Some words in this book are in Sereidenikè, the language of the sereidees. A glossary is here. I'll be adding words as they come up in the chapters, so check back from time to time.
It was, at least, a lovely night. A sickle moon, unusually thin and bright, cast a spectral glow on the hillside, muffling the dense fields of stars. A tool for reaping; it almost seemed a sign, especially with Cathy’s sudden return and her talk about comets—but oh, Elisabeth was being stupid again. Scottish progenitor, they used to whisper back on Ormrey. Too thick-blooded for our veins. Tapping their foreheads as if she were addled. For the first time she wondered if Cathy truly believed it of her, that it wasn’t just something she said to needle her. Was she that stupid? But surely Mary would tell her; Mary would be honest with her. It was just Cathy being Cathy as always.
Mary led the way up the hill with Cathy following and Elisabeth trailing behind them both, a slight breeze stirring the hems of their shifts. Their movements were nearly silent, save for when Elisabeth or Mary paused to pull blackberries from their canes and dribble the juices into their mouths. Not as satisfying as blood, but the sweetness created a kind of heat on the tongue; pleasant, too, was to rub the berries against their fangs, the smooth pulp making them tingle. Cathy haughty and ghostlike in her shift, her olive legs flashing beneath, feet black with soil; curious, how quickly she had acquiesced to this. Elisabeth had half-expected her to demand Jules carry her up the hill.
Ahead of them Mary was starting to slow, her head craning up to look at the trees arching on either side; softly she began singing
Ombra mai fu
Cara ed amabile
And for a moment Elisabeth was no longer in the forest; she was in London ten years ago? Twenty? The four of them in the darkest, most distant box, the stuffy air full of heat and sweat and heartbeats, so many heartbeats, their lub-dub-dub staccato counterpoints to the music. Alex tapping his foot like it was a tavern singalong and Mary weeping at the beauty, covering her handkerchiefs in pale pink stains and stuffing them in her pockets. All to hear Cafarelli’s voice dance with honeyrich grace through the recitative
Nè giunga a profanarvi austro rapace
The anticipation making Elisabeth tremble until at last, filling the theater like the rising sun
Ombra mai fu
And through it all Cathy had sat tight-lipped, watching not the stage but the other boxes, eyeing the nobility in their finery with a kind of smug covetousness. Wincing when the audience’s chatter grew too loud or too crude, her skirts gathered in one white-knuckled fist lest they touch the grime of the floors.
Why had she come back at all?
And she had nearly lost sight of them in her musing. Elisabeth quickened her pace, catching up to her sisters only to barrel into Cathy’s backside as her sister abruptly halted. They had come out on a bare ridge, the treeline collapsed from the spring rains. “Idiot,” Cathy snapped, and then pointed at the sky. “Look.”
Elisabeth looked. Directly overhead the comet streaked across the night sky, reminding her of a finger sliding beneath black damask. Mary had doubled back to join them; together they watched, silent and stiff as pointers, as the scratch of light inched across the darkness. Were all their people looking thus? Elisabeth fancied she could sense every sereides, here and on the Continent and further still, full-blooded and half-blooded and all the lesser by-blows, all pausing to see if this was the moment when their world would change utterly. All of them united by this single light in the sky and a millennia-old prophecy as vaguely worded as a conman’s promise.
A sudden wind raced over them, ruffling their yellowed shifts, and though they could not feel the cold to a one they shivered.
At last Mary spoke, making Elisabeth jump. “Well then. No giant serpent falling from the heavens, no fire and brimstone, no disasters of any kind—unless we count Lissy’s abominable taste in novels.” She ducked Elisabeth’s slap and continued, “just as I thought: ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Let’s swim.”
She turned on her heel and continued up the hill. Cathy gave her backside a slit-eyed glare before falling in behind her. Elisabeth took one last look at that white streak—so distant, so innocuous—and then hurried again to catch up.
“Was that it, then?” she asked. “Was that the Taiart Gal?”
Ahead Mary’s shoulders jerked up and down; Elisabeth touched Cathy’s arm. “Cathy?”
“The prophecy says the comet heralds the Taiart Gal,” Cathy said through gritted teeth. “And if you knew anything of your own history you wouldn’t ask such stupid questions.”
