She struggled through the branches tugging her back, grasping at her like hungry tentacles. A thick fog blanketed her surroundings as she strained to see where she was. The fog dissipated slightly, and unclear forms sprang before her eyes. Two of the forms—she struggled to make them out. Whatever they were, they sat in the shade of a tree. Three smaller forms—no wait, four—frolicked carelessly through the sparkling green grass. An ominous melody rose up from the darkness of the trees surrounding the sunny meadow and was thrust through the happy picture like a knife. She vainly tore at the vines and branches holding her back. They sprang up and overwhelmed her, pinning her. She could neither interfere nor escape. She could not shut her eyes or scream, only a silent spectator to the events unfolding before her.
A darkness crept stealthily into the picture. She peered into the fog marring her vision, but she did not want to be here, did not want to see what happened next. Too late. With a bright flash, one of the forms slumped to the ground. The form trembled and an unintelligible word was tossed away by the wind. The four forms remaining stood paralyzed. No, there were six before. One lay motionless; where was the sixth? A despondent scream rose into the air, growing in intensity until it filled every space. She covered her ears and sobbed, praying for it to stop as the fog grew so thick it threatened to suffocate all life...
Gasping for breath, Rin shot up in bed, clutching a blanket in her white knuckles. Her heart raced, but the pounding did nothing to drown out the haunting scream still ringing through her ears. She brushed away a damp tendril of dark hair from her sweaty forehead and closed her eyes, trying to chase away the dark, blurry images.
She felt something nudge her arm and looked down to see two luminous brown eyes filled with worry. Rin reached down to stroke the silky fur of her dark protector and was glad for his comforting presence tonight. His massive black paws appeared over the edge of the bed, and before Rin could offer any objections, the entire jaguar landed on her bed with a thud. Rin could not help but laugh as he nuzzled her and threatened to push her out of the little bed entirely. She wrapped her arms around the intimidating cat, welcoming the distraction from that horrible nightmare.
He had come to her on a dark and stormy night just like this one a few years back. She called him Pepper because of his coal-black fur and because he added flavor to her life. Just a tiny, starving kitten then, he had never given her any indication where he had come from, and he had never tried to leave. Out of duty to her new friend, she had searched the forest for anything like him, any family that might be missing him. He followed her cheerfully, investigating each cave and burrow alongside her, never drawn toward anything that felt like home. Unfortunately, fond memories of the shivering ball of fur that had scratched on her door inevitably led to Shrilynda.
Shrilynda. The word sent a chill through her spine, recalling a vivid image of the merciless woman with a club raised to her pitiful, cowering friend. She was unmoved by sobs and entreaties, budged only by the promise he would be a vicious killer someday, protection when Rin was alone. Rin was frequently alone.
On the surface, Shrilynda was a beautiful woman with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, but she was the kind of woman who would make a rampaging dragon think twice about crossing her path. She could be wickedly cruel, an essential Malum trait. The Malum would stop at nothing to get what they wanted.
They, Rin mused bitterly. Rin often forgot she was one of them. As she heard the storm rage outside through the dead stillness of the house, she was reminded they forgot just as often. Even Shrilynda barely acknowledged her existence, and she lived in the woman’s house.
A few days back, Shrilynda and a large group of the most important members of the Malum village had gone somewhere. Rin was accustomed to being left in the dark as to the Malum’s purpose, direction, or length of absence. She had been dragged on enough of their missions in the past to guess she would rather not know what they were doing now.
Tonight, she shared the bleak gathering of houses with just a few lesser guards left to look after them. They were more concerned with passing the time than with her, and unless she did something drastic like burn down the meeting house, they would leave her alone. It was a cruel punishment, to be completely free yet hopelessly bound by what she was.
When she was younger, the Malum took her with them to keep an eye on her, but they found her a tiresome companion, and preferred to leave her at home as soon as she knew better than to run away. Outside her community, she faced life as an outcast. At best, she would be feared and shunned. If the long-persecuted villagers could work up the courage, she would be hunted down like an animal.
“Rightly so.” Rin tousled Pepper’s fur. “Anyone who knows fifteen different uses for chicken’s blood should not be trusted.”
