It was just a song.
To her it was a delicious sound, full of fun and mischief. It was life - so mysteriously elusive, joy and best of all love. Denied to this creature, as it was all her kind. Surely, no one would notice such a little tune. Isnale spun a circle, her bare feet tickling the grass beneath and as she turned her head this way and that, making sure she was alone, the Harbinger let off a single note. It floated gently out front. It crystalized and held still for a brief moment, perfect in its form, transparent except for the glistening colours of an unseen rainbow. Clapping her hands, Isnale marveled at the light it made. Apart from the stars overhead, the note shone like a beacon.
“They’ll cut you for that one note, you know that, don’t you Isnale?” Her brother’s voice shattered the form and the light extinguished leaving them both, once more in the dark.
She scowled. Her black eyes were as empty as her twins. “I don’t know how a single note can hurt,” she laughed. It was the devils laugh in her, for they were creatures of his whim. “I sang a song not long ago. A full rhyme that lit the sky and they didn’t know. Not a whisk was seen, not a twang was heard by the others.”
He linked her arm and dragged her along. “For your sake I hope not.” He was angry now.
He stopped on the plinth, pulling her up beside him. Felron felt the comings of death more closely than she. “Do you feel that?”
“What? Your ears are better than mine.” She was whispering, not afraid but cautious for once. Felron was favoured while she was not.
Felron stepped back out into the night. “Someone’s out there. I can hear their clumsy footsteps.”
Isnale grinned, wicked and impetuous. He would have at any other time laughed as well, but there was something in the air. It felt wrong and his cold blood grew colder. She slipped his hold and flitted away. One with the night, as cold as the coldest winter day her pale form looked like death’s spirit. Across the grass, she skipped, leaping over the wide creek in an easy bound and off into the trees; his sister was gone.
Felron turned to follow.
“Where have you been?” This voice was a harsh reminder of what they were, Harbingers of death, messengers from the Underworld.
“Walking my Lord, I was just out taking the air.” He prayed Isnale was away safe. He hated lying but sometimes a lie protected the precious truth and where Isnale was concerned, he’d lie to the devil himself to keep her safe.
The tall form stood stiffly beside the young messenger, his pale eyes shone in even the gloom. They held the heat from Hell. His word carried the master’s law and his will was a thing to be wary of. “You have a message.” No more, just that, but it was enough to stir Felron. Nobody disobeyed the Lord of Finis.
Husk stumbled on, snagging his foot on yet another tree root and this time he fell face first into a patch of Winterweed. It set him to sneezing, and for the first time that night Husk gave up. Afraid to go any further, the minstrel sat on the ground and pushed himself up against a tree drawing his knees up tight. It was a frightful night, with more than enough cold hours left in it to be his death.
Winter had come early to Bakesville Valley and the village he had left behind earlier on in the day was best left that way - behind. He had not a copper for his trouble and the world felt heavier because of it. A fine dusting of snow covered everything and although it gave the world a fairytale feel, the cold seeped into the marrow of his bones.
I’d eat my shoes if I didn’t think my toes would drop off from the bloody cold.
He wasn’t a handsome man, all bones with a mop of unruly red hair, but Isnale watched on. Fascinated by his ungainly wriggling to get comfortable and by the package next to him, the Harbinger moved closer. He could not see her, for she wished it so. He shivered and his pale face looked so sad that even she felt a twang of sorry. He would not last the night. This she knew, as well as she knew the one and only song that fired her cold heart.
It was elusive and never heard by her dead ears before but she knew it to be out there. It had to be or else why did she love music so?
Husk was scared, so he did what he did when feeling scared. He began to sing quietly, soft notes of a song his mother used to sing. It was a comfort to remember her in such a time, it bought warmth where there was cold, it drew him to the love he had known once. It was a beautiful ballad and as he felt the dead woman’s spirit drawing near, his voice grew louder. The melody rose and fell; it sat about him like a death shroud, undeniably haunting.
Isnale couldn’t help it, she opened her mouth and sung note for note. But, unlike Husk’s song that disappeared on the wind, buried beneath the falling snow, hers crystalized. The notes formed solid chunks of colour gleaming like low stars. Husk closed his mouth, afraid all over again.