Elisabeth flushed again, falling behind once more. Never the right questions, the right answers, the right understanding of anything. Oh, to be in the quiet of her room, reading Pamela. She kept her head down, swallowing back a sudden rush of tears. Perhaps she would simply go, for a while; perhaps she would just pack her things and go, book passage on the first ship to anywhere. Only where would she go, what would she do when she got there?
From below the hillside seemed an unbroken ascent; as they reached the crest, however, they arrived at a deep, narrow gorge, invisible until the unwitting explorer stood right at its edge. A vein of limestone, once mined but now eroding. Its edges had been worn smooth by rain, and sinkholes and caves had formed where the rainwater met underground streams. By the end of spring the water reached its height and the open vein became a lake, so deep the villagers shunned the place for the danger. Indeed, she and Mary had found remains over the years: bones caught in the porous, pocked walls, once even a skull, once even a decaying arm caught between ridges as if in the maw of an animal. Some of the caves were large enough to crawl into, the trapped air stale, walls slimy with condensation, and it was in one such they found the saddest remains of all: a dead child, small and sexless, its head caved in by some precipitous tumble, carried inside like so much flotsam.
At the water’s edge they stripped. They slung their shifts over the branch of a low-spreading oak and stretched their naked bodies in the warm summer air, scratching at their scaly necks and bellies. When she caught Elisabeth’s eye Mary mimed a kick at Cathy’s backside, grinning at Elisabeth’s alarmed look.
“Try that and it will be the last thing you ever do,” Cathy said to the lake. She turned, letting the tips of her fangs show below her curling lip. “Afeidìa nejaina,” she added, spitting the words out.
A waste of the blood. “Cathy, that’s enough,” she said, while at the same time Mary snapped, “look, clever miss, you can dust off all the old words you like. No one here is impressed.” When Elisabeth reached for her she shoved her hand aside. “I won’t go through it again, Lissy. Last time it was three months of endless belittling and whining. I know all your games now, Catherine Eleanor Yates. I won’t stand for them.”
“It is our language,” Cathy retorted. “The expression of our divinity. What words are there in English for what we truly are?” She slapped Mary’s breast, ignoring her sister’s annoyed hiss. ‘Three millennia of history run in your veins, and yet you play at being English lasses? You are Neire and Elìs. You are sereidees, divinity made flesh, even as mere heninejaina. Learn your place, or your ignorance may become your undoing.”
She turned and dove into the water, a tawny streak that disappeared beneath the surface with barely a splash.
“I hate it when she calls us that,” Elisabeth said in a low voice. “Not even our mother calls us by those names.”
“And all this about being heninejaina? What does it matter what remove we are from a handful of snake-fuckers?” Mary gave a bark of laughter. “If I didn’t know better, I would say she’s succumbing to the madness. Or pardon me, the hiris.”
She dropped feet-first into the water before Elisabeth could speak. The splash echoed off the stone, sending up a flock of birds that circled and settled again, much as her own stomach was fluttering. For she had been about to ask Mary, but did you see her eyes? Cathy’s eyes had looked reddened and damp, despite her lowered brilles.
In all her years—and though she was the youngest Elisabeth already had a century behind her—in all her years, she had never once seen Cathy cry.
Or your ignorance may become your undoing. The phrase seemed some dread invocation, and the night was already so strange—
But she was too old for such fancies.
She dove into the water, then slowly floated to the surface. So many nights in lakes and oceans, rivers and seas, feeling the water surrounding and cradling her. All these nights that were nearly indistinguishable in her mind, only the humans changing as they each took the blood, were made erin, and moved on.
Erin, one of their words for which there was no translation. Neither child nor scion, the erines, but men transformed utterly, within and without; made beyond the pale, Alex had once described it. Was that why Jules had refused it—
A hand seized her ankle, pulling her down a dozen feet then just as suddenly releasing her. When she broke the surface it was to the echoing sound of Mary’s cackles. But her sister was nowhere to be seen; there was only Cathy floating at the far end of the lake.
Elisabeth drew her feet up, looking one way and another as she sculled, until she saw Mary’s faint outline beneath the surface. She rose up, then curled headfirst, pulling herself down to seize her sister. They grappled together, punching and kicking, bruises rising and healing, the brief flashes of pain goading them both. At last Elisabeth got a grip on Mary’s arm and leg and flung her high into the night air. Mary crashed into the water backside-first, shrieking with laughter, sending Elisabeth into a fit of giggles. Their laughter, the splash, it all jumbled and echoed off the limestone walls, sending up another flurry of birds and bats.
