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It was a sunny day in Ardeal. The beginning of the harvest had most peasants on the fields. Birds were chirping along to their singing and the scent of freshly hewn grass was in the air.
The daughter of the priest was doing her home chores. Again it happened that a gentle smile appeared on her face and she couldn't prevent it. Elea Sophia had caught herself all morning doing that. Maybe it was time to stop trying to hide her joy. Just the thought of the imminent meeting with Sadden made her heart overflow with happiness and the corners of her mouth moved upward on their own accord.
The young woman tried to distract herself with the daily house work. The chores went over easily as if the broom had been enchanted. Supporting her body on the broomstick, she looked around and saw to her astonishment that it wasn't even time for lunch. That meant that there were still several hours to pass until the break of night. Thinking of that, Elea Sophia shook her head in wonderment. She couldn't recall ever having been as excited in her life as she was in that moment. The young woman had to collect her thoughts in order not to neglect her further duties.
After a glance at the meager contents of the pantry, she went down to Ardeal to purchase a few things. It was market day, which brought her always great enjoyment, because almost the whole village could be found at the market place. As she walked from stall to stall, she glanced around, hoping for a familiar face among the present people. Perhaps Mikahel, Granny Ana or Anatol were about. Deep inside, she wished to find Andrej, because she still had so many questions she wanted to ask him, especially about his work at the castle.
During her leisure walk, she became painfully aware that almost everybody of the small parish went out of their way to avoid her. Furtively, they glanced at her from the corners of their eyes. Only a few deigned to greet her, gave a friendly smile or at least a respecting nod. It made her sad to see that nothing really had changed since the day of her arrival. Though there was no open hostility, the cold gazes and ignorant behavior pierced her heart like a dagger every time. She and her father were outsiders and the people would always regard them as intruders.
At a stall, which was self-built from old boards, she stopped and looked at the fresh apples on display. The merchant there seemed very keen on making her a customer and so the woman praised her goods to the high heavens, going out of her way to be friendly and charming.
Taking a few into her hands, the young woman took in the delicious scent of the apples. After a thorough examination, Elea Sophia bought three beautiful, maggot-free apples with big red cheeks. Dawn would never decline a sweet dessert and maybe her father would enjoy it too. She hesitated briefly to leave the stall, thinking that perhaps Sadden would also like such delicious refreshment. In the end, she decided against it.
"Don't be silly, Elea Sophia," she mumbled to herself. "Sadden D'Azoon is a wealthy lady. Not to forget, she also owns a castle. An apple is a stupid peasant gift. How would she take that? But her horse would like it, if Stardancer is just a little bit like Dawn." She had to laugh at that.
The merchant raised her eyebrows, looking at her questioningly. Obviously, she hoped to sell even more of her goods. "Need anything else, child?" she wanted to know, interrupting Elea Sophia's thoughts. "I guaranty that everything is very fresh. How about some carrots? People say, they are good for the eyes."
Elea Sophia looked up. "Huh?"
The merchant repeated her question, now with an impatient undertone.
"Oh no, thank you. That was all." Once again submerged in her thoughts, she had walked home with her little basket, alone and without talking to another inhabitant.
Dinner with her father had been a quiet affair. Everon sat at the table, watching her, while Elea Sophia cleaned the wooden bowls. Turning around, she met his joyful smile. "You really are very happy this evening, Father," she remarked, sitting down opposite him.
"Yes, indeed. I am very happy, my child, because you are too." He reached across the table to take her hands. "You were humming."
Caught and slightly embarrassed, she blushed. "Oh, did I?" She hadn't even noticed.
Everon nodded and sighed. "I knew it. Rouven was a good choice. Everything will take a turn to the better now. Pretty soon, you will no longer be treated like a stranger. When you are the wife of the future mayor, they will pay you respect like you deserve. And the parish will be guided back to the heart of our beloved Mother Church. Rouven realized this and with you by his side, his virtuous wife, he will set them all on the right way. Yes, indeed. This is God's will and that makes me very happy."
Elea Sophia had to strongly force herself to give him even a little smile. She couldn't reveal the true reason of her happiness to her father. Everon's speech had jerked her from her daydream and reality had finally, and most of all painfully, caught up with her. Rouven. The imminent wedding. No, she didn't want to think about it. She wanted to push that situation far from her, as far away as possible.
"Father, I have a surprise for you," she announced, quickly changing the subject. She cut his apple and placed a plate with the pieces in front of him.
Everon was satisfied. "Oh, how wonderful. Though, I hope it is not from the 'Tree of Wisdom'." He winked roguishly, smirking about his little joke, and began to eat. Afterward, he bid his daughter goodnight and retreated with his bible to the oven bench.
Elea Sophia pretended to go to bed as well. Instead, she paced restlessly in her little chamber under the roof. She tip-toed, always being careful to prevent the wooden boards from making any traitorous noise. From time to time she stopped, straining her ears, listening, inwardly praying that Everon would go to sleep quickly.
She took out Sadden's note, smoothing the paper a long time, even though that wasn't really necessary. Elea Sophia knew the words by heart. Despite that, she read the small note again and again. Her fingers gently caressed each and every ink letter as if there were a hidden secret between the lines, which could only be revealed by touch.
Then finally the long-awaited sound reached her ears; her father's carefree snoring.
Sighing in relief, she placed Sadden's message under her pillow and opened her window carefully. Cold night air brushed against her face and she decided to wear her woolen, hooded cloak. She crept from the house to fetch Dawn and soon after they were on their way into the forest.
Her joy and excitement increased with every passing minute and each step through the night. Unfortunately, nervousness spread as well and doubts rose.
Abruptly, she froze in her tracks.
Dawn neighed and snorted, picking up on her distress.
