I wrote this story a few weeks after writing "A Warrior Reborn," and, truth be told, I only vaguely knew where it was going to go when I started. I knew only that I wanted to follow Tristan's journey, and so I have. I actually consider this my best story in the TG Genre, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Here it is, the second part of this untitled trilogy. I haven't written the third part, and I'm not sure when I'll get around to it. If I get a good enough response, I'll probably get to it sooner rather than later. So those of you who really enjoy it, don't hesitate to let me know. Anyway, here it is.
The Black Witch
Tristan paced the battlefield, his long strides covering twice the distance of most other men. His long, golden locks fluttered in the gentle, wandering breeze. That wind carried with it the evidence of that day's battle - a horrid stench of death and decay. As if he couldn't see it with his own eyes. Bodies were strewn everywhere; some were his men. Others were the enemy. The country of the dead men's allegiance mattered not at all to the crows picking at their flesh. Tristan wondered whether or not it had been worth it. Probably not. One life can not outweigh the thousands killed on that battlefield. He stepped over the bodies, careful not to trip. In the distance, he could see the castle; it was huge, domineering, and dark. That was his goal, and he confidently walked toward it. Tristan didn't need anyone else with him. No one left alive in that castle would dare challenge him. However, he did keep a sharp eye out for arrows; even under the flag of truce, he wouldn't put it past the brigands to fire at him. He neared the castle, and no arrows came. More, though, the forbidding facade of the building began to fade as he stepped ever closer. The walls were near to crumbling, the gate barely hung on its hinges, and the ramparts were completely unmanned. No, it wasn't a fortress. It was a ruin. Tristan stood only feet away from the huge but derelict gate, and pounded on it with his massive fist. The sound seemed to echo. "Oi! If you let her go now, we'll let you live. If not, you will all die. Decide soon, for we will be inside the castle within the hour," his deep baritone bellowed. When no answer came, Tristan turned, and walked away. The twang of a bowstring was all Tristan needed. On the quiet battlefield, he could hear it quite clearly. He whipped around, and, quick as a striking mongoose, snatched the arrow from the air scant inches from his chest. He tossed it down with disdain, like it was barely worth the effort to catch. Turning back around, he walked back to his army. "Guess we have their answer, then," one of his captains said. Tristan only nodded. "No point in waiting. I'll ready the men." And off he went, * A little less than an hour later, Tristan's men had the gate down, and were pouring into the castle's courtyard. Tristan, of course, led the charge himself. There weren't many defenders, and none could stand before Tristan's mighty blade as he swung it to and fro, cleaving men in twain. Blood, entrails, and the cries of dying men filled the air. Tristan paid none of it any heed. He had his mission; he knew where he was going. The castle's single tower beckoned. That's where she would be. He shouldered through the door at the base of the tower, knocking it from its hinges. Mounting the steps three at a time, he raced up the tower, the sounds of battle fading behind him. He ran easily, for he was a pinnacle of human endurance, strength, and willpower. So, he reached the top of the steps barely winded, and took in the scene before him. There she was, dressed all in white - the beautiful Princess Dierdre. She had been visiting from a far away nation when she had been kidnapped by a local highwayman. But then Tristan noticed the man in the room. He was nearly as big as Tristan himself, and equally impressive. Muscles bulged from his sleeveless leather jerkin, and Tristan's warrior instinct recognized that the man was a formidable opponent. He carried a pair of short swords at his hip. "The mighty Tristan," the big man said. "I've heard of you. This ought to be fun." Tristan did not respond, but instead whipped his sword around, aiming for a quick kill. Quicker than Tristan would have thought possible, the man's twin short swords came up, parrying the blow. And then he attacked, sending blow after furious blow at Tristan, who struggled mightily to avoid being sliced to ribbons. Never before had he encountered a foe of such staggering ability. It was unnatural. Even as he fought with every ounce of skill he possessed, Tristan knew that he was outmatched. Tristan, however, was not one to give in to defeat so easily. In fact, he was not the type to give in at all. If the other man wanted victory, he would have to snatch it from Tristan's dead fist. Concentration. Sweat. Anger. Pain. Weariness. And finally, fear. Tristan knew he was on the verge of losing his life. After what seemed like hours of fighting, his nearly endless stamina began to fade, and still, his opponent fought with the same unnatural vigor. Then, fatigue having taken its toll on both Tristan's mind and his body, he made a mistake. His opponent seized it eagerly, and Tristan felt the bite of a short sword on his wrist. He heard his sword clatter to stone floor, and saw his hand flying through the air, severed from his body. Tristan fell to his knees, clutching the bloody stump where his hand had been. "Who are you?" he asked through gritted teeth. The man did not answer. He just smiled a crooked, mirthless smile, and raised one of his swords. The last thing Tristan saw was the flash of that sword as it arced through the air towards his exposed neck. He couldn't move. He wanted to, and he should have been able to, but something prevented the action. Instead, he simply sat there on his knees, waiting. Time slowed, and his fear began to mount. He wasn't strong. He was weak - as weak as a kitten. Sure, his body was physically impressive, and he was a talented killer, but in his mind, in his soul, he was feeble. For all of his life, he had used violence as a crutch, propping up his fragile life. Strange, that it took impending death to show him the error of his ways. His life was a lie. He was no champion. He was just a frightened child who had squandered his gifts in favor of his own selfish needs and wants. He was a killer, a murderer, and in that moment, just before he was about to die, he was ashamed. The sword descended, and Tristan closed his eyes, waiting for the moment of his death. He hoped that the stories of some supreme, judgmental being who presided over the afterlife was false. He wanted his farce of an existence to end, so he could embrace the blackness of nothingness. * Tristan awoke with a start, and for a brief second had no idea what was going on. He tried to slow his breathing, but his heart felt like it was beating through his chest. The dream had been so real; in fact, it had happened once, long ago. He remembered it well. However, in reality, there had never been a confrontation at the top of that tower. He had simply rescued the woman, and returned her home. Before that, though, she had thanked him, and properly. Tristan still remembered that night well; she had been very enthusiastic. "What's wrong? Another nightmare?" Tristan heard Arista ask. He turned, and saw her propped on one elbow, looking at him concernedly. "I'm okay," he replied, but hardly believed it himself. Arista put her arm over him protectively, and hugged him close. It felt good. Tristan felt safe. He thought back to how he had come to be in that situation, where he needed a woman to hold him in order to feel secure. It had all started a little over two years previous. He had been captured during a battle, and then, imprisoned. There, the very woman he now clung to so fervently had cast a spell on him, transforming him from the nearly seven foot warrior into an effeminate weakling. Over the course of months, he had shrunk to a little over five feet tall, and his body had changed to mirror a woman's, save a few key differences. He had no breasts, of course, and he had a penis, albeit a very small, barely functional one. Then came the mental changes. Arista had changed both his sexual preference and the type of sex he found pleasurable. Before, he had been a normal heterosexual male, but after Arista was done, he craved the touch of men, and quite enjoyed having sex with them. He still did, as a matter of fact. He had spent nearly two years as a captive, a year of which was spent as little more than a sex slave. But over time, Arista's true nature became apparent. She had not wanted to change him; she had little say in the matter. The two became lovers, though Tristan felt little attraction toward women. However, he did feel affection for Arista, and the two grew ever closer. Finally, when Tristan returned home to bid farewell to his family (he and Arista had decided to flee together), it was revealed that his own brother had been behind it all, and had magically compelled Arista to comply with his wishes. It had all been a bid (successful, at that) to acquire the throne. Then and there, despite two years of conditioning, Tristan had snapped, and had become the warrior once again. But he didn't have the strength to go with that nature, so he had been easily slapped aside. He was on the verge of death when Arista saved his life with a killing spell. The two had been fleeing ever since, searching for a safe haven. It had been two months since Arista had killed the king, and they had been pursued by Einar and Honus (their respective countries) for the entirety. And so Tristan found himself, small, weak, effeminate, and quite pretty, being held in Arista's much stronger arms. He had been conditioned to act as a lady, and wore the accoutrements of such a station. Arista had offered to change him back, but he had refused. That man was dead. The warrior was gone. Tristan didn't think he could return to that sort of life of violence, even if he wanted to (and he didn't). Violence had gotten him nothing, and he simply wanted to live what was left of his life in peace. He sighed, and closed his eyes, hoping for sleep that would not come. * Tristan was still awake when Arista awoke the next morning. She kissed his forehead, and said, "Good morning." Tristan smiled at her, but said nothing. He knew the effect he had on Arista, and that morning was no different. She kissed him full on the lips, her tongue mingling with his. Arista's hands crept under Tristan's shift and fondled his small penis, which stiffened slightly. Tristan was grateful for that; it wasn't that long ago that he was physically incapable of responding to a woman's touch. The two kissed for a few minutes, until Arista guided Tristan's shift off. There he lay, completely naked, his feminine form exposed to his lover as her mouth left trails of kisses all over his body. She paid special attention to his nipples, which were as sensitive as any woman's. He moaned each time her tongue flicked across them. Finally, Arista's mouth traveled between Tristan's legs, and she took his penis and testicles into her mouth all at once. Slipping a finger into his anus, she worked it in and out while sucking his shrunken