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Chapter One

Normandy, the Beginning


He awoke in a meaningless half light that could have been dawn or dusk, and in all truth it did not matter. His eyes pierced the gloom easily; to him the inside of her tent was as bright as day. He lay on fur and beneath fur, and the small of his back was wet with sweat. He shifted sleepily and became aware of her next to him. He turned his head and saw she had her back toward him, only partly covered by the stifling fur. Her dark hair, long and lustrous, tumbled away from her shoulders and across the pillows. The side of her neck was bare, and his gaze followed the line of her body from that point, over the rise of her shoulder along the slope of her side and up the sudden sharp rise of her hip. By the slow steady beat of her heart she was still sleeping.

He smiled at the memory of the long hours of love and passion and pure pleasure with her. He'd lost count of how often they'd coupled and ridden together toward that little death, surrendering willingly to it. Each time he'd thought it the ultimate ecstasy, and each new encounter had proved him wrong. They'd kissed and tasted and sucked and stroked. Their sweat and juices had mingled; every moment was perfect.

He reached out and caressed her thick, heavy hair, absently straightened it, smoothing it down, and yet his touch was so light, so gentle that she did not wake. Her skin was alabaster cool and delicate as that of a babe, and he traced her spine with a finger down to the deep cleft between her cheeks. He cupped their firmness, then slipped his hand around to the flat wonder of her belly, and her thatch of dark curls. She was still wet, and as he stroked, a soft low moan escaped her.

He hardened quickly and feeling it, laughed under his breath in surprise at the strength of his desire. He pressed closer and buried his face in her hair. It smelled of blossom and earth and sky and moonlight, and he breathed in deep. He was fully erect now, hard along her spine, and she pushed back against him, shifting her legs. Without effort, he was in her, once more held in her sweetness, and he closed his eyes and gasped at the feeling, at the warmth, at the sense of wholeness.

She moaned aloud now and as one, they began to slowly move against each other, caught up in the rhythm of creation. She did not open her eyes. Perhaps she slept still, and this was all a dream to her. He did not know. One of her breasts filled his questing hand, hard-nippled, compelling, and he found himself pushing deeper, deeper into her. All his being was centered on her, her every reaction to his touch. They moved together so slowly, so languidly.

Sweat seeped from his brow and disappeared into her hair. He kissed the soft nape of her neck, tickling the fine skin there with his tongue. Lips parted, she murmured something; it sounded like a prayer. Her hands pressed against his as he held her, enjoining him to further exploration. He took his time, touching and fondling, until her breath came short and fast, grew harsh with desire. He brought her right to the edge of it, then without warning the animal took him as well. A desperate urgency seized his being, and he thrust harder into her slick wetness, anticipating the coming explosion, wanting it, needing it. In her sleep she pushed back, equally urgent, arching against him. He was so deep inside her, yet felt himself opening, spreading wide as a rose in the sunlight. Then, spasming, quite out of control, at one with his spirit, and out of his body, he burst within her. Once more she moaned, this time from fulfillment, not longing, and he glimpsed a smile as it flicked across her sleeping face.

Dear Goddess, could there be any greater pleasure? 

And inside his head came an answering voice, clear as church bells on a summer's day.


They slept together, he still inside her, softening slowly, until they were once again apart. Yet he held her close, she, he, they, as one in their shadowy heaven.

He dreamed, and in his dream, she came to him, held his face gently in her hands, and spoke. "It will be ever thus, my love, ever thus. I am of thee and thou of me. We are truly one and will never sunder."

He smiled in his sleep, and as she watched him, eyes wide in the darkness, a single tear slid down Sabra's cheek and melted into the pillow.

* * *

The thick oaken doors of the great hall of the Castle Orleans creaked open on their mighty hinges, swirling the smoke-laden air into delicate spirals that disappeared upward into the fading golden light of sunset, and Richard d'Orleans strode through. The rushes on the stone flags crackled under his boots as two weary servants hauled hard and pulled the doors slowly shut again, sealing him in the vast, dim space. He pushed back the thick protective hood of his long cloak and looked about at the wreckage of triumph.

The smell that arose all around him would have given many a man cause to retch. The feasting after the great tourney had gone on for several days; the floor was littered with rotting food, spilled wine, pools of vomit. None of the scullions had yet attempted any cleaning. They'd indulged as liberally as any. The collective sickness pressed heavily upon the whole of the stagnant keep. Richard noted and ignored its near-physical presence, immersed as he was in his own thoughts and fears.

He'd been summoned by his father, Duke Montague d'Orleans. Sabra had insisted that he answer to the old man, and Richard could no more refuse her than stay his breathing. So he'd dressed in the fine linen and leather that she'd laid out for him with her own hands, kissed her chastely on the forehead, and gone for her sake, not the duke's.

As things stood now, he had no need to obey the savage old despot ever again. So far as Richard was concerned, he was free of him, of all the past, free of everything except his loathing for it.

How mightily his life had changed since the great tourney, since his ignominious defeat at the hands of that damned boy. Only a few days had passed, yet in that time Richard d'Orleans had been—quite literally—reborn into a new and never-ending life. While he waited in the empty room, looking idly at familiar tapestries covering the cold stone walls, the events of the past few days came back to him with startling clarity. From the depths of defeat and despair he'd risen to a fresh beginning given to him by his lady, Sabra of the Lake. He was changed, from mere mortal to something much more.

His heart raced, and he caught his breath at the thought. The impossibility of it was almost too much to take in, but on his left hand he bore the undeniable truth that it had indeed happened to him. His third finger had been severed by a dagger thrust at the tourney, but because of his change a healing such as he'd never imagined had taken place, magically reversing the maiming. Though the scar that went around the base of his mended finger was not like to go away, he felt no twinge of pain from it. Indeed, its white ring was constant and absolute proof that no injury could truly harm him, that no enemy could ever strike him down again. He had inhuman strength and the skill to use it to withstand anyone now. He clenched his restored hand into a fist and smiled openly as the raw power surged within him. He was what he'd always longed to be: a true champion, afraid of none, invincible, free.

Yet there was a price to pay. Sunlight was now his enemy, as too was flowing water. He discovered that the first day after his change; Sabra had warned that these would kill him if he lingered in either for too long. Like her, he was a creature more of night than day, a creature of earth and darkness and shadow like the Hounds of Annwyn, their progenitors.

But the most important, and most dangerous, price of all was that his appetite, too, had changed. Like Sabra, like all their kind, he drank blood and only blood to live.

Richard d'Orleans was vampire.

This utterly set him at odds to all that he'd been taught; he'd become a depraved thing to be feared, abhorred, and destroyed. Blood was precious, sacred, not to be spilled or taken by such monsters.

Or so he'd always been told.

We are not monsters, he thought with quiet certainty. No mindless beast could love as he loved Sabra, as she loved him. No evil could possibly abide in her, nor would she allow it near her. That being so, then he was not as others might see him, but something well beyond their limits. They would only perceive him as an unnatural threat though, and act according to the dictates of their fears. Absolute secrecy was necessary for his survival against such deadly ignorance, but it seemed a small enough price to pay for what he'd gained. He was a servant of the Goddess now, a protector of her ways. So long as he was careful and kept silent about the truth behind his new existence, he was ageless and deathless. That was the Goddess's gift to him, bestowed through his beautiful Sabra.

They'd awakened together the day before from a long afternoon of sleep and fleshly enjoyment in the shelter of her pavilion, but this time Richard's first thought and desire was not for more love.

"You hunger, do you not?" Sabra had asked, raising up on one elbow in their bed to look down at him.

"I feel its hold upon me." He ran a hand over his face and lightly touched his corner teeth. They were not extended yet, though he felt the potential to do so tingling in their roots.

"But not as strongly as that first craving?"

"Nay, 'tis but a shade to it, but still . . ." He licked his dry lips, recalling the first glorious red rush of fulfillment he'd taken from the veins of one of Sabra's servants. The old eunuch had given up his life that Richard might live, given it up to be with the Goddess they all served. "Must I kill again to satisfy this need?" Though troubled by the prospect, he was willing to do so if it meant a never-ending eternity with Sabra.

"But surely not," she replied, smiling at his concern. "Killing each time we must feed would call attention to us, and we would be hunted down and killed ourselves by those who have the knowledge. There is a simple way to satisfy our wants and a pleasing one. I will show you."

Sabra rose from their nest of cushions and wrapped herself in a long loose robe of the same rich brown color as her hair. She went to the tent opening and untied the flap, carefully keeping clear of the rays of the lowering sun that lanced through the cracks. She called to someone outside and soon a young servant girl hurried in. Richard hastily covered his nakedness with a blanket.

