III. The Legend of Wendoline

Katia bolted up, suddenly awake.

A horse's head loomed, its body hulking in shadow. It stared at her with huge, blank eyes.

She scrabbled back. A mattress crinkled under her. She slammed into a corner. Mildew filled her nostrils, and she sneezed.

The horse twitched its ears.

She recognized it, then. It was just as she remembered from many years ago, the horse that looked in her window when fever brought Death to her bedside.

Conscious of her nakedness, she crossed her arms and drew her legs in. As her wits returned, the last thing she remembered was diving through stained-glass.

She looked around, and found herself in the crumbling shell of a cottage. A fire crackled in the fireplace. Orange fingers of light groped out into the room, sometimes flickering in lurid streaks over a wall, sometimes withdrawing to the confines of the hearth.

Seated before the fire, with back to her and hood drawn up, the Rider poked a log, sending sparks up the chimney.

"So, Death," Katia said. "You've taken me at last."

The Rider didn't look around. It laughed. In the voice of a girl not much older than herself, it said, "You're not dead, and I'm not Death."

Everything about these words startled Katia, not least that she'd been wrong so long in assuming the Rider was male. She felt the cuts all over her, and looked down at herself. They still hurt, but at least they'd stopped bleeding. They seemed to prove the Rider's words--she wasn't dead. She rose to her knees. "Who are you? What is this place? What happened?"

The horse snorted and twitched its ears again.

"What happened is," the Rider said, "I caught you and brought you here. This place is that fellow's cottage." She pointed.

Katia looked.

A corpse, reduced almost to a skeleton, lay on the floor. Firelight reached the gruesome relic only fitfully, in glimmers.

"Oh!" Katia pressed herself back harder in the corner.

"Don't mind him," the Rider said. "He rests in peace. And no one else is likely to disturb us. As for who I am, I only hope this doesn't come as too much of a shock."

The Rider rose. She turned to face Katia. She swept the hood back from her head.

Katia jumped up. "Saint Wendoline!"

There stood the very image she'd prayed to and adored innumerable times. There were the beautiful brown curls, there the eyes so large and brown. There was the heart-shaped face, and the only difference was the dusting of freckles nobody painted on the statues.

Katia rushed to embrace her, then remembered herself and genuflected.

"No, don't kneel," Wendoline said. "It's not like that."

Katia looked up, confused. "Like what?"

"Come, now. Upsy-daisy!" Wendoline helped Katia to her feet. Her brown eyes fixed on Katia's. "I wanted you to know, but you must never call me by name. Best if you never speak it again. If the wrong ears heard, I'd be finished."

Before Katia could express her puzzlement, Wendoline pulled her close and kissed her mouth. There was something disturbingly unchaste about it, almost like when Volfric kissed her. Strange chills made her shiver. Still, Katia had kissed the statue many times, so now that she clasped the real saint in her arms, she returned it with fervor. Their noses bumped. Her chin began to feel wet and sticky. She sensed an extra, otherworldly tingle, as if she were being placed under a spell.

Wendoline broke away, eyes bright, cheeks flushed. Katia panted for breath. Wendoline rubbed a wickedly armored thumb over Katia's lips, and licked her own. "Mmmmmm. There. My secret's safe with you."

"But, I don't understand," Katia said.

"Why don't you sit down. Please. You might come to hate me, but it's time you learned the truth."

"Hate you?" Katia exclaimed.

"Please, just sit and listen."

Katia sank to the mattress. "Hate you?"

"I am Wendoline. The 'Saint' part is a lie."

"What?"

"They lied. They lied about everything. You've heard how I drove out the northern invaders."

Katia nodded, recalling the legend with pleasure, but now also with some apprehension. "All by yourself. While Wungoria' s armies were fighting in the south and west." She knew it by heart. She'd drawn much strength from it throughout her life--even more than from Godmama's stories, because she always believed it to be true.

"That's the only true part. But God never helped me. That part is a lie. I faced them with black magic, and a sword in my left hand. That's how I defeated them."

The sacrilege stunned Katia. She crossed herself.

Wendoline wrinkled her nose at the gesture, but went on: "I never pursued them, once they fled. I never preached to them. I damn well never let them burn me, nor asked God to forgive them. What happened was, the Volfric of my day, ancestor to the one you know, heard of my victory and thought I'd make a fine mother for some good, strong Volfric bastards. I was no virgin--that's another lie--but he disgusted me, so I refused him."

