Sunday, 12 February 2017
Chapter 36 - A Dish Served Cold
The scuff of smooth leather footsteps rasped along the cobblestone streets, darkened alleys shadowed by a cloud filled night sky, torchlights casting struggling yellow glow eerily across the slender hovels. The city was quiet, most of its inhabitants trapped within the grasp slumber, only the wretched and inebriated still walking through the winding corridors as midnight approached. A slip of a figure, hooded and cloaked, quietly prowled within the shadows of overhanging awnings. Willow made her way through the backstreets of Southburn, with a flank of silk to shield herself from the worst of the stench. It was the southernmost borough of the city, and for Willow, the easiest access to the great metropolis of Matharyn. Southburn had always been counted amongst the most miserable, yet not because the people here were poor. Indeed, there was plenty of work to go around. It just happened that the work done there was universally unpleasant and foul. Industries, such as the tanneries, the butchers and the slaughterhouses were, by royal decree, clustered in Southburn. There the great winds that swept from the east could blow the stench west and out to sea. The clouded sky threatened to let loose its harbored showers of rain, the strong winds blew with force through the streets, billowing Willow’s black cloak behind her. As she reached the bridge that opened into the Bayburn district and continued her silent march north; the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She knew someone was watching her. She did not let the caution show in her movements, she simply continued forth with her senses acutely aware of her surroundings. Though she heard no footsteps, nor saw any casted shadows, she knew someone was following her. How long had they been tailing her? The stench in Southburn had clouded her sense, she had little will to focus on anything save getting passed the foul smell. Had they followed her from beyond the city? As she turned down a familiar alley, completely shrouded from light, she whispered the command word to activate her ring. She swiftly sealed herself against the wall. There she waited in utter silence. For a moment, she simply paused and listened. She heard nothing bar the sounds of distant workers; bakers awakening to start their morning chores, fishermen dragging their catches from the dockyards. As she remained where she was, she frowned, beginning to doubt her suspicions. Though the vampiric curse had heightened her senses, allowing her vision to see clearly in the swarming darkness of night – she saw nothing. As she slowly pushed off from the wall, to peer around the corner of the building back into the main street, a rough hand clamped around her mouth and dragged her forcefully back into the shadows. Although the last time she had roamed the streets of Matharyn, she would have been easy prey for the scum who prowled at night – she was no longer the same weak and delicate nobleborn girl. With eery grace she slipped from the attackers grasp, ripping her daggers free as she twirled beneath the outstretched arm, pouncing forward to thrust her blade. The assailant was ready for her move, parrying her blade with his own, to lunge forward with his other. Willow was too quick to be struck by his attack, lithely swerving her body as the dagger plunged into where she had been a mere second before. She darted to the side, leaping forward with both blades carving one above another. The shadowed figure evaded her leap with ease, ducking under her swing and striking out, piercing their blade into her thigh. Though she gritted her teeth against the pain, she saw the opening her opponent had unwittingly given her. She deftly shifted her weight to her injured leg, throwing her other forward, in a crunching kick to the jaw. As they flew backward and clamped their hand to their mouth, Willow heard a familiar grunt of pain. When the attacker leapt to their feet and lunged towards her, she felt the grin come across her face. They clashed weapons again, meeting each strike for another, slicing skin and tearing armour. As Willow lashed out with one blade and pirouetted to slash the other, she felt the second tear deeply through flesh.
“You’re getting too slow,” she laughed, through rapid breaths of exertion.
Suddenly, the assailants’ onslaught heightened. Their movements quicker, their strikes more vicious, a terrifying advance to their attack. As Willow struggled to block and respond to each hit, the grin dropped from her lips. With each furthered thrust and strike, each seeking the fatal blow, she began to doubt her assumptions. Her mind raced with the possibilities and implications. Over the two years she had been working for Thorn, how many different people had they provoked? They had riled the ire of the men and women of Balentyne, sons and brothers of those they had killed. They had unknowingly seen the wrath of a great silver dragon against Baron Vandermir, one of the ancient Barcan line. They had betrayed and banished the feral and fearsome Vetra-Kali, they had slain the divine Ara Mathra, slaughtered the people of Valtaerna, and assassinated the great Eiramanthus. Though, Willow doubted the chosen weapon of vengeance of those creatures would be a swift death in the shadowed night. Suspicion flared as she growled her anger, surging the boiling blood within her veins to a furious pique, returning her attacks and thrusting herself forward to meet the onslaught. Perhaps, she thought, Cardinal Thorn had seen fit to try and eliminate her early. For here, she was alone. There was no one in this city that would come to her aid. If they knew who she was, they would wish the assailant well in his mission. Suddenly, the attacker vanished from sight. Willow thrust her blades into where he had been standing, but only carved through the emptiness of the shadows. She bent low and span around slowly, keen ears and eyes alert for any sound or movement. She had not noticed a thing until a bludgeoning weight barreled her into the wall of the building. A firm hand pressed the side of her face into the sharp edges of the rough stone wall, while a crushing weight kept her body caged and immobile.
