Far below the lighthouse lamp room, a voice called from the beach. But that was impossible. I was alone on the island, since Maggie had gone. She’d clambered down to the beach, two weeks ago. I didn’t see what happened. Missing. Washed away. Gone. I’d reported it to the Lighthouse Authority.
There’d been a storm last night, the raindrops drumming at the portholes of the lighthouse. Now, in the calm of the morning, as I looked from the lamp room window, the sea was clear. The waves that had lashed the sides of the lighthouse only a few hours earlier now rippled like molten glass. So high up and so far from land, as far as the eye could see.
Another shout drew my eyes downward, but there was nobody there. Yet another came, from the far side. I looked through the opposite window, but there was still nothing to see. They say that if you live alone for long enough, you begin to think there’s someone else with you. They call it a sensed presence. It must’ve been my mind playing tricks.
Grey clouds half hid the sun, but I drew the curtains all around the lamphouse. Four wicks, eight lenses, which could magnify even a tiny ray of sun and cause a fire. That was something the Lighthouse Authority had drummed into me as soon as I started training. I picked up a cloth and dusted my qualification certificate. It stood in a frame on the table in the middle of the room. It’d taken three years, but I’d done well. Charlotte Grenville, Lighthouse Keeper, First Class. I knelt and polished the brass plaque set into the floor, commemorating Albert Grenville: Keeper of Waymark Light, 1884-1971. My great-grandad. I hoped he’d have been proud of me.
Now the housekeeping was done, it was time to start the day’s work. My shoes clanked against the latticed iron spiral stairs as I ran down past level 9. I’d had to move my bedroom there, after a wave washed right over the roof of the living quarters. Half way down, on level 6, a gust of fresh air blew through an open porthole set into the brickwork. I stopped and peered out at the sea. A small, black, doglike head poked out of the water. Captain, the seal, come for his breakfast. Hurry, hurry. But first, into the office on the level 2. Better find out how the night shift went. I called good morning to Trinny. There’d been no alarm, so there can’t have been anything she couldn’t deal with, but I’d better check.
Trinny sat on the desk in the corner, next to the two-way radio with the broken mainspring. She was a grey metal box, about a foot in each direction. On the right-hand side was the crank handle that wound her main spring. On the front, lights, and two dials in the place where eyes would be. On the left-hand side, a label reading ‘Trinity Control System v.3.0 with new improved escapement’. The pilot light above her eyes, I mean above the dials, flickered. Her spring must be almost run down. With a rattling sound like someone typing behind a door, she spat a paper strip from the space where her mouth would have been. I mean, a printout was ejected. I must stop thinking of it as a person. What would she say if she could talk? ‘I’m sick of being on permanent night shift’?
I read the printout. ‘[…Light flashed 4 time/20 seconds. Fog signal not required…]’. Nothing to worry about. More rattling. A second piece of paper edged its way out, as though Trinny was using up her last breath.
‘SOUTH COAST OF ENGLAND ———————— ENGLISH CHANNEL —————————- APPROACHES TO DOVER STRAIT TSS ——————————- ABANDONED FISHING NETS Latitude 50º 29.555’N., Longitude 000º 26.097’W ———————————————— Abandoned fishing nets which have become entangled on the charted wreck of the “Duke of Buccleuch” which lies sunk in the position defined above, have been temporarily marked by means of two emergency wreck marking lighted buoys…’
I skimmed over the details. It was nowhere near us, so, again, no concerns. I’d leave Trinny unwound for a while. It felt right to let her rest. I looked along the shelf on the wall above her: International Code of Signals, Flags and Funnels, Bends, Hitches, Knots and Splices. Directions as for the use of the pistol rocket apparatus. I pulled out the Fog Signal Store Account Book and made a note that all had been clear, slid it back into place, and turned away to file the reports in the drawer.
On the top of the pile of papers inside was a photo of me, Mum and Dad, all smiles. On leave, the three of us, walking in the hills. It had been taken a few months before the accident. I kissed my finger tip and touched Mum, then Dad. At least I had my memories.
A buzzing inside my head made the hair on the back of my neck prickle, as though someone was watching me. I spun round, but only Trinny was there, and she was asleep. An image flashed through my mind of somewhere I’d never been. I saw a table, on which stood a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder. A fine time to get a migraine. I waited a few seconds for the headache that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come.
I needed fresh air. I pulled on my waterproof jacket. It smelled of fish; lucky there was nobody else around. The bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling flickered and dimmed, telling me that I’d have to wind up the generator too, but that could wait till I came back. I dragged my boots on, turned my collar up and climbed down the worn wooden steps to the rocks outside.
A blast of wind blew strands of hair flapping round my face like ginger seaweed. I clambered and skidded over the rocks till I reached the sea. The waves rolled inwards, turning into foam that fizzed as it spread across the sand. I dipped in my pocket and found the reason for the pong – a piece of mackerel I’d brought out for Captain the day before, and forgotten. Seagulls squawked overhead – they could probably smell it too. I gagged. Captain poked his head above the water, let out a yarping sound, and pulled himself out onto the shingle.
I squatted and patted his head, the grey fur coarse and oily. ‘Sorry, too rough to catch anything yesterday. But hang on.’ I threw the piece of fish to him. ‘Quick, before a gull snatches it.’ He snapped it up and looked at me, all dark mournful eyes and long whiskers. If only he could talk back. ‘That’s all for now. I’ll see what I can get you a bit later. Come back tomorrow.’ His vile-smelling yawn revealed lethal looking sharp teeth as he turned and flapped back into the sea. Catching fish for seals. An odd sort of thing for a vegetarian to do.
From behind me came a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth, and a voice, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio.
‘Not yet!’ A man’s voice.
I whirled round. The air thickened, and I felt like I was moving under water.
The space between me and the lighthouse shimmered silver. The outline of a figure appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, standing in the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into a man, aged somewhere in his thirties. He stepped out of the space and onto the beach, flecks of light crackling around his bright auburn hair. He wore some sort of suit looking like it was made of white paper, which crackled as he moved. There was something familiar about him that nagged at the corner of my mind, just too far away to touch.
My ears popped and I felt the sensation of a bubble bursting between us, but there was no wet splash.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. His was the voice that I had heard a moment earlier.
I gasped, my breath rasping.
‘Do you speak English?’ he said.
‘I’d better explain,’ he said. ‘I’m a physicist. Just a few moments ago, I was testing a new method of…er…transportation, in a laboratory in the Morris Institute. We’ve been trying different settings. My idiot of an assistant set it off it too early. When, I mean where, is this?’
He pulled an object about the size of a cigarette packet out of his pocket and poked at it. The object glowed. He held it close to his mouth. ‘Waymark Reef,’ he repeated, to the object. He turned to me. ‘Never heard of it. You sound English, where are we?’
‘Er…about 30 miles off the tip of Cornwall.’
He nodded. ‘Ah. Perhaps one of the smaller of the Isles of Scilly.’
He had no cause to be rude. I wasn’t silly. I’d passed my navigation course with top marks and there were no islands anywhere near. ‘And I’ve never heard of them.’
‘OK, so we’re even.’ He frowned and shook the object. ‘I was trying to transport myself…somewhere. OK. I’ll call the lab. They’ll have to send a boat out. Lend me your mobile?’
‘Mobile phone.’ He waved the object at me. ‘This. I can’t get a signal on mine.’
‘Signal? You want me to send up a flare? There’s a box in the storeroom.’
‘No, no,’ he snapped. ‘I just need to get back. Can we ask one of your neighbours if I can use their phone?’
‘There’s nobody here but me. I suppose a craft might come near enough to hail, but we might have to wait some time. This is a place only the most experienced sailors and sea kayakers should consider trying to get to. Land in the wrong place, and it’s like trying to climb up the side of a bottle. You’ll have to wait for the next Lighthouse Authority transport boat.’
He exhaled. ‘Thank goodness for that. When’s it coming?’
‘They’ve been checking on me once a week so…next Friday.’ When the new assistant was due, and I could go on leave.
He frowned. ‘That’s no good, I can’t wait that long. I’ll have to see if the Coast Guard can send out a helicopter to fly me back. Any chance of using your radio?’
‘Mainspring’s busted, sorry. That’s why they’ve been coming around every week. Otherwise, it’d have been two months, so you’re lucky. But flying’s not going to work. There’s no way a balloon could land here.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m just going to have to wait. There’s a fail-safe in the system to pull me back. The lab will be able to get a fix on me. Eventually. Unless,’ His brow furrowed. He looked into the distance and muttered. ‘No helicopters. No mobiles. Time as well as space?’ He turned towards me. ‘What’s today’s date?’
‘Why do you want to know that?’
‘Never mind why. Just tell me,’ he snapped.
That had been tactless of me. Perhaps he suffered from some sort of memory problems. Early dementia – that might account for all the things he’d been on about. Poor man. Perhaps he’d just wandered into whatever this transport device was. ‘OK, sorry. It’s November the twentieth. All day.’
He drew in a breath. ‘And the year?’
‘Two thousand and eighteen.’
He exhaled. ‘At least that’s right.’
The sky clouded over. I shivered ‘Looks like rain. You’d better come inside and wait,’ I said.
‘Sounds like a plan. I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Charlie Grenfell.’
I blinked. ‘You’re kidding. Really?’
‘Yes, really. Why?’
‘Because my name’s Charlotte Grenville. But everyone calls me Lottie. You’d better, too, otherwise it’s going to be confusing.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Lottie.’ He stuck out a hand.
I slid mine back in my pocket. ‘Sorry, better not shake. I’m all fishy.’ Just as though I was greeting a delivery person at the front door and not someone who’d just appeared from nowhere.
Captain stuck his head out of the sea and gave a bark. Charlie knelt in front of him. ‘Hiya, Fish Breath.’
I shook my head at his disrespect for a fellow creature. ‘You’ve no call to be rude to my friend. I call him Captain. He probably thinks you’re going to feed him.’
Captain edged back into the sea and disappeared below the waves. The tide broke over the rocks. Charlie stood up, brushing wet sand from his knees. Rain began to fall, in large drops that blobbed and splashed onto the sand.
‘OK, follow me,’ I said. ‘And watch your step on the rocks.’ I picked my way across the sand. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I can get you something to eat, if you like eggs. Not fresh, of course. But the powdered stuff makes an OK omelette.’
He shook his head ‘Never touch them. I’m a vegan.’
‘Then you shouldn’t be calling seals names.’
I stepped inside the lighthouse, and climbed the stairs, Charlie behind me. I opened the office door. The generator must have wound right down because it was dark inside, but enough light came through the porthole for me to find my way . ‘Hold on.’ I gave the massive crank handle four turns. My arm ached. That would be enough power for the rest of the day.
Charlie ran his finger along the spines of the books on the shelves. ‘Some of these old books must be worth a fortune.’
‘Cheeky. They’re the latest editions.’
I filled the kettle from the barrel and put it on the wood stove to boil. I sat at the table. ‘Now, tell me what a helicopter is.’
He sat opposite me. ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’
I shook my head. ‘Nope.’
‘It’s a sort of…flying machine. Not a balloon.’
‘Yeah, right. And I suppose they use some sort of wind-up power?
Charlie frowned. ‘Well, they do have blades that rotate, but you must know that’s not what powers them.’
‘I don’t know anything of the sort. But it’s a clever idea.’ He was a physicist; I think he’d said. Maybe that was some fancy word for story teller.
The kettle boiled. Charlie stood up and took two mugs out of the cupboard. ‘I’ll make the tea. Black, no sugar.’ A statement, not a question.
He put a mug down in front of me. I took a sip. ‘You asked to use a phone. What’s one of them?’
‘Never mind.’ He looked around the tiny office. ‘What are you doing here? Stuck in this place, the back end of nowhere?’
I stared at him. ‘What are you, addle-pated? I’m the keeper of this lighthouse, of course.’
‘But, they’re all computerised, surely.’
‘Oh, come on, you know,’ he said. ‘Automated. Mechanised. It happened back in the nineties.’
‘Well, it’s 2018 and here I am. Trinny is mechanical, but someone has to be here to keep her going.’ That reminded me, I’d better see what was happening. I walked over to Trinny and wound her up.
She spat out a message. ‘Assistant keeper Patricia Pryce arriving 23 November 2018. May be subject to change, in adverse weather conditions.’ Not so long for Charlie to wait. ‘I don’t believe it. More clockwork,’ he said, his mouth turned down at the corners. ‘No electricity? No batteries, even? Even you must’ve heard of that?’
I put the messages on the table and my hands on my hips. ‘You needn’t talk to me as though I came across the Channel on a banana boat. We do have electricity. You just saw me busting my arm winding the generator. Not that you offered to help.’
‘Can’t you source one powered by diesel?’
Source. What, add ketchup? ‘The Lighthouse Authority reckons what we have is good enough, and I agree.’
‘But electricity comes from cables run under the sea.’ He ran jerky fingers through his hair and leaned towards me.
‘Now you’re freaking me out.’ I stood up and backed away towards the cupboard. Not dementia. Lunacy. How could I have been so stupid? Inviting some madman inside. Letting him sit between me and the door.
‘OK, sit down,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s talk. You can’t get much of that, here on your own.’
My heart raced. ‘I’m not usually on my own,’ I managed to force from my dry throat. ‘I had an assistant, Maggie.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Isn’t she here?’
‘No, she…went away. I don’t mind being on my own.’
He smiled. ‘Yes, tell yourself that often enough and you’ll believe it. I know. Look, Lottie. Come back. Please. I’m sorry I scared you.”
He looked into my eyes, I felt something inside me relax, unwind like Trinny’s spring at the end of a stormy night. OK, crazy but harmless. I dropped back into a chair by the table.
‘Tell me about Maggie,’ he said. ‘About yay high?’ He held out a hand level with his shoulder. ‘Short blonde hair?’
‘Yes. Know her?’
‘I think we met once.’
‘When?’ On her last shore leave, I supposed. Trust her to pick up a weirdo. I’d spent many an evening listening to her tell me about the waifs and strays she seemed to attract wherever she went. At least I stuck to befriending seals.
‘It was about two weeks ago,’ Charlie said.
‘It can’t have been. She was here. And then she disappeared. I suppose you’ll be telling me you kidnapped her, next.’ Making up stories about fantastic machines was one thing, but including real people as characters? I was beginning to find humouring him too much like hard work. ‘Anyway, don’t worry about me,’ I said ‘I love the solitude of my situation. And the sea, constantly changing.’
He smiled. ‘You sound like you’re trying to sell it to me. Or to yourself.’
‘No. This is my place in life. I could spend all day looking at the sea, but I’ve got a job to do. It’s just that sometimes, I wonder…’ I looked away from Charlie. My words tumbled out ‘Living on land all the time. What would it be like? But it’s no good thinking like that. If the Employment Authority should ever so much as suspect…’
‘Who? Suspect what?’
‘Shh!’ I put a quaking finger up against my lips. My heart pounded.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘What’s the matter? Surely whoever it is can’t hear us.’
I lowered my hand. ‘You know who I mean. And, of course they can’t hear us, but you might tell them. When you get back.’
He steepled his fingers on the table between us. ‘You can trust me. I promise not to tell anyone.’ He looked into my eyes and, again, I felt my heart slow. ‘And I really don’t know who you’re talking about.’
‘The Employment Authority,’ I hissed. ‘If they thought I wasn’t content in my work, that I wanted to do something else…’ I shook my head.
‘So, what if you did? I don’t get it. People change jobs all the time.’
‘People change jobs all the time?’ I felt my face grow warm. ‘Name me one person who’s done it in the last fifty years. It’d have been in all the papers. All the time? The prison ships would be full to the gunwales.’
He slid his hand across the table, towards me. I felt a prickling sensation and he pulled his hand back, as though he felt it too. ‘OK, you’re right, I’m wrong. But, have you never lived on land?’
‘There’s land under this rock, of course. But if you mean the mainland, yes, I have, but never spent more than a couple of weeks there, for a holiday.’ I sighed. ‘No, things are fine here. I’ve got Captain to talk to.’
‘You talk to old Fish Breath?’ He raised an eyebrow and I was glad I hadn’t mentioned talking to Trinny.
‘Call him Captain. Yes, I have him to talk to.’
Charlie smiled. ‘But?’
I decided to tell the truth. ‘But I wish there was someone-’
‘Who’d talk back.’
I nodded. ‘It’ll be OK, my new assistant will be here soon. Anyway, I’m used to it. I was born in this lighthouse. My father was the keeper, my grandad before him. And there’s a plaque in the lamphouse honouring my great grandad. There’s been a keeper Grenville ever since the very first lighthouse, when my many greats grandmother volunteered for the job. Of course, that was before the Employment Authority was set up,’ I said, looking round as though the Authority might be peering over my shoulder, taking notes, ‘when you could take any employment you wished.’ I loved the lighthouse, of course I did. It was my home. But, to find my own way in the world? I shook myself. That was no way to think.
I turned back to Charlie ‘What about you?’ I had no idea what a physicist was, but new careers were created all the time, for people whose employment had become obsolete. ‘I thought you might be a sort of story teller.’
‘No – I’m a scientist. I’m concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy.’
I nodded. ‘You mean a kinematical engineer. I suppose you come from a long line of them?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘No, I’m the first. What did you mean, take any employment you wished? You can.’
He was harmless, but insane. ‘O-kay,’ I said. ‘You don’t come from a long line of kinematical Grenfells. You can follow any career you want. You’re very lucky. Some are. Some aren’t. Just the way things are.’
‘You make your own luck in this life. I chose to study something interesting, and get a job based on it. You could get a different job.’
‘What? Move to another lighthouse? I like this one. I belong here.’
‘But it’s a lonely existence. So why do you stick at it? You could do anything. Or nothing, while you make your mind up.’
My face grew warm. ‘Did you just say what I think you did? Get a different job? Didn’t you hear what I said a few minutes ago?’ My voice came out as a squeak. ‘That’d be a short sharp trip to prison.’ I stood up and leaned across the table, jabbing a finger at him. My voice sounded like it was coming from a distance, as though someone else spoke. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Much as I love this lighthouse and this island, I’d love to get off and do something else. But I can’t, and there’s no point thinking about it.’ I gasped and held my head in my hands. ‘Now look what you’ve made me say. Anyway, what about the shame on my family name? The Grenvilles have always been lighthouse keepers. Always will be.’ I paused, feeling my voice catch in my throat. ‘Don’t tell them. I didn’t mean it. All praise to the system. Nobody’s ever jobless.’
He raised his hands. ‘OK, don’t get off your bike.”
I lowered my hands and looked up. ‘Bike. Do you always talk such rubbish?’ And me, I’d said too much. I picked up Trinny’s print-out. ‘I’d better not leave this lying around.’ I opened the filing drawer.
Charlie peered across at the mass of paper inside and gasped.
‘I know it looks a mess,’ I said, ‘but there’s a method in there. I can find anything. Just pick a date-’
He shoved his hand inside the drawer and grabbed the picture of Mum and Dad. ‘How did you get this?’
‘You don’t have to act like I stole it. The people in the photo gave it to me. They’re my late parents,’ I said.
‘My parents,’ he croaked, poking at the photo with a quivering finger.
He flopped back into his chair.
I shook my head. ‘My parents,’ I said. ‘Liz and Dick Grenville. Dead five years ago.’
He shook his head. ‘Beth and Rich Grenfell. Very much alive.’
‘It’s a coincidence. Must be. Lots of people out there look like others.’
‘And who married each other?’
I shrugged. ‘People end up looking like their partners.’
‘That’s dogs and their owners. No. Our names are so similar. This is going to sound weird…I don’t know how it can be…but I think we might be related. And that, somehow, drew me here.’
‘This is going to be an amazing story,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re going to write it all down.’
‘No, I mean it. Have you got a brother?’
‘Why do you want to know that? I’d have liked one, or a sister. But there wasn’t the room here. You?’
‘No.’ He leaned across the table and reached out as though to grab my arm. The air glowed blue between our fingers. Pins and needles ran up my hand. I felt something push me away. A spark jumped between our hands and he looked up, frowning. I realised where I’d seen his face. It was the one I saw in the mirror each morning. My hands began to shake and I felt my heart jump. ‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got a cheek, when we hardly know each other.’ We didn’t. Did we? ‘But, I’m thirty-two.’
‘So am I,’ he said. ‘I was born on the second of October-’
‘Me too. Nineteen eighty-’
‘five.’ He shook his head. ‘There’s something weird about all this. I admit, I thought you had a screw loose.’
I drew in a breath. ‘And you’ve been talking concentrated rubbish since the moment you…er…arrived.’
He raised a hand. ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. The transporter…’ He clenched his hands into fists. ‘I didn’t say anything before. Top secret. But this was the first test of a portal through time.’
I thought of all he’d told me. Asking the date. Stuff like in a story. ‘You mean…you’re from the future?’ How far? We were born at the same time and he didn’t seem to have aged.
‘No. Not the future.’ He shook his head. ‘From…somewhere else. I’ve never believed it before, but some people think there’s an infinite number of universes. Everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but didn’t, occurred in the past of some other universe.’
‘I don’t get it.’ I felt a migraine nudging at the edges of my brain, trying to get in.
‘OK, what about this?’ He rested his elbows on the table and leaned towards me. ‘We think time exists in the form of particles. They last a fraction of a second before they split.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Like radioactivity?’
‘My radio was active before the spring broke. I suppose it sort of split. That what you mean?’
‘No. Never mind. There are time particles.’ He stood and paced up and down. ‘Every time one splits, two halves go off in different paths, and meet different influences. And each of them splits too, like the ribs on a fan. So, there are millions of Lotties, millions of Charlies. All slightly different. That’s why we look so alike. Whatever my assistant did sent me into your world. On another rib.’
‘That much, I think I understand,’ I said. ‘Perhaps in some ribworlds Lottie never gets born at all. Her parents have no children. Or they have a boy instead. Or maybe there’s one where they have a boy and a girl.’
Or one where you could take any job. Or none. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Could you take me with you, when you go? You can send me back here. I can still keep the light. But I want to see your world.’
