THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 2): SAVAGES
Breen awoke to sun burning her skin and the rock of the cart below. Three days. Three. Damn. Days. They travelled over sand and hills for miles, through heat and high-winds with little rest.
Her head ached as she opened her eyes. The soft cotton beneath her cheek caused her brows to furrow. She didn’t remember falling asleep in the cart. She didn’t remember curling up next to anyone.
She glanced up.
Lukerin watched the coming road, his lips pressed in a thin line and his jaw hardened. She was lying on his lap. On the man who wanted to marry her, yet whom she had no desire for. If her cheeks weren’t already burning from the sun, they’d have burned with embarrassment.
She sat up quickly. Her entire world spun. The aching of her skull grew worse. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples as she groaned.
“Good morning.” Lukerin’s lips quirked to one side as if he might smile. He didn’t. She hadn’t seen him grin in days.
“Morning.” She sat back against the wooden bars of their prison. “Where are we?”
Lukerin glanced out the front of the cage. A dirt road stretched beneath them. The jungle was no longer to the south, and sandstone homes rose in the distance, clay rooftops peeking over the hill.
“I think we’re close.” He frowned.
Close to Seaburn.
Cold fear stole her heat. She rubbed her arms. The rest of her brethren rested, lying where they could, leaning against one another in the small space. No wonder she’d fallen asleep where she did. There was nowhere to move where she didn’t touch the limbs of her comrades.
“Is that it behind the sun?” she asked, pointing to the homes.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Probably an outer village.”
She nodded. That made sense. She’d never seen a foreign village, or Seaburn itself, but she’d heard stories. Lukerin’s father had been a traveller and was well versed in the ways of Seaburn. He’d taught his son many things, and Lukerin passed on some of that knowledge to her.
“How long was I asleep?”
“A few hours.”
“You should have woken me.” She hadn’t given up on escaping before they reached their destination.
Lukerin shrugged. “You need your rest. We don’t know what’s coming, Breen. We need to be ready.” He met her gaze. He meant she shouldn’t make another escape attempt. They were all weary from travel, and trying to break free on the road wouldn’t do any good, especially if they were close to civilization.
But would it be any easier to escape once they’d arrived? She doubted it.
“All right.” She’d keep her eyes peeled, but she couldn’t flee without her tribesmen. She wouldn’t go. Not yet.
The dirt road widened as the trolley scaled the hill. Sandstone homes peaked on the rise. Gnarled trees and bushes marred the land. The squat homes passed on either side of the cart. The path became smooth. Less bumpy. Black-skinned men, women and children walked by the road, some with swords and rucksacks, others with pails of water or arms full of straw.
The children paused to watch them go, dark eyes following the carts.
Her fingers wrapped around the bars of the cage. Did these people know what the soldiers would do to them? Did they know how Seaburn made its warriors?
Hours passed with the same landscape of homes and periods of wasteland. Some small farms spread across the land, with horses ploughing the fields and soldiers marching by in pairs. They didn’t stop to watch. They didn’t check to see if those in the cages were their friends or family.
How did they get like this? How was it possible to forget all about your brothers and sisters? She couldn’t imagine life without her tribal family, and refused to think about it here. They would escape. They would return home, whatever the cost.
“Look.” Lukerin nudged her arm.
Breen turned toward the front of the caravan.
Salt air brushed her nose. A tall hill rose from the edge of the sea, several miles of sandstone, smooth stone and regular wooden homes spread from the sandy shore, up the slope to the great walls of the Emperor’s Palace. That had to be it. Beyond the thick walls, trees rose, followed by three tall, rounded buildings, all attached by smooth sandstone. Golden domes covered each section, steeples pointing from the tips.
Her eyes widened.
This was Seaburn.
And it was beautiful, in a strange way she wasn’t accustomed to. Though natural beauty was everywhere in the land surrounding the Southern Delica Tribe, Seaburn was different; architectural beauty, unique to this land. She’d never seen anything like it. Even her mother, Keeper of Knowledge for the tribe, hadn’t ever described such a place to her.
The cart lurched down the slope towards the surrounding city, following a cobblestone road. If she didn’t know her fate as a slave lay somewhere inside this city, she might have wanted to explore. She might have spent more time inspecting the waterfront and the tall windows of the palace.
But Seaburn was the enemy. Seaburn could be her end.
Breen clenched her fists in her lap. Her nails dug into her palms.
