Title: Crafting the Victor's Tale
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: Anna laughed again, enchanted, and wished she could honor him properly when she and Kay spread the story of her freedom and the plague's ending. 2900 words; AU.
Spoilers: Season of the Witch (2011) & Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)
Notes: There was a good supernatural road movie lurking somewhere in the B-movie mess that was "Season of the Witch", but it was spoiled by an extremely historically inaccurate opening, a terrible ending, and the fact that Behmen totally lacked the Cage charm that made Balthazar Blake so much fun. So... I felt compelled to do something about that. (The last two bits, I mean. I couldn't do much about the history!fail.)
Anna watched as Debelzeq glanced back and forth between Behmen and the robe-clad stranger whose timely arrival had ensured their triumph over the demon. Quiet wonder was writ large in the priest's expression. "So this is the reason you were not easily convinced of the girl's guilt, despite the evidence of her power," he said. "I am afraid I misjudged you, sir Knight."
Behmen's friend, Felson, snorted and shook his head; Behmen smiled ruefully, and raised an eyebrow at the priest. "In what way, Father? It is true, it was not her abilities I doubted, but the truth of whether they had been used for harm. But is it any better in the eyes of the Church that I sought to save a confessed witch out of conviction of pure motives, rather than displaced guilt over the death of an innocent at my hands?" He threw Anna an apologetic glance as he spoke the last; Anna smiled in return, pulling Kay's cloak more tightly around her. He had such kind eyes.
The wandering wizard, his features as like to Behmen's as though the two men were twins, frowned at Behmen's words. "About that, nephew. A month ago, the army of the Church was at Smyrna, and to my knowledge continues to fight among the Turks; you and Felson were quite possibly the last knights I expected to see in Styria." Concerned eyes swept over Behmen's form, from the stained and faded hem of his traveling cloak to the scabbing cut bisecting his left eyelid.
Behmen sighed and swept a hand through tangled, sunbleached hair, staring down at the ground as though in contrition. "You had warned me," he said softly, "not to trust solely in my gift of discernment; that it would fail me one day in battle. That in the chaos, I would eventually slay one who had not voluntarily taken up sword against me, wherever the truth may lie about the state of their souls."
Behmen's uncle closed his eyes briefly and made a noise in the back of his throat; a sound that spoke of disappointment and dismay. "Oh, Behmen," he said, then opened his eyes again, turning his attention to Felson.
Felson shrugged, as Anna was beginning to learn was his wont; it did not seem his loyalty had ever been to God, or the Church, or any ideal in particular, but simply to his long-time friend. He turned from the wizard to clap a companionable hand on Behmen's shoulder, and Behmen looked up from the dust to give his friend a wan smile.
"I realized at last that it did not truly matter how many innocents I personally had slain; it was as you tried to tell me, Balthazar, when I came to you after leaving Father's land. I had been party to the wholesale destruction of men, women and children no different from those in our castle, or Felson's village, and I could follow that path no longer, no matter the consequences."
"And you, Felson?" Behmen's uncle asked, voice flat, giving away no emotion.
"I was only in it for the fighting and the spoils," Felson said, lightly. "Wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without Behmen there to pay for my beer."
"So you deserted," Balthazar commented, nodding and tapping an index finger against his chin. "Better late than never, I suppose. But how came you here?" He gestured toward the remains of the caged wagon, still-cooling chunks of melted metal and charred wood scarring the stones of the monastery courtyard.
"Someone recognized my sword when we stopped to buy horses," Behmen replied ruefully.
"And, well. It was either this, or let the Cardinal's men hang us for treason," Felson said. "Behmen told him to do his worst, of course- you know what he's like when he gets his back up- but once he saw the girl, well... he got a notion to make sure she had a fair trial."
All eyes tracked back to Anna at that; she smiled again, gratefully, and looked down. "For which mercy I will never be able to repay you," she replied.
Balthazar sighed, then chuckled lowly and stepped forward, gripping his nephew's shoulders. "I thought you told me the poor son of an obscure Lord could not afford such ideals," he said, obliquely.
Behmen narrowed his eyes at that, reproach in the jut of his jaw; but his expression softened as he noted the hint of pride in the wizard's expression. They looked even more alike stood together like that, both long-haired, weather-beaten, and marked by grave experience; but for the differences in their garb, and the rings winking from each one of Balthazar's fingers, Anna might have mistaken them for a single man staring into a highly polished mirror. Kay tightened his arm around her shoulders; she leaned into it absently, watching her rescuers with fascination.
