“It’s all right, Mama. I’m not afraid to die.”
I think this will be the last time I wake from the fever. My lips are dry and my voice crackles like dry leaves. The sickness has stripped the flesh from my bones and they ache so badly that even the weight of one thin blanket is a torment.
Mama is holding my hand and weeping into my palm. She looks up when I speak and the misery rimming her red eyes hurts worse that the pain in my joints. I don’t mind dying, except for her; except for my father and brothers and sisters. It will hurt them when I leave.
This is what happens in our village. Discarded magic floats down the river from the capital and infests an apple or a fish or a new-laid egg and every now and then, someone sickens and dies. The magic gets into the water, you see. We’re too poor for anyone to care.
“Where is Papa?” I would like to say goodbye to him. He can pass on my last words to my brothers and sisters. They’re keeping the little ones away from me in case I make them sick, too.
“He’ll be back soon. Try to rest.”
Back? My eyes roll with effort to the window. It’s black around the edges of the ragged curtain and I can hear a strong wind buffeting the walls of the cottage, as if a storm is about to break. A tingle of apprehension goes through me and I ask again, “Where is Papa?”
The front door opens and there are footsteps over the flagstone floor of the kitchen. Two sets of footsteps. It’s not the doctor. He’s been and gone weeks ago saying there’s nothing he can do. No one can do anything, and no one would come at night because…
“Mama?” I whisper, my terrified eyes locked on the door. It opens and I try to scream, but the sound catches in my dry throat.
I’m not afraid to die, but I am afraid of him.
Meremon, the necromancer who lives up on the mountain. He’s standing on the threshold wearing a long cloak. The hood is up and there’s a black hole where his face should be. Maybe he hasn’t got a face. I’ve never seen him before but I’ve heard all sorts of terrible stories. That he can turn into a raven and eat carrion. That he steals women’s bodies from the churchyard and does sick things to them. That at midnight on All Hallows’ Eve he stalks through the village and guts anyone who is abroad with his dagger. Sometimes my friends and I will dare each other to walk a little ways up the mountain path, trying to get a glimpse of his house. We go in twos and threes, giggling, with our hands clamped over our mouths to muffle the sound. After we’ve taken about twelve steps someone will cry A raven! A raven! and we’ll all come screaming and laughing down to the village again.
It’s only a game but I don’t know how I ever thought it was funny.
Papa comes in behind Meremon, his eyes darting between me and this tall, forbidding man. “Please, save our Rhona.”
I try to pull the blankets up over my head but I’m too weak. “No. I don’t want him. Let me die, please let me die.”
Mama and Papa try to tell me that it’s going to be all right, that I shouldn’t be frightened, that they’re here, but I keep whimpering my protests.
Meremon’s voice is as deep and slow as black treacle. A silence falls so swiftly that for a moment the fire doesn’t crackle and the wind no longer howls through the eaves. My rattling breath is caught in my lungs as if an invisible hand has squeezed my throat.
“Both of you. Leave us.”
Clenching his cap in his hands, Papa nods and edges toward the door. Mama hesitates, looking between me and this sorcerer of death.
I appeal to her from my narrow bed. “Mama, please don’t leave me alone with him.”
She looks between me and the necromancer, wringing her hands. “I—I will stay.”
The necromancer turns and heads for the door in a swirl of cloak.
“No—as you wish, sir!” she cries. She gets to the door first and goes through it before Meremon, using her body to bar his way. She casts one last terrified look at me and then up at him and whispers, “Please, save Rhona.”
The door slams in her face of its own accord.
“Mama,” I cry weakly from the bed, a few thin tears tracking down my face. I’m so parched but despair has wrung them out of me. “Please let me die. Just let me die.”
Meremon turns toward me and raises his hands to his hood. He pushes it back revealing long silver hair and a face like a gravestone, carved and cold. Eyes as black as a raven’s wing stare right through me. Everyone says he’s been up on the mountain for hundreds and hundreds of years, but that can’t be true. No one lives that long.