Five years later.
Night. She was the ally of those who prowled through her darkness. Her cloak of shadow lent stealth to those who wished to remain unseen and fear to those who wanted to be unknown. The depths of her garments offered subtlety and deception; it blurred the edges of reality and made lies blend into the truth with shady perfection.
They knew this and they took advantage of this knowledge. They walked through her abyss, robed themselves in her invisible power and in so doing, they became invisible.
Quick and silent as the very shades that hid them, the three phantasms wove through the streets of the town. They passed closed shops, locked homes and empty stalls without leaving a whisper in their wake. They flowed on, and so skilful were they that a policeman on patrol failed to notice when they darted around him, coming close enough to steal the cigar from his lips and the watch on his coat.
Unmarked by any, they reached a manor on the edge of town. In the wink of an eye they cleared the tall gates, sweeping across the courtyard quicker than the wind. The imposing oaken doors of the manor offered them no resistance as they picked the lock in the time it took for someone to smile. It swung open silently, whether by loving care of the cleaners or by the skill of the intruders. They closed it behind them and slid through the darkness of the mansion.
In no time at all, they came to a double door with doorknobs carved into the semblance of roses. However, before they had the chance to pick the lock, the occupant pulled the doors open.
The blue eyes of the woman shone with an inner light and cast a soft luminance on the trio of trespassers. She regarded them with mild interest before stepping aside, bowing ever so slightly in mock invitation. Wordlessly, the three entered, and she closed the doors behind them.
The lady clapped twice and instantly, two veiled braziers by the doors came to life to give the room a warm glow. A grand bed stood at the far end and the shadowy forms of bookshelves clung to the whole left wall, while a dressing table with a mirror stood to the right, alongside several wardrobes. There was a small, square glass table with four chairs in the centre of the room.
"Lucia," one of the three purred. "How nice to see you again."
In the light, they were revealed to be less enigmatic and fearsome. The speaker was a strikingly beautiful, if unnaturally pale, female while the other two were men who were equally lacking in skin tone. Both wore expressions of guarded formality: wary but respectful, although it was unclear if it was the lady or their compatriot they were uneasy of.
In response to that statement, the lady merely gestured to the table and chairs and silently took a seat for herself there.
With a melodramatic sigh the pale woman followed and sat facing Lucia. Her two followers positioned themselves behind her, indicating the woman's superiority and clearly marking them out as her bodyguards.
When Lucia spoke, her voice was sharp and merciless. "What are you doing here?"
The woman examined her nails with insulting nonchalance. "How curt! I would have expected my sister to be more welcoming."
"I have my reasons, Lilith, as you well know."
Lilith smiled, showing four inhumanly sharp incisors. "Do I?"
"Do not patronize me, Lilith!" The lady snapped. "Your selfish appetite for human blood has long been a thorn in my side. It is because of you that my home is filled with helpless children! Children who have fallen prey to your petty desire and are infected by your taint!"
The smile vanished to be replaced by an angry scowl. "You cannot deny me the sustenance I require, no more than you can deny yourself food and drink."
"I am not denying you blood. I am denying you human blood."
"I will not feed off cattle like a filthy parasite!" Lilith rose from her chair in anger.
Lucia looked coldly at her sister. "But you are a parasite."
A tense silence followed those words. Both sisters glared at each other, one with boiling fury and the other with quiet resolve. The bodyguards shifted uncomfortably. Somewhere in the room, a clock timidly ticked away the seconds. Lilith was the first to look away.
"I will not be denied. We will not be denied," she said.
"Ah, yes. Queen of the coven now." Lucia said bitterly. "You and your ilk will prey upon the humans and stir their anger towards those who are innocent. In your carelessness you turn those you do not mean to, and those poor souls are the ones who bear the brunt of the public's contempt. They are the ones who suffer, all for the sake your own selfish desires!"
"You know as well as I do that we need the blood, Lucia!"
