The Woods: Chapter 10

Thomas settled the breastplate over his shoulders, then smiled as Ileana began helping him with the straps.  A memory came to him.  “The last time you did this for me you tied them in knots.”

She laughed.  “I was fourteen, and you managed to win despite them coming loose.”  She straightened, then rose up to kiss him.  “And I’m much better at knots now.”

“Vula teach.”  The goblin was examining one of his gauntlets.  She poked them before wrinkling her nose with disapproval.  “Why have metal fingers if not add claws?”

Considering the time the goblin had bound him had nearly killed him, he couldn’t really deny her expertise.  “Claws make it more difficult to precisely direct the blade.”  He’d seen clawed gauntlets before, even tried them before rejecting them as impractical.  They looked frightening, but their sole use appeared to be intimidation.  Or at least, he’d always thought so until facing Keffer’s claws in a sparring match.  Granted, when Keffer abandoned his human mask his claws were more like talons and on the hands of a creature that was not only inhumanly strong and fast but capable of wielding considerable magic.  It had been a few years since a training match had left him almost too bruised and exhausted to move.

“If had good claws, not need blade.”  She sniffed before handing him the gauntlet.

“The blade allows me a greater range and more maneuverability.”  He put the gauntlet on.  And without that range and maneuverability, Keffer would have little problem tearing him to little bitty shreds.  For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure Vula and her claws wouldn’t be able to manage the same.  He imagined fighting her would be something akin to battling a rabid wolverine.

“Until Vula bite off arm.”  She grinned, her inhumanly wide mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth.  A rabid wolverine with the teeth of a shark.  It was possible she could actually bite his arm off.  Or at least tear enough of it away to render it useless and bleeding out.

“Yes, but wouldn’t you biting off my arm also make claws useless?”  He raised an eyebrow at her.

“It…”  Vula blinked, then frowned.  “Vula need think on it more.”  She scratched her head, then her face brightened.  “Vula bite off leg!”

He exhaled.  Except in tournaments he’d always preferred to wear no more than greaves rather than bog himself down with heavier armor.  But when it came to facing something like Vula, maybe enclosing his entire body behind metal wouldn’t be a bad idea.  “An excellent tactical choice.”  He nodded to her, and she grinned again.  His eyes went to Ileana.  “Speaking of tactics…”

“We discussed this already.”  Ileana shook her head.  “The castle cannot be taken by outside forces.  The only way we can capture it is if we sneak inside.”

“If we enter announced, there may be no need to take the castle.”  He shook his head.

“As much as I hope Nicolas does prove reasonable, I cannot take the chance.”  Her voice was firm as she handed him the sword belt.  “We will use the hidden entrance.”

“And if Nicolas has already found it?”  He attached the sword belt.  Nicolas would undoubtedly have searched for such things his first day inside the castle.  Assuming he hadn’t done so upon previous visits.

“He can’t have found it.”  Ileana laughed.  “It can be revealed only by magic.  Once we are inside, we can activate the castle’s wards and hold it against anyone seeking to take it from us.”  She put her hand on his chest.  “No harm will come to Nicolas’s family, and I will do all I can to prevent harm from coming to Nicolas himself.”

“That is all I can ask.”  He gave her a small bow.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 10

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The Woods: Chapter 9

The Woods Chapter 8

She entered the bedchamber to find it empty.  Ileana frowned a moment before a sound in the garden drew her attention.  A smile came to her face as she looked out the window.  Keffer and Thomas were both stripped to loinclothes, sparring with quarterstaves.  Keffer was fey, stronger and faster than a mortal man, and he had a greater reach than Thomas.

And yet it was Keffer who was losing the match.  Thomas caught the satyr’s ankle with the staff, taking Keffer off his feet.  The butt end of Thomas’s staff stopped a couple inches above the satyr’s throat.  A killing blow, had Thomas intended it as such.  Her husband tossed the staff aside before offering her lover a hand back to his feet.

“Ileana.”  Keffer caught sight of her watching them.  “My apologies, I took the liberty of untying your pet when I realized he was awake.”  Thomas glared at him.  “I also fed him, watered him, and took him for a walk.”

