Crucifer

 

Prologue

I shriek silently, like a bat. And again. And again. The shrieks echo back, etching a sound-picture of the nocturnal forest. Two figures are moving among the trees to the south. The pattern is wrong for deer or wolves. I follow the movement quietly, oh so quietly. The wind shifts, and their smell is full in my nostrils. One smells of mud and curing sausage. A human peasant, with the scent of a teenage girl. The other reeks of blood. Human blood, with only the faintest whiff of common human odor underneath. That is my quarry.

I quicken my soft steps, angle for a point ahead on the path I think they follow. My shrieks lead me to a bare spot under the trees, where the deer-path opens into a glade. I throw my head back and shriek at the tree-tops. There is a large hole in the middle of the branches, open to the sky. Perfect.

I settle cross-legged at the roots of a great pine. I fold my arms on my chest. Bend forward ‘til my nose smells dirt and pine needles very close. Then I turn to stone. Literally. My dress is woven from my own hair, so it changes with me. When the two arrive, they will perhaps notice a great misshapen rock. My stone ears tell me that they are not far off now.

My quarry is male, to judge by the voice. The stench of what he is had cloaked his male smells earlier. So it often is. He murmurs sweetly to the girl, it sounds like the mating call of any common swain, alone in the woods with his beloved. And yet - there is a wrong note, like tapping on rotten wood. It is not a mate he desires, but a blood-source.

I listen carefully. They are close enough. I come to life - spring at him. Grasp his wrists. The shrieks tell me that his true teeth are out, all sharper than wolves'. We wrestle on the ground, roll ‘til he is on top, but I still hold his wrists tight. Then - I turn to stone. I hear his long teeth crunch against my hard neck. No harm done. At least, not to me. He struggles, but cannot get free.

"Kresnik!" He spits the name out in hatred, and continues in a long spurt of obscenity against my mating habits, those of my mother, and the God Who made me what I am. Strange that it should take him so long to recognize me. Yet - there is no reliable sign that shows my kind for what we are. Only the cross-shaped birthmark that names us - Kresnik, Crucifer, Cross-bearer. And there has hardly been time for him to check for that.

Between his shouts, I hear the girl padding away. If she keeps to the path, she won't go far wrong - it leads from the deeps of the forests to certain tilled fields that the deer like to graze in.

My quarry gives up, as though resigned to what will come. Nothing to do now, but wait for the sun. After (what feels like) centuries -it rises. I cannot see the sun, but the whole tune of the forest changes when it appears. My quarry sobs softly.

He will have to live a little longer, for the sun is not yet high enough for its effects to touch him in this glade. I could pity him. Yet, had I not come, the girl would've be dead by sunrise. Truly dead - there are Parasites who can give their victims a cruel kind of immortality, but his smell was not of these.

Finally the warmth comes through the hole in the treetops. One howl from my quarry, cut short by the sun. My stone hands are empty now. He was human - at least, as human as I am - now he is ashes rustling on the wind. I come to life again. I head for the thickets, well away from all paths man uses. There I can eat roots and sleep. ‘Til the warmth goes away, and the day-birds fall silent. Then the Parasites hunt. And so do the Crucifers.

 

Chapter 1

"By three things you may know our birth: We were born with useless eyes, we were born to hunt, We were all born to mortal woman."

~ Crucifer Triad

Sir Imre stamped his feet, trying to keep warm in the chill of a Hungarian night. He did not curse his master for proposing such a meeting at such an hour. On the battlements of the castle, no less. Imre had served Count Bathory long enough to know that the old man had his reasons for this kind of secrecy.

Bathory arrived. Finally.

"My old friend," he began. "I have great need of your help. And that of whatever men you can trust."

"I am at your service, of course, Sire."

"I have an errand for you, which -"

"No one must know of. Even your wife the Countess. Especially your wife the Countess. That's usually the sort of thing you bring me here for."

Bathory chuckled. "You know me only too well, Imre. But you are only partly right. I'm sending you out to search for my heir. You scouring the countryside would be impossible to hide - but the nature of your errand must be kept secret. At least until you have found Iszorte, and I have acknowledged her."

