Chapter 3: The Price of Freedom
Yana yawned as she slowly sat up. Overusing magic always left her exhausted, and it took a bit for the fog to leave her head.
She remembered arriving in Berkel and getting caught up in a fight, but there was nothing past that. She knew she had lost consciousness on the street, so the fact that the surface beneath her was soft was cause for alarm.
“Tá sí ina dúiseacht anois,” an unfamiliar voice said.
Yana struggled to open her eyes, fighting against the urge to lay back down. She was on a cot now, inside a building. The door had been broken off the hinges and based on the street outside, she was still in Berkel.
The Vessel was sitting on a stool, using the charred remains of an end table as a makeshift desk. The right side of their face was wrapped up, obscuring the wound they had received earlier. “I suppose I should thank you,” they said. “Had you not intervened, I would have died.”
“What happened here?”
“The Legion of Riel found these people guilty of providing shelter to rebels. The punishment is death. Nobody would confess, so they simply punished everyone. The rebels helped evacuate in advance, while I remained behind with some of the men to prevent the Legion from pursuing them. I was the only survivor.”
How noble. Members of the Church weren’t usually so selfless.
“And you? You came out of nowhere, so fast that I tripped over you.”
“My name’s Yana Dost. I just arrived by boat.”
The Vessel flinched, but quickly regained their composure. “They call me Saoirse,” she said. “You have nothing to fear — the Church hates me just as much as you.”
Yana laughed ruefully. “Good to know. I’d hate to go through all this trouble just to end up fighting another zealot.”
Saoirse nodded. “That would be a shame; a mage as powerful as you is a rare sight indeed. In my homeland, you would be a national treasure.” She sighed and handed Yana a small sack. “Here. I drained some of your body’s energy to heal my wound — you must be starving now.”
Yana instinctively reached for her neck.
“I am not a vampire,” Saoirse snapped. “Psions drain energy through touch; I did not take your blood.” She grimaced. “Besides, blood tastes horrible. When I am not forced to leech off others, I am a vegetarian.”
“Wait, psions actually exist?”
Saoirse nodded. “The gift of the goddess I carry within me is receptiveness. Every one of her Vessels, as well as their descendants, becomes a psion; we can live off of the energy of others when the situation requires it. I was forced to use some of yours to prevent myself from bleeding out. Your exhaustion is due to hunger, as your body seeks to replace this missing energy.”
Inside the pouch were a few sandwiches wrapped in paper parcels. Instead of meat, there were small herbs layered between large leaves.
Spinach, Yana deduced as she bit into the hand-held salad. And… cilantro. It almost tasted good. Almost.
The two sat in relative silence for a few hours. Saoirse seemed to drift off to sleep while sitting upright, while Yana had no idea where to go. She elected to remain with the strange Vessel, if only because Saoirse seemed to know her way around a sword and the Legion was likely still in the area.
Yana nearly fell back asleep as well, but was roused by the sound of footsteps on the empty street.
Saoirse’s eye flicked open as well. “… You are still here?” she asked, confused.
Saoirse closed her eye again as she stood up. “You are too loud, Alec.”
“Shit!” a young man gasped as he stepped into view. “How’d you know it was me?” He had blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes — all common traits among men from Riel. He looked like he was in his early 20’s.
“Your steps are loud and even; you did not even attempt to approach stealthily. That means you are friendly. Furthermore, of all the men under my command, you are the only one who would disregard an order not to return here.”
Alec smirked. “Fair enough, but why would you be waiting here if you didn’t want anyone to come?”
“I knew you would, and decided it would be more convenient to wait for you than to inform your father of your demise.” She stiffly turned and walked past Alec without another word.
Alec sighed and shook his head, then flinched as he seemed to notice Yana. “Is this a survivor?”
“A stray mage I stumbled across. We will take her with us.”
“A mage?!” Alec’s eyes went wide. “I always wanted to meet one ’o you! What’s it like to use magic?!”
Yana couldn’t help but laugh. Nobody had ever asked that before. “It just comes naturally; I’ve never really thought about it before.”
“Focus, Alec,” Saoirse chided. “Did you see the Legion on your way here?”
“Nah, but there’s smoke comin’ from the bank. They’ll be too busy cracking the vault open to send out patrols. Greedy bastards.”
“Did everyone else make it out safely?” Saoirse asked as the trio left the town.
“’course!” Alec answered with a smile. “How about your group?”
“You already know the answer to that. I would have joined them if not for Yana.”
“Oh, really?” Alec laughed. “Well then thanks, Yana! It would’ve been boring if this sourpuss bit the dust!”
