Numb, entirely unaware of anything but the dying flames her mother’s funeral pyre, her eyes held the stare of flying sparks. Rose Fletcher, her mother’s lover held her hand. The older woman was trembling with emotion.
Danielle finally broke Rose’s grip when her headache became a stream of vomit.
“Do you want to stay with us tonight, Rose?” Lupita offered. “You shouldn’t be alone.”
Blackened bones that would be buried east of the city glittered with dancing embers. Acid revulsion on her tongue could not tear her eyes away. She saw her mother, dead, limp. She knew the sickening looseness that a sleeping body never has. Muscles that would tense subconsciously received no signals. Eyes that would never see remained closed.
This wasn’t the plan.
She had planned the reconciliation between them in her head. They would talk for hours about the past. About Sir Darren Longbow, the wayward womaniser. They would talk about the feelings Alexandra had never expressed. They would talk about why she’d thrown Danielle out of her home in Fisher’s gasp. They would talk until the hatred melted.
They would forgive each other for years of resentment. Danielle would feel the love she hadn’t felt since childhood. A piece of herself, stolen, would return.
That had been the plan.
“You need to eat, Dan.” Lupita’s gentle touch roused Danielle Longbow from a thoughtless void.
“Huh?” A bowl of soup steamed before her. A torn crust of bread waited on a carved plate.
“Eat. Please. You both need to eat.” Lupita’s soothing voice spoke of someone else. Rose Fletcher sat down the table with her head in her hands. Lost in her own voice, Rose hadn’t heard Lupita.
Dipping the crust in the bread, Sir Longbow stared at it, hoping for something.
“Eat,” said Nettle. She appeared at Danielle’s shoulder, taking the knight’s wrist, and guiding the bread towards her mouth.
“Good. Keep eating. It’s good soup and good bread.”
A tortured sound screamed through Miss Fletcher’s teeth. Her seat clattered to the ground as she shot to her feet. “I need to go.” The voice was not her usual, the gritty voice shook. “I can’t be here.”
“Are you sure?” Lupita asked.
“I need to walk. My head is bursting. Thank you.” Danielle heard Rose’s voice, but the warrior was lost in the chunks of her soup. The dry kiss of Miss Fletcher’s lips on her cheeks startled the spoon from Danielle’s hand.
The door closed with a bang behind her mother’s beloved.
Sipping beer from a bottle, the daughter stood. Her chair screeched along the floorboards. She hovered, not knowing what her subconscious had decided.
“I’m tired. I’m going to lie down.”
Dark solitude was the escape from everything she needed. She lay until she slept.
In dreams Fisher’s Gasp was whole again. Smiling faces of kind neighbours looked upon the happy girl she’d been. Alexandra showered her with affection. Her mother taught her to fish, to cook, to sow. They sat making daisy chains on the bank in the soft spring light. Warm arms wrapped around Danielle, enveloping her completely.
Darren drifted through the village with wine in his hands and some coins in his purse. Alexandra soured. The knight was barely that. A drunk and a philanderer. Danielle was their mistake. He would smile and tell her stories. He took her to the city to watch the tournaments he never won.
Alexandra was withdrawn when Danielle returned from Leonor with stories of Darren’s victory, for there was always one. Only one.
She was older the next moment. A dress which had covered her ankles hung to her knees. Alexandra had a suitor and pretended to be happy for him. He didn’t like Danielle.
Sandwiched between Lupita and Nettle, Sir Longbow woke from a dream that had become a nightmare. She didn’t want to relive her eviction again.
Her stomach rumbled. Overwhelming hunger commanded her to eat. Slipping from between her love and their adopted daughter, the knight snuck through the house to the soup pot on the dead fire.
Sipping cold soup from the ladle Danielle looked around her home. Their armour on racks by the door. Their weapons. Lupita’s books covered shelves above everything else. She had weapons. A bow. A crossbow. Arrows and bolts. As well as her regular armour was the heavier stuff for tournaments.
The heater shield with the Longbow crest, a white unicorn with a bloody red horn and a fiery mane reared on a blue field. Her sword had been reforged since she had taken it from her father’s corpse. That was her life, those things.
Nothing from Alexandra.
Only memories. Tainted memories.
“It’s not fair.”
