~ (Continued) Siwenday, 19th of Aprilis, 11831 ~
Pierre made his way to the personal dungeons of the Duc de Piques. As a child he had been frightened of the area, so rarely did anyone step foot in that part of the château that it seemed cursed, and rumors amid children only fueled those flames. In reality it was merely unused and out of the way so many did not wander there, but with the current use perhaps it could be said that it was, indeed, cursed.
At the back of the château there were a set of stone stairs that led down through the earth under the home proper. Near their end was a set of great metal doors, locked and barred, rusted over from years of neglect. The key was lost, had been for decades now, since before Félicien returned from Faery. It had been taken as a sign at the time and the dungeon closed off rather than new keys made, an outside prison instead built to house the criminal. Public opinion was such since then that the duc should not have a personal dungeon, that that was an outdated and cruel form of punishment. It was the beginning of several reforms along with the investigations that came along with someone being imprisoned at the duc’s pleasure, the ruler’s word not enough any longer to take away a man’s freedom.
Pierre reached for the lock and as soon as he touched it it fell open for him. A handful of torches lit the area instead, showing the large open room where no doubt guards would once keep watch, already occupied. Several beds were pushed up against the walls, the sheets dirty but otherwise intact. A table with chairs stood near the center. At the far end was a hallway shrouded in darkness—cells for the condemned. The walls were packed dirt and clay, not quite stone, but not loose soil. It was cold. It felt like a grave.
There were three bodies laid out on the ground in varying stages of decay. A young woman and two men, identified more by their clothes and hair than flesh. Sabine sat at their heads, Aranea on her shoulder.
“Lady Sabine,” he said, shutting the door. He could not hear but he assumed the lock returned to its former position. Walking around the table he pressed his face into his sleeve, preparing for the sickly scent of death that had somehow not yet permeated the entire room. There was none. Curious.
“Your Graceful Highness,” she replied without looking up.
“May I know whose bodies these are?”
“After hearing what has happened in the hospital I did some searching of my own,” the lady of death said. “These three are all fay, refused treatment for illnesses or injury that ended their life. I am certain there are more, but these are those I could find for certain.”
She stroked the cheek of the older man that lay on her right. Her hand was dark with blood already. “I cannot seem to return him. He was buried, his grave old and unkempt yet still a grave, so it is likely he has passed through to Akhlys already. I have not yet tried to return the other two.”
Pierre nodded, circling the bodies and inspecting them closer. If someone had passed through the mists they were beyond reach. A grave and burial gave the spirit a signal to move on, but it was not immediate, and those buried long ago could still sometimes be brought back. A pyre on the other hand, burning the body to ash, made it impossible as the soul would immediately move on with no vessel to return to.
“And what will you do if you can return their lives?”
“Find them a place to stay. Let them live out their lives as they should have.”
Somehow that option had never occurred to Pierre. Those he returned to life were often very recently dead. The one time he had returned the life of one that had passed several years ago it was only to test the abilities, and he had not let the man stay alive very long after.
“May I try?” Pierre asked.
“Of course. It is why I asked you here.”
Pierre finished his circle and then knelt beside Sabine. A woman so close in such a setting made him think of Mora, and then of her absence. He tried not to focus on the pain in his heart at not seeing her for weeks.
He unsheathed the dagger from his cane and cut along an old scar, the blood red for a moment and then darkening to black in his palm. He tipped a few drops into the mouth of the older man.
A snapping of his fingers did not seem right. It was all he tended to need in the last year or so, but quick and effective was not always what the spirits preferred, and if Sabine could not bring him back, he would have to coax. He curled his fingers slowly, inviting the soul and spirits, fingertips dipping into his own blood. He forming a fist as if holding onto something. The far-too-heavy and yet weightless sensation of connecting with a person beyond death found him. A pressure on his chest and heart, from both inside and out. For a moment he thought he felt as if he was holding someone in his arms—the man? Mora?
Flesh began to reconstruct itself, blood began to flow. Color returned to the man’s face and lips. His arms and legs twitched as nerves and muscle not used in decades began to find themselves again. He sucked in air. He coughed, eyes still shut, and then settled into heavy breathing as if he were now asleep.
“Magic can be unpredictable,” Sabine said with a smile. Pierre raised an eyebrow in question. “Oh, we may try to predict it,” she continued, “and in most cases an outcome can be planned ahead, but the spirits have minds of their own. We can ask, beg, plead, force—but in the end it is their choice that prevails. I believe this is true of most magics.”
