The old man lay on the dark, four-posted bed – far from alive but not quite dead, but almost there. The subtle heaving and rasping of his chest, the only indication of his grasp on dear Life – and a precarious one at that; the only sound in the dark and empty room. The Grim Reaper (by no means at all grim, as it was often wont to point out whenever an opportunity arose… although it was a reaper – of souls, that is) knelt, rather crouched, at the man’s side, peering intently on its presumed charge from the gaping hollow of its black hood – something that passed for a face, though it truly had none. From somewhere unseen, the deathly toll of a rattle echoed in the spaces of the void, in the dark. The Grim Reaper shook its head slowly, making the folds of its cowl billow in the motion, and grunted wordlessly at the dying creature in front of him.
The death rattle continued to echo.
The man whose death was seemingly eminent, reached out a pale, listless, shrunken hand and tugged at the cowl of the Reaper with surprising strength, raising his head a little from his prone position, and grunted a few harsh words to the soul collector himself. At this, the Reaper grunted as if in surprise, and shook its head more vigorously. The man muttered more angry words before letting his hand and his head fall back to his prone position. He glared at Death – probably not a good idea considering his current state – and was breathing harder from his small exertion and he felt weary. He felt like dying already, but he did not want to.
Not yet. He had one more thing to do.
The Grim Reaper crouched motionless beside him, head slightly bent at the side as if in pensive thought, deathly still (no pun intended). It was this way for what seemed like an eternity, but the man patiently waited. Then, like a great beast rousing from a deep slumber, the Grim Reaper stood up and shook himself… and vanished.
Leaving a single blood red rose behind.
The old man understood.
It was a hard day’s ride to the western castle of his family’s estate, but Boris did not mind. The weather was foul like his mood was, and the torrential downpour only served to make it worse. Boris grit his teeth and urged his mount faster, not caring if he was being cruel to the animal. He wanted to get there as soon as possible, to see the fires lighting his home and warming the hearth, and bask in the feeling of home. He wanted to touch and feel that warmth, even for a moment, to relish the normalcy that most en took for granted. Something he did NOT take for granted.
Boris was riding like man being chased by demons.
And maybe he was.
Boris knew that his demons were of the worst kind. There was a darkness that lived inside him, festering in the cold regions of his heart, feeding on his sins like a parasitic mongrel who would bite its own master. Mad creature.
Boris was a mad man. Voices spoke in his head, laughed at him and taunted him. His nightmares made him an insomniac when he could not sleep, and a babbling fool when he could. He did not know where to turn anymore.
At last, he arrived at the western castle, hailed only by a short knock and a sleepy greeting from a roused servant who sullenly attended to him and his horse. But at least the fires in the great hall were lit and Boris took comfort in this, as he strode into the castle, aware of the desolate aura the place pressed upon him. He shed his leathers and motioned for a bottle of wine to be brought. Not for drinking, Boris thought, just for company.
Then he laid down on the rushes in front of the fireplace and slept.
And was plagued by dreams.
Dreams that were different this time, Boris noted. These were not his usual nightmares. These…were altered. There were flashes of white light followed by a blinding rush of many diverse images. Some were snatches of Boris’ memories from his childhood, others entirely foreign and unknown to Boris’ eyes. But most... most featured a willowy silhouette (of a female creature?) with flaming red hair, coming into focus, pale, white arms beckoning to him.
And a voice…that called. Deeply resonating in Boris’ bones, a full voice with a musical quality that summoned his name: “Boris.”
Dawn came long before Boris woke up, still feeling a little travel-weary but much better, though his foul mood had not improved. He had been too tired to remain awake the night before, but his tiredness did not keep the dreams at bay. He had tossed and thrashed in his sleep, like a raving lunatic. His nightmares were getting worse.
Or were they? He remembered every detail.
The woman, he was sure of that now, with the flaming hair. She had called to him. She was beautiful. And Boris knew from his dreams that the woman looked like she had come from the forest. His forest. In his lands. Just an arrow away from the castle walls.
He knew that forest well.
So Boris left to hunt down his dream, deigning to go alone and on foot (his steed had declined stubbornly to be ridden after last night’s hassle and so had kicked Boris in the ass, forcing him to walk), with his hunting gear and a day’s pack for food and water.
And so Boris travelled deep into the dark woods, surrounded only by the wild, feeling a kinship to the denizens of this woodland. And Boris thought, as the forest swallowed him whole, as he disappeared from sight of the castle, that it seemed like he was being lured into a deadly embrace with Nature – him and his pox-ridden demons.
He had been a knight in the king’s service only 1 year ago, before he quit, fighting in the Holy Crusade for much longer – close to 10 years. He had seen death, blood, and too much carnage to last his lifetime. And for the time he had spent in the little hellhole the king had tossed him in, he himself had dealt his own brand of violence on a race that never should’ve deserved it in the first place.
He had underestimated the greed of his King and of the Holy Roman Empire, and had paid dearly for it. He had been sworn to the Brotherhood of the Templars, only to realize that the band who considered themselves warrior saints of God, were little more than a posse of bloodthirsty criminals posing as holy men. Damn religious cutthroats.
