The days that followed Rowan’s rather awkward first encounter with the Ferran boy passed much as the rest had, except for the embarrassment that she felt towards the matter. After some encouragement from Anri and Seres, she worked up the courage to approach him again and apologise for her awkward behaviour.
This time, the boy was looking straight at Rowan when she approached. “I’m sorry about before,” she apologized. “I know I was acting really strange with all those things I said. I hadn’t even introduced myself. I should probably do that now, shouldn’t I? Sorry,” Rowan apologised again, looking slightly downcast. Then, before the boy could even blink, she looked up with a mercurial smile and offered her hand. “Let’s start over. Hello, I’m Rowan.”
“Hello, Rowan. I’m glad to see your cheeks are no longer the same colour as your hair. My…”
“My face wasnae that red!” Rowan interjected before he could continue, a slight blush rising in response.
“If you say so,” he responded again before continuing on to his own introduction. “My name is Amran.”
“Hey, that’s the same as my brother’s name!”
“It’s a fairly common name,” Amran replied somewhat dryly.
“You dinnae have to brush me off like that.”
“Well you can apologise by answering my questions. Especially now that I’ve introduced myself.”
“I can do that.”
“First! Why are you always meditating?”
“It helps me focus.”
“Focus on what?”
“Honing my emotions. It’s a technique that I learned from a Kairosi Fire Monk that passed through my hometown before it was raided.”
“A Kairosi Fire Monk? You’ve actually seen one? You’re sure?”
“As sure as can be.”
Rowan couldn’t help but give Amran a look of incredulity when she considered what he was saying. “But aren’t the Kairosi, like, really rare this far north? My Da told me he’s only seen a few and they were all merchants. I was sure that the Fire Monks pretty much always stayed near The Ashen Eye and that’s if they even exist.”
“You clearly know more of their existence than I,” Amran replied. “That is to say, before he arrived, I believed that the Fire Monks were merely legendary warriors from Terian’el with skin like obsidian. I didn’t even know what they were capable of or how they got their name. I’m not sure that I will continue to think of them as legends now that I have met one.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because, while he was certainly impressive, imposing even, he still struck me as just a man. True, he looked vastly different from what I was familiar with, but that is the nature of people, is it not? To be different? Perhaps if I had seen what he could do without seeing the man, I would think differently. But that is not how things developed and now I owe him more than my life for his teachings. It is through his techniques that I have survived this long.”
“How long is that?” Rowan was almost scared to ask, but she couldn’t help herself. She needed to know.
“I would say at least two years. Time is difficult to follow down here.”
“I can imagine,” Rowan replied glumly. “Was it the Fire Monk who made you do that pain test thing? Why would he do that?
“Not exactly. As far as I’m aware, he was a travelling hierophant, giving advice and teaching people about the world whilst helping people for food and board. I found him interesting so I asked if he would be willing to teach me a few things. He obliged and started by teaching me about the Fire Monks. I was positively intrigued and hungered to learn more. That was when my lessons regarding certain Kairosi techniques began. It was almost as if he had some foresight of what was to come. However, he never actually gave me the trial of pain. He merely mentioned that it is a maxim that he followed. I made the choice to personally follow it when I first arrived here.”
Rowan looked blankly at Amran for a second. “Congratulations! You answered my questions only to give me several more.” She then gave him a hopeful look. “Do you think I could learn some of those techniques?” Any tool or technique that could help her survive and be true to her promise was a gift.
“No,” he answered immediately.
“Meanie!” Rowan threw her arms up in despair before wincing in pain. “Ouch! Can’t you think about it?”
“Sorry, I should have been clearer. It won’t work.”
“Because you’re an Ardent.” Even with Amran’s strangely mellow tone, Rowan could feel the hint of a rhetorical question, as if his answer was obvious. Unfortunately, he didn’t give her a chance to respond as he continued with his explanation. “Ardents feel too strongly to quell the storm of emotion inside of them and to try would only blunt their edge. It would be akin to expecting a moth to be not drawn towards the flame. Thus, while you may learn, such a technique would fail to serve you.”
Amran’s explanation took Rowan a little off guard. “That was a rather colourful way of explaining things,” she responded, giving him a thoughtful pout.
