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Excerpt for Torn Apart by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Torn Apart


Alexandra A. Cheshire


Published by Howling Wolf Books at Smashwords


Copyright 2018 Alexandra A. Cheshire

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


All characters, events and places in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people or places past or present is strictly coincidental.


Table of Contents

Torn Apart

About the Author

Other Works by Alexandra A. Cheshire



For the Little One I hold in my Heart



One


Gethin, Orian

At a tap on the open school room door, three small girls, two of them identical in features and colouring, and their governess look up to see a stately, well dressed lady. Something in her expression causes the oldest of the girls to frown.

"Mama? What is wrong?" Pale green eyes study the woman.

"An unexpected, yet urgent summons from his majesty. I have to go, but will return as soon as I possibly can."

"I'm sure we will be fine here, your grace." The girls' governess smiles cheerfully.

"I'm sure," But the woman in the doorway looks less than certain of the idea, "Lessons as usual, girls. Listen well and I will see you later." She holds out her arms and all three girls leave their seats to receive hugs. The woman kneels down, holding close each one in turn. Once all three are headed back to their seats, she straightens up and leaves the doorway.

"As her grace said," Their governess is quick to redirect her charges' attention, "Lessons as usual. Tabitha and Kianna, please read from page ten in your readers. Angela, let's see how you're doing with your letters." As soon as the woman focuses her attention on the smallest of the girls, one of the older ones begins scribbling in her book. The other opens a second, smaller book within the larger school reader and buries her nose in it.


In the distance, a large bell can be heard to toll three times. The girls quickly stuff away their school work in preparation for their lunch break as their governess moves to the school room doorway. A distinct twang sounds in the hall outside the room and the woman collapses into a heap, blood flowing freely down the side of her head. All three girls scream at the sight.

A man appears, stepping right over the dying woman, and crosses the room to snatch up the smallest of the girls. Almost instinctively, both twins latch onto him, attempting futilely to pull the younger child away. He starts to shake them off, but catches a glimpse of the pendant at Tabitha's throat. Changing his mind, he uses the arm not occupied with the kicking, screaming, biting three year old to scoop up the older twin. The younger twin screams again, high and sharp. The man kicks her legs out from under her and starts for the door. However, the girl is back on her feet inhumanly fast. Launching herself across the room, she attacks his legs.

Three struggling girls manages to slow the man, but not stop him completely. Meanwhile, the servants are starting to come running. The housekeeper is the first to arrive.

“Stewart!” The woman gasps, turning pale. She quickly recovers herself. Turning to the next servant to appear, she orders, “Go get her grace from the palace!”

“Yes, ma'am.” The young housemaid dashes off.

Next to arrive are the gardener and assistant cook.

“Help me get the girls away from him.” The housekeeper moves to take hold of smallest one.

However, Stewart tightens his grip on both girls and continues towards the front door. All the servants succeed in doing is detaching the younger twin, who fights to get away from them. Without her hampering his legs, Stewart moves faster. More servants appear, attempting to block him from reaching the door. He elbows them aside roughly, plowing his way to the battered coach waiting outside.

The younger twin bites hard on one of the hands holding her back. The maid yelps, but doesn't lose her grip. Other servants gather round to prevent the five year old's escape.

“Kianna!” The housekeeper shakes her head, “You can't help them.” The words draw a scowl from the girl who continues to struggle.

Meanwhile, outside, Stewart has wrenched the coach door open. He tosses first one girl inside, then the other, and slams the door shut.

“Someone follow them!” The housekeeper shouts from the front doorway as Stewart swings himself into the driver's seat. He whips the already agitated hauler beasts, who leap down the driveway.

The two girls inside the coach are thrown from side to side as it careens along the narrow winding roads. Stewart doesn't let up on the hauler beasts for at least half a bell. Even then he doesn't slow much. Still terrified, the children huddle together with their eyes tightly closed.


“Mama!” Kianna slips from the housekeeper's grasp and flies across the foyer. Her mother catches the child up in her arms and buries her face in the long, baby fine, silvery and pale green hair. After a long moment, the woman takes a deep breath and looks up.

“What has been done?” She queries of the housekeeper.

“The stable hands went after them,” The servant sighs, “They have not returned, your grace.”

“How long has it been?”

“Nearly a full bell, your grace.”

Hooves can be heard outside, then a scuffling, and finally two men enter the house. Both bow deeply on seeing their mistress.

“We're sorry, your grace,” One begins, “We followed them east on the old trade road until they vanished. They have most likely crossed into Tulia by now.”

“Thank you.” The duchess tells them as the telephone rings. Still carrying Kianna, she goes into the library to answer it.

“Hello?”

The five year old moves her head so she can hear the person on the other end.

“Hello, Duchess Theodora,” The voice belongs to the president of the Oceanic Trade Group, “His majesty of Cathair and I are a quarter bell out of his capital. Has there been any word?”

“My servants tell me they took the old trade road east into Tulia.”

“I see,” The man doesn't sound pleased, “I will put my security staff on it and I will be there as soon as humanly possible.”

“Thank you.” Theodora says gratefully.

“Has Baron Carrick been contacted?”

“I don't believe so.”

“We will see to it. Take care, your grace.”

Once the receiver is hung up, Theodora carries her daughter back through the foyer to the front sitting room. Sitting in a chair near the window, she settles Kianna on her lap.


village, Tulia

It's very late at night when Stewart brings the coach to a rock spraying stop outside a small tree sheltered cottage. Seconds later, the cottage door opens and his wife steps out.

“Stewart! What in the world...?”

“Get in!”

“But Bonnie...” She begins to protest.

“Get in!,” He repeats.

The woman is shaking visibly as she obeys. Her eyes widen on seeing the small girls still huddled together.

“What's going on?” Her voice shakes with fear, “What do you think you're...?”

“Shut up!” He reigns the hauler beasts around and back onto the road. The woman is barely able to catch and close the still open door. The coach tears off along the road, deeper into the wilds.

A short time later, Stewart brings the coach to an abrupt stop in front of a ramshackle old abandoned cabin.

