Part II Chapter Five
Sixth Moon, 351
"My Lord Strahd?" Gone. "My lord?"
The reflection only. I ran my hand against the mirror's surface and left behind finger streaks. "Lord Strahd!" I turned toward the intrusive voice. Tatra, a lieutenant now, stood just inside the door with several of his men. They were in their dress uniforms, boots shining, swords polished and held ready, and looking quite grim as they stared from Sergei's body to me.
"Where's Captain Gwilym?" I asked in a shaken tone. This time I did not have to dissemble for my lies.
Knowing I wouldn't like his answer, Tatra retreated into discipline and stood at attention. "No one has seen him today, my lord."
"Then find him. He's in charge of security. I want to know how he managed to let a Ba'al Verzi into the keep." I pointed at the knife, where it lay near Sergei's body.
Tatra and the others recognized it and made the protective sign against evil.
I... dropped back a step, feeling ill for a moment. Just as well. I was too close to the mirror, and they mustn't see... "But my lord, isn't that the knife - " Tatra caught my glare and chose not to finish.
"You think there's only one blade for the whole filthy guild? The one I took from Illya Buchvold is still locked away. This one... this one is..." I looked up, as though pouncing on a new thought. "Find Ivan Buchvold."
Tatra was a smart man, else Alek would not have made him his second-in-command.
As I'd hoped, he made the connection between Illya's death and Sergei's. It was a very logical conclusion: a brother for a brother. His face set, he snapped a go-ahead to two of the men, and they obediently slipped away.
The familiar act of giving orders restored some of my own self-discipline and got me to thinking again. There was much to do yet. in less than a minute, I had everything in hand and my men on the move. With any luck at all, I'd be able to take advantage of the natural confusion and find someone unable to account for himself during the time of Sergei's death. Ivan Buchvold would be ideal, but if not, then Alek Gwilym would do just as well.
Alone once more, I glanced at the mirror.
I moved farther from its cold brightness. It beat upon me like too much sunlight. What have I done to myself? Perhaps I'd given up my soul for Tatyana after all.
And then I heard her voice shearing through the stone walls, raised in a cry of disbelief and despair. It cut right through me. Someone's told her.
Yes. She would have to go through the fire as well, but she would be the stronger for it. In time, she'd realize her love for Sergei had been a child's infatuation for a pretty toy. In time, I'd make her completely forget him. But for now... I left two men guarding the entry to Sergei's rooms and made my way to the chapel. Crowds of guests slowed me; their faces, pinched with worry, sorrow, fear, and curiosity should have annoyed me, but did not. I was as distanced from them as a bird is from the ground.
Just at the chapel doors, I was told that Tatyana had run outside into the garden. I was thankful for that, instinctively knowing that I'd not have been able to go into that holy place.
The dark magic was upon me.
But it was worth it. She awaited me.
Soon... The day's warm air had turned chill, and mist was beginning to rise from the damp earth like restless spirits of the dead. Such thought was fancy only, but I did sense something else... stirring... all around me, like a wind that one feels only in the mind.
I'd done more this night than kill my brother and drink his blood. More had happened to me than had been promised. That business with the mirror was yet another price for me to pay, a price that had not been mentioned.
No. Not really. I'd ignored the possibility. There is a precise language to be used in such bargaining. Had I been more on guard and less eager to take what had been promised, I could have asked and gotten an answer.
Too late now.
One of Tatyana's chaperons hovered near the gate I'd come through. She was pale, but calm, and offered me an apologetic look, saying Tatyana would not let anyone near her.
"She'll see me. Where is Lady Ilona?"
"Lord Dilisnya was taken ill. She was called away to see to him, some time ago."
She left, and I slowly approached Tatyana.
The candlelight within the chapel was more than sufficient to overflow the stained glass windows and spill out into the night. Tatyana was huddled in a pool of color from one of them, her white gown catching and holding gemlike shades of green, blue, gold... red.
I looked down at her. If I'd had to kill a dozen brothers, drink a river of their blood to have her, I would have done so.
She made no move, not even to wipe at the tears making salty trails down her cheeks, her throat... Kneeling next to her, I put out my arms and knew the totality of joy as she at last sank into my embrace. I'd never before had patience for weeping, but now, as she clung to me and gave vent to the terrible grief raging in her young heart, I had only tender concern for her pain. She needed someone to hold her, and I was glad to do so. While I had seen much death in my time, she was still very much a child to it; perhaps between those extremes we would find a place of comfort for us both. My strength, my love - all that I had was hers to draw upon.
