The Crimson Outlaw
Love is the greatest outlaw of all.
Vali Florescu, heir to a powerful local boyar, flees his father’s cruelty to seek his fortune in the untamed Carpathian forests. There he expects to fight ferocious bandits and woo fair maidens to prove himself worthy of returning to depose his tyrannical father. But when he is ambushed by Mihai Roscat, the fearsome Crimson Outlaw, he discovers that he’s surprisingly happy to be captured and debauched instead.
Mihai, once an honoured knight, has long sought revenge against Vali’s father, Wadim, who killed his lord and forced him into a life of banditry. Expecting his hostage to be a resentful, spoiled brat, Mihai is unprepared for the boy to switch loyalties, saving the lives of villagers and of Mihai himself during one of Wadim’s raids. Mihai is equally unprepared for the attraction between them to deepen into love.
Vali soon learns that life outside the castle is not the fairy tale he thought, and happy endings must be earned. To free themselves and their people from Wadim’s oppression, Vali and Mihai must forge their love into the spear-point of a revolution and fight for a better world for all.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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1720 – Harghita County, Transylvania
It was the grimmest of weddings. Even the weather agreed, rain lashing down from a glowering sky, turning the red tiles of the turrets the colour of blood, gushing over all the balconies, and churning the moat to a froth.
Vali, with a sodden sheepskin clutched around his silken hat, escaped his father’s scrutiny long enough to dash through the puddles of the courtyard and catch up with his sister and her maidens before she entered the castle church. The girls gave him sour looks for stopping them outside in this downpour, but he didn’t care overmuch that the spun-sugar delicacy of their headdresses were drooping and darkening with the wet, and that their heavy gold-and-silver-laced bodices, their globes of shimmering skirts were sopping up water with every second.
They were uncomfortable. Well, so they should be, since his sister’s face was anguished and her eyes red with weeping. She had met her husband-to-be for the very first time yesterday, at a feast thrown for that purpose, and although she had concealed her horror fairly successfully at the time, it was clear to see she had not spent a peaceful night. Even encased as she was in so many layers of cloth-of-gold she might be a martyr’s mummy, he could see her shaking, and he was furious to know she was as frightened as she was miserable. Her voice was as raw as her eyes. “You shouldn’t be here. If Father sees you . . . Go back to the men’s side before you’re missed.”
“I will.” He leaned close, while four of Stela’s attendants struggled to hold a tarpaulin over her head to protect the cobweb of her veil. In the water running down her face, it was now impossible to guess at fresh tears. “But you don’t have to do this.”
Her shoulders sank as if in sudden despair, only illustrating how tightly wound they had been before. “I don’t think either of us wants to see what Father will do if I refuse.”
“I have a plan,” Vali insisted, because there were things that could not be borne and this was one of them—that his sister should be given out like a chest of gold to ensure the loyalty of a neighbouring boyar. One, moreover, the same age as their father, hideous and maimed to boot. “There’ll be a horse waiting for you, and all the gates open—”
Her look of despair only deepened. “Vali—”
From the cloisters behind them came the singing of the menfolk, deep and primal and disturbing. Stela’s chief maiden pulled at her arm, and she went, casting Vali a look of resignation, almost of apology, as she was swallowed up in the dim gilding of the church.
“You’ll know when to act,” he shouted after her, his voice all but overwhelmed by the pound of water on paving. “I’ll distract them, and you run!”
The men came out from beneath the colonnade, in glowing high spirits, fortified by plum brandy, pink about the cheeks with self-satisfaction and liquor. Vali made sure his father had seen him, knew from his father’s narrowed grey eyes that he was being watched, and slipped into a place behind the viteji—his father’s knights. Slim, capable men, raised to fight from horseback, deadly with a bow. Any one of them could shoot the eye of a hawk as it dived, even if he was galloping flat out and the bird was a hundred yards behind him.