Elea Sophia turned towards her, calmly stroking her nostrils. "Maybe it wasn't such a bright idea after all. I mean, why would such a fine lady as Sadden want to be with the likes of me?"
The mare scraped one hoof over the moss-covered ground.
"Well, her letter clearly said that... but... but what if this is just some prank? I mean... good gracious... I creep from the house in the middle of the night. What if she doesn't appear?"
Dawn's scraping became more impatient.
Elea Sophia's hands began to tremble and her heart beat faster. "I'm probably just making a fool of myself. In the end, I'll be the laughingstock of the whole village." A sad sigh escaped her throat and she rested her forehead against Dawn's. "Is it wrong to wish for somebody with whom one can really talk about everything? A person one can entrust anything unconditionally, without having to fear consequences?" In this moment she realized that the voice of her heart was desperately trying to convince her mind. "Just what am I doing?" she sighed.
Dawn freed herself from the embrace, regarding her mistress with huge brown eyes, as if to say, and what about me ?
Elea Sophia giggled. "Now, don't look so outraged. You know, you are dearest to me in the whole world. But, you also have to admit that our conversations are rather one-sided, don't you agree?"
The mare lowered her head and bumped the blonde woman's side.
"What is it?"
Dawn bumped more forceful.
Elea Sophia reached for the reins. "Alright then. Let's go." Cautiously, she placed one foot in front of the other, though her doubts had not vanished. After a few steps, she inhaled deeply. "Do you smell that too?"
Immediately, Dawn increased the pace. She was now leading her mistress.
"The scent of burning wood... a campfire..." Elea Sophia said and one hand wandered to the cross, which hung from her neck. Her fingers closed tightly around it. She swallowed hard.
The mare quickened her steps once more. The young woman was almost running along to keep pace with her. "Not so fast, Dawn! With our luck lately, we might stumble into the camp of a nasty robber gang... or a bunch of other scoundrels that won't be well disposed towards us!" At that thought she became scared and was about to turn back.
Her horse though wasn't disconcerted.
"Dawn! Quit acting like a stubborn mule! Let us go home!"
With a mighty tug, the mare freed the reins and galloped into the darkness.
"DAWN!" Elea Sophia was completely taken by surprise as the leather straps slid from her hand. The animal had never behaved liked that. "Come back, right now!" she called after her, pleading.
From a distance she heard her happy reply. Another neighing followed. This one definitely didn't belong to Dawn.
Elea Sophia's heart pounded strongly. "It was a stupid idea. Dear God, watch over me." She closed her eyes for a moment and took a few deep breaths, hoping it would calm her. Her knees started to tremble and the blood was rushing in her ears. Meanwhile, her imagination was creating the most horrible sceneries of things that awaited her, lurking in the dark undergrowth.
The young woman gathered all the courage she had and slowly walked ahead. Her hand was so tightly wrapped around the cross that her knuckles turned white. The undergrowth and bushes in front of her gave way to a small clearing. Elea Sophia's eyes widened and her breath hitched at the sight that was revealed.
A merry fire burnt there. Its wildly dancing flames spread warmth and light, banishing the night's darkness from this place. A canopy of blue velvet had been strapped between the trunks of two mighty trees, forming a sheltering roof over a collection of colorful, silk-covered pillows. In front of them was a low wooden table, laden with small portions of different meals. There was cut, cold roasted meat, grapes, cheese, fresh bread, pies, cakes, as well as fruits and food that Elea Sophia didn't know the name of, because she had never even heard of it.
"T-this... this h-has to b-be a d-dream..." the young woman stuttered, completely overwhelmed.
Cheerful whickering interrupted her thoughts and she discovered Dawn, who stood a bit away and was no longer alone. Another horse had joined her.
"So, this is it," Elea Sophia said in pretended anger and walked towards the animals. She placed her hands on her hips in a stern manner. "You abandon me in the forest while I'm scared to death and why? Because of this handsome guy?" Gently she patted the stallion's white neck. "Hello Stardancer. How are you?"
The horse snorted in greeting. Then he greedily shoved his snout into her cloak's pocket. He had smelled the surprise, which she was hiding there.
"Stardancer! What kind of behavior is that? This is not the proper welcome for our dear guest, is it?"
Elea Sophia whirled around at the sound of the voice. Sadden stepped from the shadows, pushing back the hood of her cloak.
If the priest's daughter had ever seen a beautiful in her life, she was now standing in front of her. Sadden's face seemed like carved from ivory, her skin smooth and even. The blue eyes shone with an inner light. A smile was all it took and any doubts or sad thoughts, which had weighed so heavily on Elea Sophia's soul, disappeared. Her throat was choked up and she didn't know what to say.
Meanwhile, Stardancer pulled impatiently at the young woman's cloak, unintentionally saving her from another embarrassing curtsey attempt.
"Please, you have to excuse his impossible behavior," Sadden said, amused. "But it seems you have something in your pocket that he likes a lot."
"I-it... it's a p-present...," Elea Sophia stuttered bashfully and felt her cheeks redden further. In the last moment she had saved the apple, which she originally had bought for herself, to give it to Sadden. Now the stallion had found it and couldn't be turned from it. As soon as Elea Sophia had taken the fruit from her pocket, Stardancer snatched it from her hand and pranced off, happily munching.
Sadden laughed. "He did like the surprise. I am afraid though that now he will always expect something like that from you."
"Actually, it was a gift for you, Milady," the young woman said quietly, intently studying the tips of her boots.
"Oh," Sadden exclaimed in surprise.
"I know. A present like that is unworthy of you, Milady. I'm sorry... I just thought... I wanted... I..." the priest's daughter muttered, utterly embarrassed.
Sadden reached over, tenderly clasped Elea Sophia's chin and lifted it. "So next time I will have to be quicker and take my gift before my horribly greedy horse snatches it. Do I not?" she asked and winked smiling, trying to take away the young woman's anxiety.
