by Norsebard







This fantasy action adventure story belongs in the Uber/Original category. All characters are created by me, though they may remind you of someone.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

This story contains a touch of genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.





Written: For the 2016 Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Invitational.

- Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur & Phineas Redux :D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: Life has treated young Brianna Eberlind and her family well since the fateful night one year ago where they had to flee the fire that devastated their old village. They've established a new home in the village Dreckston in County Demoronia on the Third Continent, a settlement that's inhabited by simple people with old-fashioned traditions and religious beliefs - like Sahrwinn, the day and night where the denizens of the Underworld cross the dimensions and enter the realm of the living. As Brianna is trapped in a whirlwind of events, she must rely on the help of Roland, an ancient, mythical hero, to break free, but even he isn't what he seems…





The metal hinges squeaked in protest as the sturdy, wooden door they were fastened to swung open. Though no actual rain had fallen during the night, the late-season weather lived up to its reputation of being chilly and clammy. Winter would soon be upon the small, rural village of Dreckston, draping every house and the surrounding fields in a thick blanket of white.

The seventeen-year-old Brianna Eberlind stepped out of her parents' two-and-a-half-storey town house and shut the wooden door behind her. She needed to put down the bast basket she carried as she worked the metal latch, but she still didn't have enough hands to control the door and her long, reddish-blond hair that had given her plenty of grief when she had tried to comb it earlier in the morning.

She scrunched up her fair face into an ugly grimace as she realized the damp conditions still made her hair behave in the oddest of fashions. The situation would improve over the course of the day as the traveling sun would heat up the air and reduce the moisture in the atmosphere, but the following morning would see the ancient game start over.

Shivering, Brianna pulled the woolen cape closer around her slender shoulders and leaned down to get the basket. Because of her needing to sort out her messy hair, she was already running a little late getting to the baker's. She knew her father would be upset with her if she returned with nothing but leftovers, so she stepped off the doorstep in front of their home and blended into the traffic that seemed to flow towards the marketplace at Dreckston's central square.


The sea of humanity filling the cobbled streets and alleys was worse than it used to be on Brianna's morning trips to the bakery, and she scrunched up her face in a worried grimace once more when she realized there was a real risk she would arrive so late that all she could choose from would be scraps, crumbs and misshapen lumps of bread that had already been poked, prodded and rejected by countless fingers.

The villagers around her greeted their friends and acquaintances while speaking in hushed tones fit for the early hour of the day. Brianna hardly ever engaged in casual conversations with any of them. It was inappropriate for a young, unbetrothed girl as she to speak to boys of similar age without adult supervision, and the adult villagers still treated her and the rest of her family as rank strangers despite the fact they had lived in Dreckston for nearly a full turn of the seasons.

Even the garments worn by the Eberlinds were different. The local women all wore bonnets or small pillbox hats, and coarse dresses that reached to the top of their ankle boots. The men were outfitted in heavy, high-waisted pants and matching jackets that could withstand a lot of punishment when they toiled away on the many fields surrounding Dreckston. Most wore clog-boots, though the length of the legs varied. Every piece of clothing in sight was held in shades of brown.

Everything except the simple though exquisite jade-green frock Brianna Eberlind wore under her woolen cape - another reason for wrapping the cape tightly around her slender frame. Her father was a master craftsman, a tailor and dressmaker who could take the simplest of fabric and create elaborate gowns fit for royalty. The dress had a narrow waist, a flared lower hem, fanciful puff-cuffs at the wrists, and a soft, white lining throughout.

She had received it as a gift on her fifteenth birthday to mark her official entry into adulthood. It had soon become her favorite garment, but there was no denying it was night-and-day different to what everybody else in Dreckston wore. It created whispers and sideways glances. She knew, but she tried not to let it bother her.

A gap presented itself in the human traffic ahead of Brianna, and she slipped between an elderly lady and a farmer trying to shove a pushcart across the uneven cobblestones without dropping his valuable load of late-season fruit.

Pulling up her woolen cape and the elegant frock it covered, Brianna let her ankle boots do the talking and squeezed between two further villagers just as she turned off the connecting street and went onto the central square.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she let her spring-green eyes roam over the hustle and bustle of the marketplace - there were fewer people there than she had feared, and some of the traders were still setting up their booths, carts or makeshift stalls. The bakery was in full swing, however, and the line was growing even as she watched.

Not wanting to waste another moment, she forged ahead and soon reached the end of the line snaking its way to the counter. The baskets containing the freshly baked bread were still full, so a small grin played on her lips as she reached into her own basket to find the coin pouch.

"A good morning to you, fair Brianna," a female voice said behind her.

Recognizing the voice at once, Brianna turned around and reached out with her free hand. "Oh!  Good morning to you too, Valeria!  Why, I never noticed you were there…" she said while a genuine smile graced her features.

The freckled, ash-blond Valeria Sallaman was a housemaid for one of Dreckston's most influential families and thus wore a uniform-like outfit consisting of a black dress over a tan, o-neck shirt. She was six years older than Brianna and far more experienced in the ways of the world - at least, that's what the village scuttlebutt said.

Usually, Brianna wouldn't dream of listening to gossip, but in this case, she knew from the many personal talks she'd had with the housemaid that the gossip wasn't far off the truth. Unlike Brianna - and the vast majority of the young, unbetrothed girls of Dreckston - Valeria wasn't a virgin. Just thinking about their frank talks concerning the joys of carnal pleasure brought a blush to Brianna's cheeks.

Valeria smiled back. "Well, that comes as no surprise, really," the older housemaid said as she gave Brianna's free hand a little squeeze. "You were almost stampeding to get in line."

"Ha, yes. Father gets so upset with me if I fail to bring back his favorite morning treat."

"Oh, but you needn't worry. By the looks of it, there's plenty on this fine morning," Valeria said, peeking around the line ahead of them. A wicked grin played on her lips as she looked back into Brianna's spring-green eyes. "Speaking of plenty and fine… Brianna, did you meet or see the new owner of the Speckled Rooster yet?"

The line finally moved, and Brianna and Valeria each took a step forward. "No?  I didn't even know the Speckled Rooster tavern had a new owner."

"It's a woman. However, I fear that merely calling her a woman does not do her justice… oh, you will know what I mean when you meet her. She's a foreigner, I think."

"You think?"

Valeria grinned and leaned down to Brianna's ear so she didn't have to shout it to the crowd around them. "She certainly isn't of peasant stock. She gave me a nice, little thrill when I spoke to her the other day," she said while her eyebrows performed a little wiggle.

Brianna blushed and looked away from the older, and far more experienced, girl. Valeria didn't flaunt her special preferences to the world, but she had let Brianna in on the secret in one of their talks. At first, Brianna had been mortified that Valeria would perhaps attempt to put any moves on her, but after a lot of soul-searching and reams of closely-written pages in her diary, she had come to the startling conclusion that it would indeed bring her great pleasure if Valeria ever tried to put any moves on her - alas, the older girl never had.

Valeria's closing statement hung in the air. Brianna knew she had to make some kind of intelligent reply, but nothing would come to her that didn't involve blushing. In the end, she settled for a vague "I see," while another layer of red tinted her cheeks.


Brianna moved up her bast basket and took a deep whiff of the delightful scent that rose from the freshly baked items she had bought at the baker's - a loaf of white bread, a smaller loaf of rye, and four crusty rolls that had been sprinkled with poppy seeds.

Smiling from ear to ear, she draped a protective sheet over the bread and turned around to follow Valeria away from the line of people. The older housemaid carried a basket containing four loaves of white bread for her Master, but she resisted sniffing the contents. "Ahhhh, Valeria, I cannot tell you how much I enjoy the smell of hot bread. It makes my stomach leap for joy!"

"I can tell. I can hear it all the way over here," Valeria said with a grin.

The two young women smiled at each other before they set off for home, moving through the crowd with fast but unhurried steps. Most villagers were heading towards the marketplace so getting home was akin to swimming upstream, but it had to be done quickly so the bread would retain some of its pleasant warmth.

When they reached the connecting street, Valeria moved out her hand to touch Brianna's elbow. "I wish I had the time for a longer chat, Brianna, but my Master is a most impatient man. I've tasted his belt once, and I do not wish to do so again."

"We shouldn't tempt fate, I agree. Perhaps we can meet this eve?"

"Not tonight, I fear," Valeria said and shook her head. "The youngest child is poorly so I'm pressed into service as the night nurse as well."

"Oh… all right. See you tomorrow morning at the baker's, then," Brianna said and returned the little squeeze. After Valeria had begun walking back to her Master's house, she turned around and offered Brianna a little wave that was reciprocated in kind by the young woman.


Brianna was just passing by an eerie stone sculpture in the middle of the village square when, out of nowhere, someone grabbed her woolen cape. A heavy hand slammed down onto her shoulder, trapping several locks of her long, somewhat unruly hair.

The weight of the hand and the pain that rose from her scalp made her let out a brief shriek and come to a sudden, jerking halt. The contents of the bread basket nearly went overboard and onto the filthy, cobbled square, but she managed to hold onto everything. "By all the Gods above-" she cried, but was cut off at once.

"Beware!" an old man yelled into her face, exposing her to a foul stench of ale, stale port and ancient filth that escaped his skin and clothes. "Beware, fair maiden!  Flee!  The Serpent cometh!  It'll come for you!"

"Aargh!" Brianna cried, wrestling the heavy hand off her shoulder so she could at least get her hair free. She only had moderate success, but the sight and the smell of the old drunkard gave her the impetus she needed. With a groan, she forced the hand off her, but just as she was about to run away, the old man moved with surprising speed and grabbed hold of her free hand.

The smelly drunkard held it so tight Brianna couldn't escape, and even forced her closer to him. "Heed my warning, fair maiden!" he said, leaning in towards the far younger woman. "On Sahrwinn, the Serpent will come for you… soon. The Serpent cometh!"

Brianna shied back, staring daggers at the old man and his watery eyes, ruddy complexion and four-day stubble. Clenching her jaw, she yanked her hand back, but she wasn't strong enough to spring herself from the man's grip. "I beg your pardon!  You are drunk out of your mind, Sir!  Let go of my ha-"

"No!  Heed my warning… you must hide or flee!  On Sahrwinn, the Serpent will come, and it will not rest until it has feasted on pure, untainted flesh… your flesh!  Dreckston cannot live in peace until the Serpent has consumed you… the Serpent cometh!"

As raw anger - and a good dose of fear over the man's terrifying words and peculiar behavior - bubbled up inside her, Brianna shook her head and yanked her hand back as hard as she could. It worked, and she found herself free of the man's grip. She didn't want to give the drunkard a third chance at grabbing her, so she spun around and stormed away from the creepy character before he had time to react.

Her ankle boots weren't made for running along a cobbled street, but she pushed the quibble aside while she tried to gain sufficient distance between herself and the disgusting old man in case he was going to follow her. It wasn't until she nearly took a nosedive onto the hard surface as the sole of her boot slipped on a crooked edge that she slowed down to a fast walk.

