Copyright 2016 Marcus Kruger
Published by Marcus Kruger at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
~ Prologue ~
“He is wolven. You can have nothing to do with him.” Vargon glared at his chylde, his eyes ablaze with anger. “By the Fates, you are Prince!”
Stefano fought to contain his kindred anger. “You have a friend that is wolven. You stated it yourself. She was your friend even while you were Prince.” Stefano sipped his bloodwyne, watching Vargon over the rim of his glass with hooded eyes. “How is that so different?”
“She maintains her mortal form except during wolfmoon. You told me yourself that your past love gave himself over to the night fully.”
“I hardly see how…”
“I will not debate this with you.”
“Nor I with you, Lord Vargon. I do, however, suggest you remember who is Prince now and speak with the respect due to such. Or, to quote my predecessor, I shall take the actions allowed me by convention, by tradition – indeed, by law.”
“Against your own sire.”
“Who taught me that the duties of a Prince outweigh the bonds of sire and chylde?”
Vargon paused, then bowed his head. “As you wish, my Lord Prince. May you find the strength to live by your own convictions.” He turned and walked out the front door.
Gerik stood beside his mate, his eyes wide. “I have never seen your sire in such a state.”
“Nor I, my heart.”
Viktor looked up from his ledger. “You realize, m’Lord, he only wants what is best in his eyes.”
Stefano sighed as he regarded his manservant. “I know, Viktor. But he oversteps himself, which is very much unlike him.”
“Which should tell you how concerned he is.”
“Mayhaps. It is still uncalled for.”
“Of course, m’Lord. If you will excuse me.”
Stefano watched his friend and manservant disappear through the door to the kitchens. As the door closed, he turend to Gerik. “Am I so in the wrong? All I stated was that I wished I knew where Nikolos was so I could speak with him.”
“I do not believe you are wrong in wishing so, Stef. I won’t say that I am pleased with the prospect of you being with him. But only because I do not know him as you do, and he is wolven.” He stepped behind the bar to freshen their drinks. “Do you have any way of contacting him?”
“No. Of course not. I did not even say I was planning on searching for him. Only that I wish I had a chance to talk to him. To learn for myself what happened the day he disappeared.”
“Is that not somewhat obvious, my heart?”
Stefano sighed again. “I suppose it is, Gerik. I suppose it is.”
Gerik idly tapped the side of his glass.
“What is it, Gerik? You only do that when there is something on your mind..”
“I was wondering if you still planned on going to House Verenthal tomorrow eve.”
“I had forgotten. Yes, of course. I gave my word, we have no choice..”
“My thoughts as well, beloved, though I am beginning to understand your hesitance in spending time with mortal-kind.”
Early the following evening, Viktor watched as the sun slipped below the horizon in a blaze of gold and crimson. He stood at the balcony rail, sipping a mug of an herbal mixture of his own creation. Though his eyes watched the splendor of shifting colors, his mind was on other matters. Should I tell Lord Stefano that his sire no longer responds to my reaches? I doubt Lord Vargon would wish it, but without the ability to speak with him I am left to my own judgement. If I spoke it, what purpose would it serve? I am not truly concerned over it – I do not sense anything has happened to my old friend – but that he avoids responding troubles me nonetheless. As the sky faded to a dark violet he finished his brew and stepped back into the Keep.
Once inside, Viktor nodded to lords Stefano and Gerik as they descended the grand staircase and crossed to the bar. Stefano stood quietly, exercising his patience as Gerik fussed over his sire’s cravat and the creases of his shirt. When Stefano reached for his snifter of brandy, Gerik smacked his hand away.
“Hold still. I’ll be done in a moment.” As the younger kindred began tugging at the sides of the waistcoat, Stefano finally brushed him away.
“Enough. I am not some debutante about to be presented at court.”
“Lord and Lady Verenthal are prominent within the houses of Atterstock and close acquaintances to my parents. I only wish to make the best of impressions on them.”
“You think they will get your parents to accept us? After all your father has said against our relationship?”
“No. But I’d rather they not report badly.”
“Does that mean I am not to touch you?”
“No. Of course not. Just … “
“Just don’t be you?”
Gerik swatted Stefano’s shoulder. “I am not that bad.”
Stefano smiled as lust burned in his dark eyes. “No, love. You are that good.”
Viktor cleared his throat and headed for the bar. “Are ye ready to depart for your evening’s engagement? I can send for a carriage to be ready when you reach the mainland.”
Gerik gasped. “I had forgotten. Thank you, Viktor. We’d be lost without you.”
Viktor bowed his head. “Happy to be of assistance, Lord Gerik.”
Stefano rolled his eyes and grabbed his drink, taking it in one gulp.
Viktor started to step away but stopped. “Master Stefano, I have need to tell ye I heard from the workmen. They shall be here to replace the balcony doors on the morrow.”
“Excellent. Thank you for tending to that, my friend.”
“As always, it is my pleasure to serve, m’Lord.”
Stefano checked the time before pouring himself a refill and sighed. “I suppose we best get to the stables and head for the ferry. Viktor, if you would release a bird for the ferryman he can probably send for the carriage before he heads across.”
Viktor nodded and disappeared into the kitchens.
Later, as they rode in the carriage, Gerik prattled on about the Lord and Lady, how his parents and the Verenthals would get together for various functions, how the ladies held teas for the women of the district, and how the lords would hunt quail and pheasant. Stefano answered from time to time with a noncommittal grunt as he gazed out the window at the passing scenery.
The road circled around a small lake bordered by different types of tree and undergrowth. Being late in the seasons, leaves were turning to a brilliant cacophony of reds and browns, golds and oranges, interlaced with various intensities of green. The air was crisp with the clean smell of autumn; the only sound was the gentle rhythm of horse hooves on cobblestone. Stefano was relaxed into the atmosphere of the pleasant surroundings when he heard Gerik repeatedly said his name, each time in rising frustration.
“Stefano. Are you even listening to me?”
“I’m sorry, love. I guess my mind was on sire and this disagreement about Nikolos. I do apologize. What were you saying?”
“Not that I suppose it compares to your important issues, but I was going to point out House Arvent, since they have asked for us to visit later this month.” The younger kindred crossed his arms across his chest and looked out the window.
“Love, please. I realize you have your hands full with managing our social calendar, even with Viktor’s assistance, but do understand there is much on my mind at present as well.”
Gerik turned to his sire and sighed, uncrossing his arms. “I know. You are in much the same ship as I, what with how Lord Vargon left things. I am sure it weighs on your spirit, dearest one … I do not know. I suppose I still hope for reconciliation with Father. I am certain it is his opinion that holds Mother away.” He looked at the floorboards of the carriage. “I suppose it is just pointless wishing, but they are my parents.”
“I know, my heart. I know.” As the carriage turned onto a private lane lined with oak trees in fall splendor, Stefano reached to an inner pocket and withdrew a silver flask, which he handed to Gerik. “Here. Take a sip.”
Gerik looked skeptical. “What is this?”
“Bourbon. It will settle your nerves and mayhaps get your legs to stop shaking.”
“They are not … alright, I suppose they are … somewhat. Do you really think I need…?”
Gerik took a swig and shuddered, coughing. “By the Fates, this is house bourbon.”
“Of course it is.”
“I was not expecting the alcohol level. Not to mention the absence of blood.”
“We fed earlier; there was no need for sustenance.” Stefano glanced out the window as the carriage came to a full halt. “Take another sip. We are there.”
~ An Agonizing Farewell ~
Several hours after their return from House Verenthal, the Lord of the Keep and his chylde were relaxing on a settee facing the fireplace. Each had a snifter of blood-brandy which they savored as they discussed the night’s events. Since no one else was in the great hall, they spoke openly.
“So, my chylde, I think the evening went well. I did not notice at any time that Lord or Lady Verenthal were taken aback by our relationship or our display of such. There were at least two occasions where I kissed your cheek, you took my hand at one point, yet neither said a word or expressed any displeasure in their mannerisms.”
“I was thinking the same, my heart. For me, the deciding moment was when they had their sons come into the parlor and recite for us. Surely, if they had anything against our love, they never would have brought the twins near us.”
“Ah yes, the poets. What was it … Andronicus and …”
“Yes, Antonius. I found their sharing of lines and phrases intriguing. It felt like the one was reading the other’s mind. Quite entertaining. Even more so learning they had written the piece they recited. Inspiring, coming from lads still in their early teen years. Even if they had been clumsy and inane, they were a welcome break in the endless recounting of Verenthal wealth and influence.”
Gerik giggled. “Yes, I was rapidly becoming bored with Lord Verenthal’s endless boasting. Even his wife appeared frustrated with him near the end. I will say, for me to have been raised in such an environment and yet find the whole issue tiresome and dull is a bit surprising.”
“You enjoyed it then, during your early years?”
“No, though I certainly endured it with greater ease. Or mayhaps I simply blocked it out. I know there were times I would catch myself dreaming of far off places and simpler times. Yet I must confess I was impressed with the Verenthal dining parlor. The marble floor with the split and matching veins of color – and polished to the point of appearing to glow. A rather awesome sight even though I fear a spilled drink or any liquid on that floor would have spelled disaster on so highly polished a surface.” Gerik stood. “May I refresh your brandy, Sire?”
“Yes, thank you. I would agree on the room. Actually all of the rooms we saw were grand and quite noble in appearance. Without being overly dramatic or ostentatious.”
Gerik finished preparing their drinks and headed back across the room. “I would imagine the Lady of the house had a hand in that. She doesn’t seem the pretentious type. Odd, that she spends so much time with Mother who is completely the opposite. Your brandy, good sir.”
Stefano took the snifter and chuckled. “Such gallant service. It causes me to believe we spent a mite too much time in the presence of nobility such as what we have experienced this night.”
“I do wish they had spoken more of Mother and Father. Even if my parents shun us, my heart, they are still my parents.”
“I understand, beloved. Your heart has always been true and faithful with me. I would expect nothing less towards the people who gave you life.”
Gerik yawned behind his hand. “Forgive me. I suppose I am more tired than I had thought.”
“It was a long evening. But I believe a fruitful one. If we are correct in their acceptance of us, should they still hold friendship with your parents, mayhaps they will speak well of us. Possibly to reconsider their stand regarding our love.”
“I suppose.” Gerik stood again, finishing his drink. “I am ready to retire. The sun comes soon and I can use a good day’s sleep.”
“You go on ahead, my love. I wish to have a bit more brandy, plus I must quiet my own mind.”
“You still worry over your sire.”
“Yes. When Viktor told us after we arrived home that he had not had any contact with Vargon, it stressed me to the core. I need to sort through my feelings on the matter afore I will be prepared for sleep.”
“I could stay with you.”
“And I would love you for it. But you have already voiced your exhaustion. Please, do not worry for me. I will not delay in joining you. As you said, morning will arrive soon.” Stefano stood and kissed Gerik gently. “Rest well.”
“Thank you, love. Try not to worry over it; Lord Vargon is a proud man, but a loving one. He shall come around.” With that Gerik headed up to their room.
Stefano looked around the great hall and sighed. So much had happened over the recent nights, his mind was still awash with emotion and confusion. He carried their glasses to the bar, then walked towards the front door. Mayhaps a stroll and pipe. I must thank Lord Stonce again for his suggestion on tobac. And his gift of this pipe.
After packing and lighting his pipe, Stefano walked from the Keep, strolling slowly toward the stables just so he had a direction. He was almost to the stable doors when he heard it. Or felt it. A presence. He shivered as the voice sounded within his mind.
I need speak with you.
Stefano emptied his pipe, grinding any embers into the dirt with his heel. He slipped the pipe into a pocket in his overcoat as the voice hit him again.
I need speak with you.
Stefano answered in kind. Where are you? Let us speak where I can see you.
It is not wise. If Alpha Draxis should learn of it…
He is no more.
So then, I was right about his absence. Come south, I wait in the grove of Teakwood trees.
Stefano took off to the south, his steps quick. After only a few steps he broke into a run, his gaze locked on the distant grove. His mind whirled with the reality of the moment. As he reached the trees he slowed, finally stopping after entering the grove itself.
He turned around slowly, unsure what he would see. A few feet from him, dressed in tattered trousers and a ripped shirt, stood Nikolos, in mortal form. When he took a step forward, Nikolos held up his hand.
“Wait. The things I need speak must be said before we touch or I shall lose my nerve.”
“It is you, then.”
“It is, brother of my heart.”
“I have longed for this time. More so once I knew you still lived. What happened then, dear one? You just … vanished.”
“It was a pit-trap. Well hidden. I had not but just fallen into it when I was grabbed. I think they were waiting at the bottom. I remember being seized and then everything was gone. When I came to, I was in their gathering place. The rest … the rest is not worth speaking. Nor is it truly required.”
“The past can remain the past. What matters now is we have found each other.”
“The past paints the future, Stefano. We are enemies of blood. And although I am sure, for a time, we could hold back the impulses of our nature, it would overcome us soon enough. And I, for one, cannot fathom seeing you as anything less than I do now. A love lost then found, only to be released again.”
“You are right of course, Nikolos. But the thought of saying farewell is a pain I do not wish to bear.”
“Nor I, my dear one. And mayhaps we can speak through missives and, if close enough, in our hearts as we have tonight. For whether or not a heart beats, it still speaks.”
“And feels loss. Nikolos, my Nikolos. I must hold you once more.”
The two stepped closer, then embraced in a burst of unbridled passion. Their lips crushed together as hungry tongues fenced wildly. Then all too soon, the wolven stepped back.
“I would that I could stay, but keeping this form is difficult. Even more when my emotions are so frayed.”
“May the Fates h..hold you close and protect you from harm, dearest of my heart.”
“And you, my first and only love.” Nikolos leaned in to give a gentle, lingering kiss before stepping back. His voice was raspy and broken when he spoke. “Farewell, Stefano.” He turned and leapt into the shadows then was gone.
Stefano stood silent in the darkness until he could no longer hear or sense his dearest friend. Tears slipped from his dark eyes and he wept in the solitude of the grove until he gradually regained some composure. A shudder ran through him as he whispered into the night air.
~ Seeking Truth ~
Late the following night, Stefano walked in meandering circles around the grassy glen, staring at the blades of grass so recently bent under the weight of a wagon. The scent of autumn hung heavy in the air, accentuating the red and yellow highlights of the deciduous trees. Frustration carved a deep depression in his forehead; his normally ebony eyes had a crimson cast.
“He was here, you can see he was here. But not now. Where has he gone? Why does he avoid me? Or avoid Viktor? I can understand him being angry at me for countermanding him, but he had no right to give me orders. He gave up that right when he abdicated. What is he doing?”
Gerik stood near their horses, his back to one of the taller trees. His attention was split between watching Stefano wander the ground and a red oak leaf he spun idly in his left hand. “I don’t know, Stef. Who can know the heart and mind of another? Especially one like your sire? Vargon is a strong, independent kindred.”
“Being a ‘strong, independent kindred’ is not an excuse for hiding from family. Certainly not for avoiding one’s Prince. Though, if it were anyone other than Vargon, I would be more concerned. With him at least I do not sit and worry.” Stefano sighed heavily. “We should not tarry any longer. I must get to Arvis kumpania and speak with Runick. And you, dearest one, must get back to the Keep.”
Gerik crumbled the leaf in his hand before dropping it. He stepped into the clearing and snapped his fingers three times. Both horses looked up at the sound and came into the glen to stand before him. “There are times I wish I could accompany you, my love. Visiting Arvis is not one of them. Not with him there.” He slipped a boot into the stirrup and lifted himself atop Shadow; the gelding barely acknowledged his rider but continued grazing.
