Dead Man’s Sleep
Sleep the sleep of dead men drowning
In a sea of blood.
Let that sleep protect you, darling.
Vampires gather for the feast.
I was a beautiful child. Everyone in the village said so. I look around the room: stone walls, a bed, a table, a bronze candle stand. No one else hears the faint scratching on the window pane. The whole house sleeps like dead men.
That’s how I feel.
The cold winds blow in. I shiver, stuffing a rag tighter between the cracks at the sill. I hear the sound again above the screaming winds. Louder this time. More insistent. The candle’s orange flame flickers. Will it go out and leave me enveloped in the depths of darkness? Beads of sweat pop out on my forehead. I feel my fluttering heart waver inside my chest.
I should be under the covers, not traipsing about barefooted with nothing but my nightgown on. I will surely catch a cold. Then, what will I do?
Perdix says there’s only so much his alchemy can do to remedy the pangs of the body. I think Perdix can do anything. He’s a wonderful alchemist and a brilliant wizard. He knows the Great Secrets. But he says no, not everything. Perhaps, he is right.
A large rat skitters across the floor, seeking invisibility in some far corner. I pay him no heed. The scratching is getting louder. Louder still. It threatens to drive me mad.
“Who are you? Can’t you just leave me alone?”
I cover my ears. It does no good. It seems I will drown in this noise that grates on my nerves and echoes in the chambers of my ears. I sink to my knees.
“Oh Lord, help me.”
The sound, like iron nails scoring over slate, stops. The winds abate. The room becomes as quiet as a tomb. The candle flame burns steadily, its faint glow casting dim shadows here and there.
The unicorn hangs on my wall, white and noble, and about to be slain. It is a most lovely tapestry. I can spend hours looking at its intricate detail.
The dogs are many. The hunters number more. They have their spears drawn. It won’t be long before it’s all over. I feel the old ache in my heart. I wish I could enter that woven scene and set you free, my friend – my companion for all these years I have lived behind these castle walls.
I feel for you.
I am you in so many ways.
There are not many of us, you see.
Unicorns and princesses.
We are both dying breeds.
Perdix says so.
The wail of the gale picks up again. He rides the wind. There. There it is. The scratch upon the pane. Louder now. Louder still. It is no use. No use. I cannot stand it.
Throwing open the window I feel the damp cold burst upon my skin. I thrust my body into the blast. The howling madness of the night swallows me whole.
And there he is, floating in front of me, high above the ground like a black mourning dove. I wince as the needles of his sharp fangs pierce my neck.
I see the unicorn before my eyes.
The hunters’ spears have hit their mark.
The Alchemist’s Spell
The earth sleeps for all save the nocturnal creatures of the night.
They are alert and roaming.
It is the feeding hour.
“Why in heaven’s name are you still up? The hour is late, and demons play in these moments before dawn.”
It is Gilia.
“Get to bed this minute. You will catch a chill. Off. Off with you. Why can’t you sleep? Is it the wind?”
“You hear it, too?”
“Of course,” she said. “It howls like a mad witch from Gilvynna.”
“Perdix says . . .”
“Please, milady. Permit me to speak. You mustn’t listen to anything that old Mahoun says. He is a fox, that one is. The devil’s apprentice, I say. And a mighty old, worn out one at that! Put no stock in the witchcraft he does. I don’t. And you shouldn’t either. His sorcery is as feeble as he is.”
“You speak ill of Perdix because his ointment failed to rid you of that lump that grows on the end of your nose. Speak truth, Gilia. That is the reason, isn’t it.”
“And why not? Look at this thing. It is awfuf. I’m ashamed to show my face outside your chambers. The salve does no good. It is useless. This hideous thing is getting as big as a toad. All I am doing now is waiting for it to sprout hairs so I can braid them.”
“But how can you expect the spell to work if you do not do as Perdix says?”
“Bah! Who has time to venture to the hog pen five times for three days to smooth pigs’ mud over it? A mask of mud he says. With piglets’ poop. I’m supposed to smear that scite all over my nose. I could not breathe for the stink. But a pretty corpse I’d surely make. Give me strength not to pop my cork. I must keep my wits about me.”
“I think you are too harsh. Again, I say, how can the ointment work if you do not follow what Perdix says?”
The ointment should be enough. Enough, I say. The old man is daft.”
“You could let him cut it off with a hot knife like he suggested.”
“And bleed to death!
“Perdix says the heat of the blade will staunch the flow.”
“And what if he’s wrong? This thing grows larger every day. All my blood is pooling in this monstrous growth,” Gilia said, pointing to her nose. “I’m sure of it. No. No, thank you.”
