I hope the holidays are treating everyone well ^__^
Have WIP snippet. This is from Red and Rapunzel, which Sasha has assured me does not in fact need to be thrown out.
It was bad enough when the women started vanishing, but even after the fifth one was gone from her bed in the morning, with no sign of what dragged her away but muddy footprints and a broken door, it was not enough to send for help.
But when the child's remains were found … then they had no choice.
The villagers chose their fastest horse and most capable rider, and sent her hastening toward the capital to summon a Huntress.
By the time she returned to say a Huntress had been summoned, two more children had died.
By the time the Huntress arrived so had three more women.
It was damp, cold, and foggy when Adamina arrived. Few people were out of doors, and they fled quickly upon hearing the clop-clop of an unfamiliar horse. Torchlight flickered here and there, but was not strong enough to puncture through the fog.
The creaking of a sign stirred by the wind drew her to the only place likely to have such a sign in so small a village. She smiled when she drew close enough to see that the sign simply read Inn & Tavern. If ever it had possessed more of a name, all traces of it were long gone.
Passing through the gate to the right, she walked slowly until she found the stable. Once her horse was settled, she carefully crossed the courtyard until she came to the door. Warmth washed over her as she opened it and stepped inside.
A man scrubbing the floor gaped at her, eyes the size of dinner plates. Ignoring him, Adamina continued down the hall until she came to the archway leading into a small, but clean and moderately well-lit dining hall. Perhaps fifteen or so people filled it, huddled in clusters that kept close to each other. Fear lingered sharp on the air, pungent as fresh dropping. She wrinkled her nose and took a seat near the middle of the room, giving her space without setting her completely apart.
"Can I take your cloak, Huntress?" A large, heavy woman with graying, orange-red hair set a pitcher of hot ale and a cup on the table, then a platter of bread, butter, and honey. "Dry it off by the fire for you? I'll have food along shortly."
"Thank you," Adamina replied, and handed over the long, heavy red cloak she wore. The woman stared at it in awe, but then smoothed her expression out into a briskness that seemed more typical as she bustled it over to hang on a hook close to the fire.
Though her distinctive cloak was gone there was still her red tunic, and even were she naked the red eyes, nails, and lips would mark her. She quirked a brow, mouth curving, as she caught a cluster of young men staring. Had they ever had a Huntress in the village before? The woman clearly knew her business, but she could have learned of Huntresses somewhere else.
Leaving the young men to their staring and whispering, she cut a slice of bread and smeared it with butter and honey. Her stomach growled as she took a bite, then washed it down with the dark, faintly smoky tasting ale. She'd finished two slices of bread and nearly two mugs of ale by the time the woman brought her a bowl of soup. "That smells wonderful," Adamina murmured. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, my lady. We are grateful to have you here."
Adamina was fairly certain grateful was not the word. Desperate was far more like it. But she appreciated a polite reception rather than a cold or outright hostile one. "Thank you. I hope I am swiftly come and swiftly gone. What is the soup?"
"Beans, carrots, onion, pickled cabbage, some herbs. A splash of milk for additional heartiness, but that's still within the bounds of the Huntresses, yes, my lady?"
"Yes, thank you," Adamina replied. "You seem experienced in our ways."
"My grandmother was a Huntress, Goddess rest her soul. She was slain by a manticore when I was a girl."
Adamina ran through the list of Huntresses. "Lady Wynn. She is still greatly missed, a Huntress as strong as the Duchess Redd. I am surprised you did not follow in her steps."
The woman shrugged. "I tried, but I showed no affinity for it." She shuddered. "Seeing what is done to those poor women and children … I do not think I am strong enough. I gladly leave the slaying of monsters to women better suited than me." She smiled. "My strengths lie in the kitchen and ordering people about."
"Good leaders and good food are essential. Thank you again for the meal."
"Let me know if you need anything else." The woman bustled off toward the table of whispering boys, said something that sent them scattering, then vanished into the kitchens once more.
Adamina ate her soup, ignoring the stares she could feel like cold fingers. Beyond the warm walls of the inn, past the dark and foggy streets, the forest beckoned with cracked and broken whispers.
She had heard of the Broken Forest, separated by magic from the greater forest to which it had once belonged, blackened and poisoned and left to go mad. What had done the deed no one knew … perhaps she would be the one to solve the mystery at last.
If that was supposed to be an honor, it was one she would gladly pass on to another were it possible.
Heavy footsteps drew her attention, and Adamina looked up to see three men draw close. "Shouldn't you be out there, killing whatever needs killing, before it kills more of us?"
"Only a fool would venture into a dangerous wood when it is dark and foggy. A hunter who cannot see soon becomes hunted. If you want the monster dead then trust me to know my business."
"My wife is dead!" One of the men said, smaller than the other two, ragged around the edges. "That thing—I never saw it she was just fucking dead and you're eating soup—" He stopped as Adamina stood.
