I. Ash Girl

Once upon a time, there was a castle. Castle Volfric was its name, and it perched on the side of the highest mountain in Wungoria. All around, mountains reared up from the forests, through the clouds. Purple crags, topped with snow, crowded close and stretched away in jagged rows against the sky.

Peasants looked up at the castle with dread and loathing, when they dared. The Count oppressed them many ways, but one was so terrible they never spoke of it. He considered every girl's virginity his due. Soldiers dragged the most beautiful brides to the castle on their wedding nights. Those who weren't virgins, he impaled and displayed.

The peasants could do nothing, so pretended not to know. They called it an honor when soldiers came to wedding feasts, and whispered too excitedly about the Count's gift. Each chosen bride did indeed come away with a silver coin--the most wealth she'd ever know in her poor life--but afterward, she stopped in the valley below, in the village of Plumj, at the little stone church, and cast the coin in a barrel just outside the door. For God's blessing or good luck, anyone would hasten to explain if someone asked.

The barrel once had been the alms box, and then a separate coffer, and when that filled to overflowing, Father Gregory poured the coins in the barrel and prayed it wouldn't fill too quickly. He knew why the brides wanted nothing to do with the coins, and he wanted nothing to do with them either.

Only the village whore spoke openly about the barrel, and then only to warn curious strangers who passed through Plumj and stopped at her cottage: "Do not disturb it, or even look at it." Thieves had come one night. Lightning struck them when their fingers touched the silver.

Nobody else acknowledged it with so much as a glance. They locked their thoughts about it deep in their broken hearts. Some believed the coins cried silently to Heaven, and others that the coins were cursed. All believed that when the barrel filled, God's wrath would overflow, or the curse would be unleashed, and a terrible Fate would befall the House of Volfric. But the barrel now stood full, and nothing had happened yet.

Jacob, a young shoemaker, let none of this trouble or deter him one Christmas Eve when he set a bowl of porridge on the hearth and recited a rhyme the old wives taught him: "Porridge for your health and life. Show me who will be my wife." He said his prayers, got into bed, and fell asleep.

Around midnight, he woke to the sound of breaking glass. He opened one eye. The glow of the hearth showed him two tiny elves, dancing in a circle and smashing what little glass he owned. He wanted to jump out of bed and stop the mischief, but he trusted the old wives, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, he found the porridge gone, and a pair of perfect glass slippers on his work bench. He carried them around to every cottage, determined to marry the girl they'd fit. He traveled all winter, far and wide, through all Wungoria. Nobody could wear the slippers.

Early that spring, perplexed and discouraged, tramping homeward through the woods, he came suddenly upon a cottage he'd somehow overlooked. The humblest in Plumj, it appeared before him now with a startling intensity. The woodcutter lived there with his wife and their only child, Katia, the washer girl.

Jacob's legs felt oddly wobbly, but he made it to the doorstep. He stood there, with one hand raised to knock, staring at the slippers in a daze and wondering how he could have forgotten Katia. Memories of her began to flood his mind.

The door swung open.

"Oh! Jacob." Katia's mother pretended surprise. She looked sorry to see him. "I didn't hear you knock. And there you are with your magic slippers."

He blushed. "Um, hello. I guess you know why I'm here."

"Yes. I've heard. But Jacob, I'm already married."

"Oh, well, ah--"

She forced a smile. "You'll find her at the river."

On the way, he tried to gather his wits and nerve. He couldn't shake the feeling that he'd just awakened from a long, exhausting dream.

He stepped out from the woods, into a clearing with grassy banks and a low, flat rock on which generations of washer girls had pounded laundry. He saw Katia's basket, and on the rock, a sopping wad of linen. He didn't see her. "Katia?"

"Jacob?" Her voice, behind him.

He turned. "Yaa!"

She held a stone, her arm cocked to strike. Ashes dusted her long black hair and pale skin, giving her a wild, otherworldly air. Her dark, narrowed eyes and the set of her jaw promised she could find, somewhere in her scrawny frame, the strength to break his head open if she had to. The patched tatters of her dress couldn't hide the coiled tension of her stance.

He bobbled the slippers. He dropped one, but caught it before it hit the ground. "Katia! Hi there. Why the stone?"

"Oh Jacob, it is you." She relaxed, but not completely. "You're not the first man to come looking for me here."

"I've only come to ask a favor."

"Not the first to say that either." But she held the stone playfully now, and stood with a hand on her hip. "What do you want?" She wouldn't look at the slippers.

He held them out. "Try these on?"

"I'm busy."

As she brushed by, he breathed in. Despite her appearance, she didn't smell dirty--only faintly sooty, with that most arousing scent of a girl's warm skin in the morning, before she's out of bed.

Katia smirked, and tossed him the stone.

He shifted and juggled the slippers, but caught it without breaking them.

"Hm." She nodded, impressed. With another stone, she pounded the wet linen on the rock. A cloud of dust rose from her.

Jacob remembered the first time he opened his door to find her standing there, shortly after he set up shop in Plumj.

"I'm sure my chimney needs no sweeping yet, thank you," he'd told her.

"I'm the laundress."

Only then did he notice her basket. "You're the laundress?"

"That's right. What about it?"

"Er, nothing. It's just, I'm sorry, are you . . . in mourning?"