Flavour didn’t hit her tongue right. The texture was off-putting even though she normally enjoyed it.
Slipping back into bed she held Nettle tight and pulled Lupita’s arm across her once more. Grief had retreated, giving her enough sense to hold onto the people she loved. It would return. She needed to hold and be held.
“I love you. I love you both.” She whispered. Nettle pulled Danielle’s arm tighter.
“We love you too.” Lupita kissed the back of her neck and tried to wrap a tiny arm around the knight’s muscular chest.
Through loss and pain, she wished that Alexandra could have held her just once more as she had on the banks of the Serpent’s Tail River all those years ago. There was no justice. There were no second chances.
“Promise me you’ll never die,” Danielle said.
“I’ll do my best,” said Lupita. Her soft, soothing voice was a lullaby. Tired from loss and hunger, the knight slept again.
Only to be woken by knocking, what felt like moments later.
“Sir Longbow?” The yell was a man’s voice, someone who hadn’t grown up in Leonor.
“Do I have to be?” Throwing on a shift, Danielle sighed as she ambled to the door. “Friend or foe, who be ye?” She smiled to ask such a stupid question.
“Excuse me, sir. The queen has ordered you to lead the investigation of the foreign magic.” The voice seemed young, someone new to military service. Nervous.
She unbolted the door and opened it.
“Monsters aren’t all the same you know. Just because I’ve killed a few doesn’t mean I know what to do with the rest. Foreign magic,” she smiled, about to say that it wasn’t as if it came across the border from a neighbouring kingdom, but from another world.
She didn’t finish talking. She’d remembered.
Alexandra was dead.
“Forgive me, my lady.” The man sporting his first beard turned, shocked to see her in only her underclothes. “I will wait for you here.”
“Not a lady. Yet.” She grumbled. She hoped she never would be.
Closing the door again she walked back to the bedroom. The errand boy had woken Lupita and Nettle.
“Help me get my armour on. I have work to do.” Her eyes were dead. She moved as she had to while her lover and daughter helped her into her clothes and strapped on her armour.
Lupita kissed her. Nettle hugged her. With a smile as wide as granite is soft, she left the flat.
“I had a nice moment there where I’d forgotten I’m now an orphan. What am I supposed to do about magic? That’s a matter for the royal coven.”
Stiff backed and with a brand-new green tabard with the Crann oak across the front and back, the lad looked like an actor. Amateur at best.
“There’s a man, a lord, you need to see him.”
Lively as a corpse, she followed him through the tight alleys between the granite towers home to half of the people of Leonor. The experience of walking was disjointed. Someone else seemed to be controlling her body, following the young lad.
Of all places that day a bar was the last one where Danielle wanted to be.
The Unicorn’s Last Stand was an ominous name for any Longbow to drink in, given the family crest. She’d never been to the old inn, a building lucky to be on the edge of the old city which had survived fires set by imperial invaders.
A rowdy crowd inside were drinking, laughing, singing, and generally making merry. There were guards and soldiers who had finished their watches. There were miners brown and grey from a hard day’s work. Traders in fine clothes sat in a corner arguing about deals and taxes.
A great many of the patrons were gathered around a large table where two men were playing war stones, an old variant of chess popular mostly among the rich and the old. A man in fine silks of black and red sat across from a vagrant with a grey beard down past the nipples that showed through his rags.
One was the picture of health and beauty. The other looked a moment from death. The twenty-by-twenty board they played on was a table itself with boxes attached for the pieces.
“They’ve been playing for three hours so far,” said the errand boy who’d summoned Danielle. “I was told you’d notice what’s wrong with him.” The young man flinched as the lord looked at him right as he’d whispered into her ear.
The lord had a predator’s smile. His eyes were human and yet had an otherworldly hunger behind them. He was a flawless being. Not a single mark or blemish showed on any of the skin of his face or hands. Mature yet ageless. Wise and youthful. Wrong. Something about him was wrong.
Several pieces were already back in the boxes at the sides of the table. War stones was meant to be played over a full week, each round lasting a few hours at a time.
The old man was down to seven of his twelve archers. He had all his twenty-two soldiers, but his cavalry had been cut from sixteen to nine. For all of that he’d taken one of the lord’s bodyguard pieces and three soldiers.
