by Rosei Aki (浪星あき)
“Now remember, show him the courtesy due his title and not a whisper more.” Lady Emily lifted the lace curtain over the carriage window and glanced outside. Her lip curled faintly with distaste. “We must be almost here – the trees are all dead.”
“It is the middle of winter, mother.”
“I know the difference between a tree that has lost its leaves and one that is dead to the core,” Lady Emily snapped. “Straighten your cravat, it looks like a child tied it.”
Will sighed and did as he was told, though he was fairly sure there was nothing wrong with the cravat. He stole a glance of his own out of the window. The sparsely forested landscape was certainly rather bleak and bare-looking, but he could see no indication that the trees – white poplars – were as dead as his mother claimed, and wouldn’t anywhere look bleak under half a foot of snow? His breath clouded the window, and he leaned back, glad of the warmth of the furs over his knees.
The carriage turned a corner, and the sound of the horses’ hooves changed, ringing out clearly on stone. Lady Emily twitched aside the curtain again, and Will caught a glimpse of a tall white pillar disappearing to their rear, and a tumbling stretch of water as they crossed a wide bridge.
“There, you see? I was right.” Lady Emily sat back and fidgeted absently with her gloves. “The road is some three miles before we even reach the gates of the Necropolis, and then it is another five to the house. Old Uncle Alfred used to meet us on the front steps, but who knows what eccentricities this one has learned.”
Will forbore from pointing out that Lady Emily’s fond tone when speaking of Great Uncle Alfred was quite at odds with her vehement dislike of the man when he had been alive. And surely the fact that his successor had been chosen from a far distant branch of the family – one scarcely worth acknowledging, according to Lady Emily – was entirely his doing, and not the fault of the new Warden of the Necropolis.
“With luck we shan’t have to stay more than three days,” Lady Emily was musing aloud. “I shall make it clear that we cannot be pressed to remain longer.”
Will thought that she was vastly overestimating their welcome, especially given her own well-known dislike of the Necropolis, but again, he held his tongue. The ties of blood and honour demanded that one of the family bring the annual festive greetings of the others to that most solitary of their cousins, and Lady Emily had been in a foul mood ever since she had learned that the lot was hers. The last time she had visited the Necropolis, Will had been too young to accompany her – and the current Warden had been but a youth under the tutelage of Old Uncle Alfred.
Now, though, with his father passed on some three years past, Will was obliged to make the trip with Lady Emily, as the future Lord Enna. They had already called on most of the family, a long string of aunts, uncles, and cousins who all received them with an air of long-suffering. Will had sympathised, though he had been careful not to show it in his mother’s presence.
“You’ll soon see what a forsaken place it is,” muttered Lady Emily fretfully. “And remember, while we are guesting here, you must not eat or drink anything save that which our host offers you himself.”
“I know, mother,” Will said, finally exasperated beyond endurance. He was not a child to need reminding of his table manners! “Why are we staying even as long as three days if the thought is so repugnant to you? We left before nightfall at my cousin Diana’s.”
“Diana is not Warden of the Necropolis,” Lady Emily replied sharply. “Which, dim and dreadful place as it is, has no small meaning. In some ways he is even the equal of the King himself. Three days it must be, at the very least, though I pray we need not stay longer.”
The carriage had drawn to a halt, and Will could hear muffled conversation between their coachman and someone outside. He peered out of the window again.
They were stopped before an enormous gate of black wrought iron set between pillars of stone so white they made the snow look grey. To either side of them stretched a high wall of similar make, disappearing as far as the eye could see into the sparse, snowy woodland. Each gate post was topped with the stone head of a great hound, mouths open to show sharp teeth and lolling tongues. They were fierce, but not monstrous, and the sculptor had given a sharp intelligence to their eyes.
The gates swung open, and Will had just time to see that there was a third hound’s head worked into the iron where the gates met. Then the horses began to walk forward, and the carriage rumbled past and into the Necropolis.
It was lighter here than it had been under the trees. The drive ran between stone walls that were not quite high enough to block Will’s view: beyond them he could see the first closely clustered tombs. They were plain for the most part, stone boxes that a living man could not enter without stooping, only the inscriptions on their sides telling who lay buried there. Here and there stood a yew tree, the bare earth beneath its spreading branches clear of snow. In some of those dim spaces, Will caught glimpses of wooden posts hung with withered leaves: memorials to the nameless.
From ahead, the clatter of approaching horses warned of another vehicle, and their own carriage swayed over to the left to leave room for it to pass. It was a hearse, black and gleaming, each corner topped with a miniature silver wing, and driven by two sombrely dressed undertakers who nodded politely to Will’s coach as they passed.
He couldn’t help glancing into the windows of the hearse, morbidly curious – but of course it was empty. They didn’t take coffins away from the Necropolis. He shivered.
“Dreadful place,” muttered Lady Emily, picking at the fingers of her gloves.
When the Keep finally came into view, twilight was falling grey around them. The first glimpse of lamplight was like a distant star winking between the trees; soon they were near enough to see lighted windows and the impressive bulk of the dwelling at the heart of the Necropolis. It was not large enough to be called a castle, but as they drew nearer, Will saw that its walls were topped with crenellations, and that two – no, three – towers sprang from various corners. It seemed stark and bare, somehow, and it took a moment for him to realise that no ivy or other climbing plant grew up those sheer grey walls.
The coach swung into the wide turning circle and came to a graceful stop at the foot of the broad stairs that led up to the front door. Their footman jumped down from the coach and swung the carriage door open, letting in a blast of freezing air that made Will flinch. A man with a lantern stood on the steps to greet them, and for a moment Will thought this must be the new Warden, until the man bowed with the obvious respect of a servant.
“My lady, my lord,” he said. “I am the steward of the Keep. If you would be so good as to follow me…”
“Is Lord Tristan not here to receive us himself?” demanded Lady Emily as she struggled out from under the furs and stepped down from the carriage.
“His lordship awaits you in the small drawing room, my lady.”
“Hmm.” Lady Emily cast a dour glance around her, then lifted her skirts out of the snow and began to climb the stairs. “Come, William.”
Rather sore at being called to heel like a dog, Will clambered out of the coach, exchanged a quick nod with the coachman, who was an old friend, and followed his mother into the Warden’s Keep.
He expected it to be cold and gloomy, but in fact the entrance hall was full of lamps and as warm as a hearth. Even after they had been relieved of their outer coats by the steward, Will felt no chill. Muscles that had been tensed against the cold finally relaxed, and his spirits rose. Perhaps their stay here would not be so uncomfortable as his mother had made out.
The steward led them away from the main hall, down a corridor lined with lanterns, and paused to knock on a panelled door that blended in almost seamlessly with the walls. From within, someone called a question, and the steward replied:
“The Lady Emily and Lord William are here, sir.”
Will could not make out the response, but it must have been favourable, as the steward opened the door and stood aside to let them pass.
The room within was not as brightly lit as the hall had been, but its dimness was cosy rather than oppressive: a big fire crackled in the hearth and the lighting was provided by plain wax candles. It was just bright enough to read by, if one sat in the chair by the fire where most of the candelabra were clustered, and it was evident that was exactly what the room’s occupant had been doing. He had risen from his seat as he entered, laying a leather-bound book down on the table, and came forward with a polite smile.
Tristan of Aver – it took Will a moment to recall his full title – was tall enough that Will, who had inherited his mother’s slight stature, had to tilt his head to meet his eyes. His hair was very dark, not quite black, but striking against his rather pale skin. Most of the family tended to be fair: Will’s own hair was as golden as corn, as had been his mother’s before it turned to grey.
“Welcome,” Tristan was saying, holding out his hand to Lady Emily with perfect poise. His voice was soft and smooth. “I trust the journey was not too arduous?”
“Oh, tolerable, I suppose.” Lady Emily took the offered hand for a span of time that was just enough to convey respect, and not enough to imply affection. “At least the snow had mostly been packed down along the roads. May I present my son, William Lord Enna? He is your distant cousin, through his father.”
“A pleasure,” said Tristan, taking Will’s hand when it was offered.
Though it was a simple courtesy, he sounded like he meant it, and it occurred to Will that
he must not make new acquaintances often. There was nothing to prevent the Warden leaving the Necropolis and going about in the outside world, as long as he did not neglect his duty, but everyone knew that he rarely did. And most were glad: the Warden walked with the dead, and who would welcome the dead into their homes? As one of Will’s aunts had put it, “He’s not exactly the sort you want at a party.”
