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"The deed is done, master." Lusk barely had a second to notice the glint of the long-knife, and only a fraction of that second to realize what it meant.
Baralis sliced Lusk's body open with one forceful but elegant stroke, cleaving from the throat to the groin. Baralis shuddered as the body fell to the floor with a dull thud. He held his hand up to his face where he detected a sticky wetness: Lusk's blood. On impulse he drew his finger to his lips and tasted. It was like an old friend, coppery, salty and still warm.
He turned away from the now lifeless body and noticed his robes were covered in Lusk's blood; it was not a random spraying, the blood formed a scarlet arc against the gray. A crescent moon. Baralis smiled, it was a good omen a crescent moon marked new beginnings, new births, new opportunities the very currency he would deal in this night.
For now, though, he had some minor details to take care of. He must get changed for one thing; it would not be fitting to meet his beloved in bloodstained clothes, and there was the body to deal with. Lusk had been a faithful servant, unfortunately he had one tiny flaw a tongue too prone to flap with indiscretion. No man with a fondness for ale and a tendency for drunken disclosure would jeopardize his carefully laid plans.
As he dragged the body onto a threadbare rug, his hands began to ache with the familiar, stabbing pain. He had taken a small amount of pain-relieving drug earlier to facilitate his use of the long-knife, but it had quickly worn off, as it did all too often these days, and he was reluctant to take more in caseit interfered with his performance.
Baralis wielded the long-knife once more, marveling at the sharpness of blade and the way he, who had never been an expert in such matters, seemed to be endowed with a certain finesse when haft was in hand. He made the appropriate cuts and placed what were the better part of Lusk's features in a linen swath, which quickly soaked with blood. This really was most unpleasant. He had no liking for bloodshed, but would do what was expedient. He moved across the room and threw the swath onto the fire.
In the distance, a clock began to chime. Baralis counted eight tolls of the bell. It was time to get cleaned and changed. He would arrange to have the rest of Lusk's body taken away in the morning by the hulking dimwit Crope. Now there was a man who would tell no tales.
Less than an hour later, Baralis quietly left his apartments. His destination lay above him, but his route took him downward. Stealth was the greatest consideration; he could not risk being challenged by an over-zealous guard or engaged by a damn fool nobleman.
He made his way to the second cellar level. The candle he held was not usually necessary to him, but tonight was special; he would take no chances, tempt no fates.
Baralis crept to the innermost section of the second cellar. The dampness was already affecting the joints in his fingers and his hand trembled, but only partly from pain. The candle wavered and hot, liquid wax fell onto his hands. A sharp spasm coursed through his fingers. He dropped the candle and it went out, plunging Baralis into darkness. He hissed a curse; he had no flint to relight the flame and his hand was throbbing violently. He could not risk drawing light on this night. He would have to proceed in darkness.
He felt his way to the far wall and, using his hands like an insect's antennae, carefully felt for inconsistencies in the stone. He found them, manipulated them delicately with his fingertips, and stood aside while the wall moved backward. He stepped into the breach. Once inside, he repeated the same procedure on the wall of the passageway and the section fell back into place. Now he could begin to move upward.
Baralis smiled. Everything was going to plan: the lack of light was only a minor problem and, after all, what was a little darkness now compared with what was to come?
He felt his way through the passages with remarkable ease. He could not see openings and stairways, but he felt their approach and knew which ones were for him. He loved the dank underbelly of the castle; some knew it existed, but few knew how to enter it. Fewer still knew how to use it other than as a way to surprise a buxom lady's maid on her chamberpot. With the use of this network of passages, he could move around the castle undetected and find his way into many rooms. Rooms of both the lowly and the exalted. One should never underestimate the lowly, he mused. Some of his best information came from overhearing the casual gossip of a milkmaid or a cellar boy; who was plotting against whom, who was sleeping where they should not, and who had more gold than was good for them.
Tonight, however, he was not concerned with the lowly, tonight he would gain access to the most exalted room of all the queen's bedroom.
