Can't say I'm a particular fan of ADwR, but it glutted my sudden need to write something short and dark.
It's a one-shot and won't be continued.
But any reviews would be nice.
"…M'lady?" Shira's voice was trembling.
It was a bad tremble. A frightened one.
I didn't answer, ignoring that nerve-shattering quaver, its tingle echoing through my own body. My eyes were on the wall draped in silk and velvet.
There was stone beneath. Stone firm, impenetrable, safe.
I got so used to these walls. So familiar. I studied and learnt them to the last crevice during the whole nineteen years of my life. Knew like the back of my palm. Knew how exactly the gold of sunrays flickered across the folds of the draperies. Knew how the crimson of the dusk streamed from the window down on the floor, filling the tiniest of clefts with copper. Knew how the silver of the moonlight turned the stones, velvet and silk into an endless dance of pale-blue and ebony-black. It was a castle inside the castle. My own fortress in the heart of a larger one. Here, in these walls, I was always safe.
Until the very walls of my fortress, my castle, my chamber, my world came crumbling around me like a house of cards.
Two days ago.
And now I, princess Iolantha de Grock, the only heir to the throne of Betancuria, the future Queen, was sitting on the bed, my frame so stiff and upright like I had swallowed a spear, and pretended that I didn't hear the maid calling to me in fright. Pretended only because for the first time in my life I was terrified myself.
I kept telling myself that it was madness. That it was a nightmare I was bound to wake up from. That I had only imagined the pale impendence on Mother's face, back when she had kissed me for the last time, sending to my chambers. That our castle would hold. That our soldiers would not let it fall. That it simply would not happen.
But the grinding of steel and cries from the far halls and corridors just wouldn't cease getting closer.
"Lady Iolantha," Shira wept. Just wept and wept. All the time. The tears streamed down her face endlessly all through the past two days. She didn't even need to sob or blink – they ran freely on their own, no doubt soaking her face to the bone.
I took a breath. It was a strange feeling that I couldn't shake off – a feeling that if I don't remind myself to breath, my lungs won't do it on their own. Cold fingers squeezed the folds of the velvet skirt. The bodice of my dress was laced too tightly. Yes, that was probably the thing. That was why I couldn't breathe. Only because of that.
"Lady Iolantha!" it was pure panic this time.
My eyes snapped to her. The maid cowered near the door, almost flatting herself against it, listening to the sounds from the corridor. The echo reached us, the echo that came from the next hall, the one with a small marble pool with goldfishes circling in the water. My long-ago childish whim. Father always satisfied every last of them.
"I swear, they are coming…" the maid groaned. Her eyes were huge, moist, bottomless… "Oh, lady Iolantha, what are we-?"
"Stop it already!" I snarled. Fingers squeezed the skirt in a death-grip, spasmed on my knees. I unfolded them, shivers running down my spine at the dry crunch of the joints. "Your wails will only give us away. Better pour me some wine."
"…What? But, m'lady…"
Another deep breath.
"I want to drink," I cut off coldly.
She looked at me for a few moments, with the same stupid puppy-like blinking, and some part of me broke into a grim inward smile. I guess I did look strange. Unmoving. Petrified. As if I glanced straight into the eyes of a basilisk.
But in some sense… that was exactly what I did, was it not?
"I… very well, of course," she nearly collapsed on the floor in her curtsey, and my inner smile grew wider. It seemed I still preserved some façade of dignity and power, seeing that she had not forgotten the ceremonial functions.
I didn't move when she shuffled past me, towards the sideboard at the far wall. Didn't move at the sound of the decanter clinking violently against the goblet in her shaking hands. I truly wanted to drink. At least that was the most reasonable explanation to my tongue getting stuck to the parched palate. Yet the thought of the taste of wine somehow made it even worse…
I suddenly realized that I could not take it anymore. Not another day, not another night, trapped in here with a wailing maid, that I would lose my mind, go insane screaming into the emptiness…
…Let it end… Almighty gods, please, come what may, but let it all finally end…
The door shuddered, sagging inwards at the might of the blow, and Shira shrieked, dropping the glass. I still didn't move, couldn't move, through the thick misty haze covering my eyes staring at the waterfall of splinters showering the carpet. Another blow, and a loosened hinge swished by me, barely missing my head.
I opened my mouth to answer something – anything – but the door already fell on floor, letting the four of them in. Grey-and-red armour, thick woolen cloaks, dispassionate stony faces, unsheathed blades covered with dust and blood…
They stepped into the chamber, and I rose to meet them, straining to untie my painfully twisted fingers and squaring my shoulders. One of them, an officer by the look of him, spared me but a fleeting glance, studying the room, while his men moved quickly along the walls. Shira backed away, slowly, silently.
