Dreams often plagued the young woman when she was unduly stressed and this week proved no different. Of course, her dreams...no nightmares were violent and filled with images of death and blood, killing and maiming. Most disturbing were the undead. Their grisly, sore-infested fish white hands grasped at her skirts pulling her down. She grimaced and wondered why images of death pervaded her dreams.
Selena looked away from the dark sky and the new moon. The scent of rain carried on the crisp breeze and cooled her flush face. She hoped this baby would come soon. She did not relish the idea of walking soaking wet through a pitch black forest.
Her mind was divided between the disturbing dreams and her concern over Sharlene. Why couldn't she be happy? A baby was about to be born; she should be joyful, but joy wasn't an option. Alice was helping to birth her daughter's last child. Sharlene was dying. But that wasn't her main terror. Something tugged at her mind, had been tugging all week since those dreams started and she felt worried. It concerned the farm. But what it could be she did not know. She tried to smile at the cheerful chatter of the Ellis men returning from the year’s final harvest, but the knot of terror in the pit of her stomach remained. The night always made her wary, and her wariness centered on her abhorrent father. With one last glance at the sky, she returned inside the house.
She stepped back into the birthing room with Alice and Sharlene. It was gut-wrenching to watch her friend struggling to give birth after a week of being sick. The infant did not seem to want to be born. Selena looked at Alice as she supported Sharlene's back and her bottom lip trembled. Her friend gave one final push and the baby was born, but it made no sound. Selena watched with horror-filled eyes as Alice and the other midwife tried frantically to get the child to cry, but with no luck. Selena helped Sharlene lay on the pillows, her face bathed in sweat and ashen, moribund.
“Alice?” Selena called to her mentor, eyes wide with fear and shock. Why wouldn’t the baby cry? Her hands shook as she went over to Alice. In the deepest cellar of her soul she knew the answer: the baby was dead. The litany repeated over and over in her head.
“Selena,” Alice’s age-roughened voice cut through her student’s panicked mind. “Wait for me in the front room.”
“But….” Selena stammered. She wanted to stay with Alice.
“Do as I say.” Alice snapped. Her tone brooked no argument.
Selena’s eyes brightened from unshed tears and she squeezed Sharlene’s hand before exiting the room. She could feel Saul and his brothers watching her, but could not meet their gazes. The children were tucked into bed. What could she do? What could she say? She went to the kitchen and started on the unwashed dishes. She stared, mind in shock, east towards the barns and Arvada Plains. As she stared at the barn that incessant mental tug increased. What was it she sensed? It frustrated her not to know.
The midwives emerged from the birthing room around mid-evening. The old woman went immediately to Saul. She whispered to him and Selena watched him stiffen and shoot from his seat; his face ashen, his hands trembling. She could barely meet his eyes for all he would see would be sorrow and sympathy in hers. She felt useless. She sighed and turned away as he ran to his room. She jumped as the door slammed shut; the sound reverberated through the house.
“Come with me Selena,” Alice beckoned. “The baby is stillborn; Sharlene is dying. But then, I suppose you knew that already. Gather your things and head home, come back tomorrow.” She looked at the sky. “The stars are beautiful.”
Selena watched her mentor’s shoulders droop. Impulsively, she hugged the old woman. She smiled and got her cloak and pack.
“Perhaps I should stay. You’re tired and I could help. I….”
“No, I can manage.” Alice raised a wrinkled, age-spotted hand to the young woman’s cheek. “Go and come back tomorrow early. I love you child.”
“Alice,” she paused. “I'm sorry.”
Selena felt awkward not knowing how else to offer sympathy. Lips pressed tightly together she hugged the old midwife and kissed her weathered cheek.
“I will be back. I love you too.” Selena smiled wryly. Waving farewell, the young woman walked down the hydrangea-lined cobblestone path. She glanced back at the lantern-lit porch, but Alice had gone inside.
