The Bargain

Chapter 16

Eira watched as her hand reached for the door handle. The scrapes on her arms from when the bandits attacked at the tavern were still visible. That had been three days ago. She shrugged. She knocked hesitantly, not wanting to disturb Ina if she was busy with something. Almost immediately, the door opened. Eira saw her friend’s face light up with excitement when she saw her. She hugged Gwaine’s sister tightly, and Eira smiled and closed her eyes, trying to relax in her friend’s comforting arms. Ina let go and instantly started speaking, ‘’Isaac told me that you had found a boy hiding in the castle.’’ Eira nodded, opening her mouth but not quite knowing what to say. ‘’Well, he needs help. I offered to take him back to Camelot when we leave-’’ she started.

‘’Tomorrow,’’ Ina said, and Eira could detect sadness in her voice. She put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. ‘’Please, I don’t want to talk about that...I’m nervous as it is,’’ Eira explained.

‘’Well then what do you want to discuss?’’ Ina said and looked down, lowering her voice.

‘’Your baby!’’ Eira said and smiled enthusiastically, trying to cheer Ina up. Ina smiled and sighed, placing her hand on her stomach. The bump was barely visible, but it was there.

‘’Are you planning to have it here in Caerleon?’’ Eira asked carefully.

‘’I think so. I will talk to my mother about that because I think she wants to stay here. And I have to stay here for Isaac,’’ Ina explained.

‘’But you would rather go somewhere else?’’ Eira asked, understanding Ina’s thoughts.

‘’Yes, you know I hate to admit it but I think I’ve been infected with Gwaine’s adventurous side. Part of me wants to just have a fresh start, away from the bandits. Just me and Isaac and the baby,’’ she said, drumming her fingers against her stomach as she thought.

‘’The bandits are locked up. Either they will be executed...or I guess they will stay in the dungeons for a while,’’ Eira said, and she almost felt fear return to the pit of her stomach.

Ina shivered at her words. ‘’I don’t want to think about the fact that they are just a few floors down.’’ She returned to her topic and took a deep breath, ’‘I’m going to stay here.’’

Eira nodded. Ina rubbed her hands together and looked into Eira’s eyes.

‘’Are you and Gwaine ever going to?’’ she said and nodded at her stomach.

Eira opened her mouth and tried to say something, ‘’Honestly, I don’t know. Someday we will, but I don’t think any of us are ready yet.’’

Ina nodded, staring out in front of her, ‘’Do you ever think about things like that?’’

Eira sighed, ‘’A lot actually. I know he doesn’t,’’ she said and almost scoffed.

‘’Where is he now?’’ Ina asked.

‘’Probably having lunch with the knights, Merlin and Areisius,’’ Eira replied and shrugged her shoulders.

‘’Interesting name,’’ Ina said and furrowed her brow. Eira looked at her for any hints of what she was trying to imply, but Ina didn’t return her gaze.

‘’Where is Isaac?’’ Eira asked instead.

‘’Probably in a meeting with the queen,’’ Ina said and raised her eyebrows.

Eira closed her eyes and bit her lip, ‘’I still can’t believe that we’re leaving tomorrow.’’

‘’Do you have to leave?’’ Ina asked her with a despairing look.

Eira sighed sadly and took her friend into her arms once again. When she let go, there were almost tears in her friend’s eyes. ‘’I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want to be alone, Eira,’’ Ina said and her lips trembled. Eira understood how lonely she was. Isaac seemed to work a lot, and Ina didn’t really seem to have any friends in Caerleon.

‘’You will be fine. I can just see it in front of me. You and Isaac holding a healthy and happy baby. As soon as you feel ready to, you can come to Camelot,’’ Eira replied smiling, hoping she sounded more sure than she felt.

‘’You’re probably right,’’ Ina said, her face in an expression of hope.

Queen Annis, Ina, and Isaac stood on the steps by the gates. Eira watched as Gwaine sent a last look at the castle, his fingers tracing the blade of the sword he had received from his father. She felt a buried sadness resurface when she met Ina’s tear-filled eyes. Isaac grasped her hand and Ina tried to smile. Her expression brought tears to Eira’s eyes. She would have never imagined having a friend like this.

