Moonlight filtered through the canopy, painting the ground like lace on grey satin; the snow was fresh from the morning, yet littered with the ghosts of deer hooves and fox paws. A cool wind had crept down from the mountains to make the boughs tremble, and on it rode a semblance of mist, seeping through the forest like miasma.
A strange poison was in the air, the scent of rust, and the wind was quiet next to the sounds emanating from a lonely glade ringed by the ancient stones, where the pagans sung their eerie songs and writhed together in the earth on Beltane. There was an echo in the trees of something small, magnified by consequence, and it was the pristine, crystal plinking of liquid on snow.
An owl flew over, skimming the crowns of the pines with her wings, and wheeled away, calling out to the celestial canopy whose stars watched with their callous, distant eyes. The scene was just wreckage, after all, and mortal happenings occur so much faster than the elder things can anticipate, or care about. From above, one might see nothing more than dolls strewn across the frosted earth, like the pieces of some discarded ornament.
A man was lying in the clearing – eyes pinned on the sky, wide and pearl-blue. His lips issued no fog of breath into the weight of darkness, but his expression said something of his last moments. Anguish and surrender, though none would see it before the frost sank into his flesh and blurred that face into something wicked and removed from the living world. Already he had stiffened, bones braced to crack in the chill, and burrs clung to the fur of his hood, built of the tiny rubies that had sprayed from the rift at his throat. The cold had come to bite second, and made an effort to fill the gap with red glass, through which the shadow of a bone could still be seen.
He was pinned by a spear through the chest, and slightly raised from the ground, as though whoever had stabbed him had tried to pull their weapon back and thought twice out of spite. Around him were his possessions – an overturned sledge, surrounded by the roses of torn dogs; no more than tufts of fur and frayed carcasses. A knapsack lay to one side, curled like some foetal survivor, and its contents had been scattered across the glade.
There were three other corpses; one draped over the sledge, entrails trailing like a stream of ribbons, and another hanging in a nearby tree like a crooked marionette, framed by the splinters of heavy impact. The last was a woman, by far the most serene, though equally gruesome in her repose.
Blood had frozen around a gulfing hole in her chest, and her eyes were closed. They had not seen the great rent in her flesh; something had opened her ribs like an unlocked birdcage. The unspoiled heart sat in the hollow the damage had formed, a vicious embellishment, and all was quiet. The carnage was several hours past, and more like a painting than something real if one had no sense of smell, for that was the only lingering presence; the rich odour of ravaged flesh as it drew the last vestiges of meaning from the frost-kissed cadavers.
The treeline broke, admitting a figure. The ivory moon cast aside its cloak of cloud to watch, but still the figure remained a shadow in colour and character as it wove a path between the splayed forms, robed in a great sweep of black that trailed on the ground. Pausing beside the tranquil woman with the fair countenance, the figure lowered to a crouch and extended an alabaster hand with fingers as long and thin as spiders’ legs.
Creeping out, they swept in over the serene face, and snagged a tendril of hair that had drifted across the corpse’s brow. Twisting the wayward strand back out of the way, the hand withdrew, and the figure stood, glancing back the way it had ventured from with eyes hidden beneath the veil of its hood.
Its stance was one of poise, ready to fly at the slightest sound, but after a moment had passed, the figure turned its back on the dark trees to focus on the task in hand, and lifted its porcelain fingers once more, this time to draw back its hood and expose a face just as brittle. Stern and aquiline, the complexion was snow – unforgiving but as delicate as filigree, and centred by two eyes that gleamed pink under the moon. A thin mouth hardened, pressing into a tight line, and white hair lifted in the wind.
The voice was a husk, but its tone did not quiver, and with these words the speaker pulled a pointed stave from their robe, and drove it through the blue heart sitting in the sharp air. The woman’s body, though all but separated from the organ, convulsed, and the peaceful face grew harsh. Guttural sounds bubbled up from the throat as the body jerked in a fit of primal desperation, blood trickled from the lips, and the albino took a step back to watch as all fell once more to stillness, and the cast of peaceful slumber.
She slid the stave free, wiping it clean with a handful of snow, and approached the glass-eyed man to investigate his severed neck by adjusting the angle at which his head had fallen. The hook of her fingers lowered the crown of the decapitated skull to the ground once more, and she moved to inspect the corpse hanging in the tree, settling her wool-clad arms around the legs to pull it down to Earth with a heavy thump, a crack, and a great shudder on her part.
Recovering her former impassiveness; she rolled the body onto its back, paused with a grim cast to her features, and shook her head. She rolled her sleeve back, and slipped her hand into the garish red seam in the chest with her lips pressed so tight together that they were sucked inside her mouth. Swallowing, she closed her eyes and pressed her fingers between arteries and stiff muscle, prying the flesh back to expose a second heart, though this one had already been destroyed by someone else’s blow – it was a purpling floret with a hole in its centre.
Completing this inspection, she pulled her hand out once more. It was slick only around the fingers, for the last blood in the corpse had burrowed too deep to wet her wrist.
Sighing, the wintry woman made her way towards the final mutilated body, and plunged her hand into the spill of intestines, sifting through organs until she found her once-beating quarry. It had been ripped in two, and she gazed upon it for only a moment, before laying the body with the others and looking down at her hands.
Well, at least he has particular taste in who he makes his.
