The Agony of Ecstasy is about the promise a King makes on his death bed to find his Queen in the next life and love her again. The time is now and Alexandra Dragana is awakening to her destiny of rebirth and reconnection. But, with every love story there is the dark side of love, the agony.

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The Agony of Ecstasy*

Scene 1

During the time before Europe fell into darkness and before the mother of Rome felt the birth pains of her children, Kinsmen of the Thracian tribes gathered in their great hall by the fire. Long faces looked down in weary silence. Their king lay in his bedchamber, his mortal wounds extinguishing his light.

One of the men broke the pall of silence, “It won’t be long now.”  The others nodded. “We should prepare for our vengeance on the enemy,” said another.

“We will wait until death has done his duty. Then we will strike like the wolves and feast on their souls according to our oath,” said the elder of the group. His gray-streaked beard was foul with dried blood and the stench of rot. No one argued.

The queen of the southern Dacian tribe attended to her husband’s wounds. Another woman prepared bandages for her queen to use. The dutiful wife saw the pain in her beloved’s eyes and in his clenched teeth. He struggled to speak over the searing pain of his impending death. Cut to pieces, and for what, she wondered. They were free tribes, but freedom came at the awful price of mind freezing agony paid in countless urns of blood from every generation.

“My love.” The dying regent’s deep voice trembled.

“I’m here,” she whispered against his ear.

He took a deep breath and tried to speak. “I’ve loved you before in a thousand ages. I will find you and love you again.” The king’s chest fell, and the queen wept.

* * *

A black 1955 Rolls Royce made its way down the busy streets out of place with the modern cars weaving in frantic patterns to gain 3 seconds on the clock and lose 3 minutes at the traffic lights. The halted drivers watched in envy as the Rolls Royce eased alongside them.

A man in a black suit and white shirt seemed engrossed in the papers he read on his lap in the back seat on the passenger side. The driver looked straight ahead. “Shall I wait, my Lord.”

“If you please, Cristi, I won’t be long.”

The vintage luxury car pulled to the curb met by a stocky man in a martial arts uniform. His faded black belt had tattered ends and eight white bands. The fighter opened the door and stepped aside. Cezar Răzvan unfolded his tall frame and mounted the sidewalk in front of a hole in the wall gym. He glanced at a sign that announced one could learn the art of fighting.

Cezar smiled to himself. Perhaps there was an art to it. The two men entered the gym and walked to an office in a back corner as a group of women warmed up with various exercises and stretching routines.

Mr. Cho was nervous. Cezar ignored the fidgeting and allowed the usual banter required before the deal was done. When the introductions and discussions of weather and family health concluded, Cezar got to the point of his visit.

“Is she here?” Cezar asked.

“Yes. She is about to start with the sparring session. You can see her in action before you decide if you want her or not.”

“Good. Shall we?” Cezar suggested.

As the tall stranger and Mr. Cho entered the gym, Alexandra formed up her students and brought them to attention in a circle around her. She explained the task and led her group in meditation.

“Tell her to remove her top.”

Mr. Cho looked up at his client puzzled by his request.

“I want to see the mechanics of her body in motion not the flutter of cloth,” Cezar explained.

The old man scurried to Alexandra’s side and whispered to her. She shot him a sharp glance and nodded. The students looked around as their instructor removed her smock and placed it on the bench along the wall.

Cezar’s breath quickened. The sight of her smooth skin stretched taut over refined muscles, and the two wolf tattoos on her back sent an ache through his stomach that settled in his groin. The black band of spandex cloth that covered her spare breasts revealed the chest of an athlete. He scanned her body with stone cold eyes. She brought back ancient memories and emotions he struggled to hold in check.

The sparring began with single attacks launched by one student at a time then two and finally three from random directions. Alexandra demonstrated knife techniques to cut and hold her opponents. She moved like a ballerina and struck like a cobra. The intensity of her defense masked her fluid motions.

Cezar clenched his fists in sync with the strikes he watched with undivided attention. Mr. Cho looked down at the large hands next to him. His eyes drifted up at the roof of the gym as if praying those viselike fingers never found his throat.

“Enough.”

“Do you want to discuss terms and a price?” Mr. Cho asked with well-honed manners.

“Draw up your contract and send it to me. The price is of no concern.”

Instructor Cho hurried back to his office and closed the door. Cezar watched his new acquisition for a few moments alone.

* * *

Alexandra sat on the bench and tried to regulate her breathing. Legs and hips dressed in black pants and shirt cinched with blue, green, red, and brown cloth obscured her vision in a beehive of activity.  She wiped the sweat from her face. The clean towel felt good against her hot skin. She tossed her head from side to side to unstick her ponytail from her back. The flurry of motion in front of her parted and she noticed a man staring at her.

His icy gaze fixed her in place. Chills flooded Alexandra’s body. The periphery of her vision went white, and she felt faint. She wiped her face again. He was still there. What the fuck, she thought. Their eyes locked. Alexandra felt butterflies in her chest. Her nipples pressed against the soft material of her chest band awakened by the cold chills that washed over her.

The man looked like an aristocratic werewolf in a suit made in the 19th century. His black beard didn’t have a hair out of place. She could see a touch of gray at the temples. He looked like a bodybuilder in a suit one size too small. He also filled out his pants well, she noted.

She stood and turned her back to put on her smock, and when she turned around a moment later, The man was gone.

Alexandra saw Mr. Cho come towards her. His smile accentuated his broad cheeks and narrow set eyes. She laughed to herself. His business dealings were always executed with the same deft handling he gave his students when he whipped their asses to the mat.

“Ah, my dear child, you have your first client,” Cho exclaimed with pride.

“Finally, shit. How long have I trained and waited for this,” Alexandra said to her mentor as they hugged.

“The time is not important. It’s your skill that impressed your client.”

“Tell me about him. I want to know everything before I go to him.” Alexandra was intrigued by the strange man and what services she would provide.

SCENE 2

It was Alexandra’s first ride in a Rolls Royce. It was her first ride ever in a luxury car of any kind. The back seat was like an expensive couch. At her fingertips were all the comforts she didn’t have in her one-room apartment over the gym back home. She felt out of place. She was a fighter, not a pampered call girl. Doubt crept into her mind.

In return for this luxury, all she had to do was take a bullet for her Viscount. I’m fucked, she thought. I’ve been screwed since birth.  Unpleasant memories of the orphanage and streetlife welled up. If I didn’t need to eat, breathe, and practice breeding things would be simpler. Maybe I’ll get my wish after all. I guess I might as well enjoy this while it lasts.

“We have arrived Madame Drăgana.” The driver stopped and let the guards look in. Satisfied, they opened the gate and let him drive through.

“Where is the house?” Alexandra asked. Looking around at the rolling hillocks and fir trees made her nervous. Most of her trips to the woods never ended well for her. The forest reminded her of something she couldn’t place. She always felt afraid unless someone was with her. That was before she met Mr. Cho. He’d taken her off the street and treated her like a daughter and a kind of junior business partner. She smiled thinking about Cho and their little business deals.

“Castle, the driver corrected. We travel across the estate for a few kilometers before our arrival. Enjoy the view.”

The driver watched Alexandra in the rearview mirror. A smile flickered on her face. Good, he thought. She likes the scenery. She’s a tough one. I wonder how long it will take Lord Răzvan to break this Mustang. She better have some strong hips, or he’ll crack her open like an oyster. The driver snickered and looked to the front.

“What?”

“Nothing Madame. I have an allergy from all these evergreens.”

Alexandra ignored him.

The high peaked roofs and fireplace chimneys came into view first. It was like a distant mountain carved into a castle. It even had a crenelated wall and Keep. The Carpathian mountains in Romania were beautiful, Alexandra thought. I could get used to living here. As they got closer and more of the expansive castle came into view, She relaxed. There was a sense of balance in the starkness of the gray stone set against the blue sky and green of the open fields, landscaping, and flowers that welcomed her.

The Rolls Royce pulled into a covered portico where a woman around Alexandra’s age opened the door and offered her hand to help Alexandra out of the car.

“Good day my Lady, I hope your trip from America was uneventful. My name is Dari. I’ll be your handmaid during your stay. If you need anything at all, please allow me to take care of it for you.” The girl dressed in service whites was pretty and graceful. Her personality seemed genuine to Alexandra. That only made her feel uglier. She felt like an alley cat at a pedigree show. She adjusted her dress and followed her handmaid into the lower level of the castle. What is a handmaid anyway? She thought to herself as she watched Dari’s petite butt wiggle down the hall keeping time with the clack-clack-clack of her shoes.

Dari gave Alexandra the tour of the common areas of the castle. She pointed out the places that only the Viscount Răzvan could enter. They walked the grounds as Alexandra felt her tension drain away into a schoolgirl giddiness. They talked about the do’s and don’ts of estate life until they got to the subject of Cezar, the Viscount Răzvan. Dari was evasive and careful not to give her own opinions or say anything negative. Alexandra thought that was odd. Maybe it was just an employee thing showing the boss respect.

They ate lunch together, compliments of the kitchen staff and finally Dari took her to her quarters.

“Do you like it?” Dari asked.

“Like it? Alexandra turned in slow circles like she was waltzing and took in the room. I love it! I’ve never had a place like this. I don’t even know if I can breathe right in a place like this.”

Dari laughed along with Alexandra. Both women seemed to feed on each other’s energy and excitement.

“My Lord gave you one of the best rooms on this wing. It’s a corner room with two balconies.” The handmaid opened the sets of French doors to the balconies, and they went outside. “I love this view. From up here, you can see all the way to the lake and the mountains in the distance. This is the south side and gets good sun. A girl can get a good tan in privacy here,” Dari explained.

Alexandra was feeling that tingle in her stomach again. She felt almost drugged by the sensory overload.

Dari, sensing Alexandra’s excitement, took her hand and led to the other balcony at the end of the room’s western wall. “Every night the sun sets over here and gives us the most glorious colors. Later you will see the stars and Milky Way. It’s so magical, it’s hard to go to sleep.”

After an enjoyable introduction to all the amenities of her room, bathroom, and dressing room, Dari said goodbye. “Get some rest. I’ll be back at 6:00 pm to bring you dinner and at 7:00 pm my Lord will see you. With that, she was gone, and the adrenalin pumping in Alexandra’s heart began to wan.

“My god, what have I signed up for.” Alexandra could not get the Viscount off of her mind. That first time she saw him, he had electrified her senses. She felt undressed by his eyes, but she liked it. What the hell is wrong with me, she thought. I feel like I know him, I’ve missed him and wanted him all my life, and now, here I am. This is crazy. I’ve got to give up caffeine and masturbation. That shit is wrecking my head.

She spent time unpacking her suitcases delivered to her room. Afterward, she lay down on the bed to catch her breath and drifted off to sleep. A recurring dream preyed on her jet lag and crept into her subconscious. It was always the same theme. Dark figures and shadows flitted around her. Men shouted and cursed their approval of her rape. She felt tied up somewhere. It was dark with only a fireplace and a few candles suspended from a low ceiling to light the place.

Her nakedness shamed her. She relived the beatings and penetrations. The smell of sour sweat, stale beer, acrid smoke, and damp earth filled her nose. Then the worst of it came. The pungent slippery taste in her mouth like snot as they each took their turn with her. She gags and vomits. They laugh. Fingers bind in her hair. Her head jerks back. A blade bites into her flesh. She chokes. Her screams sound like blasts of wet air from her ripped open neck.

Something different happens this time. The Viscount appears, and everything goes away. She is free, uninjured, and sitting alone in a dark room. She watches as he comes to her. She looks up. His face is soft with emotion. Fingers lift her chin and brush the hair from her eyes.

“No more my love,” he says. His voice is deep and halting like he considers each word before he utters it. The end of each word draws out as if he is unwilling to let it go. It’s hypnotizing. His thumb traces her bottom lip, and then he lowers his head to kiss her.

“Wake up sleepy head! You need to eat and freshen up.”

“Dari?”

“Who else? The handmaid’s cheeriness aggravated Alexandra as she tried to shake off the nightmare’s lingering effect. Her new friend set her meal out on a small table against the wall. “Come on now, eat up. The Viscount will want you ready to work tonight, and he will not tolerate being late or unprepared. Here are your things for tonight. It looks like a workout night judging from this. Dari held up a sleek pair of exercise pants and a jog bra. Do you need any help getting ready?”

“No. Thanks. I can manage. I’m just a bit jet lagged that’s all. A work out would do me good,” Alexandra replied.

“Good. I fixed you a light meal so you won’t have a heavy stomach. Afterward, you can have anything you like, just let me know, and I’ll get it for you.”

“How will I find you?” Alexandra asked.

“I live across the hall, just ring my bell on the door.” With that, she was gone.

After she ate, Alexandra took a quick shower and put on her outfit Dari brought her. It fit perfect. The material was like silk on her skin. The Viscount is going to see the total package in this getup, she thought. The butterflies in her stomach returned.

SCENE 3

At a quarter before 7:00 pm, a man with a narrow face, hawkish nose, and dark eyes dressed in a formal suit of gray pinstripe with a white shirt and narrow black tie came to Alexandra’s door and explained he was there to escort her to the Viscount. Alexandra put on a sweatshirt and followed the man down the corridors to a turret that served as a stairway.

The man seemed at ease taking the stairs. They made a hollow tapping sound as the soles of their shoes caught their weight on the polished stone treads. At every level was a landing with a few seats and end tables next to windows with an arched top coped in polished stone. The glass was divided into crystal panes in the shape of a stylized tree.

The view from the windows seemed almost like a painting of blue skies and cotton clouds hovering above the peaked tops of fir trees that stood shoulder to shoulder like a Grand Army on the march across rolling fields. Hanging like ancient sentries on either side of the windows were crimson drapes tied at the waist with a thick golden rope with tasseled ends. Alexandra felt strangely at home like she belonged here all of her life. They continued down five floors to the basement.

Alexandra’s calves were tight, and her legs were warmed from the exertion. She felt a twinge of nervousness as they approached a double steel door and waited. When the man’s watch indicated 7:00 pm, he opened the door and let her in.

The door closed behind her with a solid click. Alexandra looked around the enormous room and saw it was the size of half a football field with a high ceiling. In one corner was a complete gym of exercise equipment.

“Do you find it satisfactory?” A voice spoke behind her in that slow rhythm of her dream. She spun around to see the Viscount coming up behind her.

“My apologies. Did I alarm you?” The Viscount asked from several feet away.

“Oh, no problem. I didn’t hear you, that’s all. I was just taken away by the size of this room.” Alexandra’s voice sounded shaky to her even though she tried to maintain control.

“Well?” He asked.

“Well, what?” Alexandra countered.

“Do you find the gym satisfactory?”

“Oh yes. I love your gym and home. I’m completely blown away by everything,” she replied.