Before entering the Tikara Forest Selena glanced at the inky darkness of the sky and reflected on how her own soul sometimes was shrouded in darkness. It wasn’t an evil darkness, but darkness caused by sadness over the baby’s loss, her friend’s imminent death, and her anxiousness over what she should do about her father. A rickety old footbridge spanned the Tikara Creek at its narrowest point. Crossing it brought Selena to the outer hedgerows of the forest. The forest’s darkness enveloped her and she stopped to let her eyes adjust to the light. The high boughs of ancient oaks and elms rose to blot out the starlight, her only light for the forest's path. She knew this path well, she had run up it many times when she needed to escape her father's brutality. She knew it would take her an hour to get home.
Selena's petite build and fragility were an illusion. Her neighbors assumed she was weak, but they often saw her splitting rails to repair fencing and chopped firewood; she maintained her home and the land around it. The men of Sool offered to help, but she declined. Their pity angered her and made her angrier at her father. When she did accept help, which was rarely, a person often saw sadness and weariness in her green eyes she could do nothing to relieve.
Nothing moved save the wind through the leafless branches. She frowned as she recalled the strange rumors of zombies and ghouls roaming the land, seeking out unwary travelers upon whom they feasted or added to their numbers. She first heard the rumors in Sool while at the tavern and heard them again from the farmhands who worked for Saul Ellis. Normally, she would have disregarded the rumors assuming them to be mere legends; legends meant to frighten small children into obedience.
But those dreams and the slivered silver eyes staring at her as she witnessed the bloody waters of the Tikara Creek and Staurolite River and her mother's moans kept her from ignoring them. Those moans seemed to come not from her mind but from without. But in the morning everything was normal. Now with the forest silent Selena found she could not dismiss the rumors so easily. The mere possibility that they were true troubled her. It meant necromancers once again worshiped their evil gods.
It was too dark tonight, and it was cold. She imagined her father was wild with drink. He would blame her for not leaving a note. Too bad. He could deal with it. She was no longer a child.
Crisp brown leaves crumbled under her steady, angry gait, and she felt perversely better. If she really wanted a peaceful night she should move to Airedale and not come back...ever. That wasn't an option; she was apprenticed to Alice.
Selena looked up as she stumbled and came out of her depressed reverie to see with some chagrin that she arrived at the ledge that sloped downward into the village of Sool. Her home village lie at the heart of the Tikara Forest. The lower Tikara Forest held the same eerie solitude and it unnerved the young woman. She wondered again what it was that captivated the entire valley and made it seem tomb-like.
Selena stopped to rest and remove a pebble from her boot. She examined the hole on the bottom of her boot and grumbled. She needed a new pair. Sighing, she replaced the boot and rose. The wind sounded banshee-like as it blew through the semi-leafless trees chilling her. Her moth-eaten cloak did not keep her warm. She drew the thin fabric around her threadbare dress and moved on. It had not rained today, but it was fall and the weather changed daily.
She shook her mind free of the depressing thoughts. She rounded a bend where there was a stand of holly bushes and heard the buzz of insects. It sounded odd in the quiet forest. Curious, she paused and wished she had light to see which side the sound came from. Holly bushes stood on both sides of the path. Shrugging, she moved assuming it was an animal that had been killed or grown sick and died. She paused as something moved in the brush behind her. Heart pounding, she waited. She heard the snap of breaking twigs. She edged to the right side of the path and saw the dead deer.
Frowning, she moved away. When nothing happened, she breathed a sigh of relief. A hand touched her shoulder and she gasped, the rank smell of death assaulting her. She turned, wrenching free of the grip, and stared into a face that could have been human but was rotted from being in the grave.
“Dearest Goddess!” She screamed and ran for Sool.
Gods, the rumors are true! My dreams are real! The smell of death clung to her clothes, staying even as she sprinted. She shuddered wanting desperately to be inside. Her sides hurt and her heart pounded.
She slowed her headlong flight as familiar markers for Sool appeared and she saw the dim torchlight of the village. It cheered her to see light after the hour-long darkness. But many of those homes illuminated by the streetlight had people who didn’t like her except for a few young men who would help if she asked. But she didn't ask and felt proud that she could handle things herself. She knew the townsfolk considered her a loner. She didn't care. The path widened and the dim outline of her home could be seen from where she was.
