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The Shackled Angel
Author's note: I initially uploaded the first fifteen chapters of this book in www.youngwritersonline.org, where I received many helpful and encouraging criticism. They inspired me to take this piece to the next level, and I would love to take the opportunity to share it with all of you. Please enjoy my novel, The Shackled Angel.
((Somewhere in Cleamoure Empire
Era of Zethele, Year 0, Day 1))
The woman's lips quivered in fear as she placed me onto the ground and breathed out, "Run."
Without further ado, she took off to the left, and I dashed to the right. I blocked my ears from the drumming footsteps of the cavalry that had been chasing us this whole time. Judging by the fading sound, they followed her.
I didn't stop to look back.
Only the Gods would know of how vast of a distance I actually covered; considering how I was but an eight-year-old child, it probably wasn’t very far. Regardless, I passed a plateau of tall grass that slithered around my ankles and pulled me down. I went through a small strip of the desert, where my feet sunk into the sand and the rainstorm didn't reach. I raced by a mass of coniferous trees that scratched at my clothes and cut through my arms and face. Anyone could claim that it was quite a distance, but to me, it didn’t feel far enough.
Inevitably, I collapsed in fatigue with trembling legs that could barely crawl an inch further. I fell on a puddle of water and bits of mud. The ground was wet, drenched with what I deduced was the rain; I had no energy left to keep my eyes open and check, but I could feel the last few drops of the storm on my skin.
How long had I waited like that? I wasn’t entirely sure what I was waiting for, but someone found me after what felt like an eternity of the drizzles and the muddy ground.
The speaker was a female, and her words were: "Papa! Papa! Somebody's dying!"
I felt myself being lifted up into a set of strong arms that were damp and cold, as if the person had a sheet of water over his skin, possibly from all the rain. I protested and struggled, trying to push him away. But with the energy drained out of my body, my efforts were in vain, and so I settled quietly as I was taken away.
A foreign person in my mind comforted me. She didn’t sound like my voice, but it was probably something my subconscious made up. She mentally patted my head and nodded serenely. ‘You tried your best.’
When I regained consciousness, it was cloudy; there were water beads trailing down the glass windows of a medium-sized and well-accommodated room that I found myself in. The chamber consisted of the basic necessities: a bed—which I was tucked into—a dressing table, a chest of items, and a wooden wardrobe. The bed was set close to the window, where the draping, lush curtains were secured at the side. If I pushed my head down, the pillow underneath it would envelop my whole head, just like the clouds.
I peeked out of the window and watched the people below me clean up after the storm. The men wore robes of a dark green tint, whereas most of the females were in green dresses and white aprons. If I winced and stared hard enough, I could make out their long, pointed ears. Their skin colour ranged from fair white to various pastels, whether they were green, rose, blue, or grey. I thought back to a lesson about the physiques of various Magic beings. I realized that I was in the land of elves.
A light /clink/ broke the alien silence, and, alarmed by the disturbance, I threw the blankets off of me and jumped up, taking a defensive stance on the mattress, ready to pounce on the intruder.
The source, as it turned out, was a girl not much younger than I had been; she was staring after my possessions in amusement and curiosity, poking and touching the things I brought with me.
Her hair was bunched up in slightly disarrayed puffs of blonde locks, and her eyes were a charming shade that mimicked emeralds. Her skin was slightly more towards the pastel green tint, and I figured that she was a Nature Elf. She wore a beautiful little gown of heavy silk that seemed to drag her down more than it flaunted her wealth; I was never in favour of those types of garments.
“Who are you?” I asked sternly, leaping to take a stance between her and the items that tickled her interest. Those were my belongings, things that the woman in the grasslands gave to me, and this girl had no right to touch them. She jolted with a gasp, stepping back while hiding her hands behind her back, ashamed of being caught red-handed.
"Umm... Y-you… Umm... Y-you are awake..."
"Is there a problem with that?" I challenged. “Tell me where I am.”
“T-this is Papa’s land, Aelfthryth…”
“And who are you?”
