Precursor story to the novel, The Taming of Dracul Morsus releasing Aug. 1

When the light of day finally found her, Xana woke, stiff and cold, with the smell of freshly turned earth in her nostrils. The clean scent of earth—not mildew and sweat—made her startle awake as she realized she wasn't in the room they confined her to. She jerked up, wary of pursuit, and bit down on a gasp as her caned back protested. Hopefully, they couldn't hear her.

She'd slept in the lee of a large stone that had shielded her from the sun all morning, and only now saw it was a grave marker. When she'd crawled through that fence last night and had come to rest, she'd had no idea she'd found a graveyard.

She bowed her head in respect to the fallen—whose name she could not read—but made no sign against evil nor even felt her heart quicken in fear. She'd lived with enough real terrors that superstition was no more than a possible means to keep her pursuers at bay, though she had never expected a full morning's respite. They couldn't be far behind her, now. She'd best make her escape while she could.

She shifted her stiff shoulders. Sleeping on the ground never got more comfortable and her bed had been rocky indeed. Her back protested again, the welts still fresh on her skin. The manacles on her arms and one leg remained, the skin raw beneath. Her best attempts at picking them had yielded nothing, but a farm implement had helped her pry open a link of chain so she could escape.

But to where? And where would she go now? It would do her no good if she ran in the direction of those that pursued her.

"I figured you were tired," a voice said. Xana nearly leaped to run, but the voice was old and female. And kind. She'd heard old and female voices before, but they had been every bit as cruel as the men's. She'd never heard one that was kind.

"Who are you?" Xana's eyes latched on to an old woman perched on a low stone. She wore a mishmash of faded clothing but looked so natural that Xana hadn't noticed her before.

Between the shawl, the apron, the dress, and the coat she wore over it, the woman could be of nearly any girth though she was not tall. Her face was ancient, but she still had her teeth and a smile that showed them off. Her hair, silver streaked with a darker gray, was pulled to the top of her head in a messy bun that left much of it free to move when she moved.

The woman heaved to her feet with a grunt of discomfort. "Normally," she said in that kind voice that disarmed Xana against her will. "The trespasser would be the one explaining herself." The old black eyes, lost in a seamed landscape of a face, regarded Xana's manacles with sympathy. "But I'm guessing you might not be ready for that. I'm Corna the Witch."

Somehow, Corna had moved right next to Xana and brushed her cheek with a gnarled digit. "I will do you no harm, child."

And Xana believed her. Why, was a mystery.

Corna took her hand, the one without the broken finger as if it were perfectly reasonable, and led her through shrubs and clumps of plants. They were scattered as haphazardly as the many stone and wooden markers. "Where am I?" Xana asked, trying to summon distrust, then braced for the blow that usually followed her queries. The inevitable punishment had not, to date, curbed her curiosity, however.

Corna cackled and Xana was charmed. "'Tis my backyard, little one."

"What does a witch need with a graveyard?" Xana didn’t recognize many of the plants, some pungent enough to sting her nostrils.

The old woman did not turn around. "Some plants are more powerful if they grow in a graveyard."

Xana gave the woman's hand a little tug. "Really?"

The old woman paused just long enough to turn and give her a wink. "As far as you know."

A breeze blew past that raised the hairs on Xana's neck. She started, then flinched as her wounded back brushed against her blood-stiffened shift.

Corna turned back at once, her face concerned. But she stared past Xana to where the touch of breeze seemed to play with a green plant that smelled strongly of mint. "Why didn't you tell me earlier?" Corna demanded with some disgust.

Xana felt bewildered. Tell her what?

But the old woman went on as if Xana had answered. "That's no excuse. Look at her wrists. She'd never have told me. And Kalor has been here and back again. You had plenty of time to return."

The crazy hair escaping her bun twisted in the breeze as if in apology, but Corna did not appear mollified. "Flirt! I hope you at least thanked him and sent thanks back to Morsus. He gets little enough appreciation as it is and it was kind of him to spare us his pet."

Corna blinked then turned her attention back to Xana. "I'm sorry, my dear. Alona says you have other wounds."

"Who is Alona?" Xana interrupted. "Is she a ghost?" The breeze that had been tugging at Corna's hair whipped Xana's short locks in irritation.

