Time wormed on as only illusions could when caged. Days grew old, shining brightly then fading again. And again. And all she could do was sleep, eat, and wait. But for what?
In the days since her rations grew fuller, Aedon still had not said a word about what awaited her nor when her strength would be needed.
She passed her waking hours between meals with stories from her past, dreams about a different future, and curiosity towards the moss. None of which brought her comfort; all of which raised questions of freedom, preservation, and life.
Chains scratch the floor, metal against metal. The sound alerted her. Raising her head from her cot, she watched a fire lit the hall and listened to doors opening all along the corridor. Growing as it approached, Maleah stood and waited. This was it.
Fire burned past her cell, disappearing down the hall and with it several guards. She did not recognize their faces as they passed. She could hear the protests, the questions sputter off the walls from other prisoners as they were pulled from their cages.
Aedon stopped in front of her door a smirk stretching his face. "The time has come." Inside her cell, Aedon wrapped her hands with rope, letting them rest in front of her.
"And what time is that?"
"You will see." His breath reeked of decay and bread. Aedon led her and three guards from the cell. She lost track of their path after the fourth turn and sighed when she recalled the pointlessness of trying to remember. The magic embedded in the walls created the labyrinth. And the only ones with a map were guards.
Soon, Aedon threw open two doors. Hissing, she bit back her tongue as cold air pierced her skin. Blinking furiously, she looked to her surroundings.
Dead grass ladened the ground inside a courtyard. Its nonexistent roof left them vulnerable to the elements. Two of her guards stopped behind her as Aedon pushed on. She saw others hunched in a crowd on the other side, their heads hung low and hands tied just like hers.
Prisoners, blesseds'. How long had it been since she'd met another like her? How long had it been since she'd spoken to someone who did not serve for the King?
Like her, their clothes were torn and tattered, worn loosely around their malnourished bodies. Aedon shoved her into the crowd, hissed as the others mumbled in protest.
Fear bristled her neck, growing wildly like the moss in her cell. Unlike the others, Maleah watched the yard fervently.
Guards were placed all along the walls. Their brown uniforms wrapped tightly on them like armor. More spilled from within, a charge trapped between bodies and shoved carelessly into the increasing sum of prisoners.
More men followed, their uniforms turning to red as they strolled into the yard and filled the gaps between those in brown. They carried themselves differently than borstal guards. A different kind of authority exuded from their strides. Smug still, but not punitive.
Kings Men, she knew, but not those from the borstal. From inside the borstal, two guards carried out a large chest. Its red wood gleamed mahogany in the shifting light. Delicate swirls of gold accented the color. She knew Doc would follow soon.
His arms were full of scrolls and his legs struggled to keep up with the others. He did not wear his frames and his hair was disheveled. From across the yard, she saw the concern and worry in his eyes.
A tall, thin man appeared at the door. Dressed in a deep red with brown boots that covered him up to his calves. A black coat swept around his shoulders as he walked to the center of the yard. When, at last, he stood for all to see, she caught the glimmer of gold fashioned around his waist. The incomplete circle spoke volumes of his state of power. He was a lord. A Broken lord.
For a Broken to ascend to lordship meant he was of great value to the King. It also spelled trouble. And she was far from wanting any.
His eyes glared deftly at the prisoners. Huddled in a crowd, their bodies pressed closely together as if for protection, they all looked down. Maleah, however, watched still. He raised his head sharply as to peer down his large nose. A thin grin pinched from cheek to cheek. Behind him, the doors to the yard slammed shut creating yet another cage.
"I have waited a long time for this." The lord's voice teased. His cold tone challenged that of the air that bit her skin.
Around her, she felt the fear of the others. Their bodies shook with it. Many slunk deeper into themselves, trying to appear smaller. Trying to keep attention off them.
"You are probably curious as to why I have gathered you all here today. Such a thing has never happened in the history of the borstal. The King wishes I wouldn't do this. Too dangerous to place you all together. But, at my insistence, I have been granted this wondrous opportunity.
"You all have had your time with dear Doc, here. His judgment has been essential to identifying threats to the kingdom and assets to the King. However,-" Maleah did not like the sound of that. "- it is my belief that there is gold in this mine. Gold that hasn't been found yet."
He paced the yard in front of them. Placing his feet strategically in front of him. "My name is Lord Brae and I alone will determine your fate." Murmurs broke out from the prisoners and were quickly shut down as Lord Brae continued. "Today is your final judgment day."
