Celestial Bodies

[excerpt from The Blood of Cha’Vlad]

“The moon will be full soon,” noted Benjamin. He hugged Benai closer, their bodies warming each other against the chill.

“I know,” Benai sighed. As the shining, pocked surface of the celestial body waxed in the night sky, she knew the change would be upon her soon. She hated the moon. And she hated what it did to her. It meant staying away from Benjamin. The strong emotions she felt for him could make the change that much more violent. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt the man she loved. He was strong, but he was human, and wouldn’t be able to withstand her savagery when the beast within was loosed.

When she was a young girl, still on Vladia, Benai Nar’Khan had dreamed of finding the love of her life, her very own prince. Benjamin Lendorin had become that prince. He was everything she’d ever dreamed of: kind, strong, full of laughter, tender, intelligent, and loving. He shared himself completely with her. His thoughts, dreams, and fears were all open to Benai, and it vexed her to no end that she could not share every part of herself with this wonderful man who’d never once looked upon her with fear or loathing the way most of the humans did. He loved her for everything she was, inside and out, beast included.

Of course, he’d never seen her during the days just before and after a full moon. It was easy to love something that didn’t seem real. It was easy to romanticize a life together when you didn’t know the consequences. She’d tried to explain it to him, but Benjamin was a stubborn man. All he knew was that he adored her. Nothing else seemed to matter to him. He just wanted to be with her, love her, live his life with her, and create a family with her.

And therein lay the biggest obstacle. A family.

She was terrified that any children she might give birth to would be just like her; an animal – a raging, out of control beast for three days out of every thirty. Benai didn’t want something as horrible as that to cloud her dreams of a happy family. And it was just that: a dream. Her heart ached with the irony of her life, such as it was. She’d found happiness, but could never realize its full potential.

She drew closer to him, trying to put all thoughts of what was to come out of her troubled mind. Instead, she closed her eyes, and reflected on the day the two of them had met.

It had been the previous spring, the day cool, the sky a perfect azure. Benai had wanted some time alone, away from her family, so she’d rambled to a nearby orchard in search of peace and solitude, and perhaps, a midmorning snack. She’d come to love the crisp green apples that fell to the ground when ripe.

That day, she’d been in luck. Scattered beneath the shade of the trees lay several apples, not yet infested by insects or scrounged by small animals. She plucked up a few of them, arranging her skirt to hold them, and plopped down against the largest tree trunk to enjoy her prizes.

When she’d heard the thudding of horse hooves and spied the creature with its rider in the distance, her heart had nearly stopped. The humans usually never ventured into Li’Khan territory. Most of them had some idea of the curse that plagued the Li’Khan, and stayed as far from them as possible out of fear. A human this far into their colony could only mean trouble. She quickly chewed and swallowed the apple, which nearly stuck in her throat, and jumped up, looking around frantically for a place to hide.

Benai didn’t know what would happen if she were to be caught, alone and defenseless. The change had only just given up its hold on her two days previous, so her strength had been depleted. She wouldn’t regain her normal stamina and fortitude for at least another day or so.

She cursed beneath her breath, her gaze darting wildly as she realized there was nowhere to run. The apples she’d hoarded, tumbled to the ground as she planted her back against the tree, praying the human would either turn or ride past.

As the sound of hooves drew nearer, Benai’s fright grew as she recognized there was more than one horse approaching. More than one horse meant more than one rider. More than one rider considerably lessened her chances of escape.

“I saw one of them around here. I know I did,” growled a harsh voice.

“What difference does it make, Garon?” asked another voice. “They’ve never done anything to you. Why not just leave them in peace?” The new voice was deep and resonant. For some reason, it set Benai’s heart racing, and not in fear. She wanted to sneak a peek at these two humans – especially the second one – but didn’t want to give her position away.

“They’re savages, Benjamin, animals in human form. They’re not nearly as innocent as you’d like to believe. I spied one of them, just three days past, feasting on a live animal. It was a disgusting thing to watch. They’re different, not like us. They’re tainted with some curse. We need to clear them out of our neck of the woods lest they foist their evil upon us.”

The man called Benjamin snorted. “I don’t think they mean us any harm. They’re just defending themselves against those who don’t understand them. People like you,” he charged. “If you leave them alone and stop indulging yourself by invading their privacy, we can all live in peace.”

