Arya stirred, the fragrance of human fare filling her sense of smell. Her eyes fluttered and she waited for them to adjust. A rotted wooden roof with a hole at least two feet wide to welcome the morning sky loomed overhead just out of focus.
She lay awake trying to regain her bearings and hears the sound of footsteps nearby. Realization sets in. She’s no longer in the grass. She’s lying on top of a cot made of crates, pillows and dirty blankets. Panicked, she quickly pushes to her feet and checks for her weapons. They’re all still there. She searches for her sack, but it’s gone, her valuables with it.
Gripping the stilettos at her hips she quietly follows the sound of footsteps to a set of stairs leading to the lower level of the dilapidated home. There’s a gaping hole that leads several feet down into the basement. A fall here would leave a person injured. She quietly leaps the gaping hole and continues towards the footsteps.
Peering around a corner she spots a human person hovering over a stove. A male from what she can tell. His shoulders are broad, he’s tall, and even though he’s wearing a dirty wool long-coat she can tell there are muscles underneath.
Slowly and as quiet as a mouse she sneaks up behind him and in a quick motion she places one dagger to his throat and the other at the small of his back. “Move and I’ll gut you like a fish,” she whispers into his ear. “Where are my valuables?”
The male drops his cooking utensils, hands suspended in the air, careful not to move an inch. He motions behind them. “There’s no need for weapons,” he spoke with a deep voice. “If I wanted to harm you I would’ve done so when I found you outside.”
“Daddy?” A frightened small voice came from behind them.
Arya whirled them both around to face the voice behind her. A frightened little girl no more than three cycles sat behind a warped wooden desk with three legs, clutching a filthy doll. “It’s okay Lila, she won’t hurt me she’s just frightened. She’ll be putting the weapons down now, right mi Dame?”
The little girl reminded Arya so much of herself when she was that age. Frightened and confused. Not wanting to damage the girl by spilling her father’s blood on the floor in front of her, Arya withdrew her stilettos and placed them back at her hips. She could always kill him later. Perhaps once the girl turned down for the night.
Fashioning a smile, Arya tipped her head to the little girl, “My apologies little one.”
Lila walked over to Arya and handed her back her sack. She quickly went through it to make sure her valuables were still there. They were. He hadn’t taken her weapons, her virtue, or her valuables, even though she could see he needed them more than she did.
“What happened here?” Arya asked.
“Here?” The male asked confused.
“The others…they came like thieves in the night and ransacked this and the next several townships over,” the male explained. “I’m Eli by the way.”
Eli brandished his hand for Arya to shake and after careful consideration she shook his hand. “Others? What others?”
“The magic ones.”
“Magic ones?” She knit her brows together in confusion.
“Where have you been mi Dame? Have you never heard of the Fae?”
She hadn’t. She knew about the old and new Gods, but the Fae? She wasn’t familiar with their kind. Eli could see the confusion in her expression and smiled. For all of his misfortune, his teeth were a pearly white.
“To be fair, we knew nothing of the Fae as well. They looked like us and blended in as if they belonged here all along. Then one day they just…turnedon us. Many of us were captured and forced to work as slaves. Those who weren’t captured must either pay the Red Legion for protection or agree to be a slave,” Eli filled her in.
Pay for protection?From the looks of things Arya didn’t think they could pay for much of anything. No wonder the clerk at the Inn was more than willing to turn her in. If Malich was offering him protection, he had to remain loyal or face the wrath of a Red Dragon.
“So you’d rather live free in squalor, than kept as a slave.”
He simply nodded, eyes trailing over to the little girl now smiling. He did this for her. His daughter. His freedom meant hers and if they had to live in squalor then they’d do it together. Sadly, it reminded her of her own relationship with Malich. He’d rather keep her near than expose her to the life of an assassin. The life expectancy wasn’t very long. Still the choice should be hers.
“What about you? Where’d you come from? Girls like you either end up in pleasure houses or as concubines for the Fae princes.”
Arya held her tongue. All this talk about Fae went over her head and she didn’t want to sound unintelligent. “Nowhere,” she finally answered.
