“You will do as I say, slave!” A blow to the face, then pain, then darkness. Blessed darkness…
Kendra sat up in bed, gasping for air as the nightmare left her. She reached for Iliyana, but the black-haired woman was not there. Kendra jumped out of bed and dressed quickly, looking around for any signs of Iliyana.
“Iliyana!” Kendra cried. She knew she was probably being irrational; that Iliyana was probably washing their laundry in the lake or hunting for game, but she had a terrible feeling in her gut, a feeling of fear for the former queen’s safety. They had lived in this hut safely since the fall of Ashvalaria, but Kendra had noticed Iliyana had started to become restless of late, agitated even. She went for longer and longer walks and talked about Ashvalaria constantly.
Sure enough, when Kendra reached the clearing where the horses were tied, she saw Iliyana’s was gone. She remembered the fight they had about freeing them.
“No!” Iliyana cried, her eyes lit up with rage, “If we let the horses go, we’ll never be able to return to Ashvalaria!”
“We rarely leave the forest,” Kendra had said, “It’s not fair to keep them tied here all the time. Besides, there’s no Ashvalaria to return to.”
“We’re keeping them!” Iliyana had said, and Kendra had let the matter drop. If it meant so much to her, then it was best just to let it be. Perhaps they would need the horses eventually anyway, in case they needed to move on or one of them became sick.
Kendra shook her head, “Iliyana…” she whispered, mounting up, “You silly woman…”
Iliyana surveyed the rubble from a distance before riding closer, but there seemed to be no Dragavian presence, or any other, for that matter. The whole area around Ashvalaria, once filled with lush, rich fields, was now a wasteland of dead, untended crops. She rode forth cautiously, her handmade bow at the ready.
When she reached the city, she tied her horse to a post and wandered about on foot. The smoking ruins had long since stopped burning, and nature was taking back the city. A young deer saw her and fled, surprised at human presence in such a desolate place. Vines grew all over the castle walls, untended by any man.
Why did I come here? Iliyana asked herself, but there was no easy answer. As time had passed, it had seemed more and more unreal that Ashvalaria was really gone. She had dreamt of the city, reclaimed and rebuilt by her cousin King Araka who ruled Crystalia in the Icy Wastes, just waiting for its queen to come home.
“I’m home,” she whispered sadly, falling to her knees.
After she recovered, she decided to explore the castle. Most of it was burnt and blackened and some of the walls had collapsed, but pieces of her former life were still littered amongst the ruins. Eventually she found the throne room, her throne still as it was, untouched by time. She dusted it off and sat in it, looking over the room. She remembered Vasha, and how he had always been at her side. She could have married him, bore his children. Perhaps one of their sons would have grown to be strong enough to repel Dragavia and the Barak Empire. But she had given it all up for love. She had held back on marriage, hoping for that legendary spark the poets spoke of. And it had come, in the form of Kendra, the slave girl. Kendra, who she loved more than anything, even her kingdom.
She had made her choice long ago, but now she had to live with it, and it was hard. Not a day went by without thoughts of what she could have done differently to save her people. How could she hold Kendra, knowing that thousands had died because of her inattention. She told herself that Dragavia had already allied themselves with Barak before she even met Kendra and she knew it was true, but it didn’t make it any easier. Ashvalaria was her kingdom, and in its hour of need, she had fled and left it to burn. She should have led her people to the Icy Wastes, but instead she had let them go alone, enduring the cold and the danger without her to lead them. How many had made it to her cousin’s kingdom alive, she wondered? They had probably all assumed she was dead.
“Iliyana!” Kendra stood at the end of the throne room, her sword drawn, her eyes scanning for danger, “Why did you come here? It’s dangerous!”
“All of this used to be mine,” Iliyana said, completely ignoring Kendra’s concern. My brother was killed in the war with Dragavia. This should have been his kingdom…”
“I’m sorry,” Kendra said, “I didn’t know you had a brother…”
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Iliyana said, “I just… I had to…”
“I know,” Kendra said, “You had to see with your own eyes what had become of Ashvalaria. I understand.”
“Do you?” Iliyana asked, “Every night, I hear the cries of my people on the night we left Ashvalaria. They needed my help, and I was scared, so I ran…”
“If you had stayed with them, you would have been killed!” Kendra said, “You did the best you could but fate had already decided the future of Ashvalaria. There was nothing you could have done to change it!”
“I should have gone to Crystalia, raised an army…”
“Crystalia is no match for the combined strength of Dragavia and the Barak Empire!” Kendra argued, “Iliyana, I understand you’re in pain. But what happened isn’t your fault!”
“Secretly I hoped that I would come here and find the city rebuilt,” Iliyana said, “Even if it had a new ruler. Even if it was a Dragavian city. But all I found was this… emptiness, and nothingness… It’s as if… nobody even cares that Ashvalaria is gone! That my brother and all the others in my family died in vain protecting a place that wasn’t even wanted!”