member. It was heaven for Tristan, who let out little whimpers of pleasure throughout. Finally, with a gasp, he came, shooting an impressive amount of semen into Arista's mouth. When Tristan's body relaxed, Arista climbed on top of him, and kissed him, transferring the semen into his mouth. She always liked to do that, he knew. Tristan swallowed it. "My turn," Arista said, stripping off her own shift. Tristan marveled at her body. She was much taller than him, and her skin dark. Her breasts were large, and her body curvacious. She straddled Tristan, and leaned in, letting him tongue her nipples for a few moments while she ground her crotch against his. Tristan was soft again, but it didn't really matter. His penis was small enough that he he couldn't really penetrate her anyway. She rolled off of him, and spread her legs. He knew what she wanted, so he positioned himself between them, and lowered his face into her nether region. He licked, he lapped, and his fingers penetrated. Tristan knew Arista's body better evem than he knew his own; he had performed fellatio on her so often. And it was only a matter of minutes before Arista's body was rocked by a series of convulsions accompanied by screams of pleasure. Tristan kept going, for he took great pride in his ability to give pleasure - a remnant of his year as a sex slave. As Arista panted, Tristan slowed his efforts, licking only once every few seconds. Finally, Arista's hand brushed his cheek, and then tilted his chin back. Arista stared at him with such love that Tristan couldn't help but feel it in return. He climbed on top of her, and lay there, kissing his lover gently. His weight was hardly a problem, and Arista held him, gently caressing his rear end. "I love you so much," she said. "I love you too," Tristan answered. "Your nightmare," she said after a few moments of blissful silence. "Was it the same as before?" "Yes and no," Tristan replied. "Same basic premise, different situation. It's not a mystery what it means. I am ashamed of my former life in reality as much as in the dream. It is nothing." "If you say so," Arista said. Then, she changed the subject, suggesting that they needed to get up, and get going. "But where to?" Tristan asked. "Where will we not be hunted?" "I don't know. If we can get outside either Einar's or Honus' influence, I might be able to hide us," Arista suggested. "That is the only plan I have been able to come up with, at least." "It's thin," Tristan stated. "Very thin." "Or you could take the throne," Arista suggested. "Like this? Not likely," Tristan responded. "I can change you back. You can be the --" Arista began, but was interrupted by Tristan. His voice was more forceful than anytime he could remember when he said, "I will not go back to being that person. What I was...it was wrong. I will not risk becoming that person again." "Then we have no choice but to continue our flight," Arista said as she pulled on a riding dress. Tristan was doing the same, though he noted that his was quite a bit more feminine than Arista's more utilitarian design. They ate a small breakfast at the inn in which they had stayed the night, and paid the innkeeper - a small, rotund woman. Afterward, they went to the stables and reacquired their horses. Less than half an hour later, the couple was riding along a harldy distinguishable road through the countryside, only barely knowing their real destination. They simply wanted to get as far away from the rival nations of Honus and Einar as they could. Arista and Tristan had abandoned their carriage in favor of their horses, selling the vehicle for traveling money. Also, they had changed clothes from their incredibly frilly and elaborate court dress to more modest working-class attire. However, nothing could hide the fact that they were not the sum of their possessions. They were rich, and carried themselves as such; no amount of peasant clothes could change that. Stopping to rest near a tiny stream, Tristan dismounted, and stretched his legs. There was a time when he could ride for an entire day with no discomfort. But that was long ago, and he had been a far different person. He sat down next to Arista, and the two ate travel rations without enjoyment. Both were used to far different fare, and regarded the tasteless lumps of bread and dried meat with ill-disguised contempt. Tristan barely ate anything. He knew he should be happy. He was free, or freer at least than he had been for years, and he had the love of a strong, fine woman. Even amidst their mad flight from their pursuers, he felt lucky. But he couldn't shake his unease. Something was wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger on just what it was. He knew it wasn't anything external, no lurking danger, but it was real all the same. It was a problem in his mind, some stray thoughts in the back of his brain that said that his situation was all wrong. He pushed those thoughts away, and focused on Arista. He did love her, that much he knew, but his physical attraction to her - or to any woman - was lukewarm at best. He had made strides in that respect, however. Only three months previously, Tristan had felt absolutely no attraction. Only since the encounter with King Frederick had that begun to change. Perhaps time would cure the additional lack. After they ate, the two mounted their horses, and continued along the trail, which allowed Tristan the opportunity to ponder his feelings for his companion. Was attraction - physical and sexual - absolutely necessary for love? He had always thought so. In fact, throughout his life, he had used lust and love almost interchangeably. But there he was, his love for Arista absolute, and he knew that she was not even close to his ideal sexual partner. She wasn't even the right gender. As much as he wanted it to be different, he was not willing to take that step, and allow Arista to change him back to the man he once was. She had claimed that it was the only way for him to regain his past sensibilities toward women. Tristan knew only a few things for certain, but he did know that he was absolutely not prepared to pay that price. He would not become that person again. His mind delved more deeply into his reasoning as he rode. It wasn't any one thing, really. The biggest reason, of course, was that he didn't want to become a violent killer again, but it was more than that. Thoughts of Arista guided his mind toward his former attitude toward women. He had taken whoever he wanted, slept with countless women. He had been completely dominant, and had no cares for their feelings. He couldn't tolerate becoming that monster once again, and he knew that the physical change was the first step. Tristan could not let the process even begin; he simply did not trust himself to resist those violent urges. When the sun began to dip behind the horizon, Arista and Tristan were too far into the wilderness to hope for any sort of inn or hostel in which to spend the night, so they made camp a little off of the trail. They didn't make love that night, but instead, merely held one another, hoping to keep warm as the night's temperature dropped. Tristan fell asleep, his mind still occupied by a dreadful foreboding. * His unease was well-founded, for when his eyes fluttered open the next morning, he looked up to see a pair of burly men. Tristan's arms were still wrapped around Arista, so when he tensed, she was awake immediately. She sprang from the ground, muttered one unintelligible word, and a fireball sprang to her fingertips. She held it there, her arm cocked, and said, "Who are you, and what do you want?" Tristan was frozen. He had no idea what to do. He looked back and forth between Arista and the men for a few seconds before one of the big men said, "Well, ain't that a surprise?" Tristan came back to himself, and said, "Take whatever you want. We have money. Just take it and leave." He reached for his bags, detached a large money purse, and tossed it towards the men. It caught in mid- air as Arista uttered another word. It slowly floated back to her. "No. Leave and you might live. Stay, and I'll kill you both," Arista said. Tristan began to speak, but Arista cut him off, "Quiet! Let me handle this." Tristan obeyed, feeling small and insignificant when faced with such danger. The two men didn't move a muscle. One, the smaller of the two (though he was still quite a big larger than either Arista or Tristan), stepped forward, and said, "Chuck that fireball, missy, if you dare. But know that if'n you miss, you ain't gonna get off another one." He pointed to his companion, a bearded grizzly bear of a man, and then back at himself. "There're two of us, ya see." Another word, and Arista had a second fireball in her other hand. "I've two fireballs, then. One for each of you." "A stand off then, is it?" the smaller, bald man asked. "So be it. Do what --" Arista released her balls of fire, sending them straight at the chests of the respective men. A split second passed, and Tristan saw the big, hairy man look down at a where the fireball had passed clean through him. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air, and the hole sizzled. He looked back up, and then collapsed, dead before he hit the ground. Before Tristan could even look at the other man, a harsh laughter filled the air. Male laughter. His eyes found the bald man who was the source of that mirthless sound. The fireball hadn't been nearly as effective on him, but not for lack of aim. A round hole had been burned through his tunic but the skin beneath remained unscathed. He continued to laugh as he reached through the opening of his collar, and pulled out a medallion on a leather thong. "Those sorts of tricks don't work on me, love. Shame about Billy though. He was a stupid lout, but he was a good one in a fight. Now, you gonna go quietly, or am I gonna have to get nasty with ya?" he asked with menace. Arista didn't answer, but instead, bounded towards the man. She tackled him, and, using her fingers like claws, gouged deeply into his face. The advantage gained by her surprise attack was short lived, however, and the man soon had Arista's wrists in his meaty hands. He rolled her over, and pinned her to the ground. Tristan cowered in fear, trying to make himself as small as possible. He wasn't scared of the man himself. He was terrified, instead, of the situation. Tristan was afraid to help his lover, but scared at what might happen if he didn't. Indecision froze him, and fear at taking that first step kept him there long after the indecision faded. He watched, horrified, as the man held both of Arista's wrists in one hand as he hiked up her dress with the other. He forced her legs open, and pulled out his member. He tried to kiss her, but she bit his cheek. "Oh, I like me a feisty one," he said with an insane smile. And then Arista screamed as the man plunged into her. The rape was over in mere minutes, but for Tristan it seemed to last hours. He simply couldn't move. Doubts flooded his mind. What could he do anyway? He was helpless. What if he acted, and failed? Would he kill Arista? Would Tristan's life be forfeit? More, though, he couldn't move because his mind had formed a block against violence. It had started with a spell - Arista had cast it herself - designed to keep him from harming