Further down the street, she moved the basket's protective sheet aside to see if the bread was still present and in good shape. It was, so she moved the sheet back and focused on getting her heart out of her throat and down into her chest.

A chill rippled across her body, and she had to look over her shoulder to see if the drunkard had followed her. There were plenty of people behind her, but they were all regular villagers going to, or coming from, the marketplace.

Suddenly shivering from the terror she had experienced, Brianna ducked behind a wooden sign that stood outside the Speckled Rooster tavern. She wiped her damp brow as she peeked past the sign and onto the cobbled street. So far, the old man was nowhere in sight.

The sign was an advertisement for the tavern's own ale, and it struck Brianna that hiding next to a tavern perhaps wasn't the smartest place to be considering she had been pestered by someone who had clearly been a drunkard.

Since there was no proof that her foul-smelling assailant had followed her, she let out a sigh of relief and stepped away from the wooden advertisement. The Speckled Rooster was her father's preferred haunt on the few occasions when he needed a night out, and she had even worked there herself as a table cleaner and dishwasher - but only for a fortnight until her mother had laid down the law with the proprietor.

That thought made Brianna consider Valeria's words about the Speckled Rooster's new, female owner who was apparently quite the looker. It was enough to bring a small smile to her lips, but the dark prospect of once more running into the disgusting drunkard overpowered that and made her hurry home.


The old man's unsettling words continued to echo in Brianna's mind as she finally reached the sturdy, wooden front door and began working the metal latch. It was recalcitrant even on a good day, and the day she was having certainly couldn't be called good.

"Oh, that wretched, difficult piece of…" she mumbled as she had to put down the bread basket and use both hands to manipulate the latch. A prolonged, metallic squeak proved she had finally persuaded it to open, and she exploited that fact fully by grabbing the basket and hurrying inside.

The first thing that happened to her inside the poorly lit hallway was that she barged into a figure who had been standing just beyond the door. The second thing that happened followed at once, and it turned out to be the catalyst of a whole sequence of reactions: Someone cried her name in a muffled voice - and not only did it make her jump up on trembling tip-toes, her throat contracted and her heart nearly burst out of her chest. Dropping the bread basket onto the floor, she drew a deep breath and prepared to let out a scream loud enough to peel the decorative wallpaper from the hallway's wooden walls.

"Brianna, really!" the mysterious, dark figure cried in a muffled voice. "Child, what's gotten into you this morning?"

Continuing to tweak the nose that had been assaulted by her daughter's shoulder when she had stormed through the door, Sannita Eberlind stepped into the cone of light produced by the single, wall-mounted candlestick that was protected by a glass housing.

She and her daughter shared so many features neither would ever be able to claim they weren't a blood relative of the other. A mere eighteen years older than Brianna, Sannita had the same color hair, the same color eyes, the same basic proportions and the same mannerisms as her daughter. Giving birth to two children had left her body more plump than the slender, agile Brianna, but everybody knew it would only be a matter of a few years before the younger of the two Eberlinds would once again resemble the older after her own inevitable pregnancy.

"M- mother?" Brianna croaked, trying to see beyond the golden spots dancing in her vision from the emotional strain she was under. "Mother… oh, thank the heavens…"

Letting out the breath she had been holding, she seemed to deflate right in the middle of the hallway. Moments later, she noticed the loaf of rye bread had been thrown onto the carpet, so she crouched down to dust it off and put it back in the basket.

Sannita rolled her eyes and crouched down beside her daughter to help her pick up the errant loaf of bread. "Was the task of going to the baker's too difficult for you?  You certainly took your sweet time getting back. You know how Father gets when he can't get his regular breakfast treat!"

"Oh, Mother, I had the most dreadful, dreadful experience!" Brianna said as she put the bread basket over her arm. Getting back on her feet, she used the protective sheet to wipe away a few specks of dust that had fallen onto the four crusty rolls. "A hideous, old drunkard seized me and refused to let me go before he had delivered an insane story. Something about a serpent that only feasted on virgin flesh… or some such tripe!  Ghastly!"

Predictably, Sannita Eberlind furrowed her brow and assumed a look in her green eyes that spelled out she had a hard time believing the words escaping her daughter's mouth. "Quite. A drunkard?  At this time of the day?"

"Yes!  An ugly one, too!  And he reeked to high heaven…"

"Really, the people of this village… uncouth is too polite a word," Sannita mumbled under her breath. Studying her daughter's fair, expressive face, she knew at once the story was true, and that the drunkard's tale had rattled the sensitive soul. She smiled and took the bread basket from the younger Eberlind's hands. "Child, you should know better than to believe a single word uttered by such a man."

"He was quite convincing!"


"Uh… yes, Mother."

Sannita stepped around her daughter and opened the door to the dining room so they could get on with breakfast. "Call Father before you wash your hands and face. I'm surprised he isn't here already."

"Yes, Mother," Brianna said, nodding. As the elder Eberlind entered the dining room, Brianna pulled up in her cape and the exquisite jade-green frock, and hurried up the stairs to get to her father's study.


After breakfast, Brianna entered her small chamber in the attic holding a tray that carried three items - a mug of milk and the final crusty roll which had been halved and buttered. She had been worried her Father would have been so skeptical of her wild story that he would have refused her the last of the crusty rolls, but he seemed amused rather than annoyed over the delay.

The chamber in the attic wasn't much to shout about with its sloping walls and crooked floorboards, but it offered her some much-needed privacy. The room was equipped with a mirror-top dresser, a writing bureau, a wardrobe for her frocks and working clothes, a small bedside table, and finally a four-post bed that had originally been equipped with a canopy. The bed had been pushed up close to the chimney so it would remain warm in the wintertime.

Brianna put the tray on the flat-topped writing bureau and moved back the only chair she had so she could get to the wardrobe. Slipping out of her jade-green frock, she put it into the wardrobe with great care before she took a hanger carrying her regular day clothes - a tan dress where the sleeves had been trimmed to only reach halfway between her elbows and her wrists so her hands would be free.

Fluffing the simple dress into position around her slender shoulders and narrow hips, she sat down at the writing bureau and began to munch on the final crusty roll. She had promised her father that she would soon come downstairs into his study to help him stitch together a fancy gown he had been working on for several weeks, but the unsettling words of the old drunkard kept echoing in her mind.

"The Serpent cometh…" she mumbled around a bite of the well-buttered crusty roll. "I cannot fathom what that could mean. Feasts on pure, untainted flesh… virgin flesh… good heavens, how gruesome. I wonder if he was speaking in metaphors?  Don't be daft, Brianna… such a seedy individual wouldn't even know what a metaphor was."

The crusty roll didn't provide her with her usual joy, but at least the milk was fresh and lukewarm. After draining the mug, she rose from the chair and shuffled over to the small attic window that she proceeded to open.

Though she had already been outside, she still sniffed the air for traces of woodsmoke - it was an involuntary reflex she suspected would remain with her to her dying day. As always, she shivered when the images of the worst night of her young life flashed before her eyes.

Less than a full turn of the seasons ago, she and her family had been forced to flee their old village in the dead of night when a raging fire had spread rapidly through the rows of wooden houses. They had only had time to salvage a few items from their home, but the worst loss was still to come. Just as the sun rose above the eastern horizon the following morning, Brianna's younger brother Brumund had succumbed to the effects of inhaling far too much smoke.

Brianna pushed herself away from the windowsill and began making her bed to take her mind off the horrendous events of the past, and even those of the present. As she fluffed her pillow and smoothed down her woven spread, she shook her head. "Oh, I wish Tana or Nora hadn't gone off to the servants' academy at the turn of the season… or even Malia. I really need to confide in someone my own age… Valeria is a good friend, but we're so dissimilar…"

A series of thumps from downstairs made Brianna groan out loud and hurry up her efforts at making the bed. The thumps were made by her father knocking the tip of a broom on the ceiling of his study, and it meant that she was supposed to have been down there helping him with the gown quite some time ago.


The afternoon of the following day.

The shadows of the town houses were already lengthening on the uneven surface of the cobbled street, but the rays of the sun - which had only just passed its zenith - were still unseasonably warm. Several of the men passing by wore their heavy jackets over their arms, and some had even unbuttoned their shirts and rolled up the sleeves. The women had to suffer the stifling, late-season heat in silence as their coarse dresses could only be put on, or taken off, in one piece. The ruddy complexions sported by most proved it was hard going.

As Brianna watched her father load an empty keg of his favorite brand of sweet ale onto their pushcart, she was already dreading the prospects of dragging the fully-laden cart back from the Speckled Rooster. It was one of her irregular chores; she didn't mind washing the windows or the staircase, or doing the dishes, or walking to the bakery each morning, or even carrying the daily bag of smelly garbage to the central disposal area, but she dreaded the trip to the tavern as it always put a severe strain on her back and shoulders.

Her father and mother insisted it was good training for later in life when she would be expected to take care of everything around her own household while her husband earned the wages that would pay for their amenities, and who was she to argue with her parents?

The deep sigh that escaped her lips proved just what she really felt about the whole thing, but she didn't want to complain too loudly. Instead, she screwed a smile on her face and walked down onto the cobbled street.

Her thirty-seven-year-old father, Kieran Eberlind, wiped off his long, slender fingers on a rag he later stuffed into the rear pocket of his home-made pants. As a master tailor, he took great pride in employing his skills to make high-quality clothes for his entire family, and thus he wore an exquisite pair of brushed-suede pants that went well with his white, o-neck shirt that sported stylish highlights in two shades of blue.

At present, he wore an apron to protect the shirt from the grime and dirt that always gathered on the kegs, but he took it off upon the completion of the task of carrying the empty keg down from the upper floor.

"Brianna," he said as he reached into his shirt pocket to find a writing tool and a small scrap of paper. "I'm jotting down a note you must hand over to Mr. Kernes."

"Oh… Father-" Brianna said, raising a hand to let her father know about the new owner of the Speckled Rooster, but she was cut off.

Kieran didn't notice his daughter's objections and kept speaking. "This keg had so much sediment the last several mugfuls were unfit to drink. I shall be telling him in no uncertain terms that if the quality does not improve on the next keg, it will be the last I shall buy at his establishment."

Brianna nodded impatiently throughout her father's words. When she could finally get a word in edgewise, she stepped closer and folded her hands in front of her stomach. "But Father, the Speckled Rooster isn't owned by Mr. Kernes any longer… he sold it off to a woman who, uh… may or may not be a foreigner. At least, that's what I've heard."

"Oh… I see," Kieran said, squinting at the note he had just completed. Shrugging, he drew a fat line across 'Mr. Kernes' and wrote 'To whom it may concern' instead. "Regardless of the proprietor, the ale needs to be of a far better quality if they want to keep me as a customer. Here… and don't forget to hand it over, Brianna."

"I won't, Father," Brianna said as she stuffed the hastily scribbled note into a small pocket in the side of her tan working dress.


Though the Speckled Rooster tavern wasn't far, the journey to get there was slow and laborious. The empty keg danced about on the pushcart, and Brianna had to grab hold of it more than once to stop it from sailing over the side and onto the cobblestones below. She had tried picking up the soaked remains of a shattered keg once, and it wasn't something she was keen to revisit.

