The Mark

The Mark

Chapter 1:  Foundling:

A gibbous moon pressed down on the sky like the thumb pad of a jaundiced god. A ragtag band of villagers chased a boy into a forest clearing, surrounding him, but not rushing to seize him.

He felt every inch the trapped animal, save he had no claws or teeth. There was only a single knife which he clutched more as a talisman than a weapon. Crackling torches forced him to put up a hand to block the glare, and the mark on his cheek became visible again.

Murmurs of curses, prayers, and amazement buzzed and hummed in his ears. The light in the mark was fading but he could still feel its heat.

An elder couple stepped forward as a walking keg of a man thrust his torch closer to the boy’s face, making him drop the knife as he stepped back and put up his other hand. From what he briefly saw of them, the woman seemed to hold some concern for him, lightly pressing her husband’s wrist down to lower the torch; she wouldn’t stop him from doing much else, but for that at least, the boy was grateful.

Walking Keg had bristly brown and gray whiskers, the moonlight a nimbus in them as he leaned forward and glowered, his free hand poised in the air, uncertain of its purpose. He seemed to want to touch the mark, but didn’t.

The fear in his eyes belied the gruffness in his voice. “How came you by this mark, boy?” The uncertain hand now pointed a meaty finger at the mark.

The boy swallowed, and when he spoke his voice was small in his own ears. “I killed my little sister.”

*************

Thunder had ever frightened him, and this storm had proven no different. In the small cottage at the top of the hill, where he lived with his parents and younger sister, they were more vulnerable than most to lightning strikes.

Seeking his parents for comfort as he always did, the tableau he walked in on shook him to his core with horror.

      His little sister was out in the rain, naked, arms outstretched to the sky, eyes closed and a beatific smile on her face. She seemed to be speaking, or praying; he wasn’t sure, but she had a knife in her hand with blood and rainwater dripping from it, washing the blade clean.       Stomach lurching, heart pounding, he ran toward his parents’ bedroom but stopped when he saw the small, bloody footprints that lead from the open door.

      “Nylii, what have you done?” He ran from the house toward his sister, and when he came to she was dead beneath him, his hands on her throat, his cheek sliced open from the knife, and the clouds clearing to reveal the dim light of a sickle moon. Her eyes were open, and save for the fact she wasn’t breathing, she looked like she was about to tell him a secret.

      Revulsion and horror made him scramble up and make it to the edge of the wet, dank woods as he heaved up the contents of their last dinner. Gasping for air, burning with thirst and wanting to scream, he wiped the stringy, rank spit away with a handful of leaves. His cheek was on fire, and there was blood on his chest and shoulder. He touched the wound to see how bad it was, and it flared, searing under his touch.

      He opened his mouth, but the ensuing pain had him back on the ground unable to scream. He felt something go wrong with his blood.

      She’d cursed him, marked him. For what, the gods only knew.

     “Nylii, what have you done? What have you done?” He realized he was shouting. Panicking, leaving the bodies for scavengers, he ran and never looked back.

                                                 ************

     More murmurs, louder this time as what he said was conveyed to those who couldn’t hear. He’d played whisper-down- the-line with his friends; he’d be a legend or a monster by the time it got to them.

      The couple stepped back.

     “She was afflicted?” the woman asked.

    He wasn’t sure what ‘afflicted’ meant, but he nodded: “She killed our parents at Reaving Moon. A blood sacrifice.”

      Cries and gestures against evil rippled outward through the mob.

     “What should we do?” the woman asked her husband.

      “Kill him, is what we should do…”

      The boy was tired, thirsty, hungry, and his adrenaline from running had spiked and dipped several times. Now he was just scared and angry.

       “I’ve done no harm to you! You came after me!”

        The husband glared and stepped closer. “Yer damn scar was shinin’! We din’t know what the hell ye were!”

       The woman spoke again. “We’ve children in th’ village, boy. Not much older n’ yew. Y’understand?”

      The boy fell to his knees. “I beg you, for one night, let me sleep. I’ll sleep here, outside of your town, and I won’t come in. I promise. Please just go. I’ll be gone in the morning.”  

      After some hesitation, the wife took the husband aside, away from him and the crowd. He stayed on his knees; the weight of the rabble’s stare was almost palpable as they openly regarded him with an unhealthy mix of fear and fascination. The couple’s conversation, judging from gestures and faces, was brief but heated.

 Read more at the link below on Niume. 

Source: The Mark

Trace (5)

The morning found him rested, his hands pain free, and his stomach rumbling as he washed up and set out his clothes for the day.

He’d be talking to the royal brats today.

When they said they were leaving, Trace put a spell across their room doors so that once they closed them, they couldn’t be open.

He also wanted to talk to Arrick; the boy had kept looking past his shoulder at Lydia, as if surprised to see her. He would have chalked it up to curiosity if Arrick hadn’t suddenly turned pale.

Lydia had to have given him a dirty look.

To his credit, the boy quickly took up the slack, but not before Trace noticed, and he figured if he noticed, then so did Lydia.

He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially, if he were to be honest, after she ‘helped’ him, so he hadn’t let on that anything was amiss, but she knew something.

