It was a cold and rainy night—but it was the night that changed my life forever.
I was sitting in the den, next to the fireplace, playing chess with my brother and bored out of my mind because he is absolutely hopeless at chess. Granted, a twelve-year-old boy versus a man in his early twenties is a bit of an unfair match. If only Corbin would strategize more and not play so impulsively. He always goes with his gut instinct, completely missing the purpose of the game. Still—playing together makes the lad happy and pleases Father, so I indulge him and curb my tongue.
When Captain Pearson bursts into the den, all of us jump in surprise. My father slowly closes his book and stands from his enormous charcoal-colored armchair.
“Captain,” he acknowledges solemnly, as is his fashion when speaking with officers.
The captain bows, “My Lord. Young sires. While on patrol two Shadow Knights came across her Ladyship Hella House of Hunters.”
The three of us share confused expressions. In all my years of political education, I’ve never heard of a Lady Hella. Lord Varlion is a widower and vowed to never again remarry. Varlion does have two children, a fully-grown son—Lyrron and a younger daughter. Lyrron has visited House of Shadows with his father on multiple occasions, but the daughter? I barely remember her except in faint childhood memory. What was her name again?
“Is this Lady Hella you speak of the same huntress Hella? Varlion’s young daughter? What has become of my old friend!?”
Captain Pearson nods, “If what the maiden says is true, I’m afraid Lord Varlion has met a very untimely end. She claims that his Lordship and his heir Lyrron the Decisive, died in battle defending their realm a week ago. They were attacked by House of Hornets—Avispa has begun his war. The young princess evacuated the most vulnerable of her people into the Northern Mountain Pass, while the rest of Hunters stayed behind to fight. On the road to our gates, they’ve survived a second raid from a small gang of Hornets, the passing of her last two royal guardsmen, and a bear attack.”
“It is because of that bear that she has come to us alone, carrying with her a very sick girl with severe injuries. Her Ladyship rode tirelessly to bring the girl care, leaving the remainder of her people to travel alone. She says they are about ten miles out and should reach us by dawn—they’ve been given strict instructions not to stop until they come to Phantom Lake. The little girl is with our medics as we speak, they seem optimistic on her recovery. They asserted that if Lady Hella had not taken her as swiftly as she did, the girl might’ve died from blood-loss. As for her Ladyship, we had to convince her not to ride back to her people and continue escorting them. Her stallion has about reached his limit. She then asked if she could borrow one of our horses.” The Captain chuckles, “It took some doing, but we talked her out of it. I managed to persuade her to meet with you, she’s waiting outside—if you’ll see her.”
There’s a moment of silence as we all try to process the tale Pearson has told. Father sinks stiffly into his chair, stroking his beard pensively. “Well. I can understand why she’s called Hella the Pursuing. Though I find it hard to believe, House of Hunters are the best warriors in Coldiay. They couldn’t be broken apart that easily…” Father mutters, half to himself.
He glances up, “Bring her in.”
“Aye, my lord.”
When the so-called Hella enters the room, I immediately know she is of noble blood. Pulling back the hood of a torn and filthy amethyst cloak, her face proves it. Still partially wet from the rain, wavy golden tresses fall just above her shoulders—in the classic huntress style. A mixture of mud and blood is smeared across her face and clothes. Though I’m on the other side of the room, her stench is overpowering. She’s close in age to me, perhaps a few years younger. Fixed into her expression is the look of someone mature beyond their years, and very proud—even while looking like an utter urchin. Luminous dark blue eyes pierce through the dirt and the gore. They remind me of an ocean, tempestuous and restless right now, but fully capable of being tranquil and mild given the right circumstance. Despite her disheveled appearance, it’s clear that with a proper bath this girl is beautiful. And incredibly intimidating.
She bows to my father in the way one Lord would to recognize a fellow Lord. He frowns at this but doesn’t say anything regarding it.
