Skin Dancing

Some history:
I wrote this story back in 1997 and it was never published. However it was part of the portfolio I submitted to BioWare when I applied for a job as a writer/designer. After I was hired, this plot was grafted onto the “serial killer” plot in Baldur’s Gate 2.

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Skin Dancing
     by Brent Knowles


 Why Afial, of all the others, traveled with me, I never knew — nor did I complain.  We walked the Highway, a vast stretch of wide, cobble-stoned roads that crossed the grand Nugelian Empire, connecting even the most remote villages (such as Afial’s home of Farrow) to large cities (such as my destination that summer, Hanlon’s Hope).  Her companionship struck me as a nuisance at first, but with three weeks of hard walking ahead of me, I decided female company might be stimulating.  Once in the city, it would be easy to get rid of her — I might even make a little money pawning her off to an innkeeper.

 

 

 That first day we walked quickly, putting as much distance between Afial’s large, bad-tempered father and ourselves as humanly possible.  The sun shone brightly overhead for it was a clear spring day, the sort of day that bards like me so enjoy.  I hummed as we walked.

 

 “Thank you Kyp!  This is so exciting.” Afial said, tossing her arms up in the air as she spun around abruptly, stopping in front of me, her face inches from mine.  Her green cotton dress fluttered in front of me like a cloud of songbirds.  Her smell reminded me of green fields and racing brooks.  I pulled her towards me.

 

 “As it should be,” I gently reminded her.  “After all, not every girl gets to share the company of Kyp the Kaller, the bard of bards.  You should be so happy.”  She pursed her lips tightly together as if I had said something inappropriate, but she did not disengage herself from my arms.  I considered carrying her into the bush for a few minutes excitement, but the thought of her father following us convinced me to release my hold of her.  She kissed me and we continued walking again.

 

 “I am happy,” she said to herself.  I did not comment this time, busy as I was, working out the details of my latest masterpiece.  It was a love story, a tale of a warrior gone to fight against the Empress who leaves his girl behind.  He fights many glorious battles, and finally returns many years later to find her married to another.  He kills both lovers and the song ends.  I had a lot more work to do on it, so I only half listened as Afial rambled on about silly topics, things that shouldn’t worry pretty young girls; she talked about the government, and her deep belief that the Church of the Lady was indeed thoroughly corrupt (a notion I shared but didn’t care to discuss), and how she longed to see some of the great sights of the Kingdoms.

 

 Even then I had the feeling we were being followed.

 

 The next day gloomy clouds covered the sky, souring my mood, and making me snap at Afial irritably as we trudged through the road’s shallow mud.  By midday, we were soaked and both of us miserable, our clothing grew tight on our bodies and our boots were caked with mud.  That was when two men stepped out from the thick oak trees that grew along the highway.  That was when everything changed.

 

They were foresters, tall and solid men, carrying all their possessions on their backs.  Upon spying Afial and I, broad grins spread across their faces, which I took as happiness at seeing a bard.

 

 “Good afternoon wanderers,” I said politely, not noticing that Afial had stepped back a few steps.

 

 “Good day bard,” the man said, his eyes darting to my lute for a moment and then snapping back on Afial.  “Is this your woman?”

 

 I shrugged and said, “Yes, her name is Afial.  We are traveling on to Hanlon’s Hope, I hope to find some work there.”

 

 “We’d pay you well for the use of her.” The first man said.  Thinking of her annoying babble, I considered the idea, but looking at her tightly drawn face I decided against it.  Besides there were still over two weeks of traveling left, and I rather liked having a woman in my blankets at night.

 

 “No, I’m going to have decline.”

 

 The first man hit me across the face with the back of his hand so powerfully that my nose broke and blood sprayed from my injury.  I abandoned any thought of going for my dagger as I covered my shattered nose with my hand, falling to my knees.  I heard Afial shout and I looked up, just as she drew a long dagger from her belt.  She aggressively threatened the men with it.

 

 “Put the knife down girl.”  The second forester suggested.  She didn’t, instead she lunged quickly and cut the man across the upper arm.  He cursed as she stepped back out of his reach.  A heavy boot connected with my stomach and face, and I doubled over, as the first forester started shit-kicking me.

