Chapter Twenty-Four

Zaria awoke in stages. Several times there was whispering in her brief glimpses of reality. She couldn’t focus on the words and couldn’t open her eyes. Each time she awoke it was for a short time and pain made her dizzy. When she finally came to, the room she was in was dark and empty of others. Her ears were buzzing and her whole body ached. She wondered how long she had been out. She remembered Awen’s final words to her, and panicked about Gareth. She rose too quickly from the bed she was in and gasped at the lightheadedness it caused her. Okay, she had to move slower, but her mind raced. The room she was in seemed sparse, like it was a room meant for recovery and not actually inhabiting. There was a single candle glowing on the table near the door. She limped to the door and opened it.

The hallway that greeted her was carved out of stone, just like the room she had just been in. It was softly lit and she didn’t see anyone. Where was everyone? She peered into rooms as she passed them. They all seemed just as barren. She got to some stairs and slowly climbed them, holding onto a railing for balance. Her breath was coming in short puffs and the pain was getting more intense. She heard footsteps coming down the stairs and she paused, not sure what to expect in this place. She sighed with relief when she saw Rishtah.

“Oh dear! What are you doing out of bed? You look like death warmed over!”

“I just needed to find someone and ask about Gareth,” Zaria said faintly, feeling woozy.

“Come on, let’s get you back to bed and I’ll fill you in. You need rest. You were hit by some pretty powerful energy. We were shocked you weren’t dead.” Rishtah took her arm as Zaria turned around and started going back down the steps. She was starting to feel so weak she hoped she didn’t pass out before she got to the bed. It seemed like such a long way. They finally made it, and by the time she sat on the edge of the bed her vision was swimming and she was seeing stars. Rishtah helped her lay down again and she rested a few moments while Rishtah sat on a chair next to the bed.

“How long have I been out?” Zaria asked quietly. She closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing.

“A week,” Rishtah answered sadly.

Zaria’s eyes flew open. “Where’s Gareth?!” She wanted to scramble up from the bed but knew she couldn’t. She was too weak.

“I’m sorry sweetie. She took him. There’s really nothing we can do right now.” Rishtah laid her hand on Zaria’s shoulder in comfort. Zaria started crying softly. She knew there was nothing to be done at the moment. Awen was powerful. Too powerful for her to fight her alone now, and not in this condition, no matter how much she wanted to march there this very moment and take back what was hers.

“We can have a slight comfort in knowing that she won’t kill him. She wants to keep them all alive to show you their suffering at her hands. She is ruthless in that way,” Rishtah said, trying to make Zaria feel better about him being killed.

All at once she remembered about her mother’s betrayal and the hurt gripped her. “Why did my mother betray us?” She asked, fresh tears trailing down her cheeks. Her voice broke as she asked the question. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Your mother told me,” Rishtah started saying in a hesitant tone, “but she made me swear not to tell you. I don’t know how much I should say.” She paused for a moment. “Since you already know about the betrayal, I guess I can tell you everything I know.” She got up and started pacing the room, her gray hair glinting in the soft candlelight.

“Before your parents were married, Gabriella had a lover.” Zaria looked at Rishtah quizzically. “Gabriella and Awen were lovers.”

“But how could my mother be with such an evil bitch?!” Zaria almost sat up in bed, but Rishtah held out her hand to stop her.

“Awen wasn’t always so evil. Her father was advisor of war to the king, your mother’s father.  Awen and your mother grew up together because of this. Awen was the only girl in the castle close to your mother’s age so they had their studies together. At some point, they discovered they loved each other. They started having an affair. Being gay was against the rules for royalty and they had to keep it a secret,” Rishtah sadly said. Zaria was really taken aback by this revelation. She had a hard time believing that Awen had ever been good, someone worthy of her mother’s love.

“Your mother really loved Awen, but when they were found out, her father forced her to submit to his wishes. He arranged a marriage, and gave Gabriella an ultimatum. He would kill Awen, or she would submit to him and marry this man. In return, he would spare Awen’s life, but she would be cast out of the society, never to return to the kingdom, and Gabriella could never see her again. So your mother submitted. She told Awen that she didn’t love her, even though it broke her heart. She did what she thought was best.” Rishtah paused.

Zaria was trying to take this all in. It was a lot, and a blow to her system. She didn’t know what to think. Her entire childhood seemed in question now. All the times her mother had looked at her family with love; had it been an act? Zaria was so confused she didn’t know if she could hear any more of it, but Rishtah pressed on with the story.

“Your mother and father were married a short time later. At first she hated him because of this relationship being thrust upon her. She was very resentful. About forty years into their marriage, your grandfather passed away, and your grandmother a short time later. Your mother grieved, and your father was there to put her pieces back together. She grew to love him. She inherited her father’s kingdom and they ruled for a long time. You were born, and a short time later, Awen showed back up, with her army. She decimated the city, and you know the rest.” Risahtah paused again for a moment, smoothing out her long white skirt.

“I know that you are very confused right now. I don’t blame you. Your mother did what she thought was right. Maybe she created Awen with her betrayal. We don’t know how this happened. But your mother loves you. She always has and she always will. Please don’t doubt that.”

Zaria choked back tears. She was sick of crying. “If she loved me, why did she betray us? She destroyed our family. More than once. I feel like I almost hate her right now.”

“I don’t know the answer to that. I know that she hated herself for it. She came to me, after she had been here for a while. Gareth brought them from the village that night. We all thought you would have a better chance on your own, because wherever large groups of us gathered, Awen found out and would destroy us. We had to keep moving further and further away. She lives on destruction now, and she could only destroy what wasn’t already. Loners were always better off. Anyway. She admitted what she had done, and she was terrified that we would cast her out if everyone knew the truth. Awen had contacted your mother before the attack that night, and got into your mother’s head. She ended up giving away the location of where she was. She wanted our protection from the queen, and in return she offered her allegiance. She hasn’t betrayed anyone since.”

Zaria sat in silence for a while. She understood everything that Rishtah said, but she still wanted to have a conversation with her mother. Who was probably Awen’s plaything by that time. Her breath caught in her chest. “Do we have a plan? Where are we?”

“We are in one of the villages that we had talked about a week ago. The village that Gareth had kept in contact with, led by the man that knew your father. Most of us survived because of the work that you and Gareth did.”

Zaria took a deep breath. She could barely think about her family right now, or Gareth. She felt like her mind would be torn apart. She was already in a fragile state because of the battle and the hit she had taken from Awen. It was almost as though she had figured out just how much power to hit her with, because it was enough to knock her out for several days but hadn’t killed her, when Awen could easily have done so. She wanted Zaria alive. She wanted her to suffer, and then she wanted her to come after her. And she would. She just needed to figure out how. “And a plan?” She asked, closing her eyes and laying her head softly on the pillow.

