A Red Rose (part 1)

Sequel to A White Rose.


A dark shadow bent over the sleeping form of a young girl in bed, stroking away an errant lock of hair from her delicate brow. The girl was beautiful, looking restful in her sleep, unaware of the visitor in her simple room. Her skin was fair, with only a slight hint of a tan, a mass of tangled walnut brown hair spread out around her head on the bed. High cheekbones, a small, straight nose and arched eyebrows gave her an almost divine look, all perfect in its innocence. Slightly slanted eyes and pointed ears bore sign of her elfin heritage. A soft smile curled her lips as she dreamed of something undoubtedly pleasant.

The dark shadow carefully pulled the blanket down, revealing a pair of slender shoulders, and then put a hand inside its large cloak. The girl in the bed sighed in her sleep, causing the dark shadow to still for a moment, waiting to see if she would wake, but the girl remained asleep. Slowly the shadow withdrew a thin dagger from its robe and moved it toward the girl’s slender throat. The tip of the dagger came to rest against her neck, moving along her throat, almost caressing, without piercing the delicate skin.

Dark eyelashes fluttered over the girl’s cheek, and slowly she started to wake. Light green eyes, so pale they seemed yellow, widened as she spotted the intruder. Her mouth opened to scream, but was cut short as the lethal tip of the dagger struck down to draw blood.

With a start Ereptus jerked awake. The small room he’d taken at a local inn seemed to close in on him for a moment, until he was entirely awake. Shaking, he sat up and looked around. The room looked just as it had when he had gone to sleep; simple with a sturdy bed and a little cupboard with a washbowl on top. It was only a dream, yet it had seemed so real.

He ran a hand through his dark hair, vaguely registering that he’d been sweating, and stood to pace the small space of the room. There wasn’t an ounce of magic in his entire being. He was a simple soul living a rogue’s life. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just had a premonition. He had been away too long. It was time for him to go back and face his inner demons. If for no other reason than to see her and make sure that she was still alive and well.

Although the sun had not yet shown its golden face Ereptus got dressed, packed his few belongings and left the inn. He stole a horse on a small farm outside the city and started his journey towards the city of Messina where he had once left the girl. He could only hope that she was still there. After all, it had been three years since he had last seen her.

*****

The street in the city of Messina was bustling with citizens walking to and from little shops running their errands. A few Peacekeepers were standing at a street corner looking over the street making sure there was no trouble arising. The many guards of the city made it one of the safest in all the kingdoms, allowing a lonely girl to grow up without fearing for her life.
Ereptus was standing in the shadows of a narrow alley, keeping away from the busy street, not wanting to be seen. From where he was standing he had a good view of the small bar on the opposite side, where he knew the girl now lived.

It had been four years since he had first met her. He had been called back to the city of his past by an old friend to repay a favour. The favour had turned out to involve bringing a dirty brat to Messina, taking the girl away from the violent streets of the city. She was an elfin girl with some magical powers, and the old city was not a good place for her to grow up, being almost ruled by crime. As young as she was, she had already shown potential and sooner or later she would be killed if she stayed there, or worse.

At first he had been angry, not wanting the responsibility of an elfin girl, but during their trip to Messina, he had involuntarily started to like her, more than he wanted to admit to himself even to this day. The girl had been suspicious of him at first, as she seemed to be towards most people, but had soon grown fond of him, and he had a nagging feeling that she had had a small crush on him, in the way teenage girls did. She had started to see him as some kind of idol, wanting to share his life, stealing what was needed and living from day to day.

That was the reason he had left her. Or at least he told himself so. Once they had arrived in Messina, the capital of Erya, he had gotten them a room at an inn, and the next morning, while the girl was still asleep, he had left. Leaving her with only a small pouch of money and a rose.

Ereptus moved out of the way as a couple came walking through the alley, disturbing his thoughts. Casting a quick look at the entrance to the bar across the road to ensure himself that she had still not come out, he settled back into the shadows.

He had stayed in Messina for a year after leaving her, staying in the shadows, watching over her. She had never known; as far as she was aware, he had left her that morning to never return. Once he had been convinced that she was doing all right, by that time she had gotten a job as a bar maid during the late afternoons and evenings, he had left the city. Being that close to her without speaking to her had been difficult, and putting distance between them would take the temptation away.

It had now been three years since he’d left the city behind. She would be older now.

Ereptus frowned. Where had that come from? Before he could delve deeper into his own thoughts the door to the bar on the opposite side of the road opened and she emerged. Seeing her again was like a punch in the gut. She had been promisingly beautiful as the young girl he had met, a girl that was too old to be a child, and too young to be a woman. The young, elfin woman coming out from the bar was astonishing.

