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Beneath the Blood
There had always been talk of the One; the one who would be the key to ownership of the river. The legends say that she has its blood. She is neither light nor dark; neither good nor bad. The One is a natural born killer, a master of every weapon. They say that her power is great enough to destroy us all, and that whoever finds her will receive riches beyond their wildest dreams. For this woman is the river. She is powerful. She is deadly. She is human.
Aela drew back her arrow and pressed it gently against her cheek. Taking slow breaths, she examined her surroundings. Aela turned, with the arrow still prepped and ready at anchor point. There, behind the largest pine tree in the forest, was a light wolf. Light wolves were white, like the snow that covered all of Winterwood, which made them very difficult to spot. Aela released. She felt the long, feathered arrow glide past her and watched it pierce the wolf in its torso. The wolf stopped in its path, and Aela saw the heaving of its chest. There was a high pitched squeal, and one last breath.
“I’m sorry,” Aela whispered to herself, as she slung the bow over her back. She picked up the now lifeless wolf, carefully balancing it on her shoulder. It was daytime, so it was easy to see the trail that had been shaped over the years by her footprints. Weaving in and out, ducking below snow-topped branches, Aela began making her way towards the caves that, after seventeen years, had become her home. It was hard to remain undetected in the forest, mostly because of her long, red hair. Aela had never seen anyone with hair as red as hers. Everyone else’s was either white, like the snow, or black, like the shadows. But her hair was red, fire red, blood red… like the river. Aela shivered at the thought of the river, almost losing her balance and dropping the wolf.
The Blood River, it was called. No one knew how long it had been in existence. No one knew how it had formed. No one knew whose blood was in the river. No one, except her.
Aela filled her lungs with the sweet fluid air and felt it flow through her like honey. The Evergreen tree was sturdy, supporting her weight as she leaned into it, just like it had supported her weight when she had been seven, and just like when she had been four. It had grown taller and formed new branches as Aela had formed her new branches and matured. They had grown up together. Like tonight, Aela would often come out during the night-time to lean against the tree and to breathe in the cool, evening air.
“There we go,” she inhaled, staring into the darkness of the night. The only light was that which came from the river. The Blood River was still, filling the sky with a bright red glow, like a freshly lit fire. To the left of the river, Fantasia. To the right, Shadowlyn. They were two sides that knew nothing but war… nothing but power. They were two sides that were angered by the fact that they couldn’t have the river. They couldn’t have its power. They couldn’t have it, because they didn’t have her. Aela opened her left palm and saw the gleaming white glow of her veins. Then she opened her right palm and she saw the darkness.
“Born from the river,” she smirked, “I’m so proud.” Sighing, she turned and walked back towards the cabin shelter she had painstakingly constructed, with its entrance molding itself to the natural contours of an abandoned cave. Aela was completely unaware that her sanctuary there would not last for much longer.
“Hello?” Aela abruptly awoke to the sound of a knock on her door and the raspy voice of her visitor. The tone was hoarse and demanding. “Is anyone there?” There it was again. Knock! Knock! Knock! The visitor was getting frustrated. Jumping out of bed, Aela put on the black cloak that always hung on the corner of her bed frame and cautiously made her way towards the door. She had never, in all her seventeen years, received a visitor to the caves.
Heart pounding, Aela answered through the door, “Who is it?” She found her voice to be not at all frightening, as she intended it to be, but more terrified and fearful.
“Travelers! We’re hopin’ you could help us,” the raspy voice replied. Aela relaxed some and made sure that her hair and ears were covered with the cloak before she opened the door.
“Hi…” Aela paused, for standing before her was a light dwarf, with large pointed ears, and snow white skin and hair. Her attire was plain, and she wore a short dress made of brown wool. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Elan. We’s comin’ from Mount Calhoun and we must’ve gotten off the trail ‘cause we was trying to find the Riverwood Village,” Elan paused and stared up at Aela, carefully taking in every one of her features. “Do you know where that is at?” The dwarf smiled a forced smile. Aela cringed at the sight of the brown unkempt teeth that almost matched the color of the dwarf’s clothing.
“Yes,” Aela said quietly, “It’s at the base of Calhoun. Just head west.” She pointed towards the forest which she had come from earlier. “Just make sure that...”
Elan interrupted, “Where’s you from?” The forcefulness of the question frightened Aela. She clutched the cloak, so as to make sure that the wind wouldn’t blow it away.
“Well, my husband and I,” Elan began, gesturing to the larger, older looking dwarf behind her that Aela had just now noticed, “We just saw that your skin ain’t dark, and it ain’t light. It’s almost in-between. And your eyes… they is…different.” The dwarf continued to observe Aela and all of her strange features. Aela stood nervously as Elan looked into her sky blue eyes. She didn’t know what to do. Shutting the door in their faces would give her away. If they even caught a glimpse of her red hair or her ears, which were not pointed, they would know who she was.
