Who Really Dies?

It was cold, and not just from nature’s winds collected in the dull, gray stones that comprised the walls. The presence of spirits was almost claustrophobic, like hungry children around their mother’s skirts.

What makes them so reluctant to let life end? To not go the places they were called, or where they’re needed?

 Life.

The life tied to the gold and obsidian altar wasn’t an ancient one, but all of ten years. They burned her tongue and voice -box so she couldn’t scream; screaming broke their concentration, and that could be dangerous for them.

They didn’t drug her, so she’d feel the pain.

They told me the gods I served required blood in payment.

What is it about life that gods want so desperately to intervene, and need it so desperately for their wantoness? Why can’t they leave it be?

She looked at me as I rose from the high-backed chair to approach the altar, the chalices placed beneath the holes to catch her life. There were four gold ones on each side, the silver, mine, in the middle.

I wonder if it will grow colder when her soul is released?

I pulled my cowl over my head, the top draping down in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see hers.

With every step, I had to renew my resolve. My hand grew numb, tightening reflexively around the handle the closer I got to her.

When this is over, you’ll be a full wizard priest. If her blood doesn’t reject you, next year at this time, you’ll drink from a gold chalice for your anniversary.

I chanced a brief glimpse; she was watching the blade now, prey looking at the slow unveiling of the serpent’s fangs, its attitude cavalier, infusing its victim with death.

Nothing personal, my dear.

Her tears began to fall, her throat laboring with silent screams and pleas for long-dead mercy.

You shouldn’t! You can’t! You mustn’t! over and over in a howling, silent litany.

The gods require your blood. My magic requires your blood. My life needs yours to end that it may continue. It is unjust, I agree, and out of balance.

I raised the knife above her sodden face.

She thrashed, raging with every ounce of her young strength; I admired her heart, her fight, and I punched her in the stomach to get her to stop.

She went rigid against the bonds, struggling for air.

It is unjust, and out of balance, but so be it.

I struck.

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

Her soul joined the spectral throng, and in the frozen silence, I could hear the ping and patter of her spilling blood, making the chalices ring. The notes of the gold were sweet, but the silver a special, discordant note with a different rhythm, out of harmony with the rest.

You are yet different, boy. You are still not worthy yet.

Her spirit took its place beside the others, and accused me, even as her body thrashed against her bonds. The others moved aside to welcome her, though she stood apart.

The chief priest took the silver chalice, and gave it to me first, waiting.

I drank the virgin blood deep, quickly, lest I truly taste the essence of her soul, its ripped threads mere remnants to the realm of life.

If she could have turned it to poison, she would have.

I drained the chalice, and the others watched and waited.

The blood did not reject me, and I was feted by a royal feast and far too much drink; I wanted to enjoy it, but kept seeing her terrified, wet, wretched eyes moving from mine, to the blade.

The chief priest noted my distraction. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“That’s unfortunate. However, the ritual has been completed. It has been a long day for you, my son. I give you leave to retire for the night, if that is your wish.”

“It is, Elder. Good night.”

“I’ll make your apologies. Good night, young priest.”

I managed a wan smile, and left the banquet hall.

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

Chapter 2:

In the hours after midnight, there was just me, the candles, my thoughts, and the shadow of the girl standing in front of me, the details of her face lost in the ash gray shades vaguely shimmering in the light of the flame.

The pits of ivory that replaced her eyes drew me deep, ice amidst the fire.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

 I did nothing.

“You were needed.”

Was I?

“You were told. Our parents were told.”

Our parents are dead. They hung themselves when I went back to tell them what you did.

“It couldn’t be helped.”

You don’t care about what you did to me?

“I cared very much. I needed your blood.”

To achieve this?

“Yes.” There was a pain in my chest.

This will not bring you peace. We will come to you. We will visit you.”

“Stop,” I whispered, covering my ears. “Please, stop.”

You didn’t stop the blade. You could have; they might have forgiven you. But I will not.

“GO AWAY!”

She faded.

You took my blood, but not my life…

3)

I couldn’t answer the door when they knocked.

My body lay on the bed, still, swollen, and racked with vermin.

I no longer felt the cold; I turned my newfound magic on myself, and spilled my own blood to counter what I’d done.

The ashen shades of my family came to me, and greeted me with warm, black, hollow smiles, their ivory eyes the same as hers, and yet, I felt something emanating from them.

I’ve reunited us. Do you forgive me now?

They embraced me, and my question was answered.   I understood their need now.

The absence of the corporeal wasn’t the end of life.

