Fenris chewed on her bottom lip as she watched the many vendors and shopkeepers pick through their broken stalls and ruined wares. The streets had been cleared of debris when she and Vala arrived, the guards making sure that order was maintained but they did not help with the cleanup. She wondered what had happened to have caused all this, but did not get the chance to ask anyone as the Lunar kept them moving, refusing to wait until they reached their destination.
â€œI canâ€™t believe it,â€ muttered the dark haired woman, not slowing as she marched towards the docks.
The young Twilight followed as best she could, but her steps were sluggish as she passed more fallen stalls and shattered pots. Dusk was fast approaching so the streets were not as crowded as they normally were. She supposed that gave the vendors the good fortune of merely cleaning up the mess without the need to draw customers at the same time. Not that it would be much compensation in her mind.
â€œVala,â€ Fenris asked her concern evident in her voice, â€œWhat happened at the boarding house?â€
Vala had spent most of the day taking her around the city so she would start to feel more comfortable amidst the loud bustle of the city. It still amazed her how loud hundreds of people can be, even without the hollow echoes of the forest tangles of her childhood. She could not imagine the roar it must be in the even greater cities that Vala mentioned earlier. It was like an unending rush of clash and chatter that seemed to fill the sapphire blue clarity of the sky and the blinding beams of the Unconquered Sun that was now beginning to transform into the bright canvas of orange, red and purple of sunset.
The Lunar moved with the same energy that Fenris has become so accustomed to after their flight from her forest home, though now there was a hard edge to that happy bounce. The Solar had since quickened her step to match the taller womanâ€™s longer gait. They had been constantly on the move, never stopping to admire one place for too long before Vala would pull her towards another point of interest, but whenever she slowed, her swarthy companion would look back towards her with that easy grin of hers and offer words of encouragement, promising that the next sight would be worth the trip.
She was never wrong. The day had been almost surreal; from the swirl of smells and sounds of the fruit and meat stalls of the marketplace, to the quiet, narrow alleys that split the low, vivaciously painted walls of the estates of the wealthier districts that ran along the northern side of the city, nestled near the looming shadow of the smoke grey monolith that was the keep.
Valaâ€™s sigh roused her from her thoughts, â€œSame thing as the other two weâ€™ve been to,â€ she told her, â€œOnes in charge arenâ€™t there, pressing business and all that. Apparently this oneâ€™s grandson was kicked by a mule, so heâ€™s off to attend to him. Kicked by a mule of all things. Can you believe that? Itâ€™s as though the world doesnâ€™t want us to stay here.â€
â€œI am sure that is not the case,â€ Fenris said reassuringly. â€œWe will just have to stay at the inn a while longer. Or we can move on. I would not mind.â€
Vala shook her head, â€œItâ€™s going to take weeks for my message to get to my colleague. Heâ€™s a real adherent to tradition and is not the type to enjoy unexpected visitors.â€
â€œThis is only a minor setback, yes? We can always try again tomorrow,â€ Fenris reasoned as they crossed the city square.
It was twilight, the sky aflame with sunsetâ€™s gold and red hues as most of the vendors and shop owners were busy packing up their stands for the night. Workers moved with accustomed speed as they stuffed their crates and loaded their hand carts. Sturdy stalls and booths collapsed like a stack of cards and added to the cartâ€™s growing load. She also noted the smell of roasted meat and sugared treats that still hung thick in the air, carried along by gentle gusts of chilly wind. It seemed the whirlwind that came through the earlier streets did not make it to the square.
â€œWe can,â€ Vala agreed then let out an exasperated â€˜shaaaâ€™ and scratched the side of her neck. â€œItâ€™s just too much of a coincidence that all of the boarding houses within my price range just suddenly have problems.â€
â€œPerhaps, but what can we do about it?â€
â€œWe wait,â€ the Lunar shrugged. â€œThereâ€™s no other choice. Iâ€™ll see about sending my message out tomorrow. Hopefully by then, somebody will be working again.â€
â€œThen that is what we will do.â€
They entered the narrow road towards the docks. The buildings around them were bathed in an amber glow as the Sun drew closer towards the horizon. At this time, men and women wrapped in thick layers of ragged and threadbare clothes and sheets began to make their appearance, settling down against nooks and corners the vendors had only recently abandoned. They looked thin and pale, and were covered in filth. Some ignored the pair as they continued towards the harbor while others begged for scraps and coin.