"Why, Strahd?" she whispered.
It's happening. This was the first time she'd ever used my given name.
"Why? How could this have happened? Who...?"
She clung to me more tightly, doubled over from the weight of her sorrow. If I could have spared her from this, I would have. Her sobs were such as to break her in two, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
"I cannot say," I murmured, not sure she understood the muted syllables, but knowing the droning sound of a familiar voice might help. "Whoever did it will pay." Has paid. "I promise you."
Above her weeping, I heard the winds within me rise. They tugged at my thoughts, trying to draw me away from the bliss of holding her. I put my back to them, shutting my eyes against them and the thickening mist.
But Tatyana straightened and shook off my arms.
She glared up. The stars were still visible, for the moment. "Why?" she screamed skyward. "Why did this happen? How could you do this?"
She wasn't addressing me, but the gods themselves. I tried to take her back, but she only pushed me away and got to her feet.
"Was it so wrong for us to love? Is that it? How could you have let us love each other so much and then do this?"
"Tatyana - " I reached for her, wincing as I felt the raw agony coursing through her body. "We cannot question the will of the gods in these matters."
"Who else, then?" she snapped. She avoided me and, pacing in a circle, still looking up, raised her hands high. "Tell me! How could you have let this happen?
Then the burst of anguish passed, and she dropped to her knees. I went to her, gathering her easily into my arms as before.
"Tell me," she said faintly.
"Hush," I said, rocking her. She lay quiet for some moments, then moved again with fresh energy.
"Lady Ilona." Her eyes were fever bright. "I must get her."
"She's been sent for."
"She must - must bring him back."
I grew cold all over. "What are you saying?"
"She's a great healer. And I've heard that sometimes... oh, Strahd, she'll have to try. She'll have to bring him back. This was but a testing of our faith. He will come back! I see it now!"
So did I. All too clearly. Ilona might possibly be able to do it, but I could not allow that.
"Tatyana," I took her head in both my hands and looked into her eyes. Ravaged as she was by her emotions, she was still perfect, still the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen or ever would see. "Tatyana, please do not get your hopes up. Lady Ilona will do her best, but you must know that it might not be. I've seen her fail more often than succeed."
"But she will succeed this time. I know she will."
"No, you do not. None of us do. Remember when they tried to bring back the Most High Priest Kir? He died and remained so because it was the will of the gods. No one was able to bring him back."
"No! That has nothing to do with Sergei! He was murdered, and that was done by the will of some mortal, not by a god. Lady Ilona must try. Otherwise I shall join him. I can't live without him - and won't."
She stopped raving and met my eyes.
"Listen to me, sweet girl. Listen to me!"
My voice sank to a gentle whisper, which somehow broke through to her and kept her looking at me.
"Sergei is dead. He will not return. Not even Lady Ilona and all her people can change that. You must accept it."
"But - "
Her great eyes clouded for many moments, but I felt a palpable link forming between us in that time. I'd touched her in a way more intimate than any joining of flesh. She would be mine.
"He is gone, but I am here for you. I will always be here for you. You will turn to me and know my love."
She blinked, her brows coming together in puzzlement. "Strahd?"
Yes... Now her hand came up. It was the same caress I'd felt last night in my study, only instead of a phantom sent to tempt me, this was the fulfillment of the promise made.
Oh, yes... by the gods, yes... Her eyes cleared, and awareness flooded them. "Strahd." This time she said my name in a different way, the way one lover speaks to another.
"I'm here. I shall always be here for you."
Heart's... Now I raised her to her feet. Her face tilted up to meet mine. As I'd done in countless dreams before, my lips closed softly over hers.
She returned my kiss.
Heart's... Her arms went around my neck and her body pressed close, breasts and hips against me.
We broke off at the same time, but for different reasons. She to stare at me with all new thoughts, new feelings, and I in near-pain for the swift beating of my heart. But, along with the ecstasy of holding her, having her, I sensed the intrusion of other, alien forces at work around us. The mist had risen high and the stars were gone. I could see within the garden well enough, but not far; the chapel walls were lost.
Yard by yard, the mist was retreating. It was not natural, for it moved in a slow spiral as though we were in the vortex of a vast, gray whirlpool.
"Strahd." She drew my attention back to her, pulling me down for another kiss.
