“Do you know anything about this?”
Between his index finger and his thumb, he held up a severed finger, cleanly sliced below the second joint. Slowly, he turned the finger to give her a clear view of the mottled skin, while personally viewing it for himself. She had to give him credit; she hadn’t thought this was the type of thing wardens did.
His icy eyes bore into her own expecting an answer, but she didn’t deign to give him one. He didn’t blink and neither did she. Silence; broken occasionally by the sound of one or two of the guard’s shifting or swallowing. They had brought her before this man with her head shrouded in darkness. It had been a poor attempt in keeping her from knowing the layout. Perhaps if she had told them she knew the layout beforehand, they wouldn’t have bothered. Instead she had found herself dragged throughout the prison three weeks post capture and forced to kneel before a man and a severed finger.
Barefoot, the cuts on the soles of her feet stung and her leg muscles ached, but it was nothing compared to her usual daily torture. Her hands had been bound behind her back in the same shackles they had given her when she arrived. A chain connected them to the manacles around her ankles. While loose, they itched. It took all of her will power not to reach down and scratch the incessant itch growing on the inside of her left ankle.
“One of the guards found this outside of your cell with a ring of keys beside it.”
The silence had been broken.
“We took attendance. Five guards are missing. All five had been assigned your cell during their rotation. Do you think that’s a coincidence?”
His tone was mild with an underlying hint of anger. She could smell it radiating off him like the stench of a frightened skunk. A tick was growing above his right eyebrow and she was starting to get the sense he wasn't appreciative of her silence.
Based off what she had previously observed with his staff, he was the type who was used to getting his way, no matter how he got it. It was hard not to notice the bruises surrounding the neck of one of the young maids who had attended him earlier before he began his interrogation. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one. Other women scuttled about the prison in fearful silence, bruises littering their skin. She doubted he was the only one who abused them… and that they were here by choice. Reports had reached her ears months ago of missing women in the next village over. Considering the prison wasn’t close to any major cities or towns, it was easy to guess where the women were coming from.
Silently, she gritted her teeth refocusing her attention. Another question had been asked, but she hadn’t heard. He stood, dropping the finger. Stalking around his desk, his eyes never left hers. When his flesh connected with her own, she wasn’t surprised. The sting on her right cheek was instantaneous. Tasting copper, she spat crimson droplets on his floor.
“Where are my guards?”
He was having a hard time maintaining his composure, but his voice was steady and assured. If she continued to remain silent, would it stay that way?
Another tick started in his left cheek.
“You haven’t spoken a word since you were brought here. It continues apparently.”
He clucked his tongue along the inside edge of his teeth in thought, crossing his arms. Leaning backwards, he rested languidly along the upper edge of his desk. Out of estimation, she guessed he was three inches taller than she with the build of a man accustomed to a life of hard labor. It wasn’t hard to guess why he had been chosen as the warden of the prison. There was an air of authority about him even when he wasn’t threatening violence to others. His stance shrieked confidence. A show. An act for those in his employ or perhaps he really felt he was on top of the world, considering she was in chains at his feet. He had been able to do what no one else had achieved in three years after all.
“Let’s try a different path. This one doesn’t seem to be working and I do have something for you.”
A shift in his gaze and he gave a nod to someone behind her. There was a click followed by the sound of a door opening and closing somewhere to her left. Grunts broke the tense silence sparking curiosity. When movement caught her eye out of her peripherals, she turned to watch two guards carry a large chest in, placing it at the wardens feet. It was of a simple make; wooden with metallic accents. The top was flat and overall, it wasn’t wider than perhaps three feet. Gems gleamed along the corners in a tasteful manner. They weren’t overly ostentatious, but just enough to give her the sense that a woman designed the exterior. In her mind, she wondered if the inside was of a rich violet color and plush for the placement of jewels or delicate antiques.
“This is a family heirloom. I inherited it from my father and he from his father, so on and so forth. As a child, I was told it has been in the family for generations containing our darkest secrets and pieces of our history and others history. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find six objects, none of which contained secrets written in the hand of my father or his or his father before him. Instead, I initially believed these objects to belong in my mother’s armoire or perhaps on display in the halls of my grandfather’s home.”
