At first glance it appears to be no more than shadow, until the watcher realises that the sun falls direct onto that corner. Where there is shadow there should be blinding light. What then is that strange conformation of darkness? The watcher leans closer, peers into the bars. A low hiss, as of steam escaping an over-boiling pot, rises from nowhere, from everywhere, seethes through the air as though it has taken life, taken voice–and that voice beguiles, caresses, terrifies.
The watcher begins to sweat. There’s heat enough for sweat, that much is certain, but this sweat is cold, leaches out rather than pours, a bodily reaction to primitive sensations arising like snakes in the belly. As he stares into the shadow, the alluring, gut-churning hiss changes from caress to constriction, tighten like ropes around him. The shadow shifts, begins to move. He’s still not certain of what he sees, this watcher, yet he knows that, more than anything, he wants to rear back, to move away, but he’s held, helpless, in the grip of fascination, of hissing, grasping air.
Clossssser. The air sussurates into his ears. Closssser.
He leans forward a little more, begins to tremble, wishes the gaps between bars were not so wide, as his head moves further into the cage, his body pressing into hard iron, the metal sinking deep until it presses muscle against bone, making him ever more aware that he’s helpless, trapped. Though he stands outside the cage, though the shadow resides within, the question of who is truly prisoner flits across his fear-drenched mind.
A hand grasps his arm, fingers sharp as talons, tearing through cloth into skin as it hauls him against the grip of the air, ripping him loose. This act will leave a mark on flesh and pride alike, but he is free, finally free, and turns to thank his saviour.
‘Careful,’ Saleth sneers at the man, cutting through his thanks careless as a blade. ‘One minute more and you would have been theirs. They are hungry. They are always hungry.’
‘What goes on, Saleth?’ Archibald’s voice is almost as beguiling as the hissing of air, every bit as dangerous.
‘The Sleathes are restless,’ she says, lancing him with a gaze bright and hot as molten iron. ‘They’re dangerous at the best of times, despite all the wards on their cell, but lately they’ve been strong. Too strong. Archibald, you should not have them on display.’
He spares a glance for the shadows, the mass of Sleathes curdled together in the corner, now pocked with milky red eyes, glowing with unfathomable malice. His jaw tightens. ‘I’ll add more wards. The Sleathes are too popular to remove entirely.’
‘Don’t be foolish,’ she whips out, her scorn abrasive as pumice. ‘Something is feeding them strength, can you not feel it? Are you not aware how dangerous these things are? They are not animals, Archibald, they are not anything that can be so easily understood nor contained. You have not enough power to hold them.’
He gives her a smile formed of angles and edges. ‘So use yours. You and that cat work for me now. Lend me your strength.’
Saleth looks once at the Sleathes, shudders and looks away. ‘I will not be part of this,’ she tells him, certain as winter is cold. ‘They do not forget and they do not ever forgive. To be eaten by Sleathes, Archibald, it is punishment beyond anything, pain beyond endurance. That will not be my fate.’
‘Are you saying it will be mine?’ he asks her, trying to sound amused, but the fear in his voice, his eyes, betrays him.
Yessssssssss. The air replies. Soft, and sweet, and so, so satisfied. Yessssssss.
Lucian watches Alex move ahead through the undergrowth in the lightless forest, subtle and graceful as a wolf on the hunt. How wrong to think he’d seen the full beauty of the man. He understands now that the city, that beast-ridden jungle of stone and tradition is not this man’s natural habitat, comprehends why it is that his sojourn as Lord of the Manor all but broke his soul. Here at last he sees him where he belongs, not yet even at his full glory, because they are yet to reach their enemy, yet to engage it. There he knows without doubt that he will be lost watching this man, lost in his beauty.
Alex freezes, holds up his hand. Without making a sound, he moves back until he’s side by side with Lucian, who trembles within at the proximity.
‘I see it.’ Alex speaks below even a murmur; it is as if the air itself breathes words into Lucian’s ear.
‘What?’ He winces at his own attempt. Compared against his Alex, he finds his skill sorely lacking.
‘Our enemy. Your commanders, they lied.’
Lucian looks at Alex, bracing himself for the familiar jolt. Those piercing scraps of bluest sky stare out across the undergrowth, at something far beyond them, hidden amongst the shadow-drenched trees. That stare is diamond-like with suppressed fury. ‘What’s wrong?’
Alex turns that gaze to Lucian, who drowns, helpless. ‘They told us we were engaging an enemy unit from Moldav, yes?’
