Part III Chapter Eight
Tenth Moon, 400
"Lazlo Ulrich, Burgomaster of the Village of Berez of Barovia, understanding that Lord Strahd has a keen interest in any and all tomes relating to magic, wishes to make known to his lordship that he has some volumes, recently discovered, for sale. Lord Strahd is most welcome to come view the books, or, if he desires, they can be brought to Castle Ravenloft for his expert inspection..."
If they were spellbooks, I wasn't about to trust them to anyone's care but my own and resolved to travel to Berez myself. Ascertaining its location, I lost no time hitching up the horses, packing a supply of gold and spare clothing, and setting off. It was rather late in the season to be traveling, at least by coach, but there had not yet been a really bad freeze. The mountain roads were soft and treacherous with snow, but still passable if you knew them.
Berez was on the Luna River several miles south of Vallaki, and the only thing to distinguish it from any of a dozen other fishing villages was its huge manor house. It had once been the summer home of some long-forgotten lord and was still a grand-looking structure - from a distance. Drawing closer, the flaws of age and neglect became readily apparent. The cracks in the outer wall, the untended garden, the breaks in the roof, all indicated that its present tenant, the burgomaster, was in sore need of money. If his so-called magical tomes lived up to his expectations, he would have more than enough to restore his home to its former glory. If not... then I would make sure he never wasted my time again.
A little after sunset on my second night of travel, I stopped before his sagging, rusted gates, dismounted from the lead horse, and pushed my way into a ravaged courtyard of weeds and mud. Lights shone in one window of a ground floor room; otherwise the place looked quite deserted. I strode up to the once-impressive front doors and briskly pounded.
The servant who answered was a hesitant and pale old man who peered at the world through faded, lost eyes. He was really too aged and frail for the work, and I wondered why he had not been honorably retired by now. I gave him a card announcing me as Lord Vasili Von Holtz, an emissary of Strahd Von Zarovich. He clutched the note in a none-too-clean hand and vanished into the depths of the house without a word. Having gotten no invitation, but not really requiring one, I stepped inside to wait, politely pushing back the hood of my cloak.
The hall was dark - the servant had not bothered to leave his candle behind when he'd tottered off - but I could see well enough. Muffled by the walls and an undetermined distance, I heard a man's voice throwing questions, and the servant's mumbled answers. Before much time had passed, the master of the house appeared, lamp in hand and a look of fearful hope on his face.
Lazlo Ulrich, for so he introduced himself, bowed and offered a number of apologies of an unspecified nature to me. I gathered that they had to do with his inability to give me a "proper" welcome. He was a huge, tough-looking man, of the sort that would have done well in the company of any of my soldiers, but there was a cringing light in his eyes, which I did not care for.
"I am here to look at the books on behalf of Lord Strahd," I told him, wanting to make my visit as brief as possible. "If you still have them."
He did and was more than willing to show them to me. Raising his lamp, he led the way past dusty rooms filled with damp, musty air and little else. The furnishings were mostly missing, giving me the strong impression that they'd been sold off over the years - that or turned to kindling.
Miser, I thought with a bleak mental sigh. I'd seen Ulrich's type often enough before. Best for me that I not appear too interested in his books. He took me to a cluttered chamber that seemed to serve many different purposes for the house: study, dining, and workroom, poorly lit and with but a small fire on a huge hearth. He opened a decrepit old trunk to reveal a stack of equally decrepit tomes and ancient parchments.
"I was having a bit of cleaning done in the east wing of the house when I found this and looked inside," he said. "Must have belonged to one of the old masters of the manor before me who went in for... you know."
"Thaumaturgic studies?" I absently suggested.
He was impressed. "Yes, that's it. Well, I couldn't make head or tail of the writing, so I took them to Brother Grigor, and he said they were magic books. He thought they might not be any good and that I should burn them, but I thought that since someone once went to so much trouble to make them in the first place, they might be valuable... to the right person."
"A wise choice, Burgomaster Ulrich."
"Then they're... Can Lord Strahd use them?" He watched my every move as I went through them, studying me with the suppressed eagerness of a hungry dog.
