The Mark of Thorn
Book of Beauty
Darkness shifted behind her eyelids, drifting in clumps like messy entrails. The shapes twisted and squirmed, and would not give way to simple, flat oblivion no matter how the girl entreated. Her body was tired from lack of food and rest, and even though her eyes were closed, she could not sleep. She leaned forward on her knees that were pressed up into her chest, wringing her hands that felt so cold and distant.
I don't want to die, she thought. I'll die if I stay here.
She blotted her teary eyelids against the portion of her skirt that was draped across her knees, and in the silence, she made a decision.
The girl opened her eyes from having clenched them so tightly. She was still here.
Solid walls of stone surrounded her on all sides, sealing in a chill that made her bear feet ache. There were no windows, only a crack where the wall had begun to crumble which let in her only ounce of moonlight. The hole was not nearly large enough for her to work her way through. Perhaps she could get her arm past it, but it would have stopped abruptly at her shoulder, plunging her into utter darkness, which she would not be able to bear, knowing that her eyes were open. Because of these thoughts, she was inclined to feel a bit sullen toward the hole, refusing to sit directly beside it even to peer out. If she had looked out through the uneven space, however, all she would see was the great forest of pines that swallowed the castle.
She did not wish to die, but was death better than this? How many hours had she been here, alone and without contact with another soul? Surely it must have been an entire day since her father had left her to this plight. She still remembered the words he had said to her, remaining so fresh in her mind.
"He'll kill us all if you don't go, Cornelia. You care about your family, don't you?"
She had, and she still did care, more than her singular happiness, it seemed. She had agreed to come here to live with the cruel lord of this castle in exchange for her family – her father and her sisters. In exchange for a rose.
It had only been a few days ago that her father had left home, setting himself on a routine journey that had promised to be uneventful. Though he couldn't claim to be a wealthy man, he did make a habit of spoiling his three lovely daughters and keeping them naïve to the harshness of the world. The prospect of a gift upon his return was not unexpected, and while her older sisters had demanded dresses and other fine things, Cornelia had not been greedy. What would have been finer to hold in her hand than the natural beauty of an unblemished rose? Was simplicity such a burden? She'd had no thought that it would hold such a price. Indeed, her father had returned with what she'd requested, but the rose had only been beautiful for a moment.
The blood red rose had been found on his trip home, for he had searched everywhere and yet could not find what his youngest desired. By chance, he'd come across an old structure in the woods – here – that he'd never even known existed, and in a garden there were the most vibrant and perfectly-shaped red roses he'd ever set his eyes on. The man had not even considered that it would be wrong of him to pluck one for his daughter, for it was only a simple rose. Unbeknownst, shrewd eyes were watching him, and the lord of the castle was not pleased by this theft.
Cornelia's father had told her solemnly – fearfully – that he had been threatened by this very menacing and dangerous lord, who'd declared that he would kill him and all those he loved if he did not find a worthy replacement for the rose – something of equal or surpassing beauty. The flower had been so perfect that her father knew the only thing he had to give that would even compare was his youngest and most beautiful daughter. He had seemed quite open with her about it, saying that he was afraid to try and offer anything else, lest the lord become enraged and not give him a second chance.
Cornelia was gentle and good-hearted. She was afraid, but she did not wish to see anything terrible happen to her kin. She had agreed to this terrible thing, and had told her father that he should take her sisters and leave with them, so that the lord would not have a chance to change his mind. There was no doubt in her mind that her father had done this, and so the girl had no hope that he would try to come back for her now.
Her father had led her to the castle as he'd been instructed to. She'd looked over the castle then, thinking the mere existence of the structure to be odd. It was large, but obviously lacking repair. The trees surrounded it, but they leaned away from the building as if they feared it. Cornelia had felt a chill.
The offering was supposed to be taken to the great doors of the castle and left there to await the lord to accept at his own time. The girl had traveled here without fuss, but things had changed a bit when they arrived. Her father had withdrawn a folded cloth from his pocket, and she was surprised to see it, unable to stop her inquiry. He'd admitted to her then that he had already bargained with the lord for her to be sent here, and this was how it was to be done. She was to be brought here, blindfolded and with her hands tied in front of her, holding the stolen rose.
Cornelia had felt horribly betrayed at those words, but she'd said nothing as her father put the blindfold over her eyes. That was the last time she saw him.
He then bound her hands with a length of rope that hung down toward her feet and swayed against her legs. After that was done, he placed the rose in her hands and hugged her tightly in a motion of desperate love that would have to last him a lifetime. But he had made his choice, and he did not apologize to her. Her father stepped forward then to clap the knocker upon the massive door of the place, and then he was gone. He left her standing there, blinded, alone, and frightened to meet her fate.
