Line of Valerious
The moon lit the forest in silver and cast shadows deep enough to hide any beast but the gypsies showed no fear. They made their way on silent feet towards the village while others rode ahead. Howls tore through the silent woods halting their progress in order to gauge their prey's position.
One man, older than the others, motioned for his companions to follow as he led the way to the west. Some would wait in the trees with crossbows and rifles while the rest fought below. The objective of their nights foray was to kill as many Lykens as were found. The strategy very simple, stay alive and kill as many as you can. The reality, well, that wasn't as simple.
The dark-haired gypsy mounted on the black stallion raised a gloved hand. The men pulled to a stop behind her listening as she warily scanned the village below them. No one could see any lights. The chimneys did not smoke and the breeze blew eerily quiet in a place where there should have been some sign of life.
The howl sounded in warning much too close for safety. Every one shifted nervously but remained silent, as they'd been trained. The stallion threw his mane, ears perked up while his rider motioned the others into the scattered formation. The silence was broken only by the rustle of leaves and jingle of harnesses.
On the ground a man let loose an arrow, the thin trail of smoke invisible until the bright burst in the sky signaled the advance of the gypsies. The horses jumped forward galloping into the abandoned village. The breeze changed course carrying the scent of decay and rotting flesh to their nostrils. The horses pulled on their reins veering off but their riders forced them to stay on course. All the men, grim faced and burly with a fire burning in their hearts, never flinched from the beasts as they pounced. Lykens raced up the hill in packs of four, there were dozens, more than they'd expected, more than their Queen had been led to believe. Lykens outmanned them four to one, it was a lost battle and the gypsies knew this.
Every man in the tribe had accepted death, had vowed to avenge the elders since their deaths. A brutal attack led by one of their own, turned into a beast himself… they were a tribe led by women now. There were no elders to guide them and still the men had not left, where would they go?
They balked at taking orders from a woman but after five years of their leadership they'd come to accept that Queen Jenai and Princess Valentina were wise and had kept many of them alive.
Jenai was a fair ruler, hard task mater and wise woman. On this night she had erred gravely believing in the reports given to her by a trusted contact. She had ignored the ill wind carrying to her the omens of death. It whispered to her even now as she sat in her wagon waiting on the raiding party's return.
'Too long have I been gone from these woods. Too long have I been without you my love. Now I bring our only blood to the land that has taken so much from us.'
In the dead village men screamedas they were shredded still trying to kill even with their last breath. A gypsy was ripped from his mount, torn in two as the horse pawed the air. The Lykens fought for a piece of the body but quickly turned to the frightened animal now caged by four of the beasts. The high pitched neighs were drowned out amongst the slobbering growls. The valiant animal fought bashing a few of the Lykens with the sharp hooves enough to draw blood but in the end died just as its rider had.
Two short horns sounded echoing off the valleys sides. The mounted riders beat a hasty retreat reaching down to pull up a man on foot as they melded into the woods. Not many were left and the night was not half done. Her heart beat fast sounding loud in her ears as she reached to help Anias mount behind her. He shouted but the report was louder and drowned his words. She turned trying to look behind her but the wind threw the long black waves in her face.
"Lykens!" Anias shouted in her ear. His arm tightened around her waist while his hand reached to her thigh for the pistol she carried.
One moment she felt the ground thud with each beat of Hans hoofs, her body in perfect motion with the horse. The next breath was expelled from her body as the leaf covered ground rushed up. The impact was harsh sending her vision out of focus even as her body numbed. The snarls reached her ears, her hands and arms reaching up to protect her head and face. She rolled down the slope coming to a slight rise and suddenly the ground dropped from beneath her. She flailed momentarily trying to reach for something that might keep her from falling then her back thudded into the bed of leaves on the dirt another breath harshly knocked out of her chest.
A howl broke through the fuzziness in her ears and eyes. She sat up wincing in pain but scrambled to her feet nonetheless. A heavy thunder sounded somewhere above her just as the howls closed in. She noticed the dead trunk obstructing a small cave. Without thought as to what might live in there, she scrambled forwards hearing the Lykens drawing closer. It was small, maybe too small for her to fit through but the alternative was worse.
