(from “Snowlight, Moonlight” by Rose de Fer)
She remembered the wolfsong—the heart-rending music of unnatural hunger and need. It had filled her with yearning even as she lay bleeding in the snow. Now she heard it in her mind and she found herself wishing she could join in.
The moonlight had reached the bed, where it spilled over her splayed thighs like quicksilver. Her eyes pierced the darkness. Every detail of the room was discernible to her. She could see each tiny imperfection in the carved oak dressing table, hear the brittle leaves shivering in the trees outside. Most acute of all was her sense of smell. She could smell the rosewater in the washing bowl, the melted wax of the candles in a room further down the corridor. And she could smell him—the hot musky scent of his flesh and his spicy blood beneath.
Her own blood roared in her ears, echoing the surf from somewhere far away. Now she could see the moon fully through the trees—a beacon that drew strange growls from her throat the more she gazed at it. Her fingers clutched at the air, the nail beds burning and making her cry out in a voice that wasn’t her own, wasn’t even properly a voice.
“Is the pain unbearable?”
She was startled to see him beside her and she wondered how long he’d been there, watching. Time had no meaning. There was only the moonlight and the all-consuming hunger.
She tried to speak, but it was as though her mouth had forgotten how to form words. She shook her head instead and strained toward him, angling her legs as far apart as she could to show him what was truly unbearable.
(from “Cover Him With Darkness” by Janine Ashbless)
The first time I saw him fettered there in the dark, I wept.
I was seven years old. My father led me by the hand down the steps behind the church altar, through a passage hewn into the mountainside. I’d never been permitted through that door before. Inside, there were niches cut into the rock walls, and near the church they were filled with painted and gilded icons of the saints and of Our Lord, but further back those gave way to statuettes of blank-eyed pagan gods, growing cruder in execution and less human in appearance as we walked on. I clung to Father’s hand and cringed from the darkness. Finally we came out into a roofless chamber, where the walls leaned inward a hundred feet over our heads and the floor was nothing but a mass of loosely tumbled boulders. I looked up, blinking at the light that seemed blinding, though in fact this was a dim and shadowed place. I could see a wisp of cloud against the seam of blue, and the black speck of a mountain eagle soaring across the gap.
There he lay upon a great tilted slab of limestone, his wrists and ankles bound by twisted leather ropes whose further ends seemed to be set into the rock itself. It was hard to say whether the slab had been always been underground or had fallen long ago from the mountain above; our country is, after all, much prone to earthquakes. Dirt washed down with the rain had stained him gray, but I could make out the muscled lines of his bare arms and legs and the bars of his ribs. There was an old altar cloth draped across his lower torso; only much later did I realize that Father had done that, to spare his small daughter the man’s nakedness.
“Here, Milja,” said my father, pushing me forward. “It is time you knew. This is the charge of our family. This is what we guard day and night. It is our holy duty never to let him be found, or to escape.”
I was only little: he looked huge to me. Huge and filthy and all but naked. I stared at the thongs, as thick as my skinny wrist, knotted cruelly tight about his broader ones. They stretched his arms above his head so that one hand could not touch the other, and they held his ankles apart. I felt a terrible ache gather in my chest. I pressed backward, into Father’s black robes.
“Who is he?” I whispered.
“He is a very bad man.”
That was when the prisoner moved for the first time. He rolled his head and turned his face toward us. I saw the whites of his eyes gleam in his gray face. Even at seven, I could read the suffering and the despair burning there. I squirmed in Father’s grip.
“I think he is hurt,” I whimpered. “The ropes are hurting him.”
“Milja,” said Father, dropping to his knees and putting his arm around me. “Don’t be fooled—this is not a human being. It just looks like one. Our family has guarded him here since the first people came to these mountains. Before the Communists. Before the Turks. Before the Romans, even. He has always been here. He is a prisoner of God.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know, little chick.”
That was when I began to cry.
(from “La Belle Mort” by Zander Vyne)
“Young woman, you do realize, if you could be with child, you may plead your belly?” The judge had tired eyes.
Eliza remained quiet, and the audience tittered.
“Very well. Lady Elizabeth Jane Morton, you are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined where, after three Sundays have passed, you will be hanged by the neck until dead. May the Lord God have mercy upon your soul.”
Gypsy… succubus… witch—murmurs, as she was led away.
Had they looked beyond the snow-white skin, wild black curls, and eerie calm, they would have seen the bones of her knuckles shining through her skin; she held her hands clenched painfully tight to keep from lashing out at all of them and going absolutely mad.
