Monday, September 08, 2008

A Vow of Celibacy

Here's an old story for you. First composed around 1997, it went through numerous revisions and readings before finally being published in the Tales of Fantasy anthology. It is one of my original tales of Korr stories, along with I Dreamed of Griffons in Flight (Black Dragon, White Dragon), In the Shadow of the Dragon's Wing (Mallorn), and Escape from the Heart of Djar (Kings of the Night II). At first glance it is a romantic fantasy, written before romantic fantasy became all the rage, but it's not. Oh, definitely not.

"A Vow of Celibacy"

Sometimes Amia liked to pretend she was in a play, standing by the darkened window sighing for her lover. If any of the servants were to awaken and see her standing by the open window, she hoped they would think she was only pining for her lover – Bonn, a ranger for the Papas family, the breeders of horses whose estate bordered that of her master, Jan Capera. She had kept her affair with the handsome ranger so secret that everyone in the household knew.

A crunch on the gravel footpath outside her window startled her. She ducked behind the curtain, fearing her master might be out on one his prowls. Then a voice softly whispered her name, "Amia! Amia!" and she knew it was Bonn. Even so, she hesitated a moment and listened to his moment of fear. "Amia, please!"

As she picked up her bag and stepped from behind the curtain, she heard his breath catch, and then he sighed as he stepped from the rose bushes. Amia buried herself in his arms and smothered his unshaved cheeks with urgent and noisy kisses. He quieted her lips with his own, and then whispered, his breath on her eyelids, "Be quiet. You’ll wake the entire house."

"I don’t care," she whispered. "Let them hear. I love you and I don’t care who knows."

"Don't be silly," he said. "Have you got your bag? Good, let’s go then." He took her bag and her hand and led her away from the house, through the low trees casting their moonlight shadows across the lawn, and down through a well-ordered garden with its gravel paths and stone benches and pale white naked statues gesturing in the night, and through another ring of trees beyond which a low stone fence ran beside the path from the house up to the main road to Tarrasq. Bonn lifted Amia over the fence and then passed her bag over before following her.

The silver-blond hills rose to either side of the path as they walked, and the air grew chill as the dew settled on the grass. The sides of the hills were darkly speckled with wild olive trees, but the summits were rocky and barren except for a few straggling pines and clumps of thorny vines, lit by the broad starry night sky and a silvery moon one night past full. Soon, they came to a whitewashed bridge arching over a stony creek. They stopped for a moment to rest and then to kiss breathlessly, fiercely for a few moments, hearts hammering together.

"Where did you hide your horse?" Amia asked between kisses.

"I don’t own a horse," he answered as he sought her lips again.

"But the Papas' have hundreds of horses," she said.

"That’s stealing," Bonn answered, stepping back from her. "I’ll not steal from them. They’re good people."

"But they’re rich," she said. "And we have nothing. And we have a long way to go. It would have been easier to ride."

"It’s not so far," Bonn said. "My mother's house is just beyond the Papas' estate." He took her hand and they started up the path toward the road.

After a while, Amia asked, "How do you expect to become a knight if you have no horse?"

Bonn sighed. "Why do you want me to steal a horse? The Papas are good people. If I stole one of their horses, I couldn’t go back to work for them, and then how would I support you? I still plan to work for them, you know. Just because I’ve stolen you away from the Caperas doesn’t mean I can’t continue working for the Papas."

"I just thought you needed a horse to become a knight," she said.

"A knight doesn't use his own horse," he answered. "The horses are provided by Temple contractors, breeders like the Papas."

"Couldn't you have borrowed a horse and brought it back in the morning?”

Bonn stopped. “What’s wrong with you, Amia?” he asked.

“My feet hurt," she said.

"Where are your shoes?"

"I didn't wear them. I hate wearing shoes. The Old Woman makes us wear shoes even in the summer, even inside the house," she said.

"You should’ve worn your shoes tonight, at least," Bonn said. "Where we’re going, you’ll need them."

Soon, the path bent to the south, and there it met the road that ran down to Tarrasq. Amia hid in the bushes beside the path while Bonn walked out onto the road to make certain no one was about.