Valentina Valerious, daughter of Jenai and Granddaughter of the late King Rhyn of Romanian gypsies pulled, pushed, yanked and shoved her way into the opening until there was no room to go further. The howls ceased yet the crunching of dead leaves competed with her harsh breaths. Valentina quietly slipped the long blade from her boot strap holding it ready. Leaves blew in along with a fetid stench which made her eyes water. She squeezed them shut averting her face and that was her mistake. A howl tore through the small cave followed by snarls and tearing claws. Dirt rose making it difficult to breathe even as she covered her mouth.
Valentina didn't see the claws dig at the ground inside her refuge, didn't notice the leaves it raked near the opening or the dirt caught in its nails. She didn't have to see them to feel the claws slice through the buckskin leather gouging into her flesh. Her eyes tore open with a scream. Her arm lashed out and a pitiful yelp was her reward. The paw retreated only to let another take its place. Dirt rained down on her as the ground above her head trembled. She didn't dare glace up for fear she'd see the Lykens digging through.
'Beautiful night to hunt.' I said. 'You worry too much about omens.' I told her. 'We'll clean up the mess and burn the village down. Then we can help rebuild the cottages.' I made plans, thought everything out and now look! I'm hiding in some rabbit's hole with Lykens tearing at the ground to get at me.
I never listen…
Both men rode through the forest at a steady pace. The taller of the two kept his attention focused on the area around them, the sounds of the forest and ignored the incessant chatter of his companion. He tried to think of other things but his thoughts always returned to the events a few weeks past.
His eyes clouded with guilt and shame knowing he'd been at fault. It was his job to protect her, the last of her family. Instead he took her life even as she saved his. Carl had said it many times;
"Its not your fault, VanHelsing . You have no control; well you didn't when the werewolf was in you. That's how it works and she knew what she was doing."
"It doesn't change the past." He replied in a tired voice. He was tired, of everything, of the evil, of the cardinal and his role in this world. He knew he was older than he looked, knew he was not of this world yet he was forced to live in it.
'The left hand of God.'
"She wouldn't have listened." Carl muttered loud enough for VanHelsing to hear. "Besides Anna-."
"Is dead." VanHelsing cut in. He turned blue eyes, hard as stone to the friar annoying him. "The dead have no peace when the living speak of them." With a meaningful look he turned to the front and continued to ride. Carl sat mute for a long while, disbelief at VanHelsing's response evident in his expression if anyone were to look. As it was the only ones around to see the look of Friar Carl's face were the forest animals and somehow that was not the appropriate audience.
VanHelsing shifted in the saddle looking furtively around the darkening forest. A cold wind ruffled the brim of his hat touching icy fingers to his skin. He shivered in his coat, the hair on the back of his neck standing. His gloved hand slid to his side resting on his thigh as he gripped a pistol. He'd been having such premonitions the last week, a moment where something or someone would look familiar. A place would merge with one he'd been to before, a voice would trigger something, some vague memory of his past but nothing was ever clear, he had no reason for being what and where he was. All he could do was move; continue with the only life he knew, the only one that kept others safe.
He'd dreamt her again, her dark hair curling about his finger while she smiled softly. He hadn't been able to put her brown doe eyes out of his mind and sometimes he thought he could still smell her, as if she'd just stepped out of his reach. She'd had such a gentle touch…
"We should come into the next town by nightfall."
Carl nodded and even though VanHelsing didn't see it the Friar knew there was no response needed. He glanced at the sky, at the slowly sinking sun. The clouds were tinted pink and the snow on the mountains to their left still glittered reflecting the last rays of sunlight. He sighed mournfully thinking of how to broach the subject of returning to the Vatican when VanHelsing was in this type of mood. They had to return, to re-supply, to rest, to get new orders and most important of all for him to stay. He had said it before, he was no field man, wasn't cut out for the life of an adventurer though he could see it had its perks. Carl grinned as he remembered the blond maid he'd saved with a bucket. She had been very, very grateful…
"Come on Friar. Pick up the pace." VanHelsing called as he nudged his horse to a trot. Carl winced as his sore appendages were bounced on the hard saddle but he managed to keep the painful groans down to a minimum. Then VanHelsing picked up the pace once more and though it was a much smoother ride Carl still felt every bounce.
The town came into view just as the sun set staining the sky red. VanHelsing didn't bother to look anymore and instead kept his eyes fixed on the people scattering in the square. Somewhere a bell rang and then they descended the small hill and lost sight of the town square. His face took on a scowl giving him a terrifying appearance any of the villagers would have been loathe to get in his way. The reason though was the obvious rush of the town's people, the ringing of the town's bell and the lack of danger he could see. It was clear the people feared the two riders; them and now were intent on hiding.
