The deed of escorting his daughter, unarmed, with a murderer lurking in the shadows…Ethrael Agedrasi had planned everything for a romantic evening, but his flowers and sweet words paled to nothingness at the sight of blood glistening in the moonlight.
Ethrael failed to see how that was something to brag about.
Lirna had not seen it yet. Her warm, slender arm curved around his waist as she smiled up at him, eyes shut tight as she guessed what marvelous feast awaited them in the center of the temple garden.
There was no feast, and the garden should have been empty at night.
The warm and welcoming light that had drawn them there was not that of lanterns, but of torches, held high in the air to shed more light on something the elves often thought unimaginable.
Death. Gruesome death.
Ethrael placed a hand over Lirna’s eyes so she could not peek, while he himself could do nothing but stare at the statue of their creator.
Two young elves, barely adult, lay contorted in Ithraën’s white marble wings. Their blood stained the god’s face and trickled in thick streams from slit throats onto the memorial slab below.
“What is it?” Lirna asked excitedly as she tried to squirm away from his hand, but he only held her tighter.
“Don’t look,” he tried to keep his voice steady. “Please, don’t look.”
She stiffened and giggled nervously, pressing the bouquet he’d given her to her chest. “What’s the matter?”
“There’s been an accident. I need to find a guard.” Accident was a terrible understatement, but he could not think of a better way to describe it.
Lirna managed to pull away as Ethrael did not want to forcefully hold her in place.
“You are a guard,” she retorted, a shred of annoyance creeping into her voice. “Can’t you help? Oh....” She gulped as she saw what had him acting so unusual. “Oh, that’s….”
The bouquet slipped from her pale fingers and fell to the cobbled street. Her free hand shot to her face to cover her pale silver-eyes as if the scene was a bad dream that she could hide from.
“Stay here, I’ll be back soon to take you home,” Ethrael said and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
She nodded but was reluctant to let go of his arm as he headed towards the gathered crowd. They were supposed to have gone through the garden to his home. He had promised to show her the beautiful view of the trees from his balcony. Now that peaceful vista would only offer a perfect view of the crime scene.
As he pushed his way through the crowd to the base of the statue, he realized he would not likely go home at all this night.
There was blood everywhere.
It had pooled onto the altar, filling bowls and plates meant for offerings. The marble steps leading up to it were slick with gore that glistened in the light from hundreds of wax candles giving it an even more nightmarish look.
Ethrael retched repeatedly as a heavy scent of rust reached his nose. It was one thing seeing the horror from a distance, up close, he could not stand it and his body screamed at him to get away.
Over his dizzying nausea he heard his Captain’s voice call out to him.
“Ethrael! Where are the reinforcements?” Mithral, Captain of the Guard, stood at the base of the stairs separating the crowd from the shrine. By his side stood Ethrael’s brother, Alasu, his gray guardsman’s tabard skewed and wrinkled from dressing in a hurry.
“I’m not part of it,” Ethrael croaked as he carefully stepped over blood-stains to join them. “What in Ithraën’s name happened here?”
His brother looked at him as if he had asked a forbidden question before carefully indicating the statue with a nod of his head.
There were runes written in the victims’ blood across the god’s robes. They were not elven, and none of them could read what they said.
“We need you to go home, good citizens of Tharglond!” Mithral yelled over the people’s heads. His voice had grown hoarse from trying to control the common people. “Leave this to us. We will find answers for you!”
Ethrael looked at the faces of the gathered men and women. He did not believe they wanted to stay, but were simply too shocked to look away—and too afraid to leave. One did not have to be a guard to understand that those youths had not killed themselves, and that whoever had done it was still out there.
“Take this,” Mithral said, holding out a red ribbon. “You’re back on duty tonight.”
Ethrael looked down at his own clothes. He wore a simple high collared tunic and thin wool pants. His shoes barely reached his ankles. He was neither dressed nor prepared for a long night out.
“Where are the guards that should have been on patrol here?” he mumbled as he tied the ribbon around his upper arm.
“Gone. No one has seen them since they left the barracks,” Alasu whispered back, careful to keep others from hearing it.
“They can’t just have disappeared! If their posts were empty, why wasn’t it reported so someone could step in?”
“It’s night! Nothing happens, why would it matter if they stepped away for a bit?”
Ethrael scowled at his brother and he was just about to yell at him that it mattered a lot when Mithral suddenly pulled him away and out of earshot.
The much taller elf bent down to whisper sharply in his ear. “They are dead. Gutted in a sewer not far from here.”