“You’ll tell every Cornishman for miles where we are.” Cathy’s voice was thin and distant.
“Like any man would climb this far. Unless they hoped to play Actaeon to our Artemis?” Mary glowered at Cathy. “Perhaps you’d like that? Seeing as how we have no opera to offer.”
Elisabeth ducked under the water as they began arguing once more, pushing herself down until there was nothing but darkness. Her hair tangled about herself; her body felt at once whole and dissipated. She pushed her fangs out, each bone so sensitive the water felt icy and almost painful. One of the few sensations she could match to the word cold, just as the noonday sun embodied hot. All her life on that tepid spectrum between.
When she broke the surface again Cathy was saying, “… wasting your lives in this backwater. Clearly you share Anna’s lack of vision: the only creature in the world who could walk away from her people and not take a single object of value. All that money and jewelry and we just walked away.”
“We walked away,” Mary said, “so they could have nothing to use against us.”
“They, they. Who is this they? Neither of you understand—”
“Perhaps we could go to Vienna this summer?” Elisabeth put in. “To join our mother and Helena? That would not be too dear, and I hear the parties in Vienna last all night.”
“Oh, those would be marvelous parties indeed, right on Gabriel’s doorstep.” Mary started laughing. “While we’re there, perhaps we could undertake a Grand Tour of the Dagal’s cells—or his beds, which amounts to the same thing.”
“What do you mean, ‘his beds’?”
“He has no heirs, Lissy. Unless he gets someone with child soon his blood ends with him. Why do you think the Király sent all their females to Ormrey?” She looked at Cathy. “Come to think of it, you took quite a risk going there, didn’t you? Like a flag in front of a bull.”
“Unlike Lissy, I am not so stupid as to underestimate the threat Gabriel poses,” Cathy replied calmly. “And I didn’t go east to dance.”
Elisabeth’s face warmed. Would she never learn to think before she spoke? Always she forgot about Gabriel. Head of the Berger family, birth-name Ennirgàl, but now he was the Dagal, the Usurper. For Elisabeth, his attempted coup had been a strange clamor in the castle halls and her mother’s heartbeat beside her, faster than she had ever heard it. At the parley she had glimpsed his wide face with its broad nose and clouding brilles as he strode towards Ormrey’s docks, leering as if he’d won; everything since was mere words that she knew should evoke fear. They say Gabriel is. Gabriel has claimed. Not since the Dagal tried. Not since the rift.
The rift. As if some act of nature had befallen them, as if no one was to blame. Their court, the Anat, was still on Ormrey, safely isolated in the North Sea; each of the families still had their estates scattered through Europe; Gabriel was far away in the Carpathians. Yet to look at a map was to see a more uneasy picture: the growing number of cities with erin populations, all governing themselves using Gabriel’s laws, all paying Gabriel’s tithe.
But to what end?
“Sometimes I wonder if Gabriel is even alive.” She looked hopefully at Mary. “Surely if he meant to rule us he would have done something by now.”
“Try telling his erines that,” Mary said. “Especially when their tithe is due. Or does our eldest wish to correct our ignorance?”
Elisabeth looked around, but the far end of the lake was silent. At last she spotted Cathy scaling the limestone face beneath their shifts, her body neatly bisected by the translucent scales covering her spine. The coarse tendrils of her hair swung loose and thick as she pulled herself onto the ground. “What does it matter?” she asked derisively. “Out here you’ll not know a thing until he’s right on our doorstep.”
“But we haven’t had anything for decades now,” Elisabeth put in.
“So? All that means is he’s biding his time. What is a century to any of us?” She flicked her hand out, as if throwing something aside. “A century is nothing.”
Nothing, Elisabeth wanted to say, save my life thus far.
“Not for us, perhaps,” Mary said. “But it’s a lifetime for men, and they tend to make the most of it. I would think that for Gabriel war still means swords and alchemy, while the rest of the world uses gunpowder and trade.”
Cathy only snorted and began combing out her hair with her fingers. “We should return,” she said over her shoulder. “Half the night’s gone.”