Eira’s mind went blank and she watched as Gwaine and the knights thanked Queen Annis once again, not having the focus to listen or speak. Merlin looked indifferent, despite casting glances at Eira every few seconds. She furrowed her brow at him and he nodded at Areisius. The boy was standing, watching the castle, his expression so distant she almost had to touch him to see if he was there. Gwaine nodded at her to hurry onto the horse, he obviously wanted to leave as soon as possible. She tried to smile at Ina, who was leaning on Isaac’s shoulder, her hand on her stomach. Eira mounted her horse and made sure Areisius was all right, checking for a nod from him so that they could leave. Gwaine had already mounted, and without a word, rode up to the front with Percival. Eira walked her horse up to Areisius, the three knights and Merlin behind them. They started trotting up the path into the woods, and Eira turned back as the gates closed, looking back once in a while only to see the castle become smaller and smaller. Areisius stared up at the trees and the nature around them, his eyes lost in the green wilderness. Eira smiled to herself, it was probably good for him to be outside, and to be with someone. She turned around and looked at Merlin, her gaze asking him how he felt. He shrugged his shoulders. The day before, she had talked to him about his magic and the fact that Gwaine didn’t know about it. She had tried to help him figure out when it would be a good time to tell him, but none of them had thought of an answer. Eira wasn’t quite sure what Gwaine’s reaction would be because he had never really spoken to Eira about her magic. She wasn’t sure if he wanted to avoid talking about it.

Almost all of the knights were helping Merlin make some food, so Eira decided to go to Merlin into the forest a bit farther away where they could practice their magic.

‘’Are you sure you want to do this?’’ Merlin asked insecurely, unsure of how much he was able to teach her.

‘’I’m sure. I need to get stronger. My magic is mine and I need to learn how to use it properly,’’ she said, determined to improve. Merlin nodded and searched the green around them. He smiled when he spotted a bush with young flowers on it. He guided her hand to a small, fragile bud on the bush they were standing next to. He whispered a few words and after his eyes flashed gold, the bud opened up, the petals of the light pink flower exposing themselves to the sunlight. He smiled and motioned for her to try. ‘’What if I can’t do this? What if my magic only covers healing?’’ she asked, slightly nervous of not being able to repeat his action.

‘’Eira. Healing is growth, and what I just did is growth too,’’ he replied, sending her a certain look. She sighed and nodded, raising her hand up to another bud on the bush, testing where it felt right to place her hand, wanting to feel the precise and perfect distance between the object and her fingers. She slowly opened her mouth and repeated his words, feeling her own eyes light up. The gold faded from the rims of her vision and she saw the bud start to open up, slowly but surely. She sighed with surprise and relief and happiness, smiling at the beautiful flower she had helped, on its way to bloom.

As they rode into the evening of the second day of traveling, Eira felt the usually strong legs of her horse start to drag and move slower, so she dismounted and took the reins in her hand, leading her horse through the forest behind the others, her eyes on Areisius who was in front of her. Suddenly all she could hear was leaves rustling and the sound of branches breaking as the legs of the horse Areisius was on gave way and it released a terrified neigh. Eira saw its eyes fixed in a sharp, petrified stare and a split second later, the last branch broke and the horse battled wildy with its legs before it plunged down into a dark, murky water which lay in a hole in the ground. Eira felt her heart beating and suddenly remembered to breathe. Areisius shouted for help, grasping onto a branch by the edge of the hole and she saw a knight’s powerful arms grab hold of the boy and lift him. Areisius collapsed onto the ground, his hands over his face, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Eira felt something warm slide down her cheeks and realized that she was crying. Gwaine and Percival stood in awe, not able to tear their eyes from the hole into which the horse had just fallen, which had only a few seconds ago been hidden by branches and forest cover. Merlin had his arms around Areisius, trying to comfort him. Eira’s horse pulled on the reins as it tried to retreat backwards but a knight riding behind her took the horse from her when he saw that she couldn’t focus on it. Eira’s legs drove her forward and she halted a few inches from the edge of the hole, staring down into the black liquid which seemed to have an immeasurable depth.

