Bellis clutched her worn green coat tight around her shoulders and moved swiftly through the tavern, a large hood obscuring her face. She turned her nose up as the smell of stale alcohol saturated her senses. The din of drunken conversation filled the room and raucous laughter erupted from the large fireplace. Serving staff weaved through the tables and standing patrons, skillfully wielding trays of drinks and food from the kitchen behind the long bar.
She spotted the lone figure quartered away in an alcove against the far wall.
“You’re late,”- he sighed, “as usual.” The man’s clothes were tight fitting, tailored in the style popular in the cities. Delicate patterns in golden thread adorned his cuffs and collar, a deep burgundy waistcoat constricted the light linen shirt beneath. Bellis smoothed out her green skirt as she sat opposite, placing her coat on her lap to cover the worst of the grass stains. The man summoned a waitress with an impatient gesture, “Wine, something of substance, not your usual runoff,”- he gestured to Bellis with an open hand, “and something inoffensive for her,”
The waitress looked to Bellis, her eyes were large and bright, and no doubt made her popular amongst the patrons. Her brows sloped slightly, betraying her displeasure, “We just got a lovely batch of spirited fruit juice last week, goes down real easy,”
“Wine please, the usual runoff will be fine,” said Bellis. The waitress dipped briefly and left the table with a smile.
The man’s eyes moved across her face and down her plain wool pullover. His eyes narrowed as they moved over the frayed edges and loose threads of her cuffs. Bellis tugged at the neck of her white gloves, tucking the loose clothing away from his gaze.
“How are your studies progressing?” he said, returning to look at her face. “We’ve had no word from you for three months, there was concern at the sanctuary that you’d abandoned your duties,”
“My studies progress as they should, you may report that my obligations are being fulfilled dutifully,”she said, squaring her shoulders.
“That remains to be seen,”- he said, retrieving a pocket watch from his waistcoat, “your atrocious time keeping aside, the land under your care is not what concerns me,”- he gestured with both hands at Bellis “how to not offend,”
“Speak plainly, I’ve no desire to hear you sugar coat your insults.”
“Very well,” he placed his hand together on the table, “you are the face of the sanctuary, even in this hovel appearances must be maintained. You represent a prestigious organisation and it is a disservice to be represented,”- he repeated the same exasperated gesture, “like this.”
Bellis released a tired breath. She stroked the delicate stitching on her cotton gloves. They were the finest piece of clothing she owned, certainly the least damaged. “Perhaps in the cities, rich fabrics and embroidery may have some use, but they provide little protection against the night’s chill here.”
“Leave the woods and come back to civilisation, these people need to know that the order works here and that we are the reason their lands remain bountiful These people should be rejoicing at our approach, instead, you scurry around in the dark like a ghoul.”
“People here aren’t accepting of strangers, least of all ones like us,” she said in a hushed voice, “they still remember the dark things that stirred in the forest, there is so much distrust of magic, it’s best not to draw attention to yourself. There’s no need for a small town like Fenwood to know the order is here.”
“You’re wrong again”- he said with a flourish of one hand “Fenwood lies on the most direct route from Anchorwatch to the capital, a trade agreement has just been reached with the Islanders in the north. Anchorwatch will soon be one of the busiest ports in the kingdom, and your little town will be sitting on the fastest route to the Capital. The order must have a public presence here.”
“Then send someone else, I have work enough in the forest without having to manoeuvre around the whims of bureaucrats and merchants.”
The man leaned, his brow furrowed and mouth twisted with anger, “You will perform your,”-
“Your drinks, sir,” came a cheerful voice from an overtly wide smile. The waitress placed the drinks on the table and took a step back.
The man scooped up his wine and swirled it under his nose, “Insipid,” he stated, before taking a sip, “bland in every respect, this would be discarded as a failure at The Sanctuary,”
The waitress fumbled slightly at the comment, her eyes grew in size, though she hid it well, “I’m needed in the kitchen,” she said with a slight bob and left the table.
“You’ve just gifted me another month of sculling like a ghoul,“
“Nonsense, the only thing that keeps you in that forest is your deficient personality, you will need to negotiate a residence in the town,”- he said sipping his wine, “somewhere large enough to house and entertain guests of the sanctuary,”
Bellis lowered her hood and drank, he was right, the wine was watered down, but that didn’t stop the locals. They began to bellow out songs about the local hunters who drove out the beasts and shadows from their land.
“What’s wrong with your hair? Why on earth would you cut in so short on one side?”
“Is my hair also a concern of the order?” she said with a defiant stretching of her neck, “As to your request, I will consider moving into town in due time.” she said.
His lips curled into a snarl, “It is not a request,”- he said, grabbing her gloved hand, ”These are your instructions and you will see them completed!”
Bellis winced as he squeezed her fingers in his grip, a red stain began to grow on the tip of her smallest finger,
“Simon!” she exclaimed, he looked puzzled, almost regretful as she snatched her hand away and hastily removed the glove. She examined the blood stain. “Have you any idea how hard it will be to clean this out?” She said with a rising temper.
“What have you done to your hand?”
“What have you done, don’t you mean?”
“Don’t be foolish, your fingernail is missing, why?”
“I lost it while climbing last week,”
“Then why is it not scabbed? Show me your other hand,” he said, looking back to her closely cropped hair. She removed the glove from her other hand and laid it flat on the table.
A spasm of panic gripped her chest, she seized her breath before it made her displeasure public and willed her body to remain at ease, “I was performing a cleansing, the rejuvenation ritual grew stronger than I should have allowed. With the exception of the missing nails, it did me a favour, this is the cleanest I’ve been in weeks,” she said with the lightest tone she could muster.
“Your arrogance knows no limits,” he muttered “can you fathom how close you obviously came to unmaking yourself? The rejuvenation was never meant for humans, this was clearly no accident” he hissed “You’re a fool to be playing with forces in this way, It’s a miracle you still have skin! Think of the damage you could have done to yourself or anything else unfortunate enough to be nearby.”
“I’m more capable than you think,”-
“You are an impetuous fool, and I’ve no understanding why the powers have gifted you as they have,” he said, the growing fury evident across his reddening face. “tomorrow you will bring me your journals and textbooks, I want to know what has put these foolish notions into your head. Since I can’t rely on you to speak the truth, I will discover it for myself,”Chapter 3: Twilight
Chapter 1: Folly