“My name is Vena,” she responded. At this point, she decided to ask, “A-and you are?”
I mentally cussed, because I was hoping she wouldn’t ask—or at least, not so soon. My mind was a jumble of uncoordinated mess, so much so that even my name escaped me. I struggled to remember how I wound up in such a place, the events that happened beforehand, anything at all—but I couldn’t. My earliest memory was of running away.
“Are you alright?” she continued with the questions, “We found you passed out by the forests. Do you remember anything about what happened?”
I was slightly annoyed at my inability to give a coherent response. Despite my reluctance to admit my vulnerability aloud, especially in the presence of others, I despised dishonesty even more. I found myself sighing, “No.”
Empathically, she flung her arms around me in a hug. Her body was warm, and the warmth was contagious, pervading into my body like a virus, though I couldn’t help but feel that it was a good kind of disease. Warmth is life, after all, and if I could feel her warmth, then I, too, must be alive. With a smile that was on par with a thousand blossoming flowers, she whispered kindly, “It will be alright. I promise.”
Somewhere in my heart, I sincerely wished that she was right.
((Aelfthryth Mansion, Cleamoure Empire
Era of Zethele, Year 10, Day 68))
It was only fall, yet rain fell frequently throughout the week, and when they abstained from pouring, violent gusts of air filled its place. The conifer trees of Aelfthryth forests shook and shivered as the northern winds blew upon them. Out in the courtyard, thin squires resembling stick figures trembled under its wrath.
I watched it all through the tinted glass window. In my heart, I spoke thankful prayers that my mistress rarely ever stepped outside. In precisely seven days, the sky would be bleached in a white fairer than snow, and the ground would be covered in crunchy cotton balls. This year’s winter would be tougher than the previous, and I wasn’t looking forward to staying out in the open if that was the case.
“Ada?” a weak voice called behind me. The sound came from my employer, a young woman of a fragile yet elegant demeanour. It was her afternoon tea time, and she was seated upon her chair in one of the gardens of her vast greenhouse, sipping quietly on her mint tea. I walked over to her side and bowed; the action used to be a chore, but over time, it became instinctual.
“You called for me, Lady Aelfthryth?”
Her eyes scanned the area around us carefully, and her pointed elfin ears twitched, absorbing every sound possible within her vast hearing range. She then turned to see me and saidassuredly, “Nobody is here.”
I understood her message immediately, but was still reluctant to obey. I was fully aware of the social differences between us, and so, I lowered my voice as I rephrased, “Er, you called for me… Vena?”
She was satisfied, and her lips curved into a soft, small smile. It didn’t quite reach her brilliant eyes, however, and I noticed this immediately from the ten years that I’d known her. As the successor to Duke Aelfthryth, the only kindness she could spare in the presence of others was purely political, and any smiles she was allowed to bring to her lips were for business. And I, as her personal bodyguard, could only spare my attention for her and make sure that her happiness came before mine.
Vena spoke again, bringing me back into the current reality. “I have just remembered. Did Papa not order some new flowerbeds for me? Would you happen to know where they are?”
“They’re located in the west wing. Would you like to visit them?”
“Very much so, yes.”
Despite the fact that I was the one who knew which route to take, I walked behind her. Vena’s pale green halter dress trailed after her as she glided across the stone pathway, and her long, blonde locks were draped over her shoulders and back. Her posture was upright, her head was held high, and her eyes were unwavering even though she was too weak to protect herself. A perfect figurine of courage and determination, elegance and beauty in every aspect. She bloomed like a spring rose that knew no seasons. I was surely biased, yet I couldn’t help but envy her. Everything she owned had always been better than mine.
“Hey, Ada,” she began, “Has the messenger I sent out to Chelsworth last week returned?”
“No, my L—Vena.”
“That is a shame,” she sighed, “I was really hoping my letter would get through…”
“Yes,” I replied quietly and pointed ahead on the pathway. “The flowerbeds are to your left.”
