Early Morning Meetings
I had closed my eyes for a moment while clinging to Oryn for the second time tonight. How different this embrace was from a few hours ago when I had kissed him like a fool. I had pretended to be asleep, not wanting him to try to carry on a conversation with me. I just wanted to get to Abberton and find Carena, and if Oryn was the only way to do that, then so be it.
I listened to the group that was with us, to the easy chatter that fell amongst them. They acted as if nothing had happened moments before, as if the attack of the hounds was a daily occurrence. Maybe for them, it was, but it certainly had still rattled me.
I knew it would be a long time yet until I was able to fall asleep without seeing the hound’s eyes watching me in my dreams.
By the time we had arrived to the protective wall that surrounded the city, my ankle felt stiff as aboard. It throbbed with pain as Oryn came to a halt, lowering me to the ground. I opened my eyes, finding that the protective wall of Abberton was only a few feet in front of us. I looked to Oryn, who was watching me with a mixture of worry and pain.
I pushed him away, his expression hardening as he sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“I need you to crawl through the gap in the wall.” I followed his gaze to a triangular crack in the wall, one that I would have to stand and wiggle through. “You’re going to have to stand to get in. Turn to the side like Kova and slide in. It’s not long and when you reach the other side, Kova and the others will be there. I’ll follow you from behind.”
I only gave him a single nod and stood, with some effort. I wobbled as I tried to put some weight on my ankle, a flash of pain, causing me to suck in a gasp. I forced my way over to the hole, trying my best to keep weight off the ankle, and slipped into the thin darkness of the wall.
I kept my eyes closed, panic starting to settle in at the utter darkness that surrounded me.
Carena, Carena, Carena.
Her name became a chant that forced me through the darkness, through my fear, and before I knew it, I fell out the other side of the hold right into Kova’s arms. She helped me sit down against the wall, my breath coming fast and hard.
Oryn was by me in a moment, a never-ending presence.
“We need to move.” He whispered to me. I looked over, meeting his gaze. I gave him a nod and began to stand yet again. Nausea rumbled through me, and I slowed, sucking in a breath as I began to fall.
Thankfully, Kova rushed over and helped catch me, the scent of lavender filling my nose. Oryn’s hand wrapped around my arm, but I only pulled it out of his touch. Kova watched the two of us, her brows raised at the interaction.
“I’ve got the rest of the way.” Kova said to both Oryn and me, “You just make sure we aren’t seen.”
He only nodded and then was gone, leaving us to make our way through the basement of whatever building we were in.
I hardly noticed the city as we made our way through it, my mind a haze of pain and sickness. I had thrown up twice already since we exited whatever building we had left, Kova not seeming to mind that a few drops of my sickness had splashed across her shoes.
She mumbled something about it not being the first time and held onto me until I was done.
If I had the right mind, I would have thanked her, but nothing seemed to be working right in my body.
The journey never seemed to end, each step more difficult than the last. Even though Oryn had offered to carry me again, I refused to be treated like a doll. I wasn’t going to let him help me, even if it killed me.
I must have blacked out along the way, because when I came to, we stood in the middle of what seemed to be a foyer, my arms draped over Kova and Kierian.
“Marilla’s in the meeting hall.” A girl’s voice said, light and soft. I tried to keep my eyes open, tried to see where we were, but pain and nausea took hold again.
“Where’s Arryn?” I heard Oryn ask, the name unfamiliar. I was guided into a chair, my head falling back against the seat. It was soft, and the room was warm. I felt my eyes roll, darkness threatening to take me again. I forced it away, not ready to go to its embrace just yet.
Soft hands prodded at my ankle, earning a hiss from me as I sat forward, trying to see who it was. A girl around my age knelt before me, her round, green eyes meeting my gaze.
“I’m going to help you. I just need you to stay still.” She said in a soft melodic voice. She reached out, pulling the boot from my foot as I hissed and cursed at the pain. I watched as she peeled off my sock, and I could have vomited from the sight of my foot.
It was purple, completely purple, and swollen to twice its size. The girl, who I assumed to be Arryn, didn’t react as she gingerly wrapped her hands around my ankle. I watched as she closed her eyes and seemed to focus her attention.