The priest's daughter couldn't help but return the smile.
"We will not let this little incident spoil our evening, will we?"
Elea Sophia shook her head and at the same time the last nervousness fell off her. "She is so nice. No trace of arrogance as could be expected of nobles."
"Alright. Come along then," Sadden replied, directing her to the canopy. "I have a gift for you as well." Carefree, she reached for Elea Sophia's hand, which was still tightly wrapped around the cross. It had left a deep imprint on her palm due to the vise-like grip she had on it. The blonde woman gasped in pain at the touch, her gaze still lowered.
The vampire stopped, her eyes falling on the hand and she saw the mark. "I am sorry."
Elea Sophia shook her head slightly. Hesitantly, she explained, "I was frightened earlier in the woods."
Tenderly, the dark-haired woman ran her fingers across the imprint until it began to fade. "You shall never be afraid again. " She whispered so softly that the other didn't hear the words. But for Sadden it was a vow. One she intended to keep for eternity, no matter the cost.
Elea Sophia shuddered slightly at the gentle touch. At first she thought it was Sadden's cold hands. One glance was enough to show her that the woman was wearing gloves. She remembered their last encounter and how icy Sadden's hands had been.
"You are cold," Sadden remarked, concerned, bringing Elea Sophia back to reality. "Let us hurry to get you to the warming fire."
The priest's daughter did as she was told and lowered herself to the soft pillows. Up close to all the delicious delicacies that Sadden had set up, Elea Sophia felt her mouth water. "This banquet is fit for a queen, Milady."
Sadden grinned in amusement. "So? Should I not treat my friend like a queen?"
Elea Sophia's mouth gaped open in utter astonishment. "Mi-milady, you honor me too much."
Sadden smirked and sat down beside the priest's daughter. Regarding the vivid expression of the deep green eyes, she felt happy. In that instant, the vampire wished the world would stop turning and their togetherness would last forever.
Silence ruled until Sadden lowered her eyes. "Tell me, do you sometimes get this feeling that one is wishing for somebody with whom one can really talk about everything? A person one can entrust anything unconditionally, without having to fear consequences?" Once again, Sadden looked deeply into her eyes.
Elea Sophia froze, thunderstruck. Could Sadden have eavesdropped on her conversation with Dawn? How was it possible that she used the exact words?
"Is it wrong to be longing for a companion?" Sadden continued, waiting expressionless for Elea Sophia's reaction.
Slowly the young woman shook her head, her own emotions threatening to overwhelm her. "No," she finally rasped, her voice breaking. "It is absolutely not wrong, but..." she faltered and inhaled sharply, gathering courage for the next question. "But, why me? I'm the daughter of a simple priest. I neither have great values nor titles or exceptional skills. I have nothing to offer..." she finished, shaking.
Sadden placed one finger against her lips to interrupt her. "Shhh. You have to believe me, this is of no importance. You are a very honest person, Elea Sophia. You have preserved the purity and innocence of your being. These are virtues seldom found among mankind. You could never use anybody or take advantage of another person's bad luck." Sadden stopped. It had not been her intension to reveal so much of her feelings and thoughts, but she had held back for so long. Knowing she was probably overwhelming the other woman, she added in a whisper, "You feel like I do."
Elea Sophia was taken aback in the face of Sadden's opinion. She looked at her, questioningly.
"A deep longing for a soulmate," the vampire clarified. Calmly, she awaited the other's reaction to the statement.
Shocked, the young woman turned pale. "How..."
"That night, when we met for the first time, I heard your song. It touched me deeply, because it spoke from the bottom of my soul."
Elea Sophia blushed and looked down, evading Sadden's eyes that stared at her intensely.
The vampire took her hand, aware that it was on its way to close around the cross again. Sadden held the small, delicate hand in hers. Her grip was very gentle, giving Elea Sophia the opportunity to pull it away if she wished. Sadden waited a few moments and then felt their fingers unconsciously entwine. "I really would like to be your friend... if the feeling is mutual," she said, knowing she had probably wanted too much too soon.
A moment of silence followed that felt eternal to her.
Smiling, Elea Sophia looked at her. "I would like that too, Milady."
The vampire's face lit up with relief. Cheerful, she responded, "First thing is that you quit calling me 'Milady'."
Elea Sophia was still bashful, but said, "As you wish. Sadden, my friend."
The night flew by quickly, while the women talked and laughed together. At last, Sadden had accompanied the priest's daughter to the path, which led to the village. There, they said their goodbyes with a promise to meet again soon. Still, both of them were sad about the parting.
Elea Sophia followed the path and soon reached the house. She brought Dawn to the stables, who went willingly. After taking care of the horse, she stepped outside once more, deeply inhaling the cold night air. Walking towards the door, she found a small, tied bundle on the threshold. She picked it up and opened it curious. "Henbane. Granny Ana told me about it once. She must have left it here. I guess this means she isn't mad at me anymore." The young woman smiled. "A brew of that will help with asthma." For some time now she was really worried about her father, since his usual medication didn't seem to help as it used to before. She also knew that henbane was poisonous if the dose was too high. Despite that, she decided to use it.
Weeks passed, while Sadden and Elea Sophia met regularly at the clearing to spend time together. Autumn came and the days grew shorter. The trees' leaves changed to gold and red and the peasants harvested the last fields.
Lost in thoughts, Lilith regarded the pictures on the sarcophagus. They were still fascinating her. Shadows danced across the hall due to the flickering flames of the braziers. The vampire had ordered Veljanov to ensure that they were always burning. She liked coming to this place to think. Lately, her thoughts had circled around the message, she had received. Melancholy had taken hold of her. "Time passes, inexorable and inevitable. I can feel that the occurrence is dangerously close. What shall I do?"