“Oh, periwinkles!” Vena exclaimed in delight as she recognized the flora, kneeling beside them as she picked one and nuzzled it to the tip of her nose. “Mm, they really are soft to the touch…”
I stood beside the fountain just a few feet away from us, watching the drops fall and diffuse into one another. The sun’s rays were dimmed from the canopy of the taller trees, but once they reached the water, they shone in twice the intensity. The light waltzed to an inexistent slow song playing in the background, but I was sure that the sound had been in my head. Turning my attention upwards, I peered through the glass rooftop of the greenhouse and to the skies above. It was a shade of light blue today, with long, shredded strips of white. The sun was a few hours away from its noon position.
I realized that I had, as I often found myself doing, been distracted away from my occupation; I couldn’t do much when my employer was unable to do anything that would jeopardise her weak health, so I developed a pastime activity of letting my eyes wander. I turned my attention back to Vena, who was completely preoccupied with the flowers.
“Ada,” she called in a fragile voice. “Do you remember our first meeting?”
I had no idea why she would bring it up out of the blue, but I wasn’t in the position to voice my opinion out loud. Instead, I answered insincerely, “Yes. What nostalgic memory.”
She chuckled, placing the periwinkle blossom back to the stem, and, with a small flash of light, she had returned the flower back to the plant using her Elemental Magic of Nature. “We had so much fun.”
In my mind flashed reminiscence of soft dolls, building blocks, wardrobes of dresses for various fashion shows, and amazing chocolate fondue. But those times had not lasted long. Those things were soon replaced. Soft dolls became punching bags. Building blocks became swords and shields. Dresses turned into armours. Chocolate fondue was turned into bread and water. And what hurt most was that these didn’t happen under my will.
Despite the bitter memories, I made sure that I was in full control of my composure and replied with a forced smile, “We did.”
"Each second we spent together are precious to me," she smiled. "You have changed so much since then."
/Not by my choice/, I thought to myself, but my mouth reacted otherwise. "I treasure them as well."
"I wish those times could go on forever," she mumbled. "If I hadn't caught ill..."
"It isn't your fault, Vena," I reassured, "Not even the medics knew how your health took a sudden turn for the worse."
“If I had stayed healthy, you never had to become a knight,” she voiced aloud.
Her words pierced through my heart. I thought that she wouldn’t have figured it out, that she would think that I was simply taken away to undergo knighthood training purely because I displayed physical and magical potential. But she was well aware of it. And she was right. If she had stayed healthy, we could play all the games we used to play, venture through the mansion in search of hidden passageways, and dine together on a table full of food. They would never have noticed my excellence in Magic, or how I had better agility than most other children.
Deep in thought, she asked, “Ada, if I had taken something important from you, would you hate me?”
My answer was quick. It needed no reminders, for she already had. My life could’ve stayed as the playmate of the daughter of the Duke, the way she promised she would help me get accustomed to Aelfthryth. The dolls, the building blocks, the dresses, the chocolate—they would never have been snatched away from me. I told myself that putting the blame on her was irrational; it wasn’t her fault that I was forced into knighthood at the age of ten. Regardless of how much I wanted to step into her shoes, at the end of the day, she was all I had.
Satisfied by my response, she stood up and changed the topic, “Ada, could you do me a favour?”
When I entered the stables, there were no stable boys in sight. The only one present was a man dressed in the garments of a knight currently off duty—a dark blue robe with golden embroidery shaping the word /Aelfthryth/ at the back—with hair the colour of withered grass. He stood holding a stack of hay in his hands. His eyes were murky brown, and his skin was lightly tanned from all the sun, but beneath it, I could see that he had a tone close to pastel green. Despite his dusty appearance, he had a bright smile on his face as he hummed a folk tune to himself.
Upon noticing my entry, he turned to face me and smiled widely. “Hey, Ada! It’s been a while; how’re you doing?”
“Evan.” I returned his smile out of courtesy. “Are you on stable duty again? I have a hard time believing you’re actually a knight. What happened to the stable boys and squires?”
