Susan looked to the north and south and climbed slowly from the drop on all four limbs, rising to her feet once more where the hill leveled into a broad shelf. The air glittered with buoyant whits of ice in flues of sunlight drifting down from slim rifts in the cloud. At first glance the trees seemed placed as though by careful hands at some considerate distance from each other, and that they cultivated sophistry, their slim shade cutting the white with stripes of matte grey, snow lying on their branches like inverted shadow. Shrugging off her coat, she hung it from a sapling and lay down, first in profile, then on her back, imprinting two versions of herself into the pristine little plain. Her own small scale annoyed her as it had always done, seeming closer to some minor, nameless scion of her order than the species to which she belonged, though she drew consolation from the adult nature of the impressed proportions. A brief exam of her surrounds yielded broken wood, pebbles and bracket fungi; knocked from the fir they climbed in velveteen succession, the shapes of each were pressed into service as features on her effigies. Crouching for a moment at their feet in the grip of a vague dissatisfaction, she leant forward and planted a cigarette in each emblematic mouth. The effect was so displeasing that she flicked them away along with those remaining in the pack, tasting wet ash on her tongue and noting the narrow slash of red on the back of her finger before the discomfort of the scratch itself, hands almost disembodied by the cold's numbing, insidious empery. From them she looked up through the curling tendrils that had escaped her braids, glimpsing movement flickering amid a copse of pines recently carbonized by lightning.
Two birds rendered in black and chatoyant purple stood in heraldic confrontation amongst the ravished trees. Their feet, scaled and pipe grey, cut runic prints into the snow. Its crystals sucked a sweet and thickly-staining pink from the small carcass lying between them, of some luckless stoat or ermine; the ravens had hollowed its eyes and stolen the tongue from its mouth before opening its flank with their blade-like beaks. Their act of disposal was ennobled by hues and textures both stiff and elastic, blue and indelicate crimson, softly furred and dripping. All was pried apart and swallowed, the birds ignoring her observance, dragging the last secrets from between the ermine's ribs, sacred instruments about their sacred task. When she looked up from them the ruin had retreated overhead and she could see nothing of the rooftop yard, though she frowned and squinted until the hollow beating of the ravens’ wings turned her back in their direction. Together the corvids made a concerted ascent and stood amongst the branches, looking toward the south like sombre weathercocks and croaking brusquely. With her eyes still on the birds she sank down, one hand seeking the strap of the rifle while its absence and the rasp of an unfamiliar tread closed her eyes. She remained bedded like a stone even as the sounds described the stiff, braced stance the stranger assumed before her.
The sight of Susan Christabel in such incautious isolation seemed illusory to Josephine. She blinked hard, but made no other move to reassure herself.
“Move slowly, do exactly as I say.” she called as she withdrew a heavy black pistol. “Lace your fingers behind your head. Lie face down.” The girl glanced up toward the ruin. Josephine covered her carefully as she rose to stand, charged with the bright, self-conscious rigor of refusal. Her head turned toward the sound of the water; she looked back once at Josephine, then ran.
The dead trees of the clearing were quickly swallowed by the hillside though she did not look behind her, pushing her lead by skidding over a shallow bluff onto the more familiar ground of her previous ascent. Her boots punched into a cracking tangle of wind-banked branches; tipped forward, she kicked free and stumbled on toward the gorge, bursting through fingerling saplings that whipped back at her face. While her headlong velocity left Josephine in her distant wake, the latter's voice echoed down the hillside to direct another; the unseen party closed on her as they emerged together onto the level ground, catching her right arm and spinning her hard into the snow.
Petrouchka suspended her careful ascent toward the yard, lifting her hand to spare her flooded gaze the daylight; though feeble and colourless, it roared and boiled around her, casting the steps in white hot relief and glowing with the infernal hue of crucible steel. It rippled through the liquid in her eyes, her surface guarded only by clothing and the shadow she had followed from inside the ruin. Halted by its failure at the floor of the roof she stood, awaiting Sachiin's attention. He was tying back his returning hair, the handle of the axe propped against his thigh, and formed a pier of scalding brilliance, his eyes rendered in lustreless, infra-red darkness.
"From the way she freaked at me and peeled out, I'm guessing you dropped some epic shit down there." he suggested tersely. Petrouchka lifted the black cloth from her shoulders over her head. "I trusted you not to fuck with her, and you went right at it. I trusted you not to fuck with him."
"You accuse me? Of what?"
"Dépravation." he replied, wearily. "Déshonneur." The charges carried deeply into her empty chest, the day shuddering around them in agreement; she murmured, and lifted her draped arm as much against his stare as the sky, and he spoke more gently to her. "Do you not love me, Belyaev? How have we sinned against you?"
"I am dead, Sachiin." she confessed from underneath her cowl. "You ask so much of me."
The haste with which Kala'amātya climbed toward them drew him past her with none of the inquiry her presence might have otherwise inspired. She watched him confide something to his brother, then catch his arm as the latter broke toward the stairs, wide-eyed and silent, forcing Kala'amātya to exert the whole of his strength in halting him beside the vampyre and pinning his shoulder to the wall.
"What did you tell her?" he demanded of her.
"Sh'ih in'nai'ama. If they have her, they can't have you." hissed his detainer. Their struggle escalated until Petrouchka was sucked into its throes, her two-fisted hold setting her dead weight against him.
"Sachiin! You think she want this? Go now, or you won't."
He dragged them from the wall with him into the sunlight, her right side bared by the loss of her shawl; she sank to her knees beside his leg and clawed it back over her head, her cry prompting him to throw his brother off and aid her, though not before the caustic sky raised plumules of flame on the backs of her hands. Crouching in the shadow, Petrouchka pressed her burnt skin to her dress where it smoked like a brazier of blackened myrrh, uttering advice deeply coloured by the dark purl of her accent.
"They won't give you a cage with her. Be free. You know there is nothing else."
As she tottered back into the ruin Sachiin dropped onto the step beneath him as though suffering the same malaise.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce.