By Henry J. Cobb
[I believe that the characters, situation and storyline are my own original creation, but I surely owe a lot to my influences. -HJC]
The first thing I remember was standing in a forest, in the snow. It was night with just the faintest touch of dawn's twilight on the horizon. There was a figure in armor standing in front of me. From the size I assumed he was a tall man, but under the cloak that draped across his armor it was hard to tell. He held the reigns of a black horse in his left hand and with his right hand he took off his helm and looked at me.
His face was handsome, a combination of great strength and great reserve. He studied me intently and the gaze of his red eyes seemed to look right through me.
I blushed and dropped my gaze away from his. I looked down at myself. I was naked and covered in blood. I fainted.
I awoke to the sound of a door opening. An unfamiliar sense of alarm and alertness snapped me awake. I rose to a sitting posture in a bed. As the blankets fell away I saw I was dressed in a nightgown. My garment was unfamiliar, but it seemed to be of a much finer make than I was used to. What was I used to? Somehow it seemed odd that it was of finely woven fabric, dyed an uniform pink, with no worn spots or patches. My eyes darted back to the door of the room as it continued to open.
An old woman, her posture slumped with age, stood there. Her house dress was practical, well worn, and not so finely made as my nightgown. She smiled at me. "Sorry, did I awaken you, Dear?"
"Yes, I suppose? Does it matter?"
"Are you feeling okay, Dear? When his Lordship brought you in last night wrapped in his bloody cloak I feared the worst, but there wasn't a mark on you. And then you slept through the day." She placed the lantern she carried on a small table next to the bed, and sat down next to me.
"I - I feel fine. Just a little hungry, I guess."
"Oh?" She reached over to grab my chin and raised this so she could study my neck. The she sat back. "I'll get you some dinner. How does stew, bread and fruit sound?"
"That sounds wonderful. His Lordship?"
"Yes, our duke. His Lordship brought you in last night. Aren't you from around here, Dear?"
"I don't know. I don't know where this is or where I'm from."
"Is that true?" The man from the forest stood at the door in a nightrobe.
"Your Lordship." The old woman stood from the bed, turned to him and bowed.
He nodded at her then walked over and stood before me. "Answer me, girl. Do you truly remember nothing?"
"I don't know." I turned away from his gaze.
"Answer the question." He reached out to grab my chin and pulled my head over to face him with great strength applied ever so carefully. His touch was cold.
I found myself floating in his eyes. The room and the rest of the world vanished from my awareness. There was only his gaze and the certain sure command behind it, driving down into my very soul. From a great distance I heard my own voice reply. "The very first thing I remember is standing before you naked in the forest."
"How unfortunate." He released me and turned away.
I collapsed as I felt the weight of my body being pulled down by the return of the world. I longed to lose myself once more in his gaze, and nothing could ever frighten me more than to be trapped in it again.
Through the dark fog of my recovering senses I heard him say, "Have her fed, Anne. Then dress her warmly."
"Your Lordship? Surely she is in no shape to travel?"
"It is unlikely that the beast will appear again tonight, but the alternative is to wait another month. It is the risk of one child's life against dozens."
"She's not just any child. Surely she has a name?"
"Do you, child?"
Again I found myself drowning in his red eyes. The answer was forced from my lips. "I don't know what my name is."
"Let's call her Rose for now." The old woman stepped between us.
Cut off from his gaze, my head dropped into my hands.
"That is acceptable." He turned and left.
My unusually alert hearing lingered on his quiet footsteps as he left. It took all my strength not to call after him and beg him to stay by me, and to keep from running as far away from him as I could, until my legs collapsed under me.
"Are you okay, Dear?" That old woman asked me. He had called her Anne? "Can you stand by yourself?"
"I suppose?" I turned, put my bare feet on the floor and stood with an unaccustomed strength. I felt like I could run for miles.
"Good. Please look through the wardrobe and select what you like, Dear. But as his Lordship said, dress warmly. I wouldn't suggest Her Majesty's things, but it was the duke who said to put you in her room. You're exactly her size you know. I'm sorry that I felt so relieved when I unwrapped the cloak from your body and saw your red hair. I had feared the worst for her, and us all."
My stomach growled.
Anne jerked back, then spread out her apron with her hands. "Yes, you'd best get your dinner, Dear. But first. I washed you at best I could, but you'll probably want to wash up in the bathroom first."
"You're from the country?"
"I don't know."
"When I first came here as a girl I was surprised by the changes. Her Majesty says that proper sanitation keeps the blood healthy, and tasty."
Anne helped me bathe. Then when I found the clothing more elaborate than I was used to, helped me dress. By that point she said that we mustn't keep the Duke waiting and led me downstairs to the main hall.
There were men and women eating and talking at the tables, then they all stopped to look at me.
"It isn't her," Anne said loudly from next to me, "This girl Rose has a heartbeat."
The crowd seemed satisfied by this odd explanation and returned to their meal.
"Is she ready?"
I shuddered. I hadn't heard the Duke approach over the noise of the crowd.
"She hasn't eaten yet," Anne turned to him, "And from the looks of it, neither have you."
"I am fine."
"Fine for a battle against a beast? I won't hear of it. Let me go find someone." Anne pointed towards the other end of the hall. "Rose, can you get your supper while I take care of this?"
"The Duke can't join us for supper?"
"No silly, he's nobility. He has his meals in private."
I watched as the Duke allowed Anne to lead him away by the hand, then turned back towards the smell of the food. I followed this past the tables of people eating and engaged in conversations. Somehow I could hear everything all it once. It was like they were all shouting at the tops of their lungs, when they were all talking normally. It wasn't a painful sensation, just extremely confusing. I shook my head and focused on simply finding a clear path between the tables.
I heard the crackle of flames and my head jerked up as I scanned for danger, but it was just a fire in a fireplace over which a huge pot of stew was cooking. Several women tended to this and prepared the other food. One of these brought a tray of freshly baked loaves and placed this on the row of tables between us.
I somehow remembered the taste of freshly baked bread and these loaves seemed to be made of a better quality that I was used to. I stepped forwards then stopped. Something was wrong. The bread smelled corrupt. I sniffed again. Wasn't that how bread had always smelled? Yes, it was, but now it was somehow horrible and corrupt.
As I stood there a man passed by me, grabbed a tray placed a loaf on that along with an apple, and got a bowl of stew.
I thought to warn him, but of what? I watched as he walked over to a table and sat on a bench with others, all enjoying their meals. Looking at it reminded me of my hunger so I turned back and grabbed a tray. As I got closer the smell of the bread was worse, so I avoided that. The apples didn't smell bad, just unappetizing. Then I reached the stew and the smell of well cooked meat and vegetables drew me closer. The lady filled a wooden bowl and placed that on my tray, along with a wooden spoon.
I looked around the tables and found a spot. There were three men and two women already sitting there and their conversation stopped as I sat next to them.
The lady next to me stared for a moment then smiled and turned away. "Anne was right, wasn't she? Why she's the splitting image."
"Karen." The other woman looked sternly at her then turned to me. "You must be one of Anne's relatives. I'm Rebekah, what's your name, girl?"
"She called me Rose, and I don't think we're related."
"Then what brings you to the keep?"
"The duke brought me." I looked down at my bowl.
"Well I'm sure he must have his reasons. Please don't let us bother you. Eat up."
I picked up the spoon and found the stew to be quite good. In what seemed to be no time at all I had finished. I looked around and saw others break their loaves in half to dab at their bowls. I considered again getting some of the bread, but once again the smell of it assaulted me. I lifted up the bowl and went after the last drops with my tongue.
"You can go get more, you know." The woman who had been called Karen said.
"Sorry." I hopped off the bench and carried my bowl back. The lady filled it with stew again and I returned to the same table to quickly finish that. I sat back with a strange feeling of being full, of having eaten as much as I had wanted to. Was today some sort of celebration day? What day was it?
"So you said the Duke brought you?"
I turned to Rebekah and thought for a moment. "He said we'd be going out."
"On the last night of a full moon? Well I suppose his Lordship knows what he's doing. He's older than my grandfather. But best not to keep him waiting."
"Yes, excuse me." I went back up the stairs towards the room I had awoken in. Along the way I passed a man in slightly shabbier clothes that the men who had been at dinner, but again what a finer cut than I was used to, somehow. He held a cloth against his neck. I could smell a small amount of blood from it.
