WEB MISTRESS NOTE (9/5/07): I will be adding future sections to this tale as I edit the written pages over the next few months, as each chapter is divided up into several sections. Please email me with corrections and comments, as well as a new title, should you wish to suggest one. At the time this work first began (in the summer of 1980), there were no other books with the title "Castles in the Sky". Such is no longer the case, and unlike "The Night of the Tiger" (which seems to have been used a LOT, even as a short story by Stephen King), I would like an original title for this original tale....
Thanks for any comments.
[Addendum 9/28/13: I have opted to simply name the book after the main character - and all the other characters are thrilled enough about that change to start "talking" to me again, and all are in agreement as to where the story should go now. Work has started again even as I am banging my head against the wall over "The Tiger's Cub", which, for some reason, keeps having publisher-induced problems instead of smoothly going from my rough draft to the final release. Suffice to say that I'm considering either another publisher - or doing this one as an indie publication.....]
Chapter One: Promises and Prophecies
“Promises and prophecies clash within the mind,
But promises are hard to keep and prophecies unwind.”
- Old Benite saying
The Junitarian sky turned slowly gray as dawn’s first breath sighed through the trees at the foot of a large cliff. The breeze chased itself up the cliff’s face to burst over the top, stirring the mane and tail of the beautiful golden mare standing there. It bothered not the silent girl sitting on the horse’s back, waiting for the dawn that would bring many drastic changes to her life.
First and foremost, the day heralded the beginning of her sixteenth year, and for that reason, she was very happy. But by Denubian custom, it also marked her wedding day, and her happiness was edged with the bitter taint of dread. Her groom, the Count de Trineo, the largest landowner of all the Royal consultants and a citizen of the nearby town of Beni, was five times her age and had been promised her hand at her birth. She had been assigned a female attendant to guard that her virginity would be intact on her wedding day, a woman who had been with her every second of her life. This attendant, commonly referred to in Benite terms as a watcher-woman, waited patiently at the edge of the trees for the Ceremony of the Goddess to be completed, yet the future ruler of Junitaria was alone on the edge of Widow’s Heights, worried about the coming night. What would she do when she would no longer be allowed to retire to her chamber to spend the night with her watcher-woman, but would be expected to satisfy the lusts of a man well past his prime? Although the Count had always been very kind to her, she worried that she would fail in the one thing she was meant to do in their marriage: produce children.
Rhawneth Kenna, the heir to the Benite throne, had never felt so totally lost.
She gazed at the shadowy land stretched out below her, watching the small flickering of distant torches that marked those who were making their way to the castle for her wedding. By the rites of her birth and marriage, these lands and the people those torches represented would be hers to rule as Queen to Count de Trineo’s King when her father died; yet she felt none of the pride that should have accompanied that thought. It was as if some small voice deep within her whispered that it would never be, that something terrible was going to happen to insure that she would never take her rightful place on the throne. The feeling stayed with her even as the sun reached one glowing arm up into her sight, like a cat stretching one sinewy limb after a long nap. Taking a deep breath, she began the ceremony that would usher in another year.
Reaching down to the pommel of her saddle, she untied the black velvet bag that the High Priestess of the Morning Goddess had given her the night before and reached inside to pull out the first item for the ritual, a heavy golden bracelet. Standing in the saddle, she offered it to the sun and whispered the ancient prayer that welcomed another year of womanhood, then slipped it onto her arm where it jangled against the other two bracelets that resided there, marking her third year of womanhood according to Junitarian tradition. Her eyes grew sad as she realized it would be the last she ever got, for married women didn’t mark the passing of the years. From this day forth, her husband would be the only one who would be allowed to care about her age, and then only if he chose to.
<“Don’t be so sure about the future.”>
The soft voice in her head was that of the Royal Healer, Merin Leteux of the dark-skinned Jauttain, even though she and Merin didn't share the psychic bond that Rhawneth shared with some people in the castle, for Merin and Rhawneth were both gifted with the ability to heal people by concentration. What’s more, the voice was so real - so there - it caused Rhawneth look around, expecting the gray-cloaked figure to come out of the mists that swirled around the clearing. With a slight frown, she realized that the dawn was unusually quiet, but shook off her uneasiness when she saw the impatient look on the watcher-woman’s face and continued with the ceremony, suddenly wanting to just get it over with and get back to the safety of the castle.
Still frowning, she reached into the bag and brought out the slim white strip of cloth that would mark her as a virginal bride. Offering it to the touch of the Morning Goddess with a prayer for strength when the time came to give herself to her husband, she solemnly tied it around her head with the single embroidered purple flower that marked her as a member of the royal household centered on her forehead. As the watcher-woman came forward, Rhawneth slowly loosened the ties of her cloak and lifted it from her shoulders, revealing the creamy velvet gown beneath, and smoothed the ties of the headband over the golden braid that ran down the center of her back. The watcher-woman took the cloak without a sound, then solemnly turned to begin the long walk back to the castle, not even looking to see if Rhawneth would follow. She was well aware that duty meant everything to the Princess, who would die before dishonoring the Kenna name. With a deep sigh, Rhawneth did just what was expected of her, turning her horse to follow the watcher-woman.
