Dullahan

This is now for NaNoWriMo (over a year after I first started it hahaha)
I'm rewriting what little I've done so far and then continuing more over the month so here we go.
Cover is made solely by me.


A promise is made between Fae, and a short number of years later it is time to repay the deed.

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4. An Old Woman

Birds sung in the evening chorus, fluttering around them like butterflies on a warm summers day. Trees lined the green fields around them, leaves vibrant shades of red and orange, creating a collage of Autumn. The fields themselves were large and open, hedges little more than unkempt rows of bushes keeping vague notes on which area belonged to which farmer. Scattered amongst the emerald grass were cattle and sheep, dotting hillsides that seemed to stretch for miles. In the distance mountains rose from the green, tips frosted white with snow, fog hanging low at their bases.

The air was chilled; not quite frozen with winter’s frost, but not near the searing heat of summer. A breeze shifted the air, rustling leaves and picking them from their trees, carrying them in arcs across the sparse roads. They snaked between field and hill, little more than dirt tracks, showing the way to nearby settlements.

To the right, just outside the small tunnel’s entrance, was a signpost. Eldred squinted at the words carved into the wood, understanding the letters, but not the order in which they presented themselves. He looked back as the rider guided the horse out, stunned into silence by the appearance of what he could only assume was a new world. The tunnel they had emerged from seemed pitch black from the bright rays of the setting sun.

He looked above them in awe, watching as fluffy white clouds stained pink with sunlight drifted lazily across an orange sky. He suddenly felt very lonely, remembering the all too distant day he spent with his friends, watching clouds pass above the forest of their village. His gaze dropped back to the ground, wonder deserting him as reality set in.

The boy barely noticed as the figure remounted the horse, and they picked up pace again.

They had ridden for several minutes before he heard the voice again- its origin seeming just out of reach.

“What do you wish to know, boy?” it asked, wording cautious.

He blinked in surprise, frown returning as he stared blankly at the rider’s armour in front of him for a minute or so.
Eventually, he responded. “Can I go back?”

The voice was quiet for a moment, the rider turning towards him very slightly.

“No.” It said simply, the word sounding very final.

Eldred, unbeknownst to him at the time, felt a very deep sense of loss. He felt empty, any excitement from the new location drifting away like the clouds above. A sense of dread rose up deep within him, and he asked his second question.

“What happened to my mother?” The words seemed like they left somebody else’s mouth, his own feeling too numb to move.

Silence again.

“… She had to leave.”

“Will I see her again?”

“No.”

He was quiet for a while, with nothing but the horse’s hoof beats and the wind gently rustling leaves in the trees they passed to break the silence. The birds had gone quiet, the sun having disappeared beneath the horizon.
“Is she with my dad?” he asked quietly, looking toward the hills on their left.

“Most certainly,” the voice said almost immediately, the rider flicking the reins. The horse slowed to a trot as they turned a particularly sharp bend in the road. They were following the roads here, Eldred noted quietly to himself, trying to distract himself from his current thoughts. He could feel warmth pricking at the corners of his eyes.

“Who are you?” he asked, clenching his fist as he tried to stop his own tears from falling. His voice wavered slightly as he asked the question.

Another pause, as the voice collected its thoughts. “I was… A friend of your father’s.” It said, the rider readjusting itself in the saddle. “Most know me as Aeron.”

They were nearing a small house, settled in a small gathering of trees in a small dip of the land. The rider had slowed the horse further, and they were moving at a trot.

“We’re here,” it continued, gesturing toward the house. “The woman here can bandage your wounds,” it explained, stopping the horse before they got too close.

The house was very squat. Its first floor was perhaps two thirds the size of the ground floor, the thatched roof sagging low over the windows. They looked like eyes, as though the house were too tired to keep them open. The ground floor’s windows were lit with a dull orange glow, barely visible through thick curtains. The door, Eldred decided, did not look inviting. Made of black wood, it was covered in peeling red paint. In the exposed patches, the wood was scratched and decaying, appearing to flake away in places. The knocker was a rather bad carving of a lion’s face, looking closer to a gnarled old woman than a mighty beast.

The rider dismounted, readjusting its armour slightly after it landed, and started to unbuckle the boy’s legs.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked quietly, unable to shake the memories from his mind.