“Don’t give me that. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be where you are right now.” Evan Grey chuckled, tossing the hay he was holding to the feed box of the horses. “Are you going out on another mission?”
“Yes,” I nodded, and felt around my leather one-strap pouch to make sure that the letters were safely secured inside. “I need to deliver a message to the desert.”
“The desert? This must be one of Lady Aelfthryth’s /favours/,” Evan sighed, shaking his head in disapproval. “You can never say no to any of her orders, can you?”
“It’s not that hard of a task,” I shrugged, “As long as it makes Vena happy.”
Treading upon the soft hay and dirt that made up the floor of the stables, I walked up to my mare—a creamy, gaited horse that I named Atteana—and stroke her mane as Evan approached us quietly, fastening the saddle and the supplies I brought with me.
“So tell me,” Evan said cheerfully, changing the topic. “How have you been these last couple of weeks?”
“I’m well. Vena can’t go around much with her frail body, so my work is a breeze; all I do is follow her around the library and the greenhouse. I’m just glad her condition isn’t getting any worse, otherwise my workload would increa...”
“I didn’t ask about how she was doing,” heclarified. “I wanted to know about you.”
“As I said, I am well.”
“That really doesn’t tell me anything,” he continued, clearly unimpressed by my passive reactions to his attempts at stirring up a decent conversation. “Come on, now, Ada. This is no different from the first time you learned to become a knight; why are you returning back to the introverted, detached person that you were? Have I not taught you anything through the eight years we spent training together?”
“Live life for yourself, for what else can other people do but watch?” I repeated the very same words that he once told me. “You don’t understand. There are times when you have to live for others. ”
“Nobody lives for others, because life is individualistic; all you can do is help others, not live for them,” Evan countered. “Don’t forget that. Live for yourself, because once this life is gone, you might not be granted a second one.”
“You’re generalising, Evan. There are cases like Vena and I who were born to serve others. She was born to serve the elves of Aelfthryth. I was raised to protect her.”
“If your fate is to forever become her personal bodyguard, Ada, you would’ve been born here, in Aelfthryth, as an elf. You are but an amnestic immigrant.”
“You’re opening old wounds,” I snapped. “You didn’t have to remind me of something I’m painfully aware of.”
Softly, he gazed at me and whispered, “Does it hurt, not knowing it?”
“Yes,” I answered without hesitation. “It does. I get bothered by it quite often, to be perfectly frank.”
He lowered his head and started to utter, “I’m sor…”
“But at the same time, I’m glad,” I chuckled bitterly. In my mind, blurry images of that woman on the fateful stormy night returned to me. “I had a feeling that if I had remembered, it would’ve been something I wish I hadn’t gotten back.”
“Was it that bad?”
“The earliest thing I remember is running away, Evan. Of course it wouldn’t be pleasant,” I sighed. “Sometimes I envy you, though. You know who your family members are. You have a mother, a father, and even a twin brother. I don’t know what kind of parents I had, whether I had any siblings…”
“I don’t think any person could be completely happy with the kind of family I have, though,” he grinned. “After all, we’ve been long lines of members of the National Army. When I told them I would rather be a Territorial Knight for Aelfthryth, they practically disowned me.”
“It’s not like you could have survived the National Army life anyway. The way you are right now, people still think of you as a squire.”
“Let’s not comment on my inadequacy as a knight,” he rolled his eyes. “We were talking about you. Like I said, Ada, you weren’t born to protect Lady Aelfthryth, and I have no intentions to believe otherwise.”
“There is nothing more to talk about. I am here to serve Vena. Nothing you say can change the fact that I am no longer that frail girl ten years ago who knew next to nothing about knighthood.”
Evan snorted, leaning against the horse and eying me keenly, saying, “Ada, do me a favour. Laugh.”