I ran my hands through her thick russet hair, stripping away the virgin's veil of her gown. Tonight I would be her husband and she my wife. Tonight would be the first of thousands yet to come. Tonight I would teach her more about love than she had ever dreamed or wished. No woman before her or since would know of better... My lips brushed over hers, then moved on to her cheek, her chin, and finally down to the hot silk of her throat. She sighed at the touch, her breath coming sharply with that first surprised awakening of true pleasure.
"My lord Strahd!" Someone called from the gate, his voice muffled and flattened by the mist.
Not now, not now.
Her body melded to mine, and she threw her head back. I supported her easily.
She was so light, like a swan floating over its own reflection as it glides on the water.
"Lord Strahd, come quickly!"
Tatra, vainly trying to call me away from all that I'd worked for, given everything for... "Murder, Strahd!"
...murdered for. I ignored him. Tatyana's heartbeat was as fast as mine. I felt it rushing through her like the rolling thunder of a summer storm.
He was blundering around us in the mist.
Damn him! I roared in my mind.
Tatyana cringed and stiffened in my arms. "Strahd? What...?"
"Hush, he'll go away. I'll send him away."
She shook her head. "No, what are you - ?"
"Hush, it's all right."
Now she was fighting me. I released her, and she stepped back to gain her balance. Her breath came hard, like a spent runner's. Her hands went to her throat, where I'd begun to kiss her in earnest.
"Elder, what - ?" Another shake of the head, as though trying to awaken from a heavy sleep. "No, we must not do this."
I held my hand toward her, palm up. "It's all right. This is as it was meant to be."
She wavered between taking my hand and remembering the illusion of a lost love.
"He's gone. You will accept it and turn to me."
"Old One, he's dead! How can you say such things to me?"
"Because you are free. Both of us are free. Tatyana, beloved, I can give you - "
But her face crumpled as the fact of Sergei's death overwhelmed her once more.
Her grief would have to run its natural course - I saw that now. Any forcing on my part would only drive her from me. It would take time to bring her around. But I had time. I had more time than any man ever before me.
I could wait. And would.
Several voices now, raised to bellow out my name like the rallying cry they had used on the battlefield three years past. This time the shouts came from the chapel, along with the cries and screams of women and children and the crash and ring of weapons.
What in the name of all the hells was going on?
Tatra suddenly staggered out of the swirl of mist. His uniform was torn and bloody, and half of his dress sword had been broken away.
"Betrayal, my lord," he gasped. "Dilisnya traitors killing everyone."
"Where are the men?" There were two of my own guard for each armsman from the visiting houses.
"Too sick to fight. Poisoned, I think. The Dilisnyas are cutting them down. Some of us got outside. They can't find us here in this murk."
One of the chapel windows shattered, and we ducked as shards of color rained down. Someone was trying to club his way out using a chair. The screams were louder, more clear now. My hand went to my sword, but Tatra stopped me.
"Too late for that, my lord. There's been long planning in this. You must try to escape while you can."
I started to snarl a reply to such a cowardly course, then looked at Tatyana.
She had to be kept safe.
"Are the stables free?"
"I don't know."
"We'll find out. Run ahead. Gather up any of our own that you find. If the stables are held, we'll make for the gate."
"Yes, lord." He ran off.
"Come, Tatyana." I took her hand.
"No." She pulled away. "I'm staying here with Sergei."
This was no moment for foolishness. I grabbed her arm and started dragging her from the garden. The mist had drawn back, and the walls of the keep were visible again, the stars returning. Their light cast a silvery glow almost like daylight, but Tatyana stumbled as though she couldn't see.
"No, Elder." She balked and tried to shake away. "I will stay with him."
"For how long? You think they'll let you live?"
"I'm hoping they won't."
Now she did wrest from my grip. I lunged to catch her again, but she shied away and ran. I called her name. She seemed not to hear.
She darted through the low gate leading to the overlook.
I was right behind her, but she had the speed of a young deer. I snagged the trailing hem of her dress, but she tugged free with hardly a pause and made the low wall.
Up, in one light bound.
I clawed and caught only air.
The mist had cleared from most of the mountain, but the valley was still hidden.
Tatyana's frail figure dropped, spinning, into that roiling white cloud.
Tattered fingers of it stretched toward her like something hungry and, arms spread wide, she plunged headfirst into their grasp.
She shrieked the whole way down.
