Elena waited with bated breath, her heart racing as she prepared herself to step outside. A drop of sweat rolled down her forehead and down her eye, forcing her to blink. A line was forming outside outside to petition her with their queries and demands.
“Do not worry, Elena. This is the time to seize the world and create a better world.” Androl stood beside her, garbed in the full attire of a guard of Averness, complete with the crest of the triple stalks of wheat.
She hadn’t asked where he’d rustled it up from. Most likely, the townsfolk had handed it over to them. The people seemed to be deathly afraid of him, even more than her.
“I’m not sure about making this announcement. Banishing the non-magic folk and making the town a…refuge for magic people? Wouldn’t this make enemies all over the Empire? WE don’t even know if there are that many people like me. We have enough houses to make this work.”
Androl held her by the arms. “Even without you saying a word we’ve had over fifty magic people come in from around Maray. Can you imagine how many others there are through the land? We need all the space we can get. The more people hear about you and your exploits, they will come seeking shelter. And you can’t turn them away.”
“People are leaving on their own. So many are already gone.” She felt sad. Many of the townsfolk she had grown up with had left. “The Crebains cursed me. They had a mayor in their family a few generations back. They were good people, Androl. And I didn’t even apologise to them.”
“You shouldn’t apologise to anyone. Good people who stand by and watch bad things happen to others are as responsible as the ones who hanged your father. You needed to set an example to everyone that mistreating people because they were different would not be tolerated. And you did.”
Elena nodded. But the town was changing too fast for her to even comprehend. She spent most of her mornings in the town square administering who got which house while Androl took care of putting the non-magic folk to task.
“You will have to be careful though. You will have to test them to see if they have any magic. There won’t be any shortage of vagabonds trying to find a free house and land.” Androl warned her.
Elena sighed. “But I still feel like I’m taking away everything from them. I was angry at them for not saving my father but many of them couldn’t have really done anything. And the deaths my gems caused… well, I can’t blame them for being scared.”
“But you can’t justify what they did to me, either. My own parents.” A girl in a blue dress descended down the stairs.
The girl cut her off. “You saved me, Elena. You’re my hero. You’re the hope people like us have. I would have been stuck in the basement of my own house forever.”
Elena admired how the demure girl had begun to grow in confidence. “No, Catlia, you wouldn’t have. You would have eventually melted the walls. As you should have. I still cannot believe any parents would keep their daughter captive for so long.” Anger made her bristle. Catlia’s parents had known about her abilities since her birth but had never approved. Elena still couldn’t believe that in Maray itself, a mother had kept a child aloof from the townsfolk and her father had apparently suggested killing her and had once tried to sell her off to flesh-traders.
She’s right. I need to help them out. Give them shelter. Give them what little guidance I have. She turned back to Androl. “But it’s their homes and livelihood we are putting at stake. Are you sure they won’t protest? I’ve improved but I don’t think I can take down so many people at once.”
Androl’s smile brought a shudder to Elena. It seemed warm and malicious at the same time. “You underestimate the hold of fear in people’s hearts. The normal folk…” he pointed out the window, “are terrified of you. You know you can’t take all of them on. They don’t know that. The moment you went to the town square that day and burnt down that house, they cower at the very thought of you. Which has proved very beneficial, I may add.”
Elena squirmed at the memory. “That was an accident. I didn’t know there was a green tourmaline in there. I was just burning the haystacks you set up.”
“It worked wonders, Elena. They saw your true power. Now, people obey your commands. Some even believe that speaking against you is taboo and that you can hear everything and will smite them.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Elena almost smiled.
“Are you ready, Empress?” Androl asked, opening the door.
Elena stepped out into the pleasant sun. A table had been set up for her and men and women waited for her in a long line. Cheers went up for her as she approached them. She blushed with pride. The love and admiration from the magic-folk did make her feel powerful.
Hard and unsolvable problems were put before her. She wondered how her father ever managed. The worst was when a ten-year old mischievous boy from the town, approached her and requested to be let into her service, in hopes that she would spare their families from the ignominy of displacement. Her heart bled to refuse the boy, but allowing any leeway would set a dangerous example.
