There she stopped still, clenching her hands as she became indignant and angry at his words. “Don’t you dare speak of him that way. I served him all of my life, lived a life of devotion and prayer. I have never done wrong in his eyes… How could you call me false? What kind of man are you to judge what is right, especially after the murder of so many people. Shame on you!”
The party stopped and turned to look at her as she raised her voice. Andal placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and leaned back, bored. "And what did your god give you for your devotion? Thrown in prison and sentenced to burn, why didn't he stop it? Those bastards plotted to have you killed, and you defend them." He leaned back forward, "I am a man who has bested your champions, and I judge them lesser." Andal stepped forward and nodded ahead, "Walk."
Serena raised her chin at him and crossed her arms, more stubborn by the minute. “What I mean is, that the act of murder is wrong. And I had one defender, who had sworn to do what was in his power to save me. You did not give him that chance, so I cannot and will not forsake my god. “You may have bested him, perhaps, but I do not find any pleasure in it.”
It was clear that he was now on her bad side. “I have less reason to trust you. What if I do not want to go with you another step further, what would you do then?”
Andal smirked a bit behind his mask, "I would ask you what you plan to do now that you are branded a heretic and a fugitive. To everyone in that room, we were saving you from a certain death. Your fate is now bound to us, we will keep you safe from harm." He pointed towards the exit of the cave, "You are our prisoner until we reach the sanctuary, once all is answered, you can decide for true."
Serena eyed him while he spoke, slow to trust him. She had the mind to bolt from the party when they exited the cave, run and try to elude them. She could do well enough on her own, couldn’t she? But her heart sank in this, for although she had done her share of cooking in the convent she had no knowledge of hunting and butchering nor how to set up a camp in which to live by. She had no other choice and the man had said that they would keep her safe from harm. Still, she did not like this man nor the way he spoke to her so brashly. She had bristled at the word prisoner, for she had only just gained her freedom. But could she take his word that they would release her if she willed? Why not now! Still, she wanted to know just what this mark meant and why it had been so dangerous. For all she knew, she had been cursed, for the mark continued to pulsate with the strange light and caused her discomfort and, at times, irritation that led to pain.
“I will keep you at your word,” she nodded firmly. “Very well, I will go with you. It seems I have no other choice.” She began to move again, stamping her feet in frustration. She was yet childish in her manner as she was young and had barely come of age and when she was displeased it often showed with a stubbornness the convent could never cure. She was not malicious by any means, but many times she wanted to speak her mind but ground her teeth instead, since many times she must remain in silence for that was the rule.
The party turned back around and after a time they emerged from the cave into an open field. Long grass swayed in a gentle breeze and a few deer scattered into the nearby forest when the party appeared. Miles in the distance the top towers of Sacrosanct could be seen. The leader of the procession led them through the grass towards the forest. The forest was a beautiful sight, filled with trees of pine and redwood. After an hour of walking they came to a small meadow with a pond. Curiously, a small stone platform lie in the middle of it, carved with runes and symbols. The party stopped at the bank of the pond while the lead man waded through the water and stepped up onto the platform.
The man took a deep breath and let out a long, single-note chant. The sound of it was deep and ominous, seeming to shake the ground beneath them. Then the water began to drain from the pond, revealing a staircase spiraling around the stone platform leading to an iron vault. They descended, unlocking the great vault and entering a stone hallway. At the end there was a door encased with light. They entered, and suddenly their surroundings were very different, it seemed like the interior of a log cabin. The decor was pleasing, and there were windows that flooded in light, though they lead to nowhere. Several other robed men and women were walking through the room when Serena entered. Some of them looked to Andal and smiled while others knelt where they were, muttering some kind of prayer. Andal stepped out in front, "This is our sanctuary my lady, my brother Cartell-" He gestured to one of the men that had been with them. Cartell stepped in front of her and lowered his hood, removing his mask. He was young, probably only a few years older than Serena, he had dark auburn hair and brown eyes. "Will see you to your quarters, your answers will come soon." Andal briskly turned and made off down one of the hallways, leaving the two alone.
Cartell motioned to a nearby hallway, "This way, my lady."
She gasped at the sight of the deer as they bolted away, wishing that they had lingered just a little longer so she could get a good look at them. Never had there been wild animals within the convent, only two goats, one cow, in pens, and several chickens in a coop for their resources with which they made cheese and cream and harvested eggs for breakfast. She brushed the palm of her hand against the tall grass as they passed, allowing her mind to wander, thinking of the life she had left behind. It hadn’t been much of a life but it was all she had known. The smell of pine was sharp and appealing, and their needles and fallen leaves from trees that had dried up in the autumn crunched beneath her feet as they followed a thin trail.