“Are you so paranoid,” the familiar masculine voice slithered in her ear, “That you have forgotten how to have fun?”
As his other hand traced the shape of her waist, Willow could do nothing but laugh.
“A simple hello would not have sufficed?” she smirked.
She felt Switch’s gleeful grin as his teeth raked over her neck.
“Not nearly as enjoyable.”
When he bit firmly into the flesh of her neck, Willow gasped aloud. It was a curious sensation. His teeth were far sharper than she remembered, the points stinging as if traced with an acidic linger. As she reveled in the agonizing bliss of his dominating embrace, she felt him draw in a deep breath. Suddenly, he gripped her hair and ripped her backwards, spinning her to face him. As he held her tight and pulled her towards him, his crushing grasp constricted in her hair. She looked into the dark wells of his eyes, overcome once more with the unending depth of darkness they held. As his other hand latched onto to her waist and his nails struck deep into her side, her mouth parted as she whimpered. A slow grin lifted the corners of his lips, as he looked to her with a strange curiosity.
“I did not think it had been that long,” he rasped with intrigue, “But so much has changed. You’ve been busy…”
Willow chuckled as best she could in his unrelenting grip.
“You thought I would remain idle and await your return?” she grinned in a breath.
He simply smirked at her, “One could only hope.”
While he looked at her with curious eyes, as if seeing something she could not, Willow grew tired of him ruling their game. Slowly, she traced her hands along the sides of his thighs, dragging them inward towards the buckle of his belt. His brow arched as she leisurely unclasped it, eyes locked to his as she pulled her weight downward. Though he did not release the grip in her hair, he watched her with eyes alight in amorous excitement, allowing her to lower herself to his waist. As she pulled his trousers loose, she dragged them to his knees. When she was sure he was sufficiently invested in her exploration, she grinned a sinful and mischievous smile. Without warning, she yanked on the pants with all her might, forcing him to lose his balance and reflexively let go of her hair. She sprang up and shoved her shoulder into his stomach, still holding his pants as the force thrust him backward. With her grip on his pants, he had no way of regaining his balance as he fell heavily to the cobblestone ground. She was swift as she jumped forward, sinking her knees into the joints of his shoulders, effectively pinning him to the floor.
“You are right,” she grinned deviously, “It is far more enjoyable…”
“How did you find me?” Willow asked, walking unhurried through the deserted streets, “Surely you have not been watching me this entire time?”
Switch smirked, “I have my ways.”
Willow rolled her eyes, playing down the intense curiosity that swarmed through her mind.
“Should I ask why you have returned to the city?” he enquired casually.
“You could,” Willow chuckled, “But you know I wouldn’t tell you.”
“You do not have to,” he replied with an arched brow, “I can see it in your eyes.”
“Truly?” Willow scoffed, “Then please, enlighten me.”
Switch looked away from her, eyes scanning the city skyline.
“You come for revenge,” he said quietly.
“That is a very vague sentiment,” Willow commented, arching her brow in return.
“You have not figured it all out yet, have you?” he mused, “You come for answers.”
A coldness came over Willow’s face, guarded suspicion flaring in her chest.
“Do not fret,” he chuckled, “I will not interfere.”
Willow frowned as her steps slowed, looking to the dark and mysterious man.
“You know a great deal more than you are letting on,” she said accusingly.
“Of course,” he laughed, “You will learn no lessons if you are simply given all the answers.”
“Yet I can be better prepared with more information,” she countered, “Why do you not tell me?”
As they reached the overpass that led into the region of Wayburn, Switch guided her under the bridge into a concealed chamber beneath. After closing the door behind her and lighting the hanging lantern, he casually lifted himself to sit upon one of the stone railings that ran the length of the chamber.
“Where is the fun in that?” he sniggered.
He simply grinned towards her as Willow scowled and looked about the curious room.
“You are infuriating,” she pursed.
He laughed as he grabbed hold of her and pulled her closer.
“And yet you cannot help yourself but find me irresistible,” he said smugly.
“I find you,” she growled, tearing herself from his grasp, “Repulsive.”
Suddenly, he flew from his seat, driving Willow backwards into the adjacent stone brick. As her lower back collided with the stone edge, she grunted in pain, yet the weight of him forced her to bend further backward over the railing. With his chest flush, and his face merely inches from hers, he scoffed a scornful laugh.
“We both know that is a lie,” he rasped, a strange and savage warning to his tone, “You’ve never found me repulsive. You’ve never been able to deny me, and you never will.”
