The Hanging Man – Aug 18, 2014
Sometimes love really is magic…
The Taurean King spurns all things magical, including his own daughter’s hidden powers. An outcast, Gabriella Etal ghosts through the castle, forever alone, banned from venturing into the outside world so her magic will not be discovered by his magic-hating subjects. When she stumbles upon a captured man hanging in the castle dungeon, she feels the hum of another’s magic on her skin for the first time. Now, she will have to decide if she will betray her family for one night of bliss or let her chance for fulfillment pass her by forever.
The damp, chilly air of Briarlee fortress always made her feel as if she needed to wear her cloak indoors. As if the building itself had slipped past her careful shielding to run icy fingers of disapproval along her body. It was only when she grew older that she came to understand it was not the fortress that disapproved, feared and hated her, but the people inside it.
In response, Gabriella Etall, third daughter of the King of the Taureans, had spent her life stealing long moments in the sunshine, her face tipped up in joy. She was a practical person, as all Taureans were, but precious moments like these on the parapet outside her room warmed her frozen soul.
Someone must have seen her earlier and turned her in for her transgressions. That had to be why she’d been summoned.
Gabriella held up her hand, cupping a ray of light.
She’d been warned. This time would result in serious penalties, no matter how minor the act itself had been. Possibly a stay in the dungeon, where she’d wither and die, her heart cracking in the dank, cold air.
She snorted at herself. Oh stop being so melodramatic, Gabby! I swear, Melinda is right. You’re so theatrical. You can last a fortnight in the dungeon if you had to.
Taureans weren’t, by their very nature, melodramatic and they weren’t spontaneous. Her father had accused her of having Sargenian blood on more than one occasion. The hated Sargenians, their land bordering the Taurean holdings, always sneaking in and pillaging, had been a thorn in her father’s side. He’d been systematically smashing them for a year now.
She felt sorry for them. It wasn’t a practical feeling, she knew. They had, after all, started the war in the first place. But she’d always been fascinated by the people who her family claimed she was so similar to, men and women with magic just like her own.
She’d long ago convinced herself that Sargenians had to have natural shielding, which would protect her from their emotions. And how wonderful would it be to stand in the presence of those who were more spontaneous than herself? Just once, she’d like to meet one face to face. Maybe even touch them, since she had so much difficulty touching the people of Briarlee. It had long been one of her biggest wishes.
“Gabriella, you’ll be late,” Melinda said from behind her, the worry in her voice telling Gabby her fate might be worse than she anticipated.
She pulled the cape around her shoulders and walked, head held high, to hear her punishment. Passing from the sun into the damp, cold darkness, she shivered, but tried to rally. She’d really done it this time, letting that wolf loose from the trap. What had she been thinking? The beast had eaten half a hen house and had been accused of killing lambs and other livestock.
But she’d taken one look into the wolf’s haunted eyes, the beast’s panic and pain pushing past her shielding, filling her heart, and Gabby knew there wasn’t anything to do but let her go. It was plain to see she was nursing pups. What would happen to them if she didn’t return home? Gabby couldn’t bear the thought. She was twenty-two years old but her empathic ability made it impossible for her to think responsibility at times. It was so hard to be strong when other people’s feelings swirled in the air, as visible to her as the tide to a fisherman.
Pulling back her shoulders and raising her chin, she opened the door to her father’s receiving room. The formal, red velvet covering the walls and red throne were the only furnishings. It wasn’t a room where family conversed and the fact she’d been called here meant only one thing. She had, as her mother once predicted, finally gone too far.
Her father sat with his closest advisors ringing him. The calm set of his regal face belied the swirling temper in his blue eyes and the slight tremble of his frowning lips, telling her he hovered on the edge of a terrible emotional storm. His long, black hair was the only thing Gabby and her father had in common, and that was certainly not enough to save her.
She stopped the required ten paces away and curtsied. Now was not the time to let her manners slip.
“Gabriella Etall,” her father said in a tone reserved for formal occasions. “I have judged you and found you unfit to live in this fortress.”
Gabby’s breath caught. She wasn’t going to be sent to the dungeons after all. Relief warred with pain. She might not like Briarlee, but to go someplace else? The thought was so foreign her mind circled in confusion.