Lucian nods. ‘Right.’
‘They allowed us to assume it was soldier elite.’
Lucian frowns. ‘I was told that it was.’
Alex shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says, slow, angry, a steady pulse of outrage riding his voice, his demeanour. ‘They send us against Sleathes, Lucian. There are Sleathes out there. A battalion, perhaps more. I’ve never seen so many in one place. I didn’t think they’d gather in such numbers. Even with such swords as we have, it will be impossible to kill so many before we are consumed.’
Lucian looks out into the forest. He sees nothing, but he trusts Alex’s eyes. He’s seen some of his skill here on the hunt, read his record and knows of his courage, his brilliance on the battlefield. This man wouldn’t lie. But they are Her Majesty’s men. They can’t turn back, can’t lose face, Alex knows that as well as he, Lucian’s sure of it. As if to prove his faith, Alex pulls on his gauntlets, his face grown steely with brute determination. He’ll go down fighting, even as he’s consumed. They all will. It’s their way, their creed.
Lucian’s chin drops. He pulls on his own gauntlets, stunned by the pain that grips his heart. Alex has become essential to him as air, as sustenance. Without him, Lucian would perish. But they are to perish anyway, before he’s even had chance to declare his heart. Lucian curses his foolishness. This moment, this quirk of fate, was in his hands. He had chance to change it, if he’d but known. Blythe spoke to Imalia, who demanded an audience with Lucian. There, at that point, in that moment, he could have spared his love this battle, but he chose to keep Alex for himself, to keep him by his side.
He feels a hand on his chin, forcing his head up. Those pools of purest blue stare into his. As ever, Lucian plunges into their depths, his breath stilled.
‘I wanted to thank you,’ Alex says. ‘Blythe told me Imalia would ask you, would decide upon your word. I was fearful you’d be foolish enough to try and save me.’ Alex pauses, licks his lips, and Lucian almost falls apart. ‘I’d have died of sorrow if they’d forced me to return to my Duty. That’s not a death I could have borne with any pride. Understand that I’d rather die here than meet that end, that I’d be happy to die here.’ Those periwinkle irises glint like fresh sharpened steel. ‘But understand this also, Lucian; I do not intend to die here, and I will not let you die either. We,’ he tells Lucian, his every word steeped in intent, ‘are unfinished business.’
Alex lets go of his chin, disappears from his view like a ghost, and Lucian’s left struggling for air, his heart frozen in his chest, refusing to beat. In that moment, desire has become reality; his heart walks before him in the forest, beats in another’s chest. Warmth coils through his belly, his limbs. Lucian is dizzy, euphoric. He grasps his sword, flooded with an absolute, unshakeable calm. Let the Sleathes come, let them try to consume him. He will meet them in battle head on and slaughter them all, for they stand between him and his heart.
The Librarian is old now. Perhaps he was always old. He cannot recall it correctly. His mind is become ragged as the vellum of some ancient manuscript, time worn and fragile, written over again and again, the words erased but never quite gone, bled as they are into the fibres, the spirit of the pulp. He is that tangle of too many words, his memory wraithlike, scraps and syllables of moments that make little sense. It is as though he is not just other words from this life, written in this hand, but as if he is written of many lives in many hands, each one erased, written over, but never gone, bled into his fibres, the spirit of his pulp.
Around him the shelves are filled with hollow voices crying to the void. Lonely, yearning, deceitful voices, pleading voices. Hungry, so hungry these Lost artefacts, these treasures he is charged to guard, to catalogue. He is the Librarian of the Lost, and the Lost are ever hungry to be found. He has been here forever it seems, in the midst of the Libraryrinth. Perhaps once he too sought his freedom, but there is no exit, no entrance, only shelves rising on and on forever, curling into infinity, and always more Lost things arriving that he must scratch into his ledger, for the compulsion is loud as the clamour of Lost voices, refuses to be ignored.
His eyes are tired. His heart weary. Disembodied words float within him, a stealthy language of pasts he has forgotten. They weave into stories he whispers to himself in the darkness. It is as if, after all this time, he is built only of these words. One by one they have replaced his flesh, until he is story in motion, a sum of forgotten lives clamouring for remembrance. One day, when he has spoken all the words in his mind and remains unknown, unknowable, he will scratch his name into this ledger, a string of meaningless letters, and place himself upon the shelf, waiting to be found.
© Ren Warom 2012