"Refuse a Volfric? Ha!" Wendoline's voice turned bitter. "His magicians trapped me with spells I couldn't break. They wrapped me in chains and threw me in an oubliette beneath a ruined tower. I'd have died of thirst and hunger, but rats devoured me first. Someone made up that stupid legend to explain my disappearance. They sainted me. Everyone was happy."

Part of Katia denied this could be the true Wendoline. Part of her wondered if it were a demon, sent to lead her soul astray. A deeper part heard and recognized the ring of truth. It was another cruel loss, after all else she'd lost that night. It ripped Heaven out from over her, and left her alone beneath a cold night sky. She thought of all her prayers. No Saint Wendoline had ever heard them. No Saint Wendoline guided or protected her. Instead, her life had been haunted by this . . . apparition, who now stood before her speaking of black magic.

"I vowed," Wendoline said, "never to rest until I wiped the House of Volfric from the earth. Thus I remained, bound to this world as a specter. I tried to turn my sainthood to advantage and stir an uprising. They anticipated that. Priests told the peasants that I was a deceiving spirit--that the real Wendoline watched over and protected the Volfrics and Wungoria. Peasants are cowards, and eagerly believed it. Volfric's magicians tried to exorcise me. They thought they succeeded, and they very nearly did. That's why no one since has guessed my name, and truly banished me. But they don't need a spirit's name to guard against it. By one means or another, they've always barred my way."

Katia' s own vow to kill Volfric, the man, seemed suddenly trifling before this centuries-old vow to smash the whole House from beyond the grave. Looking up at Wendoline, she felt herself a bubble on the verge of a maelstrom. From this dizzying perspective, she thought back to the chance she'd blown earlier that night, and what it might have meant in Wendoline's far vaster drama, if only she'd succeeded.

She recalled Volfric unguarded, unarmed, all but naked, hands cupped where she kicked him, pants around his ankles. She couldn't imagine getting a better chance than that. When she considered everything that now stood in her way--the mountain, the chasm, the castle, the soldiers--she couldn't imagine getting another chance at all. He was the Count, a lord and warrior from an ancient line of lords and warriors. She was a washer girl, the merest bit player on a stage whose scale she'd only just begun to fathom.

Which made her wonder, what could Wendoline want with her? Here was no saint, she reminded herself, but a specter who existed only for revenge, who'd watched her all her life, and never helped her once before, and watched the Volfrics longer. If Wendoline stopped watching and took action, she did so for reasons of her own. If she shared Katia's goal of killing Volfric, she might very well pursue it at Katia' s expense. If she saved Katia' s life, it was no boon or favor, but a move in some unholy game of death.

"I thank you for saving me--" Katia tried to say Wendoline's name, and found she truly couldn't. The kiss had sealed her lips, indeed. "But Jacob, my husband, he fought for me. He's hurt. I'm sure he's worried for me now. He might even need help. I must go to him. I must." She stood. "I'm sorry to leave you so abruptly, but--"

"Wait!" Wendoline edged closer to the door. "We're miles from Plumj." Calculation flickered in the depths of her brown eyes.

The fire crackled. Shadows and orange light dueled on the walls.

Wendoline nodded. "I'll take you to him."

The horse burst from its corner to the center of the room. Wendoline swept up onto its back, unhindered by the armor that gleamed beneath her cloak. The two were as one, majestic together. The horse switched its tail. Wendoline held out a steel hand.

Katia looked up, to search Wendoline's eyes for some clue what she might be thinking, what conclusion she had reached. But Wendoline wore her hood up now. Darkness hid her face. She looked for all the world like Death. Katia took her hand.

Wendoline pulled her effortlessly up to the saddle's back.

Katia wished she could clothe herself, but didn't dare say anything, lest Wendoline change her mind. She prayed that, once she reached Jacob, she'd be home again, she'd be safe again, no matter how badly he was injured, and somehow everything would be all right.

"You, chimney, turn into a path up to the clouds," Wendoline commanded. Even her voice now rang hollow and sexless, from far beyond the tomb. "And you--" She stroked her horse's mane. "--straight on to the village. Hyaa!"

The horse plunged into the hearth.

Katia held tight to Wendoline.

They blasted from the chimney through the clouds to where the stars shone bright and clear. They rode, they flew, faster than any wind. The horse wound its way between the highest mountain peaks.

"I'm freezing!" Katia said.

"Just a moment longer."

They dove into a cloud.

The unexpected smack of ground beneath the hooves jolted Katia.

They tore down a mountain path. The ride on land was still enchanted, devilishly fast. They pierced the veil of mist. A blur of trees whipped by on either side. The mountain peeled away and turned into the valley.

