We were jostled up the stairs by the mob and soon found ourselves in a vast, bare room. From the altar at the end of the room, I gathered that this must once have been some private sanctuary; yet all of the holy objects had been removed and even the walls were covered with tapestries as though to shield from view the stained glass windows.
The throng gathered within that room and stood by, watchful and expectant. I saw Clotaire standing by one of the tapestries; the hanging was translucent enough to allow the moonlight to filter somewhat through, framing him with the vague outline of seraph wings.
Then I saw Katriane point one long, slender finger at one of the men standing close by. Instantly, he drew nearer until he stood close enough for her to take his hand, to catch the hair at the back of his neck, and to lay her beautiful white teeth upon his throat. Horrified, I stepped forward but was instantly stayed by the hands of those closest to me. As I watched helplessly, I saw that though the man was clearly growing weaker, he did not resist the woman but remained as passive under her lovely, avid lips as though senseless of the bitter prick of her teeth. When she had sated her thirst, he sunk to his knees before her, bowed low, and then rose again to rejoin the rest of the throng.
Clotaire then lifted his eyes and glanced speculatively about the room: and not a one of those who stood there flinched beneath that wandering gaze but rather returned it with a look of long devotion. At last, with the crook of a finger, he beckoned a young woman with dark, russet hair, barely older than Elaine. Her naked white feet hardly made a sound as she crossed the wooden floor and timidly came forward. She then went easily into his arms, letting her head rest upon his shoulder and baring her throat to him. When his lips at last reluctantly left her throat, she seemed about to kneel in reverence and depart; however, he restrained her from doing so and instead gave her a light kiss upon the brow in lieu of spoken thanks. A trace of blood was left upon her forehead in the wake of this kiss and, with a melancholy little smile, he wiped her brow with the hem of his shroud’s sleeve and restored it to its original purity before returning her to the rest of the devotees.
Men presently entered bearing platters and goblets upon silver trays, but though the wan men and women about me began to partake of the viands, I chose not to, preferring to keep a close eye upon Clotaire and Katriane in the hopes that my and Elaine’s release from the chateau would be imminent. The two seemed deep in earnest conversation: often I would catch the overtone of Katriane’s soft, languorous voice and see a thoughtful smile appear upon Clotaire’s visage as he listened. Often as well I would see their eyes wander towards me and I wondered with a nervous restlessness as to what they could be discussing.
“Father,” Elaine whispered. “May we not depart now?”
“Yes, as soon as – ” I stopped abruptly, for once again the gazes of the two spirits were fixed upon me and Clotaire was now beckoning for me to come forward. Elaine may have said something in order to prevent me, but I did not hear it above the voices of those about us. I pressed forward until I had reached the two of them.
“Sir Jean de Vair, you have been an honorable enemy and a clever opponent.” Clotaire hesitated. “I do not doubt that had my men failed to notice your departure from the chateau, both I and my lady would assuredly now be safely ensconced within the infernal regions.”
“And yet,” Katriane continued, her brilliant eyes flickering towards me. “Though you overcame us, methinks that your sympathies still lay with us even then.”
I denied this, feeling myself grow a little heady under their gazes. Clotaire then took my hand and turned it over so that my palm faced upwards, tracing the red gashes thereupon with the tips of his pale, gaunt fingers. “Was this not pity?” he enquired, his smile a mixture of kindly amusement and sorrow.
All about us, I felt that a hush had descended over the rest of those in that room; or perhaps I had grown deaf to them.
“What do you want of me?” I returned, my voice hoarsening to the faintest of whispers.
“Stay with us.” Katriane’s eyes gleamed within the torch-light.
“Yes, stay with us.” The warmth of Clotaire’s voice belied the subtle implacability that had entered his gaze. “I have imposed already upon your pity – I do so again. No harm shall come to either you or your daughter – you shall not become as we are unless you wish to. Only do not bereave us of your company so soon. It has been long since I have had the pleasure of meeting another knight so worthy.”
“You are no longer a knight,” I said, loathing myself for speaking thus but feeling that I must.
The sorrow within his eyes deepened, but his voice lost none of its warmth. “Perhaps that is why I crave your companionship still more.”