"All knowledge is of use," I hedged, while blessing the fates that had made Ulrich favor greed over piety in his decision. The books were quite genuine and incredibly precious. They were also lamentably fragile; time and the damp of the house had eaten into them. I saw myself spending the rest of the winter in careful transcription of their contents to preserve them. Pleasant enough work, though it would delay some of my other projects.
I gave Ulrich a generously fair offer for the lot and in my turn watched the various stages of thought running over his face. First, gratification at the price he was getting, then doubt, as he wondered if he should be entitled to more. Much more. At that point, I made sure to remind him of Lord Strahd's devotion to honesty in all his dealings and his reasonable expectations of honesty in return. The fifty-year-old memory of Berez's headless burgomaster was apparently still strong: Ulrich heartily agreed. Then and there he called for his servant to bring tuika to seal the bargain.
Instead of the old man, it was a young woman who answered his summons.
"Marina!" he said, obviously displeased. "I told you to go to bed."
"I'm sorry, Papa Lazlo, but Willy is so very tired. He - "
"So the servant is more important than his master? You've much to learn about the world, girl. Mo, I don't want to hear about it, just put your tray down and get out."
The girl did so, stealing a quick glance at me as she hurried away. Only then did I get a glimpse of her.
Ulrich poured out a small sip for each of us and offered me a glass. "Here you are, your lordship..."
Swaying, I staggered back until my legs encountered a chair, then sat down rather quickly.
"Your lordship? What's wrong? What's - "
I waved him off, pressing a hand over my eyes to hide my face. He continued to hover, fearful and asking questions I could not answer. I was unable to talk, unable to think. My mind was quite literally reeling with shock.
Ulrich hastened away, calling for the girl. No doubt he was concerned that I might drop dead in his parlor. The two of them returned, and the girl pressed a cold rag against my forehead.
"There, sir, just be quiet a moment," she said soothingly.
I looked into her eyes, my heart beating so swift and hard that it was like to burst. "Tatyana?" I whispered.
There was no reaction from her. "Would you like some water, sir?"
My hand stole up to touch hers. Not a ghost sent to torment me, she was real.
She was real. "Tatyana?"
"My name is Marina, sir." But there was some doubt in her tone.
"Call him 'your lordship,' girl," put in Ulrich.
"Your lordship," she said, dutifully correcting herself.
Same voice, same face, same graceful body, she was Tatyana come back to life again. I was absolutely witless from astonishment. Ulrich was so alarmed by my state that he rushed off, muttering about going for help. It never occurred to me to stop him. All I could do was stare at the sweet, beautiful girl before me.
She wore the clothes of the peasantry, poorly fitted, faded and shiny from much use. Her rich auburn hair was braided in the manner of unmarried girls. Other than those differences, and her utter lack of recognition of me, she was the same Tatyana I'd known nearly half a century ago. There could not be another.
A chill that had nothing to do with the cold of the room straightened my spine and ran down through my limbs.
Was this the work of the gods... or of dark magics?
I don't care. She's here again, and that's all that matters.
"I am all right, Miss... Marina. Your name is Marina?"
The doubt she'd shown before became sharply apparent. "Oh, sir - your lordship - do you know me?' Her question was so earnest and so intense with troubled longing that it all but cracked my heart, as though I, too, could feel her own terrible pain. All I wanted was to ease it, bring her comfort.
She was trembling. "Please, in the name of all the gods, do you know who I am?"
Her anguish filled me with supreme hope. "You..."
"Please tell me. I know nothing of my past."
"They found me walking by the river last summer and took me to Brother Grigor. I could not remember anything about myself, not even my name, so he gave me a new one. Then Papa Lazlo adopted me."
"That was very kind of him," I ventured.
She flinched, and a look flashed over her face that told me much more than anything she could say.
"Has he treated you ill?" I managed to keep my voice very smooth and level.
"He treats me well enough, sir - your lordship. But please, you said you knew me - "
"Yes, yes, I do. Your name is Tatyana. Your home is far from here, in a great castle. And you are loved. Loved more than any other woman in all the land."
