Chapter 1: Terms of ownership
"Stop dithering, girl! Move!"
The residents of Izlude watched helplessly as a swordsman dragged a young girl towards the nearby tavern. No one tried to help; the man, called Sterphas Naekel, was reputed to be a powerful swordsman. He was easily recognized for his long, dirty and black beard. His eyes seemed permanently bloodshot due to his perpetual state of inebriation. His scalp was a filthy mess of stringy, black hair. It was covered with all sorts of dirt and crawling with lice. Nonetheless, his arms were still burly from constant sword-swinging and drunken brawling so the last time someone tried to help his daughter, Sterphas nearly killed someone.
It had only been a few years since the Great War and Izlude was a barely resettled mess. People were still clearing out the rubble of the Lord of Death's fortress and Prontera did not have many soldiers to spare to enforce its authority over its satellite city. The people who settled into Izlude were mostly builders as well as a few citizens who had lost a home the other cities. Sterphas was one of the latter; a swordsman who was kicked out of his knight division for his excessive carousing. Here in Izlude, he could stay away from the hated authority of Prontera.
Most of Izlude's residents felt sorry for the girl; Alteara. Her father abused her almost every day, making her perform tasks not meant for children, subjecting her to his frequent and drunken rages and feeding her only mere table scraps. Through it all the silver-haired girl bore it with a calm yet unyielding spirit.
"Maybe someone's foolish enough to buy you from me!" Sterphas shouted. He dragged the child inside the tavern and immediately shouted out his business. "This girl is for sale! That's right, for fifty thousand zennies, you'll get your own slave!"
The tavern patrons eyed Sterphas suspiciously. Slave trading had been against the law even before the Great War. If there was a soldier of Prontera nearby, Sterphas would have been arrested and executed. Besides, what kind of man would sell his own daughter? Sterphas was a well-known drunkard and a wastrel. He was often broke and drunk ever since they kicked him out of the Eight Knight Division and it was his daughter who bore the brunt of both aspects of his life. No one even knew how Sterphas could get a daughter and who the mother was. People could only guess that she must have been a beauty if she could give birth to a pretty, little girl despite the ugly swordsman for a father, a stupid and blind beauty. And pretty Alteara was, even in her dishevelled state. With no soldiers of Prontera around, the patrons decided to have a little fun.
"Selling her off now, Sterphas? You should lower the price for damaged goods!"
The patrons laughed at one thief's remark. An archer spoke up after taking a pull from his mug.
"I'll pay you twenty-five thousand to use her for target practice!"
The other patrons joined in. One merchant wanted the girl to find out what would happen if you force-fed berserk potions to minors. Another merchant tried to haggle, again mentioning that she was damaged goods.
Alteara winced and tried to hide the bruises on her arms and legs. It was difficult as the black and blue marks stood out of her pale skin like inky blotches. The slighting comments continued. Everyone in the tavern was going at it.
A voice rose above the commentaries, causing everyone to look at its direction. Two men sat at the very corner of the room, one of them wore the armor of a fully fledged knight. More than one patron jumped at the sight of him, thinking that he was a knight from the capital and they were all about to be arrested. How no one even noticed him until now, no one knew. A great sword was strapped to the man's back. A bone helm, its ominous-looking horns jutting sideways, combined with a fin helm and a mouth protector called an iron cain, hid most of his features.
The knight's companion, the one who shouted for silence, looked even stranger. He was a wizard; at least he looked like one. Messy, ivory hair covered his head. The most arresting feature of the man was his eyes, blood red eyes stared at Alteara with the ferocity of some predatory bird. He stared at the crowd as a stern person would at a crowd of mewling, dirty children. Both men walked towards Sterphas.
"She's under-fed." The wizard's remark was blunt and direct, brooking no argument from anyone.
Sterphas nudged the girl hard with his elbow, a signal to fix her appearance. Alteara did her best to comply; trying to stretch the rags she wore to hide the bruises, at the same time using the same rags to wipe some of the dirt from her face and hands.
"Not only that, she's badly injured, dirty and dressed in rags." The wizard continued. He bent over and examined the girl closely. The expression in his eyes changed when he focused on Alteara. When he had looked at Sterphas, it was like he was talking to an animate pile of dung. His nose was always on the verge of wrinkling with disgust. When he laid eyes on her, however, it seemed that at last, he saw a human being. "I'll have a little talk with your "commodity" Mister Naekel; see what deal you can make from my companion here."
Sterphas turned to talk the knight. Before he could speak a word though, the knight glared him to silence.
The wizard stared at Alteara carefully examining her from head to toe. She avoided looking at the wizard's eyes and shifted uncomfortably at the intensity of his stare. He looked her over and nodded his approval. The expression on his face seemed to say "You will do". "Don't look away, girl." He said. "Look at me. That's right; learn to keep your gaze on the one speaking to you. Especially me."
