by Joe 45
The first chapter of the Epic of Sevan Leatherhide, soldier of Charlemagne
Here is the TRUE epic account of Sigmund Leatherhide
As SUNG BY TAGE THE POET in the early ninth century
AND LATER recorded by the Benedictine Monk OBERO Fidelus
in his folio Heroica Corium Comitis
Sigmund dropped to one knee in the shallow water of the spring’s edge. Gasping for breath, he seized the heavy helmet with both hands and tore it from his head. Pain shot through his abdomen as he fumbled with the latches on his steel breastplate. The hooks finally came loose, and the cracked armor fell into the water with a large splash. His leather tunic was stained and shredded, and blood flowed freely from a ragged gash running from his left armpit to his waist. Ripping off the remains of his tunic and using it to staunch the bleeding, Sigmund dipped his helmet into the water and drank from it. The taste was of sweat and blood, and he raised a hand to his head, which had begun to throb. With the intense agony of the grave wound to his side, he hadn’t noticed the blood seeping through his hair. He was cut, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Sigmund turned his attention back to the gaping hole in his body under his left arm. His ruined tunic was soaked through with blood now, and he dropped it, useless, into the water. The blood was flowing slower now, almost stopped. He laughed at the black spots that had begun to dance before his eyes, and at the patterns his lifeblood was forming on the pool’s surface. In a moment, Sigmund was facedown in the water, his mouth and lungs filling with the clear liquid. He tried to move his hands to push himself out of the water, but the muscles in his arms would not respond. The black dots had stopped dancing, and were now growing, joining each other, blocking out any other images. There was, strangely, no panic, only calm warmth…
Sigmund opened his eyes with surprise. He was facing a row of wooden planks, with thatched straw stuffed between them. Beneath him was a soft mattress of what felt like goose feathers, wrapped in a wool sheet. A blanket of similar material covered him. Turning his head to look into the room, he was greeted by a stabbing pain in his side and a dull ache in his head. He relaxed into the position he had been in before, and slowly reached with his left hand to touch the wound in his torso. To his shock, the gash had closed, and was mostly healed. A long, thick scar was forming where the cut had been.
He closed his eyes and marveled that he was alive. He had been convinced that the wound had been fatal. He smirked slightly, to think that he had cheated death again. He summoned enough energy to turn onto his right side and prop himself up on his elbow. There was considerable stiffness in his left side, but it was bearable. He surveyed the room around him. It was a small hut, with a door in one side and a large fireplace in the corner. There were a few wooden tables in the center of the room and against the walls, and these were covered by a variety of objects: vegetables, cheese, glass containers, and oddly, books. This was clearly a peasant’s home, and reading was hardly a common pastime for that class. Sigmund was a soldier, and been taught enough to read written orders, maps and some family history, but that was all.
A noise came from an aperture that led out of the room; into what he surmised was another chamber. In a moment, a woman walked into the main room, saw that he was awake, and smiled. In that instant, he realized that he was completely naked under the goose feather quilt.
“I see we’re awake, soldier man,” she said softly, with a hint of playfulness, and without the least trace of fear or discomfort. “I was beginning to consider waking you, but felt it best to let you sleep.” Sigmund studied her as she moved to a table and set down the book she had been carrying. She was short and slender, with long, fiery red hair. Her face was small and round, with large eyes that seemed almost gold. She was dressed simply, in a plain yet flattering cream-colored frock. He found it difficult to place her age. She seemed physically young, perhaps twenty, but moved with the sensuality and poise of a much older woman. She sat gracefully in a large wooden chair near the bed, folded her hands against her chin, and fixed him with a near-hypnotic gaze. There was a long silence that Sigmund finally decided to break.
“Who are you?” he ventured, at once curious and indifferent. He planned to get out of here as soon as possible, but found her captivating. Almost against his will, he found himself desperate to know more about her.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she responded, her voice level and yet with that same feline, toying quality. She smiled, and her teeth were surprisingly white. Few peasant girls made it to adulthood with such white teeth, let alone a full set of them. “I’ve waited for three days to hear your story, and in that time I’ve kept you warm, safe, and alive. I believe I am entitled to ask the questions first, hmm? Who then, are you?”
“Three days?” he asked, answering her question with one of his own.
