Mennaus took a bite out of an apple, tasted a telltale sourness that meant a worm had gotten there ahead of him, and tossed the rest into the mud. He nearly spit out the bite he’d just taken, then changed his mind and chewed. The brackish taste made him wince, but he figured it was the closest thing he would have to a meal until the fighting stopped, and those laying siege to the stout walls of Haltan were finally allowed to retire to their low fires and bedrolls.
For the night, that is, Mennaus thought darkly, reminding himself that come dawn, they’d only be back out here, shivering in the mud, squatting behind mantlets, hopelessly firing arrows over the battlements of the impregnable city before them.
Then the archer to Mennaus’s right spoke. “Hey, Tongue, what year is it?”
Mennaus turned in time to see Brain draw his bowstring until the fletching touched his cheek, then let it go. As the arrow leapt through the air, Brain rose from his crouch with a boyish grin. His head crested the protection afforded by his wooden mantlet, eyes trained on the dark arrow arching over the muddy field.
“Get down, idiot,” Mennaus growled.
When Brain did not obey, the archer to Brain’s right—the man known as Tongue—reached over, grabbed Brain by the back of the tunic, and hauled him to the ground.
A trio of crossbow bolts thudded into Brain’s mantlet, halted by lashed logs coated in animal fat. Two more bolts sailed through the air where Brain’s face had just been and sank with a wet splat into the mud behind him.
“I said, keep your damn head down,” Mennaus repeated. “These Haltan men shoot a lot better than you do.”
Brain blushed. “Sorry, Mennaus.” Then he glanced right again. “You hear me, Tongue? I asked what year it was.”
“He heard you,” said Mennaus. “He just can’t answer.” Mennaus notched an arrow, rose slightly, fired, then sank back to one knee, all in one smooth motion.
Brain looked puzzled. Then he grinned. “Oh. I remember now!” He turned to Tongue again. “Why do they call you Tongue if you can’t talk?”
“Same reason they call you Brain,” Mennaus grumbled. He wondered how many times he’d already explained this, only to have Brain forget.
Tongue laughed—or tried to. Without a tongue, the sound the big man made was more like an airy rasp punctuated by wet clicking.
“Why the hell do you need to know what year it is?” Mennaus asked. He had just drawn the last arrow from his quiver and glanced down at it with fresh irritation.
Brain said, “I get to go home in the Year of the Dove. That’s what the commander said. That’s close, right?”
Mennaus gave him a sour look. “Eighth Year of the Dove starts in mid-winter. Not long now.” He saw the look of excitement on Brain’s face and almost regretted having to dash the boy’s hopes. “But you’re not getting out of this mud-quest until Ninth Year of the Dove, just like the rest of us. If we live that long.” He glanced past Brain and motioned to Tongue. “I’m out.”
Tongue answered by holding up his own half-empty quiver.
Mennaus cursed. “Brain, do something useful and send up a few arrows. Just shoot quick. Don’t mind your aim.” He crouched low, waited until Brain fired one arrow, then bolted just as the lad was drawing another. He ran for the supply wagons set up a short distance behind the long line of mantlets.
Mennaus zig-zagged as he ran. He had seen enough archers die lately, just going to fetch more arrows, to know that the men lining the bone-gray battlements of Haltan, armed with their gigantic arbalests, were always on the lookout for an easy target. Sure enough, crossbow bolts began thudding into the mud, all around Mennaus. Cursing, he ran faster.
A few more bolts peppered the no-man’s-land between the mantlets and the wagons, but none got closer than a few feet. Mennaus ducked behind the safety of the wagons and caught his breath. As he did so, he cursed the past week’s rain, which had churned the ground into a muddy soup that prevented them from simply wheeling the mantlets backwards when they needed to resupply.
A camp-follower in ratty clothing quietly handed him a canteen. Mennaus stopped to look at her. She was homely with an ill mood, but still a better sight than what he was used to. He knew that if she was like many of the other camp-followers, he might rent her affections for a few copper coins. But Mennaus—like all those in the Fourteenth Legion—had not been paid in weeks. Besides, all he wanted now was water, then to get back to his mantlet with more arrows, preferably without getting shot.
“Arrows,” he said. He held up three fingers.
The camp-follower left, then returned with one full quiver in each hand. Mennaus had hoped for footed arrows—softwood shafts reinforced with hardwood at the tip—but these looked plain and hastily made. He told himself that footed arrows weren’t much use in a siege, anyway. What’s the point of an arrow that doesn’t shatter or crack on impact? That only means the enemy will fire it back at you.
Mennaus inspected the arrows more closely. Most were broadheads but a few had bodkin tips—useless, since few of Haltan’s crossbowmen bothered to wear chainmail. He knew better than to protest, though. By now, so many arrows had been expended that they had to make due with what was available. “I said three.”
“Quartermaster says only two at a time.” The camp-follower spoke with the blandness of one who has been giving the same excuse all afternoon. Mennaus thought she had a pleasing voice, though, and wondered what she looked like under all that mud and lice.
“Sweeteyes, these ain’t all for me. I’ve got two mates up there. Do you really want them to have to run back here themselves and get poked all full of holes, just so your damn quartermaster can keep track of supplies?”
The camp-follower’s expression said she agreed with him, but her lack of response said she wasn’t about to risk a whipping by breaking the rules.
Mennaus sighed. “How about food?”
“That depends. How do you feel about bread older than you are?” The camp-follower gestured to nearby baskets overflowing with bread so stale and hard, it looked like a mockery of emeralds.
“No, thanks.” Mennaus looked away. “Any of that honey left?” Days earlier, soldiers had intercepted a cart of supplies that sympathizers were attempting to sneak into Haltan through the storm drains. Said supplies included barrels of wine, honey, and other sweetstuffs, some of which had been briefly shared with the men. Mennaus had especially enjoyed the honey, which reminded him of the bee farms whose produce had made his childhood nearly tolerable, despite how many loved ones died to feed year after year of forced conscriptions.
The camp-follower’s snicker held a tinge of sympathy. “From last week? The Godprince kept most of that for himself.” She added, “Don’t tell me you didn’t already know that.”
“A man can always hope.” Mennaus took a moment to gather his courage, then shouldered the arrows along with the canteen, and sprinted back into no-man’s-land.
As he feared, Haltan’s archers were waiting for him. More crossbow bolts thudded into the mud all around him. One came so close to his cheek that he felt it brush his hair. Mennaus dodged this way and that, trying to make himself an impossible target, then dove. His shoulder struck the lashed logs of his mantlet and nearly knocked it over. He lied in the mud for a moment, catching his breath, then sat up. He heard the wet clack of Tongue’s laughter and gave his friend a sour look.
“Next time it’s your turn.” Mennaus tossed Tongue one of the two quivers, followed by the canteen. “And no, there’s no wine or honey left, so don’t even ask.” Mennaus rubbed his shoulder. He wished bitterly that Haltan’s archers had regular crossbows instead of their more powerful arbalests. Then, he and the others might at least use shields for protection on supply runs. But a bolt fired by an arbalest could punch clean through most any shield or armor. Even their thick, wooden mantlets shook mightily with each strike.
“We need to find us some godsteel armor!” Brain said. “Those bolts would bounce right off us then!”
“That’ll be the day,” Mennaus snorted. He’d seen a few nobles wielding violet blades, but that spectacular metal forged from fragments of a holy meteor was far too rare to be hammered into armor. Unless you’re the Godprince, that is.
“How’s that verse go?” Brain asked. “Sharp as flint, hard as stone, rare as gold—”
“Light as bone,” Mennaus finished. “Too bad even a tiny knife made out of the stuff would cost more than any of us will earn in our lifetimes.”
“But what if I found some?” Brain said. “If I did, I’d share it with you. Both of you.”
“If you had godsteel, I’d cut your throat and take it from you.” Mennaus pulled four arrows from the second quiver and tossed them to Brain. “Shoot slow, kid. The sun will be in their eyes in another hour or so. We’ll be a lot safer then.”
Tongue finished drinking then passed the canteen to Brain, along with a few arrows from his own quiver. Tongue waved to catch Mennaus’s attention then made a few gestures in hand-speech.
Mennaus shook his head. “Not a chance.”
Brain stopped guzzling from the canteen. “Not a chance what?”
Mennaus ignored the question and nocked an arrow. He took a deep breath and rose. This time, he aimed carefully, deliberately ignoring the crossbow bolts that thudded into his mantlet. He fired. He could not hear the cries of his target but he saw a crossbowman in his neat green surcoat topple right over the walls of Haltan. Scattered cheers rose along the line of mantlets.
“Bastards,” Mennaus swore at the crossbowmen before sinking out of sight again.
Brain whistled. “Nice shot!”
Mennaus drew another arrow but did not fire yet. He felt at least a dozen more crossbow bolts thud into his mantlet and knew the crossbowmen had it in for him now. He glanced over and saw Tongue frowning at him. He did not have to ask why.
“Hey, we’re still trying to win this damn war, ain’t we?”
Tongue just shook his head, fired his own longbow—a harmless shot that arched over the battlements and struck nothing—then sank down again. Brain was about to rise as well when Mennaus told him to sit still. “They know you stand up long enough to draw flies. If they can’t hit me, they’ll aim for you.”
Brain looked confused.
Mennaus snapped, “Just stall until I tell you different!” Mennaus did the same, pretending to inspect his bowstring. “We’re not getting out of here anytime soon. That’s what Tongue asked before, if we’d be quitting early tonight. But we’ll be safer at sunset. Just got to stay alive until then.
Brain nodded blankly. He tried to look busy by inspecting his own bow but he looked only half as convincing as Mennaus did. Mennaus shook his head. If an officer saw what Brain was doing, the lad would be whipped for cowardice, or maybe even strangled in front of everyone. After all, the standing order for all archers in the Fourteenth Legion was to fire as often and as fast as possible, so long as they had arrows and breath at their disposal. I shouldn’t have killed that crossbowman, Mennaus thought. He turned.
Tongue had just drawn an arrow. He held it a moment, then loosed it. To anyone else, the motion would have looked innocent enough, but Mennaus knew better. Tongue was the best archer Mennaus had ever seen. Even at three hundred paces from the walls, with their helmeted enemies crouching behind in battlements, he might have scored a hit. Instead, Tongue skewed his angle so that the arrow fell a few feet short, splitting harmlessly off the stone walls.
“Brain,” Mennaus said, “you got a spare bowstring?”
Brain shook his head.
Mennaus reached the pocket of his muddy leather tunic and withdrew one. He passed it over, glad his mantlet was close enough to Brain’s to protect his arm. Brain accepted the bowstring but only blinked at it.
“Cut yours,” Mennaus said. “Make it look like you’re not shooting because you got to fix your bow.”
Brain looked down at his longbow. “But my string’s fine—”
Tongue, who had been listening, grunted with annoyance. The mute drew his knife, leaned over, and cleaved Brain’s bowstring with a single, deft slice. The bow straightened with a barely audible crack, quivering in Brain’s hands. Tongue’s knife vanished as quickly as it appeared and the mute went back to firing his longbow.
Mennaus grinned despite himself. “Well, it’s broken now. Fix it—but don’t rush.” He looked around. Sure enough, a smartly armored corporal was watching them from a safe distance, back by the wagons. The corporal was scowling. But he relaxed when he saw Mennaus nocking an arrow and Brain fumbling with an obviously broken bowstring.
“Tongue just saved you a whipping, boy.” Mennaus swore, rose enough to fire, then ducked out of sight again.
Brain mumbled his thanks. Tongue answered with a quick gesture of hand-speech. Mennaus translated. “He says go to hell.” Mennaus laughed at the look on Brain’s face. “Relax, kid. He’s only fooling.” Mennaus glanced in the direction of the corporal, saw the man had shifted his gaze elsewhere, and made no attempt to nock another arrow. “You best temper yourself if you want to survive four more years of this.”
Brain looked sick. “Four… more… years?”
“At least we’re not infantry. Archers live longer.” Mennaus pointed. “Or would you rather be one of those poor bastards?”
Brain followed Mennaus’s gesture and fixed his eyes on a grim-faced squad of footmen marching in tight formation towards the walls of Haltan. The men—clad in chipped and tarnished chainmail, armed with machetes, axes, and battered tower shields—were about to make another mad dash for Haltan’s gates. Mennaus felt a surge of pity for the men. He could well guess their orders. During the infantry’s last suicidal advance beyond the mantlets, they had faced a storm of crossbow bolts that punched with ease through shields and chainmail. In their haste to retreat, the footmen had been forced to abandon their battering ram. Now, it seemed, the Godprince was ordering them to go retrieve it.
Damn fool’s errand, Mennaus thought. Obviously, the Godprince wanted to teach his men a lesson, but it would have been better to just leave the battering ram in the mud. Haltan’s gates were too thick to be bashed open, anyway. Trebuchets hurling stones and flaming pitch might soften them for breeching, but all the Godprince’s siege engines were broken beyond use. His last siege tower had been torched a week ago, as well.
Mennaus felt the bile rise in his throat, similar to the taste of the apple, and spat it out. Six months harassing a city that’s better fortified than we are. No wonder this camp’s running short on arrows… and coin, and food… and sense, for that matter!
A single trumpet blast echoed over the muddy field, ordering the archers of the Fourteenth Legion to cease fire. Although Mennaus was glad for the break, he knew what it meant: Haltan’s crossbowmen would now focus all their fire on the advancing footmen. The doomed soldiers passed through a break in the line of mantlets—close enough for Mennaus to see their faces. Many of them looked like they were about to be sick. Some of the archers cheered the footmen on, trying to raise their spirits, but Mennaus kept silent. Still, he stood up. Sure enough, the crossbowmen lining Haltan’s walls had other targets in mind.
A dark hail of crossbow bolts descended from the gray battlements, punching through shields and mail. Footmen fell, screaming. Others—unlucky boys with crude stretchers—were already being dispatched to drag the stricken off the field. They faced equally withering fire, and soon, the stretcher-bearers were the ones in need of aid.
Mennaus saw Brain turn away. The lad looked torn between crying and retching. Mennaus averted his gaze as well. He did not have to see to know what was happening: the surviving footmen, close enough to the gates now, broke into a sprint. A few dozen of Haltan’s crossbowmen, who had probably been waiting for just this moment, took aim and fired. A murderous hail of steel-tipped bolts shredded what remained of the infantry’s advance.
A groan went up from the Fourteenth Legion, even as Haltan’s defenders cheered. Mennaus forced himself to look. To his surprise, a few footmen remained. They had turned their backs on the enemy and were trying desperately to haul that ponderous battering ram off the field. But the mud held it like a lover, and all who sought to separate them were rewarded with death.
Mennaus threw down his bow and cursed the Godprince as loudly as he could. He was not afraid of being heard, since he knew the cries of the dying would drown out his words.
Mennaus stirred the fire and pretended not to hear the distant merriment coming from Haltan’s walls. He couldn’t really blame them for celebrating. They had survived another day of siege, after all, and hurt the enemy far worse than they had been injured themselves. Mennaus knew that had he been in their place, he would be celebrating, too. But the bile rose in his throat as he tried to vain to push the day’s events from his mind.
He looked about and saw that Tongue and Brain were in no brighter spirits. He extended his gaze and saw the other archers and footmen milling about, all downcast. Night usually raised the men’s spirits—at least a little—because it meant the day’s fighting was over and they could finally strip off their muddy clothes and armor, warm themselves by the fire (or in the company of a willing camp-maiden), and quiet that gnawing hunger with a bit of stale bread and over-salted meat. Tonight, though, memories of the footmen’s slaughter hung like a pall over every campfire—especially those of the archers, who had witnessed the senseless death up close.
Brain yawned. “I don’t get why the Godprince—”
Tongue slapped the boy’s arm, hard enough to make him jump. Then Tongue pressed one finger to his lips and hissed, telling Brain to be quiet.
“Keep your damn voice down,” Mennaus echoed. “You don’t want some officer to overhear you and throw you in the stockades.” He lowered his voice. “Bad enough we’re all thinking the same thing you are.”
Brain still looked confused, but he nodded. “What do you think will happen tomorrow?”
“Same thing as yesterday,” Mennaus said. “We’ll go back to the mantlets, waste a few hundred arrows, watch some good men die, and accomplish not one damn thing.” He added, “And that’s if we’re lucky.” He saw Tongue glare at him and realized he was speaking too loudly—something they had just chided Brain for doing. He had a hard time caring, though. “Likely, our fearless leader will try to raise morale by donning his pretty armor and parading out in front of the mantlets, letting Haltan’s arbalests use him as target practice.”
“Really?” Brain actually looked worried.
Mennaus almost laughed. “He’ll be fine, kid. With that shiny godsteel armor on, he won’t even get a scratch.”
“Oh,” Brain said, smiling. “Sharp as flint, hard as stone—”
Mennaus cut him off with a murderous look.
Brain fell quiet. He stirred the fire, too, then his stomach growled loud enough for Mennaus to hear. “I wish we had some real food!”
“Better get used to being hungry, kid. Odds are, half of us will starve before long.”
Brain started to smile, then realized Mennaus wasn’t joking. “But I saw the larders! They’re still plenty there. Sausages, bread, milk, even honey—”
“All of which belongs to the Godprince and his generals, to be distributed as they see fit.” Mennaus barely remembered to lower his voice.
“Too bad we can’t go home,” Brain said glumly. “My momma could fix us up a big cauldron of spiced porridge. I didn’t used to think much of it but now I miss it. A lot better than what we get here!” He glanced with disgust at the dirty bowls and crumbs of moldy bread laying nearby. Then the boy’s expression changed. “Hey, Mennaus?”
Mennaus swallowed his irritation and ignored the boy. Brain said his name again. This time, Mennaus almost struck him. “What?”
“Did you mean what you said before?”
“That depends. What did I say before?”
Brain lowered his voice and scooted closer. “About killing me.”
Mennaus snorted. “Boy, I’m about to strangle you just for asking so many dumb questions! Is that what you’re getting at?”
Brain shook his head. “No. I mean, what you said before. Earlier, before all those men got killed. About killing me”—he lowered his voice until Mennaus could barely hear—“if I had a bit of godsteel.”
Mennaus gave the addled boy a piteous look. “Is that what’s got you worked up? No, I wouldn’t kill you. Probably should, though, just to get some peace and quiet!”
Brain grinned. “Good! I’m glad.” He reached into his muddy tunic and withdrew something small, wrapped in an equally muddy strip of cloth. “Here.”
Mennaus hesitated. It was not like Brain to play jokes, although the last time the lad had tried to give one of his friends a present, it had been a half-rotten mouse he thought they might make into a stew. “What’s this, another mouse?”
Brain’s grin broadened. “Nope. Take it. I want you to have it. For keeping me alive. But you gotta promise to keep keeping me alive. I mean, as best you can. I know you can’t help it if I get stuck through the eye or get sick or something.”
Mennaus took the cloth, confused, and unwrapped it. He looked. He gave Brain a disbelieving look, then gestured to Tongue. The mute had been watching, only half-interested, but his eyes widened when we saw it: a thumb-sized bit of ore, marked by telltale streaks of violet.
“Gods, kid… how—”
“My daddy turned it up while he was plowing. He didn’t know what it was but he gave it to me. I didn’t know what it was either but it looked pretty, so I kept it. Then when I got here, I saw the Godprince in his purple armor and I thought—”
“Keep your damn voice down,” Mennaus hissed, even though Brain was still whispering. He unfolded the cloth for another look.
“Is that enough to make a dagger?” Brain asked, excited. “If so, maybe we could make a dagger and sell it, and use the money to buy—”
“No,” Mennaus said. He glanced at Tongue and realized the mute was thinking the same thing. “There’s not enough here for a dagger. But maybe, if the gods are merciful for once, there’s just enough for an arrowhead.”
The next morning brought a predictable routine of mud and clatter. Trumpets sent the archers scrambling. Haltan’s arbalests resumed their fire as the Godprince’s men dashed through the filthy no-man’s-land, striking a few before they could reach their mantlets. Mennaus forced himself to ignore the screams—a few of which came from men he knew—and dragged Brain after him. The lad was a poor runner. Mennaus half-expected to feel the cold bite of a crossbow bolt but miraculously, they reached their mantlets just behind Tongue, who was already notching an arrow.
And what an arrow!
Mennaus grinned, despite the whimpering and curses roiling all around him. It had taken every favor and threat he could muster, but he’d managed to gain access to one of the little smithies set up at the rear of the camp. Mennaus knew nothing of metalworking, but Tongue did. Once they were in the smithy, Mennaus and Brain guarded the door while Tongue heated the ore, then hammered and shaped it on the anvil. Tongue’s forehead gleamed with sweat but his eyes had sparked with a fierceness even brighter than the forge-fire. Before long, a sleek, violet arrowhead took shape between hammer and tongs. Then Tongue quenched it in cold water. The water hissed and steamed. When Tongue withdrew the arrowhead, it gleamed like a thing of magic. Mennaus took over, sharpening the thing as fast as he could. Then, they fixed it to the shaft of one of their own arrows and returned to their bedrolls, careful to keep the special arrow out of sight. But the three hardly slept.
Now, Mennaus watched as Tongue fit the special arrow to his bow, took slow, cautious aim, and fired it beautifully over Haltan’s battlements. The breath caught in Mennaus’s throat. He wondered how long it would be before one of Haltan’s archers spotted the arrow and read the note attached to the shaft. Of course, there was always the chance it would be missed, or whomever found the arrow would want to keep it for himself.
No, Mennaus thought fiercely. He decided that for once, he would have hope.
Hours passed. Archers continued to fire at each other. Now and then, a man screamed and fell. Mennaus fought to suppress his impatience. Then at last, amidst a great blare of trumpets, the Godprince galloped past the lines.
The footmen cheered, albeit halfheartedly. Archers cleared a path. The Godprince raised a valiant cry, whirling his great, violet-streaked bastard sword overhead. His violet armor caught the light, beautiful and alien. Silk and dyed goose feathers hung from the Godprince’s weighty pauldrons, complimenting the brilliant plumes rippling from the crest of his lion-shaped helmet. Mennaus had to admit, the Godprince looked impressive.
Of course, it doesn’t take guts to ride out in the open when you think you can’t be killed!
The men watched as the Godprince rode back and forth along the muddy line of mantlets and war-weary archers, shouting defiantly at the walls of Haltan. Predictably, Haltan’s archers peppered him with crossbow bolts. Their arbalests were powerful enough to punch through steel and bone, but against the prince’s Godsteel armor, they could do nothing. Bolts slid off the Godprince’s arms and chest, even his helm, as he gave a hearty laugh and waved his gleaming bastard sword again.
“You cannot harm me! You cannot kill me! My men will gladly lay down their lives to take this city in my name!”
“Fat chance,” Mennaus muttered. He watched the Godprince and felt a sudden surge of sympathy—not for his ruler, but for the horse that carried him. Unlike the Godprince, the horse had no fantastic armor to protect it from the hellish rain of crossbow bolts. The beast reeled and screamed as it was struck again and again. But the Godprince was merciless, whirling and driving the beast this way and that until it finally toppled beneath him.
Mennaus fought to keep from laughing as the Godprince fell headlong into the mud, half-hoping the haughty ruler might break his neck. But the Godprince rose, paying his dead mount no mind as he wiped the mud from his fantastic armor. Rather than retreat, he strode toward the walls, spreading his arms in invitation.
Still more crossbow bolts rained down on the Godprince—with no effect. The Godprince turned slowly, allowing the enemy archers to hit him on all sides. Meanwhile, Mennaus could tell that the archers and footmen of the Fourteen Legion were rapidly losing interest in the spectacle. After all, this was not the first time the Godprince had done this. Mennaus even saw some of the men turn away and yawn, or use this opportunity to grab a sip of wine or a bite of stale bread.
“Why hasn’t it happened yet?” Brain asked.
“Don’t know,” Mennaus said. “Maybe they haven’t found the arrow yet. Maybe it’ll be a few days before—”
Tongue pointed, grunting to get Mennaus’s attention.
At the center of Haltan’s battlements, just above the gates and murder holes, one of Haltan’s defenders—a captain, by the look of him—was taking up position. Instead of a cumbersome arbalest, the man held a simple longbow. On either side of him, Haltan men were cheering.
The Haltan archer-captain drew back his bowstring, taking slow, careful aim. In the muddy field below, the Godprince heard the spectacle and laughed. He opened his arms wide, presenting his violet-streaked breastplate to the archer-captain, daring him to fire.
The archer-captain fired. A lone arrow caught the sunlight. The Godprince held his bombastic pose like a statue dressed in steel. He did not move.
“It didn’t work!” Brain wailed. Tongue squeezed his arm to quiet him but Brain wailed anyway. “It didn’t work! It didn’t work!”
Then, slowly as if in a dream, the Godprince’s violet sword wavered and tumbled from his grasp, landing in the mud with a heavy splat. The Godprince’s spectacular helm wobbled as he looked down, as though studying the lone arrow driven impossibly deep through his breastplate. Then the Godprince fell.
The walls of Haltan erupted in wild cries of celebration. The Godprince’s bodyguards—stunned—raised their shields and charged onto the field to retrieve their stricken liege. The rest of the Fourteenth Legion just stared, including Tongue and Brain. Only Mennaus looked away, covering his face with one hand to hide his wide, reckless grin.
As they walked along the deserted road, Mennaus made sure his muddy cloak concealed his satchel filled with gold coins. Tongue carried no satchel, but he’d slid jeweled rings onto every finger, then covered his hands with dirt-caked gloves in case they were spotted. They still took care to get off the road and hide in the forest whenever they heard someone coming—likely just other deserters—but the sounds of fighting in the distance confirmed that whichever generals and soldiers had chosen to stay behind and continue the siege now had problems of their own.
“Where to now?” Brain asked. With one hand, he led a pony he’d loaded with foodstuffs taken from the camp. In his other hand was a biscuit slathered in honey from the Godprince’s private stores.
