Chapter 1: The Lost Beginning
I no longer live in the beginning. I've lost the beginning.
-The Serpent, Act I
Road dust coating her coarse travel skirts from the knee down, turning them a dull grey, Jennsen trudged on. One foot in front of the other, boots as dull as her skirts.
Keep moving forward, because there is no going back.
The straps of her pack dragged at her shoulders, the supplies she had salvaged from the burnt out farmhouse heavy and meager all at once. An unstrung bow was lashed across the top of her pack. Arm guards too large for her slid around her forearms, held in place with tattered ribbons that had once adorned a blouse. Jennsen did not know how to work leather, or she would have shortened the leather laces. As it was, even at their tightest the arm guards did not fit. They had been made for a man, a resistance fighter and hunter.
Jennsen was there when the banelings came. Stood frozen and shaking as Sean fought and died. Blinked dumbly when his blood was sprayed across her face.
Closed her eyes to meet her death.
Only to hear the voice of her brother Darken Rahl, ordering that her life be spared.
They had not spoken to each other, only stared.
"Stay far from Richard, sister," he had said at last, eyes ablaze. He was gone before his voice had faded from the air. A phantom. A spirit. A guardian angel. A treacherous tempter.
She had gathered what she could, and set out to find the Seeker.
Whether that was Darken Rahl's intention or not, she didn't know, and told herself she didn't care.
With a blink, Jennsen returned to the present, free for a moment from the mire of memory.
An inn was silhouetted in the distance. Moving her dry tongue against the back of her teeth, feeling as if even her mouth was coated in dust, Jennsen decided to use some of her hoarded store of coins to buy a meal and a bed.
No matter what kind of place it was. She had been on the road too long and seen too much to be picky about her accommodations.
Chapter 2: The Middle
I'm in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning.
-The Serpent, Act I
Denna watched the bottom floor of the establishment she had worked to take over, mentally flagging regulars and pairing them with the women they would pay the most for. The blacksmith from two villages over was back again, and she suspected he did not have enough to pay. The D'Harans and resistance alike had stopped paying for weapons. They took what they wanted.
With a nod from the balcony on which she stood, Denna signaled her men to get the blacksmith's payment up front, or else escort him out.
Soft steps sounded on the plush carpet underfoot, a rustle of cloth and a scent of perfume telling Denna who it was.
"Madame," a quiet voice addressed her.
Without turning, Denna answered, "What is it, Lilith?"
One of the women that had turned to Denna to put food on her table and logs on her fire stood there, dressed for a night of work upstairs, a robe loosely belted around skimpy apparel.
"He's back, waiting outside," the small doe eyed creature said. Denna found her beautiful, though spineless.
"The man who claims to love you?"
Face hard and eyes fearful, the woman replied, "The one what got me with child and went off to war without so much as a letter to remember him by."
"It will be taken care of."
A grateful smile, much more appealing than the hard mask of fear, "Thank you, Madame. Spirits watch over you."
And then she was gone, leaving Denna once more in silent survey of her domain.
That was how she liked it.
"Are you going in there? Lad? Lad! Listen to me!"
Jennsen stopped, trembling with the fight or flight instinct that had kept her alive thus far. The man loitering in the yard of the inn thought her a boy. That was good. Boys were safer.
She ignored the man, walking slowly around him, keeping him in sight at all times. Her travels had taught her caution. Banelings could look like anyone.
And you didn't have to be a baneling to be bad.
The man was persistent, begging her to bring news of one of the women who worked inside. So the inn was one of those places. It didn't matter. The man was probably a stalker - a jilted client who couldn't understand that what he paid for wasn't real. Jennsen ignored him, entering the establishment.
It looked normal enough, the scrubbed pine tables and men sitting around drinking tankards of ale like any other tavern she'd ever been to. It was when she looked up that the nature of the place became apparent. Carpeted stairs led to a balcony overlooking the bottom floor. There Jennsen could see two well appointed women surveying the crowd. Moving to sit in a quiet corner, she ordered a meal and a barley water from the serving girl and looked up to study the women further. They were beautiful, in a bright, tawdry way.
She wondered what made women turn to that kind of work. Surely they had to be as desperate as she was. Jennsen wondered if she would consider the line of work if she didn't have her brother to hang her hopes on. Would she let men, drunk and stinking, paw their hands over her for a few coins?
