The bell didn’t ring anymore. The only call that came from its tower was a shudder, dull and lifeless as Jacquin. He had always said his beloved bell, which he had rung every day for the last twenty years, would sing him to his final sleep. And now he hung from its pull rope, granting it a lingering voice with every strong breeze that passed through the high up belfry.
He had been the only other Enduring left in the village, and Yaveta hated him for abandoning her.
She swung off of the tower ladder and stood beside his swaying body, his letter crumpled in her fist. His brown skin had already taken on a grey cast and his eyes bulged from their sockets, as if surprised by the suffocating consequence of his decision. His tongue had forced its way through his lips like a swollen, purple slug. Leathery hands, worn from his work, dangled limply, the only time Yaveta had ever seen them at rest. The sight of him saddened her to some degree, annoyed her even more, but there was no fear in her dark eyes as she looked up at him. There were far worse things than a still dead.
“You promised me,” she said quietly, turning to stare out toward the same horizon Jacquin’s slack gaze was fixed on.
The sun had fled their lands after the first townsfolk became ill, which many had taken as a sign of Horuna’s departure. Without even their goddess to turn to, hope had curdled, and as darkness descended, the affliction spread. Now, beneath a steel sky, the streets had grown quiet of laughter and voices, the windows dark. Beyond the low stone buildings with their thatched roofs, Niranthym’s fields served as a mass grave for the bloated remains of livestock, the crops withered with sludge root.
“We were going to leave and find other Enduring.”
But she hadn’t believed him, had she? Not really. Father had always said Jacquin was a soft man in a hard man’s body, content to remain behind the walls of the church, tending its grounds and ringing its damned bell. She balled up the paper, a hastily scribbled apology folded upon the altar for her to find, and threw it at him. It bounced against his cheek and fell into the shadows.
“Why were you left?” she demanded, her ire spiking. “Mama and Father, Delumont, Greti, they…they…” Her nostrils flared, betraying the storm rising within her. It wasn’t entirely fair, she knew distantly. It had been Jacquin who had taken her in, provided her with food and shelter. But hurt is not rational, and anger is rarely quiet. “But you were spared. Jacquin the groundskeeper, who had no one and nothing. And you couldn’t even be grateful for that!”
Far below in the overgrown yard, the iron gate of the church groaned inward.
Yaveta slapped a hand over her mouth and dove against the belfry’s nearest pillar. How could she have been so careless as to raise her voice? She crouched low and remained as still as possible, ears straining for the telltale sounds. The heavy stride. The whimpering. The hunger. For a moment, she feared she wouldn’t be able to hear anything over the drumming of her heart, lodged so tight in her throat.
The shambling footsteps reached her, though. They dragged across the dirt path that cut through the churchyard toward the front doors. Worse was the weeping, soft, heart-wrenching, agonized. So very human.
Yaveta squeezed her eyes shut, both hands clamped over her mouth to keep her fright from escaping. The doors were chained shut, she reminded herself through the surging terror screaming at her to flee, a reckless impulse. The windows had been boarded. Jacquin, dear Jacquin, had seen to that. Still, the panic roared when nails scraped against wood, pushed upon its surface, tested its willingness to open. A low growl responded to the chain’s refusal to give way. The scratching turned to a more insistent knocking, and then to a furious shoving. Gate hinges squealed again, and a second set of footsteps followed the path of the first.
The doors quivered beneath the blows.
They were sturdy, solid oak, bolstered further by stacked pews, but they would not hold forever, and the more weepers drawn to the hunt, the shorter their life would be. She could wait them out, perhaps. Weepers were easily distracted and if one wandered off, the others were likely to follow. Should they catch her scent, however, losing them would be almost impossible. Jacquin’s rope creaked in the wind as if to remind her he was still there. His scent would call to them soon enough, and then she really would be trapped.
The thought of what would happen then was enough to spur her into action.
Yaveta’s legs felt wooden, unwilling, but she unfolded herself and eased away from the pillar. Tears she’d long fought against started to form again, blurring her vision, and she blinked them back with weeks’ of learned practice. Her hands shook as she reached for the ladder. She paused her descent to look back at the hanging man, once the church’s caretaker, once her caretaker, and a bolt of regret over how she’d reacted to his death shot like lightning through her chest. Her anger was gone, and the well of sorrow that swallowed it was deep.
“Goodbye, Jacquin,” she could barely bring herself to whisper.
She hurried down the ladder and dashed across the church’s gathering hall, its only room save for the small bed chamber that had been Jacquin’s before he’d given it to Yaveta. The only things that had escaped being used as a barricade were the quilts Jacquin used as a bed and the altar, upon which sat the offering plate, songbook, and the small wooden statue of a featureless woman holding a sword and long spoon crossed over her chest, the symbol of Horuna. Yaveta swept the statue and the songbook up as she passed and closed herself into the bedroom at the back of the church.