“Your name?” There’s no way she’s giving him her name and she hadn’t thought of a false one so she just glared at him. “No one it is,” Eli smiles, “no one from nowhere. A little word of advice though, no one from nowhere, girls aren’t usually as heavily armed as you are. Nor do they carry as many valuables. Valuables accustomed to the Redlands I might add.” Her scimitars were halfway out of their sheath when Eli held up his hands in surrender. “Relax, it’s none of my concern, just advice if you plan on staying in these parts. The locals will peg you for an outsider in a heartbeat if you go out like that.”
Arya took in Eli and Lila’s appearance and then her own. A vast difference. Her hair was pulled back into a fish braid; she wore black leather armed to the teeth with weapons and a heavy cloak. She was also clean and her clothes looked new. Not like the rags Eli and Lila wore.
“Lila’s mother passed away a few cycles back. You look like you might be the same size. If you want, you can borrow some of her clothing. She won’t be needing them.”
“Thank you.” Arya nodded.
“Are you one of them? Fae or God?” He asked.
“I’m just a girl.”
“With more weapons than everyone in these parts combined,” he pointed out. “You can trust me, I won’t tell anyone.”
Glaring at him, Arya stepped closer placing the tip of one of her stilettos at his chin just out of Lila’s view. “I trust no one, and I. Don’t. Know. You.”
Eli swallowed hard, hands still raised. “Alright then. Keep your secrets. Lila honey, show this nice lady where mums clothes are.”
“Okay!” Lila leapt excitedly from her seat and ran over to grab Arya’s hand. Arya quickly retracted her stiletto and allowed the little girl to drag her to the set of broken stairs. The first six stairs were in tact at the bottom, barely, but the next four were missing. Lila scales the railing to the next level as if she’s done this a thousand times and Arya follows her lead. The upper portion of the home is a lot cleaner and more organized than the lower portion.
Lila takes her to a room that’s eerily untouched. It seems more like a shrine to Lila’s mother than an actual room, or a tomb, and Arya is willing to bet Eli kept it in the same condition it was in when his wife died. Clean dresses hang inside an armoire. Arya takes one look at them and frowns. Malich has been trying to get her into a dress since she learned to walk. She hates dresses.
“Is this it?”
Lila nods and smiles. Arya feigns a smile back at the little girl and chews her bottom lip. In order to stay hidden she needs to blend in. If blending in meant putting on a dress, she’d rather take her chances in the Redlands.
“Nothing to your liking?” Eli asked, standing in the doorway. Arya has one of her scimitars out in a fraction of a second, aiming it at his heart. “You know, you’re going to have to start trusting people.”
“Hell would have to freeze over first.”
Eli took a step back and Arya sheathed her scimitar. She didn’t like anyone sneaking up on her like that, but she only had herself to scold. She’d only been out of the Redlands for less than a day and she’d let her guard down…let someone sneak up on her.
“I take it dresses aren’t your thing?” Eli smirked.
“You’d be correct.”
“I have trousers in my closet if you’d like a pair of those,” he offered.
Arya took one look at his trousers and decided against it. “No thank you.”
“Okay, well the food is ready if you’re hungry.”
Sensing her hesitance Eli lead the way, followed by Lila who rushed to the broken table like a starving animal. Arya took the seat across from Eli, careful to keep him within her sights at all times. If he so much as twitched in her general direction she’d paint the table red with his blood. She waits for Eli to take a bite of his food, and then reaches across to switch their plates just in case he poisoned hers. Eli is surprised at first, but he simply shakes his head and digs in.
Thrumming his fingers on the table, careful not to alarm her, Eli watched Arya. She ate as if she had never missed a meal or knew what it was to go hungry. Whomever she belonged to had taken great care of her. Her nails were well groomed, the clothes she wore cost more than most humans make in a cycle, and those weapons were even more expensive than that.
Arya noticed the way Eli watched her and scowled at him. He quickly looks away. If she had anywhere else to go, she would leave. It isn’t safe for them, her being here. Someone was coming for her, she was sure of it, but oddly enough, she couldn’t bring herself to leave. Lila…she reminded Arya so much of herself.