The rider paused its actions for a moment, hands stopping mind-way. “I made a promise to a dear friend a while ago,” it said eventually. “I promised that I would protect you should the time come.”

It finished unbuckling his legs, and stepped aside so he could slide from the saddle. The horse seemed quite relieved to be freed of is passengers, and made its way to the small shed that leaned against the side of the house. Inside stood another horse, smaller than the figure’s. It watched as the rider’s horse strode up to it, before it returned to the hay left for it without a second glance.

The rider turned toward the door, walking up to it and waiting for Eldred to follow. It took the knocker in a hand, and let it drop against the metal plate attached to the door. The sound resonated with the house, ringing through it for a few moments.

Eldred could barely make out the sound of the reply from within.

“I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!”

There were various sounds from within that sounded like objects being moved around, as well as a couple of muffled curses that Eldred did his best to pretend not to hear. The figure stood completely still next to him, returning its hand to its side and waiting patiently.

Eldred frowned, only now noticing the coiled length of the figure’s whip, an eerie shade of cream in the twilight. Its spines jutted out from its jointed length at regular intervals, sharpened to points.

The door swung open, its hinges creaking horribly, protesting its use. Just within the thresh hold stood a wrinkled old woman, grinning a toothy smile. Her eyes sparkled with warmth, arms held close to her frail body. She tipped her head toward the figure, before looking Eldred up and down, grin fading as she saw the gash and subsequent bruising on his face.

“What happened here?” she cooed softly, putting her hands on his chin before he could stop her, and turning his face from side to side. “You’re covered with scratches, and that nasty wound there…” she trailed off, tutting to herself. “Aeron you really ought to take better care of your charge,” she scolded, turning and walking further into the house.

The figure, after a moment’s hesitation, followed, gesturing for Eldred to do the same. The house smelled musty, with a slight floral tinge, something unfamiliar to him. As he stepped clear of the door, it creaked closed, shutting gently behind him. A shudder ran down his spine as he heard the mechanism click into place.

They stood in a small, dark hallway, with three doors branching off in various directions, and a rickety staircase ascending to the right. From one of these doors came the voice of the old woman. “Children especially are very delicate, Aeron. You can’t just take him wherever you go; he needs protection.”

For a brief moment, Eldred could have sworn he heard the voice of the rider sigh.

The figure lead the way into a small living room, cluttered with small carved objects that sat on every surface. The woman stood beside a low table, hands clasped in front of her as her guests filed in. The figure, still wearing full armour, decided to remain standing. Eldred stood awkwardly beside it, his hands fidgeting behind his back.
“Please sit, dear,” the woman said to Eldred, waving toward a stool that sat beside the only armchair in the room. He dipped his head, taking a seat and waiting. “Are you going to explain how the poor boy got hurt?” she continued, giving Aeron a meaningful look.

It was silent for a moment. “He was struck by a heavy metal object.”

The old lady raised an eyebrow questioningly as she rummaged around in one of the cupboards, moving a few figures out of the way as she did so. “Your doing?” she asked, pulling out a collection of medical supplies such as bandages from the depths.

“An angry villager’s,” Aeron corrected, crossing its arms across its chest defensively. “You’ll heal him?”

There was silence between the pair for a few moments, both watching Eldred. He fidgeted nervously, all too aware of the scrutinising gaze of the old woman. He was certain Aeron was watching him as well, despite the lack of head movement.

“Mmm,” she mused, putting her supplies down on the table and closing the small gap between her and the boy. She reached to his ears, lifting his hair out of the way. She chuckled to herself, taking a step back and looking back toward the figure with an impish smile on her face. “But of course,” she said, smile widening, “This can only lead to something interesting.”

A frown crossed Eldred’s face, his hand going to his ear instinctively as the woman pulled back. Aeron didn’t reply, instead waving a hand toward Eldred and leaning back against the door frame.

The woman turned back to Eldred, smile fading into one more kindly. “I’ll wash your wound, and then apply a salve to help it heal,” she explained, taking a step toward the hallway. “There’s not much I can do about your scratches.” The boy nodded slightly in confirmation, watching as the old lady left the room. Her footsteps took her into the room at the end of the hallway, tone changing to that of shoes on stone. He glanced toward Aeron for a brief moment, before his eyes dropped to the floor.

“I mean you no harm, boy,” the figure’s voice said quietly. “You are safe with me.”