Amia watched him, anxiously wondering what would happen if he were seen. What would people think of this handsome young ranger appearing from the drive of the Capera estate so late at night? Perhaps they would assume he had been visiting some young servant girl, and that he was returning home to crawl into bed before sunrise, before his master caught him. Maybe they would think he did this sort of thing all the time, that he knew girls on all the estates in the area, and that he visited each girl regularly and in turn. Handsome young men like Bonn had many girls, and quite often the girls knew nothing of each other, each believing that she alone possessed the love of her man. Such men must think their lovers little better than cheap whores whose pleasures could be bought for a bottle of wine or a cheap, flashy trinket from the bazaars in Tarrasq. She wondered if Bonn thought of her in such a way. When she saw him motion for her to cross the road, she shook her head.

"The road’s clear," he hissed.

"No!" she said.

"What are you doing?"

"Do you truly love me, Bonn?" she asked.

"Of course I love you!" he answered. "Would I be here if I didn't?"

But Amia believed she could almost hear him saying that to every girl. "I don’t believe you!" she hissed. He was luring her away to have his way with her, and when he was done, he would take her back to her master’s house.

"Amia, please!" Bonn cried. He crossed the road and crawled into the bushes with her, but she drew away from him.

"What’s wrong with you? I love you. You must believe me."

"Yes, but do you love me truly?" she asked.

"What can I do to prove my love to you? Why must you do this?" he pleaded. Suddenly, he turned, shushing her when she tried to answer. "A carriage! Someone’s coming from the house!" he cried as he grabbed her by the arm and tried to drag her from beneath the bush.
Amia struggled against him. "No, no, I won't go with you," she said. "Not unless you truly love me."

"If they catch us, they’ll take you back to the house and we can never be married," Bonn said. Now they could hear the jingle of harness and the rumbling of the carriage's wheels on the road.
"Married?" Amia asked.

"Yes, of course! Why did you think I would steal you away, if not to marry you?"

Amia wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his face furiously.

"There's no time now, and I can't carry you. Run for those trees," he directed, pointing to a dark clump in the meadow across the road. He pushed Amia ahead. The carriage was almost upon them.

Amia dashed across the road, ignoring the injury the stones inflicted upon her naked feet. She clambered over the opposite fence and sprinted across the meadow. Bonn quickly overtook her, grabbing her hand in passing to drag her along. They dove into the safety of the trees just as the carriage rounded the bend and swung onto the road.

Bonn peered out through the trees at the carriage. "It’s Jan Capera," he said. "He’s heading toward the Papas' estate." He looked out through the trees at the road, and then he turned and looked across the rolling hills of the Papas’ estate, which he had planned to cross but could no longer risk trying. They would search for Amia there first. He knew of but two other ways to reach his destination. The first was the road to Tarrasq, but the morning would catch them still on the road before they reached the safety of his mother’s house. The only other option was to cross the Capera estate. This distance was considerably shorter, but it involved crossing the hills where bull dragonettes were pastured. This time of year, dragonettes were spread out all over the range, and they were a danger he did not wish to face, not with Amia in tow. He was not afraid of them, but he was afraid for her. But he realized that he had no other choice, considering his prospects of escaping with the girl he loved. Were they caught, Amia would be returned to the Capera's house, while he would be flogged if he were lucky, or possibly even imprisoned for theft. The Caperas were a powerful family who provided dragonettes for the ritual battles at the religious festivals in Tarrasq. They had the ear of the church, and the law of the church was the law of the land. Jan Capera was a deacon of the Temple at Tarrasq, a trainer of the monks who battle the dragonettes to gain the gods’ favor for the year. He was only a ranger, not a monk, though he hoped to fight dragonettes in the temple someday as a knight-servant of a monk.

At last, Bonn made up his mind. Since it would be the least likely place to search for Amia, he would risk crossing the Capera estate. He took her by the hand and kissed it gently, and then he helped her to rise and led her from beneath the copse. The moon was low and the night grew dark. He turned west and steered by the setting moon, paralleling the road for a time before it bent away northward to climb the hills surrounding the Bay of Tarrasq. At the point where the road turned north, they came to a wooden fence, which they climbed, reentering the Capera estate. Bonn turned south then, and following the line of the fence uphill, they soon reached a stable where dragonettes were housed during the winter.