The draining of blood did not imprison the soul.

It was a different kind of freedom, more profound than any magic.

We vanished as the door opened, and I heard them exclaiming I was dead.

I would’ve smiled, if I could, and I knew the wizards’ academy no more.

 

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Ingrate

(Same picture, different POV)

The room spins, and the light dims.

I hear my heartbeat in my ears, slowing, growing fainter as the seconds tick.

My life’s blood soaks me in warmth, caressing old flesh in death even as it cradled newborn skin at birth.

No, I will not miss this world, but I did at least think I would miss my child, until she made an end of me; she walked away as I cascaded down the wall, my feeble hands scrabbling for purchase that wasn’t there, and couldn’t hold onto if it was.

Her high heels clicked on the hardwood floor, tiny hammers banging tiny nails into my soul as she walked away.

“Annalynn…” My throat burned as it squeezed out her name. I needed water, but I could feel the craving turn for something richer, thicker, red, and warm.

I shook my head.

My vision was blurring, and my heartbeat slowed even more.

And the day I brought my murderess home bloomed in my vision like the sudden clearing of clouds after a proper storm.

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

Something was inside the writhing white sack in the middle of the road, the rain turning it beige in the headlights of my car.

“Teddy, stop!”

I almost hit the sack, but managed to swerve in time; even before I righted the car she was out the door, and the sound of human wailing cut through the patter.

A baby? Someone left a baby in the sack, on the road, on a rainy night; I knew what would happen next, but never thought of what happened later, until it was over.

Janice came back with the writhing contents of the sack in her arms, and we never told a soul we suddenly had a daughter.

Questions were asked, suspicions raised. “Janice’s sister died. This is her niece, Annalyn; it was in the will she be raised in a good home. No one else, it seemed, wanted her.”

We had no paperwork to back this story, and though eyebrows arched and tongues wagged, no one called the authorities to find out the truth. The child seemed healthy enough after all, and we weren’t struggling financially, and did they reeallly want to get involved…?

Annalyn, our adopted child, grew up happy and strong, bright, gregarious, fearless almost to the point of recklessness.

Her keen wit held a sharp tongue, and she championed herself through the pecking order of school cliques and would-be bullies.

By her fourteenth year, the boys began circling, smelling blood and hormones, but what I managed to rebuff she encouraged, indeed, deigned to catch.

Janice grew ill, and Annalyn grew temperate just long enough to ease her fears until she passed; I think the tears were real the day we lowered Janice to the earth, but when she looked at me with a small smile gracing her lips, like a spider standing behind a fly, I knew something else was amiss.

She wasn’t home much after that, and her disdain for my despair at losing Janice was only exceeded by her contempt for my authority. I searched her room when she wasn’t home, and found not only evidence of boys, but a fascination with the undead as well: books, drawings, magazines, and letters from a boy named Daray.

I decided to confront her, though I was nervous. I put my hands in my pockets to hide the fact that the tremors of my eventual demise had started.

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

“Daray turned you? Made you? He’s damned your soul, is all he’s done. And Janice…she was wrong to bring you back here. You’ve done so much harm.”

“I’m grateful to you, papa. Really, I am, but I have to go.”

“You killed my Janice.”

“I know you think so. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“There is.”

“What?”

“Die!” I ran toward her, my aged gait shambling and off center; she easily sidestepped me and tripped me, laughing low as I scrambled up before she could hit me again, but she made no move to fight.

“I don’t want to hurt you, papa.”

“That’s all you’ve ever done.”  I knew it wasn’t true even as I said it. We’d spent many moments together, her on my lap, a book in her hands, reading to me, her hair tickling my neck as I leaned over her shoulder…she’d been so sweet, such a bright child.

I broke down, weeping, and to my surprise she came, put her arms around me, kissed my grizzled cheek.

“I know, papa. I’m sorry about ma.”

Finding I needed the illusion of comfort more than I thought, more than I liked, I sniffled; my arms finally returned her hug. “I miss her too.”

The sudden drop in temperature made me think I was dying in Annalyn’s embrace, and I tried to step out of it. Her nails penetrated my gut as she pulled me back, her eyes boring into mine; I was mentally caught in a vortex, a heightened sense of vertigo causing a rush of panicked adrenaline to surge through me.

I bucked, jerked, thrashed against her, my body instinctively knowing it was under attack. Her fingers plunged deeper into my stomach, pulling something inside taut, clutching; blood seeped through my shirt.

She bared her fangs in a feral smile, and bit my neck.