Elisabeth looked at Mary, who mimed pulling, then made a go on gesture; when Elisabeth balked she made the gestures again, more forcefully. With a sigh Elisabeth slipped under the water and swam to the limestone face, then began climbing silently, the scales on her palms and feet clinging to the rough surface. A quick tug on her ankle would send Cathy back into the water, where she would rail and fight, laying into each of them—and perhaps release some of her cagey anger at last. It had worked before, made Cathy’s expression turn bemused as she slapped them around. At least then they could walk home in some semblance of peace.
Above her she saw Cathy’s buttocks swaying, saw her long leg stretch back, just close enough for Elisabeth to seize her ankle—
“Brat,” Cathy said, kicking her hand.
But Elisabeth had frozen in place, staring past her sister’s dirt-flecked feet at the scrubby brush just before the treeline.
Staring at two gleaming eyes staring back at her.
“Someone’s out there,” she murmured. When Cathy kicked her hand again Elisabeth slapped her foot. “Look! In the woods.”
Cathy turned around; at the same time Mary clambered up, her hip cool and wet against Elisabeth’s thigh.
“Someone’s out there,” Elisabeth repeated.
The brush shook at her words, the branches parting as a man pushed forward, his bright eyes dancing over their faces. He stood naked before them, hunching with bowed legs as if about to drop to all fours. His arms seemed unusually long, his hands resting on his thighs. His grey-hued skin was coated with fine hairs like down. His face was all jaw, unshaven and dirty; the hair on his head was matted against his skull.
He began to pant, his tongue filling his lower mouth. His yellow teeth were small and finely pointed.
Behind him the brush crackled and a second man came forward, so similar as to be the brother of the first. He dropped into a crouch, his knuckles resting on the dirt. Neither spoke; they merely stared, the first panting steadily.
“What’s this?” Mary burst out laughing as she pulled herself up completely. “They look like they came straight from Bedlam.”
Elisabeth followed her, standing dripping between Mary and Cathy as the brush continued to shudder, birthing one naked man after another.
“Did you follow us up here?” Mary demanded. “If you’re thinking to get a leg over, you’ll be sorely disappointed.”
Seven, eight, nine … Elisabeth silently counted, trailing off as the men kept emerging. “Mary,” she whispered.
But Mary only looked at Cathy. “Well? Go on, then. Show us our place in the world.” Her fangs slid down, her face bright with excitement.
A last man came out of the brush, taller than the others, his furred skin slate-grey in the darkness. His gait was jerky, as if he were drunk; sweat stood out on his forehead. Yet his dark eyes were clear and cold.
“God’s will be done,” he said.
At his words they leapt.
It was like a wave rushing over Elisabeth. Their bodies flew at her in a seething mass. Her fangs came out. She punched the nearest one, expecting the man to hurtle backwards; instead her knuckles cracked as if punching stone and she stumbled to her knees on the hard ground. Hands like iron pinned her by the throat and arm. A man opened his jaws wide and bit her, his teeth driving so deeply into her breast that they scraped her ribs. A fiery heat filled her chest that quickly turned cold; her lungs felt sodden.
She could not tell who was screaming, whether it was herself or Mary or Cathy or all of them at once. There were more hands, holding her down and wrenching and twisting until her limbs snapped, keeping them bent as her body struggled to heal. Her breath in labored gasps. They dragged her about and laughed and hooted and bit her again, their teeth hot in her skin. She could not stop screaming. Hot and then the cold, it seeped outward from the wounds, her very blood freezing in her veins. She kicked and punched, she sank her teeth into the neck of one only to choke on sour blood that numbed her mouth, her screams becoming garbled moans.
As they circled around her she saw through their legs Cathy being carried down the hillside. Her sister’s face was solemn, her mouth clenched shut and her brown eyes reddened but dry. Elisabeth kept her eyes on that patch of brush long after Cathy disappeared from view, willing Cathy back, willing someone to come
just to make it stop
anything just to make it stop.
But it did not stop.
Her body was a prison. It hurt more than she knew was possible, it hurt beyond words. Broken and rent, her flesh tearing and tearing and it did not stop. Always before the pain had stopped, she would heal almost as soon as she was injured. Why wouldn’t it stop?
Always before the pain had stopped.