â€œBack off,â€ Vala growled at one particularly insistent man, barely recognizable under the mound of rags he wore over his back. The potent stench of excrement and garbage hit the young Twilight like blast of an open flame and she reflexively retreated closer to the Lunar.
â€œWho are they?â€ she asked as the shamble of a man scurried back into the shadowed nook from which he came. The smell left with him, but a trace of it still lingered in the cooling air, and she found her nose wrinkling in disgust along with a deep sense of sympathy as she saw at least a dozen like him huddled in the crevices between buildings and steps.
â€œThe homeless,â€ Vala explained, but did not stop or slow her stride. â€œEvery city has them, especially around the poor parts of town like the docks.â€
â€œWhy does the ruler not help these people?â€ she asked from a step behind and to the side of the Lunar. Her voice was as soft as her eyes as they passed by one huddled mass of filthy rags and flesh after another. Most looked at them pleadingly, other just seemed lost, as though given up all hope of aid or kindness. The vacant gaze was what squeezed her heart most.
â€œYouâ€™ve never seen this before,â€ Vala said, her tone a bit more subdued than normal then nodded when the Twilight shook her head, â€œI suppose not, being from a smaller village.â€
â€œWhenever one of our clansmen is injured or fall ill, my people saw to his well being until he has recovered enough to resume his place among the clan. That is our way. It is not the way of the cities?â€ she asked and looked to the taller woman, who did not answer immediately.
They winded their way down the narrow road, which eventually opened into the broad stone street that marked the docks. A handful of sturdy piers stretched out into the slow moving Meander River. Each of the piers, save one, had a ship moored to it and all were quiet, without a man on deck. The muffled rowdiness coming from the few taverns that lined the far side of the street made certain where the majority of the crews could be found.
â€œCities are different,â€ Vala said as they walked along the dock. The sight of the river, such a wide stretch of water, wider than even the largest boughs she has ever seen would have captured her attention, but the sight of the beggars kept her wonder and curiosity subdued. â€œThose that canâ€™t support themselves, make the wrong enemies, or arenâ€™t considered useful by the government are swept into the streets and forgotten.â€
â€œHow horrible,â€ she murmured. How could those in power allow this to happen? she thought dejectedly.
â€œItâ€™s too big,â€ came the sudden reply. The dark haired Lunar shrugged at her questioning stare, â€œYou had that look on you.â€
â€œToo big?â€ Fenris asked, her brows furrowed in confusion.
Vala nodded, sending several lanky curls of her short black hair down past her ear. â€œCities are home to a lot of people and rulers generally donâ€™t have the resources to take care of everyone that needs help. For mostâ€¦they rather just brush them under a rug and forget about the whole problem.â€
â€œIt is not rightâ€¦â€ she said sadly and wrapped her arms around her waist.
â€œNot very much of the world is really. You of all people should know that.â€ Fenris felt a twang of pain in her heart at that and she supposed it showed on her face since Vala looked away guiltily. â€œIâ€¦Iâ€™m sorry, I justâ€¦ah, Luna.â€
Fenris reached out and squeezed Valaâ€™s forearm gently. She felt the Lunar tense for a brief moment then relax as though it took conscious effort. The reaction surprised her, as the ever grinning Full Moon was always first to initial such closeness. She started to pull away but the Lunar stopped her by placing her own calloused hand over hers, letting her know that the touch was not unwanted.
â€œIt is a reality I must face it seems,â€ Fenris said with a faint smile, though it felt a bit forlorn, even for her.
Vala nodded solemnly, released her hand and stared out into the river. The Lunarâ€™s gaze swept up the Meander, the descending Sun painting her face in a rich bronze when she snapped a light curse. â€œWe have to go now!â€ she said hastily and snatched the startled Twilight by the wrist.
â€œW-what?!â€ was all Fenris could manage before Vala took off in a sprint, dragging her along with her.
â€œJust trust me!â€ Vala called back, not slowing in the slightest as she pulled her up the cobblestone streets of the docks. The many buildings that lined the dockside zipped past in a brown woody blur highlighted by the soft orange glow filtering through the smoky windows.
