Dark as Night

Disclaimer: We'd like to thank everyone who submitted characters, and we will give them all credit possible for their original creation. Linden and assorted others, and the plot, damnit, are ours.

:Chapter One:

Linden's longsword flew out of her hand as she fell, an intense spasm of pain shooting through her abdomen as the blow connected. She smacked the ground with a thud, and groaned when she heard the laughter of her older brother.

She grabbed her sword and hopped to her feet, the morning dew from the grass having made her backside uncomfortably wet, and charged at her brother with a sort of blind determination to strike him. Gavin sidestepped her, and Linden found herself flat on her face in the grass. This time she laid there for a moment, trying to form some sort of strategy to outwit her brother. It was degrading – armed with only a wooden sword, Gavin was still beating her. He had had six more years of training than her and of course, he didn't have to train at this god-awful hour in the morning, but it was still shameful.

"Hurry up to your feet, little sister!" he laughed. "You'll never be able to best me at the rate you're going!"

At his words, Linden growled and leapt up, thrusting her sword once again at Gavin. She managed to chip a small bit off the side of his sword, and the amused twinkle in his blue-green eyes prompted her to lunge at him again, harder this time.

And she still missed her mark. She nearly threw down her sword in frustration. "I'm not good at this!" she exclaimed irately. "How can you do it so easily, Gavin?"

"I do have the advantage of formal training. You need to work hard on your form, Linden – stop attacking blindly and master the technique. Sword fighting is an art, you know," he said, and Linden braced herself for an on-coming lecture. Gavin's biggest passion in life seemed to be playing with swords, and anyone with eyes had to admit he was damn good at it. But then again, her brother was good at most things. He was a handsome young man of about three and twenty, but his shaggy mop of dark brown hair attributed to him a certain adorable boyish quality. He was a better swordsman than she, a better cook, much better behaved – Linden found herself wishing more often than not that she had been born a boy, or just have been born Gavin.

When Linden gave an uninterested snort at his ramblings, he walked up behind her and guided her hands, and Linden used his chest as a comfortable brace.

"When someone is attacking you, try to knock their sword out of the way before you stab. If they have a thin sword, you're in luck – they'll usually break when hit with a thick sword like this one. Hold your sword low and then swing upwards, smacking their sword, and if you're swinging hard enough it will go flying. Then you thrust," he added, leading her patiently through the motions.

"What if I can't knock their sword away? Do I punch them?" she asked rather hopefully. Linden was better at hand-to-hand combat, something Gavin had been teaching her in addition to sword fighting, behind the back of their father. In that area, Gavin feared it wouldn't be long before the student surpassed the teacher – Linden could throw brutal kicks and punches that were increasingly able to put him out of commission.

He chuckled slightly. "Never physically attack someone if they're holding a sword," he advised. "They'll get you every time, unless they're horrendously inept. Get a sword-imitation, and knock their weapon away. If the sword would break your weapon, you would aim for their sensitive points – kneecaps, shins, wrist, hand, instep, elbows—"

"Testicles?" Linden asked cheerfully.

Gavin blanched, dropping his arms and backing away slightly from his rather smack-happy little sister. "Yes…those too. But never try that on me, all right?"

To Gavin's dismay, Linden looked like she was pouting. "Well, if you insist…"

"Gavin, Linden!" a voice yelled frantically. Linden and Gavin turned around, squinting against the rising sun to see their nurse, Caoimhe, running towards them. She stopped in front of them, out of breath, her dark skin glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. "Lord Cherrywood be a'lookin for ye, Linden chile!"

Linden sighed. "What have I done now? If this is about the chickens…"

Caoimhe and Gavin both gave her identically sharp looks.

"This ain't 'bout the chickens," Caoimhe said with a deep, disapproving frown. "Even though ye shoulda been punished a heapin' deal more for that one. Imagine! To go a'stealin farm fowl with them nonsense peasant youngins. Ma Da woulda skinned me alive for that!"

"The chickens went for a good cause," Linden defended, and then realized her mistake. She had been protesting any involvement in the chicken thievery, even though her father had known better and punished her. Now that she had actually confessed, though unintentionally, she was now in range to be penalized even more.