Her stomach rumbled as the serving girl returned with her meal, and Jennsen dug in, glad she had decided to splurge on the food instead of subsisting on the meager rations she had left from the farm.
She thought that if she was hungry enough, maybe she would ask for a job upstairs. Life had been hard since her mother's death, and grown harder still in a violent slash of red. There was no room for pride in survival. She would do what it took to reach her brother, to help save the world.
Looking up again to watch the women on the balcony, Jennsen saw that one of them had left while she was contemplating her food. The remaining mistress looked out over the room. Jennsen wondered if she was in charge. She was quite elegant in her black dress with her curled blond hair. The woman turned toward Jennsen's corner of the room, and Jennsen's blood ran cold.
Jennsen sat, frozen like a rabbit, unable to move for what felt like years. Her heart thudded in her chest. Was it possible to die of fright?
Had Denna seen her? Would she have to fight her? Could she possibly win if she did?
But why would Denna want her now?
Little by little, Jennsen felt her muscles unfreeze. Mechanically, she started eating again. Food was too expensive and coppers too scarce to let the plate before her go to waist. Strung tight as a thread in a loom, ready to break, Jennsen ate as fast as she could without making herself sick. She would calmly get up and leave. Denna hadn't seen her. Maybe Denna wouldn't even care if she did see her. She would finish her food, and go sleep in the woods, and everything would be fine.
Still, she watched Denna from the corner of her eye. Some how she felt that as long as she could see the Mord'Sith standing on the balcony, she was safe.
Denna watched as a young lad in a worn robe made his way to the door. She could tell by the way he moved that he was upset, tense about something. Most likely had been dared by his friends to come to a house of ill repute and bring back some sort of proof, and was too ashamed to go through with it. She had seen it before. There were those who felt that the profession of her and her ladies was immoral, shameful, something not to be spoken of. Denna was a pragmatist.
There were a lot of worse ways to make a living.
Her doormen noticed the lad's tension and looked to Denna. She shook her head. He was leaving peacefully. What he did outside the doors wasn't her problem.
Chapter 3: The First Murder
And it occurred to Cain to kill his brother,
But it did not occur to Cain that killing his brother
Would cause his brother's death.
And this was the First Murder.
-The Serpent, Act II
Jennsen's heart pounded in her throat, her blood thundering through her veins. She could hear it rushing in her ears. She didn't like having her back to the brothel.
She could think the word now. It was an ugly word. A home for an ugly person. A black heart.
Denna's Brothel was behind her, and any moment Denna could emerge, could grip Jennsen's neck in those hard leather hands. Could smile that smile so bright it seared, the grin of a wolf that had just killed a rabbit.
But no. Denna had not seen her. Would not care if she did. What use could Denna possibly have for a pristinely ungifted one?
She remembered her mother's death. Remembered Denna's face, the whine of her Agiel as she murdered Jennsen's mother in flashes of red and white. Jennsen reached for her bow. Her hands trembled.
She was jumping at shadows. There was no danger here.
But still, she would feel better with a weapon in her hand. It didn't matter if she could barely use it, didn't matter that it was far too large. It was something.
Another memory as she gripped the shaft of an arrow, roughly yanking it from the quiver quashed to the side of her pack. Denna's laughter, like shards of glass. That voice, of a devil or an angel. Wonderful and horrible. How Jennsen had alternately yearned and cowered at the sound.
That was the most horrifying. Not the terror, but the desire. The serpent hissing in her ear. Sensuous sounds and poisonous venom, all from the same pair of lips.
Ridiculous. She was being ridiculous. No one was coming for her.
Still, she gripped her arrow tightly, knuckles white, bow in her other hand. As soon as she was a safe distance from the brothel, she would stop and string it.
She would be safe in the woods, with her bow and her fire. Safe, all alone, far from Denna.
Her legs ached with the desire to run, but she remembered Sean's voice, remembered his lessons, longed for his presence to soothe nerves that jangled.
The rabbit that runs is the rabbit that's caught.
"Did you get news of my Lilith, lad?"
A hard hand gripped her neck, a wide hot palm against her skin. She tensed, muscles shaking with liquid fire, her grip on the arrow so hard she wondered how it had not snapped. Without thought, without sound, she spun, plunging the arrow up with all her might. Hands clawed at her. Blindly she stabbed, then yanked, her heavy exhalations and gasping indrawn breaths the only things that penetrated her haze.