"The children I take in survive well enough on the blood of livestock!" The lady rose from her chair to stand eye-to-eye with her sister. "They are the ones I have to teach! Without knowledge of survival and control, they would have been hunted down because of you and the actions of your coven! I steer them away from the decadence that you and your ilk indulge in! I guide them to a path that is less rooted in self-glorification! You strut around your mansions and your tombs while these children you leave behind die at the hands of those you feed on!"
"You cannot blame me for everything that my coven has done!"
"You are the Queen." Lucia sneered. "A Queen takes responsibility for the actions of her people."
"So you would have me and my people die for these mortals?" Lilith spat the word out with contempt.
"I would have you leave them alone, and turn to less taxing sources of blood, as I teach the children to," Lucia countered. "Do not feign ignorance. You know what I want."
Lilith glared at her sister before dropping her gaze. "Yes. I know."
She turned and moved towards the doors. Her bodyguards hastened to open them for her.
"You still have not answered my first question, Lilith. Why did you come here?"
The vampire stopped and turned to look her sister in the eye and gave a small smile. When she spoke, her voice held a trace of some emotion that was barely noticeable. "I came to visit."
And with that, she vanished with her bodyguards, leaving no trace but for the open doors.
The city market was, as usual, bustling with life and activity. It was only an hour or two since the sun had risen but the stalls were already open. The air was filled with the shouts of the merchants as they purveyed their goods to the crowd. Old folk shuffled along, turning a deaf ear to the racket while they picked out their groceries or jewellery at a leisurely pace while the others cursed at them for being so slow. Children darted between the legs of the adults, laughing and playing. Women haggled and fussed over fishes and cuts of fresh meat. Men hoisted heavy boxes of merchandise under the direction of their supervisors, who shouted themselves hoarse to be heard over the din.
Lissie located and bought the food she needed with remarkable speed. With practiced ease she cut through the milling throng with many an "excuse me". Owing to her gender, most men gave way and even the surliest old crone was softened by her apologetic countenance as she waded her way towards the various stalls. With that done, she navigated her way out of the sea of people and stopped in a quiet street to compose herself.
Having managed to secure a house in the city, it was no longer necessary for Lissie to be escorted by her husband with the wheelbarrow to buy goods in bulk. In the past, their visits were few and far between; journeys to the city meant that less time was spent tending to the crops that were their livelihood. After that fateful night five years ago, Lissie and Ivard had sold their farm for a substantial amount before moving into the city. With their small fortune, they managed to live quite well while they looked around for more suitable vocations. Lissie became a seamstress while Ivard apprenticed himself to a glass blower.
Once she had regained her breath, Lissie started off at a brisk pace. Lingering in any one place was dangerous; muggers liked frequenting the darker walkways in the wee hours, and though it wasn't that early in the morning, Lissie decided to take no chances. It was better to be safe than to be sorry.
With her thoughts firmly focused on dinner and the dresses she had to mend, Lissie failed to notice a carriage coming down the road in front of her. As she stepped off the pavement and onto the rough stonework of the road, the driver shouted in alarm and pulled the reins in. The horses, scared by this outburst, neighed loudly and reared on their hind legs. Lissie stumbled back as a flailing leg nearly made contact with her head. She landed heavily on the sidewalk, dropping her basket, which promptly spewed out its contents on the street. A few tomatoes became red smears on the road as the horses stamped their feet while the driver attempted to calm them down.
The carriage door opened.
"Oh no, I'm terribly sorry!" Lissie got to her feet hastily and bobbed a curtsy to whoever it was in the carriage, uncomfortably aware of her hair poking out slightly after the fall. "I was too deep in thought, and I didn't see your carriage, please, I beg your pardon."
She bobbed another curtsy and hung her head, biting her lip.
There was a moment of silence before the person in the carriage spoke. "Madame Lissie?"
Surprised, the seamstress looked up and gasped as two familiar, ice blue eyes stared back at her.