A heavy sigh. "Ye better be comin' long now Linden, ye father be waitin' yonder. Ye don't want him t'come out lookin' for ye himself and stumble on dis, do ye?" she asked pointedly. Linden mumbled her resignation. If her father found out about her training with Gavin, both her and her brother would be sent on a one-way trip to the realm of eternal suffering. Her father doted on her, but like most men of his time, he had certain tasks he thought women should be able to perform – and fighting was certainly not one of them. He had nearly gone completely nutters when he heard about a little scrap between her and a peasant boy from the village – Linden didn't even want to imagine how enraged he would become if he found out about her other unladylike activities.

So, she handed the broadsword back to Gavin – it had been his anyway. Until her brother could be arsed into having a blacksmith make her a blade of her own, she was stuck with hand-me-downs.

"Same time tomorrow morning, Gavin," she told him sternly. "Come a little earlier next time."

Gavin grinned widely. "You keep requesting we train earlier and earlier. Before we know it, our training sessions are going to start at midnight!"

Linden glared, turned up her chin in a feigned act of snobbishness, and followed Caoimhe away to Cherrywood Manor and her waiting father.

___

It was mid-summer, so the usually freezing corridors of the Manor were moderately comfortable, and one did not have to throw on a shawl merely to walk from room to room. The Manor was huge, and not all passageways could be decorated, but the ones that led to the most used rooms certainly were, and the one-way hallway that led to the chamber of Linden's father was very elaborately done. Beautifully embroidered tapestries hung, and the eyes from many pictures seemed to follow her as she walked.

At the end of the hallway, she took a deep breath and knocked on the large oak door. Dread crept unbidden into her senses. Her father wasn't the most understanding in the world, especially when it came to her less than polite tendencies. Worse, at the moment she didn't know exactly what she was being called for. Off the top of her head she could think of at least half a dozen offenses he might have found out about.

"Father?" she called, a little timidly. "'Tis me – Linden."

"'Tis I," Lord Cherrywood corrected, irritated voice slightly muffed by the thick door.

Linden furrowed her brow in confusion. "No, 'tis me."

There was an exasperated sigh. "Just come in, girl."

Linden was tempted to say something to the affect of I have a name, you know, but thought better of it. The only time her father ever really addressed her by her given name was when he was colossally angry with her – the usage of the term girl or child proved she was probably in no more trouble than usual. Feeling more assured, Linden opened the door and stepped in.

She had never liked the inside of her father's room. Large though it was, it exuded an air of anything but comfort. The tapestries in the room were dark, as was the bedspread, drapes and curtains – it seemed more like a dungeon to her than an actual room. In the summer the room was usually warmer than all others, in winter it was always coldest.

Sitting in his favorite plush chair, glaring at her intently, sat her forty-some-odd father. She could never see any of herself or Gavin in her father's face – Gavin had inherited the late Lady Catherine's soft, lovely features, and Linden had acquired most of her own from her long-since dead mother, Catsurina. When her father spoke of the woman at all, it was usually to comment that Linden was growing up to become a near mirror image to her. By the description she was able to peace together, she and her mother shared the same oddly luminous, blue-violet eyes, the same nose and mouth, the same shape of face – but little else. While her mother had been short, Linden was nearly as tall as Gavin. Her mother had been curvaceous – she was lanky and more muscled than most women due to her training with Gavin. Lastly was the aspect her father seemed to comment on most – hair. Catsurina's had been blood red, and hers was jet black.

Sometimes she felt bad about looks – maybe if she looked a little less like her mother, her father would like her more. He didn't like to be reminded of what he had lost – two wives. It had to be a little saddening, Linden supposed. She didn't really know much about that kind of loss – she had her father and her brother, and since she had never known her mother, her death hadn't affected her in the slightest. She sometimes wished she could know a bit more about her, but learned to be content with what she had.

"What did you want to see me for, Father?" she asked, eying the shadows for some informer who might have been telling her father of her misadventures, then hid before she came in. It had happened once before, and since then she had always been suspicious when she entered her father's room.

"Take a seat, child," he answered composedly, gesturing to a chair he had positioned so when Linden sat down, she was directly facing him. Linden eyed him cautiously; he didn't seem angry. "Now, as you know, the mid-summer festival is 'morrow, and—"

Linden paled to the color of fresh milk. "Not the festival," she pleaded. "Anything but that! I confess – I was the one who took that horse out three nights ago and rode, not the servant I blamed!"

Her dislike of the festival and all it entailed was legendary in Cherrywood Manor and the surrounding area. When Linden had been five, she had completely ruined the whole thing by tripping and taking a string of decorations with her – the domino effect brought everything from the walls in the dining hall crashing down on everyone, and Linden had been unable to make a daring escape. She had been forced to stand in front of everyone and apologize for her severe clumsiness. She had been confined to her room for two weeks for that incident, and she had hated the whole bloody event ever since.

