The young elf leant into her seat and stared at the tome before her with deep frustration.
“Nothing here either,” she muttered before letting out a sigh as a deep sneer twisted her lips. “Why am I even bothering?”
Shaking her head, she closed the tome and placed it upon the the pile to her right, then reached forth and lifted a tome from the pile to her left, placed it before her and turned its pages till she reached the ones that were of interest to her. Then, clearing her throat, she sat up, leant forward and began to read.
“Are you still studying?” came a voice from beside the elf, startling the young girl and calling forth a sharp cry from her lips.
“Oh, forgive me,” Amala chuckled as Naeve turned to her, “I couldn’t help myself.”
The young elf stared wide-eyed in silence for a spell, her lips moving but no words coming forth.
“Hrm?” Amala frowned, cocking her head to the side as her gaze lingered upon the seated girl’s face. “What is it?”
“Uhm…” the young girl stammered. “It’s, uh…”
As she spoke, the young elf slowly close the tome before her, her mind racing and her mouth parched.
“What’re you reading?” Amala asked.
Naeve’s heart flew to her throat at that instant, and, swallowing hard, she licked her lips and forced a smile onto them as she placed an elbow upon the now closed tome.
“Nothing,” she said at last, willing her smile wider as she spoke.
“What’re you reading?”
“Nothing!” young Naeve cried, an act that earned her admonishing stares from the others within the Tower Library.
The silver-haired woman beside her stood in silence a spell, her gaze boring into the young girl.
“Well, if you must know,” young Naeve interjected, her mind coming alive at last, “I was reading up on Nedhi and Reyna.”
Amala frowned at this. “If that’s all you’re doing, why look so terrified.”
“I’m not terrified!” young Naeve gasped.
“No! I was…worried.”
“Worried?” Amala asked, arching a regal eyebrow as she did so.
“Well, yeah! I mean, I…I didn’t believe you, alright? But I didn’t want say that out loud because, well, everyone knows what you’re like when you think someone’s calling you a liar, and I didn’t want that headache, so I came looking for proof Nehdi really didn’t join the Tower. That’s all.”
Amala stared in silence once more, her gaze boring into her young friend once again.
“Anyway,” Naeve sighed, forcing as much indifference into her tone as she could muster, “there’s nothing here saying she did join, so I guess you were right all alone.” Then, forcing a smile, she rose.
As she stepped past Amala, the silent elf grasped hold of her hand and placed it upon the tower of tomes that had been to her right.
Amala ignored the young elf’s cry, and with but a word, commanded the tomes to float onto the table, ordered in a perfect grid, before opening as one, their pages flipping till the last page young Naeve had touched came into view. A deafening silence surrounded the pair as Amala’s gaze drifted from tome to tome, her cheeks whitening as her eyes grew wider with each passing moment, till at last, she turned to Naeve, all blood drained from her face.
“Why are you researching Cedar Valley?” she asked, her voice soft and trembling.
Young Naeve held her peace, shying away from the silver-haired elf, her hands close to her chest.
“I asked you a question,” Amala added, turning to face the young elf square. “Why are you researching Cedar Valley?”
Still, the young elf held her peace, her eyes wide and her hands clung close to her bosom.
“Answer me!” Amala cried, an act that startled Naeve and all others within the Library, but if Amala noticed the caustic stares or heated hushes from the other mages, she made no show of it, her gaze transfixed on the elf before her.
“Don’t be mad…” Naeve began at last.
“…but I had to know, okay…”
“…she was saying all these horrible things, you know, and I had to know. It’s not that I don’t trust you or anything, but–”
The day-walker took a step forward and placed a hand upon Naeve’s shoulder before staring deep into her eyes.
“Who told you to research Cedar Valley?” she asked, her voice carrying a calm that was far from her gaze.
“Mistress Fellspire,” young Naeve said at last. “She said you were the reason it’s gone. She said you…you killed everyone and drank a baby dry.”
With a trembling gasp, Amala staggered back from her young friend, her eyes wide as she stumbled against the table, and as her hand rested upon it almost of its own accord, the stunned elf stared into the ether as her breath came in snatches.
“Oh, gods!” she gasped. “She knows. How? How did she know? Oh dear gods, how did she know?”
“I know, right?” Naeve gasped. “I mean, how could she…”
But then, as Amala’s ramblings sank deep into her mind, Naeve’s own cheeks began to whiten as her lips fell agape.
“Amala,” she said at last. “What do you mean, she knows?”
“Wha…?” Amala began, tearing her gaze from the ether and turning to her dear friend. There were tears in Naeve’s eyes, the sight of which pulled the day-walker free of her stupor.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Naeve said.
“Now, hold a moment, Naeve,” Amala said, standing tall as she reached for her young friend once more. “Let’s not…”
“Let go of me,” Naeve demanded, fighting the woman’s grip.
“No, Naeve, listen,” Amala replied her grip tightening about Naeve’s shoulder. “Please. Just listen.”
“I said let go of me.”
“No, hold. You don’t understand, I just–”
“Let go of me!” Naeve shrieked at last, stunning the elf and freezing her hands where they lay.
“Would you two please be quiet!” thundered a voice from deeper in the Library. “If you insist on shouting at each other, kindly do us the courtesy of taking it outside!”
“Forgive us, Mistress Duskwhisper, we were just…”
At that moment, the young elf that was Naeve turned and raced for the door.
“Naeve!” Amala cried before giving chase.
“Naeve! Hold!” she added as she stepped free of the Library. “I just want to–“
“Mistress Amala!” came a cry from behind the day-walker, bringing her to a halt.
“You asked me to come fetch you when all the delegates have arrived,” said the timid elf that had called out to her. “They’re all here now.”
Amala glared at the elf, wilting her where she stood, before turning to stare down the corridor where Naeve had raced.
“Gods damn it,” she seethed, then turned to the cowering mage.
“Wait here,” she muttered.
“Of course, Mistress Amala.”
Amala stared down the corridor once more, then turned and hurried into the Library, her gaze upon the table that Naeve once sat before, and the tomes lying open upon it.
Lying upon her bed, her knees beneath her chin and her arms bout her legs, Naeve sniffled and stared into the ether as the nausea that had been coursing through her since her time in the Library began to fade at last. She had looked up to Amala for so long, believed her all lies, only to now see her for what she truly was. It was a truth that tore at the young elf, but a truth she was grateful to finally learn, for no longer was she blinded, no longer was she a fool. Her eyes were open, and she would make damned sure everyone else’s eyes were too, even if it was the last thing she did.
Then, a knock came at the door. As it echoed about her room, Naeve sighed and shook her head.
“Figures she’d come crawling over,” she muttered, but she remained where she lay.
The knock came again.
“Naeve, it’s me,” a voice called out right after.
Naeve sighed and shook her head once more, but remained on her bed.
“Naeve, please,” the voice said. “Please, I beg you. Let me in.”
“Why?” Naeve yelled back. “So you can drain me too?”
“That’s not fair.”
It was the pain within those words that held young Naeve rigid, filling her heart with guilt as she turned to the door.
“Gods, Naeve, please. Please.”
The young elf stared at the door a spell longer, then rose and marched over before slowly swinging it open, and as their eyes met, the young elf scowled at the woman before her.
“Well?” she demanded.
“May I come in?”
The young elf glared for a spell longer, then sighed and rolled her eyes before stepping aside.
“Thank you.” Amala smiled, then stepped in.
“I just…” she began as she reached for her dear friend’s hand, but as Naeve recoiled from her, the day-walker stood frozen, then lowered her hand wandered into the room.
“Well?” Naeve demanded, shutting the door before folding her arms beneath her bosom. “What do you want?”
Breathing deep, the silver-haired woman spun about and faced her young friend, then smiled.
“I’m not a monster, Naeve.”
“What?” Naeve laughed. “Is that meant to be funny.”
“I know what you’re thinking, and–”
“You have no idea what I’m thinking!” the young elf seethed.
“You lied to me, Amala! You’ve been lying to me my whole life!”
“I didn’t lie, I just–”
“What the bloody hells do you mean you didn’t lie?” Naeve barked. “That’s all you’ve ever done! You said you were one of the good vampires, remember? That’s what you called yourself. A good vampire. Remember?”
The silver-haired woman nodded. “I remember.”
“Exactly! You said you never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it! That you only fed on bad people and animals! And today, I find out you butchered a whole bloody town!”
“I didn’t…” Amala began before swallowing hard as tears stung her eyes. “It’s…I mean, I…”
But it was no use, words lost her, till at last, she fell silent and lowered her gaze as her tears began to fall.
“Tch!” Naeve scoffed. “You can’t even look me in the eye, can you?”
Breathing deep, Amala raised her gaze once more, forcing a smile to her lips as she wiped her tears.
“How many others?” Naeve demanded before the elf could draw breath.
“How many others …what?” Amala asked.
“Towns! How many towns have you butchered?”
“Cedar Valley wasn’t truly a town, Naeve, it was more a–”
“Oh, bloody spare me and answer the bloody question! How many!”
Amala stared in silence at the elf before her a spell, her lips unmoving.
“How many!”Naeve yelled.
Breathing deep, Amala slowly spun about, then wandered over to her young friend’s bed before sitting upon it, her shoulders sagging and her entire frame caving in on itself as a deep sigh escaped her lips.
“Are you asking me how many by myself, or how many with others?”
“What…?” Naeve frowned. “I don’t–”
“What’re you asking me, Naeve?”
The young elf stood silent for a spell, but spoke up once more.
“How many by yourself?” she asked.
“What?” Naeve gasped.
Amala nodded. “Eleven. Five steadings, three villages and three hamlets.”
The blood drained from the young elf’s cheeks as she stared open-mouthed at the elf seated upon her bed.
“And then, there’s Cedar Valley.”
“How…many with others?” Naeve asked, though it was clear from her tone she’d rather not know.
“I don’t know,” Amala replied, shaking her head as she spoke. “Some nights I’d be so deep in bloodlust I couldn’t even remember whether we slaughtered the whole village or spared some…”
“…and, some others, we’d simply wander from village to village and I’d…lose track.”
“And you say you’re not a monster?” Naeve cried, words that forced the day-walker’s gaze to her feet.
“Look at me!” Naeve thundered.
Amala did. Her tears had returned.
“How can you call yourself a good vampire? How can you call yourself a good anything?”
“I am a good vampire!” Amala stressed. “I am!”
“Like hells you are!”
“Naeve, please! Just listen!”
“Listen to what? Hunh? More lies?”
The day-walker moved to speak, but the pain in her heart stilled her tongue and, gritting her teeth, she lowered her gaze once more.
“Gods, how could I have been so blind!” the young girl spat.
“You’re right,” Amala said at last, raising her gaze once more. “I was a horrible creature, as vile as they come. The decades following my turning were my worst, and saw me do things that still haunt my dreams, even now, but you must believe that creature isn’t me anymore! I would never do those things! Ever!”
“So, Cedar Valley happened right after you were turned, did it?” Naeve sneered. “That place only disappeared a few centuries ago, and yet here I thought you were ancient.”
The seated elf fell silent once more.
“No matter what you may think of me, Naeve, I am not entirely at fault over Cedar Valley. Whether you wish to hear it or not, I tried all I could to spare them, but they just wouldn’t leave me be.”
“Oh, so it’s their fault is it?”
“It’s not like that, Naeve–”
“That’s rich, Amala, very rich. Blame the dead, why don’t you!”
“That’s not what I meant!” Amala yelled. “Gods, why won’t you listen?”
“Listen to what?” Naeve threw back. “More lies?”
“I’m not lying!” the day-walker shrieked. “Gods give me strength, I’m not lying!”
Naeve stared at the seated elf as a part of her preached reason. But there was no reason to be had in this. She’d been lied to all her life, and it was time to stop the lies.
“Naeve, please,” Amala said at last. “You must believe me–”
“Because…because you and your mother are the only people dear to me in this world. If I lose either of you I…I don’t know what I’d do.”
Young Naeve stared in silence as the voice for reason grew louder. But her defiance stood strong, and, gritting her teeth, she stood tall and folded her arms beneath her bosom once more.
“Okay, then,” she said, “tell me what happened in Cedar Valley.”
“What?” Amala frowned.
“You say you’re not to blame right?”
“The blame is not fully mine, no.”
“Exactly, so tell me what happened.”
Amala stared hard at the girl before her.
