Cornsilk walked along the path leading across the field, listening with half an ear as the elder Sternlight rambled on with one of his many stories. She loved the elder dearly, looked up to him as she did her own father in fact, but on days like today, with the sun shinning brilliantly in a perfect sky, she longed to be in the hills; longed to be free to run about without a care in the world.
Cornsilk took hold of the elder’s arm as he left the path. They made their way slowly up the slight incline and Cornsilk paused at the top of the grassy knoll to take in the sight of her mother’s people, hard at work on the corn harvest. A slight breeze stirred the air and Cornsilk closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the wind’s fingers running through her hair. For a brief moment, as she filled her lungs with the sweet-smelling air, she imagined that she was far away, running free in the mountains among the trees, just like her brother, the wolf. Opening her eyes once again, she realised that the light had begun to fade. They would have to begin the journey back to the village soon if they wanted to make it before nightfall.
Turning her attention back to elder Sternlight, she realised that he had fallen silent. The elder stood in complete stillness, just staring up at the sky, looking for all the world like a lost, empty shell of the man he had once been. “Elder?” she asked quietly. She did not wish to startle the man too badly from whatever thoughts had taken hold of him. “Elder, what is it?” she pressed as she grew concerned over his continued silence.
Elder Sternlight lowered his gaze, pausing to briefly meet that of the young girl before continuing its downward trail to the ground at her feet. Twin tears rolled down his weathered cheeks. “Darkness,” he said, his voice almost too soft to be heard.
Cornsilk followed his gaze and shifted her feet off of the plant she had carelessly stepped on earlier when she had been lost in her own musings. When she lifted her eyes once more to look at the elder, she found him gazing at her sadly, his dark eyes filled with unshed tears. “Darkness comes for you. Darkness…comes for us all,” he said, his frail grey head nodding slightly, as though in agreement with some unspoken words.
Confused by what the elder meant by that statement, Cornsilk looked back down at the strange plant that lay crushed to the ground between them as though it would tell her the answer. Cornsilk had never before seen such a plant, but it seemed responsible for the elder’s sad prophecy. The young girl looked up at her friend and shivered slightly as a cloud passed over the sun, leaving almost no light. “Elder?” she asked again.
Elder Sternlight only nodded once as he turned and began walking back towards the village.
Casting once last glance at the apparently symbolic plant, Cornsilk trotted after the elder. She took hold of a frail arm to help guide him safely back to the path over the uneven ground. Neither paid much attention to their surroundings as they headed back home, both consumed by their own troubles over the elder’s words.
Arwen listened intently as her father recited the tale. She loved to hear about the ancients almost as much as she loved the sound of her father’s voice as he told them. No matter how many times she heard the story, she never tired of it. She would always ask her father to repeat the tale once more and her father would always ask ‘why?’ didn’t Arwen want to hear a different tale? But the answer would always be the same; she only wanted to hear that one.
“That’s enough for tonight,” her father announced. “It’s well passed the time when all little princesses should be in bed! You should probably be the one telling me the story anyway. I’m sure you’d do a much better job! After all, I’m getting old and can’t always remember so well,” he said with a wink to Arwen, poking his youngest daughter playfully and sending her into a fit of giggles.
Arwen rolled her eyes at their antics and began tucking her little sister into bed. “Goodnight, Arwen,” her father said, pressing a kiss to her forehead.
“Goodnight, father,” she said softly. Her father smiled at them tenderly before closing the door with a gentle ‘click’.
Why did she insist on hearing that same story time after time? Arwen thought as she blew out the candles around the room and climbed into her own bed. There were so many stories about the ancients. Stories that weren’t filled with death and destruction. Arwen could still see herself when she had been her sister’s age, asking to hear that very same story. Always, the part that she most wanted to hear was the part that described the darkness that came and overtook the land. She had often asked her father to skip forward to that part, not really interested in hearing the rest. Why? She didn’t know. It was as though something drew her to it. Drew her to the darkness.
Arwen shivered at the thought and drew her blankets tight about her, pushing the uncomfortable thoughts away and slowly drifting into a restless sleep.
Arwen ran through the halls, dark forms slithering around her, some embracing her. They were whispering to her, urging her on towards her goal. Arwen thought it all too soon when the huge oak doors loomed up before her. “Open them,” they said. “You can be free…come and join us.” Taking a deep breath, Arwen steeled herself for what she had to do. Arwen pushed the great doors open and screamed.
Arwen jolted upright in her bed, breathing heavily. The blankets falling off her sweating form caused her to shiver as she stared blindly forward, trying desperately to grasp the least fleeing tendrils of the dream.
“Shh, it’s all right love, it was just a bad dream is all,” said a soft voice from beside her as a hand pat hers tenderly.
