Famous fairy tales revisited: the Sleeping Beauty
Disclaimer: I don't own either the Coldfire Trilogy or 'the Sleeping Beauty', and no profit whatsoever is intended.
Chapter One: The Keep
Once upon a time, on a far away planet, there lived two men who had accomplished to save mankind from certain doom. Although initial hatred and disgust between the unlikely allies had been transformed to mutual trust and a kind of grudging friendship both Damien Vryce, a warrior knight and former priest, and Gerald Tarrant, the Hunter, had failed to acknowledge how much they really meant to each other.
Coming home from their mission to the Hunter's keep in the Forbidden Forest they weren't greeted with blessings and gratefulness, but with a crusade, led by Andrys Tarrant, Gerald's last living descendant, poised to punish his ancestor for his crimes committed against his own family and humankind while being an undead disciple of the Nameless One.
Maybe the Hunter could have saved himself by sacrificing his friend, but Vryce's presence had already started a process of change that had come to completion by the unexpected regaining of his humanity. His battered soul slowly healing Gerald Tarrant simply couldn't bring himself to barter his companion's life for his own continuing existence, a selfish deed he had aready committed once, a millennium ago, murdering his wife and children to gain immortality. So he bewitched the warrior knight and made him leave, knowing very well that this altruistic course of action might cost his own life.
When Vryce had left Andrys Tarrant closed in for the kill, but to his utter amazement a young woman materialized out of the blue, beautiful like a clear dawn, with long, black tresses and sparkling blue eyes.
Andrys had no intention of trafficking with one of the faeborn, but the young man was enthralled by the lady's beauty and grace, and so he listened to her instead of calling for help or using his weapon, still aimed threateningly at the Hunter's heart.
"Who are you?" Andrys rasped, his voice hoarse with terror and strain. "And what do you want?"
"My name is Saris", the fair lady replied with a breathtaking smile that made the sun pale in comparison. "Don't fear me, Andrys. I'm not here to harm you, but to save you from a grave mistake. Kill Gerald Tarrant, and you will open your heart to the forces of darkness forever."
Andrys just stared at her, completely taken aback. He'd never been more exhausted in his whole life, physically and mentally, and his knees were trembling with sheer exertion. It didn't help that he felt the piercing eyes of that accursed monster resting on him, watching him ardently with jarring, inhuman patience, presumably waiting for an opportunity to attack.
The young man steeled himself and straightened his shoulders. He wouldn't be fooled so easily. Maybe the ravishing female had been in league with the Hunter from the beginning and was using sorcery on him now to save her master. At this point he wouldn't put anything beyond the demonic in general and especially not beyond his ancestor, the Neocount. Andrys still vividly remembered the remains of his siblings, hacked to pieces by the same vile creature that was standing not fifteen feet away, much too close for his own liking. Bile rose in his throat, and he had to fight his urge to pull the trigger, to end this once and for all.
"And you expect me to believe you that you simply came here for my benefit?" For a moment Andrys wondered from which hidden source of strength he was dredging up the acerbic sarcasm that was oozing from his words. "Just to save my soul from stepping on the road to hell? The soul of a man you've never met before? What kind of gullible fool do you think I am?"
"At least gullible enough to fall for Calesta's and your patriarch's manipulations. But that's not the point", she continued, her hypnotic eyes never leaving his own. "One of my followers begged for your ancestor's life, and I decided to grant her wish. Call me a fairy, if you want to, Andrys. The appellation really doesn't matter. The choice is yours to make, but choose wisely."
Their parley was stopped by a soft, barely audible moan, and to Andrys' surprise his ancestor was swaying on his feet and groping for one of the shelves for support, barely able to hold himself upright on his own account. At first Andrys suspected a trick to distract him, but then he realized with a start that the man evidently was on his last strings of endurance.
Heartened by the Hunter's unexpected display of weakness Andrys dared a closer look, and completely bemused he perceived the dirty, tired face, the rags of what might have once been fine clothes, their torn remains barely hiding a frail, emaciated body, the shaking of his ancestor's hands. This wasn't the undead abomination he remembered from Merentha Castle, powerful and in total control, but a mortal man, weary, exhausted and close to collapsing on the spot.
An utterly unexpected wave of pity flooded through Andrys, and for a moment the young man felt like relenting, but then the true meaning of Saris' words struck him like lightning. 'One of my followers begged for your ancestor's life…' Narilka. It had to be Narilka who had implored Saris to save Gerald Tarrant instead of supporting his quest to rid the world of that monster's taint forever.
