Mira Ch. 06bysecretme©
A gentle breeze sighed as it swept through the branches of the trees surrounding the clearing. Rillan never could decide if the empty clearing late at night was peaceful or ominous. He waited in the shadows of the cave mouth until he was positive no one was watching. Slinking through the shadows he made his way to the stone basin where letters were left for him. Cold acceptance was all he felt as he saw the parchment, gleaming white reflecting moonlight in the darkness.
I knew it would happen, he told himself. The past few months have been more dream than reality anyway. He didn't know if the annoyance he felt was with himself or with the druids. Without looking at it he pocketed the letter and gathered the supplies that had been left. Arms full of bags of food he trudged through the caves. Normally he would take the food in to Mira's store room, but he didn't want to face her just yet. Dumping the supplies in a storage room off the main hallway, Rillan headed for his rooms.
A sweet cheerful melody called to him as he passed the door to Mira's room. She played for him often lately. Usually the sound reached into him, drawing a long absent smile from his lips. Now it only served to remind him that this happiness was fleeting. He closed the main door to his rooms behind himself. Upon reaching his bedroom, Rillan reluctantly pulled the letter from his pocket. Sitting down in a large chair next to the fireplace, he held the letter in his hand, staring at it.
A long moment passed while he contemplated the ramifications of not taking the assignment. In all the years I've done this, no woman has ever affected me to this extent. Rillan growled at himself. This is my job. He turned the letter over with intent. A red wax seal held the letter closed. He barely glanced at it as he broke it and opened the folded parchment.
"Tiberius Caelius Novanus," he read aloud. Rillan didn't know the man. He had been underground too long to know the current leaders. This was yet another point of contention in his mind. He was torn between being blissfully unaware of who he killed and keeping tabs on current events if only to keep the druids honest in their targets. The only problem with the later was the guilt he felt when he knew of the families the men he killed left behind.
Ripping the parchment into several pieces he stood and tossed it into the fireplace. He rarely lit the fire, preferring the darkness in his rooms. This was one of the few exceptions. He always burned the parchment that bore the names of his victims. Flames leaped up from the old coals in the grating. Slowly the flames danced higher, licking at the wood until the paper lying on the top of the pile caught fire. Rillan watched the paper burn, the red seal melting to run like blood into the tinder.
As the fire blazed in the hearth Rillan returned to his chair, considering how he would prepare Mira for what was to come. There's always the chance that it won't take long and it won't be too bloody. The possibility exists that I'll return here with my mind intact. Rillian could count on one hand the number of times that happened. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, while the fire burned on. This was inevitable. I knew that the assignment would come. But so soon? The fates couldn't have given me a year or two with her as she is, he thought.
Rillan couldn't stop thinking about all the time he spent with her since he gave her Elizabeth's room. It started with helping her move the things she wanted to the room. After that she offered to play some music for him. Within days he found that he was rarely without her. At first he believed it was only the dark loneliness of his well furnished tomb that brought her to him so often. When she began making it clear that she liked sleeping in his bed or having him in hers, he began to wonder if she truly felt something for him aside from fear. He had yet to have that conversation with her. For the moment he was happy in his oblivion. The last of the flames shrank into the coals and even the glowing embers were fading. Forcing himself to bottle his upset, Rillan composed himself, took his heavy cloak from the chest at the end of his bed and left his rooms.
On the way to Mira's rooms he stopped in the large main room at the end of the hall to collect his sword. Lifting the weapon, Rillan examined it as he contemplated the number of heads the blade had severed from bodies. I suppose there is some comfort in the idea that the blood is on the sword and not my hands. He collected his sheath from the weapons rack and thrust the weapon into the soft, supple leather, hearing the familiar thwack as the hilt stopped against the lip of the sheath. Clearing his mind of all thought he strode out of the room and down the hall.
He only briefly knocked on the door before letting himself into her room and walking down the short hallway toward her bedchamber. Fresh night air greeted him as he opened her door. He smiled and shook his head. She never closes it. Remembering what he was there for, the smile fell from his face. Mira lay asleep in her bed. There were times with women before her that he didn't bother to warn them or say when he was leaving. He shoved the thought out of his mind. She deserved better than that.
