“He did what?” exclaimed Lord Eugene Harkady, spittle flying from his mouth.
“He played music, my lord.” There was a nervous shuffling of feet. “Then he killed everyone.”
“Why is he still alive then?” Eugene Harkady ground his teeth in frustration. This, the finest, most glorious hour of his rule, was slowly turning into ashes in his mouth. He took a deep draught from the pitcher he held and threw it away in disgust. The wine, which had tasted sweeter than honey not so long ago, now tasted worse than dog’s piss. The guard in front of him did not meet his stare.
“Kill him. Kill him now and bring me his head,” he grunted, his festive mood evaporating like the morning dew. “Or I’ll see yours struck from your shoulders.”
The guard hurried away, leaving Lord Harkady behind with his troubled thoughts. She’d warned him, he remembered. She’d warned him this may come to pass. Damn the hag, Eugene swore inwardly. Damn her and her obtuse prophecies.
His thoughts were interrupted by a soft noise from his doorway. He turned sharply, drawing out his dagger.
“Father?” Niall was peeking hesitantly from behind the door.
With his curly, blonde hair and bright blue eyes, ten years old Niall looked nothing like the man he called his father. Where Eugene stood tall and broad, Niall was small for his age and slight of build; his fair skin stood in stark contrast with Eugene’s darker features. The boy was trembling slightly, his gaze fixed at the weapon in Eugene’s hand.
“Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?” he asked, sheathing his weapon.
Niall shook his head in response. “There’s too much noise, father.” The child clutched weakly at his clothes. “And I’m afraid.”
A deep seated loathing filled Eugene to the very core. The child was just like his mother, soft and weak and utterly useless. Not useless, he corrected himself. This slight, weak child would ensure that the name of Eugene Harkady would live on forever. Eugene smiled grimly on the irony.
“Go to your bed,” he commanded. “I will send for you shortly.”
For a moment, the boy looked like he might put up resistance. But the flash of defiance vanished as soon as it had appeared. Eugene nodded satisfactorily to himself; the gutless child would dare not defy him when the time came. If only this night could have passed without incident. It was to be the night of his crowning glory, until it all threatened to unravel with the coming of that infernal stranger. Damn the hag, he swore again. Tonight was the night he had not wished to invoke her; and yet tonight was the night now he must.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Stranger hauled himself over the wall with relative ease and took stock of his surroundings. The courtyard was bare, as was to be expected. Lord Harkady had sent most of his troops out into the town looking for him, leaving his own keep relatively undefended. A few guards still patrolled the walls, but fortune was in the Stranger’s favour. There was no moon in the sky, the clouds obscuring what little light remained. Even the torches lit at regular intervals seemed to emphasise the gloom than alleviate it. In a way, it suited the Stranger. Most of the guards were local lads who had drafted into Lord Harkady’s service for two square meals, some respect and easy coin. It wasn’t something they deserved to die for – at least not yet. He glanced around once more to ensure there was no one in sight and trotted off towards the keep looming in front of him.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Eugene felt the cold wind rising around him, whipping at his clothes even as the leaves on trees just a short distance away seemed unaffected. The dead man near his feet seemed to shudder for an instant and dissolved into nothing before turning upright at the edge of his vision. It seemed to be dancing, if it could be called that, in a disjointed manner. Eugene thought he could make out three dark shapes rushing towards the body from three different directions. He blinked, and the shapes disappeared.
Kill you must, or die you shall... a horrible screech seemed to fill the entire night sky. Fell him you must, or face your downfall...
“Who is he?” he rasped, the buffeting winds making speech nearly impossible.
When the past is not the past... The dead man was still dancing to its awkward rhythm. When Death shirks from duty...he rises strong and fast...born of blood, of earth, of grass...he comes reforged...Abelor the last...
“The last of the Abelors is dead,” Eugene shouted. “The boy is nothing.”
The response seemed to be more fervent gyrations and a rise in the wind surrounding him. Ice crackled under his feet, but the chill that he felt didn’t have anything to do with the dropping temperature.
The past ascends on wings of death...it rises strong and sure...he comes with memories of wrongs done...he comes with vengeance so pure...
The dead man halted, seemingly confused; the wind died away as the unholy cacophony stopped. The gaze of its red, glowing eyes seemed accusatory.
This one that you bring us... it is not sufficient...
“With you, what is?” Eugene replied venomously, glad to be able to breathe freely again. “Just one more night! Help me claim what is mine, and I will give you all that you ask for!”
There was a sharp crack, and Eugene Harkady suddenly found himself flat on the ground unable to move his limbs. The dead man sat on his chest. The red glow in its eyes had taken on a dangerous sheen.
“You will...give...usss....” it spoke with a harsh sibilant hiss, the mouth moving at odds to the words spoken, “...you...who...were granted...power...by...usss?” There was a brief pause as it seemed to formulate the next sentence. “Do...not...presume...to...be...our massster...Eugene Harkady...”
“You...need...me...” Eugene croaked.
The red eyes seemed to consider this. “Yesss...but do not....think yourssself...indisssspenssable...” it tilted its head, thick white fog pouring out of its mouth, “bring usss....the...boy...and we...ssshalll...ssseee...”
The dead man disappeared just like morning dew evaporating at the first touch of light, but Eugene could hear its final message.
We will meet again...before the night passes...as an unpaid due shall be demanded...life and death and shadow cross paths...he comes again...Abelor the last...
Eugene Harkady got to his feet. Just one more night, he told himself, just one more night of putting up with the hag, just one more sacrifice to be made. The boy would finally play his part. And he’d be granted power over death and life, the power to make his own destiny. He walked down the path to the keep; the stranger would be dealt with without any further delay. Behind him, the thick white fog roiled on in the little clearing in the woods; twisting, turning, waiting.