The pond was not much of a glorious thing, though the sunlight winked on the surface. To her disappointment there was no waterfowl but it would soon be clear why. It was curious that a platform lie in the very center of the pond and even stranger that the lead man waded into it, for a purpose unknown to her. The chant sent chills up her spine so foreign it was to her. She could feel its force through her sternum. It was quite unexpected when the pond began to drain, revealing stairs slick with pond scum. She had not seen its like ever before. When she was coaxed to walk she did so with caution, but the stairs had been hewed out of rough stone so there was a good amount of traction. She caught a quick glimpse of the platform that was now fully exposed as she descended. She paused on the stairs as they unlocked the iron vault, which squeaked slightly as it was pushed forward.
After the door had been shut and locked tight behind her, she waited momentarily as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, illuminated only by the door at the end of the hallway. There was no turning back now, since the complicated lock could not be picked, and she may not have a means of exit in any place other than the door they had come through, in which the trickling of water could be heard as the pond swelled back to its usual size, filled with water, keeping the location secret.
The cabin was nice and dry and welcoming, and her eyes roamed over the décor appreciatively. The windows, to her dismay, were not a means of exit and she wondered from which the light came. She paused at the sight of several others of which she was not acquainted and she was increasingly at discomfort among these strangers. The procession here had been bad enough. She furrowed her brow as some abased themselves before this man who had captured her, thus she assumed that he had a high rank - in whatever religion they held – for the words were strange and foreign to her.
As she was introduced to Cartel, she was quite pleased that he removed his hood and mask so that she may study his face. She had not been happy that the party had remained mysterious, keeping their hoods and masks secure. This one looked pleasing enough. The fact that Cartell’s brother, her captor, left the room had improved her mood and she decided to cooperate with Cartell. She walked down the hallway that he had indicated, feeling his presence behind her. She dearly hoped that this man was far kinder than his brother.
Cartell let his eyes drift over her figure as she walked in front of him. There weren't many women his age in the kinship. She was remarkably beautiful, though he should have expected as much of one with her blood. His urges were strong, as he was told they would be. He shook his head, courting her would be a bad idea for many reasons, Andal probably wouldn't allow it anyway. He had to keep his head straight, she was not one of them, she thought of them as enemies.
"Uhm, here." He stopped behind her and opened a wooden door. Inside was a bedroom with modest furnishings. A dresser, a desk with paper, and it's own bathroom. "My lord brother will be here to speak with you soon." He tried to keep his eyes off her, "We will.. meet any accommodations if we can. I'll be just outside." He shut the door and stood guard outside.
Serena too, was aware of his maleness as he walked behind her. A faint blush touched her cheek, unused to a male presence so close to her. She hadn’t known who to expect when Andal had mentioned earlier that he had a brother, and she had it in mind that his brother was older than Andal. So when she met Cartell and saw that he was young, and quite attractive she might add, was caught off guard. So far he was being far more cordial and even kind. It was as if the two brothers were polar opposites. She had decided that she liked Cartell very much because he had made a good first impression. After all, he had not been the one that had killed the High Confessor nor had he been involved with what seemed to her as a senseless slaughter of the people that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, they had cursed her, jeered at her, cried out demands for blood and her death. She struggled with these thoughts, for a small part of her believed that the people deserved it. She chastised herself for thinking such sinful thoughts.
She paused and turned towards him as he indicated that they had arrived at what were to be her quarters. As Andal had said that she was their prisoner, and in the fact that she had not yet been released from their custody, it had crossed her mind that she would have to linger in something of a jail cell. She had a bit of a wild imagination, for in living a life of silence she became a daydreamer. Knowledge of the outside world had been kept from her, and thus she had a thirst for learning what she could on her own, which fueled her desire to read the books in the library which were usually locked away. She had on more than one occasion pilfered the key on the librarian’s desk for she was old and had a penchant for falling asleep and dared to read those books that were not meant for her eyes. Only once had she been caught and she was not allowed to have supper that eve as punishment.
So when Cartell opened the door to a room of comfort, and even more, a bathroom all to herself, as the sisters and nuns had to share a large bathroom and baths were usually shared with one person after another because they thought not to be wasteful, and woe to she that was the last that had to bathe for the water was soapy and cold, she was delightfully surprised.
“This is wonderful, thank you.” Her smile was genuine as she found the quarters quite satisfactory. She tried to not let the fact that she would have to see Andal so soon dampen her spirits, for she wished to make a good impression on Cartell especially.