Imre frowned. "I thought your daughter was dead."

"Two nights ago, some farmer's daughter went walking with her beau in the woods. She was expecting a tumble in the hay I suppose, but he turned out to be a dhampyr. Sharp teeth, flaming eyes and all. At the last minute, a strange creature attacked the dhampyr and the girl ran away."

"Sire, you credit the old wives' tales of bloodsucking fiends and the kresniks who hunt them?"

"The girl swears that the kresnik had the face of a Bathory."

Imre looked at the moonlit face of his employer. The widow's peak in the forehead, the oval face with the pointed chin and the long straight nose. The large almond-shaped eyes, one slightly higher than the other. A Bathory face was hard to mistake.

"What has the House of Bathory to do with such creatures?" Imre demanded. He could not quite keep the shaking from his voice. "Assuming they exist?"

"My daughter Iszorte was born," Bathory began. "About eighteen years ago. That was before your time, Imre, you are only her senior by five years or so. Elizabeta was not pleased to have a daughter (blind, to boot), and she was appalled to learn that the child had a birthmark on the back of her right hand."

"In the shape of a cross?"

"Yes. You've obviously heard the stories, even if you don't believe them. Well, Elizabeta nearly had hysterics over that, wanted to drown the child. That was foolish. I mean, I follow the old ways, same as her, and have no love for the Jewish god. But mark of the Jewish god or no, Iszorte was still my heir. Mine is a great dynasty, it's ruled this place since the Magyars came to this land."

"Probably the Countess feels that a "kresnik" heir would offend the gods," Imre suggested.

"Truth in that, but not the whole truth and you know it. An heir would prevent Elizabeta from controlling the estate after I'm gone. Myself, I want the bloodline to go on. Gods be d--d."

"And so...what became of the child?"

"Oh, I managed to keep her alive for a while. It helped that her nurses were fond of Iszorte. But a little afraid of her. There were strange...stories after a while."

"What kind of stories?"

"Things came to a head," Bathory continued. "When the girl was five. I was out hunting in the forest, and had become separated from my party. Then something knocked me off my horse and grabbed me tight. It was like being clutched by a statue. Then, a kresnik stepped out from the trees in of me."

Imre gulped. "What was it like?"

"Very human to look at. That was the most horrible thing. At a distance, the thing looked like a man holding up one hand to show that blasted cross on it. Then I realized that he moved like a thing that had not slept in a human house since it could remember. And that he had very large, pointed ears. And when he got closer I could see that he had very pale eyes that always stared straight ahead. He must've been blind. But he seemed to know exactly where I was."

"'Count Bathory?' he said. He spoke Magyar clearly but with a sort of contempt, as though it didn't really matter whether he got the words quite right. 'A great opportunity has come to your line. But only my people can help you take advantage of it.'"

"'What do you mean?' I asked him."

"'Your heir is one of us. She has powers that your alchemists would sell their souls for, if they haven't already. Give her to us, we will teach her how to use them."

"'You wretch!' I cried. 'Asking a father to give up his darling to monsters like you -' I stopped. Somehow, he could tell that I was lying. I could tell that he knew."

"'One thing only matters to you,' said the kresnik. 'The increase of your own power, and that of your house. You are held by one of my people. If a Bathory wielded such powers, would you not be pleased?'"

"'That would only matter,' said I, 'If the child were returned to me.'"

"'At eighteen, each Crucifer must return to the humans, and live long enough among them to choose.'"

"'To choose?'"

"'The Parasites are what they are by choice,' he said. 'Likewise, no one can remain Crucifer against their will. By twilight today, Iszorte will be one of us. In thirteen years' time, she will return to you to learn human-ness, and to choose. Bargain?'"

"'I accept,' I said. I was alone before I finished speaking."

"And the child?" Imre asked.

"She vanished that afternoon." Bathory looked at his trusty knight. "Find her for me."

Imre nodded, but the Count was already disappearing down the battlement steps.

 

Chapter 2

When the Magyars came, I was born;

When the hour came, I walked in them;

At my choosing, I followed the hunt.