The stable was long and narrow, with a wide door at either end and large sturdy cages along both sides of the passage. At the far end, the passage opened into a small training ring with a stout wooden fence and a raised platform behind it so that people could see over. Inside the ring, young monks, called dragonnes, were trained to fight dragonettes – a type of dragon that were wingless until full adulthood. The monks trained first on hatchlings, then on immature bull dragonettes, and finally on fully grown bulls just beginning their wing molt. Only the most perfect bulls were sent to the Temple in Tarrasq, those of perfect eye and horn and muscle and scale, and only those of absolutely pure courage and nobility – those who, when winged, would become true terrors if left to themselves.

Bonn led Amia into the stable. They cautiously walked its length, checking all the cages, finding them empty. The cages still smelled of the dragonettes, a pithy odor like crushed heather and hay. Near the entrance, they found a small tack room where harnesses were hung from the ceiling and saddles sat on racks along the walls. Here, Bonn found a short lance and fighting cape which must have belonged to one of the fighting monks trained by Jan Capera. Bonn draped the cape over his arm and hefted the lance. Amia stood in the doorway of the stable, looking away toward the Papas’ manor across the valley. The portico glowed with torchlight, and in it they could see two men sitting in chairs beside a table. "There’s my master," Amia said. "And yours. Do you think they can see us?"

"I don’t think so. The moon is behind the hill," Bonn answered.

Amia turned and saw Bonn with the fighting cape draped dramatically over his arm. "You would make a beautiful dragonne," she sighed, marveling at his lithe muscular body and the trim aesthetic line he cut with the cape and the short-lance.

"Ah, but the monks are sworn to celibacy," Bonn said. He grasped her around the waist and pulled her body against his. "We knights take no such vow."

The moon set behind the hills. Bonn and Amia rested in the stable until the first light of the sun grayed the eastern sky. The sky was the same color as the fog-wreathed ground, and it seemed as though there was no horizon, no separation between the heavens and the land. Westward, the hills remained shrouded in darkness, so they waited a little longer until the misty valleys were visible between themselves and the hill where Bonn's mother lived. Bonn had hoped to see her house, but the air above the valley was too thick to see so far.

Setting out, they crossed through the fenced lots where the bull dragonettes were herded and divided before being sent off to Tarrasq. The fences were tall but they were easy to climb, so Bonn didn’t need to help Amia. She was a peasant girl, and although she had served in the Capera house for three years now, she hadn’t forgotten the ways of the farm nor how to carry herself over rugged country. Still, she began to regret having not worn any shoes, especially since Bonn hadn’t found a spare pair of boots in the stable.

As Amia clambered over one of the taller fences, Bonn sat atop the fence post and looked back toward the Papas’ manor house. For some time now, he thought he had been hearing the barking of dogs, but he had said nothing yet because he didn't want to frighten Amia. But now his fears were confirmed. As Amia topped the fence, she looked at Bonn and saw the concern in his eyes, and then she heard the dogs.

"Do you think..." she began to ask, but at that moment the distant hills across the valley rang with the strident blasts of hunting horns. "They’re coming!" she cried.

"We can still escape, Amia," Bonn said. "It’s very dangerous, but I think we can make it. We will cross the pastures. I don’t think they will bring their dogs and horses there. So many people and animals would surely attract the attention of a bull. But two people alone, moving quickly and silently, might get across." Amia clutched his arm in terror, but whether it was fear of the dragonettes or fear of capture, he couldn't tell.

After a moment, she nodded and bit her lip. Bonn dropped to the ground on the other side of the fence, and Amia climbed down after him. Together, they moved off into the pasture. Bonn wore the fighting cape draped over his left arm while in his right hand he carried the short lance held at the ready. Although the lance was heavy, its foot-long head of polished steel was marvelously balanced by a flanged bronze weight at the butt.

