Authors: Cari Silverwood
And so the priest didn’t offer Thom any food. By the next morning his stomach was rumbling. He watched with dull eyes as the priest dumped an armload of dry branches.
“If you help me to cook I’ll let you have some bacon.” The priest grinned and rubbed his belly while making sounds as if he were eating something delicious.
“I’ll help, you, Omi!” Mara jumped off a log she’d been climbing. “Please?”
Mara tried to take Thom’s hand and lead him over but he wrenched away his hand.
After that they let him be. A stream burbled along only a few yards from their campsite. After Omi and Mara had cleaned the dishes and their faces and hands, Omi tucked his robe into his loincloth, pulled Thom to his feet and led him into the middle of the stream where the water reached his waist. It was cold enough to make Thom’s legs go numb after a few seconds.
“Freezing, hey? Let’s see if this will stir you up, Mr. Noname. You stay in here until you talk. Hmph!” He marched back to the bank and lay back on a soft grassy area beneath the overarching branches of a eucalypt.
Mara stood, sucking her fingers, her eyes round as fennigs. An erratic breeze shook leaves from the tree now and then and they landed in the water and went skimming past Thom like delicate boats.
The surge of the stream pushed against him, wanting to drag him along in its flow. If he stayed here too long he would eventually fall over and be swept away like the leaves. That idea made him feel...satisfied. The severe cold and the feeling of satisfaction stirred him from the lifeless miasma he’d been inhabiting.
When, after an hour or two, he began to sway from weakness, Mara ventured farther down the bank to the very edge of the stream. She took her fingers out of her mouth and instead tugged nervously at the hem of the flared blue tunic she wore over her leggings and shirt.
“Are you okay, Mr. Noname?”
The priest, who’d been snoring, mumbled as if half awake. Thom pulled his gaze away from Mara and shifted his feet so he could pretend to examine the water. Suddenly a round rock tilted underfoot and he slipped and fell, his head plunging beneath the water. The girl’s shrill cry cut off. There was only the muffled and cold universe of the stream. He let his limbs go slack and willed himself to take that last urgent breath and draw in a lungful of water, but found he couldn’t do it. Ah, never mind, he would wait. That time was coming.
A small hand grappled at his clothes then was torn away by the current. Vaguely he glimpsed a tumble of clothes and limbs. Mara! She was trying to rescue him!
Thom wrenched his head above water, took a deep, gasping breath and coughed. He swung his head from side to side, searching. Where was she? There! A few yards further downstream, with the distance between them rapidly increasing each second.
“Help! Omi! Mr. Noname!”
She floundered, arms thrashing the water but the depth was too great for her. A fallen tree trunk sieved the water with fingerlike branches trailing across the stream and her clothes caught on it for a moment. With five long strokes, Thom was within a yard and he stretched out his arm to grab her as he swept closer, but she spun away from him into a deeper part of the stream. The current tore along with her tumbling over and over. Her voice was stilled. Her face, when he saw it, pale as a corpse’s.
No, he thought. No! No! No! Not again, not this one too!
By now the priest – Omi was his name, Thom recalled – was running along the bank, dodging shrubs and trees and hurdling collapsed gaps in the embankment as he tried to catch up.
The girl’s body was swept farther away though Thom clawed at the water in powerful lunges. Soon his strength would be gone. Not yet! Not yet, he vowed.
And again Mara was caught on a fallen tree, the water swirling round her, roaring even, as if the stream sought to keep Thom and Omi at bay with its ferociousness.
Hardly believing it, Thom reached her and anchored his fingers in the cloth. Grunting, he hauled her to the shallows and onto the bank then onto her side, so the water could leak from her nose and mouth. Omi was on the opposite bank – it was up to him to help her.
He paused momentarily, panting wetly and drawing in air, then he bent over her and pushed on her little chest. That tap – was it her heart beating deep inside? More water gushed from her mouth. If she breathed he could not see it.