Mennaus and Tongue exchanged looks. Tongue answered in hand-speech. Mennaus scowled. “Tongue says we’ll help you get home. You promised us spiced porridge.”
Brain brushed flies away from his pony’s eyes. “I did?” He stuffed the rest of his biscuit in his mouth. “That’s right, I did! Too bad”—he chewed as he spoke, his words barely intelligible—“I didn’t get some treasure, too.”
“It’s your own damn fault,” Mennaus said. “You were too busy stuffing your belly with sausages and sweetcakes when you should have been stuffing your pockets with gold.”
“Can’t eat gold.” Brain brightened. “I would have liked to get my hands on the Godprince’s helmet, though! I’ve never seen a helmet shaped like a lion before. Except for his, I mean.”
“One of the generals took it, probably.” He almost made a joke about how Brain could have used the helmet to safeguard what few senses he had left, but stopped himself.
Brain shrugged. “That’s all right, I guess. What I took’s probably worth a lot more, anyway.”
Mennaus shook his head. “You really think sausages and biscuits are worth more than a godsteel helmet? Gods, lad, your quiver really is short a few arrows!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean the food. I meant this.” Brain reached back to the pony and swept aside a blanket. Mennaus saw saddlebags overflowing with provisions and foodstuffs—and something else. Mennaus swore under his breath and peered closer. Sure enough, strapped to the pony’s back was a bastard sword wrought entirely from gleaming, violet-tinged godsteel.
“How…” Mennaus sputtered.
“A general took it right after the Godprince died. But then another general said he wanted it. While they were fighting—well, I just took it.” Brain hesitated. “I hope they won’t be mad.”
Mennaus and Tongue exchanged looks. Tongue rolled his eyes. Mennaus took the blanket and covered up the sword again. “Keep that out of sight. Understand?”
Brain nodded. “Mennaus, you said you wouldn’t kill me over a godsteel dagger.” He brushed flies from his new pony’s face again. “You wouldn’t kill me over a fancy sword, either, would you?”
Mennaus tried to scowl but the worry on Brain’s face got the best of him and he laughed. “No, lad. Not even for a fancy sword. But I might kill you for a biscuit.”
Brain grinned. “Oh, you can just have one! Or three. I have a whole knapsack full.” He pointed. “And there’s honey, too, if you want it.”
©January 2018 Michael Meyerhofer
Michael Meyerhofer is a fantasy and science fiction writer. He is an active member of the SFWA and has published stories in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Hayden's Ferry, Ploughshares, and other journals. He has also published novels and poetry.
Ausonia pushed her cart, loaded with her disassembled booth, along the Heptastadion. No one had stolen her customary spot -- halfway down, on the Great Harbor side of the causeway -- but that damn metal Atlantean ship was still moored nearby. Her lips tightened. "Hey! Lady! Watch it with your cart --
"The problem's not my cart! The problem's your fat ass!" Ausonia snapped.
The Heptastadion teemed. Shouting stevedores. Bellowing boatswains. Boisterous boys. Staggering sailors. The Heptastadion, a long causeway linking the mainland to Pharos island, was a rich, if noisy, source of clients.
Beyond all that tumult, the dawn was clean. Pink and tangerine tinged Alexandria's sky. Triremes -- oars shipped, sail spread -- rode the morning breeze into the white-flecked Mediterranean. The clean breeze scoured away the odor of dead fish.
In the shadow of the Atlantean ship's prow, Ausonia set to assembling her booth. From here she peddled her services. A childhood fascination with engineering had led her, naturally enough, into studying something more fundamental: daemonic magic. Communicate with the consciousness permeating the cosmos ... and who needed to understand why an arch worked? Ausonia had set herself a goal of, one day, being powerful. And strange.
At twenty-eight, hers was a mature beauty: statuesque, serene, regal. Large doe-like eyes illuminated her face, and a cascade of blue-black ringlets framed it. She wore a simple linen frock, belted with a crimson cord.
Her booth assembled, Ausonia threw a scrap of pale blue baize over the bench. She was now open --
Clang. Clang-clang. Whoosh. Clang! Plop.
Ausonia shot a fierce look towards the rock-throwing boys. "Again? Today? "
The biggest boy grinned. "Bugger Atlantis! Three times ... with feeling!" He threw hard.
A trio of togate patricians, alarmed by the hubbub, swerved away from Ausonia's booth. Irritated, she snapped, "Stop it!"
"Where's Thrax? He's a lot more fun than you are!" A fragment of pavement whizzed by the lad's ear.
"The brother works for Lady Penelope. Occasionally." A fusillade of rocks broke against the hull. "Please, stop it! You're killing my business!"
The boy shrugged. "Times are tough -- ow! Marcellus! That was too close!"
A decade ago Atlantis had defeated the Empire, looting from Rome Mauretania, Lusitania, and Hispania Ulterior. The Mediterranean was no longer Rome's private lagoon. Resentment -- and fear of the sea-going empire -- was now endemic.
"The war is over!" Ausonia cried. "They're not enemies. They're guests."
She should've known facts were not the appropriate tool to move a boy.
"Remember the tale of Baucis and Philemon, the old couple --"
Arm cocked for a throw, the boy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, old coots who take in two grubby bums only to find -- shazam! --it's the traveling Zeus and Hermes show! Heard it, ignored it, flunked the final exam!"
Ausonia's eyes closed. Enochian words flowed silently through her mind. Enochian was one of the semi-extinct languages to which the daemons might respond. Willful, prideful, the daemons were corpuscles of thought permeating and manipulating the cosmos' atoms. Towards some magicians, the daemons acted capriciously ... but they liked Ausonia's concise, elegant thoughts.
Turning, Ausonia lifted her arms. Flames appeared, seeming to twine around each limb. She cupped in her palms the illusion of hooded, lambent cobras, outlined by flame. The boys shrieked and fled.
"Morons!" Ausonia breathed.
"That was kind of you."
Atop the gangway stood a man, tall and grim. His face was weather-beaten, his hair salt and pepper. He held himself erect as a proud king. His sea-blue robes, snapping in the stiff breeze, were decorated with white bull's heads. Poseidon, who used a bull as an emblem, was Atlantis' chief deity.
"Should've done it yesterday." Ausonia's fire-serpents vanished.
The Atlantean glared down the Heptastadion after the fleeing boys. "Rude creatures." Studying Ausonia, he stroked his beard. "So. A sorceress. A clairvoyant?"
"Would you come up?"
Ausonia climbed the gangway. The metal ship's clear deck lacked rowing benches. And crew.
"Let's go below."
Ausonia clattered down a companionway. Disconcertingly, the fore-and-aft passageway appeared so long it should have dwindled to a distant point. But laws of perspective did not obtain here. There was a sizzling tang in the air, like a thunderstorm. Still no crew.
"Not moving an inch."
The Atlantean waved his hand, and a large brass plate slid aside, revealing a rectangular door cut into the iron bulkhead.
The cabin's carpet was thick and dyed Tyrian purple. Glazed, brass-frame bookcases filled with codices lined the bulkheads. Ausonia, eyebrow raised, noted there were brass hatches on all four walls. Shouldn't that one be visible on the exterior hull?
"The table, please."
They sat. The circular table was a chessboard, but the sixty-four squares were arranged in four concentric rings around a central blank. The pieces were abstract shapes, cut from soapstone, and had no meaning for her.
"I am a Klarkash-ton. A title, not a name."
Ausonia essayed a grin. "What's your question, O Klarkash-ton?"
Grimness gave way to frustration. To anger. "Where in this accursed city are my charges? I have three youths in my care. Young Atlanteans of high estate. The boy, Rdaatru. The girl, Zloxa. The young woman, Heiitolanu."
"Missing! They were lured ..." The Klarkash-ton gathered himself. "Listen. When we moored, a man from the Great Library boarded. He tried to confiscate my books. Can you believe that?"
"Yes. It's not merely Alexandria's custom. It's law."
"No one confiscates Atlantean books! I laughed in his face and threw him off."
"There's the stem of your troubles right there."
"Aye. In retrospect, I perceive that." The Klarkash-ton sighed. "My charges, you see, are to study at Shambhala. In the east. We would've departed this evening. But. The librarians sent an emissary. Very obsequious. Bowing. Scraping. Apologetic. I was so foolish as to allow my charges to accept the dinner invitation." The Klarkash-ton rubbed the bridge of his nose. "They should've come aboard last night."
"I can locate them. I can't guarantee they're alive.
"Why would they be dead?" the Klarkash-ton cried.
"Never come between a librarian and a book."
The weather-beaten face became stormy. "If Alexandria has harmed them ... then Atlantis will wipe Alexandria off the face of the Earth."
Ausonia spoke quietly. "High estate indeed."
The Klarkash-ton slid a thick, square gold coin across the chessboard. "Your retainer. Find them alive, and ... a sorceress, eh? Well, since you're the opposite of a librarian, you may choose a book."
Heart in her throat, Ausonia inspected the codices. Titles in gold leaf decorated the leather bindings. Many titles were in the geometric Atlantean script. Others in hieratic and demotic glyphs, or Mesoamerican pictographs from the western side of the Atlantic, or icy futhark, or the serene and evocative ideograms of far Serica. A few were in Greek.
"This one, By Iamblichus Chalcidensis." Ausonia didn't hide her greed.
"Find them alive, and it's yours."
Cheerily, Thrax asked, "You gents wouldn't mind getting out of my way, would you?"
The rear guard shot a flinty look over his shoulder. "Ya mind shuttin' up, pretty boy?"
Thrax was handsome, blond, tall, square-jawed, wide-shouldered as a gladiator, and narrow-waisted -- but pretty? That verged on an insult. Or a proposition. Thrax could've taken on the flint-eyed bravo. And his five scruffy, dagger-armed companions. But why bother? Thrax's spirit was light. In a few minutes, he planned to be heckling yet another of Alexandria's preachers. Why spoil the mood?
"You gents keep doing what you're doing."
"Oh, aye, we will, Hyperborean."
"Hey! I'm a Macedonian!" Thrax's chest swelled. "My ancestor founded this city, you know."
"The great Alexander spawned no legit sprigs, so mind the bullshit, mate."
Whistling, Thrax trailed the gang up the narrow alley. It was a curious group. Three respectable youths -- a boy of fourteen, a girl of sixteen, a young lady of eighteen -- were surrounded by a thuggish bodyguard. White bull's heads spangled the youth's sea-blue robes. The way the youths behaved annoyed Thrax. Every few steps, the eldest girl froze, her face a rictus of terror. The middle child gazed slack jaw at the sky. The prodding of the bodyguard seemed to be the only factor motivating them.
Long before the alley debouched into the crowded square, Thrax's mouth began watering from the smell of savory cooking. A tall tower, at least ten floors high, gazed down. A crowd thronged the square. The rear guard took the whimpering fourteen-year old's elbow and steered him under a shop's awning. He looked at Thrax.
"Knock yourself out, mate."
"Thanks!" Thrax called. "You're a real peach!"
As the bravos herded the girls after the boy, Thrax plunged into the crowd, making for the tower's plinth. These were his people. Laborers, porters, bargemen, papyrus workers. Salt-of-the-earth types.
Suddenly Thrax frowned.
That can't be Assuriban. Just can't!
But he had to find out for sure. Thrax cut through the crowd like a trireme. The figure, a spindly ivory statue squatting on the plinth's brink, resembled one of Thrax's memories.
"Pardon me -- excuse me -- was that your foot? I'm so sorry -- helloooo, Clodia! So good to see you again! How have you been? A date? Sure! Still at the same place? Great! See you tomorrow! -- ma'am, would you move that goat, it's crapping everywhere -- hey, lad, move, dammit --"
The albino preacher's command was mushy because his lips were tattered, membranous ribbons. His nose was a black pit. A terrible, passionate fire blazed in his eyes.
Thrax, three rows back, waved. "Hey! Assuriban! Hey! Here! It's Thrax! Good to see you!"
Assuriban -- utterly hairless, his skin bone-white -- warned Thrax with a withering gaze. Thrax shrugged it off. Assuriban resumed his sermon.
"Recall Tantalus, who killed and cooked Pelops, his son, serving him up to the Gods. "
Thrax cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed: "With or without garum? Enquiring minds want to know."
Silence. Apparently, condiment-based jokes weren't appreciated.
"Recall Cronos, eater of his divine children. This city's sages tell us Cronus' is the outermost of the celestial spheres. Does this not tell you we ourselves, creations of his progeny, are trapped in his gullet?" Assuriban leaned forward. "Is not Cronos both Time and Fate?"
"Time, fate, and fat!"
Silence. Apparently, lard-based jokes weren't appreciated either.
Assuriban thundered: "Even Osiris' penis was eaten by a fish --"
"Yeah, a fish named Codpiece!"
Uh-oh. Ominous silence. Then angry whispers lacerated the air. Thrax rubbed his chin
"Huh. Well then. Guess I'll be leaving --"
Assuriban gestured. "Get rid of that smartass."
Hands seized Thrax by the biceps and hauled him away. Skidding on his heels through the crowd, he tossed a sloppy salute at Assuriban.
"No dick jokes. Got it. See you tomorrow!"
At the back of the crowd, they flung Thrax to the dust. He scrambled to his feet. The matter of Clodia, smooth as warm butter, called. But Thrax hesitated. The crowd's resentment seethed. Grumbling, he brushed himself off.
"You know," Thrax murmured to himself, "I've met some nice messiahs ... but never one who was an out-and-out asshole!"
"I'm sure you mean your remarks humorously. But we are serious students."
The speaker, even though his toga had no laticlave, stood like a man accustomed to power. The toga's fabric was choice, his Greek melodious, but, with his curled night-black beard and with bushels of hair confined by a white silk ribbon, he looked like a Mede.
"Our message is grim. But true. And, ultimately, liberating. Next time, young man, come here with ears able to hear and eyes able to see."
Surprisingly, the Mede now had charge of the three noble youths. Staring skywards, the boy wept, babbling foreign words. The two girls clutched each other. The Mede laid a hand on the middle girl's shoulder.
The odd parade cut around the crowd, climbed the stairs onto the plinth, then disappeared into the tower.
Thrax cupped his hands. "Hey! You folks got any objections to fart jokes -- hey!"
He ducked the thrown stone. By the gods, this congregation had the most tightly-cinched sphincters of any Thrax had ever taunted. In a huff he departed, making for the flat in Alexandria's Jewish Quarter he shared with his sister.
Thrax opened the apartment's door. Ausonia, eyes closed, sat cross-legged, fenced by a circle of flickering candles. A naked, pudgy woman with cloven feet capered around her.
Thrax grinned. "Kinky!"
The cloven-hoofed woman froze, her expression that of a respectable matron caught with the stable boy. "Who is that?"
Ausonia's eyes snapped open. She bit her lip. "It's, uh, it's, uh, a relative. The brother."
The naked woman stomped, striking sparks. "You told me you kicked him out!"
"Um. It was a euphemism -- "
"Bah! This was a feminine rite!" The woman leaped into the air, hovering. "Sweetie, you got all I'm willing to give. Tower. Square. Cellar." She whooshed forward, trailing sparks and shooting through the shutters as if they were insubstantial.
"What was that?" asked Thrax.
"A minor anemoi. Spirit of the air. A roving eye."
Ausonia pinched out the candles. "Thanks for screwing up my rite."
"That's what I live for." Thrax threw himself into a chair. "Sis, have I ever told you about my old friend Assuriban?"
"Sounds like something I'd ignore."
"Listen. This is interesting."
Thrax, at seventeen, had had enough of mother's rules, father's expectations, and an elder sister who referred to him as "the brother." He hired on with Guthric, a wealthy trader. Guthric had just returned from Serica with a trove of fine silk; the goal of this next trip, said Guthric, was to exchange these for Otangwa's diamonds. That meant a long, dangerous journey to Africa's southernmost tip.
"Be ready to fight," warned Guthric.
"No. Something haunts the sands south of the province. Something unearthly."
"The Sky-kings?" Thrax's eyes blazed.
"Not them. A cancer the Sky-kings brought ... left behind when they fled back to the stars."
"I can handle it." Thrax slapped the table. "Let's go!"
The caravan set out on a galley sailing south. Guthric's plan was to row upriver until the Nile divided into white and blue branches, then trek overland to Otangwa. Back then, the oarsmen were still technically slaves, since the Emperor's manumission decree hadn't yet taken effect. Guthric, who had an enlightened soul, nevertheless insisted they be treated as free men. Thrax heartily approved.
On the fateful day, a bronzed, bored Thrax lounged on the forecastle. The Nile was placid and deep. Wind-eroded sandstone ridges rose from the surrounding sands like the backs of giant lampreys. Suddenly, distant thunder rumbled, and Thrax wondered if a storm lurked below the horizon. Rocks clinked, then clink-clinked, then roared as they cascaded from the ridges. Thrax stood, amused.
"Thrax! Thrax! Here! Now!"
Thrax trotted down the catwalk between the rowing benches. The hortator's drum beat like a vast, throbbing heart.
Guthric's eyes were wide. "The cancer. It's here."
Muscles tense, Thrax's gaze raked the sands. He relished the immanence of danger.
Silent except for dripping water, the thing rose from the Nile off the starboard bow. A tentacle, Thrax thought, then changed that to a worm. The flabby body was yellowish-white, like a maggot. In that moment of shocked surprise, the horse-thick body swayed above the oarsmen. A fringe of eyestalks focused on its meal. A toothless, glistening maw yawned like a flower. It struck and rose, the legs of a half-engulfed oarsman kicking violently. The creature sucked the legs inside. It began sinking into the river.
"I got this!"
Thrax charged. He planted his gladius between his teeth before he dove.
Sunlight turned the silty river bile green. The river's surface layer was blood-warm but the deeper water chilly. The galley, skewing to starboard, blotted out the light, leaving Thrax in a green twilight. Feeling the turbulence of the creature's descent, he struck for the lightless depths.
Thrax's hand struck something. It had the pudding-like pliancy of a decomposing body. Muscular contractions rippled along it. Was the thing now curling for another attack and a second meal?
Where do I stab it?
The swallowed oarsman, drawn along by peristalsis, swelled the thing's body. Thrax felt the dull thrumming of the man's desperate punching and kicking. A chilly, unreal moment. It reminded him of those times he'd laid his palm on a gravid woman's belly and felt the life inside.
Poor guy. Digested alive.
Thrax dove after the moving bulge. In the green dimness, Thrax saw the warmish body retreating into a cave punched through the rocky river bottom. Drawing ahead of the swelling, he took his gladius from between his teeth. Lungs straining, he stabbed then slashed. Something acidic bubbled out, forcing him to shut his eyes. Even his skin tingled with pain. He thrust his hand through the wide gash into the creature's gullet.
Another hand grasped his.
Thrax kicked away, drawing the oarsman out of the belly of the beast. Current swirled as the thing thrashed in pain.
They broke the surface well off the galley's port side. Thrax hooked his arm around a thrown oar, holding the rescued man's head clear of the water. Which would arrive first? The galley or the creature? Thrax was still wondering when the galley's crew fished them out.
"See?" Thrax grinned at Guthric. "Told you I had it. It's dead. We're safe."
"I doubt it," said Guthric. "That was a ... a feeder. A forepaw. Part of a greater whole."
Thrax scoffed. "How big can it be?"
"If you believe the old Carthaginian lore, a cave network stretches under the desert from the Nile to the Atlantic. I think the cancer's grown to fill it ... and is beginning to bore new caves for itself. You wounded a small part of it. That's all."
Victorious, the smartass aspect of Thrax's personality was naturally in the ascendant. "What if I don't believe the Carthaginian lore --"
"Why?" It wasn't a voice, but a blubbery, mournful croak. "Why did you do it?"
The wiry oarsman was Syrian, and had been dark-skinned with black hair. Stomach acid had bleached his skin and dissolved all his hair. Scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, chest, groin. Blood trickled from the open pit where his nose had been. Oozed from the wreckage of his lips. Dripped onto the deck from his half-dissolved genitals.
Thrax shrugged. "it's what I do."
"You arrogant shit. You stupid, stupid boy!" Hate and pain hissed through Assuriban's lips. " Warmth surrounded me! Life throbbed around me. I felt a beating, soaring heart! And the voices ... children, women, men ... all singing. I was loved ... part of a greater music ... don't you see? Death is wonderful! " Outrage blazed. "I'll kill you for saving my life!"
Rolling his eyes, Thrax twirled a finger beside his temple as he retreated. Guthric nodded agreement. This creature was nuts.
"And now Assuriban's a messiah." Thrax stretched in the chair. "So, sis, what do you think?"
Lips tight with irritation, Ausonia said, "I think you should convert. Get out of my life. Ruin his."
"Sis, I'm a heckler, not a believer." Thrax thumped his chest. "What a great accomplishment. I. Got thrown out." He folded his arms behind his head. "By Alexandria's newest messiah!"
Ausonia snapped. "Let me be the second person to throw you out! Go away! Now! I've got three Atlanteans to find --"
"Huh." Thrax's brow scrunched. "You know, there were three Atlanteans at --"
Ausonia, who'd been returning the candles to her work cabinet, whirled. "What? Where?"
"Um. In the square in front of Assuriban's tower -- oomph!"
Ausonia leaped, laying her finger on his lips like a sword.
"Tell me everything."
Quailing under her fierce curiosity, Thrax told her everything. As she listened, Ausonia climbed off her brother and began pacing. Ideas popped into her mind, dissolved, re-formed with new urgency.
"We've got to be cautious. There's no rational reason why both you and I should've been sucked into this. A god is involved here ... and, since he dragged you into this, probably a real dickhead of a god."
"So. The librarian kidnapped them. Sold them? To a new cult? But why?"
"Uh, sis." Thrax rapped his head. "Blond isn't just skin deep; it goes all the way to the pineal gland. Clue me in."
"My client wants his three charges back."
Ausonia beamed. "And here you are, an exploitable connection. Finally, you're useful."
"Um. What's in this for me?"
Ausonia fished a square gold coin from her frock.
"Neither you nor I have a dog in this fight. So. Let's be a liaison. I'm sure the Klarkash-ton is richer than Croesus. You tell this ... Assuriban? ... we can arrange a ransom."
Thrax stood. "Sure. After my chat with Clodia --"
"-- then -- and only then, Assuriban."
"Meet me on the Heptastadion. Sunset. Don't be late."
Assuriban's eyes sparkled like a dice player's calculating the odds of a favorable throw.
"Apology ..." The messiah paused. "... accepted."
Assuriban had received Thrax in an unfurnished room on the tower's first floor. Wearing only a scrap of cloth, Assuriban squatted on a coarse mat. Behind him, leaning against the wall, a curious circular painting depicted a set of pale rings, alternating white and pink, dwindling into the distance. The painted mandala seemed to squirm, an effect that made Thrax queasy.
"Thanks," said Thrax. "Moving on. There's this thing with the Atlanteans --"
"I don't want gold. I will trade soul for soul. You tell this Atlantean if he sends me three souls of equivalent splendor, I will release his charges."
"Um. Somehow I think that's going to be a problem."
"His problem. Not mine."
"Um. Let me take this to him --" Thrax began to pivot.
"Before you go, let's talk metaphysics."
Thrax stifled a groan. "Could you beat me to death with a mallet instead? It's quicker and less painful."
"Sorry. No mallet." Assuriban sighed. "We parted with such ill-feelings. But my feelings have changed. Let me tell you what happened to me."
Again, Thrax began to turn. "Sorry. No time. I've got to --"
Thrax, eyes hot, jaw set, faced the seated prophet.
Assuriban looked remorseful. "My apologies. I've grown accustomed to command. You're my guest and I've been a bad host. Some wine?"
Thrax grinned. "You're the best!"
Assuriban clapped. A boy appeared in a doorway. Instead of speaking, Assuriban stroked his throat then massaged his temples. When the boy returned, he set on the mat a tray with a carafe and two crude goblets.
"Pour for me, Thrax."
Thrax poured -- and froze, surprised when chunks plopped into Assuriban's goblet.
"A savory. Good with the wine. Fill my goblet. Then yours."
Thrax obeyed. Assuriban raised his goblet. His murmured prayer sounded like serpents slithering in a dark cave. Thrax was careful to let Assuriban drank first. Following suit, he chewed and swallowed the savories. An odd-tasting meet.
"Listen, my new friend. In my life, I've had two great revelations. The first you ruined ... but at least I learned to appreciate the fundamental oneness of existence."
"Isn't getting eaten alive kind of an extreme way of realizing that? Couldn't you just get drunk with your buddies?"
"I didn't set out to be eaten alive!" Irritation rippled across Assuriban's face, then was wiped away. "After I got back to Egypt -- if you see Guthric, tell him it's unkind to abandon a crippled, half-blind man -- I undertook religious learning. Eleusis. The Orphic mysteries, the cult of Isis, the rites of Cybele, Attis, Dionysus. None were right --"
"I dunno," said Thrax, feeling mellow. "Dionysus is a blast."
"A Magian steered me to my second revelation. He knew of a sect ... I won't name it. It exists on the far side of the Dead Sea. They taught me what is real, and they inspired me to found this temple." His ruined lips twisted, perhaps aping a smile, but the impression Assuriban gave was that of a lion slobbering over a carcass. "They've got it right."
"Um. Got what right?"
Curiosity twinkled in the messiah's eyes. "How do you feel?"
"I'm so pleased to hear that."
Bored? No. Numb. Thrax didn't like that at all. That damn painting summoned his gaze. It struck Thrax that it depicted what Assuriban must've seen after being swallowed. The mandala of rings infinitely stretching away was a gullet. He stared and stared until the silence throbbed with an omnipresent heartbeat.
"Um. Would you please ... turning that painting around?"
"I see it's kicked in," Assuriban's lips again twisted. "Aletheia. A potion of openness. Meat from an alien centipede. Quite toxic, but the leavings of the Sky-kings often are. The anti-toxin is dissolved in the wine. You and I now straddle the worlds of death and life. The material and the spiritual."
