The Passing: A Canceler’s Tale (Chapter 17)

     Tyrel had been their only son, well loved and dutifully cared for; he knew his parents thought him a good son because he overheard them say it, and so he tried to stay that way, but he was just a boy.  

 “Don’t go too far,” his mother said. But the woods always caught him up, and he wandered for hours, patiently waiting as he watched the creatures go about their daily routines. 

    Over time, he’d earned a position of trust among them, and was even able to feed some of them from his hand.

    This one day, his legs tired, and his own food supply gone, he walked back home along the small path he used when he wasn’t exploring. He’d be late for dinner and likely scolded, but his father always winked at him when his mother was done, and nothing ever really came of it.

    He suspected his mother knew, but chose to ignore his father’s insolence. She liked watching Tyrel eat, but she also scolded him about eating too fast. His father didn’t wink at that, so he slowed down and tried to exhibit more restraint.

    As he neared the edge of the treeline, his home in view, the screams and sounds of shouting were faint, but there. Strange horses were outside. Light colored things that didn’t quite look like horses, but he had no other name for them.

    The hunger gone, his stomach full of new, unpleasant feelings, tiredness forgotten, he ran faster than he ever had, not thinking, screaming for his parents as he took the small steps in a single flight and saw their bodies on the floor, eyes open. 

    His father’s neck was red, his mother’s at an odd angle. Their eyes were open, facing him, a large man with an oiled black beard and bejeweled appendices standing over them.

    There were two more men behind him.

    Growing careless, Tyrel charged them, roaring his rage.

    But he was just a boy.

                                                      *********************

Tyrel woke up in the back of a wagon that jounced along a rutted road.

    His hands were bound, and his body encased in a burlap sack.

   The large man who killed his family was watching him, and gave him a smile. “You’ve a fire in you, boy. Sorry we had to do that, but the Slavers Market’s about to start, and we didn’t have any bodies to bring. 

   “Ranged outside of our usual territory, we did. You put up a good fight for one no thicker than a swamp reed. We had quite a time with you, but the numbers…”

    His smile widened as he shrugged. 

   Tyrel’s throat was burning. “Water?”

    “Sure, son.” He ladled some into Tyrel’s mouth.

    “You’re selling me as a slave?”

    “They take a liking to you, it could be a nice life.”

    “They take a liking to me, and I’m going to find you, and kill you.”

    To his surprise, the large man laughed. “I look forward to the day, boy.”

    He knocked Tyrel out again.

*******************

    Water was splashed, and Tyrel woke up again still confined and bound. They pulled him out, not caring if the worn wood splintered him, or where. He was taken to a fragrant, lush garden and forced to his knees, still in the sack, before a towering man in white robes.

Tyrel’s anger rekindled as the slaver introduced him. “This here’s Master Gregory. He runs the Black Temple and supplies the Slave Market. He’s going to price you for me.”

Just to be defiant, Tyrel looked up at Master Gregory, who bent over and looked Tyrel in the face, seeing the anger in the eye that was still open, the one the slaver didn’t close with a hammering fist. The bloody lips set in a defiant grimace in his battered face.

   Master Gregory looked at the slaver holding Tyrel’s leather wrist bindings in his hand.

   “He has suffered greatly,” Master Gregory said. “Yet the rage has not burned out of him. His shoulders don’t slump in defeat, and he looks at me through one eye that shines with his murderous thoughts.

   “I will pay you for him, but I will not make a slave of him. We shall train him as a Canceller.”

*************************

   For Tyrel, time disappeared; he only noticed its passing in the change of seasons.

   He used the tough, demanding training as kindling, setting his nervous fears on fire as the dark beings and familiars he was learning to summon and control twisted and writhed in ethereal coils about him, engulfed in clouds of foul smoke and rancid mist, and burned with the sparks and tongues of unnatural flames.

    His Master’s gold and scarlet eyes held hard-won approval, his small smile leaving his verbal praise unspoken; he’d been right to train this one.

    “Now, toss your soul into the Void, my son. When they rush to seize it, seal them inside.”

    “What happens to my soul?” 

    “It will be returned to you when the Void is sated on demon flesh. It pulls them apart, as when a man is drawn and quartered. Their dying screams are a symphony to us.

   “You’ll feel the very earth itself grow lighter when we sever the ancient cords of long dead, forgotten magic that still holds her in thrall.”

   Tyrel could feel no such thing, but if his Master said so, he would not gainsay the man.

He was just a boy

The Passing: Tina Rising (Chapter 15 & 16)

The queasy feeling I’d suffered from Abdiel’s transfer of power began to subside.

“Is that all of it?”

No, you must absorb what is already within you.