It was too late to escape. She didn’t know these streets and could be lost too easily in a land these soldiers must know. But what could she do? Wherever their journey ended, would be dangerous. More dangerous than here.
She met Lukerin’s dark gaze. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
Neither did she. And that was the problem.
The carts pulled to a halt outside the palace walls. A three-story stone structure with pillars holding up the lip of the long slanted roof rose forbiddingly to block out the sky. Soldiers clad in tan leather costumes and some in armor, marched across the open courtyard, their boots stomping in rhythm with one another.
They were gone. Whoever she had been, whoever the tribesmen had been, it was over. There was no escape now. The lock on their cage clicked open and two guards with rough hands yanked her out. Her knees scraped the stone courtyard before they hauled her to her feet. Her hands were still bound, this time at her front. She waited in a circle of soldiers for the rest of her brethren to be yanked from the cart.
When they did, the soldiers gathered the prisoners in an orderly line, pushing them none-too-gently into place. She narrowed her eyes at them, but said nothing. Instead, she hoped she’d never see these men again. If they often left the city to hunt for tribesmen, she may not.
The gold-clad man joined them then. Whereas half a dozen soldiers had left their group upon entry to the city, the black man still accompanied them. He stepped in front of her at the head of the line. His dark eyes continued past her to look at the others. His lips curved in a frown.
“You have arrived at the Academy. Here you will become soldiers of the Emperor.” He glanced between each of them before continuing. “I am General Mace. You will be under my direct supervision should you continue to training.”
If, they continued. So, what happened first?
Her gut soured. Her heart sped.
This couldn’t be good.
“Obey. Follow orders. Do what you’re told. Become one of Seaburn’s soldiers and you will be given good food, drink, and quarters. Should you try and escape, you will be punished. Should you not pass the Cleanse, you will die.”
He tilted his chin towards the sky, looking down his flat nose at the eight of them. He’d given this speech many times, that much was clear. Though she was tempted to demonstrate her irritation, she couldn’t stop the dread boiling in her gut.
It didn’t sound good. She had no idea what it could mean.
The group behind her mumbled as they were jostled forward. Lukerin pushed her forward gently. Her feet grew heavy like lead, stuck to the earth. With each step forward, it was as if she somehow sealed her fate. Each breath could be her last. The passing moments might be her last free ones.
She took a deep breath.
No, this wasn’t it. She’d get out. She’d escape without incurring the wrath of General Mace. Her fingers shook as she followed Mace past the marching soldiers and through the front gate.
Two guards standing on either side of huge wooden doors stepped forward to push them open. The thick wood creaked against the iron hinges before slamming off the inner wall. Mace, and two of his subordinates led them inside.
Twin sandstone staircases rose on either side of the main hall, leading to the second floor above. High vaulted ceilings opened the room. Shadows danced in the rafters. After a glance or two at her surroundings, her fellow prisoners were forced forward. Even as she paused to look, Lukerin ushered her forward.
The heels of Mace’s boots clacked against the floor until they reached the space beneath the second floor balcony. The soldiers ushered them through a door to the left.
Down and down they went, following the stone staircase deep into the earth. The lavish halls stopped quickly, turning to ragged stone blocks and musty air.
She wrinkled her nose. They were far beneath the earth. Only the torches lining the walls lit their way. What seemed like hours later, they reached the ground and entered a long hall.
Prison cells lined the right wall. Dark wood slated doors with a barred window in the top half too high for her height stopped her from seeing who, or what, lie inside. Moans drifted from further down the dark hallway. Cool, damp air brushed the base of her neck.
She shivered. Goose bumps rose on her flesh.
She shouldn’t be here. None of them should be. What did they do to them down here? Her eyes widened, and her fear stole the courage she’d been desperately clinging to for the last few days. Her pace slowed. Her feet itched to run. Her muscles braced for flight.
A soldier grabbed her arm and thrust her forward, muttering something in the foreign Seaburn tongue.
“Welcome to your new home.” Mace’s thick lips twitched in a smirk. He paused, as the narrow corridor became a wide room. The cells continued up the right hand wall, mere inches from her shoulder.
Several brown-skinned guards stood from their seats by the far wall. Torchlight cast shadows across their faces. Dark, black eyes. Menacing stares. So these were their keepers. Their jailers. And what else? Their cleansers?
She shook her head.