The next few hours were even more tiring. She had to allocate housing for two magic folk, one of whom was a leather-worker without a family. She put him up with two other men in a small house which had been a workshop, such that they could work on their craft. But people rarely liked to share housing and she knew she would get complaints in the next few days.
“The Dunlow family gets the house third from the windmills. You can pick up your supplies from the grocer’s shop.” Elena announced, even though only the three members of the family stood before her. It somehow, seemed proper to her. “Horst Dunlow, you can report to Lord Androl for duty allocation tomorrow, once you’re settled in. Lucienne….” she smiled at the brunette mother holding her three year old daughter. “See me this evening at my house. We have lots to discuss.”
A polished black carriage with red curtains drawn by jet black stallions trundled into the lane. Elena looked up to see four men step out. Elena waved away the Dunlow family, who curtsied and scurried away.
From what she could tell, the man with a dark blue cloak and gold rings on all his fingers commanded the other three.
“So, this is the place, eh? A bit shabby, but it’ll do as a start, I guess,” he spoke to his men, looking around. Two of his servants had heavy builds and towered around him. The third was lanky, with long black hair, which covered the left side of his face, his only visible eye, shifty.
“Welcome to Maray, travellers,” Elena strode up to them.
The leader ran his fingers through his chestnut brown hair. “This is the village that’s gathering magic, eh?”
Elena stiffened. “We are not gathering magic. We are providing a safe haven for all those who have magic and have been or are in the danger of persecution.”
The leader chortled. “Maybe the weaklings before this were. Now that I am here, I will build an empire of magic. Now go call whoever’s running this little gig of yours. I have things to discuss and some new rules to enforce.”
Elena narrowed her eyes. “You’re looking at her. I am Elena, Empress of the magical haven of Maray.” She pulled herself straight with all the confidence she could muster.
She’d expected the leader and his men to laugh given her crumpled dress and unwashed appearance. But the leader raised an eyebrow and only uttered, “You? Very well, Elena. How many generations have you had magic for?”
Elena stuttered. “Wh..what?”
A sly smile broke out on the narrow face of the leader. “Ah! So a first generation. And you don’t even know magic has been around for over a century. I am Neptius Jorrvask, son of Lord Septius Jorrvask, the wealthiest trader in all of the Throdden Empire and a fourth-generation Jaduaar. Oh, pardon me, you don’t know what that means. In our tongue, it means people of perfection.”
Elena gave an inaudible gasp. Her head spun. Magic has been around for that long? But she regained her composure. The Jorrvask’s had been the one who provided Dirma with the rarest of stones. “If you had magic for so long, why didn’t you come forward before? You could have saved so many lives.”
“Come forward? Why? We did well enough to rise from mere farmers with an arpent of land to being the house in line to topple the Ivarsteads from the rule of Dranyana. And you know the funny bit? We owned that land here in this very village.”
“If you’ve already done so well, why come here? Like I said, Maray is a haven for those the needy. Not for braggadocios like you.”
“You’ve got quite a mouth on you. But since you’ve deigned yourself the Empress of Maray, you’ll understand me. I think my father’s short-sighted to look for only Windkash, when the entire land is ripe for the taking. And the more magic wielders I have by my side, the easier it is going to be to crush all the states, even the Throddens.” Neptius took a couple of steps forward and snarled. “Now, be a good little girl and show me to the most expensive house in this rag-tag village of yours.”
Elena felt the sapphire around her neck grow warm. She breathed in deep. I cannot let my anger control me.
“Neptius, if you wish to reside in Maray, you will do so by my rules. You may have had magic for a long time, although, you’ve still to show a shred of it.”
“Listen, girl. I’m not here to answer to the likes of you. You want a display of my power?” Neptius roared.
Elena felt her hands being pulled apart and her eyes widened as they stretched to her sides. She could feel her arms but they seemed to be held by some invisible force.
“I can make you dance like a wooden puppet. Maybe I should.” Neptius sneered. His lackeys stood behind him with grim expressions while the two black stallions stamped their feet and neighed.
“Let’s see you try,” shrieked Elena and let her rage take over. Neptius doubled over and coughed up blood.
Elena felt the force on her hands lessen but it did not vanish. This is a new kind of magic! Elena reprimanded herself. Now wasn’t the time to marvel over that.