"Strangers are coming." The woman cried breathlessly clutching her side as the stitch slowly lessened. Her blue eyes stayed on the gypsy queen wide and anxious especially after what had happened to the last town. No one had survived the night visit of the werewolves.
"Send for Taltos and gather the children. You know where they are to go. Hurry." Jenai ordered. She grabbed a jade green skirt in her hand raising it as she walked down the stairs of her wagon. The skirts flew loose about her legs as she made her way to the square, the dark blue blouse and black corset kept her well hidden in the shadows. Devoid of the many adornments that usually tinkled to announce her presence she walked practically in silence waving her daughter away as she reined in. Seeing her Mother shake her head Valentina nodded once and rode out followed by a small group of gypsies. Jenai sent a blessing to her daughter hoping that this time she made it home unscathed.
Valentina had admitted that many things had gone wrong during the last attack, taken the blame for the lost lives of the men of their tribe who had trusted her, trusted that she knew what she was doing. Both, Mother and daughter had not voiced the knowledge that those men had contributed to the plan they were to implement. They had pooled their knowledge on the werewolves and experience of past hunts to form an attack. That same plan that had almost gotten Valentina killed or even worse, made her one of those beast's.
"Queen Jenai." Taltos bowed his head out of respect falling into to step with the older woman. She was still beautiful, her dark hair flowing loosely down her back and the deep liquid eyes, almost amber in color, lined with kohl seemed to pierce through to ones soul. It was disconcerting to say the least especially when she sensed the lies. A gift from the Gods most said though others believed it was nothing more than a trick.
"I received word there are strangers approaching." Jenai nodded in greeting not stopping until she reached a horse left saddled in case of an emergency. There were always at least three left ready and within easy reach at all times. As now, Jenai couldn't help but agree with Valentina's assertion that it be done. Her daughter had thought of something no one else had perceived a need for.
"Yes, I was told." Taltos mounted as Jenai pulled her horse around. "Two men, riding in fast. The village woman was very…anxious." The faint smirk on his lips earned a frown from Jenai.
"They are frightened. Word has reached them of the last town the Lykens attacked. Now we've come and all we can offer is to help them fight off the beast's. Wouldn't you be anxious?"
Jenai rode off hearing the hooves of Taltos' horse keep pace with hers. She remembered well the boy who'd trailed after Valentina and Van. Her Father had taken in the boy though never adopted him. Both parents had been killed, his Mother raped by some lord and died three years later though many said she had been dead long before then. Jenai had cared for the boy two years older than Valentina but even then there had been something that made her hold back. Taltos and his pale gray eyes, the dark blond hair had set him apart from the dark haired gypsies but his standoffish demeanor kept him isolated some of the time as well. Now, as a man his hair had darkened to a light brown, his eyes still pale gray, the sometimes distant attitude had changed to confidence bordering on arrogance at times but the men trusted him and so Jenai kept him close.
It was no secret he wanted Valentina for his bride and that Van never left her side annoyed the young men of the clan. It was next to impossible to get a moment alone with Valentina and at her age it was long past time she'd married. Still, Jenai couldn't bring herself to force Valentina to choose a man and Taltos would waste no time in wrenching control of the tribe were he to marry her. No, it would have to be someone outside of the tribe if Valentina and she were to keep their positions. Jenai trusted no one else to see to the safety of her people.
Villagers ran about gathering children and old ones alike leading them all to crofts and hastily constructed caves beneath their homes. Doors slammed shut and windows were shuttered while those who had been learning to handle weapons set up in different positions around the village trying to stay hidden. Some prayed asking God to spare them and promising to be more faithful.
VanHelsing and Carl pulled up at the Inn a medium sized building that looked as if it were about to tip over. The Friar kept glancing around at the disappearing town's people.
"Where are they going?" he complained looking back to the Inn's firmly closed doors. He slowly slid his leg over the saddle being careful not to hurt anything already sore as he dismounted.
"To hide." VanHelsing replied dryly glancing over his shoulder at the Friar hunched beside his horse looking like an old man. Had he not been annoyed by the unfounded fears of the people he would've commented on Carl's stance. As it was VanHelsing dismounted taking his shotgun from the strap on the saddle and paced the length of the porch in front of the Inn. Nodding at Carl to knock on the door the Friar shuffled forward eager to get a room with a real bed and rest his tired and pained body.