Some of them were even kind. Vali had trained with them all since he was old enough to pick up a practice bow. At nineteen years of age, he could hold his own against most of them with a sabre, drive a lance through a wall with his charge, and sit a horse as though he were a centaur, command it as though it were his own flesh. All of this he owed to them. Now the two he liked the best, old Grigore and young Eugen, drew apart to let him join them. Eugen clapped him on the back, and Grigore handed him a flask of tuica so he could catch up on the general inebriation.
“Soon be over,” Eugen offered in reply to Vali’s long face.
“Not for her.”
A patch of rainless cloud blew briefly over their heads, bringing silence with it. And then as if from under their feet came the long, pitiful wail of an infant and the choking sobs of a woman without hope. Grigore crossed himself to ward off evil. “She gets away,” Grigore said roughly. “From this place. I fought beside Ionescu against the Russians. He is not a terrible man.”
Eugen offered his own reassurance. “And he’s old too. He may drop dead within the year, leaving her mistress of all his lands. No, this is not such a bad thing for her. She is lucky to go.”
Vali took the consolation as well-intentioned and irrelevant. He would not resign himself to this. He would not resign himself to losing the one person to whom he could turn, to whom he could speak honestly, the sister who had been always just a step or two ahead of him as they grew, ready to reach back a hand and haul him up next to her. The protector, who, following their mother’s death, was the only person in his father’s fief with both the rank and the inclination to defend Vali.
If this were what she wanted, then he would have let her go and kept his self-pity as invisible as he could, so as not to shadow her day. He hoped he was capable of being glad she could get out, even if he was to be left behind. But only if she was happy about it. And she wasn’t.
They entered the church, and at once the bitter cold and grey wet of the outdoors gave way to an ochre haze of candlelight seen through misty tendrils of incense. Smoke, pungent with resin, perfumed a vaulted ceiling on which golden angels leaned. The windows, even on such a dim day, gleamed sharp, the very tips of lances of pale light that made the gilded carvings of the iconostasis glitter. All the walls were painted bright with Byzantine scenes of warfare and miracles in colours like scattered jewels.
Vali coughed loudly as he came in, so that again his father looked back and saw him present, squeezed between two trusted retainers. Not going anywhere, not causing any trouble. The bridegroom turned his face toward him too, its right side stern but pleased, weathered skin brown beneath a short white beard, its left side a ruin of red flesh, the eyelid fixed permanently half-closed and the eye beneath it white with cataract. Vali had been told many stories about how it had gotten that way—Ionescu had fought a dragon; his rifle had burst; a jealous woman had thrown vitriol in his face. What did it matter which was true? Stela flinched when she looked at him. That was all Vali needed to know.
The ceremony began. The priest, in a chasuble so high at the shoulders it made him look hunchbacked, pressed the rings three times to Stela’s forehead as she wiped fresh tears with her veil.
Vali waited until his father’s gaze was firmly forward, pressed like a dagger into Stela’s side. Then he took a step back and wriggled away through the crowd. Eugen gave him a reproachful look, but then Eugen always looked reproachful—for a young man, he had a bloodhound countenance, inclined to droop. Vali grinned in return, eeled all the way to the entrance of the church, cracked open the door, and slid through.
Wind plucked at him and water hit him in the face as he ran across the inner courtyard, down servants’ stairs, through the cold, unornamented stone of the passage between the kitchens and the pantry. There he picked up a set of saddlebags and the oozing package he had concealed beneath a stone earlier in the morning. Then it was out into the greater courtyard, where the stables and the kennels were steaming in a fug of animal warmth.
The dogs went wild as they saw him, leaping up against the wattle walls of their enclosure, barking and howling and throwing themselves at him, their muzzles smiling and their tails thumping. “In a moment,” he told them. Opening his packet, he threw over the pen wall a handful of offal—sweetbreads of an ox, two pigs’ ears, and the gizzard of a goose, just to get them warmed up.
Passing by the now horribly excited animals, he swiftly tacked up his sister’s palfrey, affixed the saddlebags, and smiled with what he hoped was his usual devil-may-care grin at the grooms who tried—with proper deference, of course—to ask him what he was up to and to suggest that perhaps it was not a good idea.
