The scream that echoed from the prisoner’s curled mouth almost made Yarganov Uksmat laugh. Almost. “Twenty-two days,” Yarganov said from the corner of the cell. He needn’t talk above a whisper. They knew to listen.
The prisoner clutched his bloody stump and whimpered as he shuffled backwards, away from the cuff swinging in the air with his right hand still attached. This one had always been on the softer side. Didn’t take well to pain. Some men stayed strong for weeks. Not him. He broke on the first day. Tried to steal away the fun, but Yarganov wouldn’t let him.
Another pathetic sniffle escaped his mouth as his withered legs struggled to propel his body to the safety in the opposite corner of the cell. As if the extra two paces and slight dip in light would be enough to hide his crippled body. “Shh,” Yarganov reassured him as he dipped a cup into a pale of water and held it out to the prisoner.
“Please.” The prisoner begged, “Please, no more.”
“Of course,” Yarganov said. “Of course.” He knelt beside the prisoner and gently held the cup to his lips. “It’s over. Twenty-two days. I’m sure you won’t spread lies again.”
“Never.” The prisoner sobbed. “Never again.”
“Shh. I know.” Yarganov said as he swept the prisoner's bloody hair out of his eyes. He gently placed the cup on the ground and hooked his arm underneath the prisoner’s pit. “Lean into me,” Yarganov said as he supported the prisoner’s weight. “It’s a short walk to freedom.”
Yarganov grabbed the torch sitting at the entrance to the cell. It was the only light in the catacomb dungeons. The two slowly stumbled down the corridor, the prisoner leaning heavily into Yarganov as they passed countless cells filled with sinners who scurried from the light. Each whimper lifted Yarganov from his mind and flooded his body with tingling sensations. What a joy it was to feel.
“Just around this bend,” Yarganov said soothingly. “Your family awaits. Oh, how they miss you.” The prisoner released a sob that Yarganov assumed sat between anguish and hope. After all, it was enough to make the prisoner take some of his weight and shuffle a little bit faster. “Here we are,” Yarganov said as they rounded a corner. “Reunited at last.”
Yarganov let go of the prisoner who swayed, ready to topple, but caught himself in time to see the silhouette of his beloved family. He stumbled forward to greet them but lurched backwards as Yarganov attached a cuff that hung from the roof to his left hand. Yarganov lifted his torch light and placed it in a holder to reveal a young woman and two small boys strung up on the wall. “I’ll leave you to get reacquainted,” Yarganov said as the prisoner howled. “Twenty-two days. I think you can beat it.”
Yarganov inhaled as the prisoner’s body collapsed, the cuff pulling taught and holding his weight off the ground. He yanked desperately at his arm, trying to pull it loose but only causing the cuff to bite harder into his wrist.
“Twenty-two days,” Yarganov said before he spun on his heel and walked back through the cells. His boots rapped on the ground as he walked through the dark, enough to make the sinners snivel at nothing more than the thought of himself. His tongue danced across his lips as he pondered about new techniques he could employ to help the sinners see their folly. What contraptions could be used to heighten his own sense of -
“Two hundred and sixteen, two hundred and seventeen, two hundred and eighteen -” A voice cut across Yarganov’s delightful thoughts as he approached the entrance to the cells. He exited from the black into a tight corridor lit by torches running along the walls. That boy, whatever his name was, Jasper or Jakom or something like that, sat at the entrance with his leg jiggling up and down as he stared at the wall, which was staring straight back.
“Counting the skulls?” Yarganov asked as he pealed a bloody glove from his hand. He didn’t like that he had been interrupted, even if the boy had shown potential. “Do you know who put most of them there?”
“Yes, m, my lord.” The boy spluttered.
“I’m no lord.” Yarganov cautioned him as he threw his gloves and keys on the boy’s small table. He must have been past his adolescence, maybe even into his twenties, but his skinny body and gaunt face held the trauma of one who had experienced many hardships. Exactly what Yarganov had been looking for. A disciple he could mould. “Help me with this… Uhh -”
“Jakob, my lord.”
“If you call me lord again, you’ll find yourself in with the sinners.”
Jakob rushed forward and helped Yarganov peel his bloody apron over his head. Jakob threw the apron onto his table, then rushed to fetch a wet cloth and began to pad at the blood on Yarganov’s long red gown.