“Since I found your corpse polluting my spring, yes. Imagine my surprise to find that you weren’t dead. I found you to be quite rude, floating there, without even the good manners to die. Not quite as rude as now, however. I believe I asked you a question.” She had not changed the tone of her voice or the posture of her body, but the gold in her eyes had become more coppery, almost shining. He decided to answer her.
“My name is Sigmund,” he said, meeting her gaze. “I am, or I was, a captain in the Frankish army. My patrol was ambushed during a scouting mission north of Tours.” Images rushed into his brain as he recalled the events. “Danish reavers set upon my men from behind rocks and trees, doubling our number. We fought well, but not nearly well enough, and in the end I was the only one alive, though just barely. I crawled from the battlefield, past my own dead men, and stumbled through the forest blinded with pain and shock. I went to your spring to die.” He experienced a shudder of grief for the men under his command, but quelled it. They were each surely in Heaven, having died warriors’ deaths.
There was another long silence. Sigmund was uneasy, feeling the woman’s gaze on him, probing him. Her eyes never moved, but he could sense her focus shifting, digesting each piece of him separately. He was acutely reminded of his nakedness, and he felt vulnerable. If she had intended to do me harm, he thought, I’d already be with Gunthar, Eberulf and the others in the afterlife. She must want something else. He couldn’t decide whether or not that made him feel any better.
“Well, Sigmund,” she finally breathed, “it is not often that I open my home to anyone, especially near-dead soldiers, regardless of what army they are from. I have reason to suspect that this case is different, however.” She rose and disappeared into the rear room momentarily. When she returned, she was carrying a pile of clothes.
“Here are your breeches, which I have repaired, and a new shirt which I have made.” She said this simply, neither proud nor modest, as she handed them to him. “Your armor is, I think, quite ruined.” He thanked her and slid into the buckskin trousers under the blanket. Sigmund was a powerfully built man, in keeping with his profession, though of average height. His hair was a dark chestnut color, the same as his eyes. He sat up and put on the open-necked shirt. It was of the same cream color as her dress. As he laced up the front of the shirt, she kept talking.
“Sigmund, when was this battle of which you speak?”
“The fifteenth of July, I think,” he replied after a short pause. “Why? What is it today?” She fixed him with an icy stare.
“Today is the tenth sun of the eighth moon.”
“But…” His mouth hung open for a moment before he snapped it shut. “That would mean that…”
“Yes,” she finished, “you were afloat in my spring for nearly an entire moon’s turn.” She turned away, cleared a second chair in the middle of the room, and motioned for him to sit. He did so, finding the wooden chair to be sturdy and comfortable. She returned to her seat across the table.
“You are no doubt wondering who I am,” she began, the musical playfulness returning to her voice, and the gold in her eyes softening warmly. “I am Amaranthe, and I am a witch.”
Sigmund stood suddenly, knocking over his chair in the process. Casting about the room for a weapon of some kind, he could see none. He put a hand to his pocket, but his crucifix was gone, likely in the mud beneath that pool. He turned his gaze back to her, and she was sitting calmly, with a slight curl to her upper lip, and her eyes dancing with amusement.
“You may sit, Sigmund,” she intoned quietly, and suddenly the chair was upright beneath him again. He sat obediently, and sullenly, with his eyes downcast. This situation was completely beyond his control, a fact that disturbed him deeply. He was a military commander, accustomed to a firm grip on events.
“You’re mocking me,” he said, with a whiny quality in his voice that he disliked.
“Of course not,” she stated flatly. “Although I must admit you are quite amusing. I mean you no harm, Sigmund, to either to your ego or your flesh. I seriously doubt, however, that I could do much harm to the latter.”
“What?” he asked obtusely, still feeling impotent.
“For one thing, I am not a dark witch, if that is what you are afraid of. My magic is organic, and centers mostly on healing and learning. Oh, I can perform quite a few spells, but have no desire to use them for power or profit. Also, I have reason to believe that your body is invulnerable to physical harm.”
“What?” he said again, now feeling not only powerless, but dense as well. “I’ll accept that you’re into white magic…”
“Organic magic,” she interrupted. “It’s quite different from white magic in source, form, application…”
“Fine,” Sigmund returned the interruption. “Organic magic. Whatever you say. But it’s impossible that I’m physically invulnerable. The last thing I remember is falling down in that pool of yours at death’s door! That doesn’t sound very invulnerable to me!” He was half out of his chair again. She put a soft hand gently on his arm, and he sat back down.