But his hand was warm, and so were his eyes – a light grey that was almost blue – and when he smiled, Will wished at once that he were hosting a party so that he could make a point of inviting Tristan.
“It’s wonderful to meet you,” Will said with sincerity, and had the gratification of feeling Tristan’s hand tighten minutely on his, and his smile go from polite to genuinely friendly.
“I hope we shall enjoy one another’s company for the next few days,” Tristan replied warmly. “Though while you stay here, I must ask that you obey certain rules–”
“You need not lecture him as though I have not done my duty,” said Lady Emily sharply. “William knows what is expected of him.”
Tristan’s face closed up again at once, returning to its polite, perfectly gracious expression as he turned to offer Lady Emily a seat, while Will tried desperately to remember if there had been anything as specific as ‘rules’ in the midst of the endless reminders of etiquette he’d been subjected to on the drive. Had “wait to be invited to sit” been a rule, or just his mother’s fussing about manners? The only safe course was to be on his best behaviour, which would be no fun at all. Stifling a grimace, he stayed where he was until Tristan caught his eye and gestured to one of the chairs by the fire.
“I shall ring for supper,” their host said. “I trust you have no objection to partridge?”
“Oh, definitely not,” said Will with the fervency of an empty stomach.
His mother shot him an irritated look, but Will was more aware of Tristan’s surprised almost-smile, which he covered by turning to ring for the steward.
Lady Emily dominated the conversation throughout the meal, with the result that it was largely concerned with various family members whom Will had long tired of discussing. Obviously determined to do her duty as the bearer of tidings from the rest of the family, she recounted every last detail of their relatives’ doings over the year. Tristan listened politely, smiled graciously at all the right moments, and assumed an appropriate seriousness when Lady Emily expressed her various strong opinions. If he was bored or irritated he gave no sign. Will, finally warm enough to feel drowsy, envied his poise and wished for an excuse to slip away.
When at last the Lady Emily announced they would retire for the night, Tristan himself escorted them to their rooms. The long corridor led onto a secondary hall and a staircase that took them to the guest wing. It was beautifully decorated and in the best repair, but Will was aware nonetheless of how old everything was. The Enna estate went back half a dozen generations, but everything here exuded an air of centuries.
Lady Emily’s rooms were the first they reached, and after showing her inside and bidding her goodnight, Tristan led Will on up the passage.
“Where are we? In relation to the front door, I mean.”
Tristan paused, looked about him, and then pointed to the right.
“That wall borders with a music room that in turn backs on to the landing above the main hall. So the front door would be…”
He pointed diagonally down and further to the right. Will tried to visualise the route they had come, and shook his head.
“If I need anything in the night, I shall get terribly lost.”
“You may ring for one of my servants,” Tristan reassured him, continuing on up the corridor. “I would not advise leaving your room in the night.”
A cold shiver went through Will from head to toe. He glanced nervously at the thick velvet curtains that shrouded the windows.
“Are… are there ghosts here?”
Tristan turned to stare at him, for a moment seeming at a loss. Then, to Will’s surprise – and chagrin – he actually laughed.
“Far more prosaic,” he said. “The lights are dimmed at night and this place is large and full of odd steps that could trip you.”
Tristan had reached another door in the panelled wall, which swung inward when he turned the handle. From within came the welcome glow of firelight and candlelight, and Will was all too aware of how tired he was.
“You need have no fear,” Tristan said. “The Keep is only for the living. Goodnight, William.”
“Will. Call me Will.”
Tristan blinked, and smiled his brief smile again. There was something lovely about that fleeting expression. Will wanted to capture it and keep it forever.
“Goodnight, then, Will.”
The door shut with a click. Will wandered through the sitting room and into the bedchamber, looking curiously at the adornments and furnishings. After a while he caught himself turning his head to try and catch the shadows at the edge of his eyesight. He shook himself and attended briskly to his toilet, climbing gratefully into the bed and drawing the blankets up with a sigh of relief.
The firelight cast strange shadows on the ceiling, and he thought of that empty hearse, and wondered where its former occupant lay now. Outside the window, something creaked – a tree branch? But there had been no trees…
The Keep is only for the living.
Will held the memory of Tristan’s unexpected laughter in his mind, and with little further ado, drifted into sleep.
“… and this is the ballroom, my lord.”
The steward had flung open the door in grandiose fashion; the movement was reflected instantly in the mirrors around the walls, making Will jump. The room was rather dim and the mirrors made it look much larger than it really was. He was sure it would be a nice effect if it were full of people and light, but lacking either it was rather creepy.
“Does it ever get used?” he wondered aloud.
“Not in my time, my lord.”
Will glanced over his shoulder at the hallway they had just been walking down, and the doors that let to numerous silent rooms. The Warden lived a solitary life, and as far as Will knew that had been the case for generations. He wondered if there had ever been a time when these rooms were put to their intended purpose, or if they had been empty, waiting, ever since their construction.
“Let’s move on,” he said.
Tristan had excused himself to take care of his duties after breakfast, and Lady Emily had announced her intention to spend the morning in the library. (She had not asked permission, Will noted, merely assured Tristan that she could find her own way there and that she did not require assistance with the books. Tristan had replied, with far more grace than Will could have summoned, that he would instruct the servants not to bother her until luncheon.) Will had not particularly wanted to spend the morning with his mother, much as he would have liked to see the famous library, so he had eagerly accepted Tristan’s offer to have the steward show him around the Keep.
“It’s a strange old place,” Tristan had said. “I’m not sure I’ve found all the ways of it yet.”
Will certainly felt as though he had walked a good half mile, and there seemed to be no end to the staircases and passages and odd little rooms tucked into corners. They had even been up one of the towers to look out over the endless, empty streets of the Necropolis. Here and there he had seen people moving, the undertakers and caretakers about their sombre business, but it had been unsettling to realise how closely the city of the dead resembled the golden capital where Will had but recently walked. The two had been built as mirrors of one another, he’d heard, but the empty, snow-bound stillness of the Necropolis seemed an affront to the vibrant living city.
“I think,” Will said now, as the steward lead him out into a small hallway with a set of stairs that went up three floors, “I should like to retire to the drawing room for the rest of the morning.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
The steward turned towards one of the other doors, but just then Will heard steady footsteps from the landing above them. He peered upwards; seconds later, Tristan appeared at the top of the stairs. He seemed momentarily surprised to see them, but then he smiled politely and came down towards Will.
“How are you finding it?” he asked.
Will hesitated, not quite wanting to tell him that he’d been just about to go back, but then he found himself answering with more honesty than courtesy, “It seems a terribly lonely place.”
Tristan blinked, and Will saw that same change come over his face – as if his eyes suddenly looked at Will properly instead of taking in only his shadow.
“It is, rather,” Tristan said. Then, before Will could think of a proper response, “Would you perhaps care to join me for a time? There is something I would like to show you.”
“Of course,” Will replied promptly, both curious and rather flattered. “Lead the way.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s just here.”
Tristan nodded to the steward, who drifted silently away, and led Will to a small door tucked under the staircase. It was evidently kept locked, for Tristan drew a bunch of keys from his belt to open it. They walked down a narrow passage which ended at another door.
Beyond it lay a small room that had perhaps once been a study: there were shelves along the walls and a writing desk under the window. The shelves no longer held books, however, but scores of small, beautifully carved wooden boxes, and there was a deep, comfortable-looking armchair by the fireplace that had evidently seen much use.
The centrepiece of the room was a harp as tall as Will, carefully shrouded in cloth. Tristan crossed over to it and drew aside the cover to reveal a warm, smooth wooden frame and strings that glimmered like gold.
“I am not much of a musician,” he said, “but with this, I don’t have to be.”
He ran his fingers gently over a carving at the top of the frame, and to Will’s amazement, first one, then another of the harp strings rang out clear and true. Within moments it was playing a sweet, joyful melody he recognised: one of the songs of the spring festival.
“Is it magic?” he asked, not caring how foolish he sounded.
“Of a kind,” Tristan replied with a smile that finally reached his eyes. “Artifice cunning enough that it might as well be, at least.”
He knelt beside the harp and pressed at a part of the pedestal that looked no different to any other. A large panel swung open, and Tristan tugged this aside and beckoned Will closer. In the cavity thus revealed, Will saw a bronze cylinder rotating steadily, and a collection of cogs and gears behind it.
“It’s like a music box,” he realised. “But how does it sound so…”
He groped for the words.
“Alive?” Tristan closed the panel and rose to his feet. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard a music box that sounded so like a living player. The cases back there hold more of the cylinders. I like to come here and listen to it sometimes.”
