Story Challenge #8: Lion’s Heart

The main gate is so heavily defended I’m certain my father will never get through. It has all manner of knights in that black armor, thralls standing stock still, with battle-axes at the ready, and one or two dark-cloaked vampires. No one could break past it, I feel certain.

My latest conquest lies on the bed, gasping for breath still, while I, wearing naught but a sheet, look down over the forces he deployed. What is this thrill, that rises up in my belly? What is this lovely, wonderful warmth?

Well, obviously some of it is the result of my recent energetic negotiation and my victory curled up like a great cat in the depths of me, purring softly as I gaze off towards the dust-cloud of my estranged father’s approach.

Obviously it is the work of my lover, to attempt to distract me from the troubles and the escape from my father’s castle. I know not why it matters to me so much, still, or why even my love’s touch had been unable to quell that feeling of impurity, of unclean terror. I push it back, though, even when finally I can make out the shining armor of my father. So close he who lies on the bed, to the one I love, there is no need to feel unsafe…

For a time it is silent, then I feel him approach me from behind, feel his hand on my lower back, then around my waist, tucking me close against his side with a genuine urgency. “Come away from the window, love,” he says quietly. “Thou shalt attract undue attention from the soldiery.”

I look up at him and smile. “Undue attention? Worried they may fall to me charms, are ye?”

“Rightly, I should think,” he replies softly, affectionately. “I have fallen to them already, should I not take precautions? I am not the easiest of men in the castle, but I was not experienced in the ways of women before I had met thee. I worry that if they were to see thee, they would become jealous of my ownership of thee.”

“Can ye truly own me? I am as the wind, zephyr o’er the whole o’ the land and sea, flitting here and flitting there, always away from ye– or always towards ye.”

“Thou seems’t to have quite the attraction to me, from thy actions earlier,” he murmurs in a voice that makes my legs weak.  I lean against the sill of the window, then against him.

“Yer probably right on tha’ score,” I say. “I never met a man like ye, Victor. Mayhap that be why I wish I could stay this way more- longer- than I do.”

He hugs me tighter against him, turning me towards him. The sheet falls away as he draws me up against his form, lithe but packed with muscle. His hands reach down, tucked under the curve of my rear– he lifts me so that my mouth is level with his, and presses his lips to mine.

The heat of that contact makes the sleeping cat in my belly sit up and roar.

Later, on the bed, I’m listening to the raised voices of my father and lover. As bidden, I dare not stand by the window, so instead I count bruises where Victor, overstrong from his curse, gripped a little too hard in his passion. They feel like badges of honor. I could walk naked down the hall, showing them off.

I desperately do want to see what my father is doing to Victor. What they are doing to each other. Through the political double-talk they seem to be dueling.

There is a mirror in a metal pan, the water within kept in place by magic of one kind or another. It rests against the far wall.

After a while, I walk up to it to inspect myself.

I look stunning, I decide.

A pair of full breasts seem to have been sculpted from my chest. I have thick thighs, a short but well-curved figure. My overall body shape is a short one– could I expect less from dwarvish ancestry?– but not unpleasant to look on. I like the way the freckles and other dots seem to make patterns on my chest and my legs. I had not bothered to check this form’s shape in the dark of the night I rode here.

I know Victor seems taken with it. Victor has always liked me, but I do suppose eventually he will wonder why it is that I am a different shape whenever he finds me.

Speaking of Victor, it is him I hear as I gaze into the mirror upon my short auburn hair and my short, pleasantly full body.

“I challenge thee to a duel, then, false king. If thou hast the honor to face me in single combat, I say to thee: draw steel!”

I walk over to the windowsill again, staring out at the pair of them down upon the field beyond the road, where Victor and the king stalk, the former flanked by a pair of vampires, the . I need to get down to them. Out loud I say: “Is it not best to take forms one knows? A pair of wings, behind the heart grows. Covered in feathers like those of a swan, sanctity and peace to right what’s wrong.”

A tingling spreads down over my shoulders and throughout the whole of my body. Were I clothed this would hurt– as it is it simply gives me gooseflesh, makes the hair on my neck stand on end as a set of wings, large, magnificent even when folded, takes shape on my back and, gradually, testing them, I become acquainted in their use.

I haven’t much time, though.

I step over the edge of the windowsill when I remember that I’m nude. There is not much I can do about my upper body, so instead I find the sheet and wrap it around my waist, tying it off like a makeshift skirt. It is hardly appropriate for a princess– even one who is also a pirate– but I suppose it will have to do.

I slip down over the window sill, spread those wings, and glide down towards the field. If Victor wanted to keep me indoors and out of the way he should have locked the window as well as the gate. The air feels good as it flows under and over my wings. It is not a bad form, to be quite frank. Would that I could keep it for always.

I touch down and meet up with my lover’s retinue where they stand across from my father’s.

Victor sees me, goes bright red, pale face flushing in an instant. He immediately looks away, staring across at my father instead.

“This is no place for a lady,” he says, not daring to meet my eyes.

“And I was just starting to enjoy this form, too,” I reply dryly. “Are ye daft? I can take any shape I choose, Victor, and often shapes I do not. I am not some simpering twit o’ a lady, made fer breedin’ and naught else.”

“I know that,” he murmurs weakly. That surprises me. It had not yet occurred to me that he would know of my shapeshifting curse. “But in a short while I may be dead, and if I am not, then thy father instead.”

“Ye are not goin’ to die,” I say flatly. “If ye were, me father would have killed ye already while ye were blatherin’ on. He has archers with him, it be no’ such a difficult shot.”

One of the vampires to my right taps me on the shoulder politely. “Lady, if I could have a moment?”

I nod without looking, then turn to face her and follow her away from Victor.

She takes me aside.

“Victor is busy right now, sweetblood,” she says quietly, in a voice low and dangerous. “Thy art would best be practiced in the bed, rather than here where a stray arrow might hit thee.”

“If I were afraid o’ death I t’would have been better served by staying inside, it be true,” I reply sharply. “But me honor-“ I jerk my head towards Victor. “-is here fightin’ for me. I am not the type t’ let him stand here alone, Mistress Nightshade.”

She nods once, flashing me a toothy smile. “As expected of thee, thou hast once again failed to disappoint.”

I sigh and move away from her, back to Victor. I stand by his side, then, as he stares out determinedly at the king, opposing him. The royal retinue, three and three at his side, four guards and two of his best knights, is quite impressive compared to Victor, me and his two vampire friends. I doubt if I look prepared to do combat.

“I could spell him down from here,” I say slowly, quietly. “If that be what ye wish, Victor.”

He still does not look. “You know what it is I wish above all things, little Lion.”

I grin back at him. Inside, the cat grins as well, baring its fangs. “So shall me spell make it, then.”