“Don’t stop.” She appeared in a gown of black, it blended with the night that was her world. Black hair and black eyes to match swallowed him with an intensity that set his pulse to racing. Her pale face was whiter than snow.
“Where did you come from?”
She dropped to the ground next to him, even daring to lay a bone white hand onto his arm, “Please don’t stop. I’ve not heard that one and it is so very beautiful; it’s what I’ve been waiting for.”
“My mother used to sing it to me.” The words stammered in between the chattering of his teeth, he was so very tired. he barely felt the cold now.
Isnale nodded, as if she knew exactly what he was talking about. But what did Harbingers know of mothers? Her memory was that of a misty dream and of Felron. He had always been there and on that thought, she turned her head. Was he watching now?
The Minstrel sighed and Isnale turned back to the singer. “Can you sing some more? I would so very much like to hear another song.”
Husk had no voice left. He was dying, it was an effort just to breath, to keep his tired eyes open. But this woman was so beautiful. This angel of his, or at least he thought she was. Why else would such a lovely creature be in the middle of nowhere, out in the bitter cold if not to take him home? His eyelids fluttered as he made an effort to stir what life there was left in him. Drawing in a deep breath, slow and sure, Husk made ready.
Isnale was many things, a messenger of death, the devil’s child and so very beautiful that most souls would have leapt to be taken by her. She was willful and strangely full of joy, but worst of all she loved music. The Harbinger looked upon this dying man, this singer of songs and lost herself to him. In silence, Isnale gathered him to her and kissed him gently on the mouth. Her breath lingered for a moment giving him strength and a touch of magic, just enough for him to sing.
Husk kissed her back, eagerly and without hesitation. She gasped and fiercely pushed back. She gave more of herself in their kiss, heat and life. Love and tender passion, it was more than they both expected, it was more than Isnale could have hoped for.
Felron moved through the forest, there were no footprints as he walked the snow. His thoughts fell to his sister and her sudden disappearance. Lord of Finis was not a creature that suffered displeasing and Isnale was a fool when it came to Hell’s demands. His words were marked with a finality that carried death and this order was clear. Bring back the soul of the man who lay dying in winter’s frost.
There was no mistaking that sound, it was Isnale singing and Felron with a panic he had never felt before began to run. Still, he left no footprints as he raced the icy wind. Leaping over fallen trees and wide gullies, gliding with familiar ease across iced covered rivers, hoping all the while that he wasn’t too late.
Felron stopped. The sight of Isnale and this man together filled his veins with a rush of heat. The minstrel’s head fitting snugly in the crook of her thigh, he was very much alive and joyously happy. The pair were even singing, brazenly with the man watching Isnale’s notes floating about them in a swirl of bobbing crystals.
“Isnale.” Her twin’s anger caused the crystals to drop to the snow and melt in a kaleidoscope of colour.
Her eyes flashed meeting his, anger and embarrassment clearly met. “I would thank you Felron to stop your snooping. It is becoming tiresome.”
He noticed that she clung to Husk as if his presence would save a scolding. Or was this something else?
“What are you doing?” Felron hissed the words. Spit sprayed the air. “He is supposed to be dead you fool. The Lord of Finis has given the word and I am here to collect his soul. Now, what am I to do? Go back to our Lord and tell him you have taken this human as your pet? That you have at last bent to such folly that you have finally fallen to madness.”
Isnale pushed Husk away in the heat of Felron’s anger. “It isn’t like that Felron. He sings, if you would only open your ears and hear the music. He is a minstrel brother, someone who sings for the love of it. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“You’ve got to come away Isnale. You’ve got to take back what you have given him and let me do the Lord’s bidding. Surely, you’ve enough sense to see that you have gone too far this time.” Felron pleaded, his black eyes stark in a face of ashen white.
His sister shook her head and was just about to argue the point, when the words on her tongue slid back down her throat in horror. The Lord of Finis stood watching. He was dressed in the deepest of reds; arrogant authority ruled the tight features on his ageless face.
A sneering curl of his lips marked the anger he felt, “Stand up Isnale for I have come to claim this man’s soul, your interference will be dealt with when I have what is owed.”