-Triad of choosing, sung by Smaragdius of Hungary.

A word to all who bear the cross: the man-wolf reported at Lugo is cured, I sing. I use the high-pitched chatter that only bats and Crucifers can hear. It is afternoon, and the bats still sleep.

How? The question comes from the south, across the valley. Old Talash, probably. She still thinks of me as a child. Did you make sure of what he was?

I hid near his house. That night he came out in wolf-form, ravening. I caught him, turned to stone. Held him until dawn, when he became a man again. I explained to him the cure, and the alternative. He assented and I led him through the cure. It worked. I say no more. The others know that the cure involves soaking the man in a pond where wolf's bane grows, until the wolf-spirit leaves his body and can be destroyed. Why repeat what all know?

A voice nearer to me adds that the speaker (Arisztid of Peshtan) has seen the man since then and that he is in fact cured. Well done. He adds. Talash echoes it, so do most of the fifty-odd others.

A word to Iszorte of the upper woods: it is time. The call is sharp and piercing. By its direction, it comes from the north. My skin goes hard and bumpy in the warm summer air. The time has come- to second-learn, to live among humans until I am like them. Then I must choose.

Does anyone know a suitable place? I ask. That I might go to, and not be questioned?

Your place among humans was settled at your birth, replies the northern voice. You are Iszorte of the Bathory line, heir to a great house among mortals. Go to your birth parents.

Don't they think I'm dead? I protest.

Not your father. Your venture with the dhampyr reached his ears. He sends a trusted fighter to find you, and bring you safely home. The northern voice uses the Magyar word for home, we have no words for it.

Please, don't make me go to him! We seem frail and crippled to our parents, or so the old songs tell. For that, they either hate us much or love us much. Both sound uncomfortable.

I struck a bargain with your father, that you would go to him when your time came, says the northern voice. Would you have me break my word?

I tell him no, of course not. The other voices drop in pitch, going from the squeaks of bats to deep rumblings. If any human passes by, he or she would hear nothing, but perhaps feel a throbbing in the warm air.

When the Magyars came I was born... they begin with Smaradgius's triad of choosing, then sing all the other triads of choosing composed by the Crucifers of this place. At the appointed place I add my own:

To the Bathorys I was born,

Among the Kresniks I have lived;

It is incomplete. Only two lines of the three. I will sing the last when I have chosen my life, whether Crucifer or human. And they will sing my triad with all the others, whenever there is occasion to quote the triads. Even if I choose human-ness, my triad and my choice will remain in the songs of the people I have left behind.

The northern voice utters three piercing cries to show me more clearly where he is. Come to me, he adds. And I will lead you to those who search for you. And so it begins.

 

Chapter 3

As he rode through the grassy hills with his men at his back, Imre began to think that Count Bathory had set him an impossible task. The thought pleased him. He had faced hostile armies and savage bandits calmly, efficiently. Some would even say, bravely. But -- the idea of facing a teenage girl, blind and raised by wights out of dark old tales -- it was appalling, not to be borne. Imre shook himself. Be reasonable, he told himself. The ‘creatures' Bathory gave his daughter to were human to look upon. Probably some crude tribe out of the old days, using the legends to protect themselves. This idea was not very consoling somehow.

Imre was glad that he had told his warriors very little of Bathory's tale. They knew only that the Count had hidden a daughter named Iszorte somewhere in the countryside for safekeeping, and that it was now time to find her...

"Sir," A voice from the rear called. "I think I saw something moving."

"Where?" Another voice.

"Off to the right -- can't you see it?"

Imre wheeled his horse and stared. The tall grass moved, as though some sort of mountain cat were creeping through it. The man who'd spotted it first had his bow out and an arrow at the ready.

A chill ran through Imre. "Don't!" He said. "Not until I give the signal." The other man knit his brows in puzzlement, but nodded.

"If you can understand me," Imre shouted at the movement in the grass. "Show yourself!" The movement stopped. Then, very slowly, the creeping thing stood up.