“Thank you,” Amran said appreciatively.
“It wasn’t exactly a compliment you know. It’s really bizarre when you give a really poetic explanation after being so short or concise before. Actually, you’ve been a little cryptic at times. Wait, what was that about me being an Ardent?” Rowan had been so caught up in his explanation that she had forgotten the point that had led into it.
“You are an Ardent, yes?”
Is it really that obvious?
“I am, but ― how did you know?”
Amran looked at Rowan quizzically. “You mean apart from the fact that you are practically leaking with emotional intensity?”
“I was unable to calm down your embarrassment. If anything, I believe that you actually got more embarrassed when I tried.”
“You tried to calm my embarrassment?” Rowan asked as she tried to work out what exactly he meant.
“Wait!” she said as it clicked. “That means you’re a Stoic! I think.”
Rowan’s response surprised Amran a little bit, which gave her a slither of satisfaction.
“You’re rather well learned for a country girl,” Amran noted, “I’m impressed. The mechanics of Ardent Amplification and Stoic Dampening aren’t exactly common knowledge. I believe it is an area of study limited to the educated elite, government and of course Ardents and Stoics who have had the chance to explore said mechanics.”
“Well I am not a Country Girl!” Rowan almost shouted in a slightly offended tone, garnering the attention of some of the other prisoners.
Why am I getting needlessly offended by this. Time to switch mounts.
“My apologies,” Amran responded. “I didn’t mean to offend. Granted, I was sure my nature as a Stoic was as obvious as your own as an Ardent. I’m actually surprised it took my comment on dampening to make you realise.”
“You would be,” Rowan said, this time with mock offence, her disposition completely different to what it had been a second ago.
“That was quick.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think it likely that I would meet another Awakened so soon, especially with how rare we’re supposed to be. It was stupid of me considering what this place is. I knew about it because my father is an internationally established merchant, so he made sure I received the best tuition possible.”
“Then you have been blessed by a good education, though I fear it will do you little good here. I also recommend that you rid yourself of the notion that we are rare in these caves. It seems like you’ve caught on to the purpose of this operation. They intend to force as many of us as possible to Awaken so that they can forge us into weapons for use in some war. You are fortunate to have already Awakened as you will at least be spared the torments that await the others. Unfortunately, that is only the beginning. Be strong, Rowan. Don’t let them break you. The moment you give up, they will seize your shattered will as their own. Those scars guarantee it.”
Amran’s warning reminded Rowan of her mother’s dying words and it filled her with dread and tears as the memory flashed before her. Rowan wanted more answers, hoping that they may steady her shaken heart, however a cry from the other side of the cell stole her attention.
Rowan turned quickly towards the entrance of the cell. Anri lay by the gate, curled up in a ball, with Seres kneeling over her and crying. Rowan instantly ran over, fearing what could have happened or gone wrong. Anri was shivering while clutching at her left hand. It had started turning blue with frost at the fingertips.
Rowan heard some shuffling behind her, so she turned to face it. A prisoner that she hadn’t noticed before was trying to get away from them. “What happened?” she demanded.
“She fell,” the prisoner replied, trying to hide the guilt in his voice.
“She just fell?” Rowan asked with a cold stare.
“Well not exactly. We had a small disagreement,” he said as he glanced at another prisoner by his side, almost as if to shift the blame.
“Rowan, stop. It was my fault,” Seres cried from behind her.
“Yeah, what she said.”
“This isn’t your fault, Seres.” Rowan’s anger began to flare. She knew a bully when she saw one. ”So let me guess, one of you pushed her over because of this disagreement?”
“You don’t understand. She was hiding away food. If she doesn’t need it, she should give it to those of us that have been here longer,” the second prisoner responded. The other prisoner was giving them a look as if to tell them to be quiet.
“She’d been giving it to me, Rowan,” Seres admitted sadly with a voice dripping with underserved guilt.
“Are you two more important than Seres or Anri? No? Didn’t think so.” Rowan’s voice rose with every word and her eyes glinting with anger from the light of the crystals.