With a scowl he saw that he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Several of the men on the street slowed their pace to get a good glance at her. She seemed unaware of their attentions as she walked down the street. Slowly Ereptus emerged out of the alley, keeping his distance from her as to not be seen, while following her.

His eyes took her in as they were walking through the streets of the city. It was obvious that she was now a grown-up. Although her body was slender she had the distinct forms of a young woman. She was wearing a simple skirt of soft leather, and a leather bodice that stuck to her like a second skin. Her long, walnut brown hair was tied back in the neck cascading down her back all the way to her waist.

Ereptus quickly slipped into a dark alley as the young woman stopped in the middle of the street and turned around, a small frown creasing her brow. She scanned the street, but didn’t see him, although he was standing quite close. From where he was standing he could clearly see her face with her unusual eyes. Framed with thick, dark lashes they stood out in their light green colour, a shade so light that they seemed yellow most of the time.

As the girl turned back and continued down the street Ereptus slipped out of the alley again following her yet again.

*****

Rain wiped off the last of the wooden tables with a damp cloth and then straightened her aching back and looked around in the little bar where she worked in the afternoons and evenings. It was a small, but cosy, little bar in the centre of the city where the citizens gathered in the evenings for a chat and a couple of beers. Messina was a peaceful town, and she had not had much trouble since she first arrived four years ago.

The job was hard on her back and sometimes a customer who had had a little too much to drink might try and grab her, but on the whole, it was a good job. It paid enough to let her rent a little room above the bar and pay for her lessons in magic. It was definitely better than living on the streets as she had done as a child.

The bar was empty at the moment, Rain being the only one left after closing time to wipe off the tables and blow out the candles. She finished her tasks swiftly, hung her little apron on a rusty spike behind the counter and started up the stairs to where her little room was located.

Once there, she lit a small candle by her bed and started getting ready for bed. As she was about to take off her leather bodice she felt a prickling feeling in the back of her neck. She turned slowly to the small window overlooking the street, but as far as she could see it was empty. All day she had had the feeling that she was being watched, ever since she had gone for her magic lesson in the morning. Frowning slightly, she turned away from the window, but she couldn’t shake off the feeling of unease that had settled in the back of her mind.

Knowing that she would be unable to sleep if she didn’t check, she went downstairs and unlocked the door to the bar. She peeked outside, but couldn’t see anyone, so she opened the door wide and stepped outside on the empty street. The crisp night air caressed her skin as a light breeze swept through the city. She stood for a moment enjoying the silence of the city at night time, then smiled at her own foolishness, there were no people anywhere close, and turned to walk back inside.

As she reached for the doorknob someone caught hold of her from behind, a heavy hand clamped over her mouth preventing her from screaming. She tried to get loose, but whoever was holding her was big and strong, and she wasn’t even able to budge the hold he had on her. He turned her around, and she saw another man, a wide grin on his face displaying uneven, yellowish teeth. He was thin and unwashed with tangled hair and patched clothes.

“Well, hello there”, he said in an unpleasant voice. “We’ve been waiting for you. Very kind of you to walk straight into our arms like this.”

Rain made another attempt at getting away from the man who was holding her in an iron grip, but it only made him strengthen his hold, making it difficult for her to breathe, which in turn made it difficult to focus on any of the spells she knew. The other man chuckled at her futile attempt. “My friend is too strong for you, girl. You better just give up.”

“Do we have te bring ‘er te the boss right away?” the man who held her said gruffly next to her ear. “I think we deserve te have some fun with ‘er first.”

The other man stepped closer, touching Rain’s cheek with a dirty hand, grinning widely. “You’re right”, he said. “She’s quite something this one.”

As he was starting to touch Rain’s hair he caught sight of something and his eyes widened, but before he got the chance to say anything Rain felt something hard hit her captor in the back, causing him to drop her. While she was scrambling to her feet she heard some muffled noises and then a couple of thumps.

Brushing some dirt off her skirt she looked at the two men who had attacked her. They were now both lying unconscious on the ground. She stroked back an errant lock of hair, fastening it behind her ear and looked down the street. Where had her rescuer gone off to? Frowning, she kneeled by the two bodies, searching them for personal possessions that might tell her who they were. As one of them moaned loudly she almost tripped over her own feet in the haste of getting away from the man before he woke up.

“You little fool”, a soft voice said behind her, helping her up. “Are you deliberately trying to get caught again? I didn’t bring them down for you to wake them up again the first thing you do.”

Rain pulled her arm back as soon as she was standing and turned around to glare at her rescuer.

“Look!” she snapped. “I was just going to..” she trailed off, staring at the man standing in front of her.

He looked just like in her memories, if not better. He was dressed in black, as she remembered he always used to be, tall and slim with dark hair falling to his shoulders, curling slightly at the collar. He had a square jaw which was currently covered with a day’s stubble and dark, almost black, eyes that were watching her intently.