Lord Cherrywood had stopped forcing her to attend when she was nine. Why would he begin now, eight years later?

His expression was slowly turning sour – Linden had obviously said the wrong thing. "Your outbursts are one of the reasons you shall be present," he said, aggravated. "This childish, boyish behavior of yours has gone on well long enough. You're seventeen years old, girl! Most women your age are married or engaged to be, and yet you seem to be the only female within a thousand miles that seems utterly determined to die an old maid! Even that pretentious little companion of yours—"

"Gwen," Linden corrected brusquely. Her father continued as if he hadn't heard her.

"—is engaged. You refuse every single respectable man I attempt to show you, you know nothing of what you should as far as work goes – I've seen some of your embroidery, and I am very dismayed to say that a woman lacking eight of ten fingers could have done a better job."

As he went into his rant, Linden slowly tuned out the sound of his voice, allowing her mind to drift away to just a half hour or so ago, when she was out in the training grounds with Gavin, sword fighting against a backdrop of a rising sun and seemingly endless field of grass and mud.

"—Are you listening, girl?"

"I – of course."

"You're going to attend the festival tomorrow, and at the banquet, you are going to act the part of the respectable young lady you are supposed to be. Have I made myself perfectly clear?" he behested.

Linden sunk into her chair, an open admittance of defeat. "Yes, Father…"

Lord Cherrywood's dark green eyes softened. "I know how much you loathe these sort of things, but you have to understand—"

"I understand perfectly," Linden interrupted, and even though somewhere in the back of her mind she knew her father wanted what was best for her, it didn't mean she had to like it. "I should be off then. It's naught more than six in the morning – I've got many preparations to make if I'm going to attend the festival."

At these words, her father seemed for the first time to realize what Linden was dressed in – some of Gavin's old fencing wear, the britches and tunic hanging loosely, thick scuffed boots on her feet. His eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"Linden, what is—"

She interrupted him again, this time with a hurried bow, and scrambled out of the room before he could finish the question.

Lord Cherrywood stared silently after her, and then let out a frustrated sigh. She acted far too much like a boy his daughter did, sometimes to the point where he almost thought of her as another son. It was unhealthy, and that was one of things that prompted him to force Linden's attendance at the festival and banquet. It would take a lot to get the girl to shape up, but he was going to teach her manners if he had to ram them down her throat.

_____

"So, the powers that be are finally trying to overcome you, eh?"

Linden turned towards the cheerful voice's owner – only to see her personal servant slumped in the chair in the far corner of Linden's chambers. Upon Linden's entrance to the room, the fourteen-year-old hopped up and rushed over, patting Linden on the back in an assuring manner.

"How did you know what was going on?" Linden asked skeptically.

The girl, Kamaria, attempted to grin cryptically. "I have my ways, my mistress. My eyes and ears are everywhere…"

Linden cracked a grin. "You must have many sets of eyes and ears, of course, to see and hear so much. Honestly – how do you always find out so quickly?"

"Caoimhe informed me that you had left to see your father when I went looking for you, and I pieced the rest of it together. I am a smart girl, you know."

"You're also persistent and obnoxious – oh, you brought me breakfast," she said elatedly, spying the tray on her bed that contained a glass of fresh milk and a delicious-looking collaboration of ham and biscuits. Obviously the meal was not Kamaria's doing, as she couldn't cook anything edible to save her soul, but Linden thanked her for bringing it.

"How did the lessons with Gavin go?"

Kamaria was one of the few people Linden trusted with the knowledge of her training with her brother. Though she could be a bit meddling, Kamaria was the picture of loyalty. She had yet to betray any of Linden's secrets, and she placed full confidence in the girl.

If one were to go by appearances alone, one would not be very inclined to notice Kamaria. She was only an inch or two shorter than Linden, with deeply tanned skin and a bad case of acne that covered most of her body in whitish dots. Her plain brown hair was cropped at her chin. However, her brown-gold eyes were generally warm and inviting – and if not, were filled with mischief. She stood out amongst the servants as blatantly outspoken and a little too witty for her own good; unlike most of the lower class, she was fairly literate.

