"The Maiden and the Monster," part 2 of 3
Corinne paused at the archway entrance to the sunlit courtyard where the youngest children of the castle played and searched about the bushes, bright trees, and fall flowers for her lord. When old Nanny Wheeler had told her of his visits here most mornings, she had been frightened for the children and fascinated. What was the monster doing here?
At present, he was on the ground, his back against an ancient tanyan tree with the five-year-old Adams twins in his lap. The boy was scrunched up half asleep against his wide chest while the little brown-haired girl chattered up at Hawk who listened with grave attention. Corinne edged closer.
Becka was telling him "The Prince from the Sky." Neither child showed the slightest fear of the monster. Nanny Wheeler had said that few of the youngest children feared him. To them, he was just some fabulous, kindly creature from an old tale who had come to play.
She now noticed the other children at rest around him. There must be half a dozen.
Her gaze returned to Hawk. She was learning to read emotions on his alien face and had realized that his feelings were as complex as a human's. He had an expression she had once seen on a human's face, a mixture of tenderness, longing, and despair. It had been Toby Mason after he and his wife had discovered they could not have their longed-for children, and he had visited the children in this garden.
Was Hawk's wife barren?
Her monster was well furnished she decided with possessive pride. No one could say her lord was shabby. The white linen shirt she had made him was clean and unwrinkled, and his new black pants and his boots were immaculate. He was handsome in a monsterish sort of way once one got used to his differences.
His face was pale and thinner, and his eyes glowed with light fever, but he did not really show the ravages of the fang wolf's poison. He appeared almost healthy, but she knew that he was experiencing one of the pauses in the high fever and weakness which would strike harder and harder at intervals until they killed him.
Most humans would not have been so soon out of the sick bed as he, though, after being so ill for two days, but he had been up these three days since.
Becka had finished her story and was giggling and tugging at the feathers that framed Hawk's face. Bending, he laughed and let her stroke him. He smiled at Corinne and winked.
Realizing that he had been awake when she had fondled his feathers, she blushed.
The monster put both children down with kisses on their heads, gave a general farewell, and stood up wobbling. He steadied himself with his hand against the tree then moved forward with no sign of weakness. To only Garth and herself did he show his illness. Picking up his cleaned cloak from a bush, he draped it around his shoulders in one graceful swing.
After greeting the children whom she had not worked with since becoming Hawk's, Corinne walked beside him down the stone corridor as he headed for his quarters. Hawk asked, "The story the child told me. Is it history or fairy tale?"
"I think it is true."
"I wondered why the humans... your people aided me."
Corinne's lips tightened. She was uncertain whether to be insulted or not. Remembering Taskin and his actions, she chose not to be offended. "When the alien ship crashed hundreds of years ago, and we turned our backs on their wounded.... That castle and its people deserved to be blasted from the sky by the alien's mothership. Except for the girl who saved the prince, all died because of that castle's cruel neglect."
Hawk rubbed his neck. "My shipmates would not take it kindly if I died from neglect. My shield brother Buck Rogers would avenge me."
At his use of the term for warrior brotherhood and his mention of humans, Corinne glanced toward Hawk. Was her monster then friends with a human?
Her mind turning back to her own questions, she asked hesitantly, "You like children, my lord?"
"They are delicious."
Gasping with horror, she pulled away.
"That was meant as a joke. I do not totally understand human humor." He paused, then said seriously, "I am the last of my people. Children are very, very precious to me."
She tried to imagine what being the last would feel like, but she could only feel the hollowness she felt when she thought of leaving this world and all she cared for. "But your wife?"
"My mate is dead. She was killed a year ago in a ship crash. I am alone."
"But you said...."
"Nothing that is not true. Is she any less my wife because she is dead? Do I love her any less?"
"I had a sister. Jessica. She died.” Corinne blinked back tears. “I understand."
His cloak sheltering her like a comforting wing, Hawk wrapped his arm around her shoulder and squeezed. He dropped his arm suddenly and moved away. There were several soldiers and some other men in the hall ahead.
Corinne tensed, waiting for the crude remarks and the hen cackling she'd grown to expect since she'd been given to Hawk, but the men remained silent when Hawk kept himself protectively between them and her and stared at them with his cold, alien eyes. The men backed away. Everyone was afraid of the monster and his fighting skills. Few survived a fang wolf and even fewer had the courage to face one to save someone else.
They reached their quarters unmolested, and Hawk took off his cloak and stretched out wearily on his bed. He patted the edge of the bed beside him, and Corinne sat down nervously facing him.