I groaned, then asked, “When will it be finished?”

This is just the start, Tina. Your grandmother, being older than most of her kind, wielded great power for longer than normal.

“Will I need all of it?”

That was her will.

“And what of mine?”

I keep the promise we spoke of, but to withhold any of the gift will cause us to dissipate. And you will die as well.

The way my body felt, it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.

**********************

I didn’t see the Canceler for several days.

During that time, Abdiel taught me about the histories of the visions I’d seen; they were rich in intrigue, betrayal, love and war.

The magic was strong, and the bloodshed relentless as passion and fear won out over reason, and power and greed won out over loyalty. Betrayal was as common as sparrows, and whole courts were executed.

There was infighting among siblings behind the outward shows of filial affection.

And every other night, Abdiel released more power and knowledge into me, and let me have the days I needed to break from it. While that gave me time to actually absorb what I learned, it gave him time to replenish as well, but he didn’t tell me that at first.

You must use the magic. We are not allowed to hold it back, and you are not allowed to contain it. If you do, you will die according to the lore of your kind. It is not an honorable death.

“So, is it my mission then, to fight this Canceler?”

It is. He will continue to hunt you if you do not. He seeks to slay you in the flowering of your gifts. You must not let him.

That made my mission twofold: kill Teryl, then seek out the remnant of ‘my kind,’ and turn our attention to the murderous king. He yet held power over the realm he purged with blood, but for now…

Abdiel was disturbed. I could feel him shifting like serpent coils in my chest and stomach.

“Abdiel, tonight you must tell me about the Cancelers.”

It will hurt, but it will be done.

Chapter 16:

Tina, I will ask you one last time, are you sure of this? The night will be long.

“Will it become shorter if we wait?”

He didn’t answer.

“He’s not on his way, Abdiel. He’s here. He knows of me, and he knows of Gran. If his mission is to kill me, he hasn’t said it, or even attempted it, but I can’t fight him without knowing what I’m up against. You have to show me.”

Let us begin.

*****************

     “They seem terrified.”

     They are, and not without reason.

     I stood beside Abdiel in a hall of solid shadows carved from black stones: marble, onyx, obsidian, and black jade. What was made of wood was burnished ebony that gleamed in the light of scarlet candles and torches that unfurled wispy tendrils of black smoke into the rank air.

     It stank of fear and raging hormones among the ranks of adolescent boys standing before their massive keepers and Masters, baby sheep surrounded by old, wise wolves.

     “Is this before Teryl?”

     It is. These are the first. The ritual has not changed.

     I nodded.

     There were brands heating inside a black ceramic ring. 

     Unseen in the hall, a song in a language even more archaic than the time was being sung by a single male voice.

     I didn’t know it, but didn’t ask Abdiel about it. My own throat was dry, and I was keeping my legs from shaking with the last of my will. 

     The keepers were wide, with skin that strained to contain the muscles under them, and the Masters tall and thin, draped in a scarlet cloaks trimmed in red gold, their nails long and black, their amber eyes shining deep within the folds of their hoods. It was a sight I knew I would remember even in my waking hours.

The Master standing near the altar had the colors in reverse, a scarlet robe trimmed in black. His eyes, though shining, were the deep red of blood inside the body’s organs.

     The Keepers began to pull the brands from the ring and walked to the waiting rows.

     “Hold out your right hand,” the Master said; they all obeyed.

     The first Keeper spoke: “If you scream, flinch, or cry, you will be banished and hunted. If you outrun us, you live your life among the common trash. If you don’t, the wolves in the kennels feast on your cowards’ hearts.”.

                                                  **************

     More than half of them were whipped and pummeled by the keepers, shamed and banished  as they fled the temple to run through the night forest with wolves on their heels.

    I covered my ears, not bothering to stop my weeping. 

      “Oh, Tyrel, this is a great and terrible power.” I turned to Abdiel. “Is there more?”

      Mercifully, no. I weaken even in this vision. We must return.

      “I’m ready.”

      And what of tomorrow?

      “Leave me. I will find Tyrel. I can’t have you weak before the Passing is finished.

      It will be done. Abdiel released me back in my bed, in my room. I wiped my tears, stretched out, and drifted off as the memory of shining scarlet eyes faded back into the blackness that spawned them.

Now dreamless, I slept through the rest of the night.

The Passing: Abdiel Falling (Chapter 14)

      Gradually the queasiness in my stomach from Abdiel’s casting began to subside.

      “Is that all of it?” I was hoping…

      No. You must absorb what is already within you. When that is finished, there will be more.

      “Very well. When will it be finished?”

      We’ve only just begun, Tina. Your grandmother was older than most, and wielded great powers for a long time.