In moments, the silent forest closed in behind the two women, leaving the cliff empty save for the touch of the breeze that rustled through the trees.
“Rhawneth, look out!”
Mandetti Rossi tossed in a large bed in the bowels of the largest castle in the Junitarian province of Denubia, a castle that stood at the center of a cleared field on top of a tall hill overlooking the town of Beni. The ailing woman fought off the hands of her husband as he tried to hold a damp cloth to her feverish forehead, for she was trying to rise from the bed to go to the aide of the Princess and he was interfering.
Groaning in frustration, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, Matthew Rossi was forced to drop the rag onto the floor and use all of his weight to make his wife remain in the bed. Despite the lack of muscle in her disease-wasted frame, she was unexpectedly strong in her fear for the distant Princess. Fatigue etched deep grooves into Matthew’s features as he fought to hold onto his struggling wife, but just as it seemed that she would win the battle, she suddenly stopped fighting. The door to the room swung open and a gray-robed figure glided majestically toward the bed, eyes glowing with a green fire beneath the hood that shadowed the rest of the being’s features.
The Royal Healer, Merin Leteux, was deep within a trance that seemed to reach out to the sick woman‘s mind and erase her fear for the Princess. All of Merin’s considerable concentration was directed inward, drawing forth the strength from deep within that would give Mandetti temporary relief from the raging fever and exquisite pain that consumed her. A disease that was beyond any Healer’s spell was destroying the girl from the inside out. The Royal Truthsayer had been slowly dying for almost a year, and although everyone in the castle knew it, none could do anything to prevent her fast-approaching demise.
Without a word to the weary man who moved aside at her approach, Merin placed her hands on Mandetti’s forehead, then moved one hand down to cover the young woman’s heart. Merin’s eyes closed and the green glow that had been in her eyes seemed to manifest itself in the dark-skinned hands. The Healer’s mouth opened and a softly spoken command in the ancient tongue of Junitaria slipped past her lips.
The green glow passed from Merin’s hands into the ailing form, and Mandetti suddenly sighed, dropping back onto the pillows and slipping into a deep, restful sleep as the visions that haunted her were erased from her mind. When his wife relaxed, Matthew allowed himself to relax as well, running one hand through his close-cropped dark hair that had yet to show it's first strands of gray, then released his own sigh while he tried hard to make his tired face form a smile of thanks for the Healer.
What resulted was a lame sort of half-smile, but Merin smiled fondly back at the exhausted man. She had always liked and respected the young Commander of the King’s Guard, and had known he was very devoted to his young wife, but she never knew just how devoted Matthew could be until Mandetti became ill. Like many of the King’s soldiers, Matthew had hired a companion for his wife in the early days, when she was still mostly able to care for herself. But unlike the other soldiers, he had taken a leave of absence when the disease had wasted her body to the point that she could no longer function on her own. For several weeks, Matthew had been by Mandetti’s side night and day, tending to her every need, dreading the day when she would succumb to her illness and he would be left alone.
Merin thought back to the first day she saw the two together, standing at the castle gate just over five years earlier. Mandetti Cabrana was thirteen on that long-ago day, and was being brought before the King of the Benites because she had tested out especially strong as a Truthsayer. It was the only talent on the planet that required no training for it’s use, as a Truthsayer was gifted with the ability to tell one‘s fortune and was also incapable of telling a lie. Those whose tests at the age of thirteen proved them to be thus gifted by the Gods were highly sought after by many on the planet - and Truthsayers were usually very well paid for their services. In those whose talent was especially strong, there was also the ability to tell when others were lying - a talent the King wanted at his side when in meetings with the Council.
During Council meetings, the Benite King was a very powerful voice, as he had final say over all decisions pertaining to the running of the planet‘s affairs, but the current king was also a very paranoid man who believed that everyone in the Council wanted to kill him and take over his throne. He thought that every member of the Council lied to him on a regular basis about the status of the kingdom, and because the Benites controlled most of the habitable land on Junitaria, small lies could mean huge losses. His last Royal Truthsayer had been an ancient man who had passed away a week prior, so getting this new talent to him was of paramount urgency, for there was a Council meeting the following morning and the King wanted to test this new girl first.
Mandetti, aware that the King was waiting, but unwilling to rush into what was sure to be the most boring part of her destiny, stopped beside the private standing duty at the gate and smiled up at him. Matthew maintained his stern facade, refusing to drop his eyes to meet the lass’s eyes, but blushing furiously nonetheless as he felt her eyes upon him, as he was barely seventeen and only a year out of warrior training.
“Good morning, Captain!”
Mandetti curtsied as she spoke clearly enough for all around her to hear, but her eyes were agleam and her smile had a definite impishness about it. Matthew almost broke composure, but corrected her sharply without taking his eyes off the approach to the castle that he had been ordered to watch.
“I’m naught but a private, miss!”
Mandetti continued to stare up at him as the man did his best to ignore her, but there was something in her voice when she spoke again - a note of honesty that Matthew couldn‘t ignore.
“Not for long.”