The first prisoner took a step back as if feeling slightly threatened by the heat that was starting to radiate from Rowan’s body. “Here, take the food back,” he stammered before turning to his accomplice, “this isn’t worth a couple of scraps.” The other prisoner threw down the scraps of food that they had taken with notable indignation before the two of them then hurried away.
Rowan was about to shout after them when a hand landed on her shoulder. Amran had walked over during the confrontation and now stood just behind her. As Rowan turned to look at him, he shook his head looking at Anri and Seres. While he spoke no words, his message was clear, “Get your priorities straight. She needs care.” Rowan nodded trying to calm her anger.
Rowan did her best to treat Anri’s frostbitten hand and stop Seres from falling into hysterics. She felt like she was grasping at straws with the frostbite and calming Seres down wasn’t much easier. Unfortunately, she was half convinced that she was making Anri’s hand worse. It wasn’t like she had ever learned how to treat frostbite. She was limited to the very basics of first aid and she couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t enough. At least with Seres she was sure that she was at least stable and Amran looked like he was playing his part in ensuring that she didn’t get any worse.
Still, there was little Rowan could do apart from try. If she failed, Anri would lose at least two fingers, but she was going to lose them even if Rowan didn’t do anything. At least by trying there was a chance she could stop it getting worse while they waited for someone to arrive. She hoped that they wouldn’t need to wait for a scheduled visit by one of the wardens. The next wouldn’t be until later in the day when they took away the prisoners for that day to suffer whatever foul torments they were using to break them.
Thankfully, one of the guards had heard the screams and had sent for a warden. They arrived not too long after with a small detachment of guards and a medical team. Rowan promised Anri that she would be okay when she and Seres were telling her goodbye. In reality, Rowan was terrified that Anri wouldn’t return.
The wait for Anri to return was long. After a week she gave up all hope that she would be back, only maintaining a positive front for Seres. Her fear was further compounded when one of the boys that had arrived at the same time as them fell ill with an infection and died. They were already so weak from the healing and lack of food. Maybe if she hadn’t been giving away some of her food to Seres, her odds would be better. From the look of Seres, it was clear that she felt the same. She had been quiet ever since the incident.
“What should I do, Amran?” Rowan asked the older Stoic boy quietly one day after he had returned from torment.
“Why do anything?” he responded with some confusion.
“Because she’s my responsibility,” Rowan stressed.
“Since when? Is she a relative?”
“No, but I don’t think she’s eating. I won’t let her die like Dakaa. I won’t fail her.”
“It sounds like you are putting too much of a burden on your own shoulders. Do you want to break yourself?”
“I don’t, but if I don’t do anything and I could have made things better, I would be failing everyone doubly.”
“I understand that you probably have your reasons, Rowan, but this is too much.”
“You don’t understand! I’ve failed too much already. I need to make things right.”
“Okay, perhaps I don’t. Well there is nothing I can do to help. You have tried talking to her, haven’t you?”
“Um, no,” Rowan admitted sheepishly.
Amran gave her a flat look. “Are you being serious? That’s the first thing you should have done.”
“I was hoping there was some special Ardent technique that I could use to make her feel better.”
“You do realise that our powers don’t include miracle solutions for every situation, don’t you“
“Well yeah, but maybe…”
“Even with Amplification it wouldn’t work. Neither of you are feeling the appropriate emotions so there is nothing to Resonate. Just talk to her.”
“But talking is hard. What if I mess up?”
“Fine! I’ll try talking.”
Rowan stomped away to prepare herself to talk to Seres, as if it was some great trial, and Amran returned to his meditation. Meanwhile, Seres was curled up into a ball near the gate. She was almost close enough for it to sap away all of her body heat. It was the punishment that she felt she deserved, not that she had any metric for what was reasonable. She had always been a good princess, responsible and caring. How could she let so many get hurt trying to help and protect her. It wasn’t right. The royal family should be the ones doing the protecting and she had failed on every front there.
“I just wanted to help people,” she cried quietly to herself.
