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.
This is a story about how I traveled along a loop in the rope of time. It starts with what I was told by the little old lady in Pasadena.
Okay, I know you are hearing that Jan and Dean tune in your head. No, it wasn’t that little old lady. Yes, she was a little old lady, but she was English, and I met her in Pasadena, Texas. It’s a suburb of Houston, where I grew up. I was fresh out of the UT journalism school, on my first newspaper job. They didn’t trust me with any hard news stories back then.
The managing editor called me over to his desk. “We have a local hookup with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s a woman living here now who is a survivor of the sinking.”
“Wow, how old is she?”
“She’s 82. She was saved in a lifeboat with her English family. She later married a petroleum engineer and moved to Texas. She didn’t like to talk about her experience on the Titanic while her husband was alive—she said it bothered him to hear about it—but she’s widowed now and living alone in Pleasant Estates.“
“That’s a real link to history,” I said.
He handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her address and phone number. Her name is Nancy Atkins.”
* * *
Her face was a tracery of wrinkles, but her eyes were bright and blue and seemed to glow from within. She came from a good English family—her father had been a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Asquith during the First World War.
She explained that one reason she had been happy to live in America was that she had a younger brother who went to Cambridge, became a Communist professor, and was recruited as a spy during the Cold War. He was exposed in a scandal known for the most prominent member of the conspiracy, a man known as Kim Philby.
Her brother fled in the middle of the night to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was never heard from again. She said living overseas with her Texas husband helped her avoid the recriminations at home.
She and her other siblings sailed on the Titanic with their mother. She explained her father—a conscientious man burdened with Liberal Party duties—had planned to sail with them but was held back by work and sent the rest of the family ahead on a holiday to Upstate New York with a promise to catch up with them later via another steamship.
It was a lucky accident—the family was saved, for he might have very well been left behind aboard the doomed ship. “My mother never castigated him again concerning his work habits,” she said.
She had a clear, sharp, very British way of speaking. At times, with my East Texas ears, I would have to ask her to repeat herself during the interview.
We spoke for 45 minutes and she gave me a wealth of personal details and observations. She was a bright, curious young girl at the time, and it was a fascinating first-person account of a historical tragedy.
When we finished, I apologized for the many times I asked her to repeat herself because of our different dialects. She smiled. “Do you recall what George Bernard Shaw said about American and British English?”
“That the United States and England are two nations separated by a common language?”
“You’re well-educated and intelligent, young Mister Patton,” she said. She paused. “I wonder whether I could ask you to help solve a puzzle for me.”
“Of course, if I can,” I said.
“Do you know when the song ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was written?”
That took me aback. “No, I assume it was written recently, it was the number one pop song last year. Why do you ask?”
“I heard someone sing the song on the Titanic,“ she said. “When it was on the radio last year, I recognized it. I hadn’t heard it since 1912.”
“I suppose someone took an old tune and wrote new lyrics,” I said.
“That’s the odd part,” she said. “When I heard the song on the radio, I recognized the lyrics. They didn’t make any sense to me when I heard them on the ship, though.”
“That’s impossible, Bette Davis was in pigtails in 1912,” I said.
“Nevertheless, the Texan sang the song to me and my girl friend.”
“There was a Texan on the Titanic?” I asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes, apparently he was a stowaway,” she said. “We saw him when the First Officer took him on deck, but kept him in handcuffs.” She frowned. “He died with all the others.”
“Ma’am, how could a Texan have stowed away on a ship that sailed from Ireland?”
“I have no idea, I was a girl of twelve at the time, and I didn’t think about it,” she said. “I’ve never a told anyone about this encounter, because it never made a whit of sense to me. I hadn’t thought of it for years, until I heard the song on the radio last summer.”
I pulled my chair closer to the table and opened my note pad again. “You need to tell me this story.”
* * *
She sat back down after serving hot tea for both of us.
“As I said, my mother, my older brother, my younger brother and I were off on a holiday to New York,” she said. “We were going to Saratoga. Another family we knew, the Davies, were also on board, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth Anne, who was the same age as I was. We knew each other from school, and we were constant companions on the ship.
“We were on the First Class deck when saw the First Officer with a man in handcuffs,” she continued. “The stranger wore an ill-fitting jacket that was obviously borrowed and was shivering violently, which we both thought was unusual. We didn’t feel it was all that cold, it was only 45 degrees that afternoon.
“The way the First Officer minded him, it was obvious the stranger was a prisoner who was taken above deck for some air. We overheard some nearby adults say that he was a stowaway, and from his manner of speech, a Texan. Then another officer walked over to the First Officer, who spoke to him briefly, and then undid his own handcuff and hooked it onto the railing.
“The First Officer followed the other officer through a nearby door and began to talk into a speaking tube inside. It was obvious he had been called away on an errand. As he spoke he watched the prisoner through a window.
“My friend Betty was somewhat mischievous, and she said to me, ‘Now watch this.’
“She took a few steps backwards in the direction of the prisoner, still facing me, and then called out: ‘Are you a real outlaw?’
“The man didn’t turn his head—he knew he was being watched—and said, ‘Ahm a prisoner of war.’
“He was heavyset, with steel gray hair and a receding hairline that was obvious even in profile. His eyes were coal-black behind his spectacles.
“‘You’re a liar,’ Betty called out. ‘You are too young to be an American Confederate rebel.’
“I was the leader in the Second Texas War of Independence,’ he said firmly.
“‘My name is Betty Anne Davies,’ she said, winking back at me. ‘What’s yours?’
“The stranger reeled off a long name that I couldn’t repeat or remember. It sounded like an Italian soup. He then added, almost as if to himself, ‘They put me here to die. They have abolished the death penalty, but they want me dead. So they put me here.’
“That startled me, and Betty, who said, ‘What do you mean by that?’
“‘You’ll find out this morning,’ he said thinly.
“The man was clearly unhinged.
“‘So your name is Bette Davis, eh?’ He pronounced it back like the American pronunciation, Davis not Davies. I don’t think he could hear the difference.
“Then he began to chuckle, almost maniacally. He said to himself, ‘It seems so long ago’, then and he began to sing to himself, low but clear. The tune was unfamiliar, the words nonsense.
Herr Harris hollow cold,
Herr lipser Swede supplies,
Herr Hansa nevah coiled,
Sheesh gat Bette Davis Ice.
“Betty Anne drew back to me. ‘The man’s a raving lunatic,’ she hissed.
“The First Officer was coming back out on the deck. We could tell he knew something was up.
“‘Let’s go,’ Betty hissed.
“The First Officer looked at us, and then at the stranger, whom he grabbed, and—after retrieving his handcuff from the railing—hustled below desk.”
“That’s the last you saw of the man?” I asked.
“Not quite,” said Mrs. Atkins. “Yes, we learned early in the morning what he alluded to, when the ship struck the iceberg and were all on deck, waiting to board the lifeboats. His reference to ‘ice’ seemed foreboding. While I waited with my family to board the lifeboat, I saw the man again, on the listing deck. He was clinging with one hand onto a funnel, trying to stay on his feet. He was no longer in handcuffs; I assume he was abandoned to his fate.”
“Did he say anything else you?”
“No, he was on the far side of the ship. He looked very cold and very angry.”
“Did he go down with the ship?”
“As our lifeboat pulled away, I saw him, still clinging to a handhold on the tilting deck, shivering violently. His mouth was moving furiously. I couldn’t tell if he was praying, or cursing.”
“That’s amazing, certainly a strange encounter,” I said rather lamely after a pause.
“I hadn’t thought about it for years until I heard that song on the radio,” she said. “Like you, I assumed it was an old tune with new lyrics, but then I recognized the words that hadn’t made any sense to me so many years ago. The pop song now has only made the mystery, as Alice said, ‘Curiouser and curiouser’.”
She smiled like a grandmother. “You’re a clever young man, and as the saying goes, ‘journalists are generalists’. Perhaps you will find an explanation for this.”
“I appreciate your confidence, ma’am,” I said.
But I never did.
* * *
I did later learn that “Bette Davis Eyes” was an original song, and it wasn’t written in 1981, but 1974. Kim Carnes just lucked out with the best cover, helped with some of the cutting edge electronic music technology in the early 1980s.
The few times I saw Nancy Atkins afterward, we never spoke specifically about the stranger on the desk of the Titanic. I think she was uncomfortable with the strangeness of the story, and so was I. Fact was, I’m not sure I believed it—until now.
* * *
Nancy Atkins died in 1991. She had told me Betty Anne Davies died during the London Blitz, while serving as a nurse. So I suppose I’m the only person alive who knows about that doomed Texan on the Titanic.
You’ve probably read and heard how, after the most recent election, more Texans than ever support secession or autonomy. Texans don’t like being on the losing side of anything.
The supporters of secession, the Texas National Movement, has gained thousands of members since the last election. And its headquarters are in another Southeast Texas city, Nederland.
I’m the managing editor of the paper now. Our staff has been shrinking steadily in recent years now, thanks to the national Recession as well as turmoil and difficulties in the newspaper industry. So when I put a story on the Texas Nationalist Movement onto the news list I decided to do it myself.
I drove to Nederland and pulled up to the headquarters in a strip mall. The storefront office was a bustle of activity as volunteers assembled and mailed out membership packets. They all wore t-shirts with the TNM symbol that reminded me of the old Texaco gas station logo.
A young man walked out. He was heavyset with dark hair that was just beginning to gray. He had a burning gaze and coal black eyes. He held out his hand.
“Dan Millieriestri, pleased to meet you.”
Something went Ding! in my head.
“Did you say minestrone?” I quipped.
“I get that a lot in Texas,“ he said, “being an Italian-American. My parents immigrated to Texas after World War II.”
We walked into his office. “You can just call me Dan.”
He was intelligent, intense, forthright, and subversive—just the kind of guy to light the powder keg of a second Civil War. It was a long interview, and as we wound down, I had a thought.
“I want to add something by way of a humanizing touch,” I said. “All we have been talking is politics. Do you have any hobbies? What do you do for relaxation?”
“Of course I spend a lot of time working with the movement, but you know the saying, All work and no play…” He laughed. “Sometimes I strum an old guitar, when I am trying to think and relax.”
He pulled a battered case from behind his desk and pulled out an old acoustic guitar that looked like it cost all of fifteen bucks in a pawn shop.
“I’ll just plunk away and play acoustic versions of old pop tunes. I like the ‘80s stuff a lot, they still wrote lyrics then.”
I played my hunch. “Do you know ‘Bette Davis Eyes’?”
He smiled. “Sure do. That was the Number One song the week I was born in 1981.” He began to play. “I’ve memorized the lyrics.”
* * *
Back in the parking lot, I put my elbows on the roof of my car and my head in my hands.
Nancy Atkins and her friend thought the Texan was referring to “ice” with the song lyrics he sang on the deck of the Titanic—which was ironic in light of what happened to the ship.
They were not familiar with a Texas accent.
Our local pronunciation of “eyes” and “ice” sounds very similar—especially if you’re British, I suppose.
As Bradbury said, time is like a rope, and now I’ve travelled completely around this loop.
I remembered what the little British girl saw as the lifeboat pulled away from the sinking ship: “He was shivering violently, and cursing or praying.”
It was eighty degrees on that late November day as I stood in the parking lot outside the Texas Nationalist Movement headquarters. Unremarkable weather for a native Texan—who would freeze in a snap if thrown into the cold North Atlantic in April.
I know how this story ends.
Some day, Dan Millieriestri will reach the end of his rope.
A soldier returning from the wars was weary both in body and in mind. He limped along the highway, using his old musket as a crutch, until he came upon a roadside inn. The warm lights and sound of singing were a welcome distraction after so many miles on the road.
