Midnight Son (5) The World Through Haunted Eyes

Indeed, the songbirds were singing again, likely celebrating our departure; the carrion birds would be a different story.
I said nothing of the distinction; if she wanted to enjoy the songbirds, so be it. She had her elbows on her knees and her eyes closed, listening.
Looking at the sky, I saw the stars already fading as we left our childhood home. Like them, something faded within us too. Perhaps it was the illusion that we could somehow salvage ourselves from a parasitic existence and come out whole, with some lingering trace of humanity.
I looked over again at my little sister. Such an innocent pose, a little smile on her face, as if only hours ago that smiling mouth hadn’t been devouring the meaty guts of our oldest family servant.
Semele didn’t seem innocent to the fact that what she did was monstrous; it was her ability to somehow shut it off, or out, when the killing was over. She’d be like a normal girl her age again, just that quick, as if nothing happened at all, even to her remorse wanting to bury Cassis, sounding for all the world like he only slipped and fell.
There was yet within her then a sense of remorse, of connecting with empathy for the results of her actions.
Connection.
The ghoul that infected Semele had nursed her, however briefly, and a connection between mother and child was yet possible. I had to get her to try to find it, if it existed, but I was willing to wait.
Before I went to sleep, I decided to draw her out on the matter.
“Semele, I have to ask you, what happens to you when…?”
She opened her eyes; they held a heavy, melancholy wisdom of life beyond her years.
“I get cold, Ingrum. I feel my heart slow, and my senses heighten to foul things. I smell rank water and corpses, and blood, and I start salivating, sometimes to the point where it drips from my chin.
“I grow stronger too; you saw what I did to Cassis. My nails sharpen, and all of my teeth, not just the incisors, like yours.”
She looked off, scanning the woods. “And I have to feed. There are corpses in the forest that I made, bones now. Bones of people and animals.”
“And Cassis?”
She sighed. “He was right there when I woke up.”
“Wrong place, wrong time.”
“Yes.”
“I want you to try something.”
“Alright.”
“That creature nursed you to make you what you are; there could be a connection of some sort, a bond you can feel.”
“I’ve tried. This is a goose-chase. If I could feel her presence, I’d tell you.”
A desperate anger began rising in me; I’d gone out of my way to make her aware of the cost, we weren’t an hour on the road, and she was practically giving up before we started.
“Maybe it works in proximity. I want you to keep trying. If you don’t, or can’t, we can turn around now, and you can just keep adding to your pile of corpses!”
She flinched, and her eyes welled. She tried to answer, but she only sobbed, and started to cry.
“I’m sorry. Just trying to make you realize that even if we find her, she’ll be difficult to kill. You’re one of them, and we’re not familiar with them. We found the book, now we have to use what it told us. If you would really be free of this, you have to be committed to seeing it through all the way.
“I need to be sure that you are.
“Don’t answer me now; think about it while you drive. The sun’s almost up, and I need sleep. If you turn back home, we never bring this up again, and we find another way.”
She wiped her eyes and nose on the hem of her dress, and nodded.
I handed her the reins; she took them without looking at me.
“Sleep well.” Her voice was clipped. That bothered me, but I knew she’d think on it. When I woke, she’d have an answer.
I really didn’t know what it might be, but I’d be lying if I said part of me hoped she’d say no. We were isolated and remote enough. We could hunt together, and feed, and no one would know…
I shook my head free of that illusion. If enough people went missing long enough, and frequently enough, we’d be first on the list. They’d burn the forest if they wanted to get us, of that I had no doubt.
On its face, the idea wasn’t unappealing; we’d both get the peace we wanted.
But if there was a chance we could be free, and live, we owed it to ourselves to take it.

 

 

Reflections of the Heart

Finally, the end of the day; I’d anticipated it since this morning, knowing the schedule ahead of me. I didn’t want to do the presentation, because I didn’t think I could. But I did.
The accolades seemed sincere enough,  but I never could determine what was really in people’s hearts. Since no one stabbed me in mine when it was over, I took the praise at face value.
Trust issues are sort of a thing with me, so I keep a small circle of acquaintances; I don’t think I ever let anyone in far enough to call a friend.
At the end, the boss was smiling. The steely-eyed men of our top client seemed pleased as well. I filed it away for the annual raise groveling when my review came, but tonight was deemed  a special occasion.
One of those steely-eyed men asked me out, and because I didn’t know how to politely decline after winning a hard-earned victory (and not being willing to endanger it, to be honest), I said yes.

