This is a stand alone short visits the dark history of the Oaken Duchies, not long after magic was outlawed and mages were marked criminals. It is a tale of two siblings, trapped in terrible, hopeless situation and how they overcome it. Readers also get a sneak peak into the history of a very important character we all meet in Volume III of The Children of the White Lions series.
17th day of the Turn of Duryn, 4798
“You can’t leave us here!”
Whether the storm’s howl swallowed Matis’ cry or the Constables ignored it, the result was the same. The two men clad in gray sprinted down the hall, taking with them the last bit of light in the prison. Matis eyed their torch’s flame, screaming for them to come back.
Others shouted with Matis, their pleas joining to form an unintelligible cacophony echoing through the maze of stone hallways.
“Blast you!” yelled Matis, his face pressed against the door. “You can’t do this!” He banged on the oaken panels yet again, smashing an already sore fist ever harder. The Constables and their torch rounded a distant corner, leaving only a soft glow against the wall. In three heartbeats, even that faded. The prison went black.
Matis stopped pounding on the door and dropped his hand to his side. “Blast…”
While the others kept up their useless pleas and banging, Matis spun around and crossed his tiny cell in six quick steps. Standing on his toes, he peered through the lone cutout in the wall, a hole no bigger than his head.
Cold wind and rain buffeted his face, driving little daggers into his forehead and nose while his thick, bushy beard protected the rest of his face. The storm’s roar was deafening. Wind howling, waves crashing. It sounded like a pride of wild lions tearing into a herd of deer.
Matis stared into the black night, waiting for a flash of lightning. A wave crashed against the old fortress’ outside wall, dousing his window. Wiping his face, he licked his lips and tasted salt. This was not good. The sea was close. Much closer than when he had last checked.
“Come on, Saewyn. Just one blasted bolt—”
The goddess of storms answered his plea. A bright, silent flash lit the night, the thunderclap consumed by the wail of storm and sea. The glimpse provided by the brilliance was fleeting, but long enough to stop Matis’ heart for a moment. “Hells…”
The waves were against the wall for sure, and less than foot below his tiny window. His heart started pumping again, beating twice its normal rate.
Dropping onto his heels, he slowly backed away from his window, his bare feet dragging against the rough stone. He bumped into his cell’s door and stood there, staring into the blackness, thinking, trying to figure some way to get out of here.
Whirling around, he lifted his mouth to the hole in the door. “Delia!”
Her cell was down the hall from his, both in distance and height, as the passageway’s floor sloped downward. Water was surely already pouring into her cell.
“Delia! Delia!” His screams joined everyone else’s, mixing, swirling. He paused to listen for a response from Delia, but it was impossible to mark a single voice in the racket of shouts, wind, and angry sea.
He shouted again, over and over, screaming until his throat was raw and only stopping when cold seawater wrapped around his bare feet, heel to toe. Turning around, he stared back at the hole. He could hear water pouring into his cell.
He stood, frozen. “I’m going to die here.”
A strange sense of relief accompanied the mumbled words. He had no desire to die, but perhaps it was better if he passed on. The same went for Delia, as well as every other mage held here. Compared to living in tiny, rank cells, their minds trapped in a constant tea-induced fog, death almost seemed like a sweeter option. The more he thought about it, the more he welcomed it.
Matis let out a long, weighty sigh, turned back to the door, and rested his head against the wood. The shouting of others had quieted somewhat. Those still futilely pleading for help that would not come sounded thrice as pitiful now.
He listened for Delia’s voice but did not hear it. Perhaps his sister had come to the same realization he had—that or she had already drowned. The water had reached his calves now. It had to be higher in her cell, perhaps to the ceiling already.
The first flicker of orange he felt was faint and fleeting, yet enough that he opened his eyes to a still black room. Just when he had thought he had imagined the sensation, he felt it again, stronger this time. The door trembled against his forehead.
Someone nearby was using magic. How that was possible, he did not know. The Constables were diligent in forcing them all to consume the turis root tea. His last cup of the foul swill had been earlier this evening.
Lifting his head, he stared out the tiny opening in the door, trying to look down the hall to the left. He felt another burst of orange, brighter this time. The door shuddered again, more than last time.
“What in the Nine Hells…?”
Another surge of orange, stronger still. This time, Matis saw a flickering Strand of Fire pop into existence and rush down the hall. He watched it, eyes widening. Somehow, despite the tea, he could see the Strand. And if he could see the Strands, he could use them.
Taking a step back, he reached out and managed to summon a single, long sinew of magic. The Strand hung in the air, bright and alive, flickering like the flame of an oversized candle. When he tried to pull forth another, he lost his grip on the first.
He tried a second time and failed again.
