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“It is time, Ashel. You know our custom, I will miss you.” Pulling her into his warm embrace, the minister of arms rests his bristled chin on her forehead. “I can not watch you go, and your name will never be noted in our scrolls. I will remember you until my dying day, though. You were a daughter to me. Now, go.”

With a gentle shove, he propels her toward the awaiting mount, and her doom. Staggering on her shaking legs, she is aided into her saddle. A black horse she has never seen will take her to the mansion of the vampire, and he will feed on her, sparing those who have already turned their faces from her and shuttered their windows from the Dershin, the walking dead. Heels tap at the gelding’s tender sides, and he spurts forward, stirring a cloud of dust in their wake.

Thick trees line the edge of the path, throwing shadows on her pale skin and darkening her hair.  Shivering from a chill autumn draft, she pulls her cloak closer about her shoulders, speckled maroon by waning sunlight filtering through the remaining leaves. Red tendrils of her hair trouble her sable lashes as she focuses again on the road ahead. Three days until I reach the castle. Three more nights to pray for forgiveness before I, and the others sent to him, are destroyed. For six years the lady of light has looked over me. Maybe now she will help me destroy the demon.

            Trembling again, this time from her thoughts, she wiggles deeper into the wool of her clothing, taking scant comfort in the Lady’s medallion around her neck. Ashel the Kind had ridden into fame many times, her lithe body scarred from her battles. She had returned home a hero, and then the casting of the stones had doomed her. I should have stayed on the road. There are plenty of things I could have achieved! Now, I will be the supper for the DarkLord, all my exploits forgotten.

            “That’s not true.” Speaking aloud for the comfort of her own voice, she forces one of the horse’s ears to twitch, not accustomed to the disruption. “Marla will remember me. She will light a candle for me on my day. She will thank the Lady for me, and my helping her so many moons ago. My brother, wherever his is, will think of me on occasion, and Jaoken, sweet, burly Jaoken. Raised me since the fire, when the lady called Ma and Pa to her garden. I know he will miss me.”

Patting Doom’s neck, for that is what she decided his name to be, Ashel begins to meditate, releasing her fears and trying to clear her mind of her sorrows and self-pity, letting the slow canter ease her. Soon she would make camp. There were stations stocked along this road for travelers and for the “brides of darkness”. She would have to bath in the oils laid out in these houses on her journey so the beast would not be offended. Exhaling, she lifts her spirit in trance.

“Smell the hay, do you boy?” Rolling his eyes in agitation, Doom trots toward the first traveler’s tower. Built of stacked stones, they stored minimal goods and a small stable. Picking up the pace, the gelding trots to food and a rest after his toil.

Inside the building were three rooms. One was generally used for sleeping and cooking, the large fireplace boasting a pot and utensils as well as a short stack of wood. Off of the main chamber was a storage area that contained grain for the horses and rough trail biscuits. Ignoring all of this, Ashel brings her trembling hands on the door for the third room, know as the “Perfectant”, the only travelers allowed are the ones wearing the obsidian ring of the DarkLord’s bride.  She knew the doors must be magical, for one of her friends, on a dare, had tried to enter this chamber, and the handle would not turn. The black lily tilted with ease for Ashel, swinging the oak panel inward in invitation without a whisper of sound.

Seamlessly fitted together, this chamber allowed none of the faltering sunlight to enter. There were no windows, the chamber illuminated by a candle that sprang to life on her entering. Taking a step forward, she starts at the click of the door closing behind her. A tub filled with simmering water took up the entire western corner. White lily pads floated in lazy circles on the surface. Fine linen towels awaited her departure from the bath, as well as clean clothing in the same shade of snow.

“It is time to make ready, lady.” A deep voice croons from the shadows, the flickering candle revealing nothing to her frantic search of the chamber. Many times she had been afraid, faced death in the eye and gritted her teeth. Now, she pressed herself against the wood door feeling in vain for a way to open it again.

“You can not leave until you are prepared. Do not fret, I will not harm you. My name is Hav, and I will be traveling with you from now on.” Landing with a soft breeze and the feel of feathers, Hav settles on the floor. His dark plumage absorbing the light, he cocks his black beak to the side and evaluates her with his amber eyes.

