Nora shuffled nervously as she sat in the wobbly chair she’d been deposited but mere moments ago. Her face contorted in confusion as she looked up at the newcomer that had entered into the small space of the room. Squinting against the dim lighting she struggled to make out the person’s features. Nora inhaled sharply as the throbbing sensation in her head seemed to take a turn for the worst.
Migraines had become a common occurrence for Nora in recent months. After an unexpected bout of loss of visual clarity, the strain on her eyes left her with dizzying headaches. She suspected this was probably the result of head trauma, as it was possible that at some point during her captivity, she’d taken a hit to the head and her vision ultimately took the brunt of it. Thus, constantly overworking her eyes, more often than not, left Nora with one hell of a headache.
Blinking rapidly as the figure of the newly arrived guest made its way towards her, Nora was finally able to make out the countenance of a woman. Nora tensed and knit her eyebrows together as she raised her eyes to meet the woman’s gaze. The woman in question faltered as she regarded Nora with an unreadable expression. Her eyes swept over Nora with alarm and it seemed like Nora’s visitor had only been in the room for half of a second before she practically flew out the door with Anlyra in tow after firing a few words in her direction. The door slammed shut behind them leaving a bemused Nora in a state of puzzlement.
Nora’s questioning gaze redirected towards the only other occupant in the room, who stiffened and averted his eyes in discomfiture in response. Moments passed before the two women who’d abruptly exited the room re-entered. Nora sat patiently with her hands clenched over one another beneath the table.
“Ahem,” Anlyra cleared her throat in a cringe-worthy attempt to break the silence that reigned in the small room, “No-rah I’d like to introduce you to Lady Saeksinh. She is currently an active member of the High Council.”
The incessant bouncing of Nora’s leg beneath the table paused for a brief moment, as she stopped to shoot Anylra a dubious look that was not missed by the person in question.
“Davra is also my kin. That is to say... Lady Saeksinh is my second cousin,” Anylra added hurriedly, choosing her words carefully in hopes that the meaning of her words would reach the girl.
Nora eyed the tall woman that stood beside Anlyra skeptically. Much of Anlyra’s words had been lost on her, but the word ‘cousin,’ had stood out. The imposing woman had been studying Nora with close scrutiny, giving Nora the impression that the woman was examining her as one would a rare specimen. The feeling was unsettling. It did not help that the newcomer’s first impression had not been well received by Nora. If anything the woman’s reaction to Nora had only served to make her wary of her presence. Nora’s eyes darted to Anlyra, grudgingly dipping her head in response.
Anlyra took one look at the reluctance in Nora’s face and aimed a beseeching look at her cousin in her desperation. Davra glanced in her cousin’s direction and sighed inwardly as she took in the healer’s panicky expression. Forcing a pinched smile on her face, she pulled out the only other available seat at the table and lowered herself onto the rickety chair. Placing both hands face up on the table in a non-threatening gesture, Davra leveled the female before her with what she hoped resembled an amiable look.
Nora took note of the woman’s motion and recognized it as a gesture — her once companion — Nani, had often displayed in her presence in the past. She knew it to be a sign of peace. Allowing herself to brave a look into the woman’s eyes, Nora forced herself to relax into a more decorous disposition, in order to give the appearance of receptiveness towards her act of cordiality.
Davra was pleased with herself, as she observed the girl’s reaction to her actions. Though she knew it to be important for the girl to feel safe in her presence, her impatience finally won out and she addressed her without reserve, “Child, where are you from?”
Davra’s words were met with silence. Believing her words to have been lost in translation, she attempted to rephrase her question only to be interrupted shortly by the rasp-like sound of a female’s voice.
“I am from... another place,” the young girl struggled to form the words that she wanted to say, causing Davra’s expression to soften at the girl’s apparent exertion in her endeavor to convey what she wished to say in her broken speech pattern.
“Home is far away. H-home is…” the girl’s unused voice stressed, her fragmented Layri slipping into English in her discernable distress, “... on earth. I am from earth.”
Davra stiffened at the girl’s unexpected response. Her expression hardened as she now regarded the female before her with an unreadable expression.
“You mean to claim that you are human?” Davra switched languages with easing, stunning the girl into silence.
“Y-yes!” the young female’s eyes widened, a strong wave of relief washing over her face. “I’m from California. Six months ago I was abducted and—”
“Stop,” Davra interrupted the girl’s ramblings, raising a trembling hand as she tried to wrap her head around the current situation, her face having leached of all color. She pushed up off of the table and switching back to Layri, Davra barked at the official that’d been making himself scarce in the corner of the room, “You! Have word sent out to the Northern and Eastern continent members of the High Council that there is to be a meeting in the abandoned wing of the temple by the tenth hour of tomorrow morning.”
“Right away your grace.” He straightened up and nodded rapidly in reply upon sight of the fierce expression on her face. He quickly began making his way towards the exit, only to be yanked back halfway by the noblewoman.
“This should go without saying...” Davra fixed him with a cold look, digging her nails into his arm in warning to emphasize her point. “But I expect you to exercise discretion in this request.”
