Stephen, who is miserable with his life but discoveres a new world that he did not know
The First Tale "Sisters" by Martin Taylor
The spiced wine itched Stephen's tongue like hundreds of needles, but he gulped it down anyway. It did not take long until he felt his ears and nose warm up making the cold seem a little more distant. He flexed the fingers of his left hand, as to pump the blood through the limb in hope of warming it up and release the pain it held.
Around him, the reunion went on, everyone already dizzy from too much wine. On a corner, a man he did not know was sharing his tears with the lady inside the coffin. Too sad to realize anything, besides his own drunken steps. In front of the hearth, where no fire was burning, an elderly woman was smoking her long pipe in silent grief. The room was filled with many people, young and old, and each and everyone was busy with what each considered most important, and while man and woman chattered, cried, drinked, or in silence remained, he felt within himself a little pressure. Something heavy inside his chest and stomach, forcing the cold air out from his lunges.
Filling his glass once more, he grabbed the greyish and worn overall he had left on the hanger, and took his leave. Before closing the door behind him his black shadow followed him into the cold and lonely night.
As Stephen walked through the streets with his spinning and wandering mind, gusts of wind made him shiver, and only the sips that he took of the wine seemed to help him on that matter.
His feet lead him towards the woods, as snowflakes melted on his hair. At times a drop of water would roll down his face and into his mouth. Tears of winter, he would think to himself, feeling the sweetness of the cold water blending with the spices of the wine over his tongue.
Tears rolled from his eyes now, tears of grief, not of winter. His wife was gone. Heart attack they said, but Stephen believed it had been his own fault that her heart had failed. He remembered clear as crystal how they had talked through that night. The same night in which her heart had stopped.
They were eating dinner in absolute silence, but something had been itching on the back of Stephen's mind.
"Leona... I've been thinking, we should go somewhere, er, I don't know. It's been so long, I miss living..." Stephen had been meaning to talk to her for months now. What had happened was horrible, but it had happened, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Leona put her fork and knife down, the fish on her plate yet untouched. She looked at Stephen, sadness filled her eyes.
"I... I can't, Stephen. What if they come back? I can't leave my daughters..."
"They are not coming back. It's been TWENTY YEARS, Leona. It's time to move on!"
Leona was shaking slightly. Tears rolling down her face now. She shaked her head from one side to the other, not wanting to believe.
"If we had just kept them closer... Maybe, they'd still be here." Her voice was weak. Leona moved one skinny finger to stop a tear from falling from her face.
"But they are not here, Leona. Listen to me. It's too late now." Stephen had loved his daughter so very much. He knew that staying would only draw out their suffering. As it already had.
"But what if-"
"THERE IS NO IF! THEY ARE DEAD, LEONA!" Stephen had stood up, his glass of wine had turned, spilling it all over the table.
The hatred, the sorrow and all the frustration from years of only waiting filled Stephen's chest. He was tired of waiting. So tired.
The look on the woman's face was devastating. There is no greater sadness than losing your kin. Your own blood.
The hatred grew even bigger within Stephen. He had endured it for twenty year. Too long he thought.
In uncontrollable rage he took the glass of wine and threw it at the wall behind him. It shattered in thousands of shards and stained the wall red. Stephen heard a thump, when he looked back, Leona laid on the floor. Eyes closed. Her plate shattered on the floor as she dragged it with her, desperately trying to hold on to the table cloth.
Each step got him closer to the woods. The trees growing bigger and bigger. Gusts of cold wind sweeped through the air making the snowflakes dance with the tree branches in a beautiful shuffling twist. The stars were watching from above. Never blinking. Aware of all that could happen that night. The moon shone her pale light across his face making shadows darker, and all touched by it's light as white as snow.
Stephen apprecitated the beauty that surrounded him as he recalled what the past years had been like. His wife's death had not changed his mind about leaving, he had only postponed it. Because he knew that even when his wife was alive, the marriage was no more. And it hadn't been for a long time. Stephen had loved his wife, sure, he had married her out of love. Life was not fair to them though, and they drifted apart. It is usually what happens when you loose your children. Stephen blamed it on her, and she blamed it on him, but both of them knew there was no one to blame. Still they had to have someone to put the fault on, or else they would have nothing. Now, Stephen had only himself.
Stephen reached the border of the forest and kept walking, surrounding it. At one side he had the village, by the other the astounding beauty of the winter and the forest, blending together.
The man, realising he was not alone, stopped walking and turned around only to see that behind him stood a woman holding a glass of wine, with a smile that reached to her eyes. Her hair was of a deep black, reaching beyond her lower back, and seeming to cast a shadow over the dark night itself. Her eyes were golden pools of the purest mead. A stare long enough, and you could lose yourself inside them, drunk with their beauty. She stood motionless, as snow fell around them. Then without any warning, she turned facing the trees. Making her long dark red cloak wave softly as she moved. Slowly she walked. Her naked feet leaving footprints on the snow. Before disappearing behind a tree, she turned her head and gave him a shy smile. The next instant she was gone, and Stephen dropped his glass, spilling the last of the red wine, staining the snow red. He just stood there with nothing on his mind but the image of her face slowly fading into memory.