"Kill the maid," the officer dropped.
The soldier nodded – and in one swift motion drove his sword into her stomach. Shira looked at him, then at me, lost and uncomprehending, blinked again – and then, with a quiet sigh, sank on the floor. The Dhorn wiped his blade over the curtain.
I breathed in again. With a hoarse whizz drew in the air, not able to tear my gaze off the blood, the dark blotch that spread slowly over the blue flax of my maid's dress, ate red into the carpet…
"You…" I clenched my teeth, jerking my chin up, forcing myself to look away, and leveled a glare at the soldiers. "I shall have your heads for this!"
The officer regarded me critically.
"This one seems to be a noble," he concluded and nodded to the nearest Dhorn. "Bend her over."
"…What?" I shrank away from the soldier, scorching him to cinders with my eyes. "You wouldn't dare…!"
Not another word came out of me, drowned in the hiss of pain, when I was grabbed from behind, my arms wrenched backwards, my body thrown to the knees. Another hand clutched at the scruff of my neck, bending my head down, towards the carpet, until its silver ornament filled all of my vision. Breathing came in strangled gasps, stiff bodice nearly cracked my ribs, long fair hair slid down my cheeks, curtaining my face… I squirmed, but the hold on my neck only got stronger, fingers digging into my flesh, but I suppressed the whimper and moved my head, trying at least to shove away the hair, to see what was happening, to look around… yet my gaze froze on Shira's eyes, empty dead whites frozen between the parted lids…
Comprehension, ice-cold, final, blazed in my mind.
I would die. I would simply die… Like Shira, like many of our soldiers… Would fall to the floor the same lifeless rag-doll, flowing out with the same useless blood…
The hand that held me moved away, opening my neck to the blade, and all my insides clenched at the swishing of the sword being raised…
No one would come for me. No one would save me.
With a furious screech I launched my body upwards, ignoring the pain in my wrists, and threw my head back, crashing it into the face of the soldier. Something cracked, damply, sharply, and the Dhorn started back, his spluttered curses flowing around me as he let go…
"You idiot!" the officer yelled. "Hold her!"
But I was already running away.
Sweeping past them, I flied through the doors, stumbling over my dress, but somehow managing to keep balance. Hitching up my skirts, I rushed along the gallery, dark, spangled with dying embers of torches brought down from the walls. Someone screamed ahead, something crashed down, but all the sounds and bursts could not muffle the trommel of my heart, the rattle of my pulse thundering in my temples and my throat. Dashing to the side, I hurled a portiere out of my way and ran into the hall – only to stop dead, helplessly gasping for air.
They were everywhere. The Dhorns. Bringing down the furniture, setting it on fire, throwing the drapes and curtains and paintings into the flames, clouding everything with thick smoke. Bodies piled up around me – not bodies, but corpses. The floor was flooded with water from the pool, for some unknown reason pink water, and I swayed, noticing the body of another maid, beheaded, half-thrown into the pool. Her blood poured into the water, blended with it, and the goldfishes, my little goldfishes, were swirling madly in that sickeningly-pink liquid…
I clamped my hand over my mouth, swallowing the thick viscid lump of nausea, darting my eyes around, everywhere, anywhere but those pale-red waters. A gauntleted hand fell on my shoulder, crashing my delirium, and I sprang forward, freeing myself from the grasp, dodging the slash, fleeing through the hall, not looking at the Dhorns in my way, racing past them before they could come round to notice me. Heavy footsteps were at my heels, more and more of them, followed by threats and orders to stop…
But I didn't.
Let them run. Let them chase me.
I knew this castle. They did not.
I was my castle.
Jumping over yet another corpse spread flat on the floor, I flew down the stairs, into the passage, towards the east tower, to Father. He was still there, he had to be…
I tossed my head up, staring at the soldier. Our uniform, blue with gold, Father's crest on it also splashed with blood and dirt…
"Jeremy," I breathed out and gulped, unable to squeeze out any other sound.
He grasped my elbow, steadying me, as if afraid I would faint. I couldn't promise that I would not. His eyes were dark with fatigue and dread.
"Bear up, Your Highness."
"Where is the King? Is he still in the tower?"
"His Majesty is-" He trailed off, his glance sweeping over my shoulder to look behind me, face hardening, jaws tightening. "Run, Your Highness, I shall hold them back."
Nodding gratefully in return, I did. Went on running. Behind my back the swords rang…
…but not for long.
