Time for a new monthly flash fiction piece, this one for the month of April. I’ve returned to using the month as a given name of my protagonist. April is a resident of Mistwood Marsh, a small fantasy village with a dangerous predator problem. How does one defeat a predator? Find a more dangerous one, of course.
April of Mistwood Marsh
April stared at the castle spires shooting into the sky and drew in a steadying breath. The villagers had begged her not to come, warned her the creature which lived within these walls had no mercy or tolerance for human concerns. She didn’t care. Stefan Dragomir was the only one who could protect them from the hungry ones—ravenous beasts which stalked the forest and preyed upon the weak and the young and the infirm.
She took a determined step through the open gates leading into the courtyard and rehearsed her speech. The village was willing to barter for Dragomir’s services. They spun the finest wool thread, wove exquisite fabrics which shimmered as if backlit, but they were still a small, rustic village. Looking over at the sprawling garden to the east, its statues casting menacing shadows in the distance, a cold knot formed in her stomach. Could their artisans offer anything of value to the man who owned such riches? Only one way to find out.
The front door was intricately carved in a flowing pattern of thorny vines and delicate flowers, the knocker cast in the shape of a snarling wolf. Swallowing hard, she gripped the ring and brought it down onto the heavy metal plate. Once. Twice. Each sound echoing within the castle like boulders dropped into a deep ravine.
April checked the sun’s location. If someone didn’t answer the door soon, she’d have to return to the village and try again on the morrow. She knew all too well the dangers of being caught in the forests after nightfall. Time crept by at a crawl and still no one answered the door. One more try, she thought. Lifting her hand to the ring, she gave it two more knocks, Again the sound echoed in the cavernous building. Shoulders drooping in defeat, she turned away from the door.
“Leaving so soon?” asked a husky male voice.
She froze. She hadn’t heard the latch open, hadn’t heard the slightest creak from the hinges. Turning in a slow circle, she summoned her rehearsed speech in hopes the butler would permit her entry. When she got her first look at the man in the doorway, the words died on her lips. This was no butler. It was Stefan Dragomir.
Firelight from within the foyer cast interesting shadows on the walls in the shape of batlike wings and brought out streaks of silver in his ebony hair. Tall and with a slender build, he dressed in clothing finer than any her village could produce. He bowed low, the movement fluid and elegant.
“Greetings and welcome to Castle Dragomir.” Deep and soothing but with a roughness which frightened and seduced in equal measure, his voice echoed in the narrow foyer. Surrounding her. Embracing her. Trapping her.
“Thank you. I’m April of Mistwood Marsh, and I’ve come with a request and an offer.”
“How very interesting. Shall we discuss this inside?”
Stefan Dragomir stepped aside and motioned for her to enter. Heart pounding at this small victory, she stepped over the threshold. Stunning art lined the walls, and the floor was dappled stone polished to an exquisite shine. The door closed with an ominous lack of sound, and beside her Stefan walked as silently.
“Your trip here was uneventful?” His voice rumbled like a great cat’s purr.
“Yes. I made sure to leave the village before the worst of the creatures began to stir.”
“Creatures?” He reached around her to pull open the door. “What manner of beast lurks in the marsh?”
April paused in the doorway of a large room lined with bookshelves and lit by a crackling fire. An impressive desk dominated one corner behind which sat a large, padded chair at an angle as if pushed back in haste. Two smaller chairs faced the desk with a settee along one wall. Crimson drapes covered that wall, the heavy material trimmed with beaded embroidery.
“Beautiful.” She kept her voice to a whisper, the room demanding reverence and awe.
“I’m glad it meets with your approval.” He pulled a narrow stick from a bowl of sand by the fireplace, lit it, and carried it around the room to light the sconces. “I spend much of my time here, reading, tending to business, or just enjoying the fire.”
“I can see why.” She stepped toward the hearth and held out her hands to warm them. “It’s soothing.”
“Yes.” He took her cloak and hung it on a peg by the door. “You may explore this room as you like, but please don’t leave it without an escort. Parts of the castle aren’t fond of strangers. While you explore, I’ll see what’s available in the kitchen. Then, we’ll talk.”
“You don’t have to do that.” The castle isn’t fond of strangers? Is the place sentient? She looked around the room again, the shadows cast by the sconces no longer as warm and inviting as before.