Matthew broke composure for a rare moment to look down at the lass with confusion obvious on his visage, seeing her belief in her words in her steady brown gaze. He returned his eyes to the parameters of the cleared field before the castle gate and tried to get his mind back on his job while the lass was taken away. It wasn’t until later that he found out who the lass was the Truthsayer, but couldn’t believe that a new private would be the next Captain in the King’s Guard. He applied himself to his duties with the same commitment he always did and tried to forget the Truthsayer’s words.
When his Captain died in a hunting accident a mere three months after he met the Royal Truthsayer at the castle gate, Matthew found himself among the candidates for a promotion, much to the chagrin of several men who had been serving in the Guard longer. When the rigorous tests of mental and physical prowess proved him to be the best man for the job, he was promoted to the post of Captain.
With his promotion came the duty of standing guard inside the door at Council meetings, and Matthew found the young lass at work beside the King, quietly confirming the truth of each man’s statement in a whisper at the King’s ear. Remembering the meeting at the gate, Matthew often found himself watching the Truthsayer with a bit more intensity than he should have allowed. Seeing his intense gaze upon her, Mandetti had begun to flirt with him - and eventually they had fallen in love. Merin remembered well the beautiful wedding on the day Mandetti celebrated her sixteenth birthday. The King had been beaming as if Mandetti were one of his own children...
“This isn’t fair.” Matthew whispered to himself, drawing Merin out of her memories and back into the present, “We’ve only been married two years!”
Seeing the young man’s face as he watched his true love die a lingering death brought an ache to the Healer’s heart, but there was nothing she could do to heal Mandetti. No matter how much a Healer might wish to be able to heal all things, there simply were some illnesses on this planet that resisted their best spells. All Merin could do for the girl was to ease her passage into the next life as a wasting blood disease destroyed the Truthsayer’s body from the inside out.
Looking out at the grayness that heralded the coming of dawn, Merin considered her duties carefully. If she put Matthew to sleep so that he could get some rest while his wife was under Merin‘s spell, she might not be able to wake him in time for him to guard the King during the wedding ceremony. However, from the look in his bloodshot eyes, he wouldn’t be coherent enough to guard the King properly if she didn’t cast her spell. Of course, she could always inform the second-in-command that the Commander was unwell and needed the younger man to cover his duty. She had to tend to the King’s arthritis soon, anyway, and could inform him at the same time of the change in the Guard.
Without another thought about what the King‘s punishment might be if he found out that Matthew wasn’t sick, but only sleeping, she placed one hand on Matthew’s forehead and the other on his heart, whispering again the command for a healing sleep, then she aided his suddenly limp form in it's descent until he rested comfortably on the bed beside his wife. The Commander, too young at twenty-two to be going through these trials, gave a soft sigh and moved closer to his dying bride, wanting to be as close to her as possible even in deeply asleep.
With a smile creasing her dark lips, Merin turned toward the door, feeling spent from performing two healings. She was intending on returning to her rooms to get enough rest to ease the King’s aches when he awoke, but she gasped as a shadowy form in the hallway moved forward into the room through the door that she had foolishly left open.
The form stepped into the light, and Merin was relieved to find it was the younger of Princess Rhawneth’s older siblings, Loralie. Despite the early hour, the Benite beauty’s long, black hair was perfectly braided in the traditional fashion for any woman over the age of thirteen, falling past her waist in a single tidy plait. Her large brown eyes were clear and bright, taking in the details of the room quickly before her attention returned to the Healer. The soft smile that came to Loralie’s face reminded Merin quite strongly of the deceased Queen, Quandra.
“I assisted Rhawneth in her preparations for the wedding, but am unable to rest as she bade me. When I saw the light, I thought I might be able to assist Matthew with Mandetti, but it seems you’ve beat me to it.”
Too tired to remember the events of the past three months, Merin spoke without thinking.
“What about the Count? Won’t he need your help?”
The Countess said nothing, but her eyes reflected her deep pain. Merin silently berated herself for being so callous as to remind the recently widowed Countess of her loss as well as her failure to obey her father’s wishes in that she had failed to provide him with grandchildren after four years of marriage. Should something untoward happen to Princess Rhawneth before heirs were produced, Loralie’s offspring would have insured that one of the Kenna bloodline inherited the throne. But when the Count de Lees had died unexpectedly of heart failure and left her childless, the King had blamed his daughter rather than the advanced age of the husband who had been chosen for her.
Although still of marriageable age and considered technically virginal because of the lack of heirs, Loralie was not allowed to seek a husband on her own for fear that she would choose a man with a less than stellar bloodline. She would, no doubt, remain a widow until the King named a new husband for her, and his only standard was that the man have wealth or land that could be used to better the kingdom - and all the men with that kind of power were already on the Council, and all but the Count de Trineo were already married.
This frustrated the King to no end, for most of the Council members were so much older than their brides that only death resulting from childbirth, severe illness or a traumatic accident would cause the woman to die first. Most of the Councilors who had managed to produce offspring on their brides who were of marriageable age had been blessed with daughters, and the only sons born were children yet, so the chances of Loralie marrying in time for the King to see her produce heirs was very slim. That none of this was the fault of the Countess seemed of no consequence to the King, and the entire castle had heard his tirades as he berated her for what he saw as her incompetence.