“No,” she said at last.
“Oh, so you were lying about the blame thing?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why won’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s not an easy tale to share!”
“Because your story is full of holes?”
“Because it’s painful to speak of!”
“Tough shite! Let’s hear it!”
The seated elf stared hard at her friend. “Please don’t make me do this.”
Naeve breathed deep and raised her chin at Amala, her gaze saying all that needed to be said.
Amala stared at her friend in silence for a spell longer, then nodded.
“Very well,” she said, then sat tall, breathed deep, and began to speak.
Stepping free of the coach, the young elf stood tall, raised her gaze to the heavens, and breathed deep of the crisp cold air. Then, as she sighed, she closed her eyes and smiled.
“Gods, I’ve missed this,”she said.
“Ugh!” cried the elderly woman stepping off the coach behind the young girl, her features twisted with disgust. “How can anyone miss this stench?”
The young elf spun about and smiled at the woman. “I’ve been away a while.”
“You must’ve been in some really rank hole to miss this smell, girl!”
“Try being bound in a dank cave for over a century,” the young elf muttered.
“What did you say?” The elderly woman frowned.
The young elf smiled and shook her head. “Nothing.”
As the elderly woman moved to speak, a rough hand fell upon her shoulder.
“Ladies,” came a gruff voice behind them, “there are others alighting.”
“Oh,” the young elf said before placing a gentle hand upon the elderly woman’s arm and leading her away from the coach door. “Apologies.”
“Yeah, sorry,” the woman added.
“Hrm,” the coach hand growled before shuffling toward the stowed bags as others alighted from the coach.
“Honestly, Mineth, you say the damnedest things sometimes, you know that?”
With her smile returning, the young elf turned to her elderly companion and shrugged.
“No, seriously. Someone might actually think you mean it.”
“Oh, come now, Mary, nobody’s that naïve.”
“You’d be surprised! Just because this place is Servinia’s capital, that doesn’t mean it’s not chuck full of fools and morons. You best mind your words about these louts.”
The young elf’s smile grew at this.
“I’m serious girl! And what with you being an elf and everything. Everyone’s going to think even your fart’s got magic in it!”
“Mary! That’s a mite dramatic, isn’t it?”
“Dramatic my arse, I grew up with these people, you didn’t.”
The young elf scoffed in response as a smile danced upon her lips.
Then, the elderly woman took a step forth, placing a soft hand upon her young friend’s shoulder as she did so. “And try not to look people in the eye too much, yeah? You do it often enough, won’t be long before they start calling you vampire or werewolf. Or worse. Yeah?”
Falling silent, and with her lips pursed, the young girl nodded. “I know. It’s been a while since I’ve been around people. Seems I’m out of practice.”
“Well, you’d best learn quick,” Mary replied.
Young Mineth nodded. “I will.”
“And make sure you make good use of that!” Mary added, gesturing to the wide-brimmed hat in her young companion’s hand.
Mineth smiled and nodded once more. “I will.”
“Good.” Mary nodded, then frowned. “My offer still stands, you know. It won’t cost me much to have another mouth to feed. And who knows, you and my grandson might just strike it off.”
Smiling once more, the young girl placed a soft hand upon the elderly woman’s arm.
“You’re kind,” she said. “Truly. But I must strike out on my own.”
The elderly woman stared at the young elf, a sad smile upon her lips.
“Well,” she said at last, “you take care of yourself, my girl. And remember what old Mary told you!”
“I will,” Mineth replied, then hugged the elderly woman before turning and stepping forth, putting her hat upon her head and pulling the brim forward before lowering her head and making her way through the coach station.
Even with her head bowed, however, the silver-haired elf couldn’t help but carry her gaze about her. It had been an age since she’d been around humans, and while there was little remarkable about the race itself, she’d always found their simplicity quite charming.
But then, her stomach growled, and with a grimace, the elf turned and hurried toward the station’s entrance. She was not there to gawp and gawk, time was of the essence, and the sooner she saw to that which ailed her, the better for everyone. As the elf stepped free of the station’s entrance, however, the sounds of laughter drifted to her ears, only there was no joviality in them, just mocking condescension and biting arrogance, and with a frown, the young elf spun about, her gaze falling upon a gathering in the distance, and as she stared, her gaze darkened.
“Nobles,” she growled as her gaze fell upon the ring of men surrounded by soldiers in gleaming armour. “Gods help us all.”
There was something odd about the gathering, however, and it held the elf’s attention longer than she’d expected. The nobles were all staring at what lay within their circle, and whatever it was was the object of their derision. A part of the elf wanted to get closer, but she knew she daren’t. She was new to the city, and the last thing she needed was making enemies of the city’s powerful denizens before she’d even made a friend, and, gritting her teeth, she turned and began walking away.
“Where’re you going?” came a cry from behind her, followed by the same biting laughter
“Leaving so soon?” came another.
Stopping, the young elf turned just in time to see two young humans hurrying away from the group, and she could see they’d been beaten and bruised.
“Surprise, surprise,” she seethed. “Nobles assaulting those beneath them.”
But though her heart demanded she charge forth, this wasn’t her fight. She couldn’t afford to become involved.
“Walk away, girl,” she muttered. “Walk away now.”
As she moved to walk away, however, the younger of the two turned in her direction and stared at her, and as they locked gazes, the young elf stood rigid as a sharp gasp escaped her lips. But it was barely a glance, though even as the little child turned her gaze forward, the young elf stared on still, her heart still and her breath stolen.
“Durant,” she gasped at last. “It can’t be.”
Once more, movement at the edge of her vision caught her eye, and as she turned, she watched as the ring of nobles and their soldiers began hurrying after the fleeing pair.
“No…” she said as she watched the fleeing pair notice their tormentors following then breaking into a dead sprint, only for their tormentors to give chase.
The young elf stood rigid and watched till the nobles fell from view. Every fibre of her being screamed at her to race on after them, to even the odds against the fleeing pair, but she knew it would be sheer folly, and gritting her teeth hard, she turned about and force herself forward, her fists clenched tight.
Then, a sharp cry filled the air, carrying higher then the din about the elf. It was a cry that was near-identical to one a gentle soul had once uttered to save her from death, and without pause for thought, she spun about and raced forth.
“Come on!” the young noble yelled, his grip tight upon his little sister’s hand. “Hurry!”
“I’m hurrying!” the noble girl shrieked, her eyes wide as she raced on with all the strength she could muster.
But the young noble knew it was to no avail. Their pursuers were gaining and fast. He needed to find a place to make a stand, he couldn’t let them surround him a second time. And with eyes wide, he scanned his surroundings as he raced, desperate to find some place where he could fight them off.
But then, a shriek behind him stilled his heart and brought him to a dead stop as he felt his sister’s hand wrenched from his, and turning, he could only watch as his beloved sibling was pulled to the ground by her cape before being stepped on by the bastards that had chased them, laughing and snickering as they wiped their boots upon her.
“Get away from her!” he roared before clenching his fist and charging at the noble at the fore, but just as he pulled his fist back to strike, a steel fist smashed into his gut, knocking all wind out of him and sending him crumpling to the floor.
“Aw, what’s the matter?” said the noble at the fore as he placed his boot upon the felled noble’s sister’s neck. “Not got what it takes to protect your sister? Maybe if your father wasn’t such an embarrassment, he’d be able to afford some decent guards for the–”
“I shall tell you just this once,” came a steel voice from behind the group, the power within it silencing them all, “step away from them. Now.”
Slowly, one by one, the sneering nobles turned to gaze upon what lay behind them, and as their gazes fell upon the young elven girl standing behind them, her wide-brimmed hat hiding her face, their sneers only grew.
“Or what?” said the noble that was clearly in charge. “Hrm?”
“Or I’ll rip your arm off and beat you to death with it.”
Raucous laughter erupted from the nobles at those words, but there was an undercurrent to it, an unease that kept them at bay. The elf’s words were no bluff, and they all knew it. A crowd had begun to form about the gathered, charged whispers rippling through it as it formed, till at last, the soldiers protecting the nobles stepped forth, their hands upon the hilts of their blades as they glared at the crowd.
“No,” said the lead noble, finding his voice at last. “Let them see what happens when you threaten an Ingleman.”
The soldiers stopped and turned to face their master.
“Now, you listen to me, girl–” the noble continued, sauntering towards the elf as he spoke.
“Careful, Jake,” warned one of the other nobles, “she’s an elf. Who knows what sort of magic she’s got up her sleeve.”
“Do I loo k like I’m afraid of bloody elf magic?” the Ingleman noble snapped.
The elf remained silent, standing still as if hewn in stone.
Stopping within striking distance of the elf, the noble sneered and leant forward.
“Now, I’m going to count to three,” he continued, “and when I hit three, you–”
“Your breath stinks, boy,” the elf interjected. “I’d have thought a noble would know better than to allow his mouth smell like an open sewer.”
At those words, the red mist descended upon the noble, and as his gaze grew fierce, he lifted a hand and brought the back of it crashing down towards the side of the elf’s face, but no sooner had he begun his assault than the elf’s hand dart out thrice at the noble, the first as a blurred fist barrelling into the noble’s nose, the second an open palm smashing into his jaw, and the third a jab into his throat, and as the stunned noble gagged and staggered back, the young elf stepped forth, placed her hands upon his shoulders and smashed her knees between his legs.
The crowd winced as one as the noble slowly sank to the floor, and as he rolled and squirmed, the elven woman stepped back and turned to the soldiers.
“Well?” she demanded.
“Kill that bitch!” the felled noble squeaked. “Kill her!”
At those words, the soldiers pulled free their blades and slowly began encircling the elf.
“What’s going on here?” boomed a voice from behind the crowd, words that stopped the soldiers and forced them to sheath their blades.
“About bloody time you lot showed up!” yelled the little girl upon whose throat once rested a noble’s boot, her gaze fierce upon the peace-keepers that had fought their way through the crowd. “You’re always showing up when it’s all over!”
“Oh, it’s you,” snarled one of the peace-keepers, but as his gaze drifted to the felled noble, his eyes went wide.
“Bloody hells,” he gasped as the gathered soldiers helped the beaten noble to his feet.
“I want that woman bound and hanged!” he shrieked, before coughing up phlegm and blood. “Look what she did to me!”
“Look what you did to me!” yelled the young noble girl.
Ignoring the young noble girl, the lead peace-keeper turned to the elf.
“Who the bloody hells do you think you are, starting a fight in my city?” he snarled.
“She wasn’t starting fight!” the young noble girl spat. “She was doing her job!”
“Job? What job?”
“She’s my personal guard, you idiot!”
“What?” the peace-keepers and the noble girl’s brother cried in unison.
“Don’t you bloody what me!” the noble girl threw back. “Jack and his idiot friends were the ones who started it! You should be arresting them!”
The lead peace-keeper stared open-mouthed at the feisty noble girl before turning to her brother, who held his gaze with a confused stare of his own, but as the peace-keeper turned to his companions, the young noble girl kissed her teeth and marched forth.
“Come, Dana,” she said, slipping a hand into the elf’s. “We’re done here.”
“Here, now, hold a moment!” the lead peace-keeper cried. “Just where do you think you’re going? Brawling’s against the law! Even for you nobles!”
“Yeah, but self-defence isn’t!” the young noble girl threw back. “Or is it?”
The lead peace-keeper moved to speak, but knew not what to say.
“Come, Dana,” the young noble girl repeated, this time dragging the elf away. “Come.”
The noble girl’s daughter watched his sister in stunned silence for a spell, then shook his head and made to follow.
“This isn’t over, Warrington!” the beaten noble gasped. “When my father hears of this, there’ll be hells to pay!”
“He knows where to find us,” the young noble replied, then turned and hurried after his sister.
“You can let go now,” Mineth said at last, her gaze behind her.
“Oh?” the young noble girl said, glancing past the elf to what lay behind them.
“Oh,” she added, grinning as she turned to the elven woman and let her go.
“Thank you,” the elf replied, a smile upon her lips. “And who’s Dana, by the way?”
“You are!” the young noble cried, giggling at the bemused elf.
“Dana is her pet toad,” the little girl’s brother said, his tone as dark as the gaze with which he held his sister.
Then, he turned to the elf, reaching into his pocket as he did so.
“While I am grateful for your intervention,” he said, pulling free a small purse, “we no longer have need of your services.”