Something wet hit her face.
Thick and warm, it rolled down her skin. She dashed it from her eyes, wildly swinging the arrow to keep her attacker at bay. With a wet tear she hit flesh, with lurch she struck again.
Her hands grew slippery, but she knew she could not stop. A wound would not slow a baneling.
A wound would not stop Mistress Denna.
She didn't know who she fought, only the rhythm of her arms. The whispered words she held in her heart.
The rabbit that runs is the rabbit that's caught. The hawk that holds on is the hawk that is fed.
Hold on she must. Hold on she would. She wouldn't stop fighting until her assailant was dead.
She knelt on his chest now, holding him down. He didn't move, but she didn't stop. Banelings were tricky, she had seen it before. They played dead on the battlefield to lure the unwary.
She was wary. Wary and wise. She would live, not die.
She had to find her brother. Had to stay alive.
A woman screamed.
The screaming was never ending. The screaming hurt her ears.
The screaming made her look up for a moment. A moment that would break her.
"Adam! Adam! What have you done?" The woman cried, running towards Jennsen.
Jennsen wanted to explain. To tell the woman that it was alright. Adam had not hurt her. He was a baneling, or sent by Mistress Denna, and if they burned his body quickly then they all could be safe.
The woman careened into Jennsen, knocking her to the side, scratching at her face. They rolled, a tangle of limbs, the woman's cries vibrating down to Jennsen's bones.
"Murderer! Monster! Baneling!"
The woman was confused. The baneling was dead. Her nails scraped Jennsen's cheek, slipping from her skin to come away red.
Viscous red against pale skin of white. The painted face of a whore stretched in a paroxysm of grief. It was make-up on her hand. The thick lead based rouge that brought red to her cheeks. Her weight pressed down on Jennsen, crushing air from her lips. Jennsen inhaled a mouthful of red.
Copper and salt. The smell of death.
With a mighty heave, Jennsen hurled the woman away, heart stopping, lungs stone. It couldn't be true. Her eyes were playing tricks.
In a pool of blood soaking into the path, a man lay prostrate, his face and neck a bloody mass of torn flesh.
It couldn't be. It wasn't right.
She would blink and the world would make sense again.
As the woman wailed under the sun too bright for twilight, Jennsen's world shattered, her soul seared.
Against a backdrop of blood, she felt herself drain away. Flesh hung from the arrow she still gripped in her hand. It was a layer of blood that coated her face.
Banelings didn't bleed.
It was a man. A man of flesh who lay there, drained of all life. A man's red life blood sinking into the dust.
The first man she had killed.
She had thought her innocence lost long ago, dying with the light in her mother's eyes. Only now did she understand she had still had something left to lose.
Chapter 4: The First Time
And Adam knew Eve and Eve knew Adam.
And this was the First Time.
-The Serpent, Act III
Drawn by the screaming outside her doors, Denna pushed through the crowd of men and whores on her street. Those that noticed her grew quiet and stepped back, awaiting her justice.
All knew Madame Denna kept the peace on her stretch of road. More than one malcontent had vanished into the ether on a moonless night, never to be seen again.
"What is the meaning of this?" Denna questioned, voice pitched to carry.
The crowd gave way, revealing the scene.
There lay a man, his face a distasteful mess. Denna wrinkled her nose. So messy. Not the work of one of her men. She trained them to be efficient. Neat.
This looked like a mauling, the desperate thrashing of a cornered beast.
"Madame! Madame!" Lilith cried, falling at her feet, crying and clawing.
Denna looked down on her. "Lilith, tell me you have not done this."
"No, Madame, no," the pathetic creature moaned, wringing her bloodied hands. "It was her. She did it!" The last was spat with a level of venom that Denna had not thought Lilith capable of, passionless as she was.
Following the woman's quivering finger as she continued to spew damnations, Denna saw the lad that had left her establishment only a few short moments ago.
But it was not a lad.
Sitting on the ground, eyes staring blankly ahead, pale where she wasn't blood soaked, sat a young woman.
A familiar woman.
Moving closer, kicking Lilith when she tried to cling to her skirts, Denna knelt and tilted the woman's chin upward with the tip of one finger.
A spark of recognition, a flicker of the eyes.
She was in shock.
Lilith called for justice, for Jennsen's execution. She wailed and pleaded and screamed.
Denna slapped her.
