Trial by Combat

He sat on that enormous throne, cloaked in inky shadows, gazing down at me with eyes full of starlight, silver-white, penetrating much more than darkness.

I couldn’t stop trembling under that patient, terrible gaze.

“Do you know why I summoned you?” His deep voice reverberated in the high ceiling and bounced of the stone walls surrounding us.

“N-n-no.” I wanted to say more, to protest, but I was shaking so much I didn’t want to risk stammering too. I put the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth and swallowed what I wanted to say.

“They told me that you wish to leave. Is that true?”

The lie was on my tongue, but not before the blush was on my cheek.

I said nothing.

He leaned forward, terrible visage close to me, putrid and scarred, and th oozing  a pungent liquid that had ribbons of blood laced through it.

“Have I not been a good master?”

“No master of another man, no matter how beneficent, is good.”

He raised a brow, and let out a wheezing laugh.

“I’ve always admired you for not going down without a fight. But rest assured, Laras, you are well on the way down.”

“I’ve heard enough,” I said, straightening despite the pain in my back, enduring the pain of the whip scars that broke open and wept, hissing as it trailed across my skin.

Venom.

“It wasn’t enough I called you ‘king,’ but you wanted ‘master’ as well. I can’t give you that.”

The pain brought me to my knees, in spite of my will. “I won’t give you that.”

I passed out.

****************

Perfumed ministrations roused me, and the sound of muted flutes.

He left me alive.

Someone was watching me, coming into focus, thinly clad, with large eyes that observed me with a blend of curiosity and the desire to kill.

“Your Highness?”

“Nailah, to you.”

She pulled me up by the thick braid I wore, and I braced for the pain, but there was none.

“I begged him for your traitorous life, Fihr. And because he refuses me nothing, he granted it.”

She wrapped my braid around her fist, and kissed me hard.

I tried to break it, but she grabbed me and held harder.

I gave in, and against my better judgment, kissed her back; her moan of triumph led to other things, and my first waking hours were occupied for a time.

*****************

They came for me in the morning, not bothering to knock, startling the princess as they plucked me from her bed like a feather, struck me to the floor, stomped me into it, and carried me out to the barracks.

A test, and I failed.

The day was full of rigorous training, and I was the target; fighting to the point of numbness, I prevailed over most of them, not having been trained in their way. I drew more blood than I spilled, which angered them more.

The sun was westering when I cried out; “How much more do you need from me?”

Call me ‘master.’ Say it, and know peace once again.

Every part of me hurt, every heartbeat an effort, every breath a trip uphill with a large stone to keep in front of me. He wanted it at every cost, and it would cost me nothing.

And everything.

I shook my head.

They began shouting curses at me now, but with a glimmer of grudging admiration in their eyes; nevertheless, they would redouble their efforts to break me now, before sunset.

I was fighting on instinct and adrenaline now, and soon there would be nothing left.

I was bleeding, and never felt the cuts, pummeled, and never felt the blows, but I remained standing, shaking on legs that wanted nothing more than to kneel, the word ‘master’ thick on my tongue like sour ale mixed with blood, and maybe a tooth or two.

I spat, and with that, my wavering ended.

I would rather die.

The sun was a red rind on the horizon when the last form broke from the ranks, moving unlike any of the others.

She was thinly clad, but well armed, and moved like a hunting cat in her prime.

I’d made love to her repeatedly only hours before. “Nailah…”

She was crying now, tears glimmering in the crepuscular gloom.

She took her stance. “Yield, Fihr; don’t be a fool. Yield now, and come back to bed. Say the word.”

Say the word, and be the most favored among them all.

Say the word, and know the comfort of a woman’s sheathe. I will let her have you, and give you men to fight your battles, and women to do your bidding. She is but the jewel in the crown I offer you.

“YIELD!” she screamed.

I saw the soldiers around us gaping in disbelief at my hesitation, saw the silver -white stars begin dotting the cobalt sky. Those eyes from the throne…

I heard the wind soughing among the trees.

Saw the last of the red sun’s rays reflected in the water on her cheeks, making them look bloody.

The memory of her scent, her arms, her kiss, and the things she did with her lips and hands flooded back into my mind.

