You really ought not to have run like that.
I tried to block out the voice from my head, but it only grew louder.
Now, I will have to carry you back in chains.
I built walls around the innermost parts of my mind before the person invading my thoughts could utter another word.
I stared at the ground and dug my nails into the dirt trying to focus on the wall. Its iron bars. Its thick stones. But no matter how hard I focused, I could still hear the laughter echoing on the other side.
We shall meet soon enough.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I felt his presence leave. The girl’s eyes flicked to me then back to the approaching figure. The tracker. Of course, he sensed our presence, but he could not see us. He could not hear us. His only ability was perception. No wonder he had let me be. He was already here, and I had led him to us.
I nearly moved back, but in one swift movement, she grabbed my wrist. I glanced at her, but her attention was somewhere else.
The horseman stopped probably not twenty paces from where we crouched behind some tangled brush. He turned the horse in circles looking in every corner for where we might be hiding.
I squinted my eyes. A Perceptionist. Of course. Nearly all trackers were Perceptionists. That was all their abilities were good for.
His garb was all black. Even the mask. Something glimmering caught my eye. Gold! The threads of his attire were all gold. Even the cape was embroidered with gold. No wonder he was able to transfer his thoughts to mine. I bit my lip to keep from gasping. He was likely beyond powerful.
He dismounted with a thud, and I held my breath peering through the mangled brush at his shiny black boots. He was less than an arm’s length away. For the first time, I realized how fast my heart was pounding.
I really, really, really did not want to die a horrible death. If I was going to die, I would rather it be in the Arelian fields where I belonged. I tried to jerk my wrist away from the girl, but she embedded her nails into me. I winced then made the mistake of looking into her glare. Immediately, my hand fell.
It was her fault that I was in this mess. That tracker wasn’t here for me, and yet I had been dragged into whatever crime this girl had committed. And she just kept stringing me along. It was so frustrating because I wanted to leave. I tried to leave. This girl had no weapons, nothing to hold me to her. But she was a Persuader. I even knew that she was a Persuader, and she was still capable of making me to do things against my own will.
All the blame shouldn’t be put on her though. I was the one who was stupid. I knew it was wrong when we’d first spoken. I’d had that awful uneasy feeling, but I had ignored it for manner’s sake. And now I was going to die.
Surely this Persuader realized that I was not capable of blocking this Perceptionist’s mind reading abilities. He would always be able to find her so long as I was here, yet she had taken me hostage anyway.
A peasant hostage. It actually made no sense.
Close your eyes.
A woman’s voice. Her voice. I heard the order as clear as day ringing out in my mind. I glanced at the girl, and her golden-rimmed green eyes pierced through me like swords.
My eyelids fell shut.
So many confusing questions tormented my mind. Why had she not taken someone of higher class? We did not even look alike, so there would be no passing off as sisters. Her hair was golden and intricately braided, and her skin was white as lilies. I was…not those things. I had no special abilities, and I lived among the Sowers, the Bakers, the Minstrels, the Smiths, and all the others whose ability made them excellent slaves. And yet here was a Persuader on the verge of cutting off my circulation and a Perceptionist who had followed us through the woods. I had never dreamed in all my life that I would ever meet any individuals of their kind, yet here they were. And I was in the middle of whatever little feud was going on.
I sighed and blinked my eyes open. The girl gritted her teeth and dug her nails into me so fiercely that I think I actually began to bleed. She blinked several times, and the pain stopped. Her brows furrowed because she realized that something was wrong. I realized it, too, when the ringing in my ears returned.
It you were to simply come out, it would be so much easier on all of us.
I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my free hand as hard as I could against my forehead. I felt his presence once again invading my mind. I quickly tried to lay together the thick stones of my wall to block him out.
It’s no use. You’re the one who let me in, remember?
The girl squeezed my wrist but slowly relaxed when I looked at her. She kept her eyes on him but turned her face to me.
“Stay,” she growled.
I pursed my lips as she slowly inhaled and exhaled, but my heart began to pound again as she stood.
Your punishment won’t be nearly as severe if…
“Get out…” I growled digging my nails into my knees, but laughter echoed through my mind.