“I have no idea how this game works,” Danielle said. “What’s your name?”
“Gerald,” said the errand boy. “With every move the attacker gets two dice and the defender one. If the attacker rolls higher, which they usually do, the defending piece is taken. Even an equal roll counts in the attacker’s favour.”
“What are the pieces at the back?” She asked.
“The elite pieces. The king and queen. Four bodyguards. Two magi and two negotiators. Sometimes the negotiators are called seducers because instead of attacking a piece they have a chance to convert it to the attacking player’s side.” Gerald was enthralled.
“They should just arm wrestle,” Danielle said. She was already bored.
The errand boy looked at her as if she was mad. He turned back to the game and lost himself in it. He cheered whenever a piece was taken and mumbled his preferred moves under his breath.
Money was changing hands as people bet on the prospects of the game. No one was betting on the old man. They should have been, Gerald said. He was the inn champion. Unbeaten in years.
Danielle ordered whiskey to dull her senses. The chatter of the crowd was gnawing at her nerves. She wanted to lie down. So much life in the world was improper. Her mother was dead, and the rest of the world should feel the pain she felt. No one cared. The world went on.
Two glasses of whiskey in, Sir Longbow felt as if there was something wrong with the lord’s hands. She watched, swaying gently in her personal breeze of inebriation. Voices around her were dull and distant.
Shadows. The shadows were wrong.
The nearest lamp was behind the old man. His withered body cast a shadow across the table. The lord should have been leaving a shadow whenever he reached across the board to move a piece.
“You have no shadow,” she said. Her booming voice cut the crowd between her and the table.
“Finally,” said the lord. He looked at her and smiled. His teeth were human as his mouth opened. A moment later they were blades of bone more deadly than any predator she had ever known. “I was wondering how long it would be before someone noticed.”
Those who had heard Danielle’s words left the inn as fast as they could. The deaf and curious watched with fascination.
“What do you want here?” Danielle asked.
“Nothing much. You can write the runes or say the words. It doesn’t matter much to me.” He looked human again, handsome even. “I’ll reward whoever repeats me with anything they like. ANYTHING.” From nowhere the lord conjured a bag of gold that hit the table with a dull metallic thump and spilled out.
“Anything?” Asked the old man. His eyes were glittering with the endless possibilities.
“Anything you like. Your youth. A fortune. Both and eternal life. All you must do is repeat what I say or copy three letters. Deal?” He reached a flawless hand across the table.
Danielle knew if the man did as the inhuman lord wanted, they would all die. She reached for her sword. Her hand met an invisible barrier. The same force held her wrist.
“No, Sir Longbow. That’s not how it works. I can’t force anyone to make the invitation, but you can’t stop me from trying.”
She couldn’t move.
“Don’t do it. He wants to kill us all. He can’t do it unless you agree.”
“She’s right.” The lord smiled. “I need you. I can grant your wildest dreams though. A crown?” One appeared in his hand. “Youth?” He touched the bartender who went from being a pot-bellied man to a scrawny boy. “Your wildest dreams. Who can resist that?”
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Great descriptions, love the interplay between characters, you've got some fun unexpected lines that were a joy to read! Thanks for posting the link to other chapters on this story. I'm with Samantha - I want to know more.
Thank you. Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comment. It means a lot for me when people take the time to read my story and to leave a message and I’m annoyed with myself for not seeing this sooner.
What an interesting world you've created! I'm wondering if the death of Danielle's mother is tied to this inhuman being? And what is it that it wants? Why is Danielle the one that can stop him? I really like the juxtaposition of Danielle's young family life and the one she has created for herself now. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you Samantha. If you want to read the first story about Danielle you can use the link below. What are you working on at the moment? https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/qah9ob/
Danielle never gets any rest. Theres no link here to the next one.
Thanks. I’ll fix that.
The pacing and the ending, really really nice. I'm genuinely curious about the inhuman.
Thank you, good I’m going to try to write the next chapter of this before the end of the week.
Fine work as usual. I wrote on the he same prompt and it never occurred to me that candle light or fire of such nature would do. Electricity was what kept surfacing in my mind.
Thanks Philip, I’ll have a read of your story.
Thank you for reading my story. If you want to know what Danielle does next, you can use the link below. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/zbm280/