His life's blood washing over his hands, rushing thick and hot, and oh, how he'd longed for this years ago, when everything had seemed so dark and hopeless, but to have it come now...
Ten years safe and clear and, dear God, does the man care so much for one defeat? So much that his vision is a swath of liquid red and he dips his fingers into his sides and strikes bone and 'foolish boy, I have always been a terribly patient man' twists into one ear as he falls and falls...
Siegfried is alive, or thinks he is, blinking into the darkness, obsidian-black this way, that, and he can almost feel it down his throat as he chokes on the night. His torso is stiffly bandaged, ribs compacted by blood and cloth, and he's short of breath, weak.
A peripheral flash of white-gold and he struggles to stand (even without his weapons, bandaged, naked and frail as a newborn, he'll fight to the death, go down with slashing nails and teeth if he must), but then there's a hand on his chest, gently pressing him down, and Siegfried has never been a religious man, couldn't possibly be after everything he's done (been, the darkness whispers), but when her face comes into view, he briefly, foolishly wonders if she's an angel, and she laughs sweetly at his sharp intake of breath.
Stares then, studies, measures the features, bone-white skin and too-red lips, and she's almost familiar to the past (aren't they all, in the end). Searches the blackened pages of his memory and finds within them a sun-bright warrior draped in pure white, wielding blessed silver.
"...Sophitia?" he tastes, a brief, sweet memory on his tongue until he watches her smile fade, and she slips into shadow, this brief light flicker-fading into the darkness.
'Lucifer, the Light-Bearer,' Siegfried thinks to himself, distantly.
Not an angel, of course, but still Siegfried doubts her mortality as her hand touches bare skin (icy-hot and it burns, far too pleasantly). She washes his wounds carefully, gently, the soft caress of a lover. Sophitia was my sister.
"'Was'? Has she been killed?"
She tightens a fresh bandage around his wrist.
In a way.
He remembers as she finishes, carefully, purposefully washes her bloody hands in the basin by his bedside.
"Cassandra. That was it."
She turns to him with ice-blue eyes, inscrutable, it was, a chill finger down his spine, and somehow he knows that wherever he is, he will die here.
He can move very little, wounded and bound as he is, and sets his head back wearily against the scratchy pillows (straw, likely... a barn, then? stables? he pictures mice scurrying restlessly underfoot), sates himself with dreams of warm, welcoming embraces and gentle eyes, the rich linen of his bedchamber, tendrils of flame streaming across his chest, over twinkling eyes and pouting lips, his wife laughing sweetly in his ear when it's over.
The end of beautiful memories when Raphael comes to him, lithe and easy, a confident predator's swaggering gait. He wonders at the determination that drives a man to the sweet succor of revenge after ten long years, deals his adversary grievous harm to the rich music of mocking laughter, and then, after carefully tending to his wounds, steals away to deal the killing blow.
"I cannot fight you," Siegfried says, eyes closed, sick with dread and weariness.
Indeed, comes the response, easy and self-assured, and even weary eyes cannot remain closed at his bruising kiss.
Raphael's bedchamber is cold that night, and Cassandra sleeps alone, curled in on herself, drinking in the silence.
Siegfried is horrified when she comes to salve his wounds once more—with himself, with everything, and there's disgust and self-hatred in his eyes as they flash to hers. An unspoken question lies between them; she does not ask, he does not respond.
Cassandra finds teeth marks on his tanned throat. Raises an eyebrow. He turns from her. "You wouldn't understand," he growls, and his voice is raw with unshed tears.
Far more than you do, she contradicts softly, and she holds him as he weeps.
Not by force. It's not a question. He doesn't answer anyway.
It's so much worse that way, she says, and there's a note of sympathy in the arctic ice of her tone.
Raphael doesn't return that night, or the next. Instead Siegfried lies in bed and listens to harsh, angry shouts in varied tongues, bitter, insulting tones, weeping accusations, and it rings long into the night until there's a crash, a fall, and he starts at the thought that Raphael might have hurt her until she moans.