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

As I got ready, I checked my reflection using gran’s old mirror, an antique she left to me in passing, telling me it was enchanted. She’d been something of a wiccan or psychic, or some combination thereof; I loved the old dear but I thought she was a little crazy.
Still, she loved me even though I scoffed, and it was nice to know that if the need for cash grew urgent, I could get a good price.
I fussed with my neckline til I had enough teaser cleavage, dreading every passing second toward him picking me up. When the whole look was girly-girl enough not to make him feel threatened, on impulse I took a flower from the vase and placed it just-so in my hair for an exotic touch. It bordered on trying too hard, but I decided to risk it.
“Faint heart never won rich businessman.” As soon as I said it, I winced.
Was I that shallow, that money was the first thing to occur to me? I was disappointed in myself. That took more reflection than I was willing to commit right now.
As I’d been getting ready, the temperature in the room had dropped to the point where I hugged myself for warmth. I checked the thermostat, but it was where I always left it.
Someone called my name, faint and distant, almost too low to hear.
Maurelle.  I chalked it up to date jitters, but then I heard it again, distinctly behind me. Maurelle.
I turned just as a soft, pale light suffused the room, but from the other side of gran’s mirror. A reflection not my own, twin but for the malevolence in her eyes, beckoned me to her.
“How…?” I backed into the wall, staring at myself getting angry with me for being scared.
Sister…come here.

I could feel myself trembling as I walked toward her, my roiling thoughts trying to label and organize, and failing. There was no analysis to be made of this.
Place your hand in mine; I have a gift for you. From Gran.
“This is a dream…”

She chuckled. It is not, but you may call it that if you like.
“No! I know what this is! You…you need me to escape.”
I do. Let me take your place. I know what’s in this man’s heart. And yours. I will get it for you.
“But you’re not me. I can feel the evil on you, even through the glass.”
I’ll not deny it, sister.
“What’s your name?”
Her eyes widened with mock innocence and hurt. The same as yours.
“Liar!”
She smiled, and I swear my skin crawled.
Let me in.
I wanted to back away, but couldn’t.
Touch the glass, Maurelle.
“Not until you tell me your name.”
She was casting a spell on me; my shoulders grew heavy, and I could feel my body weakening.
I am called Magena. Touch the glass, before you succumb.
I don’t remember touching it, but my hand suddenly felt dipped in ice, and I saw the blood when the glass broke. Magena gripped my wrist, pulled my hand to her chest, and smeared the blood on her cold, pale skin, on her quickening heart. She threw her head back, her voice chanting as fleeting dark images flooded my mind, visions of the place where she’d emerged.
The faces of those underworld beings would have driven me insane; if she’d been around them, she already was. If I was the gateway, what did it say of me? Of Gran?
The world spun in delirious circles, and I shouted something out, a word of incantation I didn’t know I knew, something that completed the spell.  Magena was beside me, translucent, but solidifying quickly.
I wanted to stop her, but I was fainting. She caught me as I fell, and gently laid me on the floor, my head in her lap, stroking my cheek, the air rife with the coppery tang of my blood on her chest.

Rest now, sister. I will take care of you.
Her voice was soothing, condescendingly patient, like you’d speak to a wayward child spinning out of control. They comforted me like a blazing hearth in high winter, and the darkness covered me like a mother’s love.
Don’t worry, Maurelle. I will see to your steely-eyed man. I will see to your whole life, now. I am your gift from Gran; in her heart, she hated you for mocking her.

She took the flower from my hair, put it in hers, and the last thing I saw was the vibrant pink turning black.

Magena’s sultry laughter rang in my ears, as my sight faded with my hopes of ever waking up again.

She was right: this was no dream.

My heart…

ALL THINGS MADE NEW (2)

