Chapter 26 ♕
I fought the urge to close my eyes, even though they felt insanely heavy. I simply couldn’t afford to pass out. I hadn’t even allowed myself to sleep.
I had no choice but to force myself to stay awake. Only that got harder and harder. Especially when the wound in my stomach had started to infect even more.
I looked down at the small puddle of water that had formed at my feet after it had trickled down from the ceiling. I could vaguely make out my own reflection, before the next drop brought wrinkles into the water.
My long hair hung in greasy streaks along my pale face. The clothes I wore had been torn even more by the multiple attempts at escape. I could feel all the muscles in my body protesting with every move and my head felt at least ten times as heavy. I also felt violent bouts of dizziness and nausea.
Anyone who passed my cell and looked inside would think I had been here for months. But in all fairness, I couldn’t say how much time has passed. My sense of that area had failed me long ago. I just couldn’t think straight anymore. My mind was constantly plagued with images of Rowan.
Every thought of Rowan only brought more tears. It was as if the guilt was consuming me. This was exactly why I chose to stay alone for so long. This feeling. The feeling that everything that was wrong about the world was your fault. That consuming feeling. I gritted my teeth when the salt from my tears irritated a wound on my face.
Besides Bethany, Rowan had been the only one in the palace who had treated me with some kindness. And how had I paid him back. At first I had fled, which caused him to incur Alaric’s wrath. And now he was killed through my fault.
I had no hands free to wipe the tears from my face, so I had no choice but to endure the pain while my cheeks began to burn badly. I didn’t want to cry.
Just to think about anything but this, I tried calling out to Caera again. But all I got back was the echoes of my own desperate voice. She had disappeared again shortly after our first meeting. I assumed it was because of the lack of strength from both sides. It didn’t matter how much magic Caera managed to get out of Giselle. It wasn’t nearly enough to get her up to full strength. Until then we were....helpless.
That word reminded me straight away of Alaric. Immediately I felt my throat getting tightened and how something built up in my stomach. And in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to throw out all my frustration and sadness with a scream.
This was like when I was about to leave Alaric after we’d just met. The pain I felt then was like this one. As if the bond between us was so tight that the first tears had already started to appear. As if not much more time for the whole thing to break.
I didn’t want that.
With those words burned into my mind, I finally allowed myself to feel. To give this birzarre situation a chance. I finally allowed it all in. After weeks of doubting, comparing and trying to understand, I finally gave up and just let it happen. Because the only truth that mattered were my feelings for him. I felt the corners of my mouth rise, along with the tears that fell. And that too, let I just happen.
The thought of Alaric going through loss again, lose me, after all he’d been through, made me keep myself together. I buried all the feelings deeper and deeper. I wouldn’t suppress them, but I would wait. Wait until I knew I was safe enough to lower my walls and I knew there was only one place in this whole world where I would allow myself to do that. And that was in his arms.
Somewhere I hated myself for how dependent I had become on him. In the beginning I hadn’t seen it as a bad thing, mainly because I felt that after all this time I should have earned on my own to lean on someone else for a change.
But now that he wasn’t there, I saw how much I had gotten carried away, and that I regretted. The fact that I had made Alaric feel like I was nothing more than just another person on the long list of people to worry about. I wanted to be more than that. And the only way to do that was to get out of this situation.
I was startled by the creaking sound of my cell door opening.
I threw my head aside because the light from the hallway hurt my eyes. When the door closed again and the light had fallen back to its usual brightness, I could see again.
My neck muscles protested at the movement and I suppressed a groan. I shook my head to ease the throbbing pain behind my eyes and then looked at the one who had appeared before me.
The figure was either not Giselle or Nesita. Better said, I had never seen someone less threatening in my life. Before me was a girl. Not only was she small, but also clearly young. At least, that’s what her appearance looked like. But I had learned a thing or two about witches and knew appearances could be deceiving. What couldn’t be deceiving, however, were the chains tied around her ankles and the visible effort it took her to simply move around.
I just watched her intently, while her gaze was strictly fixed on the floor. Her hair looked as if someone had roughly grabbed several strands and attacked it with scissors. She had bruises, scars, and open wounds that needed care. The reason I could see all of this was because all she was wearing was a filthy looking piece of cloth tied around her torso, completely exposing her shoulders, arms and legs.