Her voice was trapped in her swollen throat, her fingers coiling uselessly. Her torso pooling viscous blood, the ragged edges of her bitten flesh glistening in the moonlight. She willed herself to move and there was only pain.
Please, she mouthed. Please. But her tongue was thick and spongy.
Callused fingers pushed between her lips and seized her fang. They pulled hard, tearing the bone out, her head nearly wrenched off her neck and the hole gaping raw. A second time and the air felt like knives on her gums, her own blood pouring down her splayed throat. One of their faces loomed over hers, her bloodied fangs stuck in his mouth and their jeering laughter in her ears. And then he spat the little bones aside and brought his fist down once more.
Mary whispered, “Lissy.”
She could not move; she moved a little; she turned her head. Her sister’s face was that of a stranger, distorted by bruises and scabbing gums that pushed at her lips. White-limned weals scored her chest.
Elisabeth wept, her eyes gumming with fresh tears.
“Lissy.” Mary’s voice was gravelly; her breath stank of blood and pus. Her hand crawled across Elisabeth’s torso until it gripped her, and she shuddered at her own sister’s touch.
And then Mary tensed and pulled, and the ground slid beneath her.
Mary looked over her shoulder; then her fingers dug in harder. Twigs and pebbles scraped at Elisabeth’s raw backside and she mewled in pain.
“Hush,” Mary whispered. “Help me. Kick.”
No, no, she did not want to kick. The sky was lightening. Soon there would be sunlight, it would burn everything away.
“Lissy.” Her crusted lips brushed Elisabeth’s forehead. “You must kick. Please. Kick your feet. Kick—”
Elisabeth kicked. Her left foot only twitched, but her right dug into the ground. At the same time Mary pulled, and together they slid further.
Mary looked over her shoulder again and Elisabeth too raised her head. From behind her sister’s crooked arm she saw them, arguing a ways down the hillside. Their naked grey bodies clearly visible, hands and mouths dark with what she knew to be blood. One made a cutting gesture and another shook his head, holding up three fingers as they began arguing anew.
“Water,” Mary whispered. “Kick.”
Elisabeth kicked and Mary pulled and she saw now that Mary’s other hand hung limp, that she was wriggling with knees and elbow to slide them inch by inch towards the edge. Her own left side was dead to all sensation but with her right arm she pushed and with her right leg she kicked and they slid a little faster. She heard the water lapping now, and in her haste she kicked hard, sending a rock flying across the ground.
The men turned towards them, their faces a patchwork of smirks and snarls. Elisabeth screamed as they advanced, she screamed and screamed—
And Mary gave a last grunt and shoved them both over the edge of the world.
Their bodies were so tangled they hit the water backsides first, the sound loud as a cannon but cut off by the water rushing in, plugging the holes in Elisabeth’s leaking body, closing over them like a shroud.
At once she and Mary exhaled. They sank down, down into the cool darkness. Instinctively she began pulling as best she could with her right arm, so their two halves became one swimming whole, aiming for the bottom of the lake.
Ripples buffeted them, as if someone else had dove in. They kicked faster.
As soon as they touched bottom Mary tugged her left, reaching for the limestone face. As one they began feeling its surface, searching for an opening, their hands sliding atop each other’s. The knife edge of Elisabeth’s fear was dulling, clearing her mind; she tried to see herself as if from above. Somewhere nearby there had been a cave large enough for both of them, slimy and stale but safe—
As if in answer, Mary slipped headfirst into the limestone, tugging Elisabeth after her. The eroded edges were slick with algae, soothing her open wounds as she dragged herself into the darkness. Once inside she blindly reached her arm out, her fingernails scraping another soft layer of algae, then Mary’s bare legs. Her sister laid her hand on Elisabeth’s head, guiding her up into a pocket of trapped air heavy with odors. Now Elisabeth could feel the little ledge Mary was sitting on, and she pressed close to her sister’s hunched body.
“Can you feel their spit?”
Their mouths smeared with it, opaque and glutinous. She made herself nod.
“If we can get it out.” Mary’s hands touched Elisabeth’s left side. “Like snakebite.”
She ducked under the water again, curling and shimmying until she clamped her mouth onto Elisabeth’s ribs. At once Elisabeth stiffened, she could not help herself; she began shoving at Mary’s head but her sister pushed her hands back.
