In the Carpathian mountains, Alexandru is racing to the next town on horseback to warn them of the coming of a mysterious power that can change anything. But with the Whispering Death getting closer and closer, Alexandru must take drastic action to save himself and these others. He must take on the form of a woman.
by Emma Finn
Alexandru rode desperately fast; dangerously so; along the narrow road, flogging his horse, pitched forward in the saddle. The Carpathians were lashed with rain and that high up, the thin track was exposed enough for the downpour to be beating against him, making the hoof-falls of his horse unsure on the slick and rocky ground. It was almost fully dark and pitifully difficult to see but he couldn’t risk stopping. If the horse fell exhausted then so be it. The message had to get through.
The mountainside was deeply undulating and the trail kept tight to it, swerving constantly. The slope above was steep and thickly pined; the evergreens only black fangs against the sky. To the right of the path was a dreadful drop into grim jagged darkness. He had travelled this path before in brighter times and he knew how dismal a fall would be; how shattered his body would become long before it reached the watery bottom.
But still he spurred his horse to greater speed, knowing how tired it must already be but more afraid of slowing down than the alternative. Already he had lost his family to the Whispering Death; every soul he knew well. If his final charge was to only spread word of the danger then he would give his life to do it.
At the next turn he saw the pinprick lantern light of the town further ahead up the mountainside, and brightened, slowing a little, desperately grateful that he would reach it. But as soon as he noticed his reduced speed he jabbed his heel into the flank of his horse and cried, “Yah! Yah!” glancing back fearfully over his shoulder.
Even with his speed, he thought he might see his pursuer bearing down on him, closing the gap until he was only a hand’s grasp away, but the path was empty. There was still time.
With one final turn, the track climbed straight and broad toward the high gates of the town. The horse was flagging fast but Alexandru didn’t let up, driving it to move quickly still until at last, at the foot of the gates, he let it come to a stop and climbed down, taking the rein. He hammered hard three times on the great doors then, pausing, hammered again.
“You in there! Let me in! Do you hear! Open the doors!”
“State your name and your business!”
“Alexandru Dalca, from Bracov, and I come with fell news. Give me entrance immediately!”
He tapped his foot irritably as he was made to wait. From beyond the door came the vague murmur of conversation, but the beat of the rain and the thickness of the doors prevented any words being clear. After several minutes one gate opened a crack and two figures beyond eyed him suspiciously.
“Please,” said Alexandru, glancing behind him down the road once again. “You must let me in. I need to speak to your mayor urgently. There is danger coming.”
“Danger that I will describe to your mayor. Please, we are wasting time.”
“From Bracov you say?”
“Yes. Please. Let me pass.”
The two men shared a look then the closest pushed open the gate wide enough for Alexandru to lead his horse through.
“Shut the gate, quickly,” he said, and catching the infection perhaps of Alexandru’s obvious fear, the man did as he was bidden, pulling the gates closed with a darting glance through and lowering the beam that locked it.
Alexandru allowed a moment for succour, but only a moment. He did not think mere gates would keep out the Whispering Death, no matter how high or thick they were, nor how inhospitable the surrounding terrain.
“Please,” he said. “Your mayor. Take me to him.”
“This way,” said the second man, leaving the first to remain at his post. He led the way into the town, whose narrow cobbled roads crawled into darkness and overhanging gambrel roofs blotted out the storm clouds.
Alexandru followed, leading his horse, but he couldn’t help one last glance at the gates and the shudder that followed it. He prayed that it would be enough to hold back what was surely coming but he didn’t believe it could.
The mayor of Sibesti was a bloated ass of a man and Alexandru knew as quickly as a glance that the odious pillock would not hear what he needed to; nor heed the peril he and his town lay under. But what other choices were there to him? None.
About the mayor sat cronies and woman. Two children played on the floor. The hall was well lit and the greater part of it was filled with townsfolk, talking and drinking.
“So speak Alexandru Dalca. Tell us all your news of Bracov. It is two summers since I travelled there, close as it is. How is your good priest? He was a rival of mine in our youth.” He chuckled sardonically.
“He’s dead,” said Alexandru.
“He and his wife. His family, his servants; my wife; my family; every man in the village.”
A black silence fell across the room. Everyone who had heard directly stared, and then the whispers began from others who hadn’t caught it who querulously and urgently asked for a repetition from their neighbour.
The mayor took in the atmosphere and then glared at Alexandru. “Explain yourself. Quickly.”
“It will be hard to believe,” he replied, “but I swear to you that it is the truth. You are all of you here in the very gravest of danger and that threat is not far away. Further, I have reason to believe that it is coming this way.”
“To follow you?”
“No.” Alexandru shook his head. “No. Not at all. I think it wishes to destroy everyone.”
There were chuckles all round; nervous ones. “Destroy?” said the mayor. “What? Everyone in this town?”
Alexandru shook his head again, more slowly. “Ev-er-y-one.”
A hush fell around the hall. Faces turned in query as the townsfolk tired to gauge how those closest to them took this, then murmurs began that quickly became chatter and then a furore. Both Alexandru and the mayor took stock of this but where the mayor saw reason to prompt anger, Alexandru only felt the squeeze of encroaching despair.
In failing optimism, he had hoped for a great rallying of men; a taking up of arms; some kind of swift and ready defence to be prepared before the Whispering Death arrived. But he could see clearly that this would not happen. He wasn’t one of them. He was a lone and battered stranger; little more than a crazed vagrant in their eyes. And who truly believed in magic in these more enlightened times? There had been a shift since the seventeenth century became the eighteenth – subtle though it was. Even rural folk did not believe the way they had in his father’s time; or his grandfather’s.