Stefano swung himself onto Fury. He barely had a chance to sit before the horse began prancing around, snorting. “Easy, boy. We will be moving soon.” He smiled at his chylde. “I would prefer not seeing Jence as well, Gerik, but he was instrumental in freeing us from the threat of Draxis. Actually ‘instrumental’ is not the word. He killed Draxis. Had he not come down at that point, I am not sure what would have transpired.”
Both men urged their mounts into a walk through the grove as Gerik responded. “We both know the only reason he came down is Viktor had summoned him from his trance state. I am perplexed that he survived his attack on Draxis. The fact is if we owe our survival to anyone, it is Viktor.”
“Definitely so. I am in awe over Viktor’s strength – he had to give so much to Jence in order to keep him conscious, not to mention on his feet and fighting. He continues to prove himself so much more than a simple manservant. I would also like to know how he knew Jence traveled with that dagger. Did he learn it from Sire, or does he know far more than he ever tells?” Stefano shook his head in wonder. “Viktor consistently amazes and surprises me.” He stopped Fury. “I shall miss you, holder of my heart.”
Gerik rode close then halted Shadow to lean over and kiss Stefano. “My thoughts will not stray from you. Please hurry home.”
Stefano returned the kiss, then smiled. “As the wind, beloved.” He clicked his tongue and pressed his heels to the horse’s flanks. Fury leapt into the night and disappeared in the shadows.
Gerik reached forward to pat his gelding’s neck. “Let’s go home, Shadow.” He likewise nudged the horse; Shadow quickly moved to a gallop and faded into the night. Learning to move his mount through shadow had not been easy for the kindred, but he had persevered. Now, as with walking in shadow, as long as they kept from direct light, they were gone from sight and sound. Avoiding streetlamps and light from houses was a simple task of keeping to the countryside. As he neared Atterstock, his longing to see his parents grew stronger. Since dawn was close he avoided the temptation to stop and instead headed for the island ferry, slipping out of the darkness once the landing was in sight.
When Stefano rode into Arvis, the eastern sky was moving from black to a dark blue. He was met at the fire by Tre`ach, one of the elders of the kumpania. No one else was present. Stefano dismounted to take man’s arm in greeting.
Tre`ach could see the question in the prince’s eyes and answered it. “Friend Runick is no more, my Prince. He did leave a missive for you before he faded to shadow.” He handed Stefano a sealed paper. “I know you had planned on using one of the storage wagons, but it would make more sense to take Runick’s. I cleaned it out earlier this night, you should find it comfortable. We can speak more on this at next nightfall.”
Stefano nodded and walked to Runick’s wagon. He removed Fury’s saddle and bridle, then scratched the horse’s forehead lightly. “I will groom you properly on the morrow.” He paused and looked at Runick’s wagon, then the missive in his hand. Shaking his head, he stepped up into the wagon and prepared for the day.
Once the wagon was sealed, Stefano emptied a small pouch of dirt under the bottom coverlet before he slipped out of his clothes and sat down. He picked up the missive, broke the seal, and began to read.
My Prince and Friend,
I regret not being there to greet you, at least once more, but I tire of the emptiness of the night. We both know that life as a kindred can be richer and more rewarding than anyone could conceive, but it also can be empty, void of purpose and drive. It is within the void that I find myself of late, as we spoke of during your last visit.
The elders met at great length regarding Jence. There were not many that wished him to stay, most thought he should be ostracized. I was among that group. However, Friend Tre`ach gave good argument against banning. He spoke of your own reservations but also of your forgiveness after Jence killed the wolven. It is their decision that Jence be welcomed into the kumpania and that the general populace not be told of his past transgressions. He shall be watched closely, my Prince. Should he return to his offensive manners, he shall be removed swiftly.
As Jence was the last weight I carried, I soon found myself back at that place we discussed. I am sorry, my Prince, but I cannot continue to stand. I willingly give myself to the night and have asked my friends here at Arvis to dispose of my remains properly. I know they shall give the honor and respect due at such a time. I rest easy with my decision, dear friend, and ask that you not think too harshly on me for following through. May the Fates guard your path, Lord Prince.
Written by me the eleventh night of the sixth month in the nine hundred and twentieth year of Grand Overseer Re’Fonya, may she rule in peace and in power.
He had scrawled a last note across the bottom of the sheet.
Stefano, if there be consciousness beyond the pyre, I shall remember you fondly.
Stefano stared at the signature date. Re’Fonya was the kindred to which all princes gave homage. All dates were in respect to her reign, as they had been for Overseer Re’Shen before her. He had arrived at Arvis at the birth of the twelfth eve. This was last evening. I missed seeing my friend by a small handful of hours because I worried over a sire that does not wish to be found. A mistake I intend never to repeat. He reverently refolded the missive and set it to the side, then burrowed into the protection of the coverlets and wept himself to sleep.
Early the next evening he kept his promise to Fury and brushed the stallion. He spoke to him throughout the exercise, calming the animal that still disliked being touched. After he finished he sought out elder Tre`ach. They sat near the camp’s center fire while Stefano smoked his pipe, blowing smoke rings into the updraft from the fire and watching them twist, deform, and reform before disappearing in the heat. As others rose they went about their normal activities. There was a group of six that were just outside the camp, building what appeared to be a long fire pit. Stefano’s curiosity grew as the firebase took shape.
“What happens there, my friend?” Stefano pointed off in the distance. “It almost looks like a roasting pit. Yet it is high for such, and no trench or pit was dug first.”
Tre`ach smiled. “It is a ‘rug funerar’, my Prince, Runick’s funeral pyre. We held back the sending of Friend Runick as we knew you were coming. We would not continue such without our Prince and Runick’s friend present.”
Stefano wiped at misty eyes. “I thank you, Tre`ach. It is an honor that cannot be repaid.”
“It was Runick’s wish, my Lord Prince. We simply honor his request.” He paused to watch the six workers for a moment, then turned back to Stefano. “I would imagine he did not speak of this in his missive, but he did have one more request.”
“He made no mention of anything. What is this request?”
“He wanted his Prince to speak at the pyre.”
Stefano paused only a moment. “I shall be honored.”
“Thank you, Lord Prince. Now, I believe the true purpose of this visit was to discuss Jence.”
“It was, and is. I need know how things with him lie. Is there still peace around him?”
“There is, my Prince. He keeps mostly to himself, often just outside his wagon. He will join us for general gatherings; Arvis residents all know him and accept him as just a quiet individual.”
“Then I have no actions to take. I am pleased to hear things are well with him.”
“Yes, my Lord. If you will,” Tre`ach stood, “the pyre awaits.”
The men walked over; Stefano took a place in front of the pyre on the left so to appear on the right for those gathered and still give viewing of the pyre itself. He stood there quietly, his mind racing on many issues from the pyre itself: to Runick’s decision, to Vargon, to Gerik and his parents, even to Viktor. When the crowd grew quiet he pulled himself to the present. He scanned those present quickly, seeking out Jence. Not finding him, Stefano turned with the others to watch the progression from the camp. Four men carried the pallet that bore Runick’s body. Although Stefano had not asked, he was certain the body had been prepared then kept during the day in a ‘gammera’ – a wagon used to store tools that worked in dirt, shovels, rakes, and the like.
As the progression grew near, the members of the Arvis community began speaking as if they talked with Runick himself. They wished him peace. They wished him joy. And they celebrated his victory over death. Stefano himself spoke gently, thanking his friend for the missive and envying him for his freedom from the mundane. When the pallet was placed over the prepared wood, a deep hush descended over the kindred. Stefano turned to face the crowd.
“Kindred of Arvis, my family – I speak to you as one with a wounded spirit. Runick was a great man as you know, elder of your community, friend to all who stood within the kumpnia. As a kindred, I mourn with you. As a friend, I mourn the loss of his presence and our conversations together. As a prince, I mourn his influence. It mattered not where he was, it was clear he was there. And he was accessible.”
Stefano paused as many spoke their affirmations and agreements with what had been said. When the kindred quieted, he continued. “I celebrate the life that was Runick te’Arvis. And I celebrate with him his peace and transfer beyond death itself.”
He stopped as Tre`ach stepped forward, holding a fire brand. As Tre`ach stepped near one end of the fire, four young mortals spread along the wood, each of them with fire as well. They lit the pyre as one, in perfect union, as Stefano turned to face the flame and spoke, his voice rich with the authority of a prince. “Din noaptea prin moarte, vedem te avânta. Cu tot ceea ce se afla dincolo, cânt`m pacea `i bucuria voastr` ve`nic`.” (From the night through death, we see you soar. To all that lay beyond, we sing your peace and your joy eternal.)
Stefano stepped back to one side as the people began to sing and speak their farewells. He began to wipe a tear from his face and stopped, allowing his remorse to flow freely. Anyone within earshot of him was surprised as he sang. It wasn’t often a prince sang, and rarely with the tone and clarity of Stefano’s voice.
“Adio, Runick. Pace a ta eterne de.”(Farewell, Runick. Peace eternal be yours.)
His voice dropped to a whisper as he spoke.
“Farewell, my good friend.”
~ Uninvited ~
Stefano stood beside Zarchos on the island ferry landing, stroking the horse’s neck as he gazed at the homes and shops of Atterstock. His peace in his features belied his mental conflict over his decision. Calling on the Falows without Gerik’s knowledge was a thin tightrope, easily snapped and dangerously simple to be misunderstood. He was brought from his reverie by the barge-master’s voice.
“My lord, will you be going across? My lord? Sir, can I help you something?”
Stefano shook his head and turned to face the ferryman. “I’m sorry, Marwick, I’m afraid I was lost in thought.” He reached into a pocket of his waistcoat and withdrew paper currency. “For your troubles.”
“My lord, as always you are generous beyond belief – but you have not ridden this night. Still, my family and I thank you. We shall have hot meals for some time now. I wish there was more I could do than simply saying ‘thank you’.”
“You need not worry over thanks, Marwick. You are always prepared, always available. It is us, those who depend on your service, that owe you the debt of thanks.” Stefano walked his horse off the landing to solid ground. “I shall return later. I have no time frame.”
“Understood, my lord. I and my ship shall be ready.”
Stefano smiled at the reference to a ‘ship’. Marwick has pride in his possessions and position within the community. It is admirable. He took a moment to rethink his actions before lifting himself into the saddle and heading for House Falow. If this does not end well, Gerik may never know. He parents certainly wouldn’t be the one to tell him. The timing is ideal; I am back a full night early so no one is waiting on me this night at the Keep. He gave Zarchos a light nudge and road the gentle climb into the hills where most of the great houses had been built. The steady, rhythmic ‘clop’ of Zarchos’ hooves against the cobblestones served to calm him.
His gaze again danced among the homes as he rode past. The artistry displayed is magnificent, they are indeed ‘grand’ houses. Flowers and ivies along window sills, ornate inlays and carvings on shudders, the rich of Atterstock engage the world in their feud of vision and showmanship. He paused at the turnoff for the path to House Falow. Well, Stefano – what will it be? Do you take the chance at infuriating Gerik for a gamble at reasoning with his parents? He sighed and rode to the gate. One of the guards he remembered from his last visit.“ I wish to see Lord and Lady Falow, should they be in.”
The guard looked him over before recognition registered in his expression. “Right. You’re the lord from the island. Fine mount, sir. Looks fast and strong. I am sorry, but we were not notified of any guests tonight. I will have to send a runner before we can permit your entrance.” He pointed at one of the other men stationed at the gate. “It is your responsibility this moon, Trell. Make it swift.”
“Yes sir.” The guard Trell began sprinting across the grounds toward the house. The two remaining guards were quiet.
Stefano didn’t break their silence. He backed Zarchos from the gate and dismounted. He scratched the stallion’s forehead lightly as he spoke to him assuredly. After an reasonable, though uncomfortable time period, the runner returned.
Trell stood hunched over, gasping for breath, which seemed to infuriate the others.
“Speak man. Shake your head. Do something, the lord waits. Don’t just stand there gulping down our air. Are we permitted to allow the lord through the gate?”
Trell shook his head negatively as he began to regain composure. “No. Lord Falow says … the lord from the island … is not to be permitted.” He stood full and looked at Stefano. “I am sorry, my lord.”
“Indeed. A fine turn of events. Fair eve, men.” Stefano lifted himself back into the saddle, then turned Zarchos and casually rode back down to the main street. He disregarded the prattle of the guards as he moved away. He stopped after rounding a bend. “Well, boy… Let’s have some fun.” He quickly scanned his surroundings, then moved into the shadows. He spurred Zarchos into a full gallop back toward the house. When they reached the gate, Zarchos cleared it with ease. One of the guards turned his head as if he might have heard something, but decided not.
Stefano stopped once he had neared the main doors. Think first, act second. Yes, Sire, I hear you. He slowly turned Zarchos to walk back down the hill. Half way to the gate he again nudged the stallion; the horse responded immediately and galloped back to the gate, jumping it just as easily as when they entered the grounds. Stefano remained at full pace through Atterstock until in sight of the landing. He then checked for mortals, and finding none he walked Zarchos out of the shadows and across the remaining distance to the landing.
Marwick looked up at the sound of the approaching rider and bowed. My lord, welcome. Are you ready to return to the island?”
Stefano dismounted and walked Zarchos across the landing and onto the small barge. “Yes, Marwick, thank you. I am ready to return home.”
“Very well, sir.” Marwick motioned to a group seated near the bow. Twelve strong men stood, moved to their stations along the sides of the ferry and began poling it across the sound. Upon reaching the island, they masterfully turned the craft, coming against the landing with the slightest of bump.
“Thank you again. Here, divide this between your men. They move your ferry with ease; one can barely see them strain at the effort.” Stefano handed the barge-master several bills as he started for the landing. Before anyone could respond to his generosity, he mounted his steed and lunged into a full run towards the Keep.
Stefano closed his eyes as he rode, smiling at the cool wind that whipped at his coat and hair as Zarchos raced ahead. He imagined the breeze pulling away his stress and anxiety. By the time he stopped in front of the Keep he felt renewed and relaxed. He dismounted and gave the reins to a stable hand who led Zarchos away. He brushed at his hair, shook his head, then tugged his waistcoat straight before walking to the front doors of the Keep.
Gerik sat at the bar, filling Viktor in on his childhood and being raised with often absent parents. If Viktor was bored by the conversation topic, he gave no sign, instead appearing to listen in rapt attention. They both looked across the room as the doors opened; Gerik stood and moved quickly across the room, encasing his sire in his arms.
“My love, how I have longed for you to return home.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “If I had to tell Viktor my upbringing once more I am sure one of us would have killed the other.”
Stefano kissed his chylde’s neck. “As quick and strong as you have become, I would wager that Viktor would be the victor in such a match.”
“I as well. Just don’t let him know.”
As the men walked back towards the bar, Stefano smiled at his manservant. “Viktor, a glass of house brandy, if you would. Have you heard from my Sire?”
Viktor set the drink in front of Stefano. “No, Master Stefano. I have tried a couple times during your absence, but have received no response. It is like it has been, my lord; I can touch his presence and feel the push of his existence, nothing more.”
Stefano took a long, slow drink before speaking. “Thank you, my friend. Vargon is … Vargon. He shall contact us when it is right to him to do so.”