Seeking a way to apologize for senseless words, Merin looked around the room - and smiled as she looked at the sleeping couple on the bed. Summoning just enough healing energy to remove the edge off the mental anguish she had unwittingly caused the Countess, Merin touched the younger woman’s hand and spoke in her most gentle tones.
“Matthew should sleep until I come to wake him, but Mandetti can awaken at any time if her pain becomes too great. If you would be so kind as to send someone to find me if she needs me, I would be most grateful - and you could obey your sister’s directive by relaxing with a book. Knowing you're here, I can go about my business without worrying about these two.”
Loralie smiled at the Healer‘s suggestion and was pleased to be able to do something other than wander the hallways while waiting for her sister's return. She gave her promise readily, then made herself comfortable on the window seat with one of Matthew’s books, “A Study of the Wilds of Lochdaa“, which spoke of the many odd beasts that roamed the edge of civilized Denubia in the uncharted swamps that made up the region known as Lochdaa. Although discouraged from such studies by those who believed that a woman need only know how to cook, clean and sew, Loralie had always been fascinated by the wildlife of the planet.
Merin took one last look around the bedchamber, almost feeling the cold touch of approaching death, and left the room with a sigh of resignation. Whether she liked it or not, Merin was about to lose one of her favorites among those who inhabited the castle at Beni, and there was nothing she could do but ease the young woman’s pain while they waited for death to take her.
Rhawneth, keeping her horse to the slow pace set by the watcher-woman, felt every one of her warrior-trained senses screaming out to her that something wasn’t quite right. The woods, which should have been echoing with the sounds of waking birds and animals, were strangely silent, and the only sound to come to Rhawneth’s ears was the soft rustling of the leaves as the morning breezes stirred them about. She stopped her horse for a moment, standing in the saddle to look all around, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Relaxing back into the saddle, she ran her right hand over the hilt of the sword that she had taken the precaution of strapping to her saddle despite the watcher-woman’s very verbal objection. The presence of the sword calmed her, and she sighed deeply as she urged her horse forward, wondering if she was just suffering from a bad case of nerves.
“Mandetti’s tales are starting to get to me.” She muttered to herself, recalling the numerous times that her friend had tried to warn her of a dark future.
The Truthsayer was supposed to be able to see into the future, but Rhawneth wasn’t entirely sure she believed that Mandetti was really a Truthsayer. After all, didn’t Mandetti question Rhawneth’s right to be the heir to the throne, despite the fact that the Royal Council had decided that Rhawneth’s blonde hair was nothing but a throwback to the time before racial purity had been attained? For the young woman to say otherwise meant accusing a long-dead Queen who was still loved by all of cuckolding a King.
Just as Rhawneth had almost convinced herself that all was well and she was just nervous about the pending nuptials, Mandetti’s voice seemed to ring in her ear, causing her draw her sword in startled reaction.
<“Rhawneth, look out!”>
As her sword slid smoothly out of it’s scabbard, darkly clad men dropped from the trees and leapt from behind the bushes all around the two women, swords and daggers flashing in their hands. The watcher-woman fell with a scream of agony as Rhawneth gave vent to her battle cry and swung her sword with deadly intent. Hands that had been reaching to take her fell to the ground, severed from their owners, and the injured screamed as they backed away from the she-devil, making room for more of the men to leap forward.
Although she struck many down, more came to take their place, and before long, Rhawneth was dragged from her mount while the horse cried out in pain. The beast screamed again and again in a nearly-human outcry of torment, thrashing as the multiple weapons the men wielded sliced into it. The horse finally fell, it’s golden hide dappled with flowing streamers of red. It perished as the crazed men hacked it into ribbons as if punishing the animal for the damage it‘s owner had inflicted upon them.
“Let me go!” Rhawneth ordered sternly, and several of the men, startled by the authority in her tone, did so. A large hand clamped over her mouth to prevent any further outcry and a deep voice ordered the men to ignore the lass. The man who owned the hand towered a full head and shoulders over her, but Rhawneth didn’t think twice before acting. Her sharp, white teeth sank into the flesh between the man’s thumb and forefinger, and he bellowed and released her when she managed to draw blood.
Before she could move away from him, however, he swung his bloody fist and snapped her head back sharply with a blow to her chin, sending the white headband fluttering to the ground. Bright lights flashed in her brain just before darkness blotted out her world, and she never felt the gentleness the big man displayed as he lifted her into his brawny arms, nor saw the grimace that touched his face as he imagined what his punishment would be if his angry blow had marred her fine beauty.
Eondach Roema had been sent into the forest to bring back the next virgin who made her way to the Widow’s Heights. He had been sent out on the same task many times over the past years, but he had never enjoyed his job. The women always fought, and although none of the others had been armed, he had often been forced to hurt them in order to bring them to his master.
This one, whose very presence touched a part of him that he had been forced to deny for years, had fought harder than any they had encountered to date. Normally only destroying the horses or donkeys when they were collecting the virgins while bringing back the watcher-women to share with the men who had not come for the capture, his men had behaved like the trained warriors they were when they saw the girl draw a sword. They had filled this one’s watcher-woman in a rage - and many had paid with their lives.