“Sigmund, that pool you happened to fall into was a healing spring.”
“A healing spring. The water in that pool is enchanted, by what I don’t know, either inherent magic or an ancient spell. It is a secret I have kept for a long time. Anyone who drinks from the pool is restored to health within a reasonable amount of time. I keep a supply on hand here with me, as a precaution. The enchantment is not particularly strong, but it is effective.”
“So that’s why my gash is healed,” he said. “But…”
“Yes,” she interrupted again. Her voice was so smooth and tender that he overlooked the habit he was beginning to perceive. “You spent many suns soaking in the spring, not dead, but not really alive, either. When I found you, it was obvious that you had been there for some time, and I was shocked that you were alive. I brought you home with me mostly out of curiosity, to see what prolonged immersion in healing elixir does to a man. While you were asleep, I read your aura several times, and the result was always the same.”
“Aura?” he asked, his head hurting, although from Amaranthe’s story or the earlier blow to the head he couldn’t tell. “What in Hell is an aura?”
“Don’t be vulgar. An aura is the physical manifestation of an individual creature or object’s life energy. It appears, to those trained in seeking, as a muted glow. The color of the glow can provide valuable insight as to the nature of the aura’s source. Most human men have blue auras, with the specific shade varying dependent upon the quality of the man. Your aura, Sigmund, is silver.” Amaranthe stopped talking, as if he had any idea what she was talking about.
“What does that mean?” he asked, suspecting that she stopped short so that he would have to ask, thus reinforcing her intellectual advantage.
“Silver auras indicate supernatural durability and resistance to damage,” she continued, the sly smile playing at her lips confirming my suspicions. “Stone often has a silvery shimmer to its aura, and I have seen a silver aura around certain weapons enchanted to be indestructible. I believe, Sigmund, that your little swim in the healing spring has somehow rendered you permanently invulnerable to physical harm. Either that or I’m misreading your aura. It could be platinum, in which case you’re sexually impotent.” He felt a flush of red on my neck, which he suppressed. She giggled musically, enjoying her own joke.
“I am fairly certain that you saw silver,” he countered. “Or perhaps you’d like to test your other theory?” Sigmund grinned smugly, feeling at last that he had put her on the defensive. She stood.
“Actually, a test sound like a fine idea.” She went into the back room. He watched her go, uncertain of what to do. Should he follow her? She returned a moment later with a large knife, dashing his hopes that she had taken his latter suggestion seriously.
“Put your hand on the table,” she directed, wielding the knife.
“Are you joking?” he asked incredulously. “I just got over a fairly major incision, if you recall. I’d rather not invite another quite so soon.” What was she thinking? He began to consider the possibility that he had been rescued by a crazy woman.
She pouted slightly, cocked her head, and put her free hand on her hip. It would have been a rather fetching pose, if not for the hunting knife in her other hand. She went to a nearby shelf and brought back a small vial filled with a cobalt blue liquid.
“This is healing elixir,” she said, and proceeded to make a small cut in her own hand with the knife. Sigmund jumped forward, startled. It was a shame to see her damage such fine, pink skin. It didn’t seem to bother her much, however, and she quickly uncorked the vial and drank a sip of the elixir. There was a long moment while the blood seeped out of the thin cut she had made. He watched in amazement as the bleeding stopped, and then Amaranthe wiped the collected blood away with a cloth. There was only a tiny, white line where the cut had been, and that disappeared after a few moments. He looked up, and she met his gaze with her bewitching golden eyes. She wiped off the blade with the cloth and handed it to him.
“Trust me yet?” she asked. Sigmund took the knife from her and studied it for a long time. She could be playing a trick, he thought. She might be the invulnerable one, in which case I’m a fool. That, and she was a witch, and everyone knew witches used blood to summon the Devil. He kept going back to the thought that if she really wanted him dead or hurt she could have done whatever she wanted while he was unconscious. And, despite her frustrating habits of interrupting him and talking over his head, he was beginning to find her intriguing.