“Ashvalaria is in a strategically difficult place to hold,” Kendra said, “I studied the histories when you taught me how to read. Ashvalaria fell many times, Iliyana. In fact, it was renamed and rebuilt on at least five different occasions…”
“I know that,” Iliyana said, “But this time was the last time. Look at it now. Nobody came back to reclaim it. Ashvalaria is worse than gone. It’s dead, and all the dreams that built and sustained it are dead.”
“Are they?” Kendra asked, “We still remember Ashvalaria. I’m sure the ones who resettled in Crystalia miss their home too. I’m sure they got used to the climate and the food… but who doesn’t sometimes have a yearning for their home?”
“Even you?” Iliyana asked in shock, “After what Dragavia did to you?”
“Even me,” Kendra said, “Sometimes I miss the language, and the culture. I miss the vibrant warriors, how they would dress and compete with each other. I miss the spicy food, how it would tingle as it went down, even the slop they fed me. There’s no place like home, Iliyana. No matter how far you go and how many places you call home, a piece of you will always yearn for the familiarity of your birthplace.”
“I never thought that you would ever miss Dragavia,” Iliyana said, “Do you want to go back?”
“Are you joking? Never,” Kendra said, “I’d never go back to being a slave. Sometimes… there are just things I miss, that’s all. When you know you’re never going to see somewhere again… You remember all the little things you liked…”
Iliyana started to cry. Kendra approached the throne and held her.
“Your Grace, it’s okay,” she said, holding Iliyana tightly as she cried. She had never called Iliyana by her title, but now it seemed right. Iliyana was still a queen, even if her kingdom was gone.
It started to rain, and water was soon flooding in through the broken ceiling of the ruined throne room.
“Iliyana, we need to find shelter,” Kendra said. She took Iliyana by the hand and tried the adjoining rooms. Finally she found a room with an intact ceiling and led Iliyana into it. She broke a chair as Iliyana gave her a look of protest and threw it into the fireplace. Pulling out her flint, she lit it and soon the room began to warm up.
“I can’t go back to living as we have,” Iliyana announced. Kendra felt cold fear running through her veins. She liked the life they led, safe as they were in the forest. It was undemanding and unthreatened, just what she had needed after a life of fear and slavery. Was Iliyana leaving her, then?
Kendra turned away to hide her tears, “You don’t have to feel guilty about all this,” she said, “Why can’t we go back to living in the forest? It’s safe there. We don’t have to worry for our lives or whether we can be together…”
“I abandoned the responsibility that I was entrusted with, to protect my people. They marched into the Icy Wastes toward Crystalia alone, while I lived a happy, peaceful life. While I was warm, they froze in the northern tundra. While you were with me, they lost loved ones to hunger and cold. While we were hunting for food, they were being hunted down by the Dragavians and sold into slavery.”
“It’s over now,” Kendra said, “You died in the sack of Ashvalaria. You have been absolved of your responsibility. What do you plan to do, show up now and tell them you’re very sorry you disappeared for a year, but that it’s all right now?”
“I’m going to rebuild Ashvalaria,” Iliyana said, “I’m going to Crystalia to reclaim my people and build an army.”
“You don’t even know what the political situation is!” Kendra said, “This is madness!”
“I’m going with or without you,” Iliyana said, “I love you, Kendra, but I can attain no peace without this. Once I am done, if I am still alive, I will come for you, I promise.”
“Then go,” Kendra said. She left the room and slammed the door, rushing through the soaked, ruined castle. Tears ran down her face with the rain and she wiped them away. They could have been happy together forever, safe, warm, but Iliyana wanted to throw her life away for the sake of guilt and Kendra wasn’t going to follow her into it. She marched through the town and mounted her horse, riding out into the storm.
It was a while before Iliyana rose, but when she did it was with purpose. Her tears had dried and her resolve was set. She had wanted Kendra to come, but had expected she would not. The former slave had been through too much to give up her newfound safety, even for Iliyana. She did not blame Kendra for it, but she did not let it dissuade her from her path.
Going down to the castle armory, she chose a good sword and replaced her handmade bow with a much more sturdy one, taking the quivers of arrows she found also. She dressed in light armor and studied herself in a cracked mirror. It had been a long time since she had seen her reflection in any detail and she saw the lines that the loss of Ashvalaria had put on her. She had found happiness in the last year but now she needed peace, and that was much harder to find.
Raiding the kitchens she found little that was edible except for a few dried fruits and meats that she took with her. She would save them for later in her journey, when the cold would set in. Legend had it that the Crystal Palace was made entirely out of ice, but Iliyana had not seen it since she was a small child. Remembering the cold, she took some thick furs from her rooms. Standing in the remnants of her bedroom, she remembered the night she had brushed Kendra’s hair and washed her. She had been so vulnerable then, and had needed her so much. Now she was strong enough to find her own path, but Iliyana’s heart ached at her loss.
The rain stopped as she headed back into the city to her solitary horse and loaded her provisions. She wanted to go back to the cabin, back to Kendra and forget this journey, but she forced herself to ride north, knowing that she would only go back to the same restless dreams in time. There could be no happiness for her unless she found a way to revive Ashvalaria. Or maybe she would die trying, never to see Kendra again. She pushed the thought from her mind.