“It’s beautiful,” Will said.
They listened in silence until the tune came to an end. There was a pause, then it started again.
“Do you play at all?” Tristan asked.
“A little on the piano, but not all that well.” Will bit his lip, half-smiling. “Very badly, to be honest. My cousin once said I sound like a lost, drunken rodent staggering up and down the keys.”
To his delight, Tristan laughed.
Three days passed so swiftly that Will was dismayed to realise they were due to leave the next morning.
Tristan was fascinating. Will had known of his existence, but only as a name – Tristan of Aver, ward of Old Uncle Alfred, brought to the Necropolis as a child and almost certainly destined to take on the duties of Warden when his guardian died. He was tied by blood to the family, that much was certain, but there had been much gossip and shaking of heads when Alfred had taken him in. Some had resented the conferral of such a high rank on an orphan offshoot of the blood, while others had openly pitied him for his fate.
Will had expected a reclusive or silent man, but Tristan was a charming host. The only troubling thing was how perfectly poised his every word and action was, and the way he seemed perpetually distant, as though Will and Lady Emily were on the other side of a screen from him. Yet it was hard to be too vexed by this when Tristan spoke so eloquently of histories and tales in his library, or asked such intelligent questions concerning the state of the kingdom.
And sometimes, Will found he could draw aside that veil – sometimes, the distance fell away and Tristan looked at him in a way that made Will want to stay far longer than three days, long enough to find out all his secrets and brush away the faint sheen of sadness that seemed to hover eternally behind his eyes.
Tristan took him out into the Necropolis once, but Will found it unsettling in a way he could not pinpoint; Tristan never quite seemed to be listening to him fully, and would sometimes turn his head sharply as if in response to a call that Will could not hear. He used every excuse he could think of to remain within the house after that, and Tristan did not press him.
Instead, when Will wanted some air he confined himself to the gardens of the Keep. They were not extensive – just a series of spaces walled off from the rest of the city – but there were no graves here, and the snow hid the fact that there were no bushes or flowers either.
It was late on the third day that he found his way through an arch that he had not noticed before, and stopped in amazement – for here there were finally trees! He wondered that he had not spotted their foliage before, but looking back at the house, he saw that the outflung west wing hid this part of the gardens from his rooms.
It was an orchard, he realised at once, and with a quite absurd rush of joy. Even though the trees were barren in the winter chill, with not a leaf to be seen on their bare branches, the sight of real living trees lifted his heart. Will had loved green and growing things since childhood, spent all of his summers out in the grounds of Enna and delighted in the gardens of his estate. He hadn’t realised just how much of the oppressive feeling of the Necropolis was rooted in its lack of trees or plants. Even in the winter, Enna was full of rich evergreens and the patient bulk of shrubs that would burst into life once more with the coming of spring.
There were apple trees, he saw as he walked slowly down the path, and pears, and what he thought was a cherry, though he had not seen its like before. Then he caught sight of something that made him stop dead in disbelief.
There were vines clustered thickly on the farther wall, and they were – impossibly – laden with fruit. There was even snow on the clusters of deep red grapes – snow that should have killed them! Will had heard of vines being raised this far north in hothouses, but never of grapes grown outside in midwinter.
The wall behind them was warm under his touch. He supposed it must be hollow, circulating the air like the hypercausts of the old villas, but he still could not imagine how this miracle was achieved. He would have to ask Tristan – and a little flicker of excitement stirred at the thought that perhaps Tristan shared some of his love of growing things after all.
Smiling, Will deftly plucked one perfect grape from a plump bunch and popped it into his mouth. It exploded with flavour: he had never tasted anything so sweet and fresh. He wondered why Tristan had not served these as a dessert. Perhaps he thought Lady Emily would scorn such a simple dish. It was certainly undignified to stand here eating fruit off the vine like a child, Will thought with a grin – exactly the sort of thing Lady Emily had spent the journey here warning him against. It was that as much as anything that prompted him to sneak a second, third, and fourth grape from the hundreds on the vine. It wasn’t as though there was a shortage…
All of a sudden Will thought he heard voices on the other side of the wall. He paused, listening intently, but it was hard to make out whether he was hearing just a whisper on the breeze. Well, perhaps it was time to go back, anyway. He picked one last pair of grapes as he turned to leave.
He kept hearing snatches of voices as he walked back through the gardens. It sounded like there were people out there in the Necropolis, crowding and chattering like the residents of the capital.
As he rounded a corner, all at once he heard a sobbing that cut him to the bone.
Will didn’t run, exactly, but he dropped the last of the grapes and walked as quickly as he could to the door of the Keep. His heart pounded uncomfortably. He was remembering a story he’d heard, about a man who went to faeryland and wandered there for seven years and they told him, if you would save your mortal soul, you must not eat nor drink…
The voices stopped as soon as he closed the door behind him. Just your imagination, he told himself, and went to change for dinner.
Before they left, they visited the crypt of Will’s forefathers, at Lady Emily’s insistence.
It was a great structure as big as a small house; it might have looked almost homely, covered in snow as it was, if there had been light spilling from its narrow windows. As it was, it was dark even when Tristan lit the lantern he had brought, and Will had to summon every last scrap of his courage to follow down the steps into the echoing tomb.
All the way across the city, he had heard whispers and words that should not have been there. He had jumped and spun about more times than he could tell, and his mother had scolded him when he had stopped dead one time. He had not dared tell her that he heard a woman singing a mournful song, though he could catch no glimpse of her face.
Tristan had looked at him with sudden sharpness, and Will had made even more effort after that to hide his discomfort.
They made their way to the chamber where his father lay in his coffin of stone, and Lady Emily laid a wreath of evergreen leaves upon its lid. Her face, for a moment, softened, and Will wished they were back in Enna, where her waspish moods were only occasional and her temper much more even.
Tristan seemed to stare intently at something on the far side of the room. Will saw nothing save cobwebs and dust, and after a moment Tristan instead turned his gaze on Will, studied him as though he could read secrets in his eyes.
There was someone talking, Will thought, far away on the other side of the wall. He could hear a familiar snatch of tune. He gritted his teeth and pressed his clammy palms against his trousers and stayed silent until his mother was ready to leave.
Tristan watched him all the way back to the Keep.
They would leave after lunch, Lady Emily declared, and in the meantime she had one more thing she wished to look up in the library. But Tristan stopped her as she would have left the hall.
“I fear,” he said, “that I may have to ask you to stay longer.”
Lady Emily drew herself up with a frown, and somehow managed to look down on Tristan though he was more than a head taller than her.
“That is absolutely impossible,” she replied. “We must be back at Enna before the end of the week, or goodness knows what the servants will have made of the housekeeping without proper supervision…”
“I am sorry,” Tristan said, quietly but with an implacable, iron certainty that made Will’s blood run cold. “But I must ask you to remain.”
Lady Emily’s mouth tightened and her eyes narrowed dangerously.
“What foolishness is this?”
“There are three laws in the Necropolis,” Tristan went on as if he had not heard. He had been looking steadily at Lady Emily, but now, as though he could not help himself, his eyes slipped across to Will. “The living may not disturb the dead. The living may only take from the city what they brought in with them. And the living may not consume any food or drink that they find within the bounds of the Necropolis.”
“Do you accuse me, sir,” Lady Emily began in high dudgeon, “of some theft of your property?”
“No, my lady.” Tristan’s eyes had not left Will’s. “I do not accuse, I merely warn. Those who have eaten within the city would be ill-advised to leave it…”
“But you have served us food every day and night!” Will burst out. It seemed as if all the warmth he had seen in Tristan had leached away; the man who looked at him now was as cold as the winter that still gripped the land. “We have eaten and drunk as you watched us–”
“The food was brought from outside the Necropolis, as are all provisions consumed by my servants and guests.”
“What is this?” demanded Lady Emily, but there was a note of fear in her voice now. “Say what you mean, or say nothing!”
“Your son has broken the laws.” Tristan’s voice was like slabs of lead falling against one another, heavy and implacable. “I am truly sorry, but I cannot permit him to leave.”
Lady Emily turned to Will with such a mix of horror and fury on her face that Will took a step back. He wanted to explain – wanted to plead – wanted to shout that he had not known these laws, that she had buried them in endless recitations of etiquette, that she had not warned him. But he could not make his voice work; it stuck in his throat like gall.
His mother swung back towards Tristan, and she seemed to blaze like a fire unbanked.