Moving around her table, she stepped in and pressed a hand to his chest, looked down into his eyes. "I traveled three days and three nights without rest to answer your call. Even know I listen to the forest's whispers and I shall know if the monster lurking in them slinks out. When the sun is up I shall find it and kill it. I know your pain, good sir, but if you do not trust me to know my work then more people will die. Let your friends take you home with them now."
He opened his mouth, closed it, then seemed to wither and did not protest when his friends drew him away, casting apologetic glances over their shoulders. When they had gone Adamina resumed her seat and meal, until there was nothing left but the dregs of the ale.
The woman came bustling out a few minutes later and gathered up all the dishes. "I've had a room prepared for you, sent up a pitcher of hot water and soap. If you want a bath, I'll see it's done, my lady."
Adamina shook her head. "The hot water is all I need, thank you. The meal was delicious." She glanced around the few people who still remained, bent over their ales and clearly reluctant to venture home. Victims, or feared becoming victims? Looking back at the woman, she asked, "Who should I speak with to learn all I can about the women taken?"
"Anyone, really," the woman replied. "It's a close village, though I can't say it's because we're loving and one large family. It's because of that damned forest, you'll be pardoning my language, my lady."
"Of course," Adamina replied. "That forest is dangerous; you are wise to stay close. If you can spare the time, tell me about the women. Otherwise, send me to someone who can speak with me for an hour so."
The woman pursed her lips in thought. "You'll want to visit Matlock—Mr. Peter Matlock, that is. He's what passes for a healer around here; we have to send up to Norton for a real healer when it's bad enough. He probably knows a few things people like to think the rest of us don't, if you follow. He'll still be awake this hour, hoping to be of some help before another dies, bless his soul. Just turn right out the front door, stay on this side of the street until you come to a building with an old green door."
Adamina nodded and stood, set a few coins on the table. "Thank you, madam." The woman nodded, tucked the coins away, and bustled off. Adamina fetched her cloak from beside the fireplace then headed out.
The old green door proved as easy to find as promised, and she gave it several soft raps, squinting through a dirty, smudged pane of glass, unable to catch more than shadows and a couple of flickering lamps. After a moment the door swung open. "Has there been—oh! My-my lady, please come in." The man in the doorway hastily stepped back, pushing at the slightly crooked spectacles he wore, combing through messy brown hair as he hastened over to where he had been reading a book and drinking what smelled like mulled wine. "Can I offer you a drink?"
"No, but thank you," Adamina replied, and sat in the second chair when he gestured she should. "The woman at the inn told me that I should speak to you about the women and children who have died, that you might know something that connects them that no one else in the village knows—or should know, anyway."
"Peter Matlock," the man said. "An honor to meet a Huntress." He took a gulp of wine. "I can tell you something, actually, and it's not common knowledge even in a gossipy old village like this one. The women had all been branded, and the children were all witch-potentials."
Adamina nodded, mouth tightening as her problem abruptly became more complicated. Not too complicated for her to handle, but if there was a monster about feeding on witch-potential then magic was involved. She'd already suspected it given the nature of the forest itself … but anything that fed on people who'd had their magic sealed away was powerful, hungry, and only going to get more dangerous. "Who else here has been branded or will be considering it someday?"
Picking up the book he had set aside, Peter pulled out a small slip of stiff, crackling paper filled with neat lines of writing. "These are all of them. I was considering speaking to them, but I was afraid that if word got out …"
"You were right to hold your tongue," Adamina replied, thinking of all the witch burnings born of panic and desperation. Magic, the problems it caused, and the fear of it had finally driven Queen Redd III to pass a law: all those who possess the ability to practice magic must register with the crown and either pursue the practice under the watch of the crown or have their magic sealed away to live as a non-magic person.
Nearly everyone with the potential chose to have their magic sealed away—branding, it was called, because the special seal, usually placed somewhere discreet on the body, resembled a brand.
Those who were permitted to practice magic were few: the Sorcerers of the Royal Guard, the Huntresses, and a small smattering of independent witches, though those dwindled in number every year.
"Thank you." Adamina tucked the slip of paper away as she stood. "Blessing of the White upon your house."
"Strength of the Red on your journey," Peter replied.
Back in the inn, Adamina used the warm water in her room to clean her face and hands, then bundled up in her cloak on the bed and closed her eyes. She curled her fingers around the pendant hanging from a short, black leather cord around her neck: a silver wolf head with garnet eyes. It was almost hot to the touch, the magic panting hot and heavy in her ear with impatience for the hunt. "Tomorrow," she whispered, and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
The soft growl of impatient magic stirred her as the gray haze of sunrise slipped through the cracks and seams of the walls. Adamina yawned, rolled over onto her back in bed and stretched with a long groan. Work, work, work. She had thought after her last case that she would have a chance to return to the castle and rest for a little while. Nine months she had been gone from the castle? It felt much longer than that.