Chapter Thirty-Two

The beast waited, huddled quiet and patient in the shadows. Watching as the larger one ran off to see about the noises coming from away down the river. Back to where its brothers had gone to kill and eat the ones there.

That left this one alone. The pale one with the red hair. So it watched and waited a little more, while that one continued on down to the river. It moved to follow her, quietly and carefully, never taking its eyes from her. Stalking her to the riverbank.

Until it was almost time. Tensing, awaiting the perfect moment to spring forward from the shadows so that it could rip and tear this one apart. Just as it had all the others along the way, in coming to this place.

She stopped then. Standing there now, staring out at the river. Nothing there to see…nothing for her to be looking at…but it didn't matter.

She was trapped now. Trapped at the water's edge. Nowhere for her to go but into the river. And it could pounce and rip and tear just as well in the water.

So it was time. And the beast exploded from the shadows. Moving quickly, amazingly fast, flowing across the clearing to come upon her. Mere feet away, claws extend to grab and rip and tear…

…and she shifted. Just a little.

Barely moved at all.

And something slammed into its chest, stopping it abruptly and painfully in its charge. Something that pierced even to its heart…

It roared in fury. Or…tried to. She snatched the spear from its chest just then. So the roar was cut off. Turned from a howl to a yelp just that quickly.

And the spear was already coming around again through the air, coming around in a great slash.

It had only a moment to wonder at how the bright, crimson ribbons of that spear twirled so…before the spear struck and it wondered nothing more at all.

Connor ran in a near panic, searching desperately. Follow the tracks and signs through the brush…until he burst upon the short clearing ahead. Alba singing in his hand, ready to kill

And he found her, standing there at the riverbank. Leaning on her spear, unconcerned, while something twitched there in the grass just before her.

But she was safe. She was well.

So he let out a groan of relief even as he stumbled to a stop.

"Ah, Brazen." He gasped, catching his breath still from the run. Relieved enough, but…

Damn it…

"Damn it!" He barked then. "What are you doing here? You said you'd wait back at…!"

"It was stalking me." She said, tight and quick, pointing at the twitching grass.

"Well…then why did you go to the damned river?" Connor demanded.

But the reason dawned on him immediately.

"You…you led it…!" He began, amazed.

"No, I didn't!" Brazen said, preempting the accusation.

"You did!" Connor insisted. "You led it to the river so that it would come at you…!"

"No…" She began evenly. Explaining…

"Yes, you did."

"No, I was just…"

"Are you mad, woman? That's a wereling! Do you know what they do to people?"

That provoked her curiosity, of course.

"That's a wereling?" Brazen asked, looking down at the thing in the grass. The thing that wasn't twitching anymore.

"Yes, that's a wereling!" Connor yelled. "Its claws can rip right through your chain…!"

"I didn't think there were anymore of these in the south."

"Well, apparently there are…"

"They heal, don't they? Like me?"

"They…yes! They heal pretty damned quick, too! Which is…"

"Unless you cut their heads off?"

"Yes, unless you…"

"Because I cut its head off."

Connor stopped to fume a bit. And take another breath, so he could yell some more.

"So it's dead." Brazen said, pointing at it. There, where it wasn't twitching anymore.

"I can see that!" Connor snapped. "Now why is it dead here? Instead of back there where you were supposed to…?"

Brazen threw up a hand then, huffing. "Fine! I didn't want you to get hurt. So I led it here. So that it would come at me. So go on and be angry about that then."

Connor glared, chest still swollen with all the yelling he still had planned.

But he let it out and let all that go.

"Damn it, Brazen." He said. Not at all angrily, but still. "You have to stop being so protective of me…"

"No," She argued. "You've got to stop being so protective of me. This thing couldn't have killed me. It could have killed you, though."

"I've faced werelings before. Quite a number of them. Don't recall being killed by one before. I just ran across two of them up the river, on the way here. And let me check…"

Connor looked down at himself. To check.

"…no, not dead." He said.

"Up the river?" Brazen said, concerned now. "Is everyone alright?"

Connor waved that off. "Hena and Unkin already took care of those before I arrived. I met the other two on the way here, tracking you. And they were tracking you, too!"

Brazen took Davus to her side then, to start walking.

"We should probably go check the field then." She said. "If there are more, that's where they'll be."

Connor followed, stomping only a little. Alba still in his hand.