The chatter died down and faces turned once again to the mayor and his visitor.
“Tell me,” said the mayor, his voice now laced with mockery. “What manner of beast comes to doom us all, pray? Hmmm? What demon possesses might enough to slaughter men and women alike on such a scale?” He chuckled. “Or do you foretell the coming of a horde of such monsters? Is that what has you so frightened?”
Laughter broke out across the hall. Alexandru hung his head then raised it slowly and fixed the mayor’s eyes with his own, willing the ignorant fool to listen and understand.
“There is no horde,” he said quietly. “There are no monsters. Just a man. One man. A man with the power to do... awful things; things you couldn’t imagine.” As he went on speaking, his voice began to build, growing in intensity as it shivered with emotion. “He has done those things to the guards of my village; to every man that went out to stop him. He has done it to every fleeing woman and child when we came to understand the potent thaumaturgy he had had his command! It was done to my wife; my children; before my very eyes! He almost did it to me! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND YOU BULBOUS IDIOT!? HE IS COMING HERE AND HE WILL SLAY EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU!”
A crashing silence came down upon the hall. Alexandru was panting; his face red and then white with rage and exhaustion. But that fire died in his eyes when he saw the reflection of his words in the mayor’s face and despair at the futility of this set in.
The mayor didn’t speak. He didn’t need to. Alexandru raised his hand and nodded, turning away. Around the hall, every face was on his. He lowered his eyes and walked to the door, ignoring every gaze. When he reached it he stopped, leaning his sagging weight against the wood, wishing things could be different. Then he opened the door and went out into the night.
Outside the rain was hammering down. The lamp light from inside the hall lit the slicing drops close by but outside of that aura they were invisible shards.
Alexandru knew nothing anymore. He had no strength left to ride on; no strength to wait and fight the oncoming thing; no hope that he could do it.
He was spent.
The sound of the door opening behind him caused him to turn but it wasn’t the mayor or one of his cronies. It was only an elderly man dressed in muted cloth. Alexandru didn’t even acknowledge him. He looked instead up into the blackness.
“Mister Dalca,” said the man.
Alexandru frowned and turned back. There was an overhang at the front of the hall that he was standing beyond. The old man stood just under its protection, looking at him earnestly. “Yes?”
“I would speak with you. Please. Quite urgently in fact.”
The old man nodded. “Yes. You see I believe your story Mister Dalca. And further, I know the man of whom you speak.”
Alexandru followed the old man out of the circle of illumination at the front of the town hall. With his dark clothes he vanished instantly and it took Alexandru a moment to catch his silhouette, black against black.
The roads were very narrow and steep. The old man took the downward route, moving confidently but slowly. The younger man was desperate for the release of the revelation but two vertical fingers pressed against the old man’s lips followed by the flick of one finger to follow had brooked little argument. The rainfall was dense and loud. Storms were common when the season was bad but Alexandru had seldom seen cloudburst like this one, nor any as unrelenting.
They made one turn after another until the old man brought them to a stop at a narrow building and let himself in. Alexandru followed into the gloom and waited while a lantern’s wick was turned up, broadening the glow. The old man took a seat by the low fire and gestured for his visitor to do the same, then he closed his eyes, lowering his chin almost to his chest.
Alexandru took that moment of quiet to examine the man fully. His hair was white and very full but gathered at the nape of his neck. His cheeks were sunken but there had been a certain sprightliness to his movements. He perhaps wasn’t as old as he looked. His clothing appeared to be altogether common at first glance but Alexandru was the son of a tailor. He knew enough to recognise signs of the kind of quality that cost money.
The old man opened his eyes - the most piercing grey eyes Alexandru had ever seen – and fixed them on his guest, then slowly raised his chin as he started to speak. “I meant what I said when I told you I knew the man of whose coming you speak of.”
“How could you?” asked Alexandru. “I didn’t describe him or tell you his name; nor did I describe exactly what power he wields.”
“Nevertheless, I know of only one man alive today who possesses the ability... and the will... to do as you explained – to kill as quickly and as ruthlessly, squandering human lives like kernels of wheat on the field gone harvest.”
Alexandru sat forward. “Who is he then? Why does he do this? How does he have the power?”
The old man smiled, crinkling his face in a spiral of wrinkles. “His name is Negrescu.”
Alexandru mouthed the word.
“And he clearly still holds an artefact of diabolical potency; one that I prayed was lost to time.”
“What kind of artefact?”
“Let me ask you this,” said the old man. “When you first saw the man, what did you witness, exactly.”
Alexandru looked into the fire. “I didn’t... I thought nothing of my first sight of him; a lone man in cloak and hood, standing within the gates of my village speaking to the guard. I but glanced at him then looked away to go on with my business. I am— ... was the village smith.”
“Did he carry bags with him?”
“Not that I... Yes. Saddle bags on his horse. And in his arms something tall but covered by cloth.”
“Then... Then I heard the screaming. We all heard it. I looked to the way it came and saw two ladies, stricken with fear. Following their gaze, I saw...”
“Yes. But the guards were no longer beside him. They were at his feet, utterly still. I couldn’t see their faces; little more than clothes. I had no idea yet what he had done; what he had the power to do. It wasn’t until another man ran toward him, demanding that he stop where he was, and this time I saw it all clearly.” Alexandru wet his lips with his tongue. “He bent his neck, lowering his head to the tall object he had covered by the cloth, and he... whispered to it. He didn’t even look at the charging man. And suddenly... Suddenly, the man – friend of mine who I have known since childhood – fell forward to his knees, grasping at his throat as from him poured a torrent of dust. His body shook. It shook violently. My God. Then he fell to the floor as the guards had before him and I saw clearly that all flesh and muscle were gone from his bare stripped bones.”