A bit stubborn, aren’t we?
What was wrong with this Perceptionist? Didn’t he know that I wasn’t the Persuader? Couldn’t he tell whose mind he was invading?
His presence was so strong that I had to grit my teeth to keep from moaning. If he gained anymore ground in my mind, he would likely be able to control my entire body. I had never even imagined that a person’s abilities could allow him to have such power.
I forced an eye open to watch him through the shrubs. He stood stiffly, like he was concentrating very hard. But it wasn’t because of me. My captor approached him wearing a pleasant smile. The same one she had used on me. Her eyes were wide, and the gold rims appeared almost to be glowing.
The presence slowly departed leaving a ringing in my ears. I stumbled forward on my hands to watch her.
“Tell me who hired you.”
That sweet voice. I thought it would be sickening to hear it again, but it sounded almost pleasant when being used on him.
“You know why I’m here,” he growled.
He was aware of what she was, too, but even he was powerless compared to her.
I inched forward to look closer. He was tall, nearly head and shoulders above her, and she was taller than me. His garments were silk, but I had already known from the gold embroidery that he was wealthy. His eyes were a piercing ice blue, the color of the Perceptionists. It was all I could see of him under that black mask, but his eyes squeezed shut as he cracked under her power.
I slowly stood. Neither of them noticed. The girl’s fists were clenched. Every visible muscle in her body was tight, and she was shaking almost as badly as the tracker.
I began to step over the fallen twigs and leaves. Any sound could break the trance and ruin my chances to escape.
“Who. Hired. You.”
I turned at the sound of her voice. It was no longer sweet but pained.
Perhaps I should stay to watch which killed the other first.
No. Watching would be a very bad idea.
As I turned, the cloudy feeling in my head returned. I glanced back to see the tracker bent over holding his head between his hands.
Suddenly, the Persuader collapsed onto her hands and knees gasping for air. The tracker stood upright, and the haze within my head grew thicker. He knelt and took her by the throat. Part of me wanted to help her, but I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I pressed my hands against my temples, but I still felt like my head was going to explode.
I watched him lift her off the ground until her feet dangled helplessly. I knew that he was speaking, but the ringing in my ears was too loud. I gritted my teeth, and the pressure forced me onto my knees. Everything began to change colors. A murder was taking place before my very eyes, and I couldn’t see it for all the colors.
Black began to take over. It shrouded everything. I felt the dirt under my fingers and didn’t know how it had gotten there. I felt the water dripping off of my chin but didn’t know where it had come from.
I didn’t care about that. Not about the colors, the voices, the murder. I only cared about the pain. I felt like I was being stabbed in the face while my head was being ripped in half as I was being scalped with my entire body on fire. What I felt went above and beyond any pain I had ever felt.
I screamed. I don’t know how I knew this, but I screamed with all of my might until my lungs died. Then I filled them again with air and let them go. My voice grew louder as the ringing began to fade, and a sudden jerk forced me onto my feet.
It was the man. I could feel his black silk under my dirty fingers. I could almost see him amidst the blinking lights. He shook me. I could not even feel him holding me. Was I still screaming? No. The ringing was in my head not my throat.
“What is the meaning of this?”
His voice sounded so far away.
What was the meaning of this?
I gritted my teeth.
Perhaps if he could leave my mind alone, I could tell him the meaning of this!
My vision began to blur red. A very hot, boiling red.
Actually, he is the one who should tell me the meaning of this! I had never done anything to anyone! So why was he tormenting me by trying to make my head explode?
I wrapped my hand around my fist and began to hit him. It must have hurt because he let me go and backed away. I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t feel anything.
“Get out! Get out!”
I sounded like I was far away, but my voice gradually grew closer until I could hear myself screaming.
“What?” The Perceptionist sounded amused even as he held the arm that I had been beating. He tilted his head. “I’ve never had that said to me before.”
I held my head like some pathetic defense against whoever would try to invade it again. My cheeks felt wet, and I wiped my eyes realizing the tears for the first time.
The Persuader also stared at me, but her stare was a bit horrified compared to the glee-filled stare of the Perceptionist. His eyes sparkled like a crystal lake.