"Well, that's just peachy." Thrax's fist clenched -- but that took such an effort of will he realized violence was impossible.
"You've had a light dose." Assuriban lurched to his feet. "Consider yourself lucky. I badly miscalculated at the librarian's. The Atlanteans have been under aletheia's influence well over an entire day. Come."
"This is just revenge, right? Because I'm a smartass?"
Thrax didn't want to follow, but a numbing fogbank had interposed itself between his will and his body. Walking stiffly, slowly, he followed Assuriban out the tower's front door and onto the plinth. Not a soul could be seen in the square below. Neighboring buildings cut sharp shapes into the twilight sky.
"Look up. Tell me what you see."
Thrax reeled. What a deranged vision. A loathsome apparition arched from western horizon to eastern. Vast hanging folds, ghostly pale, seemed to be wafting the world down a twisting intestinal tunnel. Bulbous cilia flexed. Thrax felt like a tiny minnow trapped in a vast jellyfish, watching the blurry stars through drapes of gelatinous ectoplasm. Sparks, or fireflies, spiraled upwards from Alexandria as if released from a bonfire ... only to flare and die when they touched the sky-spanning thing. Thrax felt its predatory instincts -- titanic, immeasurable, insatiable -- battering his brain.
"What is it?" Thrax whispered.
"The harsh truth. A great enemy has devoured our cosmos." Assuriban rocked on his heels like a proud papa. "The task I've set my church? We are going to punch through that. Mysteries await! You -- and those Atlanteans -- are to be the start of that process." Assuriban chortled. "I love mixing theology and revenge! Now come. We're going downstairs."
When the gibbous moon peeped over the obsidian sea, Ausonia's distress was complete.
"The brother is never this late."
The Klarkash-ton's face became stony. "Pity." He looked to the towering Pharos lighthouse, all aglow. "I suppose that'll be the target of our opening bombardment."
That angered her. Sleeves fluttering, Ausonia swept down the Atlantean ship's gangway and plunged through Alexandria's evening. She knew Thrax would've returned with whatever answer Assuriban gave. Something had gone wrong.
Revelry swirled; she kept her mind apart from it. Lacking Thrax's skill with dagger, bow, or sword, magic was Ausonia's only weapon. She needed a calm mind to exercise it, but worry and fear swirled in her.
Thrax's directions hadn't been precise, but they got her within sight of the tower. She cut through a pedestrian alley and emerged in the desolate square. The tower glowed with torchlight and it was clear it was shut for the evening. Slanting moonlight cast long shadows across the square. The silence felt eerie; it was a total absorption of all vibration. She felt agitation in the pervading daemonic consciousness. Sorcery was responsible.
Her own consciousness preternaturally sensitive, she skulked cat-like past closed shops towards the tower. She'd break in. Somehow. And find out what was going on. And then ... do something.
Crossing the mouth of an alley between the tower's plinth and a block of hovels, Ausonia saw gentle flickering down there. With relief, she realized the light winked through the cracks of a cellar door.
Thank you, you violent-scented anemoi.
Ausonia knelt by the closed but unlocked door. Time for her own spell. Clearly, she should complement the silence with an equivalent visual stealthiness. She let run an old Enochian poem, sweeter than any lyre's melody, through her head. She held up her hand and saw that it flickered as if she skulked on the periphery of a candle's glow. The daemons were catching light, juggling it, then scattering it randomly. Perfect.
Heart in her mouth, Ausonia opened the door. Not a cellar but a hallway. She'd intended on ascending into the tower to look for Thrax but the landing just beyond the torch sat atop a set of stairs that corkscrewed down. She descended a terrifying distance into the limestone bedrock. The tenebrous dankness clung like cobwebs. Suddenly the dampening silence lifted.
Relief flooded Ausonia. That was Thrax, sounding whiny as if he'd just woken up with a hangover. Step by cautious step, she eased her way deeper, tensing for whatever would come.
"Why is this complicated?" The response was mushy. "Aletheia let you perceive our enemy. Obviously, only powerful magic can punch through it. Such spells are fueled by souls. Right, Archideme?"
A patrician voice responded. "Quite right, father."
"It will take decades -- centuries -- maybe millennia -- but we'll accumulate souls. The cancer in the Sahara will be my church's repository. When the time is ripe, we'll kill it. Invoke the spell and fuel it with the released souls. And liberate humanity from this prison of a cosmos."
"Isn't human sacrifice kind of ... extreme?" Thrax pleaded.
"In the general case, no. My church sacrifices lesser lives in return for a greater liberation. In your specific case? Perhaps I should be more compassionate ... but I've never had ethical qualms about culling the cosmos of smartasses."
Careful to be silent, Ausonia stepped into a landing. A long, torchlit barrel vault led towards a vast dome. Its ceiling was finished ashlar. Centered under the dome a vast well yawned. On the domes far side a tall pulpit, set into a recessed niche, loomed over a plain altar. A pale albino stick figure presided from the pulpit. A richly robe man perambulated amongst the four kneeling captives. Their hands and ankles were bound. The Atlanteans, resigned like a bound goat on a sacrificial altar, stared at the well. Murder blazed in Thrax's eye, belying his restrained intonation.
The robed man looked up at the albino. "Assuriban, it comes."
Sibilant slithering echoed out of the well. Something thudded in the depths. Dust trickled from the vault's roof. Ausonia, blood chilled, shivered.
Assuriban radiated rapture. "The instant it swallows you, you'll begin hearing voices. Oh, the singing of those who preceded! So sweet. It will ease your pain. Yes, when digestion begins, there will be pain. But it's brief."
The thudding and the nervous hissing grew louder.
"But don't fear! You are soldiers, sacrificed for the good of, well, not a nation, but something more -- humanity itself!!"
What am I going to do?
Ausonia's mind, so often seething with ideas, betrayed her with silence. Then time for plotting came to an end.
A pale, flexible limb hooked the well's edge, pulling up the rest of the starfish-shaped mass. It weighed at least as much as four elephants. The limb was merely one of five thick extensions, maggot-white tinged with pale yellow, protruding from a central nodule. With a frisson, Ausonia realized that an umbilicus, thick as a thigh, trailed into the well.
The abomination paused under the groin where vault intersected dome. One leg lifted. Eyestalks quested as if sensing a presence in the landing. Ausonia almost fled. The Mede murmured something, and the abomination responded by ponderously rotating. Using four extensions to walk, it lumbered towards the captives.
"Softness and warmth!" Assuriban cried. "And song!"
Ausonia ran her eyes along the groin's crisp edge. Yes, this might work. She plunged out of the landing and, to clear her mind, dropped her flickering spell. She ignored Thrax's relieved grin.
Assuriban leaned over the pulpit's rail. "None may profane the mystery! Archideme! Bid it take her first!"
The robed Mede whirled. A dagger flashed in his hand. He began a new chant. One maggoty limb froze, looming over Thrax. One by one the fat legs lifted, and again the beast turned, a bloated, overfed tarantula. The maw yawned, and Ausonia saw the quivering gullet slimy with acid. It crawled towards her.
"Um. Sis. Now's the time to run."
Yes, Thrax was right, but she held her ground. She was the lure and the trap. Her heart galloped, and the temptation to unleash the magic prematurely almost overwhelmed her. At least the Mede, focused on controlling the beast, was too absorbed to set in motion a disruptive counterspell.
Her timing was exquisite. When the beast's central nodule was almost under the groin, she let the Enochian words flow through her mind: More hyle to the keystone!
Hyle, matter's metaphysical substrate, was conserved. It could neither be created nor destroyed, merely moved. To effect her hylomorphic enlargement, the daemons had to fetch hyle from elsewhere. That took time. Heart in her mouth, eyes fixed on that drooling maw, Ausonia felt each passing moment like a pinprick on the back of her neck.
Sand and grit trickled onto the beast. The groin's keystone swelled, then split. Ausonia scrambled backward. The groin collapsed. Falling masonry pulped the beast's rear extensions. The remaining limbs flexed in agony. Trailing slime, the umbilicus whipped back into the pit.
"Archideme ... Archideme!"
Leading with the dagger, the Mede charged. Thrax was quicker. He burst backward, catching himself on his palms, and using them as a pivot swept his bound legs like a scythe. Arms flailing, the Mede tumbled head-over-heels into the well. The dagger skittered across the flagstones. Thrax's eyes flashed at Ausonia.
"Yo. Sis. Move it!"
Ausonia darted around the thing. This part of it was dying; no need to fear it. Nevertheless, she feared it profoundly. She seized the dagger and sliced Thrax's bonds. He bounded to his feet.
"Assuriban!" Thrax roared. "Let me show you what liberation means to me!"
But the albino had already fled. Thrax bounded up the altar, pulled himself onto the pulpit, and charged off. Ausonia began cutting the young Atlantean woman's bonds.
"Who -- who is that?"
"The brother. He's an idiot."
Ausonia had freed the others by the time Thrax reappeared atop the pulpit.
"Trapdoor. Give me that dagger --"
"Why don't we use the only escape route before he rouses the whole damn tower?"
Thrax jumped down, snatched the dagger, and led the charge up the spiral stairs. Ausonia shepherded the Atlanteans after him. Unopposed, the quintet burst into the alley. A hue and cry rang through the tower. Ausonia, breathless, pointed the Atlanteans towards the square. But Thrax lingered, shivering, eyes wild, brandishing the dagger at the black dome above.
"Move it, Thrax!"
"In the sky. What do you see?"
"I heard! Aletheia. Openness. It opens you to someone else. The question is ... who? If they're pushing a deranged faith, you're open to their madness. What do I see? What's always been there -- the damned stars!"
His ebullience should have returned. Either during the rush back to the Heptastadion or when the Klarkash-ton accepted the return of his charges. But it didn't, not even by the time they got back to their flat. He remained silent. With growing dread, Ausonia realized Thrax had begun to think for himself. The consequences, she feared, were unimaginable.
©December, 2017 Keith Peck
Keith Peck is a long-time fantasy and science fiction reader. He's worked as a computer hardware engineer, programmer, dairy lab technician, carwash manager, and McDonald's burger-flipper. He currently lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first published tale.
Ihsan cursed under her breath. She searched her pack for the healing potion. Kaldor lay dying beside her, a spear protruding from his belly. They had journeyed to Castle Drume on a quest to defeat Torkep, but the encounter had been disastrous for both sides.
“Did we kill him?” said Kaldor, through bloodied teeth.
Ihsan glanced at Torpek. One blow from Kaldor’s broadsword had severed the head from his body.
“Yes, he’s finished. We did it. The realm is safe. The prophecy has been fulfilled, blah blah blah.” She continued fumbling in her pack for the healing potion. Why did she bring so much useless junk? Her fingers brushed against a wad of herbs known to cure heartburn. She shook her head and kept looking.
Kaldor stared at her like a dog pleading for a biscuit. “Torkep is a powerful wizard, a master of deception and illusion. You must ensure he won’t return.”
“Once I’ve healed you, sure, we can spend all day prodding his corpse, if that’s your thing.” Ihsan scrunched her nose as she lifted a mouldy sandwich from the recesses of her bag. “This isn’t even my job. I’m a thief, not a healer. We could have hired a cleric back in town if you weren’t such a cheapskate.”
“You won’t find the potion. I have already drunk its sweet nectar.”
“And why the hell would you do that?”
“Because it tastes like strawberries,” said Kaldor. “And don’t glare at me, you were the one who ate a whole cake the first night we camped.”
Ihsan glared harder. “Fantastic. You’re going to die in the most decrepit dungeon I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’ll have to travel back to the citadel alone, battling all manner of dark and evil forces, to tell the Council what, exactly? The great Kaldor was defeated by his own sweet tooth?”
Kaldor frowned. “It’s not like I chose this life. I wanted to be a farmer, but that damn prophecy said I had to become a hero and rid the world of Torkep’s corruption.”
“I know, I know. You’ve told me a thousand times.” Ihsan rolled her eyes, then whispered to herself, “at least when you’re a corpse I won’t hear you go on about it.”
A voice like gravel drifted from across the room. “Would you two kindly shut up? I’m trying to die with some dignity.”
Ihsan drew her knife. She scanned the room for a hidden assailant but found no-one lurking in the dingy corridors, underneath the jewelled throne, or behind the stained glass windows.
“Down here, you idiot,” said the voice.
Ihsan peered down at Torpek’s head.
The wizard smiled back with yellow teeth.
“And what do you want?” said Ihsan.
“Just a little peace and quiet, and I’d rather not spend an eternity lying next to that buffoon.”
“Is that Torkep?” Kaldor tried to lift his shoulders but only managed to injure himself further. He wailed in anguish.
“See what I mean?” said Torkep, “he’s a dolt.”
“You want Kaldor out of this castle?” Ihsan stroked her chin. “Easy, just help me heal him.”
Torkep snorted. “You do realise I’m an evil wizard? Healing spells aren’t my style. It would be terrible for my reputation.”
“Shame,” said Ihsan, “if you knew a bit of the ole healing, you could get out the predicament you’re in, being a severed head and all.”
Torkep fell silent.
“Ha! She really got you there,” said Kaldor, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“Does anyone else have any requests they’d like me fulfil while they bleed out?” said Ihsan, sheathing her blade. “Because I’m one step away from forgetting about this whole thing and just looting the place.”
Kaldor lifted a trembling hand. “Take my broadsword. It is blessed by the holy monks of Apernia. Use it to spear the brain of Torkep. It will save the land, and destroy his devilish magics.”
Ihsan flinched. “That sword is thicker than my waist. I couldn’t lift it without doing serious damage to my back. You think I want to spend the best years of my life as a crone?”
“Forget about that simpleton,” said Torkep, “I can give you power beyond mortal comprehension. All you have to do is aid me.”
“What sort of power, exactly?” said Ihsan.
“Vast abilities the like you have never seen. You could stand next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of your hand. You could make an island out of those pieces, and live on it, your own little island with no-one to bother you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Power! You’ll have great power, okay? It’s getting hard to concentrate without my body attached. Just give me the talisman from the pocket of my robes, and unfathomable power will be yours.”
Ihsan inspected Torkep’s body. Slime bubbled from the gaping wound in his neck. “It looks kind of icky.”
“Don’t be fooled by that monster’s cunning,” said Kaldor, “do the just thing and one day you will become a true adventurer. If you slay Torpek, the realm will forgive your lack of talent, your failure to protect me during the final duel, and your inability to heal me afterwards.”
Ihsan stamped her foot. “Damnit Kaldor, you bumptious fool! I only agreed to this ridiculous quest because I felt sorry for you. And I needed the money, but you only paid me half, saying the council would give me the rest when Torpek was dead. You are such a cheap amateur, the prophecy you showed me even had spelling mistakes, for crying out loud!” She rifled through Torkep’s pockets. The gore almost made her gag.
“What are you doing?” said Kaldor.
“I didn’t plan to help this nasty wizard, but you’ve changed my mind. After journeying with you for weeks, and listening to you boast about your great destiny only to whine about it with your next breath, I can think of nothing more satisfying than making sure you fail.” She clasped her hand around the talisman and whirled towards Torpek. “What now?”
The head grinned. “Put it in my mouth, thief, and the rejuvenation will be complete. Then you shall claim your prize.”
Ihsan dangled the talisman in front of Torpek’s gaping maw, but snatched it away at the last second. She hopped over to Kaldor and knelt beside him.
“Come back here, you fool!” said Torpek.
“I may despise Kaldor,” said Ihsan, “but not enough to watch him bleed out. Besides, you’re a lying snake, and would probably have killed me the moment you reattached to your body.”
Torpek cursed like a toad dipped in hot milk.
“My hero...” said Kaldor.
“Just shut up,” said Ihsan. “Put this in your mouth. You can pretend it tastes like strawberries, or something.” She watched as Kaldor clenched the talisman between his teeth.
“Do you feel better?”
And then the skin melted from Kaldor’s face.
Ihsan screamed. The stench of bacon filled the air as her companion’s flesh, muscle, and bone puddled by her feet. She jumped back to avoid his ooze splashing on her boots.
“You tricked me!” said Ihsan.
“It’s what I do,” replied Torpek. “I may not survive this encounter, but at least I lived to see Kaldor dead. Your idiocy has served me well, thief.”
Ihsan’s mind snapped like a fiddle string. She ran towards the wizard, punting him with all her strength. His head crashed through a window, disappearing into the swampland beyond.
“That’ll teach him.” Ihsan whooped in celebration. She had finished the quest without meeting a gruesome end.
Seconds later, she yelped in dismay. The Council would only give her the reward if Torpek was dead, and she had no idea if a dip in murky waters would be enough to finish the job.
Kaldor’s broadsword wouldn’t budge. She tried hauling it from all angles, her spine creaking in protest until she collapsed in a sweaty heap. The reward hardly seemed worth the effort.
She decided to rob the place instead.
The talisman caught her attention. An unholy artifact would be worth a bundle, especially one that turned heroes into mush. She might even be able to bring Kaldor back to life with it, somehow, and then she could berate him for all the grief he put her through.
She upended her pack to make room and a vial fell out, shattering on the ground.
That’s when Ihsan remembered she had packed two healing potions.
©December 2017 Thomas Grayfson
Thomas Grayfson is a fantasy writer, gamer, and beer enthusiast. He lives with his partner and two children in Perth, the most isolated city in the world. You can find him lurking on Twitter @thomasgrayfson. This is his first published work.
The tall grass was like a field of knives, marking Nnene's dark skin red. There was no time to worry about such things, though. Things would be much worse if she did not keep moving.
Despite the danger they brought, she did not hate the centaurs. It was just sport to them, they did not know better. Did not understand. Nnene knew the risks in leaving while the two moons filled the sky. But, a deal was a deal. And if Iyawa could deliver on her end…
Time for that later. Right now, all Nnene needed to focus on was getting back home, to Dijau. Was this the right way? The blades are so tall in this field. At least the rain had stopped and the sky cleared.
She was tiring. Her legs felt loose, her lungs ablaze. Hooves beat the earth behind her. What energy she had left propelled her forward, and she tried to brace herself for the impact of their crude pikes. If this was the right way, she should be in Dijau soon. Nnene clenched the amulet she had retrieved in a pinch-tight grip.
The thundering hooves could no longer be heard. She allowed herself a brief pause to catch her breath. Nnene held up the amulet, reflecting moonslight onto her face. Was it worth it? Why did Iyawa want this so bad? Iyawa didn’t typically explain herself to the people she sent out like this.
Her breathing was nearly back to normal. Time to move.
Not ten feet further a rope came out of nowhere and pulled tight. Nnene tripped and fell down into the mud, sending the amulet flying. They had lead her into a trap. Nnene rolled to the side just as a pair of bloodied hooves slammed down right where she was.
A centaur loomed over her, its face expressionless. It clenched a crude pike in its thick hands, and was poised to strike. More hooves beat in the distance.
Nnene rolled again as death plunged into the ground next to her. She scrambled to her feet as the centaur pulled its pike out of the mud. Dijau had to be close, forget the amulet.
A soft light glowed on the horizon. Dijau. A new strength rose up in Nnene with home in sight. The centaurs were gaining on her again, and would soon overtake her.
The wooden gate to the city creaked open slightly and a guardsman poked his head out. “Hurry, inside!” he looked over his shoulder, “Centaurs!”
Nnene pulled a scarf up around her face as she neared the gate. Arrows were loosed from over the aged walls, keeping the beasts at bay. The gate guard held out his hand to her. She ignored it and shoved past him, dashing into Dijau. She was down an alley and in the shadows before any of the guard could get a good look at her.
The roof was leaking again. Nnene rolled out of her cot and wiped the rain off her forehead. She only got a couple hours of sleep, and winced as she moved through the bunkhouse. There was no time for rest, Iyawa was waiting for her.
“Where were you last night?” Golibe, one of Nnene’s housemates, was heading out the door just as she was.
“Working.” No need for details.
“Not for Iyawa again, I hope. Out all night, and coming home cut up and bruised, only to leave again before the sun rises. Sounds like Iyawa...”
“This is the last job. I won’t need to work for her anymore after this.”
“I’ve heard this before.”
“Need to get going. I’ll be back tonight,” she said and stepped out into the rain.
“Watch yourself around that sorceress!” Golibe called, heading off on his own way.
The streets were crowded, even this early in the day. She kept her head on a swivel. It was still close enough to night that pickpockets and other thugs could still be about. Working for Iyawa, chances were slim Nnene had anything to worry about. Still, it payed to be cautious.
Iyawa lived in a stout tower tucked away where no roads reached. She was one of the last heretic sorceresses in Dijau. Temple wanted her kind dead, so she preferred to stay off the beaten path. Not that any of guard would dare confront her, regardless of Temple’s wishes. Half were on her payroll, and they all feared Iyawa more than Temple.
After navigating the maze of alleyways Nnene finally arrived at the tower. She took a deep breath before rapping the iron knocker against the door. As it opened she was met by a waist-high man leaning against a walking stick as tall as she was. His alabaster skin looked well-worn and thoroughly creased.
“Ludewicus. I’m here for Iyawa.”
Ludewicus eyed Nnene up and down for a moment. “You haven’t the amulet.”
“It’s just outside the gate. A hundred yards. That should be close enough. I want my spell.”
“Lady Iyawa will not be paying for a job half finished. We told you the amulet only shows itself under the two moons, full,” he closed his eyes and tilted his head. When he spoke again his voice was steady, and with an edge. “You have until the next full moons to bring it to us. If Lady Iyawa does not have it by the end of that night, then that night will be your last.”
“What? I--” The door closed.
The rain continued to pick up as Nnene made her way home. Was it death either way, then? She barely escaped last time. Would luck be enough for a second time? Maybe she could flee. The way to Udalo was treacherous as well. Nnene could not recall ever hearing about anyone braving that journey with anything less than a small army and surviving. So, death that way as well.
By the time Nnene had reached her door she had made her decision. Iyawa was going to get her damned amulet, and Nnene was going to get her spell as payment.
She was going to need some help.
“You want to leave Dijau, at night, under the moons?” Golibe leaned back in his seat. “It’s suicide! You know the centaurs have their hunting ceremonies under the moons, right?”
“Of course I do, I barely escaped them last time,” Nnene replied. “But they rarely use the same area twice in a row, and we only need to go out about a hundred yards.”
“And then what? Dig around in the mud and dirt looking for this trinket, dodging who-knows-what? The savanna is dangerous enough during the day!”
“The amulet is shiny, unusually shiny. Should be easy to spot under the moonslight.”
“Golibe. she’s is coming after me if I don’t do this. You’re good, great, with a spear. No one else will help.”
“Damn that heretic,” he put his face in his hands. “Fine. We need to figure out how to get passed the guards at the gate.”
“Already know a way. Trust me.”
Nnene peeked around the corner of the building she and Golibe hid behind. She eyed the streets above one of the man-made canals that ran through the ancient stone parts of Dijau. There was a grate where the canal met the wall and eventually joined the Kenue River. Nnene had loosened a small portion of the grate for her last trip out. Hopefully it was still loose, and hopefully she would have the opportunity to use it on the way back in this time.
“There will be a break in the guards’ patrols shortly,” she said.
Golibe nodded. He bore a spear and shield, with a sling tucked in his belt. He was tense, knowing that the guards had reason enough to arrest either of them on sight. One of side affects of their less-than-noble careers.
“Now!” Nnene ran to the wall and jumped down to the grate, Golibe on her heels.
She felt around the metal grate for the loosened section. After using it last she had pulled it shut to obscure her secret exit. It should be down towards the bottom here. The guards should be coming by again any second now…
Nnene’s heart sank- there was a shiny new bolt in the grate. She looked up at Golibe and his eyes went wide as he saw it as well. Thinking quickly, he jammed the butt of his spear into a particularly rusted section of the grate and leveraged it with all his weight. Guards’ footfalls could be heard faintly. Metal creaked, and Nnene squeezed through the new opening. Golibe, however, was broader than her and his hips caught on the grate. Nnene grabbed his shoulders and threw her feet against the grate. A moment of pulling, and they both tumbled free down into the rain and mud.
They both sat there panting under the moonslight. No sounds of alarm rose from beyond the wall. Nnene and Golibe were safe from jail, but found themselves in the untamed savanna.
“Off to a great start,” Golibe observed.
Nnene grunted her response as she got up and wiped herself off. She had hoped for a more subtle exit. No need to draw unwanted attention this side of the wall. Still, they weren’t caught, so things weren’t too bad.
Golibe lifted himself with his spear and took in their surroundings. The night breeze made gentle waves in grass. Clouds filled the sky, but the rain was light at the moment. As far as Golibe could tell, they were alone. He nodded to Nnene, and followed closely behind her.
She moved slowly through the grass, eyes to the ground. Golibe knew well enough to keep his eyes up so she didn’t have to. All Nnene had to go on was a hazy idea of where she fell. It all happened so fast, and any tracks she might have left would have washed away over the last month.
“Wait,” Golibe whispered.
He squinted and gestured ahead. “There. A glimmer, can you see it?”
It took a second but Nnene saw the faint flecks of light as well. How is that possible with the clouds? Doesn’t matter now. Nnene darted over to the amulet. Maybe this was going to be easy after all. She was finally going to get that spell from Iyawa.
Nnene could swear the amulet nearly glowed with the moonslight as she held it in her hand. There was something supernatural about this thing, something heretical. She stared at it intently, almost missing the shadowy shape slowly approaching them.
“Down!” she whispered.
They both dropped prone in the mud. Nnene struggled to quiet her breathing. Couldn’t be a centaur, the moons were barely even visible this time. What, then?
“Zija,” said Golibe.
Nnene’s heart leaped into her throat. Zija were dangerous monstrosities, almost as bad as centaurs. Black and dingy-yellow stripes stretched across its gaunt body. Some sort of terrifying mix between a wild horse and a massive cat, the zija were the stuff of nightmares. Very few had faced one and lived.
A slow growl reached out towards Nnene and Golibe.
