Chapter 1: Origins Of Monstrosity
ORIGINS OF MONSTROSITY
"Enlighten us, what traumas did you suffer at the hands of our aunt? Do you believe your suffering was greater than ours? She took you from Esther and Mikael, the two most incompetent and selfish parents of their time, and in doing so, in my opinion, she did you a great kindness."
●981 AD - Kingdom of Norway●
The morning light had just begun to creep through the cracks in the wall, slowly illuminating the hovel Dahlia and I shared. Seated on my cot, still in my nightwear and with a heavy reindeer pelt draped about my shoulders, I watched my aunt fill her pouches with herbs and potions. She had lit the fire a while ago, and the flames were strong enough now to heat the porridge I had made last night, sweetened with blueberries and honey. The scent quickly spread through our little lair and though I had not felt hungry up until that point, my mouth now watered. Dahlia tied her pouches to her belt and moved to scoop a small portion of our morning meal into two wooden bowls. She handed me one, and took the other for herself, eating in a hurry.
"I will be gone until nightfall," she said, breaking the silence that had claimed us since the previous night. "And when I return I expect you here to greet me."
Though curious about where she was going, I knew better than to ask. Experience told me questions would not be well received. Absently stirring my spoon through the thick porridge, I met my aunt's dark eyes over the fire, trying to decipher the message they sent. She wanted confirmation of my obedience, and though I wished to give her one to avoid confrontation (that I always lost), my tongue seemed to run away from my mind, hastily spewing a displeased string of words I had intended to keep to myself.
"Why can I not come with you? Please, Aunt Dahlia. I want to see what lies beyond our forest. I want to see the world."
She went on these trips every few months and always returned in a foul mood, smelling of smoke and with the lower half of her dress stained in blood. Because she never showed any signs of damage, I assumed the blood did not belong to her. I had conjured up many theories over the years of what her purpose of these outings was. Perhaps she was protecting our home by slaying those who came too close for her liking? Perhaps she was laying waste to entire Viking villages, like she had done in the past, just to sate her own need for vengeance. Perhaps she was sacrificing some poor lost souls to the underworld in the hopes her powers would grow. Or perhaps, and this was my favoured theory, she returned to the village where my mother and father resided, to renegotiate the terms of her and Esther's agreement. Maybe Esther was bargaining for me, to bring me home to Finn and Elijah and potential new siblings, and most important of all, to Mikael. Ever since I'd been taken, my every dream had been of him charging through the wastelands on his horse, his sword raised high, coming to save me from the wicked witch who would keep me away from my family. Every day I got up hoping he would stand on our doorstep. But he never came. Nor did anyone else. And eventually, Dahlia's words started to ring true. "Your mother and father don't want you." But even so, the little girl in me still could not surrender all hope. No matter how futile.
"You know I will not allow that to happen," Dahlia said, regarding me over the fire with narrowed eyes, "You must stay here. Where you are safe. Protected."
She rose to her feet and placed her empty bowl on our makeshift table, helping herself to a sip of water from a nearby cup.
"No man may set foot upon my property without meeting a vicious fate. No one will be able to take you from me, to use you for your powers. You know all that awaits you in the realm of the brutes is pain and suffering."
This was the answer she would give me every time I made a request to step off our land. But what had once been a heartfelt plea that made my insides wrench in fear and guilt, now seemed an automatic response to a child that was too thick to remember previous explanations.
"I suffer now!" I hissed, eyes ablaze with anger. "You keep me here, trapped and alone, with no one to look upon but you! If this is safety, I do not want it. I deserve to live, as you do, not merely exist."
Dahlia struck me without warning, the palm of her hand connecting with my cheek so harshly it turned my head and made my ears ring. My bowl fell from my lap, its contents splattered upon the earthen floor. Shocked by the sudden pain, my hand rose to soothe my burning skin, my mouth falling open as I looked up at the woman who had struck me without hesitation.
"Foolish, ungrateful child," she growled in a low, dark voice that somehow made the room seem smaller and void of light. "I feed you, clothe you, keep you warm in the long winters and this is the thanks I get? You should be grateful I do not kill you here and now. It would save me the agony of hearing you whine." She leaned down, her face mere inches from mine, an intimidating tactic I had seen her use many times just before she brought someone's life to an end. I could feel her warm breath on my skin, could feel my own revert from her lips and back to me. Dahlia could put fear in the bravest of men, but not me. Not now. Not with this threat.
"You would never," I whispered, my tear-filled gaze burning with anger and conviction. "You depend on my power. Without it, you are just another old hag banished to the dark corner of this world." I half expected her to strike me again, and for a moment it seemed she too was contemplating this idea. But then her lips curled in an unpleasant smile, and she took my face in both her hands.
"We shall see how long that lasts. Mark my words, Freya, if your wretched siblings don't give me a child once they've matured, I will make certain you do. And then, I might not have need for you anymore. But until that day comes – You. Stay. Here."
She pushed me away with such force my neck strained in protest, the back of my head crashing into the wall behind me. Without another glance at me, the elder witch swept out the door, leaving behind only the remnants of her threats and her nail marks upon my temples. I remained where I was a while, emotions shifting from self-pity to anger and back again as quickly as rolling waves.
I hated her, I really did. But what was worse, I needed her too. Ever since she had brought me here, my magic had been grown rapidly, unleashing itself in terrifying ways that brought harm to both me and others more times than one. During my most recent fit of anger, I had conjured up a storm with no intention to do so and the birds above had fallen dead to my feet, like a macabre rain of crows and starlings. Though Dahlia was the reason behind most of my anger, she was also the only one who seemed capable of soothing me. Those moments when she took me in her arms and whispered words of comfort, singing to my quivering form was the only times I felt anything but hatred for the woman. It was as though her entire personality shifted, from villain to loving mother. And that was what I craved the most. Love.
Wiping my eyes, I eventually rose to my feet and began clearing my breakfast away, gathering the used bowls and utensils to take them down to the river later for a rinse. I changed my dress and braided my hair to keep it out of my eyes, put out the fire as the sun rose on the horizon, filling the summer day with warmth. I stepped outside to take a look, assessing the potential for this day. It would be a fine time to wash clothes and to fix the crack in the roof, or perhaps to slaughter a goat and prepare its meat for conservation. The fish would surely bite on a day as fine as this, and the water would be warm enough for me to bathe as well. But none of the options I had before me seemed as tempting as they normally would have. Perhaps because I knew with certainty, I would have to do it all alone. Companion, beyond Dahlia, was what I wished for.
For a witch, wishes can often turn to reality, and mine was fulfilled that day. While exploring the forests around our cottage, I happened upon two children. They were roughly my age, a boy and a girl by the names of Arvid and Dagmar. Twins.
Such a find was unheard of for me. The nearest village was miles away, and its inhabitants rarely dared to stray into Dahlia's forests for it was rumoured to be the home of great evil. I had not seen another child in years. Not a live child, anyway. And here were two!
I was hesitant at first, Dahlia's warnings hanging over me like a shadow, but when the twins invited me to come play with them by the river, the temptation was too great. I could not resist.
Arvid and Dagmar were ten years of age, they told me, and they travelled the country with their mother who had the gift of foresight. She could interpret dreams and signs from the gods, and she could reveal how your life was destined to be. The rich were always more than eager to pay for such services, and so the twins' mother never ran out of work.
I did not tell them of my life with Dahlia and spoke very little, but Arvid and Dagmar seemed not to mind. They were happy and free of suspicion and distrust. They only wanted to play and were happy they had found a new friend.
Friend. The word tasted weird on my tongue, but I liked it.
We spent the day by the river, Dagmar and I making flower-wreaths that we put in our hair, while Arvid picked berries from the nearby bushes. He brought us several fistfuls and we gorged ourselves on the sweet, red fruits until we could stomach no more. We bathed in the river and lay out on the rocks to dry off, basking in the warm sunlight like cats.
When Arvid suggested we cross the river to explore the forest on the opposite side for potential fruit trees, I did not hesitate in following. Only when I had swam across and climbed onto the riverbank did I realize my mistake.
It started as a pain in the pit of my stomach and spread to my extremities. My chest tightened, my lungs constricting, hindering me from breathing properly. My eyes went wide with fear as I witnessed the skin on my hand wither and turn a rotten black, threatening to fall away altogether to expose bone.
It was a boundary spell. One of Dahlia's, it had to be. She had always warned me not to stray this far from the cottage, but I had never expected she would take such drastic measures to ensure I obeyed.
I threw myself back into the river, clumsily making my way back from where we had come, gasping for air and unable to hear the twins call my name from the other side. Once back on land, my breathing eased and the pain vanished, my hand restored to its former self as though this had been nothing more than a hallucination.
I cast a glance back at the confused children who were still calling for me, scrambled to my feet and ran. I couldn't tell them what had happened. I had no way to explain. They would think me crazy, or I would frighten them away. It was a disappointing ending to the perfect day, but a part of me felt victorious.
I had happy memories now, moments of pure innocent joy that Dahlia would never be able to take from me. Friends.
When I arrived back at the cottage, darkness had fallen and Dahlia was waiting. Cold fury marred her face and I contemplated what lies to tell her in order to save myself from her wrath. But not a single dishonest word could part with my lips. One glance from my aunt was enough to make me spill all my secrets.
To my surprise, she did not explode with anger, nor did she seem intent to punish me for my disobedience. Instead, she simply ushered me inside and told me to get dinner started. She remained outside to chop firewood.
I did not question her decision, too relieved not to feel the sting of her hand upon my face, and simply did as I was told. I skinned a rabbit for our dinner and chopped various roots and herbs to be added to a stew. Then I cleaned the rabbit pelt and hung it up to dry for later use. By the time the meat and vegetables simmered pleasantly over the fire, a few hours had passed.
Dahlia had yet to come inside, and I did not mind this in the least, but when I heard her call my name I did not delay in peering out through the doorway.
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and finally landed upon Dahlia as she slammed the axe down into a log, leaving it there for the next time wood needed to be chopped. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand before gesturing towards something in the dark.
"Your little friends are here."
I blinked rapidly, certain I had misheard her at first.
I searched the space she indicated, taking a few hesitant steps away from the cottage for further examination. I saw no one. Surely it wasn't the twins? Dahlia may not have punished me for making their acquaintance, but she would never allow anyone to step foot onto her property without permission.
I looked back at her over my shoulder, confused, and she jabbed her finger impatiently in the same direction. I took another few steps, pausing abruptly when I realized the ground before me had vanished. There was a hole in the forest floor.
Not a hole.
I screamed as my gaze settled on the two pale figures that had been swallowed by the earth. There they were, brother and sister, naked bodies gleaming in the moonlight, their bellies torn open in crimson gashes that expelled their intestines, eyes wide open and milky-white, staring accusingly up at me from the abyss. Dead.
Heartache and disbelief took hold of me, sobs wracking my tiny body until my head spun with panic and threatened to take away my ability to stand.
Dahlia came up behind me, one hand clutching my shoulder. Through tear-filled eyes, I only now noticed she was spattered with blood. She looked down upon the twins serenely, but her voice was sombre.
"You lead them to our home. Threatened to expose us to your father's vile people. They would have been at our doorstep before dawn, plundering our food supplies, burning our house, raping you until you bled out and died."
Her fingers tightened on my shoulder, digging in painfully.
"Look at them. This could all have been avoided had you not been such a disobedient, selfish child."
Then she pushed me. I felt my feet lose contact with solid ground and I fell forward into the darkness. My body collided with the corpses, and once again I screamed, making futile attempts at scrambling away from the dead twins. But it was no use. There was nowhere else to go.
My fingers clawed at the earthen walls, trying to find purchase, a root, a rock, anything to help me climb out of this grave, but to no avail.
Above me, Dahlia stood watching, her eyes dark with cruel amusement.
"Play with your friends, Freya."
Something shifted beneath me, and soon, cold, dead hands reached for me through the darkness, pulling me down beneath them, filling my nostrils with the putrid stench of death, bloodied corpses slithering atop me and keeping me prisoner between them until I thought I would pass out from fear. Their nails clawed at my skin and they delivered punishing bites to my bare arms whenever I dared move too much for their liking.
"Dahlia, please! Make it stop! Don't leave me here! Help me! PLEASE!"
Screaming and crying, my pleas fell on deaf ears. Dahlia said nothing more. She just watched. And when I had exhausted myself, now a true prisoner of the twin corpses, she left. She did not return until the sun was high upon the sky the following day.
Chapter 2: A Night Of Firsts
Trigger Warnings: Underage/non-consentual, violence.
A NIGHT OF FIRSTS
It was rare to see Dahlia show any kind of elaborate emotion on a day-to-day basis. She was actually rather subdued. And when her emotions did get the best of her it was usually rage. It would flare every now and then. Not for little things like when I'd accidentally drop a pale of milk or clumsily step on one of her plants. No, it had to be bigger crimes. And having experienced the monster she would transform into in those moments, I rarely disobeyed.
It was surprising, therefore – no, downright unsettling – to see the excitement on my aunt's face as I returned home from the forest, carrying a basket of freshly picked blueberries and with blood running down the inside of my leg. The blood itself had not scared me when I noticed it. Dahlia had long since taught me about the workings of the female body. But her reaction was so overwhelming, so unexpected, I began to feel a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach.
"Oh, my Freya," she whispered and embraced me, hugging me to her chest as though I was precious and loved. As though I was suddenly worthy of her affections. "You are no longer a child, but a woman."
A woman. Thirteen winters I had lived. I did not feel like a woman. I had noticed, of course, over the past few years, little changes in my body. My breasts had swelled and my hips had rounded ever so slightly. But I had ignored those changes best I could. Put them at the back of my mind. Because I didn't think I was ready. I don't think that mattered.
"It's time," Dahlia said, stroking my long blonde hair as she pulled away to regard me. "It is finally time."
It's not always like in the stories told to children; wicked people don't all live in dark dungeons lined with cobweb and rats scurrying at their feet. Monsters don't always look like monsters. Dahlia and I were no different.