“Get out!”

Neither the woman nor the girls move. Scowling dangerously, he gets down and wrenches the rear door open. He grabs a hold of both girls, drags them from the coach, and starts towards the cabin. His wife follows, attempting feebly to stop her husband, but she is trembling too badly to accomplish anything useful.

Once Stewart reaches the cabin door, he shoves the girls inside. Then he slams the cabin door closed and goes over to where his wife has collapsed, tears streaming down her face. Hauling her to her feet, he drags her over to the cabin, opens the door long enough to toss her in, and barricades it.

“What's he doing?” Tabitha's voice is sharp with fear, “Olicia? Olicia!”

However, the woman is sobbing convulsively and doesn't even glance up. Her small daughter is clinging to her mother, also sobbing. The older girl scrambles up to the front window in time to see Stewart light a taper. He touches it to the dry rotten wood of the building, which quickly catches fire. He keeps lighting various points around the building until the exterior of the cabin is blazing. That done, he returns to the coach and drives away.

“The cabin's on fire!” Tabitha screams, moving away from the window. Olicia looks up without really appearing to understand.

Frantically, the girl looks around for any way out. Spotting a metal ladder leading up to a loft with a large window at one end, she starts towards it. However, there is a pile of old, wooden furniture blocking access to it.

“Help me!” The older girl begins pulling at one piece. The younger one gets up to try to help.

“Olicia!” The five year old screams the woman's name. This time she is startled into action. She crosses over to the girls and begins pulling things out of the way.

By this time the fire has entered the building and the smelly bits of cloth scattered around are burning even faster than the old wood. The closer the woman and girls get to the ladder, the more the fire spreads until almost everything they touch is burning.

“Go! Hurry!” Olicia urges both girls once the foot of the ladder is clear. The metal is hot to the touch as the five year old climbs, but she is too intent on reaching the window to notice.

Tabitha is half blind from heat and fear by the time she jumps out of the burning cabin. Someone behind her screams as she lands hard, tumbling across rock and thin grass, and blacks out.


Gethin, Orian

Kianna screams, causing everyone in the sitting room to jump. Immediately Theodora moves to her daughter's side.

“What happened?” The woman asks softly.

“She died,” Kianna sobs, “Tabitha's dead.”

Theodora draws in a sharp breath. Pulling the child into her arms, she buries her face in the girl's hair. Kianna presses her face against her mother, continuing to sob.


highway, Tulia

Tabitha jerks awake abruptly, sitting bolt upright and drawing in a sharp breath. She looks around frantically until she realizes she is inside a moving vehicle. She is wearing a ripped, partly burnt dress and covered with a scratchy old blanket. Her pendant and chain are gone from her neck.

“Get down!” Stewart orders sharply from across the carriage. His older daughter, seated beside him, glances over briefly, then returns to staring out the window.

Tabitha lies back down, pulling the blanket over her head. Remembering what had happened, she attempts to reach out to her twin, only to find the familiar mental presence gone. Tears of fright form, but she pushes them away and curls up in a ball.


Gethin, Orian

Theodora looks up from her sleepy daughter's face at the sound of wheels in the driveway. Through the sitting room window, she can see two carriages stop near the front steps. The Oceanic Trade Group president and his daughter emerge from one while the King of Cathair gets out of the other. Shifting her daughter in her arms, Theodora gets up and goes to the door to greet them. Kianna opens pale green eyes as the visitors ascend the steps.

“Any news?” Douglas Lorcan calls on seeing the duchess.

Theodora sighs tiredly, “We're certain now the girls will not be found alive. Kianna insisted Tabitha died just after sixth bell that night.”

“They have yet to be found?” King Randolph is clearly concerned.

“All we know is they were bound for Tulia,” The duchess replies, “There has always been an unusually strong bond between the twins.”

Douglas nods gravely and turns to Kianna, “I know it is hard, young lady, but can you remember anything else at all about what happened?”

“I'll try.” The girl thinks back, closing her eyes and resting her head on her mother's shoulder. Finally, her eyes open again, “There was a big fire... really hot... But Tabitha fell... or jumped and then I couldn't reach her anymore. And it isn't like when she's asleep, 'cause I can feel her then.”

The man considers the information, “How far into Tulia could they have gotten by sixth bell?”

“Hard to say,” Theodora shakes her head, “The old trade road takes far longer to travel and there is little along it.” She steps back out of the doorway, “Please do come in, your majesty, sir president, my lady.” She leads the way into the front sitting room.

Once everyone is seated, King Randolph enquires, “Have you heard from Baron Carrick yet?”

The duchess nods, “Last night. He sees little point in coming here when last we heard Olicia and Bonnie were with Stewart. Whatever befell the others I cannot see Stewart deliberately harming Bonnie.”

“Where were the girls taken from?” Douglas queries.

“The schoolroom upstairs. Leastwise that is where their governess was killed.”

Douglas frowns, “How was he able to overpower her?”

Kianna speaks up, “She never saw him.”

They all turn to the window as another carriage pulls up. This time it's the King of Orian. He enters the house and joins them in the sitting room. His expression is grim as he sits next to Theodora and Kianna.

“I have just received word from the authorities in a little village along the trade road, just the other side of the border.”

King Randolph frowns, “I thought Tulia had refused to assist.”

“The prime minister may have,” Theodora's uncle replies, “However, the Arzhel family pendant was found during an investigation into a fire which burned an abandoned cabin to the ground.”

“Did they find the girls?” Theodora wants to know.

“The investigator seemed unsure what they found. He would very much like someone to go out and look over the scene.”

“I will go,” Douglas states, “How far is it?”

“Nearly five bells to the village. You will be met there.”

“I want to go.” Kianna glances over the adults around her with a determined expression.

Douglas looks at Theodora.

“We will both go,” She nods, “And the sooner the better.”


ruined cabin, Tulia

The president's carriage parks behind the investigator's cart a short distance from the remains of the cabin. Douglas gets out, followed by Theodora. Kianna slips out before the door closes.