The sapphire grew hotter as Neptius dropped to his knees. Elena felt an exhilarating surge through her veins, as her skin tingled with power.
The heavy-set servants rushed to their master’s aid, picking him up.
“She’s a gemmer!” cried the third lanky servant.
Elena immediately felt immense pressure on her throat as if a rolling pin had smashed against it. She clutched at her throat as her breath was cut off. Neptius rose to his feet. Elena felt her eyes water and strain, as she clawed at her throat.
“Channel with me, men. She can’t use her gems if she can’t concentrate.”
Elena felt her throat being crushed and darkness enveloped her. Her eyes flitted as she fought to remain conscious. Then, the force was gone. Elena fell to her knees, coughing and wheezing. Her head spun and splotches of colours danced before her eyes.
She felt a gust of wind sweep past her and even as she looked up, one of the servants collapsed in front of her, a knife stuck to his throat. Another bout of coughing caught her as Androl darted past her with a sword and slashed at Neptius’ neck, who stopped the blow in mid-air a few inches away.
“Empress, get up. You have to beat them. I will aid in your power.”
Elena looked up. A freckled teen girl she’d taken in a couple of days ago helped her up. “Adaline?”
“I can boost your power. I have doused theirs but I cannot extinguish them. You must attack.”
But all other gems are in the house. How do I get to them? Androl’s sword swung back towards him as he flung himself to the ground to avoid the blow.
Elena concentrated on the sapphire again. An enormous surge washed through her body, the like of which she hadn’t felt. A chill went up from her toes and up her spine.
The sapphire singed her neck as Neptius’ body collapsed unto itself, folding like the insides had been eaten away. Even as his body fell in a bloody mess of bones and flesh, Elena saw a glint of steel through the air as Androl lopped off the head of the other guard.
Elena turned her attention to the third lanky man, who’d keeled over and was scrambling back towards the carriage.
“No, Elena. Don’t kill him.” Androl raised a gloved hand, the other holding the sword dripping with blood.
“Let him leave.” Androl walked up to the scampering man and hauled him up. “You speak about this to anyone, I’ll have you hunted down. Now go.”
“What are you doing, Androl? Why did you let him go? He works for the Jorrvasks. And I just killed his son. They’ll bring an army and they know about magic.”
Androl gave her the stare she hated. But she knew it meant he knew what he was doing.
Elena simmered, as the man, his skin pale with fear, unhitched a stallion from the carriage and rode off.
Androl turned towards her. “Are you okay, Elena?”
“Yes, I’m fine. But why did you let him go?”
Androl walked past her. “Thank you, young one. You saved the Empress.” He held out his hand to the girl standing behind.
Elena blushed in shame. “I’m so…sorry Adaline. I should’ve thanked you before.” She ran up and hugged the girl.
“I’m glad I could help you, Empress. I would never see any harm come to you.” The teenager smiled.
“But what did you do? I thought your abilities were restricted to understanding how a person felt.”
“No….I…I was scared, so I didn’t tell you everything. And especially after my village branded me and threw me out, I wasn’t sure that I should be open about them. I’m sorry.”
Elena pulled the girl into a hug again. “You saved my life and maybe a lifetime of tyranny for everyone else. And wanting to hide your abilities is natural after what those monsters did to you. But you needn’t hide it here. Here, in Maray, you can be yourself.”
Adaline nodded, tears trickling out of her eyes.
Elena turned to Androl, still holding the girl in an embrace. “I thank you too, Androl. You’ve saved me again.”
Androl grunted. “That leech will never go back to Septius because he values his own life. I’ve known the Jorrvasks for a long time. Septius will be glad one of his sons has died and he’ll suspect one of Neptius’ brothers did it.”
Elena blanched. “Why would they kill their own brother?”
“Because only one can succeed their father. That’s how their family works.”
“But that still doesn’t explain why you let the man go. I haven’t seen you deal out mercy to such people.”
Androl grinned. “The more word spreads about your prowess, the less we have to worry about attacks and challenges like these. And that reminds me, we better organize a personal guard for you now, Empress.”
Elena gave a scowl. I guess there isn’t any option. She thought as she stared at the lifeless lump of Neptius.
