A maid on a journey with her master's murderer. First short story I've ever written.
She was cold. The night was cold and the wind passing through the valley they'd camped at felt like a thousand sharp needles attacking whatever exposed bit of skin it could find. She curled up as tightly as she could under the thin blanket Master had given her, but it did nothing to alleviate the cold.
They had travelled so far from home. She didn't know which part of Asatia they were in, though Master Rick seemed to know his way around and constantly consulted a map, which was meaningless to her.
She felt numb, the incident days ago still replaying through her mind.
"Master Rick?" she breathed, eyes wide as saucers as she tried to break free of the thing's grasp. It had spoken with Master Rick's voice. She knew Master Rick had been locked away two weeks ago, so what was this?!
The thing...She could not find a better word to describe it. All she could see was a patch of black, roughly the shape of a man. She couldn't hear any breathing from it. She could not hear what should have been loud footfalls as it all but dragged her through the passageways of the Franks Manor. But it felt real. She could feel fingers digging into her wrist, even though she could see no hand there. Just a fuzzy black shape, like a cut-out into nothingness.
It did not respond to her quiet, terrified pleas. She tried to call out for the Master and the Mistress, but it pulled on her arm until she stumbled. It caught her by the shoulders.
"Be quiet, Shelly." Master Rick's voice said, even though she was looking into a face of pure darkness. Her heart was in her throat and she could scarcely breathe. "Wh-Where...Where are you taking me?" she managed.
"Somewhere far away, Shelly." the thing said, giving her shoulders a squeeze. She felt sick. Tremors were racing down her spine and it felt like they were emanating from where the creature was holding her.
She couldn't bring herself to look the thing in the face so she turned her head away.
Then it burned the house down. She remembered the heat of the flames. She remembered the screams inside the house. She had finally raised her voice, crying out for the Master's family.
Her tears were hot as they rolled down her cheeks, down her arms as they cushioned her head. She could feel rain against the back of her neck. Her grief was threatening to come pouring out her lips, which she'd tried to keep sealed.
"Shelly, turn around."
She hastily wiped her tears away and turned. It was dark anyway. He wouldn't be able to see.
He lay under his own thin blanket a few paces away, facing her. He looked dishevelled after nearly three weeks without care. His stubble, sparse at sixteen, was starting to become unkempt. His hair had grown and it was not in the brushed back style that she was used to seeing. It was all over the place. Their flight from Detritus, their hometown, and their subsequent camping every night and walking every day had done nothing for him. He was gaunt. She knew she didn't look much better. Already small for her age, Shelly's hair was tangled and knotted and there was nothing she could do about it. She didn't care about it. Who cared about appearance when Master and Mistress and...and Kendall were gone?
He'd done it! He'd taken them away! How could he do something so horrible?! How could he kill his own family?!
His golden eyes, glowing in the dark, seemed sad. "...You must hate me."
She looked down. His attempts at conversation ever since they'd left had always fallen short. He had been quite lively before. Before his change. Before everyone was shown the reason for his golden eyes. Ever since the morning a maid had walked into his room to deliver his breakfast, all Shelly had heard about him was "Rift-touched". In hushed voices, the servants had spoken of him, with much more reverence than before. They had been afraid. She knew now that they had been right to.
He had always intimidated her, forcing his presence on her despite her timidity. She knew why she was the only one he'd taken from the house before setting it on fire. It sickened her. She belonged...had belonged, to Master Kendall. Kenrick would never measure up to the man his brother had been! She would never accept him! He could kill her too, if he wished!
"...I'm sorry." he mumbled. Then he sighed and turned around. "I suppose it's no good saying such a thing, is it? Even if I feel like it wasn't me who did it, it still felt like my hand lit the fires. Try to sleep, Shelly. We'll be up early."
As if she could sleep! He was a monster! How could she relax in the presence of a monster?!
The days turned to weeks. They stopped by villages when they could, to get some decent food, a good night's rest at an inn, a change of clothes, and provisions for the road ahead. Those were the moments when Shelly felt strongest, felt like she might be able to survive if she escaped him, like she might be able to alert others to his crime and get some justice for her murdered master and his wife and son.
She couldn't. He had put no restraints on her. He had not even said that she had to stay by him. Because he knew. She had nowhere to go. She had no one to turn to. A young lass of just fifteen years, she had only ever known how to do household chores. She had been born into servitude, but to a loving master who had spoken to her as if she were his daughter. He had been kind to her. He had sheltered her only because her mother had been well-liked in the house.
The only family she knew was gone. But there was one part of it that remained. One filthy, traitorous part. Perhaps she stayed because she thought maybe he'd kill her too, put an end to her misery and her indecision. She was so weak.
He always booked them two separate rooms and called her his sister, to assuage any suspicions the innkeepers might have of a young man and woman travelling together. She knew his real feelings towards her were not so filial.
