By the time they made it to an inn some distance from the house, Zahra was about ready to collapse. Because they had been travelling all night, Lucas explained, so they would rest and then move on the next day. Zahra had feared that, as a servant, and a black woman at that, that this was where they would abandon her – and it had seemed to cross Lucas’ mind as the innkeeper asked about her sleeping arrangements.
“She’ll share a room with me,” said Lavinia leaving no room for argument. Zahra was surprised and thankful that she was wrong. She had no idea where or how she would begin to make something of herself if she was left alone to fend for herself.
Before long, they were settled into their rooms and the children put to bed. A cot was set up for Zahra and Lavinia took the bed. She had watched Zahra – studying her as if she were figuring something out in her head. It had been disconcerting but at least it was not suspicion she saw in the Madame’s eyes. It was curiosity – as if she had a question to ask but didn’t know how or whether to ask it.
By the next time they had risen, Lucas had brought a covered jar into the room and Zahra had been sent downstairs for food. Before she closed the door behind her, she heard Lavinia whisper something about being careful to Lucas.
Whatever they had left behind was brutal and gruesome. Zahra shuddered remembering the carnage. She had barely been able to sleep, her dreams plagued by headless bodies and creatures with sharp teeth pursuing her. Her eyes felt gritty and irritated and she scrubbed a hand down her face. She stifled a yawn even now as she made her way down the stairs. By all indications, once they began travelling again, they were heading to the next town near the docks.
The docks… the sea. Neither of these things held any joyful memories for her. Still raw from the loss of her homeland and sick from the cramped quarters and mistreatment of her fellow slaves, Zahra had arrived at the docks. Once there, coarse, heavy rope had been tied around their necks and hands. It was dirty and it chafed but nobody gave a care as to their comfort. They were to walk in a straight line to wherever they were being led. Too weak to protest, she had followed her brothers and sisters to an unknown fate.
She shuddered again remembering it. Seeing how far she had come, it was truly a miracle. She took a deep breath and then stepped into the dining area. The smells coming from the kitchen were mothwatering but she wasn’t sure she could stomach anything at the moment. The memories from the previous night wouldn’t go away and it made her sick every time she thought about it – which was often.
“How about some barley tea for you there sugar? My mama’s recipe, sure to warm you right down to your toes,” said a friendly voice beside her. A pretty plump black woman balanced a tray on her hip and smiled down at Zahra. “You look like you could use it too.”
Zahra blinked. She hadn’t seen her arrive and barely heard the words.
“Well now, you just sit tight and I’ll bring you that tea. Do you fancy anything to eat?” she asked, concern etched into her features. Then she smiled, a gentle comforting smile and patted Zahra’s shoulder as she walked into the kitchen.
“I know just the thing. You hold on, I’ll fetch you something that’ll make everything better.”
Zahra watched her leave wondering what that was all about. She had never been to an establishment where a black person was so free with their words. As the woman crossed into the kitchen and walked past the innkeeper, however, she brushed her hand down his cheek lovingly and he beamed at her.
Ah. Well, that explained a lot.
Zahra looked back down at her fingers. Her dirty nightgown peeked from beneath the cloak she still wore. She probably looked a sight! She only had her boots for protection and her partially muddied nightgown was torn to shreds from their trip through the forest underbrush. The cloak was on only for propriety. It did a good job of protecting her and hiding the worst of the rips in the gown.
She hadn’t had time to grab any clothing and neither had the masters. What they were in was what they travelled in. It was a wonder Master Lucas had any money on him at all. She didn’t think too much on it. He had been planning to leave the house himself especially after Phillip had left. The servants had overheard something to that effect.
A steaming bowl was placed before her interrupting her thoughts. The broth smelled glorious. It had been flavoured with some spices she recognised by scent, cinnamon, thyme and rosemary. She looked up into the smiling eyes of the black woman from before.
“There you go, soup of the day. Why don’t you have some. Here’s some fresh bread to go with that.”