"It has been quite a long time." The lady smiled. She was clothed in a simple but elegant dress of purple.
"Yes, indeed, my lady." Lissie looked away again and started twisting her apron. "If I… May I…" She took a breath and spoke in a rush. "May I know how Aaron is getting along?"
The lady considered Lissie for a moment. "If you have time, Madame, would you like to join me for breakfast?"
Eagerly, Lissie nodded. She hastily gathered together whatever could be salvaged from the basket and hesitantly approached the carriage. The lady shifted aside to make room for her and beckoned, smiling in a reassuring way. The seamstress returned the smile and climbed in, anxiously dabbing her hair into some semblance of neatness.
"If I may say so, my lady," Lissie made an attempt at friendly conversation. "You have a remarkably good memory."
The woman laughed airily. "I make it a point to remember the parents of the children I take in. Goodness knows both parent and child are equally afraid and confused; it does not help if they have to hum and haw to tell me who their mother, father, son or daughter is."
"Indeed," Lissie answered stiffly. The casual manner with which the lady spoke about the whole affair unnerved her, and the comment on 'parents' in plural made her uneasy. How many people had she rubbed shoulders with in the market had had their children taken way from them by cruel circumstance? How many were mother and father to werewolves and other horrifying creatures?
She paled as she recalled something the mysterious lady had said when she took Aaron away, five years ago. I can take him away, control him and perhaps in time release him back into the world. I will give him the ability to control himself.
How many of them were themselves the werewolves?
"You need not worry, Lissie." The lady murmured. "They are all under control. I do not let them out alone unless I know they can be trusted, and even then, I keep close watch."
Lissie jumped. How on earth did the lady know what she was thinking? Was she even human? She seemed to be, and yet that radiant face was exactly how Lissie recalled it was, on that night with the full moon five years ago, when she came to take Aaron. There wasn't the slightest change.
If the woman could hear Lissie's thoughts, she kept them to herself after that. Instead, she turned to look at the passing sights. To get her mind off the whole situation, Lissie did likewise and noted with interest they were not going towards the more opulent part of the city. She tried to recall if there was any house in the outskirts that might belong to a noblewoman but to her knowledge there was no such place.
After a few minutes the silence became unbearable for Lissie. Filled with anxiety from not knowing where they were headed and anticipation at seeing her son again, she became fidgety. Her fingers knotted and twisted the sleeve of her dress while her mind kept running ahead of the carriage, desperately trying to pinpoint exactly where they were and where they might be going.
The journey continued, and after awhile she fell into a 'comfortable' state of worry, if there was such a thing. The constant wondering, the rhythmic twisting of her sleeve and the gentle rocking of the carriage as the journey went on conspired to put her to sleep. Her eyelids fluttered and she drifted in and out of consciousness.
The carriage slowed and the change in pace brought Lissie back to full consciousness. She awoke with a small start and looked around. They were approaching a manor in the outskirts of the city; of that there was no doubt. As she watched, iron gates that separated the manor from the rest of the city swung open on well-oiled hinges. The carriage passed through and Lissie saw the gates swing shut behind them, although there was no visible gatekeeper.
"Where are…" Lissie turned to the lady with a questioning look, but decided not to press the matter when she saw that the lady was still looking out the window.
They travelled on a rough cobblestone road around the relatively large courtyard and finally came to a stop in front of the manor's oak doors. The carriage shook a little as the driver hopped down from his perch and came to open the doors. The lady gave Lissie another encouraging smile as she stood and motioned to the door, where the driver was waiting.
"Guests first," she said.
"Thank you, milady…" Lissie accepted the driver's hand and stepped down the carriage steps. The lady came down behind her, and Lissie skirted to one side. She stood there awkwardly, clutching her shopping basket and wondering what was to happen now.
"I do realise that it is getting rather late for breakfast," the lady said as she closed the carriage door herself and moved towards the other compartment behind the passenger booth. Lissie recognised it at once; it was covered in mind-boggling runes and patterns, just like the one Aaron had been taken away in five years ago.