“Yes, my lady.” He grimaced and lowered his head in veneration.
“Then, you may take your leave,” she dismissed him.
The next morning Nora stood before a large pair of double doors in bafflement. After the strange interactions she’d been subject to the previous day, Nora had been herded into an empty room to stay for the night, where she’d been locked in without so much as a word or an explanation as to why. Though she’d initially worried as to whether she’d done or said something offensive to Anlyra’s cousin, she did not think she’d acted in any way that would warrant immediate confinement.
Did the woman perhaps discount her as a liar? Or even worse, did they think she was unhinged? If that were to be the case, then it would certainly explain why they’d chosen to lock her up for the night. If they thought her to be off her rocker, then they wouldn’t waste their time listening to the mad ravings of a crackpot.
But none of that explained why a flock of strange women had charged into her room in the early hours of the morning to drag her out of bed and strip her naked. Never before had Nora felt so mortified and simultaneously confused in her life. To make matters worse, the elder female who’d led the group of rampaging women had had no inhibitions in dragging in a tub filled with water and dumping Nora in it — wherein she was then scrubbed thoroughly clean in every nook and cranny, despite her many protests. Afterward, they dressed her up in many layers of fine garments before proceeding to tug mercilessly at the locks attached to her scalp in an attempt to tame her hair into an elegant braid.
Once they’d seemed satisfied with their work, the leading female had wasted no time in shoving Nora out the door and leaving her in the capable hands of Anlyra who’d then assisted her down a network of corridors before they finally stood before a pair of wooden doors. Still supporting most of her weight on the healer, Nora eyed the stoic guards that stood on either side of the entrance. One of the guards met her gaze and narrowed his brows at her, causing Nora to awkwardly shuffle closer to Anlyra.
Most likely sensing the younger female’s reticence, Anlyra pat the back of the Nora’s hand in a comforting gesture before proceeding to push open one of the doors. Nora was then led into a brightly lit room occupied by a multitude of men and women alike, who sat before a long table. To Nora it seemed like the entirety of the room had taken it upon themselves to watch her with rapt attention as Anlyra led her to an empty seat.
Feeling self-conscious under their scrutiny, Nora was suddenly hyper-aware of the limp in her right leg. The mangled state of her leg was something that Nora had lamented greatly during her recuperation. The bone had been shattered at some point in time and had never truly managed to heal properly. Thus the limp in her walk would likely be a sore reminder of her gruesome experience in captivity for the remainder of her days.
Lowering herself onto the cushioned seat, Nora aimed a questioning look to Anlyra who’d taken it upon herself to stand at her side. Catching the expression on Nora’s face, Anlyra simply shook her head slightly and smiled knowingly at her. Taking in her surroundings, Nora counted a grand total of fifteen individuals seated at the table—aside from herself. Nora’s eyes met a familiar face, with which she associated with as belonging to the woman whose acquaintance she’d made just the day prior. Anlyra’s cousin nodded in greeting before speaking in a clear and fluid voice to the others. Nora was unable to keep up with much of what she’d said but by the end of her address, all eyes were on Nora once again.
Having garnered an array of intrigued and wary looks, Nora’s attention was redirected when the woman’s voice called out to her.
“Child, give us your testimony,” the impassive brunette prompted in English. Nora shifted in her seat uncomfortably under the weight of the unwavering gazes upon her.
“But…” Nora trailed off with uncertainty as she allowed her eyes to sweep the room once more.
“You may speak freely,” Davra reassured her firmly, leaving no room for argument.
“Six months ago… my home was broken into. I was subsequently abducted and that’s how I found myself here. That is…” Nora hesitated. Though feeling more at ease conversing in English, she was still apprehensive as to how her words might be received. Forcing herself to meet the other female’s gaze, Nora cleared her throat before continuing, “... on kailohk.”
Nora took a moment to pause for a brief second, allowing her words to sink in. When met with no interruptions, she inhaled deeply and squared her shoulders.
“I was then held prisoner up until recently. It was during my captivity that I was forced to go through…” She cringed, distaste lacing her voice as she concluded, “... domestication.”
“And how did you manage to traverse through a Cardinal Passage?” Davra probed with a tight voice.
“That’s because I didn’t,” Nora replied evenly and went on to elaborate, “I was smuggled through another portal.”
“That’s absurd,” a male voice cut in bitingly, from beside Davra. “There are only five passages and they are all heavily monitored. The existence of another portal would not have gone unnoticed.”
“I’m not lying,” Nora contended sharply.
“No one is intimating that you are,” Davra attempted to placate her, shooting a withering look at the man that had spoken up, before prompting, “Lianth was simply caught off guard. Perhaps, if you could clarify your words a bit?”
“There is another portal.” Nora relaxed her rigid disposition but leveled the man with a look. “It’s just never in one fixed location. It moves constantly. The woman who took care of me called it the Eilrij.”
Murmurs permeated the room. Davra exchanged an alarmed glance with her elder sibling who’d been sitting in as a silent bystander to their interactions.
“And where might one go about locating this woman?” Davra inquired carefully.