Yet I ran, gulping in the acrid smoky air, pushing it down my throat clenched to the size of a needle-eye, into the lungs heaving with the rales of bellows…
…down another staircase, lower…
I won't die
…into the pitch-dark passage, glancing around for any kind of light, for a thinnest scrap from under the door or anything…
…not quick enough to notice that one of the shadows was thicker and blacker than most…
I can't die!
…crashing into it, stumbling, falling onto someone's arm, choking…
And the world was gone.
I wanted to blink.
Could not, because my eyes were still closed, buried under the iron-heavy lids.
…open your eyes…
…gods, it hurts so much…
Sounds were coming back, distant, muffled. The din of the battle somewhere away, so… unreal, unimportant. For a moment I thought that the nightmare had finally ended, that it all turned out to be a dream – but just then all of my thoughts shattered, chewed down by the pain gnawing my head, splitting the bones of the scull. Then came the vertigo and nausea, crashed over me in waves, one after the other, then together at the same time, making the world sway around and under me, wrapping up and unraveling again…
I pushed it all away, straining my hearing, trying to grasp if there were any sounds near me…
No, only the satin lace of my corset rustled quietly with every breath I took.
Relieved, I pressed my cheek to the cold stone underneath, allowing my body to relax, and swallowed heavily. The taste deep in my throat was bitter, a mixture of smoke and copper and…
…don't faint don't faint don't faint…
Taking another breath, I kept the air inside, suppressing the bile, then breathed out. Then again. The again, until the sickness faded, leaving only the aching emptiness of my head and the moist coldness of the floor under me.
Need to get up.
Fumbling about blindly with my hand, I touched something firm, wooden, something like an edge of a crate, and gripped it, trying to drag myself upwards. But the world swayed again, throwing me back on the floor, and I fell clumsily, barely managing to stifle a helpless sob.
Yet stifling, after all.
Patiently, I recovered my breath, collected myself and somehow, but was able to tumble my body to sit, slumping my back against the crate. Dragging my knees towards my chest, I dropped my forehead into them, freeing my neck from the liquid pyre of the aching head and giving myself time to get used to the sitting position. When the world ceased twirling, I finally cracked my eyes open, staring right ahead, at my hair covering my face, dirty, tousled…
Oh, Shira would have been devastated. She always combed my hair so thoroughly, that they shone like polished gold…
I had to swallow again.
My gaze slid along the floor. Stones. Rough, naked stones… And a crate…
Basement? – absently, I stared at the packs and piles of cloth in the far corner, huge empty cauldrons, and blinked slowly, waiting for my mind to clear, at least a bit. I had never been here, but somehow it was not hard to guess. – The laundry… How I…?
The thoughts, barely formed, new-born, shattered again when I looked at my skirt. Or, more precisely, at the spot near it. There, at the very edge of the hem, were the heavy blunt toes of worn-down boots. Leather. Judging by the size – man's.
My heart skidded, crashing painfully against the ribs, and I froze, afraid that even the smallest of jerks would push me back into unconsciousness. Whoever was the man, he didn't move, didn't attack, didn't make a sound, didn't do a thing, as if he even wasn't here. Some part of me huddled in instinct fear at the fact that he was even capable of such soundless voiceless stillness…
Licking my lips, I raised my eyes, slowly, praying that my head would not spin again. My gaze trailed up the legs, dark armour, a palm resting easily on the hilt of a sheathed sword, a clasp of a black cloak…
No red, no grey.
Not a Dhorn…
Letting out the air I did not know I had been holding, I threw my head back, staring point-blank at the stranger. Much older than me, well over thirty, tall, dark-haired… The negligence of his attire left no doubt – he was no soldier; but still he seemed too confident with a weapon, making it obvious he was just as good with it as any soldier… if not better. I straightened myself, drew my shoulders back and eased my hands so that they didn't squeeze my knees with such ridiculous despair, still looking up at him, squinting my eyes to banish white stars dancing in front of them. Dark narrowed eyes on a tawny ruggedly-cut face fixedly and unblinkingly watched me in return.
I felt scared again.
Seeing that I came round enough to comprehend my surroundings, the stranger leaned forward, placing his free hand over the crate I braced myself against, hanging over me, and smirked when I jerked downwards, barely keeping myself from slipping down to the floor, as far away from him as possible.
"Well now, look at what a pretty scared birdie we've got here," the voice was low, hoarse, echoing of dark alleys, quiet gateways and godsforsaken cellars… The mere sound of it made me want to crawl deep into the crate behind my back.
"Who are you?" my treacherous tone came out weaker than I wanted, so I followed it with the coldest glare a crown princess could muster.
The smirk widened, white teeth flashed in the gloom.
