She dipped her hands into the bucket of water, basking in the cool relief that cradled her aching limbs. She massaged her joints, cleaning dirt and grime from her rough fingers, silently reflecting with the quiet, gentle noise of the disturbed water.
A glint of torchlight on metal blinded her momentarily. She whined under breath, shielding her eyes and looking up at the source. The chains clanged as a male slave kneeled by her and handed her a chunk of bread, hushing her softly. She glanced down at it, frowning more visibly now. Though hunger bit at her insides, the last thing she wanted was food.
She opened her mouth to speak when the man raised a hand, chains sounding, silencing her.
“I can’t be here long, Talia... But I snuck you some of my meal again...” He muttered under his breath, scanning the shadows for any of the soldiers. Talia shook her head and pushed the bread away. The male furrowed his brow curiously and tried to hand it to her again, leaving it in her lap. She let out a sigh, taking his hand in hers.
“Daddy, you can’t keep skipping meals...” She warned, helping him to clasp his sore, tired hands around the hardened old bread. His aimless attempt to fight against her wishes was fruitless, he gave in without another word and gnawed on the stale food.
She pet his shoulder and let him eat, keeping an eye out so he could relax. She followed the chains on his wrists to the brace at his neck, his muddy hair clumped to itself and hung heavily on his tattered scalp. His bruised face and blackened eye were all too familiar to her.
The heaviness in her heart weighed her down. She leaned on him and hugged his shoulders. Her father pet her arm, raising a soft, fond gaze to her. Talia tried to reciprocate, but she couldn’t muster the will to bring the rare expression to her lips. She pulled his bangs out from behind his ears and tried to pull the dried mud and debris from the ragged locks grayed with age.
“Did they push you around in the swamps again?” She asked quietly, frowning at the thought of those hideous monsters hurting her poor father. He nodded, standing and handing her the other half of his bread. She looked at it bringing herself to her feet.
“There, I ate. Now take the rest. I need to go…” He muttered, turning to leave. The clashing chorus his chains sang made Talia wince. She watched him leave and turned her gaze to the bread. She shook her head carefully and gave in, finishing off what was left. It was stale, dusty. She thankfully preferred this to the taste of mold and rot.
Night fell quickly. A night that came rarely, the evernight. Talia looked up at the clear, starry night, spotting the large, cream orange moon overhead. Winter winds whipped and bore through the caves.
Talia retreated to the depths of the cavern, keeping her distance from the bulk of the slaves huddling together in the pitch dark dampness. She preferred to be with her father or alone rather than huddled in the group. She hoped it would bring her a silent death while she slept, but something always prevented the cold and damp from finishing her off.
It was an easy assumption that this was her father’s doing.
Talia looked over at the huddle of broken spirits and frowned, holding herself as she turned away from the sight and stared into the deepest reaches. Silence burned her ears. Unnerving, piercing cold burrowed into her very bones. She shivered heavily and kept her eyes closed.
“This is my chance... It’s near winter, it should be cold enough...” She thought to herself, teeth chattering as a smile finally cracked her rough complexion. She feared being without her father, but, if the stories were true, she would see her mother in death, and she wouldn’t need to be afraid anymore. She smiled faintly at the thought.
A life without fear was impossible, she knew that from an early age. She yawned as sleep took her mind, leading her to the absence that was her dreams.
The horn’s blast bore into her mind, startling her awake. She let a screech, eyes darting around the cavern. Her father offered his hand to her, his tired eyes begging her to be quiet. Talia took his hand and hoisted herself to her feet.
The captains ordered the slaves to stand at attention. Each one held their arms tightly around them, a weak attempt to combat the cold night.
Talia gulped nervously. She had lost track of the time years ago, but she knew without a doubt it was once again the day of Tribute. She was only a toddler at the last offering, much too young to be involved. Her mother however... she was taken over two decades ago, the previous evernight.
Tensity sparked the air, grimaces passing the maw of the captains as they looked over the slaves presented for the perfect offering. Talia stood slightly behind her father, hiding from their view.
