Those standing on the Dais were the next to die. Stripped of their clothing and their humanity, the four men and women were condemned by the Crown for their defects. Seen or unseen, she couldn’t tell from where she stood, but their whimpering stuck sharp pains into her heart.
The announcer climbed onto the Dais with his parchment. “Hail Fairest of Ardania! Today we shall please the Divine Six who spoke so many years ago to cure our hearts and our land from the defect and the weak. They may be our friends, or a family member, but the Law is the law, and the Crown and the High Gods has spoken. The two men are defected by criminal acts and obstruction of order in the Runes, and the two women have failed to meet their debts. Either who, their punishment will be death. May the gods accept this sacrifice and bless the Kingdom of Ardania.”
Mageia Unknown clenched the hilt of her sword as the crowd cheered, seeking the sight of blood. She glared from her cloak’s hood that concealed her purple eyes scolding the empty crimson ones of the god of life and death. The statue stood amongst the other five gods gracing the entrance to the Hamino’s Temple built into the structure of the Mideri Wall.
The families of the lost wept closer to the Dais, shouting their goodbyes and pleas for mercy as a ferry priest of the temple recited a prayer.
“Dawnis have mercy,” Mageia muttered.
The executioner prepared his sword and with one swift motion separated the first man’s head from his body. Blood squirted everywhere. Its metal odor clung to the spring breeze, curling her stomach. She hated working during executions, but it was the only best time to collect from the pockets of those who found these proceedings pleasing and holy.
A hand tugged her sleeve. She caught eyes with Faebrin, a teen member of her family who didn’t need to cover his face. His birth defect dwelled on his chest and the Crescent Mark on the side of his neck identified him as a Strange. The burn in his narrowed eyes reminded her of what they came to the Dais Grounds to do. When she nodded, he swooped away into the crowd.
Swift and with years of great skill, Mageia pick-pocketed coins, purses, timepieces, fancy pipes, and anything her sticky fingers touched. The sack within her cloak grew heavy, but not heavy enough to weigh down her silent feet. She was of a woman’s average, law enforced height, about five by six inches that would not make her stand out. Many wore cloaks like hers with their hoods flopped onto their heads to block Mesori’s angry sun. So, she weaved through the rowdy crowd undetected.
Midlaan soldiers and guards in their greens and black chuckled at the horror taking place on the platform. They were unaware of the many thieving fingers doing what they knew best right under their noses.
The temple guards grabbed the third Strange who gave a heart-wrenching scream as they forced her onto her knees. The priest muttered his prayers to the gods as the woman whimpered sore. The crowd’s ruckus heightened and all Mageia could do was avert her eyes as the sword came down. Past images of standing on the Dais made her chest tighten.
I need to get out of here, she scolded wishing she could run on the platform and cease this devilish act.
She decided to finish up early and made her way through her section, head low and hand prying into men and women’s clothing and purses. Then someone bumped into her from behind, the same time her hand dug into her next victim’s vest for a timepiece hanging from a silver chain.
“Hey, watch it, lady,” the man snorted only for his eyes to widen feeling her hand in a place it shouldn’t. They caught eyes and fear crawled onto his face as he screamed.
She gasped and did not hesitate to sprint into the crowd.
“Stop her,” the man shouted.
Heart thudding in her ears, she pushed people out the way, heading eastward towards the crowded marketplace. The guards and soldiers nearby snapped into a pursuit, ordering her to stand down. People squealed and jumped out the way in fright as her hood flapped off revealing her Strange eyes.
Still, she continued to run, remembering the many escape routes that could lose her pursuers and their heavy armor. She scanned the Mideri Wall trailing behind the stalls on her right. With calm assurance and much practice, she jumped onto a man’s smelly onion stall.
“Oh gods, get off,” he screamed.
Ignoring him, she climbed the stall’s wooden poles onto the roof, the only sturdy roof she had took notice of weeks ago. With careful footing, she tiptoed to the other side, jumped, and latched onto the wall’s protruding stones and began to climb with a reptilian speed.
Her pursuers below were frantic. One tried to repeat what she had done. The idiot failed, tipping over and crashing into the seller’s stall. His companions rerouted themselves, running towards the stairs of a wall-post. The two lone guards inside the post scurried onto their feet and began running towards her.
Unfortunately, for them she was too far away. She climbed over the other side of the wall into Strana and climbed down the thick vines of an overgrown tree. They shouted above her as she disappeared into the trees below. Laughing to the core, she ran through the clutter of trees and ducked into the shadows of an alley. She stayed close to the buildings and weaved back into another crowded market arena. Barely out of breath, she glanced up at the wall where the guards scanned anxiously below and chuckled. Mageia had outwitted them again.
