The Ten Hands, Chapter One

The Ten Hands
Chapter One

Endehoven, Nederland – January 5, 1554  

A will-o’-the-wisp of fire floated behind the stone walls of the fortress. But unlike the previous nights this was not a watchman’s portent of battle. Tonight, this young servant’s torch was a spark of hope as, one by one, the fire lit a hundred beautiful lanterns.

The scattered lights bathed the garden with a warm glow, revealing the fruits of the township’s labors. Twine threads laced across the night sky above, drooping rainbow banners of dyed parchment. And below, like a living mirror, the garden paraded its bounty of fresh spring flowers. Then came the guests. Hand in hand, they strolled through the gate. As they began to dance and twirl, the vibrant flutters from their finest dresses and coats became one with the decorations around them. For this one evening, the typically bleak fortifications were transformed into a festival fit for royalty. Tonight was the wedding night of Sir William to the beautiful Annabella, and all of Endehoven was invited.

All but one.

Gregor crouched high in the south bell tower, scowling down in dejection on the festivities which he’d been forbidden to attend. Banished from the land by that pompous Earl, he was to be forever separated from his dearest Annabella.

Your Annabella.

The voice inside his head echoed his remorse. It was so quiet. It was so alluring. It was not his own.

Gregor did not know what the voice was, or why it came to him. The first time he heard its whispers was only yesterday, after he began his miserable exodus. At first he was frightened, fearing he was falling into madness. But after a little time, he found comfort and strength in the unseen companion. It encouraged him to turn back from his exile; rallying him to not surrender his love, but to fight. He was to fight for Annabella’s freedom.

Stolen. Take her back.

Gregor groaned, squeezing his head between his hands. The voice burned. Hot, passionate and odious, it threatened to consume him. But still, he could not dismiss his companion now. He needed it.

After what felt like only moments, he opened his eyes and was astounded to find himself at the base of the stairs. He could not recall descending them. Was he making his way to the wedding?  Yes. Yes, that felt right.

He began making his way slowly through the church; his path through the empty hall lit only by moonlight. Gregor slinked to the door, stumbling occasionally as if his legs were no longer truly his. Just as he reached the door, his eye was drawn by a metallic glint to his side. There on the wall hung a pair of retired spears, mounted so they formed a cross at the hafts.

Take it.

Gregor hesitated. He was a carpenter by trade, not a knight. He’d never used a spear. Not a real one, at least. And yet, as he came closer to admire the weapon, it was so easy to imagine its sharp, iron tip piercing deep into William’s beating heart. The thought was so savory that instantly, he knew he had to have it. Reaching up he curled his fingers around the cold metal.

Rather than placate his hunger, as he would have supposed, the weapon channeled it! The spear was now a part of him; a tool into which he could pour his vengeance and lust. Intoxicated by the sensation of power, he twisted his hands across the grip, over and over, building heat beneath his gritty palms. The iron grew so hot, that by the time Gregor stepped out the door, his sweat sizzled against the metal.

He made his way with care, pausing in the shadows to spy on the gates. The doors stood wide open, but two sentries waited dutifully on either side. Endehoven was not so large a community that the men were strangers. Fredrick and Liam; he knew them as neighbors. But they were true to their duty and Gregor was certain they would not let him pass.

An image flashed before his mind. He saw them as combatants, with all their flaws and vulnerabilities on display: the gaps in their armor, the reach of their swords, even the mistakes in their form before they were made. All was laid plain before his mind’s eye. Three strikes. No more than three strikes from his spear and both men would be dead.

“No!”  Gregor spoke out loud, shaking the vision out of his head. That wasn’t him. He held no grudge against those men. He would have to find another way. Turning his back on the gates, he sulked his way to an empty cart. Attempting to regain his composure he set his spear aside against the wheel.

Only, his hand refused to let go.

For your Annabella.

His Annabella. The fog within Gregor’s mind was lifted. She needed him. She loved him!  She had told him so in confidence, not two months past. But meek and gentle Annabella, how could she refuse the earl?  Surely it was an act of coercion which forced the hand of his dearest love.

Justice.

The voice dipped into his emotions like a hot iron, boiling them with immediate effect. There was an evil taking place tonight. Was he the only one who could see it?

Are you willing?

The voice was clearer and louder than it had ever been before. It felt so real and so corporal Gregor felt compelled to address it out loud. “Willing of what?”

To save your Annabella, will you do whatever is necessary?

The voice did not explain further what it thought was “necessary,” but within his heart Gregor knew. His lips quivered as he gave his reply. “Yes.”

The very instant he spoke, his mind was plunged into an inferno of agony. The voice, once so quiet now boomed with triumphant applaud. His vision left him, pitching him into a black void, the only relief from which came in brief flashes of light. In those lights he saw images of twisted faces, orange tongues of fire, and blood. Rivers of gushing blood. Gregor was terrified. But even through that terror he could feel rising up from the pit of his stomach such a satisfying, delicious pleasure.

And then it was over. The vision ebbed, and he felt himself waking as if from a dream. The experience had been so intense it seemed to him to have been just a moment, and yet an eternity at the same time. Blinking, Gregor brought sight back to his eyes, and found he was standing in the bowels of hell.

Every direction he turned there was blood and fire. He began to cough as his first breath was overwhelmed with the unexpected odors of smoke and something sweet, almost like perfume. Black skeletons of trees burned like massive torches. The dancing light revealed the high walls of a stone enclosure surrounding him on all sides. It also revealed bodies. There were dozens of them, scattered all around him, massacred and mutilated in unspeakable ways. As he went to cover his mouth in disgust he realized he still held the spear. It felt red hot and strangely heavy.

And that was when he noticed the lifeless corpse impaled on its tip. William.

With a loud gasp Gregor realized the truth. This was not hell. He was standing in the middle of the courtyard amongst the burning ruins of the earl’s wedding.

Dozens of oil lanterns lay shattered, spilling their fiery blood over everything that could burn. The bodies of knights lay slain, weapons still in hand. But worse still were the guests. Men and women, still dressed to dance, joined the fallen in staggering number. The fire, bored of its feast of oil and wood, was just beginning to nibble at a young maiden’s brilliant yellow gown.

A choked sob caused Gregor to turn. Cowering behind a rose-twined arch was Annabella.

“Anna!”

Gregor reached out his hand, but she recoiled, crying all the more.

“Anna, come out.” Gregor shook his spear free from William’s chest, letting the body fall carelessly to the stone.

She hid her face behind her hand, and Gregor’s heart sank as he saw the gold ring on her finger.

“Anna …”  He was too late. She had married him. Gregor shot the lifeless groom a scathing look. What had he done to his Annabella?

She loved him.

The voice did more than burn this time; the words stabbed like a knife. “So, you loved him after all.”

“No!” pleaded Annabella. “I had no choice, Gregor. And you, you were gone. If it were not so, you know I would have chosen you.”

She lies.

“You lie!”

The bride’s desperate cries brought tears to Gregor’s eyes as he raised the spear over his head. Even now she looked so beautiful. More beautiful than any woman he had ever seen in his whole life. Too beautiful for him to ever see with any other besides him. Her traitorous heart made a small target, but as he brought down the spear his aim was true.

Very good.

The voice that Gregor had found only a day earlier was now the only thing he had left in the world. No friends. No home. No love.

“What now?” he asked.

Now, you shall learn your new name.

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