“Bath, lady Ashel. Put your old garments into the vase at your side.” Hopping back into the shadows, Hav’s voice comes echoing his commands as her trembling fingers work at the lacings on her vest. The thought had occurred to her that she could disobey the bird, smashing the life out of it, or dunking its head into the water until the clawed feet stopped kicking, but the Lord’s revenge for such treatment of his minions would be severe.

“H-how did you know my name?” Loosing her hair to cover her now exposed flesh, pulling taunt from the cool breath of the lifeless stone, she tugs off her boots.

“I know many things. My Lord will not be pleased with the metal you wear. You will remove it.” Once again the stately bird flies from the darkness, this time to land on the edge of the bath. It’s raised position bringing him almost to eye level.

“No. He can have this if he wants.” Ashel steps naked from her discarded pile of clothing finishing “but not my soul. Never my soul.”

“Put the clothes in the vase. Then you bath. He will not be pleased with the metal.” Now agitated by her refusal, Hav struts along the edge, puffing and resettling his plumage.

Ashel does as bidden, only keeping the silver torch on her breast, the sign of the Lady hung on a leather thong. There were three steps into the bath and she mounted them with growing confidence. If this creature is all the Lord would send to see to her, then she could keep her charm. Lily essence floats to her nostrils as she sinks into the water up to her chin. Walking sentry, the raven continues to watch her as she lathers on the soap. It, along with the oils for her skin and a separate soap for her hair, are within the fold of the floating flora.

“It pleases my Lord to have beautiful things for his brides. You must be clean.  You will use the oil. You will comb out your hair and use the hairpin on the table. It will please my Lord.”

“What happens if I don’t please him Hav?” massaging foam into the thick stands of hair, she darts the challenge over her shoulder.

“My Lord will punish you. Take things you love. You must be clean. You must do as Hav ask.”

“Very well.” Taking the contents of another lily that floated to her, she puts the ivory comb on the edge of the bath and begins to rinse her hair.

No more words were exchanged between the pair. Pondering her past like a child the sore socket of a missing tooth, she didn’t trust her humor not to offend her custodian. She conjured images of her quests, companions, and a few lovers, sending the wispy images to graves of deep consciousness. It would hurt too much to see them in the end, to ponder how they would imagine her. She knew from past experience that news of a loved one murdered brought terrible dreams, horrific fantasies of your beloved, torn to shreds, pleading for release. Hopefully, when Serrina got the news of her lover’s demise, she would picture Ashel floating in the sweet-smelling water of the Remes, and not the truth.

Dark thoughts, that. What will the truth be? Will I, as the legends go, have my life sucked out through my lips? What face does the devil wear? Are his twisted features hidden behind an equally gruesome mask, the werewolf wearing the ghoul’s face? Will I be bent to his will, on my knees begging for his touch, knowing that it is death? NO! I have seen the suffering he brings too much to pleasure at his caress. How many women before me were called to his feast? How many villages destroyed, the farmers and millwright turned into undead walkers of their burnt out homes? I will go to save my home his wrath, but I will not die meekly. He will hear the Lady’s prayer from my dying lips.

            Her grim thoughts brought about her dressing in a methodical manner. A new candle flares up in an iron casing, depicting the passionate embrace of lovers, sending wicked flickering on the stonewalls. Seated in the center of a small table, now laden with a steaming platter of food, the light beacons her to sit. Flaring up as she sits, the fireplace warms her cheek. She slides the heavy mass of her damp curls toward it, willing the auburn mass to dry. She would comb it out later.

Remembering the comb, she glances back at the bath, only to find the corner hidden in shadow again. Unnaturally so, the fire at her side more that enough to illuminate the whole building. Leaving the roasted hen, boiled potatoes, and Teman spouts in heavy sauce, she explores the dark corner. Slowly in her new silk slippers and gown she tiptoes into the pitch. Extending a hand to keep from tripping into the water, her hand encounters not the smoothed out stone contour, but the cool linens of a freshly made bed.

Shaken, she recoils from the normal touch of the sheet, screaming in alarm as her guest sqawks in dismay from his perch behind her. “You eat!!” he demands, lowering his bill into his own portion, laid opposite to hers on the same silver setting.

“What is this? Is he a sorcerer?” Her quick pace sets the erotic shadows to dancing on the walls, the table skit a flutter. As an insult to her senses, she notes that there are no legs holding the table aloft.