It was quite a lot for her to take in, and one after another, more questions began to pop forth, only to stutter to a halt. She simply couldn't ask them all at once, nor could she decide which to ask first.
"I will tell you everything you want to know," I promised, "but just for this moment, think only on your true name. Tatyana."
She did, and repeated it to herself. "But I don't remember..."
"You will. I shall help you."
If she'd been somehow reborn into the world, then a new beginning was before us - a beginning unmarred by murder and sorcery, free of rivals and old griefs.
Very, very few times in my long life had I ever been moved to tears and had never once given in to them. Since my change those many years ago, I thought weeping was beyond me, but now I felt my eyes begin to sting and my vision blur.
I dropped my head into my hands, and though their names would have dripped fire upon my tongue, I could have offered up a thousand prayers of thanks to the gods who had sent her soul back to me once more.
I raised my eyes and smiled at her, receiving a faltering smile in return.
It was a start.
But before I could pursue it further, Ulrich returned. Tatyana - for so she would always be named to me - flinched again and rose and backed away, like a child caught raiding the sweets jar. He saw, but let it pass without comment, and stepped aside as a second man followed him in; I was summarily introduced to Brother Grigor.
His sky-blue robe was a familiar sight, but back in the days when Lady Ilona was running things, this specimen would not have been allowed into the orders to scour chamber pots. He was young and vigorous, but dirty, with a long, unkempt beard and tangled, greasy hair. His robe was stained and threadbare; instead of wearing a sensible pair of boots against the cold weather, he was in sandals.
This marked him as a member of one of the more fanatic branches of Ilona's faith. They had grown numerous over the decades since the closing of the borders, pushing aside their more moderate spiritual siblings as they played upon the fears of the people. Some few had true faith and thus true power, others had no more power than that which lay in their own minds. Of the two, it was difficult to decide who was the more dangerous. Out of respect for Ilona's memory, I felt a distant pity for those who came to either type of priest for the betterment of their souls.
It was also and only out of respect for her that I rose and bowed to this man now.
"You must sit and rest, Lord Vasili," he pronounced. "You are very pale."
This was something I already knew. There was no advantage in drawing further attention to it. "Thank you, Brother, but I am much better now. I have had such... fits before. According to my own healer, they are alarming, but quite harmless.
A cup of water was all that I needed, and Miss Marina was kind enough to provide one for me."
I nodded to her, and she had the wit to remain silent about what had really passed between us.
"You should come to the church hospice, though, just to be sure," he added, perhaps hoping to justify his presence.
Imagining the hospice to be as dirty and flea-bitten as its caretaker, I had no intention of accepting his offer. However, before I could turn him down, he stepped forward and began a cursory examination.
His hand, when it touched the bare flesh of my forehead, was hot.
I winced and backed away from him. "No, don't!"
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
I mouthed the first lie that came to me. "I'm sorry, Brother Grigor, but years ago I suffered a wound to my head. Any sudden movement such as yours..." I opened my palms in a humble request for understanding for my "weakness."
Ulrich retreated a bit while Grigor expressed sympathy for my trials in life. An old head wound could account for any number of eccentricities. Better they think me odd than know the truth, and much better if I leave as quickly as possible, lest this holy man touch me again. He was a true believer in his faith, and I wanted to put some distance between us before he began to notice things.
I slipped a gold piece to Grigor (without touching him) as a donation to the church and made it clear I intended to leave. Ulrich made a diffident invitation for me to stay with him for the night, which I graciously declined. He appeared relieved. That made two of us.
"But what about the books, your lordship?" he asked. I gave him a small bag heavy with gold. "This is the first payment. I shall return tomorrow evening with the rest. They are Lord Strahd's property now. As you value your life, keep them safe."
My words were not lost on him. He glanced uneasily at the new additions to my collection.
Before turning to go, I looked past Ulrich and Grigor to Tatyana.
Wait for me, I silently told her.
