I am Sarah Leann Young, a short story blogger and author writing fantasy, science fiction, action & adventure, and more. I am a writer, mother, wife and homemaker. I love all things book related, family related, and God related. I have loved writing, and been a writer, since I was a child. I've always had stacks of journals all filled up with my dreams, thoughts, and secrets since I was..
I'm so close, people! Only a few chapters left before the fourth revision of book one is complete. If you're behind, read last week's chapter 11 to catch up.
Just to recap briefly, in chapter 11...
Ilona is caught home alone when Darius and Vlad arrive at her cottage in Buda, only hours after Mary and John left with Mircea. Mary was on her way back after Anghel insisted she go back, but she didn't make it in time to beat Vlad and Darius to Ilona, and now Ilona faces the consequences of her betrayal to Vlad.
In a desperate attempt to save her own life, she blackmails Darius with their secret affair and threatens to tell Vlad about his betrayal if he doesn't let her live.
Read chapter 12 to find out what happens next.
Blood of the Covenant
The previous night
in Bran Castle
The dungeon beneath Bran Castle is a dark, windowless chamber of dark gray stone, ironclad prison cells, torture chambers full of the most gruesome tools of death and pain, dirt, darkness, and dried blood.
Wall torches are mounted against the stone brick walls and light the outer edges of each individual room or cell within the dungeon, while dark oak spherical chandeliers light the rooms closer to the center.
Vlad leads Lilith and Darius to the torture chamber, which is the largest room within the dungeon by far. There are several stone pillars at least five feet wide throughout the middle of the chamber, which hold more torches on every side.
As they reach the bottom of the stairs and make their way several feet into the chamber, Lilith’s eyes widen with excitement at the wide array of torture devices lined up neatly along the adjacent wall.
There are two long ropes hanging from a wooden beam which crosses above their heads, attaching to two of the chamber’s pillars. It wreaks of dried blood and is tinged with a dark red stain. Its latest victim’s tortured spirit still haunts the dungeon, filling it with the screams of the man who was slain only hours ago.
Lilith takes a slow and deep breath through her nose as if inhaling a breath of fresh air, her eyes closed and brows raised in pure bliss.
The wall is lined with a variety of pikes, spears, knives and other large weapons, while beyond the hanging ropes sits a long, wooden table with several, much smaller items. An iron device shaped like a pear catches Lilith’s attention. She picks it up and strokes it gently.
“The pear of anguish. This one is new,” she says, her eyes wide with glee. “Make sure you put this to good use,” she insists, then puts it back down on the table.
The three continue walking along the table, observing each item until they reach the wall perpendicular to the table, which is also lined with torture devices.
“The iron maiden, the iron boot, the gossip’s bridle, a Judas cradle, even a breast ripper. My, my, do you gentlemen enjoy the women?” she remarks with a snort.
“Those are mostly for Darius,” Vlad replies with a straight face. “I have very little preference, personally. Although, the repaying of a betrayal is always something I quite enjoy. The torture isn’t so much for punishment, however. I just find…” he pauses, thinking to himself. “...I find it interesting, how people behave when they are in unbearable pain, about to die.”
Lilith replies with a wide smile, and Darius shakes his head in amusement.
Once Lilith finishes observing their collection, the three reach the middle of the chamber, where a podium holds a smooth stone bowl large enough to bathe a small child. Sitting inside the bowl is a recently sharpened knife with a bronze handle. It displays the same symbol as Lilith’s necklace along its handle. The symbol of Queen Lilith, Ruler of Darkness, Keeper of the Immortal Blood Covenant.
They surround the bowl as Lilith picks up the knife. She holds it up to the light of the chamber’s torches to admire the design, and the red and orange of their flames bouncing off of its shiny blade.
“This is the Blood Ritual of the Immortals,” she explains. “All who complete the ritual will obtain the capacity to live forever on this earth, but whether you persist in your immortality is up to you. The ritual only gives you the opportunity. If you fail to do what is necessary to keep your covenant to immortality, you may be killed in your flesh and die from this earth. And when you do, you will be trapped within the Darkness of the Spiritual Realm for eternity.”
The men listen patiently as Lilith eyes them both to make sure they are listening carefully.
“With this ritual, you will also have the power to do things you never thought possible, and one thing in particular,” she says, turning to face Vlad. “...you will be able to locate your wife.”
Vlad raises his brow and looks to Darius with the hint of a smile.
“All of this you can have,” Lilith proceeds. “...in exchange for a few drops of your own blood, and with it, your immortal soul.”
Neither men show the slightest hint of doubt, with straight faces and stern expressions that simply imply, “Where do I sign?” They both step forward, rolling up their sleeves and putting an arm each within the rim of the bowl, turning their palms to the ceiling.
Lilith brings the knife back to the bowl. She rests the sharp edge of the blade within Vlad’s palm and presses down firmly, then slowly slides it along his flesh with just enough force to slice open his hand. A light trickle of blood splatters into the bowl beneath his hand.
She repeats the process with Darius, and then she slices her own hand, holding it directly above the bowl and squeezing her fist to allow a few drops of her own blood into the small puddle that lay below. She observes the bloody knife with lustful restraint, but abstains from its tempting taste and drops it to the floor beside her. It makes a loud clanking ring as both the handle and blade collide with the stone floor, but no one so much as blinks an eye.
She places her pointer finger into the bowl and begins dragging it through the blood, mixing it with her finger while firmly pressing down into the bowl itself and chanting the Spell of the Immortals:
Hic est sanguis meus, Effudi tibi. Pro anima mea ad me tuas, et immortalitatis.
Lux in tenebris fluxus per me
This is my blood,
poured out for thee.
In exchange for my soul, I am open to your power,
Let the Darkness flow through me.
Her eyelids flutter with a spastic twitch, then her eyes roll back into her head as she repeatedly chants the spell, again and again. She speaks slowly, with a firm whisper almost like a hiss as blood continues to drip from her hand into the bowl.
She then brings both of her hands to her sides. Her palms face the floor and she spreads her fingers apart, stretching each muscle and tightening each joint as if they are conducting an invisible force from another realm. Perhaps even Hell itself.
The men stare into each other’s eyes with vicious determination and only one thing on their mind. Or rather, one person.
Lilith and Darius go back upstairs shortly after the ritual is complete, leaving Vlad alone with his thoughts. He sits in a dark oaken chair by the podium reading The Book of the Immortal, a gift from the Queen, while Darius shows Lilith the rest of the castle.
Vlad flips through the pages of the book, searching for an answer to the nagging question in his mind. He stops flipping the pages when he finds what he’s looking for.
“Ah,” he whispers. “There you are.”
At the top of each page sits a title for each incantation. It is written in Latin, but Vlad is fluent.
Locating a Person
Vlad cracks a small grin, rises from his chair and carries the book several feet forward. He sits cross-legged onto the stone tiled floor and plops the book open before him to the page he’d saved with his thumb.
He reads the spell aloud with his palms pressed firmly against the floor at his sides. His eyes flutter and spasm, but his voice is deep and clear.
Quaero: est qui,
suis mihi monstrare.
Reduc me in semita ad eam
There is one that I seek,
point out their direction to me.
Put me on the path to find her…
Ilona Szilágyi Dracula,
Ilona Szilágyi Dracula,
Ilona Szilágyi Dracula!
The following day
Tears stream from Ilona’s eyes as Vlad continues to pull her hair down behind her head, forcing her eyes to stare straight into the ceiling. Her neck twists and strains under his force as she writhes against the frame of her chair, biting her lip in an attempt to avoid screaming in pain.
Darius stands beside them, leering down at Ilona alongside Vlad with hatred in his eyes.
Even in her current state of assured demise and pain, Ilona manages to mutter the words she’s been wanting to say since they’d arrived.
“How did you find me?” she seethes.
Tears gather in the corners of her eyes and streak down her face, but she fights to remain calm through the pain and fear. Smile spread across both of the men’s faces.
“Did you really believe you could hide from me?” says Vlad, still tugging down firmly on her hair and causing her to yelp with each pull. “You can never hide from me. Do you understand?” he whispers.
Ilona fights to find any remaining strength within her in the midst of her pain. One last tear falls from her cheek before her brow hardens angrily and she turns her head to meet Vlad’s gaze, through agony of him pulling her head further and further backward and downward. She glares at him before making a quick inhale and spitting in his face.
“Pula mea!” she hisses. Vlad’s eyes widen in surprise as he straightens up and wipes the spit from his cheek. Ilona takes a deep breath and hardens her face to stone, hysterical with rage.
“The depths of Hell will swallow you and your horrible son into an eternity of misery, anguish and utter torture! Just as you have done to so many undeserving people in your life!”
Vlad’s brow raises as he loosens his grip on Ilona’s hair.
“I am not your wife anymore, Vlad Tepes Dracula. I am an Anghel! Do whatever you want with me. I don’t care.”
Vlad stares down at her for a moment in silent thought before slapping her across the face and sending her to the floor with the force of its impact. Ilona gasps in pain and holds her cheek as she rises to a sitting position on the floor.
“You’re not as smart as I once thought,” says Vlad. Darius lets out a light chuckle, but then stops once he sees Ilona staring up at him with her eyes squinted in a threat that sinks his stomach.
“Alright,” says Vlad. “I think we’ve had enough of you. It’s time,” he says, looking to Darius. Darius nods in understanding and pulls a knife from his belt, but doubt fills his mind, and uncertainty makes him pause.
Vlad scrunches his brow at Darius’ hesitation until finally Darius walks over to Ilona, grabs her by the arm and drags her, kicking and screaming to the living room.
“Wait!” She shouts. “Wait!”
Darius grabs a linen napkin from the kitchen table in a frazzled panic and stuffs it into her mouth, then restrains her hands behind her back. Vlad then takes one of her hands and cuts it open at the palm with the knife. Darius holds her down on the floor as she screams into the napkin.
Blood seeps from the wound and drips to the floor, but Vlad stares at her bleeding hand impatiently as it barely allows any blood to escape the cut.
“You don’t bleed very easily, my dear,” he says with a sigh. He grabs her hand again and makes another slice, creating a criss-cross pattern cut into her hand, and allowing more blood to drip onto the floor.
“Ah, there we are. Much better,” he says.
Darius then squeezes her hand within his, causing even more blood to pour from the wound. She groans in pain as she squirms on the floor beneath them, but they watch the blood trickle from her hand into the small puddle forming on the floor like dogs waiting for the trough to be filled with water.