As soon as she finished the last bite of her food, Eli scooped up all three of their dishes and set them in the wash bin. Lila ran outside to play in the yard of overgrown grass and Arya watched from the window, making sure to keep an open line of sight to Eli.
He watched Arya watch Lila and realized she had a soft spot for the little girl. “Do you have children?” Eli asked. Arya shook her head. She remembered being as innocent as Lila, playing in the courtyard of the Dragon’s Lair with all the other kids. It seems like a lifetime ago.
For hours she watched Lila play carelessly in the grass, reveling in her every smile and bout of laughter. She was a little girl with no care in the world, as it should be. Arya would give anything to simply exist like this little girl, the girl she used to be, but that wasn’t the hand she was dealt.
Turning away from the window she focused her sights on Eli. He’d tidied up the place while she was half paying attention and somehow made another meal. How long had she stood watching Lila play?
Arya looked to the sky. It was growing dark. Was it sundown already?Eli called Lila into the house for supper and she raced to the table, her dark ringlets blowing in the wind behind her. Arya couldn’t help but smile. She quickly wipes the smile from her face as soon as she sees Eli watching, schooling her features back into cold indifference.
For the rest of the night, Arya didn’t say much, she just watched. Eli doted on the little girl, granting her every wish and giving in to her charms. Oddly enough, it shed light on her relationship with Malich. She knew now that he had never been a father to her, not a true one. Although he filled the role of disciplinary and spoiled her with affection, it was never like this. Malich painted a clear line in the sand, one he never crossed, not once. He had other plans for their relationship, and his plans weren’t really clear until now.
Arya followed Eli and Lila up to the latter’s room and watched while he tucked her into bed. Her bed was also set atop crates that were covered with dirty blankets and pillows. Eli read Lila a story from a worn book with missing pages until she fell asleep.
“Where do yousleep?” Arya asked.
In answer, Eli grabbed a rolled up blanket and set it beside Lila’s bed. The room with his dead wife’s clothes, it seems, was indeed a tomb. She wondered how long it had been before either of them had even gone into that room.
“Do you sleep?” Eli asked.
“When necessary,” she replied. She still didn’t trust him.
Lila’s room was the only room in the house with its roof fully in tact. Arya sat next to the only window in the room, staring out into the night sky, waiting for Eli to fall asleep. It wasn’t long before he began snoring like a grizzly bear. Still she waited. She waited until his chest rose and fell in rhythm with the thunderous sound coming from his lips.
Hands on her stilettos, Arya allowed herself to drift off to sleep. She would need to be well rested for her trek tomorrow. She couldn’t stay here and put Lila or her father in danger. She would leave so they could continue their happy existence.
The sun had barely risen in the sky when Arya heard the faint sound of footsteps outside. She hurried to the closest window and peered out of it. Red Soldiers were everywhere. The clerk had indeed sold her out and they followed her here. How, she wasn’t sure. As far as she knew she’d left no trail.
Looking at Eli and Lila sleeping peacefully, she realized just how grave the situation was. Knowing Malich, he’d want to be here when she was apprehended. She didn’t know how much time they had, all she knew was if he found her here with both Eli and Lila, he’d kill Eli and send Lila to train to become a Red Dragon. Eli opened his eyes and sat up alarmed. He too heard the footsteps outside.
“Sh…” Arya put her finger to her lips. “Whatever you do, don’t make a sound.”
“What’s going on?” Eli asked, alarmed.
“It’s my…employer. If he finds you here, he’ll kill you and your daughter will be sent to train with the Red Dragons,” she explained. “Wake her in case you need to make a quick exit, but keep her quiet.”
“I knew it. I knew you were one of them.”
“Quiet as a mouse and sit still,” Arya instructed, ignoring him.
She crept back downstairs and unsheathed her scimitars. The front door to the home opened and she prepared herself to fight, but lost all fight when Malich stepped in. Lumi stood to his right and Dax to his left, but she knew better than to lower her blades. He knew what bringing Lumi would do to her. She could never hurt the friend who’d been like a sister to her.