I shivered from the freezing cold, and grieved with abject horror at what she’d become.

When? How? Am I dreaming? Is this real? Did Janice…?

When she let go, the pain hit with such force I crashed against the wall, trying clumsily to regain my footing.

Daray was in the doorway, watching me the way one watched snakes catch mice.

“Why, Annalyn?” So cold…

She stopped, and though she didn’t look at me, I felt her gaze like a weight.

“You want to be with Janice, papa. There was room in your heart, your life, for no one else. You said I killed her, that I separated you.”

She half turned then, seeing me slump against the bloody wall. “Isn’t it only right that I be the one to reunite you?”

“Anna…”

“Goodbye, papa. Greet Janice for me.”

The room stops spinning.

The light fades.

The seconds slow down.

My heart…

 

Let’s Prey

Let us, for the love of God, stop pretending we’re strangers to blood.

I struck you because you struck my sister; you hit her so hard that she died.

And you expected me to do nothing? To let you walk away? To experience the freedom of life and movement she no longer enjoyed?

I’m glad, then, she didn’t tell you about me. Glad that we were estranged. Glad she never answered my letters, once I told her of my choice.

I will concede, however, that you fought valiantly that night, beating back our attackers, even killing two or three; I can’t recall.

Your blade flashed among their limbs, and you looked every bit the warrior, doing the work mostly in silence.

And when it was over, you tended to her first; your ministrations preserved her until she could get proper care.

But I remained still, and the marks were already in my neck; you should have killed me then, but I guess you thought they’d murdered me, and decided to let the authorities handle it.

The young fool, she believed you when you said you loved her, believed you when you said you could offer her better.

Instead, you only traded one darkness for another, your need for someone bending to your will as primal as ours, but without the power to make it happen.

Bewildered, she fled from you, but rather than seek a weaker victim, you hunted her; was the trophy of her mortality worth the effort it took to track her, and slay her like the wounded animal you made of her?

And now you die, by my hand, by the very damnation you said you’d rescue her from.

Some would call this divine intervention, but the divine has nothing to do with us; it’s simply an elegant veneer over visceral savagery, the age-old life- and- death drama played out between predator and prey.

There is no refinement or culture to us, just more time to learn, to polish our acts, and our silver. More time to stack our gold, build our libraries, and study humanity, gleaning from the fallen grains of its heightening depravity, and dizzying plunges into hedonism.

We increase as you decrease, and time is a merciless crucible to human frailty.

Seeing you now, slumping against the wall, the paste of your life’s blood smeared on it as you try to hold onto your sad, useless existence, and having the taste of your tobacco and whiskey-laden blood stinging my cold lips, brings to me a satisfaction beyond revenge.

I’m sated.

Never Let Me Go

The night we met was magical; the love we made, torrid and heady, then slow, almost reflective, eyes opened when we kissed.

Vows were taken, oaths sworn, and powers revealed, each to each.

The smell of your sweat and perfume dripped and mingled with my own labors to bring you bliss, and lingered on me so that the memory still haunts.

Heated needs seared our souls together, and maiden blood sealed the covenant that you’d never depart.

The night you left in silence to slink away, bathed in moonlight, soaked in stars, I panicked, raging at the heavens and the deceit of your secret escape.

I vowed to find you; the bones of beasts I used litter the land. And after all this time, even now, clutching your writhing flesh, I find you supple and pliant in my grasp.

Your gasps of pleasure are now gasps for air, but my heart is dead to your wiles, and no longer beats at your pleasure, though it still beats, just not at my will.

I would choose death, but it will not choose me.

Your promises are puddles drying in the desert’s dust, and all we had to say to one another now blows in sandy strands across the dunes, seeking refuge from cold affections.

And since I cannot hold you, I leave you in another’s embrace; his light will give you peace in the darkness, and tell the night hunters where you are.

One last time, I trace your form beneath my fingers, one last time to take your scent with me back on the path home, to remember you.

And I will hear your screams, and I will weep for the bitter lesson one must ever learn in sworn fealty and devotion to the heart of another.

Never let me go.

*Original art by phanou.36.deviantart.com

 

Amaia’s Ending

There are times, even now, when she calls to me in the darkness.

I turn to look, but no one is there, not even when I light the torches, my footsteps echoing in the catacombs, carried to her by the freezing breezes that blow from every direction.

They are secret, these tombs, and the people above them sleep in innocence.

I alone have been cursed to know their secrets, but they rend my sleep. I hear the voices, the shambling, the clinking of the chains, and moans of the dying, already dead.

