by Julian Gyll-Murray
They say that in your last moments, you can feel your mind start to empty, your memories and dreams stealing away from your body to find their home in the sky. That’s why we are laid in the mud, so that our bodies can be purged, and our spirits can fly to the stars.
But for some reason, I never thought that I would get there. I believed that true burials were for the rich, and that I didn’t have any memories worth revisiting. Dying was for others—and dreams too.
And yet here I am, motionless, mud swamping my skin and crawling down my sleeves, remembering the details of a life that was half-lived, and as botched as a drunkard’s attempt at melody. At least I am with you, here in the muck. We are like man and wife, buried together— except, of course, that you are a Prince, and I am the Hag of the Helford. As my memories of the night float away from me, I turn every once a while, to see you next to me, your dreams mingling with mine, and I think about how the night brought us together.
The events which led to our union took place on an evening like all my evenings: that is to say, wretched and cold. The tide was out, and the Helford River was but a sliver of water among hills of sludge.
I was hidden from sight amongst the trees above the riverbank, surrounded by thick woodland. It had been generations since the river’s trade had waned, and it was only at Tremayne Quay, an old dock now used for funerals, that there was light to counter the smothering darkness. The night belonged to mourners, to corpses, and Dreamstealers; there would not be another soul for many a headland.
This particular service had lasted more than an hour, and my backside was starting to grow numb. Tremayne Quay was full of people, their flaming torches illuminating faces of grief. The priests were chanting We All Go Into the Mud, and the dead prince was being lowered into the mire. His body, wrapped in a cloth, was in a sling held by a pulley on the quay. The family, holding the rope together, creaked the Prince down, slowly, slowly, and his body was then tipped into the mud. The slop of his corpse smacking into the dirt incurred a new howl of despair by someone in the gathering. There he was to be placed, for all his soul to empty of dreams and memories, and then for his body was to be taken by the tide out to sea.
It was a ritual that I saw most days, and generally I found it tedious. This, however, was different. I normally only see funerals for the rich, for the people who exploit people like me. But the Prince was different. He was the one noble who’d earnt the love of the people in these lands. He’d supported farmers and fisherman alike, and even helped to feed villages during the Blight. If there was going to be any funeral of importance to me, it was this one, for a man of the people who’d cared and been poisoned for his caring.
They scattered salt over the muddied body, now semi-submerged in the slime of the riverbank, and chanted one last time, singing to the river to take his body and bring it home, singing to the stars to accept his dreams.
This was the signal: finally they were wrapping up. I got to my feet.
By the time I had picked my way through the undergrowth, the procession had headed back up the path leading into the woods, a worm of light through the darkness of the forests. I could finally stand fully; I stretched my back and rubbed the leaves off my rags, every part of me sore, and faced the one lantern-light left on the quay.
I called out into the blackness: “time to collect your fee, Corpseguard.”
The light swayed through the dark until it was in front of me, illuminating a man wrapped in a long, black coat, and collars tucked up to his chin.
“Dreamstealer, then, are you?” His face, partially obscured by his collar, was one of contempt.
It was a look I was faced with often. I know that I am a disgusting sight to many. Should I make the mistake of making myself seen around the Ferry Boat Inn, or maybe the boatyard at Gweek, I am greeted with curled lips and eyes widening with anger. Those who don’t know me see a woman built more like a man, with rags the colour of a thousand mud-plunges and dirt-grey hair hacked short: a sight bad enough to spoil their ale. Of course, those who do know me see something even worse: a woman-lover and a grave-robber.
I have learnt to thrive on the hatred of others, however. I flashed my rust-coloured teeth at him in a grin, and said: “That’s right. Working so you don’t have to.”
He glanced back at the mud, and the old stone walls of the quay. He seemed undecided as to whether to say something.
“Untrouble yourself, Corpseguard.” I reassured him. “In this particular type of wrongdoing, we’re quite the professionals. The body will be back in the filth by the morn, and no one will know a thing.”
I can sound just like Roscarrow when I want to. I’ve learnt from the best—or, at least, the best of the worst.
I passed him a pouch of my master’s silver, and, reluctantly, he went on his way, his lantern-light bobbing into the woods.
Time for me to get to work.