“It’s red for a reason,” Yarganov said, pushing Jakob aside, his face grazing Yarganov’s baleful pointed shoulder piece. “Number twelve. Remove the body.”
“Yes… Um -” Jakob swallowed. Yarganov leaned in close. “Yes… master?” A bead of sweat ran down Jakob’s flushed cheeks as Yarganov frowned. Jakob frantically searched his tiny mind. “Yes - Tormentor of Pochreka.”
The slightest of smiles crept across Yarganov’s gaunt face, his sunken eyes lighting up for the briefest moment. “No more noise.”
“Yes,” Jakob said, bowing absurdly low. “It won’t happen again.”
Yarganov took off into the winding passageway. Rounding bend after bend of walls made from skulls. At least they were helpful past their miserable deaths, more so than in their wretched lives. He wondered how many he had put there himself. Possibly more than any who had gone before.
The Tormentor of Pochreka. He had grown rather fond of the name. It rather suited him. After all, the prisoners often begged to be released into Taara’s abyss. More feared than the Mothers. The tingling sensation reappeared, accompanied by a whispering calling him deeper into the catacombs. He reached for the necklace tucked deep into his robe and produced an old silver key, chipped from its repeated use. He had already indulged himself once this week; should he be so brazen as to treat himself again? The intensified whispering held his answer. After all, why shouldn’t he? No one was any the wiser.
Yarganov spun on the spot and double-backed through the winding tunnels. He continued past the dungeon where Jakob was removing some of his finest work before arriving at a small offshoot, hidden by the absence of torchlight. He continued through a small, concealed arch that opened into a corridor with a locked gate guarded by two guards. One a woman. Her red cape slightly too long, and her chest plate slightly too large. And old. So old that Yarganov couldn’t make out Päike in the centre.
He strolled up to the two guards and waited for them to open the gate. They each inserted a key into two different access points, far enough away that a single person could never gain entry. As the two guards turned their key, Yarganov stepped forward and pushed through the gate, which opened into a small barren room.
Five different pathways extended from the middle, each with a small metal box mounted on top of a golden plinth, a rather uninspiring room for what lay inside it. Yarganov took the leftmost path and removed his necklace. He grabbed his key and inserted it into the locked box, gently turning it until it clicked satisfactorily and the lid popped open.
Yarganov’s hands shook as he gently raised the lid revealing a small vial of liquid. Yarganov traced his finger around the vial, desperate to touch it. He stole a breath and lay his hand upon it, lifting it to his eye level. One of the five. He inspected it for secrets and marvelled at how such an insignificant liquid could cause so much chaos. Insignificant? No. Significant in its simplicity. It was beautiful. The most beautiful thing in the world. The only beautiful thing in the world. Created by the Mothers themselves. A small glass vial with a little black lid. He breathed it in.
Yarganov’s trance was broken. He had been here longer than was appropriate. He carefully placed the vial back in its holder before a shadow moved across the room. Yarganov turned to find the woman standing behind him, sword in hand. He was already looking forward to finding her weakness.
“My name is Martia.” She said, holding Yarganov’s steady gaze. “Your trespasses have been noted by those who are paying attention.”
Martia wildly swung her sword at Yarganov, who didn’t flinch. The blade cut across his flesh, opening a nasty slice in his chest. Martia stood in shock, mouth gaping and breath held as blood began to trickle down the front of Yarganov’s torn robe. The wound was skin deep, nothing more. His left eye began to gently twitch. “You’ll never get out of here alive.” He calmly said, wiping the blood from his chest without so much as a wince. Yarganov couldn’t think of anything worse than fighting.
“I don’t need to get out of here alive,” Martia screamed before swinging her sword. This time Yarganov ducked, eager to keep his head. He stumbled backwards, easily avoiding the following half-swing due to the cramped nature of the damp tunnel. Martia stepped forward and swung again, forcing Yarganov into the wall. He stumbled as his legs caught underneath himself and clattered to the floor. He shielded his face as Martia swiftly moved her sword downwards and caught Yarganov’s left hand, cutting off his pinkie through middle finger. Not a single sound escaped Yarganov’s lips as he watched his fingers tumble to the floor. In horrified desperation, Martia clutched for the vial, clasped it in her hand, and ran from the battle like a coward. Yarganov gathered his three fingers from the floor, crammed them into his sleeve pocket and took off in pursuit. He arrived at the arch and looked from left to right, trying to find any sign of the traitor. Varlmorg would surely have his head for this. Or even worse, banish him.