"Speak to me of your sister and Taskin. I need to know the truth."
Corinne stared at her favorite unicorn tapestry above the bed. "Jessie was almost two years older than I. We were the only two surviving children. My big brother died five years ago. Lord Randolph asked for her hand."
"He is a neighboring, ambitious lord. Your father fears him for his cleverness and ruthlessness. He wants your father's holdings but does not have the soldiers to take it and to fight against all the other neighboring lords who are banded in friendly treaty against outsiders and bandits." He grinned. "Garth is informative."
"Aye, my lord. Father gave Jessie to Taskin when she was but fifteen. The doctor warned Taskin that she was too frail, but he forced a baby on her to gain inheritance of this holding through a son. She died... horribly." Corinne fought tears. "He wants me now. He demanded my hand before you came. Father was willing although the neighboring lords were against appeasing Taskin."
"Your father will feed the fang wolf until he has no more daughters." Hawk's face hardened. "I came and saved your father's life. To thwart Taskin, those against him made your father give you to me."
Corinne's eyes widened. He missed little.
"Taskin would not be an honorable or suitable mate for you. I must urge your father to have the adoption ceremony. If I claim you by the laws of this land, Barclay cannot reclaim you and give you to Taskin when I am dead. They must abide by my dying wishes."
Hawk clasped her hand in his. "The pity in your eyes told me, and then I spoke to Garth. It will not be a pleasant ending, but I do not fear it. How could I fear that which will return me to my mate and my people?"
Sobbing, Corinne bent her head in a grief that surprised her. She had grown to care for this strange creature.
"Do not cry. I could never bear a female's tears." His voice was husky with control. "We have much to discuss. I have something for you." He motioned toward the table, and Corinne slipped away and collected the papers lying there. Fighting her tears, she studied its writing.
"It is a will of a kind. When my friend Buck comes for me, give him this. It tells him what has happened to me and about you. He will carry you back to the Searcher. Then Buck will return and avenge me."
"My lord, the children and my mother!"
"The Searcher would not destroy this castle. Buck will kill Taskin for murdering me. I would do it myself now, but I dare not risk myself with your fate at stake."
Corinne was stunned. She did not think her father would relinquish personal honor and revenge for her or her mother's sake. Her monster was a strange, wonderful being indeed.
Late that night, Corinne awoke hearing an odd, deep chanting/singing in the next room. It sounded like her monster's voice. What was he doing?
She slipped from her bed and crept to the curtained door between their rooms and peered out. If he observed some religious moment, she did not wish to intrude.
The night sky and the lighted candle Hawk always left by his bed shone dimly, but she could see him lying sprawled in bed on his back as if asleep. He spoke again, tossing restlessly to his side, and clawed the covers from his feathered chest. Something about his actions told her that he suffered from more than a bad dream. She tiptoed into the room.
Hawk chanted and sang a cadence of notes, sounds, and pauses.
He was talking! She smiled to herself. What else would an intelligent bird's language be but bird song and word sounds combined. It was beautiful just to hear him in what must be ordinary conversation. She wished the song master could hear him. What beauty their songs and poems must have!
Hawk moaned, and she forgot enchantment and remembered the reality of death. She went to the edge of the bed and gazed down at him. His face was wet with sweat, and the feathers lining his features were drenched. A laboring hasp touched his breathing.
"My lord?" She spoke it again more loudly.
Rolling over to his back, Hawk cried out to someone in his language then lay still. She rested her hand against his throat. His skin was like flame it burned so hotly with fever.
"My lord," she mourned and retreated. She lit the lamps about the room and collected her basket of herbal remedies. First, she must lower his fever, or the poison would burn until his body could bear it no more, and he would die.
Lost in the world of fever, he did not know or respond to her, but she crooked his head in her arm and coaxed an herbal drink which was excellent for dehydration and fever into him, then some more. When he could take no more, she paused uncertainly.
What next? The traveling doctor had spoken of bathing the body in alcohol and special herbs. She had such a mixture that she had prepared for this moment in Hawk's illness, but its application required more intimacy than she wished with the creature.
He called out her name.
"I am here, my lord. Rest easy. I will help you." Guilt-stricken that she would hesitate a moment in helping her dear, kind monster, she poured the mixture into a bowl, picked up the soft cloth, and saturated it with the cooling liquid. She daubed it again and again on his face, throat, shoulders, and the pulse points on his arms before she resolutely the covers back completely.