It took a moment for Ethrael to realize what he heard. “Dead?” he whispered. “How is that possible?”
“It does not matter right now,” Mithral hissed. “If you want to help, take your brother and escort these civilians home.”
“And leave you here? With whoever did this possibly lurking in the shadows?” He knew Mithral was known to be brave, but this plan sounded simply foolish.
“Others will come. I’ll be fine. Don’t breathe a word of what has happened to anyone!”
“They need to know of the danger!”
“Word will spread faster than we can control it! Widespread panic will only make this worse. I’m your captain. Do as I say, or you can go home and stay there.” The cold determination in Mithral’s eyes made Ethrael flinch.
“Understood, Captain,” he answered, his voice breaking a little from the stress that had his throat tightening.
“Good!” Mithral slapped him hard on the shoulder and led him back to his brother.
Alasu was drowning in questions. He looked visibly afraid and twitched when he heard them coming from behind him. As soon as his eyes met with Mithral’s unpleasant glare he seemed to swallow that fear and straightened up.
“These two will escort you home, stay calm and do as they say, and you will be safe. The entire garrison will soon patrol these streets, but we need it clear of people so we can find anyone suspicious!” Mithral announced.
The crowd finally calmed and turned their attention to the ashen haired brothers. They were the youngest and least experienced in their garrison and not exactly the picture of protection, yet no-one seemed to care. They were still better than no escort at all.
Ethrael craned his neck to glimpse Lirna’s lonely form where he had left her. She stood with her back turned towards him as she watched the night sky. “I’ll take the rear,” he said and moved to rejoin her.
“You have no sword,” his brother quickly reminded him making Ethrael stop short.
He turned to look at the massacre and immediately regretted doing so as the urge to vomit overwhelmed him again. The culprit—or culprits—were cold-blooded killers. He himself had never even needed to draw his blade in a conflict. “Do you think that would improve my chances?” he asked with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Alasu grinned nervously. “Suppose not,” he said and straightened his tabard. “Let’s get this over with fast then. I’d feel a lot safer behind a locked door myself.”
Mithral gave them both a glare that told them to be quiet and immediately made them regret their exchange. Their training would no doubt become a lot more intense hereafter so they could regain their confidence.
Ethrael could not help to think that even a confident and experienced guard would most likely have shuddered at the task of escorting a crowd numbering in the fifties through narrow and dark streets with only one backup.
His brother, eager to show his competence, began listing district names and asked those living there to raise their hands to narrow down their route. Ethrael pushed his way back to Lirna’s side. His heart dropping further and further into despair whenever hands remained down, and the districts grew further apart. There would be a lot of walking.
Lirna’s arm slipped into the crook of his own. “I’ll stay with you.”
“Your home is on the way.”
“I know but…” a discreet but pretty smile crept across her face framed by long white curls, “like this, we get to spend more time together. And I’ve always wondered what your work is like.”
Ethrael’s eyebrows rose. Her beautiful face would often make him agree with anything she said, but in the shadow of dead elves, her attempt at lightening the mood missed him by the length of a wheat field.
“It is not like this! It is handling drunks and stopping brawls. Guarding merchant stands.” It did not sound as glamorous as he’d wanted when he said it out loud. Being a guard was considered an honorable job, exciting and dangerous. In truth, it was not much different from being a farmer watching livestock. The biggest danger to someone was often their own poor decisions. He did not even know anyone personally that had dealt with a clean cut murder.
“You are keeping us safe,” Lirna said and hugged his arm tight. “I’m sure my father would be impressed to hear of your deeds.”
The deed of escorting his daughter, unarmed, with a murderer lurking in the shadows…
Ethrael failed to see how that was something to brag about. “You would be much safer with your family. Aren’t you afraid of whoever did this?”
She tensed up and clung a little tighter to him. She wanted to say something but seemed too ashamed to say it. Their eyes met and Lirna’s gaze pleaded quietly with him. Perhaps it was their combined fear that made him believe he understood her thoughts.
Her parents would not understand. They would not believe what had happened. It felt safer to be with someone that could relate—that had seen the horror with their own eyes.
“As you wish,” he said softly. “I’ll protect you.”
It went against all logic but he did not want to disappoint her. And she had already decided. It would be bad etiquette for him to refuse.
* * *
Tharglond’s cobbled streets were lined with trees and flower bushes that stood out against the city’s white and gray stone like colorful mosaics. Their soothing scents hung in the air, instilling feelings of calm and safety. It was all very beautiful in daylight, but now they were more of an inconvenience. The shadows they cast were long and dark in the flickering torchlight.