Alexandru’s hands shook on the arms of his chair. He couldn’t stop staring at them, giving little involuntary shakes of his head.
“Go on,” said the old man, his clear eyes fixed on the younger man.
Alexandru glanced up at him, shivered and closed his arms about his chest. In response, his host poked at the fire and lay on another chunk of log.
The old man nodded.
Alexandru looked again into the flames as though caught up completely in his terrible recollections but presently he spoke again and this time the words came quickly so that he could get them free of his lips as soon as possible. “People panicked. Some went to assault him. Some fled. Some, like me, stood petrified, watching the grisly scene as time and again he bent to whisper to his hidden item – this artefact surely, that you speak of – and his attackers stumbled and fell to dust and bones. We... It took us time to comprehend what we were seeing, before everybody realised the unconquerable nature of this intruder; but when we did there really was panic. No one knew which way to run and every moment more villagers appeared to witness the racket, only to be struck down by this witchery where they stood.
“I ran with the others, glancing back in terror of the sights behind as scores of men and women fell before this whispering fiend. I could not find my wife; my children; but I searched, crying their names. I saw them and we ran to meet one another across the square, but the cloaked man, this Negrescu, came into sight. We stopped, staring at each other and at him.
“I went to charge at him; distract him from them at least; but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at them. He tipped his head and whispered to his artefact and in horror I had to stand and see the skin slough from the bones of my wife leaving her face a screaming skull; from my children: their limbs becoming bone before them as they fell forward and then flat.
“I should still have charged him. I should have avenged them. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. My mind was only ice cold panic as I saw him turn his eyes on me and start to tilt his head. I sprinted in a random direction, hammering up against the door to a hut only three feet away. The door shattered and I fell in upon it; still alive! There were more screams cut horribly short outside but I couldn’t think of rescue. I only thought of myself in my mad scramble through the dark interior, out through the shattered frame in the only tiny window there was.
“I ran and ran and ran and ran. Still people were running in every direction. No one knew where the Whispering Death was. But screams and silence came from behind me.
“I found a horse and whipped it hard to get me out of there, weeping for my lost loves and for my own mortality; nothing but a coward. A filthy coward.”
He stopped, panting again, he had gabbled out the words so quickly. The old man didn’t contradict his account in any way, or his self-condemnation.
“I rode out of the village and up the slope in this direction, a track that leads only to the forests and here. Then I stopped finally, my panic subsiding, and looked back the way I had come. There were still cries from the village but each in turn was cut off. I saw no movement; no other souls who had made it clear, at least in my direction. Some may have fled into the woods to safety; I can only hope.”
“Then I saw him. The Whispering Death. This Negrescu. He appeared at the foot of the trail I was on leading a horse.
“When I saw him I felt that same dagger stab of panic and knew well that he had slain all that he had seen, but still I couldn’t flee. But he climbed up onto his horse and started to ride in my direction; in the direction of this town; and I realised that all I could do was race ahead of him; hope to get here first; to warn people... to hide. I don’t know. I was afraid and my family died. I can never hope to earn redemption for that. And no one here believes me anyway. He will come and do the same thing to these townsfolk as he did in my village.”
He stopped speaking, staring into the hottest part of the fire. Neither one of them spoke for several minutes. Then finally, the old man said, “You are quite wrong you know.”
“You are not a coward.”
“Of course I am.”
“No. You came here didn’t you, when you could have hidden in the forests? You tried to warn the mayor. And mor;, there is still a part you can play in stopping this fell being; a way for you to earn your redemption.”
“Tell me then, quickly,” said Alexandru. “He may arrive at any time.”
The old man smiled. “Listen carefully.”
The old man steepled his fingers and set the point against his chin. “It was Gavril Negrescu who came to your town. I have no doubt in my mind about that.”
“Who is he?”
“Who he is and where he came from, or indeed how he came upon such power is not critical information that you need and, as you say, time is most certainly a factor. Suffice to say that he obviously still possesses the artefact and is using it in the most aggressive way possible.”
The old man stopped speaking. He seemed to gather himself, then he said, “I do not know the reason or target of this massacre but Negrescu is... angry.”
The old man gave him a sombre and level look. “The death of the woman he loved. He blames others for... what happened to her and he thinks, clearly, that these mass murders will punish the world for it.”
“But how is he doing it?” asked Alexandru. “What artefact could give such godlike power? These things should be impossible.”
“Not impossible. But power such as this is rare. It is a figurine of a bird of prey that he holds beneath its cover, and this object grants unlimited power over the flesh of others.”
“What kind of power?”
“It will answer the desires of its possessor but will do so by transfiguring its holder or its target. No man can withstand its enchantment.”
“Is transforming those before him; granting them that most final and irrevocable change: from a live body to nothing but bones.”
“Then he can’t be stopped. How can he be with such might? All he needs do is whisper a command and an army would fall before him.”
The old man sat forward, closing the gap between them. “No. There is a way. Something simple. Something he will not expect.”
“What? Tell me? We can’t have long now. We must act.”
“I am not without my own wiles,” said the old man. “Knowledge I have gleaned through my long years. And I know of a way that something akin to the artefact’s own magic can be used to defeat him.”
“Reveal it to me. Quickly.”