Green marks wrapped around her arms, appearing out of nowhere. They glowed with life, whispered warmth and promises of health, as her power flowed into me. I gasped, relief swelling through me like a bird on an updraft. I watched as she worked, her eyes closed as she focused.
“Arryn is a healer.” I heard Kova say next to me. I didn’t dare look away from Arryn as she continued. “She’s been with the Marked Guard only a short time now, but she’s been quite useful.”
“I don’t care,” I mutter, not wanting to get to know these people. Kova scoffed, kicking off the wall she had been leaning against.
“You’re welcome.” She said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.
Arryn didn’t show any sign of annoyance as she continued to work on my ankle. A small pang of guilt flared through me, but I pushed it aside. It was evident these people were close, that each looked to the other as something akin to family, but I didn’t care to stay long. As soon as Arryn was done healing my ankle, I was walking right out that front door.
“What happened.” The voice was that of steel, and the woman that barged through the doors seemed to be made of iron. I watched as the older woman walked right up to Oryn, standing at least two feet shorter than him, and caused Oryn to flinch.
The mountain of a man seemed to bow to who I assumed to be Marilla; the one Tristan had told me to find.
I sunk deeper in my chair as Kova began to explain what happened. Oryn glanced over at me, his eyes apologetic as she spoke. I looked down at Arryn, whose power still pushed the pain away.
“Hounds attacked us while crossing the pine forest. While we fought them off, Aurelia here got into a fight with a tree root.” Kova said, not once taking her eyes off her nails.
“What about Tristan?” Marilla asked. My gaze flicked up to find the woman now looking at me, her gray eyes boring holes into me. I didn’t show any emotion, any thought, as she tried to read me.
“We can discuss that later,” Oryn mumbled, the room now quiet.
“He’s dead,” I say, my voice low and husky with pain. I still couldn’t believe that it was true, my mind and heart wanting to reject what was coming out of my mouth. Marilla showed no signs of grief though, her eyes only seeming to harden with the news.
No one spoke as Arryn finished up with my ankle, her green marks seeming to sink back into her skin.
She stood, and with the pain now clear, I could get a better look at her.
And I was surprised to find that she was a Greenie.
Her soft green skin complimented the fierceness of her green eyes, which reminded me more of the pine forest that surrounded the manor.
“Take it easy for a few days.” She said her voice like a meadow breeze. “It will still be a bit sore, but I managed to take care of the break.”
My ankle had been broken, and she just got rid of it in a matter of seconds.
I looked down to find that my ankle had returned to its normal size, the pale color of it back. I grabbed my sock and yanked it back on, pushing my foot into my boot a moment later.
Without another word, I stood, walking over to the doors we had come through.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Marilla shouted behind me. I spun on my heel, seething as I met her gaze head-on. Shadows curled in my vision, their call beckoning.
“To find my sister,” I say, my voice firm and unrecognizable.
“Not like that you aren’t,” Kova said. I just turned again, ignoring her snark, pulling on the doors of whatever room we were in.
But they wouldn’t move.
I looked at Kova again, who now bore purple markings on both her arms.
“Looks like you’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.” She said, giving me a smile that would have me cowering in any other circumstance. I looked back to find that Marilla was watching me like I was some caged animal, her gaze and expression masked to cover up her true thoughts about the situation. I only recognized it because I had worn that same mask many times.
“Who are you people,” I asked, low and quiet. Marilla was the first to answer, her head turning to the side sending a wave of black hair over her shoulder.
“Your mother never told you?” She asked.
“I’ve never heard of you,” I say, my eyes meeting Oryn’s. I felt a wave of betrayal, and from the looks of it, Oryn felt the shame of my gaze. If he only had told me, if he hadn’t lied to me, then I would have been aware of who this group was. Were these the people that Tristan had been in contact with?
“Let’s make a deal then,” Marilla said, her voice low and calm as if she indeed was talking to a caged animal. My heart hammered in my chest, annoyance flickering in the pit of my stomach. The room darkened noticeably as she took a step forward. “Give us five minutes to talk about everything that’s been going on. Once that five minute is up, you can decide for yourselves whether or not you want to stay. But, I think you might find we are the best chance Carena has. Stay here and you have all of my resources, this entire group, to find Carena. Leave now, and you’re on your own.”
