A powerful class of people were taken captive from the concrete city of Regenesis. A small remnant survives in captivity in the Balka dungeon. No one knows they are there. It’s been twenty four years.
In this dystopian saga, sixteen-year-old Cassia is part of that remnant. Disguised as a boy, she bears the brand of the Balka seal as proof that she belongs to them.
But her true identity is revealed in the concrete city where she travels as a prisoner. Here, she discovers secrets and plots that threaten to overthrow generations of monarchy.
In the midst of her plight, she finds herself torn between two boys, each from a different world: Gildon, the handsome prince of the Balka kingdom, and Dolph, a mysterious boy whose eyes can see into her soul.
Author Juliet Pierce introduces us to the first book in The Cassia series–dystopian thrillers with unexpected twists, heartbreaking choices, and an ultimate romance that will leave you breathless.
I sit in my dark corner, clutching the thick wool in my hand to feed into the spindle. I hear the whispers of the adults in various parts of the dark room. The king is preparing for battle. I ignore the knots in my stomach at the news. My mother knew the risk of chopping off my hair and making me look as plain as possible so that I would not be taken from her.
But that was two years ago when the king’s palace was living in peace. Now, the rumors of war are circulating in our ears. We are the last to receive any news in the palace dungeon. We are not prepared.
“Watch the wheel, Cassia,” my mother whispers to me.
I slow the spinning wheel and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I shouldn’t be sweating. It’s cold in the dungeon–my home.
I was born here sixteen years ago. My people had been taken captive twenty-four years earlier. My father had been part of the ruling class of my people. He was already in his fifties when he married my young mother of eighteen. Once a strong, very cruel man, now he is old and feeble–beaten down and humbled at the captive life he’s been forced to live in his old age.
My mother is no longer beautiful. Her wrinkled hands look ancient as she spins wool beside me. I have never seen her smile. She had married my father because she sought a protector. And he was her protector for the first five years of their childless marriage.
Until the Balkas came. I know the story by heart. The newly appointed Balka king riding among thousands of an elite cavalry, all with their swords drawn and of one mind to seize the concrete city in the middle of the night.
The concrete city is called Regenesis. It’s where my people are from. It takes many weeks traveling by horse and ship to reach it. It is a different way of life than the Balkas. The clothes are different, the food is different, the transportation is different. When I was eight years old, my older sister, Meliah, showed me a picture our mother had given to her of the concrete city. There were vehicles of iron on paved roads and tall buildings that stretched to the sky covered with glass windows. My people weren’t prepared for the archaic battle strategy. The Balkas attacked the power plant that provided electricity to the concrete city. The darkness confused my people and they lost the battle and all that was precious to them.
Hundreds of my people were forced to board large ships to be transported to the Balka kingdom. Most lost their lives to sickness and disease before they arrived.
There is a small remnant of us left. Fifty-three to be exact. I am one of seventeen children eligible to fight for the Balka army. No adult speaks of the matter to us. Now it is just a matter of waiting to be summoned.
I barely get any sleep for the fear that has settled in my soul. So I rise from my straw cot that I share with seven-year old, Suriah. She’s not my sister, but she is part of my people.
For most of my day, I live in the darkness of the dungeon. This is the home the Balkas gave to my people when they arrived at the large castle. Our lives consist of serving them. The females spin cloth in the darkness and wash the laundry of the Balkas. The males tend the pigs and sheep. Since my mother keeps my hair chopped off, I can pass for a boy. Sometimes my father lets me see the early morning light when he feeds the pigs.
I creep past the sleeping figure of my father. He is an old man with long straggly hair that has become gray with age. The beatings he received when he was initially captured by the Balkas has taken effect on his body. It was his own fault. His great pride and anger had to be driven out of him.
The pigs live right outside the dungeon entrance. I have caught glimpses of the Balka soldiers passing by and holding their noses from the stench. The pigs’ stench is all I’ve known. Of course, I realize the pigs are unclean animals. My people never eat their flesh, which is what makes us the ideal servants to tend the pigs. The Balkas know we would never steal their meat, no matter how hungry we are.