 

 Afial cried, “Leave him alone!”

 

 “If you put the knife down.”

 

 I shouted at Afial, telling her to listen to them.  I dreaded to think of what my bruised face might look like, and the risk of damaging my hands in the altercation frightened me.  The man quit kicking, and I looked through blood-hazed eyes to see that Afial had dropped the knife and lay on the ground, her green dress lifted over her waist and torn from her chest.  I studied her fear as she watched me.

 

 A bellow of rage erupted from the forest, and a tall, thin man burst through the woods, brandishing a thick club.  He raced to where Afial lay prone and clobbered her attacker across the back of the head.  The man went down with a heavy thud, and the other forester swore and ran into the opposite woods.  The rescuer kicked his first victim from Afial and helped her to her feet, while she modestly fixed her dress as best she could.  I looked him over as I rose to my wobbly feet.

 

 He dressed much as the forester’s had: with tunic, trousers, and a thick cloak–maybe a bear’s hide.  Deep blue eyes peered from the massive tangle of beard that covered his face. He cast a disapproving glance at me, as he extended a thick paw, which I took hesitantly, the fox shaking with the bear.  “Shaypard.”  He growled as he spoke.

 

 “Thank you, so much,” Afial said, shivering like a tree in the wind.  Doing the nice thing, I put my arm around her, also thanking Shaypard.  He nodded.

 

 “It’s not safe for two young people traveling alone across the Highway.  You must have a good reason.”

 

 I took a deep breath and puffed out my chest, “I am Kyp the bard.”

 

 He gave me a blank look.

 

 “Kyp the Kaller?  You haven’t heard of me?”

 

 “No, but I have been in the woods for a very long time.  But being a bard doesn’t make you safe from bandits.  Many would ignore the infraction of assaulting a merryman if given a chance to take a fair girl like yours.”

 

 “Yes,” I agreed, “those men certainly disregarded all niceties when they attacked Afial and myself.  I could have had my fingers broken in that scuffle.”

 

 “Nah,” Shaypard said darkly, “you would have had to fight back to risk that.”  I nodded in agreement, ignoring the sarcasm and the three of us began walking down the Highway to the South, leaving the unconscious man behind.

 

 “So, where are you headed?”  I asked.

 

 “Just past Hanlon’s Hope.  My hometown, Goldspew.  You’ve probably never heard of it.”

 

 I smiled.  Having a strong companion like Shaypard would be great protection, and no doubt, this strange man might have some interesting stories to tell.   “Well, we are traveling to Hanlon’s Hope, if you would like to travel with us that far.”

 

 “We’d feel much safer,” Afial added.

 

 He considered this, closing his eyes as if deeply evaluating my suggestion.  His eyes opened, and he smiled, nodding his head.  “Sure, it would be good to have some company on such a long journey.”

 

 “Great,” I said enthusiastically, and we walked in a total absence of silence for the rest of the day.  I learned that he had wandered for many years to find himself – a reason I could hardly sympathize with, having always known who and what I am.  He promised to tell me of all the adventures he’d been in, during the days to come.  We told him of ourselves too, and he seemed happy to listen to our little stories; mine about growing up under the masterful tutelage of Flindo, the Master Bard; and Afial’s about growing up a farm girl.  For a reason unfathomable to me at the time, Shaypard seemed more interested in Afial’s stories, than my own.

 

 Maybe, Shaypard had a little bit of a fancy for my girl, I remember thinking.

 

*  *  *

 

 Night came quickly, and we sheltered by the side of the road, under an immense overhang of towering ash trees.  After dinner, I opted for the first watch, my throbbing nose bothering me too much for sleep to be an option.  I kissed Afial, and sat with my back against a sturdy tree, watching the nightsun’s subdued yellow orb float in the sky above me.  The sounds of nocturnal animals echoed through the nighttime forest, but I heard nothing threatening.  I began working on some of my music, scribbling in the bright nightsun’s light upon a well-used piece of parchment, covered with my inscriptions.

 

 My work took so much of my attention that I didn’t hear Shaypard until he sat beside me with a grunt.  I’d forgotten to wake him for his turn at watch.  I looked at him and nodded, putting my papers in my pack.

