Susanne S. Brydenbaugh is the author of over 70 short stories and poems published in both the genre and literary small press. Her most current work can be found in the following anthologies: Cemetery Poets: Grave Offerings, Atrocitas Aqua, Femmes de la Brume, and forthcoming in such anthologies as: Scary! Holidays to Make You Scream and Scriptures of the Damned, both Double Dragon Publishing. She is also finishing her first novel, Old Cahawba, a fictionalized story of a real ghost town. Other than writing and reading voraciously, she enjoys the outdoors, craves music, and is a classic car enthusiast. She lives in the southern U.S. Her website can be found at: www.mywriterstooth.com
The falcon cried no more. Abrupt silence as the mist clung and swirled, descending from the bloody-hued moon, downward seep through the clouds now tinged with the same lust. Mighty outstretched wings sliced through the fog, sick end over end stumble in air, and finally, deepening plunge until it was lost in the horizon of trees bright with hemorrhage. Its mate called, questioning, confused; she swept down beneath the deadly fog to escape its tortuous bleed and keep within her view the figure that pushed down into the valley, through the forest walls, stomping and flailing through the streams. Guidance on wings, the bird kept pace with the white robe in the midst of so much red.
Menke stood at the circle's edge. Dark charred circle powdered with Sage and bonedust from ages long since gone, hoarded and kept secret-safe for just the right time, the right need, for a night such as this. Looking down at his booted feet, he saw that the white-gray dust had gathered there, walking corpse, and he shivered and stamped at his feet, but the ancient dust persisted, refusing to let him go. In all his twenty years he'd never seen the things of this night: the moon's fierce glow over Hallen's Hill; the animals of the woods panicking and bolting through the village, brushing past his legs in their haste to flee; wild cries in the once peaceful night. Allhallows skittered completely and irrevocably wrong.
Menke looked back at the huts, at the doors that were barred and straining shut, wooden plank masks over lunatic mouths within, moaning, weeping, pleading prayers against the onslaught of a wounded god. And in the center of the circle, pinnacle to all others, a larger hut, domed roof with hollowed center where wisps of smoke expired into the air. Inside, the Priesthood three, and the fourth without, held assembly: manic reading of the runes in this most sacred of rooms, where the ever-lasting fire had just moments ago...gone out.
He was the youngest member of the Priesthood. Too fledgling to join the others inside the sacred hut, too ignorant of ageless prophesies, too unproven, yet claimed for the lowly position of a sentry. Keilaed, the elder priest, had fixed Menke with his eyes and proclaimed him "Watcher", had said that he would be the Priesthood's eyes, the detector of shifts, in degrees, the earth and spirit world gave away. And then for his mental-ears alone, 'Above all, a Watcher foretells.'
What was he to foretell? Fear? Death's loud trumpet? This was being tasted already. What could he possibly foretell that they had not necromanced from the tomes and bones of ancient forbears?
A Watcher, when all he wanted to do was clench his eyelids shut and wish himself away. He yearned to run, bang his fists against the door of his family's hut, scream for entrance-but they were no longer his family. The Priesthood had dissolved all former bonds of kin. He was dead to his mother and father, sister and friends; dead to the world outside of the Priesthood and the reverent gods who resided over the earth and sky...that hideous flaming moon. He stood at the perimeters of the protective circle and trembled his impotence into the sulfurous wind that was growing stronger with its fury, sending small branches cart-wheeling from trees like dandelion tendrils, like man's intentions torn and strewn haphazard, past retrieval, past redemption, from the dust to return to the dust as memory inherited fades until another time when maybe, just maybe, a buried seed surfaces to fertile ground.
And Menke recoiled from his thoughts, realizes that already he is foretelling: reading the signs in the covert winds and the stink of an age that has come to an end. It smells so close. So God-forsaken close.
As if imparting this knowledge led to the next act itself, he noticed that past the protective circle the wind has sent the trees to bending and a path was being cleared, shields his eyes from the coarse dirt and debris that flew about him. A Watcher foretells he said again and again, flimsy mantra that only barely keeps his knees from buckling. Trees now hugged the ground as the path grew wider, and he thought he could see a flurry of movement in the path of blackness. Something midnight wafting and whooshing against the void, canopy of leaves overhead suddenly quiet. Along the tunnel-path, a faint outline, amoebic shape, contorting and stretching and retracting until it began to take form. Feet stamping at the ground, rolling gallop turning bipedal, and soon to feel the tremors beneath his own; and he wanted to close his eyes again, suffocate the visions of hell with the back of his eyelids. Hasn't he foretold enough? When is enough? They never said, never ventured an ending...because there never was one.
But Menke kept his eyes open, obedient stare, could hear Keilaed's words throbbing within his head, pulsing artery of duty beyond what mortal man fears...
A Watcher foretells.
Arms too long, too gangly, as they swung at the sides of its knees.
A Watcher foretells.