Yana blushed. The way Alec smiled was endearing, and she wasn’t used to gratitude. “You’re both rebels?”
“Sort of. I fled Riel with the prince an’ we’ve been fighting to take back our home ever since. We found Saoirse shackled to a wall in osmium chains during one of our raids. She’s a decent tactician, so we put ’er in charge of half our militia.”
Saoirse grimaced and rubbed at a black choker collar around her neck. Yana noticed a faint rash beneath the edge of it. “I still have marks from where the metal burned me.”
“Lemme tell you,” Alec added, “you’ve never known true fear until you’ve watched an angry 13-year-old rip grown men to pieces with nothin’ but ’er thoughts.”
“Alec!” Saoirse exclaimed.
“What? It’s a good story.”
“I do not want people to fear me.”
“I mean, it’s an understandable reaction,” Yana admitted. Osmium was a special material that absorbed magic, and she was very familiar with it. The metal had a habit of leaving painful burns on less-mundane creatures like mages and Vessels; she couldn’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to be shackled with it.
“… So, how bad was it this time?” Alec asked, glancing at Saoirse’s bandage. “I didn’t think anyone was capable of hitting you.”
“We put up a good fight at first, but then they changed their tactics.” Saoirse shook her head. “The troops fell back and began throwing glass canisters at us. Every time one shattered, it released a white fog; anyone who inhaled it was dead on the spot. All we could do was hold our breaths and run as they rained arrows on us.”
“There was only one survivor apart from myself — the medic, Robin.”
“The loon? How the fuck did he make it out?”
“He took an antidote just before the attack. Once we were safe, he tried to invoke the Mark.”
“Still alive, and a liability. He is to be killed on sight.”
“What’s this mark?” Yana asked, curious.
“A way to keep slaves in check,” Alec answered. “You don’t wanna know anything else about it.”
“Nonsense,” Saoirse interjected. “As a mage, you have a right to know what they could do to you. The Mark of Compliance is a rune that the high priest of the Church may draw on others — in my case, it was carved into my back. With one word, you can strip all free will from those afflicted for a brief time.”
Yana shuddered. “Sounds like forbidden magic.”
“It would be, but only those bearing the gift of the God of Order are capable of drawing it correctly. As Eon forbids his Vessels from having children and only blesses one priest at a time, there are only ever two people capable of drawing the Mark. Anyone can invoke it if they know how, though.”
“Like the prince,” Aiden added.
“I taught him as a gesture of goodwill,” Saoirse shot back. “Because I trust him not to use it unless I somehow become a threat to him.”
“You wouldn’t even know if he used it already. He could just tell you to forget—”
These two are probably always at each other’s throats, Yana realized. It was obvious that Alec cared a lot for Saoirse, although he was trying his best to hide it. She wondered if he was aware that Vessels were stripped of most emotions.
They continued walking for a few more hours. Saoirse and Alec eventually stopped bickering and fell quiet, but as a camp came into view in the distance, Alec piped up again.
“So Yana, why’d you join us anyway?”
Saoirse flinched, but said nothing.
“I haven’t joined yet,” she answered.
“Right place at the right time then, huh? Would you like to join?”
“Mages have enough problems,” Saoirse interjected. “She does not need to trouble herself with our affairs as well.”
“The way I see it, we could solve most of her problems!” Alec retorted, indignant. “We’ve all got food an’ water an’ a general idea of where to sleep each night, an’ anyone dumb enough to target one of us has to go through an army first! I can tell just by looking at ’er that she’s got nothing, and the prince would bend over backwards to have a mage on his side.”
“That is correct, but…”
Alec’s eyes went wide. “You’re worried she could replace you!”
“We are done here,” Saoirse said abruptly. “Yana, if you agree with Alec, you are welcome to join our group on one condition.”
“Name it,” Yana said.
“There is another mage within our ranks. You must not seek them out under any circumstances. If you sense their magic, ignore it.” Saoirse quickened her pace, going on ahead of them.
“Another mage?” Yana asked, trying to hide her excitement.
“First I’ve heard of it,” Alec admitted. “Saoirse’s an odd one, but she means well. Ignoring some mage that nobody’s ever noticed before shouldn’t be that hard.”
Yana nodded. “I’ll gladly join the rebellion. You had me at food and water.”
Alec laughed. “There’s responsibility too, but—”
“Alec,” Yana said seriously, “I’ve spent most of my life fighting to survive. I once had to kill a man in return for some table scraps. I’d gladly serve an army if it meant I wouldn’t have to resort to petty theft and shady deals just to make my stomach hurt less.”
“So you’re not joining us for food, but ethical food.”
Alec smiled. “The prince’ll love you.”