Father didn't light a lantern...again. Typical. Selena thought as she reached the porch and found the lantern and lit it. She circled the perimeter of the house to search for the telltale candle. The house was set on a rectangular foundation of flagstone and was made of oak timbers, shingled with ironwood. There were two porches. The back porch had a swing and led onto the path she currently walked. Wrought iron posts and railings supported the shingled roof of the front porch. The posts and railings for the house were part of her mother’s dowry and now belonged to her. The house was her father’s.
As she circled the house she saw areas that needed to be fixed or re-shingled. The yard was a mess, she needed to finish the fence and trim the hedges. She wished her life was easier. She went around to one side and saw the lilac tree her mother was buried under. It looked in bad shape too. Something wasn't right. The grave was open and dirt seemed clawed apart. How could that be?
She stepped closer. Her mother’s rotted shroud lay on top of the ground. Where was her mother’s body? The grave seemed to have been ripped open. But by whom? Why?
Unnerved, Selena hurried to the back porch and up the uneven steps to her kitchen door. She slid the latch back and pulled the door open. It closed behind her and she relished the kitchen’s minimal heat. The fire was banked which meant her father at least took that small precaution before he started drinking. She removed her cloak and hung it on the peg. Looking down the hall, she saw the dim candlelight emanating from the parlor. Her father was either asleep or awake in there and Selena froze.
She squared her shoulders and crept down the hall to the parlor ashamed that she needed to act like a thief in her home. The vile scents of stale, spilled brandy and ale assaulted her senses. She wrinkled her nose. Some of those vile odors emanated from her father. He sat hunched in a chair snoring drunkenly, apparently passed out, and Selena noticed he had not changed since yesterday. Nor had he washed. His face was unshaven and his hair, usually rich red-brown, was so greasy it looked dark brown. He appalled her. Selena turned her back on him and headed towards her own room. Maybe it would be a peaceful night after all.
She could not have been more wrong.
She smelled sulfur, heavy and pervasive, and near at hand. She stood on a ledge listening to the sound of hoofbeats and seeing the warriors traveling toward her hiding place. She felt the cold hand on her shoulder and she whipped around. She didn't see her mother. She saw her....
The rough shove jarred her from slumber. She stared at her father's angry expression, blankly, dumb with sleep, wondering if she was dreaming. Rolling her eyes she pulled the blanket over her head and went back to sleep. Selena felt the quilt being yanked off her and was shoved again.
“What!?” she exploded. “Go to bed Father. It’s late; I’m tired. We’ll fight tomorrow.” She reached down for the quilt and he grabbed her arm. He dragged her from the bed. She wore her grey shift and felt exposed.
“Get up lousy wench,” her drunken father spat. “Where have you been?”
Selena glared at him. She reached for her robe and pulled it around her body. Shivering, she decided the fire needed more wood.
“Mind if I put more wood on the fire first or do you prefer to freeze?”
He scowled. How dare she smart-mouth him!
“I don’t give a damn if I freeze or you either for that matter. Where were you yesterday?” He snapped.
The young midwife appraised her father. His eyes were bloodshot from drink and lack of sleep. He swayed but not as much as he would have if he were without that small amount of sleep. And judging by his speech, lucid. She would need to tread carefully with him tonight.
“Alice needed me. I’m going back….”
“Why?” He interrupted. “To birth some slut’s brat?”
Selena stiffened and glared at his hateful face. Clenching her fists she turned to walk away. She didn't need to dignify his question with a response. Peter yanked her arm and spun her around to face him.
“Answer,” he spat. He squeezed her arm and Selena cried out.
“We have had this argument before. Alice is training me to be a midwife. I’ll replace her someday.” She ground out. “Let go. You’re hurting me.”
She immediately regretted it. The backhand to the right side of her face sent her crashing into the bedroom closet. She touched the side of her head gingerly and winced at the bump. Her father yanked her to her feet and shoved her into the wall. He stood close by.
“Why should she ‘ave a replacement? I still don’ ‘ave one for yer mother. Or do I?” He leaned into her and Selena gagged from his putrid breath.
