Sunlight glints off the empty ruins of the castle that was, for as long as Theresia can remember, her gilded cage, and her knees knock together in a cacophony of noise as she tries to stand. The pool of blood left behind where her father’s head had been severed oozes toward the virgin-white edges of her nightgown.
Black Swordsman, that was what the man had called himself, the man who had cut her father into pieces, torn her life asunder. She had to find him. She had to make him feel what she felt so that this ripping ache in her chest would stop.
Tears and snot crust up on her cheeks, the taste of old metal and bile cling to her tongue, and the feeling in her fingers is gone.
Theresia is twelve years old and thinks only of revenge.
By the time the guards have made it past the piled rubble and into the castle, Theresia is already gone.
Within a month all of her shoes are broken. She had no clothes to pack except the ones her father had given her, lacey things made for a living doll, the pretty centerpiece she had been. The soles of her silk slippers scuff against the dirt paths until they wear right through, and her fur-lined boots drown in the rain, disintegrating the dainty seams.
She was never taught to handle money or haggle; her meals had always come to her on platters, decorated with vases of flowers from the outside world, sometimes with a bug or spider stuck in the stems that she would trap in a jar and keep at her bedside to watch, her only company. So when the merchants in the neighboring towns market square lie and tell her that seven silver coins is a good price for some strips of cured meat and bread, she trusts them, too naive to know better. They empty her wallet fast. When the first hunger pang hits she swears there’s no greater pain, and she curls against a sewer pipe for hours clutching at her growling stomach.
Nobody will hire a girl so young and soft as her, and she has no skills worth any salt. After three days she starts chewing on bits of worn leather she rips from her ruined boots to stop the churning in her gut. People on the street begin to cough and itch their sides.
Years of being pent up in her room has left her weak. She can hardly hold a sword on her own, and when she tries to practice with a walking stick she finds in the gutter, her elbows wobble and her shoulders sting. Nobody will give weapons to a girl, so she sneaks into an inn late at night when the visiting soldiers have passed out drunk and pilfers a dagger from one of their waistbands before the barkeep catches her and tosses her out.
Her father, being the devout man he was, had made sure from a young age that Theresia learned the bible’s teachings as astutely as she learned to follow his own commands. “Thou shalt not steal” and “nor thieves will inherit the kingdom of God” came as easily to her memory as the pattern of the swathes of curtains blanketing her four-poster or the singular crack in the ceiling above her bay window - all things she’d been forced to stare at each unending day of her imprisoned childhood.
The familiar fear and loathing of the God who would punish her for her taking what isn’t hers twitches in her breastbone each night she looks over her growing hoard of loot. Every action has consequences, and doubly so for those done out of greed. But if God stood by and watched silently while the life drained from her father’s eyes, and if her father spent his life preaching against the crime of heresy while devoting himself to demon gods behind closed doors, who were they to judge Theresia?
She makes a new home out of an abandoned ghost house, the type of place people who are superstitious don’t look at when they walk past. Sometimes, when she opens the door in the mornings there are bodies collapsed on the sidewalk near her feet, with pustules on their sides and their skin tinged dismal yellow. She hears whispers that a plague is sweeping the land.
Her humble house - well, really, more like the decaying shack she’s squatting in - has its windows covered with brown paper and the smell of smoke permeating every strip of fabric, from the chair covers to the bed sheets. Often, she wakes to rain dripping on her cheeks through the rifts in the ceiling, or the sound of mice feet over the broken glass littering the floor. One night, she opens her eyes and feels something in the shadows watching her, and she swears she hears it murmuring her name.
Her wrists begin to jut out under her skin a little more than before, and when she breathes she can feel the outline of her ribcage brushing against the thin cotton of her dress-front. Her tiny body wasn’t meant for hunger; she was a noble lady, not a beggar. Nobody seems to notice or care. Without her castle and father’s name to dignify her place in society, she looks like just another street orphan.
The growling in her stomach becomes so unbearable that she finds it hard to sleep at night, and the feeling of emptiness keeps her up, staring at the rat holes in the walls. With each sleepless night that passes, the feeling of being watched grows, and the yellow eyes that follow her from the shadows of her room blink in tandem with her shallow breaths.
There’s something familiar in those eyes. They remind her of her father, when he would look at her and through the veneer of his smiling face she would recognize something less than human there, bubbling beneath the surface. It was the same with the eyes of the angels who wanted her as a sacrifice, and the spirits who dragged her father to hell.
Although she wants to believe she could find the Black Swordsman on her own, Theresia knows better. She can hardly find food to eat. She’s not strong enough, and she never will be.
Her father hadn’t been strong enough to kill her mother, but he found his own way. Theresia could do the same. Maybe, just maybe, her father taught her something important after all.
The plague begins to move inward, wiping out the slums and then spreading in towards the streets outside the citadel where the knights and ladies live. Theresia hears talk of abandoning the town and heading north, to a place bordered by mountains called Albion, and although it sounds like the smart thing to do, she has no way of transport. Covered wagons and horses cost more money than the meager savings she calls her own, and the roads between towns are rife with highwaymen and murderers.