“You’re a fool, Ben,” snarled Garon. “Have you not noticed how many people from town have come into these woods never to return? What do you think happened to them? Do you know?” he demanded. When Benjamin didn’t answer, Garon smirked. “Well, I know. I know what happened to them. I saw it with my own eyes. The man I saw eating that live animal used to be like us. He used to be normal. Remember the blacksmith’s apprentice? Shane Grumly was his name. It was him eating that animal. He came into these woods looking for them and they changed him, made him a savage. And if we don’t stop them, they’ll do the same to every one of us!”

Garon’s voice was fanatical and accusatory. Benai had already deduced that this Garon was narrow minded, but now she knew he was dangerous as well.

“You said Grumly came into the woods looking for them. Why?”

“Well, I suppose it was to find a way to clear them out,” shrugged Garon. “What difference does it make?”

“It makes all the difference in the world,” stated Benjamin. His voice was sad and quiet. “If Shane Grumly came here looking to harm these people, then they were only defending themselves. You’d do the same if someone invaded your home, would you not?”

Benai was more and more coming to appreciate the wisdom and kindness of this man, Benjamin, as the conversation continued. Her curiosity got the better of her. She moved her feet slowly and quietly, to better position herself to catch a glimpse of him. She nearly jumped from her skin when her foot landed on a dry twig, snapping it with a resounding crack. Her breath caught in her throat as she waited for the humans’ inevitable discovery of her eavesdropping.

Two sets of boots landed with a thud as the two men dismounted their steeds. The rustling and crunching of their hurried footsteps caused a pounding in Benai’s chest as they neared her hiding place. She wanted to run, but couldn’t seem to make her legs work. Garon rounded the tree trunk and grabbed her by the arm, his fingers gripping her arms painfully.

“Ow!” complained Benai. “Get your hands off of me!” she commanded. Her face was flushed and frowning. Benjamin didn’t think he’d ever seen a more beautiful visage.

“What were you doing back there, skulking behind that tree?” demanded Garon. “You’re one of them! I know you are!” She winced as his fingers dug deeper into the tender flesh of her arm.

“Garon, let her go.”

“No! She’s one of them beasts, I tell you! We should take her back to town and let the people decide her fate!”

“Garon, look at her. She’s not a beast. She’s a young woman, and you’re scaring her. Now let her go.” Benjamin smiled reassuringly at Benai. She blinked self-consciously. She’d never seen such beautiful blue eyes. They sparkled, shining with kindness and the light of intelligence. She hadn’t expected him to be so handsome and tall. She blushed heatedly, looking down in embarrassment as her normal confidence fled in the touch of his gaze.

Benjamin’s smile darkened when he noticed the way Garon was looking at Benai. He took one step toward the other man, his fists clenched in sudden anger.

“I said, let her go. Now.” His voice was menacing.

Garon turned his head sharply, looking at Benjamin in surprise. “Let her go?” he laughed harshly. “Why the devil would I want to do that?” He looked back at Benai, pulling her closer and leering. “She might be a beastie, but she’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she? Maybe she’d like to have some fun before we bring her in.” His earlier disgust of her vanished as he moved his face closer to Benai’s, his foul breath causing her to grimace.

Before he knew what was happening, Garon found himself sprawled on the forest floor, a trickle of blood leaking from his nose where Benjamin had punched him.

“What the hell did you do that for?” Garon asked. He was dazed from the hit, but his anger was quick to return. He grunted, his eyes blazing as he lurched to his feet.

“Civilized men treat ladies with respect. You’re obviously not as civilized as I thought,” said Benjamin. “Get on your horse and get out of here, Garon. Don’t make me give you a thrashing.”

Garon scowled. He briefly considered taking on Benjamin’s challenge, but thought better of it. “You’ll be sorry for this, boy. You’ll see.” Garon spat on the ground and mounted his horse. “Just wait. She’ll curse you, make you an animal.” He narrowed his eyes and stared at Benai. “Looks can be deceiving, Ben.” He dug his heels into the sides of his mount, jerking the reins in the direction from which he and Benjamin had come, and hastily galloped off.

Benai was looking at the ground unhappily. The truth of Garon’s words stung, and caused her eyes to fill with tears. She was cursed. He was right. And anyone who might befriend her would likely suffer the same curse. She hated him for being right.