The horse prepared, he returned to paroxysms of joy amongst the dogs, who only grew wilder when he began to work the latch of their pen free.
“You can’t do that, sir,” the kennel master protested, his hand outstretched as if to hold Vali back by force. The thought!
Insolent man. Indignantly, Vali drew the bolt with a flourish and let the dogs boil out into the courtyard. “It’s not up to you to tell me what I can do.”
But perhaps he had a point—the dogs smelled the extra meat on him. They were bright and friendly creatures, but not too gentle. He couldn’t fault them for getting carried away—there was no malice in them—but their teeth were worrying as the pack closed in on him.
“Come on then, lads!” He fled, and they chased after him, up the pantry snicket, up the servants’ steps, out into the fountain court.
Perhaps it was a bad idea to run, for they were baying now, their dutiful dog thoughts warring with the instincts of wolves. But oh, what a relief it was to be in immediate peril, not to have to think, nor worry, nor behave. Vali was laughing when he threw the church doors open and bolted inside, pursued by the pack.
Howling all around him. He loosened the ties on the parcel of meat and threw it high into the air, where it broke apart. Gobbets of flesh scattered into the crowd, a gizzard landing on a matron’s bare shoulder, a boar’s eye splatting on the priest’s hat just as he was lowering crowns of flowers onto the bride’s and bridegroom’s heads.
Single-mindedly, almost foaming at the mouth with their enthusiasm, the dogs sped into the crowd, knocking women over and licking their faces, getting their dirty paws all over silver satin wedding finery, tearing at headdresses and coats spotted with blood. The women screamed and scrambled. The men cursed, knocking into one another as they jostled for elbow room to draw swords.
Vali, prepared for all of this, went leaping through the chaos up to the altar, where he could grab and yank at the loose knot in the embroidered cloth that tied Stela’s right hand to the right hand of her groom.
He pulled it off and threw it on the floor, trampling it. “Go!” he urged her in the breathing space bought for him by Ionescu’s shock. But she seemed as dumbfounded as everyone else. “There’s food packed,” he elaborated. “Your horse is saddled and waiting, the drawbridge is down. Just run, this lot won’t be following you anytime soon!”
The chaos seemed to be growing. Having found and eaten the meat, the dogs had decided to search all the guests to be sure they were not hiding any more. Tripped men lay prostrate with affectionate hounds standing on their puffed up breasts. The lamps swayed above them as plaster saints were dislodged from their pillars and fell with a smash. Vali had never imagined the plan could turn out so well. Such a rumpus as he’d only dreamed of. He burst out laughing again.
But then Wadim came at him like a thunderbolt, pushing the panicked guests aside. “What the . . .?” His father’s fist lashed out, caught him in the nose. He thought he felt something break. Certainly his head rang like a struck bell and blood began to pour over his searching fingers.
Wadim got him by the hair, hit him again, more deliberately, in exactly the same place. This time there was no surprise to cushion the blow. Tears came to Vali’s eyes, hot shameful tears, but it was worth it. It would be worth it.
Stela had stepped away from her future jailer and from her father alike. She was looking on, appalled and helpless. It would all be worth it if only she won free.
“Go,” he yelled, his words wet with blood. “Run!”
# # #
Vali spent the wedding feast with a slave collar hard around his neck, its chain bolted to one of the Great Hall’s torch brackets, so that unless he somehow popped his head off and on again, he could not sit down.
Wadim was a bold, ferocious, quick-acting, quick-tempered man, and it had not taken him long to get everyone outside, task half a dozen of his viteji with rounding up the dogs, and ushering all the other guests back inside to complete the ceremony. A shaky and outraged priest had suggested perhaps allowing a break of a few hours for everyone to regather themselves and fortify their nerves with sleep or spirits as it suited them.