Doubts and fears blossomed in the back of Katia's mind. She didn't have long to entertain them, but with every inch of ground, she felt she was rushing toward something darker and darker. With every heartbeat, panic rattled in her breast. She couldn't bring herself to think what seemed likely--that Volfric might have searched for her, and paid Jacob a visit.

They came first to the glowing embers that remained of the cottage Katia had lived in all her life.

"Hold!" She jumped down and ran to it. The heat it still gave off stopped her like a wall. Though it saddened and surprised her to see her home in flames, it didn't shatter her. These things happened, she knew from Little Godmama's stories, even to princesses.

"Godmama!" she cried. In the midst of the fire, she sensed a dead and vacant hearth. She turned to Wendoline. "Please, is there a spirit anywhere in there?"

Wendoline concentrated a while, then shook her head.

Katia wasted no time scrambling back up in the saddle. "Oh God, Jacob! We must find him!" Even as her heart thumped in dreadful anticipation, tears streamed down her face for Little Godmama. Katia had long since figured out that the hearth spirit was actually the ghost of an ancestor from her mother's side, a great-great-grandmother or something of the sort, who remained in this world only because of the loving attachment she formed to each new generation. Little Godmama never harmed anyone in life or death. Volfric and his men seemed determined to harm everyone. They couldn't even leave a little hearth spirit alone.

Braced as she was for the worst, Katia couldn't help herself when they reached the village square. At the sight of Jacob, displayed high on the impaling spear, she didn't wait for Wendoline to stop, but flung herself from the saddle. She landed badly, spilling in a tumble. She regained her feet and half-ran, half-staggered to him. She would have screamed, "Nooo!", but only a scratchy, halting "-o-o" came out.

Wait! Did he move? She stared. Could he still live?

No, ravens! Ravens strutted on him.

Katia charged, sobbing, shrieking, waving. "Get off! Damn you! Get off! Leave him alone!"

Reluctantly, the ravens flapped away.

Katia stopped before the figure and peered up at the face, banishing all hope that it might be someone else. Still, she sought a hint of life in Jacob's eyes. They'd rolled up to the whites, and ravens had been pecking them. His mouth froze open in what must have been a dying groan. His tongue lolled out. Ravens had been pecking at it, too.

She stretched to touch his face. She wanted to give him just one gentle, wifely touch. She wanted to pour all the love she would have given him up through her fingertips, to ease the hurt he'd suffered, to soften his hard grimace, even though it was too late. She just wanted to say goodbye.

The spear was tall, however, and he hadn't slid down it very far.

She seized his hand. She kneaded the stiff thing, trying to make up for a lifetime of caresses she'd never give him.

He dropped several inches.

It startled her. "Oh!"

She clutched his leg and wept against his thigh. As he slid down, she too slid down, until she bowed, naked, at his feet. Tendrils of her long black hair stuck in the clotting purple mud.

"I'm so sorry," Wendoline said.

"You knew," Katia said, her forehead to the ground. "You knew what we'd find here."

"I couldn't have stopped it, if that's what you're thinking."

Katia jumped up. "But you're not sorry, are you? Because now I'll do anything to kill Volfric. You knew I'd come to this. And you have some plan. Some scheme. I see it in your eyes. So where do I fit in it? You want revenge? Now so do I. He's left me nothing else."

"What do you know about the vampires on the mountain?"

Katia blinked. She didn't see what they had to do with anything. "Doesn't he hunt them, for sport?"

"Soldiers herd them to the most desolate heights," Wendoline said. "They only feed on animals. Constant cold and hunger dull their minds and keep them weak. Their wits are never clear enough to form the slightest inkling of their powers. Volfric loves to boast that he hunts vampires, but those pathetic creatures don't deserve the name."

Katia flashed back to the one she slew by calling on Godmama. She remembered the jar of helpless butterflies, trapped so easily, turning black and crispy in the fire. Perhaps Wendoline was right, but she still didn't see what it had to do with anything. "So?"

"Those vampires pose no threat to the castle. So no effort is made to keep them out! Even Baron Rovenmare has limits."

Katia shuddered at the necromancer's name.

"He can't just ward off everything," Wendoline said. "He concentrates on spirits like myself. The vampires don't rate his attention, or even his apprentice's. If one gets in the castle, soldiers deal with the nuisance. You still look confused. I'll come straight to the point. Almost nothing stands between vampires and Volfric. The right vampire could get to him. You can get to him. If you become a vampire."

