Darian Coileáin didn’t mind killing. The sound of a well-made blade slicing through flesh and bone didn’t bother him. The blood he wore at the end of a battle washed away as easily as dirt gained from a day of plowing. When others vomited or sobbed over the atrocities they had seen or committed, Darian prepared for the next encounter. He never doubted it would come. King Nathan Maoilriain desired above all else to expand his already-great demesne, and Darian desired above all else to give his king what he wanted.
It was a more profitable endeavor than plowing. He knew this after watching his father and his father’s father break their backs tilling an unrewarding earth, but Darian had never plowed a field. He had never done anything other than train for his role in his majesty’s army. He went where his king sent him, fighting his king’s cause without question. The causes never mattered to him, but they mattered to his king, and that was why he went and served and killed. He knew eventually it would lead to reward.
The king didn’t care about Darian’s reasons any more than Darian cared about the king’s. Nathan kept him around because Darian had proved to be a talented soldier and a brilliant strategist who understood what was fundamentally important. Success mattered above all else. The king wanted it and Darian provided it.
Currently, the king wanted Quatara, a small country that lay west of Tanuba and continued on to the far reaches of the EndellionSea. Nathan wanted to control Quatara’s seaports and wanted Darian to control them for him.
Their campaign had been successful thus far. There was one remaining rebel cell holding out in the city of Parthalan, but it would fall. They all did. Darian had come too far to allow any other possibility to come to pass. He knew a victory here would lead to the grandest reward of all. A grateful king would name him Quatara’s seneschal, a title he much coveted.
And so it came to be how Darian was not in Tanuba when his daughters were born. Instead, he was in the middle of a war-torn land, following his king. The war was important enough to Nathan that he had come himself, to lead his own men, and Darian would stand beside him until the end.
When the letter bearing the Coileáin crest came, Darian stood in the king’s tent examining maps and making plans for the next morning’s attack. A page entered the tent and handed Darian the letter. He tore it open without seeing the wax seal on the envelope. He read it, expecting to see the enemy’s position as reported by his scouts but instead saw that he had become a father.
“Well, what is it?” Nathan asked.
“It is from Darragh,” Darian said. “He writes to tell me I am a father.”
The king laughed and clapped his hands together. “Well done!” he exclaimed. “A son, I hope.”
“No.” Darian could not take his eyes off the letter sent to him by his own steward. “Daughters. Twins.”
Darian could hear the disappointment in his king’s voice. Nathan already had two young sons of his own, and the possibility of daughters never had crossed his mind. Neither had it crossed Darian’s mind, but he found he did not care that instead of a fine healthy son he had two fine healthy daughters. He would still raise them to be his heirs.
“Well,” Nathan continued, “you will have your son next. He will still inherit your holdings.”
Darian nodded, knowing that was what the king would like. Nathan Maoilriain embraced tradition. A man’s holdings were always meant to pass to his eldest son. If Darian’s father had had anything to his name, Darian would have inherited it when the man died. In spite of the king’s own views, Darian did not care for that custom. Why should his newly born daughters not inherit all he held when the time came? His wife, after all, was the only reason he had anything worth speaking of.
The Lady Rhoswen, the daughter of one of the king’s most trusted nobles, had been presented to Darian as a gift for his years of dedication to Tanuba and her king. With their marriage, Darian gained wealth, lands including an estate just beyond the king’s city of Mairéad, and a place in society that, despite all his victories on the field of battle, he had always been denied. With her, he was more than a soldier; he was a lord—one who held the king’s ear on all matters. Indeed, it had been a most advantageous match.
What he had not anticipated to gain, though, and what he found he occasionally feared, was love for the woman. He had not expected it. He had not expected to care for her at all, but in the year they had been married, he had grown to love her. Darian had seen what love could do to a man were he not strong enough. He did not want to fall victim to that.
“You’ll have quite the homecoming when this is through, won’t you?” Nathan commented.
Darian knew better. He was surprised his king had made such a suggestion. When the battle for Quatara ended, Nathan would be the victor, and Darian wouldn’t leave the country unless a matter of the crown called him back to his king’s side. His time spent in his native Tanuba would become limited indeed.
But there would still be a homecoming of sorts. When Tanuba’s rule was established, his wife and daughters would join him in Quatara. Rhoswen would not like it. She would not want to raise her children in such a place but it would not matter. She may have considered him a lord, as did everyone, but regardless of title, Darian was still the king’s servant and would remain in Quatara as long as Nathan desired. When it was safer, Darian would have his family join him.