The man got to his feet and moved to a small cupboard in the gloomy corner. From inside he withdrew a small bottle, stoppered with a cork. “Negrescu can murder any who stray too close but I can think of one way that will stay the whispers on his tongue; one person whose presence would so surprise and befuddle him that a blade could be slipped between his ribs.”
Alexandru frowned, unsure what the older man could mean.
“The mixture in this vessel holds a similar enchantment to the power of the Hawk. If I were to give it you – if you were to drink it – you could undergo a physical transfiguration to just such a form.”
“What?” Alexandru rose, stepping back.
“There is little time to explain in full,” said the old man, “but if you imbibe this liquid then it will change your form such that Negrescu will pause at your sight. He will pause long enough to allow the chance to slay him.”
The dubiousness of this proposal would have made Alexandru laugh on any other day but the synchronicity of it now only chilled him.
“Change my form? Into whom?” he asked.
“I thought it was obvious,” replied the old man. “Into that of Negrescu’s wife.”
“Who are you?” asked Alexandru. “What is your connection to this killer? To the artefact?”
“Those things don’t matter now,” replied the old man. “What matters is that there may only be seconds before—” He went rigid.
“Did you hear that?”
“He is here. Quickly. Drink it.” He unstoppered and thrust out the little bottle so rapidly that the younger man flinched.
“And what? Become a woman?” The idea repulsed him.
“Not just any woman. The one woman on this earth that will give Negrescu pause; that will allow you the chance to strike him down!”
He took another step back but he could feel the immediacy of the Whispering Death’s arrival as though it was the glare of a hated rival in his peripheral vision. His hands were shaking again. “How can a potion change my body?”
“How can a statuette of a bird of prey turn men to brittle bone?” said the old man, pressing closer with urgency. “We know that it can and we know it will happen to every soul in this town unless we act! Unless you act!”
Alexandru heard a cry from the direction of the gates, followed by another louder shriek.
He snatched this little bottle from the old man and looked at it. The liquid was a deep green. Flecks of dark material moved slowly within, half concealed by the glassy sheen.
“Drink it! Drink it now!” cried the old man as another cry went up into the night followed by another, and gripping the glass so tightly he feared it might break, Alexandru knocked the liquid into the back of his throat.
The bitter taste blotted out his other sensations. The grit suspended in the liquid scratched his tongue. Then it was gone, slipping down toward his innards.
For a moment Alexandru felt nothing, and then a sensation ran through him like the caress of a lover. He closed his eyes, wincing; regret as brutal as a backhanded blow cracking into his soul then snapped them open again.
The old man’s strange grey eyes were afire with zeal, his gnarled hands clasped in front of him. He was grinning in expectation. And then a shift came to his expression synchronous with a shudder of alien movement within Alexandru’s stomach and he knew that it was happening.
“Keep silent,” said the old man, “and empty your mind. The cocktail responds to the thought of those close by. Let me guide it. Allow the picture I am forming to guide your flesh. Think only of the name; of your new name: Anca Negrescu.”
Alexandru stared in a mixture of wonder and fear as the old man shut his eyes tightly, drawing in splinters of creases on his forehead. As he did so, another sensation went through the younger man’s body and up to his head, making him drowsy; slightly dizzy. He swayed, catching himself with a hand on the wall before he could topple. At that same moment some essence moved through the filled cavity within his skull like water fresh from the stove poured into a tin bath. Alexandru almost swooned.
“Anca Negrescu,” he whispered, and his voice was lighter; almost feminine. “No.” He didn’t want this. But the Whispering Death was coming. He was already here. The slaughter had begun. Alexandru bent double, gripping the sides of his head, feeling thick long hair under his fingers, then he staggered and this time only the chair was there to stop him and he fell to his knees.
As the impact came the constricting pressure all about him intensified to almost excruciating levels, and then it was swept away and he was gasping for breath, his head hanging low.
Except Alexandru wasn’t a “he” anymore. Not in the slightest. He was a man no more. Now she was a woman.
She couldn’t catch her breath but she could see the profound change in her appearance, even through her blurring eyes. Gone was her former attire. Now instead, she wore a white tunic with full sleeves and a brown skirt. She had boots on her feet. Her hair was as full and long as it had felt, dark curls, almost black, hanging about her face. And her chest! How odd it was to touch it; to push the fabric in between her legs with frightened fingers.
She had to get a hold of herself, but the new reality was just too encompassing. Something moved in her brain, a place she had never imagined feeling directly and with it there was a shift inside her heart.
But she had to get up. She had to. There were more screams now; men shouting. The Whispering Death had only been at the gates for minutes. Right now, the people would still be running towards him. Soon they would be running away, fleeing hopelessly for their lives.
Alexandru pushed herself up, using the arm of the chair for support, dazzled by how tiny her hands were. The old man came to her and touched her back, steadying her arm. “Are you alright?”
“No.” The voice was strange on her tongue. “No. My head. It’s not right.”
“That will pass. The elixir will go on making changes to your thoughts until the transformation is complete.” What? My thoughts? I thought it was complete.”
“No,” said the old man impatiently. “Not at all. I told you; you are changing into Anca Negrescu. Completely. By the time it is complete you will be her in every way.”
“But, what? I thought...” She found it difficult still to gather her thoughts. “You said I would... I thought I would just look like her.”
“No. Listen. We don’t have time for this. Negrescu is getting closer every second that we tarry. You are already Anca in form; a perfect duplicate; but ultimately you will take on her feelings and her thoughts; even her memories.”