his sexual partners when they were vulnerable. But even after the spell had been lifted, the psychological impact had remained. That, coupled with Tristan's fervent fear of becoming again the man he once was, made it nearly impossible for him to act violently. Ironic, he would think years later, that Arista was the person who had planted the seeds that prevented Tristan from helping her. * Thin ropes cut into Arista's wrists as she struggled against her bonds. She knew it would do little good,; the nameless man had tied the knots carefully. Her eyes wandered to Tristan, who leaned against the cave wall, staring back at her. She wanted to say something so badly, to comfort her lover, but a dirty cloth had been shoved into her mouth. The rape had been devastating to Arista, and she had cried for hours, even as the man had led Tristan and her to the nearby cave. She knew it was natural to be upset, but her tearsangered her; Arista was embarrassed by what she considered a sign of weakness. But she hadn't been able to stop them anymore than she had been able to keep the man from raping her. Physically, she wasn't really hurt, which surprised her. She had seen many victims of rape before, and most had carried physical injuries. Aside from soreness, she felt little pain. However, mentally, the wounds were deep and plentiful. Nothing could have prepared her for the pain, the anger, or the feeling of helplessness which had accompanied the dastardly deed. But that wasn't the extent of it, for before the rape, Arista had never been with a man (she had always preferred women), had never been penetrated, much less so roughly. She had always relied on her magic, and rightly so. It had never failed her before that day when she had needed it most. Her mind wandered back to a similar instance years earlier, when her lover, her beautiful Tristan had suffered a similar fate. Two guards had raped him right in front of her, and she had let them. Even then, she had been sympathetic to his plight, though she had struggled to keep it hidden. But, having lived through a rape herself, she had a newfound respect for Tristan. How had he done it? How had he picked up the pieces so quickly? Why didn't he hate her? But as Arista looked into Tristan's eyes, she saw not even a hint of the hate she felt she deserved. All she saw was concern for a loved one, and that made her feel even worse. Love. She had only felt it once in her life - not even the love of family had graced her existence, for her parents had died when she was very young. She didn't even remember them, not really. Tristan was all she had, and for the life of her, she couldn't understand why he returned her love. Arista knew that Tristan's attraction for her was limited, and that she was partially to blame for it. She had used a complicated spell to change his sexuality, after all. That he had somehow managed to break through it, albeit only partially, was a testament to Tristan's willpower. Even so, Tristan was willing to look past the fact that Arista was a woman, and he wanted to be with her. If that wasn't love, she didn't know what was. Sitting there, completely helpless, and with turmoil dominating her mind, she resolved to wait. Eventually, the man would make a mistake, and Arista would seize it. He had secured them both in the cave, and then had disappeared. She knew it was only in her mind, but she could smell his sour breath and hear his heavy breathing. Where had he gone? She could only guess. And wait. The time would come, and Arista vowed to be ready, and not just for herself. Tristan needed her. * It was hours later before the stocky man returned, but he did not come alone. With him was a tall, slender man with an immaculately trimmed beard, dark hair, and a hawk nose. "Oh, you did well, Barney. You did well, indeed," the slender man stated. "That one," he pointed to Arista, "is a magician, you say?" "Aye," Barney replied. "She held two fireballs at once, she did. I'm no expert, but I know that ain't typical." "No, not at all," the tall man said. He tossed a large purse at Barney, who caught it, and continued, "You did not lie. As agreed, you will receive the other half when we get them to my estate." "Thank you, Lord Wallach," Barney said, inclining his head in deference to the other man. Wallach. The name was familiar to Arista, but she could not place it. Lord Wallach approached her, and placed a small, sliver bracelet around her wrist. Immediately, she felt it, and knew what the bracelet was - a means of control. He reached up, and removed the gag. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. Arista shook her head, unwilling to speak. Her mind raced, as she expected to have to tell a story about who she was. The truth wasn't an option. "Well, let me educate you. My name is Wallach. Barney here called me a lord, but that's not really true. I don't hold any title. No, I am a simple merchant. Now, tell me who you are." "I am a magician from across the sea," Arista said. "And that one?" Wallach asked, pointing to Tristan. "My servant," Arista answered without hesitation. She knew that classification as a servant would rankle on Tristan, but it was unavoidable. Wallach looked at Tristan, and said, "Strange, a servant who dresses better than the mistress." He shrugged. "It does not matter. Why are you here and not across the sea where you belong?" "I am on the run from a death warrant," Arista stated simply. A lie which is close to the truth is always best, she knew. "Interesting," he said. "But largely irrelevant. You are both slaves, now, and will be sold within the month. You know what this is?" He held up the bracelet. Arista nodded. "Then you know that if you should choose to use your powers without permission, it will cause quite an intense pain. Do not test it." Arista nodded, knowing that he spoke the truth. She wouldn't free herself through magic, not while the bracelet remained. She had used similar items before, and Arista knew that she wouldn't be able to remove it herself, either. She sighed. "Gather them," Wallach said to Barney. "And bring them to my estate. Your payment shall await you there. You may keep their belongings." And the ducked out of the cave. * Arista rode her horse with her head held high. Barney had removed her bonds, but she had gone quietly. She knew that she would stand little chance in a physical confrontation with the much larger, much stronger man. They traveled for most of that day, through rolling hills, until they approached a well groomed manor. The lawn was fantastic, with towering oaks and bushes trimmed into fantastic shapes. A single road cut straight through, and Arista saw the castle even from afar. Parapets jutted from the walls, and towers loomed. It was a palace to rival any she had seen, and Arista had seen quite a few. The effect of the building grew as their horses carried them ever closer. Arista's heart sank. This was not the home of some minor brigand with delusions of grandeur. No, it was the home of someone quite successful at whatever it was he did, and as such, probably quite intelligent. She wouldn't be free as easily as she had expected. A pair of guards stood in front of the main gate, and they were let into the courtyard where they were met by another man who gave Barney another purse of coins, and took custody of Tristan and Arista. They were then led into the palace itself, and through its richly decorated halls. Plush rugs, rich tapestries, and exquisite paintings caught Arista's eye, and she was even more intimidated. It rivaled even the palace at Einar, where she had lived for nearly a decade. Who was this Wallach? Tristan's small hand found Arista's, and she buried her trepidation deep in the back of her mind. She had to be strong for him. He needed her. Turning here and there, Arista was quickly lost. The man who led them, however, stepped surely and obviously knew where he was going. Finally, he stopped in the middle of the hall. A door stood on either side of them, and he said, "You." he gestured to Arista. "In there." He pointed to the door at Arista's left. And you, in there." He indicated that Tristan should go in the opposite door. Tristan looked at Arista, a plea in his eyes, but he drifted away, his hand clinging to Arista's until the last second. It caressed hers, even as he pulled away. With one last backward glance, he disappeared into the room, and the door shut behind him. With a deep breath, Arista threw her shoulders back, held her head high, and entered the other room. What she saw was more than a little surprising. A team of servants stood poised around a huge copper bathtub, sponges and pitchers at the ready. She was ushered inside, and a pair of servants helped her out of her dress. She stood there naked for only a brief moment before one of the servant women told her to get into the tub. She took a step and lowered her foot into the steaming tub; it was much warmer than she would have liked it, but not uncomfortable. As she lowered herself into the hot water, she couldn't help but relax a little - until she remembered Tristan. They would soon discover that he wasn't a woman. What would they do? Would they guess who he was? Certainly, word of the fall of mighty Prince Tristan would not have reached this far. Arista could only hope as the servants proceeded to clean her every crack and crevice. * Having been cleaned, clothed (in expensive garments of silk), and made up, Arista was led out of the room, and into the hall where Tristan waited. He looked up at Arista apologetically; they had obviously seen the evidence of his masculinity. Neither were allowed to speak, however, and the man who had been their guide before became so again. He led them through the spacious, expensively furnished halls once again. That time, however, the trip wasn't nearly as lengthy; they arrived at their destination only a few minutes later. He pushed the door open, held it ajar, and indicated for the couple to enter. Arista went first, Tristan clutching her hand like his life depended on it...which it might just have. When she walked inside, she saw Wallach lounging in a leather chair with a glass of some liquor in his hand. He took a sip, and waved for the servant to shut the door. He stood, and said, "Let me get a good look at you two." Wallach walked around them, and Tristan squeezed Arista's hand. Arista looked neither left nor right, but instead, kept her her chin up and her gaze unwavering, and tried to look as regal as possible. "Very nice," Wallach said as he completed the circuit. He looked at Tristan, and said, "I've heard of boys like you that prefer to live life like a woman, but I must say that you are easily the most beautiful I've seen. You should have been born a woman, that much I can tell." He sat back down, and continued, "I know the story you gave me isn't true, but to be honest, I don't really care. Who you are is of little consequence to me. The timing of your arrival, however, is quite fortuitous...for me at least. I am holding an auction in a couple of days, you see, for special slaves. You two qualify as such, and I expect I shall get more for you than for the rest of the slaves put together. In the meantime, please, do not try to escape or cause any trouble. I'd hate for either of you to get injured. And