He made his way upward, massaging his hand to ward off the cold. He was nervous, but then only a fool would be otherwise. Tonight he would enter the queen's chamber for the first time. He had spent many hours watching her, marking her routines, her womanly rhythms, recording every detail, every nuance. Recently, though, his cool observations had been enriched by the delight of expectation.
He approached her room and peered inside to check that she was asleep. The queen was lying fully clothed on the bed, her eyes closed. Baralis felt a tremor of anticipation run through his body. The queen had drunk the drugged wine: Lusk had done his job. With the utmost caution he entered the room. He decided to leave the gap in the wall open, in case of the need for quick escape. He immediately crossed over to the door of the chamber and drew the bolt. Nobody beside himself would enter this room tonight.
He approached the bed. The queen, normally so haughty and proud, looked impossibly vulnerable, and of course she was. Baralis shook her arm lightly, and then harder; she was out cold. He glanced over to the flagon of wine it was empty, and so was the queen's golden cup. A ripple of anxiety showed on his brow. Surely the queen would never drink a whole flagon of wine? One of her ladies-in-waiting must have shared it. He was not unduly worried; the unfortunate girl would spend the night in an unusually deep sleep and wake slightly groggy in the morning. Still, it was a slipup, and he didn't like those. He made a mental note to check into it on the morrow.
Baralis regarded the queen with detachment for several minutes. Sleep suited her. It smoothed her brow and softened the set of her arrogant mouth. He put his hands beneath her, rolling her onto her stomach and then proceedeed to unlace her gown. This took some time, as his hands were stiff and the lacing intricate, but he endeavored, for he could not risk cutting the laces that would arouse too much suspicion.
Eventually the ties were loosened and he rolled her onto her back. He pulled the front of her bodice down, revealing the pale curves of her breast. Although he had all but given up the pleasures of the flesh these past years, he could not help but respond to the sight. Poets and minstrels were forever harping on about the queen's beauty, but he had always remained unaffected by it until now. Ironic, he thought, that she had to be out cold before he could find her desirable. He chuckled mirthlessly and lifted her skirts around her waist.
He loosened her undergarments and pulled them off, spreading her legs. Her thighs were soft and smooth, a little cool perhaps, but that was only to be expected, a side effect of the drug. Baralis found the coolness not unpleasant. He was, he realized with relief, sufficiently aroused. He had feared lack of performance; after all, the queen's fare was not to his normal taste. If he had any preference at all it was usually for the young, the very young. Her thighs might be soft, but she was no newly broken maiden and the mark of years could clearly be seen in the delicate blueness of her veins. She was beautiful, though, her legs long and slender, her rounded hips an enticement to any man. Unlike most women her age, her body had been spared the ravages of childbirth. Her breasts were still high and her belly flat as an altar-stone. He slipped down his leggings and entered the queen.
He was sure she was in her fertile span; he had spied on her often enough to know what time of the month she bled. He had heard of men in the past having the ability to sense which stage of her cycle a woman was in by just being in the room with her, feeling the ebb and flow of her menses as palpable force. Such illustrious accomplishments had eluded him, however, and he was forced to rely on more prosaic methods.
He had gleaned the knowledge he used this night from the wisewoman of the village he grew up in. Many young boys besides himself had been keen to know the best time to take a maiden without risk of begetting. He had been the only one to ask what time was best for begetting. The wisewoman had looked at Baralis with foreboding on her old, careworn face, but she had answered him anyway; it was not her habit to question motives.
Baralis had waited fourteen days from the onset of the queen's bleeding before making his move. But that was nothing he had planned and waited years for this. Everything he had done in the past and would do in the future depended on this night. For years he had studied the portents, the signs, the stars, the philosophies: tonight was the time. He would be altering the course of the known world and securing his own destiny. The stars glittered brightly for him this night.
His attention returned to his task. He was nervous at first, but there was not a flicker from the queen, so he continued on more forcefully. He knew the quickening of desire and was surprised by its familiarity. As his excitement grew so did his abandon, and he pushed into her with all his strength. He had not expected to enjoy it and was surprised when he did. Eventually he reached his climax and his seed flowed deep within the queen.
