Fire Ch. 11byEnithermon©
The waning moon hung low, barely reaching above the tangled arms of the forest. The naked branches reached out after it like slender, grasping fingers. The starless slate sky loomed overhead and offered little more than a murky and dismal silence, complimenting the heavy darkness of the forest below. Yet, from this still, silent blackness a light emerged, peeking tentatively through the dark trunks and branches, growing stronger with each fraction of a second until it formed a small, square window, a window set amongst others, revealing with their soft glow the shape of a low, wood shingled cottage. One of many which nestled tightly together, forming a small village.
The village was quiet and settled for the night, and though half buried in sloping drifts, was warm with glowing windows and smoking chimneys. But it was toward that first cottage with its little window, that a dark shadow sped, oblivious to everything save the twin trails drawn in the crisp snow by awkward, stumbling feet-- a trail which led from the hills, through the snow, and to this very cottage's door.
He paused, sliding a hand along the sun-bleached door frame, listening to the soft sounds reverberating within.
The trail stopped there, at the foot of the steps. Two people had come here from his home, and at least one had been injured. There was blood in the air here as well, half hidden by woodsmoke and dulled by the chill of the air, but it lingered all the same. He cocked his head and his eyes narrowed at another set of prints headed away from the cottage in the direction of the river. The stride was long and sure...and, he knew, headed east. In his gut he already knew the answers to his questions, instinct and logic both pointed in the same direction...but he had to be sure. There was no room for error. So he knocked.
Moments later, he had his answers. He could be certain now. Berin and May were... gone.
He'd known it, but something in him needed to hear it. He'd felt almost cruel making Timothy say the words out loud. It was clear by the way the man graveled out the words, and by his refusal to meet Jairus' eye, that he blamed himself.
Jairus did nothing to talk him out of this thought. He didn't blame Tim, however. He blamed himself. The feeling was only natural, and there were no words which could possibly persuade him otherwise. He knew that like him, Timothy would be just as difficult to convince, and he hadn't the time to spare for such a pointless exercise. Tim had been injured, but was well enough, and with people who could care for him until he was whole. But she--that foolish, stubborn...
She was alive...is alive... perhaps...
Even as his anger burned hot in his mind, his throat clenched with fear, just as it had been doing since he'd first come across that...that tomb which was once his home. He'd been sick with pain and fear. Frozen with it. But it was his fury that had finally moved him, which moved him still. So he clung to it and let it overtake him.
He'd failed May and Berin. He'd broken his own rules, and it had destroyed them. But he still had the others to protect, and he'd be damned if he would let them be taken from him as well.
And once his remaining....family, was safe, he'd take his retribution...and it would be terrible.
Jairus growled low in his throat, a sound lost in the whipping wind which rushed past him in a deafening roar. It vibrated through him joining the shudder of exertion and hunger which was already boiling dangerously close to the surface. He suppressed it, wielding his will like he would the reigns of an unwieldy mount. He pressed himself forward, and his body strained for speed as he hastened toward the city.
A dangerous combination of fury and hope sped his way, recklessly pushing him to the very limits of his abilities. It was a feeling very much like the one which had overcome him when he'd found Thea huddled in that storm. Instead of easing with time, the maddening blend of rage and the half terrified yearning only built on itself until it numbed his body and pushed the still growing hunger and pain from his mind.
It was only when the glistening shape of the great imperial gate finally appeared, rapidly expanding in his vision, that he slowed and felt a flood of exhaustion followed by a powerful surge of hunger wash over him. The feeling caused him to hesitate and stumble slightly and he steered himself away from the more heavily populated areas, suddenly uncertain about just how in control of himself he actually was.
He entered the city from one of the lesser used entrances, keeping to the narrow alleys and shadows, clutching his side under his cloak as the ache of his need built until it became almost unbearable as the sharp stabs of pain sliced through him. His body cried out for blood.
He peered into the darkness, now seeing the world with weakened, almost human eyes and followed the wall with his free hand. He steeled himself, willing himself past the weakening drain, straining the last of his senses in order to navigate the dark twisting alleys.