"This is Ghislaine, she has helped me many times," said Sabra.

Ghislaine stood in a modest, respectful pose, hands folded and eyes down for the most part, but stealing quick darting glances at her surroundings, at him. Richard could hear the swift patter of her heart. Sabra crossed to her, putting an arm around her shoulders to lean close and whisper something, smiling as she did.

The girl flushed deep crimson and stifled a giggle, nodding.

Sabra whispered again, and the girl shuffled a curtsey at him, smiling coyly. Fresh as a peach, she could not have been much past fifteen, but already had the fullness of a woman's body. By her manner she certainly possessed a woman's experience of the flesh, yet at the same time she seemed to retain a measure of innocence. Richard found the combination highly appealing and felt a predictable stirring within.

Sabra stepped away from the girl and gazed steadily at him. "Now you must tell her what you want."

"What do you mean?"

"With your mind, with your words, you may beguile her to your will."

"I-I know not how, my lady," Richard began, but was stopped from further protest by Sabra's piercing stare. He could not look away. And then he heard her as clearly as if she had spoken to him, though she had not, for he could well see that her lips did not move.

You have the power as I do. Her voice sounded in his head: warm, sweet, seductive. Will her to do as you wish. 

He blinked, recovering his own thoughts amid those she'd imparted to him.

Try, and learn in the trying, my Richard.

"But is this speaking to the mind not your own gift of Sight?" he asked. "You told me I did not share in that."

"True, you do not," she said aloud. "What I would have you master now is very like to it, though. It's part of your new nature. You're capable of bringing others to agreement with your desires. If you learn to use it carefully and to your advantage, with prudence and wit, you will always be safe. No one will ever suspect you differ from any other man, for you can put all such wonderings from their heads."

He thought he understood what she wanted of him. He gestured at Ghislaine. "What must I do?" If she followed the meaning of their talk, she gave no sign.

Bend your thoughts, your will upon her, Sabra whispered. Call her to you. 

Facing the girl, he looked deep into her eyes, not knowing if it really would work. "Come to me," he murmured so softly that he had doubts she could have heard him. "Come, Ghislaine."

With no change of expression, she glided toward him. Was she merely obeying her new master's order or truly responding to his will? He wasn't sure.

"Sit beside me," he said, testing. No servant, no matter what their ranking, would dare take their ease thus in the presence of their betters, but Ghislaine did exactly that, sinking upon the cushions next to him as though she owned them. He looked at Sabra, half smiling in wonder. "I did it."

Indeed, my love. Now lull her to sleep. 

With Sabra's approval to bolster his confidence, he focused on Ghislaine and spoke soothingly, willing her to submissiveness and finally slumber with his soft words. God, it was so easy. Her eyelids slipped shut, and she slumped against him. He eased her down by his side on the cushions.

Sabra sat next to her as well, looking at him across the girl's reclining form. Again, she spoke out loud. "In the deepness of her throat or at the crook of her elbow, the blood flows close to the surface and is easy to get to. There are many such places, but 'tis better to take from the arm when you can, for the marks you leave will be less noticeable to others. Bite gently, and take only as much as you need. You will find you want but little and seldom. It is rich elixir and filling."

Richard lifted the unresisting girl's arm, and pushed up the loose sleeve of her simple gown. The skin was white and clear. Blue veins lay just below the surface, and he traced them with his fingertips. He could smell the blood through her flesh. Unbidden, his corner teeth budded, long, sharp, wolflike, and he felt the warm flush as his eyes reddened. His heart began to pound heavily with anticipation, and he could hear the sound of another heart, Sabra's, rising to match its rhythm.

Sabra's voice purred in his ear, and she stroked the side of his face, her touch like fire. "She will feel little, and what she does will be naught but pleasure, I assure you."

For us both, my lady, he thought, lowering his head. He paused to taste the smooth young flesh, running his tongue over the pulsing vein. As he did, Ghislaine's breath became deep and ragged, her lips opening slightly, showing even white teeth. Richard recognized arousal when he saw it and turned to Sabra, silently questioning.

"Take her," she urged, her own eyes gone red.

His teeth broke easily through the tender skin, and a gasp escaped the girl's lips, followed by a long, delectable moan. Blood gushed into his mouth, and eyes closed, he sucked hungrily. Ghislaine's heartbeat sounded like close thunder to him. His hand strayed to her chest to feel the throb of it as he fed. She shifted under his touch, gasping again as his palm smoothed over the firm rise of one of her breasts. Through the light fabric of her gown his thumb teased at her nipple. Not too surprised, he realized he was hard, erect. He sought release by taking more blood.

The heat of it stole over him, more potent than the headiest wine. The sheer pleasure roaring through his body was almost beyond bearing; he wanted to shout in celebration, but could not tear away, not yet. What came out was a smothered groan of ecstasy.

Ghislaine writhed, drawing her legs up, pressing her head into the cushions. He felt her young body trembling, then shuddering as he fed. Her back arched, and he had to hold her down. She breathed out the name of the Goddess in her crisis, once, twice, before uttering a long wordless cry of exultation. The tension abruptly departed from her, and with a little sigh, she went completely limp. Disturbing for a moment, it gave him pause, but her heart still beat strongly; her blood still flowed to him.

He took in another fiery draught.

Sabra's hand was on his shoulder, fingers digging into his bare flesh. Now was he able to break off, lifting away to open his eyes. Sabra's dark head was bowed over the girl's other arm as she drank from the same fount. The sight excited him in a manner he'd never known before. He instantly understood what he wanted to do next, but wasn't certain how to bring it about.

As if in response to his thought, Sabra raised herself, her blood-flushed gaze meeting his before sliding down to his hard manhood showing beneath the blanket.

No use trying to deny it. "Forgive me, my lady, I—"

There is nothing to forgive. She leaned forward, her warm lips brushing his like a butterfly's wings. She left behind the taste of Ghislaine's blood.

"Have you had enough?" she asked, drawing his blanket clear.

"No," he answered, decisively reaching for her. He stripped away the robe and lifted her small body effortlessly, pulling her right across the slumbering Ghislaine and onto him. Her legs straddled his hips and she gasped as he entered her. She fell forward upon his chest. His mouth on hers, he kissed and licked at the blood there until it was quite gone.

Not enough.

He was aflame like a fever victim. This was no languorous, dream-filled lovemaking, but a primitive and frenzied coupling, as needs he'd never been aware of took him over. Sabra seemed caught up in it as well as her kisses became deeper, more intense, more fierce. She rode against him with bruising force, nails clawing his chest. Then her mouth fastened on his throat, and he felt the sharp dent of her teeth breaking his skin. He pressed her close, panting as she drank. It was almost the same as when she'd killed him to bring about his change, only this time he stayed gloriously awake as his red life went into her.

She suddenly drew back, eyes shut, her body convulsing in time to his thrusts. He watched her face, reveling in her rapture, taking it for his own. When her moans ceased, he pulled her close again, pushing her head to one side to make taut the skin of her neck. His mouth yawned, his teeth piercing one of her surface veins, and he drew hard at the wounds until all that he'd shared rushed back to him again. It overwhelmed all his senses, stealing away the last of his control. Then came his own explosive release as his seed drove into her; the combined impetus of it and the blood gusted through him like a firestorm. It swept him up and out of himself, his soul tumbling helplessly in the searing heat.

The last thing he heard in the chaos was his own laughter as he embraced the red wind.

* * *

Sabra's lithe body gradually slipped away from his, leaving him sprawled on the cushions, puffing and slick with sweat, invigorated and at the same time exhausted. She lay next to him, apparently in much the same state. With a lazy hand he touched his throat. It was sticky with fresh blood, but completely healed. He saw Sabra's skin had also knitted, wholly unmarked but for a few telltale smears. Some minutes later she recovered first and sat up to examine the still sleeping Ghislaine.

"Is it well with her?" he asked drowsily. "She is not hurt?"

"The wounds are small and bled little once we were finished. Mind that you always cleanse them afterward, yourself as well." Sabra got up, drawing her robe on again and went to a table holding a slender wine vessel to pour some onto a square of cloth. She used it to wash away the stains on her lips and throat, then tended to those marring the girl's arms. "Fresh water from a swift stream or rain will do, but wine is best; the sting prevents the flesh from corrupting. Fill a cup for her; she'll need a restorative."

Richard rolled slowly to his feet and did as he was bidden, handing the cup to her, then followed her example and cleaned himself. He found and pulled on a long tunic before dropping onto the bed again. Sabra touched the girl gently on the side of her face, speaking her name. Ghislaine's eyes fluttered open, and she looked about with some confusion, then alarm, struggling to rise.