Turning the trunk, he gave her a glimpse of the contents within. It was as she believed, plush, but not violet. Instead the color was a dark gray and the trunk had a shelf inside, attached to the lid by a hinge. When the lid closed, the shelf pressed against the top so as not to lay directly on the items below. On the shelf, there were three objects and she guessed three more inside of the trunk she could barely catch a glimpse of. She had to admit, if she were in his shoes she would’ve thought the same. The three objects on the top shelf consisted of a small, wooden box with intricate designs delicately carved along its edges, a slim jeweled dagger, and an ornate diamond bracelet. Immediately, they drew her attention like a hound to a scent. There were dark secrets here - secrets others couldn’t hear, but she could.
Out of the three objects her senses had homed in on, it was the small wooden box the warden picked up and placed on his desk. He reached into the trunk again, pulling out a small hand mirror decorated with emeralds and gold trim. Another nod and the guards who had brought the trunk in closed it and proceeded to haul it out, careful it didn’t drag along the floor.
“As you have seen, none of the objects appear to be nothing more than what they are. However, I believe you sense what these objects carry.”
Gingerly, he picked up the small wooden box again, placing the mirror down, abnormally careful with both. Lifting the lid of the wooden box, a soft melody danced through the room. Guards around her sighed in ecstasy, some forgetting to hold their weapons in hand. The clatter of dropped spears was abrupt and jarring. Even she found herself slightly entranced by the melody. There was something unusual in the way each note rang out, reminding her subtly of the ocean.
The lid was snapped shut, cutting off the sound and the trance. Guards blinked in bewilderment while she found herself frowning in response to the warden’s thin smile. Embarrassed coughs erupted around the room cut through with murmured excuses. Flustered, guards straightened their spines and collected their dropped weapons.
The command was short, but it had the needed effect. Verbal sound was cut off.
“Somewhere in my ancestry, one of my relatives was bewitched by a Siren," the warden began, a sneer marring his features. Meeting her gaze, he smiled unpleasantly, disgust evident.
"Clearly, things ended well, or I wouldn’t be here today to tell this tale. My mother told me this music box was a gift at the wedding from the bride’s father to the young couple. The song is enchanting to say the least with an underlying tone of a Siren’s song. It is subtle without the intent of luring a man or a woman to her death."
The sneer had all but disappeared from his expression, a look of mocking thoughtfulness taking over.
"Instead, the gift was supposed to have been a reminder of the young girl’s family and the life she came from. The gift was given with good intent; however, subtle or not, a Siren’s song is stronger when it comes to human children. Their senses are still developing at a young age and when two of my relatives were perhaps a little older than ten and eleven, the melody of this music box drove them to insanity."
The warden paused, lost in thought. Seeing, yet unseeing and she knew his eyes watched something beyond these stone walls. Words too soft to hear passed his lips. When his gaze cut to her again, and a spark of recognition lit, she wondered at his own sanity.
"They leaped from the cliffs of their countryside manor onto the rocks below where their bodies were found weeks later. My great great great great great grandmother, Aleta, was the youngest of the three and lucky enough to have survived this ordeal.”
Another thin smile, but the disgust had faded. A look of fondness pulled his eyes back to the music box.
“This music box was locked away following the incident. Aleta’s mother refused to destroy the gift. It was a part of her after all. They left the town with the intent to start anew somewhere else. This music box has been in the family ever since with a little verbal warning. Years pass, and another one of my ancestors has a grand idea to alter this music box; to hide his secret.”
Carefully, the warden turned the music box over and over in his hands, continuously studying every inch of it as if, now, after so long, he could see what so many others couldn’t.
“After my own personal investigation, I’ve figured out a piece of the secret. It’s a piece of this mirror,” the warden lifted up the hand mirror, displaying that indeed, a small piece was missing from its face. “My ancestor did something terrible for this mirror, but he did something even more infuriating when he removed a piece and hid it inside of the music box." Hatred broke his features momentarily and his composure threatened to slip similar to earlier. The dam held and the trembling in his tone she had picked up on, smoothed itself out once more.