She didn’t notice a clawed hand reaching for her, roughly pulling her into the clearing by a Vampiric Lord. He hissed, studying the scrawny meat. She avoided his sharp gaze directly, trying to squirm away from his grasp.
“Here’s one. I thought you said you didn’t have any young females in this den.” He growled at the lower life, tossing her before them. The captains glanced at each other, one stepping forward to offer a weak excuse as the other muttered slurs to the girl under their breath. The lord waved a dismissive hand and ordered an orc to grab the girl.
“Ugh, nevermind. I assume you were planning to keep her to yourselves. He’ll enjoy this one.” He sneered, a disgusted tone baiting Talia to react. The creature attempted to follow his orders, but Talia struggled against him as much as she could. Adrenaline forced her to keep fighting against the meaty hands of the disgusting beast. She ignored the scratches and wounds on her arms, crying for help.
She reached for her father, tears beginning to sting her eyes. He watched her in silence, pain in his gaze, the same sting painting his face with desperation, begging her to be quiet. She stared in disbelief, ceasing her struggles.
The lord called the slaver over, dragging Talia with him. She hung limply against his grasp. Exhausted and confused, she looked up at the lord as he bent over her. He curled his lips back angrily and swung his hand. The slap sounded throughout the cave, forcing her father to wince and look away. He took her face and growled through his fangs.
“If you dare fight us again, you’ll be behemoth bait!” He warned. She glared at him, keeping silent as father visually requested.
“WHAT!?” He barked, placing the annoyed pressure on the girl’s jaw. She winced and tried to pull herself away. The unsuccessful move only made him more furious, tightening his grip even more.
An orc gestured to the outside, darkened by the perpetual night. three men stepped into the caves, each with an increasingly disappointed frown at the Lord. They all had the pointed ears of the higher classes. Nihil had the points as well, his one difference the fangs poking from his lips.
He released the girl, shoving her to their feet. They studied her, the discolored eyes of royal blood shining in the night. She held herself under the judging gazes, trying to make herself look small.
“This is your offering?” The violet-eyed one mused. His golden hair tied back and out of the way. His armor was covered in soot and smog, smelling of fire and burnt flesh. His hands were scarred from the battles he previously fought. He was tanned, a man of the metal working cities. He appeared rough in every aspect, from complexion to attitude. He glanced at Lord Nihil in disbelief.
Another one huffed and pointed at Talia.
“A slave? Do you not have another female? Preferably one that bathes?” He almost pleaded, wafting the overwhelming smell of the young woman away from him. He had once pure white robes, the ends of which were blackened with the mere air near the caves. His silky strands a shade of carmine brown. He had pristine skin and delicate gloves over his sharpened nails. A race of high elf, she assumed. One used to silver and gold. He possibly had never seen a slave as filthy as Talia before.
Lord Nihil scoffed and tossed his silver hair back, the bangs returning over his crimson eye. Nihil appeared porcelain in the moonlight, almost glowing faintly where skin was showing.
His slits traveled from man to man, scanning their offerings as well, he knew he had little chance at the offering this year. Every generation turned out this way. His humans were not royalty material.
“Humans are slaves, Xir. The only female I have that isn’t with young is this one.” Nihil explained, folding his arms. Xir groaned, his hightened sensibilities offended greatly by Talia. He turned and fled, ordering his servants to bring their offering with him.
“You should keep a higher class of humans. They can be valuable, you know.” A larger, more muscular Lord chimed, pocketing his hands casually. His eyes were calm, warm pools of cerulean azure. His earthy brown hair was short and trimmed in a military manner. Nihil snapped his teeth at him threateningly.
He led the orcs and his offering to the Aberth Orchard, leaving the other two men behind. The orc kept Talia tied and at his master’s side, an arm trapping her limbs tightly to her body.
Nihil walked on his own legs, an act most lords avoided. The orc carrying her had imperial issue, thick leather armor, horns piercing Talia’s side from the orc’s shoulder. Every one of his kind was greenish in coloration, a sickening color Talia grew to despise.