      “Will I need all of it?”

      That was her will.

      “And what of my will?”

      I keep the promise, but we must give you all the magic. If we withhold any of it from you, we fade from existence, and the weakened magic dies, taking you with it.

      The way my body felt now, it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.

 

                                   ******************

      I didn’t see the Canceller for a few days.

      During that time Abdiel walked me through the histories of the visions I’d seen; they were rich with intrigue, betrayal, love, and war.

      The magic itself was strong, the bloodshed relentless, and passion won over reason.

      Fear won over loyalty.

      The double-cross was as common as rook ravens, and whole courts were executed to make examples of the price to challenge the crown. 

      Infighting and power-plays blemished outward shows of filial affection between siblings, and phony allegiance among nobles.

      And when the magic was absorbed, Abdiel was true to his word. 

      On the days I needed to be free of the visions, to have time to think, he let me.

      I’d walk the market, or the woods down by the river, trusting him to alert me if Tyrel was present.
      For those times, I was cautiously grateful, knowing the Canceller was now as much a part of my life as Abdiel, and he made my quest for the Traitor’s Guild twofold.

      He became the more immediate threat, and to get to them I’d have to stop him first.

      But what Abdiel didn’t tell me proved to be vital in my fight against Tyrel: the more magic he gave me, the weaker he became. And just as he told me if they withheld its passing they would fade, if I didn’t use it I would die.

      Such was the lore of my kind.

      But how could I use it if Tyrel could cancel it?

       The Cancellers.

       It seemed such an innocuous, silly name for such terrifying power. 

       I couldn’t bring myself to call it a gift.

      Gran had once told me love and fear ruled the world; for one king to have such fear that he would take on the burden to unleash one magic to rid the world of another, I would have removed love from the equation.

     When I next saw Tyrel in the marketplace, when he looked at me I felt Abdiel cower.

     He kept his distance, but something was glittering in the whites of his eyes even in the daylight, and Abdiel seemed to shift inside me, like a baby turning on its side. I felt it in my chest and belly, and the pain was dull, but real.

    “Abdiel, tonight you must tell me the lore of the Cancellers.”

    We do not spend time in their presence, Tina. They have the power to destroy us.

    “There has to be a way. Something created them, so there must be a way to end them. Search it out, and tell me tonight.”

      It will hurt.

    “It will hurt more if you leave me vulnerable. I’m willing to fight him for our lives, but I must know how.”

     It will be done.

         

Red Redemption

         She thought she was done all those years ago, though she’d only been a child.

       The huntsman who saved them had taken all the glory for himself, and rightfully so, for she’d been duped by the spell the wolf cast over her eyes.

        But now, the son of the slain one had taken revenge on the huntsman in his dotage, and his own daughter had barely made it in front of the hunting pack that scented her, knew her, and tirelessly pursued.

       In the small hours when the starlight gleams brightest, flattering the false vanity of moonlight, her knocking on the woman’s door was a hard and tuneless knell that echoed through the dark forest shadows.

      Taika, they called her now.  The Magic Spell.

                                                  **************************

      With grandmother dead Taika shunned the world and apprenticed herself to a dying hag seeking a novice, promising to never be vulnerable and powerless again.

     The hag was a hard taskmaster; Taika earned every scar she received from those long, hooked and jagged nails that made her correct her mistakes.

     When the hag died, the pyre would not burn. Taika gave her withered corpse to the river’s  muddy banks, and let the creatures have their way.

      The huntsman’s cowardly daughter was content to tend Taika’s house until she returned. 

     Taika left at first light.

                                                    **********************

     In the clearing, she faced the Alpha..

     The thing stood on two legs now, piercing blue eyes crystalline in the darkness.

     “You wear the witch’s hood?”

     “Yes, Alpha.” 

     “These fools have summoned you to redeem yourself, and reckon with your past?”              The drool hissed in droplets at his feet.

     The lambent red and yellow eyes of the pack surrounded her.

     “Just me and you.” she said.

     “They know better than to interfere. To the death?”

     The knives gleamed in the moonlight, silver fangs in human hands.

     “To the death.” 

     Snarling, they locked.

     

The Passing (Chapter 13): Abdiel Rising

 

     Tina.

     “Not now. You’ve had all day to speak to me. I need to relax, and sleep, and now you stir? Leave me alone. Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.”

     He hurt us.

     “You’re spirits. How can he hurt you?”

     He targets the power inside us, and hurts it.

     “Is he holy, then?”

     No. He is a Canceller. He toys with us because he enjoys it. Nothing more.

      I got the gist, but I figured there was probably a lore involved that Gran didn’t detail, and I didn’t know. It was a topic for another time, and in private. “Why not kill him?”

