Delena sat at the foot of her favorite tree and wove a crown of wildflowers and grass to wear. The vivid colors of the flowers contrasted delightfully with her black hair. Her father once teased the oddity of such a midnight shade since she did not fit with her family’s red hair. “You are not my daughter,” he laughed, “but a throwback to ancestors lost in history.” Her mother had thumped his backside with her long wooden spoon afterwards, and he had never said anything like that again.
But Delena liked her uniqueness and wore flowers in her hair whenever she could, taking advantage of her mother’s absence to unplait her hair and let it fall freely down her back. Today was no different. She could wear her hair down and not worry about being scolded for it, and she didn’t have to cross her arms over her chest when her mother was near and feel embarrassed that her body was beginning to take on the shape of a woman. Somehow her mother always managed to make her feel shame for something, be it her hair that didn’t match her family’s, the uncanny vividness of her green eyes, or her olive skin.
Not in the forest, though. She felt at peace there, and at peace with herself. She danced and sang out loud, wandering deeper and deeper into the forest at the borders of the farm, completely unaware that she was heading into territory she was unfamiliar with. Something flickered at the corner of her eye and she turned, but saw nothing. Up ahead between another cluster of trees something else caught her attention, more movement, but she saw nothing. Curious now, Delena picked her way over to the spot she believed she’d seen something, but still there was nothing. She looked for signs that perhaps something had been there recently.
Sure enough she found a faint footprint already losing shape on the damp leaves that blanketed the ground. “Someone was here!” she whispered. A prickle of uncertainty suddenly shot down her spine and for the first time she examined her surroundings. Nothing was familiar, and no matter how hard she looked she could not find a single marker to point out the direction home might lie. But she was not afraid.
Instead she followed the direction of the mysterious stranger that was sharing her forest. The occasional footprint, bent blade of grass or broken flower stem gave her a path to follow and in the beginning Delena tracked the stranger with a measure of excitement. She was a great explorer charting paths through the untamed wilderness, on the brink of a discovery that would assure her name in history. She was an Amazon, deep in the jungles like in her father’s stories, hunting a rabid lion that had been terrorizing the peaceful villages that dotted the shores of the great River. She was a warrior queen following a dark stranger who threatened her country, whom she would hate at first but end up falling hopelessly in love with and they would live together forever, bound heart and soul.
Delena’s imagination was boundless as she tracked the stranger in her forest. “I don’t know who you are,” she whispered, “but when I find you, my life will never be the same!” Most likely she was tracking a simple woodsman or, at worst, a poacher. Although she had never seen another human being in her family’s forest, there was always the possibility that someone had managed to remain hidden until today. Someone who had not been deterred by the silly superstitions and ghostly tales that she knew people in the village told.
Another possibility presented itself and Delena froze. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head. “He lives deep in th’ forest, in a hovel covered with moss and creepers. Little girls who don’na listen to their mothers find themselves in his cookpot, and then he grinds their bones to use in his dark magick potions.”
Her blood froze. Suddenly the prospect of grand adventure and earth-shattering, life-altering epic events lost its luster. What if her mother was telling the truth? What if her stories were more than just a way to keep her out of trouble and under her mother’s eye?
Before she knew it Delena was plowing through the foliage at an angle away from the stranger, the trees a blur as she ran past them. Often she stumbled over her own feet in her haste, or tripped on exposed roots. Sometimes her clothing caught on branches and her fear created images of gnarled hands grasping at her, trying to trip her so the black wizard her mother warned her of could come to catch her.
The terrain began to tilt upwards, slowly at first and then at a steeper angle until she scrabbled on hands and knees to keep from slipping downwards. Something inside told her that this couldn’t be the way back home, that she was only losing herself deeper into forbidden territory that her mother would switch her blind if she knew. But in her panic she pressed on.
Rocks and dirt spilled down the trail she left and she accidentally uprooted small brush as she used them to help pull her over the sharp angle at the top of the hill. She was almost to the top when she stepped on a small bush she had already ripped loose, and when she put her weight on it the thing tore completely free and she was tumbling and sliding on her belly. Her screams bounced off the trees back at her until it seemed as if ten girls were screaming around her.
Desperately, blindly, she grasped the rough bark of a tree and wrapped her body around it. Dirt and pebbles continued to slide past her, but she was safe. She was dirty, sweating and shaken, but safe.
She clung to the foot of the great bole until everything grew still and the birds picked up their song again. “It’s not even worth it anymore,” she wheezed as she staggered to her feet. “I just want to go h—“ A twig snapped behind her further down the hill and with a squeal she was back up the raw trail she’d left behind in her tumble.
