and everything.”

“What? Why?” Rowan threw the words back at him in shock.

“I know I won’t be able to keep up with you. I’m too heavy set, even with the fuck-all food we’ve been getting. I also have the Gift of the Aegis, so it makes sense.”

“Are you sure?” Rowan had to ask. She was going to leave him behind anyway, but she didn’t want to be weighed down by guilt.

“Completely. Seeing you glow gave me the courage to stand. This is the least I could do.”

“Good luck.” With those final words, Rowan ran at full pelt after Amran. 

Seres clung desperately to Rowan’s hand as they ran. “I hope you have an alternative in mind,” she shouted to Amran at the top of her lungs. He was already a fair bit ahead, though he was no longer running on the walls.

“The classrooms,” he called back. “I think I remember Maro mentioning something about the route to get to them.”

They ran through the long winding caves towards the classrooms. They had to backtrack almost completely to find a route they were comfortable with. It had taken them years to memorise the different routes. It was not an easy task. The caves were labyrinthine in nature and there was little in the way of notable landmarks. As such, they had very little to aid their memories of the route. They hadn’t planned on this at all. Rowan just hoped they could get to Maro’s cell as soon as possible. Then they’d be able to rely on the instructions they had carved onto their arms.

It took much longer than they had hoped to get to the classrooms. They made a couple of errors and the caves suffered several aftershocks. It was a nerve wracking experience, but it eventually came to a close. When it did, they all took several deep breaths. Amran needed to collect his thoughts and remember what Maro had said about the route. It took five arduous minutes for him to formulate a path forwards.

“This way,” he said. “I think.”

*****

The route took them down caves that none of them had ever been down before. Rowan felt lost and blind as they walked on at a hurried pace. They couldn’t run. Not when they were relying on hazy second hand knowledge that they hadn’t committed to flesh. It was a strangely empty and quiet path that they took through the caves. That is until Seres noticed someone collapsed down one of the side paths. She pulled gently on Rowan’s hand to get her attention.

“Look over there,” she said quietly.

Rowan looked over and saw a strange looking man dressed in what she assumed were a noble’s garb. She didn’t recognise him. Granted, it wasn’t easy to get an idea of what he truly looked like other than crap when he was faced down on the ground. 

Is this one of them? One of the Good Lords?

Rowan felt like she may have struck gold with the find. “Hold up, Amran. We’ve got a sighting here. Looks like a lord.”

“And you’re not suggesting we run?” he replied.

“He’s either dead or unconscious. Think it might be one of them?”

“Out here alone? Doubtful.”

“His escort might have run away when he collapsed,” Seres opined.

“No, Amran’s got a point,” Rowan disagreed. “He’d probably have at least one Ardent or Stoic in his escort if he was.”

“Should we leave him then?” Amran asked.

“No!” Seres objected loudly. “We can’t just leave him.”

“He’s dead weight, Seres. Maybe even literally.” Rowan was shaking her head. They couldn’t waste time here. She didn’t care that it was contrary to the fact that she had been the one to stop them. The chance to kill one of the good lords was worth it. A nobody was not.

“What if he knows the way out? If we make him lead us it will solve all of our problems,” Seres countered.

“That is a fair point,” Amran responded in acknowledgement.

“But…”

“It’s okay, Rowan. I can handle this.”

“You can?”

“Easily. I just shock him with some cold and give him a boost of energy.”

“Huh?” Those were indeed some words that came out of Amran’s mouth, but Rowan had no idea how to parse them and her expression showed it. Seres actually laughed when she saw it.

“I don’t see why it’s so difficult to grasp, Rowan. I’m sure Seres understands.”

“Of course,” Seres smiled smugly.

“That’s not helping!” Rowan complained.

“It’s simply a matter of anger and compassion. Well a lack of it. I always found it out that Stoics Resonate with compassion in such an external power. We tend to be much more close and insular with our abilities compared to Ardents.”

Rowan gave up trying to understand him. “Fine, just do it already.”

“Right away. From the looks of it, he’s alive, but he will need medical attention.” Amran turned him onto his back and did a reasonably thorough exam. Then he took hold of the lord’s wrist and did nothing?

The lord shuddered awake. His first few words were a jumbled mess. The only intelligible words that Rowan heard were, “Where is she?”

“Can we do anything for that?” Seres asked regarding the largely incoherent slurry the lord was speaking.

“Give it a few moments. He needs to collect himself.”

While they waited, a few of the people that had kept up started to complain. The three of them spent the time quelling their arguments. They weren’t so convinced that the lord would be anything close to a font of knowledge based on the state he was in. 