Impulsively, he turned the knife over in his right hand and neatly slid it across the palm of his left hand. He felt the blade slice lightly into the meat of his hand, and felt the warm blood spill out and down his wrist. He reacted with a mixture of shock and puzzlement. He realized how foolish he had been to trust a witch, even an organic one, whatever that meant. Just as he was about to curse at Amaranthe and grab the healing elixir, he felt an odd sensation. His hand no longer hurt, but instead began to itch fiercely. He opened the hand and stared at his palm, which was covered in blood. He snatched the cloth away from Amaranthe and wiped the red liquid off his hand. Sigmund stared with his mouth open as the red line closed, became white, and then disappeared. The cut had healed completely. He looked at Amaranthe, who was frowning.
“Hmmm. That’s odd. Instead of being immune to physical damage, you seem instead to have acquired some sort of inherent healing enchantment.” She peered at him, the pupils of her eyes widening, the gold shining. “Your aura is still silver, and there’s very little blue. It’s the exact same aura you had when you first came here. If the effect were temporary, the blue would be reasserting itself. As it is, I think the condition is most likely permanent.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but only for an instant. It had occurred to him that as a professional soldier, this wasn’t necessarily a negative development. In fact, it had many potentially wonderful applications.
“Permanent, eh?” He asked no one in particular, stroking his chin. He noticed then that he had a heavy beard and moustache, while he was almost always clean-shaven. He turned to Amaranthe and examined her orderly dress and well-groomed hair. “Someone as attractive as you must have a mirror?” he asked in a pleasant voice.
“Of course,” she replied, trying to appear to overlook the compliment, but blushing slightly at the tips of her white ears. “Do you want one that reflects your physical self, or your spiritual being?” That gave him pause. He didn’t know just what his spiritual being would look like. He hadn’t really been aware that he had one.
“Uh, physical self,” he replied. Better to be on the safe side on this one. He waited as she disappeared again into the back chamber and returned with a hand-held mirror. It was a simple, brass frame, but the glass was of an unusually fine quality. Sigmund focused on his reflected image, and was immediately shocked by two things.
First, he hardly recognized himself. Even with the facial hair, he looked ten years younger. His hair was thick, and his skin less tanned and creased. Even his eyes seemed a bit brighter. He was staring at himself the way he had been in his early twenties, when he was a raw recruit in the army of Charlemagne, His Most Holy Majesty.
Second, another pair of eyes was staring at him from the left edge of the mirror. A pair of narrow green eyes that blinked twice and kept staring. Without putting the mirror down or looking away, he asked Amaranthe precisely what was going on.
“Oh, you mean Demetrius?” she asked demurely. “He’s my familiar. He lives in the mirror most of the time.” Sigmund had no idea what she was talking about. At that precise moment, his main concern was Demetrius getting too familiar with him. As he watched, a sleek gray head with whiskers and pointed ears surrounded the eyes. He should have guessed. What good is a witch without…
That thought was cut short as the cat exited the mirror. Quite suddenly, he found himself on his back on the floor with a large gray feline on his chest. Sigmund learned that huge cats are heavy, and this one didn’t seem particularly happy to see him.
“Demetrius!” Amaranthe shouted. “Get off our guest and let him up! He’s not a threat to us!” The giant cat took his eyes off Sigmund’s throat long enough to glance at his mistress. Convinced she was not in need of his services, the cat did not get off. Instead, he shrunk about ten sizes until Sigmund had a small gray barn cat on his chest.
“Mrrrow,” he said indifferently, and turned to walk away, a task he accomplished by digging his hind feet into Sigmund’s ribcage and pushing off, while flicking his long tail indifferently. Sigmund watched in awkward fascination as the cat curled up under the table and promptly went to sleep. He scrambled to his feet, still holding the mirror, and fixed his gaze on Amaranthe.
“What the…” he had scarcely begun to ask his questions when she interrupted him again.
“Demetrius is harmless,” she sighed. “If a bit overprotective. I think he likes you.”
“What reason could you possible have for making that judgment?” he asked, bewildered.
“He shifted his size before letting you up.”
“Besides,” she continued, “there are things about my magic that you won’t understand, and probably shouldn’t question. Even I’m not sure about all of it. Sometimes it’s best just not to ask.”
“Why did my appearance change?” Sigmund asked.
