Melina stood in the forest, her bare feet digging into the frosty snow. The silver disc overhead drew long shadows on the ground, dappled moonlight flashing along Melina's face. The forest was quiet, the pine trees frozen in time. Small drops of crystallized water were suspended from the olive pine needles. Melina's breath shimmered in the air. Delicate snowflakes landed on her dark hair and eyelashes. Her pastel skin tingled with cold as she stood perfectly still, absorbing the landscape with calm indigo eyes. A single breeze wound its way between the trees and lightly touched her chilly cheeks. A small knife hung from a purple sash at her waist. The gold inlay of the knife glittered and a rare blue stone shone inside it with a mysterious light. Melina ran her fingers along the side of the scabbard, imagining the sharp blade embedding itself inside her own heart, as it had in so many others. She remembered the sickly sweet smell as the hot liquid stained her fingers a brilliant red. She gently touched the long silver scar on her forearm. A howl echoed through the forest and Melina's eyes snapped up and around, searching for the source. Her ears strained, seeking the padded footfalls of a mountain wolf. The forest was quiet once again. Melina stepped across the snow, disappearing as silently as a shadow.
The sun peaked over the edge of the mountains, the snow glinting with blinding rays of light. As the sun rose into the clear sky, the shadow at the base of the cliff shrunk, revealing the Village of Shadows. Melina stood on the top of a snow dune, watching the little tendrils of smoke spiral up into the sky like grey fingers grasping at the white clouds. Wind blew along the ground, sending shards of ice into the air. Melina watched the village come to life. Doors opened and men spilled out, trudging through the snow until they met in the middle of the village, where they made a semi-circle around a raw-hide hut. To Melina they looked like little ink dots on a piece of papyrus paper. Someone emerged from the hut, hidden underneath a silver shroud. Melina had to squint against the sun to see the man as he threw back his hood. The man was old but he stood straight, his white hair swept back in a long braid and his skin dark, odd for someone this far north. Melina's grip tightened on her knife hilt as she watched the man address the villagers. After a while, the men of the village dispersed and the man stood alone. Before replacing his hood, the man scanned the landscape and his eyes came to rest on Melina. Melina hunkered down behind a boulder, knowing that from this distance the man would only have seen a slight blur. She shivered; Melina had a feeling that the man knew exactly who she was and why she was here. Melina glanced around the boulder and watched the man return to his hut. She stayed crouched, her mind in a calm trance.
Melina left her body and let her mind wander to times of the past. Of times when her heart had been pure and when her child-like laughter filled the dark halls of the House of Daggers. She would run through the corridors, playing with her mother who would chase her around the house. Sometimes when Melina was lonely she would find her mother sitting in the sunroom, reading a book. She would bundle Melina into her lap and read the book aloud. Her mother's voice was soft and light and she smelled of violets.
Melina moved forward a few years, to when she was nine years old. Her mother was asleep and Melina had crept to the forbidden room, careful that her bare feet did not creak on the cold wooden floor. The room was dark and when she snuck in, cold air had moved along the ground. Dark statues loomed over her and sharp, shiny weapons hung on the wall. That was when she had seen her father…
Melina jerked herself away from the memory, unconsciously rubbing the scar on her arm. The men of the Village of Shadows had gathered their horses and were setting out in small hunting groups, leaving only several men behind to guard the village. Melina waited until the vibrations in the ground disappeared before standing. She shook out her limbs and moved towards the village, careful to skirt the occupied huts. She made her way undetected until she reached the old man's hut. A man was stationed at the front of the house, gripping a long spear and bearing a sword at his belt. Melina concealed herself behind another hut. She waited there for a moment, fingering the jewel in the blade. She didn't want to kill the sentry, but there didn't seem to be any other option. She could silence him easily, but someone would notice that he was missing and raise the alarm. Melina sighed and grasped the hilt of the dagger, ready to attack, when footsteps came from behind her. She quickly ducked into the shadows between two huts just as a woman walked past. The woman was clad in a drafty shawl and her thin hair fell just past her shoulders, her face plain and wide, normal for someone native to this area. She moved to the sentry and they spoke in whispers and Melina couldn't hear them over the wind. If the woman stayed it would cause trouble. If Melina killed the man first, the woman would scream but if she attacked the woman first, the man would have a chance to attack her. Just as Melina was debating over how to enter the house without drawing attention to herself, the woman led the man away from the house. Melina smiled. The sentry would enjoy himself now, but he would get a nasty surprise when he returned. Melina moved to the hut and silently slipped through the door, shutting it behind her.