She had not brought much with her when Jacquin had offered her sanctuary. A second dress, a pair of Delumont’s trousers and one of his shirts, both too big for her, and Mama’s ring, a polished circle of wood she’d always said was from a silver rosewood tree. She wished she had taken something of her father’s and Greti’s, too, but there had been no time, just as there was no time to dwell on it now. She shoved her precious few items into a small sack, swept her cloak over her shoulders, and pushed the bedside table beneath the room’s only window.
Instead of being boarded, Jacquin had merely left this one shuttered and locked. It was smaller than the rest, not easily breached by something the size of a weeper, and he’d used it to slip out to scavenge.
“A’sides,” he’d liked to say, “if a weeper’s trying to get through this one all the way back here, you can be sure they’ve caught our stink and have come through every other hole already.”
Yaveta winced at how noisily the latch scraped out of place and waited, breath hitched behind pinched lips, before inching the shutters open. No weeper awaited her, only the still dead sleeping beneath their headstones in the churchyard. With some difficulty, she hoisted herself on to the sill and wriggled through the narrow opening. It must have been only by Horuna’s blessing that Jaquin had been able to squeeze himself through at all. After finally managing to swing her legs over the lip, she dropped gracelessly to the ground several feet below.
At the front of the church, the weepers continued to beat upon the doors.
With her sack hugged to her chest, Yaveta stole through the graves. She glanced over her shoulder every few steps, feeling exposed as a black rabbit in the middle of snowfall, but not near as fast.
Before the weeping blight, Niranthym had been a lived in place. Not like the big cities they heard about to the north, the capital and its outward spokes, where the people merely existed alongside one another. The village square had played host to countless feasts and dances, it had been where the grannies gathered to cluck over their washing and peck at the unruly children. It had been where Yaveta played with her sister outside their father’s smithy and listened to him greet every customer by name over the clanging of his hammer. The air had always smelled of mixed spice, pipe smoke, and spitted meat.
Yaveta passed the fire pits, picked clean and cold, and the washing well with its stagnant water. Blackened foods left scattered across stalls attracted flies instead of housewives, and the shops Yaveta had liked accompanying her mother to had been left abandoned. Each hurried, nervous step through the square was another memory decayed by silence and rot.
After her family’s death, she’s spent days hiding in whatever abandoned buildings she could slither into, picking through their pantries for scraps. At night, she would hide in the attics, sleeping atop the hatches to keep them from being pushed open. Jaquin had discovered her sucking on dried chicken bones in the tavern’s kitchen, and his kindness had come as an unexpected light in the grim dark.
One that had been all too quickly snuffed out.
Where could she go now? Each doorway opened to shadow, each corner turned to the unknown, a new place for a weeper to lurk. Yaveta thought of her own home and a sob bubbled up to the back of her throat. No. She could not return there.
Images of her family swirled like a whirlwind through her mind. Little Greti grinning up at her with her doll clutched between chubby hands. Delumont scoffing dismissively at something she’d said before ruffling her hair. Her parents seated in front of the fireplace with a shared quilt spread across their laps.
Little Greti’s beloved doll slipping through her fingers, never to be picked up again. Delumont gaping, his forehead beaded with sweat, reaching for her. Her father kneeling at his bedside, hands clasped so tight that they trembled. Mother’s weeping.
Too late, she realized it wasn’t just the all too real memory of her mother. She had already stepped too boldly, too openly.
The weeper lifted its head at the same time Yaveta caught sight of it.
Once it had been the widow Elfries, a kindly woman who gave sweets to the children after church. Yaveta could see it in her original face, twisted and forced off to one side as it was. It was that face that wept so softly. The others, two that had split the flesh of her cheek and forehead and grown as half-formed features, gnashed their splintered teeth, the three, bloodshot eyes they shared between them rolling wildly. Slits where a nose might have been puckered as the creature inhaled greedily.
It lumbered around to face her fully. Widow Elfries had been a small woman, but the turning had stretched back and bone, curving her like a shepherd’s crook and lengthening her limbs. A third leg sprouted from her left hip, but it hung uselessly, too small for even a child. The pair of withered arms protruding from the center of her chest twitched and groped at the air.
Widow Elfries’ face wailed.
Yaveta uttered a breathless sound and leapt backwards. The weeper lurched after her with a speed that seemed too quick for its uneven gait. It pursued her down the lane, crashing through barrels and benches, tearing through drying lines. Yaveta veered down alleys, attempting to lose the beast in a desperate zigzag between houses, but it doggedly pursued, its pounding footsteps drawing closer and closer, until bony fingers ensnared themselves in Yaveta’s black curls and ripped her from her feet.
She screamed and swung her sack, made weighty by Horuna’s statue and songbook, and landed a blow across the weeper’s cheek with a meaty crack.
Its disfigured faces hissed, but it shrugged off the hit and pounced upon the girl, knocking her sack away.
Yaveta wedged her feet against its torso, held off its snapping maws with her arms crossed and pushed against its throat, but already her body burned with the effort. The weeper pressed in.
And when Yaveta’s eyes met Widow Elfries, all she saw was death.