By the time she stumbled into the clearing she was all but blind from panic. For the longest time she simply lay there in the dirt, panting and trembling from fear spurred by her own overactive imagination. “Home,” she panted. “Home now. All safe.”
She expected to hear her mother’s cross words calling across the field, already scolding her for romping in the forest. Her father’s plow horse whinnied, and the sound carried over the west pasture. A crisp breeze carried the ice of winter early this year, and she shivered as the breeze chilled the sweat on her skin. “Oh, Da,” she murmured. “I got lost. I’m sorry. I disobeyed Mum and saw the dark wizard here! He is here!”
It took her a long while to settle down from the delirium brought on by exhaustion and panic. When she was finally strong enough to lift her head and see where she was, she saw the clearing she had entered was not the pasture and the dwelling she had stumbled upon was not the farm. She stood there with moist leaves and muddy twigs sticking at odd angles in her hair and smudges of dirt across her cheek, immobile and slack-jawed as she realized she was in more trouble than she knew. All thoughts of home fled at the sight that met her eyes.
A castle, worn and grey and crumbling, huddled amongst the trees. Remnants of flags bearing coat-of-arms hung from twisted spires, threadbare and shapeless. Wild creepers had climbed over most of the stone walls ages ago, lived and died, and now only their brittle skeletons remained. Scattered along the bottom of the walls were uneven piles of stone left over from where the creepers had once weakened sections and eventually torn them down.
The dry rasp of the wind through the dead vines was the only sound in the clearing and it completed the forlorn and forgotten feel that hung heavily in the air. There was nothing soft or serene about this place at all. And yet, for all its air of desolation it had a whisper of wonder and magick, with the pale-blue sky overhead and the heavy anticipation that raised gooseflesh on her skin. It was as if the castle had been waiting here for centuries, waiting for her, and at last its vigil was at an end.
All thoughts of home and the terrific switching she’d receive for getting lost fled before the wonder of finding a castle almost in her own back yard. Without further hesitation Delena picked her way to the gate. Lesser details had escaped her notice but now she saw that the portcullis was up, leaving the castle vulnerable to any vagabond to exploit without even a moat to protect it. Delena had always thought all castles had a moat.
She came to the courtyard with its dried, half-crumbled fountains, skeletal gardens, and overgrown weeds. At the other end was the keep, where the real castle began. Huge doors blackened with dirt and sodden with moss and mold shut the keep away from the rest of the grounds. No matter how hard she pushed or kicked, Delena could not move the enormous doors because the big brass hinges were rusted shut. She looked around for something to pry or batter the doors down and found a warped iron rod she thought might make a good lever. With all her strength she couldn’t pry the doors open, but after centuries the wood was half-rotted and soft, crumbling away with a mighty groan.
Delena stepped through the hole she had made and entered, leaving the world behind. The musty dankness and air of utter abandonment hung heavy on the scene. Every slightest sound she made echoed enormously in the place, every footfall sounding like thunder. A uniform greyness had settled over everything centuries ago and now gave the impression of permanence, a stain that could never be fully removed. The unearthly silence and emptiness left her greatly unnerved, and she began to imagine sounds like footfalls across the inner court. Shadows flickered at the edge of her vision, played tricks upon her mind, and once she swore the shadows took the form of a man before dissolving into nothing.
She stared a moment, searching fruitlessly for the imagined intruder before finally giving up and admitting to herself that she was jumpy as a cat in a dog run in this place. Anyone would be given the circumstances. She made her way as silently as she could with her back pressed hard against the wall, spooked and looking over her shoulder, and peered into the shadows often.
A marble staircase led to the upper levels, and it immediately caught her eye. At first she was cautious about ascending. Every wretched step creaked and groaned under her weight. But it proved to be sturdy enough, so she quickened her pace. A huge ceiling-to-wall window at the top of the stair displayed the entire courtyard, decrepit and washed out and nothing like what the original residents intended it to be. Nothing moved below save for dead leaves caught in a dust devil that whirled around the garden before blowing itself out.
A floorboard creaked down the corridor to the left and Delena was instantly alert. For the life of her she swore she was not alone. It was a sense that resonated in her very bones and raised the little hairs on the back of her neck and down her arms. Had the stranger in the forest followed her here? Did the dark wizard have some sixth sense that her mother had neglected to tell her about? Or could he simply smell children and had followed her scent, his mouth watering at the thought of a delicious stew made from a thoughtless girl who should have listened to her mother?
