~ NOTHING ~
One of the only things I could remember my mother getting angry at me for multiple times as a child was the fact that I had possessed the treacherous habit of biting my fingernails. Whenever I was upset or anxious or sometimes just so bored I didn’t know how to do anything else, my immediate reaction would be to gnaw on what little was left of the ends of my nails. Sometimes I would do it for so long that my cuticles would bleed and cause my mother to rant passionately about how I would give myself an infection if I wasn’t careful, so she’d make me soak my fingertips in salt water no matter how much I hated the sting or how badly it dried out my skin.
Wanting to act more adult and not give her more reasons to stress, I eventually broke the habit after my mother fell ill even though that was the time I had wanted to do it the most. My restless fiddling was the only thing that remained of it, my nervousness always seeming to come through the actions of my hands, and I hadn’t bitten a single fingernail since I was twelve.
At least, I hadn’t until a week of being trapped in a wooden, moving cage had passed and my anxious thoughts got the best of me, causing me to break my six-year record.
By the ninth day of our imprisonment, my nails had been bitten down so much only pink remained that was surrounded by thin frames of dried blood. And since there was no more of my nails left for me to ruin, I resorted to picking at the dirtied, loose bandages around my left hand, the tips of my fingers protesting with an indescribable, stinging pain with every action. But I was too internally numb to care about physical inconveniences. So I sat, pulling and twirling the few ends of cloth that had come loose, and stared at the shivering ball in the corner who I considered to be my greatest and only friend.
Oriana hadn’t stopped crying since we left Amaryllus, letting the wide open fields of nothingness around us, except the occasional trees and bushels, consume her sobs. It was only when exhaustion made her sleep for a handful of hours that the world went a little more silent, and I would focus on the sound of the wagon’s wheels rolling around and around, pulling us farther away from the only things we’d ever loved.
With every rotation, a fresh crunch of dirt would follow, which had noticeably grown farther and fewer between while the crack of the whip on the horse’s behind only became more frequent. The observation had me believing that the horse, who had appeared strong and youthful when I’d first seen it, was tiring from the seemingly never-ending journey. It was perhaps the only living creature outside of the cage that I could muster enough consideration to feel sorry for.
I closed my eyes and sighed, feeling the cloth around my hand snap back and slap my knuckle after I lost grip on it, the distinct smell of horse feces filling the atmosphere for the second time that day. My nose scrunched up and I turned away, pressing my cheek against the hot iron bar and staring up at a dark cloud that promised rain soon.
Even though I rarely turned to the gods for anything, I was desperate and so I prayed to the god of weather, Hanak, that he would bring us a storm with strength—perhaps even one that could wipe us and all our pain away.
Although the thought of being drenched didn’t bring me joy in the slightest, Oriana and I hadn’t been given a single moment to leave the cage to properly use the restroom, and we hadn’t been given a bucket either. Despite our damndest attempts and desperate cries, it hadn’t even been a day before our bodies gave us no other choice and decency between us ceased to exist and in its place resided a mutual humiliation.
I found it hard to look her in the eyes sometimes.
Every time the males stopped to take a piss, they would send us cocky smirks as if the fact they had the ability to dispose of their bodily liquids properly while they prohibited us from doing so was something to be proud of. Even the horse, from what I’d seen before I’d been tossed in the cage, had a bag between its legs.
It was completely degrading, belittling us to something below animals, and they meant for it to be too. They loved it.
I gripped onto a corner that stuck out a bit on the bandages on my hand harder than usual, the fabric in that area noticeably thinner from me stretching it out so much, and yanked hard—So hard that a ripping noise filled the space and I cursed internally at myself when I felt the cloth slacken around my fingers since the action had not only torn the fabric but pulled out a pin as well.
“Great,” I muttered sarcastically to myself.
Oriana stirred but only enough to mumble something incoherently in her sleep and readjust her arm, whose bicep she used as a pillow and whose elbow acted as a shield that hid over half of her face.