“Yes my lord. It is good to have you home, sir. I will leave you and lord Gerik to reconnect. If you will excuse me.” He set the brandy bottle on the bar then turned and walked through the kitchen door.
Stefano pulled Gerik close and locked their lips in a kiss of undying passion. Their tongues waged a friendly war, jousting as soft moans were heard from the younger kindred. When they finally parted, both lords had shadows swirling deep and rapid within their pupils. Stefano brushed his chylde’s cheek gently before sharing his decision.
“I wish to invite your parents to a meal and discourse regarding our relationship.”
~ Rebuffed ~
The following wolfmoon found Gerik pacing between fireplace and bar, grumbling. “I cannot believe you invited them. It astounds me Mother would accept, but I really have a hard time understanding why you even invited them.”
Stefano stood in front of the fire, sipping a blood-cognac. He sighed as he watched his chylde’s frustration grow. “I am sorry, my love, but I did say I was inviting them for dinner and a discussion.”
“No. You said you wanted to invite them.”
“Well, yes. At the time I had not invited them yet, so I only wanted to at that point.”
“And I said I did not think that was a good idea.”
“You did not tell me to not invite them to the Keep.”
“You never said you were going to invite them!”
Stefano set his glass on the mantle and moved to stand in front of the young kindred to stop the pacing. He put his hands on Gerik’s shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes. “I am sorry. I erred in judgement. I truly wanted to end your strife over the issue with your father, not double it. Forgive me, beloved. Please accept that I never intended to upset you.”
Sad eyes returned the look. “And yet I am upset over your actions, so your intentions did not play out as planned. I do not desire to sit and listen to his blatant refusal to accept our love. The man does not change his mind. Ever.”
Stefano drew his love into an embrace and held him close. “I am filled with remorse over how my actions have affected you. Please accept my apology.”
Viktor stepped into the hall from the kitchens and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but a runner just delivered this missive from House Falow.” He held out a folded paper, the wax seal bearing the Falow emblem.
Stefano kissed Gerik’s cheek then walked toward his manservant with an arm extended to take the note. “Thank you, Viktor.”
Viktor pulled back slightly. “It is addressed for Lord Gerik.”
“I see.” Stefano moved to the side and watched as Gerik stepped over to take the paper. His chylde’s hands shook as he broke the seal and unfolded the page, then began to read aloud.
Your mother and I will not be accepting your unexpected and undesired offer. We believe accepting would be paramount to approving of your corruption at the hands of the lord of the island. Certainly by now you and he are quite aware this will never take place. This abomination you try to entitle ‘love’ is most foul in our eyes.
I am surprised your companion would even offer such after my refusal to see him at our home three evenings past. I did not appreciate his appearing the gates of our home without even a missive stating his intentions. The lateness of the hour only accentuated the vulgarity of his actions.
Your mother and I find it most grievous that you could consider asking us to enter your den of depravity. It becomes increasingly apparent that you have forgotten all your training in the proper manners of a gentleman.
Do not make this error again.
[Lord T. Falow
Stefano smiled. “Well, it appears the problem has resolved itself.”
“Resolved?” Fury blazed in Gerik’s eyes. “Tell me, my love, what is this he says about you going to House Falow three nights ago? You were just returning from Arvis then. Or did you get back early and make a detour?”
“Gerik, my heart, I think mayhaps you are becoming overwrought and need…”
“No. You don’t tell me what I need. Not at present. The only thing I need right now is to know, did you or did you not go to my father’s house before you came home from Arvis?”
Stefano’s tone began to register his own rising anger. “Yes. You have been so distraught and I was seeking a peaceful end to the troubles over our relationship. And in truth, it was barely past moon rise when I got there, not some unreasonable late hour as he would have you believe.”
Viktor slipped out through the kitchen door, deciding this was not the time for a third opinion.
Gerik stepped in front of Stefano, mere inches from his face. “Speaking of truth, when did you plan on telling me of this little escapade?”
“From your actions right now, I would say it was smarter to keep it from you.” Stefano lowered his voice, though the thunder of authority rumbled in his tone. “Now, I am going for a swim, chylde. When I return I expect you to have gathered control over yourself and calmed down. If you cannot speak to me with the respect due your sire, you will give me the honor due your Prince.”
“And if I do not?”
Lightning flashed in Stefano’s dark eyes. “You do not want to know.” He turned on his heel and strode across the room, out the open balcony doors, and down the stone steps.
Gerik watched his sire walk out in a state of shock. It was the first time Stefano had ever used the authority of being a prince against him. He just stood in the center of the great hall, staring at toward the balcony for what felt like an eternity until his trance-like state was broken by Viktor walking back into the hall.
“Lord Gerik, where is Master Stefano?”
“What? Oh. I do not know.” Gerik shook his head. “And honestly, I do not care.” With that, he turned and walked out the front door of the Keep then moved to shadow, disappearing into the night.
Stefano lay on his back, the mossy surface beneath him offering little comfort. He ignored the crash of the surf around him; his mind was filled with chaos and his heart was breaking. It is not enough to fight with him. No, I have to pull authority and act the Prince. How do I ever make this right? Should I even try? And where is Vargon? Why do I alienate all who love me?
In the confines of his room, Viktor sat on the floor in deep concentration. Sweat beaded at his brow as his mind reached to its limits. Enough, Vargon. It is time for ye to climb down from your pride and return to the home ye built for your first chylde. Angst tears at his being and burns his soul. Ye tore him apart by denying him solace and rest within his own room, then ye built him up, praised him, and made him Prince. Now ye hide from him. The once mighty Vargon Petrescu cowers? It is time for ye to grow up, my friend. Accept what is, acknowledge truth, and come aid the one who once brought you more joy than I had seen in you for centuries. Ye know he will never ask it of you. His pride is too much like that of his sire. Ye shall not hear from me again. I am required to be present here to salvage what I can.
The wind ripped at Gerik’s cloak as he rode Shadow at a full run. The horse leapt over boulders and fallen trees as he move across the island. When they neared the far side, Gerik finally began to slow his mount until he gradually came to a full stop. He gazed at the waters of the sea, an inky black under ominous skies. The storm will be here soon. As much as I am not ready to return, I cannot keep Shadow in such weather. He sighed and turned his horse back, nudging him into a gentle walk. He stopped again at a copse of oak and fir and listened. Something is amiss. I can sense …
His thoughts were cut short as a shadowy figure jumped into him, knocking him from the saddle. As he fell to the ground he heard the feral growl of the wolven that landed over him. Claws dug into his flesh as the creature spoke.
“You belong to me, given to me by Master. I shall enjoy the taste of your flesh.”
“Your master is dead, hound. And you shall join him soon.”
“I think not, kindred.” Pozzt leaned in, saliva dripping from heavy fangs onto Gerik’s exposed throat. “Tonight I eat good.”
~ Regarding the Heart ~
Stefano lay on the flat outcropping, hands under his head as he watched the stars. For once his mind wasn’t awash with problems and concerns; he let his mind wander where it would. He almost fell from his rest spot into the pounding surf when Nikolos’ voice exploded in his mind.
I am here, my friend. You sound upset. What is amiss?
Your lover is injured. It is not overly critical, certainly not fatal, not if attended to soon. I had thought to carry him to your Keep, but the smell of his blood is overpowering and I cannot maintain clear thoughts.
Stefano stood and dove into the waves, slicing through the water toward his beach, yet still conversing. What happened?
Prozzt. He attacked and had your other down. Two nights back Prozzt and I had serious fight over his desire to return here to take your lover. When he disappeared from the pack, I just had a feeling so came here. Fortunately I found him as he was taking your lover down and managed to knock Prozzt away. I do not know how serious the wounds he afflicted, only that there is blood present. I have dealt with my kin; you must take care of yours.
Stefano reached the sand and headed up the stone steps, pausing briefly at the top to force his trousers over his wet form. Where is he?
Come quickly. There is a small grove opposite your home – several grand oaks interspersed with evergreens. I can try to guide you with our thought connection if you need.
Stefano sighed. I know the place, but why would Gerik be way out … Apologies, Niko – you would not know why or how. I am just glad you were near enough to intervene.
There is a grey gelding here; my assumption would be he was out riding and Prozzt surprised him. He seems to be sleeping, dear heart, but I cannot be certain from this distance – you kindred have a nasty gift of not needing breath. I have done all I can manage.
Thank you, Niko, my love… Stefano caught himself, cursing inwardly for the slip. He cleared his mind briefly when he reached the stables. He released Zarchos and swung onto the stallion’s back – no saddle, no bridle. He leaned forward and whispered into the animal’s ear “D`I zor Zarchos! Afla Fila. (Hurry Zarchos. Find Shadow.)” The steed gave a snort and bolted across the land. Stefano reached with his mind again to repeat his thanks to Nikolos, but received no response. Before he could stress over his choice of words earlier, Zarchos broke to a stop beside Shadow.
Stefano slid a dismount and moved quickly to Gerik’s side. Of the many wounds that had been inflicted, most had sealed or were closing. There was no sign of Prozzt or Nikolos anywhere. Stefano put his hand tenderly on his chylde’s cheek and spoke in a soft yet urgent voice.
“Gerik. Beloved. If you can hear me, wake.”
He slid his hand under his chylde’s head then withdrew it in frustration. Gerik’s hair was slightly matted with blood. There was no flow, but clearly had been. Stefano picked his lover up in his arms and clicked his tongue. Zarchos trotted to his side. Stefano slid Gerik’s body onto the horse, then swung on behind him. He sat his chylde up enough to cradle him against his body and gave his steed the command for home. The horse raced for the Keep; Shadow followed at a lesser pace. While Zarchos was stopping at the front doors Stefano slid off and slipped Gerik fully back in his arms. He walked through the front doors, his mind shouting.
Viktor. I need you!
Moments later his manservant stepped in from his room, dressed in a cotton nightshirt that hung to his ankles. He carried a small vial with him. “Put him near the fire.” Viktor followed Stefano to a settee then kneeled beside the prone kindred. As he uncorked the vial a stringent odor filled the room. He held the vial to the unconscious kindred’s lips and tilted it. “Drink, Lord Gerik.”
Whether Gerik heard Viktor or the mage used command was uncertain, but the results fit either; the younger kindred opened his mouth for a sip. A couple moments later he was sitting up coughing and gagging. Viktor grinned at Stefano. “Usually does the job. You will want to open the balcony doors and most likely the main ones as well to allow the aroma to clear.”
Stefano nodded, wiping watery eyes and fighting coughs himself as he headed across the room. “What is that?”
Viktor chuckled. “A remedy. Knowing more would raise more questions than those it answered, so that will need suffice.”
“It shall, good friend.” Stefano returned and knelt before his chylde. “How are you feeling?”
Gerik’s coughing subsided slowly. “Like I have tasted the bane of Hades itself.” He looked at Viktor. “What, did you try to poison me?”
The mage corked the bottle and started toward the bar. “If I had, there would be no waking ye, m’Lord. Excuse me, Master Stefano, if ye need me for naught else, I shall return to my bed and covers.”
“Thank you, Viktor. And rest well.” Stefano brushed the back of his fingers along the side of his chylde’s face. “What happened? How did you get so far from the Keep? I assume out riding?”
“We weren’t exactly communicating well about then, Stef. And before I continue I need to apologize, to my Sire and my Prince, but mostly to the one who holds my heart. I know you would never do anything to purposely hurt me. But it did hurt and anger me to think you would have invited my parents without talking to me first. I know, I know, you thought I understood from your mentioning it earlier. I guess maybe we both tend to think the other will just know what we’re doing and why, rather than verifying that first.”
Stefano gave Gerik a peck on the lips, then leaned his forehead against the other’s. “And I am still too quick at pulling at authority and becoming a tyrant instead of a lover. I realize this. I am also very sorry for the hurt I’ve put you through.”
“Thank you, Stef. But yes, I went riding. Shadow moves so smoothly across the ground, it is akin to flying. Freeing, relaxing… he is a wonderful mount and I am so proud he is mine. I had actually started to come back when I felt something … wrong. I couldn’t put a name to it, but I knew there was something or someone near that did not belong here. That’s when the whiny wolven … Prozzt, I guess, when he knocked me off Shadow and onto the ground. It stunned me; I felt a little disoriented but knew I had to keep him at bay. Then I started to feel weaker.”
“That would be the wolven touch, my heart. Wolven claws are toxic to kindred. In battle, if they swipe you and reach blood, it most likely will slow you down. I would imagine since Prozzt had you down already, he had pierced you with his claws but didn’t retract them. Prolonged exposure would have incapacitated you completely after time.”
“He was holding me with them. I thought it was just to keep me down, I didn’t realize what his real motive was.”
“That is my fault for not instructing you more on dealing with wolven. We will spend more time once you are fully recovered. Wolven and mage. Not all are as congenial as Viktor. And I do believe it’s time to finish your instructions on the different clans of kindred.”
“Lucky me.” Gerik tried to laugh, but ended coughing. “I will be good to know these things, I am sure. Now then, as I was starting to lose concentration, another wolven entered the picture. At first I thought my time was certainly over until I saw the glint of blue at his ear, then I knew it to be Nikolos. And I didn’t feel any animosity from him. If I felt anything, it was protection or peace. He knocked Prozzt from over me. I remember them speaking … or growling. I didn’t understand any words, but it did sound like they were conversing. Nikolos had just grabbed the other by his throat when I finally blacked out.”
“Nikolos reached me in thought; told me where to find you. He said he had taken care of Prozzt but that you needed my help.” Stefano paused, considering how much he should tell and decided to avoid part of the conversation with Nikolos. “I got Zarchos and rode to you. I tried to thank Nikolos but he was silent. Perhaps already leaving the island.”
“He saved my life, Stef. I have no idea how to repay such.”
“Knowing Nikolos, I doubt he is expecting repayment. It would be most unlike him.”
“But that does not lessen my desire to find a way to thank him. Could he visit with us here at the Keep? Could we visit his home?”
“Nikolos and I spoke of the same. Unfortunately our very natures are anathema to each other. What was your desire, your hunger, when Prozzt attacked?”
“I wished to tear him apart. To actually dismember him and let his blood run into the ground. Since blood-wasting is a serious wrong for kindred; it was a surprising feeling.”
“That would be the true response to a wolven by a kindred. To struggle against that for any length of time is nigh on impossible.”
“Lord Vargon has a wolven friend. Has he mastered this, or do they never meet in person?”
“I cannot answer that, Sire would need to. However, he did say she only took wolven form during the wolfmoon. It is my understanding there is no natural animosity between kindred and wolven in mortal form. This would be the best cause for a wolven to discard his original form. The danger of being taken by a kindred unaware is negligible.”
“Has Nikolos then completely lost his mortal shell?”
“Unfortunately, my heart, he has.”
Gerik leaned forward to kiss Stefano. “This must be most difficult for you.”
“Nikolos is part of my past. You, Viktor, Vargon – should he so choose, you are all part of my present and you, my love, are my future. Not all decisions are easily made.”
“How can you forget a love so great? In truth, I have worried over his return; I do not wish to lose you.”
“You shall not lose me. You are my life.”
“And you just stop loving another?”
“One does what one must in life. Whether mortal, kindred, or even wolven.”
“This does not seem fair or just.”
“It is what it is.”
~ Trouble in Paradise ~
“How long will you be gone?” Gerik sat with Stefano on the balcony, watching the incoming tide and listening to the rhythmic sounds of waves crashing against stone.
