Book of the Year Finalist by Foreword Reviews.
As the man staggered into the narrow corridor of the castle, he knew the woman he left behind would be dead within minutes unless he did something. The thought of losing her gripped him by the throat as strongly as if a hand seized him and sought to wring the life from him. He tore at the tight collar around his neck and ripped it open, gasping for breath. His fingers brushed against the wound there, two deep punctures that seeped a slow trickle of blood.
“Vitus!” he cried. “I need you!”
His rushed down the stone hallway, bent over and running his hand along the wall to keep his balance. Since his birth in this castle, he had spent countless hours running through its many rooms. But tonight it felt as disorienting as one of the mazes the workers made out of the cornfields for Harvest Festival.
“Vitus! Show yourself!” he bellowed.
Stairs. Narrow and steep. The man half-ran, half-fell down them, growing more desperate with every step farther from the room where he had spent the last three days caring for his wife. Once the essence of life, she was now no more than a brittle husk, a frail body with a withered soul. He could still feel the damp on his clothes from holding her fevered body next to his as he gently rocked her, singing her the soft songs of their youth. But her breathing had only gotten worse, now a faint rasp of air, so strained that he feared each would be her last.
Finally, as the shadow of death filled the room and hovered over her, something had broken inside of the man. The promise he had made to her—no, more than a promise, a solemn oath bound by the strongest words her dying mind could conjure—suddenly seemed a transparent lie. In a flash of clarity, it appeared so obvious that he lurched from the bed, calling himself a fool, and ran from the room.
If she died, nothing else mattered.
Even if she hated him for what he intended to do, he didn’t care. He could not let her die.
The man came to the enormous oak doors of the banquet hall. He lowered his shoulder with a snarl and barreled into them. The doors flew open on well-oiled hinges, revealing a massive room with a soaring ceiling supported by rows of thick stone pillars. Tapestries and banners covered the walls. A long table, enough to seat dozens at a feast, filled the center aisle. Platters of food and goblets of wine sat atop the dark, polished wood. Fanciful flower decorations served as centerpieces, alternating the length of the table with candlesticks made of the finest silver. Every chair was filled with a gentleman or lady wearing the most fashionable clothing. Vests embroidered with gold and silver. Dresses assembled in layers of sheer fabrics. Cloaks of ermine and mink draped over the chair backs in case a draft should appear.
But a draft would not bother any of the assembled guests.
Even the coldest wind will not bother a corpse.
The dinner guests were all frozen in a dramatic tableau of death. Some lay facedown on the table. Others leaned back, dead, open eyes staring at the ceiling. The worst ones, someone had propped up as if they were still conversing, but pale white skin accented the bright line of red blood across their necks.
The room was dark, the candles long since melted into puddles of wax on the table. The only light came from a small fire burning in the giant hearth in the center wall of the room. A solitary figure sat in a wooden chair, rocking back and forth, keeping pace to music only he could hear.
“Vitus, I know you could hear me,” the man shouted. “I need you.”
Vitus cocked his head slightly toward the man as if picking up only the slightest creak of the floorboards in the middle of the night, but he continued to stare into the fire. Vitus’s beard grew down to his chest and stood in contrast to his clean-shaven head. The fire cast odd shadows across a weathered face, chiseled deep by time and pain. Vitus looked no different from any number of old men lost to his thoughts deep inside the flames of a hearth fire.
No different that is except for his eyes and stains of blood that ran down both sides of his mouth. His eyes were black wells that seemed to suck the light from the air and give nothing in return. No reflection from the fire or glistening from moisture, just dead endless darkness that saw both nothing and everything. For the first time since leaving his dying wife, the man paused, terrified at what he intended to do.
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