“For how long? When can I change back?”
“Change back?” asked the man with incredulity. “Why never, of course.”
Alexandru stared at the old man in disbelief. “Never become a man again?”
“Of course not; now hurry!” The old man pushed him toward the door, withdrawing a dagger from a fold of his tunic and holding it out. “Take this.”
Alexandru took it, feeling off balance mentally as well as physically. The blade was heavy in his little palm; apparently oversized. “But wait. Stop. I didn’t agree to this.”
“Do you want your redemption or not?” snapped the man. “Well?”
Alexandru balked. “I...” She thought of her wife; her children; her panicked flight from the village.
“You have to do it. You’re the only one who can. He has to be killed; now; before he murders everyone here including both of us. Find him; sneak as close as you can so that he will recognise that face; then step out and show yourself.”
She looked again at the dagger.
“He will know you of course and that may confuse him enough to get close. Once you’re close you must act without hesitation. You must slay him the first chance you get. Do not speak to him. Do not listen to anything he says. Kill him. Save everyone else here. Do you understand?”
She nodded. Then she nodded again.
“You know you must do this?” said the old man.
“Yes. I know it.”
Alexandru went to the door and opened it. The furore from all the dying was even louder now. She quailed to hear it, the fear twining around her heart in an entirely new way, running her blood from hot to cold in an instant. She didn’t feel herself on the inside.
The elixir will go on making changes.
But she had to move. People were dying. She looked back at the old man one last time. His hands were clasped at his waist now. There was something indefinable in his expression that only enhanced the fear she was feeling. But she could wait no longer. She turned her back on him and slipped away into the night, swallowed by the darkness.
The cloudburst that had hit as Alexandru left the great hall had subsided somewhat but the rain was still as dense as the air, instantly soaking her clothes and her hair as she crept from shadow to shadow toward the town gates and the cries of terror. With the clouds so low and thick and the night as deep now as it was, it was as dark as it would ever get. Very little lantern light issued from the little windows of the houses and Alexandru was only a shade of black on black as she clung to one wall after another, moving on.
Townsfolk ran past, crying for help or for others to run. Men who didn’t yet comprehend their peril charged past her furiously, some of them carrying makeshift weapons. But they would do no good. Their doom was already wrought.
As she crept on, Alexandru probed the inside of her mind, listening to the sensations her new body was feeding back to her. Every movement was strange from the lightness of her form to its grace. Her footsteps were graceful; the swing of her arms, the way she touched the walls for guidance: dainty. There was no way to know if it was purely the grace of this woman’s body that made her move that way or the tapping of these fell magics on her soul.
Another screech of terror came; this time just around the next corner. Alexandru pressed to the wall; frightened she would be glimpsed too soon. The reality of this plan was so absurd as to be almost irreconcilable, but there was sense enough to grasp. If the Whispering Death; this Negrescu; saw her only in part then he would slay her in place, her fingers turning to shards of bone, even as she clawed at her own screaming skull. No. She must somehow manoeuvre such that she became fully visible in one flourish, and close enough for him to recognise her.
The dagger was still in her hand. She loosened then tightened her grip, afraid she would drop it from her slippery palms.
She moved closer to the corner. Just around it would be Negrescu. But she had to time it perfectly.
There was shouting; a man and a woman, a child crying; then suddenly all three sounds ceased and she shuddered in horror to imagine the long bones of the parents fall among the smaller bones of their offspring.
Alexandru held her breath and peeped round the corner, just enough to get a sight line.
The Whispering Death was standing almost at the next corner, opposite the entrance to the great hall his back to her, fully cloaked. All about him lay mounds of sagging cloth over bleached bones, all that remained of dozens and dozens of townsfolk. For the moment he had no attackers; no victims but he wasn’t in any hurry. He waited, knowing they would come.
Alexandru shivered, preparing to step out; to approach him stealthily then call his name, hoping that might stay his lethal utterings. She even considered hurling the knife at his back; but if she missed then all was lost and anything but a perfect instant kill-shot would leave her exposed and quite, quite damned.
But as she moved to creep out of her position, the door to the great hall opened a crack and the corpulent mayor slid out as quickly as he could. He glanced at Negrescu’s back and then hurried to flee in the opposite direction, moving obliquely closer to Alexandru’s point of observation.
The mayor froze at the sound of Negrescu’s voice.
Alexandru wanted to pull back out of sight even though only a sliver of her face was in view in the shadows, barely noticeable, but she was afraid the motion would draw the eyes of the Whispering Death and she was compelled to see her nemesis so close; to see him do to this pompous fool what he would. But the mayor saw her as he half turned and his eyes fell fixed open her visage.
For her part, Alexandru stared at the cloaked figure as he revolved slowly, holding the artefact under its cloth clover at his chest. He was no more than twenty feet away and for the first time, Alexandru saw his face, marvelling not at its grisliness, but at its beauty.
He was young; perhaps only thirty harvests and under his hood she could see dark curly hair and a handsome smiling face with playful eyes. She stared, still unable to withdraw and a thought came to her that was so potent it almost caused all composure to drain, exposing her completely.
My Gavril, she thought. Oh how I have missed him.
And with those thought words her eyes widened and she bit her lower lip to capture the moan that almost issued.
The mayor turned his full body to face his murderer, shuddering with fear, his eyes straying perilously long on the hiding woman’s face; but Negrescu didn’t notice this or respond to it. He said,” You are the mayor of this place?”
The fat man nodded, starting to whimper.
“Then die with the rest.” Negrescu bent his head, raising the hidden statuette by one or two inches and his lips moved soundlessly.