"You philosophize about time?" a familiar, cheerful voice asked behind her. "And what dangerous occurrence do you speak of?"
Lilith turned around and found herself face to face with Andrej, who looked at her questioningly.
"How could you..." She hadn't noticed his presence before.
"You were lost in thought..." With sad eyes he gazed at the sarcophagus.
Though the vampire was mad at herself, deep down, she was glad that he had come. She had made a decision. "I need to talk to you."
The tall man frowned. Her expression was deadly serious. "Honestly, you are scaring me a bit. I really don't know what to make of that."
"As if I care," she huffed. "Just listen to me."
"By your command," he smirked, playfully saluting her.
"For weeks now, Sadden has been meeting with Elea Sophia in the woods, close to the forbidden lake. You know, who I mean, do you not? I am talking about the daughter of the priest. I told you that Sadden visited her secretly and took her onto a journey into her dreams. You did not care then. Now they are meeting openly and you have to prevent it!"
After a pause, Andrej answered, "Oh. So that is the reason why Sadden has been so happy of late. What's so bad about it?" He shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he didn't understand. "As for Elea Sophia, well, I stay out of her way when I'm in the village. I have a feeling she wants to know more about the castle and its inhabitants, but I don't want to be questioned."
Lilith was beside herself with anger and grabbed his arm. She shook her head. "There is a law. Humans and vampires must not get bound to each other!"
Andrej looked into the vampire's eyes. "Things are getting clearer. Still..."
Lilith flung her arms up, a gesture expressing her helplessness. "Nothing is as it should be in this valley," she snarled.
"It seems that Anatol tells you a lot. I know that you drink from him."
Lilith's face fell. "Then you know a lot as well."
"You don't need to be concerned about the rule. The only vampires in this valley are you and Sadden. Nothing will reach the outside."
"You do not understand. I mean that an emotional bond is strictly forbidden, not what I have with Anatol. Besides, I control him. I know him and I take care of him. Sadden on the other hand... you cannot estimate her. If she reveals her true self to the priest's daughter... Elea Sophia could destroy us with her knowledge."
"You mean then people will know about your existence and the worst could happen?"
Lilith nodded. "And if she will not do it, then her father will without hesitation. We cannot allow their relationship to grow."
"We? Why is it 'we' all of a sudden?"
"There is no other way," Lilith hissed through gritted teeth. She rubbed her jaw, remembering certain former pain.
"You really mean that the both of them have a deep, emotional bond?" Andrej smirked and looked down. "Whatever that means in your opinion."
"You think this is a joke?" Lilith snapped. Trying to calm herself, she added, "You cannot regard this matter with human eyes."
He shook his head strongly. "To me it only matters that Sadden seems happy. I know her."
Lilith glared at him. "You do not know her! You are no vampire!"
Angered, Andrej replied, "It doesn't matter at all what Sadden and Elea Sophia are doing with each other as long as it makes both of them happy."
"How can you even believe that it will make them happy in the long run?" Lilith grabbed his shirt. "The Elders of the Clans will never allow their bond!" she admonished. "Both of them are doomed! And I am in on the secret."
He freed his shirt from her grip. "I don't care if Sadden breaks some stupid vampire rule! Nobody of your kind will ever know as long as you don't rub it into their faces." Andrej took a deep breath. "Just keep it to yourself."
Lilith was speechless. Reaching under her corsage, she pulled out a little piece of wrinkled paper. "Read this," she said quietly. "And think about what I just told you."
Andrej took the letter, his eyes widening surprised with every word he read. The letter slid from his slack fingers. "The vampire clans are coming here? To this valley?" he asked, clearly shocked. He bent down to pick up the letter and returned it to Lilith. "You have to prevent that!"
Lilith scoffed. "Tell me how I am supposed to do that. It is a firm decision and cannot be changed."
Anxious, Andrej began to pace. "When?"
"We will know when the time is right."
"Can you give an even more mysterious answer?" he spat.
"Time is irrelevant for immortals."
He brushed a hand through his hair. "Great, just great. So the whole valley is in danger?"
"No, do not worry. The humans will hardly notice the presence of the clans." With a crestfallen expression, she leaned back against a column.
Andrej's anxiety increased, as did his nervous pacing. "What shall we do? What shall we do?" he muttered, but didn't get an answer. "We have to tell Sadden," he exclaimed suddenly.
"No!" Lilith demanded harshly. "Her condition is not..."
"You can't keep this from her!" After his outburst, he added sarcastically, "Don't you think she will know when out of the blue vampires from all the clans knock on the door? Surprise! We are here for the gathering!?"
The vampire glowered at him, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "If she would not be so infatuated with the priest's daughter, she would feel what is lying ahead." Lilith jumped up. "Let us wait at least before we tell her. I beg you," she announced in a pleading voice.
"Wait for what?" Andrej replied quickly. Then he paused astonished. "You beg me?" They stared at each other and after a moment of silence an understanding seemed to pass between them. "Maybe you are right."
"Believe me, I am right. As long as Sadden's mind is clouded, we cannot tell her about the gathering."
Andrej nodded hesitantly and Lilith released a relieved breath. Abruptly, she changed the subject. "Well, I entrusted a secret to you. Now you have to tell me one of yours."
"What?" Andrej was taken aback. He frowned. "That was no secret. You meant to tell me anyway!"
"True. Though I was not really allowed to do so."
Andrej knew she wouldn't let go of the matter, so he gave in. "What do you want to know?"
"Tell me of the time when you were a little boy and how you revived Sadden."
