Friday, February 21, 2014

3 - On Foot



“How are you feeling?”

“Better, thank you. The tea seems to be helping.”

“I’ve brought Zoraya.  She is going to write down everything you say, so that there is a record for the priests to study later.  She and the other sisters will not trouble you, but we cannot have you alone at a time like this.”

“The priests… so I am not going mad, then?  They think this is genuinely of the gods?”

“We do not know.  This is why we must study it.  Tell me what it is that you saw.”

“Darkness.  Eternal darkness.  AND THE RESTORATION OF YOUR WORLD!”

“Her voice!  That’s not…”

“Hush Zoraya!  Just write it all down, even your own words, and mine.  Record everything.”
-          Transcript: The Heresy of Mother Darain, Day 1, Hour 2

NOW

THE PURSUER

It's quiet, here in our chamber, and only the slow scratching of the quill twitching in my brother’s hand disturbs the peaceful stillness. His face is locked in that impassive stare, but I can feel him.  Somewhere, locked within that rigid body, he is wrestling with powers far greater than I could ever understand, even in my long years of wandering.  He’s seeking a victory that will grant him the power to overcome me.  Meanwhile, he’s reliving those pivotal days those few years ago (for him, at least) that started all of this.  I get to read along.

Joy.

I’m angry, at least, to see even my own thoughts being recorded in that damned book.  I watch as my thoughts are transcribed to paper, a part of the ongoing story that the ravenous spell has decided, for whatever reason, still includes me.

I realize with a start that this means that Babaiya must be aware of my own thoughts as well.  Babaiya… back before either of us met her.  Meaning that as this story plays out she will learn what is to come before it happens, always knew it, and never said a thing.  Even when she could have prevented…

Words that are not my own appear on the page below the word “prevented”:

I do not yet know you, nor know everything that you must endure, but I am sorry that I must allow it.  I… regret it.  I do not ask you to understand.

Good.  I don’t understand.  I don’t care to try.  When all of this is over, I think I shall pay you another visit, grandmother.

Do as you think is best.  Know that swords do not work on me.  My future-self most likely awaits your visit.

I pinch at my forehead, trying to ease the throbbing ache that has appeared there.  So many layers of betrayal and deceit.  All “for the greater good”, I am sure.

I hate her right now.  I hate him right now. 

"Don't any of you people ever think about anyone but yourselves?" I say to the air, in case anyone is listening.

I feel rage in response, anger and rage lashing out at me, a fury driven by a power far greater than my own.  Erinnius speaks into my head directly.  Erinnius now, today, not Erinnius from years ago, and her thunderous voice floors me as easily as a war hammer.  I collapse and strike my head on the floor and I taste blood.

I've only ever thought of everyone else! Do you think I did what I did to amuse myself? Just for the joy of it? Do you think I was HAPPY to see your pain? That I was laughing while you bawled your eyes out and mewled like an infant? I felt your pain! I shared it!"

I rub at my head, and spit out a gob of blood from where I bit my tongue.  It smacks into the invisible wall surrounding my brother and trickles down towards the floor, seemingly suspended in mid-air.  I laugh as I rise to my feet.  “Shared my pain?  Should I feel comforted, when you could have moved to prevent it?"

Foolish child!  Someone had to take the stand, make the hard choices, and it certainly was not about to be you!  You proclaim judgment upon your brother, but took no care to ask him what he saw in the Jewel that drove him to his sins.  You dare to stand in judgment of me, who suckled my own children a thousand years before you were born, and think that your pain outweighs my own?  I wept with you, child, and I regret every pain you have suffered, but if you had seen half of what I have, known what I have known, you would beg my forgiveness and thank me for saving you from the consequences of the blind idiot choices you insisted on making!

I feel the heat of fire, the pressure of an ancient mind that, should she choose, could snap me in half.  Even from hundreds of miles away, I feel her fury, the flames she cannot control in her anger, her pacing.

It satisfies me.

I can remember it taking my younger self an incredible amount of willpower to not simply kill both of you the day I finally met you.

“And you didn’t.  For all of these years, you hid your anger at me, even when I was a naïve child, innocent of this argument.  You hid the knowledge you held of how I would one day come to hate you.”

I feel the flames subside, the anger replaced by a deep sorrow, a regret, and I am almost tempted to share in it.

Do not speak of hatred.  Too much has been lost.  Too many have died.  Your brother is lost to you now.  Be angry, curse me, blame me if you must, but do not shut away those remaining few who still care for you.

There is an element of pleading in her words, a deep pain.  Another in a series of wounds that have never been allowed to heal.

I cannot deal with this now.  I just can’t…

I wipe at my eyes and stare at the floor for several minutes.

“I will come to you someday soon Grandmother, and we will discuss this.  This isn’t over.”

I understand.

“I have too much to worry about now.  Leave my mind, and leave me in peace.”

Of course.

I can feel her withdrawal and I know that she will respect my wish for solitude.

From years ago, I can feel her younger self blinking in horror at the conversation she just witnessed, at its implications, and that, more than anything else, makes my head spin.