“Good. Shall we get started?” Cezar asked.

“Yes of course. What would you like me to do?”

Cezar smiled at her. Alexandra saw a flicker of amusement in his eyes, and then the eyes grew dark and cold again. Maybe it’s just his nature to look so severe, She thought. For a brief moment, his pupils caught the light from above, and Alexandra saw the glimmer of tiny lines of gold embedded in the dark hazel irises. Alexandra thought she saw hope flicker in the stern gaze of her employer.

“I thought we should get to know each other.  The gym is always open to everyone at any hour. I’ll give you a tour. I have my own routine as do the other members of Castle Răzvan. Feel free to join the others or come by yourself whenever you feel like it. I recommend you bring Dari with you. She is talented and skilled at many things. I’m sure you two will get along well, and she needs a friend her age to spend time with,” Cezar explained while he led Alexandra around the gym and pointed out the various amenities provided.

Alexandra followed the Viscount and paid close attention to his polished manners. She was sure he didn’t have her meet him in an empty gym under the castle just to show her the facility. What was his game, Alexandra wondered? When would she learn what her duties were?

“Would you like to join me for a workout?” Cezar asked.

“Sure,” Alexandra replied, her eyes perking up at the chance to unwind the tautness in her body. “I could use some exercise to help me with this jet lag.”

“Excellent, he said with a slight smile. I like to jog a little to warm up. Please join me.”

The Viscount motioned with a sweeping hand to indicate Alexandra lead the way. They ran on the outside perimeter with a slow pace that gradually picked up until Alexandra had reached a good speed that required a steady breath and quick feet. Cezar matched her pace and breathing rhythm.

Side by side they jogged in silence. The only sound was their metered breathing and the echo of their footsteps in the expanse of the gym with its high chiseled stone wall and sterile lights reflecting on the polished floor. Finally, Cezar broke the silence.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

Cezar’s question came across to Alexandra with a casual tone. But, there was an edge of tension in the carefully selected words not attributable to the quickness of their pace or their breathing. “What is the significance of the two wolves tattooed on your back?”

Alexandra was taken aback from such a personal question. The tattoos could not be denied, and she was proud of them. It wasn’t the first time someone tried to get to know her by talking about her tattoos. After a moment of thought, she answered. “I’ve always been drawn to wolves. They are fierce yet loyal to one another. I got these tattoos to show my gratitude to Mr. Cho for rescuing me from the street.”

He glanced at her when the last of her answer registered with him. He saw a vision of a young child hunkering in shadows. “Life outside the embrace of family, culture, and society, like the lone wolf, is short and lonely, I suspect.” Cezar looked away as they jogged along. Alexandra felt an uncomfortable silence between them.

“You were the lone wolf until Mr. Cho took you into his pack, his family as it were,” Cezar said, making a statement, but it could have been an invitation to elaborate on her connection with Cho. It was subtle.  Alexandra felt a compulsion to unload all those memories she held locked away in her mind.

“Yes, a good observation. I was forever seeking my own pack but for a young girl without family or means of support – well, I did what I had to do to survive,” she said through tense breath. She spoke through memories flooding back that had long been suppressed, choking her, forcing her to struggle with her breathing and blinking back tears.  In a few meters, she had regained her footing in reality and picked up the pace in an attempt to burn off the sharp ache she felt in her gut.

Cezar matched her with ease. His pursed lips and narrowed eyes appeared serious yet calm. “I am honored by your choice to become a member of my wolfpack. You will find your new home here in the Carpathians a vast wilderness to explore and offers plenty of Canis Lupis with which to bond.”

Alexandra felt a chill grip her body. The sweat on her back felt like ice water. What could he have meant by that? Did he suggest real wolves or the behaviors of those in the Viscount’s service? She looked over at him, and their eyes met. Alexandra became aware that her breath was labored, her mouth dry and ajar in wonder. Her eyes felt oddly wide as she held his gaze.

The drumming echo of their shoes on the running mat and their commingled breathing combined with their moving bodies in a moment a synchronicity and erotic suggestion. Cezar’s eyes sparkled like polished onyx. He was amused by her reaction.

Alexandra had a vision of two wolves, a large male, and a female, running in the forest together. They looked just like her tattoos. The electric chill returned as her subconscious began making connections between her choice of body art, the animals, their behaviors, and her new employer, the Viscount of House Răzvan. They continued to jog faster like hungry wolves to the hunt. Labor, hormones, and adrenaline coursed through their bodies and they were only getting warmed up. The real workout was just ahead.

SCENE 4

The bench was wide and well padded. It felt good on Alexandra’s back as she braced her feet on the steel legs and let her knees open. The non-slip surface of the foot braces gripped the bottom of her shoes providing the needed support for the hard push she knew was coming.  

She looked up as her hands gripped the bar slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Cezar’s thighs entered her peripheral vision. She snatched a glance at him, pretending to set her grip. His leg muscles were well pronounced, each sinew winding like a thick vine into the black shorts hovering over her head. He had smooth chestnut skin hidden in the mat of black hair that covered him.

Cezar leaned over her exposing his muscular stomach as his loose grey t-shirt stained with sweat fell away from his body. Long fingers with carefully trimmed nails gripped the bar ready to take all of the weight if Alexandra failed to complete her repetitions.

Alexandra took a deep breath to prepare herself for the lift once Cezar nodded he was ready to spot her. His scent filled her nostrils. Her mind cataloged the slightest essences of Madagascar vanilla, vetiver grasses, green apple, mint, and an aromatic hint of polished wood. But it was the smell of hot skin and his sweat mixed with those tantalizing odors that forced her to focus on the task at hand as her thoughts fought the reins of control and drifted elsewhere.

She pushed hard once, twice, again. Ten repetitions and it was Cezar’s turn. He grabbed her hand to help her as she bounded up, grabbed her towel off the bench, and waited for Cezar to settle in. She noticed the dark line of hair that ran from his belly button down his stomach and disappeared into the band of his shorts as he leaned back, stomach taut and took up his position under the bar.

She turned away to avoid staring, walked over to another machine and hung the towel. Next, she stripped off her sweatshirt. She already felt slick with sweat, and her silky top and tights clung to her like a second skin. A twinge of excitement rushed through her. She could feel Cezar’s eyes on her and her tattoos. The exercise was her passion, and so far the Viscount was proving to be a capable partner.

Alexandra spotted Cezar during his set, watching him for any sign of fatigue. She felt foolish while he worked the weights with calm control. He did need a spotter. His arms bulged and his chest tightened with an air of savagery while he pressed the weights. On the last push, he grimaced from the strain of the weight. Cezar’s lips curled back over his teeth as a deep growl rumbled in his throat.

Large incisors greeted Alexandra’s curious stare. They weren’t precisely canine, but they were larger than usual. The tingle returned to her stomach, a burning itch of excitement raced through her body as the feral scene unfolded just a few inches from her face.

On the last set, Alexandra was feeling the rush and euphoria from the workout. She enjoyed Cezar. He wasn’t like the other gym rats she worked out with. He never boasted or acted aggressively. He was confident in his actions and treated her respectfully, assisting her without all the bravado. She liked that.

Alexandra felt the burn as she pushed the weights. There was a fraction of a moment where her arms could press no more, and the weights hung above her, driving down against her failing muscles.

Sculpted hands in the center of the bar clinched and she felt the slightest lift. He was making her earn it. A small drop of sweat fell like a silver thread flashing in the light and impacting at the edge of Alexandra’s top. The drop was cool on her heated skin running like a fingertip down between her breasts. She pushed, he lifted, and the bar clanged into place.

Exhausted from the intensity of the workout and close proximity of the Viscount in her space finally fell in on Alexandra like a crushing landslide. She sat up and still felt the lasting sensation of the drop of his sweat run down her skin. The tingle burned brighter, hotter, washing over her like surf at low tide mingling with the ache of sinew pushed to the limits.

Cezar helped her up from the bench and handed her towel to her, grabbed his own, and spoke over his shoulder to her as he walked away.

“It’s getting late. Let’s call it a day. Come. I’ll show you the showers.”

Alexandra followed as if under his spell, never questioning why he would suggest she shower alone with this curious man she couldn’t quite figure out instead of her room where she had her privacy, where she felt safe. They walked through a door to a tiled hallway.

“Would you like to relax in the sauna for a minute? He pointed to a wooden door in the hall.

“Sure, sauna is always good,” she quipped, trying to seem confident while her mind raced on all the possibilities of where this encounter was leading.

Cezar allowed Alexandra to enter and find a place to sit while he set the heat and timer. He selected a place for himself that was a respectable distance from her and sat where they could talk.

“From where do you come originally, before you came to live with Master Cho?” The Viscount asked. His countenance was softer and more relaxed allowing Alexandra to ease some of the tension she felt.

“I think from Europe, but I’m not sure. I was just a child when my parents died, and I had no family to go to. I was put in an orphanage but ran away when I was 12. Institutional life didn’t suit me.” Alexandra wondered why she was so honest with the Viscount. Strange. She felt a strong desire to tell him everything about her life, especially the things that still invaded her dreams and quiet moments. She reminded herself to filter her answers a little better.

“Was your surname Drăgana originally?” The Viscount continued his careful interrogation of Alexandra’s past.

“Yes, It was always known to me. I remember my father was proud of the family name. He said it was the cognate of an ancient and powerful family clan.”

“Your father was correct. Do you know the meaning of your name?” Cezar seemed to know more than he was saying.

“No, I admit I never tried to find out.”

“It is an old name from Romania. Here in the village nearby are many Drăgans and Drăgana. Perhaps they are distant relatives. Your last name means daughter of Drăgan, which in English can mean dear one or precious one.” Cezar was gentle in his explanation. He seemed to know he was opening an old festering wound.

SCENE 5

Alexandra looked at Cezar’s dark eyes. The harshness was gone, transformed to that same look as the policewoman who took her away from the scene of her parent’s murder. It was the pain of knowledge. The woman knew Alexandra’s fate long before Alexandra became aware. And here it was again, on the face of the man who had bought her from her surrogate father who would not part with her for any small sum. She needed to know more.

“Did you know this before you bought my services from Master Cho?” She asked, wondering what else was left to be discovered. She felt there was a great deal more and now she wanted to stay and learn what other secrets were buried in the Viscount’s mind.

Cezar opened his mouth to answer when the timing buzzer went off in the sauna, a grating buzz like a wasp ready to sting. It was like a signal to break off the conversation before too much was said too soon.

“We will talk more tomorrow. I have much to show you, and you have much to learn. It will take time. There is no hurry to do it all in one meeting. Come, I’ll show you the showers.” He paused at the door and waited for Alexandra to compose herself. The two ventured farther down the hall.

“Ladies over there through that door. For your privacy and safety, the doors lock from inside. Take your time, everything is provided.” Cezar walked across the hall and disappeared through another door. That was it.

The Viscount dismissed Alexandra with an air of indifference right after shaking her world with insights into her past she had never known. She saw how his dark eyes, pupils dilated and searching, had caressed her face with compassion, and now, he was withdrawing as if they were strangers acknowledging each other at the entrance to some cafe they hurried to under a drenching rain. She felt his hard glance, the recognition, and then the turning away.

The shower room was spacious, and after a bit of exploring in the cabinets along the main wall, Alexandra found shower shoes, towel, washcloth, and an assortment of single-use soaps, lotions, and shampoos. In the rose-colored tile enclosure, a waterfall drizzled warm water on her like summer rain. Afterward, she brushed out her hair and dried it with a hairdryer she found.

There was a plush cotton robe hanging with a note from Dari to enjoy her evening. That girl thought of everything, she thought.  Slippers with the Viscount’s royal crest emblazoned on the soft tops matched the one on the breast pocket of the robe. Recognition caught Alexandra’s breath. Two wolves facing. Just like her tattoos. The chills were becoming frequent as mystery after mystery unfolded in Alexandra’s mind.

The robe belt was long enough to wrap twice and tie tightly around Alexandra’s waist. She left the shower room with questions, but the Viscount had left her alone. After a moment, she was thankful he had shown her the courtesy yet, the vast gym gave her an odd feeling, heightening her alertness.

Alexandra followed the stairs back up to her hallway but this time much slower as she mulled the events of the day over in her mind. The castle seemed abandoned, but she could hear faint echoes of voices from somewhere in the castle. Alexandra paused. Was that a dog’s bark? The deep roar penetrated the massive stone walls of the castle and drifted past her like a ghost wailing in a dungeon.

Finally, in her room, she removed her robe and looked in the full-length mirror. She ran her finger down the trail the drop of sweat from the Viscount had traced between her breasts. The tingle came again. She turned, looked, turned another way. She needed to feel like she was worth noticing, that she had what it took to be strong, fit, and attractive.

She tossed her hair and looked at her lips. She flexed her pectoral muscles. The girls were perky tonight after that workout. She sacrificed a full bosom for a lean, fit body. She smiled remembering Master Cho telling her it made her a better fighter when she confided to him about the teasing in school on a daily basis when she was a skinny teenager.

Jet lag, strange coincidences, the flush of energy from a strenuous workout all conspired to give Alexandra a fitful sleep. She woke several times and decided to get some fresh air and walked out onto the balcony. The moon was high and burning bright casting an eerie light across the trees and open fields. Long shadows from the trees reached back toward the castle grounds like wicked fingers.

There was a slight movement in the shadows between two towering firs on the crest of the hill not far from where she stood. She hadn’t seen anything. It was a shift in the shadow was all. She looked in the direction where she felt a distraction from her thoughts. More animated movements bounded in the dark of the shadow and moonlight causing the sensation of light flicker.

Alexandra froze as a massive black wolf stepped into the open. It was a huge male. He was followed by a smaller gray female. When the female wandered to his side, he dwarfed her in comparison. The Canis Lupus, she whispered under her breath, staring at the canines, transfixed by their regal nature.

They looked back as if they heard something. A figure dressed in a trim gray coat with hood stepped out. The wolves became animated toward the person. A delicate hand reached into a leather pouch that hung to the side, and a baton was withdrawn. The baton was held high, and the wolves pranced and whined watching the figure with anticipation and excitement.

The baton sailed down the hillside, and the two wolves raced after it out of sight. The person bent over slightly, hands to knees then stood erect as the male followed closely by the female, returned the object. The hand went to the bag, and a treat was given to both animals. Then the game was repeated.

It’s a woman, Alexandra thought. The flared hips, narrow waist, the slender hand and small boots gave it away. The hood prevented her from seeing who it was. The wolves were larger than the woman. They could make short work of her if they wanted. Alexandra shuddered at the thought. Yet, they showed a childlike joy in the woman’s presence. She fed them again. The big male reared up on hind legs placing his front paws on her shoulders.