Even so, Eondach was uneasy about striking her, and not just because he may have left a mark to mar her, which might result in him being severely punished by the Master. Somehow, defeating her with nothing more than his overpowering strength instead of defeating her with his swordsmanship made him feel like he had cheated in a test of skill - but there was no help for it now. The Master wanted a new plaything and this lovely, virginal warrior-woman with the large brown eyes that had looked up into his just before he struck her and the soft, shining blonde hair, a combination that marked her as a half-breed, had happened along at just the right time.
He would carry her to the hidden castle in the woods between Beni and Dahmehn and deliver her to his Master, accept whatever punishment might be coming to him if he had marred her more than the Master preferred, and return to the Widow’s Peak for another virgin when ordered to do so, but never again would he take down a woman who had the Healing talent that he sensed in this one.
Disgust at the evil he did in his fear of the madman he served was plain on his roughly-hewn face, and his companions all moved quickly and quietly out of his way as he began the trek to the castle with their newest captive flung over his shoulder like a bag of wheat, misreading his disgust as being directed toward them for the loss of the many men who lay in the clearing along with the animal and the watcher-woman. One soldier who didn’t move out of Captain Roema’s way fast enough was clubbed aside by a meaty fist, and the rest fell in behind, too afraid of his black mood to dare speak in his presence. Those at the rear of the party dragged branches over the ground to hide their tracks, and before the sun was fully able to touch the small clearing where they had made their attack, it was empty except for the bodies of the slain, which were already beginning to draw flies. Not a single track gave away which direction the attack had come from - nor where the attackers had gone.
Merin was almost to the door of the King’s chambers when a feeling of dread so strong came over her that she turned and hurried back to the Truthsayer’s room with her robes fluttering behind her. She opened the door in time to see Mandetti sit upright with a heart-wrenching scream, her skin deathly pale and waxy. For a moment, the Truthsayer remained upright, her dark eyes wide and staring, seeing a scene that no one else in the room was able to view, then she shuddered and dropped limply back to the pillows. Loralie watched from the window seat with wide eyes, a small hand covering her mouth, then hurried to the bed along with the Healer, sensing that something big was happening, but unable to grasp what.
Mandetti gasped and wheezed as she fought for breath, her strength fading fast. When Merin took her hand, she held on as if she grasped a life preserver, her pain-filled eyes clearing for one brief moment. Her last breath was spent giving the most important message of her life.
“Tell Matthew…time…to reveal….prophecy.”
Matthew stirred as his wife’s body went slowly limp, vaguely hearing her words as he struggled back to consciousness, waking without Merin’s assistance as some inner part of him told him that he was needed. Pain touched his features as he gazed at his beloved's face, peaceful after months of pain, and he gave her lips one last kiss while they were still warm. A tear slipped unnoticed down his cheek as he stood and stumbled toward the fireplace, seeming to not even know where he was.
Loralie leapt to his side and steadied him before he could pitch forward into the leaping flames, then gave him her shoulder to lean on. With a heavy sigh, he reached up and tugged out a loose hearthstone, thrusting his hand into the hollow that it’s removal created, totally unafraid of any creatures that may have inhabited the space since the last time it had been opened.
When he withdrew his hand, he held a small, hide-bound book, which he stood and stared at for a long time, remembering the day that his wife had insisted they hide it “until the time is right” so it wouldn‘t be stumbled upon by one of the King‘s spies. His eyes returned to the bed and two more tears slipped down his cheeks, falling unheeded to his wrinkled Benite uniform. Merin stepped forward and Matthew’s eyes lifted to her face, seeming to study every detail of the dark-skinned visage before he offered her the book with another deep, painful sigh.
“Mandetti said this was to go to you when the time was right. She said you would know what to do with it.”
The pain of his loss overcame him, and as the tears began to flow despite his attempts to stop them, Loralie wrapped her arms around him and crooned soothing words in his ear. It seemed natural even to one without children to do all she could to comfort the man in his pain, a man who had been her friend since they were both in the cradle, and who had been a protector of the castle since the end of his apprenticeship with the Master at Arms when he was sixteen.
Merin took the book and left the room, feeling as if her feet were guided by someone other than herself. She was amazed to find herself making straight for the chambers of Prince Nicholas, the eldest and, in accordance with a Benite tradition intended to lengthen one family‘s power as monarchs, the least important of the Royal siblings. In the Benite hierarchy, it was the youngest who took the throne and bore the heirs to continue the line while older siblings served as counselors.
Before her knuckles touched the Prince’s door it was opened, and Nicholas stood looking at her as if he had been waiting for her to arrive. As always, he was perfectly groomed, his black hair just beginning to be touched by the gray of age, his brown eyes clear and alert, and his gray dress uniform wrinkle-free. Merin felt the alien touch in her head that always announced the presence of a Sensitive, those who were able to sense the Healers psychically, and she allowed herself to feel the loss of the Truthsayer, transmitting her emotions directly to Nicholas without saying a word. His eyes grew sad and he sighed deeply.