Oh, Gods above!
He placed his mouth over hers and breathed into her, feeling her body expand. And again and again. Nothing. Her lips were cold. Did an eyelid flutter? He heard Omi flounder up the steep embankment. And Mara sucked in a whooping breath and began to cough and splutter.
“She’s alive?” cried Omi. “We must get her warm. Hold her close. No...don’t crush her you stupid man! Let her breathe! That’s better.”
Mara continued to breathe. As if he’d discovered some new form of prayer, Thom sat cradling her, whispering in her ear all the stories he had once told Leonie. Tears trickled down his face but he didn’t stop, not until Omi returned after fording the river with a dry blanket and a coat to wrap her in. Her eyes opened. They’re gray, Thom realized, like the lightest of rain clouds.
“Thank you, Mr. Noname,” she whispered.
He swallowed. “It’s...Thom. Just Thom.”
She only smiled but it was enough to make his heart lift and he smiled back at her.
Words were all Heloise could hear, at first. There had been dreams drifting through her head but she couldn’t recall much of them. Nothing that made sense. Her body ached everywhere. Had she been ill? When she remembered how to open her eyes, she found herself in a large bedroom. Heavy blue-and-white patterned curtains were pulled partway across the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight slanted in long stripes along one wall.
A black spider hung from the ceiling, roping itself up and down on a strand of web. Sound waned and waxed in her ears and a bitter odor taunted her as if something odd that she couldn’t quite identify had recently been inside the room. She drifted off to sleep wondering where she was.
When next she awoke the blue-and-white curtains had been drawn back and she could see the nether end of a dragon gargoyle at the corner of the balcony. This place was her uncle’s and the bedroom one she had stayed in many times. A maidservant entered the room and gasped.
“Oh, my! You’re awake, miss.” She hurried away. Heloise heard her descend the stairs at speed.
Within minutes, Uncle arrived, his steady footsteps on the timber stairs familiar to her ears.
“Heloise.” Concern was written on his face, more so than she’d seen even on the day after the child’s death...What was her name? Leonie. New thoughts nestled into the tail end of that name. She frowned and slowly brought each to the surface. Drager. The Sungese. The Immolator and his secret. Drager...A black shape fell toward her.
She gasped and put her hand to her forehead. Had that been him? She was almost certain. Her skin bore a long deep scab that ran from under her hairline to her eyebrow.
Uncle took her hand and clasped it between both of his own. He sat on the edge of the bed and it sank beneath the weight. “It’s healed, my dear, though there’ll be a scar.”
“Oh. Oh, Uncle.” She wasn’t sure why but she felt tears well up in her eyes. “What happened? I was at the cemetery and...someone attacked me...”
“I know, but you’re safe now.” He squeezed her hand. “If I could have saved you from this...”
She shook her head, hearing the rustle of the pillow against her hair. “Have they caught him? It was Drager, I think.” Why? Ah. She screwed shut her eyes. It wasn’t because of the money. It was Leonie’s death.
“He’s still loose. I’ve put out a reward, as have the Needle Master’s Council. But I’m tiring you, and worrying you when you need rest and quiet.” He rose and carefully tucked her hand beneath the light quilt.
“He blames me.” She stared out the window at the purple and orange sky. Sunset was coming. On similar days in the past, she’d often wondered what she had done to deserve such a beautiful sight. “He blames me and I cannot find it in me to disagree.”
“Heloise.” Uncle sighed. “Rest. Please. You’ve had nightmares... Would you like a sleeping draught?”
“What? No? No, I’ve never...” Yet, from somewhere inside came images of vague and disturbing shapes. Of a thing cowering in the corner of the room...Dreams. She blinked, dismissed them, banished them to oblivion. “Uh, Uncle, what about Kane? Could he –”
There was a sharp knock at the door then it opened.
