yawned and stretched. Immediately, he felt that something was odd. For the past
couple of months, he would always wake up with someone else curled up next to
him, but he did not feel a warm body next to him. And when he lifted the
blanket, there was indeed no one there.
“Maybe she is outside,” Merlin murmured. But it was odd. Asha would usually never wake before he did. In fact, now that Elizabeth was around fifteen years old in human years, it was her who would wake up her mother.
Merlin walked to the second bed in the hut and checked that Arthur was still sound asleep. He then went outside and saw that Elizabeth was tending to the pig.
“Elizabeth, have you seen your mother?”
Elizabeth turned. Her raven black hair swirled in the wind and she wore a dress similar to the one Asha had ordered from the tailor before. She was the spiting image of her mother.
“Isn’t she sleeping in your bed?”
Merlin shook his head.
“Is she taking care of Arthur?”
“Arthur is sleeping.”
Elizabeth fell silent. She had the faintest idea of where Asha might be. It was one of the things that she instinctively knew as a nymph but also knew that it was something that was better hidden from her father.
“Maybe...she went to hunt?”
“You know...hunting for men and their life force.”
Merlin’s voice got stuck in throat. He was aware that Asha still needed to feed on other men in order to survive, but ever since they had become husband and wife, she had become more sensitive towards his jealousy. She stopped openly talking about her ‘hunt’ and the men she fed on.
Of course Merlin was no fool and he knew that there was no way for a nymph to change her diet. But since Asha did not mention it anymore, he did not bother to ask.
“Where did she go?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth shrugged. This was the first time she had heard such distress in her father’s voice, which frightened her. “But...she should have gone to Marlborough.”
From inside the hut, Arthur made it known that he had awoken.
Merlin went inside to take care of a wailing Arthur. Then with Arthur in his arms, he came outside to join Elizabeth again.
“We will wait until mid-day,” Merlin said. “If she does not come back by then, then we will go to town to look for her.”
“All three of us?”
“Yes,” Merlin nodded slowly. Deep down inside, he anticipated the worst. Things would have been so much easier if it was just him and Asha. But now there was Elizabeth and Arthur to worry about. Thankfully, Elizabeth was old enough now to take care of her little brother, but she was still a child in comparison to Asha.
“When we get to town, we will buy a horse,” Merlin said.
“Why a horse?”
“Just in case if we need it.”
Elizabeth fell silent. She could sense that her father was preparing for something bad to happen.
“Do you know what happened to mother?” Elizabeth asked.
Merlin shook his head.
“I know what I might have happened to her,” he thought but decided to keep that to himself.
By mid-day Asha was still nowhere to be seen. Merlin waited anxiously outside for his wife to emerge from the forest, but his hope was in vain.
He told Elizabeth to wrap up her brother in a thick blanket while he filled a bag with necessary supplies. Lastly, he grabbed a bundle of gold coins from under the bed. It was a hidden stash of gold Asha had collected from the men she fed on. It was an open secret between them, and Merlin had always ignored it — until now.
With the bag slung across his shoulders and Arthur sleeping soundly on his sister’s back, the group of three made their way to town.
For Elizabeth, this trip was both daunting and exciting. It would be the first time she had gone outside the forest.
For Merlin, the purpose of this trip was his worst nightmare. On the way to town, every few steps, he drew explosive runes on the tree trunks — just in case if they are chased out of the town. Elizabeth did not ask what they were for. The grim expression on her father’s face told her that they were not meant for anything good to happen.
Once they had arrived at Marlborough, Merlin made his way to the stables. With the gold in hand, he was ready to pay whatever price the fastest stallion in town demanded.
There was only one man standing in the stables, grooming a black horse.
“Good day,” Merlin greeted him. When the man saw the fine fur coat Merlin was wearing, he immediately stood at attention.
“Yes, sir! How may I help you?”
“Which one of these horses is the fastest?” Merlin asked.
The men felt it was rather strange for a man to suddenly enquire about the horses he took care of, but since Merlin appeared rather wealthy, he did not decide to question him.
“Of course it’s this one,” the man said and proudly patted the neck of the black horse he was grooming. “Night Wind, we call him. This mighty stallion has won several races. Fastest horse in town — nay, the entire Kingdom!”
“How much does it cost?”
The man opened his eyes wide with surprise. This was not the usual negotiation that he was used to. Merchants and potential buyers would never so boldly ask for the price of the horse.