 

 “Figure it’s my turn to take the watch,” Shaypard’s eyes glowed cat-like and his gaze wavered to my pack.  “What were you doing?”

 

 I brushed my soft hair back from my eyes and smiled, “A ballad.  A beautiful ballad.”  I briefly explained my song to him.  My anger rose when he laughed scornfully.

 

 “That’s foolishness.  That’s not what love is about.  When you love a woman, you don’t want to kill her.  You’d do anything to keep her alive.”

 

 “On the contrary.  My Tragic Hero does love his woman greatly.  So great is his love that he has to kill her.  That’s true love.”

 

 Shaypard shook his head.  “No, my bard friend.  True love is when you would die for her.”

 

 “What a waste of life.  What would be the point of dying for *her*?  Once you died, there would be no love anymore.”

 

 “You don’t think the dead can love?”  Shaypard asked.

 

 “Of course not,” I said, but catching his angry gaze I added, “I suppose the idea would make a good song, though.  It’s not typical of what Flindo would have played, but it could be popular.”

 

 “Yes, a nice song,” Shaypard murmured.  “Are you in love with Afial?”

 

 “Of course,” I responded as quickly as I could.

 

 Shaypard smiled, “Really in love?  So much in love that nothing else matters to you?”

 

 I shook my head.  “No, I suppose it’s not that deep.  We enjoy each other’s company.  I was actually thinking about parting ways with her once we arrived in Hanlon’s Hope.”  I spoke the last sentence quietly, in case Afial happened to hear.

 

 Shaypard’s eyes darkened, as he asked, “Even after she was willing to let the men have her, just to save you from getting hurt?  How can you not love her for that?  She loves you greatly; you can see it in her eyes.  It would be cruel of you to just toss her aside.  Many men would die to cherish the love she holds for you.”

 

 I shrugged.  I’d been thinking a little about what happened that afternoon, and I found Afial’s sacrifice heartwarming, but I hadn’t really *thought* about it.  Afial did love me, to her I was her one and only.  I wish I could reciprocate her feelings, but I couldn’t.  I rose, bid good night to Shaypard, and curled up beside Afial, feeling her warmth, wondering why Shaypard worried so much about Afial’s feelings.

 

 I dreamed.

 

  In the dream, a sharp raspy song rang out and I woke, watching Shaypard sit up also.  The music seemed more kin to a chant than a bard’s sweet lyrics and I could not understand the words.  In my dream, I fell back into my covers and waited for a while.  When I looked up again, Shaypard’s bedroll was empty, and he was nowhere to be seen.  Rising, I stoked up the fire, and out of curiosity, I tried to locate the source of the music.  It was unlike any composition I’d played, or even heard before.

 

 As I moved through the wet forest, I could hear the source of the music drifting closer to me, or I should say that I was getting closer to the source.  I entered a field. Large bushes grew all about, some as high as my waist.  It was like walking through one of the numerous wheat fields on my father’s land, in the days before he apprenticed me to Flindo.  When I heard a noise coming towards me, I instinctively ducked down, concealing myself.

 

 The nightsun hung behind the figure, filling half the night sky with its size.  This effect managed to shadow the figure, concealing his features.  Whoever he was, and I must admit that even then I thought it was Shaypard, he was tall and lanky.  And he sang in my dream.  From his mouth came the jagged chant, a chorus repeated dozens of times in alternating tempos and rhythms.  And he danced in my dream.  He would leap, stick one leg out; fall and leap again, sticking the other leg out.  It was all very comical save for I felt an immense shiver of fear.

 

  He would follow his insane lyrics with a raspy ‘tic-tic’ laugh.  Eventually two figures rose from the grass behind him.  I put my hand over my mouth for fear of gasping.  They joined the figure in his black dance.  I could smell the foul stink of liquor, and something else.  Like the smell that clung to my mother’s mother when she lay dead in a stone-wrought coffin in our parlor-room.  The dance continued for a long time until finally it just stopped. 

 

 I became doubly conscious of every move I made lest I welcome their strange attentions towards me.  The wind rustled the bushes as the tall man advanced to the smaller of the two newcomers. I realized now that these were the two foresters who’d attacked Afial and me. 

