'It will be charming.' The persuasive tone that overlaid a steely determination; and she had known when she heard it that her mother was determined to have her way on this one. There would be no argument that would hold sway. She would be going to the party, and she would smile at the company, and mention nothing when the eight (or was it nine?) thug like heirs trod on her feet or showered her with spittle whenever they opened their mouths.
Trying to avoid an unladylike pout, Almea allowed herself to be fastened into the dress. Perhaps the one salvageable part of the evening, she thought dismally. Even at her most unenthusiastic she could not deny that the garment was gorgeous.
Dark green velvet, swept with golden inlay. It was expensive because her family could afford it; but also because Bellany name was high in life and at court and it would not do for its possessions to appear under cared for; stretching to, or perhaps particularly, its daughters.
'You are not asking Evelyn to put up with them,' she argued, half turning from the mirror. Her mother's elegant mouth twitched, although with amusement or disgust it was difficult to say.
'Evelyn is nine,' she replied straight faced, adjusting the ornament in her daughters hair.
'Im only fifteen,' Almea retorted, fiddling it back. Her hand was smacked away.
'And that's six years of gifts and opportunities that you have enjoyed in return for a few favours,' Her mother stepped away. 'Perfect,' she said with a slightly satisfied smile.
'Like it will matter,' Almea could not help the unlady like and sulky tone of her voice. Lady Bellany raised an arched eyebrow.
'It's not as if apes and pigs can appreciate the effort.' Her mother sighed.
'Almea it is not so bad...' she paused and thought for a moment 'you know I seem to remember them having a very attractive manservant that used to serve at some of the dinners. At least you will have something pleasant to look on while they shower you with spittle...'
Almea choked with laughter and by the time she had recovered her mother had swept out (had she planned it?!) so that it was too late to raise any further objections. Shrugging, Almea turned back to the mirror.
The girl looking back at her was reassuringly beautiful, if petulant and more than a little bored. 'Almea Bellany, gracing the grateful gathering with her presence' she tried in her most elegant voice. And then, with a slight shudder '
But no, no! Almea Tarrant – No! the Lady Almea Tarrant, proud wife of a baboon...'
* * *
The carriage drew up in one of those overly long driveways that screamed out pretension. Gingerly, she allowed herself to be lowered down, cursing the vanity that had insisted on her wearing those shoes.
True they were the perfect match for her chosen gown, and they lent an adult elegance to her legs that had fascinated her in the shop. Their solid backs had already began the process of rubbing her feet, and after a night of dancing and socialising she could foresee them being scraped raw.
It's not as if I need to please them, she thought, annoyed by herself. It was a large party and there would be plenty of girls who would be trying their hardest; to outshine them would be satisfying. But the prize of the event was a double edged sword if she had ever seen one.
A proposal by the oldest Tarrant, or any of the younger brothers, for they were all cut out of the same mould, would be a compliment that any girl could do without. There were those who would accept it; of course there were, ones that eager for self promotion, or whose families would force their hands.
But she was a Bellany, and despite her mother's insistence that she appear, Almea did not believe for an instant that she would want her daughter involved with its hosts. In fact it would almost be worth seeing her mother's face if she returned gushing from the event and declared herself violently in love with the eldest.
Knowing that this plan would give her something to focus on if the evening became too dreadful, she gathered herself and stepped into the lighted doorway, wincing only slightly at the pressure on her feet.
* * *
'Almea!' she managed not to flinch at the volume of the greeting. One of the hulking brothers was striding across the floor to meet her (think of the devil...) and while she was fairly sure that he was the oldest she had a horrible moment of realising she could not remember his name.
As if by magic, the two girls she had been talking to (her age and of similar backgrounds) had melted into the crowd. Traitors! She almost said, and settled for a vague smile. Most likely unaware of her reluctance he continued
'It's been too long since such beauty has appeared in our house!' he exclaimed, grasping her hand, and bringing it to her mouth while she desperately thought of other things while he kissed it wetly.
'I know that my father took the liberty of contacting your mother to make sure that you'd be able to make it this time!' he was still talking, something about having missed her at their previous engagements but she had stopped listening.
His father, her mother? Other than the brief and triumphant satisfaction of knowing that Lady Bellany would have been forced to be civil to a man she hated, it was still a bemusing thought. Why would Lord Tarrant go to the trouble unless he had an ulterior motive?
