Bound No More
By: Catherine Olaso
~~Barely sixteen, Helena honored the match her dying father secured. As Captain of the King’s guard, Lord Paxton seemed a noble man, and she wished to please her new husband.
T’was this very desire that beckoned Helena out onto the moor in search of fragrant heather, Lord Paxton’s favorite, to twine atop their mantel.
“Shall I assist you, Lady?” Lord Paxton’s steward met her at the castle door.
“Nay, Gorwin.” Helena gave a mirthful smile to the kind servant. “’Tis a task suited for a woman’s touch.”
By mid-day Helena’s basket brimmed with pink flowering stalks. She did not anticipate the summer storm that flashed in a violent torrent of wind and rain. Nor did she anticipate the cliff’s edge giving way, tumbling her into a steep drop, her body still and broken upon the basalt precipice several feet below.
Through pain and delirium, Helena overheard the harsh whispers of an argument swirling around her. She recognized the voice of Ayleth, the village Healer, first.
“Stand aside, Gorwin. My daughter is all that can save her now.”
“But Lord Paxton abhors dark magic! I shall be quartered by sunset if I relent.”
“Stand aside, I say! My herbs and poultices alone cannot suffice. Ysabel is her only chance!”
The shuffling of feet followed Gorwin’s plaintive moan. “Do what you must.”
Helena felt the warmth of a slender hand grasp her elbow. “Look upon me,” Ysabel bid, her firm voice summoning Helena from a dark abyss of fear and agony.
Helena’s eyes fluttered open to meet Ysabel’s golden stare. The burning gaze mesmerized her. “Sister,” Ysabel spoke softly, “embrace what you will become. ‘Tis a gift I bestow upon few.”
Ysabel’s mouth parted, exposing the sharp tips of two gleaming white teeth. They quickly found their mark in the center of Helena’s left wrist. She screamed twice before the abyss dragged her under again.
“I said, lock her up!” Lord Paxton slammed his fist onto the table as he lunged to his feet. “I know her not.”
“But my Lord,” Gorwin entreated. “She is your wife. She is well.”
Lord Paxton’s blue eyes glittered with disgust and hatred as he pinned his servant against the stone wall. “She is a monster. I behead monsters, Gorwin, as I did Ayleth and her aberration of a daughter. Tempt not the same fate for Helena, she can ill afford it.”
Gorwin lowered his eyes, his heart forlorn. “Yes, my Lord.”
Helena spent the next seven years a prisoner inside a small bedchamber below the east wing parapet. Regular meals were brought to her, except on the evening of a full moon. On those occasions, she was left in solitude to howl and wail, and slash deep crevices into the wooden posts lining the room. By sunrise, she regained her natural, beautiful form and retained little memory of the night’s events. The merciless cycle continued month after month, along with Lord Paxton’s increasing callousness.
Each morning he stood below her barred window, his beloved hawk perched atop his gloved hand. At his signal, a flock of pure white doves took flight from their hutch, soaring into the sky. Helena caught her breath as her gaze followed the synchronized rush of pearly wings gliding on the crest of a breeze. The elation of freedom thudded in her heart.
After a cold, dark glare in her direction, Lord Paxton released the hawk. It darted into the air, circling above the dazzling birds, its mottled brown wings spread wide. A sharp cry of hunger pierced her ears, stealing Helena’s joy. Eyes filled with tears, she watched the hawk dive into the flock, swoop its meal into its lethal talons, then land to devour the helpless prey. With one last sinister glance upward, Lord Paxton departed, leaving behind the pile of blood-stained feathers to haunt her.
Helena shuddered. Like the radiant doves, he would maim her heart, kill her spirit – devour her soul … if she let him.
“Rise, Lady, your Lord approaches.” Gorwin shook Helena awake one night.
“Pray thee,” Helena stumbled from sleep and donned her robe under the flame of a torch, “why doth he visit?”
The servant jumped when the door banged open, the shadow of Lord Paxton looming above him. The Lord of the castle stepped into the light and scowled at Helena. “The King demands your aid.”
Helena found courage. “What is his meaning?” she asked.
Lord Paxton’s pitiless eyes flitted to the scar on her wrist. “Prince Ulric lies near death. The healers are useless. His Majesty invokes –”
“My freedom.” Helena straightened and faced her Lord as a woman, the innocent girl of sixteen long forgotten.
Lord Paxton clenched his jaw, his reply a hiss between his teeth. “Beasts are suited for chains.”
“So are dead-hearted Lords.” Helena didn’t flinch when Lord Paxton’s hand flew to strike her.
“Nay, Lord!” Gorwin interceded, taking the blow himself across his cheek.
“Death … or my freedom.” Helena remained adamant, aware of her growing advantage. “Make your choice.”
No one moved.
Lord Paxton’s cursed viciously, his tone acerbic. “You will leave Evandale the second the deed is finished – never to return.”
“Agreed.” Helena nodded.
She dressed in haste, arriving at the King’s castle before dawn. King Merek himself ushered her into the Prince’s bedchamber, his brow fraught with worry. “I beseech you – save my son.” He parted a velvet drape exposing a beautiful, pale boy of fourteen sick with fever.
Both compassion and reluctance swelled inside Helena. Was it a gift or curse to save his life? “As you wish, my King.” Helena’s blue eyes flashed gold; her canines elongated as she raised the Prince’s wrist to her mouth.
Inside the King’s stables, Gorwin handed Helena the reins to a black steed. “Make haste, Lady, lest his Lord annuls the bargain.”
