Authors: Megg Jensen
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #sword and sorcery, #Sci-Fi & Fantasy
“My friends, fellow councilmen, and dear ladies. Thank you for coming today to celebrate Reychel’s fifteenth birthday. It is a big occasion in a girl’s life. In society it means she is eligible for marriage, but for a slave it means she becomes permanently joined to her household. Today, Reychel is delighted to earn the mark of the fox. Isn’t that right, my dear?” he asked with a quick flick of his hand in my direction.
I looked into his eyes and saw a flicker of panic but he broke our gaze, looking back to his friends. If I was ever to get answers, now might be my only chance. I opened my mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a boisterous laugh.
“She thinks she’s allowed to respond!” Blorn roared. The entire room filled with laughter. My face reddened as I looked to Kandek again, but his eyes refused to meet mine.
“Bring in the brander!” Kandek ordered, throwing his arms in the air. A cheer arose as another slave, Mollor, a metalworker, walked in with the brand. He held it up for all to see the sign of the fox. Another cheer waved through the room.
Tod pushed my shoulders down until my knees buckled. I dropped on the waiting chair. He grabbed the top of my head and pushed my face into the hole in the middle of the table. My forehead rested on the splintered wood and I thought of all the slaves who’d been here before me. I stared at my shoes, my throat constricting as I swallowed. My breath became shallow as the sharp edge of the wooden table pushed into me.
My hands were still bound behind my back and I wanted to fight but knew I couldn’t. Again I felt my stomach turn. The cloaked figure hadn’t appeared. My master wasn’t going to save me. My best friend was missing. All of this followed by another trip to the dungeon.
A pair of shoes shuffled closer, the toes of the boots just peeking under the table. Mollor’s boots. It was time.
I took a deep breath. My eyelids fluttered closed, surrendering to the inevitable. Small droplets of sweat balled together, rolling down the sides of my neck as the poker hovered over its target.
I knew Mollor was waiting for the signal to brand me. One simple word from Kandek’s lips was all it took.
“Now,” Kandek roared. I sucked in another breath as a cheer rose from the audience. I waited for the pain and wished it would just be over.
“Run,” a voice whispered in my ear as I felt the binding cut from my wrists. “Run now!”
I lifted my head. No one was moving, the voices as silent as their motionless bodies. The guard’s hands were hanging limp at his sides, no longer restraining me to the table. The vacant stare of his eyes sent shivers through my body. Mollor’s firebrand hovered in the air sizzling with life, quite the opposite of his slack mouth.
“Go, child! Run as fast as you can and crawl out the window. We only have thirty seconds to spare.” The cloaked figure waved his arms towards the windows.
I slipped off the chair and ran as fast as I could. Standing underneath the stained glass window, I glanced up at its height. I faced a choice: either find a way up and out or lose my chance to escape. I glanced around and saw the masses of petrified guests. These cruel people had been here to watch my branding. It was like a sick, disgusting sport to them.
Without a second thought I pushed a nearby woman off of her chair. The body slid to the floor and I slammed the chair against the wall. After heaving myself up on the chair, I pushed the window open and scurried over the ledge. I peered into the bright, cloudless sky.
Before jumping out the window, I took one last glance in the room and saw a token, just like the one I’d found in Ivy’s place, sitting on the table where my neck had lain. Shaking my head in disbelief, I jumped out the window, quickly followed by my cloaked savior.
“Put this on.” The figure handed me a similar cloak. “It will keep you hidden until we get back to my house.”
I flung the cloak around my shoulders, buried my head in the hood and followed him into the surrounding forest.
“Reychel, it worked! I can’t believe it worked,” Ivy squealed as I slipped inside a house just behind the cloaked figure. She grabbed me, pulling me into a tight hug.
“Ivy?” I stuttered. I looked around at the small cabin, so unfamiliar, but so warm. “What happened? What’s going on?”
