It was going to be a cold day. She knew it would be as the sound of the rooster crowing for the third time pierced the otherwise dark and quiet morning. Lianna made a disgusted sound and pulled the thick fur blanket over her head. She had awoken with her foot sticking out from under the blanket some time ago, and her near frozen toes still tingled with the numb sensation that had roused her after a restless night of more tossing and turning than actual sleep. Her dreams were becoming more and more vivid of late. The image of her cabin catching fire and being consumed by a raging inferno had her waking up at odd hours drenched in sweat. And then she would spend an additional half-hour trying to warm her chilled body and fall back asleep.
The ridiculous bird let out another screeching alarm that had her sitting straight up and banging on the wall behind her head with a clenched fist. The barrier of stacked logs that separated the inside of the cottage from the animal shelter on the other side did little to muffle the shrewish sound that grated on her already aggravated senses.
“I heard you, you foul beast!” She banged on the wall again, knowing that the damned bird would just keep crowing until she appeared with its breakfast. Every morning just before dawn the same routine had graced her life since before she could remember. The rooster would wake her, and she would get up to tend the fire, the only source of heat in her one-room cabin. Then she would wash her face and hang a small iron pot on the hook above the fire to boil oats before she dressed quickly and headed out to feed the only companions she had in her simple existence.
Lianna did not know much of the outside world, only the necessary trips to the village just south of her small valley gave her any human contact. She would go there on occasion to procure goods from the people that she needed to survive in the rugged mountainside landscape her mother had abandoned her to nearly ten years before.
When she wasn’t feeding the goats and chickens or tending her small garden or hunting for her next meal, or any of the other hundred things that clamored for attention if she was to survive the winter this year, she dreamed. She dreamed of the creatures that her mother had once told her about, long ago when she was only a child. Serena would bid her sit by the fire and brush her dark brunette hair as she told her of the old world. A world in which fairies and magical beasts existed alongside humans. Where the fae could turn themselves into creatures of the forest and cast magic spells. Her favorite stories were of the dragons and the wolves. The ancient beings who were half fae and half beast and were the guardians of the Bloodstone Mountains.
There were other magical creatures as well that lived in that world, little people who lived in the ancient forests who served the sacred trees and forest animals. Nymphs, who were beautiful maidens that lured men into the wilds with their unparalleled beauty. Lianna’s mother had never told her what
happened to the men once they disappeared, only that they were usually never seen or heard of again, and if they were they acted as if they did not even know their own friends and family.
Serena had also told her that the last dragon had been killed hundreds of years before she was born, but they used to rule the mountains that she now called home. Everyone had once lived in peace together, interdependent upon each other for survival on the harsh but beautiful continent, but the dragon Lucien was born with the power to control people’s minds. He roamed the continent sowing fear and anger in the hearts of human and magical creatures alike. He was cruel and selfish, bending them to his will without conscience or reprimand.
So, the people had come together to slay the monster, and when he was finally brought to justice, the man who had killed him, Errewyn, was crowned King. Errewyn was a strong Fae warrior, well respected and handsome. Most of the Fae were, her mother had said; beautiful beyond imagining and fiercely territorial creatures. When Lucien had been slain, Errewyn decided that all of the dragons should be put to death for fear that their powers of mind control would once again rise and reign terror over the land. The king himself had dragon blood in his veins, but it was not enough to give him the full array of omnipotence that the purebloods could claim.
And so, the war against dragons raged on until none remained, and the humans and the fae once again lived in peace for a time. Then the people began to fight amongst each other. The humans grew jealous of the powers that made Fae’s lives so much easier than their own, and rather than risk another war they decided to divide the continent in half. The Fae would live North of the Bloodstone Mountains, and the humans would stay to the South. The little people of the forests had all but vanished since then along with all the other magical beings that lived here.
So, it remained ever since, and although Lianna had been left on her own in the valley long ago, she had never once encountered a magical being of any kind. It was true that her valley was on the southern side of the jagged red mountain range but even so when she had been younger, she had often wondered if the distant howling she heard at night was indeed one of the magical Fae beings that guarded the interior of the giant peaks. Even now that she was nearly grown the occasional glimpse of a wickedly large mountain lion high in the rocky ridges would give her pause and make her wonder about those stories she had been told long ago.
