The Dead Place
The Dead Place was where it all began. Now it was no more than a plain patch of earth where nothing dared grow. Barren of creatures generally surrounding the moor.
A hazy morning mist clung heavily over the silent landscape and skeletal claws of long withered trees outstretched over the Dead Place.
When a lone deer dared wander from the trees into the bare expanse of earth it paused. Shaking tan fur to toss away layers of frost. Despite its lingering spots the young animal had enough sense to paw the ground. Nervously eying a lifeless rodent in the center. The fawn hesitantly backed into the forest again. Even it shied from the evil here.
Deep under the ground a man-thing stirred. Cursing as he fought the bonds of magic holding him. Unable to move he snorted. Enraged he stared at the layers of dirt above him. His razored teeth snapped together over growls that quaked the earth. Shining black eyes glistened like onyx as streamers of drool dripped over his chin. Muscles rippled under the thin layer of hair encasing his dark body.
“I can feel you there.” He rasped in a darkly sing song voice. “Moving along the surface. Wretched little girl.”
Traipsing over his ground she went about her day healing all manner of creatures in the woods above.
“What damage I can do from my bare prison you erase with your every visit.”
“One day little wraith…I will wrap my hands around your scrawny little neck and watch every vestige of life fade from your eyes.” Cruel lips twisting a new thought dawned on him. Humming slightly he listened for the telltale sounds of moving dirt. A bleak melodious sound that made things of light cower.
Snakes of every shape and size shook dirt from their scales as they reared from the earth. Pulling from their lairs they wove through weeds and trees with a single common goal. One hissed and he closed his eyes hopeful for the first time in centuries.
Perhaps those blinding colors, her energy, would finally end. He shielded his eyes against the glare of them. Hissing through jagged teeth.
“It is your duty Aardix.” His mother was pacing her solar in a fine mood.
“I hate that place.” He glowered.
“As you should. But nonetheless you will go there.”
“There will be a day Mother, when I will no longer be at your bidding.”
“And we shall fear that day.” She paused to return that withering look.
“Don’t you think by now that the Dead Place is the least likely place she would be.”
“Aardix!” She stomped her foot. “Why must you always be so difficult?”
“It’s my nature.” He said blandly. Unflustered by his mother’s ire.
“Need I remind you, the blood of your kind burns in your veins and gives you power to see what lies under that ground. It is true for you, that had I not told you, you would still know it’s darkness. But her? She will be naïve to it.”
“She would have to know, Mother.”
“No she would not.” His mother shook her head, her tone growing annoyed as she tossed her skirt to commence her pacing.
“Go!” She waved her hand. “You’ve said you felt the flicker of fey energy there now and again. It’s certainly not coming from him!”
Bitterly, Aardix had left the castle in a fine rage. Slamming the heavy oak door behind him.
All irritation with his mother vanished the moment he glimpsed the frayed brown cloak.
I was right about feeling her here.
A thin girl trailed nervously behind the cloaked one. “Where are we going Marnie?” The mousy one whined.
Marnie wove through the tall grass bordering the trees. “Molly, you know I wanted to be different. Something other than what we are.”
“Yeah.” Molly said warily. “We all want that.”
He considered calling out to them but her next words made him refrain. So instead, he opted to trail behind them. Maintaining enough distance to go undetected.
“I have a secret.” White teeth flashed under the shadow of the hood. He moved like a panther, leaing to the next tree, to be close enough to hear.
“You keep saying that. Where are we going?” Molly’s whine grew more insistent.
“I want to show you. I’m kind of...I can do the one thing outlawed in BailaLae.” She whispered offhandedly.
“Magic?” Molly squawked.
A quick look at Molly gnawing through her lip confirmed that Marnie shouldn’t have said that.
“I can…fix things!” Marnie gestured as she looked at the shrubbery around her furtively before meeting the skeptical look of her friend. “Animals. Things.”