I’m sorry Kendra, she thought, as she rode on into the day. I have to do this…
It was hard going back to the cabin alone, and harder to see all the reminders that Iliyana had left behind. Her dresses, that always made her look so elegant, hung in one corner of the cabin. The little wood-carvings she had made to pass the time sat in another. Their bed, a pile of furs and blankets on the floor, smelled like Iliyana and the sweet scent made Kendra cry. Iliyana was gone, and the north was harsh, cold and dangerous. Kendra knew she probably would not see her again. Even if she made it to her cousin’s court safely, she would become involved in his world, become a part of his kingdom. Perhaps she would even find a royal suitor and marry, with the promise of her heirs someday rebuilding Ashvalaria. Kendra fought back bitter tears and washed her clothes in the lake.
She remembered after that sad night, when they had fled Ashvalaria, how they had made love beside this lake. They had been upset but overjoyed, frightened but safe. There had been so many emotions swirling around. The next day they had discovered the cabin and started their new life. Now, just like that, it was over. Iliyana was gone, eaten up by the guilt of being the queen who survived, the captain who abandoned his ship and crew on the rocks to save himself.
Kendra closed her eyes. I can’t leave you to die out there…
“Dammit!” Kendra cried, tears stinging her eyes. She hurried back to the cabin, packing her things. Iliyana needed her now more than ever before. She couldn’t abandon her now to live out a life of comfort and peace while Iliyana endured pain and hardship to save her country. The country that had saved her and taken her in, even though she was only a Dragavian slave of the Third Class.
She rushed to her horse, barely even looking back at the cabin before riding off. She knew she had at least half a day to catch up, so she spurred her horse to ride faster and rode through the night. Still she did not see Iliyana and so, exhausted, she rested.
Iliyana rode long and hard, knowing that her progress would slow significantly once she reached the Wastes. She could already feel the air getting colder and wrapped herself in a heavy cloak.
Stopping to rest and eat, she built a small campfire and warmed herself as she cooked the rabbit she had caught. It was stringy, but edible, and she went to sleep full and warm, wondering what Kendra was doing now that she was gone…
It was a week before Kendra saw snow, but still she saw no sign of Iliyana. She worried, wondering about the fate of her lover. What if she had been attacked by savage beasts or bandits? Her mind raced as she rode, with nothing to do but chew on her uncertainty. She should have gone with Iliyana in the first place! If only she hadn’t been so frightened of losing the security that they had…
Kendra rode on through exhaustion and snow, a blizzard blanketing her as she rode deeper into the Icy Wastes. Here everything looked the same, a world where everything was white and cold. Kendra had almost forgotten what it felt like to feel warm, even under layers of fur. She was tired beyond belief, but afraid to sleep in case she never woke up. She was used to a hot climate, though she had adapted to the cooler temperatures of Ashvalaria. The Icy Wastes, however, dug their claws into her.
“Iliyana…” she said, her horse dutifully carrying her onward. She knew her horse was dying, that neither of them had eaten in days, but she couldn’t rouse herself to hunt and there had been nothing to find the last time she had tried. She was hungry, cold and so exhausted. Perhaps if she just went to sleep, she would wake up back in the hut, and Illiyana would be beside her…
She slipped into unconsciousness in the saddle. her horse dutifully continue until it, too, could walk no further. Shivering, it collapsed, throwing Kendra into the snow where she lay there, still and unmoving.
The going had been tough for Iliyana, and she had slowed significantly as she had moved through the Icy Wastes. She had stopped in a cave for a few days to heal from a frostbite, and was on her way again when she saw two mounds in the snow. A black horse’s leg stuck out from the snow and she dismounted, hurrying over She brushed the snow off the smaller figure and cried out in horror as she recognized Kendra. Her lips were blue and she was frozen, but a faint pulse still remained. Iliyana pulled off the warm furs she was wearing and wrapped them around Kendra. Picking her up, she hurried to her horse and mounted, spurring the horse to go at full speed towards the cave.
Kendra, no, why did you follow me? Iliyana’s mind was racing, I won’t let you die because of me. I won’t!
It seemed to take forever, but Iliyana finally reached the cave. She threw together a fire and struggled to get the damp logs to light, but finally they caught and Iliyana sighed in relief.
When Kendra came around, she was warm. As her vision swam into focus, she saw Iliyana hovering over her.
“Iliyana…?” she said, her voice sounding weak, even to her own ears.
“Kendra, oh, thank goodness you’re safe! You nearly died out there! If you hadn’t passed me because I rested for a few days, I never would have found you!”
“I couldn’t let you do this alone,” Kendra said, “I’m so sorry that I left you… I was scared to leave the life we had known…”
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Iliyana said, kissing Kendra’s forehead gently, “I abandoned you, not caring what you wanted, about your future, about your safety…”
Kendra took Iliyana’s hand and squeezed, “Just promise me we’ll never be apart again,” Kendra whispered, “I couldn’t bear to be another day without you.”
“We’ll be together from here on,” Iliyana agreed, “I’ll never leave you again.”