I turn to regard the royal guards gathered before us. I recall my father’s odd look as I had said I was to marry Victor. I recall his adamant refusal. I remember his locking me away for a year, a year and more, with naught but spiders to accompany me, and the dark, deepest stacks of the library. I recall the art I have learned since then.

Best kept to bed? Nightshade has no idea.

As if driven by some beautiful darkness, my hands open, spread before me, words leaping to my lips from the blackened darkness surrounding my core, the lion within stretching, rising, spilling forth from my mouth in a cloud of potent shadow.

It gathers before my outstretched hands, curls into a tight ball, writhing and twisting in a hundred different directions, contained by thought and withheld by hope.

I feel it rising up with me, a soft smile, my reflection mirrored in my shadow ball.

“This is me art,” I say softly, staring across at my father, thinking back to my pirate mother, to her imprisonment. “This is the culmination o’ who I be, who ye have made me to be, Father.”

The field is silent. Victor is watching me, staring at me, mouth half open. My dad’s best archers, the guards, hold bows that shake in their hands still fifty yards distant, waiting for my father to give them the orders to shoot.

“She will not disobey me,” the King says plainly, loudly, iron in his voice. “Daughter, put away your trickery and illusion and return to the light. Perhaps this can be forgiven… in time and with repentance…”

“Pig,” I whisper into the shadows gathering between my hands. “The light is dirtied by yer presence in it. I so banish ye from it.”

I cast forth my spell, and it rolls across the field between us. I can see him, in his golden armor, reflecting nothing from the overcast sky, draw his sword, but he draws it too late, and the darkness swallows him, living, writhing shadow tangling about him like perverse flame. I hear his cry and see him sink to his knees. Shouts from his attendant knights, both stepping between their king and me. A blur of motion and a soft ’thrum’, sound and sight at near the same time.

There’s a sick ‘thunk’ sort of noise, as a wood-handled knife into raw meat. There is a sensation of a fist in my gut. I know not which happens first, but it staggers me, knocks me backward. Blinking, shock and a cold, queer feeling dripping down my belly force my eyes downward to stare at the feathered shaft embedded in my stomach. I sink to my own knees as hot red seeps down into the sheet around my waist and the world roars, a chorus of cries in mourning of the dead cat, an arrow in its heart, that lies curled up inside of me.

Victory’s bitter iron soaks my lip as I bite it, and a shiver runs through me. Voices sound nearby, a grip like coldest steel enfolds me and carries me home.

“Even if she walks again, she will never bear children.”

My eyes flutter open, to look upon the voice which uttered so strange a set of words.

“Cans’t not– thou art a magician. Cans’t thou not… create a magic within her to assist her?”

“My lord Count Victor, I am but a humble necromancer. I talk to the dead and heal them as befits me; my profession as a surgeon is little more than a cover for that. You of all people are familiar with the situation, are you not? Frankly I find it intriguing the baby conceived was in a state as to be saved. Were it not for my quick surgery, I daresay such a feat would have been far beyond even my considerable necromantic skills.”

“As far as we know, the creature was conceived by her monster of a father,” Victor’s voice replies darkly, dangerously. “That I know she would never take its life is all that separates it from an early grave and the pretense of a stillbirth’s fate. Can thy magic determine the sex of it?”

“When developed fully, I believe the baby will be a girl, but it is difficult to tell at this stage.”

“Hmm… Willst thee leave me to my wife-to-be for a time, Doctor?”

“As you will, my lord.”

I look up to see Victor sweating and struggling, staring down at me with a strained smile. I know immediately what ails him.

“Victor– change if ye need to. Ye know I’ll take nae more or nae less comfort from yer arms be they those o’ a woman or those o’ a man.”

He nods once, and immediately lets his curse take effect. Almost elfin features, the hard muscle gone, softening to thin curves and wondrously soft skin. Victoria’s coat hangs on her loosely now, and she has piercing blue eyes that gaze down at me sadly.

“One day,” she says, voice dark like velvet. “I will rid myself of this curse.”

My stomach feels terrible. It stings and burns when I try to sit up, so I lie back and bite down through the pain. When it fades, I look up at Victoria, reach out, take her sylvan hand in mine. “I will be by yer side th’ whole o’ the way,” I say solemnly, then wince as a driving spike of agony buries itself in my stomach. “Man, woman or somethin’ between th’ two.”

Victoria squeezes my hand lightly. “Thy child is what I worry for, my heart. That and thy kind nature– would thou take it into thy care, despite it being spawn of such- such an abominable act?”

I close my eyes a moment and think back to it. With a shudder, I shake my head slowly. “Th’ man who did this will not be here t’ poison this child o’ mine. If- if this is the way that it truly must be, then I will raise this child as best as I can,” I reply quietly. “It does’t make sense to hope for naught else– the child lives an’ I haven’t th’ heart to slay it, monster father or not.”

“As thou may,” Victoria murmurs. She hesitates, then, shaking her red hair out. She gazes at me. “If there is yet hope of us conceiving, despite our respective curses, I shalt make more an effort than ever has yet been made to achieve anything, let alone our mutual creation.”

“Yer a fool,” I say softly, but smile. I know pain discolors it, but it is as much of a smile as I may. “Ye cannot really expect t’ move this stone dead womb o’ mine. I know as well as ye tha’ the arrow has murdered tha’ part o’ me as surely as my magic murdered my father.”

Victoria’s face darkens. “Thy father is yet alive.”

I stare at her a moment. “Daft,” I snap. “Did ye no’ see him swallowed up?”

“I did, and then when the shadowy flame yet lifted, there was no trace of him to be seen. I truly believe him to live yet, however, for the retinue fled with banner still high. I heard no cries denouncing the King, I heard no plays for power or arguments. It is as if he has full control over them still.”

“Mayhap,” I say uncomfortably, shivering inwardly at the thought. “It be far more important than I thought that I be able t’ stand and fight.”

“Doctor Vitrolus says that-“ Victoria starts, but I will not let her finish.

“I do not care what Doctor Vitrolus says,” I snap. “I will no’ let tha’ old coot’s guidance prevent me from healin’ up t’ the best o’ my ability. Wha’s more, I am no’ gonna allow tha’ monster t’ take my family away from me. Do ye understand what I be tryin’ t’ tell ye? I must get better, I must heal, I must stand.”

She gives me a tremulous smile. “As thee would have it, I shalt make it.”

In time, that dream seems to fade.

Bedridden still at six months later, my heart aches as I stare out at the courtyard. Victor stands out there, training the vampires. My baby is cradled to my chest, nursing slowly. My womb sits in my belly, stone dead still, the lion within now naught but bones.

What is worse, I can feel Victor drifting away from me. I know he does not mean it and I know he will not say it, but he has given up hope on my recovery. Every herb and spellbook in the library, we’ve tried. All but the tomes beyond our capacity or understanding. Victor once offered to hire a wizard to peruse them for us in search of a cure. I turned him down. The treasury has surely seen better days. No need to drain it on my account.