Chapter 2: Someone Like You

My basement room was sparse, and cool. He bought me leather bound journals with ornate, lovely covers so I could write out my memories and feelings when he was unavailable to speak with me.
We were friends, after a fashion, and spent long hours sipping wine as he showed me something of the world, and I grew to love the sound of classical music on rainy days, and was glad to clean and organize things to release the boredom of waiting for his experiments with my blood to bear fruit.
One winter night, he brought in a fresh victim: a boy, close to my age, and slight of build like me. He looked more angry than frightened, and I recognized the urchin in him. The ‘good’ doctor was nothing if not selective.
“Zurie, this is Nelo.”
He gripped Nelo by the upper arm, and though the boy’s head was down, I could see a palm print on his cheek.
“Nelo, this is Zurie. Say hello.” He pulled the boy’s hair until his head came up, and Nelo gurgled something from a split lip.
“Nelo tried to rob me, Zurie. I did to him what I did to you at first, and like you, he’s just eaten at my table. Unlike you, he tried to steal again. I thought it best you speak to him; his defiance made me lose decorum, and I thought maybe you’d like some company.”
Nelo couldn’t take his eyes off me. His aura was dark; he seemed more shadow than boy, and though he was frightened, I fascinated him. He almost forgot the doctor was holding him until he was shoved toward me.
I reached out to balance him as he almost tumbled to the floor, and he came up looking right into my eyes, our faces close enough to kiss.
“Hello, Nelo.”
He composed himself as I helped him gain his balance before he stepped back.
“Hello, Zurie.”
It seemed stupid to shake hands.
I looked at the doctor. “Did you bring him here for me to…?”
“Yes, of course.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a vial of new blood he’d reworked.
There’d been many failed trials before, and I’d stopped getting my hopes up. The doctor was incompetent, a pretender to the field, with delusions of grandeur and ‘One day’s’ that never came. Now, his home was shelter from the storms of life and nature, but I was growing discontent with crumbs.
The others I’d known, neither friends nor family, never looked for me. It was just as well; I wouldn’t have gone back.
“Brought me here to do what?” Nelo asked, looking back and forth between me and the doctor. “To what?”
I smiled, letting my fangs grow. He recoiled and backed away as I drank the vial. Nelo ran into the girth of the doctor, who now had a knife. He turned him toward me and put the blade to Nelo’s throat, pressing, but not breaking the skin.
“Stand still,” he said in the boy’s ear.
The knife helped with that. I bit my wrist and came toward Nelo.
His eyes roamed me, and with my heightened senses I could hear his heart, and smell the fear which became visible as he wet himself.
“Give me your hand, Nelo.”
He held it out, against his will. I cut it, and rubbed the wound across my wrist.
The doctor was watching, eyes wide, breathing shallow, hoping against hope.
Nelo’s hand began to steam, and he cried out. Tilting the blade, the doctor silently warned him again to stay still. He began to whimper and beg, wanting to be let go, swearing he’d tell no one.
I smiled at him again: “But Nelo, this is something you’ll want everyone to know.”
His body twitched, spasmed, and the doctor and I lowered him the floor, watching. Screaming and wretched, Nelo rolled over onto his stomach, blood in his mouth, and went still.
The doctor looked on, worry bordering on despair.
“Give it time,” I said.
He looked at me, nodded, not yet realizing his predicament if this was successful.
Steam rose from Nelo’s body, but moments later he still didn’t move.
“It didn’t—“ the doctor started to say.
Nelo coughed up more blood, moaned, and rested his cheek in the puddle, too weak yet to stand.
From the expression on the doctor’s face, I think he surprised himself.
I was beyond pleased, and my happiness would now extend and manifest itself into the world outside this room, and onto my former tormentors.
I looked at the doctor, now beaming at me with a full-on smile. “I did it, Zurie. I did it.”
“Congratulations, doctor. You did very well.”
Nelo was trying to get up, and once again I helped him.
“What happened to me? What did you do to me?”
“He,” I pointed to the doctor, “made you like me.”
“Like you?”
“Yes.”
His eyes roamed over me once more, taking their time; I smiled and let him see my fangs.
“Welcome to our family.” The smell of his blood was pungent; I wanted to kiss him, but I walked toward the door. “You have to feed now, Nelo.” He made you like me. Like me, he beat you. Like me, he fed you. And soon, you will be like me.
He was still confused, looking at himself, at the doctor, at me. “I… I don’t know how.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, locking us in as I smiled at the doctor, who now realized his predicament.
“I’ll show you.”