As he withdrew from her, a trickle of blood escaped from the queen and ran lazily down her inner thigh; maybe he had been a little rough, but no matter. For the second time that evening he drew bloodied fingers up to his lips. He was not surprised to find the queen's blood tasted different: sweeter, richer. Quickly, he wiped the remains of the blood from her thigh. He pushed her legs together and pulled her skirts down.
Before he pulled up her bodice, Baralis traced his hand over the arc of her left breast, such pale perfection. On impulse he pinched it viciously, squeezing the delicate flesh cruelly between his fingers. He then arranged her body carefully and even placed a soft pillow beneath her head.
Now it was time for him to go away and wait. He would be back later to finish the job. He did not remove the lock on the door; he wanted no one disturbing the queen's peace while he was gone.
* * *
Bevlin looked into the deep, clear sky, searching. His eyes scanned the myriad of stars; he knew something was not right in the world this night. He felt the weight of it pressing his old bones and weakening his old bowels. When it came to sensing unease in the world his bowels were as sure as blossoms in springtime, if not as sweet smelling.
He sat, looking upward for almost an hour, and was beginning to blame the queasiness in his bowels on the greased duck he'd eaten earlier when it happened. A star in the far north grew suddenly brighter. Bevlin's bowels churned unpleasantly as the brightness lit up the northern sky. Only when it started to fall toward the horizon did he realize that it was not a complete star at all, but a portion of one: a meteor, racing toward the earth with a speed born of light. As he watched, it hit the atmosphere but instead of burning up, the meteor split into two. The cleaving sent sparks and flames streaming into the air. When the light diminished, Bevlin could make out two separate pieces where one had been before. As they arced across the sky, trailing stardust in their wake, he saw that one shone with a white light and the other shone red as blood.
A single tear ran down Bevlin's cheek: he was surely too old for what was to come.
In all his years of looking at the stars and of reading the books, he had seen no reference, no prophecy of what he had just witnessed. Even now, as the two meteors raced toward oblivion on the far side of the horizon, he could hardly believe what had happened. He went inside quite sure there would be nothing else to see.
In a way it was quite a relief to him. He had waited for so long for a message in the sky, and now that it had happened, a subtle tension uncoiled within him. He did not know what it meant or what action, if any, should be taken. He did know his bowels had been right and that meant the greased duck was fine, which was just as well, as there is nothing like a great sign in the sky to make one hungry. Bevlin laughed merrily on his way to the kitchen, but his laughter had turned slightly hysterical by the time he got there.
Bevlin's kitchen also served as his study: the huge oak table was covered in books, scrolls and manuscripts. Having sliced himself a fair portion of duck and loaded an abundant helping of congealed fat on top, he settled amidst the cushions on his old stone bench and relieved the pressure in his bowels by farting loudly. Now it was time to get down to work.
* * *
Baralis returned to his chamber and was met by the pleasing smell of cooked meat. Puzzled but hungry, it took him a few seconds to realize where the odor came from. Resting amongst the glowing embers in the fireplace was what looked like an irregular, burnt, cut of meat. It was, Baralis recognized, what was left of Lusk's features.
"Too well done for me," he said, relishing the joke and the sound of his own voice. "By Borc! I'm hungry. Crope!" he shouted loudly, sticking his head out of the door. "Crope! You idle dimwit, bring me food and wine."
A few seconds later Crope appeared in the passageway, huge and wide, with a disproportionately small head. Crope managed to appear both menacing and stupid at the same time. "You called, my lord?" He spoke in a surprisingly gentle voice.
"Yes, I called, you fool. Who do you think called, Borc himself?" Crope looked suitably sheepish but not too worried, he could tell when his master was in a good mood.
"I know it's late, Crope, but I'm hungry. Bring me food!" Baralis considered for a moment. "Bring me red meat, rare, and some good red wine, not the rubbish you brought me yesterday. If those stinking louts in the kitchen try to palm you off with anything less than a fine vintage, tell them they will have to answer to me." Crope balefully nodded his consent and left.
