Nightfall. And he wondered again what he was doing here.
Lying on the narrow bed, naked except for his leggings, and staring at the discoloured ceiling that was marked by the soot of countless candles, Alesandro could feel sweat trickling across his chest and down his stomach, soaking into the coarse blankets beneath him.
His clothes, the grey tunic and white shirt that he had worn as part of Captain Solomon’s company, were folded neatly on a chair near the window, and his weapons — a keen-edged sword of Toledo steel and a dagger with a gaudily decorated hilt — lay at the foot of the bed.
Outside he could hear the wind rushing through the empty streets, hard sand scraping against doors and windows like a hungry animal eager to be inside.
Not just dying, the town was dead; the land could swallow it up tomorrow and no one would know, no one would care, just another empty space on the map.
He should have been in Cordova by now, charming rich widows with his good looks and white, even smile, drinking fine wines and selling his blade to fat merchants who were too afraid to fight their own battles.
There was nothing for him here. No money to be made, nothing worth stealing, nothing to hold him in this place. Except...
When he closed his eyes he could see her again and he could still smell the faint scent of her perfume on his fingertips.
He had parted company with Solomon over three weeks ago and was more than glad to have done so. Life was getting too difficult as part of the company, ever since the good Captain had decided that he and his men were now Knights of Christ and their war a noble effort for the glory of Queen Isabella. Fighting for pay was one thing, but riding with a fanatic was too dangerous. Noble sacrifice had never been part of Alesandro’s nature, he preferred to fight when the odds were strictly in his favour, so he had ridden out under cover of darkness, wishing his comrades a whispered farewell and praying to the Madonna that he would never see them again.
The wind picked up, throwing grit against the window. Empty desert sounds that reverberated around the room.
* * * * *
Earlier that day, Alesandro had ridden in from the north. At the time, the town had looked like a good place to rest up — compact and clean, obviously on its last legs but with a vestige of stubbornness that kept the arid emptiness away. Just.
Most of the houses on the northern edge of town were abandoned, with drifting sand on the verandas, dark windows staring out like blind eyes. Trotting down the main street he saw no one, but was conscious of tentative, suspicious eyes watching him from behind closed windows and locked doors.
Alesandro had seen dozen of towns like this while riding with Solomon. Different names and different surroundings, but the principle was always the same — twilight communities that were winding slowly down until there was nothing left but empty homes and dusty shrines. The war had not touched them directly, but its hand had brushed over them, taking away the young men and leaving only the decrepit and dried up behind.
No church, that was good — at best a travelling Priest who came once every few months. No one to question him too closely. He slipped a large silver crucifix around his neck, making sure that it was in plain view.
He stopped at the south-east edge of town where the buildings suddenly gave way to the steep depression of a long-dried riverbed and the scrubland beyond. It was the middle of the afternoon but the streets were quiet, the only signs of life coming from a tavern perched close to the riverbed. The smell of fresh bread reminded him that he had barely eaten a proper meal since leaving the company. He hobbled his horse in a side street then went inside.
The tavern was like the rest of the town, clean but crumbling, deserted except for the elderly cook and a young serving girl. He eyed her up in a detached way; her hair was thick and dark, tied back in a long ponytail and her skin had a natural tan that suggested Moorish blood somewhere in her lineage.
Neither the girl nor the cook seemed particularly interested in him, although he was sure that the nameless town rarely attracted visitors.
He took a table and ordered food and wine.
When she brought him his meal he gave her his best smile. He knew that he was a handsome man and most women were drawn to him, a fact that he had exploited countless times.
“Thank you, miss.”
She stared back, as if noticing him for the first time.
“Are you a soldier?” she said, nodding at his clothes.
“I was. But the Lord has found other work for me to do.” He raised his hand and touched the crucifix reverently.
She frowned and a small crease marked the perfect skin of her forehead.
“To spread His word and His love.” The lie came smoothly and easily. “Why else should I be here if not on God’s business?” He smiled at her again and this time she flushed. He allowed himself to savour this small moment of triumph and anticipation — it was not, after all, the first time he had taken a girl with promises of false redemption.
“God has forgotten about us,” Madelina said. “Everyone has, except...”
