by Jesse Teller
When her devout parents died, Cheryl turned her back on her god. Years of denial and self-loathing have defeated her. Her life consists of taking orders and succumbing to abuse. A group of strangers stops in Chaste for the night, but an unnamed threat is preying on the town. Tragic deaths have become more and more frequent. Cheryl wants to protect these travelers, expose the evil force, and save her fellow citizens, but she must find a way to believe in hope.
An unholy sound rose into the air, ripping through the silence of morning and raking claws through the isolated minds of the citizens of Chaste. Cheryl lifted her head from the straw pillow and didn’t know where she was. She looked at the humble, wretched home around her and remembered the last thirty years all at once. She brushed aside the pain and sorrow, the loneliness and horror, focusing only on the penetrating scream that rose once again into the air. She leapt to her feet and dressed in moments.Ever vigilant, ever ready to spring into action—it was a gift from her mother. This tenacious residue from her warrior life hung on incessantly. She strode from the house into the streets, where a third scream shattered into echoes on the living rock surrounding the city. Cheryl reached behind her for a weapon she never had been given and instantly cursed.
“You are an aging barmaid. Your warrior training is dead and gone.” But she could not shake the need for preparation that hounded her as she made her way to the center of town. Pallid faces peered from curtained windows. Every eye held terror and understanding. As the scream of loss and heart-wrenching pain rose once again into the air, she knew what all others in the city knew. Another child was dead. Another innocent had been plucked from her vine.
Every part of her cringed. “That’s seven on my watch.”
But it wasn’t her watch—never had been. “I am a bar wench, a tired bar wench in a shamble of a bar.” But try as she might to embrace this truth, the responsibility of the death settled on her shoulders.
Caleb stood on the porch of the magistrate’s building. His gnarled face and hunched shoulders spoke of a fear that would not ease. Cheryl snarled at him as she walked by. “You will answer for Teymond,” she said, stabbing her finger at him.
He grabbed at the sword on his hip and whined, “I did what was right. How was I to know? I’m blameless in this!” he shouted.
But Cheryl had already passed him. She marched for the figure bound in grief on his knees in the center of town, and her heart shattered in her chest, driving all the happiness she had once known from her body. She gasped as she walked closer, dreading each step like a woman walking to the noose.
Teresa. She had been so lovely, had been so tender and sweet.
Cheryl dropped to her knees before Angus, the father, and gently took him in her arms. He struggled, throwing his elbows wild and catching her in the nose. She brushed the attack aside, letting it draw no ire, and she took him again into her arms. The world blurred as tears claimed her eyes in the name of Teresa Mettle, and she let them flow.
He made sounds that struggled to be words but held no rationale. A garbled grouping of consonants and vowels expressed the emotion that would never let him loose. Pain wrapped him like a bladed blanket, and Cheryl felt it all. Her father’s blood had gifted her with the burden of empathy and, try as she might over the last thirty years, she had yet to shake it.
She thought of her father and called out to him in her mind. His love enveloped her, and she hushed Angus and smoothed his hair. She would not tell him everything would be all right. She would not speak empty lies of false comfort. She would do the only thing left to do about this tragedy. She would love him.
In moments, he fell asleep. She sat cross-legged in the dark gray streets, holding as much of his bulk as she could in her lap and weeping for the sweet girl that had been stolen from a loving father.
Paul moved up behind her, relief washing through her body.
“I need her taken to the church. We’ll take him back into his home when we can move him, and I want her free of that house when he gets there.”
“As you wish, Mother,” Paul said, and she hated him a little for it.
“I am not a mother, Paul Burden.” She felt the whip of anger in the words and regretted them.
Paul said nothing as he entered the house of Mettle. It had once been a happy place, but murder and sorrow had turned the loving home into an abomination. It sat now, sneering at her like a vicious dog, beaten and mistreated until it turned violent. It would bite and savage Angus if she let it.
She decided to take him to the inn. Mandore would be furious. He would beat her, but she would not take this man back to his cursed home.
Paul walked out of the Mettle place carrying a body, tiny and thin, draped over with a ratted quilt. He cried as he turned his gait to the church sulking in the back of the city. More citizens joined her in the streets, and she ordered a few men to carry the tossing Angus to the inn. She walked alongside him, her hand on his chest, knowing and hating that her simple touch would soothe him.
Her self-loathing reached its summit when she found her house again, a sty of filthy crockery and other messes. She sat in the chair by the table and waited for Mandore.
When he came home, she suffered. He beat her and laughed. She accepted it all with no complaint. She deserved it. She knew it was her lot.
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