Melissa

Most of the day Melissa had slept, or at least dozed off before a sudden movement or loud noise briefly woke her up again. Keri and Oboru had been speaking quietly throughout the afternoon, though Keri too had been sleeping much of the time. Occasionally Talya added her opinion, and that was mostly when the discussion grew more heated and startled her out of her restless slumber.

The small amount of strength she’d left after spending the entire night had worn out shortly after Brandt and Obure left and the inn grew quiet again. Maybe it was the fact that the place had grown quiet that allowed her to feel her exhaustion fully. The other had called what she’d been doing ‘praying’. If she understood the meaning of that word correctly it was not really what had been done, but trying to explain that she had kept the presence of her Goddess close to her had been too much effort for her dazed state of mind. She had stirred herself to try and keep track of the discussion the others were having after the victims of the Dark had been placed in the sunlight and Keri had finally thrown off the taint.

The discussion that she had slept through probably had been important but only now, when she felt the sun drop below the world, did her lassitude fall away as well. She was still more tired than she had ever been, but at least clear enough to pay attention to what was going on around her.

Scooting up till she was sitting half reclined against the remains of the headboard, Melissa opened her eyes and looked around.

“Back with the living?” Keri asked her kindly.

Melissa didn’t answer the question as she didn’t understand what the brown haired human, no woman, she had to get that straight, wanted to know.

Keri shrugged and grinned, “never mind. It will take too long to explain. It is good to see you awake again. Oboru and Talya have told me that you saved my life and soul last night. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Melissa answered, remembering the proper reply.

Before anybody else could confuse her she said, “Dark is”

Oboru, who was sitting leaning against the wall next to Keri, nodded and said, “I know. I felt it too.”

The tanned man looked tired. Melissa thought it was as recent as her own sudden alertness.

“I felt it return. About the moment I saw you wake up Melissa,” he confirmed her suspicion. “The moment the sun went down it was freed from whatever hold the light has over it.”

“It looking is,” Melissa breathed. Her sudden alertness was, had to be, a gift from the Goddess. And that could only mean that trouble was coming, and soon.

“You found?” she asked hesitantly.

“I … don’t know.”

Melissa and Talya both immediately looked at Keri, who sat leaning against the wall, looking tired but alert.

“She’s not being attacked either,” the short northerner stated the obvious.

Oboru sighed and slumped even more. “It’s like a big black cloud is smothering everything,” he said. “But it isn’t like before.”

“In what way is it different?” Talya asked in a clipped tone of voice.

Melissa thought she suspected something, from the sudden tension in her posture.

It was Keri who answered though, “I don’t feel it so strongly as Oboru does, I think. Last night it was like my mind was being squeezed tight. Now, it only is thick in the air.”

Oboru thought it over a moment. “It is here, but is looking for something else.”

Talya swore in her guttural native language.

Melissa got it a moment later, from a flash of insight that might or might not have been inspired by the Goddess.

“It has a darkwalker in the city.”

Talya nodded, “almost certainly.”

“That’s good,” Keri asked. “For us anyway?”

“Not so much Keri,” Talya said sharply. “We’re trapped in this city. Once it has the Darkwalker it will come for us.”

“Well …” came a voice through the half ruined door from the corridor. “It sounds like you are still plotting.”

The innkeeper stepped up to the door, preceded and followed by a burly man in rough leather. Both looked like they killed easily, and if Melissa could be a judge of these humans, they had killed already.

Talya’s eyes narrowed and her hand casually strayed to her dagger. Melissa found her own hand do the same, only her belt and dagger were missing. Then she remembered they had been digging uncomfortably into her side and she had put it on the ground next to her bow. There was no way now to arm herself without being obvious, and the first man at least was near enough that he could easily rush her.

Goddess forgive me, she thought not quite a prayer.

“I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave my inn,” the innkeeper told them smugly and clearly not at all apologetic. “This room is needed by somebody else.”

With practised ease both thugs moved into the room, clubs at the ready. Their grins made clear they were hoping there would be resistance.

Talya tensed, but before she could make matters worse Keri said wearily, “they saved your life and your inn last night, and now you want to kick them out into the night?”

The innkeeper’s expression grew ugly in reaction, “they just admitted to causing it.” He glared at Keri, “I knew I shouldn’t have let you beggars in to my inn. You probably brought your filthy disease with you and endangered my honoured guests.”

Keri glared back at him. She opened her mouth but he spoke over her, “and your big thug is already locked up. I would have the lot of you tried and executed for witchcraft along with him, but for now I just want you out of my inn.”