“Dragons and fairies indeed.” She mused aloud. Lianna was ever the realist and had never seen a Fae or any of the magical beasts her mother told her of on those long winter nights by the fire. She was sure that most of the stories were just tales to frighten her into obedience. She missed her mothers’ stories more than anything. The comfort and warmth of her voice was a light in the darkness of this cabin and its long wintry nights. She did not mind keeping her own company, but the companionship was sorely missed.
After coaxing a merry blaze from the embers in the hearth, Lianna hung the large black kettle from the hook over the fire and dropped a handful of oats into it as well as emptied a cup full of water to boil them. She would need to chop several of the small logs to replenish her wood supply by the rear entrance to the cabin she thought as she eyed the now waist-high stack. Most of the village dwellings only had one entrance, and her mother had told her that she did not know why the cabin had been built with two exits. That was neither here nor there she sighed, and she was grateful that she did not have to carry the wood around the building every day. Her mother would have called her lazy but Lianna felt that she had enough to keep herself busy without walking in circles all day.
Serena had found the abandoned cabin the same year she had gotten herself pregnant during that long-ago Beltane celebration. It was not uncommon for women to find themselves with a child after the unparalleled drinking and revelry that took place every Spring. When the last frost had melted, and the first violet blooms sprang up from the still cold ground beneath their feet, the celebration of life that took place was wild and unimaginable to one who had never taken part in the festivities.
And so Lianna had been born in this cabin nearly twenty years ago in the heart of the cold season. The midwife had been unable to travel through the storm to help her mother with the birthing. No, her mother had delivered her into this world kicking and screaming all by herself. The snow had blown across the mountains and kept them trapped inside for almost two weeks. She could almost hear her mother’s voice raving on about her birth. When the old wise woman had finally made it through the pass she congratulated Serena on the birth of her fire child in the depths of one of the worst winters that had ravaged the continent in decades. It was not long before her mother realized that Lianna’s unpredictable and mischievous nature was nearly untamable, even going so far as to tell her that the Mother had given her red hair as a warning label to all she crossed paths with.
Serena taught her how to hunt and trap, how to chop firewood, and which herbs would be useful for healing; and then when she was nine years old, Serena pronounced Lianna ready to take care of herself and left. Lianna had not seen her since. She only knew that her mother had gone to seek employment as a healer somewhere to the south. Obviously, she had felt that she had done her duty by her daughter and had no reason to stay around. She had refused Lianna’s begging to not leave her behind, saying that she was too much of a distraction and would never get any work done.
Lianna snorted as she pulled her doeskin dress over her short furry top. She did not like thinking of that time in her life. When she had cried herself to sleep every night, praying that her mother would come back to her. She had been scared of her own shadow for the first few months, had even let the goats in at night to keep her company. That didn’t last long though, because the damned things ate almost everything in sight, not to mention the little pebbles of waste they left in their wake; and once she had gotten used to being alone, Lianna found it was not so bad.
Sometimes she wondered where her mother was now if she was even still alive. If maybe one day she would return and tell her all about her adventures. Would she apologize for leaving her only daughter for so long? Lianna could barely remember what the woman even looked like. Whenever she tried to recall her, the image was fuzzy and indistinct. She remembered her dark auburn hair and bright silver eyes, but mostly just her voice remained etched in Lianna’s memory. The sound had been full of earthy resonance and lilting laughter. Serena had been fanciful by nature, making Lianna do much of the work around the house while she, sat and told stories, or barked at her for not doing things correctly, or quick enough. The mother she remembered was only interested in talking and eating and visiting the village, not helping with the daily chores or catering to her daughter’s childish behavior and incessant curiosity.
Grabbing the small pouch of seed and oats that would feed the birds and goats, she belted it around her waist, over her thick wool cloak. Next, she pulled on the rabbit skin boots that would protect her feet and toes from freezing in the frost-bitten grass. She had had to make herself new clothes and boots this year when her lower half seemed to have lengthened to twice what it was just a few seasons ago. The smaller dresses had been unstitched and remade with more pelts to accommodate her growth and she prayed she would not have to do so again because she hated the tedious task. It made her fingers ache and cut into her sleep each night for almost a month straight.
The rooster crowed again to the accompaniment of a bleating yew and loudly cackling hens, reminding her that they were still waiting on her to feed them, so Lianna pushed the nonsense from her mind and stepped out into the frigid morning air. Her breath caught as ice filled her lungs to burning and she quickly closed the door to protect the warmth inside. She walked briskly to the East side of the cottage the brown frozen grass crunching beneath her boots, as she made her way to where the thatched roof and rear wall had been elongated to form a shelter for the small animals that would need it in the coming months. The pine needles would need to be refreshed soon as well if the stench that wafted to her nose was any indication. She grabbed a handful of the dried seeds and oats from her small pouch and scattered them across the earth for the animals to feast upon before they went hunting for the bugs that made up the rest of their diet. She smiled in delight as the fattest hen jumped up to reveal four small eggs in the bed of straw.