Ulrich's parsimonious habits dictated an early bedtime for the house, probably as an effort to save on the cost of candles. Not long after my departure, Brother Grigor went back to whatever hole he dwelt in, and the house grew as dark and silent as any tomb. My comparison was not lightly chosen, for the place was certainly dismal and lifeless; the thought of Tatyana wasting away in such wretched surroundings angered me beyond endurance.
It took little effort on my part to enter again and stalk through the halls, looking for her. Ulrich had a large room to himself, the old servant slept in the pantry, and Tatyana had a small chamber nearby. I chose to softly knock on her door: coming in under it as a mist would only frighten her.
She was afraid anyway, or so she sounded when she asked who was there.
"It is I," I whispered. "Let me in, Tatyana."
A bolt instantly slid back, and she stood on the threshold, holding her breath.
Her heart was pounding as was mine; I could hear it.
Locked doors were nothing new to me, but generally they are not for use within one's own house. Once I was in the room and the door shut again, I asked about it.
She looked ashamed. "Willy put it there for me. He thought - "
"That you might need it?"
"Against Papa Lazlo?"
She stared at the floor. "Willy doesn't think I should be here without a chaperon."
"Then Willy is a wiser man than Brother Grigor."
"But Papa Lazlo has been kind to me in his way. He said... said that if Brother Grigor approves, he will revoke the adoption and... and..."
Another nod as she stared at the floor.
"How generous of him," I said dryly.
She caught onto my contempt and gave me a sorrow-filled look that would melt stone. "I don't belong here, do I?"
"No. No more than a mountain hawk belongs in a cage."
"Tell me about myself. I keep saying my name, but I don't know it. I try to remember the castle you spoke of, but I can't."
"How? Please help me."
The furnishings of the room were humble and sparse. She had a narrow bed and a stool and nothing else to sit on. Proprieties be damned, then. "Over here," I said, and took her to the bed. She sat, and I saw in her face that she was suddenly conscious of her surroundings. I pulled the stool up close, but was careful, so very careful not to touch her. Much as I wanted to, now was not the right moment.
"Tatyana, once upon a time you were betrothed to a powerful lord of Barovia. He loved you, cherished you, and desired your happiness beyond all other things in life. But there were traitors in his court who lusted for his power. They came between the lord and you, and their betrayals destroyed and scattered everything that was good.
You were caught up in... in the dark magic of that night. Many horrible things happened then, and I think that may be why you have no memory of it. I think the gods want you to forget the evil - "
"But must I forget the good as well?"
"That's why I am here, to return that part of your memory to you."
"Who is this lord?"
"Strahd, of Castle Ravenloft," I said, searching her face for the least sign of fear.
"Strahd?" She was still for a long time, thinking hard. She shook her head. "How can it be? He's the lord of Barovia and I am... am nothing."
"You are all that is precious to him, more important than life."
"Then why can I not remember him?"
Her voice rose along with her frustration. I raised a gentle hand against it.
"That will come, if you can but trust me."
"I think I must already," she said wryly, referring to my presence in her room.
I smiled, but did not get one in return and so realized that she couldn't see me for the darkness. There was some thin gray light seeping through a single, small window that was useless for fighting the shadows of this house. I myself was hardly more than a talking shadow to her. Spying a candle stub on a rough table by the bed, I pulled out my tinderbox. I soon had a tiny spark going and lighted the thing.
The golden glow of the flame warmed her face and brought back a jumble of heartbreaking memories for me, if not for her. I saw her in the dusk of the overlook garden again, laughing with delight at the roses, or staring in awe at her first view of the valley.
"What is it?" she asked.
I blinked, returning to the sad present, to her cold and musty room with its lowly belongings and unhappy occupant. "Look at me, Tatyana. Look upon me, and you will remember the joys taken from you."
"How - "
Her eyes were on mine, wide with caution, but willing to take a chance.
And then they misted over. A soft word from me and they closed.
"You will remember..." I said. "You will remember the white walls in the sunlight and roses redder than blood and the gray storms of winter pouring down from the mountain and the blazing fire in the hall and the music I made for you there and the silk dresses you danced in and the laughter we shared... you will remember..."