"My lady, I'm sorry, I did not mean to—"

"Hush, child," she said, keeping her in place. "'Tis natural. Rest yourself a moment. Lord Richard is"—she glanced at him, the light of mischief in her eyes—"a demanding man. Drink this, then you may go to your supper and bed. You're excused from your duties until the morrow."

Sabra's soothing voice had its effect on the girl, and Ghislaine obediently emptied the wine cup, her gaze straying over its rim to Richard. He wasn't sure how he should respond to what looked to be nascent adoration, and tentatively settled on a smile and nod of appreciation. Apparently it was enough; Ghislaine finished, curtsied low to them both, and departed without another word, leaving him alone with Sabra.

"Will she not speak of this?" he asked.

"She will remember little of what happened here, simply that you and she gave each other pleasure." Sabra's gaze wandered to his still ample manhood outlined under the thin cloth. "A great portion of pleasure, it seems."

He began to blush at his body's betrayal of his still-active desire. "Forgive me, my lady, she means nothing to me, I assure you. I know not why it happened."

"You may say you know not, but I do, sweet Richard. It is our nature to enjoy their lives and flesh in all ways, and I take joy in your delight. She is a pretty creature, after all, deserving of appreciation."

"You are not jealous?"

"No more than you should be of me when the blood calls to my hungers . . . all my hungers."

That gave him pause, the implication being that of Sabra feeding from another man. Richard didn't care for the idea, but had no wish to spoil the moment. Better to deal with the subject later. He pulled Sabra back to the comfort of their bed, wrapping his arms protectively around her as she lay her head on his shoulder.

"Will all my feedings be thus?" he asked, murmuring into her thick hair. It smelled of flowers.

"Not always. I thought your first one should be memorable, though."

"My lady is the soul of kindness."

"Sometimes you may feast slowly, others will be catch-as-may as you go along with no time for dalliance. No matter what befalls, make certain the one you choose remains unaware, and that none chance to see you. It could mean your death."

He grunted in short reply, knowing the truth of it. The consequences of what had transpired over the last hour had anyone observed them did not bear contemplation. "I will take care, I promise."

"One other thing, and mark this well: beware of attachments to them, my love."

"What mean you?"

"These fragile children abide with us but a little while and then are gone, and I would not have thee heartsick from the loss. You are ever my true love, and I yours. We two will endure long after Ghislaine is dust. That is the way. That is why the Goddess chose thee, for strengths even you may not yet know about yourself."

"Then you must tell me about them, sweet lady."

"When the time allows . . . and we have more of time than anything else."

Certainly while waiting in the empty feast hall away from Sabra's intoxicating presence Richard had had an abundance of it to think everything through. He was mildly surprised to determine that from a loss that should have saddened him, a transformation that should have terrified him, a craving that should have disgusted him, he could see nothing but goodness and bold promise for his future.

His eternal future . . . with Sabra.

He shut his eyes, holding the wondrous image close lest it fly away from him in this chill and hollow place.

But his gladness was interrupted when an apologetic servant hurried into the room bearing a single candle and placed it on the table. Richard's vision was such that he'd not noticed how dark it had gotten.

"Does the duke summon me yet?" he asked, staying the man's excuses for being late.

"I know naught of it, Lord Richard," he said, ducking his head. "Do you wish anything?" Cold was settling in for the night and the man shivered in his tattered clothes. The castle was always cold, even this far into spring.

"I thank you, but no. Be off to your bed."

He stared at Richard for a moment.

Richard met his gaze calmly, but felt a twinge of doubt within. Does he see the change in me? 

If he did, he kept it to himself and quickly departed the way he'd come, leaving the door ajar. As he hastened along, Richard's sensitive hearing followed the whisper of his footsteps, probably back to the stinking smoky warmth of a pallet by the kitchen hearth.

Then another kind of sound came forth from the entry and suddenly two of the castle's great hounds bounded noisily into the feasting hall to scavenge the leavings. They were huge hunting beasts, and Richard knew them both well; he'd been right there in the stable at their whelping. He'd watched their growth from clumsy pups to graceful adults and trained them himself for the chasing down of game in the forests. They'd often been his only companions for many long weeks at a time. Of all things and people living in his father's castle, these hounds were the only souls he could trust and count as friends.

He clapped his hands and gave a short whistle. "Merlin! Prince!"

The two dogs checked in mid-bound, recognizing the voice, looking around for its owner in the dimness.

"Prince! Merlin! Here, lads, here." Richard stepped forward, hands out as the animals whined an anxious greeting and tore over the flags toward him, tongues lolling as though from laughter. "Come to heel, come on."

Merlin reached him first. Richard was almost close enough to touch the massive head, but paused at an unexpected shift in the dog's reaction to him. Merlin froze an instant, then backed away so quickly that he blundered into Prince, halting him in turn.

Both dogs milled in confusion, sniffing and growling at Richard before settling into a guarded stance. The hair along their backs stood straight on end, and they lowered their heads threateningly. With ears laid flat, teeth bared and snarling, they were primed for the kill.

Instinctively, Richard backed away, hefting a heavy wooden stool as defense. The dogs had recognized him; what was wrong? Had they gone mad, inexplicably perceiving him as an enemy? He'd seen the damage that these two could inflict many times and wanted none of it. Who had turned them against him?

He spoke their names again, firmly, not letting the alarm he felt color his voice. Instead, he brought to his tone all the displeasure he could muster, slamming the stool on the floor with a bang. He held fast to it, though, in case his ploy at dominance failed.

The noise startled them, and his voice seemed to break through before they could charge. First one then the other stopped and began to whine piteously, eyes averted, as though afraid to look at him. They spun around uncertainly, tails between their legs, urinating in fright. Richard lowered the stool and took a step forward, speaking softly. Perhaps his new clothing had masked his familiar scent. But the dogs backed away from him, yelping with fear, then turned tail and fled.

He stared open-mouthed at their retreat, then belatedly understood the why of it. With the cold breath of the Hounds of Annwyn forever upon him, what other reaction could he expect from ordinary canines? Merlin and Prince had sensed the difference all too sharply. What surprised Richard was the enormity of the hurt he felt from their unexpected rejection. Sabra had not warned him about this particular price for his change.

Perhaps this won't be as easy as I thought. 

He released his hold on the stool and finally seated himself on it rather than pace the filthy floor. He stared at the entry where the dogs had retreated, mourning their loss. He'd have had to leave them behind, anyway, for all in the castle and lands around belonged to the duke, but this wasn't the sort of parting Richard might have wished for.

Richard had tenuously held his place in the household by strength of arms, bringing honor to the family name with each victory. That had ended with his defeat at the tourney, though, and he knew exactly why he'd been summoned. It was time for the duke to give his hated child a final censure and banish Richard from his house with less consideration and far more rancor than would be heaped upon the lowliest of the servants.

Richard watched the shadows cast by the candle flame twist and jump in the draughty air, remembering how he'd snapped a curt dismissal to the duke's command in Sabra's pavilion earlier that day.

"You must go," she told him.

"I think not." Richard had no desire to forsake her safe, dark sanctuary for a walk in the burning sun only to face his father's own searing wrath at the end of it.

"You must. It is necessary."

"Is it not enough that I've endured a lifetime of abuse and humiliation from him? Can we not simply leave for Britain?"

"For one, you must obtain his release from your oath of service to him. Without it he has the right to hunt you down like an escaped serf."

He ground his teeth, for she was perfectly correct. "And for another?"

"We few of us know how to properly say farewell." Sabra held his hand in hers as she spoke. "It is a necessary and important thing. It is the finishing of the round. Without it, whatever we do from then on can be flawed. Like it or no, he is your father; he is in you always. You owe yourself that acknowledgment and the closing of the circle."

Richard started to protest that he could not remember a single occasion upon which Montague d'Orleans had behaved in any way like a father, but stopped, realizing the humble truth of her words. "He will belittle me."

"That he will."

"And he will shame me and say that I am no son of his. I know it."

"And you are right."

Richard thought for a moment and turned her hand over in his, finally kissing her palm. "Does your Sight tell you what will happen, what will come of this?"

Sabra did not answer.

"Does it?"

The look in her brown eyes as she regarded him could melt the hardest stone. "Dear Richard, what is to be will be. What will happen is within you. You'll find it in your heart. You must be your own guide in this, make your own path for right or wrong."

"What is it you tell me? That I've a choice to make? What sort of choice?"