"Ghost? I guess some might call her that, but she's a good bit more. Think of her as a capable spirit that occasionally drinks blood."

"Drinks blood?"

Corna smiled and Xana’s fear evaporated inexplicably. "She won't hurt you, child. You've been hurt enough. Do you want me to treat your wounds first or remove your shackles?"

It was as if the question awakened every hurt on her body. Suddenly her back stung unbearably, her broken finger throbbed, scratches and blisters complained, and the dull ache from where her master's son had pounded himself into her mourned. But, she did not hesitate. "The shackles."

"Yes, I thought so. Perhaps we can do both if Hildr remains about."

In the distance, a dog bayed and Xana remembered her pursuers and their cruelty. "I have to go! I shouldn't be here."

"Of course, you should," Corna said, with no loosening of her grip on Xana's hand. "Else you would not be here."

"They'll find me and if I'm with you..." Xana twisted and yanked desperately, but Corna was amazingly strong. The thought of what the master and his men would do to the kind woman turned Xana's stomach. It was made all the worse because it would be her fault.

"It would not be your fault, little one," Corna said, "And that is not your former master's dog. Nor are they chasing you. They are gone."

"Gone?" The notion seemed impossible, but she wanted to believe. Plus, there was something in her that trusted Corna.

"Gone. Destroyed." She pulled and Xana followed. "Dead. That was Kalor's doing. Nor will there be bodies to lead others to you."

"And who is Kalor?” Xana asked, attempting again to tug her hand free.

"Kalor is Morsus' familiar, a phoenix. Kalor’s protected by Morsus’ spells from all but ensorcelled weapons." She regarded Xana closely. "Those who once owned you are charred to ash from Kalor's fire."

Xana tried to summon sorrow or even satisfaction, but could only feel relief. Corna seemed pleased at that response and pulled again at the girl’s hand. "You are free of your shackles in all but the literal sense and those will go soon enough." She led Xana through a gap in the fence toward a sprawling cottage, "If that's what you want."

"If? How could it not be?"

"You'd be surprised. But, yes, I can see that you are different." The top of the door was open and Corna called through it. "Hildr, are you still here?"

"Someone," an irritated voice growled from within the shadows, "had to be, else my hero could have died again while you were off who knows where."

"Yes, yes," Corna responded with no sign of remorse as she opened the lower half of the door with her free hand.

"That is not an apology!"

"Nor will you get one," Corna said, rifling through baskets near the door, which blocked Xana from following her through for a moment. "You are not my only responsibility. And, if he had died, what's one more revival? You should have taken him to Valhalla long since and well you know it."

"Better, I'm thinking, to take him to Fólkvangr when he has completed his quest," a dark figure said, looking out a window. The figure was cloaked and hooded, and the voice low. "I have promised him enough life to finish his quest, and he has promised me his afterlife."

Xana regarded the inside of the cottage in some surprise. It was large, as expected, but stuffed with baskets and cupboards, bottles and jars crowding shelves and nearly every other flat surface. On the far side of the room, beneath an open window, a man lay asleep, bathed in the afternoon sun beneath a blanket. Near his shoulder, a huge raven eyed her with suspicion, flapped its wings, and cawed.

"You're soft on him," Corna said. "How many times can you fail to bring him as commanded without paying a price?' 'Tis your job, is it not?"

"I am not without influence," The voice was diffident.

"You can't fool me, Hildr. Why else would you bring your hero to me to heal his wounds when you could take him to Eir? Has she refused you or offered to inform your leaders?"

The figure turned and Xana gasped. Despite the low voice, she was obviously female in stylized armor that ensured her gender was a given. Cloth, like metal scales, covered her long legs and her arms set akimbo on her hips. She was tall, far taller than either of them and her hair, long and curly, tumbled like molten copper from her helmet. She flicked her green hood back with a "tch" and regarded Xana with amazing grass-green eyes from the most beautiful face Xana had ever seen. The face also glowed—actually emitted light—as if she were...

"Are you immortal?" Xana asked, then gasped as the raven flew across the room to perch on the armored shoulder.

"I am." Hildr strode forward and grabbed Xana's chin, perhaps to see it better in her own glow. Most would turn away if Xana looked at them directly, but Hildr was not among them. "Pretty cheeky for a mortal pipsqueak, aren't you? Unusual eyes and, an aura... Is this the reason you wandered off and left my hero with a half-healed belly wound?"