He didn’t say anything, instead looking at the patterns weaved into the carpet. His eyes drifted to his own feet- still bare, and covered with small scratches. From the room at the end of the hall- the one that shared a wall with the one they were currently in- came the sound of pans being moved around, and then the distant creeks of a water pump. A few minutes passed in silence, before the old woman reappeared at the doorway.

“If you’re going to lean on my walls Aeron you’d better take off that damned metal,” she grumbled as she entered, carrying with her a saucepan filled almost to the brim with fresh water. “You’re damaging the wallpaper with all of those-” she put the pot down, gesturing vaguely to the figure- “edges.”

The figure straightened up, but kept the armour firmly in place.

“Honestly,” the woman muttered to Eldred, kneeling down beside him, damp cloth in hand, “I don’t think she ever takes it off.” She raised the cloth to his left eye, gently dabbing at the dried blood and the wound just beneath it. “This might sting a little,” she said.

It did. The water was freezing against his skin, droplets dripping from the wet cloth. His scratches and the cut itself stung horribly, the dark bruise aching at the pressure.

“Now,” the woman said, as she carefully wiped the blood from his cheek, “You’ll need to stay here for a few days so that I can ensure nothing else is wrong with you. From the surface wound I see here, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some small fractures to your cheekbones.” She smiled again, a warm smile that reminded Eldred of home. “We’ll get you all fixed up,” she assured him, finishing her cleaning and straightening. She looked back toward Aeron before she spoke again. “I need to gather some things for the salve. Make sure he doesn’t dirty his wound,” she said, her tone bordering on a command. With that she left the room again, this time entering the room opposite the living room in the hallway, shutting the door carefully behind her.

Eldred sighed, looking at the tainted water on the table. A few flakes of his own blood, not yet dissolved into the mixture, floated on its surface. The cloth hung on the pan’s side, a rather ragged piece of material that he imagined was stark white once. Beside the pan, nestled amongst some of the carved figures, sat a lantern. It was lit, providing the only light in the small room. The windows on each side were clouded with soot, dimming the light somewhat. The figure cast strange shadows on the walls, most of them too short to make any big difference. On the wall in front of him, the one between this room and what he assumed was the kitchen, was the shadow of a vaguely humanoid figure, with long, curling horns protruding from the back of its head. Beside that one was a more bestial creature, tiny fangs easily visible in the over sized shadow. They looked like intricately detailed shadow puppets on the wall, Eldred decided, trying to figure out what some of the more inhuman things were.
The figure stood silently near the doorway, watching the door across the hall. From inside came the faint sounds of small wooden drawers being opened, and glass objects being moved into place.

After a little while the door opened again, the old woman emerging from the dark room beyond, shutting the door behind her. In her hands she held a small wooden bowl, her fingers stained by a pale blue powder. She shuffled back into the room, glancing at Aeron before making her way over to Eldred.

“Here we are,” she said, dipping her fingers into the pot and smearing some of the pale paste over Eldred’s bruise. He sat there quietly, keeping as still as he could, as the woman worked. She put the bowl down on the table when its contents had been emptied and picked up a roll of bandages in its place. “Don’t remove these bandages until I tell you to, all right?” she instructed, wrapping them carefully over the wound. She covered his left eye as she did so, covering his cheek and the bruise neatly. After a few moments she pinned it in place, removing her hands and clasping them together again. “All done,” she declared, taking a step back to admire her handiwork. 

Aeron took a step forward toward Eldred, standing beside the old woman and examining the dressing. “Thank you for your service,” she said to the woman, turning slightly toward her.

The woman dipped her head. “I never turn down intriguing patients Aeron. You know this all too well.” The same impish smile spread across her face for a moment, before she started toward the hallway once more. “Now, I’m certain Aeron has neglected to feed you properly. She’s never been any good at taking care of… other people,” she said toward Eldred, beckoning him to follow her. “I’ll see if I can’t find something for you.”

As if on cue, his stomach grumbled, and the boy became all too aware of how hungry he actually was. Sitting on the stool and staying still for all that time had also made it very clear just how tired he was. He gladly stood, hurrying to catch up with her.

“I must tend to Orin,” Aeron said, “I need to rub him down for the night,” she explained. The old woman glanced back at the rider for a moment, her expression turning sour for a split second, before her gentle smile returned and she reached down to take Eldred’s hand.