Amaranthe knelt under the table and retrieved Demetrius. He seemed somewhat peeved at having his nap interrupted, but he seemed to be easily placated by a scratch under his chin. She looked at Sigmund for a moment before answering.
“I really don’t know. Probably a side effect of the healing elixir immersion. I didn’t know you were any older than, what, twenty-five?”
“Try thirty-six,” he countered.
“Well, what does it matter? Demetrius is two hundred and forty-five, and he doesn’t seem any older than ninety.”
He was tempted to dare her to show him a ninety-year-old cat, but bit his tongue. She’d probably find one. He was struck then by an earlier question that had been nagging him since he’d first seen Amaranthe.
“By the way, how old are you?”
“Now, is that any question to ask a lady?” She put her hands on her hips and thrust her nose in the air. “Fortunately, I’m not one. Well, not one with a capital L, anyway. I’ll tell you what, invulnerable age-defying Sigmund. You help me make dinner and I’ll tell you my story.”
For Sigmund, helping consisted of peeling a variety of vegetables, many of which he’d never seen. He’d had corn, potatoes, and beans, none of which seemed to be here, as well as plenty of fruits. Aside from the carrots, which he recognized, there was a wide selection of strangely shaped and colored items that were completely alien to him. He soldiered on, though, through the rutabagas and zucchini, the rhubarb and the avocados, until he couldn’t take it any more.
“Eggplant,” she had said to him as he held up a bulbous purple thing in desperation.
“From chicken trees, I suppose,” he’d snorted. She had just smiled and kept on doing whatever it was she was doing over the fire. Sigmund had to admit that he had approached the whole idea with some trepidation. He’d offered to go find some game in the woods, a rabbit or a pheasant, but Amaranthe had refused.
“I won’t have you killing anything in my forest,” she had said adamantly. “Unless it tries to kill you first.” And so his growling stomach had been staring in the face of a meatless meal of bizarre plants.
“So, fearless warrior,” she breathed after the meal. “Still afraid of the harmless little vegetables?” Sigmund grunted, affecting disinterest. In fact, he had rarely felt more satisfied. The plants may have looked strange, but during their time in Amaranthe’s hands they had become a three-course meal of thick, hearty stew, an odd-shaped but remarkably tasty pie, and a huge salad. Washing each course down with a sharp burgundy wine that she had claimed to have made herself, he had felt warm and full. He wasn’t exactly happy to admit it, but he decided to play nice. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe he just wanted to hear her story.
“That was definitely some organic magic,” he murmured. “Now,” he continued, refilling her glass, “I believe you owe me a tale.”
“How like a man,” she sniffed. “I make you dinner, and now I’m to amuse you as well?” There was a soft noise as Demetrius leapt to her lap and curled into a ball. Sigmund wondered, offhand, what the cat ate. Amaranthe stroked her familiar and soon his thick, throaty purr filled the room. The fire began to die down, so he placed a few more logs in the fireplace and sat back down.
“You know me as Amaranthe,” she began, slowly. “I was not born to that name. As a child, I was known as Princess Kirsa. My father was Lord Theuderic, ruler of the Duchy of Salia. He was a wise man, and a good and generous monarch. Under his guidance and love, our province flourished and multiplied. Cattle were fat and produced much milk, and the crops were robust and plentiful. Alchemists and priests advanced their respective religions, and knights and adventurers brought renown to our kingdom. I grew up, happy and secure, under the watchful gaze of my father.”
Her voice had become faraway, and Sigmund could tell that she was no longer in the room with him, but was now in places long ago and far away, in the body of a young girl.
“I was a willful child,” she continued, the hint of a smile tugging at her mouth. “My father was patient, but frustrated. I was slow to learn the tasks of cultured ladies, of sewing and courting and gossip. I loved books, and knowledge, and stories. I loved to ride, and spent countless hours in the stables, learning the secret language of the horses, and listening to their tales of times when they ruled the earth. I learned the history of the world, of how our ancestors fled Rome, so many years ago, and of the men and women who lived and loved and died, building a new kingdom to replace the one they had lost. Of the bloody and wrenching wars, and of the dark days that followed.
