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The Mandrake Child: 8. Chapter 7
- Chapter 7 -
Seren walked briskly, watching her feet as she climbed the slippery path to her house, her packages tucked safely under her arm. She looked up, checking the proximity of her destination, glanced down again and, realizing what she saw, stopped dead in her tracks.
Beriadan was sitting on the porch, head tilted back, hands folded neatly in his lap. His posture suggested a submissive wait, but the mere fact that he was out of the cellar, out free, sent shivers of apprehension down Seren's spine. She closed the distance to the porch with hurried steps, fighting the urge to run and shove him back into the house.
"What are you doing out here?" she asked, out of breath, and winced as the words came out laced with accusation.
Beriadan looked at her. His face, still bruised from the beating, broke into a meek smile.
"Forgive me for having taken this liberty," he said quietly with a short gesture to the surroundings, lowering his chin in submission. "I have assumed that you believed my word, when I swore I would not run and, not hearing you return, decided to wait for you up here rather than downstairs. Do not worry," he added with a tilt towards the village, "I have checked that no-one would see me, er, wander about."
Seren bit her tongue and tried to come up with a polite reply.
"That was very... considerate of you," she offered and glanced towards the house once again, hoping he would take the hint. He did.
"The night is beautiful," he said and got up, brushing the dust off the back of his breeches. "I could smell it falling from down in the cellar. I would have asked," he added, nodding to emphasize his sincerity, "but I did not know when you would return – or whether you would return this night at all."
She shrugged: "Where else would I be?"
"Forgive me." His voice was soft and chagrined. He raised a hand to lay it on his heart. "I meant no disrespect and certainly not to cause you fear."
Seren shifted on her feet. "You have to understand," she began, "how much is at stake here." And, realising that her words implied a harder situation for her than for him, she felt herself redden in shame. "Sorry – that was not... Damn it - I didn't mean it like that."
She sank down on the porch right next to where he had been sitting minutes ago and lay down her packages. She rubbed her face with her hands, joining them in a gesture of prayer at her lips as she tried to find the words. The finality of his fate dawned upon her.
"It's not fair," she whispered.
He smiled as he sat down beside her. "On the contrary, I find it a just ending. I am a murderer, you are my guard and my executioner to be; and yet here we are, conversing under the sky like equals. I do not resent our roles, and only feel gratitude for the Powers that placed my fate in such gentle hands. I do realize that I am not entitled to any favours, being a prisoner." He lifted a slender finger to silence her as Seren opened her mouth to protest. "Yes, I am your prisoner – there is no denying it, for all the immense kindness you have shown to me despite what I have done. You are still young, and are loath, I understand, to carry out this duty now that we are… friends, for lack of a better term."
Seren quickly nodded, almost beaming. She hadn't dared calling him that before, but now that he had said the word, she agreed wholeheartedly, feeling proud that he would honour her with such a title.
"We are friends," she whispered.
She watched as he looked up again, staring wistfully into the dark sky, his expression unguarded and adoring.
"It ends tomorrow, does it not?" he asked quietly. She nodded again, unwilling to speak as the events of the Council came back to her. "I wanted to see the stars one last time. They are the guide of my people, our comfort in the darkness since the beginning of our time on this earth. Look," he said suddenly, pointing towards a twinkling star in the West, "that is Eärendil, the Mariner. On his ship, the Vingilotë, he sails the sky every night." He wrapped his arms around him and told her about Eärendil, about the Silmarils and Elbereth, and the Blessed Lands in the West.
Seren listened raptly, absorbing the lore he recounted in a voice filled with love for his history and his people. The dawn came too soon and drank the night's darkness, swallowing the stars and leaving the sky bloodless.
"It is time for me to head back," Beriadan muttered. Pale skin against pale hair, he seemed as colourless as the rising day.
"I am sorry." There was little else she could say, her mind still ablaze with his stories.
"Do not be. You gave me hope when all I saw was darkness – to have had and lost it is better than never to have found it at all. Remember this," he said, turning to face her, his pale face inches from hers, "remember this when they will judge you, that it is my decision and theirs that forced you into this situation. You are young and you are strong. Forgive yourself, and know I do not blame you." He touched a hand to her temple with a tenderness that brought tears to her eyes. "Survive."
Silk. Seren pulled the rope out of her father's chest, hoisting the thin bundle with the utmost care reserved for a thing of sentimental value. It was smooth under her hands, the errant strands of cobwebs sticking together under her touch; she rolled them away with her fingertips to leave the fabric unblemished and shiny. She put respect into every gesture, thinking of Beriadan and of everything she owed him – small things and precious moments she would treasure all her life.
She rested her elbow on the corner of the chest and clutched the rope against her as she glanced towards the window. The sun was already high in the sky, shining into the room through the unwashed panes of the kitchen window. Seren willed it to stop, to slow down, but she knew that even as she started to weave the noose, it kept racing towards its apogee, counting down the time they had left. She worked in silence, her task unlike any other hand-busying chores she knew, fingers bending the pliant rope into its deadly form. This was the last step she had to take; everything else was ready, and nothing more stood between her and her duty.
The gallows awaited.
Holding the noose in her hand, Seren wound the rope around her elbow, forming a loop of the length of her forearm. Several loops were necessary to form a bundle that she then balanced on the edge of the chest before pushing herself off the ground and dusting off her skirts. Her hands felt strangely numb yet steady, and she was surprised at how well she was holding together, a gloomy pride of sorts, considering how close the execution was. She reached into the chest one last time.
The cloak fell onto her shoulders, heavy and a stark black against the pale wood that covered the floor of the room. It was too long for her height and trailed in the dust as she walked towards the door of the cellar. Daylight fell onto the descending staircase. Beriadan looked up from his corner.