Baralis knew Crope didn't like to perform any task that involved talking to people. He was shy and awkward around them, which was, as Baralis saw it, a definite advantage in a servant. Lusk had been too talkative for his own good. He glanced to the left of the door, where what remained of Lusk lay wrapped in a faded rug. Crope had not even noticed the unseemly bundle or, if he had, it would never occur to him to mention it: he was like an obedient dog loyal and unquestioning. Baralis smiled at the vision of Crope appearing in the kitchen this late at night; he was sure to give the light-fingered kitchen staff quite a shock.
Before long, Crope returned with a jug of wine and a portion of meat so rare, pink juices oozed from the flesh and onto the platter. Baralis dismissed Crope and poured himself a cup of the rich and heady liquid. He held it up to the light and reveled in its dark, crimson color, then brought the goblet to his lips. The wine was warm and sweet, redolent of blood.
The events of tonight had given him a voracious hunger. He cut himself a thick slice of the fleshy meat. As he did so, the knife slipped in his hand and cut neatly into his thumb. Automatically, he raised his finger to his face and suckled the small wound closed. He shuddered suddenly, half remembering a fragment of an old rhyme, something about the taste of blood. He struggled for the memory and lost. Baralis shrugged. He would eat, then take a brief nap, until the better part of the night was over with.
* * *
Many hours later, just before the break of dawn, Baralis once more slipped into the queen's chamber. He had to be especially careful many castle attendants were up and about, baking bread in the kitchens, milking cows in the dairy, starting fires. He was not too concerned, though, as this last task would not take too long.
He was a little worried when he saw the queen was in exactly the same position as when he had left her, but closer inspection revealed that she was breathing strongly. The memory of the previous evening was playing in his loins, and he had an urge to mount her again, but calculation mastered desire and he willed himself to do what must be done.
He dreaded performing a Searching. He had only done one once before, and the memory still haunted him to this day. He had been a young buck, arrogant in his abilities, way ahead of his peers. Great things were hoped for him and hadn't they been proved right? He had a ravening thirst for knowledge and ability. He had been proud, yes, but then, were not all great men proud? Everything he read about he tried, desperate to accomplish and move on, move forward to greater achievements. He had the quickest mind in his class, outpacing and eventually outgrowing his teachers. He'd rushed forward with the speed of a charging boar, the pride of his masters and the envy of his friends.
One day when he was thirteen summers old, he came across a musty, old manuscript in the back of the library. Hands shaking with nervous excitement, he unraveled the fragile parchment. He was at first a little disappointed. It contained the usual instructions drawing of light and fire, healing colds. Then at the end a ritual called a Searching was mentioned. A Searching, it explained, was a means to tell if a woman was with child.
He read it greedily. Searching had never been mentioned by his teachers; perhaps it was something they could not do, or even better, something they didn't know of. Eager to attain a skill which he supposed his masters not to have, he slid the manuscript up his sleeve and took it home with him.
Some days later he was ready to try his new ability, but who to try it on? The women in the village would not let him lay his hands upon them. That left his mother, and it was certain she would not be with child. However, having no other choice, he resigned himself to using his mother as a guinea pig.
Early the following morning, he stole into his parents' bedroom, careful to ensure his father had left for the fields. It was a source of shame to him that his father was a common farmer, but he took solace in the fact that his mother was of better stock: she was a salt merchant's daughter. He loved his mother deeply and was proud of her obvious good breeding; she was respected in the village and was consulted by the elders on everything from matters of harvest to matchmaking.
Baralis' mother had awoken when her son came into the room. He turned to leave but she beckoned him in. "Come, Barsi, what do you want?" She wiped the sleep from her eyes and smiled with tender indulgence.
"I was about to try a new skill I learnt," he muttered guiltily.
His mother made the error of mistaking guilt for modesty. "Barsi, my sweet, this new trick, can you do it while I am awake?" Her face was a picture of love and trust. Baralis momentarily felt misgiving.
"Yes, Mother, but I think I might be better trying it on someone else."
"Copper pots! What nonsense. Try it on me now as long as it doesn't turn my hair green, I don't mind." His mother settled herself comfortably amid the pillows and patted the bedside.
"It won't do you any harm, Mother, it's a Searching... to tell if you are well." Baralis found the lie easy. It was not the first time he had lied to his mother.
