Ileana gave a slow shake of her head at the captive. Despite the bonds being unnecessary, Vula had overindulged in the ropes. The young man’s elbows were secured to one wooden pole, and his hands were secured to another. The particularly cruel part was that his knees had been bound to the same pole as his wrists, and his feet to the same pole as his elbows, nearly bending him in a circle. Additional ropes formed a harness over his chest and shoulders, going between and around his legs. Another rope encircles his throat, tight enough to put pressure but not quite enough to strangle him outright. He’d been blindfolded, with the blindfold used as an additional restraint to pull his head backward. An inch and a half thick wooded rod had been jammed between his teeth like a bit. It had been secured tightly enough that there was a thin trickle of blood coming from both corners of his mouth. The poles had been placed atop two wooden beams, forcing his already strained joints to support his weight. All he wore was the ropes.
She drew a knife from the scabbard on her hip as she walked over to him. His breath was coming in short, painful gasps. If she left him like that for a few hours more, he was likely going to die. She considered just making herself comfortable and watching it happen. At the moment, though, he was unaware of her presence. Possibly even unaware of her continued existence. And that was unacceptable.
There was a sharp intake of breath from him as she laid the tip of the blade against his cheek. Even if he had any wiggle room, actual struggling had been beyond him for some time. She slid the knife between rope and skin, then cut through the bound that held the dowel in place. She had to tug it slightly to get it loose from his teeth, and he worked his jaw a moment when it came free.
His body was dirty in places, but sweat had long since evaporated and he was unable to produce more. She found herself wondering if it would be dehydration or suffocation that killed him if she walked away now. It was likely the bonds had already done serious damage to his body. That, however, she could repair. If it suited her. Leaving him a crippled wreck had its own temptations.
“Water.” She nearly jumped at the sound. His voice was cracked and hoarse.
Even a small amount of water could keep a man alive for a long time. How long could he survive, bound like that, if she watered him? Her gaze went to the wood laid beneath him. Vula’s idea, no doubt. Fire was usually her first suggestion to dealing with any problem. Ileana walked to the nearby table and picked up a silver cup. She filled it with the cool liquid from the spring, then took a carved wooden spoon before returning to stand in front of him. His mouth was dry, the lips cracked. It looked painful. She smiled. She put a spoonful of water, a few measly drops, into his mouth. It was barely enough for him to swallow. She gave him another before setting the cup aside. “Your name.”
“More. Please.” There was pain in his voice.
“I asked for your name.”
Thomas could barely make his thoughts focus. The pain from his tortured joints had blurred together to drive coherency from his mind. He wasn’t sure anymore how long he’d hung there, agony shooting through him.
They’d been traveling through the woods. Everyone knew the stories, but the road had been safe for hundreds of years. His father and most of his attendants had been several days ahead, but he’d stayed back to travel with his brother’s family. He couldn’t even remember now what excuse he’d given. He just wanted to avoid his father’s courtiers.
His nieces had wandered off the path, picking flowers. He’d followed, though he’d been certain the presence of so many armed men would have driven any wolves and bears to seek safer hunting grounds. They’d come to a ring of mushrooms and stones on the ground. He wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. The girls had stepped into the ring and then there had been a figure there, in pale green. She’d held her hands out to the girls, and they’d taken them. Then he was running after and…
Vines had caught hold of him the moment he’d stepped into the the ring. They’d wrapped around his arms and legs, holding him fast and tight, nearly dislocating his arms. The girls, a moment ago laughing, stood like little statues when the figure had dropped their hands.
There had been something odd about the voice. “Say goodbye to your uncle, my sweetlings.”
“Leave them alone.” He shook his head, pulling at the vines that held him. He yelled for the soldiers, and realized a heartbeat later he couldn’t hear anything from the road behind them.
“They can’t hear you.” She laughed. “No one on the path can. You should not have wandered into the woods. There is a price to be paid to travel here. A price of blood.”
