Carmilla DeWinter: A Binding Oath. Part 1: Mercy

Three and a half scenes – 1’800 words, English version unbeta-ed – under the cut.

Warning: contains vague references to physical and sexual abuse. Also, one rather graphic corpse.

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On warm days, the space under the big pine tree in the public garden smelled like home.

This was nonsense, of course, because Alèa couldn’t remember a single thing about the nameless southern village where he’d been born. Master Orso had bought him from his poor parents as soon as he’d been weaned.

At least, that was what the Master said.

Alèa closed his eyes and let the sunshine burn on his black hood. Later, the Master would punish the tardiness, but the quiet here was worth at least a slap or two.

Fast little footsteps crunched the stones on the path and stopped only a short distance away.

Alèa opened his eyes. A small boy was staring at him, his blond curls a mess on his head.

“Are you sick?” the boy asked.

“No,” Alèa said.

“Then what’s that mark on your face?”

“It’s a tattoo.” A sign Alèa had once seen in a dream; a vertical row of zigzags, maybe a snake, like the animal of the Centerran healer god.

“What’s a tatt-who?”

Alèa frowned. How did you explain such a voluntary disfigurement to a small child? And should Alèa do it, anyway, because it begged the question why.

“Friedrich!”

The child flinched.

A woman skirted around a row of hedges. “There you are, you little rascal. You can’t just run off, you hear me?”

The boy assumed a puppy dog look and nodded.

“Right. If you pull another escape like that, I have to tell your parents.” She offered her hand.

The boy ran up to her, took the hand and grinned.

“See.” She turned to Alèa. “I hope he didn’t disturb you.”

“Not at all,” Alèa lied.

She smiled tightly – she was scared of Alèa, he bet – and dragged the child off. The boy didn’t seem impressed in the least and launched into chatter, about tatt-whos and other things.

Alèa stared at their retreating backs. He couldn’t remember ever talking as much as this child, unless prompted. The first thing he’d ever learned was to shut up.

It had taken a while, but sometime in the past year, he’d realized he didn’t simply have a screw loose, but that he was missing screws altogether.

However, today Master Orso obviously had other things to do than worry about Alèa’s punctuality. He had gone out, so Alèa took one of his swords and practiced forms in the courtyard until he grew hungry.

Shortly before sundown, the door slammed and Master Orso stomped up the stairs as if the boards were enemies he had to squash.

Bad mood today.

Ah, well. Worse mood, more like.

“Alèa!”

Alèa sprinted upstairs to the study.

“Master.” He bowed.

“There’s trouble.”

“Master?”

Master Orso paced, hands clasped behind his back. His gray cloak dragged over the smooth floorboards, and Alèa resisted the urge to count. The Master always needed five rounds to calm down.

“Our contact in the castle has rediscovered her conscience.” The Master stopped to stare at the small metal chest on his desk. Alèa assumed he was keeping proof of his right to the throne in there. “You will remind Brünn that she has family to think of. I listened around, she will be visiting her sister tonight. On her way back, you will ambush her and whisper a few threats into her ear. And no magic. She can’t know how many of us there are.”

A real mission, not the usual errands and stake-outs. Something worthy of Alèa’s talents. “It will be an honor, Master.”

“See to it that it is. No magic, even if she tries to defend herself. And be careful about what you tell her. Don’t give her hints she can share with my brother, do you understand?”

Alèa wanted to roll his eyes. How old was he again? “Yes, Master.”

The Master sent him off with a sweep of his hand.

(… Things go horribly wrong, of course. Alèa lets himself be distracted by a vision of his future killer and overreacts… Cue next morning, and the other main character.)

On every corner in the castle there stood a guard, eying everyone who passed. Even Tankred and Ingfried weren’t exempt, although the Sun Order was usually treated with respect.

Tankred had an odd fluttering in his stomach that had nothing to do with his hastily gobbled down breakfast. Whatever had happened here, an evil the messenger had known nothing about, it would at least change the world.

The rose garden was barriered off, and a sizable crowd milled in the main aisle. Soldiers in blue and gold, the king’s colors. Whispering servants. Two healers in their green robes and three women in black, ghydyas of the Dark Lady.

Tankred and Ingfried stopped at the barrier, and Ingfried beckoned a watchmen over. “Knight Ingfried, and my ward, Squire Tankred. Your captain asked for us to come here.”

The watchman’s gaze took in their yellow cloaks, searching for the gold border on Ingfried’s and the silver one on Tankred’s. “I’m going to fetch him, revered sirs. Please wait here.” The guard hurried off and eventually returned with the captain.

The captain was stocky and had a red face. His leather cap was adorned with a long blue feather. “Revered sirs. I’m Dietmar of Dreiberg. Thank you for responding so fast.”

“As is our duty,” Ingfried remarked mildly. “Even though murders are not our usual business.”

Tankred suppressed a smile. Usual business or not, you couldn’t dampen Ingfried’s enthusiasm for mysterious crimes.

