Shield Maiden: The Cost of Love
DescriptionBeen reading the witcher so i'm writing this for fun.
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The night was young, and the moon shone with exquisite clarity. A chill wind whisked through the air, threatening to extinguish the many torches lighting the serpentine path leading towards the castle. The world was eerily quiet when the two cloaked visitors approached the castle gates on horseback. A group of women appeared before them like ghosts, draped in long white veils with elaborate tapestry and expensive jewelry gleaming in the light. They ushered their guests into a large tent erected right beside the entrance. Inside there were even more ghosts, and underneath their veils, pairs of worrisome eyes. A smartly dressed woman with ebony skin, dark freckles, hazel eyes, and bright brown, curly hair took her seat at the priestess's table. Her companion was a rare sight; a relic from a time long ago, when the world was an even more brutish and confusing place; according to the Sisters of Fate. It stood over six and a half feet tall, stoically silent with strong, broad shoulders covered in a scarlet hooded cloak. The women moved clear to the other side of the room. Instinctively they knew what it was, though they had never seen one before. The younger maidens were afraid to say it, but old women don't scare as easily, and so the eldest spoke first. “I didn’t believe it when they told me,” said the head priestess, her eyes as wide as a frightened cat’s. "But it's true, isn’t it? That thing, seated at our table – it’s a man." "He is a man," Mel answered, emphasizing the word ‘he’. A round of whispers hissed through the room. "He’s also my companion, and I can assure you, he will cause no harm to anyone here. I make no promises about myself, however.” Mel smiled jokingly but her joke was lost on the crowd. Several of the older maidens withdrew into themselves, making sacred gestures across their chest and saying silent prayers. The younger women mostly feigned shock, struggling to suppress their youthful curiosity. "Lady Melita, the letter I sent petitioning for your aid with our monster was sent in good faith. However, during our correspondence, you made no mention that you intended on bringing one yourself. Had you made your intentions clear, I would have saved you the trip, but I’m afraid I must now turn you away, for I cannot allow this. Goddess be kind, what if someone saw him? Hm? Vedrine was made to be a safe space. No man has entered our gates since the dark ages--” “And your record remains untarnished,” Mel interrupted. “You will note, Madam Priestess, that in my letter I requested we meet in a tent outside the gates at the hour of the wolf; it was for this very reason I did so. While I do not agree with your sacred customs, I ultimately respect tradition and honor it whenever possible. I see no reason for us to break our agreement, but if you truly wish to end our contract, I will gladly collect your cancellation fee and be on my way.” The priestess took a moment to gather herself, glancing around at her followers. One of them approached and whispered into her ear. The old woman grimaced, and Mel smirked ever so slightly. “Even still,” said the Priestess, “to think we were acquiescing to facilitate this – man. I can think of no greater insult.” In all this time the man raised not a word in his defense. Instead, he remained still; unnervingly so. To the women, he was a gargoyle, whose stone could turn flesh and lash out at any moment. After all, they all heard the stories of men; their crimes against women and nature, as recorded in the Annals of Wayward Paths; their insatiable lust and greed and violence knew no equal. Yet this one gave no reason for them to feel threatened, besides his very presence. Mel's hazel eyes passed over the room, noting the diamond-studded chokers which adorned the necks of all the Goddess's maidens, the jewel encrusted silverware neatly arranged on the table, and the silver candelabrum burning as a centerpiece. It was a showy display of wealth – pompous and tasteless in Mel’s eyes. Her lips slowly contorted to that of disgust, but the aching groan of her stomach tempered her spirit. Be it any other time, Mel would have cursed the priestess until her ears fell off, but alas, they had gone nearly a week without a proper meal and this bounty was more than they'd seen all year. "It would please you to know that I have concluded my investigation," Mel said, attempting to steer the conversation towards a more productive direction. "You’ve what?" said the Priestess, finally taking her eyes off the man. “Already? It’s only been two days. I half expected this to take at least a fortnight. But perhaps this is for the best; the sooner you two are off our lands, the better.” "Agreed, however, I’m afraid your assessment of the situation was not entirely accurate.” “Not entirely accurate? How so?” “You stated that your lands were accursed by a banshee." “I did. What of it?” “It’s not a banshee.” "Of course, it is!” The Priestess scoffed. “We’ve heard its shrieking every night for the past month, starting shortly before my sister, the former grand priestess, died in painless slumber. I may not be a detective, but I know banshee's herald the death of prominent women, and there were none more prominent here than she. So, tell me, what else could it be?" Mel gestured to a young maid who promptly approached, and with shaky hands, added well water to a glass. "Calm yourself,” she whispered, “he's more afraid of you than you are of him." The girl smiled softly, bowed slightly, and backed away; carefully. "When we spoke two days past, Madam Priestess," Mel said, "you made mentioned of a scandal that ripped through the city shortly before the haunting. You remember; a maiden who fled the city on the night of her wedding?" The women murmured amongst themselves, giving judging glances to their matriarch. The old woman turned embarrassingly red in an instant. "I know not where you hail from, but here in the blessed city of Vedrine we do not speak such things in the light; besides I told you that in confidence. Gossip is one of the seven cardinal sins, and I assure you, when I mentioned this to you it was only because I thought it might prove relevant to the case." Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, Mel recalled asking the priestess at several points during their conversation to stay on topic. She had the unpleasant habit of veering off the to several anecdotes only privy to her, as she was now in highest standing with the church (a fact she mentioned frequently). It almost seemed the woman took glee in her sister’s death so that she might assume this honor. Mel even began to suspect foul play, but alas, that was not the case she was hired for. "And indeed, it was," Mel replied. “I quickly realized this when I happened across another clue.” "See? You see, Sisters?" the priestess stuttered. "In my wisdom, I thought so. That is the only reason I would ever mention such a thing to an outsider. I remain in the light." "Do you happen to remember what she wore when last seen?" The old woman snorted. "Why not ask her beloved, Evalyn? You've already shamed her as it is, and she sits here before you now." Mel's eyes scanned the room as the old woman smiled nastily, giving no clue as to which among them was Evalyn; Mel found her anyway. Perhaps it was her heightened power of reasoning, her prows in deduction, or simply the unmistakable look of young broken heart, but Mel knew. "Forgive me, my lady. My condolences." "I'm no lady, ma'am," she replied with a humble bow, "but I am the one they call Evalyn. As per our custom, I was not allowed to see my wif- I mean, Sarah. But my mother, who helped craft her dress, told me it was the most beautiful gown she'd ever sewn. It was pure black silk with diamonds cascaded down the tail to mimic the starry heavens beneath which we were set to take our vows." "Goddess curse her wretchedness," spat the priestess. "Sarah had always been an unruly child, and we all knew she had cold feet, but no one deserves to be treated so cruelly." "I am very sorry," said Mel with a respectful bow. "But I fear her stunning dress was the root of your curse." "Nonsense,” said the Priestess, “We here are blessed by the Goddess with abundance. We are rich with gems and stones more precious than anything you will even find in the Golden City. Opulence is commonplace here. We are, and will forever be, a shining monument in this dark world, full of monsters and witches and" she said, scowling at Mel's companion, "the occasional man." Mel shot up out of her seat in a way that shocked everyone. "Be that as it may," she said in a well contained fury, "a Grootslang has found its way to your lands." There was a pause and a few women traded puzzled glances. "What’s this? You mean to say you've never heard of a Grootslang? You, who sit in the shining city, blessed with material love? It is hard to believe the tales have never made way to you." The old woman stood with a frightening scowl. "I'm not entirely sure I appreciate your tone. We brought you hear for one reason and one reason only; to exercise a monster. So far all you've done is shame us, insult our hospitality and desecrate our customs with this ancient brute you call a companion." The old woman picked up a letter and held it out angrily. "Are you not the person who responded to my bounty; the renowned Detective of the Queen's court; the famed beauty of Amazonia – Daughters of Men; purveyor of rational insight to monsters and ghouls and all that go bump in the night? Are you not Lady Melita?" Mel responded calmly. "It’s quite a mouthful; simply Mel will do." "Is this not your seal gracing the letter; a fox and the canary seated on a mistletoe?" "It is." "Then I suggest you do the job you've been called hear to do. Send your report, collect your fee, and leave so that the queen might send a shield maiden to rid us of this beast. But for all that is holy, stop creating fables in the hopes of scaring us simple, goddess-loving folk into shelling out more coin." Silence fell upon the tent; the only sounds were the crackle of the hearth and crickets mating. Mel slowly finished the cup of water as the old woman scowled at her. "I understand your anger," Mel said, "Truth be told, I wish to be in your presence no longer than required, but I can send no such report. I’m afraid the Grootslang is very real, and it has nested on your lands. The beast is a giant serpent, attracted by opulence and wealth, gemstones and shiny things. Your fair city makes for perfect hunting-grounds.” "Ridiculous; utter ridiculousness," said the priestess, pacing around. "Have you any proof of this? If not, then I shall have to write the queen myself; and I will inform her of your subpar performance." Mel reached into her satchel and tossed a large grey scale onto the table. At least it was grey before soon matching the chestnut stain on the table. The women’s faces went pale and then immediately fell into an uproar. Four collapsed to their knees, another fainted, and the maid said a foul word unbecoming of woman. Every one of them wished to tear their chokers off and toss it into the hearth, but tradition forbade them ever removing it. "Calm yourselves! Calm yourselves, ladies!" shouted the old nan. "The Goddess will protect us." "If that were true, you'd have not called for me," Mel responded. "Now, if you hadn't noticed, the Queen is busy with a four-way war between her brethren. I doubt a single shield maiden could handle your problem and she cannot spare a unit for what she will no doubt consider an overgrown snake." The old woman threw her hands over her head. "As it so happens," Mel added, a wry smirk growing on her face, "I’ve a companion or mine who is more than suited for this job." The old woman stood speechless for the first time that night. Her eyes turned to the man, ever still, ever quiet; the only constant in the room. "Of course, he will require his own fee. Paid in full up front."