The Price of Freedom
The baying of hounds in the distance rang through the silence of the frozen forest belonging to the winter fae. Not that Donnella needed the warning—she knew what was after her. She pawed futilely at the faint glow of the tracker’s mark on her chest, sobbing as she tripped over an unseen obstacle on the path. She looked back the direction she had come and thought she saw a hound cresting the hill. She looked around wildly for cover of some kind. There wasn’t much but she did see particularly large dead oak leaning over the road that might slow the hounds of hell. She scrambled up it and pressed her body into the trunk, hoping she might confuse her pursuers by muffling the magic beacon on her chest. She held out no real hope for the ploy, though. A person did not outsmart grimm hounds. They outran them or they died.
Grimm hounds were the stuff of nightmares. They were huge black spectral dogs with glowing red eyes and were said to feed on the dead and the dying. Legend held that they had been created to guard holy sites but the elfin black lords used them to hunt fugitives. Donnella peeked over her shoulder and saw the whole pack, at least fifty hellish beasts, cresting the hill. She buried her face in her shoulder to muffle her cry of terror but could not bring herself to look away. Her urge to scream grew exponentially when she saw who was running the pack.
“No,” she whimpered. “No-no-no-no-no! It can’t be; he’s dead!”
The black stallion the houndsman rode had glowing red eyes like the hounds. Its hooves were striking sparks against the cobbles as it ran after the baying hounds. Billowing clouds of steam pumped from its withers and muzzle as the stallion’s sweat evaporated in the cold night air.
It was the rider that was the true horror. Deathly pale skin, shocking red hair… ruined, once hansom face. His eyes glowed, too, though with the blue of human magic rather than the red of necromantic power. Even from this distance, she could make out his features clearly because the power leaking from his ruined eyes was dribbling down his face like horrible tears, pooling in the seams of scar tissue before being whipped away by the speed of his charge.
Why wasn’t he dead?
Donnella ducked her face, pressing hard against the rough bark of the oak she clung to. She didn’t want to see the proof of her crimes but the nightmarish rider’s presence so close to his enemy’s castle beguiled her. Maybe it wasn’t really him.
She peered under her arm at the pack, now milling beneath her tree, and stifled another whimper. The rider was urging his mount into the roiling of mass of black bodies and glowing eyes. The hounds turned their dreadful gazes to their master adoringly. He patted a head here scratched an ear there as his mount picked its way closer through the pony-sized monsters.
She had gotten away from those hunting her one last time and made for the lands of the winter fae. The King of Winter had approached her with the plan to put herself on the throne of the forest elves. He had trained her in the art of assassination, given her spells to killer her targets. Surly he would offer her asylum if she could just get to his fortress. She had killed both elfin trackers and the houndsman so no one would be able to follow her, or she had thought she killed them.
The first three curses she’d used had worked as promised. But the forth one failed to kill its target. The houndsman had been the fifth person she used the spell on and he wasn’t dead, so the trackers probably weren’t dead, either. Everything had gone wrong and she didn’t know why.
“Are you going to make me come up there and get you?” the houndsman’s voice rasped from his ruined throat far below her. “Or are you going to pretend that if you don’t see me, I won’t see you?”
Donnella looked out over the tops of the wasted trees. In the distance, she could see the glow of the winter king’s stronghold. It was no more than an hour’s walk, she guessed. So close.
But not close enough.
* * * * *
There had been a time when not getting her way had been the worst thing Donnella could think of happening to her. She knew better now. She knew a lot of things now that she wished she didn't.
She now knew that nothing made her nose itch worse than not being able to scratch it.
She now knew that being beautiful was not a license to behave badly.
She now knew that some crimes were inexcusable no matter the reason they were committed. And that it wasn't for her to decide if the reason was valid, at least not after the fact.
She also now knew that nobility by birth would not save her from paying the price of those crimes.
There were worse things than not getting her way. Oh, yes there were. There were worse things than death, too. Death would have been a fresh start, and that was not what those who'd judged her crimes had wanted.
Having her immortal spirit bound to a keeper stone so that she would be trapped in her body as it was slowly turned to stone was much worse than death. She couldn't bring herself to be angry about her situation--she'd earned it. This wasn't to say that she liked being the grotto, but she understood and begrudgingly agreed that she had earned her place here.
The grotto, as it was called, had no proper name. It wasn't a graveyard, exactly, but rather a collection of stone figures that had once been elves. Like her, all of them had done the unthinkable and betrayed their people. Also like her, their souls had been bound to their bodies before they were enchanted to turn to stone. It really wasn't a good idea to anger the Black Lords of Argental or their high prince, Nuada. He was very imaginative when it came to punishment but not very forgiving when it came to traitors.
Unlike her, most of them had not gone quietly into their punishment. She'd seen some pretty horrible visages as she was led into the fabled, underground cave. It hadn't been pretty. Despite her mounting terror, she had made a point of standing quietly so she wouldn't be stuck looking like a nightmare for all eternity.
Another thing she hadn't known, or rather hadn't believed, was that in the dark of night, you could still hear the screams of those entombed in their own bodies. It had taken only moments to be frozen in time but weeks to turn to stone. Every night as she stood there slowly petrifying, she heard the screams.
Once fully petrified, she discovered that she could hear them all the time, only they weren't screaming but rather muttering, sometimes to each other and sometimes to no one she could identify. She suspected some of them were muttering to her, but she did her best to ignore them, so she wasn't sure.