Bodies begin to pile in the streets, stacked high and burned like human effigies, their flames dancing and leaping through the misty night. People with leaking boils on their necks and barking coughs throw themselves from the tops of buildings or leaden their pockets with rocks so they might sink to the bottom of the canal, determined to not end in ash and smoke the same way.
The nobles are the first to flee. They pack their carriages thick with valuables, old mahogany dressers and painted glass and slim silk dresses. The common poor gather on the streets to watch the rich command their slaves to load up the furniture and clothing, but Theresia doesn’t think it a spectacle like they do. She once had those same luxuries, more, in fact, and she isn’t struck with wonder at the sight of a gold broach like the towns scullery maids and butchers are.
One by one after the nobles, each class and rank in society trickles out of the city gates, hauling all they can carry with them. The merchants leave, then the priests, then the guards, and eventually even those who have no more than the clothes on their backs. Theresia stays, because she isn’t sure where else to go. Something about Albion fills her with a sense of foreboding and tells her she’s better off in this plague town.
As more bodies line the streets, the blinking eyes that watch her at night multiply in number. She comes to assume they must be the ghosts of those dead selfsame dead bodies outside, molding themselves to her because she reeks of their kind. Her own father had been a devil even greater than them - Theresia must have inherited his mark.
“What do you want from me?” She asks them. The low tremble of her voice is overcast with false confidence. The eyes, expectedly, do not reply, but she thinks she might know the answer.
Within a week, the streets are empty. Only the sound of those stuck in a life-in-death remain, their groans soft and quiet as the breath slowly seeps out from their lungs, alighting on their final moments with silent fear.
Gnawing on her last piece of rock hard bread crust, Theresia stares out her window into the grey sky. Others had wept and screamed of the unfairness of life to God as they watched the plague spread, but Theresia felt nothing at all. She had not felt much of anything since the night her father died. Since that blinding fear and powerlessness that had flooded her body when she saw her father writhing under the boot of the Black Swordsman.
When her mind is taken back to the vision of the Black Swordsman, her hands shake with rage. Unwilling to let her father live, and unwilling to let Theresia herself die - the Black Swordsman’s actions were reasonless, performed without care or thought. He wouldn’t care that she is an orphan, now. He wouldn’t care that she can see her heart beat in her throat and that her eyes go blurry when she stands because she is wasting away with hunger. The Black Swordsman is emotionless, just as she is becoming.
The Black Swordsman’s weakness - if he has one - is that he is human. Theresia’s father had broken the Black Swordsman’s fingers with the swipe of an arm, had knocked the breath from his lungs and the words from his mouth. Because her father was inhuman, he stood a chance against the Black Swordsman.
That night, when the all-seeing eye of the sun dims and the eyes in the corner of her room brighten, Theresia speaks to them again.
“Are you sad, that you don’t have bodies anymore? That you had to leave them behind when you died?”
“Do you want a body?”
The eyes seem to burn a little brighter, move a little closer, anxiously listening. The smell of vomit and bile that rolls off of them is sickening.
“With demons, you have to make a sacrifice, right? I don’t have anyone to sacrifice. The only person I had is dead, like all of you. But I can give you a body.”
Teeth chatter, and the sound of rats’ feet quicken over the floor, swarming near her bed post. The mass of eyes melt into each other, swathes of black slipping over black, with one huge, yellow pupil shining through. It leans over her bedside.
“I want to be strong. I want to kill the Black Swordsman,” she whispers, tears welling in her eyes. “If you can make me strong, then take my body.”
With the last uttered word something slips into her mouth, still forming the final vowel, sticky and warm and soft, like meat. It coats the inside of her throat and blocks the air from reaching her lungs.
The shock of it knocks her back, head hitting the bedframe and back arching toward the ceiling, her tiny form shaking, convulsing. Light flashes before her eyes, then suddenly she shoots straight up, spine ram-rod straight, like a marionette with the strings held taut.
Thank you , a chorus of voices hiss into her ear, booming in her eardrum so loudly that she thinks she might pass out.
It’s dark in the house, and deadly still.
She must have fallen asleep, or perhaps just lost consciousness, because when she opens her eyes again the sun is shining weak and yellow through the window.
She stretches her hands out in front of her, looking over her palms and at the curves of her fingernails, trying to decide whether she felt any different. Everything is as it was before, except, maybe, for the sensation of cold curling in her stomach and a dull throbbing at the back of her head. She expected to be scared, but she feels nothing except a sense of purpose, a little tug in her chest that pulls her out of bed.
Before, she’d had an odd feeling about Albion, that place everyone was fleeing to from this plague. Now, though, there’s something familiar about that name, something that draws her to it, except it doesn’t really feel like her. It’s those things inside her.