An exaggerated cough from the elderly cook made her look around and the colour blanched from her face. Without another word she turned back to the counter.
Alesandro watched her as he ate but she refused to return his gaze — staring down at the counter as she wiped a rag across its already pristine surface. Her words, so abruptly curtailed, did not trouble him, rather it was the look in her eyes as she had spoken, a mixture of fear and pleading, a silent cry for help that touched him despite himself.
As he finished his meal she looked up, and their eyes locked for a brief moment — the expression was still there and he half smiled, a real smile this time, in a vague attempt to reassure her, although he had no idea why.
* * * * *
Dusk. In a cramped room on the second floor of the tavern, staring out of the window at the abandoned houses, he found that he could not get her out of his mind.
It was not that she was especially pretty — Alesandro had seen and been with more beautiful women before — but her silent plea stayed with him.
The sun was slowing dying, spreading red rays like a lake of blood across the town and on the far side of the dry riverbed dust devils were dancing in the light. The wind was picking up as if it had been waiting for the night, rattling through the silent streets.
It didn’t matter. In the morning he would be gone and she would be just another memory. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes...
... when he opened them she was there, standing by the bed and framed in brittle moonlight. For a moment he thought he was dreaming, then she reached out and touched him, her fingers surprisingly soft against his face.
“What’s your name, girl?” he asked in a whisper.
“Madelina. Who are you?”
“Are you a good man, Alesandro? A man of the Lord?”
“Yes,” he lied.
She leaned down and kissed him, her hair falling over his face like a velvet cowl. He did not question why she had come to him — content instead to savour the moment and allow her to flood his senses. Her perfume filled his nostrils, a mixture of wildflowers and dust.
Outside, there was a whisper on the breeze, a hoarse feral muttering that verged on the edge of human speech; almost enough for him to understand the words. And somewhere, so faint as to be the echo of an echo, an animal howled.
"The land is full of sin," Madelina said. "Will you take me away from here?"
"Then you are a good man, Alesandro," she said.
Something was moving outside. Something that stroked invisible fingers across the rooftops and through the streets, snuffling at locked doors and shuttered windows.
He felt her body tense against him.
"It's just the wind," he told her and stroked her hair.
"Just the wind," she repeated. "Just the wind and nothing more."
But it seemed to Alesandro that she was trying to reassure herself as much as him.
* * * * *
Whispers. As he lay there in her arms, listening to the regular sound of Madelina's breathing and feeling her damp skin pressing against him, he could still hear whispers in the streets.
Formless and vague, they seemed to be a part of, more than carried by, the wind. Names, perhaps, or simply the land itself settling into ancient and familiar patterns as night cloaked the town.
As sleep took him, the last thing he thought he heard was his own name, torn from a throat that was never meant for human speech.
* * * * *
Morning. When he awoke she was gone, but the imprint of her body on the bed beside him was still warm and he could taste her sweat on his skin. The wounds she had inflicted on him as they made love — small bites and scratches — pulsed faintly and he rubbed at them absently, vaguely aware of their intricate pattern.
He sat on the edge of the bed, thinking about the promises he had made in the heat of the moment. No matter, he had made such promises before and would make them again, but something about her and the desperate way she had clung to him gave him pause.
He dressed and went downstairs to search for her. Outside, a last faint zephyr swirled across the dusty street, dancing for a moment before disappearing.
The town was waking, or at least coming to a semblance of life, locks being pulled back and shutters thrown open. He saw pale faces staring, but no one came out.
A town of ghosts where the ghosts themselves were flesh and blood, where they locked themselves in at night rather than parading through the streets in all their phantom glory.
The dust storm had left strange tracks in the sand; long furrows that ran between the houses, interconnecting them.
Just the wind and nothing more.
The tavern was empty, no sign of Madelina or the elderly cook. A faint metallic tang hung in the air and there was dust on everything — coating the tables and chairs, crunching under his boots as he walked to the door.