Confused, Arwen blinked her eyes and turned her gaze to find an unfamiliar man leaning over her, his long blond hair obscuring his face but for his shinning green eyes.
“Arwen…Arwen, it’s time to wake up…. Come on honey….”
Arwen drifted awake slowly, all memory of her dreams long gone. “What time is it?” the young girl asked groggily.
“It’s passed mid-morning,” her father replied. “Your sister’s already up and is out running around in the garden.”
Arwen blinked sleepily as she processed the information. “After…what? How can it be so late?” she cried. Never, for as long as she could remember, had Arwen ever slept a moment later than sunrise!
“Shh, it’s all right Arwen. I didn’t wake you earlier because I thought you could use the rest,” he father soothed. “Did you have nice dreams to keep you company?”
“I...can’t remember,” Arwen replied as she massaged a cramp from her right shoulder. She had a feeling that the dreams hadn’t been all that pleasant though she kept that thought to herself.
“Well, I’ll leave you so that you may dress,” her father said as he pat her hand tenderly. He stood and walked from the room as Arwen shivered lightly, the action brought back an image of sparkling green and gold.
Arwen slid out of bed and shook her head to clear it of the image, long ebony strands flying about her head. She discarded her sleeping gown as she padded softly to her wardrobe. Arwen cast a brief glance at the contents and quickly selected the royal blue outfit emblazoned with a fiery phoenix on the left shoulder. She dressed quickly and walked over to her dressing table to retrieve the matching sapphire pins that her mother had given to her a couple years before. Picking up the pins, Arwen softly hummed a tune she remembered from when she was little, twisting her hair up into the pins deftly with her nimble fingers. Casting a fleeting look at her reflection in the mirror, Arwen left the room and padded down the stairs to retrieve her cloak and gloves.
“Beautiful, as always,” her father complemented with a loving smile. He held out her cloak for her to step into and fastened the clasp about her shoulders. He put his hands on his daughter’s shoulders and stood back slightly so that he could take in her appearance fully, noting casually that she was wearing the same outfit she wore every time she talked him into telling her that story about the ancients. He idly wondered at the connection as she pulled her leather gloves over her delicate hands. “Come back to me safely,” he said as he pulled the girl into a tight embrace.
“I always do,” Arwen replied, pulling the deep hood over her head as she reached for the door handle. Why did her father worry so much when she went out to run errands? she wondered. Did it have something to do with their mother and why Arwen never saw her anymore? Her father’s smile for her always turned sad when he thought that she wasn’t looking. Arwen wished she knew why. Was it something wrong with her? something Arwen had done?
“Hey there sonny! Looking for a ride? I’ve a fine young girl here I think you’d like. Beautiful enough for a fine young lad such as yourself,” a voice whispered quickly in the youth’s ear.
The man was ignored as the youth continued on his way until he arrived at the food stands. He took his time picking through the fruits and vegetables, making sure that none were bruised or going rotten. Once satisfied, he brought them to the merchant and argued with him until he deemed their price acceptable.
“You’ll make a fine husband some day, my lad!” the merchant said with a good-natured laugh, waving the young lad off.
Nodding politely to the merchant, the youth quickly moved to the next stall where he purchased flour, milk and sugar, picking out a bottle of his father’s favourite wine as an afterthought. The youth glanced down at the ground, to the shadows dancing across the surface and nodded to himself, pleased with the time he’d made. On his way back home, however, he passed a bookstore he’d never noticed before. Actually, he couldn’t recall walking by it on his way down. The youth shrugged the thoughts away and went inside, deciding to have a look.
All too soon, the youth found his attention completely absorbed by the enormous display of books. He became so engrossed in a book all about the ancients that he failed to hear the man approaching him from behind.
“Can I interest you in anything?” a voice whispered huskily next to the youth’s ear.
The youth jumped slightly and quickly put some distance between himself and the tall stranger. The man took in the youth’s outfit, the blue silk shinning slightly under the cloak where the light found it. The man leered at the youth and licked his lips in anticipation.
“I’m sorry,” he purred as he moved closer, cornering the youth, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
The youth’s eyes widened and his heart beat frantically in his chest as the man leaned in closer and inhaled his scent. “Roses…. You smell of roses,” he whispered in amazement. “What’s this?” he asked as he picked up the book the youth had dropped. “You like this book? Here, let me buy it for you…as an apology for earlier,” he added.
“That won’t be necessary,” the youth said firmly. Having regained his composure, he reclaimed the book, glaring at the stranger invading his personal space.
“Now, what’s this about? I only wanted to apologise to you.”
“And so you did,” the youth retorted, pushing at the stranger. “Let me by,” he growled in frustration.
“There’s no need for you to get so upset,” the man soothed as he pressed closer. “Such a fine young lad you are,” he whispered hotly, caressing the young face with his breath.
