Chapter 6 – "Still alive, are we?"
There was the sound of chains rattling against themselves in perpetual motion, the feel of water trickling down from above and running off my shoulder... and the sick smell of fear and desperation. The people around me were afflicted with illness, ready to just give up on everything or slowly driving themselves to their own breaking point. Something they all shared though, was an increased breathing brought about by fright and the excessive excretion of perspiration from the emotional stress of dejection and intimidation. I hated the smell because it was so thick I could taste it. I hated the smell because it was such an overwhelming sign of weakness. I hated the smell because I was part of it.
Fear was not something that was accepted in my family. It wasn't something that you received coddling and comfort for. It only garnered disdain and ridicule.
You had to be tough to be a witch, because no one was ever going to love you or care about you, and everyone wanted to see you hurt, scared or dead. Even your own family had to adapt the same cruel outlook from time to time in order to get the point across. Started crying over something? You would get a quick, sharp rap across the knuckles from some blunt instrument. If you continued on after that, it would only get worse.
I was shaming the name of all witches by falling prey to my emotions and fears just like any of these other cur around me. Perhaps I did deserve to lose my powers and be chained in the ship bound for Wraeclast after all.
"Hey... hey," the shackled man next to me whispered, trying to garner my attention. "If you're innocent, beg mercy when the guards come. They may- they may hear your case. I mean, they're men of reason, right? I was just drunk, that's all. I never would have willingly uttered blasphemies otherwise. They'll understand. They have to-"
I cut the man off, hardly able to take his self-pity any longer. "We've already been judged. That's why we're here. There is no hope for us."
"Don't- don't say that. You can't believe that. I don't deserve this. I know I don't. And you, you're just a woman – what could you have done to be exiled?"
I released a quiet bout of laughter before answering. "I didn't even receive a proper trial. I was found guilty before I could say a word in defense of myself. Then again, I did murder children, men, women and 'holy' followers of the Order without hesitation. How many words would I have had to come up with to properly shield that?"
The man did not reply and I was almost delighted at the twisted look of horror and disbelief written on his face when I finally did glance at him.
"On your feet, scum!" one of the blackguards ordered from behind the iron-bar door before unlocking it and walking into the crowded room they were holding all of us in.
Another man followed behind him, his attire was much different and he appeared to be of higher ranking.
"Attention, prisoners!" he bellowed assertively. "For your crimes against Oriath, you have been exiled to the forsaken continent of Wraeclast. The majesties of Oriath are merciful and have granted all exiles one weapon... choose wisely. Oriath has bestowed a gift upon you: a chance to redeem your crimes; a new life. Do not squander it."
The commanding guard turned and left and the first one spoke up again. "Swim straight for the shore; stay together, and look for others who can help you. You're not the first exiles, and you won't be the last!"
More soldiers entered the room after their superiors' speeches were finished. They unlocked our chains and began marching us up to the top deck of the ship. When we arrived, we were met with the crackling of thunder overhead, blinding flashes of lightning and rain falling so hard and fast that it stung with each hit. You couldn't see anything passed the end of the ship and all the lightning seemed to do was illuminate an endless length of dark clouds overhead and far beyond.
One by one they began to offer pathetic excuses for weapons to the exiled and then throw them overboard. The man in front of me, the blasphemer, refused to pick between a variety of rusty, worn swords in a deteriorating barrel. This 'mercy' of the majesties was nothing more than a clever way to rid their army of battered, broken artillery. After more pressuring, he tried to fight back, to overpower the well-armed guard who meant to toss him into the ice-cold waves below and be done with him. He was stabbed in the side for his trouble, and when he continued to protest and wouldn't let go of the side of the ship, trying the reason of words instead of the power of force, they snapped his neck and sent his lifeless body tumbling down into the abyss.
"You want the same thing, witch?" a man yelled and yanked me forward with a bundle of my own hair. I screamed out in pain, which only seemed to delight him.
"I've killed better than you, swine!" I taunted, knowing full-well that my end was at hand no matter if I was alive for the plummet or not. I spat in his face and smiled, feeling somewhat disoriented as the adrenaline swelled in my head and gave everything the veiled impression of somehow being imaginary.
The blackguard retaliated by punching me in the gut, hard. All of the air simple vanished from my lungs and I stumbled backwards, inadvertently falling off the side of the ship of my own accord. I didn't even get a weapon. Would've been the only thing the majesties would have ever given me... or anyone in my family.
The ocean water met my back and stung harder than the droplets of rain could even attempt to. I was submerged and dropping like a stone. It felt like that was all I would do, just continue to go down further and further, with no air left to even hold onto. My heart was racing and my brain was pounding, I couldn't begin to make an effort to rise to the surface. My vision, already murky, was fading and the strength in my limbs was next to nothing. The pressure of the water felt like a sweet embrace and a harrowing clutch at the same time, and suddenly...