I went up to the pulley and gathered the rope, now thickened with mud. I quickly wrapped it around myself and a stone cleat, my fingers made nimble with practice. I didn’t need light; not yet. When I was satisfied with my knots, I took out the candles of my pocket. I glanced around one last time: the blackest, and the oldest, of silences. I was alone with the corpse. With you.
I lit my candles, which gave off a pitiful glow, but it was enough— I could see the Prince’s body, half mud-swallowed, awaiting the embrace of the morning tide.
I leaned over the side of the stone quay, and lowered myself down into the filth. The mud accepted my weight with open arms, squelching with delight around my thick legs. My feet and knees now plunged in the ooze, I set to work, taking the royal sling and fitting the rope along the hoops at its edges. Then came the hard part— or at least, the first of the hard parts. I heaved the body towards me. The body was heavy, and the mud had already suckled at its shoulders and waist, but it was manageable. I spat into my muddy, cracked hands, and put everything into my pull at the ropes. The pulley creaked. I tried again— even groaning a little— and this time we budged.
We rose, the Prince and I, out of the mud.
It was well into the night when I rolled the cart into the field. It was a little higher above the hill, around the first headland from Tremayne Quay, and it contained the old familiar sight: Roscarrow and his towering blue-green Magefire.
Despite all of the hatred that people have for me, and all that I’ve done, I have managed to retain some sense of what’s proper and right. Not sweet-smelling Roscarrow. If my smile is ugly, then his smile is wretched. We are Dreamstealers, he and I— although he is the only one doing the actual dreamstealing. He just pays me pittance to do what he wouldn’t, which mainly involves getting my rags muddy and my fingers corpse-smelling. People think that a gang of Dreamstealers is composed of a horde of criminals, but they’re mistaken: there’s just a Mage, and someone miserable enough to do his bidding.
“So,” he announced, his hands outstretched near the raging fire, pawing at the warmth. “Am I in the presence of His Royal Highness?”
“I got ‘im,” I replied, drawing my cart closer, carrying the corpse that bounced and shifted with every bump in the grass.
There was delight in his eyes. “As dependable as always, Lamorna. And so early, too. I fancied that you might want to give him a Sleeping Beauty’s kiss on your way up.”
“Piss off,” I said, clumping down the handles of the cart. “Let’s get this over with. Body’s got to be muddy again by sunrise.”
“Of course. Will you do the honours?” He peered at me intently, grinning, his gold teeth twinkling with the green-and-blue flames.
“Well, you’d better help me. Too old to move bodies by myself anymore.”
“Piffle. You got him here, didn’t you? I’m starting to get a little irked about this obsession with age, you know. You could be the beauty of the Helford, if only you put my coin to good use.”
I scowled at him. “The coin you pay me doesn’t feel like it’s for good using, somehow.”
He laughed at that. Too much, even: he’d always been loud, Roscarrow, as if it gave him authority. But it was true—my sneering was ill-placed. I had little in the sense of a moral high ground. I’d been kicked out of my village for lying with a woman, and was leading the life of a Helston beggar, when Roscarrow first found me— and he’d made it very clear what my employment would entail. I’d still accepted readily: Roscarrow had a knack of finding people at their worst, ready to let the world go hang for a bit of respite. He’d had complete mastery of me since then; the only thing I could do was remind him how much I resented him for it.
“I do enjoy your little morality crises. Brightens up our little evenings, don’t they?” He grinned. “But on this occasion, I suggest we get down to our honest corruption without the tittle-tattle. If it is help you require, then I’d be more than happy to oblige— we’ve got treasure on our hands tonight, after all.”
He sprang up to the cart, and bounded up on it, ripping away the cloth in anticipation. The body was blotched and sickly, like most bodies are, and yet you could tell that the Prince had once been handsome, and regal. My corpse could never hope to look that good. Roscarrow grabbed the Prince’s shoulders, and I took his knees. Together, we shuffled him off my cart, and toppled him onto the bonfire, where his body crumpled awkwardly onto the blaze. Flames spat about him, curling about his limbs and shrivelling his hair.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so eager to see a corpse’s dreams.” Roscarrow said wistfully, his face coloured by the flames. “Not in all my despicable years…” He took out a scroll from a chest behind him, and bottle of blue liquid from his jacket pocket. Tipping the fluid over the paper until it dripped off the corners, he held it aloft, and waited.