Willow could barely breathe as his weight crushed her lungs, she looked up into his eyes, panting ragged and strained air. What she saw swarming in his gaze was something that sparked an unquenchable flame within her. Possession. Hunger. Need. It was not the look of a man who simply yearned for the touch of a certain woman. It was the look of a beast, claiming hold and dominion over what was rightfully his. Willow knew she should have been outraged at his audacity and presumption. She should have thrown him off of her, carved her blade through his throat for daring to assume he had any right to her. But she didn’t. A strange glint of familiarity flickered within her, urging the fire on, fanning the flames of passion further into her soul. She felt the sharp points of her fangs slide from their rest, glimmering in the fire light. As Switch’s wide and consuming eyes watched her fixedly, she lifted her head to his neck and plunged the fangs deep into his shoulder. As the swelled blood melted into her mouth, a strange sensation enveloped her body. Euphoria, bitter sweet elation. She had barely drawn in more than a mouthful before the trembling began. His blood was nothing like any that she had tasted before. With others, her thirst seemed unable to be quenched, throwing her into a frenzy of hunger. The small mouthful of his seemed to swarm through her system in a rapid onslaught. She felt invigorated, energized and enlivened. She felt stronger and faster than ever before. With a bare mouthful, she felt more alive than words could describe. As her mouth dropped and her fangs slid from his flesh, she lowered her head to look at him. To say the grin he wore was a smug one, would have been the greatest understatement. When she opened her mouth to speak, he smothered her words with his lips. He kissed her, commanding her to reply in turn, to follow the dance of his tongue. She had no means of resisting, she could not muster a denial or a fight. For a moment, she was simply his. As he abruptly released her, chuckling as he allowed her up from the stone railing, she had to shake her head to clear it. He turned from her, far passed pleased with himself, a renewed swagger to his step. The racing thoughts through a hazed and unclear mind had Willow frowning as she regained her breath.
“Unfortunately,” he said with a knowing grin, “I have matters to attend to tonight. So this, shall have to wait for another time.”
As he straightened his shirt and wiped the blood from his neck, he returned once more to the all professional assassin.
“This tunnel leads to the underground market,” he said plainly, “Find a man called Ricket, he runs the underground, tell him I sent you.”
When he turned to leave, Willow had finally collected herself enough to laugh at the curious situation. She shook her head as the giggles took hold, forcing Switch to turn back with his brow cocked.
“What is so funny?” he questioned.
She smiled and looked up to him with a look of slight disbelief.
“Who are you?” she asked curiously.
Switch grinned, slowly stepping towards her. He gripped firm hold of her chin and dragged her face to his, pressing his lips possessively against hers. When he pulled back, he spoke few words before he vanished from her sight.
“One who knows you,” he whispered, “Nameless one…”
The plan for her first night in the city of Matharyn, was to scout the grounds of the Monteguard estate. She had wanted to discover if the secret passage along the waterway of the River Danyth was still accessible. But as her mind reeled over the words that Switch had left her with, she decided it would be folly to attempt such a thing with so much distraction and lack of concentration. She made her way to the Wayburn district, the northernmost borough known as the traveler’s quarter. Visitors from all across Talingarde coming to visit the capital either on business or on a pilgrimage to see the great Cathedral, found ample inns and accommodations of all sorts within Wayburn. It was the best place for Willow to stay, as her late entrance would be unnoticed while the nightlife of Matharyn carried on into the morning. She found rest in a simple inn called the Steep Moon Tavern. As she thanked the barmaid who brought the provided dinner, Willow grimaced at the food. It was what appeared to be stewed watercress with sausage made from an unidentifiable meat that had clearly been sitting on the stove since mid-afternoon. Though she wore the garb of a traveler and the enchanted face of another, Willow was still wary that she was within the grand capital, and the same place she had been exiled from. So she had chosen to keep herself hidden in the company of commoners, seeking only a private room where she could sleep in safety and solitary.
When the morning sun rose through the paned glass window, Willow awoke with it in agony. As the bright rays of light touched upon her skin, it seared the flesh that lay exposed. She leapt from the bed and dove for the shelter of the wooden planked wall beside the windowsill. She delicately reached for her shroud, wrapping it tightly around her neck. With the healing potion she retrieved from her pack, she mended the worst of the burns. She cursed the cheap inn for their lack of curtains, she cursed Switch for leaving her so distracted she didn’t notice, and she cursed herself for her own stupidity. As she returned to the corner of the room where the sun failed to reach, she frowned as she watched her skin knit itself together. Though the potion had done its job, it had left the searing scars as it always did. Though the magic within the curious liquid was enough to staunch the flow of blood or simmer the blistering heat of scalded skin; it left the scars behind as permanent reminders. Yet, as Willow sat huddled in the shadows, she watched the scars melt away. She knew when the vampiric curse took hold, she would inherit their ability to heal faster, to cure even the most horrific skin legions. As she watched her skin rapidly smooth, she frowned. To complete the transformation, she was required to die, though she knew not when this was to happen. Sudden worry crept into mind. She had neither a coffin to sleep in, nor the safety of allies to protect her while she passed through the phase of death. Right now she did not have time to see the transformation through. She cursed herself once more. She desperately needed to hurry.
