Isabel hurried through the cellar, ignoring the voices of her household calling after her. She was as frightened and worried as anyone in the castle; she had no answers to give.
She lit a torch from her candle and pushed open the ironclad door hidden behind the baskets of new potatoes. Dust danced in the flickering light, rose in little clouds with every step she took down the circular stairway beyond. At its foot stood another door, this one covered so thickly with cobwebs she could barely see the carving that adorned it, the figure of an ancient monk. Only his nose was still clearly visible, sharp and crooked as a falcon's beak.
"Well met, Joseph," she said, giving it a tweak, paying no mind to the dirt. As a child she had studied this carving for hours, holding conversations with the long-dead cleric while her father worked in his study on the other side of the open door. "Have you nothing to say to me?" She took the key from her pocket and fitted it into the lock. "In faith, I need your counsel." Using both hands, she finally forced the key to turn with a grinding squeal. "I fear we may be doomed, the both of us." She shoved at the door with her shoulder, shuddering just a little as a spider raced down her arm and back into the web just over the door. It opened with a screech to reveal her father's study, once her favorite room in the castle, abandoned for the past ten years. It was still as clean and neat as it had always been, as if her father had just that moment left it for the night. Stone coffers were stacked along the walls, sealed shut with covers too heavy for Isabel to lift, but she knew what was inside. She had seen the ancient parchments many times, traced a finger down the pages, studying the writing in a language no one now living could read. Her father's desk was covered with newer scrolls, each neatly tied with a ribbon, and a candle stood waiting to be lit.
Her father had found the castle when he was already long past forty. The ruined keep on an overgrown island, seemingly forgotten, had seemed like paradise on earth to a knight grown weary of battle. He had built a proper motte-and-bailey fortress over the ancient stones and taken a wife from one of the villages nearby, a maid of seventeen with the flame-red hair and green eyes of a Celt. No one had expected their union to produce a child, least of all Sir Gabriel himself. All he wanted was comfort in his waning years, a companion of spirit and good common sense to share his sanctuary.
But late in their first year together, just after his castle was finally completed, his pretty young bride had conceived. Nine months later, Isabel was born, a tiny, red-haired daughter, and his wife was dead.
"There must be something here," the grown-up Isabel muttered, lighting the second candle and settling into her father's chair. She was grasping at straws, she knew, desperately clinging to phantoms in her fear. But she could think of no better choice. Sir Gabriel had explored the texts in all these coffers, and she knew he had learned to read the language of the druids who had first hidden them there. She had always suspected he had even learned some of their magic, though he would never have admitted it. But he had told her many tales of wonder he had read in the ancient scrolls, tales that suggested he had known more than he was willing to say. "I need a conjure, Papa," she said now, untying one of his own scrolls, forbidden to her eyes when he was alive. "Something that can save Charmot." She used the ribbon to tie back her hair and opened the scroll on the desk.
There is no such thing as magic, 'Bella, she could almost hear him answer, the same thing he had always said. No magic but God's grace.
"Where is God's grace now, Papa?" she asked the empty air as her eyes searched the page. "Where was He when you died?" For seventeen years, Sir Gabriel had kept his Charmot fortress at his own expense with no help whatsoever from his king. But before his body had grown cold in its tomb, the king had been ready to claim it. Apprised of Isabel's inheritance, His Majesty had sent a royal herald.
"Make ready, my lady," this stranger had told her, sketching an elegant bow. "Your noble husband will arrive anon." Sixteen years old, still veiled in mourning for her father, sick with grief, she had stared at the herald in wonder, unable to credit her ears. Her husband? What did she need with a husband? As she remembered that moment now, a full ten years later, her jaw still clenched in fury.
"Never mind, poppet," Brautus, the giant captain of her father's guard, had soothed when the herald had gone. "Let him come."
And thus the Black Knight had been born. When the king's chosen favorite had arrived to claim her and Castle Charmot, he had found a demon already in residence, a mountain dressed in chain mail with a coal-black helmet like a devil's head. Brautus had not been a young man even then, but his skills had been more than a match for the puffed-up courtier King Henry had chosen to rule this isolated, mostly profitless manor. Indeed, he had beaten the poor knight so easily, Isabel had been hard pressed not to laugh, watching from the battlements in her best white gown, the perfect damsel in distress. "Save me, sir knight," she had shouted as the poor sot's squires dragged him, broken and addled, back over the natural bridge that almost joined the island to the mainland. "Save me from this monster." But King Henry's man had seen enough of her and her castle already. As soon as he was hoisted on his horse, he had ridden off without a backward glance.
