March 17, 2024

The Little Girls of Bayford

Previously: The Thing You Hate

The gate guards instantly recognized the Lirian heraldry, and let the royal entourage through without incident. The prince's gilded carriage was preceded and followed by over two dozen knights on horseback, accompanied by several heralds.

Even though it was night and the streets were mostly empty, their grand entrance was noticed right away. Windows opened and candles were lit as the procession made way towards the temple.

Elodie Bayford was awake. She was always awake these days; sleep didn't come easily to her anymore. She and the temple maidens watched in surprised awe as several knights in full armor brought in a man on a makeshift stretcher. He was tall, dark-skinned, covered in sweat and haphazard bandages.

"And who might this be?" she raised an eyebrow.

"His Highness, Prince Cyprian of Liria," the patient's young companion announced. He was a regal fellow, if not so tall as the knights. Elodie figured he was probably a squire.

"A royal patient," she mused. "It's been a while since we had one of those. Avice," she said to a young woman, "boil some water and tell Edith to bring fresh cloth. Those wounds will need cleaning before we can begin." She turned back to the prince's companion. "And you are, Sir...?"

"Walling," he replied. "Lord Gabriel Walling. The prince is my cousin."

Elodie's eyebrows went up. She gave the young man a onceover, noting his embroidered tunic and flowing velvet cloak. He was clean-cut, well-groomed, and of proper bearing. And his skin was as dark and rich as his cousin's.

"I see," she murmured. "Well, my lord, I am Elodie Bayford, Viscountess of Bayford. If you have a page or steward among you, I suggest you send them to arrange lodgings at the inn just down the street. You'll be in town for quite some time."

The young man's eyes were panicked, even as his voice remained steady. "You can heal him, can you not?"

"We can," Elodie assured him, "but even after he is healed, it'll be days before he's back to normal. You should send word to Liria. His father will want to know."

"I have sent messengers," Gabriel nodded slowly, eyes clouded with worry. They cleared suddenly as he met her gaze, eyes widening in recognition. "You say you are...Elodie?"

Elodie's body stiffened, even as she kept her practiced smile in place. She hated this part.

"I am," she nodded, keeping her voice light.

"But then...," he blinked, as though wrestling with a perturbing though, "that would make you the last princess of Aurea."

Elodie's blood ran cold. This is a new one. "Please don't call me that," she said tightly. "My formal title is Lady Elodie, Viscountess of Bayford. You may call me Elodie."

"Yes, yes," he nodded hastily, "but your legal status is Princess of Aurea."

Her patience was wearing thin. "There is no more Aurea, so what does it matter?"

"Because that's where we just came from," Gabriel replied. "We are at war."



Both Lady Bayford and Mother Dorgan gawked at Elodie, shocked into immobility. A serving girl came round to take her cloak, but Elodie shooed her away. Alinor dismissed the girl from the room.

"I can't stay," Elodie said lowly. "The Prince of Liria lies wounded and feverish at the temple; the journey did him no favors. His cousin says their king tried to annex Aurea shortly after we left. But by the time he arrived, the Ilesti were already there."

Mother Dorgan was now beyond shocked. "The Ilesti have returned to Aurea?" In an unprecedented event, she actually pushed her plate away. "Fuck the gods."

"Who are the Ilesti?" Alinor asked.

"A Southern tribe who tried to conquer Aurea first, to take it from the dragons many centuries ago," Bess told them grimly. "It was they who began the practice of killing dragons, unborn and newly born. They never fully succeeded, of course, and they lost many people, but their efforts ultimately paved the way for Isabelle's ancestors."

"Why does anyone even want that accursed land?" Elodie demanded. "Why can't they just leave it be?"

"Because it is fertile as it is rich in gold," Bess scowled.

"And because royals never seemed to learn," Alinor spat. "How long before we can get the Lirians out of Bayford?"

"A few days, but Lord Walling called me the last princess of Aurea," Elodie said, looking slightly nauseated. "I fear I might be dragged into this madness."

"Nonsense!" Alinor snapped. Her voice lowered to a desperate rasp. "Winter is coming to Bayford; the ten stars of the constellation are already visible in the night sky. We all know what that means. So whatever business these Lirians think they might have with you will have to wait until after the thaw. Elodie, heal that man, say as little as possible, and then send them back to their stupid little war."


Morning came, and with it, the changing of the guard.

Gabriel watched from his bedroom window at the inn as ten guards departed to the inn to relieve the ones who watched the prince as he slept. Wrapped in woolen blankets, he was suddenly grateful for the cozy warmth of the room; after the sunny climes of Aurea, he was in no mood to deal with northern chill.

He was about to turn away from his window when he heard the sound of children playing in the streets. It caught him off guard; the Aurean Campaign had been dragging for months now and he couldn't recall the last time he'd seen or heard small children. And yet there they were, little girls, skipping down the street, singing a rhyme he'd never heard before.

"Ten little lords, all in a line
One stray arrow, down to nine
Nine little lords, eating black dates
One chokes and we are down to eight...."

Gabriel chuckled. Having sung similar rhymes in his own childhood, it was nice to know the little ones were as morbid as ever.

He called for a bath to finally, blessedly wash away the road. After bathing, he enjoyed a breakfast of freshly baked bread with some sort of preserve made from cherries, juicy salted ham cooked in mushrooms, and to his surprise, jasmine tea from Liria.