“Damn him and his wishes!” with one feverish swipe, all of the food is sent into the fire, the white cloth burning into nothing in an instant, leaving a pungent cloud of smoke in the room. Landing with a clang on the floor, the lantern rolls to a stop, there, to her dismay, the lovers untangle themselves and flee into the shadows, cursing her with tiny tongues nowhere near human.

Hav had flown from his perch, to land on the mantle, yellow eyes now narrowed in agitation. She had knocked her chair over and the wine from her goblet seeped into the wood in an effort to follow the smeared trail of the upended candle. Flaring up his wings, he clacks his beak in an almost comical effort to master the common tongue.

“My dinner!” he croaks, in obvious rage with feathers puffed out in all directions. “You will pay, girl! Hav needs his dinner!”

Her faint smile at his comedy stayed on her face, although now her eyes held an insane challenge. Glancing at her feet, her logical mind rebels at the disappearance of the chair, the non-appearance of a table, and the tiny grunts from the things dining on her chicken. No, the dark shapes that had formed the candle casement were not man, they looked as thought someone had tried to create a miniature obsidian version of human form, and had grown so distressed that they had bent their work to malformation, satisfied to punish his art with its own incompleteness. From somewhere, she hears a grinding sound, like the mill in full tilt, the grist being worn away by the efforts of stone and water, but this sound wasn’t comforting in the small room.

“Not pleased.” Now calmed, Hav paces along the smooth top of the mantle, an inky contrast to the wood, which was rich oak with carvings of a castle and a knightly contest cut into the honeyed texture. “You will pay.”

Ashel, backs away from the look in the bird’s eyes, from the fire that now seems to have born a face, laughing at her. Cold hands grope at her ankles, forcing her retreat to a halt. She is pulled hard against the wall by unseen hands. Through the thin covering of gown and undergarments, she can feel the caress of her assailants. Firmly held at her waist, wrists, and ankles, she continues to wrestle against their hold, willing the marble fingers to quit their search of her body, their chill touch and unforgiving texture bruising her.

“Do not fight, priest.” A new speaker, this the crackling of the flames, a small inferno feeding seemingly off of nothing sheltered in it’s stone home, glaring at her with pockets of darkness for eyes, grinning with teeth of white-flame, framed with red plumes.

“You have wronged, and you will be punished.”

Screaming, Ashel tries with new zeal to free herself from the manlike-manacles, shamed by their perusal of her breasts, the way they held her spread-eagle off the floor, exploring her, testing her reactions to their unbidden touch. Again the thing in the fire smiles, taking notice of small beings at the hearth, still struggling to consume her wasted meal. A hand of flame shoots out, grasping one of the pitiful things, it’s cry of terror and pain drawing tears to her eyes. Willing her eyes to close, her head to turn, she can do neither as the flame god toys with his creation.

Slowly he melts one of it’s legs, pooling the fluid like hot wax on the torso of the wriggling spirit, his laugh the hoarse splitting of wood, the release of the living to feed the element, he turns the dark figure upside down. Like molasses, molten legs ooze down into the screaming mouth, snuffing the pitiful cries, drowning the victim in its own tormented flesh. Pleased, the firegod tosses the destroyed thing at her, one of the hands catches it, and as she struggles, the hot iron is put to her flesh.

As she screams, the multitudes of hands hold her, disrobe her, and mar her with their branding. All the while, some of the hands work to please her, cupping her breasts from behind, stroking her sex as she whimpers. Fighting them, opening her mouth to shout her torment as her shoulder is scorched, she panics when the questing hands invade her mouth, holding it open, grinding their stony grit against her teeth. No longer confined to the fireplace, the flame pulls himself from the pit, sending the small ones scattering from him, food forgotten.

Tears slide silently down her cheeks; she is held in shivering wonder as the creature from hell slowly walks toward her. Within the ever changing mass of the blaze, she can see the features of a man, his muscled arms and torso, the rippling of his legs as he walks, the pleasure he gets from her naked form. Her tears dry with the sudden heat, her gown ignites and her hair combusts. Not able to breathe, she tries to shut out the searing pain of the tongue of flame entering her mouth, the lance of torture when he enters her, the torment of her medallion, melting a course down her belly.

