The Hard Lessons
The nights went by about as slowly as a slug crawled up the castle wall. Nothing was out of the ordinary, aside from the idle chatter about the upcoming awakening. Mara tried not to think about it, but all she managed to do was make herself more paranoid.
Was it the room itself she feared or was it the anxiety of who slept within it that made the hair on her neck stand up all night? The vixen didn’t change her schedule at all, trying to focus on other things. Her unease crept into everything she did, slowly draining her strength and energy.
She tried to drink plenty of blood at mealtimes, but sitting alone in the private dining room, she found her appetite oddly quenched. Eventually, she couldn’t even drink from the goblet, and her lust for everything left her. She found herself staring at the ceiling while she lied in bed during the day, unable to find rest.
Her sparring lessons were quiet as she followed each of Michael’s cues. With each night, she felt as if she couldn’t bear the weight of her saber. It was strange to her. She tried not to show it, compensating with less forceful strikes and two-handed parries.
Thursday evening, Michael announced Mara’s moves like usual, but tonight, he found himself narrowing his eyes in annoyance, not that he experienced the emotion of irritation. The vixen had been less mischievous than her usual that week, but this was just sloppy. He was a vampire of order and structure. He did not permit carelessness during instruction. Whatever had put his student in this rut, he would see that she was dragged out of it right here and now.
The two in the middle of the hall froze as Michael’s deep voice bellowed against the stone walls. Mara’s arm fell to her side, waiting for him to tell her what to do next. Maybe he had something else in mind tonight.
Michael never said anything, but the growing echo of boots approaching made her lookup. Michael’s hand waved off the partner of the evening with his left hand, while his right reached for his left hip. Once he reached the place before the vixen, he faced her with that disapproving expression.
“If thee shall not honor thus hall with thy full attention, I shall force thee to square with all thee possess.”
“I’m doing my best, master.” Mara didn't dare to look him in the eye. How horrible did she look to make him address her angst this dramatically? “What more can I be expected to give?”
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard his blade leaving its sheath. Gasps echoed throughout the room as the master saluted in the formal manner of challenge. Mara gaped in shock as he brought his hilt to his face, staring back at her blankly. He was going to fight her, a real match.
She had never truly fought since she apparently lacked discipline or control or quite possibly both. Thinking about why Michael had restricted her to called matches, the vixen wondered if perhaps he had been protecting her from the threat of a real attack. Was she ready for this? After days of lack of sleep and blood, her paranoia was skyrocketing to new heights. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. She was too afraid to face this, taking a step back.
“I shall leave nay path to retreat. Pray thee possess what thee need.”
That was her only warning as the vampire swung for a strike at her ribs. She barely parried it, and it was a good thing she was using both hands. Michael wasn’t holding back anything. This was real. He lunged again, driving her back with another lucky parry.
As she continued to fend off his powerful strikes, Mara came to realize why he was such a feared person in the castle. His eyes were cold, void, and unmoving as she gaped back in terror. Once she felt a wall at her back, he forced the point of his saber forward for a jab, but she rolled to the side, running to get some distance between them.
At his hip, she glanced at his sheath. Its tip was made of wood, sharpened to a fine point. She was reminded of the stories she had heard about Michael, the Merciless. He had once been a mercenary that specialized in vampire slaying. She hadn’t heard if he was a Hunter as a human or not, but his trademark was the wooden-tipped sheath that could be used as a stake. Apparently, there were only three swords like his. Lucky for her, he had not taken it up in the fight thus far.
“Thee cannot run hence, Mara,” Michael called as he turned around to catch up to her. “Turn to behold thine opponent, and see thy worth.”
Mara screamed as she felt the blade swing for the back of her neck. Ducking at the last minute, she felt her bun fall loose. She rolled forward, turning once she’d returned to her feet. Gaping back at her mentor, her arm flung up to parry his overhead strike, reflexively. His eyes narrowed at the move.
She ground her fangs as she pushed back. Her body felt so heavy, but she could feel her sense of self-preservation finally kicking in. She didn’t want to fight Michael, but she didn’t want to be cut down either. Knowing that he was truly fighting her right now, she knew she had to pull out all the stops she had to fight back against her legendary master.
Michael went for a shoulder strike, but she parried it, whirling her saber about for a strike of her own. It wasn’t a strong one, and Michael parried it easily. Growling, Mara fended off another strike for her waist, trying again for a counter. Again, Michael parried far too easily. Screaming, the vixen tried to go on the offensive.
