Lamenting Lullaby

The snow shower 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, traipsing 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 rail 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 it has.

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 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 home.

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 said, her voice weakening.

“What?”

“Your violin, 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 tell me of Jesika was still standing next to the bed, holding my children, looking at me, worry and concern for my sanity and her safety plainly seen in her expression.

“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.”

She 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 a lullaby.”

She 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, but slowly, they faded from my grasp 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.

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

World Without End (4) What’s in the Windsong

There was a rush of giddy exhilaration at the prospect of starting over as a new creation.
There was never a sense of being frozen, or dizziness, or even being in motion. It was as if someone put hands on my shoulders to keep me from moving.
I opened my eyes to watch the silver-blue snow and silent lightning swirl and writhe in the air. My new moonlight shadow color was also cascading over me, now down to my thighs, heading toward my knees. I was filling in like a flipped hourglass.
The brightness was like being inside of a star flinging its light into space.
My body trembled from the power of it, but I could hear my heartbeat, and it wasn’t rapid; I sensed the process would soon be finished.
A growing restlessness made me want to stand, to break free, but I knew the storm would stop when it should. Eager to see my new form, and what it could do, I wondered if there’d be anything left in the world to use it on.
My excitement tempered for the moment with those implications, my memories purged, I merely listened to the wind, heard the snowflakes patter against each other, and gave myself over to what the storm was doing to me.
I felt heavier, but my body wasn’t growing, at least that I felt. My senses were sharper, but there was nothing to see yet. My hair moved of its own volition, arranging itself. My skin kept getting little bursts of pleasure, and a sensual, primal languor washed over me. I wanted to take my pleasure, but my hands couldn’t move.
I was finally going to sleep, my thoughts perhaps too restless for the magic that was sluicing over me.
See it done, then.

World Without End (3) What’s in the Light

There’s only the light now.
The snow stopped, even melted, but I don’t know when.
Green fuzz and pockmarks of color spoke of new growth, another random spring.
It was all there in the light.
I could feel my physical form moving when I willed it, but I could no longer see it.
It felt like pushing water; red ripples would move away from my limbs, and whatever I desired to see, it would show me. I did not ask to see her, though. Not yet, being unsure of what that vision might hold.
Human cravings of hunger and thirst were a thing of the past; human desires for companionship and sated lust were amusing memories. But there were days when the ongoing, perpetual silence of my new existence became crushing, and those memories provided some relief.
There was in me, if possible, a sense of relieved horror: I would not die, but what had I become?
The gem itself had dissolved from the inside, but never abated in power and brightness. Its new light provided a bright window in the mountainside, and curious birds and the animals that could reach these heights often came by to investigate.
I could entice none of them to enter, though with a tilting of their heads I knew they heard me.
Was I a watchman, a portal, a lock, or a key? What, or who, was I waiting here for? What was I supposed to do, or be?
If I was part of the light, why did I still have these thoughts? Light wasn’t sentient.
If the light was part of me, why couldn’t I subdue it, and leave this place? Light had no power.
A profound, lonely sadness gripped me, and ripples went out from where my mouth would be, but there was no sound.
Whether I wept or screamed, I couldn’t know.
Perhaps I’d gone insane, and was cackling maniacally.
Maybe I spoke my name, or hers.
Whatever the silent sound, I kept the ripples going just to see them, to know that some part of me was yet living.
But there was only more time.
Only more ‘why.’
In time, the ripples stopped, and there was only basking in the red glow that
slowly turned me on eternity’s spit.
When and if I returned to the world, for whatever reason, the meat of who I was would be rotten. The core of me was becoming a patient, powerful poison. If that core was placed inside the waiting world, there’d be no coming back.
There’d be no coming back.

World Without End (2) What’s in the Storm

Somewhere along the trail, I let go of his hand; he never turned around to see what happened.
That bristled, but the snow swiftly blinded me, and his indifference to my fate no longer concerned me. With a peculiar blend of curiosity and relief, memories faded, and images of him became indistinct, as if water smeared a fresh paintig, streaking it into useless, unreadable patterns. That was his face to me now.
I went to my knees on the ledge, and the snow, swirling all around me, never actually touched me.
The keening wind seemed to call my name as it blew through stony passages, and sifted through the bare branches of the trees below.
The flakes grew thicker, circling me with an increasing, rapid intensity. I closed my eyes, and with the absence of light and color there was no cold, no wind, and no ledge. I was inside a silver blue nimbus of snow, and although I couldn’t see anything, I knew with certainty I was flying.
Good-bye….I couldn’t remember his name.
My clothes were starting to unravel from the speed of the swirling snow. I decided to peek, and could only watch in wonder as a blue-white hoarfrost collected on my skin, in the fine hairs, its color leeching onto me. It too, wasn’t cold.
Was I too numb to feel myself dying? They say you feel warm as you freeze to death. Embrace it.
Again, the sense of someone speaking came like a child’s whisper: You’re not dying. You’ll never be more alive.
I closed my eyes again. I had questions, doubts, challenges to this, but I kept silent out of fear that if I spoke against it, I would be cast out. I took a deep breath, and held my peace.
Time meant nothing now; whatever changes were taking place in me were only beginning, and from this white, swirling cocoon I would emerge as something different, formidable, and beautiful.