The sun is just beginning to dawn. I take a minute to close my eyes and imagine feeling its warmth on my skin. But a sound inside the large barn arrests my attention. Arian is already preparing the grain to feed the pigs.
Arian is younger than me, by a year. He’s a frail, painfully thin boy who struggles under the weight of the buckets he has filled with the pig’s food. I move to him to help.
We don’t say a word, but I can tell he’s grateful for my assistance. The grain is mixed with large buckets of scraps from the trash of the kingdom. The pigs eat better than we do. We are given portions of flour to make bread in the clay oven outside the dungeon. If we’re fortunate, we receive some veal to eat once every couple of months. It’s usually old meat that has become tainted and we eat it at our own risk. Any vegetables we get are salvaged from the scraps we feed to the pigs.
“Are you scared?” Arian whispers to me inside the barn.
I nod my head and move to the water barrel to draw out some buckets to pour into the pigs trough. I stare at my reflection in the water. I am plain. My brown chopped hair is short like the boys. My gray eyes look huge in my very thin face. I am as skinny as Arian. None of us have ever known a full belly. We live on the brink of starvation.
Arian stuffs a handful of the pigs’ grain into a small sack sewn on the inside hem of his pants. He holds a handful out to me. We all have the secret sacks sewn in our pants and fill them with the pigs’ grain whenever we can. Sometimes, its the only thing we have to eat for an entire day.
“I heard that we leave tomorrow,” Arian whispers again.
I freeze. Arian would leave with me to fight and I can tell he is as frightened as I am. All my people know I am disguised as a boy so I won’t be taken from my mother like my sister had been two years ago. She was taken to the king’s kitchen to serve in the main palace. Only my mother sees her from a distance a couple of times a year when she delivers the laundry to the main floor of the castle.
I remember my sister as beautiful with long flowing locks of blonde hair. The king’s court found her beautiful, as well. She was given to one of the Balka soldiers as a reward for his bravery a year ago. The last time my mother saw Meliah, she was pregnant. That was about seven months ago.
Arian’s father quietly joins us in the barn. He throws a look of sympathy my way and silently places his hand on Arian’s shoulder. Then he turns away, but not before I see the tears fill his eyes. My parents will not cry for me.
I slip back inside the dungeon as more boys file out to help with the feeding and butchering. My father lets a moan of pain escape his lips as he pulls himself up from his cot. His thin hair hangs in greasy strands over his face. He doesn’t even have the energy to swipe it out of his eyes.
The other men try to hide my father’s condition from the Balka guards. If they feel we are unable to work, they cast us out of the castle. Most are elderly so they die outside the castle’s thick walls.
I have no feelings for my father. He has never said a kind word to me nor shown me any affection my entire life. My mother moves to him to smooth his hair back. There is no affection between them either. My father has let her down. He did not protect her as he had promised.
I sit at the spinning wheel and carefully eat the grain. I have to make sure I leave no trace of it on the floor for the guards to see. Stealing the grain is a crime, punishable by death.
“Your hair has grown too long. I need to cut it before you go,” my mother says quietly.
She moves behind me with a knife. I sit very still while she takes the knife and hacks off the ends. I can never let it be known that I am a girl or my parents will be killed for trying to hide me from serving in the king’s palace.
“We leave tomorrow,” I tell my mother and she nods her head. Her eyes are void of expression and I realize she has already counted me dead in her heart.
I spend the day beside my mother at the spinning wheel. She should be doing laundry, but I can tell she wants to spend my last night with her. We don’t talk; as a matter of fact, none of my people talk out loud. We only whisper or communicate through our expressions. The Balkas had killed several of the early captives for being too loud in the dungeon as the royals threw parties above us. That served as a lesson for all generations to come.
Sleep eludes me once again when it is time to rest for the night. I lay in the darkness and listen to Suriah’s soft breathing. She is pressed against my back to keep warm.
It is still dark outside when the dungeon doors open. I know that because I can see when it is day from a crack in the dungeon’s foundation. I lay very still until I feel my mother’s hand on my shoulder.
“It’s time,” she whispers.
The other kids are rising too. There is one other girl disguised as a boy like me–Gemma. Unlike me, she has already developed breasts so she has to wrap them every day. I have small breasts and am so thin that I have no problem disguising myself as a boy.