“This way, sir, your grace.” The investigator calls. Theodora picks up her daughter as they follow the man.

“What do you have?” Douglas surveys the charred remains.

“The owner of the cabin died a number of years ago. But it was simply left. Given what we heard over the radio and our initial conclusions, the fire started around sixth bell the day of the kidnapping.”

“You said you found the Arzhel family pendant?” Theodora recalls.

“Over here, your grace.” The man gives the cabin wide berth as he walks over to it, “We have recorded everything, but removed nothing.” He points out the piece of jewelry on the ground. The family coat of arms is clearly visible. “We think it was removed forcefully.” The investigator continues, “Clasp is intact, chain is broken, and even a very small child would not abandon such an item.”

“May I?” The duchess queries.

“Go ahead.”

She stoops down to pick up the pendant and chain. After examining it carefully, she observes, “This seems little damaged.”

Douglas frowns, turning to the investigator, “What is it you are uncertain of?”

“Two small girls were reported missing, yet only the remains of one were found. The other remains are those of a woman. Both are still there until the physician clears them to be moved.”

Theodora draws a sharp breath, “A woman?”

The man nods.

Turning to her daughter, the duchess softly asks, “Do you recall who was with Tabitha?”

Kianna slowly shakes her head.

“You said Tabitha fell or maybe jumped?”

The child nods.

“So there were two girls,” The investigator then considers the situation carefully, “There was a loft in the cabin with a window facing this direction. What may then have happened is this: The three were trapped in the burning building and thought to escape by the loft window. One girl made it that far before the roof fell in and jumped or was thrown and landed here. The other child only made it part way up the ladder and evidently the woman was waiting for the girls to get out. However, that leaves us with a missing child, likely in critical condition, if not dead.”

“How old would you say the child on the ladder was?” Douglas enquires.

“Two or three. A little smaller than the young lady here.”

“Angela,” Theodora concludes grimly, “And very likely Olicia. Baron Carrick will be most upset.”

Douglas nods, “Have you searched for the second child?”

“I still have men combing the area five kilometres in all directions. I will not allow a crime to remain unresolved no matter what comes from our capital.”

“You have my thanks.” Theodora tells him.

“And mine.” Douglas then asks, “Could someone have taken the other child before your men arrived?”

“Anything is possible, I'm sorry to say. Although if that is the case, it was a human. An animal would leave more trace. We will inform you as soon as we find anything more.”


Port Bryn, Tulia

“Wear this!” Stewart throws a broad brimmed sunhat at Tabitha, “And come along.” He leads Tabitha and Bonnie out of the small rented room as the five year old puts on the hat. The three of them walk the short distance to the harbour where they are met by a short dark stocky man.

He frowns on seeing them, “Sir, you only requested passage for yourself and your daughter.”

Stewart produces a paper and hands it to him. The man reads it carefully.

“I see everything is in order. Once you're aboard, we're ready to disembark.”

“Good. Everything else is ready?”

“It is, sir.” You'll have everything you requested by the time we reach Braen.”

“How long will that be?”

“A quarter moon, loaded down as we are.” The short man leads the other three up the gang plank, “I'll have to ask the girls stay in their cabin.”

“They will.” Stewart promises.

“We'll be out of port by dinnertime.” The man adds. A moment later, he stops by a door in the middle of a long dark corridor, “Your cabin, sir.”

“Thank you.” Stewart turns to the girls, “Inside.”

They obey, although he doesn't follow, and the door is closed behind them. Inside the tiny cabin, Tabitha silently climbs up to the top bunk on the left wall. Bonnie goes over to the small round window.


Braen, Ithel

As they walk down the gangplank, Tabitha gets her first look at the Ithel port city. It is far more chaotic than the port in Tulia... noisier, dustier, smellier. There are dock workers and piles of crates everywhere. A greasy looking official appears to speak first with the captain, then Stewart.

“Three sets of Ithel citizenship papers.” The official hands over three sealed scrolls.

Stewart stuffs them into a bag in his hand.

“And transport to anywhere you care to go. A carriage and driver are waiting just over there.” He points it out.

“And if anyone starts asking about us?”

“Nobody here's seen you,” The official replies promptly, “Your driver will do your orientation so you can pass as proper citizens.”

“Good,” Stewart nods, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” The official vanishes.

“Come on.” Stewart leads Tabitha and Bonnie to the indicated carriage.

On seeing them, the driver gets out and produces a piece of paper from a pocket, “Citizenship papers, please.”

Stewart shows him the scrolls. The other man breaks the seals, unrolls each, and checks them against his paper, then nods.

“Get in, please.” The driver opens the carriage door, “Any idea where you'd like to go?”

“Some place which serves decent food.”

“Ah, of course. I know just the place.” The man closes the door once the girls are inside and climbs up to the driver's seat where Stewart joins him.

Tabitha watches carefully out the window as the carriage starts moving. Bonnie comes over to join her.

“What are you doing?” The six year old demands in a soft whisper.

Tabitha tilts her head towards the front where the girls can just hear Stewart and the driver talking.

“He hasn't paid any attention to me in ages.” Bonnie keeps her voice barely audible.

“I'm going to run.” Tabitha responds equally quietly.

“You'll get...” Bonnie trails off under the younger girl's icy stare, “I guess it can't be any worse.”

“He won't hurt you.” Tabitha reminds her niece.

“But I'm nobody here. At least everyone at home called me lady. It won't be any better.”

Tabitha shrugs.

“Do you think my pendant would help me?” Bonnie brightens at the thought.

“No. But do you remember Mama talking about her friend, Darline Haco?”

“A little.”

“She's the OTG president's grandson's guardian and she lives at Corentin Place in Daron Vale. I bet if you could get to her, she'd help you.”

“What about you...?”

“They think I'm dead.” Tabitha cuts her off as the carriage parks just down the street from a small family restaurant in an area the driver refers to as Old Downtown.

“I'd better go in with you,” The driver tells them, “As part of your orientation, you know.”

Stewart nods curtly.