A cell to myself at the end of a narrow, gloomy hall. Dank, always cold. Oozing drips stain the walls rust-brown. Insanity—cackles, moans, and screams. Fleas, mice, and slithering sounds in the darkness. A cot and rough blanket. A long bench to sit upon. Small comforts from Charity Ladies, mercifully none familiar to me. They bring gifts, the smell of perfume, and pity. I accept them all. Today’s treasures—ink, quill pens, and paper. Solace.
Eliza fought slumber; it crawled with dark dreams and beckoned with greedy fingers. Hours, long and black, were spent struggling to cling to awareness, her life dwindling away.
Regrets stung. Time was short, and peace was as elusive as life. Insanity promised everlasting oblivion, and she was tempted to succumb as so many had around her. Writing gave her temporary respite. There was no one to write, so she wrote for herself; poems, thoughts, lists and letters she would never send.
Dear Lord Dover,
Do you sleep peacefully? Do your children fare well without their nanny in their nursery? Despite what you have done, my prayers are with their poor little souls.
I wonder where you hid the necklace and if it calls to you in your dreams. Will it haunt you, as surely I will if there is a God and he grants wishes?
My life is forfeit, and still I would rather this death than your wrinkled hands upon me.
Lady Elizabeth Jane Morton
She folded scribbled-upon paper into tiny paper birds, and sailed them into the courtyard. Sometimes, they landed in the shadows of the gallows themselves, but usually the wind caught them and carried them away to join the plentiful refuse littering London’s streets.
A “new” dress—bodice too tight, tattered skirt. A string to tie my hair off my neck—blessed relief. Small things mean so much now.
She documented everything, writing furiously, clinging to sanity.
A hanging—crowd swelling, sudden, and boisterous, fathers lifting children upon their shoulders, vendors selling meat-pies and posies. It was like a country fair, everyone smiling, fun in the air.
Her mind screamed, “Don’t! Look away!” but she was compelled to watch.
They led the prisoner out. His head was down, but Eliza saw the glistening tears on his death-pale flesh. Placed under the gallows, his feet centered atop the wooden trapdoor, he wept openly.
His legs were pinioned, to prevent his soon-to-be flailing feet from finding purchase on the brick-lined walls of the famous Long-Drop below. The noose was fitted; a large knot of rope adjusted to rest, just so, beneath his left ear.
The hangman—cloaked in black—the very specter of death.
The prisoner wailed—a high-pitched whine—when the hood was placed over his head. Did he open his eyes then, when the cloth covered his face? Did his lashes catch on the fabric, and did he take it in his mouth, dry and musky, as he gulped air, grunting and snorting? Did each prisoner have a new hood, or did that frantic man, about to die, smell the deaths that had come before his, lingering in the cloth?
Ghastly, snapping sound ringing out of the pit. Imagined? Surely so; the crowd had cheered when the man fell out of sight.
Life passes too slowly, too quickly. What prayer will save me from this fate?
Eliza was sleeping the first time he came, at dusk.
“Do not be afraid.”
She was—trapped in here, weak from lack of real food and sunshine; she was helpless.
The man sat on the narrow bench. He was rather fine looking, his face somewhat stern, and his clothing somber. A cleric, Eliza decided, calming.
“Has that much time passed? It must have, for them to send you.”
“I want to help you.”
She held back a bitter reply; no one could help her. “I do not believe in God.”
“I am the only one you need believe in.” He spread his hands wide, as if to dare her to argue that he was anything less than flesh and blood.
Eliza remained silent, and he reached into his pocket, pulling out a square of paper. He read, “Life passes too slowly, too quickly. What prayer will save me from this fate?”
“That is mine!” Eliza bolted from the cot.
Too slow. He tucked the note into the folds of his coat. “Yes, I know.”
He handed her another scrap of paper, his fingertips brushing her wrist as it changed hands.
Her cheeks flooded with color, and she escaped his gaze, reading the words on the page.
Proud beauty, angel amidst foul circumstance.
I hear you calling, and know you weep.
Let me guide you in your dark journey,
and give you peace in this dread.
In your ruin, find faith in me.
What manner of cleric was this?
“I told you, I do not have faith.”
“And I told you, have faith in me.”
“I do not understand.”
He lifted his hand, tracing the path a tear made down her cheek.
Eliza held very still, quivering under his fingertips.
“You do not have to understand, Lizalamb.”
She blinked. He’d called her Lizalamb, just like her father had a lifetime ago. How odd.
“Of course you are, but you can conquer your fears and all will be well. This I promise. Have faith.”
He freed the string she had used to tie her hair back, and reached into his pocket once more.
Red ribbons, bows that give girlish pleasure. His voice gruff as he gifted them. What a strange, fascinating man.
Eliza nibbled on her bottom lip, the treasures clutched in her hand, red ends trailing from her fist. “Will they let me keep them?”
“Yes, Liza. No one will bother you anymore.”