Pepper blinked at her and yawned, uncurling his entire pink tongue with great effort and stretching himself further across the bed.
Having lost the ability or desire to return to sleep, Rin kicked off her blanket and stepped across the cold wooden floor of her bedroom to a small window. Her room was a tiny, secluded tower set on top of the small house Shrilynda grudgingly shared with her. Her loneliness was offset slightly by the ability to see almost everything that happened in the village from her vantage point on the outskirts of the bleak little town.
She peered out into the rain but saw nothing through the inky darkness. Since this was her view day in and day out, her mind filled in the missing pieces. A dark shadow off in the distance was the imprint of the house of her closest neighbor, Namon. Her first impression of Namon was from when a young Pepper had discovered a severely wayward butterfly fluttering around the small village and had chased the poor, confused creature into Namon’s foul-smelling garden. Realizing what he was doing too late, she sneaked over to retrieve him and came face to waist with the short-tempered owner himself, who towered over her like a dark, nefarious cloud. While the rambunctious kitten hissed and growled at this attacker from the safety of Rin’s arms, Namon issued a barrage of threats that would have terrified a grown man.
“You or your mongrel set foot near my house again, girl, and I will chop off your hand without a second thought,” he promised.
She thought her heart would either burst or freeze in terror at the time, but later, trembling in the safety of her tower bedroom, she realized the threat was an uncommonly weak one. For one, Namon was the leader of the Malum’s Scouts, a vicious band of power-hungry soldiers. A hand was barely a worthwhile trophy for someone who could raze a town on a whim with a few Scouts, some dark spells, and the ubiquitous chicken’s blood. That day, she began to realize that as much as the Malum made their contempt of her obvious, they were also careful to protect her from harm.
Her thoughts turned back to the Malum’s departure. Never in her memory had they been gone for this long. She began to fear their return as much as their absence. A twinge of anticipation caused her to shiver; something was coming.
She sighed and cocked her head to see Pepper.
“What could they possibly be doing, Pepper?”
He regarded her seriously and padded over to the window. Hopping slightly to rest his paws on the window sill, he stared curiously into the dark night.
Rin shivered, this time due to the cold, and wrapped a worn blanket around her shoulders. She walked down the wooden steps outside her door, avoiding every creaky spot out of habit. Pepper followed her silently down to the kitchen and watched her start a fire in the stove. When she poured water into a battered teapot and put it above the small fire instead of cooking something worthwhile, like bacon, he lost interest.
Faint, distant laughing caught Pepper’s attention, and he growled softly. Rin tensed in dread or anticipation; she was not quite sure which. The returning party sounded triumphant. Whatever they had set out to do, they had done it.
As the jubilant Malum group came closer, Rin caught pieces of their conversation.
“...did you see those stupid guards? Afraid of their own shadows they were...”
“...as if that was an accomplishment. I hit him over the head...” Namon’s self-important voice caught her attention.
“The second time. He was barely conscious, anyway.” Rin knew the sullen voice belonged to Perabsen. Namon was always taking credit for Perabsen’s accomplishments. Rin might have felt sorry for him had he not been obviously attracted to her in his slimy slug-like manner. The pathetic man was twice her age and she couldn’t help but notice the sickly way he stared at her. She shuddered involuntarily at the thought.
“Shut up, all of you!” That was Shrilynda’s harsh voice. “If he dies now, we’ve wasted the whole trip and a prince besides. Stop babbling and get him inside.”
Rin did not like the sound of this conversation. Nervously, she heard the raucous troupe clatter up the stairs to the door. It was thrust open, hinges complaining against the rough treatment. Two of the Malum stumbled in carrying—oh no, Rin’s mind raced. It was a body the two of them had just dropped on her kitchen floor. She jumped involuntarily as the thud registered in the back of her dazed mind.
“Rin, get down here immed—Oh, here you are,” Shrilynda screeched. “Fix him,” she demanded while gesturing at the body on the floor. “He can’t die before his purpose is served.”
Rin stared in shock at the figure slumped on the floor.
“Go away!” Shrilynda ordered the gathered crowd. “We’ll meet here tomorrow night. There’s no more to do.”
Rin’s head whirled. What was happening?
Shrilynda scowled. “Are you deaf?”
