Daughter of Darkness Chapter 1

The rising of the sun drove me to solitude. For seven days, I met each dawn by bathing in the ice waters of the stream beyond the marauders’ camp. It was to there I crept. The sentries watched me for signs I might run away and speak of their haven. So far, I’d given them no reason to turn on me. But they didn’t trust me.
And they were right, for one day, I would betray them.
Not this day, however, and not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to, not at all.
Limping from an arrow wound that hadn’t yet healed, I reached the stream. In the days past, I’d been able to kick through the ice, to submerge myself fully in the frigid waters. I’d chilled myself to the bone, turned blue, all to get rid of the filth that lay upon me.
It was a futile effort. The blood had long since been scrubbed clean, but the stain on my heart, the ruin in my blood, could never be washed away.
Still, I liked to make her angry. She complained I misused her body, squawked at the wrinkles the cold brought about, at the waste I was letting take over. I ate like a bird, if at all. She was very vain, the voice in my head.
I knelt to the stream. Loose, my hair hung straight to the hollow of my back. The locks were glossy, and contrasted in a stark way around my face, like a shadow over the moon. A natural cowl to hide my shame. I usually braided my hair, to keep it out of my way, but I’d decided it was time for a change.
My reflection stared back at me from the frozen stream, details not clear but for one difference. The irises of my eyes were orange. They hadn’t been blue for days now. A reckoning churned on the tides of fate. My life was promised to Aiia.
She cackled in my thoughts. What that meant, who She was, I’d only know for the briefest moment before it happened. I assumed I’d cease to be Cadda after that. My body would live on, but where would my thoughts go? Would my essence linger with my body, or would I enter the Darkness and surrender my body for her use? I shuddered, wondering what she would do with it.
I withdrew the only blade I allowed myself to carry – a kitchen knife, suited more to slicing bread than cutting through skin. It would do for my purpose. It was sharp enough. I gathered a lock of my hair.
My grip on the knife faltered. It clinked against the ice.
“My body is yet mine,” I said, retrieving the knife. A spasm rocked my hand. She knew what I intended. Our minds were intertwined, like the limbs of lovers basking in the afterglow of a rutting. Whereas She was one with me, however, I knew nothing of her desires. Nothing except what she deigned to tell me.
Incredibly unfair, but that was life, wasn’t it?
“I hope you will like the new look,” I said in Ruromanni.
Fighting against the spasms, I brought the knife’s edge against my hair and hacked through the locks. She screamed, piercing my mind, so that I winced. But I didn’t stop, even though the sound grew fiercer and louder. I laughed.
When it was done, when much of my hair lay scattered atop the snow like discarded raven feathers, like the remnants of the bird that fought and lost against a lynx, she quieted.
I felt lighter. My hair brushed against my cheeks, tickled even. It hadn’t been that short in all my life. Twenty-one summers had passed since my birth, seven since my death. I doubted I would see another summer, let alone spring.
Sighing, I picked up some of my hair and let it scatter in the wind. An offering to the blessed Ientu.
“For Hann. For Iliatos.” I closed my eyes. “For Ry.”
She mocked me with a laugh.
I bit my lip, stymied the string of curses that wanted to let loose.
How I yearn to come out and play. You seek to hurt my vanity by mutilating all that is good about you, but it will not stop me. My aura will be enough to lure.
The seventh anniversary of my death and rebirth had come and gone somewhere between the time Hann poisoned Ry and I claimed the king hostage. Ever since then, She had a big mouth. Once I might have thought I was as crazy as Esmond, if Lord Kenric had not warned me about this. If Matron Brogia had not confirmed the pact she made with the queen of the Darkness – Aiia.
I flipped the knife over, the blade stuck to my sleeve. I pulled the sleeve down, revealing my wrist. The Blood of the First Ones flickered orange in my veins.
“I have not even begun to mutilate myself,” I said, or thought. I could no longer tell what was kept inside or uttered aloud. Lucky I was alone. My reputation among the marauders did not need further sullying.
