In my hand I gripped a silver dagger. Skulls and vines swirled around to make the hilt and the blade had a long forgotten language scrolled across ever millimeter of it. The edge was keen, a tool my family handed down to the next generation of royalty. I didn’t care to inherit the wretched thing. In my honor, a masquerade party whispered on in the lower levels of the castle, ignoring my feelings in this all. Enough was enough, I intend on ending this centuries old tradition of blood-eating with my resignation from achieving the throne. My father, the leader of this nation called The House, would rather imprison me if he heard the thoughts in my head.
“Are you not joining the celebration, Dante?” The voice belonged to Viceroy Falco, a sinister bastard who was a revered war hero. “Ah, I see they handed the Sacred Blood Blade over to you so soon…”
Looking over my shoulder, his lips were tight and a scornful flare in his eyes told me what I already knew, “I’m sorry my father did not hand it to you, Viceroy Falco.”
“It’s only because you are the last surviving son of the king,” he snorted, stepping closer to get a better look of the laughing skulls on the hilt. “I think you are still too young and naïve to be given such a sacred artifact.”
“Twenty-eight is very old in human terms.” It earned me a sneer, his fangs clenched as I cover the blade with the silken black cloth I had received it in. “I suppose I am old enough to know not to misplace this into the wrong hands.”
“Watch your words,” Viceroy Falco hissed, turning on his heels, he put his mask back on, “If I didn’t know any better, you were accusing me of being a thief.”
“Don’t fool yourself, Falco.” I had no fear of the monster before me, my maroon eyes hitting his own with supremacy. “If I wanted, I could end your life here.”
“A lot of talk for a Daemonis who has fought only one tiny battle.” Gripping his sword he finished his warning for me, “I have slain armies of men before your conception. A day will come where I will take what should be mine.”
“And I will be sure you fail when that time comes.” I watched him march away, laughter rolling from him. “No one will be allowed to hold this dagger that started this devilish desire for blood-eating. Tonight I will not partake in my first feeding.”
Tucking the dagger into my leather tunic, I gripped the cold marble railing at the balcony. Looking down, it was only two-stories high. Snow lay heavy across the ground and topiary. Winter was at its peak, the days more dark than light, and the icy air a reminder of the harsh desires held by this nation who call themselves The House. With little effort I was up and over the railing, falling through the freezing bite of the wind. Landing in silence, I peered at the lights and shadows from the nearby ballroom. A great weight was lifting, and without no remorse, I headed for the forest with speed.
Deafened by my thoughts, I sat there on an old boulder with its stone cold and wet with ice where I touched it. The ancient mountain forest encased me, tall and dark in the wintry night. The snow fell steadily, growing heavier on top of me, but I didn’t even notice the frigid bite of it. I had sat there for so long that one would have mistaken me for a statue with snow piled thick on my head and back. Remorse heavy on my heart, I stared at my pale childlike hands. They were no different from an eight year-old human boy’s hands, but these were mine at the age of twenty-eight because I am a daemonis. The older I get the slower I’ll age and it was rare for my kind to die of natural causes or old age because we possessed this immortal-like lifespan.
These tiny vessels held the taboo I had performed in secrecy within nature’s sanctuary. Tonight I made the choice to change my life’s path. If the officials from The House discovered my deed, they would kill me for my betrayal. The steam from my breath cleared from my sight as my maroon eyes gave a resentful glare at those tiny hands and what they held.
In the left hand a silver dagger; its handle embellished with elegant ivy carvings and its blade melted the snow when the falling flurries touched it. This was a gift I had received hours before, a prized family heirloom. It had been the tool in which my ancestors developed their art of eating blood; its magic ancient, its task dark. There was no desire for me to follow those bloodied footsteps of my family.
The other hand gripped a sixteen-knot braid of dark brown hair that once fell down my back. In my youth, I had been proud of this rope and the amount of knots it carried, not realizing I would have to sacrifice who I was inside to keep it. With this gone, my status was no longer above all others in The House or the land of Grandemere. My status on the social pyramid had fallen to the bottom tier with one tug of the dagger.
I had escaped and would seek a peaceful life away from the wars I would have been pushed into, and worse, in charge of commanding. There would be no regret for leaving my burdens behind and giving them to someone more willing. All of those responsibilities are forbidden for me to even think about without a single knot to show my status. Nothing more than a commoner, ranked a servant with no braid. I was no longer a worthy citizen without the care of a keeper. Commoners and the lower class at least held a dignifying three-knot braid. No one owned them, not like those who were shaven and hairless. Those above them with no braid were said to voluntarily devote their lives to a person, whom we called a keeper.