And then Mary bit her again.
Her teeth ground Elisabeth’s skin like sausage-meat, nothing like the smooth sweet sliding of fangs into flesh. She glued her lips to the fresh wound and sucked on it, slowly drawing a mouthful of fluid while Elisabeth bit deep into her own lip to keep from screaming, to keep from hitting Mary, to keep from sobbing aloud.
The water suddenly rushed in, sloshing against the walls, as if some large weight had tumbled into the lake. Elisabeth jerked in panic but Mary held her in place, continuing the same slow, steady suckling.
At last Mary raised her head and spat; a glob of thick liquid splattered on the surface of the water. She dropped her head, taking another mouthful of water and working it around before spitting again. “Just stay calm,” she said in a low voice. “They may not find us.”
Beside their heads the liquid lingered, a viscid mass that stroked their faces as it bobbed on the surface.
“Do you feel anything?”
Pinpricks of sensation were rising amidst the numbness; the spots that still throbbed sore and raw eased a little. She could not make out Mary’s expression but she could feel her sister trembling.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
The water rushed in again, splashing their faces. Before Mary could react she dropped her head to Mary’s chest, lapping at the open wounds until she tasted it. She knew then she would never forget it, neither its flavor nor its texture: a rush of sweet-sour ooze, the sticky mess clinging to the inside of her mouth which promptly became numb. Still she bit as Mary had and sucked, drawing it into her mouth until she tasted Mary’s blood; only then did she spit the whole lot into the water and rinse her mouth clean.
Mary touched her own chest. She took a breath, as if to speak, and instead began choking on sobs, clapping her hands over her mouth to muffle the sounds.
Elisabeth drew her close, hushing her through her own tears though she would have sworn she had nothing left with which to weep.
Again, the water rushed in and this time stayed higher, brushing at their chins.
“Quickly,” Mary said, her voice choked. “As much as we can.”
They twined together, sucking and biting, fingers pressing skin the better to coax the poison forth, their gasps and splashes punctuating the silence. With every mouthful Mary took Elisabeth felt herself returning, as if she had been a long ways away and was now drawing close to the first blighted landmarks. Her body, rent. Here the raw patches on her belly and backside where her scales had been scoured from her; there the brush of her swollen, bruised breast against her arm as she turned Mary one way and another, chasing a bubble of fluid beneath her sister’s marred skin.
Her swollen right breast. On her left side all was still cold and stiff. She could not bear to touch herself there; she was too frightened of what she might find.
She nipped at the bubble, letting the liquid ooze forth, while Mary’s fingers kept gouging and pressing. Remaking each other, as if they could somehow undo it all—
Yet even now, though she knew the hands on her body were Mary’s, still she felt the men’s rending teeth bringing her down into that cold pain.
The water filled the cave for a moment, smothering them; when it finally receded Elisabeth seized Mary’s hand. “Not again,” she whispered. “Not again, Mary. I would rather be dead.”
Her sister squeezed her hand. “Never again,” she whispered.
The water belched upwards. A hand scraped Elisabeth’s leg and she cried out and Mary cried out and they both went under.
All was water and flesh. Elisabeth bit, her face flexing impotently, pushing at empty sockets. She bit and clawed, her mouth numbing and washing clean and numbing again. Mary jostling beside her and they beat and tore at the man with everything they had. He struggled against them, he clawed her skin and snapped bones in her fingers and what did it matter anymore? She was there and nowhere, she was under water and she was lying on that patch of earth, forever battered and broken.
The water bubbled and foamed around their thrashing bodies. Their fingers gouged and ripped, their teeth tore, she and Mary tangled together as they pulled and wrenched until something hard snapped. The man choked on his own cry of pain, they felt it; beside her Mary shrieked in triumph.
Now Elisabeth stuffed her hands into his mouth and pulled apart. The man thrashed and struck her but Mary pinned his arms back while Elisabeth kept pulling, digging her thumbs in and wresting his jaws apart, wider and wider, her every muscle straining—
Until something gave, and her left arm flew up with such force she hit the rock behind her, his jawbone hooked on her fingers and below the thick meat of his tongue bobbing.