The tall man cleared his throat. "Of course. That story." He closed his eyes for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Andrej could see it clearly in his mind's eye and he began to talk quietly. The words flooded out as if a gate had been opened. "Then... I was standing in the exact place we are standing right now... the same corridor... I followed my father along that corridor... the same you walked with Veljanov. I was scared, but my curiosity was far stronger. The feeling that my father hid something from me almost consumed me." Andrej walked towards the stone coffin. He placed his hands on the heavy lid, stroking the cold marble. "I saw the sarcophagus for the first time. Here, in this place. It wasn't closed like it is today. The lid had been pushed open halfway." He faltered, overcome by the vivid memories.
It seemed to Lilith that he would not continue the tale, so she tempted him with a question. "Who gave her the name?"
"I did," he answered, his voice strong and clear. "When I looked into her eyes for the first time, I was overwhelmed by unspeakable sadness." Andrej turned and looked at Lilith. "The surname D'Azoon originates from the family that once lived here. Even my father had taken on that name upon our arrival here."
"So she was unable to remember her own name? Interesting."
"Or maybe she doesn't want to remember," Andrej suggested.
"Yes, that is possible." The vampire contemplated the thought. "Perhaps Sadden does remember, but keeps it to herself? There has to be a reason why she is hiding the truth from you."
Andrej paled. "What? How can you say that?"
Lilith pointed at a picture that showed the inferno. "She does remember her family, does she not?"
The tall man stared at her in wonder. That thought had never crossed his mind.
The vampire continued in a low voice. "Yes, she remembers Lisander and Amitabha quite well. She remembers the horrible night and their cruel deaths in the flames, which was centuries ago. Why does she not know her own name? Or the involvement of your father in that matter?"
"How... why..." Andrej stuttered, shocked.
"Veljanov can be of good use," she explained, smiling. "And her 'sanctuary' is quite the sight, do you not agree? It is very impressive. Did she tell you how to carve the statues or did you already have a picture in mind?"
Speechless, he stared at the vampire. He was unable to reply.
"What happened to your father?" Lilith asked then, even though she could already guess the answer.
Andrej regarded her. "You saw my scribble." A tremor went through his frame.
Lilith's eyes sparkled. "He willingly gave her his blood. She woke from it and sucked him dry, until his last drop of blood was gone."
The undertone of admiration in her voice made him shudder once more. "And still you stood by her?"
He cast his eyes to the floor. "Sadden didn't know what she was doing. It took her a while to come to terms with the new time, with what had happened and who she had killed. But it wasn't her fault. My father wanted to wake her. He knew of the danger."
"And why your father of all people? How did he know what needed to be done? How did he know what she was? Why did he bring her here?" Lilith threw one question after another at him.
Andrej shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I've asked that myself a hundred times. He didn't leave anything behind that would give an answer." The seed of uncertainty Lilith had planted was beginning to grow and doubts rose. What if Sadden truly knows the answer like Lilith claims? Why had she never told him anything and left him in the dark?
"Do you remember our talk at the lake in spring? The anniversary of their deaths?"
"Well, I have to admit that I am beginning to find the reason for her repentance quite intriguing. One question though remains... why did you never ask her? Did it frighten you to ask her? Was that the reason you took so much effort wanting me to ask her?"
The tall man remained silent.
"Obviously, you are scared of her answer. Why?" Lilith was enthralled. "This is just unbelievable," she exclaimed in excitement.
"Good for you. Why don't you go celebrate?" he responded, clearly offended.
Lilith smirked and turned to go. "Remember to talk with Elea Sophia. Find a way to keep her from spending time with Sadden. If you will not do it then I will end it. Once and for all!"
"Don't you dare to even consider that!" he shouted after her, before leaving the ineffable place.
The cold autumn morning caused Elea Sophia to wrap the cloak tighter around her small frame. The gray clouds hung low in the sky, adding to the depressing atmosphere. With great effort, she managed to suppress yet another yawn. The aftereffect of many a sleepless night throughout the past weeks was making her weary. After a long tiring walk, she reached the forge at the market place and entered. She could feel the heat of the fire on her skin.
The blacksmith looked up from his task and smiled at the sight of the young woman.
"Good morning, Mikahel," she said and he returned the greeting politely. She pulled a stirrup from her cloak's pocket. "I know that you are familiar with saddler's work as well. The leather strap at this stirrup got torn." She gave him said broken strap. "I was wondering if you can repair it."
"Hmm." Mikahel seized up the leather. "That shouldn't be a problem. Just to be safe, you should get a new one soon."
"Will the mending take long?"
The blacksmith shook his head. "No. You can sit down at the window and wait if you like."
She declined. "That's not necessary. I need some fresh air and will go outside."
Mikahel nodded compassionately. "You really are pale. Are you feeling well?"
She nodded and left with a shy smile. She inhaled deeply in front of the door. Her thoughts turned to Sadden immediately. She couldn't help it. Elea Sophia didn't like keeping secrets, but Sadden had demanded that she mustn't tell anybody of their nightly meetings. Sighing, the young woman gazed at the gray sky. How was she supposed to explain why she rode into the forest at night to meet her anyway? Elea Sophia became aware of a touch. A gnarled hand rested on her arm, interrupting her thoughts
Old Ana had appeared before her out of thin air.
"Granny Ana," she mumbled, caught.
The crone fixed harsh eyes on her until Elea Sophia turned away, uncomfortable. "You didn't come to get new herbs for a long time, my dear. Are you honestly sleeping better?"
The young woman hesitated to answer. Ana probably knew the answer anyway.
The crone's grip around her wrist tightened and she pulled her down to look into her eyes. "Don't be a fool," she admonished. 'There is still time to let go of her."
Confronted with Ana's knowledge, Elea Sophia felt an odd tingle running down her spine.
The gnarled fingers squeezed harder, their nails digging deep into her arm. "You're hurting me," she whimpered and tears gathered in her eyes.