His wishes were carried out, and when his daughters, Mireille and Haleine, were six months old, they came along with their mother to Parthalan. Rhoswen’s reaction was much how he expected it would be. After being separated for the better part of a year, he was met with calculated displeasure. She was careful to keep herself in check and held her tongue for nearly three months as they adjusted to a new life in this still wild country. He appreciated the effort, for as soon as his daughters were first placed in his arms, he ceased to care what she thought. He was captivated by his daughters. It was as dangerous, he supposed, as loving his wife.
“I do not like it here, my lord,” Rhoswen said when she finally broke. “It is not my home.”
They were in the library, as it was their custom to retire there after the evening meal. Rhoswen would sew while he worked on the problem that was Quatara. After she spoke, Darian lifted his quill from the letter he composed to the king and glanced at his wife.
“It is now,” he said.
He returned to his work. The air was suddenly thick with their silence, but he didn’t look up again until he heard the doors open.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To look in on our daughters.”
“They are well,” he said, sensing her uneasiness. “We would have heard, otherwise. The nurses are with them, and there are guards outside the nursery.”
“Yes, my lord. It is for my own peace of mind that I go. However,” she said as if reminding herself of his position in the household, “if this displeases you, I will remain.”
He sighed and rose from his chair. “You do not displease me, my love. I will come with you and we will see that our daughters sleep peacefully.”
Darian nodded to the two guardsmen at the entrance to the nursery. They bowed and opened the doors for the couple. He and Rhoswen walked inside, and the doors closed behind them.
His heart almost stopped when he saw what was before them. The two nurses were dead, brutally slaughtered. Even after the horrors he had seen during his years on the battlefield, the sight of it turned his stomach. Rhoswen immediately fainted, Darian catching her just before she fell to the floor. He yelled for the guards as he turned his head toward his daughters’ cradles.
Two large cloaked figures stood there, each one bent over a cradle. The children were screaming.
Darian passed his wife to one of the guards and dove toward the kidnappers. He grabbed the man bent over Haleine’s cradle by his shoulders. The second guard joined Darian, attacking Mireille’s aggressor.
With a great effort, Darian pulled the man away from the cradle and his daughter. The man grunted and swung back with his arm, hitting Darian’s face with his elbow. Darian’s head snapped back from the blow, but he recovered quickly and prepared to face the man who threatened his daughter.
But the man wasn’t a man at all. Darian staggered back from the shock as he looked at his opponent. It wasn’t human. It was—Darian didn’t know what it was. It towered over him—a wolf of some nightmarish sort. Its face was dark, except for its yellow eyes, and was horribly misshapen. The creature opened its mouth and snarled, exposing rows of sharp and stained teeth. Saliva dripped down, and the stench of its breath was awful, reminding Darian of dying men on a battlefield. He felt bile rise into his throat and swallowed hard to force it back into his stomach.
What manner of creature was this?
Upon hearing his daughter’s cry, Darian looked past this wolfish monstrosity to the cradle where Haleine lay. Then he focused back on the creature, determined to rip the beast limb from limb. He sprang at the monster, his hands outstretched. The animal raised an arm and blocked Darian’s assault.
But as Darian hit the floor, he realized the animal in front of him had done much more than defend itself against the attack mounted against it. Darian saw the gleam of knife-like claws protruding from the creature’s paw and looked at his chest. The wound was grievous. Darian was surprised he had not yet felt the pain. He pressed his hand against it and looked up again.
The monsters were gone. The guard was dead, mutilated as the nurses had been. There was no noise coming from either cradle. Why was there no noise? With the commotion—why weren’t they still screaming? Darian struggled to his feet and stumbled over to see his daughters’ fate.
Haleine was safe and appeared to be unharmed. He nearly sobbed at the sight of her. He touched her head gently before turning to the second cradle. Mireille was not there. Darian cried out in agony as he fell to the floor.
“My lord?” Darragh called, coming into the nursery. “Oh my lord, you are injured!”
“They’ve ta—they’ve taken Mireille,” he gasped. “We must send men out imme-immediately and bring her back.”
But they did not bring her back. Against Darragh’s wishes, Darian himself led the search until his wound drove him to the ground. He cried out his daughter’s name in anguish before directing the others to continue on. They searched for days. They searched for weeks. They searched for months, but still they could not find her nor the creatures that had stolen her from her cradle.
On the day they would have celebrated the first year of her life, they buried her memory, since that was all they had of her.
Darian’s physical wounds healed, leaving purple scars across his chest.
And in Quatara he remained.