I looked from Marilla to the others that were around the room. It felt as if everyone was holding their breath, waiting for me to explode. Oryn watched me, his blue eyes bright against the darkness that descended. Kierian and Edward were standing off in the corner near the only other door that was in the crowded room, Brina by their side.
Kova didn’t even pay attention to anything that was going on other than her nails.
Arryn still knelt by the chair, seeming to be hiding behind it.
I felt as if I had no choice. I stood taller, straightening my spine and lifting my head. I let the darkness of the room dissipate, surprised to find that the room lightened noticeably. Arryn let out a sigh of relief as she stood from behind the chair.
“Good,” Marilla said, a brief smile coming to rest on her thin lips. She turned towards the table, walking over to take the head seat as the others fell into various chairs around the room. I remained standing where I was, not sure how I fit into the mist of it all.
Oryn took the seat that I had been sitting in moments before, seeming to not care that I wanted nothing to do with him. I took a step away from him, away from them all as I waited for the five minutes to begin.
“How do you know about my mother,” I ask, not able to contain my curiosity. Marilla’s brows rose as she met my gaze, leaning back her chair as if she were the Queen of this realm. Yet she looked anything but queenly. Marilla looked like a warrior that had stepped right off the battlefield, and if she was truly in charge of the Marked Guard, I’m sure every day was like a battlefield to her.
“We were friends.” She said evenly. “She started the Marked Guard with me.”
Oryn’s head snapped to Marilla, his eyes wide. I reigned in a gasp, crossing my arms over my stomach and pinching my sides. For some reason, I didn’t want to give this woman any reaction.
“I’m assuming Carena is your sister?” She asked, looking between Oryn and myself. I didn’t deign to answer, my spine straightening even more. Oryn was the one that nodded.
“Tell me what happened.”
“The past two weeks were uneventful. There had been no suspicions even amongst the servants as they arrived. When the night of the ball came around, everything was secure and I had no reason to believe that there was any danger. There were rumors of hounds, so I took Aurelia to a safe location where we waited until Edward found us. When we surfaced, we discovered the manor had been attacked. Tristan was dead and Carena was gone.” Oryn said, giving her the barest details of the past two weeks.
“Brina and I were the ones that found them hiding in the lower levels of the manor.” Edward cut in, taking a step forward from the corner he had been hiding in. “It was a good thing too. Hounds were surrounding the house when we showed up. Took some tricks to get in, but by the time we left…”
“We ran into five in the woods.” Kova finished, looking up to meet Marilla’s gaze. She leaned back in her chair, her foot resting against the oak table.
“Five.” Marilla breathed, her eyes wide.
“I managed to take down one, but the rest got away.” Kierian finished. Marilla closed her eyes, massaging her temples as she let out a long breath.
But I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t care to hear the details of how the past few hours of my life played out, I needed to find Carena and I needed to find her now.
“You said five minutes. I fail to see how this is convincing me to stay.” I remark, every head turning towards me. Kova glowered, her eyes turning brighter as she watched me. Marilla nodded, standing from her chair, and began pacing about the room as if the movement helped her think.
“Your mother and I started the Marked Guard as a response to the assassination of King Armel, the ruler before King Fero. When I was younger, the Marked could live somewhat of a life. They were still feared, but they could live in relative peace. Armel was the only thing that held the balance of the races in place. We knew that with King Fero in power, the treatment of the Marked would only become worse.” Marilla said.
“And it did,” Kova muttered under her breath.
“Yes. It grew worse, especially after the King’s first decree. The Marked had been labeled a new enemy of the crown causing distrust and unease to erupt across the Kingdom. This wasn’t a surprise, but it was panic nonetheless. The Marked scrambled to get out of the major cities and flooded the Plains and the Aelfrund mountains. Meira and I tried our best to help, but we didn’t have enough support or resources. That’s when we discovered a tribe in the mountains that were sympathetic to our cause. There were several Marked that fled to the tribe that had decided they were going to fight back and when we showed up with a few Marked in tow...it was an easy decision to join forces.” Marilla sighed before she continued. “That’s when your father joined us. Leander wasn’t Marked, but he had decided to join anyways. He was a true warrior, and there were several times we could have died if it wasn’t for him.”
