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The Echoes of the Dead

Strange Happenings in Saxtain

Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 25,000
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When a job is supposed to be permanent, you don't usually contemplate unemployment. But when Oswin's position of interpreter for a deaf man is taken by an angel from Heaven, he finds himself adrift.

On his way back to his master's house, he encounters a mysterious elf, Calder, living in dilapidated ruins. Intrigued and attracted, he lingers until morning and meets Calder's pet—a black swan in an enchanted pond.

Calder is a man of magic and secrets, and Oswin cannot bring himself to leave until the mysteries come to light—but answers may be the very thing that drive him away.

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It had been a long time since Oswin had contemplated the idea of being alone.

He had been hired to translate and speak for Wystan, a deaf man who had been taught to speak with his hands by Oswin's master. Barring a miracle of God or a spectacular falling out, Oswin had assumed his job was secure. Not many people knew how to translate his master's signs, so it wasn't as if he was easily replaceable.

And it had been a nice job. He'd been paid mainly in room and board, but that had meant he got a very nice room in a very nice manse, with actual servants he could ask to do things, like fetch him a snack or draw him a bath. And the monthly stipend had been enough to keep his clothes up-to-date and well repaired. Wystan had been a dear friend, a confidante. They'd relied on each other. They'd needed each other. Oswin liked being needed.

But the unthinkable had happened.

No, Wystan's hearing had not returned.

An angel had fallen from Heaven and fallen in love with him.

Him, Wystan the deaf man. Not him, Oswin.

And, since the angel was an angel, albeit a strangely insectoid one, suddenly Oswin had had competition for his skills. And Wystan's father, being a cheap man even on a good day, had decided that he had need of only one translator and turned Oswin out into the early winter chill.

Do you have everything you need? Wystan asked, bringing Oswin out of his reverie.

In answer, he patted down his pockets and belt. Money, food, water… Yes, everything he needed for the short journey to the capital. He nodded.

Wystan bid him a tearful goodbye and promised to write him via his former master in the capital, and made Oswin promise—twice!—to tell him when he found a new job so that Wystan could continue to write. But privately, Oswin didn't know if he could handle another position that was meant to be for life, only to once again have the rug pulled out from under his feet.

Then Wystan took off his warm woolen coat and offered it to Oswin. I have more, and true winter is fast approaching. Stay warm, my friend. Not giving him the chance to refuse, Wystan threw it around his shoulders and buttoned the top. I'll have your things sent ahead to your master. You should have them a day or two after you arrive. Are you sure you don't want to go with them?

Oswin smiled at his concern. I want the few days to clear my head. It's cold, but not brutal. I'll be fine.

You must promise to write.

At that, Oswin laughed. I already have. Twice, in fact. But I'll make it thrice, for the sake of our friendship. He playfully ruffled Wystan's soft hair.

Wystan laughed his breathy laugh as he batted Oswin away so he could speak. Send word when you arrive, he said with exaggerated sternness.

As you say, dearest mother of mine. Oswin bowed and laughed as Wystan buffeted him with the corded end of his scarf. Then, after a moment of thought, he took the scarf off, too, wrapping it snugly around Oswin's neck.

Be safe, my friend.

Oswin's throat, despite the new warmth, was suddenly very tight. He had never before been so grateful to not have to use it. Be happy, Wystan.

They embraced one final time and parted ways, Wystan back into the warm manse, and Oswin out into the chill of the woods.

As night swiftly took over the sky, Oswin pulled the heavy coat tighter around his chest and sighed out in a gust of white, the ground hard and crunchy with frost under his boots. There wasn't any inn nearby, he knew. He groaned as he imagined a night huddled next to a campfire like a starving beggar, but he was too far now even from the dwarves' hidden cottage for it to be a worthwhile detour. Cursing himself for not setting out sooner, he continued on as twilight became night and the moon began to wink through the branches overhead. It had been a long time since he'd had need to travel alone. The familiar woods, usually boring at worst, were beginning to seem sinister.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his tired eyes. Perhaps he should begin to seek a clearing off the path in which to make camp?

Something caught his eye in the murky twilight. Quarried stone. It looked like the remnants of a low wall. Squinting into the area behind it, he could just make out the dark shapes of half-collapsed stone walls and the remains of a floor. Beyond them, it looked like some of the castle remained intact, or at least enclosed.

He stood still for a moment, listening for possible bandits making their home there, but the forest was quiet. So Oswin stepped over the wall and into the ruins proper. Passing through a gaping hole in an old exterior wall, he found himself in a courtyard.

A peaceful pond, somehow unfrozen despite the chill, was the only thing with any life to it. The rest of the garden was brown weeds and winter stalks. On the other side of the courtyard was an intact part of the castle. Its shape and how detached it was from the rest made Oswin think it was a kitchen.

Light twinkled out of a window.

Oswin froze. It was too quiet to be a group of bandits. A group of a great size could never be so silent.

On the other hand, who would willingly live in such ruins besides beggars and thieves?

But as a chill wind blew through the trees, the idea of a roof and fire won out over fear. Oswin walked up to the door and knocked.

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