She hastily snatched up two of them, leaving the others to hatch if they would. She thanked the hen by sprinkling a few extra handfuls of the feed toward her, shooing away the yew who tried to bully the bird into giving up her meal. Lianna’s mother, Serena had made sure that a flock of fowl and a pair of goats were healthily established before she had left their isolated cabin all those years ago. “You take care of them, and they will take care of you.” She had told her. And they had. The birds provided her eggs and even dinner during the coldest months when the larger game of the forested valley was scarcer to find, or she was snowed in for days on end.
Trudging back into the cabin, Lianna put the eggs in one of the many small baskets that graced the shelf running the length of the wall on her left. Some contained berries and apples, others held jams and butter. Farther down near the large mirror, were soaps and herbal tinctures and small cloths used for cleaning and drying. Towards the end, and the rear door, she grabbed a small wooden bowl and spoon that she ladled full of the oatmeal from the now boiling pot. Lianna dribbled a large dose of honey over the steaming heap. She tried no to miss the savory bread that normally accompanied the sweet breakfast and ate quickly. The bread had been finished off several weeks ago and would only be replenished when she made the trek into the village for supplies. She had been putting off the excursion due to the cold weather. It had come on so suddenly that Lianna feared the snow might come earlier than usual and needed to prepare the cabin for that eventuality. So, sighing in resignation, Lianna dropped the utensils into the wash bucket and headed back out into the cold to continue with her morning chores.
She grabbed the bucket hanging on the post at the far end of the animal enclosure and made her way to the stream that meandered through the valley several yards away. Taking her time, she swung the bucket back and forth singing to herself a wordless tune that boasted a joyful melody as frosty grass crunched beneath her feet. The water still flowed freely but burned her fingers when she dipped the bucket into the clear cascades hurrying by, singing to her in a language not many understood. It sang of adventures; of diving off high cliffs and lazy afternoon strolls through wide-open meadows. It sang of the promise of salt air and rocks that turned to sand before the great ocean of water that would meet it and carry it to depths unknown. Lianna loved its melody even more than the song of hunger and passion that the fire hissed to her inside the small cabin.
Lianna had once thought that hearing the music meant that she was part faerie. When Lianna had once casually mentioned the sounds to her mother, Serena had looked at her in a way that made the girl fearful of the voices she sometimes heard. She had been very small the first time she mentioned the sweet sounds that did not belong to a body. Her mother had quickly masked the stricken expression on her face and told her young daughter that she was hearing things and not to mention it to anyone else. The village people would not care to hear of these things and may even turn against her. No, it was better to keep these things to herself if she wanted to live a long peaceful life. No human could hear such things, only the Fae had such powers, and the little people and they were banished to the other side of the mountains for a reason. After that, Lianna had not dared to mention that she also could hear the fire and the wind as well. Even the trees had their silent language that spoke to her when she climbed their needling bowers during a hunt or just because she wanted to feel their strength and unfaltering stability beneath her.
So, she labored on through the early morning hours, raking the dirty, smelly straw from the enclosure as the orchestra of water and birdsong blended with the wind whispering through the tall pines. Then on to carrying water to refill the barrel that was kept inside the cabin for easier access after dark and during the long cold winters.
It took several trips to fill up the barrel that sat just inside the rear entrance to the cottage. In and out of the cabin, back and forth until her nose was leaking and her lungs burned with the cold. The day was turning out to be as cold as she had suspected it would be this morning; the sky a crisp clear blue marred only by wispy threads of clouds floating in from the south that reminded Lianna of white spiderwebs. When she was finally done she stood near the fire to thaw her fingers and dry her nose. Grabbing the leather satchel that hung near the hearth she began to tuck the items she would need to trade for more oats and arrowheads inside. She picked up the doll she had made for Jesielle, the small girl whom she had befriended several summers back. The child was maybe six summers and had begged her papa for a doll she had spied in the shop window last time Lianna had been to the village. Her father had admonished her for begging for things that would not fill her belly or keep her warm in the coming cold season. The dear child had looked chastised enough but could not hide the look of longing that refused to unmark her face.
