He arrived in the middle of the night, banging on their door in the midst of a raging storm.
Windy gusts lashed the windows, tree branches scraping the panes. It brought her and her parents barefoot down the creaking stairs, their movements indolent from sleep. Guttering candles in iron sconces painted gold on their heavy-lidded eyes.
Her father opened the door, letting in a fury of tempest that billowed her nightgown around her legs and sprinkled raindrops on her cheeks. They clung like crystals to the cloudy curls around her head.
And there he stood: his long dark hair plastered to his skull by the torrential rains of the autumn storm, a crumpled piece of parchment with water-blotched ink on it clutched in his pale fingers.
He thrust the paper with her parents’ writing on it onto the floor. The script bled bold black streaks onto the white tiles, inky veins spilling betrayal.
“I’ll take her,” he said.
It wasn’t that her parents hadn’t loved her.
They had, but her magic disrupted theirs.
Weeds her father had already uprooted sprouted back up in his garden and strangled his roses and herbs. Roasting chickens and skewered swine would come back to life and try to wriggle their way off the spit while her mother was cooking. Bugs smashed on skin revived in seconds to buzz and bite again.
Her magic chafed on theirs – interfered in the normal way of life – and they had been trying to marry her off for years. In order to find her happiness, they said—and their own peace, of course.
But no one would have her.
Oh, she was pleasant enough to look at, even passably pretty – some even found her beautiful – but her magic grated on her suitors’ powers.
Or frightened them.
In desperation, her parents had finally flung an ensorcelled bottle into the sea.
The penned plea the dark stranger thrust on the floor along with raindrops from his fingers.
His gaze traveled past her parents’ hunched figures and settled on her where she stood on the bottom step of the grand staircase, shivering in the storm-riled wind that whipped in through the open door.
He held out his hand.
She remembered that moment like a waking dream, entranced by his beauty, by the sinister air he wore like a cloak, his look fixed so intently on her face.
What part of her betrayed her?
Her bare feet, her racing breath, her faithless heart.
She only regained her senses after the carriage door slammed shut behind her and they were lurching down the road. He was sitting across from her under the rain drumming on the carriage roof, his eyes glinting in the moonlit dark.
She’d not packed a single thing, nor even bid her parents farewell.
“Wait!” she hunched forward. “I’ve not kissed my parents goodbye!”
He smiled in the darkness – so potent she felt it – and then he was beside her, his hand cupping the back of her neck and his breath warming her lips. “If it’s a kiss you want, all you have to do is ask,” he murmured and lowered his mouth to hers.
It wasn’t the shock to carnal introduction that jolted her – and his kiss was carnal – it was that as his mouth drove deeper and she sank into the arms he cupped around her, the memories of her parents lost focus and blurred at the edges, fading along with the ivy-coated house she had romped in as a child, the sunlit cherub in the back garden she had sketched on lazy afternoons, the butterflies that had landed on her fingertips.
He was stealing her memories: the festive evenings baking sweets with her mother, the quiet afternoons reading with her father.
He was taking them so she wouldn’t ever want to go back home.
She wouldn’t even be able to get back if she tried, because she wouldn’t remember the way, or even what her hometown was named. Already her parents were relegated to vague shapes in her mind. If she met them on the street, she would pass by with a polite smile while they looked after her with broken hearts.
This was his magic then:
The magic of forgetting.
The magic of binding.
The ability to make her forget everything but him.
Such magic was rare, almost as rare as her own. This ability to take her past desires from her mind and heart and replace them with himself.
She let him take them. After all, this was what she wanted. She didn’t want to go back. Not wrapped up in this luscious passion.
Then he pulled back and the damage was done, her home lost, her past mere ashes that could never lure her away from him.
They wed swiftly in the small chapel of a fishing town near the docks – she in her nightshift and he in his damp clothes, the priest in an enchanted daze, roused from his warm bed.
Then her new husband bundled her inside his cloak and hurried her toward his small private sailboat, his arm locked around her shoulders and his long strides eating up the distance between the chapel and his vessel, as if even after his binding, even after the ceremony, even after the kiss that had rendered her witless, he still feared she would change her mind.
He manned the small vessel by himself on a choppy sea while she huddled close to the mainmast.