Malich smiled looking around at the place but his gaze came to a stop at the three-legged table with a dirty doll resting on it, his smile fading. “Have I not been good to you Arya?” He asked, slowly approaching her.
“Does stifling my potential count as being good to me?”
“Making me angry will not help you get your way,” he finally met Arya’s gaze. “It willhowever get your gracious hosts killed.”
Arya swallowed hard at that thought. “I have no hosts, it’s just me here,” she lied.
Tilting his head to the side his lips curl up into a smile. “Search the place from top to bottom,” he ordered.
“Wait! No!” Arya shouted. “There’s a little girl Malich. Three cycles. You’ll frighten her if she sees soldiers.”
“Just a little girl?” He asked, a carefully worded question.
Nodding she replied, “Yes.”
“Call to her.”
“What are you going to do?” She asked.
“I just want to meet her.”
“Don’t hurt her,” Arya begged, pleading with her eyes. “Lila honey, its okay you can come out!”
Shuffling, then soft steps, and then finally a small frame entered the room. Lila took one look at Malich with the soldiers behind him and ran to hide behind Arya. Malich slid his gaze from Arya to the frightened child behind her. Smiling he approached and knelt down to Lila’s level.
“How old are you little one?” Malich asked. Lila held up three fingers and smiled. Malich examined Lila from head to toe. “How did you come to meet the girl standing next to you?”
“Grass,” Lila giggled.
“I passed out in the grass outside and she found me.”
Malich’s eyes flicked to Arya, “Do not speak unless I command it,” he warned. There was enough venom in his tone that she knew speaking again would only worsen his mood. “Did you help her or did someone else?”
Dread filled Arya’s chest, but she couldn’t let it show. She prayed to the Gods that this little babe wouldn’t betray her father, but her soul proved too innocent to comprehend the trap she was walking into. “Daddy,” Lila pointed to the stairs.
Arya closed her eyes and sighed. Malich stood to meet her gaze. “Take the girl, find her father and bring him to me. Kill him to remind both him and your Red Sister what happens to traitors.” Malich commanded. Dax and Lumi inclined their heads and did as instructed.
Looking down at the girl who reminded Arya so much of herself, she couldn’t help but think about her own lineage. Were her parents killed in a similar manner?Is that why they aren’t here? Will Lila suffer the same as she?
“Malich, don’t.” Arya pleaded. “I’ll do whatever you want, just don’t separate Lila from her father. The only thing he’s guilty of is finding me in the grass outside.”
“Then his blood will be on your hands, and her orphanage will be your doing,” he seethed, clenching his teeth. “How dare you run from me? After all I’ve done for you? After all I’ve givenyou? Your insolence undermines my integrity and everything I’ve built!”
Dax and Lumi returned with a frightened Eli between them. He broke free from them and groveled at Malich’s feet. “Please. I did not know she was a Red Daughter, she wouldn’t tell me anything. I just brought her inside so no others would find her and harm her. She was unconscious and unresponsive,” Eli sobbed at Malich’s feet. “Please don’t hurt us. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“What I want is to teach my protégé a lesson. Your death will accomplish that. She knows the price one pays for defiance,” Malich replied, his gaze never straying from Arya’s.
“Why kill us when you can use us to keep her in line?” Eli cleverly suggested. Suddenly Arya regretted not putting a blade through his skull when she had the chance. “If you’ll have me, I’ll serve you. All I want is to be with my daughter. And your soldier owes me at least that much.”
Malich considered Eli’s words for what seemed like forever before finally speaking. “Very well,” he sighed. Turning to Dax he ordered. “Take them back to the Redlands. Throttle them both before the Red Legion and send the girl to train as a Red Dragon. I want him in a cell until I decide what to do with him and your Red Sister is to be locked away until further notice.”
Dax stepped forward and Arya turned Lila away as he used the butt of his sword to knock Eli unconscious. Arya handed Lila to Lumi who was doing her best not to show any emotion as she took the little girl from the room. Knowing what was coming, Arya knelt before Malich and with a blow to her temple she too was rendered unconscious.ns 188.8.131.52da2