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The Wanderer and The Horseman

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“When I think back on what happened the first time I met him, I find myself grateful for two things:
I saved his life and in turn, over the span of hundreds of years, he saved mine.”
– From the personal diary of Leviathan, Prince of Hell

*****

Like a Pied Piper, his lute’s melancholy tune drew me closer and closer to his campsite. The melody was familiar—one I had heard many times. Yet, the way he played made the danger nipping at my heels seem like nothing but a small inconvenience.

Pushing branches and brush aside, I finally reached him as the melody came to its gloomy conclusion. Mesmerized, I crept closer until the tips of my bare toes brushed against the flickering light that marked the outline of his campsite.

The small fire sparked and hissed, illuminating a small traveller’s pack and a pallet made of thick, dark furs. He sat across from me, crossed legged on the ground with the lute cradled in his lap.

There wasn’t anything remarkable about him. His cheeks were sunken, his clothes plain and ill fitting. A greying chemise billowed around his emaciated torso. His breeches barely reached his bony knees and like me, his feet were bare.

I inhaled deeply. Exhaled. He didn’t carry the unfortunate odor, which would have betrayed his demonic heritage. It meant that he was mortal. It also meant he wouldn’t know who I was. That little fact suited me just fine.

I inhaled again. This time, I felt a shiver of recognition, like we had met before, but that was impossible.

Talking to mortals was against the rules and I hadn’t spoken to one in centuries.

The firelight flared again, showing me that the lute’s pale beige body was in pristine condition. Not a scratch marred its smooth surface. One of the man’s skeletal hands hovered over a sound hole that had been fitted with a flat, wooden disk, carved into a precise and intricate pattern; a complex maze of stars within stars, within stars.

I watched him pluck out a few notes, then fiddle with the tuning pegs. As he shifted his fingers to strum out a few chords, the tension went out of his thin shoulders, the worry lines in his forehead smoothed and disappeared.

Following a quick, deep breath, the man started to sing. The instrument accompanied him, his fingers moved over the strings as effortlessly as his voice soared through the melody.

If I had been mesmerized before, I had no words to describe what I felt then. The current of his voice swept me away until I felt like I was drowning in its rich timbre. I couldn’t fight it and as the notes rose, swelling to new heights at the top of his range, I found I didn’t want to.

And so, I held my breath and let my instincts scream. There was power here, unfamiliar but strong.

I was helpless against it.

“If you’re planning to rob me, I feel obligated to tell you that I’ve nothing but the clothes on me back,” the man said before I realized the song had ended. He turned his head and met my gaze with curiosity rather than fear. “But if it’s a meal you’re after, there’s plenty to go ‘round.”

I knew I should have slipped back into the forest and forgotten him forever. But I was curious now, much too curious for my own good.

“Fair enough,” I said, my voice hoarse from disuse. I moved closer, still watching him, even as I sat down.

“I’m Peter. Peter Barlow,” he said, slowly rising to his feet with the lute in his hands.

“I am called, Leviath . . .” I trailed off, hesitating. “Levi,” I finally answered.

“It’s a pleasure,” he said bowing his head. He set the lute down, away from the fire, before rummaging through his pack. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“I never get lost,” I told him.

“Ah, running away, then.” He produced two wooden bowls and after another moment, two spoons.

My jaw clenched. “I don’t run,” I told him. “I wander.”

He pursed his lips and nodded as if I had answered an important question. “We’re a special breed, us wanderers,” he said. He shuffled towards the little pot near the fire and lifted the lid. A puff of steam followed. “I hope you like potatoes.” Peter scooped out a mound of mash and plopped it into a bowl. He reached out to hand it to me.

“I’ve eaten worse—” I cut myself off with a silent oath. The whole situation felt much too familiar. Comfortable. Easy. Try to remember he’s a bloody mortal will you? I told myself.

I took the bowl and spoon. Set it in my lap.

“So,” Peter said, easing himself back down to the ground with a bowl of his own. “What is it you’re wanderin’ away from?”

“My family,” I heard myself reply. The truth came out easier than expected. “I need to be on my own for a while. They don’t understand what that means.”

“Why?”

“I’m searching for someone.”

“Did your search take you to London?” he asked in a low voice.

“Briefly.”

Peter’s gaze flicked from his bowl to my face. “She wasn’t there, was she?”

My fingers clenched around the spoon. If not a demon, the man could pass as a bloody mind reader. “No,” I answered, trying not to think about what I had seen.

Eve wasn’t there, I reminded myself firmly. You know she wasn’t there.

“The Pestilence took my sister first,” he told me, his voice quiet. “The rest of me family followed shortly after.” The corner of his mouth quirked upwards but didn’t stay there for long. “I’ve seen enough death to last a lifetime.” He turned his gaze towards me. His brown eyes looked empty, longing to see what they could not, ever again. “I suppose you have too.”

The shiver of recognition was stronger this time, striking me hard. “Tell me,” I said. “Have we met before?”