"I sleep on the hearth, if you must know." After a moment, she added, "It's warm."

"Of course. I didn't mean to pry. And, I beg your pardon--I'm Jacob. How do you do?"

She tapped her foot. "Linens, please?"

All that day, he thought about the weird little visitor. That evening, he accepted his linens back, speechless at how clean they were.

"I'm Katia. How do you do?" She left him with a wink.

From then on, he daydreamed about her for many an hour at his bench, and looked forward to her every visit. He tried to imagine sharing a bed with her, or even an hearth. He even slept on his own hearth a time or two, just to know what it was like, and so it wouldn't seem so strange if it ever came to that.

He shook his head and wondered how he could have missed her cottage. For so long! It made no sense.

He flipped the stone over his shoulder. "Katia, please."

"Glass slippers I don't need." She thrust a foot at him. She wiggled her big toe through a hole in her shoe. "Bring me real ones and I'll put them on."

"I'll make you real ones."

"Ta-ta, then. Come back when they're finished." She pounded and pounded the linen on the rock.

"Katia, stop."

She looked at him.

"Here. Let me see your feet."

She sat on the grass. She smoothed her dress.

Jacob drew one shoe off. Even through the soot, he could tell how white her little foot would be if it were clean. He touched it.

Shyly, she curled her toes.

He knew his trade well enough to know the glass slippers would fit her perfectly.

"Just to be sure," she said, "you'd better try all the other girls, too. Oh, but you have already, haven't you? Every girl in Wungoria. I'm your last resort."

"No. No! It isn't like that. You should have been the first--the only one!"

"And yet I wasn't. How do you explain it?" She tilted her head and fixed a skeptical glare on him.

"How do I explain it? Well--" He couldn't. "I love you. Please believe me. I loved you at first sight."

"Then why bother with the slippers, hmm?"

"I feared you might spurn me. You're an awfully prickly girl sometimes, you know. I guess I wanted some kind of guarantee. I asked the old wives. They told me what to do. I thought I did it right. I don't know how it went so wrong. I'm sorry."

Katia sniffed. "I knew on Christmas Eve. About you and me. Oh yes. Believe it or not, there are ways that don't involve touching every woman's feet in the whole world. Mother poured some ink into my palm. I saw your face in it."

"What? You knew, and said nothing?"

"What should I have said while you were off caressing other women's feet?"

Something clicked in Jacob's mind. He jumped up. "Katia! I-I think I was bewitched. When I saw your cottage earlier, I felt so strange, as though a spell had broken. Your mother did not look glad to see me. And you say she knew on Christmas Eve?"

"What are you saying, Jacob? She cast a spell to keep you away? That's outrageous."

"Yes, it's true," her mother confessed, though, when they marched back to the cottage.

"Mother! Why?"

She sighed. "His love was strong enough to break it. Now we know. Believe me, you can trust him with your heart. Forgive his wanderings. That's my fault. He couldn't help it. Forgive me. And, Jacob, I hope you can forgive me, too. Forgive a meddling mother who only wants the best for her only baby girl."

Jacob walked Katia back to the river, holding her hand, thrilled at the contact, thrilled to know there was plenty more to come. She softened when he took her in his arms. Her kiss had delicious smoky undercurrents, like an exotic whisky he'd tasted on his travels.

#

Father Gregory sighed when Katia wore the glass slippers to the wedding. Only magic could have made them. They looked harmless enough, but he never took chances with enchanted things. He crossed himself, a rote token of defense.

As for her simple white dress, he had no doubts about her chastity. He wondered, though, how much she kept it for the sake of Christian virtue, and how much for the sake of heathen custom. Sleeping on the hearth, always wearing ashes--he knew enough about the "old ways" to recognize something heathenish in that.

Still, she attended Mass and made confession often. Her devotion to St. Wendoline was fervent and sincere. Every day, she visited the shrine. Sometimes she kissed the statue, and the candles all would flicker in the church. If a saint acknowledged Katia and honored her small offerings, who was Father Gregory to argue?

So it went in Plumj. So it went in all Wungoria. The people all were Christians, but they never would abandon the old ways. He'd long struggled to turn them from their pagan past. Age made him weary and indulgent. Only the evils of the castle and the mountain still disturbed him, and against those, he could only pray. He prayed for Katia and Jacob, that nothing would intrude on their happiness that night.

Katia looked so radiant. Clean and all dressed up, she was the loveliest girl Plumj had seen in many years. Only her mother, who still was very beautiful, had ever been as beautiful as she.

Father Gregory set his cares aside. He enjoyed the ceremony, and concluded with the blessing, "May the Lord sustain you, may your love never fail, and may you live happily ever after."

#

Katia stood arm-in-arm with Jacob in the church door. She smiled out at the cheering faces of the good people of Plumj. She'd done their dirty laundry for lo these many years. All those men who'd tried to feel her bottom or her breasts. All those women who hated her because those were their men. She couldn't care less about that now. Over their heads, in the distance, the castle on the mountain leered at her. Soldiers would probably come to take her there. She could guess what Count Volfric did to brides.

Her mother had refused to talk about it.

Jacob told her not to worry, and insisted he'd deal with soldiers if they came. That only made her worry more. All she wanted was to live with him happily ever after. If that meant submitting to some damnable tradition for one horrible night, she was willing to endure it. But she feared he might try something that could get him hurt or killed.

