Blood Bride

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Chapter 25

It had been about a week since Zahra and the children had left the port town behind. She was running out of excuses, out of money and out of hope. They had made it to the town Healer in the Port Town, who had then turned them away at the door. She had taken one look at Zahra, and then at the children before giving her answer to Zahra’s request.

“You’re not welcome here.”

The words had hit Zahra harder than she had expected. Perhaps because she had been with such a kind family for so long and among friends, she had forgotten the true cruelty of her circumstances. No amount of pleading would sway the woman at the door and she shoved Zahra back forcefully, suggesting instead that they find some other town and some other healer that would help “her kind” because they wouldn’t find any there. So, dejected but determined, she and the children had left the port town and headed inland.

Thankfully, a stage was available to carry them all the way to the next town. Despite the driver’s fearsome scowl, he pocketed her money and gave her no trouble when she boarded.

Marie had stopped asking questions and that was both a relief and a worry. It could mean that she had discerned the direness of their situation for herself. After two days' travel, they had found themselves in a farming town full of friendly folk. What caught her somewhat by surprise was the mixed races in the town. She’d seen it here and there; these friendly relations she was learning were not unique to her and Phillip, and they were not as rare as she’d once believed when she worked for the Galaghers.

It hadn’t been too hard to find a place to stay and she had paid the fee with little trouble. The friendly lady at the entrance had smiled and reassured Zahra that she and the children would be perfectly safe there. She had also arranged for meals for all of them and set them up in a cosy room with a fire going. Someone had fetched water for them in buckets beside the washbasin and the bed was already turned down for the night. The hospitality she experienced was a breath of fresh air and for the first time in a while, she felt some of her burden lift.

She tucked the children into bed after preparing them for sleep and fell back into the armchair beside the fireplace. She hissed as she jarred her arm against the wood and cradled it as she waited for the pain to subside. The cut from her climb down the tree hadn’t been very deep but then again, the bandaged wound wasn’t caused by a tree. She glanced at the sleeping children again and shut her eyes leaning her head against the back rest facing the ceiling.

She was mad. She had to be. She had to be absolutely insane to let herself get any further into this but there was no point in bemoaning her fate now.

Would Lavinia be able to find them, she wondered, since they had travelled so far? It had been a major shift from the plan but the children’s safety was her top priority. If she could find a healer, then she would be fine. The town’s healer had been away for a few days and would return in a day or so, per the communication she had received from the innkeeper. Perhaps they could also give her something, a poultice or a salve for her wound. It really did hurt like the devil.

She gingerly touched it feeling the sensitive skin there. She’d been using a makeshift bandage to stanch the flow. Her skirts were a little deficient for it but she’d had no choice.

Remembering what had happened caused her to shudder and she cast another tired look at the sleeping children. They were still so young with so much life left to live. That was probably what had stopped her from running that day…

When they had made it to safety after escaping the inn and the man with the gun, they had hidden in a back alley for a while to catch their breath and to keep watch for any suspicious people. It hadn’t been her best bet but she knew she also had to stop the cut from bleeding.

However, before she could do that, Terrance had grabbed her arm and bitten down on it, little stabs of pain shooting through her. She had feared the monstrous face he’d displayed, his eyes turned bright amber as he drank of her. She watched in terror, a scream caught in her throat as Marie struggled and finally succeeded to pull him off her. His sharp teeth protruded from his small jaw like fangs. His amber glowing eyes reminded her of a lion she had once seen captured by her people; deadly and hungry.

The little girl had been terrified of Zahra’s reaction and horrified at her brother’s behaviour. All of them remained quiet for all of three minutes before anyone moved. The blood on Zahra’s arm had flowed down her hand to where she sat on the ground. It stung but she barely felt it. Terrance had calmed down enough to realise what he’d done and now looked like a scared rabbit. Gone was the monster that had sought to devour her, replaced by a meek, scared and helpless child. It was that look that made up Zahra’s mind for her.

Whatever else they were, these two were children. If she fled them now, who would care for them? Her soul would never find peace. They were her responsibility and she had a duty to care for them first.