Without wasting another second and too exhausted to care, I grabbed the bandages around my fingers and pulled, ripping out the few pins that had been doing their best to keep together the pathetic mess that was left. They were quite thin and easy to bend so they gave way easily and a couple clanked onto the ground, mangled and unable to be used ever again.
When I unwrapped the last of the fabric from around my fingers and fresh air met the hot, sweaty skin on my hand, I breathed out in relief and dropped the three long strips of cloth uncaringly onto the floor of the cage. The only reason I had kept it on for so long was because I was scared of disturbing the wound but now that my hand was able to breathe again, I wished I would’ve taken it off sooner.
Turning my hand over with the intention to assess my wound, my expectant eyes widened and my eyebrows furrowed with confused shock. I brought my hand closer to my face, blinking rapidly because for a moment I thought I was hallucinating. But still, even after a whole minute had passed, my eyes registered the same thing that they had originally: Nothing—no scab or scar or even a hint of redness.
I bent the digits and watched, amazed, when there was no soreness or sign of an injury at all, almost like me slicing the digit on the wall of the tunnels had never happened at all. The only thing truly noticeable was the stiffness in my three fingers’ joints from them not moving for so long but I barely even registered that when I ran the fingertips of my other hand down the strangely smooth and very normal-looking skin.
Stiffness was nothing compared to what I’d experienced in those past few days. If anything, it was a miracle.
It only took a few more seconds of running my fingertips over my skin for my blood to chill with a horrible realization and the fingers of my left hand shot out until they were as straight as possible, their joints protesting heavily at the quickness of the action.
My heart dropped.
My stomach gave a nauseating churn that made it hard to breathe.
I flipped my hand over so my shaking knuckles were facing me and I gripped my wrist in a vice grip, staring down at the bare skin in utter shock and despair.
My rings—my wedding band and engagement ring—were gone.
Julius had stolen my rings.
A lump formed in my throat and I bit my lip watching through blurry vision as the wind caught hold of the bandages and pushed them so they rolled back. My nails dug into the skin on my wrist to mask the pain in my heart with a better one as I watched them enviously slip smoothly between the bars of the cage and land onto the ground. They swayed like waves in a cool breeze, slowly and almost tauntingly, as if they knew that they had gained possession of everything that I wanted in just a few seconds.
I felt so utterly stupid.
The plethora of bandages around all three of my fingers had been placed there not for stability or for my benefit but to cover up the fact that Julius taken those precious items from me, tainting their priceless memories with his greed.
He’d slipped them right out from underneath my nose. And I’d been stupid enough to trust him. Stupid enough to think I could trust anyone.
My lips wobbled and my eyes burned like living flames, the pieces of cloth now only mere blurry dots in the very far away distance.
I turned my face away from the outside world, tilted my head back against an iron bar, and released an anguished cry towards the cloud looming overhead.
* * *
From the numbers of sun rises and falls I’d counted throughout the entirety of the journey, I calculated that it was around fifty-four days of non-stop travel before we finally entered a town. The excursion as a whole was a consistently torturous experience with only a handful of days that it rained and so many times where Oriana and myself had gotten sick that I’d lost count. There was nothing to do but sleep and pray and I hated praying so I slept most of the time and only moved when absolutely necessary, for the most part remaining propped against a wall.
By the time we arrived to the town, it was the dead of spring and the hot and dry weather showed it, my clothes sticking to my skin with sweat and grime and other things I didn’t want to think about.
My throat burned from the limited supply of water we’d been given, with only a couple sips from a flask whenever the males bothered to remember our existence. My stomach was worse and begged for food that I couldn’t provide, grumbling so harshly that sometimes I held back tears because the pain would get so bad. I could detect the effects of my starvation in my arms, my wrists looking weak enough for a small animal to snap in half, and my cheekbones noticeably felt like they stuck out more than they had before.