Peter shrugged. “Might’ve,” he said. “I’m a troubadour, or at least I was until they wouldn’t let me back into the city.” He lowered his bowl into his lap. “You wouldn’t be a noble gentleman down on his luck, would you?”

I frowned. Again, he had hit uncomfortably close to the truth. “No,” I said.

“Didn’t mean to offend,” he said, picking the bowl up again in that relaxed manner he had. “But it’s easy to do when you’re all but asleep on your feet. Why don’t you rest for a wee bit?” He gestured to the furs laid out near the fire. “I’ll keep watch.”

I stared at the furs, warring with myself despite the fact that he was right. My bones were weary and wanted nothing more than to rest—for just a little while.

Except . . . It was really only a matter of time before the danger nipping at my heels turned into a noose around my neck.

My power surged, rippling through my body like a whip as if to remind me that I was anything but defenseless. You can’t use it, I reminded myself. Not against your own kin.

That was also against the rules.

“That’s it, that’s it. You’re alright.” Peter’s voice was soothing. Before I knew it, he led me down onto the pallet of furs with my hands tucked beneath my cheek. I heard him pick up his lute, and settle back down. Through the flames, I watched his fingers float over the strings and felt the melody gently tug and then pull me under.

The flickering flames seemed to writhe, slithering over and around one another like headless snakes. A woman with porcelain-skinned limbs rose out from their midst.

Her name tumbled from my lips. “Eve.”

She smiled at me, her full lips parting to reveal a set of rotted teeth. Her doe colored eyes widened as the flaming snakes slid back over her. Her hand shot through their wriggling bodies.

I barely noticed. My attention was fixed on her reaching fingers. The tips looked stained with dark colored ink.

Fear clawed at my gut. “No.” I reach for her. “She promised us a second chance.” I tried to push myself up, to grab her and pull her into my arms. My hands slipped. I couldn’t reach her. “Mother, you promised,” I snarled, feeling my strength surge until my skin cracked. “You promised!”

I rolled, a little too close to the flames. The stink of singed hairs snapped me out of my rage long enough for me to realize that Eve wasn’t really there. It had only been a dream.

I pushed myself back onto the furs and glared at the star speckled sky, gritting my teeth.

I am a Prince of Hell, I reminded myself. I am the Demon of Envy.

I continued, reminding myself of the things that had been promised to me: one day, I would no longer feel the twisting of my gut, nor such stillness in my heart. One day, this . . . mortal state that had brought me to my knees would release its cursed hold on me.

We would be together.

We would be free.

A shadow rose over me. Fingers weakly tugged at my shirt. “Quiet. Someone’s coming.” Peter’s face appeared above mine. His gaze darted from left to right.

I could hear it then, hooves, pounding against the earth.

My first thought was that he had betrayed me. My fingers itched to curl around his throat. A life for a life. It was only fair, but one look at his face changed my mind. He had no idea what was coming for me.

“Get me out of here,” I whispered.

“Go on then,” Peter urged. “Go.” He helped me to my feet and nudged me into the shadows. “Be safe. I hope our paths cross again one day.”

I ran, knowing I would never see him again. My power pounded against my chest like a war drum. Peter was the distraction I needed to disappear. His death would not be in vain if I could continue to live mine.

I heard a sharp yelp, a loud thump and then silence.

My legs slowed and then stopped. Cursing under my breath, I hung my head, unable to take another step. “Bloody hell,” I whispered, shuffling back and forth on my feet. “Damn it!”

Before I could question my resolve, I turned and headed back to the campsite. I spotted the giant steed first. Its pale coat shimmered in the firelight. It turned its head to nuzzle at me as I slowly passed. I spotted Peter’s unmoving form on top of the furs. It was a relief to catch the rise and fall of his back.

A towering figure cloaked in a forest green hood stood over him. He held a longbow with bony, yellow tinged fingers. A brass quiver hung across his back. Blackened with poison, the exposed arrow shafts glinted wickedly.

“So,” I said, swallowing my pride. “It took you long enough to find me.”

The Horseman turned his faceless cowl towards me. “The family will be relieved. We’ve all been worried about you,” he said. “Now, come with me. I’ll see you home.”

“Thanks but no thanks,” I told him. “I’m not going.” The skin across my chest tightened and split open. I grimaced, straining against the urge to unleash the full force of my might.

“You don’t have a choice,” The Horseman told me. His fingers tightened around his bow. “If you come with me, your mother will never need to know the truth.”

I scowled at him. “Mother is already furious.” The skin across my back and shoulders cracked open in several places. “What else could you possibly tell her that would make things worse?”

The Horseman lurched towards me. “I caught you consorting with a mortal,” he snarled. “Again! For Pete’s sake, Leviathan, whose side are you on here?”

My eyes narrowed on the dark shadow masking his skeletal face. “How dare you question my loyalty to the cause?” I spoke the words with conviction, but felt a sliver of doubt in my resolve.

“Your family needs you now, more than ever.”

