Chapter 31 - The Crone
“Rowan, Alena, I just spoke to the priestess, and it seems they think it’s time for us to resume our journey. She listened to what we found, and she agrees with us. I had the oddest sensation they knew about these scrolls all along. The Oracle invited us to see her,” Marcus revealed at dinner the next evening.
“So when do we leave?” Rowan asked, and she realized she would miss these hearty meals, but her thirst intensified with every passing minute.
“As soon as we return from our hunt,” Marcus remarked, and he almost grinned when the word caught both their interests. They were still young, and he had deliberately tested their resilience by denying them what they needed. It also proved to him that Rowan was far stronger than any vampire of a similar age. The mere thought of the hunt made her fangs show just the tiniest bit.
He took them out into the forest, and it wasn’t long before Striker found them. He looked well fed and happy to see Rowan. She spent a few moments with him before she rejoined the hunt. An abundance of wildlife gave them more than they would typically take, but Marcus had no idea what their journey would bring, and he needed them at their best.
They packed their meager belongings, greeted their hostess, who loaded them with enough supplies to last a month and departed. The dark moon gave them cover, the path they took didn’t slow down the horses, and they reached a boarded up hut an hour before dawn, just where the priestess said.
The next night went as well, and they slept in the cellar of an innkeeper; who asked no questions and took their money without hesitation. She had a small mark on her left palm, which was similar to a mark Rowan noted on the hand of the vampire priestess, although the innkeeper was human.
When she opened the cellar door for them at nightfall, the human woman handed each of them a small flask filled with fresh blood from the animals she slaughtered for her kitchen, and a fragrant cheese she made herself. Rowan saw that she knew what they were, but although she respected them, she didn’t fear them.
Marcus thanked her, handed her an extra coin, which she took with a grateful smile. Striker spent the day in the old coal cellar, and he looked as well cared for as the other horses. Someone washed them and groomed them. Rowan concluded from his lack of interest in the contents of their flasks that he had something to chew on during the day.
“Did Striker do anything he shouldn’t have?” Rowan asked of the friendly innkeeper, and the woman laughed.
“I forgot that the darn grumpy potbelly my mother-in-law insisted on keeping around, sometimes crawled through the coal shoot into the old cellar. My husband loved his mother, and the pig had a striking resemblance to her in looks and temperament. Lucca survived my mother-in-law, then he survived my husband, and I sometimes thought it would survive me, but I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter the beast. It destroyed my garden, stole things from the kitchen, tore my sheets from the line, and it proved to be nothing more than a menace. Striker rid me of my burden, and he did seem sorry,” she said, and Rowan grinned.
“May we reimburse you for the pig?” Alena asked, and the woman laughed again.
“No worries, mam, you paid far more than you should. There will be plenty of soap for my guests and pork pie. They need not know the precise circumstances of Lucca’s demise. To tell you the truth, most of them will be as grateful as I am. Lucca had a way of taking exception to people and chasing them down the lane. If I weren’t the best cook this side of the river, I would have no clients,” she made light of the situation, and they couldn’t help smiling. Humans so rarely treated them with such warmth. They bid her farewell and went on their way.
They reached the castle, seemingly falling apart at the edges, on the third night of their travels just as daylight tinged the dark. Marcus knocked with impunity, and a slide revealed deeper darkness beyond.
“Who are you?” Someone demanded imperiously.
“Lord Marcus from the house...” The slide slammed shut before he finished speaking, inside a heavy beam boomed out of its slot, and chains rattled. The door swung open to reveal a figure cloaked in rags that covered every bit of flesh and hid her face in the folds of a cowl.
“In,” she demanded curtly, and they obeyed.
She ordered them to secure the horses in the stable; she grumbled when Marcus explained Striker’s needs, but he got to spent his time in another coal cellar, but this one could house the entire inn. They crossed a courtyard, made their way through a gate in the wall, then on to another part of the castle. They followed her inside through a side entrance, and it felt like following a ghost. She turned to face them when they reached a large foyer.
“You come,” She indicated Marcus and Alena with one gloved finger. “You stay,” she ordered, and Rowan glanced at them, but obeyed. This place made Marcus uneasy, she sensed it, but he had no choice if he wanted answers. Alena looked at Rowan once, and her eyes held a warning.
Rowan felt watched. She folded her arms and observed her surroundings with attention to detail. This place would not intimidate her, she decided.
The woman led Alena and Marcus to a dimly lit chamber where another rag clothed crone was seated on the floor with her features also hidden from their sight by a cowl.
“Marcus,” her husky old voice crooned, and he involuntarily cringed inside. Over time he developed the vampire’s dislike of what age did to mortals. The way it wasted them away, stealing the potential of youth from them, and giving them wisdom when they no longer had any use of it, before depriving them of even that.
“Your need must be dire to approach the likes of me, vampire prince,” she drawled and cackled as if she could read his mind and Marcus felt his dislike of her threatening to show.
“Sit,” she ordered with authority and having come this far, they sat on the pillows on the other side of the embers which glowed in the small square on the floor.