My father does not strike from nowhere.

On the contrary, as I lie here looking out my window, I see a small dust cloud on the black of the horizon, indistinct, but visible. It approaches rapidly, stops before Victor and his assembled vampires, and the blur fades to reveal a horse and rider. The rider dismounts and approaches Victor.

Some manner of talk is exchanged between the two of them. I know not what is said, but Victor nods, and talks for a time, with the rider likewise nodding. Then he turns and, the cloaked figure follows him into the courtyard, through the main gates and up the tower to knock at my door. I hear their approach.

I am not one to be self-conscious, but it is one thing to be naked and mean it, and another to be naked and not. I draw the sheets up around my upper body, hiding the baby with her night-kissed skin, her strange red eyes. I hide her from the newcomer as I call:

“Come in.”

Victor doesn’t enter, but the cloaked figure does.

It is Doctor Vitrolus, I see, as he removes his hood. His expression is a strange mixture of happiness and grave solemnity. I can see the two expressions at war.

“Good eve to you, Countess,” he says. “I bring tidings of joy and doom.”

“Doom first, joy later,” I say sharply. “I will nae be havin’ with ill to dull the good news, if I have a choice as t’ which I hear. Better that ill is softened by good.”

“As you would have it,” he replies quietly. His expression turns grim. “The King’s men are on the move. I saw a column of them marching, followed them– though I am a poor spy– to where they were bound and saw a large force gathering before the Earthen Palace. I believe he will strike at you soon, and strike at you hard. Even with the aid of the Black Knights– who are, as you know, on patrol– we would have a hard time defeating this host. Without them, I fear the castle will fall.”

I nod. I’d expected nothing less. For the past six months I’ve wondered what my father has been up to. Now I know and it vindicates my fear.

“The good news?” I ask, struggling to keep the tremble from my voice. The baby stirs in my arms.

He brightens. “I have found a five-day cure for your paralysis. Rumor had it that a sage existed somewhere in the far south who carries the secret to curing similar ailments. I sought him out these past months, and have procured a vial. It will have next to no effect for the first three days, and on the fourth, one leg shall be movable, and the fifth, the other. For each other limb bound by paralysis it shall take an additional day.”

I smile, but my heart is not in it. “Many are the tricks ye have played on me, Doctor. I nae longer know if I can hope t’ walk again.”

His gaze turns solemn again. “I promise you as Victor promised you; you will walk. It will take time. Time we do not have, perhaps, but we shall see.”

I watch him impassively. “Where is th’ vial?” I ask finally.

Doctor Vitrolus reaches into the pocket of his cloak– on the left hand, inner flap– and removes a large crystal flask.

“It must be applied as a lotion. Can you reach your legs?”

“No’ without help,” I reply, feeling a blush rise on my face. “If ye need t’ do it, then do it. I ‘ave faith in yer honor as a Doctor.”

He draws away the sheets and pours but a drop of the liquid onto a finger– I can see it, though. It shines like silver, and seems to shimmer and flash in my vision.

Aghast, I would recoil, but my legs remain dead. “Are ye sure about this, Doctor?”

I feel terribly vulnerable. The sheets remain around my upper half, still hiding the babe from his view. She is asleep, I’m sure.

“It is the remedy,” Doctor Vitrolus says, and there’s the end of it.

It’s queer. I can’t feel my legs, so all I can do is watch him rub it along my thighs, all down my calves and along my feet, which feel like so much deadweight. Gradually, though, it begins to burn.

I can feel– just the tiniest bit of sensation, like tiny pins, tiny needles being pressed wherever his finger passes. My breath hisses out between my teeth.

“Tyrma’s ire– tha’ stings.”

“The sage said that would be normal,” the Doctor admits. “I was worried that perhaps your delicate sensibilities would overrule your good sense.”

“Just tell me next time, ye great git. I coulda heard about tha’ before.”

Really, the pain is overruled by wonder. For six months have I sit in this bed or that bed, with naught but the wind in the window or shutters to comfort me. Six months have I been forced to stay here. Now I can feel– just pain at present. It isn’t pleasant. I can feel!

Doctor Vitrolus pulls the sheets back down. I can see his face, red on his normally pale skin.

His expression, though, turns serious again as he gazes at me. “The King will be here to attack sooner than five days, Countess.”

I nod slowly. “I will nae be at my best fightin’ ability before he strikes.”

“I believe he plans to strike tomorrow, in fact, or perhaps the day following.”

I think on that, and then shake my head. “We do no’ have time t’ waste, then. Help me set th’ babe t’ her cradle. I have somethin’ I must do.”

My back is covered in sores, but the Doctor takes my hand and draws me up out of the bed, leaving a stain of blood behind. I have lost mayhap a stone to the wasting disease of disuse, and when I first step on the floor I realize that it hurts much worse than I had imagined it would. My feet ache, sting and burn.

“Edmund preserve,” I grunt. “Can you- help me get down to Victor?”

“The baby, Countess?”

I nod, and, leaning heavily on Vitrolus, I let him drag me to the cradle, where I gently set the child to rest.

“Such black skin- like the dead of midnight,” Doctor Vitrolus breathes.

“Her eyes are red as embers,” I murmur. “Like I ha’ given birth t’ a Salamander and no’ a baby girl.”

“Victor wanted her killed,” the Doctor says darkly. “But spared her for you.”

“I know tha’. Bring me t’ him and we’ll talk about it.”

“Clothes first,” he says lightly. I nod. I’d almost forgotten about them.

Vitrolus helps me dress. A skirt rather than breeches as I usually like. A blouse that I struggle into, with Vitrolus to hold me steady.

He half-drags me, half-carries me down the steps. Touching the floor is painful enough to make me grit my teeth, but the steps are murder. There is no way to descend softly, and by the time we’ve reached the bottom floor my face is streaked with tears, though I haven’t made a sound.

The Doctor notices. “Countess-“

I know.

He helps me through the main doors, and we nearly crash into my fiancé.

His eyebrows rise. “Mala! What ails thee?”

I cannot help but smile. “The Doctor found a cure for th’ paralysis. It will take five days, but he says tha’ it should be enough.”

Victor pulls me from the Doctor’s grip and hugs me tightly, nearly crushing me against him. I can feel his tears hot against my cheek as he presses his face close, kisses my neck, momentarily speechless. It doesn’t last long- it rarely seems to with Victor.

“That is truly the best news we have had in a long time. Bless thee, Doctor Vitrolus. Tyrma truly smiles on both of us if thou hast truly returned my bride to me.”

“I’ve been here this entire time, ye great soft fool,” I whisper, and push back somewhat, so I can look him in the eye. “Father be on his way.”

I feel him stiffen. “Thou canst mean-“

“He is comin’. I can feel it, and the Doctor can prove it. He has th’ testimony.”