"Turn away from the dark path you're walking, child. Release your soul from the promise of the night."
"What are you talking about? What do you mean?" Elea Sophia asked, confused.
The grip's power increased further and Ana's nails dug impossibly deeper.
"Stop it! Stop it!" Elea Sophia screamed, struggling, trying in vain to escape the clutches of the wicked old woman.
Ana's eyes opened wide and she stared at her, but she held on, developing immense strength. The skin tore and blood welled up. Still, the crone refused to let go.
"Please, oh please..." Elea Sophia cried.
Andrej appeared unexpected and rescued the priest's daughter. He grabbed Ana's shoulders and hauled her off the young woman "You had better leave, Granny. Quit spreading fear and terror!" he pulled Elea Sophia towards him and protectively placed an arm around her.
Ana scowled at him and spat scornfully at his feet. "I curse you and everyone that lives in the unholy castle!" Pointing a finger at Elea Sophia, she added, "Heed my warning and remember my words in the future." Then she waddled off in direction of her hut.
"You are trembling all over," Andrej remarked, looking at the scared blonde. He pulled a handkerchief from his cloak and dipped it into the well's water. "The scratches aren't very deep," he commented, carefully dabbing at the bloody imprints of Ana's nails. After that, he wrapped it around Elea Sophia's wrist. "That will do for the time being."
The priest's daughter was unable to respond.
"The wounds will heal quickly," Andrej promised, attempting to console her. "Come on, let's go to the tavern. I think I know what will help." Keeping his arm around her, they crossed the market place and entered István's establishment.
In the back of the room, Andrej sat her down on a bench and went to the surprised looking Ljudmilla to order the drinks. He returned mute and sat down opposite Elea Sophia.
Soon after, István's daughter appeared and set a small cup of brandy and a mug of beer on their table, peering at them curiously. With a nod, Andrej indicated for her to leave.
Ljudmilla huffed briefly and retreated back to the bar.
The tall man gave the cup to Elea Sophia. "Drink this. It will help."
The young woman stared at the clear fluid in front of her. "Alcohol?"
"It will warm you from the inside. Drink."
Reluctantly, she lifted the cup to her lips.
"Down it in one swig," the tall man emphasized.
Elea Sophia did as she was told and emptied the small cup. Her face distorted in disgust, her body convulsing at the taste.
Andrej grinned as he saw that.
"Dear God, the taste is horrible," she said.
"Well, that is so you won't get used to it," he joked.
"I definitely won't," she responded and leaned back. "Thank you for earlier."
He waved it off. "Ah, think nothing of it. Ana is just a confused, old woman," he explained and sipped his beer.
After a while of silence that consisted of nothing but staring at their respective cup and mug, Andrej tried to begin a conversation. He took another sip and cleared his throat, searching for words. "So, uh... what did Granny Ana want from you?"
"I'm to stay away from her." Unintentionally, the words tumbled from her mouth. Elea Sophia's heart started pounding hard.
"I understand," Andrej replied, his eyes remaining on his mug. He drew his eyebrows together.
"Do you know who I mean?" she asked, wanting to elicit more. "You work for her, don't you?"
"And, will you do it?" he countered harshly.
"No," Elea Sophia answered honestly, regarding him, awaiting his reaction.
Andrej's face didn't reveal anything. He took another swallow of the hop brew. "I don't have any right to demand of her to stay away from Sadden. I can't tell her the reason why it's dangerous. I should have thought about this more." Andrej thought and sighed in resignation.
Disappointed by his silence, or maybe the alcohol had made her brave, Elea Sophia blurted, "I have so many questions. I..."
Rouven chose that moment to enter 'The Howling Wolf'. At first he didn't notice them both in the back and so he went straight to Ljudmilla. Vain as he was, he bent over the bar and started to blatantly bill and coo with the maid, who loved his undivided attention.
"Your suitor seems to have a great time," Andrej remarked with a side glance at the priest's daughter, who blushed.
"You know about that?" she asked, clearly ashamed.
"Everybody in the village knows." Andrej banged his empty mug against the table and Rouven turned around. He looked at them confused until recognition set in. Puffing up his chest, he marched towards them.
"It is your life," Andrej whispered to her and rose from the table to leave.
With a grim face, Rouven planted himself threateningly in front of the tall man. "You are not wanted here," he spat, glaring disapprovingly at Elea Sophia. "And stay away from my bride!"
Andrej's gaze flitted from Elea Sophia to Ljudmilla and back until it finally came to rest on Rouven. "Be glad that I'm a peace-loving man." He walked past the young man and left the tavern.
"You coward!" Rouven yelled after him, angry. Indignantly, he turned to the priest's daughter. "What were you doing here with him?"
"A better question would be, what are you doing here?" she responded in the same tone.
Rouven scowled, not answering and Elea Sophia left without exchanging another word.
Later that same day, the dark clouds gathered further above the valley. It was quiet inside the small church at the village's outskirts. Anatol had just swept the floor of the sacristy. He took a break, watching the swirling dust particles that settled. Tired, he supported himself on the broomstick, glancing around. His curious gaze came to rest on a book, which lay open on the priest's desk. It was Everon's book of heresy. The illustrations it contained frightened Anatol immensely, but he couldn't stop looking at them.
The priest chose that moment to return from a small chamber, where he had prepared this evening's sermon. His body bore the marks of the advancing sickness and his bloodshot, tired eyes came to rest on Anatol, who was still submerged in the book. He jumped when Everon spoke his name. "Oh Anatol, a god-fearing man doesn't need to be scared of the punishments this book contains." The old man patted his shoulder.
Anatol thumbed through the yellowed pages, pointing out an especially gruesome picture. "What is the meaning of this," he wanted to know, unable to take his eyes off the painfully distorted faces and disfigured humans the illustration showed.
