"Get out of the way, blind man," the rowdy patron snapped. He shoved past him, moving closer to the bar of the tavern. The patron never noticed the plate mail beneath the dirty brown cloak, or the longsword at his hip.
He sat back down, his gauntlets hidden beneath the long sleeves. The night was young and the tavern full. The hearth nursed a raging fire, while over a dozen candles on the wrought iron chandelier above helped spread light more evenly. Drunkards and whores sang and fought and kissed and danced, a welcome warmth to the bitter cold outside. A bard sat in the corner, strumming his harp and singing so loud, Alric thought the man would strain his voice. He watched them all through the black blindfold that covered his eyes.
Even the guards, who were sent all the way from Highpeak drank at a nearby table. They still wore their chainmail and heavy cloth tabards, and their swords leaned against their chairs. They were quieter than other tables, but they still hooted and hollered when a whore would strut past them, or when a drunken brawl would bust out between two tables.
He imagined how he must look, a burned blind man, sitting in thde midst of all the clamor and chaos, not a drink ordered and not a word said. Anywhere else, and this would be cause for suspicion, but here, in the center of all the debauchery, Alric might as well have been invisible.
And that was precisely what he needed. He had spent many weeks traveling from his home in Tearas, the southern capital city, where it rained instead of snowed.. He had left the city in secret, and some of his brothers would be sent to find him soon.
But he still had time before then. He still had time to find her. He had to find her.
The heavy oak door to the tavern opened, and the wind blasted its way inside, screaming and howling, spitting flecks of ice and snow into the warm building and on to some of the patrons close to the door.
The woman pulled the midnight hood off her head and let loose wavy raven hair. Her cheekbones were high and proud, while her skin was like marble, pale and flawless. Her eyes seemed to glow among the candlelight, while the fullness of her lips was accentuated by the dimness.
Patrons called out to her, asking for a drink, others for a kiss, and some immodestly asking for a lay. She moved gracefully, almost floating to the bar, where the innkeeper smiled and muttered a few words beyond Alric's ears. He handed her a key and turned his attention back to directing serving girls and keeping what little order there was.
The entire tavern seemed entranced by the woman. Serving girls were met with a kind smile, while patrons were given feisty responses to their bawdy requests. Even the guards would give a comical bow from the seats, as if they were knights asking for a noble woman's praise, and she would respond with a curtsy like some lord's daughter.
Many words were attributed to the woman. Beautiful, charming, elegant, and yet only one word came to Alric's mind as he stared at the woman through his blindfold.
"Vampire," his mind whispered.
The woman began moving towards the back of the tavern, where a set of heavy wooden stairs led up to the half dozen or so rooms one could rent. She walked past the table where he sat, her eyes staring down at him. She pulled a coin from a purse and set it on the table. He feigned surprise at the sound, and looked around frantically.
"What is it you want?" he asked.
She smiled, and her voice was like silk and honey, soft and sweet. "I've a coin for you, blind man." She pushed the gold mark to his sleeves, and metal clinked as the gold and gauntlet touched.
He snatched the piece, only revealing the metal fingers of his armor glove. "My thanks, sweet lady," he said. "Generosity is about as common here as a warm day in winter."
"And what use are gauntlets to a blind man?" she asked. "Such an ornate mold as well." Her head tilted while her eyes narrowed.
Alric nodded. "They were my son's, my lady. He was a knight at Highpeak, lost his life in the Bitter King's war. When I lost my eyes, I needed to rely on my hands more, so why not keep them safe in the only memory of my son."
"My sympathies," she said.
"No need, my lady, your coin will serve well enough. The sounds of everyone's merriment is also a welcome sound to hear, and your presence has only heightened that."
She smiled again. "Be safe, blind man. If you need help finding your way home, tell the barkeep to call for me."
"And what name should I ask for?"
"Selena," she replied.
He smiled. "A beautiful name for a beautiful soul," he said. "Many thanks to you, my lady Selena."
Selena moved past him, weaving seamlessly through the crowd before reaching the stairs. Alric sat amongst the noise a while longer before standing.
"Excuse me," he said, trying to get the attention of someone nearby.