After several minutes of wringing blood from Ilona’s obstinate hand and several more minutes of violent wrestling, a large puddle has gathered on the floor beside them and the men are finally satisfied.
Darius yanks Ilona by her arm and shoves her toward the living room beyond the kitchen, then crouches next to Vlad on the floor where the bloody puddle lay.
Ilona pulls herself onto the sofa and pulls the napkin from her mouth, then cradles her deeply cut hand and sobs.
Vlad dips his pointer finger into the blood and begins using it to write something onto the floor, but Darius stops him. He grabs Vlad’s wrist, and Vlad looks over at him in confusion.
“Wait,” he says, looking over to Ilona, then back at Vlad.
“What is it, Darius?” Vlad snaps.
“She’s far more resentful than I’d imagined she would be.”
Vlad squints his eyes at Darius.
“What of it?” he replies.
“I think we should change the incantation. For our own sake,” says Darius.
Vlad scoffs at the suggestion.
“You’re weak, and a fool,” says Vlad. “She must be punished for her betrayal.”
“Yes, but…” Darius pauses, watching her sob on the couch. “...if we’re not going to kill her, we should limit the punishment to something less torturous, or she will find her own vengeance in one form or another. Father,” he leans in closer and lowers his voice to a whisper. “We’re underestimated her before. Don’t do it again. Have your vengeance and leave her be, or kill her. There can be no in between, or we will surely face her again in the future,” he says.
Vlad pauses in thought. Then begins writing on the floor with his pointer finger dripping with blood.
Ilona Szilágyi Dracula
contentionem, morbo, paupertas
He reads the words aloud as she sits quietly on the sofa, her eyes wide with terror. At first, he only whispers the words loud enough for himself and Darius to hear, but then he repeats it louder, slowly turning his gaze to meet hers, and she stares back at him in horror at what evil awaits her now.
Vlad rises to his feet and repeats the incantation once again.
“Ilona Szilágyi Dracula: Illness, poverty, and strife.”
Mary reaches Buda and arrives back at the Anghel cottage only hours after she originally left this morning. She dismounts her horse with nervous haste and rushes through the front gate to the house. She throws open the front door and rushes inside. She sees no one.
Blood is splattered across the living room floor in long strings of red horror leading to a giant puddle in the kitchen by the dining table. Mary almost slips in the puddle as she hurries through the kitchen, gasping for air and letting out a cry in horror at the gruesome sight of it.
‘Oh, Lord. I’m too late!’ she thinks. Her chin quivers and her knees nearly give way as she tears through the cottage in a panic of fear.
“Madam?” she shouts. “Are you here?” she yells. “Ilona!”
A faint sound comes from Ilona’s bedroom. A quiet and weakened voice, perhaps of a child she thinks. She turns and runs into the bedroom, but it isn’t a child. It’s Ilona.
“My lady!” she shouts. She runs to Ilona’s bedside, but retreats as Ilona raises her palm toward her, signaling her to stop. Mary stops in the middle of the bedroom and peers down at the poor frail woman whose eyes are exceedingly puffy, much worse than this morning. Her skin is pale and colorless, except for the bruises and darkened red cuts on her face, arms, and neck. Her hair appears damp with sweat as shorter strands stick to her clammy forehead and face, yet the cottage is as cold as a winter’s night.
Ilona appears both deathly ill and severely wounded, complete with dry retches from an empty stomach and violent coughing.
“Madam, what happened? Are you alright?” asks Mary, taking a step forward. Ilona puts her hand up once again to stop her from coming near, unable to speak right away from a current round of dreadful coughing.
“Stay away, Mary,” she manages to get out in a voice much too weak to be her own.
“What? Why?” replies Mary. “You’re ill, my lady! I should be taking care of you!” she says.
“No. You mustn't, Mary. Please,” Ilona begs.
Mary looks down at her, baffled.
“But, Ilona...why?” she asks. Ilona takes a deep breath and holds her hand over her mouth for a few seconds to avoid more retching before she responds.
“They found me, Mary,” she says. Mary’s eyes widen with fear as she looks around the room frantically, in the possibility that they might still be there. “They’re gone now, but they were here. They found me. I told you they would find me,” she repeats, shaking her head.
“And...they didn’t kill you,” Mary affirms with surprise.
“No. No, they didn’t kill me,” replies Ilona. She grasps at her chest as her body lunges forward from the force of another phlegmy cough.
“Well, what happened?” Mary asks. “How did you become so ill so quickly?”
“They cursed me,” Ilona answers hoarsely. She shakes her head before dropping it back to rest on her bed frame. “They cursed me, and anyone who touches my blood. They took my blood and cursed it with illness, poverty, and strife, for the rest of my life,” she says.
Mary’s eyes widen and she raises her brow. Ilona can tell she doesn’t believe her, and yet again she persists in coming closer.
“Mary, you can’t touch me. You can’t come near me at all, or you’ll risk touching my blood. I have so many open cuts right now. I couldn’t live with myself if I let you touch me and you receive this curse as well,” she says through more painful coughing.
Mary stands silently at Ilona’s bedside, staring helplessly at her friend’s broken and weakened body, which will be that way until the day she dies.
“If that is your blood all over the living room and in the kitchen, then I’ve already slipped in it, but it hasn’t touched my skin. I’ll be alright, my lady.”
“Please, go to Oradea, Mary. You will be safer there. Safe from me.”
Mary shakes her head in protest.
“Mircea is in good hands, my lady,” she says. “Your cuts will dry and heal, and then I can take care of you. Your son is going to be very well taken care of. You shall be also.”
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I finally finished Battle Mage. Whew, what a read! It's been quite some time since I've read a book longer than 300 pages, but I did it, and I have to say, I'm ready to tackle another one.
The sad truth is, the attention span of the average person is shrinking rapidly what with the instant gratification that people enjoy now and the popularity of movies, television and social media rather than books. But that's a topic for another day. The point I'm trying to make is that I hadn't realized how puny my own attention span had become until trying to read a 600-page epic fantasy, which I haven't really done since High School to be honest.
And it was worth it, guys.
Here is my review of Peter Flannery's Battle Mage, an "Epic Fantasy Adventure" as he puts it in the subtitle. And an epic fantasy adventure it is indeed!
You know my criteria, but for those just beginning to familiarize themselves with my review process, here they are:
5. Writing Style/Voice
Let's get this party started, shall we?
Plot - 4/5
There were points in the story that were truly riveting, while just a couple of points where I had to take a break because I was losing interest (again with that doggone attention span). But I always came back to it. I just couldn't not finish it.
I would give it a 5 here, but the honest truth is that I've read thicker plots before. Plots that had me practically ripping the pages as fast as they would turn. Plots that had me dying to know what was going to happen next.
Battle Mage has solid, good plot, but I wasn't dying to know, you know? I wasn't ripping the pages. There were a few points where I got dangerously close, and a few points where I looked up at my husband and gasped, throwing things at him to get his attention and tell him all about what was going on...but you know how husbands are. So I would just go back to reading.
All in all, the plot was good. Great in some areas, just good in others, but never lacking, and never anything below good.
Characters - 4/5
Ya'll know how I feel about character development. It's vital. Crucial. Essential even. Flannery basically nails it. I was hooked from the very beginning with Falco and Malaki. The way they interact with each other, the bond that they have, and the difficulties they face.
The slightly less than perfect plot was easily made up for by excellent characters and character development. The only reason I don't give it a 5 here is because there were a few characters that I'd wished he spent more time developing and focusing on, or more time explaining where they ended up in the end.
Regardless of that one minor flaw, the characters are easy to stick with for 600 pages easily. In fact, I probably could have read on for 200 more. Just a tad bit more attention to the secondary characters would have been nice.
Theme - 5/5
Oh, Theme. You know how I love you, too. A decent Epic Fantasy is rarely short on an excellent theme. Battle Mage is no exception.
The strength of one's heart, soul, and character above their physical stature.
The courage and integrity in having honesty and an alliance to the truth in the face of massive corruption, deceit, and even the threat of death.
Perseverance and the will to go on, even through what may actually be unrelenting evil and pain.
Courage in the face of pure evil, even when you know that you face death itself. Most cannot find the courage to have it, but some "great souls" can, and it can take upon it the burden of the fear of others, too.
The unity that comes when men come together to fight for what they believe in.
I could go on. This epic fantasy doesn't just have one good theme. It has several. I do have to be honest here though. It's a weak 5. This is just because my standards of perfection rest somewhere within the realm of Lord of the Rings, and it's hard to beat that.
A 5 it is though, because I can't find any reason to give it a 4.
Setting/World - 4/5
Flannery's world in Battle Mage isn't that unique or interesting. The cultures aren't that well developed or described in too much detail, but I don't necessarily find anything negative about this world either. It fit perfectly well with the rest of the story, but I wasn't completely in love with it either.
I'm looking for Middle Earth with Hobbits and Elves, so...a 4 out of 5 is basically the best anyone is going to get from me here.
Writing Style & Voice - 4/5
“A silence settled over the city, a silence that spoke of twenty thousand equally sad goodbyes: lover to lover, mother to son, and father to confused and frightened child. They promised to be careful. They promised to return. But a soldier cannot keep such promises. He can only hope that they come true.”
Once again, I just couldn't find myself to give him a full 5 points here for just a few minor flaws, but for the most part, I did really love the writing style and voice of the writer.
As for the minor flaw, there's actually only one. There were places where it felt as though his dedication to the initially very captivating writing style was faltering. The prologue and the first paragraph of the first chapter had me hooked, but then there were places where I wondered if his editor just missed something, or if he actually meant to write it that way.
Then I realized it could simply be due to the fact that he isn't American and his English is just different than what I'm used to reading. *shrug*
For the most part, however, I quite enjoyed his writing style and voice. Just the occasional hiccup where I wasn't quite sure about his use of the English language is all. So, 4!
Conclusion: SLY Score: 21/25
A 21/25 makes the total score a B average, which honestly...I thought it would be just a little bit higher after all was said and done. I enjoyed the book a lot more than most other fantasy novels I've read in the past several years, but I guess that initial high standard of Tolkien dancing in the back of my mind makes it difficult for anyone to really break the "B" barrier for me anyway.
Sorry Peter, but a B is the best I can give. Just know that any better and you'd be in Tolkien territory, my friend.