The town itself was fairly large from what I could see, made up of red brick buildings that loomed over us and the narrow, one-way roads, whose consistent divots and bumps made the whole carriage feel like it was vibrating as it moved forward at a slow pace set by the bustling towns people. They covered the streets equivalent to ants on a rotting piece of fruit, some selling things straight out of their pockets and begging for money while everyone else hurried their steps to walk past, holding their umbrellas up higher to hide their faces and lack of generosity from the light of the sun.
“Help!” Oriana cried shaking the bars, sparkling rivers down both of her ebony cheeks. People sent her looks and sneered at her, eyeing her up and down with nothing but blatant disgust and judgement. Some, mostly women, covered their noses and turned away, coaxing their families to do the same. Even a little boy who looked frail and dirty enough to be homeless himself ran away after crinkling his nose. Only one woman dressed in priestess attire, her clothes all white and her head covered, stopped, held up her palms, and closed her eyes in prayer. “Someone, please! Help us!”
None of them did. There were at least thousands of them that walked past us and not one friendly face was shown. Not one.
I cringed and gritted my teeth. “Oriana!” I barked, watching the said girl flinch at my harsh tone. I felt a pang of regret shoot through my heart like an arrow but it wasn’t enough to stop my tongue or the rage that pulsed through my veins from the people’s behavior. “Sit down and look at them! No one is helping us.” I muttered the last sentence and looked away from her form, whose shoulders visibly curved forward, and greeted the townspeople’s hateful stares with my own.
A boy maybe only a few years older than me and dressed in clothes that belonged to the upper class, the chain of his pocket watch glistening in the daylight, sent an obscene gesture my way that had his group of friends bending over with laughter. I returned it with a sarcastic thin-lipped smile and a silent raise of my middle finger, quickly morphing their chortling into insults that a few months prior would’ve had me crying or at least offended. But instead as I stared at the group, all I felt was raw, unhinged anger.
It wasn’t until that moment, when I saw those boys’ glowers or the way their lips pursed as they booed me, that I realized just how ugly people could be.
Before I could think about their faces any longer, the wagon gave a particularly dramatic jolt to the side that had me releasing an ‘oof’ sound from my butt momentarily lifting off of and then landing back down onto the floor. A long, dark shadow cast itself over us once the wagon straightened itself back out, my tailbone still aching from the uncomfortable experience while Oriana sat like a statue, her eyes wide with fear.
My nose caught whiff of salt and I turned my head slowly around and towards the noise of moving water to notice that we had entered a harbor, which was only slightly less busy than the streets had been. Brick still made up most of it like the rest of the town except for a few slabs of concrete here and there, however, the buildings facing the water were much more colorful with advertisements painted on their sides of the newest inventions, and there were as many birds in the sky as there was air itself.
My eyes widened the more I looked at the many ships that lined the still water, men, boys, and a handful of women loading objects of all sizes onto them in wooden boxes. Even Oriana seemed entranced, her brown eyes gazing almost longingly at the many people who freely got on and off the vessels whenever they pleased.
Finally, we came to a stop and the two males both jumped off of the front of the wagon, the whole vehicle violently moving from side to side and causing the horse to give an annoyed snort. I winced when the clicking of one of their shoe’s neared us while the other walked in the other direction to secure the horse to a hitching rail.
Once he was within an arm’s length of the door, the one male quickly pulled out a familiar key from his front pocket and opened the cage with haste. My eyes instantly flickered down to that strange brand on his arm again, the one with the circle and the star in its middle.
Oriana whimpered and moved to the far back while I remained where I was, sitting upright against the side bars with my head facing forward, despite the male’s glare that burned the side of my face hotter than the sun.
“Get out,” the square-faced male barked at me. It was the first time I ever heard him speak and his voice was uneven as if he hadn’t heard it himself in a very long time. I, of course, acted as if I had gone deaf that morning and the male lacked the patience to give me another chance—or perhaps he knew me well enough to understand giving me one would’ve been pointless. So he didn’t.