The leather-clad soldiers stepped forward. Each of them resembled the other Seaburn natives. Were there no tribesmen in the dungeons?
A rough hand clasped her bicep and thrust her forward. He whipped open a cell door. Only the torches in the outer room lit the shadowed cell. Straw covered the rough stone floor. Dark, wooden walls stood on either side, while sandstone rose on the back wall. A metal bucket lay in one corner.
He pushed her inside.
The door slammed behind her. The lock slid shut.
She spun for the door. The foul odor of feces and vomit slid up her nostrils. Her stomach flipped. Breen wrapped her fingers around the bars at the top of the door. They were just low enough for her to peer through on her tiptoes.
“Why are you doing this?” she hissed. “What do you want from us?”
General Mace hardly glanced at her cell before motioning the rest of the men to continue. They nudged Lukerin, Osana, Gryn and the rest of her tribesmen into their cells. Heavy doors slammed on either side of her, rattling her own door. She kicked the door hard, gritting her teeth.
“We don’t belong here. Why do you people do this?” She rattled the bars of her window.
No one looked at her. No one payed any attention to her pleas. No one met her eyes. No one even glanced at her.
“Seaburn rats!” Osana spit out the window of the cell next to her.
Lukerin slammed against the door to his cell. “Let us go!”
Questions which had been circling her brain for the last few days forced their way back into her mind. Her indignation wouldn’t be shoved aside. Who were these people? How could they be so hardened? So heartless?
General Mace turned from their cages and trudged back down the hall, leaving them to their protests.
So this was it; this was the great Seaburn.
She wasn’t impressed.
* * *
The door to her cell slammed against the wall, waking her from an uneasy sleep. Breen’s eyes flashed open, and she sat up from the hard stone floor. Her body ached all over.
A soldier with a dark leather mask stepped inside and grabbed her braids in his hand. She yelped, and clawed at his hand. He pulled her across the floor, dragging her by her hair.
“Stop!” Breen screamed. Her eyes stung from the pain. She sank her nails into his hands. Leather. Damn.
To stop the wrenching pain in her scalp, she grabbed the base of her braids, holding on tight to keep him from pulling all her hair from her skin.
The large room outside the cells, seemingly etched right from stone, with twin pillars keeping the ceiling aloft, passed her by with little more than a glance.
Two soldiers marched past, holding Lukerin by his elbows. He was soaked to the bone. His head lolled forward, water dripping from his dark hair.
What had they done to him? She thrashed with her legs and body, but her eyes blurred with tears. She could see no escape. What had they done to Lukerin? Had they been doing this all night and she had yet to hear?
The pressure left her skull and she fell from the soldier’s grip. Her back hit the cold ground. Her breath whooshed from her lungs. Breen struggled to her feet while simultaneously wiping tears from her eyes and regaining her breath.
“What is going on?” she wheezed.
The haze of tears disappeared, revealing another room, this time carved from gray stone. Darkness crept from every corner. Only two torches lit the wide space. At the center, a lone wooden chair sat dripping with water.
“What is this?” Her voice was small. Her eyes flew wide.
The man who had dragged her inside slammed the door shut closing them in together. It rattled on its hinges. The quiet plop of water drops filled the silence—the only sound aside from her ragged breath.
Her fingers trembled and cold slithered down her neck. This deep in the earth, there was no heat, no light, no warmth, but it didn’t matter. The cold came from more than the dankness of the room. She was scared. Breen gulped.
He jailer pushed her forward. Her heels dug in.
He grabbed her hair in one hand, and twisted her arm behind her back with the other. She gasped; her head wrenched back so far she met his eyes through slits in the leather. Dark menace stared back. He urged her forward and forced her into the chair, never releasing her hair. The men emerged from the shadows occupying each corner of the space. They strapped her arms and legs to the wooden seat. Goose bumps rose on her tawny skin.
The man gripping her hair held her head back while another placed a thin sheet of cloth over her face. Her breaths came in quick gasps. Her heart raced. No. She didn’t like this. She wanted to see. She didn’t want the darkness, couldn’t handle the darkness.
“Ready?” someone whispered. His hot breath brushed her ear.
“As a recruit to the Seaburn armies, you will learn our mantra,” the rough voice of a man said. “Listen closely, and repeat.”
The grip on her hair tightened, sending knives through her scalp. She winced.
