Seventy-two years ago.
The early morning light crept through the bayou, leaving eerie shadows on their path. Tremaine looked over at the young girl for the hundredth time.
She never once made a sound, but she managed to keep up. She looked exhausted, and they had been hiking for hours, but he wanted to put some distance between her and Sinclair McCallister’s estate.
His heart broke for the beautiful, wide-eyed young girl who had lived through horrors he couldn’t bring himself to imagine. Her hair was a tangled mess of colors, her eyes a combination of green and gold he’d never seen.
Every time he caught a glimpse of the nasty bruise that covered one side of her face, he wanted to pound the life out of the sick piece of shit who gave it to her.
After everything she’d been through, she wore no expression. There was intelligence in her eyes though, and she responded to every direction he’d given her without argument.
She was so young. Eleven, maybe twelve years old, and she’d been through hell no one deserved at the hands of a monster.
Her slender fingers clutched his coat tight around her thin frame, her knuckles white. That was the only sign of emotion.
Tremaine was ill equipped to comfort the girl, but from the moment he saw her, he knew he would do anything to protect her and keep her safe. His new mission was to ensure she had a better life if it were the last thing he did.
He wanted nothing more than to banish the memory of finding her. His supervisor, Magister Draecyn, had sent him on an assignment to verify the truth of the rumors circulating about Sinclair McCallister and his crimes.
Everyone had finally retired for the night, and Tremaine took his chance to sneak into the library. He knelt beside the safe, flipping through a huge stack of sales records. Every last one of Sinclair’s slaves were mage born. Many showed signs that they were victims of mana theft.
The further Tremaine dug, the more it appeared that Sinclair was indeed a dark mage, feeding off the very people he enslaved.
His stomach turned at the thought that his closest friend was this monster’s brother. Wilhelm was a good father, who always looked to help those in need. Sinclair took children from their families, stripping their life essence away in order to maintain his power.
Then Tremaine found the diaries with detailed descriptions of the torture and abuse Sinclair doled out to his slaves. There was one slave who was older in appearance, sliver streaks through her mahogany hair. A few of the slaves were in their twenties, but the majority were in their teens.
There was more than enough evidence to condemn Sinclair for the rest of his unnatural life. Tremaine needed to find a way to free the slaves before they could suffer further.
A scream echoed from the next room. Tremaine ran into the hall. There was another shrill cry, this one full of pain as a child yelled, “No, stop.”
Tremaine turned the knob but it was locked.
Sinclair shouted, “Quiet, bitch. You’ll learn to take it without a sound.” The sound of a slap rang out.
“Go to hell,” a girl shrieked.
Tremaine slammed into the door, shattering it with a pulse of magic. He was met with shadowed webbing that blocked his entrance
The crackle of lightning and sobs filled the room. With renewed effort, he shoved his fingers into the scalding magic and forced his own power into the spell. The shield crumbled to dust as he tore it apart. Tremaine burst into the room.
A gurgled groan came from Sinclair as Tremaine turned the corner. Sinclair was on top of a girl who was covered in arcing blue lightning. His body danced as the girl’s magic flowed through his flesh, setting him on fire.
Sinclair’s strangled scream echoed through the room. His burning corpse collapsed on top of the girl.
“No, no, no,” she sobbed.
Tremaine didn’t think, he rushed forward, and threw Sinclair’s body from the bed. He hardly felt the heat, but noticed the fire licking up his sleeves. A quick spell doused the flames as he turned back to the girl.
He found her staring back at him with wide terrified eyes, and then she screamed. Her body thrashed, trying to pull free from the rope and the burning sheets, though her magic kept her safe from the flames.
A lump formed in his throat, but he managed to get the words out. “I’m here to free you.”
He pulled a blade from his belt and cut the ropes binding her to the bed. The second she was free, she scrambled away, curling up in the corner of the smoke filled room as she tried to catch her breath.
“Shh, child. I’m here to help.” He pulled his coat from his shoulders and crouched down to hold it in front of her. “We must leave, and we have to do it now.”
She looked up at him as her bottom lip trembled. “You won’t touch me?”
“No, never like that. You’re free of that monster, but we need to go. Now.” He took another look at the four poster bed that was now an inferno. It wouldn’t be long before the fire would spread through the rest of the house.
Her head nodded slightly as she stood and took his jacket. He threw the window open and stepped outside. Thankfully it was low enough that he didn’t have to touch her. She was too afraid and he had no desire to spook her. She had been through more than enough, and his only wish was to take her to safety.
There was no time to make sure the other slaves made it out. With Sinclair dead, the wards keeping the slaves in would unravel. Tremaine turned, letting out a shrill whistle that he amplified across the property with a spell. It would wake anyone still sleeping and give them a chance to escape before the house burned to ash.
After they left Sinclair’s estate, he made a few lame attempts to ask if she was all right. She never responded, but he knew there was no way in hell she was okay. Not after the scene he had witnessed. Then she was forced to walk barefoot for several miles with nothing but his jacket wrapped around her.