“No,” muttered the mayor, but it was already too late. The word was snared on his lips as a puff of dust issued free instead; his tongue itself disintegrating.
The mayor tried to cry out but his lungs were already collapsing within him. Alexandru could watch no more and caring not if she should be seen, she fell back into the shadows, covering her mouth and nose with both hands, staring as the mayor’s clothes shifted, lowering as the bulk beneath them began to slough away. Vapour was coming from the ends of his sleeves; from between his buttons. He tried to raise his hands to look at them but the muscles in his arms had already atrophied too much to complete the movement. A quiver ran up his body that approximated the appearance of dizziness but was actually the dissolution of the flesh in his legs.
Was his brain gone? Were his eyes? The hair on his head slipped off to his shoulders as the skin keeping it in place turned to dust, leaving the bare skull underneath. And then a second shudder came and this time there was no muscle left on his limbs to support him and he crashed down in a great flap of fabric and clattering bone, not even in the shape of a man; just as a heap of detritus.
Alexandru couldn’t move. The transformation had taken only a second or two but it continued to play itself across her mind’s eye. For several moments she remained where she was, then the terror of the possible approach of this monster urged her to at least peer in defence if nothing else.
She closed on the brick corner again and steeled herself to peep round but the spot occupied by the Whispering Death was empty, She looked left and then caught the motion to the right as the back of his cloak passed out of sight round the far corner of the building she was pressed against.
He was gone and she had to pursue him, but she knew now, more than ever, how hopeless it was.
Alexandru gathered her wits, steadying the juddering nerves that were demanding she flee or at least hide.
I can do this, she thought. All I need to do is get close to him and show myself. Gavril would never harm me if he knows it’s me. I’m his wife.
But as she thought it, she paused in self-scrutinisation, but even then it took her several moments to realise what hadn’t felt right about those thoughts.
That I’m using his first name when he is a killer who murdered my family?
Then it came to her and she covered her mouth under gaping eyes, hearing again the admonitions of the old man; that the transformation would continue... on the inside of her head.
She pushed to the corner of her building, eager to finish this as soon as she could, but she paused there briefly, considering what he’d said about it being a one way change. What would become of her if she survived this? If she truly became this madman’s wife?
She couldn’t consider that now. She had to go on acting until this business was closed.
The courtyard before the great hall was still clear. She heard shouting but it was some way off, behind her and to the right. She slid round the corner and crept toward the next, knowing that Negrescu was likely to be in sight round the next bend. Unconsciously she went up on her points, not noticing anymore how gracefully she moved, how used she was to moving in a skirt, on the tall heels of her boots.
The dagger, she kept hidden by her body, pressed point up into the small of her back in her left hand. If the killer came into her view unexpectedly then—
Alexandru stopped dead. In front of her, no more than ten feet away, the cloaked figure of the Whispering Death walked round the corner facing her. Then he stopped rigid, in surprise.
Alexandru became instantly petrified, an entirely different quality of fear than she was used to; but though she expected it, the figure of Negrescu did not lower his head to the hooded bird in his hand. He was staring at her. They stared at each other. Then his jaw fell half an inch and he muttered the breathless word, “Anca.”
“Don’t hurt me,” gasped Alexandru, holding out her palm. “Please.”
Negrescu shook his head minutely, all malice gone from his eyes and the shape of his mouth. It was only wonder sculpting them now. “How can this be?” he said and his accent was thicker than Alexandru was used to. He was from far away; further east, surely.
Alexandru took a step closer to him, in a frame of urgency but the mingling of her desperate mission with a genuine desire to be close to this man. He was so handsome beneath his cloak; perfectly formed by the hand of the Lord.
The dagger pressed into the crease of her spine. She turned her body a little to mask the concealment but in truth, Negrescu looked only into her face. A smile was playing there on his lips. Lamplight flickered in his round eyes.
Alexandru went closer again, glancing down at the thing in his arms; the statuette. The cloth hood covered all but its base. Only its talons were visible.
Then a change came of Negrescu’s expression, perhaps at catching the diversion of Alexandru’s attention. The wonder dissipated; the eyes and mouth shifting again toward suspicion; hostility and peril not far beyond. “You died,” he said. “How can you be here? I saw your eyes fill with mist.”
Hearing his name parted the progress of his misgivings but each stream of his thoughts might still reach the worst conclusion.
Alexandru moved closer still.
All Negrescu had to do was tilt his head and whisper to the artefact he carried.
“It’s me,” she said. “I’ve come back to you.”
“Through magic my love,” she replied, startled by the tender words and the tone that formed them that came from her throat. “It has brought me back to you.”
“Yes darling.” She took another step. One more stride and she might be close enough, but seeing him now so close was undermining her resolve.
But Negrescu’s face went hard as stone, his skin pulled tight across the bone beneath. “There is only one source of enchantment that I know of and I can smell its taint.” He sneered. “You aren’t my Anca. You may not even be a woman.” He met her frightened gaze with eyes as cold and black as the void. “You are nothing but an imposter.”
“Gavril, listen to me,” said Alexandru, her voice wait and tremulous. “I can explain everything.”
There was a little too much distance between them. If she darted forward with the blade now he would see it and have sufficient time to block it. He might even simply step back and whisper to his little idol.
“No,” he snapped, that suspicion turning now to the inevitable hostility. “Don’t dare to use those lips to speak to me. This was clearly meant as a trick, to dupe me into weakness, but all you have done is fuel a rage that already burned like the noon sun. Did you really believe this hoax would delude me? That I wouldn’t know my sweetest love? That i would forget what was done to her?”