Delena found herself searching for the source of the sounds. “H--Hello?” Her voice cracked with uncertainty. “Is there someone else here? Come out. I…I promise I won’t hurt you.” That last line sounded truly ridiculous considering she was only fourteen. Even a boy a scant few years older than she would overpower her in minutes.
She slowly crept down the long corridor peering into one grey and dusty room after another, searching for any sign of another person hiding from her. But the dust was settled and undisturbed and the heaviness in the air, the one that comes only in absolute solitude, was so oppressive Delena more than once had to rub her arms to rid herself of gooseflesh. However, of her unseen companion there was no trace.
Cobwebs covered almost everything so thickly it was difficult to identify pieces of furniture for what they were and in some rooms the fireplaces were completely walled up by dust-laden spider webs. No one room held her attention for longer than the time it took to make sure there was nobody hiding within. That is until she came to the endmost room, which was so huge it seemed a grand hall in itself.
The ceiling was at least twice as high as every other room, the walls so wide the room could accommodate her entire farmhouse with room to spare. Chairs and tables took advantage of the large set of windows facing east, all coated with dust and cobwebs now. A large tasseled carpet took up most of the floor, faded now to indistinguishable shades of grey. A book lay open on one of the end tables. Delena gently turned a page and it all but crumbled between her fingertips. The page beneath fared no better and she kept her hands to herself after that, unwilling to ruin such a precious piece of history with her curiosity. She could look, however, and try to read what she could. Her father had taught her to read recently, despite her mother’s vehement protestations, and now she proudly read everything in sight. But the language of this particular book was nothing she recognized.
She stared at the yellow page, as if she could force the words to make sense of themselves if she stared long and hard enough. Instead, the feeling of soft summer breezes, with a hint of sea salt, wafted through her hair and she heard crystal chimes off in the distance. Her ears felt suddenly stuffed with cotton and the muted sounds of beating wings, large wings, came as if from a great distance. The sensations swept her away and she closed her eyes to more fully experience this strange and wonderful thing.
More vivid than any dream could be, a scene unfolded before her with colors and sights and people and creatures unlike anything she’d ever imagined. It startled her so much she jolted from the dream with a yelp, blinking rapidly to dispel the sudden vertigo that threatened to overwhelm her. The room was spinning fast, so fast, and Delena gripped the edges of the table to steady herself. But doing so placed the wretched book right before her eyes and she did not dare look at it again. Just thinking about it brought back the taste of the salty breeze, the feel of the wind, and the sounds of jumbled whispers of people that had never existed.
After that experience, Delena wanted nothing more than to get out of there and never look back, but she saw at last what kind of room she stood in and could do nothing but gape.
It was a great study, with books shelved all the way from the floor to the ceiling along two walls. Even the wall that had the windows was lined with books in every available space. The opposite wall also held books to the ceiling, accommodating the door but that was all. Two walls overrun with more books than she had ever imagined she’d see in one place in her life! The spines were so faded she couldn’t read a single title, but after what had happened with the first book she was hesitant to touch any more.
She turned to look at the remaining two walls and her breath caught. Two stunningly lifelike murals took up every inch of the opposite walls, the colors so vibrant and alive it was a wonder they hadn’t faded or collected dust and cobwebs like everything else in the castle. Exposure to the daylight every day for century upon century had done nothing to ruin the vividness of the colors. There was no peeling, no cracks, no fading whatsoever. The color was so sharp and fresh and alive it looked newly painted, glistening as if not yet dry.
One mural was of a scene in the heat of battle, with the sky a fiery red and the ground churned to mud from blood. Men in black armor atop wild-eyed horses were slaughtering men on foot. At first she could not tell who the enemy was until she began looking closely at each man’s face. Each was individual, as if the artist had been on that killing ground and had gotten a good look at each soldier. By the savagery in the eyes, each grimace of hate, even the fierceness of the horses were clues that the men on horseback were the enemy.
Her attention turned to the other men, whose faces showed brave determination. Were those subtle halos crowning each man? They held fast with lances and pikes, or swinging swords wildly, blocking crushing blows with cracking shields. One soldier sounded a horn that curved back over his shoulder, the skyline behind his head dotted with the silhouettes of flying creatures. Their wings greatly resembled the wings of bats, only…only they were many times too large to be simple bats. And did bats have tails like that?
And then Delena stepped back and got a real look at the scene and a small cry escaped her. Creatures! Such fantastical beasts, like something out of fable. Great winged creatures fought alongside the army on foot. They did not have swords or armor but, by the looks of them, they did not need either. They had size, strength, teeth, and talons. Delena had never imagined anything like what she saw there.