There could only be one that came to her mind, and she felt slightly queasy. She had joked about the possibility of an upcoming proposal, but she hadn't ever thought that it was likely. She would refuse, of course, but it couldn't be denied that socially the Tarrant's were quickly rising.
Something about an influence with the king, if that could be believed, although what he would want with such advisors she had no idea. It would not be easy to say no to them, especially without creating an enemy that could prove dangerous to her family in later days.
Damn my mother, she should have warned me! She called to mind the elegant and poised woman who had assisted her in dressing, three parts fondness and one to make sure that her wilful daughter did nothing to sabotage the effort.
Had there been an extra tension there, behind the calm efficiency? It had always been difficult to tell. Especially with the annoyance she had shown about Almea's own misbehaviour. She abandoned musing about the situation she could not read to return to the one that she could read too well.
'so you would honour me with a dance?' he was asking. And even though there was only one possible answer to this and she had endured such dances before, she found herself rebelling.
'I would really have loved to,' she answered in her sweetest voice, deliberately leaning forwards so that he would be focussed on her and not her words. 'I dressed up especially...' She watched his eyes run over her figure, almost involuntarily.
'But I am suddenly quite indisposed. You know, feminine issues...' She watched as his expression flashed over realisation, incredulity and one part embarrassment. 'In fact,' she decided to press her point 'I think I need to get some air. Right now would be the best. I know someone as experienced as you must understand.'
And while he was smirking at the implied compliment and working out that she had effectively refused him she had swept away, losing herself in the swarm of dancers. It was her mother's trick, she realised half way to the door. And it gave her a rush of satisfaction to know it had been used to stupefy someone else for once.
The party might be large but the grounds outside the Tarrant house were noticeably deserted. It was winter after all, and most of the girls would be squeezed into tight revealing and generally sleeveless dresses.
They were here to catch potential husbands not to escape from them and the weather could be guaranteed to drive them indoors. And as for the men...well... she thought back to the series of dances she had not been able to escape. None as dreadful as the Tarrant heir of course, but most of them tedious if not downright unpleasant.
They were here principally to stare down tightly laced bodices, she decided, and while the women stayed inside there was no reason at all for them to stray. She pulled the golden shawl she was never more glad to have included tighter around her shoulders and took a step outside.
It was cold she decided. Bracing, but no more than she could handle, and certainly preferable to remaining inside. The outdoors brought a kind of freedom and it appealed also to her nature.
'you will go to the party' her mother had insisted; and she had. She was fairly sure it had been none of their minds that she would stay inside... Without really thinking about it, but catering to an unvoiced worry that her suitor would come searching for her she began to venture outwards. She would not go far, and it was not as if she hadn't seen the Tarrant grounds before...The only difference was that it had been in daylight and she had had hosts to show her around... but Casca had yet to set, she told herself and she wouldn't go so far that she would have any trouble coming back.
* * *
The bench was the perfect distance from the house. Far enough that anyone out looking for her was unlikely to stumble on her, but not so distant that she couldn't get back when enough time had passed, or if the weather turned to the worse.
Sliding aching feet out of elegant footwear, she curled herself up as close as she could and tried to pretend that she didn't feel that cold. The sky was refreshingly clear; rain at this time would be disastrous given that she had no real excuse for wondering around out here. At least she didn't if 'I was trying to avoid the attentions of my unattractive host' would be counted as impolite.
And she could just hear her father's disapproval; you have embarrassed us Mea, and more than that shamed us in front of the Tarrant's. Certainly emerging from the probably off limits gardens soaking wet and without an appropriate escort would not be the way to ingratiate herself.
Another blast of wind had her huddling against her seat and questioning her decision. Couldn't she have found another way of avoiding unwanted attention? Perhaps finding a room inside where the party hadn't circulated. The allure of the outside was somewhat dampened by the experience, and Almea was close to slinking back, when she heard the sound.
It might have been the wind, but somehow it had been filled with sufficient menace that she was pressing herself back against cold stone, desperately trying to see out into the growing dark. The core was still a glowing red presence above her, true night was not scheduled to begin for some weeks, but this didn't mean that she could see clearly. And it certainly didn't mean that an opportunistic demon who saw a woman foolishly out alone after dark might not make its approach...