Alexandra drew in her breath when she saw the wolf’s head above the woman’s, he was so tall. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tight to her body. He licked her upturned face fervently then her neck. The female wrapped herself around the woman’s legs. Then it was over as the three of them walked down the hill behind the trees.

The image of the massive black wolf, his coat of long fur shining in the silver moonlight brought shallow breaths in quick succession. Alexandra tossed in the bed in a fever of confused thoughts that flooded her mind. The butterflies and that tingling ache in her stomach and thighs spread like warm honey inside her. She saw Cezar stretched out beside her on the hill, the tall grass like a soft mattress under a cool breeze of sweet air. Cezar kissed her. The wolves crouched at their feet inching their warm bodies in closer. He was dressed in a loose tunic, and baggy pants gathered at the ankles. His hand wandered over the fabric of a long homespun dress. They were young, and his searching tongue along her lips inflamed her desire.

She arched her back and thrust herself into the fantasy. Alexandra’s fingertips traced down her stomach, slipped inside the thin cotton waist of her pajamas and felt the dampness of her excitement below. She lingered. He kissed her deeper. The wolf’s fur felt luxurious as it nuzzled her. Cezar felt her as her own hands did. Her held breath released in a quick contraction followed by another and another. Alexandra heard herself moan. The wolf turned, and she saw the satisfaction in his piercing brown eyes with the glow of golden suns behind the fractures of his irises.

SCENE 6

A shield Maiden fresh from battle walked painfully to the edge of the white cliffs overlooking the sea. She knelt in the thick grass and leaned back on her calves and propped her chin on the pommel of her short sword. Her breath came quick and shallow. The breeze blowing in from the sea mixed with the damp roots of the grass to cool her body and the chaos in her mind. The heat caused by a melee to give death to the Saxon pigs and adrenaline drained out of her leaving her numb and weary. The fates had not favored her on this day.

Geiravör heard heavy footsteps and the shuffle of chainmail on leather and cloth behind her. She ignored the men who gathered around her. The stench of blood and sweat from the men drifted across her nose and filled her breath. To her, their scent was a record of their meeting for battle today. It would be just a memory soon.

Strong hands with a biting grip dug into her arms and heaved her to her feet. There was a discussion about who to whore her to as a slave. Geiravör didn’t understand the Saxon tongue well but heard enough to gather the gist of it.

A nobleman saw her fallen sword caked in Saxon blood and her bloody hands and face. He looked into her eyes. She spat coagulated blood and frothy saliva at his black and silver beard framing a broad face hidden in a polished helmet. The man didn’t flinch. The cold, emotionless eyes hidden in the shadow of his helm did not blink nor did he strike her as expected.

“Your man has gone to his Valhalla, and you should join him,” the nobleman said in her Norse language.

The men released Geiravör, and when she turned to face the nobleman, he kicked her hard in the gut sending her over the edge of the cliff.

* * *

Alexandra bolted up from the bed and stared into the blackness that surrounded her. When the vision faded from her mind, she felt herself and the bed. The dreams often came now. In every quiet moment, she had images of past lives. The dreams had intensified since she first saw Cezar at the gym and had that strange feeling wash over her.

Alexandra felt her way in the dark to the French doors opening to the balcony and went outside. She leaned against the polished alabaster rail and blinked at the intense brightness of the moonlight hanging low on the horizon. The brightest stars still flickered in the blue-black sky before dawn. The cold mountain air chilled her as a tremor of cold and nerves raced down her back.

She gazed out across the manicured lawns to the unspoiled meadows that dove down into the valley and recalled how Master Cho would wake her as she screamed. He would comfort her by singing traditional Korean songs and massage her back until she fell to sleep again. He told her once it was her ancestors trying to contact her. She always felt like it was her life she was watching unfold in the dark realms of her mind.

Alexandra made up her mind to find out what was behind all the strange dreams and circumstances if for no other reason but peace of mind. She had a good idea Cezar was the key to everything. He remained an enigma to Alexandra. She thought for a while and decided she would have to trust Cezar and he would have to believe her before any real explanations would come.

* * *

There was a knock on the door that Alexandra didn’t hear. She was lost in her thoughts as she lounged in the padded chair on the balcony. The knock came again a little more impatiently. Nothing. The heavy lock clicked back into its pocket, and the door swung open. Dari came in carrying an engraved silver tray with elaborate Celtic designs covered by more silver dishes and a porcelain cup.

Alexandra looked up as Dari paused in the frame of the French Doors. “Good morning My Lady. I’ve brought breakfast and your coffee.”

“My Lady?” Why the formality, I’m just part of the staff.

“Oh, no, My Lady. You are My Lord’s guest, and he tells me you come from an old aristocratic family here in Romania. We are all delighted to have you here, and it’s my honor as your handmaiden to ensure you want for nothing.”

“What? Well, I’m really not hungry, but I’ll have coffee. You can just leave everything there on the table, and I’ll take care of it,” Alexandra said and then she noticed the worried look, the nervous hands as Dari’s eyes darted about.

“My Lady, this was prepared by the Viscount himself. It would be discourteous to refuse. He has some busy plans for you today, and you’ll need your strength. She began to open the dishes revealing a fried egg with cucumber and shallots. There was fluffy white bread with a smoked vegetable spread and what looked like sheep’s cheese and thick bacon. The smells wafted in the air and assaulted Alexandra’s appetite. The wolf within stirred.

“Mmmmm. That does smell delicious. I think I’ve changed my mind and will have breakfast. Won’t you join me, Dari?”

“As you wish My Lady.”

“Call me Alexandra.”

“Yes, My Lady Alexandra.”

“That’s better,” Alexandra rolled her eyes and prepared to investigate her First Romanian breakfast.

* * *

The handmaid was adept at being cheery and moving Alexandra along on a pace that wasn’t her own.

“My Lord will see you in two hours. While you shower, I’ll lay out the clothes and clean your room.

At first, Alexandra wanted to dismiss Dari. She wasn’t used to this kind of treatment, and it made her uncomfortable. Mostly, she was embarrassed because she had no idea what to do and Dari seemed to know everything. She watched as Dari quickly made the bed with not a moment of wasted movement.

Dari’s clothes fit her like a fashion model. Her sandy blonde hair was pulled back in a bun with a white lace cover. Her makeup was minimum but expertly applied. Alexandra sighed. She was so pretty, and here I am the Viscount’s guest, a bottom feeder with no social skills.

As Dari wrapped her arms around Alexandra’s shoulders and encouraged her to hurry along, Alexandra realized she needed Dari too. Cezar’s suggestion they become close reminded her, there was a reason Dari was here. She decided to engage with Dari and see where it all took her.

SCENE 7

The susurration of water cascading over Alexandra’s smooth skin was hypnotic. The low hiss, an undercurrent of brittle sound tinkling in a soft rhythm, and the ah, tat, tat, tat of streaming drops on the tile floor echoed in the shower chamber. Water, warm and urgent, slipped into her most private of places and over her like gentle caresses. Such everyday things shouldn’t feel so good, she thought. But it did feel good, and she lingered in her thoughts of it.

Anxiety softened to a tingling awareness as Alexandra drifted the soft loofah over her aware breasts, her ribs, back up, and under the arms, and over, between, and down; sudsing the skin in a fragrance like warm spiced honey and Calla Lilies. She dreamed of someone to love who would love her as much while the loofah titillated her skin and psyche.

A magenta satin robe with sangria trim hung from the wall, another gift from Dari. Alexandra lifted the plush towel from the heated towel rack and dried herself, basking in the warmth until it faded. She toweled her hair and wrapped her long black tresses in a turban and slipped into the robe. She glimpsed her puzzled face in the mirror half obscured in the clinging mist. She wanted to feel special. A day-long date with the Viscount would test her composure to the limits of her endurance. Why she thought. Why am I so anxious about him?

Anxiety was the least of Alexandra’s concerns when she saw the white linen dress and emerald apron with carefully laid out accessories that looked like a pirate’s chest of gold chains and silver castings with jeweled inlay. An emerald colored border at the hem seemed an intricate Celtic knot design, the same as on the apron.

“It’s beautiful Dari, she said. It looks traditional.”

“Oh, do you recognize the old Dacian style?”

The reply caught Alexandra’s attention, and she looked up into eyes pleased but questioning, and unsure of the depth of her recognition. She saw in Dari’s questioning gaze the black on blue on white of her eyes, a raven drifting in a bright blue sky ringed with white clouds. The raven called to her memory. How did I know, Alexandra thought.

“I seem to recall these patterns on my mother’s clothes as a child. But, I don’t know really,” Alexandra offered, still studying the handmaid’s face now old beyond her years with a matronly look.

“That’s very interesting. Come, we have a few delicate lady things to attend to before you dress to go out,” Dari said to change the subject.

Dari walked behind Alexandra, reached around her neck and gathered the material of the robe and eased it back over Alexandra’s shoulders. Alexandra hesitated and looked at her handmaiden questioning why Dari needed to disrobe her.

“It’s okay, My Lady. I attend to all your needs. My Lord would see me dead before he would see you unprepared for his ceremonies with his subjects. Today is an important celebration of our past. We’ll attend an outdoor festivity of our culture, and then My Lord will escort you to our ancient home, a relic of our past where we will pay our respect to the history that binds us.” Dari explained.

Alexandra relinquished the robe and felt it’s satin smoothness drift over her back and hips as it was deftly whisked away. Dari ran her fingertips over Alexandra’s back and hips in a soft caress of admiration for the wolf tattoos that adorned her well-defined muscles; intense, yet feminine grace prevailed in the curves and suppleness of her body.

“They’re beautiful creatures,” Dari said, her voice soft with a tinge of admiration.

There seemed a wishfulness in Dari’s voice. Her touch and admiration were unsettling. Alexandra was repulsed by Dari’s seductive attention and yet she craved it deeper in her mind where warm urges welled up in a flight of butterflies. Alexandra’s tension left her mute and unsure what to do.

“Lay down here on your back.” Dari pointed to an upholstered lounge chair with a doubled sheet across the top. The backrest was down and the footrest up to form a bed. “I’ll go get a towel to cover you,” she whispered over her shoulder.

In a wary repose, Alexandra lies on the bed with hands covering what little of her was exposed after she clamped her legs shut. The softness of the cushions enveloped her. The domed ceiling revealed a powder blue sky panorama with perimeter clouds and along the massive crown molding were trees in perspective with a pack of wolves in single file on a perpetual hunt.

“The wolves,” Alexandra thought. Cezar’s comment about her tattoos, the family crest, the two wolves the woman played with at night, and now Dari’s sensual admiration. Everything seemed tied to wolves. She wondered if it was Dari that took the wolves out at night. A wayward finger touched her as she covered herself and thought of the pleasure she would feel if she took the wolves out to play. The butterflies lifted from their petals in a fluttering of fragile wings and left her tingling with excitement. She realized she had a deep bond with her new hosts and relaxed as her imagination took her to a moonlit night.

A warm towel woke Alexandra from her daydream. Dari took her Lady’s hands and placed them at Alexandra’s sides then smoothed the wrinkle from the cloth with her hands gliding over Alexandra’s once protected mound of uncultured hair.

The sounds of Dari moving around her lifted the wariness from its slumber. She winced as soft lotioned hands drifted over her stomach and ribs. She clamped her legs again as the lotion was massaged into her breasts and shoulders, now, down her arms. The scent of the cream calmed her as Dari’s hands went places no one else had gone without a fight.

Lavender. Yes. Lavender and sweet smelling geranium riding on the citrus of bergamot orange, the smooth, aromatic frankincense, and sharp vetiver lulled Alexandra into a feeling of connection with the hands that pleasured her, relaxed her anxiety, and made her ready for. . .

Dari lifted the towel from Alexandra’s midsection and wrapped her in a blanket of warmth leaving her exposed down below. What was she doing down there? The handmaid’s fingers ran through the long silky hair lifting it up. There was a hard click and the sound of a rapid buzzing. Alexandra’s eyes widened, and her legs tightened together.

“Relax, My lady. We, Dacian women, are fierce like our wolves but we don’t go about our lives unmanicured or untrimmed. Single and married alike attend to themselves; always presentable to our men. Besides, a dark forest over our womanhood is not the least bit enticing.” A small electric razor worked through Alexandra’s wild mane, surrendering to Dari’s creative touch and beauty secrets. “I get mine done too, My Lady,” Dari assured Alexandra with nonchalant confidence.

Alexandra looked down over her rippled stomach and saw how Dari concentrated on her work. There was a look of devotion and satisfaction in their bond. She was dutifully attending to her as the Viscount ordered. For a second Alexandra relaxed and thought how Dari must feel doing such personal things.

Dari caught her looking and smiled. Her hand touched Alexandra’s inner thigh and suggested she open her legs. “It’s almost over My lady. I’ll get the inside, and then we’ll work on your nails.”

Alexandra, speechless still, submitted to Dari’s deft hands and the bumblebee buzz of the razor trimmer.

The handmaid washed and lotioned her handiwork causing Alexandra to emit a low moan of pleasure. Finished, Dari covered Alexandra in the blanket and left the room with the lights turned down to a golden umber that lulled Alexandra into a light fugue of unrequited ache. The handmaiden in her dream drifted into view. She had helped the queen attend the mortally wounded king. Could it be?

Finger and toenails were painted a glossy emerald color to go with the traditional apron Alexandra would wear. Dari moved her Lady to a chair where she removed her toweled turban and with quick ease freed the locks of hair to hang in ringlets over the back of the chair. She brushed Alexandra’s hair like a virtuoso plays the strings with bow. Alexandra watched in the mirror as her hair changed into a complicated braid adorned with golden pins and ribbons.

Dari often checked to see if her Lady liked the design and where the pins went. Alexandra had never fixed her hair in this manner and was happy to let Dari do as she pleased. The soft questions and validations in her ears and against her neck endeared Dari to her. She felt a deeper connection than any woman before. Alexandra recalled how Master Cho’s wife was sharp-tongued and always rough. Mrs. Cho ordered her to be still and slapped her offending limbs when she fidgeted at the pain of her hair being snatched with the brush. Dari was gentle, reassuring, and always thoughtful toward her. As fingers caressed an ear while shaping the gentle down swinging arch of locks at the side of Alexandra’s head, she reached up and held the hand that attended to her.

“Is everything okay, My lady?” Dari asked in that sweet soprano voice that chatted endlessly with the silent Alexandra’s ear. Their faces only a breath width apart, Alexandra touched the girl’s outward cheek and urged her to her.

“Thank you,”  She whispered to her handmaiden. Alexandra caught Dari’s eyes in the mirror. Head to head they both saw something that had been long dormant but never indeed gone. Alexandra saw the eyes like the raven in the sky. The visage mesmerized her with a thought, they have known each other long before, like a fleeting image in her dreams. Dari smiled a knowing smile that said Alexandra was right.