Somehow, she heard the morning call of the mocking bird. Its plaintive melody was muffled through the walls of her room, but it tickled her mind into awareness. Branching out her arms, she feels the softness of washed cotton, cool from having no fire or body upon them. Her eyes focus above her, straining to make out a pattern on the ceiling, but it is absolved in black. Fluttering to her side, in his gross mockery of his cousin, the raven crows at her.

“Up! Caw! It is time for you to be up!” Hooking a beak in the downy blanket, he peels it off of her.

Memories assault her mind, forcing her still as her cover departs. The chill of the morning air is a comfort on her skin, a reprove from the blaze that she was last night. It was just a dream wasn’t it? She stands quickly and sheds her gown, scanning her flesh for any scarring, grasping the cool medal around her throat. Yes, just a dream. Probably caused by a drug they slipped my in my drink.

            Now assured, she takes note of the new form the room assumes for her today. The small table was back, laden once again with a meal for them, Hav’s tray heavy with fruit. Behind her now is a wardrobe, the bed vanishing without a whisper. Set to its oaken sides are saddlebags bulging with supplies, her riding habit, now clean, resting on top of them. She dons the familiar clothing with relief, noticing the faint hint of lily on them.

Setting to work on the steaming biscuits dripping with butter and apple jam, she ponders her route, and what the DarkLord will have in store for her at the next stop. Last night had been a trial, and so would the other two nights until she reached the mansion. She would have to prepare herself for the worse, pray hard and hope that she survived the ordeal. Finishing off her ale, she heaves up the bags and heads out the door (which now has a handle) ducking Hav’s low flight out with her.

Doom was still in the stables, although his tack had already been placed on. He looked well rested and fed, a vast contrast to his master. Ashel settled the new burdens on his rump, laughing as Hav took a perch on Doom’s hip and the horse delivered a stinging blow with his tail.

“Bad!” Obviously humbled, the raven decided it was better to depend on his own wings for locomotion.

The air clung to the chill of the night like a forsaken lover, the mists, swirling about her knees begging for another chance.  Many of the trees had slipped into their autumn gowns, and were dancing in slow circles around her, the road a tan carpet that the partygoers would not trudge upon. Calling out his tunes in his somber black and gray suit, the mocking bird again greeted her. Through the lower branches, a spot of his white shirt and cuffs would peek out, the shy minstrel mingling with the court.

For a night so eventful, the day wore on in a sleepy tread. Hav stayed clear of the pair, Ashel tried to stay awake, and Doom stayed on the road. In the past, her mounts would wonder to the sides to dine on fresh clovers or berries, but he plodded onward, oblivious to their temptation. When the sun was full in the sky, she stopped to eat and rest, the gelding still refusing the vegetation underfoot, but slurping in large doses of water from the stream. She ate the bread, cheese, and ham that was packed into her bags, relented some of the fruit to a ravenous Hav, and an insistent mount. The last leg was a repetition of the first, and soon the looming sit of another rest stop sent fear lancing down her spine.

Sensing that rest and a rub were close, Doom’s slow pace increased to a trot, jolting her roughly in the saddle. This structure was roughly the same as the first, but completely curved in design. It was as if the architect hated the sharp corner’s his peers had made in other structures, and this was his lasting monument to the natural form of the semicircle. Wanting to delay entering the DarkLord’s room as much as possible, Ashel takes her time brushing Doom’s dark coat. By the time she entered, it was completely dark outside.

Hav had left her the task of horse-tending to complete alone. He had made no comment, flying silently into the main structure as soon as she entered the stables. She could faintly hear him clacking away through the door.

“Must hurry! All is ready for you. Do not upset the master!” Bobbing his head, his talons worrying the scared wood of the mantel in the main chamber, he fixes her with one of his yellow eyes.

“I am-hurrying that is. Be quiet, would you Hav? You make enough noise to raise the dead.”

“Not yet. Not yet!”

Glancing at him, a shiver works its way down her spine. She knew what the raven implied. Once, she and a company of mercenaries had faced off a horde of undead troops. Walking, killing corpses, had shambled their way to the town of Merinal. Looking at the tattered remains of clothing and flesh, she had at first felt pity for them that was before the feasting begin. A few outwallers had refused to leave their homes and all they knew to come into the walled town. Those within the walls could hear their screams when the tireless forces consumed them and their holdings. Next to her, manning the southern wall, a soldier testified that the same farmers had joined the army’s ranks, missing the majority of their flesh. Shaking herself from the horrible images, the sea of decaying faces posting parodies of smiles with rotten or missing lips, she turns another lily door handle.