On top of all that, she couldn't help but look around for the creepy, old drunkard. Twice she thought she had spotted his stooping figure approaching her, but it had been a different old man in each instance. Still, she could feel his strong hand on her shoulder, smell his foul odor and his port-laden breath, and hear the man's peculiar voice as he cried out the warning to her.

"Oh, this is wonderful," Brianna mumbled to herself as she peeked over her shoulder for the umpteenth time. "I fear I am losing my mind. Soon, I shall take up permanent residence at the square, standing next to that old drunkard… with wild hair and even wilder eyes… spewing forth insane warnings that will frighten random passers-by…"

The Speckled Rooster finally came into sight after much mumbling under Brianna's breath about the uneven surface of the cobbled street, the clumsiness of the empty beer keg and several other topics of interest.

Parking the pushcart close to the wooden doors that acted as the main entrance to the Speckled Rooster, she reached into her dress pocket for her handkerchief so she could dab her forehead. When she pulled out her hand, the note her father had scribbled flew out and went on a small journey down the street. "Oh!" she cried, trailing it for several steps until she grabbed it with both hands to prevent it from flying off again.

A blush tainted her cheeks as she shuffled back to the pushcart. She was glad her father hadn't been there to see that one.


The dark brown, den-like interior of the Speckled Rooster didn't live up to the colorful name. Like most other taverns in Dreckston, the establishment consisted of a single room divided into two sections: the working area to the right that really only consisted of a long bar counter and a system of shelves carrying numerous bottles big and small, and a recreational area to the left which gave the patrons eight wooden tables to choose from whenever they felt like having their whistles whetted. All the tables carried a brass lamp, but only one had been lit, and that wasn't burning all that well.

Brianna remained standing in the doorway clutching the empty keg until the wooden door slapped against her backside. It was the cue she needed, and she stepped inside. Looking at the run-down, ale-stained furniture, and the three patrons who were already imbibing to their hearts' delight, she had a hard time fathoming how she could ever have worked there as a dishwasher and table cleaner. She couldn't explain it, other than it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Her eyes slipped towards the empty bar counter, but before she could inquire about the new owner of the Speckled Rooster, one of the patrons turned his chair crooked and leered at her in a fashion that was barely legal. His eyes soon burned holes in her dress, so she forced down a nervous gulp and made her way up to the counter in the hope the wait wouldn't be too long.

It wasn't - just as Brianna put the empty keg of ale down on the wooden floorboards so it would remain close by without getting in her way, the double doors creaked open to reveal a woman of impressive height and build.

The woman's presence alone made the leering man forget all about the young girl. Grunting, he moved back to his fellow patrons at the table - it made Brianna let out a sigh of relief.

Wearing sturdy clog-boots, a dark-blue wraparound skirt and an off-white shirt with gentle puff-cuffs and an integrated apron held in blue, the woman in the doorway appeared to be in her mid-to-late twenties or possibly early thirties, but it was hard to tell as the harsh daylight from the street kept her face in the shadows.

Brianna shot a sideways glance at the older woman who entered the Speckled Rooster carrying a full load of new ale mugs. She hoped it would turn out to be the new owner of the tavern, but she couldn't tell for sure. The woman could simply be a mug salesperson, a housewife out for some early evening entertainment, or she could prove to be something slightly more lurid like one of the fabled fallen women that roamed the streets of Dreckston at night.

Valeria's words about the new owner possibly being a foreigner came to Brianna when she studied the woman's coloring and the rest of her features. Bronzed skin that seemed to glow in the dim light. Long hair that was so dark-brown it nearly appeared black. Long digits and strong limbs. A round face sitting atop a graceful neck - and a pair of pale-blue eyes that appeared to have the strength to cut through pure rock.

At that exact moment in time, those pale-blue eyes locked onto Brianna's spring-green orbs and conveyed a silent message that someone was staring. Brianna's cheeks caught fire, and she looked down in a hurry.

The new owner of the Speckled Rooster chuckled and entered her tavern. As the door closed behind her, she went behind the counter and deposited the many new mugs onto the shiny surface. Once she had her hands free, she wiped them down on a brown rag and reached out for the fresh-faced, wide-eyed slip of a girl who stood right next to her on the other side of the counter. "A good day to you, fair maiden," she said with a certain amount of mirth sparkling in her eyes.

"Uh… I beg your pardon for staring, fair lady," Brianna said as she took the hand offered to her. As she had been taught, she performed a small curtsey to show her respect for the older woman. "Uh… and a good day to you, too."

"I'm Olanda of Torwick. And you are?"

"Uh… Brianna Eberlind, Lady Olanda."

Olanda chuckled at the young girl's good manners as she went back to distributing the new mugs along the counter. "Oh, you can forget about the 'lady' part, Brianna. I'm no lady, just Olanda of Torwick."

"I see," Brianna said while yet another blush crept over her cheeks. She tried to keep her eyes glued to the bar counter, but it wasn't easy in the presence of such an unusual woman. Now and then, she sneaked a glance at the bronzed skin, the black hair and the brightness of the eyes. She liked what she saw, there was no question about that, and Valeria's words and wiggling eyebrows when she had spoken of Olanda came to her unprompted.

Smirking, Olanda leaned forward and put her elbows on the counter. She shot the young girl an amused gaze and lowered her voice so the other patrons wouldn't hear. "Tell me, Brianna, do I have something stuck in my teeth?  Because I cannot recall the last time I was scrutinized this closely."

Now the blush really exploded onto Brianna's cheeks, and she twisted her lips in a horrified grimace as the feeling of being busted hit her with the strength of a wet rag. "I beg for forgiveness, Lad- uh, I mean Olanda. I'm… it's just… your… col- coloring is really unusual in this part of the country… I've… I've never seen anyone with such bronzed skin."

"I'm not from around here."

Brianna nodded - she had already guessed as much. When no further clues as to the origins of Olanda of Torwick saw the light of day, she licked her lips and began to shuffle around. When her foot knocked into the empty keg on the floor, she was relieved because it gave her something to do that didn't involve staring or getting caught. "Oh!  Oh, I nearly forgot. Lady- uh… Olanda, are you aware that the former owner, Mr. Kernes, sold ale by the keg to some of the customers?"

"Yes. He gave me his ledger where he kept a strict record of all his financial transactions. Eberlind… I recall seeing your name there. Don't tell me you down a keg of ale a month by yourself!  Young Lady, that is a one-way street to Poverty Row!" Olanda said sternly, tapping her knuckles on the shiny counter.

Brianna's eyes grew wide for a moment until she realized Olanda of Torwick was merely jesting. The absence of laughter in the daily grind in and around the perpetually dour Dreckston - save for the occasional burst of blue humor courtesy of Valeria Sallaman - had dulled her senses to it, but as the words filtered through her mind, she let out a cautious chuckle. "No… not quite. Father does, however. And it's sweet ale… not the vile, bitter brew Mr. Kernes used to keep in stock as well."

"Ohhhh," Olanda said like it would explain everything. "Well, that's a different matter. And you've come for a refill?"

"I have, yes. Oh, and I have a note for you that Father made. Please don't take the harshness of the words to heart, they were written for Mr. Kernes," Brianna said and dug into her dress pocket to find the note. When she had it, she gave it to Olanda who unfolded it and read it at once.

The owner of the Speckled Rooster nodded a few times as she read the scribbles. "Hmmm… hmmm… hmmm… ah, yes, I can certainly understand your father's annoyance. Very well. If you will follow me, we can take care of it right away," she said and pulled aside a bead curtain behind the counter that led to the storage rooms and a private chamber.


Brianna had only spent a brief amount of time in the back rooms of the Speckled Rooster in the fortnight she had worked there, and she had never been in the larger of the two storage rooms. Entering it on the heels of Olanda, she marveled at how numerous kegs of ale were stored in wooden racks that almost reached the rafters, and how most of the floor was occupied by open boxes containing dark-green bottles.

The storage room carried a penetrating smell of ale, wine and stronger types of alcohol, and the tiny, grated window high on the back wall couldn't offset that at all despite being fully open. Brianna felt light-headed at once, and a worrisome echo of the only time she had ever imbibed too much came to her. It was not long after her entry into adulthood, her fifteenth birthday, and while the early hours of the evening had been nice, exciting and carefree in the company of a few, good friends in her old village, it had ended with her being on her hands and knees vomiting up her guts. The hardest part had come when she had to explain it to her parents upon staggering home - that, the subsequent hangover and the four weeks she had been grounded following the incident.

A certain paleness began to flow onto her cheeks and forehead, and she pressed a hand against her stomach to stop it from performing a flip-flop. Olanda hadn't noticed and was busy taking a brand new keg off the wooden rack. "Oh… I… I fear I need to step outside, Lady Olanda," Brianna croaked, turning around to hurry back to the sturdy door that led to the narrow connecting hallway outside the storage room.

"What's that, Brianna?  I didn't hear…" Olanda said, using little effort to pull a one-hundred-and-twenty lbs. keg of ale off the rack and onto her shoulder.

Brianna didn't have time to answer - in her haste to find fresher air, she had already left the storage room behind for the calmer waters of the connecting hallway. As the sturdy door clicked shut behind her, she drew several deep breaths to get her insides back under control.

Leaning against the wall of the hallway, her eyes caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a sequence of colorful drawings on the opposite wall. She furrowed her brow as she went closer to study the hand-painted artwork. Years, if not decades, of filth tainted it, so she wiped off some of it with her hand to get a clearer view.

The artwork depicted a warrior of some kind fighting a fearsome monster that seemed to threaten a woman tied to a stone pillar. The dark-haired warrior, who wore shining armor and carried a flaming sword, rode in on a pale warhorse, and the two appeared to be working together in battling the creature. The various drawings showed the progress of the battle until the monster had been defeated.

"Oh…" Brianna mumbled, tracing the drawings with her fingertips.

A creaking sound behind her made her snap back to the real world and step aside so Olanda would have room to move the heavy keg through the hallway.

Moments later, Olanda put down the keg on the floor and turned around to shut the sturdy door behind her. Dusting off her strong hands, she grinned at the young girl whose cheeks were still pale. "I beg for forgiveness for that, Brianna. I forgot how strong the smell actually was in there. Please forgive me."

"Oh, I certainly do, La- uh… Olanda," Brianna said and offered the older woman a dismissive wave. "Now, please tell me… what are these drawings?  Are they old?  They appear to be."

"Oh yes, they are old… they were drawn several centuries ago," Olanda said matter-of-factly. She shot a sideways glance at the young woman, and added an "I believe," as an afterthought.

This time, it was Brianna who hadn't noticed a thing, and she leaned in towards the depiction of the warrior to get a better view of the details. "Oh, that's fascinating!  Look at the expert craftsmanship… it's so lifelike. You can see the warrior's long, flowing, black hair… and that flaming sword!  Do you know the story the drawings tell?"

"Well," Olanda said with a slight furrowing of her brow, "they tell the tale of Roland, a mythical hero, who appears once every Sahrwinn to battle a vile creature born of eternal darkness. Old wives' tales, I fear."