It was so simple to say, and no one would know.

“Yield, please.” She sobbed this time, not wanting to kill me.

He was behind it, I knew, as surely as I knew my name.

“Yield.” Her voice was lowering with resignation as I hesitated.

Drop the sword, and all is forgiven…

“Yield, my darling. Please.

My own tears hot against my cheeks, I shook my head, and took my final stance.

Her cry of rage at my rejection tore my heart, and with all the last- stand vengeance of the defeated firing her eyes with hate, she charged.

 

 

 

Melchora’s Revenge

I was almost at the end of the King’s Woods, my bloody satchel of rabbits trailing flies and banging against my back as I fled the wardens’ horses.
The men were good riders, and chased fast and hard, their horses well trained and responsive, but I knew the woods well, having skulked about it for years. I ran toward the only place I knew would provide temporary solace.
Melchora’s cottage was on its own land, where she settled after the Purging, just outside the boundary of the King’s Wood proper. She all but dared them to try to move her. She was a dark beauty with a grace, elegance, and maturity that belied the malevolence of her craft, and from what I was told, her cravings.
As much as I wanted to skirt the area entirely, being subject to a witch’s whims was better than throwing myself on the king’s mercy and his warden’s justice.
A choice of poisons, as they say.
Realizing where I was headed, and that they weren’t going to catch me, they turned aside and cursed my lineage, promising the next time would be the last.
They tried to move her, but she’d move the house to different locations, or hide it, or duplicate it as they ran from place to place looking for the real one. After some time, she tired of the sport, and they tired of the spooking, and came to an uneasy understanding; if she didn’t attack anything, they’d leave her in peace.
As they rode away, I sat down in the grass and put the satchel next to me; the flies were gone, but the smell of blood seemed stronger, wafting in the otherwise pleasant breeze.
A small house of dark stones appeared in front of me, surrounded by a dreary fog, and the sky seemed to darken even though the sun was high. The hairs on my neck were standing, and a flash of fear brought me to my feet.
Silence filled the air, not so much as a bird, and the wind itself seemed to stop in mid-motion.
The door opened, and Melchora appeared; she didn’t walk into it, she appeared.
I stood there gaping like a child at a magic show.
She looked at the satchel. “You’re on my land, poacher. That’ll cost you two rabbits.”
Her voice snapped me out of my ogling reverie, but I had to swallow a few times before I could finally speak. “Fair enough. You want I should cook them too?”
She smirked. “If you’re offering…”
I went toward the cottage, fighting my very bones to move as they resisted.
She took the satchel and sauntered in ahead of me, letting me have a good look at her, and not caring.
*****************
We ate in an oddly companionable silence.
The wine she poured was good but not heady, not that I knew much about them. I was an ale man.
A fire crackled and hissed pleasantly as we sipped out of plain goblets until she broke the silence.
“I remember you.”
“From where?”
“From the Purging.”
Her gaze was assessing, measuring.
I put down the goblet.
“I—“
“You were there. I remember. “
“I was under orders…”
“You laughed. All of you. You ran us down and slaughtered us as you laughed. You pissed on our burning corpses, and laughed.”
I stood. “Melchora…”
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
My skin grew tight. “Melchora!” My voice was higher, lighter than even when I was a boy.
My body changed.
*****************
Brown hair, lank and damp, kept falling into my eyes as I ran, gulping air as the horses bore down on me.
A large heavy fist grabbed some and lifted me off my feet as another cut off my path with his horse.
Whoever grabbed me let me go, and I fell into the dirty mud.
“You’re not going nowhere, witchy-bitch.”
A hand covered my mouth, and two grabbed my kicking legs…
*******************
I woke up hurting, bleeding, coughing blood, my lungs burning, my eyes stinging from the smoke that surrounded me, flames licking at my bloody legs. I reeked of urine, realized it wasn’t mine.
The sound of cheers, the glow of the moon, the heated, fetid breeze brought me to a sharp realization.
They were burning me alive.
“Melchora!”
You shared your life with me, witch hunter; I’ll share my death with you.
Through the darkness, the sound of a soft and evil laugh reached me.
I’d never felt so alone…