He heard the whispers as he strode the echoing corridors of that grey, weed-choked castle perched on the very edge of the sea
“A hero,” the sibilant voices declared. “A hero.”
The young man preened himself and puffed out his chest. It was always nice to be recognised, even if it was only by the ghosts in a backwater like this. His steel-clad feet rung on the stone floors and rattled on the worn and slippery steps of a spiral staircase. As he walked, he wondered what the assignment would be. Perhaps there would be a sleeping maiden, or a crone at her spinning wheel, or a queen labouring under a geas, or a dragon. He enjoyed dragons. One killed dragons and moved on. Women tended to be needier. If one kissed a maiden she rather expected one to stick around, and the tears and tantrums when it became apparent that wasn’t happening wore on the nerves more than somewhat. Then he became aware that he had reached the apex of the staircase and pulled his awareness back to the work in hand.
Loosening his sword in its scabbard, he laid his hand on the huge wrought iron latch.
The room at the top of the tower was a fantastical octagon, with pointed stained glass windows in every wall, and delicate flying buttresses made of carved white marble. For a moment the hero thought himself alone in that place, then his ears caught the sound of slow breathing. He lifted his eyes and saw her, seated on a plain wooden chair on a mezzanine high above him, wrapped in velvet so black it seemed to leach the light from the room and with burnished auburn hair falling to the floor. She might have been beautiful but it was impossible to see as her eyes and the top half of her face were wrapped in gauzy bandages.
‘Aha,’ he thought, ‘a geas’.
“Who comes?” The voice was low, musical and pleasing.
“One who will break whatever enchantment holds you lady.”
She laughed, a sound like the chimes of silver bells and rose from her chair. “Come hither. And we shall speak of this…”
He all but ran up the intricately carved and smoothly polished wood drawn by the excitement of the quest, and by somewhat else. By an undefinable pull to the very centre of his being. By the elusive perfume that he somehow knew came from her velvet skirts. And by a furtive fantasy involving a rope of red-gold hair.
When he reached the head of the final staircase, he was surprised and a little embarrassed to find himself breathless and flushed of cheek. He felt anger that a mere female should so disturb the composure of on so far above her and he frowned direfully. The lady appeared not to notice, moving to a side table on whose mirror bright surface reposed a silver wine jug and a tray of long-stemmed glasses so finely blown as to look like bubbles on twisted stalks.
“Wine, good sir?” The lady’s voice was mild and he felt himself relax in the face of such politeness.
The lady poured wine the colour of blood and brought glasses for herself and her visitor.
“Will you not sit?”
He sunk into the cushioned comfort of a chair that the cold analytical side of his brain insisted hadn’t been there a moment before. For a brief scintilla of time he stayed his hand regarding the glass in his hand with deep suspicion. The lady raised her own glass and drank and he watched the movements in the white column of her throat with an emotion any other man might have recognised as lust. She laughed, low and intimate, and he raised his eyes to the gauzy veil that enwrapped the top half of her face. To his surprise he found it was dissolving as he looked; he was enraptured and forgot his misgivings as his blood rushes unbidden to his loins. He raised his glass and drank, noticing as he did so that the lady’s eyes were the colour of rain-washed violets. The wine flowed down his throat as sensuously as a caress and he wondered what rare and fine vintage it might be. When it’s syrupy sweetness hit his stomach he dropped the glass from suddenly nerveless fingers. The sound of it shattering into a million shards was the last thing he was to hear for some time.
When the hero awoke, his first thought was that he was naked and cold, and then it came to him that he could not move. For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of fear. He opened his mouth to cry for aid but no sound would come.
“He is with us.”
The voice was familiar and he managed to swivel his eyes to where the lady stood regarding him with a peculiar expression in her eyes.
“He is,” she said musingly, “passing fair. Perhaps it would amuse me to keep him for a while.”
Someone laughed and it wasn’t a pleasant sound.
“Domina. Do not be so cruel.”
The lady came over and leaned down into the hero’s face. She moved suddenly and he thought she might have been going to kiss him. But she did not. Instead she bit the fullness of his lower lip, licking the blood away in a manner that made him think of a kitten lapping milk. He closed his eyes, unaccountably distressed and unable to understand what was happening to him. He was a hero. Invulnerable. Undefeatable. Fearless. And yet…
While his befuddled mind was struggling to process this strangeness the sound of sliding silk alerted him to who knew what and he opened his eyes to see the now naked lady climbing onto the bier where he lay. She straddled him and he thought there was mocking laughter in the back of the eyes that studied him.
She leaned forwards until her breasts all but touched his face.
“I’ve never had a pretty hero before.”
Then she leaned back and he saw the dark glimmer of the obsidian blade she held in her hands. He saw it and knew it for what it was only a second before it slashed his throat from ear to ear and his eyes grew dark. He never felt the priests rip his still beating heart from his chest, nor did he smell the disconcertingly edible aroma as they threw it onto a fiercely hot brazier…
A hero died. A lady laughed. And somewhere a dark god smiled.