"And this figure here?  The woman tied to a stone pillar?" Brianna asked, pointing to the small figure.

Cocking her head, Olanda tapped a fingernail against the pitch black representation of the monster across from the female figure. "That's the fair maiden held captive by the hideous serpent monster here. If Roland cannot defeat-"

Brianna stopped breathing. A split second later, she whipped her head around and stared wide-eyed at the older woman next to her. "The wh- what?  The ser- serp- the serpent monster?" she croaked in a voice that was barely a whisper.

"Yes. Oh, I must beg for forgiveness once more, Brianna," Olanda said using a voice that was perhaps too cheery for the somber occasion. "I shouldn't have told you that silly myth. Now you'll be tossing and turning all night, and your mother will come down here first thing tomorrow and threaten me with a rolling pin-"

Brianna reached out at once and grabbed hold of Olanda's arm to make her stop talking. "Yesterday morning… at the marketplace… an old drunkard warned me of the serpent monster… the one that feasts on virgin flesh… the serpent cometh, he said. He warned me, Olanda!  I… I- I didn't- think that… but… but now…"

A dark shadow fell over Olanda's features as she studied the young woman next to her. Brianna Eberlind certainly fit the requirements set forth so long ago. Fair. Pure-blooded. Untouched. "But surely," Olanda continued in the same, cheery voice she had used before, "a beautiful young woman such as yourself will have a betrothed?  Or be otherwise experienced?  There is nothing for you to worry about, Brianna. Clear your mind of all concern, this is merely an old wives' tale."

"My family and I have only lived in Dreckston for less than a full turn of the seasons. I am unbetrothed… and… and…" Brianna mumbled with a blush tainting her cheeks. She stopped speaking, but the message still came across.

"Say no more," Olanda said in a darker voice than the one she had been using.

Brianna turned around and shot Olanda a pale smile. "I fear my stomach will rebel if I stay here for much longer, so… can we please return to the tavern?"

"But of course… of course."


Back in the outer room of the Speckled Rooster, Olanda rolled the heavy keg around the corner of the counter and put it upright. "So," she said, dusting off her hands, "that'll be eight Crowns for the keg. Your tab presently stands at thirty-two Crowns, so that's forty Crowns you owe me… if you wish to put it on the tab, that is."

"Oh dear, Father never mentioned that… I fear I don't have forty Crowns on me. Not even eight Crowns," Brianna said and turned even paler. "B- but I can assure you Father is an honorable man. He'll be over later today with enough coins to settle the debt, and-"

"Fear not, Brianna," Olanda said with a little wave. "I don't know your father personally, but I've heard of Kieran Eberlind, the master tailor living down the street. It'll be fine."

Brianna shook her head and let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank the heavens," she mumbled. Her relief was short-lived as she looked at the one-hundred-and-twenty lbs. keg that she now had to drag out onto the pushcart and then haul home.

Olanda caught the glance and stepped around the corner of the counter. "Come, Brianna, let me help you with the keg." Leaning down, the tall woman grabbed hold of the keg and put it over her shoulder like it only carried a third of its actual weight.


"Lady Olanda, you are by far the strongest woman I have ever encountered!" Brianna said in a voice full of admiration as she watched Olanda put down the keg in the center of the pushcart without even breaking a sweat.

"Weeelll, back in my home town, I was actually considered a weakling."

"Surely not!  Oh… that was made in jest," Brianna said off the sparkling look in the other woman's eyes. "Beg' pardon. Humor is a rare commodity in this dour village."

Dusting off her hands once more, Olanda glanced at the villagers walking past the Speckled Rooster. There were few smiles, and certainly no grins to be seen anywhere. Everybody seemed to live in their own, little world that was devoid of humor or lightheartedness. "So I gather," she said and let out a chuckle. The silence that fell between her and Brianna gave her an opportunity to once again study the young girl's expressive face. She seemed unsettled, and for a good reason. "Brianna, I hope I did not frighten you with that silly, old tale…?"

"Oh… I'll admit to being a little spooked, Olanda. But it wasn't your doing. It was that wretched, old drunkard yesterday. He planted the seed of fear in me, and it sprouts each time something unexpected happens," Brianna said and wrung her hands. "Roland fighting the serpent monster… I suppose that myth is folklore around these parts?  Surely a drunkard wouldn't know about a tale centuries old unless it was."

"I cannot say, Brianna. I'm not from around here. I only know of the myth because Mr. Kernes told me," Olanda said, looking directly into Brianna's vibrant, spring-green orbs to gauge her reaction. She saw them looking back at her with plenty of concern, but without the slightest hint of doubt or mistrust.

A few moments passed by before Brianna let out a nervous chuckle and began to shuffle around on the spot. "Oh, I am such a silly girl. The eerie old man probably learned of the tale from Mr. Kernes as well."

"Sounds reasonable."

"Indeed. Oh, now I have to drag this heavy thing home… I don't suppose you would like to give me a hand, would you?" Brianna said and offered Olanda a hopeful smile.

"I fear I cannot leave my tavern unattended for too long, Brianna. You shouldn't worry about straining your back, though. I'm sure one of these fine laddies walking past us will leap at the chance of helping such a charming young girl…?"

"They're not allowed to," Brianna said in a downcast voice. "I'm unbetrothed, remember?  Helping me, or even merely speaking to me, will lead them down a path to unholy temptation."

Olanda let out a brief chuckle that only lasted for as long as it took her to realize Brianna wasn't a quick study when it came to the art of jesting - she was dead-serious. "Why, it's certainly a quaint village we live in, isn't it?" she said flatly. "All right. Change of plans. You take the pushcart, I'll take the keg of ale. Off we go!" she continued, swinging the heavy keg back up onto her shoulder.

"But your tavern?"

"The patrons know I'll punish them severely if they try anything while I'm away, so… lead on, Brianna."

"Oh, thank you, Lady Olanda!  Thank you so much," Brianna said and hurried around the empty pushcart to grab the handle.


The day that followed brought no drama, nor any sightings of the creepy drunkard. As she went to bed, Brianna was beginning to think she had dreamt the whole thing involving the old man and his unsettling words, but as she awoke the next morning, her hopes of a peaceful existence were dashed.

Even before she cracked open her eyelids, she could hear it. It was a sound she had only heard once before in her seventeen years on the planet, but it had been etched into her heart and soul ever since. Someone was pounding the village's alarm bells. It wasn't just a casual ringing, it was hard. Fast. Relentless. Whatever the danger was, it was real, and it was close.

Letting out a trembling, fear-induced moan, Brianna flew upright in bed and gripped her nightgown so hard it became balled up in her fists. She stared wide-eyed into the murky darkness of her bedchamber and instinctively began sniffing the air for traces of smoke. She couldn't smell any, but that didn't necessarily mean they were safe.

She jumped out of bed and raced over to the attic window without even putting on her slippers. The crooked floorboards weren't good to her bare feet, but she didn't have time to care about that. The pre-dawn air appeared clean of smoke, soot and the tell-tale crackling noises created by a fire, but as she tore open the window, a most peculiar smell entered from the outside. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced, and she shook her head in confusion.

The alarm bells continued their frantic ringing, and the sound was obviously much louder now that she had the window open. Getting up on tip-toes, she tried to look down onto the street below, but she wasn't able to. She could hear shouting from the marketplace further up the street, but the words were jumbled and incoherent.

There was still no activity from her parents' bedchamber downstairs, so she slammed the attic window shut and raced down to warn them. Just as she reached the door to the master bedchamber, it opened and her father came flying the other way. "Father!  Father, the alarm bells!  The alarm bells!" she cried, grabbing hold of his nightshirt.

"I hear them, child. Calm down!  Don't panic… is it a fire?"

"I d- don't think so… there's no smoke… I cannot say!"

"All right. Get dressed. We may need to leave in a hurry," her father continued before he took a step back and looked at his wife who was still inside the bedchamber. "Sannita, I'll venture outside to-"

"Oh, Father, please be careful!"

"I will, Brianna… Sannita, I need to see what's going on!"

At that moment, Sannita came out of the bedchamber wrapping a shawl around her nightgown. Her face was a dark mask of fear, and she could only nod at her husband's words. Instead of speaking, she reached out and grabbed hold of the last remaining members of her family to tell them wordlessly they should return alive and in one piece.

Seeing her mother so distraught finally pushed the sensitive Brianna over the edge. Her dam bursting, she let out a howling cry and fell into her mother's strong grasp for a soothing crush.

As the two women comforted each other, Kieran put on a pair of clogs and donned a woolen cape. He was about to repeat his instruction for Brianna and Sannita to get dressed, but gave up when he saw the emotional state they were in.

Grunting, he hurried down the stairs, unlocked the front door and tore it open. Only a split second later, he slammed it shut and jumped back from it like he was afraid it would reach out and bite him. "By all the Gods above!  What is this dark magic?!" he cried, not believing what he had just witnessed.

Upstairs, Brianna and Sannita stared wide-eyed at each other when they heard the cry. Needing to know what was going on, they hurried downstairs though they never let go of each other.

At the door, Kieran spun around and put out his arms to stop his family from even attempting to open the front door. "Stand back!  I fear evil forces are at work here… there's… there's some kind of black mist swirling through the street… I cannot explain it."

"Smoke?" Sannita said in a hoarse voice.

"No. Not smoke. Something… something else. Organic. It appears alive… somehow. It moves… writhes… like an animal…"

Brianna felt all blood drain from her face. She still held onto her mother, and if she hadn't, she would have keeled over on the spot. "Like a serpent," she croaked, crumpling her mother's shawl between her fingers. "The serpent cometh, he said… and it has. It has come. And it won't leave until it has… until it has feasted on untainted flesh… virgin flesh…"

Her daughter's inane ramblings finally made Sannita snap out of her fear-induced stupor and take a firm grip on one of the young girl's hands. "Child, this is not the right time for old wives' tales!"

"That's what Olanda called it," Brianna croaked and waved her free hand, "but… but it wasn't… was it?  It's here… the serpent has come. Oh…"

As she spoke, she realized that if the evil being really did swirl through the streets, Olanda would be at risk since her tavern, and the private chamber at the back, were at ground level. She bared her teeth in a grimace and sent a silent prayer that her newest friend wouldn't be harmed - nor her other friend, Valeria Sallaman.

"But what should we do?" Sannita said, turning back to her husband.

"I cannot say, blast it!" Kieran growled. Shaking his head, he reached up to give his damp brow a thorough rubbing. "This wretched village… we should have continued on when we had the chance. I knew from the start they were keeping secrets from us… dark, evil secrets by the looks of it!"

Shouts, cries and incoherent yells from the outside made all three Eberlinds fall quiet and stare at the closed door. When the voices grew in intensity, Kieran shook his head and cracked open the door a mere inch to see what was going on outside on the street. "Oh… the… the mist is dissipating… it's lifting like fog!  The street is almost clear now, but… but… the thing has begun hovering in the air… only a short distance from here. Perhaps down at the square, I cannot tell for certain."

