Luck eventually appeared in the shape of a horse-drawn wagon. It smelled of unbathed men and was crammed with last-minute King's Men making the trip to Aaurn.
Their bodies jerked as the wagon bobbed through the twisted roads of what Maleah assumed were the Arenian Mountains. It would take only a matter of hours to travel through the steep hills. As they ventured up, the air grew colder and the clouds huddled closer turning the sky a murky grey. Permanent rain shrouded the once beautiful day.
The wagon was hardly big enough to fit all ten men - and two women - inside. No one dared to move so as not to intrude on someone's feet. And no one even spoke, leaving them all to sit in eery silence.
When the wagon finally leveled, they passed through a black cave. Sandwiched between to light ways. The darkness vanished as quickly as it had descended and they were spat out the other end of a chiseled tunnel.
Gripping the wood, Maleah angeled herself to look into the city. Tucked between three mountains, the city thrived. Heavy in its belly and lighter around the edges. Like any city, it had a heart, where life seemed to congregate. Homes were built like a wall protecting the heart, lining the edges. Built from stone or wood, each had a roof that came to a pointed tip. The smallest glimpse of snow lingered on some as it melted and ran off like water. And smoke rose from chimneys.
On the far side, tunnels were mined into the mountains. Several rested on the ground but some met with crickety stairs that rose several feet off the ground.
Turning the last leg, Maleah saw a pair of buildings. The largest in the city. One a mirror of the other. Two levels and a balcony. Even at the distance, she knew a skilled craftsman had forged them. Polished wood and detailed architecture could be seen from anywhere in Aaurn. In front of them rose a stature. Carved from pure stone, its significance spoke volumes.
Laughter carried over the city. It was infectious as the men in the wagon began to stir and their spirits lift. When they came to a halt, each jumped eagerly from the wagon and sprang into the city with refreshed reprieve.
They stood opposite where they entered, staring down the main road that split Aaurn into two. Smaller paths marked by years of walking cut between buildings. If it wasn't for the swarm of people in the market, she would have seen clear to the other side.
"Welcome to Aaurn," Cam said flatly. "The heart and home of King's Men west of Paean. It is the second-largest settlement for King's Men. Bested only by The Burrow, which is less of a settlement and more of a fancy brothel."
Cam spoke softly as he guided them through the streets, explaining the traditions and routines of the city. Maleah only half-listened while she observed the people. Bargaining with merchants over bread and jams, flours, and vegetables. Many, she could tell, were unhappy with the prices. Their voices rose heatedly as they passed.
Children ran amuck. Chasing each other with slabs of mud in their small hands. Laughing and screaming as they weaved their way through adults twice their size. Where were their parents?
Following them, Maleah found shabby homes tucked behind the rest. Single story shambles with half-broken windows and a quaint porch without a roof. Catching her, Cam leaned in.
"Children of King's Men. Bastards mostly."
She frowned. "What will happen to them?"
Shrugging, he pulled her back to the street. "The boys will be raised to serve."
"And the girls?"
"Raised to work and to bear sons."
"What if they are born Blessed?" Rhys probed.
"They are given the choices we all are: swear fealty or face imprisonment. Most were raised among the King's Men and know nothing else. Fealty is the most obvious option."
"What happens if women swear fealty?" Maleah wondered aloud.
"No one really knows. When a woman says the oath, they are taken to the King. Most are never seen again."
"There are rumors. But I'm not heavily persuaded by them and I see no sense dwelling over them." He stopped at the base of the statue. They looked into the face of the King; he stared into the city. The plaque beneath his feet was scribed with a single line:
May he who serves our One God be gifted by his hand.
She forced herself to appear unfazed, hiding the disgust she knew twisted inside her. A true god is not served but serves.
Turning in a slow circle, Rhys said, "I never imagined the life of a King's Men to be so . . . lively."
"Well, don't be fooled. Underneath the laughter and frivolities lay the vanity of every man's ego. What you see is a mask. A picture of the in-between. They will not hesitate to turn on their friends if it meant they would gain something in turn."
Rhys eyed the animosity in Cam's face. Before she could respond with a tort, Maleah lifted her nose to the air.
"Anyone hungry?" Nodding in consensus, they followed the hot scent of food into a pub. The mix of body odor and something sweet and pungent clung to their noses. Cam escorted them to a table under a window and away from the people.
A woman in a breathy green gown and braided blonde hair greeted them. "Welcome to Fancy's Tavern. What will it be for you today?" Her eyes fell lazily on Cam. Was it male authority or the simple fact that he had a pleasant face to look at?
"A salver of your finest soups and one flagon of wine, if you'd be so kind." He smiled easily.
"As you wish, Commander." Smiling cheekily, she skirted away.
"Commander?" Maleah inquired.
Cam pointed to the silver embroidered in the seams of his uniform. "The difference in colors shows ranks. See, yours is plain. It's how all the uniforms are made."
"Lord Brae had a crest on his. It was incomplete, though."
"A sign of a Broken Lord. They have the rank of a lord with the brandishing of a Broken."