"I'll say only that we often have to reach through the thorns to pluck the rose. There is always pain if we choose to seize it. Just remember that I am with you through all." She loosed his hand and stepped back from him. "Now go to your father. He has summoned you, and you must give him that one last obedience."

He wanted to ask more, but knew she would not—or could not—answer. Her Sight was clear and truthful, but sometimes it revealed too much, showing her more than one future, each dependent upon actions made in the present.

Perhaps that was what awaited him. If so, then might he not make a mistake, choose the wrong path? The wrong future?

She'd raised herself on her toes to kiss him lightly on the mouth, and he returned it, pressing his lips to her brow. He wrapped his heavy cloak close to shield his vulnerable skin from the sun and left.

And now here in the darkness, lit by a single sputtering candle he sat, waiting to discover the meaning of her words. Out of love for her and trust in her wisdom and judgment he could put himself through one more hour of his father's malice, though not much more than that. Richard had his limits.

Most of that hour had passed already, according to the tolling of the church bell. It was full night and vespers had come and gone by now, though it was doubtful that the chapel had been very full. Perhaps a few had attended to pray for recovery from their revels.

How like his father to keep him waiting thus. It was a very old game he played, and he never tired of it: Summon the despised son, then keep him without. It was an obvious insult, one he'd seen his father use often and to great effect. Richard might be here for hours, even all night if it pleased the duke.

This is the last time for me. It must be the last time. 

Finally giving in to a portion of impatience, Richard stood and stretched and paced once around the great room. He realized that he did not need the candle. He could see quite well, indeed. The change in his vision was such that this darkness was very much like day. Turning back to the candle, its small light seemed almost as bright as a bonfire.

The moon had risen, the silver-blue glow pouring through the high windows, creeping its way down the wall opposite to make the tapestries and banners there shimmer. It was so beautiful. Everything was heightened since his transformation. He could see more, smell more, feel more. The sounds of the night from both within and without the castle came to him very clearly when he paid mind to them. He cocked his head toward the entry but could pick up nothing to indicate his wait was ending. True, he could cut this nonsense short by bulling into the duke's sanctum, but past experience made him reluctant to try. The old man was king in everything but name here, with the power of life and death over all. To incur his wrath was to risk dire punishment. Richard had dared to cross him on this very point, once. The beating he'd gotten some dozen years past had left an indelible impression on his spirit long after the bruises healed. The lesson stuck.

He could beat me now—could try—for all the good it would do him. 

The power of his dark rebirth surged through Richard once more, warming him. The past should be—was—less than nothing to him. Perhaps that was what Sabra wanted him to learn from this. If so, then he could do as he pleased with no fear of reprisal. But if not, and he made the wrong choice, whatever that might be . . .

He decided he could wait a little longer.

He righted one of the long benches and sat at the table, idly toying with an abandoned trencher. There was a time that he would have gladly picked at the remaining food, indeed, eaten his fill from the leavings here, but not now, and never again.

Free. I am free of this. 

A sudden noise from the doorway to his father's inner chamber along the hall jolted Richard from his musings, and he stood to meet his sire. The door down there opened sure enough, but all that came out was a string of curses and the unmistakable scrabblings of the two terrified hounds. The dogs pelted into the feast hall, seeking escape from the shouting and then from Richard, finding none. They finally took shelter beneath one of the far tables, whimpering.

More cursing from the entry. A familiar voice, but not one belonging to a friend. Richard had no friends here.

First the dogs, then another kind of cur arrived, as Dear Brother lurched into the vast room. Richard braced inwardly, his face settling into the usual blank mask he tried to maintain when forced to deal with his abrasive oldest sibling.

Ambert d'Orleans was the proud firstborn of the great lord, and had never let Richard forget it. At first glance, he and Richard could have almost been twins, so similar were they. In their youth many had mistaken them as such. Both over six feet in height, fair-haired, with icy blue eyes, and both strong and valiant on the field—but that was in their youth. Their differences had grown with the passing years and were not just those of physical change. Richard could look at himself and without blush know he was principled and intelligent with a strong sense of honor; Ambert, on the other hand, was ever a bully and a braggart and, worst of all, a cunning backstabber. Richard had learned the best way to deal with him was simple avoidance whenever possible.

Excess in all things was beginning to take its toll on Ambert, for his belly now far exceeded his chest in girth. He had to balance carefully as he made his way into the dim hall, pausing at the head of the table. His once handsome face was bloated and red from too much wine and fits of temper, and his fine blue eyes were rheumy and bloodshot. His bleared gaze quickly fastened on Richard, regarding him with the usual measure of contempt, Ambert's idea of a superior look.

He bore a goblet in hand, and swaying a little, extended it imperiously in Richard's direction. "Wine, brother," he said, as though addressing a servant. There was an open cask on the table before him, but he made no move toward it.

Knowing the uselessness of argument, Richard crossed to him and took the goblet away. There being no ladle, he tipped the cask with care. It was nearly empty and the wine threatened to spill as it slopped about. He got it steady enough to control the pouring of a thin stream.

"Don't stint with it, you fool." Ambert shot his hand out and upset the cask. It was an old trick, the object being to add stains to Richard's clothing. The elegant new garments he wore now had obviously not escaped Dear Brother's notice; the temptation was irresistible. The result was different this time, though, for Richard quickly moved out of the way, letting the thing crash to the floor. The wine flew in all directions, a goodly amount of it splashing onto Ambert. He gasped and snarled, but only for a moment. The startlement was clear on his face when he saw just how far out of the way Richard had taken himself in the merest blink of an eye. He was at the other end of the long table.

"That was clumsy, wasn't it?" said Richard, calmly surveying the damage. "Your fine coat is all spoiled."

"Bastard," Ambert spat, throwing him a murderous look.

"That's the whole point for you, isn't it? I'm not a bastard. If I were, you wouldn't be so afraid of me."

"I fear you not, sweet Dickon. 'Tis only wisdom to keep a sharp eye on the ambitions of the third-born."

"And so you always cast upon me what you'd want yourself were our stations reversed. A tiresome game it's become. You know I've no desire for your share."

"So you say to all within hearing. You've said it too much, too loudly. No one believes you."

"I'm thinking no one gives a bloody damn anymore. You've provided our father with a grandson; your position is secure."

"Aye, but brats die so easily. Three times it took before that bitch finally birthed something that lived. How you must have prayed otherwise."

Richard held to an immobile face, but his hand, still clutching the empty goblet, compressed into a sudden fist. There was a crumping sound of strained metal. He looked down. The cup portion was crushed in, the shape of his fingers clearly defined in the thick brass. He felt a brief smile twitch over his features and carefully set the ruined object on the table where Ambert could see it.

Dear Brother's eyes went wide at the sight, and for once in his life Ambert seemed to have nothing to say.

"Sorry," said Richard, offering him a thin, insincere smile.

"You—you'll pay for that," Ambert finally spluttered out. "God's death, but you'll pay for that before you leave."

"With what, pray?"

Ambert took the offered bait, seizing it for a new weapon. "Aye, you lost all at the tourney, to the disgrace of our house."

"You've a new champion to take my place. The honor of the house is safe."

"With that overgrown pup?"

"At least he's a true bastard, so you've no need to worry over his ambitions. They probably don't extend much past his next meal and place to sleep, which he's already gotten from me." The boy had been quick enough to claim Richard's weapons, armor, and other gear for his winnings. He was welcome to all of it now.

"You're not suffering from what I see." Ambert nodded at Richard's new clothing, the finely woven wools, leather boots, the thick blue cape with gold embroidery along the hem, and the jewel-trimmed knife in his belt. "Mayhap you'll get the payment from that rich whore you've been riding in her grand pavilion by the lake."

That Ambert would know of his liaison with Sabra was no surprise; Dear Brother always kept himself abreast of all the gossip. That he would try for the easiest of insults was not unexpected either. Richard held to his smile, refusing to react. He looked at the remains of the goblet and tapped it lightly with his fingers a few times before flicking it over. It made a thump against the wood.

Ambert stared now with raw hate, but mastered himself after a moment, replacing it with a sly look. "Mayhap," he drawled, "mayhap I should see to collection myself. I have heard she is most fair of face. If she will not part with any coin, then she'll trade something else to me instead."

He has everything; why does he need to be cruel? 

The answer came from within as Sabra's sweet voice stole gently into his mind. The cruelty hides the emptiness of his spirit, she murmured, her voice so clear she might have been next to him. It gladdened him to know that in this dreary place he was not as alone as he'd thought. Alas for his pain, she added plaintively.