One beast, bearing a scar across its face from his forehead and angling down across a patched eye and continuing to a half-severed pointed ear, had a weapon: a huge, wickedly sharp double-axe with a spike topping the thick handle. He had cleaved a meaty path through horses and enemy soldiers. He was old, probably the oldest of them, but was still a formidable warrior. Of all the beasts depicted in the artwork, he was one of few that wielded a weapon and fought off three men alone.
His eyes glowed white-hot.
She looked at all of them, and all of them had fiercely glowing eyes. Delena shuddered. They made such a fearful sight, mouths agape as if they were roaring or growling, fighting as few as two and as many as five men at once. One hovered in the air, spooking the horses and throwing their riders from their backs. Another, the largest and most intimidating of all, fought off half a dozen men, with one more soldier held immobile by its thick tail wrapped around his waist.
Alone, all thoughts and fears of the dark stranger breathing down her neck gone, Delena stood in the library utterly bewitched by the scene, the vibrant color, and wondrous characters. Along the bottom, in an old script, were words that Delena could not read. They were letters as lost and ancient as the castle itself, but their alien form lent to the otherworldly feel of the artwork.
Delena turned to the other mural. It was of one of the castle’s towers. Half a dozen figures, all in difference stances, were positioned as if on watch. They were stone statues. A figure in a hooded robe held an enormous book awkwardly in one hand while sprinkling a glittering dust over the statues with the other. Delena looked more closely and saw some of the figures were fully stone while still more were becoming like the rest. The sun was just beginning its ascent into the morning sky.
Did the murals tell a true story? Surely not! Such creatures were the stuff of legends, stories told by the fire. Nothing more. And yet…
Delena ran to the window and searched out the highest tower. Sure enough in the center of the main keep a single tower rose above the rest. She had to shield her eyes for the midday sun, but she thought she could make out large figures against the glare. Her heart was thudding in her breast, eager as she was to be up close to the statues in the mural. Even if they were not real, only stone, the idea was still exciting and romantic and wonderful.
“Oh, if only…”
In her surprise and delight at finding all the books Delena had failed to see the tiny door half-hidden in the far corner by the window’s drab and tattered drapes. It caught her eye now, however, in much the same way a movement just inside the corner of one’s eye would. She stopped and looked back, doubting what her own eyes told her in a place like this. When she had first entered, she was positive there had been no door there. It was a small door from her vantage point, and she thought she might have to stoop to get through. As she approached, however, the floor dropped a step. The door was lower than the floor of the library. She struggled to open it, rusted as it was, and found a staircase that spiraled into total blackness beyond. Just when she was about to descend with hands held out in front of her to feel her way, she heard noises behind her once again. She froze, blood rushing as loud as thunder in her ears, her heart beating so madly she looked down totally expecting to see the bulge as it pounded fiercely against the walls of her breast.
She peered into the shadows of the corridor beyond the entrance, but for all her effort could not make anything out. Goosechills raised on her skin so suddenly it hurt, and the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck stood straight. Icy chills slithered up and down her spine as slippery as the droplets of cold sweat that trickled down her back and sides. She could have sworn right then that she felt someone, or something, watching her. Wanting nothing more than to escape the eerie feeling, she slinked down the stairwell, which led into a room smaller by far in comparison to the library and yet still spacious.
There was a fireplace on the left with an ancient cauldron still hanging on an iron pole. On the right were two wooden, half-rotten tables stacked high with thick books. Piles of books seven and eight volumes high littered the tables and more volumes were stacked in corners or strewn on the floor. A lantern hung on one wall, but cobwebs clung so thickly it was obvious it was as unused and forgotten as the rest of the castle. The only light came from a narrow opening high in the wall, and it was barely enough to illuminate the center of the room. The corners were left deep in shadow. Delena stayed well away from that.
More books. Delena loved books. Her curiosity yet again got the better of her, and she forgot all about being spooked in her eagerness to look at everything she could get her hands on. After all, she had seen no one, nothing. How often was her mother shushing her when her imagination began to sweet her away? Better to focus on the real, on what was right in front of her, instead of taking off on flights of fancy no matter how vividly imagined!
One oversized, musty volume was sitting on one of the shelves
and Delena reached for it, brushing her hand against something and knocking
it to the ground. It landed with a heavy chink that resounded musically
in the small nook, glinting round and silver in the dim light.
