Authors: Kate Danley
Tags: #fantasy, #ya, #werewolf, #shifters, #sword, #epic, #young adult, #coming of age, #werewolves, #romance, #shapeshifters
The Dark of Twilight
Twilight Shifters Series
To Kim Kohler
and our middle school writing group
he sound of pots and pans clanged loudly up the staircase. As she stepped down, Aein ran her fingers along the cool wall, feeling the familiar sweat that always gathered from the steamy kitchen. How she used to love to rest against these stones, pressing her cheek against the chill on a hot, summer day. She leaned in, just for a moment. Just to remember. She had walked the path from the kitchen to the great hall every day since she was a child, and today it ended. She smiled and affectionately stepped away, shifting her armor uncomfortably. The leather was still so new, it cut into her flesh. In time, it would mould to her shape and seem a second skin. But that hadn't happened yet.
She walked into the kitchen, which was bustling at its familiar frenetic pace. Upon a long, wooden table sat stacks of trays. She would not groan beneath their weight delivering food to the stronghold's court anymore. She had a different burden to carry now.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in," said a familiar voice.
Aein turned. Beside the cavernous fireplace with its turning spit, Cook Bolstad took her in, a look of dry indifference on his face.
And then he could not keep it up any longer. His face broke into a wide smile and he opened his arms to gather her up into a hug. Aein rushed forward, falling into his embrace. He was a wiry, old man with salt and pepper hair, entirely too thin for someone who worked around food all day. His nose was too big and his black eyes set too far back in his head. He slumped from all the years spent over a mixing bowl. But his hugs always felt like being wrapped up in a warm blanket. Aein felt her muscles release, her hardness soften. She was no longer a fighter, but the little girl who used to get beneath his feet as he raced to keep up with the hungry bellies of the stronghold. She was the little girl he would test his recipes on, would shout gossip to, who was his right-hand in the kitchen.
This was the man responsible for her life.
They pulled apart and Cook Bolstad looked at her with pride, unable to stop himself from taking her face in his hands and kissing both her cheeks.
Her parents had been killed by a raiding party in a forgotten war. Her memories of them were faint. A knight had brought her back and it was Cook Bolstad who took her in, who cracked through her shell of fear. He’d stowed her beneath the table, next to the sacks of potatoes and baskets of onions. When he was not yelling at the kitchen staff, he would softly sing lullabies that only she could hear. His hand would appear beneath the table with a treat while he worked: a slice of apple, a piece of bread, something sweet she had never tasted before. He would just wait until she took it from him, and then go about his business like nothing had happened. And like a master coaxing a fearful dog, he won her.
She had changed so much from that terrified child. From the very first time she served the soldiers in the great hall, she had been entranced by their camaraderie and strength. She found herself longing to belong to whatever it was they had. To join something bigger than her, to make a difference, to matter. She confessed it to Cook Bolstad on her sixteenth birthday, and it was he himself who petitioned Lord Arnkell for her acceptance into the guard. And today, after two years of training, she had made it. She was one of Lord Arnkell's warriors. Today, her dream had come true.
Cook Bolstad brushed back a strand of her long blonde hair and tucked it behind her ear, before getting back to his pots and pans before anything burned. "Have you learned where are you off to?"
"To the border," she said. "The eastlands."
Cook Bolstad nodded, his stirring slowing as he thought. Aein wondered if she noted a tinge of sympathy in his words. "I went to the border once. Hot, swampy hellhole."
"You have a way of making it sound so appealing," she said.
He laughed, pointing a wooden spoon at her. "I'll stick to my kitchens and leave the traveling to your sort. So, let's see... two weeks out, two weeks back, a month in that pit. You'll be back just in time to help me prepare for the wedding."
"Perhaps I'll get lucky and something will eat me, instead."
She hoped he did not catch her stiffness beneath the joke. Aein looked around the kitchen. If she was honest with herself, it was not just duty all those years ago which made her ask Cook Bolstad to speak on her behalf. She thought of all the days she’d spent serving food to the stronghold's protector, Lord Arnkell. He was just a few years older than she was and he had noticed her. And she had noticed him. She told herself that he was not the reason she wanted to join the guards, but it was strange how when she lay in bed falling asleep, thinking about the things which brought a smile to her day, his face was always there. She told herself that anyone would feel that way about someone they were sworn to protect. He was tall and strapping. He had soft, brown hair shorn close to his head and hard, brown eyes that saw the world as it was. His mouth was as quick to a smile as it was to form a war cry.
But more than that, his rough hands always seemed to brush against hers when she brought him his plate. A kind word of thanks always escaped his lips. He even would come to watch the training, to see how the guards progressed. She once imagined he came especially to watch her, to joke with her. She thought there was something special between them.
But now he was marrying someone else, and that was that. Lord Arnkell was forging an alliance between strongholds. His upcoming betrothal was the cement which would bind his lands to the neighboring Haidra kingdom. There were places beyond the swamps where creatures lived—creatures so terrifying, the people of both Haidra and Arnkell needed each other to survive.