besides, it's not a bad life. You shouldn't fight it. I don't know where you two come from, or what sort of life you've led until now, but you will be treated well. A person doesn't spend a small - or in your case, a large - fortune for a slave only to mistreat them, after all. Any questions?" Neither Tristan nor Arista spoke. "Good. You are dismissed. Geoffrey out there will lead you to your quarters." * Arista felt ridiculous. She was completely naked, save the bracelet on her wrist, and she stood in a line of naked women. Tristan stood in front of her, and kept looking back, as if to ask how they were to get out of that mess. Even if they had been allowed to talk, Arista had no answers. She simply had no idea what to do. If only she could have gotten that damned bracelet off, she would have had any number of ideas, but it was impossible. She was trapped. The line moved slowly, and she heard a low murmur of voices from the next room. An auction of people -- the idea horrified her. Slavery had been outlawed in most civilized nations, but just as with everything, enough money could get around that particular law. And this Wallach, it seemed, had made quite a lucrative living off of preying on those who wished to circumvent it. Gradually, Arista moved closer to the door, until she could hear Wallach describing his wares. He rambled on about the virtues of each woman, about how exotic they were, or from where they had come. A few had useful skills, most of which dealt with some sort of craft combined with magic (such as a jewelry maker who could infuse her trinkets with arcane properties), but underlying it all was a sexual tone. They were naked so that the buyers could gauge how healthy they were, but also so they could see the added benefit of a sex slave. Finally, only Tristan stood in front of her. She leaned in, and whispered, "Be strong. If we are separated, I will find you." She kissed his cheek. A few seconds later, Tristan was led into the room, and Arista heard a gasp, followed by Wallach's slimy voice. He said, "Ah, so you see how unique this little strumpet is, do you? He is quite unique, though he has no real use other than as a member of your harems. But what a piece to add to your collection! It will take a special sort of buyer to appreciate this gem, however. I will begin the bidding at a thousand gold pieces." Such was the effect that Tristan had on most men that the bidding quickly climbed far past any of the others who had gone before him. Arista even heard a scuffle, followed by Wallach saying, "Men, please! Be civilized!" Finally the bidding ended, followed by a few moments of silence. At least they hadn't deduced Tristan's identity. And then, the door opened, and Arista was led through. She looked up, and saw Wallach standing at a podium. Arista turned her head, and looked around the room at the gathered crowd of men. There were perhaps thirty, and they were all richly dressed. She was led to a spot where she stopped, and turned a circle, just as she had been instructed. When she looked at the faces gazing at her again, she was absolutely disgusted. Arista didn't really like men overly much in the best of times, but even less so when they leered at her naked body so openly, so lustfully. "Beautiful. Exotic. And that's just her physical attributes. No, fellows, this one is the real deal. A true magician, and a strong one at that. I know for a fact that she can summon two fireballs at once, and that those fireballs can kill a man in an instant. There is real power in this woman," Wallach explained. "We'll start the bidding at two-thousand gold pieces." Arista didn't know which caused the ferocity of the bidding - her looks or her power. She suspected that it was a combination of them both. Either way, The bids quickly reached ridiculous proportions - even more than Tristan. Part of her couldn't help but feel vaguely satisfied that she was, at least, wanted. With a scowl, she banished the thought from her head. Finally, the bidding ended when only one person seemed to have enough money to continue. The winner stood out, even amidst the rich, well- dressed men. He was only average in size, and middle aged, but he had a commanding presence about him that was unmistakeable. He was a man who got what he wanted. He was a man who other men followed. And amidst that, he had a dangerous air about him. Arista got a chill when she looked into his eyes. Arista was led to him, and he said in a gravelly voice, "Clothe her. I shall await delivery in my carriage." With that, he turned, and left the room. He hadn't even looked at her, not really. He hadn't bought Arista for sexual reasons, but for her power. Somehow, that pleased Arista. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, though, that her fate was far different from the one which awaited Tristan. Any relief she might have felt was scattered to the wind at that thought. * Tristan was confused. He had been prepared for a lot of things, but his current situation was not one of them. When he had been purchased, Tristan had regressed back to the person he had been during that first year of his imprisonment, when he had been little more than a sex slave. Survival was paramount, and in order to get through his captivity, Tristan knew that he would have to sacrifice any independence he had regained. And so he had become Tristan the sex slave once again. The trip to his purchaser's estate was short - barely a day and a half - and he spent most of it locked in his carriage. He had been clothed, and escorted from Wallach's castle almost as soon as he had been purchased; he hadn't even seen what had befallen Arista. The whole time, all he could think about was the last thing she had said, that she would come for him. And he believed her with all of his heart. So, his task was merely to survive. Arista would save him if it was the last thing she did. Even so, he was under no illusions about why he had been bought. He was an oddity to put in someone's harem, a strange mix between boy and girl who would no doubt fascinate any guest deemed important enough to warrant his company. That assumption was the root of Tristan's confusion. He was sitting in a spacious den which sported a roaring fire in the enormous fireplace, when the man who had purchased him said, "You must be quite frightened. Do not be. You will not be harmed here. In fact, you may leave if you wish once my explanation is complete. But I want you to consider that life here will be one of opulence, pleasure, and your every whim seen to. You have my word on that." Tristan gazed at his master, and noted, not for the first time, that he was really quite frail and aged. Something seemed off about the whole situation. That man, Tristan thought, was not healthy enough for sex. So why was Tristan there? "My son is a homosexual," the man blurted out. "For me, I simply do not care who he wants to share a bed with, but my judgment is not worth what it used to be. No, my younger brother...half-brother really...well, he would use my son's homosexuality against him when I die, and likely take my estate as his own, leaving my son with nothing. The church, you see, oversees all inheritance, and the problem, dear child, is that they abhor people like my son. Immoral, they call it...an abomination. For the life of me, I can't see why, but that is neither here nor there." He stood, and turned from Tristan, "I could have him marry a woman to prove that he's not, but I have a similar failing to many fathers." He turned back to Tristan, who could see his wet cheeks glisten in the firelight. "I want him to be happy. No woman can do that, but perhaps you can. I do not ask this lightly, for I do not own you, not really. No person can own another. Will you marry my son?" Tristan didn't know what to say, so he remained silent. "You don't have to stay with him after my death, and I assure you, I am close," the old man stated. "But when I die, and he gets the estate, your own death can be faked, and you may leave with a payment befitting such a service." Tristan came back to himself, and asked, "If I say no?" "Then you may leave as quickly as a horse may take you," the man answered. "But know that by staying, you will be doing me and my family a great favor. Moreover, you will have prevented quite a lot of bloodshed." "Bloodshed? How?" Tristan asked. "My son will try to protect what is rightfully his, and my half-brother will try to take it with the support of the Church's militant order," the old man explained. "My son will lose, but many lives will be forfeit." "So you're asking me to prevent a war, and all it will take is a few months of my life?" Tristan asked. "I would be a horrid person to refuse such a request." "So you will do it?" "Of course," Tristan responded. In truth, he wanted to leave then and there, but the harsh reality was that he had nowhere else to go. Arista was gone. He simply didn't know where she had been taken. And he had told the truth. He didn't want to stand aside and let a war be fought if he could prevent it. "But I have a couple of questions, if you don't mind." "Ask," was the old man's simple response. "Where am I?" Tristan asked. "And who are you?" "Ah, of course. I forget that you likely have no frame of reference for your location. You are in Orankos, and more specifically, my hereditary lands, the estate of Count Kinwan," he explained. "My name is Orrun Kinwan. My son, who you shall meet tomorrow, is Abraham." Orankos -- Tristan had heard of it, certainly, but he had not thought that they had travelled so far from his home. The place was far to the north of Honus, and Tristan knew that it was ruled not by a king of queen, but by a collection of independent lords. The old man sat back down with a sigh. "Anything else?" Tristan smiled at the old man, and said, "Just one thing. Where can I get some food? I am starving." The old man laughed. * Arista felt the whip bite deeply into the flesh of her back, but she stifled a scream. That's what he wanted, and she refused to let him get it. She heard another crack, and felt the sting of the whip once again. A gravelly voice said, "Submit, and you shall feel no more pain. Your life will be one of luxury. Just sign the contract." "Never," Arista growled through gritted teeth. "Suit yourself. It's just as well. You know how much I enjoy this," her master said. His name was Fortino, but Arista had learned nothing else about her new owner, save that he was rich, powerful, sadistic, and had a need of a magician's services. She had fooled herself into thinking that her master might allow her a life devoid of humiliation because he had wanted her for her magical talents rather than for sex. Oh, but Arista had discovered soon after arriving at his fortress that there were far worse things in the world. Fortino delighted in pain, Arista could tell, and he had had a wonderful time in the week since he had bought Arista. Three times each day, she received a lashing. It lasted either until she submitted or until she passed out. She had yet to give in. He wanted her to sign a magical contract swearing fealty, but Arista knew that doing so would strip her of free will. She would be unable to disobey, even if it meant her own life. Arista would never sign such a contract, no matter how much she