‘’What the hell was that?’’ Percival’s voice broke the silence as he dismounted, his forehead creased, biting his lip.

‘’I’ve seen the power of these things. They echo the screams of their victims,’’ Merlin explained sadly, his eyes rooted on the chasm.

‘’Then why is there no noise?’’ Areisius asked, his curiosity banished by the serious look in Merlin’s eyes.

‘’Because it killed them so quickly they didn’t have a chance to scream. I’ve seen these before too,’’ Gwaine said, the group turning their heads as he spoke. Realization swept its mantle over Eira and she exhaled hesitantly as she turned to Areisius, ‘’You could have died.’’

‘’We all could have died,’’ Gwaine replied and narrowed his eyes slightly, as if he was trying to see her point. ‘’Yes but-’’ Eira stopped. Areisius was her responsibility. What if he had died? Everyone would have blamed her for taking him. She would have blamed herself. What was worse was that the boy would never had seen Camelot and finally felt safe. Merlin helped Areisius to his feet and remained by his side, steadying him. She smiled gratefully at him and he nodded. Percival walked up to the chasm, not quite knowing what to do but then he mounted his horse again, ‘’We need to continue. We need to reach the cave we’re supposed to spend the night in. The Cave of Forgotten Secrets is supposed to be close to it.’’ Gwaine was still on his horse, looking impatient, wanting to continue riding. The knight handed back the reins of Eira’s horse to her and she stroked its neck absentmindedly. Merlin offered his horse to Areisius, and Areisius mounted, his eyes meeting Eira’s for a second. He looked helpless and scared despite her knowing that he didn’t want to look that way. Gwaine was already in the lead, almost trotting. She sighed and shoved the reins of her horse back into the knights’ hands, who was already on his own horse. She marched past Merlin who was leading the horse Areisius was on, and they both stared at her with wide eyes but she ignored them as she passed. When she reached Gwaine she stopped right in front of his horse, forcing him to quickly pull it to a halt. ‘’Eira, what the hell?’’ he said, almost angry. The horses behind stopped too and everyone stared at Eira and Gwaine. ‘’One of the horses just died. Areisius could have died. And all you do is continue! Can’t you ever stop once to listen and understand?’’ she almost shouted, raising her voice with every thought of his careless actions, tears in her eyes.

‘’No, I think you should stop and understand. I am in charge of this journey. If we don’t make it to the cave by nightfall, we will be stuck in the middle of the forest and it will be pitch black. And you won’t be able to see a single thing to complain about! Delay could also mean that someone else reaches the stone and Gwen won’t be very happy then will she?’’ he shot back at her, stopping to breathe.

‘’Now it’s like we’re doing everything for Gwen! Since when was what she wanted so important? We all have responsibilities Gwaine, I’m just trying to fulfill mine!’’ she cried, biting her lip to stop the hot tears from falling from her eyes.

‘’Gwen is in charge of our home! This mission means so much more than duties!’’ he replied, staring into her eyes, his eyes full of pure anger.

‘’Then why is it all you’re focusing on!’’ Eira yelled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

‘’Hey! You two. You’re both talking about wasting time and look what you’re doing now! How about we ride to the cave and you two can figure yourselves out later!’’ Percival interrupted.

Eira stormed back to her horse and the knight released the reins quickly to avoid her rage.

Areisius gave Eira a frightened look and looked down. He probably thought it was his fault. She knew that she couldn’t talk to him and stayed silent as the group started down the hill.