A nervous laugh of relief rippled through her. He could be human except for the down and the absence of body hair. The leg muscles were a bit different which probably gave him the lithe grace and strength which made men look clumsy and plodding, but he could almost be human.
She applied the unguent on both legs and to the feet. As she worked, she remembered the nightmares which had plagued her about Hawk's feet being talons that ripped and shredded her. She had wakened crying from these dreams of the monstrous, hidden truth of his nature. Comparing nightmare to reality, she decided he had the most beautiful feet she had ever seen.
Hawk's toes then foot twitched in her hand when she massaged the liquid. She studied the foot. It twitched again as she neared the arch. He was ticklish! The last of her foolish fears of his being a demon evaporating, she laughed a moment then began to sob.
Dawn touched the blackness of the sky with subtle grays, giving the castle bedroom a somber hue. Wall stones blended with sky creating an illusion of depth and distance that the wall hangings belied suspended in seeming near space.
Sitting on the bed by Hawk's huddled form, Corinne rubbed at her eyes in weariness. Her night vigil had been punctuated by Hawk's thrashing and her own attempts at halting the fever. Now he faced a second crisis.
The burning had gone, and in its place, he hunched shivering with inner cold. She tucked a fourth blanket around him, and he still trembled violently. If the chill did not soon depart, he would leave her.
She had done everything the doctor had taught her, but the fang wolf poison had defeated her. Hawk's pallor grew worse, and his skin that felt hot in health was cold to her touch. His body trembled, too, with fever cold. The heated herbal remedies had availed her nothing.
Racking her brains for anything that would be of help, she recalled a tale of a woman who had held her ailing, fevered child in her arms and shared body heat when it had been near to death. The child had lived. Corrine could think of no other alternative.
Careful not to let the cold morning air in, she slipped under the covers and eased near Hawk who seemed beyond knowing or caring what she did for him. On his side, he faced her and was curled up in a ball for warmth. She paused when she was almost against him. How should she go about this? He was so much bigger than she. How could she hold him?
She pressed her upper body against his, rested her head on his feathered chest, and wrapped her arm around his ribs. Her legs she wedged against his. He smelled of the herbal alcohol baths and his own alien sweat. The musky smell and the feel of his feathers against her cheek and body was pleasing.
After several minutes, he shifted as if aware of her and straightened. His powerful, corded arms encircled her, pulling her snugly against him, and her body draped against his side with her head under his chin and her upper arm on his waist.
Corinne wriggled, making herself comfortable, then tried to pour her body heat into his cold skin.
Although she had tended him all night and knew every inch of him, being held like this was different. She was very aware of his breathing, the lean firmness of his body, and his sheer size and strength, but she was not frightened. She felt... safe.
"I am here," she paused and added shyly, "Hawk." She had never called him thus before.
He mumbled a few words in his own language. "Corrie."
Frightened for his life, she did not reply but snuggled against him more tightly. He was lost in his fever world again.
His hand that rested against her thigh began a caressing journey up and down her frame, and his lips and feathers brushed and teased her face and shoulders.
Corinne shivered, not from fear or cold but from something she could not explain, and relaxed trustingly under his hand.
Hawk awoke. The candle was out, and the room was dark. If he squinted, he could see the vague outlines of his bedroom.
Inside he felt hollow as if the fever and pain had burnt its way through him leaving a husk. Death from the fang wolf had nearly taken him again, but Corinne had saved him.
In the sky of nothingness from this night's memory, he could remember her touch as she tended him and her voice and face filled with concern and love.
The warm softness and weight against his side registered on his dazed mind, and he explored. The meadow flower scent had already told him it was Corinne who curled like a sleeping kitten by him. He ran his hand down her night-braided hair and the flannel nightdress which was ruched up so that her bare legs entwined with his.
What was she doing here? Certainly he had not been that fevered... and often after a winter night's sleep, Koori's gown had been thus when they had not....
He began to untangle himself and back away before Corinne awoke. His actions caused what he would have prevented. Corinne's hand went automatically to his throat as she'd checked him many times, and she stiffened in surprise.
Her voice was happy and tearful. "The fever is gone. You are better! Oh, Hawk!" She threw herself against him and covered his face with kisses. "I thought I had lost you."
When she stilled her affectionate assault, he said, "Thank you, Corinne."
Her arms tightened, and she snuggled against him. "Call me as you did last night, my lord. In your own language. Call me Koori."