“Captain Pearson has related your story to us, Lady Hella. And what a story it is. Lord Varlion was a friend of mine, so you must understand why I am reluctant to believe in his passing. Before I can agree to offer you and your people refuge, I must verify that you are who you say you are. First off, which is your dominant hand?”
“May I see it then?”
Knowing what Father is getting at, she obediently rolls up her sleeve, revealing her upturned wrist and the emblem etched into her skin. Father leans forward and examines it closely. From where I am sitting, I can barely make it out. It seems to be a three-headed fox, crowned with laurels. Father reads aloud its inscription, “Hella the Pursuing.”
Every person of royal blood carries a marking similar to Hella’s. We get it on our twelfth birthday during a special ceremony (Corbin received his a few months ago). It’s the easiest way to tell if someone is of noble birth…though imposters have been known to create fakes in hopes of tricking those who don’t know better. It is because of this that Father starts questioning the girl.
“Why is the fox three-headed?”
The blonde sighs, “For multiple reasons. You could say it’s for the fox spirit Lord Birsham encountered at the inception of House of Hunters. It could also be in reference of our three greatest Lords—Birsham, Althzar and Oyen. Or because of our three tallest peaks, again called Mount Birsham, Mount Althzar and Mount Oyen.”
“Why the wreathes?”
“At a Hunter Lord’s coronation, we do not receive a crown of gold or silver like the other Houses. We are adorned with a wreath made of pine branches, for only the earth is everlasting and man’s creation fleeting. The laurels represent my nobility. My father and brother also had laureled foxes.”
“And the single arrow?”
“That is what makes my marking unique. No other royal of my House has had an arrow in the fox’s mouth. What it represents…is unclear. As my life continues, it’s significance will become more apparent.”
“What do you think it symbolizes?”
Her gaze hardens to a glare, “Lord Herndon, I hope you are quite finished quizzing me. I am Lady Hella House of Hunters, an honor thrown upon me because of grim events. If my insignia does not persuade you, perhaps my father’s final words will. He asked me to tell you that he’s sorry for being stubborn and not foreseeing how bloodthirsty House of Hornets has become. Remaining neutral was not enough to protect House of Hunters from Avispa’s plot. Your oldest ally is now in danger of being exterminated. Will you not let my people take refuge in your realm? Or are we bound for asylum elsewhere?”
The pure defiance glinting in her cold eyes wins me over. There’s no doubt she’s Lord Varlion’s daughter. Taking a quick look at Father, I can tell he is convinced too.
He comes towards her, clasping his big hands upon her shoulders. Looking deep into her eyes, he speaks solemnly, “Peace daughter. I would not dream of sending away a soul so similar to Varlion’s. Your people are welcome and safe here. Avispa has made his intentions clear, now is the time for those who honor the sanctity of High King Rune to join together and defeat that tyrant. In fact, later we’ll meet and discuss plans going forward. But for now, I suggest you retire to a nice bath, get some dinner, and rest.”
For the first time since she entered the room, the huntress’ shoulders relax significantly. “That’s a very gracious offer, Herndon and I intend to accept it—but not yet. With all do respect, I’d prefer to sit vigil until my villagers arrive and are settled. Only then will I feel right about resting.”
“Whatever you see fit, Lady Hella.”
As she turns to leave, Hella notices Corbin and I for the first time. In an almost sheepish way, she shoots us a faint smile before closing the door behind her. I remain transfixed on that door, completely fascinated by the girl who so remarkably breezed through it.
I laugh a little too, “Perhaps…It’s just…I’ve never encountered such an individual before.”
“I doubt you have—and you probably won’t for a while to come. You see lad, that’s what I’d call a warrior-princess, a shieldmaiden. Rare things in our land, common in House of Hunters. Although this one has a particular air of determination that amazes even me. Avispa has unknowingly made quite the enemy.”
I fold my arms across my chest, “Well, logically speaking, that determination is sure to run dry if she continues to neglect herself. Why didn’t you insist on her resting? She reeked of blood and grime, is clearly dehydrated, exhausted, not to mention likely to suffer an emotional break. I’d be amazed if she remained upright an hour into that vigil.”
