Two white hares in hand, her feet pounded heavily against the gravel of the market square. Zovia knew she shouldn’t bring more attention upon herself than necessary when she already stuck out like a sore thumb — her swarthy complexion compared to the blue Zimani undertones was enough to make a person’s gaze linger a moment longer than need be. She was too tired to care though as she weaved her way through the bustling stalls towards her usual buyer, Eilanne, an elderly, rotund woman who quite some years ago drew the short end of the stick.
From years of trading, Zovia had gathered Eilanne was once married to a wealthy merchant who soon after tying the knot, sold her house, robbed her of her earnings and fled somewhere south leaving Eilanne with nothing but the clothes on her back and Zima’s harsh climate. Soon after, Eilanne discovered the wonderful world of the market square where she set up shop and Zovia became a regular, although Eilanne didn’t make masses of money, she made enough to survive, that’s all that matters in Zima.
“Here are the hares, per your request,” Zovia said sliding the fresh game across the counter.
“Two, only two! By the Chasm, what do you expect me to do with them? I’m running a business here not a drop-off. I expected a bunch of hares at least.”
Zovia tried not to flinch, ”Drove. A drove of hares, besides, I’m not that good a hunter anyway.”
“Aye, whatever, good hunter or not, anyone should be able to catch half a dozen of these critters during the thaw.”
It was true, with the snow melting for the spring, the northern animals had nowhere to hide and in turn, were forced into the hands of their predators. Fortunately for the animals, Zovia’s lack of skill in hunting meant they would be able to survive for at least another day.
“I find there’s no point wasting valuable time in the cold for a few extra coins.”
“And I find you to be extremely impatient,” Eilanne’s mouth tugged upwards into a slight smile.
“You’ve just realised, after all of these years? I’m hurt.”
With the shake of her head, Eilanne asked, “Where’s that daft brother of yours? I’ve not seen him around for a while.”
Rotting in the dungeons Hausan dungeons, Zovia thought bitterly, she knew Eilanne meant Jette — the closest thing she had to a brother since that night — but she couldn’t help feeling her emotions get the better of her. Now is not the time to dally on the past, she told herself once again, I have things to do, places to be, and money to collect. “Catering to his new sweet.”
“Ah, I see, is she a looker?”
“Somewhat.” It wasn’t a lie. Jette’s newest lover — Lixue — may not have been the most beautiful lady out there, but Zovia definitely couldn’t deny the girl was pretty.
“What’s she like?” Eilanne cocked a brow.
“She doesn’t talk much.”
“Does she treat him well?”
Zovia didn’t know how to respond because, in all honesty, she didn’t care. However, she couldn’t quite shake the unsettling feeling that something about their romance wasn’t quite right, for months it had been very secretive, too secretive.
“Ach well, at least he’s out of my hair for a bit,” Eilanne broke the silence when she noticed Zovia wasn’t going to answer. She reached under the counter, grabbed a couple of coins and placed them in Zovia’s hands, “Three bronze for the two hares.”
“I owe you,” Zovia tucked the coins into her pouch then turned, ready to conquer the crowded streets once again.
“Nonsense, you don’t owe anyone anything, you hear me? Now run along and take care.”
“You too,” she called over her shoulder before setting off again.
“Please, keep in mind, you can’t trust the quiet ones. Not once, not ever. I did, look at how that turned out for me.”
Then with the nod of her head, Zovia left the market square far behind.
Zovia’s trek back to the barracks was tedious but by no means uneventful: her headstrong stallion found amusement in shying away from various trees and rocks, all because he knew he could get away with it. Zovia was too tired to fight him, even when he broke into a mad gallop, she was aware it bad horsemanship not to scold him for his antics, but she was just glad they’d arrive home quicker.
Before reaching the gates of the compound, she managed to reign Balor back into a brisk trot. If too slow, she’d miss curfew and be locked out, if too fast, on the other hand, the guards would attack first and ask questions later.
“Whoa boy,” she said tugging on the reigns as they neared the looming gates.
Balor tossed his head up vigorously. He was unkeen to be back home when he wanted nothing more than to roam free in the Zimani wilderness.
“Squadron number?” One of the guards asked eyeing the black beast in front of him.
“Forty-two c,” she said, naming the newest squadron still yet to be tasked with an assignment.