Percival jumped off his horse, drew his sword and started for the opening of the huge cave, followed by the knights. Vines blocked the opening, but Gwaine just sliced them off with a flick of his sword. The bright green ends fell and gathered on the floor. Eira dismounted and watched all of the knights venture into the cave without turning back. Merlin helped Areisius dismount, who seemed like he was still in shock. Eira felt surprised, she thought he would have come to terms with the death of his horse. Areisius helped Merlin unload the packing from the horses, not responding when Merlin asked him how he felt, sitting down on the ground instead. Eira felt something sink in her chest. She tied the horses and moved two logs to the entrance of the cave. ‘’All clear,’’ Percival announced as the knights came back out from the cave. Eira picked up the cut ends of the vines, putting them on the side of one of the logs. ‘’You didn’t have to cut them off,’’ she mumbled as Gwaine came out. He lifted his head slightly and she knew that he had heard, but he didn’t reply. He stuck his sword in the ground and sat down next to Areisius, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘’You know, when someone dies, I always picture a sort of ritual in my head for them. It helps,’’ he said, his voice as soft as a whisper, and tried to look into Areisius’ eyes. Eira paused what she was doing and looked at Gwaine trying to help the boy he had completely ignored a few hours earlier. She couldn’t decide if she believed him. Gwaine felt her eyes on him and met her gaze. She turned around and walked into the cave. The last light that was left in the sky dimly lit the space, which looked cold and empty. One of the knights had already started a fire in the middle of it, which he seemed extraordinarily focused on maintaining after he had seen her enter. Gwaine and Areisius came dragging the two logs so that they were behind the fire, trying to make a place where everyone could sit. Eira felt surrounded and crushed as the rest of the knights entered, so she hurried out of the cave, turned to the right, and started walking. She didn’t care where she was going, she just needed to see something else. Her thoughts hammered through her head, Areisius could have died, he would have never felt safe, it would be all your fault, if only you had let him stay, the horse could have been spared...she squeezed her eyes shut and when she opened them again, tears had filled them. She kept walking, increasing her pace as the intensity of her thoughts sparked. Suddenly she felt someone grab her arm and as she spun around she saw Gwaine’s confused face.

‘’Eira I called your name a dozen times, never once did you turn around!’’ he said, concern in his face.

‘’Maybe I don’t want to talk,’’ she snapped, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse.

Gwaine noticed her tears, ‘’Eira, what’s wrong?’’

‘’I’m fine,’’ she replied, trying to turn away so he wouldn’t see her break down. She tried to force back the tears by biting her lip but they stubbornly pushed forward, rolling down her cheeks with satisfaction.

‘’Listen, I know you. Look at me,’’ he gently put his hand on her cheek. She met his soft, brown eyes. ‘’I’m sorry for everything I said earlier. Calm down and look at yourself Eira, look how strong and determined you’ve become,’’ he said, looking at her with admiration, and smiled. She tried to grasp onto the meaning of his words and realized that he was right; she had changed so much since they left from Camelot.

‘’Yes, but look at what I’ve put myself in...with Areisius and everything,’’ she said quietly.

‘’The Eira I know would never put herself in anything that she couldn’t handle,’’ he said and stroked her cheek.

She found hope in his words, but could think of nothing to say that could express how she felt.

More tears escaped from her eyes, and she leaned into Gwaine and buried her face in his neck, breathing in his scent. They stood there for a few minutes, not moving, as he gently stroked her hair and wrapped his arms around her.

‘’Gwaine?’’ she mumbled and he released her to look at her.

‘’What if...what if I bring him back?’’ Eira said softly, wringing her hands together.

‘’What do you mean?’’ he asked with alarm.

‘’What if I bring Areisius back to Camelot. Just the two of us. Alone,’’ she tried the new word, exploring its utterance, and shivered.

‘’It’s a two day’s ride,’’ he replied, looking down.

‘’When would I get to see you again?’’ she asked, searching for his downcast eyes.

‘’A day after you arrive. Merlin has some clue of where the Helix might be; we’re going to look for it tomorrow,’’ he replied, sounding more sure in his response.

‘’Do you think it’s the right choice?’’ she said, worry and fear the only emotions in her words.

‘’What do you feel, right here?’’ he asked and gently placed his hand where her heart was.