Victor hugs me fiercely, then relents and stares back into my eyes. “I believe thee, my love, but we are not prepared for outright war.”

“My father will nae fight an outright war. He will fight an outright slaughter.”

My fiancé stares at me steadily.

“He will come t’ murder us all,” I say thickly. “Long ‘afore I can stand t’ fight by yer side.”

“I will stand by thy side, regardless of thy ability to stand by mine,” Victor murmurs.

I smile at him, gazing into his eyes. Above, there is a wail. My daughter has no doubt woken.

“We should be wed,” I say quietly. “Victor. Tonight.”

“I thought thou might like to wait until thou coulds’t use thy legs again,” Victor replies, an uncharacteristically sheepish look on his face.

“T’would be better that I be married an’ with some thought on me mind other than me bastard father when I face him tomorrow,” I say, and sigh. “Vitrolus can marry us. He has faith.”

The baby sets up a louder wailing, and there is a crash above, glass shattering. Victor goes paler. “Vitrolus, watch her.”

The Doctor takes me into his arms and for a moment, Victor pauses before me, rife with indecision. Then he speaks a dark word and disappears. A moment later I hear the bang as he reappears somewhere above us, in the castle, on the stairs, the thump of his boots on the stone steps.

“Doctor-“ I manage.

“I know,” he says grimly.

He pulls me along with him and, slowly, laboriously, we make our way into the castle, back up the stone steps to the source of the crash.

Whatever fight there was is over when the Doctor manages to help me into the master bedroom.

Jagged shards of glass lie scattered about the floor. The stained window on the far wall from the door the Doctor and I enter is in a hundred pieces. A pile of ash and dust is scattered before the cradle, and a body, twisted and awesome to behold, is stretched on the floor of the room. Its wings are dull now, but surely must have been beautiful once. The struggle must have been short– the creature’s throat bears three ragged gashes. A glance at the ceiling tells me the creature was celestial in nature– normal blood does not evaporate, condense and rain gold and silver.

“Please pass me your scalpel, Doctor,” I say softly.

“Where is Victor?” he asks, but he gives me the scalpel, blade first. I take it, and, hand shaking, make a small incision on my left palm, just under my middle finger. A drop of blood wells up. It doesn’t hurt- just feels queerly cool.

“Move me closer to the ash pile.”

He obeys, helping me until I can stand over it. It isn’t deep enough for the blood to run properly, so I take the scalpel and press it into the cut- deeper this time, letting the metal dig in and then slice in half an inch– more? less?– before withdrawing it.

Blood flows then, finally. The muscle of my hand is burning, stinging dully, and the red gathers into drops– three fall and touch first the floor, the crib, and finally the ash where it lies on the ground.

The Doctor, at my bidding, carries me to the bed. I grip its side to keep upright, ignoring the stabbing pain in my palm. I watch, instead, feeling the blood on my hand stain the hard wood frame, eyeing the pile of ash.

Vitrolus, for his part, looks around the room nervously, as if afraid of some divine intervention. The celestial on the floor of my bedroom is making me nervous as well, truth be told. Right now that isn’t as important. I hope my blood is enough.

As it turns out, it is.

One moment the ash is still, hissing softly, smoke rising, the next it rises, spins and coalesces, becomes a massive pillar of  grey. That pillar groans, stretches out arms, skeletal structure forming from the ash, a reverse incineration. Skin comes last.

Victor appears, eyes dried out husks, skin papery and flaking in places. He stumbles, and Vitrolus isn’t fast enough. He strikes the ground with a hideous cracking noise, skidding to a stop near the door. I’d forgotten about this part.

“Doctor, you best be leavin’ now,” I say softly. “He will be in nae mood t’ bandy about with words. He will kill ye if ye let him. Go.”

The Doctor, transfixed, doesn’t seem to hear me as he rises.

Go,” I snap. “Before his eyes yet see ye.”

Vitrolus seems to bring himself out of it. He nods quickly, hesitates but a second more, and then tiptoes around the prone form of Victor before making a limping sprint for the door.

It is, of course, at this time that Victor regenerates his ears. Attracted by the sound of those steps, he rises and charges blindly.

“Stop that,” I say sharply. “His blood be poison anyway. Mine is what ye want.”

He hears me, hesitates, then turns to look at me with eyes that only slowly form as I watch. I see animalistic hunger in them. Victor is not yet back, though his body is recovering.

He staggers towards me, arms outstretched. Knowing exactly what to expect, I raise my head and offer up my neck, shutting my eyes. “That be right,” I say quietly. “Come on.”

Arms as implacable as snakes lock me into a bearhug, one hand on the side of my head, flaking fingers grasping. Hesitation again.

Teeth, razor sharp as ever– one of the first things a vampire regenerates– brush my neck. A tongue, long, thick and hot, draws a line along my throat.

I feel my body shudder, feel all of my breath let out in a quiet little sigh. Almost tenderly, those teeth slice– no, graze– my skin.

Would that it were truly tender; a vampire who has prey willing to put up with it is bound to savor its meal. Victor in a frenzy is no different.

I’m not putting up a fight and I’m what he wants.

It stings. Whoever tells you that it feels good is insane. My head bent like this– Victor’s teeth so close to puncturing my neck and draining me dry, helpless to stop him– is anything but romantic. It is terrifying. It is insane. I must be insane to love this creature.

I don’t bother pleading or asking the ‘real’ Victor to step in. This is the real Victor, deep down inside, this is what he is and who he is. As this vampire, my fiancé, slowly laps up the blood that flows down the side of my neck, I can feel him become ever closer to being real, ever closer to flesh, feel it happening, feel his skin stop being dry, pale. Every drop of my blood seems to soothe whatever ache causes his skin to flake away.

Finished with that little scrape, having drained it of everything he can, he lifts my arm, no, my wrist. With the same almost tender care, he bites into it. I feel his fangs slide through flesh and meat. A burst of agony, like dull red rust, drags at my senses. It screams out to me as I sit there, helpless, then forced to wrap an arm around him to keep from falling back.

The tongue is back, drawing out my warm essence.

Without warning, it stops. The fangs withdraw with a pop and a little gasp of recognition heralds Victor’s return to, for a vampire, insanity.

“Mala-“

I open my eyes and meet his. “Who was the celestial?”

Victor stares at me for a few moments more, then shakes his head ruefully. “I do not know. We need bandages to cure thy wounds.”

“They be self-inflicted,” I say flatly. “They be my responsibility.”

“They are my responsibility,” Victor snarls. “I shalt take it on myself, and thou woulds’t be best helped by taking thy satisfaction with me later.”

I arch an eyebrow, but decide not to press the issue. “Can ye lift me, Victor? Will ye take me to the baby? Is she safe?”

First he goes to find bandages, and it isn’t until he wraps up my wrist that he answers.