"Well," she laughed indulgently, "do your worst!"
Baralis laid his hands on his mother's stomach. He could feel the warmth of her body through the thin fabric of her nightgown. His fingers spread out and he concentrated on the search. The manuscript had warned that it was more a mental than physical exercise, so he focused the fullness of his thoughts on his mother's belly.
He felt the blood rushing through her veins and the forceful rhythm of her heart. He felt the discharge of juices in her stomach and the gentle push of her intestines. He adjusted his hands lower; he met his mother's eyes and she gave him a look of encouragement. He found the spot the manuscript spoke of: a fertile redness. Excitement building within him, he explored the muscled embrace that was his mother's womb.
He detected something: a delicate burgeoning. He was unsure; he searched deeper. His mother's face was beginning to look worried, but he paid her no mind. His abandon was growing; there was something there, something new and separate. It was wonderful and exhilarating. He wanted to touch the presence with his mind; he dug deeper and his mother let out a cry of pain.
"Barsi, stop!" Her beautiful face was contorted with agony.
He panicked and tried to withdraw as quickly as possible, but as he drew back, he dragged something out with him. He felt a shifting, a dislodging and then the tear of flesh. Terrified, he removed his hands. His mother was screaming hysterically and she doubled up in pain, clutching her stomach. Baralis noticed the quick flare of blood on the sheets. The screams! He could not bear her agonized screams! He didn't know what to do. He could not leave her alone to call for help. Spasms racked his mother's body and the blood flowed like a river, soaking the white sheets with its bright gaudiness.
"Mother, please stop, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you, please stop." Tears of panic coursed down his cheeks. "Mother. I'm sorry." He hugged her to him, heedless of the blood. "I'm sorry," he repeated, his voice a frightened whisper.
He held his mother as she bled to death. It took only minutes, but to Baralis it seemed like an eternity, as he felt the strength and life wane from her beloved body.
Baralis stirred himself from his recollection. That was then, many years ago, when he had been young and green. He was a master himself now. There would be no mistakes caused by inexperience. He now understood that to have tried such a mental task when only a boy was pure stupidity. He'd barely known what "being with child" meant, and had only the whisperings of adolescence as his guide to how children were conceived.
Baralis realized he was taking a risk performing a Searching on the queen, but he had to know conception was at the best of times a chance event. He dared not think of what he would do if his seed had not found favor. Part of him was aware it might be far too early to tell, but the other part of him suspected that he would be able to discern a tiny change, and that would be enough.
He bent over the body of the queen and placed his hands on her stomach. He knew straight away that the fabric of her elaborate court gown was too heavy. He lifted her skirts once more and was surprised to see he had forgotten to replace her undergarments. It was just as well, really, he thought, as they were uncommonly bulky, too.
More experienced he may have been than when he was thirteen, but he wished his hands were still youthful. It was a strain to spread his fingers full-out upon her belly, and he bit his lip in pain; he could not allow his own discomfort to interfere with the endeavor. He found the right place straight away; he was no novice now.
He began the Searching. It was so familiar, the cloistered warmth of the organs, the pulsing redness of the blood vessels, the heat of the liver. He proceeded with filigree fineness, deep within the queen's body and deeper within her womb. He felt the intricate tanglings of muscle and tendon, felt the sensuous curve of the ovaries. And then he perceived something, barely discernible, hardly there, a gentle ripple on a pond, a pulsing other. A life minutely separate and distinguishable from that of the queen. Scarcely a life at all, more a glimmering suggestion... but it was there.
Elated, he made no quick move to withdraw with infinite slowness and patience he removed himself. Drawing away with a surgeon's skill. Just as he left, he felt the other presence assert itself: a dark pressure.
Baralis withdrew. There had been something in that last instant of contact which gave him cause to be wary, but his misgivings were eaten up and forgotten by the joy of his success.
He removed his hands from the queen and straightened her dress. She moaned lightly, but he was not concerned she would not wake for several hours. Time for him to leave. With a light tread he moved toward the door and unbolted it. One last pause to admire his handiwork and then he was off, back to his chambers, barely casting a shadow in the thin light of dawn.