March 02, 2019

Days ago they had been skipping along frosty meadows, carrying icy water from the well. They would then warm their toes by the hearth while mending the empty pockets of their fathers out at sea. Now they were nameless, faceless and worthless, stripped of everything they had ever owned.

Their families were disgraced and humiliated, as if their poverty hadn’t been enough. The mere rumor of having dealings with Aruels could ruin a life, not to mention being suspected to be an Aruel.

They stood still in a line with their backs against the wall, breathing heavily until General Haften grabbed their hands and they seemed to stop breathing altogether. He looked them in the eyes, one at a time. He was in full gear, as if preparing for battle. Each of their skins the battlefield. 

Fylkir crouched down in the shadows of the washing room with his eyes shut tightly. Listening, feeling, searching for anything indicating Aruel blood. It wasn’t a sound, but that was the closest Fylkir could come to describe it. Like a subtle crackling of a fire, or the whistling of wind through an abandoned house. Exhaustion ached in his bones, and he opened his eyes to blink wearily at the wet granite floor.

But he was listening with deaf ears. He could sense nothing.

In Hordrigg, everything had been much louder. He could meet one of his kind and know it to be an Aruel immediately.

The General pushed a young man's hands back, and turned to Fylkir. “You have anything yet?Fylkir?”

Water dripped from the walls and coldness radiated from the floor, the water slowly freezing around his boots. Fylkir shivered.

He raised his gaze to Haften, shook his head slightly and continued to stare at a bucket full of steaming water in the corner. He could only sense fear in the room, nothing else. Not even his human intuition told him anything.

The hairs on Fylkir’s hands were standing on end. Frustrated, he stood up and walked to the General, standing beside him. He looked at the line of people through slitted eyes. All of them were young men and women, and most of them didn't look up from their feet. But there were always a few ones with defiance in their eyes. They glowered darkly in Fylkir’s direction. 

If they were Aruels, he was a traitor. If they were Norians, he was the enemy.

But soon he would be free.

If they had met him before, they would’ve paid attention to the buttons on his uniform. They  weren’t shiny as usual. Neither was his face clean, and dark stubble dusted his chin.

As Fylkir forced his gaze to wander across each one of them, he noticed most had red in their hair. Auburns, strawberry blondes, different hues of copper. 

Queen Ryiah's heir. General Haften was still looking for her, and he wouldn’t give up the search until he found the heir of Queen Ryiah—the one who was said to have escaped with a maid on the night of the Adrons’ fall.

He wouldn't leave Fylkir alone until he captured her.

But no matter how hard Fylkir looked, or felt, each girl lacked the fire more than the last. None of them were Aruels.

Fylkir slowly shook his head, turning to the General.

Haften grunted and stepped forward, bringing up a small dagger. The girl in front of him trembled when he took her hand, squirming at the touch of his cold blade when he marked her.

“Well, aren’t you useless,” the General grumbled. After finishing the last girl and piercing the perfectly soft skin of both palms, the general stomped out of the room and slammed the door. Fylkir lowered his face and walked out.

Even if the youngsters were allowed to return to their homes, they wouldn't work for at least a week with those hands.

Fylkir unbuttoned his jacket and handed it in silence to Haften, who leaned on the wooden wall with his face against it. The General didn’t even look at him. Fylkir stood there, holding the jacket for a moment, cold seeping through his tunic, into his skin. “General?”

Slowly, Haften faced Fylkir. On his face sat a blank expression, and as he saw the dark blue jacket in Fylkir's hand, he wordlessly took it from him and turned his back to Fylkir.

“Don’t just stand there. The horse is waiting outside.”

A weight was lifted off Fylkir’s shoulders, but he also felt as if his very identity had been ripped from him. The Norian-made sword, his flesh and bone; the uniform, his skin.

Fylkir nodded, lowered his chin and exited the corridor. He stayed in the hallway for a moment, out of Haften’s sight. He laid a hand on the door handle made of deer’s antlers and filled his lungs with a single deep breath.

Behind him, the General spoke in shallow whispers. “God-cursed Aruels. Good riddance.”

Listening, Fylkir let go of the handle and held his breath, standing completely still.

“My Darkness, love, I will let you free.”

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