"If I break the music box, I will shatter the piece of the mirror and instructions were not passed down as to how to open the music box. This secret, my ancestor took to his grave. And now… do you see where you come in?” The warden asked, transferring his look of hunger from the mirror and music box to the girl forced on her knees before him.
“A mirror… and a music box…”
“She speaks,” the warden commented, eyebrows raised in surprise and pleasure. He crouched to meet her eye level and held the music box up for closer inspection by his prisoner.
“The demon blood within your veins allows you to do something completely pointless until someone like me has a problem like this,” he explained, his tone lightly mocking. With care, he laid both items on the stone floor in front of her, shifting his weight between crouching and half standing to do so. Her gaze followed his movements, studying the objects. Based off her own experience, it was easy to gauge the high level of skill displayed by the craftsmen of each object. A different person willed each of these items into existence, by hand alone. Where the music box was simple and elegant, the mirror screamed for adoration and attention.
Near the center of the mirror, was the small triangular cut out the warden had pointed out earlier. The edges were clean with slight cracks reaching towards the line where reflection ended, and treasure began. The warden had been right in claiming his ancestor having deliberately cut out the piece of mirror. As for why… she couldn’t fathom a guess.
Both objects called to her, their auras softly pulsing against her own, each vying for attention first. Choosing the music box, she felt the pull between her and the object swell with unusual strength and solidarity. All other noise steadily faded away and her eyes remained locked.
Part of her was aware of the warden crouched in front of her and she could hear the guards in the room tighten their grips on their weapons. The cautionary steps taken forward by the brave few echoed within the growing stillness in her mind. She wasn’t sure if it was a warning for her or for him.
Words seemed to bounce off a barrier the music box had created. There was something the warden tried to ask, but he sounded like he was fading and she was sinking. Muted echoes reached her sub consciousness, but distinct sounds were muted, and her vision had gone dark. Dragged under, the music box forced itself to become the only thing she focused on willing her to see beyond the veil and the secrets it was trying to tell. Moving her hands, she found they weren’t shackled. Beneath, around, and in front of her, a scene bloomed.
Three children were arguing. A tall cabinet stood in the corner, but other than that there was little furniture in the room. One little girl was waving a headless doll in the face of an older boy while an older girl played referee between the two. Watching the three, she could hear everything perfectly. The creak of the floorboard… the wind howling outside… the flapping of a set of curtains… their childish anger…. She was somewhere else entirely. From experience, she knew they couldn’t see or hear her and until the music box was finished with what it had to show her, she was a prisoner in a whole different way.
“You!” The younger girl shrieked, holding her headless doll high, thrusting it into the older boy’s face. There was something off about her voice, as if her tongue couldn’t help form the word properly. The older boy scoffed at her and when he began to sign in response to the younger girl, she understood.
“Why would I have bothered with your doll? I have my own toys to play with.”
“Arthur, apologize," the eldest of the three commanded.
“Why? I didn’t do anything,” Arthur argued.
“You know you did.”
“Oh, shut it Noline. Just because you’re the oldest doesn’t mean you know everything.”
The older girl sighed, turning to the youngest, crouching down on her level. Prying the doll gently out of her youngest sibling's hand, she pointed to the doll and signed something else. It wasn’t enough to placate the anger roiling off of the deaf girl. She shrieked again, darting around Noline. With an unusual strength for her age, she flung the doll at Arthur. It slammed into the side of his head.
“Aleta!” The older girl chided.
Grabbing hold of Aleta’s hand, Noline smacked it.
“No!” she stated firmly.
The little girl growled in response, but Noline had already gone to check on Arthur who had stumbled to the floor in the attack. He appeared dazed and disoriented, one hand hesitantly touching the side of his head. A slim line of crimson tracked its way down the side of his face.
The scene changed. If this had been ten years ago, she would've lost what little food she had bothered eating between memories.