Others had come to challenge the Black Knight, enough to cause a legend to spring up. In the first years, most of the knights who came were as pitiful as the first, the desperate younger sons of minor nobles looking to win a manor of their own, or older men fallen into disgrace hoping to win sanctuary. But as time passed, the true nobles had lost interest in Isabel and her castle, as both proved to be more trouble than they were worth. Mercenaries and villains had begun to come in their place, evil men with little interest in damsels or castles, men who were looking to make a name as a killer even more lethal than the Black Knight of Charmot. And all the while Brautus grew older. Now past sixty, his heart was still as strong, but his limbs were growing weaker by the day. So far he had still managed to vanquish every challenger who came, but victory was less assured with every fight. The month before, his shoulder had been broken in a skirmish with a Flemish mercenary half his age and of nearly the same giant size. Now another challenger was coming, a Frenchman named Michel.
"A cure for fever -- useful, Papa, but not what I need." She dropped the first scroll and opened up another. Her father had compiled much of the druids' ancient medicine from his reading in the caverns in a book she kept upstairs. "I need a miracle." Her father would tell her to consult a priest, no doubt, but in faith, she already had. Father Colin from the Chapel of Saint Joseph had been the messenger of her doom. Charmot did not have a village of its own, but it was the only fortress in the region, the only refuge in times of unrest, and the common folk all knew Isabel and pitied her in her plight. They made a kind of spy network on her behalf, watching every road for knights coming to claim her so she and Brautus would always be ready to send them away. That morning, Father Colin had made a rare pilgrimage from his church to tell her he had heard of a blackguard knight newly landed from France, coming with an entourage and boasting of his villainy all the way.
This second scroll was nothing but notes, no coherent narrative -- part of her father's research. The corner was decorated with the queer code Sir Gabriel had used to catalog his writings, a mixture of Greek letters and the same Celtic symbols carved into the stone coffers in this study and the walls of the caverns beyond. "Teach me, Papa," she had begged him often, but he had always refused.
"Such matters are not for the innocent, 'Bella," he would say sternly, sending her upstairs to play. But how innocent would she be if this Frenchman should capture her castle?
"Didn't those druids ever require a champion?" she said aloud now. "Who protected their great treasure from the Romans?" She turned another page, an account in Latin of the harvest the year she'd turned ten. She read Latin easily, and French, and some Greek -- useless gifts for a woman, perhaps, but it had amused her father to teach her. "Couldn't they call up a demon from hell if they needed one?" The idea had first come to her when Father Colin had told her his news.
"You should flee, my lady," the priest had advised. "Take your womenfolk with you, escape into the forest, take refuge in one of the villages. Leave them the castle; it's all they really want."
"No," she had told him without a second thought. Charmot was her father's castle, his dream; these people were her family. She would not leave them to a villain's rule. And besides, if she should abandon Charmot, what would happen to the druids' scrolls, to dead Saint Joseph and his catacombs? Somehow she felt the need to protect these things as strongly as she needed to protect the castle and its people. They were sacred to her because they had been important to her father, even if he had never really explained to her why. "Brautus will protect us as he always has, or I will conjure a real devil to fight in his stead," she had joked to Father Colin.
"Blasphemy, my lady," the priest had scolded her with a frown. "You must not even jest of such a thing."
But in faith, had she been jesting? The more she had thought about it, the more dark magic had seemed like the perfect solution. If she had been a witch, she would have done it in an instant, blasphemy or not. She would call up every demon in hell if it meant saving Charmot. But her father said magic wasn't real. "Send me a demon," she whispered to the candle's flame, willing the spirits that surely must still haunt these caves to hear her. "Send me a true Black Knight." The candle flickered, and for a moment, she thought she heard a breath of wind, an eerie, groaning sigh.
"My lady." Susannah, one of the castle maids, was standing in the doorway. "One of the woodsmen from the river town has come. He says those Frenchmen have stopped in the tavern and drunk themselves into a stupor. They will not make it so far as Charmot tonight."