Still being pulled along, Fenris could barely keep up with the swift-footed woman. Her eyes were glued to the quick flying stones that made up the ground in an effort to keep her footing. What could possibly be the matter? Were they in danger? Fenris spared a glance off the ground and looked to Vala. The sprinting Lunarâ€™s face had a determined edge to it, but her eyes were light and shined with anticipation, quelling the Solarâ€™s concern somewhat.
The pair dashed up the sloping street of the dock district, past the moored merchant barges and swift pleasure yachts, beyond all of the piers and up the sloping hillside towards the city wall. The sand shore gave way to a steep, rocky hill, then a sheer cliff as they continued upwards. When Vala finally stopped her run, Fenris was glad for her years among the boughs of the Tangle, otherwise she would have been barely able to stand. Fenris smiled, mildly confused as the Lunar threw her arms out wide with an exhilarated yell, and opened her mouth to speak.
It was then when she caught sight of the Sun as it set the river alight and the view stole her words.
They stood atop of cliff overlooking the Meander River where the city wall ended. Fenris made small sounds of awe from her vantage point as the golden disk of the Unconquered Sun turned the winding azure blue river into a brilliant snake of shimmering gold. The grassy hills caught fire and the distant forests glowed with a rich haze of amber as bands of purple and red began spilling into the far horizon.
â€œGlad we made it in time,â€ Vala commented from the rocky outcrop that overlooked the side of the cliff. Her arms were crossed as she leaned against the sun whitened stone at the very edge of the wall, where the turret allowed soldiers to keep watch over miles of river and plains.
Fenris only nodded and watched as the golden sheen of the waterâ€™s surface slowly receded into the distance, like the stain of spilled wine only reversed, as though the Sun took all the light of Creation back into himself as he disappeared under the horizon. She felt a slight tug of sadness in her heart as the final sliver of the great disk winked out, leaving her alone to the coming darkness.
But she was not alone, was she? Her gaze turned towards Vala and she was glad the Lunar was there. She watched the Lunar, just as she watched the horizon, leaning casually against the cut stone. There was something in her bright green eyes that she could not quite place. It was like longing, yet apprehensive, as though she was thinking about something or someone.
â€œThank you,â€ Fenris said as the sky darkened into velvety sheets of deep blue and purple, â€œfor everything. I do not know where I would be now if you were not for you.â€
â€œHey now,â€ Vala murmured and hopped down from her perch, â€œLike I said before, donâ€™t worry about it,â€ she said when she landed beside the Solar.
Fenris smile and looked at her feet, spilling her long blond locks over her face, â€œI know. It is justâ€¦I am not used to not being able to pay my debts, and mine with you is greater than any I have ever known.â€
â€œHey,â€ Vala cut her off kindly and turned the shorter woman towards her by the shoulders, â€œI said donâ€™t worry about it.â€
The Twilightâ€™s face took on a faint shade of crimson as the Lunar brushed her golden tresses back behind her ears. The swarthy warriorâ€™s wide grin was there again and it made her avert her gaze.
â€œCome on,â€ prompted the Lunar, â€œletâ€™s head back. Iâ€™m starved and the Reprieveâ€™s cook said that itâ€™d be venison roast tonight.â€
â€œVenison?â€ Fenris asked as the two of them began their walk down from the wall and back towards the docks.
â€œDeer,â€ Vala replied, â€œyou know, those brown coated things with the big eyes we saw a few days ago. Apparently, the innkeeperâ€™s cousinâ€™s a trapper and brought in his catch this morning. Itâ€™s going to be great,â€ she explained with an anticipation that was infectious.
She smiled, â€œIt sounds wonderful.â€
â€œAnd how!â€ the Lunar replied with a laugh and lazily draped her arm over the Twilightâ€™s shoulder. â€œYou get any kind of game in the Titan Woods?â€
She furrowed her brows in thought, stumbling a bit due to the Lunarâ€™s sudden weight, â€œLeaf hares areâ€¦were our most common catch. During the colder months, we have migrations of andarvil sloth and they were always a welcome at the lodge feasts.â€
Vala nodded good-naturedly but did not say any more. The Lunarâ€™s arm was warm and helped keep the evening air at bay so she bore the embarrassment in silence. At least the streets were dark now, the glow from the homes and taverns along the dockside served as a beacon that they used to guide their way. The oil lamps were only found in the city proper, where wealthier citizens frequent and therefore require the security of a well-lit street. The streets were quickly becoming completely empty.