“Go to your father for a blessing,” Mother orders softly.
I cross to my father’s cot. He is still asleep. I gently shake his arm and he opens his eyes. We look at each other in the dimness of the room without talking. Finally, he sighs and struggles to sit up. I don’t help him. He would slap me if I move to pull him to a sitting position.
“I am leaving soon,” I whisper.
My father nods and places a gnarled hand on my forehead. “May strength and wisdom guide you into the afterlife,” he mutters.
It’s not really a blessing. It’s an affirmation that this is the last time we will see each other. He will probably die before I get back or I will die in the battle. The chances are that I will die in the battle first. He doesn’t say this, but we both know it’s true.
Mother holds up a pair of large sandals the soldiers have provided for us. I have never worn shoes, so I am unsure how to strap them on. Calmly, she places my dirty feet into them and wraps the leather strap around them tightly to secure my feet. They are too large, but I don’t complain.
We are also provided a scarlet cape made of thick wool–the Balka kingdom’s color. I have never worn any clothing with color. My whole life, we have worn homemade clothes from the old sheets or clothes given to us by the king. The material is already so old and thin by the time we get it that it doesn’t last long before we need to make more clothes. It’s also dingy gray–like grave clothes, my mother told me. That was a very fitting description for today as we say our final farewells to our families.
The capes are too large for our thin bodies. We keep having to adjust the hood as it falls over our eyes when we move.
I step behind Arian to file out of the dungeon. I want to look at the main level of the palace because I have never seen it before. But the stone-faced guard keeps us moving down the hall.
We pause inside a great room glowing with candles. It is the first time I have seen light inside a room. Large pictures of past kings adorn the walls. A few people are gathered to say goodbye.
I recognize Meliah holding an infant. She still looks beautiful in a long blue silk gown. But her eyes reflect her sadness when she looks at me. I want to run to her and feel her arms hug me once again, but it is unacceptable. Meliah is the only person to hug me my whole life. My mother had sunk into a depression after giving birth to me, so she wanted nothing to do with me. But Meliah had a lot of love to share. My life has been void of love for the two years she was taken out of the dungeon. Looking at her now, I realize the infant had replaced me.
“Move!” the guard orders.
I hear a couple of sniffles as some of the other kids try not to cry. I do not cry. I am not leaving anything of value behind.
So we trudge out of the castle into the early morning frost. The capes are a welcomed relief from the cold. Our feet are freezing, but no one says a word.
The castle gates are lowered for us to leave. Hundreds of Balka soldiers file out, wearing vests made of the same scarlet material that our capes are. They sit proudly on their large beasts with scarlet banners bearing the Balka crest flying high above them.
Following the soldiers are the watchmen and the cooks for the soldiers. They travel on tall wagons where they have men posted at the top to spy out the land. Food supplies with sheep and pigs in pens are contained in the wagons below. We walk behind this caravan.
I keep my head down and watch the feet in front of me so that I don’t stumble on the rocky terrain. I don’t know who the king’s soldiers are fighting. None of us do. It’s probably best that we don’t know so that fear cannot grip us and make us immobile.
We walk for many hours. The shoes are hurting my feet. I can feel the skin rubbing off where the leather straps are biting into my flesh. I want to take them off, but it is not allowed.
Dusk is setting before the soldiers stop by a running stream. I look at the other sixteen kids. They are as exhausted and thirsty and hungry as I feel. My tongue is sticking to the roof of my mouth from all the dust that the horses kick up in front of us.
The soldiers drink water and then lead their horses in for refreshment. It isn’t until the horses are satisfied that we are allowed to drink. I push the cape back and greedily dip my hands in the freezing water to draw the liquid to my lips. I don’t stop until the guards order us to leave the stream.
We take a seat on large boulders at the outskirts of the Balka soldiers’ camp. The smell of food cooking on crackling fires make my stomach gnaw. I lay my head on my knees and close my eyes to pretend I am eating food.
“Do you have grain?”
I raise my head to see Arian leaning over to whisper to me. I look around cautiously. Our guard has moved to the soldiers campfire. He knows we will not leave them. Where would we go if we tried to escape?
“No,” I whisper. “I ate it all.”