It was easy enough for her to be kind, she'd not had decades of Ambert's torment, but for her sake Richard decided to modify his initial harsh reply. "You're drunk, Dear Brother, else you could think of better ways to provoke me."

Ambert puffed out a short guttural curse. It had the strange sound of agreement in it. "Oh, but I have, sweet Dickon. Your new whore is a riddle to all who have heard of her. No one knows aught of her, and her people keep to themselves like lepers, speaking to none if they can help it. I would know who she is and who she serves. Before the next hour is gone I'll have a dozen armsmen through her tents to drag her here to give full answer to that riddle."

It was no idle threat, not when he used that tone. By right of his place in the household he had the authority to carry it out and the wit to justify all to the duke later.

"How does that please thee?" he demanded.

A few days ago Richard would have swallowed his anger and suffered whatever humiliation Ambert cared to heap upon him to prevent such a disaster.

No more. No more ever again. He's like a boy throwing stones at a chained wolf to show how brave he is. He knows not that this wolf is free. 

Richard made his shoulders slump with defeat, let his gaze fall to the floor, and slowly closed the distance between them, his bearing such as to not give any hint of a threat. When he was but a pace away, only then did he raise his head and look his brother full in the eye.

"What would please me, dear Ambert, is for you to forget all about it," he whispered. "Do you mark me?"

Ambert winced as though in pain and drew a hand over his brow. "How—how d-dare you speak thus to me?"

Richard puzzled for a moment over this surprising resistance. Certainly Ambert had more reason to defy his will than would a compliant young girl, but he was still made of the same ordinary flesh. Perhaps drunkenness had befuddled his mind, making him more difficult to influence. Richard bent all his concentration upon his brother, eyes focused so hard and steady he thought he could almost see past the bloated face to the pitted vestige of his soul.

Ambert gave a shudder, breaking into a sweat, and this time he did not look away.

"You will forget all about disturbing the lady by the lake," said Richard, his voice calm, but brooking no argument. "You have no interest for her or her people, none at all."

Dear Brother's lower lip sagged, trembling, but no words came forth.

"Forget her. Completely."

He flinched as though each utterance held the sting of a wasp and still did not look away.

Richard eased back slightly, fascinated a moment by this evidence of his own power, then finally released his invisible hold.

Ambert staggered, clutching at the table to steady himself.

"Have a care, brother, the drink is besting you tonight," said Richard. He was once more standing several yards away. He watched and waited for Ambert's reaction . . . which was only to shake his head as though to clear it. Not one sign of what should have been red-eyed fury. Oh, but this was most wonderfully interesting.

"I've not had enough is the problem. What's become of my cup?" He stared peevishly about, but missed his crushed property amid the litter on the table.

"Does my lord the duke send you to fetch me?" Richard inquired, hiding his amusement and satisfaction. This ability to sway others to his will was very useful indeed.

"Please you to wait," grumbled Ambert. "You'll see him soon enough and like it not when you do. You'll like it not at all." He then burst into a harsh laugh, pushed from the table, and tottered back the way he'd come. Down the hall a door closed with a bang; by its sound it was the one to the duke's inner chamber. Ambert would have gone there to apprise the old man of the presence of his other son. Either the wearisome task of waiting would soon end or Richard would be out here the rest of the night.

The two hounds whimpered, still hiding under a far table. Richard bent to look at them.

"Come on, my lovelies. Am I not better company than Ambert? When did I ever kick and curse you, eh?"

Merlin whined, head pressed to the flags, but gave a tentative wag of his tail.

"Come and be friends again. I'll not hurt you." He put forth first his hand, then his will, to see if it might also work on animals. "Come, now, come to heel, there's a good boy. . . ."

Whether it was his voice or his influence that coaxed Merlin out, Richard could not be sure, but after much hesitation the great dog did finally emerge, slowly followed by Prince. With halting steps they came close enough to touch. Richard ruffled their coarse fur, praising and reassuring them. As if shamed by their previous fear of him and wanting to make up for it, they licked his face and hands, tails still tucked, but wagging.

"You're all right, now, aren't you? Good, good lads. What a pity Ambert and I can't get along as well as you two."

They rolled on their backs for him to scratch their bellies, friendship restored. Richard sealed it by finding some choice scraps from the table to give them.

A door opened somewhere. As one, Richard and the hounds swung their heads in the direction of the noise, alert.

Light spilled into the feasting hall from the entry. Richard heard a rustle and grunt from his father's chamber followed by the sound of slippered feet. Perhaps his long wait was nearly over.

"Go on, lads. You won't want to be here." He pushed the dogs off and found a place to stand in the darkness well away from the candle.

A large shadow fell across the floor as his brother's ample frame obscured the entry light. For a moment, Ambert peered across the apparently empty hall, saying nothing before moving forward, his steps hesitant and faltering. He picked up the abandoned candle, holding it out ahead of him.

"Richard . . . ?"

Richard remained quite still.

"Are you there, or have you run away like the craven you are?"

The silence that followed must have convinced Ambert that what he thought was indeed the case, and his courage grew proportionately.

"Well you may run, sirrah, for you are of no worth here," he spat to the room. "The midwife should have strangled thee!"

He turned to go back, but gave a sharp cry when the candlelight shone on Richard, who was suddenly in the way. Ambert started, letting the candle fall, only to see it caught in midair by his brother, who calmly raised it to illumine their faces once more. They were close enough that, had he been so inclined, Richard could have counted the broken veins on his brother's nose. Ambert shivered, and his face twitched into what should have been a scowl, but his fear spoiled the attempt. He jerked his chin in the direction of the hall.

"Fa—Father wants . . ." But he did not seem to be able to finish. His words sounded too thick to escape the trembling portal of his mouth.

"I await only my lord's pleasure, dear Ambert," said Richard evenly.

"Damn you," he choked out in return.

Richard placed the flickering light back in Ambert's shaking grasp. "Have a care, brother. One fallen candle on these rushes could cost you your castle."

A booming voice from down the hall cracked through the still air like a whip. "I would speak with you, Richard!"

Their father's voice. Even the favored eldest son cringed at the sound.

"Let me see you, boy!"

Richard turned and, released from his sway, Ambert hurried ahead to disappear into another twisting of the hall. It had always been one of his greatest skills, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he practiced it now to perfection. Light spilled brightly from the chamber ahead, and like a moth to the destructive flame, Richard went toward it.

The duke's sanctum was quite large. Torches in their sconces along the walls provided some heat for the cheerless room, along with all the light. Their smokes rose high, adding to the soot already coating the ceiling. Several embroidered arras covered portions of the walls. Some stirred gently, doing their work of cutting down drafts coming from the doorways they concealed. Off to the right was a huge oaken table. Benches ran along each side of it, and at the far end where Montague now stood, crouched a massive thronelike chair. No one ever dared to come near it. When he was a child, Richard had once been foolish enough to crawl up and sit there, pretending to be a king of his own castle and lands. His father had seen, and the outcome was a beating of such severity that many thought the boy would not live. Even now as Richard looked at it, a tremor ran through him at the sick-making memory. It had been the first of many other beatings, so many he could not count, but that particular one stood out by its right of place.

The room, full of its vile memories, was empty of people apart from the duke. That was a blessing. At least there would be no witnesses to the coming censure.

Montague d'Orleans was a giant of a man in all ways: in stature, in reputation, and in deed. He was the most powerful man in Normandy, and there was answerable for his actions only to God, and then but rarely. He was a brutal pragmatist, a survivor. He had no time for failure, hating it as if it were a contagious disease that might be spread to him and cause his downfall. Now more than ever before, he had no regard for Richard, for his son had become a carrier of this contagion since the tourney.

"My lord." Richard's greeting was murmured low, and he bowed from the waist delivering it. "Father."

Montague had his back to his son, and did not turn. "Who is it that calls me father?"

Richard stepped into the golden light cast by the torches, dropped to his knees, and spoke the words of old ritual that were required of him. "It is I, Richard, your son. You sent for me and, as ever, I await your pleasure."

"My pleasure? My pleasure!" The old man turned and leveled what Richard could only assume was meant to be a murderous look upon him. Unfortunately, the effect was ruined by the slurring of his voice and a decided stagger as he came forward. He was very drunk. "My pleasure was to have the champion of all the land within my own household. Within my own family."

Richard kept quiet. Comment would only draw out the process.

The old man loomed over his kneeling son, blood in his eye, building in his anger. "Once it was so. By some miracle or witchcraft you were champion, but no longer. Now, I have only shame to distinguish my household. My reputation lies in the dung heap!"