Several days passed before Kendra was well enough to leave the cave. The blizzard had lessened and the temperature had risen a little, but the journey was slow now that they had to share a horse. They spent the next few days cuddling together on the horse for warmth. It was nice to be reunited, Kendra thought. The woman she feared she might have lost forever was at her side, and everything was all right again.
Snow gave way to clear sheets of ice as they made their way through the Icy Wastes. Iliyana stopped them at one point and pointed out a huge structure in the distance, “That’s it,” she said, “The Crystal Palace. We’re almost there, Kendra.”
They had to be careful as they crossed the ice; often, the horse would slip, and a broken leg could very well prove to be fatal for all of them. There was also water beneath the ice at some points; they almost fell victim to a hidden lake, but the horse refused to move and Kendra spotted the cracks and the water beneath just before Iliyana spurred the horse to go.
Eventually they reached the city. The Crystal Palace was a magnificent spire of ice that appeared to pierce the clouds itself; but beneath it Crystalia was a relatively ordinary city, though many people lived underground for warmth.
“I know you’re hungry,” Iliyana said, “but we must press on to the castle. I want to announce myself to my cousin and gather information before he learns of my presence through rumors.”
“It’s rather quiet here,” Kendra observed, “Shouldn’t there be more people, given all the refugees we saw?”
“They may not all have come here. The Icy Wastes are not easy to overcome. Many probably went to Magicia instead.” Iliyana left her horses with a stableboy and led Kendra to the guards, “We request an audience with His Highness King Araka,” she stated, “I am his cousin, Queen Iliyana.”
The guard’s eyes widened, “At once, Your Grace!” he said, rushing away. King Araka himself came back with the guard.
“Iliyana… How can it be?” Araka embraced her in a bear-hug, “Yet it certainly is you. Older, but definitely Iliyana. Come with me at once.”
They hurried through to the throne room, where Iliyana couldn’t believe her eyes. Sitting on the throne was a Dragavian, and all the guards in the throne room were Dragavian.
“What happened?” Iliyana said, turning to Araka, “You sold your kingdom out to these people?”
“They came with airships right after the fall of Ashvalaria and told me to surrender or Crystalia would suffer the same fate as Ashvalaria! I had no choice!” Araka shook his head, “You shouldn’t have come here…”
“How nice to see you, Queen Iliyana. I’d heard rumors of your demise, but apparently you survived somehow. I’m sure your subjects will be quite happy to see you again… in the Crystalia Mines!” He bellowed out a deep, hearty laugh and his guards stepped forward and grabbed them.
As they were led away, Araka looked at them sadly as Iliyana gave him a dirty look. Kendra retreated away into herself. Her worst fears were coming true. She had escaped Dragavia, only to once again fall into Dragavian hands. Slavery was inevitable at this point.
“We made a big mistake coming here,” Kendra said, as they sat on the floor of a dusty cell. “Araka’s sold out to the Dragavians. We’re doomed. I won’t go back to slavery, Iliyana, I won’t!”
“Maybe Araka is right,” Iliyana said, “His people get to go on living. If I had just given up to Dragavia…”
“Right now, your people are mining the Crystalia Mines!” Kendra said, “Is that what you want for your people, to become slaves?”
“No, of course not,” Iliyana said. She pulled Kendra close to her protectively, remembering how fragile she had once been, “We’re going to find a way out of here.”
“Yeah, right,” Kendra said, “There’s no way we’re getting out of here that easily.”
Darkness came, and Iliyana couldn’t sleep. Kendra dozed in her arms, but woke when she heard footsteps coming towards the cell.
“Araka,” Iliyana whispered, “What do you want?”
“To explain,” Araka said. He was in his thirties, but with a boyish look of inexperience and doubt about him. The same black hair that Iliyana had ran in his genes also, and he sported a beard and mustache with his long hair that made him look more imposing than his wide eyes gave him any right to be.
“You don’t need to explain,” Iliyana said, “You’re a king. You’re doing what you think is best for your people. Dragavia threatened to destroy your country and ship everybody off to be slaves, right? So you have no choice at all.”
“Then why do I feel like such a traitor?” Araka said, “I thought you were dead and that has rested on my conscience for a year. Now I see you again and it fills my heart with joy but also fear. They’re going to send you to the mines, to make an example of you. Even though Ashvalaria was crushed, you’ve become something of a legend among your people for killing Lord Dragana. It was supposed to be a massacre for them and they lost one of their most prized warriors. Now they plan to crush that spirit of resistance.”
“Then help us,” Kendra said, “Get us out of here and we’ll flee the country. We’ll go to Magicia for aid!”
Araka shook his head, “I cannot,” he said, “Iliyana, as much as I love you, you are just one person. If they found out that I was involved… they would make my people suffer even more heavily. I must sacrifice you for their sakes. Two people, for the sake of thousands, my people and yours.”
“You really think that once they’ve mined the Crystalia Mines dry, that they’re going to let you go?” Kendra asked, “They’ll kill you and take your people as slaves as soon as they have what they want. It’s what Dragavia does! They have no interest in your people or your culture. They exist to spread their way of life and make other countries serve them.”