“Perhaps,” Pierre said. He thought of what Mora had said, that the spirits had been deciding whether Elizabeth was worthy of being his lady, when she had been ill with a sickness that had killed all else. “But if he was killed for his being fay, perhaps he is the one that wished someone fay to return him.” It would not do to admit that he perhaps thought himself better at the cræft than Sabine.
The other two were reconstructed as well, Sabine helping the woman and Pierre the other man. These two had died more recently and were far easier to bring over into the living plane.
The lord and lady of death stood, walking over to stand before the three sleeping fay. On silent agreement they woke them at the same time.
“Qu’est-ce qui se passe?”
“Where am I?”
“My dears, I am Lady Sabine,” the lady of Piques said to the three. “You have been ill, and left untreated due to your heritage. I have smuggled you out and made you well.”
“Made us well?” the woman asked. She scooted back from everyone, arms around herself, looking in all directions in this cold place and finding no comfort. “I do not remember you, or what you did. Why should I believe?”
“Why not?” Sabine said. “You are healthy, are you not?”
The woman’s hands slid down to her belly. “And where is my child then!”
A child. The woman had died giving birth, not because of an illness.
“We do not know,” Pierre said. The woman’s eyes snapped to him and they narrowed. He raised his hands in a plea of surrender, palms open, showing the black blood still on his hand.
“Necrocræft,” the younger man whispered, now also scrambling to stand and back away. Pierre felt himself paling. On reflex he made to snap his fingers and kill them all to keep their secrets, but Sabine reached out and grabbed him hand to stop him.
“I was dead?” the woman whispered.
“Aye, you were. As was the other one, and myself,” the older man said. He seemed more aware of his surroundings and certainly more calm now that he was awake. He was sitting back with his leg straightened out and a small grin on his face. “Lady Mora kept us company, I’m sure, though I canna say I remember it. Must be the magic,” he nodded towards Pierre. “Thanks for that. I just went in for a broken leg, you know, that had not set right is all. Somehow got an infection too. They didna treat it, but would not let me go home either. I lived too close to the Duc’s Forest, they said, and it would be unwise. Being a bit stupid a’ the moment I said me da was fée and if the hospital didna want to treat me, me kin would. That’s the last I remember. Wouldn’t put it past them to have finished me off.”
Fay. Descended or related to the fée and to Faery, they would know of necrocræft and accept it in a way that the rest of Clandestina would not. Pierre relaxed, tugging his hand gently away from Sabine, letting her know he would let them live.
“What year was that?” he asked.
The man sat back on his arms and thought. “Maybe 11750 or so.”
“His Grace Félicien went missing in 11745,” Sabine said. “So the mistrust and anger at the fée would be still very fresh. This may have all began because of his disappearance.”
“What year is it now!” the woman had listened to the old man and was now pale. “Tell me!”
“11831,” Sabine said.
She sobbed. “Twenty years! I have been dead for almost twenty years! And my baby… I do not even know if it was a girl or a boy. Or if they live. You say we were left to die, what is to say my babe was not treated the same way!?”
“Surely they would not have let a newborn die,” the younger man said. He kept looking from the older man to the woman and touching himself as if unsure he really was back from the dead.
Pierre wanted to agree with him, but Alise was seven. They could have easily let the child die to end the line. How had this been happening for decades without anyone noticing or speaking up? How had his père not seen it or Aimé! Or the roi.
Or had they and done nothing? Or just not enough?
“There was no child buried with you,” Sabine said gently. If mother and child died together it was custom for them to be buried the same. “I do not know what happened to them, but they did not die that day.” Unless further insult was meant and the child taken from its mother even for its final resting place.
Sabine moved towards the fay woman and, finding no resistance, hugged her.
“Did you have a husband?”
“He died a few months be-before, beaten in the street. I think for being married to me, for us having a child, but I am not sure. We defied them by giving him a fée funeral… I was going to leave town as soon as—” she began to cry so hard she could not speak.
“Come now, surely you are exhausted.”
She helped her stand and moved her to one of the beds. “You two as well,” she called. “You have not slept or rested in your time with Mora, choose a bed. Tomorrow night I will take you a friend who is fay. The city of Ffon in Bastoni opens their doors for you so you can begin to rebuild your lives.” It would be far enough away that they would not be recognized and yet still near.
