The Curse of Blood
Prologue - Flames
Flickering shadows danced on the timber walls of the chamber, the wind swirling down the stone chimney flames leaping about in the grate, consuming the logs within. The warmth of the fire radiated out into the small room, washing over the face of the boy sprawled in an armchair, his breathing soft, measured.
Beside him, an untidy stack of parchment fluttered in the gusts from the chimney, brushing the small table on which the parchment sat, piled with books and scrolls. Underneath the boy's feet, vivid green carpet shifted as he moved, restless, sliding along the dark timber floorboards.
"No," he mumbled, "stop..." His head shook, eyelids fluttering in the wavering firelight. "Please... stop. Don't...."
A blast of wind down the chimney swirled the flames higher, sending several parchments flying off the table, soaring through the room. One struck the boy on the face, and with a muffled yell he started awake, clutching it as if it was attacking him, panting with fear. He began to breathe calmly as he took in his surroundings, loosening his grip on the piece of parchment.
"It... it was only a dream," he whispered. The fire crackled as if in agreement. "He... he isn't real."
The boy scrambled to his feet and gathered the scattered parchments around the chamber, then placed them on the table, dropping a heavy book on the pile. The edges of the trapped parchment fluttered wildly, but the book prevented their further escape. The boy looked at the small high window behind his chair and shivered, the memory of his dream scattering his thoughts as he saw the bright moonlight shining through the rippled glass.
"Maybe... maybe Father is home," he murmured, shaking slightly in remembered fear. "Maybe he's awake."
Lifting a heavy robe from the back of the armchair, the boy pushed his arms into the sleeves, then bent down and pulled on his slippers. Wiggling his toes in the warm wool, he rubbed his chilled fingers together and walked over to the door. He opened it, the hinges creaking and stepped into the corridor, closing the door behind him. Most of the torches in the hallway had gone out, leaving dark patches and shadows strewn along the corridor. The boy padded towards the staircase at the front of the house, his feet squeaking as he walked over the older oaken floorboards.
Stopping at the head of the stairs, he shivered as one slipper dropped off and he stood briefly on the marble of the first step. Bending down, the boy pulled the slipper back on, then looked out over the staircase and froze, his heart in his mouth. Through the glass windows, framing the landing on the far side of the staircase, he could see bobbing lights, dozens of them, flickering in the wind. The boy crept around the staircase and onto the landing, and pressed his face to the glass. And saw the reflection of firelight on metal. On weapons.
Spinning, the boy gathered his breath to shout a warning but froze as a hand was placed over his mouth, and a soft voice whispered, "Shh, child."
"M...mother?" he whispered, as she took her hand away from his mouth and drew him back into the shadows of the hallway. "What... what's happening? Who is that outside?"
His mother looked at him, her eyes shining in the soft light of the moon. "No time to explain, Godric! Run to the back stairs, they haven't gone around the house yet. Quickly! Francis is waiting by the back door with your boots and a cloak. Hide in the forest. I'll join you there as soon as I can."
"But-" Godric began, but his mother spun him and pushed him towards the back of the house, towards the servants' stairs.
Godric gave her a fierce hug, and then dashed down the corridor. Reaching the end of the corridor, he turned and saw his mother watching him. She smiled at him, her face glowing in the moonlight, then turned away and started down the main staircase. Towards the men. Godric swallowed, then dashed down the back stairs as quickly as he could, leaping over steps in his haste.
"I must get away!"
Elara watched her son run and sighed, before making her way down the marble staircase to the entrance hall of the manor. Almost all of the estate's servants were there, several peeping around the curtains in fear as they watched the mob approach. As she came into view, they bowed and curtsied, trying to hide the fear on their faces.
"All of you must leave, now!" she commanded them. "Escape while you can. Run and hide, in the fields, in the forest, but do not stay here! Go now!"
"But my lady," her maidservant objected, "What of you? We cannot leave you here!"
Elara smiled, then her face firmed. "You will do as I have ordered. Now is not the time to argue."
Her maid bobbed a quick curtsy, then turned and ran for the kitchen, seeking the side door of the house. The other servants followed her, some sneaking sad looks at Elara as they ran, but none questioned her order. Elara sighed. They knew, as did she, what she must do.
Gathering herself, Elara opened the door and stepped lightly down the marble stairs onto the drive, then began to walk towards the mob. Shouts echoed in surprise as she was seen, and several of the men ran forward to capture her, waving weapons as they came. Elara did not resist as she was urged forward; she walked towards the centre of the crowd with her head high, not acknowledging the jeers and stares of her captors.