“We don’t have one yet. We are waiting for you, but you need to get well. We love you, and care about you. We need you to be at your best. You are an amazing woman, but we all have limitations,” Rishtah said, smoothing Zaria’s hair back from her face.

Zaria was feeling those limitations as she laid there, everything draining her energy, from the kidnapping of her family to her mother’s illicit affair. The little power that she kept within herself from the stars above ebbed and flowed, and she was entranced by its rhythm within her body. It was something that she would always feel there, and it was a kind of music to her by now. She took comfort in it, and it was lulling her to sleep. She barely noticed as Rishtah leaned down and kissed her forehead and exited the room, softly closing the door behind her. The sleep she was pulled into was a more peaceful one because of that music within her. The hum and buzz of energy was warm and she welcomed it.

 

Aria was frightened. She figured she must have been in the dungeon of the old castle. She had only seen halflings when they had fed her. She tried talking with them, begging, pleading in fact, but they never answered her. She huddled against the cold stone, shivering. It was just warm enough to keep her from dying. She didn’t know where anyone was. It was silent, save for the dripping of water somewhere. She wanted to know where her mother was, and her sister, and Manuel. At the thought of his name, she choked back a sob. She heard footsteps and scrambled up from the floor. Maybe this one would talk to her. She started talking, but fell silent when he unlocked the door. The halfling was accompanied by two more guards. They each took an arm and started dragging her from the cell.

Aria tried talking to them and asking what was going on, but they remained silent. Finally she followed suit. She let herself be taken through the halls of the castle. They finally got to the throne room and it was a cross between decadence and a horror show. Awen sat on the throne in a gold dress, with her breasts nearly popping out from the deep V cut in her dress, held up by thin straps, and the skinny skirt fell to almost cover her feet encased in matching gold strappy heels. She sat with one leg crossed over the other and her bare arms resting on the arms of the throne, palms flat. Her long hair fell straight, down her back and a little over her shoulders and a golden crown upon her head. Awen was all about the show.

Aria looked around the room and it was decorated in black, deep red, and gold. Heavy curtains in a deep red tone hung against the walls, covering the parts of the stone. Heads of animals with dried blood still on the fur were stuck on the stone walls. There were ornate gold wall sconces on either side of the heads, a golden glow flickering from the candles. The chandelier hanging in the center of the room was made from polished black crystal that reflected the glowing lights around the room. What looked like dried blood stained the stone floor. There were halflings standing in the room to either side of the red carpet in the center, and there were three fairies chained and on all fours at the base of the throne, and they had heavy collars around their necks with the chain attached to rings coming out of the floor. They were wearing masks and Aria didn’t know who they were.

She felt raggedy in her light blue dress that was now almost black with the dirt from being held in a dungy cage for several days. Her hair was greasy and hung in clumps and her skin was dirty. As she reached the end of the carpet, she stood before Awen and she wanted to scream, to fight back, to cry. She did nothing as the queen looked at her with contempt. Awen’s lip curled up. “You bow to the queen,” she intoned.

Aria had no idea what her punishment would be, but the words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. “You are no queen to me.”

One of the guards hit her in the back of the knees with his staff and she fell to them with her palms flat on the carpet and her forehead to the floor, unintentionally abasing herself as she cried out in pain. When she slowly raised her head to look at Awen, Aria saw that the queen was just looking at her in amusement.

“You have a lot of gall, do you know what? I could obliterate you and everyone you know with just the thought of it. I could have killed your sister, but I didn’t. I wanted to make her suffer. I am going to make you all suffer.” Awen slowly uncrossed her legs and sauntered over to the first chained fairy/halfling hybrid. He was nude from the waist up and wearing a golden mask of a ram. She took a long whip from one of the guards and cracked it on the stone. The sharp sound jolted Aria, making her jump.

Awen walked around him, running the whip against his skin. “It’s fantastic, isn’t it? The anticipation of the whip? When will it land?” She teased him for another minute before abruptly withdrawing the whip from his back and cracking it hard against him. He screamed, and Aria started crying. The blood welled immediately and started running in rivulets down to the stone. Awen struck him again and again, and he screamed in pain each time. She had a manic grin on her face, and soon the blood started spattering her dress because there was so much of it as she whipped him. Aria felt powerless. She could barely see through her tears. His back was in shreds and Awen finally stopped, her chest heaving. Aria watched as her eyes closed with the pleasure of having hurt someone so much. He was curled in a ball at her feet. Awen handed the whip back to the guard as she stepped around the broken man, blood getting on her shoes.

“That is what happens when you betray someone. Never forget,” Awen hissed. All at once, Aria understood that man to be Gareth and she gasped, horrified. She wanted to run to him, but knew she couldn’t. She was trapped.

Awen stepped to the next victim. This fae was a female, her entire body bare. Aria had recognized the hair as her mother’s when she walked in and her breath caught in her throat. She cried out before she could help herself. “Don’t hurt her!” Awen whipped her head towards her and narrowed her eyes.

“She will get what’s coming to her!” Awen’s fury was palpable and Aria shuddered. Awen bent next to Gabriella and removed the mask. Gabriella’s eyes were red from crying as she stared into Awen’s eyes.

“Please don’t do this,” her mother’s voice was soft and broken when she spoke, but Aria still heard her, and her heart hurt.

Awen just stared at her for a moment before reaching under her chin and kissing her softly on the lips. Aria was shocked, and Awen whispered, “It’s too late for that, my love.” Awen kissed her again, but bit her lip hard enough to make Gabriella bleed. Awen stood up as blood ran down Gabriella’s chin, grabbing a handful of her hair and jerking her head backwards. “I’m not going to hurt you…much. For right now, at least. But you will suffer.” The promise in Awen’s gaze was filled with many things; love, anger, lust, and betrayal. Aria didn’t understand anything that was happening.

Awen stared at Gabriella for a moment longer before turning away to the last person chained. This man looked ill, even though Aria couldn’t see his face. He was thin and his skin was pale, hanging from his bones. There was barely any meat on him. His entire body was crisscrossed with various scars already. Some of the scars were old and barely visible, and some were newer, with the scar tissue an angry pink. Some looked like whip marks, some looked like cuts. Aria felt horrible about what this man must have gone through.