I'm a huge Marvel and DC movie geek. Yes, I said both Marvel and DC. Although, I mostly like DC just because of Batman, while I didn't care much for their other film adaptations of Wonder Woman or Superman nearly as much.
Both have their pros and cons, but generally speaking I usually enjoy Marvel a little bit more for several reasons, but I don't really want to get into those now. I'll have to save that argument for another blog post and another day.
Today, I want to write about why I'm very quickly losing interest in the Avengers movies.
In The Beginning...I loved it.
Watching all (or most) of the Marvel characters that have been slowly developed and built up within their own movie series over the years come together to work as a unique, versatile team. It was good fun.
The first Avengers movie was highly anticipated, entertaining, and pretty well done for the most part I think. Also, Loki made a good villain. It's hard to find a movie with a legitimately frightening villain these days, and Loki had a way about him that made my skin crawl in that first Avengers movie.
When he would look at you through that silver screen and grin, you kind of looked around at the other people near you and wondered, "Is he actually staring into my soul?"
Also, I've always favored Iron Man over the other Avengers, and he seemed to get a lot of the spotlight in that first Avengers movie, so I couldn't say I was disappointed about that.
Eh, I'm losing the will to go on, guys.
Here's the deal. I love all of the characters, individually, for exactly who they are. And that's the key. That's the hook that initially lured me in. The characters.
Iron Man, and his witty, asshole remarks, his intelligence, and then his vulnerable, wounded side that fears abandonment and therefore holds everyone at a distance. He's real, and I love that about him.
Captain America, and his embodiment of high ethical standards, and his determination to do everything within the scope of his strong convictions and values. His unfailing clean language and the refusal to swear can be humorous, and while some people might find him sickeningly sweet for his strong values, others who share his views find him refreshing. I find him refreshing.
Then you have Thor, dripping with the masculinity that can barely be contained within his demi-god rock of a body. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's a good character nonetheless, combining a similar devout dedication to his convictions that Captain America has but adding to it a sort of supernatural strength that exudes power isn't something that we really get from the Cap.
Black Widow. She didn't get her own movie, but people can still get a pretty good idea of who she is and what kind of person she is. That scene in Iron Man where she has the curly hair and kicks tons of ass is pretty great, too. I've heard rumors that they're going to make a Black Widow movie. They should have done that already, but I won't complain if they decide to wait until after I'm bored with the Avengers to renew my interest with more character-focused projects.
Which brings me to the Hulk. First of all, I'll admit I wasn't too happy when I heard that what's-his-face wouldn't be acting as the Hulk in the Avenger's movies, but now, as you can see, I don't even remember his name, so...don't care!
They need to give Mark Ruffalo his own Hulk movie though. Seriously. He's better for the character, and he stepped in when what's-his-face flaked out like...someone who shouldn't be the Incredible Hulk, right? I mean, it's hard to really connect with the Hulk now, and I want to, because I think he could be another favorite of mine, if I knew more about him. And now I feel like I don't know anything about him, because it's a different face behind the name.
Now, Spiderman should be an entire blog post on its own, because I could go on about everything they've done to screw up THAT one, but I'll stop lolly-gagging on the characters and save that for another time.
The point is, great characters make for great stories. And character-driven plots make for better plot-lines.
In their respective films, each character was the center of the story's attention. I was happy because I got to soak in the character development and enjoy each one individually. And while the first Avenger's film was fun to watch with the different personalities clashing and poking fun, once that was all said and done...I just wanted the mindless action to stop, and the focus on the characters to come back.
The writers worked hard to focus on the characters in their own respective movies, and even in that first Avenger's movie too. That's important, because good character development and character driven plot is key to a good story, in my opinion.
But then, they stopped. They stopped caring about the characters so much, and started thinking more about the plot. But, even the plot-lines that they've come up with for the past couple of Avengers movies haven't been that good, because they weren't character-driven!
Entertaining fights, funny jokes, and a bigger, badder villain who has the power to threaten more of their existence than the last one. That's what it's become. The characters, their stories, and their actions have now taken a back seat to entertaining the masses with mindless action.
Ugh, Marvel. You're losing me! Please go back to making movies for the individual characters, or find a way to focus more on the characters, or at least a good, character-driven plot in the next Avenger movie. Please, I beg of you. I can't handle anymore aimless flying without something to hold onto.
You've screwed up the Cap and Iron Man with Civil War (another separate post for another day), you've turned Spiderman into a one-dimensional funny-man-child with no real depth of character (I miss you, Tobey Maguire!), and you've turned the Avengers into a hodgepodge of chaos with no central theme, resolution, or character focus.
I mean, look. You've got like ten main characters in Infinity War. AT LEAST TEN. You don't see a problem with that?
And another thing! You took Sherlock away from me by making Benedict Cumberbatch Doctor Strange! Which, is actually great, but...I miss Sherlock! *cries*
Okay, I feel better now. Until next time, when I complain about Spiderman, or Captain America: Civil War.
While Mircea and Mary have managed to leave Buda with John and his boyars safely, Ilona remains at home alone.
Anghel urged Mary to turn back and return to her friend at the end of Chapter 10, but whether she will get there in time to protect her from Darius and Vlad, she is unsure.
Ilona is grief stricken and paralyzed by the sadness that torments her after saying goodbye to baby Mircea without knowing whether she will ever see him again or not. And now, she is forced to abandon her grieving for a much stronger resolve as she is faced with yet another new challenge.
Read on, SLY Readers. Read on!
Dealing with the Devil
Ilona lays sleeping in her bed, hoping in her dreams to wake and discover that her son is still sleeping peacefully in his bassinet beside her. Every hour that she wakes and finds him still gone, she goes back to sleep.
The balmos that Mary had made earlier this morning still sits untouched on the stove top, cold, stale, and hardening as the day passes. The cottage is as silent as death, the feeling of which Ilona sleeps away for several hours, avoiding the emptiness that now surrounds her.
Eventually, however, she becomes so bothered by the sight of the bassinet that she manages to move it to Mary’s room, where she never goes and will never have to see it again. She lifts the wicker bassinet by the rim and carries it out of the bedroom, down the hall, and to Mary's old bedroom.
She sets it on the floor beside the far corner of the room, behind the bed and out of sight. Now even if she does happen to pass by the bedroom for some reason, she still won’t be able to see it from the hallway. She then goes back to her bedroom to retrieve the wooden stand that holds it and carries it to Mary’s room as well, sliding it under the bed.
As she leans back from under the bed, she lets the bed skirt fall back into place, covering the bassinet stand, and taking it out of her life. She blinks slowly, her head swimming and dizzy. She crawls onto the bed from where she kneels on the floor and slouches forward, resting her forehead in the palms of her hands. Her new sleeping habits, lack of eating, and excessive crying is now beginning to take its toll on her body.
Letting out a deep sigh, she does all she can to comfort herself in this moment of overwhelming grief and loneliness.
“Oh, Ilona. You’ll be alright. And Mircea will be, too. At least you’re free of the Draculas,” she says to herself. She snorts in amusement as if her current problems are minor compared to what she’s dealt with in the past.
She rests on the bed while her balance returns, then takes a deep breathe and decides that she’s wasted enough time moping on Mary’s old bed. Staying there any longer will only keep her drowning in her own sorrow for the rest of her life.
She rises from the bed and rubs her eyes, then remembers that the goat still needs her care.
“Ah, yes. Lenuta,” she whispers under her breath.
She pulls her hair back, tying it behind her head into a tail and wipes the crusted tears from her eyes. ‘At least Lenuta still needs me.’
Ilona leaves Mary's room and passes the kitchen to the back door, where she approaches the large, brown leather boots by the back door and steps into each one, tying the leather laces at the top of each boot. A presence watches her from the kitchen, but she is too exhausted to notice.
She then lifts an over-sized thick, wool coat from a hanger by the door and puts it on. She turns back to get her milking bucket from the kitchen, but halts at the sight of a man sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of her cold, herbal tea.
Ilona freezes in her steps and presses a hand firmly against her heart as she gasps loudly.
The broad shouldered young man with short, jet black hair, unmistakable ringlet curls and deep blue eyes meet her gaze with a smile. It sucks the air from her lungs. She stumbles backward, almost falling to the ground from pure shock, but the heavy, broad- footed boots keep her planted on her feet, staring back at him in wide-eyed horror.
He sips gently from the cold brew and cringes at its coldness, then puts it back on the table and leers up at Ilona with sadistic joy in his eyes.
Ilona quickly regains her composure and transforms from appearing terrified at her stepson’s surprising presence to barely even caring that he is there at all. After all, she knew he was coming for her. She knew she would most likely die as soon as Darius and Vlad found her. And although her thoughts still ache from the loss of Mircea and Mary, it wanes upon the possibility of imminent death. The mixture of emotions leave her looking exhausted and indifferent.
Her shoulders slouch, still exhausted and in no mood to appease Darius with the shock that he gleefully expects.
“Darius,” she finally replies, gazing at him with droopy eyes and a weak posture. She sighs deeply as Darius raises an eyebrow, unsure of what to make of her indifferent attitude.
“Father should be here any moment,” he says casually, as if to threaten her with something that might bring her more fear. She simply drops her chin with a nod of understanding and trudges to the other kitchen chair, sitting directly across from him at the table. She plops into the chair and leers at him, with only the success of Mircea and Mary’s escape now in her mind.
‘I may never see him again, and I may die today, but they will never get Mircea,’ she thinks to herself.
Darius quickly loses patience with Ilona’s uncharacteristic attitude and sits up to lean across the table, coming within inches of her face, nearly standing up out of his chair to reach her.
“I don’t know how you did this, but I am going to take great pleasure in watching you suffer,” he says.
“Haven’t you already been doing that your entire life, my dear?” she retorts. “And are you really threatening me with Vlad? I thought it was your sole purpose to keep my mouth shut. You do realize that I have nothing to lose in telling Vlad the truth about what you’ve done to me, don’t you?”
Darius chokes on the tea he's just begun to swallow in response, but then regains his composure.
"Father has convinced himself that you’ve betrayed him just by leaving. What makes you think he’ll believe a word that you say? You’re a coward already. You could be a liar, too,” says Darius.
Ilona blinks slowly and smirks, even while he sits so close to her face that he could bludgeon her with his head, if he were so inclined. She is fearless, or at least she appears to be.