Brow wrinkling, she shook her head until I stroked my fingertips lightly on her temples. Her eyes opened, something like recognition coming into them. "I - I see things when you speak. Please, tell more. Please tell me... Elder?"
"Strahd," I said.
"Yes. Remember the crystal in the chandeliers catching the light, and the lords and ladies swirling about you, dancing in your honor. Remember the prayers in the chapel, and the sweet incense as we asked the gods for happiness and good fortune, and the long days when we walked in the forest, and the time we startled the doe and her fawn, and the night the shooting stars fell like fiery gems over the valley."
"I see them, yes, and you were near us, I was with - "
"Strahd," I said. "You were with me."
"And I held you close in the garden, and the mists rolled around us like the dancers, and you kissed me."
Somehow we were standing, and my arms were around her, holding her as I'd held her that night. Her rough clothes had been replaced by her silk wedding gown, and her hair flowed wild and rich on her pale shoulders.
"I love you, Tatyana, and you love me. Remember."
"Strahd," I murmured into the warm white velvet of her throat.
The following sunset once more found me face to face with Burgomaster Ulrich.
He'd dressed himself up a bit and had shaved, but having seen him through Tatyana's eyes as well as my own, I was hard-pressed to be civil to the man. We were about the same age - outwardly - so his planned marriage to her was not unthinkable, but it was his casual treatment of her that roused my displeasure and disgust. He was utterly blind to her true worth. Had she been a stranger to me, I'd have felt the same sense of outrage. It was with much relief that I turned over the last payment, gathered the books and papers, and left.
My valuable burdens carefully placed in the long box in my traveling coach, I drove it back to a spot in the forest where I'd spent the day surrounded by lupine guardians. Changing form and taking to the air, I beat my way back to the house, made myself comfortable hanging in a tree just outside Tatyana's window, and waited until all was quiet. Not long after the last hoarded candle had been extinguished, she cracked the window open, and I flew across and entered, resuming my man's shape.
I'd prepared her for this, and because of the understanding established between us with my first taste of her blood, she offered no questions about my nature, nor did she suffer any fear of me. Instead, she opened her arms in welcome and wept from happiness that I had come.
"No more tears for you," I said, carefully brushing them away with my little finger.
"I can't help it. I feel as if I'm waking up after a long sleep. Nothing I did today seemed real; it's only now that I can touch things and know them for what they are. So much has happened, and so much has changed."
Her words rekindled a joy within me that I thought lost. I pressed her close, content to hold her and think of nothing, to simply drift.
"Will you... take me away with you?" she asked.
"Of course I will. Can you think I would ever leave you behind?"
"I don't... I..."
"When I go, you'll be with me."
We needed a few more nights of courtship before I could truly sweep her away as my bride. "No, it's not possible, not yet."
"But please take me soon."
"There's something wrong?" I drew back to look at her.
"Please, Strahd, I am grateful to Papa Lazlo, but I cannot marry him. He said now that he has the money, he'll be able to..."
I took her head gently in my hands and kissed her brow. "You need not worry. He will never touch you. I swear it."
No doubt some of the gold from the books had found its way to Brother Grigor, assuring the easy revocation of the adoption and issuance of marriage banns, instead. A pity no one had bothered to ask Tatyana about her views on the matter, but as an orphan in the hands of a zealot who probably thought he was helping her, Tatyana's opinion did not matter.
Again, I was filled with disgust for Ulrich, who had taken this girl under his protection as her father only to violate her trust and feelings in such a cool manner by wanting to be her husband. At least - and for that I was most grateful - he was waiting until things were made legal by the church's blessing before indulging in violations of a more intimate sort.
Pushing his unpleasant presence aside, I gathered Tatyana into my arms and carried her to bed, lying close beside her within its narrow confines. There, I spoke of our life together as it had been and as it would be. And when the time of talk ended and we kissed, she threw her neck back and softly begged me to take her again as I'd done last night.
And I did, resulting in the greatest of pleasures for us both.
The next sunset found me outside her window once more, but this time it was closed fast, and though I waited long, it did not open for me. I pressed my ear to the panes and probed with all my senses, but heard nothing. She was on the other side, yet unable to respond to my call. A cold and heavy chill settled on my heart, and I carried that iron weight of panic with me as I hurriedly changed to mist and seeped through the cracks around the window. Inside, I suddenly understood.