“Are you ready to see my last guest?” Awen seemed delighted about revealing the identity of this last victim of hers. Her face was flushed and her eyes glittered as she looked from Aria to her mother. Awen took the whip from the guard again, and hit the man with it a couple of times. He didn’t even make a sound, as though he was used to it and he barely flinched as though it felt like the mere annoyance of a fly. Awen slowly took the golden mask off of him and Aria gasped. She couldn’t believe who she was seeing. She looked to her mother, who looked as equally shocked and heartbroken.

For on his hands and knees before them, was Aria’s father.

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Chapter Twenty-Three

Awen was delighted with her catch of the day. A betrayer, a sibling for further leverage, and a mother. Her former lover. Who would be again. Awen rarely let herself think about it. Whenever she had, she had been filled with a rage and sadness so complete it had ripped her heart to shreds; over and over again it hurt so much. Eventually, she had learned to be patient.

Now, as she walked through the woods that became more and more blackened with each mile that passed, she led her army home and thought about the past, now able to think about it with quite a bit less anger. It had been a much happier time in the world. The trees were healthy and full of vibrant green leaves and colorful flowers. Awen and Gabriella were teenagers in the same village, which happened to be the village that housed the royal family. Awen’s family had been high in the ranks of the king, King Gregory at the time, Gabriella’s father. Awen’s father, Leon, had been Gregory’s Advisor of War. But it was peace time, and all was well, and relaxed. The local villages were paying their taxes and no neighboring village advanced. It had been like this for many years.

Awen and Gabriella grew up close friends. They ran through the castle like wild things, and ran through the village causing mischief. They ran through the woods, and found the perfect tree to build a tree house. They used magic to protect it, and it became their private fortress. They slept in there sometimes. One night while watching and catching fireflies, Gabriella accidently brushed hands with Awen’s trying to catch the same fly. It was something that had happened a million times before. But for some reason, this time had been different. The touch had electrified Awen, sending electricity and shivers down her spine. The electricity made the firefly dash away and they watched it fly away, and then they both froze. Awen searched Gabriella’s eyes, and leaned towards her. She slowly touched her lips to Gabriella’s soft lips, and they both gasped at the contact. They slowly broke away.

“Should we—“ Gabriella started to whisper.

“I don’t know,” Awen cut her off. She turned away and gazed at the fireflies. She was lost. She didn’t know what to do or say. It was so confusing. She turned back to Gabriella who looked just as lost. “I mean, we’ve known each other for twenty years. How could it change like this? Why?”

Gabriella walked up to Awen and held her finger against her lips. “Shh. It doesn’t matter. It happened,” she said, her voice husky. She ran her fingertip down her chin and across her jawline. With that single finger, she tilted Awen’s down pointed face up towards her. She claimed her mouth with a soft hunger that grew. She grabbed her waist and drew her nearer. Awen yielded, protesting with her body.

“I don’t know if we should—“

“And why not?!” Gabriella said heatedly. “I want you. I can feel it. I want what I want.” She pulled Awen to her body. “And,” she kissed her neck, “I will,” she tugged at her earlobe with her teeth, “have it,” she growled, claiming Awen’s mouth with a passion that Awen had never felt before. She’d had crushes on guys in the past and had sexual encounters with some of them, but she had never felt this level of passion or intensity before. It was something she felt in her skin, her heart, her mind, her very being.

All thought left Awen’s mind. She just did what she felt and she gave in, against the nagging idea that the king and queen wouldn’t like this dalliance. She ran her fingers through Gabriella’s soft hair, massaging her scalp as they kissed. She moaned into her mouth when Gabriella took Awen’s breast in her hand, gently kneading the soft tissue. Fire was lighting through her veins at the touch and she couldn’t get close enough. Gabriella pushed her up against a tree, continuing to play with Awen’s breasts, which were now spilling out of her dress as Gabriella unlaced the front facing corset, her nipples slightly chilled from the night air and Gabriella’s touch. Gabriella’s mouth left hers in favor of her breast, gently suckling while playing with her other breast, nipping with her fingers. Awen moaned, feeling herself grow wet. She wondered what Gabriella tasted like.

Gabriella finished disrobing Awen until her toffee colored skin bathed in the moonlight, so dark and beautiful, then removed her own dress. “I want you,” Gabriella whispered, laying on the moss covered base of the tree and pulling Awen with her.

“I want you too,” Awen whispered and stared at her beauty, crawling on top of her, taking Gabriella’s breast in her mouth as she had done to her. Gabriella moaned, writing under the touch. Awen ran her fingertips down Gabriella’s side, continuing across her thigh and down her inner thigh. Gabriella shuddered and closed her eyes. Awen kissed Gabriella’s smooth skin, her mouth moving from her breasts as her hands went back to the moist mounds, gently kneading as she licked and kissed the length of her body. She stopped just above Gabriella’s sex.

She lightly ran her finger along the outer lips, making Gabriella gasp and quiver. She stroked her there for a few moments, drawing out the moment. She slowly pushed her finger just inside to the inner lips and felt the wetness. So wet she withdrew her finger and brought it to Gabriella’s mouth. She tasted her own sex before Awen put her finger back inside, exploring the hot wetness. She stuck another finger inside, pushing her fingers deeper in until they couldn’t go any further. Gabriella moaned and wriggled her hips as Awen stroked her fingers in and out, slowly. She leaned her mouth down to Gabriella’s clit and started licking, methodically as her fingers pumped in and out. She curved her fingers upward, looking for that sweet spot.

She knew she found it when Gabriella started gasping and kept gasping, thrusting her hips upward. Awen pumped her fingers faster, massaging that spot inside of her, licking Gabriella’s clit, matching the movements to her fingers. Gabriella screamed and her whole body shook as she came, and Awen kept licking the wetness of her pussy through it all, until Gabriella quieted save for her heavy breathing and soft moans, her body still clutching and shuddering as the mini orgasms rode her from Awen’s mouth still on her. She finally stopped and crawled up to kiss Gabriella.

Gabriella rolled them until she was on top, reaching down to massage Awen’s pussy while kissing her mouth and massaging her breast. Awen was on fire and she could feel every molecule and atom crashing together. She felt the magic in the earth and sky and it was almost overwhelming. Gabriella moved down to lick Awen’s breast before biting it, making Awen scream. Her back arched and she shuddered with pleasure. What was that? Why had it felt so good? She wasn’t sure but she wanted to feel it again. “Bite me again,” she whispered breathlessly, her wetness making Gabriella’s fingers slick.