Tossing the purse at Mineth’s feet, the noble stood tall, his chin raised to her. “I trust that will suffice.”
Mineth stared in utter silence at the noble, her eyes hidden beneath the wide brim of her hat, but even so, it wasn’t long before the young lord began to wilt where he stood, till at last, breathing deep, Mineth turned to the noble’s sister, stepping forth and kneeling before her, then proceeding to dust off her clothings.
“You’re alright, I take it?” she said as she worked.
“Mhm.” The young girl nodded.
“I said we have no need of your services!” the noble spat, coming to life once more. “You may leave now!”
“Does he always make such an ass of himself?” the silver-haired woman muttered as she worked.
“I beg your pardon?” the noble cried.
“It was your sister who hired me, not you,” Mineth replied, her voice raised as her gaze remained on the little girl’s clothings. “So I go when she says so, not you.”
“Hired?” the noble gasped. “We never hired you!”
“Yes, I did!” the little girl cried.
“Annabelle?” Mineth smiled. “That’s a lovely name.”
The little girl smiled. “Thank you. It was my mother’s.”
The silver-haired woman frowned at this. “Was? You mean she’s…?”
“Oh, she’s not dead!” the little girl corrected. “She just didn’t want to be around us anymore.”
“Annabelle! I said be quiet!”
“So, what’s your name?” the little girl continued.
“Dana.” Mineth smiled.
Rolling her eyes, the little girl sighed as her smile grew. “I mean your real name, obviously!”
“Mineth?” the boy frowned. “How come I’ve heard that name before?”
The elf shook her head at this. “I doubt one such as you would’ve heard that name before.”
“And what’s that suppose to mean?”
“I think it’s supposed to be an insult, David,” the little girl offered, turning to her brother as she spoke.
The noble glared hard at his sister in response, an act that brought a grin to the little girl’s lips.
“Better?” the elf said and rose, drawing the siblings’ gazes.
The little girl glanced at her garments, then at the elf before nodding. “Hm.”
But then, the little girl frowned and stepped forward, cocking her head to the side as she did so.
“What’re you doing?” Mineth asked, taking a step back.
“Just wanted to see your face,” the little girl replied.
“What do you mean, why?” The little girl frowned. “Are you ugly?”
“Then, let me see your face!”
Once more, the little girl took a step forward, but this time, Mineth placed a hand upon her shoulder, keeping her at bay.
“I’m not ugly, child,” she said, “but I wear this hat for a reason.”
“Oh,” the little girl said, nodding. “You’ve got a scar, haven’t you? Julius has one as well. Runs down his face and through his eye. He says it’s–”
“Annabelle!” the little girl’s brother barked. “Enough!” Then, he glared at the elf. “Let’s just go. Father’ll be getting worried.”
“Oh, yeah,” the little girl winced. Then, she reached for the elf’s hand. “Come on, then.”
“What’re you doing?” The little girl’s brother frowned.
“Taking her to see Father, of course!”
The noble turned from the elf to his sister and back again. “Annabelle, we don’t need her! Let’s just go!”
“Well, you may not need her, but she’s my guard.”
The little girl nodded before raising her chin at her brother.
“And just what’re you going pay her with?” the little girl’s brother replied, folding his arms as he spoke. “Somehow I don’t think she’ll be interested in the rocks you keep collecting.”
“Ugh! They’re not rocks! They’re igneous stones! Igneous! Stones!”
“Whatever.” David shrugged. “You think she’ll take them as payment?”
The little girl glared at her brother a spell, then turned to the elf as her gaze filled with worry.
“I’d be happy with bed and board,” the elf said.
“There, see!” The little girl grinned before turning to hold her brother in a defiant glare.
“And who’s going to feed her?” David replied, a deep smirk upon her lips. “You? I think you’ll find feeding an elf will take more than slugs and worms.”
“Oh, shut up!” the little girl spat before marching past her brother, the elf being pulled along behind her.
Young David watched the pair a spell, then sighed and shook his head before falling in step behind them.
“Father!” came a cry from behind the slender noble, the edge of his cape in his hands as he wiped the dust from them and stepped back from the wagon before him.
Letting go of his cape, the noble turned, then smiled as he placed his fists upon his hips.
“There you are!” he cried as he watched his children race towards him. “I was about to send Julius after y…”
As his gaze fell upon the woman following behind his children, his smile faded as his hand drifted to the blade by his side.
“And who might you be?” he asked as the surly driver of the wagon leapt off and wandered to the noble’s side, a pair of bearded axes at his sides.
“She’s my new guard, Father!” Little Annabelle beamed as she reached her father.
“Your new…what now?” The noble frowned.
“My new guard!”
The noble’s frown deepened as he turned to his son
“I tried to tell her,” David began, shrugging as he spoke, “but she wouldn’t–”
“Can we keep her?” the little girl interjected
“She’s not a pet, Annabelle!” young David cried.
“You know what I mean!” little Annabelle threw back in response
“Children!” the noble cried, then turned to his daughter. “Annabelle, you know we can’t afford a guard–”
“Ah!” Little Annabelle grinned. “She said she only wants bed and board!”
At this, the noble slowly stood tall before sharing a glance with the man by his side.
“Father?” Annabelle added, her smile fading.
The noble turned to the elven woman. “Any guard who would would forgo coin for simple board is either running or hiding. Which are you?”
“Neither,” the elf replied.
The silver-haired woman nodded.
“And yet, you just want bed and board?” the surly man beside the noble replied, his hands now upon the heads of his axes.
“There’s no point asking for something you don’t have,” was the elf’s reply.
“Meaning?” the noble frowned.
The elf shrugged. “When I dusted the dirt off Annabelle’s clothings, I noticed three different patchworks in her cape. They’re expertly done, and from the other side, impossible to tell. But anyone with coin will not spend that much time and care patching a cape when they can simply buy a new one. And then there’s her shoes.”
“What’s wrong with my shoes?” the little girl asked, her voice soft.
Smiling, the elf turned to her. “They used to belong to your brother, didn’t they? Their soles show an age greater than yours.”
The little girl lowered her gaze as her face fell, and as a chill fell upon the group, the elf sighed and wandered toward the little girl before pulling her close and kissing her forehead.
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, my darling,” she said. “Upon my honour.”
“Why were your clothes dirty, Annabelle?” the noble asked after a spell.
“We ran into Jake Ingleman at the coach station,” David replied.
The noble frowned. “What were you doing all the way there?”
“Annabelle wanted to pick more of her stupid rocks.”
“They’re igneous stones!” the little girl yelled.
“And Jake stopped you?”
The siblings nodded.
“He said they were stupid, and took them from me,” the little girl muttered.
“He didn’t take them from you, you threw them at him,” David added, words that called forth a heated glare from his sister.
“Annabelle!” their father barked. “What did I tell you?”
“He started it!” the little girl cried. “He was saying my stones were stupid, and that we were stupid, and saying all these mean things, so I…”
The little girl fell silent once more, pouting as her gaze drifted to her feet.
The noble glared hard at his daughter, then sighed and shook his head before turning to his son.
“How bad was it?” he asked.
“Bad, Father,” David replied. “He went too far today, even for him.”
“How bad is bad?” Julius growled.
The young noble raised his shirt in response, and the surly man’s gaze darkened as he beheld the reddening bruise upon the young noble’s stomach.
“Good gods!” the noble cried. “He did that?”
Young David shook his head. “He got one of his sellswords to do it.”
“Sellswords?” Mineth frowned. “Not soldiers?”
Turning to her, David nodded. “The Inglemans like to dress their servants up, show off how rich they are.”
The elf frowned at this. “So the others following him…?”
The young boy nodded. “They were his servants. All of them.”
“And I take it the peace-keepers were conveniently missing again?” The noble snarled.
Pouting, young David nodded.
“It would’ve been a lot worse though, Father,” Annabelle added, “had Dana not shown up.”
“Mineth,” Mineth corrected.
“Aw,” Annabelle pouted. “But I like Dana.”
The elf smiled. “Very well then, you may call me Dana. But only you.”
“So,what did Dana do, then?” the noble asked.
“Mineth,” Mineth corrected.
“But you just said–”
“She said only I may call her that, Father,” Annabelle interjected.
“Yeah, like that’s not going to get confusing,” the sellsword by the noble muttered.
“Dana pun…I mean, Mineth punched him, Father,” David said.
“Yeah!” Annabelle grinned. “Put him on his arse with one punch!”
“Three,” Mineth corrected.
“What?” The little girl gasped, turning to the elf.
The silver-haired elf nodded.
Frowning still, the little noble turned to her brother. “Did you see the punches?”
His gaze fixed upon the elf, David shook his head. “I didn’t even see the first one.”
The sibling turned to stare at the elf in stunned silence.
“I suppose I should thank you, then,” the noble said.
“You can thank me by hiring me,” Mineth replied.
The noble’s gaze went from Mineth to his daughter and back, then sighed.
“You’ll have to ride alongside Julius…”
“Yes!” little Annabelle hissed, clenching both fists as a wide grin parted her lips.
“…there’s not enough space in the carriage.”
Fighting to keep her gaze from the grinning child, Mineth smiled at the noble. “That’ll do.”
“Good.” The noble nodded. “And, uh, thank you. Really.”
The elf smiled. “My pleasure.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to say that, my dear, “the noble replied. “You just made an enemy of the Inglemans, and, take it from me, that is not a good place to be.”
“In any case,”the noble continued, “time we were off.” Then, he turned to his children. “How about you tell me everything that happened? From the beginning.”
“Well,” little Annabelle began as she wandered to her father’s side, and as the children wandered on with their father towards the carriage waiting before the wagon, the elven woman breathed deep and turned to the human named Julius.
“You look awfully young to be a guard,” he growled.
“And you look awfully old to be any good,” the elf replied.
“Hrm,” the human muttered, then drew breath once more.
“There are better paying jobs than this one,” he said. “Why do you want it?”
The woman shrugged. “I could ask you the same question.”
The man glared at the elf then turned and leapt onto the wagon before shuffling to the side, and with a smile, the elven woman stepped forth and made her way towards the wagon.
As the procession rumbled towards the rusted gates of the portcullis before them, Mineth raised her gaze and read the words etched into the wall above as the wagon came to a halt..
“Warrington Castle?” She frowned before staring through the gates at what lay beyond. “That’s a castle?”
Julius smiled at the woman. “It may not look like much, but around here, that right there is proper royalty.”
The elven woman turned to the human beside her, but as she moved to speak, her mind’s eye saw once more the peasants they’d ridden past, recalling the smiles upon their faces and the twinkles in their eyes as their gazes fell upon the carriage before them, and as she saw it all once more, she shook her head and smiled.
“I see,” she said as the gates began to rise, then sat back and waited for the wagon to lurch forth.
Before long the wagon was slowing once more, this time within the castle grounds, and as the air filled with creaking chains and grinding steel, Mineth leapt from the wagon and carried her gaze about those who’d wandered over to aid with unloading the wagon.
“You don’t have to keep wearing that, you know,” the noble called out as he wandered over, his children on either side of him.
Mineth eyed the peasants about her, then turned to the noble.
“I shall take it off once we’re inside,” she replied at last.
“Why?” The noble frowned. “Something wrong with your face?”
“She’s just shy, Father,” little Annabelle replied. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Are you shy?” the noble asked.
The noble stared at Mineth for a spell, his gaze darkening.
“Take it off,” he said after a spell.
“Father, she–“ Annabelle began.
“Take it off, this instant,” the noble continued. “I will not have you look down on these people.”
“Pardon?” Mineth frowned.
“You think they’re beneath you, don’t you? Not fit to see your face. Is that it?”
“Oh, bloody hells, not again,” muttered the sellsword behind Mineth.
“Take if off,” the noble repeated.
“I never said that.”
“So, take it off.”
“No, here. Now.”
A chill air swept through the grounds as its inhabitants all stood staring at the pair.
“Or shall I take it off for you?” the noble said after a spell.
“That would not be wise.”
“What, are you threatening me?”
“Father!” Annabelle cried.
“Inside, you two,” the noble commanded. “Now.”
“Perhaps I’d best leave,” Mineth said at last, then turned to leave.
“You’re not going anywhere, woman!” the noble spat. “You’re going to stand right there and take that bloody hat off! These people are not vermin, and I will not have you look down your nose at them! Take. That. Hat. Off!”