Once the whole group is seated inside and waiting for their meal, their guide continues, “The most important thing you need to watch for is Child Protection Services. Supposedly they're a government funded agency with a mandate to oversee the welfare of all the children in the country. That means anyone under the legal age of eighteen. And they can, legally, take children from their parents or guardians when they suspect abuse or neglect.”

Tabitha listens quietly while the man talks and notices Bonnie doing the same.

Stewart frowns, “That isn't a government affair.”

“Maybe in Orian. Here it is because too many families don't care enough to deal with such things themselves,” After a pause, their guide continues, “If you're looking to avoid CPS or other authorities, you should either stay in Braen or go to Cowan.”

“Which do you recommend?”

“Cowan,” The driver leans forward and lowers his voice, “In Braen, there's a thriving slave trade in young girls and the slavers don't much care who the girls belong to.”

“And it isn't a problem in Cowan?” Stewart queries.

“Cowan's more prostitution and drug trade, but those guys prefer slightly older kids. You'd have time to get settled before you have to worry about it.”

“Cowan then,” Stewart states, “How far is it?”

“It's two bells west to Adain, then another half bell southwest to Cowan,” The driver informs him, “If you tell me what you'd like for living arrangements, I might be able to have something waiting for you.”

“A house, two or three bedroom, which I could buy.”

The guide nods, “Shouldn't be a problem,” He gets up from the table, “I'll be right back.”

Shortly after he leaves, the waitress brings their meal.


After they have eaten and their guide has paid the bill, the four of them head out to the carriage. Bonnie slips her sticky hand into her father's and dawdles along, looking all around with wide brown eyes. Suddenly, she stumbles and starts to fall. Stewart pulls her back to her feet. Then he realizes just how sticky her hand is.

“Didn't you wash?”

The six year old thinks back and shrugs.

“The restaurant should have washing facilities.” The carriage driver tells them. He accompanies Stewart and Bonnie back the way they had come. Tabitha takes advantage of the distraction to slip in behind a group of passersby. When they reach the street corner, they start across while the five year old takes off around the corner.

Tabitha runs without paying much attention to where she is going. She dodges pedestrians and cuts through alleys until she has to stop to catch her breath. Once she is breathing easier, she looks around.

All the buildings are crowded together and rundown. The sky is barely visible beyond the roofs and lines of dripping laundry. The girl is at the corner of an alley and a narrow one-way street. Refuse is piled everywhere and she can feel eyes watching her from behind shuttered or boarded up windows.

Tabitha forces back a surge of fear. It's starting to get dark. Knowing she doesn't have anywhere to go, the girl turns down the alley. It's a dead end, but towards the far wall she finds a small hole just big enough for her to curl up in.


Gethin, Orian

At the sound of the doorbell, Kianna drops her book of children's tales and goes to the top of the main stairs. She can see her mother down below, hurrying to answer the door. The five year old creeps down the stairs as the door opens and familiar voices can be heard. Identifying them as the Oceanic Trade Group president and his grown daughter, Kianna grins and goes down to join her mother.

“Good morning, young lady,” Douglas kneels down to greet the girl, “How are you this morning?”

“I'm well.”

He smiles, “We brought someone for you to meet,” He stands again with some assistance from his daughter, “This is Shayla Kado. She will serve as your attendant,” Turning to the young woman, he adds, “Miss Kado, I'd like you to meet Kianna Arzhel, and her mother, Theodora Arzhel, Duchess of Orian.”

Shayla drops an appropriate curtsy, “I'm honoured to meet you, young lady, your grace.”

Theodora inclines her head politely, “Pleased to meet you. Allow me to introduce you to the housekeeper, who will show you to your room. Then I'm sure Kianna will give you a thorough tour.” She smiles fondly at her daughter.

While the duchess summons the housekeeper, Douglas turns back to the child, “I hear his majesty gave you a mount.”

Kianna's grin broadens, “A mare. I named her Gold Star. I'm getting a new governess too.”

Theodora glances over her shoulder, “Whom you'll meet after lunch. Why don't you take the president and his daughter to meet Gold Star.”

“Okay.” The girl leads Douglas and Nathalia through the house to the veranda door, where she pauses to change her slippers for boots. Then they continue on to the stables. Inside the door, Kianna stops to grab a couple lumps of sugar before going to the mare's stall.

“She's beautiful.” Nathalia observes softly as Kianna holds up the hand with the sugar on it, “How old is she?”

“Four,” The child replies proudly, “The ostler taught me how to groom her and he's going to teach me to braid her mane and tail.”

“How often do you ride?” Douglas watches Kianna climb the stall door so she can pet the mare's neck.

“Almost everyday, but someone has to be with me.”

The ostler approaches them, “Good morning, young lady, “To the others, he adds, “Sir, my lady.”

“Morning,” Kianna returns, “Can I take her out? Just to the yard.”

“Of course, young lady.” The man passes her a bridle and lead. Gold Star stands patiently while her mistress puts the bridle on with a little assistance from the ostler. Once the rope is clipped into place, Kianna gets down from the door so the man can open it.

Douglas watches the girl lead her mount from the stable, with Nathalia walking beside them. Then he turns to the ostler.

“I've seen few mares to match that one.”

“Indeed, sir,” The man smiles proudly, “Foal of the late Duke Arzhel's Thunder and his majesty's Gilt Rose.”

Douglas nods to himself.


After the midday meal ends, Theodora leads her daughter upstairs to the newly refurbished schoolroom. Inside, sitting at a table, is a woman with braided white hair and silvery blue eyes. She stands as mother and daughter enter.

“Good afternoon, your grace.” She curtsies neatly.

“Good afternoon,” Theodora returns, “This is my daughter, Kianna. Kianna, I want you to meet your new governess, Miss Julia Falcher.”

“Hello.” The five year old smiles.

“I'm honoured to meet you,” Julia responds, “How are you this afternoon?”

“Good.”

There is a tap on the open door. All three turn to see the housekeeper standing there with Shayla.

“Thank you,” Theodora dismisses the housekeeper, then turns to the young woman, “Come in, please, Miss Kado.”