“Where am I?” he finally said with some measure of cognisance. “Where is the girl?”

“You’re in a cave system where those of us that you see before you and many others have been kept prisoner,” Amran explained calmly before Rowan had the chance to respond. “Tell me, what do you know of this place? Why are you here? Are you working with the people that run this operation? Don’t bother lying. With the state you’re in, it will be blatantly obvious.”

“Work for who? I thought this place was just somewhere Lord Feilan kept the girls he preyed on locked up.”

“Lord Feilan?” Rowan interrupted. “That must be the man that Maro and the others were being taken to.”

“It seems likely.”

“Who are you people?”

“Prisoners. Slaves. Weapons. Take your pick,” Rowan remarked bitterly. “We’re also breaking out of this place. Now tell us who you are and why you are here?”

“My n-name is Arik. I mean Lord Ædarik of House Beltein. I was following some men who had a girl between them. They came from the castle. Where is she?”

“I don’t have a clue who you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I.”

“Or I.”

“Damn it. I hope she wasn’t inside when the earthquake happened. Prisoners you say? I was supposed to be the one rescuing you. So much for my attempt at heroics.”

“You were supposed to save us?” Rowan said sardonically with a look to match. “You came waltzing in here without knowing what this place was thinking you could save us?”

“I thought it would only be a few dozen people at most.”

“Do you at least know the way out?” Seres asked.

“I only got part way in before the guards found me. I don’t remember what happened between them and meeting the ‘lord’ who seemed to be in charge.”

“Fein,” Rowan snarled. “Well there goes that plan. Let’s get moving. Do you still have a handle on where we should be going, Amran?”

“Just.”

“What about him?” Seres asked, pointing at Lord Ædarik. “He might not have had any useful information, but he did come here to save us. Even if he did fail in the end.” She gave Rowan a pleading look with her large Ferran eyes; her tail was still and her ears were drooping slightly.

“Don’t give me that look, Seres. I don’t need to be weighed down by guilt from leaving him here after he went and told us his idiotic plan.”

“He might also be useful once we get out of here,” Amran added begrudgingly.

“He’s your responsibility, Amran. I need to focus on keeping Seres safe.”

“Fine.” 

*****

They marched onwards with their new addition being helped along with Amran. With each step, Rowan started to develop a nagging feeling of familiarity. She realised why almost too late.

“We don’t need to turn left here, do we Amran?” she whispered.

“No?” he responded at a more normal volume. “Why do you ask?”

“Lord Fein’s offices are just down there,” she stressed as quietly as she could manage.

Practically everyone realised the danger they were in. Lord Fein was almost guaranteed to have one or two Awakened individuals nearby. 

“Do we split up?” Amran asked nervously.

The answer he got was much louder than he had expected.

“Guards! We’re over h…” Rowan stabbed the girl in the throat before she could finish alerting the enemy. She was crying when she withdrew the bloody knife. The damage had already been done.

“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly as she withdrew the knife, tears streaming down her face. The damage had been done, but Rowan couldn’t help but feel regret for the poor girl. She wasn’t to blame for not being strong enough. She wasn’t to blame for being a threat. She wasn’t to blame for reminding Rowan what she needed to do. “Amran. Please keep Seres safe for me. I have some unfinished business.”

Even the young Stoic failed to hide the grim trepidation he felt from those words. “Don’t do it, Rowan.” She was already gone, walking towards Lord Fein’s office. Before long, she was out of sight.

*****

Lord Fein’s office had seen better days. It looked like an incredibly violent storm had passed through, leaving absolutely nothing untouched. Gone was the organised decorum that the room had always tried to present. Now only ruin remained and it filled Rowan with a sense of catharsis. She had marched in as Fein was clambered to get everything organised again. It didn’t take a genius to see how futile an endeavour it was to try single-handedly. 

Rowan cleared her throat to announce herself. Fein turned to look at her. Instead of his usual genteel self, Rowan saw fear. His face had been ruined by the quake and he was caked in blood and grime.

“It’s good to see you, Lord Fein,” she said darkly.

“Miss Rowan,” he started.

“I told you this day would come. My shackles are broken and I will have my vengeance. Know this, Fein. Today marks the start of my crusade. You should feel honoured that I am killing you first. Fear not, it will be extremely painful.” 

“You don’t need to do this. If you let me go, I’ll tell you how to get out of here. I can even deactivate the scars on your back.” Rowan could see the beads of sweat rolling down Lord Fein’s ruined face.

“Are you an idiot? I invoked the true name of the Goddess in my oath of vengeance. Now that we are face to face, I cannot let you go.” Rowan started to walk towards him, the tears from before still glistening softly.