And with his decisions – born of the raging impulses of a 20 year-old lad who was too arrogant and proud to know better, Boris took the steps that would taint his own soul with sins so black and vile, he would change forever. He had felt his gradual hardening to the sight of blood, the loss of his ability to cry for his victims and his victims’ victims. His turning point had been in witnessing the rape of a little girl no more than ten, by one of his commanding officers, only to hear that same man preach about godliness the very next day. Boris had retched in disgust.
And quit right after.
Now the voices whispered in his head, remnants of his victims in the Holy Land and of his own conscience. Coward. Boris gripped his head. Coward, the voices whispered. Despicable creature. Blackheart. The onslaught was painful.
And then: “Boris.”
A single word – his name. Boris turned to look around him. There was no one. Then it came again. “Boris.”
And this time, there was gentle touch on his shoulders. “Boris.”
“You have come home.” Boris turned. And there she was, his flame-haired woman, standing before him in all her ethereal glory.
Boris swallowed. He had never been in love.
But that was not to say that he wanted for female attention, he did not. He was not lacking for charms either, and had been told by at least a dozen reliable sources – one of them his own drunken self – that he was blessed with the kind of roguish charm both men and women killed for and that fathers of young maidens looked out for. Well, he had had some incidents with men who had wanted him, but Boris did not swing that way.
Looking at the glorious creature who had called him, it felt like waking up from a very bad dream, Boris thought, and ten years of refreshing sleep. Suddenly, he was no longer weary, his mood – lightened from this vision. He was aware of holding his breath, and he was also dimly aware of the reason he was doing so.
His reaction was not natural. He fumbled for words: “Y-You..?”
The woman showed her teeth.” From your dreams, yes.”
“Just one,” Boris replied. The woman frowned. “Just last night’s dreams.” He clarified.
“Aye.” She answered, and held out her hand. “You may call me... Liliana.”
“You are very beautiful Liliana.” Boris took her hand kissed the air above it perfunctorily. He was somewhat relieved he hadn’t lost his manners at the sight of her, though it seemed like all wit had deserted him.
“You are correct.” Liliana answered. “And you are just as beautiful, Boris.” Then she gave a lilting chuckle and threw her head back, exposing the delicate porcelain smoothness of her neck.
Boris’ blood started pounding, and he remembered how he had compared his entry into the forest with the image of being swallowed alive.
For every day since then, Boris and Liliana contrived to meet in the forest secretly, away from prying eyes. Boris was (as far as he knew, he was sure) human, but Liliana was not. There was an odd radiance about her that made him think of faeries. And even though he’d tried to ask her, she successfully evaded all his inquisitive questions, forcing him instead, to fill their conversations with topics about himself.
Boris had never been in love.
But in this otherworldly creature, Boris found peace. And yes, he thought he found love. Liliana was an enchanting being that Boris found endlessly fascinating. She did things to him, he knew, things that lifted his spirits and lightened his moods. Boris felt himself changing, to a better man – was it possible? And one day, Boris found himself wanting to confess his feelings to Liliana and contemplating marriage.
But this was not to be.
Upon finding out Boris’ intentions, Liliana stormed off in a fit of rage. No, she had cried, you cannot love me. You must not. I am not a creature to bind with mortal marriage. Then she ran, away from him, away from the confession he had made, away from the embrace he wanted to give. His Liliana with the pretty neck and pretty laugh, and the enticing voice. Confused, Boris tried to follow her… and failed.
She was gone.
He looked for her everywhere, searched his lands everywhere, looking for her – for anything that would lead to Liliana. He tried desperately to ignore the gnawing pain in his chest – was this heartache? And forged on, through the years, trying hard like the devil to find her.
And found that he could not.
And when finally he lost all hope of ever seeing her again, Boris found on his bed, a letter and a blood red rose.
His heart sang. His heart – which was back and vile from his years of crusade in the Holy Land – his heart sang at the thought that Liliana might come back to him, even in a letter.
But even in the letter, as in their last moments together, Liliana broke his heart anew. She would not explain why she could not be with him, would only tell him that she could not. But she would forever hold him dear, and the rose was proof of that.
And for the first time in many, many years, Boris cried.
Now Boris lay, swaddled in sheets, in the dark, four-poster bed – an old man, he was a shadow of his former self. He had never married and had continued to love Liliana through the years. He had pined for her, loved her in his dreams, and filled his waking hours with his memories of her.
And Boris remembered, that fateful first day in his forest, when he had gone in search of the woman who appeared in his dreams – how the forest had seemed like a monstrous creature intent on embracing him and swallowing him whole. And he knew he had been wrong – it wasn’t the forest who had done that, it was Liliana.
She had consumed him. Thoroughly.
Death had come to crouch beside him earlier, seeking to claim his soul. But Boris had asked for a few more minutes of time, giving Liliana a chance to show up at his deathbed. Because he knew, irrationally, that she knew he was old and dying. Death had argued, then Death had agreed, vanishing only to leave a single blood red rose beside him.
Boris understood. He closed his eyes and thought of Liliana, as he took his last shuddering breath.
And a voice, as sweet and lovely summer rain, came to him.