The sound of her voice startled him. He turned and looked at her standing behind the tavern counter — she was pale and drawn, her skin sallow as if she, too, were covered in dust.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“The storm got in,” she said, and as she spoke she ran a finger across one of the dusty surfaces, leaving a clean trail in its wake.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “You can come with me if you want.” The words sounded foolish even as he said them — she was a peasant girl, the sort of person who lived and died in the same few square miles of dirt.
“With you.” She said the words as if they were alien to her. She was staring at him with vacant eyes, swirling the dust between her fingertips.
“Yes,” she said at last. “I’ll come with you.”
“I’m leaving in a few hours.”
She shook her head. “Too soon. They won’t let us leave in daylight. Tonight would be better.”
He grinned in a show of bravado and his hand went to his sword. “These people? Let them try to stop us.”
“Please,” she said. “Wait until tonight.”
Back in his room he began to question his own motives. Not altruism, not even a sense of overwhelming desire for her, and certainly not the misplaced emotion that some called love.
What then? By rights he should have mounted his horse and simply ridden away, but something made him stay, a tiny piece of the same thing that kept Madelina and the others here — or a half-memory of the dust as it called his name in the night.
* * * * *
Nightfall. Waiting for her.
The wind was moving again. Gently at first, no more than a whisper. He could taste grime on his tongue and lips — like wildflowers and dust.
He dressed and crossed to the window, staring out towards the edge of town where a few solitary lights shone.
And beyond that, something in the dry riverbed, something that moved.
Something that was not the wind but acted in tandem, although independent of it.
Something that clearly whispered his name. And at its call the marks on his body, that strange pattern of bites and scratches, pulsed in response.
He heard it again and it shocked him out of his spell with a cold-water clarity that cleared his senses and allowed the fear to come.
Something. Some Thing that lived in the dust and the storm. Some Thing that rattled around the dry town at night, calling out the names of sinners. Some Thing that remembered them even if God Himself had forgotten.
Some Thing that was coming for him.
He ran out of the room and sprinted towards his horse — there was no time and no reason for thought, only acceptance and belief, a primal knowledge that went far beyond rationality and into the most primitive part of his being.
He saw Madelina, moving towards him along the furrowed main street, dust devils dancing in front of her. He saw the mockery in her eyes and the damnation in her smile.
“Are you a good man, Alesandro?” And the wind carried her words to him.
Then a sudden brightness as the doors of the town were thrown open by the wind and the citizens emerged into the night.
They came streaming towards him with Madelina at their head, screaming wordless prayers, calling to the wind and the thing that lived within it.
“Only a good man,” she said. “Only a good man can redeem the sins of the land.”
“What sins?” he cried.
“The sins that were and are and the sins yet to come — the land remembers them and suffers.” When she reached him she kissed him softly, once, on the mouth.
He tried to draw his sword, but his hands would not respond, the glamour she had placed on him with lips, teeth and nails held him firmly.
And then they were upon him, dusty fingers plucking at his clothes, tearing them from his body, making him the scapegoat that would redeem all that had been done and would be done — pacifying their dark god with the sacrifice of a good man.
They blinded him with needle-sharp daggers; you cannot see the wind; sheared off his fingers with a dull blade: you cannot touch the wind.
He screamed his innocence, tried to make them understand that he was not what they believed him to be, but they silenced his protests with a knife that slipped across his lips and severed his tongue — the pain so sudden and absolute that his mind barely registered it.
They left him his ears so that he could hear the wind and understand its purpose, then they drove him across the riverbed, out into the arid land, goading him with sticks and shouts. He could hear Madelina, their priestess, calling to the wind in a strange, shrill voice.
“Wrong, all wrong,” he tried to say, but the nub of his tongue refused to articulate the words.
And then silence except for the steady drip, drip, drip of his blood as it splashed upon the sand.
And somewhere, faint as the echo of an echo, It moved towards him, reaching out with ethereal hands, eager for a pure soul, willing to exchange pestilence for plenty.
It would be disappointed.
James Lecky is a writer based in Derry, N. Ireland. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of different places including Everyday Fiction, Sorcerous Signals, Mirror Dance, Aphelion, The Nautilus Engine, The Absent Willow Review, Jupiter SF, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the antholgies Emerald Eye, The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction and Morrigan Book's The Phantom Queen Awakes.