“You’ve come to tell me that the time of her prophecy is at hand? The Truthsayer is no longer with us?”
Not understanding what prophecy the Prince spoke of, Merin held out the hand that contained the book.
“The Truthsayer left this for you.” Merin said softly the sake of any who might be listening from the shadows. The King had cursed the gift of Sensitivity that Quandra had passed on to her son, so the Prince was careful not to allow anyone except the Healers to know of his gift. Unlike his mother, he never escorted any of the Healers to the site of their apprenticeship from the castle at Beni, and always snuck out in the middle of the night from his own castle at Dahmehn so that no one would know that he did so.
Nicholas took the book and closed his eyes for just a moment as the lingering essence of the Truthsayer’s emotions from the last time she'd handled it washed over him, something he had never experienced before in his life from anyone other than a Healer, and even then, never just from handling something they'd touched. When he opened his eyes, his gaze was once again steady and sure. He understood that his part in the prophecy that was about to unfold was to be the deliverer of the word, and he accepted his responsibility as he always did, without complaint or question. Knowing that the prophesies of a Truthsayer often came jumbled, he wasn’t sure how he would make sense of what he was about to read, but he had been warned by Matthew that it was something having to do with Rhawneth, so he was willing to do his best.
With a sad smile of condolence, he closed the door, leaving Merin to stand alone in the quiet hallway, trying to blink back the threatening tears so that she might play her own part in the prophecy by continuing on as if nothing was happening. Given knowledge of the part that she would play while she handled the precious book, she could only pray that the Gods knew what they were doing, for she was literally betting her life on the outcome.
The sun was nearing the mid-day mark when a scream broke the silence, echoing off the rock wall of a tower in a sapling-infested clearing. Tario Venides stood atop the tower that was part of a once-glorious but now falling to ruin Tarist castle deep in the woods that separated Beni & Dahmehn. He was frowning slightly while leaning lightly against a crumbling wall to watch as his men brought back his newest “plaything“, upset that it had taken them so long to return, but he soon saw the reason for the delay.
Rhawneth had regained her senses and fought like a wild creature, screaming curses as Eondach forced her onward through brute strength. More than once, biting and kicking, she nearly escaped him, her golden hair no longer neatly plaited, her gown torn and soiled with blood and dirt. One guard who made the mistake of getting too close to her crumpled to the ground with a groan of agony as her foot solidly connected with his privates, but the giant continued on, his face stern and cold, dragging her ever closer to their destination. The fact that most of the blood on her clothing was likely not hers was made evident when another guard stepped within her reach in an effort to help the giant and she tore his face open with her sharp nails.
A cruel smile formed on Tario’s handsome face as he took full note of the girl’s fighting spirit. Most of the women Eondach brought in had looked at the giant’s towering bulk and resigned themselves to their fate by the time they reached the clearing around the castle, but this one promised to do battle until the end. The thought of her adamant resistance brought a sadistic excitement, sending the hot blood surging through his veins. Only one thing would make him want her more, and he turned to the page waiting at the top of the stairs to see to it that all preparations for his coming pleasure would be made before the sun advanced much further on it’s flight across the sky.
“Go tell the Dungeon Master that I request Charine’s presence in my throne room immediately, then tell Captain Roema to prepare my toy for my arrival.”
The page executed a perfect bow, well aware of the punishment that would befall him if he didn’t. The remains of the last page who performed less than perfectly were still rotting in a cage in the center courtyard, a warning to all who would give less than their best for the self-proclaimed Count Venides. The page raced down the stairs to do as he was bid while the Count returned his eyes to the spirited blonde, who was still biting, kicking and writhing against Eondach’s firm grip, as determined to escape as the massive guard was determined to drag her into the castle.
The battle raged on while Tario’s grin grew wider and wider, remaining in place even when the girl managed to actually break Eondach’s hold and take a few graceful, running steps toward the trees before the guard wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her feet off the ground. The obscenities she shrieked rang clear in the calm, sunny day, and Tario laughed softly to himself as she swung her fists against Eondach’s chest when unable to reach any bare skin to claw. The gleam in Tario’s bright blue eyes beneath his short crop of blonde hair gave him a look that was almost charming - if not for the cruelty in his smile.
Quite pleased with his latest acquisition, Tario turned and almost bounced down the spiral staircase, whistling to himself with boyish cheer. For Count Tario Venides, the day promised to turn out quite well. He marched cheerfully into his throne room and directly up to a cage with solid, clear walls in the corner, where a gray creature with six long arms and two short legs sat, rocking and moaning to itself, in a corner. It’s face was like that of a simian, and it kept sliding it’s hand into a marsupial-like pouch on it’s belly, searching for a youngling that had been there just a few days prior. When it saw Tario, it drew it’s lips back from long, canine fangs, growling fiercely at the man who had caused it so much pain, it’s dark eyes narrowing dangerously.