His voice cracked. ‘I’d love to. But you can’t come with me. I didn’t tell you everything about Maggie. I have met her, or rather, she’s been in our lab. When we first tried the portal, it opened on the beach right next to her. Pulled her straight in.’
‘So what? That’s great. You did it for her. Do it for me. At least there’ll be someone there I know.’
‘We didn’t mean to take her. It was an accident. We sent her back.’
‘Well, It’s my turn now.’
He stood up and paced up and down. ‘That’s the point. You told me Maggie’s not here. It looks like the way time flows in different ribworlds may not match up. Without a machine at this end to get a fix on her, Maggie is probably on her way back – but not for another five hundred years. Or five thousand years ago. It’d be a one-way portal for you, if you came with me. You couldn’t come back. Not to here and now.’
My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. ‘I don’t care. I want to see a world where people can take whatever path inspires them. Where there are flying machines. I don’t want to do the same job as Mum and Dad, I want to hug them, to talk to them. There’s so much I want to say.’
‘I know you. I don’t think you could,’ Charlie said. ‘You couldn’t leave this place. Your conscience wouldn’t let you.’
I felt a cold sponge close round my stomach. I couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned. All those lived depending on its light. I spoke slowly, allowing the ideas to form in my mind. ‘OK. Maggie’s replacement will be here soon.’ I hoped there would not be another storm. ‘Come back for me.’
‘There’s no way of replicating the settings that sent me here. And even if I could, I can’t take you with me.’
‘You could. If you wanted to.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s not that. I don’t think we’re each other’s brother or sister, that we never had. There might be a world somewhere out there, where that’s true. But if it was, we ought to be able to do more than talk. Haven’t you noticed? Every time we try to touch…’ He reached out a finger tip towards me. Another spark cracked between us, blue and dazzling. ‘I know what you feel. I know what you think. And I think I’m you. And you’re me.’
I reached out to take his hand. Yet another jolt. I felt a wave of nausea rise in my throat. My tongue felt thick.
‘No, we can’t touch,’ he said. ‘We’re like particles of matter and antimatter. When they touch, they annihilate each other.’
I slumped ‘Now you’re trying to confuse me. Just making excuses you know I won’t understand.’
‘OK, we’re like two opposite halves of an equation. Plus one and minus one.’
‘I was never any good at algebra. You’ve lost me. But I do know that one and one makes two.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s an equation that adds up to zero. The portal will soon be opening. If I took you with me, we’d be combined when we went through. And both wiped out.’
‘You don’t know that. And who’s to say one of us is minus? We could both be plus. Then we’d end up with 2.’
‘Or both minus. And what would happen to minus two?’
I stared at him. He seemed fuzzy round the edges, flickering in and out of focus.
‘The fix. It’s happening already. They’re trying to pull me back.’ He stood up. ‘I need to get back to the beach, to the place where I came through.’ He dashed out of the door and down the steps. I ran after him, my breath rasping in my throat. He dimmed to black and white. I saw through him to the rocks behind. If I couldn’t go with him, then perhaps…
‘Stay with me.’ I reached out and touched his cheek. A flash of light filled my head, brighter than a million lighthouses, forcing my eyes shut. I felt as though the air had been sucked away. I opened my eyes. The sand seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. I clamped them shut them again, struggling to catch my breath.
I sank to my knees. A flood of memories rushed in like a tidal wave. Mum and Dad, beaming with pride as I was awarded my PhD in Physics. Sitting in a flying machine, high above the clouds. Electricity on tap, coming out of an outlet on the wall. Getting the job at the Institute. Typing messages on a keyboard with a screen. Creating the portal machine.
I stood up opened my eyes, and blinked, trying to get my eyes to focus. I was alone on the beach.
Captain poked his head out of the sea. ‘Not now, Fish Breath,’ I said.
I’d catch something for him later. First, hurry back to the office. Switch on the computer. Of course not, grab a pen and paper. Work out how to make a time portal of my own. I turned away. I’d have to find a way to make all the components myself, but with luck I would. Even if I had to source all the parts from scratch. After all, you make your own luck. Starting with a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder.
Captain turned and dived under the waves. Just us on the beach. Charlie had been wrong about one thing. And I was right. We’d ended up with two. I looked up at the lighthouse. On high, the light pulsed, sending out signals. ‘Home. Stay. Home.’ And I would, for now, but I knew I’d never be lonely again.
I stand on the beach at the edge of the rocks. The new Assistant Keeper steps off the boat. She puts out her hand. I grab it and pull her onto the sand. ‘Welcome to Waymark Reef, Patricia,’ I say. ‘Good to meet you.’
‘Call me Trish. I’m looking forward to working with you, Charlotte. Or is it Lottie?’
I shake my head. ‘Call us Charlie.’
Judith Field lives in England. Her non-fiction has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the UK and her fiction, mainly speculative, has been published in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Anne Carly Abad received the Poet of the Year Award in the 2017 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. She has also received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. Her work has appeared in Apex, Mythic Delirium, and Polu Texni, to name a few. She continues to write in between managing her business and taking care of her mischievous 2-year old son.
Editor’s Notes: NEET is an acronym that stands for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” It refers to a person who is unemployed, not in school or vocational training. The classification of a person as NEET was first used in the United Kingdom, but its use has spread to other countries and regions, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and the United States.
The wolf image, “Side Step” (by Tatchit on deviantART) is impressed on a forest with a Little Red Riding Hood (from Fondos de pantalla y mucho más (muñecas infantiles))
Robin Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Roanoke Review. He is a graduate student and professor at Adelphi University pursing an MFA in Creative Writing. He is the Editor at Large for Village of Crickets and Social Media Coordinator for Oyster River Pages. He is an out and proud bisexual transgender man passionate about LGBT issues. He loves poetry that lilts in and out of reality and his queerness is also the central axis of his work.
Editor’s Notes: The image is a collage of a basket made by the Karen people in Northern Thailand (1986, Ethnological Museum, Berlin), an enhanced skeletal hand (Cool Silh), and a Celtic sword.
Only through time time is conquered. —“Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot
The captain knows the map that shows The dappled flows is not the sea; No bark may pass the darkling glass To mark the vast reality. But mastmen, hark—far past the sharks, A last dim spark still glimmers free To close the gap for those entrapped In throes of captive curvity.
“O let us swear the tread the air And dread that fairest god, the sky— We’ll kneel and pray to steel or clay, Or deal with fay-lords passing by. The grey unyielding daily wheel Has made us real but leeched us dry; For shares of bread and careless beds, We’ll bare our heads to any lie.”
Transcendence burns in men who yearn To rend and spurn all but the stars; The same who seek became too weak To aim for peaks where seraphs are. The secret flame will speak the names Of meeker game, who cross the bar To turn and wend diurnal bends Till journey’s end—however far.
— James Blaise Toner
James Blaise Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He’s published Hyperions with Quail Bell, Sunlight Press, Dappled Things, Aphelion, and Tales from the Moonlit Path.
Editor’s Notes: The Hyperion, a form developed by the poet, has three stanzas with eight lines each, and each line has eight syllables (specifically iambic tetrameter). Rhyming occurs at every 4th syllable, and each letter signifies that rhyme: aaaxbbbxcccxdddx.
The constellation, Argo, image (by Grant Boudin and Vita Technology) is combined with an angel image (InspiredImages from Pixabay).
They call it the Cairn. According to map and High Command, my Station covers over four days of blasted desert and rock. The only things living out here seem to be the whip-vine, red-heels, and me. No Raider activity yet and my escort, a dwarven ox-driver name Reinhardt, assures me there will not be any. I know I should be grateful. This Station is a mercy after all, but I can only confess on paper the very notion makes my blood boil. I am a scout. Instead of riding the wind or cutting trails, I am tethered to this Station like a mad dog to a post. I will do my best to stay positive. Einhardt’s disposition is going to make that quite the challenge.
Einhardt insists on low fires. Felt like arguing with him about the need since he insisted on little Raider activity. He is strange even for a dwarf, and it is not my place to judge. His kind have never waged Brotherly War, never killed and mutilated each other by generations. Einhardt is not much for any sort of conversation anyway. Each night we make camp he is quick to uncork a jug and drain it. Even if I were not an elf, I imagine he would still keep his distance. There is good reason his people stick to the mountains separating our realm from the Cairn. From what I have gathered over this short time together, he has been gray-haired since birth, an ox driver for half his years, and he snores. I wonder if Einhardt’s coarse life is to become my own over time at my Station. If yes, forgive me All Mother for thinking so, then those bastards should have killed me back on the battlefield after having their fun.
The orc stops to let his worn lungs rest. Each breath stokes the dying embers in his chest, giving him strength to push on just a little more. Each heartbeat drives a dagger further into his chest. This momentary resting spot becomes camp. The orc observes it from a flat rock. The floor beneath the steep overhang is smooth and soft. Lash berry grows along the perimeter. A crevice in the side of the ridge makes for good storage. At least it will once the strength returns to his limbs. It is a good camp. If death is coming, he can think of no better place to find it than the Wasting Way. Where else than a place where sky and earth are stained blood-red?
The orc’s back howls in pain as he lies down upon the rock, but he remains silent. His sword arm grows heavy. His fingers no longer dance around the grip in the nimble fashion of a younger orc. They too cry out in pain at the Cold Twist that assaults his joints.
A blackbird soars overhead in the heat. It is no more than a speck at first, but it flies down towards the earth with a song. It lands atop a lash berry shrub and pauses its song to eat. The orc locks eyes with this harbinger of death, its gold eyes strangely like his own. In that gaze the orc sees the Hag was right to send him away.
He approaches the lash berry shrub but the bird refuses to yield. The orc envies the little bird’s bravery. He plucks a berry from the shrub and shares some with his death warrant. The taste is soft and sweet like cool water from atop a mountain. The blackbird sings its song anew. Then it stops and tilts its head at the orc. The orc listens. Hoof beats, faint and muffled in the stifling heat. He is not so alone it seems.
Einhardt is not much for goodbyes. He offered me one chance to come back with him to the mountains. He promised me dwarven hospitality would be more gracious than anything out here. He might be right, but after my refusal he gave me a grunt and left. He is not doing his people many favors acting that way.
My command at this Station is simple and direct: Investigate, track, and report any Raider activity should they take the Brotherly War as an advantage to move against the southern settlements. If Raider forces are observed, signal north and await reinforcements. All Mother, can they not say anything short? In my own words, I believe these orders mean I am on my own. The signal fire is nothing but an old cauldron filled with solid oil fats. I do not think anyone outside of a day’s ride could see it. If that is the case, I do pray Einhardt is right about no Raider activity. If anything is encountered, this Station will make for a poor defense.
It is really just a gated enclosure surrounding the main building and a single dawn hut. To the east of me is a rocky hillside with plenty of places to hide. To the south, nothing but more red rocks giving way to a ridged tree-line. Beyond that I cannot say what remains. I am left with my own provisions and a single horse bought before leaving the dwarven market. The old gelding is difficult to ride, stubborn to feed, and generally in a foul mood. Does not seem to mind the surroundings much. Wish we shared that trait. I will scout the ridge once the Station is secured to my standards.
Cannot stand this quiet. I hear nothing more than chirping insects and the wind, but still wake covered in sweat. My hands can barely hold this quill, never mind draw a bow. Dawn is well ahead still, but I can write by lantern. But, must try to rest and Einhardt did warn me about low fires.
Daylight now. The pen for my horse is still in a sorry state of repair. Supplies left for me by the previous command hardly amount to much. I will do my best to make do. The horse will have to make do being tied to a post. It does give me more reason to scout the ridge. Some of the lumber there must be half-decent.
Damned Red-Heels! Found them slithering all over the horse’s hooves. I kicked them away before any could bite my only mode of transport. They could not wound me through my boots, but one gave a good try. Felt the leather pinch my toes. Must bring back lumber tomorrow.
The lizards don’t make much of a meal, but the orc cannot let his strength run dry. Their red scales make them tricky to find in the sand, but the orc’s keen sense of smell and quick hands aid him as his sight fails. He cooks them on a bundle of kindling scraped from the trees at his back. Four sizzle and spit over the fire, hissing like they still live. The smell almost tricks the orc into thinking he is back home in his brother’s house. Sounds of earthenware and drinking horns clinking together materialize out of the desert wind. The blackbird’s chirps and whistles become the bustle and conversation of his people. The wind dies, and the orc remembers where he is and why.
The lizards’ greasy bodies slide down his gullet. The meager contents of his pack are all set away in their proper place. His oilskin hangs beneath the lash berry to catch fruit and dew. He prepares a bed on the sandy ground beneath the rock overhand. His sword is easily secured between the rocks so it is ready when the Hag’s prophecy comes to pass. The red sky is dotted with silver light. He counts the stars, finds the signs taught to him by his mothers and sisters. There is the Harbinger, ax at ready. Then he sees The Matron nourishing his people from her breast. There is the cluster of stars towards the south his brother always called The Stepping Stones, leading them home again.
The orc’s heart grows heavy. There is no more laughter and conversation in his brother’s house. Home is empty as the Wasting Way. The silence of this place is a greater foe than the orc has ever faced. So, he sings songs passed from father to son, brother to brother, and elder to young. The blackbird even joins in on a few. The words and verse echo amongst the stones of his camp, like he is back with his people again. The old songs make him young in a way.
The winds shift. Something wicked flies with it: smoke and scorched leather. This is no cooking fire like he deduced last night with his mind still half-drunk with sleep. The orc climbs his overhang again and settles on his haunches. To the north, the wooded ridge. The steepest part descends into the basin and the lowest rocks form his camp. Nothing that way, nothing of consequence at least. He senses another presence with the north winds. The northeast though, even with dwindling eyesight he can see the smoke rise against the cruel sky. The Harbinger’s ax-head points that way. Trouble.
The orc lies down, rests his scarred head on gnarled hands. He counts, scans. Nothing moves across the Wasting Way. Night is descending swiftly and he doubts his strength. He studies the smoke. It can wait to tomorrow. The bodies burning in the fire aren’t going anywhere.
Having trouble keeping eyes open. Been awake nearly a day-and-a-half with nothing but work in between. If I run out of ink, I could use the blood from my fingers. Everything in the Cairn is sharper than the executioner’s ax. From those red-heels, the plants, the rocks, even the wind is like a dagger in my face.
No Raider activity.
Smoke towards east. I could see it from the ridge. Possibly Einhardt but more pressing priorities remain. Firstly, securing my camp. Do not believe I am alone here. The horse made an easy time of navigating the rocky terrain up the ridge. A small path just on one side of my Station helped. It got so narrow at one point I needed to dismount and walk the horse the rest of the way. Could hardly move on either side, but the animal behaved admirably. Only when we made the other side of the ridge, he smelled something he did not like.
The ridge to the south curves out into the Cairn like a hook. The basin extends all the way back to the mountain range. From this vantage point, I spotted a lone traveler on foot advancing towards the smoke. When I tried pressing my horse further, the animal refused to budge. The closest I could get was the basin’s edge.
From the tracks, they’re too tall and large for an elf or a dwarf. Not a Raider I would assume, but nothing can be certain. Gathered what felled wood I could find and hauled it back to the Station. My horse was eager to oblige.
Security is now chief concern. A trench already ran around the north end of camp, but after a good half day’s work it is deeper and extends completely across to the hillside. Reinforced doors with timber. All food stuffs will remain in here with me. Whip-vine thorns block nearly all ways in and out. Might be drastic, but the figure and smoke in the distance tell me to prepare for the worst.
The orc knows an ambush when he sees it. Scorched flesh hovers in the air and cuts through the dwindling smoke. Only a bare frame of the wagon still smolders in the dirt. The rest is reduced to ash and ground down by hoof and foot. He can still trace the pattern of attack easily enough. The wheel ruts tell the story. Among the sandstone pillars in this rough canyon were a handful of good archers. Flaming arrows spook the wagon team, rushing them forward into the box before the driver can think. They run scared directly into the rest of the attackers waiting with swords and axes at ready. The orc can’t judge the attackers too harshly. It’s exactly what he would do.
The driver’s fate is another matter. The orc is no stranger to death, but this one shakes his heart. The remains of the dwarf, at least the pieces not burnt, are already being picked clean by the lizards. The damnable things seem to be everywhere. He can’t be sure if they took his eyes out after he was dead or his attackers did it to him alive. The orc knows lizards couldn’t cut a body open and shovel burning coals inside though. Lizards have no need to send a message. Whoever did this made their point clear enough: Stay out.
Light horse tracks surround the carnage. They circle the wagon, stop at two piles of blood and gore. They butchered, dressed, and packed away the oxen before leaving. Whoever they were, the orc doesn’t think they were in a hurry. From there the hoof prints lead back out towards the Wasting Way, southwest of his own route back to camp. From here, there is no sign of the basin. The ridge camouflages the whole area as just another mountain range easier to go around than over.
Tracks crisscross the dirt. No more than ten or twelve riders by the sign. A single pair of hoof prints lead off from the rest directly for the ridge. The orc wonders what kind of warrior would break away from the rest of his party. The orc grunts, takes another sniff of the air. Wherever they left to, it leads directly back towards his new home, the camp where he is to meet his end. The Hag’s words come back to him now:
“Your time is ending. No brother, no kin, no name. The scarred line of your name must end. Seek your death far from us.”
Death drew unclean things. No one could doubt that looking at the corpse of the dwarf. The orc left his name and tribe behind for that very reason. Now it seems the Wasting Way held true to the Hag’s words. Death had been found amongst the red rock. Lizards scatter from beneath the corpse. The orc ignores them. He gives what rights he can to the dead. Dwarven tongue is something beyond him, but he assumes they cannot all be savages. Then the orc is back across the Wasting Way, swifter and with another kind of fire burning in his chest.
The rider whoops with glee into the night air. His newly acquired horse races across the desert. The protests and threats of the horse’s original owner fade into the rushing darkness behind him. The animal is not too agreeable with the new rider at first, but his harsh spurs and tight hands on the reins bring it to compliance. His brother will know how to properly break in the animal. It is an old horse, but with a strong spirit. The rider is so sure his brother will be pleased, and so bursting with pride, he doesn’t see the giant shadow leap down from a nearby boulder. He flies from the saddle into the dirt flat on his back. Pain like a great mountain sits atop his lungs. The shadow lumbers forward to meet him.
I am a fool. Sergeant-at-arms would have me drug from my scouting unit for this. Drifted off to sleep after making reinforcements, but did not bring horse inside. Travel kit is also gone along with a few provisions. Thief made a quick escape off to the northeast. Signs only point to one person. Not the giant from the day before. Too small and too sly. That means multiple hostiles, but I shall worry about one after dealing with the other. Leaving this message should I not return. Heading off on foot in northerly direction to maybe overtake the thief at the entrance to the basin. I need my horse to serve this Station.
High Command was right in sending me out here. Only they should have sent me and another eight or ten swords. Cannot blame them for not wanting anyone else under my command. My horse came back of its own accord last night. Nearly ran directly into its flank as I stumbled about in the dark. Saddle was intact, but bloodied. My kit and provisions are gone.
Tracking from horseback was difficult but necessary to cover more ground. Came upon the remains of the thief. Something severed his head clean from his body. Then whoever it was made off with it. From the body I guess it was a young man. A Raider I assume. They have no cohesive uniform or Station as far as I can recall from our records, but rather run in several ragtag groups. I suppose his tribe or party will come looking for him.
I believe the giant from the basin is responsible for this death. The tracks look similar to the ones from the ridge. Whatever they used to sever the Raider’s head worked clean. The spine looks cut easy as goat butter.
Double-timed it back to the Station. The trench now circles almost everything at the front of the Station House. The rock wall on the rear negates digging it any deeper. The horse gets his own pen now, and that is protected by the trench. Anyone looking to grab my only transport this next time will get a stake through their neck. Another long day.
An elf. He didn’t believe it at first. So far south, they hadn’t ventured this far in his lifetime, but the orc sniffs the air and is certain of it now. An elf. She has clearly walked the Warrior’s Way. Violence is written across her arms, back, from the ragged ends where her ears used to be to the patchwork of scars across her shaved head. After reading the story cut across her body, the orc debates his next move. He loathes resting amongst the rocks and shrubs like one of the lizards. One crawls across the ground towards him. It rests on one hand, hisses a challenge, but the orc ignores it.
Her preparations are worthwhile. He doesn’t think the trench will do much good. A canyon like this one, anyone coming will make too much noise on horseback. Traveling on foot, they will certainly notice the trench. Everything else looks admirable though. Even the placement of this post is wise. With a rock wall at her back and one side, the elf will be hard to sneak up on. The orc can’t creep closer down the hillside. The narrow pathway and boulders would trap him like fish in a net. The ridge will have to be close enough.
The orc grumbles. Can’t get close, and even if he does the elf will probably put an arrow through his chest. This is a foolish errand. His own brother would tell him so, but the orc never liked leaving anything to chance. The rider last night had been a scrawny boy with barely any soul to swing a sword. Good with a knife, the orc gives the boy that much. His shoulder still throbs from the freshly bandaged wound. He didn’t bother asking questions, sword and knife did for words and the conversation ended rather quickly. The boy couldn’t be from this camp. The elf doesn’t seem the type, even from this distance, to willingly accept foolish, over-brave, young ones into her command. If the boy had been more like her, maybe his head wouldn’t be on a spike back at the orc’s camp.
The lizard hisses again and bites the orc’s callused thumb. He grimaces, bares his tusks, and the lizard makes a hasty retreat. Not hasty enough. The orc snaps its neck and continues his observation.
If the boy didn’t come from here, the orc guesses his people are out somewhere amidst the Wasting Way. Which leaves both him and the elf alone against them. One warrior alone in the Wasting Way against ten or more swords, the outcome is grim any way the orc thinks it through. The elf could hold out in her camp for a good while, but the Hag used to caution that even water cut through stone with enough time. However many others are out there, they will keep on the attack as long as it takes. The boy was a fool, but his people will not repeat his mistake.