Light floods in from the entryway, not the pure light of day, nor the yellow warmth of candle, but bright green luminescence. All of her dark thoughts are banished at the beautiful things crammed into the chamber. Unlike the last room, she could see the ceiling. It was painted in wonderful shades of blue with fat, happy clouds floating on the tides of the sky all thirty feet above her head. Now sensing the theme of the room, the lily-shaped lanterns floating twenty feet above her seem natural, like actual water has filed the room instead of ingenious tiling along the walls. Everything from the lights down was magicked into a state of underwater gravity. Her hair flowed out from her head like silken banners. She had to “swim” forward, instead of walk, and could, she found, gain toward the roof in same fashion.

She smiled, the room was a terrible waste of magical power, but the details of the room were so lovingly done, that she was enrapted. An open oyster was her bed, the pink linen sheets pulled back, waiting. Tiny fish, delicately carved of shining metal traveled about the room, sending gold and bronze flashes off their minute scales. In the floor ran a dark current that flowed out under the floor, touching it; she realizes it is water, warm for bathing and scented as before. Peal-shaped soap, towels floating along beside it as seaweed, it was too inviting to refuse.

Shedding her clothing, she drifts into the gentle current of the water, using a sponge and one of the pearls to scrape away the dirt of the days travel. The rippling effects of shallow water plays along the sand colored floor, the muted sounds of the waves lapping on the far-off shore, and the lolling comfort of her bath induce her slumber. She wakes to find an angelic face watching her.

A merman! How is that possible?

However grand all of the other decorations, this startled a gasp from her. Smiling before her was a merman, his golden locks drifting around the perfectly chiseled face, his arms crossed over his naked chest, hiding the point where the defined muscles of his stomach blended with the beauty of his emerald scaled tail.

“You were expecting a shark perhaps?” His voice was deep and aristocratic, bearing the weight of his humor.

“I don’t know what to expect. I have never seen anything like you before in my life, this room…” trailing off, realizing she was probably dreaming the whole thing, embarrassed anyway at being caught in her bath by a stranger, figment he may be.

“Quite a compliment, my lady. I’m sure you could find some men as close to this stunning on the surface, but they would lack my…charm.” Grinning in a way that almost stopped her breath, she had the distinct impression he was going to say “tail,” but thought better of it. “Come, Ashel, your dinner has been prepared and we have only until sunrise to enjoy each other.” Extending a hand to her, he pulls her from the depths of the water, forcing her forward with a twist of his fins.

To her surprise, she found clothing “floating” by. Keeping with the theme, the blues sleeves and hem of her dress drifted around her in underwater fantasy. Towing her to a seat and table made of coral, he applies gentle pressure to her shoulders. Once both had settled, a blizzard of multifaceted bubbles fly out of the colorful flora. On the flat slab that served as their table, a troupe of small fish circle in the center, illuminating the couple with their bright flashes of light.

“It is so beautiful.” It was rare when Ashel was this impressed. Never before had manmade splendor affected her so forcefully. In a sharp contrast to the nightmare the night before, this was paradise.

“It is lovely, fitting for the mistress. The blue becomes you, my dear. Ah, here is our meal.” Two clam shells are towed into place by seahorses and lowed onto the yellow surface with a squish. Now loosened from their burden, the aquatic equines disappear into the brilliant structure of the reef.

Her spoon was silver with a shell adorning the handle. She dipped into the now opened shell and moaned from the delicious soup it brought to her lips.

“Nice? I’m glad you enjoy it.” She continued to consume the soup as he talked.

“Since you were so nice to have asked, my name is Carel, and as I mentioned before, I will be your escort for the evening. Ah, here is our main course! Enjoy!”

Setting on the reef, eying her from its stalks with grim hatred, or so she imagined, was a lobster, whose tail had be cooked and opened for her while the creature labored under the pains of death. Those pinpricks of eyes conveyed the betrayal it felt at having her fork penetrate the soft flesh of its hindquarters while the head still breathed.

“Can it feel this? I don’t think I can eat it with it looking at me.” Setting her fork onto the spongy mass of her makeshift table, she returns the dying stare with a grimace.

