Trained By the Warrior – Stella Rising

Old Miss Bell gasps when she inhales the roasted chicken’s aroma as I pull it from the oven. As soon as I put it down in front of her she takes an excessively long breath through her nose, eyes watering from the heavenly blend of rosemary, onion and oil. Glee washes over her face, and I smile, feeling her happiness in my thumping heart. “When Herab sees this, he’s going to cry. I haven’t been able to make it for him in years,” she says. “Thank you, Rinae.” “I could help you carve it,” I say, glancing out the window at the hanging sun. “Or make the greens.” “That’s lovely of you, but it’s late,” Miss Bell says. “It’s almost time for…” She catches herself, her face falling only for a moment. Your birthday, she nearly said. She knows what day it is, and what will happen tonight — and how vital it is I’m not late. “You didn’t have to come today,” she says, blinking away a tear. “I wanted to. Believe me, it helps.

But you’re right, I should go,” I say, removing Miss Bell’s stained apron. “It was good to see you.” “Thank you again, Rinae,” she says, hugging me tightly. “You’re a blessing. And remember, about tonight… it’s going to be okay, I promise.” I thank her and go, hurrying back home. Dry winds cool me from the hot kitchen as dusk settles over Ellsvale. Merchants on the city streets pack up their booths for the night and horses clop along the cobblestones carrying farmers’ wagons back to their fields. Several people start to wave but turn away, remembering what day today is, and what what will happen to me tonight. The sun has nearly sunk when I reach the edge of town and my family’s cottage; I skid to a stop seeing three horses tied to the post along the road.

Even in the dark I can see the red and black of their saddles and harnesses: the colors of Imperator Molba. A member of the Guard sits on his steed watching me. I didn’t expect them to be here already. “Go inside,” says the soldier. Nodding, I obey, heading in to find Ava staring straight forward, pale as flour. She doesn’t move a muscle or even allow herself to glance at the door. I don’t utter a word as I find Mother in her rocking chair, and then two other men across the room: a soldier, and a short, skinny man I met a year ago. “Sebo,” I growl, though he takes no notice of me, his focus trained on Ava. “What are you doing here?” There’s little point in asking: I can see that he’s leaning over a canvas, brush in hand, painting my sister’s likeness. “I know.

I am early,” Sebo says, taking my meaning. “The Imperator made a special request. So here I am.” He wasn’t due to visit Ava for months, not until her seventeenth birthday. “Where’s Molba?” I ask. “In transit. I will take you to wait for him when we’re finished here,” says Sebo, yawning as he looks back and forth between Ava and the canvas. I once sat in her place, probably feeling just as sick, knowing my eighteenth birthday would come after one very long year. Ava will have to wait longer. But at least tonight my wait will be over, and Ava will see that I’m okay.

There’s always a chance Molba won’t come for her. He doesn’t show for everyone, but Ava’s pretty, and her portrait will accurately reflect her beauty — as did mine. No, Molba will be back for her someday, just as sure as he’s coming for me. I give Mother a hug and hold her icy hand while Sebo paints. She sniffs and wipes away tears, but glares with murderous intensity. When Sebo painted me a year ago, the process felt like an eternity, but having to watch Ava feels far more torturous. When at long last the artist sets down his brush, my head swims with fury. “Ava, take Mother to bed,” I say, passing her a cloth to clean her lips and cheeks. Sebo ignores us, carefully fitting the canvas into a frame for transport. “Are you ready to go?” he asks.

I nod, then follow him out the door. — I ride behind Sebo the short distance to Ellsvale Hall, the city’s seat of government. The horses trot leisurely, no soldiers’ heels digging into their sides, giving the people a chance to watch as we go by. I hold my head up, trying to look more defiant than I feel. Before Imperator Molba, I’ll have to swallow down my bile, but I won’t do so until I must. When we arrive, Sebo shows me to a luxury washroom lit by braziers and candles. Incense burns from sconces on the walls as I bathe. Were I not dreading the night to come, I would relish the chance to relax in the massive tub. However, I cleanse myself quickly, then dry off and don a gown set aside for me. Dark green and silky, the dress fits tight around my slim figure, especially in the hips and chest.