The orc takes in the elf’s camp again. She is digging a fresh well closer to the main building. The orc nods silent agreement. No doubt her provisions are stored inside. Anyone coming for a fight will certainly get one here. Still, he wouldn’t make a stand here for all the songs, praises, and prizes in the tribe. At least not alone. The thought comes and goes to him swift as the wind. Two warriors against many. That could be a different song all together.
The orc normally wouldn’t imagine standing back to back with an elf. The way his father and mothers told it, the elf was not a hardy race. He knows the elf are like seed pods. They flit and float from place to place, landing only long enough to make a quick settlement before spreading out for more. His people fought hers over land and settlements long before either of them drew breath. The world thought the orc’s people brutish vagabonds, but the orc knows his kind are different. This elf in the camp though, she too is different. This one walks like she has already died. The orc knows the blank face well. He wore such a face that night the Hag sent him on his way.
Another lizard crawls out from the nearest rock to inspect its dead brethren. The orc rolls over to stare at the barren sky and thinks. An idea comes to him.
Somebody put chopped wood and fresh meat on the outer perimeter. They know enough to avoid the trench. The red-heels could be from anywhere, but the wood is certainly from the ridge. Portions of the tree line are missing. Not Raiders then. The only one nearby is in no position to do anything ever again. I suspect the giant from the other side of the ridge. Should take this as a friendly sign. I believe this is their way of saying hello.
Decided to leave a small token in return by the perimeter. I have extra stores of brandy and tea. This will be a small sacrifice on my part. Not keen on making friends, but out here any friendly relation should be cultivated. Until Einhardt arrives with resupply or reinforcements, there’s nothing else to be done. This other party seems to be reaching out and it will pay to make inroads while I can.
Another early morning. The brandy and tea are gone.
The dried herb smells nice. The orc places a little on his tongue, but the crumbly mixture sticks to his mouth like potter’s clay. The dark liquid, he imagines it might be medicine, is far worse. A small whiff singes his nostrils and for a while he can smell little else. He takes a small sip, spits it out, and watches in awe as flames spout out of his small cooking fire. He sprinkles a little more onto a branch and holds the torch aloft to the evening. The dark liquid is both awful and wonderful. It feels like a burning coal when he applies it to his wounded shoulder, but the orc recognizes the value. He stores it in a safe place.
The orc is dressing and skinning a few more lizards, a small price to pay for such odd things from the elf, when the smell comes. At first there is only the warm tang of blood in the air, but a high wind comes from north hot and coarse with the sand. It scrapes and cuts away the wild smell of blood. Others are coming. He douses his crackling fire but knows it is too late. The rider’s people, there is only one light they could have seen across the Wasting Way. The Station is well-hidden behind its rock wall. The orc does not mind.
First there is the smell, dust rising to meet him, and then he can even hear the hoof beats rapidly approaching. Thunder booms in the dirt. They reek of musty earth and hard-pressed sweat. Less than a day’s ride off. If they want vengeance for their fallen rider, they will not stop to rest. The orc stands, takes in a mighty lungful of air. They are near but he will be ready. The time is near, he feels it like the hooves in the earth. He sings his death song.
Another gift from my neighbor. We seem to be building a mutual partnership. This time it is more prepped red-heels and a bunch of whip-vine fruit. The red-heels make favorable salt meat, but the whip-vine fruit smells like carrion. The dark juice will work nicely as paint or ink if I ever run out of either.
No sign of Einhardt. Some possible sign of activity to the Northeast, but hard to be sure. The only thing I can be certain of is that this back-and-forth will eventually need an end. Better I initiate it. Scout training is hard to ignore: If confrontation is needed, make confrontation on your terms.
Tomorrow I will head back towards the wooded ridge. If my theory is true, I should find the giant just beyond the tree line. Hopefully things go well.
They come at dusk, swinging west from their route and flanking the camp with the sun at their back. The camp is deserted. The fire pit glows, but the rock overhang is empty and the sandy floor beneath it lies undisturbed. The Leader brings his horse and those of his men behind to a snarling, snorting halt. Foam and spit clings to the panting animals’ lips.
Leader barks orders to a smaller, older man. Little Man and a younger, one-eyed raider dismount ahead of the others. One-Eye draws a sword, Little Man follows unarmed, but his hands hover above several short spears dangling from his belt. Leader remains atop his horse, surveying the surroundings. The cruel, iron spurs on his heels sing out an eerily happy tune in the dry evening.
The orc decides to try for Little Man. His face is scarred and hardened by warfare like the elf’s. Little Man is older and moves slower than One-Eye, but he was obviously keen enough to keep both his eyes. The orc leaps off the overhang, sword lifted, bellowing out a war cry, and his face painted in fearsome red. It is the way his people enter battle, shaking sky and earth to conquer the enemy’s will before claiming their life. It is the weapon the orc and others before him used to carved out a mighty kingdom. It is a foolish.
Before he can descend and land a killing blow, Little Man flings a short spear from his belt into the orc’s shoulder. It punches through bone and sinew clean out to the other side. Little Man yanks back and hauls the orc to the floor like a catch of fish. Leader remains atop his spooked horse. None of the other Raiders move, but some rise from their saddles in anticipation. Little Man readies another spear. One-Eye comes close, sword ready. The orc lies on the ground and bleeds. One-Eye steps closer. Leader shouts a warning, but it comes too late.
One giant, green hand clamps across One-Eye’s ankle. The orc squeezes till bones grind together between his fingers and palm. One-Eye tumbles to the ground, great plumes of dust rise in the struggle, clouding Little Man’s vision. Leader orders his other men forward. More red clouds of dust shoot up when they charge ahead. A brilliant, blue eye like a moonstone from the Hag’s runes stares at the orc through this rising wall of red dust. It is a single eye. He stamps it out with one thumb. One-Eye shrieks and thrashes beneath the orc. The orc lets him stand, watches him flail, then fall back down again on his ruined ankle.
Some horses spook and throw their riders to the ground alongside One-Eye, but Leader stays steady. The orc jumps to his feet amid the growing chaos. The first Raider that passes him falls to the ground with a broken neck. Then a second spear slices into the orc’s thigh. Every nerve inside bursts into flame. Little Man throws this rope to Leader, who secures it to his saddle. Little Man tightens his grip on the rope connected to the orc’s shoulder. The orc roars out, but his strength his sapped and he is drug into submission. The remaining Raiders take turns kicking him and pummeling him with their bare fists, but nothing outshines the pain from the spears on other end of his body. Blood pools around him, turning the red earth into scarlet mud.
The ropes slacken and the orc is lifted to his feet. Now Leader dismounts. The youngest Raider, a boy with sandy hair, takes hold of the reins. Leader’s spurs continue their merry music as he walks up to face the orc. Leader looks his catch over. His breath smells worse than the elf’s brandy. The Dark Speech is tattooed from the corner of his mouth to his ear. The veins around it pulse with sickly blue blood. Leader sniffs him. He spits.
“Orc.” The orc recognizes the world. He’s heard it enough times in hatred and anger to know its meaning. “One orc takes three of our own,” Leader growls. The orc growls in return, Leader studies him like dung caught on the heel of his boot. One-Eye cries out for help. He crawls across the sandy floor beneath the overhang.
“Leave them to the Waste,” Leader declares. Little Man nods. He draws two more spears in one hand and gets to work.
My choices are either fight or flee. Not sure which is the best option. Time in the Cairn leaves ample time for thought. I think about what would have happened if I had come to the giant’s camp sooner. But giant is not the right word anymore. Orc. I have finally seen one up close.
Thank the All Mother I brought my horse. It took several tries to find the camp from horseback. It is cleverly tucked beneath a rocky cliff facing the Northeast. It offers a whole other view of the Cairn. Maybe if I found it sooner the orc wouldn’t be so close to the end now. Maybe we would both be dead. Might be just as well. He will probably perish by nightfall.
The Raiders meant to leave him as a warning. Even as just bones it would have made for quite a sight. Staked and drawn like an animal at a skinning camp. Red-Heels bit off pieces of his feet. The only thing that kept him alive was the very torture the Raiders inflicted on him. With his arms pinned up, the flow of blood was slowed. Others were not so lucky.
Two dead Raiders at the camp as well, three if I count the missing head. There was a bloody pike in camp. They must have taken the head with them. Perhaps the Raiders do care for and bury their dead? If they do, it is a selective process. One Raider lay in the dirt with a crushed throat. The other lay beneath the overhang curled up like a child. The spear wound in his chest did not match any weapon I found at the camp. Blinded in both eyes, one recently gouged out. That I count for the orc.
My new charge weighs close to a boulder. Green all over, but not the terrifying, green lamplight our people speak of. Green like grass grown wild in the hills. Hair, what’s left of it, is black as the whip-vine juice. He is savage. I have three bodies to prove it. It’s the teeth that made them the horrors of our people and campfire tales. They look like something from a wild animal’s jaws. My horse does not much care for the smell of him. Getting the orc back to camp was a chore all its own. The damned horse cried and whinnied nearly half the trip back. Although, I am now confident the Raiders are no longer near. Anyone nearby could have heard my retreat.
It’s been two days and no sign of the Raiders. If they return, they will eventually discover the orc’s camp empty and make a search. How long till they find me here is debatable. Their motives and actions are clear enough. They will aim to finish what they started and will include me in their plans. All I can do is what I have done for the last two days: prepare defense and think of praying. Only following one action now. The second may come later.
The orc died in his sleep. His breath faltered and stopped. If I had not been keeping watch, he might have stayed dead. Basic training came to immediately. I forced nearly all my shoulder into his chest to bring about a coughing fit. When it finally worked, the orc gasped in a lungful of air so vast it about suffocated me.
He does not care for the brandy compresses I force on him. He curls his lips like a hound. The guttural speech even sounds similar to a dog clamped onto a bone. Still, they help him gain his breath back and he seems to understand.
He watches me as I write even this. I hope he cannot understand me. If he knew how I failed my scouts, what was done to me, why I am really out this way, he would certainly flee such a disastrous soul. He might not like knowing he was dead for a short time either.
Some progress being made between me and the orc. He heals fast and is already walking again. He tries to hide his pain, but sometimes cannot help wincing. The grimace is hard to ignore through all the tusks and teeth.
With a little trouble, I convinced him to help me split some wood and draw canvas for a few more dawn huts. It forces him to work with me. I hope that in doing so, the last of the trouble between us will dry up. Time will tell.
We have developed a rudimentary way of communication. Mainly consists of etchings in the dirt by the fire and hand signals. It is a child’s way, but it is all we have. He tells me quite a bit about the Cairn just through these drawings. The ridge separating our two camps seems to stretch nearly all the way back to the mountains themselves, but curving away so sharply so as to trick the eye.
It explains the Raiders’ absence. If they rode on past the orc’s camp due south, they would go a long ways before realizing the short way around actually lies behind them to the East. When they do, it will not be long before we meet them. The Raiders could number anywhere from ten to fifteen. I cannot be entirely sure of the orc’s count, but he gives the matter healthy thought before answering. If I light the signal fire, it will bring them right down on top of us before any help can arrive. No one will help us. When I drew a glyph of a dwarven ox and cart, the orc shook his head and wiped the image away with a weight upon his heart. Words for now seem unnecessary.
The idiot will not stop looking at my ears. He does it every time I busy myself on the other side of the Station. Hard not to notice him. He has about all the subtlety of a bear and tread like an ox. Earlier today I swear he almost made a move to touch what remains of my ears. If he tries it again, I will succeed where those damned Raiders failed.
The nightfall brought chills. They scratched and bit. His bed on the floor was soaked through with sweat the first night. Now, the orc feels nothing of the kind. The fire crackles nearby, kissing his skin with welcome warmth. A feeling not quite like home, but close enough to soothe his spirit, falls over him while he looks up into the shadows among the rafters. The orc gets up and walks outside.
The wounds in his leg and shoulder still throb with each step, but his gait goes easier now. When his arm refuses to cry out in pain at being lifted above his head, the orc fights to control a gleeful shout. The elf needs her sleep. While he has been resting, she toils in the camp. Even in the dim starlight, he can see how much the place has changed since his last sight of it. The trench is wide, the rock wall cleared of any brush that might hide an arrow. The pen is finished now too. The orc steps up to the wooden railing. The horse steps back but does not kick and scream. The orc can’t help noticing the worn hide and ragged mane of the animal. It is the color of smoke from a wet fire. Weak, but still alive. The orc steps away.
The stars observe the orc’s wounds as he stands naked in the night. A single thought echoes within him on his long walk to the ridge. He should have died. The Hag is always sure. Her pronouncements are never to be questioned or challenged. To do so would mean an early exile, shaming the faces of his family. Only the orc knows that is no longer a concern. He thinks of his brother, his father, mothers, sisters. All gone beyond to their own journey, the one to take alone. He wonders if they all passed their test and found strong enough alone to be held among many. A chill washes over the orc and he wonders no more.
Rock, sand, and lash berry attack his bare feet. The orc pays it no mind. Pain both old and new fog over his senses. The elf floats across the ground silently enough to catch him unaware. The arrowhead whispers against his neck light and soft as a leaf. The tension of the bowstring trembles in time with the orc’s heartbeat. The elf’s too he imagines. The orc stops walking. They stand still for a moment in the dark.
The elf speaks, “What are you doing?” The orc cannot understand her words, but imagines what he would ask of someone found wandering naked in the dark. He sighs and his breath becomes a cloud before him. When he turns the arrowhead rests against his throat. His hunter’s eyes fall on her flat and dead as river stones. He leans into the arrowhead and warm blood winds down his neck.
She lowers the bow and waves back towards camp. “Come on.”
The elf gives him a hide blanket. The Hag always teased the children for being elves when they covered themselves at the river. On that the orc guesses she was right. The elf is strange, but she did invite him into her home. The orc covers himself and sits across from her by the fire. His eyes go wide when the elf boils water and dumps the dried herbs into it. The sweet smell is almost choking in the small space. When the elf hands him a mug, he burns his tongue. The elf smiles. The smile is hard to place amongst the scars.
She draws a shelter in the dirt by the fire. Then come two figures, one slim as a willow branch holding a bow. The other shaped rather like a boulder wielding a great sword the orc recognizes. They shift and dance in the firelight like living beings. They flee from the shelter in the direction of the elf’s finger. She walks her hand across the dirt towards scratched mountains. The orc considers this idea and sips his tea. Now it tastes sweet as flowers on his tongue. The elf arranges a curved line of rocks between the figures and the mountains. On the other side she scratches out men on horseback.
“I was an archer,” she says as she draws, “A good one if my sergeant-at-arms is to be believed. Not quite so sure myself. But, I could hit a moving target alright.”
The orc counts the figures on horseback. He adds three more. Twelve now wait across the ridge. They draw back imaginary bows and charge their little encampment. The orc flicks his ears. His eyes go to hers. The scarred bunches of flesh on either side of her face go redder than the fire. They look like the rough ground of the Wasting Way. A thought dashes through the orc’s mind, but the elf covers her ears with her hood and the thought is gone. But she cannot hide the scars across her face and hands.
“Got captured.” She swallows. “Always was careful, me and my scouts. It’s a border war though. The Brotherly War. Like fights like.” The orc sips his tea. A night bird cries out.
“It’s a hard thing, sneaking up on an elf, never thought of it that way until after. When they caught me, they must’ve found it easier to do what they did if I didn’t look like them. So, they made me look like something else.”
She grabs a bottle of brandy and takes a deep swallow. She offers the bottle to the orc. He frowns and covers his mouth. The elf pours some into his near-empty teacup instead. He sniffs the mug, tries some, and the elf cannot help laughing at his scrunched up face. The orc does his best to approximate a laugh of his own, a throaty woof from deep in his throat. She drinks some more from the bottle and the bitter liquid seems to bring her back.
“Everybody thought I was dead. Until I fought my way back, I felt sure I was dead.” The elf shakes her head. “Guess I’m still dead.” The fire nearly leaps out of floor when the orc throws his spiked tea into it. The elf watches the flames, an idea forming within them.
The orc leans forward to wipe away the two running figures. He fumbles with the foreign tongue. On several tries, his teeth trip his tongue. It finally stumbles out, but the meaning remains clear.
“Dead. Both dead.”
I think it is almost time. Saw dust trails coming from the south on our last trip up to the ridge. It must be the Raiders. They have discovered their error and are correcting course. The shortest way around the ridge will bring them straight through to the Station. The orc and I can communicate well enough now, and he agrees. Two days of fletching and making preparations. Preparations, it feels like the only thing I have done since coming here. All I have ever done since surviving my imprisonment is prepare for this fight. I do not know whether that gives my heart strength or saps it.
The work puts the orc and I in the same company now. We are a unit of two against twelve swords. We are both wounded soldiers, and I believe we both know how this will end. The only question is when.
All-Mother, I am exhausted. I wonder if I can manage to draw my bow when the time comes. Today was all hauling buckets of red mud and painting it across canvas. The orc has become quite skilled with the wood ax and carries it with him. We have laid out our plan. Many variables in it, but I must admit it fills me with a spark I thought long gone by now. I have a purpose. Memories cannot help but come back to me now. I like to think the old unit would approve of my actions and this plan. They never were avenged. I have never said it to anyone, but I can write it here for someone to find afterward:
I only thought of myself. When escape presented itself, I took the chance. Maybe now things can be different for my unit now. It might be time to even the scales
Now is the day. It gives me a heavy heart to let my horse go. The old gelding has been nothing but trouble since my arrival, and I have only ridden him a few times. He has also been a constant companion, and I cannot bear losing an animal to the fight that is coming. Like always, the horse refused to do as he was told. After enough rough encouragement, he took to the ridge when I let him out of the pen. The horse gave my orc friend a short snort on the way.
Dust trails to the east of the ridge, nearly parallel with our camp. Must make sure they see us. Signal fire is lit. The orc is singing atop the hill across camp. Cannot call it a cheery tune, or much of a tune for that matter. They will hear it and see our fire. It is time.
They do not come charging through. Caution and order are the words of the wise and living. Anger and bloodlust fueled them when they fought the orc and gave them strength. It also clouded their judgement and forced them on an unnecessary trek across harsh ground. Now Leader has full control of his men.
He brings half of them from the front. On the rocky hillside to the left come Little Man and the remaining half. Little Man is almost twice over Leader’s age but moves silently as a lion among the rocks. He serves as a good reminder to the others that a survivor is more important than a warrior.
The Station is deserted. Leader, still mounted, directs five men forward, keeping the sandy-haired boy close at hand. They search the empty pen. The dawn hut holds little more than farm tools and a muddy bucket. The Raiders advance upon the Station House itself with caution. It is a wide structure. The front door swings in the wind. The first Raider advances from the side, ax and dagger at ready. He is so keen on conflict, he never notices the tripwire in the doorway. Neither does he notice the basket hanging above. Even Little Man’s keen eyes are too late.
Before anyone can shout a mere warning, the Raider catches the wire. The basket overhead turns over, jostling the red-heels inside awake. They pour out, hissing angrily, and immediately clamp down onto the first place they land. The Raider rushes out of the doorway, one eye bursting out from between a lizard’s teeth, the fresh bites on his face already turning purple. The hissing and screaming blur together.
Leader’s horse snorts and nearly tosses him as it rears back from the sight. A quick jerk on the reins brings the animal to heel. Leader’s men on the ground with him are not so easily calmed. Foam flies from the bitten Raider’s mouth as he bleats in pain. Another Raider steps forward to help in some way. Something bright flits out from the Station’s doorway. The flaming arrow streaks through the air, whining like an angry insect, and plants squarely in the approaching Raider’s heart.
He drops to the ground and the bitten Raider falls with him. A second burst of light from within the Station. Heat ripples the air by Leader’s face as the second arrow streaks by. This time the horse does throw him to the ground. Despite the pain in his back, Leader smiles. They seem to have missed him. Then the arrow finds its mark. The brandy bottle hanging in the tree explodes in a vicious gust of flame.
The cool morning air comes alive with heat and pain. Glass and flames fly down as a third arrow connects with another bottle. It spreads across the dry tinder scattered across the ground. A wall of fire traps the Raiders between the Station House and the pen. Leader and his men crawl for the pen’s meager cover. His shouted orders on the ground are useless. He signals Little Man on the hill above. Arrows fly down across the Station House, but the low porch covers the doorway. After a moment, they light their own arrows and the Station House begins to burn. Little Man’s people are too busy providing support to notice the red, rocky hillside stir to life.
The orc, covered in red mud cracked and dried to match the rocks, stands up behind an unsuspecting Raider. The man can only choke out half a scream before being thrown off the hillside into the rocks below. He unwraps the wood ax from its own red-painted sheath, and goes to work on the rest.
Burning brandy splashes over Leader’s arm. He rips his jacket off and throws the burning garment down before it can spread. He blinks and barely notices the next arrow coming at him in time.
“Get around them!” He gestures to the two furthest Raiders cowering behind the fence. One has already taken an arrow in the shoulder, broken it off, and thrown it to the ground. He stands with bow drawn and receives an arrow through the eye.
“Get around!” Leader repeats himself to the remaining man. He takes hold of the boy and shoves him towards the other Raider. “Go!” They crawl through the dust towards the side of the Station House.
The battle atop the hill is in a pitched rage. Two more bodies fly down to the rocks, bloodied and broken. The orc howls in fury and charges the next Raider. The Raider feints, draws a short sword from his sleeve and slashes it across the orc’s arm. Blood meets red earth. The orc connects the blunt end of the ax with the Raider’s face, knocking him against the rock wall. Little Man stands away, readying short spears from his belt. The orc grabs the fallen Raider for a shield. The spears sink into the Raider’s back. The orc advances on Little Man. He throws the body forward.
Little Man stumbles, but regains his footing easily. They stand for a moment, taking each other’s measure. Little Man is unlike those recently under his command. He is not dead, he is not young and foolish, and there is no fear in his eyes. He absent mindedly reaches for another spear, but only meets empty leather loops and desert air. A moment of panic flashes across his face, then it is still again. Little Man draws a cruelly-hooked dagger and hand ax from behind his back. The orc gives him a toothy grin. This is the death the Hag spoke of.