Something of a wild light enters his expression, a hint of the bestial fury from before. “Yes. She is safe. I fought two of these lesser Adepts in keeping her so. The second of the pair lies broken now on the stones before the gate.”

I nod gingerly- my neck still stings. “Bring the baby t’ me, Victor.”

He does so, albeit with some reluctance. When he returns, the babe safe in his arms, he hesitates.  “Are thee sure that-“

“Now.”

I take her from his outstretched hands and cradle her close with my good arm. Her pitch-black skin shines darkly to my sight, and after a moment I realize I can see runes. I motion to Victor. “Look. Did ye notice these before?”

He shakes his head uncertainly, staring at me. “No. I did not. Canst thou translate them, my love?”

I nod my head, though in truth I’m unsure. Keeping my touch light, I trace the pattern of the writing, the symbols– they run down my baby’s sides, all the way to her toes and all the way to her shoulders. It is a dark and shadowy light that emanates from them, and it hurts to stare at them for too long. I recognize the writing as demonic, but other than that I have no true idea what it might be.

“Tis rather as if she were spawn of an infernal rather than thy father,” Victor comments. “It could be normal, I suppose.”

I shake my head slowly, mind drifting, unbidden, back to that terrible night. Surely, my father had locked me up in that dark library. But is this truly the child of that– that terrible thing? I can’t bring myself to think it.

Shuddering, I push it out of my mind and force myself to think of something else. “If my father’s child this is no’, then whose?”

A stirring from the floor brings Victor’s attention, and thus mine, to the celestial Adept.

“Thy conversation is troubled; allow me to destroy the source of thy trouble: misinformation. Thou art unaware of thy child’s origin; this, though, is why thy father desires you: regret. Thy child was a part of an old mistake; he now seeks to rectify this mistake through one thing: destruction.”

I stare at the celestial’s pure, honest face with disbelieving eyes. “Truly? What was his mistake?”

“He thought to trick demons he trusted; they tricked him instead; now he seeks repentance: redemption. Thy child is one key to that; in simplest terms, the other: thy damaged heart.”

“Why would one such as thou tell her this?” Victor asks sharply. “If what thee says is true, she was defiled by an infernal who tricked thy master. What reason have thee to tell her?”

The celestial pushes itself up to its knees, then its feet, towering above Victor and me both. “On the morrow thy father means to attack; I am merely passing on this information because on the morrow I can be sure: both of you will be dead.”

Victor frames a snarl, but I nod my head slowly. “Thank ye. Yer partner lies at th’ stones before th’ gate. If he be alive or dead, ye may recover him the same.”

To Victor: “Celestials only speak th’ truth, Victor. Ye can no’ fault them for tha’.”

The celestial Adept nods once, then steps to the shattered window. For a moment it is framed against the half-light of the overcast noon, and it turns to regard me again. Its wings shine.

“Thy father was not he who hurt thee, Malaran; not in the way that put thee with thy child at least: of that thou can be sure.”

I nod again, feeling a sickness rise in my gut. “Thank ye. Go.”

It steps off the window sill and, spreading its wings, glides down to the courtyard. I assume it must be to collect its companion.

Vitrolus sets me back on the bed, later, despite my protests. “I need t’ be married t’ Victor tonight,” I snap. “I do no’ care about walkin’ or consummation or what have ye. I need t’ be married t’ him or tomorrow I may no’ get th’ chance again.”

The Doctor shakes his head slowly and sighs. “If folly is what you search for, folly is what you’ll find.”

“Bring Victor to me, please,” I say quietly.

“He’s out in the courtyard, working with the soldiery,” Vitrolus replies warily. “But if he is who you seek, and this is what you wish to do, I shall fetch him.”

“He be. It be.”

The Doctor makes his way from the room and down the steps. Left to the pins and needles being pushed into my legs, I stare at the ceiling.

Victor comes in a minute or so later, followed closely by Vitrolus.

“By the power invested in me,” Vitrolus says dryly. “I now pronounce you a married union. Blessed be the both of you and long may your twisted children live.”

Victor arches an eyebrow. “Thou brought me here for this?”

“C’mere ye great git,” I say with a twisted smile. “Vitrolus, get out o’ here.”

I raise my uninjured hand and beckon, though it isn’t necessary. Doctor Vitrolus sighs, turns, leaves the room.

For his part, Victor takes his place on the side of the bed. The sheets are clean and, thankfully, the sores on my back are numb’d by poultice. My injured wrist is wrapped in the bandages still.

As I watch, a sort of shiver comes over him and his body’s shadow twists as he does, turning into that of Victoria. She crawls up closer to me, obedient to my hand’s insistence.

“What dost thou wish of me?” she whispers in a voice that sends a shiver down my spine.

“All of ye,” I answer, just as quiet- if not as velvety. “That is what I wish o’ ye.”

Victoria sits on the side of the bed, staring down at me with a soft, sad gaze. “Thou dost not hate me. I have avoided thee, have hurt thee and thou still dost not hate me.”

“Why would I hate ye, Victoria? Think ye that I could so easily be moved to hatred by a love so cursed? Ye do no’ disgust me; ye know that I accept ye however it is ye be.”

“Why?” she asks, her eyes shining, her hands closed over mine. “By my order thou hast become crippled, by my will thou art undone, by my stupidity destruction fell on thee. Thou should hate me.”

“Husband- wife- whatever it is that ye are. I will not abandon ye after knowing ye for so long. Yer excuses are just that. Ye know that I love ye, ye know that I care for ye and care naught for yer mistakes.”

I can feel her hands trembling.

My blood is coursing through her veins and warms them, but they still feel cold.

“I am ancient,” she starts. “And-“

“I do not care,” I interrupt her gently. “Yer age does not define ye.”

She closes her eyes, then, and tears leave soft crimson lines down her face.

“I thought we worked this out before, Victoria,” I say softly. “I thought tha’ ye knew already I love ye, and that no matter what happens, today or on th’ morrow, I am here t’ help ye, stand by ye, be with ye.”

She lays down with me, then, next to me, gazing at me uncertainly. “Canst thou truly mean it?”

“True as this heart o’ mine sees it,” I reply gently. “True as the moon shines red.”

“I have never seen the moon,” she says morosely. “In all the years I have lived.”

“Mayhap one day I’ll paint it for ye,” I whisper, and kiss away the vermillion from her cheeks. It should perhaps bother me that the blood there is mine. It does not. It tastes of iron and something sweeter. It seems hotter than I imagined it would be.

She stiffens when my lips touch her skin. For a moment I wonder at it , and then she brings my head down to meet her mouth.

I have not ever kissed Victoria before. Victor many times, as a man, many times. This time, though she is now a woman, it seems no less beautiful to me, and considerably softer.