Golibe’s grip tightened on his spear. He knew there was no way they could outrun it. He needed to do something, and fast. Adrenaline filled his veins and his body surged up. Golibe rushed forward, the first few steps awkward in the mud. He prayed silently that it would not cost him his life as he and the zija met.
Claws raked his shield and the weight of the beast caused him to slide back several paces. He stabbed around the shield finding purchase for just a moment before the zija shoved off. It let out a shriek that chilled both Golibe and Nnene to the bone.
Golibe steeled himself and lunged at the beast as it tried to flank him. He misjudged the distance though, and buried the point too deep in the zija’s side. The spear was yanked out of his grip as the zija continued to dart around and then maul him from the side.
Nnene saw them both fall to the ground. She lay still for what felt like hours. The night, however, did not lift. Seconds, then? Pushing away her fear, Nnene finally urged herself up and over to where Golibe fell.
The zija was heavy, much more than it looked. Nnene struggled in the rain and mud against the dead weight. When it finally shifted and let out its final breath, there lay Golibe. Gurgling and with his throat slashed.
Everything went numb in Nnene’s world. Golibe was the closest thing to a friend she had. He didn’t even want to come out here, she had convinced him. What was the last thing she said to him? Something about guards? No, a single word of warning.
The amulet grew hot in her hand. She held it up, and through her tears could see that it was no longer just glimmering in the moonslight. The amulet now glowed on its own. Gentle tendrils of white light slowly arced downward to Golibe, wrapping his body in a soft embrace. His whole body seemed to glow.
As it subsided, Nnene could see that his wounds were closed, barely a scar remained. His eyes slowly opened.
“Nnene? What happened?”
Nnene crouched down just outside the light of the torches that burned atop Dijau’s wall. There were an unusual amount of people patrolling it. Are those clubs they hold? Nnene moved closer and squinted. They all bore swords.
“What?” Golibe was still with her. He had recovered surprisingly fast, but was exhausted and leaned on her for support.
“Temple on the walls. We forgot to cover the grate up.”
Temple soldiers were dangerous. The foreign weapons they used, and knew how to use, were wicked. They didn’t leave Temple very often, but when they did it was clear how highly they thought of themselves. Waltzing through the city with a swagger, bossing guards and citizens around. Most knew to avoid eye contact and not interact with the soldiers from Temple.
“The gate, the guards,” said Golibe.
Nnene threw him a concerned look. How rattled was his head? Would he recover? “Yes, Golibe. There are guards at the gate.”
“Yes. They’re guards.”
She almost smiled as she realized what he meant. His mind was still all there, he was just tired and having trouble talking. There were guards at the gate. Not Temple soldiers. Nnene stayed low and slow as she moved through the grass, supporting Golibe, over to where she was facing the gate. Two guards stood at it.
One was definitely familiar. She had just shoved past him a week ago, breaking back into the city. Nnene hoped the plan that was forming in her head worked.
She waited until two Temple patrols passed, one on the wall and one in front, before darting over to the guard she recognized.
“Hey! You--” he started
“Shh! You need to let me in,” Nnene said.
“What? And lose my hands, worse my head? These are Temple soldiers, girly.”
“We’re already having a conversation. Won’t that be just as bad for them? Might as well let me in.”
“Don’t think so, girly,” he lowered his spear at her and Golibe, who had just now made it over. “We’ll give you to them and stay in their good graces.”
“Wouldn’t you rather stay in a sorceress’ good graces?” Nnene asked. This was the gamble. Unless they were both on her payroll, this probably wouldn’t go over well.
“Think she is, Mardav. Seen her going in and out of those alleys before,” the other guard cut in.
Mardav eyed Nnene and Golibe closely. Nnene was starting to sweat, she had no idea how soon the Temple patrols would pass by again. If they passed again soon, or Mardav decided to turn them in, it was over for her and Golibe.
Voices from the patrol on the wall nearing cut through the tense moment. “Fine. Quick, then.” They cracked the gate open, and Nnene slipped in and out of sight once again, this time followed by Golibe.
“Lady Iyawa is not happy with you,” Ludewicus leaned heavily on his staff, “and demands to see you immediately.”
Nnene rolled her eyes as she moved past the old man. She had come here right after getting Golibe home and resting. The moons were setting, so her time was short.
Iyawa’s chamber was smaller than most would imagine. Still, the room was richly furnished and did not disappoint. Various tapestries of intricate design hung from the walls, exotic rugs were strewn across the floor. A hand-carved desk was on display in the center of the room. Magical curiosities cluttered the chamber along with crowded bookshelves and potted plants.
“You used my amulet.” Iyawa stepped into the room from behind a set of multicolored curtains. Her robes were elaborately embroidered and her head hairless, covered in arcane tattoos. “Now why would you go and do that?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Nnene said. “It acted on its own.”
“Quite convenient. You need the amulet’s magic, and suddenly it decides to act on its own.”
“Doesn’t feel very convenient right now. And I didn’t even know what it could do!”
“Listen here, darling,” Iyawa lifted the amulet from Nnene’s grasp and placed a hand on her cheek. “I won’t be able to use this for another two months, two lunar cycles. This job is half done, so I will only half punish you. You have a week to try to run and hide.”
Iyawa turned and placed the amulet onto a pedestal. She then leaned against her desk, looking at Nnene expectantly.
“It’s not half done,” Nnene knew she had to think fast. “You… asked for the amulet, and I got it for you.”
“Two cycles until I can use what you have brought me. You know what I was meaning when I sent you out on this job.”
“Don’t see how what you thought you implied matters. I did what was asked of me.”
Anger flashed across Iyawa’s face. Nnene could briefly feel the pressure in the room change, like a thunderstorm fast approaching. She started to second guess standing up to the heretic sorceress in her own tower. If Iyawa killed her here, would anyone ever know?
A smile stretched across Iyawa’s face but did not meet her eyes. The room gradually returned to normal. “One spell. Then you never let me see you again. What will it be?”
Nnene shooed away the cat while she tossed seed to her chickens. It was a young and feisty cat, but it eventually got the idea. Now that a couple of months had passed, Nnene could finally admit that a small part of herself missed Dijau. She knew she would never go back, at least not for a very long time.
She still wrote to Golibe on occasion. They were both trying their best to live honestly now. He had found work as a guard, surprisingly enough. As far as Nnene knew, Golibe has so far been successful in resisting Iyawa’s temptations.
And Nnene had her small plot of land just outside Ubalo. It was quiet, and she worked for herself. No more dodging guards, running from Temple, or facing death threats.
From the doorway of her modest home she could see beyond the farms of Ubalo all the way to the savanna surrounding Dijau.
Nnene took a deep breath, and smiled.
©November, 2017 J. S. Alexander
J. S. Alexander has not been previously published. He blogs about Dungeons & Dragons at js-alexander.com.
The fires under my skin burn less and the tightness eases out of my sternum as I walk. Hisra and Fre, the mother goddesses, are making it clear I am moving in the right direction: toward the mesa in my visions from Hisra, straight through the pain and weeping sent by Fre.
No more babies ever? No pregnant women in the whole world? I wonder, does the hardworking woman who delivered the last child know yet that she can put up her feet, drink hard, and sleep as long as she likes?
I worry most about why the goddesses are calling me. What aid can I give? Do they have a problem only good hygiene can solve? Snort.
It's downhill the whole way, a steep slope, harp jolting against my lower back out of time with the food and clothing swinging from my shoulders. Hillfoot below Vidwell, Confluence on the plains, the mesa south from there. So when I stop for lunch, the ache in my knees ratcheting up to match that from the goddesses, the blue-green view gives way to butter yellows, lemons, fading to blue again. Most of a moon and those blues will be rust, russet, thick blurs of orange, sunset in stone---or so I assume, never having really been south of Confluence, home to generations of Blud women before me.
The cheese and the bread help, but I don't stand up until the goddesses agitate. Again Hisra's fires. Again, Fre's cold stone temple filled with disembodied weeping.
Twilight settles without the afternoon's autumn rain, without reaching Hillfoot. Yawning tears from my eyes, the southern sky looks washed out. I blink but nothing changes. Sitting up, I see what must be Hillfoot, in flames. It looks nearer; so much light. But even that much fire can't make clear my way from here to there over steep, uneven ground in the dark.
My eyes close before the light fades but my dreams are pinks and ash.
Just past dawn, I come to Hillfoot, half of it burnt, half of it keening. On the high street I come across a crowd and tense up, but they are working together to pull bodies from the buildings.
A man turns as I walk toward them, shouts, "Who are you?" He spreads his arms to block the road but I am stopped by the snarl on his face. Dark-haired and tall; the width of his shoulders says he works with his body.
"I'm the midwife from Vidwell---" and stop as he recoils. I know I look more like a sweaty, overburdened peddler than a mousy, middle-aged midwife, but still.
"Midwife? We've no need for you---"
"I know, but you could use more hands---" and I point because I cannot speak it.
Others turn. "She can help, Swift." "Maybe she wasn't up all night, like me."
"How have you heard the news, midwife?" I turn to face my questioner. Pale hair of the mountain folk but skin that took a tan and held it. "We've had no time to send word to Vidwell and we're the closest."
Technically I haven't heard anything from another human so I shake my head.
The woman goes into the next building and begins carefully moving planks and furniture. I leave my harp and bags outside the door, enter. She continues talking: "They sent word from Confluence: all the priests walking out from the temples at the same time, all with the same word: we are to live out the lives we have, there will be no more---" She swallows audibly. "The priests say the gods mean to start again. Without us. And now---"she waves her hand limply, "riots, deaths. That poor messenger."
She leans against a chair and it falls to pieces beneath her palm. I catch her arm so she doesn't go over. She doesn't see me. I don't know what she does see. From here, I can see the whole building's interior is ash.
I pull her gently out the door, touch a neighbor, hand her off. I turn to find the angry man at my elbow. I point. "You can't get to the upper floors, the stairs are out. But down here it's empty."
He gestures. "Try the next." He stomps in himself. Hoping he'll call for a rope and help, I go on, one body after another, so large, so silent, so unlike the work to which I usually put my hands.
Sun overhead doesn't come too soon but it does come with a kind soul carrying a bowl of stew who thanks me for taking care of Sud earlier. I thank them back, take a bite, and the goddesses start up again: hot flashes, sorrow of lost babes and mothers.
The angry man stops me at the south end of the high street. "Not going home."
"No," shaking my head. "There is something else I am supposed to be doing."
"What else could you be doing? People have gone mad with fear. Half of Hillfoot is---"
I carefully shrug. "I'm not sure, but the Mothers have made plain I am not to stay here."
The heat in his face shifts. He whispers, "I hear them. One of them is so very angry."
"Yes." I look closer at his strain, the planes of his face, the depths of his brown eyes.
"You shouldn't go alone."
I frown. I cannot quite dispute this. There are the remains around me to rebuff any words I might say. And there are only more people and more fear where I am to go. The goddesses press on me. I respond to the other side of his question. "I think you're needed here, if they aren't telling you to leave."
He protests. "There's so little left---"
"There's your whole life left."
"You don't believe that."
There are many things I could do now that there are no babies. The harp hangs heavy on my back, for a moment balancing out the Mothers' bleakness. There are the dye combinations I have always wanted to try. I could learn to cook instead of reheat. I could travel.
I am traveling.
The tree root paths of possibilities spread out before me. There is a lot of the me who has no desire to midwife that could come out. The tune to Merry Widow lodges itself in my head. Simple chord progression but it's been so long since my fingertips plucked gut to arpeggiate.
I look up at the man. "I do believe. You have a whole life left and you should live it. I would."
Different fire behind the brown eyes this time. He nods, no words, walks off.
I turn the opposite direction and do the same.
Scrub expands into meters of grass, up into bushes, everything greening, the air taking on the smell of stagnant water. I debate a fire as the sun sinks, stretching out the kinks in my back to unpack, lay tinder, empty out the contents of the bag in search of another wool layer and, despite Hillfoot, desire a hot dinner. The bark against my back is almost comfortable as I lean into it, none of me chilled, starlight beginning to fall down into the cook pot.
I unwrap the harp, laying it on my lap. I slowly begin to twist a peg, tightening a string. Deep and low, there's no way it would have weathered all those years unplayed with patience and I find it hasn't, as I hum and bring it into tune.
I stay with the one note for a while, until I admit to myself I'm afraid.
"When I set you down, and ran away, I told myself I could never really lose music. Who can lose music? I tap my toe. I sing at the festivals. So many dances. Surely my fingers will remember the spacing for chords, surely my biceps won't ache with the angle required for playing. Surely my neck will remember to stay out of it. Surely something inside me still sings."
The night does not answer but the goddesses do. The campfire roars up and I panic for my food. The weeping lodges in my throat, squeezes my eyes shut and into tears.
I put the harp down, feel the pressure ease, check the cook pot from my knees. Not burnt. But cooked, and so I eat, then clean.
I pull the harp into my lap and tune the rest, the high E refusing with a melodic tone and then a snap. Well, easy enough to play around that.
Arpeggios, stiff fingers, sore fingers, callouses building, but a harp sounds beautiful no matter whose hand goes to it. Even in scales, in slipped fingers and fumbled pulls, I feel lighter, the goddesses at a distance. Instead of epiphany, I fall asleep, curled around lacquered wood and gut.
Everything aches, skull to tailbone, and I am amazed I don't damage the harp when I jerk awake. Hunting horns. I hurry packing, eat dried fruit while I walk. I smell it before I see it: someone's day old battlefield. I cannot help but check, all bodies. Two horses. My tears do nothing for them.
When the walls of Mallows Cross become a smudge against the southern horizon, the sun has sunk to my shoulder. I push on. More evening than afternoon.
Across the bridge, there are two young women with pikes outside the walls. From the left: "Business, please."
I say I'm headed south.
The speaker tips her head. "You're in luck, there's a messenger carriage here, heading out in the morning. Maybe you can hitch a ride." She so clearly doubts I can walk the whole way. I did once, I should be able to do it again.
I am looking for an inn in the growing darkness when I hear my name.
"Is that really you, Enarra?"
I turn and there in the twilight is Ekhert, mother's sister's son, dressed in some official livery as light-colored as his skin. The years have turned his blond hair grey at the temples, spreading like a river delta from the creases at the corners of his eyes. Above the beard, his smile is still that of my best friend.
"Enarra? What are you doing here?"
"I'm heading south."
"I thought you were up in the foothills, one of those little sheep towns the Mamas would never bother with."
"I was." I emphasize the past. "What about you? Since when do you do government work?"
"Since you left. The Mamas banished music from both houses."
"But the Mamas always let boys---" and I stop. Did he get punished for association? Certainly there were plenty of things they could do to keep him from music, even if traditionally boys got the career they wanted.
"Most of the time I'm in a bright room surrounded by ink and paper. No one looks twice if I jot down notes or lyrics." He looks me straight in the eye. "It wasn't so bad."
"Well, now I'm mostly out riding." He waves behind his shoulder. "With escorts, because no one wants to hear about law and order even as they panic about the lack of law and order." The two escorts are night and day: tall dark woman, short blonde man, southern folk, northern folk. At least that much cooperation is still happening.
"Mallows Cross is much better than the last place I came through."
Ekhert glances at me, doesn't ask. "How about dinner?" Pointing. Turns out there's an inn just behind me.
"Please. And." I pause. He checks mid-stride, waits. "And a ride to Confluence?"
"You and the harp?"
He noticed. "Please."
He smiles like I have seen no one smile in a week. "Only if you'll play in the evenings. It's a couple of days of travel."
I hold out both palms. "Deal." He slaps them and we go in to dinner. I fall asleep before we're finished eating.
Mid-day, we lurch as the carriage suddenly slows and the guards call out arcane defensive jargon to each other. I can smell it before Ekhert sticks his head out of the window. I don't think this fire belongs to the goddesses.
He shakes his head. "It was fine three days ago. We came through then and talked to people and they were calm. Mystified but calm."
"We're going to have to go around, sir." The driver.
"That bad, Krista?"
"There's a blockage, sir."
"Raiders," I contribute.
"Won't they recognize us, Krista?"
"Don't know, sir. They may not care."
Ekhert gets down and looks over the whole plain, back how we came, forward to Meander's buildings, the thread of a dirt road that skirts the town.
The goddess' urgency presses down, but also south, like a strong wind.
"What are you planning to do, Ekhert?"
He turns to look inside at me. "I was thinking I might talk to them."
"Sir---" begins one of the guards.
"Technically I've done what I was supposed to, but how can I not help them?"
"What could one---or three---of you do?" He doesn't like my question. I slide myself along the length of the seat toward the carriage door. "I'll have to walk then."
"Enarra, you can't go alone."
"I was until Mallows Cross. I have to."
I rub my neck. "Ah, well, the goddesses have told me to. I don't really seem to have a choice." I press my hand against my forehead. "They're upset."
"They are upset? It's their fault in the first place---"
I grimace with the hammer-stroke of a new headache. "Doesn't matter. I'm going."
"Not alone. Krista, get us moving." He climbs back in and the horses start off.
"Circle round, sir?"
Ekhert sighs. "Yes, yes."
That evening, Ekhert asks for a song. Headache, finger cramps---he waves these things off and presses. But when the campfire leaps at me, he admits the hand of a deity.
He asks, "What do you mean you haven't played in all this time? When you left we all thought you'd gone so you could play music like you wanted."
"Oh, no, Mother only let me go because I went out to old Mulara's place and she forced me through the end of my training and then carted me off, accompanied by a trio of traveling midwives---"
"There's a song there, for certain."
"The only songs in Vidwell were about sheep. Or about getting stuff done quickly before the sheep wandered off too far."
Ekhert snorts. "No dogs."
"Let's not go there. It's over now."
"No more babies, Ekhert, ever. So I'm out of a job. And once I finish whatever this quest is---"
"I told you, the Mothers are demanding I go south."
"No idea. Just south."
"Enarra? Why did you leave then? You could have stayed if you'd decided to do what your mother wanted and be a midwife."
I look down at the flames. Even to Ekhert it's difficult to admit how little I want to walk back into Confluence and my younger self's entanglements. I sigh. "Dix."
"I never liked him much, then."
"Well, I didn't either, but apparently that didn't matter to Mother." The anger creeps in.
"He would have turned out okay. He does well by his wife now." Ekhert pokes at the fire.
"An orphan who ended up running errands for Mom for a while."
"Better her than me."
Ekhert asks, "Wasn't it worth trying? Surely Aunt would have reconsidered the music had you stayed longer to press her?"
"Ekhert, I wasn't interested. I'm not interested. Those kind of relationships are not what I'm looking for."
Ekhert surprises me, but still sends my heart into my mouth when he speaks. "What are you looking for?"
I swallow. "Someone to laugh with, to sing with. Someone to lie down with on a summer night and look up at the stars. Someone who listens."
"You sure? The world's ending. Last chance to change your mind."
"I know my mind. And it's ending slowly."
"The fires at Hillfoot say differently."
I can't disagree. I can't unsee the bodies there or unfeel their skin against my skin.
"The gods made us to live, right?" Ekhert gives me a reluctant nod. "Well, then, I'm going to live what time I have left. Maybe now is the time for my music." The goddesses howl. The flames sear me, choke my throat, the weeping so loud I close my eyes. I barely feel Ekhert touch me before I curl into a tight ball and black out.
Confluence looks dingy, but I realize from this distance it's just smoke. Why does the end of the world bring out the arsonists? Perhaps they were all hoping to be mothers and fathers, their fate irrevocably changed. I can't have this cradle, this schoolroom, this clerk house, why should you?
No problems at the gate. I don't bother to lean out and trouble the guards with my presence. I should walk the high street straight through without stopping.
"Ekhert, let me out here. The gate's gone from sight and there shouldn't be an issue."
"But, Enarra, I thought I'd drop you---"
"At home? That place hasn't been my home in over two decades." I can see the hope for reconciliation all over his face.
"I've missed you. I was hoping you would stay. It's the end of the world, I mean. Good to have a friend nearby."
I throw up my hands. "It's the end of babies! It's not the end of the world! There's no pestilence, no lightning, no cause for war because no one's got a magic uterus unaffected by the gods' decision. No messenger is going to arrive from some distant land and say, We're having babies just fine."
I rap my fist against the ceiling of the carriage and it begins to slow.
"Believe me, I have done all the arguments in my head for years. I don't need to see Mother in person." Deep breath. "It's lovely to have seen you again, Ekhert, and to know I still have you as a friend. But while the goddesses are pounding in my head, I'm out of choices." I think of the harp.
I open the door, jump down, regret it as everything jars against the cobbles. I see Willow's Apothecary hasn't moved. Irony, of course, that across from it still stands the music hall.
"Krista, could I have my bags, please?" The driver drops one down, lowers the harp until I grasp it firmly. "Thank you." I scramble for coin, pick one by size inside my pocket, toss it up in a long arc, and watch her catch it, smiling.
Ekhert stands next to me. "What do I tell them?"
"Do you have to tell them anything?"
"Well, Enarra." He blushes. "I think they'll know. Seeing you has made me uncharacteristically happy."
I hug him, our shoulders at the same level, sink into him for comfort.
"I'll come back if I can."
His arms are still around me when we hear the first yell: "Fire!" Back, near the north gate. More voices take up the warning.
I break from Ekhert with one last "Goodbye!" Before I can take a step, the goddesses lean on me and I am washed in Hisra's fire. I drop to my knees.
"Enarra?" He crouches down next to me.
I growl. "Give me a chance to get my ass out of here before you pitch a fit."
"Enarra?" He helps me up.
I look past him toward the road. "Sorry, Ekhert, I wasn't speaking to you."
He points to the burn on my left hand. "When did this happen?"
"Just now I think. I've got to go."
"You start, I've got some aloe in my bag and I'll catch up."
The burn doesn't hurt anymore. And I manage a good pace past the city square and into the artsy neighborhoods of the high road where it begins to wind although does not narrow. Here the crowd is unfocused, perhaps just getting the news of the fire, and much harder to slip through.
My calves begin to remark that we're moving uphill, the gate coming into view above buildings, on some of the road's tos and fros, only the market between me and the exit. Slow-moving morass but perhaps I can get through it before the flames---or their news---spread.
The cries for fruit and cheese, for flowers even now as the cooler weather comes into the city, cannot turn my head. It's the quartet tucked between the perfumer and the poets' guild---fine allegorical choice that---that steals my breath. Harpist, bassist, percussionist, singer.
One second, I promise the goddesses. One second, I promise myself. The old thrill still rises up my back and I become all their threading sounds separate and simultaneous. I am the alto's broken heart, the harp's hummingbird high notes, the deep thrum of the bass cut into pieces inside my sternum by the strike of the small snare.
But it is not Ekhert when I turn to the hand on my sleeve, it's my mother.
"Now is the wrong time to come back to the city. What were you thinking?"
I'm eight and have dropped glassware in the herb room, my hands shaking more with the yelling than the shock and shards. I'm eighteen and have said I'm leaving to go make music and she threatens to drug me and marry me, trap me in the city. What I am doing is running.
I muster all my bravado. I unlock those twenty years of unreconciled anger. "I'm going where the goddesses send me, Mother. There's no more babies left to bring into the world."
She raises her hand. I recognize the slap as her wrist comes up but I catch it, stop it, feel my mother's strength is not what it used to be.
She struggles but her words are sharp. "We need healers here, now. Look around."
I look, for a minute, holding her hand. Crow's feet, cold eyes, my younger mother still there but blurred at her edges by white hair and sunken cheeks.
She could try to drug me still, contact poison in the palm of her hand, but for once I am truly happy about the heat and pressure from the goddesses. She's no match for them. With patience, perhaps I can outwit each of them in turn.
"Goodbye, Mother. I'm questing."
"And the harp?" She tightens her hand on my hand, different emotion.
"Yes." I release her fingers and she stands spine straight to watch me go.
I take in the new tune by the quartet, the yellow stone of the gate, the unpolished metal on the left guard's chest. The air outside the city is cooler; I can nearly feel an inferno behind me. I don't look back but my hands don't stop shaking for a good long while.
Finally the last up of the mesa, the dramatic winding trail, a copse of a type of tree that doesn't belong in the desert. As I climb closer, I feel the humidity in the air, hear the song of a lowland bird answered by the notes of a mountain bird.
Two women sit on a blanket, waterfall behind them thick with spray but nearly silent, playing with a baby. Brown eyes look up to meet mine and I am surrounded by sandstorm and furnace. She looks younger than me, petulant teen with dusky skin, brown maid's braids down her back, but nothing about her smiles nor aches of youth.
"Oh, His, stop," says the redhead, playfully pushing Hisra over. Hisra lifts the baby over her head and makes bird-wing noises.
Even from here I can feel that Hisra must be smiling; the heat and pressure subside.
Fre stands. She's taller and broader, looks older, her green eyes dancing with mischief. Her pale skin and soprano voice make her appear delicate. "Oh, Enarra, what took you so long?"
Fire. Panic. Death. The end of the world. I cannot even open my mouth to let the fury out.
Hisra speaks as I stand shocked still. "And the harp. I had fits you would give us away." She tickles the child.
I can feel my eyes widen. I cannot take in the pastoral scene, the goddesses, their light but patronizing voices. The child has wings. And blue skin. Scales, not skin. A stump of a tail. The noises it sings are as normal as any human---except the growling. It shivers me. I don't need it to turn my way to know I have never seen a baby like this before.
Fre comes closer to me. "You're tired. Sit."
But I don't move. "Give you away?"
Fre laughs a little self-consciously and looks back at Hisra and the baby. Hisra laughs full out without looking at us.
"We're supposed to wait, Enarra," Hisra says, continuing to help the baby dance and step. "The Council of the Gods decided to give the humans, the sea folk, the bird folk, the remainder of their days---"
"And then tear it all down. Fre and I didn't want them to tear anything down. We said we should just add more."