“No he is mine.” Isnale’s courage was fueled with her newly found love.
“Yours?” There was no sneer this time. The Lord of Finis took a single step. “You think that because you gave him back his life that he belongs to you? You’re as stupid as you are disobedient Isnale. To take what is mine cannot be ignored.”
The Harbinger frowned, how could they not see. A strangeness enveloped her. She fell to her knees and cold snow soaked into her clothes. How could this be, she was as wet as Husk. She gasped. “But I love him.”
The Lord of Finis’s eyes bubbled with blood. His face stark white in contrast to the midnight red of his clothing, porcelain features haughty and resolute showed a disdain measured in power. “Harbinger you know I must take a soul, the words have been spoken and cannot be undone. This you know, to do otherwise would be to defy the Master of Masks.”
Isnale felt a tear leave her eye. It slid down her cheek. Her skin was as cold as the biting wind. How was it that she had never felt it’s bitter chill before? “What is happening to me?” Her teeth chattered as she inspected her blue fingers, finely boned hands turning numb.
Felron stepped up close to the Lord of Finis, as close as he dared and in a quiet, but respectful voice whispered. “Is there something that can be done? I am prepared to pay a cost, after all she is one of us.”
“Was one of us,” The Lord of Death’s words rung a final note, “your sister is now human Felron. Giving herself to that creature the way she did has robbed her of the magic that made her a Harbinger. Isnale is no more.”
Husk felt delightfully warm. For the first time in so many weeks, he felt brand new. It was wonderful, all that kissing and snuggling must have been what he needed. She was a beautiful woman there could be no doubt getting around that, but her murmurings of love made his feet itch and his empty pockets had him wishing he were away from these peculiar folk.
Isnale tried to push herself up, but her clothes were soaking wet and heavy. She was cold and strangely tired. “Felron! I am scared, what is happening.”
The Lord of Fenis leant over her, “you stupid creature, you have turned human that’s what’s happening to you and it is only for your brother that I do this. If you renounce this creature and allow me to take the soul that should be mine, I will give you back your magic. I must have a soul Isnale. A human soul and it looks to me that one will be as good as another.” He bared his teeth on the end of the warning.
More tears fell now, adding to her cold misery and she looked at her brother. “Felron I love him. He sings so beautifully.” The wet drops of love froze on her blue skin.
Her brother closed his eyes. What could he do? She had given her magic freely to a mortal, trading her eternal life for a few short hours. Winter’s hand rested on her now, it would claim her as human instead of Husk the minstrel if she didn’t do the Lord of Finis’s bidding. “Isnale, songs and love are not for us, we are messengers of death and you have with this foolishness become what we need. How can I help you if you refuse to help yourself?”
Isnale smiled. A wan imitation of understanding, but of course she didn’t. The beauty of a song went beyond that of carrying a messenge of death. It was a joy like no other. Weakly, she lifted her hand to Husk. “Can you sing for me, one more time?”
Husk looked at Insale, she wasn’t so beautiful anymore. Ice and human frailty had claimed last night’s ethereal wonder. Was this woman mad? She was dying, but he didn’t wish to offend and especially to the strange men cloaked as they were in such darkness, so for no other reason than to please the crowd, Husk began to sing. With her fading magic, given to him by the dying Harbinger, the song resonated in the air. It was a song like no other and as he looked down upon Isnale, her eyes closed in rapture and the minstrel smiled. Here, at last was someone who appreciated his talent.
The Lord of Finis reached down and laid a hand on Isnale’s head, her body shuddered. She fell still and Husk thinking he had sung her to slumber nodded to the pair.
“She is a rare beauty your sister and she did me a kindness this cold night by keeping me warm. Look after her young fellow for she deserves the best, I’d stay to help, but my purse is a little short and it’s a half a days walk to the next inn.” He knuckled his forehead and took to the path, glad to be gone from the scowls and black eyes. What odd folk, he thought, as he pushed his way through the forest, singing the song Isnale had taught him not so long ago.
The Lord of Death placed a hand on Felron’s shoulder. “Dawn is here, so we must take our leave. The light is not for creatures such as us Felron and I have a soul to deliver. We must make haste Harbinger lest we too forget who we are.”