When Kallus woke up, he saw a pair of shiny blue eyes staring at him. For a moment he thought they were Lanara's eyes, but these were more gentle, carrying a hint of sorrow.
"Calda?" Kallus touched his aching head, wincing at the sting. In Calda's hand was a glass vial. Her graceful arm reached out as she offered it to him.
"For the pain," she said.
"You have a little potion for everything, don't you?"
"Not everything," she said, checking the wound on his head. "I would patch you up, but they took my bandages. Used them as kindling. Luckily they didn't realize that I store most of my medicines in this room."
"Hold on," Kallus paused. "There is more than one intruder here?"
"I believe they're a married couple come up from the southlands. They came to me saying they were sick. How stupid I was to let them in!" She burst into tears, sobbing into Kallus' shoulder.
"It's alright now," Kallus soothed her. He hoped his words would make Calda feel at rest, but she kept sobbing.
To their left was a locked door. Kallus suspected on the other side were the people who had knocked him out and placed him with Calda.
"How long have you been locked in here?" he asked.
"Two days, I think. But it seems longer."
"Two days," he frowned. "At least you've been resourceful."
"I've been rationing a few of my ingredients. With the supplies they haven't stolen."
The thought made Kallus smile. "These squatters may be violent, but I suspect they lack intelligence."
He shifted to sit up fully, eyeing the window. Calda had been right: the window was higher than their heads and smaller than the one closest to the front door. There was no way an adult elf could slip through without getting severely hurt. Still, Kallus felt the need to at least try.
Close to him was a healing table which he used to gain some height. After unlatching the window, he hoisted himself up and squeezed in feet-first. The problem, however, was that his upper torso was too big to fit through. Try as he did, it was too painful to force the rest of his body out.
By the time his feet hit the floor again, he was tired and panting. "I miss the days when I was young," he said, hunching over. After recovering himself, he sank into a sit against the door. To his side, Calda was looking weary, too. Her face reeked of starvation, her bones were chilled beneath the skin.
Kallus didn't mind that she sat close to him for warmth. In a desperate situation, he likely would do the same.
"Since Nihilan is not here, I assume he got away," he said, brushing the wound on the back of his head. "Let us hope he is resourceful like you."
Calda smiled at his comment. "If anything, he is like you, Kallus. Swift and sturdy."
"He looks like his mother."
"Yes, but he has your eyes," she said. "And your flat forehead."
Kallus chuckled, feeling his pain numbing. "If only I had brought my sword."
Naelen was running through the snow, grateful that his body heat combated the cold. A light shower of snowflakes began to cast upon the forest. In the distance, he made out two figures coming toward him.
At first, his instinct was to duck out of sight, but he heard Damien's familiar voice echoing against the trees.
"Lila, please," Damien begged for the hundredth time, "you're being over-cautious. No one could be stupid enough to linger out here."
"Look at the ground," Lila pointed. "I know my father's footprints quite well. And the smaller tracks tell me Naelen is still with him. They must have headed to Calda's house."
"And this is exactly why I should leave all the tracking to you. You've got this, Lil. I'm going to head back now."
"Please don't leave me," she said. "I could use another set of eyes."
"Hey!" Naelen called to them, waving his arms. "Over here!"
Squinting, Lila made the outline of Naelen approaching and waved back. She immediately rushed to her brother, crashing into his body with a tight hug.
"Naelen," she panted with relief, "is Dad with you?"
Naelen gestured behind him. "There's a creepy man back there, I--I think he's got Dad. And Calda."
Damien's face turned grim at the sound of it. He squared himself to Naelen, wrapping his fingers around his sword handle. "Where?"
"Inside the house, perhaps?" Naelen answered. "I ran before I could get a look."
"Then let's move," Lila said. On her cue, the two boys fell in line.
On their way there, they caught sight of Brennan trudging through the snow. When Naelen saw him, he flinched and ducked behind Lila.
"That's him," he reported. "That's the creepy man."
As it turned out, the creepy man was an elf. But he was not a resident of the village. He was dried-up and sickly, with yellowing teeth.
Lila steeled herself to face him. "Tell me where my father is!"
Brennan scanned the girl, noticing the family resemblance between her and the blond boy. This made him grin.
"Your father will live if you come quietly," he said. Then he pulled out a small dagger, fashioned from bone. "No funny business." He faced Lila but kept his eye on Damien, the one holding a small sword. "Put it down, boy." Brennan's hand quivered. "Don't make me stick you."
Damien's gaze sank into a hard scowl. "Don't call me boy," he said. In that moment, Damien realized two things. One: he hated strangers making threats to his family. Two: he had absolutely no qualms against hurting those who would harm him. His hand yanked the small sword from its sheath, pointing its tip forward.
Brennan moved first, targeting Lila who stood closest to him. Damien reacted, going in swiftly to shield her. Brennan's dagger came down with a staggering force. Damien held up his blade to block. For a few seconds, he struggled to hold against Brennan, his weak arm trembling.
Lila and Naelen shared a glance before flanking Brennan on both sides. Lila delivered a punch to his jaw before Naelen tore at him, wrenching him backward.
"You little devils!" Brennan spat. As he went in to slash at Naelen's torso, Damien came up and pierced his foe in the back. Brennan cried out at the stinging jab, his hands getting covered with blood. He pivoted himself toward Damien, swinging his dagger in a chorus of slices.
Damien felt a gash ripping his cheek open, causing him to stumble into the snow. Lila screamed, filling the chilled air with her blood-curdling cry. The sound caused Brennan to cover his ears. Then Naelen came up behind him, holding him in a lock.
As Brennan struggled to break free, Damien rolled to his feet and stabbed Brennan in the chest.
When Brennan collapsed forward, he stopped moving. Stopped breathing. The white beneath his corpse turned red.
Damien could feel his heart pounding in his ears as he dropped his sword near the body. His breathing must have been too alarming as Lila came up, gripping the sides of his face. Damien rasped against her shoulder as she held him.
"It's alright," she whispered. "You're alright." After letting go, she reached down to pick up his sword. "You might want to keep this close," she said.
Damien took a step backward. "I don't want it."
"Damien." Her eyes went soft. "I want you to keep it. You have natural talent. That's not easy to come by."
"I'm scared that if I keep it, I'll become a monster."
"He was the monster," Lila gestured to Brennan's corpse. "You-- you protected me, Damien. There is no fear in that."
Her words swayed him to think differently. She was right. Sword in hand or not, Damien would have fought to protect his family.
After sheathing his sword, Naelen went up to him. He could hardly believe that Damien had made his first kill. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Damien said. "Let's go find Kallus before we freeze out here."