2

It took until almost morning for the Kaparans to reach the city. They would have at least another hour of negotiating the bustling streets before they reached the palace. Xathandra looked forlornly at her parents. Even with so much commotion around the cart there was little chance of them escaping. They were bound hand and foot to the wagon and to each other, in front of them sat the captain and behind them walked the soldier that had accompanied them, his gaze never faltering from the prisoners. Xathandra felt a wave of hopelessness wash over her, they would all die, or worse, the captain had mentioned a specially modified punishment, but he had never said exactly what. Xathandra must have dozed off, allowing fear to overwhelm her, she started awake as the cart jerked to a stop. She opened her eyes blearily and looked around. They had stopped in the middle of the town square, four more soldiers had arrived and the captain was issuing orders. "Take the man and woman to the docks. The child will go to the castle for... punishment." As the captain uttered this last word he looked down at Xathandra sprawled in the cart and gave a malicious chuckle "She'll stay with me." The soldiers stood where they were, waiting for more instructions. "MOVE!" the captain yelled and everyone in the entire square jumped. The soldiers scurried into action and began dragging Xathandra's father out of the wagon. He resisted, pulling himself toward Xathandra and her mother. He wrapped Xathandra in one last bear hug.

"Don't let them defeat you." he whispered in her ear as the captain leaped into the cart and kicked him squarely in the ribs and out onto the cobblestone street. Then he turned to Xathandra's mother, lifted her up and threw her to one of the soldiers on the ground. Xathandra watched with tears in her eyes as they were both dragged away through the crowd. The captain was sending them to the docks where nobles from town and representatives from foreign countries went illegally to buy slaves. Tears welled up in Xathandra's eyes as she realized that she would probably never see her parents again. It was a mark of how far the kingdom had fallen that an illegal slave trade was overlooked when a girl with an Emerald was sentenced to death. The captain heaved himself back into the wagon and brought his face close to hers. She could smell his rancid breath, and tried not to inhale.

"Getting all teary eyed? Don't worry mommy and daddy are just going on a working vacation." The soldiers around him laughed. "But don't worry, we'll take good care of you." he said as he tweaked her nose. Xathandra lashed out at him, but the ropes held her back. "Somebody doesn't want to play right now." he said, amid another chorus of laughter from his men. He took up the reins once again and whipped the horse into motion. Xathandra felt her stubborn nature rise up within her as they traveled the smooth, cobblestone streets straight to the gates of the castle.

Xathandra stared as the castle came into view. She had never been this near to it. The closest she had ever gotten was in the town square, shopping with her mother. And even then it was just a great majestic shape looming in the distance. Its tall spires pierced the sky, dark flags whipping at their tips.

The older inhabitants of Kapara still talked of the castle when it was in full splendor almost sixty years ago when fortunes were good and Kapara was a great and prosperous city. They talked of how the walls shone with the brilliance of the sun itself, the fountains in the courtyard bubbled and splashed jovially with clear, fresh water, and the grass grew lush and soft underfoot. People were always laughing and singing, running to and fro on errands for the cook, the lords, and of course the king. Great feasts were held every evening to honor the land, their fortunes and anything else they could think to raise their cups to. The flagstones were always polished to a steady gleam and heralded awe from visiting merchants and nobles. After a spirited description of the glory of the palace, many people would look towards its imposing outline and sigh.

As the cart trundled up the long drive to the castle, Xathandra could almost see the remnants of its former charm. Almost. The walls were just as imposing as before if not more so, but the stones were dingy and dark.

The captain pulled the wagon up in front of the flight of stone steps leading to the high granite arch inscribed in looping letters with the word Kapara, and beyond, the courtyard. The captain descended from the wagon and snatched up the rope binding Xathandra's hands. He jerked her out onto the ground, snapping her neck painfully as he did so. She dropped the three feet from the wagon to the street, unable to get her bound feet underneath her, and landed on her knees on the cobblestone drive, with bruising force. She wanted to cry out, but her relentless, stubborn attitude wouldn't let her utter a sound. The captain laughed "Now that mommy and daddy aren't around I don't have to be as nice." Xathandra got to her feet slowly, barely listening. She grimaced at the searing pain in her knees, only to have the captain start walking, pulling her feet out from under her once again, throwing her face-first into the dirt. He dragged her forcibly up the steps by the rope around her hands. By the time they reached the top Xathandra's wrists were sore and red from the friction of the rope against her skin, her shoulders ached from being yanked repeatedly when she caught on the steps, and her whole body was bruised from being bounced off the sharp edges of the stone. When they reached the top she was hauled to her feet and the captain began to chuckle again.

"You're lucky girl." She could smell his rancid breath. "Lord Lairetam wants to see anyone that has something as beautiful as this," he rattled the ornate box in front of her nose "in person." He began to chortle maniacally and forced her forward through the arch and into the courtyard of the castle.

Xathandra looked around her as they passed under the arch at the desolation of the once magnificent castle. She found it hard to believe in the stories of it's previous grandeur. Though the fountains still stood they were filled with dirt and leaves and rain water lay stagnant in the basin. The grass was withered and brown and the walls showed the accumulation sixty of years of grime. Although sad, none of this disturbed Xathandra as much as the great oak door at the end of the path, swinging open seemingly of it's own accord. If the door had been polished or even cleaned it would have made a beautiful welcome. In its current state, dark and dirty, the effect it had on a overcast day was quite menacing. Xathandra shuddered as they passed through the doorway. It didn't come as much of a relief to her to find that the door wasn't moving by itself, but was being pulled to by a large man almost as terrifying as the door itself. He was tall, taller than the captain that dragged her and a fine white scar ran from his left ear to the corner of his nose. His dark hair fell to his shoulders and clung to his face in greasy strands. He stood straight as though he was trying to be as tall as the door itself and glared down at her through heavily hooded eyes.

"And where do you suppose you're taking that?" his voice was gruff and matched his appearance perfectly.

"That's not really any of your business then is it?" the soldier snapped back.

"The Lord has made it my job to make it my business. He wants to know what riffraff are coming in and what they're up to." He pulled a filthy handkerchief out of a pocket in his long, black leather trench coat and coughed into it noisily. Though the piece of cloth was dreadfully grimy Xathandra thought she could see a faint pink rose embroidered onto one corner along with the looping initials A.R. The man looked down at her forlorn figure, lying in the dirt on the doorstep and moved to stand in the opening. His body blocked out any sight of the corridor beyond.

"Leave off Arman" the soldier snapped "Or do I need to give you a matching scar." he pulled a short knife out of his ragged sash and the doorman snarled. Xathandra could feel the tension building around the two men.

"He's taking me to see Lord Lairetam." Both men looked down at her, surprised that she had the nerve to speak. "Because--"

The soldier cut in "Because she had this" He took out the box and opened it for a fraction of a second, letting the green glow stream out, then snapped it shut. "We need to see the Lord."

"Very well" The man growled and let them pass. Xathandra was on her feet now and she looked back curiously at the man, coughing once again into his embroidered handkerchief before the soldier yanked at the rope on her arms and pulled her along the corridor.