Michael yielded slightly when her strikes gained momentum. He was watching her confidence grow. When she went for a strike to the neck, he grabbed her blade, pulling it from her grasp. As she gasped at the action, he brought his saber to point at the center of her throat. The entire room was still, hanging on what would happen next.
Mara gaped up at him, wondering why he stopped, but she remained prepared for him to finish the attack. Flipping the saber in his left hand, he took the hilt with his cut, gloved hand. Shockingly, the blood from the gash to his palm seemed too thick to flow, breaking Mara’s focus. She couldn’t fathom how someone couldn’t bleed. What was Michael?
“You are too kind... master...” Mara gasped, feeling the blade lower from her throat.
She had thrown everything she had into that bout, and once her neck was free, she slumped to her knees to gasp for air. Michael stared down at her as if he were waiting for her to collect herself before striking the final blow. The onlookers began to mutter among themselves, wondering what he was doing. Mara wanted to know the very same. Looking up at him, she wheezed as she tried to speak.
“Why...? Why did you... grab my blade...? You always say...”
“Ne’er grasp the blade of an opponent...” He paused as he watched her. “Ne’er in the midst of a spar.”
“What...? What are you... on about...? That’s what... my training... is... isn’t it...?”
“Our square was a duel. Thee was not meant to learn from me. Thee wast to learn from thyself. Duels bewray what we desire, what we possess, our own weakness, and strength. I did challenge thee to bewray what strength and knowledge thee know already that thee has forgotten. Thy want of focus transfixed thee. Whither was thy mind, Mara? What did thee discover?”
What had she discovered? That was what this had been about? Before she screamed at him in frustration, Mara thought about what he had asked her. Where had her mind been?
She’d been thinking about the awakening of the countess. The memory of what she had felt in that chamber haunted her. It paralyzed her so much that she had lost her passion altogether. Why though? Did she feel so hopeless over her situation that she’d just given up?
She hesitated. It wasn’t the other people in the room she was afraid of hearing this. It was Michael. She had always looked up to him, and all she could ever want was for him to stop looking at her like a child. If he knew of how frightened she was, he would continue to see her as a pathetic, little girl, crying at the monster in the wardrobe.
Still, she wanted to tell him how scared she was. She was a grown woman now. If she trusted in him, she should want to confide in him, right? Romantic or otherwise, she cared deeply for Michael. He was the closest to a friend or family she could remember. She had to believe he wouldn’t dismiss her feelings.
“I was thinking about the awakening...”
Michael stared down at her with his gaze unchanged. There was more in those crimson eyes, fixated on the floor, that she was holding back. The awakening itself was not the problem at hand. Mara had felt the lady’s presence. She might not understand what she had felt, but her instincts had warned her enough to cripple her spirit. What she lacked was knowledge of what she feared. Dropping the saber to the ground, Michael sheathed his blade. As he unbound the ribbon in his hair, he turned away.
“Come with me, Mara.”
The vixen gaped up at him as she watched him walk away. Now that her energy was returning to her, she felt how greatly her strength had dwindled. Picking up her saber, she used it to help her stand upright once again. Too weak to run to his side, she strode with her head held high, walking as quickly as her limbs would allow. When she neared her mentor, she noticed he was binding his hand. It still stunned her that the wound did not bleed out, but she could inquire about later.
Where was he leading her? She hoped it wasn’t to that chamber below the castle. Hadn’t she made it clear enough that she did not want to go down there already? To her surprise, Michael led her down a familiar route, one she had not taken in some time: the gardens.
She did love the flora in the moonlight. It seemed like ages since she had come out there with him. Glancing at the old walnut tree, she smiled as she reflected on her early lessons Michael would give her as she sat on the roots. Had her teacher brought her out to learn one more lesson?
“It is the countess thee fear, nay?” Michael asked as he looked up at the moon. It was almost gone. Only a sliver grinned down at the earth below as if snickering at what was to come.
His ears could hear her heart skip a beat at his question. There was no place for lies among Old Bloods. Their senses were far more developed than their younger kin. If disciplined enough, Mara could train herself to become that strong, but her present self was focused on more immediate concerns that he rathered she did not have to face.
Dropping his amber eyes to a rose bush before him, he considered what to say. It was difficult for him since he could not empathize despite his past experiences. Approaching from a completely objective angle, Michael knew what consequences he could bring if he told her this, but she needed to know. She was his charge, and he would do all he could for her.