He expelled a relieved breath as his eager ears finally caught something more than noisome ringing which had begun to fill them. He veered left into another narrow via, toward the sound of the single beating heart which called out to him, and blocked all other sounds from his mind.
A door swung open ahead of him and he wasted no time.
Slim hands caught his wrist and tugged futilely as his hand clamped hard over the warm gasping mouth. Her head was tugged roughly back and his thoughts registered dimly that it was a she, with pale hair and dark eyes. But then his eye caught a pulse of blue along a column of white and there was nothing else to see. His vision blurred, red and needful, and he groaned as his fangs broke flesh and sunk deeply into its welcoming heat.
He drank greedily, and relished the hot sear of it as the blood filled his mouth and throat. The body in his arms struggled and protested, but he was beyond blind to it. Even in his weakened state he was too strong for her and eventually the woman grew still and silent as he continued to feed.
His body shook with relief and his numb limbs prickled painfully as the life returned to them.
His furious desperate pulls slowed as his vision cleared. His mind cleared as well, enough, at least, to let him pull away, though he was forced to will himself to do so and with a difficulty he found disturbing.
The woman was alive...limp and unconscious...but alive. It had been a long time since he'd come this close to draining a victim, and much longer still since he'd lost control as he had. Memories of feeding from Thea flashed through his mind, unbidden, and questioned the truth of that thought even as he had it. A desire and need more potent, and at this moment more painful, than mere hunger tightened his chest. He pushed the memories away with a grunt of frustration and tried to refocus on the present, and the woman he currently held in his arms.
He'd pushed himself hard...too hard perhaps, but what was done was done, and there was no going back. Nor would he have done differently if he could. Jairus let out a shaking breath and closed the girl's wounds, shuddering at the taste of blood and closing his eyes against the urge to take more, shutting the door on his need once again.
He checked the passage around him, refocusing his gradually strengthening senses as he searched for warnings of interruption, then, when he saw none, he looked beyond her to the still open door and shook his head. He'd been fortunate, his instincts had guided him well and she'd been alone. He had been desperate enough to not care...he had been lucky. He lifted her and lay her on the floor of the entry hall and shut her inside, then leaned against the door with a sigh.
Jairus shook his head again, partially in frustration, partially to clear the buzzing. He'd been reckless. So much so that his body still shook with faint tremors, and twinges of hunger still flitted through him like tiny currents of fire, making his fingers twitch and skin crawl.
He pushed off from the wall and turned back down the alley. Only a few minutes had passed, but his step was already more sure, his hands nearly steady, and his senses sharpened to the rhythms of the city. He would feed again, an easier proposition now that he had regained his focus, and then...Marcus.
Marcus, it seemed, had been expecting him.
He'd been easy enough to find, perhaps wanting to be found, but Jairus had wasted no time with polite formalities. He appeared instead in Marcus' rented rooms and had given the man no more greeting or warning than his name snapped out in a menacing gravel from a shadow behind him.
When Jairus had shown himself, stepping out of the darkness, and had used every iota of his freshly gained strength to crush Marcus with his will, there had been fear painted all across the man's face...terror even, but no surprise. That lack caused the anger which had been driving earlier him to explode back into an all consuming flame. He knew. He knew why he was there...he knew where she was.
This was the last conscious thought he had before he found himself staring up into Marucus' darkening face as it hovered suspended above him with Jairus' own hand wrapped tightly around his throat. Jairus whirled and slammed Marcus back first into the nearest wall, but didn't for a second relent in his grip. The smaller man's hands clawed at his ineffectively, desperate to break free, and his feet kicked at the wall. All his struggling was futile and he remained soundly pinned despite his frantic efforts.
Jairus let out a low sound. It was feral, a deep animal growl, and tightened his grip, his free hand clenching and unclenching spasmodically beside him. Marcus stilled, wide eyed, his fingers digging into the unyielding wrist which held him captive.
"Where is she?" He hissed lowly, his fingers digging in as he leaned toward Marcus' fear stricken face. "I...can't...ans...er...wh....wh...." Marcus tugged at Jairus's sleeve with frantic jerking motions again, pleading with his eyes when his voice failed. The restraining hand sprung sharply open and Marcus dropped to his feet with a thud and a gasp. His knees immediately buckled and he slid down the wall to the floor.