"Aye," Corna said, examining bottles in a crowded cupboard. "Something, isn't she?"

Xana had not understood any of their conversation, but it was more frustrating now that she was the subject. She lifted the chin Hildr gripped defiantly. "I know I'm not much to look at."

"How wrong you are, child," Hildr said, her voice warmer. She released the chin gently, her touch lingering like a caress. Hildr's eyes traveled down the soiled and scrawny length of her then latched onto a manacle. With a light touch, she stroked the one on Xana's wrist as her eyes narrowed and her voice hardened. "Who did this to you, child?"

"My parents, I was told. They found my sight too frightening and sold me to a slave trader when I was nigh an infant." Xana closed her eyes. "I do not remember them. As I grew older, the slaver could not find a buyer, so loaned me out to clean a chimney or a henhouse. He was harsh but rarely cruel. I was fed, and treated fairly if I did as he directed."

She shrugged, embarrassed by what she knew she looked like in the face of such glorious beauty. She scrubbed a bit of blood between her fingers and wondered how many bruises there were on her pointed face with its wide brow, narrow chin, and large yellow-green eyes. Her short hair was matted with sweat and mud and blood, while her filthy shift was torn and bloody, equally discolored. Her scratched legs were muddy and bruised.

"Perhaps things might have been different if I had grown up a beauty as the slaver hoped. But I was short and slim, with no sign of womanliness at all. My face was ugly, my gaze disturbing. Since I could never serve men in the brothel, he finally sold me to a prosperous farm in need of extra hands." Her teeth gritted at the memory. "They needed far more than mine, yet, though I did the work of three hands they needn't hire, I was still beaten for dropping a single squash or my way of laying hay or if I was caught looking at them. They hated my eyes.

"So, I ran away. What they wouldn't spend on hands for the fields, they spent on guards to pursue us. When they caught me the first time, I was sure that beating would kill me, but I lived. So I ran away again. First, they locked me in, then ropes, but those can be defeated. So, finally, the chains."

Xana couldn't read Hildr's face, or Corna, for her mind had turned inward. "I would have worked, a trade of my labor for a chance to live. I would not have left—I had nowhere to go. But they delighted in hurting me, and that was not a bargain I would accept. After I ran away the first time, I refused to work and devoted all of my attention to escaping. But this last time, when they brought out the chains, they used them to hold me back as Brill—the farmer's son—used my body, the one he had always found so ugly." She swallowed against the memory but refused to flinch from it. "I fought against him, against the chains. I lost but I never stopped. And, when he had finished, I found a pick and pried the links open."

"How do you get them to bare their soul like that?" Corna said, wiping away a tear.

"We all have gifts," Hildr said.

"Hildr, can you use your magic to open the shackles while I attend her hurts? As a favor?"

"I will do it gladly," she said and touched the manacles in turn, which fell away instantly. "Then I will deal with your pursuers."

"Kalor has dealt with them," Corna said, offering a quilt of surprising softness to Xana. "Why don't you cover yourself, little one? I'm going to cut off your shift to treat your back."

Xana took it, held it to her chest then said, "My name is Xana, though I know not if my parents named me or the slaver."

With deft skill, Corna sliced through the shift, and behind each shoulder so the garment could fall away without taking scabs with it. Hildr, looking over Corna's shoulder, hissed her irritation at the sight. "Even Kalor's end was too good a fate for such monsters. That's going to be painful to clean. Let me help."

Hildr slid back around to where she was facing Xana. Ignoring the blanket, she grasped both Xana's hands in hers and tapped her forehead to Xana's. "Imagine Valhalla..."

Xana had no idea what Valhalla was, but she felt transported to a huge hall, beyond what kings might have in even her dreams. The beams that curved overhead to hold the roof were enormous and blackened with smoke from the fireplaces at either end. Tables, closely packed, filled the void between fireplaces with a warrior at every place setting. Before her was metal cutlery and a plate and, within easy reach, a roast pig, a haunch of beef and sea of dishes with foods she could only guess at as to contents. A metal tankard, foaming with some golden liquid, was at her right. Her body felt painless and light, snuggled into a padded seat of some kind rather than perched on a wooden stool in Corna's cottage. She picked up the plate, clean and smooth enough to reflect her image, and she saw her face—hers—with the same short hair but clean and neat, the same pointed face, but with the skin free from bruises and scars. The eyes that stared back at her were fearsome and powerful. Seeing them stare her down from her own face made her feel fearsome and powerful as well. Not beautiful, but glowing with a sense of her own worth.