“I need to find her before anyone else does.”

“We can help you seek Eve out.”

“I can’t risk it,” I shouted. “I won’t lose her a second time!”

We stared each other down.

Peter groaned. “Levi?” His voice was groggy, as though he had woken from a deep sleep. “What’s going on?”

I didn’t dare break eye contact with The Horseman in fervent hope that he had somehow hadn’t heard a mortal call me by name.

“Uncle,” I said. “Listen to me. It’s not what you think, I swear—”

“Come home with me. Now,” he interrupted.

My power raged in my ears. “No.”

“This is a fight you won’t win,” he murmured. He raised the bow, his intent unmistakable.

My breath caught in my throat. If one of the Horseman’s arrows so much as nicked Peter’s skin, he would be marked for Death.

“It’s not his time.” I blurted out the words, knowing Peter only had a few more seconds to live.

“Does it matter?” The Horseman asked tilting his head towards me.

I raised a brow, shocked at his response. “It matters a great deal,” I said. “You know that breaking our laws only upsets the balance.”

The Horseman snorted. Lowered his bow. “Still believe that old wives tale, do you?” he asked.

“You’re telling me that they,” I pointed a finger towards the sky and looked upward to emphasize my point, “don’t care how many mortals we kill?”

“Oh they care,” he replied. I could hear the smile in his voice. He moved to lay his free hand on my shoulder. “This is why you need to come home,” he told me in a low voice, “to keep abreast of your mother’s plans.”

A horrible understanding washed over me. “The Black Death,” I said. “You’ve been spreading your poison amongst the mortals, haven’t you?”

Peter stirred again.

The Horseman’s hand fell from my shoulder as he swung the bow in Peter’s direction, notched an arrow and pulled back the string.

“I’ll end you before you get the chance.”

The Horseman should have known it was a bluff but he spun back towards me, bow raised.

Shocked to my core, I realized that he was going to break yet another rule and shoot me. I tried to take solace in the fact that while the poison would take at least a fortnight to work its way out of my system, it wouldn’t kill me.

I clenched my fists and released my power.

It poured from me like a thick ribbon of amber colored whiskey. The ribbon floated through the air towards The Horseman before twining around him like a rope.

“Mother thinks Death is a better huntsman than you,” I shouted at him.

He lowered his bow arm. “Pardon me?”

I almost fainted in relief. The tendrils flickered and then steadied as I stood my ground. “She said that he’s more personable than you,” I told him and did my best to look contrite. “Personally, I think she finds him amusing.”

“Your mother’s spoiled him,” The Horseman said, returning the arrow to his quiver. “Given him too much control.” He paused. “I want what he has.”

“You should confront her,” I said watching the bow slip back onto his shoulder. “Tell her what you’ve just told me.”

The Horseman nodded his hooded head. “Yes,” he growled. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right!” He turned and strode towards his mount. “I’m going do more than just talk to him,” he announced, and without another word, swung himself into the saddle.

I stood completely still, awed at the sight of my power coiled around him, like a snake ready to swallow him whole.

When his steed lurched forward, its strength and speed almost knocked me over. They disappeared into the forest, stretching the ribbon until it snapped, leaving The Horseman trapped by a deadly sin.

“I know he’s supposed t’be your uncle and everything,” Peter said from behind me. “But the bastard broke me lute.”

I turned to see him hunched over, hands on his hips as he surveyed the shattered remains of his instrument.

I had saved his life, but at what cost? The only thing he had left lay destroyed at his feet. They reminded me of the tattered remains of my life: the home I didn’t want to go back to, the woman I had simultaneously loved and betrayed, the likely possibility that I would screw things up a second time, the inevitable shift in power that The Horseman’s actions would cause . . .

I fell to my knees. “I can fix it,” I told him, picking up the pieces. “I can put it back together, good as new.” Some of the shards were too small. I tried to gather them up but ended up with more dirt, moss and twigs than lute.

“Stop.” Peter’s voice was firm. “Things break,” he told me, pulling me to my feet. “Sometimes beyond repair, and while I will mourn the loss of that instrument, it doesn’t mean all is lost.”

“Doesn’t it?” I asked, still clinging to the shards. “The Black Death has stolen your family, your friends, your life!”

“Ah, and that is where you’re wrong,” Peter said. “I’m alive. You’re alive.” He reached down to pick up a piece of the lute. “The Pestilence hasn’t taken everything from me.” He held out the piece of wood. “Not yet.”

It was the intricate sound hole cover from his lute. It remained intact. I dropped what I held in my arms to take it from him, and ran my finger along the delicate pattern. Not a scratch marred its smooth surface.

In that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew that the mortal was right.

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Crystal Bourque

Crystal Bourque is an up and coming, new adult, urban fantasy author. She is obsessed with all things fantastical, so much so that she has a recurring dream about being a princess with a sword. When she’s not busy writing, she loves trying new recipes, plotting her next travel destination, and singing loudly.

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