He went inside. Within an hour or two, the soldier’s belly was full and his head pleasantly fuzzy. The innkeeper gave him a seat by the fire, where he could warm his one good set of toes. But, once the other guests had gone to bed and the fire sunk to an orange glow, the room felt cold and empty.
Another beer would help me sleep. I shall fetch one from the cellar, he thought.
Taking a lantern from the bar, the soldier crept downstairs. He was just about to drain off some beer, when a scratchy voice spoke from somewhere near his knees.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that this is my beer cellar after dark?”
The soldier looked down. Standing beside him, no higher than a four-year-old child, was a little man, dressed in a musketeer’s jacket.
As a boy, the soldier had heard many tales from his grandmother about the kobolds, a motley race of little people who live all over Germany. They are full of magic, but hot-tempered and quick to take offence. The soldier decided that, if the little man was a kobold, it would be wise to treat him with respect.
“Forgive me, son of the rocks,” he said. “I am but a poor soldier, wounded in the wars and down on his luck. I mean you no harm.”
The little man cocked his head.
“You won’t find your luck at the bottom of a beer barrel. What you need is a job. And a wife to keep you warm.”
“Not much hope of either for a man with one foot and only one good eye. I heard news on the road that the King hires wounded soldiers as coffee sniffers. Ever since he closed down the coffee roasters, the only legal coffee in Berlin comes from the royal roastery. The king needs men to sniff out the contraband. I was headed for Berlin in the hope that he might take me on.” The soldier shrugged. “But so many have been wounded in this last war, I doubt there will be a job left for me.”
The little man’s eyes twinkled with a silvery light.
“I can give you such a gift that, when the king’s spymaster meets you, he would dismiss his own brothers to employ you. All I ask in return is that you take me with you to Berlin and allow me to share your home and a little of your food.”
“What gift?” the soldier said.
“The gift of smell. I can give you a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame. You will be able to tell a Java from a Mocha at a distance of leagues. You will be able to stand in the Tiergarten and sniff out the apartment where the bishop’s servant is preparing his brew.”
“And all you ask in return is a little food?” His grandmother’s tales had led the soldier to believe that kobolds hunger for gifts as men hunger for food.
“There is one condition,” the little man said. “You must never watch me eat. If you do so, the consequences will be terrible.”
“I give you my word as a soldier that I will never intrude on your privacy.”
And, with that, the two shook hands on the bargain and agreed to set out for Berlin in the morning.
* * *
When he arrived in Berlin, the soldier found everything to be just as the little man had promised. The moment he crossed the city boundary, a world of scent burst forth upon his senses. He knew what the passerby at his shoulder had eaten for breakfast, whether he was happy, angry or afraid. He could sniff out the mice in their holes and the sparrows in their roosts.
He lost no time in seeking out the house of Count de Lannay, the king’s spymaster and chief revenue collector. As the little man had promised, the soldier was recruited immediately, and soon rose to become first among the coffee-sniffers of Berlin. There was no illegal roastery that his keen nose could not smell out. Soon the former soldier became a rich man. He left the poky garret he shared with the kobold, and took a fine set of rooms in the Stechbahn. With his fabulous nose, he was sought out as a coffee-taster for the royal roastery. No longer must he wear the worn boots and jacket of his soldier days. In their place came buckled shoes, embroidered waistcoats and a periwig for his head. And, in time, he wed Widow Doebbert, proprietor of the Stechbahn’s famous coffee house, and settled down to a comfortable life.
All this time, the soldier had not forgotten to set aside a portion of food for the kobold. He never saw the little man, but as the plate was always emptied, he assumed the kobold had eaten his fill.
But the more the soldier advanced in society, the harder it became to persuade his wife to lay out a plate of food on her clean parlour floor. Widow Doebbert was a city woman, brought up in the king’s new ways of reason and enlightenment. Kobolds, she said, were all very well for grandmothers in the country, but this was Berlin. A respectable Hausfrau could not have dirty plates on her floor; it encouraged vermin. How could they be sure that a rat wasn’t eating the food all along?
The words of his wife cast doubt in the soldier’s mind. He had been rather drunk that night at the inn, and his eyesight was not of the best. Yet he remembered his encounter with the little man so well. Could it have been in his imagination?
That night, when the rest of the household was in bed, the soldier kept watch behind a curtain. On the stroke of midnight, a stealthy padding of feet was heard across the floor, followed by the faintest of snuffles.
The soldier peeped out. Hunched in a corner with the plate on his knees was the little man, exactly as the soldier remembered him. But he did not pick up the food between his fingers. Instead, a long tongue, dark blue with two prongs on the end, shot out from the little man’s mouth. With it, the little man speared his food, which shot back into his mouth on the end of the prongs.
The soldier had seen many disgusting sights during the wars, but the sight of that tongue caused him to let out a sick groan.
In a heartbeat, the little man leapt to his feet. His eyes, white like lamps in the darkness, fixed on the soldier.
“You have betrayed me!” he cried. “All these years, I have given you the best and asked for nothing in return but my daily bread and the privacy in which to eat it. Well, you’ll be sorry now, soldier boy!”
As he spoke these words, the little man’s appearance began to change. His eyes grew bigger, his belly rounder. Hair sprouted from his ears and his lips grew hard. His boots and jacket melted away, leaving the kobold naked as a needle, with dark blue skin and a round light glowing in the centre of his belly.
“I shall take everything away!” he screeched.
A sound of shrieking rose from under the floorboards. The walls of the house trembled, then shook, and finally disappeared altogether so that the soldier was suspended in mid-air. A blue whirlwind seized hold of him and carried him away, until he found himself back outside the inn on the road to Berlin with no more sense of smell than he was born with.
* * *
Having nothing better to do, the soldier went into the inn. No one recognised him, as he was now dressed as a burgher and could afford a room upstairs with a feather bed. Here the soldier ate his miserable supper, and lay awake.
Could a man defeat a kobold? The soldier thought hard. In his grandmother’s tales, kobolds came from underground. They were born of the rocks, and whenever humans had dealings with them, it was in a cellar, a mine, a dungeon. He had first met the kobold in the beer cellar of this inn. Could this be a door to the realm of the kobolds?
The soldier got up and dressed. He left some silver for his host and crept into the cellar, just as he had done years ago. Holding up his lantern, he searched high and low for any unusual crack or handle. At last, he came upon a glowing circle at the height of his knee, exactly like the one he had seen on the kobold’s belly.
The soldier touched the flat of his palm to the circle, and a doorway appeared in the cellar wall. He clambered through and found himself in a narrow tunnel, whose damp walls glowed with phosphorescence. For a man with his injuries, the journey was not an easy one. The stump of his toe ached with the cold, and several times he grazed his hands on the wall.
Just as he felt he could go no further, the passage opened out into a cavern of pure cobalt, whose ceiling was festooned with stalactites. Arranged in uneven tiers, a hemisphere of stalagmites formed an underground arena. And on every stalagmite was a kobold, dark blue with a glowing belly.
On the centremost stalagmite was the kobold king. His hair and beard were silver, and he wore a crown of iron. When he saw the soldier, he narrowed his gleaming eyes and leaned forward on his throne.
“What do you here in my realm, son of men? This is the kingdom of the kobolds, and we do not welcome idle visitors.”
The soldier held up his head.
“One of your kindred has stolen away my wife and all that I own. I have come to bargain with you for their return.”
“A gambler, eh?” said the kobold king. “I enjoy a game of chance myself. Let me set you a little wager.”
He stood and made a noise like the sound of chisel on stone. A whole squadron of kobolds came scurrying from a hidden chamber, carrying between them three wooden chests.
“Tell me, soldier, which of these chests contains the prize of greatest worth? Answer me correctly and I will return your wife and goods to you. Fail and you will spend twenty years in my underground prison. What say you?”
“Very well,” said the soldier, and he scrutinised the chests. In his grandmother’s tales, two of the chests would have been inlaid with jewels and pearls, the third of plain wood. And the third would sure to contain the prize.
But these three chests were all of a likeness. Made of oak, with patterns marked out in brass studs, there was little to choose between them.
“May I touch them?” he said to the kobold king.
“Touch. Smell. Taste. Anything short of opening them.” The king’s belly light glowed more brightly.
The soldier knelt by the chests, ran his fingers along jointed corners. He put his ear to the lids, his nose to the keyholes. And from the centre chest, he caught the breath of a scent more familiar to him than his own. A scent he needed no special powers to detect.
“This one, “ he said, pointing. “This contains the treasure of great worth.”
The waiting kobolds threw back the lid. And, as the soldier had known it would, a rich aroma filled the cavern. There, piled high to the top of the chest were hundreds of oak-dark beans, each with a double crack running through the middle.
“Wrong!” The kobold king leapt from his throne in exultation. “You have failed, soldier. Look! Nothing but burned, blackened nuts. Useless for planting, useless for eating. Now, away to the dungeon with you!”
The soldier held up a finger.
“Not so fast, king of the rocks. I propose a second wager. If I can prove to you that this is the prize of greatest worth, you restore my wife, house and former life to me. If I fail, I spend a lifetime in your dungeon.”
“Done,” said the kobold king.
The soldier grinned.
“Then have your people bring the items I shall now list.”
And the soldier went on to list all items usual for the brewing of coffee. Kettles and coffee mills, coffee pots and silver spoons. The delectable smell in the cavern grew stronger; the kobolds on the stalagmites rumbled with excitement.
When the coffee was brewed to perfection, the soldier poured it into dainty Meissen cups. He handed the first one to the kobold king. The king lifted the coffee to his lips, inhaled the fragrance and took a sip.
The soldier waited.
The king took a second sip and bade all his kobolds do the same.
The soldier waited.
The king took a third sip. Meanwhile, the other kobolds were grunting with excitement. They were waggling their ears, swapping cups, digging their neighbours in the ribs.
The kobold king put down his cup. He fixed the soldier with his lantern eyes. Then he gave a great guffaw that resounded around the cave.
“This is heaven!” he exclaimed. “This is the best thing I ever tasted! Bless the day you came to us, soldier, to show us how to make this wondrous drink. We shall drink it every day, and you shall supply us with the burnt nuts.”
“As the king’s chief coffee taster? Not likely!” the soldier replied. “If you want coffee, you must rely on humans, as you have always done, and respect the laws of the land. Now you must keep your promise and restore me to my former life.”
The kobold king grunted, but he could not undo his bargain with the soldier. He began to hum, a low sound from the depths of the earth, and all the kobolds hummed with him. The circles of light on their bellies spun faster and faster until the soldier became too giddy to stand. He fell into a deep swoon and, when he awoke, he was back in his house in the Stechbahn with his wife beside him.
* * *
The former soldier lived a long and prosperous life in Berlin, eventually rising to become Burgomeister. He never saw or heard from the kobolds again. But every night, before he and his wife went to bed, they left a small pot of coffee and a cup on the corner of the parlour floor. Just in case.
He picks me out of the throng
in Brownian motion on the sidewalk,
puts an arm around my shoulder
like we’re friends; he looks rich,
so I decide to go along with it.
He walks carelessly through the crowd
as if certain that his strong limbs
could part it easily if he wanted to.
Though he’s bald, I keep imagining
a mane about his head.
I’ve picked a pub with cheap drinks,
but for the past half-hour
all he’s had is masala-dripping chicken
and five glasses of plain water.
He holds up a sixth to me as if
it were wine, and as he turns
the glass to catch the light, I see
the deep red tinge of the water.
“You see it don’t you?” he asks
with a knowing feline grin.
“Dragon’s blood – no joke, no drug,
no alcohol, this is the real thing…
This breeds bravery, this fuels the fight.”
I can see his body tightening up,
growing stronger with each sip.
“Perhaps this is not for you,”
he tells me and directs my gaze
toward the bar where a blue-haired woman
sits sucking ice-cubes that I
notice are a deep cobalt blue.