Kamaria tried to blend herself in with the crowd for the most part, however, principally because of her heritage. She was a half-elf, and in this day and age any creatures that were not human or not of human decent were feared and despised. Anyone caught practicing any form of magic, or anything that could be interpreted as magic, could face a penalty of death. When Kamaria had been bought at the age of five, she wasn't developed enough for Lord Cherrywood to have known her heritage, and now Linden worked laboriously to keep it a secret from the rest of the household – except Gavin, who knew and could care less. One of her brother's more admirable personality traits was his general lack of prejudice.

In private, though, Kamaria sometimes liked to show off her abilities – possessed of limited powers of shape shifting and telekinesis, she always made things interesting.

Linden's small magical talent was kept hidden as well – she had the ability to heal people. She had discovered the knack as a small child, and had worked to hone it in the following years, practicing mostly on injured animals and her brother after he emerged from a particularly brutal sparring match. She considered the capacity to border on useless, but she was proud of it anyway, and it did help her to overcome her beat-up appearance after training and the like.

Linden flopped down on her bed with a long sigh. "Not so well. I don't believe I'll ever get hold of sword fighting."

Kamaria, who was quite handy with a sword, grinned. "Yes, I never have seen anyone quite so talentless with a sword than you. And it should be so easy – what with that strange hand thing of yours."

Linden was ambidextrous, capable of using both her hands with equal ability – to write, throw, anything. Everyone else she knew had a preferred hand – right or left, but never both. Kamaria enjoyed picking out Linden's little oddities and teasing her incessantly about them. They had a relationship that was closer to friendship than mistress and slave, allowing both Linden and Kamaria to be themselves around each other.

"Very amusing, Kamaria."

"Yes, it's a riot. Would you like my assistance preparing for the festival tomorrow?" The day of festival, Kamaria had most of the day off, and was allowed to run rampant so long as she stayed within shouting distance of her mistress – which she didn't really have a problem doing. She would have to serve at the banquet that night, though, and help Linden prepare for it.

Linden grimaced, but nodded. "Of course."

____

Kamaria wound the dark blue sash into a bow around Linden's waist, deliberately as tight as she possibly could. Linden winced.

"Are you trying to kill me, Kamia? This thing is going to cut of my blood circulation and my supply of oxygen."

Linden had managed to hide for most of the festival – it was a rather dull event to her, the only interesting thing going on being archery, and she wasn't allowed to participate in that. Plus, Linden didn't like crowds, and the festivals tended to attract a lot of people. The festivals were held twice a year, one in the middle of summer and the other in winter, to celebrate the gifts the Goddess had given them. Supposedly, after the One had created the world, he had left it for his daughter and son to rule, to create all life on it. According to legend, the Goddess had shaped all plants, animals and humans, everything beautiful and good. The son, however, had chosen another path, allegedly creating everything magical and sinful. Everything the Son fashioned was to be destroyed – Linden didn't believe that magic was the product of evil, only that it could be used for it.

The Goddess and her brother had both had names at some point, but out of respect the daughter's name had been lost and the son's name was only to be spat as a curse. The son and daughter had presumably had a nasty spat, and the Goddess had then sealed her brother away for all eternity, where he would never be able to harm the Goddess's creations again.

The whole thing was silly, in Linden's opinion, but she had too much respect for the old myth to jump up and proclaim that it was all a lie. Some traditions helped people, and this was one of them.

While Linden had been able to avoid the festival and all it entailed, however, she was unable to escape the banquet. Her father would definitely notice if she was missing – when it came to her, he was so annoyingly observant that it was constant shock he hadn't discovered her secret training yet. However, she planned to dutifully ignore everyone, and when Kamaria was done putting a choke hold on her waist with that sash, she made sure her purse was with her. If worse came to worse, she could bribe people to leave her alone.

"All done!" Kamaria announced, and Linden looked into her room's full-body mirror, her lip curling with distaste. She was too lanky to be in such a form-fitting dress. She wasn't horribly built, but she wasn't busty enough for the low-neckline. To top it all off, it was bloody uncomfortable. She didn't know what the material was, but apparently it was designed to cling excessively, and that it did.

"Baby sister, are you done prettifying yourself yet?" a laughing voice called from outside the door. "You don't want to be late, do you? Father would probably pitch a screaming fit."

Linden sighed and mumbled something Kamaria didn't quite catch, although she distinctively heard the words Gavin and death. The girl tore away from Kamaria and marched to the door with the indignant yet resigned manner of something headed towards the guillotine.