She stepped into Gorwin’s laced fingers and lifted herself onto the horse.
“Ride north through the forest, ‘tis safer than east through Knaves-glade or west through Ox-glen.” Gorwin offered a reassuring smile as he led the steed into the yard. “And take these, Lady, for your safety … and comfort.” He handed Helena a sheathed dagger and a small pouch of coins. “’Tis all I’ve saved.”
Helena’s eyes misted. “Thank you, gentle Gorwin. I shall not forget your kindness.” She leaned to kiss the bruise on his wrinkled cheek.
“God speed,” he whispered after she had gone.
Helena rode with the sun, her hunger forcing her to stop at the edge of a stream at dusk. Poised with a long stick she had sharpened on one end, she stood in the frigid stream, the water soaking her skirts to her knees. A large trout circled her ankles, then started, dashing into the safety of the current when a horse approached to drink. Herself startled, Helena shielded her eyes against the setting sun, straining to see the intruder.
A crooked smile turned the rider’s mouth, his dark eyes and voice equally cajoling.
“I’ve spent the day tracking the jingle of a gold purse, never expecting it to belong to a Lady.”
Helena tightened her grip on the stick. “You rob me of my dinner, and now would steal my coin as well?”
The young stranger laughed. “I confess you have spoiled my scheme.” He backed his horse away, inviting her to clear the icy stream.
She did, stick still poised as she noted his clothing – plain cotton pants and a baggy white shirt beneath a red vest. “You’re a gypsy?” Helena had never met a gypsy.
Again, the stranger’s voice seemed to tease her. “Does that make me unfit company?”
Helena laughed despite her defensiveness. An odd feeling of familiarity passed between them. “It means you are not from Evandale, and thereby no friend of Lord Paxton’s.”
“True enough, Lady.”
Anxious to forget her Lord, Helena spoke boldly. “I no longer answer to that title. I am simply Helena.”
“And I am Luca Romani.” The gypsy bowed his dark head in introduction. “Come.” He gestured toward Helena’s steed, “I have scared away your dinner, now I insist that you share mine. A fire and rabbit stew wait in my family’s camp.” His keen eyes settled on her scarred wrist. “I know everyone will be eager to meet you.”
Helena shivered with cold, and … she was fond of rabbit. She took a minute to collect herself, raising a spirited chin. “T’would seem a fair apology.” She dropped the stick and donned her dry cloak before mounting her horse, her wet skirts clinging to her legs. “Will there be carrots in the stew?”
Luca turned his horse, another crooked smile beaming across at her. “No carrots. Meat is the gypsy’s vegetable.”
Helena followed Luca into the gypsy camp, her eyes wide with wonder. Wooden carts along with makeshift tents and wagons covered with bright fabrics circled the caravan. The music of pan flutes and violins mingled with the scent of livestock and baking bread. Women in colored skirts and shiny jewelry tended to fires and hung laundry. Helena found the camp exhilarating and beautiful, despite the guarded stares that trailed her.
She met Luca’s mother and sister first. “Mother, we have a guest for dinner.” Luca guided Helena to a large tent carpeted with thick wool rugs.
“So I see.” The jovial woman’s brown eyes twinkled. “The cards said my son would surprise me today. I am Nadja.” She extended a bangled arm toward the fire. “Please warm yourself. My daughter, Divina, will bring you a blanket.”
Helena’s gaze settled on a dark haired girl, maybe sixteen, with exotic features similar to Luca’s – her black eyes just as expressive as his. “Luca has never brought anyone home before,” Divina said, grabbing a bright green blanket from a large pile on the floor.
Helena accepted it with a grateful smile. “I am Helena. And your brother only brought me to camp because he owes me a dinner.” She extended the same smile to Luca joining her beside the fire.
Gygorgy Romani, Luca’s father, appeared as Nadja dished up the stew. His dark brows raised in curiosity at the sight of Helena. Like Luca, Gygorgy was beautifully proportioned with a strong build and kind, intrepid spirit. Another sense of interconnection roused her as he spoke her name. “Welcome, Helena.”
After dinner, the clan migrated to one central fire, where Helena was introduced and accepted by all. Lively music and singing furnished the first half of the evening’s entertainment, a warm up for the wild stories that followed.
Helena held her breath as Gygorgy told of werewolfs, werelions, and even weredragons, always keeping her in his peripheral sight. Gripped by his wondrous tales, she didn’t feel threatened or maligned. These people did not fear what she was – rather, they honored it.
“Will you stay awhile longer, Helena?” Luca whispered to her as the flames of the fire dulled into smoldering embers.
She turned and caught the flash of yellow blazing in his eyes, the scar on his forearm visible in the soft glow as he rolled up his sleeves.
“I will,” she whispered back.
By the next full moon, Helena better understood what she was – what they both were. Gygorgy and Nadja kissed them and sent them into the forest, a quartz talisman fastened around each of their necks.
“To keep us from taking human life,” Luca told her, “unless provoked.”
Months passed, and at his side by day and in his arms at night, Helena found in Luca her soul mate. His people became her people. She knew it was not the life her father would have chosen for her, yet she had chosen for herself their exotic customs, mysterious traditions and nomadic ways.
One day, while riding horses across the fragrant plain, Helena stopped short at the sight of a circling hawk. Luca steered his mare beside her, his voice deep with concern.
Helena slid her hand into his, her eyes not leaving the sky. “Rest easy, Luca. ‘Tis only a ghost from my past … but it haunts me no more.”