Mary pushed underwater, shoving against Elisabeth; she sat up suddenly, reeking of flesh and blood. The blood reeking and Elisabeth’s appetite was a roar in her ears and she lurched forward blindly, biting into the heart grasped in her sister’s teeth, the blood squirting in her mouth rich and wonderfully warm … Only to heave it back out as the numbness began. Mary did the same, spitting gobbets of organ meat back into the water, frantically wiping at her mouth. The smell was maddening, Elisabeth’s hunger was maddening, to know that a few swallows would make it stop …
And perhaps kill her in the process, crippling her from within.
In the darkness came the sound of Mary’s erratic panting, as if she were on the verge of delirium. Elisabeth felt it too, the almost overwhelming desire to drain the man, drain him and the numbness be damned. She found Mary’s hand and gripped it, they were both trembling, they held hands and whimpered and panted until they were calm once more.
Pieces of bone and flesh kept brushing Elisabeth’s face; the lump of corpse rocked against their bare legs. Every brush of its skin made her cringe. She started to kick it towards the opening but Mary squeezed her hand. “No,” she gasped. “It might show the others where we are.”
Elisabeth pressed herself against the ledge, bending her knees and tucking her feet close. Still the body brushed against her, still she felt the raw meat of him graze her face, felt a tiny piece of skin glue itself to her cheek like a kiss. She scraped it away, scraped and scraped until her face felt sore.
And then they sat, silent and still, listening to the faint, erratic splashes. Listening and waiting.
“How long has it been?”
Elisabeth shook her head. The question seemed absurd. They had slept a little, upright and tangled together, shivering with hunger. The body rocked in the water, turning one way and another. The air in the cave had taken on a strange, fetid odor. It could have been hours, or a week; never had she felt so far from the world.
“Since this one there’s been nothing.” Mary nudged her. “We’ll starve at this rate; we have to risk it.”
Her voice was shaking despite her brusque tone. Elisabeth moved closer to her, pressing her face against Mary’s throat. The cuts on her chest were no longer wet and open—
Yet there were still ridges of skin, callus-thick.
Elisabeth touched her own left side only to jerk her hand back. Then, slowly, she let her fingers just brush her skin, let them start to trace the strange patterns there, patterns that barely registered sensation.
“We cannot stay here forever.”
Yes, she could. Forever and a day. How could she leave now, like this?
But Mary had already wiggled past the corpse to get to the opening. The water rippled as she pushed herself through.
The little cave fell silent. Only now did Elisabeth hear her own slow heartbeat. Sitting alone in the darkness, the air a miasma … Her heartbeat increased until she felt the organ hammering in her chest, her blood pounding in her ears. She clutched at her ribs: she wasn’t healing right, she was missing something and she could feel their teeth inside her still. The body rubbed against her feet and she tasted bile.
She clenched her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and dropped under the water, shoving at the corpse until she was past it and sliding through the narrow opening.
Once back in the lake the sense of space shocked her. How long had they been hiding for? Mary nowhere to be seen and the water seemed brightly lit after the cave, though she knew instinctively that the faint glow above was moonlight. She kicked herself upwards, her heart fluttering in her chest.
As she swam she felt pockets of numbness beneath her skin, pockets that Mary had missed. Their taint in her body still.
She broke the surface in the shadow of an overhanging tree. Voices were calling her name: Alex, Jules, and Mary too, all echoing together. Her family. Here, she tried to say, but her throat was too tight. She gulped down the fresh air and fit fingers and toes to the limestone. Climbing as she had done a lifetime ago. Her left side felt tight and she could not bring herself to look; she felt her right breast being scraped by the stone but on the left there was nothing. Instead she looked up at Mary’s outstretched hand, dwarfed by the sleeve of Alex’s greatcoat.
Elisabeth took her hand and let herself be pulled onto the open ground. She looked at Alex and Jules and they averted their eyes.
Finally Alex spoke. “For fuck’s sake, Jules. Give her your coat so she can cover herself.”
Jules hurried to her side. The wool settled around her shoulders, heavy and comforting; she pressed her face to the rough fabric and inhaled earth and sweat—
Earth and sweat and smoke. She looked at Jules, shocked out of her shame. For the first time she saw the soot that spattered his olive skin, his singed eyebrows.
“Jules,” she whispered, “what did they burn?”
<—Prima Materia, Chapter 2 (posting on October 14th)