Arian hands me a small amount from the grain hidden in his sack. I take it and press my tongue against it to lick up every tiny morsel. I know the Balkas won’t spare any food for us. We are as good as dead in their eyes, so why waste anything?
Gemma crowds in next to me. “We pass the Spawn lands tomorrow. My father told me we will be used as pawns to confuse the Spawns so the soldiers can attack them and allow them to pass through the lands.”
I look into Gemma’s eyes and can tell she is scared to die. Gemma is fortunate to have parents and three young brothers who love her. I grab her hand and we hang on for dear life for a few minutes before releasing them for her to crawl back to her own boulder.
The Spawns had declared a truce with the Balkas ten years ago. Part of that truce meant no Balka soldier could step foot on Spawn lands. But the Balkas need to pass through the lands to take the ships to Regenesis, the concrete city. The Spawns refused them entry, so it’s inevitable that blood will be shed tomorrow.
We spend our first night out of the dungeon huddled in a group on the ground. The capes offer protection against the cold air and our body heat ensures we stay warm. We are all so exhausted and hungry that we sleep.
A shrill whistle alerts us at the crack of dawn. We silently stand and stretch, waiting for the guard to position us behind the wagons. Except that’s not where he directs us.
“To the front,” the surly man shouts at us. “Keep your heads covered.”
We pull the cape hoods back over our heads and move to the front, passing the soldiers on the way. I realize they want us to cover our heads so the soldiers won’t have compassion on mere kids being led to our assured deaths in the battle to come.
Our guard is nervous so I know we will meet our death today. Strangely, I feel a calm slowly overtake my body. Death is inevitable and I can fight it or acknowledge it. Arian and Gemma are fighting it. That’s why silent tears stream down their faces when they look at me.
We lead the Balka soldiers onward. Our feet is bloody and in immense pain, but we carry on without a word. W are the perfect sacrifice for the Balkas. We go to our slaughter without a word of complaint. This is why they have allowed us to live in our captive state all these years.
The golden sun slowly rises over the mountain in front of us. I hear the yells of the soldiers behind us. I know the battle is about to start. We’ll be sent into the valley of the rocks first, the territorial line of the Spawns.
As we are attacked, the Balkas will be able to assess how many soldiers they have and attack accordingly. It’s a strategy that has helped them in their many great wars of the past.
We pause on the mountain range. The guard orders us to pick up a rock. That will be our only weapon against the mighty Spawn soldiers waiting for us below. Their shiny armor reflects the early morning sun and makes us want to run and hide. But we cannot. We are pushed forward.
I grip the rock in my sweaty palms. Gemma finds my other hand and we walk down the mountain to the valley together. The Spawn soldiers wait until we are in the valley before they start riding on their great horses toward us, large swords drawn. We are easy prey.
I close my eyes and walk forward, my heart beating fast. Just as the Spawn soldiers reach us, I hear the Balkas horn blow above us and hear the pounding of their horses coming down the mountain.
My feet trip over rocks, but I keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to see my executioner. Gemma’s hand slips from mine and I know she has been slain. Suddenly, I feel my head reel from a heavy object striking it. I feel my body fall forward and crash to the ground. I can’t move but I’m conscious of the activity around me.
I hear the Balkas horses thunder onto the scene and the screams of pain and the crunch of bones. The Balkas are not there to win the battle. They just want to fight to cross through the Spawn lands.
I hear the wagons pass through the valley in the midst of the battle and then more fighting. It is remarkable how quickly it is over. There is complete silence for about ten minutes. Then I hear the Spawn soldiers’ footsteps on the ground around me. Suddenly, my body is picked up in the air and I am carried a distance before being tossed onto something soft. I feel another body thrown on top of me, but I keep my eyes closed so they think I’m dead.
Night has fallen before I don’t hear any more sounds. The silence is as deathly around me as the bodies are. I open my eyes to see the great illumination of the silver moon above me. I am in a mass grave. The body I push off me is Arian. He is dead. He lost his fight with death.
I refuse to allow myself to feel any emotions as I crawl across the other sixteen bodies of the kids slaughtered in the battle. Another grave filled with Balka soldiers is beside ours, their scarlet vests filled with their own crimson blood. The Spawn soldiers have set up camp about a hundred yards away from the mass graves.