“I’ll take good care of him, don’t you worry,” she said, leading the boy into the kitchen.

The front door creaked open, and the sound of the rider’s footsteps disappeared into the night.

***

The two of them sat at her kitchen table, Eldred on the side closest to the hallway, the old woman sitting opposite. She held a small cup of warm tea in her hands, and was smiling gently as he ate the porridge she had made for him.

The boy hadn’t eaten a proper meal in over a day, Aeron only able to give him a couple of scraps of bread every now and then. The old lady, who Eldred had since leaned was called Leola, remained mostly silent as he ate, letting him enjoy the warm food put before him.

He scraped the bowl clean with his spoon, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction.

“So,” Leola started, leaning back in her own chair as well, “What’s such a handsome young man doing with one such as Aeron?” she asked, her smile widening slightly.

Eldred looked up at her, his head tilting slight to one side. Everything looked strange with only one eye. “She stopped some bad men,” he answered quietly, flashes of the fight from the previous night flickering through his mind.

The old woman mimicked his motion, her own head tilting at an equal angle. Her smile faded slightly. “Some bad men?”

He nodded, but remained quiet.

“It must have been very scary, seeing such horrible things. You must have been very brave Eldred,” Leola said, her voice tinted with faux admiration.

A frown shifted into place on Eldred’s face. “Everything went dark after she came in,” he said, “I think- I went to sleep.”

“You fell asleep?” she repeated, smile fading entirely, confusion replacing it. Leola looked behind Eldred, toward the door. “You caught caught in the crossfire, yes? After then men attacked the- Aeron?”

His frown deepened, and he shook his head. “She came in through the-” he paused for a moment, staring into the floor. “Through the back door, after I got… hit.”

The woman narrowed her eyes, looking toward the door again. “She rescued you?”

Eldred nodded slowly, looking back at her. Her pale green eyes held an expression unknown to him.

Down the hall, the door opened again, Arron’s heavy footsteps audible once more as she walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. “We’ve been on the road all day and I know for a fact that the boy has not slept since the early hours of this morning,” she stated, standing at the head of the small table. “If you wish him to stay for a few days I assume you have a room in which he can sleep?”

Eldred stared blankly at the flagstone floor.

Leola pursed her lips, letting out a long sigh before she stood up. “Yes, yes. Follow me,” she said, her voice impatient. “I have a small room upstairs for patients, if you’ll follow me.” She set off down the hallway, stepping into her living room for a moment to retrieve the lantern from the table, before she beckoned for Aeron and the boy to follow.

Aeron put a hand on his shoulder, the boy jerking back into the real world. He slid off the chair, and trailed after Leola, the figure following behind.

Leola started up the stairs, turning briefly toward the figure. “I’m assuming you’ll stay with him?” she asked, reaching the first floor landing.

“Yes.”

The old woman nodded to herself, lifting the lantern a little to chase the darkness from the small space. There were only two doors on this floor, one at the far end of the small space, barely visible through its shroud of darkness, and a second one just at the top of the stairs. Leola opened the door in front of the stairs, stepping into the room beyond.

Eldred followed, finding himself in a small square room, the only furnishing being the cot in the corner, beside the window. On the straw mattress was a small pile of sheets and blankets. The room smelled mustier than the rest of the house, but lacked the floral scent.

“This room is yours until I see fit to release you from treatment,” Leola said, allowing Aeron to follow the boy into the room. “I request that you do not venture around the house unaccompanied, as there are many delicate things here that would be best left untouched.”

Eldred mumbled affirmation, walking toward the bed. His tiredness was catching up to him.

“I will find you in the morning,” she finished, nodding to the figure, before leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.

The boy stared at the pile of sheets, reaching out to pick one from the pile. Aeron watched for a moment as he struggled to lift the mattress, tiredness sapping his strength.

The figure sighed, taking a step forward as she removed the armoured gauntlets from her hands, placing them on the windowsill. She took the sheet gently from the boy’s hands, her skin almost as pale as the sheets themselves, and started to make the bed. Eldred stared blankly, watching she sheets get wrapped around the mattress. When she had finished Aeron stepped back, retrieving her gauntlets from the windowsill and putting them back on. “I will be here throughout the night,” she said, sitting down on the floor. “I suggest you take her advice.”