On a muddy tarp that reeked of fish and sea refuse, she followed the sureness of his movements, admiring his dark hair against the agate skyline.
But she loved more the moments in between, when he curved himself around her, his breath near her hair.
When they arrived at his manor – on an isolated island in the middle of a tempestuous sea – he gave her a room stocked full of dresses… dresses close to her in size but all a bit too short.
She felt like a little girl wearing pinafores she had long outgrown.
But she dared not complain. If she were defiant, impertinent, he might divest himself of her, and she must be obedient.
She didn’t ask to whom the dresses had belonged before her, either, although she wondered – who could wear another woman’s clothes and enjoy another woman’s husband and not wonder at her fate?
The isolation of his home on the island failed to vex her. Was she not accustomed to being the outcast? The one no one quite wanted around.
And she had him. Him in her bed doing things she never imagined. Him pressing smiling kisses to her lips when she woke groggy and mussed every morning. Him as they walked the sandy shores, when she would kick off her slippers and burrow her toes into the sand, then run until the flying grains tickled her skin and caught in her skirts. They would tumble out later when she traipsed back through their mansion, like glittering granules tracking her path through the halls – as if she were a fairy, he would say before taking her lips in a laughing kiss.
She would wade in the sea, too, and let it tug on her calves. He would wade with her sometimes, his pants rolled up, his unsmiling face relaxing into surprised laughter whenever she splashed him. Sometimes they sat on crags and watched dolphins leaping white crests, or they would make up tales of travelers on ships sailing the horizon, each one wilder than the next, until his eyes shone and her mouth ached from smiling.
She had him, too, at dinner cooked by never-visible servants. During chess games beside snoozy fires. Sometimes they would alter reading books aloud – about fantasy realms where she played a lamenting woman and he a knight caught in a net by a wicked foe.
But too often in the midst of joy, it would fade, and his look upon her would turn somber.
She only dared ask once what had struck that black shadow upon his brow. After his brooding silence at her impertinent inquiry, she kept such wayward questions from passing her lips again.
But she often wondered what he desired. Was she what he yearned for above all else, or was there something else lurking in his wishes that made him restless and dissatisfied?
He rarely looked dissatisfied, and his focus on her was absolute when he talked to her or laughed with her or… did other things to her.
And yet too often he carried a doomed air about him, as if he seemed to be waiting for this all to end. He had this way of looking at her, fiercely possessive and proud and yet tragic, as if despair pushed close to the surface. And he had this way of touching her, as if knowing he could not keep her.
There was only one command he wanted obeyed.
“Whatever you do, don’t unlock this door.”
It was the same routine every time he left: the command, the look – that intense black gaze.
The handing over of his keys.
Why didn’t he simply remove the offending key from the key ring and take it with him if he wanted her to stay out of the chamber so badly?
But asking him might seem impertinent, and so she bit her lip on the insolent question and jangled the key ring in her hands, liking the soft clank of the keys as they clinked against one another.
“I won’t open it.”
Her routine was the same, too, every time he left: her promise, her too-bright eyes, her demure smile.
How she meant it.
Every time she said it she meant it.
She must be the perfect wife – an obedient one.
She had to be obedient.
He smiled his beautiful smile at her words and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close to his caped figure, his black cloak caressing her lavender gown. “Obey me and all will be well.” Whispered against her lips like a secret before he drew her deep into a luxurious kiss.
Darkness became a flutter behind her eyelids, desire a flutter in her stomach, and his body warmed her through his black pants and vest.
Then he was gone, leaving her wanting as she stood alone in the corridor, bereft of his touch and with the keys still warm from his skin dangling from her palm.
She sighed. Recently, ever since the trips had started up after their marriage, he never gave too much of himself, as if afraid she would start disliking his taste or cringing from his touch, and his scant affections left her starved for more… though she never pressed or nagged.
She must be obedient.
To console herself, she jangled the keys again, smiling at the musical sound and liking the way it covered his footfalls as he strode down the stairs away from her.
He would be crossing the foyer below by now and would want to see her before he left, so she walked out onto the gallery.
He halted in the doorframe, his dark hair and attire swallowing the sunlight. He met her gaze.
Remember, he mouthed.