Brianna and her mother once more looked at each other and exchanged puzzled glances. "Father, should I go upstairs and peek out of the attic win-"

"No, you should not, child!" Kieran said sternly. "Sannita, we must all stay away from the windows in case this being is some kind of bird of prey. I'll barricade the door as well. The evil creature may return to the streets."

Brianna opened her mouth to object, but she knew her father was right. If the creature could hover in the air, it could fly, and if it could fly, it could access every single house in the village through the attic windows.

Outside, the alarm bells suddenly stopped.

"Oh, what's the meaning of that now?" Kieran growled. He slid back to the door and cracked it open once more. After peeking out, he closed the door and turned around to look at his family. "The creature is still hovering in the air down there. Perhaps the man sounding the alarm bells has finally grown tired of clapping that damned thing…"

"Perhaps he was eaten…" Brianna croaked.

"Silly child!" Kieran and Sannita said as one, making Brianna blush and look down at her feet.


As dawn broke at the eastern horizon a short turn of the hourglass later, nothing had changed in the village of Dreckston. The evil creature - whatever it was - continued to hover a hundred feet above the marketplace, and its presence continued to create pandemonium among the villagers. Some had packed their belongings onto pushcarts and were struggling to get the heavy vehicles across the uneven surface of the cobbled streets, but others, like the Eberlinds, had barricaded their homes and had gone into hiding.

Kieran stood at the front door, shaking his head at those of his neighbors who were trying to flee. Men, women and children wearing hastily assembled clothing tried to control their possessions that danced about on their carts, trolleys and even a few wheelbarrows. "Such folly… even if they manage to leave the village behind, what will they do when they reach the open fields?  Try to out-run the vast, flying creature?  Idiocy. They're better off inside."

Sannita had become poorly after the fright and had needed to lie down upstairs, but Brianna had worked herself into such a state of anguish state she could do nothing but sit on a chair in the narrow hallway and wring her hands. It was the safest place in the town house since the hallway had no windows, but now and then, she wished she could view the real world outside so she didn't have to rely on the frightful images running rampant in her mind.

She yawned so widely her jaw popped, but the reflex was borne of fear, not fatigue. "Oh, I wish Lady Olanda of Torwick is all right… she's such a nice person. I've only spoken to her twice, but she's so witty and supportive," she mumbled, pulling and tugging at her nightgown so she had something to do with her hands that didn't involve wringing. "And Valeria… oh, Valeria, please be safe as well… her chamber is in the attic… and she lives much closer to the marketplace… oh…"

"Are you talking to me, child?" Kieran said, turning away from the door.

"I am not, Father. I'm merely talking to myself."

"Ah… I see."

As further commotion from the outside made her father look back to the street, Brianna buried her face in her hands and tried to recall what the gnarly drunkard had actually said to her. She had been so alarmed by his presence and his miserable condition that she had spent very little time thinking about the meaning of his words - beyond the obvious, that is.

She tried to focus on returning to the day where he had slammed his hand down onto her shoulder. After his initial warning where he had expressively said the serpent would come for her, he had said 'On Sahrwinn, the Serpent will come, and it will not rest until it has feasted on pure, untainted flesh… your flesh!  Dreckston cannot live in peace until the Serpent has consumed you… the Serpent cometh!'

Someone, or something, had it in for her. But why?  And why now?  Brianna glanced into the semi-darkness of the narrow hallway. The air seemed to vibrate with worry, and she could smell the peculiar scent she had first experienced when she had opened the attic window earlier in the morning. It was an odd, unpleasant smell, and it made her crinkle her nose in disgust.

The story Olanda had told her of the mythical hero entered her mind and made her scrunch up her face even further. "At Sahrwinn, Roland fights the serpent monster," she croaked. "At Sahrwinn… the serpent cometh only at Sahrwinn. We've yet to stay a full turn of the seasons here… we would have been here earlier if it hadn't been for a flash-flooding that took out a bridge we needed to use on our way here… would this have happened last year had we been living here?  How can we be so unlucky… or were we led here?  Or perhaps forced here to fit into someone's evil scheme?"

"Child," Kieran said, looking at his daughter with deep furrows across his brow. "I worry about your mental health sometimes. You're speaking gibberish. Don't let the village magistrate hear that, or she'll throw you in the gaol."

Brianna blushed hard but didn't look down. "Father, what is Sahrwinn exactly?"

"Sahrwinn?  What's that got to do with anything?"

"My new friend Olanda spoke of it. Please…?"

Kieran stared at his daughter like she had sprouted a second head, but soon eased his stance and performed a small shrug. "Well… in some parts of the country, it's an annual celebration of the Underworld and the evil creatures inhabiting it. It's all connected to the Cult of the Ancients. I find it hard to believe it has ever found a seat here in Dreckston, though. The locals seem far too Gods-fearing to believe in the Ancients."

"Do you know when it's celebrated?"


Brianna blinked several times before she decided to go out on a limb. Her father already thought she was losing her grip on reality, so she might as well jump into it. "I fear it may be today. Or this eve. That thing out there… I fear it's one of those evil creatures inhabiting the Underworld."

"Oh, Brianna," Kieran said and let out a small groan. Commotion from the street made him turn his attention back to the crack in the door. "Wait… something is happening," he said and held the door a bit further ajar to see better.

Brianna jumped up from the chair and raced over to stand next to her father. "To the creature?  Is it leaving?" she said, trying to peek past his arm.

"No, it's a platoon of the county militia marching down the street. They seem to be… that's strange. They seem to be conducting house-to-house searches. Searching for prowlers or burglars, perhaps?  I cannot say," Kieran said, daring to stick his entire head out of the door.

"Are they heading this way?"

"Yes, they're next door as I speak. It won't be long before they arrive at our doorstep."

Brianna looked down at her bare feet and the flimsy nightgown. Instinctively, she crossed her arms over her chest so she wouldn't be so exposed. "Oh… a house full of young soldiers… I better rush up and change while I have the time."

"You better," Kieran said with a half-smile creasing his lips.


Arriving back at the door fully clothed in her ankle boots and her fancy, jade-green frock, Brianna fluffed her hair back and clipped on a brass barrette to keep her reddish-blond locks in place. "Has anything happened, Father?" she said as she pulled down in her sleeves to get them to line up properly.

"Not yet, but it can't be far off. Six militiamen are outside. I believe they are waiting for their commander. Oh, here he comes now…" Kieran said and swung the door open for a distinguished-looking officer wearing a battle helmet and a leather outfit held in several shades of brown.

As the officer stepped inside, he took off his helmet and stuck it under his arm while scrutinizing the two residents with his gray eyes. The man at the door was dismissed in a hurry, but the fair maiden in the green dress was a different matter. "Greetings, I am Captain Trent Darrian. I presume you already know of the danger?" he said while pinning Brianna to the spot with a hard stare.

"We do, Captain Darrian," Kieran said, wondering why the soldiers were even there. "I am Kieran Eberlind, and this is my daughter Brianna. Child, curtsey to the officer like your mother has taught you!"

Brianna tried to get out of the firing line of the captain's strong, gray glare, but she was unable to. Instead, she pulled up in her jade-green frock and went into a deep curtsey. "I beg for forgiveness, Captain Darrian. My nerves have been frazzled by the presence of the eerie creature outside."

"Indeed," Trent Darrian said and offered the young girl a casual wave that was meant to tell her she could get back up. Moving back to the door, he signaled his men to step inside.

"Captain Darrian, may I inquire about the exact purpose of your visit-" Kieran said, but he was cut off by the soldiers arriving - and crowding - the narrow hallway.

The courtesy call over, the officer put on his battle helmet and pointed a gloved finger at Brianna. "Seize her," he said in a no-nonsense voice.

For the first two heartbeats, Brianna's brain refused to believe the words she had just heard. Then, several of the soldiers stepped forward. Shrieking, she spun around and tried to run up the staircase to get to safety in the attic, but the men were faster and stronger. Her arms were yanked behind her back, and she was dragged down the two steps she had managed to escape.

Screaming at the top of her lungs, she tried to wrestle free of their strong grip, but all she succeeded in doing was to make them even more determined to keep a tight leash on her.

Her scream petered out into a hoarse cry when it dawned on her that she was better off not resisting. She stared wide-eyed at her father and then her mother - who came bounding down the stairs to see what had caused her daughter to scream in such a frightened fashion - but neither were in a position to help her get free. Her father was pinned against the wall by Captain Darrian himself, and her mother was soon intercepted by a pair of soldiers.

"Silence!" the Captain roared in a booming voice. The harsh command was obeyed, and an uneasy quiet filled the narrow hallway that was packed to the rafters by uniform-clad soldiers. "Shackle her. We cannot waste more time."

As one of the soldiers carried out the order by inserting Brianna's hands into a pair of metal manacles, the officer's gray eyes drilled holes in Brianna's pale face once more. "Child, if you attempt another escape, I'll have your parents' heads on pikes!"

Moaning in terror, Brianna stared wide-eyed at her family. Moments later, the remaining blood drained from her head, and her knees buckled. If it hadn't been for the fact that she was held upright by two strong hands, she would have made an ungraceful landing on the carpet. As she blacked out, she could hear her mother cry out her name in anguish.


Despite her haziness, Brianna had registered that somebody dragged her across the uneven cobblestones on the bed of their own pushcart, but she didn't make a full recovery from passing out until a pair of strong hands reached under her arms to yank her upright using far too much force.

She let out a moan and a mumbled plea for mercy at the pain that shot up from her arms, but the request didn't make the two soldiers manhandling her off the cart act with more tenderness. Realizing she needed to walk on her own to spare herself from being dragged across the cobblestones, she continued to put one foot in front of the other in the hope she hadn't forgotten how to walk.

Looking ahead, she saw to her horror that she was being led to the odd, sculpture-like stone pillar that stood in the middle of the square. It wasn't far from where the drunkard had accosted her, and everything suddenly seemed to be connected somehow.

A man dressed in a fancy, colorful outfit waited for her at the stone pillar. She didn't recognize him at first, but as she was forced closer to the person, she remembered him as being one of the senior clergymen of the village and the surrounding county. His arrogant expressions, his holier-than-thou attitude, and his overly extravagant garments - including a pointy hat and white gloves - in a village populated by poorly dressed commoners had grated on her for nearly the entire turn of the seasons they had lived there. As a young girl, however, her complaints had meant nothing.

Halfway to the stone pillar, the clergyman intercepted Brianna and the two soldiers dragging her. He bore a look of surprise upon his face at the sight of the metal manacles around Brianna's wrists, and he held up a gloved hand to stop the small group before they went too far. "Corporal, remove the manacles. Use a hemp rope instead. We cannot risk angering our guest."

Brianna let out a frustrated snort and tried once more to wrestle free of her captors. "Angering our guest?!  You are a little too late for that, Sir!  I demand an explan-"

"Silence, child!  You will have your moment to speak!" the clergyman hissed.

It made Brianna shut up, but only because she would otherwise have told the pompous fop what she thought of him and his religion. Behind her, one of the soldiers released the manacles that dropped to the ground with a loud clang. Her wrists finally free, Brianna let out a groan and began to rub them at once, but received a strong shove in the back for her efforts.

