Amy looked out over the group of us, brushing away a few strands of red hair that had fallen across her right eye. She took a breath. “I feel like I should tell you what you’re in for because taking part in this isn’t a decision you should take lightly. It destroyed entire kingdoms before one of the earlier Bloodmaidens figured out how to kill it. It wasn’t easy either. For her, it came at a huge personal cost.”
Amy stopped, frowning. Then she took a breath and went on. “I’ll tell you how we first found out about it. The country I’m from is a little like your United Kingdom, but not exactly. The islands are shaped differently, and some of the tribes that founded it are different, some the same, and I think many are going under different names. Well, it doesn’t matter. Just be aware that if something sounds familiar, it isn’t really.”
She put her hands in her pockets, looking us over again. “My people are from South Rheged. We split off from North Rheged because one brother inherited the northern kingdom and the other one the south. You might have expected that there would be a rivalry, but there wasn’t. The brothers got along and regularly exchanged messages. Then, one day the messages stopped coming.”
She stopped again, waited for a moment, and then continued. “The king of South Rheged became worried and sent out his sister, the Bloodmaiden of the time, and her consort, his war leader, to find out why. A small company of men rode with them because there was no reason to take an army after all. They’d know if the country had been invaded, wouldn’t they?
“Still, as they rode further north they began to realize that they weren’t seeing any people. Except for the villages nearest the border, the whole country was empty. Cows and sheep stood in the fields unwatched or were shut in their pens without food. Fires had burned out, and the food that had been cooking over them still hung on the spit, uneaten except by birds or dogs.”
Pausing, Amy nodded once as if in response to someone—which made sense. She was the current Bloodmaiden and all the Bloodmaidens before her lived in her head. She was probably hearing the story from the Bloodmaiden who had experienced it, possibly with commentary from the rest.
I couldn’t imagine it. It would be like living with your relatives, all of them constantly commenting on everything you did.
Also, for the record, her accent changed as she talked. Normally, she had a slight southern accent. She’d used blood magic to learn English and picked up the accent along with the language. As she told this story, though, her accent changed, reminding me of Irish or Scottish, and maybe a little bit of German.
Was that from her original language or the language of the earlier Bloodmaidens?
“After two days of riding, they arrived at the fortress where the king of North Rheged lived. The gate hung open and neither men nor women walked the streets, and no child played. Still, the Bloodmaiden, her consort, and their men passed through the gate, all of them wondering what sorcery or creature could have done this.
“Yet, as they neared the king’s manor house, they were surprised to see the king himself whole and unharmed, though wearing ripped and torn clothes, much as though he’d been in a fight, or perhaps several.
“The Bloodmaiden along with her consort shouted with joy to see her brother, but he waved them back, telling them to come no closer. Stopping only because he seemed so serious about it, the Bloodmaiden asked him why.
“Even as she asked, the expression on the man’s face turned to fear and his body warped, his head growing as large as his body. Further, it was no longer the face of the man they knew, but rather some other manner of being whose visage appeared to have been cut out of stone.
“It moved with a speed greater than any horse, and crossed the distance before the Bloodmaiden’s men could get away. It devoured them, sometimes two at a time. The Bloodmaiden and her consort fought it for more than two hours. At first, they retreated, trying to protect their men from the beast. Then realizing it would hunt them until it had devoured them all, they stopped running, cornering it in the castle’s great hall.
“In the end, the Bloodmaiden slew it only after it had taken her consort in its mouth, but before it swallowed him. When it died, he managed to push his way out, escaping before the head shrunk back to become her brother, the king’s, face.
“After burying him, they went back to South Rheged to tell the story, and though everyone was sad to hear of North Rheged’s fate, they were glad to have survived. Then, one day, the disappearances began. At first, it was a dog, and then a child, followed by two children.
“Guessing what might be happening, though not wanting to be right, the Bloodmaiden watched her consort from a distance, seeing him transform and eat one of his soldiers. She knew what she must do, and with great regret, slew him. For a time after that, others would change as well, but knowing what to watch for, she slew them almost as soon as they’d first changed until finally no more changed, and the kingdom was saved.”
Amy exhaled. “I’m sorry about telling you all of that. I’d meant to give you a summary, but it’s one of the earliest Bloodmaiden stories, and I told you all of it. I had to memorize more than one version when I was a child.”
She’d reverted to her normal accent.
From the middle of the group, Vaughn said, “They had kids memorize that? That’s screwed up.”
Amy frowned. “It was a way to talk about our family’s values—personal sacrifice on behalf of the people, and bravery in the face of a foe you could barely understand… That kind of thing.”
“Yeah well, as your boyfriend, I hope it goes a little differently this time.”