The Hunter, Hunted

The slave-girl came from the pleasure markets of southern Cr̀vepísek – the land of rust and sand, where even the sky reflected the red soil that gave the place its name. So it was unsurprising that a pair of hyacinth-blue eyes should catch Lord Deofenn’s wandering attention.

He brought her for half a dozen gwaneths, the sum almost insulting to a man of his wealth. As Deofenn accepted the heavy iron chain from the hands of the slave-master, he noticed that the girl’s neck was chafed and bleeding slightly where the metal touched skin. Reaching out to slide a finger beneath the collar, he grimaced a little to feel the callouses of recent, half-healed sores.

Once they had returned to one of his many townhouse, he sent for the blacksmith. Soon the slave-girl was stood before him, free of metalwork, flexing her neck with a pleased yet watchful expression. Settling back in his comfortably padded chair, Deofenn cleared his throat to gain her attention.

 

“I have shown you a kindness today. Do not come to expect this. You are mine now, slave. My command is your wish, my pleasure your desire. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes, my lord.” Unflinching and with unnerving coolness, she met his gaze. The corners of her lips softened very slightly, and Deofenn realised she was not afraid. This would not do.

 

So Deofenn cast a little forbidden magic, binding her will to his. And the girl saw through his eyes, and she realised he wanted to see her fear.

When he beckoned her forward, she made sure to tremble, gazing up with wide eyes as she dropped to her knees before him. Her mouth quivered too as she tasted him, the sensation completing his pleasure.

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Months passed, with Deofenn casting ever stronger spells to maintain his hold over the girl. People began to whisper how tired he looked, how his attention would drift whenever he was supposed to be engaged in business. Deofenn would shut himself away with his slave for hours at a time during the day; at night-time, she shared the master bedchamber with him, emerging late in the morning with a small smile on her face and a collection of bite marks purpling her neck.

Servants began to fear her when they saw her wearing jewellery and gowns of silk fit for a lady. She had only ever spoken to Deofenn since her arrival, and it was down to his orders that she was so richly attired. The girl would merely nod and let her maids dress her like a doll in whatever the lord requested.

 

Eventually, the inevitable happened. Maids whispered amongst themselves that her waist was thickening, with Deofenn’s attentions growing even more obsessive. Still, the slave-girl kept her silence, smiling serenely when Deofenn’s hands crept over every inch of her growing belly, even in public. Their strange and unnatural happiness was not to last, however.

A rich lord from the neighbouring county of North Cr̀vepísek came to visit, along with his daughter. The father had plans to marry this daughter to Lord Deofenn, and he was confident that Deofenn would see the advantages in such a union. Beside financial and political reasons, his daughter was very charming, and she was not shy in her pursuit of Deofenn.

 

The daughter soon came to realise the difficulties, however, in capturing Deofenn’s attention. She did not miss how often he disappeared with his pregnant slave – the girl with the strange eyes who looked through them all as if they were panes of glass. When she and her father were led into the hall for a grand dinner in their honour, they were both shocked to see the slave-girl sat on Deofenn’s left, in the position of the lady of the castle.

 

“Who is she?” the daughter dared ask Deofenn after she had taken her place, several seats further down the table. “Why does she never speak?”

 

She glared angrily at the unperturbed girl, who was dressed in a turquoise gown that emphasised the blueness of her eyes, with filigree armlets of gold encompassing her slender limbs. A wide belt of golden thread girdled her swollen stomach, drawing attention to her condition.

“She is my slave,” Deofenn replied. “I do not allow her to speak to anyone, save myself.”

 

“How quaint,” the daughter sneered, gripping her knife hard so as to hide the spasm of rage passing through her. Deaf to her tone, Deofenn reached across to place his left hand on the slave-girl’s belly, seemingly content to fondle her as he continued to consume his dinner and talk to his guests.

 

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A week before their visit ended, the northern lord asked to speak to Deofenn alone. At last, he broached the subject of marriage, but was frustrated to find his host less than keen.

 

“You do not wish to marry?” the older man queried. Taking a deep breath, Deofenn strolled across to a narrow window. He braced his fists on the cold stonework and stared across the empty courtyard to the tower that held his slave.

 

“Marriage never occurred to me, and so I stopped looking for it.” The slave-girl would be resting now; she was so close to her time. Deofenn’s lips lifted slightly at the corners as he contemplated visiting her again; perhaps taking some marchpane, for which she appeared to have developed a craving.

“But now the prospect has occurred – my own fair child.” His attention was brought back to the room, and the annoying man who was trying to unburden himself of a daughter. “She would bring a great dowry with her, I promise.”

 

“I am rich.” Deofenn shrugged. “I do not need your money.”