She stole a glance at the barrel of silver coins, and prepared herself as best she could to face the night ahead. Already, in her mind, she'd rehearsed what she would do if this or that happened. Now she steeled herself against nasty surprises, and held her smile as well as she could.

Beaming again, she laughed and ran with Jacob through the crowd. Everyone threw rice.

The feast was laid on the village square. The sun shone from a blue sky over the green of early spring. New blooms lent their colors and sweet fragrance. Wines and ales came up from cellars. Meat roasted on spits. Pies came fresh from ovens. Whoever could play instruments did, and everyone else danced.

Jacob seemed so calm and confident. Katia realized there was no point in worrying until soldiers arrived--and they might not, after all, as he'd told her several times. She relaxed and danced with him, kissed him often, and felt all the love any bride could wish for on her wedding day. She sipped a single glass of wine throughout the afternoon, and noticed approvingly that Jacob tempered his drinking, as well. They both might need their wits about them. She respected him the more for staying sharp and sober. Then again, she prayed he had no foolish plans in mind.

Evening soon darkened the valley. Peaks impaled the sun. It bled all over them. The moon rose--a giant, pocked crescent, incandescent with pale fire. Clouds circled the mountain. Shimmering waves of snow fell on the castle.

A scarlet carriage arrived, drawn by black horses.

The music stopped. All voices hushed, then resumed in whispers.

Two men climbed down from the carriage. They wore swords and red leather armor. They stalked directly toward her.

Everyone hurried out of the way.

Her arms and legs felt heavy. She recognized the sensation--a tension that would snap if she lashed into action.

Jacob stepped in front of her. "Hi there," he addressed the soldiers.

It was so unusual, and his tone so bold, they paused and looked at each other.

This was it, then. Whatever Jacob meant to do, now he was doing it. Men, even her father, had never much protected Katia. She wasn't used to it, and found it hard to stand and watch while Jacob acted for her. She told herself to trust him, though, and see what happened.

"I'm afraid you've come for nothing," he went on. "The festivities have tired my wife. A journey up the mountain would be too much, you see. But while you're here, why not refresh yourselves a moment?" He waved at the tables of food and drink. "Please give milord, Count Volfric, our regrets, our regards, and this token of our fealty as his humble, loyal subjects." He held up a purse. "With extra for yourselves, of course. Here, take it." He tossed the little bag to one of them.

It opened when the soldier caught it badly. Gold coins spilled everywhere.

Everyone gasped.

The soldier bent, reaching for a coin.

"Don't touch it, fool!" the other said, "How do you s'pose he got it?" He crossed himself.

The villagers all crossed themselves.

Katia wrung her hands instead, but she knew what everyone was thinking, because she thought it too--so much gold could only have come from the Devil. Her heart went out to Jacob, that he'd do such a thing for her.

It wasn't going well, though. The soldiers squared their shoulders, and came on.

Even from behind, Jacob's shock was plain to Katia. He tensed. "Wait. Stop." He turned to Father Gregory. "Don't just stand there. It's a sin. You know it is!"

The old priest hung his head. "Oh my son, you have not done well, bargaining your soul for that bag of Satan's dung."

Jacob wouldn't yield. A mere shoemaker, he was no match for soldiers. He punched them both savagely. They beat him to the ground.

"Leave him alone!" Katia ran at one soldier and tried to shove him as hard as she could away from Jacob.

The soldier struck wild, and sent her sprawling.

She jumped up. "Don't hurt him!" Much as she wished he hadn't, she loved Jacob for fighting. She'd never seen a man fight back before. All the husky village boys who tried to act so big and strong when they thought they had her cornered suddenly turned coward when the soldiers came for their brides. "I'll go!" She hoped Jacob wouldn't take those words as a betrayal. If he did, too bad. They could talk about it later. What mattered was that they survive this night together. They could still live and love and be happy ever after. "I'll go."

The soldiers turned on her.

Before Katia could thank God for a tragedy averted, her mother ran and knelt before the soldiers. "Please, not her. I'll go. Take me instead." One kicked her like a stray dog in his path.

"Mother!" Katia screamed.

Her father roared and charged.

The swords came out.

"Oh God, oh no!" Katia watched in frozen horror.

The villagers wouldn't. They covered their eyes or looked at their shoes. They covered their ears to block out the groans and blood-soggy thunks of steel into flesh.

Katia gaped at the butchered remains of her father.

The soldiers couldn't find a dry spot on his garment, so they wiped their swords on her dress. They seized her arms. They dragged her toward the carriage.

"Murderers!" She fought to wrench herself free. "God damn you!"

They tightened their grip, raising her off her feet between them. She lost a slipper.

To the villagers, she cried, "Won't you help me? Cowards! These beasts just killed my father. You did nothing. Nothing!"

"Go on to the castle!" a woman shouted. "What makes you so special? Nothing!"

The soldiers shoved Katia in the carriage.

She pushed the door, pulled it, beat it, and threw herself against it, but they barred it from outside. The windows were too small for escape. She watched her mother, her beautiful mother, struggle up from the ground.

"Ya!" one soldier shouted. A whip cracked. The carriage jolted into motion.