The impact of those words was strange and rather unfamiliar, though it felt so nostalgic. Despite of the fact that I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to think of the lost causes where I couldn’t do anything about my lost memories, I ended up bending over with a laughter that rocked the stables with joy. I laughed so hard that tears built up in my eyes. I didn’t know what was so funny, or entertaining, or even slightly amusing; all I knew was that Evan and I were having—and I may be exaggerating—a debate on life’s philosophies when out of nowhere, he commanded me to laugh. Was a reason needed? I realised that none was required, not when I was with him. He was the one place I could always return to.
Once my laughter died into small chuckles, I realised that he’d been watching me with a satisfied gleam in his eyesand a gagged laughter of victory.
“You cheat, Evan; you’re ruining my concentration. I was about to come up with a counter argument that would send yours to the Abyss.”
“What a pity we missed it, then,” Evan grinned sarcastically; he knew I had none.
“What were you trying to do anyways, trying to sound all philosophical?”
“I wasn’t entirely sure. But in any case, I’m glad that it made you laugh,” he answered, patting Atteana once as soon as he made sure that everything was ready. “Now, for some friendly advice. Your supplies would only last for two days, which should be enough to get to Chelsworth Mansion. And be careful once you reach your destination; I hear Duke Chelsworth isn’t very sociable."
“Charming.” I rolled my eyes in exasperation. I turned to embrace him once, and he returned it immediately. With a chuckle, he patted my head and sent me to Atteana.
“Come back alive.” His tone was playful, but the look in his eyes told me he really meant it.
“I’ve gone through worse than unsociable aristocrats.”
It had been no more than a few hours since I left Aelfthryth Mansion, and I found the messenger that Vena sent last week dispatched underneath a tree by the edge of Aelfthryth territory. His lifeless body was pierced on the side of his stomach, and his throat had been slit, a common modus of operation for bandits. He was slowly rotting away, disturbing the otherwise brilliant scenery. Despite how I knew that each life must be treasured, there was nothing I could do to save him now. With a silent prayer to Goddess Nero, I asked that his Soul escape the tortures of the Abyss, and summoned my Magic.
The Cage—a gaping hole of black and electric blue that sparked at its edges—appeared at my command, tearing the air beside me open and connecting this world to the Space After Life. I weaved the air quietly with my hands, beckoning for the corpse of the messenger to come closer, inviting it to enter the hole. Drawn by the Magic in my motions, he began to twitch, slowly rising like a puppet on fragile strings, and obediently plunged himself into the Cage. I closed it as soon as he disappeared.
I smiled bitterly under the tree that moments ago the dead messenger had been, watching the clouds shift around, rolling on top of and sliding underneath each other. The sky was a colour of light blue that gradually became white the farther out it reached. There were many little cotton balls shredded and scattered across the blue canvas. I looked back at the empty space beside me, and thought back to the man whose body was now in a different dimension. Regardless of the loss, I felt no regret in consuming the man’s corpse.
Atteana was grazing just a few metres away from me; I smiled at her and called her over. Obediently, she made her way towards me; the sound of her hoofs made faint clacks that were dulled by the earthy ground, and she stopped just by my side.
I extended my hand out to stroke her face and asked, “By any chance, do you remember your parents?”
She replied with a snort.
I chuckled and petted the tip of her nose. Trying to phrase the sentence in my head, I tried again, this time in Ancantian, the language of Ancient Cleamoure that even plants and animals comprehend. I leaned back against the tree bark and stared back at the spot where the messenger was. “I wonder if he had relatives. He probably did. Wouldn’t they grieve over his death?”
Even if she understood what I said, she didn’t have the ability to pronounce words. Atteana nuzzled her nose against the top of my head in an attempt to comfort me. I smiled at her and patted her again to let her know that I was fine. Her touch, though it produced no comprehendible sound, told me that I had nothing to worry about, that everything was going to be fine.
“You’re right,” I told her. “I have never grieved over my amnesia. Why should I let it bother me now?”
I knew it was a lie, because I ached to drown myself in sorrow. Ever since I woke up in that chamber in Aelfthryth Mansion ten years ago, I had been longing to appreciate the weight of my loss. And for as long as I could remember, I had been burying the pain of not knowing what it was exactly that I should be wallowing in.
