This story is by Robert L Harrell and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Arms reaching to the sky, I stretched in the saddle. A ride always refreshed my spirit but took its toll on my body. As I twisted to relieve the tightness in my back, a hare burst from the brush at my horse’s feet. Startled, Milo bolted. I let him gallop headlong down the narrow path until we reached a clearing. No damsel in need of a rescue, I pulled his head to the side, forcing him to slow, then stop.
Milo’s mad dash brought me and my retinue to the edge of a ravine. I dismounted and gazed over the rim. Below me, an irregular blotch of bright crimson in the white snow proclaimed a violent act. A dark shape lay at its center. A boar? Impossible to tell through the trees. The form moved.
I called my huntsman. “Gerard!”
“Yes, my lady?”
“See what that is.” I indicated the object in the ravine. “If it’s suffering, end its misery. Then drag the carcass up here. The meat will adorn our Christmas table.”
Gerard worked his way down the steep hillside. At the bottom, he made a cautious approach and bent over the animal. “Your Grace!” Surprise tinged his voice as he called up to me. “You may want to take this one alive.”
“What use do I have for an injured beast that’s likely to die before we reach the castle? Don’t prolong its suffering. Be merciful.”
“Beg pardon, Your Grace. I wager you’ll not mind watching this creature suffer.”
What was Gerard thinking? He knew I abhorred wanton cruelty, though necessity forced me to rule with a firm hand. The Iron Duchess they called me, rigid and just, like the law I upheld. Why would I take delight in the suffering of any innocent beast?
Despite the steepness of the incline, Gerard soon reached the top and approached, his burden in his arms. With a start, I realized he carried no animal but a person. Why would he think me capable of enjoying another human’s distress?
A boy of about fifteen lay in his embrace. The boy’s head lolled backward, his face ashen against the glistening curls of his raven hair and the wet darkness of his cloak. Eyes closed, he breathed in shallow gasps through parted lips. Pain etched his visage.
“Thanks be to God! He has delivered the son of our enemy into my hands.” I rubbed my hands against the cold. “The get shall suffer for the sire. Thus will I avenge my sorrow.”
Gerard laid the boy on the ground and tended his wounds. Tense moments passed while Gerard stanched the bleeding, straightened the twisted left leg, and popped the right shoulder into place. At last, he raised his head. “The animal will live, my lady, but we must transport it with care if it is to reach the castle alive.”
“Can you improvise a litter? We will ride at an easy pace. Call a halt whenever necessary. You bear responsibility that the beast arrives still breathing.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
I dispatched a messenger with orders to prepare the tower room.
Amid the jingling of harnesses, I marveled at God’s Providence in making me an instrument of His justice. Duke Marc waged incessant war against us, and we against him. The cause of the feud lay generations in the past, a dispute over a narrow strip of land between our two duchies combined with an insult at the king’s court. His Majesty settled the legal question; the affront engendered hate beyond measure.
Two Christmases ago, Duke Marc ambushed my husband’s hunting party, murdering him and our son. Now, God’s Christmas gift to me, the duke’s spawn lay before me to deal with as I deemed right. I would keep him alive, but only so I might, as Gerard so astutely surmised, make him suffer. I would break his body, his spirit, and his mind. Afterward, I would return the broken animal to its sire, delighting in the miscreants’ double torment.
Moans pulled me from my delicious plans for vengeance. Slowing Milo to a footpace behind the litter, I smiled. The beast lay in obvious distress, groaning and squirming, seeking release from its pain. Fifteen, the same age as my James when he died. They tortured him for hours, the servants reported, before his body succumbed and God took him. Did this spawn of Hell laugh at my boy’s screams? I would laugh at his. Except, they would last for weeks, months, years, and not mere hours.
At last, our triumphal procession arrived at the castle. Gerard oversaw the animal’s removal to its cell. Let him languish, not in the dank filth and disease of the dungeon, but in the tower, isolated from all human contact except silent guards, diligent torturers, my daughter, and me. Tantalized by freedom, visible but ever beyond reach. We would exact our revenge.
After I changed from my riding habit and freshened up, a brief walk brought me to Danielle’s favorite hideaway, a secluded corner of the castle garden. As usual, she sat engrossed in a Book of Hours. Her piety and gentleness commended her to all. Destined, now that her brother was dead, to inherit the duchy, she needed to learn severity as well as tenderness to rule well. My recent acquisition provided an excellent opportunity to further her lessons.
At my approach, Danielle lifted her gaze from the book and grinned. “Mama! You’ve returned.”
“Yes, my dear, and I brought you a present.”
“A present? What did you find? A bright flower amid the cold of winter? A rabbit as a pet?”
“You are most perceptive, my child.” The crimson splotch in the snow floated before my memory. “I discovered a bright flower but did not gather it for you. Nor will the animal I found serve as a pet, I’m afraid, but you must come and see for yourself.”
“Can it wait, mother? I wish to finish this passage from the Apostle’s letter to the Romans. It will take but a moment.”
I sat on the bench beside my daughter, folded my hands, and waited. After a moment, she whispered, “Vengeance is Yours,” closed the book, and turned to me. “All right, mother. Let’s take a look at my present.”
A short time later, we reached the topmost room in the abandoned tower. A guard stood on either side of the door. We halted before entering.
“In a moment, you will confront a monstrous beast, Hell’s own spawn. Do not be deceived by its enticing form or sweet enchantments, for even the Devil transforms himself into an angel of light.” I caressed Danielle’s cheek. “This animal would tear you limb from limb if it could. It would eradicate our family without a trace and without a second thought if that lay within its power.”
“Its sire murdered your father and your twin.” I drew my daughter into a tight embrace. “You know your duty. Be resolute.”
With that admonition, I motioned for the guard to open the door. The torches in the room cast dim light sufficient to reveal the still form on the bed. Danielle approached with caution while I lingered at the door. After a moment, she sat on the chair beside the bed, her rigid posture and tight movements revealing the tension within her.
Tristan, Duke Marc’s son, his right arm bound to his torso, lifted his left hand with deliberate care. He reached across his body and stroked Danielle’s cheek as if befriending a skittish colt. His voice croaked as he spoke. “Are you real? An angel come to take me to judgment? I do not wish to die unshriven. Please, hear my confession.”
The boy continued. “I have done terrible things. I have killed people for a cause in which I do not believe. My family commits atrocities, and I stand by, afraid to plead for mercy lest I be condemned as well. They tortured a boy little older than myself, and I did nothing. His cries haunt me. Please, forgive me.” Sobs racked his body.
I smirked. His confession vindicated my judgment. The time had come for my heir to deliver the coup de grâce. Her rejection of the creature’s plea for absolution would crush its spirit, bringing my righteous vengeance one step closer.
To my horror, Danielle cradled Tristan’s hand in hers, brushed it with her lips, and gazed into his eyes. “I forgive you.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek.
“And that, my dears, is how your mother met your father.” My tale finished, I drew the spellbound children close. “He confessed. I condemned. She forgave.” I glanced at Tristan, who, grinning, wrapped his arms around Danielle from behind and nuzzled her ear. “He repented. I raged. She exulted.” A wry smile crossed my lips. “Where I drew a line between us, your mother drew a circle around us. By binding us in love, she set us free. Hers was the perfect revenge.”