“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.
The candlelight shifts eerily over his face as he comes closer. His dark eyes examine me carefully, but as one would a strange and somewhat curious object.
“Why aren’t you afraid of death, child?” he murmurs without inflection.
I unstick my tongue from the roof of my dry mouth and find my voice. “Because nothing bad happens when you’re dead. You’re just a body and your soul is gone.”
He sits down on the edge of the bed and the frame creaks in protest. His cloak falls open and I see long black robes tight across his chest, and the flash of silver at his hips. A wide belt, and there are things hanging from it. Things that clack together like dry bones.
“The body doesn’t matter to you?” he asks in the same flat tone, reaching out for me.
I shrink away from him. “Don’t touch me!”
But he seizes my left wrist in his large, cold hand and pulls my arm toward him. I’m too weak to resist and I whimper as he pushes back the sleeve of my nightgown, gazing at my yellowed flesh.
Meremon mutters a word that echoes over and over again in my ears. All the veins in my arms suddenly stand out and turn black. I scream and try to wrench my arm away but he’s got a grip like iron.
From the other side of the door I hear Mama cry out. Papa tries to open the door but the necromancer must have locked it with magic and the handle rattles uselessly. Papa knocks on the door. “What’s going on in there? What are you doing to her? Rhona!”
The necromancer pulls a dagger from its sheath at his hip and I scream again, watching the blade flash in the firelight. It’s wickedly sharp and he holds it close to my forearm, ready to slash it open.
“Give me death, just give me death,” I say, a hysterical chant that won’t stop, my eyes fixed on my hideous, bulging veins and the knife Meremon is about to cut me open with.
“Rhona,” calls my mother, her voice high with panic.
The necromancer watches me balefully for a moment, and then sheaths the knife. “As you wish.”
Relief surges through me. He’s going to let me die rather than make me suffer. I welcome death. I’m so tired. Everything hurts and I just want him to go and let me die in peace.
But the necromancer hasn’t let go of my wrist. He grips my fingers with his other hand and leans over my palm. I’m reminded of the sight when I awoke earlier, of Mama bent over it and weeping.
Meremon’s long, silver hair tumbles down around his face. I feel his lips against my palm and they’re as cold as ice. My veins feel like they’re filled with tiny blades and they’re flaying me from the inside out. The pain moves up and across my body to the left-hand side and then down my arm. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever felt and I scream and scream, tossing about on the bed like a rag doll, only the necromancer’s strong grip keeping me where I am. The pain is concentrated where his lips are and it feels like he’s eating me alive.
Abruptly, the pain recedes, and I’m left panting and sweating on the mattress. I stare at the ceiling and listen to my parents hammering on the door and shouting. Meremon stands up and leans over the fireplace, one hand braced against the bricks. He spits a mouthful of something black into the flames and it sizzles and smokes.
The door bangs open and my wild-eyed parents fall into the room. Without another look at me the necromancer pulls his hood up and sweeps out, his footsteps disappearing into the night.
I stare down at my left hand. There’s a mark in the center of my palm as black as ink, right where Meremon’s lips were. It’s a large, many-pointed star all smoky at the edges. I try to scrub it clean on the blankets but it doesn’t budge. I spit in my palm and rub again, barely hearing my parents as they exclaim over my good color, the fever being gone, that I’m sitting up by myself and breathing easily.
I don’t care. I can still feel his cold lips on my palm no matter how hard I rub. I should have died. This isn’t right. I should have died.
I show my father the mark and he goes to work on it with a bristle brush and carbolic soap. My mother tries all the remedies she knows for stains, but it doesn’t budge.
As the days pass and my body grows strong again I get up and move about the house, but I’m still aware of Meremon. When I’m sitting in the sunshine, every now and then a shiver goes through me as if someone’s walking over my grave, and I feel the ghost of his lips in the center of my palm.
The necromancer has branded me with his kiss, and while my body bears his mark I know it goes deeper than that. My soul bears it, too.