Finally, I looked at the plate she was holding in her hands. There was food on that plate. I hadn’t had a decent meal since I got here and wanted nothing more than a full stomach. However, I was distracted to see the food on the plate dancing through her trembling hands, as if I were the threat here instead of a chained prisoner.
My gaze slid from the plate to her face. She looked like she hadn’t seen the sun in years and there were deep black circles under her eyes. She seemed to feel that I was looking at her, because her face came painfully slow up. But the moment our eyes met, a shiver ran through her, and she didn’t know how quickly to turn her face away again, nearly dropping the plate of food.
I didn’t know what had happened to her, but I did know that I didn’t want to contribute any more to her trauma. So I was very careful not to let my voice be too loud while I was speaking to her. “Whatever it is they told you about me, I can promise you it’s not true,” I said. My words seemed to get through to her, for her petrified demeanor seemed to soften a little.
Very skittish, almost like an animal used to nothing but neglect and pain, she looked at me from over her shoulder. I gave her a small smile, although I don’t want to know how forced it must have looked due to the lack of how often I had used those muscles lately. It’s not as if there had been much to laugh about. She looked at me, then at the chains around my ankles, then she looked at her own ankles, where her gaze then ended back in mine.
“You’re not treated extremely well here, are you?” I asked her gently, looking pointedly at her ankles.
There was something about her. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I came across this insane need to keep her near me. As if something would go wrong if she would leave and close that door behind her.
The girl opened her mouth and for a moment it seemed as if she wanted to say something. But there was nothing but a cracking sound from her mouth, which she then immediately closed again. She started shaking, as if she expected me to hurt her. Not that I was able to do this with my limbs chained to solid stone walls, but even if they hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me. She looked so defenseless that I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her. But while that may not have been the best idea, there was perhaps something else I could try.
I gently asked her if she might want to get a little closer. I could see she was not in the mood for that, but I could also see that apparently she had not been taught that she could just say no if she wanted to. Instead, it seemed like it didn’t even occur to her to form her own opinion, she just did what I asked her to do right away. And while I felt badly guilty about that, I hoped that what I was about to do might help earn her trust.
She was now so close that I could make out even the tiniest scar on her skin. Her head just reached my shoulder, so that I only now noticed how small she really was. In her face she looked like she was in her late teens, but her size was that of a child.
“Just give me a minute,” I told her and closed my eyes.
I felt the smallest fraction of Caera emerge and it was just enough to make her name come to my mind’s eye. I found myself able to do this after guessing Alaric’s name without ever speaking a word to him. It had been a gamble, but apparently it worked, because a second later I opened my eyes again and gave her the widest smile I had given since arriving here.
“My name is Magnolia” I told her, “it’s nice to meet you, Meira”.
The girl looked straight at me, her eyes wide open. In shock, she dropped the plate of food from her hands, breaking the stone material on the ground and spreading the food all over the place. For a split second I felt disappointment, but I was already starving anyway, so it didn’t matter much.
“It’s been a long time since someone called you by name, hasn’t it,” I read from her expression. She nodded, defeated. “That’s a shame,’ I said, “because it’s a beautiful name”.
Her cheeks seemed less pale for a moment, which I thought must mean she was blushing. I could tell that she was actually a very beautiful girl, except that I had to see through layers of neglect, filth and defeat.
I didn’t dare to consider how long she had been held here. The urge to help her grew in me like a fierce flame. Maybe this was like a second chance. Maybe I could save her where I couldn’t have for Rowan.
I wanted to say something to her again when the door of my cell flew open again. A lot less subtle this time. In fact, it went with such force that the massive door slammed into the wall and sent a vibration through the room, causing pieces of stone to descend on us.
Meira was suddenly beside herself with panic. She looked at me desperately as tears filled her eyes. I read the expression in her eyes and the message was clear. They weren’t here for her.
Three witches, whom I had not seen before, rushed in and suddenly everything went very quickly. Meira was pushed aside, causing her to fall to the ground and cut her arm on one of the shards of the plate. I looked at her to make sure she was okay, but then the chains ripped off my wrists and I collapsed to the ground.