“Ereptus!” she gasped, overcome with the shock of seeing him again after such a long time. “What are you doing here?”

Ereptus shrugged, an amused smile playing on his lips. “Saving your hide, obviously.”

Rain grumbled. “I was doing fine on my own.”

“I saw that.” Ereptus replied dryly.

“I don’t need your comments.” Rain snapped at him, annoyed that he had come back only to save her again.

“Let’s continue the conversation inside,” Ereptus suggested as one of the men on the ground started making noises and seemed to be coming around. Without waiting for an answer, he ushered Rain inside the bar, closed and locked the door.

“What are you doing? You’re not coming in here!” Rain glared at him, hands on her hips.

“Would you rather I went out there and met those two brutes again?” Ereptus asked.

She was sorely tempted to say yes, but held her tongue. “Fine. Stay then,” she sighed.

Ereptus moved around in the bar and found a candle which he lit with the help of some embers in the fireplace. Then he put it on a table and sat down, watching her silently until she relented and joined him at the table.

They sat quietly for a moment, watching each other and the changes that had happened since they had last seen. Rain was well aware that she had changed the most, going from a teenager to a young woman. Not that Ereptus seemed to notice, she thought glumly. He hadn’t changed much himself the past few years. He was still a handsome rogue.

Ereptus was the first to start speaking. “You seem to be doing all right here”, he said.

Rain nodded. “I am. I’ve been able to take care of myself quite well without you.”

An amused smile touched Ereptus’ lips, but he didn’t say anything.

“I’m learning my magic, and making my own money.” Rain continued, annoyed that he wasn’t giving her any indication of his thoughts.

“No stealing.” Ereptus stated.

“No stealing,” Rain repeated, and added tonelessly. “You got your wish.”

Ereptus said nothing, just looked at her with his dark eyes, unnerving her.

She nervously stroked away a lock of hair from her brow. “So… Where have you been all this time?”

“Travelling around,” Ereptus answered vaguely.

Rain looked up, meeting his eyes. “What made you come back?”

“I was in the area.” He looked away, seemingly very interested in the interior of the bar.

“I’m surprised you dare to come this close to me,” Rain said, a note of bitterness creeping into her voice.

Ereptus jerked his head back to look at her. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“You seemed to be in quite a rush to get away from me last time,” Rain said, trying not to sound as hurt as she was. “You didn’t even bother to say good bye.”

To her satisfaction, Ereptus looked guilty. “It was easier not to.”

She stared at him. “Easier?” she asked, her voice raising an octave. “Well, I’m glad it was easier for you to break my heart while I was sleeping!”

“Did I then?” Ereptus asked quietly, his eyes searching hers.

“Did what?” Rain muttered angrily.

“Break your heart?”

She looked down at her hands, her answer coming softly, hardly more than a whisper. “Yes. You were my only friend.”

He leaned forward over the table and caressed her cheek with his knuckles. “I never wanted to hurt you, Rain,” he said silently, locking his eyes with hers. “I left because I thought it was the best thing for you.”

A silent tear trailed down Rain’s cheek as she looked at him, and Ereptus caught it on his finger, watching it for a moment, a wistful expression on his face.

“How could it be the best for me?” she asked. “I was young and alone in a new city. You abandoned me.”

Ereptus wiped the tear off his finger, breaking eye contact. “I was afraid that I would be a bad influence on you,” he admitted.

“How noble of you.” Rain said bitterly. “The least you could have done was to leave while I was awake.”

“I had my reasons,” Ereptus mumbled, so quietly that she almost didn’t hear it.

“Well.” She stood. “I don’t think I’m interested in hearing them anymore. You left me, and that’s fine with me. I can take care of myself now. And I’m going to bed. Good bye, Ereptus.”

Ereptus stood as well. “I’m not leaving.”

She looked at him, hands on her hips. “You’re not staying here with me!”

“I’m not going anywhere until we’ve figured out what’s going on and what those men wanted with you,” Ereptus replied calmly.

“The same they always do, most likely,” Rain said, exasperated.

“I don’t think so. They were talking about bringing you to someone. I think those two were more than just your regular street thugs,” Ereptus said, and then his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean the same they always do?”

Rain sighed. “Good night, Ereptus.”

She hurried up the stairs to her room, locking the door behind her, before Ereptus could reply. He could sleep downstairs on the floor, she thought stubbornly. She quickly got ready for bed and lay down to get some sleep. It was difficult, her mind still occupied with the fact that Ereptus was back. She wasn’t sure whether she was angry or happy about the fact. She would never forget the morning she had woken up to find that her only friend had abandoned her. A lot of hopes and dreams had been crushed the instant she had realised he would not be coming back.