“Then take mine.” He yanked again at the bonds, and they yanked back, nearly dislocating his arms. “Kill me if you have to, just let them go.”
“You have trespassed, leaving the safety of the road. Your life is already mine to take.” She moved her hand, and another vine slithered up him. It wrapped around his neck. “Your offer is meaningless.”
“Please.” He stared at the motionless girls. Bridget was five, and Rosa only three. They were his brother’s entire world. “Please, just let them go.” He saw her reach for their hands again. “Please, just take me and let them go.”
She stopped, then slowly turned back to him. “Your soul is the offer, then?”
He stared at the girls. Rosa’s stuffed bear dangled from her hand, one foot dragging on the ground. She never went anywhere without the toy. He didn’t know what manner of thing the figure was. She seemed wreathed in shifting shadows. The prospect of dying frightened him. The prospect of dying and leaving the girls to whatever fate this thing intended frightened him even more. “Yes.”
“Choose?” He shook his head.
“One soul. For one life.”
“I…” He swallowed, feeling the vine around his neck. “I can’t.”
“Pity.” She started to reach for their hands again.
“Wait.” She paused. “One soul. And one life. My blood, whatever you want from me, just let them go.”
For a moment, she was still. “Your soul. And your body.”
“Anything, just let them go.”
“I accept your offer.”
Slowly, she trickled another spoonful of water into his mouth. He swallowed, though the motion was clearly difficult for him. “Your full name.” Ileana stared at him.
Silence for several moments, and then… “Thomas de Laria ni Aodha, of Neachtain.”
She poured three spoonfuls into his mouth, letting him swallow after each. His breathing was still strained and labored. “The water will keep you alive, Thomas de Laria ni Aodha, of Neachtain.” One corner of her mouth lifted slightly. “Are you sure you want that?”
“The girls.” His voice was still hoarse. “Where are the girls?”
Ileana froze. All her carefully laid plans had come to naught. She hadn’t counted on this man being willing to… No. She could not let a single act of selflessness change anything. It was known the Larias cared for each other. It was also known they cared for little else. The girls she’d simply wanted out of the way. They were too young, still innocent. Still able to be saved from their kin. She’d intended to see them taken far away, given new lives, forgetting where they’d come from and never knowing what ran in their blood.
Thomas, however, was of little use to her plans. She touched his cheek. His skin was hot and dry. “They are back with their father. As per our bargain.”
Despite his bonds, he almost seemed to relax. “They are safe.”
Her hand came away from his face. She balled it into a fist, and had to stop herself from striking him. All breaking his nose would do would be hasten his demise as the blood dripped down his throat. He’d known he was a dead man. His offer had merely been a way to salvage something, to turn the situation to his advantage. She should have just killed him instead of letting her anger sway her. Abandoning her plans simply for the opportunity to watch him suffer had been foolish.
It didn’t matter. Retrieving the girls would be more difficult, with Nicolas’s court moving south. Nicolas, however, would be far enough away that she could deal with his fraction of the clan at her leisure. She brushed her fingers through his brown hair, giving it a small tug before walking in a circle around him. The skin where the ropes held him fast was abraded and raw, and she saw trickles of blood on his limbs. He’d struggled at first, yanking and thrashing, until he’d been left to hang. She found herself wondering if any strength remained to him. Ileana ran her hand down his inner thigh, then grabbed his most sensitive bits of flesh and twisted. He cried out in pain, but his body barely moved. She released him. “Should I light the fire, Thomas? Would you sing for me as you burned?”
He fought to catch his breath once more, barely succeeding. “Who are you?”
“A fair question, I suppose.” She walked back around to his head. She’d asked it of herself many times since she’d fled her family home, seeking refuge in a family home far older. “All you need to know if me is that I own you. Your fate is entirely in my hands.” And she still had no idea what that fate was to be.