By day she ventured back into the tunnel beneath the bridge, slipping in unseen by the cover of invisibility. When she reached a stone wall, barring further entrance to the passage, she frowned and cocked her head. Upon the stone were crude scratches and curious markings, that seemed simply the result of an inebriated mans late night inspiration. When she looked closer, Willow recognized a strange pattern within the marks. They appeared in the same order and placement as the locks within the abandoned warehouse in Farholde. On a hunch, she pressed the points that met in the same order that she had done so before. The stone shuddered slightly, before the largest of the cracks split and opened the two slabs outward, revealing another passage within. Following the underground tunnel deeper into the underbelly of the city, the sound of voices drifted in from around the far bend. As she grew closer, the unseen brand on her sternum began to hum. She could feel the presence of not one, but two other Serpents. Willow passed the bend into a large and bustling chamber. Groups of men and women crowded in corners, market stalls filled with curiosities and oddities, hooded robed beings shaking hands. As she entered, she felt the drum in her brand pulse, as the man to her right made eye contact with her. Though she was not as surprised or alarmed as the first time, it was still peculiar to see the invisible glow radiating from below his sternum. He said nothing to her, simply inclining his head and continuing his conversation with his associate. When she continued further into the chamber, she felt the pulse again.
“Secrecy is our greatest ally,” rasped a familiar voice, in that foreign language only members of the Black Serpents understood.
“As we strike from the shadows,” Willow replied in turn, smiling as the woman approached her, “Isilynor, it is a pleasure to see you.”
“And you, young Lady Willow,” she smiled, looking her over with shrewd eyes, “You are looking well.”
“I would say the same,” Willow chuckled, “But you are wearing a face far less appealing than the last.”
The shapeshifter appeared to her as an aged woman, not long for the realm of the living. Willow did not quite understand how she recognised her, for she had never seen the face before. Yet nonetheless, she instantly knew it was the same peculiar being as before.
“How do you know this is not my real face?” Isilynor asked, arching her brow, “You may have just insulted the face I was born with.”
Willow could not help but smirk, “No. With charm like yours, your face would be one that would have men sink their own ships in hopes of drowning for you.”
The decrepit looking woman laughed a hearty and throaty chuckle.
“Willow, I’d like you to meet Dimgol Jargonhiher,” she indicated to the stout dwarf to her left.
“Pleasure to meet you Dimgol,” Willow rasped in greeting, inclining her head.
The dwarf simply stared at her, a permanent frown on his brow.
“Can he not understand me, or is he simply that rude?” Willow pursed.
The elderly lady laughed again, “He doesn’t understand you. Though I would not put it passed him to simply ignore you anyway. Needs a severe lesson in mannered discipline. He hasn’t gone through the initiation yet.”
Willow grinned, repeating herself in common.
“Aye,” he slurred in thick dwarven accent, “Nice ter meet ya. Yer Switch’s lass, aye?”
“His lass?” Willow replied with a laugh, “I was his apprentice, yes.”
“Oh aye,” he nodded, “I see yer now.”
“Are you here on pleasure, or business?” Isilynor asked.
“A touch of both,” she shrugged, “Though I am down here on Switch’s suggestion. Do you by any chance know where I can find ‘Ricket’?”
“Through that door,” Isilynor pointed.
“Thank you,” Willow said with a smile, “If you’ll excuse me, I am fairly pressed for time. It was lovely seeing you again.”
“And you,” she replied, before switching to the foreign tongue, “Stay hidden, Serpent.”