Turning to the seething noble, the silver-haired elf sighed “There seems to have been a grave misunderstanding here, I–”
“Take it off!” the noble thundered. “Now!”
“Take it off, girl,” Julius urged, his voice barely above a whisper. “He’s won’t let it go otherwise.”
Breathing deep, the elf carried her gaze about the gathered, then raised her gaze to the sun.
“Do you have any silver?” she asked at last.
“What?” The noble frowned.
“Silver. Not coin. Just…silver.”
“You mean like my clasp?” Little Annabelle said.
Mineth turned to the girl. “Is it pure silver?”
The little girl nodded.
“Good,” she replied, then turned to the seething noble, and with her gaze firm upon him, she clasped a hand upon her hat and took it off.
Deep gasps filled the air as the elven woman’s eyes were plain to see, and as his eyes went wide, the noble pulled free his blade and pulled his children behind him, the gathered peasants grasping nearby weapons and forming a barrier between Mineth and the nobles.
“And this is why I said inside.” Mineth sighed.
“What are you?” the noble gasped.
“She’s a vampire, Sire!” one of the peasants cried. “A bloody vampire!”
“A vampire?” Mineth replied drily. “Truly? In broad daylight?”
“Well,” replied the flustered servant, “werewolf, then! You’re a bloody werewolf!”
“But…she touched my clasp,” replied little Annabelle.
As a confused silence fell upon the gathered, Mineth carried her gaze about those before her before sighing and shaking her head.
“How many of you have heard of the larinurk spider?” she said
“Larry…what now?” The noble frowned.
“Larinurk,” Julius said, his voice turning Mineth’s around.
“Nasty little things,” the man continued. “Grow big as a dog, they do. Except the queen. That bitch is huge. Supposed to be loads of them in troll lands.”
Mineth nodded. “There are.” Then, she turned to the noble. “I was an adventurer in a past life, and, as adventurers are want to do, found myself in troll lands seeking treasure. We followed a local tale of treasure hidden in some cave, a true trove of it, and went in dreaming of the gold we’d be carting. What we did not realise was the treasure was in the centre of a nest of those blasted spiders, and their queen was about to birth.”
“Ah.” Julius winced. “You poor bastards.”
“Why?” David asked. “What’s wrong with the queen giving birth?”
The one-eyed sellsword turned to his master. “Those things are right bastards at the best of times, but when their queen’s fixing to pop more out, they’ll swarm anything that comes near her, big or small. And you don’t know fear till you see a sea of those critters coming right at you.”
“Yes.” Mineth sighed. “We lost four of our number trying to escape. I was bitten by the queen–”
“You what?” Julius cried
“And you survived?”
Again, the elf nodded.
“I truly have no idea,” Mineth replied. “One of our party was a necromancer. He did this…ritual, gods if I can remember the name of it. Saved my life, but left me with these blasted eyes. And my hair, gods! I used to be blonde!”
Then, she sighed. “But yeah. I left not long after, and have been drifting ever since. I don’t stay anywhere for long because, well, sooner or later, I’m accused of being a vampire, or a werewolf, or a witch, even, and when that happens, I move on before the pitchforks come out.”
The silence returned, and as it grew, the silver-haired elf stared into the eyes of those arrayed before her, and what she was within warmed her heart greatly.
Clearing his throat, the lord of the land stepped forth, his gaze darting from Mineth’s eyes to his feet and back again, till at last, standing tall, he breathed deep as a wooden smile parted his lips.
“Yes, well, erm,” he began before clearing his throat again.
“My apologies,” he soon added, bowing slightly at the elf before him. “I didn’t mean to be so abrupt, it’s just that…well…Cedar Valley isn’t exactly the most bounteous of provinces, and people tend to look down on us for it and…uh…”
Then, he sighed turned to those about him. “These people deserve better, plain and simple, and it boils my blood whenever someone acts like they don’t matter.”
At this, the elf smiled. “You’re the first noble I’ve met who treats his people like…people.”
The noble lord spun to face Mineth as his cheeks reddened greatly.
“Yes, well, uh…” he began, then marched forth and grabbed a sack from the wagon.
“Well, come on, then!” he cried, turning to his subjects, “this stuff’s not going to move itself!” Then marched toward the great doors of the castle’s keep.
Mineth watched him a spell, a smile upon her lips, then turned to the wagon.
“He means well,” Julius said, reaching for a sack as his words drew Mineth’s gaze, “but that bugger doesn’t half jump to conclusions sometimes.” Then, as he hefted a sack, he smiled. “You’ll learn how to manage him though, we all have.”
Mineth watched him carry the sack after his lord, then, with a sigh, grabbed a sack and followed behind.
Resting upon a tree at the edge of the clearing, the silver-haired elf wiped her lips upon the leaf in her hand as she scanned the castle in the distance.
“Please, let it not be too late,” she whispered, her eyes upon the portly guards walking the castle’s battlements. “Just…let it not be too late.”
Staring intently, the elf folded the leaf as the light of the night’s sun shimmered briefly off the blood upon its surface, then slipped the leaf between her lips and chewed softly on it, taking care to fill her mouth with its liquid before swallowing.
Then, the guards stopped and turned to stare into the castle, and at this, the elf crouched low and breathed deep.
“Yes!” she hissed as the smell of roasted meat filled her nostrils, a wide grin parting her lips as she did so.
As the elf stared, she watched as the guards hurried from the battlements. But, even as the last guard disappeared from view, the elf remained unmoving, her whole frame rigid as her ears pricked to hurting, till at last, she heard the sound of a heavy door being closed, and with its sound, the elf darted forth, leaping from shadow to shadow as she raced for the darkened section of the castle wall, and reaching it, she leapt up its side, her hands flying into hidden crevices and slits as she pulled herself up the wall’s surface.
Reaching the battlements, the silver-haired elf fell into a crouch before pricking her ears once more.
Satisfied, she leapt off the battlements and raced across the castle’s courtyard, her eyes darting between the many windows facing the courtyard till, at last, she was before the door to her quarters, and pulling free her key, she slotted it into the lock, whispered a word of arcane and swung the door open with nary a sound before darting in and locking the door, undoing her dome of silence as she pulled her key from the lock.
Then, at last, she drew breath once more.
“Gods, girl,” she hissed. “Why did you have to wait so bloody long to feed? These are good people, you know! Don’t you dare take such stupid risks with their lives again, who knows how long it’ll be before you find people like these!”
Shaking her head, she wandered towards her bed. “Just don’t do it again, alright?”
As she reached her bed, however, the elf glanced at her window, and movement in the shadows in the distance held her rigid, and frowning, she leant forward and stared into the shadows beyond. Then, she saw it again, a small figure, darting from shadow to shadow, much like what she would do, save clumsier. It could only mean one thing, and shaking her head, she signed and turned, marching towards her door and out before falling into the shadows and hurrying after the figure.
Reaching the mud pond at last, little Annabelle grinned and pulled free the box beneath her arm and, going on her knees, carried her gaze about her before setting the box beside the mud pond.
“You gave me your word, Annabelle,” came a voice from behind the little girl, startling her for all she was worth and sending her stumbling to the ground, her eyes wide as a shrill gasp escaped her lips.
Spinning, she locked gazes with the frowning elf behind her and as she stared into the elf’s eyes, she snarled.
“Did you have to do that?” she seethed.
“No,” the elf replied, “what I should have done was alert the castle to your antics.”
Pulling a face, the little girl rose and began wiping the mud from her trousers.
“You gave me your word,” the elf repeated. “I teach you to walk in the shadows, and you only use it to protect yourself. That was the bargain.”
The little girl shrugged. “It was an emergency.”
Shaking her head, the elf folder her arms beneath her bosom. “That was what you said the last time. And the time before that.”
“Well, this time is different.”
“Alright, then. What’re you doing out here?”
Once more, the little girl shrugged, her gaze drifting to the box by the mud pond. “Dana was hungry.”
The elf stared hard at the little girl before her.
“Dana was hungry…?” she asked at last.
The little girl nodded.
The elf blinked hard before shaking her head. “You broke curfew, risking your father’s wrath, and putting me in danger of said wrath, all to feed that fat toad?”
“Hey!” the girl barked. “She’s not fat!”
“Who’s there?” yelled a voice from the room before which they stood, and as a light flickered on from behind the window above them, Mineth glared at the wincing child before stepping back and placing her hands upon her hips.
“It’s just me, Grace,” she said as the window opened and a face came into view.
“Just you?” the servant frowned.
“Thought I heard a child’s voice.”
“Truly?” Mineth sighed, holding the woman in a pained stare.
“Oh, no!” the woman gasped, “I didn’t mean that, I just…I just…I thought I heard the voice of someone younger, that’s all!”
“Well, there’s no-one here, save I.”
“Ah, yes well, uhm,” said the flustered maid. “Good night, then.”
“Good night, Grace,” Mineth replied.
Standing in silence, the elf watched as the face receded and the window closed, but it wasn’t till the light within faded that she turned to the cowering child.
“That was close,” the little girl whispered.
“Yeah, it was,” Mineth replied as the air about them shimmered.
“Oh!” the little girl cried. “Did you do the dome thing again?”
Rolling her eyes, the elf sighed. “For the thousandth time, it’s not a dome thing, it’s a dome of silence!”
“Yeah, that.” The little girl grinned.
Shaking her head, the elf sighed once more, then went on her knees.
“Well, go on, then,” she said. “Feed your toad.”
“Oh, right!” Annabelle cried, then turned and reached for her box.
“Pretty smooth what you did back there, though,” she said, falling to her knees before gently sliding the box’s lid open.
Mineth smiled at the child as she gave a slight bow. “Thank you.”
“But how come it bothers you so much, people calling you a child? Edna and Lilly go all giddy whenever Boris calls them young.”
“I’m not them.”
The elf sighed, shaking her head as she did so. “Does it bother you?”
The little girl grinned and glanced at the elf.
“Yeah,” she replied, nodding. “A little”.
“Well, same for me,” Mineth growled. “Edna and Lilly are in their twilight years. To them, it’s a compliment. To me, it’s insulting.”
“Well, you can’t blame people, though,” little Annabelle replied. “I mean you look more like my big sister than my personal guard.”
“What?” the little girl cried, a wide grin upon her lips. “It’s true!”
“Just hurry up.”
Giggling, the little girl pulled free her toad before placing the pet within the mud pond. Then, she turned to the elf beside her, her brow furrowed deep.
“You still haven’t told me why you helped me,” she said.
“Yes, I have.”
The little girl shook her head. “You were lying last time. I could tell.”
“Oh, could you, now?”
“Yeah.” The little girl nodded. “You might’ve fooled Father and David, but you didn’t fool me.”
“Is that so?”
Grinning once more, the little girl nodded.
The elf stared hard at the little girl for a spell, then sighed. “You remember the tale I told when I first came here? About pitchforks and all that?”
Little Annabelle nodded once more.
“Well, in the last settlement I lived, one of the elders there convinced the village I truly was a witch, that I’d put a curse upon the village, and the only way to break it was to burn me alive.”
“You what?” the little girl cried
“Hm.” Mineth nodded. “Harvest was poor, and people were looking for something, or someone to blame, and she’d always resented that her grandson had grown closer to me than he’d ever been to her.”
“Ah,” the little girl said, nodding as she spoke, “and her grandson looked like me, didn’t he?”
Mineth nodded at this. “Looked and sounded like you.”
“I see,” little Annabelle replied, then frowned. “So what happened?”
Well,” Mineth sighed, “the villagers rallied behind her and they set out to burn my home to the ground. Durant got to my door before them and began pounding on it, screaming at me to run, get away. And I did.”
“But they saw me make my escape,” she continued, “and they turned on Durant, accused him of condemning them to an eternity under the curse, and they…burned him instead.”
“What?” little Annabelle gasped.
The kneeling elf nodded. “Even now, I can hear his screams.”
“And his grandma let them?” the little girl cried.
“Let them?” Mineth replied, a bitter smile parting her lips. “She lit the pyre.”
A heavy silence fell upon the pair as the little girl stared open-mouthed at her friend, then gazed into the ether.
“Gods, I hope she suffered for it,” the little girl added, turning to the elf once more.
“She did,” Mineth replied in a voice that chilled the air. “Greatly.”
“Oh,” was all the little girl could manage.