Our cottage was something straight out of a fairy tale; ivory stone walls with small imperfections hidden behind years of foliage, and a mushroom-shaped roof made of pine shingles. The garden out front housed a large collection of herbs Dahlia and I had planted when I was five, green and fragrant during the summer, but crisp and whithering now fall had set in. Maple leaves of red and yellow littered the otherwise green grass, a random sprinkling of colour that somehow made the cottage's charm stand out even more. Steady puffs of smoke seeped from the circular hole in the roof, the wafting scent of herbs and spices spreading through the air. It looked inviting. Cosy, even.
Despite all that we rarely received visitors. The people of the closest village knew better than to cross into Dahlia's territory. And we, in turn, kept out of their way.
But there was the occasional traveller that came to our doorstep every so often. Usually men. If they were alone, Dahlia would allow them inside, feed them and give them a place to sleep for the night. If they were a group she would send them on their way at once. She did not trust men and even if her magical powers had grown exponentially since she linked the two of us together, she was not arrogant. There was still a chance she could be overpowered. Especially if she was caught off guard. Therefore, lone travellers were the only ones allowed access to our cottage.
I didn't mind visitors. It was refreshing to see new faces, hear new voices. And they would often bring stories of the world beyond our little forest. And for that, I was starved.
The man who came to our door one afternoon introduced himself as Ødger Gormson. He must have been in his early thirties, like Dahlia herself at the time, and he looked rough. Rough as in he'd weathered hardship recently, some difficulty that had made it hard for him to tend to anything but his own survival. His dark hair was long, as was his beard, and his braids were unkempt and frizzy. His knuckles were bruised purple and blue, there was dirt and old blood underneath his fingernails, and his angular face and muscular body carried half-healed scratches. He was alone and in clear need of help. We took him in and together, Dahlia and I scrubbed the man clean, cut his beard and trimmed his hair, redoing old braids and fixing the few beads that had survived back into place. Later we tended to his wounds and washed his clothes, offering him a kaftan left behind by a previous traveller to cover up while his own garments dried over the fire. I slaughtered a chicken and we ate together that evening.
"We came upon bad weather," Ødger told us between mouthfuls of meat and roasted roots. "I've never seen such a storm. Our ship went down just off the coast of Skiringssal and fifteen men with it. I am just trying to make it back home to my wife and children."
"You are the only survivor?" Dahlia asked. She hadn't eaten much but instead looked content cradling her cup of mead and observing our guest in the light of the fire.
"As far as I know," he replied and a brief flicker of sorrow made it to his eyes before he shook it off.
I had questions. I had so many questions. But I dared not speak. Children were to mind their elders and keep quiet unless spoken to. So as curious as I was I had to settle for listening.
"It's late for the summer raids," Dahlia pointed out.
Ødger shook his head, draining his cup and holding it out towards me in a silent demand for more mead. I got to my feet to fetch the jug.
"Not a raid. Trading ship headed south. Carrying whetstones."
Dahlia's dark eyes narrowed shrewdly. "You don't look like a merchant."
She was right about that. He was too well-built and had too many scars from swords and axes to be a merchant. Ødger grinned at her as I refilled his cup. "I'm a warrior. I'm Viking."
As I put the jug back on the table and moved to clear my and Dahlia's bowls, I snuck a quick glance my aunt's way. She hated them. She hated the Vikings so much. I dreaded the moment her calm demeanour would turn violent, when she would slit his throat or peel the skin off his flesh. She'd done it before. But now...I couldn't even glean the hatred in her eyes. There was nothing. Just serenity.
It was late. Night had fallen. There were only two beds in our cottage and I assumed I would offer our guest my bed while I slept next to Dahlia. That was the usual protocol when visitors came. I moved to ready the furs and blankets, to ensure Ødger would be comfortable. He looked like he could use a good night's sleep. My back was turned to them as I worked and I froze when I heard Dahlia's voice next.
"Do you wish to lay with her?"
I peered back at my aunt over my shoulder. She was regarding Ødger with a wily look, like that of a mischievous fox.
Ødger hesitated. He turned to look at me, his gaze roaming my body before his attention came to rest on Dahlia once more. "What?"
"Do you wish to lay with her?" Dahlia repeated, not missing a beat. "She is quite willing." Her eyes flickered to mine and I saw the warning – no, threat – that burned there. "Aren't you, Freya?"
What would my punishment be, I wondered. What would she do to me if I refused? Would she trap me in the darkness like she had so many times before, bind me in my own head to fall victim to my nightmares for days on end? Or would it be physical? Would she beat me? Break my bones over and over until I passed out from the pain? They had all happened before for various reasons. For various crimes. But I doubted any of my past 'wrongdoings' would be considered as serious as this one. She would think of something new. Something with the power to break me completely.
I had known, of course. I knew my purpose. Dahlia had instilled that in me since the day she tore me from my mother's arms. I was created to augment her power. And I was created to give her children. The first I had accomplished at five years of age, but the second...that came now. It was finally time. I had known that this moment would come sooner or later. I just hadn't thought it would be this soon.
Fear knotted in my stomach as I turned fully to face them both and nodded.
The hesitation and surprise that had clouded Ødger's gaze earlier rapidly vanished and were replaced with a strange hunger I had never seen in anyone before.
"Show the man," Dahlia continued, leaning back in her seat, watching me lazily.
I slowly reached for the skirt of my dress and lifted it, pulling the garment off over my head and dropped it on the floor at my feet.
Ødger threw his mead back and got to his feet with a groan, approaching me with what could only be described as predatory grace. His large hand immediately reached for my breast, cupping it, squeezing as he walked me the short distance to my bed. The back of my knees collided with the wooden frame and he grasped me by the hip to keep me from falling, towering over me like a giant as his hands continued to roam my naked body.
I think my mind shut off for the few moments that followed because before I knew it I was on my back atop sheepskin and he was between my thighs, pushing himself inside me with a force that threatened to make me scream. It was a strange kind of pain, pinching and pulsing at the same time, and my first instinct was to get away but Ødger held me fast. He groaned again, his mouth at my ear, and began to move, pushing in and out of me with a vigour he had seemed incapable of when we first met.
The pain didn't ease. It intensified. I wrapped my arms around him and dug my fingernails into his back, my teeth finding his bare shoulder and biting down hard enough to soon be coated in blood.
He hissed and growled. "You little witch!" He had no idea how right he was about that. My actions did not deter him, however, and he continued as he had before.
I found eventually that the agony I had felt moments ago slowly faded, and soon there was a kind of pleasure that stirred inside me. It was nothing like the blinding explosion I felt when touching myself beneath the covers at night when I thought Dahlia was asleep. It was nowhere near as sharp and intense. But there was...something.
It was the relief of being touched. The comfort of feeling someone's warm skin against mine. Of being seen. Of being desired. The world was no longer just Dahlia and me. There was someone else. For those few and confusing minutes, I was not alone.
He cried out when he spilt his seed inside me, a primal sort of call he muffled against my neck before his weight became unbearably heavy atop me. He rolled away a few seconds later with a throaty chuckle and fell asleep beside me.
I turned my head to meet Dahlia's gaze in the darkness. We watched each other.
I didn't sleep that night. Dahlia went to her own bed eventually and fell into a slumber. But I did not. Could not. Whatever high I had experienced earlier had vanished and left me cold and empty. I could feel the evidence of Ødger's pleasure between my thighs, sticky and uncomfortable. I wondered if I was already with child. Did it happen that quickly? I felt sick at the thought.
Carefully, I climbed out of bed and went outside to fetch some water. I cleaned myself off and stood under the light of the moon, looking out over the herb garden. Only a few were still fresh and of use. The others had long been harvested and hung up to dry.
I moved over to the small patch of Seabane and picked a few of the leaves, slipping them into my mouth and chewing. Dahlia had never taught me anything about this particular plant and it was only after my monthly bleedings started I'd understood why.
I'd prayed to my gods almost every night since it happened, begging them to ensure I would not conceive a child, that no matter what Dahlia forced me to do no child of mine would ever be hers. And a voice had answered me.
"Seabane," it had whispered into my head, "The woman who eats its leaves will not bear a child." Prevention. Protection.
I returned inside shortly after and regarded both people in the cottage. Both still asleep.
Ødger lay with one arm folded beneath his head, his chest exposed and a blanket covering his male parts and legs. He was quite handsome now I thought about it. Even if he was scarred and damaged. Then again, who wasn't?
A new stirring ignited inside me as I watched him. Something similar to what I'd felt when witnessing my father perform the blood eagle on a criminal years and years ago.
Silently I crossed the space between us again and eased myself back into bed, pulling his blanket away so I could study his anatomy. It wasn't anything I hadn't seen before. But it had never really occurred to me before that it could be used for pleasure.
Now as I lay beside the sleeping warrior, my fingers tentatively exploring and touching and finding his cock hardening under my touch, I became very intrigued indeed.
I straddled him and guided him inside me. Ødger woke with a start, his eyes momentarily wide with shock before he caught on. Once more he chuckled under his breath and lay back against the sheepskin, both arms folded beneath his head now. He watched me lazily, almost smugly, as I familiarized myself with the sensation of having him inside me, giving me free rein to explore at my own pace.
I rested my hands on his chest and tentatively rocked my hips, the motion becoming urgent the more determined I became to take back the pleasure he had stolen from me earlier. He didn't complain. Not until my magic flew from my fingertips and sliced his jugular open. He coughed and sputtered, choking on his own blood as it spilt over his face and chest. I rode him hard now, pushing past the pain of it in the search of reaching that ecstatic peak only my fingers had been able to steer me to in the past. Watching the life drain from him excited me more than I could put into words and soon I was throbbing with the need for a release. I ran my hands, coated in his blood, over my own body, leaving stains of crimson down my breasts and stomach, untrained muscles clenching around his cock as I ground down against him those last few times. Stars exploded behind my eyelids and I lost the ability to breathe for a few mindblowing seconds as bliss shot from between my thighs and radiated throughout my body.
He was dead when I finished. Eyes blank and lifeless, the gash in throat open and exposed as though he had grown a second mouth. I was sweating and trembling. Sated.
Even as I had my back to her, I could feel Dahlia watching. She never mentioned it again. Neither of us did.
Chapter 3: Forever Mine
•Kingdom of Norway - 1414 A.D.•
"Hurry! We don't have much time."
I caught Matthias' hand and urged him on, leading the way through the snow-laden forest. Our footprints were easy to track on the white ground, but as long as we made it down to the docks, I would not matter. A ship was awaiting us there to give us safe passage to Denmark, where, if we were cautious and clever enough, we might elude Dahlia long enough to find a way to break her magical connection with me.
Running through the snow in a floor-length dress and eight months pregnant was no easy feat, but I forced myself to not succumb to the aching pain in my feet, and the growing obstruction to my windpipe. I could endure ten minutes of agony and would gladly pay the minor consequences later as long as I could bring my unborn son and the man I loved to safety.
Matthias came to a sudden halt behind me but did not let go of my hand. Because his physical strength outweighed my own, I was pulled back with a groan, wincing and quickly re-positioning myself to avoid damage to my shoulder.
"What is it?" I breathed, my voice escaping on a cloud of frosty smoke.
Matthias frowned at me and looked as though he was about to answer. But when his mouth opened, no words were uttered, only a feeble whimper and sudden copious amounts of blood.
"No!" I screamed, as he sunk to his knees, blood continuing to pour from his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. I knew the cause long before she appeared. There, towering between two pine trees stood Dahlia, her eyes black with cruelty, her hand raised in a fist before her.
"Stop it! Dahlia, no!" A twinge of pain erupted in my lower abdomen, the child within me shifting in discomfort as though my distress caused him physical pain. Dahlia said nothing and did not release Matthias from her hex. He was watching me with a look of desperation, a silent plea for help I could not give him. No one could stop Dahlia. No one was powerful enough.
As my lover's body fell silent to the forest floor, my knees buckled beneath me and I was overcome with heart-wrenching sobs. The tears would not halt, and I did not try to make them. I felt Dahlia draw near, the sound of her winter cloak dragging along the powdery snow mingled with my grieving cry. No other sound could be heard. There were no animals here. They had all fled the scene when dark magic entered.
"Stop crying, child," Dahlia demanded in a calm, yet impatient voice. "He was nothing. Nothing but a means to an end." She pressed the tip of her boot to Matthias' crimson cheek, lifting his face just enough for her to examine it before she released him with a contemptuous sight. "Filth."
Angrily, I swatted her foot away, raising a tear-filled gaze that burned intensity to look upon the face of the devil herself. "How could you?" I cried, my features contorted in rage. "How could you do this to me? I loved him! He loved me!" Catching Matthias' cold face in both my hands, I cradled him to me as much as my pregnant belly would allow, crying like I had cried the day I was taken from my mother.
"Love," Dahlia mused, a dark smile igniting, "He never loved you, child. The only reason he wanted you was because I made him."
My sobs subsided. I looked at up at her in shock.
"I cast a spell, made him seek you out. Made him think he loved you, so you would return his feelings." She paused, looking surprised by my gobsmacked reaction. "I told you, Freya, your siblings can never give me another child. That duty lies with you now." She crouched down and placed a tender hand upon my stomach, her gaze transfixed. "And I will have what is owed to me."
She was insane. I had known this for quite some time, but somehow, I had never expected her to take such drastic measures to get what she wanted. The thought that every moment with my beloved Matthias had been nothing but a lie, made my heart ache in a way I had never experienced before. I believed the pain would be less had Dahlia just ripped it from my chest. I had no words.
"Come now, child. Did you really think you would be able to escape me? You are mine. I feel you - in here," she whispered and placed a hand on her chest. "Cry for him no more. He was just another Viking descendant, brute and ignorant, like your father. He is not worthy of your tears."