Richard stared straight ahead, keeping a stony face. He could not trade words here as he'd done with Ambert. That would not stop or deflect the flow of bile.

Montague reeled to one side to refill his empty tankard from a keg on the table and swilled back a mighty draught. "Explain yourself, boy."

"I cannot." Richard replied honestly, for although he knew that Sabra had had much to do with the outcome of events that day, he also knew he would never disclose any of it. It would mean immediate death both for him and his lady. "I was beaten."

His father lurched toward him and bent until his face was close; the rank stench of his breath filled Richard's nostrils. "Clearly, you were never beaten enough!" He suddenly righted himself.

Richard saw the blow coming. His reactions were sharper, faster since the changing, and he could have easily avoided it, yet something within him made him hold his ground and brace for it. No stinging open-handed slap, Montague used the full power of his fist. The force of it knocked Richard flat on the floor, but surprisingly, he hardly felt any pain. It was no more to him than a sigh of air on a summer's day.

Am I beyond being hurt or grown so used to it that I feel it not? 

He waited a moment, expecting next to be kicked, but the old man drew away and gulped down more drink. Richard got slowly to his feet, brushing at his clothing. He felt cold inside, very, very cold. Like the dead.

"You've disgraced me, brought humiliation to my house," the duke continued. "Wise you were to skulk away afterward. You missed all the sly looks, the hidden laughter from the others when I had to give the purse to that damned bastard pup. That you yielded at all was defaming enough. Couldn't you have had the wit to cede to a full-grown man?"

He stared without expression at Montague.

"Well, boy? Give me answer!"

"The new champion will serve you honorably and with much heart," said Richard, astonished at how steady his voice sounded.

"That is no answer. Why did you yield?"

"He offered me quarter. I accepted rather than—"

"Rather than die," Montague concluded for him. "Aye, showing the world the kind of coward I sired."

Richard clenched his jaw hard to keep back the sudden protest that wanted to spring forth at this unfairness. He'd begun the tourney as one of a hundred other fighters and managed to last until but two remained: himself and the boy. To survive for so long in such a struggle was not the achievement of a coward. He took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. This is of no matter.There could have been a thousand of us and the duke would still speak to me so.

"You don't deny it, either. Pah!"

"I am my father's son," Richard muttered. "But what part of you is in me?"

"What say you? What was that?" he snarled, pausing in the act of raising his tankard.

"I await my lord's pleasure," Richard said more clearly, hoping the duke would soon finish his ravings and make his formal dismissal.

"Your lord's pleasure would be to see you dead."

How often has he voiced that wish? It's come true and he knows it not. Richard hadn't lost his life in battle, but in the throes of passion with Sabra to make his rebirth possible—something the old man would never understand.

"You smile? Do you mock me, boy?"

"No, my lord." I'm five and thirty years, old enough to have sons and grandsons of my own, and still he calls me boy.Is it to belittle me or to keep his own age and death at bay? Or both? For Richard's father was ancient, being a few years past fifty. Many thought the only reason he'd not yet died was that heaven wouldn't have him, and the Devil didn't want to contest with him for the rule of hell.

But he will die eventually, and I will continue. The realization got him through the next few moments as his father ranted on. Richard no longer heard the words, but looked long at the man whose blood flowed in his veins, the man who had given him life, and saw only another whose cruelty shielded a sad, empty spirit. For all that, Richard could feel no pity, only contempt.

"Well, boy?" Montague's last words rang through the stillness of the castle and into Richard's consciousness. "What do you have to say?"

That he'd not listened mattered little; any reply would be the wrong one. "I've nothing to say, my lord."


The hair abruptly stood on the back of Richard's neck as he became aware they were no longer alone. He could sense another presence here, another drawing of breath, another scent on the smoky air. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed the slightest movement of the heavy arras covering the wall to his left. It was not a draught or a trick of the torchlight. Someone had come silently and was listening, watching. Richard relaxed as he comprehended who it was, and knew that there would be no interference.

"My lord, as I have failed thee, I ask leave to depart from your service." There, it was out at last. The old man could rail all he liked, but eventually he must grant his permission. This had been coming for years.

"Ceding again, are you?"

"My lord the duke is above keeping company with those who displease him. I would shame you no more and depart quietly."

"Think you such flattery will make favor with me?"

"I seek no favor—"

"Only escape." The old man backed his way unsteadily to his massive chair and dropped into it, glaring at Richard all the while. "I know what dreams fire you, boy. There's nothing you'd like better than to leave this place. You'd hoped to do it with that bag of tourney gold, but failed. Now you hope to run off with that rich whore camped by the west wall. Aye, there's fitting toil for you, playing whoremaster, or have you sold yourself to serve in her house instead? Will she finish the work you started on the field? Make a eunuch of you to disport with her sodomites?" He paused, apparently awaiting a reply.

Richard could find none to give, but stifled the beginnings of a shiver. It was as though ice had taken the place of all his bones, chilling him from the inside out. The duke was trying to provoke him to make an excuse to punish him, another of his old tricks, but Richard felt too cold for anger. Sabra, what is the choice I must make? 

But she was silent.

Montague leaned well back in the chair and looked at him over the expanse of his belly, all but smacking his lips at some inner satisfaction. "Well, you can put that out of your mind, boy—I've no intention of releasing you from your oath to me."

Now did Richard manage to find voice again, and it was choked with disbelief. "What?"

"You will remain here."

"Why? My lord wishes me dead, banishing me from your house is the next best thing to that."

"Aye, so you can run off to a life of ease with that woman? I'll not have it. I'll not have you nosing after the bitch and the two of you laughing at me for giving you leave to go."

"Wh-what does my lord require of me, then?" It was the question he would be expected to ask, and Richard's guts turned over for he was certain of the answer.

Montague deigned to smile. Unpleasantly. He spoke slowly, softly. "I require you retrieve that which you lost: the honor of my house. You will stay here—I'll put you in chains if need be—but you will stay until the next grand tourney."

Richard felt a swell of black despair. It surged upon him like smothering death until he remembered himself. Such feelings belonged to the man he had been, not the man he'd become. He was immune to such threats, now. The feeling faded, replaced by new strength.

The duke continued unaware. "There you will fight that damned upstart and kill him—or die yourself in the trying."

I think not. Richard's mouth twitched, the only sign of his amusement.

Montague's bloodshot eyes went narrow, on guard for any hint of an attack; his hand moved to rest on the hilt of his dagger. "You smile again, boy? What pleases you so much?"

"That my lord has such an excellent way with a jest," he replied, mindful of the other ears in the room.

"Jest?" said Montague, his tone beginning to rise.

Richard held his breath, all his attention on the duke. He did as before with Ambert, as before with Ghislaine, pouring all his hard concentration into it, striving this time to get past the monumental barrier of his father's anger, hatred, and drunkenness. A small pain formed behind his eyes from the effort. "Indeed," he whispered after many long moments. "You did but jest, did you not?"

Montague's reply was tardy. Richard held out, the ache in his skull growing, but in the end he got a small, near imperceptible nod in response. His father's wide face was shiny with sweat.

"It was most clever, but now you will release me from your service."

"R—release . . . ?" The old man's lips quivered.

"Say it, my lord, say that you release me. Say that I am free of my oath to you."

And the words came out, halting at first, and then in a steady stream of ritualized speech. "I, Montague, Duc d'Orleans, release you, Richard d'Orleans, from all oaths of fealty and service to my house. You are free to go and make thy way in the wide world, in honor and grace . . ."

"Excellent," said Richard, when it was all finished. "You'll not go back on this. No one will be able to change your mind on it. I shall leave soon, and you'll allow no one to hinder me or the people I travel with. They are of no interest to you; you've better things to worry about. Is your understanding clear on this?"

"Yes . . . I—"

"That is good." Richard withdrew a few steps and waited.

It took only a little time for the duke to regain himself, and when he did his first action was to rise and fill his tankard again, growling like a bad-tempered bear. He shot a belligerent glare at Richard. "Well? Why do you tarry? You've leave to go, take it!"

Richard pressed his hand to his brow, and the ache there lessened. The beguilement had been difficult, but worth it. Relief washed over him, and he recalled the other reason why he'd come. "Then I give you my farewell, Lord Montague."

The old man sneered. For all his lapse bending to Richard's will, he was well recovered back to his original foul humor. "Keep your farewell. I want it not, and will be glad to see you gone."

Richard blinked once at this brusque dismissal. What did I hope for? A fond embrace? A fallen tear? Pushing away the old and futile hurt, he bowed deeply and backed a pace or two toward the main door before turning.