Over and over, he attempted to grab enough Strands to craft a Weave large enough to set his door aflame, but it was hopeless. The turis root still held sway over him. At one point, he managed to hold onto two Strands, but that was it. Those would barely char the wood.
With a frustrated scream, he released his hold and watched the Strands of Fire fade. Yet the orange crackling continued. A bright flash surged through the hole in his door, briefly illuminating his tiny cell. A solid, chest-thumping boom accompanied the light. Sloshing through the thigh-high water, Matis moved back to the door and peered out.
People were shouting again, louder than before the Constables had fled. He heard someone splash past his door. “Hey!”
Whoever it was did not stop, turning down the same hall the two Constables had run down.
“Hey! Don’t leave me—”
He cut off, sensing movement just on the other side of his door. A raspy voice hissed at him. “Move to the side!”
“You have until three to get out of the way! One, two—”
Matis never heard three. He had felt a great surge of orange on one and leaped to his right, tumbling into the cold water in the process as a brilliant flash and deafening boom filled his cell. Matis caught one whiff of wood smoke before the storm’s wind whisked it away.
As the water level dropped, Matis stood, his ears ringing, and felt his way along the wall, praying there would be an open space where the door had been. This time, the gods heard his plea. Banging his shin on the toppled door, he tripped and fell into the hall.
Feeling another surge of orange, he looked to his right just in time so see a large Weave, intricate and complete, fly at the door of his tijuli neighbor, Ionas. With a flash of light and smoke, the door fell into the Ionas’ cell. The thudding boom accompanying the blast was loud but less than the one in his cell.
The brief burst of light revealed their rescuer: a man older than Matis’ twenty-four years, his long, brown hair bound by a cord at the neck, and his wiry body clothed in a dark tunic and breeches.
“Thank you!” The grateful cry belonged to Ionas. After six years of talking through the door holes with him, Matis recognized the voice in an instant.
Matis stood and hurried toward the tijul, stumbling through the water and dark. He ended up crashing into Ionas, but the tijul grabbed Matis and held him up.
“Delia!” shouted Matis, raising his voice above the screams and wind. “I need to get to Delia!”
There was a long pause—too long—before Ionas replied. “I don’t know if you can. The hall is flooded that way.” Tijuli were like cats when it came to seeing in the dark.
A surge of orange crackling filled Matis, another flash and boom filled the hall. The stranger was moving down the stone passage in Delia’s direction. Grabbing Ionas’ arm, Matis moved after him. “Come on! He can help us!”
Ionas did not move. Matis tugged again. “Let’s go! We need to move!”
Ionas ripped free of Matis grip. “I’m sorry, Matis. But I have family, too.” He sprinted away, splashing through the water.
Matis stared after him—as best he could in the dark—and shouted, “Ionas!”
Ionas was twenty paces down the hall.
Matis waited, hoping the tijul might have a change of heart. He did not. “To the Hells with you,” growled Matis. He spun around and headed toward the stranger. The farther down the hall he moved, the deeper the water got and the colder he felt. It was early harvest, but the sea was already frigid.
The burst of light had revealed a hulking silhouette immediately before Matis, heading toward him. It was the belligerent hillman from the west. The giant crashed into Matis, slamming him against the wall. Matis slipped and fell beneath the water.
The world went quiet, the storm’s roar muffled and suddenly distant. Gathering his bare feet beneath him, he stood, gasping as he burst free from the chilly water.
Matis huddled against the wall, listening as another freed mage sloshed past. Reaching out to grab him or her, he pleaded, “Help me! I need to—” A fist or elbow—something hard and boney—slammed into his jaw, sending him beneath the water again.
He stood again, hissing as his palm caught something sharp on the wall. Clutching his hand to his chest—he was sure he had a bloody gash now—he moved farther down the hall.
The water got deeper still, up to his armpits now. Soon he would be swimming. Teeth chattering, he called, “Help me!”
Another mage rushed past, splashing, fleeing. Matis did not try to stop him or her. He had learned his lesson.
The stranger who had freed him was only twenty paces ahead, the water up to the man’s neck. Matis’ stomach clenched. He guessed he was still good hundred paces from Delia’s cell.
He pushed forward in the cold, wet darkness, waiting for the next Weave from the stranger to light the hallway when it occurred to him that he might not need to wait. He stopped in the corridor, took a deep, chilled breath, and reached for the orange of Fire, grasping it without issue this time. Perhaps the cold had cleared his head. That or his anxiety.
Holding onto the Strand of Fire, he reached for a single, glittering silver one of Soul and began to interweave the two, forming a small, circular pattern. In two thudding heartbeats, he completed the Weave and a ball of orange-tinted white light, the size of a child’s clenched fist, popped into existence above his head, lighting up the hall.
His exultation was brief. Thirty feet from him, water met sloping ceiling.