She rose gracefully to her feet and caught my arms, tugging me up along with her despite my shaky legs and trembling hands. I knew there was no use in trying to make her see the error of her ways. I had tried my entire life. Dahlia would never change. I stood there, my hands limp in hers, believing myself to be all out of the powerful emotions that had through from me minutes earlier. I was drained.
"Let us go home, and I will make you an infusion of chamomile to calm your nerves. We must not harm our child." Dahlia crooned, assuming her usual pretence of a motherly figure.
Something within me broke as her words registered. Our child. Our. The bitch had taken everything from me, and she still had the audacity to assume she would have a claim on MY son. Eyes blazing with fury, I tore my hands from hers, and charged with magic I slammed them against Dahlia's bony chest, sending her flying through the trees, and into the darkness where I could no longer see her. "You will never have my son," I whispered.
Running all the way back to our cottage, fueled by anger and a determination to stop Dahlia's reign of terror, I was out of breath once I finally arrived. Pushing the animal pelts away from the doorway, I made straight for Dahlia's collection of potions, very aware I probably only had seconds before she would catch up with me. Trembling fingers finally closed about a flask of red liquid, and I brought it to my lips, draining the entire thing just as Dahlia burst inside, her eyes wide with fear as she saw what I was doing.
"I gave you everything. You dare to take what is mine!?"
I dropped the empty bottle to the floor and shot her a look of defiance, managing a triumphant smile before the poison took hold of me and pulled me under the lull of death. Victory was mine.
Dahlia had told me stories of what happens to a witch when she dies. "We never truly die," she had told me one night when I was nine. "Though our earthly bodies may be broken and beyond repair, our spirits remain. We will be in the earth, in the trees of the forest, the gentle breeze that shakes the leaves, and in the ocean, as wild and unruly as we are. A witch never dies."
In the darkness, I waited. For Dahlia's words to become true. For a feeling of freedom, for the weight of past pain and trauma to release me, to be one with nature. But it never came.
My eyes shot open and I inhaled in a deep gasp. My heart beat hard and frantic within my chest, as though it was trying to find its normal rhythm and failing miserably. I looked around wildly, shock and disbelief washing over me as I was met with the sight of our little hut, Dahlia beside me on my bed of furs.
I did not know what day it was, or if time had even progressed since I was last awake. But as I sat up, I realized it must have. My clothes were changed.
"How can this be? How am I alive?" I muttered in bewilderment, voice trembling.
"The spell that sealed our magic sleep guards us against all forms of harm," Dahlia informed me casually, her eyes following me as I rose from the bed to stand. "But the spell did not protect everyone…"
Another twinge of pain attacked me, and I knew it was true before I even looked down. My round belly had disappeared, now as taut and flat as it had been before I conceived my son. As though I had never been pregnant at all…
My head spun. Heart throbbing with agony, gut-wrenching with guilt because of what I had done. Killed my own child, in a foolish attempt to secure our freedom. Once more, tears sprouted from my eyes and fell down pale cheeks in abundance. Clutching the fabric of my dress, fingers desperately searching for the unborn child that was no longer there, I fell back onto the bed, sobbing.
I had thought the pain of losing Matthias would be the worst one possible, but this…His death did not even compare. It was as though someone was ripping me limb from limb, over and over again, choking me, blinding me, burning my skin and peeling it off my flesh.
I barely noticed as Dahlia embraced me, her chin resting atop my head, her voice quite calm and serene.
"There, there, my child… I will forgive you for this. Eventually. But you can never forget there is no escape from me. Not. Even. Death."
Chapter 4: Unleashed
Forever Mine aftermath.
In my seventeenth year, I had finally found enough courage to ask my aunt Dahlia why she was so angry with my mother. Why she hated my father. And through magic she had shown me her memories, allowing me to see each action before my very eyes as they unfolded.
My father's people came to her village in the far North. There they killed every man, woman, and child. But Dahlia and Esther gave them pause. The young women had magic – a valuable asset. The Vikings loaded up their ships with everything of worth that they could find, taking their victims' belongings as their own. Including the witches. Every house was set ablaze. And the last thing Dahlia and Esther saw as the ships pushed away from shore, was the corpses of their family burning.
Back in my father's village, the two sisters were nothing more than Þrælls – slaves. Dahlia, being the eldest, took the brunt of the men's abuse to keep her younger sister safe from their wrath. While forced to do magic on the Vikings' behalf, she was beaten and raped repeatedly. But to her, the pain was all worth it, as long as Esther remained safe.
In secret, Dahlia worked on a plan that would allow them to escape and spent months gathering the necessary ingredients for such a spell. But when the result she had worked so hard to achieve was close enough to taste, Esther revealed a secret of her own. She would not be leaving with Dahlia. Esther had fallen in love and was going to marry – one of Dahlia's past abusers. Mikael. My father.
Dahlia's heart broke that day, and it never mended. Her sister's betrayal cut too deep.
I understood her pain, could sympathize even as I hated her. Her past dealing with the Vikings had made her loathe the entire lot of them, and she blamed Mikael for the loss of her sister. She had grown cold and cruel to protect herself from further harm, and to ensure her abusers would fall victim to her vengeance.
But I don't think she saw that the injustice that had befallen her, she now pushed onto me. She was my abuser. She was the devil that haunted my nightmares, and that would still be there when I woke up. History was repeating itself.
More than a week had passed since that fateful night Dahlia had killed Mattias and I had lost my child in a foolish attempt at ending my life. In all those days I had barely moved from my bed. I lay atop a bundle of old sheepskin, staring blankly at the wall to my left. I did not sleep. I did not eat. I could no longer cry.
Something inside me had shattered that night, and I felt numb. A hollow emptiness resided where I had previously felt my son grow from a seed to near full-fledged child. Whatever spark of resistance had fueled my thoughts and actions before, appeared to have been smothered. Nothing mattered anymore. I had nothing to live for.
Dahlia, despite all her flaws, did not bother me during this time. She went about her daily tasks of keeping the house in order, ensuring our shelter could weather the cold winter outside, and that we had enough food to last us the few weeks remaining until our magical hibernation would claim us for yet another century. Perhaps she could sense there would be no use in trying to rouse me. The woman lacked empathy, but she understood the workings of humanity well enough.
On the ninth day, however, she took my hands in hers and gently coaxed me out of bed. I let her, allowing her to move me around as she wished, as pliable as a puppet. As I stood, she began to undress me, humming that familiar tune she had used to calm my magical outbursts as a child. Once naked, she guided me into a wooden tub she'd filled with water warmed over the fire.
There, she washed me. As gently as a mother would a young child. She ran a soft cloth over my skin, lathering with one of her specially made soaps, and rinsed it off. I paid no special mind to the process, took no pleasure in the warm water enveloping my stiff, cold limbs.
When she had finished and successfully managed to dry me, Dahlia dressed me in fresh clothing. Blue woollen dress atop my linen shift, wool stockings, and soft leather boots laced tightly around my feet and calves. She wrapped a fur cloak around my shoulders, predicting the coming night would be especially cold.
Throughout all of this, she did not speak. Not until she set herself the task of combing and braiding my long hair.
"It is enough now, Freya. We have had sufficient time to grieve," she said softly, her fingers tugging slightly on my blonde tresses as she worked.
"What happened was very regrettable. But you have learned your lesson, and now we must move on. Our time is short. Soon we will sleep, and there is much to be done in preparation. We must ward the house, from the elements and from those who would try to intrude. And I am making you a potion."
Dahlia's hand cupped my chin and she turned my head to look at her. My eyes automatically met hers. She was smiling. All maternal pretence. Or possibly madness.
"You will take the potion before sleep claims us, and it will ready your womb for another child. When we wake, we will try again."
For the first time in days, I felt it. The spark. A spark of anger and indignation.
We will try again.
She was never going to stop, was she? She would never give in until I gave her what she wanted, and even then I would still remain bound to her.
Dahlia released me and returned to braiding.
"From the day my sister turned your siblings into the abominations they now are, the duty was put on your shoulders alone, my Freya. You will give me the child I am owed. And then, when he or she has matured, they will give me their firstborn. And so it will continue throughout the ages until I have enough power to truly make us immortal. No more hibernation. We will be the most powerful coven this world has ever seen. The world will cower at our feet. And no one will ever be able to make victims of us again."
The look in my aunt's dark eyes spoke of pure obsession. Power. It was all about power. And it would never stop.
In my mind's eye, I could see generations of children, men, and women, all of my bloodline, condemned to an eternity of oppression and abuse. They were suffering. So much suffering...So much blood on my hands…
I inhaled sharply, and from the depths of my lungs emerged a shriek of pure animalistic fury. I lunged for the woman at my side, clawing at her face, her eyes, tearing out clumps of her hair. I was lost in the ecstasy of rage and I could not stop myself.
Dahlia could, however. With bloodied gashes upon her face, she lashed out with her magic. It threw me off her and I landed harshly on the earthen floor of our home. Pain briefly registered in the back of my mind, but it seemed unimportant. I got back on my feet and made to attack again, but this time my aunt beat me to it.
Her hand closed into a fist and I instantly found myself unable to breathe, as though invisible fingers had closed about my throat, squeezing mercilessly. I was forced to stop, gasping for breath, eyes wide.
"You pathetic, ungrateful child!" Dahlia hissed, the claw marks on her face slowly fading and giving way to new, healthy skin.
"You're no better than your brute of a father. Perhaps a night out in the cold will still your temper?"
She threw me then, magic carrying me swiftly through the suddenly open front door, and into the mounds of snow outside. Her hex dissipated and I drew in great lungfuls of air, coughing and sputtering. When I looked back at our cottage, the door was again closed, a clear message I was not to enter until given permission.
I did not care. The biting cold was better than being in her presence. Anything was better.
Hot tears of anger filled my eyes as I clambered to my feet, and I quickly set off in the direction of the forest and the small mountain top beyond. I fought my way through snow that reached me to the knees, the effort using more energy than I truly could afford to part with. And yet my anger fueled my journey and I did not stop until I had reached my destination.
Atop the mountain, there was less snow. The wind had carried some away and blown it into the ocean down below. The population of trees up here was sparse, but a few pines swayed lightly, one of them sheltering an old rock monument; a stone carving of the god Odin. One of the few the Christians had missed on their mission to destroy all traces of 'the old gods'.
As soon as my eyes fell on Him, I realized my anger had faded. Possibly extinguished during my climb up here. It gave way to another emotion, one I cared for far less. Despair.
This was not my first time visiting. I had been here several times earlier this year to sacrifice and pray, up until my pregnancy had stopped me. The trek had become too arduous once I was seven months gone.
I fell to my knees in front of the small statue, brushing snow from my previous offerings. I unearthed a wooden bowl previously used to hold goat's blood and cleaned it out the best I could. My fingers turned stiff and pink from the cold, but it did not matter. In fact, it might work to my advantage in the end.
I was not entirely sure why I had come, what message I wished to share with my gods. All I knew was that I was utterly alone and that I needed someone to listen.
I closed my eyes and willed my magic forth, two deep slashes appearing on either of my wrists and I quickly held the bleeding wounds over the bowl to gather the crimson drops that fell in abundance. My eyes watered once more, from pain, from sadness, from fear.
When the gods see the willingness to suffer – to sacrifice – they pay attention.
When the bleeding lessened and my wounds closed, I lifted the bowl and set it carefully at the foot of the statue.
I call upon your strength and power, I ask you to share your wisdom.
I, your faithful daughter, beseech you...help me.
I cannot live like this anymore. I cannot, will not, be a slave.
Fjölnir, Wise One, Concealer,
Aid me in my escape, grant me the possibility to fight another day.
Lend me your weapons and knowledge so that I can outwit my enemy.
In return I offer…"
I paused, my mind spinning. What could I offer? What did I have that was worthy of a god's favour? Dahlia had already taken everything from me – my love, my will to live, my ability to die. What was left?
The answer came to me swiftly. Like a lightning bolt hurled to earth. Was it Odin who had planted the idea in my head? I did not know. But all at once I knew the price that had to be paid.
I couldn't help but hesitate, one hand absentmindedly falling to my stomach, clenching in the fabric of my dress.
"In return, I offer up my womb. My ability to carry forth a child. I will give you the most precious gift a woman has: my fertility."
I was sobbing now, but through great effort, my words were loud and clear, my intention and honesty genuine. It was an awful thing to part with, but it had to be worth it. It had to. For freedom.
Pain struck me suddenly, the same sensation from when Dahlia's magic had restricted my windpipe coiled about my insides and I fell into the snow, writhing and screaming. Darkness fell around me, and my surroundings disappeared, my mind hurled into a never-ending cacophony of images and sounds. I saw the faces of my children, the lives that may have come to fruition had I chosen differently. They were beautiful. I cried. I cried for those souls that would never see the light of day, and I cried for myself, for not being able to know them.
A deep, male voice continued to echo through my head:
It is not a sacrifice unless it hurts."
The sensation of something soft tickling my forehead forced me awake. The sun was out, warming me with its light despite the blanket of snow beneath me. A shadow fell on my face and momentarily startled I reached out to brush it away. A disgruntled caw sounded and I could hear the flapping of wings.
I pushed myself up to sit and turned around to face the statue of Odin. Atop it sat two black ravens, identical, watching me. A small smile tugged on my lips. Was this a sign from the gods? Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn? I regarded the birds a moment longer before the memory of last night returned to me.
The brief satisfaction I had felt vanished instantly, and I was filled with dread. I got to my feet, staggering a little, and realized my inner thighs were sticky with blood. As was the skirt of my dress. I tried to bite back a sob but to no avail. It had not been a dream.
At the sound of Dahlia's voice, I whirled around, eyes wide with renewed fear. There she stood, face flushed with colour from the cold, her gaze furious. She had never liked my gods. My father's gods.
"What have you done to yourself now?" she snarled once she caught sight of the blood, and made to take a step towards me. She stopped in her tracks as the ravens lifted off from the statue and moved to perch on either of my shoulders. Dahlia looked as stunned as I felt.
Their talons were sharp, but they did not hurt me. Rather the opposite. Their grasp on my shoulders felt comforting. Reassuring.