The room reeked from prayers and protections. I threw an arm up against the stench, but Brother Grigor had been very thorough. It was not the trap Leo had set for me, but bad enough in its own way. A holy symbol had been hung over her bed, and she wore another on a chain around her neck. The air was so thick with incense and the organic stink of garlic that she was all but suffocated. I saw to this problem by immediately opening the window.
The breeze stirring the thin curtains was cold, but fresh.
She opened her eyes and recognized me, but couldn't speak at first. I put my fingers to my lips to let her know it was unnecessary and searched the rest of the chamber for further pitfalls.
Thankfully, there were none. Grigor had confined his blessings and defenses to Tatyana, and though they were fairly strong, they wouldn't last the whole night.
I tested them - lightly - and could feel the power wavering already. Tatyana helped by taking off the holy symbol she wore. She was just able to remove the one on the wall before collapsing back onto her pillow. Without that extra pressure to fight, I rushed forward.
"They're trying to kill me," she whispered. Tears filled her eyes and streamed into her temples. Her fingers clutched at mine, cold and lighter than dead leaves. I kissed them and folded them to my breast.
"I'm here now. You're safe."
"But I'm so weak. When Brother Grigor came to look after me, it only got worse.
He prayed over me, and I could hardly stand it. Then tonight, he shut up my room and prayed some more. Until you opened the window, I thought I should smother."
"In a little while, you will be yourself again. Brother Grigor is... uninformed about certain things and causes you more harm than good with his chants and burnings."
"He was frightened, Strahd."
"No doubt. Frightened men can be very foolish."
I held her hand and soothed her, easing her own fears as best I could.
So. Grigor had noticed the marks on her neck and correctly interpreted their significance. It couldn't be helped now. I wanted to get her safely away from him, but in her present state, she could not travel. Another concern was over bringing on her conversion too quickly. Her body hadn't had much time to get used to the changes taking place, and there might be danger to her if I pushed things. I had to balance this possibility against the surety of Grigor's ignorant meddling.
Another night and I could lose her.
No. Never again.
Her eyes opened. She could see me quite well, even in dim light now.
"You are weak, and before you can come with me, you must grow weaker - but only for a very short time. Then you will be well again."
She understood, not fully, but on an instinctive level - by means of the special link between us.
"You must do what I say, and then you shall be free. When you waken tomorrow, you'll be able to leave this house and all its problems and pains."
"To be with you?"
"To be with me forever after."
"What must I do?"
"Only gift me with the privilege of kissing you again." I touched her throat with a fingertip.
She gently slipped her hand up to my shoulders. "Yes..."
I kissed her deeply, drinking in a portion of her life so that it could merge with mine. She grew white and cold in my arms, but made no move to stop me; her only protest was a soft moan when I finally drew away.
Her eyelids fluttered as she fought to stay conscious. I hurriedly tore open the front of my shirt and, with a diamond-hard talon, dug into the flesh over my heart. Our mingled blood slowly welled from the wound. When I pulled her up and pressed her lips to it, she began to drink.
I know not what pleasure she may have taken; my own was beyond any that I'd ever experienced before. It was more intense than any sharing of love I'd enjoyed while bedding a woman in the usual sense - more intense, and infinitely more desirable. I held her tightly and felt her strength return, even as my own poured out to feed it. Her arms encircled me, entrapped me, but it was right and true. In the past, I'd given everything for her and had lost everything. Here and now, I had nothing left to give but my own life's blood, but it was hers to take, and I murmured to myself, pleading to the dark magics that had made me to grant me this one boon - that she would at last be my bride.
For that, sadly, there had to be an ending to the ecstasy. Reluctantly, so very, very reluctantly, I tried to push her from me. Her strength was equal to my own, though, and she did not want to be moved. My efforts increased the blood flow, and she drank faster, more eagerly. Finally, I had to place the palm of my hand against her forehead and push with all my might, lest we both die. With a groan of misery and bitter disappointment, she fell back upon the bed, gasping for breath like an exhausted runner.