“Your laws have no power over us!” she said. “My mother was a king’s daughter and I am a king’s cousin. You have no right to keep us, and we will be leaving now.”
Tristan’s face tightened, and Will wondered, then, if he could lock and bar the doors, if the gates would not open for them, if they were prisoners in the lonely keep and if through his folly they were trapped in this nightmare by the man who now seemed as distant as the moon…
But he bowed his head, and said simply, “You are a king’s cousin and mine, and I shall not keep you by force.”
Then he looked up, directly at Will for the last time.
“You may return here,” he said. “Without invitation, and without forewarning. If you come to my gates, you will be welcome–”
“You will never see either of us at your gates again!” snarled Lady Emily. She seized Will’s arm and all but dragged him towards the door. “I will not thank you for your hospitality, when it comes at so diabolical a cost.”
Tristan did not move to follow them, nor summon the servants, but the coldness Will felt in his heart and limbs had little to do with the outside air, and everything to do with the faintest of whispers that he heard as they hurried down the steps.
They travelled in silence, Will angry and frightened, resentful and ashamed. He had expected a tirade from his mother, but she sat with her lips pursed tightly and her hands clenched in her lap.
“I told you to eat nothing that was not offered,” was the only thing she said, as the carriage rumbled over the bridge and past the white marker post.
“It was only a handful of grapes,” Will whispered, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the cushions. Then he jerked upright as outside, someone screamed. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
Lady Emily seemed about to launch into a scolding, but she looked at Will’s face, and all at once her grim countenance crumbled. She moved to sit beside him and took him in her arms with a tenderness he rarely saw from her.
“Oh, my child,” she whispered. “The Necropolis can drive a man mad, they say. Perhaps it has begun early with him.”
“I broke the laws,” Will replied dully. “What else could he do?”
“The laws are madness themselves.” Lady Emily’s voice regained its composure. “Only the mad would seek to enforce them.”
Will tried to take comfort from her certainty, but just then he heard another scream, this one ragged and gasping. It was the scream of the dying, of lungs that would never draw another breath. He flinched in his mother’s arms, and knew from her frown that she had not heard it.
“You were always a sensitive child,” said Lady Emily, absently petting his hair. “I should not have taken you there.”
The scream came again, followed by a babbling so hysterical that it stirred panic in the depths of Will’s stomach. He turned his head and buried his face in his mother’s shoulder as though he were a child again in truth. Surely the voices would stop when they were away from the Necropolis.
The voices did not stop.
If anything, they gained in strength, even after Will was safe in his own rooms in Enna. He tried to block his ears, but he could still hear them. They were always terrible voices, full of pain, or rage, or insanity. He walked through the grounds and heard crying beneath the snow; he sat at dinner and heard whispering in the walls; he lay in his bed at night and heard a high, mad laughter at his window and the faint scratchings something that was not a rat in the attic above his head.
Winter drew on, and now Will heard children crying out for their parents in the library and the mumblings of old men behind the panelling in his study. He could not sleep, and grew pale and drawn, and his appetite dwindled to nothing, so that he became weak and sickened.
His mother sent for doctors, who could find no disease. She tried to send him to the sea for a rest cure, but barely a mile down the road Will had to beg the coachmen to take him back. If the voices in the old house at Enna had been bad, those along the road were worse – they screamed until their invisible throats were raw, and there was the horror of murder in their cries.
Will found there were places where the voices were less easy to hear – a corner of one hallway, a spot in the gardens – and took to huddling there, inert, and listening to the servants whisper about the madness that he had brought back from the Necropolis.
Lady Emily wrote to those she knew in the king’s court, begging for aid, and as the first hints of spring began to touch the frozen earth, she set out to speak with the king’s own doctors. She would have taken Will with her, but he refused to go.
“It will drive me mad,” he said, and heard the wildness in his own voice. “I can’t go on the road! I can’t listen to them all the way there! And who knows what others there’ll be in the king’s court? I dare not leave!”
The way she looked at him then pierced him like a blade; his own mother thought him already mad, though she said nothing of it.
So Lady Emily drove out of Enna one clouded morning, and Will watched her from a high window, and wondered if she would return with a tonic or a straitjacket.
Four days after her departure, a black coach pulled by black horses drew up in front of the great house, and Tristan of Aver requested audience with William of Enna.
Will was in the garden when the message was brought to him. This spot under the climbing roses was one of the quieter ones. He could hear whispers and words, but they were fainter here.
He was not exactly dozing – it was still too cold for that – but he had sunk into such a lethargy that at first he blinked stupidly at the servant who tried to speak to him.
“Yes, very well, send him here,” he said at last.
Tristan looked out of place in the green gardens of Enna, and when he sat beside Will on the bench, it was as gingerly as if he feared to break it. Or, perhaps, as if he feared to break Will.
“I’m sorry,” Tristan said. “I would have come sooner, but I did not think your mother would let me in. And I was not quite sure, I thought perhaps I had mistaken. But then I heard news of you, that you…”
“That I am going mad?” rasped Will, covering his face with his hands.
“You are not mad.” Tristan’s hand came to rest lightly on Will’s back. He spoke so certainly that Will raised his head, blinking at him in confusion. “What do you hear, right now?”
“Crying,” Will whispered, instinctively moving his hands towards his ears before remembering that it was useless. “Cutting in and out like someone is opening and shutting a door. Words that I can’t make out, awful words. A high scream behind it all.”
He glanced at Tristan, but Tristan had turned his head and was looking at a far corner of the garden. Will followed his gaze. There was nothing there, only the sun-dappled stone of the north wing of the house, and the circle of brickwork that had once held a statue before his mother had had it moved.
“She is not very old,” Tristan said at length. “Maybe eight years. I think she is a servant’s daughter, not one of your family.”
Will stared at him, wide-eyed, feeling as if Tristan must have gone mad himself. Tristan glanced briefly at him.
“You can’t see her, can you? You are only hearing echoes.”
“What is she doing?”
“She is not doing anything.” Tristan looked again at the corner of the garden. “She flickers from one frozen glimpse to another, like a zoetrope with a guttering candle. She was not buried, you see. She has been given no rest. Do you understand now what burden is bestowed by the fruit of the Necropolis?”
Will found he was looking at the silent corner, studying it intently as though it would reveal whatever Tristan saw. The horrible sobbing came again and he shuddered, curling in on himself.
“Please make it stop,” he begged, hearing his own voice crack and not even caring. “Please.”
“I can’t.” Tristan moved his hand once up and down Will’s back, a gesture of helpless comfort. “If I could, I would have done it already, I swear. But I cannot take back the… gift that has been given.”
The way he said ‘gift’ made it sound like ‘curse’.
“I will go mad, then,” Will whispered, fighting back tears of despair. “I can’t… I can’t…”
“Listen to me.” Tristan turned him, caught his shoulders with both hands and met his eyes squarely. “Do you remember I told you, on your first night in the Necropolis, that the Keep is only for the living?”
“It is silent there,” Tristan said softly. “Eternally silent for those who hear the voices of the dead. In time, you may learn, as I have, to look away, to deafen yourself for a time so that you may journey abroad in the world of the living.”
“You are trapped there, then,” said Will. “No chains or locks or rules, but every time you leave, you hear…”
“Their voices,” Tristan finished for him. “The traces of the dead who have not passed my gates. Yes.”
“But in the Keep, you can’t hear them?”
“No.” Tristan seemed to hesitate, to steel himself, even, before going on. “I can take you back with me, if you so choose.”
Looking back later, Will thought he should have given it more consideration, weighed up such a potent offer and all it meant – but he was exhausted, and sick at heart, and so afraid. His mind was made up before Tristan had finished speaking.
“I will go anywhere with you if you will promise me silence.”
“Then we should go.” Will stood up, and though he felt weak and wasted still, hope was kindling slowly in his heart and it was enough to give him a little strength. “Before my mother returns and has you thrown from the estate.”
The journey seemed to take much longer this time than when he had ridden with Lady Emily in midwinter, and every yard of the way was a nightmare. Could so many people have died along the road, that every few minutes Will was assaulted by another shuddering cry or the mad whispering of the damned?
It had not taken long to make his preparations. He’d had his manservant pack his case, and dedicated most of his time to writing his mother a letter that would hopefully forestall her immediate fury. He wasted several sheets of paper trying to explain why the Keep was the only refuge left to him, but his mother did not believe in ghosts, and in the end he had to resort to platitudes and empty phrases: I believe Tristan can help and It’s better that I go before I am so crazed that you must commit me.