“I could be, if it were simply your word against mine. But that isn’t the case. You know how your father is with me, and with everyone and anyone else who comes into contact with me. I have physical proof of your crimes. Of course a lot of it has faded with time, but I still have my journals, my scars, and then the witness,” Ilona says with a devious smile.
“Witness? What witness?” Darius quips, doubt looming in his eyes.
“Mary, the handmaid who walked in on us that one afternoon last Spring. She will tell the Prince what she saw without hesitation."
Ilona sits up straight in her chair, staring back into Darius’ eyes with a fire in her heart that she’s never felt before in her life. Darius’ eyes widen at her aggressive demeanor and he backs off, sitting back down at the table across from her.
“Well, well,” he replies. “It seems it has been so long since your last lesson that you’ve forgotten your place.”
He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, but Ilona is no longer intimidated by her stepson’s manipulative tactics and threats. Now she is the one leaning forward in her chair, and she rises several inches to look straight into Darius’ eyes.
“Mary isn’t the only witness to what you’ve done. Everyone in that castle knows what you’ve done. They’ve kept their mouths shut for fear of losing their lives to the son of Vlad the Impaler, but they know where their allegiance really lies, and it’s with the Impaler, not his pathetic, coward of a son,” she hisses. “They only fear you because you’re of the same name and disgusting habits, but if pushed by Vlad himself, they will all concede to the truth, Darius,” she exclaims, slamming a fist on the table below her.
“Or…” Darius begins. “I could just kill you now, before father even arrives,” he threatens, rubbing his short, black beard with his fingers, a twinkle of sadistic wonder in his eyes.
Ilona’s confidence wavers. She had hoped her threats would keep Darius quiet, and her alive, at least until she could find a new hiding place. Unfortunately, Darius doesn't seem the least bit concerned with her threats, and the little doubt he had at first has apparently dissipated from his mind.
But then, she thinks of something. It might work. It might not. It might be a terrible idea. Either way, she is much too exhausted, terrified, angry, and grief stricken to think rationally now, so she goes with it, for whatever it may be worth.
“You could do that,” she begins to reply. “But then, he will still find out…unless I can prevent that from happening. And believe me, I am the only thing preventing that from happening.”
Ilona pauses, not sure of whether or not to go on. Darius raises his brow in interest, and makes the decision for her.
“How would he still find out if you are dead?” he wonders.
Darius’ eyes widen as he realizes what Ilona has done.
“What are you saying?” he demands.
“I’m saying that Mary has escaped Bran Castle just as I have, and she has been given specific instructions to reveal the truth and expose your crimes if I am ever killed. You will not find her where she is now, but I assure you that she is ready and waiting. You cannot stop it from happening, if you ever lay another finger on me again.”
Darius leans back in his chair once again, stroking his beard and thinking deeply.
“I don’t believe you,” he finally says.
Fear looms in the back of Ilona’s mind, but she doesn’t let it show. Darius is actually full of doubt and worry, and he wouldn’t put it past Ilona to have something like this planned. He stares fiercely into her eyes, unsure of what to believe, but too fearful of the consequences for being wrong to take a risk. He watches her carefully, waiting for any signs of dishonesty to show.
Ilona is determined to keep her composure, and she stares back at him with a confidence that only Anghel's hidden presence could convince her to have.
'Don't worry,' he whispers in her thoughts. 'Help is on the way.'
Darius' stare is broken by a noise from Mary’s bedroom. The sound of something large falling and hitting the floor startles them both, and they break their frozen gaze to sit up and look to the bedroom door.
Darius is immediately suspicious.
“Do you have someone else living with you here?” he asks.
"No," Ilona exclaims, but Darius is unconvinced. He squints at her and cracks a grin.
Ilona’s eyes widen with fear, suddenly stricken by the possibility that Mary may have come back. She presses her eyes closed tightly for a mere second and prays with all her heart that it isn’t Mary, or Mircea, or worse, both of them.
Darius looks behind her to the hallway beyond the kitchen. He gets up from his chair and begins to walk in that direction when the front door swings open. Vlad stands waiting at its threshold.
Ilona's entire body stiffens at the sight of him. She sits frozen, paralyzed by fear.
Darius was right to threaten her with his presence, and for all the acting she was able to muster before, it was failing her now. Vlad the Impaler has found her, and he is here to take his revenge.
Darius may have abused and raped her for several years in Vlad's absence, but the mere presence of Vlad the Impaler was enough to overshadow anything Darius could do to Ilona by a factor of ten to one.
In Wallachia, Ilona had eventually accepted her place with Darius, tolerated it, and simply allowed it to continue to keep him from causing her any trouble. At least, any more trouble than she was already in. While she despised him and felt confident enough to express that hatred openly with him, her relationship with Vlad was a different story.
Vlad was just as abusive to Ilona as Darius was, but their was an air of terror and fear with Vlad's presence that Darius' could never match. She did not fear Darius himself. Only what he could do to her. He was a cowardly little weasel compared to his father, and had he not threatened her with Vlad himself, and had he not been a man of superior strength, she would not have tolerated his abuse in the first place.
She never expressed her hatred for her husband, however. She couldn't. Not without losing her life. Terrified respect was the tone she had with Vlad, and still does, regardless of her living circumstances. Anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in the presence of the Impaler has the same fearful reverence.
Usually, it is Darius who uses Vlad against Ilona in order to keep her quiet, but now, Ilona is using Vlad as a threat to Darius, who must now decide how much he trusts Ilona's claims, and how much he fears his own father.
Darius typically finds Ilona's fear of Vlad quite amusing, but today, now that Ilona has turned the tables on him, he is uncertain of whether even the son of Dracula is safe from the Impaler’s wrath. If Ilona's threats turn out to be legitimate, he has no choice but to obey her demands, unless he wishes to lose his own head.
Vlad enters the modest cottage, walks through the main living room, and makes his way to the kitchen table, where Darius now stands and Ilona remains seated. She shows the first real expression of fear since seeing Darius’ initial arrival, but tries earnestly to remain calm and appear unaffected.
It is in this moment that Ilona realizes she hasn’t nursed Mircea in several hours, and milk is now beginning to gush from her left nipple. Her eyes widen in horror, but she reassures herself as she realizes she’s still wearing the thick, wool coat that she put on to go outside earlier.
She tries not to press too firmly on either of her breasts for fear of releasing more milk and leans forward to keep her clothing from pressing on them too much either. She covers her chest by folding the coat across it, and praying that the men simply don’t notice.
“Woman,” Vlad seethes, staring her down like a wolf to a helpless lamb. She musters all the courage she has left to look up at him from where she sits, raising her chin and staring right back into his bloodthirsty gaze.
“Vlad,” she replies. “I suppose you're here to kill me.”
Vlad is taken aback. He shifts his weight and squints at her with curious concern, unsure of how to react to her uncharacteristic confidence. He then takes a small step backward and looks to Darius, who shrugs as if he’s just as clueless as Vlad is.
“Don’t tell me you’re looking forward to death. You’re much too fragile for that,” he laughs.
“No,” she answers. “But I certainly don’t fear it. Not anymore. I knew you would find me. I knew you would eventually kill me. I’ve lived the happiest year of my entire life since leaving Bran, and I’m prepared to die in peace. You can’t hurt me any longer. You might as well just get this over with and go back to your warmongering.”
Vlad purses his lips and raises his brow. He crosses his arms and cracks a small grin, amused by her appearance of fearlessness.
“Ilona, do you even remember me?” he almost whispers.
Ilona stares back at him, trying earnestly to hold her stern expression, but doubt begins to grow within her, and the fear returns once again. Vlad stares deeply into her eyes, searching for it, and finds it within a few seconds. His eyes stare with demented confidence as a small grin grows on his face.
“No, you know who you’re talking to. You haven’t forgotten anything,” he says.
Ilona sits silently as her anger and confidence fade under the weight of Vlad's presence. She has a real fear that he could snatch her head with the speed of a serpent, and jerk it from her shoulders with the strength of a bear. Her head slowly droops with her eyes looking to the floor, like a child being scolded for making some stupid mistake. Vlad can see that she is now, subdued, but he continues to lecture her anyway.
“I don’t just kill people. I make them suffer for their iniquities against me, and against the Order. You, my dear, must be punished. Why would I reward you with the instant gratification of escape from this world through death?” he asks with a condescending smile.
Darius cracks a grin, but then remembers the situation he is still in, while Vlad slowly inches his way closer to Ilona, eventually standing directly in front of her. He snatches the tail of her hair within his fist, pulling it down behind her head and forcing her to look up into his eyes. She gasps at the sharp pain, but then clamps her mouth shut to stop from screaming. He stares down into her eyes, enjoying every expression of pain that escapes from within her.
“Why would I kill you, when I can do something so much worse?”
Finally! Here we are. After over a month of internet and computer chaos, I'm back in the saddle again. And I have to say, it feels good.
I've been doing a lot of reading, a lot of hand-writing, old school style, and a lot of thinking about Mircea. I've come up with a few new plot twists for much later down the road, and made a few changes to this very chapter as well.
But anyway, I'm not going to waste precious writing time rambling on about my random thoughts on writing. Here it is! Chapter 10!
Ilona wakes the next morning to a gentle hug from Mary. It is still an hour before dawn will break, but John and his men insisted on leaving as early as possible in order to make the ride back to Oradea smooth and quick.
Ilona slowly pushes herself up to a sitting position in her bed and Mary sits beside her at its edge. They sit silently together in the dark, watching Mircea sleep quietly in his bassinet, both exhausted from the sleepless, solemn night behind them. Both women have dark circles under their puffy eyes, covered in crust from dried tears. They spent most of the night crying, unsure of when Mary and Mircea will get to see Ilona again, if ever at all.
John appears in the bedroom doorway. He watches the women quietly for a moment before announcing, “It’s time.” Mary puts an arm around Ilona before helping her with her robe, while Ilona seems barely able to bring herself to leave her bed. She fights back more tears as she buries her face into her hands, and Mary gives her a gentle pat on the back before looking to John with sadness in her eyes.
They leave her alone with her son for one final moment together before they must say goodbye. John forces a smile at Mary as she passes him at the door’s threshold, and she wipes a tear away as she heads to the kitchen to make one last bowl of balmos for Ilona. John turns to follow her and gently closes the bedroom door behind him.
