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Art by Melissa Mead

Song of the Laughing Hyena

"And that will make her love me?"

The hag inhaled the acrid smoke that rolled off the roasting carcass of the pure-white lovebird. "It will bind her heart with threads of steel," she rasped. "She will do everything for you, but I must impress upon you the importance of it being her labor that prepares it. These forces from which we feed, we must not trifle with them. Do you understand?"
Kalvin ran an eager hand through his unkempt blond hair. "I do."
The hag raised her shaggy head--her eyes smoldered with the life of the sacrifice--and cackled; it was a sound somewhere between a bark and a screech. "You do not, boy. No one does. It would be an undoing of sorts, if any of you ever did."
The taut web that held Kalvin's patience ensnared snapped. "I have done everything you asked of me, witch. Give it to me!"
Hands--sinewy claws--unfurled from within the folds of her dingy fur cloak. Across her palms was the object of his need: A wooden clarinet with a reed carved out of siren bone. Kalvin seized it--it vibrated with a tangible sensation of seduction, and warmed his hand with lust--and fled the shop.
"Let it not be said," the hag whispered, "that I would dare stand in the way of true love."
The foul smoke slithered into her mouth as she spoke and granted her a glimpse of the future that awaited Kalvin. Her answering laugh twisted into a vicious snarl. The air blurred with power. Her eyes melted into beads of darkness; her bones snapped, contorted, and pushed against unyielding skin. Once the air cleared, she was no longer Hag, she was Hyena. She devoured the charred lovebird in one ravenous bite.
Kalvin searched the starlit sky until he caught that first flicker of the shadowy wings of a night swallow. He retrieved the precious clarinet from within his pouch, hands clammy with nervous sweat, and raised it to his lips. The song yearned for a voice; it pulled at him, kissed him and wet his lips with passion's hungry tongue.
He flicked his tongue over the warm reed and allowed his heart to play, as the hag had instructed. The tune broke the night's stillness with a vibrant imprint of his true feelings--wild and desperate, fueled by cold, debilitating love. The night swallow swooped lower; its wings thumped the air like the pounding of war drums. It hovered in the air before him, its red, glowing eyes riveted on the clarinet.
Beneath the thump of wings, Kalvin could hear the night swallow's heart pounding, feel the pulsing in the air with his fingertips, and then it stopped. The glowing red eyes sparked one last time. The wings stuttered to a halt, and it spun softly to the ground in absolute submission to the song.
Leaves crackled in protest as he bent to a knee and tied the night swallow's beak closed with a dark strand of his would-be lover's hair--meant to keep the siren's song imprisoned--and scooped the bird into his pouch. He took a paranoid look around, and then snapped the clarinet in half; the hag had insisted he do so. There would be one chance to complete everything correctly, and he refused to deviate from the witch's instructions, despite feeling the terrible waste of the destruction of such a wondrous treasure.
It was not until Kalvin stood at the door of his manor that he questioned the course he had decided to take. The memory of the raw, unadulterated hatred in her gorgeous green eyes, however, quickly convinced him that there was no other way, no other viable choice. He combed nervous fingers through his hair, straightened his disheveled clothes, and proceeded inside. The time for regrets and indecision had come and gone. It was time for action.
The house was silent. Kalvin frowned. "Hello?" He stepped toward the stairs, pulse pounding in his ears. "Edward? Bernard?" He tried to resist calling out for her, but the name fell off his tongue and landed on his chest with a thud. "Lilah?"
The door behind him opened with a creak; his foot slipped as he pivoted, and he stumbled against the railing.
"Sorry if I startled you, Master Gareth."
It was Lilah--her dark, sensual skin melted into the shadows--and she did not look particularly sorry; her hatred was still painfully apparent. The ache… the yearning slowly and deliberately tore its way through him. "Lilah…."
"I instructed Edward to send the others home early, and then to retire as well," she interjected. "I bought a few things you needed for dinner, and I thought I would get an early start. I did not expect you home until closer to midnight. You usually keep such late hours, sir. I hope you do not mind."
"Don't fret, Lilah. It is fine, but I actually brought dinner tonight."
She bowed stiffly in acquiescence. "I picked up wine while I was out, sir. Do you wish it served with dinner?"
"A red?"
"Yes, of course, Master Gareth."
"Then, by all means, serve it. It will go well with the night swallow."
"Night swallow?" Surprise replaced the hatred in her eyes; a wisp of dark hair loosened from her ponytail as she jerked her head in surprise. Kalvin forced himself to resist the urge to push it back into place. "You wish for me to cook night swallow?"
"I do… and I wish for you to join me as my dinner companion."