Yarganov took off down the left corridor and hurried back to the cells, where Jakob had retaken his seat and silently returned to counting the skulls. “Jakob,” Yarganov called, unable to hide the waiver in his voice and the twitch in his eye. “Get the guard, now.” Without hearing Jakob’s reply, he took off and continued through the winding corridors. Left then right. Right then left. No one knew the layout of the catacombs better than he. There was no way the traitor could beat him to the main exit.
A piercing whistle rang through the corridor and stopped Yarganov in his tracks. He stood desperately still, waiting and listening. Another whistle soon followed, resonating loudly, bouncing off the walls and distorting its whereabouts. It must have been from a cavernous space. The crypts. The burial place of the northern Talutajas, including the famed and the first Lenkov family, slayers of those veidrik, the Morphiei, who hide from the world. The Lenkov’s bodies were relocated from Hjavaen when Pochreka was built in five-twenty-two. The traitors don’t even have the grace to let the great dead rest.
Yarganov double-backed and hastily made his way to the crypts. It would be a death sentence for the traitor, there was no escaping the crypts. Another whistle rang out, louder this time. He was almost there. He snatched a torch off the wall, ready to search every hidden crack.
“Go on!” The traitor's voice echoed through the corridor. Yarganov rounded the final bend and surged into the crypt. In the middle stood the traitor, a torch on the ground and a sword in hand, staring at the roof like an imbecile. She thought he wouldn’t find her. She was wrong. “I look forward to feasting with Taara.” The traitor said before folding onto her knees and sitting down.
Yarganov was already thinking of all the fun he was going to have. “Give it to me, and I will mercifully allow you to cross over into the abyss,” Yarganov said, unable to ignore his left eye and its incessant twitching.
The traitor muttered a prayer under her breath as boots rapping on the floor filled the crypt. Twenty guards filed into the room from the only entrance. It was over now. Yarganov had won. “I’ll see you on the other side.” The traitor said as she lifted her sword and stuck it through her abdomen, a large smile plastered across her face up to her final breath.
Yarganov shook his head as he stepped forward. A disappointment, to say the least. What fun the may have had. He bent down to search for the Elixir of the Mothers, eager to return it to its rightful place.
“Where we shall dine for eternity.” A muffled reply came from a tiny hole in the ceiling.
“Hurry up!” Yanik growled at her three sisters huddled around the ground. Draria, Anthea, and Molin were all crouched, pulling delicately on their makeshift rope. Pulling so slowly, too slowly, Yanik wondered if they were trying to mess with her again.
“Do your job,” Draria whispered to Yanik, nodding at her to turn around.
“I am,” Yanik said through gritted teeth as she raised herself from behind the market stall to look out at the deserted street. She lifted the hood of her thick cloak to get a good look. “I can’t see anyone, but we won’t have long, will we?”
The faint sound of despair seeped up from the catacombs below. A guttural groaning that sent a shiver down Yanik’s spine. “Find it!” A voice boomed.
“There’s your answer,” Draria said, stealing another glance at Yanik and raising her eyebrows. “Keep your eyes out there.” They both knew it would only be a matter of parts before the soldiers flooded the streets, yet here was Draria, as always, reminding Yanik that she was in charge.
The three sisters huddled closer to the rope that had almost reached its end. Yanik couldn’t help but follow their lead, eager to glimpse what awaited from within. For months all they had done was plan and rehearse with Mother how it would all unfold. This was the moment of truth. The end of the rope breached the hole in the ground. Attached was a small vial of liquid, no bigger than her thumb. It looked rather plain, just glass and a black lid, but Yanik knew that looks could be deceiving.
Anthea opened a small silk bag that contained the symbol of the Mothers on the front. A cross dividing four circles, each circle filled with an intricate drawing that pertained to one of the Mothers. The top left, Päike, Mother Sun; top right, Maaemä, Mother Earth; bottom left, Veteemä, Mother Water; and bottom right, Tulle-Emä, Mother Wind. Together they made the Mother’s land, Maailemätuld, in which the factions resided. Draria carefully cut the vial free from the rope and laid it down as gently as she could inside the bag.