"May God be praised," Isabel answered, gathering up her father's scrolls as if that had been her purpose all along. She had found nothing of use in them, but perhaps she still might. "At least we shall have one more night."
The Chapel of Saint Joseph looked like just the sort of place a magical cup might be found, a Roman temple half crumbled to ruins in the middle of a misty English plain. All the clues and signs Simon and Orlando had found over ten years of searching the world had brought them to this spot. But the Chalice wasn't there.
"The Saxons raided the church many times," the priest who kept the chapel explained, holding up his torch to show them the scorch marks on the cracked plaster walls. "Anything of value here was stolen long ago." He gave Simon a piercing look. "What is it you seek, my lord?"
Salvation, Simon almost said, but what would be the point? The priest -- Father Colin -- had barely blinked an eye to see a knight with armor and a dwarvish squire but no horse standing in his dooryard after dark. Indeed, he had just been returning to the church himself; perhaps he thought they'd been waiting all afternoon.
"Knowledge, Father," Simon told him now. He took a few steps closer to the altar, staring at the cross mounted behind it. Ten years ago, the very sight would have caused his eyes to burn and weep tears of blood. But now he could face it without flinching, at least for a moment, the only pain he felt a cold ache in the hollow that had once held his heart. Crosses could harm him; so could holy water and any relic that had been blessed by a priest. Orlando attributed this to Simon's own faith over any genuine power contained within the objects themselves; either way, he had learned not to risk it. "I am a scholar."
The altarpiece was painted directly on the wall, its colors now faded and flaking away. But he could still make out the empty tomb and the disembodied faces of the angels gathered above it, their robes now crumbled to dust. "A scholar and a knight," he finished, touching the wall.
"My lord has traveled in the Holy Land," Orlando explained. "He has seen many portents of some great power hidden in this place."
"A pilgrim from Our Lord's own lands?" the priest said with awe in his tone.
"From Ireland originally, Father," Simon said, turning back to him with his most winning smile. "But aye." The sky outside the window was almost black now, a deep twilight. "I have seen Jerusalem." He had not fed for fear of frightening the keeper of the church.'Twas an oddly comic feature of his curse that he should appear most demonic just after he was sated, his eyes aglow with devil's fire. When he was starved and therefore dangerous, he could easily pass for a man. "So will you tell me, Father? Is there holy treasure here?"
"Not here, my lord." Father Colin lit another torch. "But there is a castle." He motioned to a bench beside the window, and Simon sat down. "Another scholar, Sir Gabriel of Charmot, built it on an ancient ruin many years ago. This castle may hold what you seek."
"The castle Charmot?" Simon exchanged a glance with Orlando. They had read the name Charmot in many texts in their travels, but they had thought it was a person, not a place, one of the Chalice's ancient protectors.
"Just so," the priest agreed. "Sir Gabriel was a godly man; I knew him well. He told me there were catacombs beneath the castle, an endless labyrinth of tunnels." He was smiling at Simon with such a look of speculation, the vampire wondered suddenly if the old man might be mad. "If your quest is righteous, perhaps God will lead you to the prize you seek."
Before Simon could form an answer, the bell at the gate rang out. "Another visitor so late?" Father Colin frowned. "I am much blessed tonight." He took up his torch. "Wait here, my lord, may it please you. I would speak with you further on this matter."
"As you wish," Simon answered, rising as the priest went out.
"We should leave this church," Orlando said as soon as he was gone. "We will go to this Castle Charmot, see what they can tell us there."
"Aye, wizard, we will." In their first nights together, Simon had been grateful for Orlando's guidance. But now that he began to understand the demon that he was, he was far less willing to be scolded like a child. "But we still have business here." He had sensed something as soon as the gate bell rang, a scent he had learned to pick out from a thousand others, be they in the multilayered stench of Venice or the clean, cold wind of this plain. He smelled evil. He smelled prey.
"You should give me tithe to stay here, old man." A drunken voice was laughing in the corridor outside. "I am a righteous champion." The door was flung open hard enough to crack against the wall, and a man in armor came in. The knight, if he could rightly hold such title, looked like many of the brigands they had seen in England, more robber than protector. Nearly as tall as Simon but twice as broad, he had the swollen, blotchy face of a longtime drunkard and the swaying gait to match, but his small, pale eyes glittered with wakeful malice. "Tomorrow I fight the Black Knight." He was followed by two other men in leather armor, as dirty and drunk as himself, and a smaller creature swathed head to toe in a stained green mantle -- a woman.
