So Sayeth Death

 

 

Not for the first time on his rounds that day, the priest paused at the second door.

Hardly a door, really--it was a cage's gate, iron bars from floor to ceiling of the small, square cranny in the rock. The floor within was gray with dust, the walls bare even of any icons, the only furniture a wooden bench, the only light that which seeped through a wormhole of a window in the thick walls. And the only living thing within was the boy, naked except for the ragged brown robe wrapped tightly around him, sitting utterly still on the bench, head bowed, eyes closed, bare toes curled on the cold stone floor.

It was not uncommon for young pilgrims to come here and ask to be locked in an ascetic's cell. But this boy was uncommon--no, unique. It had been twelve days since he had handed over his wand and robes and stepped inside the tiny room. Seven days since the priest, as was to be done with those who came to the ascetic's cells, had stopped leaving bread and cheese beside the clay jug of water when the bells rang for meals. Two since the jug had stood empty.

The priest could not rid himself of the fear that the boy was going to kill himself.

He had to admit that it was hardly fair to call him a boy. He was a grown man, yes, had been for at least one handful of years, perhaps two. But there had been a winsome handsomeness in his gait and face when he'd first came to the steps of the mountain temple; and now, that youthful beauty wiped by a week of hard fasting, there was a terrible vulnerability to that form hunched on the bench. He was, perhaps, one of those rare men blessed with grace far younger than his years, but that blessing did not sit well upon him.

He was not supposed to speak to him. He was not supposed to interrupt. And the boy had been sitting exactly there for days--the night watchmen had muttered amongst themselves about how he did not even seem to sleep--and showed no signs of wavering, so whatever meditation he'd found had to be terribly deep. But the priest swallowed hard, because his mouth was dry, because he hadn't taken his water for an hour at least. He knew the boy's tongue must have felt like leather in his mouth, and his heart would be beating too quickly and too weakly, and his flesh would lie in hollows if dinted. And he knew it was wrong, but the bells tolled midday for the second time since he had filled the jug from the well, and seeing the same statue-still form in ragged brown on every walk was starting to make him tremble, so he started to speak and had to try again because he croaked.

"It's been two days since you had water."

There was no response, no movement. He wasn't sure whether he'd expected one, so he cast a lingering glance at the jug standing just within the bars, and made sure he could still see the rise and fall of breath in the boy's body, and left slowly for the well.

When the bells tolled the first hour after noon, the priest returned on his walk, and stopped again before that cell, and stared through the bars.

"You could die, young man." He paused, and wrapped one hand around one of the iron bars. "They say that thirst is a horrible death."

He took the jug with him that time, as if lowering it down the well, feeling it sink into the black water, seeing the dark tint of the wet clay, and hearing the gentle sloshing of life within could comfort him. And he paused again on his next walk, to watch the boy as he might watch a statue, a statue with sallow skin, crossed ankles over the dusty floor, dark marks like bedsores or bruises around his knees, a curl of very black hair under the shabby hood of his robes.

Not for the first time, he wondered where the boy had come from. His wand was of foreign make, most likely English, and he was certainly no native of the land, but where he had come from, how long he had been travelling, even his very name, were known only to him, and would probably remain secrets. But he had never met a boy, not from England or any other land, who could endure this. Not even his own colleagues could have taken this much, he was sure.

So the priest set the jug down, and unhooked a jangling ring of keys from his belt, and unlocked the door to the cell.

The boy did not look up as he crossed the three short paces to stand before him, the jug in one hand.

"You have to stop." The priest paused, taking in the fresh signs of gauntness to the boy's limbs, the sunken legacy of fasting--which would vanish in time, if he took food and water again, but those marks frightened him now as they never had before, not even on himself. He held up the jug. "You have to drink this. Please."

There was a faint noise, the sound of a voice disused and hoarse beyond imagining trying to speak, and the priest flinched.

"You've endured more than any novice could--than any priest, even. Whatever it is you're doing, you have to be done. You must drink. Please. Don't you have to live?"

Then the boy tried to speak again, and this time he almost caught the words.

"Sayeth...the world...a tomb..."

The priest held the jug with both hands now, because his palms were sweaty and his fingers unsure, because this boy was starting to frighten him, deeply.

"So sayeth Death, the world is mine. I have built a tomb for all mankind."

His voice was still distorted, barely audible, but the words fell clearly enough now--and then he moved, very slowly raising his head, and there was a deep tremor in the muscles of his neck. His eyes were bloodshot, ringed in deep purple, his face far hollower than it had been twelve days before, his cheeks sunken--but it was the sheer, mad power radiating from his eyes that made the priest shudder. He swallowed and held up the jug.

"Don't you want to live?"

"Oh, yes." Somehow a mocking tone had managed to creep into that horrible, broken husk of a voice. "I would kill for water right now."

"You don't have to--I filled it." The priest managed to steady the jug in one hand, and fumbled in his pocket with the other. "Just please drink it, take your wand, come out of here--you have to be finished, please..."

"My wand."

He started unfolding his arms, very slowly, as if even moving was mortal agony--which it might well be, thought the priest, as he clutched that foreign wand in one hand in front of that terrible, desperate face. And, slowly, the boy held one hand out for it, nails grown too long and knuckles red and swollen and skin sunken and distorted, and a little sigh croaked in his throat as he wrapped his long fingers around it, as if that and not the jug in the priest's other hand could restore everything he'd let waste away. The priest wanted to be sure that his eyes were only bloodshot, that the clear, deep blue of his irises wasn't vanishing into hungry red, but he couldn't be.

"Just please drink it and come out, please..." The priest's words trailed off into a little gulp as he realized the boy was pointing his wand straight at him.

"Avada Kedavra," the boy croaked, each syllable shaped lovingly in his ruined voice.

In the wake of the rush of death and the flash of green, there was the smashing of terra-cotta, and the splash of clear water over the dusty floor.

Slowly the boy--the man--rose, clutching wand and ragged cloak, and stepped around the priest's body and the potshards, and limped off damp-footed to the courtyard and the well.

Very few people, come the later years when the lists were drawn up, would know to count the third priest of that mountain temple amongst the earliest victims of Lord Voldemort.

 

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