 

“Then, power! I have no sons, and only one daughter. You would be as good as a son to me. Just think – North and South Cr̀vepísek, under your command when I die.”

 

Deofenn gave him a doubtful look, but the lord could see the idea was appealing. Quickly, he pushed on.

 

“You would rule over the largest county in the north – the third largest in the land! That is truly a great legacy to leave for any future sons you might have with my daughter.”

 

“I might have a son any day now,” Deofenn murmured, turning his attention back to the window.

“My daughter would also be more than happy to adopt your child, when he or she is born,” the lord promised hastily. “And, of course, she would not object to your slave remaining as your mistress. I have told her – and she understands – what a man needs. How, sometimes, the baser creatures are more suited when a man is in a certain frame of mind.” He sucked in a great breath of air as Deofenn gazed at him, definite interest stirring behind his eyes. “You will have a noble-born wife as well as your mistress, and your child will be legitimised. What more could you ask for?”

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That night, the slave-girl went into labour. Her maids and the midwives were bewildered – not because it was a particularly difficult birth, but because she never uttered a sound the whole time. She did not appear to need their assistance at all, throwing them all hostile glares if they so much as laid a finger on her.

Only once the birth was over, and a red, wrinkly baby boy was nestled in her arms, did she speak.

 

“Send for Deofenn. I have something to tell him.”

Two maids ran out the room to fetch the lord, while the girl gently nuzzled the top of her baby’s head, already covered with a downy dusting of fair hair. Then, to the horror of the watching women, she swung her legs round and climbed out of bed.

 

Immediately, they tried to urge her back again, but a low growl emanating from deep within her throat, accompanied by a steely flash in those dark blue eyes, sent the women backing away in terror.

 

Perhaps foreseeing something dreadful, the maids and midwives had all fled from the room by the time Deofenn burst into the chamber. The girl ignored them, standing calmly by the bed as she waited.

 

Deofenn’s eyes grew huge when he saw her, standing with a baby in her arms. He approached slowly, trying to summon a little magic in an attempt to dominate her.

 

“My dear, what are you doing out of bed? You need to be resting.” She did not reply, narrowing her eyes as he drew nearer. He suddenly thought how savage she looked, with her hair all-of-a-tangle, face and lips deadly white, and those eyes filled with a terrible pain – as if she were experiencing the pain of a realm, not just one woman’s worth.

 

The baby shifted a little in her grip, but still all Deofenn could see was the back of a wispy-looking head. He tried to smile reassuringly.

 

“I hear we have a son. Let me see him.”

 

“No.”

 

It was just a whisper, but filled with certainty. Deofenn jerked back in anger before casting a spell strong enough to fell a dozen men. A smile, small and bitter, touched the girl’s mouth as she spoke.

 

“Your magic has no effect on me – it never did have. You had no need to make me fear you, as I already loved you.”

 

“What are you saying?” Deofenn gasped, feeling his legs weaken beneath him.

 

“I loved you, but you would have taken my son and given him to another woman – a woman who would not love him. I will not let that happen.”

 

“I was not… I was never going to agree – ”

The girl blinked, and it seemed her hyacinth eyes caught fire. “I curse you, Deofenn,” she whispered. “I curse your cruel, selfish heart, and your disregard of my love. I curse you to be as alone and unhappy as you would have made me. You will never see your son again, or me.”

 

A flash of light where the girl stood temporarily blinded Deofenn. As he cried out in shock, there came the sound of splintering glass accompanied by a sudden gust of wind. When he could see again, all of the windows were shattered and the room was otherwise empty.

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After her disappearance, rumours began to spread. The most common theory was that Lord Deofenn had been enchanted by a witch – one who had stolen first his seed and then his child, and although she was now gone, her spell remained.

 

There came whispers that the baby was a freak – an imp with a black tongue that had lashed fire and spat at his father. Only the maids and midwives who had attended the birth knew this was not true, and they insisted it was a normal baby, with a smattering of blond hair and bright blue eyes. They were the ones who most pitied Deofenn, after he interrogated them for hours about his son’s appearance before sending them away, his sunken eyes void of life.

Lord Deofenn gradually stopped eating or sleeping, instead spending hours locked in his chambers where servants could hear the relentless pacing back-and-forth. One morning came when nothing could be heard; by midday, frightened soldiers had broken down the door. The room was empty, and Deofenn was never seen again.

 

Many said he had gone mad, taking himself to the red deserts in search of his lost love and their child. Others liked to think that the girl forgave him, and she came back to fetch him. They say that Deofenn learned how to love without the need for fear, and that he is still living with his family, in peace and with no-one to spoil their happiness.

©2020 by Nicola Niemc