Benjamin placed a gentle finger beneath her chin, lifting her face to the light. Again, she found herself lost in those blue eyes of his.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, brushing a tear from her cheek. His voice was soft and genuinely concerned.

“I d-don’t think so,” she stammered, looking down at the ground once more, trying to escape his searching eyes.

Benjamin quietly stood in front of her, allowing her to gain some measure of composure. When she shyly cast her eyes back to his, Benai found she couldn’t look away this time. Benjamin discovered he was similarly ensnared. His face slowly approached hers. In the anticipation of what was about to happen, she forgot how to breathe.

When Benjamin’s lips met hers, Benai’s breath caught in amazement. As the kiss deepened, his tongue mingling with her own, his arms encircling her, she felt as though she floated on air, her entire being ascending to a place of pure feeling. She’d never kissed a man before. The intensity and beauty of it brought back the entirety of her power in a sudden rush. Benjamin felt it, too. He inhaled in surprise as Benai’s power flowed in and around the two of them, lifting them to ecstatic heights that neither had ever experienced. She pressed closer to him, her hands moving to his face, shoulders, chest, and back, tentatively exploring, while reveling in this new sensation he’d brought forth from within.

When the two finally managed to come up for air, Benai opened her eyes, gazing up at Benjamin in wonder. “I never knew… I never imagined it would be like that,” she whispered.

Benjamin smiled tenderly, his eyes shining. “I knew from the moment I saw you.”

Since that first kiss, they’d spent every possible second together. Benjamin rode to the edge of the colony nearly every day, and Benai was always there to meet him. The only time they were parted was when the moon was nearing its fullness. Benai insisted that he stay away, and out of love for her, he relented, though at first he didn’t understand her request. When she’d finally garnered the courage to tell him the truth of what happened to her during that time, he’d simply held her, telling her it didn’t matter.

But it did matter. And it was almost time for profane change to take her, yet again.

She leaned back into his embrace, trying to defeat the sadness that threatened to ruin the few days they had together until the moon was full again. “I love you, Benjamin,” she sighed.

He smiled against her hair, kissing her ear. “I love you, too, Benai Nar’Khan.” He rocked her in his arms, both of them closing their eyes and basking in the calm before the storm. The calm was shattered by Benjamin’s next words.

“I’m not staying away this time, Benai,” he stated quietly. She tensed in his arms, turning to look at him fearfully.

“What do you mean? You have to!” She grasped his arms in alarm.

“No. If we’re to be together, we need to share everything. The good… and the bad. I’m not afraid.”

She moaned in anguish. “Then we can’t be together.” She pulled away from him, trying to rise to her feet, but he gathered her back into his arms.

“Yes, we will be together. And if I change, it’s okay. You’ll guide me through it.” His voice was confident. It was a confidence not shared by Benai.

“This can’t happen. I won’t let it happen. I won’t let you be cursed, Benjamin.” She felt like wailing.

He chuckled softly against her neck. “Being like you can’t be a curse, Benai. And if I’m like you, you won’t have to hold back anymore. We can be together. Completely.” He knew she had never opened herself totally when they made love. Much of the change was tied to her emotions. She was afraid if she gave in completely, she’d let the beast out and hurt him, maybe even kill him.

“You don’t understand, Ben. Humans don’t always change when infected. Some of them die,” she shook her head sadly. “I couldn’t bear it if that happened to you. I’d have to take my own life.”

He turner her to face him and gently kissed her. “It won’t be like that with me, love. I’m sure of it.”

“You can never go back once you’ve changed.” She shook her head again. “No. You have to stay away. If you became like the rest of the Li’Khan, you’d grow to hate me. I don’t think you fully understand what you’d become.” She placed her hands on each side of his face and tried to make him see reason. “You’re not a killer. But if you do this, you’ll become one. It might just be animals that you’ll kill, but it’s killing, all the same.”

“You’re not a killer either, Benai. And I’m not giving you a choice.” He surged to his feet, sweeping her with him. “I have to go now. I need to get my affairs in order. But I will be coming back,” he promised. He kissed her face, still clouded with apprehension. “Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”

He smiled lovingly, certain in his decision. He caressed her cheek, kissing her one last time before mounting his horse and riding away.

Benai watched him leave, her hope for a normal family flowing away with the tears that now streamed down her face.

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