She was sad when he left so abruptly, and she walked to the door and pressed her hands quietly against it. She thought about opening the door and asking if he could be the one to talk to and not Andal, but that was a foolish thought and she drew away to explore her room. She opened the closet and found that someone had been thoughtful enough to leave her clothing, and as she had a small and delicate frame, they were thankfully not too large. As she poked her head into the bathroom she was delighted that it included a bathtub, for it had been days since she had a good and proper bath.
Serena smiled as she now had the opportunity to speak to Cartell for it was not an outrageous request nor foolishly childish. She tapped on the door and then opened it just enough so that she could speak with him. When she saw his face she became all of a sudden shy, because what she was about to ask was a rather personal request and she worried that he might think... well, never mind that thought, he was likely mature enough to not think of her without clothing. At least she hoped...
“Um, I don’t suppose… well I mean…” She blushed a little. “Could someone bring water so that I might have a bath?”
Cartell was leaning against the wall in the hallway outside her door as she opened it. Quickly he pushed off it and stood up straight. He couldn't help but notice her blush, lowering his head as well, but also smiling. Does she like me? He thought with a rush, then he remembered her question. "Of course, I'll have someone fetch it now." Then he hushed to a whisper, "But don't take too long, if Andal gets here and you're.. indisposed he won't be happy." He smirked, showing he had been on the receiving end of Andal's wroth a time or two.
What did he care what Andal thought? They were close as brothers but.. it had been such a long time since there had been any excitement in the kinship. All the planning, the praying, most of it he couldn't be a part of. Having her here was like a shot of brightness in, what he considered to be, their dark hall. Still, Andal had warned him she might be hostile to them, was it right to converse with her?
"My lady, if I may.. what is your name? My brother never told me." As the words left him he seemed to lean forward slightly, intent on the answer.
His bought of bashfulness made her even more timid, and as he looked up she averted his eyes from his face quickly, a small smile playing on her lips. She nodded, her eyes flicking to his face again. Again, the mention of Andal caused some of the light from her face to fall. “I will be as quick as I can manage.” Surely he will respect the privacy of a young lady.” She was vexed to think otherwise. “I shall knock on the door when I am decent again,” she proposed.
She was all too happy to give him her name. A bright smile returned, her eyes sparkling. There was something about him that made her heart beat faster, her breath catch in her throat. But she must also be cautious not to be swayed by such thoughts, the nuns had talked about the deceptions of men who thought only to bed a woman. But if Cartell had thought that way he would have already done so.
His heart jumped a bit, a beautiful name for a beautiful person. He said no more, simply smiling, bowing, and walking off to fetch her water. He didn't return, but another member of the kinship did, bringing buckets of steaming water for her then taking up the guard.
Andal was deep in the sanctuary in a stone room. In the middle was a basin atop a pedestal. The basin was filled with a substance looking like water, but it didn't ripple or flow, it was thicker. He was knelt before the basin, and Cartell came in through the door behind him. Rising, Andal turned to him, "Our Friend is pleased with our results. We should be safe here for a few days but we must move her in short time, the dogs of Illios will be on the move soon." Cartell nodded, glancing at the basin, seeming as if he didn't want to be here. Andal followed his gaze then turned back to Cartell, squinting his eyes, "Does something trouble you, brother?"
Cartell shook his head, "No, my kin, it's just.. do we know what will ultimately become of her?" Andal took a few steps towards him, "Even I do not know that. She may be consumed by the power or she may control it, I imagine our Friend will have a hand in it. It is too soon to know." Andal started to walk past his brother, placing a hand on his shoulder, "I know how you feel, but she is.. something unique. Caution is all I give you." He exited the room and headed for Serena's quarters, Cartell on his heels.
She smiled at him as he bowed. He was so polite to her! It was quite endearing. After he left, she went back to her room to await the water promised to her. She thanked the man who brought her the water, and even more when he carried in the buckets to the bathroom and left promptly.
Serena poured the warm water into the tub, being a satisfactory amount in which to bathe. Shampoo had also been provided to her, and she was delighted at its scent – lavender and mint. She disrobed and slipped into the bathtub, letting out a long sigh of pleasure, closing her eyes and allowing herself to soak in the water several minutes before she sank herself into the water in order to wet her hair, then proceeded to work a rich later into her hair and washing the dirt off of her body with a cloth. She hummed happily all the while then dunked herself again, her hair cascading into gentle waves with the movement of the water. She sighed in regret as she left the tub, but she wanted to be dressed and presentable when Andal came. She toweled herself off vigorously and made sure her hair was as dry as it could be, running a comb through her locks to detangle them. She had laid out clothing on her bed and went to dress, making haste because she feared she had dallied in the water for far too long. As all she could do was wait, she sat down on the bed. She found her mind wandering to Cartell again and she chuckled at herself. She admitted it may be unwise to become attached, for she was uncertain of the future. But still…
They approached her room and rapped at the door. As they entered they wore matching outfits as they had before. Dark green robes over dark silver platemail, on the chest of their breastplates was emblazoned the crest of house Holland - a white moon embellished with a black crow spread eagle in the center. Andal at last was un-masked with his hood drew back. Andal and his brother looked very similar, but Andal's face was worn with age and scarred from battle. His eyes were green, his hair black streaked with grey.
