The Necromancer’s Husband by Ali LaForce
The sound of someone pounding on the front door woke them. Cord jerked awake to cold darkness. Hedda groaned beside him then struck a match and lit the whale oil lamp on her bedside table. “I’m coming!” she shouted. No one ever barged into their home in the middle of the night because they needed Cord. He didn’t know how to stitch up bleeding heads from drunken brawls. Cord grew up on a dairy farm. He knew how to milk a cow, how to help with calving, and how to mow hay. His skills had little place in the city.
Hedda threw a robe on over her chemise and hurried to the front door. Cord reached for his trousers and fumbled in the dark to put them on. From the front of the house, he heard a male voice say, “I found her behind the blacksmith’s shop on Kippen Street.”
“Bring her this way,” Hedda replied.
As Cord fastened his trousers, he heard them shuffle to the room just to the left of the front door. In other homes, this room was the parlor. In theirs, it was a surgery.
He listened for a groan or grunt of pain from the person who had been brought by the man but heard nothing. Cord threw a shirt over his head and went into the surgery. The man who woke them wore the gray woolen uniform of a watchman. The corpse of a young woman hung limp and bloody in his arms. Her blank eyes stared at the ceiling. Cord felt a surge of anger. This was the worst part of the city, the killing.
While Hedda lit the gaslights on the walls, Cord helped the watchman lay the body on the large table in the middle of the room. The autumn night outside was chilly, but the body still felt warm. Blood seeped from more than a dozen cuts and stab wounds. A broad smear of red covered her mouth. Hedda opened the young woman’s mouth and peered inside. “They cut out her tongue. The bastards are learning.”
When Cord was a boy, people feared and despised necromancers. They stole bodies and resurrected their victims for their own gain. Some of the dead were made into laborers and worked until they fell apart. Others were bewitched to dance a shambling jig for the amusement of the crowd. Those were the lucky corpses. Some necromancers exploited the dead for darker purposes. They revived the dead and sold them to sadists and perverts.
Of course, even back then, there were a few necromancers who helped people, but stories of hope never spread as far or as fast as stories of evil. Things changed twelve years ago, when the childless king Heinrich died without naming an heir. The kingdom perched on the edge of civil war until a necromancer revived him long enough to name a successor. This act saved countless lives. Since then, Necromancy began creeping into respectability inch by inch, along with the steam engine train and dresses short enough to reveal women’s ankles.
Necromancers crept out of the shadows and used their art for healing. It was a natural side trade for those so attuned to the forces of life and death. Bit by bit, people came to trust the necromancers to mend bones and break fevers. The majority of Hedda’s work in the neighborhood was healing, but from time to time she did resurrection. In the past few years, the watch had come to rely on necromancers to revive murder victims so their attackers could be brought to justice. Cord looked at the dead woman’s mouth and the blood from where her murderer cut out her tongue. Killers were learning how to keep the dead from talking.
The watchman stared down at his bloodstained hands. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood on his coat. The sleeves showed rusty stains from where the body had bled on him. Cord noticed the quiver in the man’s hands and realized the man was young. Seventeen, maybe. Eighteen at the most.
Cord met Hedda’s eyes. She nodded. She would start to prepare the body now, and she did not need help for the first part. He touched the watchman’s elbow. The young man jumped a little. “Why don’t you come this way? I’ll make you a cup of tea while Hedda works.”
The watchman hesitated. “Uh, I don’t know if it’s proper. Shouldn’t I stay with the…” he gestured at the body on the table, searching for the right word.
“No,” Hedda said, “You can’t help any further. I am responsible now.”
Cord put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and led him to the kitchen. Cord started a fire in the stove to boil the kettle. He took a wheel of yellow cheese from the cupboard, one of the gifts his parents brought from the farm the last time they came to visit. Each time he took a bite of it, he tasted the sunshine and green grass of home. Cord made small talk while the kettle warmed up. He learned the watchman’s name, Tretan, and that he had been on the job for three months. Once Tretan had some strong tea and a bit of bread and cheese in his belly, Cord brought the conversation back to the matter at hand. “Have you sent word back to your station about the woman?”