It had taken all of her strength of will to approach them and gently reassure them that she wouldn’t run and wouldn’t harm them. Marie had needed blood too, she could see, so she offered some to her. She had looked unsure and Zahra wasn’t as willing to coax but this was a need that she had to satisfy. So Marie had come forward and bitten her offered wrist. Even when she expected it, it still hurt. When Marie had enough, Zahra set about cleaning and bandaging her wounds. The wound on her wrist was gone in about a day but the other one…

She reached into her pack for one of her bottles of liquid. She hadn’t had any headaches recently, although she’d felt the beginnings of one towards the evening, and she hadn’t wanted to test whether the medicine would take this particular pain away since her supply was limited. She had managed to hide it well enough on their journey and even as she prepared the children for bed but now that she could barely stand it anymore…

She cursed in her native tongue as her arm began to hurt again. Wincing as she raised her weary body out of the comfy chair, she made her way over to the washbasin.

In the quiet of the night, the splash of the water sounded unnecessarily loud to her ears. The children continued to sleep soundly though, so she continued with her ministrations. She carefully undid the wrappings and cleaned the wound with water. The cold stung and she bit her lip against the resulting sharp stab, but it was surely getting better. If she’d had time, she might have gathered some herbs to help the healing process. It had scabbed over and crusted so that was progress at least. As it was, she might even scar from this, but that was the least of her concerns. It would just be one more added to the myriad already criss-crossing her body.

She opened the small vial she had carried with her to the washbasin and took a drink.

The effect was almost immediate. The growing throb in her head subsided and the pain in her arm ebbed. She looked back at the half-full vial in disbelief. Had it really been that easy? Had she known, she would have done this much sooner and not had to put Marie through many worries. Her little head was probably full of them by now. She was also very perceptive so she wasn’t entirely sure if she had sufficiently hidden her discomfort or not. She breathed a sigh of relief as she leaned over the washbasin and shut her eyes.

If Zahra had been able to write, she would have sent word to Master Paul or even to Phillip about their whereabouts.

Would he have come?

A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She hadn’t thought of him much over the last few days. What could he have been doing at that moment? Where was he and who was he with? No longer was she plagued with thoughts of another woman in his arms. Whether or not that was the case, there was little she could do about it now. She was too far away and he was beginning to seem like a happy little dream.

Ripping a new set of bandages from her petticoats, she wrapped her arm once more. If Lavinia was right, then Zahra was just like these children. Did that mean that she would need blood to sustain her as well? That would mean attacking someone; she couldn’t imagine anyone just offering their blood to her. Would it really have to come to that? What would it feel like to pierce someone’s skin and drain them of their living soul? Would she savour the metallic tang of warm blood and drink of it as she would life-giving water? She shook herself and splashed her face, the cold helping to dissipate some of the growing anxiety.

She lived in a world full of monsters. It seemed that she always had but had merely been blind to them.

Apparently, she was to be one of those same monsters. Some were like her and others were not. She had lost her home, her friends and her means of earning a living, and gained two children for whom she was not sure she could provide. She had loved and lost… again. But that was trivial in comparison to the most glaring issue. She needed to find a way to make some money or they would all starve and/or lose the roof over their heads. It was taking a lot longer for Lavinia to find them, and they were being hunted by unknown people.

It was her hope that she had managed to evade them but staying in one place too long would get them caught. And since she had no particular desire to discover what the man with the gun would do to them if that happened, it was simply out of the question.

She dragged weary feet back to the chair and this time, sat gingerly down to avoid jarring her arm. She needn’t have bothered. The pain was gone and drowsiness had begun to set in. Her sleep would be fitful, she knew. When monsters weren’t chasing her in her sleep, headless bodies grabbed at her trying to pull her into graves or into the roiling waves of dark, stormy seas. If not, then ghosts from her past would condemn her for not saving them, cursing her to a life of eternal misery.

It was a wonder she had any energy at all. The stone in her pocket kept most of the darkness away and she was doing a fairly good job of keeping up but from here… if they had to leave this place, they would have absolutely nowhere to go. It was this last thought that plagued her the most.

“Please be safe,” she whispered into the darkness. For Master Paul. For Lavinia. For Master Lucas. For Phillip.

And for herself.

It had been ten days since the Keepers had sent out the alert. Salma’s had been the latest Keeper Commune to receive it. A major vampire household had been attacked, and by Halflings no less. She had been among the few who had sided with Tiberia in thinking that the Halflings would be a nuisance. The entire Order of Shahrazad thought so. The purge had been the best decision any Grace had ever made for the world… even if it had cost the Keepers, the Vampires and the Humans in blood and bones.

And now, the effects of the peace that had lasted since such a sacrifice were being undone.