Gabriella bit Awen’s other breast and Awen clutched handfuls of moss. She almost orgasmed from the contact, especially once Gabriella’s fingers were moving rapidly in and out of her. Gabriella moved down to Awen’s stomach, nipping her with her sharp teeth. She moaned, shaking. Her entire being felt like it was almost being ripped apart. The orgasm was building within her as Gabriella’s teeth grazed her skin again and again in razor-sharp kisses. She bit down on Awen’s flesh just next to her belly button and that was her undoing. Gabriella’s thumb kept firm pressure on her clit as her curved fingers reached ever deeper inside of her and Awen convulsed around her fingers, tightening as the orgasm ripped through her. Her moans and screams were released into the night air as her entire body shook with a passion she had never felt before in her life. She came back down slowly, slowly aware of her surroundings and Gabriella’s gentle murmurings in her ear as she kissed her neck in the afterglow.

What had made that so powerful? She could barely think as she tried to force her breathing back to normal. They lay in an embrace, not speaking, simply surrounded by the forest and its creatures. Through a break in the trees, they could see the stars. Every once in a while a dying star zipped by. The air was so clear and clean, and they soon fell asleep in each other’s arms. When Awen awoke, she was alone, and her dress covered her. She shivered in the pre-dawn mist, and sadly felt the absence of Gabriella. She wondered why she had left. Everyone knew that they sometimes left and slept overnight in the forest, why was it a big deal that Gabriella would wake up in her royal bedchamber the morning after they had re-discovered each other?

Gabriella soothed Awen later that day, running her fingers through Awen’s hair. Everything was secret with them. They didn’t show untoward attentions toward each other in the presence of others, even though Gabriella consumed Awen’s mind at all times, and her skin was alive with fire whenever they were intimate. She longed to be able to be with Gabriella in the open, so that she was no longer a secret. She wished for it every day, hoping that someday it would be okay.

“Let’s meet tonight,” Gabriella whispered in Awen’s ear with a grin, five years after they had been seeing each other in secret. She ran her finger along Awen’s palm once she looked and made sure no one was looking. Awen’s pussy tightened at the intimate touch and the danger of being seen. It was a high that she never got tired of, heat running through her veins. She was so in love with Gabriella that she would do whatever she wanted her to do. All day she looked forward to the meeting. Her skin buzzed with excitement. At dusk, she took off for the woods alone. The animals seemed oddly hushed and ominous, but Awen didn’t let that dampen her mood. She was already wet for Gabriella just thinking about her.

Once she got close to their secret tree house, Awen decided to surprise Gabriella with a wicked grin. She removed her dress, placing it in a safe place and sauntering up to the house. It was dark, Gabriella wasn’t here yet. The slight chill hardened Awen’s nipples and that excited her even more. She went up and lay on the bed in a provocative pose, waiting for her love and lover. She must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew, she was yanked out of the bed. Her eyes flew open in surprise at the rough grip, definitely not Gabriella. She saw the King’s guards and fear gripped her heart. They were discovered! In a panic, she wondered about Gabriella and if she was okay, trying to break free. Heavy footsteps sounded on the wood and her father came into view.

Awen’s heart sank. She desperately wanted to cover up, but it was impossible, as one guard held each of her arms firmly to her side. She couldn’t move. Awen’s father gazed at her coldly and dispassionately.

“I had hoped this wasn’t true. I am so disappointed in you.” With a single movement he raised a hand to her face and a sharp crack resounded, echoing off the wood. Her head whipped to one side from the force, her hair covering her face. It hurt, but still Awen whipped her head back to face him, and even though her face was burning with shame and her lip bleeding, she raised her chin and stared at him defiantly and with pride, not saying a word. She had to be strong. She had to know what had happened to Gabriella. She felt panic inside, but didn’t let it show.

“Get dressed,” her father hissed, barely restrained in his anger. He tossed her dress at her and turned on his heel. She knew she would have an audience so she dressed as efficiently as possible once the guards released her arms. There was nowhere to go. She had to go back with her father to the castle, because that’s probably where Gabriella was. She needed to talk to her, to tell her how much she loved her and that they needed to stay together no matter what.

She went with the guards and her father back to the castle, the walk silent. Now she knew why the animals had been quiet; they had known there was going to be a disturbance in the energy. She felt the energy around her, choking her, suffocating her. She put one foot in front of the other just for Gabriella. She felt defeated and dejected inside, as well as pride. She knew inherently there wasn’t anything wrong with loving another woman. It’s something that happened a lot with everyone. It was completely natural. But for some reason, there was still a lot of stigma with royalty, and the thought that royalty shouldn’t mess with people less than royalty, and that the relationship needed to be heterosexual so as to maintain the bloodline. The princess also had to remain pure for her wedding night and new prince. Awen almost snorted, but she held it back because she knew her father would react poorly and probably hit her again.

Leon was taking her directly to the royal throne room. This wasn’t a good sign. Awen’s palms started to sweat and she felt nervous. What awaited her, she had no idea. The royal guards stood at attention at the doors to the room, holding lances at an angle that crossed each other above their heads. Awen gulped; glad no one was really paying attention to her too closely. The guards saw her father and moved the lances to stand straight while they stared straight ahead, looking at no one. Her father pushed open the doors to the throne room with both palms laid flat on the ornately carved and heavy, tall doors. Her breathing was coming in short puffs now, her heart crashing inside her chest. Her stomach was filled with acid.

She saw the king in his throne and the queen stood by his side, just behind the chair. Her father’s footsteps rapped sharply on the marble until he made it to the red carpet. He kept moving until he got to the end, made a crisp bow to the king, and moved to the other side of the throne as the queen, except below the stairs. He turned and watched without emotion as his daughter was escorted down the carpet. Her dragging dress had gone through mud on the way back and was now dragging a streak of mud down the marble and onto the carpet. The guards once again had an arm each. Even if she could, she wouldn’t have picked the tail of her dress. An act of defiance.

She didn’t see Gabriella in the room. As she made the long walk, her father had turned and briefly talked to the king in quiet terms, so quiet their voices didn’t even echo in the empty hall filled with cold and swirling marble. The king nodded once and went back to his perfect posture, with his arms outstretched on the throne’s arms and his back straight. Awen kept her chin up. She could not let herself feel ashamed for her love. She got to the end of the carpet and the guards didn’t loosen their grip, not allowing her to curtsey or even bow. Her heart was pounding so hard she wondered if anyone else could hear it. No one said anything for a few moments.

The King looked at her with eyes that didn’t betray anything. His wife remained just as stoic. Awen didn’t flinch from his gaze. “What were you doing in the woods tonight?”

Awen didn’t know what to say at first. What did they know? What had Gabriella told them? She found her voice, and said, “I was waiting for Gabriella.”
“And why were you waiting for her?”

“We had made plans to meet.”

King Gregory pursed his lips at her general answers. She wouldn’t give up any specific information voluntarily. She desperately hoped that Gabriella was okay. She didn’t think the king would hurt his only daughter.