"You'd better be at that banquet later, Kamia. If not, I fear my sanity shall quickly dwindle."

Kamaria waved her away. "Shall, shall. Now, go on. Can't keep torture waiting!"

The response she got was a small growl and the very loud slamming of the door as Linden left. In the hallway, Gavin stood, looking as handsome as ever. He grinned at her, and Linden could have sworn it was slightly demented.

He held out his arm and said, with mock politeness, "Shall I escort the lady to—"

"Her impending doom?"

"—the banquet?"

Linden looked Gavin in the eye, hoping to convey through some psychic brother-sister link desperation, that she would rather throw herself off a waterfall and impale herself upon the jagged rocks below than go to a banquet. The cheerful, teasing expression that seemed to be permanently etched into his features wavered, and he gave his sister a look of sympathy she both liked and hated.

"I know you don't like these sort of things, Linden," he said compassionately. "But it can't be helped. We all have our…duties…and yours is to do what every female of noble blood has done since probably the beginning of time – marry, raise a family. You're efforts to fight it are valiant, and you know I'll help you to the bitter end, but…"

"My struggle is in vain?" she asked with a sigh. Gavin looked uncomfortable, and Linden gave him a lop-sided smile and patted his back. "It's okay, Gavin. I understand. I understand my fate, too…but that doesn't mean I can't try to change it."

They walked the rest of the way to the dinner hall in comfortable silence.

___

The candelabra hanging in brilliant chandeliers from the ceiling washed the dining room with brightness. It filled the room with light, but not with warmth, and walking into the large room, Linden felt horribly out of place.

Her father had complained a few times about her rather boyish style of walking, so Linden deliberately took longer, harder strides as she made her way to the dais where the nobles dined, forcing Gavin to pick up his speed to keep up. She ignored his chuckling.

The room was echoing with the banter of the people, the music of the house's minstrels, and it was giving Linden something of a headache already. She had never been one for large crowds of people, chatting incessantly about the most trivial matters of life – but maybe this was a test from the Goddess.

As she approached the raised table, she saw her father scowling disapprovingly at her, and she gave him a bright, winning smile. His frown deepened.

Gavin, choking down another laugh, pulled out Linden's chair for her. Reluctantly Linden sat, and Gavin pushed her in – squeezing her stomach against the table. She balled her fist at him, mouthing, You shall pay.

Grinning at her, Gavin sat down.

The man sitting to the left of Lord Cherrywood gave Linden and Gavin a critical once-over. Then, he turned to Lord Cherrywood and said with palpable disdain, "These are your progeny?"

The Lord shifted uncomfortably, then retorted with as much pride in his voice as he could muster, "Yes, they are. This is my daughter, Linden, and my heir, Gavin. Children, please bid a fond greeting to my guest, Lord Isadin."

"Good evening, good sir," Gavin said cheerfully, then promptly began ignoring the man as his generally one-track mind decided to settle itself on the wide array of food that littered the table. Roast, chicken, turkey, fruits Linden couldn't even place names too, and a light, bubbly wine she didn't dare touch. She had seen what large doses of alcohol did to even the most mild-mannered of people. Even small quantities messed with people's minds.

If he did indeed exist, wine was probably the Son's personal beverage, she thought scornfully, gently pushing the glass away from her. She then turned to Lord – what was his name? – and muttered a greeting. Gavin kicked her leg under the table, gesturing to their glaring father meaningfully. Linden sighed.

"It's very delightful to meet you, Lord, but if you shall excuse me, I have more pressing matters to attend to," she said, with as much dignity and arrogance as she could muster. She had learned from experience that the only real way to deal with nobles was to out-snob them.

She stood up, pushed her chair back in, and trotted off, feeling very pleased with herself, even though her father would probably have her hide later on. But she was confident that, for the moment, Gavin was perfectly capable of handling the situation for her.

She stepped down off dais, quickly blending herself into the large throng of people that were talking, out of their seats. She maneuvered through them, muttering apologies as she stepped on the trails of long dresses and the occasional foot, until she finally found the table her childhood friend Gwen was sitting at. She was chatting animatedly to a handsome fellow of about twenty, and continued the conversation even as she spied Linden striding towards her.

Linden tapped the man on the shoulder, and he turned around, glaring at her. Linden gave her best attempt at a sweet smile, and it seemed to annoy Gwen's paramour even more.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said, trying to sound earnest, but only managing to end up with slightly gushy insincerity. "But I need to speak with Lady Gwendolyn."