Cursing herself for thoughtlessness, Almea was reaching into her pocket for the ever present ward when she realised with something like apprehension that her current outfit lacked the convenience; and her trusty ward was sitting in her coat at home, draped across one of the chairs.
The sound came again, from closer she thought, and this time it was near enough that she could definitely make out snarling. It was a demon then, although that didn't mean it was necessarily one of the stronger ones. For her sake she hoped that it wasn't, as, moving as silently as she could she slipped away from the bench and began to back slowly in the direction of the house.
She hadn't got three paces when she was stopped again, this time by a frighteningly close growl from almost directly behind her. Either the thing had moved frighteningly fast...or. Her fears were confirmed by another snarl from back where she'd been sitting.
So there were two. At least, her panicking brain informed her. And one was almost on her, as well as squarely between herself and her way out. Backing away again, but very carefully least she crash into the first one she tried desperately to think. Without her ward she had no effective way of forcing them back; but some people fought demons without such precautions... Then again those were men, with a man's strength and reflexes...And they had weapons, she reminded herself. While she herself had nothing but her fear. And given the nature of her attackers even that was likely to count against her.
Breathing fast, and trying to suppress her terror she wondered if she could run. So far she had only heard two and those were in front and behind. Suppose she made a desperate dash sideways. She might escape them. She might be able to find a place to hide until they became bored with their chase. And that way someone would hopefully discover her absence and send someone out to search for her.
Her frantic thoughts were broken by a sudden snarl and a dark shape flying at her from the bench. Acting purely on reflex she leapt sideways, barely registering the sudden burn in her leg as its disabling slash, thrown off by her unexpected movement, bit into her thigh.
Then she was running, not towards any promise of safety but the only way that she could. She would keep to parallel to the House she determined, and make a break for it if she ever outpaced the demon enough. That would be the only guarantee of protection, if she could get to people.
Otherwise all she had was speculation and she had no surety that she could even outrun them. The stone was cold underneath her feet, and she felt small stabbing pains as she tore her bare feet against rocks, but...thank god she had taken off her shoes. If not for that she would probably have stumbled after only a few steps and they would have been upon her.
She could hear the creatures running behind her. They made rough snuffling sounds as they moved, and while they were not particularly big, her leg still burnt from evidence that they could be vicious... She had been running only a few moments when she was granted the unwelcome revelation that they were also fast.
The near darkness meant that she had to focus on where she was running, but she thought she could hear them gaining ground. She was bare foot, injured, and hindered by her dress while they were designed to find purchase on the cold uneven ground. She could not risk slowing down to check their progress. No way of knowing whether she had time, or if they were almost upon her, snapping at her heels so that any moment she might feel burning claws rip into her back. She felt her lungs burning, with exhaustion and fear. And tried to focus on running, on surviving,
When she did trip it was because of a rock. Deceptively shaped it had tangled her foot and she had gone crashing to the ground, turning frantically to see that they had stopped running, and watched her from just a few paces away with hungry gleaming eyes.
Her breath was fast and uneven as she struggled to her feet, to escape, but her legs were weak and her body not quite responding. Exuding satisfaction, her pursuers slunk towards her. Not bothering with speed, she realised to her panicked horror, because they didn't need to. Natural hunters, they had learnt to sense when prey had fallen, and they knew that she would not escape them now. Full of horrified regrets; she should not have allowed her mother to pressure her into coming here; should not have left the house; should never have ventured outside the Bellany home without the protection of a ward...Almea dragged herself backwards, prolonging the inevitable as she searched desperately with her eyes for anything that could be used as a weapon or as a means for escape. There was nothing. Nothing.
And, with red eyes gleaming hungrily, the two doglike creatures stalked lazily towards her; their over long fangs a grotesquery of their Earthlike ancestors, their cold breath, panting now from the exertion, a horrifying tingling against her exposed throat. She had closed her eyes, preparing herself for the savage incursion of curved teeth, when...
It could have been a footfall, from somewhere behind her, and she felt her attackers tense. There was something terribly feral about them; unnatural things that faked animal responses, despite being something quite separate. There was a tense silence; the demons hesitating, hackles raised, and waiting for some attack, or perhaps challenge to their meal. All the while Almea preyed, please be human, please be searching for me, please...do something...