Strolling with her head casted, she went eastward towards the Hillside. The market arena gradually turned into neighborhoods of the poor and middle classes of Strana. The houses were joined in rows with the occasional single home or store mixed into them. Some of the neighborhoods appeared as if they were a lost part of upper Midlaan with their clean grassy lawns, bright colors, and everything seemingly in place and in order while the others wore its struggles.
Every so often, Mageia would walk through the neighborhoods, imaging herself living in one where everyone treated her as equal. But in this Kingdom of Ardania, division was the air they breathed. So, her fantasies were always cut short.
The Hillside trailed Ardania’s entire eastside from north to south with hills of trees and large farmlands. Mageia sucked in the air damp with cattle odor and the sweat of slaves tilling the ground and picked up her pace. The crowds of people had reduced drastically, but she dare take off her hood. No one could be trusted, not even the slaves.
This was the part of her walk home she dreaded the most. For twenty harden minutes, she passed by slaves at work. People known as the Strange, considered as defected, cursed, and unwanted by the gods, condemned to a life of servitude until exonerated by their masters or the Crown or by death. If she were ever caught for her sticky fingers, this could be her life. But the risk was important in order to feed her growing family.
Finally, the trees of the Old Forest swallowed her, and she continued deeper, finding the hidden path leading to her home. Once the ground began to rise beneath her feet, she donned her hood and walked confidently into the Dauntless Mountains. It was known how people would rather die than enter the Old Forest said to be cursed by the gods. It transitioned into the Dauntless, filled with stacks of treacherous, rocky mountains, mirroring one another to the point of sending one walking in circles. But for someone who grew up in these mountains, she knew exactly where to go.
Checking for unlikely followers or straggling members of her family, she entered a hidden cave draped with curtains of yellow flowered vines. A dark and dry tunnel scaled through the mountains where she let her feet guide her under familiar archways and turns until she spotted light ahead.
Mageia halted and gave a short whistle sequence. She waited, ears straining for the call back signal to enter. An owl’s hoot responded. She smirked and continued towards the end of the tunnel and exited with a cheesy smile.
“Hello, Dean,” she said.
The 17-year-old boy flapped his auburn hair out of his green eyes exposing a pink birthmark trailing the right side of his face. He lowered his spear and the three elders with him did the same.
“Lady Mageia, fine day?”
“It was indeed a fine day,” she said throwing the silver timepiece to him. He caught it and grinned at its elaborate designs.
She heard him scramble off the boulder and fall on her trail.
“Yer back early,” he said in the unknown foreign accent she’d grown accustomed to.
Uh oh, she thought, a knot forming in her throat.
“Yeah I know.”
“Geia… Did’ju get spotted?” he said with hard strain in his voice.
“Um…” she said already feeling the boy’s face twist hard.
“Wait,” he said stepping in front of her with a hand raised. “Yeh got spotted, didn’t yuh?”
“Yeah,” she shrugged, slipping around him. She bit hard into her bottom lip knowing exactly where this conversation was heading.
Dean Unknown gawked, unable to get a single word out. He followed her under the drape of colorful vines into the heart of the encampment. A place she has called home for seven years. Huts made of nature’s debris covered with stolen or handmade blankets sat scattered about. Clothing hung along vines, ropes, and tree branches, drying under the noon day sun. Handmade decorations and artwork from the children dangled in the breeze across the pathway and anywhere needing the color of life.
The smell of venison and vegetables lingered in the air making her stomach grumble. She unlatched her cloak and exited the pathway into a circular clearing. A large firepit sat at the center with a lit flame within. Strange children ran around playing tag and when they saw her, they cheered, ran to her, and clung onto her waist.
“Hello, young ones,” she chuckled.
“What did you bring us this time?” a boy said peering up at her with crooked eyes.
“Hopefully, enough valuables to bring in more delicious sweets,” she said scuffing his hair.
They cheered with joy and ran off careless of their various deformities and illnesses.
“This is yer first spotting in what? Five months?” Dean picked up the troublesome topic and Mageia gave an irritable sigh. “What happened?”
“I’ll give my report during the meeting,” she said.
She continued across the Pit into a smaller trail leading to more huts for specific purposes. The biggest one sat towards the end of the trail, almost in the shape of a cottage, with a window and a door made of wood planks. This one belonged to her.