Jacob stirred on his back, trying to sit up. Katia clasped her hands and thanked Heaven the soldiers hadn't killed him, too.

Her mother hobbled after the carriage, holding her side where they'd kicked her.

Katia pounded the door again. "Rrgh!" The gabled roofs of Plumj quickly receded as the carriage bore her away.

She beat her fists on her head. She grabbed her hair in clumps. She'd done nothing to prevent her father's murder. While the soldiers chopped him down, she just stood there. After all that trying to brace herself for anything, she froze, too stunned and scared to act.

At the mountain, the carriage tilted back and began the steep ascent. The sun's red rays gave way to the moon's silver and the inky blue of night. She hugged herself, with only the wedding dress to warm her. The path became stone. The horses' hooves clattered. The wheels roared. She felt the difference through the seat and floor. Grass thinned. Trees crowded closer. She smelled evergreen so strongly she could taste it.

She prayed to St. Wendoline, the patroness of warriors, martyrs, virgins, and Wungoria.

The black horses drew the carriage up and up. Shafts of pale light rained through the trees. Snowflakes danced in them. Snow dusted, then blanketed, the world outside.

The carriage halted next to a small bell-tower. Katia fitted her head out the window.

Every day of her life, she'd seen the castle, but never as she saw it now. It rose before her as a dark, soul-crushing mass. Out of the solid black obscurity of the lower walls, it sprouted into a mad profusion of battlements and spires, trimmed with snow that glowed under the moon. She craned her neck to see the topmost tower, where one round stained-glass window gleamed like a demonic eye.

The church steeple of Plumj suddenly seemed puny, foolish. She seemed puny and foolish to herself. What saint, what Holy Mother, what God could help her in that place? What could she do to help herself?

The carriage waited, she realized, on a neighboring cliff, separated from the castle by a crevasse. Behind the castle, a sheer mountain wall ascended out of sight, making this the only possible avenue of approach.

Instead of ringing the bell, as a visitor might, the driver blew a horn.

The most ungodly shrieks answered from higher on the mountain. Count Volfric kept vampires there and hunted them for sport.

The driver blew the horn again. It echoed over the crevasse.

Again the vampires shrieked.

Wolves added their howls to the mournful chorus.

A titanic groan drowned out all other noises. A drawbridge fell across the chasm. The tremor when it crashed down rocked the carriage, and Katia within.

She fought to compose herself on the trip over. Once there, she'd face an awful choice. Her father's death cried for revenge. Could she kill Volfric? Probably not. But even if she did, she'd never leave alive. His men would surely rape her, most likely torture her, and finally impale her--then hoist her on the village square for all to see. No, whatever she owed her father, she owed it to Jacob, her mother, and herself to stay alive, if possible. She rubbed her aching temples. The rumble of the wheels on the planks was almost soothing. She snugged into the cushion and tried to let it calm her. She begged St. Wendoline for courage, strength, and wisdom.

Something rushed by, toward the castle.

"What? Hey!" a soldier shouted from the carriage.

Katia poked her head out again. Wind whipped her long black hair over her eyes. By the time she pushed it clear, someone on a horse had left them far behind.

A jagged, thundrous grinding noise drew her gaze beyond. An iron grille blocked the portal ahead. Torches burned behind it. Spikes protruded from it. Heavy chains, cranked from God knew where, drew the murderous thing up to clear the way. The bars sharpened to spear-points at the bottom. Just seeing them filled her mind with morbid images of them crashing through her body.

Before the portcullis rose completely, the rider dashed under, ducking in the saddle.

The carriage driver lashed the black horses faster.

Katia sank back in the seat. She'd only caught a fleeting rear glimpse of the figure on the horse. She wondered, could it be . . . ?

#

A fever almost killed her when she was very young. As she lay in bed one night, teeth chattering, she heard hoofbeats approach. They stopped outside the door. A hooded figure walked in. Her parents didn't wake, though armor clinked under the cloak. A horse stuck its head through the window--no nice, tame horse, but a monster with evil, glowing eyes. Katia and the Rider stared at each other. In the darkness, she couldn't see the face. Her fever broke, drenching her in sweat. The Rider walked out, and rode the horse away.

When she told her parents in the morning, they exchanged frightened looks. Mother crossed herself. They told her it was just a nightmare. But later, she overheard them whisper it was Death.

Some years later, she'd finished her chores early one evening, and enjoyed a rare moment to skip and play on the square.

"Get inside!" someone screamed. "The vampires are coming!"

Normally, she learned later, the mountain was too cold for the vampires to transform. Some must have wandered below the frost line. They must have felt, for once, the uncanny fluidity of form vampires inherit from the grave.

Everyone stampeded for their homes. Katia ran as fast as she could to the cottage.

She turned to slam the door, but saw the most wondrous thing--a cloud of butterflies descending on Plumj. The Rider sauntered on horseback through the village, unconcerned. Katia felt his gaze fasten on her from that distance, though again, she couldn't see the face. The butterflies floated and swirled around him for an instant, then surged toward her.

Mother jerked her back from the door. Father flung it shut. Too late! She'd already wished to see the butterflies some more.

Father peeked through a hole in the wall. "Oh God! Lord save us!"