"I knew you would come."
The man sat opposite her, a thin sword held in his hand. The sword was chipped and a long scratch went down the length of the blade, but it was still dangerously sharp. The legendary Shadow Sword. Melina tightly held the hilt of her dagger, ready to move at the slightest sign of danger. She scanned the room, taking in the small lamps, the large bookcase and the table covered with scrolls. They were alone and Melina was blocking the only way out.
"The sole heir to the House of Daggers, the daughter of Fair Mistole and brave Keiro, Melina."
Melina gasped as the man spoke her parents' names. She had meant to kill the man the moment she got him alone in case he called for help, but Melina felt frozen by his dark eyes.
"I knew your father when he was a boy, but then you know that, otherwise you would not be here. He was a kind child and my favourite pupil. What happened to your family was-"
"Quiet!" Melina hissed, pulling out her dagger, "You don't know anything about what I've been through."
"I see you have the dagger. After what happened, I'm surprised you would choose that weapon." He stared at her with curious eyes, "Or perhaps, the dagger chose you. Melina, listen to me. I could never have stopped your father from doing what he did, none of us could."
Melina ignored him, "Will you stand and fight or do you prefer to die sitting in that chair?"
The man sighed and placed the sword down on the table next to him, "I am no fighter. Perhaps I once was, but no longer."
He stared up Melina. "Your eyes are cold and merciless. Those are the eyes of your father."
Melina moved towards the man, her dagger raised. He sighed, watching the blade glitter in the lantern light.
"My dear friend, if you could see your daughter now."
He closed his eyes and the knife flashed through the air, finding its home in his heart.
Melina darted through the village, ignoring the people who shouted as she moved past. She ran from the village and into the forest where she collapsed, her legs numb. She dropped underneath an overhanging rock for protection from the blistering wind. She heaved big breaths, her hands still clutching the knife. The blade was dark crimson and the blood from her hands and knife dyed the snow red. Her hands had been dyed with life-blood more times than she could count but she had never felt like this before. Melina dropped the dagger to the ground and curled into a fetal position. For the first time since she was nine years old, she cried.
Melina woke underneath the overhang, curled in her thin cloak. She shook off the little snow that was on top of her and touched the dagger for comfort. She crawled out from the overhang into a dark forest. A large crescent moon shone above the evergreens like a silver sickle. Melina rubbed her eyes. They felt dry and sore. She looked up at the moon before it was hidden behind a dark cloud. She had only slept a few hours. She needed to get back to her Master. Melina stood, stretching her sore muscles. She washed her hands with the moon soaked snow before moving off into the forest.
When Melina entered her Master's house, the sun was just rising. Melina always wondered at the brightness of his house. Each wall was painted a perfect blue and lights carved into the shape of delicate flowers bloomed from the ceiling. Melina felt out of place in this bright house. She felt as though she were a shadow living in a world of lanterns.
Melina glanced towards the south hallway, where her room was. Instead her feet took her to another part of the house. A small courtyard was cut out in the middle of the house where snow covered the ground. Small bluebells grew around a large stone slate that was centered in the middle of the courtyard, where Melina's Master was sitting. Melina knelt in the snow, placing her knife in front of her as a sign of respect. Her Master sat with his back to her for several minutes, his eyes closed.
"Raise your head, my child."
Melina straightened, watching her Master. A slight breeze moved through the courtyard, rippling through her Masters black cloak and bringing the scent of bluebells to Melina's nose. She breathed deeply, savoring the sweet smell.
"Something has happened. What has unsettled you so?"
Melina spoke of the man she had killed and of the words he had spoken. As she let out her worries and speculation, the dark cloud that had settled on her shoulders lifted and dissipated into the air. Her Master was silent for a time before responding.
"You are losing your conviction. Thus far, you truly believed that each man you killed deserved to die. They all played a part in the death of your family." He paused and watched the snow flakes softly float to the ground.
"Do you remember when I first found you?"
"You were small and wild and you heart had been shattered. Your eyes were dark with anger and sadness and you refused to eat or speak. All you had was that blade, covered in blood."
Melina looked at the knife in the snow in front of her. It had been covered with a thin layer of snow and it looked oddly fragile.
"You had been broken by what you had seen. I took you in, educated and trained you and promised myself that whichever path you chose, I would support you. You found solace in taking revenge on those who had a hand in the death of your family."
Her Master sighed, his breath a fog hanging in the air.
"I should not have let you go on this mission."
Melina looked up in surprise. Her Master had never denied her the chance to do what was right.