“I wish I knew.” Stefano drew on his pipe, savoring the taste and aroma of cherry-wood tobac. The smoke did not rise above far above him. The light grey from the pipe mixed with the darker shadows that always seemed to accompany him. Shade and smoke, haze and shadow all wove in a mystic dance. “They did not give much information. Five kindred have arrived in the region of Orswelt and have asked to see the Prince.”
“I wouldn’t ask, Stef, but I did have plans for us to travel the mainland, plans that have been delayed twice and now are again. And it would be spectacular to spend some extra time alone in the forest surrounding the region. The lands there are enchanted with beauty.”
“It is an exquisite area, I agree. I doubt that meeting with kindred new to the region will have much more than introductions to be accomplished. I shall be there and back before you realize I’m away. It is, at most, a gentle two-night journey by wagon.”
“A very good reason for you not to travel alone.” Gerik stood and walked to the railing. “Recent events with wolven have been serious enough, but tarken have been noted in the wetlands, and they attack in silence. Unless you are expecting them, you will never hear them descend. They are ruthless winged demons that kill for sport, but they only go after those alone.”
“You need to stop reading Vargon’s ancient tomes, my heart. They are filling you with ideas and fears that are unwarranted. Tarken have always been around, as wolven have. But they are rarely violent unless they feel threatened. Traveling with the wagon, there is no need to journey near the wetlands; I shall travel around them. Trust me, Gerik. Trust my heart. I will not be away from you one moment longer than is necessary.” He gave a suggestive wink. “Who knows, we might even arrange for you to join me there when my responsibilities have ended.
“I suppose a man can’t ask for more.” Gerik leaned over and kissed Stefano’s cheek. “You are most patient with me.”
“I love you, it is that simple.” Stefano stood. “Night will end soon, but there is time to enjoy a swim.” He held out his hand. “Come, join me.”
Gerik took the offered hand and rose, smiling. “How can I refuse a request by the answer to my heart’s call?”
- – - – -
The eastern horizon was beginning to birth a new sun when Stefano and Gerik stepped back onto the beach. The ruddy complexion and the brightness of their eyes suggested recent feeding. Their lips met in a tender yet passionate kiss that lingered until Stefano finally released Gerik from his arms and stepped back.
“The sky grows light. We must go inside and entomb ourselves for the day.”
Gerik sighed softly. “Of course, Stef.” He started putting on his clothes that still lay haphazardly across some rocks. “Tonight was splendid, dear heart. Having made love and now fed, I am fully satiated and ready for sleep.”
Once dressed, the two walked up the steps to the balcony with Stefano leading. He opened a balcony door then followed Gerik inside. The hall was dark, the only light dim flickers from the fireplace across the room. The door was closed and drapes pulled before they headed for the stairs, only to be stopped short when an unexpected voice softly resonated through the hall.
“I was hoping to at least say hello before going to bed.”
Vargon stood from his seat at the bar and strode across the room. “It is good to see you, my Prince.” He was met half way across the floor and pulled into an embrace, during which Vargon kissed his chylde’s cheek. “It has been too long, my chylde. I have let meaningless affairs fill my nights for too long. Odessa finally insisted we come to your home, though whether it was to see you or just get me to slow my pace, I am not certain.”
“I do not care the reason, Sire. I am only pleased to see you here. I wasn’t sure after our last discourse…” He was interrupted when Vargon held up his hand.
“Let the past wither, Stefano. It has been difficult adjusting to you being Prince in my stead – for both of us. What happened is done.”
“Yes, Father.” Stefano smiled broadly. Are you here for long?”
“We planned on three nights before we continued. There is news of great finds at a remote dig in the far desert; your sister would very much like to see them for herself.”
Stefano glanced at the heavily draped balcony doors. “I look forward to hearing the news next eve. For now, it is time to retire for the day.” He took Gerik’s hand and headed for the stairs. Gerik paused long enough to wish Vargon a peaceful rest.
Vargon nodded his head to Gerik, then followed the men up the stairs, headed to his own chambers and his waiting wife.
- – - – -
The evening had barely commenced before the two couples found themselves on the balcony, talking happily. Smiles and laughter, blended with the occasional moment of seriousness lightened not only the mood, but the air around them. Odessa was attired in dark pants and a tan top; it was the first time Stefano could remember not seeing her in a gown of some sort. Vargon sat beside her, also in dark trousers and a light shirt. His arm rested on the back of his wife’s chair.
Continuing clock-wise around the group sat Gerik. Of the four the quietest except for the occasional question. He seemed enraptured by the times and places of which the others spoke. This was especially true for Vargon. His stories of his ancient past held the youngest kindred’s attention much as a fairy tale to a child before bed. The last of the four, Stefano, sat a bit back from their table, his long legs stretched out straight before him, crossed at the ankle. His evermore-present pipe released trails of aromatic whisps. Their discussion had been on earlier lives; Stefano had just spoken about the pain of losing his son when Gerik had a new query.
“I do not think I have ever asked, Stefano, how long were you and Allise wed before young Nikolos was born?”
Stefano smiled through a cloud of fresh smoke. “Just short of two years. We had taken a late celebration for our anniversary… I still remember the hurt in her eyes when she learned I would be on a hunt with the elders when the first circle-of-months had completed. That was our first and only true argument. Oh, we disagreed often enough, but it was always an exchange of conflicting ideas or beliefs. Missing the anniversary of our being wed … that was fuel for quite an explosion.”
Vargon chuckled softly. “There are dates in life a husband never forgets, the first meeting, the first kiss, and most assuredly one’s wedding.” He lifted Odessa’s hand to kiss the palm. “If you are fortunate enough, you find a wife who reminds you frequently when these times approach.”
Odessa pulled her hand free and swatted at her mate’s shoulder. “You make me sound like a bothersome bride.” She looked at her brother-of-blood. “It is true I will bring these matters to my loving husband’s attention; but it is only because you men find it impossible to have more than two constructive thoughts during a night’s time. And women are blessed by Fate if they are thoughts about you and your mate that do not deal with … displaying your prowess as a lover.” She leaned up to kiss Vargon’s cheek. “And that is on a good night.”
It was Stefano’s turn to laugh. “I am not sure about that last statement, my sister. Though I will say it doesn’t seem to be an issue with Gerik, most likely as we are both of the male variety.” He winked at his love. “To complete the answer to your question, my heart, it was for that reason our celebration was late. We left a young couple freshly mended, we returned as parents in the making.”
Gerik grinned. “It does sound as if your disagreement had been resolved. There is something I’ve been meaning to ask.” He looked at Odessa. “I would love to hear more about this dig you will be visiting.”
“It is reported to be several centuries old. Many artifacts, stone knives, pottery remains, even the signs of fire pits have been uncovered.” Her eyes glittered with passion. “Yet the item that draws me is a piece of bone – most likely animal – that was finely worked. From its shape and thickness, along with the soil crushed within one side, it is thought to be part of a ploughing instrument. This thought is strengthened by the pieces of wood and ancient leathering found at the same site.”
Gerik’s face clouded with confusion. “Why would the piece of a plough be of such interest.”
Odessa practically shook with excitement. “Because of its location, its age, and probable use, I believe it could have been used by Cain himself.” Seeing Vargon’s smirk, she added, “Of course, he doesn’t think it is possible, but I refuse to pass by the chance. I do not believe those mortals know the significance of what they have found.”
Gerik leaned forward, caught up in her energy. “Cain? As in Cain the First? Father of all kindred? That Cain?”
Odessa leaned back. “Yes. The one and only. Lover to Lilith, the witch that was first wife to Adam.” She sighed. “So much history encased in a small bone fragment. It is something I shall treasure for eternity.”
“So you mean to take it.”
She looked aghast. “Of course. You could not expect me to leave it in mortal hands. It would be … the worst kind of abomination against my very heritage.”
Vargon grew tired of the topic at hand and interjected. “I do not know how she shall determine its authenticity, but at this point that doesn’t matter. She shall have the fragment. I shall ensure it.” He turned to his chylde. “When do you leave for Orswelt?”
“Not until after your departure. It is not a matter of urgency; there is no need for haste, though I do not want to prolong their wait. Certainly within…” Stefano was cut short as Viktor stepped onto the balcony.
“Another missive from Orswelt, Master Stefano. The runner has hurried herself halfway to her own demise. I do not believe she rested once, and from her look, she hasn’t fed recently either.”
“Thank you, Viktor.” Stefano took the new missive and broke the seal. “Give her house wyne. Have her rest.”
“Yes, m’Lord. It shall be done.” Viktor bowed his head, stepped back, then turned and walked back into the Keep.
All eyes were on Stefano as he broke the seal and began to read.
“Well?” Gerik inquired. “What is it that would cause a runner to fight exhaustion just to get it here? Can you read it to us?”
Stefano stood. “No time. Zarchos and I must move like the wind. Sire, I could use your guidance, please travel with me.”
Confusion and concern blended into a dark mask over Gerik’s face. “What has happened? What does the missive say?”
Stefano’s dark eyes were littered with sparks of fire within his normal fields of swirling shadows. “Two of the kindred visiting Orswelt have been extinguished.”
~ Divide and Conquer ~
“I am a trifle surprised you did not bring Gerik with you. Even if he would have need to stay with wagons while you met the new arrivals.” Vargon walked along the shore of the bank with Stefano while the horses grazed nearby. The men had paused in their race for Orswelt to let the animals rest; bridle, saddle, blanket, all had been removed and each horse brushed down before allowed to roam free. There was never a fear of them wandering off or even becoming spooked and running away; their bond to Stefano would never permit it.
“I do love him, Sire, but his immaturity at times is more than a bit trying.” Stefano stopped walking and turned towards Vargon when he heard a chuckle. “And what do you find humorous about that?”
“I am sorry, my chylde, but you do so sound like me speaking of you … and not too distant past, either.”
“I was never – was I? Father, if I frayed your nerves even half as much as Gerik has mine, I am truly sorry.”
“Do not fret over it, Stefano. It is all part of growing into the night; much as a mortal child matures as it grows, we kindred must also mature as we become more aware of what it means to be of shade and shadow.”
“I suppose. I am pleased you agreed to come with me, though. I am at a total loss of how to address these murders when we arrive. Surely in all your time as Prince, you had to deal with matters such as this.”
A shadow of sadness blanketed Vargon’s rugged features. “I have lost friends every way imaginable, whether wolven, tarken, hunters, or being extinguished by hand or by sun, not to mention those who simply gave up on the night. The difficult one, of course, is those extinguished by other kindred. Although grieving for any loss is unsettling, and having someone taken by hunters will make your soul seethe with rage … when kindred is destroyed at the hand of kindred it is a pain unto its own. For all involved, but mostly for the prince who must find justice.”
“And if the prince can’t find the guilty parties?”
“Quite simply, my chylde, that is not a possibility. A prince’s responsibility here is determined: you shall find those who bear the guilt and you shall bring justice for the families and friends of the lost. It was decreed by The First One, the one kindred above all others. Cain carved the law into the existence of us all, shade and shadow bear witness, and Night herself holds fast the truth. Know this. Instill this into your very being.”
“Yes, Sire.” Stefano furrowed his brow as the weight of the matter finally settled upon his shoulders. “We need move on. Will you be coming the rest of the way with me, or returning to the Keep?”
“They know me in Orswelt, but I fear my presence would only confuse matters. Elders will be prone to come to me, which would be an affront to you as Prince.”
“I would not be offended…”
“It matters not. Such an action is an insult to a Prince and I shall not play a part.” Vargon gently saddled his mount before moving to stand in front of his chylde. His hands rested upon Stefano’s shoulders as he spoke. “I am confident in your abilities, my Prince – my Son. You may not feel so assured, and in truth it is better if not for it will keep you alert, but I know your strengths.”
“But if I become ensnared and unable to separate truth from falsehood…” Again he was cut off.
“Do not send a missive, I shall not answer, and I shall not come. You are Prince Stefano. You have the authority. And more, as you carry many of the nobler abilities that come with such a position. Trust in yourself Stefano. And know that I shall be proud of you, regardless of your own self-view.” He kissed Stefano’s cheek. “I love you, my chylde. Go. Be who you are, Prince of the realm and Knight of Justice. Let none question you. You hold the keys of tomorrow’s shadow in your hand. Fate’s blessing, dear son.” With that Vargon turned back and finished preparing his horse. He was on its back and off into the night before Stefano fully adjusted to what he had just heard.
I am Prince. I hold the keys. He mulled the thought over as he lifted himself atop Zarchos. I am Prince. He looked to the heavens and squared his shoulders. “I am Prince.” The words, so softly spoken, rolled thunder that crashed through the clearing and across the lake. He nodded to himself and spurred Zarchos toward Orswelt.
- – - -
“May I refill your glass while I’m here, Odessa?” Gerik looked across the room at Vargon’s wife who sat relaxed near the fireplace. An intricate knitting was in her hand, yet her concentration was elsewhere, almost as if her hands knew what to do, whether or not her mind were involved.
“No, that’s fine, Gerik.” The lady stilled her hands as she gazed at the male kindred. “What is wrong, lad? You look troubled.”
Gerik took a long sip of his house brandy. “It is nothing, I suppose. I shouldn’t worry you with it.”
“Nonsense. Come tell Auntie Odessa what is on your mind.”
Gerik coughed, laughed, and groaned as viscous red shot from his nose. “Sweet, Fate,” he exclaimed, grabbing a bar towel and cleaning himself up. Once his face was back in order, he turned his attention to the bar. “Auntie Odessa?” He coughed again before taking a tentative sip. “Wherefrom is ‘Auntie’?”
I am your sire’s sister, am I not? In mortal terms that would make me your aunt. In truth I had no intention of upsetting you so. It was meant to be a term of endearment.”
“No, I am not upset, just … surprised. After Lord Vargon’s reaction to ‘grandsire’ – I had basically given up on familial words.”
“Oh, you did not. Seriously? You called Vargon ‘grandsire’?” It was her turn to laugh. “How I wish I could have been present to witness it.”
“You knew how he would react?”
“Not truly, it is more I know my husband, and that is not terminology he would appreciate.”
“He did not.” Gerik took another sip and walked across the room. “Well then, dear ‘Auntie Odessa’, since you have already succeeded in unfooting me, I suppose I can tell you… I am very concerned over Stef’s … that is Stefano’s trip to Orswelt.”
Odessa’s hands returned to their well-practiced movements. “You call him ‘Stef’? Good. ‘Stefano’ is simply too formal, especially for lovers, though the shortened version is another thing not to say in front of my husband. For that matter,” she glanced around the room, “I would not recommend using it in Victor’s presence either. Where is he, by the way?”
“He had to go to the mainland to meet with the grocer for the Keep. Or the butcher. Someone that supplies food products. So, about Stef’s trip to Orswelt?”
“I think perhaps you worry excessively over this. Stefano is a prince, I myself do not foresee any problems.”
“Problems with which?” Vargon surprised them both as he sauntered in from the front doors. “I could use friendly discourse after hours of only having a horse for companionship.”
Gerik’s face lit with hope. “Is Stefano with you, my lord?”
“No, Gerik, though it is likely he has reached Orswelt by now. He has need to act as Prince and I have need to not be a distraction or hindrance. So I have returned.” He looked around the room. “Where is Viktor?”
Gerik stood. “He should be back from the mainland soon, Lord Vargon. But I can serve you – I assume you wish libation?
“Indeed, young one. Bring me a glass of blood wyne. In fact, bring the bottle also.”
“Yes my lord.”