Out of the mob before her a man stepped forward, eyes fastening on hers like burning coals. Dressed all in black, he had a white collar around his neck, and clutched a book in his left hand; in his right a torch. He walked towards her, his pace measured, face filled with loathing.
"So, witch, have you come to give yourself up?" he demanded, his breathing fast, excited.
"I have come to command you to leave my husband's estate," Elara replied, her voice calm. "You are trespassing on the property of your master, and if you do not leave now, I will see you hanged."
"We are doing the Lord's work!" the man snarled, tugging at his collar. "As a priest of the Lord, I am here to root out this nest of devil spawn, and cleanse the land of witchcraft!"
Elara kept her face smooth as her heart raced. Can it be that he knows? What can I do? Tarion is not here, and Godric... Sweet heaven, Godric!
The priest smirked at her silence, his eyes still burning in the torchlight. "No clever remarks now, witch? Yes, the people here know the truth - and they have chosen the right way! They have said no to witches and their brood!"
The priest gestured behind him, and several of the men came forward, forcing other captives to walk before them. Elara stifled a cry as she saw her servants, all that she had bid flee, tied and muzzled like animals.
But they do not have Godric, or Francis, she thought, slightly relieved, at least they escaped.
The priest nodded in grim satisfaction at the recognition on her face. "Yes, witch. We caught your servants trying to escape. We know who they are, your coven, your familiars! Tonight you shall all suffer the penalty for witchcraft! Take them!"
Reeling in shock, Elara almost fell as she was swept up and dragged back into the manor by two of the men. The other servants were dragged along with her, staring at her in mute supplication, as she saw the circle of torches surrounding the manor, men watching every door.
Over the steps and porch she was carried, then one of the men chuckled cruelly and lifted her high, then threw her into the entrance hall, his companion releasing her as he guessed his partner's idea. With a crack Elara rammed into the base of the staircase, the bones in her leg splintering as her thigh was driven into the cold stone. She hissed in pain, but did not scream, staring at her tormentors, eyes filled with hate. They laughed at her, then moved aside as the servants were brought in and laid upon the mahogany floor around her, their bindings still secure. The man who had thrown her lifted Elara's hands and feet, lashing them together with rope until she could not move an inch. He jerked her broken leg cruelly as he tied her up, laughing at the tears welling from her eyes, then dropped her back down onto the ground and left the house, gesturing at her obscenely from behind her back as he went, the other men following him.
Staring at the door, Elara saw the priest enter the manor, his eyes full of fanatic light. The priest glanced about with disgust on his face, then motioned behind him. Three men entered the hallway then, carrying large jars and hurried further into the house. The priest walked out briefly, and re-entered carrying another of the jars, which he uncorked and then began to pour its contents over Elara and her servants. Elara screamed then, as the thick viscous liquid splashed over her skin, coating her with the rank feel and smell of oil.
"Yes, witch," the priest breathed as he threw the empty jar aside, shattering it on the stairs. "You and yours will be cleansed, your evil excised by flame. Come!" he shouted to the men in the house, and they returned, trooping out of the main door, leaving the priest alone with the bound captives. He looked into Elara's eyes, and smiled once more, before turning and walking out of the door.
Around Elara, her servants were screaming and crying, but her throat had seized, she couldn't make a sound. She couldn't believe this was happening, that she would never see Tarion again, never see Godric again...
Outside, she heard the priest speak, his voice cutting through the screams of her servants.
"Let this house be cleansed in flame, in the name of the Father, his Son and the Holy Ghost! Burn them all!"
Elara found her voice and screamed anew as torches were hurled through the open door, the oil bursting into flames, the wooden floor erupting she screamed, her flesh ablaze, around her servants screaming as their flesh burned, the smoke choking her lungs as she screamed and screamed, blackness washing her into unconsciousness as the world dissolved in flame...
The rim of the decanter clinked as the man poured the wine into a crystal goblet, carved serpents entwined around its rim, watching it sparkle, gleaming in the light of the candles on the table. A smile flickered across his face as he watched the liquid slowly fill the goblet. So like blood...
Replacing the decanter, he picked up the goblet and savoured the aroma of the wine as he paced the room, his movements slow as he raised the goblet to his lips and took a mouthful, allowing it to settle on his palate before swallowing. Stopping, he turned and faced the portrait hanging over the mantelpiece, an old man, dressed in green velvet with emerald trimmings,. He toasted the picture with his goblet.
