What do you do when one of your best friends kills another? What do you do when you see the corpse of a man you loved on the ground and see that the other man you loved has become a killer?
Alain lay dead before her and Ludovico stood above him, sword dripping with blood. Both so beautiful, Alain as fair as Ludovico was dark… opposites in their appearance as well as in personality and yet, the three of them had been inseparable in childhood. She was the force connecting them. They both loved her and she loved them both in return. She knew she might be forced to choose between them one day, but not that the choice would be taken from her by death.
Ludovico never had become her equal in combat. If she drew her own sword now, she could slay him as quickly as he had murdered Alain, and justice would be done after a fashion. The rage that boiled within her required action. She raised her hand to her sword but at the last moment, threw a net at him instead.
She always had to rely on speed rather than strength in any confrontation but her anger and sorrow combined to lend her the strength she needed to drag him to her horse. She tied the net to her saddle and mounted, then dragged her erstwhile friend behind her at a slow walk back to her lands. Alain’s corpse she cradled in her arms.
The castle that was hers, where she had welcomed both Alain and Ludovico as friends could not be used for this… She sent a swift message to her friend, Wolves Bain, and he responded.
In fact, she could not bear to go home now. Too many memories of happier times would assail her. Until the new castle was completed, she stayed in a small tent, and left Ludovico outside in the net, now fastened securely to a peg hammered into the ground. Part of her wanted him dead. The other part could not bear the loss of both of the men she loved. She waited for the storm in her heart to settle, waited for a time when she could make the right decision, uninfluenced by the bitter grief that continued to overwhelm her. Until then, she would not even speak to him, would not look at him.
Time seemed suspended while she awaited the completion of the new castle.
Wolves Bain said nothing when he saw the man tied in the net behind her steed, merely lifting an eyebrow.
‘I could not take him home with me,’ she told him in a low voice. ‘I do not know yet what I shall do.’
‘I understand. This castle reflects what is, what may be and what may as yet never come to pass. It is in your hands, Milady.’
When she saw the cage he had constructed, she smiled grimly.
‘If there is anything else that you need, do not hesitate.’
She turned to thank him again, but understanding the turmoil of her emotions perfectly, he had taken his leave quickly and silently. It was characteristic of the man to understand people sometimes better even than they understood themselves and it was this capacity that defined his greatness both as a builder and human being.
She mounted her horse again and made a solemn journey to the rooftop to lay Alain’s corpse there beneath the shelter of a canopy.
There was one more task that could not wait. She rode back down the ramp into the castle, back to the floor where the prison awaited her captive. She threw him into the cage before severing the net that had held him for days. A man who always had prided himself on his exquisite sense of fashion, fastidious to a fault, he now was filthy and unkempt, his clothing in tatters. If she had desired to humiliate, she could not have done any better. Perhaps he would hate her forever for this… if there were to be a forever.
As soon as he was free, he leapt to his feet to confront her, but she would not allow it. Not yet. As quickly as he had moved, she responded and when he faced her, it was through the bars of the cage that imprisoned him now.
‘Do not speak, Ludovico! No words can bridge the distance between us at this moment. Whether you hate me or love me still, nothing can be as real to me now as the murder you committed.’
She went then to the rooftop to stand before the body of her friend.
‘If Ludovico must die, then it will be here,’ she declared.
Alain would have forgiven Ludovico for his slaying, but a total absence of violence was both his greatest strength and his fatal weakness. He would not have, could not have defended himself from his friend’s attack. Whatever the reason for the killing, it could not have been justified. She knew that instinctively. Had he killed perhaps to have her for himself? She suspected that to be the case. It would be Ludovico’s way to eliminate any problem that stood in the way, even if that problem should be a man he called his friend.
Ludovico was a gambler at heart, a consummate risk taker. He would risk her hatred on the chance to gain her for his own one day. She never had been able to choose between them. She loved them both equally. They were opposites in every way and she understood and loved them both… until now. If her love for Ludovico were transformed to hatred, then he would have killed more than the friend who had stood between him and his desire. It would mean death not only to his dreams but to hers as well. It was this knowledge that had stayed her hand and this was why he was in a cage instead of being consigned to the grave with Alain.
Why had she not made a choice between them? Was she to blame for this after all? She was drawn equally to Alain’s quiet acceptance of life, his gentle love of all things and to Ludovico’s incandescent lust for adventure, his hunger for danger and new challenges. When her own soul constantly was at war with itself, how could she expect peace to endure between the two men she loved?
When she faced him the next day, he had regained his cool façade. Somehow, despite the indignity of his situation, he was in control again. It enraged her and offended her in some very fundamental fashion. At the same time, she couldn’t help but admire his courage.
‘You regret nothing?’ she cried.
‘You want me to suffer? Make me suffer then but don’t expect me to be something I’m not.’
