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Chapter 1 : Shadow
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I have sung your name for nearly a century.
I come in the night, like all dark things which float at the edge of consciousness. Can you feel me? Black as the velvety ink which has been hidden as you snuffed out your candle, plunging the world into quiet stillness. I float on the shadows of dreams, fingers streaming through the air like lute strings, quiet as the shadow selves which pass along the bridge of sighs for a last view of Venice as they are led to their deaths. The canals are quiet at night, leaving room for the supernatural to fill the void left by thousands of people kneeling with beads at their beds, pressing the cross to their lips.
I have had many names, fathered many children: extraordinary, all of them. For children of my sort are destined for infamy or greatness. They are the spawn of demons and humans, and they possess powers and perception beyond the natural. The boy they called Merlin was one of mine: I hear his name spoken still. Children descended from we shadows have sat on royal thrones, commanded armies, controlled dynasties, inspired poetry. They walk on water: they upturn the impossible. They are sharp and bright: they notice things regular mortals do not, they live for far longer than humans, and when they die they are the sentries of the gates which enclose the live from the dead. They heal the sick with a mere touch. Our children have torn civilizations in two, and others must knit them back together. Of late, in the East, I have heard boasts of a youthful liderc who claims he has fathered a child who will rip seams in the existing orders of good and evil, who will spread his power and might as far as the English channel. There is no greater victory, than to father a child like that.
More importantly, I have had many lovers. I come to them, tongue thick and black in my mouth, pointed teeth cushioned by darkness. I slip in and out of beds and breath. My hands are made of shadows, my eyes as all-seeing as the dark side of the moon. I never take without asking, but once you feel the coldness against your skin you will be mine and I yours, until you outgrow me for a more conventional match. I understand this: I have not survived a thousand years without a little heartbreak.
I prefer to prey on witches. In the days of castles and kings and wars I crept into stone chambers and seduced by the light of the moon: so much clearer and brighter then, staring down at me accusingly as I put an ashy finger to my lips; cold lips, blackened fingers. Witches were kept innocent, then, hidden away in towers by nervous parents, sold to sinister men for the price of a bejeweled set of golden plates. The lucky ones were sent to school, where we incubi could not touch them and convert them to our secret sect.
They are beginning to round us up, we spirits of the night. It is the time of the Victorians, as this time will be remembered, and there is a crack down on sexuality: it is spoken of all the time but never mentioned: monitored by physicians with monocles, black-draped women with white hoods and stern faces kneeling before solemn effigies as the dust mites are trapped in their wimples. There is no place for we dark ones here. Dark-haired women like you are kept under close study, monitored for signs of deviancy. They long to catch you, these men with spectacles and stethoscopes and penetrating eyes concealed behind faint films: they long to catch you and study your sins. One of my number was exorcised from his lover’s bed by the wizards who feared him, feared his influence. I believe he is no more. It is a dangerous time to be a demon of the night.
The year is 1880, and a misty winter has settled onto the empty moors and hills of the North. I fly over the countryside, lonely as it is, devoid of human companionship. I abandoned my old haunt, London, where I had long ago seduced the wives of Roman soldiers, the mistresses of knights, ladies of the Thames, even a nobleman or two to change things around. But London was full of lights and sounds: of science and rationality. The capital was no place for a creature of myth. So I found my prey in sleepy towns that industry had yet left untouched, taught witches to fall in love with me who were sweet and naïve, learning the arts of hedgewitch healing from their ailing grandmothers, weaving flowers into their hair and chanting the spells learned by their ancestors into the gentle winds.
But something draws me to you as I whirl across the empty plains, and brings me to the city, one of the great industrial capitals of the north where men and women work all day in the mills and return to hungry, round-eyed children who tug and beg for food. But I pass over the ash-beaten women of the town, resting their weary eyes in dankly-lit houses beneath the surface of the houses where sewage runs in the street because people have displaced themselves too quickly, because in their eagerness to leave that happy rural life behind humans have packed themselves into unhealthy places for the sake of a small fee. No, I find you in a bunkhouse, sleeping amid men who are without families, without homes. You are dressed in dirty trousers and a cap: you sliced off your long hair and hide your soft, feminine skin with grime and scowls, and you tuck away your wand deep inside your overalls so none of your peers may find it. I whisper your name, a talisman on my self.
I hover over you: you sense my presence, something dark and true in the midst of this godforsaken place. You open your eyes, you whisper something soft, you ask who I am. You are a woman in the guise of a man, I discover: you left school to provide for your family, for your starving brothers and sisters. You’re a witch, true, you have magic inside of you, but that’s not enough, with a Ministry that doesn’t care to provide for the needy or for the children of the non-magical, with neighbors who turn their cheeks to their own hungry children. So you came here, to this smoke-crusted town, and you cut your hair and masquerade as a man, because as a man you earn higher pay. You are not followed and harassed in the streets as a man. You are invisible and empowered as a man.
I see you for who you truly are, I whisper-sing to you, and like that you become smitten with me, and I with you. You are beautiful: you have a fine, handsome face, with cut cheekbones and high brows that give you a look of old wealth and class. You have a face that would be too stern, haughty on a woman, but is fine and lovely on a man. You have rough hands from your work at the mill: your voice is hoarse and hard from inhaling bits of cotton which float through the air like peaceful ghosts in the mill. In the day you are a working man of the mill, a chap like the rest of those poor souls who trickle in and out the factory doors to the tune of the master’s bells.