Alteara stared at the wizard; his intense stare kept her looking at his crimson eyes. She shivered when she focused on them. There was power in those eyes. He seemed to radiate power in everything he was and did. He was clean-shaven with sharp features on his face.
"Do I have your attention?" The wizard asked; his voice a mere whisper's level. "Good. Listen well then. You've heard the plans of these scum around us have you? Let me confirm that all of them plan to do exactly as they said. That aside, I'm offering you a simple deal."
Sterphas glared suspiciously at his daughter as she shifted her gaze at him. The wizard cuffed Alteara lightly to get her attention back.
"The deal will go like this." The wizard continued. "You may come with me, free of charge and out of your own free will, and I'll take you under my wing. I'll give you the support this fool apparently never tried to give you. You'll grow stronger under my tutelage and I'll let you realize whatever potential you have in you. Trust me there's plenty of that and I can easily tell."
The wizard smiled as he noticed a flicker of interest in the girl's eyes. He assessed the child, with a mere look he judged the girl to be in her early teens, thirteen perhaps or even twelve. Her long, silver hair was tied in a pony tail that fell limp behind her. Pale, dirty skin showed the marks of frequent beatings and an occasional sword cut. What interested him was the way the girl looked back at him with her gray eyes. Her gaze did not possess fearful timidity of a beaten child or the cowed look of someone subdued. Her eyes had the look of someone who bore suffering silently.
"I've caught your interest it seems." He said. "Let me continue then. Yes, I will take care of you but I have my price. I will own you, body, heart, mind and soul. You will follow my wishes at all times and not once will you disobey me or even hesitate to follow a command. I will be your master and you will be my student, my minion, my…pawn. Your life is always at my mercy and I will expect much from it. You will have no outside relations except those I allow and even if you have friends, only I have your absolute loyalty. If you accept these terms and later go back on them, you will die. Do you understand that?"
Alteara trembled as she continued to stare at the wizard. No one had ever spoken to her this way. This man was taking her life and laying it out in front of her, forcing her to choose and to choose quickly. Her mouth went dry and she could not respond to the wizard's words. His hand held her right shoulder tightly.
"Your other choice would be to let me pass you by." He went on. "Make no mistake, you have potential but I can replace that. You can take your chances with the scum around you or that drunken dung-pile that's the reason why you're here. They can have their fun with you and toss you aside like a used bandage. So, what will it be then?"
Alteara swallowed hard and continued to tremble. Her knees felt weak and she couldn't find the words to say…the wizard's grip tightened. Finally she found her voice and the courage to use it.
"Y-you…I want to g-go with you…" She finally forced the words to come out.
The wizard's lips split into a grin, revealing sharp, white teeth. Almost at once, Alteara felt her fate was sealed. There was no turning back from his plans. "Excellent!" He said. He stood up swiftly. "She looks fine. I'll take her."
Sterphas rubbed his hands together. Fifty thousand zennies would get him several barrels of ale. He would be drinking himself to stupor tonight! "That's fifty thousand then." He said with a chuckle.
The wizard looked at the swordsman's greedily extended palm and shook his head as if he was talking to an idiot. "I'm sorry, swordsman." He answered. "But I've already worked out a separate deal with this girl and I don't have to pay you a zenny!"
Sterphas's grin changed to fury in less than a heartbeat. "Alteara, you-!" He raised a hand to backhand the girl. Before the blow could connect, though, the wizard raised a finger. A torrent of frosty air erupted from his finger, engulfing Sterphas completely. When the white haze cleared, he covered with a thick layer of ice save for his head.
The wizard turned his stare on the helpless swordsman. "I won't have you harming my property, Sterphas." He said. "She's mine now and you can't even so much as touch her without my permission. I'll say it now, you'll never get it."
The wizard turned to leave. Both Alteara and the knight followed him outside the tavern. He turned to face Alteara once again kneeling so he could catch her at her eye level. "So what shall I call my pawn, hmm?" He asked. "What name should I associate her with?"
Alteara stared at the wizard. Though he constantly called her "pawn" she felt more at ease with him than her own father.
"A-Alteara, sir. Alteara N…"
He raised a hand to interrupt. "Sever any tie you have with that frozen fool, Alteara. You belong to me alone and I have no need of your association with family. Keep your first name as that is the minimum I need so I won't have to address you as "girl" all the time."
Alteara nodded. Already her father's memory seemed so distant. She allowed herself to be carried away by the wizard's commanding words. She found nothing wrong in doing anything he asked her to.
"You will call me Master Raven Huer. If you find that too long you may simply refer to me as Master Raven, Master Huer, or simply Master."
Raven Huer's eyes narrowed. "You may forget "Raven" or "Huer", Alteara. Never "Master"."
Alteara nodded again while the knight led the way.
"Yes, Master Raven."
Raven Huer stood up, satisfaction showing on his face.
"You learn quickly. Let me take you to your new home then."