Molly’s lip curled in derision.
“I can fix their hurts or cure their illnesses.”
Molly rolled her eyes and scoffed but her expression revealed her disbelief.
But I do. He passed the underbrush. His dagger sheath barely swishing against the leaves as he stepped so silently.
“I’ve become an adept healer.” Marnie explained with a brilliant smile.
“What you’re saying makes no sense.” Molly eyed her fearfully.
“It kind of does.” Marnie drew a deep breath. “I sneak out in the early morning sometimes.”
“All the time.” Molly corrected.
“I actually feel special, Molly.” Marnie cut her off. “Kind of…well, useful. I can accomplish something.”
“You are special.” Molly muttered. “You’re beautiful. All the boys say so.” She looked disgusted.
Marnie gave her a startled look. “That’s not true!” She gestured down her body. “I’m overly skinny and have copper hair.”
“No.” Molly crossed her arms and gave her friend a chastising look. “You used to be. Now you have those.” She gestured to Marnie’s chest where the telltale bulges stressed even the oversized cloak.
Aardix’s gaze flicked to what the skinny one pointed out. She has a point.
“And your hair is the strangest shade of dark red.” Molly lifted a tress of her own dry brown hair.
“And your eyes…They’re beautiful.” She deflated.
Marnie smiled brightly. “I do like them. They are kind of pretty.” Marnie usually kept the hood of her cloak pulled low to keep them from drawing undue attention and upsetting vicious Lady Brom.
“Yes. They’re neither blue nor green. They’re lovely.” Molly’s tone grew bitter.
“Thank you Molly. That was very kind.”
Molly lifted an irritated brow.
Marnie took another step into the woods and winced when her anklet jingled. “I hate this thing.” She knelt to undue the strap.
A maid. They both were.
Aardix glimpsed a length of perfectly shaped ankle surrounded by the tiny bells signifying her status.
For what household?
“No.” Molly caught her arm and pulled her up. “If Lady Brom catches you without it she’ll whip us both! She’ll think you took it off to spy on her. You know how she is!”
“But it tells everyone we’re servants.” She eyed the dark amber markings indicating she was from the house of Tisdale Brom. “Her servants.” She added contemptuously. “That’s how people see us. Chambermaids for Tisdale Brom.”
“That’s because that’s what we are.” Molly whispered as though divulging a great secret.
“Thus why I’m always willing to collect apples and berries.” Rising she collected the dual baskets, testament to this intention. One was already half full of ruby apples. Their lush shade glistened temptingly.
Spotting a bush with branches tipping low under its burden of ripe berries Marnie rushed over. Happy to relieve it of its troubles. Leaning over it she spotted a dried branch curling as if in pain.
“Watch.” Marnie said excitedly.
The nervous girl eased to the opposite side of the trees looking around furtively.
The cloaked figure paused near a withering bush. Aardix retreated into the shadow of the canopy. Her pale, long fingered hand reached up and caught the rim of the hood to push it back. Making a cloud of blood red hair brighten the clearing. A vivid blotch against the drab cloak and shadowy trees.
Leaning over she ran a fingertip over a leaf. The branch straightened. Brown leaves thickened, darkened, and became lush. A small flower peeled open. Tilting to lean against her forehead.
A ray of light crept through the canopy of treetops to catch her in a luminescing circle. Twining through the strands of her hair. Turning them a rich burgundy that contrasted darkly with the pale perfection of her face. Lingering berry juice glistened on her lush lower lip. Softly tanned cheeks glowed with health. Crystalline eyes were intensely vivid as she leaned into the plant.
She’s more than beautiful. His gut tightened. Breathtaking.
Sparking energy filled the forest making fine hairs on his body rise in response.
Lifting her hair it sparked through it like tiny waves of lightening. Around her ankles grass thickened. Growing tall enough to lift the hem of her cloak. Brushing the smooth skin of her legs.