At one inn, she ventured out of her room when she heard loud voices. It sounded like a bunch of drunks, cheerily belting out songs at the tops of their voices and otherwise just being rowdy. She shied away from situations where she had to face other people. Even getting past her door had caused her heart to stutter, but she did it anyway.
Hearing how loud and slurred the voices were at the top of the staircase, she almost turned away. What did she hope would happen? Perhaps it would be best to just take a tumble from these stairs.
If she'd had that much resolve, she would have done something a lot sooner. She couldn't do it, not so intentionally. Recalling Master Kendall's smiling face, his strong arms around her, she steeled herself and thumped down the wooden stairs.
There was an intense-looking woman in a black skirt and blouse crooning to the room from the back, her lustrous golden hair falling in waves around her severe face. Save for a few tables closest to her, she went largely ignored, her voice barely heard over the din of the drinkers at the bar. Several people were seated at tables, eating heavy meals. Most of the noise seemed to be coming from the bar, where a row of men were sitting and talking while they enjoyed their beers.
"It's not a good idea for a little lady like yourself to be here," a barmaid said, navigating around a cluster of men about to sit at a table, her arms laden with trays of empty dishes.
Shelly went further into the room, trying to stay calm and composed, as if she was used to being in the same space as big, burly, drunken men all the time. She wasn't sure she did a good job, because plenty of men winked at her. One even tried to pat her head, though she skittered away so fast that she didn't take note of anyone behind her.
"Hey, watch where you're going!"
Eyes going wide at the sheer size of the giant before her, Shelly tried her very best not to curl up right there and start crying. "I-I'm...I'm sorry..." she mumbled.
"What did you say?" the giant demanded, taking hold of her by the collar of her blouse. Several people cried out, two or three of them even grabbing hold of his arm and trying to talk some sense into him.
This is what you wanted, Shelly reminded herself. Goad him. Let him hit you. So what if he does? Who's going to care?
She recalled Master Kendall's face once more, willing her love for him to become her resolve. Not long now, she promised.
"I-I said you're an oaf!" she spat out, as loudly as she could. Her voice still didn't carry, but the defiance on her face must have caused the giant some distress. His face turning red, he yanked her forward and then threw her back. The people attempting to hold him back cried out along with her, one of them stumbling. More people joined in in telling the giant off.
Shelly had no idea what was happening. The voices all seemed to be coming from miles away. Her vision wobbled as she raised herself onto her arms. People were trying to help, what she assumed to be their concern just meaningless gibberish to her ears. Then didn't help for long. The arms trying to help her let go. The voices stopped. What was happening? Was the giant coming in for another go? Good!
There was a breeze coming in through the room. No, that wasn't right. It didn't come and go. It circled. The warmth of the room began to dissipate as Shelly suppressed a groan and held the side of her face, which had hit the floor. Why was it cold now?
Gentle hands helped her straightened up. The room had become silent, but for mutters here and there.
"There's a Rift-Touched!"
"He's a Rift-Touched..."
"...This cannot be good!"
"Le-Let's get out of here."
"...First time seeing one."
The breeze was getting colder still and she realised it was centred around her and Master Rick, who now stood beside her, one hand in hers and his other arm around her waist. She shivered. The woman at the back, who hadn't immediately caught on that there was a situation, could still be heard, though her voice also fell silent soon enough.
The giant who'd pushed her also looked uncertain. Afraid, even.
"Nobody lays a hand on Shelly." Master Rick said, his voice cold.
His eyes glowed brighter than they usually did. The breeze around them was picking up. People were muttering prayers under their breath now, having realised he was the cause of the sudden wind. Some were rushing to leave.
"Master, let's leave, please." she beseeched, noting the hungry look on his face as he gazed at the giant. "Please, please..."
"Nobody is allowed to lay a hand on you, Shelly." he repeated, his eyes not moving from his target. Feeling cold tremors running down her spine, Shelly pulled on his hand as she continued pleading with him to let it be.
He walked her to the side and, pausing a moment to rest his hand against her cheek, he walked into the centre of the still chamber. A large number had already left. Some tried to approach Master Rick, to talk to him while attempting to hide their nervousness, to ask if all was well with hopeful if flimsy smiles. He ignored them and continued towards the giant.
She saw his ability for herself then. Each Rift-Touched had a special ability, far and above that of an average human. She had heard about his, from the many rumours the Franks Manor staff had been spreading since he'd been locked away.
He could change his form.
They were on the move again. Shelly was crying, much more openly now. He had chosen to take on his brother's form. It had been like a dream, until he'd started hurting people with that friendly face, with hands she had always thought of as large and protective.
He was a monster, but he was all she had. He was the only link that remained to Kendall.
"Will you..." she said hesitantly, "...show me his face again?"