“What’s wrong with her?”
The Persuader threw him a nasty glare and kicked dirt at him. A red ring decorated her neck, but other than that, she looked unharmed.
“You’re disgusting,” she growled.
The man threw his head back in laughter. “Am I?” He looked back at me with a tilted head, and I wished he weren’t wearing that mask.
I quickly rose to my feet before he could get any closer. He was very tall. Much taller than any man in the village. I had always considered some height attractive, but this was almost scary. I felt like a child compared to him.
“You’re so…angry.” He tilted his head farther and inched toward me. The Persuader watched him with furious eyes, but she was still too weak to do anything. I should have probably been scared, but I was angry. What purpose did he have for tearing my mind apart?
“Don’t come any closer.” I didn’t care to stare into his round, crystal eyes. They obviously weren’t what allowed him entrance into my mind.
“What?” he laughed. “That sounded almost like a threat, little girl.” His eyes narrowed. “Or what? What will you do? Sow weeds into my garden?” He laughed.
My vision blurred red again, and just as he reached for me I kicked him as hard as I could.
“Stay back, I said!”
“Oh!” He snarled backing away as his eyes darkened. “You insolent, little thing.”
I knew I had messed up, and I knew before he came at me. No longer cautious. No longer curious. He came at me in a rage. I would have fallen to the ground and curled up defensively, but I didn’t think fast enough. He grabbed my shoulders, and despite my pushing against him, his fingers dug into my skin probably permanently marring the black leather gloves.
He was a tracker which meant fighting experience, plus he was much larger and stronger than me. Even in spite of his special abilities, I still didn’t have a chance.
“Leave her alone.” The Persuader tried to stand, but the tracker knelt and threw dirt into her eyes.
“I’m done with you,” he growled. “I’ve already beaten you and spared you, but this…”
He was outraged. A meager little peasant defying him? How dare I.
I clenched my fists, but the training that had been pounded into my head from a child prevailed.
Stop it. Don’t fight him.
Young peasant folk were trained to never fight a superior, even higher ranking peasants. You fought for your family and died for your family, but when facing a higher class, you allowed them to beat you to death and prayed that they would not order your family to starve.
I let my hands fall loosely to my sides as he curled an arm around my neck. The golden crest meant that he had enough power to order my entire village burned.
And I had kicked him.
Why was I so stupid?
“You brat,” he spat. “You have a real lack of manners, don’t you? How would you like if I carried you to my castle, put a chain around your neck, and taught you a thing or two about respect?”
I probably wouldn’t mind so much if he stayed out of my head.
My vision began to turn red again, but I dug my nails into my hand to suffice it.
No, let him speak on. Working in a rich man’s house was one of the greatest jobs there was. I would have certain food, certain shelter, even if it did come at the price of a chain around my neck. If I never saw Nat or Parthena again, it would be worth it. It was supposed to be the greatest opportunity that a peasant could come across. Especially a Harvester.
I curled my lip as the ringing returned. I could take it. Perhaps the girl was in high enough power to keep the village’s fields from being burned. Maybe she would feel guilty after getting me into this mess. The pain forced my eyes closed.
This tracker held me like he already owned me. He was from a different world. One where owning another human being did not seem so repulsing. Perhaps if I had been raised in a noble family or clan, I would not see the harm in owning people.
I could not hold my head because of his arms, but my whole body began to shake.
Focus on the walls. Focus on the walls.
The walls, my dear, will only trap me inside.
What was he doing? He already had me!
“What’s wrong with her?” His voice sounded distant again.
“You’re hurting her!”
Angry claws tore at my arm, but I felt the tracker move then heard the girl scream.
“I already told you to stay back,” he growled. He pressed me forward until I felt a presence in front of me.
Loud voices beat against my head, but there was no way inside. It was already occupied.
You seem a bit…distracted. It’s that Lady Esme Grove, isn’t it? How unfortunate. I thought that my tracker would reach you first. Tch. Well, I suppose I will have two prisoners then…
“Look in her eyes!” The sound of the girl’s voice hit me in the face like a tidal wave. I blinked the trance away trying to take in my surroundings. No sooner had I regained my balance when the tracker spun me around and glared into my eyes.