     If we do, they’ll come for you. They can’t see us. They won’t, even if we manifest ourselves. They’ll extract your likeness from his dying mind, and they’ll come for you.

     “Oh. So is there a plan, or even better, a solution?”

     It won’t matter now that he knows we’re here, and you possess us.

     “Not so sure it’s me controlling you. Now I can feel your presence, your power, soaking through me like sweat.”

     I’m releasing the magic at a pace your body can handle. My name is Abdiel, at your service.

     With the power of taking his name, ancient as it was, I stumbled and leaned on the wall to steady myself. The visions came through like a flash flood: majestic, tragic, carnal, joyous, pious, cultish, and all the flesh taking and blood letting that came with it.

    Seen in a torrent of faces and times were all the souls these spirits dealt with through the centuries, and perhaps even reaped.

    I didn’t ask, because I simply didn’t want to know.

    “And now,” I said, after I could breathe again, ”I’ll be woven into your tapestry forever.”

    And I into yours, child.

    “If you don’t kill me first. I only ask this: that my mind and will must always be my own.”

     So granted, for the bond your grandmother shared with us.

     “Don’t make a bargain you won’t keep. If you take them from me, and put innocent blood on my hands, I will end my life. If I do, the Canceller will be the least of your troubles.”

     Abdiel faded, not answering. 

     Doesn’t mean he’s afraid of me. Guess we’ll see. 

 

The Passing: The Road Ends, The Journey Begins (Chapters 11 & 12)

It occurred to me as the day waned and I grew footsore that Gran had never taught me to ride anything: not a horse, mule, lizard, large cat, bird, or even a dragon. (We had no such creatures other than horses and mules, but by then my imagination was in full bloom to take my mind off the pain).
We walked wherever we had to go, and she turned those sojourns into lessons of woodlore and nature. She taught me of weather patterns, plants, insects, the way of rivers, gardening, the change of seasons, and if we walked at night, the stars.
I thought of asking the spirits to transport me, but as I considered it, that had problems of its own. The spirit hadn’t given me his name, so I couldn’t summon him.
Another thing was, if I just appeared somewhere, scaring the wits out of whoever was nearby, I wouldn’t be able to shake the attention that would follow, and attract all manner of human creatures looking for ‘favors.’
In the end, three things decided me: I didn’t know how to do a transport spell, and I didn’t trust or name the spirit that could help me.
I walked-stumbled-shuffled, shutting out the pain as best as I could; I promised my feet something luxurious the first chance I got, and pushed on because if I stopped I wouldn’t continue, and I wanted to be off the road by nightfall.
With the last of my reserves topping the rise, the next town,Karrela’s Point, came mercifully into view.
*********
I was eating alone, the pain in my feet now down to a throb, when he slid in across the seat from me.
“I didn’t say you could join me, stranger.”
He nodded, agreeing, but said “I didn’t ask. The place is crowded, this space was empty, and I needed a place to sit.”
“But that was rather bold and rude of you to not ask at least, considering…”
He extended his hand across the table for me to take as he asked, “And what would you have honestly said, after you looked around and saw my predicament?”
I felt my cheeks heat and color as he grinned and extended his hand a bit more.
“My name’s Terrell. And you are…?”
In the instant I had, I realized he was right; me being hostile and impulsive, had he been of a different temperament, could have had a different ending for me.
I found myself staring at him before I realized my hand was now in his. “Tina.”
He had a soldier’s strength just beneath the surface of his grip, and a courtly appearance and bearing.
  Very well, then.
“Pleasure to meet you, Tina. Are you alone here? Karrela’s Point can be a treacherous place for the unwary.”
  Apparently.  “I was alone, but as you haven’t left yet, that’s no longer so. I would formally ask you to leave, but I know now it wouldn’t do any good.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” His grin was so full of self-realization that it annoyed me, even as it almost made me smile.  “You’ll need a friend here, Tina. At least, as they say, ‘a local point of contact,’ to help you navigate whatever waters you’re going to explore here.”
He helped himself to a chunk of bread that was cooling on the table.
I sighed. “What do you want, Terrell. Really?”
He stopped just before he put the bread in his mouth, placing it back on the table, and his grin vanished as if it never happened at all.
He stood up. “The offer was free, Tina. Now it isn’t. When you get around to needing my services, I’ll give you my price list.”
“You haven’t told me what your services are, so how will I know if I need them?” I tried to retain a sassy note, but it trembled and ran under the weight of his stare as his irises turned blood red.
“If you stay here for any length of time, you will.” They went back to their normal brown as quickly as they’d changed, almost making me doubt if it had happened, but a small stirring in my stomach told me it had, and it wasn’t a good thing.
Still looking at me, he swept his arm, taking in the whole floor. “You all will.”
The grin returned, and he reached down and stuffed the larger portion of the loaf into a pocket on his cloak, leaving me the piece he’d torn off, and whistling tunelessly, walked out of the inn.