Again, it was the same room with slightly different décor. Beneath the large cabinet, a large rug had been added to give warmth to wandering little feet on cold nights. The curtains had been exchanged for a lighter color and a chair had been removed.
In the middle of the room Aleta was doodling on multiple sheets of parchment; colors staining her fingertips. In the corner of the room, where the chair had once been, Arthur had set up shop with an army of clay soldiers. In one of his war scenarios, a toy soldier launched a clay ball across the room to land on one of Aleta’s drawings.
In a flash, the girl was across the room, arm raised. A smack resounded through the room, but it wasn't Aleta's hand that had made contact. Instead, next to Arthur, stood Noline; rage outlined her young features. Budding red created a five finger sketch along Aleta’s left cheek.
“Enough with the hitting!” Noline exclaimed, signing along with her words.
“Noline…” Arthur whispered.
“Hush Arthur. I’ve had enough of her hitting you or I when something doesn’t go her way. She may be the youngest of us, but it does not excuse her behavior.”
Alongside her words, Noline signed her meaning to Aleta. Pale blue eyes glowered in responsed. Intelligence was evident in her young eyes giving the impression she understood, but also, didn't want to. With the tension growing between the three siblings, the scene shifted.
She remained in the same room, but the pieces of furniture she had noted moved without anyone touching them. Time weighed upon her and mentally, she felt the tug through the years. When the furniture came to a stop and light filtered through the tall window, it cast a glow upon the blossoming image of an outraged Arthur. His right leg was in a cast. Crouched in front of him, the image of Noline faded into view with her back to him while she fiddled with Aleta's dress. All three of the children looked perhaps a year or two older.
“She pushed me!” Arthur accused.
Noline rolled her eyes, hands occupied with tying off a lush ribbon around Aleta’s thin waist.
“You tripped Arthur and you’re mad about it. Don’t blame Aleta for not knowing how to walk.”
“I’m telling you! She pushed me!” He pressed.
“Enough Arthur,” Noline sighed, her tone implying this wasn't the first time she's heard these accusations.
“Oh, so you’re taking her side? Do you think it was a coincidence when your book went missing and ended up in the fire a week later?”
“Really? Gravel probably took the book.”
“And happened to put it in the fire? The dog's not that smart Leena.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Noline scoffed.
“No. I’m not. Aleta pushed me down the stairs.”
Looking beyond Noline, he glared into the angelic smile of his youngest sibling. She said nothing, but remained still under her sister's ministrations. Arthur made a frustrated noise and hobbled out of the room leaving Noline alone with Aleta.
“He doesn’t know what he’s saying Aly. You would never push him,” Noline murmured consolingly as if the younger girl could’ve heard.
Tilting the girl’s chin up, Noline adjusted her golden curls.
“Right? You’d never do that,” she murmured, as if to convince her own doubts. Aleta gave her the same angelic smile she had given Arthur.
“No… of course not,” Noline continued, smiling.
Both girls faded into smoke, the elder having rested her hand lovingly across the younger’s cheek.
When the room reappeared, it was empty. Light was no longer filtering in through the window and a chest had been moved into the room to rest beneath the window along with a different large rug to cover the wooden floorboards. There was a faint glow outside, but previous colors appeared dull in this memory.
Into the room, Aleta skipped, humming under her breath; a mangled doll clutched in the fingers of her right hand. She didn’t seem to mind. Skipping over to the tall cabinet in the corner, she peered into the glass doors, eyes locked on a familiar wooden box. Without hesitation, she slammed her doll into the glass, giving herself a small opening. The doll was cast aside and she reached through the hole in the glass, plucking the music box from its dusty perch. A grin stretched across her features, far from the angelic one in the last memory. Giggles bubbled forth.
It was here, Arthur found her moments later.
“Aleta! Mom sai-… Aleta?”
Aleta giggled again and when she turned around, Arthur saw what was clutched in her small hands.
“Hey! You’re not supposed to have that,” he said, signing his words. His eyes tracked to the cabinet and when he saw the hole in the glass, his eyebrows rose.