"Let me see, lad. Oh yes, the cleansing fire. A great picture. The flames reach high into the sky and reduce the stained bodies of the fiends to ashes."
Frightened, Anatol stuttered, "What are fiends?"
"They are sinners. They sin in the face of God," Everon explained calmly and groaning sat down on a stool. He could see the wheels turning in Anatol's head and so he added, "Sin is among us as well."
Small beads of sweat appeared on the young man's forehead.
The priest saw it. "Every person is a sinner. Your guilty conscience is quite obvious, my good boy." Using his index finger, he tapped the picture in the book. "If you don't want to end like these fiends, you had better confess your sins to me and you will be forgiven." His voice changed and became threatening, further intimidating Anatol.
Despite his frailty, he grabbed the young man hard and panted, "You must confess what weighs so heavily on your soul. Otherwise, it will prevent you from going to heaven!" Everon's eyes grew unnaturally wide and strong coughing fits shook his body. "You will burn in hell," he spat.
Anatol trembled, feeling the old man's nails digging fiercely into the flesh of his bare arms. The priest stared unseeingly ahead, continuing to rave and rant. "I can see the raging battle in your soul! A dark shadow has befallen you. What demon has taken hold of you? Tell me. Tell me!" he ordered, pressing the unresisting, young man to the cold stone floor.
Lying there, Anatol sobbed heart-wrenchingly, "It is a demon of the night that haunts me."
Everon patted his head gently and fatherly. "It was good that you opened up to me. Now we can fight this demon."
"How?" Anatol asked, hoping.
The priest helped him up and took his hands. "You have to resist the demon."
Doubtful, the boy looked at him.
"You need to be free of any doubt and you must have faith in God. Then, and only then, will the demon lose its power over you."
Dusk was falling as Anatol left the church and returned to the village. The beginning of the night no longer filled him with dread. Everon's words had taken hold deep inside him.
Sadden greatly relished the time they got to spend together during the nights of autumn. The familiarity between them grew with each meeting. By then, the vampire had gotten used to the young woman's constant questioning. Her thirst for knowledge had no boundaries and was untamed, which was another attribute Sadden had come to greatly value. A few of their encounters had ended in an excited, philosophical debate. It began quite harmless, until the time Elea Sophia discovered that there were more things between heaven and earth, which couldn't be explained via belief alone. Sadden knew of her strict, god-fearing upbringing, and also that all answers were supposed to be found in the holy bible. Still, she couldn't keep herself from introducing the wonderful world of science to Elea Sophia. To add to her joy, she had started to bring a couple of books from the rich contents of her library. In the beginning, Elea Sophia had been very reluctant and reserved, but step by step, she overcame her shyness of unknown things and submerged herself passionately in each new subject Sadden revealed to her.
It wasn't the vampire's intension to question Elea Sophia's belief in God. She only wanted the young woman to keep an open mind. After all, faith and belief were two completely different matters.
Sadden sighed, looking at the book she had chosen for this night. It was a collection of texts, concerning star constellations and zodiac signs. Still untouched, it lay on the pillows. She had been looking forward to go over the different illustrations with Elea Sophia and to talk about the myths that each of them surrounded.
Elea Sophia finally showed up and Sadden realized immediately that something was out of the ordinary.
A wave of indescribable sadness rushed ahead of the priest's daughter, long before she had even entered the clearing.
Sadden jumped up and hurried towards her, but refrained from assailing her with questions. It would have been easy for her to enter the young woman's mind, but she had vowed to never cross that line unasked. She didn't know if Elea Sophia would eventually open up to her, though she hoped it.
Tired, the young woman dragged her feet and stumbled after Dawn, who happily pranced off to join Stardancer. Usually all it needed was a glance from Sadden to make her smile and light up her eyes. This night, her face was a mask of glumness. She hardly touched her food and contrary to other meetings she was rather taciturn.
Sadden waited patiently. She saw how the young woman rubbed her eyes from time to time, swaying tired on the stitched pillows. All of a sudden she understood the situation. The pangs of conscience attacked abruptly, clawing persistently and merciless at her core. The priest's daughter was obviously overtired and completely exhausted. Sadden reproached herself. In her own world of euphoria, she hadn't noticed how the nightly meetings were taking a toll on the other woman. Wasn't it enough that she was practically forcing her to keep their encounters a secret? Once more she made herself aware of the most important difference between them. An immortal vampire didn't need sleep... but a human being? Elea Sophia had a life besides the nightly meetings and the world of dreams, which Sadden created. During the day she had chores at the house and needed to take care of her sick father. Between that and their encounters there wasn't much time left for her to rest. Maybe they shouldn't meet so often anymore to give the young woman the chance to recover some strength?
Elea Sophia drew her cloak tighter around her frame, shivering under the rough wool. She was cold, even though the fire was directly in front of her.
"Winter is coming," she said, matter-of-factly. "I think it will be a hard winter this time." She yawned again, struggling to keep her eyes open and to stay awake. The trembling increased.
Tenderly, Sadden wrapped an arm around her and spread out her own cloak to cover both their bodies.
Grateful, Elea Sophia rested her head against her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong tonight. It seems I'm frozen inside and no fire can chase the cold away."
"You are tired. You need to sleep," Sadden whispered, lowering her chin until it rested on the priest's daughter's head. She pulled her closer.
Elea Sophia's hands found the glove-covered ones of the other woman. She held on to them with a sense of desperation. "I don't want to sleep," she whimpered like a petulant child that tried to fight sleep with all its might.
Sadden smiled. Then she began to hum. The melody came to her naturally. She hesitated briefly as she noticed that it was Amitabha's lullaby.
"That's a pretty melody," Elea Sophia mumbled unconsciously, almost lost in the realm of dreams.