The youth glanced about desperately, relieved when he spotted the merchant making his way toward them as fast as his aged legs would let him.
“You really should be more careful,” the stranger said as he noticed the merchant. The man pulled away from the youth hastily and backtracked toward the door. “Trouble likes pretty young lads such as yourself!” With that, the man turned and fled the store.
The youth thrust the book he’d been holding at the merchant. “This one,” he hissed, tying to compose himself once more.
The old man who was tending the shop placed the book gently in a velvet bag and handed it back to the youth solemnly. “It’s on the house…for your troubles” he answered the youth’s confused look when he pointedly refused the coin thrust at him.
The youth blinked at him and nodded in thanks. He placed the book in his pouch as he left the store and decided to make one last stop before hurrying home. The youth paused at the sweets stall long enough to buy a box of his sister’s favourite almond cookies. Quickening his pace to make up for the late hour, he was all too glad when he reached his house.
A little surprised that she didn’t see her sister running out to greet her, Arwen slowly and hesitantly pushed open the front door. “I’m home,” she called. Arwen became more confused when no one answered, a ball of dread beginning to take root in her stomach.
Arwen set her purchases down in the kitchen before continuing her search of the house. “Hello?” she called, becoming increasingly fearful with every second that passed with no sign of her family. “Father? Where are you?” she exclaimed as she stepped into the sitting room.
It was the smell that hit her first. The copper smell of blood. Lots of blood. Arwen’s eyes widened and she stood paralyzed in the doorway for what seemed in eternity. Time had no meaning to the girl as her eyes remained locked on the gruesome scene. Her sister sat on the floor in between her parents, a pellet lodged in her head. Her mother and father both sat in their usual chairs, their eyes wide and glassy, mouths agape. Their throats had been slit, divided in two equal halves by twin red slashes, both of their chests torn open by multiple gashes, blood still oozing out slowly. On the table lay a stack of gifts and through the far door, Arwen could see a small feast laid out.
That’s right, today had been her birthday. She’d completely forgotten.
Tears streamed down Arwen’s face as she finally found her voice and screamed. Without any thought on her part, her feet carried her out of the house and down the lane. She kept walking blindly forward when she reached the road, soon surrounded by concerned neighbours who had been drawn out of their own homes by the girl’s continued cries of distress.
Aoi calmly surveyed her work, taking a deep breath as the loosed energy coursed into her veins. She took no pride in killing others, but neither could she feel any great loss over their deaths, her heart having closed off long ago to keep from falling apart entirely.
She wiped the blood from her blades dismissively and left the scene as quietly as she’d come. She passed through the halls of the house and slithered out a window, clinging to the shadows to pass unseen. The shadows followed her through the town streets, hiding her from sight.
Aoi passed through the streets blindly, not needing to see her surroundings to find her way and not caring. The world did not exist for her; it would be too painful to bear otherwise.
Her body on autopilot, Aoi turned down a side street and hoped over the fence of bushes found at the end. Aoi didn’t spare a glance as her hands moved to the wall, seeking out the tiniest of surfaces that would allow her to propel herself up the wall. Aoi slipped into her window and entered her room, silent as death on wings.
Arwen accepted the urn containing the ashes of her family. She refused to let herself cry any more. Arwen clutched the urn tight to her chest and bowed to the attendant. Stepping out into the bright daylight, Arwen refused to let herself flinch as the light hit her skin. Black eyes tearing from the brightness, she bowed her head to shield them and stepped toward the waiting group of gathered townsmen.
“Let me once again express my condolences. Your parents were very intelligent people and loyal friends of mine. I am honoured that you have agreed to reside with me. Believe me when I say that I will not rest until their murderers are justly punished.”
“Thank you,” Arwen whispered, her voice sounding hollow to her own ears.
“I know it will do nothing to bring your parents back, but it will salve my conscience the slightest bit. As will this. There is more than enough room for you in my home. I am told that you have no other relatives to look after you and it will be an honour for me to do so.”
Arwen trembled slightly in either fear or shock, she wasn’t sure which. She didn’t particularly like her dark haired benefactor; there was something about the tall man that made her want to hide away. But there was no way an eight year old girl could look after herself and no one else had stepped forward and made the offer. The only other choice she had would be to go to the temple that took in the small town’s orphans. “There is no way for me to thank you enough for what you offer, good sir. I can only accept.”
At those words, her benefactor smiled and Arwen doubted the decision to accept the offer, even if she had had no real choice in the matter. “You have made me very happy, Arwen. I will send men to box up your belongings so that you may come with me today. I’d take it all away, if only I could,” he added sombrely. “And I know that it doesn’t seem that way now, but it will get easier with time. You don’t know how it gladdens my heart that you’ve allowed me to help you through this Arwen. I only hope that I can provide you with all you need in order to do so.” The man placed a hand on the slender girl’s shoulder, and did not let go the whole entire time that Arwen stood there accepting the offerings from the other mourners until she found a respectable time to leave.