She stood there expectantly and Zahra gave her a weak smile. The bread did smell heavenly and there was no harm in trying some. Taking a deep breath, she picked up the spoon and dipped it into the steaming soup. She blew on it and took a sip. That first taste did it for her. Her stomach growled in appreciation at finally being fed and Zahra looked away embarrassed. The woman chuckled.
“There now. You eat up. Nobody in here’s going to bother you and if they do, I’ll have my husband over there show them what’s what.” She gestured with her thumb over her shoulder at the innkeeper. With a wink at Zahra, she strode off to the next table leaving her surprised. They were married? She hadn’t known anything like that to happen and even when it did it was very rare.
She watched the woman move around the room, charming guests and making suggestions and when Zahra turned to look at the innkeeper, she found him smiling in his wife’s direction. It warmed her heart. Even in a place as despondent as she had come to believe this was, there was still some good left. Would she and Phillip ever have that? Could they have had that - if they hadn’t been forced to flee, she amended with a sigh.
Turning back to her meal, she broke off a piece of the still warm bread and dipped it into the soup. She shut her eyes stifling a moan at the burst of flavour that filled her mouth. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was, especially after the long trek on foot. The simple meal was warm, delicious, filling and it chased some of the darkness away. She took another bite of her bread and another.
Soon, she had finished her meal and she sat back in her seat with a smile on her face and a heavy sigh. Then, her eyelids began to droop, no longer burdened with thoughts of bloody bodies or screams of terror…
The glade was vast and golden. It stretched on and on as far as the eye could see. Green hills covered in trees and flowers rolled in the distance reaching for the vast blue sky. Lazy clouds floated along on a gentle breeze, afloat in an endless sea. The sunshine was warm and inviting and the birds chirping happily around were the only thing breaking the calm rustle of the golden stalks around her.
A little boy ran up beside her. He pulled her hand and she bent to hear what he had to say. He whispered something in her ear and then ran off. She cocked her head to the side watching him confused. Then his voice echoed an ominous warning in her ears…
“They’re coming. Run!”
She took her eyes from the little blue-eyed boy with silken dark curls and looked back the way he’d come. A blackness was settling over the glade, all the gold around her turning to dust and ash, the flowers wilting and the trees dying. A monster, part snake, part winged demon with great golden eyes rose up from the ground and looking around, settled its sights on her. With a malicious grin, it coiled its slick green and red scaled body making ready to strike. Zahra could only watch in terror, unable to move.
“I shall have you,” it hissed, its deep gravelly voice reverberating into her very soul, “you and your kin!” She felt the depths of hatred and evil in its voice and she winced at the darkness it brought to her soul. As the creature moved to strike, a man stepped before her, arms outstretched, prepared to take the blow for her – the one meant to kill her. She knew him. Her heart wept for the man he was, for who he was to her. Phillip was willingly sacrificing himself to save her… just as he had promised.
She couldn’t let him. She wouldn’t…
With a gasp, she woke up to find herself in a bed in one of the rooms upstairs. Lavinia came up beside her and clutched her hand. She smiled at the children to reassure them then turned to face Zahra. Worry creased her forehead and then relief took over as she realised that Zahra was truly awake.
“My… my lady I don’t… I’m sorry, I’m not…” Lavinia smiled and squeezed Zahra’s hand.
“There now. You had a rough night and a bad dream.” Zahra looked down at the comfortable covers and the unfamiliar gown she now wore.
“But I’m… I’m in your bed. And I have new clothing… I don’t understand.”
“The innkeeper and his wife called for us after you fell asleep in the dining room. She provided us with the gown you’re wearing. It’s not a good fit, but it will do. She also gave us some spare clothing and some medicine for you… You must have been so exhausted after such a long trip. I’m so sorry I hadn’t realised.”
“He left this morning. We didn’t want to stay any longer than we had to but you were so pale and frankly, I wasn’t going to leave you behind.”
Zahra looked down at herself and then around the room. None of this was making sense.
Lavinia smiled brighter.
“You came back for me and my children. Nobody else did.”