King Gregory tried a different approach. “Are you in love with my daughter?” Direct. Straight to the point.

Awen didn’t want to show any weakness, but her breath caught in her throat and she felt it difficult to breathe. She didn’t know how to answer. Finally, she settled on the truth. She raised her chin and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Yes.” The king sighed and out of the corner of her eye she saw her father flinch.

“Have you had sexual relations with Princess Gabriella?”

A tear fell from her eye and rolled down her cheek. She knew this wasn’t going to end well. She started shaking. The situation was starting to get to her. All she wanted was to hold Gabriella in her arms. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“I see,” the king said, looking old, as though his grey eyes had aged just in these few moments. The queen had pursed her lips, disappointment evident from both of them. “This will end now. There will be no more secret rendezvous in the woods. Your little house is burning as we speak.”

“You can’t do this! She is your daughter! I love her! We want to be together!” Awen started to struggle against the hold of the guards, although she knew it was fruitless. She wanted to run and find Gabriella, to tell her that they should just run away.

“Stop!” The king shouted, standing. He looked furious. “You will be exiled, and Princess Gabriella will marry Prince Brock.” His tone suggested finality. Awen screamed and kicked and it did her no good. She felt the hot and salty tears running down her face but she didn’t care. She had given up the façade of calm and in control. Her heart beat wildly and she sank to her knees as she gave up fighting. The guards were still holding her arms above her head now as she sobbed, her face looking towards the floor. The red carpet and marble were a haze through her tears as she looked downward.

“Bring in the princess,” the king said, his voice weary. Awen looked up at him, hatred seething in her veins. She slowly stood again, but her head was hanging, no longer held high. She was heartbroken. Had Gabriella agreed to this? Had she defended their relationship? Had she given in? She waited quietly as Gabriella entered the throne room, taking her place beside the king. Once Awen finally dared to glance at her, she saw that Gabriella’s eyes were rimmed with the redness of tears. No tears fell now, but they were on the surface. Her heart beat painfully in her chest.

“Gabriella,” the king began.

“Yes, father?” Awen watched Gabriella carefully, but she wouldn’t look back at her. She was gazing across the room at nothing.

“Are you in love with Awen?”

Gabriella paused for just a moment, but then dragged her gaze over to Awen. Somehow she had made her eyes cold and unfeeling. “No. I do not.” Awen felt betrayal immediately stab her in the gut. How could Gabriella do this to her? She barely knew what she was doing, but she started screaming. She couldn’t exactly hear herself. Time had slowed down as she tried getting away from those damn guards. She needed to get out of here. She wanted to kidnap the princess and they could live their happily ever after. They could run so far away no one would ever find them. They could create their own kingdom.

“Gabriella, please,” she whispered as tears slipped down her face. Gabriella looked at her with sadness and a tear slipped past her own eye. Awen knew her feelings were there. But she was giving in. She was giving in to her father, to the “way things were.”

“I’m sorry,” Gabriella whispered back.

Awen looked on with shock as a numbness gripped her, holding her tight. There was nothing she could do. She held herself firm, the tears drying into stiff tracks from the salt.

“Enough of this. Go, now. You will be escorted out of the kingdom. If you shall ever return or attempt to return, you will be executed on the spot. The ward will alert us of your presence. Do you understand this?” The king stood, looking down at her. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

Awen nodded, not speaking. She would not give him the pleasure of calling him “sir” or “Your Majesty.” He took Gabriella’s arm and guided her from the room, the queen trailing behind. Gabriella didn’t look back even once. Awen’s heart being broken was complete. She hadn’t fought for her. Hadn’t fought for them. The door shut firmly behind them, echoing in the empty chamber. Her father said nothing, simply looking at her in disgust. After a moment he turned on his heel and left the room. He hadn’t said goodbye. The hurt in her heart returned as even her own father disowned her.

The guards holding on to her arms took her from the room. They were joined by four more guards; two in the front and two in the back. As they marched from the castle, then from the courtyard, then from the city and finally into the country, they were looked at through curious eyes. People wondering what she had done to deserve exile. She stared straight ahead and met no one’s eyes. Once past the confines of the kingdom, the guards left her. She had nothing. She had no one. She stared at their retreating backs for the longest time, until she could no longer see them. She wondered what she was to do. She sat at the side of the road and wept.

 

As Awen’s army and her prisoners marched back to the broken city, she fumed. Anger was good. It was better than hurt and pain. She intended on making them pay. They all had to pay. Nothing would be good enough until everything was destroyed.

Halfling- Chapter Twenty-Two

It was the big day. Or, night, rather. Apprehension thrummed through the group. Through everyone. Whatever animals or critters there had been in the daylight were cowering in safety, making no noise. The silence was eerie. Every once in a while the light rustling of clothing or armor could be heard, and the heat was thick and cloying, light sweat sticking on their bodies. Zaria had her hair up in ribbons and braids that some of the children had insisted on doing. She hadn’t had the time, but didn’t have the heart to turn them down. They had also said, very seriously, that they didn’t want her hair to get in the way of battle. She was with the outer group, sitting on the top step of the town hall, shoulder to shoulder with Gareth. She wondered if he would accept being the king to her queen. How silly, she thought. Of course he would, and she giggled.

Gareth glanced at her, and she gave him a soft smile. “Will you marry me?”

He smiled just as tenderly and softly. “Does that mean I get to be a king?”

“Yes, you can serve on me hand and foot, and bring me breakfast in bed,” she teased.

“Then I accept!” He kissed her on the lips, lightly and slightly chaste, aware of everyone looking at them from below.

“Then we have something to fight for: a royal wedding,” Rishtah said with a grin, and was immediately met with cheers and clapping. A light moment, and at the perfect timing because just then they heard the march of an army. It was still distant, and the clang of armor was just beginning to be heard. Zaria and Gareth squeezed hands, giving and taking strength from each other.

As one, everyone moved from the steps to the dirt ground, taking strength and energy from the earth they stood upon. They linked hands in a circle and drew power, sharing with the group. Zaria carefully let down just that one guard to share power, keeping the rest of her shields in place, remembering what Gareth and Rishtah had taught her and warned her about. It wouldn’t do to have so many people have access to her inner self. She felt the different and foreign bits of power in the circle with their own flavors, power she wasn’t used to.

They focused on building an orb that encompassed them, and then the town. It was stronger than the cloaking shield, and shimmered purple. The force of them all was almost staggering, and made it almost a physical thing, a wall that reached to the trees and over. She only hoped that there would be enough time for everyone to get out. She knew the shield would fall.

