Chapter One

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The High Road

James Delaney Swinney

The shackles were the worst part, Elicia decided. After weeks of endless repetition, walking all day meant less than nothing to her. Insults and curses from her captors had become commonplace. More than once had her charming travel companions hawked heaping gobs of spit into the thick auburn hair that countless suitors had loved so well.

But the ropes burned hotter than the depths of hell, she had often mused in her foul-tempered humour. They were tied unbearably tight, impossible to remove by herself, and when she tried to twist free they would tear into the flesh of her arm. This was more pain than she’d ever seen in her fourteen years, worse even than the constant reliving of that terrible night in her mind.

She’d been walking in the forest with Mykel that evening, a miner’s boy, and he’d just been complimenting her, when she stopped dead in her tracks. She asked him if he smelled smoke in the split second before a hard-shot arrow turned Mykel’s round, pleasant head into a splattering of blood, brain, and bone that fell lifelessly to the ground. With that, Elicia Iliman, the niece of the King, had become, to the best of her knowledge, the sole surviving resident of the Serpent’s Tail. Why they spared her and no one else, Elicia did not know.

“We’re almost to Cross, your highness,” came the gruff voice of the raider nearest to her, his face turned in a wicked smile at the usage of the title. The affectation had come about on the day she was captured, when she’d ordered them around like a queen to her subjects. “You know what happens then,” he said, still smirking, “but only the Gods know what’ll happen when your new master hears your complaining. I’m about ready to rip your arms off myself.” The man’s big bay horse snorted loudly.

The thought of being a slave no longer affected her as it used to. In fact, Elicia was beginning to think that it would be an improvement over her current situation, what with the foul stench of horse everywhere, mixed with the almost fouler smell of the raiders themselves. The only thing worse than that disgusting odour, she thought, was the thought wearing these bloody shackles any longer!

“Now keep up the pace, your highness,” he continued, “I want you away from me as soon as possible. You stink.”

Dry grass crunched beneath her bare, aching feet—her shoes had long since worn away to the point of hurting more than they helped—as images danced through her mind. She saw Mykel’s face erupting in a swirl of blood again, saw the grim and evil smiles of her captors when they’d captured her. She had tried to run, but there were so many, and they had surrounded her. These thoughts came and went, tormenting her young mind as they walked the remaining distance to the city of Cross.

Cross had been built on both sides of the River Erivol, with bridges spanning the wide waters and connecting the west and east sides. Built in this way, it had become a perfect resting place for sailors making their way south along the river to Taylus. This major trading center rested in the shadow of Reman the Great’s ancient fortress of God’s Glory.

Opposite of Reman Adaro’s high ideals that he had forged his mighty empire on, however, Cross had become the foremost market for buying and selling slaves within the empire’s boundaries, possibly in the world.

They arrived at the gates not long after that and were soon admitted into the city. They walked along the wide street through the western, not to mention wealthier, side of Cross. This was where the castle was, along with the manors of the well-to-do residents. Elicia, lost in her thoughts, did not notice as they passed through a market, bustling with merchants and shoppers alike. Past this, they came upon a long bridge that spanned the river. They crossed this, leaving the decent side of the city and making their way towards the slave markets on the eastern bank. They arrived at their intended destination soon after that.

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