It was a girl in her late teens, skin browned by sun and wind. Body as gaunt and taut as a wolfhound's. She wore a plain shift of silky russet that matched her hair exactly. The face was very Bathory, heart-shaped, capped with a widow's peak. It would have been a pretty face, save for the eyes in it and the ears on either side of it. The ears were huge, leaf-shaped, sharply pointed. The eyes were gray, motionless and meaningless. They weren't quite level with each other but that was a Bathory trait. Rather comforting, compared to the girl's sheer otherness. Her lips were slightly open, for no reason that Imre could think of.

"Are you Sir Imre, servant of the house of Bathory?" Her voice was high-pitched, fast, a little slurry.

"Yes, I am," Imre was embarrassed by the croaking note in his voice. "Are you Iszorte Bathory? The Count's daughter?"

"Yes. I am to go with you, to the Count. True?"

"Yes," Imre signaled for the spare horse.

Iszorte frowned. "No. I do not ride."

Imre stared. "How you could tell-?"

"That they were bringing a horse for me, though I cannot see? Have you ever wondered how bats dodge and fly even in the darkest night?"

"Some wise men say that they make very sharp sounds that only they can hear," said Imre, "And that these sounds bounce off obstacles and return to their ears to show them what to avoid. But that is nonsense, surely," he added.

"No. That is how bats see. And how we - I - see." Imre heard the men shifting nervously. They had seen and heard enough to realize that the "we" were kresniks. They were loyal, though, and stood at attention. Imre decided to change the subject.

"If you do not ride," he argued. "You cannot come with us."

The girl laughed, a high squeaky laugh with no cruelty and little humanity in it. "I can run as fast as your beasts," she said.

Imre swallowed. "Very well," he said. "Let us go."

It turned out that she could run as fast as the horses. And as steadily.

 

Chapter 4

The echoes bounce back to me, showing a huge mass of rock up ahead. Not wild rock, but rock tamed and smoothed by human hands. This must be Castle Bathory. I wonder what it's like inside.

"We're almost there," says the one called Imre. He smells less of fear than the others do. But he is still very much afraid. Of me? I dislike the thought, I don't know why.

We stop in front of the castle. At our feet is a ditch full of muddy water. Stench of dead animals, rotting human-food, excrement, and - human blood? I sniff again but the odor is gone.

"Does this go all the way around the castle?" I ask.

"What, the moat? Of course." Imre says. I hear him dismount behind me. He touches my shoulder very briefly, as though I were slimy.

"Please stand back," he says. "They know we're here, and they're going to lower a sort of platform to let us into the castle. It's called a drawbridge."

"And?"

"And you're standing in the way. Step back."

I take a few steps back. The drawbridge folds down from the other side of the moat, and we walk in. First under an archway of stone, then out under an open sky, its horizons shut in by stones on all sides. There are people here, and they roar like the villagers on Fat Tuesday. Then into a place with a high stone sky and stone horizons.

On a hill of stepped stones at the other end, a woman sits. Imre leads me to the foot of the hill. As he turns towards the woman, his scent changes from fear to desire. I like this even less, for some reason.

"My Lady," he begins, "The Count sent me to find his daughter, who had been lost. This is she, Iszorte Bathory, your heir and his."

I study my...mother with nose and echoes. Her face is round, her skin and hair smooth. Her figure is curved like that of a peasant woman with many suitors. This must be why the knight Imre desires her. I still dislike it, and am confused. As a Crucifer, such peccadilloes were none of my concern, unless a Parasite figured in them somehow. As a human - what I am to think about these things? Are my feelings right? Or wrong?

Her smell is unpleasant: myrrh and burnt incense, the blood of small animals, female desire barely controlled. And the smell of human blood - weaker than for a Parasite - that marks a murderer.

"The Count is unwell," my mother is saying. "But I know he will want to see you two." Her mouth curves up as she talks, like a cat just before it snarls. "Come with me..."

 

Chapter 5

Imre stared down at his master. Bathory's face was snow-pale, withered. His eyes had a quivering brightness, like two candles about to go out.

"Imre?" The dying man's voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "Did you find her?"