“Then I beat him with a stick.”  Thomas rolled his eyes.

“Thrice.”  Keffer nodded, smiling.  “I thought I’d save bathing him for when you returned.”

“Hmmm…”  She extended a hand, running it down Thomas’s chest.  His body had just a trace of sweat, and there were a few bruises starting to form from the duel to add to the ones she’d left on him the previous evening.  Ileana gestured for them to follow her to the bath chamber.

Inside the steaming room, she directed Thomas to sit in one of the shallow pools.  Then she stripped off her robe before selecting a soap.  He smiled when she joined him in the pool, a smile that only widened when she sat down atop him, straddling his lap.  His arms went around her, caressing her as she began to wash him.  “You taste of woodsmoke.”  His voice was soft.

Ileana hesitated, then nodded.  “In two week’s time we will travel to my father’s castle.”

Thomas was silent for a moment before meeting her eyes.  “Where Nicolas dwells.”

“I hope that Nicolas will see reason, and speak with me.”  She ran a hand down his chest.  “Since you are…”  She shrugged.

“You intend to use me as a hostage.”  Thomas raised an eyebrow at her.

“If it stops Nicolas from engaging in hostilities, yes.”  She brushed his hair back.  “If he resists my reclamation of the castle, I will be forced to imprison him.”

“Let me speak with him.”  Thomas leaned back a little.

“I intend to.  But first, we must actually get inside the castle itself.  Otherwise Nicolas could hold it against us.”  She smiled at him.  “I’ve arranged a place of safety for his family.  Whatever does happen, they will not come to harm.”

“Thank you.”  He returned her smile.  “Nicolas is a good man, and a wise man.  He will listen.”

“I…”  Strange, how much had changed in just the past few days.  “I remember him fondly.”  She settled back a little in his lap.  “He visited our library, a few months before you and I were wed.”

“He brought you the silk.”  Thomas nodded.

“It…”  Her eyes widened.  “Then it really was from you?”

“Of course it was.”  Thomas blinked.  “Who did you…”  He tilted his head at her.

“I…”  She leaned in to kiss him again.  “After everything, I told myself you probably had some servant handle the letters.  But they were you.  It was always you.”

“There was never another, Ileana.”  His voice was soft.  “Even after…”  He bowed his head.

“Thomas…”

“Who could compare to the daughter of the wind?”  He ran his fingers through her hair.

Her own fingers tangled in his hair as she pulled him to her for another kiss.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 9

The Woods: Chapter 8

The Woods Chapter 8

It took him a moment to realize Ileana had spoken.  She stood, then gestured.  “Clear the hall.”  There was grumbling, but everyone save Keffer obeyed the command.

Thomas remained where he was.  At this point, he wasn’t entirely sure he trusted his legs to hold him anyway.  He focused on controlling his breathing.  Keffer’s hand still rested on the small of his back.  “Ileana?”  Keffer shifted his position just slightly.  “Earlier you seemed rather enthusiastic about this performance.”

He didn’t dare raise his head to look up as she walked over to them.  At least the others were gone.  Whatever Ileana intended now, he would not have to endure their eyes while it happened.  She stood there, silently.  Then her hand touched his hair.  Her fingers seemed almost tender as they caressed him.  “Thomas, look at me.”

Only then did he lift his head, and stare up at her.  She was looking down at him, her face contemplative.  “You told the truth.”

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 8

The Woods: Chapter 7

The next morning when she went looking for him she brought a strap rather than the riding crop.  His gaze went to the weapon in her hand before meeting her eyes.  She pointed at the posts.  “Put your wrists through the loops.”  Without a word, Thomas obeyed.  “There is no number, this time.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “I’m going to beat you until you beg for mercy.”

“If you wish me to beg, you need only give the order.”  His voice was quiet.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 7

The Woods: Chapter 6

He vomited again, and started to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.  Someone offered him a towel.  He took it, then blinked when he saw the satyr.  His fists clenched.  “What do you want?”