Inspired Bye

I couldn’t finish digging her grave.
Everything was sore: hands, legs, and my arms trembling from an adrenaline crash and the damp, rich, heavy soil.
I couldn’t stop crying, and my face was a mass of unpleasant liquids.
I couldn’t stop apologizing either, though she was already gone.
There’d be no cairn, for the land seemed devoid of stones, yet I would not leave her to the scavengers.
You don’t have to stay. The voice in my mind sounded muffled and far away, as if her spirit spoke through a thick veil.
“If I don’t stay,” I replied, “you don’t rest.”
I don’t want to rest.
That piqued my curiosity. “What do you want?”
For us to change places.
“You want me to die?
Yes.
“Why?”
So I might live.
“You’re the one who got sick on the journey.”
Yes, but you’re the reason. I traveled to look for you.
“To kill me?”
Yes. You shouldn’t have left me.
“You knew I wasn’t staying, Alisyn. You know I couldn’t.”
She said nothing for a while; she lay there, just looking up at me with those sightless eyes. I thought for sure I’d closed them, but I couldn’t honestly remember.
I tried to start covering her again, but the soil was so heavy. I couldn’t lift it to throw dirt on her face, to cover her eyes.
“I could still use my hands.” Scooping some soil, I began walking toward the top of the grave, and stumbled, as if something had pushed me from behind. The dirt flew, landing on her stomach, covering her hands.
Come rest with me.
“I don’t need rest.” I stayed on my knees, my hands resting on my thighs. “I need sleep.”
Come, then, and sleep.
“Not of that kind. You’re dead.”
Because of you.
“Stop saying that!”
She whispered it. Because of you. Come rest with me.
Something tugged at my sleeve. I snatched my arm away and swung at nothing, getting to my feet.
I tried to look away, and when I couldn’t, to walk away. I could do neither.
Rest. Rest, and start again.
“That’s not what you mean. You mean to have me in there with you!”
It’s peaceful here. When you leave, no one else will ever come here. You once said you loved me. Come here, if you do.
“You said you loved me too. If that were true, you wouldn’t ask me to do that.”
But that is why I’m asking. I want you with me forever.
Something shoved me from behind. I turned and wildly struck at nothing again, but the shove knocked me off balance; I was right at the edge of the grave, and reflexes made me lean the other way to regain my balance, which I did just in time.
What a willful man you are. A selfish man. I never knew.
“You did, Alisyn. You did, but you couldn’t accept it. It’s why…why I left.”
And now you’re here. I forgive you.
“I did nothing wrong. I didn’t ask you to come after me .” I was on the very edge of patience.
But you knew I would. You knew, but you couldn’t accept it. You can’t accept it even now.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for sarcasm: “And now you’re here.”
Sitting on the edge of the grave, I dangled my feet inside, over her body; I looked unafraid at the unseeing eyes that looked right through me.
I loved you. I love you still. Come, rest beside me.
I felt hands begin to rub my calves, finger spreading, massaging; as they moved, small wakes of pulsing light outlined them, leaving pieces of soil behind.
If I tried to stand, they would seize me; tears flowed afresh, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
“No. I want to live.”
What is life alone?
“Mine, to live as I please.”
Where’s the good in that? What’s the legacy of that?
The unseen hands moved to my shoulder; the ripples of light pulsed a bit slower, and dimmer. I closed my eyes as they spread a pleasant warmth through me.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Alisyn. Stop it.”
She laughed. You stop me.
Another surge of adrenaline came, and I slid back, fighting the languor that turned my bones to lead; I managed to make it to all fours, then fell on my side fighting for breath.
The hands took advantage, and rolled me, with no effort, into the grave to land on top of her.
Panicked, my eyes wide and darting, looking anywhere but into hers, I tried to find a purchase to stand up and climb out, but only managed to wriggle like a worm in the deadly fingers of a ten- year old.
“Alisyn, let me go.”
No, you selfish, willful man; I can’t trade life with you, but for once, I will be selfish and demanding:
You will stay with me.
As my vision darkened, I looked one last time into her face.
Her eyes were closed, and her dirt covered hands slipped into mine.

M is for Mortal

I knocked, like I always do, respecting her privacy, but there was no answer.
“Baby? Kora? Are you there?” I went to check the bathroom, but heard no water, so I went back to the door and turned the knob.
He was there, holding her in his arms as she whimpered, answering with a soft snarling purr muffled by the tender flesh of my daughter’s neck. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do know that I smashed his head until it was pulped, and held my daughter as the blood pumped out of her.
She was a pallid bust of herself by the time it was over.
You’ve taken your revenge, Kharis. Now I will take mine.
****************
In the morning, I waited until the fire collapsed the house, and carried my daughter’s body to the old church cemetery. There were no tools to bury her, so I put her in a large toolbox, and locked it.
“I’ll come back for you, angel.”
The scent of her blood was on me, the scent of the lemon shampoo in her hair lingered with it, a coppery sweetness that jumbled my feelings, but not enough to wash them both away.
They would scent my child’s blood, and come after me.  I would smell her lemon shampoo, and remember who she’d been, and what she meant to me.
*******************
I found the lair just before the sun went down, and waited in the darkness, sword in hand.
I heard the slide of heavy stone and the creak of ancient hinges as various coffins and doors were opened.
Kharis’ widow approached. “You killed him.”
The sword was already in my hand, and made her stop. “I did. He claimed my daughter.”
“That is not our way.”
“I know, but now, blood cries out for blood.”
“I’m not giving you mine, priest.” She smiled in amusement when she said it; I’d fallen, not bothering to get back up.
“Someone has to.”
Her soft laughter reverberated. “I like your confidence.”
The others were behind her, eyes shining, skin translucent and white-veined in the thickening shadows; that would fill in as they fed, but they wouldn’t be feeding tonight, if I had my way.
She turned her back on me, and walked out while the others came toward me, baring fangs and laughing.