He went red in the face, suddenly looking a lot less handsome to Linden. "I was speaking with her. Know your place."

Gwen sat still in her seat, a small smirk of amusement twisting her lips.

Linden growled at him, her cheeks coloring in anger. "I know my place. And yours is about to be under my foot!"

Finally doing something, Gwen reached and grabbed Linden's wrist, jerking her back as Linden lifted her leg to kick the man, and her foot barely missed his abdomen. It was hard to fight with a dress on, but Linden was very skilled, and could handle herself fine if allowed to fight.

Linden yanked her wrist free of Gwen, pulled her arm back and swung, but found her fist caught in the hand of another. She looked up, fury dancing in her eyes.

Her expression turned to guilt as her eyes made contact with Gavin's, and she swiftly looked down at the floor.

"I saw you from the dais," he said, voice an interesting hybrid of amusement and disapproval. "Father could easily have spotted you if he had been looking. You make it quite difficult to cover for you when you pull stunts like this."

Deeply ashamed, Linden muttered, "I'm sorry."

He nodded his head in the direction of the now very pale nobleman. "It's not me you should be apologizing to." He leaned down to her ear and said in a whisper, "You almost beat the living hell out of that poor man. Honestly."

Linden couldn't help it. She giggled.

Turning around to the nobleman with a peculiar bow, she said, "I must apologize for my exceptionally bad behavior." Then, she straightened and gave him a quirky smile. "I should pick on people my own size."

With a hopeless gaze skyward, Gavin smacked his forehead with his palm.

Gwen's nobleman was so red in the face Linden thought he might spontaneously combust. Then, with an indignant snort, he pivoted on his heel and marched in the opposite direction.

Linden waved cheerfully after him.

That wasn't the apology Gavin had had in mind, but he supposed it would have to suffice. He really shouldn't have expected anything more tactful from Linden.

He pinched his sister's cheek affectionately, then bowed to Gwen and walked off.

When he was out of sight, gone to keep his father's eye away from Linden, the girl turned back to Gwen.

"Sorry about that interruption," she said, taking the chair that the redhead's beau had formerly occupied. Gwen didn't respond for a moment, merely looked at Linden with a scornful frown, swirling around the wine in her glass with her finger. Gwen looked like the noble archetype, through and through. She was a short girl, dwarfed it seemed by Linden, and slightly plump. Her carrot-red hair was done in a fashionable bun, a few wisps falling over her blue eyes. It wasn't able to disguise their judgmental glint.

"You should be," she muttered. "You embarrassed me in front of Malcolm."

Linden raised an eyebrow. "You should be thankful I rid you of that twat."

"He's a very nice man," Gwen said obstinately.

"He's pond scum; that's what he is."

Gwen had it in her head that Malcolm of Ntent was the most wonderful creature to ever walk the face of the earth. She had been betrothed to him since the day she was born, so she had always seen him through a rosy sheen, but Linden knew exactly what he was. She had seen him loitering around with the female servants for years, knew what kind of activities he participated in when Gwen didn't have her eye on him. He was as suitable for a husband as a rat was. It was damn hard to convince Gwen of it, however.

Gwen sniffed resentfully and took a small sip of her wine.

Linden frowned slightly.

"I try so hard to get him to like me," Gwen said suddenly, breaking the silence. Linden didn't know what she was talking about for a moment, and then she realized it. Malcolm.

"You should be trying to make him dislike you as much as it is within your power to do so," she responded sourly. Gwen glared.

"You don't understand it at all," she complained. "I know you don't. You've got something wrong with your mind, I think, that doesn't allow you to function like a normal lady should."

"That I do."

Gwen's look of disapproval sharpened as she heard the distinct note of pride in her friend's voice. "You're touched. You just don't –"

As suddenly as lightning flashes, they heard a whinny of fear outside the hall, and they could hear through the windows that the wind had picked up drastically. The loud howling breeze shot through the windows, whipping up the tablecloths and any loose material. Candles flicked out quickly, and a few people screamed in panic.

"What the hell?" Linden asked, and got her answer soon enough. The doors to the hall were so violently thrown open they smacked the walls with a very audible thud, and Kamaria came sprinting into the room, looking like Hell warmed over. She was covered in mud, wet, and Linden thought she saw blood in the mix around her left arm when the girl came running past her table. Linden barely caught her words – "Run, Linden, run" – before the girl had headed off to the dais where Linden's father sat.