The other soldier ran back to the outer edge of the marketplace to fetch a coil of rope, but he soon returned. Working together, the three men pushed Brianna closer to the odd-looking stone pillar that seemed more and more like an instrument of torture the closer she looked.

Once they reached it, the hemp rope was tied around each of her wrists; then, her arms were forced above her head until she stood like a human X. The loose ends of the rope were tied to small metal eyes in the pillar, and subsequently tightened so hard she couldn't move an inch in either direction.

"Why are you doing this?!" Brianna croaked, finding it difficult to breathe deeply with her arms tied down above her head. She expected no answer from the soldiers, but when the clergyman ignored her as well, she looked around in a frenzy trying to find someone who could come to her rescue.

Much to her horror, the entire square was devoid of people apart from herself, the platoon of soldiers, and the clergyman. Worse, the evil entity that still hovered high over the square seemed to grow less wispy. Even as she watched, the black, fog-like contrails began to solidify and assume a well-defined shape.

"We are proud of you, Brianna Eberlind," the clergyman said in a voice that held no warmth. He moved closer to Brianna and reached up to caress her cheek. "We are proud you've remained pure and untouched. If you had poisoned your body through desire… if you had succumbed to the evil of carnal pleasure like all other young women of this town, we would be in dire straits. Now… your sacrifice will save us all. You may speak if you have any final words to say."

Brianna's eyes grew wider and wider as her captor spoke. "My sacrifice…" she croaked, staring at the pompous clergyman. "Y- you're sacrificing me t- to the s- serpent…"

"Our guest on this special Sahrwinn," the clergyman said with a cold smile.

"You're insane… you all are. The whole village is insane!  Help!  Help!  Somebody help me!  Please!  Help!" Brianna cried, wiggling this way and that to break free of the rope holding her in place. Grunting and groaning, she pushed, pulled, tugged and squeezed the rope to break loose, but all she got out of it was a stinging slap across the cheek.

The clergyman moved his hand back to slap the virgin again if need be, but the punishment had made her give up the struggle. "Don't," he said in a hoarse whisper. Clearing his throat, he stood up straight and pointed upwards. "Our guest shall soon grace you with his presence. You needn't worry, Brianna. I'm sure you won't feel much pain. And now, I bid you farewell."

Brianna stared at the man as he walked away. She should be crying at the unfairness of it all, but her mind was such a jumble she could hardly remember how to breathe. Raising her head to view the creature above her, she could see it had indeed turned into a shape resembling a giant serpent.

A loud groan escaped her lips as she leaned her head back against the sacrificial pillar she had been tied to. There was nothing she could do. A panic started to bubble up inside her, and she had to blink several times to get a veil of raw fear to leave her eyes. Once more she looked around in the vain hope she would see her parents coming to her rescue, but the square was as devoid of life as it had been before.

The winds began picking up. Down on the ground, dry straws of hay, clumps of dirt and discarded pieces of paper began swirling around as if manipulated by an unseen hand. The items moved around in random patterns at first, but were soon swirling in a circular motion like they were being formed into a miniature tornado.

Brianna's jade-green frock and her reddish-blond hair joined the fray moments later. The exquisite fabric was twisted, whipped around and thrown about with little regard for its high quality, and her hair turned into a haystack almost instantly.

She slammed her eyes shut like it would rectify the tragic, hopeless situation she found herself in, but she opened them once again a few moments later to wince in pain from being bashed over the ear by the barrette. The metal clip came back for a second pass at her sensitive ear before the lock flew open and the whole thing fell out of her hair. It clattered onto the cobblestones before being swept away by the strong winds.

The cause for the storm was revealed to Brianna when she glanced upwards. The evil creature above her had begun a slow descent and was now hovering only thirty feet over the square. It seemed to grow larger as she watched it, but she didn't know if it was an optical illusion or not - she wished it would be.

Her wish was shattered almost as once as the swirling serpent creature continued to lower itself toward the ground. An impenetrable wall of blackness formed a three-hundred-and-sixty degree circle around the square; reaching all the way around the sacrificial pillar she had been tied to, the roof of the inverted bowl created by the monster hovered seemingly only twenty feet above her head.

The creature reduced the tempo of its incessant swirling until far more details became visible. An unbridled scream finally escaped Brianna's throat when she realized the solid wall surrounding her wasn't solid at all, but a hive of tens if not hundreds of thousands of snakes of varying sizes. The reptiles writhed in, on and around each other, constantly dissolving old patterns to create new ones.

Brianna clenched her jaw tightly and stared at the vile monsters that appeared everywhere around her. She wanted to continue to scream, indeed she felt she had to scream to preserve the last bit of her sanity, but her throat tied itself into a knot that refused to be untangled.

Large, crystal tears streamed down her cheeks, and there was nothing she could do to stop them. She observed the evil, serpent-like creatures in wide-eyed horror as they continued to swirl around her, but her fraught nerves received another nasty jolt when a vast blob of the reptiles separated from the main group and landed on the ground not fifteen feet from her.

The snakes seemed to melt together to form a larger creature. Now and then, further snakes fell out of the wall only to be absorbed into the collective at once. A black, writhing pillar rose from the ground; moments later, the living pillar was split in two which made it resemble humanoid legs. The body atop the legs continued to be created in a slow but deliberate fashion by adding a torso, a pair of long arms and finally a scaly snake-head to complete the image of a seven-foot denizen of the Underworld. The Serpent had come.

To underline that chilling fact, a three foot long cleft tongue was extended from the Serpent's head as it took its first step toward the juicy noon snack awaiting it at the pillar.

By then, Brianna had stopped caring. Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest she expected it to cry enough at any moment. Her eyes were peeled to the hideous serpent creature that slithered closer to her, but she couldn't even work up enough energy to struggle against the ropes tying her down.

The creature continued to move toward the sacrificial pillar at the center of the marketplace. Now and then, the cleft tongue came out to play, and it seemed to have locked onto the only piece of virginal meat in the entire square - Brianna. As the monster opened its mouth, a pair of white, sharply pointed fangs became visible.

Brianna drew a deep, frightened breath as the creature closed the last remaining distance between them. The cleft tongue came out again and ran up the length of the jade-green frock from the lower hem toward the top. The fabric didn't seem to the monster's liking as it shook its scaly head and took a small step away. Coming back for more, it tried a different approach and went straight for the exposed skin on her throat and face.

As the tongue slid across her skin leaving behind a gooey trail of slime, Brianna cried out in terror and turned her face away from the hideous creature the furthest she could twist her neck. The stench emanating from the creature's mouth was overwhelming, and she was powerless to stop several dry heaves from racking her stomach.

Large blobs of venom dripped off the fangs as they moved closer to Brianna's exposed skin on her throat. A drop fell onto the uneven cobblestones at their feet; the stones began to sizzle like they had been coated with pure acid.

Just as the serpent monster moved its head back to sink its fangs deep into Brianna's soft skin, it jerked to a stop like something had caused it physical pain. Another jerk followed, and it took a staggering step backwards - away from Brianna. It let out a strange, rumbling cry that sounded like it came from the entire mass of reptiles, not just the humanoid creature on the ground. Yet another jerk rippled through the monster that whipped its scaly head around to look at the living wall surrounding the square.

Brianna had been holding her breath, but she released it in a burst as the creature backed away from her. The tears kept coming as she snapped out of the worst terror and began to struggle with the ropes pinning her down - she had been given a second chance, and she wasn't about to waste it.

Groaning out loud, she tugged, pulled and tore at the ropes until the piece holding her right wrist in place finally became loose enough for her to use her body weight as leverage. After several bruises and a good deal of grunting, groaning and flat-out cursing, she managed to get her right wrist free of the rope.

She cast a quick glance at the serpent monster, but when it seemed pre-occupied with something going on at the wall of reptiles, she turned her attention to the rope restraining her left wrist. It was just as hard, if not harder, to get the second rope to release, and it cost her four cracked fingernails before she got it loose enough to slip her hand through the eye that had been formed.

Suddenly, a terrifying scream emanating from the evil creature reverberated through the square. The burst of sound was so strong Brianna was thrown off her feet and onto the filthy cobblestones where she landed in an unruly heap. Crying out in pain and surprise, she clapped her hands over her ears in case the monster would scream again, but nothing came.

As she rolled over and sat up on her knees, she could hardly believe what her eyes were telling her - the swirling wall of reptiles had gained a golden glow in a certain point along the circle. The countless snakes making up the wall writhed about in frenzy, or perhaps agony, and the walking serpent monster had doubled over as if in great pain.

Brianna bared her teeth in a grimace as she took in the insanity of the events surrounding her. "By all the Gods above… it's in pain!  What could be causing it so much pain?" she said in a groan as she clambered to her feet. Dusting off her hands and massaging her aching knees and hips, she spun around to search for an exit of some kind, but the wall of reptiles enclosed her fully. Moaning, she turned back to keep an eye on the big serpent.

A moment later, the golden glow in the wall blossomed until it was so bright Brianna needed to shield her eyes. The serpent monster screamed, but it was nothing compared to the cry that came from the young girl when the cause of the serpent's torment was finally revealed.

"Roland!  Slay it!  Slay that wretched abomination!" Brianna cried at the top of her lungs as a figure on horseback blasted through the wall of reptiles and into the center of the square.

Like in the depictions on the wall of the Speckled Rooster, Roland rode in on a sturdy palomino warhorse, and he wore a shining armor and carried a sword that seemed to be on fire. The flaming sword made short work of the smaller snakes that all vanished in golden sparks and puffs of black smoke.

The mythical hero made his warhorse gallop around the square to intercept the vile monster, and as they did so, Brianna began to notice a few visual cues that she hadn't had time to parse in the melee. The long, flowing black hair, the unusual brightness of the blue eyes, the elegant build, and the round face that sat atop a graceful neck all pointed to one thing. The shining, though shapeless, armor hid the features of the body, but there was no doubt in Brianna's mind about Roland's true identity once she got a closer view of the person who had come to her rescue.

"Wait… that's… that's…. Olanda?!" she cried, running several paces away from the sacrificial pillar to see better. "Roland… Olanda… of course!  How could I have been so blind?!  Olanda!  Olanda!  Slay it!"

The warrior whoa'ed her palomino warhorse and jumped off in an extravagant flurry even before they had come to a full stop. Twirling her flaming sword, she attacked the serpent monster head-on using a series of moves and maneuvers that defied the apparent weight of her shining armor. She hacked, she slashed, she thrust the sword into the serpent's body, but although the vile creature was marked by the onslaught, it didn't go down.

After taking some punishment, it roared out loud and engaged in a counterstrike that caught Olanda by surprise. Using its long arms, it swung at her head in a move forceful enough to sever it from her shoulders had it made a clean impact.

Olanda noticed the danger at the last moment and turned away just in the nick of time, but the serpent's arm struck the armor protecting her shoulder which sent her flying onto the cobblestones. The serpent hissed and jumped closer to her, but she scrambled to her feet and returned the earlier favor by slashing the flaming sword twice across the torso of her opponent in a broad X.