“I know they probably won’t let us go,” Araka said, “But I don’t know what else to do! I have no other options…”
“If everybody banded together and fought back, you could drive Dragavia out,” Kendra said.
“Then they’ll come back with airships and wipe us out!” Araka said, “It’s a lose-lose situation. All I have left at my disposal is to try and win Dragavian favor so we won’t get treated as harshly.” He shook his head, “I’m sorry, Iliyana.”
Araka left them, and they sat in the cell wordlessly.
“Do you think he’s right?” Kendra asked, finally breaking the silence.
“I don’t know,” Iliyana sighed, “I know you’re right – the Dragavians won’t hesitate to destroy this city and enslave its people as soon as the mine runs dry. Araka doesn’t exactly have many choices, though. If he refused to let them have the mine, they would just take it by force and ship in their own slaves. They wouldn’t care how many suffered and died on the way.”
“If only the Barak Empire hadn’t given them the power to build airships,” Kendra said, “Without those, they’d be much weaker.”
“It’s too late to change that now,” Iliyana said. “We have to make something happen, somehow.”
“Do you have any ideas?” Kendra asked.
“None,” Iliyana admitted, “We have to go to the mine and do what they say until an opportunity presents itself.”
“And what if none should appear?” Kendra said, looking downcast. “Will we spend the rest of our lives mining?”
“Perhaps,” Iliyana said, “At least they cannot say that I didn’t share the fate of my people. I’m sorry for dragging you into this, though.”
“Don’t say that,” Kendra said, “You left me behind. I followed along out of my own free will.”
“We should get some sleep,” Iliyana said, “I suspect sleep shall be in short supply for a long time.”
And so it was. The next day, guards dragged them from their cell and dressed them in slave uniforms. They were lined up with other slaves and began a long march to the mines, four days of hardship along railroad tracks. Many fell, succumbing to the cold and hunger. Kendra seemed to retreat into herself, shying away from Iliyana. When Iliyana asked if she was all right, she simply nodded and continued to walk.
Iliyana had never felt so alone. She knew Kendra was only coping in her own way, but she missed the woman’s banter, missed her smile. Perhaps it was better that they didn’t talk – other slaves had been beaten for talking and Iliyana suspected that Kendra was trying to protect the both of them by not letting the guards know that they were a couple. But Iliyana missed the feel of Kendra’s hand in hers, the feel of her warm arms around her. She had missed them on the road alone, but Kendra had not been with her then. Seeing Kendra and not being able to touch her was torture.
On the third day, Kendra whispered to her, “I think I should separate from you for a while.”
Iliyana wanted to argue, but the guards were watching, and Iliyana knew that Kendra was doing it to protect them from the guards’ notice, “All right,” she agreed. She didn’t feel like a queen any more. This life of slavery was Kendra’s world, and Kendra knew what she had to do to keep them alive. Iliyana knew she would have to let Kendra call the shots if they were to have any chance of surviving their predicament.
The days seemed to get colder, and more people were left behind to die, but Iliyana couldn’t bring herself to look anymore. Every person that was lost was like a stab in the heart to her. How could she have ever sat at the negotiating table with the scum that would allow something like this?
But that had been another life, another world. She had been younger and more naive then, before she had been to the slave auction and met Kendra. She should have called off the negotiations right then, but what nation walks out on peace talks when the alternative is war? Everybody told her that peace was good, and she had lost too many people she cared about to the war that she wanted it to end as well. The truth was, Ashvalaria could not hope to win, and so she had hoped they would be able to salvage something of their culture. She had been wrong, and more had died.
The night was colder without Kendra close by, but she kept her eye out for her. Iliyana would worry when she didn’t see Kendra for a few hours, but she had to resist the urge to keep looking behind her. Kendra had chosen to keep her distance for a reason. If she pined after her like a lost puppy, the pain of separation would have been for nothing.
Eventually they reached the mines, where they received some hard bread and water. Iliyana ate hers greedily, starving, but she noticed Kendra storing a piece for later. She’s done this before, Iliyana realized sadly.
They were handed pickaxes and sent below with guards, who assigned them places and told them to start working. Iliyana had grown to be a good hunter during their time in the woods, but she was not particularly strong and soon wilted.
“Hurry up!” A Dragavian guard spat in Ashvalarian, as if the very taste of the words made him feel sick. A crack of his whip on the ground behind her motivated her to work through the pain.
By the end of the day she was sore all over and starving, but they were only given water and taken to a huge dormitory to sleep. Iliyana’s stomach growled and she wished she had been smart enough to save some of her bread from earlier.
She heard a whisper from below and she looked down to see Kendra was there. Kendra pressed the hard hunk of bread into her hand and was gone before Iliyana could protest.
She saved it for me, she thought guiltily, and ate it hungrily as tears came to her eyes.
The next day Iliyana was sore and in pain, but the urging of the other slaves made her move. She didn’t know what would happen if she stayed in bed too long, but their worried glances across at her made her not want to find out.