Chapter 12:
I determined that night to get the spirit’s name; it had been him stirring in my gut when Terrell’s eyes changed, souring my mood and meal.
He is a spell blocker.
Now you speak?
It hurts…
A spell blocker. There’d been no mention of them in Gran’s journal, but she’d told me of some unpleasant encounters dealing with them. She spoke of them with disdain, and not a little fear.
My senses now heightened to what the spirits might say, or if they’d do anything to Terrell, I finished my meal without tasting it.
Back to silence.
Taking stock of my current circumstances: alone, homeless, and possibly in mortal danger from the extremes of the magic spectrum, combined to wear me down.
Though I knew better, I convinced myself I was just tired from the road; the rest would have to wait, and hopefully would.
I paid for my dinner.
While leaving I drew a few desultory glances that my direct eye contact kept from turning into a challenge, or ambitious curiosity, and stepped out into the evening.
One of the serving girls was outside on her break.
“How much for a hot bath?”
She turned to me, gave me a once-over, her normally flinty expression softening; I guess I really looked that forlorn and bedraggled.
“None here, but there’s public ones in the Square.”
Damn. More money…
I thanked her, went to my room to pack a change of clothes, and went back out to find the Square. It wasn’t far, and the way through the closed market was torchlit and patrolled. Being alone and female, what guards I encountered looked at me and filed my appearance away in their minds, but said nothing.
The Baths, as it said on the slab of ivory marble that adorned its awning, was an enormous structure, which meant expensive.
I should have asked where the river was instead…
“You’re here now, Tina,” I told myself, and stepped into a warm place where steam rolled across the floor like lost and wayward spirits.
There was quiet, muted chatter that didn’t stop as I entered, and an attendant soon came over to help.
“Good evening, Miss. This way, please.”
I followed her. Despite the quiet chatter, this late in the evening the place was almost empty. I could hear the soft pat of sandals around the springs as the attendants, all of an age with me, went about their duties either attending the bathers, or other things that would need to be done before they closed.
“Here’s where you change, Miss.”
“Thank you.”
“My name is Diana.”
“Thank you, Diana.”
She gave me a small smile. “Call me if you need me. I’ll be in my booth. This is the rope to ring my calling bell.”
She reached up to show me, and I hadn’t even noticed it, reprimanding myself for just not going to sleep in my day dirt and leaving first thing in the morning.
Spirits, is there anything amiss here?
Silence. I decided that was a good sign. I laid out my clean clothes for the walk back, and stashed the dirty ones in my pack.
My towel barely allowed for modesty, but the sandals Diana left me seemed new; if not, this was no time to be picky.
The water was exhilaratingly warm, and surprisingly clean; I wanted to float and sleep the night away, but it was not to be.

The Last of the Magic

It was good to be out in the countryside after that interminably harsh winter.

The morning dew was evaporating, and the smell of the earth’s loam in the wetness stirred up visions of being in this place when it was primeval, far removed from the intrusions of men, and filled with mysteries unknown.

The vibrant thick growth that sprawled like an emerald carpet across the ground softened the harsh angles of the tree limbs, cushioned the late mid-morning shadows, and overwhelmed by the sheer joy of the sensory assault I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths, filling my lungs with the cool, clean air.

When I opened them again, I noticed a short distance away a small cave entrance in a mound of dirt, as if a large animal had burrowed in and made its home inside.

Curiosity overrode caution; at first glance it seemed abandoned, but I wasn’t sure. Still I walked toward it, a dreamlike state settling over me the closer I got. My hunting knife was a reassuring in the sheathe on my right hip, and I kept a cautionary grip on it as I arrived at the entrance, and waited.

Silence. Not a snarl, growl, warning rumble, or even a shuffling and snuffling of anything that might be living in there.

Peering in, it was a solid block of darkness, no holes in the roof to let in any light.

Then a pair of eyes opened, green as the surrounding fauna, but with a slight glow.

I swallowed, and tightened the grip on my knife, staring at whatever was staring back at me, still silent at first, and then a voice, soft and low, female, spoke in the darkness.

“So typical of your kind. Are you here to kill me?”

“No, so long as you don’t move to kill me.”

There was a slight echo to our voices, surprising in so seemingly small a place.

The green things that passed for eyes blinked slowly. “Have you fire?”

“No. I wasn’t expecting to…encounter…anything that needed one.”

