Winner of RPGC #23: InGlorious
Water poured down the flagstones of the castle’s courtyard, which in the reddish gloaming kindled a likeness to blood. The wind rushed through the gates, torn asunder by some mighty blow, and produced a keening howl to put the fear of God in men. Such was always the way with these things, and though it made my stomach twist to face the horrors beyond, I girded myself. Steel to cut, flesh to split, and a wicked thirst… Ah to hell with it, I forget the rest. So I stepped up to those great yawning gates, and readied myself. Sword at hip, armour tightly fit, and my teeth grit against the sheets of rain.
I stepped through the threshold, and cast my gaze around, feeling my breath hiss between my teeth. A terrified scream, pitched high and dainty despite itself, met my ears. I caught a flash of light-coloured fabric from the parapet of the massive stone keep’s balcony. Something had pulled it back, though the accompanying flash of lightning revealed an opening far above, and a sensation of being watched rushed down my spine. Whatever hateful thing there lurked, I told myself, would be first to meet my blade.
The main doors to the keep were no obstacle, and I tried to listen for more cries as I stalked through the dimly lit hall. The table had been set, but the food remained untouched, and it still gave off the gentle vapours of freshly cooked food. Of the cook I saw no sign, and thus continued on, my appetite waning. The main staircase wound up in the center of the keep, a great stony pillar climbing through the air. Tapestries hung from these steps variously, depicting scenes I averted my eyes to, though I knew that in all likelihood a man with a morbid curiosity would linger. I am no such man.
The bedroom door, when I came to it, was open slightly. A flicker of candlelight shone through the opening to illuminate a silhouette standing just behind the door, peering in. From within came the sound of gentle sobs, and the sadness embodied in those pitious moans gave my hands a righteous tension to draw my weapon. The blade hissed loose of the scabbard, and the silhouette turned, a gasp of surprise breaking the quiet. I rushed, low and taut, arm as sword and sword as arm. Blood spattered the carpeted floor, and a thrill of excitement caught my breath. Run through, the villain sagged on my arm and a last whisper passed his lips.
Weapon forgotten, I strode into the the room. It was opulent, and there was some blood splattered off the door. It pooled inward from outside. Thunder rumbled distantly, when I saw her, all soaked and drenched from the downpour. She lay against a four-poster bed, frightened eyes staring out at me. She was much unkempt from what seemed a recently ended bout of crying, and her bleary gaze spoke of an innocence lost. Ignoring the manifest jewels and riches splayed about the room casually, as though to ward off the poverty of mortal existence, I crept to her side and knelt down in front of her.
“Come, sweet thing, all that must come shall pass, in time.” I extended a hand to her, and she stared for a moment before taking it.
“Cold.” She murmured, and I hushed her. I led her over to the massive hearth where coals flickered fitfully. A cursory examination of the mantle provided me with a flint and steel, which I handed over to the woman. She took them, though her eyes were far away, and her fingers had gotten stained from where she gripped the bloodied piece of steel I had given her. I added a couple large pieces of lumber into the fireplace, but a full minute passed between me and the woman.
“On nights like these, a fire can provide warmth where only cold would otherwise linger.” I prompted her softly. She blinked and set to work lighting the wood. It took longer than it might have, if we had had kindling, but there was none. When the flames finally caught, it was with much smoke and an unpleasant metallic stench that pervaded the room. The woman sat back finally and muttered something.
“What was it you said?” I asked, stepping back toward the flames and out of the shadows of the room.
“When I said cold, I didn’t mean me.”
“I’ve only just come in from the storm outside, which was quite chilling, as I’m sure you’re aware.” I nodded to her still damp dress, which clung to her form in a very revealing manner. She seemed to notice this fact and shifted her gaze, most likely looking for a cover.
I reached over to the bed and pulled away the downy quilt, extending it to her. She took it and wrapped herself in it, turning back toward the fire. My eyes roamed over to the growing pool of blood, and lingered there for a time, as I lost myself in idle thoughts.
“Why did you come here?” The woman’s voice jarred me from reverie, and I saw she was standing taller than before. She seemed to be regaining her strength.