She tried to move away from him but he yanked her back. Selena glared. Her chest rose and fell indignantly. “Miserable, ungrateful bitch….”
“Lecher! Ungrateful? You can’t talk. I do everything around here and get little thanks for it. Damn right I’m miserable!” Selena yelled. Fully awake, she braced for a fight even though she was terrified by what he had said. She felt the next backhand knock her to the ground and she clumsily got to her feet.
He had wanted a boy not some troublesome girl. Selena knew that because she had been told so many times. He told her she was too spirited, too much like her mother and too beautiful. He blamed her for making him lust after her. How many times had she heard that from him when he molested her? Gods above! She hated him for everything he had done.
“You’ll replace her and be happy about it in every damn way what counts.” Peter pulled her close and tried to kiss her. Selena bit his lip and he slapped her again.
“I won’t! You won’t!” Selena yelled, glaring. She tasted blood on her lip and knew it was torn. “Do beatings count too?” He backhanded her and she landed on her bed.
Apparently so, Selena rubbed her face. She was exhausted and her head throbbed.
She longed to sleep, but he wanted to fight. She had to leave. Her situation was untenable. She was no longer safe here even with Alice nearby.
Fear surged through her as he hauled her off the bed and started shaking her until she cried out. She groaned painfully. He was in a blind rage. Selena abruptly recalled this was how her mother died. He started by shaking her. Anger coursed through her and she determined she would not die like her mother. Gathering her courage, she fought back. She kicked, bit and punched. All her concentration was focused on surviving this brutal attack and then escaping to her uncle’s hostelry in Airedale. A rough shove sent her falling backward onto her bed. She felt his weight pin her to the bed. He straddled her and fumbled with her shift. Selena screamed and brought her knee up hard into his groin.
Howling in pain he beat at her while she desperately covered her face to avoid the heavy blows. She pushed at him with her hands between blows trying to get away long enough so she could reach her bedside table. She scratched at his skin and tried to claw his face when he reared back for another punch. In desperation, she grabbed his face and bit his cheek drawing blood. He roared and moved off her while clutching his face and tried to land one more blow. Desperation gave her energy to roll bleeding and dizzy to the edge of the bed before his blow landed. She yanked open her bedside drawer. Inside the drawer was a long, thin dagger her cousin gave her. The leather hilt felt good in her hands. The lessons Goliath taught her came back and she used them now.
Her father scrambled across the bed with his cheek bleeding. Around the teeth marks the skin began to bruise. She felt immense satisfaction when she saw the damage. It didn’t last long though; her wreck of a father grabbed her left hand and tried to pull her back. The auburn-haired beauty brought the dagger down hard and slit his cheek marking him. She brought the dagger to his neck and pressed it against his skin.
“Get out,” she said low and menacing. “Get out or I’ll cut your tongue out of your throat.”
He backed off surprised. He sneered and reached for her throat. Selena reacted and ripped his chin open with an upward thrust of her dagger. Blood spurted onto her shift and sheets. He gripped his bloodied face and glared as he crawled off the bed. As he staggered to the door she saw perverse gratification reflecting in his eyes. She shuddered. Even injured he seemed pleased with the wounds he caused. She cursed him and wondered if he broke her nose. It felt sore and tender. Selena saw the malevolence in that glare and clenched her teeth. The battered woman rose from the bed shaking. She slammed her door shut and bolted it. Her gray shift was ruined and she stripped it off and put the dress on she wore the previous day. She belted the dagger to her waist and found her travel packs, water skin, and bedroll.
She packed all she had in a few minutes. Her wardrobe amounted to two packs. She would stay with the Ellis family and in the morning travel to Airedale. Staying there was practical, but she doubted Alice would allow her to travel before she was well.
The children would ask questions about her appearance and she would try to answer feeling awkward and shamed, which was odd since she had done nothing wrong. Her head throbbing, she walked with her packs and bedroll to the kitchen. Her father waited for her like a spider on a web.
“Where do you think you’re going?” His arm blocked her way.
“Airedale; to Uncle Ira and Goliath. I’m not coming back.” She pushed by him. She felt his malicious glare on her back and tried not to cringe. Her face ached from talking and her voice sounded nasal. Her father grabbed her arm squeezing it so hard she screamed.