They left quickly, her benefactor making polite apologies to the townsmen as he ushered Arwen through the throng and to the waiting carriage. Arwen sat silently, her eyes staring emptily at the urn in her lap. The urn that contained all that was left of the life she had known. None of her benefactor’s words registered in the young girl’s mind, but she was all too glad for the silence that now rang through the small space.
The early morning sun had become that of the late afternoon by the time they pulled to a stop. It could have been the dead of night for all that Arwen cared. Her benefactor stepped out of the carriage first and reached back to give Arwen a hand, which she reluctantly took. As she stepped down onto the gravel, the urn that she had kept tightly clutched to her chest was quickly plucked from her hands. But Arwen didn’t have an opportunity to protest that intrusion as she shied away from another. Arwen hissed slightly as the sun shone in her eyes and she fervently wished that her benefactor would move more quickly as she pulled the hood of her cloak further over her head.
From under the relative safety of her hood, Arwen could see a small portion of the wall of what she assumed to be a rather large estate. Two large oak doors swung open before them and her benefactor stepped to the side, motioning her forward. “Here it is,” he said encouragingly. “I hope that you will make yourself comfortable here. This is now your home, just as well as it is my own.”
Arwen nodded slightly and stepped into the bright entry, instinctively, and subconsciously, seeking out the closest bit of shade. The hall she stood in was framed by large windows to admit the sun’s light, which seemed to be reflected off of every surface in the room.
Her benefactor studied her a moment through narrowed eyes from behind a small pair of spectacles. Placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, he guided her from the shadowed alcove, noting how she seemed to shrink further into her cloak.
A young boy came forward and quickly reached for the clasp of Arwen’s cloak, causing her to clutch at it desperately even as she took a quick step back. The young boy looked over to his master who nodded before turning to scurry up the stairs. “You’re rooms are upstairs on the third floor.” The hand on her shoulder urged her toward the stairs. Her benefactor continued on, slowly walking up, slightly ahead of Arwen as he told her about the different rooms in the manor and where she might find them, but Arwen barely heard.
Arwen was led down the hall on the third floor of the estate until they came to a set of open doors. Peering inside, Arwen noted dismally that the room was as brightly lit as the main entrance, and, in fact, the rest of the house, had been. Standing in the middle of the room was the same young boy as earlier.
“…there’s anything you need, he can fetch it for you. Well then, I think that’s all for now, I shall see you later on.” Having said all he’d intended to say, the man turned and left the room, but his young charge took no note.
Arwen looked to the windows, hoping to find curtains with which to diffuse the light and let out a startled hiss when two small hands reached again for the clasp of her cloak. The young boy quickly withdrew once more to the center of the room, his head bowed. Arwen unconsciously moved to a patch on shade and noted that the boy’s downcast eyes followed closely her every movement, much as her benefactor had done with her earlier.
“What’s your name?” she asked softly after a long moment of awkward silence. The young boy who reminded her so much of her younger sister, if only by hair and youthful frame, remained silent and unmoving.
“Can you hear me?”
The boy nodded mutely.
“Can you speak?”
Again, the boy nodded, but said nothing.
“Can you tell me your name? I don’t know what to call you.”
Silence reigned between the two youths.
Arwen sighed and was surprised to see the boy flinch slightly. “Do you even have a name?”
The boy nodded, but remained silent.
Giving up for the moment, Arwen set about trying to find something to block the sunlight from the room, unconsciously sticking to the shadows as much as possible. She moved from the sitting room into the changing room, passed the bathing room and into the bedroom, unaware of the soft padding of anxious feet following after her. In fact, it wasn’t until she returned to the sitting room and saw that the boy was no longer standing where she’d left him that she realized he had been following her about. Are there any curtains to be found in this place? she wondered as she dropped herself into a chair, bemoaning her benefactor’s obvious love of the sun. Pulling her cloak tightly about her, she was more than a little confused to see the young boy scurry out of the room. It wasn’t until he returned to her rooms carrying a large bundle of cloth that she realized she must have spoken her last thought out loud.
Immediately, she rose from her chair to help the boy cover the windows, not noticing when another servant entered to light the candles scattered about the room.
Feeling much better now that the sun couldn’t beat down on her so harshly, Arwen set about removing her cloak and gloves only to find a small pair of hands reach up, trying to help her with the task, pushing her own hands out of the way without seeming to do so. She watched as the boy took the cloak to hang it up and was about to say something when he began searching the inside pouch. Arwen blinked at the boy a second then opened her mouth to protest, but shut it again when the boy pulled out a book she had forgotten about. He looked at the book a brief moment before setting it on one of the side tables. His task accomplished, he went to the main entry to her rooms and stood there silently with his head bowed.