The trees kept the light from reaching to the soil. Roots and dirt shadowed by the night showed him the path through the darkness. He could sense the turns she had taken though he could not tell how. Maybe it was the smell of summer she carried on her skin, or maybe his feet simply knew the way. It didn't really matter. The trees would whisper to one another on their own ancient tongue, sharing their secrets through those cold yellow leaves that were still about to fall. The wind was whistling into his ears, but all he could hear were his footsteps and the blood rushing through his veins. He was running, feeling that he should at all costs reach the red cloaked woman. As he ran, branches and roots bended on his way, as if telling him not to go any further, but he wouldn't listen to their wordless warning. He ran until his arms were all cuts and bruises, until his clothes were dirty and soiled. It was only when he reached a clearing, where a log cabin stood motionless in time, that he stopped .
Probably a woodcutter's, he thought. Or maybe it belongs to a witch, as from the stories of old that Stephen had heard as a child. The door was opened and a light could be seen fading into the darkness, being eaten by black and night. He was drawn by it, like a moth to the flame.
Once inside he flexed his left hand fingers feeling the pain on his arm pounding with his heart. He looked around and saw that the walls had been carved into faces, all screaming in pain and agony, but yet all different from one another. Some were the faces of strong man, of the kind that no one would ever believe to see in such expression. Others were of elders, man and woman, as if feeling all the pains they had felt through life, all at once, and yet, little children, which were the most monstrous and sickening of them faces. All were distorted and twisted figures, so lifelike that he could not stare at any of them for long. It was as if the room was filled with people, and all were staring at Stephen who was trembling due to the monstrous sight before him. "What IS this place?" He whispered, praying not to hear an answer coming from any dark corner. None came.
There was a wooden table in that room, candles burned on it with a bright blue flame, covering it in candle wax. It was as if someone had lighten candles on it for decades, for the wax covered all the wooden surface and at the edges it had flowed to the ground. Flowers red and yellow and purple and blue were all over the floor fresh as if they had just been thrown there. At the end of the room, where the darkness was stronger, a stairway lead down into the earth, away from the world that he knew. Stephen grabbed one candle and started his way down, it remembered him of a story he'd heard when he was a kid; where a girl had fallen down a rabbit hole into a whole new and mad world. For some reason that thought made him smile. With a smile upon his face and a bright blue flame burning on the candle he held in his right hand, he went down.
The stairs were tricky and treacherous, but each step he took was cautious and he kept his left hand on the cold stone walls to keep his body from falling, his mind though had nothing to hold on to. Every step took him to a different reflection. He thought of his family, of the day he met his loving wife and of the day they had gotten married. He thought of their happy days together and of the daughters they had had, sisters, the twins Anna and Emma. He thought of the love he felt for them and of how he would not be able to touch them again. Their faces were like two shadows on his scarred mind, they were long gone. A tear rolled down his cheek as Stephen remembered the night of the seventh birthday of his daughters. While everyone slept, from the darkness of the night someone, or something, came and took them away. Stephen had woken up with their scream and rushed to save them. But when he reached the girl's bedroom he knew that he was too late. Maybe, he thought now, maybe that's how the god's intended...
As he made his way down, he could feel the air growing even colder. Colder than the winter that waited in freezing patience outside in the woods. The candle burning on his hand gave him some sort of comfort. Enough to encourage him to make his way even deeper into that God forsaken place. As his feet reached the bottom of that cave, he took a deep breath and let his feelings wash through him. His heart was drumming in his chest so strongly he could feel it on each finger, ear and on the tip of his nose. He was feeling peace in a part of him. He probably could not tell why, but he knew the feeling. A small part of his heart though was full of the worst kind of fear, the one that you usually meet on your nightmares, when you face your worst fear but you cannot move one muscle not even to scream, and desperation is the blood flowing through your veins on moments like this. It was quite a strange sensation; a mixture of absolute and pure fear, and the sort of peace that fills the soul as if it was filling a glass of wine. He stepped forward entering another room. He flexed his left hand slightly releasing the pain.
It was a big cave, with the stone edges smoothened by time and nature. It's light was drawn from the moon itself, which shone through a hole on the cave's ceiling. A bright and beautiful moon it was, with the stars bearing witness to what was about to happen. At the centre, a white stone altar was holding some distorted figure.