“And yes,” Mineth continued, breathing deep as she turned to the toad, who now had a worm in her mouth, “when I heard you screaming, I heard Durant, so I came after you.”
“Lucky me!” the little girl grinned, only for her eyes to go wide.
“Gods, I didn’t mean…” she gasped. “I mean, I’m not glad he burned or anything it’s–”
Shaking her head, the elf smiled. “It’s alright. I know what you mean.”
“Good.” The little girl sighed, her grin returned. Then, her eyes went wide once more.
“Oh!” she cried. “Want to see something special?”
Mineth cast a slow sideways glance at the child before her. “What sort of something?”
The little girl pointed to the heavens.
“It’s a new moon,” she said. “There’s this spot not far from here, looks really gorgeous when it’s this bright out at night.”
“Not far, as in, inside the castle walls…?”
The little girl grinned.
“You’re supposed to be in bed, Annabelle.”
“We’ll be quick.”
“Bed, young lady.”
“We’ll be quick!”
“But you’ll love it, though! Promise!”
“Bloody hells, Dana, this is Cedar Valley! Nothing bloody happens in Cedar Valley! What’re you so afraid of?”
The elf moved to speak.
“And besides,” little Annabelle continued, “if anything shows up, you’ll kick its arse, right?”
The silver-haired elf stared hard at the little girl, but soon sighed.
“Very well,” she said.
“Yes!” little Annabelle hissed.
“But we’re not lingering.”
“We won’t!” the child shook her head. “Promise!”
“Good,” Mineth replied, then sighed once more and, shaking her head, rose and began wiping the mud from her trousers.
“Well, lead on, then!” she soon added.
“Oh, right!” little Annabelle replied, then placed her beloved Dana back in her box, closed it and rose before hurrying forth, a grumbling Mineth close behind.
“Ah!” the little girl sighed as she laid upon the grass, her arms and legs spread wide as her toad wandered about nearby. “This is the life!”
“Lying on wet grass is the life for you?” Mineth replied, a regal eyebrow arched as she spoke.
“Ugh!” little Annabelle cried, rising to her elbows to glare at her friend. “You are such a bloody killjoy sometimes! Anyone ever tell you that?”
The silver-haired elf held her young companion in a pointed stare, her lips pulled to a thin line. “And did anyone ever tell you you have a filthy mouth?”
“Oh, don’t be such a bloody prude.”
“Bloody hells, Dana.”
“Bloody! Bloody! Bloody! Blood–”
Falling silent, the little girl pulled a face before laying back upon the grass, an impish smile upon her lips, and as a smile danced upon her own lips, Mineth wandered to the child and sat beside her, crossing her legs beneath her as she did so.
“So, what’d you think?” the little girl asked.
“Mh.” Mineth sighed and carried her gaze about the glade, then nodded. “It’s peaceful.”
“It is, isn’t it!”
Smiling the elf nodded once more. “Yeah.” Then, she turned to the little noble. “How’d you find it?”
“David showed it to me.”
The little girl nodded, her gaze upon the heavens still. “He said Mother brought him here once. Told him this was where she and Father used to meet when they were courting.”
“Oh,” Mineth replied, her face falling. “I… Forgive me, I d–”
“Gods, Dana, I already told you,” the little girl interjected. “It’s not your fault she left, you don’t have to keep apologising.”
The silver-haired elf smiled once more. “That, you did.”
“That I did!” Annabelle added, nodding. Then, her impish smile returned. “Want to know what else?”
“I think this is where they made David…”
“Anabelle!” Mineth cried, giving the little girl a playful shove as her giggles filled the air.
“What?” the little girl added. “You think I don’t know how babies are made?”
“Enough, young lady!”
“Enough, aright? I’m not…”
At that moment, a familiar scent drifted to the seated elf’s nose, one she’d smelt not too long ago, and as her brow furrowed deep, she pricked her ears and eyed her surroundings.
“What?” Annabelle frowned as she sat up. “What is it?”
In response, the elven woman placed a hand upon her young charge’s shoulder, and uttering words of arcane, called forth a shimmering sphere about the young child.
“Dana?” Annabelle began, her voice quivering as the elf rose.
“What do you want, Ingleman?” she said, her voice ringing across the glade.
Silence filled the air, but it did not last, for it was soon broken by the sound of slow clapping, and as the friends stared, they watched as men in armour stepped into the clearing, Jake Ingleman at the fore.
“Ah, Dana, Dana, Dana,” The young noble sighed. “How I’ve missed you.”
“What the bloody hells are you doing here?” Annabelle demanded.
“And how I’ve missed you!” the smirking noble replied, turning to the child.
“Why are you here?” Annabelle repeated
“Why am I?” the noble asked, then turned to his men. “I forget, why are we here?”
“To take Dana’s head, young lord,” replied one of the men.
“Ah, that’s right!” the noble cried, turning to the pair. “I do have a name to protect after all.”
“What’re you talking about?” little Annabelle threw back. “Father already paid recompense for what Dana did, and the matter is closed.”
“Not for me, it isn’t!” the young noble snarled.
“What?” Annabelle replied, her sneer biting. “Did you suddenly become master of your House, little Jake? Because last I checked, your father’s in charge, and when he says It’s settled, it’s settled. So, run along, Jakey boy, and be grateful we don’t tell Father on you!”
Through it all, Mineth’s gaze was upon the men, for their actions puzzled her. It was clear from their stance they seemed assured of victory, and yet, they made no move to corner their prey. If anything, they seemed to be keeping their distance, as if waiting for something.
“And another thing…” Annabelle continued.
It was at that moment that Mineth heard it. A whisper in the wind, uttering arcane words she recognised almost at once, and as her eyes went wide, the elven woman drew forth a hand and flung a lightning bolt into the shadows before turning to her young charge as a shrill cry filled the air.
“Annabelle, run!” she barked, shoving the little girl before making to place herself between the child and their attackers.
But then, she heard the whispers again, coming from behind her, and even as she turned, she knew it was too late, and as she raised a hand, ghostly chains erupted from her feet, wrapping all about her as if rooting her to the spot.
“Dana!” Annabelle shrieked, rushing to the bound elf’s side.
“Gods damn!” the young noble cried before cackling where he stood.
“For a moment, there, I thought you were going to end Marcus as well!” he continued as another wearing the Ingleman insignia stepped into the clearing.
“And, let’s face it,” he continued, turning to his men, “lucky for us it’s Stephen that croaked it, not Marcus. I mean, can you imagine how ugly this night would’ve gone if she was the one free and it was that brat that was bound?”
A ripple of chortles drifted through the men, their smirks wide and deep. Then, they advanced.
“Stay back!” Annabelle shrieked. “I mean it!”
“Marcus, if you please…” Jake replied, his gait unchanged.
Pausing, the mage named Marcus clasped his hands together and bowed his head, and as he did so, a shimmering dome engulfed them all.
“So, scream, girl,” the young noble said as the dome shimmered around them. “Go ahead. Let’s see who hears you.”
The others laughed in response.
Through it all, the silver-haired elf watched on in silence. The chains were meant to hold her unmoving, and though in truth they had no effect on her, should she move even a sliver, her true nature would be known to all within the clearing, and that was something she dared not reveal to Annabelle.
“Run!” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Run! They can’t hurt you!”
The little girl shook her head. “I’m not leaving you.”
“Who’re you talking to?” Jake frowned as he sauntered into striking distance.
Little Annabelle shook he head, and in response, the young noble turned to the elf as he came to a halt.
“Marcus, you and Stephen she said she wouldn’t even be able to talk,” he snarled.
“She shouldn’t,” the mage named Marcus replied, his brow furrowed deep.
“Then, why is she talking?”
Annabelle stared from the men to Mineth and back again, unsure what to make of Marcus’s words.
“Nevermind,” the young noble said at last. “Let’s just get started already.”
Then, he took another step forth.
“Run!” Mineth yelled. “Now!”
Little Annabelle stared from her guard to the noble and back again, then turned and fled.
“Stop that bitch!” the young noble barked. “Kill her!”
“What?” his men cried
“Run!” Mineth yelled as one of the sellswords pulled forth a crossbow and fired.
But the bolt bounced off little Annabelle’s back and fell into the grass, the girl all but oblivious of to its presence.
“Enchanted,” Marcus muttered, “interesting.” Then, he closed his eyes and whispered words of arcane once more, and as he opened his eyes, the shimmer about little Annabelle faded to nothing.
“No!” Mineth gasped, her eyes going wide as she stretched her hand further and made to recast her enchantment.
But it as too late, for even as the words formed on her lips, another of the sellswords had already pulled free a crossbow, unleashing its bolt the moment the mage opened his eyes, and Mineth could only watch as her young charge flew to the ground the bolt impaled in her back glimmering in the night’s sun.
A heavy silence fell upon the glade as Mineth crumpled to her knees, her lips ajar as a deep chill ran through her.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Mineth soon said, then rose and spun to face the men. “You truly shouldn’t have done that.”
Then, she began to close the distance between them.
“Ma…Marcus…” the young noble stammered, backing away from the elf as he spoke, his men falling in step around him, “why is she moving? You said your Chains will hold any living thing rigid.”
“It does, Sire!” Marcus cried.
“Then, why is she moving?”
“I…I don’t understand it. The Chains of Hadrim is as powerful as they come. Nothing can deny it! Nothing!”
“May…maybe she moved out of it,” one of the sellswords offered. “You said if she took a step while you’re casting, it–”
“Shut up, man, she didn’t move out of her spot!” Marcus snapped. “It was a perfect cast!”
“Then, why is she moving?” the noble shrieked.
Mineth stopped at last, her gaze boring into the noble.
“Because it only affects the living,” she snarled.
The silence returned, and in that silence, all self control left every single man within that glade as the true meaning of the elf’s words sank in.
“Oh gods,” Jake whimpered. “You mean…you mean you’re–”
“Yes.” Mineth nodded. “And now, you’re all going to die.”
As one, the sellswords reached for their blades, and in that moment, Mineth darted forth. But the young lord was not her quarry, not yet, nor was she seeking the death of the one who’d fired the fatal shot. No, her quarry was the mage, and as she darted past him, the snarling day-walker slammed her palm against his lips before wrapping her hand about his face and dragging him beside her, racing forth till she reached a mighty cedar tree at the edge of the clearing, slamming his head against it as she reached it, and as the dull thud echoed about the clearing, she leant forward and pressed down hard against the man’s skull, filling the air with a sickening crack before at last feeling the tree’s bark beneath her bloodied fingers.
“No!” the young noble screamed before turning tail and fleeing for the edge of the clearing. “Gods, no!”
For a brief moment, the sellswords stood their ground, but as Mineth turned to face them, they turned as one and raced after their lord
“No,” Mineth growled, her fangs bared as she stood tall. “No, you die today.”
Then, she charged forth, a wrathful shade that fell upon the men, rending them limb from limb. Some turned to fight, others pleaded for their mothers, but none received quarter, till at last, only the young lord and the one who’d fired the fatal shot remained.
“N…now hold on a moment, there,” the sellsword stammered as he stepped back from the advancing day-walker, “I was only following orders, I was! That’s all! I’m a soldier, see! That’s all! Not my fault, see! Wait! Wait!”
“No,” Mineth growled, then leapt upon the man before wrapping her limbs about him and sinking her fangs deep into his neck.
As she drank deep, the day-walker turned her gaze to the young lord. With his ankle twisted during the battle, the sobbing noble could only lay upon the grass and watch as the last of his sellswords slowly departed from this world, his desperate blows against the feasting day-walker all but useless.
Then, the sellsword within Mineth’s grasp became still, his fight for life at an end, and as Mineth freed her lips from his throat, she stared deep into the cowering noble’s eyes and gripped the sellsword’s head tight, then twisted.
Then, she rose.
“Please,” the young lord whimpered. “Please. I…I didn’t mean it, honest! I…I just…”
The day-walker stepped forth, closing the distance between them once more.
“I’ll give you anything! Anything!”
“Anything?” Mineth asked, standing before the noble.
“Anything!” The noble nodded.
“Bring Annabelle back.”
The young lord fell silent.
The man turned to where the little child lay and back to the day-walker, his lips unmoving.
“Then you have nothing I want,” Mineth added, then reached for the noble.
Just then, the faintest of heartbeats drifted to the day-walker’s ears. It was faint, barely there, but she knew she heard it, and with a gasp, she turned.
