As I stand on the battlements of the besieged city, looking out at the disarray before me, it is clear the god of Death has taken to the field. While this could be said of any battle—death and war are old friends, after all—today He rides a black horse, a pale-haired rider hunkered down in front of Him.
Annith. The most skilled of all of Death’s handmaidens and the sister of my heart.
She has done her part to avert this war—taken her shot using the last of the arrows forged by the gods, which flew as straight and true as if guided by their own hand. But now the French have seen her. Understand that it was she who shot at their king. And even though he is unharmed—harming him was never the intent—they are on her like jackals on a rotting carcass.
“Reload!” calls out Aeva, one of the dozen followers of Saint Arduinna who stand beside me along the ramparts.
Death and Annith ride hard for the gate, Mortain covering her with His body—a body from which four arrows protrude—protecting her life with His own. No, not His own, for He is the god of Death, I remind myself. But Father Effram’s warning has taken root in my heart.
“My lord, you do know what will happen if you choose to involve yourself in mortal affairs, do you not?”
The French archers release a second volley of arrows. As one, the Arduinnites and I return fire. But our arrows are too late. Mortain is hit yet again, taking two more to His side. Annith twists in the saddle, trying to hold onto Him.
It does not work, and they plummet to the ground. Annith begins crawling toward Mortain under yet another shower of French arrows. By Fate or chance, one of them buries itself in Death’s chest, and I feel the pain of it as if it comes from my own. Ice-cold fingers of dread trail down my back before wrapping themselves around my heart.
As a lone hound brays in the distance, I shove away from the battlements and race down the stairway to the gate. More hounds join the first, raising their voices in an unholy lamentation. For a moment, the world hangs suspended, like a drop of sap oozing from a tree, and in that moment I know. The god of Death—my father—is gone. He has passed from this world.
By the time I reach the gate, the French have fallen back, as if even they sense the magnitude of this moment. Nuns from the convent of Saint Brigantia swarm toward the fallen Mortain as Annith throws herself on his body, weeping. As much as I am hurting, she will be even more so.
Before I can reach them, a laugh rings out—an incongruous, joyful sound in the solemn stillness.
Puzzled, Death reaches for his chest, his hand coming away red with blood. Although I am half a bowshot away, I hear him say, “I am alive.”
It feels as if the earth I am standing on gives a dizzying spin.
He is alive. But even as far away as I am, I can see that he is no longer Death.
A great chasm opens inside me, a dark yawning maw that threatens to swallow me whole. If Death no longer walks amongst us, then what purpose am I to serve? What use will there be for my dark talents and skills?
I fear the answer was writ long ago, when I was born into the family that raised me. The family that nearly killed me and drove my mother into Death’s arms.
And that answer terrifies me far more than death ever has.
I was born in the upstairs room of an ancient roadside tavern, a group of common whores acting as midwives. My mother, too, was a whore, although perhaps not so very common. Would an ordinary woman invite Death to her bed on a dare?
I emerged covered in slime and blood, my face—?indeed, my entire body—?as blue as a wild hyacinth. Hushed whispers and murmurs of sympathy followed the horrified silence my arrival caused, until Solange, the oldest among them, grabbed me from my mother’s slippery hands and swatted my backside.
Nothing. I did not cry or whimper or even draw breath. But old whores are as wise as old cats, and Solange did not give up. She bent down to place her wrinkled lips on mine, and blew.
According to my mother, my chin quivered, a fist curled.
Solange blew again, her determined breath somehow shoving away the cold hands of my father as He reached for me.
I drew a deep breath of my own after that, followed by a lusty cry. The women thought me a miracle, moved that one had been visited upon them just as if they were the Magdalena herself.
All except my mother, who knew precisely who she’d invited into her bed nine months earlier. It wasn’t until I was four years old and clutched at her hand as she headed up the stairs with her night’s customer that my parentage was confirmed. “His heart,” I whispered into her lowered ear as I rubbed my small chest. “It’s beating strangely.”
Less than an hour later, he was dead.
It is that same panicked beating that has brought me to the lowest levels of the castle today—?a heartbeat as close and intimate as if it is beating against my own ribs.
I follow the deep ba-bump through the narrow, twisting corridors of the dungeons, stopping when a gaping black hole appears at my feet. The darkness that oozes up through the metal grate is as thick and solid as a coiled snake.
At first, I think it a hatch to the river that runs nearby. Or perhaps—?wrinkling my nose—?the sewer. Until the next heartbeat reverberates through me, one long, deep ba-bump. I never feel the heartbeats of others unless they are close to dying. That is when I finally understand the nature of this pit.
It is an oubliette.
A dungeon designed specifically for those who do not even warrant the mercy of a clean death.
Nameless dread that cannot be explained by the presence of death thrums through me. My hand clenches. I should turn and walk away. Return to the sumptuous, brightly lit rooms of the castle proper.
I am getting ready to do just that when the heartbeat stops. The pressure in my chest grows, stretching against my ribs, seeping into the very marrow of my bones. Trepidation and despair sweep through me, as if the world itself has just been torn in two.
And then the pressure stops. Is simply gone, like the passing of the wind.