I lie beside you: you exhale deeply. You whisper of your mother, how she washes clothes till her knuckles are bloody and dry; your father, who ails from a disease which chews away at his lungs. I tenderly reach out and touch your shorn hair with my cold fingers. You do not recoil from me, blind as you are in the night. You trace the features of my face: my pointed ears, my feral smile disappears beneath your rough, thin fingers. And by the dawn I am gone: perhaps I am a water creature in the river, bogged down from the dust of the factories. I hear the sound of the bell announcing your release from the mill: I shield my eyes from the stretching rays of the sun. It is cold in the river, but I like it that way.
And in the nights I am yours: smitten by your imaginings of a better life. My kin is the mare, who rides on the chests of sleepers and fills their poor heads with horrible dreams. I protect you from the mare when she comes to call: her eyes rotund and bulging, her legs shorter than her arms. She screeches at me, claws at my eyes, but she cannot harm me, and more importantly, she will not touch your precious dreams tonight, she will not smother you by perching on your chest like a forgotten grotesque leering down from Notre Dame. Your days are hard enough, my man-woman, and your nights shall not be plagued as well.
And in your sleep you kiss me, your warm lips against my own, and I feel a fluttering of something wild and careless inside of me, and I wonder if my skin could bear the light again. And you come to know me, and you call me by my name: Gancanagh. I come to you as a quiet spirit in the night, take the shape of a man, the voice of a man, and comfort you. And in return you listen to my tales of my thousand year existence: the children I have fathered and seen die, the rivers I have haunted, the carnage wreaked by the human race, wizards and common folk alike. I retain some secrets of my past: how my last lover died of what the doctor called consumption, how she died in the night, breath trapped inside her chest.
When you go home to stay with your family’s cottage for a night, I come to you in your little room. You show me the old family heirloom your family has kept for generations: you are sure it is a magical object, perhaps created by a magical ancestor whose blood has been hidden in the line until you were born and brought it out. I feel you in the dark, so potent and powerful.
Come and look, you say, and you pull me towards the magical mirror. I think it shows me my heart’s desire, you tell me, carefully veiled excitement hovering in the echoes of your voice. I forget to resist: I cannot know why. You tell me that when you look in the mirror you see the two of us together: me, whole and handsome and human in a dapper suit and top hat, like the fine gentlemen who pass you in the streets of your manufacturing town and weave through the millworkers with rich eyes fixed upon the pavement and long walking sticks prepared to strike anyone out of the way. You see yourself in the mirror as a proper lady: straight-backed and soft-handed, not the young man you have concealed yourself to be to survive. Your eyes are twinkling in the soft night.
I long to say that I do not care how you look, who you are. But I am merely a creature of the night, and you drag me from the flea-infested mattress to stand before the cracked and dusty mirror. But it is dark, I am dark: I cannot see my own shape in its reflection. And as I stare, trying to make sense of the blackness here you light the tip of your wand to exclaim delightfully and you see me, truly.
And you scream, for I warned you I was a creature of the night, of nightshade and mist, who floats on the wills of humans through time and countryside. You scream at the sight of me, for while I may sound and feel like a man who loves you I am less than that, a mere darkness from the corner of the observant eye, a little spirit carrying a lantern whom the superstitious call a will-o-the-wisp, a shadow who is hardly substance to the eye, a dark figure on the sidelines of a nightmare.
So you drive me out. Your family spends their last coins on a doctor for you, and he is a wizard too, from a good bloodline. And he is taken by your charming smile when you don a dress again, your humble eyes, your careful breaths, as if you know you are lucky to be breathing after surviving such an ordeal. He decides it was hysteria, madness, and before he can help it he has fallen in love with you as well, and against all recommendations and with all scandal he gallantly marries you, you, the poor girl who dressed as a lad to feed her family, you become the pretty little wife of the handsome wizard who promises to take care of you from now on. And you can hardly believe your luck. You profess to forget all about me: you place me as a nightmare and move on.
I got a child on you, before that disastrous night. And what a child he is- you brand him with the name of your new husband and you watch him carefully. There is something special about him. The boy is baptized: I sing to the bells tolling from the river and I skulk and sleep. You never tell a soul he was the child of a demon: those tales are the excuses of unwed mothers, stories used to cover up abuse and hurt in the old days of superstition, when a visitation from a incubus was more probable than a violent act, and more honorable. The tales make victims out of the women, when the true sufferers are those like myself, who watch in their shadows as their loves grow weary and their children suffer. Our son looks like you: how could he resemble me, when my body is forged of shadows? He has your fine brow, your kind eyes, your long hands. He is a wizard like no other.
You bear your husband two more children, and tragedy strikes your family again and again. I watch as our son loves and hates, makes mistakes. I look for myself in him: for the darkness which binds my soul to this earth. I think that I loathe you: I try to forget you and your cruelty. The mirror of desire finds a new home from that little room in your family’s cottage: it remains a family heirloom. Our son overcomes his devils and rallies for battle. He fights against other sons of demons. He is a brave light, a creature of light, and I am proud to have created him. And I see you die, in a sharp flare of power and grief, and a part of me is pleased, and things you deserve your fate. I do not die, and I do not forget.
But some nights, as I watch my son grow old and withered and weary, as I watch him become weary of this earth, my thoughts linger upon you. And one windy night, I sing your name to the wild moors. Your name wafts across the great Northern lochs, shudders at the windows of the high power where our son sits, with his head held in his withered black hand. Your name comes from me, and I am just a wee willow-the-wisp floating through a world that will soon forget me, and your name is the song of the fire which keeps me clinging to my form of life throughout these cynical times. Your name, heaven on the lips of a shadow spirit. You are the cross and beads that I press to my shadow lips.
Kendra. Your name. Kendra.
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