"After such a long journey to the east border, you'd think they'd leave the patrols there longer," Cook Bolstad said, tasting one of the rues and then deciding it needed a pinch of something more. Cook Bolstad always said one day he would teach her all his secrets. But until that day, it was a pinch of this, a pinch of that, and Aein was left to only guess what he was putting into the food.
"You know the swamps," she answered. "They say it does strange things to people."
"Seems cruel to send you recruits out there so soon. They should send the veterans until you get your legs."
"Best to know the enemy now," said Aein, repeating the words which had been hammered into her head again and again as she trained, the words the entire guard repeated to themselves whenever someone didn't make it back.
"When do you leave?" he asked.
"Now," Aein confessed, pointing up the stairs. She hated the twinge of sadness she saw in Cook Bolstad's sideways glance. "I meet my partner in the courtyard and we leave at once."
Cook Bolstad paused, backing away from the stove to lean against the wooden preparation table. He nodded, but she could see this was very difficult for him, that he didn't understand. She was headed to a place of legends, a place which was a rite of passage for the guards. She would see things that no one in their stronghold had ever seen before. Yes, people talked. Yes, she heard about the threats she would face. But she had been training for this. She knew she could handle it. She would come back.
"Two months," Aein reminded him.
"Two months," he repeated. He walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a sack, loading it up with some bread and cheese. "Just something for the road."
"I am going to have the entire battalion jealous of me."
"As is my intention. Teach them a bit of kindness to their cook might just get them a little kindness back." He then paused and looked at her thoughtfully.
"What?" she asked.
"I was wondering..."
Feeling him hesitate, she asked again, "What?"
He crooked his finger, motioning for her to follow him into the larder. Her curiosity was piqued. She glanced over her shoulder, but none of the other workers paid them any attention. She went in and stepped aside as he closed the door. By the wall behind the door, he lifted up a flagstone. Aein felt a tingle of fear run through her veins. This was where he hid his books. She prayed no one came in. It was so dangerous. Everyone in the stronghold knew that such items could lead to sadness and mad longing, but Cook Bolstad handled his books as if they were nothing. He had tried to teach her to read when she was younger, but she flat out refused. She knew the dangers of the drawn black lines and wanted nothing of them. He had not pushed her.
Cook Bolstad licked his thumb and began flipping through the book. "I told you I was once down in the swamp. There was a mushroom which grows there. I've never tasted anything like it before. I was thinking, since you are going to be there, that if you happened to see it, you might gather it and bring it to me." Pleased, he pointed at a page. "Here it is!"
Aein crept forward. His finger was on a picture he had drawn.
"You see, there are these light tan spots on its dark black head. This particular mushroom is considered a delicacy. Look for it on the south side of a tree, beneath where the branch and trunk meets."
The relief she felt made her laugh. "I would be happy to," said Aein, grateful there was some way she could repay this man with something so simple as a special ingredient for a dish. "My pleasure."
"I'll pack you another empty sack. The more you can gather the better." Cook Bolstad clapped with joy. "Oh! When Lord Arnkell's new wife has a taste of these at the feast! You have no idea. He might just elevate me to a man of title!" Aein laughed again as he put the book away and replaced the flagstone. It seemed to bring him back out of his revelry. As they walked out of the larder, he became stern. "But you must promise me not to eat them until I have a chance to see them. Wash your hands if you touch them. Try not to inhale their scent," he said. "Promise me?"
She nodded. She knew mushrooms were funny things. They planted themselves and bloomed at night, appearing as if magic. Subtle differences meant the ability to kill or cure. If he was cautioning her, there was a good reason.
"I shall gladly be your carrier," she replied, giving him a kiss on the cheek as he handed her the sacks. "I promise you shall not see me again until this bag is full!"
"That's my girl!" he said, giving her a final squeeze. "Now, get on with you. I have work to do."
As Aein walked out of the kitchen, his voice as he directed his staff in all the mundane tasks she was now no longer a part of followed her. The light of the courtyard called her out to all the adventure which lay ahead.
The stable hands were busy loading up a cart with the supplies she and her partner would be hauling. Her things had already been brought down from the barracks and stowed away. She knew she would be going with someone else on this tour, but as she looked around, there were no familiar faces. Their orders were always kept secret, known only to themselves, their commanding officer, and Lord Arnkell. She wondered if Arnkell, himself, had chosen her for this duty. That brought her another smile.
"Aw, hells. Of all the new recruits, I'm stuck with you?"
She turned around. Standing behind her, shaking his head in mock disappointment, was her fellow guardsman Lars. She almost squealed with happiness, but choked it back, reminding herself she was a warrior now. Lars would rub something like that in for years. He had been in the guard two years longer than her, and had already done several tours of the border. He had a wry sense of humor, often coming down to the training grounds to beat good naturedly on the cadets, swearing he was getting them into fighting form. He was tall and gangly with bright, red hair, and skin which seemed to fluctuate between either pale or burned to a crisp.