Eldred nodded slowly, practically falling into the cot, wrapping himself in blankets as he did so.

He fell asleep without another word.

***

The night passed quickly. Eldred was roused by Leola, who shook him awake a few hours after dawn in order to change his bandages. He could have quite happily slept longer, the hours of time spent in the waking world totalling far too high the previous day, but the healer insisted he have something to eat for breakfast. Aeron reluctantly agreed, and so Eldred dragged himself from the comfort of the blankets, and into the cold kitchen, barely heated by the small fire under the stove.

The figure and the old woman talked as he waited at the table, discussing things that he didn’t quite understand. They mentioned courts and seasons, something about the ocean, and bans on something Eldred didn’t quite catch.

He soon forgot about the confusing conversations, however, as warm food was placed before him, and there was a loud knock at the door.

Leola frowned, looking toward Aeron, who shrugged, before she shuffled toward the front door. Eldred, far too interested in the food, only started to pay attention when the figure left the room, striding into the hallway and speaking in a slightly raised voice.

“… Every move?” Aeron said, tone frosty.

“I only bring the commands, I do not know their intents,” an unfamiliar voice replied, sounding tired and worn out.
The figure grumbled, before muttering something quietly to herself. “Give me half an hour,” she said eventually, at full volume. “I need to prepare my horse.”

“But of course,” came the reply. Eldred twisted around in his chair to try and see. “We will be waiting out here.”
The door shut, Aeron turning back toward the open kitchen doorway. She strode into the room, speaking to the boy. “I am afraid we must leave here shortly, I have my summons and it would be best if we did not anger them,” she said, before turning to Leola.

The old woman was scowling, kindly face twisted into an unfitting ugly expression. “The child still needs treatment,” the woman stated, malice spiking her words. She took a step toward the table, leaning on the wood. “You should leave him with me while you answer your summons.”

Aeron shrugged, moving closer. Her tone was calm and even. “We both know that most of the healing has been done already,” she said, straightening as she spoke. The figure towered above the frail woman, black armour only adding to her imposing presence. “I know what you are, Leola. I know how you work, what you do.” She stepped closer, the woman shrinking back instinctively. “I was content to let you ask your questions, form your plans,” she paused, and Eldred noticed he was holding his breath. “But I will not let you corrupt him, taint him.”

Leola bared her teeth, letting out a quiet hiss, before she turned and retreated to the far wall. “So be it,” she said, forcing the words from her mouth like curses. “Take your rescued mutt and see the court,” she chuckled to herself, impish smile creeping onto her face. It took on a more sinister appearance this time, the light from the windows behind framing her face in light, her features darkening. “They won’t be so kind.”

***

Aeron bowed slightly to Leola as they left, the old woman watching with cold eyes from her front door as the pair of them followed the small group of messengers. Eldred watched as the house started to move, slowly getting smaller as Orin took them away. Finally, trees obscured his view, and he looked back ahead of them. The figure had ushered him from the kitchen table shortly after her unspoken threats had been exchanged with Leola. She kept him nearby as she had saddled her horse- Orin, as he’d learnt the night before- and lifted him up to sit in front of her this time, her arms stopping him from falling.

No one had spoken a word since the last word was said by Leola, not even the messengers had acknowledged their presence. Eldred shifted uncomfortably where he sat, unused to sitting this far in front.

Eventually, he asked a question. “Why did we have to leave?”

Aeron was quiet for a moment. Before they had left, Leola removed the bandages around his face, whispering some words quietly to herself as she did so. His wound had been considerably better since then- or at least, it felt as though it was. “The court summoned me, and their summons must not be ignored,” she said finally, raising a hand to gesture toward the riders a few yards in front of them. The small group of travellers moved at a fairly slow pace, keeping to the major roads.

“Why couldn’t I stay?” he asked quietly, glancing back the way they had come. The old woman had been kind, he had decided, and he felt himself missing the comfort of the small cottage terribly since they left.

The rider’s voice took on an unpleasant edge for her next words. “Leola is a dangerous creature. She has quite a way with healing, but… she likes to meddle in things that are not her concern.” Aeron paused for a moment. “She has a taste for small children at times, as well.”

Eldred frowned, twisting in the saddle to look at her visor. “A… taste?”

He imagined she would have nodded. “Yes. She enjoys eating them.”

He smiled nervously, unsure.

“I do not jest, boy.”

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