Dartein’s story continues in Blood Ties, sequel to Blood Price. In Blood Price, Dartein and his Chosen love, Josaleene, were expecting a child. Fate and prophecy had sent him across the land, desperately seeking answers to save the lives of those he loved most in the world.
Nikkola drowsed on the balcony, stretched out on an old wooden recliner. The evening sun felt incredible on her skin, even if it did make her sleepy. She preferred to relax into the start of her day, which started every evening as the sun set. They had no human helpers around the keep so the maintenance of the small military force that was housed there required everyone's involvement.
Tonight the hunters would be returning with fresh kills. They forayed out once a month when the moon was high to hunt for meat to feed everyone. Usually her father, Dartein, would go with them but this time he had other pressing matters to attend to. He and Victor had rode out to the village to the east to trade for metals and hopefully to employ a smith that could work them. Their holdings were in a sad state of repair, and they had waited long enough to seek out help from the humans.
The village her father would be travelling to was rather small. Nikkola did not hold out much hope that they would be able to convince someone with such a trade to leave a place where they were needed. They had a very small store of iron here at the keep, along with some steel and silver and even a small hut that had once been used for smithing. But no one around the keep had a clue how to work metal. They were all hunters and rangers and fighters.
The sun dropped below the tree line and stars were beginning to appear. Just as Nikkola began picking out constellations she heard riders come into the yard. Standing and stretching, she looked out over the group that rode in. The hunters had returned early which meant they had camped not far away from the keep. She wasn't really excited about helping to butcher the animals they brought in. Messy business it was. Sighing to herself, she turned to her room behind her and walked through the keep and out the main door to the yard.
“Here, Clyd, let me help you with the horses,” she said.
Snagging up two of the horse’s reins from the wiry leather-clad Noble she walked quickly with them trailing behind her to the stalls. Thinking herself clever how she escaped the work of butchering the kills brought in, she took her time brushing down the horses and checking their hooves for damage. On one of the horses she found chips around two hooves. The mare snorted at her and tossed her mane as Nikkola ran her fingers over the hoof she was holding.
If they had a smith these poor animals would at least have shoes.
If it wasn't one thing it was another. Weapons, ammo, saddle buckles and now horse shoes. They were a desperate bunch of rogues. No, not rogues. That would mean they were alright with stealing to get by. And they most definitely were not thieves. Her father was almost rabid on that point. The humans were to be protected, not stolen from.
She smiled as she thought of her father. Growing up he always called her his Little Princess. As a child she felt like a princess as she looked out over the yard from her window in the Keep. Even Victor called her Princess. She felt her cheeks grow red as she thought of the large fighter who was also her father's closest friend. The stall she was in was suddenly warm. While everyone else practically ignored her unless she was needed, Victor made sure he spent time with her every day. He had trained her how to fight, how to hunt and how to ride.
“Tut, tut girl. Rest now. I will get you shoes made soon, I promise.” She whispered to the mare as she backed out of the stall. She exited the barn and looked over to the building that held the butchery. Below that building was the cellar where they stored the meats. The torch lights were still blazing inside the building and she heard voices there. She had hoped they would be all finished by now. Nikka supposed she better just go help them.
She ducked through the door and noticed there was about twice as much game hanging from the rafters as usual. No wonder it was taking longer than normal. Their hunts didn’t usually bring in this many kills. They were careful not to over hunt the local wildlife. Washing her hands in a bucket near the door she was wondering where to start when Clyd walked toward her.
“Ay Lass. Glad you stopped in to help. We came across a whole herd of deer darn near right outside the keep, and we had quite a bountiful hunt. Care to fillet up some of those haunches fer me?” Clyd handed her a crude knife and patted her on the shoulder. She noticed one of the hunters was bringing two carcasses up from the cellar.
“Clyd, those haven't even been skinned yet. What were they doing in the cellar? They weren't gutting them down there were they?” She wrinkled her nose, thinking of the ugly business of gutting an animal. She could do it. But she did not like it. And she sure hoped they weren't leaving the entrails in the cellar where they stored their meats.
“Um, well, they just needed to be brought in off the horses and there was no room up here fer them. We set them down there until we could get to them, that's all.” Clyd looked quickly away from her.
She saw there was plenty of room up here, but she didn't say anything. It was only one more thing in the string of mysterious things that were happening lately around the keep. She kept quiet about it all, but observed closely. If something was going on she was certainly going to know about it.
Wiping her hand hands dry on her trousers, she slipped away from Clyd and towards the back of the room to the staircase. She busied herself in sharpening the knife on a whetstone until the man was no longer paying attention to her. Then she set the stone down and stole down the stairs silently.
There were still several animals down here laying heaped in a pile. Walking toward the carcasses she wondered again why they were down here. Around them were several small wine casks. Picking one of the casks up she noticed they were empty. Nearby there was an odd looking piece of wood shaped like a small shovel but where one end was very wide, the other was narrow ending in a taper. She had seen these before around the keep; runnels her father called them. They directed rain water coming from the roof to the runoff trenches so the yard didn't flood. Touching the odd shaped piece of wood she noticed it was wet, sticky.
Blood. She lifted her fingers to her mouth and licked them clean. Looking at the animals piled on the floor she saw that none of them were bloody, there were no wounds from arrows, swords or spears. Leaning in close she saw every single one of them had had their necks broken.
She knew of the nearby human's hunting ritual of drinking a small amount of the animal's blood after a kill, however it wasn’t something they’d ever observed before. This seemed to her as though they were storing the blood in these small caskets. It was odd, but what wasn't odd about their kind?
She had been raised on blood from infancy, and had always wondered why the other Nobles never drank of it. Her father had told her to never ask, because none of them would even know what to tell her. And that's all he had said about it. She shrugged off the curiosity over the casks and went back upstairs to help cut up the meat.
Taking herself to the farthest corner of the stuffy room, she sat the knife down on the bench. Looking around to make sure no one noticed her, she let her nails grow like claws from her right hand. She had never seen another of them do this, so she felt it was yet something else she had to keep a secret. Even from her father.
Looking around and seeing how much meat there was still to butcher she took in a deep breath and let it out.
It was going to be a long night.