“If you loved her…”  The satyr frowned.  “Why not tell her?  Have her go to her father and convince him?”

Thomas wiped his face.  “I suggested that to my father.  He…”  Thomas sat, leaning his back against the smooth stone column.  “I don’t know.  He was so convincing then, but…”  He looked up at the satyr.  “Why do you care?”

“I could say that the stupidity of humans never ceases to amaze me…”  The satyr shook its head.  “But this is one of those fascinating occasions where nobility and stupidity are all but indistinguishable from each other.  As much as I mock the latter, I do have considerable respect for the former.”  It tilted its head.  “You did something stupid, because your father told you to do it and you were taught all your life that he must be obeyed.  And now you are here, because you are willing to sacrifice yourself to save your family.”

“You’re mocking me.”  He glared.

“If I was mocking you, I would be bringing up just how terrible you are at sucking cock.”  The satyr rolled its eyes.  “If I had known interceding would make her that mad at me I’d have let her strangle you.”

His eyes widened as he stared up at the satyr.  And then, to his own surprise, he started to laugh.  “I hate you.”

“Pity.”  The satyr shrugged.  “I think I rather like you.”  It offered Thomas a hand, and Thomas let it pull him back to his feet.  “I would not protect you from her, even if I could.”  It met Thomas’s eyes.  “But I will ensure she keeps her word.”

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 6

The Woods: Chapter 5

Keffer caught her arm and yanked her off the bed, pushing her against the wall.  “Enough, Ileana.  You’re killing him.”

She started to protest, and his hand touched her breast.  A wave of sensation flooded through her, driving all else from her mind.  Ileana staggered when it stopped, catching and holding Keffer for support.  It took her several tries to catch her breath.  “My father was not a traitor.”

“I am well aware of who and what your father was, Ileana.”  Keffer pulled her into a hug, holding her tightly.

“He was lying.”  She clung to him.

“He told the truth as he saw it, precious heart.”

“Kef—”

“Is it his fault he was deceived?”  Keffer looked down at her.

“That doesn’t excuse that he lied to me then.”  She glared.

“No.”  Keffer nodded.  “It does not.  You were his wife, and should have been his first loyalty.  He broke the laws of sacred hospitality.  You are not wrong to be angry.”  He tilted her head up.  “But some of your anger is misdirected.  Tell me, precious heart, is it the knife or the one who wields it that holds responsibility for the cut?”

“Why would they…”  She shook her head, and let Keffer guide her to a chair.  “Why would anyone seek to hurt my father?”

“Greed for his lands.”  Keffer shrugged.  “And sheer ignorance.  How few among the mortal realm would believe such as I still exist?  Your family has performed its sacred duty well these past centuries.”

“And now it’s his family holding the castle.”  Ileana sighed.  “Nicolas.”

“The man who tried to save your sister.”  Keffer raised an eyebrow.

“I…”  She sighed.  “I need to think.”

“Take your time, precious heart.”  Keffer rose, then bent and picked up Thomas, slinging the unconscious man over his shoulder.

“Where are you…”  Ileana frowned.

“Forgive me, dear one, but I do not think it is in his best interest to be within your line of sight.”  Keffer shrugged.  “I will return him to you when your rage no longer controls you.”

Ileana sighed, then nodded.  She took a deep breath, and then rose and began to pace.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 5

The Woods: Chapter 4

He was no longer certain how many days he’d spent hanging from the tree.  At least a week, maybe more.  Time seemed to pass strangely where ever it was they were.  At seemingly random intervals he’d take his meals with Ileana and her strange companions.  He was becoming somewhat inured to their taunts.  The delicate winged woman had even expressed disappointment in the fact he no longer blushed just by sitting at the table.  The satyr, however, could still make him turn red, though at least half the time it was anger rather than embarrassment.  It would whisper to him when it put him back in the tree, of things it would like to do to him.  Ileana seemed to find it amusing, though she never let the creature go beyond words.

The few hours he was given to sleep were never quite enough.  He’d be woken, and set out to be displayed in her garden again.  Her silent trophy.  She never let him speak, save to make him beg for basic necessities.  And to make him ask the satyr to be put back in the tree.

