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The Family Teufel
A flame flickered in the distance, small and red, silently calling those in the darkened streets to come see in its light. One dressed as the night carried this flame, the tallow candle bought with the last of the Family's legally acquired money now barely keeping the light alive, carried it through the back alleys and the wide streets, up the hill and up towards the parish. As the light fell on the door of this humble house of God, a feeble hand stretched out and pulled on the door handle. It was locked. With a slight gust of wind, the candle's flame flickered its last and died, leaving the cloaked figure in pure darkness to knock on the door with growing anticipation. Voices drew nearer, voices that were recognizable to anyone in the Family, voices that sewed seeds of panic into the heart of this one member. A light began to grow from around the bend down the road a ways from the chapel and footsteps became louder. Tears flowed down the cheeks of the one like the night, sheer terror filling every fiber of her being, but with a soft creak and a quiet shush, the parson pulled Aislinn Teufel into the one place her brother would not look for her.
"Child, why are you traveling on such a foul night, and why did you find it necessary to bring about so much danger as you did so?" the parson smiled at the most dangerous young woman he had ever known on such a personal level.
Aislinn pulled back her hood and let her brown hair fall from its confinement in a boy's cap. Tilting her green eyes up to her friend, she smiled bleakly and wiped her tears. "i had to leave the Family and i had no where else to go, no one else to turn to. Father, you are the only reason I have a way to escape them, don't turn me away now."
The parson chuckled and lifted a lantern, beckoning for Aislinn to follow him away from the door to quarters she had long ago helped him build. "Aislinn, I could never turn you away, you have been too good to me, but I must stress one thing to you." He took the hat from her hand and fitted it back over her wild mane of hair. "We have another guest so you might want to remain in your disguise," he winked at her, "and we don't want him to get any ideas, now do we?" Aislinn let out a deep laugh, one that a young lad would have been proud of and put on the most manly air she could muster. "Yes, thats a good son, Ash" She nodded once and strode into the back room, to the small supply of donated food and the mysterious stranger. Yet the man she laid eyes on was not mysterious at all.
"So I hear we are to share these quarters, you sure they can hold us both?" Ash looked at her old friend from the first time she went under-cover for the Family. Of course, he hadn't known she was a woman or that she was a part of the Family, so she had left his presence with a friend if ever she needed one. "Not that I'm complaining much, I mean, I had a stint sharing living space with this dirty scamp of a boy, so I can handle about anything, but I just hope you aren't another Brennan Cooney," she raised her eyebrows and opened her arms wide as if waiting for a hug. Brennan looked up, a look of awe spreading over his face as he registered who the tall skinny man was before him.
"Ash, is that really you?" Laughing, he grasped her shoulders and looked into her eyes, then pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Yes it me, of course its me. Who else would have the misfortune of meeting you in the one place that only has room for one boarder at a time?" She clapped his shoulder, the energy of masculine pride racing through her appendages and leaving a tingling sensation throughout her body. To this man, she was an equal, a respected friend. Oh how she had missed that type of relationship.
"Oh ho ho! You were always the one with the stinging quips, weren't you?" Brennan sat down on his mat and threw a moldy blanket to Ash. "Now, what brings you to these parts? Isn't it a bit dangerous for a hired hand?"
Ash looked down, surprised at the concern in Brennan's voice and ashamed that he felt she deserved it. "Aw, there's nothing really to it, just passing through." She felt herself gain back her confidence and looked back into her friend's searching hazel eyes. "I'm no longer a hired hand, i just travel the land, learning what I can from the people. I never know where I am, only the kindness of the people and which day of the week it is. But how about you," Ash could feel Brennan tense as she turned his question back on him. He was hiding something from her, or at least attempting to. "what are you doing here, where ever here is? This must be halfway across the island from home for you."
"Oh, I have never had family in my village since my da died, so I have been doing something similar to you I guess, following the roads and getting any temporary job I can, anywhere in the country..." With a nod of her head, Ash sensed Brennan relax, as if she really believed that rubbish. Yet she knew not to push the subject. she would only be there for the night and then she would head off in the shadows of the morning, away from all she held dear and all she despised. After a few more moments of conversation, she drifted to sleep on the cold hard ground with the scent of soggy wool filling her subconscious.