Sergei's name. My name. Neither of us. I couldn't tell. I couldn't hear for my own scream. It bounced off the walls of the keep and was swallowed whole by the mist below, vanishing even as she vanished.
Its laughter. With all their voices. Her voice.
I screamed again to drown them out, beating my hands against my ears, but it was inside my head as well and nothing could stop it. I fell away from the wall, fell to my knees.
The blackness returned, greater than ever, covering me, covering the world, never to lift. Ever. I'd not known true despair until now. It weighed upon me, heavier than the mountain, smothering and crushing me into something less than dust.
"A Von Zarovich groveling?" the voices mocked.
No. Just a man like any other. A man who has lost everything, who has nothing left. Nothing. A man broken by unspeakable pain.
The agony was so great I did not feel the first arrow when it slammed into my side.
The second caught me in the back, knocking me flat onto the ground. Pushing to my feet, I stared, uncomprehending, up at the towers where the shots had come from. Archers stood ready at the crenelations, their bows full-drawn and aimed directly at me.
More men crowded into the overlook. All in the Dilisnya colors. All poised to shoot.
And, one after another, they did.
I braced and took the arrows, welcoming them, knowing for myself the madness that had seized and driven Tatyana. It would end now. I would trade this small pain for the obliteration of the larger. No hell could possibly hold worse suffering for me than this.
More arrows. Their searing shafts were nothing compared to the pain filling my heart. But they were too slow. I had to speed along to my death, even as she had. Grabbing one of the arrows, I wrenched it from my body, roaring from the burning shock. Blood rushed from the wound. Not as much as I would have expected. I pulled out another.
Some of the men fell back; the bolder ones held their post and loosed more shots at me. I faced them, encouraged them, and drew out the shafts one by one. Broke them in half. I was like a beast in a trap, gnawing off one of my limbs to free myself.
Finally - - weakening... To age not one day more. Very well, then. Let me die now.
On my knees again. The archers cautiously approached.
Weaker... Hands and knees. The earth and paving spattered with my blood... with Sergei's... with Alek's... I'd taken enough shots to kill a dozen men, but still lived. Not right. Not... natural.
Laughter for my realization.
To age not one day more.
I wasn't going to die. Not tonight, not ever.
Laughter for my anguish.
A thousand nights, a thousand years lay before me.
One of the bastards kicked me. I rolled with it. Landed on my back. Stared impotently up at their grinning faces.
How dare they? How dare anyone? I was a Von Zarovich. But I was nothing to them, only another kill - perhaps more difficult, more stubborn than the rest, but that made for better sport. They laughed, their voices unknowingly joining the vile chorus in my mind.
Laughter... for my newborn rage.
I was looking at dead men. I could not die, but they would. Before another hour passed, I'd send them wailing on their way to rotting hell. All of them.
All except the traitor behind them. For him, something special.
The one who'd kicked me now passed his bow to another man, then removed his helmet.
The pale marble walls of the main dining room were splashed and stained with blood. Except for that and an unwonted disarray to the place settings on the long central table, the room still looked prepared for a celebration. The candles on the three chandeliers high above were all alight and seemed to strike sparks from the faceted crystal around them. Lying, as I was, on the cold floor, with no strength left to do anything but stare up, I had ample opportunity to study their bright beauty.
Illusion. Nothing was beautiful anymore. Beauty had died when she'd - Before carrying me here, rough hands had ripped the arrows from my body. I moaned in spite of myself and clutched at the many wounds dotting my chest and belly. They burned like coals thrown out from a fire. They had also stopped bleeding. So far, no one had noticed.
One man had been detailed to guard me. More stood ready over the other prisoners: Ivan Buchvold, his brother-in-law, Victor Wachter, and Victor's nine-year-old daughter, Lovina. The girl clung to her father like a limpet, too stunned to cry. The men bore expressions startlingly similar to hers and were much the worse for wear. Both had marred their fine clothes with blood and sweat, indicating that they'd had a share in the fighting.
Which seemed to be over for the time being. I heard no more clamor within the keep. The place was numb with that strange silence exclusive to a battlefield when the battle is over.
The double doors at the south end of the room were thrown open. Accompanied by guards, Lady Ilona and Reinhold Dilisnya were shoved in our direction. Ilona kept her feet; Reinhold, his face gray with illness, dropped right down and curled up like a dog. Ilona went to him, held her hands above his shivering form, and bowed her head in prayer.
I turned away, gritting my teeth to keep from crying out. The next time I looked, Reinhold appeared to be asleep.