More fire, more wind, more weeping. A month of pain and grief. Much like everyone else, when I put it that way. "Couldn't you have just asked me to wait to play?"
Fre shakes her head, "Oh, no, that's much too specific for a sending. And your harping, once you'd practiced, well, any god would notice that." She sighs. "And if they noticed you, and noticed you coming here, well that would be unacceptable."
Hisra agrees. "We said we would wait, but we don't want to. So we built a little space here, where the other gods won't look."
"We hope. And we looked out and remembered you and how you liked breaking rules---"
Hisra continues, "And so we insisted you come here. This beautiful babe is only the first. There are so many ideas Fre and I have been storing up for a chance."
Fre whispers, "And I've heard some of the others are planning to poison the air. And set fires. We are not the only impatient ones."
Hisra looks up. "Which others?" But Fre ignores her. And the baby wails. And habit kicks in. I set down harp and bag and hold out my thumbs and the blue child turns violet eyes, snout, and incisors to me. I hum as it grabs hold. Down on my knees, it dances to the song under my breath.
"You might think we called you for the wailing---"
"Well, I think she'll have some ideas, His, so why not try?"
"Nap time first," and Hisra whisks the baby away to a padded cradle.
"Let's do another, His. Enarra's here now and she can help."
"I'm a midwife not a child minder." Both goddesses look at me.
Hisra looks slightly uncomfortable. "Well, yes, but we'll need a midwife, too, of course."
"And if I leave?"
Fre gasps. "You can't leave. The people out there are dying."
"Not all of them."
Fre looks about to cry. "They will be."
Hisra asks her again, "Who?" But Fre just shakes her head, eyes closed.
"You wouldn't rather stay with us?" Hisra looks down on me but her face says she genuinely wants to know.
"His!" But Fre stops when Hisra's hand comes up.
"No," I say, sighing. "But if one of you needs birthing help, I will help. I took that oath. But---" I wave at their bodies vaguely.
"We should let her rest first, His. Feed her. She'll need her strength."
So the blanket becomes a picnic. And I eat like it is my last meal on earth. And I nap after the strong cider.
When I open my eyes, Fre at my elbow to help me stand, I see a shimmering portal in the shade of the fir trees. Hisra hands me a cloth to tie about my face, tightens it in back herself. "You can't breathe in there without this."
Through the portal there is sunshine, there is lava curving between imperturbable arches of stone, there is what appears to be a pregnant woman, blue-scaled with wings taller than me. Her rumbles reach me through the doorway, against my breastbone. She paces, alone, a picture I am well familiar with.
To either side, I see Hisra and Fre shifting shape to match that of the woman I see through the portal. They gently walk me through. The heat immediately reminds me of Hisra's sendings.
The poor woman sees me, wingless and pink, and faints. My arms free of the goddesses, I do what I can to make her comfortable until she comes round---and shies away from my body to take Fre's hand.
Fre's voice quavers. "His, we have to tell her."
Hisra shrugs. "Sometimes, Enarra, omnipotence isn't very good at problem solving. There is knowing and there is, well, doing."
I stare at the goddess. "Has the baby not turned, or something like that?"
Hisra nods very slowly. "Something like that."
"You're going to have to tell me about her anatomy. I mean, she looks a bit like a human---" I check, no breasts---"and obviously she does live birth or I wouldn't be here but---"
Hisra sighs. "It's close enough."
"Close enough cuts cords too soon."
Hisra touches my temple and I just know how this woman works on the inside, probably better than I do my own body. Movements and groans, things I'd understood only from the outside become muscles contracting, directed by the rushing of liquid emotions through the body. When I turn back to look at the pregnant woman, there is something familiar about the way she is rigid, it is too static. Like a human, this is the time when the baby should begin to descend, to travel down the birth canal. I gently separate her legs and look. Fine there. I begin to sing, under my breath, Springtime Shadow, and I count the chorus every time it comes round.
I turn to Hisra. "Has she given birth before?" The goddess nods. "Were there problems then?" She shakes her head.
I sing through another five verses, throwing in made-up flowers for each, my hands on the woman's bulging abdomen. The baby should have moved by now.
Dropping the song and dropping into her labored breathing, I lighten my touch and try to feel for the ebb and flow of the muscles trying to give birth. I can barely tell. But is it her species or her body?
I look up at the goddesses. "My best guess is that her body can't push hard enough right now to get the baby out. I'm not sure how to help it do that."
Fre rushes in, "I will tell her to push---"
"No!" I interrupt. Appalled at myself, I go ahead anyway. "It's not a problem with her, well, conscious body. When she's supposed to push, she'll know. But there's some, well, instinctive pushing that happens first. And that's the problem. It's not strong enough."
Hisra laughs deprecatingly. "As the goddess of childbirth---"
Fre clears her throat.
Hisra begins again. "As the goddesses of childbirth, we can fix this." Hisra claps her hands and my harp falls into them.
"Enarra," she commands, handing over wood and strings. "Strum us a sturdy beat."
Which has got to be the last thing the harp's good for, but I do my best. After a few repetitions of a one chord across my lowest strings, I begin to hum The Soldier's Journey. It is perhaps too martial an omen for a new baby of a new species coming into a world of heat and flame, birthed just as my blue and russet one is being left to dwindle into dust. But I see that Fre, then Hisra, begin to pulse, a halo of light about each of them. Then the light begins to drift like fog, first falling to the ground, then swirling up over the woman's body like a swarm of fireflies. The light flares in time to my hands. My hands threaten to syncopate in time with the lights but I bring my whole focus to the down beat. The woman's body too begins to pulse, first her newly-acquired aura and then the pulses of a body giving birth. I set the harp down carefully but quickly, and put my hands on the woman. I keep the beat flicking tongue against teeth, counting. Yes. The baby moves.
From there, there is blood and screams and I have been here so many times I could do this in my sleep. But my whole body is awake and watching, thrumming, as the baby's head, small stubs of horns, then the tips of its wings, come out into the world. I check the relevant areas but can make no guess as to sex. I check the relevant parts of the mother, see the exhaustion in the bones of her face, but also see that she's healing.
I pat the newborn lightly and it squalls. Just like any other baby.
Hisra cuts the cords with fire between her hands. I pass it over to Fre. In turning my head, I glance back toward the portal. Above it, the sky is blue with a heavy infusion of green.
Fre conjures water and we all drink. The heat from the lava is relentless. I smell nothing but the sterility of the cloth and yet my nose itches. I have no idea how much time passes, the goddesses fussing over the sleeping mother and child.
I pick up my harp and stagger back to the portal, pass through, fall to my knees near the blanket. Hisra follows me. I rip the protective cloth from my face.
Lying on the dirt looking up at the sky, I demand, "How many of these people have you made?"
"Not many." Hisra busies her hands with the baby still asleep in the cradle.
"You must know I don't really like babies all that much."
"But the joy, you feel that. And you are a person who keeps her word."
"But will you let me go? You don't really need me here." I challenge the goddess.
"You truly want the destruction? Rather than creation?"
"I want to make music with whatever time I have left." I wave my hand backward toward the portal, which is actually stretching my fingers out to the sky. I close my fist. "That place is not for me, whether I can breathe there or not."
"You're already a part of their mythology."
"Then I wish I had played real music, not just strumming a beat. And that I hadn't frightened her with my different looks."
"You saved her life. And the child's." Hisra watches me, then her eyes flick to the portal. She nods. "Alright. Their music will probably not be stringed and soprano anyway. Write yourself differently into their tale."
I sit up, pick up the harp, loosen fingers and tighten strings. I shake out my hands, too much adrenaline, too much arguing with goddesses. Hisra's right, though, birth is a joyous thing, especially something so new and unknown.
I have my own new and unknown waiting for me. A path full of improvisation and tempo changes, the anticipation of which turns easily into melody between my hands.
©November 2017 Mary Alexandra Agner
Mary Alexandra Agner writes of dead women, telescopes, and secrets. Her poetry, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, and Sky&Telescope, respectively. She can be found online at http://www.pantoum.org.
Big bellied ships blocked the sky above Braten-town harbor.
Every morning Ysma woke to their shadowing promises. When tasks brought her to the water - receiving a shipment of raw-cloth or some other errand for Mistress - she knocked barrels and crossed fingers two times two, a charm against those swaying tree trunk masts.
Every night Ysma slipped into hard dreams that belonged to another; full of salt and spume. Ships. Always the ships. She would see the world, trapped behind that stranger’s eyes and feel the full fear of volition lost. Sometimes, Ysma would surface. The shell holding her back would flinch as she banged up against the ice of otherness. For a moment it seemed that she would be able to retake her body. The other girl would nod in her direction and she’d sink once more.
Morning always came, washing away the dregs of the dreams. She’d put them out of mind with the repeated refrain: Dreams don’t make the dyeing any easier. By afternoon, when the weeping lengths of wool hung on the slatted wooden racks, she would imagine that instead of muddy brown or moss, the cloth was the bare white of albatross sails.
She knew what was owed. Mistress never let her forget. Ten years now; fed, clothed and taught the trade. Ten long years since Mistress caught little Ysma rooting through trash heaps in shit-ridden alleys. Mistress preached - often and loudly - how generous that act had been. Ysma would be dead without her. It was right to be thankful.
The dream-girl wasn’t concerned. Not with Mistress Herle or debts or dyeing. There was only one thought, one heartbeat that Ysma’s other craved.
Braten-town’s backwater imagination was set aflame for two full weeks before the criers descended their gangplanks. Shivering and gawking at the snow, no one could confuse them for locals. They came from Goganem and Senth. They came for the penniless and wanderlusting. Yarns spun from foreign tongues: new lands, wild women, riches beyond compare.
Mistress Herle answered their cries with snark and snide.
“Sailors are slick. If anything’s floating out in them waters, dontcha think we’d know it? Let’em sail over the edge for all we care. Bet you a coin they’ll be back in port by spring.”
Ysma knew she couldn’t tell Mistress about the pull. What would she say if she knew about the handful of times Ysma found herself at the quay - blank and blinking - running her hands along the ship’s barnacled boards?
No use staring at the goods if you don’t have coin to buy. Wisdom from Mistress, for there was never any coin.
Dyeing’s a trade to be proud of, Ysma reminded herself before the dreams came each night. It was the other girl who wanted; the ships and away, two hinges on which the other girl’s desire swung.
The morning came when Ysma couldn’t avoid the boats any longer. The white winter sky hung low, balanced on the top of Braten’s bean-pole buildings. Last night’s snows traced silver outlines on eaves that stretched low to the ground. The grey slush of the streets had already invaded her patched boots, leaving her with clammy toes. The clouds parted for a moment and sunbeams bounced from ice to her marigold eyes. Blinking through momentary blindness, she rounded the corner at Scissor and Flask and found herself face to face with the barker.
“Any and all,” the woman, no taller than a child, crowed. A skein of darkness enveloped her. Did it leach from her skin? Wrap around her like a cloak? They stood in a pocket of still, dead cold. The sounds of the city ceased.
Ysma felt a stirring behind her eyes.
“Any and all who yearn for the seas! Each and every with hearts tugged by the tide! Any who are torn, split by wanting, we have the balm to bind you.”
A sick tug stretched from her heart, reaching out toward the barker. Ysma shuffled left, then right, trying to avoid the dark Sentish woman. Predatory eyes made it clear, her quarry was cornered, and she had no intention of letting it escape. A shadowed hand - deeper in hue than all the indigo and sumac in Mistress’s reserves combined - grabbed Ysma’s upper arm.
“I can read you, child. Got an urge for going.” Her words thick with the slushy, drawn out sounds of the South.
“Yes. No. I mean, it’s her, not me. I have work . . .” Ysma fumbled, surprised by her honesty. Her tongue felt fat as a lamprey and flapped against her teeth just the same.
“Oh we know about her,” the woman’s smile thrummed a familiar note across Ysma’s soul, “your other girl.”
The barker took a conspiratorial tone, “No Mistresses where we’re going, my double dearie. There’s more to life than stained hands and cutting cloth.”
Ysma tensed. “What do you know about that?”
“More than I should say, chickadee,” the woman’s eyes bounced to the girl’s blue-stained palm. “You work hard for your Mistress, but there’s more for you. The sea pulls, through the night and into the day. Braten-town won’t be where you’re buried. Not you or your other, nor both together.”
“You don’t know a thing about her,” Ysma protested before she could stop herself. She’d never spoken of the other girl. There was no way this woman could know anything about either of them. Ysma’s dress clung to her spine; a straight line of sweat.
Stop thinking about her like she’s a real person. She’s not. It’s just . . . she’s just a dream. She isn’t real.
“Now that isn't true. She’s real, true as you and me. And I know what she needs.”
Had Ysma spoken aloud?
The woman’s hand became a vise.
“Enough. I’ve found you and it’s settled. A week at the most before anchors-up and the winds rush in. We’re riding the winter blowers all the way to the ends of the world.”
The Senthish woman produced a vellum scroll and unspooled it with a flourish. A stylus appeared from the depths of her sooty robes.
“You know about . . . her . . . but you don’t know my name?” A little laugh bubbled from her throat. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” Ysma could barely believe, despite her trembling voice, that she was resisting this woman. She was sick with fear, but managed to keep her feet planted firm, “I already told you.”
“Wrong. You will. Name?”
The dark pocket that surrounded the pair pulsated for a heartbeat. Ysma struggled to think. She felt herself slipping under the ice; her twin rising up.
“I . . .”
“NAME!” the woman bellowed. Her face twisted, a field of boles split by a wide expanse of rotten teeth where a motherly mouth lived moments before.
The ice spread out and Ysma was trapped.
The other girl answered, “Ysma.”
Ysma tried to shout that she had no second name, that she was just a girl from the streets who owed Mistress her life and then some, but her mouth was not her own.
“Safe bet.” A sharp nod. “Ysma Dyer it is. I’ll be seeing you.”
The midnight woman’s viridian eyes locked with Ysma’s before turning away. The sun broke through the clouds, banishing the halo of darkness around them, and the ice snapped. Ysma floated to the surface of herself once more.
The woman called back, not bothering to look over her shoulder, “Don’t you make me come find you girls. Won’t like what’ll come of that!”
Ysma took off running, errands forgotten.
Ysma had a plan. She needed to bind herself to Mistress, tighter than color to wool. And what did Mistress value more than anything in all of Braten-town? Work.
She would start her journey-work; pride of apprentice and boon to their teacher. A well made work not only brought a pupil to the attention of Braten’s craftsmen, but it lay some shine on the teacher as well. Mistress would love that. It could mean a boost in business for at least a season. Until today, the courage to broach the subject felt hundreds of leagues away.
Mistress would keep her safe, she’d have to, once the work began. The cost would be too high to do otherwise. She was an investment, ten years in the making.
That night, after she’d tidied the plates from the simple supper of beans and bread, she took the first step. Mistress would never say yes to anything outright, but every child knows a code to force a parent’s hand.
“Mistress,” she began.
The dyer pushed her long legs forward, tilting the chair back. Weight and angle threatened the turned maple legs. Blue smoke unspooled from her pipe, wrapping the low ceiling in cumulus wreaths.
“Mmmmhmm?” Eyes closed, lips locked around the pipe.
“I’ll be sixteen soon,” Ysma began.
“Yeah girl, seems to be so.”
“I’m thinking about what’s next for me.” Simple, straightforward, Mistress didn’t care for too much talk.
Mistress relaxed her taut legs. The chair thumped forward, her greasy blonde hair curtaining her face for a moment. She flipped her head back and opened her eyes. Ysma saw the burn building within.
“What’s next,” Herle repeated, slowly. “What would come next, Ysma?” Suspicion mingled with the spicy smoke.
At least she isn’t shouting yet.
“I was thinking, that it might be time to make my own way. Take a room, find a man, start thinking about babes.”
This was a hard lie and a hurtful one for Mistress. Staying closer to the truth would have been easier. Two folk couldn’t live together for ten years and hope to hide many secrets.
Mistress hated secrets.
“I’d still work for you, Mistress,” Ysma hastily added.
Mistress Herle looked at her for a long minute. She struck the table with her pipe. A glowing puck of spent tobacco was left behind to smolder the scarred wood, adding another stain.
“No.” Dead calm. Not a good sign.
“Mistress, there’s this b-”
A thunderclap of pain. Carnelian spit flew from Ysma’s lip, a constellation marring her white blouse.
“There’s no boy, Ysma, and we both know it. You hate every last boy in this town. Not a day goes by I don’t hear caterwauling about Sharp Jim or Penner, tweaking this or that. So don’t tell me you found some made-up boy to cover your tracks. You gonna lie to me, make it a good one.” She was simmering, the boil building before Ysma had a chance to temper it.
“Stupid girl,” Herle spat. “Who the rut are you? Take me for a fool? Ten years! How much coin have I spent on food for you; on clothes; those stupid books you gotta read every night before bed? Did you thank me for that?
“You tell true now, before I get the paddle.”
The paddle. Where there was once fear, she now held a sliver of pride - maybe more than a sixteen year old street girl who’d been rescued by a giantess with no family should - but she had it nonetheless. She could take a palm, but she thought the paddle might break her.
Silence seemed the safest bet. There’d be no paddling if she stopped lying. And if she stopped speaking, there’d be no lies. The first part of the plan had failed.
“Enough, Ysma, spit out the truth or you can spend the night in the shop.”
A better threat. Ysma knew Mistress hated hurting her, that she was the only love the lumbering woman could admit to. Mistress Herle kept the shop freezing in winter. She was too cheap to stoke the iron stove after business hours. The weather-watchers promised snow again tonight.
“I want to make my journey-work.”
Again, the sting of palm to jaw. Ysma opened her eyes and it was like seeing all the snow-covered roofs in Braten, dazzling and star-spinning. A whimper escaped her bloody lips.
“You know you’re my only family, Ysma,” Herle’s voice softened, her regret instantaneous. “Don’t you know I love you?”
The apprentice nodded.
“Only once did I lift the blankets in the night, looking for a diddle - even if you’ve been leading me on for years.”
It wasn’t true. Barely a night passed without Mistress’ fingers questing toward Ysma’s slender thighs.
“You told me never again and I put it aside. But we belong together, Ysma. And now you want your journey-work. So you can leave me.” Another hard crack of flesh to flesh.
“I won’t have it.” Herle’s words full of finality.
Ysma’s face throbbed. This was all wrong. Mistress should have been happy; that there was no boy, that Ysma wanted to stay and continue their work together. Couldn’t she see that Ysma needed her?
Mistress was up now, stomping around their tiny room. At the single cupboard she fished around, clinking bottles against tins, trying to mask her sobs. Ysma knew Mistress’s goal.
Rotting teeth popped the cork. Herle winced in pain. She spat the plug across the room, just missing Ysma’s eye. She laughed and took a long, hard pull on the green glass bottle.
“Ungrateful git,” her voice trembled. “Put it out of your head. You ain’t making a thing. I see what your at. You won’t be going anywhere.”
And I don’t want to. Help me! Help me stay, Ysma wanted to scream. But when she tried to open her mouth - to recount the woman and the scroll, all that escaped was a whimper.
Mistress moved towards the shop. Her favorite place to drink - alone and surrounded by modest successes. Before passing through the greasy sheet that divided the space, Herle spoke again,
“Don’t cross me, Miss Ysma Bite-the-Hand-That-Feeds-Her. Remember Omreth? Remember what happens to apprentices that try to leave their masters? We chased him down with every craftsman on this street.”
Ysma sucked air through numb teeth. That sweaty day came back to her. Feet pounding cobbles, salt stinging her eyes. The cat-trapped wailing when Omreth was flushed from the root cellar. The stumps, where feet had been and brown blood crusting the bandages. Omreth’s master, Fydoch, joking, “Footless boys can knead dough just as well.” The crowd laughing.
Mistress’ voice brought her back, “And don’t even think of reading tonight.” The lamp left with her.
In the dark, Ysma bit her lip swelling lip. She wouldn’t cry. No good would come from it. Mistress wanted her asleep, so she’d be asleep.
Before tonight, even before the barker and her pushy mouth and the vellum scroll with Ysma’s new last name on it, she’d hoped her journey-work would lead to some kind of freedom. Apprentices became yeomen who held a sliver of themselves separate. Ysma had dreamed of the day her life would become her own. That truth was long gone now.
Ysma fell asleep to the sounds of Mistress getting drunk behind the walls.
Her body was not her own. It belonged to the other girl. Her phantom sister wandered the tight streets of Braten.
It was dawn or dusk; the space between. Braten was empty. The girl, at once Ysma and never her at all, drifted like the silent snow.
Who’s feet brought her straight to the woman? Doubt burned her stomach. Ysma felt herself floating to the surface of the body she shared.
This time, she thought, this time, I’ll break through.
“She doesn’t want to come,” the Senthish woman emerged from mid-way murk, scroll rolled and raised like a cudgel.
Ysma couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream. Bile rose in the throat they shared.
“I know it ain’t you. I smell what you’re after. But she won’t let you through, will she?”
It was strange, being talked at but not to. Ysma felt the other girl nod. And then the woman’s voice changed and Ysma knew that the words were meant for her, “Told you once already, you’re mine. Your name sealed you to me and my ship. Even if I wanted - I don’t and I won’t, mind - there’s no turning back. She wouldn’t stand for it. Your other called me here. Felt her shining like a swath of lighthouse welcome.”
The scroll unfurled in a whip-crack. Stylus appeared once more. The midnight woman stabbed her list.
“See here?” She jabbed Ysma’s name.
The dwarf drew a slash through Ysma’s newly acquired name. The point made a deep furrow in the scroll, piercing the vellum. A moment passed.
Ysma’s mouth went wide. The line disappeared - the gash healing itself - leaving no trace of the offending mark.
“Now you both see?” The woman asked, not unkindly. “There isn't a thing to be done for it.” A heart swelled and Ysma could not tell if it was her own.
Hope, a thought from her other.
I don’t want to go, Ysma struggled.
More clearly now, stronger, We’re leaving, no matter what.
Ysma’s head spun. Things like this didn’t happen. Scrolls weren’t mordants that bound children to ships. Vellum didn’t heal before your eyes.
A smell hung in the air, sharp and acute, the air before a lightning strike.
Witch. Her mind throbbed with the word.
There are no witches on the Continent, not for thousands of years.
Slushy, Senthish words filtered through, “You still have your days, but see now, dearie, that your fate is already written. Take care of what needs care. Let her do it if you can’t.”
Ysma or the other girl, nodded.
“Good girls,” crooned the woman. “And don’t, dearie, don’t you dare make me come and get you. Four days. Be ready.”
The raven woman dissolved into shadow and Ysma awoke.
Two nights had passed and Ysma was still exhausted from the dream.
She straddled the whetstone set into the cedar bench, sharpening a pair of Mistress’ shears. Lost in the swish and snick of metal kissing slate, when Mistress placed a hand on her back Ysma started lashing out with the iron sickle moons.
“Whoa, Ysma,” hands out in defense, “So jumpy lately. I’ve something kind for ya. Don’t go cutting me up now.”
She was thankful for the lack of alcohol on Mistress’ breath. Shears went from hand to bench. Tension lingered in Ysma’s clenched fist. Time was short, only two days remained.
Raising an eyebrow in response, Ysma chose to adopt Mistress’ own method of silent punishment.
“Still the way of it?” Herle asked. “Fine, I’ll tell you all the same. The strangest woman came to see me this morning, said she had a very special task for us,” she drew out the news in an attempt to coax her ward into speaking.
Ysma nodded. Herle harrumphed.
“Oh come on Ysma! Aren’t you a bit curious?”
This was the way with her Mistress, cold then hot. Bearing gifts not freely given, demanding payment with compliment and thanks.
Ysma shrugged and turned back to the sharpening.
Herle grabbed her wrist, spun her apprentice around so their eyes met. “Special work, Ysma. Special, complicated, advanced work; just the kind of thing apprentices need for journey-work.”
It could still work! Mistress could protect her, the work could keep her safe.
“Funny timing, eh? Senthish, the woman was. Said that there was no time to waste, that she needed the cloth within the week.”
Ysma’s throat clenched tight. She wriggled from Mistress’ grip.
“It isn't just dyeing, Ysma,” she went on - gentle, easing - “but printing too. You’d cut the cloth, do the first washes, create the resists yours-”
“I’d have to do it all, or it won’t be my piece,” Ysma’ voice came out hollow.
Herle’s eyes sparkled, “Yeah, girl, that you would. No help from me. It’s a complex pattern, one that’ll take nimble fingers. The little woman gave me a rough sketch. Show it to you if you’re finished with your sharpening? You could start today.”
Pride stretched across Mistress Herle’s lumpy, never beautiful face. Ysma rarely saw the like but knew this for what it was. A bribe. A way to win her apprentice’s love.
Mistress is giving you what she thinks you want. She’s desperate to keep you.
The truth of it. The journey-work hadn’t fallen into her lap. It was her, the woman of the ships. She had been in their shop. Today. Ysma wondered if she should have felt something, some twinge of warning? Why hadn’t the other girl pressed up against their shared skin?
The witch knows. She’s telling me it won’t work - that I can’t stop her. Either of them.
“Well,” Herle prompted, smile faltering slightly.
Ysma thought about it a moment longer before she replied, “I’m done here.”
She had to hope.
They went into the workshop together to examine the drawings the witch left behind.
Preparations swallowed the rest of her day. Mistress would provide the dyes; the wax and wood for the resists. This was the help that could be given. The rest would come from Ysma alone.
Mistress believed in her and Ysma poured every ounce of attention she could muster into the piece. She held it, the hope in the deepest regions of her heart that once made, this beautiful journey-work would keep her safe.
Ysma had to believe.
The finished product would be glorious. Colored like the sky just after the sun had sunk into the ocean, nearly as dark as the Senthish woman; white waves cresting with foam and spume. Dolphins would hurl themselves from the crashing waves, repeating again and again across cloth so fine it threatened to tear with every touch.