A young woman—not Delia—was half-swimming, half-walking through the water. She must be new as he did not recognize her. The girl—not a woman, but a girl—rushed past him, her eyes wide with fear. She could not be more than sixteen or seventeen, about the same age as he and Delia had been when they were first brought here.
Matis set his jaw and headed into deeper water. His ball of light went with him, hovering over his head. Ten paces down the hall, something underwater ran into his waist. A moment later, a head broke the surface.
A deep scar ran across the man’s chiseled face, starting at the bridge of his nose and running down to his left jaw. The man stood—he was a couple inches taller than Matis—and glanced at the ball over Matis’ head. “Good. It’s wearing off. Later than I had hoped.”
The man grabbed Matis’ arm. “No time. We have to go.”
“No!” shouted Matis, ripping free. He pointed down the flooded hall. “I have to get my sister!”
The stranger stared down the hall. “She’s down there?”
Matis nodded once.
“Then she’s dead,” said the stranger. He grabbed Matis again. “Let’s go.”
“She’s not dead!” shouted Matis, pushing past the man.
“Hey!” bellowed the man, clamping his hand on Matis’ shoulder. “Hold it—hey! Stop struggling!”
Splashing, thrashing, Matis tried to pull free but the man had an iron grip. “Let me go!”
“Look! I’m sorry! Those in the next two cells are already dead. Drowned! You go down there, and you’re walking Maeana’s Hall with them!”
“No! She’s alive! I know it!”
“You’re fooling you—”
“She’s my twin! I know she’s alive!”
Delia and Matis had shared a strange connection since they were toddlers. It made little rational sense to them, yet there was no denying its existence. He did not know how he knew, but he was certain she was alive. Terrified and alone, but very much alive.
The stranger paused, his eyes narrowing. “Your twin?” His gaze darted down the flooded hall.
“Yes. We’ve always—”
“Quiet!” ordered the man. “We’re wasting time.” He grabbed Matis and started moving in the direction of Delia’s cell. “You know which door is hers?”
Surprised and grateful—more the former than the latter—Matis asked, “You’re helping me?”
“Looks that way.”
The man looked at Matis, the water up to his chin, his eyes glinting in the magelight. “I can answer questions or save your sister. Your choice.”
“Save my sister.”
“Good choice.” Nodding at the light, he asked, “Can you keep that going?”
“Fine. Yes, I can.”
“But this is it. The turis root is still—”
“I know,” interrupted the man. “I tried to fix that, but the blasted storm moved too fast. Hold the light, guide me to her door, and I’ll do the rest. Understand?” As Matis nodded, the stranger said, “Take a deep breath.”
Matis complied, sucking in a lungful of air. The man did the same and dove beneath the water. Matis followed.
The world went quiet again.
Matis forced his eyes open, holding them open against the burn of the saltwater. While his magelight lit up the immediate area around them, the glow only carried so far in the cloudy water. It was all he could do to keep an eye on the stranger’s boots. Matis kept to the right side of the hall as they swam, looking for the door with the jagged stone atop the frame.
Just as his lungs began demanding air, he spotted the Delia’s door. Reaching out, he grabbed the stranger’s foot and tugged. The man turned back, shoved Matis against the other wall, and reached for the Strands. Matis prayed Delia was not close to the door.
In a heartbeat, the stranger crafted a large Weave and threw it at the door. A flash and a soft, thudding boom later, the door began to slowly topple into the cell. Kicking off his wall, Matis drove through the water, past the stranger, and forced the door down faster. Magelight flooded the tiny cell.
Seeing an anomaly against the far wall, Matis swam for it, his lungs about to burst. He wondered if all he had accomplished was dying beside his sister.
Delia stood on her cell’s floor, surrounded by a sphere of air. Apparently, the turis root tea had worn off for her, too. Matis reached the pocket of air and crashed into an invisible barrier. A wide-eyed Delia stared at him in bafflement. He pounded against the Weave, his lungs burning. Bubbles of used air began to slip from his nose and lips. Soon, he would succumb to reflex and unwittingly inhale seawater.
She looked away from him and stared at empty space, her face a mask of concentration. Matis assumed she was weaving, but as Delia was an Air and Water mage and he a Fire and Soul mage, he had no idea. They might be twins, but their talents with the Strands were vastly different.
A moment later, she looked to the sphere. Matis’ next pound on the barrier slipped through even though the water remained in place. He stuck his head through, a giant burst of air exploding from his lungs.
Delia grabbed his shoulder and began pulling him into the bubble. Matis collapsed at her feet on the floor, gulping down air. Most of him was inside the bubble, yet his legs were still stuck in the water.
“You fool!” exclaimed Delia. “What are you doing?!”