Scene 8

There, standing in quiet repose, eyes wide, eyebrows lifted, and lips slightly parted in wonder, was the image of a woman in a golden-edged mirror Alexandra never knew or hardly recognized. “Do not fight me,” the twin image seemed to say in her mind, a voice perhaps telepathic or cast where it came to her below a whisper. “You are beautiful,” Alexandra whispered back with no sound, only the movement of her lips with barely the strength to break the grip her red lipstick had on her lips when they were pursed together from a tension she did not understand. 

Alexandra felt a shift in her awareness. Dari came into view beside her. In the mirror reflection, the glow of soft light in the dressing room reflected from the handmaid’s forehead, the bridge of her nose, her full lips, and point of her chin. Shadows writhed along the low folds of her dress as she moved. The handmaid’s smile of accomplishment, of confidence, warmed Alexandra’s heart.

“Yes, My Lady, you are beautiful as you always were,” spoke the voice next to Alexandra. She felt the gentle touch of Dari’s hand slide from the small of her back to her shoulder smoothing the fabric of her dress and sending a message of reassurance that she wasn’t dreaming nor alone. The regal woman who looked back from the mirror smiled and blinked. She took on the radiance of the demured beauty next to her.

“Dari, I’m a fraud. I’ve never had clothes like this before. I don’t understand why I’m here doing this or how to act,” the woman in the mirror said to the smiling face beside her.

“My Lady Alexandra, you are the special guest of the Viscount Raván and his father, the Count. My Lord will introduce you to the guests. Everyone is excited to meet you.”

“But why, Dari? Why me, of all people? I’m an orphan raised on the streets until Master Cho took me in and taught me the only skills I know. I dance with knives, not royalty.” Alexandra turned in a pleading voice. In her subconscious was a spark of desire to change places with Dari, the friend who served her as if they had lived all their lives together. She held the hands of her friend and looked longing into her eyes for a sign she could leave and go back to the silent street girl. She saw no mercy, no allowance for her anxiety.

“You are no bastard child, Alexandra Drăgana. You are the last of the Drăga family that ruled this land before Romans, Germans, or Soviets. The Viscount looked for you for years and the Count before him. Your parents, the Count and Countess were friends and fellow patriots. You are home with your people, and they wait to finally meet you,” Dari’s face was stern and unmoving.

Dari’s words engulfed Alexandra with powerful images forcing an unsteady step back. There would be no retreat to the bedroom. The butterflies rose in a crescendo of fluttering along livened pathways beating against the pit of her stomach and rising into a breathless chest. Those familiar delicate fingers that before had given her so much pleasure reached to Alexandra’s face stroked her cheeks and moved an errant strand of hair back to its rightful place. Glistening eyes met and searched for answers and found none. There was only the voice in Alexandra’s head beaming to her from those determined eyes of her dear friend.

“You will be fine, My Lady. You are no stranger to performance. Give our people something to be proud of. Remind them of their once glorious past so they can return to their homes and feel good again.”

The youthful Dari took on a matronly appearance that radiated love, a kind of comforting warmth. A wall of protection enveloped them, which Alexandra felt seep into her chest as Dari hugged her and kissed her neck below the ear. The whispered reassurances and the strength she felt in their embrace lifted Alexandra to her full height, her back straight, her shoulders squared in the familiar martial rigidity. The gentle feminine curve resumed in the small of her back and rolled over to her sculpted waist that flowed into a supple behind perched on shapely legs. She appeared sensual and regal in stature, the same as the twin reflection in the mirror.

“We are beautiful, you and me,” Alexandra whispered to a beaming Dari.

SCENE 9

Two boys with rosy cheeks and cherub faces tugged at limbs in the bushes bordering a broad pasture. The ground was once a parade field a few centuries ago. The crenulated towers of Castle Răzvan looked over them in the distance like a stone sentinel. Short stubby fingers worked feverishly to break loose the imagined wooden sword ardent in the mind of one budding warrior. The other produced a knife with age stained blade, and deer antler handle worn smooth from service to father, son, and now the grandson. 

They set to work shaping their new swords in preparation for the grand ceremony.

“Do you think the Count will knight us today if we ask,” mentioned the boy with golden hair and red cheeks.

“No, stupid. Only Kings can knight a person, and you have to slaughter a few enemies first without getting yourself killed,” replied the redhead, his freckled face scowling at his friend.

“Well, what do Counts do then,” Red Cheeks asked.

“They enlist the soldiers like us to defend the land from raiders. We need to impress the Count Răzvan so he’ll enlist us and then we can go about our slaughter and get knighted,” Freckles explained with a professorial tone one could hardly argue with. Freckles took advantage of Red Cheeks’ inattentive nature to strike a deadly blow against the chest of his new enemy, and the fight was on. Howling chase was required to gain the proper recognition, and both boys intended to get as much attention as possible.

Crowds began to filter in and mill about. It was a grand affair, and only the oldest peasants could remember the last royal announcement. It was a time to meet with old friends and pass rumors disguised as little known secrets of what was about to transpire on the parade grounds of Castle Răzvan. There would be food, drink, and celebration until dusk when everyone would hurry home. The wolves in these parts were said to feed on the defenseless and unaware after dark.

* * *

The click of hard leather soles on polished granite tile echoed in the quiet halls of the castle as Alexandra and Dari walked toward the massive white double doors that marked one of the off limit sections of the castle. The Răzvan family members lived and worked in this wing isolated from the daily bustle of the service staff and guests. Alexandra was pleased she was allowed in this section of the castle with Dari. It was nice to feel privileged for a day.

Arm-in-arm the two women approached the doorman. His smile and gleaming eyes, his appraisal of what he saw reflected his approval to enter, and the door swung open revealing a scene that released an audible sigh of wonder from the lips of the Lady Drăgana.

“Oh my god, Dari it’s gorgeous,” Alexandra cooed in hushed tones as she looked down the length of the hall. Dari released her hold on her Lady as she looked from one magnificent view to another.

Stunned silence was all Alexandra could muster as she turned on her heels and waltzed in circles taking in the view. How was this possible to make this majestic hall and even more amazing was how it was kept so bright and spotlessly clean?

There came a low booming sound as the far door opened and in walked the Viscount. He made a beeline to the girls. Dari intercepted Alexandra in mid-twirl and with her attention cut her eyes to the approaching Viscount. Alexandra gazed at the sharp figure of a military officer, caught herself, and the two curtseyed in respect. Alexandra accentuated her slight dip and bow, like the ballet of her defensive art; posture, and poise, the symmetry of the body was essential to the aesthetics.

Giddy with delight, Alexandra regained her upright pose and felt a perceptible spin in the room. She felt lightheaded, and her vision narrowed on the eyes of the Viscount. Polished obsidian orbs of light gleamed with an energy of intrigue and appreciation of the view before him.

Alexandra felt her face flush, and her neck grew warm. A prickle of heat moved down her exposed neckline signaling the onset of interest in the man that surveyed her body like men do. She was pleased he liked what he saw. Intense eyes took in Alexandra’s radiant smile and glowing face. Infectious happiness invaded the room as the Viscount closed within arms distance, bowed, took up Alexandra’s right hand, and kissed her lightly in that way a refined gentleman expresses his admiration.

The sensation of Cezar’s submission to Alexandra sent a shiver up her arm, down her side, and lingered embarrassingly between her legs. A warm, viscous excitement spread slowly down the inside of her thighs. And then their eyes met, and Alexandra melted. Dari, smiling like a proud artist whose work of art has won first prize, slipped her arm under Alexandra’s and steadied her with a locked elbow.

Cezar turned to Dari and asked, “will you accompany My Lady today? I want you to be my guest.”

Yes, My Lord. With pleasure,” the handmaid replied. Their courteous exchange was a rehearsed ritual between them. Alexandra saw the magnetic look exchanged between Dari and Cezar. She felt the warmth that bathed her skin fade. She wanted Cezar to focus only on her. Insecurity crept up the back of her neck. Alexandra felt her hands tremble. Dari squeezed her arm and ever so slightly pushed her toward the Viscount.

SCENE 10

Alexandra studied Cezar in muted admiration. His hair and beard were immaculately trimmed and lay in obedient waves on his tanned face and noble head. He wore a formal black uniform fashioned to fit his physique. The jacket covered a starched white shirt and shiny black bowtie. His proud chest was a garden of colorful medals, ribbons, sashes, golden colored cords, and adorned epaulets. The handsome Viscount and the dual wolves on the coat of arms electrified Alexandra. The wolves, she thought. Our connection is the wolves but what do they mean? She had only questions and no answers.

A manicured hand captured the Lady Alexandra’s arm and led her toward the far door, and they began to stroll down the hall. Footsteps and polite voices carried on echoes as in dreams, a mesmerizing susurration to the ears. Such a foreign discourse of noble speak was a drug to Alexandra’s nervous heart. Dari allowed the couple to move ahead two paces and she took up her position to the rear and right in a trained procession of softly spoken sub rosa.

“Please allow me to tell you a bit about Castle Răzvan and those people of my family tied to its history,” Cezar said to his silent captive.

Alexandra struggled not to croak out her acceptance through the tension she felt in her throat. Breath, she thought. It’s a performance, girl. You’re no stranger to this. She nodded her approval, and the Viscount launched into his tour.

They stopped at the first painted panel above a massive mirror bordered by two tall gilded candelabras. There, in an outdoor scene was a king clothed in a bear fur cape with his queen at his side. “Here is the first Dacian King of what is now Romania. My forefather was the first to attempt to unite the Thracian tribes against the invaders, but pride and duplicitous allegiances left the many tribes weak to conquest. They fell to the invaders one by one. The king was mortally wounded in one of those battles. His queen went on to lead the tribe to several victories until she too was killed.”

Alexandra stood spellbound looking at the painting she felt such an affinity for, but more gripping was, her and Cezar’s reflection in the mirror. She saw how they fit together and felt a deep sensation of belonging.

They continued down the line. “Here in this painting is the Răzvan family. Brothers and uncles have come together with strong allies across the land and formed the Society of Wolves. We united to fight the Romans as they sought to make us slaves giving our lives and fealty to Rome. We could not allow it and did not for 300 years until finally, Rome overpowered us.”

“Is this Society of Wolves the symbolism from your coat of arms?” Alexandra asked.

“Yes, it is. The wolf lived free on these lands before men came to settle it. They are still free though we struggle with too many weaknesses and disunity to live like the wolves in a society of cooperation.” Cezar replied his voice softer, more personal.

“Do you keep wolves here at the castle?” Alexandra asked, hoping to get an explanation of what she saw that night with the hooded woman and the two wolves.

“Perhaps you’ve seen them. We don’t keep the wolves. They are free to come and go as they please, but we do feed them, and they have become faithful friends.” Cezar answered with a touch of pride in his voice.

“I have always had a love for wolves. They are my spirit animal. That’s why I got the two tattoos on my back. It gave me strength and inspiration to master my trade.” Alexandra explained as she watched for a hint of understanding in the Viscount’s eyes.

And, there it was. The look Alexandra desired, the acceptance she wanted all of her life. Cezar’s deep voice filled her attentive ears as his hand brushed up her back to her shoulder where he squeezed her arm in a silent affirmation. The millimeters of space between them disappeared in a tender hug before the distance was regained out of respect for the lady, of course. Dari had averted her face and now checked timidly to discover the kiss had not occurred as she anticipated. She wondered how she could hurry this subtle seduction along.

“Perhaps down here in this panel, you will find further reasons for your attachment to our wolves.” Cezar escorted Alexandra to the end of the hall, stopped, and looked up. He regarded the panel with admiration, looked at Alexandra, and explained. “This is the Duke and his wife, the Duchess Drăgana.” Alexandra looked on at the scene of the royal couple. The woman was an older version of herself. She could see the likeness. There sat a young boy and girl in the foreground with a forward-looking wolf of immense size.  

“Is, is the Duchess from my family?”  Alexandra asked.

“Your great-grandfather’s family, My Lady,” Cezar replied.

“Who are the children?” Alexandra began to feel her emotions breach the surface of her struggle to hold herself together. The welling up of the lost years of her life ran through her mind.

“They are your grandfather and his sister, Alexandra,” Cezar said as Dari came up to her side.

The dam broke.

SCENE 11

The hall of mirrors and pigmented memories on canvas bordered in elaborate gold leafed frames spun lazily in an erratic path like the flight of bees. Alexandra heard the buzzing vibrato of diaphanous insect wings in her mind as she struggled to maintain her erect posture and attentive smile. She wove her arm inside the crook of the Viscount’s elbow and held him tight to steady herself.

The ever-present handmaiden placed her Lady’s hand on her shoulder and held her trembling fingers as she reached around Alexandra’s waist. The trio froze momentarily as Alexandra’s face tilted up to the Gothic beamed ceiling and her eyes fluttered in rhythm to the thoughts and visions cascading through her mind like a waterfall of sepia colored vignettes.

A deep concern wrinkled the brow of Cezar. His eyes narrowed in the dark shadows of his eye sockets. He caught the urgent glance of Dari.

“She is communing with the Eidolons of her past, My Lord.”

“The Revenant returns to us, my dear Dari. She seems more affected than ever before,” Cezar replied with edginess tainting the consonants of his voice. He wrapped his arm around Alexandra and slid his hand over Dari’s arm and squeezed reassuringly as they both held on.

Alexandra glanced around at the many paintings and as visions of her past took on the pallor of phantasms drifting in and out of her body, she began to feel the emotions and touch of others that gave her ecstatic life and love as well as the agony of despair and death. Cezar, in all his forms, caressed her, encouraged her, made love to her in oceanic waves of rushing tides. In and out. In and out. Dari’s face appeared as she whispered their feminine secrets shared only between them and no one else across the aeons of their shared lives.

Hands choked Alexandra as she shook from the assault of the images in her eyes. Booted feet kicked her. She felt her tormentors in her mouth and deeper in her throat cutting off her breath. At the same time, she felt the stab down below, the thrusting of their hate-inspired lust tearing her womanhood, and from behind as they stole her dignity and eventually her life.

The enemies of her people penetrated her physically and emotionally in every conceivable way and the emotions, like the sensations, rushed over her like an electric shock, burning her, and snapping her body in writhing contortions as she fought back. The sting of blades slashed her throat, breast, chest, thighs. In and out, in and out in ever-increasing tempo as the faces and bodies of her tormentors collided with her. The one who dances with knives cut them down as they surrounded her with their torments.

The apparitions of violence faded and there was only the warmth of Cezar and Dari remaining. Alexandra felt their love wash her bloody skin and close her torn flesh. The touch of the only love Alexandra’s soul had ever known healed her. She felt Dari’s soft hands on her body as she was cleansed of the filth of her agonizing experiences.

