Saurimonde's heart pounded as she turned another corner. The forest was like a maze and crashing sounds were coming closer. She sprinted towards what looked to be a clearing. As she entered, a human-sized raven unfolded its enormous wings. “Not this way,” it croaked at her. She backed away, stumbled, and then took off again. The branches whipped at her face and hair. All around she could hear voices chanting; the words were indistinct, but grew to a fever pitch. Out of the corner of her eye she caught glimpses of fires, and figures which moved around them. What could she do? The forest was tightening its grip on her and there was nowhere left to go. The crashing was coming closer. He was coming closer. The sound of her heart beat so loud now it throbbed in her ears.
Bang. Bang. Bang. She opened her eyes, caught in the void between waking and sleep. Bang, bang, bang. Her heart still pounded and she was slightly sweaty, but that noise was not a dream. Groggily she looked towards the door.
“Madame... Madame... Are you in there?”
“Wait a minute.” she answered more to herself than anyone else. Slowly she lifted herself out of the bed. Her muscles ached in protest and her feet complained the minute she touched the floor.
“Madame...?” The voice was more insistent.
“Coming.” She wrapped a sheet haphazardly around herself, still too dazed to dress. As she walked over the bare floor it felt like she was walking over a bed of nails. She opened the door a crack as a moon-faced woman stared at her anxiously.
“I'm so sorry to bother you. I know you just arrived home from nursing your sick relative and must be very tired, but there's a lady waiting for you downstairs. She says she must see you right away.” Saurimonde tried to process this as she stared at the woman's rounded face. Sick relative? Where had that come from? She wondered. Sweet goddess, the word got around fast that she was back. She couldn't have been asleep for very long. She certainly didn't feel rested. In fact she felt more tired than she had thought possible. “Did she give you her name?” she asked as she wondered if it could be Elazki. But that wasn't possible - was it?
“It's Loreley, madame. The master's sister. She's come to see her daughter.”
Oh this was bad, Saurimonde thought. She despised Gilles' sister on the best of days and her timing couldn't have been worse.
“Tell her I'll be right down.”
The woman gave a clumsy sort of curtsy and said, “Yes, madame.” Then she turned and fled back down the corridor.
Saurimonde shut the door and then rubbed her eyes, yawning loudly. She stretched letting the sheet fall to the floor. Gingerly she walked over to the standing bureau and grabbed a dress. Any one would do just as long as it covered her. She slipped it on, luxuriating for a moment in the soft feel of the fabric and the way it hugged her skin. It was a good choice.
There was no time for a bath, or to splash her face, so she did what she could in front of the mirror. Most of the dirt had wiped easily away and the low cut moss colored dress set off her tawny skin. She still looked haggard around the eyes. Gathering up her long hair, she fastened it haphazardly with a couple of combs, pulling out wisps here and there. It wasn't glamorous, but it was good enough. In her mind she rehearsed various different scenarios and her responses to them as she put on the last minute touches. The problem was she didn't know Loreley very well as she and Gilles had a complicated relationship and they rarely could stand to be in the same room together. She was haughty and ostentatious from what Saurimonde remembered, and beautiful in a coldly remote sort of way, but that was many years ago and time could be unkind. She'd never even met her niece. Well, not in this form anyway. Feeling a sudden pang of regret, she quickly pushed it aside. She didn't want to remember. Not now at least.
Sighing heavily, she stared at her feet. There was no way she could get away with going barefoot. There had to be slippers somewhere. She found a pair hiding under the bed. The color wasn't right, but she didn't care as she couldn't keep Lorelei waiting much longer without some sort of scene happening. Deep breaths, deep breaths, she told herself If she could just keep her thoughts focused it would be okay.
Loreley looked around the cold, masculine room with its heavy tapestries and hunting trophies on the wall. Even though the curtains were drawn, hardly any light penetrated its depths. Her companion was busy running his hands over a suit of armor that stood in the corner.
“This looks real.” He said, a look of awe in his dark almond eyes..
