Vala Kalei clutched at the medallion about her neck, her eyes closed as if that could block out the sounds coming from the building next door. Soft voices, both commanding and encouraging, grunts of pain, gasps of breath. She shuddered as a sudden scream tore through the air. Then silence. Dreadful silence. Vala opened her eyes, her breath caught in a throat gone dry. Where was the squall of a newborn? The exclamations of joy? She waited for long moment, then sagged at the sound of weeping. The baby had died.
Vala's breath escaped her in a sob, and she threw herself atop the straw mattress in the corner of the shed. Her tears wet the tattered blanket and she hugged close the thin shawl, burying face and heart in the memories it held. It had belonged to her mother, the last woman of this high mountain village to bear a child who had lived.
Vala rolled onto her side, her sobs wracking a body too thin, and too small. All of her prayers had gone unheeded. The sacrifices she had made in the quiet solitude of the woods had gone unanswered. It wasn't fair! But then, the Gods rarely listened to her. If they had, her life would not be so dismal.
Her gaze shifted over the small room's contents, barely visible in the light of a single candle burned too far down. There wasn't much--the mattress, a small table and the trunk taken from her parents' house. Yet, she supposed she was grateful for even the humble room, for it afforded her tenfold more protection than living alone. She shuddered and curled up tighter. Her life had been one dark event after another following the death of her parents.
She had been ten years old when the plague had swept through the village and claimed many lives. She was not the only child orphaned, but she was the most well known. No one had wanted her. Not even her own uncle. He had taken her in only because the church had pressed him to do so, and only until she could find other arrangements. But he had never considered her a human, had always referred to her as fae-spawn, something that had continually mystified her. Her mother and father had been born and raised in this village, had courted here, married here, had started their family here. Had died here.
Yet he had never lost an opportunity to take out his frustrations and anger on her--she had often borne welts inflicted by his walking cane. And he had never lost an opportunity to remind her that she shouldn't have lived, that she didn't belong, that she didn't look like the other villagers.
I do have different color hair and eyes than the other villagers, Vala thought, sitting up. But how did having blue eyes and blonde hair make her less human? She leaned against the wooden wall, pulling her mother's shawl tighter around her bony shoulders. The medallion pressed into her bosom, and she pulled the amulet out to look at it. Even in the absence of direct light, the red stone embedded in the silver glistened. The silver chain showed no links, no beginning, no end, yet it moved like liquid against her skin. She stroked it now, taking comfort in the familiar feel. She couldn't even remember when she had first become truly aware of it. It seemed she had always had it, from her earliest memories. The medallion had been a gift from the Outsider, the man who had saved Vala from the faeries.
She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Her mother had told her to keep the medallion with her always, though hidden. And she had done so, most of the time. Except for that one time when she had placed it in her trunk for safekeeping. That one time. She shuddered, forcing the thoughts aside, and concentrated on the medallion. She turned it over now and silently read the four words inscribed on the back. Elthea Gannabribriel, Ithys Kjvali. She had no idea what language they were in, or what they meant, only that she had been forbidden to speak them aloud. Yet, just thinking them, mouthing them, brought her a sense of place, of belonging
Voices brought her alert. Voices she recognized. She turned her head and pressed her ear against the wall separating her room from the others of the house.
"Why, Revered?" Tyrs, the father of the child, spoke. "Lawanda is healthy, strong. Why did our child die?"
A woman, most likely one of the elderly birth attendants said, "The faery sickness is--"
"There is no such thing as a faery!" The voice of the Honorable Revered interrupted. His voice was strong, authoritative, and firm. It broached no argument. "There are only demons. And they are at work here to be sure. They have been at work in this village for nineteen years."