Carel, having not hesitated a moment, has to pause in his consumption to laugh. “My dear that is popostous! You had no problem eating the clam out of its home. Scooping out its flesh with you dainty spoon. Is it the fact that this creature can see you eating it, that it will die knowing who killed it? Do you prefer to remain anonymous?” at this he sighs deeply and sets down his fork.

“It has been a long puzzle for myself and my kind at humans and their morals. Do you think for one instance that a shark would feel remorse? ‘I’m so sorry mister lobster, but you did look so inviting. I shall erect a monument to you for being my food.’ Never! Nature is made of one creature consuming another. Predator eats prey and so forth. It is a travesty that you would apply your morals to the perfection that is nature.”

“It isn’t that.” For the first time since their meeting, she recoils from him, steeling herself from his charming smile. “We have a choice. I can choose what to eat, and how. I could have eaten an…apple and he would still be alive. I certainly don’t enjoy eating him alive. I could have spared him some of the pain he is feeling by killing him, if I chose to eat him. This…lingering is cruel. I am not a tormentor.”

“Ah, I see, so that is your stance. Very well. I will stab you now. No use you living a few more days to meet the DarkLord, where you know you will die. Might as well end it now, eh?” Somehow, a shell handled knife appeared in his hand.

Backing away from the table, she beholds the weapon with disbelieving eyes. “No! You can’t! I..”

“Want to live as long as possible? Fight to the very end? Then sit down you silly creature and eat. You are no different that any of nature’s minions. Being alive longer means bearing the pains of life. In this case, being eaten.” Setting his dagger to work on the lobster, he severs the tail, and tossing the twitching foreparts to the schooling fish. Quickly, they converge on the meat, and only a scrap floats to the floor. Surprised, thinking them to be automations, she recoils from the sharp teeth in their small bodies.

She stares at her meal, which glares back at her. For a brief moment, she had forgotten her fate. Now, she wonders how she will be served. How long will he imprison her, hearing her pleas for release before the feast? Will it be like the Ramson Warlock trials, where people accused of dark magics were cooked alive? She could still hear some of their screams, in her nightmares. Her company had came too late to save five victims, and a sixth was beyond her healing, having being cooked up to his waist. He said that he had been in the pot for ten hours. What would you do for ten extra hours of life, Ashel? What would you trade for one hundred more breaths, or ten?

            “In the end, I will be strong. My Lady will keep me. I know that my life, unlike these creatures, continues on after the death of my flesh. My spirit cannot be killed as long as my faith remains strong.”

His handsome features stretch once more into a wide smile. Illuminated by the blinking forms below him, his sharp features soften. “One thing you have over the fishes, my dear. Now, I wouldn’t want his tragic death to be in vain. If you are not going to partake,” here he motions with his fork at her meal, now lying motionless. “Then I shall.”

Nodding her acceptance, she folds her arms about her waist, thinking about the previous evening. How many times can he do that to you? How long will you endure under that torment? Grasping her amulet firmly, she kneels and begins to recite her proposals of faith.

“I will look to the light of my lady who watches me…”

:Such a waste, my lord. I’m sure it has to be amusing, though. How many more this season?:  Carel sends mentally while finishing off Ashel’s discarded dinner. Vritchen never left his minions. He could at any moment, in fact, take over Carel’s form and speak through him. For the moment, he was content only to watch, evaluating his bride through other’s eyes.

: She is one of sixty. She pleases me. It is, after all, the taming that sweetens the palate, not the blood. When one is as old as I, such freshness is hard to come by. Please her tonight, Carel. Let her forget her woes. Tomorrow you will entertain another. : His whole frame vibrated with the dark mummers of the DarkLord’s voice. Had she had her eyes open, and been alert, Ashel would have noticed the lights dim and the shapes in the room shift. Carel’s form flashed from his guise to the horned beast of his true form.

: Yes, lord, it will be as you wish.: Looking upon the bent head of his ward, he savors the liquid power flowing to him from his master. A night of wooing as never seen before.


Jerking herself awake, Ashel tries to force herself into alertness. Staring at the cobbled road between the dark, upturned ears of her mount, she smiles as memories of the night past drift through her tired mind. Ah, the music of the ocean! She and her escort had danced in lazy circles to an unseen band. She had drifted in his warm embrace, lulled, she thinks now, by the contents of her wine. Languishing in his arms for hours, tasting the sweetness of his lips, she had dreaded the dawn, cursed the rising of the sun that would tear her away from his embrace.