“Yes. My partner went back after we found her. He went to tell our sergeant I would bring her here.”
“Good,” Cord said. “You did well. You brought her to the right place.”
Tretan glanced at the parlor door. “We were on patrol. It’s been a quiet night, so we were talking about what sounded good for breakfast. Then we turned a corner…” Tretan closed his eyes, picturing the scene. His face paled and he started to go sweaty. Cord reached beneath the sink for a pail. He recognized that look.
“Since the moon is almost full tonight, we saw the blood all around her. I never knew there could be so much blood in one person. I—” Cord passed him the pail as he hunched over and violently expelled the contents of his stomach. Cord felt for the boy. The first few times he had helped Hedda on the grim cases, the murders, the maulings, he felt much the same. He had been amazed at how calmly Hedda did her work without a cringe or grimace. After some time, he stopped falling apart when the bloody bodies came in. That didn’t mean it was easy, though. It was never easy.
When Tretan’s heaving stopped, Cord topped up the boy’s cup of tea and encouraged him to take a few sips. Eager to talk about anything other than what he had seen, Tretan asked Cord about himself. “So, what do you do? Do you have a trade?”
Cord shrugged. “I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that when someone’s short-handed, but mostly, I take care of Hedda. She takes care of everyone, so I take care of her.”
Tretan tapped the teacup in front of him. “That’s all right, I suppose.” The look on his face betrayed his skepticism.
Cord smiled. “It all works out in the end.” He handed the watchman another piece of bread then sent him to the front door to wait for his relief from the sergeant. “Stay by the door,” Cord said. “Whatever you hear from inside the room, stay where you are. Don’t come in until we tell you to.” Tretan readily agreed, relieved he was not asked to help, and he hurried to take his post at the front of the house.
In the empty kitchen, Cord closed his eyes. Before Tretan woke them, Cord had been dreaming a nice, warm dream that was mostly the memory of the farm. He dreamed of milking the old cow, Bethany. He sat on a stool, surrounded by the smell of milk and the snuffles of the cows. When he was a boy, that was what he imagined for his life when he grew up. He imagined marrying a nice farm girl who knew how to make good butter, and they would have a dozen children to run around in the sunshine.
Instead, he had met Hedda on one of his trips to the city for trade. While slicing a wheel of an aged white cheese for a customer, he accidentally gouged his hand. As his blood painted the stones beneath him red, Hedda strode out of the passersby on the street and demanded that he give her his injured hand. He felt a thrill run up his spine when she took his hand, and in that moment, he was grateful to his knife for slipping.
When they married, he traded everything for life in the city. Instead of milking cows, he helped Hedda treat the sick, the injured, and the dead. There was no farm, and there would be no children. The necromancer’s power made pregnancy impossible. There were stories of women necromancers who tried, only to give birth to dead infants that were twisted and gnarled like trees. Cord’s life had no children, no cows, and the only sunshine he saw was clouded with coal smoke. Still, he never regretted his choice. Being with Hedda was worth the price. He loved her sparkling eyes, her intelligence, and her compassion. Hedda took care of everyone. All he had to do was take care of her. He took a breath and stepped into the surgery.
Hedda had already chalked runes on the floor and set up crystals throughout the room to channel the magical energy. She stood at the side table, grinding herbs to mix with anointing oil. He recognized some. Dittany to contact spirits. Cinnamon to heal. Mugwort for consecration.
She had not yet cleaned the body, so Cord poured water into a basin and removed the woman’s clothes. With a soft bit of flannel, he washed the corpse, swabbing blood and dirt from her skin until all traces were removed.
With Cord’s help, Hedda rubbed the oil and herb mixture all over the young woman’s skin. The scent of cinnamon filled the room. The sweetness of the smell contrasted starkly with the horror of the wounds on the young woman’s body. Hedda, who could read a body as well as Cord could read the words printed in the daily newspaper, said, “They raped her. More than once, I think. They strangled her. The cuts and stab wounds aren’t what killed her.” Hedda said the words calmly, much like someone would remark on the weather, but Cord knew how hard this was for her. As she described what she saw, Cord wrote her words down on a piece of paper to give to the city watch.