***************
I spent the night in their stink, lifting their cold guts in my fingers, trying on their gold, admiring their sprawled out, open-eyed, red-streaked beauty.
There would be no pyre; I would not have them in peace. I half wanted them to rise, so I could kill them again, but the sword had done its work; there would be no pursuit, and no second chance at revenge.
No one left to kill meant no reason to stay.
I only had one left to hunt.
Your turn, Narkissa.

*************
She’d set my daughter free, and the two of them looked at me as I entered.
“Hi, Daddy.”
I wiped the tears and sweat from my eyes, but they returned as if I hadn’t. “My daughter’s dead.”
She smiled. “Good. That will make this easier.”
She looked at Narkissa for approval.
“Go ahead, darling.”
She ran toward me.
My sword came up.
***************
Slumped against the wall, my hands held Kora’s hair like a bundle of flowers; it was almost over.
Narkissa was enjoying herself, sipping slow at my neck and wrists; my veins were on fire from the bites, even as my body shivered from the cold. I heard the crunch of fangs popping, and felt the coursing venom sting.
I don’t know how long she took, but a languor washed over me that sapped my strength.
She was granting me the final mocking mercy of smelling Kora’s lemon shampoo for the last time.
The stink of my corrupted blood pecked at it like crows on the battlefield.
My vision grew dark, and the scent of lemons faded.
Then it was gone.

 

Trial by Combat

He sat on that enormous throne, cloaked in inky shadows, gazing down at me with eyes full of starlight, silver-white, penetrating much more than darkness.

I couldn’t stop trembling under that patient, terrible gaze.

“Do you know why I summoned you?” His deep voice reverberated in the high ceiling and bounced of the stone walls surrounding us.

“N-n-no.” I wanted to say more, to protest, but I was shaking so much I didn’t want to risk stammering too. I put the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth and swallowed what I wanted to say.

“They told me that you wish to leave. Is that true?”

The lie was on my tongue, but not before the blush was on my cheek.

I said nothing.

He leaned forward, terrible visage close to me, putrid and scarred, and th oozing  a pungent liquid that had ribbons of blood laced through it.

“Have I not been a good master?”

“No master of another man, no matter how beneficent, is good.”

He raised a brow, and let out a wheezing laugh.

“I’ve always admired you for not going down without a fight. But rest assured, Laras, you are well on the way down.”

“I’ve heard enough,” I said, straightening despite the pain in my back, enduring the pain of the whip scars that broke open and wept, hissing as it trailed across my skin.

Venom.

“It wasn’t enough I called you ‘king,’ but you wanted ‘master’ as well. I can’t give you that.”

The pain brought me to my knees, in spite of my will. “I won’t give you that.”

I passed out.

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

Perfumed ministrations roused me, and the sound of muted flutes.

He left me alive.

Someone was watching me, coming into focus, thinly clad, with large eyes that observed me with a blend of curiosity and the desire to kill.

“Your Highness?”

“Nailah, to you.”

She pulled me up by the thick braid I wore, and I braced for the pain, but there was none.

“I begged him for your traitorous life, Fihr. And because he refuses me nothing, he granted it.”

She wrapped my braid around her fist, and kissed me hard.

I tried to break it, but she grabbed me and held harder.

I gave in, and against my better judgment, kissed her back; her moan of triumph led to other things, and my first waking hours were occupied for a time.

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

They came for me in the morning, not bothering to knock, startling the princess as they plucked me from her bed like a feather, struck me to the floor, stomped me into it, and carried me out to the barracks.

A test, and I failed.

The day was full of rigorous training, and I was the target; fighting to the point of numbness, I prevailed over most of them, not having been trained in their way. I drew more blood than I spilled, which angered them more.

The sun was westering when I cried out; “How much more do you need from me?”

Call me ‘master.’ Say it, and know peace once again.

Every part of me hurt, every heartbeat an effort, every breath a trip uphill with a large stone to keep in front of me. He wanted it at every cost, and it would cost me nothing.

And everything.

I shook my head.

They began shouting curses at me now, but with a glimmer of grudging admiration in their eyes; nevertheless, they would redouble their efforts to break me now, before sunset.

I was fighting on instinct and adrenaline now, and soon there would be nothing left.

I was bleeding, and never felt the cuts, pummeled, and never felt the blows, but I remained standing, shaking on legs that wanted nothing more than to kneel, the word ‘master’ thick on my tongue like sour ale mixed with blood, and maybe a tooth or two.

I spat, and with that, my wavering ended.

I would rather die.