With a bellowing roar, it lunged forward, crashing against the side of the enclosure with such force that it broke it’s own nose, yet backed away and charged again and again, roaring out it’s pain and fury into the large, echoing room. Smiling smugly and enjoying the sight of the blood running down the inside of the clear wall that separated him from the beast, Tario finally backed away, turning to walk toward his throne on a raised dais only after the targam had calmed itself somewhat. He was just settling himself when the door opened and two guards strode in, dragging a battered, half-naked woman between them. Her head hung limp, her long, dark hair was matted with blood, and she seemed to have no strength of her own, simply hanging between the two men like a sack of flour, the tattered remains of the gown that fluttered around her too blood-spattered to give any hint as to it‘s original color.
Tario smiled as she was brought to the edge of the steps and his voice came out soft and gentle, like a kindly grandfather speaking to a grandchild he was particularly fond of. The guards holding the girl looked away from the man’s smile, too familiar with the Count not to see the insanity in that countenance.
The deceptively soft voice reached through the fog that surrounded the battered young woman, and she moaned as she tried to get her aching body to obey her commands. She thrust vaguely backward, but moaned when her aching muscles refused to cooperate.
“No. Please. No more.”
Tario laughed, a chilling sound in the echoing throne room. Charine lifted her head and revealed a face that was swollen and blackened from repeated beatings, focusing the one blue eye that she could open on her tormentor.
“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t touch you again. You no longer amuse me.”
Charine’s lip began to quiver as fear caught at her. If he no longer had a use for her, why had he brought her here? Tario smiled at the fear he saw, enjoying himself immensely, but a tightness in his loins reminded him of the new plaything that was even now being prepared for him, and he found himself eager to go to his chambers and taste the spirit of the blonde. With an impatient gesture, he waved the guards away, and they both looked grim as they turned, not particularly pleased with their next chore, but well aware of the penalty for their refusal to do as bidden.
As Charine moaned and tried to find the strength to fight, they dragged her to the side of the cage, where a set of stairs led up to a trap door on the top. Her moans became sobs as she begged for her life, seeing the beast that raged as they drew nearer. One guard pulled the trap door open, and with a slight grimace, jerked the girl forward and let her fall while the second guard pushed from behind. Charine screamed as she fell.
With a bellow of purest rage, the beast swung one massive paw at the helpless woman, beheading her with the single swift blow from it’s powerful arms, then dismembering her body, coating the inside of the cage with blood and gore. The guards tried not to watch as the beast swiftly mangled the corpse beyond all recognition, but Tario watched avidly, his lips slightly parted and his breath rasping quickly in and out as his strange passions arose at the display of savagery. Without a word, he turned and hurried out of the room, taking the stairs two at a time in his eagerness to reach his chambers and relieve his vicious lusts on his newest victim.
Eondach saw Tario approaching and pushed open the door to the Master’s chambers, careful to keep his face blank. When the Master got excited, it didn’t do a body good to give him any reason to take note of you. As the door swung shut, however, the big man’s face registered the pain and anger he felt from the girl on the bed, her consciousness touching his, telling him she was a great Healer - or would be, if she survived her encounter with the Count. In the long years since Eondach had come into the Count’s service, he had never before felt quite so uneasy about what the Count was doing in the name of pleasure, and as he waited for the girl’s pain to begin in that place in his mind where only Sensitives could feel Healers, he thought long and hard of a way to save this girl's life without losing his own life to one of the Count’s horrifying tortures.
Inside the room, Tario stood at the door and stared at the young woman on the bed with his blue eyes bright and a lecherous leer on his handsome lips. Rhawneth glared at him from where she was tied on the bed, her arms stretched out painfully as one arm was tied tight enough to each bedpost that the top of her head was pressed against the headboard, forcing her to press her chin against her chest if she wanted to provide any slack in the ropes. Blood ran down her slim arms from the raw marks on her wrists where she had fought to free herself, as she was all too aware of the reason she had been tied to the bed and was willing to tear her own arms off to prevent her virginity from being taken in this manner. She felt the touch of two people close by in a special place in her mind, and she somehow knew that they, like her brother Nicholas, could feel her presence in return, yet were powerless to help her.
Tario stared at the girl, unable to believe a woman could be so lovely. Her hip-length golden hair fell around her in mad disarray, and her brown eyes glared at him regally from her small, delicate face, her fine beauty marred only by a deep purple bruise on the edge of her jaw from Eondach’s blow. Her tall, lean form, barely concealed by the torn velvet gown, was nicely curved in all the right places, seeming to beg for his touch, and Tario stepped forward with a confident strut, feeling the thrill of possessing something extremely fine. His voice, when he spoke, was husky with longing.
“You are, by far, the most beautiful half-breed I’ve ever seen.”
Rhawneth’s eyes narrowed dangerously. A snarl of rage drew her lips back from straight, white teeth, and Tario’s heart beat a little faster. So much spirit!
“I am NO half-breed! I am Rhawneth Kenna, heir to the throne of Denubia.”
Tario’s bellow of laughter echoed through the room, but when he reached the side of the bed, his face changed, lightning quick, to a grimace of sheer rage, and he swung his fist with mean intent. Rhawneth’s head snapped to one side, her world disappearing briefly in a bright flash of pain, but he wasn't as strong as Eondach, so she remained conscious. She lay glaring up at him as if her look could do the damage she wished to bring upon him.