The being gave a heavy sigh. “Very well.” A soft aura of shifting shades of green surrounded it. It was a being of sepia brown, with short, chestnut hair, and winged, but the wings were torn, its knee length dress was torn, and it had been cut, but its blood was a sticky sap.

“You’re hurt…”

“I’m dying.”

“What happened?”

“I am the last.”

“The last…of what?”

“The last of the Magic, the ones who inspired the legends of so many tales, so many suspicions, and traditions that gave rise to the tales of gods.”

“You’re of the fey?”

“And more. I am the last of the ones who tied them all together to the earth, and gave them their powers and missions.”

“A goddess?”

“Again, one name among many.”

I was surprised to find myself crying. “What can I do to help? Can I help?”

“There is a way… come here.”

“Will I need to kill you?” I sat down on the fallen log next to her.

“No. We will share lives.”

“Share…?” I thought of running, of bolting away like a frightened deer, not giving a backward glance or a thought other than my own survival. But I was alone in the world, and had been a long time away from caring about anyone, or anything.

Perhaps it was a last chance, a seed, for my own redemption; I had no reason to go back to the life I’d known. This forest was more full of life than my loneliness.

She pushed against the log to stand, and held out her arms, the green of her eyes and aura growing dim. “Hurry.”

We held each other tight, as if clinging to driftwood in a raging storm, and the soft green aura flared around the both of us.

You are now the way of our returnAs long as there is a remnant of magic in the world, there is hope.

***************

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but the seasons have changed many times.

Her body has long since faded from my grasp, from my sight, but I thrum with the power of a burgeoning earth as when it first grew green and flush, and I see the visions of castles, hear the songs of battle, the dirges, the choirs of  coronations of royalty, the songs of the workmen, and the solemn, sibilant spells of pagan ritual sacrifice and the joyful, whirling dances of holy marriage.

I see the hands of the old gods, open in blessing and love, and clenched with malice and rage.

My reflection in the river water shows my green eyes, my skin as dark as wet oak, my hair like the bounteous sprawl of a fertile vineyard, and I hear her voice in my dreams, as full of longing as when she fused her soul to mine.    

And when I lay down to sleep in the cave, I pray to whatever gods are yet listening that they send someone in time, when it becomes my turn to pass the emerald aura of the last of the magic.

….there is hope.

 

The Last Lullaby

The snow was ending, and the moon shone bright, full and high and clear against a sky of black crystal, with shadowy clouds gilded by a silver nimbus. They traipsed across the heavens like gypsy scarves, obscuring and revealing the cold, glittering stars so far away.

On any other night, it was a breathtaking scene, but tonight my hands gripped the cold balustrade of the balcony so tightly that if the moon itself were in them, I would have crushed it to powder.

Her cries reached me through the thick oaken doors, and her screams ripped the winter silence asunder.

They told me this might happen. I prayed that it would not, but now…

The midwives, bless their plucky souls, had been efficient in their ministrations, but now, the rest, being up to Jesika, had taken a turn for the worst.

They sent the youngest of them to tell me. “Mr. Laskin, you’d best come, sir.”

One look at her brimming eyes told me all I needed to know.

They told you…They told you! Be strong, Alexei. Be strong, and see her on her way.

I followed, biting back the sobs that threatened to burst my jaw.

They stepped back from the door like a parting black curtain, faces somber, eyes downcast and full of tears.

On the bed, my Jesika, trembling, the last of her strength fleeing, holding our twins in her thin, shaking arms, and smiling through the sweat that left her spent and sodden on ruined, reddened sheets.

“Alexei…see?”

The tears came, and I couldn’t see.  “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”

“My crowning achievement.”

“Yes.”

Her breathing hitched, and blood marked her lips as she coughed, reflexes making her hold the strangely silent babes tighter.

The young midwife wiped Jesika’s brow and mouth, and poured a sip of water through her lips.

“I’m leaving, Alexei.”

“I know.”

“They’ll be my legacy, too.”

“Yes, Jesika, and a worthy one.”

“You must name them. Take your time with that…” Her coughing racked her.

The babes began to slip from her arms, and one of the midwives took them while the other again cleaned her face.

“Your violin…” Jesika whispered.

“What?”

“Get it. Play for me, Alexei. One last time.”

I bolted, retrieved it, not bothering to tune it, and ran back.

I heard the midwives crying before I got to the doorway, and stepped aside as they filed out.

The youngest who came to me still held my children.

“Mr. Laskin, her eyes…?”

“I see, child.”

“Her eyes are still open, sir. Would you…do you want me to…?”

“Place the children beside her.”

“Sir?”

“Place the children beside her, and attend them.”

One of the midwives came back to the door. “Natalya, we must –“

I shut the door in her face. “Attend them, Natalya. Please.”