Shayla does as instructed.

“This is my daughter's governess, Julia Falcher,” The duchess turns back to the white haired woman, “This is my daughter's personal attendant, Shayla Kado.”

The servants nod politely to each other.

“Kianna,” Theodora addresses her daughter, “Will you please show Miss Kado your rooms?”

“Yes, Mama.” The child turns to the young woman, “This way.” She leaves the schoolroom and starts through the upstairs halls. Eventually they arrive at a suite of rooms in a back corner. The first room they enter is a receiving room. Off it are a dressing room and a playroom. Off the dressing room are the bedroom, a bathroom, and a walk-in closet. All are newly redone in silvery pink and soft green.

“These are my new rooms,” Kianna informs Shayla, “Bad things happened last summer and my old governess died and now everything's new.”

The young woman nods.

Abruptly the girl changes the subject, “Can you ride?”

“I can.”

“Good. I like to ride Gold Star every day, but Mama says someone has to be with me and sometimes no one can go.”


Two


Braen, Ithel

“Get lost, streetrat!” A man orders as he slams the apartment building door shut.

The tiny, pale green eyed child barely seems to notice. She continues past the building and around a corner into an alley. At the far end, a group of older children, mostly boys, are crowded around a creature huddled in a pile of garbage. They are laughing and throwing stones. The five year old starts past them, trying to avoid their attention. However, one of the boys notices her.

“Lookit! Here's another one.” He catches the child by one arm and hurls her into the pile. Another boy throws a sharp rock which hits her forehead, cutting her. She ignores the blood running down the side of her face because she knows it will stop momentarily and the cut will be gone.

One of the girls in the crowd slowly realizes the injury is healing far faster than it should. “It's the dead freak girl!”

Fear flashes across the jeering children's faces for a second or two. Then they scatter. The green eyed five year old turns her attention to the creature beside her. It's another girl. She is nine or ten years old with filthy matted hair and the wild blue eyes of a feral child.

The two girls study each other for several minutes, then the feral girl moves her head to lick the blood from the younger child's face. The five year old smiles and reaches out to pat the matted hair. A moment later, the two curl up around each other.


Fat drops of water wake the two girls sleeping curled around each other in the corner of a dead end alley. The older girl hisses at the rain... a wild cat-like sound. The younger girl scowls and sticks her tongue out at the ominous dark clouds. However, both get to their feet and leave the alley in search of shelter.

For a time, they take cover in the back doorway of a small shop. Then the owner steps out and shoos them away. After that, they wander the streets, getting soaked through and cleaner than either has been since the last heavy rain.

Sometime later, as they turn from a one-way street to a two lane street, the five year old spots a carriage marked with the CPS insignia coming towards them. She tightens her grip on her companion's hand, turns, and starts running back the way they had come.

The rain is coming down harder now, preventing them from seeing anything around them. A man suddenly appears in front of them. Before they can avoid him, he scoops up a girl in each arm, expertly pinning their hands so they can't hit or scratch. The older girl attempts to bite, but he evades her and starts down an alley, still carrying both girls.

At the end of the alley a door opens to reveal a young woman. She frowns slightly on seeing the girls. “That didn't take long.”

“They ran right into me,” The man replies, “Where's Sherri?”

“Downstairs, patching up Teddy and Colt.”

It's the man's turn to frown. However, he doesn't say anything more, instead carrying the girls along a hall to a small room. Inside, there are bunk beds in each of the far corners and a large window with a view of the next building.

The man pushes the door closed with his hip before setting the girls on their feet. They retreat to the far side of the room, still holding hands.

Kneeling down to their eye level, the man smiles encouragingly, “My name is Artagan,” His voice is soft and warm, “I'd like you to stay here with me. Are you hungry?”

The younger girl's pale green eyes study him carefully. Then she glances briefly at her companion before nodding.

“I'll be back in a minute.” Artagan straightens and leaves the room, closing the door firmly.

Releasing her companion's hand, the five year old clambers up onto one of the upper bunks. The older girl vanishes underneath a lower one.

“He's okay.” The younger girl is speaking to the window as much as to herself or her companion. An uncertain sounding growl comes from under the bed.

Artagan returns a few minutes later, carrying a tray of food and followed by a woman with an armload of clothing. The five year old moves to sit on the edge of the upper bunk, allowing her legs to swing freely. Another growl comes from under the lower bunk.

“This is Sherri,” The man begins, indicating the woman beside him, “She has new clothes for you.”

The younger girl turns inquisitive green eyes towards them.

“But food first,” Artagan smiles, setting the tray on one of the lower bunks. Taking two bowls from it, he sets them on the floor beside the bed. The other two bowls, he passes to the child sitting on the upper bunk. One bowl contains water, the other a thick chunky stew.

The five year old drinks a little of her water, then studies the stew for a moment, “Spoon?”

Artagan takes one from the tray and hands it to her. Meanwhile an arm has appeared from under the bed and dragged the bowls out of sight. They reappear, empty, long before the five year old is finished eating. The man picks up the empty bowls and sets them on the tray. When her dishes are empty, the younger girl holds them out. Artagan adds them to the tray and carries it from the room.

“Now for clothes,” Sherri speaks for the first time. She drops the armload on a lower bunk and looks over the five year old. “Will you come down, please?”

The girl slips over the edge, dropping neatly to the floor.

“Will you ask your friend to come out, please?”

The child gets down on her stomach and stretches out an arm under the bed. The older girl takes the outstretched hand reluctantly and allows herself to be pulled into sight. Both girls stand, facing Sherri.

“Thank you,” The woman kneels down to their eye level, “Now I need you to take off the clothes you're wearing so you can put on new ones. Okay?”

The girls glance at each other, then the younger one removes the soaking wet remains of her dress and drops them on the floor. The older girl backs away, almost against the far wall. Sherri sorts a tunic and pants from the pile and hands them to the five year old, who pulls them on. The clothes are a little large.

The woman turns to the older girl. After studying the child critically, she sorts a larger tunic and pants from the pile and sets them on the other lower bunk.