He shook his head. “I see nothing.”
“You fool…” She beat him weakly. “You don’t even know who hired you.”
“Who?” I reached for her, but doing so made me nearly lose my balance. Had the masked man not been gripping my shoulders, I would have fallen. “Who’s here?”
They both stared at me blankly until the Perceptionist scowled.
“This one’s crazy.” He lifted me in attempts to shove me on his horse, but the Persuader grabbed my wrist. I once again felt her nails penetrating my skin. “Get off! I already told you. She’s mine!” He threw her back so hard that her fall kicked up dust.
“Oh!” She glared at the ground with her shoulders heaving. “Of all things! What manner of brute shoves a lady?”
“Ugh…” The Perceptionist moaned like he was disgusted, and for a moment, his eyes disappeared into the back of his head. “Don’t even get me started on that,” he hissed.
Did these two know each other? They acted like children. Brawling, oversized children. When my people had an argument, they took weapons then said nothing as they cut one another apart. It was a silent duel, but these nobles were anything but silent. Is this how they settled disagreements? With words?
“Get on the horse!” The Perceptionist glared at me ferociously. He reminded me of a boy in my village. Lester was always very calm until he didn’t get what he wanted. Then he would turn absolutely crazy. I once watched him cry because Nate refused to trade sickles with him.
I stared at the Perceptionist blankly with my body hanging limp like a rag doll. If he wanted me for his slave, he was going to have to work for it.
The tracker scowled and again tried to shove me up onto the horse.
I supposed that I should have felt special. The Perceptionist, the Persuader, and some other person who continually invaded my mind all wanted me for a servant, but who was I to argue? My skills as a Harvester were unmatched.
“If you knew who hired you, you wouldn’t have been so inclined to take the job.”
“Except I do know who hired me, and I value my life, as a matter of fact.”
“So you would swear allegiance to that slaughterer?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Lady Insurgent, but he is the king.”
The king? It was the king who was after me?
“He isn’t yet,” she hissed. “Tell me this, noble tracker. Why would the king desire me alive if he already had my ability in his possession?”
I could answer that. No one liked having Persuaders alive unless they were on the same side. This lady obviously was not, but whoever this was probably wanted to know what all she knew before disposing of her.
The man turned motionless, and he stared at me. I didn’t care to stare back. I was nothing more than an object to him anyway. But he had such pretty eyes. I didn’t know whether I preferred comparing them to ice or blue flames.
“This? He is after this? What need would he have of a servant’s ability?”
The Persuader’s lips were tightened into a line. She wasn’t saying anything else, but the tracker began to laugh.
“I thought that this was your assistant or personal spy or something.”
This. I loved how he continuously referred to me as that. This. This. This. This little object that I want to take because it’s yours.
I bit down on my tongue to keep from saying anything.
The ring around the Persuader’s eyes once again began to glow. “Look at her eyes.”
The tracker scowled as his grip on my shoulders tightened. I winced as he pulled me up towards him. I looked past the shadows surrounding his angry, searching eyes. He had to be young. His immature manners had me suspecting such, but his eyes were young, too. Had he been born into a rich Perceptionist family? I didn’t know how things like that worked, and I really never imagined that I would have to.
“What color do you see?”
He shook his head. “I don’t.”
No color? My eyes were colorless? I had always imagined them as a dark brown, a Harvester’s color. The color of healthy, fresh earth. But I had not seen my own face in so long that it was hard to imagine them with any color. The only mirrors we had were bowls of still water. Even then, it was too dark to make out anything more than distinct lines without color. The only reason I knew that my hair was dark was because it grew down my back long enough for me to see it.
“Look closer,” she growled. “You’ve seen that color somewhere before.”
“No I haven’t.” He jerked me up towards him where my feet dangled near the top of his boots. I ignored the piercing pain from his bony fingers. “What color are your eyes?”
I shrugged, which made his glare fiercen. Little slaves like me were always supposed to give verbal answers. Oh well.
