It had been a beautiful spring in Belacqua, that many years before, when he first laid his eyes upon her. The crimson sap had evaporated in harmless red smoke and now everything that remained was the occasional pond of black tar from the Eerie scratching and moaning against the town’s defenses.
Going back to it, memories were still as fresh as ever: the creak of the melting snow under his boots, the mouth of his flamethrower aimed at the closest nest, where off-white bones still wriggled, a remainder of the Tide even as it was already withdrawing north onto the very heart of the Old Country.
He pulled on the switch and a torrent of flames roasted the tiny Eerie before it could grow into a problem. He had left behind a long trail of many such burned patches. It would take them a few days to cover them all, but better safe than sorry. Nothing ruined a summer party like a sudden eruption of hungry Eerie from underground – they had to leave nothing there to fester.
Then the leaves, from the sprouting bushes to the pine branches, waved back and forth as a strange wind reached the ground. Turning his eye to his left he saw what looked like a huge grey bird with a wide and flat beak and folding wings, slowly approaching the ground. One final burst of air and it touched the snow.
What was that? It surely did not belong to the town. Must be visitors from some rich and powerful city from the south.
As a door on the flyer’s side hissed open, three women stepped outside. One was old and wizened, holding steady to a staff as she stumbled forward, her naked feet leaving ghost footsteps on the thin snow. Behind came a blonde girl, tall and imposing, her body language stiff and imperious. She wore a golden blindfold over her eyes and her white robe was lined in two tones of silver and black. She also was barefoot, but unlike the older one, she did not make any sound.
And the third…
“Vernaaa! Wait for me!” Third came a shorter girl, with black hair and her eyes…
Their eyes met.
And that was the moment when he had first seen her beautiful emerald eyes. If she had already earned her blindfold, they could have never shared that look.
And things would have taken a much, much different turn.
The blonde, Verna, turned and let out a sigh.
“You should take better care of your clothes.” She smoothed her robe and pulled it back a little to highlight its simple white lining. It was a Vestal uniform, he had seen their Augur wear one, but on the girl… it was making a completely different effect.
The flamethrower in his hands felt heavy and clammy.
“There you go, now you look a little bit better, don’t you? Have to make a good impression, this is your big day.” The blonde Vestal (no, with her blindfold she was already an Augur, wasn’t she?) and the old one departed towards the town.
“Good morning,” the elderly priestess saluted him. She wore a simple ceramic mask that covered most of her upper face and yet she looked like she was seeing where to put her feet perfectly well. “What a fine spring, hm? How did the winter go?”
“Oh,” he replied, his eyes still fixed on the young brunette. “Thanks for gracing our community today, o wise mother!” He bowed and the old woman snickered.
“Good manners. Now that’s rare, my dears.”
“Winter was fine,” he replied standing up again. “I was just fixing the remaining Eerie nests.”
“What a thorough cleaner,” the Verna Augur interjected, standing between the old woman and him with a spindly grace that made him think of a black and gold spider. Her face opened in a sickle-like grin. “I am sure we will learn to enjoy your company soon enough.”
“Uh… sure? Ma’am?” What a strange girl. She did not seem completely up there, but then again most Augurs did get kind of… weird in time. Maybe she was a quick learner.
And at last, the brunette reached for them, still passing her hands over her body to check for her clothes. She looked dashing in her Vestal robes, but her smile was like looking straight into the sun. He gulped and his heart started to beat faster than it did two weeks before during his last Eerie kill.
“Good morning,” she said, twirling a black lock around her finger. “I’m to be the new Augur here. This is my first day as Seer Karole’s apprentice, so I can turn over from her in a few months… I hope I will be a good Augur for Belacqua.”
“Dear,” Verna said patting her shoulder, “you will be unforgettable.”
“Maybe that’s a bit too much,” she smiled. “Well… I will see you around? I suppose. I don’t have… you know! I just mean I might see you here or there. If you are from around here. I’m sorry, I’m just so excited about my first day and I trip all over my words.” She cupped her rosy cheeks. “I’m making a mess. Deep breaths.”
“She’s a bit in over her head,” Verna assured him, her smile turning less sharp and far friendlier. “I’ll make sure she comes back to her senses before the ceremony.”
“Oh Spirits, the ceremony! I’ll have to put the entire speech to memory, you will help me Verna won’t you? Won’t you?”
“I’ll see what I can do… there’s parts of the forest around here I need to explore.”
The blonde pulled her friend away. She managed to send him one last smile, still as red as the Tide’s sap had been.
“My name is Lenora! I hope I will see you at the Temple!”
“Sure!” He quickly replied. He needed that for… water. To get his water. Holy water. For winter and… other reasons.
He watched the two of them go, the blonde girl seemingly once again out of touch, lost in her own thoughts.
“Now now,” the older woman (was she still there? He had completely forgot about her) knocked him on the forehead with her staff. “Let’s not get any strange ideas, hhhhm? Do you know where the name Vestal comes from, boy?”
“I… I don’t, wise mother,” he replied kneading his head. That staff was hard and the woman deceptively strong.
“It’s from before the Fae war. Way before that, in fact. Goes all the way back to ancient Rome.”
“Like the city?”
“Is you head full of sap, boy? The empire! Alas, the Fae have taken so much away from us, but basic education… I hoped it was yet a thing, even out there in the dead of the woods.” Her wrinkly mouth turned into a frown. “What concerns you, boy, is that they were the virgin priestesses sacred to the temple of Vesta.”
He… knew about that. The virgin part.
Of course, meeting Seer Karole as an (admittedly springy) eighty-years old did not lead to that kind of thoughts. But the brunette in white… Lenora… well that was a completely different matter, wasn’t it?
“It’s not a different matter at all!” The wise mother knocked him on the head once again, harder this time. “I swear, I have to keep them off boys and girls in the dormitory all day, and I know it’s not any better here. Do me a favor boy, and keep your hands where they can actually be useful… and maybe you won’t get them chopped off.”
“Y-Yes, wise mother.”
“Ha! I spoke, and I do not believe you have learned. Time will tell. Remember my warning, boy!”
And with that she was off after the other two.
He rubbed the sore spot on his head.
Of course, he knew Vestals were supposed to stay celibate. It had never been a problem. Just a fact of life.
Author’s Notes: and the Hunter is sent to horny jail! I like this flashback chapter. I wanted to make it shorter but I really enjoy the dynamic between Verna, Lenora and the Hunter. Also I want to explore the past a little more. It’s part of the reason why I’m writing this blind… these sort of surprises are the best. Speaking of which… 50 days! We have managed to reach that amazing milestone! Here’s looking forward to the next 50 days to complete the challenge… and maybe what lies beyond that. Thank you all for reading, liking and sharing if at all possible. I would also love to hear your thoughts. At any rate, see you tomorrow.