“I accept my place.” He paused. She didn’t repeat the words. “I accept my place,” he repeated more forcefully. Again, she did not respond.
Breen accepted none of this.
“I’ll begin again.”
Ice-cold water bathed her in painful daggers. She gasped for air, but water filled her mouth. She coughed, trying to suck in air, but only receiving more wetness pressing against her face.
“I accept my place.”
She spit as much as she could from her mouth with the sheet sticking to her skin. It clung to every inch of her head, muffling his words and freezing her skin while trying to suffocate her.
“I accept my place. I will perform my duties.”
Another bucket of water filled her mouth and lungs. She spluttered, drowning against the wet fabric. How could they do this to her? This was inhumane. Cruel. But what had she expected from the same men who would threaten children and lock potential soldiers in putrid cells?
“I will obey.”
She refused to speak; couldn’t really, even if she’d wanted to. Her lungs burned and her eyelids fluttered. She gasped in more water. It tore down her throat and up her nostrils.
“I will follow.
Ice struck her cheeks again. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Why wouldn’t it stop?
“I will surrender.”
Her fists clenched against her restraints. She bucked hard, trying to pull from the chair, trying to strike someone—anyone.
“I will live by Seaburn laws.”
She screamed through the next gallon. Her voice cut off to more fits of coughing. All the while, rough hands kept her head back, and her throat displayed.
“I will adhere to my Seaburn masters.”
Her lungs filled. She couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t breathe. Panic bubbled in her chest and rose into her throat as she thrashed against her bindings, trying to get free, to shed the wet second skin the sheet had become.
“I will heed all above me.”
She gasped. No air came. Blackness pulled at the little light she could see beyond the sheet. Her limbs grew weak. This was it. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t escape. She’d never be free.
“I will obey.”
The fight fled her limbs, and darkness took her.
Cold burst through the black.
Breen sat up, coughing as water hurled from her lungs. Her entire upper body tensed with pain. Her limbs trembled and her shoulders quaked.
Soaking wet, she rid her body of the ice, until she gasped in air.
Sweet, sweet air.
It rasped against her sore throat, but she swallowed it with pleasure. Every lungful gave her life.
Slowly her trembling died, and she blinked drops of water from her lashes. Her lips quivered as she looked up at the masked man standing before her, a bucket in his hand.
She glared. Him. He’d done this to her. She’d nearly died—drowned—because of this stupid ritual. The Cleanse. It was torture. Their mantra was a joke. She’d never say it. She’d never follow them, no matter how much they tortured her.
“Repeat the mantra.” The man bore down on her, his dark eyes nearly black behind his mask.
Breen spit water from her mouth and sat back in her chair, glad to be free of the hands clutching her hair.
Though shivers wracked every inch of her, she would not give in. She would not obey. She would not follow these people, and she certainly wouldn’t surrender to whatever rituals these men concocted.
“Never.” Her throat was raw and stung as she spoke.
The man stepped back and nodded to the man at her back. This wasn’t over. Not yet. Fear bubbled in her chest despite her resolve. Her weak limbs drew what little strength they had back into them. She leapt to her feet, yanking her wrists and ankles from the restraints. The floor was slick beneath her boots and they slid as she lunged forward.
The masked men grabbed for her. She dodged their outstretched hands. She would not let this be the end. She would not let them take her down.
“Stop!” one of them hissed behind his mask. With no holes for their mouths, she hadn’t a clue which spoke.
Breen danced between them until she reached the thick wooden door. Her fingers closed on the cold metal handle.
Rough hands grabbed her shoulders and threw her to the ground.
“No!” Her heart raced as she spun to her stomach and pushed herself up.
A boot crashed down on her spine, pinning her to the floor.
“You will obey.” The man who’d brought her here pulled her to her feet and nearly tossed her back into the wet chair.
Her breaths came in quick gasps. Her adrenaline was fading. She didn’t have the strength for this. She didn’t have the energy to defend herself.
They snapped her restraints back on her wrists and ankles. Leather dug into her exposed skin. She gritted her teeth and waited. From a water trough hidden in shadows by the wall, they filled another bucket. Her heart leapt. No. Not again.
She pulled at her restraints. They would not give way a second time. The man at her back gripped her hair and forced her head back.
The wet sheet chilled her face and clung to her features as they draped it over her a second time. She gasped in great lungfuls of air, trying to savor it.
“I accept my place.”
Ice crashed down upon her.