“Annabelle?” she said, her gaze upon the unmoving child.
Seizing his chance, the young lord sprang to his feet began hobbling away, shrieking as he went, but Mineth turned to him once more and leapt onto him, bringing him to the earth with the weight of her body before pulling her hand back, and, with her fingers drawn straight, plunged her hand into his back, forcing her fingers through his lung and into his heart.
Then, she heard a child’s cough. It was soft, but enough to draw her gaze.
“Oh gods,” she gasped, springing to her feet and hurrying to the little girl’s side.
As she reached her young friend, the elf slowly sank to her knees and placed a finger before the little girl’s nose, then held her breath.
The soft breeze that touched the day-walker’s finger filled her with such euphoric joy, but the joy was short-lived. The little girl’s breath was shallow and in snatches.
“Hold on, girl,” she whispered, wiping her hands upon her tunic as she spoke. “Hold on.”
Breathing deep, the elven woman wrapped a hand about the bolt and, closing her eyes, breathed out slowly. As she did so, a soft shimmer engulfed her hand, and as the shimmer spread to young Annabelle’s back, the wincing elf gripped the bolt in her back tight, and with the greatest of care, pulled it free and placed her hand over the wound before breathing deep once more and slowly breathing out slowly once again.
“There!” She grinned, turning to stare at the little girl’s face. “Annabelle, you’ll be alright!”
But the little noble’s breath did not improve, her lips as blue as before.
“Annabelle! You’ll be alright!”
Still, the little girl’s breathing remained laboured.
“I don’t understand,” Mineth said. “You’re small! That should be enough!”
Then she turned to the bolt, and on a thought, raised the bolt to her nose.
“What is this?” she said, sniffing the bolt. “What in the hells is this?” Then, she turned to the slain noble.
“What did you use?” she thundered.
Turning to the little child once more, the day-walker licked her lips and shoved the bolt into her pocket, then, with the same care as before, picked her little charge up in her arms and pulled her close.
“Hold on, Annabelle,” she whispered. “Just hold on, alright?”
And with that, she darted forth, a haste spell upon her lips.
As the walls of Warrington Castle came into view, the racing elf grinned.
“Almost there, Annabelle!” she gasped, glancing at the child in her arms. “Just hold on a little longer, please.”
Racing on, she flung herself at the wall before leaping up it, one hand holding the barely breathing child close while the other gripped the crevices within the wall’s stones to propel her upwards till at last, she sailed past the battlements into the castle’s interior.
Ignoring the startled cries of the guards upon the battlements, the day-walker broke into a dead sprint the moment her feet touched the earth, shouldering the doors in her way open as she raced for the castle’s infirmary.
“Edna!” she yelled as she raced. “Edna!”
But there was no answer.
Reaching the infirmary at last, the desperate elf barged in and hurried to a nearby bed, and with the greatest of care, placed the child in her arms upon the bed. Then, she held a finger beneath the child’s nose. There was barely a breeze now.
“Edna!” she cried, spinning about her as she did so.
They were alone within the infirmary.
“Edna!” the vampire shrieked, her voice rising in pitch till it took upon it a most unearthly tone.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” came a voice at last from beyond the burst door. “What on earth’s making that bloody…”
As the woman named Edna stepped within the infirmary, however, she fell to the floor as a blood-curdling scream filled the air, and it was only then that the day-walker remembered at last, that her visage was not one to be shown in the open. Lowering her gaze and wiping the blood from her lips, she hurried toward the cowering healer.
“No!” she cried, hurrying her footsteps as the woman named Edna scrambled for the exit.
“No, no, please!” she cried, placing a firm hand upon the woman’s shoulder. “Edna, it’s me! It’s Mineth! It’s alright!”
The woman turned and stared wide-eyed as her self control left her.
Ignoring the smell that now emanated from the woman’s robes, Mineth turned and pointed to the child upon the bed.
“What?” Edna gasped as she turned to little Annabelle.
“Jake Ingleman’s men shot her in the back.”
Keeping her gaze upon the child, Mineth nodded. “I’ve done all I can, but I think the bolt’s tip was laced with something.”
Then, she reached into her trousers and pulled free the bolt. “Here. I don’t recognise the poison, but it’s killing her.”
Then, she turned to the woman, but quickly lowered her gaze as the woman cowered once more.
“Save her, please,” she pleaded. “Please.”
Rising, the day-walker hurried from the room. Ignoring the curious stares of those wandering into the corridor, Minethe hurried on, her gaze upon her feet and a hand covering her face till at last, she was outside once more. Then, she turned and darted for her room, shouldering it open before slamming it shut and pulling a nearby table against it. It was only then, that she paused for thought.
“What have I done?” she whispered, staring into the ether. “She’s seen me. She’s going to tell everyone.”
Spinning about, the elf rested upon the table.
“I can’t stay here,” she added, her gaze in the ether still. “But first, Ingleman, he’ll want revenge. Get to him first. Kill him before he comes after them.”
Rising, she nodded, her gaze turning to her cupboard. “Yes. Kill him then disappear.”
Nodding once more, the silver-haired woman tore off her tunic and marched to the cupboard. Swinging it open, she scrubbed the last traces of blood from her lips with the torn tunic before flinging it upon her bed and grabbing another. As she pulled it on, her gaze drifted to her hat, and she paused.
“You need it, girl,” she said, pulling out the hat and tossing it onto her bed. “It’ll be a while before you look normal again.”
Once dressed, she picked up her hat and turned to the door, but in that moment, the door was tested.
“You in there, girl?” came a voice from the other side. “We need to talk. Open the door, yeah?”
Mineth stared at the door in silence for a spell, then sighed.
“I’ll be right out,” she said, then put her hat upon her head, breathed deep and wandered to the door.
Pulling free the table, she pulled the door open and stepped out, her hands in full view.
“Well,” Julius sighed, “busy night, eh?”
“You could say that,” Mineth replied.
“So, listen, uhm, Enda’s been saying something crazy…yeah? She’s scream and hollering, saying you’re a vampire, that you almost killed Annabelle.”
“What?” Mineth gasped, raising her gaze to the sellsword.
“Woah!” Julius added, staggering back as a hand flew to his axes. “Seems she’s right about that one.”
Mineth shook her head at the man. “I didn’t harm Annabelle, Julius. It–”
“Oh, I know that!”
“What?” Mineth frowned.
The sellsword shrugged. “Whoever heard of a vampire drinking someone, then carrying them back to be healed? And I didn’t see any blood on that little girl’s neck or thigh. Just on her back, and never heard of a vampire feasting on the back before so…”
Sighing, Mineth smiled. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, girl,” Julius warned. “I’m the only one here not believing her. Francis is spitting feathers, calling for everyone to arm themselves.”
“Then I must leave here,” Mineth said, taking a step forth.
“Now, hold on, girl,” Julius replied, holding one hand aloft and gripping the head of one of his axes tight with the other.
Mineth’s gaze turned to the axe, then back to him. “I thought you said you don’t believe Edna.”
“I don’t believe you hurt Annabelle, no,” Julius replied, shaking his head, “but that little girl’s hurt and bad. Poisoned too.” Then, the man stood tall. “What happened, girl?”
Mineth breathed deep and sighed, shaking her head as her shoulders sagged low.
“Annabelle wanted to show me this secret spot of hers–”
“What, that glade?” Julius frowned.
“You know about it?” Mineth replied, the sellsword’s frown spreading to her.
The sellsword nodded. “Everyone does.”
Once more, he nodded. “Everyone.”
“So what happened there?”
“Jake Ingleman showed up some time after we got there.”
The elf nodded. “One of his men shot Annabelle in the back. They turned on me but… I killed them, Julius. Ingleman too.”
A heavy silence fell upon the pair as the sellsword’s eyes went wide.
“Girl, do you know what you’ve done?”
Mineth nodded. “His father’s going to want blood. Which is why I intend to kill him before I leave this place.”
“Wait, girl, wait, no. You just can’t just go around killing people.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Yes! Let’s think and talk this through. Let’s you and me calm Francis down and decide how we’re going to take this to Ingle–”
“Ingleman will soon know his son is dead, Julius.”
“You’re not going–”
“Not from me.”
The sellsword frowned. “What do you mean?”
“How did Jake Ingleman know we were at the glade?”
Julius’s frown deepened, but said nary a word.
“Grace saw us outside. Nobody else did. Care to wager on whether or not she’s a spy for Ingleman?”
Once again, Mineth nodded. “The only fresh scent I’ve caught outside the castle all night was from animals, and given the route we took, even if someone was watching the castle, they wouldn’t have seen us leave.”
“And everyone knows if Annabelle or David go sneaking out at night, it’s a safe bet that’s where they’re sneaking off to,” Julius mused. “Hrm…”
Then, he turned to Mineth. “That changes nothing though. Your best bet is still–”
“Julius!” boomed a voice “What’re you doing! She’s a vampire!”
“Oh, gods,” Julius growled, then turned to the approaching mob, the lord of the castle at its head.
“It’s alright, Francis,” Julius called out. “I have this under control.”
“Do not speak to me in that manner, Julius!” the noble threw back, his gait unchanged. “That creature nearly killed my daughter, and it will answer for all the lives it has taken since it got here!”
At this, Julius frowned, turning to Mineth as he did so. Then, as the mob reached them, he turned to his lord.
“How many lives has she taken?” he asked.
“What?” the lord frowned.
“I’ve not heard of anyone being found dead with odd holes in their necks. In the castle or anywhere in Cedar Valley. Have you?”
The noble lord shook his head at this before turning to Mineth, a deep snarl upon his lips.
“That just means we haven’t found her victims yet,” the noble seethed.
Through it all, Mineth’s gaze was upon the mob, her eyes drifting over the many weapons arrayed before her. Most were of little import, but the ones that held her gaze were the many crossbows aimed at her, all with tips of their bolts glimmered in the night’s sun. This wasn’t an enchantment. This was something far worse.
“Well, girl,” Julius said, turning to Mineth. “You been snacking on us?”
“Julius!” the noble lord barked.
“I’ve only fed on animals since I’ve been here, and that’s the honest truth,” Mineth replied. “Tonight’s the first night in an age that I’ve tasted human blood.”
“There, see?” the noble cried, his voice quivering. “She admits to drinking Annabelle’s blood!”
“Not Annabelle’s,” Mineth corrected, “Ja–”
“Quiet!” the noble barked, then turned to Julius. “Step aside, Julius. I don’t want you getting hurt in this.”
In response, the sellsword sauntered forth till he stood between Mineth and the mob.
“She didn’t touch your girl and you know it,” the sellsword said.
“What’s the matter with you?” the noble seethed. “You used to hunt these things!”
Julius nodded. “Yes, I did. But Mineth’t never acted like the ones I used to hunt. Not once. If anything, she cares about your daughter, Francis. She cares a lot.”
“Last chance,” the noble seethed. “Step. Aside.”
The sellsword stood unmoving.
“Very well,” the noble growled, then breathed deep.
“David!” he barked , then darted to the side.
As one, the sellsword and day-walker turned to stare at what lay behind the lord, and watched in confusion as young David lumbered forth, bucket in hand, and their confusion grew as he stopped and picked up the bucket, his hate-filled eyes firm upon Mineth, and with his teeth bared, he flung the contents of the bucket upon the pair.
“Ugh!” Julius cried as Mineth sniffed the air. Then, her eyes went wide as she watched the noble tear a torch from the grip of a nearby servant and fling it at their feet.
Gritting her teeth, the wincing elf grabbed hold of the sellsword’s tunic and flung him away from her as far as she dared, then made to leap back from the torch. But it was too late, for as she crouched, she could only watch as the torch fell into the puddle at her feet, and with a rush of air, the tar upon her was alight, engulfing her in flames.
“No!” Julius cried as Mineth’s screams filled the air. “What’re you doing?”
Ignoring the sellsword, four of the noble lord’s heavy-set servants stepped forth, pikes in hand, and as one, they impaled the writhing vampire before lifting her off her feet and pinning her against the wall beside her, then set their pikes into the earth and stepped aside just as those armed with crossbows stepped forth, their crossbows levelled at the vampire.
“Fire!” the noble lord barked.
The servants fired, the bolts digging into Mineth’s shoulders, arms, neck and hands, pinning her further against the wall.