“You favor Urien because my father likes him so,” I said. “But he hasn’t helped you either.”
“That’s because I was cursed by the old alchemist’s magic. Urien took one look at this wicked bump and said there’s nothing he can do. But Urien’s spell to rid your father of that pesky soreness of the foot worked didn’t it?”
“I think that had more to do with staying off it for several days.”
“You speak nonsense. It was Urien’s spell. He is young. His magic is strong. Ask anyone.”
“I pumped ship in your palm, and you took it straight to Urien. What did he tell you? Did he say I am mad because my piss tastes of henbane? Tell me, Gilia. Tell me now.”
“You talk out of your head, Milady. It is late. Now, get to bed this minute. Up all hours. I swear my eyes will snap shut tomorrow from the lack of sleep tonight! Get to bed. You will be the death of me.”
The brown-headed little boy was still crying. The piece of black, stale bread should have stopped the flow of tears. Mitings were such spoiled little mongrels these days.
Perdix watched intently as the white horse the child sat upon slowly made its way through the cemetery. They had already spent many hours here. His arm shielded his face as he glanced at the progress of the sun.
Clop clop. Maybe, he thought, I have picked the wrong graveyard.
That was ridiculous. Ars magica. The stars would never let him down. Not now.
The crying slowed. The little boy had the hiccups. Perhaps, he should have chosen the blonde one. No. The omens pointed to this one.
But such a frightened little fawn.
Perdix hawked and spat upon the ground.
The horse stopped. He twitched his long tail, batting the few flies that buzzed around him. The breeze picked up, wafting through the leafless tree limbs, bending the branches like skeletal claws.
Perdix gazed skyward. Strands of long, steely gray hair whipped across his face. His beard blew over his shoulder. The dingy layers of dirty rags danced away from his body, flying about like flags on a pole.
The heavens darkened from blue to charcoal. Clouds roiled overhead. Perdix heard a clap of thunder in the distance. His breath caught in his throat.
Was this a false alarm?
Would the nag begin his course again?
A white-hot finger of lightning struck near the round tower of the old church. Sparks flew from the tree, and it cracked in two. The ground shook beneath their feet, yet the three stood suspended as in a painting. The clouds split. The sunlight, binding earth to heaven, beamed its steady rays upon one gravestone.
The horse neighed and pawed the ground with its hoof.
If he’d been brought to this place and forced to pick one stone where strong magic lived, it would be this very one. Sinking into the earth and green with moss, the lichen-speckled marker was one of the oldest in the cemetery. The stone slab rested flat on the ground like a table top. It bore no name, only the family’s crest and a cobra and a quiver of arrows. Nevertheless, he knew who rested there.
Warrior of Death.
Goosebumps prickled his skin. The die was cast. Now, it was time for the real work to begin.
The children sleep inside their little hovels.
They are so succulent, juicy, moist, and tender.
To pierce their flesh is a joy unfathomable.
Except for those whose parents
Hang around their necks the iron amulets.
It is a cruel joke to play upon the one
Who feeds beneath the indigo
Curtain of night’s starry skies.
I throw open the shutter and look up at the sky. Dusk is coming. Even now, I see the lazy rise of the great orb above the horizon. It is a full moon, and in two more, I will be thirteen.
The wedding will happen soon.
And why not?
Although I wish it could have happened differently, I was promised the day I was born. Word has already come that Wolfstan is making his way toward my home of Castle Corlac.
Perdix has promised to help me.
And he must!
Holy Mary, give me strength.
O Blessed One, give Perdix success.
The young man threw the leather bag above his head and emptied its contents. Red wine spilled down his shirtfront, leeching across his chest like a giant blood stain. The branch he held loosely in his other hand was long and supple.
“If you beat that horse much more,” said Galleron, “he’s going to drop dead in his tracks. I only say this because he is a fine animal. No finer can be found in all of Megara.
“You’re right, Galleron,” he said. “And that is the only reason you escape with your life for speaking to me like that. You may be my cousin, but blood means nothing to me.”
He slapped Galleron across the face with the bough, laughing merrily because he caught the young man off guard. Blood droplets formed along the angry red stripe that marked Galleron’s face.
Galleron never winced. He averted his eyes, looking at the ground so Wolfstan would not see the fury that burned in them.
“Give me your wine. My bag is empty, and as always, I thirst,” Wolfstan said, scratching his groin. “It is only the grape that makes this fire in my inguen bearable. Why should pleasure torment me so?