Her Cezar’s lips closed on hers and his hands caressed her fathomless ache as their eyes adored each other and lifted her despair like disturbed dust from finely waxed wood and drifted away in beams of light on unseen currents of air.

The reborn Revenant opened her eyes, and the room returned to the present in bright colors of cream and gold. The mirrors up and down the hall reflected the scene like languid pools of spring water. Alexandra’s wild heart and strength took hold and brought her back to her senses.

“My Lord, Dari, forgive me. I felt so faint for a minute.” Alexandra looked first at the Viscount’s face and then her beloved companion. She sensed them differently now. She felt a near overpowering connection with them. Their smiles brought her own to bear. She hugged them both and wanted to press her body against them and feel that they were real. She loved them, and now she knew why.

“Welcome back Alexandra.” The Viscount beamed with elation as he held her to him in an embrace that left her short of breath with warm flashes washing over her enlivened skin. Dari pressed her body against Alexandra’s back and lay her head on Alexandra’s shoulder as she reached around to Cezar’s hips and pulled them all closer together.

“Do you know why you are here, Alexandra?” the Viscount probed her ear with his soft baritone. Another wave of shimmering warmth filled her stomach when the words and Cezar’s breathe registered in her ears and on her neck. Alexandra felt her toes curl inside her shoes and a feeling like she had taken one too many cocktails at happy hour.

“To take back what was stolen from our family and our people,” she replied, the words coming from deep within her mind. The locked doors of her past were flinging open and neural networks were connecting her to the terrible purpose of her existence.

The group separated and in silence, affirmed the words of their returned Duchess Drăgana.

“Then let us go meet our people and lift their hopes and restore their pride and honor,” Cezar announced in a firm voice of conviction. The three inseparable souls joined hands and walked to the door to begin their arduous campaign to return the ancient lands of Romania to the rightful heirs and their people.

SCENE 12

Heresy. That was the word that came to Alexandra’s mind. This was heresy, a blasphemy with no end. The stately fir trees seemed to tip their needle pointed crowns in the breeze as the carriage made its way down the dun-colored hill to the massive parade field choked with the people she would rule as their Duchess. Alexandra acknowledged the majesty of the trees, an evergreen sea that gifted her with the scent of spirits and mint.

The Duchess elect shifted her gaze through the front glass to the back of the driver and his assistant on the black rolled leather seat outside. His back was broad and pushed hard against the uniform that struggled to contain the muscles and thick bones of his shoulders. The assistant was no small man either. Guards, she noted. They were more than they appeared to be. The deep rumble of his voice in a whisper cut through the upholstered frame of the carriage, and the assistant’s raspy laugh spoke of bawdy tales in the taverns last night.

She turned back to the window at her side and listened to the rhythmic clop, clop, clop of hooves. There were more horses behind them just out of view. The honor guard, no doubt. Alexandra’s vision blurred as the sounds of the carriage rolling down the worn path lulled her senses.

Heresy was always the new dawn and still the cyclic violence of her many lives played out in her nightmares and life, she thought. Cezar, sitting up front with the Officer of the Guard, looked regale with his uniform, well-groomed hair, and pitch black beard shimmering in a glow about his head. The detail of the gilded trim and lacquered frame of the carriage shifted to a washed out haze. No, God no. Not now, please. She pinched the soft tender skin of her inner thigh hoping the pain would stop her shifting to another waking dream, the dreams that haunted her at will. Color faded to cold blues and wet grays. She felt herself drifting as the sounds of reality faded and the sounds of her memories played voices and scenes before her eyes.

The Duchess, the one who dances with knives, an octagon cage fighter who loved the taste of her opponent’s slick, coppery-sweet blood in her mouth was royalty. Lost to the streets and regained. Heresy, she thought. Fucking heresy. She knew in an unthought voice in her head, she was a revenant, and she wasn’t alone. Not anymore.

The carriage lurched, Alexandra shifted back in the current moment and fought to hold herself there. No more dreams, she pleaded with an invisible master. She reached down and felt a hand. It was firm. Diminutive fingers turned up into her palm and squeezed. It was too late. Alexandra was gone, traveling back in time to another place, another moment her being couldn’t let go.

Alexandra lifted the captured hand to her breast to somehow convince her heart to slow down. The thundering pulse in her ears matched the steady beat of the horses’ gait and the soft whine of the wheels on axles. She heard a young girl in the throws of pain from a large man thrusting at her like an animal, the whine coincided with the slapping of iron on hooves with the gravel underneath. She heard and felt his hard thighs slapping against her naked body. Alexandra froze as a cold, rippling chill raced across her skin. Tears filled her eyes. No decent man would have her by his side if he knew her past.

The hand pressed against her body released her. Now there were two hands. One on her opposite shoulder tugging at her and one resting on her lower stomach where her hips formed a protective bowl defending the vicious pounding she felt getting faster and more fierce. The hands pressed her. Dari’s voice called out. “I’m here. I’m here. Alexandra, look at me.” The sound was distant. Moist air modulated across her ear as did soft lips with a hint of spiced perfume and clean starched cloth.

The vision and scent of tuck and roll leather, lacquered wood, and gold left colored lines of tracers across Alexandra’s eyes as she turned to the voice. She looked into the stardust blue eyes where shadows hid the top of the head, but the eyes glowed with light as did the lipstick on full wet lips. The eyes questioned her, seduced her, owned her thoughts as they bore into her like she was only a shadow herself.

Now, the nimble hands soothed Alexandra, beseeched her presence. The dead chill from moments before lifted under the penetrating cerulean focus of the irises and tender touch. For a moment, Alexandra was unsure if this was another dream where the eyes would make love to her, or the hands would lull her away from her awareness just before the stab of cold steel burned into her chest splitting ribs loud enough to be heard over her screams.

“I’m here My Lady. Stay with me. Look at me. I have you, and you are safe. They can’t get you here.”

Such a strange message and yet it made sense. Dari was no handmaid. It was only her role to play. Alexandra felt herself returning to the present with a loud hum in her ears. There was a crack like a splintering bone and then she was entirely in the present with Dari. She hugged Dari and choking back tears, pleaded with her. “Dari, I love you. You are the sister I always wanted, the friend I always needed. Please promise you won’t leave me ever again.”

“I promise, My Lady.” The mesmerizing lips moved in the light as Dari’s voice drifted in Alexandra’s consciousness. “We approach our destiny once again. You are more powerful than you’ve ever been before. My Lord was right to seek you out. There was never any other choice. And now, it begins. Don’t worry,” Dari said as she stroked her Duchess with a love that can only be felt by a revenant returned to her wolfpack after many seasons alone. “We all will know what to do. It’s in our blood. You’ll see.” The two halves of the whole held their embrace as both felt their life together was far more potent than either alone.

SCENE 13

There was an eerie silence, a momentary pause in the air as the carriage stopped at the bottom of the hill. The last squeak of wood and leather faded to memory. Alexandra roused from her thoughts and looked to see what was happening. A thin wisp of dust caught up to the carriage and continued past on an invisible current of air that twisted the fingers of dust in a languid stream. The dust grasped at the feet of the horses shackled to the coach like obedient servants. 

The mounted horses suddenly reared up, their uniformed riders erect in a stiff and controlling posture. Their martial strength roiled Alexandra’s mind in a surge of aggressive energy. Before she could think of controlling this surge of burning sensation, a foot troop of soldiers marched by taking up positions in front of them.

Martial music played from an orchestra at one end of the field. Multi-colored figures marched out in front of the bandstand in a flurry of coordinated movements. They seemed like a rose and stem in a fast-motion bloom, then a flat oasis of striated reds, greens, and white color as they found their positions and marched in place to the thunderous beat of the drums.

Alexandra’s heart pounded in her chest. She lived for that excitement she felt when she entered the cage to fight her opponent. As much as she suffered from her lifestyle and dreams, she lived for the sensual feel of skin on skin combat. The cage and pain were where she found her true self and sated lust.

Her head seemed to lull over to see what was happening with the sound of loud cries and shouts outside the opposite window. Alexandra happened upon Dari’s back turned to her as the handmaid strained to see out the tinted glass. The taut muscles of Dari’s back through her dress were accentuated in the shadow of the interior and the dusty light that streamed in from outside. Alexandra appraised straight shoulders, symmetrical tightening of Dari’s waist in a drawn triangle joined at the flair of her proud hips. The image clutched at Alexandra’s predatory soul, tightened her throat, and caused her breath to come shallow and quick. Their workouts together were having a good effect on her friend.

Soldiers shouted in unison, “make way, make way.” The carriage and entourage moved forward into the edge of the waiting throngs of people. Children were thrust up to the front and peered into the coach with inquisitive eyes. The crowd caught glimpses of the faces peering out at them and a roar vibrated a predator’s heart to life.

Distant, cold eyes stared at Dari’s body and dreamed of submitting her in a rear naked chokehold until she tapped out. But it wasn’t Dari, Alexandra saw in her vision. She craved the cage, she lusted for her female fighters, who outside the ring were some of her closest friends and some were her students. In the ring, there were no friendships, only the brutal conquest of gladiators.

How she loved to feel their muscles strain against her, their fists sought to bloody her face and at times they succeeded. It was a kind of lovemaking that was greater than sex. When it was over they were friends again, hugging and making plans together. No one talked of the sensual ballet that took place, the forcing of bodies together more tightly and for longer than any man would hold them except when they sought to rape and plunder their feminine treasure. No man dared try it now. Alexandra could crush ribs with her thighs and drive a stiletto through the thickest sternums. No, they no longer tore out her insides with their evil intent. It was their time to fear her.

Gray thoughts returned to the scent of the other female’s sweat and blood, the feel of their viscous sensuality and excitement, the taste of saliva, hot skin, and flecks of blood from their grimacing lips turned Alexandra on fully and completely. Then there was the exquisite pain on their face as she clamped them to her and pounded their face. Not too hard. She didn’t want to injure them, Just make them submit to her power and control. Alexandra was their legend and they worshiped their chance to feel her power and try to make it their own.

There were times when Alexandra and her opponent seemed to freeze in a tight embrace of pain and ecstasy. They would pause together as Alexandra’s lower stomach pulsed rhythmically and her legs shook with tremors. They heard the gasp for air and felt the strangled moan in her chest. She might have made them submit to her but they secretly delighted in their ability to make her come. For a woman, even a cage fighter, this was the ultimate power they possessed. Alexandra smiled to herself. “I suppose there really are no losers in this game.” Still, no one ever mentioned it, but they did come back for more.

The crowds were whipped into lustful screams and ecstatic worship in the arena as Alexandra worked her strategy and snatched her partner’s grimaces and cries of pain as small victories; the kind she prized far more than belts and trophies.

The cage fighter’s tongue flicked nervously across the roof of her mouth to soothe the dryness. Alexandra’s thoughts refocused on Dari’s probing eyes. She realized she was staring with a kind of sensual malice at her handmaiden, her dearest friend.

“My Lady. Are you okay?” Dari asked with concern in her voice tinged with a hint of fear.

“I am more ready than ever. The energy has just aroused my feelings, you know, it’s exciting.” Alexandra’s voice was steady and calm with a hint of rough pleasure.

“I’m so excited too,” Dari cooed with delight and yet her eyes held a certain concern for her Duchess. Dari felt Alexandra was returning to her true self faster than she and Cezar expected. Not everything was within their control and the unknown was far more troubling than the battles forming along ancient bloodlines.

The women returned their gaze to the adoring crowd. The peasants milled around like ants defending the mound. Their dark clothes were patchworked with bright colors and twisted patterns. Alexandra pursed her lips together. “I need blood,” she mused to herself. She knew in a transient feeling in the back of her mind that her bloodlust would find its home in her ancestral lands. She was the prodigal revenant and her mood lifted to joy upon realizing she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

SCENE 14

The carriage pulled behind the grandstand, a pavilion-like structure built on an old terrace of stone walls and packed earth now cleansed and manicured to erase the accumulated years of seasonal despair. The band in their crisp uniforms played traditional songs; some bright to lift the feet in dance and some bawdy to match the moods that pranced around slinging beer and merriment to the trampled ground.

Cezar opened the door and bowed to the Duchess in waiting. When he was fully upright in his resplendent persona, his hand caressed the Lady Drăgana’s wrist as his fingers sought her palm.  There was Alexandra’s pause and then her head lifted from her hesitant step. Amber eyes alight with marigold flecks in the morning light took in the imminent face of Cezar. Onyx and cinnamon orbs drilled her with the intensity of a wolf lording over a yearling rabbit. The rabbit felt the panting of a hungry wolf on her hot cheeks that turned to fuschia pink. She reveled in his uplifted gaze as she felt the stairs of the carriage sway to her steps. Now on the ground, he towered over her.

She took in his breath on her face. The pink hotness of her cheeks spread to her neck and décolletage. Now the scent of his fine woolen jacket and damp morning air mingled with the feral scent from his proud chest. The world faded from Alexandra’s captivated eyes. She saw only the man who appraised her with a quiet shift of his eyes from her pupils, to her mouth, back to her eyes and then her breasts. She felt a rolling tension in her stomach as hunger registered on this beast of a man who held her hand as if it were a newly bloomed Bulgarian rose with thorns against his fingertips.

At that moment their eyes sought each other in mutual infatuation, the rabbit became an alpha she-wolf. Her chest lifted as she straightened herself in defiance of Cezar’s domination of her. With his eyes now rising back to her face, she wished she had round, full breasts like Dari’s. Maybe he would linger with her longer, she thought. She melted a tiny bit and her back felt moist as the Viscount smiled. He never smiled without reason. There was no lack of sincereness in his countenance now. Did he catch her scent? Did he know of her excitement at his touch and under his gaze?

“My dear lady, Cezar began in his thick and slow baritone; it is time for your ascendancy. I must tell you a few things before we start and Dari will assist you in the ceremony. This is your time, we have all waited a long time for today and now we wait no more.”

Behind the stone pavilion and sheltered in the shade of a beech tree, The Duchess in waiting listened as the Viscount explained the events to take place just moments away. Behind her, the band churned the air with happy melody as a belly dancer in loose undulating black and yellow bumblebee pants and honey breasts tormented the shouting men, amused the giggling children, and lifted an envious passion in the women keeping a protective watch on the stupefied gaze of their men.

Alexandra thought only how his stone stare and meandering voice made harsh love to her eyes and ears. His staccato breath teased her hot cheeks. She toyed with her hair and shifted her stance and prayed the itching burn in her inner thighs would ease and spare her further torture.

SCENE 15

The band played a rousing beat as the nubile belly dancer made old men forget their age and young girls dream of adoration. Shouts of approval to swinging hips, laughter and the cacophony of spectacle resounded through the forest. Celebration masked the sound of footsteps and padded paws moving along a hidden path that circled the parade field in a time-honored duty of service more than 800 years old.