"For Creator's sake, you were begging me to rid you of him this morning," she chastised, tired of the display. "Go clean yourself then get back to work."
Hand to her cheek and rage she dared not speak smoldering in her face, Lilith scurried away.
"You," Denna pointed to two of her men, "bury that."
A cold surveying look at the rest of the crowd sent them on their way.
That taken care of, Denna returned her attention to Jennsen.
The Seeker's sister.
She reached for her arm, not minding the blood. When her fingers circled the red soaked sleeve in a hard grip, Jennsen seemed to snap back to reality, pupils dilating in fear as she struggled to free herself from the grasp. The already bloodied arrow came up, but Denna was too quick. She wrested it from Jennsen's hand, tossing it away into the dust.
"Shhhh, Jennsen," she whispered in her ear, arms like iron bands holding the struggling woman still. "Shhhh." Thick red blood the same deep shade as Denna's lip paint marred her skin, created gruesome highlights in her hair.
Jennsen whispered something, her lips barely moving.
"What was that?" Denna asked, voice seductive and soothing.
"The rabbit that runs is the rabbit that's caught."
With that Jennsen leaned over, convulsing as she disgorged everything she had eaten in the past day, and then more, continuing to heave even when there was nothing left until her convulsions turned to sobs.
Denna held her, rocked her, frowning at the mess.
She could tell Jennsen had had the beef stew.
Jennsen awoke in a clean bed, wearing a nightgown of lace that made her blush.
Her hair and face were clean, her skin lily white.
With a deep sigh, Jennsen closed her eyes. It had all been a horrible dream.
The door creaked open. It was Madame Denna.
In a flash it all came rushing back, the blood on her hands, the cries of the woman.
Denna smiled that smile Jennsen remembered, the searing bright smile of a fallen angel.
"Must we go through this again, Jennsen? Every time you wake up it's the same."
Every time she woke up?
"How long?" her throat was gritty and dry.
"A day, give or take," Denna said as she moved closer. The bed dipped with her weight as she sat, stroking Jennsen's arm.
Her skin breaking out in gooseflesh, Jennsen pulled her arm away. Denna's touch made her stomach turn, her blood boil in her veins.
The horrifying part was that Jennsen could not pinpoint why. It was not just revulsion, it was more than fear. Beneath all the hatred and bile lay a need that burned with the fires of the underworld, destructive and painful.
"I know what you feel, Jennsen," said that loathed voice that raised the hairs on the back of Jennsen's neck. "I can help you."
"Of course you can," Jennsen laughed a jagged laugh, mirth she did not feel frothing from her throat.
Denna leaned forward.
"It should have been you," Jennsen found herself saying. She waited for the rush of fear, the terror that made her pulse thrum in her ears when she so much as thought of confronting the monster that had taken her mother.
Jennsen closed her eyes, and felt nothing. There was nothing left to feel.
Something cold and heavy was pressed into her hand, and Denna spoke again, so close that Jennsen could feel her breath hot on her cheek.
"It should have been me," Denna breathed, voice a deep purr.
Jennsen opened her eyes to see the point of a dagger pressed to Denna's throat, a tiny bead of blood welling from the delicate skin.
With a single thrust, Jennsen could end Denna's life. Could send her mother's killer to the underworld to burn for her crimes. Could watch her bleed.
Just like Adam had bled, on a dusty road at twilight, death coating his eyes.
For the first time, Jennsen saw Denna as a person. She was not a monster, not a creature of bloodlust waiting to do evil, but a person who feared, who loved. Hated.
Jennsen dropped the knife Denna had pressed into her hand, turning her face away.
"I'm like you now. I have no right."
Denna leaned back, brushed Jennsen's hair away from her face. "Not so much like me, or I would be dead."
"Why what?" Denna raised a brow.
"Why help me? Why keep me alive? Why give me the chance to – why give me the chance?"
Denna reached for a plate on the bedside table Jennsen had not noticed before. She offered an apple slice to Jennsen. Jennsen turned her face away.
"You haven't answered my questions."
"I know." A long pause. "Why did you let me live?"
Jennsen sat up, no longer afraid of Denna. She had no fear left to give.
Or perhaps death no longer seemed such a horrible fate.
"I took a life," Jennsen bit her lip, stomach rolling at finally saying it aloud. "I don't need more blood on my hands." Her tone grew more confident as a half formed thought crystallized. "I didn't spare you for you. I spared you for me."