A man turned to him. A bushy red beard covered his face, while a dirty green tunic covered his bulging belly. The scent of spice-mead wafted through the air as the man talked. "What do you need, friend?"
Alric smiled kindly. "If you could be so helpful to guide a blind man to the stairs," he said. "I know the way from there, but the crowd seems awfully large today, and large crowds make things hard to find."
"That they do," the man replied. He grabbed hold on Alric's shoulder; the cloth cloaked hid the heavy scale pauldrons from his touch. He let the man lead him through the crowd, shoving men out of the way with his girth.
When they reached the stairs, Alric turned to the man's voice and held out the gold mark. "Payment for helping a needy soul like me," he said.
He held up his hands. "No need for something like that," the man said. "Wouldn't feel right to accept something like that from you, friend."
"I insist," Alric said. "Buy a round of drinks for the place if you won't take it."
"Very well," the man said. He turned to enter the fray again. "Sleep well, friend. May the gods keep your bed as warm as your soul."
Alric smiled and turned to walk back up the steps. He would land lightly, careful not to make too much noise with his armor boots. His hand clutched the railing as he moved back around, moving over folk down below. The row of rooms was just ahead, with light sneaking out through the bottom of one of the doors. As he approached, the door opened, and Selena appeared from the room.
Her cloak was gone, and a tight, purple silk dress enveloped her comely body. A wolfish grin came upon her face. "Blind man," she said. "It seems you've lost your way."
He waved in the wrong direction. "Not at all, my lady," he replied. "The barkeep refused to send me out into the cold. I've been offered a room here to retire for the night. I was able to pay, courtesy of the mark you gave me."
"Bah, I'll have your gold returned to you on the morrow," she said. "Fancy a drink with me, friend? I've this bottle of sweet Southwood wine, and not a soul to share it with."
"A glass of wine with a sweet soul," he said. "You're far too kind, my lady." He turned this way and that, arms outstretched, keeping his charade alive.
"This way," she said, luring him with her sweet words. She pulled a chair up from the corner of her room for him. She sat in a small wooden chair of her own, the bottle of wine open on the rickety wooden table. She poured him a glass and put it into his open hand.
Alric sipped the wine. The succulent mix of Southwood fruits ran smoothly down his throat, while the spice of the bark flecks warmed his stomach. "A sweet vintage," he said. "What in the world brought you from the paradise of Southwood, to all the way up here?"
She smiled, swirling the wine in her glass. "I've business with an old friend up here," she said. "Thankfully, this is the last of our conduct, and soon I hope to be back in those woods after all is said and done." Selena set her glass down, and narrowed her eyes at him. "Blind man, do you know why I invited you in here?"
Alric swallowed tightly. "I couldn't possibly hope to know what a kind woman like you would do with a blind wretch like me."
She stood from the chair, silent as a shadow. She began to move towards him. She opened her lips, baring her fangs. "It's because when I heard you moving about, I heard plate and mail shifting upon itself. When I realized that it was only you, I wondered what a blind man would need a suit of plate for." She snapped forward, her hand reaching for Alric's face.
Alric's arm shot out faster, his gauntlet wrapping around the woman's throat. He focused, tapping into the part of the Vein that had been trapped within him.
"Light Bound," she hissed.
"Be quiet," he snapped. Alric pulled the blindfold from his face, revealing his milk-white eyes. "Your old friend," he growled. "Who is it?"
"What concern is that to you?" she spat. "Why are you here, Light Bound, I've not been to your city."
"No, but Rickard has," he said. "He spoke all about you, and told me that you know where she is." His eyes began to glow, wisps of light beginning to leak from them. His gauntlet grew warm, and Selena squirmed under its grip. "Tell me where she is," he commanded.
"What would you do, Light Bound?" Her voice was defiant, strengthened. "I've garnered no crime for you to kill me."
"Neither did Rickard," he said. "And yet I burned him all the same." His gauntlet grew warmer, the etchings within the metal beginning to glow, emanating wisps of light. "Rickard stole her, and then he gave her to you. Where is she?"
Selena was silent, her eyes flitting back and forth, her bottom lip firmly curled beneath her teeth.
Alric felt the anger surge within him. "Tell me!" he shouted. Light was pouring from his eyes, and the veins beneath his scarred skin began to glow.