She pressed her lips together and nodded, placing her hand over his. ‘’Come on,’’ he said and kissed her forehead. She planted a kiss on his cheek, brushing his chin. He took her hand and the two walked back to the cave. Eira saw Areisius’ face light up when he saw her, and she smiled warmly at him.

‘’It’s the safest choice for all of us,’’ Gwaine mumbled in her ear, laying on the floor and looking at her as she packed her things. She looked into the forest outside of the cave. It was nearly dawn, and small water drops still stuck to the vines of the opening from the rain during the night. She stuffed some food in her bag and placed it on the floor next to Areisius’. She lay back down next to Gwaine and turned on her side, resting her head on his chest. Soon she could hear his steady heartbeats. ‘’What if I don’t see you again,’’ she asked, anxiety entering her voice after it invaded her thoughts. ‘’Don’t even say that. I promise you I will see you,’’ he said and smiled, letting his lips brush against hers softly. She returned his kiss, realizing that she was aching for the touch of his lips. A few steps away, Areisius stirred and turned around. She saw his eyes open and smiled at him. He yawned as he stretched his arms and looked at them, smiling back at Eira. He got up and checked through his bag to make sure that he had everything. She remembered him hurriedly packing all of his belongings last night after Eira had announced that they were leaving. He slowly walked out of the cave. Gwaine nodded at the place Areisius had just stood in and asked, ‘’Do you know how he feels?’’.

Eira shrugged, shook her head and moved closer to him.

‘’I won’t feel safe until the second we reach the gates of Camelot. The only place I can feel safe in this cave is right here,’’ she said and let her hand trail through his hair.

A while later, everyone was up and the horses were prepared to leave. Eira had stood in Gwaine’s embrace for about ten minutes and was still not ready to move.

‘’Do it for him,’’ he mumbled softly and kissed her hair. She nodded, telling herself that she would not cry in front of everyone. I have to do it for Areisius’ sake. You will see Gwaine in about three days again. Calm down. You can do this. She took a deep breath, trying to store his comforting and familiar scent in her system. She kissed him one last time and drew away, walking towards her horse. He helped her up and made sure that everything was fastened properly. She leaned down and hugged him one last time. ‘’I love you,’’ he whispered and gave her a smile that made her remember all of the moments she had ever spent with him, and why she couldn’t bear to live without him. The image of his smile stuck to her mind and she mouthed ‘And I love you’ before she urged her horse into a walk, Areisius, on Merlin’s horse, riding up next to her.

They had been riding in almost silence for almost an hour, and Eira felt like she needed to talk.

‘’How are you feeling?’’ she gently asked, looking to the left where Areisius was riding.

‘’Fine,’’ he mumbled. He looked uneasy, and kept stroking Merlin’s horse. His fingers treasured the reins like they were gold.

‘’Areisius, you know you can tell me anything. If there’s something you didn’t want to say when maybe Gwaine and the others were around...’’ she said, lowering her voice so that she was almost whispering. Areisius opened his mouth hesitantly, but then closed it, nodding to reassure her, ‘’Nothing’s wrong.’’

In the morning the next day, Eira stared at the castle in the distance from the top of the hill. She could see fire and smoke line the front wall of the castle, probably coming from the city. She looked at Areisius, alarmed.

‘’Eira, what is that?’’ he asked cautiously.

‘’I’m not sure. I think something’s wrong,’’ she replied and swallowed. She remembered Gwen explaining the threats they faced from other kingdoms and even their allies. They knew Camelot was weak.

‘’We still need to get there. We need to help, no matter what’s going on,’’ she concluded, a worried expression in her voice. Areisius nodded and they continued riding.