“As I grew older, I began to notice how different I was from the other girls at court, and how much they hated me. The daughters of my father’s retainers, of his High Priest and Chief Diplomat and Commander of the Royal Armies and Lord Admiral, they all sought to supplant me in the lord’s heart. Father had tolerated my strange ways because my older brother, Clovis, was royalty through and through. He was a strong and just man, with our father’s heart and the mind of a master mage. He was the Crown Heir, and the kingdom loved him. He would be Lord when our father died. The court girls knew this, and sought his hand mercilessly, each trying to outdo the others in beauty and charm. Clovis would have nothing to do with any of them. None of them, he said, could match his sister’s spirit and depth.
“On Clovis’s eighteenth birthday, the kingdom held a festival to celebrate his manhood. There were magic displays, jousting, archery contests and vendors from around the country. Our father presided over the event with joy, for he had finally found the perfect match for his son. Clovis had agreed to marry Eleonore, daughter of the fourth Lord of Ripua. Lord Ripua’s lands to the east were smaller than Salia, but rich in gold and silver. The marriage would unite our lands into a larger, richer, stronger kingdom. Salia’s Court Mage, Gideon, had warned against the union, claiming he foresaw ill tidings. Eleonore was a very bright, very beautiful princess, but very odd. It was rumored that she swam across the mouth of the Rhine naked at each new moon, dancing with the dolphins. My father, usually reliant upon Gideon’s counsel, discounted his advisor’s caveats as superstition. It was a decision my brother, and eventually my father, would come to regret.
“Two years later, when Clovis was twenty and Eleonore was sixteen, as I was, they were married. It was another joyous occasion for our kingdom, for my father was growing old and sick, and the people were relieved to see their heir settled into a marriage that was sure to produce many sons. I never saw my brother as distraught as he was that day. I saw him moments before the ceremony, dressed in the handsomest finery, but with deep, sunken eyes, and a slouch in his step. ‘I do not love her, Kirsa,’ he told me. ‘But I do love Salia. I will do what must be done for our kingdom. Promise me,” he said, taking me by the shoulders, “promise me that you will remain as you are, free and beautiful. I give my freedom, and my spirit, to you.’
“I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I wept for Clovis that day. I had lost my brother to the crown and to the kingdom, and to Eleonore. Following the ceremony, they rode off to Ripua’s palace by the sea, to consummate their marriage. I slept fitfully the following month, and at midnight on the thirtieth night I awoke from my nightmares. I sneaked into the stables, and wrapped my arms around the neck of Gibraltar, my white stallion. He comforted me, and told me of the people who lived in the clouds, who built castles of mist and sang the songs of eternity. He told me of how the people faded away and the castles fell to earth as rain, and how the songs could be heard from the throats of the robins, who had known the people in the sky. I finally slept there, in the straw.
The next morning, I awoke to thunderous rain, and my first thought was that one of the castles was falling from the clouds. I shook the sleep from my head and ran back to my chambers. I sat by the bed of my father who was so near death, and tried to ignore the gaping absence of my brother, and the awful burden that he had chosen. The rain continued all day, and in the evening a group of travelers arrived at the palace. There were twelve of them, and they were all dressed in black robes, and carried silver staves. They were admitted into the courtyard, where Berengar, the Palace Captain, would meet with them. I descended from my father’s death-chamber into the courtyard to see what our odd visitors could want.”
At this point, Amaranthe stopped for a long time. She stared into the fire, her fingers motionless on Demetrius’ head, her eyes glowing copper. Sigmund had a feeling of extreme age and sorrow, and for a moment her beauty was gone, the red hair thin and white, and her skin was lined and colorless. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, she was as he had first seen her. He shook his head; the fire and his imagination were playing tricks on him. Picking up his wooden goblet, Sigmund hurriedly drank some more wine. Amaranthe focused her eyes on him for a moment, before they regained the faraway look, and she continued.
“Berengar approached the cloaked figures with a contingent of elite guards, unsure of the motives or nature of our guests. He greeted them cordially, asking how he could be of service. The figures pulled back their hoods, and ten of them had hollow skulls atop their shoulders, hollow except for a faint red glow in each eye socket. The other two figures I recognized, and so did Berengar. It was Clovis and Eleonore. They stared at Berengar without recognition, and I saw the same red glow in their eyes that I had in the skulls. Berengar was stunned, as were the guards he had with him. I give them credit for not dropping their weapons and fleeing. They probably should have. Clovis raised his staff before him in both hands, and a black light came from the staff and engulfed the soldiers. In moments, they were piles of dust on the courtyard flagstones. Unable to turn away from the horror before me, I shrieked.