Katia's jaw dropped. She looked at the horse. It stared back at her, and whinnied.

Wendoline talked faster. "You'll be nothing like those wretches! I know a place where we'll have all the time we need to get you ready. You'll be stronger and quicker. You'll master all your powers. I'll train you as a warrior and sorceress--"

Katia stopped listening and looked away, to think, to let her mind catch up with the twist in the scheme. It seemed infernally clever, too clever by half. Wendoline had obviously sought long and hard for a gap in the castle's defenses. Had she found one? Katia certainly had no better ideas.

But, become a vampire! That meant Katia would have to die. She'd be undead, a corpse without a soul. She'd dwell in night, and never see the sun. She'd drink blood. Human blood. The cross and all things holy would stand arrayed against her. She'd be damned.

She frowned over that last point. God abandoned her already. God abandoned Jacob and her mother and the man she still loved as her father. Father Gregory, that mealy son of a rat, represented God on earth. Yes, she cursed God in her heart. That was that.

The hardest part was, could she be a murderess? She thought of how she felt the time she killed in self-defense. She knew she'd had to do it, even took a certain pride in it, but deep down, her truest human feelings recoiled fron the act. As a vampire, she'd sustain herself more savagely than that. Murder and bloodshed would be her meat and drink.

She looked around at Plumj, and let herself remember how stupid, mean, and vile the villagers had always been to her. Men slapping her arse, saying things to make her blush, and always trying to trap her in some corner. Women shunning her, making up stories, and calling her a slut just because they were such ugly, spiteful shrews. She thought of all their laundry, always so disgusting. She let herself remember how they all stood by when the soldiers came. They did nothing, she was sure, to help poor Jacob. They probably thought he deserved it, for that gold.

Yes, the thought of killing them for no better reason than to sate a thirst for blood made her queasy, but she felt no pity for the lot of fools and cowards. She could bring herself to do it, to turn herself into a ravenous night-monster, to prey on them as though they were mere sheep, if that was the price of avenging those she loved.

Wendoline still was talking.

Katia held up her hand. "I'll do it. But first, we bury Jacob. Right here where I stand. This spear will mark his grave, where everyone can see it. Or pretend not to see it, just like they do that barrel! And you--" She stabbed a finger at Wendoline. "You'll lay a curse. A black magic curse to shame that coward Father Gregory! A curse his weak, worthless faith never could dispel. A plague on any who disturb the spear or grave, unto the seventh generation, death to their firstborns, and--oh, I don't know, just do it!"

Wendoline smiled. "As you say."

The village remained dark and still around them as they worked. Only the castle clock tower, tolling midnight in the distance, broke the silence. The grave was shallow, but it would suffice. Wendoline cast a hair-raising curse over it.

"There, now," Katia said. "Whatever I must do, let's get it over with."

#

Leafless trees surrounded Katia. Gnarled limbs stretched in tortured prayer toward the heavens. Lightning scarred the trunks. Roots lay in a tangle on the slope, like thousands of dead snakes. Katia stepped over them as best she could. Rock scraped the bare soles of her feet. Snow numbed her toes. Without a stitch of clothing, she hugged herself and shivered. The wind whipped and blasted her. It turned her tears to ice.

She pushed through spidery branches into a clearing, a flood of silver light.

The crescent moon hung low over a circle of enormous stones.

Katia saw, but could not believe.

Titanic blocks stood upright. Massive slabs lay across the tops, lifted there by some giant or the Devil. They looked as old as the mountain, as the earth. Some had fallen over, and some had broken or crumbled, but that only magnified the awful grandeur of those that still were whole. The snow that capped them probably had never melted since the dawn of time. Probably it never would until the Final Trumpet.

Katia hobbled through mist and swirling snow to the center. She turned, looking around. Beyond the rim of the stone circle, mountains loomed. They formed a natural ring, clearly inspiring the arrangement of the blocks.

Katia's teeth chattered. She prayed the vampires would come soon.

She heard them first. They crunched nearer and nearer through the brush, but stealthily. No deer or wolf ever slunk so quietly through brittle twigs.

Next she saw the eyes, burning, glowing red. Even the tide of moonlight couldn't dim them. They seemed to float like phantom fires. They peered through the spaces between the standing stones. Those gazes threatened to bewitch her where she stood, to smother any will to resist or flee. They reminded her what she already knew--vampires were magic.

Katia stepped back.

She heard a soft "chuff," a footfall in snow, above and behind her.

She whirled.