Her face brightens by the minute
and I can’t help staring at her
and waiting for the sudden
ripple of joy that I know
I’ll feel when she laughs.
The man with me, slaked at last,
leaves, and I leave with him.
In the following days, I meet
others like him – the seekers
of water that is more than water.
I begin to see like them, and soon
I too share visions with the silent man
who sips lilac-hued water
from a steel tumbler
in a small udipi joint.
And one day I feel the dangerous
tendrils of all possible futures
through the slime-green water
dripping from a leaky pipe on a slum wall
three buildings away from my apartment.
I begin to think that I understand
it all, that I have tasted
all the waters in this deep-veined city.
But the man in gray shows me
just how shallow I am.
We sit in a small restaurant, sipping tea,
our water glasses untouched.
I call him a man, but truly
I cannot place his age or sex.
I stare only at his face
because his clothes are unbearable to look at—
its edges ending in blinding white
or receding into perilously deep black.
We talk of trivialities, and just before
he pays and leaves, he says to me,
“Look at the water – what color
do you see? None. It’s completely clear.”
But you can feel the thrum, the shift
in light? You know this is no ordinary
glass of water. So what is it then?
It’s something too dangerous
for all the addicts you know.
But what about for you?”
He leaves, but I stay
and stare and stare at the glass.
Three quarters of an hour goes by
and my throat is parched
from the tea which has sweated
every drop of moisture out of me.
I sit fingering the wet outside
of the glass, its rim inches
from my cracked dry lips
that long to touch liquid,
but dare not take a sip.
— Rohinton Daruwala
Rohinton Daruwala lives and works in Pune, India. He writes code for a living, and speculative fiction and poetry in his spare time. His work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality and Through the Gate. He tweets as @wordbandar and blogs at https://wordbandar.wordpress.com/.
Editor’s Notes: The fractal image (by Qualia Computing)—the scale-free fractal “beauty blue”—is combined with “Shiva” (by Psycofairy Ortiz for Desktop Nexus). This blue lady in the center of the image is an abstract interpretation of the poem.
The rumble of their footsteps shook the earth like ‘quakes Their voices called for horrid death and made the heavens shake
The legions of the wolf twin state are set upon our shores Now we the blue clad warriors will meet them all in wars
From Highland keeps we’ll thunder down No mercy in our cry To drive the ‘truders from our home Or know the reason why
And if they offer terms to us Or bargain for our thrall We’ll strike at them thrice fiercely back- And make’m build a wall!
Of Ancient Words and Modern Deeds
It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometer in the west at Bowness-on-Solway. It had been begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian to protect the ‘Lords of the Earth’ from Rome from my people, the savage Scots. We were the only peoples the Romans encountered that were so fierce that it was far less trouble (and a good deal safer) to simply wall off and try to forget about.
It was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antoniene Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today. A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot.
Even eighteen hundred years later it was still impressive, however, when it could be recognized as a man-made structure. The weathered stones crawled across the bleakly brown of the English countryside.
West of Greenhead in Hexham, Northumberland the stones stood stark against the countryside. Thrilwall Castle, visible from the ancient Roman Wall had been built with stones looted from the older structure and so the two grey stone sentinels lorded over the low, rolling hills.
A ground mist crawled along the low hills almost every afternoon as the shadows lengthened. And almost every afternoon Lord Reginald Granville went walking along the base of the ruined wall with his favorite dog, Pollex.
Lord Reginald was in his sixties, though his posture was as ramrod straight as it had been when he fought the Boers twelve years before where he received his leg wound that invalided him out of the service. Though his hair was silver his beard was still bright red. His eyes were still shining and alert as he took his constitutional.
“Feels good to get out for a bit, eh fellow?” The lord said to the golden haired setter. The dog alternately darted forward and ran back to circle Granville. “Damn this bad hip and the damp air, a fellow needs to walk a bit, eh boy?” The dog gave a bark that seemed to agree with his two legged lord and master.
“Though I think we had better be getting back soon,” he continued. He glanced back across the bog toward the hills beyond which were the ancestral home of the Granvilles. “It’s getting dark pretty quickly.”
Lord Granville often wandered over the broken countryside looking for old artifacts, poking the peat brown soil with his ebony-wood cane. There were still Roman jars and potshards to be found easily and on the rare occasion a Roman or early Norman coin could be found without much prodding. In doing so, the old lord went against local custom, for the area of the wall he wandered along was considered something of a taboo in the region.
Granville pooh-poohed such talk and often said, “the past is dead and will stay that way until we dig it up and put it on show.”
On that particular September day the Lord had ranged a bit further a field than usual. He was hiking along a section of the wall that he had not visited since before the torrential rain of the last week. Perhaps that was why he saw the statue so clearly.
It was carved of some dark stone that was not jade but shone like it. The image was barely a foot tall but remarkably well preserved. It was of a bearded man seated on a fancifully carved horse with a fish tail.
“Oh my, Pollex,” the old man exclaimed as he knelt to peer more closely at the statue. “Do you now what we have here?” He picked up the statue and brought it close to his face to study it in the dimming light. “This here fellow is Neptunus equestris the ancient Roman deity of agrarian plenty and of fertility!”
Lord Granville used his cane to push himself to his feet and then did a small jig. “We have really made a find this time, Pollex. This will make the boys at the club green with envy!”
He held the statue up and squinted to take in what detail that was visible in the failing light. It was finely detailed with the equine figure clearly covered with tiny fishlike scales and the tail a fully formed fish tail. The muscular figure that rode it was much like other images of the Roman god of the sea that he had seen in museums but with a delicacy and detail that was almost miraculous. The tiny figure seemed ready to draw its next breath.
“Just wonderful,” he said aloud. He noticed that his own voice was muffled and looked up to see that the mist was thickening to fog. “We’d better shake
a leg, Pollex.”
He called to the dog that had wandered off again nosing for small game but when the animal started to come back toward him it suddenly froze.
“Come on, fellow,” the lord called. “We have to get back before this becomes a pea-souper.
The dog was stiff now, as if pointing, its tail straight behind him and his ears back.
“What’s wrong?” Granville asked, for he could clearly see that something was wrong. More so, he could feel a change in air pressure that made him conscious of a sudden chill in the air. It was also markedly darker than it had been mere minutes before.
The dog was growling now its eyes focused off to his master’s left. Lord Granville felt alarmed now and turned to see what the dog was fixing on. He could see nothing.
“What is it, boy,” Granville asked. “What do you see?”
The nobleman strained his eyes to see what the dog was looking at but the world was becoming a grey-smudged thing with the fog now even muffling his calls to the dog.
“Ignore it, Pollex. Let’s go!” He started to back away toward where the dog was, casting his eyes back to where it seemed the dog was looking.
That was the moment when Lord Granville heard the sound; a low rumbling that was like a bass drum. Granville felt the sound as well as heard it; it vibrated against his diaphragm.
The rumble continued and then there was another sound within that rumble; a heavy breath-like sound.
“What- who’s there?” Lord Granville asked. He had raised his cane now, holding in front of him as if it were a talisman. “Show yourself! Speak up!”
The dog, now behind the nobleman, had started to whimper.
Granville was becoming worried now, for that dog had hunted badger and fox and other animals and never showed that type of fear.
“What in the duce could be out there?” He thought. “A wildcat?” The Scottish Wildcat was a fierce solitary hunter that sometimes roamed the border area. Some were as large as Pollex himself, four feet from head to tail.
“Shoo!” Granville called out in a loud clear voice, though the sound of it was swallowed by the dense fog. “Get away!”
The rumbling sound and the breathing sounds increased. The dog yelped and broke, running off into the gathering gloom.
“Blast you, Pollex, it’s just a bloody cat!” He spoke more to reassure himself than the dog. Being a man of action the nobleman, despite (or perhaps because) the fact that he felt a shiver of fear, stepped forward.
He swung the cane in front of him like a scythe, the dark wood leaving a trail in the thickening fog.
“Bloody hell!” he cursed, “I’ll find you, bugger!”
Suddenly his cane hit something, a large something. It was a thud, loud even in the enveloping fog. The rumble went from the edge of hearing to deafening.
“What?” Granville exclaimed.
The cane was jerked from the nobleman’s hand and the rumble became a roar.
Then a shape exploded out of the fog to overwhelm Lord Granville.
His dying scream was short and loud and despite the fog penetrated all the way back to Granville Manor.
The Phantom Rider
At just about the time that Lord Granville was dying at the foot of the ancient wall I was busy defending myself from his sinister son.
And by sinister I mean that Andrew Granville was a left-handed swordsman of some considerable skill. He was pressing me with a furious series of cuts that I was barely able to deflect.
My name is Jack Stone, late of Her Majesty’s Horseguard and I was on the fencing floor in my club off of Liecester Square in London to settle a bet.
I was on special detached service from the Horseguard to serve a most unusual gentleman, Doctor Augustus Argent as aid-de-camp and general all around assistant. He was Minister Without Portfolio for the Crown and thus I retained my rank of Captain. His particular area of expertise was matters of the unexplained and unusual. Some would call them the occult.
As Doctor Augustus’ assistant I am often called upon to engage the forces of darkness in a more direct and physical way than my ‘Guv’ and so I made a point of keeping up with my military skills. Which brings me to why I was being driven at sword point backwards on the piste of the fencing salon.
Andy Granville was in my old unit and whenever he was in town we had a standing challenge to cross blades. The winner of the bout was treated to a night on the town by the loser; I had treated him twice before out of his three visits.
At that moment it looked like I was going be treating him again. His high guard was like a steel web that I just could not get through but then he was having some trouble actually scoring on me as well. I faded backwards as he pressed me.
“Going to concede, old fellow?” He said. I could see his smirk beneath his mask and for some reason, though I had seen it before it lashed my Gaelic spirit like a buggy whip.
“I hope you’ve had a good run at the weekly dice tables, me’lad Andy,” I said with bravado, “because I’m feeling particularly puckish tonight; I may set a record for tucker!”
As I finished my boast I accepted an especially vicious cut to my left flank, but instead of a conventional response of parry/riposte I took a radical step. I accepted the cut but took a fleche forward, springing at Andy. He tried to dodge aside but rather than make a conventional cut I raced past him with my blade striking and slashing across the chest of his jacket.
“Touche!” I yelled as I twisted my hand to cut back at him and made a second strike on his still extended left arm.
“Bloody hell, Jack!” he tore off his mask and stared at me with a confused expression. “Where did you learn that one?”
I laughed. “A mad Turk who could out drink any Scot I’ve ever met when I was in Istanbul last year.”
“Well I’ll admit I’ve never seen it.” He handed his sword and mask off to one of the watchers (who were busy exchanging money on their own wagers on our match) and came to throw his arm over my shoulder. “But you know, you won’t be able to use that one on me ever again!”
“I spent two weeks in the company of that mad Mohammedan,” I said. “So I have a few more tricks up my sleeve!”
We headed off toward the locker rooms to change and then to a memorable night on the town but were intercepted by Roland, the head butler of the club.
“Most sorry for the interruption, sirs,” he said with a deferential bow, “But this note arrived for you, Master Granville and it was deemed most urgent.”
My red haired friend took the envelope with a puzzled expression and opened it. His handsome features darkened and he looked up at me with a sober expression. “I’m afraid I’ll have to take a chit on your night out, old fellow. I’ve got to race home.” He handed me the note and I read it.
“The Stallion is abroad. I regret to inform you that Lord Reginald has met with a terrible accident and has passed on. You are the Lord of Granville now; return home immediately.” And it was signed simply, “Althelston.”
I was almost as stunned as my friend. I had met his father on two occasions and was impressed by the elder Granville’s vitality. And then there was his almost legendary exploits in the Transvaal.
Andy and I made eye contact and I could see he was fighting several emotions, not only his grief but I knew him well enough that I could see a sharp edge of anger underneath.