"Lord Strahd?" Ilona knelt next to me. Her age was showing this night. I wondered what terrors she had seen. She reached out.
"Touch me not!" I snarled.
She jerked her hand back. "My lord?" Then she got a really good look at me. If the changes within were visible to anyone, they would be to her. In that awful, unutterable instant, she saw and understood. Her head sagged.
"Spare it for others."
"Oh, Strahd, what have you done?" She somehow knew I was not a victim, but was myself responsible for what had happened.
"Everything and nothing."
I'd never seen her weep before. The sight of it now should have moved me in some other way than toward contempt. "My lady needs to better control herself," I murmured, mocking her words to me. That struck me as being quite amusing, and regardless of the pain, I was laughing.
Her eyes fixed on my open mouth.
I knew what she was looking at - I felt their sharp, new points well enough with my tongue.
"If I could help you, I would," she whispered.
As if I cared much now for the soul I'd given up. "Tell me what's going on."
She hesitated. Wise of her. In dealing with what I had become, it would always be a good idea to be as cautious as possible.
"Where's Leo Dilisnya?"
More hesitation. Leo may have been the architect of tonight's slaughter, but he was still like her - still human - while I was not.
I let my eyes slide to the other prisoners. "Tell me, and I can help save them."
Yes. That was her weakness. She knew it, too. She also did not question my ability to succeed at an apparently impossible task. "I want your word on that, Strand Von Zarovich."
"You trust me to keep it?"
"As a point of honor, you would. You've not lost that, have you?"
"I don't know. Perhaps we'll find out."
It was as much a guarantee as she would ever get from me now. She reluctantly nodded. "I don't know where Leo is, but he'll be here soon. The guards said as much."
"What of my people?"
"Dead, or poisoned and dying. The guests... all dead... those loyal to you, anyway.
Where's Sergei? And Tatyana?"
I laughed again, because I was no longer able to cry.
Ilona shivered and made the protective sign of her faith.
She froze. "I am sorry for you, Strahd."
"Save it for those who need it."
She stared for a very long moment, pity, horror, compassion, and disgust playing over her face, turn on turn.
It was of no importance to me. I glanced toward the others. "Just keep silent, Lady."
A nod, a rustle of skirts as she rose, and the harsh pressure of her immediate presence lifted from me. Some of my strength came trickling back. But my throat was so raw. I needed... something to drink.
The smell of blood positively filled this room. Most of it came from the walls and floors. Drying there. Useless and maddening. The guard next to me... he'd picked up enough from my talk with Ilona to be uneasy and had put some distance between us. Reinhold was closest, but his scent was somehow wrong. Tainted.
Leo again. All those years of Reinhold's sickness made perfect sense now. How long had Leo been planning this? How long had he been gradually poisoning his brother?
No matter. It would end tonight.
The doors swung open again, and Gunther Cosco was pushed through. He'd lost his hat, and strands of his thinning hair stood comically out from his head. He was as white as Reinhold except for a slash of red dribbling down one side of his once-handsome face; he'd taken a cut. He'd have a very bad scar - if he lived long enough for it to heal.
His guards didn't seem to see him as much of a threat and left him alone. He drifted in our general direction, but said nothing, and did not meet our eyes.
Flanked by some of his men, Leo Dilisnya came in. He still wore the humble livery of an archer - his disguise for a crucial time - but had draped an ostentatious gold chain of office around his neck. He'd traded his bow for a sword, and it and the elaborately trimmed scabbard also set him apart from the ranks. Our guards came to attention, and Victor and Ivan stood up. He passed them and Gunther by, though, and stalked over to where I lay.
"Hail, Strahd, Lord of Barovia," he said softly, by way of greeting. "Not for long by the look of you. Thought you'd be dead by now. What are you waiting for?"
Coughing like a dying man, I murmured, "An explanation?"
"I'm surprised you haven't gotten it from Reinhold already. Oh. Yes. He isn't in any condition to do much talking, is he?" He prodded Reinhold with the toe of his boot, getting no reaction. "Looks better than he did before. Is that your doing, Lady?"
Ilona said nothing. She sat by the wall, holding Lovina.
Ivan Buchvold, hovering between stony madness and violent grief asked, "Why, Leo? My poor Gertrude did you no harm... our children... how could you?" Tears spilled from his eyes. "How could you?"
"And my Oleka," Victor added. "And our children. Your own sisters, Leo."