The lady continued conversationally. "Normally, I have my breakfast quite punctually at seven, but I had urgent business to attend to. If you will please follow the good driver, he will escort you to the manor and arrange for brunch. I have to oversee something."
Not daring to dally further for fear of getting a glimpse of what might be in that strange compartment, Lissie hurried after the driver. They reached the oak doors and he rapped on it smartly with the knocker. Almost instantly, an elderly-looking man, a butler, opened it.
"Our lady has a guest," the driver said. "Please ready the midday meal for both of them."
"Very well," the butler replied. "If you will follow me, Miss…?"
"Wootton. Lissie Wootton."
"Ah, beautiful name. Did you live close to a wood once?"
Lissie blinked in surprise. "Not next to one, no, but there was one not far from my old village. How did you know?"
"Our lady has always said that names tell a lot about a person," The butler smiled at her and gestured. "Enter, Miss Wootton, if you please." He bowed Lissie into the manor and closed the door behind her. They were now in the entrance hall, which was mostly empty but well lit by an impressive chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In front of them was were twin flights of stairs leading to a second level. Several doors lead away from the entrance hall to the other parts of the manor.
"If you would care for me to have that?" The butler gestured at her somewhat battered shopping bag. "I will see that it is kept safe, and returned to you when you leave."
Lissie nodded and gave him the shopping bag before turning back to stare at the chandelier. Having never seen such opulence before, and being unused to such wealth being displayed, Lissie let out a gasp. While she marvelled at the area, the butler handed the bag to a servant boy and relayed the order for lunch. When he turned and found Lissie still staring around in wide-eyed wonder, he chuckled kindly and cleared his throat.
"Our lady rarely has guests over due to the, ah, delicate nature of most of this manor's inhabitants. For your safety, Miss Wootton, I recommended that you do not wander off by yourself. I will see to it that someone will escort you to wherever you wish to go, although I must inform you that there are some places where you will not be allowed to venture. For now, please, follow me."
He led her up one of the flights of stairs and through a set of double-doors. As he walked, he would talk about the history of a certain antique being displayed on a table in a corner, or about the story of how a certain exquisite-looking piece of furniture had been acquired. Lissie followed and listened, although her mind was more on the possibility of seeing her son rather than the fascinating stories that the butler was telling.
Strangely enough, they met few servants on their way, despite the fact that such a large manor would have required a substantial amount of people to take care of. As for the other "inhabitants" of the manor, Lissie saw no sign of them at all.
After a few minutes of walking (the butler's pace was rather slow, and Lissie wondered if he was merely stalling for time) they finally reached a dining area of sorts. It was a small room, but what it lacked in size it made up for in grandeur. There was a soft carpet on the floor with patterns of snowflakes on it. One whole wall was taken up by an amazingly detailed painting of the night sky in winter, complete with falling snow, stars and a full moon. The opposite wall had two windows bordered by white swirls, which as probably painted wood, although Lissie had no idea how wood could twine so beautifully. More antiques and artefacts decorated the wall opposite the door, and Lissie noted that most of them had patterns of snow on them. The only deviation from the winter theme was a varnished table that stood at the centre of the room, along with two chairs on each side.
Lissie stood at the door, dazzled by the contents of the room. The sound of footsteps coming behind them shook her out of her reverie and she turned to find the lady approaching.
"Ah, I have made it just on time, I see. Thank you for escorting our guest here. Would you mind sending our meal in?"
"At once, my lady." The butler bowed and left.
"Please, sit," she gestured at the chair closer to the door while she moved to the other one. "Forgive me for neglecting to tell you my name until now. You do not need to know my title, you may simply call me Lucia."
A few servants entered, bearing platters of food. They laid them on the table, along with the cutlery, and swiftly left.
"For now, do eat. I will attend to all your questions after our meal." Lucia smiled at the nervous woman, who smiled back and did as she was told.