The dark lands past the slaver caves swiftly filled in with dense trees and vegetation. Despite the winter cold, the forests stood just as thick as the day they settled in the mountains. Nihil didn’t seem to be bothered by the sudden change in life around him, but the orcs needed to get used to the beastly noises in the distance.
Talia heard cries she had never experienced before. Some sharper than a harpy’s cry, some deeper than a behemoth bellow. Despite the danger, despite the cold, she still tried to wiggle herself out of the distracted orc’s arms. Nihil growled.
“Don’t even try it.” He warned.
The other men caught up eventually, their women standing behind them, prepared and designed for this event, in some cases literally.
She kept her trap shut, staring at the other offerings, all beautiful, attractive, diverse. She looked at herself. Malnourished, bony, dirty, scarred. She was nothing like these other girls. She wouldn’t have a chance, not that she wanted one anyway.
“W... Why am I here...? I can’t possibly be Lord Nihil’s only choice...?” She wondered to herself, averting her gaze from the women. Silence stung only a moment as the lords raised their arms to the sky and chanted under breath for the King of the land.
The wind picked up horribly, whipping Talia’s hair everywhere, lashing at her cheeks and getting in her eyes. The lords watched the skies for the arrival of his majesty, the screeching cry of the harpies above breaking the howl of the wind.
Talia’s eyes widened, witnessing the violet skies with woolen clouds shatter into blackened hues with cracks of lightning. She hissed when a flash blinded her, lowering her head and listening to the other girl’s screams. Lord Nihil chuckled faintly, his voice carried on the gales directly to her ears. He looked at his pathetic offering and grinned to himself. She cowered, covering her ears as the gales grew louder.
“If all goes as predicted, I’ll have fun disposing of you...” He informed her. Talia bore her teeth. Her hair went wild, standing at random ends making her appear much worse off and larger than before.
“You don’t scare me.” She muttered with a hoarse voice, trying to convince herself more than threaten. The gales carried her voice away from Lord Nihil’s pointed ears. She was almost thankful it did. She spied his sharp fangs and shuddered slightly at the thought of being his meal rather than an offering.
Galloping approached the Aberth Orchard.
Without hesitation, a grand wolf burst into the clearing. The large creature’s twisted muzzle was covered in scars, his snarl revealing rows of pristine pearls sharpened into daggers. Talia noticed he held someone on his back.
The figure leaped from the jeweled saddle, dark robes hiding his identity from the offerings. The lords kept silent, the winds died at his command. Talia stared in awe.
“Xir, bring her forth.” He ordered. Xir was adjusting his hair as he stepped forward, his archer prodding the woman until she complied and stood before the robed figure. She was blindfolded with a sort of golden cloth, her hands bound behind her.
Xir seemed to nervously beam at his use of bindings on his offering. His archer, a fellow of elven descent, leveled the bow at her back and notched an arrow.
“Your majesty, I have brought you the finest Niiruecian I have at my disposal!” He crowed, gesturing a hand over the girl. Talia furrowed her brow slightly, wondering what a Nirruecian was. The figure stepped around her, studying her frail, porcelain body. The gentle creamy hue of artificial skin glinted as the lightning cracked above, she flinched every time. He moved away from her and shook his head.
“Xir, I have reminded you many times, I do not appreciate fabrications.” He recounted, leaving the lord with his creation. There was no sharpness to his voice, no anger. He seemed to dismiss the repeated offense. Xir frowned and sighed softly, gesturing to the girl simply, disappointed.
The archer wasted no time disposing of her. The single arrow shattered her in seconds, leaving pieces of the creation in scattered in the clearing. The king wandered to the violet-eyed lord.
He bowed his head and waved a hand over his offering. A beautifully shimmering mermaid in a tub of glass filled with the mystic waters of the lake beyond the other’s reach. She tried to appear brave but her body trembled terribly.
The king took her hand in his and tested the skin, watching her eyes dart for any chance at freedom. He reached for her hair only to be very unwelcomingly greeted by her meat-tearing teeth. Once again he took his leave from the girl and once again she was disposed of.