“Why do you want to go to Albion?” She asks the open air, feeling eerily calm about trying to talk to whatever is taking root in her body. It’s like her emotions have been switched off, numbed and suppressed. She’s no longer a sniffling, hopeless spoiled child; she feels strong, something she’s never felt before. She feels good.
Sacrifice, the voices answer, slipping one over the other, a cocktail of pitches and tones. Tower, sacrifice, rebirth.
Theresia doesn’t know what that means, but “sacrifice” tolls a note deep within her. That’s what the devils wanted her as, and what they called the Black Swordsman. Was the Black Swordsman in Albion?
The sound of the door creaking shut behind her echoes over the murmuring voices in her mind, and she finds herself walking out into the empty streets, her will only half her own.
Perhaps the difference she feels in herself is noticeable, because she isn’t bothered by anyone those first few days on the open road. When the sun is out she walks, and at night, she curls up into the hollows of tree trunks at the roadside, her hair catching on the gnarled roots, and sleeps with the knife she stole from that drunken soldier clutched against her chest.
Then, one night, she wakes with a start to a man looming over her, his fingers outstretched toward the buttons of her coat and the whites of his eyes shining in the darkness.
She expects herself to shut her eyes and scream. She expects to feel terrified, or angry, or panicked. Instead, she is trapped within her own body as she watches her hand dart out and the gleam of metal off her knife bury itself into the man’s chest. He gives a sputtering cough, the blood swimming out of his throat and over his neck, pooling in the dip of one collarbone as he stumbles against the tree, pained gasps quieting into nothing.
When his eyes glaze over and his fingers stop twitching, Theresia can move of her own accord again, but it is too late. She looks into his face and knows he’s dead.
The things inside her move her forward, deeper into the night. They don’t even let her hands shake.
A week passes and a woman shrieks when Theresia walks past, pointing and staring and yelling “her eye, her eye, what is wrong with her eye?!”
Theresia elbows through the crowd of people swarming the road, down the hillside and into the bushes, past the trees to where a small pond lies. She looks into it and freezes as vomit begins to push up her throat.
There, underneath her pupil, plastered on like a painting, is another iris, sickly yellow and fogged over. It stares back at her and, when she slumps over to throw up into the reeds, it watches her reflection in the murky pond. Peeking out over her eyelid, sliding in the wetness of her eye as though it’s been there forever.
She blinks over and over, cups water into her palm and splashes it past her lashes, scrapes at her sclera with her nails until it stings, but when she looks again, the foreign eye is still there, looking back at her.
She begins to travel by night, under the protection of shadows, and close her bad eye when she passes strangers on the road, pretending it’s been ripped out, missing.
In the distance, a towering shape begins to take form, stretching into the clouds over the mountains.
Sacrifice , the voices mumble. Sacrifice, tower, rebirth . It seems to be the only things they can say.
The voices grow louder and louder the closer she gets, and she feels less and less of her own body in motion. They put one foot in front of the other, fix her hair when the dead wind blows it over her cheeks, strap her shoes on each morning and take them off for her at night. All they let her do is watch from behind her own eyes as they steer their vessel toward that tower.
She looks down once to see her hands covered in blood, trembling as the things inside her press on, blocking out the pain from her nerves. She thinks she sees something pressing out from the end of her fingers, sharp teeth that de-root her nail beds and shove up from underneath. Like the things inside her are bursting out. Wait, look back , she tries to tell them, what happened to my fingers? What did you do to my fingers?
“Sacrifice, tower,” they answer. The voice that comes out of her mouth doesn’t even sound like her own.
It is a cloudless night when they arrive in Albion. Blood slathers the paved road leading up to the tower, and all around her lie the scattered bodies of peasants torn right through. Their bellies gape open and their ribs are cracked in two, like the wishbones of a chicken, intestines dribbling out of them, strewn over the dry grass.
At the base of the tower a massive shadow moves, a sword swinging through the black of its long cloak.
She doesn’t have to see the face to know it’s him.
“Sacrifice, sacrifice,” the things in her scream, so loud that she feels blood slither out of her eardrums, congealing before it hits the skin of her neck. Her legs splay at impossible angles as she begins to run, the flat scope of the earth pounding under her feet. Deep in her head the throbbing turns into searing agony, white hot and so all-encompassing that she is robbed of all thought.
The Black Swordsman turns to look at her, and it’s clear she is unrecognizable, the things taking hold of her body in complete control. In his eyes she sees only steely determination as his sword rushes down from the sky, sweeping up wind.
Something in her gives a quiet pop . Black sludge bleeds out of her eyes, pushes at her stomach, clambering against the thin flesh of her ribs to be let out.
The world tilts. She feels her skull tearing open at her crown, cleaving in two. Tendrils of dripping wet shadows burst through her mouth and she sees her own brains plop onto the ground below her as something forces its way out of her head, gripping onto her matted black hair and pushing itself forward using the leverage of her broken body.
Theresia sees a flash of recognition in the Black Swordsman’s eyes, his metal arm reaching out for her as she falls. She’s dead before she hits the ground.