Ivy laughed. “You’re safe. We’re safe and we’re going to be free! Tania rescued us.”
The cloaked figure spun around, flinging the cloak off in a whirl. Her blonde curls danced through the air, revealing a striking woman flashing the most infectious smile.
“I didn’t think I could pull that one off, but I did it.” Tania laughed, tossing the cloak on a hook behind the door. “I’ve never gone into a room with so many people before. Well, not hidden like that, at least.”
I stared at my rescuer, my mouth hanging slack. “You’re...”
“A woman?” Tania asked, her voice lost the deep tone and sparkled like falling stars. “The voice put you off a bit, didn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How?”
“It’s part of the spell. Easy stuff.” Tania put her arm around Ivy. “Your friend here thought I was a man too. It’s good for the disguise. Keeps people guessing.”
“You saved me. I’m forever in your debt.” I slid to the floor at Tania’s feet. My second time in one day of groveling at someone’s feet. I reminded myself not to make it a habit.
“You’re in no one’s debt. Not ever again,” Tania said, pulling me to my feet. “If I have anything to say about it, you’ll be a free woman for the rest of your life. It won’t be easy. You have no pedigree to present, no family to live with, but there are many of us out there and any of us will help you if you just ask.”
I sat down on the nearest chair. My chest stretched tight with each breath. I supposed my heart had been pounding the whole time, I just noticed now that things were calming down.
“Isn’t it crazy?” Ivy yelled, jumping up and down around the modest room, barely missing hitting her head on a ceiling beam. My mouth twitched and I couldn’t help but smile. I’d never seen Ivy so excited about anything.
“Ivy wouldn’t leave without you,” Tania handed me a cup of tea. “We approached her three days ago in the market, offering to free her. She immediately accepted, but swore she couldn’t leave without her best friend.”
“Didn’t I tell you that I would never leave without you?” Ivy grinned at me.
“Unfortunately we can only free one person at a time,” said Tania. “There are only two cloaks here in Wendak. The rest are scattered throughout the realm. We can’t spare any more than that for each major town. We had to wait a few hours until after your birthday party.” She rolled her eyes at the word party. “It’s risky taking more than one slave at a time. Raises suspicions.”
“I didn’t want you to feel the same pain I did,” Ivy said. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. I couldn’t imagine putting you through it too, when I knew I could stop it.”
Ivy bumped me with her hip, nudging me to the side to make room on the chair. Flinging her arms around me, she smothered me in another tight hug. It was surreal.
“Who’s this we?” I asked Tania, trying to process all of the new information. “Where are the others?”
“Well, in Wendak it’s just my husband Jon and I. There’s at least one couple in every town. We’re the only free gifted here.”
“Gifted?” My tea slipped down the wrong pipe. I coughed, bent over and Ivy clapped my back.
“It’s true, Reychel. Tania and Jon are gifted,” Ivy said.
“And free?” I asked. “I didn’t think there were any free gifted people. You’re supposed to be slaves.”
“Some were slaves and some were born that way. Born gifted out of captivity. Some from gifted parents and others, well, others are born to parents who don’t have the spark,” Tania explained.
“How is that possible? I thought only the gifted could give birth to gifted children,” I said. “At least that’s what we’ve always been taught.”
“It’s not true, sweetie.” Tania stroked my bald head. “All it takes is two parents and little blessing from Eloh.”
I took another sip of her tea, not because I was thirsty, though I was, but because I needed a moment to think. Ivy joined Tania at the sink, washing dishes. Menial work, but voluntary; so different than the life we lived at Kandek’s castle.
The cottage was nothing like I had ever seen, but it was everything I had imagined in my stories. Unlike Kandek’s castle, Tania’s wooden cottage was one level with walls covered by a tough mixture of clay and water. The dirt floor was punctuated by flagstones. A small sleeping loft tucked in to one corner of the ceiling. This house was held together by love, not by slavery.
Tania turned to us with a grim look.