Talia gulped, a hard lump sticking in the walls of her throat. She glanced at the last girl, a nymph of all creatures. The slender frame was hugged tightly by a silky blue and white dress. She wasn’t bound, wasn’t afraid. She stood tall under the inspecting gaze of the king. He placed his hands over her smooth, fair skin and spun her around, studying her closely. She smirked to herself, bowing to her lord.
The muscular man nodded to her, a smile creeping along his lips. He seemed sure of his choice. Friendly towards the girl as well, she must have been trained personally. Talia felt Nihil’s knife press against her back.
“Another failure... damned humans. You’re too flawed.” He growled under breath, preparing to dispose of Talia. She closed her eyes tightly, locking her jaw so she wouldn’t panic and call for help, there was no use. The blade dug slightly deeper. The vampire wasn’t going to resort to feeding off a failure again.
“No... She is much too cocky. I need a humble woman.” He said as he dismissed the nymph. She stared in shock, begging her lord not to kill her. The pain was apparent on his face. He looked away as his servant made the final blow.
Talia knew she was doomed. She kept her head down and stared at their feet. He did the usual inspection, silence stinging the air. She almost wished Nihil had finished her before the king could witness her plain nothingness.
A soft chuckle sounded, soon after the sound of chains and a weight falling from her wrists, she looked at her hands. Her cuffs were gone. Talia gasped and faced the king. She only saw a faint smile from beneath the shadows.
“Hello. What’s your name, my dear?” He asked with a sweet tone. Talia felt heat race to her cheeks, she was speechless. She thought of how to respond to this unfamiliar tone.
“I... I’m called Talia.” She mewed.
“Talia? Hm... do you know who I am?” He asked.
“I know you’re the king..., but I’ve never seen you before. And I haven’t heard of much else.” She explained. The lord smacked her backside the head and growled. She ducked her head with a slight yelp.
“Do not use such a familiar tone, slave!” He barked. The king straightened, pulling Talia away from him. She was horribly confused, staring at the king and shying away from his touch.
“Did I give you permission to touch her?” The king had his arm around her pressing her securely against his chest. She stiffened, balling her fists and keeping them to her sides. She didn’t like being restrained in any sense, but this restraint was more for the king than her.
She awaited her punishment, surely to come for dirtying the king’s robes with her filthy, plain skin. She only hoped it was quick and soon. Lord Nihil paused at his question, gripping his cape in an effort to keep himself calm.
“N-no... sir.” He finally managed. The king nodded and turned, leading Talia to his great wolf. The lumbering beast was grand, majestic. Its fur rustles in the rampant winds like a victorious flag over the mountain range.
“Good. Then I expect you to treat her as you would me. She may be your queen one day.” He casually mentioned.
“What!?” Talia and Nihil exclaimed simultaneously. He glanced over his shoulder.
“Did I stutter?” He asked sharply, patience dwindling. They silenced. He nodded and helped Talia onto his wolf’s back. The beast bowed its head to her and steadied himself to allow her on. She gripped the fur tightly, stiffening when he rises. His muscles rippled under his fur, powerful legs ground the earth mercilessly. The king mounted in front of her and took her hand, placing it on his hip.
“Hang on, dear. Bynign is not a steady ride.” He chuckled. She nodded, hanging on to him.
“As you wish, your highness.” Talia took the robes alone, leaving his body from her grasp. The king’s hood rested past his brow, shielding his gaze from the road ahead, yet his stead rode without a beat skipped. Talia watched the forest fade from sparse trees to open fields in under a second, the beast’s gait stretching farther than any she could believe.
Her grip tightened on his garments. Her knuckles turned white with the intensity of her grasp. The wind whipped her hair into her face, the strands lashing at her flesh like faerie whips on peach colored skin.
Talia buried her face in his back, shielding herself from the wind. He placed a hand gently on hers, the warmth startling her. A rumble sounded from his chest as if he were speaking to her, but the heavy winds muted his words.