I jolted upright and began gasping for air. Air that was, thankfully, readily available and felt almost divine with each breath. I awoke not on a beach this time, but under a canopy on a bed made of stone.
A nightmare. A nightmare that was nothing more than a memory of what happened. I had survived the deathly plunge, I had washed up on the beach and fought my way up the coast and now... now I am here. But where is here exactly?
As the frenzy left my body, I began to investigate my surroundings visually. This place was in ruins. The stone archway passages were crumbling and some have even deteriorated completely. There was a large fireplace not far from me that was spreading light and heat, but there was not much more else that the area offered aside from a few standing torches in various spots. Next to me lay more sick, or maybe just depressed. I couldn't really tell, nor did I care enough to find out for sure. No matter what their condition, the majority of these people were barely surviving. I propped myself against the wall while my body caught up with my mind in actually waking up. It was then that I noticed the bandages wrapping both of my bare feet. Someone had taken care to make sure the cloth was spread properly and it appeared skillfully applied, even if my apparent wounds were bleeding through the material.
"Still alive, are we?" I heard a silvery voice question.
I darted my head up and to the side, watching as three men approached me without an ounce of caution among them. They may not have needed to be guarded, but I certainly couldn't let mine down. Then again, I didn't really have a choice. My weapons and gems were nowhere to be found and I was already well aware of my inability to protect myself without those resources. Besides, if they truly wanted me dead, I already would be by now. Perhaps they wanted something worse though...
The tallest of them wore some sort of cloth sash across his upper torso with a scabbard crossing underneath it. He also had a finely wrapped bandage across his face, holding a patch of material over his right eye. Oddly enough, he was only wearing one boot, as well. The second man I recognized immediately as the pompous doorman. He walked just as oafishly as he sounded. The third was yet another mystery to me, though I got the distinct feeling that he was not one to be trifled with. Even with his walk he held himself in a way that read 'Danger - Approach at your own risk' and his stoic face conveyed the same message.
They stopped just at the edge of the canopy, their long shadows creeping along the stone squares.
"I thought I would be a dead woman by now," I calmly replied, trying to study their face for a telltale sign of their intentions.
"You still might be, love. This land, it innit kind to any of us," the doorman replied. Somehow he made every word of his sentence sound roguish.
"Enough, Kessler," the injured man requested, putting a hand on the shoulder of the buffoon. "She bested Hillock, which is far better than any of us could do." He dropped his hand and came closer to me, bending at the knees and lowering to eye-level. "My name is Tarkleigh. In a way, I am kind of the leader of this ragtag group of survivors. You did us a great service by removing Hillock as a threat. We've been blocked in on either side of the camp for a while, but now we can at least scavenge the West side of the beach for food and supplies again. I think I speak for everyone when I say 'Thank you', even if your actions were not intended for our benefit."
He looked at me as if expecting a reply, but I had no words to share. General conversation was never a strong point of mine and people's predisposition to judge me harshly over my lineage never helped in developing the skill, either.
"Quite the humble one, I see." There was a small smile on his face that appeared friendly enough to me.
"Either that or she's tired," the third man said. His voice sounded flat and dead, but I could also hear a certain prestige about it as well. "She's probably an exile fresh off the boat. Lucky she survived to reach Hillock at all, let alone kill the brute. Now that's a story I want to hear about."
"We all do," Tarkleigh laughed and looked over his shoulder. "And you're likely right, Shadow, she must still be exhausted. I remember when I woke up on the shores of this desolate place. Just making it across the beach alive was enough to wear me out all over again." Once again Tarkleigh turned on his heels and faced me, still crouching with his elbows resting on his knees. His hands dangled like stalactites from a cave ceiling back home.
"Get some more rest, please. You're safe here, I promise. We'll talk again when you are more yourself. There is... a favor I want to ask of you." He stood and walked back to the group.
Favor? What favor? I owed this man nothing. What made him think he could depend on me for a favor? And I was being myself in our interaction, but he had a rather good point... I was still exhausted as well. Wearily, I watched them all congregate at some sort of wooden chest and they were joined by a tall, skinny blond woman in tattered red and white clothing.
My eyelids grew heavy as they opened the top of the chest and the girl began to rummage through it. I was curious as to what they would remove from the container, but I did not have the will to fight against my need for sleep. I slouched my body further against the wall and allowed myself to repose.
Author's Note: Slow-ish chapter, I know, but I needed it to be. Also, believe me I know how cheap it seems to have a shadow-character named "Shadow", but I have a neat little story planned for the nickname.