Washed, fed, and garbed in some clean clothes, he headed back up the street to the temple. It was a sunny day in Bayford, if still chilly, and the streets thronged with people. Many were travelers who came for the temple, but there were also merchants, tradesman, and royal messengers swaddled in silk.

The temple was in the center of town, with large windows and great double doors. The first floor was packed with simple cots, each one holding a patient. Women, young and old, milled about the large room, lighting candles, carrying basins or baskets of rags. They all were clad in the most ethereal shade of light blue he'd ever seen. Except for Elodie; the young viscountess was back at the temple, clad all in a black velvet gown, tending a young girl covered in burns.

Forgetting his cousin for a moment, Gabriel was drawn instead to the viscountess, curious about her work. The patient was on a small cot while Elodie sat next to her, dipping into a large pewter basin of glowing blue worms, and placing them one by one on the girl's scorched flesh.

Fascinated, Gabriel watched as the worms diligently worked, not healing instantly but quickly enough to make him gasp.

"By the gods."

"Indeed," Elodie nodded without looking up. "These worms are native to the caves of Aurea. They can cure any wound."

" brought them with you?" Gabriel asked.

"I didn't think to," Elodie admitted. "My mind was on other matters at the time. But when Mother Dorgan first arrived in Bayford, she was still a Red Priestess. Since my mother had already passed a law to behead anyone practicing that religion, Mother Dorgan switched red robes for blue, like the worms she'd brought from Aurea. It was she who established this temple." Once the girl was covered in worms, Elodie picked up the basin and rose to her feet, turning to Gabriel.

"So," she mused, looking him over again, "you're a real lord."

He blinked, surprised by her statement. "Since birth, last I checked."

"How nice for you," she smiled, though he noticed it didn't reach her eyes. Elodie was inscrutable woman, not at all what he'd expected.

"My lady, I dare say you are nothing like what the bards say," he suddenly blurted without thinking.

"What do they say?" she asked, clearly amused. "That I'm 'fair of skin, a work of art'?"

"'Small in frame, yet brave of heart'," Gabriel blinked, slightly confused.. He'd thought she'd be warm, yet the woman before him was a cold fish. She was quite pale and thin, and there were circles under her eyes, as though she never got enough sleep.

"Haven't heard that verse before," she snorted softly.

"Why do you wear black if you insist on working at the temple of Blue Priestesses?" he asked, once again talking without thinking.

"I'm in mourning," she stated flatly, walking away from the little girl. Gabriel followed closely behind her, trying not to bump into cots or priestesses.

"For your father," he nodded. "My condolences."

"No that's my mother," she replied. "I mourn my former betrothed, Lord Edric. He caught the sweating sickness and died a few weeks ago. We can cure any wound, but disease is another matter.

"Anyway," she shrugged, setting the basin down on a small table near a wall, "I have a new betrothed now, Lord Thorley. You'll find him drinking in his quarters, from sunup to sundown."

She turned to him suddenly. "Aren't you going to ask about your prince?"

"Of course," Gabriel blinked, surprised by her rapid changes. "That's why I'm here, to see Cyprian."

"Your cousin is faring well," Elodie assured him, gesturing for him to follow her to a stairwell. They went up the stone stairs to the second floor where patients had private rooms. The hall was filled with stone-faced Lirian knights standing guard outside the prince's room.

The stone room was large and mostly empty, save for essential items. His cousin was nestled on a bed furs by the fire, deep asleep. A young priestess lightly dabbed his brow with a fresh cloth. He looked much better than he did the night before.

"The prince's fever broke early this morning," Elodie rattled off matter-of-factly, "and almost all his wounds are healed. Some of the arrows pierced so deeply there were still fragments buried in his flesh."

"My uncle will pay a king's ransom in gratitude," Gabriel bowed his head in thanks. "As would I if I could." He turned to his sleeping cousin. "Were Cyprian to perish, I'd be next in line." He seemed genuinely horrified by the notion.

Elodie looked surprised, almost shocked. "You don't want to be prince?"

"I don't want to be king," Gabriel corrected her softly, eyes still on Cyprian. "My uncle made a grave error declaring war, and I don't want to have to clean up the mess."

She seemed mildly intrigued. "King for an uncle, eh? You know that makes you a royal visitor. And since this is my family's city, custom dictates you should pay your respects to the head of my family. Come," she gestured to the door. "I'll show you my home."

He followed and they walked in silence for some time, accompanied by two Lirian Knights. Halfway towards the inn, he saw more little girls, running about in their plain blue dresses with amaranth blossoms in their hair.

"Six little lords take a carriage for a drive
Wheel pops off and we’re down to five
Five little lords enamored with a whore
Brothel burns down and now there’s four...."

Gabriel was visibly alarmed. "My gods...are there any happy verses in that song?"

"Fuck, no," Elodie snorted. "They're singing about me, you know? Each lord is a reference to a former betrothed of mine. I'm something of a joke here, you see. 'The Viscountess Bayford can't keep a man.' They think it's funny that I have such rotten luck with men."

"Why?" he chuckled awkwardly. "What's wrong with them?"

"Well, for starters," Elodie said flatly, "they're all liars."

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