Willow inclined her head politely, “Always by the shadows…”
As the afternoon passed and evening came to the city of Matharyn, Willow made her way through the backstreets towards the Golden Bow. It sat upon the highest point of River Danyth’s edge, lining the shore upon a great rock face that shielded Kingsill from the brunt of the western winds. With her ring shrouding her from the moonlit night, Willow crept along the coastline, climbing the rocky shores towards the secret entrance to the Monteguard Manor. As she found the familiar markings hidden upon the windswept boulders, she slowed her steps to a crawl. She picked her way silently across the rugged terrain, eyes peeled for anything out of place. When she located the fraudulent rock face, she smiled. She carefully shifted the surrounding rubble until she found the intricate lock, disguised impeccably well as another cluster of rocky debris. Although she remembered the sequence she had been taught so very long ago, she gave her parents the benefit of the doubt that they were smart enough to change the combination. Instead, she lifted her tools from her pack and carefully unlocked the panel from inside the mechanism, avoiding the poison dart trap that hid within the cliff face above. She pushed the panel free, senses keenly aware of her surroundings, as she stepped into the open tunnel and sealed it behind her. She had no need for a torch, for her sharp eyes could see perfectly in complete darkness. She crept in utter silence through the tunnel, slowly making her way deeper, careful to avoid the set traps as she passed. When she finally reached the other end of the winding passage, she approached the door to the Monteguard’s secret sanctum. As she checked over the handle, she frowned to see the poison dart eroded in it's trap. It looked as if it had remained untouched the entire time Willow had been gone. With careful hands she disabled the trap and unlocked the hidden door. As she pushed on the stone panel, she felt it jam on its hinge, as if it to had remained closed for the years that had passed. Stepping through into the library filled with countless volumes of forbidden texts and lore, Willow felt the frown burrow deeply. White sheets lined with layers of dust clothed each of the great bookshelves, an undisturbed film of caked dust across the sandstone floor, utter darkness consuming the room. Willow crept through the chamber between the shelves, leaving slender footprints as she passed, frowning to see no torches lay within the sconces. She listened intently as she prowled through the deserted chambers beneath the manor house. As she reached the main cellar that held all of the hidden pathways to the rooms beyond, she found it was the only one lit by torchlight. As the flame burned upon the wooden stake, freshly alight and burning low, Willow guessed it could not have been lit more than a mere hour before. She looked around the once grand cellar, and continued to frown further. Once, the Monteguard’s cellar would have been the envy of the greatest wine connoisseurs in the country. With collections from all regions and realms, the rarest stock that had been procured through the decades. Now, the supply was dwindled and scarce. As she continued up the stairs, the foreboding and curious scene only continued. Though the main library was full and ordered, the room held tell of disrepair. The carpets were scuffed, the grand rugs askew, the paned windows smeared in dirt and dust. Though the rooms that she passed were certainly kept liveable, they were far less than the impeccable standard the Monteguard household had forever kept. The guest chambers were left with unmade beds and untended plants. Even the number staff sleeping in the servants quarter had cut down to nearly half of their number. When Willow approached the greeting chamber, she saw the flicker of fire from beyond the door. With silent steps and quiet hands, she opened the wooden door. Two empty bottles of wine lay tipped on their side upon the small table, the stench of stale liquor and cigars wafting throughout the chamber. And there, sitting in the high backed chair, hunched over his knees staring deep into the fireplace, was her father. Though set in her anger, and primed for revenge; Willow’s heart sank to see him. He was but a shell of his former self. His skin hung on his gaunt figure, hollowed eyes of tired exertion, pain and numbness clear in his face. He looked the picture of a broken and vacant man. Though childish, her first reaction was to run to him, to pull him close and hope he embraced her in return. At the thought, she seethed in resentment. She knew not what trickery was afoot, she knew not what game he was playing – but she would play no part in it. Steeling her heart with the iced touch of remembered betrayal, she swung the door shut with a loud and echoing thud. As she turned the key and pulled it free from its lock, she saw her fathers back stiffen. Slowly, she walked into his view, though he did not look away from the flames. As she slowly lowered herself into the adjacent armchair, cold eyes took in his stature.
“Why must you torment me so?” he sighed, a sullen and defeated breath.
“Torment you?” Willow scoffed, “Was my simple existence a torment?”
He roughly grabbed the glass of wine in front of him, throwing back its contents in a single gulp. Clutching the glass in his fingers, he exhaled sharply.
“Will you never leave me alone?” he whispered, “Will you never leave me be?”
“I have little patience left for your games,” Willow growled, “I have no time for this pathetic show. You cannot face your actions? You cannot look me in the eye?”
Suddenly, he cried out in anguish, hurling the glass at the wall passed Willow’s head. As the shattered remains erupted along the wallpaper, leaving behind the shadow of burgundy stain, he shook his head in forlorn sorrow.
“Every night,” he sobbed, “A different story! Every night… can you not allow me to grieve? Will you not even give me that?!”
“Enough!” Willow snarled, with venom enough to force his sight to her own, “You threw me to the wolves! You betrayed your own daughter! Give me one reason I should not slit your throat right here!”
“My daughter,” he wept, with eyes of bitter suffering, “Were you really here, I would offer my throat to you willingly.”
His words struck a chord deep within her heart. She had always known how to tell a lie from a genuine truth, and as the dejected man stared mournful eyes towards her, she believed his heartbreak was genuine. Who did he think she was? Who had been visiting him each night? In the time that she had been gone, what had happened to the charming and lively Duke of Keldenryn, Bartley Cassidus Rebold Monteguard? With an aching heart that urged her to follow her instincts, Willow lifted herself slowly from the armchair. As ginger steps took her to his side, she reached her hand to lay across his cheek. When she made contact, and the warmth of her skin collided with the cold press of his jaw – his eyes flew wide. He snapped his head to look up at her, only now truly seeing that she was indeed standing in front of him.