He thought about confronting her, but it would be best to lure her in, so he decided to stick with his plans of questioning the heirs.

No doubt they’d be angry, but he’d make them see they almost made a big mistake, one that might have cost them their lives too.

*****************

The captain of the guard, with two others flanking him, was waiting for Trace.

“Good morning, Captain.”

“It won’t be for you, taint, if I have my way.”

Trace stopped walking.

“And why would that be, Captain.”

“If you’ve harmed them…”

“The only way they’d be harmed right now is if they did it themselves. I locked the doors, nothing else. I needed, and still do need, to ask them some questions, and they were going to leave.”

The captain’s brows arched in surprise.

He didn’t know, but he’ll want answers too. Good. I need all the allies I can get.

The captain turned to his guards. “Stand aside, then.”

They did, but they didn’t like it.

Of course, their jobs are at stake now, just like Lydia’s.

    The sense of menace in their stare was almost palpable, but he would ignore them, so long as they made no move toward him.

The doors to the children’s rooms opened, and they came storming out, furious, a million commands spewing from their lips to arrest, behead, flog, draw and quarter, flay, whip, beat, and hang him.

“Your highnesses, please!” He put his hands up, pleading for them to be quiet a moment. “He only seeks the murderer of your parents. The kingdom belongs to you now, whether you want it to or not.”

“Leaving would have put you under suspicion,” Trace said. “And the captain, as much as it would have pained him, would have hunted you down as fugitives. Better if you answer my questions now, in his presence, so there’s no mistaking what’s being asked and answered.”

He looked at the captain.

“Fair enough.”

He turned to the heirs. “He’s right; I would’ve come after you.”

“Well,” Kiharu said, taking a breath, “I’m hungry. I was unable to have anything  brought in to me for a snack.”

He gave Trace a meaningful look, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes.

He likes toughness.

“Are we feeding him too?” Anjallay asked.

“He’s our guest.”

“I’ll take my breakfast in my room then.”

“You will not. You will sit with us like a proper queen, and you will answer the mage’s questions, as will I.”

He is tough.

Trace felt the faintest hint of a smile on his lips.

*******************

The servants had laid the breakfast out, still hot, or at least, warm enough.

Trace glanced around to see if Lydia would come find him, but he stopped, realizing, Kihari was observant, and would pick up on it.

Trace gave him some attention, looked him over.

He was tall, but not large. His face was all angles, his brows thick, as well as his hair, which was well groomed, if a little long.

For now, he was clean-shaven, but custom here dictated that if he ascended the throne, he would have to grow a beard.

Trace guessed his age around late teens, with intelligence in his eyes beyond his years.

If he took the crown, he would be reckoning force.

The girl was another story: she was beautiful, and she knew it, and gave off an air of haughtiness just looking at Trace. If she wasn’t careful, it could be annoying and lead her down some paths that didn’t need traveling.

Civil enough for now, having listened to Kihari about sitting at the table, Trace had no doubt that she would find a way to make him pay.

Her eyes were a pale hazel, and her black hair framed her ivory face, hanging in rich, inky ringlets frosted by the morning sun across her shoulders.

He reached for the pitcher of pear juice the same time he did, and he pulled back.

“Ladies, first.”

He tried a smile, but she gave him one of her haughty looks as she poured the juice into her cup.

Power was crackling around her.

Trace’s eyes widened, surprised as the connection between them was established.

She has power.

Yes, and we can read your thoughts as well.

“All right, then. Let’s stop the formalities and pleasantries,” Trace said out loud. “It’s clear you don’t care for your parents, I got that, but don’t you at least want to find out who killed them?

“Have you considered, even once, that you might be, could be, next?

“That’s why we were leaving,” Anjallay said. “That is, until you interfered.”

“And Trace,” said Kiharu, “who called you here to investigate? We certainly didn’t.”

“Your doctor. He’d heard of me, and sent for me.”

“How did he know you were here?”

“He didn’t, and I wasn’t. I traveled.”

“How?”

“Magic. I’m a mage.”

He let a little edge creep in; they were stalling, and he saw right through it, but he couldn’t figure out why. Still there was no harm in answering, but he learned that with royals, you had to bully them, sometimes at the risk of your own head, to get to the desired result, so he asked his next question.

“The night I met you, you were on your way out; where were you going?”

They didn’t answer.

“Did you have a place to go? Palace living tends toward softness, and your sister  doesn’t seem like the woodsy type,” he smiled at her, and she gave him back a sarcastic one, but he thought she almost actually smiled, “So I’ll ask you again, where were you going?”

“We’d rather not say,” she said.

“I didn’t ask if you’d rather say. You were both prepared to leave; there was no surprise, no outcry other than the doctor calling me and controlling the panic. If you had a place that go, that means you were complicit in waiting for the murder to be carried out so you could leave.

“You do see how that looks suspicious, don’t you?”

The captain had gotten comfortable, sitting back with his arms folded, his eyes never leaving Kahiri, who was giving it some thought, but decided to evade the question.

“What would you have done if we left before you imprisoned us?”