It wasn’t summer, yet the sun shone mercilessly down, pouring out its light like piercing spears of heat onto the ground. I rode upon Atteana’s back, wiping the sweat away from my brows as I continued to scan the landscape for any indications of my present location. Needless to say, I found none. All I could see was a boundless field of sand grains piled upon one another, and my mare could easily step, slide, and slip into the hills and valleys that the loose earth formed. The smell was one of sweat and salt.
“What the hell is wrong with this place?” I groaned. I was so sure that Chelsworth Mansion was on the opposite side of Aelfthryth territory. I didn’t even know which side I was on anymore.
A small breeze slithered by, and I let it sneak between my hair and wriggle within its strands. For a moment I could’ve sworn that it had a voice, and that it had been whispering to me. With the faint smell of lavender, it breathed into my ear in Ancantian, “Be careful…”
I turned towards the direction where it came from, frowning as I tried to see as far as I could. There was nothing in sight, but I knew that lavenders did not grow in a scorching desert such as this. The fragrance must’ve come from some form of living thing that carried the scent, perhaps stored in a perfume bottle. Wary of what was ahead, I led Atteana towards the general direction of its source.
Yet no matter where I went, I encountered nothing. With each step I took I felt like I’d come back to where I started from, and the sun’s menacing eye watched over my back in glee. My heart throbbed faster at the growing suspicion that the sun wasn’t the only thing watching me, but I thought of it as no more than paranoia. The heat was simply messing with my mind.
Longing for an escape from the heat’s torture, I peeled the cloak on my chest a few inches off, gazing quietly on the spot just above my sternum, where a blooming rose tattoo stood against the tan of my skin. On its right side was the thorny vine and leaves that branched out from behind the flower, and it slithered around the nape of my neck starting from the left side. The vine tattoo had made it around my neck, and was resting at my right clavicle. If the Contract was completely filled, for a few moments it would look as if I had a necklace around my neck before it would slice off my head.
I was never one to resort to hasty decisions, but at this point in time, I was prepared for any illegal activities I would be committing by using this resolve, just to escape the vicious stare of the blazing sun. Regret could wait.
“Come forth," I whispered, extending my right arm to the side, "Gabriel Hounds!"
Once again, I opened my Cage; but instead of the electric blue that bordered the portal to theSpace After Life, the sparks were red now, signalling that things of this world weren’t being sucked in; the Space was getting out.
Slowly but surely, my Pawns emerged; three black figures resembling a cross between giant wolves and dogs crawled out of the hole. Their eyes were glazed in a bloody red hue, their teeth were yellow and as sharp as the tips of carving knives, and each of the canines was as big as Atteana and I combined. On the sides of their heads were lion-like manes the color of the glaring ball of combusting gas above me, and under the right light, it would look like they were actually on fire. The same snuffs of flame-like fur were decorating their ankles and the tips of their tails as well. They waited patiently for my orders while trying to get used to the arid climate, breathing in the foreign air and snorting unspoken complaints.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to give the orders. I gasped in as much hot air as possible even though it was doing nothing but burn my throat. The sun no longer bothered me; instead, it was the boiling sensation inside my chest that tormented and violated me. I had to lean on Atteana to make sure that I didn’t fall off. It was a wonder why I even thought that this was a better idea than enduring the sun. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I couldn’t afford to lose any more time; my supplies were already running low.
I took a deep breath and commanded, “Show me the pathway to Chelsworth Mansion.”
First, they tested the waters, sending the wavelengths of their short, pulsing barks through the air and shaking it with the fear of their authoritative, rough tone. As soon as they had a general understanding of what lie ahead, they dashed into the desert without a second thought. I whispered words of Ancantia into my horse’s ears. Atteana clearly understood my orders, for she immediately chased the hounds, racing after them even without questioning their destination.