One moment I was sitting and the next, my mouth was opening wide to release a scream as the wood burned and stabbed my backside like tiny needles after the male seized the ankle closest to him and used it to drag me out. I landed awkwardly onto the brick road and stumbled forward and almost directly into the male, a hiss escaping from between my teeth when my injured ankle, whose bandages I’d long since gotten rid of, gave a slight twinge of pain that was more uncomfortable than agonizing.
It felt unusual to stand after so long. Even though my entire body was weaker than it had been over a month ago, I could tell that my legs were the ones that had taken most of the blow. I could feel every individual quiver of my muscles in my knees, my balance almost entirely nonexistent, and I couldn’t remember which part of my feet to put pressure on.
The male cuffed my wrists together nor long after my feet hit the brick street and I sent him a glare as he pulled me by the chains, digging my feet into the ground but only slipping and stumbling in the process.
“Fuck you,” I growled out through my teeth, my voice echoing off of the buildings and turning a few heads of sailors or innocent pedestrians strolling by.
I heard the slap before I felt it. The sound of his palm introducing itself to my cheek reverberated off of every surface and pierced through the faint rolls of the waves, the stinging pain erupting suddenly once the disgusting noise dispersed into silence. My cheekbone, which had taken most of the blow, especially pulsed as I gawked at him, stunned as if that was the worst thing he’d done to me within those fifty-four days.
“Shut up,” the male growled, yanking me off to the side so I had no choice but to stumble as his partner came to take his place in front of the open cage door.
A few masculine chuckles could be heard and I sent a glare to every face I could within a few seconds, not knowing whether the noises were directed at me or something between themselves.
I turned my head behind me to see the back of a kind of factory, where smoke was being released by the many tall chimneys on its flat roof, almost all its windows on all three stories open and revealing small shadows of people that hurried by. There was so much smoke being produced from that single building that the entire sky was tinted black, and I stared at the blue bird that perched itself on the edge of a window seal in the shade, its tiny coal-colored eyes staring directly at me.
“Help!” Oriana began again, thrashing like a fish without water as the second male pulled her out with his arm under her armpits and his hands too close to her breasts for comfort. As soon as she was out, he forced chains onto her wrists and closed the cage door, grabbing the key out of the lock with one hand while the other remained on Oriana’s chains to keep her in place. “Please,” she tried again in a pitiful whisper.
As soon as the word left her mouth, a strange male casually strolled around from the front of the wagon as if he’d been waiting there the whole time, eyeing the cage connected to it with narrowed eyes. His large head possessed a triangular-shaped hat that a few strands of dark hair stuck out from underneath, and his fingers were adorned with so many rings that I wondered how he could bend them enough to grip onto the hilt of his sword. When we made eye contact, he straightened his cocked head and sent me a smile, revealing his rotting teeth and the deep lines on his face that showed just how much sun he’d been exposed to in his lifetime.
“Is this the cargo?” the pirate asked in an unusual accent that didn’t sound like it belonged to a particular region, nodding at Oriana and I individually. My nose shriveled in disgust when my eyes noticed his thick beard which held remnants of food and other specks of things I couldn’t describe all scattered in it as if he’d deliberately spaced them out.
Although his face was quite thin, with sunken cheeks and eyes, his stomach underneath his long coat had an unmistakable roundness to it that made his shirt appear to be a tight fit. His boots were perhaps the most elaborate part of his attire, pure black with buckles covering the outside of them that were solely only there for decoration.
“This is them,” the male holding Oriana replied and then tilted his head in my direction. “But she’s the one who bites hardest.” He had the audacity to lift the corners of his lips at that.
The pirate’s brown eyes bounced over to me and slowly moved up and down, assessing my face, my tangled hair that resembled a nest all around my head, and all the way down to my dirt-stained boots. He was the only person that I noticed who didn’t turn his nose up and sneer in disgust at my blatant lack of proper hygiene. Instead, he merely looked back at the males disinterestedly and replied “Well come on, then” and nodded his head to the side, signaling for them to follow. “We’ve waited long enough.”