“What do you think I am, blind?” He roared in a high temper, then began to inspect her again at close range. His eyes rudely passed down over her form, making her feel as if he was stripping her with his gaze. Then he uttered a single word.
Rhawneth’s eyes widened as a strange sensation rippled down over her body, and her dress literally tore itself from her at the touch of his gaze. When she lay in the shreds of her gown, Tario smiled and began to undress himself in a more conventional manner, revealing a hard body that was used to the rigors of a warrior’s life, and Rhawneth realized that she might have actually termed him handsome in another circumstance. But why, with such a handsome body, was he taking women by force this way?
Tario stepped forward, and as if in answer to her inner question, he explained what he expected of her in simple terms.
“I enjoy hearing a woman scream as I take her, so I find virgins to be the best playmates. You will scream for me, won’t you, my pretty little virgin?”
Rhawneth just glared at him, stubbornly clamping her jaw shut to silently convey that she had NO intention of screaming. Tario’s nostrils flared as his smile faded for a second, but then the lecherous leer returned as the novelty of her rejection of his command gave him a thrill that he seldom experienced. Such spirit! It would be so wonderful to break it - or to kill her while attempting to do so!
He moved forward and she tried to move back, struggling against the ropes until fresh rivulets of her own blood ran down her arms to stain the sheet beneath her. He reached out a hand toward her face and she tried to avoid his touch, forcing her neck to an unnatural angle and grimacing in pain and distaste as his fingers touched her despite her efforts. With one finger, he traced her delicate jaw line and cupped her soft cheek against his palm. Taking advantage of his proximity, Rhawneth clamped her teeth on the web of flesh between his thumb and forefinger just as she had with Eondach, then bit down until she tasted his blood.
With a bellow of pain, he yanked his hand back, staring at Rhawneth’s face with his eyes shooting blue fire. She laughed, her own eyes gleaming both with triumph at having caught him unaware and with her unspoken vow to never do what he wanted her to do. Tario’s lips curled back in a savage snarl as he decided that he would wait no longer for her to show the fear he so wanted to see on her face. The fear could be arranged for a later time.
“You’re mine.” He growled, grabbing both her knees and pulling her toward him as far as the ropes would allow, causing her to bite her lip against an outcry from the agony he caused in her arms and shoulders. With a practiced ease, he slid between her thighs, ignoring her renewed struggle as he positioned her bound body to ease his sadistic need. “There is nothing you can do to stop me.”
Rhawneth almost forgot her vow not to scream as he penetrated her, closing her eyes and biting her lips until she tasted her own blood to fight back the urge. When she opened her eyes again, Tario was glaring his anger at her, and she gave him a broad smile to infuriate him even more, feeling her pain being removed by the touch of the two Sensitives somewhere within the castle. As Tario's debauchery continued, she felt as if she were floating away from her own body, vaguely aware of Tario's anger at her continued silence, her pain being taken away from her by the two beings whom she could feel touching her consciousness. When he began to slap and punch her in an effort to make her cry out, she was able to laugh and spit in his face. Without her meaning to aid him in any way, her continued rejection brought him to a greater climax than he had ever experienced before.
When he had finished raping her, Tario washed in a basin of water that had been made ready and dressed himself in a fresh black uniform from a wardrobe. He looked back at the girl on his bed, who glared at him and did her best to pretend it didn’t bother her to be seen without proper clothing. He watched her over his shoulder as he made his way toward the door and seemed most cheerful as he laid his hand on the door handle.
“Don’t go anywhere. I intend on hearing you scream before nightfall.”
He was laughing heartily at the glare she gave him as he pulled the door open and left her.
In the dungeon of Tario’s castle, while Rhawneth was being ravaged and Eondach Roema stood outside the door fighting the urge to go to her aid in order to ease the pain he was feeling in her stead, a battered man with blue eyes and shaggy black hair endured the waves of pain that washed over him with a sick feeling in his heart. It was obvious that the Master of the castle had a new plaything, and an untutored Healer at that, which meant that Charine, whom he had come here to rescue, had been replaced.
From the guards in the dungeon, who seemed to enjoy his pain when they gave him insight into his sister's suffering, he had learned that Tario's ability to enjoy a sexual romp depended entirely on Charine's death. It took a good killing, with plenty of screaming, blood and agony on the part of the victim, to bring the self-proclaimed Count to the point of sexual arousal. He could also only fully enjoy sexual romps when the woman he was with was in similar agony, so he always enjoyed sex best when it involved an unwilling virgin.
The Sensitive in the dungeon closed his eyes and wept silently for his sister, having been convinced by the guards that his appearance at the falling-down castle had hastened her death. He could only wonder if he would be forced to witness, either in the physical or psychic sense, the death of the girl who now satisfied the Count's lust - or if she would be forced to witness his demise in an effort to break her spirit.
Web mistress's note: That's all I'm sharing here - but as of this date (6/7/08), I'm editing the rest of what has already been written (over 53,000 words/177 pages) and then will continue to take the hundreds of pages of short bits of this story and piece them together to get this completed and out to publishers. As noted at the top, any comments will be considered carefully - and any suggestions for a unique title very greatly appreciated! Blessed be, mes amies!