"I know," the vampire responded, tears glistening in her eyes.
The accustomed melancholy tried to overwhelm her, but Sadden battled it with all her power. The only thing that mattered at the moment was the young woman in her arms.
Concerned, Sadden regarded her in the light of the campfire. "Something must have happened," the vampire whispered under her breath.
The flickering flames drew dancing shadows on the sleeping woman's skin, enhancing the dark rings under her eyes. The closed eyelids fluttered and twitched. Even in sleep the priest's daughter was wrinkling her forehead.
Sadden lifted a hand, rubbing a finger gently over the deep worry line between the dark blonde eyebrows. "Something is bothering you, my angel. I know it for sure." She rocked her gently, listening to her even breathing.
Meanwhile, the fire burnt down. "I will add more wood. Sleep, my heart," she breathed and placed her lips in a tiny kiss against the other's forehead.
Sadden wanted to disengage from the embrace, but at the attempt Elea Sophia's eyes flew open and panicked her hands tightened their grip around the vampire's. "No, please don't!" she exclaimed, heart-rending. "Please, don't go away!"
Sadden was taken by surprise and looked at her in wonderment. "I did not mean to leave. I just wanted to add some wood to the fire. It is about to go out," she explained.
"Oh." Utterly embarrassed, Elea Sophia let go of her hands and cast her eyes to the ground. A gust of wind blew some strands of hair into her face. She didn't take any effort to push them away. She felt silly. What would Sadden think of her now? First she fell asleep and then she had acted like a little child, whose sleeping doll had been taken away.
After Sadden had re-built the fire, she sat down beside her and brushed the loose blonde strands behind her small ear. "Are you alright?" she asked, deeply concerned.
Elea Sophia remained silent.
"You do not need to tell me, if you do not want to. Just know that friends are there to listen."
Reluctantly, the priest's daughter looked up. Her lower lip trembled slightly and tears gathered in her eyes.
Undeterred, the dark-haired woman continued, "If there is anything that bothers you..."
Elea Sophia flung herself at her, embracing her fiercely before Sadden was able to finish her sentence. The dam, which had held back her emotions, broke. "I just don't want to lose you!" she sobbed in despair. "It would be my death! You are the only friend I have in this cursed village!"
Deeply moved, the vampire closed her eyes and returned the embrace. "You are not going to lose me. Not ever." It was another vow that Sadden took in the still of the night.
The final obstacle between them had been removed. Elea Sophia had wanted nothing else but to hear these words and she didn't want to put her faith in anything else. Completely overwhelmed by emotions, she didn't notice how cold Sadden's body was while they held on to each other tightly.
A pair of jealous eyes observed the happy moment from the shadows of the trees. But the women were too engrossed in their luck to realize the presence.
The wind carried the howling of the wolves from the mountains to the lake. The air was damp and cold. Restless, Lilith paced at the shores of the forbidden lake. Five years had passed since the first lesson and during that time she had never been forced to wait for Andrej. He had been always the first to arrive at the appointed place. Lilith looked at the castle, which sat there silent and lifeless, a gray monster of stone. Only a few dim lights could be seen.
"You look sad," Andrej's voice sounded next to her.
The vampire whirled around, hissing angrily, "How many more times do I need to tell you? Quit sneaking up on me!"
"Maybe your subconscious knows that I'm no threat," he quipped.
Lilith stared at him. There he stood in the light of his torch, wrapped in a cloak with a warming fur around his shoulders, tall and strong with a small smile on his lips. She felt she saw him truly for the first time.
The tall man frowned, slightly uncomfortable at her lingering gaze. "Are you well?"
"Fine. Tell me how your talk with Elea Sophia went. Sadden has left the castle in direction of the woods, a whole lot of ghouls and luggage trailing behind her!" she raged, her voice dripping with anger.
Andrej sighed, defeated. "I really tried to talk to Elea Sophia."
"You tried? You should not have tried! You should have forced her to end it!"
"I can't order her to stop seeing Sadden, can I?"
Incomprehensively, Lilith flung up her arms, at a loss of words. She forgot her fury as her eyes fell on Andrej's right hand, which held the torch. The veins were clearly visible due to the cold. She could see the life pulsing there. She could smell his blood.
The tall man didn't notice where her hungry gaze lay. "I think their friendship will be put to the test anyway."
Lilith perked up her ears. "What do you mean?"
"Come spring, Elea Sophia will marry Rouven Dimov."
"Rouven?" The vampire contemplated the thought. "Isn't that the foolish son of the mayor?"
Lilith closed her eyes, all her senses fixed on the blood in his veins. It called to her and instinctively the vampire heeded. She pulled herself together and asked, "Does Sadden know?"
Andrej shrugged his shoulders, regarding Lilith, who took a step backward.
"Can it be that the adorable little maiden is keeping secrets from Sadden?"
He ground his teeth. "She isn't the only one, don't you agree?"
Lilith didn't hear his last words. Her eyes tightly closed, she listened to his calm heartbeat. She was fighting the seducing call of her thirst.
Unexpected, Lilith was brought back to reality. Andrej had a tight grip on her arms and was shaking her. "When was the last time you drank?" he wanted to know.
"He is hiding from me... he is never alone..." she mumbled, dazed. Her eyes opened, catching him off guard, hypnotizing.
Almost too late Andrej realized that he was in danger. He was at her mercy. The torch fell to the ground as the vampire sought his warm body.Lilith deeply inhaled the scent of his blood, her hands going straight for his strong throat. Using only little force, the vampire pulled him down towards her, her hands gently brushing aside his dark-blonde hair to reveal his throat. The artery pulsed under her fingers. Her lips touched his skin, searching for the right place. Her instinct ordered her to finally drink all his blood in order to quench her terrible thirst.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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