‘He was your friend as well, you know.’
‘Alain? He was every one’s friend, but never friend to himself.’
‘No threat to you, surely.’
‘He threatened everything I wanted. Why do you make me say these things?’
‘Why didn’t you say them before? You needn’t write your messages to me in blood.’
‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘Perhaps that’s who I am.’
‘If you can’t even be bothered to TRY, well, then, you can rot in here. You may be sustained by arrogance, but you can’t stand to be bored.’
‘What do you want from me, darling?’
‘I want you to be a human being!’
‘I would have thought that was obvious. Now, what is it that YOU want from me?’
‘You will NOT question me! You killed some one I loved, some one who never did anything but good in this world. An unforgiveable act.’
He shrugged slightly, slouching against the walls of the cage, arms folded, quintessentially Ludovico, even in these circumstances.
‘Then do what you must, my sweet.’
She turned on her heel, then and stalked from the cage. She was overwhelmed by cold fury but she would not lose her control in front of him. Then she spied the whip on the wall.
She returned to face him once again, scourge in hand. She cracked the whip and watched as his eyes widened almost imperceptibly. The very air was charged with some intense emotion, but it was something other than fear.
‘Is that your price?’ he asked quietly.
‘I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.’
‘Go on then. I did not act to destroy whatever is between us. If there is a way for you to repair it… I do not fear you.’
‘Perhaps you should.’
‘I have but one fear and always did. That will not change.’
She locked herself into the cage, determined to gain peace at any price. The supple leather curled and hissed like a serpent as it struck unerringly. Its caress was deadly, her aim as true as it would have been had she used a blade.
He looked her in the eyes and took what she meted out without flinching. Had she expected anything different? She struck again with greater force and still he held her gaze. She knew he had no love of pain. Was it pride or something even more vital that kept him on his feet now?
She did not rain blows on him. Even in rage, she held herself with an iron-clad control. Each blow counted, each crueler than the last but after a dozen, she threw down the whip with a sigh.
‘A few stripes on a man’s flesh cannot be the price of a man’s life,’ she murmered.
‘Ah, but what is? A life for a life? If you want me dead, you must do it yourself. I am not Alain. I value my life too much.’
He drew her dagger then from her belt and set its point at his own throat, offering it to her.
‘No, not that either,’ she whispered, but suddenly she knew what had to be done.
She bound his wrists and ankles with chains, not because he would resist or attempt escape but so he would be forced to drag the weight, then led him to the rooftop.
Here Alain’s corpse still awaited burial.
‘You will bury him, Ludovico.’ That is my price. You will build a mound and bury him here.’
He met her gaze calmly.
‘So be it. My life is forfeit to you now.’
He was no labourer, accustomed to farm work or digging. His hands became blistered and his entire body rebelled against the work, but he was too proud to complain and had given her his love, whether or not she accepted it now. So he completed the job and with the finesse that characterized every act, had created a burial mound that befit a prince or hero. It was covered with sod so that the grass would continue to grow here on the rooftop, giving her a place to meditate or to grieve. Knowing her, it would be a place where she would commune with the other world and with the spirits of the dead. He knew what she intended even though she had not pronounced his own fate aloud yet.
She entered the mound with him and watched as he laid their friend’s body on a narrow shelf constructed of finest marble. She placed a kiss on the cold lips of the corpse and left a small bouquet of violets tied with a lock of her own hair in Alain’s hands, crossed over his chest.
She turned then to Ludovico and unchained him, then kissed him on the lips. The passion that fired them both then left her gasping.
‘Farewell, my sweet,’ she whispered. ‘We will meet again, whether in this world or the next.’
So saying, she left the mound and sealed the door behind her. In the darkness, he found the water and food she had left as the traditional offering to the dead or perhaps for living and dead alike.
For nine nights and days, she kept her vigil on the mound. She did not seek protection from the elements when it rained, not even when the rain turned to sleet. She welcomed its cleansing power.
She kept her communion with the dead and with her own soul. On the ninth night, she unsealed the door of the mound. The price had been paid and the slate was wiped clean.
The man who emerged from the tomb was neither broken nor beaten but when she gazed into his eyes, she saw that he was weeping probably for the first time in his life. She laid her hand gently on his cheek, then drew him into her arms, mingling her tears with his. It is true that out of death sometimes comes a chance for a new life.
Only Silence greeted her. She entered to find that Death had embraced Ludovico as irrevocably as it had taken Alain. She returned to the castle, and dressed for her wedding day, choosing each garment and each jewel with care. Returning to the rooftop, she entered the mound for the final time, then sealed it from within.
But I will leave the ending to you, M’Lords and Ladies, as I dare not make that final decision.
Copyright: Freyashawk 2009
Story by Freyashawk, Castle by Wolves Bain