The two Raiders worm their way through the dust and sand behind the Station House to meet a bare rock wall. The screams of battle echo throughout the canyon. With no way in, they turn to leave and bring the fight back to the front. Then the rock face waves in the wind. The boy draws one finger across it and his hand comes back covered in red dust. He recognizes a blind when he sees one. His father would use such a ploy to draw prey in. He realizes too late. An arrow pierces his throat. Another flies out, sticking in the leg of the last Raider.
He calls out a warning, but nothing can be heard over the screams of the dying and the burning trees. The canvas parts. There is the Station House beyond it. The darkness inside moves and steps out into the sun. The elf stands in rags dyed pitch black with whip-vine. To the Raider, she appears as a demon spoken of by campfire light. He screams but another arrow silences him. He falls next to the boy gasping for air through his ragged throat.
The elf pulls the arrows from their bodies to refill her quiver. There is the Leader to attend to. She considers going back through the Station House to finish this with one well-placed arrow, but the smoke and growing flames block her way. The elf nocks an arrow, some sunlight glinting off the blood still sticking to the head, and goes around to the front.
Little Man whirls, strikes, falls back, and comes again. He darts like a viper among the rocks striking out at the orc’s knees and limbs with the ax, going for eyes with the dagger. Each time the orc is able to keep his opponent at bay, but he breathes harder with each attack, moves slower in each recovery. Little Man comes for him again, and the orc moves in time. The hand ax cuts across his elbow and strikes the rock beside him instead of splitting his chest open. The orc retreats back to the narrow path and throws his weapon down. Little Man jumps back, but closes in quickly. His prey is on the run it seems. The orc backs up two steps, then another. Little Man follows him into the rock arch. Nothing but bare rock meets the orc’s back. When they come close enough, Little Man goes to swing the ax, but only smashes his hand on the rock ceiling overhead. He draws back the dagger, but his elbow collides with rock instead. The orc only needs his hands.
He catches hold of Little Man easily. The fight still comes, but it is no longer about speed or cunning. Brute strength encloses Little Man’s head. Little Man slashes wildly and fights for his life, but it is no use. The orc fights like the dead. A few more cuts hardly matter. Little Man drops both his weapons when the orc smashes his skull against the rock wall. He sputters and coughs blood through broken teeth. The orc strikes again and the noise stops. An eye falls halfway out of its socket. Little Man goes still. The orc swings a final time. The skull gives way like an egg. Little Man tumbles down the rocks and joins the other dead men. The orc wipes bloody streaks across his wounded chest and roars out into the morning sky.
Leader, alone behind cover, locks eyes with the orc. A single look is enough. He rushes for the canyon mouth, hoping to catch his horse and make a swift retreat. The fire behind him has died down enough to make an escape. An arrow cuts across his shoulder. The elf, dark as midnight in her rags, readies another arrow as she rounds the Station. The orc is charging down the hillside like a storm, the wood ax back in hand. Leader dashes for the canyon.
Smoldering ground gives way into the trench and Leader falls into the earth. The snapping bone seems to quiet everything else. The elf and orc advance, ax and bow at ready. Leader lies in the red earth, his head looking off in a direction it should not be. His glazing eyes roll towards the two figures above. He tries to speak, but only a low croak emerges from his broken throat. The orc chuffs air his nose, lowers his ax. He knows an animal caught in a trap when he sees one. The elf removes her hood. Leader gasps in horror at the scarred face. Finally he manages:
The elf reaches out to her ears, but stops at the disfigurement. Leader’s last thoughts are of disappointment. Little Man was certain this was an elvish outpost after all. Leader will have some strong words for his second-in-command after taking his final ride across to the other side.
“No,” the elf says. “They made me like you.” She looses arrows till her quiver is empty again. It is an exorcism of sorts. Each arrow in Leader’s body does not always carry a name, but they do always carry a face from her past. The fire hungrily burns away everything else. Then it is done.
This will be my final entry. Raider activity encountered. Station destroyed during the final attack. Unknown at this time if other Raider parties exist in area of Station. Will attempt to locate help to the Northeast. Hope that the Brotherly War has ended so help is quick in coming. Orc encountered was killed in Raider attack. His bravery and actions should be commended.
15th Regimental Scout Assigned to Cairn Station
She closes her journal for the last time, sets it atop the charred tree stump beside the wood ax. What others, if they come at all, will make of her record does not bother her. The elf knows the author of the journal is gone along with the rest of her Scouts. They crossed over to the All-Mother’s embrace long before her, but her spirit joins them now. As for who she is now, the elf believes that in that regard they will just have to wait.
Help is coming. To the mountains in the Northeast come new dust trails. The elf guesses Einhardt’s people looking for him, or perhaps reinforcements after seeing the fire two days before. She really doesn’t care much one way or the other. The desert air stirs ash around her boots. A heavy hand falls on her shoulder. She turns and nods to the orc.
The elf doesn’t care how many lies she put in her final entry either. In a way, she knows it is the truth. The orc did die. Now they are born anew. He hands her the reins to the horse. The old gelding found refuge in the wooded ridge like the elf thought. It appears to her that the animal and her new companion have come to an understanding with each other. The horse is packed and ready. The orc does not lend her hand up into the saddle. They have come to an understanding with each other too. The orc picks up the wood ax and walks alongside the elf and the horse. They head south.
The orc hums, then the humming becomes a song in time with his gait. The elf doesn’t know the words, but she understands them just the same. The orc sings of what the Hag prophesized. He sings of death, new life, battles, and all the things that came to pass. The orc sings a death song for their old selves. She called it the Cairn, he called it the Wasting-Way, but now both orc and elf just think of it as their old life. Now they turn their backs to it and sing their song. It becomes a cheerful tune the further they leave the Station behind. The song will be sung for generations to come among the tribes of the southern border. The story will shift and change like the desert wind. Even when the two do finally pass on, they will live forever in the words. For now, a lone blackbird swirls in the rolling, hot air above and joins them in song.
Never been my favorite game of chance, Hang the Witch, but it was the only game being dealt at the Wolf’s Tooth on what would turn out to be my last night in Sever Town. And I needed to win in the worst of ways.
“You gon’ to bet, girl, or sit there like a toadstool?” The gaoler was already drunk, and pissy about his luck. He bullied a fistful of scraggly white hair, wrapping it behind one ear.
I was in as much of a hurry to take his money as he was to lose it, but could not afford any mistakes. The only thing I had left to lose was money. Everything else I’d ever possessed had been lost or stolen.
I tossed four mids into the pot. Three clanked. One spun, whirring, then finally dropped with a clunk.
Marshal Hunter was on my left, holding a small red stone up to the dim torchlight. “This stone is worth four mids,” he said, flipping it onto the plank table from between his thumb and first finger.
“Not worth two,” I said, staring at the gem with my good eye. The small crowd of onlookers hushed. The only sound in the dim room for the next few moments was the hiss of the sconce torches.
“What’d you say?” The marshal turned at the waist to face me full on.
Before I could speak, the gaoler belched. The smell of sour ale blew across the table. “Damn you if it isn’t,” he bellowed in a scratchy voice. “That stone’s worth at least four, maybe six.” He sucked back another mouthful from his flagon. A few of the men standing behind him mumbled in agreement.
I sipped my mead and lowered my eyes to my cards. “Fine. Your bet.” I lifted my head a smidge toward him, stealing a peak between my straw-colored bangs. I had three ponies and four geldings in my hand and felt more than a tad confident. But I wasn’t about to get into an argument with these two. Puppets of the Icemen, they were the new local law. Constabularies, judges, and hangmen. I knew they would not hesitate to find any way whatever to cheat me. Perhaps more.
I stole a look at the fourth person at the table, in the chair on my right. The parts of his shirt that hadn’t been covered by his butcher’s apron earlier in the day were spotted with blood. Name of Ransom. He gathered his cards into his hand and looked across the table. “Finished with the cleanup, Marshal Hunter?” His whiney voice fit his skinny frame.
“Mostly. Toom and I have five more to run out of town tomorrow.”
Toom Sherrer, the gaoler, had his mouth full of ale, but agreed vigorously, the torch light glinting off his bald dome with each nod, the ring of stringy hair swinging to and fro like a horse’s tail.
“The last of the Salander root chewers were driven out yesterday.” A polished man, this marshal. He had been the town lender before the siege. Still was, but now also the marshal. “By the end of day tomorrow we’ll have evicted all the remaining Symruites, and the last mixed-race couple. With that, the Icemen’s bidding will be done.”
“Till the next bidding,” Sherrer said. Perhaps realizing his blunder, he went back to the ale, his gaze wandering on the table.
This discussion repulsed me. I had no cock in this conflict but abhorred discrimination when it was based solely on stupidity. A crash from the kitchen presented the opportunity to change the subject.
“Men, I need to be going. Can we kindly finish this hand?” My cross-eye fluttered, tickling its socket. I did not want to be anywhere near these brutes when darkness fell. Good men lived in Sever Town at one time, but when the Icemen invaded the Northern Empire, most of the honorable ones had been called up to defend the capital. Only rogues, misfits, and the Icemen’s puppets remained.
“I’m out,” Sherrer said, thumping his cards onto the table. He eyed my mound of winnings, then the pot.
“I’ve got four mids says your luck is done for this night, girly,” the butcher said, fumbling with his pile of coins. “Still thinkin’ you can gamble your way into stakes for a smallholding in the Southern Tier?”
“What’s ‘at?” asked the gaoler, widening his eyes.
“You not heard?” the butcher answered. He picked at a pox on his skinny beak. I had to look away. “Horse Girl here wants to leave the Northern Empire.”
“Name is Castele,” I muttered. Horse Girl. Pah. That’s what they had taken to calling me, because I’d been brought up training horses.
“What’s the hurry, Horse Girl? You just got here,” the gaoler said, skewing his chubby cheek into a wink of sorts.
I’d been in Sever Town—working at the stables—for eight moons, but it felt like eighty. “It’s not like I’m needed anymore hereabouts,” I said, wishing I had cleared my throat first. “I mean there aren’t any horses in town since–” I thought better about finishing the sentence.
“Since what?” said the gaoler. “Since the Icemen took ‘em all? Is that what your sayin’? You’re not one of ‘em loyalists are ya’?”
The marshal eyed me without moving his head. It dawned on me then that his tankard was still untouched, the foam long disappeared and the ale bubbleless.
The rattling of coins in Ransom’s bony hand gained my attention. He shook the coins in his loose fist then tossed them into the pot. “Whatcha’ got?”
I fanned my cards on the table.
“Damned if you aint the luckiest witch in the north,” he said, hurtling his cards down on top of the pot.
I moved my stare to the table in front of the marshal, then raised my gaze to his face. He folded his cards and put them down slowly.
“Your deal,” he said, then with a loud sniff he slid the pile in front of me. He dressed like a prince, and waxed his black moustache in the Franso style. But a pig in silk is no less a pig.
“I really must be going.” I pulled the coins and stones into the satchel in my lap.
“Not very sporting to leave with all them winnings,” the gaoler said. “Makes a body irritable.”
This was not going well. “Sorry. I need to get to work.” I yanked the draw cords, tied a hasty knot, and stood.
The marshal skittered his chair back and rose. He was a big man, but still a head shorter than me. “Work? You can’t very well call being at the stables work. There are no horses.” He tried a short bark of a laugh. The gaoler sniggered.
I turned and strode to the door, my boot soles slapping the stone floor. There was considerable shuffling behind me. My heart stopped. I threw the bolt and darted out the door.
“Let her go,” the marshal said, from behind me.
I half expected to find some of the marshal’s toads outside waiting with bats and shivs, but the porch was empty but for a wind-blown chair banging against the wall. The evening sun was still a hand off the horizon, not much more than an ochre stain in the grey clouds. I wiped the sweat from my brow. Plump snowflakes melted the moment they landed on my head and arms. I ran back to the stables, clutching the satchel in both hands. The wood houses were mostly shuttered or boarded up, and the few souls out on this gloomy evening cast their shrouded stares to the muddy street. Two rats feasted on a dead dog.
Missus Rachel must have heard me open the barn door. She came out of the ramshackle hovel next door.
“You been off at the inn again?” She pulled her wiry hair into a tail and bound it with a hank of yarn. “You come here one night smelling of ale and it’ll be your last. Bad enough my own boy’s taken up that habit.”
Missus had stopped paying me when the last of the horses were confiscated, but she had let me stay on to watch over the building and harness in exchange for a place to sleep. I ignored her and ducked through the barn door.
I stopped. As I turned to face her, she reached into the shack.
“Here, take two of these biscuits and an apple. Idn’t much of an apple, but better than none.”
She stared at the satchel in my left hand. I took the food in the other. “Thank you, Missus. Good night.”
Inside, I sat on a short stool and ate. The biscuits had no taste other than salt, and the apple was scabby and shriveled, but I had no complaints. The snow turned back to rain, pelting the slates on the roof. It was nearly dark when I went to my cot in the corner.
I shoved my satchel of valuables under an overturned empty keg and doused the light. I had saved nearly enough and thought drowsily about the land I would buy in the southern tier. Then I would find my brothers and maybe even my mother and we would settle into a peaceful existence away from all of this misery and war. I drifted to sleep imagining even that my father would return.
The creaking door woke me. A shaft of yellow light beamed across the straw-strewn dirt.
“She sleeps in the back there.” It was Missus Rachel’s pock-faced son, who I long believed could have served as the village idiot.
My heart leapt into the center of my chest, beating furiously.
“Quiet, you fool. You’ll wake ‘er up.” No mistaking Toom Sherrer’s gravelly voice. Or his stupidity. If he didn’t want to wake me up, why was he shouting?
I rolled onto my feet, looking around for a stick or a bucket or anything else I might use as a weapon.
Flanked by the gaoler and Marshal Hunter, the boy held a torch aloft. They swaggered to within a pace of me. Toom Sherrer rocked on his heels and licked his gums savagely as if his teeth hurt. The boy was not much better, swaying from side to side. The sudden fear he might burn the barn down gripped me, adding to the maelstrom in my stomach. Marshal Hunter must have had the same concern, as he snatched the torch.
“Find that bag of coins and stones,” the marshal said, shoving the boy by the shoulder. The idiot fell into the cot and I hammered the back of his head with the side of my fist as he went by. Hunter grabbed a shovel with his free hand and swung it at me. I tried to move out of its path and tripped over the boy. The flat of the shovel connected with my shoulder. I slammed into the wall and slid to the floor, knocking over the keg and exposing my satchel. The pain burned through my entire upper body. My jitters were gone. I was enraged.
“Get the sack, Sherrer,” the marshal yelled.
“In a minute. Got to have some fun first.” Toom Sherrer fell onto me then, ripping at my tunic. “Boy here says you good for a roll.”
“He’s an idiot,” I screamed. “And you’re a bigger one if you think— “
He slapped his hand over my mouth. I shook it off and used the momentum to bite down on the web between his thumb and fingers. He screamed and twitched back. Then he hit me hard in the jaw. I blacked out for a second, the underside of my eyelids flashing.
“Get off that girl, Toom Sherrer,” yelled Missus Rachel from the doorway. “I’ll take a rake to you if you don’t get off her this instant.” In the quiet that followed, she added in her normal squawky voice, “Worse, I’ll tell your missus.”
That seemed to sober him enough so he was able to roll onto his knees. He snatched my sack from where it lay on the floor next to the overturned keg and pushed himself to a standing position.
“Where you think you’re goin’ with that, mister?” Missus said, hands on hips. Her night coat was a big furry thing that swallowed up her fists.
“Stolen property, Missus Rachel,” the marshal said without hesitation. Then looking at the gaoler, said, “We got what we came for. Leave the girl be.”
“Is not stolen,” I said from the floor. I stood, straightening my tunic. My shoulder and ribs stung and my jaw felt as if it no longer hinged in the right place. I was still in a rage and if not for the other two men, I would have torn the gaoler’s arms off. “I won it gaming with these men.”
Missus Rachel looked from me to the marshal and back again, her apparent indecision leaving her speechless.
“We’ll be back with papers on the girl tomorrow,” he said. “I’m deputizing you, Missus. Make certain this girl is here when my men come for her in the morning.”
“Why not take her now? You’ve got the gaoler with you.”
“Cause I’m afraid he’ll do something stupid and she’ll kill him. We got back the stolen money. That’s good enough for now.”
“You are a liar and a cheat,” I shouted, shoving my short hair up off my forehead.
“Watch your tongue, girl. No sense raising my ire. I’m the one’ll be picking your escorts for tomorrow’s cleansing. And there are some ugly brutes to pick from. And in case you have any ideas of escaping, let me be clear. If you are not here in the morning, the missus here will take your place.”
Missus Rachel went beet red.
Marshal Hunter helped the boy off the floor, and the three of them filed out, the marshal the only one fully in charge of his body. The boy turned at the door. “You know everyone here hates you. You sway your hips like a horse. Take strides too big for your legs. Bounce along like you own the town. And that witch eye of yours.”
“Shut your yap, you damn fool,” Missus Rachel said, swatting at his head.
He blocked the blow with a filthy forearm. “You know it don’t ya’? Everybody hates you.”
She pushed him through the door. “Be on your way, boy. Do something with that muddy face and paws of yours. Hopefully, involving some lye and water.”
Their boot falls faded on the cobblestones.
She turned her stare to me. “He’s a fool, make no mistake. But trouble does follow you, girl. I know it ain’t your fault. Trouble followed you into Sever Town. I sure as blazes hope it follows you out.” She stood between the jambs for a moment longer, then closed the door. The arc of yellow light slivered into darkness.
I found my way back to my cot but did not fall asleep. I ached in body and soul. The smell of the gaoler’s rancid sweat and sour ale breath lingered on my clothes and body. I had never been with a man, and certainly this was not the way in which I had envisioned starting.
I shivered, and pulled the wool blanket tighter about my shoulders. I had nowhere to go but could not stay here. Most certainly I would be killed if I remained. And if I was to be killed, I wanted it to be for a better reason than a bag of loot or a fat man’s untended desires.
And so, it seemed, being run out of town would not be such a bad thing.
Hail started in earnest, thumping the roof with vengeance. Wind whistled through the warps of the barn boards.
A hoarse voice whispered from an unexplored corner inside me.
“You’ll be back.”
Six of us comprised the final lot herded out of Sever Town the next morning. The score or so of villagers performing the exorcism were not the gentlest of souls. I was particularly appalled at the way they treated Lessel, the Aquitain wife of the woodcutter, Runyan. She was a sweet and retiring type, shy but not to a fault, and kind as a queen with no kingdom. But they pushed her along as they would a dung dray and beat Runyan with sticks when he came to her aid.
The two Symruites got the treatment I would expect, but born Syms, what could one do? The Whinlen, of Whinlendow, they left alone, for even the most power-drunken malcontents among this riotous gang would not risk the vengeance of that nation.
As for me, the brutes were happy enough to be rid of me and largely left me alone. Occasionally, the oldest son of the gaoler threw a rock in my direction, but only if he was bored with using his pitchfork on the Syms. The gaoler, I am sure, would have joined the stoning but for his bandaged hand. Each time a stone struck me, the quakes from his laughter set the stringy white hair about his bald dome bouncing.
When the mob had pushed us beyond the grasses of Laywenda, they turned back. Here, the Stillwater brewed, flat as a witch’s cauldron after curses have completed their wickedness. The shallow water sat idle and murky. With winter coming, water would be scarce. The high plains would provide little in the way of game.
The thugs left us like this. Dusk. The air hung like a moth-eaten tapestry. No food, no weapons. Worst of all, no mead.
These lands were foreign. I knew a potion maker a day’s walk or so to the north but no one else. Not that she could assist in this predicament.
I brooded, restless in the knowledge that I sat within three leagues of the Titan Foothills, hunting grounds of the Haplan Katars.
The Syms built a fire and went about fashioning clubs. Not a race to waste time, Symruites, and that alone redeems them in my mind. Say what one might about their thieving and whoring, they can do a fortnight’s work in a day when pressed. We gathered around their fire, more tired than hungry.
“We’ll be Katar food in short order if we din have some proper weapons,” said Runyan, the woodcutter. His Aquitine bride, Lessel, tended his wounds as best circumstances allowed. Built like a bull, this man. I felt sure he would have torn the villagers into wolf kibble had they not been armed.
“These clubs will not stand up to Haplan battle axes,” he said. “My brother Eldon traveled through the Foothills not a year ago with eight other strong men. In search of Katar gold. The Haplans killed ‘em all ‘ceptin my brother. In slow ways too terrible to recount. They tore my brother’s tongue out of his mouth. Din even use a knife. Tore it out. Sent him back to Sever Town as a warning.”
The Syms exchanged undecipherable glances, but did not speak.
I survived the first night on relief and dread in equal measure, thankful that I had not been run through with the mob’s forks and torch prongs. I drifted off, dreaming of boar pie and biscuits, tongues and murders.
The commotion of Runyan and Lessel tending the fire woke me. The morning breeze whispered hoarse insinuations of approaching winter.
“Where are the Syms?” I asked, stepping into my boots and moving closer to the fire.
“They’ve gone back to their own kind. Into the Foothills,” Lessel said, toting an armload of Eucalyptus branches.
It took me a moment to realize the Whinlen, too, had vanished from our little band. I turned about and saw her stooped among the scrub at the river bank. Standing, she beckoned me with a sweeping arm.
“Help me collect these leaves,” she said when I arrived by her side. Her voice lilted in ranges mine could never reach.
I watched her, then mimicked her technique for picking leaves off the short thorn bushes that populated the banks. She was tall, even for a Whinlen, though two heads shorter than I. Her pointy tipped ears were translucent, blending with the morning light as if a part of the vapor rising off the river. We ate a few of the leaves as we gathered but tossed most into a basket fashioned from her shawl. Bitter but oddly substantive. After eating but ten or twelve of them, my craving sensations abated.
