The Stellar and the Princess
While the first two parts of The Stellar and the Princess are fairly well preserved, I have had to put together the rest of the story by examining a number of sources. Only fragments of the original Kadian record survive, but various later versions exist in translation.
I was sceptical to read of a vampire in this next part, and for a long time believed the whole tale to be a fiction, but surprisingly it was this aspect of the story that finally allowed me to establish when these events took place.
During the Middle Second Age there was a great struggle by the Essettans against the vampires. Many were killed, and some fled north following the Mountains of the East, and a few worked their way south. I have found a Tallzehni document, dated 2/786, that describes the vampire hunts of that year. Of interest to us here is this: ‘Only one of the vile creatures escaped our traps, that wily monster Roka-Tawa. He killed and defiled six of our number before our fire sent him scurrying south. We pursued him for days, but his trail went cold. Goddess curse him!’
Nemarkan records from that period are lost, but trade records in the Crimson Library do indicate that the Nemarkan monarch, between about 2/803 and 2/839, was a Queen Aribel.
And perhaps it is no coincidence that the temple of Artemis in Nemarshe was founded in 2/804.
Kariyne Marlo, 3/986
3. The Stellar and the Vampire
Now it happened that at this time a creature had come recently to Nemarkan and it prowled the forests at night, draining the blood of unwary travellers until none dared go outside while the sun was down, but even so the creature would steal its way into houses so that fathers, mothers, sometimes whole families, were found dead in their beds. The king’s guards hunted the creature, but without luck, and many died. The people of Nemarkan began to grumble because the king could not protect them, and many refused to pay their taxes. Such was the unrest, that rumour of the terrifying creature reached even the deepest dungeons.
Determined that his daughter should marry, the king announced that whoever slayed the creature would be rewarded with her hand in marriage. Princess Aribel was much aggrieved, but if the creature could be killed that was worth any sacrifice, and so the princess resigned herself to her fate. However, she cared for the little red-leaved tree and thought often about the woman who had given it to her. One day she wrote a secret letter for Stellar Hope, signed with a lipstick kiss, saying simply, ‘You leave no room in my heart for prejudice.’
When the messenger came down to the dungeons to deliver the letter, Stellar Hope leapt swiftly to the cell door and urged her to return with a message for the king: ‘Tell him that I can defeat this creature that so plagues Nemarkan.’ Once she was alone again she read the letter from the princess, and her heart knew a great joy. She felt truly happy for the first time in many long years.
When the king received Stellar Hope’s message, he did not send for her, for many valiant warriors and keen hunters came to Nemarkan to slay the creature – but one by one they failed. Some died. Some fled. And as fewer and fewer hunters came to Nemarkan it seemed that the creature was destined to remain unvanquished and the princess unclaimed.
Until at last the king summoned her. For several weeks she had been kept in the dark and fed little more than scraps of food not fit for the dogs, and she seemed deathly pale and thin, but Stellar Hope stood defiantly before the king. ‘I can defeat this creature,’ she said. ‘I know what he is.’
‘And what is he?’ the king asked.
‘He’s a vampire,’ Stellar Hope replied. ‘A creature of wizardry from the forests of Essetta.’
The king looked thoughtfully at her, and then asked, ‘How do they deal with these vampires in Essetta?’
Stellar Hope laughed, saying, ‘With great rings of fire and swarms of arrows.’
The king frowned unhappily. ‘My army will not follow you,’ he told her.
The Daughter of Hope shrugged, unconcerned. ‘All I need is a loaf of bread and a basket of fruit,’ she said. ‘And my freedom.’
The king granted her requests, but growled a warning: ‘If you dare to return to the palace without the creature’s head, then I will take your head instead!’
The warrior woman walked out of the palace and sighed with pleasure as fresh air filled her lungs and bright sunshine infused her with forgotten warmth. She looked up at the tall towers behind her, and to her delight she spied bright scarlet leaves peeking from one high window. With a song in her heart and a spring in her step, she set out for the northern hills.
For many days she walked from village to village, sleeping on a bed of grass, bathing in rivers and drinking from clear springs. For food she ate wild berries or stole fruit from orchards, and gradually she regained the strength she had lost in the king’s dungeon. Wherever she went, she asked for news of the vampire, and day by day she drew nearer to her prey, until one night her senses shivered in recognition and she knew he was close.
Stellar Hope still had two of the pearls the old woman had given her. She took one of these from her secret place and used a pair of hard stones to grind it down into a fine white powder. The old woman had said to use it sparingly, so she carefully divided the powder into four parts. Three she wrapped in folded leaves, but one she mixed with water and drank slowly.
Her heart started pounding and suddenly a storm of fire and ice raged in her blood. A lesser woman would have passed out, but she was a Daughter of Hope, trained to handle pain. She kept the image of the beautiful Princess Aribel in her mind and forced herself to her feet. ‘Here I am!’ she yelled, and her voice echoed from the hills. With screaming flesh she walked through the trees, calling out into the night to attract the vampire.