Why was I trusted with the keys to this damnation?

I toss, I turn, I drink, I whore, I pray, and yet, sleep proves elusive as the harlot’s love; it comes to play a part, and leaves me with an unfulfilled longing of the soul. The pain and loneliness became unbearable; tomorrow, I would go to the police, and tell of this place, then overmorrow, and overmorrow became a fortnight… my resolve fading with the setting moon and the fading stars.

These were my days, until the night I heard it, knowing it would come on my Name Day: my name, Markandaya, ‘death conqueror,’ whispered in the dark, on the cold, blue lips of an ethereal lover come to torture and kill not my body, but my spirit.

I could no more resist than the tide could fight the moon. The scent of pitch and stale bones combine to twist my guts to knots, but I walk through the pain and cold, little more than substance myself, anchored to a dying world.

“Amaia.”  ‘The end,’ in the Old Tongue; it said everything about her, and nothing at all.

She turned the corner, amber eyes catching the torchlight, searing my spirit, beating my mind into madness. She was dead, and had been since I first saw her. The cold emanating from her beat at the flame, and my skin crawled to get away from her reeking, magnificent presence.

“Are you ready, now?” she asked.

“I’ve been ready, vermin. You bait me yet again with death’s promise, but you will send me back. Why do you toy with me?”

She laughed, eyes dancing in the flames. “Because you amuse me.”

I fell to my knees, freezing, sobbing, all pride and dignity fled. “Kill me…”

Her hand caressed my cheek, numbing my jaw. “Are you asking for mercy?”

Please, Amaia. I beg of you…”

“Convince me that you want to die.”

I placed the torch between us, my hands seeking her throat.

She laughed. “Now squeeze, with all your might.”

I was too malnourished, and only managed to grip her neck the way a baby grips a ball, the pressure too light to do anything more than indent her flesh.

“Is that all?” She slapped me. “Pathetic.”

“Amaia…”

“Leave me, Markandaya. The secret to my eternal damnation lies within these walls. Find it, and come back when you’re worthy. Wound me, and I will kill you then.”

“You speak riddles, and risk battle, when I ask for death?”

She laughed again. “You are not a worthy adversary, therefore I’m not worried. I’ll summon you whenever I like, and torture you whenever I’m bored. I’ll be here forever, and so will you, unless you find the way to cut me.”

She lifted my chin on her fingers. “How long have we been together?”

I swallowed. “I…I’ve lost count. The days, the nights, they blend…”

“And yet, it is your Name Day again, and I’ve been faithful, have I not?”

“You’ve been evil.”

“That, as well. All have abandoned you, or they lie here with us. No one comes, darling. No one cares, but me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t…”

“And that is why I always will. Find the secret, and your life is your own again. Until then…”

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

I was in my bed, sitting up, the covers wrapped around me for warmth, my eyes wet, my nose running. I wiped it on the cover, and tried to stop shivering.

The candle in my room was almost finished, so I lit another; sleep would not be granted me tonight, and I couldn’t bear the darkness just now.

Putting my bare feet on the cold floor, I cursed and cried out my torment at the top of my lungs, and beat my fists numb on the frame of my tattered bed. What could rattle, did, with the force of my blows.

Spent, I lay back down, and stared at the ceiling. Killing her would release us both, and she said the key was within these walls. I had to find it, though it meant the end of my life.

And as the shadows of my calling danced on the thin walls, I began to dream of it, a small smile of hope lacing through the grief.

“Amaia.” The End, in the Old Tongue, had now become my prayer.

And somewhere, in the void of the Abyss, a dark god’s eyes opened.

 

 

Circle of Blood (2) Friend or Foe

We returned to Sharrika’s cottage.

They left me outside while they argued, and at first, I couldn’t hear, but they got louder when Tafari opened a window as Sharrika began to make a fire.

“I stopped him, Mama.”

Sharrika’s laugh was another new layer to her personality, something she’d seldom indulged. “Did you really think that was you, Tafari? You haven’t the skill. Not yet.”

Good to know.

There was a brief silence, then Tafari’s voice. “Why is he here?”

The light from the hearth fire crept up the wall, its glow pulsating in the window panes as it cast their shadows; they were standing close, as mother and daughter should be. I didn’t belong here, but I let the feeling go before it took me over. I was tired, and the shock of the sights I’d just witnessed were still being processed. I was prone to do or say something stupid that I’d regret.

Like backhanding your daughter in the mouth? I shook my head, a small mirthless smile on my lips. Yes, something like that.