"Bad riddance to thee!" Montague threw after him. "You should never have been born."

How often had he heard that one? Never again, God 'a mercy. He kept going.

"In all of your miserable life, you've brought me nothing but grief from the very beginning," the duke continued, his voice rising. "I curse the day you were conceived and the day you came forth." It was his favorite torment, though he usually took more time to work up to it. His drunkenness must have altered the pattern. "The day you took my wife from me!"

The effect of this all-too-familiar attack on Richard was immediate and impossible to hide behind his usual wall of silence and nonreaction. He knew where the duke was leading and how impossible he was to stop.

"Better if you had died instead, you murdering—you were the one that did it. You killed your own mother!"

No! I did not kill her! I did not! I did not! His steps faltered as the old agony seized him once more.

"Killed her, I say. Ripped her from the inside and left her screaming with her blood pouring out."

In all the years that he'd been lashed by the tale, Richard had held himself in check. He'd endured every kind of variation, delivered by every kind of utterance from whispered baiting to blistering shrieks, time and time again, knowing that any objection, denial, or rage to the contrary would only make it worse. As a child, he'd seek solitude and weep out his grief; as a man, he'd swallow back the anger to release it on the practice field with fighting, or get drunk.

But now . . .

For want of a sword, his hand sought the dagger on his belt. In that moment he wanted nothing else but to stop the tearing rasp of the old man's voice. A quick strike, slide the blade through his throat and watch the blood spurt . . .

He felt the heat sear his face and with it came blinding, unquenchable fury born of the helpless anguish he kept within his soul. Always he'd been able to hold it back—but it was . . . was different now.

"Your fault—"

Far, far different.

"You damned—"

His corner teeth . . . budding . . .


Richard came to a stop, bewildered by his body's unexpected response to the torment. A hot breath seemed to touch his brow, clouding his vision. The torches burned steadily, but the golden cast of their light appeared to be tainted with crimson. He closed his eyes tight, knowing that they'd gone red as hellfire, and lowered his head, giving in to a shudder as he fought what was happening inside.


He raised his hands, palms out as though to push the words away, and placed all his thought upon mastering himself. I will not let him win.Not after all this time. 

"Your fault!"

I will be the strong one, not he. But it was so hard. So many, many years of blame to carry, to struggle against. It had ever and always been the one fight he could not win.

Then clear within his mind he heard Sabra's voice, full of love and comfort. Ah, the poor man. He grieves for her still. He loved her so.

And suddenly Richard's hot rage cooled. He felt a stillness take hold of his pounding heart, gently slowing it. Holding his breath, he listened for her to speak again, but no more came. What had been said was all; it would have to be enough. Was, indeed, enough. He was in control of himself again and very, very calm.

He'd always believed the old man's anger over his wife's death had been about being deprived of one of his prized possessions. It never occurred to Richard that his father could have loved a woman, might still love her. If he felt about her as I feel about Sabra . . . He shook his head at the idea, finding it a difficult thing to take in, then turned and looked at Montague, trying to see him afresh.

But nothing about him seemed different. The duke stood hunched forward, a hand on the table to hold himself steady, his bloated face flushed and mouth set. "Well, boy?" he demanded, once more insisting on an answer to the impossible.

He is the same; it is I who am changed.


Richard shook his head as comprehension seeped into him. "I thought you the greatest in all the land. You were a noble warrior, strong and valiant—and you were my father. I'd have done anything to show my love for you. I tried everything I could think of to prove it, yet nothing worked. Whatever I did was never enough."

The old man snarled as he poured more wine, yet his disdain meant nothing to Richard. Not anymore.

"I have ever been loyal. I fought and bled and killed for you. I have been a fine and faithful son. That you could never see this makes your loss of me all the greater."

The duke peered at him more keenly now. This was verging on criticism. This was verging on revolt.

"I have seen my father change over the years. I have seen his nobility vanish, his strength turn to cruelty, his valor become bitter self-interest."

The tankard crashed to the floor, spraying ale.

"I've watched him degenerate into the drunken old man who totters before me now. You are pathetic, and the worst of it is that you know it not."

The duke's face went purple. His whole body quivered, and he worked his mouth until white spittle flecked his lips.

He looks like to die, and in truth, I care not. 

Montague gave a half-choked bellow and lurched blindly forward, fists swinging. Richard put his arms up to ward them off, but one blow landed full in his face, bloodying his nose. A second followed, but with a speed born of his changing, a speed impossible for a mortal man, Richard caught the massive fist in midair, stopping it dead. He pulled the old man close and, staring eye-to-eye with him, tightened his grip, and began to squeeze . . . hard. He could clearly hear the sound of muscles tearing and bones snapping. The old man's face paled in an instant to a sickly gray, and a grunt of pain escaped him. He tried to pull free. Richard held on. For one of eternity's long, silent seconds the two stayed exactly as they were, father and son striving for control.

"Yield, Montague," he whispered.

"To . . . hell . . . with you." Montague's gray flesh faded to white; his knees began to crumble. Breath hissing, he struggled to stay afoot, pressing to throw off Richard's balance. Richard held firm, until he felt a sudden shifting between them. Montague's eyes gleamed with unholy delight as his free arm made a short, forceful movement.

Richard thought he'd only been struck somewhat more bruisingly than before until the burning started. He looked down and saw the duke had drawn his dagger and put it to use. It was buried to the hilt in Richard's leg, just below its join to his body. The blade had cut deep, severing the flow from his heart. Blood pumped from him like a river.

Its warmth soaked his clothes, then the pain set upon him in earnest, and he fell. He found the floor with a jolt, twisting awkwardly to avoid jarring the dagger. The soot-black ceiling spun once and seemed to swoop down toward him, blotting out the world. He didn't care. Despite all the beatings, humiliations, the thousand daily censures, he'd not foreseen this, not really.

He dares. God in heaven, he dares. He would kill his own son! 

Pressing his hands hard against the wound, Richard managed to slow the bleeding. It was bad. On the battlefield he'd seen men die in but a few swift moments from such piercings, their life gushing out to be soaked up by the cold earth. He'd felt such a death once in a vision Sabra had given him. A hard lesson it was and frightening in its reality of pain.

But the agony of his father's act transcended that of the knife in his flesh, and for a time all he could do was lie unmoving as this last betrayal tore him to the soul.

He dimly saw Montague tower over him, wheezing and holding his injured hand . . . but grinning. He was actually grinning down at his dying son.

Sabra, did you not see this, too? Why did you not warn me? 

Unless a warning was not needed. He was changed. Stronger. The natural way of things held no sway over him, now.

Nor did his father, it seemed.

So that was it.

I'll not grant you this wish, old man. 

Richard's fingers gingerly grasped the hilt of the dagger. He hissed at the touch, but held fast. There was no way to prepare himself; hesitation would make it worse, so he simply carried through and pulled as fast as he could.

The shock of it dragged a cry from him even as he dragged the blade clear. More blood flowed, but for naught but an instant before the cut sealed itself up. The burn flared and blazed, then gradually diminished. After a few moments it ceased altogether, and he breathed normally again, marveling at the miraculous healing he knew must be taking place. Sabra had told him such things would be quick. Not pleasant, but quick.

He waited it out, staring up at Montague, who had not budged. Indeed, he was taking vast amusement from Richard's seeming futile efforts to save himself.

He dares to laugh. 

Richard's reaction surged up from his deepest being: a rage powered by strength such as he'd never known before, a rage he'd never allowed himself to express. Rage at the lifetime of mistreatment and of blame for something not his fault. He rolled and got his hands under him and pushed the floor away, found his feet, and stood.

The blunt astonishment for this was plain on Montague, his surprise so consuming that he did not move even as Richard closed on him. Richard wrenched him around and slammed him upon the great table, bending him backwards with both hands fastened around his throat.

He knew his eyes were red and his teeth were out, but Richard cared not. All that mattered was the fact that his trembling hands could free him from all the tyranny by snapping Montague's neck as easily as a dry summer twig. He wanted to; he had the power and the will to do so.

Montague gagged and clawed, his heels drumming against the flags. He was helpless, probably for the first time in his life. Panic limned his eyes, and his tongue bulged as he fought to draw air.

Richard squeezed all the more. How little effort it would take to finish things. But within him the beast hungered. He had a better use for the old man . . .

He clawed at the duke's tunic, ripping the stained wool away to bare his throat. The old man cried out as Richard bit down through the thick folds of skin to reach the nectar within.

Your blood is already in me, Father, but you will render more. 

Montague did not struggle, perhaps too far gone from being choked.