"I can't, Light Bound," Selena said. Her eyes fell to the ground. "He'd kill me for speaking about it."
Alric's frown grew deeper, his taunt skin flaring in pain from the movement. "I'll kill you for your silence about it."
"Your death will be a kinder one than the one he would give me," she said. Selena took a deep breath. "Do what you will."
"Who are you working for?" Alric asked. "Who is it you're so afraid of, and what does it have to do with her?"
"Blood Lord Kayern," she answered. "It's he who ordered your daughter stolen from you. He knew you'd have no right to pursue him for it." A faint chuckle came from her. "I guess he didn't know you'd be willing to break your own code and follow the trail however."
"She's my daughter," he growled. "Was I supposed to let her be taken?"
"You weren't supposed to have her at all, Light Bound," she said. "You took in an orphan whelp, when you knew what kind of danger you were putting her in."
"I know my order's rules," he said.
"And yet you decided against them anyway," she said. "It's your order that decides who you need to find, who to kill, not you. Not even if they took your daughter would you be allowed to touch them unless your order bid it necessary."
"I know my rules," he repeated. "But why?" he asked. "I know of other Light Bound with families, why did this Blood Lord choose mine?"
"You remember the Bitter King's War?" she asked.
"I fought in it," he answered. "Ada wasn't even alive then, what does that have to do with her?"
"Everything," Selena answered. "But you need to understand something, Light Bound. I owe a great debt to Kayern, and Kayern holds all his debts close. If I'm to help you, Light Bound, I need you to help me."
"Help you?" Alric said with disgust. "You expect me to help those who stole my daughter from me? Who gave her to a Blood Lord?"
"I had no choice," she growled. "I had no desire to take your daughter away from you." Her voice was stern, but Alric could hear the pain layered in it.
"You grew a debt," he said. "You had a choice in getting yourself caught up with one more powerful than you."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "My debt was merely being a mother, Light Bound."
His grip softened, and Selena noticed. "What? Is it so hard to believe that we might have families of our own?"
"You subjected the Curse to a child," Alric muttered. "And the child accepted…"
"She was born from me before I had taken the Curse," she said. "We were both sick, Light Bound. Flesh Rot had taken hold of us, and so we took the Curse to live through it." Selena winced. "I had half a mind to stop the ritual when I saw her go through it, but I knew the pain was worth it. I knew she would be saved."
"So you owe Kayern for giving you the Curse," Alric said. "He wants payment for that debt."
Selena shook her head. "Kayern was never involved in that. He was however the Blood Lord that happened to find us traveling south from the Nightlands." Selena's lip began to twitch. "I managed to escape him, but my child could not." Her eyes met his, gold against glass, fire meeting ice. "He holds my daughter now, Light Bound, in his keep in the Nightlands. He would return her for an exchange, my daughter for yours."
"What does he want with Ada?" Alric said. "I've never come into contact with this Blood Lord."
"No," she said. "But you did have contact with his son. During the Bitter King's War, Light Bound. The Blood Lords had all joined in trying to give the North its freedom."
"The North needed support, so much so that they were willing to accept it from vampires," he said.
Alric remembered that day. The Sun had raised on frost ridden grasslands and from the woodland pines the force of man and vampire emerged. Most of them wore nothing but fur, a few were lucky enough to have leather armor underneath, and even fewer carried mail or plate. Many died, the King included, but the war was won, and the North remained part of Noras.
Selena nodded. "Word spread quickly after that battle," she said. "How a Light Bound had managed to kill a young Blood Lord on the battlefield."
"He was a no Blood Lord," Alric said. "Just a young vampire that believed no mortal could slay him."
"Regardless, that young vampire was the son of Kayern," Selena said. "He managed to figure out who you were, to watch you all the way from his Nightland home, and then to steal your daughter when the time came."
"That battle was twelve years ago," Alric said. "He's been waiting and watching for twelve years?"
"Time has little meaning for those who will not die," she said. "But now you know, Light Bound, and now you make the decision. I tell you where your daughter is, and you help me save mine."
"Where are they both?" he asked.
Selena shook her head. "No, Light Bound. Give me your word. Swear to me you'll help, and I'll do the same."