Overcome by the same weariness, I dropped to the floor, shaking from fatigue and sudden hunger. My recovery was slow in coming. When I was able to stand again, Tatyana was already in her last mortal sleep. There hadn't been any chance to say farewell, but no matter. Our next greeting would make up for it. Tomorrow I'd come for her, and there would be no more partings for us ever again.
There was nothing more I could do for her except clean away the traces of our blood exchange. I arranged her body more comfortably on the bed and drew up the coverlet. Though the removal of the holy symbols would not go unmarked, I couldn't bring myself to touch them. But an idea had presented itself to me, and as soon as I'd locked the window again and seeped through to the outside, I took steps toward realizing it.
Berez's church had most certainly seen better times. Without the patronage of the town's former lord, or the support of the larger holy organization on the other side of the closed borders, it had inevitably surrendered to the harsh realities of time. Attendance might have been down, either from the indifference of the people or the fact that their spiritual leader was disinclined to believe in the social advantages of soap and water. Whatever the reason, only two people emerged from the midnight devotions, an old woman and Brother Grigor himself.
The woman talked with him at length, received a last blessing, and waddled off to her home.
I waited only long enough for her to fade from sight, then loomed up behind him, a portion of darkness come to purposeful life.
He put up quite a fight and would have raised an alarm if I hadn't slapped a hand over his mouth. Bodily lifting him, I hauled him into the church and kicked the door shut to afford us some privacy. The little entry was poorly lit, making it necessary to go into the chapel where the scented candles still burned. I shuddered, feeling the tepid power of the place, and tried to ignore the ghastly sickness that was beginning to manifest itself in my belly; there was only so much that I could expect from the protective spell I'd summoned, after all.
When I turned him around to face me, his surprise was such as to deprive him of the ability to fight for a few instants. By the time he'd recovered and thought to grab at his holy symbol to wave in my face, I'd secured both his hands with one of mine and had him braced against a wall, high enough for his sandal-shod feet to dangle over the floor.
"Blasphemer!" he gasped, his eyes wild and wide with righteous anger.
"No doubt," I said and wasted no more time. When he saw what was to come, his struggles turned frantic, but he could no more stop me from taking his blood than I could stop the sun from rising. My exchange with Tatyana had left me weak, but I was yet capable of dealing with the likes of Grigor. When I'd finished, I was much revived, and he was in a state of mind considerably more tractable than before. I led him over to a bench and made him sit, then knelt on one knee in order to be at eye level. I must have looked like a penitent sinner asking for help from his priest.
"Grigor, I want you to listen to me very carefully..."
With him dazed from blood loss, it took little effort on my part to bring him under complete control. I spoke, and he listened and accepted everything. My instructions had to be tailored to his own strongest drives, else he might be able to shake off my influence, but it wasn't difficult to think of something appropriate.
"Beginning this very hour, you will start a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the White Sun in Krezk on the western border. Take what supplies you need and go immediately. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he replied faintly.
Again, it was out of respect for Ilona's memory that I did not simply kill the man. He was inconvenient, but no real threat to me. The thought of her inspired one more addition to his quest.
"On your journey, in the name of your god and for the greater glory of all the gods, you will bathe every day. In fact, you will bathe yourself every day for the rest of your life."
It was the least I could do for his congregation.
When I awoke, my guardians for the day were restless and whining. The horses, though used to their presence, were naturally upset by this activity and pulled unhappily at their tethers. I dismissed the wolves, freeing them to go about their normal business, and wished them luck. They vanished into the forest and began howling, working themselves up for their next hunt. By the time I had the horses hitched, the night air quivered with many voices, making a savage and sweet wedding song to welcome my bride to her new life.
Mounting the lead animal, I guided them toward the village, stopping the coach on a hill just a few hundred yards above the burgomaster's house. As on all the other nights, no lights showed on this side, but I chose to maintain my usual caution and glided down on silent wings, making a broad circle of the place before landing by Tatyana's window.