“Yes, dear. It's real. It's been in the family for hundreds of years and technically it should be mine.” She didn't bother adding it was because she was the eldest sibling. He didn't need to know that. She ran a hand across her perfect, ginger-colored chignon. It was her trademark hairstyle, only now it had a few streaks of gray in the front. Poor Guihelm, she thought, as she stared at him. Not the brightest spark, but he was handsome to look at. If only he didn't fancy himself a poet. Not that there was anything wrong with poetry, but his was just so insipid and mechanical. The flowery nothings he espoused with an irritating air of faked romanticism. How the simpletons must have swooned at his feet wherever it was he came from. Some remote backwater in the mountains if she remembered correctly.
“What do you think could be taking them so long?” he asked.
“How can I know? It's the middle of the day,” she answered as if it were obvious. “My brother is a very busy man with a lot of important duties.”
Saurimonde stood silently in the doorway. “Indeed, your brother is a very busy man and I'm so sorry that he isn't here right now.”
They turned in unison at the sound of her voice. “I'm sorry to have kept you waiting,” she continued, “but I was very tired from a long journey last night... and well.” She gave them a little smile, tilting her head like a coquette. “I confess, I over slept.”
Loreley glanced at her companion as his eyes roamed up and down the voluptuous body of her sister-in-law. The older woman plastered on a smile. “Saurimonde, my dear. How lovely to see you.” She almost kissed her sister-in-law on the cheek. Then she stood back, glancing a critical eye over her. “As lovely as always. Just like one of your paintings. But yes, you do look a little worse for the wear. It must have been a very difficult road.” The was a subtle emphasis on the last three words. “And this is my traveling companion, Guihelm. He's a poet. You do know how I love to patronize the arts.”
Is there anything you don't patronize? Saurimonde thought to herself. Loreley's ingenue was indeed handsome. He was tall with dark, shoulder length hair, matching eyes, and high flat cheekbones and he had a foreign look which lent him an air of exoticism.
“My dame,” he dropped to one knee as he kissed her hand with great ceremony. Never once did he take his eyes off of her.
Loreley smiled harder to keep from rolling her eyes. She'd seen this same act everywhere they went. She didn't know why she didn't dump this dancing monkey at the circus where he belonged. There was no future with him. It was just that with Mariel here and her husband gone, she'd gotten a little lonely and Guilhelm provided a needed distraction. He wasn't smart enough to realize she was out of money, though. No one knew except her little girl and she'd come to see if Mariel was keeping up her end of the bargain in securing their future.
“So where is my beloved brother? And not to mention my daughter,” asked Loreley expectantly as she tilted her head mimicking Saurimonde's earlier expression.
“Please have a seat.” Saurimonde motioned graciously at a couple of over-stuffed leather chairs. “That's what I wanted to talk to you about.” Saurimonde sat down opposite to Lorelei. She leaned forward, placed both hands on her chin and said, “Mariel has gotten herself into a little trouble and Gilles had to go and fetch her.” Her eyes dropped and her lashes fluttered. “Well, actually he has to find her first.”
“Trouble? Find her?” Loreley's voice raised a couple of octaves. “What kind of trouble?” she demanded. “Is she all right?”
“She's fine.” Saurimonde reassured her. “It's just, you know how girls at her age are. I don't know how to tell you this... but she's run away with a boy.”
“What?!”the older woman screeched. “Well, I never...” She glanced over at her companion who raised his eyebrows, not knowing how to react.
“I know. Gilles will handle it. Don't worry,” Saurimonde responded.
Two bright spots appeared on Loreley's cheeks as her eyes quickly darted back and forth. Damn that girl, she thought, I will hide her black and blue. But at least Gilles was going to save her. It would give him the chance to play hero and he would like that. And Mariel would be forced to behave. “I'm certain he will.” She said stiffly. “Well, we'll just have to wait for them then, won't we? I'm sure this wouldn't be a problem.”