Moonlight puddle on the bed around her head and shoulders. She had moved the bed beneath the shaft so that she could stare up at the sky. The soft white glow exaggerated her pale skin. She looks to be a spirit or fey. Rillan reached out and stroked her cheek gently. "Mira, I need to speak with you."
There was just enough volume and insistence in his voice to wake her. Mira stretched happily, the blankets falling away to show that she was naked in bed. She smiled up at him sleepily. "I had resigned myself to sleeping alone tonight."
He eyed her skeptically, staring at her bare breasts. His hand trailed down the side of her neck, along her chest, and skimmed teasingly over her nipple. "Do you always sleep naked when you believe you'll be sleeping alone?"
The stoic tone in his voice told Mira that something was wrong. "What is it?"
Refusing to think any more about the situation, Rillan sat down on the edge of Mira's bed. His voice hard and forceful, he stared unwavering into Mira's eyes. "I won't be staying tonight. I need to feed and then I leave on assignment."
Unconsciously Mira pull the blanket to cover herself. A chill went through her body at the image summoned up in her mind when he mentioned feeding. No matter how much I love the man, I think I'll forever fear the demon. "Alright," she said meekly. "Do you know when you'll return?"
"No. Be prepared for the possibility of something worse than the first time I used you."
Something about the way he phrased it made Mira cringe. "Okay," she said, overcome with grim acceptance.
Rillan watched her staring at and clinging to the blanket. Anger and frustration with himself took hold of him. In a sudden rush, his eyes sunk into his head, black as night. The skin of his face seemed to pull tight to his skull, making his mouthful of dagger sharp fangs appear lipless and larger, protruding from his head.
Mira suppressed her scream, as she shrank back from Rillan. Usually the room was pitch black and she only had to submit to rough hands in the dark, then pain that caused her to black out. The moonlight on his face was more than she could handle. As Rillan moved in to take her, she fainted. The vampire cared little for whether his prey was conscious or not. Tearing the blanket from her breast, Rillan descended on her with fiendish pleasure. Biting down viciously on her collar, he reveled in the feel of warm blood, thick and sweet, spraying into his mouth with each heartbeat. Clawed hands wrapped around her upper arms tight enough to pierce the skin and leave bruises to form in the morning.
He needed very little blood this time. After he took his fill, the vampire stood, leaving Mira lying across the bed awkwardly bent over. He walked toward the shaft in the ceiling, staring out at the moon. The vampire didn't even spare a glance back at the crumpled form in the bed. Leaping up into the shaft as if the movement was second nature, Rillan was a blur of dark movement, crawling spider-like along the stone walls, casting a shadow over Mira, until he slunk over the crest of the shaft into the night.
Mira woke, hunched over in bed, with an ache burning in her back and hip. Sunlight beamed in through the open shaft, onto the bed. Lifting her face toward the light she let the warmth seep into her skin. Images of her last moments with Rillan flashed through her mind. Ignoring them, she wonder how long she was out and when Rillan would return. His words haunted her. The last thing she wanted was another awakening like that first one.
Sighing, Mira pushed the blankets back and stood, stretching her sore body. She looked up and out the shaft again, grateful that he allowed her to have the luxury of being able to see the sky. With that thought in mind Mira set to work preparing the room for the misery she anticipated. She moved the chamber pot closer to the bed, made sure the pitcher had fresh water, and she began preparing stew with the intent of keeping it going until the ordeal was over.
The moon slipping down beneath the horizon would have told Rillan that it was time to find shelter for the day, if he hadn't felt the sun sneaking up behind him. His path, carefully planned, took more than a week to reach Noviodunum. As fast as he traveled, the dawn always forced him into hiding, impeding his progress.
Small stone and timber round houses, cared for and watched by the druids, served as way stations, strategically placed in his path to the city. He traveled this path so many times over the years he could have done it in his sleep. Rillan walked through the door just as the sun peeked over the tree line. He closed it securely behind himself and then made his way to the straw filled mattress on the floor. He didn't even bother to light the fire. He knew he wouldn't need it. Periodically, over the years he had lit the fire as a pleasant distraction. The last few trips, however, he had taken to sleeping from the time he walked in until he had to leave. He spent less time thinking that way.