“No, no!” Julius cried as he scrambled to his feet, but as he made to barge forth, the servants near him grabbed hold of him, keeping him at bay.
“No!” he yelled. “You don’t know what you’re doing! Kill her! Kill her quickly!”
“No,” the noble lord replied. “She burns.”
“Damn it, you don’t know what you’re doing! Kill her before she–”
“You don’t give orders here, Julius, I do!” the noble snapped. “She burns!”
“Fire doesn’t always work, man!” Julius yelled. “Take her head before–“
“Quiet, damn you!” the noble barked. “Be grateful I don’t set you alight along–”
At that moment, the cry from the day-walker changed, taking on an even shriller tone, and as the gathered turned to the impaled creature they watched in horror as she pulled free her hands and grabbed hold of two of the pikes before snapped them as if they were twigs, then reached for the other two.
“Should she be able to do that?” asked one of the servants, his voice quivering.
“Gods, fire!” the noble yelled. “Fire, fire, fire!”
But none of his servants had reloaded their crossbows, and they could only watch as the day-walker snapped the remaining spikes and pushed herself off the wall, then fall to the ground and began rolling in the mud.
“Out of the way, damn it!” Julius roared as he shook free of the hands holding him back, then pulled free an axe and lunged for the vampire just as she doused the last of her flames, the blade of this axe aiming for her neck.
Only, as he sailed close, the vampire rolled onto her back and kicked at the sellsword, sending him crashing into the gathered before leaping over them all before landing in a roll and scurrying on all fours toward the main entrance, her gasps and cried following in its wake.
Scrambling to his feet, the seething sellsword marched towards his lord, and spinning the man about to face him, crashed the back of a clenched fist against the noble’s cheek with enough force to send him crashing to the earth.
“Consider that my resignation,” he spat, then picked up his discarded axe and, pulling free the other, raced after the creature as screams rang out from deep within the castle.
But, upon his third step, he stopped and turned once more, glaring at the servants behind him.
“Well, come on!” he barked. “Your friends are in there!”
Coming to life, the servants fell in step behind the sellsword, some moving with great urgency, others with utter trepidation, those with crossbows loading as they went.
At last, the group reached the main entrance, and slowing, the sellsword pressed against the wall beside the entrance and peered in. As he did so, a figure darted past him and did the same on the other side.
“Annabelle’s in there,” the noble whispered as Julius turned to the figure.
Julius eyed the crossbow in the noble’s hand, then turned to the noble
“Whatever we find in there, Francis,” he said, “it’s on your head. You should never have done what you did.”
“She tried to kill–”
“Shut up, man!” Juliu spat. “Just bloody shut up!”
Then, breathing deep, he darted into the castle, the others following.
The screams had stopped, and though hurried footsteps echoed within, there was nothing anywhere to say with certainty where the creature had gone.
“Mineth!” Julius yelled as he went, his steps cautious and his gaze scanning every nook and cranny about him. “I know you’re scared, but this doesn’t need to get out of hand, you hear? Pretty soon, your thirst’s going to get the better of you, so let’s…let’s work something out, yeah? You said you were feeding on animals, well…we can…we can go get you some and–”
“Julius?” came a child’s voice, freezing the entire gathering as one.
“Oh, gods,” the noble lord gasped.
“Julius, we’re over here!”
“Annabelle!” the noble yelled as he broke into a dead sprint, the others close behind. “Annabelle, where are you?”
“Father? We’re in the drawing room! Dana’s in here and… I think she’s hurt bad!”
“No!” the noble whispered. “Gods, no!”
“Annabelle!” he yelled. “You stay away from her! Get out of there! Now!”
Racing into the drawing room, the hunters skidded to a halt as they took in what lay before them, and for a moment, a wave of euphoric joy washed through them as they saw none within save the little girl standing at the far corner near an unlit fireplace, a cane in her head as she stood on uneasy legs.
“Gods, Annabelle,” the noble lord said, smiling as he wandered forth, “you scared the very life out of–”
“Take…her,” came a pained voice from the shadows, bringing the lord to a halt and filling the hunters with fear. “She won’t…listen…”
“Easy, girl,” Julius soothed as he took a cautious step forward. “Easy now. I know you don’t want to hurt her. Right?”
“Hurt me?” Annabelle frowned.
“I can’t… It’s… Take her…please.”
“Stay away from my daughter, you monster!” the noble yelled, then raised his crossbow.
“Francis, what’re you doing?” Julius asked.
“Ready your crossbows!” the noble lord barked.
“What? No!” Julius cried as the servants obeyed. “No!”
“Father?” little Annabelle said, her brow furrowed deep and her voice quivering as she stepped between the hunters and the shadow within which the creature lurked.
“Annabelle, get out of the way!” the noble barked.
The little girl shook her head and stood firm
The child remained as she was.
“I think I see it, Sire,” one of the servants said.
“Fire!” the noble ordered.
“No!” Julius yelled as little Annabelle hurried into the servant’s sights. “We can’t risk hurting it further!”
“If you see it, fire!” the noble ordered.
“No! For gods’ sake, lower your…”
At that moment, a bolt sailed past the sellsword, and it was as if time slowed to a crawl, for he watched in utter hopelessness as the wooden bolt flew toward the little child, its tip slicing through her ear as it flew past, spraying her blood behind her as it thumped into the wall behind.
“Oh, dear gods,” Julius whispered as little Annabelle screamed, a hand flying to her ear, but as the little girl moved to berate the one who’d fired, a deep guttural growl filled the air.
“You’ve killed your daughter, Francis,” the sellsword said as little Annabelle slowly turned round. “You’ve killed her.”
“What’re you–” the noble began.
But his words were cut short by the creature’s sudden lunge at the little child, bringing her low and pinning her to the stone floor before baring its fangs and sinking them deep into her neck.
“No!” the noble yelled. “No!”
Rising his crossbow, he fired at the creature, the others doing the same. But it was all for naught, for as the noble’s bolt impaled itself into the vampire’s flesh, the creature fell flat upon its prey and turned to mist, one that engulfed the little girl and carried her toward the fireplace before rising up its chimney and out of sight, child and all.
“No!” the noble shrieked before turning and racing from the room, his servants racing on behind him.
As for the sellsword, he stood alone within the drawing room, his gaze upon the fireplace as the blood drained from his cheeks.
“She can turn to mist,” he said at last. “Dear gods… Dear sweet gods.”
Turning to the door behind him, the sellsword stared on once more, then lowered his gaze to his axes.
“Julius!” came a cry from beyond the door, drawing the sellsword’s gaze to the door once again.
“What a hell of a man to die for,” the sellsword muttered, then raced from the room and back the way he’d come.
“Julius!” the noble lord cried as the sellsword stepped out into the courtyard, the noble lord’s eyes wide and wild. “She’s gone! Julius, she’s gone! I can’t see her any…”
A soft thud silenced the man as a small bundle fell at his feet. As one, the gathered turned to it, and as one, their hearts broke as they laid eyes upon the unmoving body of little Annabelle, her eyes frozen in eternal horror.
“Annabelle, no!” young David cried as he dove for his sister. “No, no, no!”
As the servants watched their master slowly sink to his knees, Julius raised his gaze to the rooftops.
He saw nothing.
“Do you know what makes vampires so dangerous, Francis?” the sellsword said as he scanned for the creature.
The noble couldn’t answer, his hands upon his thighs as he wept for his daughter.
“It’s their thirst. No matter how strong, how fast, or how strong a vampire is, should their thirst take over, they become much, much worse. And that thirst grows the more you hurt them.”
Then, he turned to the noble. “And that’s why you kill them as soon as you can, Francis. You don’t torture them, you don’t stand there like some smug bloody bastard, gloating, you kill them. But you knew better, didn’t you? Didn’t you? I mean, pikes? Really? Did you really think that would hold her? And the bolts, really? All those bolts and you couldn’t have them aim for her heart?”
“They were to pin her in place,” one of the servants replied, “not kill her.”
Julius turned to the woman and stared at her as if she’d grown a second head. “Who in their right bloody minds thinks impaling a vampire with sticks of wood would actually hold them in place?”
“They were my grandfather’s,” the noble whimpered. “He said they were blessed, that they’d pin any evil creature against anything.”
“Well, clearly your grandfather never faced a vampire as old as this one,” Julius muttered.
Then, he turned to the servants with crossbows. “How many bolts do you have left?”
“None,” one of them replied.
At that moment, the vampire leapt out from the shadows, its fangs bared as it made to leap into the midst of its hunters.
But the sellsword leapt to the fore, brandishing its axes as he did so. In response, the creature paused and backed away a spell before going into a crouch, bloodied drool dripping from its lips as it stared from Julius to his axes, as if weighing its options.
“You know, it’s funny,” Julius said, “when vampires change shape, it’s usually into some kind of animal, like a big wolf, or a swarm of bats. Not the freshly turned ones, mind, those ones can’t shift for shite, but the older they get, the better they are at it.”
“But she turned into smoke in there,” one of the servants whined.
“Yes.” Julius nodded. “A great big bloody roll of mist. Only ever faced one vampire that could do that, and it butchered the bloody shite out of my party.”
“What do you mean?” the servant replied.
Julius smiled. “I mean we’re all buggered.”
Then, the vampire stood tall.
“Francis!” Julius barked.
“What?” the man mumbled.
“When this shite kicks off, take your son and run to your vault. Your servants will rout, but from his moment on, all that should matter to you is your son’s life. You stop to help anyone else, and you won’t survive this night. Get to your vault, seal yourself in, and pray she’s no longer thirsty when she’s done with us, because that pitiful slab of stone you call a vault door will not keep her from you.”
The kneeling noble swallowed hard and turned from sellsword to vampire, but said nary a word.
Breathing deep, the sellsword stepped forth and stood tall.
“You know, I really have killed a lot of your kind, but you’re the first one I’ve ever felt sorry for, Mineth. I can’t imagine how you’ll feel once you’re yourself again and you realise the one person you fought so hard to save died by your hands. I don’t envy you that.”
As if in response, the vampire turned to the broken body that was little Annabelle. But there was nothing within her gaze, and soon, she turned to the sellsword once more.
“Come then, girl,” the sellsword said, bringing his axes to bear, “let’s finish this.”
The vampire snarled at the sellsword a spell, then lunged forth, her fangs and claws bared.
As silence fell upon the room, Naeve stared hard at the seated elf for a spell, then drew breath.
“So, your real name’s not Amala,” she said.
The elven woman shook her head.
“Another bloody lie,” the young girl growled
“So, you killed them all, then?” Naeve interjected.
Sighing, Amala nodded.
The seated elf breathed deep and nodded. “I killed him too.”
The young elf stared at the woman in disgust. “Just how much blood do you bloody need?”
Amala shook her head. “I was sated before I reached him.”
“You bloody what?”
“I had to kill him, Naeve,” Amala continued. “I had no choice.”
“No choice?” the young girl seethed. “No choice? How in the hells can you have no bloody choice? You could’ve bloody walked away!”
“Could I have? Truly?”
“Yes!” Naeve thundered.
“And Francis would’ve let me walk away, would he?” the day-walker replied. “You don’t think perhaps he’d have come after me? Round up every able-bodied man in Cedar Valley to come hunt me down, perhaps? And what do you suppose he’d have told Ingleman? Hrm? Ingleman had reach, Naeve, and coin. I’d be looking over my shoulder for years, seeing vampire hunters at every turn! I have lived that life before, my dear, and it is not a pleasant life, alright. I did what needed to be done. I had no choice.”
The young elf glared still, but said nary a word.
“I took no pleasure in their deaths, Naeve,” Amala continued, “but it was them or I.”
“So, then,” Naeve said at last, “if you killed everyone, why did you destroy Cedar Valley?”
At this, the seated elf placed her hands upon her knees and lowered her gaze, her shoulders sagging as a ragged sigh escaped her lips.
“Why did you kill them, Amala?” Naeve demanded. “You tell me why. You say you had no choice, but you still went and killed off the whole town.”
“Cedar Valley wasn’t a town, Naeve.”
“You know what I bloody mean, now answer the damn question! Why did you kill them?”
Amala raised her gaze once more and shook her head. “Because Grace got away.”
“The woman who told Jake Ingleman Annabelle and I were headed for the glade,” Amala replied, then breathed deep and sat up.