The guard signalled to another, “Jym,” and the gates groaned opened.
Zovia dug her boots into Balor’s sides and eased him toward the stable block where a stable boy was cleaning some old tack. “I need you to cool him down for me in the rink,” she told him dismounting.
The young boy turned and gave the now prancing black stallion a once over, fear glazed his eyes.
Balor was notorious for causing mayhem around the stables as a youngling, in fact so much so, Zovia was the only one who managed to remain seated on him despite his best efforts to throw her. She grew attached to him too, and when the wardens informed her they were going to sell Balor, she conjured up enough money to claim him as her own. Over the years the dark horse had settled nicely in Zovia’s hands with thorough training, but that’s not to say he lost his reputation. Many of the stable hands still feared the unpredictable beauty, scared he was going to kick or bite and none of them — not even one — offered to ride him for Zovia.
“You don’t have to mount him, just put him on the lunge lead,” she gave a jolt on the reigns, “Stop prancing, you cretin.”
The boy took the reigns from Zovia, “Yes, miss.”
“Be good,” Zovia warned Balor then headed for the weapons room.
When she arrived at the weapons room, Jette was deep in conversation with the weapons master. Zovia waited a minute, and when no one paid her any heed, she cleared her throat rather loudly.
“Sorry, I got caught up telling Sir here about the recent orders we received,” Jette shrugged innocently.
“Did no one bother to inform you?”
“Inform me of what?” She was growing impatient.
“Reports say rebels attacked the Hausan palace, and now the Hausan King has sent for reinforcements to be brought in.”
Zovia’s eyes narrowed, he’s not the king, she wanted to scream, instead, “We are going to Haus?”
“We leave tomorrow.”
Zovia stormed over to the counter, “I want those,” she pointed to the two polished falchions hanging behind Sir.
“As you wish, Lady De Eira.” Sir reached for the weapons, “Ten silver.”
Zovia reached into her pouch and pulled out twenty bronze coins, “Will this do?”
Jette watched as Zovia reached for the falchions and slid them into the empty sheaths at her waist. “We’re all going out to the lake tonight,” he said.
“Good for you lot.”
“You should come, we’re celebrating our last night of freedom and letting off some steam.”
Zovia looked at Jette, really looked at him. They were lucky to have a similar shade of skin — it made their lives easier as people didn’t question their relatedness. Jette was half Zimani and half Aestan, making his skin tone halfway between the two and like Zovia, people stared at him curiously. She was thankful to have him as her somewhat brother though because unlike herself, Jette could speak to anyone relatively easily and Jette’s friends soon became her friends.
“I might come, I might not, I guess we’ll see,” she said walking toward the door.
“Bring your Saikestones.”
“I never forget them.”
Jette let out a slight laugh then continued his conversation with Sir.
Zovia visited the food hall first as she’d barely ate all day, then she returned to her room an hour later. To her horror, there were clothes strewn all over the floor, not Jette’s clothes, Lixue’s — his sweet. “What in Saike’s name has been going on in here?” She asked herself. But, she already knew the answer, she shuddered.
Disgusted at the sight of the room, she decided she couldn’t stay there anymore.
She had no other place to go to aside from the lake or the food hall again, but she couldn’t stomach the thought of more food, she felt too stuffed from the steak and ale pie she had earlier. So she decided to head to the back of the compound, it looked like she was going to the lake after all.
Zovia reached for the swinging locket around her neck that contained two of her Saikestones as she jogged through the maze of corridors. She’d had that particular locket for quite some years now, the only time she had taken it off was for initiation into knighthood almost two months ago; where the young soldiers were to survive in the mountains of Zima without their Saikestones to help them.
Although she didn’t have her Zimani Saikestones during the initiation, she had two Saikestones from Haus, well hidden in her hairpins. It was her secret, one she’d kept since she first fled to Zima. She used her Flamestone to start a fire which stopped her from freezing to death. Her Darkstone she used to cast shadows which helped her hide from the ferocious blizzards. How the rest of her squadron had survived without their Saikestones, Zovia had no idea.
As she neared the clearing at the lake, she heard a scatter of voices laughing and shouting. She wanted to have fun, have as much as them, but the thought of her assignment tomorrow put a damper on it.
“Look who’s here,” called a voice. Tito.