“Like I said before: track you, find you, and do what we’re doing now, except I’d be a lot more forceful, a lot less nice. This is your chance to clear yourselves. You won’t get another.

“You need our help?”

“I’d like it. I have a lead, and I’d like your help in tracking it down. It will take longer if I don’t, but the result will be the same.”

She leaned forward, getting caught up in it, her curiosity piqued.

“You always get your quarry?”

“Most of the time, but not always.”

“What makes you think you can get this one?”

“I don’t know if I’ll catch them until I start pursuing them. There’ve been some close calls, but this is not the time for an interview. The longer we stay here, the further away they get.”

“You’re that confident you can find them?”

“If they’re not dead.”

“Tell us what you have,” Kihari said.

Since they revealed they had powers of their own, and the princess used hers to link them to Trace, things could go either way, but for now, it was a matter of expediency

“I’ll do better than that.”

Trace shared the vision, and for all that they said they hated their parents, their expressions grew tense with anger as they saw the murderer’s hands, almost lost in the folds of a bell-sleeved robe.

In them was a flask of something with a clear liquid which they poured into the wine cups, stirring it with a wooden spoon, the passing their right hand over it in an a pattern.

That’s new. I didn’t see that in the first vision, Trace thought.

***************

A low light pulsed in the dark wine, flashing like lightning, brightening the burgundy to bright red, like blood fresh from the vein. As it darkened and blended into the wine, they could all see the tendrils fanning out slowly, twisting and curling like smoke, dying out, and the wine looking like wine once more.

I didn’t get this the first time.

Trace felt a surge of alarm, a suspicion forming, and the face beneath the hood looked up.

Before Trace could see it, her eyes flashed and blinded them all.

They all cried out as they reacted, pushing back chairs and stumbling from the table.

The sudden cries and movement caught the captain off guard, jumping quickly to his feet and scanning the room, but he saw nothing.

Their vision began to return.

“Find them,” Kihari rasped, looking at the captain.

“She’s not here,” Trace said. “This happened days ago; she just added the details to what she wanted me to see. She must have felt the link somehow, and entered it. She manipulated it.”

Damn! I’ve got a Light witch to fight.

Without hesitation, he flung himself back through the collapsing link, risking dissolution himself.

She was in the forest, far from human eyes.

She’d teased him into it, letting him almost see her, but she didn’t expect him to risk traveling the sub-link; it was collapsing too fast though, so she saw him begin to disappear out of it, still looking at her.

As she began to see through him, she did finally look up, and smile, her small fangs gleaming, her large eyes the blue of a late summer sky, her hair a dull gold in the fading sunlight that came through her window.

Lydia.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

Play Dead

The audience grew silent as the houselights finally dimmed.

The darkness settled over them like a worn, well-loved cape across the shoulders, providing an intimacy and warmth in the small theater.

A single spotlight, silver white, hit the center of the stage, and in the middle of it stood a man with a knife protruding from his throat.

Rivulets of blood widened and thinned in time with his heartbeat, and his head was down, his black hair hanging limp and greasy in front of his face.

He looked up, and his eyes were gone, the crimson ruin of his sockets turned toward the audience in all their grisly glory.

Some screamed, some turned away, some fainted, but none left.

The actor shambled toward the front of the stage, and those in front shrank back from his grim visage as he seemed to look at them one by one, and smiled affably, for all that his lips were swollen and his teeth were gone.

“I can hear your heartbeats, feel the heat of your blood rushing to your faces; the tang of your sweat is in the air like bitter brine, mixed with perfume that smells like sweet tea.

“You, dear audience, are a study in contrasts. You fear me, but don’t run, because you’ve paid to see me here.

“Here I am. Are you pleased? Do you have your money’s worth?”

He waited, and some began to sob as they rose to leave.

He smiled again.

“So soon? You’re being rude. You haven’t met my wife yet. Honey?”

A woman emerged from the opposite side of the stage, her torso split, organs shining wet and red in the spotlight, her head at an odd angle, with a short piece of rope still wrapped in a thick coil around her neck.

“What crime did I commit,” she said, “that they treated me so?”

She went and stood beside the man, and they held hands.

She kept her free hand around her body to hold her organs in, and blood cascaded over her arm as her knee buckled, but the man held her firm.

“Can anyone help us?” she said.

The people in the back began to scream, and cries of “Let us out!” reverberated through the theater.

“They’re rude, honey. They want to go. Can you hear them?”

“I can hear them. Shall we release them?”

“I think we should.”

No one was left in a seat as the audience scrambled, screaming and crying, for the door.

“You haven’t finished watching the play; there are more of us,” the eyeless man said.

From the balconies and exit lobbies, other actors and actresses in dead makeup shambled toward the captive audience.

As they fled to the exits, they found the doors locked, and the cast, about one hundred in all, shuffling toward them, hands outstretched to tear, fanged maws opened wide as they salivated over their crumbling chins.

The man and woman called from the stage as the dead cast members began to tear the people to bloody strips.

“Thank you for coming,” the eyeless man said.

“We hope you’ve enjoyed our play,” the disemboweled woman said.

They took a slight bow, and came down the stairs to take part in the killing, the white spotlight following them as far as it could, before it went dark.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015