Alec led Yana to a rather large tent in the center of the camp. Inside was a large table covered in maps, which two men were examining.
One of the men was older, with grey hair and a wrinkly face. Despite his age, he was wearing a suit of plate armor and had a shield buckled to his back.
The other man was younger – in his late 20’s – with sandy blonde hair and green eyes. He carried himself with an air of nobility.
Alec made an exaggerated bow as he walked in. “I have returned, my liege!”
The green-eyed man glanced up and burst out laughing. “You look ridiculous, Alec!”
“Perhaps,” Alec said as he stood back up, “but Pa always gets peeved when I don’t bow.”
“Alec Farley,” the old man began, “where the fuck have you—?!”
“Anyway,” Alec said, cutting him off, “the nice one is the prince — Aiden Bell. The one who looks like he’s gonna kill me is my dad. Sir Luca Farley, a former paladin of the Grand Temple, and generally an old grouch. He’s friendly though.”
Luca glared at his son, then glanced at Yana. “A mage…?”
“Yana Dost,” she said, doing her best to copy Alec’s bow. “Your son Alec, um… recruited me.”
Aiden looked amused, but said nothing. He just looked at Luca.
“Alec doesn’t have the authority to—” Luca began.
“You won’t turn away a mage,” Alec said smugly. “Especially not one that somehow manages to get along with Saoirse.”
“You brought Saoirse back?” Aiden asked suddenly.
“Yeah. Yana saved ’er life. She’s prob’ly seeing a medic before she reports in.”
Aiden smiled. “It appears we’re in your debt, Ms. Dost. If you wish to join us, we’ll gladly take you.”
“We can’t take anyone on such short notice,” Luca complained. “There is no room in any of the—” He frowned and shook his head. “You play a dangerous game, Bell.”
“But of course. Yana, I am afraid what my lieutenant says is true — this camp is presently full. We don’t have a single cot to spare in our barracks.” He grinned. “But as a mage, you have abilities that would compliment a psion’s quite nicely. My tactician has her own tent, complete with a bed despite the fact that Vessels don’t sleep. She happens to need a lieutenant, although she won’t admit it.”
“She leads half our forces, while my liege commands the rest,” Luca explained. “She has no chain-of-command because everyone qualified is terrified of her. This makes it difficult for her to organize her men and results in her shouldering most of the burdens.”
Aiden nodded. “You get along with her, you have magic, and you seem a lot more approachable than the Vessel of the Goddess of Death. You could serve as a vital bridge for us, and potentially help turn this war around.”
“Hold on — I recruited her an’ she’s gonna outrank me?!” Alec looked despondent. “You don’t even know her!”
“I go with my gut,” Aiden responded. “My gut says she’s the responsible, trustworthy sort.”
“I’ll accept your proposition as long as she’s okay with it,” Yana said. “It’s a lot better than killing people on the front lines. All I have to do is follow her instructions and help out, right?”
“More or less. As for her opinion on this…” Aiden shrugged. “You’ll have to ask her yourself. She’s in the medical tent, right behind this one.”
“What if she says no?”
Yana left Alec behind at the command tent as the three began to discuss what Alec had seen in Berkel.
The medical tent Aiden had mentioned was actually just the back half of the command tent. There were several cots inside of it which, to Yana’s surprise, were almost entirely occupied by wounded townspeople.
The rebels really are helping them, she realized.
Saoirse was sitting on a stool in the back as a man applied a fresh set of bandages to her eye. She was looking straight at Yana — it was clear she already knew what they had discussed.
“Lieutenant,” Saoirse said in greeting, then looked away.
“Really, just like that?” Yana wasn’t sure what to make of the girl’s reaction.
“He did not tell you the whole truth to avoid upsetting Farley, but our abilities do indeed make us useful to each other. I will explain everything tomorrow; until then, you are free to use the bed in my tent. Have Alec take you there — I am forbidden from leaving this seat at the moment.”
The doctor scowled. “You have a fractured wrist, two broken ribs, and a serious head injury. ‘Forbidden’ is an understatement. I don’t care what ‘abilities’ you have, you’re not getting up without a splint and stitches.”
Saoirse smirked. “The fact that you do not care is precisely why I came to you.”
“And you,” the doctor exclaimed as he turned to Yana, “you’re practically a child! I made an exception for our tactician since she isn’t human, but I refuse to see a child on the battlefield!”
“Riel does not discriminate,” Saoirse said gravely. “Men, women, children… all are expected to die before the Legion. People like Yana may be young, but their surroundings have forced them to mature much faster than some adults.”
The doctor sighed. “May the gods have mercy on us all.”