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Chapter 2 : The Pale Steed
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Antioch’s temper grew with his belly, as did his appetite for women.
Cadmus became as cold as his dead wife in the grave, though Death knew first hand she had been a warm woman in life. She’d seen him turn away a waif without a wand for want of a single coin, but could spare a dozen on bows for his fair haired daughters.
Ignotus, however, irked her. He had such potential, and yet there, shinning brightly on the front of the robes he wore, was pride. Once she even saw him tuck the sin away, if only for a moment, to court a young woman. She had smiled down at him, excited that he might learn from his experience. It quickly grew back, however, after he ended the courtship, deciding he could do much better than a woman without property. Perhaps it was the way he watched Antioch bully the less fortunate or Cadmus’s cold dismissal of the poor that made Ignotus think he was above them. Whatever the reason, she would see him humbled. If not in his life, then in his demise.
It was this intrigue, this hope for their improvement that kept her there in the town, and while curiosity was normally not in her nature, for a time it pervaded her mind, tying her to the simple, if talented, inhabitants of Diagon Alley.
Cadmus stumbled out of the Leaky Cauldron and into the lane, the smell of ale heavy on his breath. He stopped in the brisk air, blearily looking down the street at the line of little cottages and shop fronts. Normally he would hug the sides of buildings, stumbling along until he found his front door. Tonight however, as he was looking down the lane, saddness overtook him. He did not want to go home, where Iloli’s children waited for him and so he started towards the edge of town, where the forest sprawled out, cut in two by a cool stream.
The full moon painted the ground with ghostly light, creatures of the dark talking softly to one another from their hiding places as Cadmus crashed through the underbrush. Five years hadn’t dulled the grief he felt, though she had only been his for three before slipping away after the birth of Patience and Temperance. He sobbed as he ran into the looming trees. She was with Ian now. He couldn’t stand the lonliness. He pushed deeper into into the trees, stumbling through the cold stream. He slipped on the wet rocks and fell face first into the bank. He got back up quickly, trying to use the trees for stability.
“Just let me see her!” The brach he had chosen gave way, hurling him towards the ground once again. This time, the foul earthy taste of dirt pervaded his mouth.
Tears began to fall to the forest floor, clouding his vision. “Just let me see them..." he whispered.
He didn’t try to stand, instead feeling the pain seep into his bones. He did not want the pain to go away. He liked to keep it sharp, fresh, just beneath the skin. To forget his grief would be to forget his love, and he would not have that.
A voice, soft and high on the wind, reached his ears, and he looked up, intoxication making the world spin.
“She will be with you, always...” the clear voice said.
“Who’s there?” He called out, kneeling on hands and knees, head turning frantically about.
When no one answered, he crawled over to a thin sapling, using it to pull himself up. His had was shaking violently as he tried to take his crooked wand out of his pocket. “Show yourself!” he demanded.
Death frowned at the man, covered in muck, making demands of her. How dare he, she thought. And after I tried to comfort him. To prove the mortal a lesson, she urged her skeletal steed forward, out of the shadows and into the moonlight.
Cadmus gasped, fear coursing through him as a beast pale as moonlight strode forward from the depths of the forest. It’s hooves made no sound as it came towards him and blank, bright eyes stared continually forward. It was a terrifying sight: skin clinging to bone, steam rising from it’s nostrils in the cool night air, leathery wings fidgeting restlessly, gouging the earth beneath it.
At first he thought it was specter from his worst nightmare, come to life to haunt his waking moments. However it stopped just short of him, glowing in the soft light of the night. A dawning realization hit him, knocking him back down to his knees, his palms pressing together in front of his bowed head.
“Please,” he begged the beast, desperation making his heart swell, “please take me. Let me see her again...”
Death’s frown deepened. She had not expected such prostration, and for a moment she wondered if he couldn’t see behind her cloak, though the thought was ridiculous. He was an intelligent man, and even in this drunken state, he could tell the steed was an unearthly creature of the underworld. Given his current state of mind, it was no wonder he made the connection to her, to death, to the prospect of a peaceful eternity.
He was pitiful, for sure, but it was not his time.
“No,” she said simply, turning her steed and retreating to the shadows of the forest. His resulting howl left her unmoved.
Antioch woke to a piercing scream in the night. He bolted upright in an instant, groping for the wand that lay beneath his pillow to bring the candles about his modest bedroom to life. Renee lay beside him, deep, even breath confirming that she was still asleep.
Grogginess clouded his vision, in spite of the burning candle, but he didn’t wait for it to clear before swinging his legs over the edge of the wooden bed and searching for his shoes. His house was cluttered, pieces of wood, feathers, hair from various animals, and an extensive assortment of carpentry tools littered most surfaces. Cadmus may be in charge of the business end of the shop, but Antioch was the one who crafted the merchandise.
He might not’ve been the best brother, but he certainly knew their screams. Cadmus was most definitely the one in distress.
If the sissy had managed to find a fight, Antioch would more than happy to finish it for him. From the sound of it, he wasn’t too far off. Hopefully he could make it before any real damage was done to his younger brother. And if he wasn’t, he would more than happy to return the favor.