There, atop one of the cross-slabs, a male vampire crouched over her, as naked as she was.

She stared, gripped by a curiosity that haunted her since childhood.

Undeath had drawn the vampire's eyes deep into the sockets. They shone with a sickly radiance, like sunken candles at the bottom of a well. The hair and beard were long, matted, and filthy. The emaciated flesh showed much decay. Livid in places, dark and putrefied in others, it left no doubt that this thing was a corpse. She couldn't help glancing between his legs, at the shriveled manhood that dangled, pitiful and limp.

The vampire hissed. He threw himself at her.

She set herself to catch him.

The slam of his momentum knocked her down.

She wrapped her arms and legs around him.

They tussled.

She bit his shoulder.

He jerked back, wrenching free before her teeth could break the tough, frozen skin. His knuckles smashed across her face. Her head bounced on the stony ground. She saw stars. Her legs loosened.

He scrabbled away like a startled animal.

The other vampires swarmed on her. She writhed on her back, open and exposed. They sank fangs into her wrists and ankles, throat and thighs, breasts and stomach, anywhere they could. They crouched all around, heads down, teeth ripping, mouths sucking. Greedily, they raked her with their claws. They stabbed and tore. They drew rivers of blood. She felt their tongues everywhere, lapping at her life.

Katia struggled beneath them. Letting them drink her blood was easy. But she had to drink blood from one of them. "Nobody becomes a vampire in all innocence," Wendoline had said. "That's a lie the living tell themselves about loved ones who return. There must be an exchange of blood. If you don't take blood from one of them, you'll only die an agonizing death. You won't rise as a vampire. You'll never punish Volfric. You won't avenge your Jacob."

Weakening, in desperation, Katia lunged at the face nearest hers. It was a girl, who clearly had been young and pretty once. Katia caught the girl's lip between her teeth.

The girl tried to pull away.

Katia bit harder. Acrid blood trickled down her tongue. She could taste the girl's rotten breath.

The girl hissed. Her eyes burned a frightful red.

Katia held and bit. She pressed her lips together, and sucked.

The girl jerked back.

Katia's teeth snapped completely through the lip. It came off in her mouth with a sour spurt of blood.

The girl ran, shrieking, away.

Katia swallowed--blood, lip, and all.

Was it enough? Did she drink enough? Would she rise as a vampire in three nights?

Her vision dimmed and blurred. Numbness spread over her perforated body. The bestial slurps and grunts sounded more distant every moment.

It was finished. She could do no more. She lay her head back. She stared up at the moon. Through her tears, she saw it double. Vampires shed no tears, or so she'd heard. How strange, how fitting, that this was her last taste of humanity and life. She savored it.

As she drifted into death, she heard Wendoline's voice. A song. A lullaby.

5 comments:

jaakko said...

Another nice chapter :-) Personally I would've preferred Wendoline to be a somewhat nastier character, though, or even a sadistic lesbian, because now it was a bit too predictable that Katia decided to help her. But maybe this is just my kinky side talking ;-)

Curt said...

Thanks jaakko! Somewhat nastier, eh? Hmmmm . . .

krakin said...

I agree on the saint's demeanour. She is far too concerned with the soul of an inconsequential corpse and our girl's peace of mind for a sorceress who has held a grudge for centuries. Additionally, a spectre is not personable. It is single-minded and unrelenting, pursuing only one purpose - the one that shackles it to the mortal plane, and has no other concerns, and certainly no graces.

If she had turned out a lesbian I would have stopped reading there and then - not because I'm a prude, but because there is a definite line between fantasy and sensationalism, and it is very rude to drag a reader across it. To introduce a sexual element to the relationship later on in the story, while inappropriate to the setting, would be excusable, but at this point it would have changed the tone from fantastical adventure to political satire, and rendered it worthless.

I think there is a bit of a linguistic oddity in referring to someone as a "bit player" in this context, but otherwise looking good.

krakin said...

I forgot to mention the identity of the rider. I had begun to become accustomed to the idea that she was not in fact the mother, and while I wouldn't exactly say I was impressed (I'd forgotten about the saint, and had to go back and look for references), she has sufficient history to be accepted, and an introduction coupled with a betrayal contributes to the state of mind leading up to our heroine's decision, so it works well. Having been killed by rats, she should probably not be recognizable, but then where would that leave us in the search for a freckled zombie lesbian sorceress (from Mars)?

Curt Purcell said...

Hey krakin--I'm glad you resumed reading and continue to appreciate your thoughtful and helpful remarks.