There was a long silence, in which Vala's grip tightened on the medallion. She had heard of the Revered's sermons, even though she had not been there. He had denounced the existence of faeries, telling all that fae was yet another word for demons, minions of the devil, antithesis to the one and only God. Yet, for all of his pronouncements, all of his assurances, Vala did not believe his words. There were faeries! She was sure of it! The fae were no more demons than...than she was. Still, she could not explain all of the deaths. She knew only that for centuries the citizens of the high mountains villages had believed in the Faery Sickness, and that the fae had often taken children. Vala's mother had told her it was an act of kindness, that the fae took only the children who were stillborn, or too ill to survive in the world. But in the past nineteen years all of the babies had died. All except Vala, and that was only because of the actions of the Outsider. She had been born blue, with no life, but the Outsider had only to kiss her small lips and she had been wrenched from the faeries' grasp. Some had claimed he was fae, but now some declared he must have been a demon.
The very thought of a demon saving her life left Vala weak and sickened. She shuddered. All was quiet in the adjoining room and Vala surmised that the elders had either left or moved to another part of the house to talk further. She rose, hid the medallion beneath her blouse, pulled the shawl closer, and slipped from her room into the darkened hallway. "Tyrs?" she called softly. There was no answer, and Vala went into Lawanda's room. A candlelamp burned, sending flickering yellow light dancing on the walls and ceilings. Lawanda turned her head, and began to cry, then beckoned Vala closer.
"Oh, Lawanda," Vala murmured and approached the bed.
Lawanda held the infant, swaddled in a soft woolen blanket. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "Isn't she beautiful? Her skin is the color of milk, her hair like the fire in the sky at sunset. And Vala, her eyes are blue. As blue as yours. I know they are." She paused, looking down at her baby.
Vala studied the infant, grief stalling her speech. The baby didn't look frail at all, but rather robust and healthy. She appeared to be only sleeping, her cheeks still pink and warm.
Lawanda curled a strand of red hair around her finger, then closed her eyes. "I am old, Vala. With each child that dies, I grow older. Soon, I will die...my heart cannot stand it any longer."
Seized by anguish, fighting back tears, Vala whispered, "You will not die, Lawanda. I...I'll find your babies and bring them back to you."
Lawanda's eyes opened. "What?"
Vala frowned, but continued. "Well, if the fae have taken them, they must be somewhere. We have given the fae the mortal body for all of the children. Somewhere the soul and body must be reunited. If I could only find that place, I could bring the children home."
Lawanda stared at her as if she'd gone mad, but before she could respond, Tyrs entered the room, holding a mug of steaming beverage. He stopped in his tracks at the sight of Vala hovering over Lawanda.
"Vala?" he whispered, his face pale. "You shouldn't be here. It's late."
"I'm sorry, Tyrs, but I wanted to see Lawanda. And I wanted to give you both my prayers."
Tyrs flinched at the words. "It's late," he repeated. "Lawanda needs to rest. I've brought her a tonic."
Vala moved aside as he approached the bed. He set the mug on the table and reached out for the baby, but Lawanda pulled the infant aside.
"I want to hold her, Tyrs," she said through fresh tears. "Just for tonight. Please."
Tyrs nodded, pressing his lips together. Vala suddenly felt like an intruder and sidled toward the door. Neither Lawanda nor Tyrs acknowledged her leaving.
She returned to her room, closed the door and sagged onto her bed. Her own words came back to haunt her. Why had she said that? What made her think she could gain access to the Faery Realm? And what if, by some remote chance, the Revered was right? What if demons were taking the children instead of the fae? She shook her head and started to lie back on her bed, but was stopped by a knock on her door. For a moment, she hesitated. Fear plucked at her, and she pushed it aside with difficulty. She was safe here. Tyrs and Lawanda were her friends. They wouldn't let anything happen to her. She rose, crossed the room and opened the door.
Tyrs stood there, his face set with grief and anger. Vala backed away, her heart beginning to pound.
"Wh...what is it?" she managed.
He did not enter the room, but stood silhouetted by the candlelight behind him. It made him look larger than life, more imposing, more frightening. "I want you to leave, Vala," he said, his voice tight and controlled.
Vala gasped. "Why? What did I do?"
His hands rolled into fists at his sides. "Lawanda brought you into this house to protect you. We trusted you. But you have belied that trust. You must leave."
"I don't understand," Vala cried. "How have I belied your trust? What have I done?"