The blade of the kitchen knife felt cold against my skin.
You would not dare.
I detected a hint of worry in her tone.
Smiling, I poked the tip of the knife into the bottom of my palm. “Perhaps if I open my veins and let the Blood empty out, you too shall leave my body. What say you to that?”
She laughed.
A bargain struck is a promise kept. It would serve no purpose other than to hasten the inevitable.
I wondered what she meant by that. “Perhaps you lie. You do not want to possess a marred body.”
Even marred as this skin already is, whatever more you do to it will pale in comparison to what I am in the Darkness.
“Are you Aiia?”
“A giantess, a First one, then?”
She gave no answer.
“So be it. Remain a mystery if that is what suits you. But know this, if you must have me, you will not have me whole.”
I sliced downward, from the end of my palm to the bend of my elbow. Blood trickled out, slow at first, and then in a steadier stream, and crimson colored. The pain was nothing, the physical hurt, at least. With a lump in my throat, I realized the Blood of the First Ones would keep to my veins. The more of my own blood I lost, the less of me there would be, and the more the orange liquid would take over. She would take over. Cutting would bring no relief.
I felt her smugness wrap around me and roared, tossing the knife aside. Then I broke through the ice with my fists and plunged my bloody arm into the frigid depths. There would be no full bath that day, the ice was too thick beyond the shore. Even so, I left my arm in there until it was numb. I would have left it there until it froze off, just to spite her, but She forced it free.
You should thank me. Losing the sword arm would be a disaster.
“I will never thank you.” With a grunt, I stood and made my way back to the marauders’ sanctuary.
I got you this far. I will go even further.
A flash of memory ran through my mind – Lord Kenric taunting me in the Darkness, telling me I’d only gotten so far thanks to her, whoever that was. I didn’t believe him and I wouldn’t believe her. Had I never died, I would have been skilled. Perhaps, not as strong or quick, but I was my father’s daughter. I was always a good huntress and brave. I had no doubt I would have avenged him even without my curse.
Whatever helps you sleep at night.
“Go away!” I paused, making fists of my hands, desperately wanting to run Niri through her and shut her mouth permanently. But I’d lost Niri and She was in me. The years of silence before now had been a mercy. A grace period, perhaps. If I were as brave as I claimed, I’d end myself, only I thought it would just make things worse.
Smart girl.
I flexed my hands and continued onward, ignoring the suspicious looks the two sentries sent my way. They must have thought I spoke to myself. At least they had no understanding of my language. All in all, I had bigger things to worry about than a couple of distrustful louts. Make that a couple hundred louts. None in that camp trusted me, save Matty and perhaps Wyot.
It was to them I went, my former comrades-in-arms. They sheltered me in their tiny hovel. Matty willingly, Wyot, I wasn’t so sure. He’d saved me from the king’s men, a moment in time he perhaps regretted. I was the king’s she-wolf. Or, I used to be, until the king wanted me dead. The marauders hadn’t known what they walked in on, what they fought against. But the king had been there for the taking, and Esmond had gotten away. He might very well turn his wrath upon the marauders.
Unless they gave me up.
And unless they gave me up, Wyot’s comfortable little world he’d made with Matty would be destroyed. Ground into dust because in one instant, he chose to save the life of an old friend without knowing the consequences. I didn’t blame him for the weary, mournful looks he sent my way. It was the second time I’d caused an upheaval in their lives. This time might not be for the better.
The outside chill followed me into the hovel, where the night fire died out slowly. I poked at it until it grew enough to shed warmth. Matty and Wyot stirred beneath their bedcovers. I seated myself at the table and waited.
Such a domestic sight. We do not belong here.
“For once, you are right.”
Where shall we go then? Home?
“Never home. Not while you live within me. And do not forget you caused me to be banished.”
She laughed.
“Cadda?” Matty tossed the covers away and sat up. She rubbed her eyes of sleep and arranged her hair. “Are you talking to yourself again?”