"Yes, sire. She's over here." Imre took Iszorte by the hand and led her closer to the sickbed. The Count stared at his daughter, taking in every detail of her. Blind Iszorte was not precisely staring back -- but she was standing perfectly still, like a wild thing focusing on a passing human with all its senses. The Count looked away first.

"By all the devils!" He said. "Aye, that's Iszorte alright, and she'll do very well indeed."

"She's a great runner, I'm told," Elizabeth remarked. "Kept pace with the horses all the way."

Imre winced. It was hard to hear that from her, her whom he had loved -- at a safe and platonic distance, with no real disloyalty to his lord. Yet, how could one blame her? An unloved daughter, long thought dead, returned so fearfully? A true nightmare, to be sure. It would pass, though. By the end of the trek home, his men, though still frightened, had become rather proud of the newfound heir. So fleet and graceful, so tireless -- a monster she might be, but a credit to her house as well.

The Count's mouth widened into a smile. "All the way? Those creatures certainly didn't let you get soft, little one -- Imre don't apologize, I know it's not your fault, probably some kresnik taboo or other. And that reminds me, Imre, of a promise I need from you."

"What is it, sire?"

"Promise me you'll serve Iszorte as well as you've served me. It won't be long before she's setting her own course. Until then, you must protect her, protect her interests, as best you can. Promise me."

"I promise." A proper oath of fealty was a complicated affair and would have to wait, but Imre added oaths by the grave of his parents, and by the gods of his employers, to make it more binding. (The God of his childhood religion, he only half-believed in now, and was not popular at this court.)

The Count did not seem to hear. He stared through his visitors, seemingly through the very walls of his room; his face fixed in an expression Imre could not read. Then Bathory's head fell forward on his breast. The leech at the bedside touched him, looked up and shook his head. Elizabeth flung herself down at the foot of the bed in a spasm of purely theatrical grief.

Iszorte took a step forward. Imre thought he heard her snuffle inquisitively. Then, she threw back her head, beginning a sort of melodic keening that wove in and out of human hearing. The odd melody reminded Imre a bit of the chanting at the monastery that had raised him. But the words, if there were any, were nothing like Greek, Latin, Magyar, and Roumanian. There did not seem to be much emotion in it. Perhaps this was her idea of the appropriate and conventional thing to do; as screaming and thrashing seemed to be Elizabeth's. Elizabeth -- was the situation more or less hopeless between them now? Then the younger woman filled his mind again: alone and blind, head thrown back as though baying at the moon.

Imre looked down at the dead Count's face. I'll do what I can, sire. God knows, it won't be enough. It can't be. But I'll try.

 

Chapter 6

When we seek truth,

We probe with nose and ears:

Deceive us if you can.

~ Crucifer triad.

"No good," the Countess my mother is saying, "The blue makes her look coarse. Put the crimson robe on her, Nida."

"Yes, my Lady." Nida is a small plump servant girl. She smells less of fear than when she and the Countess started this business of putting clothes on me. Perhaps the girl is becoming used to me. My mother still radiates the fear-odor, though.

"Excellent! Sets off her skin and hair nicely, without being too gaudy," the Countess says. She's rejected several dresses as ‘too gaudy', all patterned with something called embroidery and having many gemstones. Her own dress is much like these -- perhaps ‘too gaudy' means ‘too much like mine'. I don't mind -- the ‘crimson' robe is soft as bird's down.

"Iszorte, you shall wear that to the banquet this evening," she says. Her shoulders relax a little.

"Yes, my Lady," I answer. She tenses again. Several heartbeats pass before she speaks. "I wish you would call me Mother," she says. Her tone somehow seems not right. She stands very stiffly, and a new note has entered her smell -- one I cannot place. Could she be lying? The Parasites often trick and deceive their victims, and the oldest triads say that they learn this cruelty as humans, before they become Parasites. So perhaps humans do this to other humans also. I test my notion.

"Why are you afraid, Mother?" I ask.

"I'm not afraid," she says. She lies, for I can still smell her fear. She still stands stiffly, her tone is faintly not right, and the new smell is still there, mixed with the fear. So humans do lie, and I know how this Human acts when she does.

