The Scars of Youth
My mother’s head jerks up from where she’s just finished planting the last of the radish bulbs. She wipes at the dark wisps of hair pressed against her forehead, smearing dirt into her freckled complexion. “What in the realm makes you two want to play out there?”
Abashed, I lower my gaze. I’ve lied to my mother every day for fifty-two days now. What’s one more going to hurt?
“I wouldn’t call it playing. More like…scavenger hunting for valuables, or other things that could be useful to the town.”
“We already have everything we need.” The summer sun beams down on us both, making her hairline prick with sweat as she grumbles in distaste. “I don’t want you wandering off out there. It’s not safe. And Rowland should know better.”
He does. I’m not sure there’s a single person in Hulbeck who doesn’t know better than to find themselves alone on the outskirts of our protected sanctuary. It’s out there where the monsters roam, where they await any opportunity to feast.
Truth be told, I don’t like the idea any more than my mother, and I begged for an alternative option. The problem is, the reason the monsters like it is the same reason it’s good for our purposes: no one will see us out there. No one will know what we’re up to.
Rowland says the best way to conceal a lie is to hide it in the truth.
“I promise we won’t be long, Mother. Besides, you know I can’t stand the stench. It’s horrible! Smells like fish that’s been left in the sun for years.”
She chuckles, but the usual joy that accompanies her smile doesn’t quite erase the worry from her tired eyes. I’m told that when she was younger, she’d had eyes as vibrantly ambered as mine, like beads of honey shimmering in the warm, summer sun. Now they’re as dull as the dirt drying beneath her fingernails.
After a long, scrutinizing moment, she sighs. “Stay within earshot of the sea,” she warns. “And if you hear anything—"
“We’ll return, right away.” I nod vigorously, desperate to leave before she can change her mind or before the nausea climbing up my throat can spill forth. “I promise.”
One of her slender brows arches at me, and for a moment I fear I’ve given something away. Thankfully, the moment passes.
“Well, alright. Give Rowland my regards,” my mother says, squatting back down to resume her work. She starts humming a familiar and soothing tune, one I’ve often heard her singing when she’s planting a new crop, but she stops as soon as she’s started. “And if you see his mother, tell her to swing by. Gregory will be working the salt mines all day and I’d love the company. Tell her I have a fresh pot of that lavender tea she loves so much, just waiting for her.”
“Okay. Will do.”
With my heart in my throat, I wave goodbye, completely unaware that it’ll be the last time I ever see my mother alive.
I scurry through the streets, sure that each person I pass somehow knows what we’re up to and are seconds away from dragging me back to my mother to confess. If Rowland were with me, he’d tell me I was just being paranoid, and he’d probably be right. He often is about these sorts of things. It’s one of his many talents, knowing how to get away with small lies, and knowing when the small lies will blow up in our faces.
For courage, I pretend he’s racing alongside me until I finally find him, sitting on a busted cart, looking so bored that he’d rather die.
“What took you so long?”
When he sees me, Rowland jumps to his feet on the uncoordinated limbs of a young boy who is only just starting to become a young man. The distance isn’t as far as he’s used to, what with the growth spurt he went through a few months ago.
Still, he’s nowhere near as tall as me. Part of me hopes he never will be. It’s the one way I feel bigger with him. But it doesn’t do much to help me today because the words that crash out of my mouth make me feel small.
“It was my mother,” I whine. “She started asking me questions about where we were going and what we’d be doing. I had to lie to her. Again.”
“It’s not lying if—”
“If it’s the truth,” I finish for him, fingers nervously twining around themselves. “I know, I know. But she made me promise…and…and that was not the truth.”
His eyes roll back. “It’s not a crime to lie, you know? And, if it was, it’s not like it’d be a bad one. They wouldn’t feed you to the sirens.”
My jaw drops wide. “They’re not…they don’t do that... Do they? I thought that was just a legend.”
His shoulders bob, but I never get my answer because Rowland becomes distracted by his itching scalp. “I hate these things,” he grumbles, scratching at the tightly bound locks.