“You are my guest.” He walked to the door and bowed again. “I shan’t be but a moment.”
April resolved to remain by the fire but curiosity, ever her worst flaw, urged her to explore. She ran her fingers over his desk. The smooth wood was polished to a mirror-like shine, the papers strewn atop it appropriate for a man of his position. Long bookshelves stretched into the darkness, the scent of old paper and leather a delicate perfume. The drapes were plush velvet, the beadwork exquisite. She sank onto the settee, admired its intricate embroidery, and considered her situation.
The longer her host postponed their discussion, the greater the chance she’d have to impose on his hospitality for the night. While remaining in this polite stranger’s home held many potential dangers, the forest at night held definite ones. For better or worse, she was stuck until dawn. Stefan Dragomir entered then, a tray in hand and the light softening the harsh angles of his face, and April wasn’t upset about spending more time with her enigmatic host at all.
“You won’t be joining me?” There was only a single cup and plate on the tray.
“This is for you.” He placed the tray on his desk and lowered himself into the chair behind it. “I’ve also informed the staff to arrange a room for you.”
“Not in the cranky parts of the castle, I hope.”
He laughed. “No. Your room is in the same wing as mine. Nothing there has stirred in more than three centuries.”
“That’s good to know.” She took a sip of tea and hummed in appreciation. “This is delicious. What kind is it?”
As Stefan answered, April acknowledged she delayed discussing the purpose for her visit for two reasons. The first was nerves. She wasn’t ready to plead her case and possibly fail to secure his aid. Stefan Dragomir was her village’s last hope for survival. Already two families had abandoned their homes for the security of the closest walled city. Three others considered doing the same.
The other reason was as foolish as it was personal. She loved his voice. The growling undertones she’d heard in his greeting still unnerved her and sent shivers of fear down her spine. More purr than growl, it reminded her of a large jungle cat or other predatory beast. Terrifying… and sexy as hell.
She blinked and realized he’d stopped talking. “What? Oh. Sorry.” Ducking her head, she hid the color heating her face. Just what she needed, to get caught mooning over Stefan Dragomir.
“No apology necessary, I assure you.” Amusement colored his voice along with a new warmth which sent more color to her face. “Tell me, if you will, what brings you to my door?”
Setting her empty cup on the tray, April explained about the hungry ones stalking Mistwood Marsh, how they’d grown bolder over the years until they’d started to leave the forest and break into homes. “We lost the farrier and her entire family six months ago, the Blanchet farm a month later, and the Finley’s three weeks after that.” She swallowed hard. “Parker’s widow. The blacksmith, Mitchell. The Nichols twins. And so many more.”
“You want me to remove these hungry ones from your forest?”
“Yes. We can offer compensation for your troubles,” she hurried to say. “Our artisans spin the softest wool, weave fine cloth and tapestries. Our brewers make excellent blackberry mead. We don’t expect charity.”
Stefan leaned back in his chair and watched her with eyes as pale and fathomless as moonlight. She resisted the need to fill the silence with inane chatter or worse, begging. He would help or he wouldn’t. Even knowing this, she had to bite her tongue to stop her words.
“I will help,” he said after an eon of silence. April sagged in relief. “But,” his eyes locked on her, “I do not wish payment from the village.”
“—expect charity, I know.” His smile changed his expression from severe to breathtaking. He remained a predator, and while she couldn’t identify his type, she couldn’t deny his attractiveness. “My fee, April of Mistwood Marsh, will be your company for a period of thirty days.”
Face burning with eager embarrassment, she blurted out, “I agree.”
Stefan laughed softly baring the hint of pointed fangs. “So enthusiastic. I want to stress that you should not feel pressured to offer more than friendship. If anything grows from this month of companionship, I would not tarnish it with the taint of a transaction.”
The warmth spread from her face to the tips of her ears. He was right, of course he was right, but she added her own coda to the agreement. One which he could not know.
Before the month was out, she planned to steal at least a kiss from the intriguing and alluring Stefan Dragomir.
copyright 2023, Elaina Roberts
Photo taken by theschulers09 and used under the limited creative commons license found here. Alterations made to the photo include cropping, converting to black and white, decreasing brightness, and adding text.