Mother pulled the only glass jar they owned down from the highest shelf, ripped the lid away, and dumped the pickles out. Vinegar slopped everywhere. The smell came back to Katia whenever she recalled it.

"Here!" Mother had cried.

Father caught the jar one-handed. He bobbled it, but got it in both hands. He shoved the open end over the hole.

Butterflies filled the jar. They squirted through the hole like ink, and crowded so thickly their wings could scarcely quiver.

Mother screamed. She recoiled, and crossed herself.

Katia stared in open-mouth fascination. The butterflies! They were so lovely. She couldn't believe they were vampires, accursed human corpses who would tear her with their fangs and suck her blood.

Father held the lid ready. He and Mother traded fearful glances.

"Be quick!" Mother's shrill voice made Katia cringe.

Father whipped the jar around and slapped the lid on, but not before one butterfly escaped.

"Oh no! No! No!" Mother pointed at the thing, flitting up among the rafters. She ran to rip a crude, splintery crucifix down off the wall.

With a soft, underhand toss, Father pitched the jar into the fire.

The vampires screeched like all the fiends of Hell. They pattered against the glass. Their gossamer wings blackened and curled. The jar burst. Crisp butterfly parts fell into the fire and were consumed.

Father moaned, "Thank God! Thank God!" He crossed himself. Tears welled in his eyes.

A chill prickled Katia's scalp, her nape, her spine. Goosebumps broke out all over her. Something very wrong was happening. She looked up to see it.

The last butterfly wavered and grew indistinct. It hovered and expanded, pulsing, stretching.

Katia couldn't look away. She remembered every instant, though it all happened so fast.

Mother charged forward with the crucifix. "Get back!"

Katia cast her first spell, then. It was instinctive, primal. She'd befriended the spirit of the hearth. She called to it for help.

The fire flared up with a roar. It exploded toward the metamorphing vampire. A rabid foam of sparks dripped from the smoke it belched.

Katia jumped back, startled by the heat flash on her nose and cheeks. She sneezed.

The flames engulfed the vampire as it coalesced into a vaguely human shape. Katia never saw it as anything more than a screaming form of fire that quickly burned to cinders. She never even knew if it was male or female. Since that night, she often wondered what she might have seen, and tried to imagine what vampires look like.

And, since that night, she always slept on the hearth. The spirit, whom she called "Little Godmama," told her stories before she went to sleep. Katia listened intently to tales of a little princess, just a young girl like herself--and pretty like her, too--only the princess lived in a castle, not a cottage, and had many wonderful things.

"I wish I were a princess!" Katia complained one night.

"So does every little girl," Godmama said. "But be careful what you wish for! Sometimes being a princess isn't easy."

The stories grew darker. At first, the princess didn't always get her way, but then real problems troubled her, and then she found herself in danger--scarier and scarier! Sometimes when she needed help, she asked for it and got it. Sometimes she had to ask many times before someone would help her, and it wasn't always someone she particularly liked. Sometimes nobody could help her, or would, and she had to face great danger all alone. Somtimes she won, sometimes she lost, sometimes she got hurt, sometimes she hurt others, and once she even killed. Sometimes others asked her for help. Many times she gave it, but sometimes she couldn't, even if she wished to very much. Other times, she decided not to. Whatever she decided, sometimes it turned out for better, and sometimes for worse.

Katia paid rapt attention to these tales, and thought long about them the next day as she pounded laundry at the river. She tried to figure out what she would do if she were the princess, and imagined what might happen if she acted differently.

Thus, when a wandering friar, a stranger to Plumj, happened along while she was at her work, she was surprised but not shocked when he tried to rape her. She'd pictured how she would protect herself so many times, she immediately snapped into action, and killed him with her stone.

She noticed the Rider, watching her at a distance.

"Will you help me, then?" she called. She pushed the fat friar in the Rider's direction. She rolled him over once. "Take him, Death. He's yours!"

But the Rider didn't answer, only held a finger to where the lips would be in the shadows of the hood.

Katia sighed. There was nothing for it but to roll the corpse into the river. As heavy as he was, he floated on the current. He washed up on a bend, several miles down. Nobody suspected her. Or if they did, nothing came of it.

When she looked up from the task of disposing of the body, she found herself alone. Nor had she seen the Rider since. Until, perhaps, just now.

#

The carriage paused at the gatehouse.

"Who was that?" the driver demanded.

The porter answered, "I don't know. I thought 'e were with you."

"Well, 'e weren't! It's your job to make sure. If the Count is inconvenienced, mark my words, you'll be impaled."

The whip cracked. The carriage jounced forward.

The iron grille slammed down.

The drawbridge groaned up.

"DOOM!" reverberated through the castle when it shut.

The sound killed Katia's hopes. It made her mind up for her. What ever made her think she might get out alive? After the scene down in the village, Volfric would impale her as an example. But maybe she could kill him first. Or hurt him. Or at least defy him, maybe for the first time in his life. Since her death was certain, she'd rather go fighting than like a lamb to slaughter.

The carriage stopped in a wintry courtyard. Snow covered the paving-stones, and drifted high against the walls.

Katia noticed a horse, standing unattended. It looked malnourished, puffing steam at the nose and mouth, shivering from exhaustion and the cold. Poor beast--she recognized it from Plumj. So the horseman who passed them on the bridge must not be the Rider from her past. Could it be Jacob? From the beating he took, she doubted it.