A deep sigh escapes Ilona’s quivering lips and her brow tightens fiercely as she blinks more tears away. They fall from her cheeks onto Mircea’s blankets where he lays warm and safe by her bed, unaware of the chaotic hell that surrounds him. And yet she can see in his eyes that he knows something. What that could be, she doesn’t know, but she can see the empathy in his eyes for his mother. He can sense her anxiety, her worry, and her fear, and it unsettles him.
She picks him up and brings his face to hers, brushing his cheek with hers and kissing him gently before fighting off yet even more more tears before leaving the room herself. The empty bassinet remains in the room, alone and in the dark. It will continue to be a cruel reminder of her now childless life unless she can get rid of it somehow.
Everyone is waiting for her outside at the gate by the dirt road.
“Let’s not prolong the most painful experience a mother could have in her entire life,” Mary suggests to John’s boyars. They all complied respectfully and prepared the horses ahead of time. It should be a swift and painful, but brief goodbye.
Ilona swaddles Mircea snugly with a thick, wool blanket and taking deep, heavy breaths, her chin quivers as tears seem to now permanently fill her eyes. John and Mary stand outside the gate with the horses and carriage ready and waiting. They will ride together and take turns holding Mircea for the trip to Oradea, ensuring his warmth and comfort for the entire journey.
Ilona takes one last look at her baby and hands him to Mary, then covering her mouth with both hands, she muffles the deepest cries of the most heartbroken mother in the world.
Mary cries as well as she carries Mircea to the carriage and hands him to John. He wastes no time in climbing into the carriage with Mircea in his arms, taking him out of Ilona’s sight, and now her life.
The women embrace in a firm hug for several seconds, crying together before Mary finally pulls away, promising through tear blinded eyes, “He will be alright, madam. Everything will be alright.” She then joins John in the carriage, but no one waves goodbye. They just leave. No one could stomach yet another goodbye. Not even Johns boyars dare to look Ilona in the eyes for fear of their own hearts being broken by her now hopeless gaze.
Ilona falls to her knees and weeps uncontrollably as the carriage pulls away. Her baby Mircea Ciobanul is taken away from her by her own demand.
“I love you, Mircea!” she cries. The carriage disappears into the brush beyond the hill. “I love you!”
She begins to loathe herself for ever having allowed Vlad Tepes Dracula into her life in the first place. She wonders what kind of a mother sends her child to live so far away for his entire life, and she grieves for Mircea as if he were dead and gone from the world, never to return to her again.
She pounds the stepping stones on the ground angrily with the palms of her hands and sobs for what seems like hours, until the sun rises over the hill, peeking through the curtain of leaves of the willow tree. She prays the strongest and most dire prayer she will make in her life.
“Please, Lord. Bring him back to me. Protect him, keep him safe, and care for him as you have done for me. Protect him from the Draculas. Keep him out of their sight, and give him the courage to live the life that I could not. Make him the shepherd to our fallen world, protect him from their evil, and bring him back to me. Please, bring him back. Please.”
She remains on her knees, but then lowers her face to the ground, burying it into the palms of her hands which lay on the ground beneath her. She cries until she can’t cry anymore, and she pleads with her son, who can no longer hear her.
“Please, Mircea. Please come back to me, my boy.”
The ride out of Buda is painfully silent. The Oradean boyars ride their horses ahead of and behind the carriage while John and Mary sit inside with only Mircea to give them company.
Mary wipes away a few lingering tears as she holds Mircea tightly in her arms, forcing a smile as his eyelids shift and flutter with the threat of opening. The faint voice of Ilona still rings in her ears, in a broken voice declaring her love for a son that she may never know. And another tear falls from Mary’s from her eye.
John lets out a deep sigh, but his expression brightens slightly at the view of the most precious, sleeping baby.
“I just don’t understand,” he finally says, breaking the silence. After almost three miles of nothing but the sound of the horses trotting along the rough terrain on the dirt beaten path and the squeaking of the carriage as it bounces along all around them, conversation seems necessary.
“Understand what?” Mary replies.
“Why is she so certain that Vlad will find her anywhere she goes?” says John.
Mary blinks a few times in hesitation before responding. “It’s difficult to explain,” she says.
John raises an eyebrow at her. “Difficult to explain, or difficult to understand?”
Mary sighs and strokes Mircea’s curly black hair.
“I don’t know. Both, I suppose.”
“Perhaps you could attempt explaining it to me anyway.”
Mary rubs her eyes, still puffy and red from an amount of crying no eyes could tolerate. She sighs at John’s persistence, then closes her eyes and rests her head on the wooden back of the carriage bench. Taking deep breaths and hoping to fall asleep soon, she has no desire to continue a conversation like this with John this morning, or anyone else for that matter.
“Mary,” another man’s voice says. Mary keeps her eyes closed and doesn't respond. She even pretends not to hear him, if it means another conversation avoided. His voice is deep and comforting, and familiar. After a few minutes of listening to his voice, she doesn’t actually realize someone is talking to her at all.
He finally repeats himself enough times that she is startled from her sleepy haze and she forces her bloodshot eyes open. Looking around the small carriage somewhat frantically, she listens for the voice and searches for its owner, nowhere to be seen. He persists in repeating her name several times before she finally responds.
“What? Who is that?” she says, rubbing her eyes. She turns to John, who now widens his eyes at her and tilts his head at her in confusion.
“Did you hear that?” she asks him.
“Hear what? I didn’t hear anything,” he shakes his head.
“My name. Someone keeps saying my name," Mary insists.
John raises his brow at her and turns away to look out the window of the carriage, wondering if he’s bringing a crazy woman to care for the Princess’s son.
Mary leers at him as he proceeds to ignore her presence and looks down at Mircea, still sleeping quietly in her lap. ‘Well, he isn't bothering me for a conversation anymore, is he?’ She thinks to herself.
The voice speaks up once again. This time he says more than just her name, but instead of announcing it to John, she decides to just listen quietly.
“Mary, it’s Anghel.”
Mary perks up and looks around, trying to find Anghel somewhere in the carriage, but he isn’t there. She restrains herself from responding aloud. If she were to try and convince John that she is actually hearing an invisible man’s voice in her head, he would have her thrown from the carriage for her insanity. At least, that was the policy at Bran Castle. ‘Just the same,’ she thinks. ‘I better just keep this to myself.’
“That’s fine, Mary. But I need you to listen now,” says Anghel.
Mary’s eyes widen at the unexpected response to her private thoughts. ‘Can you read my mind, Anghel?’ she thinks.
“Yes, I can, but that’s not important right now. It’s important that you listen to me and do exactly as I say,” he insists.
John glances back from the window and looks to Mary, who tries smiling at him nonchalantly but ends up appearing even more unstable than before. John forces a smile while concern for her apparent mental problems is now apparent. He looks back to the window and decides it’s best if he keeps the conversation to a minimum until they reach Oradea, and he can find her the proper care for her instability.
‘Okay, what’s going on?’ she thinks.
“Mircea is going to be very well taken care of in Oradea, Mary. John has three lovely handmaidens to assist him in raising the boy, and John himself with be as good of a father that he could ask for.”
‘Yeah, I know, Anghel. And that’s all well and good, my love, but Ilona insisted that I come anyway. She wanted Mircea to have someone he knows and loves with him. Someone he could trust in a world of strangers and confusion.’ Mary argues.
“He will be fine, Mary. Mircea trusts both of you, and he will learn to love and trust John and his household very quickly. You, my dear, should be with Ilona. She needs you now more than ever, and you need to leave now. If you turn back at this very moment, you can still make it there in time,” he urges.
“In time for what?”
“For Darius, Mary. Darius has found Ilona, and he’s on his way to her now. Mircea is safe, but Ilona may be not, and I cannot interfere with the will of flesh and blood in the Physical Realm. I can only observe, interact verbally, and report back to the Spiritual Realm. I cannot-”
‘-Yeah, yeah, alright, alright. You had me at Darius. I’ll be there, Anghel. I’m leaving now.’
Mary turns to John and takes a deep breath. ‘Lord, help me,’ she prays, and then waits for him to turn and face her.
“Yes?” he says, meeting her gaze. “Is something wrong?”
Mary blinks nervously and takes another deep breath. “No, nothing is wrong,” she answers. She stares at him for several seconds, unsure of what to say or how to say it before he loses his patience.
“Well...what is it?” he asks. Mary bites her lip and brings Mircea to her face, kissing his soft cheek before leaning over and handing him to John, who accepts him with a look of bewilderment. He wraps an arm under Mircea’s body and looks down into his precious face.
“I must go back, John,” she says grimly. “I need to be with Ilona,” she says.
He stares at her blankly as she gathers her bag and tightens her wool robe, pulling its hood over her head and tying the strings that keep it in place.
“I know you’ll take good care of him. Do write to us please. You must write,” she insists. He nods obediently as they both stare down at Mircea for a moment, soaking in his innocence and blissful ignorance at the chaos and confusion around him.
Seconds later, the carriage stops in the road. Mary hops out and one of the men dismount their horse, helping Mary up onto its back and entering the carriage himself in her place. The carriage pulls away once again and Mary watches it fade into the distance before Anghel’s voice speaks up once again.
“Mary, go now. You’re running out of time,” he urges. Mary then turns back toward Buda and commands the horse into a gallop, speeding along the dirt path to make her way back to Ilona, praying that she makes it there before Darius does.
I read the Hunger Games several years ago when my sister-in-law strongly recommended it. Funnily enough, Ready Player One was very strongly recommended to me as well by a co-worker when it was all the rage, too.
In case you haven't already read that post, I didn't care too much for Ready Player One, and I didn't care much for The Hunger Games either. Sorry. I know a lot of people really love both of them, but I really...REALLY...don't.
I know it's old news, but I had such strong feelings about particular issues in The Hunger Games that I decided I absolutely MUST write a review of it, even if no one cares anymore. I care, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who still haven't read this series who might still be considering it.
If you are, I wouldn't really recommend it. It's nothing that special if you ask me.
Like Ready Player One, I have a few positive things to say about it, but probably more negatives. In fact, I probably liked Ready Player One a lot more than The Hunger Games, and I didn't really like it. Heh.
So, prepare yourselves for disappointment if you're looking for positive re-enforcement here. You won't find it, friend.
Again, here are my five areas of criteria for a good story. I decided to eliminate the sixth one, which was Synopsis, because a lot of times the author themselves isn't even responsible for writing the synopsis. Also, a book could have a terrible synopsis, maybe even written by the author himself/herself, and still have a great story.