So Lianna had made the child a doll of pine needles and moss, scraped from the smooth rocks near the stream, and then wrapped it in the left-over pelts that she had used to make her new dress. She had woven long blades of green grass into the head for hair and used berries to draw a face. It was nothing more than a sack of pine straw sewn together in a shape that could somewhat be identified as a body, but she was sure Jesielle would not mind the shape so much. Dried herbs and three jars of burn salve were dropped into the bag as well. Pulling her hood up and tugging the ends of her cloak tight about her, she headed out the door.
The small village lay to the south and the west of her cottage and the sun would be a hands width past the tallest mountain peak by the time she reached the first cottage along the rocky path. The walk was not as unpleasant as the birds sang their greetings to the sun and each other. The long thin pine needles shivered in the wind, the sound blending with her slow constant steps and birdsong that made the trek feel somehow less lonely. Lianna welcomed the warmth that the vigorous walk allowed her to claim, her breath puffing out in small wisps of cloud that trailed behind her. It had been over two months since her last fray down through the narrow canyon leading to the village. She normally made the journey once every two weeks for bread and oats. The baker, Mrs. Penny Thurgood, always had some waiting, hot and fresh for her. Lianna’s mouth watered just thinking about how good it would taste after so long without it. Maybe even a warm lunch if the woman was in good spirits.
She hummed the tune that she had learned from the fire on those long lonely nights she sat by herself basking in its warmth, wishing she had brought some warming stones with her for her frozen fingers. The blood rushed through her veins and she could almost feel the surge of warmth her imagination conjured as she traipsed along, rubbing her hands together before her.
The path narrowed suddenly, becoming tunnel-like as she neared the final leg of her journey to the village. Here in the shadow of the canyon walls, frost clung to the branches still and the rocks beneath her feet were slippery. The canyon walls that towered over the narrow path had somehow given rise to the massive trees that poked from every crack and crevasse. She loved the giant trees that remained green all year long and were often the only sign of life during the white winters. They glittered in the early afternoon light when the wind tickled the icy branches. Growing out sideways from the cliff as if trying to block the way, before they turned upwards, reaching for the sun. Lianna could stand between the walls of the canyon and reach both sides if she stretched out her arms and had to zig-zag through the tangled obstacles that hid the entrance to the valley behind her.
The first cottage appeared around the bend of rocks that opened into a long wide clearing. Here, the land rolled out like a hard, lumpy wave that turned into flowing grasslands. The village was nestled into the face of the mountain range that cut across the continent like a knife. It had been built with care between the towering cliffs that marked the pass through the Bloodstone Mountains. This village was one of several that dotted the southern foothills, although many of them had seen better days since the continent had been divided. Not too many people braved the wild mountains anymore, as the Fae were not generally welcome in the south, nor the humans in the North.
The terrain offered protection from the elements and had the advantage of height, anyone approaching from the south could be seen from miles out. Some of the dwellings were even carved out of the rocks themselves. Ruke, the village chief, had the largest such cavern that consisted of four rooms and even a bathing room that had hot running water provided by a natural spring that had found its way through the rocks somehow. Many of the villagers paid a fee to enjoy the warm spring during the cold months. Lianna had never had the pleasure, and probably never would.
Lianna was not very popular amongst the villagers and kept to herself mostly, aside from a courteous nod of her head to passers going by. She waved to Lady Rosebriar as she passed the woman who tended her flowers along her cottage wall. The middle-aged woman waved back and smiled her greeting as she used a sharp knife to cut back the summer’s growth. Lianna continued along the path, noting that the flower pots along the fences of the small cottages that bordered on either side were no longer blooming, or even green. Winter was definitely coming early this year. She headed to the fourth cottage on the left side where Sir Hughe, the shopkeeper was just throwing salt over his step to melt the ice that had formed overnight and still clung to the shadows.
The old knight was one of the two who were left in this village, the once glorified men, now provided protection from would-be thieves and vagabonds. A meager comparison to their once hostile lives, as they had now been reduced to buying and selling goods to support themselves. He stopped when he saw her and Lianna did not miss the assessing gaze that swept her from head to toe as she hurried towards him. She had become accustomed to this from him over the past few years. She did nothing but lower her eyes and pretend not to notice. A small spark of indignation warred with the insecurity of innocence in her breast and she felt herself blush with embarrassment because of it.