With a gasp, she jumped back. “By the grace of the Bountiful Mother,” she exclaimed. She dropped the shawl of leaves and fell to her knees. I moved closer as she gently fondled some large mushrooms growing at the base of a rotting black oak trunk. “Bountiful Mother,” she oathed again, in a whisper. “Gablich Knaes.”
I bent at the waist and was greeted by an aroma – aged sheep dung and nutmeg, perhaps. “What?”
She looked up at me, a smile growing on her thin pale lips. She licked them—her lips, I mean—in a way at once sensual and impish. “Goblin’s Knees.”
I arched my eyebrows, a plea for her to continue.
“A most rare toadstool. Thought to be extinct by many. In the right hands this makes a ghost potion. Or so legend has it.” She plucked one from the ground. Lifting it toward the sky, she rotated the stem, the black cap glistening.
“I may know the right hands,” I said, my own countenance lifting. I had heard of ghost potions and their ability to render one invisible for an hour or two.
“Is she close by? Your potion maker?”
“At the northern end of the Laywenda Fen. A day’s walk. Perhaps two.”
“And what would you do with such a potion, horsewoman?” She did not make eye contact but began picking the mushrooms tenderly, placing them in a cache within her sleeve. I wondered momentarily how it was she knew of me when I had never laid eyes on her.
“I would return to Sever Town for what is rightfully mine.”
“And what exactly is that?”
“The jewels and ingots I won gaming with some of the men. And all of my savings. The marshal and the gaoler took all of it from me when they came to escort me out of town.”
She stood. “I’m surprised the louts did not try to have their way with you. You are a handsome woman.” She blushed, and I felt a flush come to my cheeks.
“And you?” I asked. “What would you do with such a potion?”
“The same. I would return. Yet for different reasons.” She went back to her work.
I did not question her motives further. “Should we take the woodcutter and his Aquitain wife with us?”
She looked at me for a long moment. “I think not. They will slow us down.”
“I fear for their lives,” I said in a whisper.
“Fear not. A tribe of her people lives between here and the Titan Foothills. Perhaps they’ll sense the girl and take them in. Perhaps not. In any event, our endeavor, while not offensive, is at least criminal. We cannot afford to involve others.”
She stood and walked to me, and said in slightly more than a whisper, “What is your name? I should know that if we are to be companions.”
My face burned from her beauty. “Castele. And thee?”
“Liliana.” She stepped back. “Come. We shall give them some of the greens and take our leave.”
The shadows stretched long on the grasses of Laywenda Fen when we made camp. I broke branches from a weeping fir and we made a hasty bed. The air was cool. We cuddled like pups.
In the morning, we donned our boots and headed off again across the Fen. We reached the potion maker’s abode mid-afternoon. A squat mud hut with a round thatch roof, it had a stunted chimney leaning off one side. Smoke wafted from the flue, and a gamey aroma of roasting flesh hung on the air. Ground sloth, perhaps. Or pine cat.
The old woman recognized me, or feigned to, and offered us repast, which I took without hesitation. Lili ate only of the stewed tubers and grasses. We all partook of mead, and I realized I should speak my mind before my senses abandoned it.
“We need your help,” I said, placing my flagon on the plank table.
“I know why you’ve come, girl.” She spoke in a throaty voice, charred, I supposed, from the many days above a cauldron fire.
“I can smell the toadstools from here.” She moved her gaze to Lili, who shifted on the bench. “Goblin’s Knees.”
“Aye. You’ve a good nose,” I said.
“Seasoned is all. And I’ve a mind of what potion you ‘ll be wanting.” She wrung her bony and withered hands for a moment. “Half,” she said at last.
“Don’t play mindless with me, girl. Half the mushrooms. That’s my fee.”
“That will not leave us enough for our own needs,” I pleaded.
The old woman spun her head back toward Lili, lifting her pointed nose. The veins in the bulbous cheeks of her otherwise drawn face turned violet in the firelight. “Show me what you got, Whinlen lass.”
Lili turned the bell of her sleeve inside out, and the mushrooms plopped onto the tabletop. The old woman lifted her shoulders and pulled her face away slightly. “Faes of the future,” she whispered. Then to me, and in a hardier voice, “Girl, your share of this is enough for a lifetime of sneaking and thieving – if that’s what you’ve a mind for.”
I did not respond at once but made eye contact with Lili. She nodded ever so slightly. “Tis a deal, then,” I said.
In a sweeping motion, the old woman gathered up the mushrooms and laid them in a cracked pottery urn on the bench next to the fireplace.
“There’s a shed by the river. You can sleep there. I’ll have the potion by sunrise.” She removed an old but clean smelling blanket from her plank bed and handed it to me. “It’s to be a cold night.” She looked from me to Lili and back again. “But I guess you two will be warm enough.” She smiled as she turned away.
Lili took me by the arm. “Good night, old woman,” she said, and we left to fashion our bed by the river.
Next morning, Lili and I entered the hut hand in hand.
“There’s your ghost potion,” the old woman said, turning from the oven to point over her shoulder. Two goatskins hung from pegs in the plank door. “Sit down and take some breakfast.” She was curt, but not unpleasant. And still the froggy voice.
I removed my hand from Lili’s and moved it to her waist as I sat. I was excited in a way I had not experienced since I was a young girl, stealing an apple pie from the kitchen for the horses. They’d not cared for it of course, but as I ate it in the loft, I’d felt wonderfully decadent and wicked, in a harmless sort of way. Now with this new magic, I would thieve back my jewels and coins, and all would be fair and right again.
Lili sat next to me and the old woman served us boiled eggs—probably bird—and flat corn cakes with newly churned goat butter. We ate our fill, punctuated with twitters and kisses. The old woman ignored us, going about her business, until we stood to leave.
“Thank you, Grandmother, for you help,” I said.
“I hope you thank me later. I want no curses from either of you.”
“That could never happen,” I said. Lili was quiet through all of this, as if she had a secret that needed tending to.
“Be careful what you thieve, girl.” The old woman directed her speech so clearly to me that Lili took her bedroll and goatskin and walked out the door to stand in the herb patch. I followed her with my eyes.
“Listen to me. Be careful what you thieve. And thieving is, I am sure, what you intend to do with this potion.”
“But the property is mine.”
“Hush. Property is no one’s. It is of its own. Possession can only bring obsession. Obsession can only bring possession.”
I looked about the room, confused into silence.
“Be careful what you thieve, that it does not steal you away.”
I was so confounded that I kissed the old woman on the head. She faltered backward as if I’d spilt milk on her apron. I snatched the goatskin and bolted out the door.
We trekked south and west over the Ceaseless Plains toward Sever Town. By evening we could make out the village on the horizon and unrolled the blanket the old woman had insisted we should have for our travels. We spent another night in one another’s arms.
The next morning, I awoke early. I kissed Lili on the eyelids and mouth, and she wakened slowly, raising her delicate hand up to my cheek. “Good morning, sweet Castele.” She kissed me once then sat up and pulled on her boots. I dressed and she returned from a nearby brook with water still on her face. She sat next to me on the blanket.
“So, young horsewoman, are you ready to partake of this potion?” She held aloft the goatskin the old woman had filled for her, and handed me mine.
“That I am.” We both laughed nervously, then drank, our eyes locked together in earnest apprehension. It tasted of must and nutmeg.
She tipped her flask away from her lips. “Not too much. The old woman said a sip is sufficient.”
I lowered mine as well, capped it, and slung it over my shoulder. We stood. And then it happened. Before our very eyes, we dissolved. Hands and faces at first shimmering, then fading to a blue light before disappearing.
I laughed. “Our clothes,” I said. Lili laughed as well, the high tones coming from the space above her erect but empty mantle and pantaloons. My dress and vest, too, stood tall but empty.
“I guess we shall have to take them off,” she said. And so we did, and wrapping them in the blanket, we stowed our earthly possessions and the two goatskins in a bush.
“Take my hand,” she said, as she groped for mine.
We walked like that, naked and invisible, hand-in-hand, to Sever Town. The damp air chilled yet invigorated my naked skin, which for its sightlessness seemed all the more palpable. I felt sensuous in ways I had never before experienced and yearned for a view of Lili in her nakedness, to see if she glittered in the way I felt I did.
At the very edge of the village she stopped and lifted the back of my hand to her mouth. “Good luck with your task. I will await you at nightfall where we last slept.”
I panicked. “Are not you coming with me?”
“No, Sweetness. For I have my own quest.” Then she lowered my hand and was gone.
My search of the Marshal’s house proved fruitless, and the sun perched on the wrong side of midday when I finally arrived at the whicker cells of the gaol. There were three cells spaced evenly in the fenced yard. All empty now, except for a large bundle sitting in the middle of the center cell.
A ponderous man—the keeper—slept just inside the locked gate of the gaol yard. He reeked of ale and rotted meat, but the key ring lay at his side, so I crept closer. It proved a simple matter to reach the keys and open the gate but a bit more of a task to step over the big man without stepping on him. That’s when I noticed the door on the far cell hung open.
Then I observed the large bruise on the side of his head and his sword off to one side. His unconscious state was not from wine but from a blow. No matter, he was no friend of mine and I made my way to the center cell. I unlocked the door and stole in to examine the parcel. As I supposed, it contained the treasures I had won in my gaming with the townsmen. I wrapped the satchel, plucked it off the floor, then at once realized the error of my plan. The satchel was visible and now floating in mid air.
To add to my dismay, in the distance the gaoler floundered toward me. I picked the wounded keeper’s sword off the dirt. In that instant the gaoler stopped in his tracks, seeing—I realized—a floating sword and satchel.
I sprang to the gate, and to my horror saw my feet reappearing. Then me, all of me, naked and drenched in the sweat of my terror. The wounded keeper moaned below me. The gaoler started toward me again, drawing his dirk, his look of horror changing to one of lust, bloodlust, or both.
Just before we collided, I swung my blade at his wrist, removing hand from arm. He screamed and dropped to his knees. I made for the Plains, catching sight of a few horrified villagers watching me run. A tall naked girl, with a bloody sword in one hand and what probably appeared a severed head in the other.
I ran until dark, the north wind barely cooling my burning lungs and scorched throat. I feared for my life then, for I no longer had any notion of direction. I stopped. Falling to my knees, I sobbed, preparing to pray, when I saw it.
A campfire. In the distance.
Moments later I stumbled into her arms. I dropped the sword and the satchel. She caressed me and kissed me and dressed me carefully as if I were a child. She wiped the last of the tears from my cheek.
Then I saw him.
He sat at the fire, his back to us. Long black hair, blacker than the night, tucked behind his ears, and cascading to the middle of his back. He turned his head and smiled. He was the most beautiful male I had ever seen.
I looked at her with a sad curiosity.
“My…husband,” she said. “In your language.”
I started to speak, but she held two fingers to my lips. “They had him. In the gaol. That was the only way they believed they could control us. To keep us apart.”
“But I thought…”
“I know what you thought. And your thoughts were true and lovely.”
“I don’t understand.” I could feel the tears coming again.
“In my world we can love many, Castele. But we can only share eternity with one.” She looked over her shoulder, and in a way I realized was telepathic, he turned also. They smiled at one another then at me.
He stood and came to us. She was right, I realized. They were meant to be together. One. Indivisible. When I awoke at sunrise they were gone.
That day I wandered the Ceaseless Plains once more. The winds that swept down from a wild glen further north were my only companions. I sulked and thought of her the entire day. Her shimmering beauty. Her laugh. Her kisses. On that night at a new fire, mountain air snuck down to the riverbanks and raised the slender golden hairs on my moonlit arms.
I drank from the river, then returned to the fire to sharpen my sword.
There was much work yet.
Author Bio: Gregory Jeffers’ stories have appeared recently or are upcoming in Chantwood Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Suisun Valley Review, Every Day Fiction, Grim Corps Magazine, Corvus Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and in the anthologies Hardboiled and Outposts of the Beyond. Other stories have won honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s 2015 Very Short Fiction Contest and Winning Writer’s Summer Competition in 2012. Mr. Jeffers lives and writes in the Adirondack Mountains and on the island of Vieques.
Oki held the last bone fragment in her withered palm. A child’s. Although she had washed the delicate rib, its surface was still blotched with darkened signs of blood. She waved a sakaki branch over the bone and laid it gently into the pit before her as the villagers approached with urns of salt. Hundreds of bones. Hundreds of souls wiped out by famine from a neighboring settlement a year earlier. Their pain and anger had fermented for so long it had created a monster.
A gashadokuro. The skeletal giant made up of the remains of the starved had been plaguing the countryside for the past two and a half days. Salt poured into the pit. It did nothing to muffle the unseen energy thrumming against Oki’s mind like the tides of a furious ocean, wishing to continue its grudge against the living. It wished to kill her.
The purification ritual was not yet complete.
Frantic, humidity-sheened men proceeded to cover the pit with dirt at Oki’s instruction, yet many of the woman and children huddled back to watch her work quite a distance away. They were afraid of someone, and it wasn’t the gashadokuro. Oki put them out of her mind for now and went to her knees.
“I bow before you, nameless spirit,” began Oki, lowering her head. “With great respect, I ask that you release yourself from the heavy burden of vengeance. Allow me to sweep aside the impurities you have cursed upon this land so that none shall suffer your affliction. Pass over this town and its people in peace and bear them no hatred.”
As if in response, a sudden burst of wind rushed off the distant sea, the villagers gasping from the force of it. The squall cut through the grass, Oki’s long white hair, then into the trees behind her. She kept her head bowed against the crisp branch in her hands until the pit filled completely.
Seconds later, the malevolent energy vanished.
Oki stood and dusted off her black hakama. She turned to a particularly dopey-looking man and tossed him the sakaki branch. “Get me the sake Muneshige promised me, ya half-witted arse. And the gold.” She shoved past a flock of startled women to recover her gnarled wooden cane resting behind them as the lickspittle fool bolted down the verdant hillock. “It’s over.”
She made her way down as well, shuffled past the gates of Kijimadaira, and headed towards the village leader’s house to collect the payment awaiting her. The townspeople got out of her way well enough. A particular gaggle of children ran screaming when Oki lurched close, and she had to remind herself that she was in her eighth decade with aching joints and a stiff back.
“Snot-nosed little urchins,” she muttered.
Even the vendors avoided her on the narrow street. They bowed and scurried back into their stalls of ripe green sudachi and striped katsuo fish and barreled rice. They looked at her as if she would turn into the gashadokuro and devour them. She was a fucking priestess. But, she supposed she couldn’t blame them since she constantly meddled with demons.
Fortunately for her, the creature had broken down before she’d arrived, its energy spent after rampaging the night through. All she had been hired to do was to purify its bones, which in turn purified this town. Easy gold.
A man in ministerial robes stepped in her way. “My lady—”
Oki rapped her cane against the man’s ankle and he stumbled past her.
“Oi, watch where you’re going!” she barked in passing.
The scuffle of boots and clanking armor sounded behind her, with an uproar of shouts and curses. She didn’t pay them any mind. Sake and gold. She just needed her payment and then she’d leave this backwater fishing village behind. They were lucky enough to have had her for this long in the first place.
“How dare you? Halt this instant, woman!”
Oki grunted and turned around.
The red-faced minister righted himself, but he wasn’t the one that shouted after her. If she could guess, it was the oaf of a man next to him, katana drawn, sweaty face pinched in anger. Oki leaned on her cane. All ten of these men in their lacquered, scaled armor and bright colors weren’t from this village. Too haughty for such a place. They were samurai.
She hated samurai.
“You have just assaulted a court officer,” growled the warrior.
Oki tapped her foot, itching to leave. “So?”
The samurai puffed up. “Impudent woman, do you know who we are?”
“It is quite all right, Junzo,” said the minister.
Another warrior stepped forward. “But Yunosuke-sama—”
The minister raised a hand. “I said it is all right.” He straightened his pointed cap and dusted the dirt from his white, five-layered uniform. “No matter how ill-mannered, we will not kill the sole person we have been searching for.”
“And who the hell are you?” asked Oki, patience thinning.
“My name is Yunosuke Goro. I am one of the emperor’s advisors.”
“The emperor? You mean that arrogant up-start who thinks he’s related to the sun goddess Amaterasu?” asked Oki grinning her toothless smile, brow raised. Not many things could make her laugh, but this came close. “Please, that little ankle-biter and his lackeys just want power. It’s all politics, I tell ya.”
Yunosuke’s eyes widened, body rigid. The eavesdropping townspeople stopped what they were doing and quieted into a shocked silence, allowing only the groans of cattle to swamp the cramped street. Some fell to their knees, heads bowed into the dirt as if to let the imperial men know they had nothing to do with Oki. Oki might have been a woman, but she refused to drop her gaze.
Every samurai ripped their katanas from their sayas.
Then again, perhaps she had gone too far with her comment, Oki thought, wiping her smile. Couldn’t be helped now. She just didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Even the minister’s pleasant face hardened at the insult. Already so loyal to this new emperor, huh? The man had only been in power for a year.
“I should let my men remove your head,” said Yunosuke.
Heedless of command, Junzo rushed past the minister with surprising speed, katana at his side in a two-hand grip. His face had lost its witless scowl. Instead, a dark, unflinching expression had replaced it, one set on murder. Before Oki could react, Junzo raised his blade, red sun flashing against its silver surface.
“Junzo!” roared Yunosuke.
The samurai stopped, eyes bulging.
“Short of harming the emperor,” said Yunosuke, glaring at his subordinate, “the crone can say whatever she wants. We need her. The emperor needs her.” He looked back at Oki, eyes narrowed. “But if there were any other priestess who could handle our problem, you would be dead right now.”
Oki shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Your reputation precedes you, Oki-san.”
“Does it now? I didn’t know I had a reputation.”
“You do. The people across the land know you well. Of course, in the capital, we have heard rumblings of a warrior able to calm demons and gigantic beasts. I arrived in Kijimadaira expecting to find a man, but the people informed me you were nothing of the sort.” He frowned. “Very insolent, however.”
“Thanks,” said Oki turning her back on Junzo’s half-raised blade and walking down the street to the gasps of nearby fishmongers and farmers. She needed to sit down, and this confrontation was wearing her out.
“His Imperial Majesty requires your help with a problem,” called Yunosuke.
“Too far. Not interested.”
“I’m prepared to offer you a position in the court.”
“Is that supposed to be an attractive offer?”
“I’ll pay your weight in gold.”
Oki stopped and turned around. “Whaddaya want?”
“You’re a priestess who has some authority on demonic activity, more specifically the disturbed spirits of gashadokuro,” said Yunosuke, face blanching merely from mentioning it. The samurai sheathed their weapons as he spoke, along with Junzo’s. “You see, two towns near the capital are suffering from one.”
“Why doesn’t your oh-so-divine emperor handle the fucking problem himself then? You probably have the armies. The resources. If those don’t work, he can call down Amaterasu his gods-damned self. You don’t need me.”
The big samurai’s sword-hand trembled. “Give me the honor of cutting her down, Yunosuke-sama,” he said, glaring, grabbing his hilt. “This decrepit wench needs to learn some manners.”
“And you need to learn how to lose some bloody weight, ya fat hog!” Oki retorted. “I’m straight baffled you were even able to stuff yourself in that shiny, pretentious outfit. How’re ya feeling? Is it a little stuffy in there?”
Junzo’s jowls shook, and his katana was near out of its saya again.
“Enough,” ordered Yunosuke, putting a firm hand on Junzo’s breastplate. He looked back at Oki. “We’ve sent warriors to deal with the monster several times, but they can never locate it. When the imperial troops depart, the gashadokuro returns to wreak havoc upon the region.” The minister shook his head. “The people believe this to be a bad omen to His Imperial Majesty’s recent ascendancy. We cannot allow this to continue.”
Oki stared. “Gashadokuro are twenty times the height of men.”
Yunosuke blinked. “I…didn’t know that.”
“Well now ya do! If the demon’s real, you woulda found it by now, unless yer soldiers are blind, deaf, and stupid. You and your emperor’s been fooled. Must be some other troublesome spirit, if it’s even a spirit at all.”
“Please.” Yunosuke bowed low, and his voice took on a pleading tone. “Please. If this persists so close to the capital, the clans will revolt. They will take these attacks as a sign His Imperial Majesty is unfit for the throne, that his legitimacy granted by the goddess is a sham.”
“Probably is, but it’s not my problem.”
“Investigate, and I will pay for your time nonetheless.”
Oki thought about it. The capital was certainly far…but the idiots were gonna pay her in any case. And she never usually had more than one job a month, what with the rare nature of gashadokuro sightings. The gold would keep her set and comfortable for a year or more. But to be honest, the odd behavior of the alleged gashadokuro made her curious.
This was too good to pass up.
She sighed. “I’ll do it under one condition.”
“I want a gods-damned bottle of sake right now.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Yunosuke’s warriors escorted Oki to Higashiyama, the town directly affected by the gashadokuro, after a month on the road. Her bones ached. She wasn’t sure if this job proved worth it anymore, but a job was a job, and they had already paid her a small advance. Still, now she knew why the emperor’s soldiers had such a tough time spotting a massive giant of blood and death.
A dark forest surrounded the town, stretching over fifty leagues. It still wasn’t enough to convince her the skeletal demon manifested itself here. For one, it was the constant attacks. It took an enormous amount of rage to suspend the gashadokuro in this world. Because of this, the demon burned through its stored power within a day or so. Rarely longer. Oki hadn’t known them to be very intelligent either. They were made up of hundreds of angry souls, each one vying for control, which forced them to follow their base desire: to feed.
This odious mass did not hide. It massacred.
Despite it all, something was definitely wrong here.
As soon as she had entered the woodland, she passed into a sinister fog of energy. The metallic omamuri—protective charms—hanging along her braided sash buzzed, setting what was left of her teeth on edge. Even the samurai seemed to sense it. They always kept a hand on their hilts, and the slightest noise had their heads darting back and forth.
“Your samurai are making me fucking nervous,” said Oki.
Yunosuke glanced out of the large carriage’s window. “There’s a monster out there,” he said, wringing his hands, his own voice quivering. “My soldiers are getting you more nervous than the gashadokuro? We are very…vulnerable at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Oki took a swig of sake from her gourd. “I already told ya. It’s a different spirit. Clean out yer ears ‘cuz I’m not gonna say it again.” She stared deep into the dark, silent woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever afflicted this place.