Tyrs grew rigid. His voice cracked when he spoke. "I must relinquish yet another child to the faeries, Vala. I thought...I thought pleasing you would make things different for us. I thought perhaps you would show gratitude. You have not. You must be gone by morning. Take what you will from the larder, but leave." He turned and strode away. A moment later, the lights from the hallway were extinguished.
Vala stood gaping at the open doorway. No gratitude? How could he say that? She had taken the position as servant to Tyrs and Lawanda. She had done everything in her power to show them how much she appreciated what they were doing for her. She had asked for little more than what was needed to survive and sometimes not even that.
She turned his words over in her mind. What had he meant by wanting to please her? That pleasing her would make things different for them? A knot began to form in her stomach. She started as the candle suddenly sputtered, then went out, plunging her into darkness. She had no more wax, and judging from what Tyrs had said, she wouldn't be needing any. Darkness surrounded her, pressing cold fingers against her skin. Fear crept in, and she fought it aside.
She sank onto the floor near her trunk, one hand resting upon it. Leave? Where would she go? She had no money, no relatives. How would she survive? How would she protect herself?
Her thoughts spun to what had happened in the woods with several of the village boys. The night she had forgotten her mother's warnings, the night she had left the medallion at home. She tried to think of something else, but the harder she tried, the easier she failed. Sitting in the darkness made it too real, and terror washed over her--terror as fresh and raw as it had been on that fateful eve.
Tears broke through, and she huddled against the trunk, shaking. She could not get the images from her mind. She saw again the boys' lust-filled eyes, their predatory grins, felt their hands on her, heard their taunts. They were going to have a demon-spawn, see what it was like. It hadn't mattered to them that she was not even a woman yet, that she was a child of just twelve. She hadn't even fought them, too frightened of further retaliation. The physical pain had been excruciating, the emotional pain unbearable.
She shuddered and pulled the medallion from beneath her clothing. She pressed the metal, warm from her skin, close to her cheek. It soothed her, pulled the pain from her, cleared her thoughts. Somehow she knew that not having it that night had cost her dearly. It was a lesson she had learned well from. A lesson she would not forget.
With a heavy sigh, she opened the trunk. There were few things inside, but they were important to her. She moved from memory alone, drawing out her father's clothing and his sheathed dagger. She changed clothes in the dark, replacing skirt and blouse with heavy woolen trousers and shirt. Suspenders held the pants up, but the legs were far too long. She used the sharp edge of the dagger to remedy that. The cuffs of the shirt she rolled. She had no boots, only the soft leather shoes she wore inside. They would have to do.
Her hair was long, in the fashion of the village women. She gathered it into one hand, then before she could change her mind, she drew the knife through it, severing it just below her shoulders. She stood for a moment, her despair threatening to engulf her, then glanced about the room for someplace to hide the locks. Finally, she gently placed them into the trunk beneath her mother's apron. No one would look there. A snug fitting wool cap went on over her head, her hair tucked up inside, and an old waterskin hung from one shoulder.
Satisfied that she could now possibly look the part of a young boy, she crept from the room and down the hallway. She paused momentarily in the kitchen, wondering if she should take some food as Tyrs had said, then decided against it. The pain of his rejection stung. She would take nothing more from him. She filled the skin with fresh water before opening the back door, and stepping outside.
The door closed behind her, the latch clicking with a strange finality. Darkness pressed against her, and for a moment she froze, fear consuming her. She drew several deep, steadying breaths and stepped away from the house. The moon was full, shedding cold, white light on the lands, and Vala walked quickly, keeping to the darker shadows of the buildings and brush. Most of the villagers were asleep, but she could hear music and laughter coming from the pub. No doubt the village youth were imbibing, oblivious to others' pain and grief. Vala gave the pub a wide berth, wishing she could have found another way out of Strander than past the drinking establishment.
She slipped into the alley behind the building, bent low, slinking beneath the open windows, keeping out of the light spilling to the outside. Just when she thought she'd made it, a figure stepped from the shadows to block her path. She stumbled to a stop, her breath catching in her throat. Her uncle stood before her, eyes narrowed, hand tight about his walking staff. She took a step back, her heart pounding.
"So," Odig snarled, stepping forward. "You're leaving?"