“No. I mean, yes.” I sighed. “I must speak to you both, when you are awake.”
“I’m up,” Wyot said, arising from the bed. He was shirtless for a brief time.
That is a fine male specimen. We should bed him. Why have we not bedded him yet?
I looked away. “You have asked a dozen times and my answer remains the same.”
It means nothing to me if he is attached to the female.
“It means something to me.”
You are too chaste. I will enjoy possessing you fully. I will have him and perhaps even sample the female.
“Still your tongue!”
In answer, she ran my tongue over my lips rather obscenely right as Matty took a seat across from me. I jerked my head in the other direction.
“What are you babbling about?” Matty asked.
“I do not babble, I speak Ruromanni.”
“Aye, sorry.”
Matty would not be sorry if she understood my words. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and attempted to regain control of my mind. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes She would go away, at least for a little while. How much longer I could succeed at this, I couldn’t know. I didn’t think much time remained to me.
“What did you do to your hair?” Matty’s fingers brushed against my cheek as she reached for my shorn locks.
I shrugged. “Too many tangles.”
“I could’ve helped.”
“It is nothing,” I said, leaning away from Matty.
“You’re bleeding.” Matty reached for my sleeve, which unfortunately was stained from the cut I’d made to myself. Before she could roll it up to see the mess, I pulled away.
“An old stain,” I lied. She probably didn’t believe me, but it didn’t matter. I’d fix it up myself later.
Wyot joined us, depositing a pitcher of water on the table. He poured some into cups, pressing one in front of me.
“Did you go out again?” he asked.
Mother Creator, I felt like a nasty child under his gaze. A nasty child who has been caught in the wrong. “Yes,” I said. They didn’t want me going out. It was dangerous, they said. Many of the marauders were poor excuses for people who wouldn’t hesitate to do me harm. The truth was, I was more dangerous to them. A part of Matty and Wyot knew that, I was certain, but they held back from agreeing with me. My morning jaunts were a compromise. I had to go out. They could no more keep me in the hovel than they could a wolf in a cage. It wouldn’t end well. For anyone.
Wyot leaned forward into his hands and muttered something into his palms before pulling back. “I told you—”
“I know what you said. And you know what I said. I cannot stay here. If I knew your safety would be assured, that there would be no retaliation against you, I would have left the day you brought me here.”
“You’re still injured,” Matty said. “If you try to leave they will either drag you back under someone else’s protection or kill you.”
“Then let them!” My fists came down onto the table. I didn’t mean to be so harsh but sometimes that is the only way to get a point across. “They will have the right of it.”
Matty shook her head. “Don’t say that, not after Hann. I’ve lost too much already.”
My heart twisted. “I have ever been a burden to you. You would do well to be rid of me.”
“Let me be the judge of that.” Matty stood and paced, a flush of anger reddened her cheeks. Wyot reached for her wrist and halted her mad stomp around. She calmed a little under his touch. I averted my gaze, feeling a loss.
“Oberon is due to return today,” Wyot said. “For better or worse, Cadda’s fate will be decided.”
“I will decide my own fate.”
“And in so doing, you will decide ours as well.”
The warning look on Wyot’s face was enough to chasten me. He was right. Wyot had brought me here. If they let me go, there was no telling what would happen to them. I was a big catch. I couldn’t have their blood on my hands. They were bloody enough.
We could take them with us. They would make good slaves.
Well then, bloody your hands. It is the only way we will be free.
“Not with theirs.”
You do not have to murder them, only make it look like you fought them to escape.
A part of me liked that idea. And then She cackled.
“I will not hurt them. Be quiet, witch.”
Matty and Wyot stared at me curiously. They’d been patient with me the past seven days, enduring my odd outbursts. Glad they could not understand my native tongue, I huffed. If they didn’t know my history, surely, they would think I was a madwoman. Perhaps I was. Perhaps I wished to be anything but what I really was – a revenant, a daughter of Aiia.
I inclined my head. “I will meet Oberon and hear him out.”
But I would not let him decide my fate.