I tensed at the name of my father, the name I had tried to block out for years. Oryn’s gaze flicked over my body as if sensing my unease. I tried my best to keep my reaction calm, neutral. Marilla paused, meeting my gaze. I nodded for her to continue.
“Our goal was to free the Marked and give them a chance at having a life. Under Armel, there was tension, but they had a chance. However, King Fero promised the eradication of the Marked, pushing for the rise of the Vrunadian stronghold. So, we aimed to eliminate the threat. We were going to assassinate King Fero. We found this, though, to be increasingly difficult because there were rumors of some...thing...going around and killing Marked. A creature that many feared. People were calling it the Shadowfold. They said it only appeared at night and it was made of nothing more than shadows. Meira and I had thought it to be a rumor spread by the King to scare away any attempts of assassination or trying to replace him. But during our first assassination attempt, this creature appeared and almost killed us.” Marilla paused, her eyes glazing over as she was thrown back into the memory. “We didn’t understand what it was, or what it wanted until we started to realize that its attacks were centered around the Pillars. We were chasing its trail of destruction when we stumbled upon the Scar.”
The words seemed to echo throughout the room.
Marilla pulled a map from one of the many bookshelves that lined the walls of the meeting room. She opened it up on the large oak table, and I realized that it was a map of all Vrunadia. I stepped forward, curious to see what she was pointing at. Her small finger circled a black spot in the middle of the plains. In bold lettering, the words, The Scar, was written next to it.
“The Shadowfold had destroyed the Pillar that was located in the Plains, and the explosion had wiped out the magic in the area. It destroyed everything and everyone that was able to use magic. When we arrived, there was so much death, so much destruction.” Marilla’s eyes watched the spot on the map, reliving her moments in the magicless place. I had never heard anything like it before. A spike of shame, hot and bold, slammed through my chest. Maybe I would have known if I hadn’t locked myself away…
“Why did the Shadowfold destroy the Pillar?” Kova asked, her voice soft with respect.
“Because it wanted to destroy magic,” Edward said.
“That’s what we eventually figured out. Magic in Vrunadia isn’t just here by chance.” Marilla said, “There are pillars located throughout our half of the continent, and we assume throughout the Kration territory.” Marilla began to point out the different pillars located in Vrunadia: the Iron City, Abberton, The Scar, and a final one located in the Aelfrund mountains. “Somehow, these Pillars generate the magic you use, the Lower Races use. It creates it and pushes it out. That’s why most Pillars have cities located around them. They create the oxygen that most of the people in Vrunadia breathe.” She connected the Pillars with her finger, showing how they all seem to be lined up. I glanced over at the Kration territory, wondering how many would be on that side of the continent. “When we realized what the Shadowfold was trying to do, we sent out Marked to every Pillar to protect magic. We feared that if all of the Pillars were destroyed, the Marked and Lower Races would be severely impacted.”
“It would be genocide,” Edward mumbled, Brina, rubbing into his side.
“That would be correct.” Marilla sighed, “We abandoned the assassination attempt and put all of our energy into finding the Shadowfold. But it was impossible to locate. Thankfully, there was a member of the Guard with the ability to see into the future. Not super far, but far enough to give us a couple of hours warning before the Shadowfold hit. He told us the next target was in Abberton, where we already were. The battle was…” Marilla hesitated, her eyes closing for a moment as she tried to continue to speak. “The battle was gruesome, and in the end, we could hardly call it a victory.”
“The Pillar of Brandr still stands. How isn’t that a victory?” Kova said.
“Because of what happened after. Many in the Guard died that day, leaving our numbers next to none.” Marilla looked at me then, her stormy eyes watery. “Your mother was gravely injured by the Shadowfold, resulting in the loss of her power. Your father...”
“Don’t,” I said, holding my hand up. I didn’t want to hear about my father, about what had happened to him. I didn’t want to feel any pity or sympathy with whatever had transpired. It was true that my mother had lost her ability or the majority of it. I recalled the way her marks were more of a soft gray than a stark black like mine. Our markings had almost been identical with that one exception, yet I was too young to question it at the time.
It seemed that mother had many secrets.