Eventually, the small convoy made it to Higashiyama’s gates, the town’s wooden walls rising almost as high as the surrounding trees. The security was heavy, but the guards seemed to recognize the imperial sigil. They opened their gates without question. Yunosuke’s carriage continued through the narrow, winding streets, unhampered by the non-existent foot traffic.
“These people are hiding in their own homes,” said Yunosuke.
Oki nodded. And the few townsfolk brave enough to wander out of their dwellings—expensive, well-kept houses with curved, thatched clay roofs—were terrified of their own shadows. One man in particular stepped out of an old latticed teahouse, hunched and wide-eyed, looking upon Yunosuke’s warriors with suspicion, rather than hope. He scurried into an alley and disappeared.
The convoy continued through the labyrinth of cobbled roads designed to confuse outsiders, then turned onto a discrete path lined with lanterns and bright red maple trees. They stopped at the town leader’s multi-storied manor. A band of opposing samurai blocked the entrance. Their white kimonos were pristine, but their faces told a different story: heavy bags under their bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, slouched postures.
These men hadn’t slept in a while.
“Announce yourselves,” ordered a scraggly-bearded guard.
Oki exited the carriage “Move it, ya—”
“My lady,” cut in Yunosuke. “Allow me to speak with them.”
Oki pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.”
Yunosuke stepped in front of her. “We come in the name of Emperor Jimmu, Kamuyamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto, and heavenly descendant of Amaterasu. I am one of his court ministers, Yunosuke Goro. I seek Seo Moronobu. Your leader will recognize me. I have been here once before with an imperial delegation.”
The samurai looked at each other.
“Yes, yes, I am coming,” a faint voice called out.
A decrepit old man hobbled over the threshold. His leathery dark skin was beset with deep valleys of wrinkles, while his lips pressed tightly together from having lost all of his teeth. Cataracts clouded his sightless grey eyes, his hair hung past his waist, and a black kimono hung off of his unnaturally gaunt frame like a stray wisp of cloth caught on a branch.
Oki raised her brows. She thought she was ancient, but this bag made her look like one of those beauty-obsessed, milk-faced courtesans with perky tits. He must be well over his hundredth decade. The man didn’t even need a cane to walk, unlike Oki. She scowled. Damned, bloody joints.
“Ah, it is you again,” said the man in a coarsened, weary voice.
Yunosuke bowed. “I promised I would return.”
“What is it you think you can do,” said Moronobu, “that I have not already tried? That your soldiers have not already tried? Your men couldn’t even locate the creature last you were here. Unless you have brought an army this time, that is, we might have a chance. Yet I see no army.”
“Yer blind, ya shriveled coot,” said Oki. “Ya can’t see shit!”
Moronobu’s samurai immediately unsheathed their blades. Yunosuke’s men did the same. Oki had to squint as the dawning red sun glinted off the barbs of naked steel surrounding her. She raised a bony hand to shade her brow. Everyone was so sensitive nowadays. She supposed she was lucky the emperor protected her now. These men would have had no qualms gutting her.
Moronobu waved down his samurai. “And you are?”
“None of yer business,” said Oki. “All ya need to know is that I’m being paid to solve yer problem, so I’d appreciate it if ya didn’t lie to me. First of all, has this town been chewing on some of those blasted mushrooms much lately?”
The old leader leaned in, squinting. “I beg your pardon?”
“You know, the ones that make you hallucinate?”
“What are you trying to say?”
This man might not have lost his ability to walk, but he definitely lost most of his wits. “All this talk about the gashadokuro is nonsense,” said Oki, grinding her cane into the dirt. “The demon doesn’t have enough power to survive this long. Yer people are fools. What makes ya believe it attacked this place?”
Moronobu’s back straightened, and his grey eyes hardened. “Because I saw it with my own eyes. It killed my soldiers.” His already soft voice lowered to a point where what he said was just barely audible to Oki. “It killed my son.”
Oki could usually tell when a person lied, and Moronobu’s face said it all.
“Gashadokuro don’t materialize outta nowhere,” she continued, moving on from the topic of the man’s son. Her voice took on a more serious tone. “Has this region experienced any mass deaths? War? Starvation? Natural disasters?”
With a nod, Moronobu said, “A year ago, a massive battle took place in this forest between Lord Nagasawa and a rebelling state. Only twenty leagues away from my town. Thousands died, and in the aftermath, the lord refused to bury his enemies.” His brow furrowed. “Is this where the beast was created?”
“Shit,” muttered Oki, unease creeping along her spine.
“What is it?” asked Yunosuke.
“A gashadokuro created by the violent deaths brought upon by murder is the worst kind ta come across. They’re bigger, hungrier, and a helluva lot more nasty than the regular ones.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch the demon still wandered this region. With enough souls, the demon could last quite a while.
Oki tapped a finger on one of her wooden amulets. “Either you had something to do with the massacre, or the creature’s attracted to the piss-foul scent of your unshowered samurai. Why else would it keep coming back to this place?”
Moronobu simply stared, while his men bristled. Must be partially deaf too, thought Oki. She opened her mouth to repeat herself, but the old man said, in a firmer voice this time, “Leave this place, priestess. At once. I will not be requiring your services, especially not from such a brazen woman.”
There was a stunned silence. Even Moronobu’s samurai glanced at him.
Oki shrugged and turned to leave.
Yunosuke stepped forward and bowed low. “Moronobu-san, the emperor wishes to help in this matter. You cannot possibly destroy the gashadokuro on your own. Even if you do, someone must purify this land. Please reconsider.”
Moronobu bowed and shuffled back into his manor.
◊ ◊ ◊
The rumble of the carriage departing Higashiyama made Oki’s bones hurt all over again. She wouldn’t abide this for another month. Not without anything to show for it. The emperor’s men might have to respect Moronobu’s wishes, but she didn’t. A league into the journey back to the capital, Oki rapped the base of her cane into the wall behind Yunosuke, startling him.
“Stop this damn thing, will ya!” she shouted.
With a lurch and a confused clop of hooves, the carriage stopped. Oki opened the door and walked into the night as Yunosuke called out after her. She kept walking until the minister put a hand on her small shoulder.
Yunosuke didn’t let go. “What do you think you are doing?”
Oki slapped his hand off. “Performing the task I’m being paid for.”
“The gold is yours. You do not have to do this.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Oki, turning around, tired of this uppity imperial stooge. Her finger prodded the minister’s chest with every sentence. “This gashadokuro menace is my responsibility. It’s why I’m a priestess. This is what I do, and I don’t take orders from nobody, ya hear?”
Yunosuke took a step back. “If this is your wish, then—”
“You’re damn well right it’s my wish. Don’t follow me neither.”
“I cannot allow you to go by yourself.”
Oki snorted. “Ya think ‘cuz I’m old I can’t take care of myself? Your samurai would only get in my way, and their armor’s too damn noisy. I work better alone. Just wait for me here until I get back. If I don’t return by dawn, I was probably eaten, so you just go. Ya got it? Or am I gonna have ta repeat myself?”
“I…understand,” said Yunosuke. “At least take a lantern.”
One of the samurai picked off a hanging lantern attached to the carriage. Oki grabbed it out of his hand, inspected it, and turned on her heel. “Alrighty then,” she said satisfied, and resumed her trek into the forest.
“Good luck, Oki-san.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Attached to Oki’s sash, the hovering central talisman—a folded paper manikin inscribed with a magnetism spell—pulled her eastward. While it had taken her a good whole month to make, it’d been worth it. It picked up and reacted to the manifestation of evil energy. A very handy tool.
The talisman led her deeper into the ancient forest, a place of massive gnarled roots, moss, and trees as thick as houses. Yunosuke’s weak lantern only illuminated a short distance ahead. There wasn’t any moonlight to guide her way, and every step over the forest’s misshapen undergrowth burned her joints like ground glass beneath her skin.
She was getting too old for this. Hundreds of exorcisms and purifications in her lifetime, and just now she agreed to take on one of her most dangerous jobs to date? Insanity. She barely had the strength to walk, let alone find and take on an enraged gashadokuro in the dead of night.
Her talisman snapped off and darted into the darkness ahead.
Oki stopped. Her heartbeat spiked, and chilled sweat pearled across her brow. She’d faced plenty of gashadokuro, but this felt different somehow. The air didn’t taste right. And it wasn’t the stench of rotting flesh. Evil had its own scent, one Oki was well acquainted with. The malevolence thickened like a pall of poison fog, rancid on her tongue. She shook her head, then hammered flat her fear.
She refused to die in this hellhole.
Oki relaxed into a firm stance, setting the lantern on the ground as a faint rattling echoed through the trees, the gashadokuro’s death noise, and the only sound they made when one closed in on its prey. Somewhat of a blessing since the demons were naturally invisible, and unnaturally silent. The only way to defeat them would be to escape the area, or keep it moving until it burned through its collection of souls.
But Oki was a priestess, and she had other ways.
First step, of course, was unmasking them.
Keeping her eyes on the darkness ahead, she removed an unveiling talisman—a powerful object crafted by the Five Priests of Kyushu she’d won gambling—from her sash, and gripped the small wooden sphere with the tips of her fingers. She waited, but the gashadokuro didn’t show itself. Something was wrong. The demon should have attacked by now, what with the incessant rattling. Maybe it hadn’t seen her yet.
A whisper of frigid air licked the nape of her neck. Shit!
Oki spun around. An immense footprint sunk into the ground mere feet away, deep enough to be a grave for her and half the town of Higashiyama. The demon shouldn’t have been smart enough to stalk her like this. Overcoming her shock, she rolled the talisman across the ground. What looked like molten gold filled the engraved glyphs across the talisman’s surface. A lance of light shot out of its center, illuminating the sky and forest and the gashadokuro above.
Oki’s breath caught in her throat.
The demon’s eyes—purple orbs of writhing fire—froze her in place. Crouching against a low lichen-crusted, granite shelf, massive hands gripped a pair of trees, timbers creaking from the weight. Hundreds of thousands of bones clung together like some twisted mosaic of death. Even hunched, it was the biggest gashadokuro Oki had ever seen.
Taking a step back, her heel caught a root.
Her hip struck the hard ground and blinding, exquisite pain bloomed over her entire body. The demon lunged, teeth gnashing. With all of her strength, she dug her cane beneath another large root beside her and pushed, rolling out of the way as the red skull crashed into the undergrowth.
Chips of bone and teeth showered her. The gashadokuro removed its face from the ground, half of its jaw hanging loose, held together by decaying ligaments of flesh and cartilage. It roared. Thousands of tortured voices hit Oki, howling, screaming in rage and pain at their curse.
The giant lunged again. No, it wouldn’t end like this! Through muscle memory alone, she ripped off an ofuda from her sash and raised it as the monster slammed against her palm, shoving her backwards. Just when she thought her wrist would snap back, the gashadokuro went rigid.
“Bishamonten!” cried Oki.
The script along the hemp cloth amulet glowed red.
Thick smoke erupted out of the tightly-woven threads, curling behind the skeleton in a crimson mass of tendrils. They coalesced and took the shape of a frowning giant in fearsome armor, a facsimile of the god of war. Although the figure was only a physical manifestation of Oki’s spell, and less than half the size of the gashadokuro, it locked the demon in place with relative ease.
Immobilization. Step two complete.
Oki sighed. She used her cane to rise to her feet despite the throbbing agony and stared at the silent gashadokuro that had been brought to its knees. This creature…wasn’t normal. Well, as normal as these things could be. It had been smart enough to stalk her, hide from the townsfolk, as well as survive this long. No gashadokuro ever displayed such intelligence.
No matter. It was over now and she’d rather not find out more lest this monster discovered a way to slip its bond. Her spell would only last for another five minutes anyways, so she’d better get on with the final step: purification by fire. However, before she removed her last talisman, she stopped.
Something caught her attention. Looking past the decaying flesh and black marrow barnacling the titanic skeleton, there were thick black marks etched upon its forehead, shoulder blades, and kneecaps. She didn’t notice them before, what with how dark it was and all the blood, but she recognized them.
They were summoning glyphs.
Someone had conjured this demon. It was under someone’s control. No wonder it was so smart. She’d never met one who abused their power like this, but this had to be the work of an onmyōji, a trained sorcerer. A skilled one.
She’d always thought she was the last of them.
Oki scrambled back and stood, joints ablaze. She wrenched the cane out from beneath the root. The demon merely moaned now, the twisted mélange of voices bleeding from its hollow throat, fiery eyes dim, sorrowful. Her right hand trembled as she squeezed the head of her cane, tears threatening to fall.
Someone had conjured the gashadokuro before her. Someone had wrenched the restless spirits from the land and forced them into this warped, perverted thing. These poor souls suffered in life, and now they suffered in death. She could end this for them. Right now. Just finish it. But…she needed to find out who was responsible.
She would not let this atrocity go unanswered.
Oki never used her magic directly. But to hell with her gods-damned rules! She mustered the esoteric spiritual energy within her, reversing the glyphs burned into the gashadokuro’s bones, and released Bishamonten’s grasp. Now, it would return to its master. The terrible demon surged to its full height of one-hundred and fifty men, purple gaze turning eastward.
Oki closed her eyes. “Go,” she whispered.
◊ ◊ ◊
It took every ounce of Oki’s willpower to keep the gashadokuro under control, the translucent puppet strings attached to the demon threatening to snap from her fingers. The demon pulled and pulled, and Oki pulled back, jaw clenched, forcing it to slow down enough that it didn’t drag her through the forest at breakneck speed. The demon was leading her back the way she’d come.
Yunosuke and his samurai still waited on the main road, staring agape at the gashadokuro heading straight towards them. The group scrambled out of the way as the monster crushed the carriage underfoot, wood exploding in a shower of splinters. For a moment, Oki had thought the meek minister was the onmyōji, but the way the man trembled on the ground erased any suspicion.
She passed him by when the gashadokuro veered hard. She stifled a yelp as she was half-dragged down the same road. Towards Higashiyama. Distant alarm bells rang through the trees, men screamed orders atop the rumbling walls. Arrows whistled through the branches, but the gashadokuro simply ignored them, most of the projectiles snapping against its body.
The demon tossed aside the iron gates and crashed through town.
“Move, ya damn fool!” yelled Oki, shoving aside a gawking farmer.
Oki’s right arm moved frantically, maneuvering the strings to limit the damage and keep the damn, lumbering beast from trampling over innocents. Even then she felt the strings of energy connected to the demon straining. It wanted nothing more than to devour these souls, to rip these men and women apart limb from limb and add it to its own body. Oki wouldn’t let that happen.
“Oki-san, what in Izanami’s name is going on?” asked Yunosuke behind her, trailed by his unsettled samurai reeking of warm urine. So he’d finally caught up with her. “You were supposed to defeat this demon, not bring it back here!”
“Stay out of this!” snapped Oki.
“How is this possible? It hasn’t killed anyone.”
Not yet, thought Oki grimly.
With a roar, the gashadokuro lurched into another street in the direction of Moronobu’s manor. Oki allowed the demon to tear the roof off the leader’s residence in a hail of broken tile. She couldn’t say she was surprised the demon had led her back to Higashiyama, but seeing Moronobu on the floor, a protective amulet raised above his head, did. She never sensed the mystical energy within the old man.
Oki pushed her way past a contingent of bow-wielding samurai and planted her feet in the shadow of the gashadokuro, a clear view of Moronobu in the foyer of his manor. “Don’t bother. You’re too weak of an onmyōji to wrest back control of your precious pet.” She grunted. “I’m going to let it tear your skin loose and peel it like hide from your bones.”
Moronobu looked at her. “I thought I told you to leave.”
“I never leave without finishing a job.”
“Oki-san, what—” said Yunosuke.
“I said stay out of this!” shouted Oki, rounding on him and blasting his men with a concussive force of invisible energy. The minister and his samurai crashed into the wall of the house opposite and she turned back to her business.
“Why summon this demon?” she asked.
It was silent for a time, and just when she thought Moronobu wouldn’t respond, he said in his feeble, quiet voice, “The emperor is making a mockery of the faith. I wanted to embarrass him, make the people believe his rule was a sign from the very gods he touted to be descended from, but I never planned to kill.”
Yunosuke limped over again. Stupid fool. “That is treason!”
“I respect no king,” rasped the old man.
Oki’s pitch dropped to a bare, low whisper. “Politics.”
Moronobu just stared at her, a question in his eyes.
“You did all this because of politics?” she seethed. Oki relaxed the puppet strings in the gashadokuro’s right arm, allowing it to lower its massive hand over Moronobu, but held it up short before it grabbed him. Not yet. It would be too easy. She wanted to watch him suffer.
“Why are you doing this?” asked the man, amulet trembling now. “I never killed the villagers this gashadokuro was made from. Why blame me for protecting my people? This land does not need an emperor. We’ve been fine all this time, we will be fine for centuries to come.”
“You said your son died because of it. That wasn’t a lie.”
“My son discovered my plans. He did not believe in them.”
“So you murdered him.”
“No!” shouted Moronobu, louder than Oki’s ever heard from him. “No! He took some of my soldiers and went to go put down the gashadokuro in the dead of night, while I was sleeping. I had no control of the demon. It killed him.”
Oki’s anger boiled over. She loosened the strings again. The massive fingers closed around Moronobu, the amulet sparking, then guttering out. “You did something far worse than what those raiders did, than what you did to your own son. You took innocents from their graves and twisted them into this demon!”
An insidious, wicked energy seeped into Oki’s bitter bones, and she could feel the small man within her own hands, struggling like a helpless insect. She squeezed and Moronobu cried out as the gashadokuro’s fists rasped tighter, bone grinding against bone. This man deserved it. This man sinned against so many…but she couldn’t let this evil consume her like it had consumed him.
The frail, quivering old man stared into the gashadokuro’s eyes.
“Do you see him?” asked Oki after a time.
Moronobu nodded shakily, tears streaming down his face.
Oki pulled the strings back and the gashadokuro let go of him, maneuvering its arms out of the manor. She removed the last purification talisman from her sash and uttered the words of power. Holy fire streamed out of the circular, metallic braid, running across the demon like a bright net of chains. With a flash, bones spilled from the sky.
The sea of bones surrounded her, and Yunosuke’s samurai waded through it to get to Moronobu. They picked him off the ground and tied his wrists behind his back. Yunosuke looked at her. “The emperor will deal with him.”
Oki ignored him. She began picking up bones and stacking it in her arms.
“You are onmyōji,” said Yunosuke, after a moment.
Oki sighed and continued collecting the bones delicately in the crutch of her right arm. In her rage, she allowed an imperial servant to witness her magic. Sloppy. But nothing could be done about it now. “Are ya gonna help me bury this here skeleton or just stand around?”
Yunosuke hesitated for a moment, but took Oki’s lead. And so did the wary townsfolk as they wandered out of the safety of their homes. Hundreds of them. They gathered the remains, washed off the blood, and guided the souls out of Higashiyama and into a peaceful grove deep in the forest.
After the ritual, Oki painfully decided she valued freedom over the promised gold. Yunosuke was a good man, however, Junzo would have certainly informed the emperor of her sorcery. She slipped away, instead leaving the town with a full belly, new omamuri charms, and a little bit of sake.
Across the cracked and broken wastes, two figures came walking.
They were a man and a woman, under a darkened, starlit sky. The man was tall and slender, his skin, eyes, and hair all pale, as if bleached by years or decades of handling power. He was dressed in a dark tunic and trousers with dark, belted outer robe. The woman was shorter, all cinnamon, with hair and eyes the color of fine coffee; she wore a sleeveless top that left her midriff bare, and loose pants cinched in at the ankles above soft leather boots. The man’s hands were bound behind him with glowing chains, and more chains fettered his ankles. Around his neck rested a collar of solid light, and a lead ran from it to the woman’s hands.
An air of subtle, habitual cruelty hung about the man: an icy chill that suggested he was capable of terrible things. The woman gave away nothing, her dark eyes limpid and unreadable. Yet there was something about her—in the way she moved, the easy lightness of her stride—that spoke of danger; and indeed the man regarded her with the respect he might accord a venomous serpent. The woman carried a curving sword, though the edge of the blade was dull; the man was unarmed.
After a time, the man spoke, quietly. “What is this place?”
The woman glanced back at him over her shoulder with one eye. At length, she responded, “This is the Desolation.”
“And what is that?”
“This is the place broken things go to die.”
◊ ◊ ◊
They walked on, the woman leading, the man trudging after, his steps shortened by his fetters. Around them, the vast, lifeless plain stretched out, littered with detritus that might have fallen from the sky: smashed houses jutting out of the earth at impossible angles; splintering carts; broken tables and chairs; jagged wheels embedded in the ground, their spokes sticking up like fangs; ruined child’s toys; crumbling walls and sections of towers. The plain was speckled with these things as the sky above them was speckled with stars. From time to time, they passed flickering, transparent human shapes—thin, hollow-eyed, dressed in rags—hovering over the wreckage. These shades stretched out beseeching arms, calling soundlessly; the man and the woman ignored these mute pleas and walked on.
The man’s eyes were cast down, but not in humility. He was thinking. At length, he looked up.
“And you are to leave me here? Is that to be my punishment?”
Again, she glanced back at him. “No one returns from the Desolation.”
“It is hardly necessary, you know,” the man continued, in that soft, almost gentle voice. “Nor are these—powerless as I am now.” He worked his shoulders, indicating the chains.
“You are not powerless, Edan,” the woman said. “I will not make the mistake of thinking you are.”
His pale lips curved in a smile. “You flatter me.”
The smile faded under the woman’s wordless stare. He averted his eyes in a show of submission that failed to cloak seething anger.
At last they came to a toppled section of a stone tower, lying on its side like a giant, downed tree trunk. A flash of recognition crossed Edan’s features. Holding the lead in her hands, the woman turned and commanded, “Down.” His knees folded under him like a puppet whose strings had been cut. More anger flashed in those colorless eyes. The woman fixed the lead to an iron ring in the side of the wall.