World Without End (1): What’s in the Heart

Chapter 1: What’s in the Heart
We finally did it. The last war tipped the balance, and the chemicals that saturated and stuck in what was left of the atmosphere wreaked havoc on the weather. The pissing contests of the powerful had finally screwed us all, and the world as we knew it came to an abrupt and lethal end when the seasons, finally tipped out of balance, lasted for random intervals that were now impossible to forecast.
People had been swept away by cresting water, cooked by blistering sunlight, and hot winds took the leaves before their change. Curled and blackened, they crumbled before they hit the ground. There was shelter, but no safety. Cities were built underground, but there was no food. Towns had been built in the hills, but there were mudslides and floods. Now that it was snowing, if there was anything left of the world below, it was covered. The snow fell for weeks at a stretch, and people had long ago indulged their last panicked impulses to scavenge what remained of ‘normal’ life, even as they lost everything.
On the way up, we saw others who’d tried to brave the mountains: some bloated, some skeletal, some too weak to climb further. They were pickings for the eagles and carrion birds, if any of those were left. The temperature was beyond brutal, and even our rugged equipment was beginning to let in the cold. Movement at the level we needed became difficult.
The mountains were the last refuge, and on the way there, Kylie and I spoke to no one, helped no one.
We’d been in these ranges, hiked and explored them. There’d be shelter if we could beat the storms. But in this new world we found out the storms could no longer be anticipated; they formed quickly, anywhere, like lightning strikes.
I was separated from Kylie in one of those mountain storms that came suddenly; if she fell, she never screamed, or at least, from the wind howling, I never heard her. I dared not turn, since the whiteout all but blinded us anyway. I grieved, but kept moving, since there was no sense of time here, and darkness could be as sudden as the storms. The cowardliness of not trying to save her hit me hard, though it was short lived; for all I knew, she’d made a choice of her own.
Not knowing how long I’d been searching, my hands and legs were beginning to fatigue. The ledge I walked wasn’t too narrow, but the wind still made it unsafe, so I used up the day moving carefully. I needed to find a cave that could hold me. I was at the point of despair when my fingers gripped around a corner. I didn’t want to move in front of it unless it was a cave, so I risked reaching my left arm around, and it disappeared up to my elbow. Gripping what was there, and inching forward, I found it.
Taking a couple of breaths, I reined in my excited hope this was a possibility. Even if it was just a recess, it was still a wind shear, and I could shelter there for a while, if not for the night.
Focusing all my energy on controlling my body, I made my way around; it was indeed a cave, one I had to get on hands and knees to negotiate, which was fortunate, if it didn’t narrow to where I had to crawl.
I said a mental prayer of thanks to whoever could hear me above the wind, and went inside.
It didn’t narrow, and I would’ve wept tears of gratitude if they weren’t frozen behind my eyes.
It was dank, and there was some guano, but not an abundance; my guess was that the sudden weather fluctuations killed off the bats. I had room to stand, but I could explore later. Exhausted and thirsty, I went back to the entrance and quickly grabbed handfuls of snow, bringing it back into the relative warmth and eating it until it melted; it was still cold, but it wasn’t frozen.
My throat ached, but what little water my organs got made them expand like sponges. I needed more, but sleep had me by the ankles, and won the tug of war.