My hands shake as I untie the leather straps binding the large sandals on my feet. It’s cold outside, but I know I must leave the scarlet cape behind. My grave clothes will help me blend in more with the rocky terrain.
My head hurts and I gently touch it, feeling the sticky blood on my fingertips. I don’t know how bad the wound is; I can’t think of that right now. Survival is my only thought.
I creep closer to the Spawn’s camp. My body shudders from the cold and from fear of the powerful soldiers I had come face to face with in the battle. They are strangely quiet–mourning their fallen soldiers, no doubt.
I hear a leader talking about the other kingdoms coming to join them in a fight against the Balka soldiers. I can try to run back to the castle, but strangely, I feel a loyalty to the captors of my people. I must warn them.
I creep away, undetected. I heard the direction the Balka soldiers headed when they left the battle scene, so I move in that direction. Moving keeps me warm in the cold air. I can’t stop or I will freeze to death in my thin clothes.
The sun has set high in the sky when I spot the Balkas scarlet banners in the distance below me. They are not moving. Further out, I see the dust moving. I know that dust belongs to other kingdoms coming to join the Spawns to war against the Balkas.
I run toward the Balkas. My bare feet don’t even feel the sharp rocks below. I am within a mile of the Balkas’ camp when one of their soldiers suddenly appears in front of me on his great steed. I immediately stop and hold up my hands. He stares at me in surprise.
“Who are you?” he shouts.
“Cassia–Cassian Auticus,” I say in a low voice. I must remember to use the male name of Cassian that my mother had given me.
“Speak up,” he orders harshly.
“Cassian Auticus,” I say louder. Probably louder than I’ve ever spoken in my sixteen years.
“State your business lest you die.”
“I came to warn you that the Spawns have joined with other kingdoms to fight against the Balkas,” I tell him in a rushed voice.
He studies my face for a moment before dismounting from his horse. “Come here,” he orders.
I cross to him, my eyes cast downward so that he would know that I am submissive. My mother told me to do that with the Balkas so they never think I am trying to usurp their authority.
He grabs my shoulder and turns me around to look at my neck. Yes, I bear the Balkas’ brand. They branded all of us like we were animals that belonged to them. I was five years old when they branded me with their seal. The scar on the back of my neck is a reminder of the pain of the searing branding iron and the smell of burning flesh as it was pressed into my neck.
Satisfied I am not an enemy, the soldier pushes me in front of him. “Come with me.”
I walk to the Balkas’ camp. Several soldiers stand up as I am pushed into the middle of a ring of leaders. They stare at me as if looking at a corpse that has risen from the dead. I must look like a walking dead person.
“Tell them,” the soldier says in a low voice.
“The Spawns have other kingdoms that are joining to fight you,” I hear my voice say.
A large man at the front of the others stands and frowns. “Who is this?”
“He’s one of ours,” the soldier says grimly. He yanks my neck around to show the Balkas’ brand.
“The Spawns won’t join with other kingdoms. There’s no reason for them to. They know we just want to pass through their lands,” the large leader declares.
The other soldiers snort at his words. I look into their stoic faces and realize they will be killed if they don’t heed my words.
“There is a kingdom on its way from that direction,” I say in a quiet voice and point toward where I saw them.
The large leader studies my face for a moment then orders a soldier to go check. I stand quietly in the center of the group with all eyes fixed on me until the soldier reports back.
“He’s right. There are soldiers coming!” he shouts to the circle.
Immediately, there is a scrambling as the soldiers grab their weapons and move to mount their horses for the battle. The wagons will be left for the time being.
I am forgotten in the preparation. I move to one of the wagons and stand back as I watch the soldiers. For the first time, I see them up close. They are large, imposing figures in their scarlet vests and armor. They surround a boy, maybe a year older than me. He bears the king’s crest on his vest and I realize he is part of the royal line. This must be his first battle, but he is remarkably calm in the chaos.
Then the soldiers ride off. About a hundred are left behind with the supplies. I sit down on the wagon and await my fate.