An uncomfortable silence fell betwixt us as I stood silent and at a loss for words whilst the two of them regarded me with keen, piercing gazes. The spell was broken, however, when one of the servers offered a glass of red wine to me. Before I could reply, Katriane accepted it and, with a gracious smile, presented it to me. I thanked her and as it was not a large flagon, I downed its contents relatively swiftly. The whole of the time, I felt my hosts’ eyes still riveted upon me as though drinking in my every move.
Seeing that my glass was nearly empty, Clotaire offered to refill it; however, after he took the goblet, he paused and instead set it down upon the nearby altar. Then he drew nearer to me as though about to whisper something in my ear. Spurred by some terrible instinct, I turned sharply and met his eyes. I believe then that I at last knew what was meant to happen. When I found my voice, I said:
“You told me that I was not obliged to become as you are.”
“Only if you choose to deny me.”
“I do deny you.”
“Then do so without delay,” he rejoined. “With one holy word, you shall have convinced me without a doubt of your intentions.” His eyes still intent upon me, he took up the chalice from the altar and drank deeply of the remainder of the wine, awaiting my reply. Katriane as well watched me, her lips half-parted and her eyes relentlessly upon my own.
Cursed be that hour and still more cursed be my silence at that moment – for though I longed to utter the names of the saints and to summon from memory the most potent exorcisms at my command, I found myself utterly speechless. I do not know why this was so, for though I remembered with particular vividness the bitter hatred that Clotaire was capable of, I do not believe that it was any fear of incurring his wrath that rendered me silent. I do know that I shall never forgive myself for that moment of frailty – nay, though I live many years longer to become still more of a doddering old fool.
Clotaire saw in an instant my hesitation and I believe that a look of both relief and regret entered his eyes for a moment. Yet as I felt his inhumanly strong grasp upon my arm and as I readied myself for what I knew was to come, a cry rose up among those around us. Looking up, I saw that the edge of one of the hanging tapestries was being rapidly consumed by a lapping flame and that the fire was quickly spreading to the others. Amidst the chaos of the scattering people within that room, I saw Elaine bearing a torch and warding away those who attempted to come near her.
Clotaire flung me away from him, hastening towards Katriane who was shrinking away from the flames that now spanned that chamber, creeping along the wooden floorboards and spreading in all directions like a fiery flood. I struggled to reach Elaine’s side and managed to catch hold of her hand, striving to reach the door. It was difficult to fight against the press of the throng on all sides – some were calling for water, others were attempting to smother the fire with cloaks and whatever else was available. All were fearful but none seemed willing to leave the chamber whilst Clotaire and his lady remained. I saw to my surprise that it was less a fear of the flames that seemed to possess the two spirits but rather a fear of the tapestries’ disintegration.
I realized all too quickly the reason behind this fear, for as one of the hangings crumbled into a formless pile of grey ashes, it revealed the stained glass image of the archangel Michael himself standing victorious over the fallen form of some evil spirit. The moonlit outlines of the window fell athwart the flaming floor and at sight of it, Katriane gave a stifled cry and hid her face against Clotaire’s breast. A change had fallen over Clotaire as well, for his face had blanched to a fearful pallor and his hands as he held Katriane trembled piteously as though the insidious sickness that had possessed him in life had returned to reclaim him yet again.
“Father, please – we must leave!” Elaine began to pull me once again through the panicked crowd and towards the door. Just as we reached the threshold, one of the men close by caught sight of us and, seized with a sudden fury, raised a hand to strike my daughter. I managed to catch him just below the chin with my own fist, sending him crashing to the floor. Then we reached the wooden staircase and though Elaine pulled me down after her, I could not forebear turning to look back into that fiery chamber. Nearly all of the tapestries had become little more than translucent, blackened curtains through which the holy images upon the stained glass windows, like shining sentinels, surrounded those within. Where the streaming, colored moonlight fell upon him, I saw revealed the ravaged, skeletal outlines of Clotaire’s decaying form beneath the shroud as though the light filtered through those stained glass windows somehow revealed his true form, unadorned by the spectral glamour that rendered him, though dead, to have the appearance of a living man. Yet those eyes – those haunted, despairing eyes – remained the same and as I stood there, they happened to lift and rest upon me and there was a look of suffering and reproach therein such as I have never beheld before. Then I heard a creak and felt the wooden stair upon which I stood sway ever so gently and realized that the staircase was about to crumble.