“The hard part of this is that we have to say goodbye so quickly.” Tania wiped her damp hands on her apron. Ivy dried the last bowl and nested it with the other bowls on the shelf.
I looked to Ivy and she returned my glance with a tiny smile and a shrug.
“You have to leave. Everyone here knows that Jon and I have no children. If we suddenly have two fifteen-year-olds living with us there will be too many questions. Everyone will figure it out quickly and we can’t afford to be discovered. Ivy has been hiding in our sleeping loft today, but many people drop by unannounced. It’s too risky.”
“When do we have to go?” I stood up and washed my mug in the sink.
“Tomorrow. In fact you must be gone before first light so I suggest you both go to bed early tonight. I know you have a lot to talk about, but you need as much sleep as possible. You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”
“But everyone will know. We’re both bald,” I smiled giving Ivy a little rub on her head. Fine golden stubble sprouted from her scalp, tickling my fingers.
Tania laughed. “I have plenty of wigs in storage.” She pointed to a rug on the floor. I looked at the rug, wondering how it would become a wig.
“Trapdoor.” Tania smiled. “I’ll get an early dinner for the two of you and then you really should go to the loft and sleep.”
“But I have so many questions,” I said.
“I know you do,” she said placing a small kiss on my forehead. “I can’t explain everything to you, but after you arrive in Keree my friend Johna will tell you more. She’ll give you specific directions on where to settle and start your new life.”
Ivy grasped my hand and tugged.
“Let’s go up.” She pointed to the ladder. “There’s something I want to show you.”
I smiled at Tania as I turned and followed Ivy up the ladder to the loft.
“I just can’t believe all this,” I said.
“Wait until you see this,” Ivy crawled across the bed to the window. She peeked behind a curtain and then pulled back out, a pout on her face. “It’s started raining.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “We’re inside.”
“No, I just wanted to show you the sun. Since you hardly ever get to see it, you know.”
I hugged Ivy and then pulled the curtain wide, taking in the scene before me. The rain fell lightly against the window pane, picking up speed with every drop. Thunder rolled in the distance as the sky grew grayer.
“It’s lovely,” I sighed with a smile. “I’ve never seen a rainstorm before. When I was allowed outside or at a window it was always sunny with big, puffy clouds. I’ve heard the storms but never seen them. It’s almost a bit overwhelming.”
As I turned to look out the window again, a flash of light snapped through the hazy sky. I screamed and jumped back from the window.
“What was that?”
“Lightning,” Ivy laughed. “I’ve told you about it before.”
I tried to compose myself, but a nervous giggle slipped through. “I guess I never expected it would be so,” I paused, “bright. It’s amazing the way it appeared out of nowhere. No warning, nothing. This is so much better than a boring, sunny day.”
I glanced back at the blonde fuzz on Ivy’s head.
“Does it itch?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Ivy said, rubbing her head, “a bit. It’s just weird having it there at all. Honestly I had to resist the urge to shave it this morning. It’s a hard habit to break.”
“I can’t wait,” I said. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have long luxurious hair. Like those women who visit for the branding ceremonies. Their hair is so beautiful.”
“They put bird nests in their hair,” Ivy giggled.
We collapsed on the bed in a fit of laughter. Just a few hours earlier I’d been scared out of my mind and now I was free. Away from the drudgery, away from the confinement, away from Kandek. It was almost too much to handle. But rest was soon to come and then the beginning of a new adventure with my best friend.
We huddled together on the bed, not even noticing that Tania had left the cottage until she flung the door open and shook out her wet cloak. She was followed by a tall man I assumed to be her husband, Jon.
“Girls,” Tania yelled as she climbed up the ladder, “you need to go. Now. The guards have been dispatched.”
She turned and stared at me with a frown.
“They are looking for you. Why? They’ve never dispatched this many guards for a missing slave.”
“I don’t know,” I stammered as Ivy and I climbed down the ladder behind Tania. “I’m so sorry.”