Frowning, she wiped her fingers on a rag in her belt, though the silver sheen of her translucent flesh held the stain. Tossing the dirtied cloth to the ground; she opened a small waterskin with an audible creak from its leather cap, and proceeded to pour the contents over the broken forms, which she had clustered into a semblance of unity. Clear, acrid liquid glossed the bloodless faces, and the huntress paraded in a slow circle, emptying every drop on the macabre fallen, before striking a single match. It blazed in the clearing, strange and alien for its golden colour against the stark blues and sober darkness of the night.
She dropped the tiny light to the remains, and flames rose with a shriek of sparks and cold air, lighting her sickly face with a yellowish hue, and her eyes with a redness to match the last blood, which came sizzling from the corpses in cloying streams.
Smoke, tainted by the scent of flesh, reached for the moon, and she stood for a moment, watching the fire take, before turning on her heel and vanishing back into the maze of silhouettes from whence she had come, arms folded across her chest, and hands bunched into fists. Her nails bit into her skin, leaving pink marks on her palms. But still she walked, onward and away towards the day that was due to arrive in a few hours. She passed over frozen streams and trembling lattice-ferns in brisk, firm steps, as though to reassure any audience, and her own eyes, that she was real, and not some phantom born out of the strange mist which ran down from the mountains and governed that land – where dead men walked and spectres were only one of many fey things that wandered by night.
The crimson fire stayed in her blush-coloured eyes as she walked, lingering like the shadows that embraced the trees with fervency. It was burning brighter than the spark that had lit the clearing. In her eyes it took another dimension, a life and identity, and an ability to transcend the moment, for even as her boots marked the snow with crisp prints, it was clear that her mind was wandering on another plane; a yesterday that had passed under the eyes of a younger moon, in the life of a different person.
‘My dearest Vahide,
Oh, my darling sister! If only I could believe it as true as it is, even as I pen these words! I have met someone here, and he is simply perfect. A little strange to look upon, as we have always imagined the men of this country are, but then you know how my tastes have always lain with the unusual, and he is so kind. A gentleman in the first degree! I know you shall reply that it comes as no surprise to you, but then you have always found amusement in how easily I am charmed by great men. This one is more than all before him, however. Oh, how flawless it would be, if only you were here too! Life would be divine, my darling, if you would send me a pigeon to tell me that you are on your way. The first snow is already here, and I know you would be so happy if you did come. Please, kindred heart, join me in this heavenly place and I shall never weep again.
There are forests to walk and hunt in, mystical glades, and all the delights of the ethereal realm, so come, come east to me and his generous house, Vahide, and we shall dwell here as mysterious as the white on the mountains, together until the end of our days!
Your ever-loving sister, Ayla.’
The paper was still in its envelope at the huntress’ breast, in a package with other letters that had preceded and followed, each one creased by her fingerprints, but still scented with a ghost of cinnamon and rose perfume. She touched the pocket that held her treasures, and hunched as a fell wind came racing at her with its teeth bared.
If only I had been braver, sooner.
The drawing in the letter had been a sign – all had been apparent in the wicked lips framing those strange white teeth and the severe widow’s peak. But an albino, called thirsty for her bloodless appearance despite her vibrant twin’s love, had never been able to brave the outside with its fears and those who passed her making the sign of the Evil Eye. The frail white daughter of the Adivar house; who had heard stories of the cruel warrior, who had beaten her ancestors back from the river, had never imagined that the chill that ghosted over her back at the sight of his face had been grounded, or that she would find her courage only after the letters stopped coming.
The lure of her sister’s silence had coaxed her beyond the borders of the palace, but by then all had already been lost.
The voice of the wind taunted her, sank its claws into her throat, and she choked on it, because burning the new creations was never enough to bring back Ayla, never enough to coax Vahide from the palace in Constantinople in time, never enough to change anything but the measure by which he had won. Destroying his brides before they awoke saved others from the curse of guilt, but Vahide remained in days long since passed, with Ayla, the sister who had braved the little-travelled east to broker peace, and been claimed by the immortal as one of his own.
That mystical land, which Ayla had written about with such hope, had drawn her down into its depths and pulled her to the other side, from whence she had flown at her sister in a rush of savage bloodlust. Odd indeed, that of them it should be the colourful twin with the dark eyes and golden skin who would fall from grace to such a deplorable state of wickedness, but passed into the realm of dusk she had, and Vahide had known it with enough clarity to raise the stave at daybreak, and stab it into her sister’s silent heart.
“You found me, thank God.”
Those words had brimmed from a mouth blossoming claret, before the eyes of midnight had closed and peace had crawled towards the last vizier’s daughter, who had been brave enough to venture into the land her grandfather had bled his last over.
Vahide drew her cloak closer at the thought of the promise she had given, in that final moment, when leaving the palace had seemed a loathsome gesture, in light of its futility. She had taken her sister in her arms, and known what agony mortal love is.
“I will be brave. I won’t let this happen to anyone again.”
Ayla had only smiled, brushed her fingers across her sister’s sharp cheekbone, and passed from the world with the all beauty she had borne through life, into eternal rest.
Returning to the winter night, Vahide paused to look at the moon, patterned with the silhouettes of bats picking off the moths with arrow-like precision. She shivered, this time from cold rather than fear. She had resolved, long ago, not shudder at the thought of his presence in the mountains. The mess he had left behind and hoped to return to was burning by her hand, after all.
I should not fear him, since I am like him; already a vampire in all but deed. I was more alive years ago, I live to kill, and I no longer feel love for any living thing.
The thought was not enough to make her stand tall or force a wry smile, having passed through her mind more than once before and brought more disturbance than assurance, but it made her lay firm hand to the stave she bore, and continue walking, dreaming of redemption, and the sister who had
By Deanna Scutt