Cornelia stood there like some field-beast prepared for slaughter, waiting for the chopping block. Her balance suffered because she could not see, but she managed to keep herself upright, standing there for several minutes before finally she heard the massive door creak open.
No one spoke, but she could hear someone stirring before her – stepping; breathing. She hadn't dared to speak. The rope that bound her hands was then taken up, and she was jerked forward, being led roughly inside as the large doors closed behind her. The girl had no choice but the walk along the path she was led, stumbling up stairs as the silent one pulled her forward until another door had opened.
She was pushed through it lightly. Her hands had been untied and she was immediately shoved to the ground of stone and straw. By the time she'd removed the blindfold, she was completely alone, as if no one else had been there with her at all.
And she remained so.
Had she been placed here only to go mad, and then to die slowly and painfully? Would anyone come to her in order to offer her food or drink? Perhaps she was just to sit and watch the days and nights rotate through the crack in the wall until death. The poor girl did not know the truth, and she felt a tear trail down her face for the sake of uncertainty.
Planted firmly in the silence as she was, Cornelia could not keep her body from jerking with shock when there was a sound outside the locked cell door. Someone was there, fondling the bolt noisily, and it hardly seemed odd to her that her initial fright was followed by relief. Someone had acknowledged her presence! Someone had recalled that she was here! She pulled herself to her feet, forgetting her weakness as the door opened.
Her heart was pounding rapidly and her legs were shaking, but she managed to keep herself upright as she looked toward the one who had come to see her. At first glance, her weakened vision perceived that it was a man. He was but a shadow in the doorway, silhouetted by torchlight that hurt her to look at directly. But she did not truly care for what he looked like. He could have been old and withered, or balding and overweight. The important matter was that her captor had finally appeared to her, and she had to make her plea. The girl stepped forward to address him without hesitation.
"Please, you…" That was as far as she got. Her voice caught in her throat as she realized her folly. Her impression had been wrong. The captor was not a man.
But that was insensitive of her to think. There was no reason a demi-human shouldn't be considered a man, even though Cornelia had never been around enough of them in her life for her to allow them this courtesy. Even so, she could not find any words in her mouth for him. This did not seem to disturb the castle's lord, however, and he stepped forward into the cell so that his form became clearer to her. At this, she could not help but gasp rudely.
He was a demi-human, yes, but one that had been crossed and mixed so many times through his ancestral line that he was not even fit to show his face to the world. His face was like a dog's, dark and with a long, slender muzzle. Long black hair grew from the top his head, framing his face and trailing down his body, covering a back that was slightly bent. Hair was not the only thing growing from the top of his head, for set beside two small, pointed ears there were thick, curved horns such as one might see on a ram.
His body seemed almost normal in shape, considering that his shoulders, chest, and connecting limbs were all in proper places, but a keen eye could see the tiny imperfections. His arms were slightly too long, ending in claw-like hands with thin, wicked fingers. His legs seemed regular, only to find that they ended with large hooves instead of feet. A shaggy tail was hanging behind him, not quite touching the floor. He was naked except for a ragged cloth hanging from his waist, but Cornelia did not even know if she should be embarrassed by it. The entirety of the beast's flesh was a dark color. Was it brown, or was it black? And after observing the rest of him, could an onlooker be bothered to care?
Cornelia hardly did, only seeing fit to back herself away from him.
He said nothing at first, advancing on her as she continued to back away until he'd managed to gain enough ground to get his clawed hands around her waist. He pressed her against the stone wall. She could feel the chill through her dress. The girl understood that there was no way of escape for her now, but of course there had never been one. Daring to look at his face, she saw eyes that gave her the impression that a red stone had been crushed with a mallet and set into his sockets. There were no pupils, but it was obvious that he saw her. She could hardly manage anything except to breathe nervously and look into his blank eyes. What did he want? She'd done nothing terrible to him.
The beast leaned his weight against her, and instinctually, with no thought to obedience, her hands shot up and pressed against his chest, trying to block him away from her.
His skin was not covered in fur, as she'd initially expected, but instead it was hard and thick – certainly not pleasant like human flesh. It was cold and leathery against her palms, and if she hadn't been so desirous to push him, she wouldn't have wanted to touch him at all.
"There, there now, beauty," he said to her in a voice that she could only think to describe as raw. "You don't have to be afraid."
His tone made no such promise. He taunted her – mocked her by this – and the dark chuckle that escaped him afterward did nothing to convince her.