“With all due respect,” Aela said, “I have no idea what you are referring to.”
“I was sure that I knew who…” Elan stopped. Aela saw her pupils grow wide with realization. Aela saw the dwarf’s mouth open, shocked. It seemed that in that moment, Elan had put together all of the puzzle pieces. “Brodrick!” she turned around to face her husband who was standing several feet away, “It’s her!” They had turned around. This was as good a time as ever to run. If Aela didn’t act now, they would try to catch and turn her in, using any means necessary. Breathless, heart racing, afraid, Aela sprinted out and into the forest. She ran, and ran, and ran, never looking back. Turning at every tree she passed, never stopping, even when she was out of breath. Running, running, running, until she got where she wanted to go. Where did she want to go? Where could she?
Aela did not know how long she had been running. It had seemed like an eternity. It was as if there was nowhere to run, except into one of the lands. This is how she ended up at dark side, Shadowlyn. Aela had never noticed before, but it was almost as if the dark and the light created two very different worlds that split at the river; the river that contained the blood of the fallen soldiers that had died fighting for it. The dark side didn’t get its name for nothing. The clouds were black, the sky was gloomy, and even the snow, that covered the entire land, looked grey. Unless Aela covered it with the cloak, her red hair would stand out here like a rose in a bunch of thistles.
Looking around, Aela saw Fantasia to the west and what she made out to be several lights of a village up ahead. Aela knew that even with her hunting skills, without her bow she was nothing, and eventually she would need food and water. So, she decided that she would head towards the village, but only for a short amount of time. It was not wise to stay anywhere for too long. They were probably already looking for her.
The Weeping Ogre Inn smelled of wet wood, gin, rotten fish, and old vomit. Making sure that the cloak was secure, Aela made her way towards the bar and sat down, trying to remain inconspicuous. The inn was crowded, but Aela doubted that any drunk would pay attention to the quiet girl sitting at the bar. In the middle of the room, a gremlin stood with a newspaper in his hand. He squinted his eyes and scratched his long nose before he spoke.
“Well looky-here!” he exclaimed, waving the paper in the air, “Apparently some light trolls ‘ave spotted the blood woman! They says that she has fancy red hair, flat ears, and blue eyes, and that she tried to kill ‘em!” It couldn’t possibly already be in the paper, could it? Aela was speechless and stunned. She had never tried to kill anyone! Someone in the pub burst out laughing. Aela realized that whoever it was, was sitting right beside her.
“That’s a load of ogre dreck!” the man yelled, in-between fits of laughter, “Who would believe that?”
“Oh shut up, Nico!” the gremlin retorted, “What do ye’ elves know about the Blood Woman? Stay out of this!” The gremlin continued reading, slowly sparking discussion throughout the rest of the inn.
“What do you think?” Aela heard the elf, whose name was apparently Nico, speak again. It took her a moment to realize that he was talking to her. “Yeah, you. What do you think about this Blood Woman nonsense?” Aela didn’t turn around.
“I think it’s stupid,” she uttered, “There should be peace between the sides.” Aela spoke without facing the elf; Nico. She did not want to risk people discovering who she was.
“Well I don’t know about peace, but I think the Blood Woman doesn’t exist,” he rambled on, “I mean, how is it possible to be born from the river? Plus, why not just fight for the river? Shadowlyn’s winning anyway.” At this, Aela turned to face him.
“What makes you think you’re winning? What makes you think the river can even be controlled? Also…” Aela stopped before she realized that she was supposed to be on his side, what with her playing the role of a dark being. She looked up at him and made a teasing smile.
“What part of Shadowlyn are you from to be thinking like that?” he smirked, flashing his bright white teeth right at Aela. It almost took away from the darkness of the inn. Flipping his dark black hair to the side, he gestured to the barman, requesting another drink. Aela noticed his pointed ears sticking out through his hair.
“I’m from… the south,” Aela managed, biting the corner of her lip.
“The south, eh?” Nico looked puzzled, “I didn’t know there was a south of New Bracken. We’re pretty much as south as you can get.” Then he smiled. “You must live near the docks right? The ones leading to the Blood Sea?”
“There are docks down there? I never noticed,” Aela said, covering up for her lie, “Where do you think it leads?”
“Who knows?” he laughed, “Probably another land or something, maybe one with less war. I heard there’s some spare boats out there. I want to go and try one out sometime. Why do you want to know?”
“No reason,” Aela replied. And with that, she ended their conversation, turned away from Nico, and left the Weeping Ogre Inn.
That night, after everyone had left the inn, Aela slept on the roof. She made sure to wear her cloak the entire night, so if anybody found her on the roof, they would not suspect a thing. Aela spent the night thinking about what Nico had said about the Blood Sea and the boats. Perhaps her future lied somewhere else, somewhere outside of Winterwood.