Richard drank deeply, replacing that which had been taken, relishing the bitter taste of the man's horror.

You wanted a death, dear Father, then I shall deliver it to you. 

He would smother that grating voice forever and for him it would be forever. He'd have his freedom—true freedom—once and for all from the past, from a lifetime of misery.

He pulled away to look at Montague, at the face he'd tried so hard not to hate. His father's head lolled weakly away, lips slack, eyes staring.

Richard encircled that fat bleeding neck with his hands, savoring the satisfaction it would bring, the vast, singing joy.

Forever. Think on it! 

A dozen times over he set himself to finish things. But each time he refrained, kept himself from taking that last terrible step, delighting in the anticipation for its own sake.

He hovered on the edge for a hundred heartbeats.

Think on it.

For good or ill, this death above all others would be with him for the rest of his life. What a long journey it would be to always carry such a burden. Light for now, but how heavy in a year, a hundred years hence, or a thousand?

Then he came to know he could not, would not be able to bear it. Strong as he was, he was not that strong.

He eased his grip. You won't win this way, either, old man. 

But the rage still lived and needed expression. He roared, a great, angry, monstrous sound torn from the maddened beast within that reverberated through the chamber, blasting everything else to utter silence. He hauled Montague up from the table and, with a mere flick of his hands, hurled him into his great chair so hard that both nearly crashed to the floor.

The duke roused himself but made not a sound, as much from his awe of Richard as from his injuries. He trembled in his chair, gasping and rubbing his throat. Richard thought that now the old man finally looked different, smaller . . . no, not that, not smaller; it was something else.

Montague was afraid.

Yes, it was fear that Richard perceived in those once-hard eyes—cold, naked fear. He'd gone his whole life waiting to see that look but until this moment had never before realized it. And with realization came revelation.

He is a rock, but I am a river. And the river shall triumph always, for a river cannot be pushed, and does not wear away. The heavens shall feed me, renew me forever, and I will be here long after he is gone and forgotten. 

Sweet calm returned to his soul in a soothing rush. Richard was master of himself once more. His teeth were normal again, his eyes their usual disturbing wintry blue. He looked at his father and understood suddenly just how close he'd come. How very, very close . . .

So that had been the choice.

He shook his head and gave a small laugh. No wonder Sabra had said nothing of what was to happen. How could she? In matters of life and death Richard had to follow his own conscience—and know he would have to live with the results of his actions, for good or ill, always.

"You will never see me again, old man," he said.

Not a murmur from Montague.

"It will be best for all concerned."

Richard turned to leave. This time he made it to the entry door before pausing. There was one last matter requiring his attention.

With preternatural speed he darted toward the arras. He could hear a swift heartbeat now and scent the terror there. Thrusting an arm behind the heavy tapestry he hauled Dear Brother blinking into the light. He squawked as Richard hoisted him off his feet and slammed him against the wall, holding him there with one arm under his chin. Sweating profusely, Ambert began to whimper. There was a new smell in the heavy air of the room. What was it? Ah, yes, Ambert had wet himself.

Richard leaned close and purred a sympathetic noise. "What ails thee, Dear Brother?"

When Ambert made no reply, Richard glanced once over his shoulder at Montague, then back again. "Disappointed I didn't kill him for you?"

Ambert's face told all, confirming what Richard already knew.

"Oh, but you are indeed your father's son."

Richard stepped away, but instead of merely releasing Ambert, he thrust him hard across the room to land in a heap at the foot of the great chair. As this new truth dawned for him, their father's malevolent glare suddenly returned, now directed down at his utterly appalled firstborn.

What comes next is not something I want to see, thought Richard, turning away. It was not likely to be agreeable.

With a short, mirthless laugh, Richard left them to it.

* * *

The moonlight was bright outside the castle, bright enough to cast a clear shadow before him as Richard walked. Innumerable stars speckled the heavens, and his breath clouded in the cold spring air. As he neared the campsite at the foot of the castle's west wall, he observed that Sabra's pavilion and the other tents were gone, struck and loaded onto heavy wagons by her people. He approved of the haste; there was no reason to linger. Soon he would join them on their trek to the coast and thence to Britain, to assume a new name and start his new life.

Richard paused for a moment to breathe deep of the night air and take in the beauty of the setting. The moon was still high, its light dusting the stone towers with silver. Except for the usual sounds of night everything was silent about him, as though the land itself slept. Not all those who walked it rested, though. In the dark shadow of the castle he saw Sabra astride her horse, holding the reins of another, waiting for him. Without his new powers he would never have been able to find her.

Were that true, then she would have found me. 

Yet he did not go to her, but stood awhile beneath the trees.

She'd been right about saying good-bye. Any parting, whether for an hour or a lifetime, made a change within, and few were aware of the fact. He was glad he'd gone, but at what price?

As he stood hugging the shadows of what had been his only home, the cold hand of staved-off sorrow clawed its way up his body and gripped his throat, shaking him.

It shook him with sudden sharp memories of the childhood he'd survived and gave him a clear knowledge of what his childhood might have been like had his mother lived—and the unbridgeable gulf between the two.

It shook him with the realization of what he had done to his father and what he had wanted to do.

How very, very close . . . 

And though he'd not given in to the temptation, he still felt pain. All the lost and lonely years piled upon his shoulders. His knees buckled, and he slumped to the damp earth, head bowed low. How he wanted the pain to stop.

"My love?" Sabra now stood beside him. He'd not heard her approach. "Richard?"

I don't want her to see this. 

Then he felt her hand caressing the side of his face; her gentle touch of compassion and kindness shattered his reserve as nothing else could, and he began to weep. Not an easy thing, his first sobs hurt like that dagger. He'd not allowed himself such utterance since childhood. Sabra held him, saying nothing. The worst of it eventually passed, and he regained a measure of composure, but the pain still gripped him.

He glanced up at Sabra. She voiced no question, but the desire for an explanation was in her expression.

"I have killed my father," he finally whispered.

She was silent for a few moments, carefully taking in the red stains and tears on his clothing. "How can this be? You fought, but I know he still lives."

"You know well. I—I . . . did things." Richard wiped his face roughly with the back of his sleeve. From his lips it came away with traces of the blood he'd taken. "The duke lives, yet my father is dead. In my heart I have killed him."

She shivered once, as though feeling his anguish.

"The man I bade farewell to is no longer my father; he is dead. For that loss I must grieve."

Sabra lifted his chin with her fingertips to make him look at her. Her face shone in the moonlight. Her eyes were full of love. "You had to go to him, my Richard, it had to be done."

"Perhaps so."

"I have the Sight, and it showed me what was needed before you could leave. You may not know it, but tonight was a great triumph, for you have freed yourself from a lifelong yoke, and you have done it, not your new powers, not I. This was your greatest victory." She pressed her palm against his chest, over his beating heart, then kissed his forehead.

She was right. He was free. The word rang through his very being like a great bell. Yet with the exultation a deep sadness lay heavy on him.

"It will pass, my love," she said, responding to the words of his soul. "It will pass."

He stood, and for a long time Richard held her tight within his arms, soaking in her warmth and strength, taking it for his own. Another kiss, this time returning it to her own forehead. Holding her hand, he led the way back to the wall where the horses were ground-tethered. Lying at their feet were two great hounds.

"Who are they?" she asked in wonder. "They have no fear of us."

"Old friends of mine," he said, suddenly pleased. "The white one is Merlin and the brindle is Prince. They must have followed me. Good lads, come here and meet your new mistress."

The dogs bounded over, sniffing cautiously. Sabra won them to her in a matter of seconds. "Amusing it is that one of them is named Merlin," she said.

"Why is that?"

"I'll tell you as we ride."

He boosted her up on her horse, mounted his own, and with the dogs trailing along, they set off down the castle's wide hill toward the west and their future. They carefully forded a shallow place in the lake, following the road as it climbed the steep slope of another hill on the other side. The chill breeze ruffled Richard's hair as they reached its crest, and he stopped. He knew this spot well. It was his favorite view of the castle, and he'd seen it in every manner in every season over the years. With torchlights peeping out through the narrow windows, the cold stones would be perfectly reflected in the calm water along with the farmlands and outbuildings around it.

Though she was already well ahead of him he heard Sabra's voice floating back in the still air. "One thing more, my Richard, and I tell you this so that you may one day cast your sadness away and be happy. You will never have the childhood you wanted, you can only have the childhood you had."

Her simple words echoed many times through his mind, and regrettably he knew that they were true.

Nothing would change what had been.

But . . . he could make sure that it did not ruin what was to be.

He spurred his mount to catch her.

And he did not look back.


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