Natalya did as I requested, though she was uneasy.

“I’ll not harm you, child. I’m going to play for my family. My wife sleeps in death, and my children in life. I will play them all a lullaby.”

Natalya turned away from me as I tuned the strings, watching the children, not daring to look at Jesika’s frozen smile.

I began an improvisation, slow and in a major key, happy, but not bright.

The children opened their eyes, and looked at me with those sage stares, rapt, as if they knew what I was doing, and why. Brother and sister, bonded in life, already bereft of a greater fealty than I could give.

Natalya sat, trembling, her hands ready to catch them should they list, or cast themselves off the bed.

But they didn’t move except to blink, and gurgle, raising their little hands toward me.

And then I played for Jesika, a somber, loving dirge that was a testament to her will and strength and beauty, my fingers as sure of her song as my heart had been of her love.

The twins began to cry, as if they knew what I was doing, and why.

And when Jesika’s eyes closed, Natalya retreated to a corner of the room, her mouth open in a silent scream; her tears wouldn’t stop, and her breathing became hiccoughs. She was but a shadow, and time was lost to me as the song caught me up. In my mind, I danced with them in an open field, all of us smiling and laughing, and time was lost to me as I swooned, and fell.

 

********************

“…lost them all?”

“…wife and twins, on the same night!”

“…on earth happened?”

“…murder…”

“…poison…”

“…went insane…”

I hear the whispers, the gossip, and I see the fear as they pass me, when they have occasion to be around me, which is rare. I rarely go out now. Soon, I won’t go out at all.

I don’t remember much, except a song; something in me remembers a song.

A lullaby, it was.

A lullaby for my family, now sleeping all together in the ground.

I kneel in the hard, hoary grass, and place the parchment of our wedding vows before me. Behind me, weeping angels mark the graves of my little ones, Viktor and Irina, placed by Jesika’s side.

And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….

 

The Passing (Chapters 9 & 10)

Chapter 9: A New Witch Hunter

I closed the journal, my thoughts and emotions quailing at the implications.

Was it, is it, my mission to finish, Gran? To hunt them? To avenge the lost?

Only the wind answered with a gentle breeze on my skin, a brief respite from the warm, westering summer sun.

Witches hunting their own kind. If I found them, what then? Would I be the only one? Do I have the power to kill them, or even the will to try?

I shook my head. Too many questions, and I needed sleep. I could summon a spirit for guidance, but I wasn’t ready to hear whatever it had to say. If it charged me with the task, there’d be a blood binding, and I’d be consumed by the desire to find them all, no matter the physical or psychic cost to myself, to feed them to the Dark Realm’s whim.

By their cowardly loyalty to the king, your own kind forced you and Gran to flee after they slaughtered her son, your father, along with your mother. They stole your childhood, and forced your birthright on you before you were prepared to receive it properly.

You have every reason to go after them, to find out the truth, alone or not.

“Or I could live my own life, and set my own path.”

A brief silence, and then an answer:  Sleep, Tina. All will be revealed, settled, and reconciled.

“By me, or by you working through me?”

Will it not be the same?

“No.” I said it more out of hope than certainty. “And you haven’t told me your name.”

The silence that followed bothered me more than any response.

Chapter 10: Day of Departure

“I’m sorry, Tina.”

“Why? You were far more than kind to let us stay, Atheron.”

“If Hanna’s spell didn’t hide my cottage, we’d all be dead now.”

“But we’re not, you and me. You put yourself at risk for us. I couldn’t ask for more, and I won’t.”

“Hannah did say this day would come, yet you’re still so young.”

“Better I leave you now, then, while I can take the bumps and bruises ahead of me. I don’t want to practice magic here. If I lose control, or even make a mistake and try to correct it, it will spill over to you, to this place, and they’ll include you in whatever monstrous practices they do.

“I couldn’t bear that. You weren’t blood, Atheron, but you were, and always will be family.”

We shared a long embrace, and he spoke to the top of my head. “Know this, Tina: This door, it’s hearth, and humble fare, will always be open to you as long as I’m here.”

I nodded against his chest. “Thank you.” I kissed his scruffy cheek and release him.

There were no more words to say, and he lifted his hand in farewell as I turned from him toward the bright and warming day. Gran’s spell of protection would dissolve, and the cottage would be visible once more.

“I bid you peace, Atheron.” I wiped away a tear as I heard the door close behind me.

*************

I stopped by Gran’s cairn, and knelt beside it.

There was already moss on some of the stones, and small leaf stems emerging between the spaces; nature was reclaiming her.