This happens every time his mom re-braids his hair. She worked on them almost all day yesterday, and it’s why we had to postpone our gathering until today.
“I kind of like them.” My cheeks warm when his brown eyes shoot up at me and self-consciously I begin rubbing my arms. “My mother stopped doing my hair a long time ago.”
Deeming it an acceptable response, he gives his head another vicious scratch that looks like it could break the skin, let alone tear out his hair, before he allows his attention to scan our dingy surroundings.
Abruptly, Rowland tears away from the wall and begins to pace, a growl lying in wait somewhere low in his lungs. “Where is she?”
It’s only then that I realize who he’s talking about and notice that we’re missing someone from our party.
“Where’s Agnes?” I ask him, a bit needlessly.
He throws his arms in the air, a look of contempt about him when he spins around.
“She’s late,” I say slowly, and rub the hair standing up on my arms. “But…she’s never late.”
Agnes was a warrior. For a decade or more, she served on the Shadow Crusade, a feat that almost none of the other Crusaders ever accomplished. She was there all the way up until the final battle when the mages were defeated and demonkind was destroyed for good.
Or at least, demonkind as we knew it.
It’s why Rowland asked her to train us. She’s encountered more monsters, survived more battles, and held the title of warrior longer than anyone else in Hulbeck. Perhaps in all of the realm at this point.
“She’s probably just…she must’ve lost track of time?”
It’s the best I can do, but even I know that her losing track of time is about as unlikely as a Crusader surviving a decade of service. The values of loyalty, duty, and diligence practically flowed in her veins. It would be against her nature to lose track of her commitments. Especially to us.
We don’t have to wonder for long though. Because it’s not long after we notice her absence that the screams begin. Screams like hissing tea kettles and distraught animals. Screams that make my skin prick and clench my heart in an iron-cold fist. Dozens of shrieks tear through the air, perhaps hundreds, surrounding us like the sea barricades the shore.
My eyes lock with Rowland’s, his pupils as wide as walnuts.
“What’s happening?” I begin to say.
But before I can finish listing all the questions buzzing in my mind, his lips move, forming a single word. “Mother.”
His feet slide out from under him and he’s running, bolting headfirst into the storm of terror before I can even make sense that he’s moving. Wide-eyed and lip quivering, I can only watch him as he disappears. I’m only ten. Whatever horrors we thought we were training to face, I never actually imagined facing them. It was a pastime born of boredom, never a
necessity. Hulbeck has stood here for years. Undisturbed. Safe.
Never had I dreamed that one day we might actually need to use the skills Agnes was training us with.
And never before have I felt more helpless, more childlike.
All the times I argued that I was mature, or insisted that I could handle something as well as any adult, I know now that was a lie. I am petrified. And I am defenseless.
Something solid and warm wraps around my arm and tugs me into the shadows.
“Let me go!” I writhe, tears stinging my eyes at the thought of one of the monsters grabbing me. Feasting on my blood. Killing me. “Let me go!”
A hand clamps around my mouth. Agnes’ wrinkled face leans into view. “Hush now, or they’ll hear us.”
Trembling in her grasp, I nod, but I wonder how anyone could hear anything over the horrific wails filling the town. I watch her with wide eyes, waiting for her to tell me what to do, like she’s done in every one of our lessons. Instead, she’s quiet, and I find myself staring at a diagonal spray of blood that covers her cheek and eye.
“We have to go,” she murmurs, but then another thought occurs to her. “Rowland?”
“H-he went home. I think to find his mother.”
Solemn, Agnes shakes her head, limp, grey curls swaying around her face. “He’s gone then. We have to head inland.”
She tugs on my arm to lead me away.
“G-gone?” I yank myself out of her grasp. “What do you mean gone?”
In that moment, the warrior flashes before me, the one who’s seen more pain and suffering than I can even fathom. Her eyes shine like steel, cold and sharp. There’s a forced sort of tenderness in her hands when she takes mine into hers, almost as if she doesn’t feel fear or sadness or worry for Rowland at all.