Odessa smiled as her husband sat beside her. “So, dear heart, how was the ride with Stefano?”
“Enlightening. He has an interesting task ahead of himself, not one I would wish. He may stumble a time or three, but he has the ability to see, if he will only observe.”
~ Closing In ~
“I am curious, Trezt, how a hunter becomes the hunted.” Stefano leaned back and drew slowly from his pipe, his dark eyes locked on the older kindred before him. He had been questioning members of the Orswelt community for three nights and was not feeling at all close to a resolution. “Was this a hunt gone wrong or something less dramatic?” Opposite the small camp-style fire from him the man looked poised and calm. Too calm, in Stefano’s mind, for talking to his Prince.
Trezt chuckled. “I find great humor as I look back at that time now, my Prince. I was a member of the Dark Ridge clan, ferocious group of hunters dating back … well, as far back as any can remember.”
“I am familiar with the name. Please, continue.”
“I had received my fourth notch when I was only 32. But time marches on for day-walkers. One look at me will tell you I was not young when I was brought across.” When Stefano made no comment, he continued. “Then came the day I had worked against; I was no longer to be allowed in the hunt. I had ‘become aged’ in their words.” He shrugged. “I was furious. Their best hunter, removed because of age alone? My abilities were as sharp as ever. So, I found the best way to repay.”
“You became kindred.” Stefano drew slowly on his pipe. “Before going further, please explain ‘the fourth notch’.”
“Most clans have a wooden insignia, carried as a luck piece. When a lad starts hunting, he cuts a small notch in the bottom edge. The second notch is added when he brings at least two to an end within one night. The third indicates five kills.”
“And the fourth?”
The death of a wolven chief.”
“Did you then go for your revenge?”
I did consider such. Started out to do so one night but changed my mind. Only a fool rushes into the center of the storm. I knew too many of the clan, their abilities, their conquests. It was more prudent to step back from it all.”
“Most illuminating. Thank you, Trezt. That is all.”
The older kindred stood then bowed. “I thank you for your time, Lord Prince. I hope you can find solace knowing that everyone here wishes you Fate-speed in discovering the truth in this matter.”
Except for the killer Stefano thought as he stretched his legs before him.
“My lord, my lord, my lord, Lord Prince. Will you speak with me next? Are you ready to hear from me?”
The prince grimaced as the trelulant approached. Good natured and kind, without exception, they are kindred who did not adjust to the shift and entered the night crazed. It should have been the bearer’s responsibility to manage any trelulant they created, but Gyson’s sire was never found. Many thought them gifted in sight; Stefano had never considered it. But if there’s a chance her muddled mind did see something, it is best to at least try to speak with her. I suppose.
“Come, lass. Let us speak. Your time is now.”
The woman hopped over to sit, stand, and then sit again. Stefano calculated she was, at most, in her twenties when taken.
“I saw it all, Lord Prince. I always see everything. You can’t hide from the fire, no you can’t, you can’t. It sees everything and it tells me. It tells me because I have the sight. In my mind not my eyes, eyes cannot see what the mind knows.”
Stefano listened politely, occasionally nodding his head. “It is good to be able to speak to one who knows. Please, Gyson, tell me what you have seen.”
“I saw them both, Lord Prince. I did, you know. Saw them both.”
“The visitors? You saw the ones who were killed?” He winced as the trelulant screamed.
“Nah! Yahyahnah. No no no. The killers. It was them I saw. Both together. Separate in the light but only one in shadows.”
“One did not stay?”
“Oh they stayed. They stayed, Lord Prince. They had to. Because they walked into each other and then only one was there but that one was both don’t you see it was them becoming one that made me look at them else I might never have seen but I did see. I did. I did.”
“And did you recognize them?”
“Oh, they were from our Ors, yes they were, they were. But not together. Only separate.”
“And what did they do – when they were together?”
“They killed the others, Lord Prince Prince Prince. They hunted their friends… no, not friends. Afraid of the light so never friends. But they killed them.”
“Do you know who they are? When they are not together?”
“Who’s to know my Lord Lord? If I knew they would only take me next but I did not look at them when it was two because they would kill me they would. I only looked at them together. They did not fit well but they did strangely they did.”
“Where were you when you saw…” Stefano was not given the chance to finish asking her as an arrow sliced the air and entered Gyson’s side. Her eyes opened wide then she fell forward into the fire. Stefano leapt to his feet and quickly pulled her free, beating off any flames with his overcoat. He then stood full and began scanning the surrounding area – only to be greeted with empty shadows.
The elder Kerl was the first to arrive at the fire, followed quickly by three others who remained quiet as the elder spoke to Stefano.
“I saw her fall, Lord Prince. You were quick to pull her free from the flames, but I see, alas, it was over for her already.”
Angry eyes settled on the man. “The shot was sure, sir…”
“Kerl, my Lord. I am second elder to Ysdred who met you when you arrived. In fact, she comes now,” he pointed in the direction of the approaching woman.
“Ysdred, who would have cause to extinguish Gyson?” Stefano’s voice rang with his usual authority.
“None I know of, Lord Prince. Gyson is … was … a trial for many, if not all – but her heart was one of the sweetest in Orswelt.”
“She was vocal about having seen the ones responsible for the earlier killings.”
“Ones, my Lord? There are more than one?”
“Gyson claimed there were two.” Stefano stopped short of the “two becoming one” reference as it was only beginning to make sense to him.
“A dark time for us all, then,” stated Kerl.
“Most dark,” replied Stefano as he bent over the body. “But even a candle burning in the darkness can give truth to shadow.” He pulled the offending arrow from Gyson and stood, examining it carefully.
“My Lord?” Ysdred asked as she held out her hand for the arrow.
“When I am done examining it, you may have it.”
“Of course, Lord Prince.” The woman backed away slightly and waited, her eyes never leaving the arrow in Stefano’s hands.
Stefano sighed and shook his head, sadly handing the weapon to the woman elder. He then looked to both Ysdred and Kerl. “No one is to retire this night until you have spoken to any and all who knew Gyson. If they spoke to her but once, you shall question them fully.”
“Yes, Lord Prince,” they responded in unison.
“Lord Prince, can we move to a different fire to talk?” Another woman approached, somewhat older than Gyson, but far more sensual in poise and speech.
“Of course. It would be best to give the elders time to search for dear Gyson’s killer. I can check with them later. For now, let us walk to the next fire east.”
As they walked, Stefano cleaned out his now-spent pipe and began filling it fresh. “As I remember you are Chalance?”
“Yes, my Lord Prince. It is gracious of you to remember. But I must ask, why aren’t you helping the elders right now? I mean, another kindred extinguished and all, even if it was just a trelulant.”
Stefano’s gave a brief glint of anger over the ‘just a trelulant’ comment, but kept quiet. He glanced toward the others then turned back. “They will be ready for me soon, but I should be able to finish my talk with you. Gives them time to discover what they can so together we can decide how to proceed. Now then.” He sat on a log and gestured towards a stable looking wooden stool that would likely be more comfortable. Interestingly, Chalance picked another log on which to perch. Stefano began preparing a fresh pipe. “I notice you carry a single arrow quivered. Why only one?”
“It is the arrow I used to win this season’s competitions. I carry it as a good luck emblem I suppose, though it does improve my night to have it near.” She reached over her shoulder and presented it lying on both her open palms. “I am very pleased with it.”
The prince turned it delicately in his fingers. “Fine work, though it seems a bit rough.”
“Purposely, Lord Prince. I believe the barbs give it more character.”
Stefano gently handed the arrow back in the same manner it had been presented. “This and the previous two seasons, I hear. I am told you are the most adept woman in the region using the bow. Possibly the best kindred.”
Pride flashed in Chalance’s eyes. “Nothing possible about it. I am the best this region holds. Not pride mind you, just what it is.”
“Indeed? There is Trezt, after all.”
Chalance turned and spat. “Ha. That one is lucky he can clean himself without someone needing to assist. He is more waste than not; I could easily break his bow.” Her eyes flashed with anger, preceded by a look Stefano didn’t quite catch.
There is more there, she hides something I might be able… blast, the elders are signaling for me. Stefano stood and smiled. “Might I see it?”
Almost too quickly the arrow was removed from its quiver and handed to the prince. “I carve them myself, Lord Prince. It is an art I learned from my mother, also a great one with the bow.”
He tenderly handed the prize back to its owner. “Thank you, Chalance, for your time and openness. We may speak again, but for now I must attend to the matter of Gyson.”
She also stood. “My thanks, Lord Prince. I am pleased I could answer to you and hope that I haven’t placed too much disparity upon myself.” She giggled, though it sounded empty and forced.
Stefano nodded his head and walked over to where the elders were gathered. They talked at great lengths to explain why that other than information about the arrow, they had nothing new to give him. Stefano arched a brow when the arrow was mentioned.
“What was odd about it?”
A diminutive man stepped forward, looking timid yet when he spoke his voice carried authority and confidence. “Detzr, Lord Prince. Not so much odd, my Lord Prince, only that it is akin to the arrows used on the two visitors. Same type of handwork, same size and weight.”
“Let me see it again, Detzr.”
The kindred handed Stefano the weapon used on Gyson. He scrutinized it carefully, noticing the delicate burrs along the shaft then handed it back. “Make sure this is kept safe with the other two. The two wooden emblems found on the visitors – I trust they are also set aside.”
“Yes my Lord Prince. Arrows and emblems and now this arrow shall join them.” He paused, looking very uncomfortable. “We would not pressure you, Lord Prince, but we were wondering if you knew how much longer…”
“I will give you word later this night.”
“Thank you, Lord Prince.”
With that, everyone dispersed. After his own feeding, Stefano could be found walking the streets of Orswelt slowly, pipe in hand, a trail of smoke feathers following him. He mentally reviewed what he had learned in the prior three nights. A wooden arrow through the heart. Both men shot while well within the borders of the region. The arrows push the idea of hunters being involved, as does the hit being dead center of the heart. A tricky shot at best, but from the side more so. Though that was the clearest path beyond the rib cage. But I cannot fathom having hunters here unnoticed. And Trezt was once a member of a hunter community – but that is prior to his coming into the night, which is decades gone. I struggle accepting that he would still have ties to anyone there.
He turned to follow the gradual rise up Focus Hill, the highest point in the area that the locals used as an overlook. From here light most of the houses looked like stars or stationary fireflies and as he climbed more would fade in. Spectacular view from here, much more dramatic than the lights around a camp. Not as warm though. I do wish the other travelers had any information on the two that were extinguished other than their names. How do five kindred travel any real distance only knowing the names of their fellow travelers.? Yet I felt no deceit or cunning from any of them.
Stefano paused a moment before cresting the hill and looked out across the region that was Orswelt, before continuing up the slope. The arrows … well crafted, and yet not true hunter technique. Too many abrasions, even as tiny as they are,, still not something a hunter of any noble clan would permit. Yet a good likeness of Chalance’s prize piece. As he reached the summit, a small breeze whispered across the land, teasing his hair and puffing at his cloak. Chalance, on the other hand, is also an excellent marksman. It would not be out of the question for her to have the ability for a side shot to the heart. The accuracy of the kill is flawless. And it is no secret there is no love wasted between Chalance and Trezt. Is one casting suspicion on the other? There must be something more. Someone had a reason to select those targets. I need to find the commonality. It has to be there somewhere. Then it is just a matter of ferreting the guilty individual into view. Yet there is still the matter of the hunter clan emblems, leads one to believe they were once hunters. Or carried them as trophies from kills. He looked at his hands as he stopped to clear his finished pipe. Slowly a smile crept over his face and he looked up and over the top of the buildings below. Of course, there is the possibility… He laughed to himself before turning to head back down the hill.
The remainder of the night found Stefano returning to the remaining three visitors to Orswelt. He repeated his sorrow at their loss and promised quick resolution. Finally he stopped at Deztr’s cottage as the horizon showed signs of waking, giving the kindred orders that might keep all the elders awake a while longer.
“Have everyone feed promptly tomorrow eve then gather at your overlook. I shall pronounce judgement at that time.”
“Yes, my Lord Prince. It shall be done.”
~ Springing the Trap ~
Stefano rose the following evening and went out to feed. Like most kumpania, regions were known for having outlying mortal residents – many of which were a willing ghoul or subjugate for kindred just to experience the ecstasy of being fed upon. Feeling refreshed, he strolled up Focus Hill to the promenade at the top. He moved to the eastern end where stairs had been laid for speakers to be able to address large crowds. He sat on the top stair and waited for kindred to arrive.
One of the first to reach the summit was Chalance, looking ever the seductress. She sauntered across the grounds to greet Stefano.
“Well met, my Lord Prince. I trust you had a restful day?”
“Very restful, the first of such in a few days while trying to unravel this mystery.”
“Then word is true, you do know who the guilty one is.”
“I do. More than that will have to wait.”
Disappointment flashed across the woman’s face, but she recovered quickly. “Of course, Lord Prince. If you will excuse.” She gave him a slight bow then turned and walked toward the northern edge, every hip movement calculated and executed with great talent – all of which humored the Prince more than he’d ever tell.
Large groups of subjugates started arriving; the drone of quieted conversations filled the air. Stefano remained in thought, looking out over the crowd, until Trezt finally showed, followed by a dozen or so remaining stragglers. Stefano stood and a profound silence instantly rippled through the kindred. As he began to speak, the sound of distant thunder rumbled across the grounds. There were many gasps and a few kindred fell as the tsunami of power and authority struck them.
“My friends. My family of the night. Last time I was here I stood on these steps and let you meet your new prince. I was welcomed warmly and we had a pleasant time of relaxing celebration wherein I learned of the boundless kindness of the residents of Orswelt. It grieves me to not have that freedom this visit.” He waited for the expected murmurs to fade out before continuing.
“Five gentle kindred arrived at your gate over a wolfmoon ago and voiced their desire to join the region. I have learned two of them were traveling together when they came upon the other three; each one a lone traveler. They were not a band or camp in any manner other than wisely settling wagons together each day. As is always true in Orswelt, they were greeted with grand acceptance and waited for my visit to officially welcome them. Then the unspeakable. Two of the new arrivals were extinguished within the region limits. Strangely enough, it was the two who had always been traveling together.
“Unknown to most, the two were hunters-turned-kindred. Not unacceptable, just unusual. They carried insignia charms with them from their past. Thanks to friend Trezt, I have learned the crest shows they were part of the Dark Ridge clan. Indeed the same clan our brother was once part of in nights long past.
“The weapon of their demise was the bow, some would say fitting after their mortal lives. The bow has never been found, but we have the arrows.” He held up the two first arrows. “You all know by now of the expiration of Gyson; she, too, died of the bow; the instrument in the same demeanor as the first two.” He held up the third. “What I find most curious, as these are identical in style and construction as friend Chalance’s prize dart.”
“Not the same. Are you certain, Lord Prince?” Chalance’s eyes flared anger laced with … fear?
“Come forward, lass, and bring your pride.” He held out his hand to take the arrow when Chalance reached the top of the stairs with him. He put the now four arrows in his hand and turned them. “Yes, the same.” He took an arrow and handed it to Chalance. “Thank you for letting me confirm it.”
“Yes, my Lord Prince.” Chalance took the arrow and rolled it lovingly in her fingers, watching the burs and nicks catch the firelight and dance. Reverently she placed it into her quiver and glanced nervously side to side.
Stefano nodded slightly before turning back to the many kindred standing around. “Gyson saw the killing, but with her gifting she was unable to tell what she saw, except in riddles. It took a while to puzzle through her words.”