“Y-you live?” he stammered, panic and joy swarming across his face, “Willow?! Please tell me that is really you!”
He sprang up from his chair, frail arms grasping at her through trembling limbs. She knew not what to make of his actions as he pulled her close and held her there crushingly tight, in an embrace so potent it was as if he would never let go.
“My girl,” he sobbed into her hair, “You’re here, you’re alive!”
For a moment, Willow simply allowed the man to weep his relief, though she was still struggling to understand how it could be so. As he held her close, her mind was spilt with two vastly contrasted emotions. On one hand, she wept on the inside. Her heart thundering in her chest in sheer solace, unsure as to how to proceed with her father and yet entirely willing to hear him out. On the other hand, the furious hatred teemed within her. This was the man who willing gave his daughter up, who betrayed his own, for hidden gain and truths. Though she could forgive even the most dire of sins – betraying one you love surpassed it all. As the anger fought the heartache, she pushed the feeble man away firmly. He dropped back into his seat, a spark of hope that twinkled in his iris as he gazed at her in disbelief.
“… why?” was the only question she could muster.
A sadness of regret and shame came over his face, as he sighed a long and morose breath.
“Sit,” he indicated to the chair beside him, “I suppose I have a lot to tell you, I must be honest with you, I have wronged you more than I can ever expect to be forgiven for. The very least I owe you is the truth.”
Slowly, Willow found herself moving to the armchair, lowering herself with a clenched heart and cold eyes.
“I am sorry,” he began.
“No,” Willow cut him off viciously, “You do not simply get to say that. Sorry is for when you spill wine on a friend’s rug. Sorry is for dropping your fork at dinner. Sorry is NOT for betraying me, sending me to the slaughter! Your daughter, your own flesh and blood!”
He looked to her with sunken eyes, a small and sad smile on his lips.
“My daughter, yes,” he said quietly, shaking his head softly, “My flesh and blood… no…”
The words came as a shock, a sudden revelation that forced her heart to shudder in her chest.
“W-what…?” she stammered, disbelief and panic pulling her brow low.
“Please,” he pressed earnestly, “Sit down. Allow me to explain…”
“Three decades ago, your mother was informed by the healers that she did not have the strength to carry a child. Barren, they called it. We had waited many years to conceive, we had tried so very many times, but alas, we were fated to fail. By the time we had come to accept it, we gave up the ideal of continuing the family name, we gave up the illusion of family and children. We had each other, but that was all. It was on a journey towards Ghastenhall that it all changed. We passed through the small region of Yammerfield, or Hammerfield,” he sighed, “Forgive me, my memory fails me. But the small farmland had been beset by a curious illness, killing most of its inhabitants much as the plague is doing so now. I remember wrapping our faces in silk and kicking our horses faster to clear the area before we too were struck down by the sickness. It was then that your mother heard it. A baby, crying out from the empty hovel. I have never known your mother to turn her head for anyone, not even me. But she did for this child. She rode back to the peasants’ house, holding the silk over her face and simply walked in – fearless, heedless! And when she returned, she held the babe in her arms. The child was perfect. Hazel eyes that glowed red in the sunlight, shining white skin and a head of sable locks; all in perfect mirror to your mothers own. That is where we found you.”
Though the thoughts swarmed her mind in an unrelenting vortex, she could not speak. Discomposure held the words from escaping her lips.
“We continued on to Ghastenhall, with a surprise for our friends there. We were vague on the dates and chose to travel further across the land than we were planning to, returning to Matharyn with you. With our daughter. The priests and healers labelled you a miracle. And you were. You were our miracle…”
He looked to her with eyes filled with love, with warmth and fondness – the way a father should look to his daughter. But after all that had transpired over the years, it was not enough.
“And then?” Willow scowled, “That is it? I am not yours so you decide to send me to the pyre?! And what, now you have had a change of heart?!”
Bartley smirked as he wiped the tears from his eyes, “Ours by birth or not, you have your mothers temper… and her patience.”
“I have had enough!” Willow growled, “Just tell me, why did you turn me in?!”
Her fathers gaze softened, though fear lingered in his gaze.
“I was told to…” he said quietly, “I did not have a choice. Know this, child. If I had any say it, I would have stood by you.”
“Told to by whom?!” Willow snapped, “Whose orders could be stronger than the loyalty to the daughter you supposedly loved?!”
Wide eyes lifted to her own.
“His…” he breathed in terror.
Willow frowned, curiosities and suspicions flying free within her mind. Asmodeus wished her to fall? He wished her to be captured, to undermine the will and work she did in his name? Yet she could not ignore the realisation, she could not fault the repercussions of the actions, having led her to achieve more for Him than she had ever been able to in her simple city life. As the thought bounced around in her mind, it suddenly seemed to make a portion of sense.
“There is more,” her father said softly, interrupting her spiralling thoughts.
“What else?” Willow asked dubiously.