“What is wrong with this one?” His fingers pressed so hard into my shoulder blades that I could feel the bones bruising. I gritted my teeth to keep from showing it.
“Leave her be.” The girl dragged me away from him. “She’s not a slave.”
We both stared at her probably wearing the same look, but I quickly straightened my face.
“What do you mean she’s not a slave?”
“Do you honestly believe that the king would be after a Harvester or a Sower?”
The tracker crossed his arms. “I still don’t believe you about all that.” He glanced at me then suddenly reached out and jerked me towards him. “You’re just saying all that to keep me from taking her. What is she really? A Minstrel? I could use a good Minstrel.”
I gave him the same look that the Persuader gave him. Then I rolled my eyes to the back of my head and jerked my arm away. If the girl was going to play the tune that I wasn’t a slave, then I would gladly dance to it. My whole body tingled because I knew that I had done something terribly, terribly wrong, but it felt good. Nothing felt better than the baffled expression that he wore.
“Tell me who she is,” he demanded to the Persuader.
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because I am the one leading him to us.”
Those words felt like piles of stones being pounded against my body. The Persuaders wide eyes of pure horror quickly returned to normal, and she cleared her throat.
“Alright then. You’ve seen these eyes before, Tracker. Maybe just once, but you have. There are people among us born with rare, special abilities.”
“Such as you and I?”
“No. I mean so exceptionally different that there aren’t even names for them.” Her grave expression twisted into a dark smile. “Take your king for example.”
I remained quiet with as calm a face as I could manage. The pain in my head had turned from a dull ache to a throbbing that pulsed. I could not hear their ongoing conversation concerning my apparent special abilities, and all the questions I had faded into the void.
Well, there you have it then. I’ve been watching, and I know everything that’s been said. I knew that there was someone else, but it did take me a while to find you. All the way in the nethermost mountains working in some God-forsaken fields. But the wonderful thing about it is that they don’t know what you are. You don’t even know what you are. The only man who knew is dead, and I know this for a fact because I killed him not long after you were born.
I knew what I was. They may not have known, but I knew. I was skilled not only as a Harvester but also as a Sower, a Hunter, a Fisher, a Cook, and I even had a bit of skill at being a Minstrel when I had the time. I was the jack of all trades in my village. That’s why no one ever concerned over my eye color, and I never considered it too greatly to care. So what if I had more than one ability? There was only one of me, and I could only do any of those jobs one at a time, quite useless compared to hiring an army of servants which shouldn’t be too difficult for a king.
Ha! You are so adorable. Quite clueless, my dear, but who could blame you after being brought up by a group of stupid farmers.
A bile taste rose in my throat. I once again felt dirt under my fingers but wasn’t quite able to discern through all the colors whether or not I had fallen.
I know. An unfortunate side effect of my presence. But it is so crowded! I can hardly tell how much power is needed.
He had too much. He had way too much.
Oh you think so? I don’t. Personally, I think you’re a bit weak-minded. If you want me to tell you the secret of it, it only hurts when you fight against me. Truthfully, it hurts us both. It would just be much easier if you simply laid there.
Just let him have control of my mind? How could he endure such pain! It made sense after witnessing the unseen battle between the Persuader and the Perceptionist. Perhaps I did just have a weak mind, but why was he in there anyway? I dug my nails into my knees, but there was no fighting him. I just wanted to sleep. My entire body was already on the verge of collapse, but the moment after I closed my eyes, someone grabbed my shoulders.
“We have to go.” The Persuader was practically holding me up by the collar of my tunic. The stress lines made her appear much older, but the gold rims in her eyes still glowed with a timeless shine. She frowned and narrowed her eyes. It was probably a bit hard to persuade me when someone else already took up that place in my mind.
Just lie down.
I allowed my knees to buckle, and despite her attempts to hold me up, I slumped to the ground like a fallen withered leaf. She pushed the loose strands of her braid back and watched me with desperate eyes.
“He’s already gotten to you, hasn’t he? You can hear him.”
I stared at her blankly even after she jerked me towards her. Our faces were nearly touching.