It wasn’t long before the barren landscape gradually shifted into one that was slightly livelier. Withered bushes of dry barks and dead leaves were present, and just a few feet ahead of them was a scene so beautiful, I mistook it for a mirage. As soon as they confirmed that I had seen it, Gabriel Hounds dissolved into thin air; it had done what it could.
If I was a regular inhabitant of the desert, the oasis before me probably wouldn’t look like such a gift directly given to me by the Gods. Though it was definitely lacking in vegetation compared to Aelfthryth, the high canopies of the date palms allowed other forms of life, such as olive trees and various desert herbs, to thrive underneath its shade. The top of the date palms were curved inwards, leaning over to guard and shield the spring underneath from the merciless sun.
Mesmerised by the sight before me, I wished I could lie underneath the shades of the palm and spend days here without any worries. I shook my head wildly to clear my mind; there was a message to deliver, and the mission always had to come first. Nevertheless, I grabbed the canteen of water tied to Atteana’s saddle, half-empty, and climbed down my stallion; there was no harm in rejuvenating myself for a moment.
As soon as I set out to leave the oasis, I wondered what my Pawns meant by leaving me alone after sending me off to refresh myself. I was nowhere near Chelsworth Mansion, and I saw nothing of significant directional value around me.
“Those idiotic dogs, bringing me here for nothing,” I groaned, punching the air as if it was going to bring me some sort of relief.
Sighing, I dropped my gaze and watched the sand grain underneath me roll to my left. Intrigued by its movement, I squatted down and observed it carefully, looking around in confusion. The dunes were moving. The land trembled under an oppressive force that I did not comprehend. With a gasp, I finally spotted that the line separating the ground and the sky had turned into a blurred shade of blue and ochre. My ears detected the faint sound of rumbles. It could only mean one thing.
There was no time to think. I dashed and grabbed the ropes on my horse, steadying her as she, too, knew what was to come. I grabbed my sword's scabbard held it up, channeling all the Magic I had; it splashed out a slightly opaque, pastel rainbow-tinted dome around my horse and I, blooming like a spring beauty in the midst of the arid land. I was just in time; if I was held back for just a second, I would’ve been too late.
Waves after waves of rolling sand that blocked the sky and heaved millions of grains onto us attacked mercilessly, pounding on my Barrier and demanding entry. Perhaps it was just from the moment of panic, but I thought I heard them speak again. They were screaming this time, sending pulses of warning directly into my brain.
"Turn back!" they cried in Ancantia. "Do not advance! He will..."
Atteana threw a wild fit, and I lost the rest of what the Winds were trying to say. She raised her front legs and stomped down repeatedly, whinnying at the fear of being buried alive underneath the sand.
“Calm down, Atteana!” I begged, holding on to her reins desperately. “Just a few more minutes; it’ll all be over in a few more minutes…!”
It was definitely a lie. I knew it was, because by each second that passed, layers of sand were forming on my feet. It was already burying me up to my calves; Atteana kept trying to escape despite of the mess outside of the Barrier. Biting my lips in fury, I tried to find a way out of the situation we were in while neglecting the fear and anxiety that were shaking my legs.
When the sandstorm was split into two halves in front of us and evaded out cracked Barrier, I was dumbstruck.
Was it a form of Heaven's aid, or was it pure luck? Regardless of how much I wished it to be the former, the cloaked traveller who was standing a few paces in front of me proved to be the latter. Had he not seen me, or had he not been a Wind Wielder, I probably wouldn't have survived. With nothing but the gestures of his hands, he calmed the raging sandstorm and returned the desert to its calm, lifeless state.
Against the sun behind his figure, he was but a mere silhouette, and the only part of him I could see were the shadows on his back. He stood in front of my Barrier with a dusty cloak that fluttered on his back, but his figure was sturdy, holding his grounds even when the last remnants of the storm were still trying to topple him down.
The man turned to face me and approached quickly, asking,
"Do you need help?"
"Yes, thank you," I instantly replied, releasing the Barrier around me and fixing my sword back on my belt. Atteana climbed out instinctually, and I had to hold on to the man's hand in order to pull myself out of the sand.