Bartley pushed his way out of the chair, using his timid limbs to straighten his stance. When he offered his arm to her, Willow could not help but frown.
“I will tell you of it,” he shrugged softly, though she could see the hurt in his eyes, “But I know you would rather see it for yourself.”
For a moment, she hesitated. Unsure where the answers to come were to take her, unsure if she was willing to accept anything further. Yet, she was unable to completely resist, with the temptation and curiosity swimming freely within her. As she accepted his arm and rose to allow him to lead, she saw the small joy return to his face.
“When we found you,” he continued, “We searched the house for any information to identify you. Of course, we were not planning on using it to find you alternative relatives. We were hoping to destroy any evidence of your birth, so it could not be traced that you were not our own. Instead, we came across a journal. It was the log of a wandering priest. He had taken rest at the farm town on his way through to Valtaerna. He wrote that at the appearance of the full moon, an angel arrived on the doorstep. There in the celestial beings’ hands was a baby. Skin of pale white, hair of midnight ebony, eyes of hellfire red. The angel tasked the two peasants with the protection of the child, urging them to utmost secrecy. Commanding that the child be kept safe, and above all, its existence kept secret.”
“Wait,” Willow frowned, shaking her head, “An angel? That is absurd! You would have me believe I am the child of a celestial? A child of heaven?”
“No,” he replied, opening the hidden door way in the library, offering her lead into the cellar, “I would not imply that. What you are is a mystery, even to us. The journal continued to say that the priest was moved by the arrival of the being, and chose to remain long enough to see you through the first stages of your life until he was sure you would be healthy and live well. It was not long after that the strange illness took their lives. He wrote of the suddenness in which it came upon them. By morning they were well, by evening they were moments from death.”
As they reached the landing of the stairs, he walked ahead of her and opened the wall into the musty and dust ridden office. Brushing off the layered grime and soot from the family safe, he twirled the familiar combination and pulled free a wary leather bound journal.
“The priest left a plea in his final entry,” he recalled, flicking through the pages towards the back, “Beseeching the one who found the journal to raise the child as the angel had wished; in utter secrecy and safety. Though we were not doing it by the words of the archon, we followed his orders nonetheless.”
As he handed the journal to Willow, and she read the words that had been written long ago, she felt her heart whine in sorrow. Who was she? What was she? Her entire life had been a lie. The blood that ran through her veins was not the singing pride of the noble Monteguard line. The blood in her veins felt foreign in her skin, it felt wrong and ill-fitting. Everything she had known about herself was a simple falsehood, orchestrated by a being of good and purity. What did she really know about herself? As the thought sunk deep into her mind, like the weight of a sudden boulder that dragged upon her soul – she slumped back against the wall. Her father watched her in worry, agony in his face as if he felt the pain as keenly as she did. Family. It had ever been the most important thing in her life. And yet, as she looked to the man who had raised her, fed her and clothed her; he was simply a merchant of opportunity.
“Why raise me to be Asmodean?” she asked him quietly, a cold emptiness to her voice, “Would it not have been easier to simply allow me to be of Mitra? Why raise me into a life of further secrets?”
“You figured it out on your own,” he smiled, as if the memories of her younger self warmed his thoughts, “You came to us when you were only a small child, and told us that He had found you, that He spoke to you. You called Him your friend.”
Willow frowned deeply as the recollections came in brief flashes through her mind.
“I think, I remember,” she said distractedly.
“We had never shown you the shrine in the other room. We were not planning to, yet like everything else you did, you found your own way. You were six years old when we first found you sleeping by the base of the statue. You told us that you didn’t remember how you got there, or where you were. But you felt safe by His feet, how could we tell you no?”
“What happened?” she asked hesitantly, unsure she wanted further answers to cloud her mind, “Why did He tell you to turn me in?”
The joyous face of times passed seeped from his hollow cheeks, as a bitter resentment took hold.
“He said that you were to walk a path to a life of glory, he told us you must fall to truly rise. We could not deny him. You were our daughter, but you were always His. You gave yourself to Him long before he demanded it. When the whispers started, we tried to ignore them. We tried for so long, but it was futile. We did not know what we had truly done until we heard word of your arrest…”
“What do you mean?” Willow asked in confusion, “You were not in contact with Switch?”
“Switch?” her father frowned, “I have never heard that name.”
Curiosity appeared amongst the uncertainty and perplexity.
“We thought we had killed you,” he whispered, tears returning to his eyes, “We heard of your escape, so we were granted hope that you had survived and it had not been all for nothing. But then the days continued to pass with no word. No sightings of you, no whispers, no rumours. You had simply vanished. Two years. And there has not been a day gone by that I have not thought of you. That I have not tortured myself for what I had done to you. I would have killed myself long ago… but it was a mercy I did not deserve.”
“What did you do?” Willow asked, “What did He have you do? How did you turn me in if you have not met the man who executed the plan?”