They heard the army stop, and the roaring of them all was almost deafening. Zaria wanted to shake with fear. She knew they were to die. With a final roar, the magical attacks came. Individually, they were nothing, a prick of a pin, but it was multiplied. Over time, the attacks would produce gaping holes, and then it would collapse. Gareth took more energy separate from the group and started fighting back. They still wanted to keep it a secret that Zaria was as powerful as she was, until the very last moment, until they were nearly decimated. He sent balls of energy from the universe raining down on the attackers, knocking out hundreds. But there were more, so many more. Gareth was starting to tire, she could tell, as connected as they were. His expression remained fierce and concentrated.

Zaria didn’t know how long they had been maintaining while Gareth took out the army with his greatness. How many thousands were there? The hits were knocking bigger and bigger holes into their circle. A great explosion shook the earth, and the circle went down, energy blasted away in a combination of purple and black sparks. Everyone shuddered and nearly fell to the ground, pale and sweating.

“I’ve tired of this. I could crush you like a bug,” a high voice called out. Through the smoke emerged a figure in a daring black leather dress. The V neck went to her navel, exposing much of her stomach. The leather was tight on her arms, the sleeves long and the top of the sleeve met in a V at her fingertips. The bottom of the dress met boots that went to the top of her thigh, which could be seen through the slit that went up to her hip bone. She wore a thick rope of a gold necklace that ended in a tassel at her belly button. Her toffee colored skin was shining with magic, and her dark hair was piled high up on her head, some curls spilling out. The crown that sat on her head was shining gold, the diamonds glittering even though Awen brought dark clouds with her, and the wind whipped around the group now huddled more towards the steps. Zaria and Gareth held hands, facing her.

Zaria’s heart was pounding; she thought it would pound right out of her chest. She had never felt more alive or electrified. She said nothing to the false queen’s taunt, only slightly lifted her head and met Awen’s black eyes.

Awen laughed. “My, my, you are audacious, aren’t you?” She slinked over to where Zaria stood, circling both her and Gareth since he refused to move. Zaria could feel in the grip of his hand that his muscles were taught and he tightened up even more. She then remembered that this was the first time he’d seen the queen since he’d betrayed her.

“I can see why people have been fawning over you. Soooo pretty,” she drawled as she once again faced Zaria, drawing her black painted and pointed fingernail against Zaria’s cheek and leaving a red welt. Gareth made a movement and Awen whipped her head towards him. “You I’ll deal with momentarily,” she hissed through her teeth, fury in her eyes.

“But you, my darling, you should have died many moons ago,” Awen continued, her voice like silk and honey. Zaria could see how people could become entranced by her. She felt the pull herself, and resisted the glamour that Awen tried to hold over her. She got the feeling that not many could resist the glamour, because it was so strong. Zaria had been working very hard on her inner strength, and this played a part in that resistance. She could tell that it irritated Awen. “But I want to have fun with you. You would be such a joy to break. And break you I will. Both of you!” She shouted as she looked at Gareth.

They felt the attack suddenly build by a change in the air and then come, and they barely warded it off. Awen didn’t ever physically attack anyone, but she held out her hand like she was choking Gareth, and he took a strangled step towards her, one hand outstretched towards her and one around his throat. Zaria grabbed a large amount of power from her chi and threw it at Awen in a show of purple sparks. It hit her in the chest and she flew backwards, landing on her back.

With a shriek of rage, she flew back up, standing perfectly still. “I knew Gareth was teaching you how to use power, but I didn’t know you could draw the power of the universe as well. Interesting,” she seethed, clearly controlling her anger with great exertion. Her hands were balled at her sides.

Zaria worried that they had let this slip too soon, but she couldn’t bear to see Gareth harmed and she had reacted without even thinking about it. She gripped his hand firmly. “Yes, he has. And both of us together can beat you and your entire army to the ground,” she said fiercely, her anxiousness not showing in her voice or body. Inside she was shaking.

Awen laughed, throwing her head back and the awful sound passed through her lips. “Oh, you are funny. Tell me, my dear, did it almost kill you? That first time? Did you feel like your insides were being ripped to shreds?” Her voice had dropped to a horrible, rasping whisper, a macabre grin stretched across her face.

Zaria’s jaw clenched, the only sign of her discomfort. “Yes, it almost killed me. Is that what you want to hear? But I’m stronger now, and I can hold and throw more energy and magic than you deign to in your lifetime.”

Awen cackled, her changes in tone and sound were unnerving. It brought a shiver down Zaria’s back each time she sounded different. “Oh my dear sweet child. You have no idea what I’m capable of, and you best keep that in the back of your mind before uttering such nonsensical words.” Awen’s face suddenly lost all sign of humor. “I’m going to make you squirm and beg, and make you wish you had died that day. You will feel a great deal of pain before I’m finished with you. How much can the body suffer?” She casually walked towards Zaria, her face soft and hard at the same time. Soft with the desire to cause pain, and hard with anger.

Zaria didn’t back down, but she stood her ground. No one else spoke or moved, since this was clearly between Zaria and Awen. Even Gareth was letting her go at it alone, but he was close by just in case she needed him. “Our bodies can handle as much as our minds allow before our bodies give out,” Zaria answered in a broad sense, although both of them knew they were talking about Zaria.

“Aha!” Awen grinned wickedly as though Zaria had said something particularly insightful. “The mind. What can the mind handle?” Zaria heard a sharp intake of breath behind her, but she didn’t turn to see who was anxious.

“It depends on how strong one’s mind is,” Zaria answered, playing along since no one was being killed at the moment. She was ready the moment that happened.

“And how strong is your mind, princess?” Awen whispered, putting emphasis on princess. It made Zaria feel uncomfortable, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. Was this when she learned who had betrayed her? She heard a buzzing in her ears and she felt like there was an elephant on her chest, and the world was turning grey at the edges. Was this worse than she thought?

Awen looked delighted. “Gabriella, my love!” She clapped her hands once in a childlike glee. Zaria felt the blood drain from her face. Her mother?

“There’s my girl. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” Awen clasped her arm around Gabriella’s shoulder when she had made her way slowly to the queen. She was crying, and fell to the ground on her knees at Awen’s feet. She groveled and grabbed at the leather skirt.

“Mom?” Zaria said softly, so crushed and heartbroken that this could have happened. Zaria’s voice seemed to wake Gabriella out of some sort of reverie and she started to turn and apologize, but Awen grasped her hair, and she cried out but nothing further.

Awen smiled at that. “Tell me, princess, do you remember that night your beloved father died? Our righteous king?”