They travelled through the bayou, and he took her through several yards until he found a clothesline with something she could wear. He stole a pair of wool pants and a sweater. They were too big on her, but they covered her. There was a pair of worn out shoes on the porch that he gave her as well.
When he asked if she needed help, she shrank away from him, her head going back and forth violently.
He turned his back and walked away. Tremaine blinked back his own tears. “I told you I would never touch you like that. You need not fear.”
A few seconds later she was beside him without a word, his jacket still tightly wrapped around her. She wouldn’t look at him.
Hours passed since then, and the sun had risen. He knew she needed to stop and rest.
“What’s your name?” He finally asked.
Her eyes flashed to Tremaine and widened.
“I only want to know what to call you. I want you safe. I want to help.”
She bravely held his gaze, a spark of challenge in her eyes. “Elizandra.”
“I’m Tremaine.” He nodded to a rock big enough to make a seat. “I’ll fix us something to eat, and then we should rest. We have a long trek ahead of us.”
Elizandra turned to gather twigs and fallen branches. He frowned but helped gather what they needed for the fire.
Before she attempted to start it she looked up at him with wide eyes. “Will the smoke bring unwanted attention?”
That wasn’t the question he was expecting. He crouched down across from her and gave her a long look. “What is it you think we’re doing?”
She took in a slow breath, and chewed her lip. He could almost see her thoughts churning behind the spark of determination.
“Go on,” he prompted. “I am merely curious what you think my intentions are.”
After a slow exhale she answered, “You’ve been avoiding roads. You stopped during daylight. You don’t want anyone to know where you are.”
“We,” he corrected. “I don’t want anyone to know where we are. I want to take you to a family who will give you a real chance at life, but in our community, if they know all the details of your past, there are some who will want you to pay for a crime you never committed.” Before he got into those details, he had to find a way to convince her that Sinclair’s brother was a good man who would give her the life she deserved.
“I killed Sinclair. I know what he did was wrong, but I killed him, and I’m glad I did. He would have kept hurting us. I ended it.” The look in her eyes was hard, cold even, but he couldn’t blame her.
“You did. You shouldn’t have had to. I wish I had known sooner, I would have stopped him.”
She shook her head. “It’s over now. No sense in talking about it.”
That was a sentiment he understood, but he wasn’t sure that bottling up her past was the right course of action. Until she was ready to talk, he wouldn’t push. It might kill him to listen to specifics, knowing he could never avenge her, but he would do it in a heartbeat if it would help.
He dipped his chin in a nod. “Making a fire will be fine. You must be chilled.”
Her gaze dropped to the task at hand. Before he could suggest setting it aflame by magic, she closed her eyes and snapped her fingers. Sparks fell on the dried leaves she had managed to find, and a fire blazed to life.
His brow arched. It was unusual for a mage to start fire without a touch of flame, but sparks worked just as well.
* * * *
Cold and empty, Elizandra sat by the fire, staring into the flames. Tremaine had urged her to sleep, so she pretended until she felt his wards close in around them.
She had watched through her hair as he lay down across the fire from her and finally drifted off to sleep. She needed rest but she didn’t want to relive the nightmares.
When she was awake, she could push the horrors into the chest at the back of her mind and lock them away. When she slept, they snuck out and wrapped her in her worst memories. Sleeping now would only drag her back to hell.
Her eyes flicked to Tremaine. He slept restlessly. His fists clenching and releasing, a whimper of pain escaped his lips every time his hands flexed.
She studied the burns on his big fingers, all the way up his muscled forearms. His skin was blistered almost to his elbows.
Because of me.
Her eyes closed and she took a deep breath. Had he not rushed into that room and seen what he had, he wouldn’t be harmed.
She also wouldn’t be sitting there.
Her defenses had kicked in and her magic had protected her from the blistering flames, but she would have suffocated under Sinclair’s corpse as smoke filled her lungs.
At first, she feared he would be like Sinclair, but when she looked into his warm brown eyes, she knew he was her avenging angel. He was sent to save her, to protect her. She trusted him completely, almost immediately.
For the first time she could remember, she felt safe. It was the only thing that kept her following Tremaine. That, and she had a feeling he would follow her if she ran.
She pulled his coat tighter as her lids slid shut.
* * * *
The scream tore Tremaine out of sleep. He bolted up and saw Elizandra curled into a ball against the rock. Sobs and cries came from her bloodied lips, but her eyes were squeezed tight.
He rushed to her, gently shaking her shoulder. “Elizandra, wake up. Please, wake up.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she gasped as she pulled away from him. Terror filled her green gold orbs.
He held his hands up, palms out. “You were having a nightmare. I only wanted to wake you.”
Understanding flashed through her eyes and she nodded slowly. “Sorry.”
“No. Don’t apologize. You lived through hell, you fought, and you are alive. You are one of the strongest people I know. So don’t apologize if you can’t fight off nightmares.”
She nodded, a hint of a smile on her lips.