So here are the five once again.
Here we go!
Well, I will give her one thing. Suzanne Collins can write a great plot. I don't want to be too negative. I mean, there are legitimate reasons why people loved this series, and I think plot had to be the main one.
This was in fact the one thing that kept me in the story, while I couldn't have cared less about anything else. The plot was always moving, always twisting and turning, surprising me and giving me reasons to stay. Had it not been for the plot, I don't know how long I would have lasted.
So, for that reasons, I'll give her Plot a 5.
This is where things start looking bad for The Hunger Games for me. As I've said before, Theme is extremely important for me, and this story, well...it didn't really have much of one.
Sure, it pushes the same message that virtually all other dystopian Sci-Fi stories push: the government sucks, it's corrupt, and will ruin your life if you let it. Yeah, it's true, and a theme I can get behind, but it was obvious from the very beginning, it was predictable and common, and not particularly original.
Okay, I know. Here is a nobody criticizing a somebody big who has managed to turn her bestselling book series into a worldwide movie franchise as well. But listen, I'm not someone who just complains because they're bitter or jealous. I'm more than happy to compliment the work of writers with just as much success, if I actually like their story.
And the theme here is just not that great. But hey, it's a message I can agree with, and it wasn't completely theme-less, which a lot of stories are like these days, so I can't be all negative here.
Unfortunately, there are also some themes I noticed here that I actually don't agree with. Like, why is Gale, the most capable male character in the story, hiding on the sidelines for most of the story? And Haymitch? I mean, come on. These guys should be front and center. In reality, they would be.
I think I smell a feminist, and I don't like it. Ugh.
While Katniss' efforts are heroic, initially, and okay, Peeta's too...why does Gale even exist if he's not going to be allowed to fulfill his true character's purpose? Is he only there for the drama of the stupid love triangle, or man-meat for the readers un-attracted to pathetic little boys like Peeta?
So, I'll give the theme a 3, only because the anti-government theme is agreeable for me.
There are a few characters I actually liked in The Hunger Games, but they got virtually no attention, or were killed off in the end.
Katniss was originally a likable and relatable character. I thought, "Oh, cool, a female on the cusp of adulthood who can shoot a bow and arrow. She takes care of her family, is friends with an awesome guy (Gale), and she sacrifices herself to protect her little sister from The Hunger Games."
And then, eh...things seemed to go downhill from there.
She was somehow able to ignore the magnitude of the violent horrors and death that awaited her because...pretty dresses and yummy food.
She did what too many female protagonists do, and I absolutely hate, by stringing a good and worthy man along (Gale) while at the same time actually pursuing and clinging to someone else (Peeta, like the bread, who threw her bread, so...he's better, right?).
Hey, everyone has their own taste in their choice of partner, but I will just say that I would have stuck with Gale, and Peeta's pathetic ass wouldn't have even phased me. I'm sorry guys, but I really don't want to be the man in the relationship. If I'm constantly having to protect and save Peeta while at the same time trying not to die myself, I will lose interest in about three seconds. Give me Gale, who would take over the rebellion for me, protect me night and day if I let him, and build a fortress in the woods where we can rebuild a community of free, self-sufficient and independent people.
That ruins the feminist ideals of the story's theme though, so...whatever, Sarah! Don't burst our fantasy land where women are stronger than men and strong men are irrelevant to a world of constant violence, corruption and danger. Not like they'd be of any help!
And then! Katniss, the strong, independent face of the rebellion, seems to clam up and cry like a frightened little girl at times, which I guess you could expect from a girl of her age in the circumstances she was in. I mean, it was realistic, but it didn't match her character, did it?
I kind of wanted to tell her to man up, because, I mean, isn't that what her character was supposed to be? A strong, independent, capable woman with the ability to do all the things that a man, Peeta, couldn't do? And yet, she goes into the fetal position and cries like a baby sometimes.
I don't get it. Either she's facing terrifying physical violence with courage and strength, or she's not. She can either handle the pressure and magnitude of what she's doing, or she can't. Is she confused about who she is? Because I am.
Perhaps I was just annoyed at her character in general enough to not care when she was scared or hurt, which probably makes me a terrible person. But here's the deal: I've cried for fictional characters before. I've felt sadness and hope and worry and all the feelings and emotions one should really only reserve for actual people.
The point is that I'm not incapable of feeling empathy for fictional characters in a story. Far from it, and Katniss turned me off enough to keep me from really caring about her at some point. That's a character flaw, and when the reader doesn't like a character for whatever reason, they won't care what happens to them, and it spells doom for the story.
Because of Katniss, her terrible mistakes, the killing off of actually good characters, and the ignoring of the best ones (Haymitch & Gale), I can't give more than 3 points here.
So, a 3 it is.
I actually didn't mind the book's Setting. In fact, it was pretty good. I love a good dystopian sci-fi when the world is done right, and the Hunger Games arena had to be my favorite part of the world. Then there's Snow's mansion.
I won't spend too much time here, because there's not much to say. There's nothing bad to say about it, and nothing particularly amazing that I want to go on about. I'll just say that I enjoyed the setting and the world.
I'll give the Setting a 4.
Last, but certainly not least, the writing itself and the writer's voice.
While I enjoyed the writer's voice in general, I had a lot of problems with the writing. I know that might be confusing to some people. Just try and think of it as a singer's voice compared to the song they're singing. You can like their voice, but hate their song choice, or their song writing. And that was the case for me here.
Without spending too much time going into the painful details of why I disliked the writing itself, I will list my main complaints:
1. Katniss' behavior, character, and decisions are annoying.
2. Gale should be a much more prominent character, but since the writer seems determined to ignore strong, masculine men while rewarding the frightened, weak men and putting Katniss on a pedestal of girl power, he is completely ignored and abused.
3. *SPOILER ALERT*
Now, in order to be ironic, or for some other weird purpose, the writer kills off Prim in the end. I have no idea why. Maybe to push a message that in trying to protect her little sister and be a hero, Katniss actually puts her at more risk by unleashing the hell that ensues when she decides to take a stand against Snow and the powers that be. *shrug* Seems like a pretty horrible way to send that message. Ignore the strong man who could probably have just taken down the government single-handedly in the very beginning if you'd freaking let him, and then kill the hero's little sister to show that being a hero actually puts people in danger...OR...you don't want to come up with a resolution for certain characters because that's more work that you don't want to put into the story, so kill them off. *sigh*
4. Other good characters are killed off for no apparent reason. Maybe it's to wake people up to the reality of the evils that face these characters, or maybe it's because the writer didn't want to have to come up with resolutions for more characters in the end. Or maybe it's because people enjoy mindless, gory violence too much and the writer wanted to do something to entertain the sociopaths in the audience. Whatever the reason, I don't like any of them.
5. I hate love triangles, especially when you have one person juggling two others, basically playing with the emotions of others with no regard for them, their feelings, or their happiness. Loyalty, faithfulness, integrity, honesty...anything? No? *sigh*
So, for writing, I give it a 3.
In conclusion, I enjoyed the plot, the writing style, the world, and the initial idea of the story...
...I just think it could have been done a lot better, the higher quality characters could have been treated better, and the protagonist could have had much better character overall. The writing itself could have been better, and the love triangle, especially when Gale was ultimately treated as useless to the story, could have been done without.
But hey, the masses loved it, so what do I know? Well, I know what I like, and The Hunger Games gets SLY Score of 18/25, which is a C- in my book. Yeah, sounds about right when all is said and done. It wasn't amazing for me. It wasn't the best book I've ever read. Far from it. Just average. Maybe a little below even.
Here we go! This will be the first actual book review that I write as a part of SLY Stories, or at all really. I wrote a slightly half-hearted review of Ready Player One several weeks ago, but from now on all of my book reviews will be much more in-depth and organized in their analysis and judgment.
SLY Standards For Great Storytelling
FYI, I will be judging each story on 6 key elements, which are also some of the essential elements of storytelling itself with the exception of Voice/Writing Style and the story's synopsis.
2. Characters & Character Development
4. Setting/World Creation
5. Writing Style/Voice
6. Story Idea/Synopsis
These elements, to me, are essentials for a high-quality story. If you fail in one or more of these areas, your story will be weak at best. It may still be very popular, sure. It may still sell tons of copies, of course. Let's face it, the masses aren't exactly concerned with consuming the highest quality story that it can find. They have other things in mind. I'm not quite sure what those things are, or why, but I'm going to guess it has something to do with sex, mindless action, and violence. Ugh.
Me? I care about plot, characters, theme, setting, the writing/voice, and the story itself. Sorry, mindless masses, but you have bad taste sometimes.
So, just for kicks and giggles, I'm going to rank each element from 1-5, 1 being the worst and 5 being the best that I think it could be, for a total potential score of 30 points. You can call it a SLY Score if you like, because I just think that sounds sly. (Hehe)
Oh man, I'm a dork.
Okay, moving along. To our first contender!
The Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch
I actually read Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines Trilogy a few years ago shortly before it was made into a television series, and before I even knew that it was going to be a television series.
For those who haven't read the story, The Wayward Pines Trilogy is a Mystery Thriller that, as the story unfolds, turns into something much more mind-boggling than you might be expecting...which is awesome. I won't spoil it for you by revealing the big twist that blew my mind and had me ripping those digital kindle pages as fast as I could read them, but I will just say this. It will totally take you by surprise, and you will love it.
As for the story's synopsis, Amazon's description of book one of the Trilogy, Pines, says this:
Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels…off. As the days pass, Ethan’s investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can’t he get any phone calls through to his wife and son in the outside world? Why doesn’t anyone believe he is who he says he is? And what is the purpose of the electrified fences surrounding the town? Are they meant to keep the residents in? Or something else out? Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the world he thought he knew, from the man he thought he was, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.
Now, I don't know about you guys, but I was pretty much hooked after reading the synopsis alone. A lot of people have to stare at the book cover, the reviews, and even read a chapter of the book before they'll commit to buying it, but this synopsis was so well written, and so alluring (at least for me), that I didn't care about anything else.
If you think I'm being melodramatic about a simple, petty detail that doesn't matter, do yourself a favor and meander the book descriptions of several other books on Amazon. Writing a good synopsis might seem simple enough, but it's actually quite difficult. Personally, I'm dreading the day that I have to write mine.
