Slave warrior queen, p.7
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.7

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “Ceres, help!” her mother yelled, but Ceres no longer had it in her.

  Barely able to move, Ceres crawled on hands and knees toward the door. Once she had crossed the threshold, Ceres climbed onto her feet. But she had no time. She could feel Lord Blaku’s arms reaching for her, his eyes burning at her back. She needed to hurry if she was to escape, but her body wouldn’t move as swiftly as she told it to.

  Her heart leapt in her chest when she stumbled across the front yard, and just as she reached the dirt road, she thought she was free.

  Just then, Lord Blaku roared behind her. She heard the crack of a whip and then felt a thick leather cord wrap around her neck. Being tugged backward by the whip, throat strangled, blood pooling in her head, she crashed to the ground. Her hands reached for the cord, trying to loosen it, but it was secured too tightly. She knew she needed air or she would pass out, but a breath could not be drawn.

  Lord Blaku picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder, and threw her into the back of the carriage. Slowly, her surroundings started to turn dark. Then darker.

  In a rush, he chained her ankles and wrists, and then he loosened the whip from around her neck.

  Wheezing and couching, she gasped for air, her surroundings becoming clear again, the slaver’s stench oozing into her nose as she panted.

  He tore the sword from around her waist and studied it for a moment.

  “This is a very fine weapon indeed,” he said. “Now it is mine, and I shall melt it down.”

  Ceres reached a hand out toward her father’s sword, the chains rattling as she moved, but he slapped her hand away and hopped out of the carriage.

  He headed back into the house and when he came back out, he was holding the sack of gold Ceres had left for her brothers.

  The carriage bounced as he climbed onto it, and after he whipped the horses, the wheels creaked to a start. As the carriage drove off, she kept her eyes on the near black sky, watching as silhouettes of birds flew above. A tear rolled down her cheek, but she made no sound. She had no strength to cry. Now everything had been taken from her. Her money. Her sword. Her family. Her freedom.

  And when she didn’t show up tomorrow morning at the palace ready to work for Prince Thanos, she would have lost everything.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  Miles and miles ago, Lord Blaku had unchained Ceres and had thrown her into an enclosed slave cart, and now she sat in the light of the moon, numb, beside dozens of girls in a cage wagon, bumping forward on the main road out of Delos.

  The night had been freezing—it was freezing still—and with little protection from the rain, Ceres hadn’t been able to sleep, shivering all the time. Cold hands gripping the bars, she huddled at the end of the moving prison on soggy straw that reeked of urine and rotting flesh. It had stopped raining about an hour ago, and now the moon and stars were out.

  She had listened in on the guards’ conversations, seated up above, and a few of them had mentioned something about Holheim, the capital of Northland, which, she knew, was several months’ journey away. Ceres knew if she were taken there, she would have no chance of ever seeing her family or Rexus again. But she stuffed those thoughts deep down into the dead part of her heart. Glancing back, she noticed that the girl who had been coughing the entire trip had become silent and was now slouching in the rear corner, lifeless, lips blue, skin white.

  A mother and two young daughters sat next to the corpse, oblivious to the girl’s passing. All the daughters were focused on was competing for their mother’s lap. Better they do that than be aware that death was their neighbor, Ceres thought.

  A few girls seated against the wall opposite Ceres carried a look of fear in their defeated eyes, and a few others cried in silent sobs as they longingly gazed out through the cage. Ceres didn’t feel fear or sadness. She couldn’t allow herself to be afraid here. Someone might sense it and judge her weak, and then use her weakness against her. Instead, she numbed herself so completely, she almost didn’t care what happened to her.

  “Get out of my seat,” a blonde girl shouted to another.

  “I have been sitting here all along,” the second girl replied, her skin smooth and olive in the glow of the moonlight.

  The blonde pulled the olive-skinned girl up by her ears and threw her onto the sodden, straw-covered floor. A few of the girls gasped, but most looked away, pretending not to notice the ruckus.

  “This is my cart,” the blonde exclaimed. “All these seats are mine.”