Peering up, he said, “Saving you.”
“You could have died!”
He stood and wrapped his arms around her. This was the first time he had hugged her since arriving at the prison. Mages were not permitted to be in the same room with one another.
“I couldn’t leave you here. I refused to leave you here.”
“I don’t understand. How’d you get out?”
Matis released her and spun around. So focused on getting to Delia, he had forgotten about the stranger. He stared through the barrier at the dark, cloudy water. The man should have been right behind him.
“Can you move this? The Weave?”
“No. I’m barely holding onto it as is. I don’t even know how I—”
“Stay here then,” ordered Matis. He took in a deep lungful of air. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you—?”
Her worry-filled question cut off as Matis plunged back into the water. He swam back to the doorway, through it, and into the hall. To his left the stranger’s body floated at the edge of the magelight’s glow, looking like a playman’s puppet hanging from unmoving strings.
Matis swam to the man and grabbed his arm. The man’s eyes were open wide yet unfocused. A necklace had drifted free of his shirt, a strip of leather with a white stone hanging from it. Matis’ gaze locked on the pendant. His eyes went wide. It was carved in the shape of a lion’s head in the midst of a roar.
He stared at the pendant, the man’s face, and then back to the pendant before tugging the stranger back to the door. He reentered Delia’s cell and headed for the pocket of air. Relief flooded her face as he neared. Matis stuck his head into the bubble and dragged the stranger’s head in as well. There was no room for them all to fit.
Delia, her gaze on the stranger’s slumped head, asked, “Who’s that?”
“The one who got me out. He got a lot of us out.”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.” Matis grabbed the necklace hanging from the man’s neck, and held it so Delia could see. “But look at this.”
Her eyes went round. “It can’t be.”
“They were all captured. Everyone said so.”
Holding up the necklace, Matis said, “I’m thinking everyone was wrong.”
“Is he dead?”
Matis placed an open palm on the man’s chest. After a moment, he muttered, “I don’t feel a heartbeat.”
“I thought they couldn’t die.”
“Apparently that part of the story is wrong, too.”
Delia’s gaze moved back to the stranger, a determined glint in her eyes. “Get as close as you can, Matis.”
His answer came not from her, but from the bubble of air shrinking.
“Delia? What are you doing?”
“I can’t hold this and help him.”
“Help him? He’s dead.”
“I need to try something.”
“No you don’t! We need to go!” The bottom of the air pocket was at Delia’s waist. “He’s gone! Dead! And we will be, too, if we don’t go! It’s a blasted long swim back down the hall and every moment we waste—”
“Blast it, Matis! Stop yelling! I can’t concentrate!”
Matis shut his mouth. Panicking, he debated whether he should just grab Delia and start swimming. The bubble’s lower boundary was at her chest, the top grazing her sandy brown hair. There was barely room for Matis’ and the stranger’s head.
“At least tell me what you’re doing.”
Delia was staring into the seawater, her face twisted up in concentration. When she did not answer, he slipped a hand around her wrist. “Delia. Please. We have to go.”
Her gaze shifted to the man. An instant later, the stranger began convulsing in Matis’ arms. Delia reached up and grabbed the man by both sides of his head. “Keep his face in here!”
“What are you—”
Gnashing his teeth, Matis grabbed the man’s long hair to steady the head as water began pouring from the stranger’s mouth and nose in a steady stream. A small pool formed at the barrier’s bottom rather than rejoin the sea. After several heartbeats, the flow suddenly cut off and the convulsing stopped.
“That’s all of it,” muttered Delia, her gaze fixed on the man’s face. She patted his cheek. “Come on…”
There was no response.
She slapped the man across the face, hard. “Wake up!”
“Wake up?” muttered Matis. “Delia? He’s dead. No matter how hard you—” He stopped short. The man’s right arm had jerked, smacking his side. He looked to Delia. “Did you do that?”
The man moved again, this time drawing in a deep, gasping breath. He blinked twice, his eyes quickly focusing on Matis’ face. “What happened?”
Matis was too stunned to respond. It seemed the part of the legend about them not dying was true.
The stranger’s gaze shifted to Delia, then to the small bubble of air, and then back to Delia. “Air mage?”
Smiling wide, Delia nodded once. “And Water.”
“Lucky for me, I suppose.” Looking between them both, he asked, “You two ready to go?”
“Yes,” mumbled Matis.
“Absolutely,” added Delia.
Eyeing the bubble, the stranger asked, “Don’t suppose this can come with us?”
Shaking her head, Delia said, “Sorry.”
“Then everyone take a deep breath. I want to get the Nine Hells out of here.”
Once all three had drawn in a large lungful of air, the bubble disappeared and the world went quiet.
Matis, his twin sister, and the stranger swam for the door. And freedom.