Tristan’s black coach was beautiful inside and out, a warm haven of cushions and furs pulled by black horses who trotted so smoothly they might as well have walked on air. Will barely registered more than the relief that they were finally away.
He closed his eyes and tried to rest, but the voices of the dead would not let him be. As the coach rumbled over a low bridge, a particularly awful cacophony struck him, and he let slip a gasp that was almost a whimper.
He heard Tristan move to sit beside him, then say, “Come here.”
Will opened his eyes to see that Tristan had pulled one of the cushions onto his knee. He gently tugged Will towards him, guiding him until he lay curled on his side with his head in Tristan’s lap.
Then Tristan laid his hand over the ear that was not pressed into the cushion, and all at once there was silence.
Not real silence: Will could still hear the rumbling of the coach and the clatter of the horses’ hooves. But the unearthly voices fell away like a bad dream with the dawn. Will made a noise of amazement, and felt a tremor go through Tristan that was probably a laugh.
“Get some rest,” he said, just audible. “I’ll watch over you.”
Will reached up, found Tristan’s free hand, and squeezed it tightly. “Thank you.”
Tristan’s fingers laced with his for a moment, then he tugged his hand free and pulled one of the blankets over Will. Will shifted back against the seat and meant to say something more – to thank Tristan again, perhaps, or to ask him about this curse – but all at once the weeks of sleeplessness seemed to rush at him like a fog, and he fell into slumber so gratefully that he could have wept.
The Necropolis was even bleaker, somehow, without the snow. At least when it had been covered with the white blanket of winter, it had been possible to imagine that spring would herald new growth and life among the tombs, but now it was all too apparent how little grew within the empty city. There were stretches of rough grass, and the solitary yew and poplar trees were scattered here and there, but there was not even a hint of colour or fresh green.
To begin with, Will only caught glimpses of it from the windows; he did not leave the Keep for almost a full month after his arrival. Tristan had spoken the truth. Within the walls of the house there was only silence, and Will had never been so grateful to be alone in his life. Tristan gave him permission to go wherever he liked, including the library, and Will spent his first weeks reading curled up in a chair, or exploring the sprawl of the Keep by himself.
But he was gregarious by nature, and soon his own company began to bore him. Tristan had kept a courteous distance; they dined together in the evenings, but otherwise he did not seek Will out. Sometimes their paths crossed when Tristan came to the library for something or Will wandered into whatever part of the house he was in. After a while, Will began working on making that happen more often.
“What do you do out there?” he asked one day as he happened upon Tristan removing his outdoor coat, obviously fresh from a walk through the Necropolis. “Do you help them, um… with the coffins?”
“No – the undertakers would resent the intrusion.” Tristan rubbed his hands absently together to bring warmth into them. The cold had flushed his cheeks and his hair was wind-ruffled. “They are highly skilled in their craft – they need no direction from me. The dead are not lawfully my province until they have been laid to rest and the undertakers have driven away.”
“So why do you go out there?” Will glanced outside; the sky was low with clouds and it was threatening more of the icy rain that had been spattering the windows in the last few days. “It’s hardly weather for walking.”
“To… to the dead?” Will shuddered. “I don’t know how you can bear it.”
“Those who lie in the Necropolis are not like the ones you heard outside,” Tristan said. He began to walk down the corridor, gesturing Will to follow him. “They have had the proper rites, and their souls passed on peacefully. Most are just echoes, like a portrait drawn in the air. They do not see or hear me. Some have lingered, for one reason or another, and they appreciate company.”
Will stopped walking abruptly.
“Company? You mean you… talk to them?”
“Of course.” Tristan paused by the door that Will realised led to the music room. There were only a handful of locked doors in the Keep; so far he had not felt the need to inquire as to what the others hid. “Do you not recall the other title of the Warden of the Necropolis?”
Will shook his head, perturbed.
“I am also called the Herald of the Dead,” said Tristan, mouth quirking in something like a smile. “I watch over their spirits as much as their tombs. I bring them news of the world of the living, if they desire it. Not all do.”
He unlocked the door and swung it open. Even as Will was wondering if he would be welcome to follow, Tristan turned back to look at him uncertainly.
“If you are not otherwise engaged…” he began, and the hesitant way he trailed off made Will realise, all at once, that the distance he had kept these past weeks had been for Will’s benefit, not his own. “Perhaps you would…?”
“Oh, yes,” said Will, far too eagerly. He blushed. “I mean, I’d be delighted.”
Lady Emily finally put in an appearance after Will had been in the Keep long enough that spring would be turning the outside world green. He had written her several letters since his arrival, but had received no reply. Remembering the way she had looked at him that last time before she had left, Will wondered dismally if she were simply relieved to be rid of him.
Tristan sought him out one morning not long after they had parted ways. They had begun to take breakfast together of late, and Will was wondering if it would be out of the question to suggest that they shared luncheon as well. He found himself missing Tristan’s company more and more often, and so he looked up with a smile when he heard the door of the library open.
“Your mother is at the gates,” Tristan said with no preamble. Will felt his smile falter. “She apparently has a number of things to say, none of them in my favour, and demands your immediate return.”
Will stared down at the book in his lap, no longer focusing on the words. There was a part of him, which had been hurting with a child’s pain, that gave a glad sigh to know that she at least had not disowned him. The rest of him winced at the thought of the almighty row that now lay in his immediate future.
“Would you like me to turn her away?” Tristan asked, and Will blinked at him, startled. “If you would rather not see her… or she is welcome as my guest,” he went on quickly, obviously taking Will’s silence for offence, “as long as you would like her to stay.”
After a moment, Will found his voice.
“I had better speak to her.”
He laid the book on the table and got to his feet. When he reached Tristan’s side, he paused to look up at him, hoping his eyes conveyed what he dare not say aloud.
“Shall I come with you?” Tristan asked softly, answering the question.
“Yes,” murmured Will, and it seemed natural to briefly take Tristan’s hand and squeeze it in thanks.
It was the first time Will had left the Keep since his arrival. He felt brittle and uncertain as he stepped outside, braced for the assault of the broken voices. Even as Tristan ushered him into the carriage that stood waiting, he was straining to catch the first whispers of madness.
As they drove away from the house, he did begin to hear something, but it was not the painful pleading he had anticipated. Instead, it was more like the murmur and hum of many people talking, both distant and nearby; it was the sound of a busy city heard through an open carriage window.
“Yes.” Tristan glanced out of the window and then cast a careful glance at Will. “You can’t see them, but they’re lining the road to watch us go.”
Will turned quickly to look, but he could see nothing, only the wall and the tombs beyond. He squinted until his eyes watered and still saw nothing. But he could hear them – now that Tristan had put words to it, he could hear voices conversing in the manner of spectators at a fair.
“They’re curious. They want to see you.”
At Will’s wide-eyed, questioning glance, Tristan smiled like he couldn’t help himself.
“It has been a long time since anyone but the Warden lived here,” he said. “And I… may have mentioned you, from time to time.”
“… you’ve been talking about me with dead people?”
A light flush rose to Tristan’s cheeks and he nodded. Will had to fight to keep from breaking into a delighted grin. He managed to tame it into a smile.
“I think I’m rather flattered,” he said, and had the pleasure of seeing Tristan blush a second time.
“We’re almost at the gate.”
Will sighed, and wondered just how bad this was going to be.
“Can you make her understand?” he asked forlornly.
“I can try,” Tristan replied.
Lady Emily did not understand. Lady Emily did not want to understand. She had come to rescue her only son – the word kidnap was used frequently and inaccurately – and she was backed by a company of the king’s guard.
When Will finally made it clear that he remained by his own choice – when he told her plainly that he would not be returning with her – she turned on him in a fury, calling him traitor to his father’s name and ungrateful for his mother’s loyalty. She might have gone on for hours, but Tristan cut her off with calm authority, and for the first time Will saw that he truly bore power, though he seldom wielded it. The Warden of the Necropolis told the soldiers that Will was his guest and free to come and go as he pleased; he invited the captain to come up to the house if he wished to speak of the matter further. He advised the Lady Emily that she was welcome to stay as long as it took to calm her fears, but that he would not suffer her to abuse his guest and friend.
“You will not take me through those gates again until I am cold and dead,” snapped Lady Emily, mouth drawn into a tight line. “And not even then if I have my will!”
“Don’t say such things, mother,” Will said, thinking of the shrill voices of the unhallowed dead. “I am happy enough here – and I shall visit as soon as I can.”