“No,” he growled. Selena felt tears spring to her eyes, but she slapped his hand away. She would not weep in front of him.
“Like hell I’m not!” She snarled. “I won’t stay here with a…a lecherous fool like you. How dare you! I’m your daughter.”
She felt his fist connect with her stomach and she doubled over, screaming. She needed to flee him. He pulled her up by her left arm and yanked it behind her back and forced her onto the table; his chin dripped blood all over her face and neck. He fumbled with her skirt. Selena had only a few seconds to escape. An instinct to survive coupled with an anger she had never felt gave her strength to reach for the candlestick with her right hand and bring it crashing down on his head. She felt blood gush onto her clothes. She didn’t care.
His weight collapsing on her knocked the breath from her. Weakly, she pushed his body off her, disgusted. Standing gingerly, her body swayed as she looked at her torn dress. She had to change; her dress was soaked with his blood. She sighed. Every movement made her nauseous. She rose anxious to leave. She staggered to her room and changed. Her movements were awkward as she returned to the kitchen and pulled on her cloak. Tying her cloak was an agony. Bending over made her dizzy, but she leaned down anyway to snatch her packs and bedroll off the floor and then rising slowly, stumbled to the door and exited the house. She passed by the open grave under the lilac bush, chilled by the knowledge that her mother; no she wouldn't think it. The thought too horrible to contemplate.
The cold air helped dull the pain of Selena's injuries. Her pain should have overwhelmed her, but her pride and strength of will kept her on her feet. Goliath would be wild with rage when he saw her injuries and she would have to beg him to leave the subject alone. She wanted to reach the ridge before she collapsed. She hoped that undead creature was gone; she didn’t have the strength to run a second time. The forest's solitude bothered her. She grimaced feeling pain lance through her jaw and nose.
The spring's barely audible gurgles cheered her and she soon came upon it. The cold water made her feel better. She walked to it and filled her waterskin then bathed her face and neck of the encrusted blood. She wished she could bathe and get the sullied feeling out of her skin. She drank the icy water in satisfying handfuls.
She finished arranging her gear when she heard horses galloping towards her. The pungent smell of sulfur wafted on the air. Sulfur? She gasped and looked around. The sounds seemed to come from the southwest section of the forest and were heading in the same direction she traveled. Head pounding, Selena gathered her things and moved up the path looking for an elm or wide oak to hide behind and wait for the riders to pass her by. She turned and saw the flaming horse riding with the men. Gods, she had foreseen it. What was going on?
The sounds grew louder as she reached the top of the ledge in time to hide behind a stand of blackberry bushes that surrounded an old elm. She pressed herself against the elm's trunk, forcing herself to calm down, and watched as the horses stopped. Despite her terror, Selena peered from her hiding place. What she saw needed to be told to the Ataxian Guard in Airedale.
She counted ten men and one odd creature on the flaming horse. They were about five feet from her hiding spot. They did not fear discovery. That seemed obvious from the torchbearers. One man towered over the rest, while another seemed far more dead than alive. The oddity frightened and fascinated her. She needed a better look at it.
Pain washed over her as she moved. A moan escaped her throat and she froze. Heart pounding she glanced in their direction, then scrambled back to her hiding place.
She had not meant to catch the tall man's gaze. She did not meet the oddity’s gaze. Selena hurried to hide again, but the creak of leather alerted her that someone dismounted and approached where she hid. She froze terrified as a strong hand descended and gripped her shoulder. She gasped as the stranger hauled her to her feet and spun her into the elm. Moaning, she felt strong hands pin her against the elm and she was forced to face the tall man. The rough wood bit into her arms. The stranger called for a torchbearer. The torchlight blinded her but her eyes refocused on the handsome intruder. He watched her, curious. Selena shivered beneath his gaze feeling exposed.
Her captor stood over six feet tall. He was dressed as an ordinary bandit wearing colors similar to the other men. He seemed cruel. Why was he here? Who was he? She wanted to run from him, but fear held her in place. She felt small and insignificant as he towered over her. She felt the heat of his of body as he studied her face. His brow wrinkled curiously as he took in the bruises and crooked nose. If he wondered who beat her, he never gave an indication.
