“Start praying to whatever dark gods you serve, Tolek. You’ll soon be joining them in hell!”
Only then did the warrior take in the chamber beyond the doorway. To the right, oaken bookshelves sagged under the weight of leather-bound tomes, brittle papyrus scrolls and tablets of clay and wax. To the left, alchemical apparatus bubbled away, distilled liquids of various colors coiled forward in clear glass tubes, foul substances were calcinated in fire and were coagulated into new forms. And straight ahead of her sat a man by a hearthfire.
Steel-bright eyes watched her from under dark brown brows as she strode forward. The pate was shaved clean and glistened in the flickering light. Thin lips were twisted in a wry, ironic smile. The faintest of lines were visible at the corners of his eyes. Otherwise he appeared just as she had seen him last. Twenty years ago, as he stood over the corpse of her father.
Her sword shook in her hand. How dare he? How dare he look so young, unchanged, when her father was dead? Her father, her universe, had died, and her life had been overturned in an instant, a childhood of privilege giving way to a prolonged adolescence of famine, rapine and war. She had fought back, had overcome every obstacle, had regained her father’s dominion, but at such a cost. So great a cost.
And this man...
“Traitor. Prepare to die.”
She raised her sword and lunged forward, only to be halted by a single word.
Tears came unbidden to the warrior’s eyes. Even after a moment, she could only manage a hoarse whisper. “How dare you...”
“I suppose I should say, Lady Alina of Marovia.” There was no mirth in the man’s smile. No derision either, but plenty of regret, remorse, compassion. The last was the worst.
“Loremaster Tolek.” The warrior gave a mocking bow and raised her sword again.
“I ask the Rite of Ultissima.”
Alina frowned. In Marovia, the condemned had the right to say a few words before their execution. Even traitors. Some begged for mercy. Some cursed the gods and the ruler. Some simply bade tearful farewells to the loved ones they were leaving behind. Alina could not deny the Rite of Ultissima without denying Marovia.
“Speak, then. But be brief.”
The Loremaster nodded as he rose, his plain brown robe fluttering slightly. “I have but one word to say.” He looked directly into Alina’s eyes. “Remember.”
Before Alina could react, a long-fingered hand shot out and touched her forehead. She cursed, drew back her sword arm for a thrust. Then blackness overtook her and she fell to the floor...
When Alina awoke, she could not move. She was not uncomfortable. Quite to the contrary. She felt safe and warm and dry. As if she were swathed in cotton.
A man strode into Alina’s field of vision. Tall. Strong. His dark hair held in place by a gold circlet. Neat black beard. A black velvet tunic and black trousers. Alina knew him at once. Lord Jedrik of Marovia.
“A girl. You are certain?”
From near her head, Tolek’s dry reply. “Such things are rarely in doubt. Though you may examine the infant yourself if you wish, milord.”
Jedrik fumed. “To spend one’s whole life building something, only to have to hand it away to some whore’s son not of your blood…”
“I might remind you, milord, that the ‘Lords’ of Marovia have often been Ladies.”
“Yes, in sagas and peasants’ tales.” Jedrik sighed. “I suppose I shall have to start planning now how to marry her off to my best advantage.”
The Lord’s face loomed in Alina’s field of vision. An infantile wail assailed her ears.
To be replaced by the sobs of a frightened child. Alina felt herself shaken by rough hands, so hard it felt as if her teeth would rattle free from her mouth.
“Answer me, girl. Who ate the cherries that were to be a gift for Prince Bialy?”
Alina’s tear-blurred vision searched desperately. “It was...Ludmilla.” With a red-stained finger she pointed at a nearby serving girl. The servant’s eyes grew wide with terror.
“My Lord! No! I never--”
Jedrik backhanded the girl to the ground. “Silence. Are you calling my daughter a liar? You are banished from the Keep. Consider yourself lucky I do not execute you and your family.”
As the guards hauled away the weeping Ludmilla, Tolek turned his face towards Alina.
She blushed as red as cherries.
She should not be hearing this. She had only wanted to ask her father a question. Now she paused outside the door of his bedchamber. From within came the sounds of a man taking his pleasure from a woman. Roughly. Underneath, the sounds of a woman crying. Finally there was an ecstatic shout, and then silence.
Then the wound of a sword rattling in its scabbard. Her father’s voice. “Let me know if she conceives a son, Tolek. If not, kill her.”