  “No they aren’t,” a dark-skinned girl said, shooting to her feet, her hands on her hips.

  They stared at each other for a moment, and everyone in the cart grew quiet, eyes slipping toward the rivals as they waited to see what would happen.

  Hissing, the blonde shoved the dark-skinned girl, and within seconds, they were on the floor in a wrestling match, screaming at the top of their lungs as arms and legs flailed, a few eager slaves egging them on.

  It was a draw. The olive-skinned girl slowly stood up and walked toward the back as her hands dappled the cage walls, blood running from her nose. The wagon hit a bump, and she wobbled as she sat down on the floor across from Ceres. Wiping the blood with her brown, threadbare, filthy sleeve, she looked Ceres in the eyes.

  “I’m Anka,” she said.

  The moonlight shone in through the cage onto the girl’s face, and Ceres thought the girl had the most peculiar eyes she had ever seen: dark brown irises with streaks of turquoise. Her hair was long, thick, and black, and Ceres guessed the girl was around her age.

  “I’m Ceres.”

  Feeling sorry for the girl, but without any strength to become involved, Ceres looked out through the iron bars at the back of the cart, wondering if it would be possible to escape. Life as a slave was not worth living, and she’d do anything to get out, even risk her life, if it came to that.

  Unexpectedly, the wagon slowed to a stop on the side of the road, as Lord Blaku yelled for his guards to break up the fight. The cart rocked as the men jumped down from the roof and into puddles of water and wet grass. His face appeared right outside the cage and Ceres heard keys rattling, his heavy breath turning into puffs of smoke.

  When the door swung open, a shadow of confusion flickered across Anka’s face, and when two of the five guards entered the wagon, the slaves cowered and winced. The men grabbed the wrestling girls and hauled them outside kicking and screaming.

  “You’re a sweet one,” Lord Blaku said, grabbing Anka’s arm. “Come here, girl.”

  Anka feverishly shook her head and scuttled backward, her eyes wide with terror, and Ceres felt a wave of nausea wash over her when she thought about what that fat, old, ugly slaver would do to the innocent girl.

  Anka shrieked as Lord Blaku pulled her out.

  At that moment, Ceres caught a glimpse of her sword attached around the slaver’s waist, and in a split second, she saw her opportunity for escape.

  Lord Blaku reached for the deadbolt, but before he could lock it, Ceres kicked the door outward and leapt out of the wagon. A few other slaves escaped and started down the street, but two guards quickly rounded up the runaways as another slammed the door to the wagon shut.

  The slaver flung Anka to the ground and reached for the hilt of Ceres’s sword. Ceres kneed him in the groin so he buckled forward, and before he stood up, she drew her sword and sliced his thigh, causing him to fall to the muddy road, wailing. The sword felt so light in her hand, she noticed, and the blade had cut through the slaver’s thigh like butter.

  Three guards threw the other slaves back into the wagon and locked it, the girls crying in disapproval.

  Just as Ceres was about to pull Anka to her feet, Anka gasped and yelled, “Behind you!”

  Ceres spun around to find three guards upon her. The first had his sword raised, and had Anka not warned her, Ceres would have had his blade in her back.

  To her astonishment, the same power she had felt in the arena when she had saved Sartes rushed through her veins. Suddenly, s
he could see clearly what she needed to do in order to defeat the three guards.

  She met the first guard’s sword with her own several times before running her blade through him. He dropped to the side of the road in a puddle of water.

  The short guard was holding a dagger, and he tossed it between his hands as he scuffled toward her. She kept her eye on the dagger for a few switches, and timing it just right, she flicked her sword between his hands so the dagger went flying into the air, landing on top of the slaver wagon.

  “Let me go and I will let you live,” Ceres said, so much authority in her voice, not even she recognized it.

  “Anyone who captures her will receive fifty-five pieces of gold!” Lord Blaku yelled, throwing his whip toward the short guard who lost his dagger.

  Ha! My mother’s gold, Ceres thought, adding to her anger.