Yanik reached out to take it, but Anthea slapped her hand away. “Ouch.” Yanik cried, rubbing her hand. “Why can’t I look?”
“Because it’s not a toy.” Replied Draria. “And I’m the eldest.”
“So?” Yanik said, shifting uncomfortably as she rubbed the back of her hand, which had turned red. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
Draria snatched the bag and stuffed it in between her breasts. “I’m also the smartest and the best fighter. Cloaks off, let’s go.”
Yanik and her sisters removed their large fur cloaks to reveal four stunning empire waist gowns. She had almost forgotten that beneath her cloak was the most beautiful thing she had ever worn. So beautiful that she was afraid to touch the lace for fear of having it unravel in her hands. She had always had a knack for destroying her clothes. And she worried the emerald gown hugged her figure so tightly it would fall apart if she walked at anything more than a shuffle. It was rather impractical for her everyday activities, although someone else would be doing those daily activities if she could afford to dress like this. She looked at her sisters in their blue, yellow and red dresses. How pretty they all looked, their faces made up like the ladies in the Capital, their hair neatly woven in the most suitable fashion. Yanik felt like a fraud. Suddenly she couldn’t wait to get out of the stupid gown and back into her regular clothes. Mostly so she could hold her bow again. She felt naked without her precious bow.
Draria had the four sisters link arms as she led them from the safety of their market stall. “Remember to walk like a lady.” She called back over her shoulder, “Stop slouching, Yanik.”
The four of them walked as stealthily as possible through the darkened streets of Pochreka, following a carefully planned route that would quietly and quickly lead them to the city's gates. It wasn’t a beautiful city. Lots of rotted wood and tall skinny buildings that looked as though they were swaying in the wind. Yanik swivelled her head left and right, searching for signs of soldiers who would surely be patrolling the streets by now.
She tried to remind herself that she was a lady. A lady of Pochreka. A lady who was allowed to walk where she liked. They exited from a darkened street into a lit laneway, but before Yanik could see what was ahead, Anthea had turned and pushed the sisters into the doorway of a particularly disgusting building.
“Why are we stopping?” Yanik asked. “Did you see something?”
“Shh,” Anthea said, waving her hand in Yanik’s face.
The four-woman peaked around the corner of the building to see a squad of soldiers pushing around an old man. They laughed with glee as he lost his footing and tumbled into a puddle. A puddle Yanik had no interest in going near.
“What now?” Yanik asked, wiping her sweaty hands on her dress. “We need to go that way.”
Anthea again shushed her, looking to Draria for guidance. “Is there another exit?”
“Then what do we do?” Molin asked, looking desperately from Draria to Anthea. “We’re going to get caught.”
“Remember, we’ve done nothing wrong. We have nothing to hide.” Draria said. Yanik could see that she was already working on a new plan. Draria always had a backup plan. Probably two or three.
Yanik returned to looking up the alleyway and counted six soldiers searching places of hiding while six others travelled from door to door. They inspected every household, dragging the inhabitants into the street, kicking, punching, and pushing them into submission. Any who faltered or stuttered when answering their questions found themselves on the end of a brutal beating. A young woman was cornered by a giant soldier who pressed himself against her as he searched for hidden weapons. She felt her heart beating hard against her chest. Her eyes returned to the elderly man lying motionless in the gutter. “We did this.” She muttered under her breath.
“Can we turn around? Maybe find another way through?” Anthea asked.
“No. We stick to the plan.” Draria said. “If we don’t get out tonight, we won’t get out at all.”
Yanik turned down the murky street to see four soldiers in the distance, making their way towards them. They pushed over carts and stabbed their swords into barrels as they meandered up the street. All four of them were men. She cursed the dress that clung to her hips and the cowl neck that hinted at her bosom. Never had she missed her dark red tunic and riding boots so much. And her bow. If she had her bow, the fight would already be over. She rested her hand on the small knife strapped to her thigh. She would need the strength of Martia should it come to that.
“We’re doomed.” Molin gasped, placing her hand over her mouth.
“We’ll go down fighting. Together.” Draria nodded to the women. “It’s what Mother would’ve wanted.”