“I don’t know the extent of what happened during the battle. Your mother and father would never tell me what occurred. They always said they had taken care of the Shadowfold and we would be able to live without fear of it harming anyone again. But, they retired afterward. We positioned a few Marked in permanent locations near the Pillars in the Kingdom that remained. They volunteered to be posted in Abberton to protect the Pillar of Brandr. They got married, bought an apartment, and settled down in hopes of never being detected again.”
“Why are you telling me this.” I ask, “What does this have to do with finding Carena.”
Marilla walked over to the table, grabbing a handful of papers from a stack of books and paper. She walked over and handed them to Aurelia.
“Is this your mother’s handwriting?” Marilla asked. I looked from Marilla to the letter she had handed me and almost dropped it. Written in the usual neat scrawl, I saw my mother’s handwriting. My hand shook as I tried to make out the words, but it was as if nothing was registering.
“Yes,” I whisper, looking at the words as if they were a ghost. Marilla grabbed another letter, reading the words out loud for us to hear.
“Marilla, I write to you in earnest. I fear there isn’t much time before they come for my daughter. There are many things I have kept from you because I promised Leander that I would keep them to myself. But Leander is gone, and I have nowhere else to turn. You need to understand that the news I have will change the course of history, and I fear that if they capture Aurelia we will not have time to reverse the damage we have done. The Shadowfold was not the end. It was only the beginning.”
“Stop,” I say, my voice lacking depth. I didn’t want to hear anymore, I didn’t want to hear anything else. I only wanted to find my Carena, I only wanted to leave. But Marilla continued, her face made of steel as she plowed forward.
“She was coming to the mountains to hide you and your sister,” Marilla said, setting the letter down. Everyone in the room was silent as they watched Marilla and me. “She wanted to protect you from something, but she never told me what it was in the letters. Did she tell you anything as to why the King would want you?” Everyone waited for her to answer the question, to provide us with a reason the Guard had been taking Marked to Tricine.
“What are you talking about?” I say, the words Oryn had spoken to me earlier nagging at the back of my mind, “The King isn’t after me.”
Marilla shot Oryn a glance.
“You didn’t tell her?” Oryn didn’t look at me as he replied.
“You told me not to.” His voice was stern, but I felt as if I didn’t hear him. I stared at the letter my mother had written to Marilla, feeling as if I hardly knew the woman at all.
I felt as if I hardly knew anyone at all.
“That’s why she looks familiar,” Kova said, more to herself. Her purple gaze shifted to me, “All the other Marked look like her.” Panic begins to settle as pieces of a puzzle start to shift around me, but I had no idea how to begin to fit them together.
“What are you talking about? What other Marked?” I say.
“The Guard has been capturing Marked and transporting them to Tricine for a few months now. Most of them have fit a similar description, blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. Each had a significant power with marks that covered both arms.” Oryn says, his eyes meeting mine. I recalled what he had said at the manor, the way he said that Carena was taken as leverage to get to me.
“Are you telling me that innocent people have been killed because they were looking for me?” The shadows twisted around my shoulders, lacing through my fingers and around my arms. They moved at a steady pace, frantic and worried.
“You need to calm down, Aurelia,” Oryn says, leaning towards me.
“Why didn’t you tell me this,” I demand, looking from Oryn to Marilla. After all, she had told him to keep it a secret. “No wonder they came to my doorstep! It probably took one politician in their pocket to point a finger at me and my family. Why didn’t you come and get me sooner!”
“We had no idea who you were,” Oryn says defensively, his tone hardening into something I didn’t recognize.
“Oryn’s right.” Marilla chimed in. “I didn’t even know you were still alive. After your mother’s last letter and the news of her death, I figured you and Carena had been killed with her. I had no idea you were sent to live with your grandfather until he reached out to me.”
“Tristan wasn’t my grandfather,” I say, not caring if the world knew it had been a lie, a cover-up. “Tristan only said that to make sure questions weren’t asked. Before my mother died, she said to go there if anything ever happened. So when something…did…we ran to Tristan’s manor. He created some lie that we were his orphaned granddaughters and no one batted an eye.”
Marilla seemed confused at the statement, her eyes looking between Oryn and me. She blinked a few times, calculating.
“But Tristan was your grandfather.”