“Ohhh… Mom is going to kill you!” His hands emphasized the word kill to match his tone. Aleta didn’t take kindly to it. Picking up a piece of glass near her feet, she threw it at Arthur, missing by a foot.
“What the hell?” Arthur asked, stepping towards her.
She growled and opened the music box.
This wasn’t one of the most gruesome memories she had seen, but it was becoming one she didn’t want to see. Already she was filling in pieces of the puzzle. How his ancestor had survived… how her siblings hadn’t…
Screams of agony erupted in the small room. They hadn't been immediate, but as the haunting melody set in upon Arthur's young mind, they grew in volume. Arthur's hands desperately clutched his ears; nails scratching against vulnerable skin. Earlier, the melody had given her a sense of calm, now, she felt sick to her stomach.
Noline came barging into the room, eyes wide and bewildered. She had seconds to take in the scene before her.
“Arthur? What in the-”
Her eyes tracked to her younger sister and what she held in her pale hands.
“Aleta… no…” Her words held such betrayal. The way her face crumbled at the sight of her smiling sister was heart breaking. Part of Noline didn't want to believe what she was seeing and it was this part that was her undoing. Instead of running to get help, Noline's screams steadily joined Arthurs. Above their screams, distorted laughter danced.
Aleta closed the music box. A strange care was taken in replacing it in the cabinet. Despite the melody having ceased, the screams continued interspersed with desperate begging. Similar to a Siren's spell, the melody was forcing them to relive their worse nightmare on repeat. Neither of the children would escape the horrors constantly barraging their young senses.
The next few memories, played out before her, altered between moments of peace and moments of Arthur's and Noline's growing insanity. When Aleta was alone with them, she would bring out the music box to play, steadily making things worse until the day her two siblings snapped.
In the last memory, Aleta stood behind her brother and sister. Rocking back and forth on her heels, she watched as they threw themselves from the cliffs; the same twisted smile curled along her lips, music box clutched in her hands.
The image faded and a weight she hadn't realized had been there, began to lift. Feeling a different kind of pull, she rose upwards, darkness rushing past her. What had felt like hours, was probably seconds as she crashed back into herself. Gasping her air, her eyes slammed open revealing her own reality. The warden had moved behind his desk once more. He was seated and he was watching her.
“Music box? Or mirror?” The warden asked calmly.
Breathing heavily, she licked her lips, and her eyes flickered towards the music box. He grinned.
“Ah… I’m guessing I know which memory the box showed you. And now you know the truth as well. Wonderful woman, wasn’t she?”
He didn’t give her time to answer. Waving his hand, he gestured towards the mirror.
“Go on… I don’t have all day to wait.”
He watched and when her eyes didn’t immediately cloud over, the way she knew they always did, his grin tightened. She couldn't tell if he was pleased or not.
“So, you can withstand the pull," he stated; the words felt forced.
"I wondered how powerful you were. Unfortunately, that is not what I need," the warden explained, clicking his tongue again. "I need to know the secrets the mirror contains and how I can retrieve the piece of mirror from the music box. Let me put this in terms you might understand," the warden said, rising from his chair to rest the palms of his hands on his desk.
"If you refuse to do as I ask, I will keep you here until you give me what I want. If you continue to refuse, I’ll line up prisoners in front of you and torture them until they die… starting with our newest member," the warden smiled a serpents smile. "Your choice.”
She bared her teeth.
“How feral, but I presume you understand your two options. Do make the right choice. I'm not wearing the right clothes for blood,” he said, gesturing towards his pristine white shirt.
His threatening tone washed over her skin in a way that made her want to punch in his teeth. He was trying to back her into the corner and for now, she was stuck in that corner. Pride gave her pause, but his threat over ruled her stubbornness.
Teeth clenched, a tick of her own pulled on a cheek muscle. Rolling her shoulders, she took a last calming breath before transferring her focus from the music box to the mirror. The connection was evident between the two, having shared a multitude of similar memories. When the pull from the mirror threatened to overwhelm her, she sensed it was not the mirror's memories alone she was about to see.