The only time the muttering stopped was when he was there. Lord Nuada, the blackest of the black lords, the oldest black elf still living, the high prince of Argental. The one who had carried out her sentence. The others got quiet when he walked in, which is how she knew he visited at all. She was too lost in her grief to notice on her own.
He was here now, in fact. Standing in front of her, staring at her as if she was something he was trying to understand. She was trying desperately to ignore him. It was easier to tolerate her punishment if she didn't surface from her stupor. Easier to ignore the hate filled mutterings of her fellow damned. He wasn’t going to let her ignore him, though.
"You are very quiet, my lady," he said eventually. "Have you nothing to say?"
She sighed and wished yet again for him to just leave her alone.
"That's really not an answer," he murmured. Donnella flinched at his words, at the magical compulsion hidden within them.
"Go away, ancient one," she muttered. Yes, muttered, just like every other damned soul lock down here.
"I was wondering why you don't scream like the others," he replied, sounding confounded.
"Are you here to make me scream?" she asked sarcastically. There was no doubt in her mind that he could do it, even with her body turned to stone. Maybe that's why the others all screamed. Some of them had been here locked inside a granite hell long before the seven-thousand year old Nuada was born. Surely they would have shut up by now unless they were egged on.
"No," was all he replied. He stood there looking at her for a good long while before speaking again. "How would you like to leave this place?"
"Why?" she shot back. "Looking for a bit of statuary for your sitting room? And here am I, poor stupid Donnella, to pitiful to even bitch about my lot. I'd be a nice silent addition to your upstairs collection."
"I am not a patron of the arts, also," he said, smirking. She couldn't see him, of course--she didn't have eyes to see with any more than she had a nose to scratch--but she could tell.
"Go away, ancient one," she said again. "I doubt I would want to pay the price you are asking."
"You sound as if you think there is something worse than your current situation," he said.
"Of course there is," she snapped. "I earned my punishment and I accept it. But I've also learned that just because you can't think of something worse, it doesn't mean there isn't something worse."
"Wise words," he conceded. She felt his presence wane until it was gone. The muttering didn't start up again, though, not for a long while.
Eventually, he came back, staring at her like before. She didn't know how long it had been since his last visit. Days. Weeks. Maybe even months.
"Have you thought about our last conversation?" he murmured quietly.
"Go away, ancient one," she replied. She swore she wasn't going to talk to him this time. He had destroyed her inner reflexion with his uncomfortable words the last time he’d spoken to her. That was probably how he made the others scream, by taunting them with hope. Hope should never be used as a weapon. That was yet another thing she now knew.
Just then, she heard a new sound, the plop of a drop of water slapping stone. The sound was strangely comforting.
"Have you ever heard of true companion stones?" he asked, ignoring her request that he leave. She tried to ignore him but failed. She did manage to fight off his compulsion to speak, though. That was something.
He stood there studying her and she stood there fiercely listening to the drip-drip-drip of water.
He eventually left.
Donnella had discovered that she could tell the passage of time after a fashion by the dripping of that water. She didn't have a reference for what it meant but it seemed to her that sometimes the water dripped harder than at others. It was quite rhythmic and soothing, much more enjoyable than curling in a mental ball and rocking herself to sleep, though she still did that on occasion, too.
He came again, of course. This time, instead of talking to her, he just stared at her. He felt sad, somehow. She wasn't sure how she knew that; only that she did.
Three more times he came and stared at her before talking again.
"Why do you cry?" he asked. She ignored this question, too. She wasn't going to let him drive her insane. She had eternity to suffer in this state and she had no intention of doing so while screaming and muttering in the dark.
Eventually he left.
He didn't visit again for a long while. She knew this because she had discovered that the drip-drip-drip grew heavier as day wore into night, hitting its crescendo just before the dawn and dissipating with first light. It took a while for her to realize this, since she had no way to gage the passage of time. She also realized that she no longer heard the others muttering.
"When did you move me?" she asked him when next he came.
"How did you know you'd been moved?" he responded, sounding a bit shocked that she was aware of it but also intrigued.
"I can tell day from night now," she said simply. “And I can’t hear the others screaming. I dount they suddenly shut up after all this time, so you must have moved me.”
"Interesting," he replied. "To answer your question, I moved you after you started crying."
"I'm a lump of rock," she said bitterly. "Rock does not cry."
"And yet," he said. She gasped when she felt his hand brush across her cold, stony cheek. There was a pause in the cadence of the drips. Bloody hell! she thought. The dripping was the sound of tears! Her tears!
The cadence picked up, running almost as fast as right before the dawn as that realization sunk in. She half laughed and half sobbed.
"Perhaps rock needs to be truly pathetic to cry, then," she conceded.
"Why do you cry?" he asked, mirroring his long ago question. She didn't answer. Eventually, he went away.
He came back fairly quickly this time and he stayed for quite some time, too, at least two full days, watching her as she stood there in her granite prison, crying. He said nothing the whole time but when he left this time, he left her a torch.
"So the night won't be so dark ," he murmured.
She stood there, watching the torch flicker softly, entranced. It didn't occur to her to wonder how she could see it, only that she was no longer in the dark.
* * * *
I hope you like my little tale. If you'd like to learn how Donnella ended up in this little scrape, check out my e-book series, The wild Lords. There are two novellas and one full novel. The links are in the side bar. Also, I'm giving away a free copy of my first Wild Lords story, "The Hawk's Bride," to one random commenter. Have a safe and spooky holiday!
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