It's well-structured, it gives us a lot of information in a short number of words, it's well written, and it leaves us asking questions that absolutely must be answered. So we must read it! And for those wondering why the synopsis even matters, that's why. Because a bad one will turn readers off and send them running to something that sounds better, while a great one has people hooked before they've even read a single word of the story itself.
And so, I give the synopsis a 5. Bam!
This is probably my biggest, and maybe only criticism of this story. I didn't care much for the frequent sentence fragments throughout.
Sometimes, it made sense, and sometimes I was grateful for the short, incomplete sentences because they made reading the story itself faster and easier, and with the plot being so thick, you really want to read faster.
However, when things slow down and the writer is giving us a break from his many twists and turns, they're just annoying. The grammar Nazi with OCD in my brain wants to stab through my skull and scribble an end to every sentence that seems to cut short in the middle.
It's like when writers use too many adverbs. I do it. That's right. Guilty as charged. That's why I'm okay complaining about this, because I make similar mistakes. Sometimes they can and should be used, but when you use them too much, they just become a distraction for the reader.
So for Writing Style/Voice, I give it a 3.
Ouch, I know, but it gets better again after this. I promise.
Crouch's fictional world in Wayward Pines, Idaho is creepy and intense, and I love it.
His vivid descriptions of each aspect of the setting made me feel like I was really there, which is exactly what any good writer wants to do for their reader. Take them to the place that they are writing about, make them feel like they're actually there, and then make them feel the things they should be feeling within the context of the story.
It's what he did, it's what happened to me, it had me curious, anxious, and at times terrified. Many writers are able to achieve this magical transport to fictional realms created by them, but then they ruin it by creating sub-par characters to fill those worlds, or lackluster themes, or no theme at all! Fortunately, Blake did not disappoint me there either.
For Setting/World Creation, I give him a 5.
Ah, the theme. It might be one of the most important elements of good storytelling for me. Because what's the point of telling someone a story if there is no takeaway from it? No lesson, and no good message to get people thinking, feeling, or wondering.
Most popular stories these days lack any theme whatsoever, while some have terrible, political or otherwise morally bankrupt ones. It can make or break a story for me. Everything else can be spot on, but if the theme goes against my personal convictions, whether they be moral, political, religious or philosophical, I will not only be disappointed in the story, but I will despise it for pushing an agenda that I find unethical.
It's such a downer when I go to see a movie I've been anticipating for several months only to walk away angry because the theme was absolutely awful. Or when I read a book that everyone is raging about only to be bombarded with political messages that drown out any enjoyment of the plot, characters, or the rest of the story entirely.
A bad theme is annoying enough, but it doesn't help that a large portion of Hollywood, the Book Publishing Industry, and the entertainment industry in general holds views that oppose mine in almost every way.
Fortunately for me, I honestly believe that most writers and storytellers are for the most part unaware of the theme they're pushing with their story. That's right. It's involuntary. It's subconsciously revealed through the character and life experiences of the storytellers themselves.
Some are sly enough to know what message they want to push before they set out on the journey of actually writing their story, but most of the time what comes first is the story idea itself, and not the theme. The theme comes almost accidentally, and when it's thought up prematurely or unnaturally, in some conscious effort to push a personal political or religious agenda, people can sense it immediately, and it turns them off. Or on, I guess, if you agree with the message and want it to be pushed as well.
I'm getting off track though. The point is simply this: theme is extremely important to me, and while a lot of artists are fairly liberal and wish to push their views through their stories, they struggle to do so consciously without sacrificing the quality of their art, and therefore abandon such agendas in the pursuit of creating a great story, rather than a political statement wrapped up in mediocre surroundings.
I actually quite liked the theme of The Wayward Pines Trilogy, but I don't want to reveal too much of it for fear of spoiling important plot points that should be discovered in reading the book itself.
If I interpreted it correctly, I think the theme revolves largely around freedom, individual liberties, and the dangers and ethical dilemmas that come with not only infringing on those God-given rights, but also with trying to tamper with the other unchangeable facets of our humanity.
I'm giving theme a 5 too, and that's based on the assumption that I even got the theme right. At least, that's what I got from the story.
While I found the main characters and the protagonist, Ethan Burke, to be likable and realistic in their behaviors and personalities, I was much more intrigued by the antagonists.
My favorite protagonists always seem to possess a certain list of attributes, qualities and personality traits. Ethan, nor any of the other protagonists of this story really struck me as attractive characters in that sense, but I certainly wasn't turned off by them, which happens more often than you might think.
But like I said, the villains were really amusing to me, and creating a good villain isn't easy to do. It's another big turn-off for me when I'm watching a great movie or reading a good book only to find myself laughing at the comical Satan-like villains that people try to come up with.
Just like the protagonist, the antagonist has to be realistic. These cartoonish bad guys that people come up with anymore are so unbelievable that it can really ruin a good story. After all, why do I care about a protagonist whose only foe is a predictable jerk that will inevitably die and/or lose in the end?
Crouch's villains are not cartoonish, or comical in the least. I remember them more vividly in my mind than almost any other characters in the entire story, and I think that's a good thing. It would be nice to have some protagonists I could really deeply care about and get behind, but as long as I'm not finding myself calling them idiots or otherwise worthless pieces of garbage for people, I'm okay with it.
I'll give his characters a 4 simply because of how well he made the villains. If his protagonists had been less than tolerable, I would give him a 3, but they were still alright, and since villains are difficult to create already, a 4 it is.
Dun, dun, duuuuuunnnn!
Alright! Now the plot thickens!
Okay, I'll just get straight to the point on this one. It's a 5, hands down. In the 21st century, the attention span of an average adult has shrunk dramatically from just twenty or thirty years ago. With the internet constantly saturating our minds with Facebook updates, the news media outlets giving us breaking news every 5 minutes, instant gratification in virtually every facet of human life (at least in our country), and our time dedicated to just sitting and thinking quietly to ourselves shrinking faster than our attention spans, it's difficult to get anyone to finish reading a book.
Blake Crouch got me to read three books within a single week. I was tearing those pages, like I said at the beginning, as fast as my average reading speed would carry me, while working a full time job and taking care of a toddler in between.
It was all due to Crouch's attention to the plot. That and his writing style which made it fairly easy to sprint through the pages like a race horse. It really was thick though. The plot I mean.
At the end of every chapter, you had to know what was going to happen next. There were constant twists and turns that left you on the edge of your seat, and you wouldn't feel satisfied until you finished the entire story with the knowledge of what the character's resolution would be in the end.
Whew! I'm getting worked up just remembering it all now.
Anyway, needless to say, the plot is delicious. Thick and juicy, like a good mango! Okay, the dork is coming out again. Time to wrap things up before I go off the rails.
And the SLY Score Is...
All in all, I really enjoyed The Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch. I have a 600-page epic fantasy I'm trying to finish up now and then I'll be moving on to my husband's favorite childhood fantasy series, Homeland: The Legend of Drizzt by R.A. Salvatore. After I finish all of that, however, I will definitely be circling back around to read more Blake Crouch.
In Conclusion, The Wayward Pines has a grand total of 27 out of 30 possible points for my personal taste.
Plot - 5
Characters - 4
Theme - 5
Setting/World - 5
Voice/Writing Style - 3
Synopsis - 5
That gives it a 90%, which would be an A- if we were in school...which we're not, so it doesn't really matter.
The point is, it's a great thriller series, and if you like a good mystery thriller, you should check it out, and then let me know what you think.
In my book, The Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch is definitely a SLY Story.
After writing a short critique on Ready Player One a while back, I decided that writing book reviews could be something I would enjoy writing on a regular basis for the blog.
Then, after a lot of brainstorming regarding the blog/website over this past month (of agonizing thumb-twiddling) and what niche I will claim once and for all, I realized that it might actually be perfect.
Because here's the thing. I don't have the time or energy to come up with new creative content on a regular basis. That stuff strikes me at random and without warning, planning, or thinking at all really.
Right now, my creative energy is occupied with Mircea, and the many other novel ideas that I have stewing in my head. So, what is a fiction writer to do with a blog? Blogs are really designed for non-fiction writers, not novelists.
Yet, I could never shut it down. I love it. It's writing, and I love writing. I love blogging. I couldn't let one little creative block stop me from doing what I love. So, I just kept chugging along, changing things when I felt they needed to be changed, which was constantly, overwhelmed with all the different possibilities and options that I had.
Then I thought I should just go back to my original niche, which I called DayDreaming. Something about it wasn't quite right. I wasn't excited or happy about it. I'd kind of given up on anything else though. I didn't know what else to do, so I was prepared to settle for the only idea I had left that I could tolerate on a long-term basis.
Then, my internet went down. And then, my computer went down. And then...my mind woke up.
Without Facebook, YouTube, politics, and the general overwhelming, mind-numbing information overload of the internet dragging me down constantly, it was like I had been asleep for years, in a trance. A screen trance. I was forced to stop. I had no choice.
It's kind of funny and pathetic at the same time, how addicted I was to that constant, instant gratification that the internet gave me, literally whenever I wanted it. And then it was taken from me, without warning, without permission. Gone. Done.
At first, I absolutely hated it.
But then, wham! SLY Stories was born in my brain.
Introducing SLY Stories
This is it. I'm done flip-flopping between niches and topics for my blog. That nonsense dissipated with my internet connection over a month ago. And without Facebook in my face 24/7, I could finally think.
From now on, I'll be posting book reviews of my favorite works of fiction (and some that I don't like at all), chapters of my own work, and the occasional writing post where I share my thoughts and findings regarding the art of writing and self-publishing.
That is what the SLY Stories blog will consist of. My stories (SLY = Sarah Leann Young), and stories that I love, which I also call SLY Stories because I love them. Makes sense, right? Then lastly, writing posts wherein which I will aim to help others write their own SLY Stories.
And there you have it. Pretty simple, right? I think it is anyway. Okay, maybe it's a little self absorbed to name it after myself. But hey, what am I going to call it, Stephen King Stories? It's my blog, for Pete's sake, and I've always been amused by my initials spelling out the word "sly" anyway, so, that's it!
In reality, the idea goes deeper than I'm letting on. There's more to it than just stories that I love. A SLY Story must meet certain standards. A SLY Story always contains certain themes, certain types of heroes, a certain writing style, and a certain adherence to my favorite genres.
