The sun was still to low to send anything more than a pale glow into the cell when the door burst open, and five menacing guards entered. They hauled the prisoners to their feet, and dragged them back through the labyrinth of passages until they reached an outdoor courtyard. The courtyard was bare of decoration or design, and there were many gaps in the stone walls. Moss had begun to grow in the cracks between the floor tiles. In the center of the courtyard, seated on a once-magnificent raised throne, was Tyran. She was surrounded by nearly a hundred of her followers, who were all were large and muscular, and nearing the day when they would leave Saon forever. The five prisoners stood silently under Tyran's icy gaze, blinking in the bright sunlight. Her glare intensified, until it became an almost unbearable scrutiny. Katia stepped forward, as if shielding her followers from the Queen.
"You have untold skill in persuasion, Tyran" she said calmly, "Given the chance I believe you would bewitch us all into joining you. I cannot let that happen."
Tyran smiled down at her one enemy and equal, "And I will not give them up so easily. You have two followers waiting for you outside Saon; why should I let you have five more?"
"Let them decide," proposed Katia, with confidence that hid the worry within her, "Let them decide for themselves where they will go. If they can withstand you at your most persuasive, then you won't want them here in any case."
Tyran considered the proposal for a moment. "You won't interfere?"
Katia hesitated, but knew in her heart that this was the only way to free the others. She nodded,
"I swear it."
"Fine." Leaning forward and resting her arms on her knees, the Queen fixed Sasha with a piercing stare, her eyes nearly glowing with energy. Sasha stared back without flinching, her own hazel eyes full of faith in the one she would follow forever. Tyran soon looked away. She turned instead to Katsei, who flinched, but then regained her courage and stood strong. When the gaze was turned on Maus, she cowered, and barely held her ground. Katrack, the last in line, stared back at Tyran rebelliously when she finally turned to him. There was a flash of light, and the boy stumbled backwards, falling heavily to the ground. Katia helped him to his feet, and with a worried at Tyran, was forced to step back. Triumphant, Tyran stood and advanced upon the dazed boy before her. Her voice changed, until it filled the room, and became strangely compelling.
"Join me and you be rewarded beyond you wildest dreams, my boy. Join me, and you will be spared the fate that awaits the traitor Katia."
Katrack paused, confused and uncertain. He looked from Tyran to Katia, undecided, and seemed about to step forward when Maus a hand on his shoulder.
Katrack turned around, surprised, and looked straight into his friends' deep blue eyes for a long moment. In that moment, Katrack saw a promise of eternal friendship that affected him deeply; he turned from all of Tyran's promises, and went to stand by Maus' side. Furious, Tyran strode forward, one arm raised to strike Maus. Her voice a deep growl that soon rose to a crescendo.
"You little minx! How dare you keep him from me?"
She jerked to a stop, her hand held back by Katia, who had stepped in front of Maus. She gazed up at Tyran, determination in every line of her face.
"They've all have made the choice, and I took no part in it. You must let them go."
Tyran glared hatefully back at her, but was forced to break away. Settling back onto her throne, she surveyed the small group regally, her gaze coming finally to rest on Katia.
"End this foolish battle," she purred, "You will never survive outside Saon. Join us now, and all of your past crimes shall be forgiven."
Katia shook her head resolutely, "Your charms won't work on me, Tyran. Every time I look at you, Shira stares back at me. Every time you speak, I hear Min's voice. Whatever awaits us outside these walls, it cannot be worse than here." When Tyran remained silent, she continued. "One day, far from here, we will meet again. Perhaps then the outcome will be different."
With that, she turned to face the great doors that lead to the main road of Saon, the North Gates, and the outside world. Taking a deep breath, and trying desperately to appear more confident than she felt, Katia took her first steps away from Tyran and her crowd. All the way down the main road, and even up until the Gate she didn't dare look over her shoulder, but stared fixedly ahead. Without a sound, the North Gate swung open, and together, Maus, Katrack, Katsei and Sasha followed Katia, and left the only home they had ever known, never to return.
For five children, who had never left the confines of Saon's walls, the small valley in which they found themselves was vast beyond their imagination. The wind whipped through their hair, and the sun, setting in the west, lit the valley with gold. To the north stood the village of Freta, where those who left Saon took their first steps into the adult world. Katia turned to the others, no longer able to appear calm and in control. They looked back at her expectantly, and with a shock, Katia realized that their devotion to her didn't just come from the need to escape Tyran's cruelty, but from somewhere deeper. She turned, and surveyed the valley once more.
"We might as well head for Freta," she told the others, "With any luck, Scytha and Kimna will be waiting there for us." She was incredibly relieved when no one voiced an objection; taking command over unwilling followers wasn't something she was prepared to do.
Together they set off, at first enjoying the rugged beauty that surrounded them. Later, however, when their feet began to ache, the sense of adventure began to wear off. The meager rations that Katia had managed to conceal in her clothing weren't enough to do more that take the edge of their hunger. None complained, as they were used to hardship, but all were undeniably relieved when they finally reached the village. The sun was just beginning to set over the horizon.
The five trudged wearily through the gate, and, following the directions of the gatekeeper, headed towards the center of the village. There they found "The Wandering Bard", a rather dingy and ramshackle place. Inside, a few rickety-looking tables stood off to one side of a dimly lit bar. The innkeeper, a tall, portly man came forward as soon as the five children closed the door behind them.
"Yer from Saon, aren't ye? Yer rather young, methinks," he paused, looking curiously over their little group, "How can I be helpin' you?"
Finally, Katia spoke, trembling with nerves, "We'd like to stay a few nights."
The innkeeper nodded, "That's six coppers a night, breakfast included. Pay in advance."
Katia slipped the money into his palm, and in return was handed large iron key.
"Rooms are up the stairs. The bar'll be open at sunset."
Katia led her friends up the stairs, and into one of the rooms leading off the corridor above. As one they collapsed wearily on to the two large beds. They were as hard as rock, but that was nothing worse than what they were used to. There were also a couple of frayed armchairs scattered about the room, looking older than the inn itself. Katia looked around at the others, a faint smile lighting up her face.
"This is it," she said softly, "We're finally free of Saon."