“I came because I heard a monster had stolen into this castle, ravished the lord’s daughter, and begun all manner of devilish machinations.” I said this all as matter-of-factly as I could, for it was the truth, after a fashion. Her face twisted, and she glanced down at her hand, sticky and red.
“You look quite monstrous as you stand there, sir.” I couldn’t help but grin, and she took a step back, eyes wide.
“I suppose I do, all blood-spattered and pale. Though you must forgive me the first, the second is a result of my birth, and hardly a matter of devilish interference. No, I was born far from here, in a land of pale men and women. It is not so unusual for us though, to get a storm like this, all dark and fierce. And the sun shines not quite so strongly when the clouds blow away.” The woman seemed mollified by this, though she kept eyeing my mouth with the same frequency of young lovers yearning to kiss, with none of the tenderness.
“He beat me, you know. Ceaselessly. Always said it had to do with my face, though I never looked uglier than after he was through with me.”
“Who?” She frowned at my question, sniffling.
“My father, the man who you…”
“Oh him? He’s dead, he’ll bother you no longer.” That same keening cry, so very much like the castle gates where they hung askew, grated my ears. “Whatever is the matter? You said it yourself, he beat you. I’ve made him stop. Aren’t you relieved?”
I watched her turn about several times, a wild look in her eyes. Tears poured down her cheeks anew, and where she grabbed at her face she left a pinkish-red smear that reminded me of the rain on the flagstones below. When she tripped over the blanket in her frenzied movements, she fell perilously close to the crackling fire. I stepped forward to help her, but she screeched at me.
“Back with you, devil! I want no part of you!” Her flailing hands splayed with her fingers curled away from her, in some poor imitation of claws.
“The devil? Well that is plainly untrue, and I find the very thought offensive.” I reached into my cuirass and withdrew something shiny on a chain. I took a step forward even as the woman shied away, and held the object up against my flat palm in the firelight to better show her what I possessed.
“You see, I, am a man of God.” I proclaimed solemnly, taking my turn to admire the small silver crucifix that dangled from a long chain of the same. Where the metal brushed against my skin, a faint sizzling could be heard and small trails of smoke rose from my palm.
“Fire burns things like you,” she whispered, though her words echoed like thunder to my ears. “Silver poisons, and I’ve heard it said that all that is good and true in this world is your kind’s bane.” She was babbling now, and I watched her stumble, scrabble, and crawl toward the balcony. I followed her, silent as the dead, and listened without quite hearing her desperate murmurings.
“I’ve slain the monster, and now I’m to rescue the lord’s daughter and whisk her off to a lovely new life. Would you like that, sweet thing?” I bent at the waist and reached to twirl some of her raven-black curls. “Or have I truly come too late, and has that villainous fiend already turned you away from all that is good and true in this world?” She offered me no reply beyond her chittering madness. Poor girl. A shame I was too late.
We reached that same parapet from which I’d first spotted her, and as she clung to it, a raving fear upon her lips and in her eyes, I could not suppress a chuckle. The rain was beginning to subside, or the storm had chosen to quieten for a time, at any rate, the clouds parted. Sultry rays of moonlight washed the balcony in a passionate crimson, and the reds of blood grew redder.
“I’ve just remembered a little rhyme somebody told me a long time ago, back before I left my old life behind. Would you like to hear it? I haven’t been able to call to mind the ending in a mortal age.” The woman, balanced precariously on the parapet, was silent at last. Her vacant eyes stared back into mine, and it would be difficult to say whose gaze held less humanity.
“Steel to cut, flesh to split, wicked thirst and appetite. Keep your silver, sermons, fire, and hope the night will never bite.” She fell back into the void somewhere between the first and the second verse, but even with all of my magnanimity, I had in fact committed a small injustice. A pittance really. I lied about having remembered the rhyme, and I’m not even certain how many verses there are.
Afterward, in the courtyard I drank from the flagstones as a parched man inches from death. The water, such as it was, reflected cold reddish hues where it pooled in places. The blood, such as it was, burned like fire when it ran down my throat.