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It was slowly that Kennina returned to consciousness to find herself lying on her back with a roof over her head. Her head was pounding, her body throbbing from the pain of her fall which had now faded away into a dull pulsing ache. Carefully, slowly, she pushed her hand behind her back to raise herself up into a sitting position and look around.
She’d been left lying in an unfamiliar room atop a bed hand assembled from wood, the only other furniture being a tall wardrobe of approximately the same make. The walls were well put together from rough hewn wood and the window set high into an ocean of thick white fog.
Her wounds had been addressed by careful hands, the deepest one-the bite wound to her shoulder-bandaged with gauze woven from plant fibers and the others faded to yellowing bruises spread across her skin by the application of a symbol resembling a line the top of which had been sharply bent over; one of the Elemental Runes Seoirse had shown her at the pub.
But how could that be? And where, exactly, was she?
It was a slow and painful process for Kennina to push her legs out of bed and pull herself upright, but once she’d managed it she started towards the tightly shut door.
Every step was agony, her ankles wobbling and knees buckling, but she forced her body to continue to the door and then out into the narrow hallway beyond. The front half of the little cabin in the woods-that was, she realized, where she was-was a single large open room, half of which was devoted to a kitchen-like space and the other half of which had been assembled into a sitting area.
Kennina paused in the doorway, leaning against the frame to rest, and as she did so the front door swung open. Out from the night mist stepped the form of her mysterious cloaked savior, armed this time with a bow instead of a sword, and with arms burdened by a small pile of fire wood.
Leaning the bow and quiver against the wall, he moved across the kitchen area and crouched in front of the stone fireplace to feed the wood he’d brought to the smouldering coals burning low beneath the pot which had been hung over it before rising and turning to face her.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed just yet; with your injuries, you need to rest.” His voice was a warm and modulated baritone, words as graceful as he was as they fell from the tip of his tongue. “I’ve no doubt that it was very painful for you to have made it as far as you did. Unnecessary stress will slow your healing process; the Laguz Rune can only do so much.”
“How am I not a Malformed?” the demand came without thinking as the memory of the fangs sinking into her shoulder smashed full force into her. “I was bitten! How have I not turned!”
“Malformed? By saying that, do you perhaps mean the Apelat? The mindless minions of the Dhampir?” Picking up the bow again, he carefully unstrung it with deft fingers before hanging it on its proper peg. “I gave you the antidote, a solution steeped from Wormwood Yew and Wolfsbane-highly toxic to one who's not afflicted-in time. You have been unconscious for three days since I found you.”
Abelan? Dhampir? He knew! But how? Wait a minute, three days? “Who are you?”
“Who am I? I suppose that I should have been prepared for you to pose that question.” With a heavy sigh, he reached up and pulled down his hood to reveal his face.
The first thing that struck her was how unnaturally handsome he was, his features perfectly sculpted and skin tanned to a sun-kissed bronze; his jaw squared, nose thin, lips plump and pale; his hair dark gold and falling to his shoulders, knife cut with long bangs dripping haphazardly into his eyes.
His eyes! They were by far his most striking feature; caged in with frosted golden lashes rimmed in feline black, they were the color of earth kissed by spring rains, the hue that stirred life from dormant seeds and guided the nascent blossoms of the new season upwards towards the light; flecks of green were scattered throughout their depths and ringing the black pupils like a pair of eclipsed suns were thin slivers of gilded gold. “My name is Eros.”
“As in the founder of the Order; the man who went insane?”
“Or the Greek god of Love,” he replied offhandedly pulling the cloak from its place cinched at his throat and hanging it on the wall beside his bow. “Whichever you prefer. Don’t tell me you’re afraid that I’m some crazed murderer who’s been hiding out in this Valley for all this time. That would make me a Vampire, wouldn’t it, with how old I’d have to be?” with the way he smirked slightly after making that statement, it almost seemed to be some sort of black humor; an inside joke known only to him.