She assumed he was mentioning how close they were, looking up from her shield and finding the large, obsidian castle towering above her. She stared in silence, tightening her hold on his hip. Talia needed to take in the strange, foreign building before she could do anything more.
The main tower stretched high into the clear night skies. The storm of the Orchard was miles behind them, still clashing in the distance. She traced the main walls, spotting the several archers standing at the ready in various posts. They appeared human from her distance, but she knew that was unlikely.
She couldn’t recall the last time she saw anything grander than the guard posts by her master’s caverns. She felt a sudden tug and fell from the back of the king’s beast. She stumbled after him, taking her eyes off the violet spires above.
“My servants are your servants. My guards are your guards. If you feel unsafe, report your worries to my Commander. Miguel will show you to your new room and tailor you some gowns.” The king explained. Talia glanced aside as he turned, gesturing over his courtyard as he showed her around. She held her tongue, keeping behind him when they passed glares of captains and monsters.
She felt smaller than before, weaker. The guards were more ragged, much bigger, and more gnarly than the guards that took over her old home. The king halted at the spiraling staircase and turned to her.
“Are you alright, Talia..?” His tone one she had only heard from her father before. She paused a moment, nodding slowly. He was visibly unconvinced. Taking a glance around the corridor, he took her hand and offered her a small smile.
“You’ll get used to it. I hope you like it here eventually...” He kissed her knuckles and handed her off to a servant. Talia watched him as she followed the servant up the spiral stairs and into a washing room. His actions were curious. Why would he peer down the halls for watching eyes? It’s his own castle, he should be free to do as he wished.
She noticed as they were walking that the servant’s footfalls clicked sharply on the stone.
She couldn’t help but look at the man’s lower body. He had a strange pair of trousers on. They appeared to be made out of goat-hide, but something was off. She shook her head and ignored it. He closed the door behind her in the washroom and ran her a bath. Steam filled the room. The humidity reminded her of the caves in the summer.
Talia stood silently, staring at the odd man for much too long. She fidgeted nervously and picked at her nails.
“Uh... W-what am I supposed to do?” She asked finally. The man shook his head and laughed. She didn’t exactly like that, but she couldn’t help it. Laughter is the better of all the reactions she caused.
“Undress. You need to clean up if you’re going to live here, human.” He muttered, gathering the rags and soap. She grew red very quickly, reluctantly pulling her rags off and covering herself. The servant rolled his eyes.
“You don’t need to do that, human. I’m not interested.” He gestured her over. She hoped not to try his patience too much, but she could only do so much against an intimidating and unknown creature.
Talia slipped into the large basin, relaxing in the warm water. She was careful to keep an eye on the servant the whole time she cleaned herself off. He attempted to wash her himself, but Talia bit at him.
“Don’t touch me. I’m not comfortable with that.” She warned. The servant saw through her defensive facade and shrugged.
“As you wish, human.” He didn’t bother to fight her decision. He just stayed nearby, she assumed he was told to. Talia brushed her hair out with her fingers, humming her father’s lullaby to herself. The wash of the water was soft, calm, quiet. A quiet that didn’t make her afraid, a quiet she could finally enjoy.
A knock sounded at the door, prompting the servant to stand and allow a large, dark man with crow’s wings. His sharp, yellow eyes looked the girl over in the tub, a grin stretching over his long face. He stepped inside and bowed to her, flourishing his feathers. She lowered herself deeper into the water in a sad attempt to hide from him.
“Greetings, madame... You may call me Tengu.” He introduced himself, lifting his eyes to her small, mortal frame. She waved a weak hand, making sure the bubbles covered her body from his hungry gaze.
“Talia...” she muttered quietly. He strode to the side of the bathtub and chuckled darkly, placing himself in the seat beside her. She turned herself away from him. “Why are you in here?” she quietly inquired. Tengu hummed in false thought and waved the servant away.
“The king has appointed me your personal guard. Seeing as you were previously a slave, there’s a great possibility the orcs will try to harm you. Though, nearly every creature here could harm a human.” He laughed to himself.