***************
The entrance to the cave was dark. No wind, no snow, just still, cold air for which I had no way to make fire.
Hoping nothing nocturnal still lived here, and recalling that there were no pools of water I might fall into, I stood up to stretch my body.
As my senses woke, a ravenous hunger gripped me, and the thirst returned worse than before.
There was nothing to be done for it. I needed to move.
I walked in ever widening circles, taking small steps with outstretched hands.
My right foot struck something. It moved, as if something lodged was now loosened.
Checking my eagerness that it might be food or water, or (gods grant me) both, I knelt, feeling around until I touched it, running my fingers slowly over it so I wouldn’t get cut. It had cold, metal handles.
Take it out. You’re just delaying the inevitable. Death would be a mercy now. I didn’t really believe the voice in my head, but that didn’t make it wrong. My hands were numb but moveable; I’d shoved them into my sleeves to keep from getting frostbite, and slept with my arms folded.
Hoping it wasn’t sealing something beneath it, I pulled. It came out easily enough, and it was small enough to fit in one hand. It felt like a small chest of some kind. There was a small lock on the front.
In a mix of dread excitement, I reached back into the hole to see if there was a key, and was rewarded with another tiny flash of cold on my fingertips. Rolling through a list of possibilities from ways to make fire to weapons, hunger and thirst were forgotten.
Through blind trial and error, I finally opened it. Lying on
white velvet tucked down the sides, a red gem began to glow with a dull light. It wasn’t enough to light the cave. It was barely enough to see, but definitely there.
Figures I’d become a rich man at the end of time. This could be priceless, but with no one to sell it to, it’s also worthless.
I set the chest down, and picked up the gem, admiring it for a few moments.
When I went to put it back, my hands were no longer cold, and the light seemed brighter.
I chalked it up to loneliness, fear, and exhaustion, though in truth I felt none of those things now.
Walking back to the entrance of the cave, I didn’t have to get back on my hands and knees to crawl out. The rock was high enough to just bend over a bit. Too grateful to question it, my mind told me the cave entrance was the same; I only imagined crawling inside.
Now at the mouth of the cave, I couldn’t get over the beauty the night sky; the stars were pristine, and though the air was still cool it felt clean and good. I wasn’t shivering. Glancing toward the box where I’d replaced the jewel on its velvet, I thought I could see the light glowing through the wood, though the wood wasn’t burning.
“Just tired. You’re hallucinating, or dreaming.”
Or dead.

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.”

Illusions of Childhood

 

I kissed Melinda good night after the bedtime story, and closed the door.
On my way to my own room, I heard her talking. I thought she was talking to herself, but she wasn’t.
I ran back when I heard her cry out. Not a scream exactly, but the sound wasn’t pleasant.
The door was locked; she never did that.
I went to smash it down when the lock clicked, and it opened. I wanted to rush in, but it was quiet now. Perhaps she had a nightmare, but I’d only just finished the story. She couldn’t have gone to sleep that fast.
Her nightlight was on the opposite wall by the door, not by her bedside where it would disturb her sleep.
When I entered the room, I could see eyes glowing in the dark, the green of early spring leaves.
“That was a nice story.” It spoke with Melinda’s voice, but there was a deeper tone that raised the hair on my neck and arms. Fear began to close me in a fist, but I couldn’t afford to let it.
“Who are you?”
It laughed my daughter’s laugh.
“I’m the fairy in the book.”
“What? Look, I don’t know what’s going on…”
It tilted my daughter’s head, regarding me sideways. “You don’t?”
I shook my head, forgetting it was dark, but apparently whatever it was could see.
“She called me.”
“What?”
It sighed the way she sighed when Melinda grew impatient with me.
“When you were reading, she wished she was a fairy. I answered her wish.”
“All girls wish they were fairies and princesses; nothing happens when the book ends.”
It laughed. “Especially where they live happily ever after. You know about that, don’t you?”
I said nothing.
It sat up.
“Why don’t you leave her alone? She’s just a kid.”
“No, she isn’t.” It turned on the light. The being in the bed was not my daughter, though it was her size. “She never was.”
“Look, I—“
“Shhh.” It put its fingers to her lips, and I couldn’t speak.
“She is a portal, father. That’s why her mother died; she was the gateway, Melinda was the key.
“Allow me to explain. We ruled these lands before the Age of Men, and we waited and watched, made ourselves no threat to you because we saw the destruction you cause. That it’s of your own choosing means you’re incapable of helping yourselves, so you’re unfit to keep it.”
“You can’t have it back; we’ll fight.”
It laughed again. “You can fight other men. Not this.”
“And what is this?”
“A comeback, of sorts. Portals have been placed throughout the world. Girls and boys.”
“What are you planning to do?”
It smiled. “In time, father. In time.”
“And Melinda?”
“Her name is Shaylee. And as you know, I’m Alysia.”
In the book, fairy names were linked to abilities, locations, and powers; that would be the key to breaking the hold.
“What happens to these children, Alysia? What are you going to do with my child?”
“We use them to make things happen. Things that further our ends.”
“Like what?”
It smiled again, shaking a finger at me.
I straightened as best I could. “Stop with the riddles, and let go of my daughter.”
“She’s not your daughter, but my time here is at an end. I’ll return her illusion to you.”
The glow faded, and Melinda sat there, catatonic at first.
I ran to her, put my arms around her, and she snapped out of it.
“Daddy?”
“Yes, princess. You’re all right.”
“I had a bad dream. Something kept looking at me. It had scary eyes.” She was trembling with fear, and me with suppressed anger at myself for being afraid too.
“Daddy’s here. I’ll stay here with you until you go back to sleep, okay?”
“Okay.” Her voice was muffled by my arms. I let her go, tucked her back in and kissed her cheek again.
“I’ll be right here.” I patted her knee, and left my hand there to anchor both of us back in reality.
“Daddy?”
“Yes, Melinda.”
“Could you read me another story?”
…the illusion of her…

 

 

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.