Arwen watched him, wondering why he just stood there until he cast a quick glance in her direction. Taking a guess that she was to follow him, Arwen moved in the direction of the doors. As soon as she was within a couple of feet, the boy turned and stepped out into the hall. Closing the doors behind Arwen, he led her down to the main floor and through the halls to the dinning hall.
“Ah, Arwen, I am glad that you could join me for dinner. I hope that everything is to your liking?”
Arwen nodded in response and sat in the seat that was pulled out for her by her young attendant, grateful that the sun had almost set. Quicker than Arwen could reach for her plate, it was snatched up and a wide selection of food placed on it before it was set in front of her and her glass filled with wine. Arwen stared down at her plate and picked at the food, pushing it around. She didn’t feel like eating anything, but she could feel the eyes boring into her and it was making her uncomfortable.
Beside her, her young attendant fidgeted nervously with his shirt sleeves, his eyes watching her anxiously as his feet drew patterns on the floor. Across the table from her, her benefactor watched her through calculating eyes.
“Is the food not to your liking?”
“It’s fine. I’m just…not all that hungry,” Arwen said softly, her eyes downcast.
“That’s understandable after all you’ve been through. You may leave, if that is what you wish. Please don’t think you are obliged to sit through dinner for my sake.”
Arwen nodded in thanks and pushed away from the table before her attendant could pull out her chair for her and quietly headed up to her rooms, missing the way the boy shied away under the man’s cold glare.
Arwen opened the doors to her rooms before her attendant could rush before her and open them himself. She was a little surprised when her attendant scurried in after her rather frantically, one could even say desperately. She watched as he disappeared into the next room, the sound of a tub being filled with water reaching her ears soon after.
Moving into the dressing room, Arwen crossed to her bathing room. “You don’t have to do any of this you know. I am perfectly able to do these things for myself. Please, tell your master that I appreciate all he’s doing for me, but I really do not require a servant.”
The young boy quickly finished his task and bowed out of the room, leaving Arwen alone. Figuring that she might as well make use of the full tub rather than let it go to waste, Arwen stripped off her clothes. Arwen picked up the bucket she found sitting beside the tub and filled it, dumping the water over her head. She lathered her body with soap and, after dumping a second bucket of water over her head to rinse away the suds, she climbed into the tub to soak for a few minutes.
Closing her eyes, Arwen let her mind wander, becoming completely oblivious to the passage of time until she felt the water in the tub cooling around her. Stepping from the water, she towelled herself dry; surprised to see that the sun had set long before, replaced with a brilliantly shinning moon. Arwen turned to pick up her discarded clothes and found instead a neatly folded sleeping gown with matching robe of crimson.
Arwen donned the pieces of clothing with a sigh and went to her new sleeping chamber to climb into a warmed bed. The young girl closed her eyes, but she found that sleep evaded her; too many thoughts were running rampant through her mind. Tossing about restlessly, Arwen listened to the sounds of the house, to the faint voices whispering in her ears, until finally, she drifted off into an uneven sleep.
“Come and join us.”
“Nothing holds you any longer.”
“..and be free.”
“Join us and be free.”
“…shouldn’t be caged in flesh.”
“Know your strength, come.”
Arwen drifted awake and the whispering voices slowly faded into the distance. Massaging the stiffness out of her shoulders, she surveyed her surroundings, memories of the past few days slowly returning. Arwen sighed when her eyes fell on her young attendant curled on the floor by her bed and she felt her heart grow cold as realization dawned.
As though sensing her gaze, the young boy raised his head and blinked at her owlishly before bowing his head and scurrying to his feet, flinching the whole while. Arwen sighed once more, noting with more than a little annoyance that it was becoming quite a habit lately. She had been living in the manor for several years and had made progress with the young boy who remained her servant, but still, he lapsed back every now and then.
“I suppose I am expected for breakfast today?”
Arwen sighed at the nod. She really didn’t feel like suffering through another meal. “Well, I’ll have to change then,” she said to herself as she headed for her dressing room. Moving toward the closet, she was beat by her servant who pulled out a few selections and turned to present them to her. He held two outfits for her inspection, once of crimson and one of jade. Arwen took a step closer to view the articles before selecting the crimson one, decorated with a phoenix to match that on her favoured blue. The boy hurried out of the room as she changed, returning shortly with a set of ruby pins for her hair. Arwen paused a moment to look at herself in the mirror. She felt very lonely all of a sudden as all the sadness came crashing down on her. Wanting only to join her family, Arwen forced her legs to carry her into the sitting room, which her young servant boy took as Arwen’s signal that she was ready to leave and proceeded to lead her down to the dinning hall once more.
“Good morning Arwen. I trust that you had a pleasant night?”