“I know her,” Hedda said. “I don’t remember her name, but I remember her from maybe a year ago. She had a fever and I helped her. She lived with her parents and her younger sister. They’re probably worried about her.”
That meant the dead woman lived in the neighborhood. Cord looked at her again, but he did not remember her. Of course Hedda did. Hedda remembered everyone. Sometimes, like these times, he wished she didn’t.
“Are you all right?” Cord asked.
“Yes,” she lied. “I’m fine.” She would feel it all later, but now she had a job to do.
She draped a series of thin copper chains across the body so they created lines from the woman’s right side to her left with each chain spaced about two inches apart. The long chains hung down over the table and pooled on the floor. Cord and Hedda placed two bowls of saltwater on the floor, one on either side. They gathered all the loose ends of the chains on her right side and placed them in the right-side bowl, then did the same on her left. Then Hedda took out a thicker chain, with each link as big around as the fingernail on Cord’s thumb. She put one end of the thick chain in each bowl, then draped the middle around her shoulders like a shawl. Now Hedda was connected to the corpse. Every part of the preparation up until this point could be done by anyone who knew the right steps and mixtures. The next part could only be done by someone with the power of the dead.
Hedda closed her eyes and began to hum. The sound started quiet in the back of her throat, a steady monotone sound, the buzz of a beehive. The sound intensified, rising in his ears until the beehive had turned into a massive, angry swarm. The sound grew louder and louder until Cord had to cover his ears to stop them from splitting. The sound wailed in his ears like an avenging demon. It sounded like the fury of the gods raining down on them. The air began to smell of ozone and he had a hard time getting his breath, as if a great weight pressed on his chest.
The dead woman’s fingers spasmed. Her toes twitched. Her eyes fluttered. She sat straight up on the table. Her eyelids flew open and she screamed. Blood sprayed from her mouth, spattering the front of her chest. The copper chains across her upper body fell in a heap on her lap. She brushed the chains off her and jumped off the table. She ran to the door, trying to escape, but it was locked. She screamed again when she realized she was trapped, and she crouched into a ball on the floor, holding her arms in front of her face, trying to protect herself.
“It’s okay,” Hedda murmured. “You’re safe here. No one will hurt you.” She dropped the large copper chain from around her shoulders and stepped slowly toward the young woman. “Do you remember me? I’m Hedda. I took care of you once when you were sick.”
The young woman looked at Hedda, and Cord thought he saw a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. She lowered her arms and covered her body, suddenly aware of her nakedness. Hedda maintained eye contact with the woman and held out her arm. Cord placed a blanket in her hand. She reached out toward the woman, offering it to her. The young woman grabbed it and wrapped it around herself. She tried to speak, but without a tongue, all that came out was a grunting sound. She began to cry and Hedda pulled her into a hug. “There, there,” she said. “You’re safe now. I won’t let anyone hurt you anymore.”
The woman touched her throat. It had to ache from the damage of strangulation. The dead did not feel as sharply as the living, but they sensed when something was wrong. She touched at the stab wounds, looking confused. She reached into her mouth, investigating the stub of her tongue. She cried out.
“I know this is very upsetting right now,” Hedda said. “I have news to tell you. I can explain what has happened to you, but it will be difficult to hear.”
The young woman shook her head, not wanting bad news.
“Someone hurt you,” Hedda said, telling a partial truth. “Someone hurt you very badly and you’re the only one who can tell us who.”
The woman made more garbled noises, then her hands tightened into fists in frustration. She could not speak. Hedda asked the woman if she could write. She shook her head.
“In that case, we’ll ask you questions. You can nod or shake your head. There’s a watchman waiting. We will help you tell us who did this and the watch will go after them.”
The young woman hesitated, then slowly nodded.
Cord went to get the watchman. Tretan stood outside the front door, watching the sky change colors with the dawn. Another man, older and wearing the insignia of a detective, stood by Tretan. Cord recognized him as Armin. Armin was good at his job. Cord was glad to see him.
“Is she… awake?” Armin asked.