“Good morning Sir Hughe.” She greeted him raising her eyes to meet his as she approached. Lianna tried not to look too eager to see him, lest he get that odd look in his eye and try to get closer to her. His breath smelled of rancid pork and his double chin squished under his head when he looked down, smiling at her in that unnerving way. His feet shuffled closer and the stench of him turned her stomach sour.
“Good morning my dear, the ice has come early this season. We are in for a hard winter.” He replied solemnly, his tone at odds with the bright gaze he directed toward her bosom. Lianna cleared her throat awkwardly, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks again. “We were expecting you weeks ago, John and I were just discussing whether or not we should go up and check on you yesterday.
“Do come in and warm yourself while I gather the things you will need. Have you brought the salves I asked for?” He placed an unwelcome hand on her lower back to guide her through the doorframe and into the cluttered space. The shop was full of merchandise; long bolts of cloth and swaths of fur, axes and pots, sacks of grain already ground into flour. The clutter helped to hold the warmth from the hearth built into the southern wall, cords of firewood bundled almost as tall as she herself stood, covered what was left of the wall space. She made her way to the table instead of the warmth of the fire hissing its song, seeming to beckon her forward with its needy hunger. Ignoring it as best she could, Lianna pulled out the dried herbs and two of the jars of salve and set them on the counter.
“Have you any news of the castle.” She tried to look as though she were just making conversation and not fishing for any news of her mother. The same as she always did when she came into the village.
The man had picked up a large sack of grain from behind the table and began scooping out cups into a smaller one on the scale. He looked up at her and a small frown marred his face.
“The courier from the castle was in this time yesterday. He made mention of your mother. Seems there is a sickness that has come to the castle and she has not been allowed to leave for fear of spreading the contagion. The whole capital is under quarantine.” He gave her a knowing look and Lianna felt her heart stutter in her breast as fear almost choked her. He had known, even as sly as she had tried to be, that she was asking about her mother.
“How bad is it? When will they expect it to have run its course?” Dread filled her at the thought of an illness so strong that they had to keep those affected under lock and key.
“No one knows. Your mother is the finest healer in the land and her services are needed there. ” Lianna gaped in surprise. Surely her mother was not as important as all that. She tried to think of what to say to garner as much information as possible, it was rare indeed when someone had news of the outside world, and even rarer that they would deign to share it with her.
“My mother, she is not…” She could not bring herself to finish the thought.
“I have not heard tell of her name on the list, but the young queen and several of her maids have fallen ill. Three babes have passed from the fever and there is fear the women may pass as well.” The shopkeeper did not seem to be bothered by such news. And it was with a heavy heart and growing fear that she accepted the sacks, throwing the harness across her shoulders for the long walk home. She would need to stop by the bakery as well, maybe Mrs. Penny would have more information. She was always full of gossip about the comings and goings of the kingdom.
“Oh, cheer up girlie, we are far enough from the castle that we’ve no fear of it spreading this way. ” Sir Hughes words did not lessen her burden as she thanked him quietly and left the warmth of the shop. As she walked from his path she spied Jesielle and her father hurrying down the street to greet her.
The smile she offered them was much warmer than the one she had offered the shopkeeper, shadowed only by the thought of the illness that was apparently crippling the kingdom.
“Hello, Lianna!” The small girl trilled with a wave of her hand. The girl was barely tall enough for the top of her braided head to reach Liannas’s waist. The honey blonde braid had been coiled at her neck and covered with a clean yellow cloth that brought out the gold flecks in her brown eyes. Eyes the color of tree bark flecked with gold streaks that lit up her face in joy met Lianna’s with a sweet smile.
“ Hello, Jesielle, Sir John”. She inclined her head, “I hope the morning has been fair to you. I have news from Sir Hughe, of the castle. He says there is a fever that is spreading quickly. That it has proven fatal to some children.” Sir John was a handsome man. His hair and eyes the same color as his daughters complimented his hard features and square jaw. His shoulders were wide enough that she could fit in his arms twice and still have room to wiggle. He was not fat, but just big, as many of the mountain men of this village were. His shoulders were broad with thick muscles that bespoke of years of earning his living with a sword. Sir John used to be a knight of the castle but had met his wife here long ago and decided to stay. She had unfortunately passed away two summers past and Lianna suspected that he still mourned for her.
His face was set in grim lines as he nodded his head. He met her gaze and she saw the fear in his eyes as well. The fever was deadly when it passed through the lands each year and healers like her mother were in high demand.