“You can change into these any time you're ready.” Sherrie gathers up the pile in one arm, scoops the soggy cloth from the floor, then leaves the room.

“It's okay.” The five year old climbs back onto the upper bunk while her companion eyes the new clothes warily. Eventually, she clumsily strips off her tattered sopping shapeless garment and throws it towards the door. Taking the pants from the bed, she pulls them on awkwardly, followed by the tunic. Then she scrambles up onto the upper bunk. The girls curl up around each other and quickly fall asleep.


They wake to the sound of someone knocking on the door. As they sit up, it opens and Artagan enters the room, again carrying a tray of food. He smiles gently on seeing the girls.

“Would you like some supper?” The man enquires. Noting the confused expressions, he tries the Arien term, “Dinner?”

Both girls' eyes brighten immediately and Artagan nods to himself. He sets the tray next to them on the upper bunk, then sits on the lower one across the room.

This time there is milk in large mugs and bowls of thick soup. The younger girl automatically reaches for one of the spoons while the older one slurps her soup straight from the bowl. Once they are finished, Artagan moves the tray to the bunk below the girls and returns to his seat.

“Do you think you could answer a few questions for me?” He smiles encouragingly.

The children look at each other for a minute before the younger one nods.

“Do you remember your names?”

Feral blue eyes watch him warily for a moment, then the older girl stretches out against the wall, nearly out of the man's sight.

The younger girl spends some time carefully considering the question, “Shilo,” She says finally.

Artagan frowns for a second, then the smile returns and he asks, “How old are you?”

“Five.” She responds uncertainly.

“Do you remember when your birthday is?”

“Twentieth of eleventh moon.”

The man nods and moves on, “Did you come here from Arien?”

Shilo nods.

“Do you remember when you came over? What moon it was? Or which year?”

The five year old thinks back, “Fifty-eight... in fifth moon.”

Again Artagan is surprised, “Did your parents bring you here?”

Shilo shakes her head.

“Did your parents die?”

“Papa did.”

“How long ago?”

“'Fore I was born.”

“Who brought you over then?”

The child doesn't respond, although her expression becomes guarded.

Artagan changes the subject, “Do you know anything about your friend? Her name or how old she is?”

The five year old shakes her head.

The man nods and stands. Taking the tray, he leaves the room, closing the door firmly.

Once he is gone, the older girl sits up and studies her companion. There is less of a feral look in her eyes. She attempts to speak, coughs several times, then tries again, “Shilo... not... name.” She has trouble getting the words out.

“It's on my birth certificate.” The five year old states.

“Not... firs... name.” The older girl insists.

“No,” Shilo admits, “I don't like my first name.” A moment later, she asks, “Do you remember yours?”

Her companion has to think hard, “An... gel... ana.”

Shilo wrinkles her nose at the long name, “What's your second name?”

Again it takes the older girl some time to remember, “In... ez.”

“Inez's easier,” The five year old decides, “What country are you from?”

There is a long silence while Inez thinks. “Ca... cath...” She breaks off frustratedly.

“Cathair?” Shilo guesses, “I'm from Orian.”

The older girl yawns abruptly and lies down. The younger one curls up with her and both go to sleep.


There is a tiny bit of sunlight coming in the window when Artagan returns, once again carrying a tray of food.

“Good morning.” He greets the girls as he sets the tray next to them on the upper bunk.

Breakfast consists of hot cereal, fruit salad, and mugs of milk. This time the older girl clumsily mimics the younger one's use of a spoon. From the lower bunk opposite, the man watches both as they eat. After they finish, he moves the tray and returns to his seat.

“Shilo,” He addresses the younger girl, “Do you think your mama is looking for you?”

“She thinks I died.” The five year old's eyes look away from him.

Her companion coughs, attracting Artagan's attention, “In... ez.”

“Your name is Inez?” The man queries.

The girl nods.

“Do you remember how old you are?”

Inez thinks back, “No... know.”

“Do you remember your birthday?”

Again she has to think hard, “Se... sev... seven...”

“Seventh moon?”

She nods, “Two... twen... twenty... ei... eigh...” She breaks off, frustrated with the difficult words.

“Twenty-eighth of seventh moon,” Artagan smiles encouragingly, “What year?”

“Fo... four...” This time the feral expression returns to her blue eyes.

“Forty...?”

“Ei... eigh...

“Forty-eight?” He watches her nod frantically, “Then you just turned ten. You came from Arien, right?”

Inez nods again.

“Do you remember when?”

“Sec... ond... moon... fif... ty... seven.” The girl manages.

“Did your parents...?” Artagan trails off on seeing her shake her head, “Do you remember who brought you over?”

She growls warningly, the feral expression returning again.

The man frowns slightly, “Have you spent all your time in Braen on the street?”

Inez shakes her head again, “Sl... ave... den.”

He sighs tiredly, closing his eyes momentarily, “I promise, no matter what happens, you will not end up in another place like that.”

The ten year old smiles gratefully, then glances at Shilo. The five year old nods, then turns to Artagan, “What kind of place is this?”

“It's a school. And you will continue to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, but you will also learn to defend yourselves and earn your own way,” The man explains, “Or, if you don't want to do that, I can find a family to take you in.”

Inez wrinkles her nose at the idea, “No... family.”

Shilo nods in agreement.

“Well then,” Artagan stands and picks up the tray, “Sherri will come get you in a bit and show you around.” He leaves, closing the door behind him. The girls curl up around each other, although this time they remain awake.


There is a knock on the door and the girls look up to see Sherri enter.

“Good morning,” She smiles warmly, “Artagan asked me to give you a tour of the school. But before that, I'd like to do something about your hair. It would be easiest to just cut it all off and let it grow back. I could try to brush it out, but that would hurt a lot.” The woman sets a hairbrush and a pair of shears on a lower bunk, “Shilo, right?”

The younger girl nods, dropping from the edge of the bunk to the floor, “Can you try to brush it?”