Zaria didn’t answer, only stared at her mother. The woman that had nurtured her for her entire childhood. She had betrayed her? In what way? Disbelief, sorrow, and anger were all building within her. “Yes,” she finally whispered when she realized Awen was waiting for an answer, her voice hoarse. She realized that tears were falling down her cheeks, and was barely aware of Gareth standing behind her, his arm around her waist.

“How do you think we found you?” Awen looked at her, through her, and was perversely enjoying this. Zaria slowly shook her head, not understanding why. Why had she done this? “Your mother was so kind to tell us which village you were in, had been hiding in. It took a lot for me to get through to her. Your mother was strong, once. But I broke her, and she’s been broken ever since. Just like I will break you.” Awen bent and raked her long fingernail across Gabriella’s cheek, breaking the skin this time and blood ran down to mix with her tears. But she didn’t try to stop her from doing it. She accepted it as though it were a just punishment to happen.

Without thinking, Zaria ran forward to stop it. Awen swept her arm out, knocking her back with a magical blow. Awen snarled. “She’s mine! She was mine first!” She roughly grabbed Gabriella under the chin, lifting her up from the ground. “Isn’t that right? Before you ran off with the king, you were mine!” Awen screamed mine, and it echoed across the buildings.

Zaria stopped in her tracks, shocked. “What? What do you mean?”

Awen ignored her now, almost all her attention on Gabriella. “How does it feel, watching your family get destroyed?”

Gabriella sobbed, and finally looked at Zaria. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, her eyes pleading. With those two words, the reality struck, and Zaria knew it was true. She didn’t know how to feel; she felt frozen in place. She heard Gareth snarl behind her and felt his rage, but it seemed distant to her.

Immense satisfaction was on Awen’s face. “I’ll be taking you with me,” Awen said, waving her hand down Gabriella’s face and she seemed to fall asleep, slumping in the queen’s arms. She laid her on the ground and stepped over her. “The rest of you will be coming with me as well,” she grinned, and motioned behind Zaria, who turned around to face them. Most of the elders slumped their shoulders and stepped forward to take the side of the queen. Rishtah kept her head high, her face drawn in sadness.

“You will see, princess, that given enough time, anyone can become corrupted,” she said, holding out her hands to her minions.

Zaria tried to make sense of what she was seeing. “Why? Why do this? Why pretend to fight with me?” No one answered her, only looked at Awen with reverence.

The clank of armor drew everyone’s attention to a couple of halflings with someone in their arms. Zaria recognized her sister with horror. “No!” She screamed, running towards her. Awen knocked her back and she couldn’t reach her sister. She creamed wordlessly, tears running down her face.

“I will take your sister too,” Awen said. “Just for the fun of it. I will be back to deal with your betrayer of a boyfriend,” she hissed, still angry and never forgetting.

Zaria pulled with everything she had, until the atoms almost fried her synapsis, and hurled it at the queen in a rage. The purple energy hit Awen’s black energy, and they both screamed with the force. Everyone else was knocked back at the collision, both Awen and Zaria with their palms outward toward the other, energy clashing until they both ran out of what they could throw. It happened at the same time and the silence was sudden and complete.

“Maybe I will take him too!” Awen rasped, and hit her with a final flick of the hand, one that Zaria wasn’t prepared for. The black ball hit her and she went down, stunned beyond comprehension. She heard shouting and felt Gareth pull energy. She could only see the dark and cloudy sky without stars above her, so she didn’t know what Gareth had done. Rain droplets started to hit her, and she could only lay there, not moving. She wanted to fight back with whatever was happening, but she was on the verge of passing out. Why was she holding on? She felt someone grab and shake her, taking her in their arms, but she couldn’t focus on their face. Finally, the darkness came and she welcomed it.

Halfling- Chapter Twenty-One

They finished digging the hole a ways out from the yard, at the edge of a field, by the time the sun was getting ready to set. Gareth and Manuel put the halfling in it and shoveled the dirt back over him with no words, and no remorse. They had seen far more than one dead body in their lifetime. Zaria was tending to Aria’s wound, and trying to calm her down. They didn’t want everyone knowing what had happened quite yet, since trust wasn’t so easily given. The men finished the grimy work and headed back to the house. Gareth laid a brief hand on Manuel’s shoulder in solidarity. Manuel gave a slight nod of his head that he understood that Gareth was offering support.

“I’m sorry you were put in this position. I can barely imagine having to make that choice,” Gareth said gravely.

“It wasn’t that difficult, I suppose. I mean, you choose the princess Zaria every time, so it was just a matter of following through with my decision to stay with Aria. I would never hurt her, that much was clear to my heart.”

Gareth nodded, as he had known this. It was shown now to Zaria that Aria was trustworthy, and for that small thing, he was grateful. The air around the two men were tense with unspoken worries about what would happen now. The queen was for sure gathering an army to come here. They probably didn’t have much time, and his head swam with lists of things that needed to be done. They approached the house and Gareth clapped Manuel on the back once more before they entered.

The light was fading quickly from the sky. The sunlight barely touched the sky, sending the hot pink clouds into a vibrant pink glow. The cicadas were chirping, glowing bugs were zipping around, and the leaves were dancing in the light breeze. Everything was very soothing, but Zaria thought it was false. It was almost the calm before the storm, but she was tense. Apprehensive, with what could possibly be coming. The queen knew, and knew where they were. She had tried to calm her sister, but ended up having to knock her out with magic because of how hysterical she had been.

She hated doing it, and wasn’t feeling so great herself, but she had to maintain the appearance of having it all together. She was the future queen, after all. People would look to her to have all the answers. But her mind was actually racing. Terrified, of all the possibilities. Her mind felt like the racing of a scared rabbit’s heart, ready to give out. Awen had to be on her way here. But what would she bring? They had to tell Rishtah as soon as possible, but she had to wait until the men got back. She tried to keep from pacing, but was finding it difficult. She wound her hair up into a bun, but had nothing to secure it with so it kept falling, and she would just wind it back up again. The council members had to help. She nearly growled with impatience and frustration. She wanted to scream, because she didn’t think they were ready.

The men finally came back, smelling of earth and dirty with it. Gareth embraced her as soon as he walked in, his eyes full of emotion as he crossed the room to her. So many things he said with his eyes; worry, concern, anger, and love, among others.

“Aria is sleeping,” Zaria said to Manuel after a moment. He nodded grimly and left the room so they could have a little privacy before they had to leave. Just their touch spoke volumes, and she amazed at how they had gotten here. The night he had taken her and she hadn’t trusted him seemed like a lifetime ago. They kissed deeply, inhaling each other’s scents before regretfully pulling away. She knew Aria was in a deep sleep, and they called to Manuel to come to Rishtah’s house. They made a short walk of it, hurrying as fast as their legs could carry them without running. The door opened when they approached her porch, so she must have been looking outside.