“Tis’ best everyone stays put until it has passed. The cold has come early, and the fever would be a hardship to bare in the coming months” She wondered if he thought of his wife’s death as he spoke. “ I also heard tell of gypsy camps along the road toward the castle. The castle road is unsafe with that band of thieves and vagabonds so near.” He said.
“You be careful out there by yourself. You would seem to them easy prey.”
“Well, they are to the South and I am to the North. It would seem they would have to go through you to get to me, so I feel safe enough.” She smiled at him. Taking a deep breath, Lianna lowered her harness and sacks to the cold ground and reached into her satchel for the doll she had made. The girl’s eyes lit up as she spied it.
“Oh! She is beautiful!” The girl beamed her pleasure and it lightened the mood of the conversation enough that her answering smile was genuine. Lianna lifted her moss green eyes to meet Sir John’s smiling face. She wondered how long the handsome man would mourn his wife before he found another to help him with the girl who was babbling her praise and thanks.
“I need to go visit the baker; would you like to join me?” She offered.
“We just came from Penny’s. That woman could talk your ear off if you let her.” Sir John winked at her, and Lianna smiled, rolling her eyes.
“Well, it’s a good thing that I do not get much conversation up in my valley. It would be a shame to let the woman’s gossip go unheard.” Laughing lightly, she turned toward the building that her friends had just left. She dipped to pick up her load and sling it over her shoulders once again. Her eyes met Sir Johns and she smiled in farewell as he followed his daughter down the wide street. Lianna brought her burden to the cream-colored door and leaned it against the wooden post outside the structure. She knocked twice before walking into the baker’s home.
The main room was just a large kitchen, featuring a hearth that took up most of the rear wall. The smell of warm savory bread wafted through the air, making Lianna’s mouth water. There were three small round tables with cushioned chairs for people to wait at or eat at. Penny not only baked bread, but loved to cook, and for a price would serve any number of tasty dishes. Lianna glanced around, looking for the woman, and spied her leaning over a large pot of what looked and smelled like some sort of stew. The wooden spoon poised for a taste near her lips, lowered as she noticed her company.
The plump woman turned toward her, a large smile lighting her sweaty face.
“Good day Lianna.” She greeted her warmly.
“I just finished making this stew, if you would like a bowl. Free of charge, for my favorite customer.” She did not wait for an answer but ladled a large spoonful into a wooden bowl and brought it to the nearest table. Lianna smiled in appreciation and sat, watching as the woman hurried back to the counter and cut a few slices of bread. She brought them back to the table along with two cups of apple cider and then sat across from her.
“Thank you, Mrs. Penny. I am famished, but I must not visit too long if I want to make it home before dark.” She brought a steamy spoonful to her mouth and blew on it lightly before she tasted it. Lianna felt the warm savory bite all the way to her toes. Her eyes closed in bliss for a moment and she let out a small sound of delight. When she opened her eyes Penny’s fat face was beaming in pride. Her triple chin swallowed her neck, making her look like a toad. Her short blonde hair and large blue eyes completed her frog-like appearance, and Lianna had to look away lest she giggle and choke on the mouthful of food.
“Sir John says that there are gypsy camps along the king’s road.” Lianna said, and it was all the invitation that Penny needed to start chattering away about the wild people. Her hands were folded neatly around her cup in front of her and the table groaned a little under the weight that shifted onto it as Penny leaned forward in her excitement to pass along whatever tidbit of information she had learned. Hers was the only establishment that sold hot meals besides the tavern near the edge of the village, and so any travelers looking for a good meal and conversation usually dropped in with news of the outside world.
“Yes, they have been camped there for some while, though none have come into our little village yet. At night you can see their bonfires down in the grasslands, and if you listen closely enough when the wind is blowing this way, you can hear their tambourines tinkling. They have all manner of oddities to amuse a person. Some say they have a tiger in a cage that they travel with. They can tell your fortune, and throw knives at each other, and ride ponies upside down.”
Lianna snorted in disbelief. “Upside down?” One eyebrow raised in skepticism; spoon poised midway to her mouth.
“Oh yes! But my favorite is the magician.” Penny whispered as if in awe. “It is as if the magic the fairies disappeared with still clings to them and they perform tricks for the people.” Lianna swallowed a bite of dripping bread.
“What kind of tricks?”
“The kind that would get anyone, but a gypsy threw in a dungeon. They seem to follow their own laws and get away with it to boot! I once saw a woman disappear from the stage and reappear behind the crowd. It was amazing!”