“There is nothing back there for you, I promise,” she says. “If the two of us are to survive this, we have to go. Now. The noctis haven’t made it this far into the village yet. We can still—”
Hot and throbbing, my heart lurches into my throat. Every story I have ever heard of the bloodsucking demons that we call the noctis attacks my fragile mind, sending me into a frenzy of worry. I’ve heard tales of them devouring entire towns, leaving nothing left but skin and bone. There are other legends that say they don’t even leave that much, that the bones they tear from their victims are fashioned into spears or worn as necklaces and earrings to lavish events at the King’s castle in Neveridge. Tales of noctis engorging themselves on human blood until their bellies burst.
“The noctis? Here?” My eyes spill with tears. “My mother—”
“Your mother is gone, child. There will be time for mourning her later. But right now, we—”
When I make the turn and run, it’s not a conscious choice. One second I’m clutching onto Agnes as if my life depends on it, the next my feet are thump-thump-thumping down the street. It’s the only thing I feel, my feet moving and my heart setting the pace. The rest of my body is just…gone. I hardly see the wooden huts or their thatched roofs that blur by, my mind entirely engulfed with one repeating thought.
It’s not too late.
It can’t be too late—
But of course, it is.
By the time I make it back to our neighborhood, the seafoam on the coastline is tinted pink, the sand stained an unnatural shade of red that glistens in the sunlight. It’s not until the road beneath my feet becomes slick, red splashing up my calves, the same color sprayed on every door, every cart, and every barrel, that I realize with sinking dread the reason.
The word tears from my lips like a colony of bats fleeing a cave at dusk and I burst through our unhinged door.
But then I stop.
Everything is wrong. Chairs thrown across the room. The loom laying on its side. My mother’s basket tossed on the ground and vegetables scattered all over the floor like a game of jacks.
Most upsetting of all is the blood. It covers every inch of our home so thoroughly that it’s even dripping from the ceiling.
“Mother?” My voice warbles, drowning behind a wave of grief that has yet to swell and crash, just waiting for the final proof that my world has unraveled and I am alone.
It’s not my mother’s relived voice that answers, or even her faint whimpering, or any sign of her at all.
But the monster inside hears me. His neck snaps around, hungry eyes pinning me in place. Red dribbles from his mouth, and it’s then that I finally find her. It’s then that I finally break. A woman with long hair as black as mine. But her skin has gone too pale. The eyes that had been a duller shade of mine just earlier, are almost a void of color now.
My knees give out. I crumple to the floor and land in a pool of blood, blood that I don’t want to think about who it belongs to.
Something thuds on the floor. I can only barely make out my mother's body where she's been dropped, hair splayed over her neck but doing nothing to hide the ghastly, gaping bite mark beneath it. Footsteps hammer against the wooden planks until a shadow looms over me, a blanket of darkness that I know I should run from, but almost feel myself leaning into its embrace. I know it's him. I know it’s the noctis and he’s come to feast upon my blood, but I can't move. I can't stop him.
All of the training, however limited it had been, is gone from my mind because I can’t even fathom a life without my mother. She cared for me. She loved me. She kept me safe and shielded me from this…this nightmare of an existence that we live in.
Instead of running, instead of fighting, I lean forward and sob into my hands.
The noctis stands over me, his shadow cold against my back.
I reach for my mother's hand. I just want to feel her one last time. I want to hold her and have her hold me in return as the life is drained from my small body. But she’s too far out of reach, and before I can even attempt to crawl closer I'm hoisted off the ground by the back of my neck.
Some primal instinct kicks in, and I thrash in the noctis’ grip.
"Let me go!"
Blood-soaked fangs peek out from his menacing smirk. "Go ahead and squirm. I like knowing you humans fear me."
Without another moment's notice, his jaw widens. He leans over me, fangs bared, tongue salivating, and I brace myself for whatever painful death my dear mother just endured. Perhaps it's best this way. I froze when Rowland ran, after all. I froze when I entered my home. Since the screams began, I’ve been useless. Defenseless. Without my mother or Rowland or Agnes to tell me what to do, I am nothing.
My eyes squeeze tight, and I await the puncture of death.