They were plotting against his brothers.  Ileana viewed Nicolas as a threat, and rightly so.  Nicolas would have known what all these creatures were.  If anyone could get this blasted collar off, it was him.  There had to be some way to get a warning to him.  With warning, he could prepare, could…  Do something.  Thomas had nearly forgotten what it felt like not to hurt.

She was waiting for him outside the privy door.  Waiting to put him back in the tree.  Thomas took a deep breath.  The satyr had suggested a collar for Nicolas, and Ileana had laughed.  Said it was only fair that the beast have a pet prince of his own.  He couldn’t stomach the thought of his brother at that thing’s mercy.  If she would just listen…  He looked up, and met his reflection’s eyes.  Then he took another deep breath, and went to the door.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 4

The Woods : Chapter 3

Refusing to let him dress had been petty of her, she knew that.  Yet the look on his face when he realized he was going to have to be stark naked in front of a dozen of her dinner guests had been hilarious.  Her friends weren’t making it easy on him either.  He sat next to her, hunched in front of the table, trying to keep what modesty he could.  Janna trailed a hand across his shoulder, leaning in behind him as she poured wine into Ileana’s cup.  Then she ‘accidentally’ dumped half the flagon of iced wine into Thomas’s lap.  He yelped when the cold liquid hit him, but managed not to jump out of his seat.  Several of her guests made disappointed sounds.

The slyph produced a towel.  “Here.”  She grinned.  “Let me get that for you.”

He caught the towel.  “Thank you, but I can manage.”

“No, really.”  Janna licked her lips.  “I insist.”

“I have the matter under control.”  He tugged at the towel, but Janna didn’t release it.

“It is a big mess.”  On the other side of him, Keffer picked up his napkin and started toward him.

Thomas immediately released Janna to catch Keffer’s wrist.  “I appreciate the…”  He trailed off when Janna started reaching into his lap again, and caught the towel with his other hand.

“Maybe he just likes being wet and sticky.”  Tsara laughed.

“Well, then…”  Keffer pulled his wrist free of Thomas and set the napkin back down.  “If that’s the way he likes it.”

“Hmmm…”  Janna shrugged, then pulled the towel away before going back to her seat.

Ileana hid her smile behind her wine cup.  Then she set her glass down.  “Thomas.  Would you be so kind as to go to the sideboard over there…”  She pointed.  “And fetch me another roll?”

His glare was luminous.  Then he shoved his chair back, stood, and stalked toward the sideboard.  Several cheers accompanied the action.  He grabbed a roll and brought it back, holding it out to her.  She smiled.  “And could you put some butter on it?”

Continue reading The Woods : Chapter 3

The Woods: Chapter 2

“How?”  Thomas stared at her.  She was…  and yet she couldn’t be.  Princess Ileana had thrown herself from her balcony into the river below.  He’d seen it with his own eyes.

Instead of answering, she lifted a thin bladed knife.  She moved toward his neck, and for a heartbeat he thought she was going to slice open his throat.  Instead, she cut the rope around his neck.

His head dropped forward, and he sucked in air.  His position still prevented him from drawing a full breath, but he was no longer limited to the painful, shallow gasps.  He wasn’t sure how long he hung there, limp, just breathing, before she caught his hair and viciously yanked his head up and back again.

Around her wrist was coiled a golden serpent.  It raised its head, flicking its tongue at him.  It hissed, revealing glistening fangs.  “You belong to me.”  Her voice was soft, with a curious echo to it.  “Body and soul.”

“Kill me and get it over with.”  He stared back at her.

Her smile was vicious.  “Oh no.”  She gave a small shake of her head.  “It won’t be that easy for you.”

The serpent reared its head back and struck, its fangs piercing the skin of his throat.  Fire seemed to flow through his veins as he felt it coil around his neck.  He screamed as darkness closed over him.

Continue reading The Woods: Chapter 2

The Woods : Chapter 1

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.”

Continue reading The Woods : Chapter 1