Jairus watched impassively as the fair hair man glared up at him and coughed his way though a deep breath.
"Crazy bastard..." he wheezed, one hand clutching his throat, the other pulling himself unsteadily back to his feet, using the wall for support. He looked back up at Jairus and for a moment seemed as though he wanted to spend a few more minutes cursing him, but something he saw changed his mind and, after a few more throat clearing coughs, he very intelligently moved on to more pressing matters.
"I...I ah, she was here, your girl," He wheezed, "and asked for me at the Three Tuns." He paused to take another shaking breath.
"And?" Jairus pressed, speaking through clenched teeth. It was taking a good deal of control not to just pin him to the wall by the throat again and squeeze until he felt better. But that would get him nowhere and certainly not the information he needed. When Marcus looked up sharply and didn't answer quickly enough Jairus took an impatient step forward. The result was immediate.
"She wanted to know where Darius was. I didn't take her money, but she was insistent, so I told her."
Jairus couldn't hold back his snarl of rage. "You fool. They'll kill her!"
"Hey! You're the one who was keeping me in the dark here," he countered, still watchful, but irritated enough to raise his voice as he continued, "and it was you who introduced her as a potential apprentice, I figured she probably knew what she was doing" he rubbed his throat and his voice returned to a more conversational, if not sardonic tone. "Besides, you should have seen her...she was pissed." He shrugged. "She was with you, so the smart thing to do was to not go making assumptions about how dangerous she was based on the fact she has breasts."
Jairus had said nothing but made another threatening, frustrated motion towards him and Marcus held up a defensive hand and stepped back. "I told her not to go, I did...but she did anyway, and that was the last time I saw her...and I haven't even seen the kid since before I talked to you, he's been unreachable."
Jairus's face must have darkened because Marcus jumped in quickly holding out both his hands in a reasoning manner. "Listen now, he didn't know. If I'd gotten to him, and he knew the score he'd have been smart enough to drop it. Please..."
The unusual pleading note as he voiced that 'please' caused Jairus to pause and catch his own breath. "And who is he to you then?" He murmured, suddenly aware that, despite having worked together as long as they had, he truly knew as little about Marcus as the man knew about him. Their relationship had always remained purely professional, and they both went to great lengths to keep it that way.
The answer to his question came from behind him, from a door which, in his distraction, he had not heard open. He cursed himself silently for his inattention, and turned a cool stare towards the voice as it spoke.
"He's his sister's son." The boy leaned against the door frame, his voice soft and face serious. He shook his head and crossed his arms across his chest. "He's right, I didn't know...but I still might have done it," he smirked, "just to piss you off." Jairus arched a brow at him and the boy stared back, still smiling. He also kept talking. "Othwyn's men have her, but she's fine, if that's what you're wanting...still in one piece. I saw her half way to South Keep myself. I just got back.
"It's early enough, so if you ride out now you can probably get there by the late morning, but it might be hard to get her out. Othwyn's wanting her alive, as I'm sure you know, and he seems reasonable enough, so there probably wouldn't be much trouble from his end, but there's another group to contend with now as well. From what I've seen and heard Darius' men are on the war path. I passed a number on my way back to the city. They've all cleared out, it seems, and are headed to the keep to start a war." The boy shrugged negligently. "If you can call something so small and laughable a war. Either way by tomorrow night they will have amassed enough men to begin a respectable siege."
Jairus silently considered this, and cast a glance at Marcus who was still rubbing his throat, but was, unsurprisingly, looking his old self again as he smoothed his ruffled feathers. His expression turned wry as he tugged his collar straight.
"And what is She to You?" Marcus asked dryly, taking advantage of the momentary hesitation to turn Jairus's words on him.
He felt his hackles raise in response and his glance turned into a glare.
"None of your business." He snapped and tilted his head sharply toward the still occupied door.
"Pretty much what I figured," Marcus groused with a sour expression on his face. Jairus ignored him and addressed the youth as he made his way to the door.