Pulling Elaine along after me, I descended the staircase as swiftly as possible, feeling the hot breath of the flames at my back. Once we reached the foot of the stairs, we raced madly out of the chapel as a thunderous crash sounded somewhere behind us, for the fire had effectively eaten away the dry, wooden foundations of those stairs causing the entire staircase to collapse.
The courtyard was void of all but the flood of moonlight and silvery mist as well as the billowing smoke that poured forth from the chapel. There was no one about, the drawbridge remained lowered, and thus Elaine and I crossed out of that silent courtyard and departed forever from the Chateau de Conflans. Even then, we only ceased our flight at the coming of dawn when we had reached the road to Ximes and were at the summit of a hill overlooking the valley in which the chateau stood. We chanced to meet a passing group of knights bound for Ximes themselves and they kindly offered to accompany us in that direction.
Turning, we beheld the towering shape of the chateau in the distance, framed by the first rosy line of dawn at the horizon. The fire had died down to nothing, leaving but a thick, drifting smoke surrounding those secluded stone walls. I gazed on wordlessly, overcome by a great weariness, until one of the knights pointed and remarked, “Now that indeed is a rare sight.”
My gaze turned to follow his pointing finger and at first I believed that I was looking upon a portion of the billowing cloud of smoke and fog that surrounded the chateau, so thick and white was the shifting shape that he pointed to. Only when they began to fly closer towards us, scattering close by upon the green meadow did I see that it was a dense flock of doves. Yet I felt that there was something odd about their appearance and the manner in which they cocked their pale red eyes and seemed curiously unafraid of our presence.
“Their markings…” Elaine pointed. “There are two crimson marks upon each of their throats. Father – you do not think that they are – ”
I believe I laughed then rather harshly, though more out of fear than amusement. “Clotaire has saved his children.”
Elaine turned very white. “Then Clotaire and Katriane – are they yet alive?”
I watched as the doves ascended into the air, wheeling towards the battlements of the chateau but did not reply; and though I do not believe that Elaine realized it, my thoughts were a mixture of guilty hope and fearful denial. Were they yet alive?
The knights looked at us rather oddly, but said nothing. They were fortunately strangers and thus unacquainted with any knowledge of the Chateau de Conflans – an ignorance that I heartily envied. For my part, I turned my back to that valley and trudged on towards Ximes without another word.
I know of no tales that have passed out of the valley since my departure from that place so many years ago, but I can easily guess at a few. I imagine that a traveler, were he to take the wrong road out of Ximes, would find himself in a misty, desolate countryside overgrown with forest – a countryside where the mist is hot and dank as jungle steam and clings to his skin like some fevered, festering illness. If he continued onward, he would find a wooded valley and the stone ruins of a tall castle in its midst. Pigeons with pale feathers, red eyes, and curious crimson marks upon their throat would scatter as he passed into the shadowed, overgrown courtyard. Then, if he remained long enough or – still more foolishly – chose to pass the night, he would be met by two persons: a woman with steady, scintillant eyes and hair like that of a lioness and a man with a mortal wound upon his breast and a look of long and insatiate despair. The end to the traveller’s tale at this juncture would depend upon his own strength and decision. To my shame, I shall never forget that had Elaine not set fire to the tapestries within that chapel, my end would have been easy enough to guess at – and though I battled and overcame many malefic spirits and beings long afterwards, I have never dared to visit that part of Averoigne again. I do not believe that if I did, I should ever return.
Sir Jean-Claire de Vair ceased speaking, his eyes dimming once again as though too wearied to do more than fall into one of his usual restless sleeps. I felt terribly sorry for the poor old fellow, however, and felt that it would be wrong to say nothing at the close of his tale.
“No man is free of weakness to temptation,” I murmured. “Praise be to the saints that you are free of this particular temptation so that it can do you no more harm.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, Francois.”
And as he spoke, he silently withdrew his hand and placed it on his lap under the table; yet not before I had caught a glimpse of a long, freshly-inflicted gash, thin and red, upon his palm – a gash that retraced another, older scar that ran across his hand like a silver thread, as though it was the remnant of some knife wound inflicted many years earlier.