Walking through the deserted streets of New Bracken, Aela wondered about the river. She wondered about its purpose. She wondered about her purpose. Everywhere she turned, there was a new path, and every path she took was never-ending. What is my path? she wondered. Aela reached a pillar and immediately stopped, for hanging on the pillar was a wanted poster. It read: Wanted, The Blood Woman; Description: Red Hair, Pale Skin, Blue Eyes. Bring Alive for Riches Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. Aela shuddered and tore down the poster, crumpling it and throwing it into the gutter.
Then, Aela heard footsteps coming from behind her. Instinctively, she turned around, hand in the air, ready to attack. Except her hand was empty, for she didn’t have her bow. Then, a figure emerged from around the corner; Nico.
“Hey!” he yelled, running up towards her. Aela turned away from him and reached up to make sure that her cloak, now worn out and dirty, was still secured around her head. “Yesterday, when I left the bar, I must’ve been really drunk because I left without asking your name.” Nico jogged and caught up with her. She could feel his presence beside her. She could even hear him breathing, but she would not turn to face him.
“My name is Aela,” she began, “Nico…why are you here?” Aela continued walking, making sure to avoid all of the “Wanted” posters.
“I just wanted to say that I agree with you, about the war, I mean,” he said, almost breathless, “You’re right. It’s stupid and there should be peace. The Blood Woman probably doesn’t even exist and…”
“If she did exist, and you found her,” Aela stopped walking, “Would you turn her in?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, obviously puzzled. But I don’t know wasn’t good enough for Aela.
“Nico, you have to leave me alone,” she instructed, “Don’t try to find me. You can’t ever see me again. Don’t ask why. Just leave.”
“But…” Nico began, just to be interrupted by Aela. She faced Nico, but just long enough for him to see that she was serious. Then, without hesitation, she turned back, and walked away.
It was that night that Aela decided what she would do. It was that night that she decided what her path would be. She would sail away.
It was midnight, but the Blood Sea illuminated the night like the refraction of light off of rubies. Aela had thought this through many times. She had truly believed what Nico had said about there being other lands. Where did the Blood Sea lead? There were the thoughts that clouded Aela’s mind as she began to untie the battered boat from the dock. It had been the first in sight, and Aela figured that it was one that nobody would miss. In the silence of the night, all that Aela could hear was the faint creaking sound of the boat’s wooden floorboards. She heard a twig snap. Aela’s eyes dashed from side to side, cautiously scanning the area around her as she began reaching for the bow which had been formerly swung over her shoulder. Then, out of the nothingness, emerged a shadow. She didn’t need to ask her self who it was. She already knew.
“Aela?” he approached cautiously. Then, when he came out of the shadows and everything was visible, he stopped. Nico’s eyes moved up from Aela’s face to her cloak… or where her cloak used to be. “You’re her. You’re the woman.” It was in that moment that Aela realized that she had foolishly taken off her cloak when she arrived at the docks. She could see the reflection of her cherry-red hair in his eyes.
“What do you want?” Aela asked, slowly standing up, placing her hands defensively in front of herself, “I am warning you that if you come any closer, you won’t live. You know what the legends say about me, right? Well, they’re all true! Every single one!”
“I won’t hurt you,” Nico said, “I’m not like the others. I’m not afraid. I’m like you. I don’t believe in war.” With every word, he took one step towards Aela; she took one step back.
“I don’t believe you,” Aela was still moving backwards. She knew that she was running out of dock.
“Because no one has ever told me the truth! You told me that you would turn the Blood Woman in if you found her! Don’t lie to me now!”
“I told you that I didn’t know,” Nico said calmly, “But I wouldn’t turn you in. I don’t believe in the Blood Woman. I don’t believe in the legend, whether she’s physically real or not. I don’t believe in killing her for the river. I don’t believe in killing you for the river.” Still nervous, Aela motioned for him to back away so she could step closer to shore.
“Why are you here?” Aela asked again, “Tell me.” Nico stepped towards her again, and this time, Aela did not back up.
“I’ll help you,” Nico said. He stated three simple words that Aela had never heard in her life. Three simple words that melted her heart like the Sun’s rays melted snow during the first days of spring. Three simple words that made her burst into tears, and made her collapse to her knees. “I’ll help you,” he said genuinely, kneeling down beside her.
Aela’s instincts, carved from years of her being the sole agent of her own survival, inclined her to respond to his offer with a sharp jab to his throat. Instead, she found herself hesitating, her defensive moves restrained by a sensation that Nico’s words were sincere. Aela glanced away. Would he betray her like everyone had? “The Blood Woman”, they called her. Is that all that she was? But, he could be the one; the one that would help her. He could be the only living soul that didn’t believe in the war. He could be her savior. Was he? Aela looked up at Nico, and she saw his eyes, eyes that were black, but not evil. She saw a smile that was not devious, but kind. And so, wiping the tears from her eyes, Aela said one word that she hoped she would never regret… “Okay.”