The display did not stop Dahlia for long though. She was moving again, and even with my two new companions, I felt certain she was about to make me regret ever defying her. My power was great, but it did not match hers. Nothing ever could.
Dahlia had only taken a few more steps before she was brought to a quick stop again. She doubled over, hands clutching the sides of her head as though experiencing a migraine. She groaned in pain and when she finally managed to straighten, I noticed trickles of blood from her eyes, nose, and ears.
It wasn't me. Not my doing. But I recognized a moment of weakness when I saw one. The raven on my left squeezed me just a little tighter, as though encouraging me to act. And I did.
I raised my hands and closed them to fists, twisting them beside one another as though I was wringing water from a cloth. The sounds of bones breaking echoed through the open space and Dahlia crumpled to the ground as her legs, ribs, and arms shattered from the inside. The sight filled me with elation, and before the powerful witch had time to recover, my magic caught her once more, twisting her neck in an unnatural angle until temporary death took her.
I stood there a short while, breathing hard and staring down at my tormentor's unconscious form. The ravens pushed off my shoulders and took off into the air, swirling in circles up above me as a voice that was not my own whispered in my mind.
Chapter 5: Voyage
The North Sea - 1414
The swaying of the ship is like torture. You'd think after a few days your body would get used to the motion. It doesn't. Nor can you ever get used to the stink of shit in the air, of stale urine and sweat. Two women are on the floor brawling over a half-full bucket of vomit, fighting to be the one who gets to empty their stomach first. Children are crying for their mothers, screaming as water sloshes down the open stairs and douses us all.
A man reeking of alcohol stumbles his way through the masses, hiding something beneath his coat. Might be food. Might be someone else's valuables. No one's belongings are safe here. Everything is up for grabs.
I move my fingers over my throat, making sure my pendant is safely tucked away in the bosom of my dress, pulling my knees tighter to my chest for warmth. On the cot beside me lays an old woman, her eyes wide open, staring glassily at the ceiling. She died a few hours ago. No one's noticed except me. And with the current storm, no one will risk moving her up onto the deck. Her burial at sea will have to wait until morning.
I close my eyes and press my hands down on my ears. The screaming children are killing me, tearing at what little sanity I have left. When will this fucking nightmare end?
It doesn't. Weeks. It must have been weeks now since we set sail. Two? Three? I don't know. Time is no longer a concept I can keep track of.
The drunken man from earlier returns, shuffling close to the cot where the old woman's corpse still lies. He looks out of his mind with intoxication. Makes me wonder how he has managed to drink enough to be in such a state. Food and drink are on strict rations, administered most days by the ship's crew. Some days there is nothing at all. I've gone without food before. I can manage. But the children...The children continue to cry. Their mothers cry too when they can no longer soothe them and when the tears run dry on the adults' cheeks, they strike them. Make them shut up. Earlier, a father had to haul his wife off their infant as she was smothering her with a grimy pillow, desperate for the wailing to end. She now lies on the wet floor, neck broken, still pretty as a picture.
And yet it is the old woman the drunkard has decided to seek out. It is the old woman he has decided to fuck. No one even bothers to turn away anymore as he carries on. Whatever decency we once possessed has left us days ago. There is no pretending. Only raw human nature remains. And it is ugly. Finally makes me understand why Dahlia hid us both away for centuries.
I once thought people to be fundamentally good. Despite everything I have gone through in my life I still believed. But that was a ruse. It is easy to be kind when you have a full belly and a warm place to sleep. It is easy to be kind when you are safe and loved. It is another thing entirely when everything is taken away and you have to fight for every scrap, just so you can make it through one more hellish day. Every man, woman, and child for themselves.
Somewhere a baby is crying. Taunting me with the sound I will never hear from my own son. It does no good to cover my ears for I hear it in my very soul. Feel it reverberate through my bones.
The drunkard finishes beside me and shoves the corpse from her cot and onto the floor. He takes her place and is soon asleep, not a care in the world. I hate him. I hate all of them. They who turn on their own so quickly.
I watch the old lady's still face. Bloated now. I wonder if her stomach is riddled with maggots, if the flies will find their way out here at sea. The rats certainly have. They come, three of them, nipping at her flesh where it is exposed, tearing tiny bits off her cheeks and nose. If I focus hard enough I think I can hear their thoughts...
"...nice rotted blood to fill our bellies...hungry for so long...tiny pink, squirming babies...nests in the walls....little ones, we will bring flesh for you..."
Reaching for the nearest rat, I clutch its fat wriggling body with both hands. She stills as I bring her close to my face and whisper to her all sorts of dark secrets. "Sickness. Madness in your mouths and death on your minds. Armies of you – gather. On the ship, above and below. All will fear you. Bite! Bite! Bite! Bite!"
I whisper to her and feed her drops of my blood, feed her my hatred of the humans here, my need for the screaming to cease and for silence to rule. Then I release her and watch her scurry away.
Soon they will be everywhere, biting, scratching, infecting. There will be blood and boils and fever. They will all perish. And I will finally get some peace.
Chapter 6: Those We Left Behind
THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND
The embers in the fireplace were close to dying, their warmth rapidly fading and allowing for a chill to run up my bare arms. I rubbed them absentmindedly, leaning against the windowsill to peer down at the activity in the village below, a distraction from the cold while I waited for the innkeeper's daughter, Louisa, to come bearing more firewood.
The sun had set an hour ago, and what had earlier been a crowded marketplace brimming with merchants and housewives shopping for their husbands' dinners, was now a den of inequity with prostitutes flaunting their wares to their increasingly drunken and inebriated clientele. I didn't mind. Though I rarely indulged in the company of these creatures, their town's reputation for lewd and criminal behaviour was the very reason I had chosen to purchase a room for the night. It was not a place anyone would associate with me and it would likely offer me the concealment I needed until I could leave the following morning.
Though I loathed having to run and hide, it was not a new experience for me. In fact, it had become my whole life ever since I made the decision to leave Dahlia, fully aware she would never cease to hunt me down. But for once, it was not the ever-looming threat of my aunt that had swayed my decision to hole up in this rowdy inn, nor my sudden need to leave the continent all together once the opportunity came.
It was a man.
A man by the name of Marcus Lowe.
We had met a few months prior when I resided in the forest a few towns over. I'd been setting snares for rabbits one morning when I came across a wounded animal. A wolf.
The people of Britain, both common folk and nobility alike, had made it their mission to rid the isles of the wolf population that attacked their livestock and threatened human life. So aggressively, in fact, the canine species was now a rarity. It did not stop the villagers from occasionally gathering hunting parties and setting vicious traps for the animals, however, and it seemed this time they had succeeded in catching one.
The wolf was huge, his fur a charcoal black, his eyes dark. His left front paw was trapped between two iron clamps with jagged edges that cut into his flesh, and though he was still fighting to free himself, even from a distance I could tell he would soon exhaust himself and submit to a slow, agonizing death.
I could also tell that this beast was not entirely animal. The energy that swirled around him, unseen to everyone who did not possess magic of their own, informed me this was a shifter. A werewolf.
It took a long time before he allowed me to near him, and even longer for him to accept my touch. When he finally let his guard down enough for me to pry the trap apart with magic, he collapsed onto his side, the wolf retreating and giving way to the man. Marcus.
He howled in pain as he clutched his mangled hand, a few of his fingers barely held on by strips of flesh and sinew. The pain proved too intense and he passed out shortly after.
At this point in time, grand shows of magic like teleportation were not something I allowed myself to make use of, unless absolutely necessary. The more magic I used, the easier it would be for Dahlia to sense and track me. And so even if I would have felt more comfortable transporting us back to the abandoned hovel I was inhabiting, I was unable to move Marcus and stayed by his side to heal him in slow, steady bursts. It took time and effort to restore his hand and ensure he would still retain the use of his fingers, but luckily he did not wake during my sessions of healing. and we were not disturbed.
He came to when night had fallen, his naked body draped in my cloak, and as soon as I was certain he would be able to make it home without further assistance, I rose to leave. But he caught me by the arm and held me back, a move that was both gentle and insistent at the same time.
Marcus was grateful, very much so, and after trusting me with his identity demanded I come home with him, to eat and bathe and procure new clothing. Apparently, my old dress, gaunt and sunken cheeks, and tangled hair made him believe I could benefit from such treatments. He wasn't wrong.
After a few initial objections, I caved.
What can I say? Having not eaten for almost three days and knowing no food or comfort awaited me back at the hovel, my distrust and caution was quelled by my ravenous hunger and the need to feel somewhat human again.
After a short trek through the dark forest, Marcus brought me to a small settlement on the outskirts of town with several little houses surrounding what appeared to be the main lodge. Men, women, and children, came pouring out when we arrived and after Marcus regaled them with the tale of what had happened, I was suddenly embraced, patted on the shoulders, and kissed on the forehead by rejoicing werewolves. Marcus' family, I soon realized. His pack.
They welcomed me with an enthusiasm I had never before experienced. Their warmth was genuine and to them, it seemed a given I was to stay for as long as I needed, to rest, and as the more elderly women of the pack told me: "Put some meat on my bones".
Despite my initial reluctance, I couldn't help but be pulled in. It was all so new, so nice. It wasn't long before I began to feel affection for them all, and before I knew it months had passed, and I was still there.
I spent most nights in Marcus' bed, greatly enjoying his company and his body, and the feelings were mutual. I opened up a little as time went on, sharing a few details of my life with him without revealing too much. Compared to Marcus I was a closed book. He did not hold back, with anything. He made his appreciation for me clear with both words and actions and declared with frequent intervals that I was "His".
It wasn't an unusual thing with werewolves. I saw the same possessiveness and need to protect what they considered theirs with most of the adult couples in the pack. But the difference was, they were mated. Mated for life, the way wolves do. Marcus and I were not, and could never be. Not because I didn't share the wolf-trait, but because it would never work.
It wasn't that I was not tempted by what life with Marcus could offer – a partner that loved and worshipped me, protection, comfort, a family of people who truly wanted me for me and not just because of the magic I wielded. I found I craved all this and more, and the longer I stayed with Marcus, the easier it became to fantasize that this could soon become a reality.
But another part of me, the more logical part, knew it would all have to come to an end. The longer I remained in one location, the easier it would be for Dahlia to find me. And she would not be deterred by a pack of werewolves. She would kill them all without a second's hesitation to get to me. And it would be all my fault.
I was putting the entire pack in danger with my mere presence.
Besides, the call of my siblings still out there somewhere and my dream to reunite with them never faded. And that dream would never come to fruition if I chose Marcus.
So, the night before, I snuck out while Marcus was still sleeping and made my way to this seedy, little underbelly of a town. The following morning I would be on a ship heading to France, and my presence here would soon be forgotten. Or so I thought,
A knock on the door tore my gaze from the window and I moved to open it, lifting the deadbolt I had put in place earlier to ensure some extra safety, Expecting to find the innkeeper's daughter Louisa, my eyes widened in surprise as I instead came face to face with one devilishly handsome, furious werewolf.
He stood there in the doorway, muscular arms braced on the wall on either side of him, his dark gaze blazing with a fury that had me take a few steps back.
I wasn't afraid of him. Marcus had never harmed me, nor given any sign it was in his nature to do so. But his proximity, the scent of him that enveloped me, had me fearing for my own self-control.
I acknowledged as I stepped back towards the dying fire, one hand outstretched to ward him off. He seemed insulted by the distance between us and quickly moved inside, shutting the door behind him with one booted foot before he stalked towards me.
Unwilling to let him get close enough to touch me, I snatched the iron-wrought poker by the fireplace and brandished it like a sword before me, a note of genuine warning in my voice as I repeated his name.
He halted in his tracks a few feet away, eyes narrowed as they shifted from my face to the weapon in my hand and back again. He smiled, but it lacked its usual warmth. He was still furious.
"You think I wouldn't find you, Wildcat?" he growled, a deep guttural sound that rumbled through his broad chest. "You think I will just let you leave?"
Wildcat. A nickname I had earned sometime during the early stages of our relationship when he'd discovered my penchant for fighting his dominant nature during sex. The sound of his familiar voice made my stomach clench with yearning, but I held fast.
"I think you'll have no choice," It wasn't as though I was trying to goad him with my honesty, but I couldn't help the small smirk that tugged at my lips as I spoke.
I had never made things easy for Marcus, no matter how much I wanted him. Had made him work and fight for everything I had given him, and I knew he loved it. He enjoyed the challenge. And I now realized it had been a mistake. Though I had never left him before, nor threatened to do so, he was so used to my words of rejection, used to this cat and mouse game that usually ended in seduction. Why would he think he couldn't get me back now?
Marcus sneered and suddenly lunged for me. Had I not been so on edge, his superior speed and strength would have ensured he'd caught me. But I was ready for him. I stepped out of the way and swung the iron bar at him, catching him in the ribs.
He gasped and doubled over, clutching the spot of impact, and I made to strike him again. Across the back this time to bring him down onto the floor. Part of me felt horribly guilty, and had I not known he would be good as new within a few hours I might not have been able to harm him at all. Well, maybe just a little bit.
As I swung out the second time, Marcus hastily righted himself and caught the iron weapon with one hand. He tugged sharply before I could let go, and yanked me to him with ease, his arms locking around my body like chains. The poker dropped to the floor at our feet and lay there, forgotten, as I valiantly fought his embrace, my back pressed to his chest. He only tightened his hold the more I squirmed and I soon felt his lips at my ear, his warm breath shooting a jolt of desire straight between my thighs.
Dammit. My body could be such a traitorous bitch.
"Stop fighting me, Wildcat," he demanded in that low rumbling voice of his, his teeth nipping my earlobe in warning.
I didn't stop, still tense and ready to flee, but when I realized no amount of writhing would get me the result I needed, I changed my tactics.
"How did you find me?" I spoke in a deceptively calm manner as my fingers slowly attempted to pry his arms from around me, hoping to at the very least distract him from doing what I knew his wolf was pushing him to do now he had his hands on me. Claim. Dominate. Fuck.