The leader saw Simon. "But who are you, sirrah?" His eyes narrowed as he took in his costume, the clothes of a true knight. "What is your business here?"
Simon smiled. "A traveler like yourself."
"Master, I beseech you." Orlando tugged at his sleeve. "We are looked for at another house this night."
"God's helmet, look at that!" the brigand knight exclaimed, his entire manner changing in an instant. "C'est un nain, mes amies -- voilà!"
"You are all welcome, my lords," Father Colin interrupted. "Come, sit down -- I will go inside and make our supper." He paused beside the woman as if to speak to her, then seemed to think better of it. Glancing once more between Simon and the brigand knight, he hurried away to his lodging.
"Where did you get it?" the brigand knight demanded, still gaping at Orlando like an idiot. "Has it always been so small?"
"Smaller, I would imagine, or hope for the sake of his mother," Simon answered. "But when I met Orlando, he was already full grown."
"Full grown," the knight repeated with a chuckle. His eyes moved to Simon, sizing him up now. "What will you take for him?" Simon felt the dwarf grow tense beside him, and he put his hand on his shoulder. "I am near to acquiring a castle," the Frenchman continued. "I will need a fool. Does it sing?"
"Not that I have heard," Simon answered, trying not to smile. If Orlando had harbored any misgivings about the vampire's intentions, no doubt they were fading away. "My servant is not for sale."
The brigand's smile faded. "Do not be so quick to say it, traveler," he said. "You, come here." He grabbed the woman by the arm and pushed her forward. "I will give you this in trade." He yanked away the mantle, and she let out a shriek of indignation, fighting for it a moment before her arms fell back to her sides. She was barely more than a child with golden hair -- a pretty thing when they'd taken her, no doubt. Now her mouth and eye were swollen and bruised, and the thin shift that was her only garment torn and stained with what Simon willfully decided must be mud. She looked at the vampire for barely a moment before looking back down at the floor, but Simon thought he saw the ghost of a smile on her lips, a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
"Your offer is tempting, my lord," Simon said, giving the title an emphasis that was unmistakably ironic. But in truth, he could barely hear his own voice, so loud was the roar of his hunger and the pounding of the brigand's heart in his ears. "But I must decline."
"You must decline?" the man repeated, and his men laughed, coming closer. "I must insist you accept." He put his hand on his sword hilt, and his henchmen followed suit.
"You would fight me in the church?" Orlando took a step away, and Simon gave him a wink. You see? he seemed to tell the dwarf. The idiot leaves me no choice. "Before the very cross?"
"Fight you? No, traveler." The brigand smiled, showing rotten teeth. "We will kill you." He unsheathed his sword.
Simon drew his sword as well, so quickly his opponents could barely have seen him do it. One moment he was easy prey, a single fighter standing at rest; the next he was the demon. The brigand's henchmen lunged at him first, one armed with mace and dagger, the other with a sword. Simon killed the swordsman first, parrying his blow like lightning before slicing off his head. The second stabbed him in the back, plunging in the dagger to the hilt, but the vampire barely felt it. He whirled around as the villain raised his mace and caught him by the wrist, twisting the arm in its socket like a mortal man might break a winter twig. The henchman screamed, his eyes rolling wild, and Simon snarled, sinking his fangs into the henchman's throat.
"Un diable," their master was saying, his face shiny with sweat. "Tu es Satan." He clutched his broadsword in both hands, but his body was stinking with fear.
Simon raised his mouth from his first prey's fountain of blood. "You speak as if you know me." He twisted the henchman's head to one side with a snap, cutting off whatever life might still linger inside him. "Are we friends?" He let the corpse fall to the floor.
"Stay away!" The brigand knight dropped his sword and crossed himself. "In the name of Christ, stay back!"