“We were told to travel into the forest down by Fell Valley,” he said quietly, eyes downcast, “And find an old temple. There we left a sheet of parchment upon the broken altar… with the three words that have haunted my waking days and sleepless nights for the last two years…”
When his voice trembled and his words ceased, Willow steeled herself against his answer. As he hung his head in remorse and regret, she denied him the chance at silence.
“What did it say?” she rasped, unwilling to relent.
He looked up into her eyes, and with a breath of repentance he whispered, “She is ready…”
After a time spent in silence, they returned to the main floor of the Monteguard manor. When Bartley suggested they wake her mother, she was unsure if she could endure anything more.
“It is enough for one night,” she sighed, “I need to… process it all.”
“Please,” he whispered, “Please Willow. Just simply show her you are alive.”
“I cannot,” she lashed, turning from him, “I cannot do this. I need to leave.”
“Please Willow!” he begged, “Please! She has stopped eating, she has not left in the house in more than a year. She does nothing but weep. Please, just speak her to her. If only for a moment…”
Willow clenched her eyes tightly, fighting back the tears, refusing to let them flow as they wished. She was utterly lost. Though she had played the nights events over in her mind an uncountable amount of times as she had approached the manor, nothing could have prepared her for what she had found. How could she have known the story would be told this way? How could she have guessed that her past would be fabled so? She had pictured taking the lives of her parents in payment for their betrayal. She had imagined savouring the sweet taste of vengeance. She had dreamed of sating her wrath in a shower of crimson gore, painting the walls of the manor red; the colour of her hatred and ire. Yet, as she stood in vestibule of her childhood home, she felt her heart thud in strenuous ache. If she believed the tale that her father had told, then they had not betrayed her. They had simply obeyed their master, followed his word and his guidance. And she could not fault them for that.
“Please Willow,” he breathed.
A long and painful sigh fell from her lips. She opened her eyes, unable to retrain the tears any longer. With not a word, she turned for the stairs and slowly climbed to the beat of her trembling heart. As she listened to the scuff of her feet upon the hard wood steps, her mind recalled the memories of her mother. Had she been wrong all these years? She had seen her parents as disloyal and lazy in their devotion to Asmodeus. She had seen her parents lack of faith and dedication as sheer blasphemy grown from indolence. Had they simply been trying to protect her? Attempting to shield them from him in fear of losing her? In the end, as the Lord of the Nine always did, he commanded them to his will. If it was Willow that he was after, she had indeed handed herself to him willingly. As she reached the grand doors that housed her parents bedchamber, she exhaled sharply. She turned the doorknob slowly, stepping through the frame upon legs of tremors. When she saw the frail form of a withered woman upon the bed – her heart seized. Her mother had waned and wilted, her slender stature having almost halved in size, her skin loose and slack upon her bones. Though she lay in the rapture of slumber, there was no rest that greeted her. The lines upon her brow pulled tight relentlessly, as red and swollen eyes held closed. It was clear that she had spent a great many hours weeping before retiring to the agony of sleep. With the sound of her father approaching the door, Willow’s soft steps slowly brought her to the side of the bed. She sat and sank into the cushioned mattress, tearful eyes looking over the aged woman. Gently reaching out a hand, she traced her fingers along the side of her mother’s weathered face.
“Mother…” she breathed, in a choked and painful voice.
As her eyes flickered open, Willow felt the tears fall along her cheeks.
“No,” her mother shuddered, violent weeping taking hold.
Willow dropped her hand and simply stared back into the eyes that had watched her grow. When her mother ripped herself to the other side of the bed and began to wail in misery, Willow’s heart thundered in her chest.
“Mother,” she rasped.
“Begone foul spirit!” her mother screamed, “Do not do this to me again!”
“Anithara,” her father said softly, “It is not a dream…”
Slowly, the wailing ceased. Her mother shakily turned towards her, eyes wide of disbelief.
“No,” she whispered, “It cannot be…”
As the tears continued to flow, Willow sat straight backed with her head high. She tried to remain cold and distant, but as her mother reached for her, her strength fractured. She could not deny the woman that raised her. Though not born of her blood, Willow was her daughter by bonds that surpassed the power of bloodlines. When Anithara embraced her, weeping her heartfelt apologies into Willow’s lap, she held her tightly through the sobbing. She was not heartless. She was not unfeeling. She did not revel in her parents misery. She pitied them, for they loved her more than she could ever love them. It was a harsh and grim realisation when it sang true in Willow’s mind. These broken beings had suffered, a long and unending torment of guilt and grief, and all she felt was pity. She wished them no more anguish or sorrow, she wished no more tears to be spilt on her behalf. But she could not love them as they did her. She was not a creature of love. Though she knew not her origins by word or tale, she did not need to be told. She was a being of hell. She was a force of Asmodeus’ will…