I couldn’t help but cry of pain when I hit the floor hard. I tried my very best to get up, but it was no use. It was as if no muscle in my body wanted to listen to me anymore. I closed my eyes for a moment, and for a moment I wished with all my heart that my mate would burst through them and hold me in his arms. While he would whisper to me that I was safe. That he would take me home.
Unfortunately, reality couldn’t have been more different from his dreams.
I saw feet appear on either side of my body and felt a rough grip on both of my upper arms. I was pulled up, but it immediately became clear that I did not have enough energy to stay upright, so that I immediately collapsed again and was therefore dependent on those witches to keep me afloat. They dug their nails deep into my skin and I groaned.
I heard them laugh and talk to each other in a language I could not understand, after which they lead me out of the cell. As we turned the corner into the dark and deserted corridor, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the last remaining witch kicked Meira in the stomach and she too was dragged after me. I felt a strong fit of anger that they dared to abuse her, but at the same time I was relieved that she too was being taken when we were being taken too.
The witches seemed to want to make a thing out of who could treat me the roughest. Because I was thrown against the wall several times, pulled by my hair and called the most disgusting things. By the time we came to a stop, I was so far gone that I was almost unable to clearly see everything around me. After a few seconds I saw that we were standing in front of a large door. One of the witches pushed me against the other and stepped forward herself, then knocked hard on the door several times.
The doors seemed to fly open on their own and I was met by a crowd of screeching witches. Out of pure instinct, I hastily took a few steps backward to get as far away as possible from that ghastly sound. However, I was immediately grabbed again and dragged along.
Witches tried to lash out at me every step of the way. And if I had thought what those witches had called me out in the hall earlier, it was nothing compared to what these witches called me. The words penetrated so deeply that I could no longer breathe. Suddenly we were in the middle of the room. Only now could I see that we were in a cave. One whose ceiling was so high that the light from the torches on the walls couldn’t reach it.
Apparently we had arrived at the end point, because I was thrown to the ground with a push. The sandy soil caused a cloud of dust to rise around me. Again I was unable to get up on my own. There was so much noise. But how quickly it had come, so quickly it had died away again. It was not difficult to determine the cause of the sudden silence. Again I found feet in my field of vision.
A second later I was forced to my knees. However, I didn’t flinch when I was forced to look up.
Giselle and Nesita looked down on me with so much satisfaction on their faces that I clenched my teeth. “This position suits you, Your Highness,” grinned Giselle. I said nothing. No matter how much hate I felt for the woman in front of me at the time, she was simply not worth the waste of breath. Giselle seemed to want to speak again when a deep growl came to my left.
It penetrated me so deeply that I seemed temporarily petrified, but then I found the strength to move myself again and looked over my shoulder. Chained by all limbs, high up against the wall, hung Rowan.
His face was almost unrecognizable and although he was in a terrible state, his eyes were wide open and he was looking at something directly behind me. I managed to follow his gaze and find out that the person he was looking at was Meira. I had no idea what made him focus on her like that, but when my gaze went back to him I saw what word formed his lips.
I felt it happen. The unmistakable sound of my heart breaking into a thousand pieces. He had a chain of a strange kind of metal around his neck and I could see the blood coming out from under the material. Compared to him, what they had done to me was nothing.
A distant brain cell in my head signaled that Giselle was walking around me, something in her hand reflecting off the torchlight. But it simply didn’t matter.
For the first time in all those days, weeks, whatever may have passed, I couldn’t find myself being strong. So I cried. I cried for the suffering caused to my friend. For the future I had taken from him with his mate. I cried thinking that I would never see Alaric again. That I couldn’t have saved him. Not him, not Rowan, not Meira. I was useless.
“Let this sacrifice be accepted by our ancestors”.
The words seemed to come from afar and did not come in completely. At least not until I felt a twinge of pain on the spot just below my ear. It started off irritating and unpleasant, but soon the pain blazed through my body like a sea of fire. The pain moved from one side of my throat to the other. Then I felt something warm running down my chest and felt like someone had closed a fist around my throat and was squeezing it further and further.
Then it dawned on me.
The sacrifice I had heard the witches talk about so often in the last few days. Which supposedly was to make sure they could keep their magic.
That particular sacrifice had just been made.