The sun was a red rind on the horizon when the last form broke from the ranks, moving unlike any of the others.

She was thinly clad, but well armed, and moved like a hunting cat in her prime.

I’d made love to her repeatedly only hours before. “Nailah…”

She was crying now, tears glimmering in the crepuscular gloom.

She took her stance. “Yield, Fihr; don’t be a fool. Yield now, and come back to bed. Say the word.”

Say the word, and be the most favored among them all.

Say the word, and know the comfort of a woman’s sheathe. I will let her have you, and give you men to fight your battles, and women to do your bidding. She is but the jewel in the crown I offer you.

“YIELD!” she screamed.

I saw the soldiers around us gaping in disbelief at my hesitation, saw the silver -white stars begin dotting the cobalt sky. Those eyes from the throne…

I heard the wind soughing among the trees.

Saw the last of the red sun’s rays reflected in the water on her cheeks, making them look bloody.

The memory of her scent, her arms, her kiss, and the things she did with her lips and hands flooded back into my mind.

It was so simple to say, and no one would know.

“Yield, please.” She sobbed this time, not wanting to kill me.

He was behind it, I knew, as surely as I knew my name.

“Yield.” Her voice was lowering with resignation as I hesitated.

Drop the sword, and all is forgiven…

“Yield, my darling. Please.

My own tears hot against my cheeks, I shook my head, and took my final stance.

Her cry of rage at my rejection tore my heart, and with all the last- stand vengeance of the defeated firing her eyes with hate, she charged.

 

 

 

A Choice of Poisons

They came in vast numbers to slaughter what remained of us.
For too long we harried them on every front, and every time they stepped on our necks, we seemed to grow new heads: here, a smashing of their flank as we split to take the vanguard and the rear; there, an explosion that killed them by the hundreds.
We were as children splashing away at the tide.
It all served to stir them to a frothing, raving mass of bloodthirsty vengeance seekers; they were as relentless in their desire to kill us as we were to survive.
In time, they resorted to other means: a dark magic where venom and blood combined to make them practically invincible.
The problem was they had the venom, and we had the blood. They plundered it from us and stored it for themselves, until their magicians could sustain its combined power and keep it from fading. They worked at it day and night.
From my high vantage inside the fortress, I could see the serpent army, the Ormarr, as we called them, spread out across the fields below, their bodies glowing with a faint, eldritch light.
The sword at my side brought no comfort, but there was another way.
“Stand aside,” I told the gatekeeper.
“Are you daft, boy? You want us to open the gates and throw flowers in their path?”
I looked at General Sarris, his craggy face mapped with scars and an old black eye patch over his left socket, a testimony to his many fierce and bloody campaigns.
“No, General. That was not my request. I said, ‘Stand aside.’
Seeing my calm demeanor, he considered me. In the silence between us I could hear the faint clank of weapons as men shifted, the crackling sizzle of nearby torches, and the dull murmurs of the dull creatures below us, bobbing and rocking like lanterns on a ship.
“I’m all that stands between these men and death,” I said. “The longer you wait, the stronger they grow.”
“Ator, have you forgotten your first night here?”
“I remember all too well, Sarris.”
****************
The camp fires were dying, and little by little the sounds of snores and released gas joined the night creatures’ cacophony, drowning out the small, crackling flames.
    A seasoned soldier eyed me openly, not challenging, merely assessing.
   “Do I pass your examination, sir?”
   He chortled, and came toward me, hands out. “Not looking to fight, boy, just want to give you some advice.”
   I nodded, but kept him in view.
   “When you’re out here, boy, waiting for demons to fight, no one in the rich towns cares that you don’t sleep at all, as long as they sleep through the night.
   “They don’t care that you can’t comfort your daughter after a nightmare, as long as they don’t have to face the living ones they created.
   “They don’t care if you have to die, as long as they get to live. You remember that, boy, and you’ll be all right out here.”
*******************
“You shouldn’t fight them alone,” Sarris said.
“I’m the only one who can take the venom.”
“You’re immune to the venom, true; not to being torn apart.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well that much is true, boy, because you’re not going out there.”
I sighed, looked back out at the animated field of unnatural blasphemy, and again entreated them.
“Stand aside.”

Lyra’s Harp

 

The manacles were tight, chafing my wrists, my flesh lined like dried beach mud, blood pooling on their rusted edges before making red rivulets down.
Flies still drank from the wounds, surely infecting me.
Things sloshed and grated inside where they’d broken me.
My tongue kept running over what was left of my teeth.
The guards carried me drooping between them like a prize buck.
Broken indeed.
I tried to gain my balance so I could walk and they let me go and tripped me; I fell on my face, hurting my already swollen jaw, deciding at that moment to stop struggling.
They dragged me now, pulling me up by the chain between the manacles, making me pump my legs to get my feet under me, but they pulled too fast.
The cool marble slithered against my kneecaps as the draft in the high-ceilinged hall chilled my sweat.
I shivered.
“Where are you taking me?” I slurred, my voice little more than a raspy, gravelly whisper.
They didn’t answer.