That morning, Ash awoke to Brennan stirring restlessly on his mat. knowing that when he got like this, sleep was soon to end, she quickly gathered some food and put it in her bag. As the light drew near she slipped out of the parsonage and onto the deserted dusty road.
It was a week before she was found, curled up asleep in an abandoned barn alongside the road. She should have known that the Family would find her no matter where she went. they always had their spies, and she would always be chained to them. Chained to the death that always followed them. Chained to the devil inside each man woman and child of the Family Teufel. Once part of the Family, always part of the Family, whether born into it or joined willingly. Aislinn had once thought that being part of the Family was her duty. Her father had been the leader of the Family and so she felt the desire to gain favor in her family's eyes by rising in the ranks of the Family. One of the few women to learn the arts of stealth and disguise as well as combat, she became an assassin, killing unsuspecting criminals in their places of security. If there was someone who was against the Family, she was the final message. Blood had soaked her hands for years until she met Brennan during a job. One of her first long term jobs, she had been assigned to work for a rich farmer and let him know that he either supported the Family or he would lose his. Yet it hadn't been as simple as she had been told. While learning her way around the land, Brennan introduced her to the child she had been ordered to kill as well as her brothers and sisters. Such a beautiful little girl, red ringlets hanging in her face, a bow lopsided on top of her head. Her name was Úna. Aislinn had never known the name of anyone she had ever killed. It had all seemed like a way to be loved, but Úna struck her heart, and she saw that she couldn't kill anymore. When she was ready to pack her bags and face the Family without killing the girl, Úna died. Killed by a carriage whose driver had lost control of his horse. Grieving as if she were family, she left a note to the farmer saying the death was the hand of the Family, and she ran. Returning to her home, she tried to live as normal, but she could not. Her father died and her brother, Gearalt, became leader of the Family. With the change of hands, things became stricter. Gearalt was much less tolerant of strength being given to women, so he banned any of the fairer-sex to become warriors, though under his rule, the Family began to become more blood thirsty than ever before, and the warriors of their father's time became more like petty criminals. She could not condone the actions of the Family of her father's time, but she could see that any honor the Family had once had was gone. So when Gearalt began to speak of using her as a pawn to join the Family with a larger organization of theives, murderers, and con men based in England, she knew she had to leave it all behind her. And now she was being taken back home as a prisoner, not a family member.
"Sister, darling, you have decided to come home, have you?" Brought to the feet of Cormac, one of her brother's most trusted friends, she tried to not think about how many times she had seen others kneeling on this stone floor. She was in the library, the room where the archives of all those killed by the Family were stored. Not one single page of intellectual reading material was in the room, only the death count rising higher and higher. "Sister, do you not greet your Brother when he sees you for the first time in weeks?"
Aislinn looked daggers at Cormac and willed him to suddenly catch fire like the devil he was, but nothing happened. Spitting at his shoes, she replied, "I am not your Sister. You are but one of the many who have killed and will be killed. I have a birth right you shall never attain, and though the power to fight you like a man has been revoked under the corrupt rule of my true brother, there shall come a time when no man shall be able to save you from my wrath."
Cormac raised his face to the ceiling as he let out a thunderous laugh. When he looked down, his eyes were colder than ever they had been before. Once, he had held hopes of marrying her, but now he was betrothed to another as was she. "Dear Sister, must you be so foolish?" He smacked her face with the back of his hand, sending her fully to the floor. "You know that your 'birthright' does not exist, and even if it did, it will be going to me, the next in line to be Father."
"Do you really think my younger brothers will allow you to take over if Gearalt should perish? Must you be so foolish, Cormac, my 'Brother'?" She spoke the last word venomously, as if it would be the death of her, and then as she glared at her past lover, pain shot through her skull as someone lifted her to her knees, pulling her up by the hair. Cormac's eyes widened, losing some of the cold, but he quickly put an evil smile on his face as Gearalt kicked Aislinn back down. Now she understood. Cormac had not become suddenly evil, but he was guarding himself against the cruelty of her brother and the cruelty of his heart.