After more hard bread and some nuts (Iliyana made sure to stash some of the nuts), it was back to work again. She looked around at the people she was working with; most were stout, hardy northerners, but there were a few slender Ashvalarians amongst them, and others besides that she did not recognize. She found herself yearning for home. She tried to catch the eye of a dark-haired man slightly down from her, but he looked away when he saw her looking. A part of her wanted to cry out to him “I’m the Queen of Ashvalaria! Your queen!”, but she knew she wasn’t, not any more. Down here they were all equals; they were all nobody.
Days turned to weeks, and Iliyana’s body grew stronger even as her will grew weaker.
Nobody is going to rescue us, Iliyana realized, as her third week began. Nobody knows we’re here, and nobody would care even if they did. Time seemed to be slipping away from her, and with it was going Kendra and her identity. She had barely seen Kendra, except for the occasional glance, and she did not let herself dwell too much on the other woman. It hurt too much to think that Kendra was close by and she could not talk to her or touch her. She had hoped that Kendra would eventually feel safe enough to come back to her, but she had not, and Iliyana had dealt with it by trying not to think too hard about any of it. Perhaps they would die here, either of exhaustion, malnutrition or when the mine was dry. Rescue seemed like an unlikely option now.
So she was surprised when Kendra woke her in the dead of night and whispered in her ear, “We’re getting out of here.” She gestured to half a dozen men who were with her, “These men are from the Resistance. They each have earned privileges for good behavior. They can get us up to the surface. Then we’re on our own.”
Dazed and bewildered, Iliyana let herself be led through the maze of bunk beds. She had let herself fall into being a slave without even a fight, while Kendra had been fighting for the both of them. If Kendra hadn’t come after her, she would have spent her final years here, she was sure.
Outside, they were quickly spotted by guards, “Just stay calm,” Kendra whispered.
“Why are all of you out here?” A Dragavian guard asked, “Oh, it’s you, Kevan. You and the boys want to have some fun with these women, is that it?”
“Lord Commander Malar said that we could have our choice as reward for the diamonds we found,” Kevan said, “and what prettier women than these?”
Fear shot through Iliyana. What if these men weren’t really on their side? What if this was just a trap to lure them here and then…
Iliyana’s eyes widened as the guard looked at her, “Waste of a pretty woman, but whatever. Make sure they don’t talk, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes sir,” Kevan said. He and the other men hustled them behind a slag pile. Iliyana was shaking.
“Queen Iliyana,” Kevan whispered, “Don’t shake. I would never hurt you. We need to make it sound like a struggle. Can you do that?” Iliyana nodded.
“So we’ll officially be dead?” Kendra asked.
“That’s the plan,” Kevan whispered, “Make it sound like a struggle, my men are already working on your graves. We’ll tell the guard we’re done. Kendra, injure me. Punch me, or scratch me.”
“Get off me!” Kendra screamed into the night, then, with an apologetic look, punched Kevan in the face. Iliyana screamed, and the men burst out laughing. They were noisy for a few minutes, then Kendra screamed, then Kevan gave the signal to run and they fled into the snowy night, Kevan’s men covering up their tracks and finishing up their shallow graves. By the time the guard came to ask if they were done, two graves were being filled in and Kevan was sporting a black eye and a bloody nose.
The journey away was almost as harsh as the one they had made to get to the mine, as they had no provisions, little clothing and less time, but Iliyana found Kendra’s hand and slipped hers into it as they hurried. The feel of her skin had changed, it was rough and calloused, and Iliyana was reminded of how Kendra had looked in the slave house all those years ago.
“Kendra, stop.” Iliyana whispered, her voice labored and breathless.
“We have to keep going,” Kendra said, barely looking at her, “If they catch us…”
“Please, stop,” Iliyana said, and grabbed Kendra’s shoulder, pulling her around to face her. Kendra’s eyes were full of fear.
“I don’t want to be a slave again,” Kendra said, “If we get captured, I’ll kill myself rather than go back to those mines. And those men? There are plenty of the real thing down there. We were lucky. We wouldn’t get lucky again.”
“Did anybody hurt you?” Iliyana’s stomach sank.
“No,” Kendra said, “I know how to take care of myself. But with that knowledge comes lots of painful memories.”
“I’m sorry,” Iliyana said, “I dragged you into this. I was the one who couldn’t let go of Ashvalaria. We were happy. Why couldn’t I just be content with that? Why did I come here?”
“The lies we tell ourselves are the cruelest,” Kendra said, “That we can be more, do more, than we can. That after years of powerlessness, we have power. We tell ourselves we just never used it. The truth is… we don’t, Iliyana. Even as queen, you were powerless to stop Dragavia. Out here, we have no power to prevent what is happening. We’re all slaves to fate.” A tear fell down her dirty face, drawing a line through the dust and dirt.
Iliyana took Kendra in her arms and held her close, “I made a huge mistake,” she said, “In my mind, I believed that I could change the world. I lied to myself and I believed the lies; that I was still queen and could save my people. This entire journey never should have happened.”