“If I can render any assistance,” I began.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you could free some time, old fellow,” he said. “I don’t think I want to make this trip alone.”
“Let’s change,’ I said, “We can still make the late train out of Victoria Station.” I saw his relief at my statement and he even tried a smile.
“Good show,” he said.
We changed in record time and caught a hansom to the station.
I was fortunate to have an overnight bag with me, having just returned from a short trip to Paris for the Guv—i.e. Doctor Argent and so we had no need to stop at my flat.
Andy did not speak for quite some time, in fact until we were seated in our compartment and well on our way north. I respected his need to be with his thoughts but after a time my curiosity overcame my decorum.
“I have to ask, Andy,” I said. “Just what is this statement on the note about “the Stallion is abroad?”
He turned back from staring out the window and seemed grateful to talk. “It is an old family legend,” he said with a somber tone. “It goes back to the time when the Romans occupied this area. A centurion who was particularly disliked by his men got into some kind of argument and either accidentally or otherwise ended up destroying a household shrine of the god Neptunus equestris, an ancient Roman deity. He was a horse god and closely associated with the Scythian cavalry regiment. The householder cursed the centurion and his line before the soldier killed him.”
“So?” I asked.
“Well, he—this officer—went out walking alone and when he didn’t return his men went looking for him; they found him by the base of Hadrian’s Wall, more than just trampled. He was savaged as if by some great beast. Thereafter when someone was about to die in the area there were reports of a strange, riderless horse, a phantom, seen riding along the wall.”
“That doesn’t sound so different from other local legends from all around the Isle.” I said. I realized it might have sounded dismissive and added, “So how does it apply directly to your family?”
Andy smiled wryly at my question. “My family has been near the wall for many centuries; some say we descend from that centurion on the wrong side of the blanket. In all that time the Phantom Stallion has been seen before the death of the head of the family. Usually a violent death.” He gazed back out the window and I suspect it was so I could not see moisture form in the corners of his eyes.
“I have lived with the probability that it could happen; it did for my grandfather, who was found savaged out on the heath many years ago—they never discovered what beast did it. Yet somehow, my father seemed so–so very vital that I never imagined it could ever happen to the Old Major.”
We traveled in silence again for some time. I offered my friend a sip from my small flask of single malt and he gratefully took a swig. I followed suit then slipped it back into my tunic pocket as I enjoyed the heat of it course through my system.
My thoughts went to the validity of the strange legend but I was not one to disregard it. I had seen so many strange things in my service to the Crown under Doctor Argent. And even before that, I had almost lost my life to a creature of the night in my native Edinburgh. It was there I had become acquainted with the Doctor and with the shadow world I had not suspected existed in what I thought a bucolic homeland.
The long day and the gentle clacking of the rails lulled us both to sleep so we pulled out coats over ourselves and settled in. I admit my dreams were troubled with images of the phantom that he had described.
Dawn came abruptly with Andy shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, old fellow,” he said almost cheerfully. “Time for some breakfast; we are approaching Newcastle which means we will be arriving home between meals, this may be all we get for a time.”
I shook off my furtive dreams, though echoes of the somber heath and the Phantom Stallion lingered at the edges of my consciousness. Both of us had elected to wear our uniforms (I was still entitled as I was only on ‘detached’ duty) as it tended to hurry various service personnel along. It was the case that morning as well when the purser found us a table quickly in the crowded dining car.
“You seem more yourself today,” I noted to my friend as our food was served.
Andy smiled as he tackled some kippers. “I told you, Jack, I’ve had time—a whole life, actually—to be prepared for this. My father had to deal with it happening to his father and I guess it has always been there in the back of my mind. Like when we went into battle; we knew there would be death but somehow we thought we’d be the exception. I thought my father would be the exception to the family curse. Now I guess I hope I will be.”
The casual hopelessness in his voice was like a dagger in my heart, right then and there I determined that if there was truth to the curse of the Granvilles I would find a way to end it before it ended my friend’s life.
From the Shadows Some Light
We changed trains at Newcastle to a local that would take us to Hexham, closer to the Granville home. Andy took the opportunity to wire ahead to have horses waiting for us.
I was able to get a cable off to Doctor Argent to inform him, briefly of my purpose for the abrupt trip. I also asked the Guv to do some research on the Granville curse. I was sure he would know, or be able to find out a considerable amount about the ancient geise.
My silver haired superior had not been in London when I left, but I knew he was due back at any time, my only hope was that he had the time to do the research and would not be angry that I had taken off without waiting to consult him.
The local train to Hexham was an older one. The coaches were cramped and open but the passengers were mostly hardy country folk who were used to enduring such conditions. Several recognized Andrew and greeted him warmly, not having heard the news yet about his pater.
My friend was gracious and solicitous to the people and chose not to mention the dark news he was holding close. Instead he simply said he was back on leave and allowed the others to carry the conversation.
I could see in his manner that he had already assumed the mantel of Lord of the Granville family and the burden was heavy on his shoulders.
The trip to the small town seemed to last forever. I spent most of it looking out at the bleak countryside of the North Country, so much like my home in Edinburgh. The low rolling, brown hills seemed to march in endless echelons broken only by spurs of grey-brown rock and occasionally an explosion of gorse or wild flowers.
“Perfect place for a ghostly stallion,” I thought. “Almost too perfect.”
At Hexham we found two sturdy mounts waiting for us. They were tied to a railing outside the station and a boy stood there with a note from the stationmaster.
“Mister Granville?” the toe headed lad asked as we walked up.
“Yes,” Andrew said. He had finally begun to exhibit some nervousness as we approached his home and I could feel his tension. He handed the boy ten shillings for the rental of the horses and a good tip.
“Thank you, your lordship.” The lad said with a little awe.
“Vulture!” a harsh voice drew our attention as we prepared to mount.
“Coming back to pick the bones of Granville hall clean?” The speaker was a rough looking sort of working class type. He was accompanied by a second fellow just a coarse as himself.
“I beg your pardon?” Andrew said in an even tone. I could see the fire boiling beneath the surface as he struggled to stay calm.
“You heard Alfie,” the second man said. “The Stallion took your father and now you’ve come to lord over all of us again.”
Word travels fast, I thought. I stepped up to put a hand on my friend’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “We don’t need the distraction, Andy.”
He nodded and mounted. I did the same and looked back down at the two men.
“You men need to show some respect.” I could not help but make comment.
“Respect,” Alfie spit. “That’s a joke! He’s come back and brought the curse with him; What’s it do when its finishes with the nobles, eh? Goes about hunting us common folk it does!”
Andy rode ahead of me so I could not see his face but I thought I could see his neck color at the men’s words. I know I felt a premonition of darkness at his words.
It was a relief to be in the saddle, though I wish I could have brought Vindicator, my own trusty mount. We rode in that heavy silence that seemed to have settled about us for much of this trip all the way through town. Hexham was a typical North Country hamlet, prosperous but with a grayness and felling of—well—tiredness about it. Like an old duffer wanted to retire but couldn’t afford to.
“I’ve ridden this path a thousand times,” Andy finally spoke as we left the town proper behind us and headed out on a track across the heath. “It is much shorter than the road and you’ll get to see the wall part of the way there.”
We went west and a bit south of the town through tilled fields and out onto the heath. The track looped off into the low hills and soon we might have been in the middle of the Russian Steppes for the bleakness and isolation.
“The manor house is over that way,” Andy pointed after a while. “And over there is the section of the wall most connected to the curse.”
It was an unremarkable dun colored line across the horizon that was just barely recognizable as an ancient wall. Still, there was a palpable sense of age from it and I found my eyes returning to its smudged line again and again as we rode parallel to it for some quarter hour. I even looked over my shoulder one last time as we turned off toward his manor house.
Perhaps it was a trick of the late afternoon light or the afternoon mist that was rising, but I could have sworn I saw a shadowy figure standing astride the distant wall watching us.
◊ ◊ ◊
The whole of the countryside around Hexham, I knew, had been the scene of bitter conflict between England and Scotland and as a consequence, for reasons of personal security, the inhabitants had erected castles and fortified manor houses such as Ayton Castle and Granville Manor.
The Granville family residence was as ominous as the countryside around it. It was an imposing edifice of grey-black stone in the Gothic style set on a small shelf of rock that thrust up from the heath. It had high arched windows on the side I could see but rather than making it look open and inviting the windows reminded me of the empty eye sockets of a skull.
On one side of the plateau dropped off in a shear rock face to a bog with the road we approached on winding around that bog toward the far side.
“Not the most cheery place,” Andrew admitted as we rode around the building. On the far side the bleak sight was broken with a formal garden that did its best to splash color on the scene but it somehow seemed more desperate than cheerful. “The manor house, like Thrilwall Castle had been built with stone that was taken from Hadrian’s Wall. Some say that is what brought the curse along with it.”
“It has a dark face, to be sure,” I said. “But it can’t be so bad—you’re a cheery fellow after all.” This made him laugh, so I added. “Some would say Edinburgh is not the cheeriest of climbs for a lad to grow up in either.”
We rode up to the main entrance and encountered a rough fellow with a hunchback who was working on the bushes out front.
“Master Andrew!” the old fellow exclaimed as he recognized my friend. His wrinkled face split in a wide smile to reveal a mouth without full compliment of teeth. “It is good to see you—” then he caught himself and bowed his head to add, “I’m sorry it has to be under this cloud, sir.”
Andrew bound from the saddle and clapped the gardener on the shoulder. “Its good to see you, Archibald, regardless of how things are. Is Auntie and the rest inside?”
“Yes, sir,” Archibald said. “But we didn’t expect you till tomorrow.”
“I was able to catch the late train. Archibald, this is my mate, Jack Stone.”
“Sir.” He took the reins from Andy and then offered to do the same for mine. “Again, sir,” he said to Andy, “My condolences.”
Andy nodded and led me to the door. He paused for a second to gather himself. I put a hand on his shoulder and he straightened.
“Damn the torpedoes, eh?” He said then pushed the door in and we entered the foyer.
The main hall of the Granville manor was cathedral-like and just barely lit with gaslight. There was a main staircase that split both right and left and went to shadowed openings above. Two closed oak doors to the left and an open arch to an empty parlor completed the panorama of the manor’s entrance.
I had been in many grand homes but this entrance had the feel more of a mausoleum or museum than a home. Andrew took it all in with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man making his walk to the gallows.
A butler appeared from below stairs with a tray that he almost dropped when he saw my friend.
“Master Andrew?” The butler said. He showed his professionalism by recovering from his shock in a few eye blinks and added, “The others are in the study.”
“Thank you, Roland.” Andrew said. He set his jaw and slid the oak doors to the study open and I met his surviving family.
“Aunt Gloria,” Andrew said as he entered and kissed the cheek of a silver haired woman a decade older than he. I could see the Granville features on the woman who I knew was the younger sister of the deceased Lord. The angular features of the family were softened with age and a gentle smile as she welcomed her nephew. Her eyes however were keen and suspicious when she looked over at me.
“Andrew,” she said in a quiet voice. “I am so sorry about Reginald.”
“Good to see you again, boy,” a tall thin fellow who did not have Granville features said. The predominant feature of the man was a mustachios that was full and well groomed. Indeed all his clothing showed an obsessive attention to it, one might well call him a dandy save that his jet-black hair was a rat’s nest and his glowering face that seemed set in a perpetual scowl.
“Athelstan,” Andrew said. “Thank you for your cable.”
“And your friend?” the raven-haired fellow asked.
“This is Jack Stone of my Regiment,” Andy said. “He was with me when I got your note.” He looked at me and I could see he was not thrilled with the mustached fellow. “Athelstan Gaunt is married to Aunt Gloria and is the family solicitor.”