Kiss me, she wanted to respond, but knew she must not.
She must be obedient.
And so she inclined her head. I will remember not to unlock your door. And if I do not, then I will remember your urgent body on mine and that will remind me to obey.
He smiled – a rare gift, too infrequently bestowed and therefore a powerful inducement to make her strive to win another.
She would obey. She must.
But once the front door shut behind him, they came again.
The whispers always came the instant he stepped foot out of the house, as if they sensed his absence.
She hadn’t mentioned them to him, afraid he would think her mad… or worse.
But she could hear them everywhere. Coming from the walls, the ceilings, even the floors. And not just here, but everywhere in the manor, following her through the corridors as she wandered the halls, flowing around her as she undressed, accompanying her even into her dreams…when she slept at all.
They were here somewhere, these concealed whisperers, hiding from her. She had already searched for them with the thoroughness of the obsessed, gradually picking her way room by room, starting with the cellar where the murmurs were augmented a hundredfold and ending with the attic where they were disembodied and fractured. She had searched for hidden trapdoors or locked chambers, cells or oubliettes, but there were none that she could find. She had even looked in cupboards and drawers for tricks and found nothing.
The only room left to search was the forbidden one.
But she must not go in there.
She must be obedient.
She sighed, jangling the keys as she paced the empty halls – the whispering halls.
Not that she wanted to disobey.
But the whispers were becoming unbearable. They increased in volume, as if there were more of them now, as if one had told the others, ‘She can hear me—she can hear us!’ and they all joined in.
She was certain that they were coming from the forbidden room. Every time she passed it now, she could almost make out their words.
Come to us. Save us.
Then she would stop and listen and they would be garbled again.
She was going mad, hearing words where there were only incoherent murmurs.
But she would walk on and they would come again.
Come to us. Save us…
But when she halted and tilted her head to hear better, she couldn’t discern a single word, as if this were some sort of morbid game they were playing with her.
She hated it. Who did these whispering voices belong to?
She found herself walking back and forth in front of the chamber, rattling the keys, ignoring the voices and catching a phrase or two and then whirling around only to lose it again. She probably looked like a madwoman prowling in front of the locked door – she certainly felt like one.
She stopped, breathed, told herself to walk away.
She took a step.
Come to us, they whispered.
“Stop it!” she cried, halting.
Open the door.
She pressed her hands against her ears and backed away.
She must be obedient.
Must be obedient.
Open the door, they whispered, Open the door.
The keys clinked right by her ear.
She must be obedient.
We beg you, they implored.
No! She flattened herself against the wall and shut her eyes, trying to block them out.
But their voices gained strength and assumed a terrifying clarity. She hardly heard the keys clanking right beside her ear.
We beg you…beg you –
Set us free…
She felt their despair now—overwhelming despair. It wrenched at her entrails like hooked blades, a sickle dug deep into her core, tearing, rending –
With a sob she flung herself at the door, her hands shaking violently as she sifted through the keys.
She knew which one it was.
The only one she’d never used.
You must obey, the voice in her mind tried again.
It went unheard, drowned out by the beseeching whispers.
The key turned.
The lock clicked.
The door swung open.
The voices stopped.
Silence. Utter. Absolute.
Still trembling uncontrollably, she peered into the room – and froze.
Debilitating horror. She’d made a mistake mistake mistake.
Mutilated bodies and bloody limbs lay strewn about the floor like toys flung aside by a petulant child. The tiles were stained a dark red, almost black under what looked to be fourteen partially dismembered corpses.
And in the middle of the carnage stood her husband.
The glint of madness in his eyes.
“I knew you would come.” He smiled genially, as if he were greeting her over tea. “So nice of you to oblige.”
She spun around to flee, but something invisible – magic? – gripped her around the neck and hauled her back.
“Not so fast,” he admonished her with a wicked chuckle.
The force around her throat jerked her around so that the blood and dismembered corpses and his insane face filled her eyes, her ears, her mouth—she tasted the bodies’ meat and blood.
He started across the bloodstained floor, a bloody axe in his hand. “It’s time for you to die.”
This had been the fate of her predecessors. The dresses she wore had belonged to his previous wives… and he had murdered them all. Every single one.