“It’s only by seeing it for ourselves that we learn…” Kendra said. She accepted Iliyana’s warm, loving arms, “I lied to myself too. I wanted to believe that you could change all this. I decided to come with you rather than pushing you to come home.”
“We need to keep moving,” Iliyana said. She could already feel her body growing colder from inaction. They started to walk, but at a slower pace, physical and emotional exhaustion creeping up on them.
“We need to find a place to rest,” Kendra said, after another couple of hours, “We can’t keep this up.”
“We could rest in any of those caves on the mountain, but it would be easy to find us,” Iliyana said.
“If they’re even looking,” Kendra said, “I don’t want to get captured… I just can’t… go on…” She collapsed, and Iliyana caught her.
“Kendra!” she cried. She picked up the woman and felt how cold she was. Climbing the slopes with determination giving her strength, she found the nearest cave and set Kendra down. Mining equipment was being stored in crates in the cave, and Iliyana smashed one and started a fire. It had to be obvious for miles around, but there was no point escaping if Kendra died. She lie down next to Kendra and the fire, trying to give the woman some of her body heat. At some point, she fell asleep.
She woke to see heavy armed soldiers swim into view. As she sat up sharply, the soldiers parted to make way for King Araka. She shielded the still sleeping Kendra.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Araka said, “Wait outside and await further orders,” he said to his guards, who nodded and left the cave.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand, cousin,” Araka said, “You escaped the war safely. Why the hell would you willingly ride back into it?”
“I left my people to die,” Iliyana said, “They were my responsibility, and I fled Ashvalaria as it burned and left them behind. Then I lived in the forest with Kendra, free from fear or pain while I knew my people were making the hard journey through the Icy Wastes to Crystalia. Alone.”
“So you’re feeling guilty you didn’t die with them?” Araka said, “Iliyana, you always were the sweetest person. I thought you were naive to resist Dragavia, but I admired your courage too. Look, Iliyana, you can’t erase the guilt. You think I feel great about selling my people out? I feel like I’m just delaying the inevitable destruction of our culture. I know Crystalia will die, and it breaks my heart. I watch people disappear, whisked away to the mines, and I hang my head in shame. But somehow, we have to find a way to live with the fact that we are powerless in all of this. Even as everybody looks to us as though we hold all the cards.”
“What are we to do?” Iliyana said.
“Quietly, I’m supporting the Resistance,” Araka said, “I’m getting as many people across the border to Magicia as I can, making it look like the Dragavians took them to the mines. I can’t save my kingdom, probably not most of my people. But I can make sure some of what Crystalia is – its culture, its art, its language – survives this war. The Crystal Tower will be destroyed soon, I’m sure, but there will be people out there who still remember what it looked like. I want you to be one of those people. Just as you are for your kingdom, keeping its memory alive in your heart, remember mine as well. Remember me, even as the world denounces me as a traitor to my people for collaborating.” He squeezed Iliyana’s shoulders, “Before Ashvalaria fell, rumors told me of the slave girl you had saved. This is her, isn’t it?” He moved over to her side and felt her forehead, “She’s exhausted, but she’ll live.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few vials of potions, “Take these with you and go back to wherever you hid the past year. Your time will come to speak of Ashvalaria, of Crystalia. Perhaps you will even find a way to rebuild your kingdom. But now is not that time. Now is the time of Dragavian warlords and slavery and pain – a Dark Age where knowledge is sin and might is everything.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again, “You know,” he said, gesturing to Kendra, “No doubt she has lost her kingdom too, an age before Dragavia wanted to rule the world. Between you, keep the memories of your homes alive. That’s all you can do.” He stood up. The orange light of the sunrise silhouetted him in shadow.
“I won’t see you again, will I?” Iliyana said.
“Probably not,” Araka said, his back to Iliyana, staring out at the sun. “Our time is growing short, and there is still much I have to save. I know the Dragavians are onto my plans, and it’s only a matter of time before they decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. My life in all of this seems small and inconsequential, and I have committed many sins. I’m not one of the ones who gets to shape the future, Iliyana.”
“Cousin, thank you for coming here,” Iliyana said, “Someday, I promise, I’ll tell the world how beautiful Crystalia was, and how you tried to save your people.”
“This wasn’t what we expected when we were kids, is it?” Araka said wistfully, “I thought someday I might marry you, Iliyana. I read the old tales of the royal lines intermarrying and I thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to spend my life with you as my queen.” He laughed, “It wasn’t to be, though, just like so many dreams.”
“Sorry about that,” Iliyana said, smiling, “I didn’t exactly turn out to be the most ordinary of queens.”
“That’s all for the best,” Araka said, “You were the best Ashvalaria had to offer – daring, willful, courageous. That you’ll get to live past this darkness makes me happy.” He shook his head, “Anyway, we must make haste. My soldiers will leave behind one of my best horses loaded with packs containing provisions and some items I’m giving to you for safekeeping. She’s a strong horse and will carry both of you without attracting too much attention. In the meantime, we will try to distract the Dragavians by claiming we have you in custody. The messenger is on his way now, so you must go.”
“She’s not well to travel yet,” Iliyana said.