He chuckled darkly.
"Your scent. I could find you anywhere." His tongue teased the shell of my ear, almost making me whine in frustration. He stopped suddenly, and I felt him tense around me. "How did you manage to slip away without waking me?"
Unlike me, Marcus was a notoriously light sleeper. Any and all sounds would jostle him from his slumber, always ready for an attack. And though I had always considered myself a fairly graceful woman, all my illusions had been shattered after cohabiting with wolves and their sensitive hearing. Apparently, I had as much stealth as a drunken sailor.
I briefly paused my efforts for freedom, just long enough to attempt a slight shrug of my shoulders and to make a noise that could be interpreted as: "I don't know."
Silence followed for the next few seconds until Marcus spoke again, and despite his words, I could hear the smile threatening to break across his handsome features.
"You drugged me, didn't you?"
Though he could not see my face from our current positions, I assumed a face of innocence. I may or may not have added some of my herbal blends to his wine. Just enough to keep him from waking.
Despite his annoyance, he laughed, and as I felt his lips press a kiss to the back of my head, my eyes fell shut. He was making this so difficult.
After a moment, his voice turned sombre. Soft, but insistent. Hurt. It cut me like a knife.
"Why are you running from me, Freya?"
I swallowed, keeping my eyes shut.
"It's not you I am running from."
"Your aunt?" He growled, but I sensed his anger was not directed at me this time. "I told you I would protect you. The whole pack will. You're safe with us."
I had told him about Dahlia, of her abuse and reluctance to let me go, but I hadn't let him in so deep he knew everything. I'd kept the gory details to myself, unwilling – no, unable – to share so much of myself even with someone I cared for deeply. And so obviously he believed his promise. Believed he and his pack would prevail over this lone witch who threatened the woman he wanted. Because he didn't know any better.
I squirmed in his arms again, needing to put distance between us.
He tightened his hold on me, snarling. "No."
"Let me go," I repeated, my own voice a growl now panic welled within me. "I don't want this. I don't want you!"
A blatant lie, but if it would ensure he left, it was worth it.
Marcus' hold on me shifted, but he didn't let go. One hand collared my throat while the other reached down to bunch in my skirts, raising the hem of my dress to gain access to my sex. He cupped me possessively, his middle finger dipping between my folds to tease the sensitive flesh there and came away wet, my arousal coating him.
I groaned, barely containing the urge to whine in protest as his hand slipped from between my thighs to travel to his mouth. I tried to follow his actions with my gaze, but the hand around my throat held me pinned against him. Still, I could hear the hum of contentment from him as he tasted me on his fingers and soon found his lips back at my ear.
"You're a goddamned liar, Wildcat."
Yeah. I was. And apparently not a very convincing one.
Marcus put uncomfortable pressure on my throat then, not enough to keep me from breathing, but enough to keep me focused on his hold while his other hand made quick work of the intricate lacing along the back of my corset. I clutched his wrist with both hands, inwardly cursing as he undressed me until I was naked, his free hand roaming the expanse of my soft skin as he pulled me back against him. I could feel his hard length press against my ass, evidence of his own arousal which had probably plagued him ever since he caught the trail of my scent. He was rarely patient. On a normal day would have bent me over the table by now to take what he wanted.
But now he had something to prove. I could sense it from the way he clutched me to him, from the way he towered over me to intimidate and dominate. He wanted to possess and claim me, to soothe his aggravated wolf as much as the man, yes. But he also wanted to make sure I understood. That there was no escaping him, no convincing him to leave me.
His fingers dipped between my thighs again, coating themselves in my essence as he teased and rubbed, occasionally entering me in slow, agonizing strokes before pulling away. His teeth found my earlobe once more, and he growled his intentions.
"You tried to deprive me of what is mine. I can't allow that."
I hissed in a sharp breath as his palm came down hard on my butt cheek, making me buck in his grasp. His words and punishing actions ignited my defiance and I snarled my displeasure, digging my fingernails into his wrist as I once again began to fight his hold, writhing and thrashing.
"Not yours. Not anyone's."
I fought hard and wild, so much so Marcus struggled to keep me pinned. Forced to shift his hold on me, one arm snaked around my waist to anchor me to his body, his hand leaving my throat to tangle in my hair. Catching a handful, he tugged my head back sharply and I soon felt teeth clamp down on the back of my neck. It wasn't hard enough to break the skin, but my body stilled, recognizing the warning he and his inner beast was giving me. I remained tense for another few seconds, then slowly, relaxed back against him, acting purely on primal instinct.
I was rewarded with a kiss where his teeth had once threatened to pierce my flesh, and a shiver of delight rippled down my spine.
"That's my good girl," he whispered adoringly, and though I knew it had not been meant as patronizing, I still bristled.
With a slight nudge of magic, my fingernails turned to claws and reached behind me to slash at his skin, punishing him. He growled in pain and...approval?
"That's right, Wildcat. Mark me."
Giving him what he wanted, though probably more than what he could handle, I dug my claws into the sides of his legs, cutting deep enough for true pain to blast him and force him to relinquish his hold on me. Once he did, I didn't waste any time. I dove for the iron poker on the floor but missed it by inches as a hard, naked body tackled me to the ground.
Marcus was on me again, and we fought. Well, I fought. Marcus tried to pin me down while avoiding my razor-sharp claws. Minutes passed, and in the end, Marcus came out on top. In every sense of the word.
Panting, having close to exhausted myself by struggling with this mountain of a man, my muscles burned and ached as I slumped beneath him, claws retracting. He didn't gloat, but I could sense his satisfaction roll off him in smug waves. To his credit, he didn't voice it.
While my breathing calmed, he blanketed me with his body, kissing along the column of my throat and sucking gently at my pulse-point. Soon, he sat up and pulled me with him, making me straddle his lap before he claimed my mouth, feasting hungrily and greedily, giving an admonishing squeeze to my ass every time I tried to take control of the kiss. He was in charge, and apparently, I needed to accept that. I did. The fight had gone out of me for the time being, and that coaxing voice in the back of my mind told me to just enjoy him.
One last time.
When our kiss broke, he teased my entrance with his fingers again, murmuring huskily against my lips.
"This is mine."
His fingers moved, slipping between my asscheeks and teasing there as well.
"This is mine."
His free hand cupped my chin, forcing me to meet his hungry gaze.
"You are mine. And I'm going to fuck you, take you, wherever and whenever I want. And you're going to let me. Aren't you, Wildcat?"
My swollen lips parted for his thumb as he grazed its pad over my mouth, tenderly sucking on his finger as I nodded, eyes hazy with lust.
When morning came, we lay in bed, my back tucked against Marcus' chest as he dozed. He had fought the lull of sleep so hard, was terrified if he succumbed, I would vanish. But eventually, he'd given in.
Couldn't even if I had wanted to.
My heart hurt, my insides squirming with agony and guilt over what I was going to do.
Last night had changed nothing.
Though as we'd curled up together, sated and sleepy, and Marcus had held me, whispered words of love and adoration against my hair, promising me a life of companionship, that I would never be alone again...I had wanted to badly to just give in. To risk it all. To hell with Dahlia.
But that was a selfish thought. A selfish fantasy. And I would never forgive myself if Marcus and his lovely family got hurt because of me.
So, as much as it hurt, as much as it broke my heart, I slipped from his arms. It wasn't easy. His hold on me was still so tight I suspected I might be bruised. But in his sleep, while his mind was occupied and elsewhere, his body eventually gave in to my gentle nudging, allowing me to rise and get dressed.
Just as I finished, I felt him stirring. His eyes shot open when his hands couldn't find me and when his gaze landed on me by the door, the confused look turned to one of hurt and betrayal. Despite this, I sensed him readying himself for another attack, to force me to stay. Before he could get up, I moved towards him and sat down beside him. This seemed to placate him and his wolf enough to keep from making a possessive grab for me. I leaned in to kiss him, cupping his face in my hands as I tried to memorize the taste of him on my tongue, breathing in his scent while I still could.
"You're not leaving," he said once our lips parted, foreheads resting against one another.
I closed my eyes and gave him another kiss, though forced myself to break away quicker this time. I met his gaze, trying to convey a million conflicting feelings at once, but knew he would never understand.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, placing my palm on his forehead and doing what I had sworn never to do to my handsome wolf. To directly use my magic against him. "Sleep."
His eyes fell shut before he could react any further and his head thumped back against the pillows. I stood, pulling the blankets back over his naked body and stooped to give him one last kiss, fighting in vain to stop the tears that stubbornly ran down my cheeks.
Chapter 7: Ashes To Ashes
Inspired by Penny Dreadful and Salem.
The British Isles – 1800s
The girl cried so hard she shook as she lay down on the floor, tears running in abundance down her freckled cheeks. She looked up at me with a mixture of dread and regret as I approached.
“Will it hurt?” she whispered.
I knelt down beside her, resting a clay bowl of oil made from mugwort and vervain in my lap. “Yes.”
The girl cried harder, clenching her legs together and wrapping her arms tightly around herself, rocking back and forth where she lay.
Impatience rose within me and I reached out and grasped her chin in my hand, forcing her to meet my solemn gaze. “Be still, child. I will ask you once more and you must answer me truly. Is this really what you want?”
Her eyes never dried, but the sobbing ceased for a blissful moment. She nodded. “I have to.”
“Then stop your wailing. You may grieve as much as you’d like once we’re finished, but for now, I need you to focus. Can you do that?”
She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. After a few seconds, her breathing calmed and she nodded once more.
Releasing my hold on the girl’s chin, I moved to lift her skirts. Her stockings were a pale blue and possibly made from silk, the most precious items among her current garb. Her thighs and hips were as freckled as her face, but it suited her. Giving the image of a certain innocence I knew no longer resided within her. I pushed the fabric of her dress further, coming to rest just below her breasts which I allowed to remain covered.
And there it was; the reason for the girl’s current suffering. Her belly had swelled, but just slightly. Barely two moons gone. No one would have been able to notice unless they’d laid hands on her. But that would soon change. Another thirty days and her fine dresses would no longer fit.
I placed my bowl on the floor beside me and dipped one hand into the oil, scooping up a generous amount which I rubbed and warmed between my palms. I cast one final look at the girl’s face, and with her stoic nod of consent, I placed my hands on her belly.
“Repeat after me,” I told her, gently massaging her flesh. "By my love, you were made, now in love to return. By my love, offered up, in love's fire, ever burn."
My chant was firm but calm, and after the second round the girl hesitantly joined in. Her voice trembled, but the words were perfectly clear. Spoken with intent. The combination of the oil and our joined command ignited my magic. From my palms, it pushed inside her to work our will. Soon, the girl was screaming, squirming in my hold, but unable to escape. The budding life within her met a hasty end at my hands, the result soon trickling from between the girl’s legs and onto the stone floor of my cottage.
Her name was Abigail and she was twenty years of age. I’d found her earlier that day at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, as I made my daily rounds up and down the hills searching for herbs. She was woefully underdressed for a cold autumn day but seemed not to notice the icy wind that whipped across her bare skin. Even with her back turned to me, I could tell she was not in her right mind. She was too close to the edge – literally and figuratively.
The roar of the wind drowned out the sounds of my footsteps as I approached, and Abigail did not notice me until my fingers were securely locked around her arm, and I tugged her back from the precipice of the rocky abyss.
She fought me at first, like a rabbit caught in a snare, but she stilled the moment the back of my hand smacked her across the face. She relented and allowed me to bring her back to my cottage on the outskirts of the village, where I made her tea and warmed her by the fireplace. It wasn’t long before she shared her story.
The previous summer Abigail had been promised to a man named Victor Hughes. He was older than her, good-looking, rich, and entirely her parents’ choice. She did not want to marry him, but her father had insisted and so what could she do? Being Victor Hughes’ future wife had not stopped Abigail from one last tryst with her true love, Benjamin, however, and now she had fallen pregnant with his child.
What would happen to her should anyone find out? Victor would surely break off the engagement. Abigail’s parents would disown her. And the scandal would leave a mark on her reputation so foul no other man would ever want to touch her.
In a low moment of fear and depression, Abigail had made her way from the village and up to the cliffs, intending to throw herself off and end the child’s life as well as her own.
I offered her an alternative. She took it.
I cleaned the floors of blood and slime while Abigail recovered in my bed, outwardly stoic, but with a heart clenched in pain. In pain for Abigail and her unborn child, and in pain for the girl I once was. The one who had lost her own child while attempting to find peace.
It was not the first time I had performed this ritual for women who were down on their luck, but it never became any easier. I refused payment of any kind, settling for the satisfaction of knowing I had made some girl’s life a little easier. It was a hard time to be female, in general. Harder now than it had been when I was born. Men ruled all, and it saddened me to see.
But what could I do? I was in hiding. Showing myself publicly in meetings of women’s suffrage would put me in grave danger.
So instead, this was what I did. Abortions. Healing. Offering up herbs that would make pregnancy far more difficult. Giving girls whatever independence I could, allowing them to take charge of their own bodies and their own fates.
But with Abigail, I got more than I bargained for.
A few days after I sent her home, she returned to my cottage. She wanted to spend time with me. She wanted to learn – how to use herbs, how to heal, how to spike her coming husband’s drink with a potion that would deny him an erection.
In the beginning, I resisted. I did not want a student, nor a little helper. Alone was better. Safer. I threw her out, but yet she remained, waiting outside my door for hours at a time, no matter the weather. She would not be moved.
In the end, I yielded. I taught her a thing or two, allowed her to help me gather herbs and hang them up to dry. But mostly she was there for the stories. My stories. Some were true, others magnificent lies which she ate without hesitation. She was hungry for a world that was not her own.
One night, a few hours after Abigail’s departure, I woke with the sensation of being unable to breathe. The air was thick with smoke, so much it made my eyes sting and water, and I could barely make out the room before me. Coughing and choking, I rolled out of bed and fell to my hands and knees on the floor, trying to stay low as I dragged myself in the direction I knew the door to be.