She returned the plate and reached for the tankard. She was so thirsty...

With a jerk that set her mind spinning, she was back in the charmingly cluttered cottage, her back on fire before Corna smeared it with an unguent of delicious coolness.

Hildr regarded her with sympathy and offered her a ladle of water. "Sorry, small one, but best you not taste the mead nor viands of Valhalla lest you rush to return in earnest."

"What is Valhalla?"

"A place not of your world or of my hero's, where valiant souls can find rest before the last great battles."

"And why would I go there? I'm a slave and a peasant, not a soldier or a king."

Hildr waved away Xana's protest. "Many a soldier or king will ne'er know Valhalla, my child. But you?" Corna had quietly moved to treating Xana's broken finger. Hildr took the other hand, her finger sliding to the raw flesh left by her manacle. "No armor, no sword, no axe, and yet you stood up to those who would destroy you. Believe me, child, you are a hero."

Corna emphasized the point by setting the bone, then wrapped it against its neighbor with a tiny board and cloth strips. Xana flinched but made no sound, just held the blanket to her chest with the free hand that Hildr had relinquished.

"Corna! Healer Corna!" They all turned to the voice from without, a voice just short of screaming with the edge of hysteria already pushing her voice to high register. "Help me!"

Corna exchanged a glance with Hildr. "Will you take over?"

Hildr sneered. "I'm no healer, woman!" But she took the jar and smeared the soothing ointment on the raw wounds where Corna had left off.

Corna scurried out the open door and returned, almost immediately, her arm draped around a richly dressed woman cradling what appeared to be a ten-year-old boy in her arms. "He doesn't move!" the woman cried, her face stained with tears and paint. "I cannot see him breathing! You must help him, Corna! He's all I have!"

Bruised and dirty, Xana refused to move or bow. The woman spared Xana a single withering glance as she went by, then hobbled past to lay the child on a padded bench with the rattle of her gold bracelets.

"Lady Wense, you must let me examine him," Corna said, pushing the woman back gently.

Xana was no healer, but the way his head flopped as he was set down, argued his neck was broken. Xana had killed many a chicken and knew it was a bad sign for the boy.

Corna primmed her lips after touching the boy's cheek, then laid her hand on his forehead. "I'm sorry, Lady Wense, he is beyond my care. He is gone."

The woman collapsed in a puddle of vibrant silks. "He can't be! He can't be! When he fell, I wanted to bring him then, but he wouldn't let— And then I was unconscious, locked in my room and only just managed to escape. If only I had broken out earlier! Loba! Loba! You can't be dead!"

"It would make no difference, Lady Wense, for his neck was broken and I cannot heal that."

"No!" the woman wailed, then said nothing else coherently as she wept with abandon into her hands with Corna crouched beside her.

Xana found herself confused. She could see this woman was high-born, beautiful, despite the ravage of tears in her face paint. She was richly clothed, gems winking from bracelets and rings and neck chains. But her arms were bruised, angry finger marks firmly imprinted in a way Xana could not mistake, having worn those marks herself many times. She could see the shadow of a bruise across near the ear on the woman's cheek, something fresh. And there was blood in her hair. But there was another bruise near the opposite temple that was yellow with age. Her fingernails were bloody and torn, though the remaining paint argued they were generally well-cared for.

Xana couldn't reconcile the woman's obvious wealth and power with her injuries. Obviously, she had been beaten. Obviously as well, it had not been the first time. She had had to escape, but she was wealthy! Xana could not make sense of it. And to wail as if she had nothing but her son?

"Your face reveals everything, little one," Hildr said softly, for Xana's ears only. "But I see no compassion."

"I don't understand her," Xana said. "She has money. She's not a slave. Why would she take abuse? Why would she stay with one who would abuse her son?"

Stephanie E Barr

Stephanie E Barr

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