The young lord lived in the manor atop a cliff. The manor was big with winding stairwells, crouching and thorn-clad like a great, dark wolf. Trees grew around it with elongated trunks, boughs, and limbs thin as twisted wire. Witches’ fingers that reached, casting long, thick shadows on the scaly roof.
The manor had been built by his father, a thin, studious man who wasn’t afraid of the creaks in the night. Or how the wind moaned when it was dark like the howls of a fair maiden. He slept soundly because of the roaring of the waves as it broke against the jagged rocks of the cliff.
The young lord wasn’t afraid either. He didn’t believe in ghosts. But he never ventured out to the edge of the cliff. The waves were vicious and relentless, could swallow a human in one gulp.
Yet, he woke, night after night to the sounds of the most alluring song. A light melody it seemed – enchanting, hypnotising. Yet, it bore a dark, steady undercurrent.
The notes cut through the air like a freshly sharpened knife.
The young lord followed the song out into the pouring rain. His legs moved beneath him and his eyes saw the edge of the cliff come closer and closer. But he didn’t stop, the song kept dragging him towards the desperate waves.
A young woman appeared before him, more beautiful and fair than all he had seen. She touched his cheek, more notes bubbled from her throat.
The young lord leaned forwards, silencing her song with a deep, drawling kiss. His fingers didn’t notice the gills at her neck, nor the scales upon her skin, or the sting of her fangs on his lip. He didn’t feel her arms come to entangle his body, the way they held him as they leapt off the cliff.
The young woman and the young lord were never seen again.
The Father was devastated. However, he continued to live in that dark manor, so shrouded by the leaves that no light ever came through. He waited for the devious mermaid every night, for he was determined not to be allured by her song.
He walked out to the cliff when she finally came to claim him, a dagger hidden in his coat. He saw her standing at the edge. It was too dark, her features obscured.
“You killed my son,” the Father growled. “I know it was you.”
He plunged the dagger straight into her chest. Through the soft skin, the tough muscle, right to her heart. And when the moon came, illuminating the two of them. He realised the song had stopped, and it was the dead eyes of his wife that looked back at him.
The woman had deceived him. She took her son, and she took his wife too.
Horrified at the blood on his hands, he dropped the dagger, screaming.
He threw the body of his wife over the cliff. Picking up the dagger, he ran back into the house and shoved it into the darkest corner he could find.
He never emerged from the manor again. And spent the rest of his days between the horror of reality and delirium. Where his son and his wife haunted him.
Their bloody bodies appeared everywhere.
Even when he gouged his own eyes out, he saw them in his mind.
That was how he died.
Amidst hallucinations of the lives he could not bring back, doomed for eternal punishment.
That was what the butler told August on the first day of his employment. August hadn’t batted an eye, he had come because his family was out of money, and Lancaster Manor was the only place nearby that paid decent and was in need of a servant.
It was more than fair to say that the details in that story had been exaggerated a little. Sure the manor was surrounded by trees and overgrown bushes, but that spoke to the gardener’s abilities more than the creepiness.
It was warm inside, the fireplace lit up, casting a red glow on the pale walls.
A woman came down the stairs. Her dress was red, intricate stitching of roses across the fabric. Pearls embroidered the collar. A dainty gold chain hung from her neck, holding a single ruby. She was tall and elegant, eyes bright.
August was stunned. He had never seen a true lady before.
“Ah yes, my dear Gus,” the butler said. He was an old man with a head of hair as white as snow, and a curved spine. He had already taken to calling August ‘my dear Gus’. “Meet the Lady Daphne Lancaster.”
August bowed. “My Lady,” he said.
“There is no need for that, my boy,” she said. “Poor Frederick here has bowed to me ever since I was born and now he looks like he should be ringing the bells of Notre Dame. You do not want to end up like him. No offence, Frederick.”
The butler just bowed again. “None taken, my Lady.”
She laid a hand on August’s arm. “If you would excuse us, I would like to speak with August, alone.”
“Of course,” Frederick replied. “Anything you need.”
Lady Daphne remained silent until the butler was out of sight. “I will be sad when he goes,” she said, then turned to August. “Now, I am sure you know why you are here.”
August nodded stiffly. “Of course, I will do anything you need.”
“You are here as a servant, yes, but more than that, I want you to be a companion for my son. Octavius is certainly… a handful, but I am sure you will get along fine. He is quite opposed to strangers, so please do not take anything he says personally.”
She smiled, but August could see the faint lines of worry tracing her powdered cheeks. “I understand,” he said.
“He needs a friend, so please, be that for him,” Lady Daphne said.
“You want a servant to be his friend?” August said.