“No, of course not.” It wasn’t possible. Vampire or not Eros Ash Hand was dead, had been cut down centuries ago. That was the one part of the Guild’s doctored histories that she trusted. “It just took me a bit by surprise is all.”
“Understandable.” With the absence of the cloak Kennina found herself presented with the opportunity to take in the unobscured sight of his body. He appeared to be somewhere around six feet in height with broad shoulders a slightly tapering waist and long legs clad in fitted deer-skin pants. The woodsman’s tunic-made of sturdy but supple leather-was sleeveless, leaving his muscular arms-powerful limbs, though not cumbersome ones-in full view.
Dangling from his graceful neck by a thin but sturdy chain was a heavy golden locket, square in shape with smoothed down corners and resting lightly just over his heart, the ornate gothic cross embossed on the front catching the candle light as he crossed the room towards her and offered her his hand. “If you will not return to bed to rest, at the very least come have a seat at my table.”
Thrown off by the strangely chivalrous action, she hesitated for a moment before placing her hand into his much larger one; despite the obvious rough edges of his almost provisional lifestyle his palms-dry and oddly cold-had no callouses. Setting his other hand gently on the small of her back, Eros guided her across the front room to the hand made table and helped her to sit down in a chair.
“I apologize for the state of things. Company isn’t something that I am used to, and as such my humble home is fairly plane.”
“Dumplings before flowers. I’m sorry to be bothering you like this, but I need to ask. Did you find any of the others? Where are they?”
For a moment Aros simply stared at her, his eyes holding an immense depth of kindness even showing the signs weathering and erosion by what seemed to be countless centuries of sorrow, and then he sighed. Pulling something down from a nearby shelf, he turned back to her and set it on the table.
“I’m sorry. You’re the only one who I made it to in time.” He said heavily. “I found two bodies-a man and a woman-and this.”
Kennina reached across the table to pick up the shattered hilt of the sword, clenching the ravaged metal in her shaking hands her eyes prickled and burned. “I didn’t know them long, but they were good people.” Abban’s calm demeanor and low voice, Morrigan’s quiet patience, Seoirse’s laugh and ever-bright smile. “They didn’t deserve to die. Not like this.”
“No one does, but such is the world. Life is cruel.” The legs of another chair scraped across the floor as he pulled it back and sat down. “May I ask your name, now that you know mine?”
She sniffled slightly, speaking only once entirely sure that her voice wouldn’t waiver. “Kennina. Kennina Lane.”
“I’ll be honest with you, Kennina. It would be in your best interests to forget about whatever world lies beyond this valley.”
“Forget? I’m a Hunter! I can’t just live in this valley with you and leave humanity behind; I swore oaths to fight for humanity’s hope!”
“Your ‘oaths’ are empty binding set upon you by the Dhampir slave drivers who rally the lot of you into their frothing attack dogs. Humanity’s help? There is no hope! There never has been.”
“I’m a warrior. And so are you, aren’t you?”
“A warrior?” his voice had taken on an almost dangerous tone, the edges of his words tapering to razor blades. “Yes, I am. Look at me, Lane, and look around you. This, me, is all that’s left of the Order; those few who saw Kharon for what he truly was and fled here! Once there were close to 100 of us, and now I’m the last! It’s pointless to try and fight them! It always has been! Eros Ash Hand was a fool for ever trying!”
Shocked Kennina stared at him and then, slowly, set the broken hilt back down on the table top. “I’ve seen you fight, Eros. How can you justify hiding here like this? Not even attempting to fight?”
“Because it would be nothing more than the snake eating its own tail; an exercise in futility. Until Lilith falls it won’t stop, no matter what I myself, or you, or anyone else for that matter tries to do! And killing her is impossible!”
“Who are you?”