Wadim had found that suggestion preposterous. He had picked up the fallen cloth and shaken it out, tied it back around Stela and Ionescu’s wrists himself, Ionescu looking down on the crown of his head as he did so with a perplexed and wondering expression. The groom’s earlier satisfaction seemed to have shifted into something more complicated, but he fell back easily into the responses of the ceremony and made no protest.
Vali didn’t blame Ionescu for allowing the wedding to proceed apace as though nothing had happened. He didn’t even blame his father, accustomed as he was to the man’s ruthless efficiency.
He did, however, blame Stela. Stela, who had looked at him with a mixture of tender pity and exasperation, as though he were some sort of child. Stela, who had been offered an escape route and chosen to go meekly ahead into a life she didn’t want. Vali, with one of his father’s belts tying his wrists tight behind his back, his head full of jangle and creeping grey stars, had been pinned by the most burly of his father’s retainers and forced to watch it all. There was a little pool of blood on the floor where he had stood in the church, his face striped and dripping with gore.
Wadim had not allowed him to wash himself or shift into clean clothes, but had simply sent a servant to bring the collar, untying his hands but leashing him against the wall of the Great Hall, simultaneously on display for all the guests at the wedding feast and kept out of harm’s way.
“Ten months of negotiations that you almost ruined. Don’t think this is all the punishment you will receive, boy. I have not even begun.”
Vali’s head hurt. His legs hurt, and his back too. If he bent his legs to take some of the strain of standing for so long off his bowed back, his thighs began to shudder and cramp. If he locked his knees, his whole torso up to the shoulders protested. He felt sullen, savage, Stela’s ingratitude a worse bruise than the blows.
“Does he do that often?”
Vali snapped out of an attempt to relieve his aching back by arching like a cat, and saw Ionescu close by him, holding a plum-centred brioche and a goblet of wine in his one hand. His left sleeve was sewn together at the shoulder and capped with a strip of azure embroidery.
“Does who do what?”
Ionescu held out the cake and the wine for Vali to take. As much as Vali didn’t want to receive anything from the cause of all his woe, as much as his victim mocked him now with this kindness, he had not managed to choke down breakfast and by now he was very hungry. Accept a gesture of peace, or—for he had no doubt he would get nothing else today—go to bed ravenous?
The older man waited out his thought process patiently and smiled when he took the food. “Does your father often hit you?”
What business was it of his? Vali found himself overcome by a kind of furious embarrassment. “I don’t often let him catch me. But don’t they say ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’? If he disciplines us, it is for our own good.”
Ionescu’s expression grew threatening, his eye like a storm cloud. Vali stepped as far away as he could without choking himself, convinced the wildest stories were true—that Ionescu had lost his arm and half his face by reaching down a dragon’s throat while it flamed him to strangle it from the inside.
“Us? He has done this to your sister too?”
“Sometimes.” Vali drained the cup and let it drop. When he had swallowed the cake too, he curled both hands around the collar and took some of his weight on his arms instead. It made shrugging tricky. “But discipline is—”
“Judging from that fiasco, I don’t think anyone in your family knows what discipline is.” Ionescu sneered—it was not a pretty sight on that scarred face. “I came here to drink with the man who sacrificed his own well-being for my bride’s happiness. I know that to you young things I must not seem like much of a catch. But now I find you tried to keep her in a place where she is ill-treated? Because if she goes, you will be alone? I thought you were a man, but I see you are just a boy after all.”
Vali turned his face to the wall. He wasn’t upset, and he wasn’t on the verge of tears. He didn’t care about Ionescu’s opinion. He was just closing his eyes because it calmed the throb behind them, and it shut off the nauseating sight of all those gorgeously dressed idiots, filling up the flower-bedecked main hall beyond him, braying with laughter, tossing back drink and staggering. Also it meant he couldn’t see his father. He could allow himself to forget, for a while, that this wasn’t over yet.
“Oh, Vali.” Stela’s voice. Her sky-blue dress made her cheeks look sallow. Her eyes were still red, but they were dry now, and there was a new calmness about her, as if she were glad to leave choice behind and settle down with endurance. “I was never going to run. Thank you for trying to save me, but I wish you had not tried. The last thing I wanted for my wedding present was to see you in pain.”