 

 Shaypard hugged the forester in a massive bear hug and I heard a gruesome cracking noise, like a chicken’s neck being broken, but much louder.  There were several other cracking noises and in the odd light, I saw dark rivers of blood spill out onto the bushes.  The man didn’t scream, nor did his companion move as the murderer tugged and pulled at the forester.  I heard sounds I never could describe in that odd dream, as the stranger peeled the flesh from the forester.  After a long moment the noises ended and the figure stood there with the man’s skin hanging limply in his arms.

 

 After undressing himself, he pulled the fresh skin over his body, slipping his arms into the dead man’s arm flaps.  It was gruesome, terrible, violent, and horrifying.  Yet, I could not run from there.  I sat, transfixed, like a spectator watching a gruesome gladiator bout — the blood and the death mesmerized me.

 

 The other man screamed as if now aware of what had just happened.  He turned to run but a sharp voice filled the air:

 

 “Running…Little prey…I’m singing… Of another day”

 

 And then his voice dissolved into the foreign language again, and the original song resumed full kilt.  I realized that the air not only smelled of whiskey, but also the fell fragrances of blood and waste.

 

 And then the figure looked straight at me.  His eyes were an off-orange color and I wet myself.  For this skin wearing, demon-singing jackal was staring me full in the face.  It was Shaypard.

 

 I woke the next morning to the aroma of bacon and wild turkey eggs as Shaypard cooked both of them on a small fry pan.  The dream seemed like some repressed memory, buried deep in the back of my mind.  But it was only a dream, I assured myself — after all, I’ve always had an active imagination.  Taking a quick moment to make sure that Afial hadn’t woken, I rose to change my trousers.

 

*  *  *

 

 The days passed quickly, with no more dreams to plague me.  We traveled hard and fast, and as often as not we fell into a deep slumber at the end of the day’s traveling.  Each night I would take first watch, and then speak with Shaypard a little.  Each day I would sing different songs, and watch with amusement as Shaypard would dance, sometimes grabbing Afial and dancing with her until she giggled loudly.

 

 Something stranger even than the dream happened, as the three of us traveled together.  I began to look at Afial a little differently; I saw how capable she was at simple things, such as foraging for food or mending a torn trouser knee.  She spoke practically of many things too, and during mid-afternoon rest stops, she would practice dagger sparring with Shaypard.  During the night, when we were not too tired, we would make mind-blowing, intense love, as we became accustomed to each other and our bodies.  I had never been with the same woman more than a few times, and I started to like Afial considerably more.

 

 Shaypard noticed my growing interest in Afial, and sometimes I would see him looking at me, a broad smile plastered on his face.  Hanlon’s Hope, my original destination finally came close to us.  Two more days and we would be there, but I found myself not really wanting the journey to end.  I liked the quietness, the peacefulness, the bond the three of us had forged.

 

 I wished we never took the side-trail to enter Hanlon’s Hope.  I wish we had stayed on the Empress’ Highway.   But we didn’t.

 

*  *  *

 

 The rank smell, of course, had been noticeable for a few days now.  With weeks of traveling and infrequent washing behind us, none of us smelled like roses, but this new smell was dreadful.  I knew it wasn’t Afial, and she said that I didn’t smell quite that bad, so we determined that Shaypard was the culprit.  It wasn’t just a sweat smell.  It was a rotting smell, like the dead road-kill we came across, victims of the few horse-carriages that rode on the Highway.  Shaypard’s face looked discolored and bruised, and he started to walk with a slight limp.  When I asked him about it, he simply shrugged it off as age. 

 

When we entered Hanlon’s Hope, Shaypard took his leave of us, while I played some of my music for a small crowd in the Twisted Thorn; a pub connected to our rooming lodge.  I played my heart out for the pub patrons, intent on getting the attention of the customers and the innkeeper.  I wanted to live in Hanlon’s Hope for some time and to do so I would require money.  Good playing translated into good money.  If I could finish writing the Saga of the Tragic Hero soon, I was certain that I would be guaranteed a stage to perform on.

 

 I finished playing a little early, so that Afial and I might spend some time together in our private room.  However, an older man came up to me, at the foot of the staircase leading upwards into our rooms and asked:

 

 “You want to hear a story, bard?”