Slowly, Aislinn picked herself back up and looked into the face of Gearalt, seeing nothing but hatred and death. "Aislinn Teufel, Daughter of the Family, sister of mine, why do you resist the way things are? Nothing will change for you whether you are in my courts or 500 miles away, so why must you try to leave the Family?"
"Brother, I can no longer stomach the blood shed. Innocents should not die."
"You, Aislinn Teufel, true daughter of Aonghas, the one who has killed more than any other in the Family, are stepping away because of the bloodshed?" He looked at her with a confused look on his face, then he gazed at the archives. "Must I remind you that each shelf is devoted to each Family member?" He wandered over to one of the few golden bookcases among the many wooden ones. "Must I remind you that you were given this entire case for your archives? Must I remind you that you have surpassed anyone's expectations of a mere woman and you have killed thousands of times? All of those bands of people suddenly devastated by your hand, cleanly without any clue that the deaths lead back to the Family? Must I remind you..."
"No! You don't have," Aislinn looked at her brother with tears running down her cheeks, unable to handle the sight of her set of the archives. "You don't have to list... I don't want to... Please, so many dead... Let me be!"
Gearalt looked at his sister with fake sympathy. "Oh, Aislinn, you don't have to kill ever again. You are meeting your betrothed today. You will never have to kill again."
Aislinn sat down, trying to understand what Gearalt had just said. She was to meet her betrothed, and that was worse than being in the Family, for she would soon lose all freedom if she became a wife to someone like Gearalt.
"So now, Sister dear, let us meet him, let us meet Mr. Tracey."
Handmaids had dressed her in a white dress of silk and lace, elegantly fallyng to her feet. In a daze, she barely caught them saying that this had been her mother's wedding dress and that Mr. Tracey was to meet her and that she was to look her best. Remembering other arranged marriages, she remembered that after meeting the girl, the Father and the one who was buying her would make the deal final and then the two would be married. They would not even know each other for a day before they were married. And so she was dressed and her hair was done, all without a struggle The handmaids lead her out into the hallway all aglow and buzzing about the exciting news, the Family Daughter was to be married and would bring riches to the Family. Feeling as if she were being lead to her execution, she followed the guards who had been stationed outside of her door as they took her to the dungeons. It was not until they stopped at the door to a cell that she noticed anything different about her situation. Lying on a mat in the center of the cell was a very familiar man.
"Tracey, stand up. Your bride is here to greet you."
Brennan stood up, dusting the dirt off of his traveler's clothes and bowed without looking at Aislinn's face. "Good day, miss. I shall try to care for you as best as I can as we join our two families together."
Any strength Aislinn had had before broke with these words from her only friend. Even when she had been away from the Family, her only ties were made with evil men, except for the parson. She let out a slight sob and the sound caused Brennan to finally look at her. He was at a loss for words for a moment, and she was sure that he recognized her. Bracing herself for the worst of his anger, she was shocked to find him walk to the bars and reach out to wipe her tears.
"I'm sorry. I don't wish to get married either, but this is a strategic move for our families, and I have no choice but to marry you. My father is speaking with your brother now to settle the deal as we both wait." He signaled for the guard who in silent understanding opened the cell door and let Aislinn in, then he locked the door and walked away. "You know," Brennan looked at her closely, taking her gloved hand, "you look a lot like a good friend of mine, Ash. I guess that will make a horrible situation a bit better..."
"Um, why is that? And how can it make things better for me?"
"Well it may seem rather odd, but I started to fall in love with Ash... So..."
The words sucked all breath out of her lungs and everything went black, but it kept repeating in her mind... "I started to fall in love with Ash"... "with Ash"... "I... love... Ash"
"We are so sorry sir, she has always been such a strong one. I don't think she's ever fainted before..."
"Its ok, I'm sure I just said something that shocked her. It'll be alright, as long as we revive her before my father arrives, it'll be ok."
Aislinn's eyelids fluttered before opening widely. Had she just heard what she thought she had heard? "Did you say that you are in love... with a man?" for a moment, she had been about to say 'in love with me' but she quickly changed her sentence.