Already I felt faint and my magic refused to aid me in my escape, my mind unable to focus on anything but the suffocating pain in my lungs. I could not tell where the smoke came from, where the fire had originated, but I could hear the crackling of flames and feel its heat against my skin the closer I drew to the kitchen.
To my amazement the front door was open, and I managed to crawl outside into the fresh night air. I collapsed onto my side, trying to stifle the coughing-fit that had taken hold of me. But before I could make much progress something heavy and hard crashed down against the back of my head.
I fell into darkness, if only for a few moments. My vision was blurred, hindered by tears from the smoke and the dizziness that now attacked me every time I moved.
“There’s the little cunt!”
I heard someone shouting. A man. I could see his legs, but failed to raise my head to look upon his face. His foot kicked out and caught me in the stomach, taking my breath away once more.
“That’s the witch? Are they not supposed to be old and haggard?”
“They come in any shape the devil desires.”
There were more voices now. All male. All absurdly excited.
As the smoke cleared they came into view. There were four of them from what I could see. They were finely dressed in tailored suits and shiny shoes. One even had a top hat upon his head. Four young men of the elite, gleeful expressions on their faces, eyes unfocused from the use of alcohol.
One of them grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and hauled me to my feet. My legs refused to carry me fully and I slumped against him, much to my assailant's delight. He dragged me over to the lone tree outside my cottage, slammed my back against its trunk and kept me prisoner there with his body. Unlike his friends, there was more than boyish excitement on his face. There was hatred. Fury. Humiliation.
“I know what you’ve been doing with my wife,” he hissed, his foul breath spilling across my face.
“Not your wife until tomorrow, old chap!” one of the others piped in, but the first man seemed not to notice.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded.
I shook my head slowly, a feeble attempt at clearing my muddled mind. If only this dizziness and nausea would abate, I could make use of my powers and send them all packing.
“W-who?” I managed to breathe.
The man scoffed and signalled to one of his friends to take his current position. With the trade, he unearthed a small leather-bound book from the inner pocket of his coat. A diary.
“...we spend most days together, and I must admit I grow fonder of Freya every time we meet. It is not just the way she speaks, her outrageous stories from her home country, or her wisdom with healing. I have never met a woman like her, and I often find myself wondering what her lips feel like. Oh, what would it feel like to be kissed by her, to have her touch my most intimate of places? What would it be like to sleep in her bed, to live with her up on the cliffs, instead of succumbing to a droll life with Victor?”
I swallowed thickly. Abigail. This was Abigail’s journal, and the man currently holding it must be none other than Victor Hughes himself. I inwardly cursed the girl. How could she be so foolish? How could she keep records of our meetings when I had sworn her to secrecy?
“What is wrong with you?” Victor sneered as he approached me, brandishing the book as though it had the power to make me shrink away. “Can’t find a man, so you have to hex young women to bed you, is that it? You pathetic cunt!”
I didn’t have time to defend myself. His fist connected with my nose before I could react, and I heard something crunch.
Laughter soon followed from his followers.
“...going to teach the bitch a lesson….shall not suffer a witch to live…” Victor mumbled drunkenly as he threw the diary aside, reaching into a bag one of his accomplices held out for him. Out came thick chains which the four proceeded to wrap around my neck, arms, and legs, hoisting me up by one of the branches of the tree behind me.
Once more breathing became hard. Even more so once the bottles of gin emerged and their contents sloshed all over my head and body. I sputtered, fighting helplessly against my restraints as Victor returned from my burning cottage with a makeshift torch.
My heart nearly stopped in my chest at the sight, and despite the pain it caused I shook my head violently.
The last thing I saw before flames engulfed me was Victor’s triumphant grin. The pain was unbearable, unlike anything I had ever felt before and I screamed. I could feel my skin and hair sizzle and burn and prayed for death to take me. It didn’t. Death rarely comes to those who need it.
Yet my magic had not completely abandoned me. With the immense agony came the need to escape, and so I did. My spirit left my body, for at this moment it was not inhabitable. I saw my own lifeless form hang from the tree, blackened and charred as the flames died down.
The men had gone, but from what I could hear they were headed back to town. As a ghostly apparition fueled by fury and pain, I followed. I stood at the edge of the village as they made their ways back to their grand houses where they would be met by servants who would usher them to bed. Like spoiled children protected from the consequences of their actions.
At this moment it mattered not that only four had caused me pain. All needed to pay. Every single soul inhabiting this village. Only in their suffering could I begin to heal.
As the remaining lights in the village went out, I cursed them all.
"Like brass to fire,
like stick to flame,
heed my words,
know my name.
Faster than light,
dark corners seek,
lick to flame,
my vengeance wreak."
Chapter 8: A Score To Settle
The first sound to reach me was the splatter of water dripping on the floor. It echoed through my mind, tugging me from my pained state of unconsciousness and back to the present. I was sitting on a wooden chair. My arms were gathered behind my back, tied together with rough rope that cut into my fair skin.
As I dared open my eyes a blinding pain hit me, a white-hot pang exploded in the back of my head and spread to my entire body like wildfire. An involuntary groan escaped me.
Through my blurred vision, I could see movement before me. The shape of a human. A man. He was sitting opposite me, quite calm. When his face finally came into focus, I allowed myself to examine his features more closely. He was unknown to me.
He was, perhaps, in his early forties, his cheeks and chin shadowed by stubble, his hair cropped short. His green eyes never wavered from my waking form. In them, I saw cold violence. Cruelty.
The recollection of our brief previous encounter returned to me. I had been walking down a narrow alley in town after a bit of shopping, and someone had come up behind me. Based on my current excruciating headache, I assumed the man had knocked me out before bringing me to…wherever the hell we were. It looked like a warehouse without any cargo. Or perhaps a hangar without planes. No matter its intended use, the room was large and open, the concrete floor littered with debris and dead leaves, otherwise empty. Except for the two of us, facing each other in our chairs.
“Took you long enough, witch,” the man grunted when he saw me wake. He had a dark, bitter voice, full of spite and anger. What I had done to earn such a rude welcome, I did not know.
“Thought you were gonna sleep the night away.”
Despite the discomfort of the situation, I smiled. “Yes, I do apologize. Head trauma tends to have that effect on me.”
Surprisingly, the man seemed to share my humour, for at that moment his mouth split into a wide grin, putting all of his teeth on display. He was leaning back rather casually, toying idly with a hunter’s knife as he observed me.
“Cute,” he said gruffly.
“Thank you. Now, would you be so kind as to inform me why you have brought me here, Mr…” I asked calmly, barely refraining from wincing as another bout of pain throbbed through my head like someone was using my skull as a drum. The man didn’t speak for a while. It seemed to me he was considering if revealing his name was wise or not. In the end, he decided it was.
“Caldwell. James Caldwell.” He took another pause again. I didn’t interrupt. I had already asked my question and I knew he had heard me. If he intended to let me have an answer, he would give it without a second prompt.
“Where’s the rest of your coven?” he asked, running his thumb over the sharp edge of his blade. His question took me by surprise. What had given him the idea I was in a coven?
“I have no coven,” I answered truthfully, subtly testing the strength of my restraints while talking. They were tight. Impossible to move.
In an unexpected flash of movement, Caldwell rose from his chair and threw himself towards me like a rabid dog, slashing his blade across my chest at the skin visible just above the neckline of my shirt. I gasped in pain, my gaze falling down to inspect the damage done to my flesh. The cut was deep, but not so much the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Eventually. When I looked up, Caldwell’s face was mere inches from my own. As he spoke, I could smell the tobacco and alcohol on his breath.
“I’ll ask again; where is your coven?“
Breathing through my agony, I eventually forced my lips apart to utter a reply which sounded surprisingly calm despite the situation.
“And I answer you once more, I have no coven, Mr Caldwell. What makes you think I do?”
I half expected him to come at me with the knife again. But instead, he withdrew, slowly pacing back and forth, wiping the bloodied knife on his jeans.
“You always come in packs,” he said, speaking more to himself than me. “There’s never just one. Like rats.”
He put the knife down on his empty chair and shrugged his jacket off, his cheeks blotched red with heat. He was agitated. As he lifted his right arm to scratch his stubbled jaw, I spotted a silver cuff bracelet around his wrist. It was quite plain in design, entirely silver, except for one small crystal embedded in the piece itself. Malachite. My stomach lurched with excitement.
“So, Mr Caldwell, you are a witch hunter?” I asked pleasantly, as though I was just having tea with an old friend. I already knew the answer, of course. He merely grunted in response. “Why did you enter that particular occupation? It can’t possibly pay well?”
Caldwell stopped his pacing to fix me with a glare, hatred gleaming from those green eyes again. “Your kind is filth. Every single one of you. It goes all the way back to my grandpappy, you see, when a witch tried to seduce and kill him. He started huntin’ them, and then he taught my dad to do the same, and then me. And we ain’t gonna stop until there’s none left of ya.” He picked up his knife again, brandishing it threateningly in front of my face.
I hummed in amusement. “That’s a fun story. Not entirely accurate, though.”
Caldwell arched one bushy eyebrow, staring down at me in confusion. “What?”
I smiled. “The witch didn’t try and seduce your grandfather, Mr Caldwell. It was in fact, just the opposite. But young Theodore Caldwell did not care for rejection, and he handled it badly.”
Further confusion made Caldwell’s brow furrow, and he seemed to have forgotten all about keeping up his threatening apparel. He looked quite stupid now I thought about it. Like a pig trying to solve a riddle.
“When he attacked me, I had to protect myself,” I continued, describing the memories of that night back in 1914 as accurately as I could.
“And I did use magic. I suppose that’s the root to your grandfather’s hatred. Fear can do that to a person.“
“You’re lyin’.” Caldwell whispered, though his eyes contradicted his words. “You’re a filthy, lyin’ whore!”
As it seemed my confession had upset the young witch hunter more than I had initially expected, time was becoming an issue. I had no doubt he would kill me should I give him the chance. As it were, I did not intend to die that night.
He turned his back on me and stooped down to the floor to rummage through his bag. As he did, I let my head fall back, my gaze fixed on the tall ceiling up above, drawing energy from the very air around me.
“Eldr…” I whispered to myself, and almost instantly a burning pain took hold of my wrists, my restrains now on full fire. It took but a second before I could tug the ruined material apart, and as I freed myself and got to my feet, the burns to my skin faded.
Caldwell turned around to face me at that moment. He seemed surprised to see me up and about and didn’t hesitate in raising his arm towards me, a gun nestled safely within his grasp. He squeezed the trigger, and a shot rang out. On my silent command, the bullet stopped an inch before it could pierce my chest. In truth, it was pure luck that I had managed to react as quickly as I did.
Adrenaline pumping through my veins, I carefully plucked the bullet from the air and closed my fingers around it. It was hot. Burning hot.
Caldwell looked frightened now, and I knew he was about to unleash another bullet my way.
This time, I was ready, however, and as a second and third shot rung out, I had disappeared from my previous spot, only to appear behind him. My hands clamped down on the sides of his head and forcing my will upon him, I made him relinquish his weapon.
“You knew…” he whimpered, shaking like a leaf beneath my ministrations. “You knew I was comin’ for you. You let me take you.”
I smiled serenely in response to his suspicions, though he was unable to see me do so.
“Why?” he asked.
“Your grandfather took something from me the night we met,” I confessed, silently compelling Caldwell to raise his right arm. Releasing one side of his head, I gently pulled the Malachite bracelet from his wrist and placed it upon my own, a sense of relief washing over me once it was back in its rightful place. Caldwell didn’t resist, but he scoffed in indignation.
“You risked your life for a stupid bracelet?”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” I said, my gaze fixed on the beautiful green Malachite. “To you, it is a piece of sentimental value, given to you by your thieving grandfather. But to me, it can mean the difference between life and death.”
I had acquired the bracelet shortly after I first escaped my aunt Dahlia, and it carried a powerful concealment charm that I believed to this day had kept me off her radar. It had been a terrifying experience, losing it, those hundred years ago, forced into hibernation before I could reclaim it. I would never part with it again.
I'd never particularly enjoyed bloodshed, and I could have let James Caldwell live. But in the end, I decided against it. How many witches had died at his hand, I did not know. But it would end here. On that night. With a stroke the coroners would never be able to explain.
Chapter 9: Give Me Hell
“Bloody hell. What happened?”
Rebekah’s dark eyes opened to look at me where she lay on my sofa, pain and confusion marring her caramel skin. She did not look like the woman I had known to be Rebekah Mikaelson, but it was still very clear to me and had been from the moment I awoke, that this was indeed my sister. Blonde ringlets had been replaced with ebony curls, blue eyes had turned a warm shade of brown, and most striking of all, at least to me - she was human. A human endowed with magical powers, but a human nonetheless.
It was baffling to me that Esther would have chosen this body for her youngest daughter. Not because it wasn’t a fine body, per se, but because of the evil soul that had inhabited it for twenty-plus years. A skilled witch like Esther should have realized such evil would not disappear simply because a new spirit forced its way in. It was still there, lingering just beneath the surface of that which was Rebekah, waiting for the prime moment to break through and continue its wicked deeds.
The magical community was in an uproar, witches and warlocks furious that Marcel would allow Eva Sinclair to roam the streets as a free woman after she had kidnapped and murdered so many of their children. They did not care that the body no longer solely belonged to the wicked witch, but also an Original vampire. And why would they? From the moment I had freed Rebekah from the Witch Asylum, children had begun to disappear again. The parents wanted justice, and though most had heeded Elijah’s warning to stay away until they could find a solution, a few had not. Three such individuals had attacked my sister that night and had I not come to her aid, she would have died.]]
“You’ve been beaten quite badly,” I confessed in a soft voice, my palms hovering over Rebekah’s abdomen where severe bruises bloomed upon her skin. “Not to worry, though. I’ll have you good as new in no time.”