Melissa grinned broadly at him, falling just short at outright laughing him in his face. The innkeeper and his two men looked at her, confused.

“Better think, you want,” Melissa told them.

“What?”

“She means that rumours of my arrest are vastly exaggerated.”

The innkeeper whirled around to face Brandt. “You!”

The big mercenary stood in the hallway, apparently calm, but Melissa could tell this was a deception. He was still carrying his big sword, but it was strapped to his back. The hallway was much to narrow to use it anyway, so that made sense. But he had has hand casually on the hilt of his straight dagger. Melissa had never seen him use that weapon, but she figured he would be as proficient with the three hands long blade as he was with his giant sword.

Another men stepped into view, crowding Brandt from behind. This one was not only armed but armoured in a boiled leather jerkin. Something was painted on the leather outfit that looked too deliberate and stylised to be a spill or accident. Clearly it meant something to the innkeeper, though Melissa could only tell so from the way he tensed, as his face was now turned away from her.

The two thugs involuntarily took a step back at the sight of that second man, further into the room they had moments before threatened. A step closer to Talya too, who suddenly had a knife in her hand. Melissa rolled off the remains of the bed, grabbing her own dagger on the way down. She came up in a crouch, using the bed as cover so that the big men had to climb over it get to her.

She grinned, the fight was already over and neither of the two men had even started to realise this. Talya, equally crouching by the garden door, showed a similar grin at the back of the two men.

“There’s no need for violence,” Brandt said sternly. He was looking directly at first Talya and then Melissa. Clearly he had seen their expressions too, and correctly interpreted them.

“We spoke to the guard lieutenant. He wants us to stay here for a little longer while the guard deals with a more pressing problem than petty complaints and superstition.”

That startled everybody, but the innkeeper turned red in the face from outrage.

“His … the mercenary is correct,” the armoured man said. “Until the captain, the mayor, the council or is highness the King says otherwise, you will all stay here. The master bard has put his word on your promise to obey this bondage. He will join you once his meeting with the mayor is concluded.”

Melissa looked impassive, she understood hardly any word of the formal sounding speech. The others looked a bit more impressed. She didn’t need to understand these humans most of the time, she had come to accept that. As long as the Goddess kept her at their side, that was enough for her. At some point she would meet the subject of her Hunt. To be fair, she had been surprised that her ritual marking hadn’t faded when the dark being was destroyed. When the darkness had attacked Keri as well as other humans in the stone and dead wood construct she had understood that her Hunt was not over and she would stay with the humans longer.

She did not let up her guard though, and briefly wished she could risk grabbing her bow, even if it wasn’t as suitable to the cramped space as was her knife. She’d learned to have a healthy respect and concern for the strength of these humans. Being a half-blood she was tall and strong, but some of the humans were tall and strong too, and massive in addition to that.

Melissa had seen Brandt train and exercise most mornings they were not fleeing for their lives through the Dark. She had no illusions that she could fight him and come out the winner, unless she would use her bow from a distance. She’d kept her own rituals and exercises secret from the humans for that reason. She wanted to have a small element of surprise to slightly improve her odds should it ever come to violence. Not that she expected it, but the Goddess taught Her daughters to be prepared for any possibility. This was even more true for the border guards who had to deal with both invaders and the beings coming out of the deep forest.

She stifled a sigh. She had seen stranger and deadlier things than any of her sisters ever had, and none of her training had prepared her for it. While the thought bordered on the blasphemous, she could not help wondering anew why the Goddess had chosen her of all half-breeds and Sisters to be Her emissary and huntress. At least she could not help having doubts about the sense of proportions.

Melissa did not take her eyes off the tense stand off between Brandt and the innkeeper though. That was a fight waiting to happen, and in such a confined space she would need all the advance warning she could get to know which way to jump. The two big humans that had accompanied the innkeeper looked uncertain, from their postures anyway, but might be drawn into a fight anyway.

Something tugged at her awareness as she looked on sharply for the tiniest muscle movements that might herald the start of the fight. Something important that she should have noticed. Brandt shifted minutely, drawing Melissa’s attention as well as Talya’s, both women tensed in automatic reaction to his lead. Clearly the big man had picked up the tightly leashed violence in the innkeeper too. He was making room to defend himself, in as much as the first was possible. The second, Melissa had no doubt, he was quite capable of.