I bowed to the couple and shook hands with the fellow and was not surprised that his grip was limp and his palm damp.
The butler brought in the tray with tea and cups and set it on a table. “I am sure you gentlemen desire a little sustenance, eh?”
“If Cookie could whip something up, that would be wonderful.” Andy said. He crossed the room to a cabinet and opened it to reveal a bar. “Something to stiffen the resolve, Jack?”
“Oh yes,” I said. He poured me some single malt and one for his aunt and the four of us sat.
“So, Auntie,” my friend said. “Tell me exactly how my father died.”
Legacy of Death
Once the words were said Andy seemed to deflate, sinking into himself on the settee. He stayed focused ahead while alternately his Aunt and uncle related the facts as were known about the death of Lord Granville.
“It was Archibald who found Reginald,” the woman said. “Pollex came running home, and after your father didn’t return the staff went looking for him. He was a the foot of the wall.” She rose from the chair and walked to a glass cabinet and removed a small dark statue from the back of a shelf.
“This was clutched in your father’s hands.”
It was the image of a bearded man on a half horse-half fish.
“Is that Roman?” I asked.
“Yes,” Athelstan spoke up. “I looked it up in one Reggie’s books, it is Neptunus equestris some sort of Roman god. Apparently the cavalry had him as some sort of mascot.”
“He would have been their patron,” I said. “Each regiment would have had a sort of patron god, like we might have a patron saint.”
“Father found that at the wall?” Andrew asked.
“Yes,” Andy’s aunt said. “He must have—none of us had ever seen it before yesterday. He- he was clutching it to his chest.”
“Was it his heart?” My friend asked. The way he asked it made me think that he was almost hoping that it was.
“No,” the solicitor said. “He had been trampled; the doctor said it was as if a herd of horses had run over him but there were no horse tracks anywhere else on the heath at all.”
Andy shot back his drink in one motion. “I thought it would be just like great Granddad.”
“So it was the curse?” I said. The three of them looked at me as if I were a simpleton but Mistress Gaunt was gracious.
“I know you might think we country bumpkins are primitive folk, Captain Stone,” she said. “Simple in our beliefs and out of touch with the modern world, but I assure you we are not. Yet there are some things that are not so modern about this land; it is an old land with old, dark legends. The Phantom Stallion of the Granvilles is one of those legends. And I assure you, it is true.”
I could see that Andy, torn as he was with pain at his father’s death bridled at having his guest confronted so directly. I rushed to thwart his rising anger.
“I can assure you, madam,” I said quickly. “I do not at all take such tales lightly. You forget I am a Scot and I come from a land where such things are still part of the daily life.” I could not tell her that before my association with Doctor Argent I might have been skeptical but now I had met the forces of darkness face to snarling face and was more inclined to believe such horrors as not.
Just then the butler, Roland, brought some cold meats and bread for us and we indulged ourselves in the silence of our own thoughts while we dined. The atmosphere of gloom hung over the four of us and indeed in the very air of that old manor. I tried to assess the others as we ate but it was hard to ‘read’ them.
The solicitor, though his general demeanor seemed earnest watched all of us, his wife included with hooded eyes. Perhaps it was the natural suspicion a solicitor has of all society that makes him question everything but my impression was that it was personal with him.
Andrew’s aunt on the other hand kept her eyes on my friend, warm open eyes brimming with emotion. She, in fact, seemed on the edge of hysteria and sipped a cognac while we ate.
Andy worked to stay detached but I could see the wheels of his mind working. After a time he said, “I would like to see my father.”
“He is still in his room,” Athelstan said. “Doctor Conners pronounced him there.”
“We thought you would want to make the arrangements.” His aunt said.
“No,” Andy said, “thank you, Aunt Gloria, but I’d rather you did all that. I just want to see him to say goodbye.”
“I’ll take care of all the arrangements,” Athelestan offered. “I will ride into town before lunch.”
Andy thanked him and then rose to head upstairs. I let him go alone. Athelstan left straight away for Hexham. That left me alone with his aunt.
“You are a good friend of Andrew,” she said. She had renewed her drink and stood by the shelf where the dark statue was on display. “He needs friends now.”
“He is a true brother-in-arms and a good man,” I said with no prevarication. “I just wish there was more I could do.”
“Being with him may be enough,” she said then added ominously. “But if it is not—you must be prepared to come to his aid.”
“Are you implying that this Phantom Stallion could return?” I said. “I thought it was a generational aberration.”
The stately woman gave a short, harsh laugh. “The end of a generational aberration,” she said. She took a deep drink. “When our father died at the hands of the Phantom, Reginald and I were both shocked—for our grandfather had died at sea and no one in the line had died at the Stallion’s hooves except for Great Granddad for five generations before. But then there were other murders on the heath.”
“Yes, a girl from the village, several shepherds and a child died in similar circumstance. And possibly there were others over the last decades. Bodies found with the trample marks on them—or what could be conjectured were trample marks. Nothing could ever be proven—it could have been many accidents but it…” Her eyes teared up. “The villagers began to blame our family for somehow reawakening the curse.”
“Did it?” I asked. Her sharp look at my inquiry was almost painful. “Understand, I am not making light of your pain or of this curse. I have had some contact with such things and there is usually some sort of trigger. Even the seemingly irrational has a rational structure to it.”
She considered what I had said for a long breath then said, “My great grandfather had begun to make surveys at the edge of our land with an eye toward irrigation the land near the Wall. That was what made the townsfolk angry, there had been exploratory trenches dug and certain objects from the past were uncovered.”
“Like that Neptune statue?” I rose and poured myself a second drink, sure that I would need to be fortified for my next move.
“Yes.” She surprised me with a genuine laugh that harkened back to a happier time and I could see that she must have been quite a beauty before the worry lines aged her. “My brother got his fascination for ancient artifacts then, pulling coins and such from the trenches. It was—it was why he often went walking along the wall.”
“I promise you madam,” I said. “I will do my utmost to stop this curse here and now. And I will protect Andy.” She looked at me with an odd expression, apparently trying to decide if I was just humoring her or was serious. She made her decision and gave me a smile.
“I believe you will, young man,” she said.
“Or die trying,” I added.
“God bless you for that!”
Just then I noticed that the hunchbacked gardener was standing in the doorway.
“’Scuse me, folks,” he said. He held his shapeless hat in his hands and wrung it. “Will you be wanting me to stable the master and his friend’s horses in the main stable?”
“We leased them,” I said. “But I think you should leave them saddled right now; I suspect Master Granville and I will have one more ride before you bed the animals down for the night.”
“Another ride?” Mrs. Gaunt asked.
“To the Wall,” I said. “If I know Andrew he will want to visit the spot where his father was found.”
Mrs. Gaunt gave a short gasp. “No. Andrew can’t want to—“
“Yes, I do,” my friend said. He came into the room from the hall. His eyes were red rimmed but his posture was dress parade erect. “I think I’d like to do it before dinner.”
“I’ll take you, sir,” Archibald offered. “I’ll just go saddle old Bessy.” The aged gardener left after accepting a pat on his shoulder from Andy.
“Do you think it wise, Andrew?” His aunt asked. “It can only bring more pain.”
“There can be no more pain, Auntie,” he said. “Only answers. That is what I have to find.” He looked at me and I gave him the most confident smile I could manage.
“And with those, my friend,” I said. “I can help.”
The Dark of the Past
The ride out from Granville Manor was a somber and silent one. My friend seemed infused with purpose by his vigil with his father’s body and his jaw was set in a fashion I had only seen before we rode into battle.
Good for you, lad, I thought. If you view this as a battle we can beat it, that’s something I’ve learned from Doctor Argent.
The hunchback led us across the heath down a narrow but well defined track over the low hills. He respected his master’s quiet focus and kept his directions to a minimum until we were almost on the wall.
“I found his Lordship over that way,” Archibald said pointing. “Almost at the foot of the damned thing.”
I was reminded of the violent history of the countryside as we passed the ruins of one of the smaller “bastle houses” or fortified farmhouses which are unique to Northumberland. It seemed to me an ominous omen of things dark and dangerous.
There was a ground fog crawling along the hollows of the broken land that did not improve the mood of any of us as we approached the ruined military emplacements.
It was my first time to actually study the wall, a fact that shames my Scottish heritage.
The magnificent wall ran for 73 miles and caused me to marvel at the Romans. Their engineers made use of every natural point of strength and at its highest it rose to 1230ft above sea level. It stood at nearly 5 meters in height at some points and large forts about 5 miles apart as well as numerous mile castles.
It was, at least in the sections we were approaching, still recognizable as the cut stone battlements with the ruins of the commander’s house, the praetorium, clearly visible.
Stones had been taken from parts of the wall but it was so vast a structure that it was still at least shoulder high to me or more in most places. It stretched to the horizon on both sides, a long snaking line of orange-yellow rock that stood out against the brown and green of the coarse grass.
“Over there, sir,” Archibald said. He pointed to a spot inside a square of stones that butted to one of the higher sections of the wall. It seems to have been a major building, probably from its location I would guess a cavalry barracks.
We dismounted and the hunchback led us to the center of the ghost space. “Here, Master Andrew,” the old man said pointing down at the ground. “Right here.” The location was almost dead center within the low stones of the square enclosure.
Andy stood there with a strange expression on his face and for a moment I thought he might faint, the color draining from his already pale cheeks. He rallied, however and nodded. “Here, Archibald?”
“Exactly, Master,” the hunchback said. He knelt and patted the disturbed earth of the enclosure. “Right here. Lord Reginald was facing the wall, clutching that statue. His eyes were open and, well, his expression was such as I’ve never seen nor never hope to see again. Scared he was, truly scared.”
Once more Andy seemed to waver and I stepped up to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. He stiffened then nodded. He dropped to one knee and ran a hand along the rough grass as if he could feel where his father’s last breath might still be lying for him to recapture.
I stepped away to give him privacy and noticed something shiny in the dirt near the wall. I went to it and stopped to discover that it was a small medallion in the shape of a female wolf. It was something such as a soldier might have worn long ago for good luck, invoking the wolf-mother that had suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
I raised it to my eye-line to study it and suddenly I felt a strange tingle in all my limbs. I felt dizzy and red spots swam before my eyes. I shook my head to clear it and blinked hard; suddenly I was not looking at the ruins of a stone home but was inside a fully realized one.
There was more, however, I was standing inside a stone home that was abuzz with activity. There was fire roaring in a hearth and a pot simmering over it. To my right I saw the statue of Neptunus equestris that I had seen in the Granville manor house. On my left there were local gods on their own shelf, I guess the two were not meant to mix.
A spotted tabby cat ran across the room chasing an imaginary mouse and a woman swept with a crude homemade broom.
The woman was dressed in a shapeless dun colored dress and had her straw colored hair tied back with a red cloth. She looked over at me and I saw her eyes go wide.
“What do you want here, Centurion?” She said at me. Her words were harsh and I realized with a bit of shock that they were not in English. She spoke a guttural Latin, yet I understood them!
She stared at me and her plain but pretty features darkened. “I asked you a question, Roman,” She said. “You were told to stay away from here by your commander.”
I was stunned by her pronouncement and more so by the voice—which was mine and not mine—that answered her in Latin. “I told you I’d be back, Elgiue. You made it difficult for me with the commander when you reported me.”
The woman spit. “You Romans are all alike but at least Maximus Flavius keeps his word. He promised to punish all those who hurt Algiwa.”
“That wench was asking for it,” I heard my voice snarl. ”She had no business in the barracks if she didn’t want a little fun.”
“Algiwa was a good girl, Gaius,” the blonde woman said. She threw down her broom and for a moment I thought she would spring across the room at me. “You soldiers got her drunk, you used her like a bar whore and then threw her away. The shame was too much for her and she took her own life.”
