Claude snatched up the man's discarded sword and walked towards him. "Yes," he said with certainty. "I will. I will have this castle, I will have the land, and I will have her. I will have everything that should have been mine. Everything I was entitled to. Everything you denied me!" He pointed the sword like an accusing finger. "You left me to be raised an orphan. You claim her as a daughter and deny the one who shares your blood! A better man than I would hate her, but -" A strange smile flickered over his lips. "I do not hate her. I will take her, and your life will be her dowry!"
The ?cuyer rose clumsily to his feet. His mouth worked with fury, though words seemed hard for him to locate. Claude didn't wait. He lunged at him with the sword, then cast it aside at the last moment to grab him by fistfuls of his hair; the fine blond locks so like his own. The nobleman cried out in surprise and tried to free himself, but Claude wrenched him to one side too quickly, and the ?cuyer lost his footing. Claude caught him. He held the struggling man in his arms and stared down at the face, the pitiless face of the man he despised. His hatred and fury rose like black bile in his throat and, with a savage howl, he lost himself to his anger. Like a mad creature, he set upon the nobleman with flashing, rending fangs, ripping and tearing at his neck, his face, even the hands he tried to shield himself with. His blood was hot; hot and bitter and it burned, but Claude wanted more. He latched his mouth around the man's bleeding neck and drank the life from him, gulp after gulp.
And then, it was over.
Claude was seated on the floor and the torn, bloody ?cuyer lay across his lap. Claude stared at the ruined face and the glassy, blue eyes and suddenly he didn't recognize him anymore. This wasn't his father, the lofty lord in his mighty castle, it was just a slab of dead meat that smelled of blood and piss and wine. The odors were overpowering. They choked him and, in disgust, he flung the body aside and backed away until he met the stone wall.
The reality of the universe slotted itself into place inside his mind. His eyes drifted to the motionless body. What was it now but a corpse, like so many others? And before that, what was it? A man? A weak creature who cowered in his crumbling castle, on his tiny hill, in his little county, counting his coins and jealously guarding his niece as though she were his wife. To what end were all those struggles? What had it gained him but a shabby, dreary little world veneered with the false delights of court and riddled with the worms of fear and weakness. Fear was all he'd known, the only thing any of them knew. They knew the deaths their futures held, and they feared it.
Claude was no longer one of them. Francoise's blood had lifted him above their petty existence and away from their mad scramble for one more breath. He would have all the breaths that he could desire, all the life he could ever crave, and it would be at their expense. And why shouldn't it? They were now the weak and he was the strong. He was the lord in the castle, only, unlike the feeble, fleshy thing that came before, he was a true lord. He was better in every way than they were.
Francoise was suddenly in the room. She looked approvingly at the body, and her dark eyes shifted to her pupil. "Does your revenge taste sweet, mon petit Claude?"
He jerked to his feet and straightened his clothing. "Don't ever call me that name again!" His cold, gray eyes landed on her. With his new clarity he saw her for what she was. An immortal, yes, but not deserving of it. She was a simple w***e, like so many others, and she would feast on humanity until she grew too swollen and slow and then, in the shadows, her death would find her.
"From this moment on, I am Claudius." His eyes flamed and a smile flickered over his lips. Yes, a fitting name. The name of long ago emperors. As they were above the masses, so now was he. And like they, he would rule.
Francoise laughed softly. "If it pleases you, then so be it. But where is your prize?"
He didn't deign to answer her, only strode to that final, locked door. He kicked it in, no longer childishly amazed by his own strength, and stepped inside. Against the far wall, before the narrow window, she stood. Now fourteen or fifteen, she was growing into her beauty. Those large blue eyes, still the summer of a summer sky, were wide with terror and her long blonde hair, pale like the moonlight that wrapped around her, fell loose past her shoulders. Her thin frame trembled in the night breeze, covered only by a thin white shift.
"Father?" she whispered, though she already knew the answer.
"He was no father of yours," Claudius answered. Though his words were harsh his tone was soft, as though he spoke to a fairy that might flee if he was too loud. Something subtle shifted in his eyes and he stepped towards her and stopped, just out of reach. "Arowenia." He held out his bloody hand to her. "Come with me. I can give you youth eternal, and life everlasting. You need never fade or whither, but always be beautiful. You will want for nothing. Come."
She swallowed hard and her luminescent eyes skipped from him to the window and the drop beyond. She looked back and forth more than once, as if to decide which death was the crueler. Tears dripped down her pale cheeks and, as her shoulders sagged in defeat, she looked back to him.
Without a word, she had surrendered. Claudius scooped her up in his arms and carried her through the bloody rooms and down the steep, spiraling stair into the darkness beyond. At last, he had lain claim to what was rightfully his, but it was only the beginning.