“Go home,” the stranger said. Selena looked away. She hadn't struggled; fear paralyzed her into bearing his scrutiny. Though handsome, his cold black eyes made her skin crawl.
“No. I can’t. I won’t…not again…ever,” her answer sounded slurred and nasal. The dark stranger glared at her, then muttered an oath that made her ears burn. He reached out his right hand and touched the side of her nose. Selena cringed. The memory of her near-rape fresh in her mind. Warmth radiated along her face and then she felt the bone snap into place and she blinked tears away. Her pain-filled gasp echoed in the silent night.
“Go home girl, stay away,” he warned. Selena eyed him warily. He seemed cruel
yet he healed her. Why?
“No, you go home. Take your men and that...that thing with you.” She said, feeling braver than she felt.
Selena relaxed as he signaled his torchbearer to precede him. Then he turned back and her heart rose in her throat again.
“Give me your name,” he said.
“No. Give me yours,” Selena retorted.
“Byleth. Now your name or I’ll force it from you.” Byleth stood close by. She felt the strength of his body against her.
“Selena Craig,” she whispered. He didn’t leave, instead he dipped his head, stealing a kiss. She stiffened in alarm as he lingered kissing her. She pushed at his chest but to no avail.
“We'll meet again,” he purred. Selena slumped against the tree, rubbing her temples. Throughout that encounter she had been seeing double. She winced at the lump on her head. She gathered her gear and heard the men ride out.
Oh dear gods, the farm! Terror raced through her. She needed to reach her friends; their lives depended on her.
Despite feeling sick to her stomach Selena sprinted for the Tikara Creek. She stopped twice to catch her breath. Though dizzy and tired, fear for her friends’ lives kept her moving. She sighed upon seeing the footbridge lying a hundred yards away. She broke the forest’s cover a few minutes later. She stumbled in the high grasses that were near the Tikara Creek and scrambled over the footbridge.
Selena watched the raiders ride up the embankment and jump over the stone wall. She climbed the hill, making it halfway, when the screaming began. Cursing, she raced to the gate. The invaders were near the front steps. She fell to her knees behind the hedged walk and crawled to a prickly bush near the porch. Something besides that being was here. There was a presence, but it was faint. It was that same tug she felt earlier. Again she ignored it.
The high pitched screams of the children and women as they were butchered had her cowering with her hand over her ears. The enraged neigh of a horse filled her ears and she spotted a thick smoke on farm. Could it be from the Nightmare. Men yelled, cursed, and fought. She could not bear to watch the fighting. Bracing herself, she left the safety of the bushes and inched past the kitchen window. She arrived at the back porch and paused. This door led to the hall where the bedrooms were.
She took the first step trying not to make it creak and stifled her yelp as the door flew open and a small figure burst from it brandishing a fire poker. She grabbed the boy and disarmed him while he kicked at her shins. She stifled his scream.
“Sh! The hydrangea bush, go! Run and hide! I’ll be along. I need to check something. Go!” Selena whispered harshly.
She watched the boy round the corner and heard the rustle of branches, then looked at the door, wondering if it was safe to enter. She should try at the very least. Selena stood to one side of the door, fire poker held in front of her. She breathed deep and pushed open the oak door.
The coppery smell of blood wafted down the hall and drew Selena to the to the bedrooms of the family. Her foot squished in something sticky. She guessed blood and her stomach felt queasy. Where was Alice? Selena wanted to light a candle, but knew that would be unwise. The front door lay inside of the house. Alice lay near the front door, her head missing part of the scalp. She wanted to retch. She had tried to bolt the door. But was too late; the invaders kicked it in from the outside. Poor Alice had no time to scream. She stiffened hearing a floorboard creak behind her.
Something brushed by her. Was it a man? Or that thing? She wished for a candle. She felt the steel, vise-like grip of a man's hand fasten on her arm and squeeze. She shrieked then began to tremble.
“I thought I told you to stay away.” Byleth growled. Selena screamed.