On hands and knees now, favoring her burned hand, Delena hung her head and closed her eyes. The only sound aside from her ragged breathing was the faint drip of sweat as it dripped off her chin and nose into a puddle on the floor. She didn’t know how long she huddled there until she finally had the presence of mind to get back to her feet. There was no pain anymore and she had full use of her hand. But still, there was something about it that just felt strange. She didn’t want to, but she picked up the mysterious object with great care this time and raced back up the tight stairwell. The thing remained cool in her grip and gave no sign that anything had in fact happened only moments before.
Delena examined the disc she had found in the waning light filtering through the windows. It was a medallion, a beautiful black glass base overlaid with silver, with a long and delicate silver chain. She switched hands so she could examine the back, and the simple feel of how comfortably it rested in her right hand gave her pause.
When the medallion grew hot of its own accord, it had branded its mark into her palm. When Delena tried holding it with her injured hand, it fit her palm like a key in a lock. It had silver set on the obsidian base, delicately shaped into a sword standing point down. A guivre had twined itself along the length of the sword, as if guarding it. It turned its head to its right, mouth gaping as if roaring, or biting someone. There was a tiny chunk hollowed out right between the dragon’s open jaws, empty, as if waiting for the piece that would complete the puzzle.
Before she realized what she was doing, Delena had pulled the chain over her head and slipped the medallion under her patched flannel work shirt. Again came the sudden, unshakable feeling of eyes on her, and she could imagine that the feeling grew much stronger after she put the medallion on. For a second she was nearly immobile with terror, peering desperately into the shadows for a sign of something lurking just beyond the light. There was nothing. Not one to ever let her childish fears get the best of her, especially with nothing in sight worth getting frightened over, she pushed the eeriness into the back of her mind and set about finding the tower where she knew the stone beasts still stood.
“You’re jumping at shadows, Delena,” she said to herself. “Mother’s right. You have too much imagination.”
She ran through the entire castle, through once-grand ballrooms and dining halls, past bedrooms and studies and the kitchen while utterly aware of her relentless shadow following her doggedly. By this time she was convinced she was imagining the unseen eyes that watched her and paid them no more mind. She hurried more quickly than she would have if she had not felt the eyes fixed on her, perhaps, but she did not break and run over nothing.
She found the stair to the lookout posts at last and climbed them with no heed for her safety should they prove too brittle with age to support her weight. From the top of the posts she could see over the treetops to the northeast and all around the castle. The old stones proved sturdy still and she ran through the maze of guard towers on the rooftops, looking for the way into the beasts’ tower. By chance she turned down a catwalk that led her to the narrow stairwell that led to the top of the tower.
Her shadow followed, eyes boring holes right between her shoulder blades but she purposefully ignored them, pretending that if she did not acknowledge it, the spooky sense of being spied on would disappear. She was too close and too determined to be chased away now! When she reached the top of the stairs she tried to keep her composure, but she was quivering with a childish anticipation the likes of which even Yule couldn’t compare with. The door to the tower burst outward and Delena stumbled in her haste to see.
There they were! The fact that they were actually there was sobering enough. Delena stood rooted to the spot, mouth agape and completely awestruck. She couldn’t believe that she was actually standing in the very place the mural in the library had shown her. It was like stepping into a dream. The entire mood of that artwork had given everything about this place an ethereal feel as if it belonged more in a fairy tale than here in the real world. Surely tragic wars, fantastic beasts, and magick spells did not fit in such a mundane world?
There was so much she wanted to say right then, such a strong urge to cry out from the sheer delight she felt, but Delena was far too in tune with the solemnity of the moment. She felt as if she had stepped onto a memorial, and when she reached out to touch the first statue it was with a deep sort of reverence that she did so. There were three on the ledge where the mural had shown six. The smallest of the three stood on the ledge hunched over, pointed ears back, teeth bared, and arms reaching out with menacing claws splayed. Delena stepped onto the ledge, unaware of the tremendous drop from the tallest tower of the keep or the crumbling edge she stood upon, to compare herself to the beast. It was a head shorter than she, and she giggled.
“Not so threatening,” she laughed, “when they’re shorter than I am.”
Both others were larger and taller than she, and closer examination revealed a fourth that she had overlooked. It was so tiny compared to the others, only as tall as her forearm was long, and perched atop the left statue’s shoulder. It too had its arms outstretched as if to grab someone, or chase them away. Its tiny jaws were open in a miniature snarl revealing perfectly chiseled pointed teeth, little wings stretched as wide as they would go, and its skinny little lizard tail sticking straight out behind it.