Burnig hatred welled up inside the young man anew, and he gripped his springbolt tighter. Wasn't it enough that the beast had already robbed him once of each and every human being he had ever cared for? Narilka wouldn't fall into the Hunter's clutches; he'd make sure of that, even if that was the last thing he ever did in his life. The time for futile negotiations had come to an end, and gritting his teeth Andrys steeled his heart and pulled the trigger. Without so much as a sigh Tarrant went down in a heap and lay motionless, his face veiled by his matted hair.
Slowly the red mist of wrath and plain, human jealousy which had clouded Andrys' discernment lifted, and frozen with horror the former Hunter's descendant realized that he had just shot an unarmed man who hadn't lifted so much as a finger to threaten him. "Dear God, is he dead?"
Saris shook her head in response. "Not dead, just unconscious, Andrys. You missed Gerald by a whisker. Maybe your god has truly shown mercy and has protected his fallen prophet. You never bothered to care what has come to past while you and your army were busy with your foolish crusade, but the priest and Gerald Tarrant just saved humankind from falling into eternal slavery. Killing him would be a poor reward, don't you think so? Lay Gerald on the table over there, if you don't mind."
'If you don't mind?' Of course he did mind! The mere sight of the bloody bastard still gave him the creeps, not mentioning touching him. In a huff the young man obeyed and lifted the limp body of his ancestor on the big alteroak table, sweeping the books carelessly to the ground. To his amazement the icy chill Andrys was remembering all to well had apparently been replaced by an almost feverish heat, the pulse beating rapidly below the translucent skin that was stretched tautly over protruding bones.
Groaning Andrys laid the Neocount down on the table and hid his face in his hands. Dear Heaven, this bastard really was a pain in the arse. No, he wouldn't try to kill the Hunter again, no matter what had passed between him and Narilka. By now he was quite sure he really didn't want to know. But letting him run free without any atonement for the atrocities he had committed against his own descendants was simply unthinkable.
With a heartfelt sigh of exasperation the young man faced the beautiful Iezu. "So what do you propose, Saris?"
"I will put him to sleep."
Andrys stared at her in complete bafflement, not quite trusting his ears. "Put him to sleep?" he asked incredulously. "Doesn't seem a proper punishment to me. The son of a bitch's out cold, anyway."
"You don't understand, Andrys", Saris replied with a sweet smile. "For my followers I'm the Goddess of Beauty, and beauty I want to preserve. Gerald Tarrant will lay here in an enchanted sleep until he is redeemed by his true love. Even my kind cannot foretell the future, but I believe he will still rest here when you and your brazen crusaders have crumbled into dust long ago. The church will have its victory and you Narilka and the Neocounty. Would that solution suit you?"
Without waiting for his reply the Iezu started her Working, and Andrys watched in complete disbelief as the Neocount's bruises healed, the lines of fatigue on his face smoothed and his tattered clothes mended. Gerald Tarrant's last living descendant swallowed, and it took him a while to gather his wits.
"What about the crusaders? What do you suppose me to tell them?" he managed to croak at long last. "May I humbly inform you that they are going to blow up the keep? Not a safe resting place, if you ask me."
Saris smiled again, knowingly and with no small amount of mischief in her sparkling eyes. "Don't you worry, Andrys. Enjoy your life as a famous man, the slayer of evil incarnate, and live happily ever after with your charming goldsmith. I really hope you will invite me to your wedding."
So Andrys Tarrant was sent out with a grueling illusion of the Hunter's severed head, and the priest's heart broke when he had to witness his friend's head thrown onto a bonfire. The keep was blown to pieces, the Forbidden Forest, so artfully created by its master, burned to ashes, and the crusaders returned to Jaggonath to revel in their glorious victory. But no harm touched the underground study that contained a veritable treasure of books and notes and a still figure sleeping peacefully on a wooden table.
As it is supposed to be nature survived the havoc wreaked by mankind, and when the raging firestorm that consumed the forest had finally died down various plant seeds found their way to the burned earth. The first little saplings arose from the barren ground, green, healthy and lush, until not even a faint memory of the Hunter's sinister creations remained. No plants though were more beautiful than the wild roses that had somehow found a living close to the ruins of the keep, and over the years they grew and grew until the crumbling walls that had once, in the prime of the keep's master, soared to reach the sky had completely disappeared under their vines.
The warrior knight died of old age in the remote cloister where he had spent the last thirty years, and the last word he whispered on his deathbed was the name of his lost friend. The world kept turning, and the soul that had once been Damien Vryce was reborn, died anew and was reborn again in a never-ending circle, forever yearning for something it couldn't name. And still the roses were growing, and the Hunter and his black fortress passed from living memory into the realms of legend.