Stefano turned slightly and held out an accusing left hand, leaving his side exposed. “Chalance, daughter of Pacca, I hold you accountable for the murder of Icon, Winst and our own Gyson.” He looked at some elders standing near her. “Hold her gentlemen. And thank you for being in place as I asked.”
“It was not me. I was seen in the southern court, near the fire. I was enjoying the peace of the night, not out extinguishing some unknowns.”
“Hold your peace, kindred, unless you intend to speak truth.” Anger churned in his words.
“I do speak the truth! I was not there, I was at the southern fire!”
Stefano smirked. “Actually you do speak truth. Just truth bathed in deceit.” Stefano tilted his head at the slightly whispered ‘twang’ of a bow. He immediately stretched his left arm to meet the arrow aimed for his exposed side. The arrow pierced his palm and remained lodged there, not striking as aimed. Stefano looked across the gathering as three men stepped from the surrounding thicket, holding a struggling Trezt. “Bring him here.” Again the sound of thunder.
Stefano turned to his side and looked at the region’s healer. “Barcus, you have prepared as I asked?”
A heavy-set woman came forward, carrying bandages and ointment. “Yes, my Lord Prince. Shall I tend your wound now?”
Stefano nodded. When Barcus reached his side, the prince pulled the arrow the rest of the way through his palm then held his hand for Barcus to begin mending.
Rumblings of confused voices began to rise but again moved to silence as Stefano spoke. In his free hand he held the offending arrow, turning it slowly in his fingertips. “Interesting arrow. Completely smooth. Perfect carving. Excellent work, Trezt. For an ex-hunter.”
Trezt snarled in response. “It should have struck true. I was completely certain of the shot, much more than when I used those rough-hewn mistakes – those poor excuses for killing instruments. Yet they struck as intended. I should have known getting her help would bring disaster.” He turned to Chalance. “I was wise when I left you for Yndra, but I was certainly the fool when I came back.”
Chalance’s dove into the fray. “My arrows are mistakes? You insisted to use my arrows to point suspicion at me while I ensured I had my alibi set. You could have just ignored those buffoons; they did not know you. You were so certain they were sent. Even to the point of stepping into the night, just to hunt you down. None of this would have happened if you weren’t a psychotic paranoid! You want a mistake? Loving you was the greatest mistake of my life.”
Stefano turned his attention to the bandaging of his already healing hand while chaos and commotion erupted through the kindred of Orswelt. When Barcus had finished he bent down and gently kissed her cheek. “Fates bless and hold you well, healer.”
She bowed demurely. “And you, my Lord Prince. I am glad it was only your hand and not worse as we had suspected the man would try. You took great risk, Lord Prince. I shall never fathom your wisdom.”
The prince held up his hand and waited for quiet. “So now we have full truth. Icon and Winst happened upon Orswelt in their search for a home. Instead they found one so afraid of his own shadow that he convinced a lover from his past to assist him in removing the threat that was not even present. Then Gyson’s life was taken because of that same fear.” He locked his eyes on Trezt. His voice dropped in volume but rose in intensity; none had trouble hearing or distinguishing his words. “Then the ultimate failure. You attacked your Prince.” He looked at the smooth arrow still in his good hand. “I believe this is yours.” With a flick of his wrist the sent the arrow true and swift – it pierced Trezt’s chest and split his heart, ending him immediately. Those holding him released their grip and stepped back as the extinguished kindred’s body turned grey and began to whither on the spot.
Stefano slowly turned to face Chalance. “Then we have you, would-be seductress of the night. Your own vanity had you convinced here was the greatest love of your life. Even after discarding you, he convinced you to assist in his insane scheme. I wonder at your purity of mind as well.” He turned to pick up one of the three earlier arrows. “You, so full of your pride and so sure of your own superiority. Yet you could not recognize when I gave you the wrong arrow as your pride piece.” He held the arrow out, showing it to her. “Here is the one with which you took champion over the region. But you could not distinguish it from the three used in killing. Proof of your involvement was then. As for this,” he twisted his hand, snapping the arrow in two. Chalance wilted before him as he tossed the pieces aside. “So ends your reign as champion bowsman. As you brought death to others, receive your payment.” He reached out his good hand to grasp her neck. She just started to resist when he snapped her neck. As she began to fall he reached over her and removed the arrow from her quiver. “And so justice is served.” He thrust the arrow through her chest, also splitting her heart. Like the one before her, her decay began that instant.
Stefano returned to the top stair and looked out over his gathered subjugates. “My friends, my family in the night, peace and honor have returned to your walls. Your gates again shall deter the false. May the Fates permit your gracious welcome of the stranger and outsider, making them part of your most blessed of regions. I bid you all farewell as I am leaving immediately for home. There are matters there that cannot be left unattended. But let it be known the remaining three visitors, Anston, Frebec, and Lonce are welcome to remain in Orswelt, should they so choose.”
A cheer rose in the crowd. They parted around him, giving him an open path to where Zarchos waited, prepared for travel. He raised his bandaged hand in friendship then turned and disappeared into the night.
It was late, the sky growing more blue by the moment. The kindred of the Keep were headed up the stairs when a weary prince walked in the door. Gerik charged across the room, pulling his love into his arms.
“You look exhausted, Stefano. Can you walk the stairs or shall I carry you?”
Stefano laughed softly. “I believe I can make it. But yes, let’s go to our bed.” He looked at the stairs as they moved across the floor. “Sire, Odessa, we shall talk on the morrow. Fate’s blessing.”
“Fate’s blessing to you as well,” Vargon and his wife responded before climbing the remaining stairs to the second floor. Stefano turned to Gerik and kissed his cheek.
“I have great need of you. But it must wait; I am simply dead.”
Gerik giggled in response. “Stef, my love, there is nothing simple about you.”
~ Goodbyes and Farewells ~
Odessa and Vargon were saying their goodbyes when Stefano suddenly stepped forward and pulled his sire into a hug. Surprise exploded on the elder kindred’s face, but he managed to return the hug in kind.
“You do realize we will be back.”
Stefano grinned. “Of course I do. I just felt like embracing the one that brought me into this strangely exotic world of the night.”
Gerik took the hint and walked over to Odessa, hugging her gently. He kissed her cheek before whispering in her ear, “Until we next meet, Auntie Odessa.”
She hugged him back and giggled, causing her husband to arch an eyebrow.
“Something funny I should know about?”
Odessa winked at her nephew before turning to her husband. “Nothing more than warm familial compassion from one loon to another.”
Vargon laughed, shaking his head. “If you say so.” He picked up a sealed bottle of blood-wyne from the bar top. “Thank you, Viktor. I trust we won’t need it, but it is good to have on hand.”
“Indeed, Lord Vargon.” The manservant paused as concern briefly colored his visage. “Take care, dear friend. The night may be glorious for some, but evil also prowls in shadow.”
Vargon considered the words before briefly nodding his head. “It does, my friend, it does. Thank you for the warning, I shall heed your words.” The ancient had learned long ago it paid to listen when a mage gave warning of possible dangers.
As the main doors were closed behind the departing couple, Stefano turned to glance around the room. “I think it is time to redecorate. The walls are looking dim and the ceiling shows the tarnish of smoke and heat from the fireplace. We will want to take care on the scrolled woodwork in the corners. They speak of an earlier age and I don’t wish to lose that feeling, so nothing garish or loud.”
Viktor was making notes in his ever-present ledger. “Yes, Master Stefano. Any thought on tone or color?”
Gerik chimed in. “Nothing pink or red. And please say no violet. I think we need to avoid any dark tones as they can fight with the pigments present in the stained glass.”
“I would agree, though I have always been partial to crimson.” Stefano added. “In truth, with the artwork we display, we should probably stay with more of the browns or tans. But not too dark, the tones of the wood in this room are heavy enough. Yet no white. I grow excessively weary of white. It has no life to it.”
Viktor looked up from his writing. “I shall contact painters after you and Lord Gerik have retired. I will need to hire a large number of workers to have this room repainted in one day.”
“Understood. As long as we can pay the wages, hire the workers. As always, I have total trust in your management of our home.”
One of the kitchen staff stepped into the hall and handed Viktor a note before stepping back into the kitchen. Viktor checked the addressee and looked up, holding the note forward. “Lord Gerik, this is for you.”
“Intriguing,” Gerik replied as he took the paper. He turned it to break the seal and stopped. He slowly turned it over again to look at the handwriting.
“Is something amiss, my love?” Stefano inquired.
“I … I don’t know. This is Mother’s handwriting.” Gerik flipped the paper back and forth, looking at the seal, then the handwriting, and back again.
Viktor took this moment to excuse himself and step into the kitchen, giving the two privacy in case it were warranted.
“Might help to open it.”
“Yes, Stef. Of course.” Gerik’s hands shook slightly as he broke the seal and unfolded the page. He began to read then glanced backward then moved to sit on the nearest stool.
The younger kindred began to read aloud.
“My dearest, only son,
[_I hope this missive finds you well, and that it reaches you. After the dissention between you and Terrance, I would not be surprised if you didn’t even open it, though my heart hopes you shall. You have never left my heart, you remain in my supplication to the Fates. My heart misses you more now than the year you spent abroad. _]
Your father would disown and disinherit me if he knew I was I was penning to you. But as he is not here at the present, I shall do what is right. If there be consequences later on, I shall bear them as best can be done.
Your father was taken to Doctor’s Row yesterday, just before luncheon. He had been out in the willow grove, you know how much he loves the smell of willow – he turned to return to the house and eat with me when he fell into the ravine just before the trees. It does not appear that he broken any bones, but the doctors all believe his heart is giving out.
He would not have you know this – you know his pride – he has mourned sending you away. In truth, son, he has wept in my arms over his loss of a son. It is his damnable pride that once again makes him act the fool.”
Gerik stopped reading and shook his head. “Mother never uses dark language. If I did not realize she was upset, it would be painfully clear now.” His eyes returned to the paper in his hand. “Let me see now …”
“It is his damnable pride that once again makes him act the fool. Lord Amberson has visited to speak to your father on this matter, and you know how he despises leaving the court. None of it matters, only your father’s dignity.”
Gerik moved to the second sheet of the missive.
“Although I could be content knowing you have read this missive, my son, I would be most thankful if you could find it in you to visit him at The Row. And before you raise your hackles against me hear my soul. I do not wish to lose your father; he has been part of my heart now for too long for me to try to live without him. One of the doctors, Yrish, I believe he said, has told me that if Terrance’s disposition does not lighten, his days with us are numbered and short. You hold the power to end his turmoil.
I realize this could make him angrier, and there is always a chance he would slip into the hands of the Fates from the eruption of his anger at your appearance. I believe, however, that he will soften and welcome you back into his love, which you have never truly left. Not completely. My son, if you cannot do it for him, do it for me. And if I am not motivation enough for your willful spirit, do it for yourself. For as suredly as there is a sun in the sky, harboring this anger will become a cancer to your soul and destroy you as it is destroying my beloved.
You are my son. I shall love you no matter the choices you make, even this one. And should I lose Terrance, mayhaps I could at least regain my son.
Should you decide to see your father, for fairly obvious reasons, the Lord of the Keep cannot be with you.
Lady Abigail Needston Falow
Stefano stepped close to Gerik, putting an arm around his waist and pulling him close. “I do not know if you need reach a decision now, but the Fates may not allow you much time.”
Gerik looked up as tears streamed down his forlorn face. His voice shook as he voiced his heart. “I need see him, Stef. I need see my father before he … before he is gone. I will see him tonight. It remains early enough in the evening to not be seen as an odd hour to visit him. I will feed on the way, I suppose.”
“Actually that might be the wisest course. If you see Lord Falow shortly after feeding, you will still hold the blush of life. Your face and hands will be more of what is expected. I doubt your Father needs something else on which to worry. I could go with you, as far as Doctors Row if you wish.”
“What? No. Thank you my love, but no.” Gerik leaned up and kissed his sire’s cheek. “I shall manage fine, my heart. I will return as soon as I know what transpires with F.Father.”
“As you wish. I shall be here waiting for you. Go with Fate’s mantle of protection, Gerik.”
Gerik nodded before turning and walking out the front doors and heading for the stables.
Stefano was headed for the open balcony doors when Viktor returned from the back rooms. “Lord Gerik has gone, then?”
Stefano stopped and turned. “You knew what the missive carried?”
“No, Master Stefano. Even if I could, I would not. But I could sense someone grieved over the writing of it. My senses say a woman, the remaining energy was strong. Of course I could be wrong on that.”
Stefano grinned. “No, you were right. It was from his mother.” His face turned serious. “His father is gravely ill and she wants Gerik to see him in case he is dying. I hope for happy resolution to their argument, but I cannot help but also wish for Lord Falow’s … termination.”
I suppose that is understandable, seeing the circumstances.”
“I just want Gerik to be happy.”
Viktor smirked. “Also understandable, under the circumstances.”
Stefano laughed. “Viktor, I am so glad you are part of our ‘family’. Your spirit is encouraging and you heart is loving. Your wit is the only one I’ve found to rival Sire’s.”
Viktor watched as the Lord of the Keep stepped onto the balcony to prepare his usual pipe.
Let us hope ye always feel so positive about my presence.
~ Season of Change ~
Stefano walked down the stairs admiring the fresh look of the recently painted grand hall. As he had wished, the walls were a sandy-white, very light in shade. Dressed in his usual tight trousers and fresh unlaced crimson peasant’s shirt, he descended slowly and brushed his fingers through the tangle of damp hair evidence of a recent swim. As he looked around the room, he noticed his bare feet were padding against dry steps that not long before were sloshing with salty water from his soaked clothes. Viktor is quick. Or someone is – to dry the stairs in so short a period and have them appear so polished. As he headed for the bar, Viktor looked up from in the Keep’s ledger.
“Ye look more comfortable being dry, my Lord.”
Stefano laughed. “While swimming wet never seems to bother, walking in wet clothing chafes tremendously. Not knowing if any of the staff remained awake it seemed the most reasonable choice.”
“I am pleased you did not take long to change; you have a guest out on the balcony.”
The Lord of the Keep arched a brow. “I assume it is someone you know otherwise they wouldn’t even be inside. And since you gave no name, I assume it is up to me to find out who it is. Pour me a house cognac and I will greet this mystery person.” After receiving his drink from the manservant, he walked across the room and out the balcony doors but stopped short when he saw the handsome man sitting near the rail, watching the sea. After a moment of shock he was able to find his voice. “It is good to see you; it has been a while now.”
Nikolos looked across then stood, walking to greet his friend. They hugged warmly, enchanted by the bond they still shared. Finally each stepped back and found chairs facing the water.
Stefano grinned slyly at his friend. “If you had arrived a bit earlier, you might have been privy to a rather breathtaking sight – or so I have been told.”
“In truth? What would that be, pray tell.”
“I just finished swimming. You may recall, I have never liked swimming clothed.”
Lust burned in the wolven’s eyes. “I have seen that wondrous sight. If memory serves, ‘breathtaking’ does not do it justice.” He took a sip of his brandy. “All things being as they are, it is mayhaps best that I was late. I doubt your mate would appreciate the affect such a vision would have on me.”
“Could be so… but it is good to see you again.”
“And you. Though you may not care for my news.”
“Now that you have my curiosity peaked, what news?”
“I am leaving. Across the mainland, almost to the southern-most coastline.”
“Why? And why so far?”