But it doesn’t come.
My eyes snap open when his fingers loosen, and I watch blood gurgle from his mouth as I fall to the ground. The noctis before me paws at his chest, a sharp, wooden stake jutting from the place where his heart should be.
The woman behind him jerks on the weapon, drawing him nearer as she says into his ear, "Go ahead and squirm. I like knowing the monsters fear me."
Agnes withdraws the stake with a sickening squelch and the noctis falls.
She keeps a wary eye on him as she steps over his limp, bloody body and crouches down beside me. "Are you all right?" When I don't reply, she looks up, spies my mother a short distance away, and sighs. "I tried warning you, child. There is nothing left for you here. Hulbeck has fallen. We can’t stay—"
Hooves thunder through the streets.
As fluid and swift as a coursing river, Agnes wraps her arm around my torso and hoists me onto her hip. "Where is it? Where did she tell you to hide if the noctis ever came?"
My finger lifts without my doing. To the naked eye, there's nothing where I’m pointing, just my mother's loom and a few dozen spools of thread that she'd been spinning. But Agnes knows better. Hulbeck was the town she’d called home before the Shadowthorn overrun it, and when the darkness was finally cleansed from it, the people rebuilt every home inside this village with a safe haven in mind, just in case evil ever returned. They were right.
Agnes leaps across the room and sets me on the ground. As she shoves the loom away, clearing the floor, I make the mistake of peering out the window and I see him for the first time. A noctis male with hair as silken as spiderwebs and just as pale as the dead that litter the ground around him.
The king of the noctis.
The king of devastation.
King Tor Devonshire.
"Did you find him?" the king asks the rugged man on the horse behind him.
The other noctis shakes his bearded head. "No, sir. No sign of him yet. But we'll find him."
Agnes glances over her shoulder out the window every few seconds as she taps on the wooden planks, searching for the hollow beneath the floor. When her knuckles finally strike it, it only takes her a few seconds before she has the floor opened wide, revealing the hiding hole beneath the house that I never thought I'd have to use, no matter how many times my mother reminded me of it.
Agnes ushers me inside.
It's not until the door closes that I realize she's left me alone.
It's not until I hear the sounds of weapons slicing through air and flesh that I realize she's fighting the noctis because she has no choice. Because I've given her no choice. Because she told me to flee with her and instead…I brought her back here.
Her guttural cry as she meets her end buries me where I lay, this hole feeling a lot like a tomb I will never climb out of.
For days I remain there, petrified and lost. The noctis enter my home and finish off what they began, draining the rest of my mother dry and lapping up the spill on the floor. They even bring in other humans to feast upon, and for hours I listen to their screams, wondering why I can't go up there and fight, why I'm so useless that I'm just stuck down here, waiting out a death that everyone else has already met.
I'm not sure how long I stay. Day gives way to night, and night to day. It’s only once I’m sure the noctis have left Hulbeck, only once the town has been silent for days and all those who had been left near death and in agony finally perish that I finally muster the courage to crack open the floorboards and escape. When I lay my eyes on the carnage, I finally understand why Rowland wanted us to train, and why Agnes agreed to it.
Hulbeck had become weak. The people here stopped worrying about the noctis because they believed we were safe by the sea. They believed that because our village was so large and populated, that the noctis wouldn't dare fight us. But they were wrong. That’s exactly why they came. We painted a target on our backs. A thriving community of fresh blood just waiting for a bloodthirsty army to come and drink their fill.
We weren't safer behind these walls, allied together. It drew the noctis to us like moths drawn to flame.
When I finally crawl out of from the hole beneath my home, I force myself to look at every dead body I pass, to gaze upon all those who were too weak to survive so that I will always remember what the noctis are capable of. I grab the crossbow and quiver that hangs beside our front door, and as I race down the streets of Hulbeck, headed for the shoreline that my mother always instructed me to follow in case of an emergency, not once do I look back at the town or the life I'm leaving behind.
- ~ -
There you have it, darklings! The first chapter of my upcoming novel, Blood & Magic Eternal. You can preorder your copy on Amazon now!