*************
Decked in opulent gold and white, the Hall was festive in appearance, full of light and color.
After the drear of the dungeon it hurt my eyes, so I averted them.
The sound of laughter mocked even as the guests moved away from the stench and appearance of me, lest the vermin that burrowed into my rags leap onto new, expensive sources of nourishment.
On the raised dais was Lyra, the royal harpist, with skin of honey wrapped in cloth of gold, with a single thick, raven plait of hair adorning her left shoulder like an ebony laurel.
A delicate, intricate armband of gold and rubies rested on her bicep, the jewels refracting the candlelight into sanguine embers.
Her slender arms seemed to ripple the very air itself as she played the large, gleaming harp crafted specially for her skill.
I knew not the song, but its melody was high and clear, sweet and haunting.
I knew not if I cried through swollen eyes, knew not if her beauty inspired the song, or the song enhanced her beauty.
A guard’s rough fingers burrowed into the lice-laden scruff on my chin and tugged my head down.
“Avert your eyes, you craven cur. She is not for such as you.”
I tried to speak. “We were—“
A fist hammered my right cheek and another warm streamer of blood dribbled down my lips to my chin to spatter the immaculate tile beneath me.
I dimly saw her react, infinitesimal though it was; a small hitch of breath, a quick sideways glance of alarm, covered as quickly as it came.
I didn’t know if anyone saw it other than me, but for me it was water in the desert.
Betrothed…we were betrothed.

************
2)

The king’s priest held up a staying hand, and they hit me no more.
The chief councilor standing on the king’s right smirked as the guard grabbed my hair and made me look up.
“That is enough,” the priest said.
Lyra had ceased playing, but would not look at me; I couldn’t blame her, though I wanted her to more than anything.
The guests were watching too, curious, having no context of what came before this bizarre turn of events.
I was bearing the scrutiny of the entire hall in a defeated state not knowing, or caring, what happened to me now.
Finally the king spoke. “It is my understanding the two of you were to be wed? Is that right?”
I dared not speak; somehow I found the strength to nod though a shooting pain seemed to set my head on fire. I knew brains could swell from beatings. I wondered if that happened to me. I had some time to figure that if Lyra wasn’t looking at me, it was more than she could bear.
I am grotesque.
“Is that something you still desire?”
“Yes, your Majesty.” It took more effort than it should have just to speak; my broken teeth were mangling my words.
“Why? You do know I had your harpist in my bed?”
I hadn’t known, and I guess I showed it.
Lyra…she had no choice. He made her do it.
“She was not a willing participant, but eventually she relented. At least physically. Not that it mattered.”
He leaned forward on his throne, for some reason studying my broken face intently.
“Do you still want her now?”
If I said no he would kill her without a second thought, and I couldn’t live with that more than the fact that he’d dishonored her.
“With all my heart.”
He sat back, smiling. “Fool.”
He said something in the priest’s ear, and I saw his brows arch and his eyes widen.
“Are you sure, majesty?”
“Have you known me to ask you anything twice?”
The priest swallowed, shook his head, and turned to the guards still holding me up by the manacles.
“Bring him.”
Lyra’s face was dawning with a realization that I was still too stunned to see.
The king turned toward her. “To me, harpist.”
Her eyes downcast, she stood, smoothed her skirts and approached the throne, doing obeisance.
“Look upon him.”
Fighting everything in her telling her not to, she did, her eyes glimmering.
The king steepled his fingers under his chin. “She loves you, yet. I wanted to see if she would hesitate, or shut her eyes, or look away. As battered and bloody as you are, she yet looks upon you.”
It was as if the hall had emptied and a storm cloud gathered inside.
He turned to the priest. “Marry them.”
Murmurs of shocked surprise and even some protest rippled outward among the guests.
This was not seemly, by any standards, for a king to do, but the sycophants among them applauded what they thought to be his mercy and generosity.
The priest opened his mouth to protest.
“MARRY THEM!” The king’s long knife was in his hand; anything further would spill the priest’s own blood.
What smattering of applause there’d been came to a dead stop.
The priest flinched back, and his shoulders drooped as he reached for Lyra’s hand.
Squaring her own shoulders, knowing now her fate was sealed to mine, she took it as the guards once again dragged me by the chains, now coated with flesh as well as blood, before the throne. They grunted with effort now as my weight had borne them down but they’d not been told to let me stand.
The priest babbled, droned, incanted.
I heard nothing, saw nothing, and somewhere in the midst of my shame, Lyra’s gentle, calloused hand touched my swollen cheek.
I smelled the sandalwood on her palm, and saw the deep rich red of her painted nails.
In my periphery I saw her profile, head up, eyes front, soldiering for both of us through the humiliation that marked our union. She would not bend before this king, nor break before this court.
“You may kiss the bride.”
The guards looked to the king, who nodded.
They helped me gain my feet, balance me, and the priest put Lyra’s hands in the middle of my flattened palm and broken fingers.
He nodded at me once, then stepped out of the way.
Lyra wiped my mouth with her sleeve, and gave me a light but lingering kiss on the lips.
The king roared at them in rage to execute me, even as my heart seemed transported, even as they snatched me away and dragged me off to butcher me.
Lyra had thought to heal me, and would now be a widow on her wedding day.
Her screaming for them to stop and pleading with the king for mercy he would not grant were the last notes I heard from her in this world.