His clawed finger lifted and dragged down across her lips, and she watched his wide mouth sneer. "You're certainly as lovely as your father promised. Fresh."
Would he devour her? Did demi-humans eat flesh? She'd heard stories in her youth – one of a little girl who'd been eaten by a demi-human when she'd gone to visit her grandmother – but Cornelia had never truly believed those tales. Now she was not so sure.
He reached to her collar and forced the cloth of her dress away from her neck. The beast touched the warm skin of her shoulder, clenching it roughly while setting his muzzle against her face to take in her scent. His long hair brushed her skin. She turned her face from him as far as it would go, only wishing it would turn further. Whatever this was, it was not something she wanted.
"That smell," he mused to himself quietly. "Fear. Confusion. Do say that you're not putting on just for me."
His claws trailed up her leg from her knee, the points surprisingly smooth against her skin, dragging the material of her dress with them. It was then that she realized that tasting her blood was not his intention. He was a demi-human, yes, but still a man. That was suddenly very apparent to her.
A monster will have me? This cannot happen.
Her breathing quickened when she felt the points of his nails running over the outside of her exposed thigh. Her knees felt weaker, threatening to give way.
God help me! She cried out in her mind. But God did not answer.
Cornelia did the only thing she felt she could to protect herself. With a rush of uncontrolled panic, the girl sunk down to the floor and curled herself into a ball, huddling as closely to the wall as she could. She didn't want him to molest her. Didn't want him to touch her, or even look at her! She hid her face from him, and protested with groans of disgust.
The lord stood there empty-handed, and then above her she heard an unhappy growl.
She'd made the beast angry by her refusal, but if she continued to ignore him, perhaps he would just go away. It did not happen in such a way.
Instead, she was jerked up from the floor and pushed harshly into the wall, feeling her face smack roughly against the stone. She felt his hands grip her dress at the back, and before she could even think to fight against it, she heard the sound of ripping cloth. Her hair was not spared, being pulled harshly in several places that his fists had clenched when he'd gripped her dress. She screamed for the pain as well as the feeling that her pride was being mutilated, and with very little effort from his hands, he stripped her clothes away.
Tears rolled down her face in endless streams so that she could not even see her own nakedness as she stared down at it. She'd been a modest girl, and had never stood before anyone so inappropriately. The fact that she'd not chosen it herself was even more scarring to her. Cornelia lowered her head, hiding within her long hair as best she could while using her hands and arms to cover portions of her body – to little effect. She was so upset by this that it was several moments before she realized that he had not tried to touch her again.
Look at him.
I don't want to look at him.
Struggling against herself, she lifted her eyes to see him looming over her, wearing a look of displeasure on his muzzle that showed his sharp teeth, but he did not move against her. He was done with her now, but she was feeling too abused and ashamed to experience even the smallest amount of relief for it.
The beastly lord turned then and began to leave, dragging her ruined dress along with him as she stood there, half-sunken to the floor, trying to cover herself with her eyes shut tight. At the door, he stopped suddenly, and he did not turn to face her as he spoke.
"There are few comforts here," he growled. "Each time you refuse me, I will take something away."
The door slammed shut with a thunderous, resounding boom, leaving the poor girl alone with only her tears for warmth.
Cornelia shot up in her bed with a gasp that she was not able to control, but the sound of her own surprise was not the only one that arose. To her left and right, there were disturbances in the dark – sounds of abrupt alertness from the throats of men. The woman came back to herself then, understanding that she was not in a dark dungeon of the past, but inside a small room at an inn with three men in the room with her. Where were they? She suddenly needed to see them.
Turning her head to the left, she saw Hendrik sitting in his chair, looking at her. He'd not moved much, even though she'd managed to awaken him, but the chair which had been propped back against the wall was now flat on the floor. He stared at her with a very disturbed expression on his face and in his luminous eyes, but when he saw her just sitting there calmly, gazing back at him, he leaned his head back, muttering a curse.
She looked away from Hendrik then and trained her eyes in the other direction, seeing that Gabriel was sitting up, listening and alert, even though he could not see what might have happened. Beyond him in the window, Diego had withdrawn one of his pistols swiftly, but his surprised face had fallen with relief as well as mild annoyance as he now worked to put the gun away.
Once silence had settled back in the room, and after Cornelia had decided that she felt sufficiently foolish, she saw Gabriel turn his face slightly in her direction.
"What is it?" he asked, thinking it safe to bring up the matter – with the assumption that nothing significant had actually happened.
"It's nothing. I'm sorry," she said quickly. She did not look at any of them further.