“Well, I have tried other lords his age, they all refused to go anywhere near him after their first encounter, he ignores the maids, never comes out of the attic. I guess it is safe to say that I am desperate.”
August followed Lady Daphne up the winding staircase. There were halls of rooms with four-poster beds covered in silken sheets and feather down pillows. Yet, they walked past them all. They climbed another staircase hidden in the corner.
“He insists on sleeping and spending his days in the attic,” Lady Daphne said.
The attic floor was littered with books; some were piled on each other, some were sprawled wide open. There was a bed situated against the wall, and on it lay a boy of fifteen, possibly sixteen.
He turned when he heard the creak of the ancient floorboard. He had a mess of brown curls tangled across his forehead. His skin was toned olive, his eyes a striking green.
August stood awkwardly. “My Lord,” he said. “It is my pleasure to be of service to you.”
“Mother, get him away,” he said, there was a hint of a rasp in his voice. August would soon learn why when he pulled a cigar out of his pocket.
“Octavius,” Lady Daphne said. “August will be your servant from now on.”
“When did I say I wanted a servant?” Octavius said, sitting up. “Especially one with the face of a mouse and the body of a squirrel.”
“August is staying,” Lady Daphne said, stern and demanding. “Whether you like it or not. And you will do well to behave.”
Octavius lay back down on the bed, taking a puff from his cigar. He blew smoke rings to the ceiling. August clutched the small bag he had brought of some scarce personal belongings. “Well, are you just going to keep standing there?”
“What would you like me to do, my Lord?” August asked.
“Stop calling me your Lord,” Octavius replied. “It is foul to the ears.” He exhaled. “Since my Mother insists for your to stay, we better get you situated.”
It turned out that August would not be staying in the servant quarters, he would be staying in the attic. With Octavius. Frederick had hauled a small bed as far as the stairs and then Octavius sent him away. They hauled the bed up to the attic together.
They didn’t say a word to each other.
August picked Octavius’s dirty clothes off the floor and sent it to the laundresses. He dusted the windows and straightened all the scrappy, strewn objects. He woke early and collected Octavius’s breakfast from the kitchen which wouldn’t be eaten until noon. He only ever ate half of his dinner.
Most of the time, Octavius lay on the bed, smoking or flipping through a musty-paged book.
That was how the days went for a while. August had accepted that Octavius wasn’t the type to befriend easily.
August sat sometimes, wondering what on earth happened to Octavius for him to be this way. Or whether that was how he had been born.
The space between their beds wasn’t much, so August could hear every toss and turn Octavius made in the night.
One night, he heard Octavius yell, “No, no!” Calling into the darkness.
August got up. The sheets were tangled around his hip, he swatted at the air. His eyes were screwed shut, sweat beading his forehead. August shook him until he woke. The panic he saw on Octavius’s face was raw and undeniably real.
He was shaking, and August didn’t know what else to do. So he sat down beside Octavius, who flinched away at his touch. But eventually, he let August wrap an arm around him. He listened to Octavius’s ragged, gasping breaths until they finally evened out again.
“You want me to tell you why I was such a wreck last night,” Octavius said the next morning.
“It is your business,” August said. “I do not mind.”
Octavius narrowed his eyes. “Why are you so different?” he said, tone changed. “It is just that I cried on your shoulder, most people would want to know why that is the case.”
“I have a younger sister,” August said. “I have been cried on many times.”
Octavius nodded, giving a suspecting “hmm”, and went back to his book.
Nightmares of that nature were usually a monthly occurrences. And it did make August wonder why. They were not nightmares of monsters that didn’t exist. There was a true monster haunting Octavius’s mind.
“My mother thinks I am going mad,” he finally said one day. “That is why she is so determined to have you watching me.” He tried to take a puff from his cigar, but choked. “I am afraid that she is right.” He took a shaky inhale. “My dreams, they always start with me hearing this song. I am so drawn to it that I follow it out to the cliff. There is a knife in my hand, and I am determined that the woman I see at the edge of the cliff has to die. I stab her, and then I see her face, and I do not know why, but in my dreams, I know she is my wife. And I have killed her.”
“Everyone gets nightmares,” August said.
“I think about it during the day as well,” Octavius said. “I feel there is something in this house that is evil.” He paused. “It is going to make me kill.”
August nodded, swallowing thickly. Octavius was pale, cheeks flushed. August felt at his forehead with the back of his hand and found it burning. “You have a fever.”
The fever was relentless, gripping onto him for two whole weeks. August convinced himself that the words Octavius said must have been due to the fever-plagued haze.
On the night before Octavius’s fever broke, he gripped onto August’s arm as he was wringing the washcloth. “Kiss me,” he said.