“Gavril please,” said Alexandru, distraught. Couldn’t he understand how close she was to really being his Anca? How much this closeness tormented her? “Let me speak.”
“This is their work,” sneered Negrescu. “Their foul contamination is smeared all over you. But they do not dare intervene directly. You are nothing but their dupe. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“I...” Alexandru thought of the gentle goading of the old man.
“They wouldn’t risk themselves before me. They’ve made that mistake before.”
“Who do you speak of? I don’t understand.”
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO SPEAK!” Negrescu rapped his brutal backswing across her cheek, sending her sprawling. Alexandru fell to the soaking cobbles, bashing her shoulder and knocking her head, losing all sense of self for a dizzying moment. She shook her head to clear her vision and gaped in lamentation at the sight before her. The dagger. It lay on the cobbles in full view a yard from her hand, and as the rain crashed down about her, Negrescu looked in wrath from the blade to her cowering face.
“So this was your design?” he said. “To pin me in the chest as I swooned over the visage of my lost love.” He chuckled soullessly. “Only one terrible miscalculation was made: that I still had a heart to pierce or feelings to ensnare me. I can pledge now that I have none. My love was shredded when the blood ran out of my dear Anca’s throat and if it lived on still, then the apocalypse that I have born before me ever since has disintegrated what remained.”
He walked closer to where Alexandru lay shivering against the stones. “How many innocents have I slain in my wrath? How many towns have I visited in my hunt for them and all their kind?”
She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t even understand.
“How eagerly did you do their bidding tonight?” demanded Negrescu. “And where is the one who sent you?” He spat. “Fleeing for his life before my retribution; putting fruitless barriers up to block my path in desperate hope that my course be diverted; that the score I seek to settle be denied.”
Negrescu shook his head slowly. “This gambit was damned and he knew it. He only aspired to brook delay, with you the essential sacrifice.” His features stilled suddenly, taking on a sorrowful caste. “It almost makes me pity you; consider freeing you as another hapless victim... another me... But any part of me that felt true pity was burned away when they murdered my Anca, and all may turn to ash and bone before me until I am sated.”
“You killed my wife,” muttered Alexandru; quietly; pitifully; and Negrescu paused to hear it, his face settling into something crossed with curiosity. “In Bracov; the village before this. You killed my wife and my children.” Alexandru lifted herself onto her hands and knees. “You speak of righteous vengeance; hint at some grisly perpetration on the woman with this face; but you are far... FAR worse than those killers could ever be.” She glared up at him, her own rage kindling and swelling. “So you hunt for the old man – for these others you speak of? Is that it? And you annihilate all who walk or run across your path?” She kept her eyes fixed on his. “You deserve your own punishment a thousand times over. You deserve to languish in that state of awful death until the end of the world for what you have done.”
The outburst startled him, robbing away his composure, undermining his haughty disdain.
“I don’t know why you hunt the man who changed me,” she said. “Nor who these others are. I know not what terrible design was levelled upon the true Anca Negrescu or what final reprisal you dream of. But you will listen now to me,” she said, rising to her feet and stopping to draw up the dagger. “You slaughtered my family. You murdered hundreds of others; perhaps thousands. Whether I was duped into this role or no, it is a role I intend to play out to its finish.” She pointed the blade at the hooded man before her. “Any more whispers you utter would best be to your God, for you will face his judgement once I have finished dispensing mine.”
The clouds great watery doors swung wide and open; dense spikes of icy rain plummeting onto the cobbles, lashing against the hair and clothes of the pair as they stared in anger at one another.
In neighbouring streets there were cries from the townsfolk, but neither one of them heard or cared about anything outside the circle in which they stood.
The weight and potency of the words Alexandru had uttered hung like a curtain of stone from one to the other and their impact was clear in the doubt on Gavril Negrescu’s face. But in a moment, his eyes set; his mouth became firm. “Very well doppelganger,” he said. “If you desire revenge then you must stake your claim, but you know the power I wield.”
“I do,” she said.
There was one last moment of unyielding tension, and then Alexandru pivoted, tightening her grip on the dagger, pitching forward into a charge.
Yards away, Negrescu bent his head, lifting the hawk beneath its cover and opening his mouth. The whisper slipped from his lips like blades of glass.
Then Alexandru pummelled into him, throwing him backwards and tumbling after him.
The statuette was heavy in his arms. Negrescu couldn’t adequately twist to block his fall and his instincts were more to protect his prize for he knew that any sharp blow might crack it.
With Alexandru flailing over his legs and lower torso, Negrescu clattered down to the cobbles on his back and shoulders, turning his head to avoid the full impact. But the hawk snapped up, bashing his mouth and falling free. Negrescu cried out in pain and anguish, reaching after the statuette as it was torn out of his grasp and bounced within its cloth shielding, rolling into the shadow cast by the nearest house.
A second later, the full weight of Alexandru’s slender body collapsed onto him and both man and woman grunted in pain and disorientation.
Alexandru lost the tight grip on the knife and felt it slip from her palm but she darted forward with her hand to grab onto it, stretching herself across Negrescu’s body. As she did so, a bright recollection came to her of reaching across his sleeping form on their wedding night so she could sip on what was left of her wine. It was enough to startle her to stillness and Negrescu pushed up against her ribs, easily hurling her clear and onto her back.
“No!” she cried, but the big man was already scrambling up. He had every advantage and now she was prostrate before him; but instead of pressing his attack, Negrescu floundered, looking for the statuette in the darkness.