But she knew even as she thought this the uselessness of her plea. If the sound was a sentient creature, and it was much more likely to have been a manifestation of the wind, then the chances were that it was demonic itself; considering its chances of driving off her attackers so it itself could enjoy the feast.
She longed to call out, to scream for help on the off chance that it was her kind but she was afraid; the balance keeping her alive was so precarious at this moment, and to shatter it was to have two sets of rending fangs tearing out her throat.
Still if you don't do something it could be your last chance of rescue and they might walk right past you; that thought was too terrible and she was about to call out when one of the creatures barked out a sound that seemed almost like a laugh and she realised that her respite was finished.
Leaning backwards, as far away as she could get from the creature, she closed her eyes and braced herself for death. She felt a tingling against her throat as if of a muzzle about to tear into it...then there was a flash of light so brilliant that it seared through her closed eyelids, and she had a moment to wonder if that had been death, and that she had felt no pain when she heard a noise that set her nerves on edge.
It was a shriek; not identifiably animal or human, but so pain filled, so horrified and furious and agonised that it seemed to split the night. The demon, she realised, vaguely. It was making a sound so terrible that it seemed nothing could survive that sort of agony. And then it seemed she had been right, for she heard a thud as of a body hitting the ground. Then a keening wail and scattering footsteps (the other creature?) receding rapidly in the distance.
Then the light was gone. She did not open her eyes, flinching back and conscious of a terror almost greater than that she had felt before. Something was out here...something with enough power to drive off those demons without speaking a word, and she had a horrible feeling she might have been better off falling to their hunger. She had no idea what horror this new creature might feast on.
So she huddled, fear and exhaustion finally catching up with her, her heart beating in a frenzy as her mouth breathed almost silent prayers. When she felt a touch against her shoulder (there had been no sound to warn her of any approach) she flinched back in terror and thought her heart would stop. When there was no sudden agony, no further pressure, she felt her eyes open despite herself.
The light that had burnt so brightly only moments ago had made an impression on her eyes even through her eyelids and it took her a few moments of blinking confusion before her sight returned. Nothing attacked her in that moment. When she could see she felt embarrassment burn through her.
Where she had assumed must stand a demon she saw nothing more than a kneeling man. Slender and well dressed in dark coloured clothing, he was clearly from the party as well although she did not recognise him. He wore his hair long in the modern fashion and it fell so that it shadowed his face, for which she was quite grateful. Seeing his frustration at her reaction would have made the experience all that more mortifying.
She had expected him to speak, but he said nothing. Rather watching her in silence as if she were a specimen to study. It was strange but she could feel that his eyes were focussed on her, even though she couldn't see them; something about the force of his gaze.
As if he could look at her and know more than he should. Still as the lack of any danger registered she could feel her body responding to its new found safety. Her heart no longer hammered as if it might explode. Her pulse was calming, her breathing starting to even. And the silence had become unbearable.
Keeping her voice quiet, she tentatively spoke.
'There was a light,'
It came out very like a question. It was almost eerie, the man's stillness, almost as if he had stopped breathing as he considered her, and then. 'the demon kind sometimes manifest in different ways. The two that were attacking you were frightened off by my approach.'
He had spoken with quiet authority; as if he knew a lot about the subject; but at the same time there was a strangeness to his reply. As if the facts were correct but had been spoken in order to create some miscomprehension? Or perhaps that was paranoid.
'Thank you,' it came out almost too quickly. But this entire situation made her uncomfortable, as grateful as she felt to her rescuer. He was not acting in any way she could particularly understand, and that set her on edge almost as much as the situation.
'I would have died if you hadn't arrived.' The man looked up at that, and his hair fell back so that she could see his face.
And she felt her breath catch. She was right in thinking she had not encountered him before. There was a beauty in his features that was almost effervescent in the corelight, and his face was not one that was likely to be forgotten. And his eyes... she had thought that his stare was powerful before but now she felt herself drawn by them, a cold and pronounced grey she had not seen in anyone else.
'I thought I heard something amiss.' Again it was off somehow. His answer was evasive, as if he had determined to answer her without quite divulging anything relevant. And what was he doing wondering the grounds to be close enough to hear her being attacked? Not that she could really question him. Especially given he had just saved her life.