“Aye, you speak truth, as always. But as you said, this is the first time you’ve met a warrior-princess. For better or worse, there’s no amount of insisting I could do that would change her mind.”
I frown, not buying what he’s saying, “You didn’t even try though!”
A merry glint comes into Father’s eyes, “If you’re so sure son, go out there and try. See what happens. I bet a full barrel of our best whiskey you won’t be able to move her.”
My eyes widen at such stakes. Father is infamously stingy about sharing his whiskey, he lessens his hold only for special occasions or holidays. Corbin pulls on me sleeve, “Rhys, Father never bets his whiskey. Maybe you shouldn’t.”
“Well, if I lose it won’t make much difference—can’t miss something you’ve barely had. And if I win…” I grin broadly at the thought.
We shake on it. However, Father’s boisterous laughter does not instill confidence.
I find her in the barbican’s towers, leaning out the window and staring intently at a now pitch-black canyon. Her hood is pulled over her head, arms wrapped tightly around herself, and she stands so still I wonder if she actually has fallen asleep.
It’s been scarcely a few seconds before her huntress sense notice my presence. She looks over her shoulder and squints, “Oh, it’s you. Rhys the Mindful, right? I know we’ve never met officially, but my brother has spoken of you.”
“Ah, yes. Lyrron was a good man—I enjoyed his company. He told me all about House of Hunters.”
Hella’s full lips curve upwards into a half-smile.
“He said you asked a lot of long, detailed questions.”
“I have been known to do that. Bit of an inquisitive mind, I’m afraid.”
“Well, inquisitiveness isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s desperately lacking in most people. Anyway, Lyrron likes you,” She stops short and repeats, tone significantly darker, “liked you.”
Pity for her circumstance fills me. I consider expressing sympathy, but something tells me she already knows…and partially resents me for it. I decide it’s best to change the subject.
“When was the last time you slept, Hella?”
“The last time I properly slept was before Avispa’s attack. Since then, sleeping’s been…difficult.”
She shrugs listlessly.
“And when was the last time you ate?”
Her brows furrow suspiciously. I hold up my palms in defense, “I’m not saying you should go have a full feast or anything! But maybe go down to the kitchen, grab some food and then come back up here?”
Hella drums her fingers along the hilt of her sword, “Where I come from, vigils involve fasting. It’s not supposed to be pleasant.” She points to the bleak wilderness beyond the castle grounds, “Do you think it’s pleasant for them right now? Children, young mothers, the elderly?”
Though her tone remains low and even, her eyes are blazes of blue fire. I’m not entirely sure how, but I’ve clearly taken a misstep.
“They’ve been walking that damn pass for days. Their homeland destroyed and in fractures. They’ve been hunted. They’ve been torn apart. And they’ve been following a naïve Lady who hasn’t even had a coronation. In this vigil, no matter how hard it is for me to stay awake, or not collapse from hunger, or maintain a sunny disposition, or a level head—at least I am sharing in their difficulty.”
The girl turns away from me and freezes over into a glacial silence. So this is a warrior-princess, I remark inwardly. I suppose smarter men would’ve backed off. Smarter men would’ve left her there to brood in her stony anger. Obviously, I’ve already lost the bet with Father. And, if that’s to be the case—well, I might as well ingratiate myself to this intriguing, formidable person. This person, whom I can tell, is all bluster. She’s strong, yes, and intimidating still—but mostly, she’s sad. Very sad.
I join her vigil. And I join her in silence.
Sometimes simply standing next to someone, is enough.
Together we watch as the rain lightens to a drizzle, and then dissipates completely. Together we wait till dawn, when the first of her refugees enter the castle gates.
They came singing.
House of Hunters’ aren’t exactly known for their musical talents, but it is well known that they often hum little tunes and ballads to themselves while hunting.