Dawn arrives, and sees Victoria sleeping with me, arms tucked under me, head nestled to the pillow beside me. I remember little of the night before- a blur of color and warmth. My legs sting less today, but still do not heed my thoughts. I almost feel good regardless, but Vitrolus’s polite footsteps and following knock jolt me from it, as well as the soft whimpering of my child.

I open my mouth, but it is Victoria who speaks first. “Enter if thy business is grave.”

Vitrolus opens the door and shuts it behind himself discreetly. He raises his eyebrows when he sees Victoria on the bed with me. “Have you made it a habit to take Victor’s vampires to bed?”

“She be Victor,” I reply sharply. “Can ye not see tha’?”

Vitrolus looks once, stops, stares, looks again. He quickly gets over his surprise.

“So she is,” he says dryly. “When was this curse initiated? Have you perhaps realized you prefer women over men?”

“Keep thy acid tone to times not quite so early,” Victoria grumbles. “I am Victor- or was when thou last left me.”

“As you would have it,” Vitrolus says easily. “I came to deliver grave news- the King approaches from the northern gate with a host of men as large as before. He rides a stallion cloaked in white barding, his eyes are a fury and his sword shines bright. All above and around him the sky parts to reveal the brightness of the sun.”

“Tyrma blast it,” Victoria growls, and rolls herself away from me, standing full and nude while Vitrolus outright stares. My wife-or-husband’s soft red curls are long as Victoria and short as Victor– but in either form she is breathtaking. Pale skin befits a naturally pale complexion. Small, firm breasts adorn a lithe and tall body. Hardened with muscle even as a wench, her face is somewhat sharp, but beautiful in its own way, graceful, ageless symmetry permanently imbued upon her by the immortal curse of a vampire.

It is not her red-branded hair or her lithe body that I love, though. It is the determination on her face as she steps away from me, the uncaring, casual confidence that seems to banish all thought of the shivering woman the night before.

She steps into the breeches she had tossed aside, pulls on the shirt and then the leather armor, laces up the padded, metal-plated boots and pulls on the black silk gloves. Vitrolus, unbidden, helps her don chain-mail and half-plate. The metal sits comfortably against the pads, from the look of it.

For my part, I am forced to watch, helpless and fuming inwardly, as she prepares herself and then finally, fully armored, turns to face me.

I imagine anything other than what leaves her mouth.

“Doctor, help her up and bring her down with me.”

“Yes, Countess Victor.”

Victoria leaves the room. Her plated footsteps echo through the hall and down the stairs.

“Baby first,” I say quietly.

“I know.”

Vitrolus’s voice is flat and expressionless.

He helps me upright and, presently, we manage to hobble to the cradle. He reaches down and hands me my child. I hold her small, fragile black form to my heart, gazing down at her, smiling. “Are ye well?” I whisper. “Are ye hungry, little one?”

She is, as it turns out, and her eyes stare up at me, her lips set in a pensive line, regarding me steadily before she presses herself against my chest and I lean again against Vitrolus. “Downward,” I declare. “Down and away.”

“Down we go,” comes the reply. “Steel yourself.”

The stairs are worse agony than before, it feels. Each individual step is a massive, hot iron spike, driving into my feet, making them quiver and shake. My eyes are screwed shut and I lean heavily on the Doctor as he supports me.

“Easy,” he murmurs softly. “Easy now.”

I don’t remember how many times I beg for a rest. The stairs down are many. Each time, the sound of heated argument in my head, imagined or not, pushes me to beg again, but to go down further.

Finally we reach the bottom step, and the poor Doctor manages to lead me outside. By that time the baby is asleep in my arms.

My legs feel aflame, and the glorious wonder at being able to feel them at all has faded. Now it is just pain.

Vitrolus helps me walk over through the courtyard, down across to the massive gate. The portcullis, digging into the stone before me, rises slowly at the Doctor’s behest. It seems to take forever- and across the way, at the field from six months before, I can see Victoria’s group getting into position, taking up a rough staggered line, red-robed magic-users behind, the few vampire warriors in front, a long double-column of twenty thralls at the fore.

It is at that point, outside the gates, that the Doctor begs me for a rest, and we lean against the wall. “Forgive me,” he says, breathless. “I already used magic to raise some fresh thralls, or I would easily be able to guide you to your husband- or… wife?”

I nod, but my heart pounds in my chest. If I can’t make it to Victoria, how will I support her in battle?

As if bidden by some unseen force, my left hand lifts and slowly, slow as sin, uncurls its fingers and spreads into the simplest of magic signs- the open palm.

The magic in my belly is not there. I can feel nothing. I cannot help her from here.

My father’s forces gather opposite Victoria’s. I can see his army– or rather, his legion. Two-score men in two rows of unmounted knights and squires. A third row of archers at the back, the king, mounted on his stallion, flanked by a pair of celestials. I can’t tell from here if they are Archons or Adepts, but I doubt that it matters. The force arrayed before my love is too great.

Mistress Nightshade appears before me- first as a harmless, fluttering bat, then as her human form.

“Sweetblood,” she says quietly. “Long time no see. Thou must be prepared if thou will fight by thy husband’s side. Are thee?”

“Aye,” I answer warily. “Take me.”

“Thou canst barely stand,” she observes. “Hold to me and I shall take thee.”

The Doctor releases me and I give him my child as Nightshade catches me. “Take care of her,” I whisper. “I should no’ have brought her with, but she may be safer here than in the castle, where a stray Adept might venture.”

I slip my arms around Nightshade’s waist, hugging as tightly as I dare. Her skin is cold where it touches mine, and I wonder idly how long it has been since she has fed.

The trip is quick– less than a blink, yet somehow longer than a sigh. My skin is chilled beneath my clothes, my body damp with condensation. Before I know it, however, I stand by my husband. Mistress Nightshade is nowhere to be seen, and my legs tremble under me uncontrollably. Just as I’m sure I will fall, Victoria’s arm wraps around my waist, simultaneously supporting me and tugging me tight against her. My legs collapse not a moment later, and I find tears in my eyes- tears of all things. I wrap my arms around my husband-turned-wife’s waist instead. Her skin is hot with stolen blood, her eyes are piercing, but they do not meet mine. That gaze is set firmly on my father.

The hatred, even from so far a distance, is palpable. I can feel it touch on me, soften, harden again when it reaches Victoria, when that helmeted figure across the way lifts his lance and points towards my love with steel.

His sword blazes brilliantly, and my heart freezes in my chest. I can feel myself powerless under him again, can feel his hands gripping me, feel his filth contaminating me from here. I close my eyes, breathing in sharply. If Victoria hears me, she isn’t concerned.

Instead I hear her:

“He seems to have recovered well,” she says. Her voice is trembling. I can feel her next to me, against me, steady as can be, the warmth of her hands through her black silk gloves. “Perhaps thou hast another spell to cast?”

“Withou’ a connection t’ Rithma I can spell nae more than a bite-fly, now,” I reply ruefully. “Ye’ll recall tha’ th’ power she brings t’ bear is connected t’ my womb.”