Soon, they started to waft into the air, the final images of memory and dream released by the blue Magefire. Into the smoke came the images of the Prince’s dead mind, a stream of pictures. There was land and prosperity, and a manor gleaming in sunlight. There was another wisp depicting a Crown sitting with rust on a chair. And often, there were throngs of people, cheering and lining the streets, and as these memories steamed off into the darkness there were the distant echo of sounds as well, charges of emotion.
We gazed at it all as it rushed into the air and coloured the stars. My silence was one of solemnity; his was one of focus. On his scroll, drenched with Dreamfluid, all the images were reproduced, the blue paper filling with the pictures which were adorned on the smoke. But he was waiting for the gold in amongst the reams of love and nostalgia. I even caught him, after a few moments had passed, muttering nonsensicalities under his breath- “come on, give me catastrophes and shipwrecks, give me something…”
I ignored him. Much as the ceremony had left me cold, here the sense of mourning was impressed upon me: above us were the memories and the life of a man who had been loved and respected, a public figure for whom this was a violation of a well-cherished privacy. More and more intimate moments slipped into the darkness: the Prince’s first love, the fireplace of his living-room, the time in which he disappointed his mother. The discomfort of baring witness to it all felt like ice in my stomach: despite everything I did on these wretched nights by the river, I knew that there are some secrets which deserve to remain hidden. When my own secret had been discovered, everything had ended. My own father had kicked me out of my home and down the road, my rags riddled with flecks of spit. My lover had suffered a worse punishment: her own father had hanged her from the tree in his garden.
The mysteries Roscarrow and I uncovered never seemed as precious to me: in all my nights as a Dreamstealer, we had stolen the thoughts of corrupt merchants and wreckers, and I couldn’t have cared less about them or their secrets. But this was different. The Prince’s images were to be used for gossip and shaming, something with which to sully a name which had inspired the land. These images deserved to be just for you, and the stars.
And then, just as I realised how much your dreams meant, it came. The moment which was to change it all.
An image curled into the air, hued with green and swimming in the smoke. It showed a man, bare-chested, with the Prince in bed. The pillows were stacked, the man grinning from their soft depths, and rain pelting a window in the background. The picture swayed, and floated up until it was just a cloud of green. Then it was gone.
“There it is,” breathed Roscarrow, his face turned corpse-ish by the light of the blue fire. “The jackpot.”
He turned to me, his gaping mouth turning into a grin. “We could retire on this. The Prince himself, hero of the people, bent as anything. They will pay to know this, my lover,” he said. People still say that in these parts, calling women their lovers. It’s but an expression, but he used it to mock me, and I hated him for it.
He held up the scroll, which had the lover’s face imprinted in its corner, and spoke in giddy excitement: “The beloved prince’s name, dragged through all manner of dirt…”
His gloat made me wince. I hadn’t even realised, but I was starting to breathe harder, and clutch my rags about me. Roscarrow dealt in knowledge, in keeping secrets, spreading rumours and blackmailing. What he could do with this image was unthinkable. The only figure of respect and hope of the land was to be tainted— and with a crime you could not have helped but commit, a crime I knew led to revulsion and hatred. Your name would never be the same, and the fisherman and the farmers would return to their bitter, hopeless demeanours, resigned to decades of more subjugation.
“All these nights stealing the dreams of money-lenders, of penniless lords, of smugglers and shipwreckers… and finally, finally, mage-making pays off.” Roscarrow took out his bottle of blue liquid and kissed it. “What a beauty.”
I have no memory of forming a plan, no memory of a decision. It was an impulse. I snatched the scroll out of his unclean hands and tore it apart. In moments, it was in shreds. “Those dreams are not for filth like you,” I said, spittle and vapour darting out of my lips.
He looked at me in shock. Two things struck me in that moment. Firstly, an action motivated by something other than greed is incomprehensible to a greedy man. Secondly, there was no way he was not going to kill me for what I had done.
“That was…regrettable. To say the least, my lover.” Roscarrow lip curled more than usual, and rage trembled his fingers. “Very regrettable.”