“Thy feelings are not displaced. The countess is the matriarch of a powerful and frightful lineage. That lady power hold most wondrous sway o’er us, yet...”
He turned about to face his charge. He wanted her to see how honest and sincere he was right now. She needed to understand this, or his breath would be wasted. He needed to see her reaction as well, to know she grasped his attempt to reassure her.
“Thine own heart lies beyond that lady touch, Mara. Be not afraid.”
Mara gaped. He didn’t say anymore. Walking past her, he went back into the castle, leaving her to her thoughts.
She wandered further into the gardens, mulling over the words of her mentor. They felt like water flowing over parched soil. Hearing from Michael that she should not be afraid freed her of so much anxiety. Maybe her instincts were just stoking her guard. Whatever the reason, she knew Michael wouldn’t lie to her, so she must be safe. A blush flushed over her face at the idea of him caring even to calm her nerves. Her appetite returned at that moment with a vengeance, so she hurried off to feed.
When she got her goblet of blood, she finished it with haste, asking for another to take back to her room. Drinking it along the way, she continued to grin over the moment she had just had with her mentor. As cold as he was, she liked imagining that he had a soft side that cared about her.
Swaying side to side, she hummed random melodies that popped into her head. In her mind, she was sitting with Michael under the old walnut in the gardens, speaking forbidden things to one another. No matter where they were, it seemed that girls would dream of things people shunned, like spending intimate alone time with the most feared vampire in the castle.
“Michael, you daft fool,” she said once she got back to her room, curling up like a kitten in the large cushioned chair beside her table, “if you care so much, why won’t you just come out and say it? I am a mature vixen now. There’s no need to be shy, but that’s just it, isn’t it? You’re far too withdrawn to express your proper feelings. Don’t worry. Now that I know you care, I’ll wait to see the gentleman emerge from your shell. Hm~hm!”
Giggling like a schoolgirl, Mara sipped at the remnants of her blood before kicking her boots off and twirling about her room. With her heart lighter than air, she flopped into bed and fell asleep early that night, smiling while she dreamed of Michael.
Mara awoke the next evening with her mentor’s words echoing in her mind. The look in Michael’s eyes was beginning to haunt her now. As she sat up in bed, her quilt gathered against her belly, the vixen wondered why her mentor would say something like that.
She hadn’t heard about the countess before that night in the chamber. Why was that? Had Michael not covered her in her lessons yet? Slipping out of her bed, she strode over to her chair, draping across the arms as she loved to do. It was rare for her to contemplate a topic this heavily. Michael took it quite seriously, so she wanted to give it due attention.
Lifting her bare legs into the air, she stared at her pale skin. The more she stared at her slender limbs the more she realized they weren’t quite as pale as the others in the castle. Unlike everyone else, she had color in her flesh. Why had that never occurred to her before?
It made her wonder if she was as different from them as she heard them whisper. She had fangs just like them. She craved blood just the same. Just what did she possess to make people fear her? Was it this mysterious power of hers that Michael meant by his comment last night?
“Was that why I was taken as a child?” She mulled aloud, “If only I could remember something from before that night... even the face of the one that took me would do.”
She knew the answers were in her past, but try as she might, she could never remember beyond the night of the shattering glass. She still thought it was amazing that not a shard of glass cut her that night. She remembered that distinctly, being wrapped up in the figures cloak so quickly. Had he been trying to protect her? What a strange kidnapper? Staring at the ceiling, her vision blurred as she focused all her will to just remember his face.
Within her memory, Mara looked up as she had that night at the figure’s face. From afar, his face was covered by his hood, but held against his chest, she could look right up at his visage. It was shadowed, but other details became clearer to her.
He had been tall, broad-shouldered, and his arm was strong yet gentle enough to hold her close without crushing her. Everything he wore was black, his cloak, shirt, pants, boots, and gloves. Why did she remember gloves? Black, leather gloves that would likely be worn by a swordsman.
Wait, he had had a sword at his hip, a saber. Suddenly, she felt something shift inside her mind, and her memory began to sharpen. The shadowed face took form slowly as her eyes gaped in surprise. There was a knock at her door.
“Yes...” She answered, absent-minded in her revelation.
“Mara, art thee awake?” Looking backward with her neck coiling about the armrest, Mara looked back at her kidnapper, staring blankly back at her as always.