A.N. The, uh, not-so-long awaited sequel to Whisper Safety. However, you don't really have to have read the first story to understand this one. This chapter probably isn't my best writing, but I'll try to improve it as I go along.
Morning sunlight stole through the gap between the threadbare curtains of the room. Adara stirred and opened her eyes to the sight of her tiny crystal shedding rainbow tears across her bed and claiming a rueful smile from her. She sat up and stretched, the sleeves of her man's shirt falling away to reveal lean, well-muscled arms.
In the town of Greene, less than a league away from Lingard's fortress, young girls such as Adara either tried to hide their sex or look as uncomely as possible. Adara preferred to do both, just to be safe.
She pulled out a pair of old canvas breeches that were almost as threadbare as the curtains and a fresh, though wrinkled, shirt. When she had been too young to be in danger of winding up in Lingard's harem, she had grown her bronze hair out past her shoulders and was now too vain to cut it short. Instead, she left it in a tangled mass and stuffed it all under a cap. She smeared a thin layer of dirt over her face and neck, blending it to look like a natural accumulation, and then turned to check her reflection in a basin of water.
"I don't wee why you even bother checking your reflection anymore," her younger brother, Emrys, commented from the bed. "Hardly anyone even remembers that you're a girl at all, your disguise is so good."
She scowled at him, but had to smile at the state he was in. His ebon locks were tousled and strands fell in front of his eyes that, like his sister's, were the colour of violets. His shirt was as rumpled as his hair and would yawn with almost every other breath.
Sighing, Adara sat down beside her brother and enveloped him in a hug. Being a self-respecting boy of twelve Dragon Births, however, he wriggled away, refusing to be coddled.
"You should get yourself a husband so you can have children of your own to fuss over," he told her.
"You're one to talk. It's because of you that all the only suitors I've ever had left," Adara retorted, getting up.
"You didn't like any of them, anyways!" Emrys protested defensively as he followed her to the dining area of the one room hut.
"Hush, you'll wake Magna," Adara warned, glancing apprehensively at the smaller of the two beds.
"She won't mind."
"You take her health for granted."
He glanced at the sleeping form of the old woman, the first shadow of worry crossing his face. "Is she not well?" he asked.
Adara hesitated, not wanting to cause her brother distress. "It's not that she isn't well that I worry. It's because she's getting on in her winters."
"Oh. Is that all?" Emrys disregarded her concern. "Don't worry. Dragon will grant our Magna decades to come."
Adara allowed herself a small smile at her sibling's youthful dismissal. She placed half a small loaf of bread in front of him and headed for the door.
"Aren't you going to ear?" he inquired around a mouthful of bread.
She shook her head. "No. We don't have much right now and you need it. You're a growing child, after all."
"I am not a child," Emrys growled.
If she had known how to, Adara might have laughed at his indignation. Instead, she shook her head and took her cloak down from its hook.
Emrys watched her worriedly as she pulled on her cloak. Though she had never been anything but lean, she seemed to be thinning and he knew it to be a bad sign. He wanted to tell her to eat, but knew that she wouldn't, so he let it be, albeit reluctantly.
Adara opened the door and stepped out into the chill winter, turning towards the bakery where she worked. The wages were not much, but they kept the taxes at bay and her employer sometimes gave her free loaves of bread. She turned a corner, thinking of how much of her wages she could spare for food this moon. At the sound of bells, she stopped short and looked up. It was not the dull chime of iron bells that marked a slave wagon. Nor was it the steal clink of the tax collector. No. this was the whispering sound of crystal striking silver.
Adara flinched back from the noise and tugged her cap lower so that it shadowed her face. She kept her head bowed as the carriage rolled by. When it had passed, she turned and hurried toward the bakery, shivering.
Lingard was in town and he would be looking for new concubines. She shuddered again.
The warmth of the bakery oven swept over her when she entered. Alla, the baker, laboured over lumps of unbaked dough. She motioned for her assistant to open the front of the shop and tend to the customers.
Sighing at the comfort of the familiar routine, Adara hung up her cloak, exchanging it for an apron. The front of the shop wasn't as warm as the back, but the slight chill was bearable. She unlocked the door and took the baskets of baked goods to the front counter.
The first customers were two women whom Adara knew well by sight. They came to the bakery often, more to gossip than to purchase anything. Dara didn't mind them so much and their children made her smile with their glowing eyes and innocent words.
"Dar! Psst! We have a secret to tell you," they hissed.
"What is it?" she asked, bending down beside them.
The eldest, a redheaded boy of seven Dragon Births, cupped his hands around her ear and whispered, "My big sister says she's in love with your brother."
Adara blinked, then smiled and ruffled the child's hair without replying. She began to stand, but one of the other children tugged her cap off.
"Come here. Give it back," she said.
The child shook her head firmly. "It's bad luck to wear a hat indoors. And how come you always dress like a boy, anyways?"
"Never mind that now, Sasha," her mother reprimanded. "Give the girl her hat back."
Adara sent the woman a grateful smile. She tucked her mass of bronze locks under her cap and looked up into the silted eyes of a Snake Soldier watching her through the store's one and only window. It smiled maliciously, a grotesque curve of a lipless mouth that froze Adara in place. Then the Soldier turned and left as suddenly as it had appeared.
Adara swallowed hard. She tried not to show her fear, but the trembles shook her body.
Perhaps it will not come back. Perhaps it will think I am not comely enough for Lingard's tastes, she thought frantically, even as she realized there was no hope. She had to run, but even then there was little chance she would escape Lingard's harem now that her true gender had been revealed.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see Alla watching at her with profound sympathy in her eyes.
"Go home, lass," the baker instructed her softly. "I can manage things here."
A few cold pieces of metal were slipped into the younger woman's hand. Dara didn't need to look at them to know what they were. Fighting back tears, she slipped her last wages into her pocket before enveloping the kind baker in a hug.
"Thank you," she whispered. "For everything."
With that, Adara hung her apron back up and draped her cloak over her shoulders. She left the bakery and hurried home. As she passed through the familiar, winter sheathed streets, she felt her heart way heavy inside her. She knew little more than this town and its surrounding forests. To be dragged away from it and to certain death…
A tear slipped from her eye.
In the neighbouring kingdom of Wronne, there was a song that had somehow slipped past the Serpentess' strict borders and become a haunting melody in the hearts of all Garghans. Now it trickled into Dara's mind, a chilling awakening to the truth of what her country had become.
Oh, Garghan, what has become,
Of children yours now in tears?
The Great Warriors once that they were
No longer drive away Dragon's fears.
Dara paused at the corner of the street and looked around. Greene was a fairly old town, dating back to before the coming of the Serpentess. Over the years it had crumbled and fallen into disrepair, its citizens too downtrodden by taxes to have their homes fixed. She tried to imagine it as it had once been, with the sun shining down on new shingles and the cobblestone street fully laid. But she could not imagine it, for the image was beyond her grasp. There was no sun, no shingle in the town younger than Magna and no street, pathway or alley not lacking a stone or two.
No, Garghan had fallen and there was no hope for the former Great Warriors.