The much smaller innkeeper mirrored Brandt’s movement. Melissa had seen Talya move like that, in the fight against the darkwalker. She knew she might move like that if she was ever stupid enough to let herself be lured in a fight against the big human who matched her in reach and outclassed her in strength and his ridiculously large sword. She felt a moment of pride in remembering the human word for knife, but it was swept away by a chilling realisation what this implicated.

“Shaiontûh!” she spat, cursing in her native language.

Without further thought she reached for her bow, for the danger now was beyond what she reasonably handle without her blessed bow. It came to her hand readily, one tug from being braced. Melissa was certain she had not set aside her weapon this combat ready the previous night, but did not quibble with her luck. Or with the Goddess’ blessing and warning. Grabbing an arrow, she always had at least one out of her quiver so that was no surprise, took less than a second. By the time everybody had fully shifted their attention to her, including the ones who had to partially turn around, she had an arrow nocked and ready to loose. From the wide-eyed stunned expression on some faces she had shown them what kind of speed she was capable of in need. Not quite a disaster, but she would have to deal with the implications of that later. After the immediate mortal danger was dealt with.

The innkeeper moved slightly but Melissa had no problem tracking his eye that she was aiming for. Pulled like this she could hold her arrow ready to loose without straining herself as long as it took the sun to move a hand span across the sky dome. Her accuracy would suffer after a while but at this range she did not need accuracy. If she straightened her index and middle finger the smaller human’s head would be nailed to the wooden panelling and she already had a second arrow in her hand for a follow up shot.

The only reason she had not already done so was because she didn’t know exactly how humans regarded killing. It was not a subject she had wanted to bring up with Keri, beyond the one warning that morning, hampered as it was by fumbling around a language neither of them was fully conversant with. And so far she had only mixed signals from Brandt regarding the subject.

“Keri, translate!” she said urgently. “Small man from here place, he darkened is. As Brandt fighting is, but not as Brandt training. Not him touch let.”

Keri’s eyes widened even further. She also began to speak with the same urgency that Melissa herself felt.

The innkeeper slightly moved again, possibly to see if she could still easily track him. The rapidly darkening room posed no obstacle for Melissa though, she could see almost as well at night as she could in daylight. Only the brightest noon sun and the blackness of a moonless and heavily clouded night hampered her ability to see.

Keri looked at her expectantly, clearly having posed a question and waiting for an answer. Melissa had missed the question, focussed as she was on the deadly threat of Dark, but could guess what it was anyway.

“We know Dark humans took. Like Brandt training have. In first human place we were. With him. One buried in rocks is.”

“Are you saying that this darkness is using my … friends to control the innkeeper?”

Melissa waited for Keri to repeat the question more slowly and in words she better understood. Her aim nor her eyes left the innkeeper for even a moment.

“Do!” was her terse reply when she finally got the gist of the question.

“Move. Die,” she warned the innkeeper who had used what he thought was a moment of distraction to inch closer to Brandt.

“Whoah, wait,” the human behind Brandt exclaimed. “Nobody’s killing nobody.”

This made him Melissa’s second target. She knew with divinely inspired confidence that the innkeeper posed a threat to her and her mission. Even if he was not the target of her Hunt, he was now closely associated with it. Had he been the actual target he would have been dead already and Melissa would have been assessing if she could safely retrieve her arrows or if she should set them on fire along with the human den.

Talya tensed minutely, and Melissa knew as if she was one of the other border guards that the pale woman would take out the two big humans who were still in the room, from their expression trying and failing to make sense of what was going on around them.

The innkeeper tensed too, trying not to show that he was doing so. The tight trousers however showed the muscles flexing ever so minutely and Melissa began to straighten the two fingers that held her arrow back.

Then the darkness that held the innkeeper in its grip let go. Talya and Oboru felt it too, the moment that the oppressive tension in the room broke. The others seemed oblivious though.

Melissa swung her bow up so as not to accidentally shoot the innkeeper now that his darkness was lifted and he no longer was an immediate danger. She kept her arrow nocked and the string at full tension. She had no idea how quickly the Dark could reassert itself and was not about to be caught unprepared again.

“Danger over is,” she said.

Talya added, “for now.”

The innkeeper looked dazed, the guard however was clearly angry. “What in the name of Mercy and all that is holy, is going on here?”

Brandt sighed wearily but he too kept his eyes on the innkeeper. “The reason why your lieutenant chose not to lock me up. And the reason why you are pulling double and triple shifts,” he said.

“The fair? What has that to do with”

Brandt interrupted him, “The Darkness attacked several guests here last night, including Keri. Same as with your civs and your fellow guards. If not for the help of Melissa and priestess Talya you would have not two but nine darkwalkers loose in the city.” there was only the slightest of hesitations before he attributed a title to Talya.