“Octavius,” August said, frantic. “You are not well.”
His lips were cracked and dry. “I like you, August. You are the first person I have ever liked. Isn’t that funny? So, come on, kiss me.”
August didn’t know what to do. There had to have been something that pulled him to Octavius. Some kind of force. August’s heart raced, seemingly in panic, but it wasn’t quite so.
He pressed his lips lightly against Octavius’s. Just a quick peck. A secret stolen in the night. Nobody had to know.
And nobody did know.
It was only ever the two of them. The servants and all the people in the house knew to leave the attic alone.
So they kissed freely. Soft and tender sometimes. Burning with passion other times. They fell asleep to the roaring of the waves, entwined in each other’s arms.
Octavius liked to trace August’s features with his finger and then use the mouse-faced insult, but they laughed about that now.
The first time that had happened should have shaken August like an earthquake in his core, but it was like the soft keys of a piano – music to August’s ears.
The days passed in blessed childlike bliss. Octavius told August about the books he read, then went on ramblings about the deepness of a single word, and its connection to the dark side of society. August nodded along because he liked to hear Octavius talk.
The nightmares still came, but they were less frequent. They had almost forgotten about them. The manor was filled with dreams and stories.
Then, of course, the day came.
“Mother thinks she has met a suitable woman for me to marry,” Octavius said.
August’s body tensed. “All right.” Octavius was a wealthy lord. Even someone as odd as him couldn’t escape marriage.
“You have nothing more to say about that?” Octavius said.
“Is there something you would like me to say?” August said. The years of affection they had together were wonderful. But it was only temporary. They were two boys in a tiny attic; they were bound to be curious.
It didn’t mean anything.
“Tell me not to marry her,” Octavius said. “If you tell me not to, I will not. Please, Aug.”
August looked away. “You have to, Octavius,” he said. “There is no other way around it. But I will be by your side, no matter what.”
Octavius touched August’s chest. His hand was warm. “Your heart,” he said. “It is racing.”
August gave an exasperated sigh, clutching Octavius’s shoulders, August grabbed him and pushed him onto the bed. And they appeased the racing of their hearts and the roaring of their desires.
One last night before August became nothing more than Octavius’s secret shame.
When it was still dark, August awoke cold. He looked around for Octavius, but he was gone. Suddenly, a song came echoing from the rain-pattered darkness. It rung in his ears. Tossing on his clothes, August ventured out into the storm, following the sweet voice to the edge of the cliff.
He stood, watching the waves wash over each other, drawn in by the soft melody.
A growl came from behind August. A deep-throated cry. “Octavius,” he said, seeing the silhouette of the young lord. A dagger glinted in his hand. “What are you… what are you doing?”
This had to be a dream, August thought. It had to be.
The song became louder. August saw the dazed look in Octavius’s eyes.
He raised the dagger. “Octavius,” August said, begged, pleaded. “Octavius, it is me.” He reached out to touch him. “Let us go back inside.” Octavius’s face was blank, a morbid determination in his eyes.
“You killed my son.” There was no time for August to be confused. He feared what Octavius would do.
August stumbled back. “Please, Octavius. This is not you.”
“You will pay for what you did.”
“Octavius, no—” August barely gasped when the dagger pierced his chest. The rain came down harder, the song echoed through the air.
The moon must have taken pity on Octavius, because August tumbled from the cliff before the moonlight could shine onto his face. So Octavius never saw who he killed.
Or how he fell into the oblivion of the waves.
Octavius awoke in his bed, the foggy remnants of an unpleasant dream. He wondered why there was another bed in the attic. His Mother had some mumblings about August. The name seemed familiar, but Octavius couldn’t quite recall what it meant to him.
He married the woman he had been set to marry. Had four kids with her. Two sons. Two daughters.
He remained in that manor until he was old and weary.
His wife passed a decade before him. His daughters had been married off and his sons were set on travelling the world.
Those were the days he would sit in the attic, emptiness tugging at his heart. An ache he couldn’t get rid of. He thought he could hear the tinkling of laughter sometimes in the ear. Or he would open a book, and smile at a word that had no humour.
He still awoke from nightmares sometimes, thinking there should be someone beside him. He turned, and there would only be nothingness.
He rose one night to an all-too-familiar song. He walked out to the cliff, and he saw him.
“August,” Octavius said.
August stood at the edge of the cliff, still bearing the youthfulness of his teens.
“Octavius,” he said. Octavius went to him and kissed him. It must have been a strange sight. An old man kissing one so young. But it was like the hands of time had been rolled back. They broke away. “It is time,” August said, arms encircling Octavius.
They held him as they always had.
The moonlight only graced them once, before they disappeared into the waves.
And they were both young.