She grabbed Rin by the arm and wrenched her to the floor. “If he is not still alive by tomorrow morning, neither are you. I’m tired; don’t make any noise.”
With that she swirled into her bedroom and slammed the door. The house trembled, almost as if it feared Shrilynda’s anger. Pepper gave a low growl, but even the loyal jaguar realized that crossing Shrilynda would be murderous for him and perhaps for his beloved mistress as well.
After a moment, Rin realized she was still sprawled on the floor gaping at Shrilynda’s departing figure. Death threats were both common and easily dismissed, but bodies on the floor in the middle of the night were considerably less so. Had this really happened? Probably. Even in her dreams she could never have imagined a scenario quite this odd. In front of her lay a formerly well-dressed man, one who had been hit over the head and stolen by a band of Malum that now wanted her to take care of him.
Pepper slunk forward now and circled the man, sniffing him curiously. He had been deposited unceremoniously on his stomach, face first into the rough rug in front of the fire’s hearth. Hoping to determine what had been done to him, Rin carefully pushed him over onto his back. He was covered in dirt from head to toe, indicating he had been dragged through the mud. True to their bragging, he sported a large gash on the side of his head that was caked with mud as well as dried and wet blood. He had been hit over the head once when he was taken and again perhaps when he woke up, Rin concluded. His wounds themselves did not look terrible, but his clothing was soaked through from the rain. She felt his forehead gently, startled momentarily by the odd sensation of her fingertips on the man’s skin. She felt a little thrill rush through her. She marveled at the strange feeling for a quickened heartbeat, then pushed it away just as quickly.
He was much younger than any of the Malum, excepting the occasional misguided and short-lived Scout hopeful. Hard to tell through the mud, he seemed to be closer to her age. She would wake him to ask, but unfortunately he was feverish, burning hot to the touch. It came as no surprise he would be sick after being hit over the head at least twice and dragged through the mud and rain for several days with little food or water. Rin wondered for a moment what the Malum would have done to him if they had wanted him to die.
He was bound hand and foot and gagged, of course. Rin shook her head in dismay. Where did they think he could go in his condition? She took a knife from the kitchen and sawed through the ropes binding him.
She sighed and reached down to pull off his boots. Even wet and muddy, the bedraggled boot was easily nicer than all of her possessions combined. She grabbed one and pulled. The sodden boot stubbornly refused to budge. She tugged with more force, and it gave way in haughty defiance, knocking Rin backwards. A nearby kitchen cabinet stopped her abruptly. She winced more from the sound of the thud than the bump on her head.
The young man groaned and quivered weakly before fading back into unconsciousness. She held her breath, listening. After a tense moment, she finally exhaled, concluding Shrilynda was already asleep or choosing to ignore her. She had no time to deal with the fiery woman’s interference.
“Pepper,” Rin whispered. “Could you get my pillow and my cloak?” He padded dutifully up the stairs while Rin removed the other boot with more caution. His feet were icy and damp. In an effort to keep him warm, she pulled him closer to the wood stove and went to unbutton his soiled and soaked jacket.
Pepper returned with her pillow and cloak in his large mouth, and she wrapped her cloak securely around the freezing man. She took the pillow and placed it gently under his head. Taking the teapot out of the stove, she poured its steaming water into a small stone basin. With a cloth she carefully wiped away the mud covering him and cleaned and bandaged his head. She placed a clean, damp cloth on his forehead and coaxed him to swallow tea made with the special mint leaves to bring down his fever.
When he wasn’t covered in mud, he was really very handsome. He was probably the Prince Shrilynda had referred to outside. The way the Malum talked about royalty, she had expected them to look something like large reptiles. This Prince had tousled blond hair that escaped to fall on his forehead and the perfectly tanned skin of one accustomed to the sun, but not forced to work in it.
Fascinated, Rin lifted his hand to rest against hers. His hands were soft and smooth compared to her rough, callused palms. Princes were not common visitors to the Malum part of the woods. She wondered who he was and what his life was like. Even if he regained consciousness and broke through his fever delirium, Rin doubted he would be willing to answer her questions. He looked like someone who knew better than to talk to her. She exhaled, exhausted, and leaned back against the table.