Hatred returned tenfold. "I do not think that would be appropriate. A servant should never dine with his master."
"Servants should do as they are told," Kalvin retorted. He tossed the pouch to the hardwood floor. "Pick it up. Prepare it." He watched her face carefully as he continued. "We have much to celebrate."
"Oh, have I not mentioned the good news?" He stepped toward her, succumbing to the urge to brush the strand of hair back in place; she flinched as his fingertips touched her, but he pretended not to notice. "I purchased the whole of your debt just this afternoon."
"Why… why would you?" A tear spilled from her left eye and ran down her face. "I was nearly free of you," she added in a choked whisper.
"You forget your place, Lilah," Kalvin said. He stepped even closer and wiped the tear away; he barely restrained from striking her as she jerked away yet again.
"I am not your whore!"
"Wrong. You are whatever I wish you to be," he retorted. "I own you. Do as you have been told."
She ducked beneath his arm with a stifled sob, picked up the pouch, and fled into the kitchen.
Kalvin desperately wanted to tell her how sorry he was for the way things had progressed between them, but something about her called to the monster inside him. She was his. He could make her do whatever he wanted; yet, what he wanted was for her to do what he wished because she wanted to. That was why he had turned to the witch for help, and he would have it all just as soon as she ate. Until then, she could hate him… he could live with that for a little while longer.
Lilah prepared dinner in just over thirty minutes--Kalvin counted every second with anticipation. She set the table, carved the meat into the thin slices he liked, poured them both glasses of wine, and took her seat; he noticed she already seemed more accepting of her position, as though the preparation alone had started the transition. Even her hatred and anger was gone, swallowed by a defeated, resigned cast to her eyes. Kalvin was unsure whether he liked her better this way.
"Everything's perfect," he said.
"Thank you, Master Gareth."
"Please, call me Kalvin. I would like for us to start over… to be friends."
Lilah carved the meat into the thin slices he liked, imagining the feel of the blade slicing into Kalvin's probing hands. She poured the glasses of wine, knowing she would never take a sip of her own, and did her best to appear as docile as possible, resigned even. The knowledge that it would only be a matter of minutes helped her contain her hatred.
"Everything's perfect," he said.
"Thank you, Master Gareth." She kept her eyes downcast, afraid that he would see through her veil of acceptance and feel the sear of her anger.
"Please, call me Kalvin. I would like for us to start over… to be friends."
"As you wish," she said. She hoped he did not notice her jaw tighten as she ground her teeth. She took a quick bite to cover her nervousness, and tried not to react when he took the first drink of wine. It would not be long.
"This is very good." He took another drink. "How is yours?"
She forked another bite to appease him; it really was good. "I was afraid I overcooked it." Why was she trying to make small talk with him?
"Not at all, Lilah, I assure you. It is exquisite."
A thrill of something buzzed through her at the compliment. She watched him take another drink. She fed her hatred with images of her torn clothes, of him rushing from the room, leaving her with only her tears. Was she mad because of how he hurt her, or because he had left afterward?
"How's the wine?" She smiled, confused by the odd questions running through her mind, and stopped acting as if Kalvin was no different from any other master; the truth was a strange creature tangled in the web of her thoughts. Her hatred sputtered as he gasped and reached toward her, falling to the floor. "Does it hurt? Oh, how I hope it does." Did she hope such a thing? She tried to shrug away the doubt, feeding her hatred with images of his crimes. "Does it taste of all you stole from me, my tears, my blood, my freedom?" She wanted to ask why he had left afterward, but the words snagged on her tongue.
Kalvin struggled to answer. His fingers grasped at his throat, and then at the air in front of him. He tried to stand, and Lilah's heart lurched when he stumbled backward into his chair and crashed to the floor. What was happening to her? Where was her hatred? She hoped with everything in her that the poison would not work.
He convulsed. White, blood-tinged foam bubbled from his lips. His screams ripped and bit at her heart, and she forgave him for everything he had done to her. She even forgave him for leaving her afterward. One simple thought answered all of her questions and left her gasping to breathe around the lump of cold, hard dread in her throat. She loved him.
"Oh, Kalvin, my love, what have I done?" She stumbled to his side and held his head in her lap as his screams subsided. He stared up at her with unfocused eyes, and the sorrow overwhelmed her. Why had she bought the poison? Why had she denied him? She loved him.
Somewhere not far away, unheard by Lilah as she turned her forlorn gaze toward her untouched glass of wine, a hyena laughed.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 8th, 2011
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