  The two remaining guards inched toward her, the tall one with a patch over his eye drawing his sword, the short one cracking the whip. At the palace, Ceres had only ever fought one on one with others, and she felt uneasy having to conquer two at the same time. But then again, there, she hadn’t been fighting for her life, and she hadn’t felt that overwhelming surge of force she was feeling now.

  The short man snapped the whip so it latched around Ceres’s sword hand, and with a tug, Ceres fell to the ground, face first. She had gripped her sword so hard that it still remained in her hand, and with one hack, she severed the leather cords from around her wrist, freeing herself.

  Quick as a cat, she sprung to her feet, and just as tall guard attacked, she lunged toward him, their swords colliding.

  The short guard threw himself toward Ceres and wrapped arms around her legs so she couldn’t move, causing her to topple over, crashing onto her back. He crawled on top of her and wrapped one hand around her sword arm, confining it, the other around her neck, choking her.

  “Kill her if you must!” Lord Blaku shouted, still holding his hands around his bleeding thigh.

  Ceres kicked her feet up and knocked the short guard in the head, shoving him off her as she rolled backward and up to a standing position. Seeing he was about to stagger to his feet, Ceres kicked him in the face several times until he slumped to the ground unconscious.

  Just as the tall guard came at her, she swerved around him, struck his feet from under him, and once he had fallen onto his back, she sliced off his hand. He screamed as blood oozed from his stub.

  She hadn’t meant to be so brutal. She only wanted to harm him enough so he couldn’t fight anymore and wouldn’t follow her when she ran away, but the blade was exceptionally sharp and it took almost no effort to slash through his bones. Or perhaps it was this strange force that made it so effortless?

  Some of girls in the wagon had climbed up the sides of the wall, rattling the cage, screaming for Ceres to let them out. Others cheered Ceres on, chanting for her to kill their captors.

  “Give up your sword, or the girl dies,” Lord Blaku yelled behind her.

  Ceres whirled around to see Anka held at knifepoint by the slaver. Anka’s bottom lip trembled, her eyes wide open, and the slaver pressed the blade into her throat, cutting her a little.

  Should she try and save Anka? Ceres could just make a run for it and she would be free. But Anka’s eyes pleaded with such desperation that Ceres couldn’t find it in her heart to leave her to such a horrid fate. She glanced over at the girls in the wagon, who had turned quiet, realizing she could free them, too.

  Ceres leaned back and threw her sword, praying her aim was true.

  She watched as it spun end over end, then finally landed in Lord Blaku’s face, the blade stabbing him in the eye. He fell backwards, landing flat in the mud.

  Dead.

  With a whimper, Anka crawled away from him, sobbing.

  Ceres, breathing hard, walked forward in the quiet, pulled her sword out from the slaver’s skull, and then walked over and slashed the lock off the wagon, opening the door. Shouting and sighing in delight, the women and girls streamed out of the cart one after another. A few thanked Ceres as they passed her, and the mother with her daughters embraced Ceres before turning back toward Delos.

  With arms and legs feeling like they weighed a hundred pounds each, and her eyes heavy from sleeplessness, Ceres walked to the front of the wagon and cut the reins to the horses. She took a blanket, a bag of food, and a leather flask filled with wine from atop the wagon and attached it to one of the horses.

  After she had removed the scabbard from Lord Blaku’s carcass and secured her sword around her waist, she mounted the stout brown mare and steered it southward toward Delos. Just as she passed Anka, she stopped.

  “You saved my life,” Anka said. “I am indebted to you.”

  “You saved me first,” Ceres replied. “You owe me nothing.”

  “Let me join you. Please. I have nowhere to go.”

  Ceres considered Anka’s suggestion and thought it might be nice to have company on the cold, dark road back.

  “Very well, Anka. We shall travel together,” Ceres said with a soft smile.

  She reached out her hand and pulled Anka up behind her, Anka clinging to Ceres’s back as if for dear life. As lightning struck in the distance, the clouds rolling in again, Ceres prodded the horse to gallop. She would have time to spare before she needed to be at the palace, and she knew where she needed to go: to Rexus and her brothers.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  The night remained brutally cold, the wind a roaring tempest, but that didn’t prevent Ceres from compelling the horse forward at a furious pace, determined to reach Rexus if there was enough time. For hours, rain whipped against her like shards of ice, leaving her clothes sopping wet and her fingers frozen stiff, anger toward her mother and Lord Blaku driving her.

