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Whispers From the North

by Matthew T. Acheson


“The man himself was not remarkable; but his wife on the other hand — her presence seemed to chill the room and suck the air from my very lungs. For she was none other than the high priestess we had known from our encounter in the crypt!

“With rapacious eyes and a keen gaze, she watched us intently throughout the entirety of the proceedings. I remember feeling as though at any moment she might leap across the table and slash out our eyes or tear into our throats with her bare hands.

“As to the disposition of our case, it was of course not surprising that our fathers argued in favor of our release. It was however, rather shocking to learn that the offended party agreed to drop the charges, so long as the matter of the burglary was kept under the strictest silence by all those involved.

“And so the matter was concluded with haste and we were released into the custody of our fathers. Before returning to Mill Creek I asked the magistrates if it were possible to retrieve Khalide’s body that it might be burned in accordance with his religious beliefs, but they relayed that the corpse had been badly mutilated by scavenging animals and had been laid to rest in a grave not far from the Abernathy crypt.

“With a sense of relief we returned home only to face another even greater trial — that of Aidan’s failing mental health. In the days and weeks that followed, Aidan’s physical and emotional state deteriorated rapidly. Some days he shivered feverishly in his bed, not saying a word, while others he paced about and ranted for hours in speech that was little more than the disjointed ravings of a madman.

“Effie reported that every evening his sleep was shattered by nightmares that caused him to awaken in hysterical fits of screaming, which were often followed by lengthy bouts of sobbing. Although he refused to speak of it, I know in my bones that his dreams were plagued by whatever it was that he and Khalide had experienced in the crypt during my brief absence.

“I sat by his bedside every day, reading him stories and trying various treatments, including cassia bark tea to reduce his anxiety. When none of the standard treatments worked, I changed approaches entirely — focusing on strict dietary changes and an exercise regime that included brisk afternoon walks and the like.

“Effie, remarkable woman that she was, assisted me in all of my efforts and cared for her fiancé with great tenderness; even singing to him in the evenings to help ease him into sleep. But in the end all of our efforts were for naught.

“I will never forget the final words he whispered to me the night before he ended his own life. ‘Parents always tell their children that monsters don’t really exist — why do you suppose they do that?’ He had spoken so calmly and lucidly that I had taken it as a sign that his mental condition was stabilizing, but the next morning we discovered the body. Aidan had slashed his own wrists and bled to death in his bed.

“Mills Creek is but a small village, and Khalide’s mysterious disappearance had been the subject of some talk amongst the locals, but when the news got out about Aidan’s suicide, the wheels of small town gossip turned until the entire situation erupted into a full blown scandal.

“The greatest concern of my father, ever the quintessential aristocrat, centered on preserving the integrity of our family name. When speculation and rumors as to the events behind Aidan’s suicide began to circulate, he decided to cut his losses by evicting Khalide’s widow from our estate.

“As I was fully responsible for the death of Khalide, I could not in good conscience allow his wife and child to become homeless. I came to the decision that I would escort them to the city of Dunthorpe, where I would find them work in the household of my professor and advisor Dr. Kilcairney.

“When I told my father of my decision to leave, and my intention never to return, he performed the one and only truly magnanimous act of his entire life; he gave me the full sum of the betrothal gift for my marriage to Nikkara, and begrudgingly wished me happiness in our life together. And so I kissed my sobbing mother goodbye and set off on a journey that I have yet to finish — a lifetime of wandering.

“On route to Dunthorpe we came across a gorgeous little village on the coast, riddled with green forests and fresh salt air. I spent a portion of my money towards the procurement of a small house near the top of a magnificent cliff overlooking the sea; this I gave as a gift to Khalide’s widow, along with the entire balance of the sum my father had given me. Before leaving, I promised her that I would find Khalide’s grave and dispose of his body according to the customs of their religion.

“True to my word I made one final journey back to the ruined Abernathy mansion. Somehow, in looking upon that place for the last time I came to realize why I feared it so. It was a place without sympathy or remorse, a place where lives and hopes were shattered, a place where no sane human being was fit to tread.

“After a brief search, I found Khalide’s grave a few hundred paces from the mad face of the crypt, and with great discomfort and frequent glances over my shoulder in the direction of those iron double doors, I exhumed the body of my old friend. Then I built a pyre of deadwood and burned his mortal remains to dust. These I collected and later scattered into a stream of cold, running water that flowed towards the south. I sent my friend home.”

As the old storyteller finished his tale he blew one last puff of smoke and rose, knees cracking, to empty the ashes from the bowl of his pipe into the fireplace. He seemed reduced; less than the carefree man he had been only a few short hours before, Sabryna noted to herself. It was as if the mere telling of the story had aged him somehow — a weary, shell of a man drained to the very ends of his soul.

Without so much as a nod or a polite word the old man turned towards the staircase and began the short climb up to the guest rooms. But the tale was not finished — Sabryna had to know how the story ended.

“Gillian please... tell me what happened with Nikkara.”

The old man stopped his ascent and turned to face her again, with a look of infinite sadness in his eyes. “I never had the heart to tell her. How could I? I didn’t want her to see what I had become. The man she knew and loved was dead. All that remained was a dried husk — a homeless wanderer, a petty thief, a murderer of his friends.”

“Then you never saw her again?”

“Many years after the tragedy in the tomb I passed through Dunthorpe, ostensibly to peddle my exotic wares, but in truth I went because I needed closure. I needed to find out what had happened to her. From the locals I learned that after my disappearance she had married the eldest of her suitors and her father’s business was saved.

“But her husband was a cruel, jealous man, and her life must have been very miserable, for one day she went to one of the parks that we used to frequent together and threw herself from the cliff face into the ocean waves. She died, and what was left of my heart died with her.”

With that the old man turned and shuffled up the stairs to his room. Beneath the creaking of the boards, Sabryna thought she heard weeping.

Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson

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