“You idiot,” she snarled. “You don’t know what I am.”
His feral grin widened as he approached. “You’re my next victim.”
“I’m a necromancer,” she spat. “I make things come back to life. Weeded plants, dead animals – even if they’re already roasting. Even murdered wives return.”
He stopped then, hearing a shuffle behind him. His eyes widened.
He whipped around, coming face to face with fourteen ghoulish, grinning corpses, their bloody limbs sliding across the floor and reattaching to their bodies.
“Goodbye,” she whispered as they converged on him, unshed tears in her eyes. His axe swung madly, but he could not kill the already dead. His unearthly scream as they took him down in a bloody swarm would haunt her forever.
Then the walking cadavers turned to her.
Thank you, they whispered.
We are now free.
And they collapsed where they stood in a ring around her dead husband.
She fell to her knees and reached out to touch his corpse but stopped herself before she did.
I’m sorry I wasn’t obedient, she apologized to the gruesomely defaced carcass, unable to reconcile his uncertain laughter with this insane creature. The man who had brushed sand from the tip of her nose with his fingers couldn’t be this…
Then a door slammed downstairs. Someone called her name.
Her heart stopped.
It was him, only he was dead.
Footsteps pounded on the stairs, down the hallway.
She couldn’t move.
His voice was frantic now—and for an instant the footfalls stopped – he’d seen the open door.
Her name ripped from him, anguished this time.
The running footsteps resumed. He appeared breathless in the doorway. His wild eyes took in the slaughtered bodies and settled on her. Suddenly she was in his arms, his hands roving over her, reassuring him that she was whole.
“You’re alive,” he cried, disbelief and wonder and incredulous laughter in his voice. His lips brushed across her cheeks, her hair, her mouth. “You’ve killed him.”
“Not me.” But her answer came guarded; she knew not whether to trust him or not. “Your – his… previous wives.”
Realizing how rigid she was, he dropped his hands and stepped back, a pained look on the face she still called beloved.
“He was my twin brother,” he said flatly. “But while my magic is forgetting and binding; his is – was – remembrance and imprisonment. It drove him mad.”
Imprisonment magic—the most dangerous kind. It enabled someone absolute control over someone else if they spilled that person’s blood. Most babies born with such magic were killed at birth, but it wasn’t unheard of for loving mothers to hide such children away and keep them hidden under lock and key.
“He’s had me imprisoned for years,” her husband continued in a deadened voice, “ever since he cut me in a childhood accident. He’s been playing this horrible game with me since then, forcing me to keep his existence a secret, ordering me to go out and find women, seduce them, and marry them. He made me bring them back here and leave them alone twice a month with the command not to unlock this door. Some resisted for a while, but they all opened it. And they all died by his hand.”
And yet death had not freed them, because their spilled blood had allowed him to imprison their spirits. Those had been the voices she’d heard begging for release.
Her husband schooled his careful expression into inscrutability. “You’ve freed me from him,” he said in a voice lacking inflection, “and I’m obligated to release you from your bond to me.” He swallowed and looked away, his nurtured apathy wavering. “If you wish to go.”
If she wished to go? After all the trouble she’d gone through to get a husband?
“Do you want to break our bond?” she inquired in something just shy of a whisper. Because I don’t. But she could not make herself speak it aloud. “I’ll understand if you don’t want a necromancer for a wife—”
He had her in his arms in an instant. “Who gives a damn about that? Haven’t you noticed how I look at you, how I greet you every time I return? When I thought he’d gotten you, too, it was like losing the ground beneath my feet. Say you’ll stay. Say you’ll stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The way his fingers trembled on her arms, as if afraid she would pull away; the way his body tensed, as if ready to leap after her if she did; the way he was looking at her – with such uncertain, terrified longing – it all combined and made her spirit soar.
A tendril of tentative happiness unfurled within her. “Then keep me.”
He urged her out into the corridor, shutting the door on the butchery within.
Then came the glorious kiss. She shivered with the perfection of it – of him.
He drew back, hope shimmering on the air between them. “Just one thing, my love.”
He brushed his lips across hers. “Just make sure you don’t bring my brother back.”
A thud and a shuffle from the murder chamber brought their heads around.
For more short stories, click here.