A small smile curved my lips as ancient magic erupted from my hands, healing the marks of internal bleeding to a fault, moving the process down to her legs once I finished. Her face was still stained with blood, but all wounds there had closed up several minutes before Rebekah had woken. She stared at me in amazement as I worked, heavily lidded eyes reflecting a mixture of gratitude and curiosity.
“Freya…” she smiled lazily, her head falling back onto the sofa cushion. “You saved me. What happened to the witches?”
Avoiding my sister’s gaze, I pulled a blanket up over her and lit a fire in the fireplace with a flick of my wrist, warmth soon spreading through the room.
“They can’t harm you,” I told her, resting on my haunches beside the couch, gently moving a lock of hair from her face. “While you are here, no one can harm you. And you yourself can do no harm.”
I searched the expression on her face as I whispered this, curious to see if a flicker of recognition would spark her dark gaze. But it didn’t. She could not remember what she had done. What Eva had done…
“Don’t hurt them. They’re just parents worried for their children’s safety. I would have done the same had I been in their shoes. Don’t hurt them, please…”
Such a kind girl, deep down and when it truly mattered. Far better than I ever was. I gave her a kind smile and placed two fingers upon her forehead, willing her into a deep sleep from which she would awake a few hours later.
“Sleep, little sister.”
Leaving my bedchamber behind, I ventured out to the room that lay beyond, the one I used as a makeshift kitchen. A woman was sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the floor, a thick line of red sand circling her, keeping her prisoner for as long as the grains remained in place. She was awake now, though she had been unconscious when I brought her here. She scowled up at me from behind a mane of thick, red hair as I approached, her fingers clutching the armrests until her knuckles went white.
“You have no right keeping me here,” she hissed, throwing her head back to reveal a look of livid rage.
“You had no right lynching my sister, and yet you did anyway,” I replied coldly, coming to a halt before her with my arms folded over my chest.
“This is all your fault. You released that murderous bitch and gave her free reign to kill again. You’re the reason our children are dying!”
Her anger was legitimate. I could understand it, I could justify it, but I would not defend it. Not today. Not when it was aimed at my sister.
“You’re hunting for a ghost,” I said, knowing full well I was lying. “The girl who brought you so much pain is no more. Only her body remains, and that now belongs to my sister, Rebekah Mikaelson.”
The witch scoffed with indignation.
“Witch or vampire, your family has done enough damage to this town as is. No more. We won’t allow it any longer.”
I paid little mind to her words, subtly moving to snatch a knife off the counter.
“What…you’re going to kill me now!?” The witch continued, her furious demeanour slightly infected with fear, her eyes following the knife rather than me.
“It brings me no pleasure to do so. But it is necessary.” I admitted, idly toying with the blade whilst observing my prisoner. Trembling, the witch looked as though she was considering a plea for her life, and then seemed to think better of it. Perhaps her pride would not let her.
“You won’t get away with this,” she hissed. “My sisters will come for me, and they will destroy you!”
That was the confirmation I had been waiting for. The promise her coven would stop at nothing to kill me. Even if it meant they would need to find a way to break my bond with Dahlia. Even if they would spend day and night exhausting all their resources to make it happen. If they succeeded, I would be one step closer to regaining my freedom.
Leaning down over the chair the witch was occupying, I rested one hand upon the armrest, the other lingering at my side with the knife. My eyes fixed on hers, I drove the blade deeply into her abdomen, just beneath her ribs, angling it upwards to pierce a vulnerable heart.
“I’m counting on it.”
Chapter 10: You Have To Let Some Things Die So That Others Might Live
A few weeks ago:
"Raise your sword, Freya."
I did as my father commanded, lifting the heavy weapon he had handed me moments earlier up in front of my face. Mikael raised his as well. He looked so sombre and serious it made my whole face glow with amusement. Upon noticing, he raised one eyebrow in a stern, silent question.
"I'm sorry. I just fail to see the point of this," I laughed, dropping the sword to my side again. My arm was already beginning to feel tired. It had been a long time since I'd been forced to use such a weapon.
In fact, it hadn't occurred since I was a small child in Mikael and Esther's care. Of course, as a five-year-old, my sword had been smaller, shorter and a lot lighter in weight, but it had still been sharp enough to cut through flesh, something I had proven when accidentally slicing my father's leg during one of these exercises.
When it happened, I had been terrified. Scared of the blood that seeped from my father's injury and even more so scared of his anger, which he had never unleashed on me before, but that I had seen him use on Esther on several occasions. To my surprise he wasn't angry, and instead pulled me into his warm embrace, laughing and pressing kisses atop my head, praising me as though he had never seen a child do anything more wonderful. In hindsight, I realised he must have let me make the hit in an attempt to raise my self-esteem. Because Mikael was too skilled a warrior to ever lose to someone who had never handled a sword, much less a five-year-old girl.
But his plan worked. I grew more confident in my abilities, and after a few months, I could best all the other children my age in our play-fights. I relished in this time spent with my father because I suspected it would all but end once Finn was old enough to take my place. But perhaps I had been mistaken because here we were, father and daughter, a thousand years later, still playing the same old game.
The street-lights flicker as I walk the empty street from Niklaus' compound, bulbs shattering and spraying me and the sidewalk with broken glass. I barely notice, and certainly don't care. My great power is tied to my emotions and right now I feel murderous.
I do not even make the tiniest effort to control the damaging energy that flows from my very being. The asphalt cracks and falls apart beneath my feet, leaving a trail behind me like muddy footprints. Several car alarms blast off in a shrill symphony, front and tail lights blinking uncontrollably, the windows on all sides shattering just like the light bulbs above them. Despite all this, I move like the walking dead, slow listless movements and a blank stare.
I know I'm not alone. I can feel Elijah trailing behind me, respectfully keeping his distance yet ensuring I get home safe. Any other day, I would invite him to walk with me. But I am still furious with my little brother. The place where his hands clasped my arms still throbs painfully, as if he never let me go, as if he is still trying to prevent me from lashing out at Niklaus. Logically, I know he had good intentions. I know he was trying to prevent further damage to the both of us, that he knew Niklaus killing our father is the only chance we have at getting rid of Dahlia for good. I know it, and yet, at this very moment, I allow my logic to give way to vindictive thoughts.
Niklaus had killed him without a second thought. As if he was a bug to be squashed under the
sole of his boot. A cockroach, not a man. Not a father. I suppose in the eyes of my siblings, Mikael was nothing but a monster. The devil underneath their beds. But to me, he was the only person in the world who cared about me. And I was going to be his redemption.
I make a vow to myself at that moment, among the debris of what used to be a well-functioning street, that once we are all safe from Dahlia's wrath, I will unleash a torment upon my hybrid brother in a way he cannot even begin to imagine.
A few weeks ago - continued:
"The point is, you need to learn how to protect yourself," Mikael said gruffly, expertly twirling his sword, a display of intimidation.
This time it was my turn to look quizzical. After Dahlia, I was the oldest witch to still live, and every day my power continued to grow. If there was something I needed, protection by sword was not it. Interpreting my expression correctly, Mikael continued:
"What if your magic fails you one day? What will you do then?"
I frowned, raising my sword to block his as he brought the blade down towards me. The first clash of weapons was enough to make me realise unless Mikael intended to let me win again, I would never best him.
"Magic or not," I groaned, clumsily blocking his second blow, "this will not save me from Dahlia."
Mikael's eyes darkened and he ceased his advances.
"I was not thinking of her, but of the hybrid you have chosen to join forces with."
Lowering my sword, I exhaled in a mix of surprise and disappointment. I had heard of my father's hatred for Niklaus, but no one had yet told me why it was this way.
"Why do you hate him so, Father?" I asked softly, watching as Mikael's gentle face transformed into a mask of pure loathing.
"Do you even need to ask me that? You know what he is capable of."
I found this statement ironic, especially coming from him. He was no angel himself, and though I did not wish to know the details, I suspected Mikael had brought just as much pain and suffering as my siblings.
"He was not always this way," I reminded him "He was once a child, willing to do anything for your love and approval."
I had witnessed this myself during our spell to save Rebekah from Eva Sinclaire, when he and Elijah had served as the anchors for my magic, opening up their minds for me to explore.
Mikael did not respond, but his furious expression stayed frozen. Against my better judgement, I decided to challenge him a little.
"You know what I think? I think the reason you have always been so angry with Niklaus comes down to one simple thing – he's not yours. I think every time you look at him, all you see is Esther's betrayal. And though it is understandable, it does not justify the way you've treated him. He is not to blame for Esther's adultery."
At this moment, I could recognise what my brothers and sister had always told me about our father, that he was a tyrant with such anger even Thor himself would cower. It was visible in every inch of his face, in the tightening of his fists, the rigid stance of his body. As a first-time victim to his fury, it was quite frightening.
In a flash of movement, he had struck the sword out of my hand. It clattered to the floor where it continued to lay untouched.
"You do not know him, child. And I do not wish for you get to know him. For I know that will only happen by him breaking your heart. And for that reason alone, though believe me, I have many others, I will not rest until he lies dead at my feet."
Mikael accentuated his cold promises by grasping my chin, forcing our eyes to meet. We both knew compulsion would never work on me, but a part of me felt that if he was able to, he would have forced his will upon me at that moment.
"I am your daughter, and he is my brother. We are a family," I whispered, saddened by his attitude and perhaps a bit disappointed in myself for not being able to convince him to change. After all these years I had finally found my family, but it felt as though I was not allowed to celebrate.
Mikael shook his head and tightened his grip upon me. Though as he recognised the pain that flashed across my face, he quickly released me, stepping away.
"You do not see it now, but you will. The hybrid is and will continue to be our downfall."
Chapter 11: Playing With Fire
Four weeks had passed since Dahlia's demise. It was all I had ever dreamed of, but somehow reality did not live up to my expectations. Perhaps it had been foolish of me to hold onto the naive fantasy that as soon as I was free from my aunt, my brothers and sister would acknowledge me as one of their own. That we would be a real family.
But these days, the Mikaelsons were not much of a family at all. Our eldest and youngest brothers were dead. And Elijah and Rebekah had become frequently elusive, at times refusing to set foot in the home Niklaus had made for himself here in New Orleans. He seemed not to have noticed this, of course. In fact, Niklaus had been in an impeccable mood as of late. I remained uncertain if he had not felt the tension that separated the four of us who still lived, or if he was simply ignoring it.
He spent an inordinate amount of time with his daughter, genuinely revelling in the daily routines usually handled by Hayley and Jackson. Never once had I heard him complain when diapers needed changing or when his sleep was interrupted by Hope's hungry cries. He doted on her, his eyes sparkling with joy whenever he watched her, and his aura changed from a dark and muddy forest green to a soft blue. She made him happy like no one else could. But with that also came his relentless need to protect her from any potential threat. It had been an entire week before I had been allowed to hold her, as if he suspected I would squeeze the life out of
her the moment I got my hands on her.
In time, he grew to trust me, as much as Niklaus could trust anyone. I lived with him and Hope in his home, trying to get to know the girl to prepare for the oncoming years of guidance and tutoring I had promised to give. I think Niklaus would be satisfied with this, the two of us and the child, with occasional visits from aunt Bekah and uncle Elijah. It was only when he confessed to me the future he had planned for us all, that I understood he was in severe denial of our current situation.
It was a Sunday night, the two of us were sitting in the washroom, giving the baby a bath. The infant girl cooed happily as she was lowered into her plastic tub, the warm water just reaching her round belly, her back and head supported by my arm. Gently scooping a handful of water to wet her hair, I smiled down upon my little niece who had become so comfortable in my presence.
Niklaus was leaning against the sink a few feet behind us, his arms folded across his chest and his gaze never straying from his daughter's happy face. Haley's name had not been mentioned in this house for quite a while, and I decided the time to approach such a sensitive subject would be now - while I was cradling his baby girl, the only thing standing between her and potential drowning. Niklaus would not dare lash out while she was in my grasp.
"I must ask about Hayley. She's trapped in wolf form, except for one night out of the month. How do you expect her to raise your daughter is such a state?" I asked softly, my back turned to him as I continued to pour gentle handfuls of water across the babe's body.
I thought I heard a low snarl erupt from my brother's chest, but when I turned to glance at him over my shoulder, he had a calm albeit strained smile plastered to his face.
"I don't," he said bluntly. "Hayley sealed her own fate when she tried to flee with MY daughter. For now, she is out of the equation, entirely."
I pursed my lips and returned my attention to Hope, not at all pleased with Niklaus' habit of controlling the lives of everyone around him. It was a trait all too familiar to Dahlia. She too had denied a child her mother. Though in that case, it had been me.
"The girl needs her mother," I said, my voice a little colder now, resentment noticeable. "It will not be long before she is able to express this herself, and by then it may already be too late. If you keep them from each other, Hope will grow to hate you. She will push you away, and we all know how badly you handle those situations."
I looked at him again, and added in a jab I was sure would get his attention:
"I am certain Elijah and Rebekah can attest to that."
It seemed as though my remark had stung, but it was only visible for a fraction of a second. My brother was too adept at masking his true emotions to let them shine through for long.
"I can take care of my own child. Do not worry, sister. I know what is best for her."
His use of the word 'sister' was unpleasant, as though it was poison on his tongue. It felt like in these few minutes we had regressed from a fragile, but civil relationship that had taken weeks to grow. I had known this was a risk, and though the girl in me that had always craved to be a part of his family screamed objections, I persevered. He needed to hear this.
"You know what is best for [you]," I reminded him, using a soft washcloth to rub the baby's back. "What will you do when she is old enough to defy you? Lock her in a coffin for a few decades? Threaten the people she cares about? If you terrorize her like you did our siblings, you will lose her. Just as you have lost everyone else."
Throughout our exchange of words, Hope remained silent, as though comprehending the importance of the conversation. Her big eyes fluttered from me to her father, and back again, her fat fist clenched around the discarded washcloth.
"You do not know what you say. I have my brother and sister, Marcel, Camille. That is enough."