 

 Afial, her hand gripping my own, shook her head, but the short, wrinkled old troll of a man caught my eye.  An eye-patch, scarred face and a rotting mouth all made him a curiosity, whose purpose needed to be determined.  Drunken breath washed over me in waves of foulness, but mystery ignores all discomforts, so I led him to a table, bought him a drink, and proceeded to listen to a remarkable tale.

 

 “You ever hear of a Skindancer?  The man who dances in the moonlight, wearing the skin of the slain knight?”

 

 “No.”  I said, fascinated by this old man.  His dull gray eye seemed like a cup of knowledge to me then.  Afial protested.

 

 “Come on Kyp.  I want to spend some time alone with you,” she whispered into my ear.  I shooed her away, and leaned over the table, to hear the man’s words better.

 

 “The Skindancer wears the skin of humans, but inside he is naught but a demon.  He rips and shreds, tears and clips.  A mad tailor, he makes his garments with tooth and claw, chisel and saw.  With his newly made dress, he dances in the fields, beneath the moon, jigging to his own ghastly tune.  And like a shepherd, with sheep, he gathers to him, those who weep.  With a dress frayed, a companion he has made.  Then there are two Skindancers.”  Another drink bought, and I listened more deeply.  I could already imagine my Tragic Hero, becoming possessed by the Skindancer, a companion to a greater monster.  The Tragic Hero escapes his creator, and rushes home to find his woman in the arms of another lover.  A fight will ensue, the lover dies, the woman cries — for she is now a Skindancer too.  I smile, thank the man and rise to leave.  For two copper, a story had been cheaply bought, and a ballad ready to weave.

 

 “Be wary young bard.  Not all stories are fantasy.”

 

 Afial, half-asleep during the drunk’s recital, practically leapt out of her chair and lead me upstairs, where she taught me a different sort of magic.

 

*  *  *

 

 “Wakey, wakey!”  Shaypard bellowed, pulling me out of Afial’s warm slumbering embrace.  “We have to get a move on.”  I protested, still asleep, and tried to find my comfortable niche again, but Shaypard would have none of it.  He shook me awake.

 

 The moment my senses returned to me in earnest, I noticed that Shaypard’s smell was gone.  Good, I thought.  The man had needed a bath dreadfully. 

 

 “What do you mean?”  I asked, as I woke Afial.

 

 “I want you to come with me on a little side-trip.  I need the company.”

 

 “We just got here,”  Afial protested.

 

 “It’ll only take a day,” Shaypard explained.  “Remember me telling you that I grew up near here?  Well, I would like to go there — to Goldspew.  It’s a good town.  You could be back here by tomorrow evening.”

 

 Well, I thought, Shaypard had been good company on the trip up here to Hanlon’s Hope, so we did owe him a favor.  I shrugged, and looked over to Afial.  She nodded her head.  “Sure,” she said.  “If it will only take a day.  I can’t handle too much more walking.”

 

 Shaypard smiled.  After Afial and I dressed, we went downstairs.  Half a dozen town guards were busy talking to the innkeeper.  Shaypard grabbed my arm and led Afial and me down a back hallway and outside into an alley.

 

 “What are you doing?”  I asked. 

 

 Shaypard gave a broad grin.  “A gambling man I met, accused me of cheating him in a game of cards.  He must have called the bullies on me.  It’s not a big deal.”

 

 “We don’t want to get in trouble over this.  Kyp wants to play in this town, you know.”  Afial said, in our defense.  Shaypard’s eyes darkened like storm clouds obscuring a clear, blue-sky day.

 

 “If we hurry, they won’t see you with me, and it won’t be a problem.”  We followed him down a series of small avenues, and along a dirt path, that looked unused for decades, leading into the forest.  I exchanged nervous glances with Afial — something did not feel right.  We would walk until nightfall without finding Goldspew.

 

*  *  *

 

 “Let’s get out of here, Kyp.  He’s starting to annoy me.  Who does he think he is that he can boss you around?  He’s acting, so weird.”  Afial whispered, as we watched Shaypard’s chest rise and fall in sleep.  I was past the point of arguing with her, because she was correct.  Something wasn’t right with Shaypard, and I didn’t want to put my life or Afial’s in danger.  I murmured agreement, and we rose from our blankets.  It only took moments for the two of us to be on our way.