Pierre helped the the men to beds of their own. He asked the younger man if he had anyone close to him, but he shook his head. “No. I left my family to follow a girl here. She went and married someone else… There was a plague soon after and many ended up dying, though I did notice the doctors did not do as much with me as with some others. I had not given it any thought.”
At midday Elizabeth was woken from a nap by a maid. She did not remember being tired, but she must have dozed off after Lord Vivien left.
“I told His Grace not to worry, I feel fine,” she said as the other woman fussed.
“Ah, but he loves you, so he shall worry whether you wish it or not.”
“I know, but—” Lizzy stopped speaking as she got a good look at the woman. It was the mourner from the library in her dream.
If the book had been real then why not the person? But more likely she had merely seen her about the château and imposed the face onto a being as she slept.
“Have we met before, madame?” she asked.
Mora smiled. “I have seen you from afar.”
The woman picked up the children’s book that Vivien had left on the desk. She opened it, turning pages and searching until she found a certain tale.
“The Two Hounds; One Obedient and One Not,” Mora read. Elizabeth listened, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with illness in her bones. “There was a long hard winter one year, and the lord hunter could only afford so much. He had two prized hounds, which never left his side, and they were both used to eating the best meat. There was not much that year and so the hunter decided that if the hound obeyed he would be given meat, and if he did not, it would be scraps.
“The older of the hounds had once been the best in the land, but had in recent years come to no longer listen, not returning when being called, running off, and even growling at his master at times. With these new rules he was given bread and grain almost every night.
“The younger was eager and, upon realizing his obedience would get him meat, did everything the hunter told him to. He was praised and began to be used more than the older hound.
“When the snows finally grew light the hunter went with them both out into the wilds. Between them they caught enough deer to last throughout the rest of the season and began their way home in high spirits.
“On the morning before their return home a bear found them. The younger hound scented him first and tucked his tail and ran away, leaving the hunter and older dog to their peril. The older hound, though, stood his ground and fought for his master’s life, even as the hunter yelled at him to run. He gave up his life and killed the bear, while the hunter was spared.
“The hunter carried his hound back the rest of the way and buried him in the cemetery of his home amid those most loyal. When the younger hound returned that evening he was given scraps and no longer called prized.
“Now which was truly the better dog? That one who did not obey because he was old, deaf, and sometimes in pain, yet sacrificed himself, or the one which listened only for his own benefit and fled when in danger?”
She closed the book and returned it to its place. “Sometimes,” she said, “People do wrong for reasons that we do not at first understand.”
Puzzled, but unsure of what to say, Lizzy remained quiet until the maid left.
Wolfram was still in bed this late afternoon, ill as well, and trying to rest. He had had a headache so fierce that he collapsed into bed this morning, having only made it from His Grace’s room to his own. Pierre explained that it was because of their cræft, but similar boughts of headaches and nausea were not uncommon among the people of the realm. While Wolfram had never before had such a headache, he had seen it happen to those older than he.
“It does not always mean the sufferer is a suitor, but that the suitors attract the spirits that cause this pain as payment for the cræft.”
His Grace had visited a few hours ago and made Wolfram drink water with some of his blood in it. That had eased some of the pain and allowed for a restless sleep, but not deep enough, as the door opening woke him.
A hand began to stroke his hair. The pain further dulled and his eyes grew heavy.
“This is the payment you must give,” a woman’s voice whispered into his ear. He shivered. Mora had never come to him alone before. “Pain for life. You will learn to live with it, perhaps even embrace it, but the spirits will come to you. They will learn to know you, and love you.”
“Please, My Lady,” he said. “Make it stop.”
Her cool lips touched his forehead. “Just this once, child.”
Vivien sat at his desk in his nightclothes, having promised his wife he would only be a moment before returning to bed. That had been over an hour ago and as she had not come looking for him she must have fallen asleep. But he could not think about laying beside her, not tonight.
He looked at his own palms. At the single faint scar along the palm-line for Life that he lied and said was from an accident when he had tried to do something in the kitchen. At the few smaller scars on his fingers, just enough for a drop of blood to form. At his temptations, his weakness, his transgressions.
He had told Lady Elizabeth that witchcræft was a part of the witch, and could not under any circumstance be stripped away from them. It was as much a part of them as their limbs, their hair, the color of their eyes.
He closed his hand into a fist.
Cold arms wrapped around him and he jerked, standing up and shoving his chair back before whirling around. There was no one there.
He went to bed.