“I did,” Arwen lied as she took the seat held out for her.
“I’m glad to hear it. Please, help yourself to all you’d like,” he said cordially.
Arwen sat quietly with her head bowed as she again toyed with the food on her plate, picking at the pieces of fruit until a plate of bread was placed at her side along with a small dish of jam.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of scheduling several training sessions for the day. I’ve already told the boy of them and he’ll make sure you get to where you need to be.”
Arwen nodded in acknowledgment as she nibbled absently on a plain piece of bread.
“Good, then that’s settled. And as much as I’d like to sit and enjoy your company-“
Arwen’s head snapped up and she regarded the distant man across from her coolly.
“Did you even hear what I said, Arwen?”
Arwen bit her lip and lowered her gaze apologetically, shuddering involuntarily as she saw the flash of anger that crossed the man’s hard features.
“It’s of no import,” he sighed. “I really must be getting to work. Have a pleasant day, Arwen. Perhaps I shall see you at diner tonight.”
Arwen nodded politely and muttered some pleasantries in return before pushing away from the table and heading back up to her rooms.
Arwen entered her sitting room and immediately sought the corner chair surrounded most by shadows. Sinking down into its cushions, Arwen made a slight face of displeasure, but settled down nonetheless and picked up her book. She opened the book and sighed sadly, memories of her father’s stories bringing tears to her eyes. Closing the book again, she lowered her head and closed her eyes for a moment in order to recompose herself. When she opened her eyes again, she found her young servant in his usual spot, sitting at her feet.
Slowly, as if with a mind of its own, the young boy’s arm lifted up and he wiped a stray tear from Arwen’s right eye. The two of them sat seemingly frozen for a long while, each seeing a mirror of their own sadness in the other. It was the young servant who finally broke the trance when he rose to his feet and moved to the door.
“It is time for my first lesson them?”
The boy nodded and held Arwen’s cloak out for her when she reached him.
Arwen started, not having seen the boy retrieve the garment. She fastened the cloth over her shoulders quickly and followed her servant through the halls, pulling on her gloves and hood as they descended the stairs. Arwen ducked her head as they stepped outside so that all she could see were the heels of the boy’s feet as he hurried ahead of her. They weren’t outside long, however, before they entered a dark stairwell that spiralled for several floors beneath the earth.
Arwen narrowed her eyes as they continued their descent. Something was pulling at her, didn’t feel right and it was making her uneasy. They reached the landing and her young servant let out a startled cry, cowering against the wall as a shadowy form swept passed them. Arwen’s eyes narrowed further and she stared coldly ahead. She couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but she knew that someone stood there. “If you meant to frighten me, you have failed. Miserably,” Arwen called, placing a calming hand on her servant’s shoulder, silently bidding him to rise from the floor.
“Show yourself! I know that you are there,” she continued, her gaze never wavering from the center of the room where she knew the attacker stood. She couldn’t see or hear anything from the thing, but her attention was suddenly pulled far to her right and she knew that it had moved. All around her, she could hear voiceless whisperings, telling her of her surroundings. They told her that it was coming at her servant’s back. Instantly, she whirled around behind the boy, but not quickly enough to keep him from being hit once more. Next, they told her to guard his right. Again, Arwen whirled about. Too late. His left. Too late. His right. His back. His front. The attacks continued coming with increasing speed and the whispers never faltered. Arwen growled in frustration, her attention on the far end of the room as the attacks finally came to an end.
“Listen to us if you want…”
“You must listen to protect.”
“Better for you to join us.”
“…as you were meant to be.”
“Nothing will stop you then...”
“What sort of game are you playing at? Show yourself! Or are you that much of a coward that you must hide far in the shadows that I can’t see? that you must pick on my servant?” Arwen cried furiously.
Circling around them now. Closing in. Straight ahead. Moving faster and faster.
Arwen whirled in the same moment that the boy was thrown from her side with a strangled cry. Growling dangerously, Arwen lunged, bowling into the figure and tossing it into the wall with a sickening crack.
Just as suddenly as it had begun, it all ended. They were alone in the room. Arwen moved to her servant’s side without err and bent to see that the boy was all right. Arwen wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulders to help him up and cursed as she felt the wet cloth. Arwen hurriedly pulled the boy’s left arm about her own shoulders and helped him up the stairs, dragging him slightly as he struggled to remain on his feet, not once pausing until she had them both back inside the estate and up to her rooms.
She dragged them both into the bathing room and grabbed a towel and wash basin, which she hurriedly filled with water. Arwen found the boy curled up on the floor in a foetal position, body trembling badly, when she returned a moment later. Arwen quickly and gently lifted the boy into a sitting position and tugged him toward the tub, alarmed by the amount of blood.