The pattern is a promise; a foretelling for you, Ysma. She’s shown you this for a reason. Find your way to me, the waves whispered, shushing away her doubts.
She fell asleep that night with visions of the fabric unfurled before her, flapping in the breeze like a sail. The wind that drove it ever forward was a voice, syrupy with the accents of the South.
She woke to a dog’s lonesome howl. The sound of Mistress’ snores beside her, chuff chuff and clunky sputter, repeated in an endless cycle of night-noise. Her pillow was damp, her hair plastered across her forehead.
A dream, she slowed her breath, it was only a dream.
The witch had been in the workshop.
That damned woman! Is she everywhere?
In the dream pots of precious dye, purple and crimson, lay shattered on the stone floor. Spool upon spool of cloth had been unrolled by unseen fingers. It festooned the ceiling like holiday bunting. It stretched across the floor like carpets, marred by tiny scarlet footprints.
What woman has feet three-toed feet, splayed and webbed like a duck’s? The only answer. A witch.
In the dream, a voice, echoing as if from the bottom of a well, “She can’t protect you, double-dearie. Not from yourself.”
Ysma rose from the horsehair mattress Mistress insisted they share. For all the excitement of the day, there had thankfully been no night-games. Ysma would not have been able to resist her Mistress this night. Anything could put her plan in danger. Mistress needed to want to protect Ysma. She would have given in.
No need for a lamp, the waxing moon bestowed a silver-sight. Through the door, hinges creaking, and into the workshop Ysma crept. Her hand grasped the door frame, a feeble attempt to stop the momentum which dragged her forward.
A dream, she repeated, rubbing her eyes. The nightmare vision didn’t clear. Cloth was everywhere and the terrible footprints marched across it’s grimy weave. On the cutting table in the center of the room, shreds of Ysma’s newly started journey-work were positioned to spell a single word: Come.
She sank to her knees, letting a nest of grimey wool break her fall. There was no way to set this to rights before morning. Mistress would blame her. There would be no starting over for Ysma Dyer.
The witch had won. Ice crept in from the corners of her consciousness. The other girl stood, sure-footed, and began to play out the rest of their dream.
The shears were ballast, pulling the girl’s hand to the floor. The blades clicked open, then shut.
Mistress snored on. Night was near past, the dull creep of morning slinking through the grease-paper window. The girl inhaled the stale sweat of ten close years. Ten years of sloppy, probing lips and hands batted away in the night. As it had been in the dream, it was now. No more thoughts. The other girl moved her feet. The dark woman guided her hand.
My hand? Ysma wondered, shoved far to the back of herself. Are we different girls any longer?
Rabbit-grey light from the tiny window melted to pink. She floated like a ghost above the seascape of Herle’s fleshy, fat neck. Breath rolled her skin like waves.
This is the moment.
Ballast became anchor. The newly sharpened shears cut sure and straight, just the way Mistress trained her. A killing line, first a slim wire, quickly became a yawning flood.
Ysma plunged through the ice into reality’s morning. Half-moons clicked in trembling hands.
She emptied her stomach all over Mistress and the bed. Shears struck the wide plank floor, tip catching the soft grain. Pink warmed to orange. The rest of the shops on their crooked little street would open soon.
What would happen when Mistress didn’t hang the shingle? Would Fydoch come, ready to chop off her hands and feet? Did the witch have a plan for him as well?
The steady drip, drip prompted her.
Long past time for going.
Ysma left empty-handed. The other girl wanted nothing from the little room stained with all the reds a dyer could dream of.
The other girl strained against their skin when the behemoths came into view. A reverent sigh escaped her lips. Eyes locked on their rocking berths, she was oblivious to all she passed in her flight to reach them.
Mind wild and eyes blurred, the girl crashed into the witch. They pitched forward, the dyer’s apprentice pinning the barker to the cobbles, legs and arms akimbo.
No repercussion came. Instead, benign laughter.
“Ahhh,” she said, dusting her robes and rising from the ground, “you’ve come. And I know it’s not to wiggle your way out of our contract.”
She coaxed a deep whiff through flaring nostrils, “I can smell it on you.”
“Sm-sm-smell what?” Ysma asked, shame inching it’s way from ears to cheeks.
A pointed look, “You know what you’ve done.”
“What she did,” Ysma countered, embracing unexpected bravery.
“You were there,” her voice rose. “You showed me, in the dream, and then you were with me. She was with me. Was me! Every step, every snick of those shears, I felt . . . doubled. Trebled, with you inside me.”
“Dearie, it came by your hand.” She grabbed Ysma’s wrist and turned her palm skyward, “See!”
There, where none were before, spangled droplets spelled coppery truth.
“You were there,” Ysma repeated. “You brought Mistress the business. You spelled her, distracted her so I could k-”
“Yes. So you could. Consider it fee for passage. Your true journey-work.” The witch grabbed her wrist. “You are mine. Mine and destiny’s. All of this was by - your - hand.” She punctuated the last three words with finger jabs against the girl’s quivering palm.
“I felt you!”
“You felt no such thing,” the Senthish woman’s flat voice rebounded against wooden hulls.
Her arm ached from the witch’s wrist twisting. She felt hot and confused and exhausted. The world swam. White seeped in from the edges of her vision. She was slipping. The woman’s grip changed from painful clutch to supportive lift.
You came, child. That was the right choice. Another choice that you made. So I’ll protect you.” A pause and then her voice softened to that of a caring aunt. “I came to Braten for you.”
Ysma was silent as the witch half-dragged, half-coaxed her across the dew slicked cobbles. She exhaled. It was as if she had been underwater too long, holding her breath. Her lungs filled, the whiteness at the edges of her visions cleared and Ysma felt the girl, more present than ever before.
The little woman scaled the rope ladder dangling from the upper deck and Ysma followed. Half way up, she craned her neck and looked back over Braten-town. Mistress was dead, her life here destroyed beyond mending.
The ships would sail. Ysma was going to see the world.
©November, 2017 Alexander Leger-Small
Alexander Leger-Small makes his home in the green foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, where he slings cocktails, chases myths and takes a lot of walks with his dog. His short fiction can be found in Not One of Us, Mirror Dance and The Literary Hatchet.
Through the door of the cave dwelling, we were watching. Demet had nudged the leather aside just enough to see and just little enough so we wouldn't be noticed. Aunt Alay's back was to us as she bent over the stone table, curved down towards the bread she was slicing, and in that same moment I caught sight of a white flash at the back of the room. A face. Chalk white, the colour of fresh bone.
“Shh,” Demet’s lips pressed against me. The face drew closer in the flamelight, and Alay was still sawing against the cutting board. The man’s eyes were sunken, his face painted with twin green stripes on each cheek—was that white paint too, covering forehead to forelegs smooth as skin, or was it simply skin?
The god of love! Demet’s breath steamed my cheek, shallow. “It’s a man dressed up. Isn’t it?”
We were jammed too close to the wall to see entirely. I leaned further towards the entranceway—let me not be seen, let me not be seen—scanned for the details. Furred loincloth. Alay’s cleaver descending, one more slice of bread. Muscles tensed in his chest. No hair—on his head two nubs, two newborn goat horns--this is not a man dressed up.
The idea of attack came as a shudder, and I thanked the supposed gods that my cousins weren't home. Ket and Sev were out playing stones by the river. I know the game well. I used to play with them sometimes, before I reached my fifteenth summer and Demet started coming round. More exciting things to do than throw rocks he said. Like spying.
The man’s fingers uncurled, flickered in light. I had to look away. Press my face to the wall and tell myself again the rules for stones.
This is how you play. My cousins dig and dig by the river until they’ve got a fat pile of small smooth rocks, two thirds dark and one third light. Sometimes they have to roll up their trousers and wade in, to the middle even, whatever it takes to get the right match. You can cheat a little, have a few more black or a few more pale, use a gray one for light or dark depending on the number, and it’s okay, because you won’t make it to the last round anyway. Always gather more than you need.
Demet shoved my shoulder. “Look!”
The god of love, sinews of arm reaching out, nearing Alay’s shoulder like Demet neared mine. Alay’s cleaver dropping, heavy clang. Hand connecting, sudden swivel of Alay’s neck, catch of breath, face away from me, Alay’s heavy black bun, my aunt facing the god of love, cheek stripes green as fungus, that bleached mask unblinking.
“Demet, will she tell him to go away?”
“You an idiot?”
“Shh! They might hear us.”
They stood still. If that thing had been looking at me I couldn’t have moved either. We couldn’t see Alay’s face, couldn’t see if she was scared. The thing’s hand started inching up her shoulder, lean hand leafed with veins, knobs for knuckles, if it hadn’t been so white--
Alay lunged—to kill?—her arms were on his body, rushed as mad animals, breathing loud enough to hear, grabbing. Hands flailing against his chest, face hurling at chalk shoulder, hands crawling, hands to fur loincloth--
Her look at last, more delight than terror--
God of love glancing past her shoulder, sudden dart of cold eyes into my eyes, pinned like cleaver to cutting board. Heart thrash, groin pulse. Gold-hacked eyes, twitch of mouth, nostrils dilating, pupils flaring, sensing everything. My breathing pausing, syncing to his. Weight in stomach leavening, nothing but that fragrant gaze grasping me. . .
When he stopped looking my stomach fell. Trees careened, knives skidded, belly became peat. He twined his hands across Alay’s backside. Leave her! Take me take me take me
“Eisa!” I had punched him. Demet. Hadn’t even known. Anything, anything in the way.
“Eisa, let’s get out of here!”
“You don’t know anything!”
“We’re getting out. Now.” His arm wrenched my waist. I kicked out as he lifted but only air was on my feet. He was dragging me away and my eyes stayed locked on the god of love, pinning Aunt Alay to the floor, until the wall swallowed them, and then locked on the wall, past trees and caves until I couldn’t see the wall anymore. My breath had been his, hadn’t it? His eyes in my scalp, surely hidden under the grime of mine?
Behind us, fading to transparency, sounds I’d never heard my parents make.
Demet carried me to the river and set me down roughly on the bank. “Stay there. Don’t move or I’ll hurt you. Promise?”
I felt faded already, and there were bruises on my ribcage from his hands. “OK, promise.”
“Now, tell me what happened back there.”
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? The god of love came to Aunt Alay’s house while she was cutting bread and they started screwing on the floor. Apparently he exists. I thought they made up those things to scare citizens into submission.”
“You sure that was the god of love?” He cocked an eyebrow, made little horns on his head with his fingers, wiggled them around.
“Come on. You saw him. Those horns were real.”
“Does the god of love wear paint on his face?”
“OK, Eisa-who-knows-everything. What I really want to know is, what happened to you back there?”
“I saw it. Your eyes went strange. Tell me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His eyes looked sore at me. “Fine.”
I didn’t know what had happened. There had been a feeling, but one I couldn’t hold on to. All that was left was an uncomfortable tingle crawling along my skin. I tried to scratch it but that only made my arm itch. The tingle didn’t change.
“Let’s walk,” he said, his hand on my forearm.
I followed him past a cluster of saplings to where my cousins sat with two piles of stones between them. This is how you play. Each takes out a dark stone and places it in front of the other. Of course he picks the biggest one, hoping to win. Each takes out two light stones and after reciting the starting rhyme together, smashes them against the dark. The first round is finished when a stone breaks. The second round, the winner takes a new stone and the loser keeps hitting at the old. It is won when all one player’s black stones are broken (the breaker wins), or when all one player’s white stones are broken (the breaker loses). Stones are hard things to break, and few have the patience to end the game.
We sat down a few paces from where my cousins knelt in stone dust, smashing. “Ha, won!” called Sev.
“Let me see the crack.”
Sev passed the stone. “Horns!” Ket swore. “You clean burnt a chunk off!”
“Pass me another rock now.”
They took up the starting rhyme, droning in unison:
Count three stones to mark each phase.
Two to prosper, one to break.
One in pieces must forsake.
Count three stones to keep the faith.
“Are you alright?” asked Demet as rocks rang against each other.
“Sure,” I said, one palm to the sky in hope to call down the memory, one palm to the ground in hope to erase it. There had been a tingle, hadn’t there? Somewhere watching my cousins play, it had forgotten itself.
Mother was the one to tell me Aunt Alay was pregnant. “We’re really hoping it’s a girl this time. Two boys are nice, solid sons to do the heavy lifting, but we need a woman to carry on the family line.” She patted her belly, which was flat as a grinding stone, and laughed.
“Why did you never try for another kid?” I asked.
“I was lucky. I got a girl the first time!”
“Plenty of women try for both.”
“I never wanted another kid. Don’t see the point in splitting my energy in half again.”
“Aunt Alay keeps splitting her energy each time she churns one out. But three ways is the sacred number, of course. How many lovers has she had by now?”
“Shush that talk!”
“Her darkphases are long, I believe. And she doesn’t always leave the settlement right when they start, and she’ll return before they’ve ended.”
“You wonder why I only had one kid? Because you have enough long tongue in you for three!”
I was only stating what had been repeated many times. But no one would acknowledge it. So many truths people won’t admit, I thought as I did so often.
Like the lightphases and the darkphase not being as equal as they're said to be. As a child you're whole, an unformed circle in the hands of the god of protection. As you and your desires grow you're divided. First come the changes in body, the voice becoming someone else's, for girls the monthly blood—the second lightphase, a third of the month now in thrall to the god of knowledge. You grow keener, more inward. Finally, once the new man or woman is settling in to their bones and allowed to hold a spear, the last third arises. You never know when it's coming, the god of love's darkness. You might be tracking a rock snake or lounging by the river singing say-songs with your friends. Wherever, your vision crisps. Muscles spring. You might catch a fish in the river with bare hands, strip the nearest priest, turn on your friends with teeth. All control falls away in spite of your will. Best to breathe into it. They'll send you away soon enough.
Each phase is said to last a third of the month, but I've seen people stay in the village while acting wild for quite some time. And the settlement has a few lightstayers, we all know it—Kepi who raises cattle, Som who hacks at rock to fashion dwellings. Heavy-moving folks, few moods, few interests. In my mother's age they would have been branded and sent away, but they are useful. They just aren't something people talk about.
Like the gods being inventions to keep the peace.
Only one had turned out to be real, hadn’t he?
I was too young to be allowed to watch the birth, of course, but I was among the girls and men who waited on the boulders outside to see the newly come. I heard the groans and human earthquake noises. But something was wrong. No one came out with news or a blanket squalling.
Finally my cousin Kalamun, ten years older than me and in charge, appeared at the door of the cave and looked panicked around the crowd. I was the oldest female relative among them.
“Shh, Eisa, we need you in here.” There was blood on her clothes and none to be seen in her face.
“Shhh,” she hissed. “Come.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me through.
I looked for Aunt Alay among the white-robed bodies. There were many pressed around her, but they parted as Kalamun approached. My aunt was lying on a thick mat on top of the central stone. I knew this from her position although the mat was covered in blood and blankets. Her face was hidden by something else wrapped up in the blankets in her arms. It was out then, so what was wrong? Everyone’s skin was too pale for things to be fine.
Kalamun and I were right next to her now, and could see how alike her own face was to a mask of bone. Wordlessly she turned the blanket. The child wasn’t crying but its eyes were blinking so it must be alive, but its skin was chalk. Weren't babies supposed to be redder? I’d never seen a child that had just come out. I scanned the features. Eyes a strange clouded milk, faintly yellowed. No hair on its forehead. Two tiny knobs.
“This child is cursed,” said Kalamun at full voice. “Look what’s on its head, see. The mark of the warped.”
“The thing’s got horns,” said a woman in a corner too far for my sight. A shudder swayed the bodies from her bluntness.
“Where did they come from? The husband must be cursed.” Someone else.
“The other two sons are beautiful. Not a thing wrong with them that I could see, no?”
“I should say not!”
Aunt Alay looked faint, grimaced, but I could see how hard she held the blanket. The corner woman went on. “Horns on head, a birth to dread, he’d best be dead.” It was a say-song, like the old rhyme that went with playing stones, but one I’d never heard. The pattern of three marked it as a stronger commandment. Some of the women were shuffling, looking to the floor. Meaning to burn holes in it with their eyes and burrow into them.
“Who will do the deed?” called Kalamun.
“Who will do the deed?” echoed another. I couldn't see who in all the turned-away faces. The echo grew thicker as voices trickled in and clotted together. “Who will do the deed? Who will do the deed?”
Oldest virgin's task to ween, send away what can't be seen, like a river wash us clean.
No no no no no no can't can't can't can't can't
Kalamun whirled brusquely, a dervish in bloodied white robes, her head shaved like all priest-midwives' so no hair would stray into the blood and it was plain to all that there was nothing on her forehead. She stopped and pointed. I tried to follow her bone-like finger away, but there was no away to go. It followed her unaverted gaze and led to me.
“You will do the deed.”
“You will do the deed,” the echo rose. Women's faces snapped up from the ground and burrowed their eyes into me. I tried to look past to the mother, to see if my aunt had any tears, if she was clutching that horrid infant any tighter, but the wall of women blocked me off.
They ensured we all dressed in white. They placed the square black hat on my head, the one with the veil so I could see what I was doing but not entirely and blood would be kept from my face. “For being blind.” They placed the heavy scarf over my shoulders, the one with embroidered knives bordering each end. “For being wise.” I'd only seen it from a distance before, and it dragged my shoulders down although I had to throw my chest back and my head up for standing in public attention. I worked on calming my ragged breaths. The designs didn't look so much like knives, more like blobs with tails. Evil sperm, I thought.
Once years ago, before her phasing and her priesthood, Kalamun had performed this role, standing with feet apart and eyes straight although afterwards she'd told me, the younger cousin too little to laugh, that she was scared. It had been different—Salat's child had been born between male and female, cursed but human, and its cry was horrid. I tried to think of Kalamun's courage as I stood on the raised stone stage, in front of the platform where the child would go. The curious had come to watch, which was most everyone: hunters, crop tenders, animal minders, food stockers, healers, priests and altar minders with their shaved heads and their leader with his shaved body, the singer who wore the lightest of fabrics so her throat would not get coarse. Demet, who was trying not to look at me. All the children, little ones in arms and tall ones who played stones and medium ones hiding behind their parents' legs. Little Sev and Ket with my mother, twitching and grinning at each other. The child was not their brother but a strange horrid thing to laugh at, an adventure to watch. Their father wasn't there. Some said he was on darkphase, but I wondered if he'd been thrown out after Aunt Alay gave birth to that thing. She, of course, was home with the youngest priest-midwife tending her, probably pouring sleeping teas into her mouth whenever she woke so she wouldn't hurt so much, wouldn't scream for the child.
An altar minder approached with two hollowed horns in hand. He clapped them together and the thud shushed all the talking. Kalamun walked behind him in her tall furred priest's cap. Two white streaks on each cheek. In one hand a stick spat yellow fire. Behind her, a younger midwife with a white blanket carried like a sack, her face wrinkled in disgust.
“The child,” said the altar minder loudly.
The young midwife pulled the coverings back from the child's face and held it up, its back to me, thank the gods. The watchers rustled and gasped in shock they clearly enjoyed. Some of the older ones chanted say-songs and fingered the chains around their wrists, as if superstitions would help. I wondered how the baby stayed so quiet.
The altar minder signaled to set the child down, and the midwife placed it onto the smooth stone platform. People stamped and whispered, then hushed as the horns clapped again. Kalamun stepped forward, held the flaming stick towards the crowd. Those at the front shrank back. Her stance was so straight it would make a dog stand still.
“Any reason for this child to not be outcast?” she addressed them.
The watchers were very still. “No!” hollered some men who'd been drinking too much, and one slurred “Send the thing away!”
“This child, born of the warped, is to be outcast. Eisa will do the deed.” Everyone knew this already, from the hat and scarf. She held the stick in my direction and I stepped towards her, trying to keep my shoulders up, wary of the burning tip.
Kalamun placed the stick in my shaking hand. My mind ran its own say-song on the spot: Don't catch fire don't catch fire don't catch--
“You will be fine,” she whispered. Then, louder so the crowd could hear, “For being just.”
“For being just,” they echoed.
I turned towards the wriggling cloth, careful to hold the stick away from the child's face. Its sand white, yellow-eyed face. It started making upset childsounds—ah-ah-ahhh. “Shush,” I hissed, but it wouldn't.
“It's alive,” croaked someone towards the front.
The flame had eaten a finger's length off the tip of the stick, but I couldn't look at this pale animal. I couldn't touch the stick lower. Ah-ah-ahhh. The cry was annoying. This tiny thing had put shame upon my aunt, put fear upon her family, on mine. This thing had knobs protruding from its forehead and was the colour of bone, which the elders called a sign of appetite for the substance. If it grew teeth it would hunger for our skin and everything beneath it.
I couldn't touch it, and then I could.
Tip between horn-stubs. Lift. Flame looping up and a black mark burnt into the white. I blew on its forehead, dispersing the smoke. The thing let out a waaaaaaaaail.
Sudden dart of cold eyes into my eyes, pinned like cleaver to cutting board.
Kalamun, striding across the stage, set her hand on my scarf. It was easy to throw back my frame, to hold the stick aloft.
“You know what comes next,” Kalamun whispered across to me.
She said nothing. The altar minder walked behind us, raised the branded baby, held it to the crowd. “It is done.”
Gasps and intonations: “It is done.”
And I pressed the torch I held to my right inner wrist. It seared like I was being torn, a flash of blackness, screaming skin, burnt blood. I lifted and blew. On the child, a mark of shame. On me, of honour and misfortune. No one loves a brander Demet had said one day when we were curled under the broadest luvium tree, our bodies not quite but almost touching. They've tasted the darkphase in more than their third.
Heart thrash, groin pulse. Pupils flaring.
The altar minders would choose one among themselves to carry the outcast beyond the settlement, beyond the frightening dwellings where our own kind spent the third of their time in darkphase, to a place only the gods' people went. In fur hats they whispered among themselves, passing the branded bundle around while bored citizens dispersed. The best part was over.
Something gathered in my thighs and I slammed against the platform. My scarf was bleeding, my throat a rock. My throat a yellow glow, tense, my body streaked like chalk. A shriek came out.
Hands came like nets and wrangled my body down. I blinked up and the world had gone too bright. Sun poured from faces. Kalamun, her shaved scalp glowing. Her breasts pricked beneath the fabric. So her phasing was approaching too. Words spilled from her mouth. Sounds jangled.
I reached out my fingers and caught a squirming bundle. Phase. Away. Take her. Kalamun pushed me down. The child was still in my hands. Even then, hands flailing, mouth alive, I knew the story. I could hear it in my mother's chanting voice. I'd heard it since weaning.
Count three phases, mark the year.
When in darkphase, disappear.
Hunger opens, senses track.
Leave for one third, then come back.
Not only would I be taking the baby away, I realized with my last remaining flash of lucidity. I would also be spending my first darkphase in a place few of us went and no one spoke of. I was going with my cousin, the sad little yellow-eyed thing, to the place where light was forbidden. I was going to see what was to be seen of the god of love.
©November 2017 Melanie Bell
Melanie Bell is the coauthor of a nonfiction book, The Modern Enneagram. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has written for various publications including Autostraddle, xoJane, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and CV2.
.If there was one man whom Shazia could call a friend, it was Ibin.
Most people thought that he should have followed in his father's footsteps and become a warrior rather than a… well, whatever he was. When she'd first come to Castle Var, she'd thought the same thing when she'd heard rumors about Rabanar's useless second son.
"A layabout," the maid had told her, buckling together the sides of Shazia's leather armor before the banquet dinner. Shazia had dressed herself since she was old enough to walk, but she wasn't about to argue with a woman who could have hidden a small pony under her skirts. "Just be sure to talk to Pelligor seated on your left--he's a decent sort of man, with a son who's just beginning his training." The woman eyed her charge critically. "You're pretty big for your age, aren't you? Suck in a bit, I need to tighten these straps."
The chair on her right was empty when she was escorted to her seat moments later, trying to remember how to breathe in armor that, with the maid's help, was as restrictive as a corset. It wasn't until the first and second course had been served and taken away that the tramp of heavy boots interrupted the quiet conversation flowing through the hall.
"Sorry, sorry," a voice announced loudly behind her as the man reached the vacant chair. "My valet must have gotten the time wrong… again." Up and down the table, small chuckles escaped as, with a flourish, the man pulled back the seat and settled himself comfortably before clapping his hands in a foppish manner. Servants rushed up with the third course before Ibin could cause another disturbance.
Without looking around at his other dining companions, the young man turned to face her. "They must have warned you about me, I expect," he said. "I am a poet, a dreamer and a mischief-maker, no more. No matter what has been said. How may I entertain my lady?"
It was the first time she'd laughed in a month, ever since she'd first learned she was to begin her training at Castle Var.
From that moment on, the unlikely couple had been friends. Ibin justified it as, "I've been forced to keep you company because it keeps me out of trouble."
Often, the opposite was true--he seemed to help get her into trouble. Or, at the very least, to get her into awkward situations which could have turned into trouble if he hadn't also had a flair for defusing those same situations. As her training progressed, she would either turn to him in frustration for his lackadaisical attitude--didn't he take anything seriously?--or in envy. He lived the lifestyle she had turned her back on, and she sometimes wished for a life of luxury, especially when she was covered in fresh bruises after learning a new maneuver on the field.
On her fifteenth birthday, she was surprised to be turned away at the training yard. "Orders are from Rabanar. He's entertaining visitors from the south today." The guard captain shrugged noncommittally. "A groom's waiting at the stables for you."
The "groom" standing in the stable yards turned out to be a laughing Ibin. "Don't worry, I didn't forge my father's note," he'd admitted when she didn't join in the laughter. "He really does have business today. But you, young miss," ignoring her glower, "are now entering adulthood. Since no family member has stepped forward to coach you at this crucial step in life, I have volunteered to sacrifice myself in this duty for the greater good." He thumped his chest dramatically with one fist, then extravagantly waved to an imaginary cheering crowd. "Yes, the self-sacrifice, the burden of such a great duty..."