Who would I choose to devote my life to? Who would I serve to atone for the sins I have witnessed while living in Glensdale, the capital of The House? I want to protect them from the darkness I found myself drowning in for all these years. This person will become everything my life stands for and strangely, the very thought makes me happy. The pride and excitement to have the chance to watch a life unfold before me is like a dream come true. They would need to be human, someone unaware of who I might be…
Where shall I ever find a being worthy of the title keeper?
“Aren’t you cold?” A small voice took me from my thoughts as I failed to break my glare from the dagger. “Are you lost?”
After a moment, I willed my eyes to look in the direction of the soft voice. He was a human boy, though we looked of the same age, he had no way of understanding I was twenty years older. Tufts of his blonde hair pushed out of his wool cap as he stared astonished at me. His blue eyes were bright with the innocence of his kindhearted nature. Behind him was a toboggan with branches bundled on it, he was out collecting wood for fire. Dropping the toboggan’s rope, he began shuffling off his thick mittens and struggled to take his outer coat off. Looking down at myself, I had failed to take note I had started my journey with nothing more than my brown leather capris, a horridly thin white blouse, and a white waistcoat. I found myself smiling at the notion this child’s first concern was to provide warmth for me.
Yes, this boy is worthy to be my keeper.
“I’m not cold.” The boy paused in confusion, his cheeks and nose red from the freezing night air. “Isn’t it awfully late for you to be out here?”
“I didn’t gather enough wood, so Grandpa Paul sent me out for more. He says his old bones don’t handle the night air well these days and I need to be more aware of what I am doing.” He was fighting to close his coat back up, his fingers numb and struggling to hold the buttons. “I was on my way back if you want to come with me. There’s a good fire already going.”
“I suppose I can help you collect more wood. It would be a fine chance to earn my keep to stay until morning.” Gripping my braid and dagger, I gave them one last sorrowful look before laying them on the ground at the base of the old rock. “Your Grandpa wouldn’t be the one they call Old Farmer, is he?”
“Some of the traders call him that.” I brushed the boy’s hands to the side and started fixing his coat, closing it again as he continued, “They tell me that Grandpa’s been here since they were kids and no one dares to mess with the Old Farmer in the woods. I don’t know why that would mean anything. No one really knows we’re here.”
“It is far from any city or town.” As he pulled his mittens back on, I grabbed the rope to his toboggan, waiting for him to lead the way. “I suppose I shall ask your Grandpa to teach me to be a farmer when we get there. I’ve always wanted to learn how to grow things and live off the land.”
“Oh, he would like that very much. He tries to teach me, but I’m not interested in that stuff.” His excitement was comforting, but he looked back at the snow-covered boulder where he had found me. “Don’t you want to grab your things?”
“No.” Sighing, I motioned for him to lead the way as the snowfall thickened. “If I ever need them, I know where to find them.”
“I don’t know, a lot of people get lost out here.” He did his best to warm up his nose and cheeks with his mittens for a moment. “My name’s John, what’s yours?”
“Dante.” Grabbing branches as we went, I followed him with nothing more than the yellow flickers of his lantern to guide us through the labyrinth of trees. “Nice to meet you, John.”
“Grandpa is mad at me, Dante.” It was a curious thing for someone to say to a stranger, but then again, in this child’s eyes I was no different than he.
“I am sure with this much wood you’ve corrected your misjudgment.” He paused in his steps and with those soulful blue eyes he caught my own in them.
“It has nothing to do with the firewood.” His smile faded as he gave me a grave look, his brow furrowed as he spoke, “He’s upset because I still won’t change my mind about becoming a Priest.”
All I could do was smile. Never had I met someone so young who had sounded so sure of his chosen path as John had in this moment. His tone of voice was strong and as we stood there in the snow, I had made up my mind as well. If this eight year old boy could choose such a reckless path, I too should be able to decide on my own destiny.
Baring the trademark of one’s servant with no braid upon my head, I shall devote my life to this child, this future priest, John.
“I think the title of Priest fits you well, John. You are indeed a good person and utmost charitable in every sense of that title already.” I was amazed by the power he held in his eyes. “It’s a good path for someone such as yourself and I wish you the best of luck.”
“It just feels right.” He huffed, steam blocking out his face as he turned on his heels.
It wasn’t much further down the hillside before the glow of a cottage peaked between the shadows of the trees. The smell of a wood fire greeted my nose as we came out into a clearing and I followed John to the side of the cottage. He continued to talk about his plans of being a priest as I stacked the branches on top of the pile. The peace I felt as I listened to the boy was overwhelming and I followed him as he stomped the snow from his feet, opening the door. The heat inside was welcoming, but the stare from the old farmer wiped the smile from my own face.
