Tea choked awake, finding himself surrounded by wet leaves, crackling with every move he made.
Slowly, he sat up, feeling frail after his dream.
The scene that greeted him brought bile to the back of his throat, causing the coughing to grow painful, shaking his lungs and provoking his stomach until he threw up.
There was a corpse lying bent around the edge of the nearest tree, torn open and surrounded by crusting crimson – the man… Poppy’s father. His arms were freshly bruised and torn, his skull smashed, but his dark skin and bone-thin frame gave him away. The tree had splintered him; Tea noted that it wasn’t a yew tree. The forest had returned to normal.
“Oh, god.” The new voice startled his hazy mind – it niggled at the back of his mind like it was familiar. “Oh, god, I thought you were dead.”
The person had their hands to their mouth, gasping as they resisted tears – relieved or upset, he couldn’t tell.
“I thought you were dead, but you’re… but look at this mess…” They knelt beside him, and stretched out fingers sticky with red… Tea jolted away, and finally took in the person’s appearance.
Tall, but not as tall as Poppy. Skinny, but not quite sickly, with a healthy glow to skin that should have been very pale, he thought.
Scanning them again, he saw they were female; she was wearing a ragged grown, splattered with…
Her hair was brunette and raggedly short, partly hanging by the nape of her neck, partly by her shoulder or longer.
His heart stopped at her glowing, hungry vermillion eyes, which widened before the girl pulled away.
She seemed frightening, but was too frightened herself to provoke any fear.
“You…” He finally found his voice, “You’ve be gone for so long… We all thought you were dead, or worse. Where have you been, Rue?”
She placed the edge of her sticky thumb on the red smudge around her lips, missing her mouth.
Everywhere he looked on her was evidence of blood, but of no wound.
Up her arms and in her nails – blood. On her gown – red. On her legs – crimson, and her feet splashed in the puddle as she started to pace, worrying at her nail with a tooth.
“What… what is this?”
“I didn’t kill him!” She cried, suddenly working her fingers together in panic, desperately avoiding Tea’s eyes. “I promise. I promise you, please believe me.”
“Kill him?” For a moment, Tea’s mind was at a loss – he couldn’t picture Rue even harming a person, and less so killing… but then he remembered the priest from the night he went back to the orphanage with Rue. “Did you kill the priest?”
Tears streaked the blood on her cheeks and around her mouth.
“I wish they hadn’t sent help, Tea.” She collapsed into the puddle, sitting cross legged and rocking, head in her hand, mixing the blood into her hair more. “I should have been left to die. I promised myself that I would die rather than get help if it happened again, and yet…”
She motioning flimsily to the devastated corpse of Poppy’s father.
“But I didn’t kill this man!” Her eyes pleadingly connected with Tea’s again. “He started hurting Poppy, he got needles, Wormwood told him not to hurt her, so he stopped, but Poppy grabbed the needle instead and stabbed him with it, and then beat him with one of the chairs and swung him and… Oh, god, Tea… they ran off, they all ran off, I just took advantage… oh, god!”
Tea felt a tiny flutter in his heart – something… joy? Was he relieved that they were okay?
Had he been worrying?
After his dream he wasn’t sure if what he felt was real; the dream voice had told him he loved his parents, told him he cared, but he had never felt that way…
But he must have… once, when they were actually there, caring for him.
They did care for him – he never wanted for anything…
Tea forcefully dragged himself back the present.
“You took advantage?”
Rue was watching him then like he was dangerous.
“Don’t tell a soul about me.” She whispered.
“I won’t.” He grunted, growing impertinent and impatient. “Something weird has happened, and you’re covered in the blood of a man you didn’t kill. You’ve never been someone to do harm, and yet you killed a priest. You have to explain it to me.”
The cautious look lingered even as she began to speak.
Through the leaves the wind raced fiercely, a midsummer storm growing, but no other sounds could be heard, except her voice.
