A glorious man – a tall man with a broad chest and broad belly and full beard – barrels through the crumbling stone wall, leaving a spattering of blood and a trough of upturned earth behind him. He skids to a stop by the Blushing Belladonnas, his shirt and hair still slightly smoking from whatever it was that sent him careening through not only the garden wall, but also layers of protective spells and Turn-Around charms.
Vanth, frozen on the garden path, waits for him to do something more interesting than sizzle slightly. He does not. Vanth exchanges a careful look with the Helpful Hibiscus, who of course pushes at him with an encouraging leaf. He drops the water pail, picks up the rake, circles the man, and pokes him experimentally. A soft green protective spell snaps out at the wood, leaving deep gouges in the handle, barely missing Vanth’s hands. Annoyed, Vanth scares the spell with a little demonic persuasion, and it wafts away as if it were nothing more than smoke.
“He’s armed,” Vanth says, “sword, spells, and…”
He pauses by the stranger’s face, which is crushed into the dirt and smeared with blood.
“Handsome?” the Blushing Belladonnas giggle. Shameless.
“Wounded,” Vanth says.
The man’s black clothes do not conceal the extent of his injury; a large burn carves up his side, his clothes and skin are charred and melted together, and his flesh is reddened and inflamed. It is a disastrous injury, one that would challenge even the most experienced healers, the most potent medicine.
“Well, he can’t stay here,” the Testy Tulips snap.
“He can, he can!” the Friendly Freesias plead.
“He can’t. Strangers aren’t allowed in the Garden!”
“He can’t stay here, he’ll discover all our secrets,” the Practical Petunias point out sensibly, “and if he finds those out, then he can never leave.”
“He can stay, he can,” the Freesias continue to wail.
“He can’t,” Vanth says, and the flowers fall silent.
He cannot stay here. Castle Garden has too many secrets to risk sharing them with a stranger. Castle Garden also has never had visitors; there is no room for a guest, no welcoming bed. But if Vanth hauls him to the castle walls, leaves him to meet his fate in the woods, the only bed he’d be preparing for him would be six feet under, freshly dug.
“He can’t stay,” Vanth takes a deep breath, “but he will.”
First, he disarms the man; his sword is burned and blackened, twisted by some powerful force. It’s probably useless, but he takes no chances, and buries it in the garden. He summons Knight, instructs the suit of armor to take the man to the parlor, and then goes to the stone walls to inspect the damage to his magical defenses. Vengeful sparks slowly eat away at the edges of the ripped barrier, expanding it with each nefarious nibble. One whisper, chill as death, and the sparks go out, the magic in them squeaking in fear and dissipating. Weaving a new net, soft as spider silk, Vanth repairs the hole, hoping it’s enough to deter whatever was chasing the man so far out in the Lost Valley. For the first time in a long time, he wonders if his ancient protections are any match for modern magic.
In the parlor, the fire is crackling away robustly, and the herb tray has thoughtfully accompanied the tea tray, loaded with hot towels, bowls of water, and books on medicine. The stranger himself lies stretched out on a (only slightly moldy) chaise. Vanth kneels by his side and contemplates how to tackle this problem. It has been a very long time since he has seen another man, let alone healed one.
“Suppose I kill him?” Vanth says, “I mean. On accident. I’ve never killed someone on accident before. Bit embarrassing, really, to kill someone when you’re trying to save them.”
The tea tray squeaks and the herb tray scoots closer, showing off the mortar and pestle.
“You’re all very encouraging,” Vanth says, “Knight?”
“My lord?” the suit of armor steps forward.
“Hand me the knife, I’ve got to cut him out of these clothes.”
Several hours or days later (hard to tell, as time doesn’t tick in this place) Vanth gratefully passes out on the floor, not even bothering with a bed. The stranger sleeps soundly on, after several harrowing moments in which he stopped breathing entirely, his side glistening with a greasy layer of new skin. Knight wraps a blanket around Vanth and stands guard, so that the first thing the stranger sees when he awakens is a sword pointed straight at his heart.
“That thing’s very dull.”
Vanth pulls his eyes open; they feel very gritty, like he’s immersed them in sand.
“Impressive display, though. At first I thought there was someone in there – but it’s empty!”
Clang. Clang. Clang. The stranger knocks on the suit, which echoes with the blows.
“Don’t do that,” Vanth sits up, “that’s rude.”
“Ah, so you are awake! I was wondering if you were just ignoring me.”
Vanth pushes his tangled hair back, wipes the drool off his cheeks, and wishes for a bath. The stranger studies him shamelessly, his dark eyes twinkling with curiosity. The stranger has a charming look to him when he’s awake, a ready smile with wide teeth, crinkles by his eyes and dimples in his cheeks; his strong nose lends him a noble profile, and his brown skin is pockmarked with bright white scars, proof he’s a man of the battlefield. There are beads in his thick beard and curly hair, perhaps beads of deed or rank, so he’s clearly some sort of do-gooder with all the shiny decorations he’s earned.
Vanth self-consciously twists the ends of his own black beard, which is rather ragged as he hasn’t exactly groomed it. When one lives alone with nothing but dust and argumentative plants for company, personal hygiene stops being so important.