A man adorned in the finery of wealth, the stature of high rank, and the cold stare of a killer moved along the grassy path within the woodline, his two-year-old wolf at his side. They paused. The young wolf stared ahead and whined a warning. Marius knew with every royal family from the ancient Wolf Clan awaiting the ascendancy of Lady Drăgana at the pavilion, only he and his men could stop their enemies from executing a final victory. An assassination of several of the family leaders would only repeat the history of violence and retribution.

“Steady Rolf, steady.” Marius placed a calming hand on the raised hackles of his lupine companion. The music and festivity continued unabated and unaware of the hatred that shaped their lives for more centuries than humans can conceive much less remember. The golden glow of the beast’s eyes pierced the forest and focused on the scent of a stranger in the wood. The hunt began in earnest. The desire for blood drove hunter and animal to innate fury.

* * *

Dari placed her hand on the back of her Duchess below the shoulder blades in a show of support as close friends often do. The tense muscles belied Alexandra’s stoic pose.

“Don’t worry My lady,” Dari said with reassuring tones as her hand sent warm sensations to Alexandra’s awareness. “You’ll see the faces of love in your subjects and you’ll know that everything you say and do will be for them.”

“I do hope so, Dari.” Alexandra turned to her handmaid and felt the strength of her words and saw the confidence in her narrowed ice blue eyes. “I have always been a performer to crowds, an object of their entertainment. I don’t really know how to be their leader.”

“When you walked down the walkway on your way to the fighting cage, did you not hold your head high and show your confidence? Did you not show you were unafraid in front of your opponent? Dari asked, knowing well the answer.

Visions of bloody faces raced across Alexandra’s mind coupled with those rare times she stole a wicked pleasure from her opponent. She faltered at the thought of her terrible need. She felt her iron core crack at the acknowledgment of her secret desire for the Viscount. How would she, so accustomed to the eroticism of pain, find a way to show such a man, she could love him?

Again, the calming touch of her dear friend who fulfilled her subservient role in such a way as to capture the heart of her master lay a soothing hand on Alexandra’s waist and drew near in a whisper.

“A leader need not prattle on to her subjects about business rules and the fine art of maneuver. No, My Lady, they need to see your confidence in yourself and your trust in them. Show them your strength, show them you are unafraid of your hellbound duty. Ask for their commitment to the greater good of the Wallachian people. Give them not words, but good deeds that prove you love them. They will love you in return and their lives will be like pure spring water in your hands and dry mouth.”

Alexandra held Dari in a tight, long-held embrace, feeling her warmth and breath mingled with her own. “I love you, Dari. Only Master Cho encouraged me in the way you do. I promise to make you proud.”

“Make them proud,” Dari whispered against the soft red glow of Alexandra’s ear and pointed the way up the steps to the pavilion.

* * *

The music stopped. The noise from the crowd died down in anticipation. After a long pause, trumpets blared and the drums beat a new rhythm. A long procession of people, men, and women, dressed in exquisite traditional clothing of the Dacian warrior clan filed down the rear walkway to the steps. There seemed a mix of dignified gray hair and defiant silky black braids and beards marching up the steps and disappearing like an army of ants on the top of the pavilion. Alexandra’s heart thumped in her chest as she took note of the curved ceremonial swords at the men’s side.

The band moved down to join the military guard around the pavilion. A Bishop of the Orthodox Patriarchate dressed in his cream-colored robe with golden ornate trim, and tall stylized crown moved slowly up the steps. His thick grey beard presented an elegant and ancient ghost to Alexandra and she shuddered, pushing away intrusive thoughts. When the priest stood beside a massive wooden chair with two wolves facing carved into the back. Dari nodded to Alexandra.

“The Viscount will call your name and then you will go to the side of the Bishop. They will speak English to you and then repeat in our language to the subjects and guests.”

Alexandra turned and faced up the ancient stairway. She steeled herself to calm her nerves and her confidence came as if beckoned. Like words are unspoken yet ringing in the subconscious, a final litany came to Alexandra as she looked skyward to a pair of circling ravens against the veil of white clouds in front of a cobalt sky.

“Questions are the torment of my enemies, their swords, their assaults on my womb. I prepare my answer to you more than the starlings that blacken the autumn sky, each a memory of my enemies’ dagger to my dignity and my people’s heart. My mind tortures me with mysteries of my past far beyond my life. Today I return to the present no longer a stranger to myself or my people. Fate is inexorable. I am inexorable.”

A wolf howled an alert to his companions in the wood. There was a collective shudder felt in the throngs of people and down Alexandra’s neck.

Scene 16

Rolf trotted along the path that followed the escarpment above the field just inside the treeline. He kept a wary eye on the throngs of people below him. They were not his prey today. Still, they were never to be trusted except for his Alpha, they made better meals than packmates. He stopped and looked around, looking for odd contrasts that didn’t belong in the forest, his home. His labored breath held for a moment as he scented the air. He sensed the interloper and the aromatic esters of gun oil and nervous sweat. He trotted on, following the scent as it grew stronger, pungent, swirling in his nostrils, and fueling his fury.

Rolf’s brothers and sisters scented this insurgent essence and howled their acknowledgment. Rolf halted on his haunches and replied, his hot breath a vaporous funnel of haunting sound. He sensed the sea of people below growing nervous and fidgeting. Let them be fearful. Rolf hurried now as the adrenaline of the hunt pressed him and caused him to salivate from his gaping maw. Fangs the size of a man’s little finger glistened in the rays of light penetrating the forest canopy. Rolf’s burning chest yearned for the taste of blood.  He ran in a dodging pattern toward his prey.

✻ ✻ ✻

The priest now queried the Duchess Elect. Would she accept the role of Duchess of Wallachia? She did. Would she rule with justice by the laws of the people? Yes. Would she live to see her people live free and well and would she regain the lands of Wallachia for her people? Yes. The priest’s voice resounded through the speakers and echoed across the silent sea of people standing reverent and proud. This was their moment of glory.  

Marius listened to his surroundings while monitoring the action at the pavilion. Rolf howled again in response to his pack hunting someone or something in the forest. Marius could tell they were closing in on a knoll at the back of the parade field. The perfect high ground for a sniper. Marius laughed to himself. It’s too late for our enemy. The wolves have unnerved them and will tear them apart before they can fire a shot.

The hunter slowed his pace and looked back at the Lady Drăgana through the gaps in the trees. She was seated on the Dacian Throne. The priest handed her the sword and dagger of Wallachia. It was done.

✻ ✻ ✻

Alexandra lowered the sword and dagger to her lap and placed her hands over the blades, their jeweled and golden wire hilts glittered in the filtered sun overhead. The girl who dances with knives would surely dance well with these, she thought.

Anxious sweat that cooled on her skin regained the warmth of fulfillment, of recognition of her terrible task, of realization this moment was her fate. All that had passed before in her life brought her here to do this one thing. She would regain the lost land of Wallachia with blood, vengeance, and the hatred necessary to spill the lives and souls of her Army of believers into the soil of time.

The wolves howled again and Alexandra felt herself grow moist with a sensual tingle as the sound punctuated her thoughts. The Society of Wolves emerged from the darkness of defeat to hunt again. She knew she was the ultimate Huntress in these lands, so let the hunt begin.

✻ ✻ ✻

The Count and Viscount of Răzvan kneeled at the Duchess’ feet and pledged their swords and lives to her. The Duchess accepted and vowed to hold their lives and service dear to her heart. Cezar looked up into her eyes and saw her courage. His harsh query into her eyes was met with unblinking awareness. An awful burden lifted from the viscount as he rose to his feet with his father and saluted the Duchess of Wallachia. Next, in a continuous procession came the royalty of the land she now ruled, each pledged their lives and loyalty, their soldiers and wealth to defend and honor her reign.

At long last, it was her time to address the people who cheered her without pause. Scanning the crowd of uplifted faces, Alexandra saw their unwitting devotion to the idea of being their own masters again.

The Duchess stood in a wide stance like a fighter and struck her sword and dagger together over her head with such force that an arc of sparks flew above her and rained down in a thousand points of light. The crowd went insane with celebration. Alexandra saw in her new subjects a fulfillment of destiny that she was some kind of symbol of their future. No matter what they thought or interpreted, the warrior duchess was their’s and many would lay down their life for her if necessary. A champion’s smile crossed her face.

✻ ✻ ✻

A lone figure lay across the tall grass on the high ground at the back of the parade ground. The sniper’s rifle scope drifted across Alexandra’s chest some 500 meters away. He admired her body, which was tall and slender yet presented an athletic, feminine aesthetic. He did not hate her. What kind of man could hate such strength and beauty? He thought of what pleasure it would be to mount her, to pull her head back with her long black hair and strike her hard, pulling her back into his groin. He felt the drug of violent lust surge through him. Not now, duty called as did the damned wolves. He was paid well to kill her, and he had to do it now before it was too late to escape. Muscles tensed. The sniper shifted his weight to become one with the ground. He braced himself and held his breath. The gods damn those lupine devils, he whispered to himself as he took up the slack on the trigger to the breakpoint, locked his body, and prepared for the recoil.

Scene 17

Marius knew the shot fired under the savage attack by his wolves sent the bullet on an unknown course. The silenced weapon only coughed like a reticent plague behind which death followed, prepared to scythe down anything in the path of the bullet’s trajectory. He felt an enormous pain in his chest. It was an agony brought on by complete awareness of what would follow. Damn them! Why must we eternally fight with the only result a sybaritic illusion of victory and glory?

He watched as the assassin fought with determination to free himself from the tearing fangs. Marius observed the wolves had every advantage against the man. They were careful but never fearful. For their prey, there was never compassion or empathy. They did not strategize in deep contemplation. They merely attacked and with innate skill, took down their target. This is my eternal fate too, it seems.  

The crunch of bones with wet huffs of fury blasted out of clamped jaws, and straight tails pirouetted in the air in a frantic dance with death. The scene was horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. The chief of security to the House Răzvan watched from a safe distance as the wolves dispatched the man. The jaws clamped on his throat muffled the screams of suffering death.

Marius approached with care until he stood over the man whose eyes stared up at him in wide open disbelief. “To be eaten alive is the reward for placing duty and enrichment before a moral code of honor,” he said to the dying man. Recognition stared up into the sky as black pupils widened under the brightness of day. There was a flicker of understanding before the prey of Dacian wolves passed on.

“Do you know what the difference is between you and I, besides the obvious? Marius questioned the corpse frozen in death’s grimace. “Ancestral memories,” came Marius’ answer. “Mine come to me as experiences lived over countless centuries. You followed only hearsay, for the sake of a misguided belonging to a tribe who would take from me what is not theirs to takeDid you believe killing the Duchess would somehow make life better for your clan?

The wolves sat on their haunches and tore at clothing and flesh. They were difficult to tear away from the spoils of their hunt so fierce was their hunger for reward. They obeyed their Alpha and followed Marius as he hurried back to the pavilion to find out what had happened to his Duchess. The crowds were agitated but not panicked. The masses milled around slowly dissipating in every direction. The band played. The Honor Guard kept curiosity seekers away.

Rolf trotted behind his Alpha. The taste and smell of the man’s blood and flesh was satisfying but a new scent filled his nose. From the pavilion, Rolf smelled new blood and he whined to hasten his Alpha.

SCENE 18

Warriors. That is what they were, Marius mused. He took out a bag of the castle’s feed for his wolfpack from the hunter’s shack at the trail terminus and placed out several pans for his wolves. They attacked the bowls of meat and grains ground into a texture and taste the wolves ate with ravenous hunger.

Perched above the field and pavilion where the escarpment was bisected by an ancient road through the dark forest, Marius surveyed the unfolding scene below him. His field glasses framed faces intent on being first at the long tables of food and drink at the edge of the parade ground. There were mounds of pork, lamb, and beef on every table with potato and vegetable dishes, fresh cheese, and round hard crusted bread loaves shoveled into plates and bowls by castle staff for the crowd. The men gathered in clusters to smoke and boast around the line of beer kegs while women collected food for children and the men. Everything appeared normal as if nothing unusual had happened.

Rolf settled next to his Alpha, head on his outstretched paws. His full belly made him lazy. He watched Marius engaged in a peculiar study of the people below. His eyes followed his master’s. The food and people were no interest to the young wolf as he scooted closer and nuzzled the hand next to him. Yes, a good petting was what he needed to help him sleep, and Marius always obliged.

The royal party was gone and the pavilion deserted except for the guards that kept curious onlookers away. It was too normal. “Looks like I’ll need to go down and sniff around a little,” Marius told Rolf who only perked up one ear as his eyes rolled slowly back into his nap.

A butterfly alighted on Rolf’s nose. Both eyes popped open in alert surprise. It spread its black wings to reveal a band of pure white spots. Rolf’s eternal friend who helped him hunt the Alpine meadows of tall grass and wildflowers tickled Rolf’s nose with its delicate feet. The butterfly’s long drinking straw of a mouth tapped on the flared nostril of his companion to draw moisture. Rolf always felt the pecking touch as an intimacy that bonded them as friends and allies in the endless seasons of life and death.

The security officer clamored down the embankment to the roadbed and made his way to the back of the pavilion. A soldier of the royal guard snapped to attention as Marius rounded the corner. “Sir,” he acknowledged in that sharp tone of discipline.

“What has happened here?”Marius asked. He observed the soldier’s hesitation, he saw the moisture increase in the soldier’s eyes that danced nervously from the castle back to his superior.

“There was a shooting, sir.”

“Was anyone injured?”Marius inquired in a practiced casual tone while his heart pounded.

“The Duchess was shot, sir.”

“What?” Marius felt his stomach bile rise in his throat.

“The Lady Drăgana was . . .”

“Where is she. Where is the royal courtiers?” The officer demanded to know.

“They all hid the scene from the people and whisked her away toward the castle. That’s all I know sir.”

Misted eyes and grief clouded the soldier’s face and speech. Marius could see he was in shock and yet he held his post not allowing for the crushing blow that he and his fellow soldiers had failed to keep the Duchess safe.

Marius felt the ache of dreams dashed, and duty failed.“Thank you. Carry on,”was all the officer could get out of his constricted throat.

An agonizing climb up the stone treads to the pavilion led Marius to the scene of the shooting. Near the steps and on the ground below were pools of blood. On the raised platform of manicured grass was a tuft of braided hair still attached to a piece of Alexandra’s scalp. “Dear gods,” Marius exclaimed at the unnerving sight. He looked to the tree where the Duchess and Viscount had exchanged tender looks and saw the bullet had skimmed the tree leaving a fresh wound of torn bark and splintered wood. In the small branches just back of and above the pavilion were strands of long black hair glistening in the sunlight as they waved like prayer banners in the breeze.