The tiny one’s companion was more impressive than the first statue she explored. This one wore a ponytail that tapered off at waist level. The bottom half of its right ear was lopped off in a ragged line that continued across its face, disappeared beneath an eye patch, and reappeared on the other side. It crouched low to the ledge, its left hand balled to a fist and knuckles resting on the stone. Its right arm it held straight out to the side and, sure enough, it was holding a monstrous double-bladed axe with a wickedly sharp spike at the end.
“Sweet mother of everything that’s good…” she began, but faltered. This could not be happening! The murals could not be true! Could they?
At the last statue She chose to remain on the balcony and not step onto the ledge as she had with the others. He was gargantuan, standing more than eight feet at his full height. Delena was intimidated by his mere pose, arms raised in a V with his expansive wings spread, head thrown back and mouth open in a silent howl. And he was not simply tall but massive as well, with a chest wider than her house’s front doorway. Giant. He was a giant, and probably the greatest warrior the world would ever know…if he had been alive. He was easily recognizable as the beast in the mural that fought six men single-handedly, with another held in his tail.
She knew that she had found something very special when she came upon the castle, but now that she knew these beasts were more than mere stone she realized there were no words she would ever be able to find that could describe them. They had lived once; she knew it in her heart. But had they been friend to the world, or foe? “Definitely friend,” she decided in her own naïve and trusting way.
She had lost track of time wandering the castle and gaping at castle gargoyles and now the sun was almost hidden behind the treetops by the time she finally thought of home. But she had to stop once more in the library to get one last look at the murals in the evening light and wished she hadn’t. Something had changed in the battle scene. It took her a while to find the cause of her sudden unease but she found it: the last time she had looked she could have sworn the scarred beast was blocking a sword thrust from an enemy with the blade of his axe. Only now that she looked at it again, the enemy knight was screaming as the blade of the axe bit deeply into his side.
Another beast had been in flight and now was landing atop a rider, attempting to pull him off his horse. Little changes in the scene, almost imperceptible, seemed to pop into focus now that she had realized they were there if she only took time to look. “This whole place is magical,” she whispered to the murals of the beasts. “I can feel it in my bones.”
Finally she forced herself to leave, and she didn’t stop to examine anything on the way out. Coming to the edge of the forest, she knew she wouldn’t be able to find her way out by herself. She took the medallion that she had found earlier that day and, feeling slightly foolish, spoke to it. “If you really are magickal, help me out of this forest. If this scar on my hand means anything, it means you belong to me now.”
Nothing happened, and she felt extremely foolish to expect an old necklace to actually lead her out of the forest. How ridiculous! She really didn’t know what she had expected to happen but she had expected more than absolutely nothing!
The voice echoed faintly through the trees. “Mother?” Delena called out, surprised that her mother’s voice could carry so far into the forest. Surely she was a couple of miles or more from the farm at the very least!
Delena? Delena, over here!
Her mother’s voice seemed to echo inside her head, so faint and so vague she had to wonder if she had really heard her mother calling at all. But it was the only reference she had, and Delena followed. Where are you? Delena! “I’m right here!” she called. “I’m coming!” The trees were thinning. Deleeena! She threw herself headlong towards the voice. Delena! She tripped over brush in her haste. We need you, Delena! “I’m almost there,” she panted. Delena! Delena Delena Delena Delena…
“I’m coming!” she cried, bursting onto the field so abruptly she fell onto her face.
Delena lifted her face from the dirt to see who had called her. “Dadda!” she cried, pausing only to brush off her knees before flying down the pasture to the north fields.
“Now tell me, what were ye doin’ in the forest so close to sundown, li’l lass?” Her father wiped his brow and reached to unhitch the horse from the plow.
Delena beat him to it. “Let me, Dadda.”
“’Tis that where ye been all day?” He smiled, looking towards the treeline. “I wake to go to the fields only to find ye already gone.” His forehead crinkled a little in concern, but nothing that told her she was in trouble. She had always loved that about her father. He knew she could handle herself and refused to shelter and limit her as much as other fathers he knew.
“I had thought t’get Mum more kindlin’ for the stove,” she said. “Last night I noticed the box was near empty.” She took the horse’s reins in one hand and a few of her father’s tools under her arm. Together they walked back to the barn, her father resting his arm across her shoulders. “I wanted t’surprise her so I woke early and went into the forest. Dadda, I know that Mum don’t like me doin’ that, but I can take care of meself and a’sides, it’s fun!”
Her father ruffled her hair and laughed. “Aye, I’m sure ye can, and I’m sure it is, but ye must remember your mother only wants t’look out for ye. ‘Tis not very safe too deep inside that old place.” He was quiet so long that Delena stopped to look up at him. He walked a few more paces until he realized she was no longer with him, and then turned around and smiled at her. “Well, let’s get ourselves inside a’fore your mother really starts to fuss!”