“We will stop here,” she said.
“Terathena—” the man began.
“Do not say my name.”
Edan drew a breath, clenched and relaxed his fists behind him. “Please,” he said. It was clear that “please” was not a word he cared for. “Will you—do you really mean to leave me here?”
Terathena turned that flat brown stare on him. “No one returns from the Desolation,” she repeated stonily.
His brows drew together; and then his fury broke. “You can’t!” he raged, helpless. “You can’t abandon me here—I am Edan, the Lord of the Nine, Starkiller, Highest of All! How dare you! You’re no more than a—a tavern dancing girl from a long line of dancing girls, and you think that the few tricks you know allow you to stand equal to those who have spent a lifetime studying the names of the stars! I—I command you!” he shouted. “I command you to bring me back with you, you hear? I—” He ran himself into the ground and knelt there, panting in fear and despair.
Terathena simply regarded him, arms folded, displaying no visible emotion. Without a word, she leapt lightly onto a fallen block, then lowered herself to a crosslegged position with her back to Edan.
Edan wet his lips. His mind was clearly still working. “Tera—forgive me, Thena,” he corrected himself. “Please. Will you bring me back with you? I will—will reward you beyond your dreams. I can give you things that—” He looked up at her. “Thena?”
Terathena turned her head to look at him. After another moment, she said, “No one returns from the Desolation.”
Edan stared at her. Dawning awareness lit in his eyes.
“It is as I told you,” Terathena said. “The Desolation is where broken things go. To die.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Edan began to laugh, a strange, carefree, almost joyful sound completely at odds with the chill that hung about him.
“So, then. This punishment is for you as well. I had wondered why a tavern dancer had been assigned as my escort.” His voice turned soft, sympathetic. “What wrong did you commit that you were ordered to this fate along with me?”
When the woman answered, it was with a strange air of sufferance, perhaps even resignation. “I chose this duty freely. I am the last of my trio; my sisters sacrificed themselves to defeat you, Starkiller. It is just and fitting that I follow them into death.”
“How very noble of you.” Edan spoke the word as if it were the vilest profanity. “If you—”
“Enough.” Terathena turned her gaze toward the distant horizon. “Soon, the Dead will come.”
“In this place, all must face their sins. They will come, and soon.” She nodded to the distance. “There, they are gathering now.”
Edan went still. He followed the direction she indicated, and paled further.
Some distance from them, a bright mass of light flickered into being, moving toward them, slowly and surely; then it broke apart, into a host of human forms.
There were thousands of these forms, if not tens of thousands. Men, women and children, reduced to transparent, colorless images that flashed against the night sky. They drifted toward the segment of tower where Terathena and Edan waited, passing through the shattered relics littering the flat plain, past the shades orbiting the relics. Edan steeled himself.
“Who are they?”
“Your victims,” Terathena replied. “Those you wronged. Those you killed.”
“What will they do to me?” His voice was iron-hard.
Terathena gave no answer. Above him, she rose to her feet, alert. The horde drew closer, their faces gaunt and haggard, their hair matted, their eyes empty sockets. Many of them bore the wounds that had killed them; some were missing limbs or gaping chunks of flesh. Blood streaked their clothing, dark and clotted against their transparency. They came, limping and staggering, stretching out their hands and crying, “Edan! Edan!”
“See what you’ve done to us, Edan!”
“You murdered us, you monster! Monster!”
“Your life in vengeance! Your life!”
Edan recoiled. His pale face went waxen; his features set, rigid and harsh. “No,” he snarled, barely audible beneath the howling chorus. “No…no, it wasn’t like that, you— You know nothing—You have no right to judge me, you can’t— Leave me!” he cried suddenly. “The Stars’ sake, leave me in peace—!”
The Dead paid no heed. They pressed onward, until they were almost close enough to touch him. Edan shrank away…
Then Terathena leapt down from the block, yanking the sword from her back.
The golden blade lit with eldritch blue flames. She passed close enough to Edan’s head to make him flinch back; as she landed, she lunged into an attack. Blue fire lanced from the blade, striking perhaps a score of the Dead; they boiled away like mist. More pressed forward, but Terathena danced among the shades as a thresher among wheat, slashing with sword and fist. Azure light burst and sparkled with each blow, as more and more of the shades evanesced into nothingness.
Yet the Dead paid the dancer no heed; all their attention was on Edan. They struggled toward him, but none could penetrate the circle defined by Terathena’s flaming blade. Cautiously, Edan straightened, watching with bright interest.
On and on Terathena fought, showing no sign of exhaustion, and the great host of the Dead diminished. Finally, the very last of them winked out; she lowered her weapon and was still under the dark, starlit sky.
“Well done,” Edan murmured. “I would not have thought you frivolous dancers were capable of such power.”
“This was not a battle,” Terathena said flatly. “These were your Dead. They had come for you. They could not harm me.”
Edan’s pale brows drew together. “They came for me.”
“Then why did you not let them take me?”
Again, that weighing, measuring stare. “A quick death is too easy for you.” She looked to the distance. “It is too easy for me.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Edan followed Terathena’s gaze, and tensed again. Two more shining figures were drifting toward their fallen tower like dandelion seeds caught by the wind.
“These are here for me.”
“Will they harm you?” he asked as they drew closer.
A muscle quivered in her jawline. “No. Their purpose is other.”
As they drew nearer, Edan saw that they were both female, Terathena’s age. Colors were muted in the flickering wash of their bodies, but one seemed as pale as he, with large, blue eyes and long blonde hair caught up at the top of her head; the other was dark as burning rock, with a complex hairstyle of tiny braids gathered at the back of her head and studded with pearls and other precious stones. Their clothing marked them as Deep Dancers like Terathena: the midriff-baring top, the loose breeches gathered into low, soft-fitting boots, the coin scarf at the hips. They too had swords at their backs; but the dark one carried a veil wound about herself, while the blonde one was laden with rings, bracelets, and necklaces. They stopped perhaps half a dozen paces away, gazing at her.
“Who are they?”
Terathena looked down at him. Again, when she spoke, there was an air of resignation and acceptance; if this was a punishment for her, then answering Edan’s questions was clearly part of it. “They are my line-sisters and members of my trio. Teraisë and Teramin.” She nodded to the pale one and the dark one in turn.
“Ah.” Edan pondered this revelation. The two women continued to watch Terathena, profound grief in their eyes. “Why do they not speak?”
“There is no need.”
“Why do they not attack?”
“What makes you think they are not?” He looked up at her, startled, as she continued: “The strongest attacks are not always physical.”
“I see.” Edan cast his eyes down, thinking. “They must be very angry with you, to come to you so,” he said, his voice laden with false sympathy.
“Angry? No.” Terathena watched her line-sisters. There was a strange depth in her dark eyes: almost a wistfulness. “Reproachful, perhaps. We all agreed on what had to be done. It was the only thing we could do… ”
“I could say the same,” murmured Edan, a small smile playing around his lips.
“But that does not change the fact that I survived, and they did not.”
“And what was it that you did?”
Her eyes hardened. “Save your breath, Starkiller. You will need it. The attack of conscience is next.”
Edan began to laugh again. “Attack of conscience? You are wasting your time, dancing girl. I don’t have one.”
Terathena extended her sword. “You will.”
In the sky, a dark cloud was gathering.
◊ ◊ ◊
Edan followed the line of Terathena’s pointing blade and saw it: a thick, dark, roiling mass. It looked something like a thunderhead, far off, yet swiftly drawing nearer.
A sound drifted to them: a high-pitched, whining noise that seemed to drill into Edan’s brain like a diamond-tipped blade. He knotted his hands into fists behind him and looked up at Terathena, to see if it was grinding on her too; her face was as stony as ever, but there was a new tightness around her eyes.
The cloud boiled closer still. It seemed to be made up of fine particles of some sort, but he couldn’t tell what—and then it struck him.
Thousands, perhaps millions of tiny insects, milled above them in the starry, empty sky. The cloud wafted over them—then bent and twisted back upon itself, and arrowed straight for them.
“Thena!” he shouted in warning.
But Terathena was already moving, tracing a circle around them, her feet weaving an intricate pattern of steps. She swirled and tossed her sword so that it flashed in the air, a flowing snake of blue-gleaming metal. Where she stepped, a shield of blue flame blazed alight, arching over them in a perfect dome. With the shield complete, she raised her sword to a guard position and set herself.
The insects came for them, squealing mercilessly. They were hideous, bristled creatures: each as long as a thumb, black bodies banded in sickly gray or blue or green and ending in inch-long, gleaming stingers. Their tiny heads were a twisted parody of human features; they called in voices rendered shrill and tinny by their size, and it was this that made the sickening whine. They were so repulsive that Edan drew back, shaking; then the creatures in the leading edge of the attack struck the barrier and flashed into flame.
They blazed out as quickly as sparks, and the entire cloud halted. It lifted away from the barrier, milling in buzzing confusion.
Edan hesitantly looked up. “Will they leave us?”
Terathena shook her head. “No. They will be attacking again in short order.”
“They are so ugly,” he mused.
“They carry vile deeds.” Terathena tightened her hand on her sword hilt.
Edan lowered his eyes in thought. “And how many of these insects have come for you, Terathena?” he asked her, with that same false sympathy.
She did not give him so much as a glance. But she lifted her free hand and held up fingers—one, two.
Teraisë and Teramin. He laughed again, while above, the cloud came for them.
◊ ◊ ◊
The full mass of insects struck the shield with a roar, like waves crashing on rocks. Hundreds of them went up almost instantly; Edan squinted against the brightness of the little creatures’ funeral pyres. Another wave came at once, and another—until under the onslaught, Terathena’s defenses began to weaken. The blue fire of her shield bowed inward, growing thin. In the shadow of the surging insect cloud, he shuddered.
“Your barrier will hold?”
“We can only hope.” Terathena swept her sword along the places where the shield was injured. More blue flame followed the curving path of her blade, but for every damaged section she healed, another appeared. Edan watched, fascinated. He had always dismissed the Deep Dancers as tavern wenches; he had not dreamed they had such power.
“If you free me, I can help you, Thena,” he offered.
“Be silent,” she snapped. She danced within the shield, faster and faster, and yet more and more of the insects flung themselves against her defense, until a section of the barrier was worn paper-thin.
“Thena…” Edan’s shoulders tensed.
“I see it!” She whirled to face the new vulnerability. Yet as she threw her fire at it, more rents began to open up in the fabric of the barrier. A huge section of the dome split open from top to bottom.
“Terathena!” Edan shouted.
With a cry, Terathena extended herself in a wild lunge, sweeping the blade down the gaping rend as if opening an opponent’s belly. The wall of the barrier flowed back together, but a high-pitched whine announced that some of the insects had slipped through. Edan felt three searing pains at the base of his neck.
With a choked cry, he collapsed flat on his face, pressing his forehead against the hard earth. His guts were filled with lead, his heart with ice. Guilt!
He saw them clearly, three faces. Narelan, his first victim—his friend. Selchie, his mentor. Demeald, his faithful follower—the last, futile death. Had he not repaid their kindness with betrayal and murder…? Only three deaths, out of the thousands he had caused, and yet now their weight was crushing him. Edan clasped his hands over his head, crying “Terathena, help!”
It seemed like a lifetime before the three points of heat were swept from the base of his neck. The burden lifted; even so, Edan kept his face pressed to the ground, lacking the strength to move. The after-effects of that horrible guilt were still with him; he trembled, terrified that it would return. He lay there, helpless, hearing Terathena’s blade sing as she danced, defending him.
Finally, as the last edge of the insects’ hum died to silence, Edan raised his head.
Terathena stood with her back to him, her sword clutched in one hand. Her back was straight, her head high; her countenance was grim, rocklike. The blue, flickering shield was gone. Around them, a perfect circle was demarcated by ash and insect corpses piled in tiny mountains.
Outside the circle, Terathena’s Dead remained, watching her with deep sadness. Something in the set of Terathena’s hard shoulders showed that she was acutely aware of their presence. Edan looked closer.
Clinging to the back of Terathena’s neck were two of the same, wasp-like creatures that had stung him.
“Thena,” he said harshly.
She turned her head.
Absently, Terathena reached up and slapped the wasps away.
“Did you know?” Edan asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“My conscience already stings me; the insects could not hurt me further.”
Edan watched the Deep Dancer in dawning awe. “Name of the Triune, what did you do, Thena?”
Terathena shifted her eyes to Teraisë and Teramin. “I killed them.”
“Killed?” Edan laughed a little, though it was hollow. “That, I do not believe,” he chided her mildly. “I cannot think you capable of such a deed; not one of you dancing girls. Those of your order have never understood true power. If I—”
Now Terathena glanced at him again. “Be silent, murderer.”
Edan raised one brow. “Have you not said you were a murderer yourself?”
“I am,” Terathena said shortly. “That is how I can recognize such crimes in another.” She reached out and touched the pale strand of light that led from his collar to the ring in the wall. “Silence.”
Edan’s voice died in his throat. He almost choked from the force of it, from his own rage and anger. Terathena resumed her position, staring out across the plain of wreckage and shades, simply watching.
Time passed. Edan shifted restlessly. Anger at Terathena was foremost in his mind; he thought of how he would like her to die—her, and the others who had condemned him, the High Council of the Nine Cities. If I still was what I had been, they would never have dared, he thought with a petulance that even he recognized as rather childish. They would not dare to do this to…
But they had: the High Councilor, Kilantra Rasheman, the other councillors, two from each city. As they had passed sentence, he had burned their faces, their names into his mind, swearing silently that he would revenge himself on them…all of them…they…
Suddenly the realization struck him that he could not remember the others. Even their faces were misty. Had there been the full eighteen councillors? He tried to recall the details—but they slipped away. With a bright spark of fear, he reached further back, for that last, disastrous battle where his forces had been overthrown and he had been enchained. He could remember staring out over the walls of his citadel, built in the ruins of the City of Starlight, seeing the forces arrayed against him across the Plain of Stars; could remember his fury at their defiance, at his own subordinates’ failures, but little beyond that. He knew that the walls had been breached, that it had come to hand-to-hand fighting within the citadel itself…but the memories themselves were gone.
He could only remember three things with clarity: the faces of his Dead.
Burn the Triune, he thought viciously. Above him Terathena watched the skies.
Silence stretched out; minutes turned into hours. The faces of his dead filled his thoughts. Edan slowly realized he felt a chill…as if strength was draining from his bones. A strange lassitude seemed to be creeping into his body. He started up with a gasp.
Terathena spared him a glance. After some consideration, she reached out and touched the strand of light that served as his tether. “Speak.”
Edan exhaled sharply. “I feel…weaker.”
“Yes.” Terathena nodded. “I feel it as well.” Her rigid, upright stance was starting to falter. “It is the Desolation. It drains you of your strength, your life, until there is nothing left, and you become…” She nodded toward a pair of shades sitting on a shattered oven: a sobbing outline of a man holding a child.
“And my mind—” Edan broke off. “It is going. I cannot remember—”
“The Desolation takes everything from you except the wrongs you committed.” She faced her own Dead. “Those remain with you always.”
The chill inside Edan deepened into panic. Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—their eyes bored into him. And behind them, more— hundreds, thousands… “Why? Why was I sentenced to this? What purpose can it serve? The dead are dead; this will not bring them back—”
“You have no choice. Neither do I.” She returned to watching the wastes.
Edan gritted his teeth, angry not just at her response, but at his own weakness. I will not speak to her again, he vowed silently.
More time passed; there was nothing but that gnawing, cold lassitude. Terathena’s sword sagged, as if it were too heavy for her to lift. Edan found himself shivering as if he were standing in a blizzard. Yet the cold did not seem to be physical. There was nothing to do but to contemplate the end.
At last Terathena took a seat on a stone block that had fallen from the tower. It was the ruined Tower of Stars, his citadel; he had recognized it at once. Seeing the ruins here had shaken him; it seemed almost purposeful.
If Terathena recognized it as well, she showed no sign; she settled with her back to the wall, resting her sword on the ground. Her eyes were distant. Her Dead moved to stand beside her, each still watching her with identical expressions of deep grief. Seeing them grated on Edan’s nerves.
“Thena,” he said at length—for a moment he had not been able to remember the name of the woman who held him prisoner, “why do you not drive them away?”
He saw a brief blankness in her eyes, as if she were struggling to remember, too. “I can’t,” she said at last, and looked down. It took Edan a moment to realize what was in her voice: Helplessness. The thought flickered that he could use this to his advantage, but it was distant. He realized, with dismay, that he was coming to accept that no escape was possible.
“Why not?” They bothered him, those Dead of hers; their silence, their piercing gaze.
She shook her head dully. “They have earned whatever reproach they see fit.”
“For the Triune’s sake, Thena! At least tell me what you did, that you believe you merit such punishment.” His own Dead hovered, demanding. As she considered him, he offered, “It will help pass the time at least.”
She hesitated, then gave a sigh. “It is little enough to tell.” Again, he could see that she felt this to be a part of her punishment. “Do you remember your taking of the City of Night?”
A small smile came to Edan’s pale lips, tinged with bitterness. “Of course. That is where I earned the name Starkiller.”
“After the fall of Night, you seemed unstoppable.” Her dark eyes were distant, as she looked on things long past. “When it became clear that the First City, Elean the City of Dreams, was your next target, there was panic.”
Edan said nothing, but that small smile remained.
“The Grand Assembly met for three days and three nights. All the Great Houses, the merchant nobles, the heads of the sorcerous orders—all gathered, searching for some way to respond to the threat. Who could know how to fight an army such as yours? Creatures forged from the bones of the living—unnatural, twisted, in torment—”
Edan’s brows drew together. “No, you are wrong. Those who followed me were content to serve me. They were—”
“If they were content, it was because you had stripped their minds away and turned them into empty vessels for your will, Edan Starkiller,” she retorted. Edan fell silent, seething. Terathena continued.
“Elean, the City of Dreams, is not the City of Blades—Elean rules by wealth and splendor, not by iron and steel. They had few defenders to send against you. I and my sisters—” She looked over at Teraisë and Teramin, and Edan gritted his teeth at the emotion in her eyes. I did not take them from her; she did that herself, by her own admission.
“The Council was divided. Some thought we should join the other Free Cities in the field, hopeless though it might be. Yet just as many believed that to contest your might would bring destruction, and that it would be best to surrender to your will.”
“Wise,” Edan murmured.
Under Terathena’s gaze, his smile withered. She went on. “Those who argued for peace pointed to the City of Night. There had been a few brief reports conveying that they had been treated well after your conquest. But my sisters and I—no. I did not trust them.” She lifted her eyes to her sisters again. The sorrow in their faces deepened immeasurably.
“I suggested that we should go to the City of Night ourselves, to learn whether my worst imaginings were true. They…they agreed. We had pledged our lives to each other: that we would face all dangers together, that where one of us went, so too would the others. We had pledged…” She trailed off.
“We were perhaps a week on the roads, before we crested the Mountain of the Sun and saw the City below us, in all its dark and jewelled glory.”
She brushed at her forehead again.
“There we cast lots. Two of us would go on. One would remain, to carry the tale back, if the other two did not survive…” She pressed her hand briefly to her eyes. “I was chosen to stay behind.”
“I watched as they approached the city gates; as they were surprised, overpowered, and taken to the holding pens. I watched, from the heights of the hillside, as they were thrown into the great forging vats in the heart of the city; as they were remade into mindless, obedient thralls. When the transformation was complete and they were sent out to walk the roads, I confronted them and slew what was left so that they would not suffer the fate to which I had abandoned them. The fate that, by right, I should have shared with them.
“The rest is known to you,” she said simply. “I returned, alone, and gave my testimony to the Council of Nobles. They argued and protested, but in the end, they believed. Elean joined the other Free Cities, and together overthrew your stronghold in the City of Starlight. If I had not returned, then they would still have been debating when your army appeared at their gates. But…”
Again, a single muscle quivered along her jawline. “But my sisters are still dead. I sent them to corruption and ended by taking their lives. If we had held to our pledge—if I had accompanied them into the city, the three of us might have stood a chance. At least we could have died together. I broke our vow,” she murmured, addressing her Dead directly, “but you paid for it. And for that, my sisters, I will never forgive myself.”
The two shades shared a glance, joining hands. A deep and aching grief was in their faces.
Terathena spoke again. “That is what I have done, Edan Starkiller, to merit the Desolation.”
Edan lowered his eyes once again, thinking. The fatigue drained him, clouding his mind. He was beginning to find it hard to breathe, and more and more memories were fading. Her sisters…Teraisë, Teramin… He thought he could see the shadows of his Dead behind them. Everything else was faint.
“You should not blame yourself,” he said at length. “You did not act out of malice…”
“They are no less dead for it.”
Edan managed to shrug. “What purpose does such blame serve now? It will not restore the Dead. Would it be not better and as just to simply live?”
“Is that your philosophy, Starkiller?” Terathena goaded him. “Tell me the names of your Dead. If you can, there are so many.”
“I can,” he said quietly. “Three, at least: Selchie. Narelan. Demeald.”
The names seemed to abash her, but she rallied. “And what else do you know about them? They aren’t people to you. They never were.”
Edan thought at first to dismiss her question, but then paused, considering. What else was there to do in this place?
“Perhaps you are right,” he admitted at last. “To me they were just…means to an end.” His thoughts circled morbidly.
Narelan. Selchie. Demeald. “Narelan was…my friend.” Was he? a small voice whispered. “We had both hoped for an apprenticeship with the same master; I was more skilled, but Master Selchie thought his temperament was better suited to advanced study. So I…cleared the way.”
“How?” Terathena asked.
“Poisoned wine. I knew he would take it from my hand. He took one sip and fell dying at my feet.” Narelan’s eyes haunted him. “He knew, at the last.”
“Something to be proud of,” Terathena said coolly.
Anger flared; Edan felt his face harden. “He had no right to stand in my way.”
Terathena did not respond. Wearily, she placed her sword crosswise at her feet. “And the second? This Selchie?”