Several more heartbeats of silence. "I must go now," my mother says. "Nida, fix her hair and," she lowers her voice to a loud whisper, "Make sure to hide her ears." Humans have very small ears for their size, which explains why they think a loud whisper is secretive.

"Nida, leave my ears uncovered." At the last moment I remember something Imre told me. "Please," I add.

"But Iszorte, dear-" my mother begins. Then she stops and waits, as though I am supposed to interrupt her.

"I will not hide what I am," I answer. This is true, but it would be truer to say that with my ears covered I cannot hear the echoes that show me where the stone walls are. No matter -- they say one should not give too much truth to one who lies.

My mother stands very taut for a moment. Her chest rises and falls quickly, warmth and anger have entered her smell. Then she twitches her shoulders, turns, and leaves.

 

Chapter 7

My work ended, I sang to the lark.

He answered at the dawn.

I am hidden, and rejoice unseen.

~ Crucifer triad.

Imre fidgeted in his chair, and stared up the length of the great dining hall. The room was cold, despite the great blazing fireplace where a whole ox was being roasted. He said as much to Vladis, the huntsman on his right.

"The Count's spirit come back to haunt us, I shouldn't wonder," retorted Vladis. "He brings us ice, because we make merry before his grave is cold."

"What matter that?" It was one of Imre's men, sitting on the other side of Vladis. "With the kresnik we need fear no demons."

"What is the 'monster' like?" asked Vladis.

Just then, everyone stood up. Imre looked towards the end of the table. Elizabeta had entered, and was taking her husband's place at the head of the table. Her shadowy hair was braided, wound around her head like a coronet. Long emerald earrings -an heirloom from her native Transylvania-marked her eyes. Her ripe, mellow beauty was accentuated by a low cut dress in cloth of gold. Imre let out his breath sharply, not realizing that he'd been holding it.

He chanced to glance at her right hand, the place where Eizabeta sat in her husband's lifetime. Imre saw Iszorte standing there. Straight as a spear, almost as slender, she wore a simple red robe, that made her tawny skin glow like honey.

"That's the creature you brought back from the wild?" Vladis gasped.

"That's no creature," Imre's man said, with a note of pride in his voice. "That's a woman." Imre said nothing, but in his heart, he agreed.

Imre heard the hunting cry and jangling bell of a trained falcon. He turned to follow the sound. The bird was circling up towards the ceiling, preparing to dive and strike...

 

Chapter 8

The humans don't seem to realize whom the falcon is aiming for.

"Imre, DOWN!" I shout. I spring up onto the table and run towards him. I kick over some of the vessels that people use for eating and drinking, but at least I don't stumble and fall. I reach Imre. He has ignored my warning. Instead of getting under the table, he has his sword out. Stupid man. Why kill the bird? Obviously its master gave the order.

The bird is now in a steep hunting dive. If I call to it now, it will not heed. I leap up and swat it gently. Its dive turns into a somersault, then it rights itself in the air. All this in less time than it takes to breathe once. I have its attention now. I speak to it in its own tongue. The falcon doesn't seem quite convinced, but it lands on my hand anyway.

"Kill it!" Mother's voice echoes sharply down the table. So that is the sound of power.

"Wait." I try to imitate Mother's tone, but don't quite manage it. Everyone seems to be paying attention anyway. "A tame bird only attacks at its master's command. The master is the true villain here, and only the bird can tell us who that it is."

It's hard to tell at this distance, but Mother seems stiff and unwilling. Still, she nods. I ask the falcon to gesture towards its master. It stretches out its neck and points with its beak towards the man seated at Imre's right hand.

"Vladis!" Imre gasps. The man on the right - Vladis, I suppose - turns his head towards Mother. His scent betrays his affection for her. She must have seen his gesture, but she makes no sign to acknowledge it.

"It's true," Vladis says with a sigh. "I trained Windraider -that's her name - to attack a scarecrow with a clay head that had been made to look like Imre. My squire had orders to set her loose at the banquet. He thought it was for a joke, and shouldn't be punished."

"Why did you do it?"