For each impact, more of the smaller reptiles that made up the main body of the creature were incinerated in golden sparks and puffs of black smoke, but though the creature writhed in pain and staggered back to evade the flaming sword, it remained on its feet and was soon back for another charge - a charge that was rudely interrupted when several clumps of dirt and small pebbles bounced off its large, scaly head.

"Die, you wretched scum!" Brianna cried as she threw several more pebbles at the seven-foot tall serpent. "Go back to the evil nest you came from!  Be gone from our village- Ohhhh!"

Brianna dropped the rest of her ammunition and ducked behind the sacrificial pillar in an almighty hurry when the beast exposed its fangs and lurched in her direction, but she made it to safety in one piece. After a few moments, she popped her head back around the stone sculpture to see what went on on the makeshift battlefield.

Olanda appeared amused at the assistance, but the smile soon vanished from her face as she twirled the flaming sword and went on a charge meant to end the current chapter of the eternal conflict.

The flaming sword was given such a workout the golden glow was reduced to a faint streak in the air. Olanda had the fiery blade hacking and slashing through the serpent's limbs with tireless fervor, and no mercy was offered at any point.

The serpent monster was on its proverbial heels with more and more of the little snakes making up its body disappearing in the customary golden sparks and puffs of black smoke. Now and then, it tried to mount a counterattack against its agile opponent, but its strength had run out, and it had nothing left for the mythical heroine. The closing move came when a forceful thrust drilled it right through and set fire to a vast section of its reptile components.

With an eerie scream that petered out into thin air as the serpent monster began to dissolve in a shower of golden sparks, the denizen of the Underworld was once again vanquished by Roland - or rather, by Olanda.

All around the warrior and the virgin, the wall of reptiles began to spin faster and faster as it made a slow ascent from the square. The circular motion created such a vacuum down on the ground that everything that wasn't tied down was on the brink of being sucked high into the air. Brianna cried out and grabbed hold of the sacrificial pillar, but even so, her jade-green frock was exposed to such high forces that several seams were torn along the hem and the sleeves.

High above the village square, the ominous black mist swirled around and around for nearly a full minute before it dissolved into nothing like it had never been there in the first place. Once the sky was clear of the last traces of the dark threat, the sun came out and cast golden rays down upon Dreckston, but an oppressive silence fell over the square and the two women present.

Brianna tried to smooth down her ruffled hair, but she had more important things on her mind when she caught a glimpse of the golden light that seemed to illuminate Olanda from the inside. Just as she began to move away from the sacrificial pillar and stagger across the square on aching legs, a blinding flash of golden light enveloped the warrior. The flash was so strong Brianna needed to shield her eyes with her arms, and she let out a cry when even that wasn't enough.

As the golden flash ended, the mythical heroine and her palomino warhorse had disappeared - in their stead, Olanda of Torwick stood alone on unsteady feet, dressed in the clothes she wore at her tavern. She swayed like a reed in the wind for a brief while before her knees buckled and she fell hard onto the uneven surface of the square.

"No!" Brianna cried and took off the fastest her own aches and pains would allow her to. When she arrived at Olanda's side, she went down on her knees and rolled the prone woman onto her back. A deep gasp escaped her lips at the sight of the myriad of cuts, scrapes and bruises that tainted the older woman's bronzed skin. As the mythical warrior, her skin had been free of blemishes, but it appeared every injury received in the struggle had been transferred onto the human being once the shining armor had vanished.

"Oh, no… no, no, no… Olanda, can you hear me?" Brianna said, giving her friend's shoulders a little shake though she was worried about aggravating any hidden injuries. "Please… Olanda… please do not die. Please!"

When Brianna's pleas for Olanda to come to weren't heard, she leaned back on her thighs and whipped her head around to see if anyone had appeared on the outer edge of the marketplace. Near the connecting street down at the far end of the square, she thought she could see the familiar brown colors of the platoon of soldiers that had brought her there, but none came to her rescue even when she waved and cried for help.

"Wretched soldiers," she mumbled, turning her attention back to Olanda. The older woman was still out cold, but the rhythmic heaving of her chest proved that she was at least breathing on her own. A small twitch played on her left cheek, and Brianna reached down to give it a gentle caress with her thumb. The thumb proved inadequate to make the twitch go away, so she leaned down and brushed her lips against the bronzed cheek in the hope a small kiss would make it better.

'Better' wasn't quite enough to describe what happened next - while Brianna still had her lips on the soft cheek, Olanda turned her head and let her own lips meet those of the young girl's.

Brianna's eyes popped wide open, but letting go of the intimate contact was the last thing on her mind. She had very little experience in the art of kissing, but she recognized a good thing when it happened to her. Working on instinct alone, she put a hand underneath Olanda's black locks and pulled their mouths even closer together. The unexpected contact was sweet and tasty, and sent a wave of tingles rolling over her despite her many aches.

The kissing had breathed new life into Olanda, and she opened her eyes to study the spring-green orbs that hovered immediately above her own. "Thank you," she whispered.

"Thank me?  Thank you!" Brianna said hoarsely. She snickered and pulled back from the soft mouth she had just been introduced to. Licking her lips, she took in as many details of the older woman's face as she could before the inevitable commotion would disturb their newfound peace. Her lips tingled along with the rest of her, and she couldn't help but let out another snicker. "A virgin no more," she said in a stage-whisper.

A black eyebrow crept up the bronzed forehead, but even that simple gesture looked like it caused the prone woman pain. "Oh, I fear there's a bit more to it than kissing…" she said, winking at the young girl.

"So I've been told. Oh, I must say you look quite awful. How are you feeling, Olanda?"

"Quite awful, as a matter of fact. Sore. All over."

Nodding somberly, Brianna ran her fingers across Olanda's cheek in a tender caress. "I can imagine… Roland, the mythical hero!  Defender of all fair maidens!"

"Would you have believed me if I had told you everything?" Olanda said and tried to get up on her own. She was unable to, and reached out for the young girl.

Brianna smiled and helped her new friend sit up. "I would not. That I can say with full conviction."

Their clothes were torn and filthy, their hair resembled haystacks, their limbs were aching from being thrown around on the hard, uneven surface of the square, and their skin had been cut and bruised - but at least they were still among the living.

Brianna opened her mouth to inquire about a great many things surrounding Olanda's near-magical transformation to the mythical warrior, but before she could get a single syllable across her lips, an entire platoon of soldiers came running for the two women. The questions that were burning on her mind were replaced by a heartfelt groan, and she looked toward the heavens in the hope she had earned just a little respite. The heavy footfalls that came closer offered her a strong hint that she hadn't.

"Oh, so now you show up!  Better late than never!" Brianna growled as the first of the militiamen reached her, but her small insurrection ended when two of the men grabbed her under her arms and yanked her to her feet with no regard for her well-being.

Brianna let out a pained yelp and tried to yank her arms free even before she was fully upright. She wasn't strong enough to fight the soldiers, but she soon received help from an unexpected source - her parents, who came bounding into the center of the square. In no time, her father had shoved the two soldiers away so the path was clear for his wife, and Sannita Eberlind exploited that to the fullest by wrapping her arms around her daughter.

"Oh!" Brianna cried, diving into her mother's safe arms. With tears streaming down their cheeks, they gave each other the biggest hug they had ever shared. "Oh, Mother, I am so happy to see you… so very happy indeed!  By all the Gods above, I have never been so frightened… never!  Not even in the fire last year…"

"Hush, child… I cannot speak now," Sannita croaked, giving her daughter another strong squeeze.

When they finally separated, Brianna's solitude only lasted for a few moments before her father mirrored his wife's gesture and pulled his daughter in for a new, equally strong hug. Finishing off by framing Brianna's fair, though flushed, face with his hands, he shook his head over and over like he couldn't fathom that his little girl was still alive.

Down on the filthy ground, Olanda rubbed her face. A few rattling coughs that escaped her proved she hadn't recovered fully despite Brianna's best efforts at kissing her back to life. "Good day to you, Sir. And you, Lady Sannita," she said and tipped her non-existent cap.

Kieran just stared at the owner of the Speckled Rooster like he hadn't noticed her before, but Sannita knelt next to the prone woman to look at the many little cuts and bruises tainting her bronzed skin. "Oh!  Lady Olanda… what are you doing here?  Oh, you look quite awful!"

Olanda chuckled at the identical phrases used by both generations of the Eberlinds. "I know, your charming daughter has already told me," she said and let out another rattling cough. "And I fear I cannot say what I am doing here… it's all a blur right now. Sir, may I request a hand up, please?"

"Why, naturally, Lady Olanda," Kieran said and reached out to provide the necessary lift needed to get the tall woman off the ground. Once she was on her feet - several inches taller than he - he gave her a quick once-over like he couldn't quite work out her part in the whole mess.

"I am grateful for your help, Sir," Olanda said as she nursed a badly bruised left shoulder - the lasting legacy of the serpent monster's vicious strike.

Brianna noticed and went over to her new friend to assist her all she could. The two women smiled at each other, but once more, they were interrupted before any of the countless questions between them could be asked. Brianna groaned out loud when she caught a glimpse of the pointy hat and the overly extravagant garments, not to mention the rest of the pompous clergyman as he came stomping toward them.

He had a face like thunder approaching the small group, but he mellowed out and put on the fakest of all possible smiles when he reached them. "Praise the heavens, child," he said and clapped his hands together in a fake display of surprise. "You are still with us… I did not think it possible, but through the graces of our Almighty Masters, you are here and indeed in good health. Praise-"

"Spare me," Brianna growled, running her hand over the cheek slapped by the clergyman when he had left her to die at the mercy of the serpent monster.

"-the Lords above… I beg your pardon?" the clergyman said as he scrunched up his face. "Child, can you not see this is a miracle?  You were saved by our Almighty Masters. At the very least, you should show gratitude and humility. I demand you join me in a prayer to-"

Kieran stepped between Brianna and the colorful fool before it would come to blows. "My daughter has suffered through a terrible morning, Sir. Please leave her… and the rest of us… alone."

The look upon the clergyman's face proved he was anything but happy about the blatant lack of respect from the Eberlind family, but he conceded the point and nodded a curt goodbye to the Eberlinds and Olanda of Torwick before he withdrew from the fray.

Brianna and Olanda both tracked him with their eyes before they happened to cast a casual glance at each other. They winked, both knowing the truth was even more farfetched than being rescued by the so-called Almighty Masters.

The soldiers of the county militia were still observing the small group of people at the square while awaiting orders from their Captain. When nearly fifty villagers flocked onto the marketplace to begin celebrating the defeat of the feared serpent monster, it was clear their original assignment was over.

Captain Darrian let out a growl and shot his men a hand signal that meant they were all to return to the garrison located on the outskirts of Dreckston. Relieved, the young soldiers fell into a perfect column and marched away from the square and the strange goings-on that had taken place there.

