Chapter 23 - Secrets
Rowan recovered faster than expected, and within two days she could walk around without assistance. Before the week’s end, she hunted on her own, and her appetite for both food and blood proved ferocious. Her behavior didn’t worry Alena, and Marcus since it was natural after such an ordeal, and it would normalize once her body healed.
Rowan spotted one creature on her next hunt. Marcus saw another when he fetched water two days later, and Alena found tracks close to the caves on the same night. Their respite was over, and they needed to move on.
“We must go,” Alena announced upon her return as she dumped the two rabbits she caught in a snare.
“I agree,” Marcus said as he sharpened his knife near the fire. His instincts niggled at him to return to the road for days now, but he wanted to give Rowan as much time as he dared. They might not get another chance to rest for a long time.
“Rowan, do you agree?” Alena asked. Rowan glanced up from repairing her clothes, and she seemed surprised that they would ask her opinion. In truth, she’d been itching to move for days, and after what happened, she knew that she wouldn’t make it on her own.
“We should have left days ago,” Rowan agreed, and she knew they waited against their better judgment to give her the time she needed to recover. Her use of ‘we,’ didn’t go unnoticed.
“Get our gear together, pack the food, and I’ll fetch the horses,” Marcus ordered, and they nodded.
“Do you think we could make it to Thanos in one go?” Marcus asked of Alena as they led the horses from the cave at midnight.
“I don’t know. There isn’t much shelter in that area,” Alena answered as they mounted their horses, and started on their way.
“What's in Thanos?” Rowan asked, and they glanced at each other.
“Answers, maybe,” Alena conceded, and the clouds that obscured the full moon opened to cast its light for leagues. It wasn’t the ideal circumstances to travel with any stealth as the night turned bright as day.
They pushed the horses to their limits until even striker became edgy, and they were still some distance from the fortress of Thanos when the first dawn streaked the edges of the world.
They covered themselves as best they could, and raced against the break of day. The light grew brighter with each stride of their horses, and their skins seared. Striker’s hide smoldered, and one packhorse stumbled. It hurt its leg and slowed them down, but it carried the weapons; they dared not leave it. They made it to the fortified wooden doors with no time to spare, and already they paid for their haste.
The inhabitants saw their plight and opened the doors wide for the horses. Rowan allowed Marcus and Alena to enter before her, and the sun scorched her gloved right hand. She had to pull the leather from the raw wound, but the skin restored itself just as injuries on Alena’s face and hands, along with the deep burn on Marcus’ arm, mended. It would remain pink, sensitive, and itchy for a while.
Striker shook, rolled his eyes and showed his teeth. His side sustained terrible burns, and even as it recovered, he screamed in agony and anger. The guilt on Rowan’s face was impossible to ignore.
It took a while for Rowan to calm him and he nuzzled closer to her like a child seeking comfort. She whispered in his sensitive ears until he stopped shivering, became quiet and stood with his head pressed against her. The other horses moved as far from him as their leads would allow.
“I'm sorry,” Rowan murmured, and he flicked his ears in her direction. Rowan let go of him and turned to her companions. Marcus took Striker’s reins to put him with the other horses, but Rowan halted him.
“Not this time,” Rowan cautioned, and Markus eyed the horse. Striker showed signs of stress and tension. He kept taking deep breaths and letting them escape in great bellows of air. He wasn’t himself.
The only person to greet them inside the walls of the fortress was a woman. She wore concealing robes like a priestess of some order, and she had yet to speak.
“You may put the odd one in the old shed. It would hold him till nightfall, and then you may release him to his own devices. Our forest teems with life, and few dare to enter our lands. Humans believe there are spirits in this wilderness and vampires fear the journey here,” the priestess directed, and they settled the horses. The side of the courtyard into which they entered wasn’t exposed to the light, but they didn’t have time to waste. They had to reach the doors of the main building before the sun rose above the high walls.
When they finished, they carried their belongings inside, and the priestess closed the heavy doors. Marcus helped her put the large bolt in place. The fully furnished fortress had that empty, not lived in the air, yet every surface seemed spotless.
Marcus spoke to the priestess in urgent, hushed tones, while Alena and Rowan waited.
“A human woman and her children clean our home. They live in the village on the other side of the bridge, and they never come here at night,” the priestess provided as if she sensed their scrutiny of her home. Rowan and Alena nodded. Vampires had their familiars, humans that did their bidding in the hopes of eternal life, or for money to feed their families.
“I will relay your request to the High Priestess, but for now, I will extend you our hospitality. Let me show you to your rooms, and since we have no staff coming in today, you may help yourself to whatever you need from the pantry,” they followed her down an endless corridor to their adjoining rooms. Once they fetched their belongings, she showed them to the kitchen and excused herself.
“Odd woman,” Rowan commented while she raided the well-stocked pantry.
“A lot of food for an empty fortress,” Alena agreed, and Marcus smiled to himself as he watched them work together to create a meal.
“They said there was no staff today, but they didn’t say the place was empty,” Rowan corrected.
“I saw no one, there are no lingering scents that aren’t from their humans, and those were old, faded, all but gone. At least two days old,” Alena corrected.
“Could you smell her? The priestess?” Rowan asked as she filled a plate, and seated herself at the table, while Alena filled two plates and handed one to Marcus before following Rowan to the table.
Alena’s chicken sandwich stopped halfway to her mouth. She hadn’t noticed it, but the priestess had no scent, which was impossible. Even Marcus frowned when he realized this.
“There’s something odd about this place,” Rowan said with a shiver and took a bite of her sandwich before she groaned in delight. They laughed at her before they too tasted their food, and they couldn’t blame her. Whoever cooked for these people did magical things with food. They shamelessly stuffed themselves before going to bed, and despite their natural caution, they slept undisturbed, and deeply until nightfall.