Rillan felt as though he just closed his eyes, when he sat up on the bed and noticed that there was no light filtering through the cracks in the old build's roof or corners. He took a moment to stretch and yawn before slinking out the door into the night.
The first few nights went the same as every other assignment. Sleeping through the day and moving with the night wind as soon as the sun vanished from view. Two days from the city, just as the first light of the day began to color the sky Rillan came to that used to be his stopping point. The round house foundation remains were long cold and the surrounding forest was silent. Rillan guessed that the burning took place days before if not longer.
Walking around the pile of ash and stone that used to be his shelter, Rillan found no sign of who had burned it or why. It may be possible that someone in power in Noviodunum knows I'm coming. If the caretaker had gotten away from this then we would have known that the place was burned. So either he's dead or captive. Rillan looked to the lightening sky. I wonder how much he told them and if the safe houses closer to the city are destroyed as well.
Accepting the possibility that there may be no more shelter between himself and Noviodunum, Rillan pulled the hood on his cloak up and pulled the heavy wool around his shoulders, careful to obscure as much skin as possible from the oncoming light. It wouldn't kill him, but it would be painful and completely drain him before he even reached his target.
Rillan kept to the shadows as much as possible. Travel was slow going. He didn't want to get into town with obvious burns on his face or hands. Most people wouldn't know what he was. Still they may think he carried some disease. That would make getting a room at the inn nearly impossible.
The sound of horse hooves pounding through the dirt prompted Rillan to take to the trees. Hiding in the branches of a tall oak, he watched several uniformed men on horseback charge through the woods. He couldn't help his suspicion, considering he wasn't traveling on a trail of any kind. When the horses disappeared into the trees, Rillan climbed down again.
Risking exposure to the sun he chose to speed his travel. Something isn't right, he thought. He contemplated the circumstances of the assassinations he had performed over the past few years. They were all political, by his understanding. That could mean attempted retribution for any of the factions that may have been affected by the death of a leader. I suppose there has to be someone in Noviodunum intelligent enough to draw a connection between the assassinations and the druid nations. As intelligent as the elders are, I can't imagine that no one has noticed over the hundreds of years that I've been doing this that the people who die are the ones who lobby for northern assimilation and movement.
Near nightfall he came to the remains of the next round house in his path. As he knelt to examine some ashen footprints in the underbrush, shuffling from nearby bushed caught his attention. Darkness was descending on the decimated clearing. Knowing that he was already seen, Rillan stood and pushed the hood of his cloak back. Rillan's eyes bled to black and sunk into his skull. His senses sharpened and the sound of a rapidly beating heart called to him. Turning toward the sound, Rillan cocked his head and peered menacingly directly at the source of the sound. Shallow breathing quickened in the darkness.
"I can smell your fear," Rillan hissed at the hidden prey.
Suddenly a flurry of movement burst from the bushes and a human form scrambled into the trees, running for his life. With the callous nature of any hunter pursuing his prey, Rillan followed with practiced ease. In a matter of moments he was behind the figure. Savage clawed hands grabbed a flailing body and slammed it into a nearby tree. His head hit the tree with a sickening thud.
"Give me a reason not to drain your life and leave you as carrion for the wolves," Rillan sneered, in a deadly undertone, through a mouthful of daggers. The demon didn't register that the form he menaced was only barely a young man.
The boy whimpered an inaudible response, as the vampire drew closer. Wide eyed with terror, staring into black, lifeless sockets where eyes should have been, the only thing the boy could manage to say was, "please."
The distinct foul odor of urine assailed Rillan's senses and caused a pause. Somewhere, far off in the black of the forest a desperate voice called out, "Briac! Briac! Where are you boy?"
Reality swept in and the vampire retreated. When Rillan looked at the boy again he was unconscious and had peed himself. Rillan laid the boy down on the ground and stared at him with sympathy. The fates have blessed you with great luck child, Rillan thought, realizing that he was more on edge than he had thought.