Cocking his head he assessed the exposed flesh. Beautiful delicate limbs.
I bet all of her is that slim and perfect.
Flowers opened exposing colored blossoms. All of which tipped to lean against her.
Frowning askance Molly moved backwards, nearly dissolving into the tree trunks in her brown muslin dress as she plastered against a trunk fearfully.
“Come Molly!” She called. “It’s exhilarating.” She breathed with a laugh. The branch straightened and thickened. Reaching toward her its leaves unfurled and filled out the branch.
Molly gasped from somewhere to Marnie’s right.
Hearing a branch crack Marnie looked to the grove behind her. Dark shining eyes peered at her.
She moved as if floating. The ridiculously large cloak dragging around her. As she stepped tentatively further into the forest tiny bells tinkled from the leather and amber anklet wrapping one ankle. His eyes drifted to the white ruffles peering from her pocket.
A maid’s cap.
The nervous little girl chewed her nails and whimpered objections as she followed the bold beautiful one. That magnificent redhead strolled these woods as though they belonged to her.
Or she to them.
Bold one. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and wove through the trees, his boots soundless and his step silken to pursue their stride.
This is her. I’ve found her. Excitement surged in him for the first time in a long time. I wasn’t even sure she existed anymore.
“Look at them Molly. The animals.” Marnie pointed to the bushes her eyes bright. “They feel my magic.” Smiling she met the gazes in the shrubbery. Turning fully she carefully rested her basket.
“What?” Molly was bewildered. “What are you doing now?”
“Waiting for them.” Kneeling Marnie froze until creatures began to ease from their hiding places.
“You’re so wierd.”
“Special.” Marnie gave her friend a sideways look.
A wild dog with a limp pup in her mouth was first to approach. Hesitantly stepping toward Marnie it paused to study Molly.
Aardix watched the intensity on the beauty’s face as she met the animal’s wary look, observing its slow approach.
Even terrified the canine’s fear for her young trumped her instinctive nature. Sniffing loudly it finally ducked its head and moved into Marnie’s reach. Drawing close enough to lower the pup into Marnie’s lap.
Molly was sputtering. “What’s she doing Marnie?”
Spinning to face her the dog exposed teeth and snarled viciously.
Marnie shushed her friend.
The tiny pup in her lap whimpered pitifully. Watching the mother carefully Marnie lifted her hand toward the pup. The protective mother uttered a long snarl but did not move to attack. Scooping up the pup Marnie studied it. Its small eyes shined. If it had been a child it would’ve been crying. Whimpering it curled into a tighter ball. Even from where Aardix stood in shade he could see it was small even for one so young.
Aardix observed Marnie softly hovering her palm over the pup’s back. Stopping near its hip.
Leaning toward the heat she offered, the pup’s head hung pitifully. Laying like that awhile.
Aardix’s brows furrowed as purple and white flowers blossomed around her. Tipping over to lean lovingly on her knees.
Tentatively rising in her palm the pup balanced unsteadily. Weak and rigid he slowly straightened. Gathering his balance he shook his silver and black fur. Yipping playfully he leaned so far forward he nearly fell off her palm.
Moving her hand to balance him she inadvertently drew him closer to her face. Wasting no time he lolled out his long tongue to shower her face in a thankful bath.
Giggling Marnie and Molly and the pup’s mother watched intently as it leapt from her hand and landed on the ground pouncing agilely at the bigger dog’s paws.
Collecting her young in her jaws the mother moved to pass Marnie. Drawing close it let their shoulders brush. Giving Marnie a lingering look the dog dropped her head to Marnie’s shoulder impulsively. Wiping a wet snout on Marnie’s cheek.
Tilting her head to the animal’s nose she returned the affection. Giggling at the softness of it as it nuzzled her. Twisting she watched the animal disappear into the trees.
“Magic is forbidden by decree of the king.” A low voice declared from behind her. “Punishable by death.” He added coldly.