"You dare?" A new rage coursed through Simon, feeding him more surely than the blood now coursing through his veins. "Villain that you are, you call on Christ to save you?" His tongue burned at the mention of the holy name. If he were to wear the cross that hung around this brigand's neck, his cursed flesh would burn with holy fire. "You prey upon the innocent," he said, moving closer. "You would defile His holy church, abuse His priest, and yet you have that right." The injustice was more powerful than any hunger; the rage would no longer be contained. He sprang upon the brigand like a wolf, the two of them rolling together as one as his teeth tore into his heart. The brigand struck him again and again, begging for mercy even as he slashed him with his dagger, but Simon barely heard him, barely felt the pain. All that mattered was the blood, hot and sweet, still laced with the wine this man had drunk and thick with the evil in his heart. This was the food Simon had learned to crave above any other in his ten years as a vampire, the blood of men already damned.
"My holy God..." Father Colin had returned. He stood in the doorway, staring in horror at the vampire feeding at the altar of his God. "Merciful Christ..." He clutched his rosary for strength, holding his ground as Simon let the dead man fall and rose to his feet. The vampire knew from experience how he appeared, the way his black eyes shone with a devil's flame, the scarlet stain of blood upon his mouth. But the priest did not cower in fear. "Be gone from His church, child of Satan," he ordered. "In God's holy name, I command it."
"You cannot command me, Father," Simon said, though in truth the priest's words did affect him, make him feel a powerful compulsion to obey. This was a truly righteous man, a true priest of the Christ. "You cannot see what you have seen," the vampire said sadly. "You cannot remember this night."
"This night," the priest repeated, his eyes going dim in the trance. Of all the gifts his cursed state had given him, Simon liked this one the least and used it the least often, the power to sway mortal minds. The more innocent his victim, the more easily and deeply he could entrance them, bending their thoughts to his will. "The Black Knight," Father Colin said, understanding dawning in his eyes. "You are Isabel's Black Knight."
"Yes," Simon answered, though in truth he didn't have the slightest notion what the old man meant. Sometimes this happened; a victim's mind would find its own solution, its own way of explaining away the evil it had witnessed. "I am her Black Knight."
"Come," Orlando ordered, bringing Simon his sword. "You must away. The Father and I will take care of this mess." He looked the vampire up and down with a wry smile. "And find you something to wear." Simon looked down at his tunic, slashed and soaked with blood. "Go, warrior," the dwarf repeated, giving him a push.
Outside, it was full dark. Simon stood among the fallen stones of the old Roman temple and closed his eyes, breathing in the cool, misty air as if his body still required it. His flesh was tingling with life, but it was an illusion, vitality stolen from his victim's blood. For a few precious hours after feeding, he would feel almost himself again, a man with a heart and a soul. He would remember Ireland and the dreams he had once held so dear, see the green fields, remember the warmth of the sun on his back. With a dead man's blood still flowing in his veins, he would remember how it had felt to be alive, to yearn for love and home.
But come the morning, he would die again. The blood of the kill would be absorbed by his endless hunger, the only life that was real. He was a beast, a predator that killed for no greater purpose but to rise and kill again. All that was left was the blood and his quest, this endless search for a relic he still could not believe would save him. With every night his cursed body walked, he passed more deeply into the shadow, further from God's grace. Why should this magical Chalice accept him, even if it should exist and somehow he could find it?
Sometimes he envied Roxanna, his sister in cursed blood, sleeping in another world for all these ten years past, a vapor in a bottle. Past all knowledge or control, she no longer felt this yearning he felt now, this illusion of life. If she hungered, Simon did not know and did not care.
The horses of the French knight and his men were tethered just outside the abbey wall. They each looked up at his silent approach, velvet ears laid back as they nickered and chortled in alarm. "You need not fear," he murmured, holding out his hand. "This wolf means you no harm." As a man, he had loved horses as only an Irishman could; there was no mount he could not ride, no stallion he could not tame. "Your master is dead." The largest of the three, a dark brown destrier in armor, planted its hooves and tossed its head, whinnying a warning. "I cannot believe you will mourn him." Almost close enough to touch the velvet nose, he reached for the horse's bridle.
But just as his fingertips made contact, the horse reared up and screamed, flailing the air with its hooves, and its fellows did the same. The first two broke their tethers easily and fled, the destrier shattering the abbey's wooden gates. But the third, a smaller gray mare, was trapped. Eyes rolling white with terror, she twisted and contorted, desperate to escape, but her tether would not break.