That had been the entire reason for her trip north; a relief mission for those less well off towns and villages in the north and east. She had begged her mother, the queen, to let her do it. Before then she had spent her childhood helping people in the capital and the rest of the heartlands. She used her position as a princess to make sure those in need had food and shelter, be they orphans or the elderly with no children to look after them. Many saw it as a heavy burden for one so young and overall unnecessary. She was inclined to disagree. Her duties were nothing compared to the working folk. So what if people kept telling her that everyone was taking advantage of her. She was sure that for every fraud, she was helping at least a thousand legitimate people in need. She was further vindicated when she received her mother’s seal of approval.
She had been so happy that her mother had agreed to the mission. Seres didn’t even want to think about how many Gold Chains her mother had set aside. Now she felt like it would all go to waste. The situation was so much worse with all the raids that had been going on. How had their attacks gone on for so long without anyone in the capital knowing? Seres only hoped that her disappearance would lead them to discovering the truth. Then at least some good would come from her failure.
Unfortunately, that thought did nothing to comfort her on her most recent failure. Anri was hurt because of her. Why didn’t she realise where things were going? Why didn’t she think about how dangerous the gate was? She could see the Resonance. She knew what it did, even more than anyone else here. Such was the blessing of her two coloured eyes. But instead of trying to intercede when they started pushing, she cowered in fear. She was…
“Rowan to Seres. Rowan to Seres,” said the older girl who glowed like the morning sun, interrupting her thoughts. Seres couldn’t remember ever seeing an Ardent shine as brightly as Rowan, at least not quite so close.
“Yes, Rowan?” she asked hesitantly. She wasn’t equipped to handle Rowan’s rather mercurial energy.
Instead of responding with any words, Rowan knelt down and hugged her gently.
“Rowan, you’re being weird,” Seres told the girl who insisted on keeping her arms wrapped around her.
“You needed a hug,” Rowan said matter-of-factly.
“N-no I don’t. Please let go.”
Rowan begrudgingly let go. “You’re sad. Hugging always helped me when I was feeling down.” The girl offered a warm, yet melancholic smile.
“I’m fine, honestly,” Seres lied.
“I would always tell my Ma the exact same thing when I was anything but, so that isnae gonna work on me.”
“Well, okay. No I’m not fine, but it’s what I deserve,” Seres said with depressing conviction.
“Drakiir shit” Rowan swore.
“Excuse me?” Seres wasn’t really sure how else she should respond to that. People typically didn’t swear in her company.
“You don’t deserve to suffer, I can promise you that. And before you argue with me, you’re going to tell me exactly why you think you do and I’ll tell you exactly why you are wrong.”
Seres was even less prepared for that than the swearing and she couldn’t really argue with it, so she relented. She told Rowan everything she could without mentioning who she was, though she was sure Rowan had already guessed. As promised, Rowan told her how she was wrong every time. She used a firm but calming tone that seemed rather uncharacteristic of her, as if she was trying to emulate someone else. By the end of it, Seres was crying and the pair of them were getting strange looks from the rest of the people in the cell.
“I think I could use that hug now,” Seres admitted quietly.
Once again, Rowan took Seres into her arms, only this time she started singing a familiar song.
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
By the end of the song, tears were streaming down Rowan’s eyes as well and the two girls cried their pain away. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to tide them over while they continued to heal and wait for Anri. Seres started eating all of her food again and started to feel better.
There were some details that Rowan didn’t mention to Seres, however. With each passing day, it was becoming clear that the wardens were using everyone’s healing process to determine when it was time for them to be taken away along with the senior prisoners. Rowan was scared that they would take advantage of Anri’s position to start the so-called forging process early. Furthermore, her own scars were almost healed, which was concerning in its own right. What if she wasn’t there when Anri returned, or what if she couldn’t be there for Seres when she was taken? She tried to get answers from Amran, but he refused to answer, likely to try and stop her from worrying more than she already was.
After another three days, Anri returned to the cell. Seres was the first to notice as she excitedly shook Rowan awake. Rowan was elated to see Anri seemingly safe and sound. The only thing that Rowan could see was different about her was a mitten that she was sporting on her left hand. Seres, on the other hand, noticed the distinct lack of colour to Anri’s face or the notes of horror that danced across her eyes as Rowan rushed over towards her. Rowan took Anri over to an empty cot so that she could rest. Meanwhile, Amran looked up from his meditation and in perfect sync with Seres, muttered, “She’s Awakened.”