Weekend Wind Down – Castle Perilous

Please note ‘Castle Perilous’ is an Adult Read.

The gate guard at Castle Perilous was alert and unobtrusive, and a single robed and cowled figure mounted on a tall, grey horse was closely observed as it mounted the causeway. As the horse approached the gates the rider drew rein.
“Traveller seeking shelter.”
“Shelter granted.”

The rider shook the reins and the horse moved forwards with its iron-shod hooves echoing hollowly on the wooden planks of the drawbridge.

Once they had passed under the portcullis and through the curtain wall, a guardsman appeared at each stirrup.
“What is your business at Castle Perilous?”
“I have no business here,” the voice was low and pleasantly husky. “I merely journey from one place to another and seek shelter from the storm whose clouds roil and boil in the western sky.”
“Very well. We will take your horse.”
A hand went to the bridle, but was snatched away just inches from a set of snapping yellow teeth. The rider laughed.
“Be careful, Horse has been known to bite.”

A shaven-headed dwarf with massively muscular shoulders stepped forward and grasped the reins in one horny hand. He and the horse eyed each other intensely for a moment, then Horse gave the equine equivalent of a shrug and abandoned the attempt to win the staring match. His rider laughed, swung one leg over the pommel and dropped lightly to the ground.

The sergeant of the guard indicated that the visitor was to follow him.
“One of the guard will bring your saddlebags.”

The cowled figure followed in his wake and was brought to the doors of the Great Hall. The sergeant opened one leaf of the door and bowed the visitor inside.

The visitor trod the worn white flagstones towards the western wall whose arched windows overlooked a green valley up which the purple-black storm clouds were racing. Whoever or whatever was under the cowl seemed unsurprised by the magnificence of the grand chamber, and walked with bowed head and hands tucked into the sleeves of a monkish woollen robe. At the steps to the dais the visitor looked up, straight into the cold eyes of the incumbent of Castle Perilous.

He was huge and blonde-braided, with intricately tattooed runes running across his pale skin. Other than his moustached face, the hands that rested on the arms of a deeply carved wooden chair were the only undecorated flesh visible, being as white as milk but calloused and scarred withal. Those hands clenched and unclenched for a moment before he spoke.
“Do they send a monk to convert The Knight of the Doleful Countenance to their weak womanish religion?” His voice was deep, and booming, and filled with contempt.
His visitor put back the concealing hood to reveal that it was no monk who stood at the foot of the steps looking critically upwards.

It was a woman, an austerely handsome woman – broad of cheekbone, and with alabaster pale skin and astonishingly blue eyes. Her yellow hair was brushed smoothly away from her face and gathered in a club at the nape of her neck. She regarded the seated giant much as a cat regards a mouse and he shifted uneasily in his great chair.

“What then have they sent you here for? To seduce me?”
She laughed.
“Then why are you here?”
“I seek shelter from the storm.”
“What storm?”
As if on cue, the sky darkened and the air was rent by sounds of thunder. The windows behind the dais were battered by hailstones and lashing rain.
“This one.”
“Very well I will believe you. But there is payment to be levied.”
“Payment? What of the laws of hospitality?”
“I care for no laws. In Castle Perilous I am the law.” The enormous man laughed derisively as he looked into the woman’s face. “You look to be a tasty little morsel, and one that might while away a boring hour or two.”
The woman regarded him patiently.
“And what if I say no?”
He shrugged.
“It matters not a jot to me. Will ye or nil ye, I will have you.”
Her eyes remained unafraid and she lifted one shoulder.
“We shall see.”

The Knight actually chuckled, before rising to his full seven feet and extending a hand.
“I can at least offer you food while we discuss this further.”
The woman put the tips of her fingers on his bulky forearm and they walked together out of the great hall and up the stairs to the solar, where a noble fire warmed the air and the walls were hung with rich tapestries.

Behind them the household held its collective breath. It was very rare to see a woman walking up those stairs on her own two feet before, and the staff had learned to expect something cataclysmic to ensue.

However, the sky did not fall in and there were no screams to be heard, so a stream of lackeys mounted the staircase bearing bottles and covered dishes.

While the nameless ones went about their business, the Knight and the Lady stood by the window in silence and watched the driving rain. Once the last servant had bowed his way out, the Knight went to a side table and poured a glass of blood-red wine.

He brought the glass to the Lady who took it from his hand. She sniffed its bouquet and sighed.
“I do not need your wine laced with opiates.”
She put the glass down and looked into the Knight’s face.
“I meant it only as a kindness,” he growled.
“Kindness? To whom? When you rape me I intend that you should hear my screams…”
He would not meet her eyes.
“Why call it rape?”
“What else should I call it. You say yourself that you mean to have me, whether I will it or not. I do not. So there is no other name for it but rape.”
He bulked his shoulders but did not reply.

The lady put hands to the belt of her robe and unfastened it, removing the serviceable brown wool to disclose a simple creamy linen garment beneath. She sat on the window seat to remove her stout leather boots, revealing long delicately boned feet to the Knight’s heated gaze.