“Happy?” The word was shrill and bitter. “Happy amidst the tombs?” She rounded on Tristan, eyes hard as flint. “Now you have my husband and all of my children in your keeping. Are you content?”
“I would that it could be otherwise, my lady,” Tristan replied very quietly.
“Mother…” Will began, but she slammed the door of her carriage and struck the wall to spur the coachman on.
On the way back to the Keep, neither of them spoke, until Tristan laid a hand on Will’s arm and said, “You truly will be able to visit, when you have learned control. I will teach you – we can begin as soon as you like.”
Learning control, Will quickly realised, meant spending more time out in the Necropolis, but now that he had taken the first step outside the shrouding silence of the Keep, he found it held less dread for him.
Tristan took him first to the quieter spots, old tombs where few of the dead still lingered. Echoes faded eventually, Tristan explained, and even those spirits who remained fully aware on the face of the Earth often passed on after a time. So Will often found himself speaking to a presence he could not see, and listening in return to snatches of a life long over, told by one who could not quite let it go. Many of them, he discovered, did not realise that they were dead, and Tristan told him that some even walked about as though they were in their own houses, performing their daily chores.
“Does it not drag your spirits down?” Will asked as they were walking back to the Keep one day. “So many of them are so dreary and sad. That woman waiting for her lover – surely his bones are long gone to dust outside the Necropolis!”
“Sometimes it does grow wearisome,” Tristan admitted. “But that is the Warden’s duty, you understand – to watch over the dead – to listen, to remember. Some ghosts only linger after death because they bear a secret or a sorrow they were never able to tell. The Warden listens, and records, so that they may pass on in peace. But for those who have nursed some hope or fear into obsession, there is often little I can do. So I keep them company, as I do all the rest, and hope that a lost lover may one day be brought to rest in the Necropolis, or an unknown wrong be avenged.”
“Is that what you write in the ledgers?”
Tristan nodded. Will thought of the walls and walls of leather-bound books, each filled with the handwriting of the previous Wardens, recounting insignificant details of a hundred thousand lives. Where was the comfort, he thought, in telling such a secret, only to have it written in a book that was never opened? But that book had been written by the hand of one living, and he thought perhaps it would not have mattered if Tristan had never written a word.
“And the… echoes?” Will had not yet seen any of these apparitions that were not true ghosts. “Do they have secrets, too?”
“Oh, many, but it does not matter whether I am there to hear them. Still, I listen as I pass by, until they fade.”
“Do they always fade?”
“Yes. A year, maybe two… I have never seen one that lasted longer.”
They were passing a tomb that struck Will as familiar; he paused to study it. He realised that it was the strange construction with the lightning rod that Tristan had pointed out when he had taken them into the Necropolis back in the winter. That in turn led his thoughts in a new direction, on which he had not until then contemplated.
Tristan stopped walking and turned inquiringly, and Will almost threw aside his question, unsure if he wanted to know. But he felt compelled to ask anyway.
“Is my father…”
He trailed off. Tristan did not seem surprised by the question: perhaps he had known that Will must ask sooner or later.
“He has not lingered.” Before Will could decide whether he was relieved or disappointed, Tristan went on, “But there is an echo of him, or was when I visited his tomb with you and your mother.”
“Can I see? Or… listen, I suppose.”
“I will not stop you, but…” Tristan came back to Will’s side. “You may find it upsetting.”
“He was always the one who took me for what I was,” Will murmured after a moment. “My mother had so many things she wanted me to be… but Father was content with my choices. I would like to hear his voice one last time.”
Without the snow to soften it, the great crypt of the lords of Enna looked a bare and blank edifice of stone. Will wished there were bushes around its walls, or climbing plants to bring some colour to the grey structure. Tristan opened the double doors to reveal the steps leading down into darkness.
“We didn’t bring a lantern,” Will realised.
Tristan smiled. “That won’t be a problem.”
He stepped into the doorway and, with a swift, sure motion, raise one hand and snapped his fingers smartly. The lamps set into the wall niches sprang to life. Will stared in shock, even as Tristan turned to see his reaction.
“How… why didn’t you do that the first time we came here?”
“It has a tendency to unsettle people,” Tristan replied, shrugging. “I thought your mother might leave on the spot.”
“What else can you do?”
“A number of minor tricks.” Tristan moved to the top of the steps and beckoned Will to follow him. “Only in the Necropolis. The city will obey me in small ways, and so will the spirits.”
The lamps seemed to have lit themselves all through the crypt. As they walked through the antechamber and the first two rooms, Will strained his ears for any whispers from these most ancient ancestors, but Tristan assured him that the place was truly empty.
As they approached the chamber where Will’s father lay, he realised he could hear a faint singing. His heart hammered uncontrollably; it was his father’s voice, and the tune was one he had hummed in the evenings by the fire, an old hunting lay. It was one of the first songs Will had learned. All at once he wasn’t sure he wanted to go on.
Tristan seemed to know his thoughts, because he paused and said, “We can go back.”
“No.” Will steeled himself and brushed past his guide, walking determinedly to the next door. “I want to go in.”
The room looked much as it had when Will had first seen it. The wreath they had left on the coffin had dried to wisps of brown; the leaves had fallen to the floor, where they lay scattered in the windless space.
His father’s voice trailed off on the last notes, and Will heard him clearly say, “A fine day for it – a fine day indeed!”
Tristan came up behind him, warm at his back, and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“He is standing over by the far wall,” Tristan said. “He walks about as though he were in his study. He checks his watch, and looks out of a window that is not there, and talks of riding through the woods with his brothers.”
“What’s that?” came the ghost’s voice, clear and vibrant, though distant as though heard through a door. “No, no, not the bay, I want the brown stallion this morning. He’s always feisty on a day like this!”
Will heard the choked sound that came from his own throat, and Tristan’s hand tightened on his shoulder.
“What is it?”
“That was the horse that threw him,” Will managed, feeling grief well up as sharply as if it were brand new. “He was never properly broken, but Father loved wrestling with him…”
“And tell my wife I shan’t be needing dinner!” his father’s voice went on, unaware of the irony of his words.
Will turned abruptly, fleeing past Tristan towards the open air.
Outside the crypt, the sunlight seemed too bright, the air too crisp, and Will would have given anything for the soft shade of trees overhead and his father calling him to walk in the grounds. He dashed angrily at the tears trickling down his cheeks.
He heard Tristan shutting the door. A moment later he felt an arm about his shoulders, and Tristan said, “I’m sorry, I should not have taken you. Let’s go back.”
“I asked you to,” Will reminded him, though he made no attempt to move away from Tristan’s embrace. “At… at least it’s a happy memory, I suppose. He doesn’t know what’s coming.”
“Do not forget that it is not your father you heard,” Tristan said. “Only a kind of portrait.”
Will turned abruptly and flung his arms around Tristan. He had come to find the Necropolis less terrible than he had feared; he had come to treasure Tristan’s company; he had found the beginnings of contentment in his exile; yet at that moment he felt keenly that he was doomed forever to wander among these shades of ended lives. After a moment of startled stillness, Tristan returned the embrace, wrapping his arms as tightly around Will as Will clung to him.
“I wish that things would grow here,” Will whispered against Tristan’s collar. “I wish there were flowers and plants. I wish it was not all so bare.”
“There is no reason why they shouldn’t,” said Tristan into his hair.
Will drew back far enough to look up at him, surprised.
“What do you mean? I thought nothing much could grow in the Necropolis.”
“Nothing grows here because nothing has ever been planted,” Tristan replied. He loosened his grasp on Will and stepped back. “I am not a gardener and neither have been any of my predecessors, but the soil here is as good as anywhere…”
“Then I could… could I have a garden? Even just a small patch…”
“You may grow anything you like, anywhere you like.” Tristan flung out a hand to indicate the Necropolis. “You may cover the whole city with green if you wish. Just instruct the servants to bring you anything you need from the town – anything at all.”
Idiotically, Will felt tears start in his eyes again. There was only one solution to that; he flung himself back into Tristan’s arms and whispered, “Thank you.”
This time, when Tristan held him, Will closed his eyes and thought of summer.
The first lists he drew up were so long that Will had to put them aside; even if the servants brought him everything he desired, he would never be able to plant it all before the end of the season. He debated between favourite plants and those that would grow well, between bushes, trees, and borders, between perennials and blooms that would give back for one year only. The sensible thing would be to establish some hardy, long-lasting plants and see how they did, before experimenting with annual displays.
Will gave the sensible thing a full ten minutes’ consideration before discarding it. He would show Tristan how beautiful this place could be – and maybe it would bring some joy to the spirits who dwelt here, as well.