was punished. She suspected, however, that Fortino knew that, and was content just to administer those painful whippings each day. She counted them; somehow, it helped take her mind off of her flayed back. The last number she remembered before passing out was fifty- three. Arista awoke to searing agony. She didn't know how much time had passed, but she did know that her back was a ruined mass of blood and flayed flesh. She felt someone rubbing something cool onto her back. They did the same after each session. Apply the ointment, let her heal just enough where she wouldn't die before they wished it, and then repeat. Her life had descended into a constant stream of painful suffering. Looking at a nearby window, Arista considered throwing herself from it. She was confident that she could muster the strength to carry her through the window, if only barely, but one thought kept her from doing so. She needed to rescue Tristan from whatever horrible fate had befallen him. That she had no idea of how to escape was irrelevant. She would find a way. She had to. The beatings continued for what seemed like months, but was, in reality, only a week and a half. For Arista, though, the days blended together. There was only pain. Vaguely, she knew that she was fed every so often, and that she used the facilities from time to time. Her days, however, were marked only by how much pain she could take before the welcoming blackness of unconsciousness would take her. One night - she only knew because her window was dark - her door opened, and in walked Fortino. He slammed the door behind him, and stood over Arista. "Two years," Fontino stated. "That's all I need, and then you can go." Arista, who lay on her stomach, leaned over and spat on his shoes. "I will put it in the contract that you will not be required to do anything that will harm yourself or anyone you love, and that the duration of your servitude shall be no more than two years. Less if we accomplish our goals before then," Fontino said. "Or we can continue with the beatings, and you will eventually die or submit to a lifelong contract. I give you two days to ponder my offer, in which you will not be beaten." Arista turned her head, and stared at the wall. Two years of servitude for the rest of her life - would it be so devastating? She knew that there was only one reason to employ a magician such as herself; Fontino was going to war. Arista didn't need to know the details. She didn't want to know who the enemy was. All she needed to know was that, if she chose to submit, that Fontino would keep his word. She would deal with the consequences of her actions once she was free, and had found Tristan. Her decision made, she sat up, and turned to Fontino. She said, "I will do it, but I write the contract. I cast the spell. You may have your own magician check it, but I want the wording to be airtight. There can be no leeway in this contract." "Very well," Fontino stated. "Rest. I will return tomorrow. You should be healed enough by then to bend your mind to the task." With that, he left. Arista was keenly aware of just how wrong her decision was. Nothing about it felt right, but she simply did not care. If she wanted to get free, to save Tristan, she would do any number of detestable things. So strong was her need that, in her mind, she had no choice at all. Working with Fontino was her only option. * Tristan walked alongside Abraham, his voluminous skirts rustling with each step. The gardens through which they walked were gorgeous, well kept, and the smells of blooming flowers filled the air. "I am sorry for your situation," Abraham said. "I know that I am probably not your ideal mate, but know that I will not harm you in any way. While we will have to spend time together, I will do my best not to --" "You don't have to apologize," Tristan interrupted. "Your father doing what he did was the best outcome I could have possibly hoped for, in my situation, and I am grateful. You have done me a great service, and you have my thanks." Abraham only said, "Oh." "So tell me about yourself," Tristan coaxed sweetly with a smile. "I know nothing of your life." "As you know, I am different. My father --" "Your sexual preference does not define you, and is not what I want to know. I want to know who you are," Tristan said. He stopped, and Abraham stopped with him. Tristan turned, and looked into his eyes. He wasn't much taller than Tristan himself, and was extremely thin - almost sickly. His facial features were nondescript, but Tristan's gaze was drawn to his bright, blue eyes. They were alive, those eyes. Tristan took Abraham's hands in his own. "Tell me who you are, Abraham Kinwan. Your hopes, your dreams, your interests. I want to know. And I need to know if I am to convince anyone we are to be married." Abraham didn't say anything for a moment, but then stated, "I don't know what to say. I'm not very good at this...at any of this. People perplex me. They just don't make sense." "Then what does make sense to you?" Tristan asked. "Books. And theories. And business. I always know where I stand with those," Abraham allowed. "But most of all, I just want to make my father proud. He does so much for me, has given me every tool I need to succeed, and I want to justify his actions through my own success." "His actions need no justification, Abraham. He does what he does out of love. The end result is irrelevant," Tristan stated. "To him, at least." "But not to me. I love him too, and I want to give him the gift of a successful son," Abraham said. The two started walking again, but Tristan kept hold of Abraham's hand. His grip wasn't strong, but in that moment, Tristan didn't mind, even though he hardly knew why. "So, books? Do you only read academic works, or do you like stories as well?" Tristan queried. "I was never really much for learning about business and such. Instead, I always read stories of war, romance, and heroes." "I've read my share," Abraham stated. "But few really catch my interest, not the way economic concepts do." Tristan was reaching for something with which to relate to Abraham, but he kept coming up short. The man wouldn't open up to him. He certainly hadn't been joking when he had claimed a lack of understanding of people. How does one reach a person with which one shares no common interests? Tristan didn't know. And then he hit upon an idea. Tristan hadn't really latched on to the bureaucratic arm of government, not like his brother had, but he knew enough to carry on a conversation. So he broached the topic of economics, and was quite surprised when Abraham responded with enthusiasm. Quickly, however, Tristan's knowledge was extinguished, so he simply asked questions, listening as well as he could to Abraham's answers. Why did he care so much? Tristan hardly knew why he wanted to get to know Abraham, to put him at ease about the situation. He could have just done the minimum, and gotten to know a few facts, and then married the man. But something inside of him wanted to take it all seriously, like it was the real thing. Was it because he really liked Abraham? No, he knew that wasn't it. Abraham was pleasant enough, but he was far from Tristan's type. And he was extraordinarily boring and awkward. In the back of his mind, Tristan knew that Abraham had become his backup plan. If Arista never came, and he knew that was a distinct possibility, he would have a home, a place with Abraham should he wish it. But did he even like Abraham? Maybe a little, but Tristan was far from passionate about the skinny academic. However, Abraham was kind, he was considerate, and he tried to make Tristan happy. Was that enough? Tristan couldn't even confront the question. In fact, he refused to acknowledge it, preferring instead to hope for a day when he and Arista would be reunited, even though he knew, in his heart, that it was unlikely that he would ever even see his lover again, much less be rescued by her. And so, he lived his life as best he could. Days passed, and Tristan and Abraham grew slightly more familiar. They still weren't close, but a plan formed in Tristan's mind which he thought would do the trick. After two months, Tristan decided that enough was enough, and that it was time for Abraham to open up. He had tried everything short of seduction, and nothing had worked. Abraham was still as closed off as he had been the first day they had met. So Tristan fell back on the one thing he knew for certain, the one skill he had honed to perfection. He decided to show Abraham that being with him could be quite pleasurable. Seduction was his plan, and he put it into action on a drizzly fall day. He had sneaked into Abraham's bed chamber, and undressed. Lying on the bed in his most provocative pose, Tristan waited for Abraham to enter. He didn't have to wait for long before Abraham came in the room, and dropped the pile of books which he had been carrying. He tried to stammer a few words about impropriety, but Tristan rose, and put a delicate finger on his lips. "Quiet, lover," Tristan said. He had thought about the situation quite a bit, and had decided a direct approach would serve him well. Less chance for Abraham to back out. He dropped to his knees, and unbuttoned Abraham's trousers. When he pulled them down, Tristan was shocked; his member was enormous! Tristan had seen penises of all shapes and sizes, and had pleasured them all. But he had yet to see one that rivaled Abraham's. Thick, long, and hardening, Tristan wrapped his small hand around it, and began to stroke it. When it was completely engorged, the thing was intimidating at nearly the size of Tristan's forearm. Could he even fit it in his mouth? Tristan reached out tentatively with his tongue, and licked along the shaft from the base to its head. The musky taste was familiar, even if its size was not. Tristan licked it for a few minutes, paying special attention to the head, before he finally decided to try to fit it in his mouth - he opened wide, and slipped as much in as he could. He knew his teeth were scraping it, but it was unavoidable. Doing the best he could, Tristan sucked for all he was worth. It must have been pleasurable enough, because it wasn't long before Abraham came, shooting semen down Tristan's throat. As it softened, Tristan continued to suck, to lick, and to stroke Abraham's penis. It would be a few minutes before the man was ready, but Tristan knew that he needed to keep the act going so Abraham couldn't back out. After a couple of minutes, Tristan felt Abraham's member begin to harden again. He stood, and led Abraham by his penis to the bed, where he guided him into a lying position. When Abraham was lying down, Tristan continued to to play with the man's penis, coaxing it to erection. It became completely hard after only a few seconds, and Tristan climbed atop the skinny man. Lowering himself onto the penis, Tristan was surprised at how much he had missed being with a man. He knew all along that he preferred having sex with men, but he had managed to put the depth of his passion from his mind. It all came crashing back as he felt the huge penis enter him. It hurt a little at first; it was just so much bigger than any Tristan had taken, but the pain faded quickly, and was replaced by pleasure. Up and down, Tristan rode Abraham, and he