I sit very still all day while the soldiers pack up the wagons and stay on guard. Everyone is on edge, the fate of their fellow soldiers unknown. A soldier tosses a half-eaten apple into a bush near me. With no one looking, I sneak to it and sit behind the bush to finish it off. I even eat the core, seeds and all.
It is nightfall before the Balka soldiers return. They have lost just a couple of soldiers in the battle and are in a rejoicing mood. A lamb is slaughtered and brought to the fire to cook over the open flame. It’s at least two hours before it’s ready for them to eat, so they fill their stomachs with liquor. My stomach growls at the smell of the cooking meat.
Suddenly, the large leader catches sight of me sitting on the wagon near the fire. A long scar runs down one side of his face and his dark hair is streaked with gray. He keeps his eyes fixed on me as he sinks his teeth into a lamb shank, ripping the meat away from the bone with his teeth. I look down at the ground, but I can still feel the weight of his eyes.
Then, the unfinished lamb shank is thrown to my feet. I look up at the large leader and he nods to me. He is rewarding me for warning them. Slowly, I reach for the lamb shank, but a soldier’s foot steps hard on my hand. It is the guard who had overseen us.
“Leave it,” the large leader orders.
The guard whirls to the leader with a look of surprise. “But he’s just a dog,” he sputters.
“Even the dogs are rewarded for good work,” the leader says. “And that dog just saved our lives today.”
The guard removes his foot and I bring the lamb shank to my mouth. I don’t even wipe off the dirt as I bite into the flesh. I try to chew the meat slowly, even though I am starving, but I can’t stop myself from devouring it. The leader grins as if amused and turns back to his circle of soldiers.
I lick my fingers and tremble at the cold night air penetrating my thin clothes. The soldiers throw thick blankets over themselves to settle down for the night. I have no protection against the night air. I look around for a bush to crawl into, but then I see the great horses tethered to the trees in the distance.
I quietly move to the horses. I’ve never been around the large beasts and I feel nervous. They whinny softly as I approach them. Carefully, I let them smell my scent and then softly stroke their velvet noses as they calm down.
They have long blankets thrown over their backs for protection from the cold, so I crawl on top of one that seems more gentle than the others. He seems to sense my nervousness and stands very still for me as I ease myself under his blanket for warmth. I reach my arms around his thick neck to hold on and bury my face in his mane. It’s more comfortable than the cot in the dungeon and I fall asleep almost instantly.
My dreams are filled with Arian and Gemma. I am trying to squeeze Gemma’s hand to let her know everything is okay when the horse make a sudden movement. I open my eyes. I have half slid from the horse’s back so I pull myself back up.
The horse shifts again as though nervous. I look at the other horses. It’s the middle of the night and they should be asleep, but their bodies are stiffened as if in alarm. I look out into the brush in front of us. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can make out shadows moving slowly, silently toward the camp.
Why isn’t the alarm being sounded by the watchmen? I look at the top of the wagons. All the soldiers are slumped at their posts. Too much liquor.
Carefully, I slide off the horse and move to the camp. The fire is now a bed of embers and the sleeping soldiers are snoring loudly. The large leader who had shared his meat with me is sleeping in the middle of the circle. Even with me moving in through the soldiers, no one awakes. They are easy prey with their stomachs full of food and their minds dulled by the liquor.
I stop at the large soldier and gently shake his shoulder. He stirs, but doesn’t awake. I shake harder and take a step back as his eyes fly open. It takes a second for his red eyes to focus on me. I hold a finger to my lips.
“The camp is being surrounded,” I whisper.
Alarm sits in his eyes and he shakes the leg of the soldier near him. One by one, the soldiers shake each other awake with a finger to their lips to silence each other. I creep out of their circle as they silently grab their weapons and move throughout the camp to awaken other soldiers.
They are prepared when the foreigners burst into camp, their weapons held high. I crawl under a wagon and watch as the foreigners are slain right in front of me. There were only about a hundred of them, so the fight is over in just minutes. A few of them escape into the blackness, but most lose their lives.
The Balka soldiers stand around, breathing heavily. I crawl from under the wagon and stand by it to watch the large leader. He opens his mouth and roars angrily, “Who was not protecting the camp?”