“Bruno, darling.” Yassmin smiled fleetingly at Heloise. Her aunt was a fastidious woman and her fair hair was curled and set to glorious perfection. A single alluring lock dangled across one temple. Her long tangerine dress flowed like water down her slim frame.
“Yassmin? What is it?” Even Uncle knew Yassmin hadn’t come to comfort Heloise.
“I thought perhaps you’d forgotten the sleeping draught? Shall I send for it?”
“No.” Absentmindedly Bruno stroked a hand across his head. “No. She’s gaining strength. Not tonight. Now, dinner, dear? Then I must speak to the staff.”
“Oh. Are you certain? The other night, the screaming –”
“Yes. I’m sure.” The door closed.
Staff, thought Heloise, he only called them that before Yassmin. And the other – the sleeping draught – perhaps that was why she remembered little of the few last days. But screaming? Had she been screaming? Why?
Wait...After the attack, there had been something sliding into her neck...a needle? Her fingers found nothing when she felt the back of her neck. Drager was a Needle Master. The idea that he might have placed, and left, a needle in her made her shudder. She prodded the skin again.
“Ouch!” Something had stung her. No...She touched it again. “Oh, merciful gods!” she whispered. Deep down in the muscle was the stub of a needle. Well, she would have
removed as soon as she could.
She lifted the stiff white sheets and wriggled her legs and flexed her toes and stretched. Someone had found her a pair of pink silk pajamas.
She felt whole and yet odd. Small pains prickled her unexpectedly. This time she didn’t go back to sleep. The light slanted in at ever-steeper angles, stretching across the light blue walls and finally reaching the mirror of the dressing table. A maid, a different one with an older face and brown hair pinned up in a bun, came to deliver a tray of steaming food and then help her to the bathroom. It was strange to stand on her feet. She wobbled a bit and leaned on the maid’s shoulder.
“You okay, miss?”
“Yes. Let me go. There! See!” Though dizzy, she made it to the bathroom then back again to the bed where she perched, enjoying the feeling of accomplishment.
“I’ll sit in that chair to have dinner.” Heloise pointed at an over-padded lounge chair.
Another knock at the door and Yassmin pushed it open and ushered in Kane who took only a few steps before stopping with hands behind his back.
Heloise found the edge of the bed against her thighs and wriggled her bottom up onto the bed.
“We thought you might like a visitor, my dear,” said Yassmin. “I believe this is your current boyfriend?”
Heloise merely shrugged. She was being baited. Another of Yassmin’s small intrigues.
“Um. Yes, I am,” Kane said.
Heloise beamed at him. This bashful manner was why she loved him so much. So different from those who worked for Uncle, and yet still so...manly. She remembered a day when she’d come home, opened her door and bumped into him about to leave. She’d reached up to run fingers through those gorgeous black curls and they’d kissed, well, it seemed like forever before she’d dragged him into bed. Or was it he who’d dragged her? It was like some glorious fiery form of amnesia when they’d kissed. She’d wanted nothing else but him.
Now...she remembered the lovemaking, but all she wanted was to lie down with him, soaking up his warmth, feeling his muscles, cuddling... But Yassmin was still there. Even that would be scandalous to her.
The maid went to the door and curtsied. Yassmin stepped aside and allowed her to leave. “Well, I can see you two would like some time together. But Heloise, let’s have some decorum, shall we?” With an arch of her eyebrow, she swept out the door and closed it with a click.
“Come here,” Heloise whispered. “Right now!”
“But –” He pointed at the door with a jerk of his head. “And did you know there’s a guard outside your door?”
“There is? Heavens, must be one of her ideas. Come here!”
He strode over and knelt before her. “Are you well? I mean...”
She giggled. “You’re not thinking...”
He grinned. “Always. You just do that to me.” He looked at her in that soppy-eyed way she remembered. “They said you were still sick.”
“No. I’m over it now. Come on.” She squirmed to the other side of the bed and patted the quilt.