Saurimonde cursed inwardly, but her expression never wavered. “Of course,” she heard herself say as if from far away, “it would be no problem at all.”
“Madame,” said the moon-faced servant nervously as she hovered at the door. “You have another visitor. I tried to tell him you were busy”
Old Thome didn't wait for an introduction as he ducked his burly frame beneath the doorway. His face was tanned from the sun and he smelled of fresh earth and his long, graying beard made his look like a giant billy goat. “Saurimonde, so good to see you back. I'm...” He stopped as he noticed the others. His blue eyes widened as he took in the older woman. “Loreley?”
She shifted in her seat and patted her hair before she answered, “Hello, Thome.”
His weathered face grew softer as he gazed at her. “It's been almost 20 years.”
“It hasn't been that long. Besides, I was just a child the last time I saw you.” She laughed nervously. “A mere child.”
“You were?” Old Thome questioned, his confusion evident in his voice.
“Of course I was.” Loreley twittered again. She reached over and possessively stroked Guilhelm's hand and said to him. “Thome was like an older brother to me when I grew up here.”
“Older brother. But we were...”
She cut him off. “How is your dear family?”
His expression darkened. “Bad. Very bad. My oldest boy has gone missing for a few days now and there hasn't been any sign of him. Gilles said he might have run off with a sweetheart.”
Loreley gasped, clasping one hand theatrically to her throat as she started to quickly fan herself with the other. Then she leaned her head on Guilhelm's shoulder as if she needed corporeal support to hold herself up.
Exhausted as she was, Saurimonde saw the opportunity and she took it. “Oh Thome,” she said, “Loreley's daughter has gone missing too, and Gilles said the exact same thing. He's gone looking for her. Do you suppose...?” She let the question hang.
Old Thome shook his big head while frowning. “I saw Master Gilles the other night. He was the one who told me my boy had found a girl, but he didn't say anything about his niece.” His bearish brows knitted together and he asked, “When did she arrive?”
Outside there was the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones and a man's voice could be heard shouting. Loreley got up quickly. “Hopefully that's Gilles, and we'll get this mess straightened out.” Guilhelm followed her. Old Thome and Saurimonde stood behind them as they peered out the window into the courtyard below. Gilles' normally docile gelding was making a fuss as Sordel, stripped to the waist, tried to quiet him down. He held the reins with both hands and stood his ground as the horse kicked out over and over again, scrambling on the uneven footing. Sordel was sweating and his lithe muscles gleamed in the sunlight.
No, no, no, thought Saurimonde, this is a mess. But there was no way she could explain the truth. How could she tell them she'd killed their children? That she hadn't meant to because it hadn't really been her and she had been a monster. Something unnatural and they could still be in terrible danger. There was a chance they wouldn't believe her. They might think her insane. She'd be branded a murderess even if there was no proof. Her thoughts raced as she began to panic. It was time to end this charade before it went any further. She didn't know why she had thought she could pull it off. It was survival instinct and, really, she hadn't known what else to do.
Noticing her distress, Old Thome gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don't worry. It's just Sordel. Maybe he'll have some news.”
She flinched under his touch. “I know, but...” She swallowed her confession. She couldn't tell them. “That's Gilles' horse and I don't see any sign of him.” The hollow words echoed in her ears as she hung her head in shame. “I don't deserve this.” She looked up at them with tears in her eyes.
Loreley stood glaring at her. “What is the matter with you? This is no time for tears. You don't see us crying do you? We must go and see what has happened right now!” With an authoritative flounce, she grabbed Guilhelm and elbowed her way past Thome and Saurimonde. She stopped at the door and turned. “Well, are you coming? Let's go.”
Saurimonde took a half step forward as Thome hovered protectively beside her. She felt sick and ashamed and she wasn't sure she could handle any more.
“Don't worry about Loreley,” Thome said quietly.”Her bark is much worse than her bite. And a very sweet bite she has. Believe me, I know.” Then he gave her a knowing wink and she felt herself smiling back at him. That she hadn't expected at all.