“It is the season of change. I wish to experience my own alterations. It is said there is a mage there whom I wish to see, should she still be alive.”
“A mage? My manservant is a mage.”
“Trashinda has spells, potions, all meant for my kind. For wolven.”
“Is something wrong? Are you ill or hurt?”
“No, beloved friend. It is said she has the power to remove one from always being under the moon.”
“She can cure you from being wolven?”
“No, Stefano. There is no cure for being wolven. However, I am normally wolven at all times. As I have said before, keeping with this form, this mortal shell, takes extreme concentration. I cannot hold it long. When I was certain I would never see you again, I took the oath to always be wolven, always be ‘under the moon’.”
“Yes. If we knew in advance where Fates would have us walk, I believe many of our choices would be different.”
“Very different, Stefano. So very different. But that is not the case; Fates are not that generous. Now, if rumors are true, Trashinda can remove me from being under the oath; she can make me a simple wolven, one who changes form only during the wolf-moon. A night before, a night after, but only those three nights.”
“It would be good to know you were not always slave to your beast.”
“Much like you are to yours, my friend. Except mine removes all sense of propriety. All self-control. That is the curse I want so much to have removed.”
“And if it is removed? How will your life change?”
“I will be able to wed, Stefano. I will be able to raise children. Normal, mortal children. To love again as a person loves, and not as a beast mates – such is the only urge stronger than that of the beast itself. We cannot be one – I need to have a companion.”
“Then I would ask the Fates to guard your steps, dear Nikolos. To protect you from that which might keep you from this quest. My heart goes with you, dearest friend. Mayhaps someday I might receive word that the curse has been removed, that you have the life you so desire, and so deserve.”
Nikolos stood. “Thank you, Stefano. My Stefano.” A single tear slipped down his cheek. “It seems the Fates decreed long ago to keep our love from becoming full. I shall never understand their purpose. If given the chance, I would demand an explanation.”
“And I would stand at your side.”
The two friends embraced warmly. As they stood there, neither wishing to let go of the other, old feelings began to muster. Stefano tilted his head to kiss Nikolos’ neck. The wolven moaned softly and turned to meet the kindred in gentle yet passionate kiss. Their passion grew faster and stronger than either had anticipated, but before they could act on their feelings, their privacy on the balcony was interrupted.
“Stefano, I’m ready to visit Father again, now that he has let me back…” Gerik froze in the doorway, his dark gaze seething at the two locked in their embrace. “If you were going to give your love to another, do you not think it would have been better to at least wait until your current lover is away?”
Stefano and Nikolos rapidly backed away from each other as an angry young Gerik stormed across the floor. He struck Nikolos square in the chest with the flat of his hand, knocking the wolven to the far rail, almost onto the stairs leading to the beach. “You. Leave my home now before I forget you are a friend of one here and end you myself.”
Nikolos stood slowly, his back arching, hands extending. Gradually his form shifted into his natural state. His eyes burned with fire as he stared Gerik down. “That was not a wise move, little one. I can easily snap you in two.”
“Both of you stop now before this goes further than can ever be mended.” Stefano stepped between the two men.
Gerik spun to glare at his sire. “Of course, you would not want me to hurt your secret romance.” He picked up a chair to throw but Stefano latched onto one of the legs, holding the chair solid. Gerik’s eyes narrowed on the Lord of the Keep. He opened his mouth to speak but stopped and released the chair which then swung into Stefano’s shins. “Fine. Do what you will. I am going to see my Father. At least on the mainland I still have family.”
Gerik turned and walked into the main hall. By the time Stefano had set down the chair he still held and moved around it into the Keep, Gerik had stormed out the front doors, pushed the footman back against the wall, and used all his force to slam the door closed behind him. The collision of wood and stone reverberated through the room. Viktor had been watching from behind the bar and took this moment to duck into the kitchens.
Nikolos followed Stefano into the great hall, having forced himself back into his mortal being. “I have stayed too long already. I shall be going.” He approached Stefano and kissed his cheek. “Goodbye, dearest one.” He turned and walked out, leaving a speechless, confused, and frustrated kindred behind.
Stefano stood quietly in the great hall, staring at the door through moist eyes while his mind raced against itself. Do I grieve the argument with Gerik, or the leaving of Nikolos? Where does my heart stand? And with whom should be my allegiance? He turned and walked back out the balcony doors, across the floor, and down the steps toward the beach. He reached the sand and collapsed to his knees. The dam finally broke as his tears began to rain down his face.
Nikolos is gone. Dear Fates, don’t let Gerik have left me as well.
~ Words of Wrath ~
Stefano paced the floor before the fireplace. The fire that burned there was dim in comparison to the fury in the prince’s eyes. A specially-sent runner had returned an hour earlier with news that Gerik had gotten to The Row, but had left hours earlier. It is almost dawn. Where is he? In anger he threw his glass against the stone inside the fireplace. Enough cognac remained to cause the fire to flare. He was about to return to the bar for a fresh glass when the front door opened and his chylde stumbled inside.
Stefano turned to face the recalcitrant kindred. “Where, by the Fates, have you been? It is almost light!”
Gerik tilted his head and closed one eye, trying to focus on the one speaking. “Pffft. Much you care.” His words were heavily slurred. “I have been … out.”
The Lord of the Keep scowled, recognizing the effect of alcohol on the man’s system. He took two steps towards the younger kindred before he stopped cold. “By all that is dark, you smell like a distillery.”
Gerik giggled. “I shepose that ish what happens when you feed outside a tav.. a tavern.”
Stefano turned his back. “Go to bed. I will not deal with you in this condition.”
“Ah but Shtef, I am not inebriated that heavy. Come give me kiss and I will prove it.”
“Go to bed, Gerik, before I forget you are my chylde and speak only as your Prince.”
Stefano spun to glare at Gerik. “Repeat that. I find it difficult to believe I heard it from you.”
“I said ‘no’. I want to ‘pologize to you.” Gerik almost tripped over his own feet trying to walk forward.
“Do not presume my patience, my chylde. Just. Go. Upstairs.”
“No.” Gerik stood with his hands on his hips, weaving slightly.
“Then the dawn take you.” Stefano turned on his heel and stepped into his office. The heavy door slid closed; the heavy bolt could be heard clicking into place.
Viktor stepped out of the kitchen and looked around the room, quickly summing the situation. He walked to Gerik’s side and placed one of the drunk kindred’s arms over his neck and shoulders as he wrapped an arm around the kindred’s side. “Come, Lord Gerik. Ye need to retire.”
“I want Shtefan…o”
“Sweet Fates. I said ‘come’.” The mage’s eyes glowed a soft blue.
Gerik found himself walking beside Viktor and ascending the stairs. His mind began to clear as the force of the spell over him took hold. “Viktor? I cannot go to the bed chambers. Stefano is in his office.”
“In which case ye need to leave him in peace. Walk.” Viktor managed to finally get Gerik to the door to the suite. He unlocked the door and swung it open, then unceremoniously shoved the kindred through. “Sleep, fool. And hope your sire calms before next eve.” He closed the door between them and walked back downstairs. He paused at the bottom considering before turning to walk to the panels of Stefano’s door. He gestured toward the door and the heavy oak shook under the force of an energy bolt. “Master Stefano, I have gotten Lord Gerik into your suite. I trust ye to resolve the issue on the morrow.”
The door thudded before sliding back and open. Stefano stood in his office, shadows swirling over his head. “Whether or not I ‘resolve the issue’ is my affair. You would do best to remember your station.” He turned his back on Viktor as his door slid closed and slipped back into its place.
Viktor paused only a moment before heading to the kitchens to prepare for the day.
As should ye, Lord Prince.
It was past midnight before Gerik finally returned downstairs, dressed in riding attire. His face was haggard and drawn, his need for sustenance hung around him like a woolen cloak. As he looked around the room, he found Stefano and Viktor both standing at the bar, going over what he assumed was Keep business. He closed his eyes to calm himself, then slowly started across the room.
Stefano had seen Gerik descend the stairs but purposely kept his attention on Viktor’s ledger sheet as the two of them discussed servant needs and food requirements for said servants.
“Then I understand we have the spare rooms, Viktor?”
“Indeed, Master Stefano. There are still six rooms unoccupied in the servant wing.”
“Excellent. Prepare four of them for the subjugates coming from Rensdale.”
“Two in each room, then.”
“Yes. As is standard.”
“Consider it done, Master Stefano. It will be good for ye to be able to find sustenance without having to go to the mainland.”
Stefano looked up at Gerik standing near the bar, but quiet, hands clasped behind him as he waited for an opening in their discussion. “Good morning, my heart. I trust you slept soundly.”
“Do you truly? I wouldn’t think you cared about my sleeping habits, since you keep yourself from me. Mayhaps you are being satisfied in the bed of a wolven.”
“I will not have this discussion, Gerik; I have done nothing to warrant it. What you saw was an embrace between close friends that are parting – possibly for the last time.”
“Even if true, that gives no justification for the passion that was so openly displayed on your balcony. But then, this is your home.”
Stefano’s eyes grew dark, shadows swirled in his pupils. “That is all I will hear, young one. I expect you to present yourself properly to your sire. And if not, then you will before your Prince. I trust that is understood.”
Anger flashed in the younger kindred’s eyes. “Perfectly, Sire, my Lord Prince. If you will excuse me now I am going riding.” He paused briefly. “Actually, I am going riding whether or not you excuse my absence.”
Stefano sighed. “I hope it calms you so we can discuss and not argue, my heart. It pains to see you like this, to feel the wrath that emanates from your being. I don’t know if you will hear this, or accept it, but I do love you.”
Gerik stood quiet only a moment before he firmly set his jaw. “I am not sure I wish to receive love so tarnished by a wolven.” He turned and walked out the front doors.
Stefano looked at Viktor. “Is there anything else needing my presence at this time?”
Viktor shook his head, his eyes mirroring the sorrow and pain seen in his friend’s. “Not at this time, Master Stefano. I shall manage until we speak again.”
The Lord of the Keep forced a smile. “You always do, my friend. I am sorry for what you have to wade through between my chylde and I. Even more than I regret my words to you last night.”
“Last night has been cleared by your earlier apology, my Lord. Ye have no need to do so again nor apologize for the actions of another. Find peace, my friend.”
“I shall try, Viktor; I shall try. Right now I am going for a swim. Hopefully that will clear my mind as it calms my nerves.”
“Very good, Master Stefano.”
Viktor watched his friend and master walk to the balcony and turn for the stairs. Only when out of sight did the manservant allow his anger to show.
Young Gerik treads on unstable ground. And I do not sense that he cares.
It was several hours before Stefano returned from his swim. He crossed to the stairs silently to change in his room. After showering and changing to dry clothes, he returned to the great hall and crossed the room to the bar. He looked at his manservant and sighed as he sat.
“Brandy, please, Viktor.”
“From your countenance, I would assume Lord Gerik was not upstairs.”
“No. Has he been back at all?”
“I am sorry, but I have not seen him, my Lord.”
Stefano downed his drink. “I am going to go find him. We are short hours before the dawn.” He shook his head and muttered to himself as he walked out the front door.
I have a good idea now about how Vargon felt with my fighting him. This hurts beyond comprehension, and I cannot allow it to continue.
~ Time Waits for No One ~
Stefano walked briskly across the grounds and entered the stable. He opened Zarchos’ stall then walked back to the front of the stables. The stallion followed obediently. Stefano stopped then turned to scratch the steed’s forehead and received strong nudging from the animal, showing its appreciation. “Zarchos, I have need for swiftness this night. More than I have ever requested before. I will allow you open reins, I trust you to carry me well.” Again the horse nudged him. Stefano smiled. “Good boy.”
Stefano walked to Zarchos’ left side, grabbed the end of the horse’s mane and swung himself up bareback. With no saddle and no bridle he leaned forward and spoke again to his mount. “Find Shadow. We must find Shadow. He may be in danger.”
Zarchos whinnied in response, pawed at the ground, then charged into a full gallop. Stefano remained crouched forward to avoid most of the wind rushing past him. The covered the island completely, twice, before Stefano patted the mount’s neck and allowed him to slow, then stop.
“Good boy, Zarchos, my friend. Excellent speed. You are the most noble steed I have ever known.”
Zarchos tossed his head and snorted in an approval response.
“I need to talk to the Marwick. Mayhaps he has seen them. No urgency this time, boy, but with haste.”
Again Zarchos leapt into action. Within a few moments they were at the landing; the barge was nowhere in sight. Stefano rang the bell mounted beside the path’s end and waited until the ferryman crossed over.
“Marwick, my friend. I trust you are well this night.”
“Very well, my lord. Are you going to meet with Lord Gerik? I got the impression from him that he was traveling alone.”
“Actually, that’s what I wished to know, whether you had seen him. Did he make any mention of where he was going?”
“None my lord, though he did look upset. Mayhaps to The Row?”
“Mayhaps. I will not be crossing tonight, Marwick; I shall await Gerik at home. I am sorry to have brought you across for no reason.”
“You wished to speak to me, Lord Stefano. That is reason enough. May the Fates smile on you, gracious lord.”
Stefano watched as the barge was poled away from the landing. “On you and your family as well, good friend.” He tossed three gold coins that landed neatly near Marwick’s feet. “This is for your trouble. Surprise your wife.”
Marwick paused long enough to retrieve the coins and pocket them. “I shall, Lord Stefano. She has been eyeing a gown at the tailors for some time now. I am sure this will delight her.”
The Lord of the Keep raised his hand in a parting gesture then nudged Zarchos to turn toward home. “No rush, Zarchos. An easy pace will be good.” He looked eastward. “There is still time before the dawn, let us enjoy the ride home.”
Again the horse pawed the ground then moved into a gentle lope, allowing his rider to watch the scenery they passed and enjoy the calmer movement of air. When they finally reached the stables, Zarchos stopped and Stefano slipped himself down. He patted Zarchos neck again. “You did well, my friend. You always do. Come. I know a brush that is waiting in anticipation.”
Zarchos snorted and walked beside his owner to his stall, then walked in. Stefano smiled at the fresh hay; someone had mucked out the stall during his ride. And knowing Viktor and his servants, no one would ever admit to it. He lifted a brush from its hook high on the wall and slipped his hand into the leather strap on the back. With loving attention he brushed Zarchos, working down the chest, front left leg then down the left side of the mount’s neck.
“I do not know if I can make this one right, Zarchos. The kiss he witnessed was indeed a kiss of fire and passion, but we knew even then it could go nowhere. It may well have been my last chance to feel him close, taste him, know his presence.”
Stefano continued to move back towards the tail. Once reached, he would move to the mount’s right side and work the mane before moving along that side in the same manner as the left. The tail would get its brushing last as it typically took the longest to clean. He glanced out the front doors of the stable and sighed again.
“It grows late. If Gerik does not get here soon, he will not have time to make it to the Keep. I can only hope he has found other fitting shelter, should that be the case.”
On the far end of the island, Gerik was finally urging Shadow off the barge. “Thank you, Marwick.”
“Most welcome, Lord Gerik. May the Fates smile upon you and your path.”
“Mmm hmm.”Gerik’s response was half-hearted and quiet. His mind was elsewhere, still racing over the events of the previous night. They would have ended in our bed if I had not chanced on them when I did. He can deny it all he wants, it was blatantly obvious their love has not wavered any over time.
He nudged Shadow forward, up the slight slope then across the land. Half-way to the Keep he stopped the mount and turned him, speaking to him gently. “We shall have some fun before getting home. I have a feeling there will not be time for pleasantries for a while once I return.”
