Fleur de Feu
Some spoilers follow.
I am a huge fan of British author Tanith Lee. Her Tales of the Flat Earth for example make for one of the most original epic fantasies (if you can call them that) ever. Likewise her books about the vampiric family the Scarabae as well as an undead re-telling of Snow White ("Red As Blood") make her among the authors all fans of this website at least should check out.
Her best tale, however, remains "Fleur de Feu", which you can find in numerous short story collections such as Dreams of Light and Dark as well as Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Fiction and The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. Here is a vampire tale unlike any you have ever read, probably the most haunting and certainly among the most beautiful. I read it aloud to the lovely lady who agreed to become my wife, and her eyes shone when the story came to its bittersweet end...
In an unidentified land stands a castle. Within the castle lives a young skullery maid, a girl who's known nothing but life here. The lord of this castle is a grim man, obsessed with the death of his wife and daughter years ago. He knows how they died. Every one knows. Outside the castle, each night, the creatures who drained their blood swarm over the walls and fly amid its turrets. Vampires of the air, they woo the castle and its occupants. With every sunset, they seek a way inside. But every door and window remains sealed, just as drums and cannon and singers make a steady outpouring of noise until dawn--all the drown out the voice of those who wish to be allowed inside...
So matters have proceeded for year after year.
Until one night, the King of the Vampires finds a tiny crack in the castle's defenses. Via a circuitous route, he finds himself in the containing area where a the Lord keeps a pet lion. A battle ensues, during which the Vampire King suffers great wounds before the lion falls, its blood slaking the thirst of his destroyer. The battle attracts attention. Which in turn leads to the wounded vampire finding himself wrapped in chains. In his capture, the Lord hopes for more than revenge... The castle contains a domed garden, and within that garden a rare bush, the fleue-de-feu or bite-me-not. Its flowers offer sure protection against the undead, but only if they bloom. This bush has never bloomed. None know what magic is needed to make the bush give forth its flowers, but their hope is that the blood of the Vampire King will do the trick.
Meanwhile, the Lord makes an inspection of the castle, seeking any further means of entry the waiting vampires might use. Along the way, for the first time, he spies the skullery maid and proclaims her the very image of his lost daughter! He elevates the girl, dressing her in fine clothes and giving her delicacies to eat. She hardly understands. No more than she comprehends the ceremony they mean to do with some captive and a special bush in the garden--an event which she is now expected to attend.
But whereas all others look upon the Vampire King and see a demon, she needs but one glance to see him as beautiful. So beautiful she cannot let them do him any harm.
Herein lies a tale, a love story, that almost shouldn't happen. This vampire, for example, really is a demon. He has never been human. Nor can she ever join him in undeath. In this world, that just isn't how it works. Mind you, she doesn't even understand that. All she sees is something wonderful and lovely to behold. She speaks from her heart, in action rather than words because he understands no human tongue. Likewise his own actions, beginning with a whim but then becoming a series of choices, speak. Louder than any mere sentences. The lonely young girl who cannot even read. The powerful lord of the flying vampires. How odd, how unlikely, yet how utterly right somehow they should find one another. Love one another even.
I'm not going to spoil how the story proceeds, except to say that question that may have occurred in reading the above precis are indeed answered.
Exactly how did the Lord's wife and daughter come to die at the fangs of the vampires? Why is the Lord so convinced this skullery is his child reborn? In the end, do the vampires enter the castle--or are the people inside preserved, and if so how? Finally, what is the magic that makes the fleur-de-feu bloom?
Honestly, I cannot recommend this story enough. Have any of you read it? Care to share your reactions?