His voice quivered in fear. “Be reasonable.”

“If only you had extended us the same courtesy. You set out to forge a weapon and you succeeded. Take solace in that as I end you.” 

Rowan took the final step. She looked into Fein’s eyes and drove the knife into his gut. It wasn’t lethal. Not immediately at least. He had to suffer and Rowan was no stranger to pain. She pushed down on the handle and twisted it into his diaphragm. Fein clawed weakly at her wrist. It was clear what he wanted and Rowan was all too happy to oblige. She ripped the knife free. Fein cried out in agony, his voice a visceral scream. His breathing started to falter.

“You know, Lord Fein, you should consider yourself lucky that I’m not angry right now. If I was, my left hand would be gripping your frail little neck right now. Imagine your blood boiling as it rushed to your brain.” Rowan’s voice was dripping with venom as she drove the knife into his thigh, just nipping the femoral artery. It was done. Even if Fein got immediate medical attention, his death was all but assured.

With grim satisfaction, Rowan turned her back on Lord Fein. A second later, she went crashing against the wall. A giant fist had hit her square in the ribs. She felt several of them crack.

“Strange small girl. Stop acting wrong.” It was the Al’duur; the giant of a man who carved the brand into her back.

“Back off or I’ll kill you as well,” Rowan wheezed. She struggled back to her feet.

He towered over Rowan, his body and arms covered in thick hide, bony ridges and elaborate tattoos,. “You not able to kill me even if you were three your size.” 

“I can try.” She raised her knife into a forward facing guard. In the distance, she heard the rapid fall of feet on stone getting ever closer.

The Al’duur man blocked the only exit with his sheer size. He was a leviathan next to Rowan. She had to get past him. If it weren’t for her ribs, she could have probably dove between his legs.

“You can do it.”

“Rowan! I’ll distract him,” shouted Amran from behind the Al’duur as he leapt onto his back. The larger man’s movements started to become sluggish as Amran clung to him.

“What are you doing here?” coughed Rowan, “You should be watching out for Seres.”

“That’s your job, you idiot,” Amran said back through clenched teeth.

“You are idiot here,” the giant interrupted as his tattooed arms started to bulge. He grabbed Amran’s ankle in a vice-like grip,  ripped him off of his back and slammed him against the cave wall with a resounding crack.

The Al’duur had moved out of the exit. Rowan could leave Amran behind and run. Instead, her anger flared. Amran smiled, despite his mangled ankle. Rowan limped between him and the giant.

“Rowan, I need you to listen,” whispered Amran, “Don’t attack him. Instead pulse as much heat as you can into this wall. Then throw the knife on my mark.” 

He reached out and gently touched her ankle as she got ready to face their eminent foe. She didn’t understand why he wanted her to heat up the wall, but she had little else in the way of options. The Al’duur just looked at them, confused. 

After a few moments, Amran shouted, “Now, Rowan!” Then the wall started to fracture.

In anticipation, Rowan threw the knife at the giant’s face as a twitch reaction. He managed block in the nick of time, the knife glancing off one of the ridges on his arm. When he lowered the arm, there was a boom and the ceiling came crashing down on him.

Outside the room, Rowan was struggling to drag Amran to the others. “You were supposed to leave me in there, you idiot,” he reprimanded her. “If I knew you were going to be this stupid I wouldn’t have failed to give to any energy.” He was not happy with the situation. Rowan has needlessly risked herself by saving him.

“I couldn’t just let you die. I cannae sacrifice people like it’s nothing,” cried Rowan painfully.

“You’ve already sacrificed people so that you and Seres can escape. You made a promise.”

“They can still be saved!”

“Don’t lie to yourself.”

“Some of them can be. I hope. And it still hurts. I couldnae handle it if it was because of a friend.”

“Damn it. I accepted that I was going to die if I needed to, Rowan. I even left the route to Maro’s cell on the lord’s sleeve.”

“Well you didn’t need to die.”

*****

When they got to the others, Seres ran into Rowan’s arms crying. “We need to get going,” said Rowan as she hugged Seres back. “Someone help Amran.” She was feeling extremely weak. The burst of anger had drained almost all of her energy reserves. It was like she hadn’t eaten in a week. There was no way she could do another fight. Hopefully though, if everything went according to plan, they were home free. Rowan smiled at everyone.

There weren’t as many as before. Some had run away, but it was more than Rowan could have hoped for. Even then, it was not enough. She promised to herself that she would come back and save as many as could while they walked the long road to freedom. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

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Chapter 6

Content Warning: Click here for details.

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

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

*Knock!*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t be calling for backup. Please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash!

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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