Cerys comes and hovers in the doorway, the next eldest but me. “I’ve been out around the village. Three other families have sick children.” When I don’t reply she says, hesitantly, “Rhona?”
I can hear the pleading in her voice. She wants to believe it wasn’t me but everyone must have been telling her it is. I squeeze my eyes shut. I didn’t do this. It wasn’t me. How could I have done this?
I get up and I take her hands in mine. My family has never been afraid to touch me or let me touch them but today Cerys flinches when my left hand touches hers. “I’ll be back soon. Make sure Papa eats. Take care of Ilsa, she’s going to be very ill.”
I don’t know how this disease started, but I know how to stop it.
Cerys watches me with her mouth open as I pull on a heavy cloak. “But where are you going?”
The snow has been falling all day and the path up the mountain will be hard to follow. I don’t even know how far his house is. The game we used to play as children would take us only a dozen steps up the mountain and anyone who said they could see it from there was a liar.
I don’t need to say it. Cerys knows. I’m going to fetch the necromancer.
I leave her to tell the others and hurry out before I can change my mind. In the years since I was sick other families have lost children to strange illnesses but Meremon never came for them. He’ll not go on ignoring us and I will not lose Ilsa on top of everything else.
As I climb higher on the icy path I barely acknowledge my other hope. That when he comes down off the mountain again the villagers will remember who the evil one really is. Him, not me.
The path goes on and on, sometimes gently sloping but mostly steep and slippery. I fall down a lot and I have to keep stopping to catch my breath and despite my exertion I can’t stop shivering. My hands are buried in my sleeves except for when they’re scooping up snow to melt on my tongue.
I know the sun is lowering behind the clouds even though I can’t see it. What if I don’t make it to the necromancer’s house before nightfall? It could be much further than I imagined. No one’s ever said.
I stop again in the dusk light and peer through the snow at a dark smudge up ahead. Could that be his house?
I’m distracted by a dark shape swooping me and I scream and crouch low to the ground. Ravens swirl overhead, more and more of them, each one cawing an alarm like I’m an intruder, their wings a glistening black against the heavy gray clouds and swirling snow. I put arms over my head and stumble through the snow but they keep plunging toward me, clicking their beaks and cawing. I run, thinking that I’m heading for the smudge that I hope is the necromancer’s house when suddenly the side of the mountain disappears and I’m looking into nothing but an abyss. My legs turn to water because I’m going too fast and I know I’m going to die.
A hand grabs a fistful of my cloak and someone pulls me back from the edge just in time. Shrieking, I feel myself lifted up into the air, my legs kicking against nothing.
Through watering eyes, I see him. Meremon, holding me aloft as if I weigh nothing and glaring at me with those black eyes that haunt my dreams. Snow settles flake by flake on his silver hair and there’s a hard, deep line between his brows.
My breath fogs his face as I struggle for breath but there’s no vapor from his mouth. I want to tell him to put me down, that we need his help, but I can’t speak because my cloak is too tight around my neck.
How dare he treat me like this, as if I’m an intruder? He owes me. Seven years of anger and loneliness rise up and I thrust my blackened hand into his face.
Meremon’s eyes widen and he drops me in a gasping heap in the snow.
I expected his house to be warm, but it’s freezing cold.
The necromancer lives in a ramshackle castle perched on one of the mountain peaks. It was the dark smudge I saw through the snow. I stand shivering in the entrance hall, gazing about at the high ceiling and the leering sculptures in shadow. This place looks like he makes me feel. Ghastly.
Meremon is standing by a hearth on the far side of the long room conjuring a fire, a tall, gloomy figure in snow-speckled robes.
Something large appears at my elbow and offers a tray bearing a steaming cup. I reach for it and start to say thank you when I realize that it’s not a person, it’s a … thing. Man-shaped and fleshy but without a face or hair or ears. He’s not wearing any clothes, either. He’s just mottled flesh that looks as if it’s been preserved somehow and then reanimated. He’s not got any parts I see to my small relief, but he’s still terrifying. I think he might be a lich.