Perhaps tonight will be like last night, one of pleasantness instead of pain. I doubt, though, that I will be awake to partake. Good, boy, plod gentle and forward while I take a short nap…

            Hours later, by the angle of the sun, she was awoken by the loud callings of Hav, who had taken roost on her saddle. In a vain effort to keep her seat, she had thrown her arms in mad arches, seeking balance. One of her hands had collided with the bird, sending him in squawking protest to the ground amid a shower of inky feathers, she followed him to the street with a thud.

To her astonishment, the raven recovered well, glancing at her with his uncanny eyes. Not voicing his discomfort, but limping and flapping his wings while lancing her with his glower of disdain. Ashel, sore from her impact, tries to recoup and take in her surroundings. Her left hand was numb, there were dark splotches along the back, much like the molding of bread, only darker, a solid navy to the fuzzy baby blue. Her hip and rump were both registering their complaints of mistreatment, and her face had raised the flag of embarrassment having spotted another traveler.

Sitting not twenty paces from her on a butter-colored palfrey, was a young girl watching her with large, solemn eyes. “Do you need assistance?”

“I’ll be fine.” Standing slowly, dusting herself off with her right hand, she watches the blots of blue on her tanned hand grow. The tips of her fingers have paled, the flesh purple under the nails. Bracing herself on Doom’s side, she clasps her injured hand at the wrist, tried desperately to block out the freezing pain of the splotches. Patterns in the leather saddle are her universe, her eyes focusing only on the dimples in the polished hide, not the growing numbness, not the fear that whatever she touched would eat her alive.

“My lady gives me shelter, my lady gives me peace.” Mumbling her prayers aids her to quiet the screaming nerves in her body. She removes her focus from the brown expanse of leather, noting in calm detachment the scratches she needed to buff out, and looks down at herself.

It was as if a velvet glove had been placed upon her weaker hand and parts savagely torn off, to reveal the red effects of the rough treatment. Some of the stuff had oozed its way onto her main hand, staining the thumb that was still striving to cut off blood flow, to minimize the contamination of her system.

“No touch Hav! Kaa! Kaa! Hav is special.” Smirking at her with his amber eyes, the raven lightly paces across her abandoned saddle.

Not sparing him a moment’s attention, Ashel forces her clenched teeth to part. “Make it stop, Hav. Make it stop NOW!” all of the left hand was covered, half of the right was claimed, and she could make out the stuff leaking from under her vise hold onto her forearm.

“No touch. No touch Hav!” now in a state of agitation, Ashel could make out the rustle of his feathers as he pondered what to do. It was amusing, she thought, as her right hand succumbed to the invasion, that she would be spared the Dark Lord’s attentions.

Her knees no longer supported her in her efforts, nor did her hand do her bidding. In fact, she could not feel them, the creeping mold was eating away at her forearms, as her hands dug of their own volition into the cobbled street. Hard tiles aged before her eyes, succumbing as she did to the inky disease. Her tears send up rivulets of steam from her appendages, her course groans no longer recognizable as prayers.

Deliver me my lady to your lush gardens, let me lie in the sweet grass that never dies. Deliver me my lady from this torment, let me bath in the scented pools. Ask me not, my lady, to endure, let me fall into your embrace and know peace.
Deliver me my lady…
It was gone. She could smell the flowers in the air, hear the tinkling laughter of falling water. She was lullabied by the wind in the trees. Blurred were the lady’s features, but she was there, telling her something. Ashel felt peace drift off. What was she saying?

            “What do you want of me. Please, let me stay. I have seen so much. Please let me rest. Please..”

Her back hurt. She felt bruised all over. Except for her hands, they were numb, flabby, parts of the costume of humanity she wore. Ashel opened her eyes, drinking in the sweetness of the sky, worshiping the ray of sun that warmed her.

“Are you alright?” the girl she met earlier was on her knees beside her, pillowing her head. Her large blue eyes alight with concern. “Your pet raven picked at your wound and the…oh, dear!”