No one moves a muscle as the leader examines the faces in front of him. Their drunkenness almost got them killed. He yells the question again in the cold, dark silence. It is several minutes before four men are pushed in front of him. They are quaking at the leader’s fury and fall down on their knees before him, their hands clasped to beg for their lives.
“Please, Jericho,” one of the men says in a trembling voice. “It was the whiskey. My eyes were tired. I made a mistake.”
Jericho is the large leader’s name. His face shows no compassion for the men before him. The young man bearing the royal crest that I had seen earlier pushes himself through the group of men to join Jericho at the front.
“Who sounded the alarm if not one of our guards?” he asks Jericho.
Jericho looks around the camp and finally spies me by the wagon. He jabs a finger in my direction. “Your highness, this boy saved our lives–again.”
I feel the weight of all eyes upon me. The boy is a royal, as I suspected. He crosses in my direction and stands squarely in front of me. His blue eyes stare into mine and I feel an odd sensation run up my spine. I am mesmerized by the intensity of his eyes.
“You are one of my prisoners and yet you would save us all from death?” he asks in a quiet voice.
My mother had always told me to bow at the presence of one of the Balka royals. Of course, I never had the opportunity to practice because the royals never came down to the dungeon. Never.
I bow low before him and then stand back up. “Yes, your highness,” I whisper.
“You will get to decide the fate of the four soldiers then,” the boy declares.
He turns away and I meet the approving eyes of Jericho who motions me to join him. I force my feet to move in his direction. Why should I decide the fate of others? The soldiers rise from their knelt positions as I join Jericho. It’s evident they disapprove of a prisoner deciding whether they live or die.
I look into their eyes and see contempt for me. One has the audacity to spit on the ground in front of my bare, filthy feet. I feel nothing. No anger, no compassion.
“Would you have your life spared?” I ask that soldier in a very quiet voice.
He looks surprised at the question. “Of course,” he says with a sneer.
“And if your life is spared, would you have your position as a watchman given back to you?”
The man is taken aback at my question. He looks hesitantly at Jericho, whose face is stone cold. “Of course, if that’s what Jericho would want. Or I could join the troops,” he says uncertainly, his full attention on Jericho. But Jericho isn’t saying a word or responding to the man.
Jericho turns to me and nods. “Make your decision,” he says in a hard voice.
I look at the men in front of me and I don’t know why I make the choice I do. “I say release them.”
The men’s shoulders sink in relief and they grin at each other.
“But,” I continue, “release them from their duties as watchmen. They will hold no positions in the Balka army either. They are free men to leave the camp and make their way back to the kingdom.”
The men look at each other in shock. There is a hush settled upon the camp. The four men will have to travel back to the Balka kingdom without the protection from the army.
“You’re giving us a sure death sentence,” one of the men growls at me.
“Not a sure death sentence,” I say softly. “I survived the massacre of the Spawns and traveled to find this camp all by myself.”
It’s a challenging remark, I know. The men have no arguments with my statement. They turn stiffly and leave the camp, taking no supplies or horses with them. They will have to trek through the dangers of the Spawn lands and other kingdoms that had joined them.
“You judge fairly,” Jericho says in a quiet voice and places a heavy hand of approval upon my shoulder. “How is it that a mere boy–our prisoner–speaks with such wisdom?”
I have no response. I don’t feel I have any wisdom. How can I? My life has been confined to the dark trenches of a dungeon.
The men start breaking down camp to keep moving. Again, I move out of their way and stand by the wagon in preparation to move. The cooks are hurriedly making corn cakes for the soldiers to eat as they ride. My hungry stomach aches for one, but I remind myself that I have the lamb shank bone to suck on.
I watch the soldiers fill up their canteens and then water the horses for the day’s journey. I sneak to the stream’s bank and gulp some swigs of the clear water just as the wagons start moving behind the soldiers. I stop at the sight of my reflection in the water. My head wound is large and crusted with blood. Gently, I take water and try to wash off some of the dried blood. I know I have to catch up with the Balkas so I won’t be left behind. But I see a small sign of hope. A liquor canteen has been thrown into a nearby bush so I rush to rinse it out and fill it with water.