Later that evening, after the dishes had been scrubbed and supper put away, the twins, Thom and Lizzy, crawled beside Delena and begged their father for a story while they settled by the fire.
“Tell us a story, Dadda,” Lizzy began.
“A scary story—“ Thom picked up.
“Please?” they finished together.
“Mum was cross at us today for playing in th’ house,” Izzy said, “and said if we din’na behave ourselves the gargoyles would get us. Dadda—“
“—what’s a gargoyle?” Thom picked up Izzy’s sentence where she had paused. They were always speaking the other’s mind.
Delena was so surprised at the mention of gargoyles she dropped her quilting. She picked it up hastily in an effort to hide her unease, glancing nervously at the others. Terrified her secret would somehow be read on her face she kept her head down, sewing furiously as an excuse to avoid everyone’s eyes.
Their father laughed. “Your mum could tell that ol’ story better than I ever could,” he said, earning a malicious glare from their mother.
“Oh please, Dadda, tell us about them!” the twins begged.
“All right, my wee ones. I’ll tell ye.” He got up to stoke the fire and the twins waited impatiently, snuggled on either side of Delena while their father busied himself with exaggerated care at the fireplace. Only their mother seemed to ignore him and kept on with darning his work shirts, but her needle thrust through the material with a savagery that hadn’t been there moments before. At last he finished and sat back in his armchair, putting out the lamps as he passed them. Izzy squealed with delight; it wasn’t often their father told a story by firelight.
“People say there be a castle in yonder forest,” he began mysteriously, pausing only long enough to light his pipe. “And a long, long time ago there was a good lord who ruled from there. All this surrounding land was his. But the world knew dark times. This lord, Seamus the Just, lived with the threat of war in his own land. There was a prince, an evil and power-starved demon who ravaged the world with his armies, conquering kingdom after kingdom with no end in sight. There were some who whispered in dark corners and called him the next Alexander. And he was heading straight for Lord Seamus’ land.
“But the people had faith in the guardians of the castle. Ye see, my little moppets, he had an alliance that no other ruler possessed. This army was strong, and formidable, and extremely loyal to McFerrel and his people. Each warrior stood as high as four horses, could fight ten men at once, and the mere sight of them on the battle field was enough to strike fear into the hearts of men.” Delena’s father got to his feet and was gesticulating with a heated intensity as he got carried away with his own tale. His shadow loomed across them, flickering up the wall. “They were Gargoyles, incredible beasts with great wings,” he spread his arms, “sharp teeth, and claws that could carve stone.” For emphasis he hooked his fingers like great claws and slashed through the air. The twins squealed with delight.
“All right!” Her mother threw down the shirt she had been mending and shot to her feet. In the firelight it seemed as if her eyes blazed as red as her hair. “I’ve had quite enough of this nonsense and blather.” She thrust a finger at her husband. “Ye should know better than t’fill their li’l heads with such meaningless—“
“But Kitty,” her father said, “it’s just a story that—“
“I said enough!” she roared, glaring at all four of them in turn. When her eyes fell on Delena she planted her fists on her hips. “I thought I made meself clear when I told ye to put up your hair!” Delena’s hands shot to her hair and she hastily began to re-braid it. “And don’t ye flash them green eyes at me, young lady! Something unnatural about eyes so green, and ye’ve not the sense to keep them down like’s proper! And where did you fly off to all day? Are all my children fools? Ye prance off into the bloody forest every time I turn my back,” she jabbed a finger at Delena who had plaited her hair and was now trying to stuff it down her collar, “and ye two,” she shot at the twins, “running ‘round like wild things askin’ about Gar—about nonsense and fancy that is not real!”
Delena’s ears were ringing. Her mother continued to glare at all of them, daring anyone to open their mouth against her.
“All right, little ‘uns,” her father finally said, “it’s late. Perhaps past your bedtimes, hmm?”
The twins leaped from either side of Delena, bid a hasty good night to their father, and gave their mother a wide berth. “I think I’ll tuck in the twins,” she added as she slinked past her mother.
Lizzy and Thom were waiting for her at the foot of the ladder that led up to their tiny room in the loft. She helped them out of their clothes and into pajamas, waited while they washed their faces and brushed their teeth, and then the three said their prayers together. Then she hugged and kissed them both and tucked them in as she had every night since they were born not quite five years ago. “I love ye both,” she whispered.