Olanda chuckled at the sight of the goose-stepping militiamen, but the chuckle turned into yet another rattling cough that tore through her lungs. "Oh… I fear I need to lie down for a while. Lady Brianna, Lady Sannita… Sir, meeting you here has been a pleasure, but now I fear I must return to my bed-"

"Pshaw, Lady Olanda!" Sannita said sternly. "The extent of your injuries is yet to be determined. The risk of complications is too great if we let you suffer in solitude. No, you shall return home with the rest of us. I am sure my daughter will grant you her bed for the rest of the day… and the night too, if necessary."

Brianna's throat, cheeks and forehead exploded in a bout of blushing at the words and the images of Olanda of Torwick spending the day and night in her bed that suddenly played across her mind's eye. All she could do was nod, so she did so while a wide, goofy smile graced her features.


The rest of the day went by in a flash, and evening soon fell. Brianna stood in the doorway to her own bedchamber in the attic of their town house, studying the female form sleeping on her four-post bed. She wore the tan dress she used for her household chores as her beautiful, jade-green frock had been in dire need of repair after all the drama. Her father had spent the entire day repairing it in his study downstairs, and he had promised her it would be as good as new, or perhaps even better.

It had been a challenge to find anything in the Eberlind wardrobes that would fit Olanda's long frame - not to mention her wider hips - for her lengthy nap, so a little improvisation had been needed. The injured woman had ended up wearing one of Sannita's discarded maternity dresses, and although it looked somewhat odd, it was just the thing for her.

Brianna snickered as she remembered the look upon Olanda's face as she had seen the tent-like size of the dress, but as the older woman donned the garment, it fit her like it had been tailored to her measurements.

Dinnertime was near, and a delicious smell of chicken broth and sweet ale wafted up through the staircase to the small bedchamber in the attic. Brianna's stomach growled at the prospects of food, and she ran her fingers across her tummy without even realizing it.

On the bed, Olanda stirred and rolled over onto her back. She rubbed her weary eyes before she could focus on the young girl standing in the doorway. "Good day again, Brianna… or is it evening now?"

"Eve has fallen, yes," Brianna said and walked across the floor. She sat down on the edge of her own bed and reached for the hands of her houseguest. Only then did she notice that most of the cuts, scrapes and bruises had already healed across the bronzed skin. Furrowing her brow, she reached up and stroked Olanda's smooth cheek. "Your injuries are almost gone… how is that possible?"

"I am a fast healer."

"Nobody heals that fast… I feel there's something you are withholding from me," Brianna said quietly, studying the older woman's features and the almost unnatural brightness of her blue eyes.

Olanda's lips creased in a wistful smile. "Brianna, if I ask nicely, do you think it's possible your mother will pour me a bowl of whatever it is she has cooked?  It smells delicious."

"It's chicken broth. And you just changed the subject."

A chuckle escaped Olanda, and she gave Brianna's hands a little squeeze as an apology. "You are too clever… nothing gets by you. All right. When you bring up the food, I promise I shall answer whatever questions you may have."

Brianna squinted at the older woman for a brief moment before she nodded and returned the squeeze. "Deal," she said and got off the bed.


It didn't take long for her to return to the attic chamber carrying a tray fully laden with a spoon, two napkins, a mug of sweet ale and a large bowl of chicken broth. "Here you go, Olanda… please try not to spill any of the broth or the ale into my bed. I'm down to my last, clean sheet already and it's not washing day until the middle of next week."

Sitting up in bed, Olanda let out a louder laugh than usual as she took the spoon and dug into the broth at once. "I promise I will not spill a drop," she said between mouthfuls.

Brianna moved her only chair over to the bed and sat down. She looked at her houseguest with great expectations, and the eating woman soon dabbed her lips on one of the napkins.

"I promised I would answer any question you had, so… ask away," Olanda said and took a swig from the mug of the sweet ale she had sold Kieran earlier in the week.

"All right," Brianna said and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. "Who are you really?  Roland or Olanda of Torwick?"

"The two are one and the same, Brianna. At least right now. I am one of the Ancients," Olanda said and put the mug on the bedside table so it would be out of harms' way. "Maybe you've heard of the Cult of the Ancients?"

"Only in vague terms. We did not worship them… well, worship you, I suppose… in our old village. Father suggested they weren't known here, but… now I know differently."

"Indeed. We form a brotherhood of sorts. My four brethren and I are locked in an eternal conflict with the five animal spirits… the Bear, the Wolf, the Serpent, the Ram and the Boar. They all appear once each Sahrwinn somewhere in this world, and it's my task to find and stop the Serpent before it can consume the virgin sent to appease it… alas, I am not always successful."

"Olanda… the artwork on the wall of the Speckled Rooster shows you fighting the serpent monster centuries ago… how is that possible?  Are you immortal?  Surely you cannot be as I wiped red blood from your cheek not half a day ago. And you slept, too!"

Olanda sighed and took another spoonful of the broth to give herself a little longer to think her answer through. "Roland, the mythical hero, is immortal, but Olanda is not. The presence of the Ancient warrior has slowed down my aging process, but this body shall perish one day like all flesh."

"But you said the two are one and the same… I do not understand… so you are not even you after all?" Brianna said and shook her head.

"Oh, I am me, all right."

"I'm getting a headache…"

Putting the spoon into the bowl, Olanda reached out to give Brianna's arm a little squeeze. "It's simpler than it sounds. The Serpent and I have been locked in an eternal battle for supremacy since the dawn of time, only I need a human being as a host to carry out my task, and it does not. No human is that long-lived, but by transferring the Spirit of the Ancients to a new vessel at regular intervals, I can keep up the fight."

"But… but how long have you had this… this vessel, then?  And how many years will you… will… Olanda last?" Brianna said and began to wring her hands.

"I've been Olanda of Torwick for five centuries now though she has only aged perhaps ten human years during that period. How long will she last?  I cannot say, Brianna. At some point, this body will not be agile enough to aid me in battling the monster, and I will need a new host."

"This is so confusing," Brianna said and shook her head. Looking up, she suddenly pinned Olanda to the spot with a steely, spring-green glare. "What did you do to the real Olanda of Torwick when you took over her body?  Did you kill her?"

"Of course not. I am her."

That wasn't the answer Brianna had been expecting, and it left her with her mouth gaping like a stranded fish. "I give up," she mumbled after a short while. "I should not have asked you anything apart from perhaps tomorrow's weather."

"I cannot tell you tomorrow's weather, Brianna… I've been asleep all day!" Olanda said and stuck out her tongue in a sudden bout of juvenile glee.

Brianna mirrored the gesture and added a small crinkling of her nose. "Never mind all that. So… what happens now?  Has the serpent monster been defeated?"

"Right now, I shall continue to enjoy this delicious chicken broth," Olanda said and balanced another spoonful on the long journey to her mouth. She winked. "But beyond that, I'll be leaving. Chase the Serpent to another village where the battle shall resume next Sahrwinn. It is already sizing up its next victim… and in this body, it will take me many moons to get there by foot, or even on horseback."

"But… leave?  When?  Now?" Brianna said and stared wide-eyed at the older woman in her bed. "We have only just met… what about your tavern?  I thought we were friends… and we kissed!"

"And a very nice kiss it was, too. Brianna, I can see you have grown upset-"

"I'll say!"

Olanda chuckled and scooped up a final spoonful before she put the empty bowl back onto the tray and pushed it aside. "I fear it cannot be any different. The Speckled Rooster will easily find another proprietor… it's one of the oldest establishments in Dreckston, after all. And you will find other friends. Other people to kiss."


"And, Brianna… I am, oh, just a little too old for you," Olanda said with a wink.

"Let me be the judge of that!"

"Well, I must leave. I only exist to battle the Serpent, so battle the Serpent I must."

The definitive statement turned the mood in the attic chamber into a somber one. Brianna scrunched up her face into a mask of disappointment, and she reached out for the older woman's hands. They gave each other a little squeeze, then another one before the young girl had worked up enough courage for her final question: "Will you ever return?"

A wistful smile creased Olanda's lips. She offered her young friend another consolatory squeeze before she shook her head almost imperceptibly. "No," she whispered. "Not in your lifetime."

"What if I remain a virgin until my dying day?  Will that not lure the Serpent back?  And thus you?"

"Since the dawn of time, the Serpent has never revisited a village where it was defeated, only those where it achieved its gruesome success. Once, oh, four centuries ago, right here in Dreckston, I was unsuccessful in my quest to defeat it. I had to witness the death of a maiden."

"Oh!  The old, old drawings in the Rooster…"


"But they showed you winning the day…"

"Artistic license, I'm afraid."

"Ack…!" Brianna said; her face scrunched up into a hideous grimace as she thought of what might have happened.

"And, of course," Olanda continued somberly, "if I had been unable to defeat it this time around, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Oh… just my wretched luck. Saved, but doomed. Will you at least kiss me again before you leave?  Or is that too much to ask?"

"No," Olanda said and cocked her head to give the young girl better access to her lips.

Brianna gulped down a nervous lump, but leaned in and claimed the older woman's lips in a kiss that was just as sweet, but perhaps less deep than the one they had shared on the square after the drama. Pulling back, she licked her lips and shot Olanda a somber gaze. "Thank you. I wish I could travel with you… I feel we are connected somehow…"

"After being acquainted with me for two days?  Come now, Brianna, that is a little too farfetched."

"Oh, so being a five-centuries old woman possessed by an immortal spirit and perpetually fighting a big, ugly snake is just run-of-the-mill?!"

Laughing out loud, Olanda pulled the annoyed Brianna down for a smooch and a hug. "Granted… I should be more open to the magical." When they separated, Olanda motioned she wanted to get out of bed.

Swinging her bare legs over the edge of the four-post bed, Olanda offered her hostess a broad smile. "I cannot claim my stay here in Dreckston has been a pleasure… there was too much hard work involved… but I will say it has been a great pleasure to get to know you, Brianna Eberlind."

"Likewise, Olanda of Torwick… rest assured, I shall not forget you in a hurry," Brianna said in a downcast voice.

Olanda cocked her head and gave Brianna a look of mischief. She seemed to ponder something for a brief while before she smoothed down the ruffled sheets with her bronzed hand like she had come to some kind of agreement with herself. "Brianna, before we do anything else…"

"Yes?" Brianna breathed. She parted her lips in the hope another kiss would follow, and that it would be just that little bit deeper than the one before.

"Could I have another bowl of broth, please?  Your mother is an excellent cook."

Brianna narrowed her eyes down into spring-green slits. Scrunching up her face, she put her hands on her hips but couldn't hold the dark glare for too long. Breaking out into a grin, she threw her arms in the air and finished off by wagging an index finger at the older woman on the bed. "Why, Olanda of Torwick!  I dare say you are a tease, my Lady!"

Mirroring the grin, Olanda put her legs back up into bed and swooped the spread over the borrowed maternity dress so she wouldn't get cold. "Oh, I'll just buy a faster horse. That nasty, old Serpent can wait a while. I much prefer the present company," she said and put her long, bare arms behind her head. An ever-broadening grin caressed her bronzed features as she snuggled down in bed.

Brianna grinned back before she spun around on her heel to fetch another bowl of broth and an extra spoon for herself. The night promised to be as memorable as the day had been, though she was hoping it would be for far nicer reasons…