They rushed into the house and filled her in as quickly as possible. Her face went gray and her eyes widened in fear. The house was full of anxiety and fear, because Rishtah wasn’t the only one. The waves of energy from emotion nearly choked Zaria. She tried releasing it in tiny waves elsewhere, but she didn’t want to disrupt nature too much. From there, they roused the rest of the council members and rushed to town hall for an emergency meeting to figure out the next steps. Everyone in the village would be evacuated to the city hall building in the basement. There wasn’t time to evacuate the village, and nowhere to go for that matter, said one of the council members. Zaria recognized him but couldn’t recall his name.

“Some people will have to fight,” Zaria argued, backed by Gareth. A couple of the members looked excited for the impending battle, and more of them were frightened. A few of them were stoic. The reactions interested her. She wondered if the ones who were excited were the ones she couldn’t trust. She took note of who reacted in what way. “We can’t do it alone, even with the roomful of people we have here. We need more to enforce the protection we have.” There were murmurs in the room, and Zaria wondered why anyone would protest. If they fail, they were all dead.

“Yes, but I don’t think anyone in this village is strong enough. The men, maybe, but the women and children cannot participate,” one of the men said, which made Zaria seethe. She was a woman, and magically stronger than any man in the room.

She raised an eyebrow, and said, “The strongest people will help, no matter if they are men or women. Children, no. They don’t have the control or experience yet to fight this fight.” The man set his mouth in an angry line but didn’t comment further. No one fights with the queen, she thought. Or, queen to be. She wanted to turn from this responsibility, but people needed her, and innocent children needed protecting. They hadn’t done anything to deserve this.

“There should also be a smaller circle of protection around the building, to protect those inside. We will have to have to divide the powerful protectors because we will want strong protection should the others fail.” As she said this, she felt sick in her stomach. It was like handing a pig his meal in the trough. Everyone would just be in one place to be slaughtered. She didn’t think there was a better plan given the short notice. She didn’t think there was time to run. They had until sundown tomorrow night, she thought. The queen’s army or whoever she was sending would get close tonight, then they would be in attacking range tomorrow night. She was thankful they could only travel by night, or they would have even less time.

“So we need to be as calm, organized, and as efficient as possible. I know it’s going to be difficult. But we need to keep track of people so no one gets left behind and not safe. At the end of the day tomorrow, we need to go door to door and make sure we didn’t miss anyone. We need to gather supplies, and set up in the basement of this building to handle everyone.” She didn’t know if she was missing anything or not. It seemed to be happening in a blur. Before she knew it, the basement was all set up, and frightened people were filing into the huge room carrying few of their possessions. Some were old enough to remember the panic of years part and their eyes were haunted. Zaria wondered if her eyes looked like that. Haunted, yet hardened. It was only a brief, fleeting thought and then it passed as she busied herself with calming people and reassuring. She couldn’t help wondering if there was a different way. She decided to approach Gareth and Rishtah about it.

She gathered them and led the way to Rishtah’s office. Once inside, they created an energy field of protection from prying ears.

“Are we sure we can’t evacuate them somewhere? I feel like there has to be something we can do, somewhere for them to go.” Zaria looked pleadingly to Gareth.

He glanced at Rishtah and drew in a deep breath. Rishtah gave a slight nod and Gareth replied to Zaria’s query. “There are a few smaller encampments to the west. They aren’t friendly to our cause, and keep to themselves. There’s no telling if they would take us in or not. They like to stay isolated, they don’t communicate much, and they refuse to communicate about the Resistance at all.”

Hope swelled within her chest. She didn’t want to get too hopeful, but at least it was something. Before he could caution her, she burst out with, “I know, it isn’t much, but at least it’s something. At least it’s a chance. I mean, it wouldn’t be like just putting them all in a room for an almost sure death. I know we aren’t ready,” she said softly.

“So what do we do? We can’t trust anyone,” Gareth huffed in frustration.

Zaria narrowed her eyes in concentration. “I think we wait until the outer protection spell is broken. Then I hide their passage as they sneak out the back of the building. It’s risky, but I think it’s the only way. We have the element of surprise on everyone. Who knows where these other establishments are? Who will lead the people?”

“Manuel will. He will lead them. Someone needs to help him, though. Your sister, I think. We know we can trust her, trust both of them. I will tell her not long before we have to leave, and I know she will be very helpful. She will know the sense of urgency, after she gets over this shock. She will be fine,” Rishtah reassured Zaria. “Also, there’s a secret exit that I enchanted a very long time ago. Almost no one knows about it. It leads underground for a time, through the forest, and then out the side of a mountain.”

“Is there one location that’s friendlier than the rest? There is the chance that we could be turned away,” Zaria feared.

Gareth nodded thoughtfully. “There is one place that is friendlier, yes. They still keep to themselves, but they are still a little more receptive to our messages than the other groups. One of the leaders was a good friend of your father’s,” he said, squeezing her hand a bit. “They have been on the verge of joining us a few times, but the idea has always been voted down.”

“Do you think we would be safe there until we regroup?” She asked.

“I think so, yes.”

“Since Manuel is leading, he will talk to them. Hopefully they will see our struggle and welcome us into their group. We are a large group, so some adjustments will probably have to be made. We have a lot of work to do to create a new place for ourselves.”

“I should think that sooner rather than later we will have the castle back, and regrow what was lost so many years ago.”

“We have lost much,” Rishtah sadly acknowledged. “So many lives lost, so many more corrupted by power.”

“But we’ve also gained people from the other side,” Gareth pointed out, thinking of Manuel.

“We have,” she nodded. “Well, not to dwell on the past any longer!” She said briskly. “I will help you cloak their escape after the initial wall of protection is broken. Aria will make sure everyone gets through. We will drop the cloak after they are safely out. You lot will follow us as soon as we you can, do you understand? No being a hero! We aren’t strong enough yet, and we can’t afford to lose either one of you.”

They both understood the gravity of those words. Zaria tried not to think of all the ways this could go wrong. She had to focus on success. It was the only way to stay sane sometimes. With a heaviness about her, they finished planning the escape. The betrayers and Awen wouldn’t know what had happened. Zaria focused heavily on keeping the plan far away from her facial expressions as she encountered people, thinking about how her face and behavior had let Awen know what they knew in the first place, setting this disastrous set of events into motion. She felt guilt, but was trying to not let it sit heavily on her shoulders. If she let it in, it would destroy her. She hardly felt worthy to lead people at this point, but she had to carry on. There was no other choice. Failure was not an option. Not when innocent lives were on the line.