As he laced up the second boot, a rap at the door sounded throughout the house, so loud and urgent even Renee could not ignore it. Hair wild and undone, she sat up groggily, patting about the bed for her husband before she realized he was already up. She grunted a little, then flopped back down onto the thin cot.
Now thoroughly awake, Antioch brought his wand to the ready as he went to the front door, ready for an ambush. He approached it carefully, pressing his ear against the rough grain. If there was more than one, he might be able to hear a snippet of conversation.
The gesture was unnecessary though, for as he listened the hysterical voice of his brother called, “Antioch! Antioch I need you!” from just the other side. A little annoyed now, he flung the door open.
Cadmus took an involuntary step back at the site of his brother framed in the doorway. He was an animal to be reckoned with, even if he hadn’t been brandishing a wand.
“What do you want?” he grunted into the still, chilly air between them.
A bead of sweat rolled down Cadmus’s face. “I need your help.” His blood was pounding, hands tingling with urgency.
“I got that part when you were screaming at the door,” Antioch held the door a little wider and motioned for the man to step inside.
“No, I need you to come with me- to the forest,” his breath was erratic, rushing in and out, but not in time. “We have to catch it before it disappears, I have to...” he glanced behind his shoulder to the tree line, losing his line of thought.
“What the bloody hell are you going on about, Codfish,” Antioch was a little worried, but mostly annoyed, and the childhood nomer slipped out without his really thinking about it.
“There’s a beast, in the forest, a giant ghost horse, with wings and white eyes. We have to find it!” His eyes were frantic, pleading, just as his voice was.
Antioch took a deep breath and surveyed his brother, stark mad in the moonlight. The last five years had not been kind to him, and tonight seemed to have been especially trying. Mud was splattered over his robes, caked to his hair, and his glasses hung crooked from his nose. The eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of ale.
“You’re drunk,” was his only reply.
Cadmus reached forward, holding on to the rough spun shirt of his elder brother. “No, I swear to you, it’s real, Antioch, it’s real and it can take me to her!”
Now extremely worried, Antioch held Cadmus by both shoulders and shook him until the man could no longer hold on to his shirt. “Get a hold of yourself! Do you even realize what you’re saying? A ghost horse is going to take to you someone? Take you to who?” He had never seen Cadmus like this, and it was quite unsettling. His brother had always had a steady mind, and if it was starting to slip... He felt for the girls.
Once his head stopped rolling about, Cadmus broke down, sinking to his knees in the doorway. “It can take me to Iloli, brother. Please...”
The breath caught in Antioch’s throat as his brother’s sobs reached his ears. It was sad he had succumbed to madness.
“Go home, Cadmus.” He admonished, picking him up by the arms and setting him on his unsteady feet. “Go find Nora, but don’t tell her what you’ve told me. Go to bed. You need rest. In the morning,” he paused, hoping the next words were true, “this will all just be a bad dream...”
As his brother turned and left, utterly dejected and sobbing into the night, a sour taste filled Antioch’s mouth. He did not sleep soundly that night, plagued by visions of a white skeleton horse running him down while Cadmus shouted and yelled in the background.
Cadmus woke in the morning to find his shoes were still on and mud had dried to everything, including his bedding. The usual sounds of morning greeted his ears, accompanied by bright light streaming through the windows. His head throbbed painfully. He rose slowly, hands pressed gingerly to his temples in an attempt to massage away the discomfort. There was mud under his fingernails as well.
“No, Patience, we wait for your farther before eating, you know that,” Nora was telling the girls.
The delicious smell of fried meat wafted through the cracked door, tempting him to emerge from the sanctuary of his bedroom.
He crossed the bare floor, kicking off his disgusting shoes and glancing into the mirror over his washbin. He was disgusting. It took quite awhile to scrub the dirt out of his hair. Try as he might, he couldn’t fathom why there was so much of it. He remembered going to the pub, drinking quite a bit, and vaguely remembered arguing with Antioch about something important.
Finally presentable in a new linen shirt and breeches, he emerged from his room into the bright kitchen, where Nora was finishing up breakfast. His girls sat at the table, little legs swinging back and forth as they waited to be served. Nora had dressed them in pale blue frocks with large buttons, and their golden hair hung in neat braids at their shoulders, matching ribbons tied into crisp bows. He could only glance at them for a moment before he saw their mother peeking out at him, and he adverted his gaze.
“Good morning, girls,” he said, taking a chair at the table.
“Good morning, Daddy," they chimed in unison.
Nora, having finished the porridge, bustled about the kitchen, bringing bowls and utensils to the table before dishing out the meal. He quite enjoyed having her around. She was short, dark, and a little heavy set, though not unattractive for it. The exact opposite of Iloli’s golden, thin figure. Her smile was rare, but when he saw it, it brightened the day.
Sometimes, he felt a little guilty at how she made him feel lighter, less morose, but he didn’t know how he would get by without her. He hadn’t the slightest idea on how to care for the girls.
“Here you are,” she said quietly, setting down a glass of fresh milk. “I’ll need a bit of gold to get more yeast and flour from the market, we’re running low.”