"I received some news late yesterday about your father."
Melina's scarred arm jerked involuntarily towards her knife.
"He was seen in the Village of Clouds."
Melina hissed the air through her teeth. She had past the Village of Clouds on her way to and from the Village of Shadows.
"Please Master, let me find him!"
Melina stared at her Master's back, frozen in disbelief.
"Child, you are not ready."
Melina grabbed her blade off the ground and moved to the door.
She stopped in front of the door, her hand resting on the handle.
"Do not disobey me."
Melina fled from the courtyard. In her room, she collapsed on her mat, closing her eyes to the world. Anger heated her chest, cracking the granite shell she had wrapped around her heart. She untied the sash and curled herself around the knife, the sheath digging into her chest. Pain pricked the inside of her eyelids as she held back her tears. She took a deep breath, allowing the knot in her heart to relax. She imagined her body floating through a river, letting each individual current gently push her through the cool water.
She was walking down the hallway, her small feet pressing against the wooden floor. The hall was dark, the only light coming from a dimly lit lantern next to the door at the end of the hallway. A large pentacle was painted into the black door with crimson dye. Melina flinched at every sound, knowing that if she was caught, she would be punished. She stopped in front of the door, staring up at it. She paused and then gingerly pushed against the door. It swung open silently on oiled hinges. Melina crept quickly into the room, pushing the door shut behind her. A cool breeze slithered along the floor, winding up Melina's bare legs, making her shiver. She stared around the room with wide blue eyes. Two large statues stood on either side of the door, their faces grim and foreboding. The room was dark, the only light coming from the full moon shining through a window. The moonlight shone off a myriad of weapons, each more deadly than the last. Long pikes with poisonous points, double bladed swords, scythes, batons and staffs were lined up along the walls. One blade shone in the moonlight, a blue gem gleaming at its heart. Gold and silver inlay crafted a magnificent sheath to hold the blade. Melina stared at the knife, her breath fogging the gem. The blade mesmerized her and she didn't hear the footsteps outside the door until it was too late. Melina turned and watched, paralyzed, as the door knob turned. She dived behind one of the statues before someone entered the room and stopped in the middle. In the silence, Melina was sure her heart beat as loud as a drum. Something clinked, metal on metal, and then the person left the room. Melina let out a breath that she hadn't realize she'd been holding. She glanced around the statue, scanning the room to make sure that the person really was gone. The hanger in the center of the wall was empty, the jeweled knife missing. Melina left the shadows of the statue and pulled the door open just enough for her to slip through. In the hallway, Melina saw something on the ground. As she moved closer, she realized it was the House Steward, odd shadows dancing on the ground. As she stared, she realized that the shadows were spreading, and they weren't shadows. They were pools of scarlet blood coming from a gash in his stomach. Melina fell to her knees, frantically crawling away from the body. She turned a corner and got to her feet, running towards the Sun Room. An arm spilled out from an open door and Melina sped past, trying not to notice the silver bracelet that identified the woman as her Nursemaid. Melina heard shouts and ran as fast as her feet could take her. The Sun Room's door was open and Melina ran in. Her father loomed over her mother, brandishing the knife. Melina screamed and ran at her father, scratching at his legs. He bellowed and knocked her away, sending Melina flying across the room. She hit her head against the door frame and red shot across her vision. When her sight cleared, her mother lay slumped in her chair and her father stood over her. He turned to Melina, his eyes wide and wild, blood dripping from the blade. His black hair was matted and stained and he moved towards Melina. He stepped gracefully, like a predator on the prowl and his eyes were flashing like a caged animal, scared and fierce. He glanced at Melina, and then his eyes moved past her and out the door. He stepped over her and Melina could hear his slow footsteps moving down the hall. Melina ran to her mother, holding her slumped head in her hands. Her blue eyes were open and sightless. Blood was everywhere, and Melina couldn't tell where it came from. Melina lay there, crying over her mother body.
Melina gasped, jerking up off her mat and out of the memory. Sweat covered her body, her hair sticking to her face. She reached for her knife, feeling beside her. The knife was missing. Something shone on the opposite side of the room and Melina twisted to get the thing in her view. The knife reflected the moonlight coming through the open window and a black-gloved hand held it just out of reach. The man holding the knife was her father. He smiled with sharp pointed teeth, his black eyes empty and void. He unsheathed the knife, watching the blade glint in the moonlight. He flicked the knife experimentally through his fingers, all the while watching Melina, as if wondering how she would react. Then he let the knife loose. Melina heard a soft thud, and then everything went black.