Talia lowered her gaze at that note, sloughing off debris from her body as he continued on with his base insults. “Humans are much too fragile to even be allowed inside these castle walls. I’m not sure what his fascination is with them.”
“Well, whatever they may be, can you guard me from over there?” she finally asked, nodding towards the door, her arms firmly covering her breasts. Tengu paused and stood quickly, taking himself to the door of the bathroom, putting his back to her.
Talia sunk into her bath, relieved. She relaxed in the water for ages, almost refusing to get out. It would be a pain to get used to the winter air within the castle after such a warm experience. She had a thought suddenly, looking at her guard.
“Tengu?” She muttered under the water.
“Yes, madam?” He answered, keeping his back to the small human female. She put her arms over the side of the bath and rested her chin on her hand.
“What manner of creature are you?” She asked curiously, the warm water easing her to casual comfort. He glanced over at her.
“It’s in the name. I’m a Tengu.” He answered simply.
“What’s a Tengu then?” She stood on her knees, hiding herself behind the tub wall. He hummed in thought and folded his arms, shaking his head.
“A creature that resembles a crow. Probably the simpler way to explain it.” He huffed. Talia paused and nodded quickly. She left him alone after that, the fear of making anyone more powerful than her angry kept her from pushing too far.
She rinsed herself off and stepped out, taking a towel off the side of the tub. It was a pale lavender color and very soft. Talia wrapped herself in the cotton, a faint smile breaking her lips. Soft was a luxury she was glad to acquire, one she would possibly refuse to give up after this night.
“Through the halls with torched walls, past the glaring portraits and steel fixtures, you will find two grand doors. Enter. Within is your new chamber. He will be waiting for you.” Tengu’s message echoed in her whirling mind.
She whined under breath. What if I annoy the king? What if he decides he doesn’t want me? two offerings a generation has happened before... No offerings a generation has happened before. He didn’t even have to take me. He could have killed all his girls off... Why me...?
The crackling of a torch distracted her from her thoughts. She brushed a hand over her lavender, cotton towel. She sighed softly as the worry slowly melted from her mind.
A long, dim hallway fed her from the bathroom to a pair of large, silvery teal doors. She stood before the towering passage, the ornate, shining features glistening. Talia hesitantly took the knob and allowed herself inside.
“Excuse me...? Tengu told me this was where I slept...?” she announced in a small voice, stepping into the dark room. Warm air carrying the scent of lavender wrapped her in its arms, comforting her. Someone chuckled in the moonlit shadows. Talia flinched at the sound, gripping the soft fabric of her lavender towel instinctively.
“Yes. This is your chamber. You share it with me.” A man stepped forward from the shadows, bathed in the lunar glow. His silver hair shone, reflecting the moon itself into graceful silk strands draping over his shoulders. A patch of blackened hair eclipsed the beautiful silk, leading from the crown of his hair to the back of his head, like a brush stroke on a piece of parchment.
His skin was beautifully kept, smooth as the marble pillars, clear as the vast, pure Coyorian lakes, soft as the cotton clinging to her dampened body. All in sight as far as Talia could note. His pointed ears curving somewhat inwards to his skull like basilisk horns.
He wore simple, thick down clothes to combat the harsh winter Coyoria was infamous for. Colors mixing to create a loose fitting tapestry of blue and green. Colors reserve for the highest honored royal blood. He could be a fifth lord, more prominent than the other four. He could have been an elf of a greater race.
He offered her a hand, ungloved with pristine, pale cream skin. Talia mindlessly took his hand and followed him through the room. He placed her carefully on the bed and chuckled softly. She held the fold of her covering to her chest, picking at the bottom of it as she stared into his royal green eyes. The foreign spark in their depths almost taunting her embarrassment.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked in a low, raspy timbre. Talia shuddered, a tightening sensation gripping her chest. She couldn’t help but grasp the soft cotton tighter, desperate for the comfort it once brought only a minute ago.
She didn’t know what she felt, she didn’t know why. She shook her head silently, another shudder erupting as he gave an amused noise and brushed a hand through her hair. She released her grip, a breath escaping her.
“I am the king.”