“We love ye too, Dela!” they chimed in unison. They were so adorable with their pixie faces smiling at her, a handful of freckles spattering across their cute little noses.
The front room was still chilly with tension and Delena swore she could still hear her mother’s tirade echoing off the walls. Her father was sharpening some of his farm tools in silence and Delena picked her sewing back up. She was working on a quilt for the twins’ birthday coming up soon. From the corner of her eye she watched her mother, who was sitting very still in her chair and staring at the single small bookshelf above the fireplace. She always did that, Delena had noticed, when she thought no one was looking. Sitting on the shelf for as long as she could remember had been a book that she had never been allowed to touch, or even speak of. The one time she had asked her mother about it had resulted in the most severe scolding she’d ever received in her life. Even her father didn’t talk about it.
It was an oversized, thick leather-bound book with an ornate silver lock. It sat so tall compared to the other books there that Delena thought it could be as long as her torso and wider than her shoulders. That book was her mother’s one treasure, no matter how much she hated it.
Another ten minutes or so passed with no one saying a word. The pendulum clock ticked and ticked, and the needle kept slipping from Delena’s sweaty fingers, and claustrophobia began to settle in until she thought she would go crazy from the tension or scream and scream until—
“Well, I’m going t’ bed,” her mother spat. Without so much
as a ‘good night’ to anyone she left, taking the tension with her.
“Of course I am. Running like a wild thing through th’ trees and communing with the fae is exhausting.” He laughed at her.
“Good night, Dadda. I love ye.”
He kissed her forehead. “I love ye, too, moppet. See you in th’ morning.”
That night Delena dreamed of gargoyles. It was dark and extremely hot and they were roaring all around her. And then, out of the darkness, a great stone beast came at her and tackled her to the ground, scaring her awake. But it was still blazing hot and there was a deafening roar all around her. She tried to shake off the sleepiness, but it was difficult with the heat and noise. Had they followed her out of the dream? If she looked up would she see a horde of stone beasts growling and clawing at her?
Suddenly a huge crash resounded through the house and the tremors
brought her fully awake in an instant.
It wasn’t the gargoyles she heard but the roaring of flames as fire devoured the only home she had ever known. “Dadda? M-Mama?” She stumbled out of bed and crawled to the door and felt for heat with the back of her hand against the door. It was still cool enough. For a time, at least, the hallway was safe. When she threw the door open black smoke billowed into her room. “Thom! Lizzy! Oh no, please no…” A solid wall of flame blocked her from the ladder to the twins’ room. “No, they already got out. That has to be it. They’ve already escaped.” She chanted that line until she believed it, pushing the fact that no one had come looking for her to the back of her mind. Her parents would not have left her to die in the blazing house, but she held on to the hope that everyone was safely outside. It was all she could hope for.
She called out again but the noise swallowed her words. “Oh no, the book!” Mortified now, afraid her mother’s book would be destroyed, Delena forgot all about her own safety and thought only about retrieving the book. She threw her comforter over her head and ran to the front room. It was a blazing inferno, the walls rippling curtains of flame. The roar was truly deafening here, and the heat so incredible her tears dried instantly on her cheeks. A crash thundered behind her and she knew that her bedroom had just collapsed. That entire side of the house came down. Her parents’ bedroom was on that end, and the twins were in the loft right above that.
“They’re outside. They escaped.” She repeated that over and over in her mind as she felt around blindly in the thick clouds of black smoke for the huge book. It was heavier than she expected when she picked it up, and the weight of it sent her tumbling onto her backside. Already she was growing dizzy from the heat and smoke, and thought was coming more slowly the longer she remained inside. She struggled to her knees, fumbling with the heavy book, coughing and gagging, but she sank back to the floor and choked on smoke and ash as the whole room blazed around her.
“I’ll die here,” she realized. That was enough to force her out of her daze and onto her feet. Her lungs burned and her eyes streamed tears from the sting of smoke, but she struggled to remain standing. The front door was only paces away, her only escape, and it too had caught fire. She made sure the medallion was still around her neck, glad that she hadn’t wanted to remove it before going to bed and prayed she would get out safe and alive.
She clutched the enormous book to her breast and ran through the flames for the door. She tucked her shoulder and jumped, heard burnt wood splinter and crack as she burst through, and she was out. Her momentum carried her across the porch and she tumbled down the steps like a rag doll. Giving no heed to the pain of bruises and scrapes and burns, Delena got back to her feet, retrieved the book, and didn’t stop running until she felt the cool grass at the edge of the forest. Only then did she let herself sink to the ground and give in to the creeping blackness at the edges of her vision.
To be continued ...