"Are we going to fight them together?" He demanded. "Or do you plan on sending me off again so you…?"

"You know this is probably your fault."

Connor balked.

"Wha…my fault? How do you reckon that?"

"I think it's no coincidence that werelings attack a village on the same day you're to be married. Even you aren't so cursed as that. Probably some enemy of yours sent them. Probably that shifter in Longleaf. Remember him? I told you not to let him go."

"Or…" Connor said, offering an alternative theory. "It could be your fault. In the same way. Your name is known a little these days too, you know. I'm fairly sure that witch in Tanglewood had a sister…"

"Actually…" Brazen said, ignoring that and changing her mind completely. "It's rather fitting, really."

"What? Fitting how?"

"We're hunters." She said, as if it were obvious. "Werelings attacking the village on the day of our betrothal? That's…in fact, that's perfect, isn't it?"

Connor stared. Even as they walked on through the wood to the field beyond.

Brazen saw the look, of course. And smiled.

"Like in that we have hunters standing witness, which normal people would not." She said. "Or the Patriarch performing the ceremony, which he doesn't normally do. And we've a demon trap set at the threshold of the temple and salt along the borders of the windows…"

"Well enough." Connor said, smirking now. "I see your point."

"So it's fitting, don't you think?" She grinned.

Connor couldn't help but grin back. Because…yes, he supposed that was rather…fitting. Sort of.

In a very strange way but…he could concede that.

But he shook his head anyway.

"And you say I'm deep." He grinned. "I think you're deep, woman."

"Oh, now I'm deep?" She said, flirting. "Not viewtiful then?"

"Viewtiful and deep." Connor amended, with a serious nod.

Brazen snorted as they walk on.

And frowned.

"I need more hair." She said, patting at her head with her free hand. Patting far too little red hair there. "I look like a boy with this hair. Even two inches more would do, but it grows so slowly. Eight months growing it and I still look like a boy."

Connor grinned at that, until she looked at him.

"Ah, love." He leered then, casting a lusty eye up and down upon her. "You're anything but boyish."

She stared at him. Unmoved. Until she snorted.

"You'll have to work on that." She said, decisively.

"Work on what?"

"Flattery. You're still quite terrible at it."

In the depths of Bairn's Watch, far below the keep…below the dungeons and the white maze…past the mosaic room and the Red Queen's throne…

Even beneath and beyond the stairs of the well…at the very edge of the well, in the cavern there…

A single red flower grew.

No light there to nurture it but from the glamour of magic stones mounted on the banister of the stair. No soil to feed it but the cold, hard stone itself.

Sprung from no seed but the blood of a grieving homunculus who'd knelt there months before.

A single red flower. One with many petals upon a tall stem. One that stood tall but not overly proud for it. Three thorns adorning the stem that might threaten only the unwary. And even those, one might think, it would grieve to pierce an admirer with.

It stood there, alone and flourishing yet. At the very edge of the well of the void.

None had come to see it grow. None to come and pluck it away. There had been no visitors there since the blood that produced it had fallen, beyond what bugs and vermin had wandered through. And even they would not abuse it.

It alone stood there to witness the glow in the well.

The crimson glow that shone ever so faintly at the first. Growing only after a long time, until it was bright enough to be noticed by anything other than a flower. Growing bright enough eventually that the flower itself drew more from that than from the faint glamour of the stones.

Until the glow fell upon it not from beyond the lip of the well. Nor reflected from the walls of the cavern and the stone of the stair. Falling now instead from the source itself, where it hovered above the well.

Hovered, to look curiously on the flower that grew there.

Until it stepped beyond the well to the stone beside it. A single bare foot that turned to bring its sister to its side. Flexing gracefully when the woman there knelt over the flower to gaze upon it more directly.

To reach out and touch it carefully, examining the texture of it. Kneeling further to catch its scent. The scent less of a flower and more of she herself, the woman was surprised to find. As if she'd come upon herself in a clean field on a certain day.

The woman considered the flower there for some time.

And having considered it enough, moved to take it. Pulling gently, persuading the flower to be free of the stone. Breaking only those roots as necessary to do so. Until it was free and in her hand, grieving more than a little that it had been uprooted so rudely.

Taking it with her, holding it firmly in hand, as she ascended the stairs to her keep. Knowing already where she would plant it and upon which particular windowsill.

That's all folks!

Thanks to those that followed along and I do so hope that you enjoyed it.

- M&M