Hears them, all fluttery sighs and dark growls, and twists awkwardly in his bed.
"I remember you," Siegfried says quietly one night when she sits behind him. "You were always so kind."
Have I been unkind to you?
"No. No, of course not."
Cassandra presses her hand to his, iron-cold.
Four nights before Raphael returns, imperious, self-satisfied, the source of Cassandra's lingering cold driving bone-deep as Raphael presses him into the mattress and whispers something fearful and dark.
Cassandra is splintered warmth, and Siegfried leans into her, takes comfort from her gentle embrace, sisterly and kind, unconsciously takes the fragrance from her skin and holds it within him like a hateful, guilty secret.
"You haven't won," Siegfried grinds out between clenched teeth.
Raphael laughs darkly and nips his earlobe, drinking down the pearl of blood appearing darkly upon his skin, tracing the curving bone of one hip with his fingers. "Not yet."
Siegfried does not learn to be truly frightened until the next night, when Cassandra comes to visit him once more, the light of her candle flickering in the chill mountain breeze sliding over the fieldstones.
I don't remember, Cassandra responds when he asks her a question, too frightened to ask and yet he knows he must, and her answering tone is too-light and sweet. She places his food tray at his bedside, then raises her hands to drag down the fabric of her bodice, and his breath catches in his throat because, heaven help him, she's beautiful, pearly-white and pale, nipples rosy and peaked in the cold mountain air, and he hardens slightly, guiltily at the sight of her.
Receives sexual absolution as his arousal dies as suddenly as it appeared, dawning horror coiling tight as his eyes move past the paleness of her graceful throat, graze over a battlefield of raised, reddened scars, uneven lines scored deeply into the skin around her breasts, trailing down her abdomen, clustered in groups of five. Tallied.
Awhile, she says, off-handedly.
The old chivalry is too deeply engrained. He wants to save her.
Never says this into the darkness, so all-encompassing in these frigid mountains, yet Siegfried holds it within him, imagines that he will weather these trials for the sake of the wounded maiden. He will be the light of salvation, save her as he himself was once saved.
The next time with Raphael, he tastes her on his tongue.
Raphael comes to him the next night as well, a rare occurrence, and Siegfried steels himself until he sees the woman beside him, eyes inscrutable.
Listen well, boy. Raphael's voice is a steel caress. He takes Cassandra's chin in his hand and turns her to him. This one belongs to me. His eyes hold her whole as he speaks.
Siegfried opens his mouth to protest but falls silent as Raphael leans forward and kisses her, open-mouthed, slow, wet, and bruising, tears open her blouse and trails his fingers down her breastbone.
Her eyes meet his, and Siegfried's blood turns to ice.
Siegfried doesn't want to kiss her, later as they find their way to the end of his narrow bed (agility, Raphael says with a lascivious grin, and laughs horribly), and Cassandra leans across to him and presses her lips to his, and it's painfully soft and gentle even though Raphael's teeth are against her throat, hands splayed bloody across her breasts and he whispers sweetly-voiced filth as he fucks her.
Siegfried doesn't want to look at her, doesn't want to see the corruption and degradation of this beautiful girl, and he fights to turn away, but then Raphael's gaze strikes through him, fire-red eyes dark with passion, skin brushing against his, and he's helpless, weeps and kisses her, full and deep.
I think we might have been friends, Cassandra says the next morning (morning, he thinks, and wonders if she's in pain). Back then. She smiles to herself, sadly. Back when I was kind. She edges away from him, towards the lingering shadows.
"You're still kind," Siegfried says, a bit desperately. "Don't you think I thought myself lost to the darkness back when the Azure Knight held full sway over my mind, my soul? Evil never wins that easily. I know there's still good in you."
She stares at him from the shadows from a long moment, watches the sunlight glint on his golden-blond hair.
Full circle, she says quietly.
Raphael leaves for a brief excursion to the village to meet with his vassals, disappears in a shadow of arrogance and silk, and Siegfried wishes he had the strength to stand, to fight him.
"He'll kill them, won't he?" he asks angrily.