“Selchie…” She had been a slim, rugged woman, all sharp angles and crags, as if the rigor of her discipline had pared everything nonessential away. Short silver hair had shaded piercing green eyes over a face like a stone outcropping. “Selchie took me on after I disposed of Narelan. I used to wonder if she suspected. But I was careful always to show myself the good apprentice to her.”
“I remember,” Terathena said slowly. “There was some upheaval in the City of Starlight… The Revered Speaker Selchie had been proved a traitor, dabbling in forbidden magics… She was sentenced to the Stone Death…” The Deep Dancer shook her head. “The details are gone. But—” She studied him. “Was it you, Starkiller?”
Edan nodded. “She did not see what I was doing until it was too late. She thought my interest in the Dark Speech was for pure scholarship. I had not planned to move against her as swiftly as I did, but she came upon me, late one night in the catacombs under the tower, and saw what I had conjured. She tried to expose me, without realizing that she was tripping the jaws of my carefully laid trap. By the time I was done with my revelations to the Greater Circle, I had them convinced it was I who had come upon her speaking the Darkness.”
“No one believed her?” Terathena asked.
“No.” Edan shook his head slowly. “The more she struggled, the deeper she was ensnared. They dragged her to the Plain of Statues, even as she still screamed the truth. She cursed me vilely as the Stone Death took her.” He paused. “They were all so grateful to me that they immediately moved to make me the new head of the Grand Council, though I had been raised to Master less than a star cycle before.” He gave a small laugh. “Revered Selchie and the Statues of the Plains were among the first recruits for my army.”
“Your walking statues, Starkiller,” Terathena said scathingly. “And her, Edan? Do you take pride in this too?”
He put his head back and looked up at the sky. The subtle chill that hung about him deepened momentarily; if Terathena had been a lesser woman, she would have quailed. “It was the neatest trap I ever laid,” he said softly. “It was truly a thing of beauty.”
“You did not answer the question, Killer of Stars,” Terathena pressed.
For another moment, Edan remained with his head thrown back, looking up at the sky above him; then the line of his shoulders slumped. He shrugged. “It was necessary, that is all. She brought it on herself.” His brows drew together. “Stop asking me.”
The eyes of her Dead rested on him.
“And you as well, shades,” he snapped.
“The third one, Demeald—why him?”
Edan started to flare, then stopped; he was too weak for anger. “When I slew him… Everything was falling apart by then. Your armies were at the gates. My hold over the minds of my troops was going. If you had only understood—” His anger surged again, hot and welcome against the creeping chill. “Triune above, Terathena, if you had only seen what I wanted to give you—”
“If we had only allowed you to enthrall us? Is that what you wanted, Edan?”
“Well…yes,” he admitted, stonily.
“What sort of world would that be?” Terathena sounded as weary as he felt. “A world full of mindless beings who followed you because you had left us no choice?” She regarded him with outright incomprehension. “Why would you desire that?”
“Because no one would follow me any other way!” he burst out. He dropped his eyes and stared at the ground, working his hands behind him; a slight flush stained his chalky complexion, though Terathena, watching, could not tell if it was shame or rage. Perhaps both.
There was silence for a time, and then Terathena said again, “Demeald?”
“Demeald was the only one who chose to follow me.”
“How should I know,” Edan said, scowling. “Why does anyone follow anyone? Why did your Dead follow you? It was enough that he did.” He jerked irritably at the manacles.
“He came to me after Selchie’s downfall, and asked to be my apprentice. He had no aptitude for magic, but he was loyal and an able commander. That day he came to tell me that the Citadel had been stormed. I knew a rite that might still strengthen my defenses—the darkest of all magics, one that required a human life. And since Demeald had failed me in battle…I thought he might serve me another way, with his blood. So I slit his throat and drained his body of life.” Edan gave a bitter laugh. “And it was useless. He failed me again.”
Terathena was silent, but her eyes rested upon her sisters. Edan felt sudden irritation prick him.
“At least the deaths of your sisters were not for nothing. Comfort yourself with that.”
“I will never forgive myself.”
“Then you are a fool,” he said.
“What do you know of forgiveness?” Her eyes were still on her Dead. “You haven’t even forgiven your victims.”
Edan felt that harsh, tight anger rise in him again. “Why should I?” he asked her sharply. “It’s because they failed me that I’m here! Don’t talk to me about forgiveness when you have no use for it yourself.”
She was still watching her Dead. It grated on him.
“You think I should seek forgiveness,” he said sharply, wanting her to look at him, the living. “Then why don’t you seek it from them?” And he nodded to her Dead.
Terathena’s stony visage cracked a bit. “From them?”
That got her attention, at least. “Yes. Shouldn’t it be up to them?”
He saw her frozen expression with some satisfaction. Teraisë and Teramin watched her somberly. Terathena started to speak…then closed her mouth. She leaned back against the rock wall and turned away. “Be silent.”
Edan shrugged. He was tired of talking anyway. He wondered briefly if Demeald had been in the horde of Dead that Terathena had slain to preserve him.
Again, silence descended.
◊ ◊ ◊
“So, this is it?” he asked sometime later. “The two of us just sit here until we fade?” His voice was thin, weak.
“If…we are fortunate,” Terathena replied.
“And if we are not?”
“There are deaths here…that can make fading look like mercy.”
He leaned back against the wall of the Star Tower. “How long?”
Terathena shrugged. “No way…to tell. Time is not the same here as it is above.”
“And then we will become—Shades.” He glanced toward a fire-blackened table in the distance; a young woman sat on it, gazing blankly into space. “Well—” he managed a laugh. “They seem happy enough.”
Terathena said nothing.
“Is there truly no way out of this place?”
“Some say there is: if you find your Dead, and they give you resolution. Or if you somehow can find that resolution in yourself. Still others have whispered of other ways. All the same, no one has managed to return.”
Find resolution… “You slew my Dead.”
Terathena shrugged again. “They were only stories.”
Suddenly, a strange alertness came over her. Her eyes fixed on the distance. “Ah,” she said, reaching out to touch the sword that she could no longer lift.
“What is it?”
A faint smile flitted across her lips.
“Another way out of here, perhaps.”
And she nodded toward the horizon.
◊ ◊ ◊
Edan looked toward the line where the star-studded sky met the blasted earth. There was a strange thickness, as if he were seeing a distant object. As he watched, the horizon line strengthened.
“Yes,” Terathena confirmed. “Here it comes.”
The thickness became an indistinct shape, drawing nearer. Edan felt a chill.
“What is it?” he asked Terathena.
That faintly bitter smile ghosted across her face again. “A Devourer.”
Edan could see it now: a great dense fog drifting toward them. It looked like an elongated cone of swirling smoke, with a tail that lashed from side to side. As it came in contact with the pale, wailing shapes clinging to bits of debris, both shapes and wreckage winked out of existence. It is consuming them, he realized with a start.
Its head swung toward them: there were no eyes, no nostrils, no features of any kind, only a giant circular maw lined with row upon row of teeth. Even at this distance, a tremendous roaring sound came to his ears—the sound of its feeding.
“What is that monstrosity?” he demanded.
“Some say the Devourers were created to clean the Desolation, to make room for new lost souls. Others say that they are born from the despair of the place, searching endlessly for escape from their grief. They have been here as long as the Desolation itself.”
The Devourer swallowed a boulder orbited by three young women; two chairs; and a cart with a horse skeleton in the traces. Edan shuddered. “And what happens to those it consumes?”
“No one knows. Perhaps, nothingness; or they may go on to another realm. It is possible the Devourers are doorways into another world.” Terathena managed a half-laugh. “We should soon find out.”
“Nothingness.” It sounded strangely seductive. The creature was closer than before, its droning noise louder. “Can we avoid its notice?”
She shook her head. “It is drawn to the fire of life, and that fire burns more strongly in us than in anything else here.”
Even as she spoke, the creature again swung in their direction. Its gullet was all the shades of red in the world against its dull smoky exterior. Its tail lashed over a ruined forge as it began to drill toward them.
Triune, it must be huge. Edan’s spine chilled. Despite the distance, he estimated that he could stand inside the creature’s throat, stretch his arms up above his head, and there would still be room to spare.
“Can it be stopped?”
“My strength is spent; even were I whole, it might not have been enough.” She grasped her sword. “Yet I will do what I can.”
She pulled her weapon forward laboriously, then levered herself up. She almost fell more than once. Finally, leaning on the Tower wall, she reached her feet. It was painful to see her thus, and Edan looked away, working his hands in the manacles. Her Dead watched mournfully.
“You can’t fight this, Thena.”
She shook her head. “I must.”
“You can barely stand—”
She raised one dark brow at him. “You believe you could do better, Starkiller?”
“Yes,” Edan said bluntly.
She managed a laugh. The roaring of the creature was a grinding hum like a storm wind. “You cannot.”
“I can,” he said, reaching for anger and not finding it. “Or try, at least. You’ve wasted your strength defending me, Terathena. Let me fight for you now.”
She regarded him skeptically. Her Dead folded their arms and glanced at each other with that same disbelief. They watched the Devourer’s approach without emotion; perhaps it held no fear for those already dead.
“You’ll be killed.”
He gave that carefree laugh again. “Perhaps that is what I want.” The Devourer augured closer, ingesting a chandelier to which a young man clung, two women in a broken boat, and a crumbling monument. “To have a quick death rather than slow fading. To die as…a shadow, at least, of what I once was.” The roaring of the creature was louder. There was a breeze now, brushing against their faces. “I slew my Dead for nothing, in the end.” He sought for the anger that had accompanied thoughts of them before, and was faintly surprised to realize he could not find it. “Let my death at least serve some purpose.”
Terathena’s face might have been carved of granite. “Do not pretend to remorse.”
“Not remorse, exactly, but by the Triune, Terathena, it just seems fair. Cannot a man wish to do some good despite his nature?” She studied him, unimpressed. He sighed heavily. “As you would have it, then. Think of it this way instead. I am done with existence; I seek only oblivion. Besides, even if I wanted to escape this place, you know I cannot. What harm could there be in releasing me to fight?”
She looked from him to the Devourer, her expression flat. The ground was beginning to tremble now.
“It would be foolishness for us both to die in that creature’s gullet,” he told her, softly serious.
Terathena tightened her hand around her sword. Her arms tensed, but she no longer had the strength to raise her weapon one-handed. “We are almost certainly both going to die anyway.”
“You might still have a chance if you release me. To fight that thing is suicide.”
“Yes. Suicide.” Her eyes remained fixed on the creature; at once, Edan understood, and felt anger.
“So this is your penance?” he demanded. She shifted her unreadable eyes to him. “I have slain far more than you. If you wish to suffer so much—” He jerked his head in the direction of her phantasms. “Ask them for forgiveness. That’s suffering to you.”
Her dark eyes narrowed. The Devourer drew nearer, the ground shaking, its roar filling the air. It inhaled a huge dragon skull, then the top of an ornate carriage; the elderly man in senatorial robes who had sheltered beneath it went to his doom without complaint.
At last, Terathena released her sword and dropped to one knee behind him. Edan felt the manacles and fetters fall away. She touched the strand of light that chained him to the tower wall, speaking a word, and the collar lifted from his throat.
Edan shook his wrists to restore the blood flow, then sought to rise, almost overbalancing; he had underestimated his weakness.
He faced Terathena, meeting her steady gaze. The Devourer roared like a terrible gale. Wind screamed in his ears.
“Ask, Terathena!” he called above the gale. “Your Dead. Ask them for forgiveness. I want to see that of you before I die.”
She crossed her arms. “And what will you do if I do not?”
Edan laughed. “Nothing,” he said, “but I would still like to see it.”
She studied him. Then, as if this too were something she must endure, she turned to face her sorrowful Dead.
“Teraisë,” she said. “Teramin.” And her stony façade cracked, to reveal a pain greater than Edan would ever have guessed. Her shoulders trembled, her iron voice shook. Tears glistened on her cheeks “My line-sisters. Forgive me. I sent you to your doom, while I remained. I know I have no right to ask, and yet I do—Forgive me?”
“Well done, Terathena,” Edan said quietly. She seemed not to hear him, focused entirely on her silent, watching Dead. Edan dismissed her, and turned to face the Devourer.
It was almost upon them. Its fog-like tail lashed. Its maw loomed up above him, twice, three times his height; its throat seemed paved in fire. Long, gleaming ivory teeth studded its gullet in concentric rings, all the way down its throat. The ground shook so hard Edan could barely stand, and a great blast of scorching-hot wind made him stumble The creature’s roaring filled his world. Still, he felt strangely light hearted; he had chosen and by the Triune, he had no fear of the end. One last time he thought, without rancor, of his Dead—Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—and then all that was left was a heady sense of freedom.
Edan laughed again, a bright, carefree laugh. Terathena saw him spread his arms wide, and he began to call upon the Nine Names of the Stars, the words that had given him his strength in the world outside. The fog skin of the creature began to split. Fissures appeared, running the length of its body; smoke trailed from them, streaming into the air like blood in water. Its tail thrashed; it writhed in evident agony, and the roar of its breath grew high, keening.
Edan was reeling too. With each Name, he paled a little further, swayed a little more. By the time he spoke the Third, he almost fell; with the Sixth, he collapsed to his knees, and tried to rise but failed. His lips moved, but Terathena could hear nothing above the din. He was trembling in every limb.
As he knelt there, panting, the Devourer reared up into the sky and then plunged downward. Its howls sounded like the shredding of the world. Edan lifted his head and spoke one final word.
The Devourer began to shatter, streaming smoke so thick that Terathena’s eyes stung with it; and Edan gazed straight at his doom as with its dying breath, the Devourer swallowed him whole.
Then, the fog creature crashed to the ground, shuddered, and was still.
Terathena approached the carcass of the dead beast. It lay like a beached whale, stretching on forever. Smoke still streamed like blood from the cracks in its surface, though it was thinning to a trickle. She reached out and laid one hand on its side; fog pooled around her fingertips.
“Well done, Starkiller,” she murmured.
“Terathena,” a voice came from behind her.
She turned, one hand going to the hilt of her dance sword, though she was so weak she could barely lift it.
Teraisë and Teramin stood hand in hand, shining so brightly that Terathena could scarcely look at them. Their terrible grief was gone as if it had never been. Instead, a radiant joy filled their faces, shining straight into Terathena’s heart.
“My sisters…” The tears in her eyes were not from smoke.
“Our sister.” Their combined voices chimed like the ringing of bells. Almost blinded by emotion, Terathena reached out to them—but then realized with a shock that they were disintegrating before her eyes.
“Wait!” Her own hands were thinning, becoming transparent. Desperately, she reached for them again, but her hands passed right through them. “Stay—forgive me, if you can—”
“There is nothing to forgive. It is not we that keep you trapped here, Terathena; it is yourself. Forgive yourself, we beg you,” they chimed. “Forgive yourself and go, with our blessing and our love.”
“Teraisë—Teramin—wait!” She longed to take them by the hands, to hold them with her just one moment longer. The world was fading; her line-sisters were no more than featureless outlines of light. Yet still she could see their eyes, shining with love and joy.
And then Terathena knew that the grief in their eyes had never been for themselves, but for her.
◊ ◊ ◊
A light breeze was playing across her face. She was lying on something soft that felt like grass. She opened her eyes, and sat up.
Terathena found herself in a grove of trees. Oak, sycamore, rowan, hazel, maple, ash, walnut, mulberry, cypress: the trees of the nine cities. It came to her that she was in the Forest of the Nine, the grove where she and Edan had been transmuted to the Desolation. The trees’ branches formed a solid wall of green leaves around her.
She looked up at the sky. It was night. The Stars blazed forth in the heavens. The light breeze brushed her cheeks and stirred her long curls.
Beside her, on the grass, lay Edan’s lifeless body. Starkiller—who wrought so much devastation in life—looked almost peaceful in death.
She looked up at the sky again. She was here. She was here.
Slowly, she rose to her feet, stretching her arms up to the heavens, giving thanks to the Triune Mother that she had returned. Survived. She then looked down at the dead man and nodded to him as well. Thank you, Starkiller, for your final request of me. Had he wanted her to have the release he could not have sought for himself? Her thoughts turned toward Teraisë and Teramin.
“Thank you, my sisters,” she whispered aloud, remembering their grief, their joy. “I will never forget you.”
She reached back, touching the hilt of her dance sword, then straightened her shoulders. In one smooth movement, she drew her weapon, then held it out, pointing it straight at the tree limbs forming the barrier. They uncurled from each other to create an archway. Beyond was a long, grass-covered hill, sloping down to a rippling river. Low, forested mountains loomed beyond, dark shapes against the brilliant stars. Terathena felt buoyant, as if a weight had been lifted. She drew a breath and then stepped through the arch in the foliage. The night lay before her, open and welcoming.
The leafy archway closed again behind her, hiding Edan’s lifeless form from view. She sheathed her weapon and started down the grassy hill, toward the world that waited for her.
Noldor women, elven men
in the slow, sonorous music of stone
learned from the dwarrow
of the halls of Khazad-dûm?
In the moonlight you coax,
the precious fumes of molten mithril
slowly, so slowly,
out of moonlit, starlit mist
with words of thrumming power.
So much effort for so little!
But the artisans require it
for a project worthy of Fëanor himself.
And over several misty evenings
the small basin fills.
The weather clears.
The forge-fire dies.
When Celebrimbor inspects their basin,
And passes his hand above the harvested ithildin
It causes the contents of the bowl to shine like stars,
reflecting Elbereth’s glory,
glow as if moonlight shimmered on water.
“What word will unlock its power, my lord?”
Asks a smelter-singer, with a respectful bow.
Celebrimbor’s eyes lift to the lambent snows
above the dwarrowdelf, and he smiles.
“Friend. The inlay is for a door to our friends.”
— Wendy S. Delmater
Wendy S. Delmater is a writer, poet, and the long-time editor of Hugo-nominated Abyss & Apex Magazine. Recent publication credits include short stories and poetry in *Star Line*, Silver Blade, The Singularity magazine, and Illumen. Her new poetry chapbook Plant a Garden Around Your Life can be found on Amazon.
Authors’ Notes: J.R.R. Tolkien drew heavily on Nordic myths in his mythology of elves. So it felt fitting to have a Nordic translation of an origins story for the Doors of Mordor from the happier time when Hollin (Eregion, in elvish) was under the dominion of the high elves who had come from Elvenhome to Middle Earth. The linguistic challenge of writing this poem in a similar style to Tolkien’s verse while staying within the confines of Norwegian, which has very few words, were considerable, but we believe that the results are worth it.
Margrét Helgadóttir (translated into Norwegian)
den langsomme, dype musikken i sten
lært fra dwarrowene
i Khazad-dûms haller?
I måneskinnet lokker du,
de dyrebare partiklene fra smeltet mithril
sakte, så sakte,
ut av månelys, stjerneklar skodde
med ord av trommende styrke.
Så mye kraft for så lite!
Men håndverkerne krever det
for et prosjekt verdig selveste Fëanor.
Og over flere tåkefulle kvelder
fylles de små bollene.
Når Celebrimbor undersøker deres balje,
Og lar sin hånd gli over den høstede ithildin
Får det innholdet i bollen til å skinne som stjerner,
gjenspeiling av Elbereth’s herlighet,
glødende som månelysets skimmer på vann.
“Hvilket ord vil låse opp dets makt, min herre?”
Spør en smelter sanger med et respektfullt bukk.
Celebrimbors øyne løftes til den hvitstrålende snøen
over Dwarrowdelf og han smiler
«Venn. Innstøpningen er for en dør til våre venner.»
— Margrét Helgadóttir
Margrét Helgadóttir is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer and anthology editor (African Monsters, Asian Monsters) living in Oslo. Her stories have appeared in a number of both magazines and print anthologies such as In flight literary magazine, Gone Lawn, Luna Station Quarterly, Tales of Fox and Fae and Girl at the End of the World. Her debut book The Stars Seem So Far Away was published by UK-based Fox Spirit Books in 2015 and was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award in 2016. http://margrethelgadottir.wordpress.com/
Editor’s Notes: Ithildin was a substance made by the Elves out of the metal mithril and used by the Gwaith-i-Mírdain in constructions such as gateways. Ithildin could only be seen by the reflected light of the Moon and stars, and even then remained hidden until a “magic” word was said. The designs on the Doors of Durin were made from this substance. In the legendarium, Gandalf translated ithildin as “starmoon”.
Tolkien stated that ithildin is a Sindarin name, meaning “moon-star(light)”, “moonlight” or “starlight.” The word contains the elements Ithil (“moon”) + tin/tîn (“spark; star; twinkle of stars”). He noted that the correct Sindarin form should be ithildim .
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Journey in the Dark”
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings”, in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), pp. 39, 66
(Cited from Tolkien Gateway)
The composite image was stimulated by the line, “bowl to shine like stars”: a crystal bowl superimposed with an abstract radiant light source.
Most nights, you mention him,
the ghosts rise from the cypress
come back to wail and moan.
Haints all look the same,
can’t tell the whites from the Brothers,
‘cause the war took every one alike,
and some still stick around.
It’s been nigh fifty years, Granpappy say,
back when it was the Civil War,
and that man with crazy eyes came through—
old General Sherman and his men
took our food, our mules,
even our women along the way,
burning and blazing every field,
cotton or corn or sugar cane,
telling us we join up
so’s we’d be free, that’s what they said.
Granpappy almost starved,
beings how the soldiers got the food
and only scraps for the Brothers that survived;
still more drowned at Ebeneezer Creek
trying so hard to keep up,
a-marching straight to hell,
all the while still being slaves,
no better than the Reb’s to them.
But them haints, General Sherman,
they all look the same.
— Marge Simon
Marge Simon has won the Strange Horizons Readers Choice Award, the Bram Stoker Award™ (2008, 2012, 2013), the Rhysling Award and the Dwarf Stars Award. More at margesimon.com
Editor’s Notes: The superposition of solider statues on the base of the William T. Sherman Memorial in President’s Park (Washington, DC) in silhouette on a photograph of cypress trees (by blackmagic), all rendered in a ghostly sepia, complements the poem.