The woman wailed. The door to Jedrik’s room flung open, and Alina’s father stumbled out, a half-empty bottle of wine raised to his lips. He went out into the Keep, never seeing his daughter.
Alina’s eyes went wide.
“Touch me again, Jan…”
As she sighted in pleasure, the door to the stable stall slammed open.
“Whore. Whore and daughter of a whore.”
Alina attempted to rise and straighten her dress around her breasts at the same time. “It’s nothing, Father! Nothing!”
Jedrik’s eyes blazed with rage. “My daughter. Whore for a stable boy.”
The blond youth stumbled over his loose trousers. Alina moved to stand between him and Jedrik. “I love him, Father.”
Tolek’s face appeared in the stall doorway. The Loremaster placed a restraining hand on his Lord’s shoulder, but too late. Already Jedrik’s sword had flashed beyond Alina. A red flower of blood blossomed on the groom’s linen shirt.
Alina shouted, pushed past her father, and ran out into the night.
She found solace in running. In the arts of war as well, staves, fencing, horsemanship. But running comforted her the most. Or at least, silenced her thoughts until there was nothing but her legs and the trail.
“Milord, you cannot order me to do this.”
Alina stopped at the sound of Tolek’s voice. There was a clearing in the forest not far from this point in the trail. But she had not known that any other knew of its existence. She crept to the spot through the underbrush.
“I have no choice. What do you want me to do? Sue for peace? Give in to their demands? Marry my daughter to that oaf? Not as long as I’m Lord of Marovia.”
Alina could see her father and Tolek now, their faces both red and animated.
“I remind you that that ‘oaf’ was once your most trusted lieutenant. Under other circumstances he would have made a superb match for Alina. He still might, if you would but see reason. If not, you may not be Lord of Marovia much longer.”
“That is why you must do this for me.” Alina was shocked as she noticed for the first time how old her father seemed, how much his hand shook as he laid it on Tolek’s arm. “My men desert me like the rats they are. But you can strike him down from afar, my brother. Kill the head, and the rest will fall in line.”
Brother. The word almost escaped Alina’s notice as Tolek became more angry than she had ever seen him. “I have sworn an oath. Never to use my Art to kill.”
“Oaths are meant to be broken.” Jedrik’s face twisted into a sneer. “My so-called wife knew that, as she made eyes at you across the altar. The whore…”
The rest happened so fast. Blue flames blazed around Tolek’s fists. Jedrik backed away, opened his mouth. To apologize. To curse. To beg for his life. Alina never learned. Lightning arced from Tolek’s hands and struck down Jedrik.
“Father!” Alina pushed through the bramble she had hidden behind, heedless of the cuts and scratches.
Tolek stared at Alina, his eyes like those of a stag started by the first bays of the hounds. Whatever he might have said at that moment was cut off forever by Alina’s shout.
“Guards! To me! The Lord of Marovia is betrayed!”
As Alina rushed forward, Tolek stepped towards her, hesitated, and then turned to flee into the woods.
The guards found Alina weeping in the clearing, cradling Jedrik’s corpse. They were silent as she drew his blade from its scabbard and swore an oath upon it, blood from her palm running down to the tip.
With Lord Jedrik’s sword Alina wrought her vengeance against Jedrik’s enemies. She had quashed the revolutionaries, united Marovia, and expanded its holdings. She had made a name for herself with the sword, to the point that the Lady of Marovia was known and feared throughout the civilized world. Yet she had never found Loremaster Tolek, until this day.
She had never remembered Lord Jedrik’s final words, until this day.
Alina rose to her feet slowly. Her knees still felt weak as she bent to pick up her sword. Lord Jedrik’s sword.
She wondered why she had not seen the resemblance before. The hair color was different, no beard. But the shape of the nose, the intensity of the eyes...
Tolek still smiled his mirthless smile. He spread open his arms. For the first time Alina noticed the scars on his palms. “That is my Ultissima, milady. You may kill me now.”
Alina’s grip tightened on the hilt of the sword. She took in a slow breath. Released it. She shook her head.
“I am not my father’s child…”
Alina let the sword fall to the stone floor. She turned and made her way out through the splintered door.
© October, 2013 Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. His short fiction has appeared in numerous print and online venues, including Winter's Night and the Wily Writer's podcast, as well as the anthologies Roll the Bones and the forthcoming Mark of the Beast. He strives to write what he calls "haiku fiction," stories that are small in scope but big in impact. If you enjoyed "Right of Ultissima," let him know at http://haikufiction.blogspot.com/ or @haikufictiondju.