She curses softly, and only once. “Tyrma’s knife- that accursed arrow! Would that Vitrolus had brought life again to thy uterus, we would surely see battle’s victory.”

I arch an eyebrow up at her, amused despite myself. “Have ye so much faith in my child-kiln?”

“Thy child-kiln’s barren state could mean the fate of the castle itself,” she says seriously, then she smiles, looks at me.

“Yer being silly,” I say flatly, but smile back. “We’ll be dead soon.”

Her eyes are sad. “That’s the right of it. At least, I shall.”

“How do ye mean tha’?” I ask sharply, but know the answer. My father won’t kill me. For all that I tried to kill him, it’ll be back in the library again, or sent to a dungeon. Perhaps this time he’ll rape me himself instead of letting some infernal act out his depraved desires.

With a shock, I feel something stir in me at the idea– perhaps the tiniest of mews, or a glint of a flicked claw. It settles again, though, completely silent. The forces are arrayed. Across the field, I can see a lone page on horseback approach.

“He means to capture thee,” Victoria says softly. “Thou must know that.”

I nod hollowly.

The page arrives before us and, dismounting, approaches on weak knees. Even with celestials in his army, I can see the lines of thralls must unnerve him, their hungry red eyes alien to him as my daughter’s had been to me.

“He who calls himself Victor of the Ninth Castle, I call upon thee to step forward and face the King’s messenger!”

Whether through fear or agonizing indecision, Victoria stays where she is.

“If Victor stands among you, let him face the truth,” the page then adds nervously, then, as if afraid his previous statement had been too belligerent. “With respect. Be he among those assembled?”

A wicked plan comes into my head before I have time to hope that it might be possible.

I banish the sly smile that came unbidden on my lips, and as Victoria finally opens her mouth to answer, I answer for her.

“Victor has gone t’ campaign against th’ Northern Realm,” I say sharply, loudly.

The page squints, looking for me among the thralls, then the vampires nearby, who are too shocked to move. “Who speaks thus?”

“I be the one tha’ spoke,” I state, sure of myself now as my mind races and my love stares. “Is my father not fit t’ parley?”

“Princess Malaran!” the page brightens, smiles a little. “Thou art unharmed!”

“Relatively,” I reply dryly. “I be barren and unable t’ walk. I repeat: is my father too ill t’ parley?”

“I could ask the same of Victor Paleman,” the page says, voice quavering but determined. “I ask again: is he among ye?”

“Nay,” I answer simply, before Victoria can say a thing.

“Who is that, then?” the page asks suspiciously, eying Victoria. “Who is that who thou can lean against with such familiarity?”

“Victor’s sister. I tell ye again, I cannot walk.”

Now my heart beats faster, as the page frowns, stares, squints at me, at Victoria, as if willing her to change.

Finally he speaks again. “Thou art sure?”

“Victor be away campaignin’ t’ th’ North,” I say firmly. “His sister stands before ye- slack-jawed mayhap, but she be a military commander. Victor’s main forces be away, but ye can bet tha’ if ye do combat with us today, he’ll be back t’ reduce thy nation’s fields t’ ashes and t’ pour salt upon them.”

The page pauses, then sighs deeply. “I will go and tell thy father. I am certain he will wish to speak to both of you.”

The page returns to his horse, remounts, and rides back to the waiting lines as Victoria’s arm, tight around my waist, squeezes me suddenly, and I find her fierce eyes on mine. “Why- why?”

Her sharp gaze doesn’t soften as I struggle to find words to explain. Under her stern stare I feel as though perhaps I have done wrong by her.

“Ye were- the King would kill us all, my love. Now-“

“Now he believes I am a sister and this little spot of land is ripe for the taking,” she snaps. “Art thou so eager to have him rush forth and slay us?”

“Th’ king will no’ send forces to strike a noblewoman, be she a recognized member o’ his kingdom’s nobility or no’. I know me own father,” I answer with a sigh. “Too well, ye might say.”

She just shakes her head, not meeting my eyes any longer, staring out across the field as the King and those two celestials approach. I can see their blazing shapes now– they are without a doubt Archons rather than Adepts. Their golden, brilliant swords flare with inner energy, and their hoods are empty of all but darkness. The ground around them seems to waver as if in a heat haze, and they do not step so much as float. Their feet do not seem to touch the ground.

He does not take a regular guard with him- my father approaches without the usual pair of knights. I suppose he must feel safe enough with the Powers That Be to safeguard him as he approaches.

The clouds remain closed above, but with the influence of six vampires- counting my love- it would be difficult for any blade, no matter how mythical, to dispel the massive bank of storm clouds above us. Without them I am almost certain our forces would burn, and burn until they were naught but ash.

“Daughter of mine,” the king says slowly, without preamble. His voice is hoarse as though with pain, his eyes behind his visor are grim and dark. “You have strayed far beyond the limits of reason, to defy my will here on this field, to defy me here yet again.”

I gaze back at him, and the defiance inside of my belly, burning before, begins to ebb and be replaced with something like cold terror.

I almost shrink away from his stare, but remember that I cannot stand properly in time to hug Victoria tight.

“Thy quarrel is with my brother Victor, knave,” she snaps. “If thou yet takes issue with my care of thy daughter, thou may lay thy grievances at Victor’s feet when he returns from his campaign. Until then, I warn thee that I am no fool, and my forces will see thee broken and drain thee dry if thou dost not withdraw immediately.”

“Thy threat falls empty; we are well aware that you are change-cursed: you are Victor,” the Archon on the right replies in a voice like lightning. “Thy deception is up; thou would be best served by surrendering before we reduce thy forces: we will render them ash.”

As the silent echoes of its suggestion fade, my father nods once, severely. “Come home, daughter, and I will make your punishment short.”

“I will no’,” I say, and my voice is steady even as I shake in Victoria’s arms. “I will no’ give myself up t’ ye again.”

“Go back to thy army, King Maur,” my love says quietly, dangerously. “Unless thou wishes to settle matters here.”

As I watch in terror, my father dismounts from his stallion and approaches, then stops a mere three yards away. “As you would have it, then,” he growls. “If I must fight for my daughter’s return, then mayhap I’ll leave nothing to chance. Duel me if you dare, Countess Victor.”

A low snarl builds in Victoria’s throat, and I hug her tight with one arm. “Easy,” I whisper weakly. “Easy.”

I wonder where the black knights she had before went, whether they’re gone for good. I don’t think it would help now, though, as Victoria gently tugs my hands away from her and, with a nod to Mistress Nightshade, steps towards the King.

Her favored vampire hugs me around the waist as I lean back against her.

“Thou art a fool,” Nightshade whispers in my ear. “But a brave fool. Thou never shouldst come between Victor and prey.”

“He- she’ll be killed,” I whimper. “Me father be an incredible swordsman.”