In a flash, he pounced upon me, grabbing my shoulders and shoving me roughly to the ground. It was with such an intensity, such a viciousness, that my legs buckled and I was on the earth within moments, my fingers flailing, as ineffectual as a lady’s. I’d won many a bar-room brawl, and yet here I was, taken by surprise: I should have known better, my prince.
With one hand, he pinned me. With another, he flung his fist. My face was whipped into the grass, and pain was whipped into my body. I howled and twisted, and yet it did not stop: his fists were merciless and urgent. It had been a while since I’d been subjected to this. It reminded me of my father, and bleeding onto the cobbles of Helston pavements.
Afterwards, he stumbled up to his legs, leaving me to writhe in the dirt, and spat on me for good measure. “I thought I might have to kill you tonight,” he snarled. “I thought you couldn’t be trusted with a secret this big. I didn’t think that your tongue would be too small, and your heart too big. Disgusting, my lover. Nothing more pitiful than a grave robber who’s fallen in love with a corpse.”
I stumbled up, but before I was ready for him I felt a blade scratching through my rags and sliding into my side. The pain bolted through me, sharp and sudden.
Air rushed out of me, and I screamed. I felt my shoulders being grabbed, and being dragged across the grass. I snarled and tried to wriggle away, but every movement sent excruciating flashes of pain up and down my body. I was dropped, and the heat of the fire was then close enough to make me cry out.
“I’ve got more scrolls, and more Dreamfluid, don’t you know.” Roscarrow said, his wretched-smile breath close to my ear. “I think you’ll remember his face. I think it’ll be in your dreams, too.”
Roscarrow kicked the Magefire, and burning logs cascaded onto me. My rags immediately started to writhe with flames, and I was scalded in an instant, the pain immediately flaying my skin. I yelped, and rolled, and tried to crawl away, and still it did not subside: my hair and rags were all alive and thrashing with blue heat.
“All of your nothing secrets will be on here now,” Roscarrow said, holding up another parchment while he soaked it in blue. “All of your nothing family and your nothing lover and your nothing life spent in the mud. But all I need is his face. Think of him, Lamorna. I know you’re jealous of him, being buggered by the Prince.”
I squirmed about on the grass, on the wet earth, groaning, but even as the flames were muffled I knew the pain would always be there, underneath my skin.
There was blue and green smoke coming off my flesh now. Images hovered above me, showing the inside of my mind. My childhood home, with the stink of lobsterpot-cages and star-gazy pie, and the local schoolmaster whipping my hand with a stick, and her, too, swinging from the tree in her father’s garden.
“No one cares, Lamorna,” Roscarrow snarled, impatient. “I want the Prince-lover’s face, on this scroll. Think about him. Dream about him. Think about the paper you stole from me, and regret what you did.”
It wasn’t the pain that spurred me on then— searing though it was. No; it was at the visions of my life, clouding the air above me for the pleasure of a scoundrel. I got to my feet, but it took an age: my fingers were burnt, my eyes were too stung to see clearly, and the blade was still slotted into my ribs. But I stood nevertheless, memories blurring the world about me in wafts of green. Screaming aloud, I wrenched the dagger out of me. It twisted through flesh on its exit.
“The face, Lamorna. I need it on this page.” He glared at me, completely unthreatened by my actions. He’d never thought me capable of anything, never considered me anything but a dog to do his bidding. “For a life as empty as yours, you’d think this wouldn’t take as long.”
I charged into him, and suddenly there was a flash of surprise on his features as I ran to him with murderous fury. It didn’t take long—I slashed across his cheek, and as he cowered, I kicked and flung him down to earth. I took the dagger point and dragged it across his collar as streams of memories curled into the air about us, showing my Uncle, the first time I killed a fish, and views of the river from when I was young and used to dive into its brown waters. Through his clothes, I rent open a ditch of blood across his chest. I was not used to fighting with knives, my usual fighting being of the barroom-brawl kind: it was clumsy work, but got the job done. Within moments he was screaming in pain.
Beside us was a flaming log. I picked it up, and it felt no hotter than my skin. I sat on his stomach, and pressed the white-hot wood into his face, and it immediately hissed with contact. Blue-green steamed about us, some of it tinged with a memory of the time my brother was trampled by a horse. I then took the bottle of that cursed Dreamfluid, and poured it all over his burnt features, howling obscenities at him. Dark red blood was now spouting out of his knife-wound, and it mingled with the blue.