Children No More

In the late evening light, when shadows lengthened and the realization of what they’d just done began to sink in, the strongest among them laid the logs for the pyre.
By the time they were done, a deep yellow moon filled the sky and the stars played hide and seek among the gold-limned night clouds.
“You’ll light the fire, Elari.”
“Angelus, I can’t.” Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears.
“They’re dead; they’re not coming back.”
“We don’t know that!” She turned her back on him, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her dress.
Angelus almost slapped her, but that had been the Old Way; they’d have been there to stop him from harming, and killing.
Without them, he would have to be better. He wanted to be better.
Indeed, he needed to be, to lead them into this new age they’d so violently embraced.
Elari turned back to him, brave and sadly defiant, like a wilting flower refusing to accept the inevitability that there’d be no rain.
“They were our parents, Angelus. They protected us. Provided for us. Loved us. And this—“ her sweeping arm took in the high pile, “is how we repay them?”
Angelus was not one easily surprised, but Elari’s standing up to him now, speaking as she did, was a new thing. He had the wry thought that things were already improving for her, and she didn’t know it yet.
It was good to see her do this; he would need someone to rule at his side. She was beautiful, and smart. This new fire kindled in her only added to his attraction; he admitted, to his delight, that he was secretly pleased, but this was no time to indulge it.
“They threw your little brother on the fire, Elari. You wept in my arms for hours. Did you forget?”
His quiet words checked her rising fear; she’d opened her mouth to protest, and found no argument.
***************
Her emotions were raw, her eyes sore from weeping, her voice hoarse from pleading, her knees hurt from kneeling, but her father did not relent.
   “The gods call, and we must answer. It is the Old Way, and we honor the gods and our ancestors.”
    “A god that calls for the new lives he created to be consumed in such a horrid way? You and mother lay together, and made him. He is only just growing, and he deserves –“
   Her father wheeled on her, and just for an instant, she saw the inner struggle; he buried it with an ease that shocked her, and straightened to his full height, her little brother fidgeting in the tightening embrace.
   “You are out of place, child. Don’t presume to speak to me in such a manner. I will hand you over to the Elders Council, and gladly, if you say another word.”
   The thought came to her, oh-so-tempting, that she would bare her ass to the Council.            The old fools would be so shocked and get so randy they wouldn’t know what to do;  she’d seen their surreptitious glances in her direction.
   She stood up, and looked at her father; her words had almost cracked the anvil of his heart, but she’d entreated and abased herself long enough. She simply couldn’t go on.
   Coming toward him, she pried her baby brother from his arms, soothed him, andd took him into the room they shared.
   “I’ll give him back to you for killing,” she said, “when the time comes.”
   When the time came they hunted her with dogs, surrounded her with weapons, anthe squalling infant from her arms.
   She stayed in the forest that night, not caring what happened to her.
   The smell of smoke was faint in the air, the evil god they served making sure she got a whiff of that little body writhing and screaming in the flames.
   She hated her father with all her heart, but there was that moment he almost broke.
   Almost.
*****************
She turned away again, looking at the dark tree line. “No, Angelus. I remember everything.”
“Then you’ll light the fire?” He came to her, put his strong hands on her shoulders; in spite of herself, she leaned against him.
The word was a weight in her throat, and her heart warred with her mind.
Angelus was patient; she had to decide for herself, and then he would know what to do with her.
She nodded.
“Say it, Elari.” He flexed his hands on her shoulders, lending her strength, and pushing her over the edge to the New Way.
She drew a deep, shuddery breath, trembling under his hands.
“Yes.”