As I passed him I could somehow smell the path he had taken, by this faint smell of blood. I reached the top of the stairs and turned the other way from the room I had awoken in. I stopped at an open door and looked at a portrait of a girl in a fine dress. Her face was familiar, somehow, but her eyes were as red as the duke's.
"Have you also eaten, Rose?"
I turned and saw the duke sitting at a desk. Once again his gaze forced the truth from my lips. "Very well, your Lordship." I broke away from his eyes and looked back at the portrait. "Who is she, and why is she so familiar?"
The duke opened one of the drawers on his desk and pulled out a disk about the side of my outspread fingers. He handed this to me.
I looked in it and saw that same face, only with red hair instead of black and green eyes. I jerked back and so did that face. It was my reflection. I looked back up at the portrait. "Is she my sister?"
"No, that is Her Majesty." He turned to the door. "Anne, dress her warmly, and quickly. We have wasted far too much of this night."
"At once, your Lordship."
"Bring her to the stables. I will meet you there."
Anne bowed to him, then took me by the hand back to the room I had awoken in. There she selected a thick coat and a thin shawl and put these on me. "I'm afraid that Her Majesty dresses only for show, not warmth. But time's a wasting. Hurry along now."
I followed her downstairs, then we turned at the hall and went past the stables.
The Duke was standing in the courtyard by his horse, in his armor with his sword strapped to his back. He put on his helmet, opened his visor, then jumped or perhaps floated into the saddle. "Come here child."
As I stepped forwards, he reached down, plucked me up and seated me in front of him. I felt that this was the first time I had ever been on a horse.
I looked around the courtyard, but saw only Anne nearby. "Are we to ride alone?"
"It can't be helped. Few are the animals that can stand the smell of my kind. Do not worry child. You will be safe under my protection."
I turned and sniffed. The Duke did have a smell to him, but it wasn't unpleasant. He smelled like freshly overturned Earth. Somehow that was a familiar sensation. I turned away and looked out at the night sky, but saw only clouds.
"Yes." He spoke from behind me. "We're unlikely to get much moonlight tonight."
"Is it safe to ride?"
"I can see quite well." He nudged the horse with his feet and we started off through the gate.
We passed under a very thick wall and went out along a cobbled street past buildings that were packed side by side. I looked around at all the lanterns. It seemed excessive, as hardly anyone was on the streets to need the light. The town seemed to fill the space inside an outer wall.
I looked over at a man standing by a closed gate. He wore a covering with the same pattern I had seen in the hall, over armor that combined heavy leathers and chain mail. He had a sword strapped to his side.
He seemed taken aback, and shifted his gaze to the Duke. "Sorry, I mean your Lordship."
"Any sign of the beast, Abelson?"
"No, your Lordship", the man called Abelson looked down at the horse, "All quiet on the wall tonight. You are heading out?"
"Good hunting, your Lordship." The man made a gesture and two men emerged from the shadows to unbar and open the gate. After we passed through this was closed behind us.
I looked around and saw that the town was on a slight rise, surrounded by well tended fields, with a forest at some distance. "Why so many walls?"
"The defenses here are quite modest." The Duke replied as the horse followed the road. "We only have to worry about withstanding a one day siege."
"The attackers would not survive the following night." He almost chuckled.
The sound of it seemed wrong to me. I looked back out at the sky and caught sight of the almost full moon through a break in the clouds. It seemed to draw me in.
"Careful, child." The Duke nudged me.
I turned back to him, and when I looked again at the sky the moon was hidden by the clouds again. I felt disappointed, somehow.
Once we entered the forest the road became less smooth and I was jostled uncomfortably.
"Are we near our destination?" I asked.
"Do you see something familiar?" The Duke stopped the horse and looked around.
"No, I had too much of the stew. I need to stop soon."
"Very well, we can't have you soiling Her Majesty's possessions. You may go a short ways into the woods and deal with this, but be careful." He lifted me down to the ground.
"Yes?" I turned back towards him, then flinched away from his eyes probing me from his opened visor.
"If you run, I shall cut you down."
"Yes, your Lordship." I bowed, then quickly scurried out of the reach of those eyes, to see to my business.