“Clovis turned his gaze to me and I saw the same look of cruel indifference that had greeted Berengar. My heart stopped beating, and my breath caught in my throat. I cried out to him, demanding to know what he was doing, what was happening. He cocked his head slightly, and smiled. ‘Is our father dead?’ he asked me, as if asking for a second flagon of ale. Awestruck at his question and demeanor, I was only able to shake my head. ‘We’ll have to see about that,’ he cackled, the smile gone. In moments, my brother, his wife and the skeletons were surrounded by an ungodly crimson star, and then they were gone.
I hurried up the stairs to my father’s chamber, though my feet and brain wanted to be running in the other direction. I stumbled up the marble steps as I tried to see through the tears that were brimming in my eyes. I threw open the heavy oaken door to my father’s room in time to see my brother standing over him, his hand on our father’s chest. The lord’s eyes were open, and a white mist was floating out of his mouth and channeling into Clovis’s staff. In an instant it was finished, and my father’s body, empty of its spirit, sagged back onto the bed. Clovis turned his eyes to me as he removed the crown from our father’s brow and placed it firmly on his own head.
“’Why, little sister,’ he said, ‘does not your brother make a fine monarch?’ He smirked at Eleonore, who joined in his demonic laughter. At that instant, there was a fantastic clap of thunder, and the roof of the palace split asunder. The chamber filled with cold rain, and in seconds I was soaked to the bone. There was a voice, filled with power and fury, that called out. ‘The Kingdom of Salia is done,’ it bellowed, and I recognized it. ‘It has been forewritten in the Book of Destiny that when the son destroys the father, and the wedding-bed becomes the devil’s possession-chamber, that the castle will crumble and the cattle will sicken, the fields will bear no harvest, and the rivers will run with blood.’ It was Gideon, who was now standing before us. His silver eyes fixed upon Clovis with a rage and resignation, and the powerful wizard continued. ‘The crown of Salia will never rest upon the brow of a demon!’ The gold circlet my brother had taken from our father glowed bright blue, and then crumbled to dust. I could hear the sounds of the castle falling to pieces around us, and the screams of the courtiers and their families. In the distance I could see the Forest of Turpen burning, despite the torrential rains.
“It was like the end of the world. Gideon gestured with his fingers and the skeletons shattered like twigs. Clovis raised his staff, but Gideon bent the silver metal around my brother’s wrists. With a sad look, the mage raised his own wooden crook. ‘I loved you as a childless man loves the sons of others,’ he said softly, suddenly seeming the gentle, soulful old man I had known for my entire life. ‘It grieves me that I cannot save you from the enchantment your wife has brought upon you both. It grieves me that the houses of Salia and Ripua have reached their end. But it is written, and as much as I may want to, I cannot rewrite it!’ With that, he shouted a word that I did not recognize and cannot remember, and a giant hole opened in the floor of the chamber. An unearthly red hand, with black fingernails and fiery flesh, reached up through the opening and grasped both Clovis and Eleonore in its infernal fist. They shrieked, and for a moment my brother caught my eye from across the room and his eyes were as blue as an autumn sky. The eyes pleaded with me for an instant before he and his wife were borne down, and then they were gone.
“Gideon came to me then, as the stones were shaking loose from the castle and the sky was falling upon my head. ‘Come, my child,’ he said heavily, ‘come with me from this place.’ I closed my eyes, murmuring my brother’s name, trying desperately to awaken from the nightmare. I clutched to Gideon’s deep blue robe, burying my head in his arms, letting the tears finally come. I can’t remember how long the noise lasted, or the rain. I can only remember waking up in a warm, soft bed, in a place I’d never been before, with Gideon watching over me. He told me that my family, my friends, and my home were gone, ruined by the demonic possession of Eleonore and Clovis. He explained that he had discovered the plot, but had been unable to stop it, only to fulfill his role in the final, destined event. His words made little sense to me and were small comfort as I wrestled with the fact that my dear brother was gone, and that my life had changed forever. That was two hundred years ago.”