Strangely enough, the gates leading up to the entrance of the castle were wide open. Eira got a strange feeling, and knew that something wasn’t right. The horses kept trotting, and Eira was unable to decide if she should stop them. The area by the steps was completely empty; no guards, knights or people in sight. She slowly moved her horse into the entrance of the Lower City, looking for any signs of people. Suddenly, four of five guards ran down the steps and charged straight at Eira. They were not wearing the red crest of Camelot, instead they were wearing a strange symbol she didn’t recognize. She froze, unable to move or think, feeling panic overtake her as the guards grabbed her startled horse and pulled her off of it. ‘’Go!’’ she screamed and Areisius’ horse darted back at the gates. One guard threw his sword at the chain restraining the suspended gate, dislatching it, and a heartbeat after Areisius had made it through the gates, they crashed to the ground with a sharp sound. Looking through the bars of the gates, Eira watched Areisius ride up the path and into the forest they had been peacefully riding through just minutes earlier. He didn’t look back. She was suddenly reminded of her own situation as the guard holding her tugged at her, pushing her onto the ground. ‘’Look what we have here,’’ he said, letting the blade of his sword trail her neck. ‘’Where is the queen?’’ she demanded. The guard backed away a bit and laughed, ‘’She no longer controls Camelot.’’ Eira didn’t want to know who did and looked away from him. Suddenly, a brown-haired girl came rushing from a house and grabbed Eira. It was Jetta. ‘’Eira! This way!’’ she yelled and tried to drag Eira with her but before she could, a guard slashed Jetta’s back with his sword, hit her with its handle, and forcefully shoved her to the ground. ‘’No!’’ Eira screamed and she saw the guard smile as she ran to Jetta who was writhing and screaming in pain on the dirt ground. ‘’Shhh, it’s going to be alright,’’ she said and placed her hand on her friend’s back. She tore through the barrier of panic, magic the only thing she could think of; it had become somewhat of an instinct after she had practiced with Merlin. She heard the guards halt in their steps behind her, but she didn’t care if they would see her. Eira let her eyes close and mumbled a healing spell, letting the words drift from her mouth and slowly into Jetta’s body, feeling her eyes light up gold. She opened her eyes and saw the large, deep gash on Jetta’s back start to close. Eira saw Juliana stand in the doorway of the house with a horrified expression on her face, beckoning Eira to move. Before she could, the guards grabbed hold of her again. ‘’It looks like you’ve proven yourself to be useful, witch,’’ he enunciated the last word in a menacing, humiliating way, but Eira didn’t care. Jetta looked at her, terrified and she saw her mumble a ‘no’ despairingly. Eira just shook her head and nodded for her friend to go back to the house, satisfied when Jetta crawled back to Juliana, tears streaming down both of their faces.

At least they were safe.

Eira opened her eyes, seeing the filthy wall of her cell appear before her. She felt the stench of the dungeons and realized where she had been taken. She squeezed her eyes together and swallowed, feeling another wave of sleep overtake her.

She walked through the forest, seeing the entrance of the cave appear before her. She realized that Gwaine must be inside and ran as fast as she could towards the opening. She entered and as she turned her head, she saw that something wasn’t right. On the cold ground lay Percival, his eyes open but motionless. Next to him were the three knights, their expressions twisted in torture. She saw Merlin’s silhouette a few steps away, also motionless. She felt something pushing up from her throat make her retch and as she slowly looked further into the cave, she saw Gwaine’s still body on the ground, the look of fear in his brown eyes visible to her from where she was standing. She tried to run towards him and saw herself grasping his shoulders, shaking him, doing anything to wake him. She felt her gaze drift back and was back in the spot where she had just been standing. Then everything went black.

‘’Gwaine! No! Please!’’ she cried out and her eyes sprung open, adjusting to the dim light of her cell. Tears appeared in her eyes but tired of crying, she dried them as if she was shoving them away from her. It had been a dream. She hoped. No, she corrected herself, it had to be a dream, there was no way she would believe what she had seen.

‘’Eira?’’ she suddenly heard a cracked voice that she couldn’t recognize and after hesitating, she warily crawled towards the dirty, black bars of her cell.