Cassandra carefully pours his tea, thinks for a moment.
If they're lucky.
The nights are long and cold, barren, and when he fleetingly longs for heavy warmth beside him, on top of him, warm breath against his ear, Siegfried shudders with disgust, strips off the filthy sheets and tears them into ragged strips.
The absence speaks to them both, and Cassandra comes to Siegfried's bedside, washes and trims his hair, tenderly, sister-like.
It's a shame you and I can't be friends, she says, and there's sincere regret in her tone.
He attempts to turn, is impeded by her grip upon his blond mane. "Why not?" Siegfried asks, surprised.
Cassandra gently tugs a comb through his wet hair, smiles sadly. It's the same old story, she says. We're in love with the same man.
Siegfried's denial is swift, passionate, and he turns, strains a healing gash upon his torso, damns the coursing pain as he kisses her.
He begins to understand Raphael's possessiveness as she arches, shifts, curves beneath him, wanton and wild. Her panting breath frosts in the mountain air, and he steals it from her, sucks it down, holds it in his throat, upon his tongue, warming it, and he thinks he's begun to make her realize that she's not lost to the dark lord of these mountains until he hears his own voice, dark and deep, and her lips ghost bloody over his as they cry the same name in tandem.
And perhaps she isn't lost entirely, for she does not mock him as he weeps in earnest afterwards, merely holds him to her breast and strokes his hair.
Her scars shine in the moonlight.
"My wife will come for me," Siegfried whispers.
I'm sure she will, Cassandra's voice soothes. They always do. But you won't go. After enough time here, you can't. He's branded upon your soul.
"I'm not like you, Cassandra."
She moves from his sweat-slicked embrace, regards him levelly. More than you think, Siegfried, and he starts at the use of his name, such a rare occurrence in this strange, dark dreamland, but he continues to meet her gaze.
"In what way?"
She stands, naked and pale, and he looks away then from the bloody narrative upon her skin. I've tended to your wounds every day, she says, matter-of-fact, standing straight and tall, regal bearing, and Raphael echoes through her voice, her stature, and the realization that she's right drops like a hot stone (burned through to the marrow...). You've made a remarkable recovery. You can walk. You can fight.
So tell me, Siegfried—why don't you run?
Later he dreams, dark and deep, of mocking laughter and silver-blond hair across his pillow, of bloodied tongues, hardened muscles, and he wakes with a start, breathing ragged, and finds himself hard, aching.
Raphael has not yet returned as war drums sound in the distance and the flag of Wolfkrone appears over the horizon.
Siegfried has dragged himself from his bedside (weak, yes, but she was right—dear God, she was right, in so many things...) and watches the coming forces from the ramparts. The plates of his armor are stained with blood and rusted; they sit uncomfortably upon his frame, as if they had belonged to another knight entirely (they did, Cassandra's quiet smile answers, and, oh, he wants so badly to hate her but she is so intricately tied to him—his voice is her voice, his marks burn brightly upon her skin, and he has watched them breathe together, inhale/exhale, two halves of a whole, and wonders if he has splintered them into open, aching thirds...).
A soft footfall, and Cassandra approaches him, lightly-armored, oxblood leather and blackened steel criss-crossing over her pale form. The cavalry's here, she says lightly, gesturing with her sword towards the oncoming troops. Siegfried notes the stains upon her blade, dark with age.
"Once you fought for the Holy Sword," Siegfried observes, turning from her.
Once I fought for cold, uncaring gods, Cassandra corrects, and her sweet gaze briefly turns red. But that was a long time ago, Siegfried.
"And what do you fight for now?"
She remains silent for a long moment, watching the infantrymen beginning their approach, a heavily-armored woman atop a snow-white mare leading them at the front, grim-faced, her flame-red hair streaming in the mountain breeze.
I could have loved you once, Cassandra says, suddenly, and there are tears in her voice. Back then... when I lived in the sunlight. I could have loved you.
Siegfried is startled into silence, has no response for her. Reaches out one hand and awkwardly touches her cheek, burning-cold beneath his fingertips.