Niklaus waved a hand of indifference, averting his gaze and dismissing my little tirade.
Scoffing, I picked up the child and got to my feet, wrapping a towel around her before turning to face the stubborn hybrid. I shot him a look of incredulity.
"Are you so blind you cannot see the consequences of your ruse with Dahlia? You murdered someone Elijah cared deeply about. You made him watch as she died."
I had barely been conscious myself at the time, but I could still hear Elijah's screams of pain and fury as Niklaus ordered his lover to remove the ring that allowed her to walk in the sun. In mere moments, the beautiful vampire girl had been reduced to ash.
"You compelled Marcel to harm Rebekah should she try and leave the house, forcing her to kill herself in order to return to her old body. And you allowed Dahlia to curse the mother of your child, along with her entire pack and family, and refuse to do anything to make things right again."
To me, this was perhaps the most unbelievable thing of all. Such unnecessary cruelty. Such an undeserving punishment for a woman whose only crime was protecting her child. My voice trembled with anger as I continued.
"Believe me, Niklaus, the only reason Elijah and Rebekah still remain is Hope. Their love for this child just about overpowers their hatred for you. If it weren't for her...I do not know what would remain."
His jaw tightened, his eyes gleaming with what I recognized as fury. For the first time, I could see the physical likeness between us.
"And why do you remain, Freya?" he asked, evidently struggling to contain the anger he wished to unleash. If I had not been holding his child, I believed he would have done so already, and that I would be on the receiving end of his wrath.
"Is my daughter the only reason?"
His question took me by surprise. For it was not blatantly obvious to even myself why I had chosen to stay. It was certainly not because I enjoyed his company, for I had experienced very little of it, mere brief moments where we exchanged instructions about the baby.
Was it because of the promise I had made? The promise to protect Hope from her own devastating power, and to teach her how to control it? Perhaps. But deep down, I knew the real reason was very different.
"I am not yet certain," I admitted solemnly, "I wish for our family to reunite and grow strong, with no more betrayal or harm caused. That is everything I have ever wanted."
Our eyes met, and for a moment it seemed we understood each other.
"But I do not have the power to make this happen. That power lies with you, Niklaus. If you want them back, you have to make amends."
Very much doubting my brother's capability and willingness to open up emotionally to me at that moment, I gave him a brief smile and took Hope with me outside, leaving him to contemplate our conversation and hopefully find a solution to mend the broken bond between my three younger siblings.
Chapter 12: A Happy Accident
It’s a nice day. That was my thought as I lay flat on my back on the pavement, staring up at the clear blue sky. I didn’t usually settle down in the middle of the road, nor the sidewalk, but today was different. Probably because a bright green tennis ball had soared over a hedge and hit the side of my face with a thwack. It didn’t really hurt at first and it certainly didn’t have the power to knock me off my feet, and yet I toppled over like Bonnie after one too many drinks. It just seemed the right thing to do. More dramatic.
“Oh my, that doesn’t look good!”
I turned my head to see a short, plump, elderly woman hurry out from behind the hedge and towards me. Her grey hair was pinned up in some fancy do I could never pull off, though a few silver strands had come loose and now fell in front of her round face. Her skin was wrinkled in places, but somehow they made her look kinder, as they deepened when she flashed me a smile. It was infectious. I smiled back.
“Are you alright, dear?” she asked, coming to a stop beside me. I instantly made to move, didn’t want her to have to bend down in order to help me up. I doubted her knees would be able to take the strain.
“I’m okay,” I promised, despite feeling a little woozy as I got to my feet. I prodded my cheek with my fingertips experimentally and winced. My skin seemed too taut over my bones and it throbbed angrily as if outraged I had allowed myself to get pounded with a ball.
The old lady took a step to the side to inspect me, her eyes narrowing in concentration behind her huge square glasses. She huffed and placed her hands on her curvy hips, throwing an exasperated look back over her shoulder towards the driveway she had emerged from.
“Looks like that’s gonna leave a mark. Do you hear that, Arthur?” she called. “You marked her pretty face!”
I blinked in confusion and followed her gaze and for a moment I saw no one else. Then, little by little, another form appeared from behind the hedge. A man, older than the woman by the looks of it, hunched over a walker as he made his way towards us, wheezing. Standing straight I thought he might be the same height as the woman, but his back bulged slightly as if the hunch had become permanent over the years. A smattering of white hair poked out from under his golf cap, his skin was a warm and deep brown, and once he got close enough for me to see properly I noticed that his eyes held the same shade.
To save him from having to close the remaining distance between us, I ushered the woman and myself off the road and onto the sidewalk beside their driveway, meeting him halfway. Behind the man, an ancient-looking dachshund followed, his short legs just the right size to keep up with his master.
“I’m so sorry,” the man wheezed once we’d all gathered, removing his cap to wipe his brow. “I may be old, but looks like my throwin’ arm still got some life in it.”
He grinned, despite the guilt and concern visible in his eyes, revealing two missing teeth.
The woman shook her head, but I could glean the hint of a fond smile on the corner of her mouth.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” I reassured him, unable to fight another smile as well, though internally horrified I’d been brought down by a tiny old man and his...ball. That was super embarrassing. “I’m afraid I don’t know where your ball got to, though.”
The dog seemed to scour the near vicinity for his missing toy but went only as far as the edge of the sidewalk before he gave up and sat down, panting under the warm sun.
The old man waved his hand as if it wasn’t important.
“Fido’s got plenty of toys in the house. He won’t miss it. I’m just sorry I hit you, Miss….?”
“Freya,” I offered. “Freya Mikaelson.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Miss Mikaelson. I’m Arthur Wilson,” he said in return before the woman shot in: “And I’m Ruth Wilson; Arthur’s wife.”
She looked proud of that fact and it warmed my heart.
Arthur, like his wife before him, leaned in closer to get a good look at me. He didn’t wear glasses, though I had no doubt he could have used some. He squinted and murmured. “Gonna leave a mark.”
Ruth threw her hands in the air, exasperated again. “Arthur, get the girl some ice for her face,” she exclaimed.
I fought a smile
“You best come inside,” Arthur said, starting the process of turning his walker around. “See if we can get that swellin’ down.”
I could have told them it wasn’t necessary. That despite what would no doubt develop into a majestic lump on the side of my head, I truly would be okay. And quicker than most. But the way Arthur and Ruth stopped to look back at me during their trek towards the house pulled at my heart. They wanted me to come. Who was I to deny them that?
Fido seemed torn between following his owners back inside and remaining where he was out of pure laziness. I took a chance and scooped him up into my arms, carrying him the length of the driveway and put him back on his feet once inside. He didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ll go make us some tea,” Ruth exclaimed with a smile, brushing her hands on the front of her floral dress. “You take sugar?”
I smiled and shook my head, my attention momentarily distracted by Arthur’s trek through to the living room. There were a lot of rugs on the floor and his walker seemed to get caught in each and every one of them, making me worried he’d stumble and fall. As Ruth disappeared into the kitchen, I followed her husband.
He dropped down heavily in an old and worn armchair and groaned. Why I wasn’t sure. The little aches and pain of age making their presence known? The sofa beside him looked welcoming, but the trinkets and pictures littering the room were far too interesting to not inspect further. Arthur didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he smiled serenely as he watched me peruse the various images of him and Ruth through the years.
What looked like a wedding picture eventually caught my attention and I lifted it to have a closer look. It was Arthur and Ruth alright, only the much younger versions. They were finely dressed, and Ruth held a bouquet of wildflowers in her arms, her face alight with genuine joy.
I smiled and held up the picture for Arthur to see.
Arthur smiled too, though wistful, sad.
“She was,” he said. I did a double-take, unsure if this was one of those jokes married couples have or if Arthur had had a slip of the tongue. Either way, I prayed Ruth hadn’t heard him. I took a step back and looked towards the kitchen. I couldn’t see her from where I was standing.
“She died eight years ago. My wife, Ruth. Love of my life. Can’t say life’s ever felt alright without her.”
I stared at him, the back of my neck prickling with an unpleasant sensation, a shiver running down my spine as the realization hit.
She’d seemed so real, so alive...I could have kicked myself for not having noticed. I put the picture back and frowned, moving to take a seat on the couch beside Arthur.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, wishing I could come up with something better. Some words that were less generic. But I hardly knew the man.
Arthur shrugged and smiled again.
“It is what it is. Death comes for us all. I just thought– I hoped it would come for me first.”
I nodded. It reminded me of something I’d read. Something about how women survive their men. But men – men like Arthur – didn’t live long when their women were gone. All that was familiar went away with them, and the men were left to wander, the will to continue slowly seeping away until they too would fade.
I hoped that wouldn’t be Arthur’s fate, but I could tell it had already started. Though his smiles were warm and his eyes kind, there was little to no joy in him anymore. He was lonely.
“Have you any children?” I asked, glancing back at the collection of pictures again. I had seen at least two were a child was present. A boy.
Arthur nodded, but his face was grim.
“A son. And grandbabies too, though I’ve never met ‘em. Ryan moved to New York when he was eighteen to be a big-shot lawyer. I hear he’s doin’ well. But he doesn’t take the time to come see us– me,” he murmured, raising a hand to gesture towards a large stack of unopened envelopes on a small table by the window. “He sends money instead. Every month. On the phone, he says he wants me to have a better life, but I know those checks are only sent here to soothe his own guilt.”
Again, I was left speechless. What do you say to comfort someone in that situation? You’re better off without them? Your son is an asshole? A bit harsh on a first meeting.
Arthur groaned again.
“I forgot to get you that ice-pack,” he said as if chastising himself, bracing his arms on his chair and readying to lift himself up.
I held out a hand to stay him. “No, Arthur, don’t worry about it.” I brushed my hair aside and turned my head to the light for his inspection. “See? I bet it’s already looking better. Am I right?”
Arthur leaned in like before and squinted, surprise making his eyebrows rise almost comically.
“Would you look at that! You young’uns sure heal quickly!” He grinned, resting back on his chair. His smile dimmed suddenly, just a tad, though he tried to recover quickly. “I’m keepin’ you from your business, I’m sure. You go on. A young, pretty woman like you shouldn’t be stuck in a musty house with an old goober like me.”
I hesitated, gauging his emotions.
“Actually, I could really go for some tea,” I said, rising to my feet and gesturing towards the kitchen. “Would you mind if I made us some?”
Arthur’s face split into a wide, toothless grin. Lighting up like the sun itself.
Chapter 13: The Weakest Mikaelson
I know what you see when you look at me.
With my friends, you see a ditzy, fun-loving, blonde. Sweet, but perhaps not terribly bright.
With my siblings, you see a nuisance. A pebble in your shoe that makes the encounter just annoying enough to be uncomfortable, while you fend off the real threats.
And when I am alone and unprotected, you see me as weak.
I am the weakest Mikaelson. The pawn you can use to hurt my family. To set a trap. For surely they will come for their big sister if her life is at stake.
A human. A mortal with a few magic tricks. Loved by some. Hated by others. But most do not even care to know of my existence. I carry the name, but I am not the threat.
How dare you assume so much when you know so little?
You see what I allow you to. The face I present to the world. You see the surface and you’re too bored to dig deeper. You know nothing of who I am. Of who I was and who I have become.
You don't look past the kind smile to see that I assess every room I enter with deadly accuracy. That my magic reaches out and nudges against the minds of everyone there, searching for that one individual who might mean to cause me and mine harm.
You don't know of the countless hours I spend every week to strengthen myself, to explore and familiarise myself with my powers in ways few witches have been able to before me.
You don't know that my body is as indestructible as the Original Hybrid himself.
Hate hurts. To feel someone's hatred directed towards me is like having razor blades hurled at my body, leaving tiny stinging cuts in their wake. And being a Mikaelson, especially in the city of New Orleans, that is a feeling I frequently encounter.
Today was no different.
The patrons of the small bar all turned to me as I entered, and their emotions hit me like a punch in the gut. They didn’t know me, but they hated me. Because I am one of them.
I could spend effort trying to convince them I am different. Not a killer. But that would be a damned lie.
The truth is, were they to know me they would hate me even more.
I was five when I first used my magic to take a life. No...not one. Dozens. A whole village. I didn't know the intention my aunt had in mind when she made me recite the curse, but I learned the truth three days later when the plague had wiped them all out. Dahlia brought me there to have a look, and as we walked among the fallen bodies I understood what we had done. A chunk of my innocence was lost that day, and at present time I will say that none remains.
For that was not the last act of atrocities I performed over the years. Men, women, and children lost their lives so that I could keep mine. So that my siblings could keep theirs. And I feel no remorse for my actions.
That does not mean I do not wish things could be different.
I wish I could be kinder. I wish my temper would not get the best of me at times. I wish I could chastise those who mean me harm and send them off with a warning. Give them a chance to rethink brash actions. Perhaps all this could have been avoided?
My gaze roams the debris of glass and splintered furniture on the floor, the room that fifteen minutes earlier had been a cosy pub for the locals to chat and drink. It’s empty now. They all fled when it happened. And that’s good, I think. A small comfort. No innocents caught in the crossfire.
All the lights have gone out, of course. Lamps do that when the bulbs shatter. And there isn't a single bottle of liquor left undamaged on the shelves behind the bar. All smashed. A waste, really.
My knuckles are bleeding from the punch to the wall during my fit of anger, and I think my pinky is broken. It sticks out at an odd angle and it hurts like hell.
The small basement windows have been penetrated by the vines that clung to the wall of the building outside. They’ve grown tremendously in size – the vines, not the windows – almost like thick tree branches now, and they encase the three unnamed vampires who attempted to take me earlier. They’ve all been impaled from arse to mouth, like popcorn on a string, making them look like gory tree decorations. But they are not yet dead. Sure to be in agony, though.
Watching them brings me no pleasure. In fact, it makes me rather sad. This will be noticed. People will be forced to help me clean up my mess.
And I can't help but think how all of this could have been avoided, had they just not believed me to be the weakest Mikaelson.