“Your lying like that got me a reprimand before the whole cohort,” I heard myself say. “I swear by my wolf pendant that I will see you pay for that.”
My words seemed to ignite a fire in the Saxon woman, she charged across the dirt floor of the hovel and jumped at my face. The hands that came up to protect me were mine and not mine. They were a brute’s hands wearing the vambraces of a Roman soldier.
That strange self of me grabbed the woman and savaged her, slamming her against the stone wall of the enclosure. I heard my other-self screaming obscenities as I repeatedly smashed her against the wall. I slammed her against the shelf where the family gods were set.
Somehow I knew that was how I lived my life—that other life—somehow I knew this was ‘normal’ for the Centurion I was experiencing.
I now knew I was experiencing what Doctor Argent called “psychometry’- the art of gathering vibrations from objects to ‘read’ them and experience what the owners had. The wolf medallion I had found had belonged to that soldier so long ago and somehow—though I had never experienced such a phenomena before—I was seeing through his eyes.
It was a strange duel reality for I was aware I was Jack Stone and yet knew I was Gaius Cipprio of the 9th Legion of Imperial Rome. I knew I was living in the time when the wall was still manned and I knew without a doubt that I was alive when the curse of the Granville’s had been made.
The Saxon woman was barely conscious when I finally forced myself to release her. She fell hard against the shelf where Neptunus equestris rested and grabbed it up to thrust at me as if it where a talisman and a shield. She glared up at my ancient self with undisguised hate and hissed, “I curse you, Roman, and all your seed. May your own gods curse you and may death follow in your wake.”
Then my ancient self—my Roman self killed her with single knife thrust to her heart.
I felt sick, staggeringly sick, suddenly, and backed out of the stone hut. The sunlight was blinding and I blinked hard.
To my right the fully intact wall rose almost shining in the sunlight. Guards in full segmenta armor stood upon the battlements facing outward, northward, watching for the wild, painted Scots beyond.
All around me was the bustle and noise of a military camp, so familiar yet so different from those I had been in, in my ‘modern’ life. There were townsfolk too, tent-like structures butted to the wall and various domestic and herd animals.
I felt dizzy again and the sickness in my gut seemed to travel to all my limbs. I shuddered and made a noise such as I have never heard before, a whining cry that came from within my very soul.
My yell attracted the attention of some of the Saxons working nearby and two of the legionaries who were attending to horses. All eyes turned toward me as I dropped to my knees and writhed.
The Horror on the Heath
I felt my other-self, long ago, body change.
The shadow of my body on the ground began to alter as I stared at it. I saw my chest deepen, my neck elongate and my arms lengthen. On the side of my head I could see my ears growing upward even as my nose elongated. My skull widened and grew larger as my neck widened to support it.
My mind went to the statue of Neptunus equestris and I saw in my mind’s eye the ancient god laughing at me.
The looks of horror on all the faces around me, the cries of ‘Demon!” and screams from the children told me what that deity had done to me.
My ancient self, my transformed self, felt only rage at the cries from the onlookers. That rage grew within the beast I had become and I reared up, spinning to face the tormentors and attacked.
I shudder to recall the savagery of my ancient self as I struck out at the watchers with my hands and feet that were now hooves. I spun and reared, kicked back with my hind legs and whinnied in fury. Skulls cracked, blood ran yet, despite my horror at my own actions I pressed on till all around me was red.
I heard Latin and Gaelic screams of ‘stop him!’ were all around me. I barely heard them. The blood that splattered on my hooves pounded in my ears as well and I became dizzy again.
I fell forward to my fore-hooves and my elongated, now massive head dropped in despair. I close my eyes to blot out the horror I had wrought and wished I had hands to put over my ears to blot out the roar and the screams to terror.
“Jack!” Andy yelled at me. “Jack, are you alright?” I felt his shaking my shoulder and I looked up at my friend who, it seemed was pale with fear.
I blinked. Behind him there was no stonewall, just the ruins of one. I was kneeling in traces of the old buildings again and was back on the heath outside Granville Manor.
I held up a hand—an actual hand before my eyes and realized I was holding the wolf medallion in it. I was back to myself again.
“Andy?” I mumbled.
“You had us worried there, old fellow,” Andy said. “You started to totter over then came swaggering out here making the oddest noises.” Beyond my friend I could see the hunchbacked gardener looking at me oddly.
“I—uh—I had the strangest experience,” I managed to say. I looked down at the medallion and had a flash of insight. I had a real idea now what I was dealing with.
“Here,” Andy said offering me some of my own flask of whiskey, “You need this.” I took it gratefully. “We had better get back,” he added with an attempt at a smile, ‘ it is getting near supper time and Cookie’s meals are not to be missed.”
I was unsteady on my feet so Andy helped me to my mount. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure what came over me.” It was a lie, of course, I knew fully well what had occurred, though, to be sure, not the full meaning of it.
I had no doubt I had witnessed not only the beginning of the curse itself but the full extent of it and why it had come in full force in the recent history of the Granville family. I knew I had to get to town to wire Doctor Argent or possibly ring him on a telephone if there was one to be found in the hamlet.
“Town,” I mumbled to Andy. “I think it’s a stomach ailment I picked up in Pretoria; I’ll head into the apothecary and get a powder for it.”
“Are you sure you’re up for it, chum?” My friend asked. “You looked even paler than your usual Highland pallor back there.”
I laughed. “You can shepherd me if you’d like, but I’m okay now.”
“I had better head home to take a look at my father’s papers,” Andy said.
I hated to lie to my friend, but I also did not want to alarm him with the knowledge that I had so little power against the impending evil that plagued his family.
I remember little of the ride back to town save that I had to keep myself from falling off my mount several times. I guess my time traveling excursion had taken more out of me than I had thought. “Wonder how the Guv does it so often; no wonder he trains so hard.” I had seen Doctor Argent do much longer sessions of psychometry and shown no ill effects; but he also spent hours each day in meditation and exotic exercises that I had not, until then, appreciated.
I reached Hexham and located a telegraph office that also had a telephone I could use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Doctor was at his office.
“Yes, I got your message, Jack,” he said. “I returned this morning and set about researching your problem; I’m afraid that is not much I could determine save that there seems to be at least a dozen deaths attributed to this Phantom Stallion killer in the last decade.”
“That is concerning,” I said, “but how could it be connected to the family?”
“I am not sure, but there may be a pattern appearing,” He said. “The local papers also speak of disappearances of young men and women with considerable passion.”
I went on to tell him of my experience with the wolf pendant at the wall. This seemed to worry him.
“I will make my way up to you as soon as I can,” the Doctor said. “But I suggest you stay as close as possible with your friend until then and keep him off the heath certainly at night; I suspect there is something at work here. It is very real, and serious, not just a mere family legend.”
It was a sobering pronouncement, but I promised him I would do my best to protect Andy.
When I exited the telegraph office I was sobered by my conversation the Guv, my mind was on what I had experienced on the heath and so was distracted enough to bump into a passerby on the darkening street.
“Excuse me,” I half-mumbled.
“Well look’er, Alfie,” a familiar voice answered me. “It is Mister High-and-Mighty’s mate.” I looked up to see the two roughnecks from out arrival the day before.
I studied them now, laborers, obviously, with well-worn clothes and weathered, rough features. Alfie was ginger haired like myself with broad shoulders. He was a head shorter than his vocal friend.
“I think he ought to get himself some spectacles, eh Byron?” Alfie said in a low growl that was more animal than human. “Or maybe learn to look where he’s going.”
“I think he’s too proud to get glasses, Alfie,” Bryon said. He was blond and had the pale beginnings of a mustache above his sneering mouth. “Or maybe he just doesn’t care about us regular folk.”
“No offense was meant,” I said to diffuse the situation. It was hard for my Scot’s blood to back down from the fight the two men were angling for but Andy at home by himself was on my mind. It seemed urgent that I return.
“Hear that, Alfie,” the blond said. “No offense meant.”
“Well I was offended,” the beetle-browed redhead said. “I think he wasn’t very sincere in that apology. At all.”
There are limits to patience. In, or perhaps because of, my unnerved state from my time travel encounter, I wanted for some physical release. Still, I tried once more for the Christian path.
“I reiterate, sirs,” I said in a calm voice. “No offense was meant. Please allow me to go about my business.” I made to step past the two men but Alfie put a hand on my arm to stop me.
“I said apologize!” He snarled.
The limit was passed.
Before either man could proceed further I slapped the red head’s hand off me and snapped out a jab to his nose. Not hard, just enough to make his eyes water and get him away from me.
Byron moved quickly at me but his staggering friend got in the way and I was able to launch an over hand right directly over the whimpering thug’s head at Byron.
My blow landed solidly on the blond’s jaw and he dropped with no more fight in him.
Alfie had recovered enough sight to realize what had happened and tried to use his great bulk to grab for me but I was having none of it.
I hopped back on one foot and kicked out with my other boot to strike him on the leading knee that caused him to collapse over with a cry of agony.
I stepped in and struck him soundly on the temple and rendered him unconscious so that he dropped directly over the prostrate form of his friend.
They looked for all-the-world like two drunks sleeping off a bad night, which indeed it had been for them.
I made my way to my horse just as the exhilaration of the altercation began to drain and my legs went rubbery beneath me. I managed to mount and gave the horse his head and he knew the way back to the manor. It was a slow trip and it was late afternoon by the time I made it back.
I was a little steadier by the time I returned to the manor, but still tired. I was able to get to my room and have a toes-up until mealtime by which time I felt my old self again.
“You’re looking better, sir,” the hunchback gardener said when I came down in full dress for supper. He was passing the open window to the side garden with an armload of pottery when I happened to pause to look out on the now gloomy evening across the heath. The moon was just up, looming like a Cyclops through the dense fog, winking in and out of the cloud cover.
“Told you I would be chipper,” I said smiling at the memory of my knuckles on Alfie’s head. “Highland constitution, don’t you know?”
“Indeed, sir.” Archibald said.
“Where’s master Andrew?” I asked.
“He went walking out toward the wall just a little bit ago, sir. As he used to, to clear his head a bit, he said.”
“By himself?” I said. “The Wall?” But I wasn’t really asking him, I was moving as quickly as I could to the west and the wall.
The path was a clear one and I knew that Andrew’s father had used it many times to head out on his rambles. I had a horrible premonition of danger for my friend and his aunt that was only exacerbated by the gathering darkness.
A thick ground fog was crawling up across the heath again and in moments even the manor house behind me was a mere smudge in the grey evening. Above it the blurred image of the full moon was attempting to push through the mist.
“Andy!” I called but my words were swallowed by the fog. “Answer me!”
There was no reply but a sound, a strange sound drew my attention off to my right. It was a guttural cry of pain.
I started to run.
“Andy!” I called. There was no reply but the grunt sound happened again followed by what I can only liken to a mallet hitting a sack of millet. I knew that sound; a beating was in progress.
I topped a small rise just as there was a break in the fog and the moon illuminated a scene from hell: Andy was on the ground doubled over in a fetal position trying to protect his head. Above him was a sight I had never imagined nor ever hoped to see.
It was indistinct in detail, seeming to rise out of the ground mist like the Phantom is was so named. At first glance it looked like a Lusitano horse. It was a good eighteen hands high.
What was visible in the gathering darkness and the fog was such a horse as I had never seen before.
Its head was somehow deformed, the proportions of the great triangular head not right. The teeth of the monster were not the square ones of a normal horse but looked more like the fangs of a great cat.
What I could see of the haunches of the great beast seemed to have scales that were more that of a fish or snake than of an equine animal. It had a white coat but flame red mane and tail and eyes that reflected crimson in the sliver of moonlight. The equine horror reared back and flailed its fore-hooves at my fallen friend.
“Stop,” I screamed impotently. I started to run faster, flailing my arms wildly as I knew would frighten off any normal wild horse. This, however, was no normal wild horse.