Turning toward the concerned calls in the darkness Rillan decided to chance that the boy and whoever was looking for him were not a threat to him. He had some questions that they may be able to answer, and he wanted to know why they were this far from the city at dusk. "He's here," Rillan called out in answer to the increasingly frantic cries.
"Where," the voice returned.
"Here. Follow my voice."
Minutes later a short, barrel-chested man in roughly made brown breeches and vest came into sight through the trees. "Thank the fates," he breathed heavily when he saw the boy lying on the ground. He brushed past Rillan and knelt next to the Briac. "Do you know what happened here, stranger?"
"He appears to have fainted," Rillan responded sympathetically as the man examined the boy. "I believe he hit his head. I think I frightened him. He ran."
The man looked up at Rillan momentarily. "He has always been skittish." The man paused and wrinkled his nose as he noticed the urine stained pants. "I told him not to wander off." He stood up and offered a hand to Rillan in greeting. "Well met, my friend. I thank you for your help. I never would have found him if you hadn't called out. I'm Brian. The lump on the ground is my son Briac."
Rillan nodded and clasped the man's wrist. "Rillan. Please don't thank me. He would have found his way back to you himself, if I hadn't scared the wits out of him."
"The fool deserved it. I told him to stay close. The wood is dangerous these days. My camp isn't much, but you're welcome to share it if you wish. Safety in numbers." The man released Rillan's wrist and bent to pick up the boy. He lifted Briac easily and threw him over his shoulder to take him back to his camp.
"I appreciate the offer, but I have a long way to go yet."
"You're traveling at night?"
"I've never had trouble with it before," Rillan replied, as they walked toward Brian's camp. "I'm not from this area. Can you tell me why you speak so ominously and yet are in the forest yourself."
Brian gave Rillan a sidelong suspicious look. "You haven't heard about the upheaval in Noviodunum?"
Rillan sighed heavily. "No."
There was a long pause as Brian debated how much he should say to a complete stranger he found standing over his son's unconscious body in the forest at night. He was starting wonder if Rillan had more to do with Briac's condition than he had originally thought. Clearing his throat he decided on some common knowledge information that couldn't get him into too much trouble if this guy was one of Tiberius' men. "A new militant faction has come to power. The new senate is bent on fortification of the current holdings. There have been some attacks from barbarians to the east. But more than that, they're recruiting for the army."
Suddenly Rillan understood why the man and his son were in the forest a day's hard travel from the city. "Recruiting?"
Brian stopped walking and faced Rillan as if to answer a challenge, a hard angry look in his eyes.
Rillan held up his hands and shook his head. "I'm nothing to do with the army, friend. Honestly, do I look like I belong in the army?"
Brian really looked at Rillan for the first time. His clothing was a bit old fashioned, but well made. To Brian's mind, Rillan looked a bit out of place. It's almost as though someone plucked him from a 100 years ago and set him down in the forest. Still, at least he wears breeches and not a toga or kilt. "No. I guess not." Brian backed down and started walking toward camp again.
"So are the burned houses part of the recruiting process," Rillan asked. If it's wide scale then it may not have anything to do with me.
"I wouldn't put it past them to burn houses. They don't like being told 'no,' and they like making examples of people."
Rillan nodded contemplatively. "And what of the settlements to the north?"
"I've seen several groups of men marched into town in chains. Pressed into service. I guess Tiberius is desperate enough for soldiers that he's collecting men from the northern communities. Keeps them in the army under threat of harm to the women and children left behind."
Rillan had fallen victim to a similar recruiting method in his youth. Anger boiled in him. At least I know that this target deserves it. "If Tiberius is taken out of power, who takes up where he left off?"
Brian paused again and shot Rillan a measuring look. "Could be anyone in the senate. One tyrant is about the same as the next."
"I guess it's too much to hope that he might be replaced by a good man," Rillan said, staring off into the darkness. As the men emerged from the tree line, Rillan spotted a small pile of gathered sticks and branches alongside two small packs.