But night paled eventually into dawn, and at last Stellar Hope gave in to weary despair, collapsing into a deep sleep that lasted until sunset. After a simple meal of fruit she determined once again to drink some of the powder, and once again she stumbled through the dark woods, her voice hoarse from its shouting. And a third night passed the same way.
By the fourth night she felt too ill to move, and had no desire to eat. There was only one portion of powder left, and if another night passed without success then she was sure her quest would fail. Eventually, sickened by her own misery, she roused herself and drank down the last of the powder. She cut one of her arms so that drops of blood fell to the forest floor as she walked, and she sang quietly to herself of love and loss.
Until, too dizzy to continue, she rested against a tree – and there he was, watching her. The vampire. She had never seen one before, but she knew him from his honey skin and wild, peaty mane. He had an aura of profound physical strength, and she knew that even had she been at the height of fitness she could not have prevailed against him.
Between one heartbeat and the next, he crossed the distance between them and she felt his long, sharp fangs sink into her neck, and she fell into dark oblivion.
When Stellar Hope awoke at last, the sun was high in the sky. The vampire was still there, but looked on the very edge of life. He had dragged himself into the shade of a tree, and was mewling pitiably. The warrior woman grieved to see such a powerful and fearless hunter stripped of his strength like this. She crawled over and broke the creature’s neck to put him out of his misery. Then exhaustion claimed her, and she slept again until night.
4. The Huntress
The gold-and-silver heroine returned to the palace at the head of a long procession. The farmers and country-folk came for the Midsummer festivities, but they rejoiced in the slaying of the creature that had terrified them for so long. The Daughter of Hope revelled in the attention, regaling her admirers with tales of her adventures, and amusing them with her professions of love for the princess and her determination to win her hand in marriage. The crowd laughed to hear her talk thus. ‘What will the king make of that!’ they said.
Princess Aribel was tending to her beautiful tree, enjoying its delicate fragrance and vivid colour, when the commotion in the courtyard below caught her attention. Her eyes were drawn to the grey figure who seemed to be the focus of the people there, but she was called away from the window by a knock at the door of her chamber. The messenger, a young page boy sent by the king, was jumping with excitement. ‘Princess Aribel!’ he almost shouted, ‘The creature is dead! The hero is coming to claim your hand!’
With a heavy heart, Princess Aribel dressed in her finery and made her way down to the throne room where the king and all the royal court had assembled already. Barely had she sat when she gasped to see Stellar Hope striding into the great hall carrying a large sack across her shoulders. The princess’s heart leapt with joy – and a wondrous confusion – to see the warrior woman, and she would have run to greet her, had her father not quickly restrained her.
The king glowered at the proud warrior. ‘And have you slain the vampire? This creature that even armies tremble before?’
Stellar Hope dropped the sack onto the floor, and cut it open to reveal the honey-skinned man. She reached into his mouth and tore out the terrifying fangs, and held them up for all to see. ‘I claim these, by rule of contest,’ she said, ‘and I claim also what I have won twice now.’
‘You have earned my gratitude,’ the king said reluctantly, ‘and you may keep your freedom, but I warn you. Do not ask me for what I cannot give.’
‘There is only one thing that I want, and she is yours to give,’ Stellar Hope replied. ‘The people of Nemarkan say you are a wise and fair king. I ask only that you keep your word and give me Princess Aribel’s hand in marriage.’
‘But what you seek is contrary to law!’ the king protested. ‘All the laws! Of Nemarkan, of nature, and of the gods themselves!’
Suddenly Stellar Hope dropped to her knees. ‘Divine Huntress,’ she said.
A strange lady wearing a long crimson dress that left her pale arms bare, with a beautiful yet severe face framed by a cascade of jet-black curls, stepped out from the crowd to stand before the warrior woman. ‘When you asked me for help, I could not,’ she said. ‘I could not have led you here. But now that you are here, I can help – and will. If Princess Aribel is in agreement, I will bless your union.’
Princess Aribel came forward and greeted the goddess with respect, then knelt to take Stellar Hope’s hands in her own. ‘My heart belongs to you,’ she said, speaking loudly enough for all gathered near to hear, ‘but I am the heir to the throne and belong to Nemarkan. There is only one thing I need from a husband, and it is something any man can give me, no matter whether he is a prince or a farmhand. Something that you cannot. A priceless treasure.’
To her surprise, Stellar Hope laughed. ‘Princess,’ she said. ‘Let me be yours for a year, and if you do not have your priceless treasure by then, I will depart this land forever. But if you do, we will call upon the goddess to bless our union.’ When the princess did not answer at once, the warrior added, ‘Come, Princess, have I not earned this unlikely chance?’
Princess Aribel smiled at the Daughter of Hope, and said, ‘You have.’