A slight kick and Shadow moved forward, quickly into a gallop. Gerik watched the landscape, smiling when he saw the sign of exposed rock. “Jumping. I want to fly, Shadow.”
The horse raced forward, easily clearing each slight rise as they were reached. Around the end of the island, turn and then back. Gerik’s demeanor softened as they rode.
At the Keep, Lord Stefano had decided he had waited long enough. I will not stand around and worry over him like some school child. Nor shall I chance the light of day. He set his empty glass on the bar. “Thank you, Viktor. I will retire now.”
“Very good, my lord. May the Fates give you a good rest, and a day void of disagreements.”
Stefano gave a wry laugh. “Good rest is mayhaps possible, but I fear there is much discussion yet to come over the lack of discipline and respect being demonstrated.”
Viktor responded only with a nod and began clearing the bar before walking across to close the balcony doors.
Upstairs in his suite, the Lord of the Keep undressed and slipped himself under the covers of his bed. Stay safe, Gerik. I need you by my side. Come home and let us resolve with love.
Far from the Keep, the young kindred watched as more exposed rock lay ahead. His face beamed, he had come to terms with himself; he would trust his love. Regardless the kiss, Stefano had said Nikolos was leaving. So worry over a ‘last kiss’ was unnecessary. As he approached the hidden ravine, he shuddered and gasped as he felt his sire in his mind. Clearly. He groaned at the touch of love just as his mount hit the ravine. But instead of leaping, the horse, out of fear, stopped short.
Gerik flew from the saddle and collided hard with the bare stone. Good one, Gerik. Now get home. He tried to sit up but shouted in pain. Alright, let me catch my breath. He closed his eyes a moment and reached for that thought, hoping to return Stefano’s love.
At the Keep, a restless Lord tossed and turned, longing for comfort. Suddenly he felt a presence. Gerik. He reached with his mind again, searching. As the colored glass in the balcony doors downstairs grew lighter in shade, Prince Stefano bolted up in bed, his eyes wide.
~ Aftermath ~
Stefano stood on the wet sand, wearing just his trousers. The waves lapped at his bare feet, threatening to bury them as each rush of water stirred the ground beneath him allowing him to slowly sink into the sand. He could feel the pain of Gerik’s extinguishing as clear as the dawn when it happened. Sorrow over the youth’s death had turned to anger as Stefano believed Gerik had purposely been caught by the sun.
Anger consumes me, and I care not. He allowed himself to greet the sun. My chylde, my love, decided death was better than being with me. But is that reason enough to end everything that has been done? To stop visiting the regions and camps? To destroy the great room? The disappointment in Viktor’s eyes was palatable when he entered and saw the remains of the harp strewn around the room. How I managed to not break the stained glass doors is a complete mystery.
Sweet Fates, the bar. The expense to replace the drink is more than enough, but finding the blood liquors is nigh impossible. I’m surprised after all I’ve done of late that Viktor has not resigned and left. I must commend him, though. My rooms appear as they did before my rage. Of course, there is still my office. I cannot simply allow entrance just to clean and then prohibit again, so restoring it remains my responsibility alone.
The distant rumble of thunder grabbed his attention and he focused on the horizon. Incoming storm. I wonder who’s fury will prove greater, mine, or that of the Fates. He shook his head. Fury of the Fates – I have never understood it nor shall I. If all of life, indeed, all of existence is in their grasp, what could they possibly have to be angry about? If someone rejects their laws or them completely, how could it disturb a hair on their heads? Even death bows to the Fates. If they are angry with someone, they could simply end them. He watched lightning flashes as the ominous clouds billowed ever closer. No, they have no reason for fury. Indeed, they have no right to fury.
The thought barely reached his mind when a lightning flash struck the nearest stone jetty, sending shards of stone into the sea as if someone were sowing seeds.
Then again, mayhaps it is not my place to question their rights.
He was jolted from his dark musings by a deep voice reverberating against the stone cliffs.
“Viktor said I would find you here.”
Stefano half smiled but didn’t bother turning around. “Well met, Sire. I trust your journeys have been fruitful? Has Odessa found that for which she yearns?”
Vargon frowned. “I am sure she will worry your ears off with her tales later. At this moment I am in need to speak with my Prince. That is, if he can give the time to even turn and address his sire.”
“I am weary, Father. Tired and worn. I need respite from the demands of the night.”
“It has been over two wolfmoons since Gerik’s termination. It is time for the Prince to pick himself up and tend to more important matters.”
“My heart is not important?”
“Not more so than your subjects. You have kindred who depend on you, who need the wisdom and rulings of their Prince. People to whom you gave your word of protection and justice.”
“I am aware, Father, however…”
“No. No more ‘however’. No more ‘wait’. Now, my chylde. It is time you retook your place. Unless you want me to petition your subjects for your replacement.”
“What?” Stefano’s interest perked.
“You have been absent for long enough. If you cannot be a prince, we need find someone who can.”
“You can do that? Replace me?”
“If your people wish, yes.”
Stefano pulled his feet from the ever-piling sand and turned to face Vargon.
“I do not wish to be replaced. I shall do what is necessary.” He bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, Sire. Your words have always had a way of changing my life.
Vargon chuckled softly, all frustrations faded. “As should be, first chylde. Come then. Return with me to the world of the undead. Mayhaps my wife will tell you of a certain bone fragment.” He paused as his son passed him to lead up the steps. “Though we shall wait while you … freshen yourself. You smell like an old tomb.”
“Yes, Father.” Stefano stopped and turned around to face his sire. “My life would be nothing if you hadn’t stepped into it time past. I know I have thanked you before, but I do again. I sadly admit there are times I forget, and it should not be. At least, not for extended periods of time.” He stopped and blinked moist eyes. “It has truly been over two wolfmoons since his ending. I had lost all track of time; I was unaware of the depth of my sadness and anger.”
Vargon simply made a motion indicating he wished to continue up the stairs. Stefano turned and dutifully climbed them, for the first time in nights, without dragging his feet.
When they walked in from the balcony, Odessa and Viktor both turned and smiled at the Lord of the Keep. Odessa stood and headed across the room until Stefano held up a hand.
“Wait, sister-of-blood. I need to … cleanse from the sea. According to Sire, I smell like ‘an old tomb’.”
She shrugged. “What do I care? I am happy to see you, and looking alive. I wasn’t sure the way Viktor spoke.” She finished crossing the room and embraced him briefly before stepping away and waving a hand. “Vargon is correct – you do smell like an old tomb. With a rotting corpse.”
Stefano just laughed. “Alright, I understand. I shall be back soon. Please do not begin the celebration without me.”
As he disappeared up the stairs, Odessa and Viktor both turned to Vargon and asked in unison, “Celebration?”
Vargon shook his head, laughing. “You need ask my chylde. I have no idea of what he is speaking.”
Upstairs, Stefano closed his door behind him then collapsed on his bed in tears. Gerik, I shall never understand how you could sit and wait for dawn instead of returning to our home, to my love, and talking things through. I thought we had finally bridged the argument when our love allowed us to connect across the island. He sat up and undressed. When he stepped into the shower he allowed the deluge to wash over his face before he turned around. As he washed he began to feel as if heavy weight was melting in the water, running down his shoulders, over his body, and into the small trench cut into the stone to drain the water outside and over the cliff face. Sire is correct, of course. I am behaving as a child, in many ways more prideful and arrogant than the one I mourn. And to what end? He stepped out of the cascading water and grabbed a towel to dry. There is no purpose in it. He is gone. He ended and I shall never know why, or how I lost his love. If I ever truly had it. But it is past. It matters not any longer. Gerik is gone and I remain. I have lost too many in my life, but I shall not lose myself. I am Prince and I shall exist as such.
The great room shook as the ceiling overhead rumbled. Everyone glanced up; worry darkened Odessa’s fair complexion.
“What just happened.”
Vargon smiled broadly. “Our Prince has returned.”
A short while later Stefano descended the stairs, humming softly, as a runner stepped in from the kitchens and handed Viktor a missive. The manservant waited until the Lord of the Keep looked up before he held out the paper. “For you, Master Stefano.”
“Thank you Viktor. Would you please prepare a cognac for me?” He looked at the missive. “I have expected no word from anyone.”
“Then open it, Stefano,” Odessa said. “Rather than keep all in suspense.”
He laughed as he broke the seal. He read down the page then stepped backwards and sat. He received his drink from Viktor and took a long sip.
“Is it there a problem with one of the lands?” Vargon inquired.
“No,” Stefano answered. “Nothing like that.”
Viktor looked closely at Stefano. “Do you need to respond? The runner is here, she will not depart until the morrow in order to find rest.”
“What is in the missive, brother of mine?” Odessa cut in. Her voice carried the edge of urgency.
Stefano looked down at the missive in his hand. He shook his head and laughed wryly. “One must appreciate the will and humor of the Fates.” He downed the rest of his drink and handed the empty glass to his manservant for refill. He then looked at the curious faces before him.
“Nikolos is engaged.”
~ Resolution ~
Stefano returned from visiting the Lestora camp with a smile on his face. In the fortnight following his depression, the Lord of the Keep had found a new zest for life. Viktor looked up and caught the smile.
“You look pleased, Master Stefano.”
“I am, Viktor. It was a most productive visit. And it’s been a long time since I was in a true camp. It brought back fond memories.” He sat at the bar. “Brandy, please.”
Viktor prepared the kindred’s drink and handed the glass to him. “Then the emergency was not a true emergency? If I remember correctly, their runner was quite adamant about you being needed immediately.”
“You remember correctly, and, I suppose in their eyes yes, it was an emergency. At least for the bride’s family, since it was the groom who walked away moments before the service was to begin.”
“Is he not bound by law at that stage?”
“Tradition. Although my sire would call it law, nothing has ever been decreed, and it certainly wasn’t something Cain the First requested. But a centuries-old tradition often feels like law for those who have lived with it for generations.”
“Then what was your decision?”
“I met with the lad. Rather cute, though quite young. Name of ‘Atruis’. Very appealing young man… I did what anyone might do in that situation, I suppose. I seduced him.”
Viktor dropped the bottle he was replacing under the bar. Fortunately he was able to catch it with his powers before it smashed on the floor. “Ye did what? I would expect complete breakdown of all relationships at that point.”
“There would have been, but I met with the bride separately shortly thereafter.”
“Please say ye did not seduce her as well.”
“I did not. But I did tell her that he had been with me.” Stefano smirked. “I also said she would be better off with her fingers than with what he had to offer. She decided to accept his abandonment without incident.”
Viktor chuckled. “Ye are crafty indeed, Master Stefano. And what of the young man? Was he angry at ye revealing his … shortcomings?”
Stefano almost choked on his drink. “Actually, I lied to the bride. I realize a Prince is meant to be honest at all times, which is precisely why the lie worked. I had warned him ahead of time what would transpire when I met with her. He was in full accord with me.” He set his empty glass in front of Viktor. “Besides, there were no ‘shortcomings’ with this lad.”
Viktor shook his head in mock dismay. “Shall I refresh your drink, m’Lord?”
“Hold on that for a moment, my friend. I wish to freshen up after my journey. I have many layers of dust over my skin I would like to remove.”
“Of course, Master Stefano. I shall be here when ye are ready.”
Stefano hummed in the shower. Of late his disposition had continued to improve as he busied himself with the responsibility of being a prince. Viktor was still trying to convince him it was time to hold another gathering for the mainland nobles, yet Stefano had managed to side step it to date. He did realize he would eventually have to succumb to the duties of being ‘Lord of the Keep’, but as long as he stayed busy, Viktor left the subject matter drop.
After his shower Stefano padded barefoot down the stairs in tight trousers and crimson peasant shirt, unlaced, of course. Viktor held a glass of brandy out for him. “Someone on the balcony wishes to speak with the Lord of the Keep.”
“I barely have returned… alright. Who is it?”
“Ye would not believe me if I told ye. This one must be experienced.” With that, Viktor exited into the kitchens.
Stefano arched a brow and headed for the balcony, drink in hand. When he stepped through the doors he stopped – there was no one there. He glanced back inside then had a thought. He moved to the rail and lifted himself up slightly to look towards the beach. There was someone walking along the short shoreline, male by appearance but difficult to see from this distance, even with his sight. The kindred took a sip of his drink and headed to the steps, walking down them slowly, his mind still curious about this mystery guest.
At the base of the stairs he stopped and watched the individual who stood near the water’s edge, looking towards the horizon. A smile slowly appeared on Stefano’s face and he stepped forward.
“Nikolos. This is a pleasant surprise. Is your wife … Vayona … is she with you?”
The wolven turned around and whistled, light dancing in his eyes. “You look … tantalizing. As for Vayona, we did not marry.”
“Indeed? I had assumed from the voice of your missive that you loved her intensely and she returned it. What went wrong?”
“I did.” Nikolos walked over to Stefano and tenderly touched his cheek. “I could not think of marrying after hearing of your loss. I am sorry about Gerik, I know you loved him.”
Stefano turned his head and kissed the inside of his friend’s palm. “Thank you, beloved friend. But what of Vayona? Did you postpone until some later time then?”
“No. We spoke at lengths about me, about her, about us. We decided it was best if we walked away from it before our relationship soured, as it would have. There was just not enough devotion to make it work.” Nikolos stepped closer, wrapping his arms around the kindred. “We had not discussed a date or gone to the justice to formally file our intentions, so there wasn’t a lot of planning to undo.”
“That is regrettable…” Stefano paused as realization crossed his features then pulled back. “Wait. How did you know of Gerik? Granted I had considered writing but shortly after your marriage announcement was not the proper time, not to mention I did not know where you were.”
“Is it of significance?” The wolven grinned. “But, since you ask – I received word from a certain Lady Odessa Stalway Petrescu; she sent word back with the runner that had carried my missive to you. Was she the one with your sire the night … well, that night?”
“Yes, she is my sire’s wife. I must remember to thank her … later.” He leaned down and kissed Nikolos gently. “I have missed you. Tell me of your luck with the mage. Did you find her? Was she able to remove your beast?”
“Yes, I located her. She could not completely remove my beast of course, but she did indeed walk me along the path to taming it. I now am subject to it only during wolfmoon, yet its power is much greater in that period than I had anticipated. I am told it may subside a trifle, but to expect it to control me almost entirely for those three nights.” Nikolos looked deeply into the kindred’s dark eyes. “Do we dare suppose the Fates truly intend to allow us to be together?”
Stefano laughed. “I no longer try to fathom the Fates. Their will is certainly their own, trying to understand them is trying to understand why grass is green or the sky blue. Certain things are what they are; it is not ours to question them.”
The wolven put his hand against the kindred’s forehead. “Is this my Stefano being philosophical? Are you ill, dear one?”
Stefano laughed. “Such comes with age. Or have you not found it so?”
“I do not think of myself as aged.”
Nikolos winked. “Most definitely not mature. Or mayhaps mature enough. And now that I have you with me, I fully intend to recover all our lost ‘play time’.” He paused and his voice took a serious note. “Stefano, we must discuss the nights of wolfmoon, how we shall handle them. We need address what will happen when our clans discover a kindred and a wolven as lovers. What will your sire say about such a decision from a prince?”
Stefano placed two fingers tenderly against the wolven’s lips. “Shhh, be still my love. We are together again, finally, and that is all that has any importance. Anything else, indeed everything else, can wait for tomorrow’s shadow.”