“You’ve asked that already and I have given you two answers, my name and my standing as the last of the true Vampire Hunters, though all that I bare now is the torch of tradition rather than the sword of battle.” Kennina opened her mouth to cut him off but he calmly raised a hand to stop her. “However I would assume that by asking that of me for a second time that you mean to say ‘how is it that you know what you do’? Again that can be answered by my standing, though I would assume that you’d want a more straightforward answer.”
“I want you to explain to me exactly what you know, not just how you know it!” She told him sharply. “The extent of the Guild’s corrupting! The Dhampir! The Malformed, or Apelat, or whatever you called them! And who the hell Lilith is! If you want me to break my oaths and give up fighting, then you had damn well better convince me that it’s hopeless!”
Eros raised a hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose and exhaling a sharp sigh. “You really want to know the truth about the depth to which their darkness has sunk into the world; how their evil has stained the very soil beneath you feet? To be living in fear for the rest of your life as I’ve been forced to?”
“Ignorance isn’t bliss.”
“You may well say that now, but what of in a few hours? A few days?” the table creaked slightly as he pushed himself back onto his feet. “If that sentiment still remains the same once you have recovered from your wounds than I will tell you the answers to the questions that you have asked of me. That way, if I fail to convince you to see good sense, you can run off at leisure back into the very jaws of the beast.”
Despite his evident annoyance at her given the subject of their conversation and the fact that she’d all but outright called him a coward, Eros still took the initiative to help her back to her feet and then assist her back down the hall to the door of her room. Here, he paused inexplicably before the open door and glanced down at her. “May I come in?”
“Isn’t this your house?”
“It is indeed, but from the moment that you regained consciousness this became your room. And us such it’s a simple courtesy to ask your permission before I set foot over the threshold.”
“Well, I doubt my own ability to walk across the room at the moment so if you’re seriously insisting on getting permission from me than fine! Come in.”
“A simple ‘yes, you may come in’ would have been fine; you didn’t need to rib me first.” He informed her dryly, supporting her over to the bed. “It’s fairly plain what you think of me at the moment, but hopefully once you’ve been better informed of the reality of the situation at hand you’ll be more inclined to consider me smart rather than a coward. As things are, focus on healing for the time being.”
“So you’re a doctor too, on top of being a warrior and a hermit?”
“A doctor? Not in the modern sense, I’m sure, but my wife was a healer and I picked up a number of cures and remedies from her. They should be more than enough to see you through the course of your recovery.”
“I thought you said that you lived alone.”
“Then where is your wife?”
Enough pain registered on his face in the wake of the question that Kennina actually felt a pang of guilt for having asked. When Eros spoke again, his voice was tight. “Luciella is dead, just like all the rest of them. Just like I should be.”
“Dinner should be ready in just over an hour; I’ll bring some in to you then.” With that said he turned and ran, fleeing from the room with his tail tightly tucked between his legs.
Perfect. In one day I’ve managed to both call the man who saved my life a coward and rip open a bunch of old wounds. Sighing, Kennina allowed herself to fall back against the pillows. Stupid. So stupid! I shouldn’t have opened my mouth in the first place; he probably hates me now. The straw inside of the mattress shifted with a quiet rustle as she rolled onto her side, pulling the covers up over her head. Great first impression that you made, Lane. Well done! I’m such a screw up.
It was without a word to her that Eros delivered a tray just over an hour later, avoiding eye contact at all costs and leaving as quickly as he could.
Alone in the little room that had been provided for her she ate in silence with nothing but the mist pressing its face against the window and the occasional small spider darting across the floor boards for company;not knowing what else to do and unable to get up again and walk to the kitchen herself, Kennina set the tray carefully on the floor beside her bed and left it there in the hopes that it would be collected.
Whatever power he’d invoked to heal her most serious injuries-broken bones, mostly, from her fall-hadn’t done much to take away the toll of pain that the events of the nights prior had taken on her body and as such it was difficult, despite her exhaustion, to sleep; no position was comfortable for very long, and with even the slightest twitch varying intensities of pain would flash through her form.
When sleep finally did come, it was threaded through with shades of shame and guilt.