He swallowed audibly, but said nothing, merely handing her to a seat at a table laid for two. He served her a plate of carefully chosen meats before bringing his own meal to the place opposite her at the table. He watched her intently, with his lightless eyes resting on the hollows at the base of her white throat. She looked back at him.
“Why do you watch me so?”
“Because you do not fear me.”
“How do you know I do not fear you?”
He chuckled, and it was an almost human sound.
“You are not the first woman to sit at this table with me. There have been those before you whose bravado carried them thus far, but here in this room I have seen their fear grow and watched their hands tremble. I do not believe you could eat so calmly were you in fear.”
“Maybe not. Or maybe I just have more pride than those who have gone before me.”
“More pride than queens and priestesses and witches and seers?”
“Mayhap. You will never know.”
He inclined his head but said no more.

The silence between them was far from comfortable and it stretched for many moments before the Knight spoke again. His voice was a low growl.
“I wish you would drink the wine,” he said almost plaintively.
“Why? So that I cannot call you rapist to your head?”
“No, lady. So that I shall not cause you pain.”
She raised her brows and the Knight reddened under the weight of her gaze. He spoke with some reticence.
“I am not a small man, in any dimension, and when the lust rises in my blood I have no moderation. I have respect for your courage and I find myself reluctant to hurt you.”
“If you have no wish to hurt me the remedy is in your hands.”
“It is not in my hands,” the words sounded as if they had been ripped from his very soul.
The Lady looked at him in some pity.
“How so?”
“It is the castle,” he whispered, “it craves blood. The life blood of those knights who dare challenge me, and the virgin blood of the women sent in tribute.”
The Lady showed a row of perfectly even white teeth.
“Life blood or virgin blood? It seems you will have to kill me.”
It took a moment for the import of what she said to register, then the Knight threw back his head and roared in frustration, underpinned by something one might have called sorrow if he had been entirely human.

As he bellowed his defiance, the Lady felt the castle’s hunger as a vibration through the soles of her bare feet where they rested on the floor.
She sighed. “Lend me your dagger.”
Somewhat to his own surprise, the Knight handed it over and watched as his guest walked to the chimney breast. She laid her hand on the stones and the castle’s hunger became a high-pitched voice singing in the air around her head.
“You shall die
And you shall bleed
And on your blood
These stones shall feed”

The Knight fell back in his chair.
“You can hear it too?” his voice was a saw-toothed whisper.
“Of course I can.”
“It wants me to kill you.”
“I know.”

The Lady cut deeply into her thumb with the Knight’s blade and smeared her blood on the warm wall, making a complex rune. The eerie singing stopped, and the castle felt replete.
“How? What?” the Knight was perplexed, then he stretched himself to his full height. “Go now,” he whispered. “Leave while the monster is quiescent. The rain is almost over. Get your horse and go before the castle knows you are gone.”
“And what will happen to you when the castle wakes?”
“Nothing,” he said dully, “it needs me too much to do me harm. It will be angry for a while.”

The Lady smiled.
“Liar. It will punish you horribly if you let me go.”
“And if it does? What have I not done that deserves punishment? I have survived before.”
He shrugged off his leather waistcoat to display a whole landscape of scars, some as deep as the thickness of a man’s thumb. The Lady swallowed around a sudden sickness in her mouth.
“I let a virgin go free. She was too young and too small, and even the bloodlust of the stones was not strong enough to make me take her.”
She put one cool hand on his chest and he noticed that the cut to her thumb had healed already, but somehow it was too much effort to think about anything except her wide-set sapphire eyes.

The Lady appeared to reach a decision.
“How much do you want to escape?”
“When I am myself, I want to get away with every fibre of my being. But when the castle takes me over…”
“Understood,” she looked deep into his eyes behind which she could begin to discern a spark of humanity. “Understood, but are you of high enough courage to take a chance at my side?”
In lieu of a reply, the huge Knight knelt and kissed her foot.

She smiled and gave one of his braids a shrewd tug. He stood looking down at her as she dropped her robe.
“Undress,” her voice was soft but brooked no argument.
The gigantic Knight stripped quickly, standing before her naked save for his tattoos.
The Lady grinned into his uncomprehending eyes.
“We have one chance, and one chance only, will you trust me?”
He nodded, and she plunged his own knife into the femoral artery that pulsed in his thigh.

He let loose a cry of pain and shock as his blood spattered the walls of the solar.
At first, the castle seemed quiescent, then it began drinking the blood drawing the scarlet spatters into its very stones, finally it realised whose blood it had taken and the very stones cried out their anger and alarm.
“Too late,” the Lady spoke in a voice that seemed to echo from the heavens themselves. “Too late. You have eaten your own heart.”

As the stones of the castle began to let go of their form and slip and slither like living things, the Lady turned her attention to the dying giant at her feet. She extended a hand and he reached for the comfort she offered.

No sooner had their hands joined than a pathway opened up before them, a moonlit pathway leading upwards to who knew where.

The Lady smiled at the Knight; both stepped out of their fleshy prisons and set their feet on that upward path and walked away from the death throes of Castle Perilous followed by a dwarf and a tall grey horse. Behind them, their mortal bodies turned to dust, and the stones of the castle fell down never to be reassembled.

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