“Make sure this battle is your last,” Anthea said, confirming what Yanik had already feared. Even though they could take the four soldiers by surprise with their tiny blades, the twelve around the corner would surely hear the scuffle. Fear gripped Yanik’s throat as her mind raced through their possibilities. She looked at her sisters, crouched in a mouldy doorway, waiting for their final moments. Molin’s hands were trembling uncontrollably. Anthea was muttering a silent prayer. Yanik didn’t think it possible, but even Draria had fear in her eyes. If fear could infest her mind, it could infest anyones.
“Follow my lead,” Yanik said as she sprung into the laneway.
“Yanik, no!” Anthea said as she stretched up to grab her dress. But it was too late.
Yanik stumbled into the laneway and laughed obnoxiously loudly, holding her arms out for Draria, Anthea, and Molin to help her stand. “I almost fell.” She giggled, “Hold me up. Quickly now, I don’t have all day.” Draria and Anthea lunged at Yanik, grabbed onto her shoulders and tried to drag her back into the street.
“You there! Stop what you’re doing.” A soldier yelled from up the alleyway as he walked towards them. His tattered cloak hung off his tatty breastplate that looked as though it had been punctured multiple times. Dorin and Anthea turned to face the soldier with a stone-like gaze. Molin stayed huddled in the doorway, her eyes filled with panic as Yanik stumbled and giggled to herself.
“What’re you doing out?” The soldier asked, looking the women up and down with lustful eyes.
“I’m drunk!” Yanik announced, giggling to herself. “I’ve had more wine than would be appropriate for a lady. Not just any wine. Eastern wine. I bet you’ve never had eastern wine. It’s very expensive.”
“Please forgive her, she’s not well,” Draria said as she placed her hands across Yanik’s shoulders.
“Not well because I’m drunk!” Yanik said, punching the air to exaggerate her point.
“The city’s in lockdown.” The soldier said as he took a step closer to Yanik. “Lord Valgusta says that all people is to be treated as criminals. Even pretty ladies.” The soldier grinned as his eyes rested on Yanik’s chest. “It’s my duty to treat all peoples of Pochreka the same, so I will now search you.” The soldier said as he stepped forward and held out his hand.
Draria protectively stepped forward to meet the soldier and latched onto his arm. He yanked it away and took a step back as he drew his sword. “What do you -”
“How dare you draw your sword in front of a lady!” Yanik cut over the soldier with absolute disgust while flinging her hand out to stop Draria from drawing her blade. “I have every right to enjoy myself. Draria, get this… this… creatures name.” She said, pointing at the soldier. “You wait until my Yargy hears about this.” Yanik wailed. She pointed to herself and scoffed, “Me! Stopped in the streets.”
The soldier turned to look at his companions, who were closing in on their position. “Yargy?” He asked.
“Yes. Yarganov Uksmat. My Yargy. The love of my life. Maybe you’ve heard of him?” Yanik said wryly, “I was with him tonight before all this unpleasantness. And he will surely be hearing about you.”
The soldier almost dropped his sword as he rushed to sheathe it. His companions backed off with pace as they tried to distance themselves from their doomed friend. “P-p-pardon me m’lady. I did not know.” The soldier stammered as he backed up from the women. “Please. Have mercy. I was only doing me job.”
“Is everything okay, m’ladies?” A female soldier said, stepping forward. “The streets are dangerous tonight. May I escort you home?”
“I will escort myself, thank you.” Yanik spat. “What a shame you’re forced to spend time with such -”
“Creatures of filth.” The female soldier replied with a smile. “Couldn’t agree more. You look lovely, by the way. A true beauty.” She bowed before calling to her fellow soldiers up the laneway. “Let these ladies pass, then continue the search.”
“Without all this unpleasantness,” Yanik said, pointing to the old man’s body in the stinking puddle. “Or Yargy will surely be hearing of it. Come, my dear.” Yanik said, reaching out to Molin, who appeared from the doorway. The soldiers awkwardly averted their gaze as the women walked past. “Let’s hurry,” Yanik mumbled as they moved past the final soldier. The four sisters picked up the pace until they were almost jogging down the laneway.
“Yanik, that was incredible!” Molin squealed as she excitedly jumped beside her.
“You did very well,” Anthea said, allowing herself to smile. “Mother was right about the dresses.”
“Don’t celebrate yet,” Draria said. “The city’s in lockdown. Which means we’ll need to fight our way out.”