“Uhm...I am only the caretaker, the horse actually does not belong to me...”
Merlin threw him a heavy bundle of gold coins.
“Will this calm the anger of the owner when he comes back?”
The man looked inside the gold bundle and his eyes opened wide.
“Y-yes,” he stuttered. This was the first time he had seen so much gold in one place.
Unwilling to waste even a moment of time, Merlin untied the horse and handed the reins to Elizabeth.
“Let us go,” he said and together they walked out of the stables, leaving behind the stupefied caretaker.
Elizabeth silently followed her father. This was the first time she had seen her father act in such a rash manner. Usually he was calm and patient, always listening to Asha and taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of. But now, Merlin walked at a brisk pace and handled the purchase of the horse with the sheer power of coin rather than making sure that he got a good price.
She wanted to ask if this meant that her mother was in danger, but she did not dare to voice this question.
They arrived at a pub and Merlin told her to tie up Night Wind.
“Wait for me outside,” he said. “I won’t be long.”
Obediently, Elizabeth waited outside with her little brother. She took out some cheese from the bag of supplies Merlin had packed and began to nibble on it.
Merlin entered and headed straight to the bar counter. If there were new rumors and news in town, then they would always be discussed at the first place where all travelers gathered when arriving in a town; the pub.
Originally Merlin had anticipated that he would have to talk to a few men to learn of what might have happened to Asha, but he did not have to search long. The moment he entered, he felt that there as a celebratory mood in the air.
Everyone was laughing loudly together and it felt as if a war had just been won and all the men came to celebrate their hard-won victory.
Merlin ordered a mug of wine from the innkeeper and told him he was he was a traveler from a far off land, and wondered what the happy occasion was.
“You haven’t heard?” the innkeeper asked, his voice filled with surprise. “It’s news all over the kingdom!”
Merlin remained silent, waiting for the man to continue.
“They’ve caught her! They’ve caught the demon!”
Merlin’s heart sank when he heard that, yet he tried his hardest to maintain a neutral expression.
“I have never come to this town before,” Merlin said. “What is this demon you speak of?”
The innkeeper cleared his throat, preparing to tell this proud tale to the traveler.
“For several months, the people of this town have found young men lying at the edge of the forest,” the innkeeper said. “Some of them were dead, some were clinging onto life. But even those who survived did not have any memory of what had happened to them. No matter how careful everyone was, every night, a man would vanish and we would find his body the next day. Rumor had it that a demonic spirit sucked the life out of the men she found, but no one believed that until we caught her!”
“The demon was caught?”
“Aye!” the man said proudly. “We set up a trap for her, you see. Since the demon always targeted young men, we sent out a brave young lad into the night while a group of strong men and their dogs watched him. When the demon appeared and began to suck out his life, we caught her!”
Merlin felt sick. There was no doubt in his mind that this demon was Asha. He knew that her diet hadn’t changed, but he did not bother to ask when she came out to feed. Now he knew when and where she did it.
“And then the townsfolk killed her?”
The innkeeper closed his eyes and his expression turned grim.
“Believe me, all of us wanted to kill her, but none of us could lay a hand on her,” he said. “That demon...she possessed some evil magic and none of us could muster the strength to kill her. She appeared like a beautiful maiden, seducing us with her eyes. So we took her prisoner and handed her over to the Church in Camelot this morning.”
Merlin was about to drink his wine but his hand stopped in midair.
Merlin slowly put down the mug. If Asha was delivered to the Church in Camelot, then it meant that King Arthur must have learned of his betrayal.
“Has the Church killed her?” Merlin asked, his voice quivering slightly.
The innkeeper shrugged. “I think the Church will kill her sooner or later.”
Merlin left a silver coin on the counter and rushed outside. His heart felt as if it would burst at any give moment.
“Father?” Elizabeth asked when she saw Merlin come out of the inn.
“Untie the horse. We have to go, now.”
Without replying, Elizabeth followed his order. She could tell from his expression that whatever worst case scenario he had imagined, it had come true.
Merlin mounted the horse with Elizabeth behind him. Arthur was securely tied to his sister’s back and didn’t notice any of the commotion.
“Where are we going?” Elizabeth asked.
“We have to go home now.”
Merlin grabbed the reins and the horse felt how his new master demanded for it to gallop.
Night Wind let out a breath and dashed ahead.
“Faster! Faster!” Merlin yelled. Behind him, Elizabeth clung to his back, frightened as to what was happening.