Finally, I got off him. He whimpered, clutching his neck, his cheeks glowing with its contact with the mage-fire. He was weaker than me, in many ways. I’d always known that. I’d endured more than he could ever have imagined.
Some dreams were already starting to burn off him, pictures of cobbled roads and rain-soaked trousers and hands swollen with nettle-stings. I waited for a single moment to catch my breath— but only the one. I didn’t want the pain to catch up with me.
Then I looked at the Prince’s body, still slumped in the fire.
Do you see, my Prince? Can some dead part of you recognise the tale of the last night of my life, and how much of a part you played in it? Every time I turn my head in the mud and you are there, the less I want to speak of the Prince or the Corpse. This story is a tale for you, and you alone. Perhaps it is just that I’m getting soft. Perhaps you’re the only one here, and I’m getting cold, and lonely, and dead.
It was only once I’d gotten you out of the fire and back onto the cart, and finally dragged you away, that I realised how cold it still was. I knew, because my feet were shivering. But the rest of me could not feel it. The heat was there, embedded in me, making me dizzy. Pain and exhaustion almost got the better of me, and a false stumble on the track was enough to make me wail and topple to the ground.
The only thing which kept me conscious was the clarity with which I saw my purpose: I had to get you back to the mud. You deserved better than the likes of me and Roscarrow. You deserved peace.
So we crawled through the forest. I wonder what birds, what creatures, saw us there: me, issuing into the air a green memory trail of scrub-boards, of hovels, of grimy pans and grimier bodies. You, in contrast, were still issuing hazy images of royal processions and gatherings.
Something tells me that we were not so far apart, your memories and mine. I think that there was sadness in both. There were never many smiles in my life. Laughter, yes: but they die, while smiles linger. And I think yours were the same, telling of laughter without warmth and of a life predetermined. I’d never known you, of course. Not alive. But there are some things you can tell about people if you’ve peered into their dreams.
Sometimes, I looked back around the headland, and I could see another dim trail of dreams, mingling with the tree tops and floating up to the sky behind us. A line of green and blue, connecting the Earth to the Stars. Roscarrow had picked himself up, and was coming towards us, a stream of memories stealing off his burnt face.
Let him come, I thought. We’re all naked now, emptying our souls in the darkness.
I flailed, and dropped the cart, many times. By the time I got to Tremayne Quay, I was finished. I’d gotten you there, to the mud, but it had taken away everything that I had. I placed my hands upon your ashen limbs, and dragged you off my cart, and we both slumped upon the edge of the quay, and I found I could not move any more.
We were close, then, you and I. Mage-Fire Companions. Your handsome face looked crispy. I cried then, because of the pain and the burns and your coal-like features, with embers of green illuminating parts of your skull that should not be seen.
A dim memory trailed away from you, showing you sitting on a boat and seeing the Helford behind you, and the sun bounding off the waves. You seemed calm, at ease— maybe your lover was there?—and I could faintly hear the same sounds that I’d known on my days out on my dinghy, with the wind lapping at the sails and the creak of the floorboards beneath my feet.
And with that, my body buckled, and my mind went.
I do not know how long I was gone for. But it was too long. When I woke up, there were still some faint memories shifting in the stillness, coming from our burns like the last smoke of a spent fire. They circled about us, like ghosts in the night air.
And there was Roscarrow, not far off, where the woods came to an end. He wasn’t moving, and so I slowly got to my feet, and limped over to him. He was slumped on his knees, just a few steps away from me. Clearly, he too had spent himself coming here: he looked weak, and his chin was resting on his chest amidst a necklace of blood.
I looked at him for a while, curious. I was not afraid of him—whatever he had come for, our encounters with fires and daggers seemed to have calmed us both.
“Not dead, then, Roscarrow,” I stated. Not wickedly: I was glad, in a way.
“Not yet, my lover. Not yet.” Speaking was painful for him. He raised his head, and looked at me. I could make out where his eyes should be, and felt the sadness emanating from them.
But, most of all, I saw dreams.