Even worse were the decorative statues of elves and animals set in deep alcoves that made Ethrael grow increasingly twitchy as his mind imagined them move in the corner of his eyes. He wondered if Mithral had told his brother about the dead guards. It seemed unlikely as Alasu took advantage of every shortcut he could find. Most of the city’s houses were three floors high, separated by narrow alleys leading to inner gardens that allowed its residents to always have close access to nature. It also meant more places to hide, and his brother led the diminishing procession through them with no regards to that fact.
As they passed under a pergola covered in vines, Ethrael caught a whiff of something he had hoped not to smell again. He paused for a moment, thinking he must be mistaken.
It was definitely blood.
A faint trail in the air that dissipated almost as soon as he had noticed it. He looked up and flinched. Two glowing eyes looked down at him from the rooftop through the cross-beams of the pergola.
“What is it?” Lirna whispered. His sudden jump had startled her, and she drew her hands to her chest defensively.
“There’s something up there.”
Lirna’s eyes grew wide as she followed his gaze. Her fear was short-lived and she soon flashed him a smile. “That’s an animal,” she said with confidence.
That it was an animal made the most sense, but it looked too big. Unless wolves could climb buildings, it had to be one massive cat. Or something Ethrael had never seen before. Either way, those eyes were locked with his in a silent challenge. He expected to hear a growl, the scraping of claws… something. All he could hear was his own shallow breathing.
Alasu surprisingly had the presence of mind to stop and make sure everyone was following before turning around any corners. He looked down the line of elves with a confused and a little annoyed expression when he noticed something was happening in the back.
Ethrael waved at him to keep moving and had no plans to remain himself. He looked up one more time to see if the thing would follow.
The eyes were gone.
“See, nothing to worry about. You probably scared it off by just looking at it,” Lirna said, sounding proud that she had been right.
Her good mood had begun to infect him again. He smiled and allowed himself to laugh at his own cautiousness. After all, they had made it more than halfway without any incident.
Once everyone had made it home fast and efficiently, the general tone at their last stop had devolved into somewhat of hushed excitement. This was the most exciting thing that had happened in a long time. There was no reason to think anyone else would be in danger. The murders were probably a temporary feud, nothing involving them.
Alasu slapped his hands together, praising himself for a job well done. “Here’s your home, my lady,” he said as he bowed low. “Safe and sound.”
“Thank you, my lords,” Lirna said, and giggled softly. Her cheeks flushing pink as she returned the bow.
They stood outside her family’s mansion. The well lit front garden had a delicate but sharp fence around it, high enough to give anyone trouble climbing over it, yet the gate stood partly open and inviting.
“Lirna,” Ethrael said while caressing her cheek, “please tell your father to lock the gate tonight.” He did not want to risk even a wild animal getting inside.
She clasped his hand. “Can’t you stay? I’m sure my parents will understand… I’d feel much safer.”
Alasu grinned as he overheard their conversation and discreetly slipped away to give them some privacy.
“I can’t.” Ethrael lowered his head. “I need to go back with my brother to find whoever is responsible. I swear it, by Ithraën’s light. They won’t get away.”
She smiled at that and threw her arms around his neck in a parting hug. He wished for that embrace to last, for it to have been a loving, happy embrace. Instead, she hugged him as if she was afraid they would not meet again. She pulled away quickly, eager to feel safe within the walls of her family home.
“Will you visit me tomorrow?”
He nodded but did not dare to make any verbal promise. He patiently waited by the gate until he saw Lirna shut the mansion door behind her.
The night felt immediately colder without her. He wrapped his arms around himself and snuggled his chin into his high collar. A dark smear on his shoulder caught his eyes in the dim light. He touched it, thinking Lirna’s makeup must have rubbed off on his tunic. It was thick and wet.
He shuddered as he realized it must have dripped down on him from somewhere after he’d left the shrine. He had to slap his clean hand over his mouth to suppress a yell as he dashed to his brother’s side.
“Main road back to the shrine?” Ethrael begged.
Alasu reared back, surprised by his sudden burst of energy. “Why? That’s the long way.”
“I want to make sure that we are not the only ones out tonight. The city is too quiet.” Ethrael’s voice rose and fell awkwardly as he tried to hide the fact that he was trembling.
“It is supposed—” his brother cut his complaint short as he noticed the stain on Ethrael’s shoulder. He raised his torch a little and a frown creased his forehead. The confidence on his face faltered. “Might as well get you a sword from the barracks on our way then.”