A face protruded from a head too large, too elongated and wolfish to be human, chimera of predator parts, of fur and skin and slithery hide. Closing the distance until it stared down at Menke, towering an arm's length above him. At first Menke thought the devil had no eyes where the dark seeped into sockets, but then the beast turned his head scanning the huts and taking note of the number with his sliding palm, and Menke could see the shape of his bulging eyes, and their colour was black.
Without introduction or prelude, the beast spoke, leathery voice that scratched the air and abraded Menke's bones. 'Only one from each hearth, I will take. You will count yourself and your village fortunate while I take most the earth this night.'
The beast slid closer, head jutting down over Menke's frightened one until he could feel its breath, a suck and whine off rattling teeth, stale stink of decay and watery bog. And something dark and slime-coated licked at his mind, velvety probe filled with the wailing of the damned, penetrating and lodging deep so that Menke slapped at his ears, hears his own frenzied breath Huh-huh-huh through the lapping and slobber-filled ruin of his head. Pain and music. A ballad so woefully beautiful, so filled with sufferance, that he stumbled back and then forward, strange drunken dance as he clutched his ears, lips pleading for the song to end-to never end. Writhing now, the tongue plunged deep and explored the cavity of his head at will, and no will of his own, just this song of the Lost, this crescendo of soul-ache. He wanted to submit to it. He climbed for it, hands coming away from his ears to grasp his hair and hold the voices still so to catch them in his hands and hold them, never let them go.
The beast laughed suddenly, ending the song of madness, as the hideous tongue disappeared from inside his head, breaking the trance. 'Anytime you would like to hear more...'
Menke shook his head, nodded, not sure what he wanted at the moment. The emptiness in his head from the song's departure carried its own pain and loneliness. Cold; he felt the whisper of ice through his veins as he wrapped his arms around his body and tried to keep his teeth tightly clenched.
'Sing my praises little people that I do not take the whole of your village leaving none to carry on your ritual and pompous ceremony-see how little difference it makes, your chants and groans that make the mountains cough and the sea spew.' Wheezing laughter, from a windpipe not made for gaiety, 'The earth shall be silent for a while.'
Menke stood rooted to the ground. The priests would come any minute now. His mind clipped and sent a dozen images. Come. Come quickly! But the door stayed fastened to the sacred hut and all remained silent within. No one peered out from any of the huts. The animals had stopped their scurry, fled into the brush for cover, blanket hush, as if a deep slumber had fallen over the earth.
The beast held out his hand, a sickle bladed dagger gleamed in the darkness of his flesh. 'Mark my people with this,' he said, pushing the handle into Menke's shock-clumsy fingers. 'And let it be known that my mark will lead them to me.' Cyclone wall of leaves and dirt rushed against him with such force it drove him to the ground, lungs gasping for a bite of air, eyes burning as if the maelstrom were an inferno, the bones of his hand grinding against the steel of the knife with such exquisite pain and not a drop of blood shed, not a scratch marred his flesh when at last the pressure relented and he gazed at his hand in wonder, slowly lifted his eyes to find the beast was gone.
Shivering uncontrollably when finally the door of the sacred hut flew open and the three priests stumbled out, one atop the other in their haste to reach Menke against the bluster of wind that howled and tore at their robes. They stopped short of touching him when they saw the dagger within his hand, looked at one another in astonishment. They'd been blind to the dagger within the visions.
Gaelan, the second eldest priest, stood along side Cutherith who was not long past apprenticehood himself. Although a white paste covered his eyes, Gaelan saw through his inner eye the image of all around him.
Cutherith, eyeing the dagger in Menke's hand, stepped sideways, huddling among his elder brothers. 'We saw, but were powerless to help.'
'Who...What...was it?' Menke asked over the torrid winds.
And Keilaed was the first to move forward and touch his arm, careful to avoid the dagger's tainted edge. 'My Son...' Keilaed started, but turned his gaze to his brothers.
'Keilaed, who?' Menke demanded, impatient now, and the hand holding the dagger sliced the air between them, causing the priests to fall back, fists hugged to protect their hearts.
'Menke! Place that instrument of death away. We are all weak to it,' Keilaed raged. 'You know not what you wield.'
'Then tell me so that I understand this madness!' And slowly he lowered the dagger to his side.
Gaelan's voice, sigh-whisper inside Keilaed's head, Forgive him his youth and impulsiveness, he's seen much this night. And we've yet to verse him with our history of dreams.
Gaelan broke the stillness with his husky voice. 'The name, "Cain", and his ghastly deeds have been handed down to us throughout history. Folklore of mouth until none knows the entirety of the truth...this son of the darkest God. And it was hoped throughout the ages that he'd found eternal sleep, that no more would the earth have to renew and learn each agonizing lesson afresh.'