Ashel, regaining her wits, sits up. Her savior had fainted, sending her fine cloths out in a pool of silk around her body. Hav was at Ashel’s feet. He approached her slowly, careful not to touch her, she sat in motionless wonder. Delicately, he brings his bill to rest on one of her infected hands. She watches in amazement as he begins to tug the dark fluid out. He gently pulls until the darkness is free of her pale flesh, and she gasps as a black feather forms in his beak.

“Be still, Ashel, I will remove this from you.” He prunes the shiny lock back into his fold, as a gentleman tuck in his folded handkerchief.

“Wait. Let me move.” She spreads her legs and leans forward, placing her arms below him. He is different. This is not Hav. Someone, or something is in the bird.

            “Who are you? You are not the raven.” She waits as another feather is added to his plumage.

“I, you will meet shortly. Now, you will silence yourself and be looked to. The girl will aid you. You both have the same destination.”

She could tell the moment that Hav shook himself into wakefulness. His look of smug knowledge came back, and he hopped to the destroyed cobbles to celebrate with as much noise as his lungs could muster.

Frostbite. It feels like frostbite. At least I have all the feeling in my hands.  A groan forces a wry smile onto her lips. So, we are both for the DarkLord. This one I will have to carry into the mansion.

            “Are you well, my lady?”  Ashel watches as the signs of life stir under the alabaster complexion.

“Yes, well. I suppose I’ll have to adjust now won’t I?” Fanning herself and arranging voluminous skirts about her, the prim miss gains a seated position. “It is very unfortunate that I had to leave my hand maiden behind. I will be a dreadful mess by the time we arrive.”

“Surely you’ve been told why we go? We are meant to feed the beast. I don’t think that he cares how you look.” Extending a hand, now returned to it’s freckled normality, to the lady, Ashel looks for Doom.

“Well you toughs have your prayers and your guts. I have my dignity. If I am to meet my fate, then I will do so looking every inch the noble woman I am. I will leave this world with respect, even if only I know. I will have to explain myself to my father in the afterlife, and I do not want to hear him harp for an eternity. Thank you.” Finally on her feet, she offers her hand to Ashel again, this time the tremor in her voice was replaced by calm authority. “I am Rebecca DeVeront, second daughter of the Earl of Galiston, perhaps you have heard of me?”

Glancing at the pale hand, waiting, Ashel grins. Bowing over the hand she kisses it. The forced smile on Rebecca’s lips disappears. “You are?”

“My name is Ashel, and I would suggest that you get used to being a tough. There will be no one here to fetch your wine and tie your laces. In the end, we are all the same. I thank you for coming to my aid. It took a lot of courage. You could have left me. I think that perhaps we started off on the wrong foot, please, allow me to help you onto your horse. It will be nice to have someone to talk to on the way to the rest station.”

“The Perfectant? I have no wish to be there alone. Very well.” Chuckling again, Ashel assists Rebecca in all of her finery onto her patient mount, and hoists herself onto Doom, careful not to brush Hav as he departs from his roost.

“So you were a member of the famous ‘Torches of Alashon’? Is it true that they are all, well, women complete? I heard from a friend of mine that they only honor their Goddess, and their causes and undergo intense training. Do you fancy that you can fight the Dark Lord? It would be the makings of the best tale ever. I would sing your victory until my dying day; that is if I’m alive to see you succeed.” At this break, which Ashel assumed was for air, Rebecca’s face clouded with concentration.

“Yes, I was one of the Lady’s warriors. Not all of us had lovers, but none of were permitted the touch of a man. I will try.”

“A forced smile is still a smile, Ashel. I thank you for it. I would like to hear your tales. I fancy myself a bard, and have written several ballads. Unfortunately, nothing written by a woman can be performed in the halls of Galiston. I shall leave my life’s work in the next Perfectant, and hope that some travelers come by them. It is all very unfair you know. I would have been of marrying age next year-seventeen, and then would no longer be in the drawing, for the being married part not the seventeen. How old are you? Did you enjoy your grand adventures? Ironically this is the farthest I have ever traveled from home.”

Amazing silence. Well, at least I have company, but I would rather be alone for years and allow her to grow old. She is too young. Ah, well, fight your battles when the time comes, you ninny. If you were to stop her from going, her family would be caste down and the ‘first daughter of the Earl of Galiston’ would be destroyed. There will be more girls, Ashel, prepare for it.