Andal spun around her desk chair and sat across from her, as Cartell leaned against the wall behind him trying his best to avoid staring. "As you may have guessed," Andal began, "We are those the Illios call 'The Unnamed.' I'm not sure what they've told you of us, if anything. We serve a being called The Outlander. He is not our god, we do not worship him. He speaks to us, and we serve. In return, he gives us strength. Those Illios priests probably told you a little about the pre-uniting kingdoms. My family, house Holland of Dire's End, long ago belonged to the the land that used to be called the Golden Kingdoms, far in the west. There are many beyond the walls of Sacrosanct who have grown tired of their religion and their oppression, myself and my kin are among them. We seek a return to glory for our former kingdom. We don't seek war, we only seek a peace free from the Illios and their laws. You, my lady, are the key to this rise. You may not be aware of who you are.. but you are of the blood of the first, those ancient kings who landed first on Cairnewn and birthed the Prime Kingdoms. Tell me.. your childhood, do you remember anything about it? Anything at all? Before you were taken to Sacrosanct."
She jumped a little at the knocking for it had broken the silence, and before she rose to answer the door, Andal and Cartell entered the room. She hoped that the man at the door on guard had told them that she was decent, for it would have been quite awkward otherwise. So when Cartell sat down in the desk chair, she settled herself again on the bed, expecting their conversation would be of length.
The Unnamed… this title was known to her, but she had been taught that those of which bore the name were sinful, and their ways were blasphemous and unnatural. They were blamed for the missing women and their deaths. Any of the Unnamed discovered in Sacrosanct were quickly put to death. She had every reason to believe these things, for speaking of The Unnamed was discouraged in the convent. Andal had not made a good impression on her, however, there was something in Cartell’s face that told her that he was not capable of such terrors. Andal’s appearance suggested that he had been in many quarrels, perhaps a revolutionist. By the way he talked about the Ilios, her own people of which she had been accustomed, she surmised that Andal held Illios in contempt.
Perhaps he was even contemptuous of herself. She did not know. But she had not been mistreated in any way thus far, so it was likely that she was of use to The Unnamed in some way. The Outlander was marked as devilish and unholy… she had been taught these things all of her life. But she could not judge Cartell, not with his kind face, which did not bear the age and the scars as Andal had on his face. She wondered if Andal was the hand of The Outlander, perhaps a high priest of some sort. He spoke of The Outlander and The Unnamed with a vicious pride.
In her mischief in the library, she had discovered a book of maps, worn and old, the pages had a musty smell as she turned them. In her eyes, Sacrosanct was the center of everything but the maps provided her with an understanding that the world outside the city was vast, and it would be hard to keep the kingdoms under their thumb for very long. But to think that others felt oppressed by those of her faith was inconceivable for she had long been taught that their god was ultimately divine. She shook her head a little and chided herself for letting her mind wander so.
“Blood of the first? Ancient kings?” She spoke in a hushed tone.
All of this was so new to her she didn’t know what to think of it. But she did want peace, no more death, no more deadly quarrels between territories. She had been naïve of her importance in the grand scheme of things, but she promised herself that she would not let it go to her head, so humble a life she had led. She looked directly at Andal at his question.
“I was very young when I was taken to the convent, perhaps three years old? It was such a long time ago and my memories are vague at best. I can remember faces, but no names. I remember traveling very far from somewhere, and I remember the wagon that bore me was uncomfortable and I felt hungry a lot of the time. It was very cold. I think I remember snow. The driver did not speak much to me, but he seemed to be very, very sad.” Her eyes were unfocused as she went on. “I remember a stranger taking my hand and leading me to the cathedral, where they gave me food and warm blankets. The mother superior was very old, I remember she would sneak me hot chocolate. She died a few years after I came there. I remember being sad because she was such a nice lady. That was the first time I saw someone who had died, and I wanted her to wake up. I begged the nuns to wake her up, but they said it was impossible. The next mother superior did not give me hot chocolate because she said that I had been spoiled." Serena blinked as she came out of it. "As I grew older the mother superior told me that I had to work very hard or else I would not deserve to live there. That thought terrified me..."