Once I’m ready, servants bearing fans and towels arrive to help dry my long, dark hair and pin in a satin bow to match the gown. They give me perfume and blush, and when I finally see my reflection in the mirror I gasp at the job they’ve done. I’m used to seeing myself in ponds and placid rivers, a mess from a day’s worth of tending the family garden or taking odd jobs around the city. Now I hardly recognize myself. “Try to remember this is an honor,” Sebo says, waiting with me in the hall’s grand chamber. “Ellsvale’s distance from the Capital means Molba only visits for the most beautiful of its girls. I knew a year ago, the moment I saw your face, that he would not pass up a chance to claim you.” I don’t give Sebo the satisfaction of seeing my revulsion. From the drawings I’ve seen of Imperator Molba, he is undoubtedly a handsome man, but he’s a disgusting pig. Taking the virginity of any woman in the empire he desires by the threat of retaliation… he is a cruel tyrant, without question.

The day he overthrew Imperator Loth he turned our peaceful continent into a raw wound that still throbs with pain. Sneaking a look at my cleavage, Sebo asks, “Do you have anyone looking to marry you?” “That’s none of your business,” I snap. He laughs cruelly. “Really, no one has asked? I find that hard to believe.” Between working, caring for Mother and helping raise Ava, I’ve been too busy to even think about marriage. Who would want to take me, knowing that I come with an ailing parent and no dowry? “I am unwed,” Sebo continues, still leering. “Perhaps after Molba’s had his fun, you can try your luck with me. I will take some convincing, though.” I shiver; I’d rather die an old maid. “Think about it,” he says, humming a soft tune as the cacophony of marching soldiers draws near.

Massive wooden doors swing wide, allowing in a procession of the Guard, who walk alongside Imperator Molba. Handsome indeed, he stands a head above his soldiers and moves with swagger and a severe grin. Stroking his short, black beard, he takes in the room with dark eyes. A golden crown circles his bald head, and his red and black armor glistens in the torchlight. At least a dozen servant girls follow: one brings wine, another carries fruits and cheeses, while one more plays the harp. Several others stand in wait, ready to fulfill any unmet need. Chains locked around their ankles slide across the wooden floor. They appear cold in their tight, stringy tops and loose, short skirts; at all times they avert their eyes and deaden their countenances. I would give anything right now for a chance to strike off their chains; what kind of hell must it be, serving this monster? The hall’s chamber culminates in a dais and throne, where Molba takes his seat. He motions for me to approach.

I do, lowering myself into a bow. “Rinae of Ellsvale, you look lovely,” he says, raking his eyes up and down. “When I laid my eyes upon Sebo’s drawing I assumed he exaggerated your beauty. He assured me he produced your likeness with complete accuracy, and now I believe him.” Does he say this to all the girls? Molba snaps his finger, and a servant produces a wooden cylinder from which he retrieves a rolled-up canvas. Unfurling it, he displays the portrait painted a year ago. “Yes, he was truthful,” Molba continues. “I have admired this image daily, lamenting that all the power in my empire cannot make time pass faster. But, patience is often rewarded, and it certainly has been today.” I keep from sneering.

If he wanted, he could have a sorcerer put him to sleep for a year — that would make the time pass faster, assuming he ever woke again. The thought of him gazing at Sebo’s painting of me day after day elicits a shiver I can’t completely hide. “Now, Rinae: today is your birthday. You are a woman by all laws and rights. Are you still pure?” The question echoes in my mind, swirling around it like a swarm of bats flapping their wings incessantly. Though I expected him to use a truth spell on me, and was warned about how it would feel, I nearly vomit. “Yes, my lord,” I croak. He nods slowly, his smile widening. “Good. Now, before we retire to privacy, I would like to offer you a birthday gift, as is custom.