"Oh, hush," she finally laughed. "You'll scare the real grooms from their duty with such talk." Ibin had been waiting with two saddled horses - the sturdy brown gelding that was "hers" during training and his favorite mare, a dainty side-stepper with a blue-gray coat. She grabbed the reins of her mount from his slack hand and whipped them around the horse's neck as she leapt onto its back. "Are you going to stand there all day?"
"You..." he muttered as he gained his own mount's back. "Race you to the front gate!" he shouted, already kneeing his horse forward. She grinned as she gave her beast its head. They raced, neck and neck, down the path from the stable yards, through the fields where men and women paused in their labors, straightened their backs and raised hands against the glare of the sun to watch the two young people at play. The grain was ripening nearby; the far fields, away from the main road, were reserved for vineyards. Over the undulating hills of yellow, she could see the blue-green dots of the vines in carefully tended rows stretching towards the nearby mountains.
The stone posts of the gate marking the entrance to Rabanar's lands were just on the far side of the next hill. Shazia's gelding was no foal, but it was a much sturdier beast than Ibin's younger, more delicate mare. By the time Shazia slowed at the stone markings, the white mare had already decided it had had enough and had slowed down despite Ibin's loud protests and prodding. It sauntered up to the gate and lowered its head to nibble on a sprig of alfalfa growing by the edge of the dirt path.
"That'll teach me to trust this miserable excuse for a fleabag." He slapped the horse's shoulder in mock-anger. The mare shrugged one shoulder and didn't even lift her head. At the motion, both Ibin and Shazia started to laugh.
"Oh, stop, stop," the young girl gasped. "I have bruised ribs from yesterday--this is killing me!"
"Speaking of killing," Ibin said with a wicked grin. "I have a recipe for fun that's sure to kill you." Shazia wiped away moisture from her eyes and nodded, still winded. "As a young male warrior, your fifteenth birthday would be marked with a centuries-old rite of passage." At her raised eyebrows, he specified, "We'd buy you a whore and a barrel of wine." Shazia's jaw dropped. Ibin cleared his throat in the awkward silence. "Yes, well, that seems inappropriate at this time. So does the rite of passage for a young woman--celebrating your betrothal to some stuffy lord you've never met. So I figured I'd split the difference."
"You're going to buy me a whore and betroth me to her?" Shazia asked innocently.
The shocked silence was broken by his loud laughter. A pair of offended crows rose abruptly from the nearby field and cawed as they settled down again.
"Not exactly the direction I was going, but I'll keep it in mind," he chuckled. "As a warrior, you do need to know how to drink. So I figured I would introduce you to the world of army alcohol--namely, the vilest liquor known to humankind. After that, I have a special surprise for you." He jerked at the reins of his horse and got the lazy white mare moving after a few tugs. He pointed her nose south, towards town. Shazia kneed her mount to follow and they trotted along the road for several seconds, the dull beats of hooves thudding against the hard-packed earth.
"I don't know if I can survive any more of your surprises," Shazia commented dryly into the silence.
"That's the whole point," he replied mysteriously. "Just wait and see."
Shazia blinked, shading her eyes. Ibin had given her a thorough introduction to the finest rotgut in the region, and she wasn't sure if the row of tents in front of them were waving in the breeze or if her vision was waving her, instead.
"I was keeping an eye out for them," Ibin murmured in her ear as she tried to focus on the nearby picture-signs hung in front of each tent. "Peori's traveling band of entertainers. They're normally through here twice a year, once heading north during the summer and again south in the fall." He grabbed her arm and hustled her past the first few tents, finally stopping at the edge of the cleared area. The last tent stood slightly apart from the others, and it was dyed a deep, dark red. "This is the one." Ibin pushed something into her hand, then shoved her through the tent flap before she could think of anything to say.
Either due to the cooler evening air outside or to the small brazier inside, Shazia immediately felt as if she were choking on the hot air of the interior. A small table covered by a crudely dyed red cloth dominated the center of the tent and a middle-aged woman, just on the far side of childbearing years, sat opposite the entrance with her colorful skirts spread around her.
Shazia glanced down into her sweaty palm and saw that Ibin had given her a coin--the first she'd ever handled in her life. The gypsy in front of her gestured to the cushion in front of the table and murmured in a surprisingly deep voice, "Please, be seated. I will tell your fortune for a silver."
Numbly, she knelt on the indicated cushion and held out her hand. Either the alcoholic haze or the simple speed of an offered fare made the coin seem to disappear like magic--one moment, it lay heavy in her hand, the next, the gypsy's cool hands covered hers and Shazia's palm was empty.
"Your friend was correct that this is a good place to find a rite of passage," the woman's deep voice intoned. Shazia closed her eyes to stop the spinning of the room, but it only made her stomach lurch, since she had no place to focus her attention other than the sound of the woman's voice. She opened her eyes again, but a closer look at the gypsy's face showed deep lines and a scar across one brow that looked like a knife had inflicted the original wound. Shazia shivered, despite the heat.
A nursery rhyme from her youth--about gypsy women stealing noblemen's children--buzzed in her head, most of the words a forgotten blur. She could almost hear her mother's voice singing it as she fell asleep--her head jerked as her eyes drooped. The gypsy had thrown a handful of some incense on the brazier, and a scented smoke curled from the edges of the coals across the room. Despite the musty odor, the smell seemed to clear the fuzziness around the edges of her mind. She noticed that the gypsy's eyes were a pale gray, like her own. She felt a stab of homesickness and could almost recall the sound of her mother's singing again.
"You've traveled far from your birthplace, but you have farther you must go." The woman touched Shazia's hands lightly, which she'd rested on the reddened cloth. The patterns of the uneven dye job seemed to move in the smoke-filled atmosphere, like something alive and breathing. The woman flung her hand out in a contemptuous wave--in the meantime, her other hand snuck into the long sleeves she wore and pulled out a deck of large, painted cards. Shazia grimaced at the attempted trickery, and her opinion, never high in the face of supposed magic and sorceries, lowered further.
The gypsy gestured and Shazia dropped her hands to her lap. The entertainer passed her hand over the deck three times in a circle, then shuffled it with a choppy flick of her wrist. The first card laid face up was a man holding a sword in one hand and a white dove in the other. "The soldier," the woman intoned, as if the name would hold meaning for Shazia. The next card: "The traveler," she murmured as a man in a ragged cloak with a jewel-headed walking stick looked up at her. As the gypsy pulled out the third card--three being the holy number of Yrdun, patron of warriors--a fourth card fell also, caught against the edge of the third. "Ahhh--" breathed the gypsy. "This means a choice that you must face. On one side--" the card she had pulled was a black-cloaked figure standing on a pile of corpses, "there is death. On the other--" and the caught card showed a picture of an crowned man on a white horse, with each corner of the rectangle engraved with the image of a book, "there are heroic deeds and a name set in legend. Like most choices, you cannot know which action will lead to which result. But the choice will be presented to you after many years have passed, spurred in part by a plot to control your actions. Since the third card is death and the fourth, or unasked-for, card is fame and glory, you must carefully consider the choices you face and not necessarily take the first path shown."
Shazia's stomach gave a burping sound. Swallowing against the thick feeling in her throat, she challenged, "But what does it mean?"
"Ahhh." The woman smiled. Meant to be mysterious, the gypsy only looked sly. "This is your first time seeking a fortune, then, and you are skeptical. What it means is that the hardest choice you must face is in your future. Right now, your path has been laid, and all you must do is follow it to a place you've already decided to go. You have been wondering at your choices so far, but they have been the choices you were meant to make. The gods have given their favor to your actions."
Shazia would have snorted, but was unsure what such an action would do to her precarious hold on her stomach's contents. "Thank you," she mumbled, standing up at a half-crouch. Standing was a mistake, she decided, as she hurriedly pushed aside the tent flap. Five steps more outside and she found a shrub to serve as a convenient location to settle her stomach in a very abrupt and not-too-pleasing way.
Before she was finished, the familiar sound of laughter drowned out the choking sounds she was making. "That bad of a fortune, eh?" Ibin guffawed.
If she had been feeling just the slightest bit better, she would have smacked him across the head for getting her into this situation. As it was, she suffered his help, since there was no way she was getting back to the castle on her own.
Despite feeling the worst she'd ever felt in her life, by the time she was lying prone in bed and close to passing out, she spared one moment to reflect on what the gypsy had told her.
Rubbish, was her last conscious thought.
When Shazia was young, she would often sneak away from her nursemaid after midday meal to the upper levels of her father's castle.
The south wing of the castle was used only during festivals to house foreign nobles. Most of the year, it stood empty. The inner corridor in the south wing looked out over the training grounds of the warriors.
Shazia would use her stolen time to lean out of the open-air windows to watch the soldiers practicing their craft below. From so far above, the sounds of battle echoed against the walls like ghosts. She would hear random shouted words and the clash of metal on metal in spurts of noise that changed as the wind moved.
One day as she was leaning out the window watching the men practice, Rabanar's voice rang out behind her, causing her to jump and spin to face him. She almost didn't catch herself in time to prevent joining the combatants below in a most unusual manner. He grinned at her.
"Why are you watching the warriors practice? Are you looking for your future husband?"
The shock and panic she felt when she first heard his voice changed to anger with his mocking tone. Fists clenched and her eyes met his. "I want to be a warrior," she replied, a six-year-old girl to a soldier of twenty years or more.
"But why," he asked, "do you want to be a warrior?" His gentle humor at her words grated on her pride.
"To kill the enemies of Eltrand. To serve the god Yrdon. To carry on the noble line of Ishdinar." Her rote answer clearly took him by surprise, because he had no response at first. Then his smile reappeared.
"I will make you a deal," he promised. "Once you pass the age of consent, I will train you at my own castle until you reach the first level of combat. If you want to continue after that, I will leave it in the gods' hands."
The words were so unexpected that she couldn't understand their meaning at first. Then Shazia grinned and clapped her hands together in delight. His responding smile, she was to learn later, was something of which to be wary.
Rabanar's face held many more lines than it had sixteen years before when he had offered to train Shazia to be a warrior. His hair had more grey than seven years before, when Ibin had gotten her drunk and a gypsy had told her a fortune. But it was still the same face, and his smile had not faded. "The Falloyda will see you now," he murmured.
She didn't know whether to take the smile as a good sign or bad. The smile was his trademark. He smiled at all times, including when he killed.
Shazia bowed her head lower. Surprisingly, her peripheral vision saw his palms join and he bowed his head in return. Her breath caught in her chest at his gesture of respect and her head shot up and turned automatically to watch his slow, measuring steps as he walked away. It was only when his path turned to the right and she lost him to sight that she drew a great deal of air into her lungs and faced the council chambers alone.
Her heart was racing. Rabanar had honored her with his gesture. It was the salute of a lower officer to one of higher rank. What did it mean? Did it mean what she hoped?
She cleared her mind of all thoughts, as if she was going into battle. She would find out soon enough.
It was the first time she had ever been in Lisardon, the capital city of Eltrand. The first time she had ever visited the palace. The first time she would see the Falloyda, the princes of the blood. There had not been a king, a true king, in over a century. A monarch, like the nobility, only earned his title in battle. While the royal blood passed from son to son, until a royal was victorious in war, he could not join the line of kings.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room once she passed from the window-filled hall to the near-blackness of the torch-lit council chamber. Her eyes rolled from side to side to judge the feel of the men and women in the room.
She was the only female in uniform. Lining the walls, like glittering shadows of the men seated in a row in front of them, were the women of court. Their clothing would not survive a single horseback ride and the jewels and coifs of their hair would be blown askew with the slightest breath of wind.
The women stood behind their husbands and lords. But whereas the men refrained from excessive motion or speech, their wives were a sea of movement, every breath they took eliciting a thousand glimmers from their fancy costumes, every flick of fan or glove creating a whirlwind of lace and velvet. The low murmuring of their voices were like wind chimes in a lazy summer breeze.
At the end of the hall stood an empty seat on a raised dais. No one could sit on the dais or on that throne except the king.
With the back legs of their chairs touching the edge of the platform, three men sat waiting for her. She stopped several body-lengths in front of them. The middle man spoke.
"Welcome to the fair capital of Eltrand, Shazia de Laiyer. If you were any other warrior, there would be no question in the minds of the court and council gathered here today. You have been in the arena and have bested all challengers. Quite a few challengers, I might add." The quiet humor in the man's voice almost gave her hope.
"But you are not any other warrior," he continued gravely. "And in all the chronicles of Eltrand, there is no other case such as this one, of a woman joining the highest ranks of the army. If you are thinking of Lissar," and she had been thinking of Lissar, the goddess-queen, who was a shining example of precedence, "you cannot assume that we will take her actions as a case for yours. You are not Lissar. She was an exception, a warrior with divine guidance. Since the gods have not spoken, we judge you have no such divinity to aid you."
She realized her head was sinking lower with each word, as if the cadence of his voice were blows, and consciously halted its decline. A warrior obeyed orders and the commands of her superiors, she reminded herself. Slowly, she raised her head again.
"But..." The man paused. His thin lips turned down at the corners and his teeth bared in an expression that did not resemble a smile. "But more than one noble of the court has spoken on your behalf. And it would be foolish of me to ignore that times are changing more rapidly than ever before.
"You are not the gods-blessed Lissar," he repeated. "But you may be a symbol of her reign. Eltrand has far to go to recapture its golden age. If we do not attempt to regain it now, we may never get a second chance." Shazia saw that the two men flanking the speaker were staring at her with nearly identical smiles. Their expressions were not pleasant. "And so I declare before the council that you have won the title of First Rank of the Armies of Eltrand."
She felt as if her heart had exploded. The breath she had been holding was released in a quiet hiss that only the three men could hear.
The Falloyda's next words rang out in the densely-packed hall: "Come forward, Shazia de Laiyer."
Her feet moved forward without needing her brain's advice. In the Falloyda's hand was a silver pendant made in the shape of a star, a small copy of Yrdun's most holy relic. As she bent so he could place it around her neck, he spoke so only the two men near him and she could hear his words.
"If it was my decision alone, you would have been whipped and sent back to the kitchens long before now." He was in the process of putting the chain around her neck, and his hands were on either side of her throat.
She stiffened, prepared to fend off any attack he might make. Shazia didn't care who he was. But his hands loosened and he pulled them back to his sides. He was still smiling, an expression he held for the court to see.
She stepped back, bowed once more to acknowledge the public honor he had given her. But she was sure he saw the anger in her eyes, for he paled slightly. She could tell, even seated as he was, that he was not a large man. She would tower over him if he were standing. But he gathered himself together to complete the ritual.
"Go from this hall with Yrdun's blessing."
Ibin was waiting for her outside the main doors. How he had managed it, she had no idea. As far as she knew, he was supposed to be back at Castle Var during his father's absence from there.
He threw his arms around her and thumped her heartily on the back. It didn't seem to bother him that he had to reach up to do so, as he had ever since her eighteenth birthday.
"Let me look at you," he said, pulling back. He eyed the star on her breast, identical to the one he wore around his throat. "Looks better on you than me," he said, flicking his pendant disrespectfully with one finger.
"Stop," she said, laughing. "This is serious, you know."
He grinned. "Of course I know. Want to get a drink?"
Her constitution had improved since her fifteenth birthday, but drinking had never topped her list of favorite activities. "Want to spar a few rounds?" she asked, anticipating his groan.
He didn't disappoint her. "That's all you think about, Shaz," he said. "Time to live a little."
"You live too much," she retorted.
"Okay, let's split the difference," he said, slinging an arm around her shoulders, which made him stand on the balls of his feet, and caused her to hunch down to accommodate him. "There's a traveling band of entertainers…"
"Yrdun forbid," she said. "Tell you what--you go out, have a great time in the city, and tell me all about it tomorrow. I'll go back to your family's townhouse and get some sleep before I have to come back here tomorrow morning to get my assignment."
"Spoilsport." But he was grinning as he said it. "All right. I suppose we could do that. Here, let me walk you back."
She eyed him up and down skeptically. "I don't need your protection," she muttered. "I can take care of myself."
"It's not for you!" he exclaimed, dropping his arm and placing a fluttering hand upon his chest. "It's for me. No one would dare accost me if I'm at your side. I feel safer already, knowing you're here."
He had her laughing until she had to hold her sides. "Oh, Ibin, I'm going to miss you. I wish we could be posted together."
He mock-shuddered. "Yrdun forfend," he said. "The day I face border duty is the day you can put an arrow through my eye."
"Deal," she grinned.
The next morning, Rabanar stood at her side outside the council chambers. He said nothing, but it was not his job to make small talk.
When the doors finally opened, she barely noticed the rustling court ladies, the foppish men. She marched straight forward to the three Falloyda and bowed. Rabanar bowed beside her.
When she straightened, though, a spear of doubt twisted into her stomach. While the Falloyda had not been pleasant yesterday and danger had ridden their actions, today they seemed positively gleeful.
"We have sad tidings," the middle man said. "There has been an attack."
Shazia resisted the urge to glance over at Rabanar. She felt, rather than saw, Rabanar stiffen at her side.
"What sort of attack?" he asked.
The Falloyda shook his head, but his lips were turned up at the corners. "A personal attack on one of Yrdun's most faithful followers. I am sorry to inform you, sir, but your son has been killed."
Shazia wondered if Rabanar was wearing his signature grin. It was a mask, she knew. But sometimes masks were helpful. The spear of doubt was twisting inside of her, and she knew that her face had frozen. She couldn't seem to move, not even open her mouth to speak.
"That is sad news," Rabanar said. If he was feeling anything, it did not show in his voice. "Which son of mine?"
"The middle one. What was his name?" The Falloyda turned to his brother seated to the right. The other prince murmured something. "Oh, yes," the middle Falloyda continued in his loud, mocking voice. "Ibin de Rabanar."
Time must have passed. Words must have been exchanged. But the next Shazia knew, she was outside the palace doors with Rabanar by her side.
"They will pay for this," he said coldly.
"They, sir?" Her voice sounded listless to her own ears.
His look was speculative when he turned her. But she did not ask her question again.
Abruptly, he nodded and strode off, leaving her standing by herself on the front steps of the palace.
Aside from the guards, a steady stream of people moved in and out of the wide-open doors. Shazia moved to the side of the traffic flow and leaned against a sharply-ridged pillar. She put her head back and stared up into the clear blue sky.
Ibin is dead.
No, he can't be.
They wouldn't have said it if it isn't true.
How can he be dead? He's my closest friend.
He can't be dead.
But they said he is.
If only I had been there to protect him, he wouldn't be dead…
Her thoughts circled, snarling at one another like rabid dogs. She realized abruptly that she hadn't even heard her posting assignment--she had no idea where she was supposed to go, who she was supposed to see. After hearing that Ibin was gone, there was a blank space, a void.
A day ago, she had stood on these steps and laughed so hard with Ibin that her sides had hurt.
She blinked and turned away. Her feet felt like bricks, but she moved them.
Ibin is dead.
She found herself nodding her head, the echo of Rabanar's words overtaking her thoughts.
They will pay for this.
When she opened the door to Rabanar's townhouse, she didn't know what to expect. Certainly not what she found.
The foyer had been cleared of all furniture except for a table draped in a white cloth. On top of the table was a body.
She covered her face with one palm, turned away. It wasn't until a hand gripped her shoulder that she realized the foyer wasn't empty, hadn't been empty. Instead, it was filled with soldiers.
The hand on her shoulder belonged to Rabanar. "You have a choice," he told her. Her eyes moved beyond him and focused on the faces in the room. "With us or against us."
Past Rabanar's shoulder were ranks upon ranks of officers. Some battle-scarred, some little older than her. Over there was the last First Rank from five years ago, Almarre de Salza. Closer by was Harpett, who was old even when she was young, but now seemed to have reached an indeterminate middle age. There were many more whose faces she didn't recognize or whose names escaped her.
Rabanar must have been planning this for some time. This was not a direct response to his son's death. Ibin was the excuse, not the catalyst.
"Why?" she asked instead.
Rabanar shook his head. "It has been decades since a king has sat on the throne," he said. "And over a century since Lissar, the goddess-queen, led Eltrand to its golden age. It is time for us to return to what we once were."
A new calm descended upon her. "Is that why you agreed to train me?" she asked. "To seize power from the Falloyda?" She nodded her head at Ibin's body, but tried not to look. That unmoving face seemed like sacrilege, more so than anything else she had ever seen or heard. That someone so alive, so vital, should have died so young. "What happened to him? And don't try to tell me it was the Falloyda. Even they wouldn’t be so bold."
Rabanar was grinning, but it was an expression that did nothing to reassure her. "The Falloyda are powerless, but Ibin couldn't see that. He was very vocal in his support of them." Rabanar rested a heavy hand on her shoulder, and she shuddered under his touch and the look in his eyes. "As a symbol, you bring hope. Why do you think so many have joined us? You are a sign of change."
"If the Falloyda didn't kill Ibin--" Her words died in her mouth. Past Rabanar's shoulder, she saw the one person she never thought to see again. "Father," she breathed.
Laiyer nodded his head at her, but didn't speak. When she had left home, he had vowed never to speak to her again.
He still had no words to give her. Even if they were on the same side, even if they fought back to back, he would not break that vow sworn before the gods. She could see that now, that same stubbornness that she carried within her, that had pushed her to become what she had become.
Seeing that, her purpose crystalized. Her mind flashed back, stretched past the death of her closest friend and settled on a moment when she sat in a tent and a gypsy had fumbled a card of fortune.
"I will stand with you," she said clearly. Loudly, so that it carried throughout the room.
And so they told her their plans, and they buried Rabanar's son the next morning. But it would take one more week before they would be able to lead the insurrection, since they waited for their allies to journey from the far reaches of Eltrand to join them in overthrowing the Falloyda.
Right after the funeral, she told Rabanar, "I need some time to clear my head." He nodded, clapped her once more on the shoulder, and let her go.
Shazia had never been to so large a city. Her world had been smaller, had been contained to the manor house where she had been born, and Rabanar's estate. But with Ibin at her side, her world had never felt small.
He had been a traveler, though. He would go on long treks throughout the countryside, sent on various errands by his father. But always he would return, and he would share with her tales of his journeys and the people he had met and the things he had done. Always, he came back.
The Falloyda didn't expect her return. When she strode into the council chambers, there was a rustle of sound that followed the rumble of her boots across the floor.
"What is the meaning of this?" The Falloyda who had given her the star pendant scraped his chair on the floor as he cowered before her.
Again, she saw the cards laid out in front of her from half a dozen years before. Soldier, traveler and death. Or, just maybe, she would find a different path to walk.
"Change is coming," she replied, her voice the odd echo of a traitor. A soldier's death, she understood. Murder--the murder of his son, no less--she never would. Rabanar had lost her forever.
"Change is coming," she repeated. "There are those disloyal to the crown who seek to overthrow you. And you can either be a force of change--with me--or against it."
She took a deep breath. Here was where her path diverged.
"I have made my choice," she said, without regret. "Now, the choice is yours."
©September, 2017 Alison McBain
Alison McBain is an award winning author with over sixty short stories and poems published, including work in Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, and Abyss & Apex. When not writing she is the Book Reviews Editor for the magazine Bewildering Stories, and is a regular contributor and website manager for the international collective Reader's Abode. In her spare time, she blogs about local author events and interviews writers at http://www.alisonmcbain.com/
My name is Lossn. I am a failure.
I sat across the table from the too-fat man who sweated in the heat, decadently shedding water through his brown skin, typical of the cultured city-folk. He wouldn't last long in the desert, he would be abandoned by his tribe. Which, of course, was why he was here, in the city, with their free-flowing water and their rich food, away from the baking heat of the basin. Beside him stood a woman, muscular and clad in impractical leather armour that made her sweat. She had more muscle than she needed, and also wouldn't last long in the desert. But her mace could have smashed my skull easily enough. I swallowed, and tried to remember the humility of Meridie, and my oath to live by her example.
On the table was a bowl of water. I leaned forwards, using the old discipline I had honed for years in the temple to keep myself from drinking it, from becoming hypnotised by its beauty. Instead, I sniffed it, then sat back, the anger tightening my shoulders.
"It's not pure," I said, the words of the city-born Tyrannic language like ash on my tongue.
The fat man smiled, and rubbed bejewelled fingers together. "Very impressive. You see, Falah, I told you it would not fool him. Bring in the other barrel.
The muscular woman stowed her mace on her belt, picked up the barrel of water easily in an unnecessary show of strength, and left the room.
"It is a remarkable nose you have. Remarkable. I've never seen the like of it on a Damn'd, most of your kin in the city are stupid or water-addled. Tell me, do you think you could sniff out a poison?"
"I came here for the water."
"Yes, yes, of course you did, but I may have a business opportunity for you. I could pay you in money, food," he spread his arms expansively "all the pure water you want!"
"I want a barrel of water. And I want to leave with it."
"The money is sufficient, is it not?" I said, gesturing to the heavy leather coin purse that sat on the table between us. I thought again of Meridie's patience.
"It'll do, I suppose, but you should really consider my offer, you could make so much money in the city that-"
The fat man put up his hands in frustration. "Tyrant's arse, you're stubborn."
At that moment, Falah returned with the barrel, rolling it into the room. She opened the lid, took a wooden ladle and placed water in a fresh bowl. I leaned forward and sniffed it, and nodded. This was pure. Falah replaced the lid, and I stood up.
"Our business is concluded."
"No, I don't think it is," the fat man said, smiling. "Falah! Seize him!"
The muscular woman smiled, and brandished her mace.
"I am sorry, Lossn, but you'll thank me in the long run. This is an opportunity you'll soon realise is a good one. And really now, how many many barrels have you bought from me? How many times have you attempted this, whatever it is you want the water for? How many times must you fail?"
I must confess I hesitated for a moment, my faith shaken. But I made to leave.