Soon, they came to another fence. It ran southwest and for a while they followed it. On the other side of the fence, the grass grew waist-high in places, but it couldn’t hide the fresh piles of droppings lying here and there, still smoking in the morning air. The ground was hilly, and in many places outcroppings of granite boulders broke the scenery, surrounded by copses of evergreens in which a bull dragonette might have its lair.

They came to a place where the fence made a Y, forcing them either to cross over or turn back north, toward the dogs. Bonn climbed the fence, and Amia followed him. The terrain here was just as hilly, but there were fewer boulders and trees, while broad stretches of a kind of tall green weed, called peacock feathers, wavered in the morning breeze.

As they followed the line of the fence between two hills, Bonn noticed that the barking of the dogs had grown fainter. The sun climbed higher and began to burn away the mist. But between these two hills little of the morning breeze could reach them, and they felt the sun hot upon their cheeks. Their passage stirred up clouds of tiny biting flies, and in the bottom of the dell where a veritable forest of the tall wispy green peacock feathers grew, the ground was boggy and the flies more numerous and voracious.

When at last they reached the other side and began to ascend the next hill, they found that they had strayed somewhat from the line of the fence. As he turned back toward it, Bonn stopped. A large black dragonette stood on the opposite side of the fence, watching them intently. Lost in daydreams, Amia bumped into him. The sight of the dragonette stole the warmth from her body and the strength from her limbs.

The dragonette was enormous, its scales the color of iron. Its chest was like a great iron forge and its long serpentine neck was as thick as the beam of a temple roof. Twin ivory horns curved smoothly out from its narrow reptilian head, ending in honed points that glimmered white as snow. Filmy gray patches of smooth skin covered two humps rising from its back just behind either shoulder blade – these were its wing sacks, nearly ready to erupt. As it watched them, the great crest of crimson spines on the back of its neck slowly rose.

After what seemed hours to her, during which time it seemed neither they nor the bull moved even so much as to take a breath, Amia at last found her voice. "Bonn?" she whispered.

"A dragonette – nearly mature. He’s on the other side of the fence," he whispered. "As long as we stay on this side, we’re safe."

"I didn’t think they were so big," she said.

"Move very slowly," Bonn told her. "We will continue the way we were going. Don’t make any sudden movements."

They began to walk slowly, Amia behind Bonn. The dragonette followed them step for step, turning to parallel the fence while keeping them in sight. It seemed almost more curious about them than dangerous. But Bonn knew by the angry clatter of its erect spines that the dragonette meant to kill them if it found itself on the same side of the fence as they. It was a creature bred from dragon stock to fight and die in the temple. Because it was immature, its teeth were underdeveloped, and its fiery breath had not yet begun to burn, but it could still use its claws to kill. But by far, a dragonette bred for the sacrificial battles in the Temple preferred to kill with its horns – twin scimitars of ivory each as long as a man is tall.

Suddenly, the dragonette darted away, loping sinuously along the line of the fence. Amia collapsed against Bonn’s back. "He’s leaving," she sighed in relief. But Bonn stiffened. He didn’t believe for a moment that the dragonette would let them pass. He waited to see where the monster would go, and to his dismay he saw an open gate in the fence at the top of the hill.
He spun and grabbed Amia by the wrist. "Run!" he shouted. "Go!" He shoved her toward the fence. She stumbled away from him, confused.

Bonn looked up the hill and then back at Amia. He slapped at her with the cape. "Go, you stupid girl! Run!" He stepped toward her, swinging the cape again. She turned and fled.

As the dragonette reached the open gate, it spotted Amia fleeing toward the fence. Its neck spines flattened as it swept down the hill. She glanced over her shoulder and saw it coming fast, and she screamed as she realized that she could never reach the fence before the dragonette overtook her.

Bonn dashed between her and the creature, flapping the cape and crying, "Ha! Hey! Hey!" The bull caught the movement of the cape and turned. Bonn spread the broad cloth-of-gold cape over the shaft of the lance and skipped backwards, away from the fence and into the pasture to draw the bull away from Amia. He circled to his left, while the dragonette followed him, closing rapidly, following the lure of the cloth until it was close enough to stab at the trailing edge of the cape with its horns. It swiped repeatedly with the right horn, gouging crescents in the dust, until Bonn closed the final arc of the circle and whipped the cape from beneath the dragonette's nose. It froze in place, its claws planted in the ground, facing away from Amia. Bonn looked beyond the long snaking black body of the monster and saw Amia standing at the fence with one foot on the lowest wooden rail, staring at him in saucer-eyed horror.