What would you like? A sizable dowry, perhaps? Jewelry befitting a queen? A knight’s steed?” I have only one request in mind. I’m a fool, but I must ask — otherwise I’ll always wonder what he might have said. “Your grace, I would ask that you refrain from claiming my sister, Ava, when she comes of age.” Silence falls on the chamber, and Molba darkens. “I do not grant such requests,” he replies after a time. “Ask for something else.” “Respectfully, that is all I want, your grace,” I say. “Will you honor my birthday wish?” He steps forward and lifts my chin so he can look me in the eyes. “No,” he says. “I will not.

Your gift will be the pleasure I grant you tonight. That is all-” Before Molba can finish, his body flies backward, landing on the throne. Gasping, I turn to see several of his soldiers driving their swords through the armor of their own men. What the hell is going on? The chamber turns to chaos — the servants flee, heading for the doors. Sebo grabs the portraits before making his escape. Part of me knows I should go too, but fear takes hold, leaving me stuck in place. “Betrayers!” Molba shouts. “Kill them!” The most muscular of the traitors draws his sword, which bursts into flame. Scowling beneath his mask, he cuts down two soldiers while racing toward Molba. He raises his sword for a slice through the neck, but Molba leaps from the throne, rising several feet in the air and landing on a steel chandelier.

“Cadyn!” Molba shouts at the large soldier. “Is that you?” Two of Molba’s guards rush the man, but they never get close: roaring, he throws bolts of lightning from his hand, striking the attackers. Both fall, their armor smoking. “You’re a dead man,” Molba growls. “Run!” Cadyn barks at me. I rise to my feet, but before I can flee, Molba kicks the candles from the chandelier. They land all around me, igniting the carpet. Within seconds I’m surrounded by encroaching flame. Molba springs from the chandelier and lands at the chamber’s entrance, chopping his sword through a betrayer’s neck as he lands. “You tried, Cadyn, but you failed!” he shouts, and then he’s gone.

Unbearable heat fills the air around me; choked by smoke, I bend over, coughing, trying desperately to think of a way out, but there isn’t one. The flames are everywhere. “Help me!” I scream at the warrior called Cadyn. He howls in rage at the doorway, as if determined to chase after Molba. Then he turns to the fire, which begins to die out as if smothered by an invisible blanket. Moving his hand in a ring, Cadyn extinguishes the fire all around me, leaving only smoke, ashes and the once-carpeted stone floor. I collapse to my knees, drawing deep breaths and coughing out the smoke. Shivering uncontrollably, I cry, shaken by my near brush with death. “Damnit!” he shouts, pounding his forehead with this wrist. “We had him!” He was trying to kill the imperator! This was an assassination attempt — and it failed.

If he had succeeded… Seething, he holds out his hands and draws the remaining fire from the burning surfaces. The flames leap into his palms and vanish into his skin. He marches up to one of Molba’s fallen guards, one that coughs blood as a knife sticks out of his chest. “It missed the heart,” Cadyn says to the man. “Or you’d be dead by now.” The soldier groans, turning away. “Maybe you don’t have a heart at all. How else could you serve Molba? Let’s find out.” Cadyn pulls out the knife, then jams it back into the soldier’s chest, a few inches away. The man’s eyes widen and his body heaves, then goes still.

I turn away, nauseated by the sight. “You,” Cadyn growls. “Look at me.” I stay frozen, hoping he’s talking to another dying soldier. “Rinae,” he says, “Get up!” Heart pounding, my skin heating, I do as he says, though I don’t want to. He just saved me from the fire; he wouldn’t kill me now, would he? When I see him, he’s sheathed his sword; his hands are empty. Yet, he clearly doesn’t need a blade to be dangerous. Rising like a wall of muscle, he stands a full head over me. Even with his armor making him look bigger, he still possesses immensely wide shoulders, a chest packed and bulging. It’s hard to imagine a man with such a physique moving as quickly as he does, but clearly he is capable of using magic.

“I’m sorry,” I squeak. “Why didn’t you run?” he asks, his voice low. I wish I could now. If only I had before… “Answer me.” Tears wet my cheeks. “I was scared. It was a battle! People were fighting everywhere. It wasn’t safe… it wasn’t.” “You cost me my chance to kill Molba,” he says. “I’m sorry.