He gasped, catching sight of it and running toward it, but Alexandru was up as far as her knees and the dagger was in her hand. She hoisted it back and hurled it toward his broad back with all the might in her arm.
Negrescu cried out, clutching toward his spine as the blade entered level with his kidney and fell crashing to his knees.
Alexandru clambered the rest of the way up. She too saw the hawk and raced past Negrescu’s writhing form, but he grasped her ankle with a snarl and a moan of agony and she went down too, arms out more to reach for the statuette than to protect her.
With overwhelming strength, Negrescu wrenched her back along the slick cobblestones as she cried in anguish. He was in crippling pain but his rage would not let him succumb and he flipped her over onto her back as he crawled up her body like a lizard climbing a rock.
But as he came level with her face he hesitated, confounded by the look of visible triumph there.
Then he saw the object she was clutching to her chest, and before he could move or scream a word of negation, she cried, not whispered, the words, “Do to this man what his has done to many! Flay the skin and make it dust. But let him endure forever in this state of dire penance!”
Negrescu tried to grip the hawk; to wrestle it from her, but before he could summon the strength, wounded as he was, a powerful shudder ran through him and he let out an awful wail of dismay and comprehension of his doom.
He went upward on his knees, reaching for his face, but already the skin was breaking down and falling away in a shower of vapour. Behind him, the dagger clattered to the stone with no more flesh to hold it in place.
His screaming face grew wan and gaunt and then his gaping eyes became pits that collapsed further and further to the blackness within.
His fingers were thinning, the flesh withering, but they went on clawing at his bony cheeks, trying to hold onto the disintegrating skin.
It wasn’t like the others Alexandru had witnessed. His scream should have died with his shrivelling lungs but it grew stronger instead; more fell and more sonorous. There should have been no muscle left to animate his bones, but Negrescu scrambled back off her and up to his feet, staring with blank sockets down at his withered limbs and hands.
Still he didn’t collapse. Still he went on crying in agony. And slowly it dawned on Alexandru why he was still afoot.
“Witness the destination to your journey of vengeance,” she cried. “Enjoy the tainted fruit that you have plucked! For you have endured that final and irrevocable transformation from life into death and you will go on as nothing but bones until the end of the world!”
The undead fleshless thing that was Gavril Negrescu, the Whispering Death, looked down on her from his eyeless sockets and understood the truth and depths of her pronouncement.
Then he turned and fled screaming into the storm.
Alexandru collapsed onto her back on the stones, only loosely gripping the hawk in its cloth covering.
The rain continued to beat down harder than any storm she had ever witnessed but she ignored it, such was the exhaustion that tempered her limbs. Her consciousness set adrift in the horror and confusion; the relief... and the scratching at her soul from the transformation she had undergone.
A dozen yards away, the townsfolk returned slowly, seeing the danger passed and struck wordless by the obscenities they saw mounded on the ground. There was no mayor now left to command them and they milled in stunned idiocy. No one noticed Alexandru in the crease of shadow at the foot of the wall.
Presently, the people started to disperse. There was simply too much horror for them to comprehend or start to deal with. Perhaps in the morning they could return and put words and action to the devastation they had faced.
Still, Alexandru lay outstretched, and then gentle hands found her in the dark and lifted her and she heard a kind voice saying her name. “Anca. Anca, wake up. You will catch your death of cold. You need to get up.”
She opened her eyes to see the old man trying to help her. He looked caring and concerned and she allowed him to assist her to her feet.
“Are you hurt Anca?” he asked, and the question seemed so odd, though she could think of no reason why it would be. She had been through a terrible, nightmarish ordeal. It was a relief to have such help. She felt as though she would be lost without it.
“I’m not hurt,” she replied. “Just tired. So tired.”
“Here. Come this way,” he said, and he led her down the narrow street towards his house. “Let me get you inside and fill your stomach. You need to rest.”
She went the way he guided but her mind wandered. Something seemed wrong but she couldn’t grasp it properly. Then she stiffened. “The Whispering Death.”
“He’s gone now my dear.”
“I wished him punished and... and...”
“He is gone. Hush. Forget about him now. It is over. You need to sleep.”
They reached the old man’s door and he locked it behind them. The fire was large now in the grate. He guided her to sit before it and she rubbed her hands to warm them, letting the old man slip the statuette she’d been clutching from her fingers and put it somewhere out of sight.
But she was confused again, trying to get her thoughts straight. “Something he told me...” she said, peering into the flames in consternation. “About you. About... others. They did something... Something terrible.”
“Hush now Anca darling,” said the old man. “You don’t need to worry about that now. Put it out of your mind for now; there’s a good girl.” He brushed her hair off her face tenderly and she settled back, enjoying the comfort of it; wanting nothing more now but to get dry and then fall into a deep sleep.
She saw in her mind the screaming skeletal face of the man... of her husband... and a shiver of revulsion and despair ran through her. “I had to do it,” she muttered. “I had to do that to him.”
“Yes darling,” said the old man. “There was no other way. He had to be punished for his crimes.”
“But I loved him,” she said. “So, so much.”
“Yes sweetheart; you did. But he was no longer that man. He was evil. He had to be punished.”
Anca rubbed her eyes, feeling the sorry, the pain and the tiredness wash over her. “Thank God I have you,” she whispered.
“Of course you have me. I’ll always look after you,” he replied. “What wouldn’t any man do for his daughter?”
This story is one of six stories in the compilation, Talons of the Hawk by Emma Finn, a book of transformation and body swap stories available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
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