The ship heaved and turned with the rising waves. They had an advantage over the smaller bandit boats in the choppy waters but the bandit rowmen proved to be equal to the task, making their way steadily towards the Morning Tide.
“There are too many of them, Tarvus,” shouted the main gunner, over the crash of the raging sea. “We cannot afford to waste our ammunition firing at them. In this kind of weather, we can only hope to hit them by chance, not by aim.”
Darius nodded. They had damaged two of the boats enough to make them slow down from the chase. But the single cannon in the stern meant that in doing so, they’d also spent a quarter of their stock of cannonballs and powder.
The bandits had always been a minor irritant, but had never tangled with the Throddens directly. But now, they kept up the pursuit in spite of the royal flag.
Darius agreed with the gunner’s assessment. There was no way they could target the small boats from this far and if they waited for them to come within range, they would not be able to take down all their pursuers.
While the Morning Tide had a fair few capable of handling swords, they hadn’t been equipped for battle. It’d only been Tarvus’ caution which had ensured they had enough ammunition to man all the cannons. They couldn’t afford to be boarded. And the captain had left him in charge of manning the gunner’s deck, while he navigated the ship to keep their nose ahead.
Darius headed up to the Captain, through the lurching. “Tarvus, what are we doing?.”
“I’m not letting them board this ship while I live. We have to outrun them.”
“That isn’t working, Tarvus. Something is driving them. They don’t look like giving up.”
“Well, neither am I.” Mad fury burned in Tarvus’ eyes.
The ship really means a lot to him. “Listen to me, Tarvus. I’m not going to let the ship be taken over by bandits either. But I have an idea that might cripple them and give us the time to put distance between us.”
Tarvus gave him a deep and penetrating stare. “What do we do?”
Darius’ lip curved to the left. “How much oil are we carrying?”
“Huh? Why in Sucellok’s beard do you need oil?”
“Because oil is the one thing that can keep the powder from getting wet. We douse the powder in oil and leave a trail behind us. Once the bandit ships come in range, we set it aflame.”
Tarvus opened his mouth and then pursed it with a frown. Darius was taken aback as the Captain broke out in a guffaw.
“I never thought that reading books would be so useful in naval combat. Taking a centuries old tactic and using it in this age? Brilliant, Darius.
Darius returned a nonplussed look. “What in blazes are you talking about?”
Tarvus turned to his men and shouted orders to fetch all the caskets of gunpowder and fetch any oil they could get their hands on, including the sunflower and olive oils rationed for cooking. “Oh come, don’t tell me you didn’t borrow this from the sea fires used in Second War by Hardim himself.” Tarvus spun the wheel hard to the right.
“Hardim came up with this? How can that be?” Darius caught his balance from the sudden lurch.
Tarvus raised a brow. “You didn’t know? Of course, gunpowder hadn’t come around then, but he used saltpeter doused in oil and sprayed the coastlines with his ships and set them aflame. The Halan defence had to fall back and by the time they reorganized, the Throdden forces landed and swept through them.”
“That is amazing.” Darius exclaimed.
Within minutes the deck filled up with twenty odd caskets of gunpowder and barrels of oil.
“Leave two caskets in the gunner’s deck. I want to have a few shots left. Douse the others in the oil. And I’ll skin you alive if anybody spills the oil or the powder.” Tarvus then turned the men manning the sails and the rigs. “Once these are ready, we slow down to let the bandits come within half a league before we spread the gunpowder. And then raise the sails.” The Captain handed over the wheel to another sailor. “If you didn’t read about it, then I’m guessing battle stratagems run in the Throdden blood.”
“Guess we are going to be stuck with bland food for a while,” quipped Tarvus.
“I can cook without oil. Get us out of this mess first.”
“Call up Yargo and tell him to have his men ready with oars. Once the call goes up, tell them to row with all they’ve got. I don’t intend to get my ship licked by those flames.” Tarvus shouted to another of his men.
Darius looked on with pride at the precision of the crew. The training and trust provided by Tarvus shone through. He is one of the finest seamen the Throddens have.
Tarvus looked at him, frowns creasing over his anger. “Let’s hope we can repeat history.”