“We didn’t call you because we’re lacking decent investigators,” said Captain von Dreiberg. “If you’ll follow me?” He lifted a bar for them and led them down the path. “We patrol this part of the castle twice per night. One of my guards found the body this morning, shortly before sunrise. He called in a healer, but it was too late already.”

The onlookers took a few steps back when sighting Ingfried’s and Tankred’s cloaks. A few looked relieved.

On the ground lay a woman in green healers’ robes. Blood had dried on her face, from a hand print. The dead healer had a fist-sized hole in her stomach, burnt black at the edges. If you stepped close to the body, you could see the gravel on the path through the hole. Tankred swallowed and hoped his breakfast would stay where it currently was. No matter how many dead bodies he had to inspect, the nausea never got any better.

Ingfried shot him a warning look.

Tankred retreated a few steps and raised his chin.

“This was the queen’s assigned healer, Brünn,” Captain von Dreiberg said. “As you can see, she was killed by magic. Obviously, there’s a practitioner of the Black Arts in town.”

Tankred bit his lip and lowered his gaze.

Ingfiried wrinkled his nose and seemed less than impressed by the reproach. “May the Dark Lady have mercy on Brünn.”

Tankred murmered along.

Ingfried adjusted his sleeves and squatted down next to the body.

(… Investigation follows that is mostly used for worldbuilding . In the end, Alèa lets himself be captured, sure that the king will order his execution and end his suffering. During the brief altercation with the Sun Order, he is outfitted with a small amulet of opal that stops him from using his gift. The Revered Councilor Adele – head of the Sun Order – tries to interrogate him repeatedly, but he keeps silent.)

… Shortly after the usual change of guards, a squire came and sent off the knight on duty. Alèa rubbed at his eyes – they felt as if scoured with sand – and studied the newcomer.

It was that squire from the cloister of the Earth Mother. Average height, freckles, blue eyes and short blond hair. He looked almost like the man from Alèa’s vision.

Alèa stood and took a step to the cell’s bars. If this squire let his hair grow out, it would fit. This pair of blue eyes was missing the anger, but the small brown flecks in the irises and the arch of the brows didn’t leave much room for doubt.

In another life, this one would have killed Alèa.

What a strange thought, because even now, the squire smiled lopsidedly and shifted his weight. “My name is Tankred,” he said. “The Revered Councilor sent me.”

As if Alèa couldn’t have guessed.

Another smile. “She’s at a loss. The king won’t have you executed, no matter how much you stall…”

Alèa raised one brow. This didn’t make any sense.

“The healer thinks you’re sixteen,” the squire said.

What? How did they know?

“Healers can tell if someone will grow more, and even how tall they’ll be.”

Alèa nodded. Almost, he asked how much was in it for him.

The squire cocked his head, as if he’d guessed the question. “Anyway. Friedlant doesn’t execute minors.”

They wouldn’t kill Alèa? They wouldn’t kill him. Alèa closed his eyes. If he didn’t start talking, they’d leave him here in the basement, with guards that looked at him too often.

Why hadn’t the Revered Councilor said anything about that?

Maybe Alèa could strike a deal. He knew the Sun Order kept horses and taught fencing. They would need a smith, right. He took one deep breath. “Alèa,” he ventured.

“What?” The squire, Tankred, frowned. “Like, dice? That’s your name?”

Alèa nodded.

“This is a pretty unusual name.”

“It’s from Centerre.”

“This is an unusual name even for Centerrans.”

Alèa shrugged.

“So. Alèa. What’s your surname?”

No surname. Alèa stared at the wall.

“Maybe you’ll tell me later.”

“There is nothing to tell.”

Tankred’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry.” Obviously he knew, in Centerre, only outcasts didn’t have surnames.

For a while, they were silent.

“We have evidence that there’s a second Black Mage in the city,” Tankred said eventually. “A gray haired one with an accent. Did you travel here with him?”

Alèa nodded, even though it wasn’t entirely accurate. He had been… made to move here, into the cold northern weather.

“Did you grow up with him? Didn’t he tell you your name?”

“He didn’t.”

“So, you couldn’t have gone anywhere…”

“He’d have found me, no matter how far away I’d have fled.”

“Hmm. Apart from that, ‘away’ isn’t a direction.”

“Apart from that.” Even if a place to stay seemed too much ask for, considering Alèa’s life so far.

Tankred sighed. “Would you talk about this with the Revered Councilor, or the yarls? I’m sure they’d offer you a place somewhere, if the king agrees.”

Alèa nodded.

“Good. So maybe you can sleep now.”

Alèa looked away. He should have realized they’d notice he never lay down.

“You’re afraid someone will sneak in and beat you up, if you’re not awake?”

Alèa crossed his arms. Tankred had to be pretty naïve.

“I could guard you.”

Alèa frowned.

“I could lie and say I can’t enter the cells. You’d have to trust me.”

Tankred hadn’t even considered that someone would want to do something unspeakable to a prisoner. This was naïve, yes, but also quite soothing. Alèa nodded.

Tankred smiled and turned to leave. “I’ll notify someone and be back in a bit.”

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