  Finally, she sighted the capital’s outer wall, and, as the rain ended, she slowed the horse to a trot. The sun crested the Alva Mountains, sparkling through dissipating clouds, and kissed the white buildings of the capital golden, and with about an hour to spare until she needed to be at the palace, Ceres hopped down from the horse and led the mare down the gently sloping gorge to the river. After she had escorted the horse to water, she unwrapped the bread and meat she had taken from Lord Blaku and portioned equal parts for Anka and herself.

  She sat down on a rock and glanced at Anka, who was scarfing down the food like a ravenous animal.

  “Would you like for me to take you home?” she asked Anka.

  Anka paused and looked up, her eyes suddenly weary, but she said nothing.

  “Perhaps now that the slaver is dead, your family—”

  “My parents sold me to save their farm. Twenty pieces of gold,” Anka said bitterly. “They are no longer my family.”

  Ceres understood. Oh, how she understood. She looked toward the Alva Mountains and thought for a moment.

  “I know where you might find a new home,” she said.

  “Where?” Anka asked, taking a sip of the wine.

  “My brothers and friends are part of the revolution.”

  Anka squinted her eyes, and then she nodded.

  “You are my sister now and they shall be my family and friends. I shall fight by your side and belong to the revolution, too,” she said.

  Once they finished their meal, Ceres led the mare back onto the road and rode with Anka down the sloping hillside toward the capital’s main entrance—a heavily guarded drawbridge made of thick oak. Getting in line behind other travelers and merchants, Ceres and Anka rode slowly past a soldier and onto the bridge.

  They rode through the cobblestone streets, past houses and wooden shacks, and down cramped alleyways. The city began to rise, the inhabitants lining up at the living wells with buckets and vessels. Children played in the streets, their laughter filling the air, reminding Ceres of much happier, much simpler times.

  Beyond acres and acres of wilted, brown plants, they arrived at the bottom of the Alva Mountains. Humble houses rested on the gently sloping hill, sheltered by jutting peaks,
and a waterfall cascaded down the mountainside. From the outside, the small settlement looked like any ordinary one on the outskirts of Delos, with houses, wagons, animals, and peasants working the fields. But it was nothing but a façade to keep Empire soldiers from growing suspicious. Inside every abode, a rebellion was brewing.

  Ceres had been here once before: two years ago when Rexus had shown her the growing collection of weapons stored in the cave behind the waterfall.

  Outside the settlement, bordering on the sea, stood the old abandoned castle: the revolution’s headquarters. Two of three towers had collapsed, and a few of the walls had been patched up with driftwood and rocks. Ceres’s destination.

  They dismounted and walked down the sandy pathway, the breeze from the sea tugging on Ceres’s clothes. Once they arrived at the arching entryway, five heavily armored men wearing civilian clothes stopped them.

  “My name is Ceres. I am here for Rexus, my friend, and Nesos and Sartes, my brothers,” she said, staying the horse. “This is Anka, my friend. We want to join the rebellion.”

  One of the men’s eyes flared a tad, as if her name held some significance. He nodded and headed into the courtyard while the other men studied the girls with distrustful glances.

  Inside the courtyard, Ceres could see men and women working in a rushed, almost frantic manner. Some were training others in sword fighting; some were fashioning armor; some were making bows and whittling sticks into arrows; and yet others were sewing clothes.

  A few minutes passed, and then a few more. Were Rexus and her brothers not here? Ceres wondered. Would she have to leave without seeing them? She had to see them before she left for the palace.

  All of a sudden, Rexus burst around the corner.

  “Ciri!” he yelled, running toward her.

  Seeing his face again, Ceres felt her strength leave her, and when he wrapped eager arms around her, she broke down and sobbed. She had been strong for so long, and now standing wrapped in his safe embrace, she finally let her weakness surface.

 
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