The tall men with squared shoulders in red and blue uniforms garnished in gold with swords hanging at right side of their hips were meant to intimidate the most dangerous political prisoners. They may look like toy soldiers, but every one of these men had been hand-picked. They were hard men.
The gray stone chiseled walls rose up around Hilda. She looked into the hard eyes of the leader with head held high as she stepped into the formation. Six men dressed in the king’s colors may have looked like an honor guard, but they weren’t. They were there to escort her to a dwelling that housed political prisoners. At least it wasn’t a cell.
She had been a part of this guard a few times when rogue wizards had been escorted to the university for rehabilitation. It was a euphemism for having their magic stripped from them. Some of the wizards had not survived the process.
Men and women in the gray robes that signified the Mage University gathered at the end of the corridor to watch them pass. A slight shiver ran down Hilda’s back and she could feel a vague unease coming from her gut, telling her that the onlookers wanted to do her harm.
She didn’t look or acknowledge them in any way. The guard formation marched through them. Hilda kept her face still and didn’t show her unease. She had been a mercenary, despised by the soldiers who guarded her now.
No one spit at her and the group was strangely quiet. All she could hear was her breathing and the hard rhythm of marching feet.
Sassy, her boisterous fire elemental, had been hiding in Hilda’s shirt. The little elemental stirred at the feelings of malevolence pouring over them. She slowly settled around Hilda’s waist. At least Sassy hadn’t popped her head through the neck opening. That would have been a disaster in front of so many mages.
They didn’t need to know that she had a familiar.
The corridor opened into a larger courtyard. The cobblestones glistened. Hilda’s head stayed high even when the rising sun hit her in the face. She could feel her body give out just a little. There was a glitch in her right hip as she kept pace with the guard.
Where were the others? Her brother, Michael, even with a limp would know this city. He had been a mage in training at this same university. His fire magic had been burned out when he had stood against a dragon-possessed mage. Still his body and his magic had healed enough that now he had a familiar, an undine water elemental. It was mostly healing magic, which was normally found in female mages.
She was more worried about the dragon and his blacksmith. If Davi was found out, then the mages would drain him and then use his body parts for magical experiments. She wished that the two young ones had just stayed with the dragons. It would have been much safer for everyone.
In the courtyard near the stone-gray walls, men and women were training with wooden swords. Hilda could smell the sour sweat coming from them.
After the war the colonel had been honored by the King and given the job to whip the king’s guard into shape. Even the mages looked physically fit. They were doing more than training in the magical arts.
She wasn’t sure if the changes were good or bad.
The colonel had smiled and shook her hand. Hilda couldn’t quite put a finger on why her stomach was twisting. She breathed evenly. The muscles in her shoulders tensed slightly. He had believed her, hadn’t he?
It was a relief when they marched to the door of a two-story white-washed garden house set in the middle of a formal garden garnished with lilacs and carefully trimmed bushes.
The leader of the guard produced a key from his waistband, put the ornate key into the lock, and opened it.
The rest of the guard surrounded the house and began a slow patrol. So she was right. They were prisoners.
Hilda followed the guard inside. The twisting in her stomach settled when she saw Michael sitting on a soft plush chair in a small parlor.
He stood up and leaned heavily on his cane. Hilda’s eyes widened a little. Michael’s dark hair had been recently combed. He had changed into a gray robe that showed his status as a University trained mage.
“I thought your leg…” She paused when Michael shook his head slightly, causing her to stop her voicing her thoughts. She changed the subject. “Where are the others?”
Michael glanced at the guard who was still standing next to her and who was probably told to listen to their conversations.
“The others will be back soon. The king’s interrogator wanted to question them.”
Hilda’s stomach twisted a little. If the interrogator was a mage, then it was all over for Davi.
Michael must have felt her anxiety because he said, “They’ll be back soon.”
“I think I’m tired,” she said. “Where are the bedrooms?”
Michael pointed to small spiral staircase just a few feet away from the parlor door. They guard stayed in the parlor as she climbed the stairs. The hitch in her hip grew worse and she sighed as she reached the top of the stairs.
There was a hallway with four doors on each side. She walked to the very end of the hallway. Sassy would have warned her if there was anyone there. She grasped the metal handle in her hand and opened the bedroom door quickly.
The room was dimly lit. A soft bed with a canopy was the centerpiece of this bedroom.
Someone, probably Michael, had anticipated that she would pick this room because her bags were sitting on the cold floor near a small wooden chair next to a small table.
A bowl of water and a hand mirror were set on the table. Hilda put both hands in the water and splashed her face. She took a deep breath and then took a small drink of water from a glass next to a pitcher. Sassy crawled up to see what she was doing, and then sniffed the water.
Hilda sat on the bed and it bounced just a little under her weight. She tugged and pulled off her boots. She stripped off her leathers next. Using a washcloth, she washed the dust from her arms and legs.
She finally felt clean enough until she could spend a some time soaking in a bath.
Exhaustion became her friend and she wanted to lie on the bed and sleep. She pulled a white nightgown over her head.
Someone thoughtfully left her some bread and cheese. The bread and cheese was hard, so she nibbled it. Her stomach settled.
She was so tired that she wanted to sink into the mattress and sleep for days. Instead she waited for Michael.
Not too much later she heard the clump, clump, clump as Michael navigated the stairs with his cane. He knocked on the door.
“Come in,” she said.
He leaned on the cane. “The interrogator isn’t a mage.”
Hilda nodded. It was a relief. As Michael stood there, Hilda saw the hard lines of his face and body. When had her little brother grown into this hard man?
He could take care of himself and her. Hilda sank into the mattress.
“Good night sister,” Michael said. She watched him clump out the door and down the stairs.
Sassy leaped to the fireplace next to the bed. She didn’t start a fire—not yet. Sassy curled up in the ashes. Hilda feel asleep watching Sassy.
Soon, only a slight harmonic snoring came from the room.