was again surprised by the man's stamina. It took him a full fifteen minutes before he came. His hands roamed all over Tristan's petite body, toying with his nipples and spending extra time with his small, erect penis. When Tristan climbed off of Abraham, he could feel the semen dripping from his anus. Abraham grabbed him around the waist, and in hands much stronger than they looked, picked him up. He put Tristan on his back, and lowered his head between Tristan's legs. His mouth felt wonderful as it engulfed Tristan's tiny penis, sucking and tonguing it. Tristan was keenly aware of how much pleasure he was getting out of sex with Abraham; he hadn't felt anything like it in quite some time. He had missed it, having sex with a man. Later, when both Tristan and Abraham were spent, Tristan cradled Abraham's head in his arms, and pondered his feelings. On the one hand, he knew that he loved Arista with all of his heart; on the other, she simply wasn't there. Nor was it likely she ever would be again. But Abraham was, and he was sweet, gentle, and treated Tristan well. And the sex was fantastic. Did sex, kindness, and circumstance combine to be greater than his love for Arista? He didn't know, but even then,Tristan had doubts about how real his feelings were for Arista. She was just so far away, he told himself. And Abraham was right there. Tristan simply didn't know what to feel. * Arista seethed. She knew that what she was doing was irrevocably wrong, but she couldn't resist. The magic of the contract compelled her to obey, and so she did. An enormous ball of fire and molten rock arced through the air, landing amidst a regiment of enemy soldiers, decimating them all. She heard the screams. She smelled the burning flesh, and she felt the earth tremor when it hit. But she couldn't look, simply couldn't watch the carnage she had wrought. It had been nearly six months since she had signed the contract, and each day, she had to remind herself why she had submitted. Thoughts of beautiful Tristan danced in her head, warring with the knowledge that she had done so many evil, despicable things. She had killed. She had maimed. She had been an unadulterated instrument of destruction, raining fire from the sky, moving the earth beneath the feet of opposing armies, and sending waves of tornadoes to tear them asunder. The Black Witch, they called her, and she deserved the name. To any who stood in her way, she was evil incarnate, an indiscriminate murderer. And she knew that the gusto with which she performed her tasks pleased her master, Fontino. She imagined it was him she was killing each time she sent a spell at her enemies. They were winning; Arista had no idea what the war was even about. All she knew was that her participation was a means to an end; she would move mountains if it meant that she could save her love, her Tristan. And just like that, the battle was over. She had won. Sure, the soldiers would take credit, but even they knew that they wouldn't have stood the slightest chance without the Black Witch. She turned from the field of battle, and walked toward an elaborate tent. She entered, and sat on a camp chair, staring at the ground. Arista was too good at her job. The war was all but won; she had killed much more quickly and efficiently than even crafty Fontino could have predicted. Ostensibly, he was happy. He told Arista how much she pleased him each day. But she couldn't shake the feeling that Fontino had tasted true power, that he had seen how little all of his money, all of his men really mattered. And Arista worried that he wouldn't let it go. She tilted her head back, and sighed. Life had grown so incredibly complicated since Tristan had entered her life. Before, she had been content to simply battle on behalf of her queen, but when Tristan had come, all of that had changed irrevocably. He had begun as such a defiant, arrogant captured warrior, but Arista had seen the fear. It had been buried deep, but it was there. Instinctively, she wanted to protect him, but back then, she hadn't been able to. So, the plan had gone forward, and Tristan had been changed. His vulnerability, Arista knew, was a big reason she had begun to fall for him. She had wanted to save him, even then. She had wanted to protect him. Their love had blossomed from there, and in the end, she had saved him. But there she was, with history repeating itself, forced to act in what could only be called an evil manner. And all she wanted was to protect her love, but she didn't even know where he was. She had asked around, and searched, but no one knew of anyone fitting his description. One question nagged at her, however. Would he still love her? She knew his attraction to her was tenuous, at best, but she had seen the love in his eyes. Would it last, even while she was out of sight, and out of his life? She hoped so. More than that, though, she merely wished for his safety. What horrors might befall such a pretty boy, she did not know, but she had seen, had been the victim of man's insipid nature. It was not a comforting thought. A page opened the tent flap, and poked his head inside. Arista could sense his fear at being in such close proximity to the Black Witch. "Lord Fontino wishes to see you, ma'am," he squeaked. Arista inclined her head, and the boy disappeared. Back to work, she thought. What other deplorable actions would be required of her that day? She rose, wondering what the future really held. * Arista sat across from the man she hated most in the entire world, eating dinner. Fontino merely pecked at his food as he looked at it disdainfully. Even though it was significantly better than the fare served to ordinary soldiers, it was still quite a bit less appetizing than what he was used to. He moved the various foods around on his plate aimlessly for a few moments before Arista asked, "What do you want?" He looked up, and smiled. It was a gruesome sight, not because he was an ugly man - he wasn't - but because there was absolutely no joy in it. Fontino answered, "Straight to the point. I've always liked that about you, Arista." Arista didn't say anything, but instead, looked at her master expectantly. "Very well. The war is over. Your task is complete." He gestured to her meal. "Eat. It is a good day for both of us." When Arista didn't touch her food, he suggested, "Then at least have some wine. I had it brought here from the vineyards at Unath. It is quite good." Arista lifted her glass, and brought it to her lips. She knew as soon as the wine touched her lips that she had made a grave mistake. Her body went numb almost instantly, and she fell off of her chair. She couldn't move. She could barely even breathe as Fontino rose, and stood over her. "Ah, do you think I didn't know about your defenses? That you have been preparing spells in case I didn't live up to my end of the contract? Well, I did. You are released from my service. But what shall become of you, my Black Witch? I can not let you leave. Not knowing what you know; I can't let a potential enemy - especially one as powerful as you - walk free. You must see the logic in it," he said. Fontino squatted, and his hand caressed Arista's brow. "No, you will continue as you have been doing. I know your weakness, my dear. The boy from the auction - the one who looked more female than male - he is your lover, is he not? You need not answer; I know it as fact. Tristan, was his name? I also know where he is, and I can have him murdered with a single word. So, you see, dear Arista, you are well and truly trapped." He stood, and turned his back to Arista as inwardly, the fires of her anger rose to heights she had never before known He dared to threaten her Tristan? She would burn him to ash, and lay waste to everyone and everything he held dear! "If I die by your hand or order," Fontino continued. "Your love shall be murdered. The plan is already set in motion. You can not stop it." "I have many enemies. You shall destroy them all," Fontino finished. With that, he turned, and walked to the tent flap. He opened, it, but before he stepped out, he said, "I will not use bracelets or other crude means of control any longer. You are free to do as you wish, but beware the consequences of your actions." And he was gone, leaving Arista paralyzed and fuming on the floor. * Over the year and a half since Tristan had become a resident at the Kinwan estate, life had taken a decided turn towards happiness. Fear no longer ruled his life, and he had the love of a good, honest man. That Tristan didn't love him in return was irrelevant. It wasn't love, but there was a certain fondness, friendship, and sensuality which marked the relationship between Tristan and Abraham, and that, for Tristan, was enough. They had been married on the eighth month of his residence. Abraham's father died two months after that, leaving Abraham the entirety of his estate. Tristan's obligation was complete, but he chose to stay. There was little hope of finding Arista, and nothing else interested him about the outside world. No, he was happy, and he remained at the estate. No one, aside from Abraham or Tristan, knew that he was, in fact, male. The servants called him Lady Trista, but the appellation rankled on him. He was not a woman, and if there was one thing which bothered him about his new station, it was being considered one. He knew it made little difference, as he was closer to female than male in appearance, manner, and dress, but he missed being acknowledged and accepted as who and what he was. However, the lack was merely a minor annoyance when compared to the joy of the rest of his life. Abraham proved to be as generous and loving a husband as he was as a lover, and he doted on Tristan. Tristan supposed that the man was constantly afraid of losing him, scared that he might decide that his job was complete. For his part, Tristan did his best to be a dutiful, loving wife, and bent his will to satisfying his husband's every need - both sexual and intellectual. To Tristan's surprise, he showed a surprising aptitude for governance, and Abraham often asked his opinion on key decisions. Eventually, Tristan began sitting in on each meeting his husband conducted, offering his own insight into each matter. It worked. Between their two keen minds, Tristan and Abraham guided their business and political interests toward extreme prosperity. They, it seemed, could do little wrong, and made a nearly perfect team. As the months passed, their wealth and power grew. Fourteen months after Tristan had come to live at the Kinwan estate, two minor lords had sworn fealty to Abraham, and more were to come. He was building a small kingdom, and Tristan was the driving force. At one meeting, Abraham was getting reports on his immediate neighbors when someone - Tristan couldn't remember the man's name - said, "And then there is Fontino, a lord far to the north of here, who has been wreaking havoc on that region. As you know, m'lord, wars in up there aren't uncommon. But this one is different. He crushes any who oppose him, and has conquered no less than four territories. Maybe more." "Is his army simply better equipped or more numerous?" Abraham asked. "No, sir. He has employed a dreadful magician. It is said that she could defeat an army of thousands by herself. I've seen one of the battlefields, sir. I'm not sure when the battle was fought, or who the opponent was, but the very ground had been melted," the man explained. "I am inclined to believe the stories, at least insofar as the magician's value as a weapon. They are not to be underestimated." "Does this magician have a name?" Tristan asked. "Yes, my lady. She is called the Black Witch," he answered. "It is said that she has skin like ash." Could it be? Could there be two female magicians of that skin coloring? Unlikely, Tristan thought. But he considered it equally unlikely that Arista would become such a monster as what the man had described. Secure in the fact that he knew Arista at least as well as he knew anyone else in the world, he dismissed the notion. Surely she would die before committing such atrocities. Abraham dismissed his advisers, and, once they were gone, asked Tristan, "What do you think?" "He'll advance on you eventually," Tristan acknowledged, and Abraham agreed. "Then we shall prepare," Abraham stated. "Do you think the reports of the witch are exaggerated?" Tristan shrugged. "Probably, but I have seen magicians do the things he describes. In my experience, that sort of destruction isn't possible from one person, though. Likely the tales have become bigger via the retelling, or there is more than one magician. Either way, do not take the threat lightly." "You'll have to tell me some day about these experiences with battle magic," Abraham said, smiling. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you, my love." Tristan recognized the look in Abraham's eyes. He had seen it hundreds of times before - Abraham was feeling randy, and wanted his wife. Tristan was only too happy to oblige. They made passionate love then and there, without bothering to seek the privacy of their shared bed. It was quick, and furious, but Tristan didn't mind. The urgency of it all excited him all the more. * Arista was afraid, mortally and more than she ever had been before. Fontino knew where Tristan was, and she had absolutely no doubt that, if she displeased the man in any way, Tristan's life would be forfeit. Her master was many things, but inept was not among them. He did not make idle threats. No, Tristan's life hung in the balance, and only Arista could keep it from swinging towards mortal danger. More than that, though, she was frustrated. Trapped by her own love, she didn't dare disobey; nor could she show any signs of a lack of effort. Either might get her love, her Tristan, killed. And so she buried herself in the Black Witch, into the persona of fear, of death. She would not be responsible for Tristan's death; that much she knew. But playing a role, night and day, in every waking hour tends to have a strange effect on a person. They begin to become that person; it is only natural. And that is the fate that befell poor Arista. She killed, and she destroyed. Her wake was one of fire and devastation. Wherever she went, agony, despair, and death followed. She became her role; she was the Black Witch. Arista all but died, she was buried so deep beneath the character, the role of the Black Witch. But Tristan was safe, she kept telling herself. Eventually, she didn't even think about him, though. Such is the effect of distance, both in time and space. Out of sight, out of mind - Tristan became both to Arista. If she stopped to think too long, his image would pop into her head, but she couldn't afford to feel. She had to be hard, needed to be strong and merciless. Thoughts of Tristan were not conducive to that. After two more years, she had given up all hope of going back to Tristan. He was gone; he was safe. And she knew that he would absolutely abhor what she had become. At night, as she lie in bed, Arista reemerged, albeit briefly, and she was ashamed of her actions, of the person she had become. She was a monster, through and through. And love was the root, the seed of it all. Did that make it better, she would wonder? Did that make her actions any less detestable? No, she knew that it didn't. It merely made her selfish in the extreme. She had tossed aside all morality, had used her powers to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people all for her selfish desire to keep Tristan alive. She knew it was wrong, right down to her core. But knowing it didn't change Arista's mind. Recognizing her own selfishness did not keep her from, day by day, working towards more and more murder. Arista absolutely loathed herself; there was no other way to describe it. She knew that she would reap no benefit from her actions, not personally, at least. So was it truly selfish? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Those doubts kept her up each night, but still she did her duty, and played her role. The Black Witch emerged each morning, and people, both friend and foe, trembled in her presence. * Tristan knew that life was about to change, and not for the better. The mad, power-hungry Fontino had advanced onto Kinwan lands, and sacked two of Abraham's fortresses. The next target was the Kinwan estate itself. Battles had been fought, and Abraham's men had held their own as well as could be expected, but the tide had been turned by the Black Witch. She was shrouded in mystery, and no one knew anything about her, save that she was dark of skin, viciously evil, and extraordinarily powerful. She had laid waste to an entire regiment of Abraham's finest soldiers in a battle only a month previous, single-handedly turning the tide of the battle. Tristan knew that they were going to lose, but what choice did they have but to fight? Fontino was as abhorrent a tyrant as he was a ruthless military commander. His people barely had enough to eat, and he worked them harder than any sane man would. Many died from hunger, exhaustion, or disease. They weren't people to Fontino; they were simply a means to get what he wanted, which was more power. No, neither Abraham nor Tristan could stomach surrender to such a man. And so they fought, and most of the time, lost. The Kinwan forces were not weak, however, and put up much more of a fight than anyone had previously. It was not enough. Battle after battle turned the land from verdant farm to burning graaveyard, and soon, Abraham's forces began to dwindle. Three years after they had been married, he came to Tristan, who was helping to organize supplies. Gone was the innocent, skinny young man, and in his place was a gaunt, world-weary, but strangely more alive figure. He had grown a beard, and his hair had lengthened. The weight of the world seemed to rest on his narrow shoulders, and Tristan saw the gravity in his eyes. Tristan asked, "What is it?" "They're nearly here. We must get the women and children from the keep, and into the mountains where the army will not follow," he said. Tristan crossed the room, and hugged his husband. "Is she with the army?" Tristan asked. There was no need to specify who. Abraham knew that Tristan spoke of the Black Witch. "Yes," Abraham answered. "Then you're right. The women and children - they must go," Tristan agreed. "And you with them," Abraham stated. Tristan merely said, "If you believe I'm about to leave, you are sorely mistaken. I shall do no such thing." "But --" "No 'buts', Abe. I'm not going to run away," Tristan said with finality. "So what is the plan?" "We don't have a choice. Nearly our entire army is scattered or dead. The enemy is on our doorstep. We must surrender, and hope that Fontino shows mercy," Abraham said. "When they arrive, we will negotiate the surrender, and hope for the best." "You don't expect that, do you? The best, I mean," Tristan reasoned. "Otherwise, the women and children wouldn't be leaving." "I want them to run and to hide, and get as far away form this madman as they can," Abraham said. "I can't stomach the notion of these people living under such conditions." "And us?" Tristan asked. Abraham shrugged. "We'll be okay." * Tristan rode a white horse, and had clothed himself in a matching dress. Let them behold true nobility, he thought. He held his head high, kept his shoulders back, and stared straight ahead at the approaching contingent of Fontino and his bodyguards. To Tristan's right rode Abraham, looking as well as could be expected, given the circumstance. To Tristan's left was one of Abraham's commanders. Behind the three of them was a token bodyguard. None were at ease. They all knew the gravity of the situation. The tension was palpable as the two groups came together. Tristan scanned the group, and then he saw her, the Black Witch, and his breath caught in his throat. * The Black Witch hated peace talks. They were a waste of time; no one would submit to Fontino's terms. They were designed that way. Formalities, though, must be observed, she mused as she rode a few steps behind the main group. She preferred to keep a bit of distance between herself and the opposing force; too many close calls had dictated that. The two groups came together, and the Black Witch looked at the commander, Abraham Kinwan. He looked like a such a feeble man. His eyes were sunken, and he appeared to be malnourished. A patchy beard decorated his jaw. The soldiers behind him were unremarkable, and .... Arista came to the forefront, pushing the Black Witch from her consciousness. Tristan! Her dear, beloved Tristan was there, not ten paces distant, and he looked as beautiful as ever. She struggled to contain her smile as she saw the recognition on Tristan's face. She had been planning for that moment for years. She started to mumble the spell, careful not to draw attention to herself. But Fontino was, as always, one step ahead of her. Too late, Arista saw the flash of a dagger. She stopped mid-spell, and screamed. * Tristan felt an intensely sharp pain in his side, and he yelped, falling form his horse. He had felt a similar pain before, and knew that he had been stabbed. But by who? Arista had recognized him, he knew. And he saw that she had begun casting a spell. As he lay on the ground, he reached to his side, and touched the wound. He hissed in pain, and pulled his fingers away. They were coated in blood. He looked up, and saw that a small battle had erupted around him. Confusion enveloped his mind as the sounds of swords on swords, the screams of dying men, and the neighing of frightened horses filled the air. And then Abraham was beside him, kneeling over Tristan. "Can you stand?" he asked, urgency in his voice. "I..I don't know," Tristan managed, coughing up blood. "Never mind," Abraham said, scooping Tristan's petite form into his arms. "Cover me!" Abraham shouted. No sooner had he taken a step than an arrow erupted from his throat, spraying blood all over Tristan's white dress. The two tumbled to the ground, and Tristan screamed in pain, concern, and fear. Abraham fell on top of Tristan, pinning him to the ground. A man knelt beside Abraham, and pulled him off of Tristan. Tristan rolled over, and managed to come to his knees next to his husband, and knelt over him. He was still alive, but only barely. A sickly gurgle escaped his lips when he tried to talk, and tears flowed freely down Tristan's cheeks. "No," Tristan said between sobs, the battle raging around him. "You can't..." Tristan couldn't even finish the sentence. Until that moment, Tristan hadn't realized