"Half-sisters," he returned. He waited for them to respond and got only puzzlement. He prodded Reinhold again. "Half-brother, too, for that matter."
"What do you mean?" asked Nona.
Leo cocked an eye at Gunther, who was leaning wearily against the table. "Why don't you tell them? You were so damned eager to tell me."
"And don't I wish I hadn't," Gunther replied sullenly.
Leo laughed. "You think I wouldn't have done this otherwise? Your 'great revelation' about yourself and mother made no difference to me, old man. ft only gave me additional reason to put this lot out of the way in the end. I've been working on this for years, since before the end of the war."
"Ba'al Verzi," I whispered, only just loud enough for him to hear.
He showed his teeth and came over, dropping on his heels next to me. "So you see the truth of it? Took you long enough."
Alek's last words made sense now. Even as he lay dying by my hand, he'd tried to warn me; the Ba'al Verzi had only been asleep for these three years - asleep and waiting for the right moment to strike again.
Beware the Ba'al Verzi, the great traitor who will take all for himself.
"You should have died that first night we were here," said Leo. "Then Reinhold would have taken up the rule. After a decent interval, he'd have passed on from a bad belly, and I'd have stepped in, as was my right. If that bastard Gwilym hadn't turned up at the wrong time, quite a few people here might yet be alive.
Where is he?"
"I don't know," I answered truthfully.
"We'll find him. Mind you, I certainly took the both of you in with my playacting then, babbling about my loyalty to the great and noble Strahd. I wish you could have seen your faces. All I had to do was think of what poor Illya might have said, add some convincing tears, and you swallowed it whole. Maybe he'll rest more easily in his grave now that - oh, excuse me - assassins are burned and their ashes scattered. That's what Strahd's men did to the body, didn't they, Ivan?"
Ivan was swaying on his feet one second and flying at Leo the next. Both rolled right over my legs, ending with Ivan on top, fingers locked around Leo's neck.
Men rushed in and eventually separated them.
Ivan was beyond sanity. His mouth hung wide as if to yell, but the only noise he made was a hoarse, panting grunt. The veins at his temples stood out from the skin like blue cords. Six men were holding him down and having a hard time of it.
Not for long. Leo spent some bad moments choking and retching, but recovered and drew his sword. He stood over Ivan, eyes blazing.
Ilona hugged Lovina to her breast so she wouldn't see.
Ivan gave out with a long, animal-like scream that only ended for lack of breath. Leo wrested his blade from the body and wiped it clean on Ivan's clothes. Rubbing his throat, he signed for the men to take the body out.
The scent of fresh blood blossomed into the room, sweeter than any perfume.
I opened my mouth and sucked in a ghost of its flavor where it floated on the air. Not enough. I hungered, I thirsted, I craved more with a keenness that diminished all previous wants to the point of nonexistence. Nothing else mattered but that I immediately answer this overwhelming need. Ignoring the fiery shards of pain lancing through me, I turned over.
Pushed the floor away.
Worried despite my obviously poor condition, my guard came around to face me. A man as badly torn up as I was should be dead. Not standing. Not stepping toward him.
His eyes peeled wide open, and he raised his sword to strike. I knocked it away.
The weapon spun from his hand and clanged against the wall, close to where Ilona huddled with the child. Victor, ever the soldier, instantly dived and grabbed it up, dropping into a fighter's crouch. The remaining guards were only just turning to see what was making the commotion.
If my man had had less fear and more wit, he might have been able to escape; I wasn't all that fast. But he froze. I moved in, seized his shoulder, and spun him around like a doll so his back was to me. Tore off his chain coif. His bared skin stank of iron and rust, damp leather and very old sweat. No matter. A man doesn't turn away from rotten bread when he's starving to death.
Legs flailing, hands clawing futilely to loosen my grip around his waist, he might as well have been wrestling a tree. He screamed, but I heard nothing, deafened as I was by the roar of his rushing blood. Other screams, other yells of fright and anger. They were no more than buzzing flies to me.
I took from him all that I could take, emptied him as a bird empties nectar from a flower, until his struggles slowed and stopped and his limp weight hung heavily in my arms. He'd provided enough to dull the agonizing edge of need, but I still hungered.
The battlefield silence was gone, replaced by an altogether different sort: the silence of waiting. Dread reigned on one side of the room, joyful anticipation on the other. Leo's men were stricken motionless, all their eyes on me. These were hard men and heartless, chosen by him for just those qualities, the kind of men who had no qualms about murdering inconvenient children as long as it didn't put them out too much.