Pausing at the end of the street, she came across a gathering crowd. She could guess what she would find there. Another drained body. The fourth in a week. The seventh in two. The first one had been discovered in front of the town hall. She had been posed with her arms outstretched, her face peaceful in death. It was a mockery of the Christian faith, most had thought, more so because the woman had been a sister in the local church.

The second had been found posed laying on her side. Anyone would have thought her merely asleep… if her severed head had not been lying beside her body. The others were in similar states of mutilation – always posed, always drained, pale and beautiful. What it all meant eluded them.

In typical human fashion, the faithful had flocked to their places of worship, begging their deities to take this curse from them. Others could only watch and wait, hoping that they weren’t next. The town Council had thought to invoke a curfew – nobody would go out after dark. It would help to reduce the casualties, they hoped. However, on the seventh day after the first death, three more bodies had turned up and then came the chaos.

The latest of these were loaded up in a few more hours as she watched. With a small shake of her head, she turned away from the sight and the thinning crowd, making her way to her shop to inform her Overseer.

They were getting careless.

She had spotted the group of vampires and their Halfling leader not too many nights before. She had reported it and been ordered to observe and report only. There was no need, her superior had said, to shed blood unnecessarily.

It would have held weight, she thought angrily, if the last three bodies besides the one this morning, had not been of her Keeper sisters. To have nothing wrong in this small town and then suddenly to have so much activity was strange. Strange, in the experience of any Keeper, was not good, she thought with a furrowed brow.

Ducking into her shop, Salma put away her shawl and prepared the shop for the day before heading into the back room. She looked over her shoulder, despite being alone in the room, before opening the hidden door behind a colourful tapestry. The deaths had made her jumpy. Who knew where the perpetrators were? Reports were that they had also attacked Keeper Commune further towards the Coast. None of the Keepers had survived.

She shivered and let herself into the room locking the door firmly behind her. The prone figure on the bed shivered with the cold. There was little she could do about that besides adding another blanket.

“How are you feeling today?” she asked lighting a candle beside the bed.

The woman there breathed hard. Her pale skin was clammy and she had yet to open her eyes. From what she could deduce, this woman was no ordinary human. Her fangs had been the first indication, her yellow eyes the next. She had clutched at her bloodied chest when they met and begged for her help. She must have known that Salma was a healer. Unsurprising since Keepers and Vampires gave off a specific energy that one could sense from the other.

She had collapsed at Salma’s feet breathing raggedly and clutching at her chest desperately. From what she had seen while tending to her, the wound had been terrible and difficult to heal. She hadn’t even gotten the woman’s name before she had collapsed in a bloody heap at her door. She’d had a hard time cleaning up afterwards. And now here she lay, struggling to survive. At least she looked better. The wound was almost closed now, caused by a silver weapon she would guess.

The woman’s clothes, though now ruined, looked like they had once been expensive. She couldn’t decide quite what to make of her and until she recovered, wouldn’t know what to do with her either. If only she’d paid more attention in healing class. But at least the shared-blood stones she’d sewn into her gown were now aiding her. It was a wonder she’d had any herself on hand and she added the only two she had to those to try and hasten the healing process.

The poisoning must have been severe if it was taking this long for her to recover. Whoever had done this to her had probably intended that she did not survive. Her clothing carried signs of water damage so she had most likely come from the sea. Together with all the other evidence of foul play, Salma would deduce that it would be a cruel way to go. She was lucky to be alive.

“Child… Children… No…” she repeated over and over deliriously. She had spoken of children at some point in her fevered state and clutched Salma’s arm begging her to save them. She had calmed down some after she’d been given a sedative. The only thing she could do is hope that the stones worked their magic and cleared her system of the silver.

“It’s all right,” she cooed as she wiped the woman’s forehead, “the children will be safe.”

“No… no, they don’t know! I have… Rose…” that was the only thing Salma could get out of her before she fell back into unconsciousness. It was dangerous enough keeping her here with all the goings on in town. One of the vampire party may have spotted her and followed her here. If anyone saw anything and spoke one wrong word, it would be the end for both of them. Picking up a fresh rag from the nearby washbasin, she wiped down the woman and adjusted the covers around her. She would see if she could send word to the Overseer.

This was a strange set of coincidences – so strange that they didn’t seem to be coincidences at all. Perhaps this vampire knew the newcomers. Perhaps not. Either way, she wouldn’t find out until she got better. And while she presented no threat, she would remain here, hidden away to recover in the darkness. She frowned as she wiped her hands on a cloth and fixed up her clothing preparing for the day, thinking of what all this business could possibly mean for their town, for mankind and for the future.

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