"I have my reasons," he said. "But they are none of your concern. The important thing is that I am the one responsible."

Mother claps her hands. "Guards!" She says. "Take him to the dungeon. And destroy the bird."

"Birds and beasts are not capable of malice," I answer. "They only obey instinct, and their trainers. Anyone who has a quarrel with Windraider must take it up with me." The still room becomes even stiller.

"If you wish to keep the bird, you are of course welcome to it," Mother replies. "You will, I think, find it rather hard to retrain." She beckons me back to my seat. Once Vladis is taken away, a merry chatter begins. It has the same nervous note as a flock of birds who've just noticed a snake crawling up their tree.

 

Chapter 9

A human mirrors all creation;

He-She is image of God and beast;

Carves crooked paths by choice.

After dinner, Imre found himself closeted in with Elizabeta's councilors. Iszorte was not invited and not present.

"She may be the heir by blood," one old man was arguing, "But what does she know of policy? And she's surely too old to be taught the art of ruling."

"Based on tonight's events, I would say that she has makings of a good judge," said Imre, trying not to shiver in the chilly room. The fire was burning very low. "And if she does not prove to be a mighty warrior, I will be very much surprised."

"A woman warrior? Who ever heard of such a thing?" scoffed a young man. He was one of Elizabeta's bodyguards.

"I have," said the old man. "The Count's own grandmother was a fierce general who beat back the Turks after her husband died." His eyes turned back to Imre, squinting past the lit candle that stood between them on the table. "I wasn't doubting her courage, lad, or her sense of justice. But there's more to running this place than that, and you know it."

"Perhaps best if we turned just turned her out into the forest where she belonged," said Annia. She was a tall, middle-aged woman with a booming voice. She had come with Elizabeta from Transylvania, and was one of the Countess's oldest friends.

"I think she would be happier there," said Ulaire. A red-haired, square-faced woman in her late twenties, she was a niece of the Count's and next in line after his daughter. Since she was older than Iszorte, she would be expected to act as co-regent with Elizabeta until Iszorte came of age. "But since she is the heir, and has come of her own free will, I don't see why we shouldn't accept her."

"At least conditionally," said Elizabeta, speaking for almost the first time in the meeting. "Imre, you had said something about this being a period of testing for her?"

"The Count claimed that the...creatures who raised her require their foundlings to return to human society for a while, and learn to live in it. This apparently is a prelude to them choosing between a normal human life and ...the other life," said Imre.

"So this discussion could cease to matter in a twelvemonth or so?" said Ulaire. "Sounds like we should get her as involved as possible and see how she does."

"And with any luck, she'll hate it and go back whence she came?" said the young man with a laugh.

"Well, for me it would be lucky," said Ulaire frankly. "But mostly I meant that the sooner we find out whether she has any talent for ruling, the better for all concerned."

"That's a good notion," said Elizabeta. "We won't load her up with responsibility all at once. Break her in gently, so to speak. Any objections?" There were none.

She gestured with her hand, dismissing them all. Imre rose to go. She did the same and strolled over next to him as the others filed out. As soon as the others were gone, she turned, kissed him full on the lips and then swept out. Imre stared after her, his mind in a whirl.

 

Chapter 10

Love made the world, nothingness entered and marred it.

The love of man and maid, the cruel Prey can only feign.

After the Choosing, we cannot have and will not feign.

In a state of astonishment, Imre followed Elizabeta down the hall. Through the dark and stony corridors -- at dinner, Iszorte had said that they were like caves - she went, neither stopping nor looking back. Not until she reached the foot of the stairs. Her stairs! Imre awoke with a jolt to the awareness of where he was, just as the Countess turned to look behind her.

"I knew you'd come," she said, stepping towards him. "I knew you felt about me as I do about you."

Imre swallowed. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Like knows like, my dear." She put her hand on his chest.

"My Lady," he began. "We can't do this."

She laughed silently. "The Count is dead, my trusty knight. I could take you as my husband, my protector and the girl's."

"I serve you both already," he said.

"But wouldst like the marital service better, I think," she said. Again the silent laugh. "A knight may aspire to a Countess's hand, surely?"