But I won't go into too much detail right now. I will be writing up a new About Us page for the site that will explain everything in a lot more detail. For now, I just wanted to let everyone know where my head was at.
If you've survived this long, I commend you. If you're not into writing or reading too much, you might not enjoy my blog very much. If you're still confused, let me try and simplify it even further.
For The Love of Great Stories
SLY Stories are just great stories that I love. I'll post about all the greatest stories I've ever read (or watched), and I'll do my best to live up to my own standards when writing my own, and I'll do everything I can to help others write their own great stories as well.
Since I was a child, I've been passionate about great stories. Whether it be a movie, a television series, a novel, short story, or any other form of storytelling that you can think of, I've always been entranced and intrigued by the telling of a good story.
I want to build a community of story-lovers like myself where I can share my thoughts on what I think are the best stories of all time, the worst, my own stories, and where I can help others write their own great stories.
A great story can change you. It can affect you mentally, emotionally, and sometimes in an even deeper, spiritual way. A good story can change the world. It can influence individuals, or entire groups of people. It can encourage people, and sometimes it might even save them from something or someone negative that has been tormenting them for a while.
Stories are a powerful art form. C.S. Lewis said, "You can create anything by writing," and he was so right. It's a beautiful and versatile art, and if I'm not working to create it myself, I want to spend my time appreciating them and sharing them in every way that I can with my family and friends. That includes you.
Now, let's take a step back.
I'm not arrogant enough to claim that I'm capable of writing a story that great. Or even close to that great. I may not even be that good at writing stories that are very good quite yet, but that shouldn't keep me from appreciating the stories that are.
It doesn't mean I can't have my own personal opinion and taste, and that others can't agree with it. My goal is definitely to someday be capable of writing a great story, but until then, and while I'm on that journey, I want to enjoy, share, and discuss the many stories that already are that great.
And I'll start with Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines Trilogy, tomorrow :).
Note To Self: A toddler with an ear infection will render you completely useless in all areas of life for an average of three to four days.
Now, back to Mircea! Finally! Chapter 9.
Ilona finishes nursing Mircea, then lays him in his bassinet with a full stomach and a long, well deserved nap ahead. She returns to her guests that wait patiently for her in the living room.
Mary has busied herself in the kitchen to make a late breakfast for everyone, but Ilona can only think of Mircea. She continues her conversation with John with trembling still in her voice. The fear of Dracula constantly haunts her.
John watches Ilona with compassionate eyes.
“Princess, I know your letter only requested that your son be taken to Oradea, but given the circumstances and an ardent blessing from the King himself, I see no reason why we shouldn’t take you and Mary with us as well,” he says.
Mary eavesdrops from the kitchen as she chops cabbage for a soup.
“I understand,” Ilona responds. “Believe me, I would love nothing more than to come with you, but I could not do that and keep Mircea safe. Vlad will be able to find me wherever I go, no matter where I go. If I go to Oradea, he will follow me there. I just can’t risk Mircea’s life by going with him.”
Mary frowns, pauses to look at Mircea’s bassinet from where she stands, sighs, and returns to chopping cabbage.
John pauses, frowns, then nods in agreement.
“I understand. I would of course prefer you change your mind and come anyway. You would be safer with us than without, but I would probably do the same thing you are doing if it were me. You don’t want any danger risking your son’s life. And who among us has the right to deny a mother from protecting her son?” he says with a forced smile.
Ilona sheds a tear and nods in agreement, forcing a smile in response.
“Just promise me one thing, sir,” says Ilona. She pauses for a moment, shaking off the threat of more tears that grow from within. “Promise me that you will write me every day and tell me how he’s doing.”
John stares back at her with compassionate resolve as she begins to sob. He drops his chin in agreement, then rises from his chair and kneels before her, resting a hand on her shoulder.
“I promise, madam. You have my word. He will be very well taken care of, and when he is old enough himself, he will write to you. You will know your son just as well as any of us,” he says.
Ilona unburies her face from her hands, nods, and wipes her tears. She looks up to meet John’s gaze. Without words, they both know what the other is thinking. This is miserable, but it will be okay.
Mary keeps her attention on the stew. She stares into the rolling boil of water with wide eyes as she hears the distant screams of prisoners in Vlad’s dungeon, their hands smothering in boiling water as punishment for their greedy crimes.
She used to hear them from her bedchamber in Bran Castle, and hear them in her sleep. She still hears them every time she boils a pot of water, and she probably always will. Ilona’s sudden presence brings her back to reality, and she blinks away the wide-eyed stare. Ilona puts a hand on her shoulder.
“You should go with them,” she says.
Mary jerks her head back and stares at Ilona in disbelief.
“Leave you? I couldn’t do that, my lady. You are the Princess,” she scoffs.
“Don’t misunderstand me, madam. I love Mircea. I do want to take care of him and be with him, more than anything in the world. But, I can’t leave you here alone. Vlad could show up at any moment. Besides, Mircea is going to have so many people taking care of him. Not just anyone either. These are not Transylvania handmaids. They’re basically nuns,” she laughs.
“You have saved Mircea’s life,” she continues. “And now you’ve done something even better.
“Better? What could be better than that?”
“Saving him from a life of death,” replies Mary.
The women smile tearfully at each other and share an embrace when they are interrupted by booming laughter from the living room. They wipe their tears and Mary gets back to stirring the stew while Ilona takes a peek into the bedroom at Mircea’s bassinet.
“I still want you to go, Mary,” she says as she watches Mircea sleep peacefully. “I know you don’t want to go, but I’m asking you to go. Mircea will still need someone he knows to care for him. You know him just as well as I do, if not better. Please,” she begs, turning to look at Mary again. “I need you with him. I need you safe, too, Mary.”
Mary sighs, turns back to her stew and stares silently into the boiling liquid once again. The voice of a woman screaming enters her mind. It is Ilona’s, once Vlad and Darius have found her, they will torture her, and then kill her. Unless Mary can somehow prevent it from happening.
“I’m sure he will get to know other people there, madam,” she argues. “He won’t even remember me in three days time.”
“Mary,” Ilona groans. “Please.”
Mary lifts a spoonful of the stew from the pot and blows on it, then puts a hand on her hip as she leers back at Ilona. She eats the bite of stew, swallows, then sighs.
“Alright,” she says. “I’ll go, but only because you asked so kindly.”
“I have been waiting to meet you for...well, for about a thousand years."
“Queen Lilith,” says Vlad, holding out his hand to greet her. She lays her hand over his, and he brings it to his mouth for a swift peck. “I’ve never heard of you before. Or perhaps it is your country that I have never heard of,” he grins.
Lilith lets out a throaty chuckle at the Prince’s arrogance.
“Vlad the Impaler. I was actually fairly surprised that it was your son who contacted me, and not you. I thought you, of all people, should know who I am,” she says.
Vlad raises an eyebrow and smiles. Darius scrambles for a chair at the dining table and motions for Lilith to sit with a trembling hand. Lilith smiles to the nervous young man, nods in thanks, then takes the seat.
“And why would I contact a woman I’ve never even heard of before?” Vlad asks, taking his seat again. Darius joins them, sitting beside Vlad on the other side of the table.
“My name may not be very well-known, but my actions certainly are,” she retorts with a smile. Vlad raises his brow once again, amused by this new acquaintance.
Lilith glances at the plate of bread and Vlad’s glass mug full of blood on the table.
“I’ve been around for quite some time, actually,” she continues.
“A thousand years?” Vlad scoffs.
Darius widens his eyes at his father’s garish rudeness, but Lilith just smiles and looks to Dalca.
“Have your friend here fetch me a glass of that blood and I’ll show you how I’ve been drinking it for over two thousand years,” she says.
Darius darts his gaze from Vlad to Lilith with even wider eyes.
“Two thousand years?” Vlad replies. “Well, now I’m sure I don’t know of you, my lady. People who can live to be that old are the subject of bedtime fairy tales, myths, and legends,” he laughs.
“Father, this is the woman I was telling you about,” Darius whispers. “She isn’t the Queen of any one country. She’s the Queen of...well…” he stammers.
“I prefer the title of Darkness,” Lilith interjects. “The Queen of Darkness.”
Vlad’s eyes light up along with his smile.
“Queen Lilith,” he says. He grabs a slice of bread from his plate and dunks it into his mug for a few seconds before pulling it back out. “I do know who you are. I had no idea you were real.”
Dalca returns quickly with a tall wineglass full of blood.
“Here you are, madam,” he says, setting the wine glass on the table in front of her with a deep green napkin beside it.
Vlad takes another drink from his mug as Lilith brings the glass to her nose and breathes in its aroma, her eyes closed and the hint of a smile turning up the corners of her mouth.
Lilith swirls a long slender finger in the warm, red liquid, stirring it for several seconds before pulling it out and sucking it clean, smacking her lips and giving a deep sigh of satisfaction. Vlad chuckles to himself.
“I’ve never met anyone who enjoys the taste of blood as much as I do,” he says
Lilith smiles before bringing the glass to her lips again, actually sipping from it this time, like a fine, well-aged wine.
“Mm...this man,” she oozes. “Whoever he was, he must have had a hearty diet.”
The men exchange looks of surprise as Lilith proceeds to describe the man whose blood they are drinking.
“I’m going to say he was in his...early thirties. Yes...a very healthy one,” she says.
“Incredible,” Darius blurts.
Vlad and Darius exchange expressions of amusement as Lilith looks over and notices the impaled man at the other end of the table. After observing him for a few seconds, she looks back to Vlad.
“Oh. I thought you just had him there for decoration.”
“What do you mean?” replies Darius.
“Well, this is his blood, yes?” she queries, twirling her finger in her drink once again.
“Yes. Dalca caught him stealing food from the pantry this afternoon. Stealing is not permitted in Bran Castle,” says Vlad, glaring at the dead man who continues sliding further down the pole, now nearly resting on the table itself.
“Or anywhere in Wallachia or Transylvania either, so I’ve heard,” she replies. “I also hear that something else has been stolen from you recently.”
Vlad meets Lilith’s gaze as his expression hardens to stone.
“Yes. Something I will get back back at any cost,” he replies quietly. “But what do you know of it?”
“Oh, I know all about it, Prince. That your wife has stolen your pride, and your good reputation,” she says.
Vlad stares straight ahead and slowly nods his head in agreement.
“Absolutely,” he answers.
“Well then,” says Lilith. “Let’s get it back for you, shall we?”