Rhys opened her mouth but was silenced when the server stepped up to the table with a giant bowl of hot soup and a pitcher of wine. Cam thanked her, gaining a huge smile in return before she left again.
"Don't you know how to charm the ladies," Rhys frowned into her soup.
"I have my ways," he grinned.
Shifting in her seat, Maleah leaned in. "How is it possible for a Broken to rise to Lordship?"
"The only way any Broken can survive: be valuable."
Maleah considered him as she looked into the courtyard. Lord Brae didn't have to touch anyone to cause pain. That was his gift, his value.
At her side, Rhys took long sips of her soup. "It's horrible to abuse a gift in that way. He should be ashamed. They all should be."
Maleah agreed and sank back into her food and wine. The red liquid burned her throat. Twisting her face at the bitterness, she reached for her soup to calm the fire. Cam and Rhys watched her struggle until they burst into a fit of laughter. All laughing stopped, though, when Rhys snorted. The shock lasted seconds before they all began again.
They ate with laughter in their eyes and for the first time, Maleah felt at ease with both of them. Lingering over the soup and wine, they filled their time with stories. Quips from their past that reminded them that hope clung to the shadows of their doubt.
Cam told them of his journey to the island. Mostly detailing his stay in caves and abandoned villages. Denouncing King's Men even as he hid among them, stealing from their reserves while they ravaged the land. He explained how he survived arrows and swords when he was caught. His heroic escapes in the face of death. But he never told them why he traveled. When Maleah asked, all he said was,
"There's adventure in almost getting caught. A thrill to it, even. And I have ways of blending in without the uniform."
When Rhys took over the conversation, she entertained them with tales of forests she grew up in. Flourish floors of green and trees rivaled mountains. Harmony and peace hummed between every creature and piece of land. Beauty was normal and never too far out of sight. But when she mentioned her father, Maleah inquired about her inevitable capture.
"We were staying in the Tri-Bordered City," she said. "Heading south. My father had a thirst for the mythological and a yen to see it come alive. He believed in Sabhille and all the stories we heard of. We traveled under the pretense of cartographers. Until one day, someone overheard my father and I speaking and turned us in on suspicion of my blessings."
"Are they true?" Cam sassed.
She narrowed her eyes. "would I have been a prisoner in the borstal if they weren't?"
"Not every blessing is as obvious as Maleah's."
"Hey," she scolded. But they ignored her, darting eyes dangerously at each other.
Luckily, Maleah didn't have to intervene. Rather, Rhys turned to her. "Your turn, then."
Her turn? What would she tell them? What could she trust them with? She considered every secret she kept for herself and everyone she shared with them already. But perhaps, less personal was best.
"When I was little," she began, "my parents moved us around a lot. Traveling between villages with a short stay in between. My mother knew I'd be blessed before I was born. So she and my father chose to become nomads to keep me safe. Eventually, we ended up in the Ether Mountains where we built our home. There was a giant willow tree near the stream behind our house. Very few others lived nearby. The closest family was half a kilometer away.
"But our small home grew as more people discovered the city of nomads and soon our home rested in the depths of our village. Everyone who settled had a story to tell. King's Men and scavengers ravaged their homes until there was nothing left to take. Children were taken from their homes and their parents were forced to flee.
"There was an understanding between everyone when I began to show signs of being blessed."
"But someone told," Rhys muttered.
She nodded. "Not long after, they came. My father was out with some men for a hunt. They'd be gone for weeks in search of food and foliage. We were asleep when we heard the screams. By the time we realized what was happening, it was too late."
They all sat in silence. Understanding the loss of freedom, family, and home all too well. Sucking in a breath, Cam attempted to alleviate the density between them.
"You know what we need?" The girls looked at him. "A distraction." He grinned as if he knew something they didn't.
But before he could tell them what it was, the perky blonde popped back up at the table. "Did I hear somebody wants a distraction?"
"You hear correctly. You wouldn't happen to have any ideas how three traveling messengers could pass the night away, would you?"
"As a matter of fact, the Storyteller just arrived in the city this morning. She promises a riveting tale tonight and expects everyone to be there."
"Well, we wouldn't want to disappoint the Storyteller."
"Not unless you had a death wish," she laughed teasingly. "So I will see you there?"
"Nowhere I'd rather be," he lifted his cup and sent her away with a jolt in her step.
When she was out of earshot, Rhys reached over the table and swat Cam over his head. "You reckless fool. What are you thinking?"
He scowled. "I was thinking we would enjoy ourselves for a night before committing a crime."
"Of course," she rolled her eyes. "But how are we to secure passage now if she expects to see us all there?"
Cam frowned. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Perhaps," Maleah interjected. "It could do us all a bit of good. If we all go, we won't draw any attention to us if the girl was to notice our absence. Besides, we'll have plenty of time to steal the horses after everyone falls asleep."
It seemed to tame Rhys' tongue, even if only briefly. Maybe, Maleah thought, it was foolish to wait longer to leave. But Maleah felt like being selfish for a moment and the promise of a good story was enough to convince her it would be worth it.
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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