Bonn took a step to his left and the dragonette swiveled its head, rattled its neck spines. He took another step to the side, and then one step back. The dragonette lowered its head and sniffed the ground, its two horns like the trunks of small trees nodding in the wind. "I must wear him out," Bonn thought numbly. "I must make him wear out the muscles of his neck so that I can go in past his horns and put the lance into his heart." He took another step back.

"I have attended eleven ceremonies since I came of age. I have seen sixty six bull dragonettes killed in the Temple. Sixty six is a holy number. The gods are with me. I know how to do it. It is only a matter of doing."

He took another step back and the dragonette lifted its head, narrow black nostril’s flaring, spines flattening along its back. "To tire him, I must pass him with the cape. I must wear him out with the cape, force him to charge it rather than me. To make him charge, I should incite him with the cape." He flipped the cape and stomped his foot.

The dragonette's eyes narrowed and its head dipped and it came more quickly than Bonn imagined anything could possibly move, its speed concealed by its fluid grace, like dark water pouring over a dam. He tried to pass the dragonette beneath the cape by swinging it wide with the whole length of the lance, stretching out on his toes, bending over the horn that swept beneath his outstretched arm.

But the dragonette ignored the cape and lifted its head, and the right horn entered as smoothly as an oiled sword into the soft flesh below the lowest rib on the left side of Bonn's chest. It slid past his spine and out his shoulder until the mass of the dragonette's head slammed into his chest, lifting him and tossing him over its back. He seemed to float slowly through the air, slowly enough for him to relax before he landed behind the creature’s snaking tail. It wound upon itself and turned, hissing, head lowered again. Bonn lay still and watched the bull, in its eagerness to kill him, stab blindly at his body, flinging gouts of dust and only hitting him once in the palm of the right hand. Then he heard Amia scream, and the dragonette was gone from him, its long body passed over him like a swift black cloud. He heard her scream again, and he felt the earth tremble beneath his body, and at the same time he heard horns blowing and dogs barking wildly.
The dragonette met Amia as she ran to Bonn. She bowed over its lowered horn and embraced its scaly head, and it lifted her and carried her for several yards before tossing her aside. She fell on her stomach, her mouth full of dust. Then it gored her through the back again and again until the hounds arrived to drive it away from her body. Neck spines rattling angrily, it lashed out with its horns and claws and tail at the boiling mass of dogs, but they dodged and leaped, yapping noisily and biting.

The servants of Eldron Papas drove the dragonette out of the pasture before killing it with their boar lances. Jan Capera and Eldron Papas sat their horses near Bonn’s body, his eyes open and hazy with dust, flies already landing around his open mouth. Amia lay nearby, face down, her hair trampled into the dust, and four wet dusty holes on the back of her nightdress. Their morning boar hunt had been interrupted when from a distance they saw the young ranger and the servant girl climb the fence into a pasture that Jan Capera knew contained a bull dragonette on the verge of wing molt. They rode as swiftly as their horses could carry them, but the numerous fences slowed them and they arrived too late to do anything but sit their horses near the bodies and watch their servants slaughter the dragonette in the field.

"He would have made a fine dragonne," Jan commented as he looked at the body of the young man. "Did you see the way he brought the bull away from the girl and fixed it in place?"

"I’ve heard that he wanted to become a knight-servant," Eldron said. "But he was a poor horseman. I wouldn’t let him ruin my horses with his careless riding."

"He would have made a fine dragonne, I think," Jan repeated. "Look at his body. He has the body of a dragonne. He had grace and courage, but without proper training he couldn’t have anticipated the speed of the bull. He might have done well. But he let a girl ruin him. That's why the Temple requires the monks to take a vow of celibacy, to keep them from being killed so often in the ring. Many young men cannot understand this."

©2007-2008 Jeff Crook

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