She heard heavy chains being dragged against the floor and weary, slow footsteps drowning on the ground. Sir Leon’s face appeared and she flinched. ‘’It is you!’’ he exclaimed and almost smiled. Both his shirt and his face were filthy and bloody in areas, and his hair lay in messy, tangled knots. He had bruises on his arms and shoulders. Chains were attached to his feet and she saw them trace back to the wall at the end of the hall of the cells. ‘’What happened? Why are you down here?’’ she started, feeling more questions appear in her mind for every second she looked at him. His expression was still startled, and she could see fear and worry in his blue and gray eyes.

‘’It’s nearly nightfall now. I was sleeping when you arrived a few hours ago. They attacked three days ago. A messenger unexpectedly arrived here, claiming that King Aymon wanted to visit the kingdom and that he would arrive in a few days. Gwen barely knew the king existed and welcomed the news of his arrival as a blessing. Even after Geoffrey informed her of the apparently ill-reputed records of him in the archives, she was still a wreck and didn’t know what to do; our enforced defenses were weak. The next day, Camelot was under attack; the messenger had been a fake and King Aymon was in fact a ferocious warlord who knew that Camelot was weak. His name was highly known among the citizens, yet none of them informed us of who he really was. It did not take much for him to seize the kingdom with the help of his magic, and they have been in control ever since. It’s so expected that my feelings consist of nothing but guilt and naivety,’’ he finished sadly, and she could tell that he didn’t have any idea of what to do about the situation.

‘’And why are you down here? Where’s Gwen?’’ she asked, still concerned for what had happened to the rest of the people.

‘’They soon figured out my weakness. Seeing the people suffer every hour of every day is what breaks me, and they knew that. They placed me down here so I can be the closest to the citizens’ misery. They want my consent for the knights to conform to Aymon. I will never surrender, and neither will the others,’’ he replied and then continued. ‘’They imprisoned Gwen elsewhere, I do not know what has happened to her,’’ Leon said and Eira could see how frustrated he was with the way they were all being treated. She didn’t know what to say so she leaned back against the wall of her cell, the rough stone digging into her back but she was starved and tired and found that that was the least of her worries. They heard steps coming from the stairs and Leon scrambled back to his wall.

A young woman walked down the steps, the torch by the lone guard revealing a cloak covering her face. She carried a basket and stopped at the guard sitting by the table Eira could see. ‘’Food for the prisoners,’’ the girl said and the guard motioned towards the cells where Eira was. The woman passed her and threw pieces of bread inside each of the cells until she reached Eira. She then walked back to the guard and took off the hood of her cloak, smiling at him. ‘’Your meal is here too,’’ she said and handed him bread and an apple. To Eira’s surprise, he gently took the food from the woman, letting his hands touch hers for more time than necessary. ‘’Isn’t it tiring, sitting here all night?’’ she asked, swinging lightly and playfully on her feet. The guard welcomed her words and responded, and the two kept talking, Eira confused as to why he didn’t dismiss her. Finally, the serving girl and the guard were inches apart, but when he leaned the slightest bit closer to her face, she drew away, ‘’I must go now,’’ and smiled playfully at him. He slumped back in his chair, watching her as she walked up the stairs. When she reached the top, Eira could’ve sworn that the girl looked back at her.

Eira crawled to the bars of her cell and looked Sir Leon’s way. ‘’Did anyone else hear that? She whispered something in each of our cells,’’ he said cautiously, looking at each of the people in the cells around them. The people whispered amongst themselves, inaudible. ‘’Alright, everyone say what she said in the order she came to you,’’ Eira instructed, encouraging the tired and scared faces around her. The groups sitting in the cells all said their words in order, and Eira listened for the full sentence. ‘’A distracted guard can lose his keys,’’ she said, staring out. Leon went ecstatic all of a sudden, and Eira met his gaze with realization.

The serving girl returned the next night, and Eira met her presence with excitement. Leon nodded at her and she smiled. ‘’Everyone, stuff the bread in your pockets and clothes, we may not get another chance to get food here,’’ Eira said and everyone nodded. Leon smiled nervously, ‘’Let’s hope this works.’’