A servant ran out with a lantern. He ushered Katia and the soldiers into a vast hall. It could have swallowed the church down in the village, steeple and everything. Rows of torches burned on walls and columns. Their flickers revealed only glimmers of the vaulted ceiling. She felt like a mouse creeping chair-leg to chair-leg across a giant's kitchen.

An inferno blazed in the biggest fireplace she'd ever seen. A knot of figures clustered before it. The one she'd seen on horseback--a woman!--wept and pleaded on her knees. The voice gave Katia a start.

"Mother?"

The kneeling woman, Katia's mother, looked around. "You see, my lord? Your daughter! Don't commit that outrage. God and nature would abhor it. Take me again instead."

Katia heard the words, but could make no sense of them. "What are you saying?"

"My poor, beautiful baby," her mother said, "the Count is your true father. He took me on my wedding night. This is what I tried to spare you when I cast that spell on Jacob. God forgive me for not trying harder!"

Stunned, Katia looked at Volfric. The frank gaze he returned made her quail inside. She did see in his face hints and reflections of her own. The dark eyes, especially, revealed the blood tie, with the same shape and expressiveness. In them, she could see he saw it, too.

For a man his age, his face remained impossibly unlined, his black hair impossibly untouched by grey. His devilish beard even looked almost blue. Of course, his magicians would see to his longevity and youth.

"What's the matter?" he demanded of Katia. "Every girl dreams she's secretly a princess. And here you truly are! Maybe I'll make you my Countess if you please me well enough." His laughter pealed through the hall.

She felt as though the room began to spin. The soldiers gripped her firmly. For once, she was grateful. They held her up and steady. Her legs wobbled, but she didn't fall.

"Please, no, my lord," Katia's mother said. "Let me take her place! I'll do anything you wish." And then she named acts that made Katia exclaim, "Mother!"

"Don't worry, princess," Volfric said to Katia. "You'll have your turn. And you'll do all those things for me." To her mother, he said, "Greedy sow! I'd never take a haggish slut like you again. Why the Deuce would I, with this fair young bloom, all mine to pluck? Perhaps she'll do better, and deliver me a son. Ha! He'd be twice noble--once from me, and once from her, our daughter."

"Monster!" Katia's mother sprang at him.

He beat her down. "A spear! I want a spear!"

Katia struggled. "Wait! Please! Just do with me what you will and let her go."

"I'll do whatever I will with whomever I will!" He accepted a spear from a servant.

"Don't!" Katia said. "Don't do it! There's danger for yourself."

"What danger?"

"A barrel full of silver coins in Plumj, and every one a curse with your name on it."

Volfric laughed. "There is no curse. That's just the wishful thinking of evil, envious, dung-stinking peasants."

"Father," Katia forced herself to call him. "If you harm my mother--" Her voice broke. It sounded so small and weak, like a little girl's. "--the sky will fall on you, I swear, if I have to claw it down with my bare hands."

"No, little chickee. No it won't."

Katia fought so violently to free herself, one of the soldiers pinned her arms while the other drove his fist savagely into her stomach. All breath and resistance whooshed out of her. Her knees buckled, but the men supported her. One grabbed her hair, and yanked her face up to watch.

Volfric speared her mother through the heart and out the back in a single horrid thrust. The blood was the worst of it for Katia. At first it fountained from both wounds, then slowed to a gush, a flow, and finally a dribble. The cracks in the floor became dramatically visible, as if traced by some pen dipped in scarlet ink. Her mother twitched until, after a last shudder, every trace of life departed.

Katia wept. "Kill you, I'll kill you."

Volfric let her mother drop. "Pitch her into the crevasse," he told a servant. "And the horse she rode in on. Bring me the porter who admitted her. I'll impale him on this spot. God damn me if I don't!"

A soldier jiggled Katia. "What about her, my lord? The chamber?"

Volfric looked her in the eye. "Yes. I'll be there shortly."

#

They carried her through torch-lit passages, up stairs, along dim corridors, up stairs, across galleries, and again up winding stairs, until at last they came to a chamber door, which one of them opened. They threw her inside, locked the door, and left.

Katia wiped her sleeves over her eyes. Tears still came. She dried them as best she could.

She surveyed her prison. A bedchamber. A round stained-glass window occupied nearly an entire wall. She recognized it, and understood. They'd confined her in the highest tower, behind the demonic eye.

Instinctively, she crawled to the fireplace. A fire crackled in it, but something was amiss. She settled on the hearth. Its warmth failed to welcome her. She gazed into the fire. No spirit animated it. That's what was wrong.

She pounded her fist on the hearthstone. Of course, the magicians who served Volfric would never tolerate a stray or wild spirit in the castle. No spirits would haunt the nooks or crannies. None played in the fires. It only made sense. If she could have befriended a little hearth spirit, she'd have burned Volfric to ashes, just like she burned that vampire.

She tried to concentrate, to form some plan, but her thoughts strayed to the man whose death she witnessed on the village square--the man who raised her as his daughter, though he must have known she wasn't. Did he fight like Jacob when the soldiers came for Mother? Surely not. Katia brooded on that, and decided she couldn't hold it against him. Nobody ever fought. Only her Jacob. And what had it accomplished? Somehow, she loved him more now, the woodcutter, that man who was her father--yes, her father, in every way but blood. She grieved his death more bitterly. And then Mother. That loss was so fresh, she almost couldn't feel it. Finally, Jacob. In moments, she'd die, and lose him too.