Yanik stopped as the reality of what that meant set in. Draria took her hand, then Anthea and Molin’s, as the four sisters closed their eyes and muttered a silent prayer.
“I’m so proud of us,” Draria reassured her sisters while squeezing their hands. “Now’s the most important task. We’ve come too far to fail. Promise me, no matter what, one of us will get the elixir to Mother.”
“I promise,” Anthea, Molin, and Yanik all said in unison.
The three women broke apart as Draria reached for her bosom and held out the silk bag to Yanik. “You should take this.”
“I thought I was too young?”
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” Draria said. “You’re the fastest and the best fighter. Stay back. You must get out.”
“I’ll be right beside you,” Yanik said as she took the bag and placed it in her own bosom.
“Of course,” Draria said as she hiked up her gown and retrieved the blade strapped to her leg. “But delay yourself. Surprise is our only friend.” She waited for Anthea and Molin to fetch their blades before they continued walking. “Left here, and we’ll be able to see it,” Draria said, concealing her blade by holding it against her wrist. “Now is the time for final prayers.”
The sisters turned the corner and finally spied Pochreka’s gate. It had a portcullis with two large watch towers that protruded menacingly from the city's stone wall. In front of it was a small blockade made from crates—a checkpoint for any who wished to enter or exit the city.
“I count seven,” Draria said, nodding to the blockade in front of the open portcullis.
“Eight.” Replied Anthea. “One leaning up on the wall.”
Draria craned her neck to get eyes on the soldier. “Good catch. Be quick, trade up.”
“Will there be more in the towers?” Molin asked.
“Almost certainly,” Anthea replied. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Were we shall dine for eternity.” The sisters chanted back.
Yanik followed her sisters halfway to the gates before stopping and crouching next to a dark wall. She watched as they picked up their pace, gaining the attention of a young soldier covered in pimples. He looked no older than sixteen winters. The sisters spread themselves as he stood and cautiously approached.
“Go home. The city’s in lockdown.” He shouted at the women.
“Can you give us some directions? We’re lost.” Draria called in reply.
The young boy shuffled on the spot. “Leave now, or I’ll throw you in the dungeon.”
“How can I return home if I don’t know where I am?” Draria said as she broke into a run.
The young boy retreated and placed his hand on his sword, but Draria was quick and took him by surprise, stabbing him in the abdomen before drawing his sword and cutting him across the face. The boy fell backwards as Anthea and Molin rushed past his body to the next two soldiers waiting. Unprepared for the onslaught, one was stabbed in the temple, the other in the neck as the women both traded up for the soldier’s swords.
“What the -” One of the soldiers yelled before gurgling as Draria’s sword cut his throat. The sound was enough to gain the other soldiers' attention, who drew their weapons and rushed at the women. They clearly expected little resistance by the way they clumsily threw themselves into battle.
Molin leapt forward and aggressively swung her sword while Draria parried backwards and protected herself. Anthea flurried nicely and managed to kick one of the soldiers in the shins, bringing him to the floor and stabbing him through the gap between his shoulder and breastplate. Yanik rode every movement with her sisters, praying as she watched and waited for her opening.
A scream resonated from a soldier as he thrust at Molin, who easily dodged his attack and stabbed him in the hip. As she withdrew her sword, she turned to face another threat charging towards her, who thrust his sword upwards from the ground. It collected her in the ribs and knocked her to the floor in a heap. Draria roared and charged at the soldier, raising her sword over her head and bringing it down with incredible force. He blocked the first strike; however, the second lowered the sword enough for Draria to plunge it through his chest plate. She withdrew her sword before sinking it back into the soldier multiple times. Blood sprayed into the air as Draria mutilated the soldier beyond any recognition.