"You okay? Not hurt anywhere, are you, Sir?" he asked with an overly casual grin and a very light-hearted demeanour. He ran a hand through his thin, blonde hair, lightly tousled from the wind though it still stayed relatively straight because he had it bunched up in a side pigtail. Struck by a sudden realisation, he cleared his throat and took a step back, averting his brilliant blue eyes as he abruptly adopted a more formal tone, continuing,
"I'm sorry. I-I thought you were a man."
"It doesn't make any difference to me," I shrugged it off. I came across those words so many times during my career that I no longer bothered to care.
"Pardon me, but you are aware that you are wearing a knighthood robe, yes?"
"I /am/ a knight," I clarified, "directly underneath the orders of the daughter of Duke Aelfthryth of the elves."
He nodded awkwardly, still trying to accept my statement. I didn't blame him; female knights were a rare find, especially considering most refused to be one. "I-I see. Er, I don't recall ever catching your name..."
"I am known here and there as Sir Adalbert," I answered, brushing dust off of my robe. The /Sir/ in front of my name, too, ceased to trouble me. In this nation, it was more convenient to adopt the word than walk around a female knight without a proper title.
All at once, his eyes danced in excitement, and he once again forgot his formal speech as he blabbered, “Are you kidding me? You're the legendary Swordsman of the South Streams? I’ve heard so much about you! Weren't you the one who single-handedly defeated that horde of Phantoms that invaded Aelfthryth a year ago? You’re, like, their hero! Wow. Heavy stuff. How'd you do it? Never thought you'd be a woman. Can I call you Ada? Yeah, I will, 'cause it suits you...”
He never even stopped to hear my response to his questions. Dying to escape his constant chattering, I asked, “And you are?”
"Oh, where are my manners? Please forgive me," he once again regained his composure and bowed. "Cael, at your service. Well, technically, I'm under Duke Chelsworth's service, but I wouldn't mind abandoning him for you..."
"Shows what kind of commitment you are into, then, dear knight," I commented dryly.
“Doesn’t it?” he snickered, as if he was satisfied with my remark. “And may I ask what your purpose of coming all the way to this desert is, /Ada/?” He made sure to stress my name, hoping it would tick me off.
“I am here by order of Lady Vena Aelfthryth,” I answered plainly; I had no intentions of outlining my purpose of visit and what my orders were. For all I knew, he could be a bandit who announced himself a knight in an attempt to mug me.
With a smile, he replied, “I see that you don’t trust me.”
“Would anyone?” I asked back. “I do not mean any offense, but I cannot tell if you are bluffing or not, Sir Cael. I hardly know anything about you.”
“It doesn’t offend me,” he said, but flinched at the way I addressed him. Rummaging through the inner pocket of his cloak, he took out a golden medal and flashed it in front of me. The light of the sun glinted off of it and stung my eyes, but I ignored it. Upon it was the transcription Chelsworth. “Does this identification panel convince you?”
“Not so much, for you could have easily stolen it from someplace else,” I admitted. “Also, your attires do not seem to reflect your… /knighthood/.”
He took a glance at his shabby cloak and grinned. “You’re right. These past two days have been my, er, days off, and now I am travelling back to the Mansion.”
“The Mansion?” I echoed dully. /If he knew the way there, perhaps he could…/
The realization struck him before I could devise a plan to somehow coax information out of him. “You’re here to see the Duke, aren’t you? Of course! Why didn’t I think about this sooner? Why else would Lady Aelfthryth send a knight to Chelsworth for?”
I mentally cussed in my mind and sighed, “Indeed.”
“Perfect. I know where to go. I can take you there, if you would like.”
Despite my lack of trust and dislike towards hisinability to keep his mouth shut, I contemplated between my choices. I could either take his help and get back to Vena's side as soon as possible or wander around aimlessly in the desert for an unknown period of time in hopes that I would stumble upon the Mansion. Both sounded displeasing, but I had to choose one that would let me complete the mission given to me.
"Lead the way."