“Yes. She’s distressed, but that’s to be expected. She’s ready to see you. Hedda believes the young woman lives nearby. She recognized her as someone she treated before.”
“Good. A woman came to the station looking for her sister. We think the missing sister is the woman in your parlor. The sisters live not too far from here, which matches up with Hedda’s recollection. The missing woman’s name is Geneva.”
Cord took Armin into the surgery. Hedda and the young woman sat together on the loveseat. “This is the detective, his name is Armin,” Cord said to the young woman. “He believes your name is Geneva.” A nod. There it was, the first answer. Now she had a name.
“I’d like to have your sister join us,” Hedda said. “I’d like to see if she can help us identify who did this.”
Geneva hesitated. She shook her head.
“Are you frightened of your sister?” Armin asked.
She shook her head. No.
“Are you afraid of having her see you like this?” Hedda asked.
She nodded. Yes.
Hedda took Geneva’s hand. “Don’t worry about that. Your sister is worried about you and she loves you. It will help if she can be here with you. It can make things a little easier.” Geneva sobbed. Hedda pulled her close, not the least bit bothered by her bloody saliva or the gory wounds. “We’re here with you now. No one can hurt you now. I’ll stay with you as long as you need me to. You can stay here until it’s all over,” Hedda promised.
The sister, an anxious woman named Irene, was fetched. When Cord asked if someone should find her parents, she explained they moved to the country last year. It was just the two of them now. After the initial shock of seeing Geneva’s wounds, she helped Armin with his inquiry.
Was the attacker someone Geneva knew?
Was it someone Irene also knew?
Geneva pantomimed a motion. Irene guessed fish.
Irene’s expression turned grim. “It was Willard, wasn’t it? Tell me.”
Irene told Armin all about Willard the fishmonger. She told him how he tried to court Geneva. How he refused to take no for an answer. How he followed Geneva and kept pressing her to take walks with him. How he called her vulgar names when she continued to refuse.
While Irene talked, Geneva clung to her sister.
Armin took notes on a small pad, collecting the details of the man’s appearance and places he frequented. Once Armin had all he needed, he left in search of the murderer.
“Now what happens?” Irene asked.
“Now you spend some time with your sister,” Hedda replied. “You two can have privacy in the parlor until the end.”
“Can I take her home?”
Hedda shook her head. “I would advise against it.”
Hedda turned to Geneva and spoke softly, “You have some time. Since I was able to revive you soon after, you have more time than most. Maybe a full day. That is the most that a mind can last after death. Your body can go on longer than that, much longer, but your mind will begin to fade. I want you to stay nearby so I can help when the time comes. I can release you then.”
Irene took a deep, slow breath. Cord saw how hard she fought to hold herself together. “She’s not back? Not really? I thought we would have more time.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve bought you some time, but only some.”
That was the worst part. Families, given a brief reprieve from their grief, had to face it all over again once the person’s eyes started to glaze over. They watched while their loved one slipped away for a second time. They had a few hours, usually, which was both kindness and cruelty.
Cord and Hedda left the sisters together to make the most of what time they had left. From time to time, Hedda would make an excuse to go into the surgery, bringing Irene a cup of tea or something to eat. Geneva did not eat or drink. The dead don’t need refreshment. Each time, Hedda checked on her patient, looking for the signs that it was time to end the spell that animated her.
Between these visits, Hedda pretended to be busy. She made a half-hearted attempt to make notes about the case in her ledger, she boiled her surgical instruments to clean them, and she leafed through correspondence from colleagues in other cities, but mostly she paced.
Cord did his best to distract her, but his attempts were fruitless. She picked at her soft-boiled eggs and toast when he tried to get her to eat breakfast. She stared out the window blankly when he tried to talk with her about ordering a new pane of glass for the cracked window in the kitchen. She shrugged when he asked what she thought of the story in the newspaper about the soapworks opening downtown and the jobs it would create. She barely touched the sausage he made for lunch, although she hypocritically encouraged Irene to eat, admonishing her to keep her energy up. Hedda paced the house with part of her attention always tied to the dead woman in the surgery.
When the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, Hedda hovered more closely over her charge. Finally, she came to Cord where he sat in the kitchen mending a hole in one of her socks. “It’s time,” she said.