“Your wound,” Vanth says.
He lifts up the cloth gently and the stranger startles.
“Hey now, you don’t just reach for a man like that!”
Vanth lowers the cloth.
“It’s healing well. Food. You must be hungry. Water, you probably need that too.”
The stranger grabs his wrist. Vanth stiffens, tugs it away, but the man just grabs his hand instead. His hand is large, warm, and slightly sweaty. It’s the most Vanth has been touched in years. He’d forgotten how soft touch could be.
“Slow down for a moment! Got a little time for an introduction? I’d like the name of my handsome rescuer.”
Vanth has no last name that he cares to share, so remains silent. Whatever family line he was once a part of has long departed from this world.
The stranger smiles, even in the awkward silence, “Right. My name’s Therios Putai. Reformed knave, professional demon slayer, and tragically unwed. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The tea kettle whistles suggestively. They both jump. Therios eyes the tea kettle curiously and Vanth quickly hurries over, scolding it under his breath, and pours them both a cup of tea.
“That hits the spot,” Therios sighs over the tea.
Vanth thinks he hears the kettle sigh in the background too. Obnoxious creature. Therios studies the castle walls as he drinks the tea, eyes the rich wall hangings and the stained-glass windows. The flowers, cheeky things they are, mash their faces against the window in abject curiosity.
“So, this is the castle in the Lost Valley,” he muses.
Vanth swallows and nods. He drinks his own tea a safe distance from the chaise, in case Therios decides to grab at him again.
“Then you must be the dweller of the Lost Valley, Guardian of the Castle!”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Well, everyone’s got stories, you know. It’s a fairytale! ‘Mind the curfew or the demon of the Valley will get you! He’ll send your soul straight to the Underworld!’ Only you’re nothing like the demon in the tales. Haven’t got pointed ears, snakes for hair, blue skin, fiery eyes and enormous wings!”
He does have those things, sometimes, but he keeps silent and nods. Currently, he looks nothing like a monster, nothing that has the power to strike men dead with but a wishful thought. He’s short but strong, well-muscled from garden work and castle repairs. Scars and burns sear his pale skin (including one that took off a good chunk of his nose). They’re marks of a life spent running from those who would prefer to see something like him burn at the stake. But it’s easy to pretend he’s just another solider injured in war, instead of a man with a demon living under his skin.
“If there was a demon here, I’d know it,” Therios proclaims, then taps the side of his nose, “I can smell them faster than a hound can sniff out a rabbit.”
Vanth freezes, then relaxes. The man obviously is exaggerating.
“Perhaps the king will honor you with a place among his hunting dogs,” Vanth murmurs.
The man laughs, full-bellied and loud. The castle, unused to such noise, trembles; he can feel the rugs twitch in confusion, the shyer plants hide their faces. Vanth swallows at the sound. Laughter. How strange.
“You’re – well,” Therios leans forward on one elbow, “you’ve got a sense of humor, eh? If you were a demon, you’d be very different from any demon I’ve vanquished before. A lot shorter, for one. Not that that’s a bad thing. Just not what I was expecting.”
Vanth sets his teacup down with a clatter. The sound is unexpectedly loud.
After a long silence, the man says jovially, “Sorry, didn’t mean to offend. Obviously, better you than a demon. I’ve found a nice spot to land after a hard tumble escaping trouble. Handsome man looking after my wounds. Hot tea. Comfortable bed. Stuff of dreams, really.”
“Trouble. What trouble?”
“You really don’t know? Surely, you’ve heard the news. Seen some explosions. Saw some fighting.”
Vanth shakes his head.
“There’s civil unrest in the north, just outside the Lost Valley. You know nothing of it?”
“Worldly affairs seldom touch this place.”
The man slowly sits up. Vanth keeps a close eye on the burn, glistening with the poultice. He has never created new skin before; he worries about how it will hold up.
“So, you may not be a demon, but this castle really is enchanted? The tales say this is a place out of time, that any stray soul caught here would be lost to the mortal realm. Is that true?”
Vanth stands up.
“I wasn’t aware people talked about me so much.”
After so many years of hiding, he was hoping that he had been forgotten about entirely. Perhaps time moves slower outside Castle Garden than he thought. He takes his teacup over to the tray, in effort to hide his trembling hands.
“Wasn’t aware we were talking about anyone real,” Therios says, “I’ll spread new tales of you now: good-looking, kind, talented healer—”
“You’ll do no such thing!” Vanth breathes heavily.
“Sorry?” The man’s joviality is gone. His voice is edged with something darker.
“I said: you’ll do no such thing. You will never speak of this place, never tell others what you found here, or lead them back to the castle.”
Silence greets his announcement.
“You like your privacy, I take it?”
Vanth closes his eyes.
“You can never leave.”
The chaise violently squeaks as Therios attempts to stand, a pained gasp as he pulls at the tender new skin, and Vanth cannot bear it. He flees the parlor, hiding in the dark and damp garden, gentle petals caressing his face, as the empty halls echo with the man’s exclamations of disbelief, his demands to be released.
But he cannot risk it. It is enough that one demon slayer is in his home, the last thing he needs is a whole hoard of them. He lays down in the loamy soil and wishes the man had never come here.
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