“Two of them?” Keri cried out in alarm. “We barely survived one and that was mostly luck.”

Brandt said, “best you don’t mention luck when you get around to writing your epic songs about all this.”

Keri grimaced but refrained from voicing her obvious doubts.

Melissa shook her head. From what she had grasped from the rapid exchange between Keri and Brandt she figured it was not what she needed to tell the others. “Human in danger is. Light needs have.”

The innkeeper looked alarmed at that. The guard looked first startled then unhappy. Brandt too looked unhappy.

“What does she mean?” the innkeeper asked, of all people, Brandt.

De big man glanced sideways at Keri, who shook her head minutely in reply.

“Let me answer that question,” came the voice from the old Bard from the hallway. “The dark that Melissa mentions is, near as we can tell, the touch of the Dark Lord of Decay. You, master Stonesmith, likely touched one of the infected or the cloth they were covered in, last night, and it has spread very slowly over the day. After night fell it spread much faster.”

This clearly alarmed the innkeeper, and Syts hurried on with his explanation. “Thankfully, as priestess Melissa proved last night, the Light of Mercy keeps the darkness at bay, and sunlight burns it away entirely.”

The bard turned towards the guard and said “The mayor has ordered the Cathedral to be open all night, and all necessary candles to be lit. The guard is to escort anybody there who may have had contact with the darkness.”

He looked at Brandt pointedly and said, “we are to stay here. Because the mayor also ordered the city sealed until this crisis is dealt with.” After a bardic pause he added, “by the guard.” It was clear even to Melissa that he was not happy about any of it.

“What?” Brandt exclaimed.

Syts gave a meaningful look at the innkeeper instead of answering.

The big mercenary glared but clamped his mouth shut, crossing his arms for added emphasis.

It didn’t take long for the guard to get the message. He did’t look pleased about getting his ordered from a bard, no matter how others fawned over the old man. But, he had seen the deference with which his lieutenant and he clearly was not inclined to anger his officer for treating the bard any less respectful.

“Come master Stonesmith,” he said to the innkeeper. “Under the circumstances it is better that you and your … Let’s get you all to the cathedral for the night. I’ll talk to the captain about getting a guard stationed here to keep an eye on things.”

He had his hand on his club as he said it, though. The two thugs certainly noticed it, as well as the nocked arrow still on Melissa’s bow and the knifes in Talya’s hands. Exchanging a quick glance the two carefully lifted their own hands from their own weapons in unison.

“We’re coming,” one of them said. “we’re not meaning any trouble.”

“Keep that thought,” the guardsman advised them, “so we won’t have reason to ask questions why you two were here in the first place.”

Outnumbered, and no little confused — not to mention escorted by both the guard and his two hired thugs — the innkeeper finally relented and followed the guard out.

Only when they were out of the building did Syts step into the crowded bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Brandt finally exploded, “we have to get out here and find those darkwalkers.”

“Are you mad? We have to get out here while we still can!” Talya exclaimed.

“The guards can not hope to handle a darkwalker, never mind two!”

“And what makes you think the five of us can? We didn’t so great ourselves when we faced one.”

Melissa ignored the angry outbursts between the two. It was spoken too rapidly in whatever language these humans used among themselves and she didn’t understand a word of it anyway. Instead she watched the old man as he turned around. Facial expressions, she had found, were not so different between her kind and the humans. The old human, she noticed, was furious and he was no longer bothering to hide it.

“Are you two quite finished?” Syts said. Despite speaking softly his voice cut through the angry argument Brandt and Talya were having. The anger vibrating in his words made everybody look at him in surprise.

Melissa felt something pluck at her, and from the way Oboru narrowed his eyes at the old man in interest rather than in surprise, he had felt it too.

“Good, now I have your attention,” the bard said. “We can’t leave as we made a promise we wouldn’t.”

“That’s nonsense,” both Brandt and Talya exclaimed.

“We’re stuck with it,” Syts ground out. “Because I couldn’t convince the mayor. And I couldn’t convince the mayor or his council because at the end of the day I am only a bard who occasionally speaks with the King.”

Brandt shrugged, which only angered the old bard more. “I needed you there Gyrubrant. But you chose to turn your back on your duty.”

Keri smothered a cry of dismay with both hands, and turned almost as pale as she had been that morning when she was carried out into the garden to soak in sunlight.