He started with the gardens – such as they were – of the Keep itself. Now that he was looking, he could see that there had once been beds here. He unearthed the stumps of rose bushes, and found that the soil was good and deep, with enough stones for drainage but not so many that it would be hard to dig.
“If you like, I could send for gardeners to do the digging,” Tristan offered, the third time Will traipsed in exhausted and covered in mud.
“Don’t you dare,” Will replied with such ferocity that Tristan actually took a step back, alarmed. “I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun.”
“If you say so.” Tristan cast a doubtful glance at the blisters on Will’s hands, and shook his head. “I’ll bring you something to put on those.”
The last of Will’s strength returned to him as he dug; the blisters healed and became callouses that would have horrified his mother, and he learned the best way to turn the soil so he did not exhaust himself too soon. After the initial excitement wore down somewhat, he accepted Tristan’s offer to bring in a couple of gardeners; there was a lot of ground to cover and he could hardly prepare it all himself.
It would be sensible to devote his energy entirely to the Keep’s garden before moving out into the Necropolis in later seasons, but Will could not forget the bare walls of his family’s crypt and the echo of his father far from the green woods he had loved. He had young rose creepers ordered from the south, and dug them in at the foot of the walls himself. Every day he went back to guide the new shoots into cracks in the stone.
Far from what he had expected, everything grew fast and furiously in the soil of the Necropolis. Before he knew it, there was a tracery of green over the tomb, and the gardens began to look positively vibrant.
He saw even more of Tristan now: their paths crossed often as Will trekked from one likely spot to another, and Tristan made his dutiful rounds of the souls that were in his charge. Tristan often seemed bemused by Will’s dishevelled appearance and enthusiasm for hard work, but he smiled now whenever he saw Will, and his smiles were full of warmth.
Sometimes Will even managed to watch him without being seen himself, and he at last began to understand what the Warden was to the Necropolis. Tristan walked among the dead with sympathy, but not pity; with compassion, but not sentimentality; with patience, but not detachment. He spoke with those spirits who were whole enough to see and understand him, but most often he listened, with all his attention, to those whose voices could no longer be heard by any others.
At first Will had been nervous of encountering ghosts without Tristan by his side, but as spring drew on into the beginning of summer, he found that listening was not so very hard after all. Some of the spirits even talked with him about his planting; others would ask after the world outside, or speak of their Warden.
It did not take long for Will to realise that these shades did not just appreciate Tristan’s company; they loved him. Some spoke with equal fondness of the Wardens past. Will had been taught all his life that the Warden of the Necropolis was an unlucky man, imprisoned in his Keep, and that he was chosen for his solitary nature and cold heart. He was beginning to see that the opposite was true. The Warden could only be a man of the deepest compassion and with a warmth of affection that could touch even the lonely dead.
How could they do other than love him? Will thought, and his heart jumped in his chest whenever Tristan looked up at the sound of his step, and smiled in the way that was only for him.
“I was wondering if today I might accompany you,” Tristan said one morning as Will was about to take his leave from breakfast.
Was it his imagination, or did Tristan blush?
“I should like to see what you are doing,” he said. “You dig and plant and walk about with such enthusiasm. I’ve never had much interest in growing things, but I… I should like to see what you find so enthralling.”
Will couldn’t contain his smile.
“I would love to show you,” he said. “And it’s the perfect day for it.”
It was a perfect day. The sun was high and the sky was blue, but there was a breeze that kept everything cool enough to work. Will led Tristan from one growing bed to another, talking of shade and water and soil drainage, of the arrangement of growth so that one did not crowd out another and so that beds were not left bare out of season. Tristan listened with the same grave attention he gave the dead in his care, but he smiled whenever Will did, and laughed when Will told him ridiculous stories about his childhood in the grounds of Enna.
“Here,” said Will at length, deciding that now was as good a time as any to reveal his secret. “Let me show you something.”
Tristan followed him down one of the oldest roads in the Necropolis, past tombs that had begun to crumble, right out to the boundary wall and long, shallow dell that lay by it. You couldn’t see into the dell from a distance; Will had found it by accident. He glanced sidelong at Tristan, seeing the faint frown of puzzlement on his face, and suppressed a smile.
“Almost there,” he said, when Tristan would have asked a question.
He hung back a step as they crested the small rise that heralded the dip, so he could watch Tristan’s reaction. Tristan stopped in his tracks.
“How did you…?”
Will came to his side and looked down at the sea of tossing red below them.
“I didn’t plant them,” he said. “They were already here. There’s an old legend that the seeds ride on the winds until they find places that are as bare and bleak as any, and that’s where they choose to fall.”
Laughing at Tristan’s amazed expression, Will took his hand and drew him down into the field of poppies.
“This has always been here?” Tristan asked, wondering.
“Not always, but for a long time, for there to be so many. When the seed heads dry, I’ll collect them and scatter them around. They’ll spring up everywhere.”
“I should like that,” murmured Tristan, trailing a hand through the silky red petals that bobbed at waist height. Then, “I’m sure I once heard that breathing the scent of poppy would show you the truth of a man’s nature in his eyes.”
“Oh? I didn’t know that.” Will turned to him, smiling. “What do you see in my eyes, then?”
He meant it only in jest, but Tristan looked at him in such a way that the laughter went out of him, replaced with a breathless warmth that seized his heart.
After long seconds that seemed to last hours, Tristan said softly, “Summer.”
Will bit his lip and took a half step closer. Tristan did not pull away when Will reached up to brush his cheek with tentative fingers.
“In you I see light,” he whispered. “How could anyone miss it?”
And it was so easy, then, for Will to go up on his toes and draw Tristan down, and to kiss his (warm, so warm) mouth as he had been longing to do.
There had been just the tiniest fear, in the back of Will’s mind, that Tristan would not kiss him back, but he need not have worried. Tristan grabbed at his shirt and pulled him into an embrace so eager that Will lost his balance and fell against him, laughing. He felt Tristan smile against his cheek, and then their mouths found one another again and laughter was replaced with snatched breaths and whispered half-words as they found the way they fit together.
Tristan teased his mouth open and when he sucked gently on Will’s tongue, Will felt as though he would come apart if he could not touch more of Tristan’s skin right now. He fumbled with Tristan’s shirt and dragged him down until they were both sprawled on the ground, poppies waving over their heads and the earth warm beneath Will’s back.
For the first time Tristan seemed to hesitate, looking down at Will with a vulnerability in his eyes that made Will want to kiss him until it went away. There seemed no good reason not to. He drew Tristan down into his arms and groaned softly at the feeling of their bodies pressed together.
“Will.” Tristan was kissing him over and over, but Will could feel that hesitation gaining strength. “Wait, I must…”
“Why wait any longer?” Will murmured back, brushing the words across Tristan’s cheek and nuzzling into his neck. He nibbled playfully on one ear and had the pleasure of hearing Tristan moan in response. “I’ve wanted this since midwinter.”
“Oh yes.” Will arched under Tristan just enough to let him feel how hard he was – how hard they both were, he noted happily. “I think from the day you showed me the harp. But I only lately knew I loved you.”
He knew at once that it had been the wrong thing to say, though he could not fathom why – he was sure now that his feelings were returned and it had never been in his nature to hold back where his heart was concerned. But Tristan had gone still above him, and though Will could feel the urgency still thrumming through his body, he pulled free of Will’s embrace and looked down at him with such misery that Will’s heart skipped in an entirely different way.
“What? What is it?”
“There… is something I need to show you.”
Confused and frustrated – and suddenly cold, now that Tristan’s warmth was not sheltering him from the cool of evening – Will took the offered hand and allowed himself to be pulled unsteadily to his feet. He tried to fold himself back into Tristan’s arms, already missing his touch, but Tristan would not let him.
“Please,” Tristan said. “Come with me.”
Tristan led him to a part of the Necropolis that Will had seldom visited. It was one of the few places where a number of trees grew together, ancient yews with deep, dark shade beneath their spreading boughs, and nothing but bare earth at their feet.
There was a well there, with a stone cap that had been chained shut. Will had glimpsed it briefly, but never gone close enough to examine it further. He saw now that a bucket and rope were tucked into its shadow, looking as though they had lain untouched for many years.
Tristan stopped by the well and stared at it as though it hurt him. Then he turned to Will with resolution in his face, and Will was afraid of what he was going to say.
“At the bottom of this well runs a spring,” Tristan said very quietly. “I do not know where it begins or where it goes, but its water is always icy and I do not think it ever reaches daylight.”