Instead of chasing the equine horror my waving my arms I drew its attention and it focused its fiery eyes on me. It was an eerie feeling for there seemed to be an intelligence behind those red eyes that was well beyond any I had ever seen in any animal. More frightening was that the intelligence seemed to be totally focused on hate. Hate so pure and virulent that it startled me.
Then the horse with the bloody hooves charged straight at me!
Out of the Mist
I was so startled by the sudden change of events that for a moment I came to a complete halt. For an infinite moment it felt as if my muscles would not respond to my command to dodge out of the monster’s path. It bore down on me with frightening speed. I felt transfixed by the mythic horror’s lambent eyes and my muscles palsied.
Suddenly life came back to me and I managed to dart to my left to avoid the attack at the last moment. I dove to the turf and rolled behind a hillock as the creature raced past me with the mass and speed of a runaway steam engine.
There was no mistaking that the beast was intelligent in the next moment for it veered when it went past, racing around me to cut off my retreat so I could not go back toward the house. It stood pawing the earth of the path and snorting like one of the riders of the apocalypse, the fog swirling around it as if bubbling up from the pits of hell. It seemed to dare me to try and get past it.
I was on my feet now and managed to angle myself to head toward Andy. He was sprawled on the ground and moaning. I could not run to him directly for the hellish equine whirled again to come after me.
I dodged into a small depression behind another hillock that blocked me from the animal’s view and tried to come up with some plan. I had to either get to Andy to aid him, get to the manor for help or find some way to stop the monstrous misshapen equine myself.
There seemed no reasonable way to get to the manor and no point in getting to Andy if I could not stop the horse so I was forced to accept that a good defense would have to be a good offense.
I picked up two fist-sized rocks and looked around for a high point from which I might be able to leap down upon the demon beast. I heard it moving around the knoll to come for me.
That was when Andy’s moan drew its attention to him again. The beast turned to head for him and I used the distraction to race up the slight rise in the ground till I was above it.
The frightful monster was ten feet from my friend, now in a slow advance, head lowered, fearsome teeth in a snarl. It moved in more like a great cat stalking prey then a horse.
“Here, Neptune!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. The long ears of the monster twitched but it kept its head down, eyes focused on the helpless Andy.
“Do you want to know how Algiwa squealed when I stuck her?” I hurled at the beast with the most vicious tone I could muster. The foul comment got the reaction I wanted and the equine horror snapped its head around to stare at me.
I threw the rock with all my might with my best Cricket toss.
The rock flew true, smashing into the horrid head right between its eyes. The sound was like a solid batsman’s hit, a sharp crack followed by a strange whinny from the beast.
I raised the second rock to throw even as the monstrosity staggered, almost dropping to its right fore knee.
Before I could throw the second stone, and with a cry I could only interpret as a moan, it lopped off into the gathering fog.
I ran to Andy’s side.
“My god, man!” He gasped at me. “What was that?”
“Your past catching up with you, Andrew, old fellow,” I said. I looked to his wounds, which fortunately looked superficial while keeping an eye to the trail where the monster had fled.
“Gone for the moment,” I said. “But it could lick its wounds and come back any time. Can you walk?”
“I bloody well can run if that thing comes back,” He said with considerable pain in his voice but with the pluck I knew he had. “Let’s go.”
I helped him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him back down the path to the manor house. I kept the second rock in my hand the entire walk but the beast did not make a reappearance.
By the time we reached the manor house Andy was all but unconscious and I was actually carrying him. I kicked the door and yelled until it was opened.
“Master Andrew!” The butler was beside himself when he saw the state of my friend and lost all of his professional demeanor. I had to order him sharply to get him moving to help carrying Andy to the parlor where we set him on the divan. I began to open Andy’s jacket to assess the extent of his injuries.
Like a good cavalryman my friend had protected his head fairly well from the attack, but his ribs and back were already showing bruises and I feared internal injury.
“Bring some wash clothes and some hot water for me to clean these wounds.” A maid ran off to comply. I grabbed a brandy bottle and poured a small glass that I induced Andy to drink. I ordered the butler. “Call for the physician.”
“Someone will have to ride for the doctor,” the now calmer Roland said. “We have none of the new phones.”
“Send them then,” I said. Despite no obviously or bloody wounds on his head I was sure Andy had sustained some head blows as he was slipping in and out of consciousness now. “I can deal with the superficial cuts, but this will require more care than I can give.”
“What is the commotion?” Athelstan Gaunt called as he and his wife came running, from two different wings of the house.
“Andrew! “The woman exclaimed when she saw her nephew. “What in heaven’s name happened?” His aunt asked. She was in a dressing gown, her hair all-askew. She knelt by the head of the divan and cradled Andy’s head in her hands.
I was washing some of the open wounds on Andy’s chest and looked up to answer her but stopped when I saw her husband. The solicitor was in a smoking jacket and fez, but what caught my attention was a large red knot on his forehead.
“What happened to you?” I blurted out.
He looked at me oddly then touched the bump on his forehead. “Uh—a book fell from a shelf. Nuisance, but nothing of concern.”
I was about to say something when the front doorbell chimed.
I went back to Andy’s wounds without any more comment and was so occupied when a commotion at the front door, followed by a booming, familiar voice.
I looked up to see the Guv—Doctor Augustus Argent step into the foyer of the manor. He was wearing an Inverness coat, holding a Gladstone bag in one hand and had, what appeared to be a rolled up Persian carpet slung over one shoulder. He was sans cap and his long white hair was a tangle as if wind blown.
“Well, Jack,” he said when he saw what I was doing. “I seem to have come at exactly the opportune moment!”
I must have looked more than a little stunned to see my mentor standing there.
“Doctor Argent?” I blurted out with idiot certainty. “How—I mean—You were in London—”
“Doctor?” Athelstan said. “Are you a medical doctor, sir?”
“Among other things,” the Silver Fox said as he strode into the room. He handed the rolled carpet to the butler. “Do keep my trusty steed for me.” He said then moved to kneel beside Andy’s head, a look of concern on his face.
“You’ve made a good start, Jack, but there is a bit to do here. You can tell me exactly what happened as I work.” He looked up to the still startled Roland. “Fetch me hot water, some honey and several large bowls.” After he issued the orders the Doctor removed his Inverness coat and jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
The butler did as asked after handing off the rolled carpet to the gardener, glad, I suspect, to be away from the piercing gaze of the Silver Fox.
I gave a concise summery of what had happened to Andy while my mentor examined his wounds in great detail.
“Who is this man, Captain Stone?” Mrs. Gaunt asked me in a shaky voice. She stood by with her husband in an apparent state of shock.
“The man who will save this young man if I am not interrupted, Madam,” Doctor Argent said briskly. He opened his Gladstone and proceeded to remove several vials and set them on the table beside the divan.
Athelstan was about to object to the brusk tone of the silver haired mage but I held up a hand.
“Doctor Argent is attached to the Home Office,” I said. “And is very well versed in matters such as this.” I stood and escorted the couple out of the parlor. “I promise he will only help, Mistress Gaunt, but we must let him do his work.”
I met the maid returning with the supplies Doctor Argent had requested and brought them in to him.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Fine, Jack,” the silver haired mage said with a slight smile. “He is strong and you did a good job cleaning the wounds. Now we will let the honey and these powders do the rest.”
He proceeded to smear honey into the open wounds and drop some powder onto the edges before bandaging them. When he saw my questioning look he said. “The Egyptians used honey to prevent wounds like these from putrefying and it helps them heal faster—as do these powders.”
He mixed some more powders in the bowl I’d brought and made a sort of broth to give to Andy to sip. “And this will help heal him on the inside.” While he worked the silver haired Doctor chanted under his breath in a language I could not identify but had the weight of age in its syllables.
I watched as Andy settled back on the divan with a calm expression on his face and listened as his breathing evened and deepened. He seemed at peace.
“He needs rest now,” the Doctor said as he rose. He rolled his sleeves down and took up his jacket. “Though I would prefer someone watch him; if there is any change I should be summoned.” For the first time I could see that behind his mask of vitality my mentor was tired. “I need some rest myself,” he admitted.
“I will see a servant watches over him,” I promised. “Come. We will get you a room.” As we turned to leave he picked up his Gladstone bag then indicated the rolled rug. “Do take my steed with you.”
“You said that before,” I said. “Do you mean—?”
“How else do you think I made it up here from London so quickly?’ He smiled. “A little something I picked up in Arabia some decades ago; but seldom have occasion to use.” He shrugged, “ I don’t really like heights.”
Amazed at his confession I led him out into the hall and sent a serving girl to keep watch over her master.
“How is he?” Lady Gaunt asked.
“As well as could be expected,” Doctor Argent said. “He is strong and young and will recover fully.”
“Thank God!” Athelstan exclaimed.
“But what does it all mean?” The lady asked.
“That is the dark question here,’ Argent said. “I feel there are no answers yet, however. Certainly not tonight. Better to discuss the shadows in the daylight.” With that he turned to the butler, all but dismissing our hosts and said, “Please show me to a room and draw me a bath. I feel I need it.”
He led the confused butler up the stair while the Gaunts fumed and I did my best to sooth them with, “The Guv is a little unorthodox, ma’am, but he is the right man to clear this all up, the curse and all. Just bear with him.”
They were about to question me but I shouldered Doctor Argent’s flying carpet and headed up the stairs to my own room.
I could almost hear the silence behind me as I ascended, and I must say, that though I felt their confusion-bred annoyance I had such confidence in the Guv and his abilities I knew that any rudeness would be forgiven when the whole of the story came out.
When I reached the Guv’s room I knocked and then brought in the carpet at his call of, “Enter, Jack!”
The Doctor was stripped to his waist and just donning a robe as I entered. His musculature was symmetrical and wiry with no fat at all. “Just set the carpet over there,” he indicated a chair.
“Just what is it all about, Doctor?” I asked. “You were a bit short with them downstairs, sir, if I might say. More so than usual.”
He gave a short laugh. “Well, yes. Downright rude I’d say.”
“Indeed, sir,” I said, actually relieved he was aware of his abruptness.
“There was a reason,” He said.
“I am relieved to knew that sir, though I suspected as much. But why?”
“This curse is a deeply imbedded terror, Jack,” he said. “And I think it better, for this night at least, for the Gaunts to be annoyed at me than fearing the lurking curse.”
“What is to be done?”
The silver haired mage shrugged. “I do not know yet; I will investigate in the daylight, meditate and we will see.”
He walked out with me to head to the bathroom stopping to add, “You did right to call me; your friend Andrew was lucky you came with him. More will be discovered in the morning. Now get some rest.”
Horror on the Heath
In the morning the heath outside of the manor house was no more cheerful than it had been the night before. A low, dense fog crawled along the hollows, lit by the rising sun it glowed a blue-white.
I was looking at it form the window of the breakfast room, casting my eyes in the direction of the Wall when Mrs. Gaunt and her husband entered. Both were more composed by a night of sleep, but still a bit on edge.
“I just checked on Andrew,” I said before either spoke. “He is resting comfortably and in a natural sleep.” Both visibly relaxed. “Doctor Argent looked in on him before I did and pronounced him well on the mend, but it is best we let him rest.”
“Where is this Doctor of yours?” Athelstan asked.
All three took their seats at the table as the servants began to bring in the food.
“The Guv is out for a morning constitutional,” I said as I buttered a scone. “He likes to start the day off with it to clear his head.”
“Well I wish you would clear the air,” the solicitor. “Just what steps are you and this—Doctor fellow—doing to find out what happened to Andrew?”
Before I could answer the Silver Fox strode into the room like a stalking lion, his long white hair streaming behind him. He eschewed a starched collar on his white shirt and was wearing an old style long blue jacket, gold waistcoat and green trousers. His whole image was of a swashbuckling figure that might have stepped out of an American Penny Dreadful.