“Why do you think they have come so far North?” Lianna asked interestingly.
“Because of the plague.”
Lianna dutifully gasped in shock. That word was not used very often and only spoken during devastating times.
“What else can it be? The gypsies say that the sickness is sweeping the entire continent, even North of the mountains in Fae territory. People and animals alike dropping dead, rotting where they fall because everyone is too afraid to get near their corpses.”
Lianna almost gagged on the bite she tried to swallow. She pushed the bowl away, her appetite vanishing suddenly. This was bad.
“And to top it all off, people are starting to disappear.” Lianna’s green eyes met the woman’s bright blue gaze.
“Disappear?” She was almost afraid to find out any more.
“Yes, Sir John rode out last week to check on the farmers in the grasslands and three men have just vanished. Good men who would not run off and leave their families. He said there was no sign of attack or struggle anywhere near where they were supposed to have been when they disappeared. Nobody knows what happened.”
“And their families?” Lianna asked the gossipy woman.
“Sir Hughe and Sir John are taking the wagons back down in two days to collect them and bring them here until it can be figured out.” Lianna stood slowly. She did not want to hear any more of the goings-on in this wretched world. She only wanted to return to the safety of her valley and tried not to think about the lure of the gypsy camp and the things Penny had described.
“I think I must be on my way, Mrs. Penny. Thank you so much for the food, it was delicious as always.” A large squishy hand enveloped her own and squeezed it in comfort.
“You best be taking care of yourself girly. Don’t forget your bread.” Lianna smiled and pulled a jar of the special salve she made for the woman. It would instantly cool any burn and prevent the skin from blistering. Placing it on the table next to the near-empty bowl, she quickly picked up the bag containing several loaves of bread. She tied it to her harness once she had closed the door firmly behind her.
Lianna tried not to fret at the thoughts of the sickness and disappearances. She was no stranger to being alone, yet she was not quite ready to leave the safety of the village. Her existence was not extraordinary, and few would probably miss her. She hurried along the rocky path as the sun rose higher in the sky. Even the song of the wind could not comfort her as it howled through the pass, nipping at her skirts. She was too distracted by her thoughts to hear the mournful wail it carried to her from the valley far below. Shoving the horrible thoughts from her mind she tried to think of something else. If she hurried, she could gather firewood on her way home and have spare time to climb the cliffs. She would not be able to see the castle which was a week journey to the south, but she would be able to see the gypsy camps with their bonfires lighting up the twilight sky.
There had been no gypsy bands this far North in many years. The gypsies traveled through the kingdoms and lived a life of pleasure and freedom that she would never have. They did not like the festering cold that penetrated their wagon homes and took the weak to the afterlife during the night. The men were wild and brutish thieves her mother had warned, and the women traipsed about half-naked and danced around the fire for coins. They were known to visit the castle’s court every now and again but rarely were found North of the keep, especially this close to winter.
The world was a dangerous place for beautiful women, her mother had told her long ago. Dangers that lurked in wait for people who didn’t know their place. And her place was here, in these woods minding her home and the forest surrounding it. If she was lucky she would live a long and full life learning to use the land for what it offered and never have to deal with the dangers that came from venturing too far from home. So, she lived these past ten years alone learning to hunt and tend her herbs. Keeping her secrets about the elements that sang to her and went into the village only when she needed supplies.
The people here were not unkind; however, most were not openly friendly with her either. They seemed wary of her presence. Knowing she was the bastard child of the best healer in the lands kept Lianna safe but did not encourage friendships. It did not stop the men from staring at her though, she had even thought one of them was going to speak to her once. He seemed to be near her age and had been watching her talk with Jesielle. When she had said her goodbyes and made to leave, he had started forward as if to speak to her until a young woman appeared behind him. Her gaze had darted to Lianna and then back to the boy again before she grabbed his arm and steered him away, a pinched look on her pale face.
Lianna decided to pretend she had not noticed and kept walking. She was not afraid of the people but did not go out of her way to mingle with them or even be a part of their community. Her mother had said the world was a dangerous place and wanted her only child to be protected and safe. Obviously, Serena felt that the monsters in the woods were safer than the monsters in the village. The insecurities left in the wake of her mothers’ abandonment had convinced Lianna that she was better off steering clear of the people anyway.