He sat in a rocking chair facing the fire as he gnawed on his pipe. There was no fooling the educated on what I was, unlike the boy who had led me here. Though he shared the same color of blue in his eyes, these were sharp and lacked the glow John’s held. A scar ripped from behind his left ear, across the side of his neck and disappeared behind his long white beard. Rubbing his crooked broken nose, he looked over me as John explained how he had found me. I doubt he cared for anything the boy had to say and knew as much as I did that I was far from being a child.
I kept silent, waiting to see what sort of man the farmer might be. He held out a hand, inviting me and John to sit as he gathered his thoughts. Broad-shouldered and scarred, this man did not start his life as a farmer. Exchanging the same level of observation, I could not break my last flow of sight from the braid swaying behind the chair in the fire light. This man had 12-knots in his white braid; the status of a Lord Knight, a general of an army or legion. A true farmer only holds one-knot, never more or less. The old farmer is not who he claims to be, but neither was I. As our eyes met, it was clear we both knew we were looking for an escape from society. The question was, would he allow me to follow in his footsteps.
Taking one last puff of his pipe, billowing the pungent smoke into the cabin, he spoke in a deep throaty tone, “What brings you this far south?”
“I wish to be a farmer.” My words were solid as I sat at the table next to John.
“A farmer?” Paul snorted a moment as he glared at the fire, anger seeping into his voice, “Why didn’t you ask someone back home to teach you?”
“None will let go of their pride to lower themselves to learn to live independently on the land.” I had to choose my words carefully, for John’s sake at this point. “I heard you were the man to seek, and the only one whose ever tamed these woods.”
Another grunt escaped the old man as he nosily gnawed on his pipe. Small, short frustrated puffs came from his mouth as the fire reflected in his eyes. The silence was painful as I sat awaiting the judgment which would be decide on accepting this obscene request. Not only had I misled this man’s grandson, but now we spoke in front of him in a shielding manner. It was as if stranger and grandfather possibly held the same secrets. I was either posing as a scoundrel or sharing in the fact John did not need to know what manner of creature I was just yet. Normally we daemonis waited until we were nearly forty years of age before allowing a human to see us since by then we looked at least eighteen by their standards.
It did not matter, even if I were to be cast back into the snow, I had already decided to watch over this child. John was staring down at his fidgeting hands and swinging his feet to and fro under the table. He bit at his bottom lip, his face told me he felt he had done something wrong by bringing me here. I stood up, there was no point in him being punished by following the principles that will soon lead him to his dream of becoming a priest. The wooden chair screeched as I pushed it away and started for the door. This was my first act serving John in a positive light. He should not be punished for my mistakes and lowly deceit.
“Wait.” I froze at the sound of the old man’s bellow. “Are you not one of them?”
I looked over at John’s questioning blue eyes. He was not taught to look at my maroon eyes as an indication of being a daemonis. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face his grandfather’s piercing glare. “Yes. I am one of them.”
Once again the old farmer drowned me in silence. John furrowed his brow as he stared at me in pure confusion.
It did not ease the pressure I had found myself under. “I apologize for misleading you. It was not my intentions to trick you, John. I will leave.”
“Dante, was it?” My steps were stopped by the powerful voice. “You want to be a farmer?”
“Yes.” The old farmer’s face softened and I caught myself smiling as I replied, “I wish only to live out my days away from society. To be proud of a day’s work, happy for the blisters on my hands and the confidence to live off the land.”
“Please sit.” I did as I was told, greeted by a watery-eyed little boy who grinned wide to see me back in my seat. “John here wants to join the Priesthood, you know.”
“He told me that was his wish.” It seemed this man was a good judge of character as he smirked at his grandson as I spoke, “I think it suits him.”
“But I’m afraid I will not be able to live long enough to see him come home from his studies. In three more years he’ll be old enough to go to Captiva City and devote his life to the Priest Academy for ten years.” Stroking his beard, he struggled pass the rattle in his voice. “I will need you to tend to the farm while he is away. In fact, someone will need to maintain this place even when he returns. He’ll be far too busy once he starts his own clergy.”
“Understood.” A great weight had lifted from my chest as I basked in the sense of belonging. “I would be honored to serve John in such a way. Thank you, farmer Paul, for accepting my request.”
The sun was starting to peek through the trees at this point. There was no mistaking the fact Paul, whoever he really was, had been aware of what I had offered by asking to be a farmer. It was not a request made by a human child, but a daemonis who wanted to escape the violent ways of the bloodeaters who served The House. He knew I wished to serve and protect this young boy who was hell bent on coming back to this land and establish a clergy where others had failed. If this was what he came back still wanting, I would be the shield between him and the tyrants of Glensdale to the north.