A shout from the top of the wall drew Yanik’s attention as a soldier looked down upon the bloody scene. He grabbed a mallet and raced towards the latch that held the portcullis in place. If it came down, it would all be over. Yanik searched for some way to help when she noticed a bow leaning against the blockade. She emerged from the wall and sprinted across the open space. There was a movement from the left tower as a door swung open, and four more soldiers joined the chaotic fray. Yanik lunged for the bow and clutched it in her hand. She found a quiver and drew an arrow, turning to aim but finding a soldier standing above her, with the tip of his sword pointing at her throat. She heard a scuffle; then, a sword appeared through the soldier’s neck. Draria reached down and dragged Yanik to her feet before rushing at one of the soldiers who had emerged from the tower. Yanik raised the bow, notched an arrow, and aimed at the top of the wall where the soldier drew back his mallet, ready to strike the latch. She let loose and collected him through the side of the head, causing him to stumble into the parapet and fall over the other side. Yanik grabbed the quiver and slung it over her shoulder, expertly loosing arrows to cover Draria and Anthea as they parried and counter-attacked. One of the soldiers collected Anthea in the shoulder, knocking her off balance and opening a nasty wound. Yanik aimed but stopped as Anthea stepped in the way, swinging with all her might. The soldier blocked the strike; however, the strength of Anthea’s attack forced the weapon from the soldier’s hand. As she bent to pick it up, Anthea expertly reversed her sword and sliced it across the soldier’s thigh. Anthea stumbled forward after overcommitting to her action and desperately tried to rearrange her grip as two more soldiers descended upon her. Yanik let loose, hitting one in the shoulder; the second found an opening and hacked his sword into Anthea’s stomach. She dropped her blade and curled forward with a grunt, groaning before the soldier’s sword came down upon her neck, decapitating her.
Yanik froze. An icy sensation started at her heart and resonated out towards her fingers and toes. She wanted to crawl into a ball and never emerge. You made a promise. A soldier rushed towards Yanik, who ripped her eyes away from her sister and forced herself to duck under his slash. She jumped over the blockade and ran for Draria, who had driven two soldiers towards the gate but could not get the upper hand. “Draria!” Yanik cried, gasping for air as she rushed past Anthea’s lifeless body. She noticed a movement on the wall and saw a soldier picking up the mallet and aiming at the latch. Draria was still engaged with the soldiers, unable to find an opening. “Now. It has to be now!” Yanik yelled. One of the soldiers peeled away from the fight and stood directly in Yanik’s path, stopping her only way to freedom. It was too late for Yanik to pull up; there was nothing she could do but keep running. The soldier raised her weapon to strike Yanik down when Draria’s sword flew into her chest. It bounced harmlessly off her chest plate but caused her to stumble enough to allow Yanik to charge into her and knock her backwards.
Yanik dove as the Portcullis came tumbling down. She hit the ground hard and gasped for air as she forced herself onto her hands and knees. The soldier had been split in two by the portcullis’ spikes. Draria stood defenceless on the other side of the gate with a band of soldiers surrounding her.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” Draria said before drawing her small blade across her throat.
“Open the gate! Quickly, get it open!” One of the soldiers yelled up the wall. “Find commander Uksmat. Get the horses. Now!”
Yanik pushed aside the emptiness that gripped her heart and forced herself to her feet. She stumbled away from the gate, her chest heaving with exhaustion and grief, yet she forced herself to run. Her legs shook and begged her to stop, but her mind willed them to continue turning over. Behind her, a horn blared through the night, waking Pochreka from its slumber. She veered from the cobbled stone road and made her way towards the forest's edge. Another horn bellowed and drew her gaze. She stopped for breath as the top of the wall twinkled in the distance. Then the twinkling took flight and flew towards her, lighting the sky with terrifying beauty.
Flaming arrows rained down around her, lighting the grass and filling the air with the taste of smoke. She covered her face with her arms as an arrow landed less than a pace away. She turned for the forest and continued to run. Again, the sky shone brightly as another volley of arrows was released towards her. This time they landed further away. They couldn’t see her.
She made it to the tree line and almost cried as she found her horse, Redg, guarding her beautiful recurve bow and all her belongings. She had half expected her things to be stolen. She stroked the bow before swinging it over her shoulder and attaching her bag to Redg’s saddle. It was a relief to no longer feel naked. She tried to place her foot in the stirrup but was stopped by her dress that caught on her leg. That fucking dress. The dress she owed her life to. She took her blade and cut a slit in its side before placing her foot in the stirrup and hauling herself up. Her arms wobbled from the effort; she was utterly exhausted.
A third horn sounded in the distance. Through the smoke and haze, Yanik saw the Northern Cavalry burst through the gateway towards the forest.
“Where we shall dine for eternity.” Yanik chokingly whispered. She turned Redg and galloped away, disappearing into the trees.