The wind was still blowing from the south even with the frosts already arriving. Odd indeed. She began gathering firewood that she carried in her cape as she hurried along the winding rocky path. Walking sideways trying to fit her wide harness through the narrow gap between the last few feet of the canyon before it opened into a wider crevasse, she turned her head as the bleating of a young goat reached her ears. The sound effectively cut through her wandering thoughts. Lost in her musings she had failed to notice it before that instant. The little goat stood in the curve of one of the trees bellowing for its mother. An odd little tug cramped through her lower abdomen, instantly making the hair on her neck rise in alarm.
Looking around, Lianna could not find the source of the odd sensation, but it felt like someone was watching her. The lambs bleating became frantic, and it bolted from its perch down the cliff face towards where Lianna stood on the path. Was it gypsies? Or maybe something worse, like whatever was responsible for the disappearing men?
Scanning the cliff face for any sign of its mother, Lianna almost missed the giant cat that stalked down the ledge not far behind the goat. Its graceful movements sent fear shooting down her spine. With a gasp of fright, she backed away a step. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. His dark red coat blended in with the rocky cliffs as it easily jumped down to a lower outcropping, coming directly towards her. Its golden eyes studied her with an odd intelligence that she had not seen in any other animal before. Was it one of the Fae guardians her mother had whispered about? The lion must be hungry indeed to have come down from the mountains so early in the season.
She had nowhere to escape except back the way she had come, but if she ran, the cat was sure to chase her and would catch her before she could get away. She dropped the firewood she had gathered and franticly thought of a way to defend herself. Lianna grabbed the largest stick, that was half her length and double the size of her fist in width. The half-rotten pine branch would not be much help, but better than being empty-handed. The goat ran past her along the path to the village that she would never make it back to. She doubted even her screams would be heard by anyone.
Sweat beaded on her brow as she watched the giant cat come closer. It sauntered towards her on silent paws. Huge, silent paws. It let out a wicked warning growl that echoed off the canyon walls as it approached, sending gooseflesh racing up her arms. She screamed back at the monster, brandishing her stick between them, hoping to make him think twice about attacking her. The cat only cocked its head to the side as if debating the threat she posed, it’s lips curled back as he scented the air. His golden eyes narrowed at her, probably surprised that she had yet to flee in terror, and it let out a long hiss. Lianna began to tremble, the stick wavering like a candle in her outstretched hands. A great roiling sensation began to unfurl in her gut; fear as she had never known threatened to overwhelm her.
At a loss and not knowing what else to do she began humming a tune, letting the noise fill the thick silence. The promise of heat, of flame, the need to burn and consume all things rose within her as she faced the mountain cat unsteadily. The birds had all gone silent, even the wind had stilled its whisperings as if the world waited with bated breath for what would happen next. Her wavering voice hummed louder, the only sound in the taut moment as girl and lion faced off.
As if the cat had finally decided that she was easy prey, it leaped towards her, claws unsheathing, it bounded down the path ahead of her. Lianna took a step back but refused to turn her back on the thing, knowing she wouldn’t have any chance of outrunning it. She squeezed her eyes closed and the scream that tore from her lips was blood-curdling and full of defiance. She brandished the stick in front of her, still screaming that awful sound. Her pulse throbbed in her ears and she felt as if her blood was boiling under her skin. She lashed out blindly towards the giant beast, her eyes closed tight in terror, knowing this would likely be her last moments.
When no attack came she dared to open her eyes.
Shock rippled through her as she beheld what had halted the cat’s attack. The end of her stick was aflame with a deep purple and red fire. She had never seen such a flame and had no idea how it had occurred. She almost dropped the stick in horror, only pure instinct kept her fingers wrapped tightly around the thick branch. Glancing again at the cat and the danger it posed, she began waving the stick before her, screaming at the cat as it had screamed at her before its attack. The beast turned and loped back up the mountain where it had come from.
As it disappeared, she dropped the stick and sank to her knees. What in the Mothers name had just happened? She sat there panting and watched the fire flicker out. No burn mark was to be found on the branch’s smooth surface. Her breaths came out in short pants and her vision began to swim as she struggled to remain calm. Where had the fire come from? Where had it gone? Her scattered wits tried to make sense of it but could not. It was like magic.
The baby goat came trotting up the path behind her, the sound of its tiny hooves on the rocks startling her into action. She gathered the sticks back up and hurried down the path, stumbling as fast as she could carry her burden and the firewood. Lianna could still fill the hot pulse of blood through her veins, it felt slow and sticky, and her heart seemed to pump double time to keep her body moving. The small goat, deciding it was safer with her, followed behind at a steady pace.