A curse on all the fairer sex. Whores and their filth and all their rotten diseases. By God’s bones! There never was a woman born t’was nothing but a peevish flirt.”
Galleron handed Wolfstan his leather bag full of wine.
“Eve the Great Deceiver beguiled the hapless Adam with her charms to eat the fruit forbidden and then be damned,” he said.
Wolfstan gulped the wine. It left a bloody trail zigzagging down both sides of his face.
“And I must admit,” Wolfstan said, wiping his chin with his sleeve, “that Nether World between their legs is like forbidden fruit. I find it so irresistible.”
He winked at Galleron like a sly, wicked boy.
“And it is so much tastier if snatched from a wench who denies me, who fights and screams for mercy and screeches her protests in vain!”
“You see, Perdix,” said the sorceress, “my crystal does not lie.”
Perdix looked into the clear beryl stone. The corners of his mouth arched down.
“You must help me, Fye,” he said.
“But why Dyryke?” Fye asked. “Of all the dried up bones in the graveyard, why him? Didn’t he hurt you enough when you were younger?”
“The past cannot be changed. Tis best forgotten,” said the old man. “Dyryke’s magic was strong. If we are successful, then his ghost will make the king see that the princess must not marry such a wretched scoundrel.”
“But this marriage has been arranged forever. Besides, the King listens to no one,” Fye said.
“I fear you are right,” said Perdix. “But if there is any voice he will heed, it is bound to be that of the specter of Dyryke d’Cerroj. Our Majesty respected that man. It’s my only chance to stop a catastrophe.”
“You speak as one most desperate, and this is no small favor you ask, Perdix. Why should I agree to help you?”
“We are old. Our lives are spent. Her Royal Highness is beautiful, young, and innocent. She does not deserve this man.”
“You are in love with her,” said the old witch. “You want the fair child for yourself. You old devil! The fires of lust never die in your kind. I’m always amazed by that. But then, I think it is because women burn up the lusty flames.”
Fye spat on the ground.
“When the womb withers, desire fades,” she said. “But males. By God’s nails. You are like stallions ready to mount any young mare. And she is a looker, that one. You have good taste.
An aged alchemist coupling with a beautiful princess. Ha! Ha!
It is a funny picture you have put in my wicked, old head.
Bumpity. Bump. Ouch. Your crown, Your Highness. Hide it in a drawer. Each golden point is a spire that my old spindle can never hope to match in length. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“You are mad,” he said. “That is insane.”
“Ah hah,” she said, “I see I have struck a nerve. I knew I was right. You dirty, old man. But whatever your plans for the princess, they mean nothing to me. It is gain I seek. If we are to forge a deal, then you must make it worth my efforts. What you are proposing could get us both killed.”
“Nonsense, we will practice the utmost care. No one will know. We will strike from the side where they dare not look. We will be fine. Trust me.”
“What’s in it for me, Perdix? You still haven’t said. You’re asking a lot. The price you are willing to pay must be precious.”
“I will give you the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“The Great Work,” she said. “You have done it. If there was anyone in this valley who could have achieved this, I would have said that it was you. But this is a magnificent gift you offer. What strings do you attach to it?”
“There are no strings,” he said. “You help me raise Dyryke, and I will give it to you.”
“But what if your plans go awry? Things have a way of veering off chosen paths.”
“If I fail, it does not matter. The Great Work is yours. Think of it. All the gold and silver of this world will be yours. It works; you have my word.
The basest metals lying around at your fingertips, you can turn to silver or gold. Silver and gold. Gold and silver.
I will give the Stone to you, and you will have in your hands the makings of a treasure beyond your wildest dreams. Or if you would rather forsake treasure, then eternal life is yours. Whatever you wish, it will give you one of those two things. But you must choose which one your heart desires most.
Promise you will bring your strongest magic. We will try. Once the act is over, it’s yours.”
“But this one,” Fye said. “You know what he did. To raise him could destroy us both.”
“He is the one. The gods have shown me. I don’t want to do this, but we have to. If the princess is to be saved, we must.”
“But I fear . . .”
Perdix dug into his layers of rags. From some hidden place, he withdrew a small vial on a string. Inside was a tiny stone floating in a clear liquid. He held the tiny vial, like a precious jewel, between his dirt-blackened thumb and index finger. He twirled it in the sunlight.
A kaleidoscope of colors appeared inside the bottle, throwing off a rainbow across the witch’s face. He quickly put the string back over his neck.
“Ahh,” she said.
Fye’s eyes narrowed. She licked her lips.
“I don’t know,” she said, but already he knew that Fye was clay in his hands.