Lifting the boy’s shirt, her eyes widened in shock at the series’ of parallel gashes she found running over his thin frame. It looked as though a giant cat had attacked him. Arwen cleaned his wounds as gently and thoroughly as she could with what she had, all the while wondering what it was they had faced in that underground chamber. She did not know of any creature that should be able to move with such speed, much less without making so much as a whisper to betray it. Nor did she know of any creature that bore six enormous claws.
“Did you know what we were going into today?”
The boy shook his head dejectedly and cringed, whimpering at the pain it caused him.
“We’re not going to my next lesson. I will need to go into town and get something to properly treat these wounds,” Arwen decided.
He shook his head frantically at the idea, his eyes wide with the fear of anticipated pain.
“You’ll be beaten if I miss one, won’t you…just like you were beaten the other night when I refused you,” she said softly.
Although she had spoken to herself, the boy nodded, his eyes downcast.
Arwen pressed her lips together in a thin line. “Fine then. I want you to stay close to me,” she ordered as she tore her silk top into strips with which to temporarily wrap the boy’s wounds. “I’ll get what I need after my next lesson is concluded.” Arwen quickly tied the last knot and helped the boy with his shirt. After she had seen him to his feet and was confident that he would not fall over, she washed her hands of his blood and went to change her own clothes before following him out into the garden for her next lesson.
Kei muttered as he looked at the closed door before him, then down at his full hands. “Arwen, dinner’s here,” he called through the door as he banged it with his foot. The door opened silently and Kei walked into the dark room, muttering some more as he made his way blindly through the room to one of the little end tables. Setting down the heavy tray, Kei went around the room, yanking open the thick curtains that covered the windows. As the light from the setting sun flooded the sparsely furnished room, he caught sight of a heart-achingly beautiful young woman curled up in the only chair, black eyes blinking in a pale face as Arwen looked up from the book she was reading.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Arwe~en, you have to eat. Look, someone is going to notice soon…” Kei moved the tray closer to his unwilling master and moved about the room, lighting the various candles scattered about. He didn’t know how Arwen could see perfectly well in the dark, but he needed a little light if he didn’t want to crash into the stacks of books piled about the room. “Please don’t make me shove the food down your throat.”
Once more a pair of black eyes blinked at him. There was a spark of anger in the dark orbs, but Kei did not back down from the stare. Arwen was the only person he had in this world and he refused to let her starve herself to death. There was no telling what their master would do if the pale girl lost any more weight. “Eat.”
“…only half of it. You brought too much up.” With that said, Arwen picked at the contents of the plate, alternating bites between this and that and some mushroom soup. Meanwhile, while Arwen ate, Kei tended to the neglected fire, feeding it more wood and moved things around the room. He would have to press Arwen to request some shelves to be built or to move some of the books to the library downstairs; he’d never seen so many books in one place before. “I’m done, the rest is yours,” a soft voice spoke a few minutes later.
“You didn’t touch the dessert,” Kei remarked, scowling.
“You are the one who likes sweets, so enjoy.” With that, Arwen settled back in her chair, staring over at the fire while the slight teenager ate. Savouring the tart, Kei let out a satisfied groan, belly content once more. Clearing away the tray, Kei returned and sat at Arwen’s feet. “Couldn’t you have picked a room on a lower level? It’s hard going up and down so many stairs all day.”
“Sorry, but I didn’t have much choice of rooms,” Arwen responded blandly. Kei cursed himself as the joke backfired. He’d hoped to cheer the girl up a little, not to provoke that note of sadness in her voice. The two of them sat in silence for a good while. About to fall asleep, Kei jerked back to reality when Arwen spoke once more. “I can’t stay here any loner, Kei.”
“Wah? You’re leaving? Does that have anything to do with…?” Kei trailed off, feeling a heavy weight settle on his shoulders.
There was silence for a few more minutes. Kei had long ago learned to remain quiet and wait patiently. Arwen would always answer the question sooner or later, whereas she’d get mad and leave if he spoke and distracted her from whatever had caught her fancy.
“Yes,” Arwen said simply.
All right. Not a complete answer, but it was an answer nonetheless. So, it was about to begin. Not many would live out the year. Kei didn’t spare them a moment’s pity…his life was about to become a living nightmare once more. Not only was he losing his only friend, but his protector as well. “I’ll miss you.” It felt as if his heart was breaking.
Arwen sat up in her chair, reaching out a pale hand to yank on a lock of brown hair. “Hn. You are coming with me, unless you’d rather stay here.” At Kei’s incredulous stare, the pale girl’s lips lifted in a rare smile. “Is that a yes or a no?”