 

 The nightsun above us roared with cool black light, making traveling through the forest much like dunking one’s head in a bucket of molasses.  The night stuck to us, no matter which way we turned our heads, there was pitch-blackness all around.  About half an hour down the road, my heart started to settle.  I released some of the strength with which I gripped Afial’s hand.

 

 “Thanks,” she whispered into the still night.  “I though you were going to break my fingers.”

 

 “Sorry,” I murmured.  “I guess I was just a little nervous.”

 

 “Me too.”

 

 “Uhm, Afial,” I said.

 

 “Yes?”

 

 “I’m sorry.”

 

 We stopped on the road, and through the darkness, I could see her emerald eyes sparkle. “Whatever for?”

 

 “The way I’ve treated you, the way I’ve been treating you.”  I couldn’t believe that there I was, apologizing to another human being, but it was as if I didn’t have any choice.  Something about Afial made me do it.  Love.  That four-letter word always spells doom to the heroes of my stories.

 

 She stretched upwards and kissed me.

 

 Silence evaporated our words, and we walked the dark road as mutes.  The next time I would speak would be when I screamed.  A shifty, rambling form, with glowing blue eyes trotted out in front of us.  I gave my scream of terror, and Afial withdrew her dagger. 

 

 “TskTsk.  Such poor company.”

 

 Shaypard?

 

 Afial rushed at him, but he easily knocked the knife from her clutch, and threw her aside.  Seeing Afial swallowed up by the darkness angered me, and I leapt at Shaypard myself.  He hit me with his fist, and I joined the swelling darkness of night.

 

*  *  *

 

 This time, when I woke, thick ropes coiled around my wrists and ankles; Afial was similarly restrained, lying in a bundle beside me.  The side of my head throbbed horribly as I examined our surroundings.  The building we sat in looked to be over a hundred years old, with bright sunlight spilling in from a gaping hole in the roof.  Instead of windows, thick chunks of wood were hammered over the openings in the walls.  Insects scuttled over and around me. 

 

 Afial sat across from me, her eyes open.  Her face was scratched, and her clothing torn. 

 

 “Are you okay?”  I asked.  “He didn’t…”

 

 Afial gave me a reassuring smile.  “No, he didn’t.  I guess I put up a bit of a fight though, when he tried to tie me up.  I don’t like rope, unless it’s special occasion.”

 

 I returned her smile.  “What do you think he wants with us?”  I asked.

 

 “I don’t know, he didn’t say anything while he tied me up, other than that we were poor companions.  I think he’s brought us to his town though.”

 

 “Goldspew?  How did he manage that, with both of us, I mean?”

 

 “He carried me, and drug you.  Not the most comfortable way to travel, but at least I rested my legs.”

 

 Her humor obviously came from an attempt to ignore the relative bleakness of our situation.  “Where is he now?”

 

 She shrugged, “He said something about getting ready for the big day.”  There was a screech as copper hinges protested their use.  Shaypard stepped into the room.

 

 “It is the big day,” he said with a maniacal grin on his face.  “A very big day.  Tonight, I will bring back an old friend.  And you will help me.”  Shaypard rummaged in the corner, and drew out a long shovel.

 

 “How?  What do you want with us?”

 

 “Tonight, you will find out.  A long road has taken me back to this place.  A very long one.  I used to mine here, many years ago.  My wife and I lived in this very building, and we planned to raise a family, on the secret gold vein I found in the hills.  Others heard of my prosperity, and were jealous.  To make a long story short, the other miners and I had an altercation.  They were winning, so in anger, I blew up the vein, and the whole side of the mountain crashed down, burying my wife.

 

 “I left Goldspew, and wandered for several weeks into the woods.  My only wish was to die.  My jealous possession of gold had caused my wife’s death, and I regretted my actions.  I wanted to die.  It’s been a long time, but now I’ve come back, to ask my wife’s forgiveness.”

 

 “You can’t do that if she’s dead.”  I said.