“This is terrible, Geia,” he said hand clawing into his hair. “Yer the Chief of the Lost Ones. Yer the role model fer everyone.”
“I know Dean,” she grumbled untying the sack of stolen items from her waist and plopping it into the boy’s hands.
“Yeh don’t act like it,” he said eyes wide and firm. Her best friend in the entire world had lost his sense of humor. And she knew why, but it was hard to face the truth because then it’d bring the waterfalls.
“But I’m fine, Dean. I made it out of the Dais with my head still on my shoulders.”
The angry boy’s face flushed red and the muscles in his arms flexed. She averted her eyes to the ground and tapped her boot into the stones. Guilt and regret washed its way into her soul. Her bottom lip curled between her teeth and she fumbled with the buttons on her cloak.
Here comes the lecture.
“Yeah thank the gods yer head is still there,” he said, voice elevating which only strengthened his accent. “I told yuh the other day y’shouldn’t be a collector. You have purple eyes and there’s not much yuh can do to conceal ’em. If yuh get caught what’re we supposed to do? It’s too risky for yuh to be out there, but you insist. There’re other things you can do around here, like hunting or teaching combat to the children.”
“But you know staying within this forest will drive me insane,” she said. “Slipping through the cities is where I feel free.”
“Yer not a slave, yer not in the Dungeons or The Runes with shackles on yuh wrists and feet and men barkin’ crap at yuh. You are free, Geia!” He then turned towards the trees and shouted, “We are free!”
She sighed and scrunched her nose, knowing what he was saying was true. But it felt good to steal from the Fair. But she had a family. They had a family. One they created over their eight years of scavenging the cities to survive. He was her strength when hers failed, and vice versa, and she knew he cared a million moons for her.
He jabbed a finger in her face, and she slapped it away. “The cities call yuh the Purple Thief because yuh stand out.”
“I am quick on my feet-,”
“It doesn’t matter when the archers pop from the ground,” he said gesturing with his hands.
“Don’t be ungrateful. Yuh have a family here that loves yuh. I love you,” he said through clenched teeth, poking himself in the chest.
The back of Mageia’s throat stung suddenly and she sucked in the fresh air to clear it up. She grabbed onto his shoulders and peering into his face. His stern green eyes like the fresh grass of spring wavered with hurt and disappointment. The last thing she wanted was to make him upset or worried.
“Dean. I hear you. I am so sorry. It was an accident.”
“I cannot lose you, Geia,” he said but this time low and heavy to her heart.
She wrapped her arms about his neck and pulled him in for a hug. His embrace about her waist tightened and she sucked in the scent of leaves on his skin.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Dean sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Now let me go. I need to return to my post.”
Mageia laughed and shoved him away. He indicated the sack in his hand. His cheeks were deep pink, and his chest was puffed up.
“I’ll take these to the collection basket,” he said.
“I’m going to freshen up and do my rounds of the perimeter,” she said backing up to the door.
“I’ll let yuh know when everyone’s back for the meeting,” Dean said eyes jumping from the ground to her face.
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay,” he repeated and turned away stiff and awkward. She watched him walk away, scratching the back his neck.
Mageia wished she could give Dean the world. He deserved it. Everyone in her family deserved more than sleeping in huts and depending on stolen valuables for food and necessities. But the world they lived in was unfair. And any slave and Strange in the kingdom would die just to have the freedom they had.
Heart now heavy with reality, she entered her hut, scented with bundles of lavenders tied to the walls. The beautiful purple flower not only reminded her of her eyes, but they were her mother’s favorite. It brought comfort to her soul to believe she was watching over her every day.
She donned the cloak and her sweaty tunic into a basket of soiled clothing. Everyone was responsible for their own laundry, so she noted to do it sometime tomorrow. The breeze from the window cooled her hot skin as she peered at her reflection in a mirror with copper trims. Stolen, of course. She fixed her long hair of tight curls into a ponytail, only to allow her fingers to slide down the back of her neck.
Sitting in the center of her neck was a strange birthmark. A hexagon with a diamond in its center. To the touch it could be mistaken as a brand, but she was told she was born with it. Her father had one too, but his had eventually flattened as he grew older. They made her promise not to show or tell anyone. They never got the opportunity to give their reasons. It did bother her at one point, but now it was just a reminder of where she never wanted to end up again. Caged.
Quickly, she put on a deep purple tunic loving how the loose blouse allowed her skin to breath. She double-checked her short sword at her waist and left to check on the outer perimeters of her home.
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