The fire had become a smoldering ember behind Sigmund in the hearth, and the hut had grown cold. The tears had stopped flowing from Amaranthe’s eyes, and now she sat with reddened cheeks and slumping shoulders. She was very much a young girl, orphaned either by cruel circumstance or crueler destiny. She was quiet and still, huddled in the small wooden chair with her furry gray guardian. Sigmund stoked the fire absently, lost in his own thoughts, and piled on more wood. It had been twilight when Amaranthe’s began her narrative, and he could now sense the deepness of the night outside the house. He moved slowly around the table to stand behind Amaranthe, and gently placed his hands on her trembling shoulders. It was a poor choice on his part.
In an instant Sigmund found himself flying through the air and crashing solidly against the far wall. He felt a sharp crack and knew he had broken a rib. It hurt terribly, but only for a moment. He felt the bizarre sensation of the bone knitting itself together unnaturally fast, and in seconds it was completely healed. He was distracted from the experience by the sight of Amaranthe standing over him, her golden eyes blazing angrily and her fists clenched at her sides. Her crimson hair radiated around her head, and seemed more orange than it had before. There was a strange glow to her skin, a pale white radiance that made it difficult to look directly at her. There was a terrible beauty about her, even in her agitation.
Sigmund wanted to close his eyes, to turn away from the unbearable brightness, but he couldn’t stop staring at her. He wondered briefly if she could hurt him, or even kill him. Slowly, however, her hands relaxed and the fiery incandescence subsided. She looked at him quizzically, almost as if she were wondering why he was lying on the floor. Then, struck by the realization that she had lashed out at him in a violent magical outburst, she knelt beside him with shame and penitence in her eyes.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Of course you’re all right,” she responded to her own question before he could open his mouth. “Even if I had hurt you, you’d be alright. I am sorry, though. I was still there, in my family’s castle, when I felt hands reaching for my throat. I reacted, and I feel very stupid about the way in which I reacted. I hope you understand.”
Sigmund climbed to his feet, amazed at the transformation. He had seen Amaranthe change before his eyes from a vulnerable young orphan to a frighteningly powerful enchantress, and then back to the independent, impish woman he had first met. He knew now not to underestimate the volatility and power of her magic, organic or no.
“I…I’m fine,” Sigmund finally managed to stammer. If nothing else, he was now convinced of the nature of the healing elixir’s power. He felt the right side of his ribcage, and there was only the slightest tenderness, which was likely more imagined than real. He sat back down in his chair, and glanced at the fire before looking at Amaranthe.
“I’m sorry about your family,” he said lamely. He was a soldier, not a poet or a diplomat, and had no skill with words. He was still dealing with her revelation that she was more than two centuries old. “I know what it is like to lose loved ones. I was raised in Cantu, a small village in Lombardy that was raided by Avar horsemen when I was three years old. My father and my mother’s brothers died fighting off the attack. I watched the Avars burn my home and kill my mother and sisters without passion or mercy, as men might kill chickens or geese. I was beaten and left for dead. The next day, a contingent of Frankish soldiers in pursuit of the Avars passed through our dead village and an officer found me near death. The officer, Leger, was unmarried and childless. He brought me to his home in Augsburg and raised me as his own child. He trained me in the only profession he knew, that of a professional soldier. Since then, it is all I have known.”
His eyes met hers, and for a long moment there was a deep, shared sorrow. They were both orphans who had become what they were through the generosity of foster parents. Amaranthe had been a princess and had lost her heritage, and Sigmund had been a peasant with no family history.
Amaranthe sighed. “It is late. I do not really need sleep, but I indulge in it for my own reasons. And though I doubt your body requires the rest, your mind would likely function poorly without sleep. I suggest that we end this night of tales and see where the morning finds us.” With that, she rose from her seat and moved to the rear of the small house. Before disappearing into her chamber, she turned and allowed her gaze to linger on him for a moment. Then, she was gone.
He sat on the cot upon which he had unknowingly spent the previous three days and nights. He curled up in the feather quilt, feeling the night close by. The candles were extinguished, though he didn’t remember Amaranthe or himself blowing them out. The fire in the hearth continued to burn, shedding orange light and warmth into the room. There was movement near his legs, and for a moment he thought it might be Amaranthe – but it was the small cat, Demetrius, curling on the soft down blanket, near the fire, against his feet. Sigmund smiled. Apparently the monster had decided he wasn’t a threat after all.