“Tristan.” Will could hear the pleading in his own voice. “Can’t we just…”
“The waters of the spring bring forgetfulness.” Tristan spoke over Will as though he had not heard him. “Even just a few drops can rob a man of all he knows and all he is. All he is.” Tristan looked at him then, face as closed as though a door had shut. “Even the… laws he may have broken.”
In the silence, Will heard the murmur of distant voices – the restless citizens of the Necropolis – and the understanding of what Tristan meant spread through him like winter cold, numbing the heart and soul that had so recently burned with passion.
“How long have you known?”
His voice was barely more than a whisper. For a moment Tristan’s mask of indifference cracked and he took an involuntary step forward.
“Not long, I swear!” His fists clenched tightly and he looked away from Will’s accusing gaze. “I have never had occasion to open the well. It only occurred to me after your mother’s visit. And then I said nothing, because I was not sure…”
“And now you are sure?”
“Yes,” Tristan said wretchedly. “I am sure.”
“But I… I wouldn’t remember anything? Anything at all?”
“There is a book in the library that writes of potions made with the well water.” The words were dull, mechanical, as if Tristan had to force them out. “It is possible to weaken its power somewhat, though too much would prevent its efficacy in the area that… concerns us. You would forget only your time in the Necropolis. And you would no longer hear the voices of the dead.”
In the silence that followed, the hum and rise of those very voices came to Will again as if carried by the breeze, though there was no stirring of air around them. It was so cold in the shade of the yews, so dim and empty of life, and the sun was lowering now in the sky, and he felt as though he might weep, though he could not have said exactly why.
“I would forget you,” Will said at last.
Tristan nodded, turning away from him with a decisiveness that hurt Will somewhere close by his heart.
“I could not keep you here under false pretences,” Tristan said. “The choice is yours, and I shall not bear you any grudge, whatever you decide. Nor… nor must you choose now. You may think as long as you like. I shall draw the water, and whenever you are ready, I can concoct the potion.”
He drew his keys from his belt and selected one Will had never seen used, a heavy iron thing with a haft that bore the same ornamentation as the lock on the well.
“You think that would be my choice?” Will was amazed that his voice was so quiet; in his head and heart the words had been a shout. “You think I would drown you from my mind and leave?”
“I cannot ask you to…”
“Idiot!” Will flew across the space between them. Tristan turned just in time to catch him, eyes wide and startled. “You have never had to ask.”
This time when they kissed, Will almost forgot to breathe – but then, Tristan was holding him so tightly that he could scarcely have drawn breath into his lungs anyway.
Will had not had occasion to enter Tristan’s chambers before, though he knew where they were – one flight of stairs up from his own. He had been wondering for some time if it would seem strange to suggest that he moved into rooms adjoining Tristan’s: the longer he lived in the Keep, the more he felt the distance between them as he drifted off to sleep.
Under other circumstances he might have been curious, taken some time to explore, but right now all he could think of was getting to the bed as fast as his shaking legs would carry him.
It was difficult when Tristan seemed intent on pushing him up against the wall the second they got through the door, especially since Will had little desire to stop him.
“Bed,” he managed to get out through kiss-swollen lips, even as he worked on Tristan’s buttons. “We should…”
“Yes,” Tristan agreed, making no attempt to step back. He seemed to be fascinated by the hollow of Will’s throat, and the way Will moaned when he was kissed there. “Oh, what you do to me…”
“I haven’t – ah! – even started doing what I, I… what I want to… Tristan!”
Tristan had worked his way to the junction of neck and shoulder, and when he sucked none too gently on the skin there, Will writhed helplessly and forgot how to speak. Abandoning the buttons, he slid his hand down far enough to cup Tristan’s hardness and give it a firm rub with the heel of his hand. Tristan gasped and a shudder went through him.
“Bed,” Will said more firmly than his shallow breathing warranted. “Now.”
He was never sure how they got across the room, or whether they actually fell onto the bed, but with Tristan pinning him to the mattress and the wretched shirt finally undone, he didn’t care if they had flown. Tristan was even paler beneath his clothes, but his skin was hot when Will trailed kisses down his chest and paused to suck blissfully on one nipple.
Something about the way Tristan reacted to that – a kind of surprise in his intake of breath – called for Will’s attention, but it was so hard to think when one of Tristan’s long legs had settled so deliciously between his own… Will felt his breathing go ragged and he bucked up eagerly, relishing the way Tristan ground down against him in return, both of them as hard as stone.
He didn’t want it to stop, but there was more that he wanted now, so he eased them apart just enough that he could work Tristan’s belt loose. Tristan shivered oddly under his touch as Will dipped his hand in, and when he wrapped his fingers boldly around Tristan’s cock, Tristan buried his face in Will’s shoulder and made a noise that was almost a keen.
“Will,” he groaned. “Oh, love…”
It was the way his voice shook that pulled Will out of the haze of desire long enough to finally think. He eased his grip and pressed a gentle kiss to Tristan’s temple.
“Have you ever…?”
“Of course not.” Tristan’s voice was rough and Will loved knowing it had been him that had cracked his poise. “I’ve lived all my adult life in the Necropolis. How could I?”
“It’s not hard,” Will promised, then laughed breathlessly as he gently squeezed Tristan’s cock. “Well, except…”
Tristan huffed a brief gust of laughter against Will’s skin, and whatever awkwardness might have been in the moment vanished.
There was so much Will wanted to do – so many ways he could bring Tristan pleasure – but he had reached that point where there was a heavy heat in his stomach that flickered little darts of urgency out through every nerve and fibre of his body. He reluctantly pulled his hand out of Tristan’s trousers so he could properly unbutton them, and when Tristan hesitated, Will took his hand and guided it to his own belt.
“We’ll need something. Oil, or…”
Tristan blinked, frowned, and glanced momentarily at the lamp. Will choked on a laugh that was embarrassingly close to a giggle.
“Definitely not.” Will lifted himself up so that Tristan could slide his trousers off his hips. He liked the way Tristan’s eyes were drawn at once to his cock, and the way his tongue darted out to lick his lips unconsciously. “I used to steal the oils my mother had her massages with. Stank of petunias, but…”
“Hmm.” Tristan reached for the drawer of the nightstand, and after a moment pulled out a jar of ointment that, when opened, smelled faintly of lily-of-the-valley and had clearly never been used. “Would this…?”
Will snatched it from him and dipped his fingers greedily into the smooth, slippery stuff. Tristan began to ask a question, but then Will was sliding slick fingers around his cock, and whatever the words had been, they were lost in a long moan.
“Come on,” Will whispered. “Like this.”
He pulled Tristan close so he could kiss him, guided his cock to where he needed it so badly he was beginning to ache. Tristan nudged forward instinctively, and Will heard a shameless, throaty moan escape his throat as he felt the first pressure and opened up willingly before it.
“Yes. Like that. Like… oh…”
“Will.” Tristan was so careful, pushing into him with a slowness that was excruciating and exquisite. “Like this?”
And then Tristan seemed to find the way of it, building from a gentle rocking to harder thrusts that sent bolts of sensation straight through that magic spot that made Will cry out and squeeze his eyes shut in ecstasy. He scrabbled at Tristan’s back, trying to get him impossibly closer, bucking his hips up in time with each thrust until Tristan groaned and began to move more urgently in him.
“Please, I need this, please!” Will heard the whine in his own voice, didn’t care. “Just… just a little more…”
Then Tristan was kissing him so hard that Will tasted blood, but it was what he needed, exactly what he needed, and without any warning at all his climax crashed over him in great waves of unbearable sensation. He didn’t know whether it was that that pushed Tristan over the edge, but even as he writhed and whimpered and left bruises on Tristan’s skin, he felt wet heat spilling inside him and heard Tristan gasp something that might have been his name.
Will could have lain there forever, with Tristan warm over him and inside him, blissfully content and absolutely certain he was where he belonged. As it was, it seemed a very long time before either of them moved, and when Tristan did withdraw, he seemed as reluctant as Will to break that connection between them.
“Are you sure?” he asked, brushing Will’s sweaty hair back from his eyes, and Will didn’t have to ask what he meant.
“I will cover your kingdom with flowers in bloom,” he promised drowsily, winding his arms about Tristan and pressing a slow, tender kiss to his mouth. “I’ll be summer to you until death do us part.”
Will paused, and laughed softly, and even as Tristan bent to kiss him, he spoke against those warm lips.
“Or maybe even beyond.”