I have never possessed much of the virtue of patience. In those days I knew it even less. After my fight with the vrykolakas resulted in nothing more for me than an upset stomach the following day, I confess I abandoned all hope of taking my own life. I had entertained and discarded thoughts of casting myself from some great precipice. The notion of living on as a broken, shattered wretch, not a single bone in my body left whole, twisted, incapable of movement, yet living still, to be trapped in such a state, perhaps forever, instilled in me a fear greater than the desire for self-destruction.
If I had one of my new Marmorcan brethren to strike off my head with a sword, would I die, or would I continue to exist only as a mind with no body, no ability for speech, as a punishment for seeking my own end?
Yes, some things I feared more than life, these fates I imagined for myself. Thus I accepted my continued existence as part of my curse.
Believing myself incapable of death led me to recklessness, born not of arrogance but hopelessness. Whereas a prudent man would have waited, given consideration to plans to eliminate an enemy, I did not conspire at all any plan to kill Valsalvas. I planned to simply act. In this I learned a valuable lesson—as Valsalvas acted first.
I think, now, because Samaethea reminded me of Kethryn, the thoughts of her continuing to serve as the Chieftain’s slave, his strumpet, cooking his meals by day and lying beneath his sweating, grunting bulk at night, galled me so and spurred me to action. I planned to wait no longer than the next month, near the full moon, when I would feel the change approaching and have access to some of the beast’s fury, its strength, yet still possessing my human mind and form. The beast would help me, I reckoned, to kill my enemy. I did not suspect that Valsalvas also had been watching the waxing moon, and also plotting.
For the better part of the month, I spent my days learning the ways of the sword from Dalmontenes, in preparation for going to sea with his next excursion, listening to Oran’s exhortations as he insisted on repeating all the stories from the Holy Scriptures I’d learned while living with the Christians, and tending the little herd of goats I’d inherited along with Elsora. Waiting.
I wonder if Samaethea suspected my plan to kill her master and set her free? I never asked her. By unspoken agreement, or so it seemed, we never spoke of Valsalvas after his death. But I must not get ahead of myself, here again. Valsalvas was not yet dead, nor would his passing come without cost.
“The Chieftain will have words with you,” said the man sent by Valsalvas to summon me late one morning, finding me occupied with mending a weak spot in the pen of my goats.
“I’m busy,” I said. “What does he want?”
“When Valsalvas sends for you, you do not ask questions. You only obey.”
Suspicious, but not, I think, suspicious enough, I followed the man. Three or four days remained, at least, before my next transformation. Halfway to Valsalvas’ lodge, this same being larger and sturdier than any other in the village, it occurred to me that I had not brought along the short sword given to me by Dalmontenes. I cursed myself under my breath.
Samaethea stood before the Chieftain where he sat between the lodge and the cooking fire. His eyes reflected the flames and burned with his hatred, but I looked into hers instead. I could not say what I saw reflected in their blue depths. Not love, not yet, or fear of me; some commingling of the two, I think. And a warning? If so, I missed it.
“The Huntress grows fat, Devil’s slave,” Valsalvas said, not offering me a seat. I didn’t mind. The cool breeze blowing inland from the sea had ceased midmorning, and the heat of the fire felt stifling. Valsalvas didn’t seem to mind it, but I saw sweat glistening along Samaethea’s pale arms and face.
By “The Huntress” Valsalvas meant the moon. “Soon the change will come upon you?” he said.
“We must decide what to do with you, then,” he said. “We could have put you back down in the hole, but the slaves at last struck water.”
“Yes, I heard.”
“You would, I think, pollute the water,” Valsalvas said, “make it unfit for drinking.”
“At the least,” I said, “I expect I would spoil the taste.”
He guffawed, a single explosive exclamation. “I have decided to seal you inside the shrine,” he said.
“The shrine to the vrykolakas?”
“It’s already there. And what need do we have for it, now that our heroic new clan-brother has freed us from the terrors of the demon?”
I knew he mocked me, but didn’t let on.
“As I recall,” I said, “the shrine has no door.”
“Now it does! I put my strongest slaves to work, building one, sound and strong. You will not escape the shrine!”
Fool that I was, the bastard had told me his plan, laid it right out for me in simple language, still I did not suspect, so confident had I become in my own strength.
“Sit down!” Valsalvas commanded at last. “Drink with me.”
The greater fool, I accepted the invitation.
Samaethea did not know that Valsalvas had poisoned the wine.
The warning her eyes carried for me remained a vague one. I overlooked it as she poured a goblet, handed it to me. Valsalvas took a hearty slurp from his own cup—but then the wine for him would not prove toxic, though I did not learn this until later. Neither could I taste the taint in the libation through the wine’s customary bitterness.
“They say you lived amongst Christians,” Valsalvas said.
“That is true,” I said.
“I know little enough about them,” Valsalvas said, “save that they make excellent slaves. I hear it is a tenet of their faith that they submit to abuse and misfortune without fighting back, accept their fates without complaint. What madness!” He slurped his drink. “Who would worship a god that commanded its followers to deny their own strengths, to lie down in the dirt like some old dog, kicked and trampled over? A god for the craven and the weak if ever there was one!”
“In my time with the Christians,” I said, “I found them neither craven nor weak.”
“Then they are fools!” Valsalvas reached out, grabbed Samaethea’s wrist and pulled her into his lap, wrapped his hairy, scarred arm around her tiny waist. “The world belongs to the strong! Those strong enough to take what they desire!” The Chieftain cupped one of Samaethea’s small breasts, squeezed it hard. She grimaced. “A man,” he continued, “is either a hunter, or he is prey. Why would any choose to be the latter?”
I contemplated attacking him, then and there. Was he trying to bait me, treating Samaethea that way in front of me? Soon, I promised myself. Even though I was a strong man, and taller than the average, Valsalvas outweighed me. Doubtless he was stronger, and he’d been a trained fighter all of his life. I would need the power of the beast in order to best him.
“Not all men have a choice in the matter,” I said, finishing my wine, forcing down my anger.
“True enough,” Valsalvas said, watching me. “Some of us are born beasts.” He grabbed a handful of Samaethea’s hair, forced her head back, and kissed her neck, then shoved her out of his lap. Yes, he was trying to provoke me.
“Tell me,” he said, as Samaethea got to her feet. Shamed, she wouldn’t look at me. “Does it feel good, when you are transformed, does it feel good when you kill?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “That is a part of the curse.”
“I think I would welcome such a curse,” he said, then belched. He stood, this serving as my dismissal. “Oh, well. The gods favor some more than others.”
Samaethea followed Valsalvas back into his lodge. She looked so small and frail beside him. She still would not meet my eyes.
I went back to my own house. The meal Elsora prepared for lunch did not sit well with me, or so I thought at the time. By early afternoon I started vomiting. By evening, severe cramps seized me, and dizziness, and I began to suspect that Valsalvas had poisoned me. Before suppertime I had taken to my bed.
By the morning, when they came for me, I could not move at all.