Linden shoved her seat back, forgetting Gwen completely, making as though to run – then stopped. There was no point. She would quickly hear of whatever was going on. Her eyes flickered to the decorative swords that hung low on the walls. She had a bad feeling about all this.

Kamaria was carelessly knocking people over, shoving through the confused, frightened crowd until she reached Lord Cherrywood. She stopped, panting, and gritted out, "Sir, sir! They—they're dead. The servants–dead –they got them!"

Lord Cherrywood grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "What got them, you silly girl?"

"We're—we're under siege by—"

"Vampires?" an amused, masculine voice interjected.

The attention in the room, which was formerly fixated on the bleeding slave girl and her urgent words to Lord Cherrywood, now turned to the door she had entered but minutes before.

Linden stared at him, seemingly glued to the floor. A tall man was at the forefront of what seemed to be an endless army of creatures. Linden didn't take the time to identify them, there was such a wide array, and focused her attention instead on who seemed to be their leader.

He was good-looking, she supposed, but there was something odd about him that Linden couldn't quite place, and she didn't know whether she liked it or not. His flame-red hair was wild, sticking up in apparently every direction, and his jet-black eyes darted around the room, almost curiously. He didn't look like much of a threat.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said politely. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, but you all have something I am in dire need of."

Lord Cherrywood had gone sheet-white, but Gavin was the one who stood up out of his chair and asked sharply, "And what would that be, sir?"

As if impressed with the young man, he smiled. "It's Soulless, not 'sir.' I find that title degrading. It implies I'm one of you," he said, glancing around the hall at the frightened nobles in a disinterested fashion. "But, down to business. It's the Jewel I've come for, of course."

"We've no idea what you're talking about," Gavin answered, his voice a coldly formal tone Linden had never heard before, and it chilled her. "Be gone with you. Now."

Soulless sighed. "Well, if you're going to be obstinate about it…That's what I brought them for," he said, gesturing to the host behind him – who quickly drew their various weapons, now mobilized to attack at their leader's word.

Linden was shaking, and the silence that had engulfed the hall was breaking into stage whispers, frightened shrieks, people trying to run out but having nowhere to go. Linden didn't even notice Gwen clinging to the sleeve of her dress. She glanced over at the swords again and, jerking free of Gwen, darted hurriedly over to them, yanking one off the wall. The other swords toppled to the ground with a very loud clank.

The strange noise amid the terrified yelling and running caught the intruder's eye, unfortunately, and Linden temporarily faltered under his gaze. Soulless, however, was much more shocked, a look of hurt flickering across his features so fast Linden wasn't sure it was there to begin with.

Soulless turned back to Gavin, who had bristled when he had seen him gazing at Linden.

"Is that your little consort?" he asked, rather tauntingly. "A relation, perhaps?"

Gavin didn't answer, merely paled.

Soulless' eyebrows twitched with slight amusement. "Struck a chord, have I? Well, then how does this sound to you: If you don't hand over the Jewel, the girl dies first."

Gesturing helplessly, eyes clenched shut in frustration, he said, "I can't help you, because I don't know what you're talking about! Leave Linden alone!"

A faint smile crossed Soulless' lips and he pulled his sword out of its sheath, and Linden readied hers – despite how horrible she was with one.

"Have it your way, then."

END CHAPTER.

Author's Note (A.N.): We'll not be adding our banter to the end of chapters anymore. But we would like you all to know that it is pivotal that you read the edited version, not just skip to new chapters, because you might miss a hell of a lot – we've added and taken out things, developed the plot more, and we fear you might become lost – or things in future chapters will make less sense – if the edited version isn't read. It's for your own good. ^-^ Also, this chapter has a challenge! Find the word "malcontent." You may have to remove some letters, but it's there. Have fun!

*The longsword (also referred to as a warsword) was a common name used in reference to long bladed, double edged, and straight hilted swords throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. The longsword was the weapon most commonly used by European knights during the crusades. It was designed to be wielded by those with strength and could be thrust, used to slash, and even crush armor. Larger than a common or short sword but smaller than a bastard sword, the longsword was an effective weapon for centuries in Europe.

An interesting note: the expression "to pummel someone" derives from the practice in close quarters combat of striking an opponent with the pommel (round knob at the end of the sword opposite the point) of the weapon hilt. Pummeling an individual was also a non-lethal form of attack and was common practice when trying to break up a fracus.

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