Denna's face clouded, and for a moment Jennsen thought she saw regret.
"You wanted me to kill you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Denna scoffed, once more pressing a piece of apple to Jennsen's lips.
Jennsen brought her fingers to meet Denna's, taking the fruit but not eating it.
They sat silently for what seemed like eons, each trying to read the truth in the other's face.
"Where will you go now?" Denna broke the silence.
"To find my brother," Jennsen answered without knowing why.
"And you think he will still love you, after all that you've done?" Denna asked, an odd look on her face and a sucking flutter in her heart.
Stricken, Jennsen replied, "I'll deserve it if he doesn't."
Bitterness souring her voice, Denna stood, setting the plate of apple slices on the table once more. "He's a hypocrite you know."
Jennsen said nothing, and Denna curled her hands into fists.
How many men had the Seeker killed? How many women widowed and children orphaned?
And yet Denna was cursed forever to hide because she killed one woman the Seeker held more important than the rest.
"Stay with me," she said into the silence, more forcefully than necessary.
Still, Jennsen was silent.
Softening, Denna continued, "Do you know how Mord'Sith are made? Our final test?"
"Yes," came that soft, sweet voice that suddenly seemed important.
Denna turned to look at Jennsen once more, to see tears pooled in her bright blue eyes.
The hawk that holds on is the hawk that is fed.
There was no pride in survival.
And no shame.
"I'll hate you forever for what you did to my mother," Jennsen said. "But I can't blame you, not anymore."
Her hatred sounded like it felt, hollow.
"I'm used to hatred," Denna answered, approaching the bed once more. Slowly, deliberately, she ran cool fingers through Jennsen's bright red hair.
"I'm not," eyes closed and quivering, like a skittish horse, Jennsen leaned into Denna's touch.
"Then you'll stay with me, sweet Jennsen?"
Jennsen ate the apple slice in her hand.
It was sour.
Chapter 5: Going Towards the End
Because you have done this,
You are Cursed over all animals.
Upon your belly shall you go, and
Dust shall you eat.
-The Serpent, Act I
Jennsen woke in the night from a dream of suffocating in darkness, choking on the evil of her sins.
Smoke filtered through the floorboards.
"Denna," she coughed, shaking her bed partner. "Denna, wake up!"
Sluggishly, she stirred, hair a flaxen nest.
"Jennsen, what?" She stopped, coughing.
"Fire," Jennsen wheezed, already moving to the window. She could hear people screaming as more thick smoke seeped into their room.
That utterance brought Denna instantly awake. She rolled from their bed, going to the trunk where she kept her Agiel.
Jennsen opened the shutters, starting to sweat as the air heated.
Denna went first, flinging herself from the window, expertly rolling as she landed and coming to her feet.
Jennsen tossed her bow to the ground and followed, less elegantly, in a tumbling sprawl rather than a controlled roll. The muscles in her left leg ached when she stood, but not enough to prevent her from walking.
"Mistress!" A figure called, bursting from the front doors, blackened with soot. "It was the whore, Lilith! She threw a torch through the back window!"
A support beam cracked, groaning with heat. The front of the building collapsed, burying the man in rubble.
Jennsen gaped and Denna swore. A horse thundered past, a woman visible on its back in the witchlight of the fire.
"Accursed!" They could hear her call, though the wind snatched the rest of her words.
"That's my horse!" Denna raged, gritting her teeth, her Agiel whining high.
Jennsen placed a calming hand on her arm, watching the brothel burn to the ground.
Lilith had had her revenge.
It was dawn before the blaze had turned to a smoldering pile of ash. They stood watching it, as the fire burned Denna's Brothel away.
All that had happened there. All the pain, the shame. Burned, cleansed, seared, as if by the hand of the Creator. Or the fire of the Keeper.
In the end, perhaps they were the same.
Jennsen thought she could see Darken Rahl's face in the flames.
"It's time," she said. "Time we find my brother."
"He'll kill me."
"Maybe," Jennsen stepped close, on tiptoe to press a kiss to Denna's neck.
Denna wrapped her arms around Jennsen's waist, Agiel pressed against her spine.
It had no effect on the pristinely ungifted.
I no longer live in the beginning.
I've lost the beginning.
I'm in the middle, knowing neither the end,
Nor the beginning.
I'm in the middle, coming from the beginning,
And going toward the end.
-The Serpent, Act I