As for Volfric, though she knew it to be true, she couldn't yet accept what she'd just learned. She stood up and looked around for something to kill him with.

The door slammed open against the wall, startling her.

Volfric filled the doorway. He hesitated, but only in the manner of a beast about to pounce. Gouts of blood glistened on his bare, war-scarred torso. He gripped the frame with dripping hands. Lust flared from his dark eyes, hot enough to make Katia feel it and blush.

She lowered her dark eyes, only to see the bulge in his breeches. She held her breath, waiting while he locked the door behind him with a key, which he then slipped in a pocket. Everything he touched, he stained with blood.

"My darling little girl." His voice was half-growl, half-purr.

She cursed herself for not finding a weapon. He was no fat friar, nor one of the peasant oafs she knew well how to handle. This close, she realized how little chance she had of killing him. She wondered now if she could even hurt him.

He seized her dress with bloody hands.

"Father, no!"

His fingers tangled in the fabric. He shouted. His muscles flexed. He tore her dress completely off.

She fell back on the floor-stones.

Volfric flung himself on her. He ripped off her undergarments, until she lay naked beneath him.

She squirmed against his weight.

He glued his lips to hers. She moaned at the slimy intrusion of his tongue.

When he ended the kiss and rose from her, she saw her body smeared with blood, everywhere he touched her, from her small breasts down to her belly and thighs. She felt it sticky on her skin. Loathing paralyzed her. She could only tremble.

He dragged her to the bed, and threw her down on it.

She tried to kick him away. "I am your daughter!"

"I own every girl on my lands--her life, virginity, and cunt! You are no exception!" His fury made her flinch.

When she dared look again, he held a short whip. She'd seen whips for livestock, whips for riding, whips for driving carts and carriages, but this could serve no practical purpose of the sort. She could imagine only one use for it--punishing girls like her, reducing them to down-on-all-fours, animal submission.

She tried to fend him off, but he lit into her hard. Unable to bear it, she curled into a ball. He lashed her back so cruelly she screamed, "I yield! I yield! Oh stop! Do what you will. My father, I am yours." She wept into the pillow.

He seized her ankle. The jerk he gave it rolled her on her back and pried her legs apart. She looked at her foot in his grasp. A glass slipper still adorned it. The reminder of Jacob rekindled her defiance.

While Volfric held her open, he unbuttoned his breeches with his free hand.

Through her tears, Katia noticed the whip on the bed. Volfric must have dropped it there to keep it close.

His male weapon now stood iron-hard and unsheathed, ready to stab her to the tenderest depths. She lowered her gaze to his soft, fleshy sack.

Her bare foot still was free . . .

Volfric hunched over, bellowing in agony. Rage flashed in his eyes. He squeezed her ankle harder.

She snatched the whip and slashed desperately at his face. She struck and struck. In her hand, the leather hissed and whined as though alive.

He backpedaled, pants around his knees, hands raised in defense. He yelled profanities at her.

"My lord?" someone called through the door--one of the soldiers who brought her there.

Katia hurled a lamp.

It shattered on the wall near Volfric's head. The burst of fire and oil set his hair alight. He quickly slapped it out. The oaths he shouted made her blanche.

"My lord! We're coming!" Someone crashed heavily against the door. A crack reverberated through the chamber.

Volfric hurried to refasten his breeches. He tried to keep one eye on Katia, but fumbled with the buttons, grew impatient, and looked down.

Katia gripped the heel end of her glass slipper, and smashed the toe off on a bedpost. It left a wicked edge.

The next crash at the door splintered the timbers around the lock. Volfric looked.

Katia set herself.

A final crash sent pieces of the door sailing through the air and pinwheeling over the floor. The two soldiers stormed into the chamber. Their leather armor was a blur of red in the corner of her eye.

She charged Volfric, a slash aimed at his windpipe. She threw all her weight behind it.

Not fast enough!

He saw, and ducked.

Instead of laying his throat open to the bone, Katia gouged a chasm through his cheek.

She pivoted and ran at the stained-glass window. Her bare feet slapped the floor-stones. She cursed herself for failing. She had no second chances. The odds she faced weren't even worth attempting.

She stole one backward glance. The soldiers barreled after her. Beyond them, she glimpsed Volfric, his hand clamped on the wound. Blood pulsed between his fingers. At least the scar might be permanent.

Still running, she straightened around. The pretty window loomed gigantically before her. She dropped the glass heel, and pumped her arms for speed.

She'd once complained that none of Godmama's stories about the princess ended happily ever after.

"But then there wouldn't be any more stories," Godmama replied. "And there are always more stories. Until one day there aren't."

"And then what?" Katia had asked.

"Who knows? Maybe the princess will become a Little Godmama, telling stories to another little princess."

"Is that your story, Godmama?"

"Well, I never was a princess. But you will be. A beautiful princess in a castle all your own."

Katia had frowned. "But not happy ever after?"

"No, child. That will just be the beginning of stories and more stories."

It seemed Godmama was wrong. Katia would never be a princess--not that way. And there would be no more stories for her, either.