Hella’s people entered House of Shadows in song—a mixture of womanly soprano, childish falsetto, and gravelly aged bass. Shadow Knights escorted the melodic expats to the outer bailey, an open space normally used for trainings or ceremonies.
A shining smile flared across Hella’s expression. She let out a little “Eep!” of pure joy and sprinted down to them. I followed.
She’s but a few yards away from her people, when Hella suddenly comes to a halt. Pausing beside her, I decipher the words to the villagers’ song…and why it effected Hella so.
“Hair of gold,
Are her maiden crown.
Everlasting and ever pursuing—
Our Ladyship of Hunters.
Her swords are true,
Her eyes are blue—
Whatever would we do,
If not for her virtue?
Everlasting and ever pursuing—
Our Ladyship of Hunters.
Hella the beautiful,
Hella the just,
She saves her people,
Simply because she must.
Our greatest Lady,
Barely a week crowned—
Coldiay shall recognize her renown.
Everlasting and ever pursuing—
Our Ladyship of Hunters.”
Hella closes her eyes, fists clenched tight as though she’s keeping something within her. “Do you hear what they’re saying?” she whispers faintly.
“Yeah, I do. Are there a lot of Hunter hymns about their Lords and Ladies?”
She reopens her eyes and takes a deep breath, “No. This would be the first.”
When the villagers see Hella, cheers and applause erupt forth. The Lady shows little propriety as she eagerly embraces many of them. They kiss her cheeks and laugh and sing some more and start settling themselves on the green. Hella brings the mother of the girl who was attacked by the bear to the child’s bedside. A physician assures the mother that the girl will make a full recovery. The mother fawns on Hella, thanking her again and again. The huntress takes the woman’s hands and looks deep into her eyes, “Tis the duty of my crown. Thank me no more.”
Once she’s satisfied that her people are safe, happy, fed, and at rest—Hella turns to me with immeasurable fatigue upon her visage. “I’d like to see that bedroom your Father has set up for me now, if you don’t mind.”
Corbin meets us at the keep’s entryway. He scrunches up his face at Hella, “You look even worse than you did last night.”
“Corbin! Sorry, my brother’s only twelve…you know how little kids can be.”
“Who are you calling a little kid!?” Corbin wails indignantly.
“You, shithead.” I reply with a sneer.
“You’re only ten years older than me, Rhys!”
“Not doing much for your case there, Cory.”
“Don’t call me that! And don’t call me shithead!”
“Pfft, bit of a delayed reaction don’t ya think?”
Our immature fraternal argument goes on, eventually broken up by Hella’s giggling.
“And I thought my brother and I were bad. Look, Corbin’s right—I do look and smell terrible. All the more reason why we should hasten her Ladyship to the royal bath. Perhaps putting an end to this futile bickering?”
Corbin and I glance at each other, agreeing to postpone our dispute until Hella’s not in earshot. Halfway up the keep’s stairway, Hella leans heavily against the wall—one hand holding her forehead. Her face is ashen and her legs shaky.
“Are you okay?” I ask, lightly touching her shoulder.
“I’m fine. Just a little light-headed. Give me a second to…have the room stop spinning.”
“Rhys can carry you!” Corbin offers with a mischievous wink. I punch him in the stomach.
“That won’t be necessary,” she grumbles.
“At least let us help you up the stairs.”
“Yeah!” Corbin pipes up, still coughing from the solid hit I gave him, “We don’t mind.”
Though she fights it, she gives in. Slowly and surely, with Corbin and I on either side of her, we partially drag, partially lift, and partially bolster Hella up the stairs, down the hall, and into her room. Setting her down gently on the bed I call for a servant to take care of the rest. By the time the maid arrives—Hella’s already sprawled across the sheets and sound asleep. Corbin pokes her cheek, but Hella continues to sleep, unperturbed. The young maid looks to me for guidance.
“I guess let her sleep. But stay close, in case she wakes up. The minute she does, offer to draw a bath and get her fresh clothes. After that, do as she asks. Looks like her body decided she’s done for the day.”