Diego groaned lightly and made himself comfortable in the window once again. Beside her, Hendrik stomped his foot against the floor, but made no further disturbance. Cornelia sat there for another moment, feeling pathetic and alone, and then finally rested back against the bed once again.
How long have I been asleep? She wondered. Hours? Minutes?
But that was not the important question. The thing she needed to explore was why she'd had such a vivid dream. For the past few moments in the darkness, it was as if she had relived an unpleasant piece of her life exactly as it had happened. And why did she feel so shaken because of it? She'd moved past all that hadn't she? She knew that the story ended with forgiveness and affection, so why was her heart beating so rapidly in discontent? She sighed out into the darkness, and was not surprised to hear that the sound was uneven.
It had not been so long ago that she'd had similar thoughts to these. In thorn-covered Lithin, she'd seen a creature that had reminded her greatly of that beast who had terrorized her so many months ago. Such memories were not pleasant, but they had served a purpose. She'd become so much stronger than that pitiful creature she used to be, and she had emerged triumphant from that darkness and despair. Even more terrible things had happened to her beyond that. So why such a dream? Why now?
It was only the stress of the day coming back on her; that must have been truth. She'd been disturbed by her discovery about Narestra, and her mind had been unsettled. While her body would have liked to jump up in that very moment to study over the maps again, her mind knew that she needed rest. Sleep would be the best thing for her agitation, though the woman was not so sure that she could find it. Still, she needed to make this effort. Tomorrow was a day for new things.
Sleep. Try to be at ease.
Cornelia finally closed her eyes again, and she prayed that she would only see blackness until morning.
Gabriel sat upright on his bed until he heard everyone settle back and become silent again. He wondered then what exactly had woken him – whether it was a gasp or the noisy shift of Diego in the window. But nothing had happened, and though he did not realize what the short fuss had been about, he was glad that it was not cause for concern.
But now, the desire for sleep had fled from him. Had he been dreaming? Dreaming pleasantly of golden hair and a sweet voice? Rapunzel… He could not escape her, and her memory would certainly not elude him again.
He rested himself back against the pillow, letting his body go limp even though he was very much awake inside his mind. His thoughts had led him back to a night long ago when he'd lost the one he loved, but it was not her that he thought of now. He thought of the other one who had been there, staring out at him from beneath a dark hood – the one who'd tried to kill him and who had taken his lover away.
Narestra. Gabriel hated her, but was that fair? Of course it is. She robbed me. But was he not just as much to blame? He recalled the words she'd spoken to him those years ago as she'd looked over him so coldly in the top of that tower.
"Was it too much to ask – your highness; your majesty – that I might be allowed the company of one person in this world who did not have preconceived notions about my race?
"I have chosen nothing but to be a harmless gardener, and you have invaded my life, ruining what I have worked for in order to create a happy existence for myself. That has ended now. Now there will be no happiness in this world, and I will see to that personally – starting with you!"
It had been three years, and though he'd never forgotten those words, he hadn't known that they'd been so significant until…
His thoughts drifted even further off subject now, settling on Cornelia, who had drifted back to sleep in a bed only a few feet away from him. He could hear her restful breathing. It had not been long ago that he'd told her about his past – about the horrible thing that had happened to him. She'd spoken to him so calmly, and she'd told him that certainly he was Narestra's first victim. She'd shared sympathy with him because of it, but he had not told her the full truth. He'd not told her these words that he'd just recalled to his mind, and so Cornelia did not know that it was his own actions that had driven the sorceress to the terrible crimes she'd committed. Everything that had happened – every bit of destruction – was Gabriel's own fault.
He knew he could never tell Cornelia this. His own guilt had to be enough, and he was indeed seasoned in handling shame quietly. Even though he would not have to look at the woman's face and see the pain that emerged there, how could he even stand before her and reveal that her own husband's death was on his hands? He could not tell her, because…
Because she would hate me.
Why he thought that and yet why he cared were two different matters, he supposed. But his thoughts would not leave Cornelia now – she who had so much faith and trust in him. He needed to feel close to her somehow. Comfortable. She couldn't be allowed to resent him. He needed her.
I need revenge.
His thoughts were broken by the sound of someone shifting in the room. Someone had woken? No; they had simply stirred before quieting again, drifting back to sleep. He would be wise to let himself do the same. He laid there for a long while, in the realm of indecision between ease and wakefulness, until finally he passed over into the side of blankness.
If he'd been able to consider it, he would have found it surprising to learn that it was the sound of the nearby woman's breathing that had finally lulled him away.