Vala gasped, too terrified to do anything else. How could he have seen through her disguise so easily? And yet, how could he not? She was the only person in Strander with her coloring. Donning a disguise would not mask that. She took another step back, as Odig's gaze flicked over her, seeming to assess every inch of her. It was something she'd endured before, but something she'd never gotten used to. She had learned not to move, not to make any indication that she held anything he might have been searching for, whether it be a bit of stolen bread crust to tamp her incessant hunger, or a chunk of pilfered wax to light the cold darkness of her room. Odig had found them all, and she had been punished severely many times over. Now, she remained as if frozen, her heart pounding, her breath fogging in the cold night air. She was very aware that the only thing she had that might intrigue Odig was the medallion. She had worked hard to keep it from his reach in the few years she had lived at his home. She had kept it hidden behind a loose board in her room, only donning it when she left. Except that one time...she shook the horrible memories aside and watched Odig, her senses on the alert.
It seemed an eternity passed before Odig again spoke, his voice cold and hard. "You do not belong here. Go back to the darkness from which you were spawned."
"I am not a demon," Vala protested weakly. "I am your brother's child."
"You are no relative of mine!" he spat. "Vala died the night she was born. You are a demon housed in her body. You have brought nothing but grief on this village." He thrust his walking stick forward, driving the blunted end into her chest.
Vala staggered backward, momentarily stunned. Then her anger abruptly surged forward. "If I am a true demon, Uncle, then why do I not use my powers on you?"
He started, as if he'd never thought of that. He lifted his cane high. "Be gone, demon of darkness! Be gone!" He brought the cane down toward her head.
Vala gasped, instinctively arching her back, getting her head and face out of range of the heavy stick. It slammed against her shoulder instead. She crumpled from the impact, and he came at her again, bringing the cane down in a fierce blow to her chest. The stick hit the medallion hidden beneath her clothing. Red light shot outward, raced down Odig's walking stick, and engulfed him. He staggered backward, his face ashen, his eyes wide. He staggered, and fell to one knee, then suddenly toppled over in the dirt.
Vala scrambled to her feet, terrified and confused. Too startled to do anything else, she turned and bolted. Past terrors pursued her, down the road, across the meadows and into a thin copse of leafy trees. Still, she did not stop, but raced on, stumbling, falling, picking herself up, and always moving on. The waterskin banged and sloshed against her hip as she ran, leaking cold water down her leg.
At last, exhausted, out of breath, she staggered to a stop, using a birch tree for support. Her chest heaved with exertion, her leg muscles quivered. Confusion numbed her. What had happened? What had caused the red light? Shaking, she pulled the medallion from beneath her shirt and looked at it in the moonlight. The large red stone embedded in the silver sparkled. How could it have done that to Odig? What exactly had it done? So much didn't make sense anymore. Not Tyrs' words, not her uncle's, not the strange occurrence with the medallion. Vala shook her head, and returned the medallion to its hiding place beneath her shirt. When she was rested enough to be aware of her surroundings, she gasped.
She had never seen this part of the meadow before. Two huge boulders stood like sentinels, black against a darker background. Puzzled, she straightened, her leg muscles quivering in protest, and walked toward the rocks. As she passed between them, a tingle shot through her body, much like the ripple of excitement she used to get as a child, playing hide and seek. She paused, one hand on each boulder and leaned forward as a gust of wind swept around her. It brought a strange scent, one she had never smelled before. She took a hesitant step forward, then shrieked as the ground beneath her suddenly gave way.
She slid down a steep embankment, clawing and grabbing at anything she could find to arrest her fall. Sharp grass sliced through her fingers, small shrubs broke free in a cascade of dirt and stone, jagged rock cut into her stomach and arms. And still she fell, until at last, she landed on a small ledge jutting out from the bank. She lay still, stunned, one hand still gripping a piece of plant she had pulled free.
A new sound reached her, pounding and roaring in her ears. She struggled to her knees, her head reeling. She had only a second to take in a vast stretch of water, sparkling in the moonshine, before she toppled, plummeting over the side of the ledge to a pool of water far below.