“I’m okay,” Kendra said, her eyes opening, “I’ve been listening, and Araka is right, we need to go while we still can.”
“Then I bid you farewell, and good luck,” Araka said, leaning down and giving Iliyana a kiss on the cheek. He turned to Kendra and helped her up on her feet, “You take good care of her,” he said, “Remember you both carry the memories of kingdoms lost.” He turned and left the cave, riding away with his entourage.
“We need to go,” Kendra said, “Araka is putting a lot on the line to get us out of here.”
“Yes, yes he is,” Iliyana said. They mounted up and rode into the Icy Wastes. The storms were brutal and soon they were shivering, even under the furs that Araka had provided for them. They often stopped in small caves, and Kendra would root about in the packs looking for food when she’d come across books. Some were old tomes recording Crystalian history; others were completely blank.
“Why did he give you blank books?” Kendra asked, “I don’t understand.”
Kendra smiled, “Crystalia was always known for its bitter coldness. It was said that they never kept many written histories simply because visitors would often burn them to stay warm.” She laughed, “It’s time to write new history books. Our memories. Of Crystalia, of Ashvalaria, of Dragavia, the good and the bad. We might not live long enough to see these kingdoms restored, so this is the only way to preserve the things we have lived and witnessed.”
“I can’t write,” Kendra confessed, “You taught me to read, but I never learned to write.”
“Then I’ll teach you,” Iliyana said, “Is there ink and quill in the pack? Of course there is… Bring it over here…”
The next three weeks went by quickly, though Iliyana saw the airships in the sky and knew that Crystalia had probably fallen. She cried quietly as they emerged from the winter lands into the grassy plains that made up former Ashvalaria. The city hung in the distance and from this far, Iliyana dreamed that she could go home and everything would be as it had once been. Kendra squeezed her tightly, resting her head on her shoulder.
“Someday,” she whispered in Iliyana’s ear, “Someday Ashvalaria will rise again, brighter and bolder than before.”
Iliyana nodded. They rode quietly through the forest, relieved to see their hut emerge from the tangled mass of plants. The garden was overgrown and the roof needed some repair, but they were home.
“I’m sorry I ever doubted that this was home,” Iliyana said, sitting on the bed. Kendra curled up beside her.
“We’re back now,” Kendra said, “I don’t ever want to leave without good reason again.”
“The fair would line all the streets of Ashvalaria, and every year entertainers would travel from all over the world to…” Kendra, are you getting this? Iliyana looked over to see Kendra asleep, the book laid out in front of her, the quill set down gently on the table. Iliyana brought a blanket over and laid it around Kendra’s shoulders, blowing out the candle on the table and kissing Kendra goodnight.
Iliyana walked out into the cool night air. She thought she could smell the distant smell of smoke and death, but it was faint and she wondered it was just her imagination. Out in the world, wars were being lost and won. The world went on without her, without Ashvalaria, without Crystalia, perhaps. All they had left were their memories and each other. Would it all be for nothing if they died here and nobody ever discovered the hut? She sat down by the lake and dipped her feet in the water, letting her mind drift. She was young again, and Ashvalaria seemed so huge, so safe, so magnificent, even with its enemies at its doorstep. But then she remembered the painful moments; her brother’s death, the dark look on her father’s face, the eternal preparations made for war. She remembered the day she saw wounded soldiers, their lifeblood pouring from them, being patched together before a maid saw her and dragged her away. She remembered crying widows standing at graves, weeping for their loved ones.
“Nostalgia is the biggest lie of all,” she whispered into the darkness, “It’s easy to want the things you can’t have. It wasn’t all roses and butterflies though, was it?” She stood up, a thought forming, and rushed back to the hut. She lit the candle and gently shook Kendra awake. Kendra yawned and mumbled something about the fair before she became aware of Iliyana’s eyes intent on her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, “I fell asleep. I’m still tired from the journey…”
“Don’t ever be sorry for anything,” Iliyana said, embracing her, “My head was so far in the past I couldn’t see the present. I took this – all this – for granted… Even you…”
Kendra looked up at Iliyana, “It’s okay,” she said, “I do, too, sometimes. Even after the hell I lived in, sometimes life here is so safe it’s boring. It’s easy to wonder where other paths would have taken us. Easy to forget that everything we need is right here.”
“There’s a difference between fantasy and history,” Iliyana said, “I was so busy thinking about everything I loved about Ashvalaria that I forgot the dark days. The people who suffered because of the constant war. The pressure my father was under to keep his kingdom together. The death of my brother…”
“Let’s write it all down,” Kendra said, “Even the pain and the sorrow. So we don’t forget what it feels like to hurt. So we don’t take this life, this love for granted.”
Iliyana held Kendra close, kissing her face, her neck, her mouth. Kendra kissed back with equal fervor, her hands moving down Iliyana’s back.
“I love you,” Iliyana whispered, “So much… If I ever lost you…”
“I love you too,” Kendra said, “You won’t ever lose me, Iliyana. Ever. I promise…” She captured Iliyana’s lips with hers and guided her down to the bed.