As they passed the taverns, Fenris could hear the voices of the rowdy crowds within mingled with the sounds of cheery but badly out of tune music. The river looked completely different now than from how it did in the daylight, a dull black, almost oily ripple replacing the glittering blues just barely touched with patches of forest greens and browns.
Fenris felt her lips curl upwards into a smile when Vala began humming a tune. It was a different one this time, more melodious and fluid than a drum-like beat and it fit the chill air perfectly. â€œVala,â€ she said quietly.
â€œMmm?â€ came the hummed reply.
â€œWhy do you put up with someone like me?â€ she whispered and shook her head slowly at Valaâ€™s raised brow, â€œYou have already done more than enough for me to stand on my own. Yet you stay. Why?â€
â€œWhatâ€™s with this all of a sudden?â€ the dark haired Lunar commented with uncomfortable nonchalance.
â€œYou looked as though you were thinking about another place. As though you had to be there now,â€ Fenris murmured as she stepped out of the crook of Valaâ€™s arm and met the Lunarâ€™s gaze.
The taller womanâ€™s eyes darkened immediately, â€œHow did you-â€ she started to say when a manâ€™s hoarse cry echoed out from the deck of the ship nearest to them.
â€œStill that tongue before I cut it out!â€ shouted another man.
â€œWhat was that?â€ Fenris asked and turned her gaze towards the ship. The sails were blood red, a stark contrast with the dirty whites and tans of the other vessels moored to the piers. It was a large ship with a massive tar-blackened hull, wider than any other save the shipâ€™s twin that floated further down.
â€œItâ€™s a Guild ship, a slave barge by the looks of it,â€ Vala explained. â€œCome on,â€ she said and took hold of the Twilight hand, â€œletâ€™s go.â€
â€œWait,â€ Fenris replied, her voice distant as more than twenty men were marched down the gangplank not far from where they stood. The men were clothed in threadbare tunics and pants, which did not hide their mossy green hued skin. Their bodies, while muscular, showed a few signs of abuse and mistreatment, and all were chained to one another as they marched away from them in a daze, watched over by two armored men with clubs.
She turned back to Vala, her face marred with disbelief. â€œWhat is going on?â€ she demanded, â€œWhat is wrong with those men? And why are those men in chains? Are they criminals?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re slaves,â€ Vala explained brusquely. â€œTribals by the looks of them. Theyâ€™re probably here to help with manual labor while the kingdom recovers from the soldiers lost during the civil war.â€
â€œYou must be joking,â€ was the incredulous reply from the Lunar. â€œYour clan never had hostilities with your neighbors?â€
â€œOf course we do,â€ Fenris retorted and pulled her hand away, her face reddening with annoyance at the Lunarâ€™s offhandedness to her concerns. â€œI do not see what that has anything to do with this.â€
â€œOkay look,â€ Vala said and brought both her hands up as she spoke, â€œhavenâ€™t your people ever taken war prisoners and force them to do all the labor your clansmen find demeaning? Havenâ€™t they ever kept people around against their will?â€
The realization shocked her and she quickly dropped her gaze, â€œBattle-debtorsâ€¦I-I see,â€ she said, her tone much subdued.
â€œLetâ€™s drop it then, kay?â€ Vala suggested and gently led her towards the street leading up into the rest of the city.
The road felt darker than the docks as they walked up the gentle slope, the shadowy corners deeper and the air more oppressive in its chilling stillness. It added to the thick gloom that made each step Fenris took feel heavier than the last. Why were the eyes of those men so clouded? It was as though they were drugged or had lost all hope. The battle-debtors her people take were always so full of pride, even in their servitude, for they must honor their clan in defeat until they are allowed to return after a year and a day.
â€œWhen will they be released?â€ she asked the taller woman as casually as she could manage.
â€œReleased?â€ Vala replied and the change in her expression showed that she had immediately regretted opening her mouth.
Fenris stamp her feet as though anchoring herself in place. Her face wrinkled in an angry frown and her fists were set firmly on her hips, â€œThey are to be battl-slaves their entire lives? That is barbaric!â€
â€œWhy are you getting so hung over this?â€ Vala snapped back.