“’Morning, all!” Doctor Argent said as he took a place at the table. He was so vital and energetic that the room seemed to brighten. All conversation halted while we ate, inspired, in part, by his great delight in the consumption.
“Doctor,” Mrs. Gaunt said after a bit, “I—uh—about my nephew—“
“Young Lord Granville is resting naturally, madam,” Argent said in a calm, confident voice. “I would suggest he do so most of the day to be sure he is well past any crisis.”
“What are you doing about the Stallion?” Andy’s aunt asked.
“Investigating, madam,” the Guv said. “Directly after breakfast Jack and I shall venture to look over where the attack occurred.”
“But—Andrew is vulnerable.” She insisted.
“He is safe in this house, certainly during daylight,” Doctor Argent said. “By dark we will formulate a plan.”
True to his word after breakfast the Guv and I walked out to the heath—he insisted on walking that we might survey the ground of both attacks.
He moved along slowly, his eyes glued to the terrain like a red Indian, which only increased his resemblance to one of the American Dime novel heroes. Occasionally he would stoop the touch or even sniff the ground.
When he had seen where the old Lord had died we went to the sight of the attack on Andy. After he prowled about for a while he stood, brushed dirt off his trousers and looked at me with intense eyes.
“I know why the attacks occurred when they did now, Jack.” He said, “And it is all the more important that we keep young Granville off the heath this night.”
“What have you found, sir?”
He looked across the dun colored landscape toward the remnants of the wall and kept me in suspense for a while then said simply, “Would it not be most interesting if Neptunus equestris, as he is connected to the sea, were not connected to the tides?”
I was about to ask him what he meant but he turned on his heels and headed back to the manor without filling me in on his plans. It wasn’t so unusual, he had done it before, but it was no less frustrating for its familiarity.
◊ ◊ ◊
Andy improved markedly during the day though the Doctor and his Aunt both agreed that he should stay in his room to continue to recover. He bridled at that, but I kept him occupied with chess and conversation when he had strength enough and was able to let him rest when he did not.
By Dinnertime the sun was setting and the fall mist was crawling along the hollows of the countryside, given eerie sentience by a low moon.
The Gaunt’s were already seated at the table when I burst into the room.
“Andy’s gone!” I yelled.
“What?” Athelstan blurted out. “What do you mean, gone?” He leapt to his feet.
“When I went to his room just now he was not there. I asked the servants and they—there!” I pointed out the window. “On the path to the heath!”
They looked and we could all just see Andrew’s dress jacket disappearing over a hill into the fog.
“Oh my goodness!” Mrs. Gaunt exclaimed. “What is he thinking!”
“We have to stop him!” I yelled as I raced from the room and out of the manor house. The two of them followed.
The fog was so thick now that the moment we were in it the path all but disappeared ahead of us and we were forced to retard out steps to less than a full run.
“I can’t see the bloody pathway,” Athelstan said after a few minutes.
“We have to find him,” I said with urgency when we reached a point in the trail where it could have gone a number of ways. “We should split up.”
The other two reluctantly agreed and headed off into the deep dark.
“Andrew!” Mrs. Gaunt yelled.
“Andrew!” Athelstan called in echo.
The sound of both their voices were muffled in the enveloping mist and soon I was as alone in the fog as if I were on the dark side of the moon.
I was forced to proceed slowly, at little more than a walk, by the enveloping miasma which allowed little of the gibbous moon’s light for vision.
A few minutes of this and I came to a deep hollow where the fog seemed more solid than liquid and across which I could see the bright red of Andrew’s jacket.
“Andrew!” I called out.
“Here!” a harsh, whispered voice came back.
Just then a nightmare figure exploded out of the fog and galloped toward the jacket; the Phantom Stallion!
The hideous beast, barely visible in the gloom, rocketed toward the slash of red and proceeded to rear and strike, slamming down with the front hooves in a viscous and calculated attack.
I pulled my Webley, took deliberate aim and squeezed off three shots.
There was a hellacious caterwauling, a scream from the dark realms themselves that emanated from the throat of the beast and the creature wheeled. It raced off into the fog as I ran down toward the sight of the attack.
The jacket, torn to shreds was stomped into the ground and it was clear it had been hanging on a bush, an effective decoy for the Phantom. Of its wearer, there was no sign.
Just then I heard something else that changed everything.
“Captain Stone?” It was the voice of Andy’s Aunt Gloria! Her voice sounded strained and full of fear. “Help me!”
By the Wall
“Where are you?” I called as I ran toward where I thought she was calling from. I rounded a clump of gorse to see her kneeling in the middle of a small clearing looking desperately around her.
“Help me!” she said again. I looked around for any sign of the deadly phantom animal.
“Did you see the beast?’ I asked scanned the area around her.
“I was looking for Andrew and—and—“ she whimpered, “ and then out of nowhere the beast charged me.” She started to sob, “Andrew is he—me -“ She broke down completely, here shoulders jumping violently.
I saw no sign of the demon horse and so raced over to her. “We have to get you to high ground,” I said, still looking around. “I’ll hide you and then see if he is alright.”
I got about a yard from the noble woman when suddenly she stopped crying and looked up at me with a hideous grin on her face. There was something horribly familiar in her expression.
“You fool!” she said. “You are all just as gullible as the Romans were.”
I knew then where I had seen that expression; it was exactly the same I had seen in my time travel transportation into the past on the woman who began the Granville curse.
I started to back away from the mad light in her eyes but Mrs. Gaunt sprang to her feet and knocked the pistol from my hand, sending it skittering off into the gloom of the fog.
“Mrs. Gaunt,” I yelled, “You have to stop, now. I know your secret!”
The woman ignored my statement and stepped back, stood up tall and began to change. As I stared unbelievingly at her, the woman’s body began to warp and twist, her neck growing longer, her head widening. Her clothes became absorbed into her body that grew in width and height so that in less than a dozen eye blinks her whole body changed and grew, swelling to massive proportions until she had become the demon horse I had seen earlier.
The Phantom Stallion was, in fact, a Phantom Mare!
Before I could react the devil beast launched at me with a whinnying snarl. I back-pedaled and threw up my left arm in shock. The beast’s large teeth sinking into my upraised arm before I could strike out with my right fist to smash her on the nose. She released me with a snort and I ran back around the clump of gorse.
The bite was not really such a ‘little thing’—it was deep and was bleeding quite a bit. I did my best to ignore it as the transformed woman called to me.
“Give up, Captain,” Gloria Gaunt called, “You can not escape me or the curse. Not now.”
“Why?” I called out, “Why betray your brother and all the other deaths?”
The demonic laugh that came out of the fog was part human—part animal—almost a whinny. “I have been born and reborn through the generations of the Granville family; I have always been the child of Elgiue.” Her voice came from the darkness all around me and I could not get a read on where the monster was.
“I have not always been born in each generation, it is true,” she added, “and sometimes the men died from war or other things, but mostly, I waited until the were in the fullness of their lives than I took it from them.”
She sounded closer, almost on top of me. I stooped and seized a rock, holding it tightly preparing to launch it at any target that presented itself.
“I will stop you,” I called out. “If it is my last breath I will stop you.”
“I have heard that before,” she said. “But the truth is, when I finish with you I will return to my fallen nephew and will end the line of the Granvilles once and for all.”
My pulse raced, my heart pumped rapidly and my breath came in ragged, shallow gulps. The fog muffled all sounds so I could not tell where she was.
“You are wrong there,” I called. “Andrew is still resting quietly in his bed.”
I heard an intake of breath from the Phantom. “What? But I saw—“
“You saw me leaving the manor house,” Doctor Argent, in shirt sleeves, said as he stepped out of the fog. “Jack moved his friend to his own room and I wore your nephew’s jacket to lead you and your husband out here to the heath.”
“How did you know?” She said.
“I suspected,” the Silver Fox said. He stepped up to beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder to reassure me. “I discovered that the hoof prints on the heath appeared to end abruptly to be replaced by human ones and I took note of the influence of the moon on the tides. Such lunar transformations are not unknown to me. I just was not sure if it was you or your husband.”
“It makes no difference,” the transformed woman called. “I will slay you then return to the house and wait for the next moon cycle. Or the next. I have waited long, hiding in the souls of the unsuspecting females of this line. But Andrew is the last. Then my soul can sleep when this body dies and my revenge will be complete.
Abruptly the massive head of the equine horror appeared out of the mist and came straight for the two of us.
The Guv and I dove to either side as the shadow beast raced between us, carried past by its own momentum.
Close up the fishy-scaled hide of the creature was even more unearthly than at a distance, as it shone iridescent in the pale moonlight. It gave off the faint scent of the sea, salty and ancient as it flew by.
I rolled to my feet and turned before the beast had managed to whirl about preparing to charge again.
Across from me I observed that Doctor Argent had removed a small object from his shirt pocket. It was a small piece of lead the size of a dinner cracker. He also produced an iron nail and, after scratching something on the lead, placed the small metal I had found on the heath near the wall on top of it.
The Phantom Mare saw the Guv’s action and gave a cry that was a banshee wail that might have been of hate or fear. Then she charged.
This time I was ready for her attack. As she charged straight for Doctor Argent I raced up a small rise of land and launched myself into the air.
I flew at her and sprang up to slam the rock between the monster’s eyes with the full force of my whole body before landing beyond her and rolling to my feet. It was hard enough to stagger the beast.
I spun about and pressed the attack, smashing at the same spot on the stumbling beast’s head a second time.
The beast dropped to its knees, dazed.
“We will destroy you, monster,” I said with pride. ”We will!”
The creature that had been Madam Gaunt changed again, her transformation back to her human form as quick as before but this time with a great sound much like the tearing of clothe.
There was a vibration in the air as well that I felt deep down in my gut and a humming like a hundred wasps.
I looked from her kneeling form to see the Guv driving the nail through the metal and the square of lead and dropping both into a hole in the ground. He kicked dirt on them and stamped hard with his foot.
The transformed woman screamed an inhuman yell, shaking so violently it was if she was having a seizure.
I was torn between the desire to race to her and help and turn away in horror.
The seizure suddenly stopped and the Phantom Mare seemed to rise out of the woman, a ghostly figure like a magic lantern slide, and, with a great rush of wind, flew up into the heavens to disappear.
Mrs. Gaunt slumped onto one arm and fell forward as if life was draining from her.
“Jack!” Doctor Argent called to startle me out of my shock.
I ran to the woman and caught her up in my arms. Her skin was cold to the touch, her eyes fluttering at the edge of consciousness.
“Is she dying, Doctor?” I asked him.
He knelt beside her and produced a handkerchief to wipe her clammy brow. “No, my friend, she is, indeed just beginning to live free of that demonic presence that has hidden within her her whole life.”
“How did you get rid of it, sir?”
“The Roman way,” he said. “I needed to now which name to inscribe on the lead square, which is why we conducted this little ruse. But once I did know it, I drove the nail through it and the medallion you found, calling on the ancient gods to let what had been done already to be justice enough for the dead girl Algiwa. Cold iron, you know. Once I did, as you saw, they accepted my supplication and the curse was lifted.”
Just then Athelstan came lumbering out of the fog, saw his wife and raced to her.
She opened her eyes as he reached us. “What happened?” She said. “I-I remember some things, but—it is like a nightmare.”
“Soon it will be dream, Madam,” Doctor Argent said. “But even that in time will fade. Just take heart in the fact that the Curse of the Stallion is done.”
“So Andy is safe now?” I asked him.
“Yes,” the Guv said. “And so will be future generations of the Granvilles.”
“Then, would you make one of those little medallion things up for my protection, sir?”
“Because I will need some protection when I tell Andy we ruined his dress jacket—it was his favorite.”