"Well, yes," he said. "But so soon after your husband's death...it would cause talk. And you know how the common folk hate you."

Her face hardened. "And what is that to me?" she said.

"You have enemies in high places. It is the sort of thing they could use against you."

Her face softened. "Dear Imre, you think only of me."

Imre almost said that he thought only of her and her daughter, but some instinct prevented him. She kissed him again. "But the proprieties are the only thing to prevent this?" she asked. "After a respectable time of mourning, you would be willing?"

"Yes," he added, and only then realized that he had just accepted a proposal of marriage from a woman. She smiled at him and went back to the foot of her stairs. Imre watched her ascend them. With her golden dress, she looked like a flame or a comet. She did not look back when she reached her door. Imre sighed and turned away.

 

Chapter 11

All mortals quest for something,

some call the thing power, some call it beauty; much grief

Has come from the seeking, and not a few Parasites

Footsteps in the hall jerk me out of sleep. A door opens.

"Milady Iszorte?" It is Nida's voice. "Where are you?"

I push the closet door open a crack. "Here," I say.

The door swings further open. Nida enters my line of smell. "Milady? What are you doing there?"

"Well, I was sleeping," I pick myself up off the floor and step out of the closet.

"But why-"

"The short answer is that I wanted to." I don't feel like telling her how the soft bed reminds me of a pit of quicksand, so easy to get into, so hard to get out of. Or how the closet is like a drier, stuffier version of the hedges and tree-hollows I used to rest in.

"Milady the Countess has...business in the forest. She wants you to join her." There is fear in her scent and in her voice, but not fear of me. It's the vague peasant fear that imagines something wicked without knowing it at first hand. The fact is worth holding in mind.

"Very well, then." I start towards the bedroom door.

"But, Milady, your clothes..." Nida's voice trails awkwardly away. Last night I had slipped back into my old hair dress. I'm still wearing it.

"This is much better suited to the forest than anything in there." Not all the clothes in the closet are as delicate as what I wore to the banquet, but none are as tough as my hair dress.

Nida shifts from one foot to another. I wait to see if she has anything else to say. She opens her mouth, then closes it without saying anything. I turn and leave the room and she follows me out.

I follow the almost-familiar corridors out to the main courtyard. Out of breath, Nida scampers a little behind me. "You've a wonderful sense of direction," she pants. "It took me three months to get my bearings here."

I haven't explored the castle enough to "get my bearings", but I know how to get to the main hall from my bedroom and how to get from there to the courtyard. And for the present purpose, that's all that matters.

Out in the courtyard, the bird songs are those of morning. I cannot feel the sun, but likely the great walls block it out. My mother is there, with three horses and an old woman who smells of herbs and potions. Ah, this is what Nida fears. A "witch." There are many who smell like that: some are honest folk who seek health and healing through forest plants and such. For the others, my people have a simple name: graspers-at-power.

"Ah, Milady Countess," the smooth voice belongs to one of the courtiers, for whom I have no name. "You look marvelous this morning." A false note in his voice.

"I feel marvelous," she answers. Again the false note. I have been told - sincerely - that my mother is beautiful, so something must be wrong with her this morning. I scan her face with my echoes. The skin seems a bit rougher, more wrinkled, the hair a little coarser. She must not have slept well last night. Neither did I of course, but that was because a nighttime sleep is strange to me.

"Good morning, Mother," I say. She stands stiff, saying nothing. After a moment, I realize what is bothering her. "My clothes are my own choice," I add. "Don't blame Nida."

She nods. "I see. Iszorte, this is Lamis, my...physician."

"You mean your wise woman. I know the kind well enough-don't worry, Lamis, I've never killed anyone for gathering herbs by the light of the full moon." Somehow, Lamis doesn't seem reassured.

My mother brushes it aside. "At any rate, I thought it would be well for you to come with us today. You could learn something of horseback riding, and become acquainted with the Bathory lands."

I shrug. They may be up to mischief, if so I can probably handle them. If not, I doubt them unfairly. Besides, like it or not, I must learn to ride if I am to live here. "I'll come," I say.

 

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