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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…
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
to wash away your fear
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.
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.