Over a year ago, one of my beta readers, after reading The Ferryman and the Sea Witch, challenged me to write a beautiful character. Not a physically beautiful character, but one filled with kindness, a truly good person. Not easy for a writer who enjoys deep flaws and hanging out on the dark side.
But I took the request to heart and created Barus.
He has a handsome face and those lovely pale eyes, but he’s a physical wreck – back bent, muscles cramped, joints swollen, and he’s in constant pain. By profession, he’s a healer, and for Barus that includes “healing” the dead. Necromancy, the arcane ability to raise the dead, is a talent most often associated with evil and horror stories. I love turning stereotypes on their heads.
I wanted to introduce him to you and give you a little tease too. Below is a scene from Chapter One, in which Barus has yet to learn the art of Necromancy. It’s a little long, but hope you enjoy it.
When the fire dwindled into scarlet embers, Barus padded to his piled mats at the far wall.
Behind the wind, a voice called, a lost sound like the hoot of a faraway owl.
He turned toward Olma and paused, listening. The voice called again, nearer, harsher, rising over the rattle of wagon wheels. He limped to the old woman and touched her shoulder. “Someone comes.”
Olma rose from her chair. “I’ll light a lantern. See who it is.” She unhooked their oil lamp from a peg and knelt by the fire.
Barus shuffled to the door. Nighttime visitors weren’t uncommon, but any ailment or injury requiring travel through the dark leas didn’t bode well. He unlatched the cord and slid the panel aside. Beneath a gibbous moon, a horse and wagon charged toward him. He jerked backward and clawed at a chair for balance.
Wild-eyed and frothing, the horse veered only moments before it smashed into the dwelling, and the wagon juddered to a halt. A tall man jumped from the bench. “I need the necromancer.” He darted to the wagon’s bed, lifted out a small body, and dashed for the door.
Olma pulled Barus from the stranger’s path before the onslaught knocked him down. The man, dressed in a soldier’s brown robe and flowing trousers, barged into the home, a dead boy in his arms.
“Lay the child here.” Olma patted the table. “Let me see him.”
The man rested the crumpled body before her. Sweat glistened on his forehead and streaked his shirt. “I need help. He’s….” A cry lodged in his chest. “He’s dead.”
A well-built man with a tuft of beard jutting from his chin, the soldier paced in a tight circle, almost spinning as he raked his windblown hair. Eyes the color of rusted iron darted from the cluttered shelves to Olma, to Barus, to the herbs hung from the tangled branches holding up the thatch. Anywhere but at the child. “He’s dead. A horse kicked him. It’s my fault; I shouldn’t have let him near. I never meant it to happen, and I need you to heal him.”
Barus stared at the dead child, the bloodless skin waxy and ghostly pale. A horse’s hoof had bashed in the side of his face, his skull shattered into blood and brain and chips of white bone. Barus’s heart lurched into his throat, and his eyes welled at the loss of so young a life, at the man’s desperation. Could such a death be undone?
Barus had never seen Olma restore a life, let alone one so damaged. Necromancy was a guarded skill, an art she held close, and not one she practiced at home. He met her gaze before she placed a gentle hand on the child’s chest and peered at the soldier, the creases in her ancient face brimming with wordless sympathy.
The boy’s father ceased his pacing. Alarm piled on top of the fear already blanching his skin. “Which of you is the necromancer? Why aren’t you doing something?”
“I am the one you seek,” Olma said. “But I cannot heal him. He is beyond life, his injury too severe.”
“No. That can’t be. You’re a necromancer.” The soldier’s panic surged into slit-eyed rage. His jaw hardened, and his fist hammered on the table. “No! He died less than a day ago. He’s barely cold. You can save him. I order you to try.”
“What is your name?” Olma asked, her serenity undaunted by the furious command.
Olma brushed the child’s ebony hair from his forehead as the soldier held his breath. “Tamus Graeger, your son’s injuries are beyond a sustainable life. He would never be whole. You must remember him as he was, a young and vibrant child. Grieve his passing, cherish your memories, and continue with your life.”
Tears glistened in the soldier’s eyes. His tragedy dragged down his cheeks and cut furrows in his skin, aging him beyond his years. “I’ll pay whatever you ask. Anything. You’re a necromancer. You know how to do this. I beg you. Please, I beg you.”
“I am sorry, Tamus. There is no life here I can save.” Olma placed the boy’s hands one atop the other in the manner of a body mourned.
“No! Don’t touch him.” The soldier thrust Olma from the table and knocked his son’s folded hands aside. “I should have known you’d refuse. You’re a witch and a liar, and this place is thick with evil.”
He stalked toward her, teeth gritted, and she reached out a hand to console him or ward him away. Barus hung onto the back of a chair. Fear babbled from his tongue and rooted him to the floor like a twisted cliff-top tree.
The soldier’s fist flew up and punched Olma in the face. She lurched back, flailing, and her head pounded against the wall. Blood ran from her shattered nose as she slid to the floor.
A cry ripped from Barus’s throat, and he hobbled toward her, misshapen hands raised as if he could protect her from further assault. He stumbled into the table. Graeger pivoted and shoved him in the chest. Barus stepped on his robe’s hem and tumbled backward onto the stone hearth like a sack of clattering sticks. A yelp burst from his lungs as his spine wrenched.
The soldier swept his hand across the shelves, casting jars and tins to the floor. He hurled containers at the walls. Glass bottles shattered. Healing tinctures and poisonous distillates splattered the room, their droplets reflecting the fire’s embers like beads of rolling blood. Barus cowered by the hearth, helpless to stop the destruction.
With a roar, the towering man smashed a chair and flipped over the table. His son’s body rolled against Barus’s legs, a flopping, boneless husk. A child’s shriek, keen as a razor, sliced through the clamor.
The rampage halted. Graeger stood motionless in the lantern light, lungs heaving with the power of a bellows as he seemed to grasp his desecration, the brutality of what he’d done. He gazed at his son’s dead body, eyebrows locked together in confusion as if expecting the boy to leap, smiling and whole, into his arms.
The child screamed again, a longer, thinner, knife-edged wail of terror. The soldier spun toward the open doorway. A young boy of three or four years tottered on the threshold, framed by silver moonlight.
A second son.
The child’s mouth hung open, eyes deep pools of horror, body trembling as if his joints might shake loose and bones fall into a hundred pieces. Shards of glass lay scattered at his feet. He crumpled to the dirt floor and howled as the wreckage sliced his hand.
The soldier glanced across the shattered room. His lips parted as though he meant to speak, and when nothing emerged, he pressed them closed, no sign of regret or grief in the grim lines framing his mouth. The lantern sputtered, casting the contours of his face in sharp-boned shadows. He staggered toward the door, snatched up the bleeding child, and disappeared into the desolation of the cold autumn night.
Barus crawled to the overturned table. He wheezed through his teeth as he hung onto the edge and climbed to his feet. Glass crunched beneath his wood-soled shoes as he limped to Olma.
She slumped against the wall, gazing through the open door, bloodied lips between her teeth and brow furrowed. He held her hand, breathing through his terror and guilt, his dismay at all they’d lost, and his helplessness to stop it. Any of it. Scattered leaves soaked in spilled liquid, and the broken chair lay in a pool of glittering glass. “Do not worry, Olma. I will clean it up.”
As the wagon rattled into silence, her gaze turned to the boy’s limp body resting by the hearth. “Remember the soldier’s face, Barus. One day, Tamus Graeger will return.”
Thanks for reading!