Secrets and betrayals and wheels…

I want no more of them.  I rise and spare a last look for my brother, locked in magic’s embrace.  I think of the last words we shared, before his barriers fell, our last parley over the walls of the city.

“How’s Darsé?” he had shouted, calling down from the top of the wall.

I had ignored him while I pulled the lever on another catapult and watched the stone sail up to shatter on the invisible wall of force he was projecting around the city.  I moved on to the next catapult.  I didn’t raise my voice in return.  He could hear me through his magics well enough.  “She couldn't bear to be a part of this. She knows what I have to do, and she'd rather not see you die. She, alone, still cares for you. Still loves you, I think.”

I could feel him looking away. What was this?  Contrition?  A little late for that.  "Tell her I wish things could have been different."

"You should have told her yourself two years ago."

"You'll see that she's taken care of? I mean... if you do end up killing me today."

I scoffed. "She's never needed anyone to take care of her. If you really ever cared about her, you’d understand that.  She’s busy with y…” and I stopped there, because she made me promise not to say anything about that.  Instead, I pulled another lever and watched another stone sail upwards.  “While you were busy with the big picture, you missed out on a hell of a lot of details."

An awkward silence stretched out between us again, and never really ended before I stormed up to him with my blade.  And now we’re here.

The book turns another page of its own accord.

Somewhere, a dragon weeps, but I cannot tell when.


THEN

DARSENA

The road from Horabina is long, and that is good.

Clouds gather, blotting out the sun, and that is good.

Strong winds whip the grass at my feet, and I sneeze, and that is good.

Each step is one more without violence, and I chant the Appeal to Meiyou as I walk, the grass cool beneath my bare feet.

Shield us from the sight of your Consort, and let the stench of violence pass us by...

I smile and feel the warmth of her smile in the sun upon my face. I gently pull on the mule's lead, thinking of The Lady of the Green Hair.

Her name was Erin, or so she told me, but said I might call her Babaiya. This pleases me, and it feels... correct. She led me back into the town, and despite the guards and the commotion and the cleanup and twelve corpses no outcry greeted us, and we walked up the alley and arrived at my home-for-this-week and opened the door and climbed my stairs and gathered my belongings and returned outside and visited some shops and purchased provisions and procured a mule and led it back outside the gates and prepared for a journey north and despite her assurances I was nervous and even remembering it now I am nervous and I sought nahhu and even remembering it now I cannot help but do this thing again and I realize my thoughts pile upon themselves and I must cease...

Nahhu.

My thoughts escape me, again, tumbling one upon the other upon the other upon the other upon…

I strive to avoid this. I have been warned of this. I know better, yet I grow dependent on tools and allow them to use me, and my thoughts join together, freeing the mind and body yet at the cost of shackles far more confining and I catch myself doing it again!

            Damn you, Gorgus.  Damn you, Petyr.

I must take several deep breaths to still my racing thoughts.  I hate this.  My mind is my own.  My mind is my own.  My mind is my own.  My mind is my own…

This is unbecoming, and the mule laughs as we walk, Horabina at our backs, and the dark low smudge of the High Wall ahead rising slowly from the horizon. I glare at the mule, and it looks away, as if in contrition.  I think of the Lady of the Green Hair and of her final instructions to me and her admonition to be swift. I remember her sudden transformation into a beast of legends and the power that launched her hurtling into the sky to the northeast, knocking me onto my back with a cry of delight as I watched her soar into the far distance with a smile upon my face.

Her fangs were sharp, but so are mine. I believe we understand one another and this, as well, is good. One can do worse than to discover such a grandmother as that.

My thoughts are stilled.  In plans, in action, I will find my peace.

The hard-packed ground around the city with its brambles and bushes and thorns quickly gave way to softer soil and taller grasses and now the occasional tree can be seen, crouched in the distance, tense and waiting, as if in fear that I will notice. I stop and check the pack, lashed to the back of the mule, and all is secure. There are no other travelers out here, west of the road in the tall grasses, and it is as I intended, for the road means company, and the potential for violence, and prying eyes, and it is time for devotions.

I divest myself of the training robe, and the loose material billows to the ground, gathering at my feet. I step free, feeling the cool wind from the north flow around my flesh, exposed and pure and unshielded apart from the leather bracers upon my forearms that hold and conceal the tools of my craft, the fangs of my purpose, the steel of my will. These I will not remove, any more than I might remove my left foot, and the goddess will understand this failure to approach her uncovered.  If nothing else, she has yet to complain about it.

I step forth, arms upraised, naked but for the leather and metal upon my wrists and chant and recite and bow and invoke Meiyou and implore her protection from the ravenous and lustful eyes of her Consort.

Protect us, mothers, and daughters and maidens in the wilderness...

The mule keeps twitching its ears and I ignore it as I complete my devotions and then turn and begin to carefully go through the pack, drawing forth the dress I bought two weeks ago in Eagra from some Folk seamstress: billowing and roomy, cool and unimpeding, black, edged with green, bare at the shoulders. I slip into it and enjoy the feel of the cotton and lace for a moment, before procuring my traveling boots and pulling them on as well. Black, leather, ankle-high, good for long walking, a small knife goes in a slit in the rear of each. I don my belt and scabbards, and I sheathe my brothers, one at each hip. Their weight is comforting, familiar, and for the first time today I feel grounded, and truly at peace. I gently finger the hilts, leather wrapped, as plain and unassuming as the woman in a black dress leading a mule who wears them. My talons and my brothers.  I pull forth a small jar, uncork it and set it on the ground.