“Thank you for all you’ve shown me, for all you gave me, and did for me. I’m out in the world now, unsure of my fate and future, but I ‘ll use all you taught me to make my way, and leave my mark in it.

“I don’t know if, or when, I’ll ever come back this way. Maybe I’ll make it a yearly pilgrimage, but we’ll see what life holds for me until then.”

Brushing the undergrowth from my knees, I stood. “Farewell, Gran.”

I watched in fascination as one of the stones split, dribbling water, as if her own heart were crying at my leaving. I touched it with my finger, and felt its warmth, then left it behind, wiping more tears away that were unbidden, but not unwelcome.

My heart was breaking too.

 

 

 

 

The Passing (Chapters 7 & 8)

Chapter 7: Gran’s Journal

The small teak chest was on the nightstand, patiently waiting for whatever happened to it.

The lock refracted the candlelight, a mocking eye that followed our search. I was peeved by Atheron’s reluctance to break it open, but he was determined to exhaust every possibility first. That he was reluctant to use his strength also struck me as curious, and the brief flitting thoughts I had to question him about his past grew more insistent, but I pushed them aside for now.

Initially refusing his offer to help me, I changed my mind; he could reach places I couldn’t, as the rooms were designed for someone his height. Through all the clutter we created, I couldn’t imagine Gran really hiding anything from me.
The moon rose and filled the room with the familiar shadows, but we were determined to find something that led to what happened, and it was in the small hours of the morning that we finally did.
Hidden in Gran’s sewing basket was a journal, bound in worn, dark brown leather.           She never mentioned it.
I felt a small pang of disappointment. You trusted me with dark spirits that could snatch my soul, but not a journal, Gran?
Atheron picked up on my mood. “Maybe she would have told you if she had more time…”
I decided it wasn’t true, but I also decided not to argue the matter with him; the important thing now was to read through and see if there was anything that could actually be of use to me, or if this was just the meanderings of an old woman aware that her time was drawing to a close.
To the dread surprise of both of us, it was the story of the Purge.
We both read the first few lines that spoke of the king’s fear of magic.
“Do you want to read this now, Tina?”
I kept silent, took stock of myself, my emotions, my state of mind, and answered.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight. You’ve traveled today, so why don’t you go to bed. I’ll fill you in when we have breakfast.”
He nodded. “Very well.”
This was, and would be after all, my burden to bear.
We bade each other a good night, and he left.
I put the journal down, washed, and finally climbed into bed, adrenaline racing, seizing the journal, but taking a moment to look out at the stars before I opened it.
“I don’t know why you didn’t trust me with this, Gran. I’m hurt by that, but I have to believe it was because you wanted to spare me this burden.
“You gave me the greater portion of it, however, and in order to do what I need to do, I’ll need it all. I can’t go into this further without more knowledge. You understand.”
The room stayed silent, the air, still.
Sighing in exasperation and a flash of temper at her stubborn silence, I opened the journal to the tale she should have told me, and started reading.

Chapter 8: The Great Purge

      We named him King Jake the Craven, but while it was true he feared magic, he was not foolish in his attack on it.
     The Purge was not a massive battle of two sides facing each other with honor, but done as random attacks that targeted the vulnerable outskirts first, since there were no reliable means to warn those closer inside.
      His patrols ranged the forest day and night to ensure that.
     No one place was ever attacked repeatedly. The soldiers made sure the destruction was total, and the number and manner of deaths conveyed the king’s message.
     There were efforts to band together to counter them with magic, but he’d promised to spare the houses and families that aided his soldiers by working wards and counter-spells to keep both the soldiers and mercenaries safe.
      He paid them well too, and kept their identities secret.
     Not thinking of betrayal, we took no notice of the spies among us; everything seemed as it was. When we finally realized spies lived among us, it was too late.
     The Traitors Guild, as we called them, told him our plans.
     His campaign against us as successful, he turned on those very witches he used and killed them too, staking them along the forest roads, though it was rumored a few managed to escape.
     Tears flowed, and families were scattered. Those who’d lost all hope took their own lives rather than be hunted by royal death squads.
     Attempts at treaties were summarily dismissed, and the soil was soaked with blood while the air reeked with the screams and curses of the dying, and the scents of burning flesh and houses.
     Dodging the patrols, we appealed to the king’s Game Wardens, thinking to persuade them to our side to warn us. They didn’t turn us in, but fearing their own deaths, they wouldn’t be bribed.
     Our tracker and tracer spells were found and broken, and even the dark spirits failed us.  They’d put away the summoning spells somewhere sacred, warded, and sanctified by the most powerful clergy.
     We continue to search for the remnant of covens that may have escaped, that we might avenge our losses with their blood.

     Their fate and location, as of this writing, is unknown.