For a second the boy contemplated smacking his master, but decided that might be pushing his luck. Arwen had been more than kind to him, always thinking about what would happen to him before she made any decisions. It had taken a lot of patience and hard work on her part to get him to this point, but he was still unsure of how far he could go with her before he angered her and lost it all. “You…I can’t think of a dirty enough word for you! What do you mean, ‘unless you’d rather stay here’? Aren’t you supposed to be smart? Of course I’m coming!” His glare faded along with his anger at the amusement dancing in her eyes, and he settled his chin on her left knee. “How did you manage that?”
Arwen raised an eyebrow. “No one else has ever attended me, or will willingly do so. …I told him that, while you are too dim-witted to be scared of my monstrous presence, I’d managed to train you rather well…” Arwen let her voice trail off and this time Kei did punch her, ever so lightly, on the thigh. You’ll have to watch that,” Arwen softly admonished the boy.
“I know.” Kei leaned against the slender girl’s legs. It would take a conscious effort to watch his behaviour around Arwen in the future. His friend so rarely left her rooms. She never left unless she was going to her lessons or summoned by the master of the house and because of that the boy was used to it just being the two of them. He would have to remind himself to keep up his subservient manner.
Arwen was indeed a dark secret hidden away. She ventured out from her rooms less and less as time went by, and the other servants would shy away the rare times she walked about the manor. It wasn’t as if Arwen was some horrible monster, but the servants were afraid of the unknown and Arwen was the unknown. Kei was the only servant left from the day she had arrived and the only one who tended to the girl. Their master had systematically disposed of his other servants and brought in new ones. None of the other servants knew a thing about Arwen, other than that she was closely guarded by their master. Kei had been given to her on the basis that a sullen brat of a child wouldn’t be much of a loss if what he was hoping for came to be and ‘the dreaded monster’ awoke and slaughtered him one day. No one in the castle except the master was sure what exactly Arwen was, not even Kei himself and he doubted if even Arwen had a clue, but they had all guessed that if he guarded her as much as he did, then she must indeed be something terrible.
So Kei had been ordered to tend to her. He had been a quiet, withdrawn orphan suffering from the abuse that the other servants heaped on a defenceless child, and expecting the worst from his new master. He had been promptly surprised to find himself tending a beautiful youth only a couple years older than himself. He’d been afraid when she had refused him and still remembered the beating he had gotten for it, as though it had been his fault, but she’d quickly adjusted and done all that she could to keep it from happening again. But she still did not want a servant and he’d had to get used to her doing everything she could get away with. However, it had soon become clear to him that the girl could not be counted on to take care of herself and so he had found his place.
They had been cautious of each other at first; Kei waiting for the abuse to start, Arwen unsure of what to do with him, or if he’d report anything she did to their master, but a friendship had soon developed, regardless of their doubts. They were both too hurt and alone not to seek a little companionship, however dubious. The relationship had been set when Arwen had noticed that Kei could not read or write. She had promptly started to teach him every night as she read him stories from the many books she had acquired, taking it upon herself to see to his education.
Arwen was quick to take the boy under her wing, swiftly putting an end to his abuse by coldly informing the servants that if he was unable to work for her due to his injuries, then she would expect one of them to take the boy’s place. Kei was left alone after that, and he maintained the image of the subservient, withdrawn child, too scared to meet anyone’s eyes for fear of a beating. In private, he blossomed from the attention Arwen lavished on him, discarding his frightened demeanour to bully the older youth, forcing Arwen to take care of herself.
For her part, Arwen showed no signs of affection to her servant outside of her rooms, knowing that if her master learned that they were friends, Kei would be beaten and used against her as her family were now unfortunately beyond her master’s reach. So Kei was filled with joy that he wasn’t going to be left behind.
“You’ll have to start taking care of yourself a little better if I can’t chide you to eat and sleep in front of the others.”
Kei rolled his eyes at the noncommittal answer. He could feel Arwen shifting about uncomfortably in the overstuffed chair. “I don’t know how long we’ll be gone…or what’s expected of me…” Arwen trailed off. It all translated into time away from this hellish estate as far as Kei was concerned. Kei couldn’t believe his luck. Even if it meant that he had to live outdoors, it would be worth it to leave the place behind for a few weeks or months.
There was no further answer to Kei’s unspoken question from Arwen, not that he expected one. The young woman was most likely contemplating her future. The task she had to complete and the long years ahead of her as an assassin. It wasn’t a pretty one. But a lot could happen in the next decade, the youth thought to himself, especially once they left this place. Who knew what opportunity would present itself to them? Maybe they could find a chance at a happier life. A free one.
Busy thinking of ways in which to slip their master’s hold, Kei was startled when Arwen stood suddenly to her feet. “I want a bath.”
“All right. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Kei said and stood up to run down to the main level in order to fetch more firewood to heat the water in the tub.
“That sounds fine.” Arwen turned around and went into her dark dressing room to change into a robe. Kei smiled at her departing back, happy at the prospect of leaving this horrid keep behind them, hopefully forever.