“It’s for magic.” She started, “The Demon’s Magic. You can cause pain to others with eye contact and a thought, but when you use it you pay for it with your own blood.”
Tea’s eyes widened with interest.
“My family has been cursed with this magic for generations, understand that – I never chose to have this magic. I was born with it, and it made me… weak. I never had enough healthy blood because the magic used it all.”
“But you never hurt anyone… did you?”
Rue stayed quiet, looking at the ground.
“When I was little, and abandoned. Not when I got to the orphanage; I vowed to never use it again.”
“So why did you still have troubles with your blood?”
She bit her lip.
“My family, a century ago, more, I don’t know… My family devoted themselves to this magic, vowed to always be servants to the Demon’s Magic… and we became…” She pressed her lips together, and then spat out the word, “…monsters. In return for the vow, we could always use the magic, but as time went on we grew weaker. We just didn’t have enough blood, so we… started to take others’.”
“You… drank people’s blood?” Tea scrunched up his nose in disgust, “You killed the priest for his blood? You took the blood of Poppy’s dad, too?”
“I had tried to stop!” She cried, desperate, imploring him to understand, “For years, I had drank nothing! But it became too much; when I killed the priest I was out of my mind, and when I came back to my senses and saw what I had done… I fled.”
“You’re like… a vampire. Like the priest’s say the people to the east are.”
“No!” She wailed, clearly ashamed and disgusted, “No… I… I can’t just… bite into them, I…”
Tea sucked his teeth, looking at the corpse with it’s rib cage cracked open, revealing all it’s inner-workings. As bile began to build in his throat again, he turned away and tried to think back to find any stories about similar deaths, but he recalled nothing of the sort. If they really had been doing something like that, it had been low key.
“So what made you vow to not drink blood?”
Rue’s breath shook harder, the tears building and flowing heavily again.
“My friend…” She gasped, “Before I found the orphanage, there was a little Herb girl my age who would play with me. One day, she said we should run away, and having been so alone, and her having been my only light in a world that seemed so hopeless, I agreed. Then, when the time came when I was forced to tell her about my curse, she… she accepted it… she helped me find the blood, and we continued journeying until we were so far away from civilisation, just the two of us…”
“But… there was no one else around.”
Rue choked a sob, and shook her head slowly.
“And… you got worse?” Tea asked, reluctantly, seeing that Rue was unable to continue. Rue nodded, the movement barely there, “You got as bad as you were at orphanage?”
Again, she nodded.
“So you killed her.”
Once again, she tried to move, but a sob caught in her throat. In the quiet, her gasping was as mournful as the church bells on the day of a funeral, and finally she let herself scream into the approaching night, wailing so loudly Tea feared she would attract attention from the town, but Tea let her cry.
He didn’t let himself feel close enough to people, but suddenly he realised he was. Suddenly it struck him that if he did such a thing to Bluebottle, he may feel that way as well.
What a sad story, He thought, To have killed the only person who cared about her…
But as her cry died down, he realised that the movement she was making was a shake of her head.
“She…” Rue breathed deeply, but the air caught at the back of her throat. She coughed shortly. “She sacrificed herself for me… She killed herself so I would live.”
Tea’s brow furrowed.
“That’s… awful…” He mumbled, and then raised his voice, “But then, if she did such a thing to save you, why would you risk death again by not drinking? And why didn’t you even tell Hellebore at the orphanage about your curse?”
“Hellebore… she would have sacrificed herself, too.” She looked weary as she rose to her feet. “My story is over, and I have to leave again.”
“I’ve given up trying not to drink.” Her voice grew emotionless as she turned to look at the massacre she had inflicted on the corpse, “I only cause more trouble.”
Tea didn’t know what to say; irritation gripped his body, his mind whirring with the thought that it didn’t make sense for her to have stopped anyway.
It was as he was lost in thought that she left, leaving her final words on the wind.
“Go home, Tea.”
As he watched her leave, her shoulders hunched, like a great weight was on her shoulder, the anger drifted away.
Go home, he thought, or go to the city?