“Your rash behavior endangers us all, your constant spontaneous actions showing a total lack of respect for not only your family but for the people of this nation.” Her father spat out the word ‘spontaneous’ as if it was vile.
She knew she was a freak. Since the day she’d been born, she’d been an outcast, trying so hard to fit in, but failing at every turn.
“You will leave tomorrow for the Cloister of the Goddess, where you shall spend five years repenting for your sins.”
What? “Father,” she said, unable to stop herself from speaking. “If I stay there for that long, I’ll miss the marriage time.” Everyone in Taurus married between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. It was a practical custom, a plan put in place generations ago to smooth the process of pairing and make it more manageable for everyone. It was her last chance to have a normal life. To miss it meant she’d stay in Briarlee forever, unmatched and unwanted.
“Your fate is sealed.” There was no compassion in her father’s eyes, no leniency at all. “This is your punishment.”
She’d always had a strained, barely civil relationship with her father, so his coldness didn’t shock her. His words did. Deep inside him lurked a sadness that he couldn’t understand his youngest child. There had been rare times when she’d felt his love for her when she was a child, but for years now, all his emotions had been filled with frustration and rage, centered around her lack of control.
The door at her back opened, but she didn’t turn, all of her focus on her father. “Please, I know what I did was wrong, Papa, but I won’t do it again. I swear it. Don’t take away my chance to find a match!” She sounded like a sniveling child, but this punishment was something she hadn’t ever considered. To be sent to pray on her knees for five years, her hair shorn, her chance to pair gone. Taureans were extremely sensual and sexual creatures, but they were also ferociously possessive and once paired, they bonded for life. She’d been saving herself for a betrothed and had never taken a lover. The chance of her pairing might be slight, but she’d embraced that hope with every part of her being.
“You will be examined by the Cloister’s healer after you leave here.” He pointed behind her where three caped Sisters of the Goddess stood, garbed in gray, their hoods drawn. “You are hereby banished from this nation and this family until you have completed atonement. This discussion is over.”
Her heart squeezed so tight she could barely breathe, Gabriella turned in a daze and went with the Sisters. Her life was over now. Even if she came back here after her five years were done, her slim chance at pairing and finding happiness was gone. If it weren’t for her old nurse, Melinda, there would be no reason to come back at all.
* * * *
Six hours later, her initial panic and despair had been pushed aside by her strong will. All her life, she’d known she was different, known she may not ever pair, no matter how much she wanted to. Her father had said there was a chance he could match her with someone outside their nation, someone who might not mind her fatal flaw. It crippled her to face spending her life alone, but she would not live out her life without knowing the touch of a man, the feel of him inside her.
And she knew just who she’d choose. The one race of men who might be able to block their emotions long enough for her to complete the deed.
Opening a secret compartment in her clothes trunk, she pulled out a rope and the key her grandmother had given her, her mind made up, her body burning for action.
She might be sentenced to five years in a Cloister, but she wasn’t arriving there a virgin.
Rash and spontaneous as the idea was, she couldn’t deny herself this one last rebellion. She was a Taurean, for the Goddess’s sake! Her people were known to be amazing, if monogamous, lovers. She deserved to have a single memory to sustain her through five years of silence and prayer, and all the remaining years of her life.
Waiting until the guard outside her room was flirting with a kitchen maid in an alcove, she ducked down two flights of stairs to the secret door which hid a series of passageways her grandmother had once shown her. Her Gran had been the only one to understand her, and Gabby had missed her every day since she died.
Slipping behind an old, faded tapestry, she ghosted through the portal to her one place of freedom. Inside was a tight place, where she could barely shut the door by holding her breath and squeezing against the wall. The passageways were small corridors, big enough for her to crawl through, crisscrossing the whole castle. This set went into the dungeons.
Dropping onto her hands and knees, she crawled along the passageway to the holding cells containing the one race of people who would be able to block her empathic abilities and allow her an experience she’d only dreamed about.
Her father’s policy of imprisoning every Sargenian he caught raiding until they were ransomed by their king was about to pay off. For her. She would offer one of them their freedom in exchange for a night of sex.
Not the best plan, for sure. Guilt that she’d be taking advantage of the captive had her pausing, but then she hardened her too-soft heart. He’d get over it after he was free and would forget all about her.
She, on the other hand, would have this memory to sustain her for five long years.