 

 Shaypard started towards the door, but just before leaving, he fixed me with a silly grin.  “But, so am I.  So am I.  I’ll be back by nightfall.  You’ll understand then, what I mean.”  Shaypard left, dragging the shovel behind him.

 

 “We have to get out of here,” Afial said.  We both struggled with our ropes, twisting our wrists, trying to squeeze out of the well-tied knots.  I would’ve quit, given the degree of expertise with which the rope had been tied, but the rope itself was not of the same good quality as the knot.  Years of exposure to bad weather had slowly rotted the rope fibers. 

 

 Still, it wasn’t until near dark that Afial managed to free first one wrist, and then another.  With her hands free, she made short work of the ankle restraints, and then she hastened over to help me.  We spoke no words, but when I was free, she kissed me again.

 

 I winced as I opened the door, the squeal surely audible for kilometers, but we raced through, onward and into the night again.  We made it as far as a crumbled courtyard, with headless statues, and debris filled fountains before I heard the mad song of my dreams again.

 

*  *  *

 

 The jagged, ragged, rough music poured from the lungs of Shaypard as he danced into the courtyard, carrying a lumpish sack.  Although the music filled me with intense loathing, I could do nothing, for my limbs froze — rooted to the spot where I stood.  Afial suffered the same as I.  Shaypard approached us, singing in his loud voice.

 

 “How are you, my friends?  I come to bring us a new companion.  Meet Zchul, my dearly departed, and soon to be returned wife.”  He took the sack, and dumped its contents onto the shattered, cobble plaza.  Bones scattered across the ground, beneath the hideous light of the nightsun.

 

 “Pretty, isn’t she?”

 

 I stifled a moan, choosing instead to scream, “What do you want!”

 

 Shaypard ignored me and walked to Afial, now humming his twisted tune.  Still the power of it froze me to where I stood.  He touched her cheek with a hand.  “Yes, dear.  You will do fine.  You will make a lovely skin for my wife.  Hard working and attractive, just like Zchul.”

 

 Skin?  Skindancer.  The old man’s words came back to me, his tale of the Skindancer.  A warning, it’d been, not a drunken man’s story! 

 

 “No,” Afial whispered dryly.  Shaypard removed a large skinning knife from his belt.  His humming intensified.

 

 “Watch boy!”  He sang out loudly, “Watch your lady die, just like in your simple ballads.  Are you the Tragic Hero, dear boy?”  The blade cut into Afial’s cheek just enough to puncture the skin. 

 

 “No!”  I cried, my voice rising above the Skindancer’s song.  “Don’t do this to her; please I beg you.”

 

 “And why not, Kyp the Kaller?”

 

 “Because.”  I could not find any way to deny what I felt.  “I love her.”

 

 Shaypard laughed, breaking the magic of the moment.  Afial fell to the ground, and Shaypard lunged at me, pinning me against the bulk of a shattered fountainhead.  “And how else would you have me bring back my wife.  I need a skin.  Any skin will do.”  His breath stank foully, his mouth just centimeters from my own.  I could feel his spat saliva on my cheek.

 

 The words came to my mouth, from a part of me, that I never knew existed.  “Then take mine.  Let Afial live.  Please.”

 

 “A choice!  A choice, like the one denied me.  You seek to barter with the Skindancer who walks in the moonlight, and hunts by the song!  I love it.  You are mine, boy.  Afial!” 

 

 Afial looked up, shock on her face, and a tiny line of blood on her cheek. 

 

 “You live girl, for Kyp the Kaller loves you so.  Remember it, remember his songs, for they die tonight!”

 

 The knife began to cut me, and I screamed for ages.  The pain stopped only after Shaypard finished removing my skin, my skinless body quivering and overcome by the pain.  The knife sliced through my neck with incredible speed.  It was my last feeling of being alive, and I still cherish that pain that I can no longer feel.

 

 The song and dance began one more time.  What more can be said?  Shaypard kept his word: he didn’t harm Afial.  He did something worse than killing me, however.  He skinned me, but even the power of my pain could not bring his long-dead wife back to life.  In a gesture of incredible anger and cruelty, Shaypard returned my skin to me.

 

 Remember, back when Shaypard and I wondered whether the dead could love? 

 

We do.

 

 ©1997 · Brent Knowles

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