The thunder of hooves drifted in the night air as VanHelsing turned in the direction he began to make out two figures; a man and a woman, riding at full gallop. The woman pulled up, her green skirts flaring, dark hair bouncing around her shoulders while the young man stopped just besides her fixing his pale gaze on the two in front of the Inn.
"Good evening." VanHelsing tilted his head slightly at the woman before casting his eyes on the young man. He held the shotgun carelessly laid over his shoulder and behind him heard the Inn door screech open.
"Evening." The woman replied taking him in at a glance. "What is your business here and who are you?"
"Err, VanHelsing…" Carl squeaked behind him as the huge Inn keeper stepped out with a crossbow aimed at his chest.
"We are seeking shelter for the night." VanHelsing replied softly sighing at Carl's loose tongue. The man's eyes widened at the name though the woman showed no emotion.
"Are you VanHelsing?" he asked leaning forward his pale eyes intense as he waited for the answer.
"Yes." He looked to the woman still seated on her horse, expressionless. "I am."
"Then you can help us." The Inn keeper stepped forward lowering his crossbow. "You killed Dracula, yes?"
"Err, yes he did." Carl piped up glancing at all the faces with curiosity. "What is going on here? Where are all the people going?"
"To safety." The woman replied. "Lykens are coming. They've attacked the next village over-."
"Lykens?" VanHelsing frowned at the term.
"Werewolves." The pale eyed man answered. "We've managed to hold them back from other villages-."
"Taltos." The cold voice stopped the man dead though the clenching of his jaw said he didn't approve. She turned a cool stare on the Friar and VanHelsing appraising them both before she continued. "You've come at an opportune time. It is too bad that is not always the case." Amber eyes gave him a knowing look before flicking to the Inn keeper. "Give them a room, Jace. They'll need their rest if they are to help us fight."
Jenai turned her horse around not waiting for Taltos to follow and headed back to their camp on the opposite end of the village. She was angry but knew there was no time to dwell on her feelings just then. There were many things to do, plans to put in motion and people to check on, give moral support… The villagers were frightened and if having VanHelsing in their midst gave them a bit of courage then all the better. She hoped none would be stupidly brave and get themselves killed or bitten by a lyken.
VanHelsing stared after the woman and the man, Taltos. Her last comment had left him wondering at her meaning. Was it possible she knew of Anna? He followed the Inn keeper up to a second floor room. The window looked out onto the street below and dropping his saddle bags moved towards it in search of the werewolves. No one but Carl knew how Anna had died and the little Friar had said nothing, not even written to the Vatican about it. What else could she have meant?
"VanHelsing." There was a perfunctory knock on his door then Carl entered closing the door behind him. He shuffled sorely to his side fearful of looking out the window. "The Inn keeper-."
"Why do they call them Lykens?" VanHelsing interrupted though his eyes never left the street.
"Oh, well." Carl straightened and tugging on his sleeves shoved his hands into the folds. "It's just a folk tale. It refers to a human's ability to transform into a wolf. Actually the term comes from the Greeks. Lykanthropos. It's actually been traced to a King of Arcadia, Lycaon. He was said to be punished for daring to serve human flesh to the God Zeus in order to disprove his divinity. He was therefore turned into a ravenous wolf." Carl finished with a slight shrug as if it were no more than a re-telling of the weather.
"They're gypsies." VanHelsing stated with a small frown. "How do they know this?" he murmured.
"Err, it may be nothing but…" Carl trialed off as VanHelsing's eyes seemed to pin him to the wall behind. The Friar swallowed convulsively before daring to continue in a reedy voice. "There was a petition for marriage by prince Velkan which was refused. He-he-he wanted to marry a gypsy princes but she was deemed unsuitable for the Valerious heir."
"Unsuitable? By whom?"
"The Cardinal?" Carl replied in an even smaller voice. VanHelsing snorted turning back to the window.
"Two gypsies want to marry and they are denied because they are gypsies. Oh, yes the Cardinal's reasoning is very sound."
"Well, it's more than that. You see, the Valerious have been settled for quite a few centuries and they have ties to the Vatican but these other gypsies were the roaming type. Sort of like the ones out there, I'd guess."
VanHelsing shifted slightly, eyes narrowing suspiciously. He turned his attention to the work at hand for the moment. Once they were done with the werewolves attack he would deal with the gypsy woman.
"What do we have for werewolves, Carl?"