“If you want.” Sherri picks up the brush, “Sit here, please.” She indicates the edge of the lower bunk. Shilo takes a seat and the woman sits behind her.

As she works as gently as she can, Sherri notices locks of pale green hair mixed with the silvery blonde. She frowns curiously, continuing to work on the long dirty matted mess. The girl winces occasionally. However, she doesn't make a sound.

Finally, the woman queries, “Has your hair always been two colours?”

Shilo nods, “Most people never notice.”

Sherri continues to work until the worst of the dirt and tangles are gone. “There. It's rough, but I can braid it to keep it from getting bad again.”

“Okay.” The child remains still until the woman has tied off the end of the braid.

“There.” Sherri removes a thick wad of hair from the brush. Turning to the older girl, she queries, “Inez, right?”

The ten year old nods and slips off the bunk, “Jus... cut.”

“Okay.” The woman exchanges the brush for the shears, “Stand still, please.” She sets to work, cutting close to the girl's head. Long filthy matted dark blonde hair falls to the floor in handfuls. The job is quickly done and Inez is brushing stray hairs from her clothes. Her hair is now only a couple centimetres long. She frowns quizzically as she rubs a hand over it.

“It'll grow,” Sherri assures her, “But for now, let's do our tour, okay?”

Both girls nod. They take each other's hands as they follow her from the room.

“That's the back door,” The woman points out a door at the end of the hall, then she leads them in the opposite direction, “Most of this floor is storage rooms, but this,” She indicates another door, “Is Artagan's office. No one is allowed in here without his permission.”

They continue along the hall until they reach a staircase.

“Downstairs.” Sherri has the girls go ahead of her.

At the bottom, they go through a door into a brightly lit white room. One wall is covered in cupboards, another has a long counter with several wash basins, and the third is curtained off.

“This is the infirmary,” Sherri explains, “If you get hurt or sick, you'll be brought here.”

Shilo glances around disinterestedly, then she and Inez hurry to keep up with their guide. She leads them into another hall. Sounds of fighting can be heard in the rooms off it.

“This's the unarmed combat training room,” Sherri indicates the door on the left, “And these,” She points out two doors on the right, “Are weapons training rooms. There's a target range below us, but you'll see it later.” She pushes open the gym door and ushers them inside. They find a man in loose fitting pants and a belted jacket supervising a group of teenagers doing unarmed combat practice.

“Keep going.” The man instructs before joining Sherri and the girls by the door.

“This's Arturo.” The woman introduces him.

“Hello,” He smiles, “I'll be teaching you hand to hand fighting and melee weapons.”

The girls nod, looking around the brightly lit room.

“Come on.” Sherri guides them out of the training room, back to the stairs and up two floors. Passing through a door, they find themselves in a large room with big windows in one wall. One side of the room is full of long tables and chairs with a long counter on the far side. The rest of the room is furnished with couches, chairs, and low tables.

“Dining hall,” Sherri indicates the table filled area, “And games room.” She gestures to the other area. Then she points out a door in the wall opposite the stairs, “That's the boys' dormitory. You are not allowed in there.” She takes them through the other door in that wall, “This's the girls' dormitory.”

Like the previous room, the dormitory is unoccupied. The walls on each side of the long narrow room are lined with bunk beds. In between each set of beds are two bureaus. There are two doors in the far wall. Sherri leads the girls down to them.

“That's the locker room,” The woman points to the door on the right, “Which's where those who have graduated and don't live here all the time keep their things. And this,” She guides them through the door on the left, “Is the girls' bathroom.”

One wall is lined with stalls while the other has a long mirror above a counter with many wash basins. Sherri leads the way to the far end and around a corner to an area containing two large bathtubs. The woman goes over to a cabinet in one corner and comes up with two washcloths and two towels.

“You both need proper baths,” She begins pumping water into one of the tubs, “After that I'll show you where you'll sleep and store your belongings.”

Shilo releases Inez's hand, strips off the pants and tunic, and climbs into the water.

“I'll get clean clothes while you wash.” Once the tub is a little more than half full, Sherri stops pumping and hands the five year old the washcloths and a bar of soap. Then she leaves them.

Reluctantly, Inez removes her clothes and joins Shilo. The younger girl passes the older one a cloth.

Both girls have scrubbed off the worst of the grime by the time Sherri returns, carrying a pile of clothes. She sets them on the edge of the other tub and tosses the dirty ones into a large hamper.

“Do you need help washing your hair?” The woman asks Shilo, who nods.

The water is brown and scummy by the time the job is done. Sherri pulls the plug and gives each girl a towel. While they dry off, the woman retrieves a hairbrush from the cabinet.

“This is yours to keep.” She tells Shilo as she sets to work brushing and braiding the child's hair. Once she is done, she instructs, “Get dressed and come out to the dorm.” She passes one set of clothes to Inez and the other to Shilo, then leaves the room. This time there are undergarments as well as pants and tunics. The older girl watches the younger one dress before doing the same. Shilo takes her new hairbrush as they leave the bathroom.

Out in the dorm, they find Sherri talking to an older teenage girl with almond shaped grey eyes and short brunette curls.

“This is Melanie,” The woman introduces the teen, “Mel, these're Inez and Shilo.”

“Hey.” Melanie greets them. Neither child responds.

“Mel will show you how things work here,” Sherri informs the girls, “Stay close to her, okay?”

Shilo glances at Inez, then nods.

“Over here,” The woman leads them to a bunkbed near the bathroom door, “These are your beds. Shilo, you can keep your things in here,” She indicates the bureau on the left, “And Inez, you can keep your things here.” She tilts her head towards the bureau on the right.

Shilo opens the bottom drawer of hers, drops her hairbrush inside, and closes it.

Sherri continues, “It's lunch time now. Afterwards, Mel will show you the classrooms upstairs.”

“Come on.” The teen starts for the door to the dining hall. Shilo and Inez take each other's hands and follow her.

Several young teenagers are already lined up at one end of the counter on the other side of the tables. Melanie guides her charges over to join the end of the line.

“Flatbread today,” She observes as she passes each girl a wooden tray and takes one for herself, “You eat it with your fingers.” She adds.