â€œWe have to help those people!â€ she decided, her deep sapphire eyes hard with conviction.
The look on Vala face was one of pure disbelief, which the Twilight could not understand, â€œWhoa, hold on now. Why the hell do we have stick our noses into things that we have no business with?â€
â€œBecause it is not right!â€ Fenris replied with fervor. It was so simple, why could Vala not see it? â€œNobody should have to live as a battle-debtor their entire lives!â€ she said and spun on her heel, set on returning to the docks. Perhaps there was still time for her to catch up to the group.
She got two paces before Vala seized her by the arm, â€œWill you just think for a minute here?â€ the Lunar snapped, her voice a hiss between her rising anger and the desire to not being overheard by the various beggars. â€œYou think theyâ€™re just going to let them go because you asked them nicely? Are you going to force them if they refuse? Even if they let them go, what would you do then? Where do you think those green-skins came from? You think they could just walk back to wherever the Guild took them from? They canâ€™t stay here either; nobodyâ€™s going to give them any homes or jobs. Hell, thereâ€™s not even enough for their own citizens. Theyâ€™ll become just another group of vagabonds that everyone would be more than happy to forget. And thatâ€™s if the Guild doesnâ€™t round them back up again.â€
â€œRelease me,â€ Fenris said softly, edged with a fury the Lunar had never seen her possess before.
â€œNot until you start thinking with some sense.â€
Something coiled within her; a kind of white hot power that seethed up from her chest, empowering her words, â€œRelease me!â€ she demanded and jerked her arm free. The abrupt motion fanned her hair outward like a twirled skirt and settled over one shoulder. â€œYou were the one that told me that our role is to protect Creation and its people. Was that a lie?â€ the Solarâ€™s voice steeped in accusation.
Vala took a step forward, â€œThis is different.â€
â€œHow is this different?â€ the Twilight demanded heatedly, â€œIf we cannot defend people who have had their lives stolen from them, then what kind of defenders are we?â€
â€œHave you been listening to what I have been saying? Thereâ€™s nothing we can do for them,â€ Vala yelled, her limited patience at its end.
â€œIs that why we do not try?â€ Fenris said, suddenly subdued and distant. Her body shook with anger and frustration. What good are we if we cannot even help a handful of people? What if we cannot even help a single person? What good are we then?
What good was she?
Valaâ€™s voice pulled her away from her introspection. The Lunar face was a strange mix of anger and concern, and it hurt her to see it. Fenris consciously unclenched her fists. She could not just let go of this. The cityâ€™s homeless was beyond her power. But she could at least help those twenty slaves. Couldnâ€™t she?
Then with a heavy look to the glowering Lunar, broke into a sprint towards the docks.
She heard Vala called her name again as she reached a turn in the street and leapt with all the power her legs could muster, feeling the familiar strength that she had only discovered several days ago. Air rushed past her ears as she cleared the roof of the building. Her footing did not falter on the sloped surface of the shingled roof as she began running across the rooftops towards the Keep, the direction the slaves had been taken.
Clearing the gaps between the houses was effortless and even the gaps made by the streets did nothing but remind Fenris of her life among the boughs. Before everything suddenly changed and turned to bitter ashes.
If it were in her power, she would make it so that no one would ever have to feel the pain of loss she felt. She wanted to help those slaves. She needed to help those slaves. Why else would the Unconquered Sun gift her with his power if she did not use it to help people?
That made her pause. Her strides shortened, then stopped all together and she found herself atop a tavern across from the piers. Sounds of muffled music and merriment could be heard from below, but did little to lift her from the gloom. Why did she really wish to help those people? Was it truly because she wished to aid? Or was it so assuage her fears of inadequacy in the eyes of the one who chose her?
She glanced back the way she came and saw only rooftop after roof top. Vala did not follow her and a part of her was almost relieved. They were two very different people and she had no right to impose such demands upon her like she had done.
â€œI am sorry,â€ she whispered in the direction she came from and wondered briefly if she would be able to find the Lunar later to apologize. No, she told herself, now is not the time for that. I must catch up with them. And with that thought she sprung into a dash once more, this time running along the dockside buildings towards the base of the cliff where the keep loomed.