There was silence between the two of them, their eyes fixed on one another. Alric sighed, and then released his grip on the woman's throat. "You have my word, Selena. On my honor as a knight of the Light Bound, I will help you."
She sat down, rubbing the reddened skin where his gauntlet had been. "Your daughter was taken by Kayern's guard four days ago. They plan on moving to the Nightlands soon, but as of now, they're holed up in a timber camp on Pine Lake."
"How do you know they're still there?" he asked.
Selena grabbed the bottle of wine and took a draught from it. "His guards have no idea you know who took your daughter. They'll stay here a few more days, perhaps even a week before they start moving. Mortal women are much easier to bed than vampire ones, and we've a liking for your warm wines."
"We should move now, then," Alric said. "Pine Lake is a little more than a day's walk from here."
Selena looked at him peculiarly. "You do realize that it's winter, and what's more, it's night out? You'll freeze in your sleep."
"The cold doesn't bother me, and I've not slept for days now," he said. He grabbed her cloak from the bed and tossed it at her. "We're going."
"All the more reason we should stay," Selena said. "The last thing you need to be is tired. Especially out there," she warned.
He scowled. "I don't think Ada is sleeping, why should I?"
Selena shrugged. "Whatever you say, Light Bound." She fixed her cloak around her shoulders. "Do you have a name besides that title? If we're to travel together, I'd rather not address you by what you are."
"Alric," he replied. He fixed the blindfold back across his eyes, and pulled the hood over his burned, bald head. "Let's get going."
"Here," she said, holding out her hand. "Keep up the appearances."
He let her take his arm. Her wiry frame was deceiving to the strength her muscles had. Even in her grip, Alric could feel an inhuman strength behind the fingers. Never let your guard down. You may be working together, but you are not friends.
They moved through what remained of the tavern. Serving girls were busy turning tables upright, while the barkeep swept broken glass from the floor. A few folks were passed out, snoring loudly in the corners, while a few old souls continued to drink in silence.
"Change of plans today, Irvin," Selena said, handing the key to her room back to him. "Be safe tonight, friend."
The grizzled man nodded. "You get that stranger home safe, Selena. Take care of yourself."
She pulled the oak door open, and stepped into the darkness. The torches that had been lit on either side of the door had long since been blown out. Snow blasted across Alric's face, while the chill found its way down through his cloak.
"You're sure you want to leave tonight?" Selena asked. Strands of her coal colored hair thrashed in the wind. "I promise you, she won't be gone by morning."
He removed the blindfold and tossed it to the ground, where a drift of snow quickly devoured it. "The snow doesn't bother me," he said. Alric began trudging through the drifts, making his way back to the main road, where hopefully the drifts wouldn't be as deep.
"Don't you have a horse?" she asked, catching up to him. She even moved gracefully through the snow, her long legs carrying her far with each step. "I have a hard time believing you made it up here on foot or by wagon."
"I did," Alric answered, pushing onward. The main road would take them north, and Pine Lake wasn't far. "Shadowbane, biggest horse I ever had. The order gave him to me almost fifteen years ago. I sold him to the stable master in Crik."
"I heard that the Light Bound horses were trained from birth to accept only one master," she said. "That's quite a prize for some lowly stable master."
Alric smiled. "He won't have him for too long. Without their masters, Light Bound horses make their way back to Tearas. My brothers will find him along the main road when they come this way."
"What good is a horse that won't be ridden?"
"Shadowbane is of good stock," he answered. "He'll sire many more horses for them in the coming years."
They continued on, Alric leading the way, pushing the through the snow. His breath began to frost against his skin, helping to numb the constant dull pain it was always in, especially around his mouth, where his skin was always moving.
The snow began to rise the farther he walked, at first covering his knees, then beginning to swallow his thighs, and then surrounding his waist. He pushed through the last few steps of snow before the snow tumbled down in front of him. The main road had only a few inches of powder covering it, although a few foot tall drifts decorated it unevenly. White clothed pines stood guard on both sides of the road, and continued for miles down each way.
Selena stepped down to the road. "We'll, at least the walking won't be so bad now."
Alric said nothing, and continued along the road. I'm coming, Ada. He shook, shrugging the heavy snow off his cloak. I promise you, I'm coming.