A genuine smile broke onto Zovia’s face, “I wasn’t going to come until someone told me you weren’t going to be here, how disappointed I am to find otherwise.” It raised a few laughs.
“My, my, Zovia. You’ve been here a mere second, and you’re already terrorising my poor brother,” A girl named Astrida chimed in.
Zovia scanned the surroundings to see who was amongst them — most of her squadron by the look of it. Jette was sitting on a rock away from the group with Lixue perched on his lap. The two were whispering to each other and glancing over every couple of seconds as if to make sure no one was listening. Strange, Zovia thought. “So what exactly are you lot doing here?” She asked.
“Good question, Ravyn, would you care to demonstrate?” Tito called.
Ravyn — the leader of their squadron —practically skipped to the centre of the frozen lake. “To work together as a successful unit, I must be able to trust in you the same as you trust in each other.” She gestured toward Tito who was standing on the lakeshore, “Please, do the honours.”
It was then when Zovia realised what exactly they were doing, “Oh no, not this — again,” but she couldn’t find the strength to look away. She plunked herself down on a nearby tree trunk and watched on wholly entertained.
Tito called to the Chasm for his Saike, the grey Icestone around his wrist shimmered as the ice beneath Ravyn gave way. She began to fall and then with the blink of an eye, she rose. Tito had used his Waterstone to propel Ravyn into the air, saving her from falling into the freezing water below. He guided the water slightly to the right and gently lowered her down on the intact ice.
When Ravyn was first announced to be the leader of their squadron, it came as a shock to them all, for she was not a Saike. She was ordinary. Her blood didn’t call to the Chasm, nor did it feel any pull toward the Saikestones. Zovia quickly discovered having the Saike did not automatically ensure authority or power over people. Ravyn, however, had earned their respect through the utmost perseverance and that made her just as strong and if not more capable than a Saike. Ravyn was a born leader, through and through.
“I appreciate that you kept me from catching a death of cold,” Ravyn said to Tito then turned to the group, “Who wants to go next?”
The Saikes amongst them took it in turns breaking the ice, saving those in the centre of the lake, then repairing the ice. And now it was Zovia’s turn in the middle. She walked lightly on the ice; she knew it wasn’t going to split, yet she still couldn’t trust it. How ironic, she thought.
Lixue finally stood up from where she was sitting, and Zovia’s eyes met hers as Lixue spoke, “I want to practice my Saike.”
Before Zovia could object, the ice below her began to crack. The chilly water reached for her and grabbed at her legs as she fought hard to kick it’s tendrils off. Then she was submerged. Her heart felt like it ceased to beat as her mind went into panic mode. She was drowning... Eternally.
A hand grasped her arm. It pulled her swiftly out of the torture. She opened her eyes. Jette. He’d saved her.
“Thank you,” Zovia told him, he nodded in acknowledgement. Zovia stood there, dripping from head to toe, the nighttime breeze bit at her skin. There was a movement behind Jette’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry Zovia, I-I never meant for that to happen. If-If anything happened to you, I would never have been able to forgive myself.” Lixue’s voice trembled, but it masked the insincerity to her words.
Zovia couldn’t control her rage as she started toward the woman, “If you ever do anything as foolish as that again, I will kill you.” Jette put his hands on her shoulders to stop her, “Get off me,” Zovia shrugged him away.
Ravyn spoke up authoritatively, “Alright, I think every one is getting a bit too emotional right now. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow, let us call it a night.”
All of them muttered something along the lines of an agreement and headed towards the sloping path back to their rooms. But Zovia could only watch on, her clothes drenched and her body cold. “I’ll catch up with you later,” she called to no one in particular and turned to the frozen lake.
Zovia made sure everyone had gone before calling to the Chasm to cast a flame from sheer ice. It kept her warm and dried her kit. She sat by the lakeside for what felt like hours, contemplating Lixue’s motives. Why would she do something so utterly stupid? She asked herself, was it all to scare me? Well, she’d succeeded.
The temperature was starting to drop dramatically now, so much so, not even Zovia’s fire could keep her warm anymore. She would have to head back soon.
A rustle in the woods nearby caught her attention, and she bolted upright. Zovia’s head snapped to the clearing in the trees. Peculiarly, she saw the silhouette of a person gazing back at her. She didn’t know who it could’ve been. Though by far the worst part was she had no idea how long they’d been watching her.
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