Stephen was tempted to see what laid on the cold marble. Should he though? He took one step closer to the altar but he could not make out the forms. Curiosity was growing inside him, pushing the fear aside. He took another step, and another, and yet another one, until he finally could see. A whole skeleton lying on that marble stone, it's bones clean from flesh and blood. He felt on his mouth the taste of the wine he had drank half an hour before, and the sensation of thousands of little needles sticking to his tongue just rushed back to him, though now it spread through his whole body. Goosebumps raised his skin. He looked up through the hole in the ceiling and saw the moon. That huge moon shining down on him, as if the eye of night itself watching his every step. He realised then that the same moon gazing back to him through the cave's hole, was red. Red as wine, red as blood. The stars kept their watch, wordless and silent as always. When the skeleton rose up, Stephen did not dare move. The bones moving slowly, rising, standing to it's own feet, were a sight that could put fear deep into any soul. He waited until the skeleton stood in front of him, with empty eye sockets staring at him, and the skull smiling in silence, so close to him that lifting his hand was all that it would take to touch it's whiteness. When he looked inside the skeletons chest, he saw a strong, blood dripping, heart, beating. Slowly he brought his hand up and put it on his own chest, where his heart should have been. Nothing. No beat, no thump, no sound. Taking his hand from his chest, he raised it towards the skull. Touching it slightly he sighed softly. The skeleton raised it's own bonny hand and reached for Stephen's face. What he felt was the skim of bone on skin. He shivered and took a step away from the bones. Stephen saw that the left hand of the skeleton was moving in a way pretty much like he used to do, pressing the fingers on the boney palm, and as he looked at it the whole skeleton opened it's teeth, in a strangled sound he heard his name, just before each bone fell to the ground in a dry bump raising dust from the cavern's ground.
Stephen could see that the cave had another room just behind the great altar, but the passage for this other room was different. The doorway had carvings of an ancient kind, and he could see three feline head's right at the top, as if keepers of the portal. He admired them for a minute or so, just enough time to realise that it wasn't any animal that he had ever seen before. What is this place? Stephen thought again, with a hint of recognition scratching at the back of his mind. He started to sing in a soft voice, an old winter song that his mother used to sing to him when he was a child afraid of the dark, something that gave him some comfort.
you hear the wind whistle through the orange leaves?
In the cold in which you lay only frozen tears are falling down...
The old winter song scared away most of his fears. Not all of them, but most.
This song, he remembered, he used to sing to his daughters. Both had loved it and had always fallen asleep listening to him sing it. So, with this song in his lips, and one tear on his eye, he went on.
A long corridor, seeming endless. Blue flame candles burning on the walls showing the way that should be followed, the floor was stone, cold even to the touch of thick winter boots. As Stephen reached the end of it he entered a huge round room. Every wall was made of marble, with thirteen white columns holding an astonishing glass ceiling.The moonlight seemed to shine through the glass, building patterns of many colors on the white floor, and lighting the tall walls, never the corners though. The corners were always dark, as in dreams of children, the corners kept hidden the worst of their nightmares.
Thirteen figures were sitting on white marble thrones, standing in circle, they seemed to be made of stone themselves, static, motionless. The figures on the thrones had their whole bodies covered by a tunic that seemed to have been crafted out of the marble throne itself, but it was so detailed that he still couldn't say if it was rather stone cutted by an artist or very still piece of white clothing. Their faces were hidden by a hood the color of fresh fallen snow. Only one had the tip of the nose showing, and it too was as white as white can be. Stephen came closer but none of them turned to face him. He could see at the center of the room huge golden scales, which had on one of it's plates a big black feather.
Stephen felt a strange warmth coming from inside of himself. Around where his liver should be this burning sensation had taken it's place. Slowly it grew, like a flame that is given wood to burn. It was as if someone was sticking a knife through his belly to see how long it took to come out on his back. He started to bend over himself, grabbing his stomach, the pain was blinding and it was hard to breath. He fell on the floor in absolute pain. The thirteen figures stood from their thrones, one by one. As suddenly as it had come, the pain in Stephen's stomach stopped, and he slowly stood up. He felt a strange emptiness inside him, like if something had been taken. The thirteen were stairing at him on the centre of that circle, and he could see no one's face, until one of those creatures lowering the hood showed what lay beneath. A face that truly seemed to be carved in stone, but still bursted with life. It resembled a woman, although Stephen couldn't be certain. Her eyes were grey and her skin was white, she had a thin chin, and almond eyes, she was bald, and right at the centre of her forehead there was a third eye, colorless, staring blindly at Stephen as he stood up. Slowly, each of the figures lowered their hood's, they were men and women, but all looked alike, with a stony flesh on their faces and a third eye on the forehead.The woman that had standed first spoke:
"Stephen..." The sound of her voice was dry and rasped, as if she hadn't talked in a very long time. "Stephen..." She said again, enjoying the sound of it.