Inez brightens at the prospect.

As they move through the line, plates of flatbread topped with meat, vegetables, and cheese and glasses of juice are set on the trays. Melanie adds napkins before leading them to a table.

Neither child says anything while they eat. Once they are finished and waiting for the teen, Shilo enquires, “Are you a student too?”

Melanie nods, “I'll graduate next spring.”

“Are you all grown up?”

The teen shrugs, “I'm eighteen.” She wipes her hands on a napkin, stands, and picks up her tray, “If we go upstairs now, you can meet more of the teachers before afternoon classes start.”

“Will you have class?” Shilo asks as they return their trays.

Melanie shakes her head, “I don't have any more classes except the code lecture in first moon. Which's why I got asked to look after you two. Now, come on.” She guides them to the stairs and up a floor.

The door at the top leads into a hall lined with doors, many of which are open. Most of the rooms are unoccupied and contain desks and chairs.

The teen ushers her charges through the fourth door on the right. Inside, a middle aged man is talking to an older woman. Both turn when the girls enter.

“Hey, Mel,” The man greets her, “New students?”

“Yeah. Inez and Shilo,” Melanie turns to the girls, “Don teaches math and science and Miss Rooque teaches language arts.”

“And health,” The woman reminds the teen, “As necessary.”

The teen grimaces, “Only 'cause Sherri won't.”

Miss Rooque shrugs.

“Come on.” Melanie leads the girls back into the hall and down to the last door on the left.

This room is filled with toys and child sized furniture. There are several large windows in two of the walls and shelves of books underneath.

“A nursery?” Shilo makes a face.

“Sort of,” Melanie guides them over to a bookshelf, “This's where new kids learn or relearn to talk and do tests and stuff to see what level of schoolwork they can do.”

“Oh.”

“Artagan wants to keep you two together as much as possible,” The teen continues, “But he thinks you'll both be able to start proper classes pretty soon.” She takes a couple books from the shelf and goes over to a table with three chairs.


Gethin, Orian

Theodora is carrying a half asleep Kianna towards the stairs when the telephone rings. Changing directions, she goes into the library to answer it.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Theodora.”

The now alert child can barely hear the voice on the other end. She moves her head in order to hear better.

“Darline?” The duchess is somewhat surprised to identify her good friend, “How are you?”

“I'm fine. But I've just gotten home from the police station. An officer found Bonnie lost in downtown today and she somehow had my name.”

“Is she with you?” Theodora asks immediately.

“She's asleep in my suite. Apparently she managed, by some miracle, to make her way here from Cowan. I contacted President Lorcan from the police station. He's coming to get her and I imagine you'll hear from him before too long.”

“Has Baron Carrick been contacted? By rights Bonnie ought to be returned to him.”

“The president said he would do that.”

“Has she said anything of Stewart?”

“Precious little beyond he attempted to take her pendant from her. It sounds like he's still in Cowan and the president is assigning people to look into it.”

Theodora draws in a ragged breath, “How is Bonnie?”

“Very quiet,” Darline responds, “ Certainly tired and far from pleased with her father. Pendant aside, her chief complaint is neglect.”

“It seems to me,” Theodora observes dryly, “She always had far too much of Stewart's attention. And her own way far more often than any child ought to.”

“I think you and Baron Carrick will find her greatly changed.”

“Perhaps,” Theodora concedes doubtfully, “I was on my way to tuck Kianna into bed. We can talk longer another time.”

“And I ought to put Xander to bed,” Darline replies, “Another time then.”

Once the receiver is in its cradle, Theodora leaves the library and starts up to her daughter's rooms.

“Is Bonnie coming here?” Kianna enquires sleepily.

“No,” The duchess reassures the child, “She'll go to Carrick Keep in Cathair.”

“Will President Lorcan come visit us?”

“Perhaps, if he isn't too busy.”

Kianna rests her head on her mother's shoulder and closes her eyes.


Braen, Ithel

“...And the bears never bothered the little boy again. The end.” Inez closes the storybook. Artagan, Sherri, and Melanie applaud.

“Very good.” The man tells the ten year old. Inez grins broadly. Shilo grins as well. Artagan continues, “After lunch today, you'll both start basic level classes. You'll work with Arturo in the afternoons and do school work in the mornings.”

Sherri adds, “Let's go downstairs. Lunch should be about ready.” The woman stands and leads the way. Shilo and Inez are right behind her with Artagan and Melanie following them.

“Mel,” The man begins quietly, “I want you to sit in on their classes for a couple days, just to make sure we haven't missed any problems.”

“Okay.” The teen nods.

Down in the dining hall, Melanie, Inez, and Shilo are the first in line. Once they have bowls of cheese covered noodles and glasses of milk on their trays, they sit at their usual table. The three of them are quickly joined by several other small girls.

“Are you gettin' to start classes soon?” A black haired girl demands of Shilo and Inez.

“This afternoon.” Shilo grins.

“Cool.” A redhead comments around a mouthful.

“Just eat,” Melanie advises them, “Talk later.”

After they have finished eating and returned their trays, the teen accompanies the group down to the gym. Arturo is already down there, waiting for them. He smiles on seeing Inez and Shilo.

“Welcome to your first hand to hand combat class,” He greets them, then addresses the whole group of girls, “Good afternoon. Let's get settled down, please.” Once he has quiet, he continues, “And let's get started.”

Around mid afternoon, Arturo dismisses the girls and they go upstairs, some to the games room and some into the dormitory. Shilo and Inez are among those who go into the dormitory. They both climb onto the upper bunk of their bed and curl up together.

Inez takes Shilo's wrist to examine it, “Seems like you heal faster every time you get hurt.”

The younger girl shrugs, “Long as no one else knows.”

“Sherri saw the one cut, 'member? I bet she told Artagan.”

Shilo shrugs again.

“What're you talkin' 'bout?” The redheaded girl calls up to them.

Inez growls warningly and Shilo doesn't respond at all.


Both girls wake to their bed being shaken.


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