An aching sickness gripped Marius. The proud officer’s dry throat burned. He was no stranger to the gore of violence. Hadn’t he stood over the torn body of the sniper without remorse or even the slightest unease? Yet, here on the ground was the blood of generations of hope that one day the long scattered aristocracy of Dacia would unite again to take back their ancestral lands and return their culture of the wolves to the present. Hope has many enemies, Marius reflected as he looked to the sky and murmured, “The gods be damned. Now, the blood of the Duchess requires another era of blood for blood. Endless war for 5000 years. I am weary of this fight.”

A corporal of the guard approached his officer with quiet respect. He waited for Marius to recognize him and give him permission to speak.

“What news have you, corporal?”

“Sir, the Count requests your counsel immediately.”

“Very well, corporal.”

The two elite soldiers of the royal guard, the Black Wolf Brigade, made their way to the waiting vehicle. Marius gave a brief order as he buckled into his seat.

“Radio the operations center and have several squads canvas the area for evidence and have the corpse at the back of the parade field taken to the castle morgue for identification.”

“Yessir,” the radioman replied and relayed the orders into the microphone to a tinny voice on the other end.

Marius held an outward appearance of calm leadership in the shock of crisis. He looked out the window at the passing scenery of forest and rolling meadow and attempted to find the wisdom in his ancient soul. He felt nothing there except growing rage, seething anger, and a need for the blood of his unknown enemy.

SCENE 19

Wolves circled the castle staying inside the forest on familiar tracks their family pack had traveled for generations. The smell of blood and fear was everywhere. Stress filtered through the woods on a willowing breeze. The pungent odor of humans made the pack anxious and alert. Rolf’s breath was rapid and shallow. He felt an awful thirst and waited.

Rolf’s older brother led the way to the back of the castle, and they waited until no sign of human could be seen or scented. The group darted across the open estate keeping in the low ground between the hillocks that surrounded their den. They ran straight through a small opening in the wall shielded by two cedar trees with branches hugging the ground.

✽ ✽ ✽

Marius waited outside the study of Count Răzvan. Anger and indignation coursed through him and tightened his fists at his side. Hate welled up in him, constricting his throat, focusing his mind, and setting the stage for the inevitable bloody confrontation with those who dare such an insult to the people of the Wolf.

“The Count will see you now, Sir.” The Count’s aide de camp motioned for him to enter.

The study was as dark as the mood Marius felt. The room light’s were dimmed, and only the sunlight filtering through the window illuminated the Count’s desk and the green writing pad where commerce was inked into profits. The Count was only partially standing in the filtered sunlight, and the strong shadows half hid his face and eyes providing Marius with a formidable view of his master. No evidence of his benevolence was apparent in the dark shades of his eyes.

“What do you know of the Duchess’ shooting?”

“I know she was shot and her would be assassin is dead,” Marius replied.

“Pity.”

“Pity, my Lord?” Marius struggled to control the vitriol in his voice.

“Yes, I would have liked to question him,” the Count said with the even tone of someone discussing business ventures instead of life and death.

“Ah, yes. Our enemies become quite chatty in your presence, my Lord.”  Marius saw the Count smile under the eyes that shouted death in their unfathomable darkness.

“Our Duchess is in the castle infirmary. The doctors say she has a deep gash on the right side of her head. They suspect a brain bleed and swelling could result, so they have placed her in a shallow coma to keep her still and out of pain.” The Count explained. He walked out of the shadow to a sidebar, took out two glasses, and poured a brandy for each of them. Marius moved closer and accepted the offering. It was customary to share a drink over essential matters, and the Count did not ignore the customs of the Society of Wolves.

The Count’s eyes bore into Marius as they gave a silent toast to their future hunting successes. “Tell me what actions you’ve taken,” the Count asked.

“I’ve had the body of the assassin taken to the morgue for DNA testing and to see if what’s left of his clothes and any items on his person hold any clues to his identity. He was a professional. I expect little more than what the DNA will tell us. However, I do have his rifle and ammunition he used. We’ll check serial numbers and analyze what we can to find the origins and movements of the tools of his trade.” Marius briefed the Count in that emotionless cadence intelligence officers universally possess.

“How long will this take?” The Count asked.

“Six weeks, approximately,” came Marius’ answer.

“What are your plans in the interim?”

“We will continue to look for clues that will uncover the chain of events. There are people we will uncover that will tell us the next step up the chain,” Marius assured the Count.

“And if they don’t talk?” Asked the Count.

“Then the wolves will grow fat for the winter, my Lord.”

“Leave no stone unturned. Suspect everyone until you know they are not part of this plot to destroy our rebound from obscurity,” The Count demanded.

“As you command, my Lord.”

“One more thing, my faithful friend. We’ll do everything covertly. We will announce that a poacher’s errant shot frightened the Duchess and such was the realization of his mistake that he fled and has not been found. We’ll give our enemies a smoke screen to blind them while we cut down the low hanging fruit on the way to the top.”

“Yes, my Lord. With pleasure.” Marius met the Count’s grin with his own sardonic smile.

“You need not kill everyone. Only the ones you think need killing.” The Count signaled the discussion was over by turning his back to Marius and setting down his empty glass.

“My pleasure to serve, my Lord,” Marius replied while setting his glass next to the Count’s in a noble gesture of solidarity, duty, and service to the Society of the Wolves and the Society’s aristocracy.

Marius left the study and acknowledged the aid de camp as if to say, it is done. He made his way through the labyrinthine castle to the sub-basement where the medical facilities were. In the Duchess Drăgana’s darkened room, he ran out the nurses and doctor attending her.

Dear gods, he thought. Her face was swollen and purple. Dried blood still matted her hair. He pulled down the covers and gazed at the athletic body laid down by the avarice and power hungry outsiders. He noted Alexandra had no other injuries other than some bruising from her fall off the platform. He placed his hand on her sternum and felt her shallow respiration, her warmth, and beating heart.

Marius closed his eyes and felt the energy of his revenant Duchess. He leaned down and spoke in her ear as his hand slid intimately up to her neck in a gentle hug. “I pledge my life, my sword, my men to you. Those that would harm you are destined to the belly of my wolves.” He rose and saw the fingers of Alexandra’s hand flex. The thumb rose above a clenched fist.

SCENE 20

“What is this Kinbaku you spoke in the night?” The wolfkeeper asked her master.

He glanced her way, not sure if he should answer. Seeing her anticipation, a curiosity that seemed willing to explore further, maybe participate in learning, the master replied. “It is the art of rope binding. In this art form, the snared woman is the succubus of her dominus. It can take years to become a master in the art of tying the knots. It can take a lifetime to master the art of bonding a willing female to the art. In this bonding of succubus to her Dominus or master, the master is consumed and the woman transformed.”

“How is she transformed, master?”

“She must surrender everything in her free will and be reduced to that point of her emergence from the womb. She is naked and bound in intricate ways with each knot, each strand of special twisted rope, bringing her into a condition of sensory overload. Her agony becomes her greatest ecstasy.”

“But how is the master consumed?”

“The woman in her place between agony and ecstasy forms a sexual bond with her master. No man can walk away from this bond because of its addictive power and his innate nature of lust. She becomes his succubus consuming his dreams and draining his life energy through their insatiable sexual union.”

“Does the master die?”

“Only if the woman doesn’t.”

“If the master dies and the woman lives, what then?”

“She becomes the master and must find a naive apprentice before the madness takes her.”

“Can you tie the knots, master?”

“I can.”

They look into each other’s eyes for an indeterminable amount of time. The master takes the wolfkeeper by the arm and leads her away.

SCENE 21

Marius looked out the arched window of his room. Across the castle grounds to the Hillcrest beyond were tall fir trees that seemed like dark sentinels under the silver light of the waxing gibbous moon. He waited, lost in thought. Plans, strategies, orders, and the synchronicity of his constant vigilance with his forces afield tumbled through his ever calculating mind. His network of agents ferreted out the plotters who attempted the heinous act of murder on his Duchess. The secret war he had hoped would never come was his to win or lose.

No one attempted such things in my old days with the Secret Police. Marius thought to himself. Ah, for those days again, but without those damned Stalinists interfering at every turn. He lit a candle in the window with his cigar lighter and watched the small yellow flame gain strength, becoming a hot, flickering tongue.

The officer’s mind drifted to other, more pleasurable thoughts.
He looked out again and saw his reflection on the glass vibrating to the beat of the dancing candle flame. She’ll dance for me tonight by the gods below, Marius told himself as he tapped his fist on the granite window seal. 

A short time later, Marius was rewarded by the sight of wolves prancing out of the shadow of the trees, looking back, and darting around and over each other. My, how they play like children. He mused. 

The wolfkeeper’s daughter stepped out into the moonlight dressed in a hooded, wool coat. She paused to watch the wolves play. Marius saw her glance up at the window just as one of the wolves flipped the front of her coat open to sniff her. 

Marius saw her velvet skin in the pale light along the open front as the woman pushed the wolve’s wet nose away and scolded him. An electric tingle gripped Marius. His yearning for comfort only a woman could give filled his fervent mind. It has been too long with this hunt as the pain of duty and the rush of time weighed on him like a ship’s ballast in a tossing sea.

Fantasy and desire gripped the man as he watched with the same piercing stare his wolves often displayed when observing their prey. He stood as a predator stands before the chase. His hunger grew insatiable with each day. Sweat formed on his brow and on the small of his back. He felt a fullness in his loins and an emptiness in his heart.

The wolfkeeper’s daughter threw the baton down the hill and watched as the frolicking beasts took off to retrieve the stick in the hope of a treat. They were rewarded, and the game began anew. Upon return of her creatures, she bent down to pet each canine and give them their snack. Marius saw the flash of her breast in the open collar. The inside of her exposed thigh was a torturous display of erotic temptation. Damn that woman. She plays with a fire she cannot put out.

Agitated fingers snuffed out the candle and drew the curtains closed. Marius went to the fireplace and lit the gas logs. A black leather couch with two end tables provided a comfortable seat before the fire. Marius removed his jacket and threw it over the back of the sofa. He loosened his tie then retrieved a black cherry flavored cigar with honey cured tobacco. Marius poured a brandy and set it over the spirit burner to warm up. The cigar came to life as he leaned over to the heater and drew in flames.

A column of smoke twisted like Arabian dancers in the light of the fire, and the aromatic odor of tobacco and brandy filled the air. It was the smell of privileged men. It was Marius’ scent. He relaxed and let the urgency of his need drain down and cool the heat in his mind and heart. He leaned the back of his head on the couch and exhaled smoke in the air. Calm determination returned as he contemplated his next move with predatorial sureness. Marius glanced at the mantel clock. Ten after midnight. She is late. I’ll have to punish her for that.

Soon, the hallway echoed the opening of the door to the stairs. Marius listened as the sole of petite boots tapped out a rhythm until they hit the center carpet and the tapping became a muted thud. He put out the cigar and finished his brandy. A light rap came at the door. He ignored it. A louder knock. Nothing. The door eased open and then clicked shut. The lock clanked with mechanical sureness. Marius stared at the fire, lost in his thoughts.

He saw her out of the corner of his eye. She leaned over to place a small tray on the end table. He detected the aroma of a freshly baked apple strudel, spices, buttery crust and the scent of wolves, wool, and warm, soft skin. She paused as Marius took in the inebriating view of her exposed breasts. His mouth watered. She had his attention now. She straightened herself and closed her top button to rebuke him for the pleasure he took from her.

“I brought your favorite strudel from the kitchen.”

“You’re late.”

“I had to . . .”

“What have I told you about keeping to your schedule?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll not let it happen again.”

“Of course, you won’t. Is that barley tea with the strudel?”

“Yes, sir.”

Marius got up from the couch and approached the wolfkeeper’s daughter. She watched with wariness, appearing to try to read his mood. Marius grabbed the lapels of her jacket. He looked into her wide eyes full of surprise. The pupils darted around the room and back to him. He pulled her closer feeling the slightest tremble of her body against him and looked down into her face. There was no fear in her, only the wonder that seemed to settle into something else, a kind of subtle anticipation.

He studied her. His face came closer to her’s, invading her space. He saw her nostrils flare as she inhaled his essence, her pupils widened almost obliterating the blue irises reflecting his face and the glow of the fireplace superimposed in the moisture of her eyes. Ice and fire drifted through his mind. Her mouth parted and her breath flowed over his face in a familiar sweetness.

Marius lifted her chin and brushed her lips with his.

“Mmm. I see you’ve had your share of the strudel already.”

“A girl has to eat,” she replied in a confident tone. It was a mistake. She overestimated her power to quell the beast in his heart. More punishment. He smiled with the foreknowledge of how to restore discipline. The trepidation came to her eyes when she recognized her error.

“Take off the coat.”

“I…uh. I don’t…” She stammered, momentarily frozen in a modest virtue, desire, and her deep-rooted sensuality.

“Now, please,” The commander insisted, no malice in his curt reply.

✽ ✽ ✽ Years Earlier

Daciana looked up at the faded picture of her first grown male wolf with her pen tapping her lips to an old song of love and loss. She loved that big brute. She had trained him from a pup given her by the old master. During that time, he taught her the duties of the wolfkeeper and the dark arts of passion and lust.

She could feel the knots of rope digging into her flesh along the meridians of nerves that set her skin afire. She touched the leather choker with silk lining on her neck and remembered how her master had made the wolf badge of silver melted from his rings. He made it in the image of her wolf.

A tear fell to the journal as she recalled in vivid detail the night he gave it to her. She believed in her heart it was the night he whelped their daughter from her zealous womb. Daciana glanced over at her sleeping daughter. Dari was fourteen now, too young to learn all the secrets of a man’s heart and too young to discover her own heart. In time she will learn both.

Daciana knew her time was finished. Her master had died long ago, and no man had visited her since. They feared her wolves and the rumors of what she could do with rope and chain. What I can do is take the beast from a man and give him nourishment for his soul. I can liberate him from hate by making all of his pain go away and keep it for myself. It’s their hate of each other that burns the world to the ground in every generation. It’s their defeat they cannot live with, and so they kill the things they love. They kill their women with fists, knives, guns, silence, and words. I take that away from them.

The wolfkeeper looked down at the page. She wanted to leave her last words for her daughter. Daciana thought how she had only shown her the softest part of being a woman; how to care for the burdened, how to be compassionate, and empathetic. She would be a wolfkeeper too but instead of an addiction to the pain a man can give, she wanted her to be a caretaker of their soul. Dari would learn about love by giving love and feeling it returned to her in a thousand ways.

Satisfied, she inked a secret message and placed the journal on the table for Dari to find. In the old chest in her closet, Daciana took out a measure of rope and wrapped it around her waist. She pulled on her boots, threw on her hooded wool jacket, slipped across the castle grounds, and into the dark forest.