Brennan's gaze went over the guards who quickly retreated once again. "Yes, I did. i mean," he turned red and looked to his right, away from the girl he held in his arms "I've always been attracted to women, but there is something about Ash that gets my adrenaline pumping, something no woman could have."
"I... guess I understand that... and its not like either of us want to get married... So... I guess its fine... though why does it make it better that I look like him?"
The answer she was dreading emerged from his lips, "It makes it better because then I'll be able to fall for you, or at least think of him when I'm with you..."
Aislinn stood and turned from him. He loved her yet did not and she was to be chained to her friend, a friend she could no longer fully trust. "You don't have to worry about that. Not now. Lets get to know each other first. Become friends."
Brennan nodded. "Alright, yes. That works better than worrying if it will work out..."
Aislinn sat down next to him on his mat, folding her skirt into her lap so it didn't fan out on the dirt floor. It had been a while since she had sat this lose to him and wondered why she had never noticed him falling for her. How could she have been so blind? "Well, my name is Aislinn, Mr. Tracey" She stuck out her calloused hand.
Brennan looked bewildered at her hand then shook it. "You know, its strange that I should fall for a man named Ash and marry a woman named Aislinn. So similar. Maybe things will work out." Aislinn smiled, thinking about how thick her best friend was and how the marriage might not be as bad as she first thought.
Then reality came in form of Geaeralt. storming into the cell, he grabbed Aislinn by the arm, dragging her to her feet. "This man has betrayed us. You shall not be married, little sister, good for you. But now, he must face his execution. GUARDS!"
"What did he do?" Aislinn steadied herself as her brother pulled her along the passageways into broad daylight, into the courtyard.
"His father did not mean for him to be married, but he was a distraction while others tried to take vital information from us. We stopped them in time, but now everyone who was a part of the plot must die."
"But he was just in the cell. How could he really be responsible for what his father was doing? Would I be responsible for you marrying me off?" Gearalt grunted and yanked on her arm harder than before as they covered the final few yards of ground until they reached their destination- the hangman's noose.
"But you can't kill him!" Aislinn looked at her brother pleadingly, searching for any kindness left in him, but found nothing.
"So, Cormac, what type of death do you think fits this type of crime?" Aislinn tried to get Cormac's attention, but he knew what she was trying to do and ignored her.
"I believe shooting would be best. Death is almost assured and it will be painful until the last moment."
"Yes, my friend, that does sound just about right. GUARDS, BRING HIM OUT!" The sight was strange. Three guards were carrying Brennan out tied up and gagged, yet he was still struggling, fighting as Aislinn had fought ever since Úna had died. They set him kneeling in front of Gearalt just as they had Aislinn on their retrieval of her. As Brennan's eyes met Aislin's with fury and hatred similar to Cormac's, she was hit with another bout of understanding. He had never intended to marry her, he knew of his father's plot, and he only saw her as one of the Family. "So, Tracey, are you ready to die as did your father?" Brennan gave no response, just kept staring into the eyes of every Teufel around him. "You could not have thought that we, the Family , would even allow you into our home without suspecting foul play? We are known for our strength and our ability to see beyond the physical forms of our enemies. We knew. But we had hoped that you would prove us differently. Now we know. We were right. You miscalculated. And you shall die for it." He raised a rifle and took aim. When he lifted his hand away from her arm, her assassin's skill took over her mind. Ash grabbed the gun and wrenched it from Gearalt's outstretched arms. It fired, sending many of those who had been gathering to watch the execution running for cover. Using that moment of panic to get to Brennan, she slung the rifle over her shoulder and lifted him into her arms, running as fast as she could away from her family, her home, and the people sure to kill them both if they had the chance.
Ash went to the one place she knew they would be safe, the parish. As soon as she pushed the door closed behind them, she dropped Brennan onto a pew, sweat dripping down her brow. With one quick movement, she cut his bindings and pulled off his gag. As he recovered, rubbing his wrists where the rope had been cutting into him, she switched her dress for a pair of pants and a jerkin.
"Why did you do that? Why did you risk your life for mine?" Brennan called over his shoulder.
