“Kane! Kane, you useless, lazy boy, get over here!”
I blink, sitting up and looking around. I am sitting on- a bed? I am in a small, wooden room, littered with tools and scraps of metal. I am home.
The voice calls again. My old master.
I pull myself to my feet, and walk, as if in a trance, towards the door.
My master stands there. He is a tall, graying man in his forties. His face is set in a permanent scowl, and in his hand he carries a whip. I flinch automatically. I know what that whip is for. It’s for me. But… my master never whipped me.
“Come here, boy!” he barks. I approach him, shaking. The whip whistles through the air, and cracks across my back. I hit the ground, letting out a choked cry. The whip sings again, and slashes open my shirt. Blood runs down my back.
“Get up!” he barks. “Stand and face me! Dammit, boy, you’ll never succeed if you’re weak!”
I get to my feet, trying not to cry out again. The whip cracks down, and I lock my mouth shut, though I still gasp weakly.
“Good enough,” he snarls. “Now stand aside. I’ve got a punishment to deliver. Girl! Come here!”
Even as I watch, his face changes. It grows longer, sterner, more angular. Soon, he has transformed into a soldier. The setting around me changes as well, to a courtyard in the palace.
I look around in shock. A group of girls stands behind me. One beckons to me, and I retreat into their numbers. The girl studies me with a worried expression. “Are you alright?”
I wince. “I’m not sure.”
“Don’t let him see you show pain,” she nods towards the soldier. “He’ll beat you again.”
I nod, and fall silent. Then there is the sound of crying.
“A punishment,” the girl winces in sympathy. “Poor girl.”
A small child slips out of the crowd. She can’t be more than eight. She is slim and fragile looking, but there is a quiet determination about her. For a moment I think of Natalia. But no, it’s not her. This girl is blond.
“Please master,” she begs. “Please, no master. I won’t do it again. I promise. Please don’t beat me.”
“Quiet, girl!” he barks. He tosses the whip aside, and pulls out a short wooden rod. “Now come here, and stop whimpering! Only a coward would act as weak as you. Are you a Devia or not, girl?!”
“I- yes master,” she whimpers. She approaches him, and locks her eye shut. Instantly, she is rebuked.
“Eyes open! You’re hopeless if you can’t face your punishment!”
“Yes master!” her eyes snap open rapidly. Even as they open, the rod comes down, taking her between the shoulder blades. She cries out, which only makes the soldier more angry.
“No, girl! Enough weakness! Face your punishment like a true Devia!”
The rod comes down again. And again. And again. Each time, the girl lets out a soft cry, and is cursed by the soldier.
“Isn’t anybody going to stop him?!” I demand. “He could kill her!”
The girl beside me shakes her head. “We can’t. No one would dare.”
And then a voice calls out from the crowd. “Basta! Basta! STOP!”
A girl bursts through the crowd, and I stare in shock. It’s… it’s Natalia. Younger, yes, but it’s her. What is that language she’s speaking? It sounds like one of the southern dialects. Marish, maybe? That would explain the color of her hair. Most women from the south have naturally dark hair.
She runs forwards. “Basta!” she yells again. “Master, you will kill her if you do not stop.”
“And what business of yours is it, girl?!” the soldier snarls.
“She is one of us,” Natalia replies. “She is my family! Master, you’ve given the punishment. Stop now. Stop beating and hurting her.”
“Stand aside, Natalia, unless you want the same punishment!” the soldier barks.
Natalia stays firm. She approaches, taking the smaller girl by the arm. “Stand behind me,” she murmurs.
The girl stares at her silently, her eyes wide with a worshipful light.
“Alright,” the soldier snarls. “If this is how you wish to play things, Natalia. On your knees. Now!”
Natalia grits her teeth, and drops to her knees in front of the soldier. I nearly cry out to her, but I feel the girl beside me put her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t,” she insists. “Natalia’s tough. She can take this.”
“You’ll just let her be hurt?” I turn to look at the girl. Her face is set.
“She wants to take the hurt for Iya. Let her. This is her way of helping. It’ll insult her pride if you charge in.”
I nod slowly, and turn back to look at Natalia. There is nothing cruel or hard about her here. She is simply a friend, who is trying to help another one of her friends. This must be a long time back. She can’t be more than nine or ten- though it’s hard to tell, seeing as she is already small and slight as it is.
The soldier exchanges the rod for the whip, and studies Natalia with a vicious eye. Then he brings it cracking across her back.
Natalia stays silent.
The soldier either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. He raises the whip again, and brings it down a second time, sending it cracking across her back. Her shirt tears, and a line of blood begins to trickle down her back. Again, he strikes her. Again, a stream of blood begins to flow from her wounds. And he doesn’t stop. Not when her back is a bloody mess. Not when she begins to cry softly. He only lets up once she collapses, falling to the ground, utterly and totally defeated.
And then the scene changes.
The girls around me are older now. They run loops around a yard. A girl falls. Instantly, I see Natalia’s familiar dark hair beside her, lifting the girl, helping her stand again. They keep running.
A whistle blows, and they all stop, panting hard. A soldier- the same man, only older- approaches them as they hurriedly fall into lines. I join them, standing at the end. None of them acknowledge me this time, and I wonder if I am invisible to them.
“Today,” he announces, “you will be learning your first lesson in swords. I will need a volunteer for this demonstration.”
All the girls hesitate, glancing around at each other. It is obvious that none of them want to be part of this ‘demonstration’, whatever it is. The soldier smirks- he obviously expects this. “All right, then I’ll choose-”
“I will, sir.”
The soldier turns. Natalia steps forwards.
“What did you say, girl?”
“I said I’ll volunteer, sir,” she replies with forced cheerfulness. “You asked for volunteers, sir, and I volunteered.”
The soldier laughs. “Alright then. Choose your weapon.” He steps aside to reveal a large array of swords behind him. Natalia approaches them warily, and selects one of the swords at random. It’s obviously too heavy for her, and she goes to put it back, but the soldier steps in.
“Your choice has been made, I see.”
“It’s too heavy, sir.”
“Then you shouldn’t have chosen it,” the soldier replies uncaringly. “Now face me!”
Natalia grips her sword tightly, though I can see the worry in her face. And then the scenes begin to change at a rapid pace. Each show similar scenes. But it clearly depicts one thing. Natalia- the favorite Devia. The one who helped the others. And then I see her alone in the dungeon that night. I feel her doubt, her reluctance.
You were their hero.
The voice comes from everywhere and nowhere at once.
You let them down. You betrayed them for this boy. You say you were doing the right thing. Was turning against the only family you ever had right? The voice continues, sweet and cold. They trusted you. They put their faith in you. You were the defender of what was right to them. You stood up for those who would not stand up for themselves. And you let them down. You ran away from them, with a boy you barely knew.
There is a ragged sob, and I turn to see… Natalia.
She is on her knees, clutching her ears, eyes wild.
“No!” she insists. “I wasn’t… I wouldn’t betray them! They’re still my family. I had to help Kane. Had to get him out of there… didn’t want to hurt them…”
Liar. Selfish, stupid liar. You did that for yourself, stupid child.
“No!” she insists.
The enchantress, I realize. She’s inducing visions in Natalia. And somehow, I am part of them. I do not belong here. I am an outsider. An unwelcome guest, into her head.
Natalia sobs weakly, and the enchantress laughs cruelly. Then, suddenly, she addresses me.
And now, Kane, it’s your turn.
The scene vanishes in a bright flash of light.