Hawk winced. Coming from a biologically monogamous society, he was beyond his depths. If he had seduced the innocent child.... "Do you know what mating is?"
Corinne nodded against his chest. Her voice was embarrassed but obedient like a school child's. "That's when a man beats you and mauls you for his pleasure then forces himself into your private place and makes you scream from the pain."
"I did that to you?"
"What passed between us then?"
"I lay down beside you to share body heat. You were chilled. You held me and caressed me thus." Capturing his hand in hers, she brought it from her thigh and up to her shoulder and back. "And you kissed my face and shoulders as you whispered in your language... such lovely words. I wish I knew their meaning. Then you fell asleep again."
A few intimate caresses could be forgiven, he decided. "If in fever, I try such or more again, do not allow it. It is wrong that I touch you in that manner."
"But.... It was nice."
"With the husband of your heart's choosing, it will be better than 'nice.'"
"That wasn't hurting and...."
His heart wrenched with pain at her vision of what mating was. "Who told you that?"
"Taskin will deserve his death. I thank my god and yours that I saved you from that sick, perverted human. He has defiled what is beautiful and caring between mates. What Jessie told you is not of true mating." He added, unable to explain properly or decently to the innocent girl, "Speak to your mother of this. In her eyes I saw love for your father. She will know how to tell you."
"I wondered how she and the other women could bear for..., and still love their men."
"What Koori and I shared was beautiful. I hope you find that, Corinne."
"Koori was your wife?" Her voice sounded deeply hurt.
"Yes. What is wrong?"
Corinne sniffed back tears and pulled away. "My lord, I should dress and get you breakfast. The sun is almost centered in the sky."
Hawk brought his hand to his eyes. The room was in midnight darkness. Garth had said that one side effect of the fever was sometimes blindness. Never to see the sky or Corinne's eyes again....
If Taskin learned of his blindness, he would lose his fear of Hawk's fighting skill and kill him in a duel, then take Corinne for his perversions. Taskin must grow tired of waiting for his death by poison.
Suddenly, the bitterness of darkness before his coming death meant little in comparison to what Corinne would face with Taskin. What could he do to save her?
"Open." Corinne propelled a spoonful of breakfast mash into Hawk's mouth, and he chewed it obediently. Fear filled her as she studied him.
Since waking and discovering his blindness an hour since, Hawk had not left the bed nor attempted much speech. He just sat propped up in bed with a blank expression as if his mind and emotions were elsewhere. She would have screamed, or cried, or something if she had been blinded, but he acted as if he did not care.
After Hawk had finished his meal and lay down and she had set aside the dishes, Corinne smoothed the ruffled white plumage that covered his broad chest and felt the muscles beneath the softness. The act brought vivid memories of being held the night before.
Because of the odd, happy feelings that Hawk and his touch had brought, she could believe there was pleasure in mating with a special, good man. She wished her beloved monster could be that loving man, but that was impossible. He was neither man nor loving, and his avian heart was with his dead wife. He could only be her dear friend and her lord.
Impulsively, she bent and brushed her lips against his. He started but accepted the chaste kiss. The kiss did not change him. He was a bird prince, not a frog prince; he remained Hawk.
When he did not protest these intimacies, she lay down as she had the night before on the covers and wrapped her arm around him. She loved this creature with his gentle ways and his caring. He gave as she'd always wanted her father to give, and now he was dying. “Don't leave me, Hawk."
He kissed the top of her head much as he had the children's and stroked her braided blonde hair. "Have you watched birds fly, Corinne?"
"Aye, my lord."
"Have you seen how a flock will fly wing to wing, and change and shift direction as if they are but one bird and one mind?"
"Have you ever wondered at that symmetry of thought and action?"
"No," Corinne admitted.
Hawk chuckled. "My people were telepaths. We could fly in that manner when we had wings and after we used crafts. It is limited, low level telepathy. In a way we could be of one mind. We could not share complex thought, but we could see and sense as one on an instinctive level." He paused. "My human friend Buck and I have had such a sharing in battle. It came naturally and unsought because of our deep bond."
"My lord?" Corinne could not understand what he tried to tell her.
Hawk's long fingers caressed her temple. "If we had such a sharing... if my mind could join yours, I could 'see' through your eyes. It would not be like my own eyes, but I could sense objects and people with some accuracy. With care, no one would know I am blind."
"Our minds touching?" Something deep and intrinsically human and private inside Corinne cringed, and she fought panic. Such a joining would be a violation comparable to Taskin's! "No! I could not!"