Stepping out of the storage room where she had been changing, Ash walked over to Brennan in full male guise. "Well, you did say that you loved me. I couldn't really let them kill my only friend, could I, especially since he loves me." She winked and grabbed a knapsack from a cupboard which she took back to the storage room to fill with food.
"Wait, you are Ash?" Brennan followed her slowly, completely confused by the turn of events.
"Well, aren't you dense!" Ash tapped the top of his head then stepped around him to grab a loaf of bread given to the parson around the time she had stayed with him the last time.
"Dense? What... what makes me dense?"
"Well, obviously I'm Ash, I mean, you even noticed how much I looked like him. Its because I am him. Plus, my name is Aislinn, Ash-lin. Aislinn. Besides, I know your other name, the one you usually go by. Cooney. Where did you get that by the way, Mr. Tracey?"
Brennan looked at her and sat down on a box. "So I love... you... but you are... but you're not... but you..."
"Yes, dear, it will come soon," she kissed his forehead and buttoned the knapsack closed.
"I'm an assassin of the Family Teufel. True daughter of the deceased Head. A mixture of things caused me to decide to stop killing, but for a long time I've been pretending to be Ash to get to the people I was ordered to kill. Why do you love me?"
"I just do. So what are we going to do now?"
Aislinn knew she could handle anything he asked of her, but now that they were to head out together on a journey to escape the Family, she wondered if they could evade her Brothers forever. "Well, where ever we go, we shall go together."
A year had passed since the Daughter of the Family had run away with the Family's sworn enemy. At one time, everyone under the Family's control had been searching for the pair and anyone who wasn't gossiped about the disappearance and the rumored sightings. Yet by the time summer had passed and then finally returned, most had forgotten the incident, or at least let it slip from the mind during the day-to-day actions. In a mountain city, far from the Family's influence, a young couple traveling came to an inn and got two rooms without any fuss or mention. Carrying a single knapsack between the two of them they filled it with food from the open-air market and the next day they headed farther up the mountain.
No life disturbed them as they climbed closer to their destination but the road became steeper and more rife with danger the farther they trekked. The man stopped a few times but the woman, ever strong, ever certain of her abilities and endurance, never once paused or rested but to encourage her companion forward, for they could not stop. They could never end this journey that had no set goal, for when they stopped, they were as sure as dead.
Tripping over his own boots, Brennan fell to his knees, shaking from the fear and exhaustion built up since he had met Ash. It was because of her that he wasn't dead like the rest of his family, but at times his mind blamed her rather than thanked her.
"If only you had left me... let me die..." His soft words stung as they caught in his parched throat. Seeing that he had fallen, she walked back down to where he lay, and grasped his hand. Her billowing brown robe whipped around her feet and dirt circled her, creating a strange aura about her presence. Their eyes met and a calm settled over his discontent.
"You must get up, we must carry on," her eyes darkened. "You know what will happen if we don't." She pulled him to his feet, then wrapped her arms around him in a loose embrace. "I won't let anything happen to you."
Brennan turned away as she let go, staring into the valley below. "But that's it! I can't say I will protect you. All my life I've been treated as a prince, able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted with no responsibility. I am the heir to the family business. I was never taught how to survive, how to fight. Yet you, you should have been like me. You ought to have grown up learning the feminine arts, but you are a warrior! You can wield a knife or saber, make poison, shoot a gun, anything I could imagine, you can do to kill or protect. You know everything you need to know about this type of lifestyle, while I stumble along useless, unable to even climb a mountain."
"You aren't useless," she leaned her head on his shoulder, looking out in the same direction he was, out toward the seaside city he had once called home. "But if you believe you are, I will show you how to protect yourself. And the stamina will come soon, the more mountains you climb" She smiled and lightly turned his head to face her. "Oh Bren, You aren't useless because I could never make this without you being with me." Ash grabbed his hand and walked up the slope once again. "but you will be useless if we get killed because you keep slowing us down thinking you are worthless" Letting go of his hand, she began to continue up the path, seemingly making up for lost time. Fixing the strap of the knapsack over his shoulder, Bren stood still and watched the woman he loved for a moment. He knew this would not be the last mountain, the last road, or even the last time he would stop, but at least he had Ash with him to keep him going. Together, they would never stop.