She did not see the precession as she ran and a chill ran down her spine at the thought that she may have been too late. As she crossed from roof to roof, she spared a look towards the two Guild ships. Unlike the elegant ships beside them, they were massive behemoths of blackened wood and blood red sails that resembled a great wash tub with a scarlet banner. There could have been hundreds of them! she realized as the sheer size of the barges finally sank in.
The Twilight shook her head as to clear her mind of the daunting scale. She had to try.
Another dozen or so buildings, for she stopped counting, before she reached the end of the eastern docks and the smaller, two story buildings gave way to taller warehouses gathered around the base of the cliff. There were four of them, with two facing the harbor and the other pair positioned behind them. A focused leap brought her to the roof of the one nearest her and gave her a commanding view of the docks district.
The men and their captors were nowhere in sight, but she could hear the faint of mumble of a large gathering underneath her feet. She made her way to the edge overlooking the docks and peered over. There she spotted a pair of men, who were armed with the same black and red armor and clubs as the pair of slavers she saw before, guarding the front doors. Backtracking towards the center of the warehouse, she found a number of clouded windows in various states of disrepair.
An awful smell emanated from within. Like a hot rank that was not entirely unpleasant, it rolled out from the cracks and holes of the roof windows in pulsating waves that smelled faintly of herbs. She crouched and leaned over the holes in the clouded glass. From her perch, she spotted the slaves. Unfortunately, they were not the ones she had seen earlier, as this group did not have those distinctive green toned features. She saw more than thirty men and women from her vantage point and that had only been a portion of the building. How many more could be in other parts of the warehouse or the other warehouses for that matter?
As she moved from one window to another, she noticed something that struck her. No more than a dozen of the people kept within spoke with one another. She could even sense the hostile air between some of the groups, as stark as their differences in skin and hair color. Many of them possessed stocky, ink marked bodies that was so different from the tall limbed citizens that were so common in the city. But what she thought was strangest of all, were the almost comfortable atmosphere and accommodations of cots and blankets provided for them, and the quiet resignation in the eyes of all but the most aggressive individuals. And even those she wondered, if they would take the chance to escape if it were offered, in a place so unknown to them and so far away from where they hailed.
Some of the occupants were smoking some kind of herb, which left them in such a daze that it disgusted her. And some even played simple games with members of their own group. It was a scene that she had not expected to encounter.
Could Vala been right? Was there truly nothing that could be done for these people, especially with her current abilities?
She wobbled slightly as she rose to her feet. A sickly feeling oozed its way into her, one that hung thick with failure and frustration. It made it hard to look upon the faces of the people held in the warehouse. The oppressive feeling grew and made the sickly sweet smell of herbs choke her. The despair it evoked made her doubt in the Sunâ€™s trust in her all the more and she knew she could not stay there any longer.
Nobody noticed when she flew silently across the span between warehouse and home. Nobody noticed the slight woman in green and black as she cut across the Corrastâ€™s rooftops without direction or purpose, where only the most keen-eared of mothers complained of cats on the roof. Nobody noticed the tears that fell from her azure hued eyes that unconsciously searched the cityscape for signs of another soul. And nobody noticed her misstep that sent her towards the street. However, there was somebody to see her fall.
Fenris landed roughly, but luckily on her feet. Her heels and ankles stung from the impact on the solid stones, but to her relief found nothing truly injured by the fall.
Then a startled curse quickly followed by the high pitched hiss of a sword leaving its scabbard sounded from behind her and made her heart leap to her throat. She turned slowly towards the voice, not wanting to make any sudden movements, but ready to leap aside when a soft golden glow illuminated the horror-stricken face of the man that carried the curved, blue jade sword.
â€œF-Fenris?â€ the dark-haired man croaked in stunned disbelief, his blade held out defensively, the tip pointed straight at her throat only a step or two away.
Her eyes widened as she recognized the soft-spoken voice and realized that her castemark was aglow with essence, something Vala had been very adamant that she made efforts to keep hidden. The amber light glinted off the blue sheen of the manâ€™s reaper daiklaive, marking him as one of the Dragon-Blood. She now understood exactly why it had been so important.
â€œHimura,â€ she whispered into the lonely and shadow-filled street, like the quiet gasp that echoes from forgotten woods.