I can feel my heart sinking in my chest, feel panic rising as if it were part of a sick counterweight.

Nightshade’s grin is razor sharp as I turn my head to see it. “Have faith in thy husband. Or wife.”

A twinge of pain runs up and down my arm, from where Victor had bit it what seems like ages before. It hangs, useless, by my side. My heart stutters in my chest as I watch my love stand before my father.

“Draw steel,” my father says in a low, dangerous voice. “Draw steel. I will not strike down a defenseless woman, be she change-cursed or not.”

He casts his lance aside with a clatter. His own sword blazes, sparks of white light dripping from its edge and spattering the grass like the blood of an Archon. I notice a limp in his step, and then it’s gone, and my hope flees with it.

Victoria reaches down to her belt and slowly withdraws the dagger sheathed there. It’s a small thing- barely eleven inches long, jagged, the edge wavy, the tip razor sharp. Red light gleams along the metal of it. She stares the King in the face, unsmiling.

For a moment, they stand there, motionless. Then, in a blur, it is my father who strikes first.

His blade arcs down in a wicked sweep. Victoria simply is not there.

When he strikes for her, she wavers a moment, the blade seeming to pass right through her and then into the dirt. There is a soft sound, like the parting of silk, and then silence but for the King and my love’s breathing, heavy and hard. They spring apart then, my father clapping a hand to the red blossoming on his chest, Victoria watching him carefully.

My father’s next attack is more controlled. A clever series of short feints and flicks with the blade’s tip, as if it were a rapier rather than a longsword. The tactic is useless, though. Victoria has naught but a dagger, and will not be lured into striking back; she hasn’t the reach to be sure she can kill him. It has been too long since my father fought against so short a blade, and it shows in his strides and his technique.

The King lunges, moving from a still stable stance to a full-body slash in the blink of an eye. Twisting her body, Victoria avoids it by a hair’s breadth, her eyes determined, her stance still stable. I can see her skin smoke, see her face tight with pain. Magic on the blade must make it as a miniature sun. Even a miss must hit then, in some measure. I dig my fingers into my palms and bite my lip, feeling useless.

As my father draws back, Victoria advances, pressing her fleeting advantage until it ends in a blur, with her little dagger poised just under his chin.

The King snarls, knocking the blade aside with a mailed fist– suffering a laceration as the tip shears through metal and slices his cheek. She draws blood a further five times as he strikes for her, but they are small, meaningless cuts to my eyes– each sweep from the King is meant for a kill. Twice more the smoke rises from close misses. I shudder to think what might happen if my father were to strike true…

Somehow she manages to avoid his terrible onslaught, dancing back, weaving between his edge and the ground, ever graceful and fluid. My father may as well be fighting the air. His attacks are well executed and controlled, leaving no openings, but Victoria’s blade darts here and there, scores nicks and little cuts as though he were naked instead of in full plate. She moves impossibly quickly. I can hardly see the attacks as they land.

So it continues on. As fast as he is, my father’s blade never touches Victoria. All of his blows are close, but none touch my love’s pale skin, or even score against her armor. The smoke rises and several times I hear my love hiss in pain, hear her breath come out in a snarl. She fights on, he fights on, and blood patters against the grass, smoke rises into the air.

My father fights with less caution, now, no longer careful not to strike, simply circling, swinging with abandon. Blood runs sluggishly down his plated armor, his breathing comes short and clipped, his eyes red with rage and hate. His swings grow wilder and wilder, and one almost seems to take my love in the head, but it is another bare miss that nevertheless draws a hissing line above her eyes. I close my own for only a moment, in fear, in utter terror. I hear Mistress Nightshade’s intake of breath, hear her start to move. Then she stops. “Oh!” I hear her whisper.

I open my eyes to the sound of screeching metal and a harsh curse.

Victoria’s blade now rests again at the king’s throat. One of his hands is caught in the vampire’s vice grip. A long line of jagged, rent metal crosses his chest up to the blade.

“You win,” he grunts. “I am not so foolish as to die here when I have a kingdom I needs must run. I beg of you: allow me to leave with my men. I beg of you: give me back my daughter.”

“Go,” Victoria says shortly, simply. “And thou willst not have my bride.”

My father stares, his eyes narrow and his bloodied brow furrows. Without another word, without even glancing at me, he remounts his horse. His attendant Archons pick up lance and blade and all three of them turn to move back to their lines. They appear to be readying themselves to depart.

“He will be back,” I manage, through a throat tight with anxiety. “This changes naught.”

“Wouldst thou rather I slew him?”

“Nae more than ye, I think,” I reply. “Ye had him, didn’t ye. Ye could have killed him.”

She shrugs, not looking at me at all. I recognize a dismissal when I see one. She orders Nightshade to take me into the castle.

Heart heavy despite our victory, I can do nothing to resist as the vampire half-drags, half-carries me into the castle– under the portcullis, past the stunned Vitrolus, still holding my daughter, through the main doors, up the steps, into the bedroom and onto the bed. There she leaves me.

Trembling, I await Victoria, who appears as Victor when he enters. His eyes flashing, his lips pursed, he approaches.

He kneels in front of the bed, bowing his head, refusing to meet my eyes. “Thou hast saved this castle again.”

I stare at him.

“Thy spell made him slow; his legs were weak and his strikes were nowhere near the terror I’m sure they could have been. His footwork was inferior, his blows fell short and his judgement was likewise affected. Had he been at his best, I would have been slain. The blade he used was holy and I did not escape unmarked though the edge never touched me.”

I still stare at him.

“I won only because he was slow and I was quick. I do not deserve thee.”

I struggle with myself and with my words, wondering at how to answer him. For a time I am speechless, and we stay like that.

“Rise, Victor,” I say. “Ye are no traveling player and ye shouldn’t drag this out more than necessary.”

He straightens, gazing back at me, expression morose. “He could be back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow I imagine I’ll be whole again. He can come back t’ take a spell t’ his smug face.”

The lion in my belly stirs, like it had down on the field before my father. It is as if with the defeat of my father, energy has started to flow through me again, as if Rithma herself were filling me with her faith. This time, as I beckon Victor to my side and pull him close against me, this time, as I kiss his cheek and wrap an arm around him, the great cat opens its eyes and smiles.

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

Hey, guys, gals and others.

Whew! That was a long one, huh? And on schedule, too! Anyway, this is a story I’ll likely be editing down to send out to be published for realsies. Currently it’s over all kinds of silly word limits, but that’s aight. No biggie.

I’ve actually had this one on a schedule since May 31st, so this is kinda coming from the past! And really, I’ve been working on this one since January. Had it sitting around and never did nothin’ with it. Well go figure! Here it is, anyway! Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I know the title is cliché as hell– but the spin on the themes should at least be a little entertaining!

Happy reading, everyone!

-Eris

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