“Listen to me,” she hissed through gritted teeth. I could smell traces of perfume mingled with dirt and sweat. “You have to fight him. He is coming here to kill you.”
My eyes widened.
That little fox just loves stirring up trouble.
“You’re the only slither of competition he’s got.”
I should have killed her when I had the chance.
“I don’t know what you are, but I guarantee that he does.”
But a little rebellion is what makes life more fun, you know?
“He. Will. Kill. You.”
I still have to keep it in check. To make sure that it doesn’t stand a chance, and this little Esme is stirring up more than I care to deal with.
“He will dispose of you the same way he did my father.”
Such an inconvenience…
“He always does it himself because that’s how his ability works.”
I think I’ll kill her when I get there.
“Once he kills someone, he absorbs their ability.”
Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Now, you’re somewhere in these woods… Do me a favor, and don’t listen to a word the girl says. She speaks nothing but nonsense because she has some form of personal vendetta against me, though I have no understanding as of why. I have been nothing but generous to her, but I’m done dealing with this.
The Persuader gritted her teeth and glared into my eyes. A searing pain tore through my body as a battle took place inside my mind. I was a helpless piece of ground that two mind controllers were battling over.
“He’s near…” The Perceptionist knelt down with a hand on each of our shoulders. The crystal eyes flicked back and forth between us. “A Persuader can only operate within a proximity of their victim.”
A Persuader? The king had a Persuader’s abilities!
Esme’s father… He had killed him.
“That’s why he needed me to lead him here…” When the tracker looked at me, his crystal eyes looked broken. “I’m sorry.”
Was he on our side now? Had Esme persuaded him, or was this of his own will?
It didn’t matter. I was just a peasant from a tiny village. I served a merchant who served a lord who served a duke who served the king who was after me to kill me. I simply felt bad for Esme. I wished they simply would leave me here, but I could understand Esme’s hatred. I had never known my parents, but Parthena had explained that they had likely been insurgents who were killed by the king. A king I did not even know. A king who never bothered with peasants because there were so many powers between us.
And the king… I’d heard rumors of his power. Not even his abilities. Simply his army and political influence was enough to make a person shudder. There was no escaping this. I truly believed that he was not after me to kill me. There were so many other efficient ways for him to do this. But I secretly hoped that I was wrong. I preferred death over servitude anyway. It was the only freedom from the servant’s chains. If only I knew he not burn my village…
Esme was shaking. I looked down to see that I wasn’t. I could feel them warring inside my head, but because I did nothing, I felt no pain.
Slowly I built the stones and stacked them one by one around my mind. Some pain began to leak in, but it was easy to ignore. The bars were very thick, and I stacked the stones higher. I began to lose the feeling of their battle. Someone pounded at the door. Knocking? No, a battering ram. But it was useless to them. My door was made of iron, and it was thicker than the stones. I focused on my defenses. The archers and the watchmen. And then there was only silence.
Esme pulled me up by my shoulders forcing my eyes open. She grinned.
“We make a good team. I distract him, while you shut him out. Tracker, I’ll go with you for as long as I can. Do your best to protect your own mind.”
He nodded, but the pale blue eyes never left my face. I felt her fingers close around my wrist.
“We have to go.”
I turned with her, but we didn’t make it two steps. Out the same brush we had been hiding behind stepped a large man with a sword in each hand. He was arrayed with black and scarlet, and he stepped toward up spinning the swords as he did. The embroidery of his clothes were all gold, and I recognized the scarlet crest as royal.
My heart pounded in my throat, and I glanced at Esme who wore the same wide-eyed expression. Did she know that she, too, was going to die? Cold beads of sweat formed on my neck.
Could she persuade him to let us go?
My mouth turned dry, and my heart fell into my stomach. It was too late.
Out of the thick brush surrounding us stepped more soldiers with the same crest embroidered on their tunics. Horses neighed and stamped. We were surrounded by no less than an army.
Esme’s grip on my wrist tightened, and I felt it, too. The presence of an individual who was terrifyingly powerful. I didn’t have to turn to face him to know that his eyes were on me because they burned like flaming red coals.
“Ah, Miss Ashvalor, we meet at last.”