I sensed her strongly on the other side. She was only just now stirring. Waking late and languorous... The sudden rush of terror and agony crashed upon me like a physical blow. I thought it must be a blow, for I staggered and fell like a tree into the mud of the yard, helpless. My chest, my heart... Fire... Worse than fire... my hands scrabbled and encountered nothing, yet the pain was paralyzingly real. I was no stranger to a sword thrust, and that was what it felt like, only a thousand times worse.
Tatyana was screaming.
And desperately calling on that silent link between us.
Calling on me.
The last echoes rose in the frost-still air and were lost in the dark.
I groaned and cursed and tried to get up. My limbs wouldn't respond. I blinked and stared at the harsh, bright stars as the iron weight of dread returned to my heart once more. Its chill burden settled on me, heavier than a mountain, crushing, but alas, not killing me.
Oh, to die, to no longer have to feel... She was gone. Damnation to the gods, she was gone.
All the tears I'd not shed before in my life filled my eyes now. Far, far above me, the stars glittered and danced, mocking my grief. As I lay weeping, drained and in shock, Ulrich quietly approached. I didn't notice him for a long time, not until he spoke.
"Grigor said you were the one," he whispered.
Her blood - our blood - had splashed all down the front of his clothes. His hands were coated with it; one of them still convulsively clutched a great wooden mallet, its red stains smoking in the cold.
"How could you do such a thing?" he asked. "How can you take a young girl and corrupt her with your filth?"
My tears ceased. Thoughts of dying abruptly fled from my brain.
"But no more. She's safe from you. Better that she die this way with her soul purged and ready for the gods than walk the earth under your curse. She's safe and free."
I seemed to see his muscled form outlined in scarlet. He knelt by me.
"And you, may you forever rot for - "
He had another stake... and raised it high.
I caught his arm as it came down. He tried to pull away, failed, then brought his mallet around to crush my head, but I grabbed that with my other hand and we rolled in the mud, screeching and bellowing. I was still in near thrall to the pain of Tatyana's death, and weak. He was a strong man in his prime, inspired by vengeance, and in terror for his own life. We were a close match.
But I... I had nothing to lose. Nothing. She was gone. And this bastard had killed her. Rage gave me the edge.
I wrested the stake from him.
He clawed at my face, my throat, with a grip like a lion.
I rammed the thing into his side. Yanked it out. Stabbed him again. And again.
Writhing, he fell away, screaming as she had screamed. I crawled after him.
Pinned his leg with the stake. Pinned it right through to the ground. He squalled and bucked and pleaded and called on his gods as I fell on him like a roaring storm out of hell.
But it was over too quickly.
Much too quickly for his crime.
His blood was spread from one end of the courtyard to the other, but it hadn't taken long at all. He hadn't suffered nearly enough, not as she had suffered, not as I was suffering.
I regarded his mangled corpse with bottomless loathing.
Dead now, he would suffer no more.
And I had... eternity before me, an endless march of nights bearing this unbearable loss.
Nearly half a century had passed, and I'd grown accustomed to the pain of mourning. Then to have her return... to have those bleak years wiped from my soul as though they'd never been, to have a glimpse of the paradise that lay before us, and then - - to lose her again... It was too much. Despairing, I wallowed in the mud and gave in to the grief, unable to stop.
Slowly finding my feet, I walked toward the house. Too shaken to change form, I pushed in through a door and paced down the hall to her room.
The old servant sprawled on the floor just outside. He was white with death, his frail heart barely beating. I ignored him and braced myself to go in to her.
"Gone," he muttered.
I stared at the room, at the single lighted candle, at the blood that painted the walls and burst over the bedclothes... at the empty bed.
The impression of her body where she'd writhed in her last agonies was there.
She was not. What had that pitiless butcher done with her?
I dragged the old man up. "Where is she?"
His eyes sagged open, wandering. "Poor Marina. Poor child."
He didn't seem to hear or be aware of me. "So pretty. So sweet..."
"Where?' Now he winced and looked at me. "The mist took her," he whimpered. "Filled the room and... gone. Mist."
His last words. He exhaled once and moved no more.
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