"And the bird even sings," he tilted his head; strands of pitch-black hair licked his forehead. "Wonder what kind of song she'd be singing, if the Dhorns got to her…"
The lump rose in my throat again, but I managed to swallow it. A slow appraising gaze travelled all over me, from head to toes and back until got locked on my face. I lifted my chin, feeling my cheeks start to burn from his unnerving scrutiny – but even that slightest movement stirred the throbbing pain in my scull, and I pursed my lips not to let out a whimper.
"Did you hit me?" I demanded, quietly, not to provoke another tide of ache.
Mocking half-smile on his face didn't waver.
"Surely not the Dhorns, seeing that you are still alive."
My eyes darted to the side on impulse, searching the basement, almost expecting to see the lurking soldiers. Nobody, nothing. Only cold thick shadows in the corners, creeping over the dusty crates and bundles…
"The Dhorns…?" my words rang strangely in the deaf stagnant silence.
"…everywhere. Took hold of all the floors, cutting out the survivours just now," he seemed indifferent, if not bored, bending his arm, leaning on his elbow and cradling his chin in his palm lazily - but his eyes were still firmly on mine.
I wanted to shiver, but refrained. The stranger smirked again, and ran his fingers over his thick stubble, scratching it almost wistfully.
"You know," he suddenly said, "there was a girl working in the kitchens. Shanna. A pretty little thing, only sixteen years old, pale, delicate, with the eyes one can drown in…"
I clenched my teeth stubbornly, not understanding what he wanted or aimed at with his questions, and grated through set jaws: "No, I never met any of the kitchen servants."
"…Of course you didn't," his lids lowered a bit, casting shadow over his eyes. "She wanted me to show her the ocean one day… But it was exactly through kitchens the Dhorns burst into the castle. So Shanna will never get to see her ocean anymore."
I opened my mouth, then closed it, not finding an answer, not even knowing why I should answer at all, then swallowed again. "I am sorry."
"So am I," another smirk, hard, cold and thin as an edge of a blade. "But at least King de Grock shared her fate."
All my insides rolled into a tight chilly clew that sank into yawning emptiness – an emptiness that knew… knew all along…
"…The King is dead?" I whispered, calling upon all of my strength not to avert my gaze from those apathetic dark eyes.
"Yeah. Refused to surrender the castle even after the gates had fallen. Signed a death sentence for himself - and everyone else to the pile," smile turned into a set of viciously bared teeth. "Arrogant moron to the end."
"He cannot be dead," I cut off - objecting him or myself, I could not tell, "I don't believe you."
"As you wish," he sniffed indulgently. "What do I know of royal blood, indeed. Perhaps it keeps you alive even without your head."
I wanted to scream. To launch at him, hit him, anything – just to make him silent. How dared he?
With pains, but I kept myself back, reining in whatever small power I still had. Even if – only if! – he spoke the truth, Father had not tried his best to keep me away from the Dhorns only for me to ruin my chance with my own hands. Whether I wanted or not, but the scoundrel standing above me could become my way for escape.
As if reading my mind, he let his eyes sweep over my face.
"You got lucky, birdie," he nodded. "Only you – and, perhaps, a handful of mice."
I shuddered lightly at his words – for he himself, muffled up in darkness, leaning idly at the crate, with a lazy smirk hidden somewhere in the curve of his mouth, looked too much like a huge black cat.
He must have noticed my shiver, because his smirk became more apparent.
"So. Does the bird have a name?"
I nodded slowly, collecting my thoughts. If the Dhorns were everywhere…
"I am Shira. The maid."
"Shira," he repeated. His eyes fell down to my chest, on a rich golden necklace. Corners of his lips twitched in another mocking smile, and blood rushed to my face. "The maid, sure."
I fought hard to keep my breathing even. Panic was natural, fear was natural, but when one allowed them to rule, allowed them to make decisions – it was a road to an end. Those were Father's words.
"Listen," I started as firmly and confidently as I could. "Lead me out of here, and I shall pay you."
"…That you will," he purred, still gazing at the necklace.
Nodding once more, I slid my hands under my hair, looking for the clasp and using the moment to close my eyes. My fingers were trembling, but I was able to still them, opened the chain and tugged it off my neck. The greedy cur didn't move, still towering above me, watching my every move.
The necklace was followed by earrings, the sapphire ring, even the signet one… I piled it all into my hand and held out for him. My palm almost wasn't shaking.
"There will be more," I promised. "Just lead me out."
He threw the jewelry only a quick dismissive glance, then stared back at my cleavage, and the sucking void in my stomach lurched. He had not been looking at the necklace in the first place… No, not at the necklace.
At my breasts.
It was much harder to swallow the lump this time.
"I would be grateful if you stopped staring at me, please," I sipped out the words chilly.
"I bet," he snorted and drew himself up, standing above me in his full height. "Take off your dress."
My eyes widened unbelievingly. I swear to gods, I would have been less dumbfounded if he had spat at me.
"What you heard. Take it off."
All I could do was gaze stupidly at him, pondering frantically, doing my best to come up with at least one explanation to what was going on. For a briefest nonsensical second I even thought that, perhaps, he intended to take my dress as a part of payment. After all, it was embroidered with gold…
But that did not match with him reaching for his belt, unclasping it, quickly and deftly, and dropping it on the floor before proceeding to the buckles of his armour…
Chill clawed through my muscles, through my very bones, and I trembled.
It could not have been happening. It could not! I—
Regarding me with a long gaze, he hissed out an irritated sigh and suddenly reached out for me, swatting away my hand that still held the jewelry. Gold and gems spattered to the floor, while he grabbed the front of my bodice and in one motion ripped it open. Cool air blazed against my skin, snapping me out of my torpor, and I gasped, shrinking back, digging my heels into the floor to push myself away, and furiously tugging the pieces of the torn garment to close my chest.
"Don't you dare touching me!"
"Or what?" he growled, keeping his eyes on mine and reaching for me once more.
I tried to hit him, but his fingers shackled around my wrist, with force that made the bones move. An imperceptible stir of the other hand, and a dagger slipped out of his bracer, right into his palm, the tip pressed to my throat…
"I'll open that neck of yours before you can get what's happening," he promised in a rustling whisper. "So shut up, lay sill and don't do anything stupid."
"Get away," I hissed, struggling to push him off, but it was as pointless as dashing against a rock.
"Shut up, I said," the dagger pressed further, startling my whole body with the sudden hot flash of pain.
Warm trickle of blood slid down my neck, into the cleft between my breasts. His gaze followed its path, sparkling, greedy, and he licked the corner of his lips, taking a moment to straighten himself again, to unlace his breeches. Ice of the knife disappeared from my skin, and I managed to gulp in a little of air, moving backwards, pressing myself into the crate, shuffling my hands recklessly over the floor, hoping to find something I could grab and…
He kicked the crate aside, depriving me of any prop, and I fell on my back, floundering helplessly in the folds of my dress. He followed my fall, catching my both arms and spreading them wide, pinning to the floor by my sides. Snaking under him, I contrived to bend my leg and brought it up with all the force I could muster, aiming at the most weak spot. My knee found its target, and a wave of gleeful satisfaction came over me at the sight of his face crumpling up in pain.
"You fucking bitch," he spat, tightening his grip on me.
"Get away!" I snarled, twisting my hands, nearly rawing my wrists against his fingers, but all my attempts were in vain.
Grinding my teeth, I jerked myself up to hit him in the face with my head, but he dodged, letting go of one of my wrists - and the back of his palm scourged my cheek. My head reeled sideways, a flow of rusty blood filling my mouth, but I only gulped it down, twirling, using my freed hand to claw at his face, furrowing his flesh, trying to reach his eyes…
Spitting out another curse, he struck me again, harder, and my head crashed into the floor with a nauseating thump. Stars cascaded in front of my eyes, a wave of thick sickening darkness covered me – and the muscles suddenly failed me, turning to water, spilling helplessly on the floor, smearing me over the stones together with the weight of his body, forcing the air out of my lungs. My mind nearly left me – from the pain, the weakness, the fug, the smell of cheap wine, the mixture of fury, hatred and lust in his burning gaze… I blinked madly, trying to banish the oily shadows of faint at the sides of my vision, trying to move – but could not, only feeling the hands tugging up my skirts, dragging down my knickers, the sharp edges of metal armour buckles sinking into the flesh of my breasts, the sizzling breath on my neck, the knee coming down on my thighs, forcing them apart…
And then there was nothing left but pain.
White screeching pain when he tore into me, to where no man had ever been allowed, ripping me apart, to aching shrieking pieces… I screamed, jerking in one last attempt to crawl, to break free, away, but my body didn't move, crashed, paralyzed, feeling him with its every cell, all the deeper, all the worse with every frantic move that rent my very being into shreds. My scream grew louder, the only way out for my despaired fury, turning to a helpless howl, draining the last of my strength, fading to a wheeze, until it was no more, choked against his shoulder. Turning away my face, I pressed my cheek to the cold stones underneath and closed my eyes, in a tired fit of mercy for myself allowing my mind to grow numb, to slip far away, as far as I could manage, to leave my desecrated body and sink deep into unknown crimson waters, where my goldfishes still swam…