Wolves

In that state between sleep and wake
traversing birth and mortality
there is the faintest hint of earthy candles,
macabre dreams interrupted by sighs
the soft strophe of sonnets and the odd
sensation of strung pearls  falling like
tiny moons through my open palm.
At the boundaries I find you
not your spirit or rose tinged snow,
but flesh and bone and sinew.
Now I am sleeping less
roused by the wing beats of boreal Owls
circling ancient Cypress,
their knife edge talons entwining knotty branches.
When sleep intrudes fitful winds erupt
feathery curtains, vibrate my hemispheres.
A  swift breeze lifts me over the
valley to a moonlit hillside of sweet lea
where a silver wolf lies down beside me.
He is the scent of golden meadows and
his eyes are the color of the eastern sky.

A poem Gifted by Holly Rene Hunter - House of Heart 2019

SCENE 22

The Silver Wolf knew there was no defying him now. He had the Wolfkeeper’s daughter where he wanted her. He was confident she was ready to take on the responsibilities of Wolf Master, but he had to test her spirit much like a young wolf is checked to see if the animal was suited for an Alpha’s role in the pack. The confirmation, as in nature, was not kind. It was necessary.

Marius helped Dari out of the coarse wool coat and set it on the sofa next to his. The soft orange glow of firelight outlined a vision of sensual curves flared from waist to hips and angled in on sturdy legs, built from a lifetime of servitude. The ageless enchantment of feminine beauty greeted the hungry gaze of the Black Wolf leader.

Dari stood naked before Marius; legs together, head and eyes averted, and her hands clasped in front with diffident fingers seeking to preserve a thread of dignity. A glance at her black boots laced to the top of her calves revealed no scuffs or soil of any kind. Marius saw the outline of his reflection in the toes. The polish was faultless. Ah, these were not the boots she wore with the wolves. She was late because she went to her room to change.

“Wait here, please,” Marius instructed. He didn’t wait for her reply. In the drawer of the end table, Marius withdrew a jade box. He opened it and took out a strip of fabric. It was time this heirloom of the Wolfkeeper was returned. Dari was covered in goosebumps from the hidden currents of air and anticipation, Marius touched her elbow. She blinked several times.

“Turn around.”

Dari turned with fluid grace and a bit of sway giving him ample time to take in every detail of her dewy skin glistening in the light of the fire. She paused facing away from him. Marius admired the blond hair spilling down on the back of her neck forming a shallow arc between the shoulder blades. Mmmm, straight shoulders perched over a curved back, good posture. Ah, those hips, he sighed.

“Lift your chin, and your hair too, please.” Marius placed the black leather choker lined with silk around her neck and fastened it. He took his time to let the silk and his fingers fondle her neck. He drew his fingertips over her reddened shoulders, paused, then let his hands trail down her back and cupped her waist before stepping back. The front of the choker had a silver badge carved into the profile of a wolf with head lifted as if baying at the moon. “There. Much better,” Marius said.

“It’s beautiful,” Marius heard from the reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. He sat down on the couch and watched as she smiled through a veil of distant dreams reflected back at him. She continued looking at the choker around her neck and fingering the silver wolf.

“This was my mother’s. I remember she never took it off.” Dari said as she touched the wolf badge, lifted her face, and closed her eyes.

“Yes. Your mother wanted you to have it when your time came to be the Wolf Master.” Marius saw raw emotion wrack through Dari’s body from his words. Her hands wiped her face, wet fingers glinted in the firelight.

“How did you come by my mother’s choker?” Dari’s question came as a torturous interrogation to Marius.

“I knew your mother. She taught me how to care for my wolves and to train them to hunt only the prey I gave to them. She trusted me to give it to you at the right time.” Marius could not bear to tell her how he came across Daciana in the forest after searching for weeks. Her madness had gone too far, and there was no way to bring her back.

In that state between sleep and wake
traversing birth and mortality
there is the faintest hint of earthy candles,

“She abandoned me. I was only a girl with no mind to live on my own. You cannot know what it is like to be young and alone; a handmaid by day and the Wolfkeeper by night.” Dari turned back to face the fire and stare at the wolf badge on her neck.

“She loved you, Dari. It was because she loved you that she left. She knew you would be taken in by the Countessa and prepared for your role as the handmaid to the Duchess. If she stayed, her dark art would consume her life as well as yours. She freed you from Moira, the mistress of the knots.”

“What would you have me do now?” Dari asked in a soft voice. Marius knew she wanted to leave the subject of her mother. Just as well. Daciana’s memory twisted his heart in a web of knots like those she so skillfully tied. He was determined to save Dari from such a fate.

“Will you accept the test of the Wolfmaster?” He asked in an uncharacteristic soft tone.

“Yes, when?” Came the confident reply.

“You will test on the next full moon when the wolves are most active.”

He let her stand there waiting on him while he enjoyed the strudel she brought him. Such sapid anticipation. He washed the last of the pastry down with his tea. Delicious. All of it, delicious.

Marius could sense her impatience for his attention growing. “Come here,” he commanded. In all his harshness there was a subliminal playfulness. His desirous Wolfkeeper seemed to detect his well-hidden feelings for her. She turned with elegance and took a few hesitant steps toward Marius. Unsure of his intentions, Dari waited.

“Turn back around.”

The hard discipline of a lifetime in the service of his Count wavered as his hands slid up her legs to her buttocks. Dari looked back over her shoulder, studying his reactions, looking for encouragement, and appreciation. She needed validation. He gave her nothing but sensations that made her shiver.

The red abraided skin on her hips and shoulders caught his attention. The coat. She wore that heavy wool coat with nothing underneath. It had chafed her. She bore the insult to her body only for him. She knows how I like to see her emerge from her rough cacoon like my favorite Carpathian butterfly. Marius appraised this in his mind. His desire grew more careless and urgent.

Still sitting with Dari’s back to him, Marius reached around to her stomach and trailed his fingers down until his little finger found the manicured hairline. He guided her with the slightest pressure of his fingers and heel of his palm. She turned to him.

Misty eyes looked back at Marius in a questioning face. He answered by taking her breast between his lips, his tongue teasing her. Dari wrapped her arms around the head of thick black hair and silver threads and held him to her. She looked up at the patina of copper designs on the ceiling, possessed by the soft pain of his mouth on her. Dari maintained her silence before him. She signaled her desire for something else with longing, a silent begging need in her gaze and upturned face.

Scintillating wet eyes searched him up and down. Dari’s skin was glowing bright pink, and Marius was enraptured at how the mottled rose color washed down her neck and over her breasts like water over smooth stone. Ah, she is looking for clues of my arousal. She is ready.

Marius reached his hand out. Her alluring movement returned as he led her to his lap. The Silver Wolf wrapped his arm around Dari and eased her to his chest, head resting on his shoulder. Her lips touched his neck and warm shallow breath flooded him with fantasies of carnal delights. He held her there and soothed her with sweeping caresses. The Wolfkeeper’s daughter regained her boldness.

“Do I please you? She asked.

“Without fail, you do please me, my dear.”

Marius sat back on the couch as Dari removed her boots then his shoes, tie, shirt, and undershirt. She paused to touch him. Her glance along his feral body was rapacious. She sucked her lower lip as her nails scratched over the ripples of his stomach. He let her follow her own script.

Dari kissed him, starting with his forehead, lips, the neck, and down his chest. Her fingertips explored his body for those wells of pleasure she could release for him. Deftly, the belt unbuckled. He lifted up for her as she removed his pants and boxers. She explored further, her hunger increasing.

Now, with both of them warmed by the fire of desire and radiant heat from the fireplace, Dari descended on him with her own form of slow burning vengeance. She stole glances at his face. He rewarded her with his ecstasy. In unaccounted for moments, skilled hands felt him tense his legs and stomach.

He urged her up with light touches under her jaw. She persisted. He was so close, she wanted to finish him. “Your turn, darling,” he whispered in a husky voice before guiding her on the couch. Marius relaxed in her piercing gaze, letting several heartbeats pass before he gripped her breast, and reached down to pleasure her with the other hand. He could see the rush of blood to her face and feel the sensations that stirred on her skin under his hands.

Her chest heaved for air, forcing Dari into a state of heightened sensual awareness and near paralysis. Marius kissed her stomach, climbing to her neck, and over to her mouth. He devoured her top to bottom. She fell deep under the spell of his lips and hands. He smothered her with his body. He knew every button to push.

Marius left no sacrosanct part of her unexplored to its depth. Every rise or crease of enlivened flesh came under his careful scrutiny and ravenous hunger until finally she came undone. Disquieted fingers pressed his groin and urged him to let her sink alone in the undulant ocean of her rapture.

No longer the beast, Marius kept a vigil on the depth of her pale blue eyes, seeing her transformation through a sleepy veil. With gentle care, he kissed her and held her until he saw she was back in the present with him.

macabre dreams interrupted by sighs
the soft strophe of sonnets and the odd
sensation of strung pearls falling like
tiny moons through my open palm.

“You are my only paradise, Dari. Without you, I am lost to this madness we suffer.”

At the boundaries I find you
not your spirit or rose tinged snow,
but flesh and bone and sinew.
Now I am sleeping less
roused by the wing beats of boreal Owls
circling ancient Cypress,
their knife edge talons entwining knotty branches.

“Shhhhh, my love. Don’t spoil this moment with thoughts of a time gone or coming.” Dari placed her fingers on his lips and sought to comfort him with her body, guiding him to her, pulling him into her world, wrapping her legs around his waist, and sending him into the realm of her majestic beast. His discipline and stern manor collapsed in a fevered passion until exhausted and soaked in sweat, the spent flesh rested in a tangle of arms and lust drugged kisses.

When sleep intrudes fitful winds erupt
feathery curtains, vibrate my hemispheres.

No one dared disturb their exhausted sleep when the sun rose above the mountains and painted the sky in broad swathes of fire and wind-driven clouds. The entwined lovers never felt granted the time for themselves or each other until now. Their dutiful lives didn’t permit it. Oh, but love and passion are the grandest thieves of time, Marius mused to himself. I love her, but I want to leave her Wild and Free.

A  swift breeze lifts me over the
valley to a moonlit hillside of sweet lea
where a silver wolf lies down beside me.
He is the scent of golden meadows and
his eyes are the color of the eastern sky.

SCENE 23

Water from a retreating tide washed over Alexandra. She could not see nor hear anything but the pounding drums in her skull. She felt everything with acute awareness, and to feel is to live even with the excoriating pain of lost battles and dead lovers.  She struggled to move. The heavy chain mail and wet leather pinned her down under its weight, and only her right side was free. The rest of her body was mired in the sand next to the towering white chalk cliff. The water flowed over her legs and retreated leaving chilled flesh in place of the ache that enfeebled her in the sand.

She struggled, held down by the relentless grasp of the shore. The wash of water moved over her hips, her stomach, and flowed down into the sand warming against her flesh mired in the pungent grave that fought her for possession of her body, not her soul. She felt her soul unconquered as she sank deeper with every wave.

Surrender came to Alexandra like that moment of sleep when all the uncalled thoughts cease, and the darkness is not blasted away with dreams of the incubus who haunts and demands her flesh.

Distant sounds, first like a peal of rolling thunder, and soon scattered marsh sparrows chirped against the background of gentle sea lapping at the shore. Alexandra tilted her head to hear them. Another damp wave registered under her arms, across her breasts in tantalizing sweeps, first warm, and growing to a nip of frost. She detected fingers touching her. They were tender. There were love and devotion in the touch that drifted across her body, not the hungry tearing, twisting, pinching, demanding slaps and hits she was intimately familiar with; the burning pain of others who possessed her. This was different. She relaxed to focus on the hands that soothed her.

“That’s good, My lady,” Dari cooed as she bathed Alexandra’s body. “You’ll feel much better after a sponge bath. I used some essence of lilac to help relax you.”

Alexandra moved, relented, and gasped as the warm sponge went over her. She heard Dari speak.

“I’m sorry, My Lady. You must endure this insult. Injury affords no dignity. I thought it better I bath you instead of the nurses, who you have yet to meet.”

Presence drifted away. Alexandra lay in the sand content to let her handmaid work to free her from the grasp of her sodden grave. Dari appeared in a strange halo of her vision. Alexandra saw Dari look down into her face and she felt comforted by the love she saw in her handmaid’s eyes.

Alexandra struggled back into her consciousness and considered how this life had afforded her only a deepening pain and anxiety. Even as she fought for physical superiority and a disciplined mind, she had endured the terrible hurt of those lessons she gained in mastering her art at the tutelage of Master Cho, her savior. Only he had never violated her body or trust. Only he remained in her heart as her time carried her downstream to her destiny.

Again, she slipped away under Dari’s hands. Visions of Cesar walking down the shore toward her focused her mind with a stunning grip. His armor seemed ragged, his helmet a testament to the battle they had lost. Alexandra’s heart lifted as he limped toward her and Dari. He lived. That was all that mattered. The three of them were reunited again. They would go on together, lick their wounds, and later hunt down the bastards that invaded their lands. She would lead alongside Cesar as they stormed into the villages of the invaders. She would bring her wolves next time and see how fat they grew on the flesh of her enemies.

Alexandra screamed her oath to Cesar as he stood over her with piteous eyes. I swear by Gebeleizis, the god of battle, I will go to their villages and every woman whose womanhood is bearded and used by the men will be whored to our soldiers, and the hairless virgins will live as slaves until they too are old enough for whoring. We’ll kill every male of our enemy that dreams to defile a woman with his manhood.

“Alexandra, my queen. We must rebuild our army and learn from this day. We must come to know ourselves and our skill in battle better. Our fierce hearts have led us to slaughter. It is not our blood we seek but, theirs.” Cesar’s voice echoed in Alexandra’s ears.

He speaks the truth. My king must give me sons to lead our Army while the king and I seek to subterfuge the oppressor’s secrets.

“My Lord, lift me from this grave so that my handmaid and I can join you,” Alexandra beseeched Cesar through her tears of pain and frustration. She looked up as he stared across the sea. She knew it would be a long journey home with the few of their army that still lived.

In Alexandra’s vision, Cesar stood bloodied yet strong and dignified against the blue-gray sky of a waning sun. I will die before I betray my love with weakness and dispirited thought, she heard her voice ring in her head.

Lost in her drug-induced visions under thick bandages, Alexandra did not see the envy in Dari’s eyes as she looked at her bandaged Duchesses sylph-like body. Nor did Alexandra know of Dari’s new challenge to become the Wolfmaster or her deepening love for Marius. Alexandra knew one thing in the worlds and lives she inhabited; fate is inexorable and her allegiance with Dari held secrets that sealed their future together.

  • COPYRIGHT 20180706. All rights reserved by the author. This body of work is the property of the author, Hyperion Sturm. Any method used to copy or reproduce this body of work is expressly forbidden without attribution to the authors and their respective contributions.
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