The serving girl threw the bread pieces in each of the cells and looked into Eira’s eyes a bit longer than she needed to, her face still masked. Eira understood her signal. The girl strolled up to the guard, handing him his food. He quickly engaged in conversation with her and she returned his eagerness with flirtation. Then, she took out a cloth and wiped the guard’s chin with it as he ate, and as she leaned in, the guard preparing to kiss her, she reached into her dress and pulled out a small roll that smoke came out of. The girl covered her nose and mouth with the cloth and after a few seconds, the guard fell unconscious and leaned back in his chair. The girl threw her basket to the ground and hurried to search through the ring of a dozen keys attached to the guard’s belt. She found the right ones and rushed to the cells where they were, unlocking each one. The girl took off her hood and Eira recognized her as Juliana. She nearly cried in relief and hugged Juliana as soon as she had gotten out of her cell. ‘’Thank you. How will we get out?’’ Leon asked, looking towards the still stairs. ‘’There’s a door that leads into the forest, it’s locked however,’’ Juliana replied, looking at Eira desperately. A million ideas clambered through Eira’s mind and she picked out the fastest one. ‘’I need everyone to forget the kingdom’s policy on magic right now. You must be fully honest or this will never work,’’ she started and met every single pair of eyes which looked at her. ‘’Does anyone have magic?’’ she asked, looking around the room. Her words had been like quiet, shy whispers. A few people looked at each other with confusion, and some started to mumble something. ‘’We don’t have much time. This is our only chance to get out,’’ she said nervously, trying to inspire hope in the frightened citizens. One pale, older girl finally stepped forward, ‘’I do,’’ she said and a woman behind her took her hand. ‘’What are you capable of?’’ was Leon’s careful question.

‘’I haven’t had much practice, but I think I can move objects, though only of certain substances, I believe it to be iron.’’

Eira nodded and smiled as a thin man moved to the front. ‘’I can transform materials,’’ he said after clearing his throat.

‘’It’ll do,’’ Eira said, rushed as she heard voices coming from the floor above. ‘’Is this everyone?’’ Juliana asked, motioning to the crowd of people in front of them. ‘’I think so, at least these are the people we can save tonight,’’ Leon replied and Juliana hastened to lead the group through worn hallways and dark places until they reached a door. ‘’Now,’’ Eira asserted and placed her hand on the girl’s back as she moved to the front of the door. Everyone backed away and the girl mumbled something as she placed her hand on the old lock of the door with thick bars through which Eira could see that trees loomed. After a few seconds, the girl repeated the spell, worry in her voice. She turned around, ‘’It doesn’t work!’’ she exclaimed. ‘’Is it of iron?’’ a woman asked and the girl shook her head, ‘’I don’t think so.’’

The skinny man shuffled to the front and placed his hands on the bars, clenching his fists, and voiced an incantation. Soon the bars started to shift as they transitioned into another shade of gray. ‘’Try now,’’ he said and stepped away as the girl repeated her magic. The bars became golden and slowly started to bend, and after a few seconds, a gap large enough for everyone to fit through emerged.

‘’Go now! Find each other in the forest, just get as far away from the castle as possible. Watch out for guards or patrols, go!’’ Eira raised her voice, backed away and people started rushing through the gap, one by one, and as the seconds flew by she saw faint figures running into the shelter of the trees.

When the last of the people had made it out, Leon and Juliana stepped through, but Eira stayed back. ‘’What are you doing? We need to go!’’ Leon asked her, concerned. ‘’Trust me,’’ she said before she ordered a healing incantation on the bars. The bars became golden again and in a few seconds, they had shifted back into their exact original position and form, any difference in their appearance impossible to see. ‘’This is so they won’t understand where we went, and they’ll start looking in the castle instead,’’ she explained. She smiled at what she had achieved before Leon grabbed her arm and the two ran into the forest. She felt adrenaline pulse through her body and allowed her legs to run to their maximum as she sprinted so fast she was surprised she could even continue. Through all of the chaos and stress, she couldn’t help but smile when she thought of their triumph, seeing flashes of smiles in the dark as a proof of her success.

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