"I'm sorry," Simon said, almost pleading, as he drew the knife from his belt. "I swear, love, it's all right." Dodging the flailing hooves, he cut the tether with a snap, and the mare reared away so violently she flung herself onto her back. "No!" he shouted, horrified, certain the horse would be crippled, but she struggled back to her feet. Shrieking once more at the vampire, she galloped away, soaring over the broken gate.
"I'm sorry," Simon repeated, watching as she faded into the night.
"The horses fear you," a voice spoke softly behind him. The girl the French knight had abused was coming toward him, picking her way between the stones of the ruin. "But I do not." In the moonlight, he could barely see her bruises; he saw her for the pretty thing she was or once had been. She stopped before him, letting her mantle fall. "I am not afraid."
"Why are you not?" He touched her cheek with the back of his hand, and she tilted her head, closing her eyes as she leaned into the caress. "You should be frightened, darling." Even his voice sounded like the old Simon, the lilting poet's brogue. "You saw clear enough what I am."
"Yes." She opened her eyes again. "I saw you." She smiled. "But I am yours now."
"No," he said, shaking his head.
"I can do things," she promised. "I can take care of you, and you can keep me safe." She touched his cheek with her fingertips, tracing through the tears of blood. "Why do you weep?"
He smiled. "I weep for you." He took her hand and kissed it before putting it away. "I don't need a cook, little one."
"Good," she answered, moving closer. "I didn't mean cooking."
Her arms came up around his neck as he kissed her, eager for his embrace, and he groaned, despairing and amused. Such sport was but a comfort for the moment, but he ached for the girl even so, the warmth of her body, the parody of love. He pushed her down among the stones, opening her mouth to his to taste her hot little tongue. Her hands slipped up and down his arms, over his shoulders as he lifted her flimsy skirt. The cleft of her sex was as warm as her mouth, as eager to take him inside. He let sensation take him, closing his eyes as he lost himself in her embrace. The bloodlust he felt now was but a little thing after his feeding before, another nagging hunger like the throbbing in his sex, as easily satisfied. When his pretty comforter cried out, he kissed her throat, finding the vein. With both fists clenched tightly in his hair, she arched her hips to meet him, and he bit her, barely piercing her delicate skin, barely feeding as her climax shivered through her, tasting satisfaction in her blood.
He lifted his head and moved faster, looking down into her eyes. "You will forget me." Her lips moved in denial, but she could not speak; she could not look away. "You will forget." He drove into her deeper, holding her pinned to the ground.
"Yes." She gasped as his climax exploded, trembling again. "I will forget."
He kissed her cheek as he withdrew, let her go as her body went slack. He tugged her shift back down, and she sighed, rolling onto her side. "Sleep, sweet darling," he whispered, and she obeyed, as peaceful as a child. Looking up, he saw Orlando coming toward him, smiling and shaking his head.
"Father Colin is sleeping as well now," the dwarf said when he reached him. "Your spell was very powerful tonight." He looked down at the girl on the ground. "He's too old to be much help anyway."
"I'll do it," Simon answered. In the past ten years, he must have dug hundreds of graves; three more shouldn't take him long. "Give me the purse." He took out a handful of coins and gave them back to Orlando, then tucked the purse under the sleeping girl's arm. "Perhaps she can find her way home."
"The good Father will help her." Simon spread the girl's mantle over her like a blanket, tucking in the corners, and his companion smiled. "Come, warrior. I think I have a plan."
Isabel tied off the bindings on Brautus's shoulder and sat back. "Better?"
"Aye, poppet." The aged giant leaned back against the pillows, the lines of pain on his brow giving the lie away. " 'Tis all but mended." He took her hand and squeezed it. "Let this Frenchman come."
"Tomorrow." She made herself smile. "He will come tomorrow." This great hand had protected her all of her life; this knight was as dear to her as a father. "Maybe he won't be so bad." If Brautus tried to fight the Frenchman, he would die. "Maybe I should let him marry me without fighting."
"No." His bearded face turned serious, and tears rose in her eyes. "You will not."
"No," she promised, standing up to kiss his cheek. "I will not."
Outside the window, the moon was out, a cold, white sliver. She thought of her father's study, three stories below her now, and the druid's scrolls, full of magic that she could not read, wisdom she could not use. Send me my devil, dear wizards, she thought again, a pagan's silent prayer. Send my true Black Knight.
Copyright © 2005 by Jayel Wylie