Then she bit her lip and looked away from Zahra uncertain about something. She seemed to be having an internal debate and when she turned back to Zahra, she looked resolved.
“There’s another reason. I’m not entirely certain but I think… no I believe I’m right. Rose, this may be difficult to explain but I think… I think you’re a Halfling.”
A carriage trundled through the fallen gates of Larenby manor, the driver looking on in surprise. Patches of black lined the drive and the trees along it. His caller hadn’t been joking when she mentioned a war. She came into view as he neared the front of the manor – or what once was the manor.
“You lost her?” asked Percy hopping down from the carriage and walking onto the lawn. The charred remains of the house had long since stopped smouldering. Ash drifted in the wind and the morning sun brought to light the carnage from the night before. The shivering woman standing near the once immaculate driveway huffed and turned to face him, drawing her attention away from the wounded man lying beside her.
“Of course not, I have her stowed away in my pocket.”
He chuckled and went up to her ignoring her sarcastic reply.
“And who is this?”
“None of your business. Help me get him into the carriage. We need to get him back to the Keepers’ Seat. We need to warn Tess...”
“Who is going to be a nightmare to deal with because of this.” They put the unconscious man in the back of the carriage and after she had assured herself of his safety, she climbed into the front with him.
“Yes, well there was nothing I could do about it was there? I didn’t ask for this attack. I did all I could. I’d like to see you face off against a dozen vampires and Halflings and come out alive.”
She crossed her arms and turned away in a sulk. That got him to shut up for a moment. She could see him looking at her as if she was insane. Maybe she shouldn't have thrown the Halfling thing in his face. Up until last night, it had only been a lesson, a contingency their Order had been taught to deal with - and thank the Graces for that. Still, he managed to recover enough to respond to her sulk.
“Hey, hey now April, I was only teasing. I know you did your best,” he said lightly cuffing her chin as he took the reins, “you always do.”
With a cluck of his tongue and a tug at the reins, they were off. April heaved a great sigh and looked into the back of the carriage where Elisha lay. He had been badly wounded but he would survive. She had protected him as best she could but hadn’t caught sight of Zahra again after they’d gotten separated. She hadn’t died, of that she was certain. April would have received summons for her absolute failure if that were so, and that would have meant a Communion with the Graces.
There was still time to change things.
It wasn’t that serious… yet.
“Does she know?” asked April, drawing a chuckle from Percy.
“Have you ever known Tess, the Overseer of the Blade to miss a single damn thing?”
April sighed. No luck there then. She had been tasked with protecting Zahra. Tess had convinced Paul to take April as well as Zahra when he was choosing staff for his household. If the Head of the Vampire Council suspected something, he didn’t show it. It was on good authority that Keepers were very handy to have around – especially Keepers of the Blade, and especially for times like last night.
But she had failed both the family and her charge.
At first, April had meant to only observe and protect from a distance but Ethel, another of her Keeper sisters, had decided to run her stupid mouth. Zahra had held her own though and damn if she hadn’t been impressed. Tess had been right about Zahra being special. April had suspected it, especially once Tess had insisted on teaching her to make the blue pain tonic she had mentioned Zahra would need.
Pain tonic was usually a nasty brown colour, mixed specially by the Keepers of the Soul, the Order of Sybil. Maybe it was because they never really caught ill that they made the tonic so nasty. Adding any form of sweetening agent, whether honey or syrup, made it a thousand times worse. So this tonic was a new development.
Well, she didn’t have to worry about any strange recipes now. Tess would absolutely have her hide for losing Zahra. She leaned back and shut her eyes. What a mess!
“Well, you know,” said Percy glancing into the back of the carriage, “I mean he isn’t a pretty little miss, but at least we’re bringing someone back, right?”
April sighed exasperatedly and rolled her eyes but felt some of her annoyance melt away. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She and Percy had known each other all their lives. If anyone could lift her spirits, it was him.
“Just shut up and get us back to Tess,” she said and focused resolutely on the road ahead.