The mention of fire sent fear through him. He wanted to renew his struggles, to fight and rage against whoever she was and what she intended. There was something vaguely familiar about her voice, nagging on the edge of his senses. She was the figure from the woods. Could she be one of the fey? Those who lived on the edge of the woods still spoke of the beings, yet they had not truly been seen for centuries.
And if she was, then…
Then his soul truly was forfeit. He tried to swallow, but his parched throat still ached. The tiny trickle of water she’d given him was nowhere near enough. He knew he was dying. A small part of him wondered if the fire might not be an improvement on simply hanging here while death crept ever closer. Flames would be faster, and he could no longer feel nearly half of his body anyway. There was only pain.
“Who are you?”
Silence answered him, and then he felt her touch his cheek again. She slid her thumb over his skin. “Do you want to die, Thomas?”
It occurred to him that the alternative might not be an improvement. There were stories of the fey keeping alive someone who had wronged them for decades of suffering. Stories of brutal curses and horrors, the vengeance of the fair folk. Yet until he’d walked into the woods, he had not even truly thought fey still existed. If the beings still had that sort of power… “No.” He was surprised to hear himself answer.
The spoon was put back into his mouth, offering a few more precious drops of water. She gave him three more before she stopped again. Part of him wanted to beg, to plead with her for more. He wondered if that is what she wanted.
He could feel her fingers examining the knots that held him. The ropes were tight against his flesh, too tight for her to slide a finger under. The blindfold had been placed over his eyes while he’d still been held fast by the vines. He’d fought against the creature or creatures that had bound him, and heard only a strange, derisive laughter. It had been nothing human. The ropes pulled at his limbs until he’d thought he was going to be broken in half. He could barely breath.
His hands had been numb for hours now. He wondered if he’d still be able to use them, even if freed. The sharp throb of his knee had faded, blending into the numb pain. Would he even be able to walk, if she took the ropes off now? Perhaps they had already destroyed him. “Why?”
“Why?” His voice was quiet, as if the word had simply escaped on his breath.
For a moment, she just stared at him. Then she shook her head. “No. You really don’t know, do you?” Fresh anger filled her. “You deserve this, and worse.” Ileana had to take a few steps back to stop herself from striking him. She took a few deep breaths.
Blood pooled on the marble floors of the castle. The servants had been unarmed, cut down as they tried to flee or hide. Her sister’s screams still echoed in her ears. She’d been spared the slaughter, ironically enough because of the very man hanging helpless before her. Her father had intended the bargain to be the beginning of a new age, of peace and unity. The Larias, however, had merely seen an opportunity. Her womb could provide them with a legitimate heir to her family’s lands, secure their conquest.
She began to laugh, and saw him frown in response to the sound. Of course, the reverse held true as well. If she could produce a legitimate heir to their family lands…
Ileana walked back over to her captive, and paused with her hand a few inches from his face. She owned his soul. And she also owned his body. Perhaps his acquisition was not a waste after all. The old magic was there, just below the surface. She could almost feel it, swirling as she reached. He was a warrior, one she could bind to her. A weapon she could wield, and it seemed poetic. She drew the knife from its sheath once more, and this time slid it up to remove the blindfold.
He blinked in the sudden light, staring up at her. She could see the pain in his eyes. The confusion, however, made her angry again. “You don’t recognize me.”
“No.” He blinked again, as if trying to clear a haze. “Should I?”
The blade of the knife was laid against his ear. She considered, just for a moment, slicing it away. Then she put it away. She was going to have enough damage to repair already. “I suppose I should not be surprised that you do not. It has been three years, after all, since we last saw each other.”
“Three…” He gave a small shake of his head.
Slowly, she bent, until her face was inches from his. “The last time I saw you, you were standing over the body of my brother.”
Recognition suddenly filled his eyes, then began giving way to a slowly dawning horror. “Ileana.”
“Hello.” She ran a finger down his jaw. “Husband.”