“I don’t really know,” Sharrika said, “but he may be able to help us.”

“Do you really not remember him?”

“No, I don’t. But I know the Order. They’re warriors as well as priests; he may be able to help.”

“Or if they get to him first, they’ll use him to stop us.”

More silence; Sharrika hadn’t considered that. Tafari was young, but jaded. She’s surrounded by rotting bodies, threw a knife into a man’s chest, not without force, spit on my robe, and threatened to cut my throat. ‘Jaded’ might be an understatement.

I’d have to watch her.

“Bring him inside,” Sharrika said. “We’ll get him dry, and maybe drunk. He’ll talk to us then.”

I was fine with both, and given it was said so openly, I had to wonder if the window staging was also for my benefit. There were few times I felt I was in over my head, but dealing with witches, good or bad, whatever the strata between those categories, was always risky.

Tafari opened the door, heat still behind her eyes. She’d hold that slap against me though she was the initiator.

I hoped it wouldn’t come to killing her, but if being my child meant nothing to her, it had to mean nothing to me if I was to survive. That would be hard to do, but I would do it.

 

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

The hearth fire and wine warmed me.

Tafari sulked on her bed as Sharikka tended the fire, keeping the poker handy.

I smiled inwardly; the fact that they trusted steel over spells was a bit ironic. I didn’t point it out.

“Why did you come back? Your Order was exiled, and none of you were to return.”

I took a sip of the dark wine, found it to my liking. “We were exiled, but not disbanded. We went elsewhere to settle, but the momentum of what we were trying to do was lost. We agreed to take leave, and come back to try again in a year’s time.”

“Why a year?”

“Some had families to tend, others needed to replenish their magic. The magic we waged here took a great toll.” I drank more wine, trying to fend off the memories of the screams and sights. No one, it seemed, bothered to clean up. “Why would you stay in the midst of…this?”

“Where would we go, that wouldn’t be attacked again? The invaders have already moved on. These clouds full of lightning bind us in place. It strikes those who try to leave. We can’t figure out a way to break it.”

“And you thought I might be able to help you with that?”

“I do, but only because we want to leave. We’re not going to fight again. Some went ahead to try to stop them, but the ranks are only thinning.”

“And the knight hung by his hands?”

“An example. A display of power to show the futility of steel against magic; they hung him in full armor, and left him to the crows, flies, and the elements. He was tough, and lasted awhile.”

“Tafari killed him.”

“I granted him a mercy we didn’t get,” she said.

“Indeed,” I said. “And the circle of blood?”

Tafari sat up and answered. “Their signature; they cut you, and draw a circle of your own blood around you, with different killing spells that discourage rescuers. Some of them are painfully cruel, and quite gory.”

“But nothing happened to you.”

“I didn’t try to rescue him.” Her tone was mocking, but I ignored it.

“You want me to break the clouds, and you gain your freedom. Are you the only two left alive?”

“The only two that matter,” Sharrika said.

“Seems a waste of binding, since you don’t pose a threat.”

“Who said we didn’t?” Tafari asked.

“Sharrika just told me you weren’t going to fight anymore.”

“They didn’t know that. Truth be told, neither do we.”

Sharrika looked at her; I couldn’t read her expression, but she didn’t refute the statement.

My patience and sense of caution were at an end. “I’m done. I’ll leave in the morning. This war isn’t over, and whatever you two want to do, or not do, doesn’t affect me. There’s no reason for me to free you at cost to myself.”

“Why did you return, then?” Sharrika asked.

“I came back to live out my days, and die in peace. I didn’t know the slaughtered were left to rot, and I didn’t know you were still here until Tafari told me.”

“And now?”

“That’s for you to answer.” I finished the wine.

“You said you’d tell me how we met.”

“I will, but not tonight.” I couldn’t suppress a yawn. My bones felt like warm butter.

Sharrika stood. “You’ve traveled far. Sleep. We’ll revisit this in the morning. Let the fire die.” She headed for her bedroom.

I nodded, already feeling the effects of the wine. I heard the lock click on her door, and Tafari lay back down, humming tunelessly as she turned her back on me. I sensed the guard spell around her.

With the pattering rain, the crackling fire, and the scent of wet lavender laced through with the nightmarish stench of putrefying bodies, my own flesh gave way to exhaustion. I folded my robe for a pillow, and stretching out on the rough hearthside rug, I slept, dreaming of circles of blood floating toward my eyes, and the knight staring at me with empty sockets, his red tears shining in the flashes of silent lightning.

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….