Keilaed added, 'The last time Cain appeared the scarlet moon drove the tides to flood the world. The surviving world took to a large ship. Each species to strive and start over, casting away the weak so that only the strong would inherit the new earth and keep Cain away.'
Gaelan stared forward, blind eyes seeing everywhere. 'The fabled dagger you hold marks the people he will take. You and no one else will be allowed to mark. He has chosen you, Watcher.'
Anger sparked again, could not, would not be contained, and damn them all. 'Is this what I am to prophesize? Who will live and who will die? Gods have mercy on me, I will not do this!' seething rage and, 'You must have known this with your thousand eyes and dead lips-that I'd be chosen, standing out here alone creating your diversion, foretelling events you already knew from your blessed rites-'
Keilaed shook his head, snow-drift beard in gentle sway, 'No Menke. He saw your strength, a quality he admires-'
'Damn my strength, it is the failing of my soul.'
The thud of Gaelan's staff upon the ground commanded attention. 'Wait Menke, Cain did not say that you must choose. We will allow volunteers from each hearth. You will only have to mark them. Their deaths will not be on your head as you fear.'
Menke lowered his head, deep sigh and 'Listen just once to what I say... It is only in my duty to the Priesthood that I find myself sacrificed, if it were only my life instead of my soul-their lives instead of...' His mouth contorted, 'I am to condemn their soul with this brand, far worse than taking their life...far worse'
No words of wisdom now, no compassion, just steely resolve to push forward and see the outcome saved as Keilaed turned to Gaelan and Cutherith. 'We must hurry and assemble. Cain will not be patient; some mercy has been shown that he is not taking the lot of us.'
And Gaelan disappeared into the sacred hut, retrieving a large meticulously polished urn, as Cutherith began gathering the terrified people from their homes.
Each family emblem, carved in small smooth tiles, was represented in the blessed urn. Forty houses drew together, husbands, wives and children knotted up with arms around one another; bleary eyes and choking murmurs as decisions were made and good byes were uttered.
Keilaed retrieved a tile from the urn and held it up over his head. From the rear of the crowd, an older man shuttled forward taking the tile and claiming himself the sacrifice, leaving his wife to bury her face in her hands. Keilaed permitted the decision and Menke swept the dagger across the man's forehead, the steel as cold in his hand as the hole left inside him.
The man convulsed; his trembling hand reaching up and touching the ragged flesh of his forehead. And then he clutched at his head, at the searing song that twisted through his veins; and Menke watched, caught himself straining forward listening for the song, envy and craving for the evocative sonata battling for his self-control.
The man swayed, twisted with staggering lopsided steps away from the stunned crowd, driven to the forest by some command, some higher call. And Menke wondered if the forest was some form of refuge or the beginning of the real damnation, wondered even as the trees swallowed the man up and the next tile was drawn. Long past saving, and not just the old man.
Over and over he slashed the beast's mark onto the foreheads of his people and wrestled for his own sanity, until the last, and Menke's family tile was lifted overhead. Menke's father parted the thinning group of friends and neighbors, walked resolute to the front to stand before his son. But Keilaed shook his head at the still young man, and pointed to Menke's sister, Ailerin. It was the first time Keilaed had imposed his judgment and no one uttered a forbidden word. Menke's father looked away, could not watch as Ailerin walked with trembling chin held high, to Menke's damning hand. She closed her eyes; her chest heaved and fell trying to live out one more, and one more breath...
A gasp rose from the crowd, the priests' shouted their denial, and Ailerin opened her eyes to see the blade finish its cut at the end of Menke's forehead. Seconds expanded as they stood, death looking at life, guilt looking at pardon. Then, Menke stepped back, and Ailerin collapsed to the ground, her knees digging into the soft, pliant earth in her groveling despair.
Menke jerked in spasm, bellowing from the sweet pain of familiar song. Flowing ribbons of torment sung in the highest octave, blending and merging with countless other strands of tragic notes unraveling him from within, combusting his mortality to cinders.
Keilaed and the others saw the transformation of his eyes go gray, to black, to obsidian stone. They looked on as Menke's posture slumped, his shoulders bowed, and his knees bent slightly. He gazed at himself, holding his arms out, seeing the tendons and bones grow in amazement; and at the end of those clutching hands, the dagger.
Menke threw his giant head back, growling laughter to the tops of the trees, to the melting moon and the scarlet ash. Shaking the dagger at the sky, 'MINE!'
Spinning around, he presented his back, closed himself to the remaining crowd, and walked to the entrance of the forest; there, at the threshold of ghost and men, he slowed and bowed his head.
He turned then, met Keilaed face to face. With vocal cords growing more hoarse, more guttural and animalistic, he struggled. 'I will observe from the spirit world. I will watch and warn of Cain's next coming. I will send dreams to those that would listen and seek to understand.' A grimacing smile of what was left of his humanity played upon his tightened lips. 'Above all, a Watcher foretells.'
(C) Susanne S. Brydenbaugh 2003
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.