370 Years Ago
Year of Unity 1500
Bellona kicked her legs, the heels of her worn, pinched boots tapping against the legs of the chair she sat in. Her feet didn’t quite reach the floor, making it harder to sit still, and sitting still left her in silence and a strange place, anyway. It was so much easier to instead focus on the soft taps her kicking made.
She didn’t know where she was.
In a distant sort of way, she knew. She was somewhere important, being guided and pushed around by people more important than her mind could comprehend. She just hadn’t paid much attention to the specifics, or even how she got there. Her life lately had been little more than a blur— fire and warfare, followed by carriage rides and sickly sweet smiles, then promises that she was finally safe.
She didn’t feel safe. She’d felt safe with her parents, but then…
Bellona’s head snapped up when a door creaked open, a man entering the room. When she saw his face, she gasped and threw herself out of her chair, then crawled on hands and knees to hide behind a leather sofa. She stayed out of sight for as long as she could bear, her heartbeat picking up as she listened for any sounds coming from the man.
Could he hear her? She wished her heart would stop beating so loudly.
Slowly, she peeked over the top of the couch.
The man had moved to the open kitchen across the bland common room. His back was to her, but Bellona knew exactly who he was. He’d appeared in her village just before the fighting began, before everything went up in flames. Her parents had called him the Sword of Unity. Wherever he went, Unity’s wrath followed.
She’d heard the stories about him. She feared him more than she feared the monsters who prowled outside her village at night, their glowing eyes staring out from the forest with hunger.
“You can come out,” the man called, his back still to her. “I won’t hurt you.”
Bellona ducked back behind the couch again but could only stay hidden for so long before her curiosity got the better of her. When she peered over the couch a second time, she found the man much closer, sitting in the chair she’d recently vacated. She hadn’t seen him up close before, and what she saw surprised her. He looked nice. Nice as her best friend’s big brother, who sometimes teased but had always been kind to Bellona.
A plate full of sliced fruit rested precariously on the arm of the chair beside him, and when he offered a piece to her, Bellona hesitantly left her hiding spot to take it.
“There you go,” the man said. “Go ahead and sit.”
Bellona hesitated, eyeing him suspiciously.
“I told you I wouldn’t hurt you,” the man said. She found she believed him more than she believed the smiling old men who brought her here, so she sat. The man spoke again, voice staying at a level, gentle cadence. “How did you get here?”
Bellona answered through a mouthful of fruit. “A man brought me here and told me to wait.”
“Brought you through the prison?”
Bellona nodded. She’d never even been near a prison before today, and now she’d walked through one.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
“That’s a pretty name,” the man said. He sat forward, his soft, pitying expression turning intense. This was the expression he wore just before Bellona’s village burned. She shrank back into the couch cushions, but she couldn’t look away from the man’s hard black eyes.
“Hold onto that name, Bellona, because they’re going to try to take it from you. They’ll take your name and give you a new one, and they’ll try to make you forget who you used to be. They’ll turn you into whoever they need you to be, instead. Do you understand?”
Bellona shook her head. She wanted to go home. “They who?”
“Unity,” the man answered.
“My mother and father say Unity is bad,” Evelyne said, uncertainly.
“Don’t ever repeat that here,” the man said sharply. “If you do, they’ll hurt you.”
Bellona shrank in on herself. “Why?”
The man just smiled, wry, and shrugged. “To make you behave.”
Bellona didn’t want to behave. She wanted to run away. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Call me Egil.”
“Is that your real name?”
Egil smiled sadly. “No, they took mine a long time ago.”
“I want to go home,” Bellona whined, despite knowing deep down that she had no home to go back to.
Something softened around Egil’s eyes. “I know,” he said, and Bellona thought he really did understand.
Before he could say anything more, though, the man that brought Bellona to the barracks returned. Egil stood quickly and dropped into a stiff bow. When he straightened again, all the kindness was gone from his face.
“Magistrate,” Egil greeted, voice flat.
“I was just looking for you. I see you’ve met our newest Enforcer,” the Magistrate said, eyeing Bellona and the plate of fruit on Egil’s chair, then dismissing them both in favor of turning back to Egil. “You’re to train her like you did the others. Better, even. If she’s anything like her parents, she’s got potential.”
“She’s just a child.”
The Magistrate raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you won’t do it?”
“No,” Egil said, glancing briefly at Bellona. “I’m just saying she’s too young for training to do her any good. Or the rest of us, for that matter. She’ll just get in the way and waste my time.”
“You don’t decide what’s a waste of your time; we do. Train her,” the Magistrate said.
Egil flinched. “Yes, my Lord.”
The Magistrate didn’t acknowledge him, already turning to leave. His smiles for Bellona were used up, too; he didn’t so much as glance her way before heading upstairs, back toward the prison.
Egil closed his eyes, clenched his jaw. At his sides, his hands balled into fists. For a moment, Bellona wondered if he would go after the Magistrate. But the sounds of the Magistrate’s footsteps soon faded, and so did the tension in Egil’s shoulders.
“Come on,” Egil said with a sigh. “I’ll take you to your new room.”
Bellona followed Egil down the hall, fighting the tears that clouded her vision.
“How old are you, anyway?” Egil asked as they walked past plain room after plain room.
“Twelve,” Egil repeated with a groan. He stopped, and Bellona almost ran into him. “Here. This is it.”
When Bellona saw her new “room,” the tears that had been pricking her eyes for the last hour finally began to fall. Egil froze, eyes wide, unsure of what to do. He crouched beside her, gentleness returned now that the Magistrate was gone. “Come, now. Don’t—,”
“Don’t tell me not to cry!” Bellona said. “My mother and father are dead and my village is gone and now I’m stuck in this awful place!”
“I wasn’t going to tell you not to cry. Go ahead, if it helps you feel better. Just don’t ever let them see you,” Egil said. “Try to get some sleep. Breakfast is at six, and you’ll have to join the other Enforcers for training, after.”
“Even though I’ll just get in the way?” Bellona asked, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“You won’t get in the way,” Egil said. “I promise.”
Bellona wiped her eyes.
“Bellona,” Egil said, taking one of Bellona’s hands in both of his own. He glanced down the hall, in the direction the Magistrate had disappeared in, before continuing. “Listen to me. They’ll summon you for questions, sometimes. The Magistrates. Do whatever they ask and your life here will be painless, but remember what I told you. Remember your name. Remember your parents, remember how they died. Don’t let them take that from you.”
“Why don’t we just run away? You don’t wanna be here, either,” Bellona said.
Egil paused, a puzzled look stealing over his features. It was like he’d genuinely never considered the possibility. “There are plenty of reasons. Now, get some rest,” he said.
When he left, there was a new, thoughtful look in his eye and a spring in his step.
Bellona took the first tentative steps into her new room. She dropped her small bag on the bed, opened one of the dresser drawers to peer inside, then caught sight of herself in the mirror in the corner. Her pale face was blotchy red, swollen from crying. Her hair was loose and tangled, making her look like some wild thing – that hair was apple-red, and her skin had the feather-brushed texture of a marionite.
Bellona forced herself to look away. She sat on the stiff bed, steeled her heart, and realized she may be stuck in these barracks for a long time to come.