the depth of his feelings for the man. It might have been love; it might not have been. But Tristan was absolutely devastated. He cried over his husband as Abraham died, paying no heed to what was happening around him. He didn't care for his own injury; all he knew was that Abraham was gone. It was only a few moments, but it seemed like an eternity. Tristan was lost. Nothing seemed to fit. And then, as if by magic, Arista was standing over him. Tristan looked up, but he didn't see Arista; he saw the Black Witch, and he understood her reputation. She was throwing balls of fire with each hand, and anger danced in her eyes. * By force of will alone, Arista stood over Tristan and the man named Abraham. Fatigue weighed her down, and threatened to send her careening into unconsciousness. Fireball after fireball, she sent at the enemy, but they just kept coming. Desperation filled her mind. She had found Tristan, and she was not about to let him be killed. Not after what she had done to protect him. In the midst of a brief respite, she looked around. The battle wasn't even close to finished, and she knew she didn't have long before her constant use of magic took its toll. And then, Tristan would be defenseless. Besides, even if she could afford to wait it out, Fontino's forces were going to win, and Arista would rather die than let Tristan fall under the thumb of that man. And then it hit her. That was the answer. She looked down at beautiful Tristan. He was pale; the wound at his side still bled, but Arista thought that he stood a good chance of living. The man was another story. Tristan wept over his dead body. "Tristan," Arista said, her voice still colored by the harshness of the Black Witch. "Do not move, not until the spell is finished." Tristan looked up, and Arista saw the person she loved more than anything else in the world. "How will I know?" "I will be dead," Arista said simply. She laid her hand on Tristan's head. "Goodbye, my love." * Tristan wanted to say something, but sadness, shock, and anger clouded his mind. He heard Arista mumbling, almost under her breath, and he knew she was casting a spell. He dared not interrupt her, for he knew that it was the only way. He had seen enough battles to know that, without some sort of magical intervention, he would soon be dead. Maybe it was selfishness, or perhaps he recognized that Arista wanted to die. The only thing she wanted more, Tristan suspected, was his safety. And she was acting to ensure both. She finished the spell, and in the brief moment before it took effect, she looked down at Tristan and smiled. The Black Witch was gone. Arista had returned, albeit only briefly. And then she collapsed to the ground, dead almost instantly. A white light pulsed from her body, nearly blinding Tristan. A few seconds later, his vision began to return, and he looked around. The battlefield was littered with corpses. No one within three-hundred yards had survived, save Tristan. He was appalled at how absolute it was. All sound was gone. Nothing stirred. And the two people Tristan loved most were dead. Arista, who had gone through such pain - Tristan had seen it in her eyes - and Abraham, who had sacrificed everything for his people. They had both loved Tristan with everything they had, and he had loved them back in very different ways. He cradled both of their heads in his lap, stroking their cheeks. He cried as he had never cried before, the tears coming amidst ragged sobs. Everything was gone. Both of the loves of his life were dead, the people about which he had come to care so deeply were scattered to war, and he had somehow survived. Guilt crept into his consciousness. Why him? Why was he special? Why did he deserve to live when so many others had been killed? After nearly an hour, Tristan felt a touch on his shoulder. He looked up to see one of the estate's servants, concern in her eyes. And then he passed out. * Tristan awoke to a creeping dread. For the first few seconds, he didn't know what it meant, but then it all came rushing back. Arista was dead. Abraham had been killed. The dread was replaced by an overwhelming sadness. He tried to sit up, but the pain in his side flared, shooting through his entire body. He gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge it. Tristan forced himself upright, and the blanket which had covered him fell to his waist, exposing his chest. He was naked. So, at least someone knew his secret. No matter. The ruse was finished, regardless. He looked down at a bandage covering his side. He touched it gingerly, and winced in pain. The wound was just below his rib cage, and had missed any vital organs. Tristan had experienced many such wounds, and knew that, painful though it was, it wasn't life threatening. But it would hurt, and quite a lot. He looked around, and noticed the familiar sight of the bedroom he had shared with Abraham. He lay back, knowing that rest was necessary, and he thought. What had happened? Someone had stabbed him, he knew, but who? After a few seconds, he realized that it didn't matter. Obviously, it had been one of the soldiers, a traitor in their midst. He was almost certainly dead now. But what really vexed Tristan was Arista. She had been the Black Witch, but why? Did Fontino have some control over her? And if so, how did she break it? Did Fontino still live? What of his army? A hundred questions raced through Tristan's mind, but no answers were forthcoming. He drifted off to sleep, cursing his own ignorance. When he awoke again, it was night. He had no idea for how long he had been asleep. One day? Two? He sat up, and felt considerably less pain than before. Either he had been out for quite a bit longer than he had suspected, or someone was quite a skilled healer. The door opened, and a woman - the servant who had come to Tristan's aid - walked in, carrying a tray with a bowl and a pitcher on it. "Glad to see you awake, dear," the woman said. "I've been wanting to talk to you." "How long have I been out?" Tristan asked. The woman crossed the room, and set the tray on a table near the bed. "Four days," the woman answered. She handed Tristan the bowl, and said, "Eat. You need strength." Tristan took the bowl, and began to spoon the broth into his mouth. The woman watched him diligently, as if daring him to stop. When he was finished - there wasn't much - he handed the bowl back. She set it down, and said, "I have something for you, but before I give it, I want some answers." Tristan nodded. "You are not a woman. Who are you?" Tristan recounted the story of how he had been abducted by the slaver Wallach, and sold to Abraham's father, and how the old man had propositioned him. He didn't gloss any of it over. "Hmm. And the woman? You obviously knew her, the way you mourned her death. Who was she?" the woman inquired. Tristan told what he knew of Arista's story. "I found this on her," the woman said, pulling an envelope from her pocket. Tristan saw his name on the front. She handed it to him. And then she left. Tristan opened the envelope with trembling hands, removed the piece of parchment form inside, and unfolded it. The letter which was written on it read as follows: My Dearest Tristan, If you are reading this, I am dead. I have gone to great lengths to get this letter to you; my influence has allowed me the use of a number of servants, and a select few I trust have copies of this letter. I don't know which one gave it to you, but treat them fairly. They have risked a great deal to find you, and to deliver this letter. I scarcely know where to begin. I love you. I have since nearly the first moment I laid eyes on you. I can only hope that you feel the same about me. I hold no illusions about how you will feel about me after you read this letter, so try to cling to whatever image you have of who I used to be. I want so badly to be that person again, but I doubt that it will happen. You have probably heard tales of the Black Witch; I confess to you now, that I am that monster. I have killed. I have torn entire armies asunder, and I am ashamed to say, lately, I have enjoyed it. I tell you this for two reasons. First, I need to confess. The guilt of it all weighs on me so heavily that I can hardly bear it. I hope that the confession will help, but, in truth, I hold little hope. Second, chances are that you have deduced as much from the stories you have no doubt heard, and I wish to tell you my side of the story. I have no excuses, and I take full responsibility for my actions. I just want you, if no one else, to understand my reasons. I was purchased by a power-hungry mad man named Fontino, and for the first few weeks, I endured torture I will not describe for fear that it might upset you. But I withstood it. I was willing to die rather than submit to him. But then he came to me with a deal. Two years for the rest of my life, he said. I merely had to serve him for two years, or until his goals were finished, and I would be free. Free to find you. Free to save you. I agreed. My help was more effective than he had anticipated, and after only eighteen months, we had won his war. But Fontino is a snake. He drugged me, and that was probably for the best. For what he told me incited my anger to the point where I would not have been able to control my actions. He told me that if I didn't continue to serve, that he would kill you. He knew where you were. He had someone close to you. And if I didn't obey, or if I killed him, that assassin would strike, and your life would end. I couldn't be the cause of your death, so I continued to serve him. And I lost hope. I lost myself to the Black Witch. I became that monster; I had moments of lucidity where I knew what I was, and was ashamed. This letter is the product of those moments. But most of the time, I was every inch the demon of the stories. I have wondered often whether what I did was selfish. I did it for you, but at the same time, it was for my own sake. I didn't want to live with myself if I caused your death. I couldn't. I love you too much. Lately, I have pondered the question of my own identity. Am I evil? I have acted evilly, certainly, but I had good reasons, I think. People call me a monster, a devil, but if they were in my situation, would they do any differently? Could you? Even though it damns my actions, I hope that you could take a different path than I did. I know that you are stronger than I am, so you probably would have. My weakness is my downfall. Perhaps you will pity me rather than hate me for what I have done. I do not expect your love will continue, but again, I ask, remember me as I was, not as I became. With Boundless Love, Arista Tristan read the letter over and over, tears streaming freely down his cheeks. He did not hate Arista, not even close. She had gone to impossible lengths to protect him, had damned herself in the process, and she had died thinking that Tristan would hate her for it. Sad did not describe it. An anger Tristan hadn't felt in ages welled up inside of him. He knew what he had to do, and he hated it. He had to become the warrior again. He wanted vengeance. He needed it. And he knew his target: Fontino. He fell asleep knowing, for the first time in a long time, his path. So ends the second part of Tristan's story, the conclusion of which is yet to come.