“No,” I muttered and pulled against my chains again, moving my head subtly from side to side while I bent my knees and tried making myself as heavy as possible. Still, the male had no problem pulling me like a doll to where he wanted me to go, Oriana and the other male trailing us, and my eyes widened when I was forced around the wagon, past the sleeping horse, and in the direction of a ship.
Although it wasn’t the largest in the harbor, the pirate ship stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of the other delivery vessels. It was much longer than it was tall with the figure of a myrmaid at its front, her webbed hands reaching backwards to hug the side of the ship, and the name Lady Sestet painted on the ship’s side near the back. Faintly, I could make out the squares where canons below deck could peek out when needed and I took my time eyeing the white sails that were strapped to the masts by rope as thick as my calves, gulping thickly at the thought of them being open.
Males bustled around all over its deck, carrying crates and checking certain features on the ship to make sure everything was safe, while a few perched themselves on the side of the ship and watched, eating fruit and laughing amongst themselves. One thing I noticed was that their hair was greasy as if it hadn’t been washed in moths except for the few that were bald and they all possessed tight shirts that varied in colors with rips and holes all over them and a few areas where they’d been horribly patched back together.
The entire way to the ship was a fight with both Oriana and myself making sure to give the males hell while the pirate simply led the way without once looking back. But once my feet left the brick ground and touched the flimsy wooden ramp that led to the deck, I tugged on my chains and forced my heels into the ground that much harder, glaring at the back of the pirate and ignoring the waves below us that languidly sloshed back and forth between the end of the harbor and the bottom of the ship.
“Help! Help!" Oriana shouted, sobbing up to the sky. The hushed voice of the male handling her could be faintly heard but I couldn’t make out the unkind words he was telling her. “Please, Mother, please!”
Her cries made my veins pulse and I gritted my teeth until my lower jaw hurt as I made it onto the ship, the slight sway of the ship on the sea making my already weakened legs feel even more unstable.
“Here, take this one,” the pirate who’s led us there told one of his friends who was standing nearby like a guard of some sort, gesturing with his hand to Oriana. The bulky male did as told and grabbed Oriana from the other male, only sending a quick nod. “I’ll take care of this one,” I then heard him grumble and in between the few seconds where I was passed from the male to the pirate, I released a cry, one loud enough to make the sea tremble, and brought my foot up to roundhouse kick the pirate with the black boots in the groin.
The other males hollered and whistled, their eyes widening at such an action as the pirate let out a stifled groan and his knees slightly wobbled as he fought the strength of the pain with his own, his shoulders sagging forward. His lips were pulled back and revealed his gritted teeth, whose deep yellow-tint added to the overall ugliness of his glare.
In my quick scan of the crowd, one pirate in particular caught my eye, his bright eyes glistening with amusement and an emotion close to being impressed as he leaned against one of the main masts. Even though he only had one arm with his one sleeve tied off at his shoulder, he screamed of mischief and everything I knew I should’ve done my best to avoid. With the amount of energy his eyes alone possessed, I didn’t doubt for a second that he could’ve taken over the entire ship if he so wished it. Perhaps even the entire continent.
“You bitch!” the pirate sputtered after recovering slightly from my attack and lunged at me at a speed quicker than what I could respond to. He fisted my hair in his large hand and yanked it downward in a single, relentless tug. I cried out towards the sky at the unusual pain and repeated the sound for the second time when he shoved me with his brute strength to the ground, the chains around my wrists clinging against the floor as each one mercilessly landed.
There were more hoots and shouts, none cheering him on but none cheering me on either. They weren’t encouraging either of us because I realized that these males didn’t want to watch a victory. They wanted to watch a fight.