"Do you love him?" he asks.
She stares at him. Through him. Do you?
He looks to her in disbelief, eyes narrowed. "How can you ask such a thing?"
She smiles, teary-eyed, and he folds her into an awkward embrace. I do, too, she whispers, and cries against him.
Let me help you.
"Only if you come with me."
My chances are gone, Siegfried.
"I won't leave you to die here, Cassandra."
She presses a hand to her breastbone.
Doesn't make much difference now, really.
She leads him past the guards, through secret, crumbling tunnels that reek of death and decay. The gardens are overgrown with brambles and briars, but she glides between and under, a pale wraith moving within the hellish tangles, and Siegfried struggles to keep pace.
They make it as far as the courtyard, mossy and gray with age, before Cassandra freezes, and Siegfried is confused until he follows her pained gaze.
Honestly, Raphael drawls, stretching lazily upon a cracked stone bench, eyes glinting into the darkness. I can't take you two anywhere, can I?
The winter moon is absent above them as they stand before the gate keep, blackened clouds rumbling low across the mountains. A strand of fine, light snow twists in a sudden gust of wind.
"Please come with me," Siegfried says, taking Cassandra's hands gently in his. "We would welcome you into our home."
He's allowing you to return home—I... I don't have that luxury anymore.
"Cassandra, you're wrong."
I'm right, she responds, steel-edged, and although he's fought and destroyed and rained destruction across Europe (another life, another lifetime ago, he consoles himself, and time has salved the wounds), the confidence of her tone frightens him.
Why do you think he's letting you go, Siegfried? He's been out for revenge for over ten years, and now that he has you here, he's letting you go.
"Raphael's arrogant, Cassandra, but he's not a fool—he knows his forces could not withstand the impending onslaught. Surrender is—"
He's got you, Siegfried. Just like he's got me. Branded.
Her eyes burn into his.
You'll leave this place, but it'll never leave you. He'll never leave you. You'll drink and fight and cower into corners but he'll always be there, his voice, his touch.
You'll know. And he'll know. And he'll drink down your pain.
He's letting you go because he's already won—he's stolen your soul as surely as he's stolen mine.
"I'm sorry," Hilde says that night, after they've reunited, tearful, and she'd stood steady for her troops but, oh, how she'd wept in his arms once they'd returned to their chambers. She presses her cheek now to the broad hollow between his shoulder blades, feeling the smooth linen of his shirt against her skin. "I'm so sorry, Siegfried—by the time I'd alerted Father and rallied the troops..."
"It's all right, Hilde," he responds quietly, brings her hand to his lips. "Thank you."
"It must have been horrible—all those long weeks, held in that monster's fortress... I can't imagine the torture he must have inflicted upon you."
Siegfried pulls her close, does not answer.
He dreams that night of dark, seductive whispers in his ear, turns his head into a kiss that tastes of blood and smoke. Branded, fire-red lips ghost across his. Bruises along his arms, teeth marks in his thigh, silver-blond hair falling back, twin tears on moon-pale cheeks, elegant fingers trailing along fair skin. His eyes catch Cassandra's in the darkness, passion-hazed, clasps her hand, weeps, twins in loss.
Siegfried wakes into blackest midnight, breathing heavily, turns gingerly in this broad, beautifully-wrought iron bed and longs distantly for scrap wood and rough straw. Reaches out one hand to touch Hilde's peacefully sleeping visage, draws back his fingers shamefully.
Climbs out of bed carefully, mindful of his wife, so beautiful, so innocent, sleeping beside him, and crosses to the antique pier glass.
You'll know. And he'll know. Cassandra's soft, sad voice echoes through the miles.
Siegfried thinks of her now as he slowly pulls his shirt open, observes the bruises along his chest, brushes his fingers absently over the tanned flesh. Wonders if she's in Raphael's arms, wonders if she holds his hand and reaches into the darkness.
Slowly, deliberately, Siegfried drags the tip of his fingernail over his breastbone. He stares at the reddened line, blood beginning to pool beneath the surface.
One, he whispers to the silence.