Brandt and Syts ignored her in favour of glaring angrily at each other. Finally the mercenary said, eerily coldly, “I’m not going to usurp power. Not here. Not anywhere.”

“Are you willing to let the town be destroyed?”

“No. I am willing to fight to defend it.”

“And it didn’t cross your mind that you could do so better by assuming command?”

“That would be treason,” Brandt retorted angrily. “I believe you were present for the council that decreed I should be kept away from the court and away from command?”

“I wasn’t present for that. And if I had been, I would have argued against it.”

The mercenary snorted his disbelief.

The bard chose not to be offended. Instead he said, “you can still do what is right, your highness.” With considerable sarcasm he added, “unless of course it is your informed opinion that the mayor is treating this danger in the best possible way.”

Brandt let out a deep breath and some of the tension left his body. “No, it isn’t,” he admitted. “But me wading in now would only confuse things. It would not have worked had I come with you either. We would still be arguing who I would claim to be.”

Unable to counter that logic, Syts deflated too. The anger draining out of him, leaving behind an exhausted old man.

“Can we now discuss how we’re to get out?” Talya demanded.

Melissa noticed that the small pale woman cast an anxious quick glance at Keri while she said that.

“We can’t get out,” Syts reminded her.

“We can’t stay either.”

Everybody, with the exception of Brandt, agreed to that sentiment.

Syts sighed. “I’ll have to break my bond. One of us needs to travel to Kingstown and inform King and Council.” He looked questioningly — clearly without much hope — at Brandt. The big man shook his head minutely.

The bard nodded slightly and continued, “I guess that will have to be me then. What will you be doing in the mean time?”

“Find and destroy the darkwalkers,” Brandt replied at the same time as Talya said, “Getting far away from this place.”

Melissa found herself compelled to speak up, interrupting the incomprehensible conversation. She didn’t know where the compulsion, and the certainty came from. Or rather, she knew but had believed her entire life that such direct influence from the Goddess was only for the Sisters and not for half-breeds like her.

“Goddess to me speaking is,” she said, mangling the words more than usual as she suddenly found it hard to concentrate on the foreign language. “Visit untouched forest I need. Or Her no speaking” Pressured by a sudden sense of urgency that almost got her running out the door she added, “Soon be. Little little time have.”

At the other side of the room Talya looked startled as she fumbled for something hidden under her dress. “Melissa is right,” she said, wonderingly.

Brandt shook his head, “there is no ancient forest here. The nearest is … the black forest. I don’t think it is a good idea returning there.”

“Tomorrow. When Sun highest is,” Melissa interjected stubbornly.

Syts, who until this moment had largely ignored Melissa now looked at her sharply. There was something speculative in the way he looked at her, as if he was considering and pondering something.

Finally he said, “there … is another forest that you could reach by noon tomorrow.”

Brandt and Keri alike looked disbelieving.

“It is a well hidden secret,” Syts appologised. “And it seems that unless you need to find it you can’t.”

“Uncle, are you claiming there is a magic forest here?” Keri asked.

The bard grimaced but didn’t deny.

Keri laughed, albeit a little shakenly, “this I must see.”

“No song, Keri dear, no story,” he cautioned her. “This forest is secret for a reason.” He held up a hand to silence her, “Remember that I kept it a secret for longer than you’ve been alive. As did my … mentor before me. All the way back to the days of King Jiurrytt.”

Coming to a conclusion Syts said, “everybody dress warm and dark. It’s going to be another cold night, even without a snowstorm, and I’m not familiar enough with the weather here to be certain there won’t be one of those either.”

Pausing at the door he said, “wait for each other at the front door. And hurry.”

Within short order they were all gathered, dressed for night and snow as well as they could with the small amount of clothes some of them had left. The old bard surprised Melissa by coming down the stairs in clothes that were about the opposite of the flamboyant colourful things he had been wearing. Instead he was dressed in something that resembled Talya’s outfit, if with a looser fit. He also was carrying nothing but a small pack and an instrument case.

“Once we’re out of the city I will give you what directions I can. I would prefer to guide you myself but it appears that I must travel to Kingstown with all haste.”

Syts turned to Brandt, “your identity will come up your highness. There’s no escaping that. I can not tell how your father will react to this news. He has not encouraged speaking about you these past two years.”

Brandt grimaced but did not otherwise comment on what appeared to Melissa to be unwelcome news.

“And Keri, love, for you I have this.” He handed her a small silk wrapped package. “Do not under any circumstance open it before you reach the heart of the forest. Let it guide you where you need to go tonight, and do not give in to temptation.”

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