“I’d forgotten about her,” she continued. “Didn’t realise my mistake till I made to leave the area. The surest route out was through Cedar Valley itself. I’d gotten changed by the time I’d left, cleaned myself up as best as I could, and waited till my eyes were no longer bloodshot. I’d have looked for all the world to see like the Mineth they all knew. I’d planned on starting a rumour as I went, saying the castle had been attacked by Ingleman’s people, and that I was off to seek revenge, so I set the place on fire as I left and…”
Then, the woman sighed and shook her head. “They were waiting for me, Naeve. The things they said… Grace must’ve returned when I left briefly to clean up after myself in the glade. They knew of Annabelle, and of the many that had bites and gashes in their throats. There was no consoling them.”
Naeve sneered at the day-walker and shook her head. “And you couldn’t just run past them and keep running, right?”
“They’d have told Ingleman–”
“Oh, bloody spare me! If you were so scared of Ingleman, why not go after him! Why butcher a whole bloody town?”
The day-walker held her young friend in a defeated gaze for a spell, the young elf’s sneer grew.
“Because I want to live, Naeve,” she said at last. “I just want to live. The only way a creature like me has any form of a life is with secrecy. Even if they didn’t tell Ingleman, or I’d simply gone and killed Ingleman, they would’ve told friends in other provinces, and perhaps even drawn portraits of me and share it around. If too many know what you are, you spend every waking moment looking over your shoulder with no-one to trust, and nowhere to call home, except some dank and decrepit cave where you’re constantly fighting off other monsters just so you can have a bed to yourself. And let’s not forget the scores of adventurers and vampire hunters looking to collect on your head.” Then, she sighed. “I just want to live, Naeve. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Even if it means burning down a whole town?” Naeve snarled
The seated day-walker’s eyes glistened at this, her gaze upon her young friend as her shoulders sagged once more.
“They left me no choice,” she said at last, her voice soft and barely above a whisper as her tears fell at last.
“They left you no choice?” Naeve seethed. “Gods, you’re so pathetic! Admit it, Amala, you’re a monster! That’s what you are, that’s all you are!”
“Stop what, hunh? Stop the truth? You slaughtered a whole town! You drank babies dry!”
“I did not feed on a babies! I don’t know why you keep saying that! Annabelle was the youngest I fed on!”
“And that’s okay, is it?”
Amala knew not what to say.
Amala could not.
Shaking her head, Naeve sneered. “You killed Annabelle. You killed the one person in Cedar Valley who was close to you, drank her dry like she was nothing. She was as close to you as I am, wasn’t she?”
“Naeve, please, jus–” began, rising from the bed.
“Wasn’t she?” Naeve thundered.
The silver-haired woman slowly sank back onto the bed, her lips unmoving as a heavy silence fell upon the room.
“So I’m also at risk, then, aren’t I?” Naeve said at last.
“Naeve, no!” Amala replied, springing to her feet with a hand outstretched at her friend. “Don’t say that. I would never–”
“Like you would never harm Annabelle?”
“No choice? Yeah, you never have a choice, do you? It’s never your fault, is it? Even though it’s your teeth that’s doing the sinking, and your claws that are doing the slicing. It’s never your fault, is it?”
“Naeve, please,” Amala pleaded, her voice quivering as she fell to her knees, “I would never hurt you. I’d rather die first.”
“Even if your thirst takes you and I’m the closest person?”
Amala fell silent at this, unable to form words.
Naeve smiled in response, a bitter and mocking smile that burned a hole through the day-walker’s heart.
“You’re a monster, Amala,” she said. “A disgusting little thing, and gods only know why I had anything to do with you.”
“Naeve, don’t speak like that, please.”
“I want you out of my sight,” the young girl continued. “You’re dead to me.”
“No!” Amala cried, shuffling forward on her knees towards the child. “No, Naeve, no!”
“Don’t touch me!” Naeve snapped, darting back out of the woman’s reach. “Don’t ever touch me! You disgust me!”
“Stop saying that!” Amala yelled.
“Why not, it’s the truth! You’re a monster! You’re a monster! Monster, monster, monster, monster, monster!”
“Stop saying that!” the kneeling day-walker shrieked, the tone of her voice rising till, for a brief moment, it was of a tone that could not have come from a mortal throat.
The heavy silence returned as the two elves locked gazed, their eyes wide and their lips agape. Then, young Naeve sneered.
“I wish I’d left the door open so everyone could’ve heard that,” she said.
Amala’s gaze fell at this, unsure what to say.
Shaking her head, Naeve marched over to the door and opened it.
“Get out,” she said. “You ever come back here again, I’m telling everyone what you are.”
The kneeling day-walker stared ate the door, then at the child beside it before at last, rising to her feet.
“Well?” Naeve snapped as Amala remained unmoving
Sniffling, the silver-haired elf wandered towards the door, but as she reached it, she turned.
“I’m still the same person who’s stood by you since birth, Naeve. The same person who’s covered for you when you were up to mischief and your mother was on the war path. I’m still the same person who taught you your first spell, and the same person who defended you whenever any of your tutors were angry with you. What I am doesn’t change who I am. Please believe that.”
“Get. Out,” Naeve spat in response.
The day-walker sniffed and smiled, a smile only the broken of heart could attain, then turned and left.
Naeve watched her for a spell, then slammed the door with all her might before marching over to her bed and clambering onto it and curling up into a ball.
“Good riddance,” she muttered, then sighed as silence fell upon the room once more.
But then, as she snuggled closer to her self, the young girl began to see before he mind’s eye glimpses of her past, and they were all about Amala. As she stared at the wall, Naeve saw once more the impish smile upon the woman’s lips as she taught Naeve how to cloak herself, and soon after, she saw the deep wince upon her dear friend’s face as Master Spiderweave’s skeletons exploded, then memory after memory of the woman’s deep laughter, gentle caress, and soothing words, till at last, she rose and turned to the door.
But even then, she remained on her bed, her defiance keeping her from doing what she now knew in her heart she must. That was till she recalled Amala’s words from earlier.
“…you and your mother are the only people dear to me in this world. If I lose either of you I…I don’t know what I’d do.”
The question chilled the young child to her core, whitening her cheeks as her heart climbed up her throat.
“No.” Naeve shook her head. “No, she wouldn’t.”
Her heart wasn’t so sure.
Shaking her head once more, the young elf scrambled off her bed and raced to her door, flinging it open before hurrying forth, her feet carrying her with all speed toward the silver-haired woman’s quarters, and as the quarters came within view, Naeve breathed deep and parted her lips.
“Amala!” she yelled as she ran.
“Amala!” she cried.
Still no response.
Reaching the woman’s front door, Naeve raised a hand and pounded on it with her fist.
“Amala, open up! Open up!”
“Goodness, girl, what’s wrong?” came a voice from behind Naeve.
Spinning about, Naeve stared at the Archmage behind her.
“Where’s Amala?” she demanded.
“Well, not here, that’s for certain. What’s wrong?”
“Yes, but where is she?”
“How in the hells should I know?”
Shaking her head, Naeve turned from the woman and hurried forth, her feet carrying her forward as her mind raced. If Amala wasn’t in her room, perhaps she wasn’t too late.
“Yeah.” Naeve nodded. “Yeah, I can still fix this.”
Or perhaps Amala was already on her way to end it all
“What?” Naeve gasped, coming to a halt. “Don’t bloody think like that! Don’t you dare!”
“Naeve?” came another voice, drawing the child from her thoughts.
As young Naeve’s gaze fell upon the utterer, her eyes went wide.
“Master Netyam!”she cried as she hurried to the man. “Have you seen Amala?”
“Why?” the mage frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you seen her?”
“Naeve, is all well?”
Shaking her head, Naeve grasped the mage’s arm. “Please, just tell me! Have you seen her?”
“Well…” the man began after a spell. “I was just off to check if she was in her quarters, but clearly she isn’t.”
Naeve shook her head at this.
“But if she’s not there, and she’s not with you, she might still be in the Library. She said she had some researching to do.”
“Library!” Naeve gasped. “Thank you!” Then, she let go of the elf and hurried forth.
Before long, the young elf stood within the Library’s entrance, and, panting, she scanned the sea of faces before her. But it was the soft sniffle that caught her attention, and as she turned in its direction, the young elf slowly stood tall as her heart climbed up her throat, for it indeed was Amala, but an Amala she had never seen before. It was the tears running down the woman’s cheeks that hurt Naeve the most, far more than the empty stare with which she held the tomes before, and it was all because of her.
Gritting her teeth against the pain in her heart, Naeve marched forth, her head bowed. During her race over, she’d thought of the perfect words to say to mend that which was broken between them, but as she saw the sheer dejection in Amala’s eyes, she knew in her heart no words could ever reach her, and so, as she reached Naeve’s table, she kept her lips unmoving and, keeping her gaze from the woman, grabbed hold of one of the chairs by the table and dragged it back.
“Naeve?” Amala asked.
Naeve shook her head, gritting her teeth harder as her eyes began to glisten. Then, she marched forth, grabbed hold of another chair and pulled it in line with the first the chair’s scrapes echoing about the room.
“What in the world are you doing, girl?” bellowed Archmage Duskwhisper. “This is a place of solitude! You cannot…”
The Archmage’s words died in her throat the moment her gaze drifted to Amala and beheld the fire within the seated woman’s eyes. Twice, the Archmage moved to speak, but both times, her words failed her, till at last, she fell silent and watched Naeve pull a third chair, and then a fourth.
And then, Naeve wandered towards Amala. There were tears running down her cheeks now, and with her head bowed still, she grasped the woman by her hand and pulled.
“Naeve, what’re you doing?” Amala said.
The young child shook her head and pulled once more, then pulled again, till at last, the seated elf rose and allowed herself be led to the line of chairs, her lips unmoving as Naeve gently guided her towards, and into the chair at the head of the line. Then, the young girl lay down upon the others before placing her head upon her dear friend’s lap, her gaze forward.
The seated woman stared in silence still, unsure what to make of Naeve’s actions.
“I’m sorry,” Naeve said at last before turning to stare deep into Amala’s eyes. “You’re not a monster, I am.”
Smiling at last, Amala sniffled and wiped the young girl’s tears away. “You’re no monster, my darling, just a bloody stubborn young lady.”
Naeve giggled at this, but soon her laughter faded as her gaze was one of all seriousness.
“It’s really horrible what you did,” she whispered. “But they gave you no choice. Did they?”
“No,” Amala whispered as she shook her head and sniffled. “I wanted to spare them, I truly did, but the hate, it… It was them or I.”
Naeve nodded and sighed. “I understand.”
“And, for the last time, it wasn’t a town.”
“Whatever.” The young girl grinned before turning her gaze forward once more and snuggled close to her friend.
Amala sighed in response, then smiled and began stroking her young friend’s hair, a soft tune upon her lips.
The Archmage Aeden Netyam watched in silence as Amala hummed at the child whose head was on her lap, his gaze darkening with each passing moment. Before long, two within the Library rose and wandered to the entrance where the Archmage stood.
“Careful, Netyam,” said the first one to reach the Archmage. “If the creature sees you staring at her like that, she’ll know where your heart truly lies.”
“Aye,” said the second. “Then all your hard work will be for naught.”
Netyam gestured at the pair in the distance. “It’s already for naught.”
“Aye.” Sighed the second mage. “Those two seem closer than ever.”
“What happened?” asked the first.
“Fellspire told the brat about Cedar Valley.”
“What?” gasped the first mage.
“Oh, that bitch!” spat the second. “That was our strongest hand!”
“Yes, it was. Netyam sighed. “And now, without it, our plan is worthless.”
“So, what do we do?” asked the first.
“There is one thing we can do,” Netyam replied, then shook his head, “but I don’t like it. It’s far too risky for my taste.”
The first mage frowned. “You speak like we have no choice.”
Sighing, Netyam nodded. “Fellspire’s accord with the highland barons has put us on a bad spot. If we don’t deliver in time, I think they’ll turn on us”
“Ugh! Gods damn that woman!”
“Hm.” Netyam nodded.
“What will you have us do?” asked the second.
“Nothing. If this goes badly, better the creature thinks it’s just Fellspire and I that are against her.”
“Speaking of Fellspire,” snarled the first, “what do we do about her?”
“Don’t worry,” Netyam growled, “she’ll get her comeuppance soon enough.”
Then, with a sneer, the seething mage turned and hurried away from the Library and the vile sight within it.