His words slithered from his tongue, tainted with greed and pleasure. Maleah cast a worried gaze to Doc, who twiddled with his hands.
"I need not explain the importance of today. As I call each of you forward, I expect you to demonstrate your gifts to the best of your ability. This will aid me in determining where among the King's Men you will serve and who. I do press upon you this: impress me and you will have luck. Disappoint me and your future remains grim.
"Now, shall we begin?" He stretched his hand to his side and waited as one of his men retrieved a scroll from Doc and laid it in his palm. Unwrapping it, he called out the first name. "Drystan."
Like a quivering snail, a boy stepped from the cluster. His hair sagged over his face obscuring it as he stared at his feet. Two men in red stepped up to him and pulled him to Lord Brae. Untying the rope, the guards moved back. Everyone waited in shock and anticipation.
When nothing happened, Lord Brae's frowned. "Well? Do not keep us on our toes young man. Please, show us what the gods have given you."
The boy simply shook his head and began sobbing. Maleah looked to the lord, watched as he struggled to contain his frustration weeded on his face. His eyes changed. Peering closer, Maleah saw his eyes turn red.
Drystan howled. His pain penetrated the yard. The boy keeled over and sobbed with fresh pain. She watched in horror as Drystan's body tossed and twisted, as his face contorted into harsh shapes.
"This," Lord Brae's pointed, "is what happens when you defy me. I have been blessed with the gift to inflict pain. Stand!"
A weeping Drystan peeled himself from the ground. In a blink, Drystan had disappeared into a cough of strange color. Lord Brae looked frantically around the yard before catching the movement on his shoulder. Lifting his hand, Lord Brae let the small body crawl into his gloved palm.
"A bug," he smirked. "Clever sylph." He laid the bug on the ground and waited until Drystan returned to his human form. "Can you change into anything else?"
The boy shook his head. "Only a stink bug."
Nodding, Lord Brae considered him, then called over his guard. "This boy can be of value to our King. See to it his record shows it."
"Yes, my lord."
Lord Brae held out his hand and waited for another scroll. "Skai," he read from it.
The girl wasted no time stepping forward. Quickly, the rope was gone and her hands turned to the sky. Maleah watched as her mouth moved slightly, silently. Following her gaze, Maleah looked up just as the clouds began to circle. A cyclone transpired from the shifting winds.
Behind her, Lord Brae laid his hand on the girl's shoulder. He whispered in her ear, enticing a smile to her lips. A faint deviousness seeped into the girls' eyes. Maleah didn't need to hear his praise to know his decision had been made. He waved for a guard to take her away as they did Drystan and moved on to the next scroll.
"A fair start, if I dare say." He called more. A shapeshifter, another naturalist, a different sylph. Mind-readers, empaths, and others with gifts unseeable to the eye. Each flinching when their name was called. Each succumbing to their new fate.
Valued. Slave. Uncertain.
Maleah stood in the circle of prisoners dreading when she would hear her name. What would she do if it was . . . when it was? She'd be deemed valuable, of course. As was the other naturalist. What then? Would she be forced to swear her fidelity? Or would it remain a choice as it has always been?
The clouds dimmed above her, casting shadows across the yard. It looked as if it would rain even as the sun clung to the sky.
"Commander," Lord Brae gestured and Aedon stepped forward. "The fires." Bowing his head, Aedon drew his hand from his cloak and with it coaxed the embers to a low burn until every torch lit with orange and red. The lord read the next scroll. "Zander."
The smallest boy wedged his way through the group. Maleah looked down and watched him. How could someone so small end up here so soon?
The lord lowered himself to the boy's eye line, almost in a fatherly gesture. Maleah knew it wasn't to be kind. The boy, though, kept his eyes on the ground. Lord Brae spoke to him gently. He shook his head, pointed to the door. Confused, Maleah thought he was asking to be taken back to his cell. Then, the boy squealed in terror.
Maleah watched as the shadows on the wall began to dance. Blinking, she thought she'd imagined the faces. But they didn't disappear.
Like nails clawing metal, the talons screamed out from the wall. Ripping into the dirt as its arms pulled a faceless body from the dark. A snout followed, sniffing at the air as it barred its razor teeth. Beady eyes blinked alive until two yellow slits peered from the black. Its body glistened in the firelight, black scales against orange hues.
Another beast peeled itself from the shadows.
And the yard erupted in fear.
About the Creator
From crafting second-world fantasies to scheming crime novels to novice poetry; magic, mystery, music. I've dreamed of it all.
Now all I want to do is write it.
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