They were about to find out the true cost of this job.
I lifted the guard's body high and threw it across the room to a knot of men.
Some were able to react and dodge; the rest went down and stayed that way.
One of the archers nocked an arrow, drew, and released as smoothly as if he were on a practice field. It went sharp and deep into my chest. When I'd caught my balance from the blow, he let fly with a second shaft, striking just below the first. He had good training, excellent self-control; the best archers always do.
He was starting on his third shot when I reached him. Hardly feeling it this time, I pulled the arrows from my body and plunged them into his own and with little less force than if they'd come from his own bow. He thrashed and went quiet.
Leo's men scattered in a wide circle around me. Some made for the doors and temporary escape. Temporary, only. I'd sworn that none of them would live out this night, and I would keep my word.
Hacking wildly away at two men at once, Victor shouted my name, like a war cry.
The fighting rage was on him, turning him into a fiend with a sword. He had a dead wife and children to avenge, and another child to protect.
Ilona also shouted my name, for a different reason. She was behind Victor, trying to drag Lovina out of harm's way. There was little chance of her succeeding; they were running out of space.
One of the men got a swift cut in his side and reeled back. I was there to catch him. As if snapping kindling wood, I broke his back, dropped him, and got between Ilona and chaos with the fallen man's blade in my hand.
Just in time. Another brute, the size of a draft horse, closed on us. He was either fearless or a fool. Seconds later he was dead, his head rolling toward his fellows.
That marked their ultimate rout. The ones at the back were already through the doors. The rest hurried to join them, crowding themselves, getting in each other's way in their haste to leave.
My laughter followed them out.
I turned back to the others.
Victor had killed his second man and was hunched over, catching his breath. He looked up at me, looked around at the bodies, in particular the one with the torn-out throat, but said nothing and made no other move.
"Come here, Victor," I said.
Sword in hand, but held down and away from him in a nonthreatening manner, he walked across to me. The floor was slick in spots from the blood. He avoided them as though they were no more than rain puddles and somehow kept his eyes on mine at the same time. He was afraid, but not giving in to it. He saw me as I was, as Ilona saw me, but I was still his liege, his commander.
"I want you to wait here until my return," I told him.
He nodded. "Yes, my lord."
"Good. Now bolt the doors behind me."
Following in the wake of the panicked soldiers, I made my way to the front courtyard. Two men had been posted to defend the entry, and though aware that something had gone wrong in their master's plan, they knew nothing more. They fought me as though I were an ordinary man like themselves, and like ordinary men, they died. I smashed one into a wall, the other I took and squeezed dry like a piece of summer fruit.
Those of their companions who had paused to watch now took to their heels, heading for the gate or the stables. If any of my own people survived, I did not see them, only the bodies of those who hadn't: guards in my colors, guests in bloodied silks and velvets, sprawling or crumpled, cut down as they'd run or stabbed as they lay helpless and dying from Leo's poison.
I did not see him among the men, but caught a glimpse of some riders going over the drawbridge at full gallop. I couldn't be sure if he were among them, but if so, it was all right. There was no place he could hide from me, no place of sanctuary for him anywhere. Sooner or later, I would find him. For now, I had to stop his men.
The blood I'd taken gave me more strength than I'd ever imagined, more than enough to call upon the darkness within and use it.
Part of my mind insisted that I could not do it, that I was too far away for the spell to work. But I'd changed. The old limitations no longer applied.
Quitting the steps, I bent and scooped up a handful of courtyard earth, closing it tightly in my fist.
I, Strahd, am the land.
Letting the knot of dirt drop, I said a word of power and the portcullis crashed down and closed off the keep. Another word, and I'd sealed off the towers that held its lifting mechanism.
The men were trapped inside now, with me.
Some of them might just be able to push it up again and escape, but they would not be given that chance.
Striding over, I weighed into them like a fisherman in an overstocked stream. I still had the sword I'd taken from the guard I'd killed, and I put it to full use. They fought and screamed and died. Cutting or stabbing, their own blades passed right through me as though I were a wraith with no substance or nerve. It didn't take much of this to send them running back to the false safety of the open courtyard. There they milled around like sheep, holding their distance from me, afraid to separate from one another. A few broke off into groups and disappeared back into the keep, perhaps hoping to find a hiding place.