The woman charged, mace upraised. She had underestimated me. I slipped to the side, ducked low, and grabbed her meaty shoulder. She had long legs, and her prodigious strength led to a high centre of gravity. A twist was all it took to redirect her force into the air, around my body, and through the table, splashing the pure water over her face. The fat man stared at me and the woman growled. I took her mace and rapped the butt across her forehead before she could come to her senses.
"Our business is concluded," I said again as I dropped the mace onto the floor and rolled the barrel out of the room. These city people were treacherous.
The barrel skittered across the old cobbled street, no matter how careful I was. There was a precipitous drop towards the old docks, and I could not risk losing control of this precious cargo, this time even less than the others.
I turned the barrel to one side, and went to the fish market, crossing one of the city's many bridges. The slow, lazy river below drifted southwards, and many other Damn'd stood on the sides, staring at it. Water-drugged, addled eyes staring at the flowing river. Their hair, like mine, was bleached white, and their skin leathery, cracked and dry, and their eyes squinted from the glare of the salt flats. There the similarity ended. I wore my robes of office, though none would likely recognise them, even among the Damn'd that were here, so far was I from the temple. And the iron discipline that years of service in the temple had won me kept me from the temptation of the water.
The fish market sold no fish. I do not know when the last fish was sold there, plucked out of the rapidly dwindling seas, but it must have been many generations ago, even among the longer-lived city people. I have long learned not to try to understand their ways. The smith recognised me from my previous attempts at the quenching, I am sure, but while obviously curious, she did not pry.
After a few moments, she had given me a set of leather strips and affixed these to the barrel, one at the top, the other longer and at the bottom. I tried to keep from staring at her, but she noticed how I started when she hammered the nails into the lid and base of the barrel. But she asked nothing, and I paid her over what she requested. I heaved the barrel onto my back, one strap around my waist, the other about my forehead, and went on my way.
"Good luck!" she called out to me. I did not know how to respond, unsure how to process such a remark. We did not speak of luck in the temple, only providence. I walked on.
She shouted again. I kept my head down and marched on, until she ran up and stood before me. I was ready to push through her, but something in her eye made me stop, some concern, even horror.
"You've sprung a leak!" she said.
It took me a moment to process what she had said, the city people have such a strange, idiomatic dialect, but confusion soon turned to horror. I pulled off the barrel and gingerly set it down, and saw that, sure enough, there was a trail of water droplets from her stall.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "it must have happened as I was putting the tacks in."
My eye followed the line of water droplets. They were fast drying, but they led away from the stall, out of the market. One last act of vengeance from the too fat man. "No, it wasn't you," I said, fists clenching. I briefly considered returning to the warehouse and murdering him, but even aside from the sin, it would not be prudent. City people had laws, strict ones that forbade murder, even for an insult such as this.
"Look, I can plug it," she said, "it's only a tiny hole, so it should last for a while. How far are you going?"
"Far," I said, "into the basin."
"Ah. Well, here's hoping it'll get you where you're going," she said, hammering a tiny wooden bung into the hole, then sealing the edge with melted beeswax.
"Th-thank you," I said, unused to city people showing any sense of kindness. She shrugged, as if embarrassed to be seen helping one of my kind. We parted awkwardly, and I made my way back across the river, turning northwards.
The docks of Varra stretched out into empty space, into the deep harbour that had once hosted ships, where the Untal sea once sat. The jetties reached out like clutching fingers, as if seeking something, trying to grasp a long dead sea, the memory of water still fresh in the city's fabric. And at the south end of the docks stood the lighthouse, and the long stair down to the floor of the harbour.
Getting into the city had taken weeks, longer than ever before. The lighthouse guards required permits and bribes and even permits in order to bribe them. And, while I can read a dozen or so languages of the deep desert, the permits were written in a strange, officious dialect. They are different every time I come to the city, and it always takes a few attempts to get past the frustrating gate guard. Many other Damn'd give up after a few tries, returning to the desert. These are the lucky ones, the truly damned among us are those that enter the city in search of fortune or water, for it is those who are invariably lost to the true paths.
Leaving Varra, however, was easy. The guards nod one through, the only queues are for getting pre-approved permits back into the city, popular among the city-born raiders who steal artefacts from the desert, and the more foolhardy caravaneers who try to transport their cargo across the basin. I did not need a permit. If I failed this time, I would not be returning.
The stair was a rickety construction of driftwood and old ships, dragged out from the deep desert. Damn'd had built it, many years ago, and now both they and the city people used it to move the hundred or so feet from the harbour floor to the city above. At the floor, to my left, stood the falls from the river, clogged with effluent and grime from the city, and from all the other cities it passed through. A few Damn'd were always clustered by its base, swimming in the filthy pools it left behind, washing their bodies in its water. There were never very many, the dysentery always killed them off.
I walked on, northwards, leaving the city behind, following the slow downhill path into the sea proper.
I passed ancient shipwrecks, listing against the bedrock, mostly wood, but with others made of metal or stranger substances, rusted out hulks filled with long empty seashells and shattered pots. They could provide a space to hide if I needed one, but such strategies had rarely worked for me in the past. Once found, I have always been quickly overwhelmed by raiders.
I remember with shame the time when I abandoned the water barrel. It was my first attempt, and I had given into cowardice, lacking the requisite faith to succeed in my journey. I returned to the temple, and performed my ministrations, and bore my punishment. My soul had been unprepared, and I had forced the world and the sea to bear my price, and I had wept at how I had failed Untus.
Things were different now. I would succeed in my task, or I would die. It was the only way to prove to Untus that I was worthy of slaking his thirst.
As I walked, I saw a disturbance on the horizon. A wheel-ship, one of those belonging to the cult of Hraza-kel-thum-dezanaika, those who walk the water's path. They take ancient shipwrecks and push them around ancient trade routes, seeking the return of the waters through by mimicking the world before their recession. At the time, I thought this was foolish, and that my own ritual was obviously perfect.
The wheel-ship was burning, the parched wood easily catching light in the dry desert. Around it, I could make out the shadow of raiders, some on camel-drawn chariots, surrounding the ship.
As I drew closer I saw the pyre. It appeared the raiders had had their fill of death, and now danced about the burning bodies. I had seen the dance before, and new the raiders to be Khez-rasa-gen-darakan, who believed their duty was to hedonism, and to hurry all towards death.
I briefly considered changing my route, but thought of the bung and the beeswax, and I did not know how long it would last. And besides, there was nowhere to hide any more. I had done enough hiding in my life.
A figure broke away from the pyre of bodies, small, only a child, running towards me. She was pursued by raiders brandishing nets and spears. But they were not catching her, only striking her with flails and ropes, driving her onwards, driving her away.
She came closer, dressed only in rags, welts across her back and legs. I stopped. The raiders would catch me anyway, and no doubt suspected what I carried. I lowered the barrel carefully. The girl ran past me, hiding behind my robes. She was not weeping, possessing impressive discipline for one so young.
The raiders halted in front of me, skull faces grinning, joined by a man in a camel chariot. They wore rags with bone fetishes tied to them and a few mismatched pieces of armour, mostly made of leather. Dusty white paint or black ash covered their faces, marking out skull patterns. The paint showed a foolish disregard for water, one that these raiders were known for. They carried weapons, mostly cudgels and flails and spears, while the man on horseback was the best equipped, bearing a steel sword with only a few spots of corrosion. He grinned, and spoke in the coastal Damn'd dialect.
"The girl you may keep, she is poor sport. What's in the barrel?"
I said nothing.
"Is it valuable? Is it water?"
One of the raiders sniffed the air, eyes suddenly wild. "I smell water! He bears water!"
"Whither do you bear the water?" the leader hissed.
"The deep desert. I am on a holy mission."
"Holy, is it? Holy indeed? Tell me, Thal, what is more holy than death? Than on speeding those of us still on this dust bowl on their way?"
There was no answer. The leader looked around at an older man who stared at me, mouth working, fear deep in his eyes.
"We should leave him, Zaf. Leave him be."
"Don't be a fool! Have you fallen for that religious nonsense all of a sudden? What, do you think we'll be cursed?"
"You will be cursed," I said, "and you will die."
"Ha! Your superstition doesn't scare me, god-botherer." He looked around, and noticed how sheepish his raiders looked. Evidently, Thal's words had shaken them. As they should. The leader snorted, and leapt from his chariot, and pulled the sword from his back. "I'll show you all how much you need to worry about the allegedly holy."
"Please," I said, "I am unarmed. And I have sworn an oath."
"What, an oath of pacifism? You too scared to fight? Ha!" he swung the sword before I could correct him.
My oath was not to avoid violence, but to take the water to Untus. And to kill anything in my way.
I ducked under the sword. As Zaf slowed his clumsy swing, I drove my fist into his stomach, pushing upwards into his diaphragm. He gasped and started to stagger backwards, loosing the double handed grip on his sword so he held it only with his left. I reached out, pushed my left elbow under his arm and struck downwards, snapping the arm. I caught his sword before it hit the ground with my grip reversed, and turned with my back to him. I ran him through, before spinning and striking at his neck. It was a clumsy blow, for I was tired from the journey, and cut diagonally up through his neck, the sword stopping under his jaw. I released the sword and let it fall, for I couldn't possibly free and ready it before any other raiders came at me. Besides, I did not want the unclean weapon staining my hands.
I watched the remaining raiders look to one another. At last, Thal bowed, and walked away, the remaining raiders muttering and leaving as well.
The girl was standing next to me now, staring at me with too-wise eyes. "You are strong," she said in accented High-Damn'd.
"No," I said, "I merely have faith." I took up the barrel, and started to walk, and the girl followed.
"Whither do you go?"
"The deep desert, as I told Zaf."
"Men often lie when they are confronted."
"I do not."
"Is that your oath?"
"A part of it. Where are you going?"
I grunted. "That is not a good idea. I follow a dangerous road."
"All roads are dangerous. And they all end the same, in death."
"You have a morbid sensibility, child."
"I am not a child. Not anymore. How could I be, after witnessing the death that I have?"
I turned to look at the girl, swinging about with the barrel on my back. She was young, perhaps ten years old, and in some tribes that was seen as adulthood. But the wheel-ship riders coddled their children.
The child's irises were brown, but too brown, too dark, appearing more like massive pupils, as if she was drug-addled. She had not yet developed the squint of an older Damn'd either, meaning she looked impossibly wide-eyed. Children of her age could almost pass for city-folk, and there was considerable trade in adoptees. Most of them ended up in slavery, with a scarcely better life than those living in the basin.
But her eyes looked at him, judged him, and found him acceptable. They were the eyes of an old woman, an elder who had seen the horrors of a long life on the salt flats.
"We will pass a town in two nights," I said, "you may stay there if you wish."
The girl nodded. "You will not attempt to push me away, then?"
"Would it work if I did?"
"Then I will not. My name is Lossn."
"I am Meridie."
I frowned. "I will not call you that."
"I do not approve of the wheel-ship practice of naming children after the prophetess."
"Forgive me, I did not know my name was an insult."
I swung about at the sarcasm. "I am sorry, but I cannot call you that name."
"Very well. What am I to be, then? 'Girl'?"
"I will call you 'Hraza', after the name of your tribe."
"Ah, 'the path' in my tribe's tongue. Acceptable."
I frowned again at the girl's manner, but said nothing, marching on through the desert. By nightfall, we had found a rocky hollow to sleep in at the edge of the salt flats. I showed Hraza how to dig for water under the crust of salt, and after filtering it twice through fine gauze we drank. Hraza managed to catch a krill, how I do not know, for I have never mastered the technique, allowing us what would be a rare meal on our journey. Hraza did not complain, and as we huddled for warmth in the night, I noticed she was controlling and slowing her breathing, entering the deep-desert sleeping trance. I was sure the Hraza-kel-thum-dezanaika themselves did not know the trance.
We came to the last town. I do not know its name, nor if it has one. It is sited at the last spring in the deep desert when heading north, where only slightly brackish water bubbles up from deep below. It has been destroyed and rebuilt by raiders countless times, and no single force has ever managed to dominate it. The deeper one goes into the desert, the more desperate the Damn'd become, and the more unwilling they are to share, preferring to destroy anything their rivals might use.
Still, at least they were human.
I bought supplies of brackish water, once it became clear that Hraza would not stay in the last town. I had wondered if she was hiding her feelings, but all too willing to turn to more humane comfort once it was offered. But by my side she remained. I must admit I was uncomfortable with this, the presence of the girl could jeopardise my mission, but driving her away would be a greater sin. Would Untus not despise that more? Perhaps she had been sent to test me?
We made our way through an ancient coral forest, the fossilised caves and stacks alternately sharp or smooth. The girl did not play or run about them or hide as I had expected, preferring to walk and examine the coral, studious in the manner of a city-bred scholar. She was curious, but when she turned the last corner out of the forest and saw what was beyond, I was reminded she was still a child. She gasped, eyes like clear pools of water, hand shading her eyes across the salt-flat beyond, to where the whales walked.
A Bow whale strode the coral flats a half a mile away, dolphins scurrying about its feet with spears in its hands -- I guessed them to be bottlenose, judging by their height. The whale was looking at the salt, and it started to rumble, the ground vibrating. It came to a halt, staring intently at a patch of salt flat, and the dolphins ran alongside, brandishing their spears. The bow whale reared up, the four hairy, human-shaped, enormous limbs deeply incongruous. Even from this distance, I could see patches of scar tissue where the limbs connected to its body. Its forelimbs, which terminated in huge, meaty hands, curled into fists, and it fell forwards, immense bulk slamming into the salt flat, cracking the solid rock. It steadied itself with one hand and grasped a huge chunk of salt with the other, and flung it aside. Beneath the salt I saw the tell-tale shimmer of water.
The dolphins leapt into a puddle of moisture, clicking and screaming in something like joy, stabbing with their spears and pulling free massive krill.
"We should go," I said, "if we keep our distance they won't bother to chase us." I started walking across the flat, keeping my head down and avoiding looking at the dolphins.
"Why would they chase us?" Hraza said, jogging to keep up, "They are wonderful!"
"The whales and dolphins of the deep desert are territorial, and they guard their territories well. And they hate humans."
I shrugged, "Whales are hunted in some parts of the world, in the ocean far to the west. Perhaps they were once hunted here, and the whales remember."
"Why would one hunt a whale? And how?"
"For the value of their meat, perhaps? I must admit I do not know or wish to know much of the ways of those beyond the basin. I would imagine one needs a lot of people, and spears, much like hunting any other large game."
The girl went quiet at that, keeping up with me, occasionally looking out towards the whales and their dolphins. I looking at them as much as I could, trusting that the dolphins wouldn't take too much exception to our presence, afraid of insulting them with distant eye contact. But it was the whale we needed to be cautious of, for it was they that determined the course of action for their dolphin kin, and they who possessed a great and unfathomable intelligence.
We came to the edge of the salt flat after only half a day, and entered another coral forest as the sun began to set. I stood watching for whales on the horizon as Hraza collected brine from an old pit, one dug by a whale perhaps the day before. Only a little moisture was now sitting in the bottom, together with a collection of empty giant krill shells. Hraza wanted to dig a little further, see if there were any krill the dolphins had missed, but I denied her. I wished to spend as little time silhouetted against the horizon as possible.
We entered the coral forest as the sun started to set, chewing on dried meat I had bought from the last town and looking for a suitable spot in which to camp. We needed a place where I could keep watch, one not so easily ambushed.
A soft clicking behind me made me spin around to see a shocked Hraza looking back at me, and beyond her a spotted dolphin, brandishing a spear. Shorter than their bottlenose cousins, a mere seven feet from nose to fluke, perhaps eight feet with the thick, hairy, incongruous legs included. Scar tissue marred this one, and it had lost an eye. It had been attempting to creep up behind Hraza, body low.
I started to yell to Hraza, to tell her to run, when I realised she wasn't looking at me, but up, past me. I turned in time to see another dolphin, this one younger judging by the relative lack of scar tissue, land in front of me, flint spear tip inches from my face. It clicked and squealed furiously at its companion, who replied apologetically. It then spoke in high-pitched Tyrannic.
"Passage forbidden. It knows this. Why does it risk?"
I kept my hands at my sides, resisting the urge to hold them up as I would to a human. The dolphins interpret such behaviour as a threatening gesture. Instead I bowed my head and lowered myself, not quite dropping to one knee.
"Forgive it. It wishes only to pass through," I said, attempting to match the peculiar dolphin dialect.
The other one hissed behind me, clicking in an agitated fashion. The one before me hissed.
"It says it has water. Pure water. It will give it to it."
It took me a moment to parse the dolphin's sentence. Horror mounted in me.
"Please, I am taking this water as part of a pilgrimage, I desire only to-"
The dolphin hissed stepping forward, hand outstretched. I stepped back, putting the barrel down, unsure of what to do. If I resisted, the dolphin would kill me, quickly and easily, and they would no doubt take Hraza as well. But I could not bear to fail in my duty again.
"Untus," I said, dropping to my knees, "please! It is for Untus, the god in the water, I know you know of him, I know you worship him, I-"
The dolphin kicked my in the stomach, driving me back against the wall, and stood in front of the barrel, clicking and tapping at it, twisting its head awkwardly to bring its blowhole to bear and sniffing.
Hraza laughed. It was a spiteful laugh, and I saw she was smiling. The dolphin looked up, and the older one skipped back suddenly, spear held out at her.
"Why does it bark?" The younger dolphin squealed,
"They said you'd fall for it, and you have! Ha! Haha!"
The dolphin stared at her in confusion, but despite the fixed smile, I could tell it was growing frustrated.
She looked to me, and suddenly looked shocked, and put a hand over her mouth. "I... I'm sorry," she said to me, "it was so funny, I couldn't help it."
The dolphin spun to face me jabbing out with its spear "Why? Why does it bark? What is... 'funny'?"
While I was still parsing the sentence, Meridie -- Hraza I mentally corrected myself -- spoke again: "They... the ones out on the salt flats, the taller dolphins..."
"Bottlenose?!" the dolphin hissed, as did its partner.
"Y-yes, I think that's what they were... They told us to give you this water. I'm not sure why."
"Give us... water? But why hide? Why not gift itselves?"
The one eyed dolphin squealed, "Not gift! Trick!"
The first dolphin staggered back, glaring at the barrel, then at me. "Poison! Trick! Kill it!" the dolphin stabbed out at me with the spear, I reflexively raised my hands, and yelled at it to wait.
It did, which surprised me. I swallowed, trying to think of something.
"You... live in the coral forest, do you not?"
The dolphin stared, not acknowledging if I was right or wrong.
"There are... others beyond the coral forest. If you let us pass, our poison passes as well."
The dolphin stared, then clicked and squealed. "They will die! The inner flats will die!"
"And you and your whale could spread out."
"It will be honoured!"
"Oh yes, It will definitely be honoured. But we will need to pass through safely."
"Protect!" the dolphin said, and suddenly turned back, starting to walk down the narrow pass. It spun around, staring at me quizzically, and gestured. "Come!" it hissed.
I swallowed, stood up, and shouldered my burden, nodding to a relieved looking Hraza.
The dolphins were blessedly laconic, and allowed us to sleep in a hollow when they saw that we shivered and grew weary with the night. The creatures lay awkwardly on their fronts and dozed next to each other. They awoke early, and kicked me awake before dawn, the younger one eager for us to be on our way. As the sun rose over the horizon to my right, I looked out over the last salt flats, where more whales stood on the horizon.
And before me lay my goal, the tumble of rocks marking Untus' labyrinth. I nodded my thanks to to the dolphins, who stared at me in bafflement, and together Hraza and I made our way out into the final salt flats.
We had been walking for a few hours when Hraza suddenly yelped, gesturing at the barrel. I pulled it off and saw that the beeswax plug had failed, leaving a trail of water droplets behind us. I could have wept. I quickly upended the barrel and found the other side was not leaking, but it would be more awkward to carry. But there was nothing for it.
I grabbed the barrel around the side and hefted it to chest level. All I could see was the side of the barrel. "You must be my eyes, Hraza. Can you do that?"
"Yes," she said.
And so I walked across the baking sands, the holes in my moccasins worn ever wider.
"We must be careful," I gasped, "the whales my try to intercept us. Keep watch."
"I will," Hraza said.
Hours passed. My arms grew numb. I called out to Hraza, but heard no response. Reluctantly, I started to lower the barrel, knowing that doing so would only make it harder to lift again.
And then I froze.
Hraza was standing with her back to me, her face mere feet from the nose of a blue whale, surrounded by orcas wielding massive steel halberds and axes. The orcas were easily 20 feet tall, even with their slightly stooped stance, while the whale... I could not process the size of the whale. It was larger than my temple.
Hraza held a hand out, almost touching the whale's nose. The whale stared at her, and then I felt its vast intelligence shift in focus to look at me. My world crumbled around me, all thought deserted me, the entire world became that creature's evaluating gaze.
I was unworthy. How could I be worthy? I fell to my knees. I felt the earth move, felt the whale's steps. I came towards me.
And walked over me, that massive belly twenty feet from my head, yet feeling close, too close. The back legs passed over me, meaty feet stomping so close to me, and then the fluke ran over my head, capable of swatting me in an instant, of ending my life almost carelessly.
And so the whale passed over me, and the orcas left, following their lord into the salt flats. The walls of the well of Untus towered over me.
"It's okay," Hraza said, "they said we can pass."
"You," I said, "are not Hraza, are you?"
"I told you," the girl said, "I am Meridie."
I prostrated myself, about to ask for forgiveness, when the girl snorted and demanded I get up.
"You have a purpose out here in the desert, Lossn. Here and beyond. Go, into the well. Go where I cannot follow."
I swallowed, and lifted the barrel in my arms, stumbling on in exhaustion. My muscles cried out in despair, threatening rebellion. It was all too much. Far too much.
I stumbled over the threshold, face to face with the last guardian of Untus.
I had never seen them before. I had never passed beyond the inner flats before, never crossed the threshold to the well. I knew of them only from the old legends, told by those who had failed before me.
The thing was twenty feet long, with a chitinous body, heavily armoured in the manner of the city folk, with armoured plates covering its flanks and stretching to the desert floor. Its head was a simple sphere and bore black pits in place of eyes, with antennae switching around. Its body grew narrow towards the rear, where its tail terminated in a trident.
The creature's antennae touched my face, and it reared up suddenly, huge jaws wide. I leapt back, almost falling, almost dropping the barrel, but the thing kept coming.
I would not be defeated, not so easily. I leapt to one side and managed to get a foot on the thing's back, and I ran up an armoured plate onto its back. I ran along the unsteady plates as the creature tried to throw me off, and landed beside the thrashing tail. I ran on, to where I could see a small, flat, pool of water, my destination.
Pain seared down my left leg, and I saw that the trident and torn through robes and skin, slicing deep into my thigh. I staggered forwards, and felt another slash across the back of my calf, felt the tension as the hamstring snapped back. My leg no longer answered my orders, and I fell forwards, inches from the edge of the pool.
I looked back, saw the trilobite turn and start heading towards me. The barrel was still whole, turned on its side. I crawled forwards and shoved it as hard as I could. The guardian was close now, but I couldn't risk turning my back. I pulled myself up onto the barrel, and then slid as I pushed it.
The barrel rolled, water rushing out from the leak, fell down a step before the well, and smashed. What little water that was left lay slick among the stones. My head hit the stone. I waited for death.
It did not come.
I turned and looked over my shoulder, to see the trilobite frozen, a mere statue. I suddenly found it unbelievable that the creature had chased me, and wondered if the whole encounter had been some illusion.
With the relief came the pain. I had dreamed none of this.
I turned back to see a massive, coral encrusted hand sticking out of the water. Before I could respond, my god grabbed me about the limbs and dragged me into the water.
I panicked, felt myself starting to drown, felt the water rush into my lungs. I opened my eyes to find the water impossibly clear, and to see a massive face made of coral staring at me, seaweed and barnacles encrusting his holy countenance, shining eyes evaluating me, just as the whale had.
And then I realised I was not dead.
You shall not drown, said the impossible voice that resounded through my skull. I tried to prostrate myself, finding this impossible in the water, and so averted my eyes.
Lossn, look at me. We don't have time for this. We have wasted too much time already.
I looked up, feeling tears well up in my eyes, then feared polluting the waters of Untus. But then, had I not polluted them already, clad as I was in these filthy robes?
You have duties.
"They are complete, my lord," I went to say in my head.
Then you have new duties. There is no rest for holy men, not in this world, and certainly not any more. I have tasks for you to perform. You are the last of your temple, correct?
I swallowed. "All dead," I whispered "raiders in the night, smothered the old men as they-"
I know. And there is a special punishment you must deliver to them.
Untus massive fist was upraised before me, and from between his knuckles, I saw a length of coral.
My voice is returned to me, you have found her. But I have need of more direct intervention. I have need of a sword. This shall be you, Lossn, forged in the desert sun, tempered by tragedy. You must go beyond this place, even beyond this desert. There is more at stake than you suspect. Grasp my sword.
I reached out, fingers tentatively wrapping themselves around the sword hilt between the god's knuckles. I drew back, and the sword slid easily among the seaweed and anemones and brightly coloured fish, revealing a blade of dull, sharp coral.
Go, Untus whispered My thirst needs no slaking. The test was a foolish one, dreamed up by men who deafened themselves with perceived virtue. But this is the true task that lies before you.
"My lord," I whispered, "I am tired, my flesh is weak, I-"
Your will is strong. That is all that matters.
I climbed out of the well, my legs healed by some holy providence of the sea god, the sword in my hand. Meridie met me at the threshold, saw how I was remade, reforged.
I failed in my old mission. I would not fail in my new one.
©September 2017 Sam Beaven
Sam Beaven lives and writes in North Wales. This is his first published work of fiction.
Curtis Ellett is a frustrated fantasy writer and a founding member of the 196 Southshore Writers' Group. He has lived on three continents, studied archaeology and worked as a newspaper ad designer and a bookseller. He now gets paid to write. Find him on Twitter @CurtisEllett.