Nothing had made sense to her since the day the demon had taken her, these three years and more while the plague had spread in her footsteps and the Church's men had sought vainly for its origin. Most of her memories of that time were very vague, and the few that remained clear had felt as though she were trapped in a verse of epic tale. And though her thoughts and movements were once more her own, that sense of unreality had not left her yet. Who would have imagined she would survive the exorcism, and that she, a mere merchant's daughter, would find salvation at the hands of such a powerful and noble group?
Behmen nodded to his unnaturally gifted double. "You would know better than I that some convictions are worth any sacrifice," he said, plainly. "I joined the Crusades to serve God as much as to seek my own fortune and independence. I left when I realized just how far men's orders had strayed from anything a just deity could ever have intended; and I accepted Cardinal D'Ambroise's offer for the same reason."
Balthazar smiled in return, inclining his head slightly in acknowledgement. "We are but servants," he said, lowly, then lifted a hand from Behmen's shoulder to cup his skull, briefly bringing their foreheads together as though in benediction. "I am proud of you. But- perhaps a bit disturbed as well," he admitted as he pulled back, renewing an arm's length of distance between them. "Do you realize how close you came to death this day? For all the sharpness of your perceptions, you are not a wizard. What would you have done had I not arrived on a mission to contain the plague's source myself? You would have left your family to hear that you had perished at a demon's claws."
Behmen grimaced; beside him, Felson touched the wound bandaged high on his back. Next to Felson, the priest turned over a rope-scarred and bloody hand, stretching the fresh wrap torn from the hem of a dead monk's robes.
"It had to be done," Debelzeq said, voice ringing with conviction. "And I could not have done it alone. Only Eckhart, alone of the Cardinal's men, was available as escort before their arrival; and as you see, he did not reach the monastery with us."
"That is certainly true." Balthazar studied Debelzeq a moment, as though evaluating the depth of his earnestness; then he turned to Anna again, piercing eyes seeking her face. "And I could not have completed the incantation myself, had you not brought the demon's host to this place. All's well that end's well, I suppose. Though perhaps... it would be best if the stories told of this day did not mention the full extent of what occurred, else the witch hunts will never stop. I am not well loved in these parts; they have attempted to burn me at the stake before, and they will not believe the threat over if they hear I was involved."
Behmen snorted at that, amusement lightening the marks of exhaustion on his features. "The people of Styria have a long memory; there is a reason I always covered my face when I traveled through these lands, even when I had no reason to fear arrest on my own accord."
"And here I thought it was just to avoid scaring the women with the sight of your ugly mug," Felson teased, digging an elbow into his friend's side.
"But what could you have done to invite persecution?" Kay asked at Anna's side, perplexed. "If God has gifted you with the ability to fight demons..."
Innocent, naive Kay; someone had mentioned that before his impromptu knighting at Behmen's hands he had been an altar boy, and Anna appreciated the simple goodness of the viewpoint that vocation had given him. It had led him to trust her for saving him, even while she'd been possessed; and it allowed him to extend the hand of friendship to Balthazar as well, despite proofs of witchcraft even clearer than those that had first condemned Anna.
Balthazar chuckled in response. "My abilities are a little more varied than that; and I wouldn't necessarily say they're from God. The Church certainly wouldn't agree. But I have no objection to using them occasionally in His service."
"For which the Church thanks you, most humbly," Debelzeq said, bowing slightly, "though you will have to take my word for it, as I agree that the details of the day's doings had best be kept secret."
The details- Anna closed her eyes as she recalled the series of events that had woken her from her long imprisonment inside her own body. Once the demon had decided to abandon the disguise and scheme that had brought it at last to the monastery housing the last copy of the Key of Solomon, it had drawn strongly on her body's reserves, bringing her consciousness fully aware for the first time in years. Of the journey, she remembered only bits and pieces; of the fight- of the dead monks battling against the three knights' swords, Debelzeq's voice ringing as he read the incantation to combat the demon's powers and eradicate the plague, and Balthazar's rings blazing as he imprisoned the demon against the wall in a cage of green-gold light- she had a very clear depth of recall. Both Felson and Behmen had taken serious wounds in the fighting; had they not had a third sword to back them up, Felson could have bled out, or Behmen lost the eye now hidden behind a swollen, scratched lid.
"In that case," Behmen turned to the priest with a sigh, "perhaps it might be best if Felson and I perished in the fighting; we can shed our armor here, buried among the bodies of the monks, and accompany my far-uncle on the next step of his quest. Our actions today may have been necessary- but I still have no desire to serve the Church on its own terms in future, and as long as we are named as deserters, I can see no other clear choice. There will be no refuge here, not while the villages in the area recover from the death toll inflicted by the plague."