This part of the process was simpler than the morning’s procedure. Cord helped Geneva back onto the table. He placed a small pillow under her head. Her eyes were wide with fear, but even as he watched, some of the tension melted out of her muscles and her eyes became slightly clouded. Her consciousness faded in front of them. Irene squeezed Geneva’s hand tight, her shoulders heaving with wet sobs. Within one night and day she would lose her sister twice.
“This won’t hurt,” Hedda said. “You won’t feel any discomfort. I don’t know for sure what you will find, but I believe it will be peaceful. I think that you will dream. I hope those dreams are of a better place than this.”
The cloudiness in Geneva’s eyes grew more opaque. Her mouth opened as her jaw relaxed. An unscrupulous necromancer could work a spell to keep the muscles working, to preserve the body, but the essence of what made Geneva human was almost gone.
Irene began to speak softly, praying.
Hedda hummed. She reached out in front of her, using both hands to grasp the invisible tether anchoring Geneva to this world and to Hedda’s power. Although Cord could not see it, Hedda described it once as the ghost of the chains she used for the resurrection. Hedda moved her hands apart slightly and Geneva went limp. That was it. That was all it took. To anyone who didn’t know better, it looked easy.
Cord helped Irene take the body home to prepare her for burial. Geneva felt light in his arms as he walked with her through the streets, then up the stairs of a tenement building to the small apartment the two sisters shared. Irene cleared off the table in the kitchen area and Cord placed Geneva’s body on it.
“I will need to send a letter to our parents,” Irene said. “I have to tell them…” She gripped the back of a plain wooden chair so tight he wondered if the wood could withstand the pressure.
“I’m sorry,” Cord said. “I’m so sorry this happened.”
“Thank you for your help,” Irene said. “You can go now.”
He left her alone with her grief. He wished there was more he could do for Irene, but Hedda would need him now.
When he reached home, Hedda told him the murderer had been found. The case was closed and there was nothing else they needed from Hedda. The house felt empty now. Too quiet.
“You must be tired,” Cord said.
Hedda nodded. He embraced her and held her while she cried. They stood in the kitchen for a long time. He waited while Hedda emptied herself of tears.
“Do you want to go to bed?” Cord asked when she finished crying.
He loaded wood into the boiler and stoked the flames to heat water for a bath. Once the water was hot, he filled the clawfoot tub and added a few drops of lavender oil. He helped Hedda into the water and draped a warm washcloth over her eyes to soothe them. She gave his hand a squeeze. “Thank you.”
He kissed her.
While she soaked, he pulled a stool into the bathroom and read her the letter that arrived that day from his parents. They had just finished harvesting the fields for peas and alfalfa. The geese were out in the fields now to get nice and fat from the gleanings. They were starting to make cider from the apples. He skipped the part about preparing the pigs for the slaughter.
Hedda began to talk about her roster for the next day. “I need to check on Anders, his gout has been acting up. Sigi’s due to have the new baby any day now, so I need to see her. Since I’m going to see Sigi, I might as well see her aunt Helgi too. I keep trying to convince her to let me lance that boil…” He listened idly while she continued, describing her regulars and their complaints. The list helped her get her mind back in order.
Later, when they lay in bed in the dark and the quiet, he would ask her if she wanted to leave the city once and for all. His parents would love to have them on the farm and it would be quiet there.
She would talk about how it would be better on the farm, away from so many people who suffered from sickness and violence. They could leave next month, just as soon as she delivered Sigi’s baby and made sure that Sigi and the child made it through the next few weeks all right. But then there would be another baby, or a broken bone, or a bout of dysentery sweeping through the tenements and they would stay. In the end, he knew that she would choose to stay. She would choose the city. And he would choose her.
Cord moved closer to the bathtub and began to massage her head. She sighed. Hedda took care of everyone, and he took care of Hedda.
Ali LaForce lives at the foot of the Colorado Rockies with her husband and rescue dog. She has work published or forthcoming in Freedom Fiction and Bards and Sages Quarterly. One of her short stories was recently long listed for the 2021 Gravity Award.