His gaze swung to the far end of the room where Ștefan stood with his caped back facing Herald.
He gritted his teeth as his father feigned ignorance of his presence. Ștefan knew he was here from the moment Herald opened the door. Herald traipsed the length of the room, halting a dozen or so paces away. "Father," he murmured, then stood to attention, waiting to be acknowledged.
"You return so soon, my boy." His father turned, his gaze focused on one of the small birds perched on his hand. A sparrow, perhaps; it looked plain enough. "Rarely do I see you after sunrise. What troubles you?" Ștefan stared at the bird as if the question were meant for its little ears.
For some reason his father adored the tiny, feathered creatures. Herald didn't see the reasoning behind the affection. It didn't fit with his father's usual requirements for personal entertainment. They weren't big enough for a meal, they had little in the way of will to snap, and, most importantly, their tiny hearts gave out at the slightest hint of torture.
Herald looked about the room, marking how many feathered lives filled the cages. More prisoners. Be it birds or people, his father did have a liking for incarceration. At least the birds had the good fortune to die of old age.
"An angel, father?" he said, forcing his mind to focus on the woman trapped in the crystal. Could he really call her a woman? Weren't angels meant to be genderless or something like that? His treacherous thoughts fast recalled the subtle curves under her gown, his face warming. Definitely female. "Are you trying to get us all killed?" Images of the castle being attacked from the sky filled his mind, shunting aside the previous, glorious vision. Is that why I'm here? When it came to commanding warriors, only his brother had surpassed him. Protecting the valley from men was easy. Was it even possible to defend against angels?
"So you've met your task." His father smiled at the bird, stroking its frail breast with his thumb. "Do not be so concerned, Herald. She has been here a while."
A while? That didn't say much. To his father 'a while' could mean anything from three centuries back to last week. "Exactly how long?" The desire to know pulled the words from his throat before he'd a chance to stop them.
His father's dark brow twitched at Herald's commanding tone. Ștefan slowly faced him, pale lips narrowing and speaking his father's displeasure louder than any words could've done.
Herald flinched under his father's intense stare. Younger siblings had died for lesser defiance. Where had the insolence to speak in such a fashion come from?
"It's been six, maybe seven, hundred years." The corner of his father's mouth rose in a smile. "I forget the precise length of time." The dark orbs of his eyes grew icy. "Is a man not allowed to forget things in his dotage?"
Being a few decades older than Herald, he hardly classified his father as being old. I shouldn't have used that tone with him. It was the only reason Ștefan brought up age in the first place. Herald couldn't help himself. It felt like eternity since the last time his curiosity had been tweaked this much. Now the desire to know burrowed deep into his mind, burning hot at its core. Why was she here? He'd thought that an angel had been required to power the portal located inside the castle, but the timeframe wasn't long enough. Not when Herald had stepped through that very portal, out of Hell and into this world, during his two hundredth year.
He rubbed his temple. Had it really been nigh on nine hundred years ago? No wonder he felt so old. "Why is the angel here?"
Sighing, his father returned the sparrow to its cage. "I heard a legend once, that an angel's blood could give a man great strength and immortality."
Such a story would certainly intrigue his father. But what good was either power to a strigoi? Or did it also mean immunity to the deathly light of the sun? The desire to step out into the daylight he could understand.
"Then why have you kept her for so long?" His father had little patience for things that didn't work in his favour. Herald couldn't recall him ever keeping something purely for the sake of it. Not since the death of Herald's mother eleven hundred years ago, the death that had sparked his unholy creation deep within Hell's toxic womb.
"I've yet to try it. An angel she may be, but she's still a spirit. It's difficult to make someone bleed when they have no flesh. If she were to trade that crystalline cage for an actual body then things would be different." His father's smile was poisonous. "Alas, as imprudent as she was to let herself be imprisoned, she's not foolish enough to allow anyone a chance to drink her blood."
The aggravation Herald had first felt upon seeing the crystal returned. And you call it precious? It wasn't valuable; it was worthless. "Why not let her go?" His father never had an interest in releasing what he'd caught, but maybe he could make an exception. "You have no use for her in her current state, and my time would be better spent back at the fortress."
"If only it were that simple," his father said, black eyes briefly glittering with bitterness. "I brought you here to guard the crystal against someone destroying it."