My body is aching from tiredness, but I force myself to run to catch up with the wagons. I pull the lamb shank bone from the hidden pocket in my pants and start sucking on it. I’m grateful to have it as it’s several hours before the Balka soldiers find another small stream of water to rest the animals.
The day is overcast with the threat of rain. Jericho feels like this is a good place to set up camp to let the rains pass us by. The watchmen have been doubled on top of the wagons so the newly appointed soldiers to that position are on edge. They will not allow themselves to relax for fear of receiving the same punishment of the four that left camp.
I lower myself to the ground under a tree away from the soldiers. My canteen is dry and I have to wait for the horses to drink so I can refill it. I lean my head against the tree and close my eyes. I feel something thrown on my lap and open my eyes to see Jericho standing above me. He has thrown some food to me.
I slowly pick up the apple and orange in my hands. A corn muffin has fallen to the ground, so I snatch it up. Jericho is watching me without a word. Finally, he turns and strides back to the other soldiers.
I eat the corn muffin first. It’s dry but I scarcely notice. Then I eat the apple–all of it. I tuck the orange into my hidden pocket to save for later. I’ve never eaten an orange and I want to savor it. Arian had eaten a piece of one once. His father had found an orange thrown into the pigs’ slop one morning and he had snatched it up. I remember seeing the orange juice drip off of Arian’s fingers and I had wanted to lick them just so I could experience what the orange tasted like.
I relax against the tree and close my eyes to rest my body.
I feel the first drops of rain about an hour later. I had fallen asleep and was dreaming about food when the wetness hit my face. The soldiers had spent the hour erecting large tarps for shelter. I move from the tree to the wagons and crawl under one just as the first crack of lightening moves across the sky in the distance.
The rain beats down upon the wagon so I am forced to move into the center to try to stay dry. Not even the wagon can provide much shelter for too long. Soon, the water soaks up the dry ground to where I lay shivering. A puddle has already formed around the outside of the wagon and is growing.
I force myself to crawl through the puddles under the wagon. I need to find shelter elsewhere. The loud boom of thunder seems to shake the earth beneath my feet. The onslaught of rain is pounding me so hard that I can barely breathe.
Before I can move, I feel a rough hand on my shoulder and I am pushed to one of the large tarps. It is Jericho, providing me his shelter from the rain. The boy–the royal–is the only other one in this tarp. He is lying on a cot, reading a book by the light of a candle. He looks up when I enter.
I am dripping wet and shivering. Jericho throws a thick blanket to me and I nod gratefully. I wrap it around my body and sink to the floor of the entrance. I’m just happy to get out of the rain.
“Here, put this on,” Jericho says and throws a soldier’s uniform at me. The material is thickly woven cotton; the pants and shirt are of a soft gray color. I recognize the thick material as I have woven much in my life.
I don’t want to change in front of Jericho’s watchful eyes. My heart starts beating in my chest as the boy looks over at me, as well. I swallow the lump in my throat and draw the soldier’s uniform into the blanket with me. Carefully, I remove my shirt under the blanket and am about to slip on the soldier’s shirt when Jericho yanks the blanket from me, exposing my breasts. I clutch the shirt to my chest in alarm.
“You’re a girl,” Jericho snarls.
He makes me afraid and all I can do is nod my head and shiver. The boy sits up from his cot and looks at me with surprise. I avoid looking into his face.
“How is it that a girl is brought with us?” the boy asks in a quiet voice.
There is complete silence as Jericho just looks at me. He knows. My parents have disguised me and now they are in danger of being put to death. He throws the blanket back over me and turns his back to me.
“Get dressed,” he orders in a hoarse voice.
The boy averts his gaze as well, so I scramble to change into the soldier’s uniform. And then I wait. Jericho’s back is to me, so I can’t read his expression. Finally, he turns to face me.
“You can never let any of the men know that you are a girl,” he tells me in a very low voice. “You’ll stay in here with us while it’s raining.”
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Jericho doesn’t respond and crosses to his own cot to lay down. The boy resumes reading. I’m relieved they’ve turned their attention away from me. I lay down on the ground and snuggle into the blanket’s warmth. I stay in that position until the bell is rang to let the soldiers know it’s time to eat.