The first cell was empty.
As was the second.
Then the third.
Dread snaked up her spine, mixing with frustration. She’d talked herself into this insanity and the dungeon was empty. Wasn’t that just her luck?
One more cell to go. She wiggled toward the grate which kept the air in the dungeons flowing, the rope she carried snagging on the corner, so that she had to back up and free it. The passageway was high up in the room, about ten feet, giving her a bird’s eye view of the cell.
She was now deeper into the dungeon than she’d ever been, looking into rooms she’d never explored. The dungeon had held little appeal in her secret travels. It made the upstairs’ damp chill seem warm.
She peered through the bars, relieved to find this room had a prisoner, but paused when she saw the cell wasn’t like the others.
Her gaze brushed past the cold, jagged rock walls, across the floor with shallow trenches running through it. She followed the path’s progress leading off through the far wall. Why had they put drains into the floor?
The smell of old blood hit her and she knew instantly what the drains were used for, barely controlling the bile that threatened to gag her.
Pushing away the thoughts of torture, she gazed at the prisoner. She’d expected him to be chained to the wall by a wrist manacle like the others she’d spied on in the past, but he wasn’t.
The man hung from his wrists in the center of the chamber, the toes of his feet braced on the floor. Blindfolded and shirtless, he should have appeared defeated, but he stood ramrod straight, the muscles across his chest and along his arms standing in cords. His black hair was unfashionably short, a style only Sargenian men favored. He was one of them then, a spontaneous, flighty lack-wit, as her father called them.
A thousand questions filtered through her mind, begging to be let out. She reminded herself that he might not even have powers. In fact, he probably didn’t, since only about twenty percent of their people had the ability to use magic. But he would know so many things she’d always wondered about.
Now that she was so close, doubts swirled around her. She didn’t even understand her need to come to a dirty dungeon to force a chained man into having sex with her. This was yet another example of her inability to reason clearly.
She almost lost her nerve. You wanted to feel a man’s touch. Here’s your chance.
Her hands trembled on the bars and a small grinding noise filled the air.
The man tipped his head in her direction, his hands clenching the ropes suspending his arms skyward. His legs were shackled to the floor, but he turned toward her as far as the iron ring would allow, as if he meant to meet this new threat head on.
This is ridiculous. Gabby rubbed her sweating palms on her shirt. Yes, she wanted a man’s touch, so much more so after her father had punished her by making sure she’d never have the chance. But he’s hardly in a position to touch me.
The guards shouldn’t return tonight, though. Her father was having a feast to celebrate the Solstice. She hadn’t been invited, already deemed an outcast. No one would be torturing prisoners on this holy night.
Gabby shook her head, even as sadness welled in her stomach. She was reduced to attacking the helpless to find a bed partner. I want the experience, but not like this. She stared at the man, seeing the bruises on his torso for the first time. They’d already beaten him. The battles between the Sargenians and her father had intensified to the point of lunacy in the last months.
But even as she laid there, the sharp rock biting into her belly, she knew she wouldn’t leave him, just as she couldn’t leave the wolf two days before. The horror of the chamber rode through her and she was glad she couldn’t feel the emotions of those hurt here in the past. She would extend the offer and let him go regardless of his decision. If he denied the sex, she’d get him out anyway. If he agreed, they’d both have what they wanted.
For a moment, she didn’t know what to say to him. How to start a conversation that no sane person would ever have?
Taking a deep, calming breath, she said the first thing that came to mind. “I didn’t know they had torture chambers here.” Not the most intelligent of starts, but one from her heart. She’d been living two stories away from a room with a trench in the floor to drain away blood and had never known it. The thought made her want to run screaming, but she stayed.
His head jerked at the sound of her voice, his whole body tensing as if gathering strength to fight his tormentors.
She couldn’t negotiate with him like this. Digging out the key from under her shirt where it hung on a string, she turned the lock in the grate, almost dropping the heavy bars into the room as it came free with a snap. Dust rose as she dragged the grate back to the secret hallway. Then she attached the rope to the bars of the room opposite and unrolled it from her shoulder, playing it out. She crawled back to pitch the rest through the opening.
Easing herself carefully over the edge, she wrapped the rope around her rear end and walked herself down the wall.
When she turned at the bottom, the blindfolded man tracked her as if he could see her movement.