Like their master, they would find no sanctuary, for I knew every stone, every corner; this was my home.
My home... and their graveyard.
Three hours of it and I hadn't found them all, but they were cowed enough to go to ground and stay there. Most were barricaded in some of the rooms in the keep, alternately cursing and praying, for all the help it would do them. After their butcher's work among the guests, they couldn't possibly hope any gods would bother to listen to their frantic pleas for aid.
I'd left them and was returning to the main dining hall when a tired figure lurched from an alcove and all but dropped right at my feet. It was Gunther Cosco.
"Forgive me, my lord," he whispered.
He had no weapon. I put mine to one side, knelt, and lifted him into my arms like a baby. He seemed to weigh no more than one as I approached the doors and called to Victor. He opened them right away and I swept in.
Things were much as I'd left them: a room of blood and bodies, the stink of death and fear. Lovina was asleep in a corner; Ilona stood near Reinhold, who had not moved. I brought Gunther over and eased him onto the floor, then backed well away.
Giving me a guarded look, Ilona went to him.
In hard silence, Victor took in my torn clothes and the blood that drenched me from head to toe. He'd took it in and accepted it. He was a soldier and knew firsthand the filthy business of killing.
"All has been quiet, my lord," he reported. "But Lord Reinhold..."
"Lady Ilona did all she could. He never woke up."
I nodded and watched her work with Gunther. She looked exhausted. After a time, she stood and stepped away, motioning for me to come.
Someone had ripped a hole in his belly, not enough to slay him outright, but he was dying now.
"Forgive me," he said again.
"For what? Your son?"
"Yes. If I could have done things differently..."
I started to agree with him, but Ilona caught my eye and shook her head.
"Never mind, Gunther. It's not your fault."
His hand moved feebly, indicating his wound. "Had his men hold me down. Could have made a clean kill, but didn't. Wanted me to bleed. Said you'd finish me yourself. Doesn't know you as I do."
There seemed no answer to that.
"Did he escape?" he asked.
"Yes. I'll find him, though. I've sworn it."
Eyes glittering, he said, "Good."
It turned out Tatra had made it to the stables after all. He and eight of the men were the only ones left out of my own guard. During my grim hunting game, I'd found them there and put them to work getting a carriage ready and horses saddled. They were nervously waiting in the courtyard by the time I returned with the other survivors in tow.
He'd picked the largest conveyance, which happened to belong to the Dilisnya house. I wasn't sure whether that would be a help or a hindrance to them with Leo on the loose, but it would have to do. I took him and Victor to one side.
"I formally release you and the others from my service," I said to Tatra.
This surprised and, I think, hurt him. "But my lord - " he began.
"I ask that you attach yourself to Lord Victor's house, to protect and serve him as loyally as you have served me."
He glanced at Victor Wachter, who was looking at me with sad understanding.
"Very good, Lord Strahd."
I gave some last orders to him, this time framed as a polite request, and sent him off. Several minutes later, Tatra and two men reappeared from the keep, carrying the bodies of Reinhold, Gunther, and Ivan. They took them to one side of the courtyard and lay them down.
Victor shut his eyes, his grief catching up with him. "Oleka..."
"Ashes," I said curtly. "At midnight tomorrow you can begin saying your prayers for the dead."
That was when I expected to have all the other bodies laid out along with a mountain of wood and an ocean of oil. The funeral pyre would be visible for miles.
"You're not coming, are you?" he asked.
"There's work yet to do. None of you must remain, or you could be caught up in it. This night I want you to ride fast and get as far away as you can. Do not stop for any reason and, as you value your life and soul, do not ever return to this place."
He demanded no explanations. "Yes, my lord."
"Tell Lady Ilona I said good-bye and... that I hope she never sees me again."
"I now formally release you from my service."
Though he must have seen it coming, this hit him like a physical blow; but there was nothing else either of us could really do. He held out his hand to me.
I looked at it for a very long time, thinking, and finally shook my head. "No."
He seemed to know why I chose not to touch him. A sensible man, he also did not offer any pity or condolences.
"Like Lady Ilona, you need say nothing of this." My eyes wandered from him to take in the rest of the keep.
"But, my lo - Lord Strahd - "
"Nothing. Now get out of here... while you still can."
He and his new men mounted up and rode toward the gate, the carriage following.
A word, a gesture to empower it, and the portcullis raised itself just long enough for them to get through, then slammed down once more, locking me in with the dead... ... and those that were about to die.
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