“Of course,” he replied between mouthfulls. She was a wonderful cook as well, though she tended to be a bit heavy handed with the spices. Iloli’s dishes had been much more simple.
“Antioch came by this morning, asking how you were,” she said, pouring the girls glasses of milk as well. “I told him you were still sleeping. He said you’d taken a tumble in the forest?”
Cadmus’s spoon clanked against the table, throwing porridge across the room as it bounced to the ground. The night’s events came back in a rush, the pale specter, the soft voice on the wind. He stood quickly, looking out of the wide kitchen window past the edge of town to the trees that marked the edge of the forest.
Nora was at his side, talking in his ear, but he brushed her off. “You stay here with the girls, I’ve got business that needs tending to.”
If Antioch would not believe him, Ignotus was his last hope.
Ignotus had risen before the sun, packing his supplies and trekking off to the river. He hadn’t acquired any Willow wood for quite some time, and he was sure the shop would be running low by now. As the morning faded away into a rather nice mid-day, he was on his way back, several long, thick branches in tow behind him.
He could use a spell to help him carry them, but he liked the labor. It kept his body in shape, and he liked the feeling of his muscles working beneath his skin. Anything to keep him occupied. The soft sound of the plank dragging against the grass was relaxing, the ropes he held in his hands course and thick.
It was a nice little set up they had with the business father left them. Ignotus gathered supplies, traveling to far corners of the country when needed, or hiding in the lofty tree tops of the forest nearby to collect a fallen feather, or stray hair. Antioch was the craftsman, whittling the powerful wood and inserting the core. It often surprised him how Antioch could beat a man senseless with the same hands that created such tools of beauty. Cadmus, of course, ran the shop, buried in boxes and numbers. They shared in the profits, though Cadmus had a larger portion. Ignotus didn’t mind though. He had a family to provide for.
It did bring him satisfaction that his two older brothers couldn’t have done it without him though. Antioch didn’t have the patience or subtlety to gather the materials, and Cadmus would sooner eat a rotten egg than leave his house for more than a few hours.
“Ignotus!” someone called, startling him. It wasn’t often he ran into anyone on this path out of town.
He squinted in the sunlight, trying to make out who was bounding towards him, half dressed, a pale linen undershirt whipping about plain breeches as he rushed forward.
As Cadmus came closer, Ignotus dropped the ropes tied to the make shift sled, took out a flask of water, and drank deeply. This was bound to be a good story.
“Cadmus,” he called, “what are you doing out here?”
His brother pulled up short, out of breath and doubled over. Ignotus grinned a little to see his face red, covered in sweat. There was no way he’d able to run the shop without him.
“I...need your...help,” he panted. Ignotus handed him what was left in the flask.
Thankful, Cadmus took it, drinking deeply until there was no more left.
“I am helping you.” Ignotus replied a little indignantly, gesturing to the pile of wood he was pulling behind him on the planks. “Here’s the wood you asked for. I’ve been up all morning getting it.”
“No,” Cadmus replied, finally standing up straight and taking his brother by the shoulder. “I need you take me into the forest. I need to catch a beast.”
Ignotus was taken aback by the request, and the reason behind it. “What kind of beast?” he asked, suspiciously . There were some things in the forest he wanted nothing to do with.
“A horse, a gray horse, with leather wings like a devil, and made of bones.”
The blood drained from Ignotus’s face. That was most certainly one of the beasts he wanted nothing to do with. He himself had refused to speak of them to anyone else, choosing instead to try his hardest to forget his encounters with them.
“No,” he said firmly, picking up the ropes again and pressing onward, past his brother.
“You know what I’m talking about though!” He insisted, walking alongside. “You know it’s real!”
“Of course it’s real,” Ignotus said, “Though I’ve never seen a gray one. Red, black, and white, yes. If there is another, I do not wish to see it.”
Cadmus stopped abruptly, though Ignotus continued.
“It can take me to Iloli,” he whispered, so softly it was almost lost in the babble of the stream.
Now, Ignotus did stop, letting the ropes fall to the ground as he turned to face his older brother. The beasts were not ordinary, that was certain, but to take the living to the dead? “How do you know?”
“I asked it,” Cadmus answered, face too grim to playing any jokes.
“You asked it?” Ignotus couldn’t believe it. His brother didn’t have the imagination to make this up, but he was also too sensible to actually think he’d gotten a reply from one of the cursed beasts. He personally did not think they were strictly equestrian in nature.
“I asked it, and it refused,” he insisted.
Fear gripped Ignotus’s heart. Cadmus was telling the truth, or at least what he thought was the truth. “She’s gone, brother.” He said, voice firm. “It cannot take you to her.”
“Ignotus,” he said, crossing the few steps that remained between them, “I need you.” His clear blue eyes were wrinkled in pain, staring steading into Ignotus’s green ones.
“No,” Ignotus said firmly, again. “Let it go Cadmus. Let it go, and forget you ever saw the thing.”
He turned his back on his brother, walking back towards the pile of wand wood and picking the rough rope out of the dirt.
“Then I’ll do it myself,” he heard Cadmus say. Crack!
When Ignotus turned to glance behind him, there were only footprints in the soft ground.
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