Anna considered Behmen's words, then took a deep breath and stepped away from Kay's sheltering arm, drawing the others' attention to herself. She quailed a little under the instant wariness that crept into their expressions; then they relaxed again, and she felt the support of Kay's hand warm against her back. She took courage from his presence as she spoke.
"It is true," she said, in the tones of a storyteller- the voice she had used to repeat the chants she learned from minstels passing through her village at her little brother's bedside when he'd first begun to show signs of sickness. The demon had initially trapped her through her love of her family; it was in the memory of her lost siblings and parents that she dared put herself forward now, to ensure that no others were doomed by that day's work.
"I know it is, for I was there, and I saw it happen. Knights Felson and Behmen fought bravely against the demon's minions, with the assistance of their new compatriot, but there were only three of them, and full many of the foe. When Behmen was finally struck down, Felson leapt upon the demon's very back to distract it from his friend. It caught him, and burned him from crown to toe for his presumption; and in his grief, Behmen found the strength to stand again and pin it against the wall. With two silver knives through its wings and the fading strength of his arms did he imprison it, while it struck him again and again, piercing him through in its efforts to escape. But he held on long enough for the priest to finish reading the incantation, though he perished afterward from his wounds."
All five men stared at her in surprise, and she felt a kernel of warmth in her chest at their regard. Then Balthazar smiled, and Felson chuckled, shoving at his friend's shoulder."Hear that? I nobly sacrificed myself in your honor, and you died saving the girl. You owe me a round tonight, my friend."
Behmen rolled his eyes at him, then sobered, mouth drawing into a thoughtful line as he glanced back and forth between Anna and Debelzeq. "No," he said, then dropped his gaze to the book still clutched tightly in the priest's hands. "No, let not the priest have been the one to cast the demon out; let him have perished as well, and left the task to Kay. Else everyone will know where the Key of Solomon must have gone, and this cycle will repeat again, on some future day perhaps even darker than this."
Debelzeq paled, hands tightening on the illuminated tome, but nodded slowly in agreement. "Yes, let it be that I fell in the middle of the rite; let that be the cause of Behmen's fatal distraction."
Anna sighed, reaching up to touch Kay's hand on her shoulder, and gazed up into his troubled eyes. "The rite could not be left unfinished," she continued, "and Kay knew, as a former altar boy, that he was the best qualified to continue. He lifted the book from Debelzeq's pale hands and finished what the priest had begun as the battle continued to rage around him. And when it was all over- when the last monk had returned to the soft embrace of death, and the demon had been banished- he decided to honor Behmen's dying admonishment to keep the innocent victim safe."
Balthazar laughed, a low warm sound that lifted Anna's heart, and clapped his hands together. "Perfect," he said. "It is not a tale to fool the strongly gifted; Kay has not an ounce of the power necessary to successfully enact the rite. But the same few who would be able to tell will also be able to determine that he does not have the book. And in the meantime, it will muddy the waters long enough for Debelzeq to remove it to a more protected location."
"So I am protected, and the book is protected, and you are protected," Anna replied, smiling brightly at him. His eyes were nearly as kind as his nephew's in that moment; she basked in his approval even as she raised an eyebrow to ask one further question. "And what do you gain from this bargain, Wizard?"
"Apart from my great-nephew's life, and that of his friend? Escorts for as long as I have need of them," he said, shooting a wry glance at the men. Then he smiled more widely at her, all unnaturally clean teeth and sharp-edged humor. "But I understand why you ask; I may not be evil, but I am still a wizard, and we are very like the cats of certain wives' tales: not to be trusted."
She surprised herself with a laugh at the imagery brought to mind by his description. "Your magic was... a very intimidating sight to wake to," she admitted, "but I cannot imagine anyone knowing you and not trusting you."
Balthazar bowed to her by way of reply, more deeply than anyone before in her life, humor still lighting his eyes. "My lady, my utmost apologies for any suffering I may have caused, and my deepest thanks for the honor you bestow upon your humble servant with such gratitude."
She laughed again, enchanted, and wished she could honor him properly when she and Kay spread the story of her freedom and the plague's ending.
But whether God's mercy was at the root of her salvation or not, she would not spoil this new future with the freight of old pain. She had read the softness in Balthazar's features as he greeted his relative; the concern and relief in Behmen's expression as he watched Felson bandage the injury that had nearly killed him; the profound gratitude and exhaustion in Debelzeq as he clutched his sacred book; and something as yet undefined in Kay's eyes- some warmth, something like confidence and appreciation, as he held her close to him in support. They had all had a part in saving her, and she would respect their effort- theirs, and Eckhart's, and Hagamar's as well, who had fallen along the way.
They had all made a new beginning here, today. The Season of the Witch was over at last.