A blast of wind tore through her causing an involuntary shudder. In the panic of her chase she had forgotten all about the weather and now she was reminded with a start how bitter it was. As if drawn from his thoughts by her discomfort the man offered her his hand, the motion surprisingly graceful. She took it and allowed him to help her up.
'At any rate this seems a bad place to have a conversation. May I escort you back to the house?'
The courtesy almost startled her to laughter. As if she was going to refuse his company after what had just happened!
'I would be grateful,' she whispered, and thought she saw something glint in his eyes. Once again he offered her his arm and she took it, surprised by the routineness of the gesture. As if they were simply too guests who had happened to wonder away from the crowds and were now casually strolling back.
She wondered how she must look with her formerly tidied hair pulled out of its ribbons and the expensive dress torn and bloodied where the creature had almost had her. A fright, she guessed, although he was acting as if the situation was perfectly normal. She was grateful to that as well.
He did look down however when he realised that her feet were bare. She felt compelled to answer his unspoken curiosity. 'I needed to get away from the party...well the host. I found a bench and thought I would give my feet a rest and then they came.' For the first time she saw a trace of humour in the line of his mouth.
'I can't blame you wanting to escape such company, my lady, but if I might suggest, it is generally unwise to step outside after nightfall. You might not always be so fortunate.'
'I think I gathered,' she said with a trace of humour.
She thought she saw him smirk.
She had been sure she had heard a death scream but there was no sign of any body. He had said that they had fled at his presence. She thought he knew what she was looking for because he waited as if for her to satisfy her search before gently pulling her on. You were panicking, she told herself. And you were convinced that you were going to die. You imagined things.
But why would two starving demons abandon their prey just because a man had approached them? Her rescuer hadn't even been armed. And he hadn't said why he was in the area....
They walked back in silence. She had shivered once, when the wind had cut through her inadequate clothing, and she had thought she saw his eyes narrow but after that it was as if the temperature had warmed. She was not cold at all as they walked back to the house.
Then they were there, and it seemed the gathering was ending. The road was lined with carriages and people were flocking about.
'I take it you would prefer to avoid your host?'
She found herself nodding fervently.
'I will see to it he is informed of what happened and why you had to leave.'
She hadn't showed him which carriage was hers, but he seemed to know instinctively, guiding her towards it faultlessly.
'I hope this evening doesn't affect you too negatively' he said to her. 'They rarely emerge when the sun is up or if people are in groups.'
She nodded mutely.
'Then good evening, Mes Bellany' she hadn't told him her name. She was about to say something else, ask for his, when he handed her to the coachman, who distracted her with a look of horror. 'What happened Mes?' he asked her, taking in the blood and disarray.
'I went to get some air, some demons attacked me.' She told him absently. She ignored his exclamation of dismay as she turned back to look for her rescuer amongst the crowd of people. There was no sign of him.
* * *
The first thing her mother did when taking in the state of her daughter was sigh.
'Did you have a pleasant evening darling?' she asked, her gaze travelling from Almea's torn feet to the ruined gown and unsettled hair.
Almea treated her to a glare. 'I almost died,' she announced crossly.
'At a party. In a walled in enclosure filled with respectable people . It was a social gathering' the Bellany matriarch sounded slightly despairing.
' I wasn't feeling so well so I went for some air...' Almea put in defensively.
'I see.' Her mother looked tired. 'Well why don't you go clean yourself up and go to bed. Your father and I can find some way to pacify the Tarrant's despite the fact that my daughter would rather be eaten by a demon than spend time in their sons company...'
* * *
That morning a letter came, written in an unfamiliar, but certainly elegant hand. It was addressed to Almea and wishing 'Mes Bellany' a swift recovery for her injuries, and expressing the hope that she would not avoid their house because of her experience. The writer would only be home for the remainder of the season, he told her, because after that he would have business at Court, but he hoped to see her again in more favourable circumstances.
It was signed in the same graceful hand,
And she saw again the flash of emotion in cool grey eyes, as the tall man offered her his arm. He hadn't told her his name. Tarrant. The youngest heir. She remembered his amusement at her slight to his brother and felt her face heat from embarrassment.