"It is time," she said.
They walked in silence. She hadn't bound his hands, caring little of what the villagers and Murdoch thought about it – her duty consisted in executing him, and additional cruelty was not involved in the contract as far as she was concerned. The wind played with her cloak and his blond hair, touching one to the other as though to reconcile them. Beriadan smiled when she looked at him, wincing slightly as his broken lip hurt and then smiling again in apology. It did not feel like the end, but rather like a walk with a friend.
The distant murmur of the crowd grew closer as they neared the gallows, coming out of a small side street onto the clearing under both fearful and fascinated stares. Seren met their eyes, defying them as she headed towards the stairs at Beriadan's side, adjusting her pace to match his – not preceding nor following, but side by side, like equals. They must've made an odd couple, a girl in a cloak made for a man far taller than she was and a worse-for-wear elf who seemed almost impatient. He extended an arm to help her up the stairs, holding the dreaded cloak so that she would not trip.
The whispers hushed when they reached the platform and Beriadan stood to his full height, his pale hair billowing in the wind. He eyed them with disinterest while she tied up the rope, nervous and in a hurry to get the knot right so that she would not have to ask him for help - even though she suspected he would not utter a word as he tied the rope himself with steady hands if she did.
He stepped over to the trap door, bowed so that she could pull the noose over his head and adjust it around his neck.
"Not too tight?" she asked with a lump in her throat, grateful that no speech was required of her before the execution was carried out.
He smiled. "You have gentle hands. I am in good care."
The lump in her throat gave a lurch, spilling into sobs as she threw herself into his arms. She buried her nose into his chest, clutching his tunic in convulsed hands; the pain did not subside, burning fiercely in her lungs and crushing her heart. Seren could feel him caress her hair and whisper into her ear, but she could not bring herself to listen to his soothing words; why, why did he have to be so kind? In a few seconds he would be dead, lost to her, a beautiful thing destroyed forever. And the most vexing part was that world would go on without him as if he had never existed.
"You must do it now," Beriadan whispered into her ear, insistently, as though he had been repeating the same words over and over. He gave her shoulder a light shake, gently prying her arms from around his waist. "Seren, you must do it now."
"I don't want to." She looked at him with her eyes filled with tears. "Beriadan, don't go."
He smiled again and wiped a tear off her cheek with his thumb. "Remember what I said," he replied. "You must do your part – for you and your mother."
Seren nodded and stepped aside. Not looking, she reached out for the lever; the wooden handle fit into her palm, cool and smooth, polished by her father's hand.
"Farewell, Seren. Your father would be proud." He tilted his head back, as if offering his neck to the rope, and stared into the sky. "Marian. Meleth..."
She pulled the lever. A short drop, a crack, a swing of the rope and he was gone. The wind howled above the clearing.
The wind had died, replaced by a cold rain that had assaulted the village and now drowned clearings and roads in icy water. From her place on the porch, Seren watched its level rise, swallowing muddy footprints and threatening to invade the first step of the few stairs leading to the door. She drew her knees towards her, tucking her skirts between her thighs and her ankles. She was grateful for the bad weather.
It had been two days since the execution, and she still found herself staring at her hands, wondering how they did not tremble. She had woken up on the first night after Beriadan's death, tiptoed over to her mother's room to check on her and only then remembered and asked herself how she had managed to fall asleep at all. The feeling of grief was still fresh, stinging whenever she was not busy and fully absorbed by her task; an empty bowl on the table would remind her of him, or the mound of earth outside her window where she had buried the ropes that had served to bind him and the strips of cloth that still bore his blood.
As for Beriadan himself... In between the whispers of the rain, if she strained her ear, Seren could hear the creaking of the rope that swung under his weight. She found comfort in the thought that he would not care about what became of him after his death and in the certainty that he had reached a better place - perhaps those lands in the West he had told her about. But those kingdoms did not allow mortals in their midst... He wasn't there, then, but somewhere he and Marian could meet again.
At least his body was safe from scavengers – Seren had made sure of that, stuffing crow-repelling herbs bought with some of the earned coin into his tunic. Murdoch had held his promise – they had enough money to survive for a month or two, by which time her father should have returned; but she had refused the hangman's privilege. Beriadan's body would not be buried bare-footed.
She sighed, watching the cloud formed by her warm breath vanish into the air and listening to the rain. Without Beriadan, the house felt empty, and she took to spending her time on the porch, avoiding the silent rooms and only returning from time to time to check on Cillan. Outside, the whisper of the rain was hypnotic, a steady rhythm hidden in the falling droplets. If she still had her lute, Seren could've tried to remember that song he had sung...
She smiled suddenly, unfolding her legs to place them on the lower step, positioning the imaginary lute in her lap; fingers found their place on the invisible neck, plucked intangible strings. Slowly, through false notes and several attempts at finding the correct height, she managed to resuscitate the melody and Beriadan's lullaby sprang back to life.
He was dead, the kind elf that used to dwell in her cellar and tell her about the stars. The voice that had sung to her tired mother would never sound again, and those sad eyes would remain closed forever - but the song returned him to her side, smiling over her shoulder as he watched her remember him.
The sound of footsteps interrupted her playing.
Seren looked up to the path that led to her house. Through the misty curtain of the rain emerged the silhouette of a man, tall and looming, a dark cloak swirling around his feet as he walked and a hood hiding his features. Seren imagined for an instant that he was Justice itself, coming remind her that her life was owed to others' death; she would have to look him in the eye and confess her deeds. But she dreaded that instant – because of the pain it would cause him.
Her father had returned.
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