” Sighing, Cadyn shakes his head. He pulls the knife from the dead guard’s chest, then cuts off the man’s breastplate. Working quickly, Cadyn cuts out strips from the man’s bloody wool vest below, then grabs my wrist and yanks it behind my back. “Hey!” I shout, trying to wrench out of his grasp, but he’s too strong. “Quiet,” he says, tying my hands together with the fabric. “What are you doing? I need to get home!” He forces some of the sweaty cloth between my lips and knots the ends behind my head, gagging me. Attempting to dislodge it fails, so I settle for trying not to let my tongue touch it. “You can’t go home,” Cadyn explains. “Molba will come back to claim you. He will be watching your family.

” So, what am I supposed to do? I want to ask him, but he doesn’t give me the chance — he hoists me onto his back like a sack, the effort minimal to him, as though I weighed hardly anything. Then he swipes his hand in a wave around the room, his power knocking over torches and braziers, setting the hall ablaze once more. As the fire spreads, he runs us out, holding me with one arm and drawing his sword with the other. However, we meet no more guards as he heads out a servants’ entrance and races us away from Ellsvale. A million questions come to mind as he runs, not stopping for a moment. He’s taking us north of the city, into the deep forest that covers the land for hundreds of miles, until reaching the Northern Mountains. It’s definitely a place where one can hide, but not a safe one: animals and beasts roam these woods, from bears and wolves to giant arachnids and venomous serpents. He follows the main road through the forest only for a mile, then veers into the thick expanse of trees. There’s no discernible path but he appears to know his way, avoiding exposed roots and hanging vines as though he could see them miles ahead. Perhaps he can.

I’ve heard that some warriors who harness magical power can extend their senses beyond the normal range. As much as I’d prefer to walk on my own, being carried is likely safer and faster under the circumstances — and in a way it feels oddly comforting. My heart has stopped thundering since the battle. I no longer gasp for air or feel the searing heat. Lost in the rhythm of Cadyn’s motion, I can process the fact that I am still alive, and that Molba did not violate me on this night. Whatever happens next, at least I have this small victory. At last we arrive at a tiny cabin built of dark wood and stone, surrounded by so many trees that the moonlight barely pierces through the leaves. Setting me down, he stops in front of the door and trains his focus on the lock. Something inside it clicks, and it opens slightly. A magic lock! Knowing I’d never find my way out of these woods, I hadn’t thought much of trying to escape, but what if I can’t even open the door from the inside? It seals behind us as if moving on its own; by the time it’s shut, Cadyn’s already striking a flint and building a fire in a brick stove built into the wall.

As the room warms, the glow allows me to see the inside: there’s a basin for washing, a small cot and a kitchen table — it’s spartan, but clean. Smoked meats hang from the ceiling in thin nets, while baskets of bread and garden vegetables rest on the table. He reaches around and removes the gag from my mouth, but he doesn’t untie my hands. Feeling the damp cloth, he snarls. The fire surges within the stove, casting off more heat and light. I lower myself to the floor, keeping my head down. Using my fingers I tug at the cloth binding my hands, but the knots are tied too tightly for me to loosen them, especially without being able to see what I’m doing. I sneak a glance up at Cadyn when I hear the drag of his sword being pulled from its scabbard. For a second fear twists my stomach, but he’s not even looking at me; after cleaning the weapon with a fresh cloth, he drags a sharpening stone along the blade’s edge. With each stroke of the stone, fury leaves his face and the fire settles down.

“You’re staring,” he says, though I don’t know how he could tell without looking at me. “Sorry,” I mumble. He doesn’t respond, putting his sword away. “What’s going to happen now?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “If enough of my people escaped the fight without detection, we’ll regroup and try to ambush Molba on his way back to the Capital. If not… I’ll come up with a new plan.” “Oh,” I say, feeling the tears sting my eyes. “What… what about me?” I ask. “What am I… going to do?” “You’ll stay here until it’s safe.

” “How… long?”

.

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