So apparently it wasn’t enough to simply fail to get her away; he’d actively made it worse for her. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” she said and smiled the day’s first smile. “You were there for me as I’ve always known you would be. And this is not good-bye for us. I’m not going for a quite a while, and even when I do, I won’t be far away. You’ll visit and so will I.” Her fingers curled over his, under the thick iron that pressed on his collarbones. “I’ll always be there for you, too.”
But even before the night was over, this proved to be a lie. Stela and her new husband had barely retired to the room prepared for them before Wadim was pushing all the other guests out.
He shut the doors to the Great Hall, and there, amidst the detritus of feasting—the spilled carcass of a roast pig, arrangements of fruit now lopsided from the grazing of indiscriminate eaters, sticky pools of strongly hopped beer, bitter to the nose, discarded hairpins and pipes and a sugar diorama of siege warfare with gold leaf flags—he snapped his belt between his fists, and set the buckle flying at Vali’s ribs.
Vali tried to catch it, got the heavy metal buckle on the back of his hand. The tongue of it punched a hole in the web between his fingers. When the buckle flew a second time, he flinched away, and it landed on his ribs with a kick like a horse. This was something different for his father. A half-dozen punches, a few kicks, this was normal. Public humiliation was normal. Being confined to his room without food for a week was normal—all of it accompanied by incessant lecturing. But this—this silent violence, his father’s face set and not even angry, this was . . .
He had twisted, trying to get out of the way. All that meant was the buckle hit him on the buttocks, three times. But that wasn’t so bad. He got his shocked flutter of breathing under control, blinked away the tears that were clouding his eyes, and tried to provoke a tirade of words, a sign of reason. “Father, I was doing it for Stela. He’s not worthy of her. You must know that; she’s your daughter, she’s worth more—argh!”
He had swung back, still clinging on with both hands to the collar. Every time a blow landed, every time he recoiled, its hard iron was driven into his throat. The flesh was growing tender, bruised, gathering hot red grazes on top and aching bones beneath, going from painful to unbearable.
As he hung on, trying to protect his neck, the buckle slapped into his belly, drove up under his sternum, hammered the breath out of his lungs and squeezed every particle of space out of his body. Instinctively, he bowed forwards over it, choking himself on the collar. It felt like he was trying to saw his own head off. Breathing was impossible, his throat closed, his lungs glued together. He opened his mouth wide, looked up at his father, imploring, shocked, appealing silently for help from one whom he still trusted, deep down, not to betray him, not to be too harsh, not to push beyond what he could bear.
But his father was as silent and unwavering as an automaton. The next strike was to his throat, bursting against the bruises. Pain whited out the world and any awareness of who he was for long, long seconds. When he next knew joined-up time, his knees had buckled and he was clawing at the collar, still unable to breathe, still jangling and shattering with panic and disbelief.
His father was going to kill him. Impossible. Unthinkable. But he still couldn’t breathe, his lungs burning, his heart labouring, and his legs still refusing to stand up.
The far door partially opened. A woman he didn’t know looked inside. Her hat was laced with pearls twelve rows deep and they each looked like a little moon. A woman with the moon on her hat was looking at him, and he tried to free his voice, get breath to call, “Help me please!” But it had been too long. His body had forgotten what to do with air. Maybe . . . maybe he had died before, and this was him back from the dead, trying to clamber back into his living family.
That would explain it all. His father could do this to a dead son who wouldn’t lie down, someone who had peeked out from his grave and thought life was sweeter and tried to take it back. If he was trespassing out of his tomb, it was only his father’s duty to put him back in it.
That must be it indeed. The pain had blurred into a volcanic cloud, a settle of hot ash all over him and he had time to think it was quite right to bury the revenant and stake it down with spindles to make sure it never came back. He was dying, but it was all right—the second time hardly counted, after all.
He was almost content by the time the blackness came down.