"As you dreamed, so shall it be, uncle," the man murmured, then quickly drank the remainder of the wine in the goblet. He glanced at the crystal in his hand, then smiled, his visage dark as he exerted pressure with his hand, the goblet cracking, splintering, but not shattering. Grimacing, he hurled the glass over his shoulder, the sound of breaking crystal echoing behind him as he strode from the room, along a stone corridor to a wide entrance hall, roofed in oak beams with a huge chandelier hanging from the roof, shining with the green and white of emerald and crystal.
Two of his aides stood underneath the chandelier and snapped to attention as they saw him enter the room. He gestured to them to follow as he walked through an archway set in the side of the hall, leading into a small audience chamber. Making his way to the throne set against the far wall, he stopped briefly at a mirror set against the wall, smiled at the image he saw in it, then continued to his throne. Sitting down, he faced his aides who bowed before him and then straightened, awaiting his pleasure.
The man steepled his fingers, looking over them at the aides, then spoke softly.
The aide to his right nodded his head, then began to speak, his voice calm, unhurried.
"The captive has been taken to the Isle. The guards were most happy to receive another prisoner, and he has been placed under strict supervision. It is unlikely that he will survive for long."
The man smiled. "Excellent. And the woman and child?"
"Dead, my lord. Burned alive, with all of their servants," replied his other aide, his face smooth.
"Was the priest certain?" the lord hissed. "There can be no mistakes, not now."
The man swallowed. "My lord, he had the house surrounded and captured all who tried to escape. They were all burned within the house, and the manor itself is a shattered shell. He assured me that none survived."
"Excellent," the lord whispered, then smiled toothily before dismissing his two aides. They bowed before walking away from the room, their steps relieved. They fear me. No matter. They are more useful because of it.
"At last," he chortled as the door swang shut behind them. He sprang to his feet, a wicked smile on his face. "With the Muggle woman and the half-blooded brat dead, he will have no further reasons to resist! He will have to support me... and even if he does not, the Isle is still there, and he will be no threat insane. But slave or madman, he cannot stop me now!"
Striding from the audience chamber, the lord returned to his study and swept up another carved goblet, filling it from the decanter in excited haste. He glanced at the portrait, and then raised the goblet of wine to it in a toast, his eyes gleaming in the candlelight.
"The time has come, Uncle. The enemy is vanquished, our star is rising. We shall at last reign supreme!"
Sleeping, Godric turned, his hair ruffling in the wind, sparks flying from the small, hidden fire, Francis sitting opposite Godric's sleeping figure. He looked quietly at the smeared and rumpled figure of Godric and sighed, his voice barely audible from his old lips. The mud, the dirt and the wind gave the boy a wild look, almost the look of a feral creature.
"Not the worst you'll look in the times to come, young master," Francis whispered his voice heavy with sorrow. Standing, he made his careful way to the edge of the clearing, beside an old fir tree, some greenery still clinging on into the chill autumn. Wincing as his joints creaked, Francis hauled himself up into the tree and slowly climbed up its branches until he was near the top, then leaned out, gazing back towards the manor. Towards the flames.
"The fire is dying down," he whispered. "Perhaps they are gone. Perhaps... perhaps someone else escaped." He felt his heart give lie that statement, and with another sigh, he stepped away from the branches, gesturing towards the ground in a brief circular motion as he did so.
Francis floated slowly down the ground, then settled down beside Godric's sleeping form. He reached out and stroked the boy's hair, sparks jumping from his fingertips as he touched the long blonde strands. He watched them in sad interest, and spoke softly.
"You would have been the best ever, Godric. Your father... he is almost certainly gone, dead, imprisoned, either one. And your mother..." Francis swallowed as a lump welled up in his throat. "They would not have raised you as I foresee you will be; hunted, outcast, tracked by destiny. I gave your mother my word that I would protect you... I will try. I will try to see you come into your heritage, Godric."
Staring into the flames, Francis continued, his voice lower, whispering. "May the God forgive me what I must teach you, Godric. I cannot instruct you as your father would have... I walk a different path. That is all I can teach you... and perhaps, just perhaps, I can teach you enough to survive."
Godric murmured in his sleep as Francis rested his hand on his forehead. The old servant smiled, then slowly stroked the boy's cheek.
"I gave her my word," he whispered. "I will keep you alive."
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