The only people who remained silent throughout the ordeal were the males who had brought us there. They stood at the entrance of the ship, blocking it, and stared unimpressed in my direction with their arms crossed over their shoulders. I could feel their magic waiting beneath the surfaces of their skin, prowling like a predator hiding behind tall grass that was waiting for the right moment to pounce.
“Cut off her ear, Captain! Maybe then she’ll listen,” a male nearby suggested, his words slurred. From the beer bottle in his hand, it didn’t take long to figure out why he sounded so strange.
A few laughed at that remark while others hissed at the drunkard to shut his mouth.
What a weird group of people, I managed to think while I awkwardly sat up, placing my bound hands in my lap, and glared up at the pirate captain with as much hatred as I could muster. My shoulder pulsed from hitting the unforgiving wood so hard in my fall, sweat covered my skin from the unbearable heat of the day, and I could feel my veins thrumming with a familiar energy—no, magic—as my animosity grew for the males all around me.
“Who the hell are you?” I spat, the whole ship going deathly silent as if I’d just spoken the single most treacherous sentence in the entire universe. Even Oriana didn’t dare to make a noise, too stunned to do anything but watch from her spot, wide-eyed and mouth agape, next to the muscular pirate she’d been handed off to. “Where are you taking us?”
With that, the pirate captain rolled his eyes and looked around at his men, a decision visibly being made right in front of us as he scanned every face present. Once he found what he was searching for, he lifted his foot, the buckles of his knee-high boot glistening in the glittering sunlight, and cut short the string of curses on my tongue when he brought down the sharp heel of his boot onto my temple.
A gush of blood ran down the side of my face in a large wave and my ears rang from the brutal force of it, my whole head feeling like it’d been smashed between two rocks.
“Stop!” I heard Oriana shout as I fell backward, a cracking sound reverberating throughout my skull as the back of my head slammed onto the floor of the deck.
My back arched and I gasped as I writhed in pain, my whole body suddenly feeling as if it was consumed in pure agony. Wide eyes dazedly wandered over to the black-tinted sky full of loud, white birds that glided on the wind with their outstretched wings. They made me think of Henrik and a hot tear slipped from my eye and down my cheek, knowing that I didn’t have to be inside the Cursed Kingdom for Henrik to haunt me forever. Everything would always remind me of him—my sufferings and my greatest desires—everything.
And how I wished he was there, if not to protect me then to at least see how truly pathetic I was.
Oriana gave another shrill cry, begging the captain to leave me alone while the clanks of his boots against the wooden floor became louder as he neared me, only stopping when he stood next to my head and his form blocked the sun from my eyes.
He knelt down and grabbed me by my hair again, my head lulling to the side and eyes rolling upwards as my consciousness began to slip. I could barely register the pain anymore when he lifted my head up by my hair while he leaned forward. “Who am I?” he whispered in his strange accent, lips brushing my cheek and puffs of breath hot against my skin. If I had the strength, I would’ve cringed away. But instead I was left staring half-consciously at the wooden floors of the ship, the muscles in my face as slack as if I was already dead, and imagined for a few seconds I was staring at marble ones instead. “I’m your friend, Your Majesty.” My eyes flickered over to his as another tear escaped my swollen eyelids. “And I’m taking you to where you need to be.”
With that, the pirate released my hair and my head clunked back to the ground like dead weight, my eyelids fluttering open and closed as I fought to stay conscious. But just like my struggles had been like with the males and their iron bars and chains, my fight wasn’t enough and I helplessly felt myself slipping farther and farther away until the sounds around me began to merge and fade into pure silence.
There was a point where I realized that I couldn’t tell where I began and where I ended anymore and for a moment, the thought that I was dying rang through my head and I faintly felt my mark pulse before it went still with the rest of my body.
Through my blurry vision, I could faintly identify the silhouette of a person much leaner than the captain reaching down as if to grab me. But the darkness was quicker and the last thing I heard was the beginning of a scream.
And then nothing.
To be continued...
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Official-ish Final Word Count: ~195,000.