“There? Perhaps I should lock the door. Even if we’re not
anything, your aunt would have a seizure if she found me in bed.” Quickly he went to the door and snicked the latch over, went to the window and drew the curtains.
“No one can see in. Besides, it’s almost dark and there’s no lights in here.” To even think about making love, here, at Uncle’s house, it sent a shiver through her. She’d never dared. Kane crossed the room and slid into bed.
“Ooh, you’re like a big snake. Slither over here.”
He held her chin and kissed her, their lips melting into each other. Heloise drew away to catch her breath. “Mmm. That was nice.”
His eyes were half-lidded. “You think so? Try this...” He caressed her, starting at her shoulder and moving downward, around her breast, across her stomach. He lowered his head.
“Wait!” She jerked and sat up. “What was that?”
“I –” What had disturbed her? Not a noise?
The room, half-lit as it was, seemed the room of a stranger. Shadows changed the landscape to a realm where nothing was where it should be and the bright colors of day were leached away to grays or absolute black. Her heartbeat deepened to a near audible thud. She glanced at the curtain. She should open it again. Something stopped her putting a foot to the floor. At night she’d screamed.
She shook her head, not daring to speak.
“Heloise, do you have a ghost here? Because there’s one coming through the wall.”
She looked where he showed her. The distinctive slightly luminescent shape of a ghost showed where the bathroom wall met the outer wall.
“Oh.” Heloise sagged in relief. Nothing to be concerned over. “So that’s all it is. There’s never been one here before though. Not that I know of anyway.”
“No unsolved murders? Unrequited love?”
“Uh-uh. No. Except ours.”
“Oh no. Ours is requited, whatever that means, or it will be as soon as he moves on.”
The ectoplasm pooled and rose to sculpt the figure of a young man.
“He looks to be a recent ghost,” she muttered.
“You can see that much detail? All I can see is –”
The ghost smiled at her, his mouth yawning open. A shriek lanced into Heloise’s head and she clapped her hands over her ears. The pain echoed. The ghost’s form juddered, flash-shivered toward her, and...vanished.
“Kane, I feel ill. Hold me.” As the words left her tongue something inside her shifted, expanded. Her body became numb and immobile – not an eyelash moved, not the slightest shiver of her skin – yet she remained upright and frozen in place.
She demanded of herself. She couldn’t swallow, couldn’t gasp and last of all, the horror dawned on h, she couldn’t feel her chest rise and fall nor know whether her heart still beat. If she was dead, she was an aware corpse. Sight was her only sense.
“Hello,” something whispered inside her head. “You are what I’ve been waiting for. Thank you.”
Whatever had spoken, she didn’t know how to reply to it. If it knew of her pleas or of her terror at its presence, it did nothing to comfort her.
Her hand was held up before her eyes, the wrist swiveling to show palm and back of hand. Dots of brilliant green scintillated as if tiny emerald fires had been lit on her skin.
Her viewpoint rose and she guessed she was standing. Kane looked up at her, his mouth moving. Her body walked to the middle of the room. She could see as though a lantern illuminated the room with greenish light. The curtains were drawn back by the hands and she, or he, walked onto the balcony, leaped nimbly onto the railing and off into space. Before she could think to react, she had caught the ledge, dropped down to the lower rail and was walking down the street, away from Kane and Uncle, away from her world of safety.
If she had spoken it, that word would have been a whimper.
Nothing, no response. If she wasn’t dead, then a ghost had taken over her body. She couldn’t even close her eyes.
A piece of chilling logic presented itself.
This was why she’d been screaming those other nights.
had come for her.
Now she knew fear.
Her body continued down the street. With night oncoming the oil lanterns and bright trink lights were showing and the green tinge to her vision faded. Small sounds crept in, so quietly she was unsure at first: the chink of metal-shod boots, the murmur of voices, the rhythmic grate of carriage wheels turning on stone. Last of all, she heard the quiet rasp of her own breathing. She could hear. She would have cried, if she knew how to.