"You're sure they headed to the South Keep?" He demanded, his voice still sharp, as he pushed past the young assassin.
"Yeah. I'm sure."
Jairus put little faith in the word of others, and he didn't need to. He could usually read the small signs, the breathing, the eyes, the rapid beating of a heart, in order to ferret out the lie from the truth. In this case he sensed no deception despite his natural suspicion to the contrary. The young assassin's readiness in giving him that truth was...unexpected, and he wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. It was a mystery, but once more he hadn't time to sit and ponder it.
His hesitation at these thoughts was brief enough that it didn't even slow his step and he was on his way out even as he pondered the boy's unexpected behavior. To his chagrin the youth turned and followed him down the hall, though he added nothing further to the conversation. Jairus ignored it until he'd left the inn only to find the boy still tailing him, at which point he stopped short and spun on him, causing his shadow to physically shrink back, though he resisted his obvious urge to take an actual step or two away from the glowering vampire before him.
"What, exactly, do you think you're doing?" Jairus bit out, with more than a little warning in his tone.
The boy shrugged. "Coming with you."
Again he was forced to pause, and he narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
The youths face remained impassive, but there was a twitch at the corner of his mouth.
"I want to see how it is you think you'll get her back."
Jairus sneered, his brief flash of curiosity overcome with derision. "Go home boy."
The twitch left the youth's mouth and his eyes darkened.
"I'm not a bo-"
"-You're acting like one. Go!" He was practically snarling, but he had better things to do right now than indulge this ridiculous...in fact, Jairus wondered, why was he even entertaining this? He turned on his heel and strode off.
"Wait, I can help."
"You can stay out of my way." He cut out over his shoulder, then, surprising himself, stopped. "Is Darius still in the city?" If he couldn't reach her tonight, he thought, then he might at least find Darius and have some satisfaction before dawn. Spending the day watching Darius bleed out slowly while begging for his life would most certainly come under that heading.
The boy blinked in response. "Darius? He...haven't you heard? He's dead."
Jairus frowned. How very disappointing, he thought. "Who?"
His surprise must have registered in some small way because the youth nodded his head in confirmation. "I know, I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen the results first hand. Slit his wrist and his throat. He must have bled out in a flash." He shifted as he spoke, and his usual persistent, snide lilt faded from his voice. He looked unexpectedly thoughtful, and perhaps...impressed. Jairus found he had no response for that and only made a guttural sound of acknowledgment before turning away and dismissing him with a vague gesture.
The boy ran after him. Foolish...persistent, but foolish.
"Listen, I may not be the best, but I'm getting there fast...I can help." Jairus turned with another low growl, more felt than heard. The boy skidded to a stop, but was close enough that Jairus was able to snap out his hand and fill it with the young assassin's shirt front. He pulled him in until they were nose to nose.
Jairus held none of his fury back, and was well aware that his eye teeth were extended as a result. He let his anger and frustration wash out into his words as they fell from his lips in a tight and dangerous whisper.
"If I find her alive than the position of 'best'" he hissed "is yours, if not...I'll rip out your heart and choke you with it. Now go. Do what you need to do, and stay of my sight." He released him with a shove and the boy wisely opted to remain where he was.
A moment later Jairus took to the roofs. He moved East his grip rigid around the edge of his cloak, and his heart leaden in his chest. There were too few hours of darkness left, and even well fed he was worn from his exertions. He would not make it to her tonight...but he would get as close as he could. He only hoped Othwyn wasn't as useless as he seemed and could keep her safe and hold his keep long enough for him to get to her.
Thea watched from her window as torches danced in the twilight, shaking fitfully in the winter wind as the first wave broke and the men of both camps swarmed the walls. The old, rough stone surrendered itself easily to the hooks, ropes, and ladders appearing along its length.
The men along the battlements rushed from one ladder to another, dislodging the hooks as fast as they could, but their number were too few. Most of Othwyn's men, insufficient as they already were in numbers, stood in the courtyard waiting for the barred door to succumb to the heavy pounding it was receiving, leaving the walls poorly defended. The castle was old and the wood well worn--neither the doors nor the walls could stand long.