They weren’t smoking off him so much, like they’d done for you and me. But his face itself glowed with images, a result of the Dreamfluid I’d poured onto him. Tatooed upon his cheeks were visions of a house burning down, of a father figure behind the bars of a jail. But there was more than that. After a moment, I realised that the blue liquid also was showing the images of my mind and yours and his together, patterning the darkness. His coat was wet with blood and imagination, and I saw there in the leather my home and yours, and Roscarrow, pacing the streets of Helston. All a swirling mass of images, of blood and dreams and the colour of mage fire.
“What do you see, my lover?” he asked in sadness.
“I see…” I tried to study it, but at first it went too fast for me to describe. Then I took a long breath, and centred on what was most important. Perhaps they were the images of my mind, or yours— or perhaps it was a shared dream, a concoction of all of our imaginations.
“I see cliffs, and coves. I see the river and the sea meeting. I see Mount’s Bay, and ships tossing on water. I see darkness, forests and Mage-Fire.”
Roscarrow nodded. “Home,” he said simply.
A moment passed.
“No regrets, then?” he asked.
“One for most days of my life, probably. You?”
“About the same. More days to account for, though.”
He swallowed, and dreams crawled down him, illuminating his blood-soaked neck. Memories dripped, and made little silver-green puddles on the quay, containing worlds in their pinpricks of light.
“So those visions of the river, and the sea…” he began to ask. “Whose were they?”
I shook my head. “Don’t know, Roscarrow. ‘Suppose it could be anyone’s.”
He grinned. It immediately turned into a wince, but I knew what that smile meant. Laughter can die, but smiles linger. “That’s good.” He said. “I like that.”
A moment passed in reflection. Then he groaned, and tried to straighten himself and look directly at me. “I came here to kill you, Lamorna, but I don’t think I have the energy now. Any chance you could help me in the right direction? I can feel the river thickening in the mudbanks over there. I’d like to catch the tide, if I can.”
I looked towards the quay, and the mud that lay beyond, then back at him, with his features burnt green with ghosts, and with his dark eyes, in which I could see tears now.
“What do you say, my lover-and-murderess?” he asked. “For old, terrible, regretful times’ sake?”
There is not long left, not much time to say what little remains. I must go quickly.
After Roscarrow, I had to rest again. The pain was too great, the feeling of my burnt skin and my knife-wound making every move agony. I was in no fit state to do what I did. And that’s the answer of it all, really. I wasn’t too old to be a Dreamstealer, no matter how many times I’d told myself that. I could have hauled corpses for years. But here I was too burnt and bled, and my every emotion had been poured out into the air.
But I had to bury you, and do it proper. There could be no way that anyone else could get their unclean fingers on you. I put you back in the sling that I’d left on the quay, and just that seemed to take an age. Then I took the rope off the cleat, and wrapped it around my wrists: I didn’t want to drop you. I began to lower you back into the mud from which we’d risen, all those hours ago, but holding on to the rope with burnt fingers was too painful. For a few moments, with my boots dug in the earth, I leant back, and cried out, hoping that pain of holding you would subside, that the cord tightening around my palms would not make me feel as I were on fire again.
I whimpered, and held you in the air for a moment, but it was only a moment. You fell, and the ropes dragged me forward, and I went over the edge with you.
We smacked into the mud, and I screamed and howled, and the Helford riverbank sunk its teeth into us. I tried to grasp at the rope again, but I could barely move, trapped by pain and dirt.
After the ordeals of the night, it was simple— nay, peaceful, to give up. The cool mud embalmed my burnt skin and soothed me, and the deeper I sank the more I felt embraced. I was able to lie there with you, and look up at the sky, and await the tide. I gazed at all those stars, my companions on all those summer nights, and the last dream-glimmers sailing off us and floating up to meet them.
I can’t remember resting like this. I can’t even remember the last time someone took care of me, my Prince. Perhaps too many people looked after you, when you were alive; or perhaps not enough, or not where it counted. I don’t know. Only the sky does; it’s been housing your spirits all night.
Here it is, now. The final part—where the last breath flows in and out of your lungs, and it is weak, a whisper of a breath. The part when your mind takes its last fill of dreams and regrets, to last until the tide brings you out to sea.
The river is tickling my cheeks now.
You never knew me, Prince. But we go together.