Now, she threw her arms ahead and dove. Colored glass exploded out in front of her. Shards sliced her. The night air chilled her instantly. Her cuts trailed streams of red through swirling snow and moonlight.

Katia gawked at the fall that would claim her. It yawned like an infinite mouth. Her stomach lurched. Her heartbeat stalled to sloppy lubs.

She dropped toward the darkness so far below.

10 comments:

needaltuna said...

It shows a lot of promise, Curt. But, as with your other writing sample I commented on, it needs editing. For example, you introduce the Count without properly establishing who he is and where he lives. Obviously, he resides in the castle, but you've left it for the reader to figure out, and that's not good writing. As the Count is so pivotal to your tale, he deserves better.

Is there somebody you know, maybe a friend, who's a dab hand at writing and who has the time to help you eliminate these flaws in your prose?

Curt said...

Hi needaltuna--I am posting this in the interest of getting feedback, and I'm getting it, from you among others. I read all of it with interest and will consider it all carefully when it comes time for the next draft. ;-)

Kimota said...

Awesome. Just awesome. And gripping, too. A bit like reading a grisly, twisted Pratchett.

I didn't notice anything wrong with the Count's introduction. He obviously is the ruler of the land and he obviously lives in the castle. Explaining it further would ring redundant. But maybe that's just me.

jaakko said...

Great stuff! Nice structure, a gripping story and you have a good eye for groovy details. You've also re-written everything that needed to be re-written, and now this chapter looks completely publishable.

Almos said...

It is my contention that, in order to be truly gripping, a story needs two components - love and death, namely. Aren't they, after all, two fundamental principles that shape our very existence as human beings? This story has them both. The structure, as jaako remarked, is quite nice too - I like the way the story moves back and forth in time, revealing hitherto hidden aspects of the protagonists' lives. On the other hand, however, the accumulation of supernatural elements - the Count keeping vampires in his estate and hunting them for sport, or the appearance of death in It's (His?) physical form made me raise my eyebrows more than once, but then I gather it was intentional. What else can I say? I've had good time reading your first chapter, and I'm hungry for more :).

Curt said...

Thanks, folks! I feel a little better about having taken the time to go back and do one more deep revision of this before reposting it--a few of the points you mention favorably resulted from that extra effort.

Almos--all I can say is, hold on to your eyebrows!

Anonymous said...

Not bad bro...

It was gripping that is for sure. A wee bit over boarded in some ways.. Though that is really your style !

It lost a bit of traction with me when u dropped the back story with the chick after she been taken by the guards.

Ricky

krakin said...

I have to disagree with needaltuna. A castle has a count, and as soon as I know there is a castle, I assume he exists and don't want to be bored with an introduction.

I do take issue with your trying to shock and offend, however. Every rape scene in modern literature makes use of "see-you-next-tuesday", as if things weren't bad enough already. There is a general lack of consistency in language, and a proof-reader might be helpful here. For instance, no-one stands in a door (one can stand in a doorway, or at a door), and a feast is rarely laid on the square, unless all the tables in the town have been destroyed and no carpenter is available to produce more

Otherwise a fairly gripping story, and well told. I like the inclusion of whimsical fantastical elements, which far too many writers exclude in some misguided attempt to lend their story credibility, and the general sense of hope, which is obviously misplaced. I would have preferred a clever happy ending, but it was clear from the outset that none would be forthcoming, so I was not disappointed.

Full marks for your portrayal of vampires, and the manner in which they are included.

Was that really Death then? I was rather expecting it not to be, and then satisfied that the rider had been her mother all along.

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks for the detailed feedback, krakin! One thing, though--it sounds to me like you read "Ash Girl" as a standalone story, when it's really the first chapter of a yet-unfinished novel. All those other items in the sidebar are later chapters (plus a preceding Prologue), rather than separate stories. They answer some of the questions you raise.

I have mixed feelings about using a rape scene like this. I went with it because 1) I wanted a story-world full of sex, violence, supernatural horror, and the occasional mingling of these elements, and 2) Jules Michelet's compelling account of prima noctis in La Sorcière made a big impression on me and seemed to fit my story-world well. This isn't the last instance of sexualized violence/violent sex in this novel, but I'll probably steer clear of the trope for later ones.

Your point about language, in that scene and in general, is well-taken. I've struggled with the challenge of writing a period piece like this for a modern audience without lapsing into anachronism on the one hand and awkwardly (often inaccurately) antiquarian language on the other. I'm sure I get it wrong often enough! I hope to get most of the worst of it ironed out in the final draft with editorial help, as you recommend.

The ending I'm working toward is obviously not a Disney "happily ever after," but at least it's happier than the one that closes this chapter (and also more clever, I hope).

Again, thanks for the feedback! I hope to post Chapter 12 before Xmas. We'll see!

krakin said...

I worked out about the other chapters after commenting :)
I (oh dear) initially discarded the idea of reading the following chapters, having been satisfied with the conclusion of the first chapter, and remaining sceptical and fearful of disappointment (in all things), but imagine curiosity will get the better of me soon, or perhaps later.
In any case, I (again? Maybe this is all about me after all) wish you all the luck or inspiration you can use in continuing this work, as well as the satisfaction of a new chapter in time for the festivities.