“You can’t,” Nora stated bluntly. “She’s dead.”
“Child, if what you are saying holds some credibility, how is it that you managed to go through a portal unscathed?” The man named Lianth slanted his eyes with thinly veiled suspicion.
“I am not a child.” Nora clenched her jaw, irritation bleeding into her voice. “I’m a fully grown adult female.”
“How many summers are you?” Another male sitting directly across from Davra finally broke his silence, his eyes sparked with interest.
“Twenty-seven,” she replied guardedly, cyan-colored irises clashing with sea blue disks, as she eyed the second male critically, “and to answer your previous question, with luck I’d say. There were others who were smuggled through the portal but many of them died of organ failure and third-degree burns shortly afterward. Whereas, those that lived long enough to survive domestication, only lasted for a short while after being sold off — or so I was told. The afflictions that came as a consequence of their blood boiling were not pretty, to say the least.”
“Yet you did not experience any of these afflictions. How is it that you came to be held captive for so long, without being sold off?” Lianth wore an unconvinced expression on his face. “From the accounts of the other women, this so-called ‘domestication,’ process did not last longer than a month or two.”
“That… I couldn’t say. Though from what I’ve gathered, because of my unusual circumstances… Namely, because I escaped relatively unharmed when taken through the Eilrij, the Handler developed a rather obsessive fixation with me. He found great entertainment at my expense. In essence, he did his best to milk the rarity of my situation for all it was worth.”
“I see.” The second male cut Lianth off with a flinty look before he could get another word out as he opened his mouth once more. “Then, Miss…?”
“Nora Castro. Just Nora is fine,” she wrung her hands beneath the high table, feeling ridiculously young as she sat there in a chair that was clearly a tad too high for her, surrounded by people who could be supermodels with the way they dwarfed her at a considerable measure.
“Well Miss Nora,” — he afforded her a genial smile — “considering the nature of your abrupt removal from your homeland, it would not be too far-fetched to presume that you have family that was left behind now would it?”
“I suppose... but it’s a bit complicated,” she finished lamely. Nora flattened her lips, somewhat reluctant to divulge her personal affairs.
“How so?” Davra quizzed.
“My grandmother is in an elderly home,” Nora conceded grudgingly after several heartbeats, “so I didn’t see much of her very often and as for my other relative... she was kidnapped. Shortly before I myself was abducted, my eight-year-old sibling was kidnapped herself.”
“My sincerest condolences. That is rather unfortunate,” the unnamed male commented upon her admission and then studied her intently, seemingly having picked up on the subtle fluctuation in her tone of voice, “but correct me if I’m wrong Nora… I can’t help but get the sense that you yourself have your own suspicions regarding your sibling’s disappearance.”
“You’re not wrong.” Nora raised her chin. “I do. In fact, I can’t say for certain but I strongly believe that my sister’s kidnapping was not all that dissimilar from the circumstances regarding my own abduction.”
“You are aware that those are very serious allegations, Miss Castro?” Lainth regarded her intently.
“I am,” she agreed. “But I do believe them to hold merit.”
The room fell into a deafening silence once more as the unspoken meaning of her words hung in the air. The stillness of the atmosphere only served to rattle Nora’s nerves. It was Davra who took it upon herself to step in and reassume control of the conversation, “You’ve certainly left us with much to consider, Nora. Though I’m sure at this point you must be feeling drained, it would not do to have an unexpected guest of our world to fall ill once more while still in convalescence.”
“Oh no, I’m—” Nora began to object.
“Perhaps,” the other woman steamrolled over Nora’s words, “it would be best if you adjourn to the gardens. I’m sure some fresh air would do you some good whilst we examine your case and decide how we will move forth from this point on. It would seem we have much to discuss. Do you have any inquiries you’d like us to address before you go?”
Nora lowered her eyes as the piercing gaze of the woman fell upon her once more. Having been left with no choice but to adhere to the woman’s suggestion,—if it could even be called that—Nora was placed into an uncomfortable position. If she were to insist upon staying put, she would only end up coming off as impertinent. However, if she were to leave, Nora would have no say regarding how they should choose to handle her predicament. Realizing that quite some time had passed since the woman had addressed her, Nora scratched at her lame leg before blurting out the first thing that came to mind, “How did you know I was telling the truth?”
“Pardon?” Davra’s brows rose northward.
Nora flushed as the heat of embarrassment rose to her ears and stuttered, “I-I mean, how did you know I wasn’t lying when I said I was fr-from earth?”
Davra’s lips twitched as a flash of amusement crossed her features. After a few moments, Davra imparted solemnly, “You sound like an American.”
Nora was taken aback by her candid response and thought ungraciously, Well you sound like you’ve swallowed an entire dictionary, but you don’t hear me commenting on it.
Still peeved about having been kicked out so abruptly and not wholly convinced by Davra’s answer, Nora grabbed onto Anlyra’s arm and hoisted herself up as her cousin relayed instructions to the healer in their native language. With Anylra’s aid, Nora sniffed as she made to exit the room with what little bit of dignity she had left intact.