One goddess is satisfied; now for other obligations.

I turn to the northwest, towards the island far away somewhere out in the ocean, and as always I know where it would be.  I look towards the home I cannot return to, and sink to my knees.  Flicking my right wrist, I bring forth a short knife from within the bracer upon my arm, and finger it gently.  Then I draw the blade firmly across my left palm.
Red blood wells up in a line, crossing a thousand such fading white lines across the palm.  I watch the blood pool for a moment, then press my hand firmly into the ground.

Feast, partake, absorb.  And for the sake of us all, SLEEP.  By the goddess, SLEEP.

 Damn you, Gorgus.  Damn you, Petyr.

            I stay there, one hand pressed to the earth, the other held high, gleaming knife dripping red held tightly.  It might be that the water of my eyes joins the blood I give to the grass.  It might not.  This is none of your business.

I clean the blade, put it away and absently swab some ointment from the jar upon my stinging hand.  Already, the wound is closing, and I take this to mean that she is satisfied for one more day.  I do not know.  Were she not, would she bother to inform me?

The mule knickers and shies away as I put the jar of disinfecting ointment back into the pack.  Its ears flicker at something unseen. I continue to ignore it, and that which frightens it, and finish repacking my supplies and clothes from yesterday. I am saddened. Today there is no time for makeup or hair, and I settle for a hastily applied clip to keep the bangs out of my face. The rest falls free.

I close the pack, and take the mule’s lead and set off again.

The mule is near panic, and I can smell the great cat off to the west now, but I still betray no hint of emotion or fear to my mule, gently leading it onwards, vaguely northeast, seeking The Road. The cat is following, but keeping a wide berth for now. I straighten the folds of my dress beneath the tightness of my belt, check the bindings on my bracers and verify the sharpness of my knives as we walk, and I absently rest my free hand on the hilt at my left hip, and then I know it is time and I carefully untie my bow from beside the mule’s saddle. I grab an arrow from the quiver on the other side, and loosen the ties on the scabbards at my hip. My hairclip is insufficient and too much of my hair flows free, catching the wind, and I consider cutting it off entirely, only briefly, before dismissing this idea as absurd, and I think about the salt and the gold in my pack and how I procured them and where I might bury them before crossing the pass, and I consider the mule and the condition of its shoes and where we might find water and possibly a bath finally and all number of things apart from the cat that creeps up behind us now and thoughts pile upon thoughts and the body is free to act because I have called upon nahhu because dependency is a terrible thing but there are some things in life that demand to be done correctly and to do otherwise would be a sacrilege and dependency is preferable to death and the arrow is gone before my mind registers having strung the bow.

The bow is already dropped and my brothers are drawn, one from each hip, and I plant my feet and I wish I had a spear and I feel a drop of sweat sting my right eye and I think again of cutting my hair and I wonder why I did not unpack my hat and I think about getting it out and wearing it but that is shutting a barn door after the thieves have stolen your horses and all of this I think by the time the arrow has vanished into the tall grass and a yowling cry comes from within perhaps fifty feet away and I wait and nothing happens and I wait longer and then nothing happens again but the cry continues both soft and insistent now and so I must walk forward and find the creature lying in the grass breathing shallow and more dangerous now in its pain but unable to rise because of the lung which I have punctured with an arrow and so I must fulfill my role once again and I call upon Ranyam this time, the Consort himself, in a quiet voice and ask His blessing on this act and I stab deeply into the chest of the cat with my youngest brother before leaping away to avoid the swiping claw that takes the last of its strength and it sighs and collapses fully and I stand and mull over an act both necessary and wasteful and notice, finally, the small, spreading red puddle and consider it.

A crow.  Cliché. I sigh.

Wings, black, furious.
Loud, demanding, insistent.
You come and pillage and feast
And little do you grant in return
Such is life.
Such is blood.
Nahhu.


And nahhu flees, satisfied, and this time I retain my composure, and so I clean and sheathe my blades and return to my mule who dances away from me until I calm it, and this takes time, and the sun moves farther across the sky. By the time I have calmed my beast of burden, real crows have arrived and joined their spreading crimson sister in the grass, and they descend and begin to feast. And I am saddened, though I withstand it as I have been trained to do and I curse my earlier failure to do so, and curse the struggles that the gods force upon us, and I curse Petyr and Gorgus both, and I curse nahhu that once invoked always ends in death that leads to nahhu that leads to death that leads to nahhu that leads to death that leads to nahhu that...

And loudly this time, not for the first, nor last time, I curse the beautiful and complicated man who taught me and placed me upon this path and towards this goal and did not tell me that the roads that lead to it never lead away. And I laugh, ruefully, for a curse, even one as loud as mine, will have no effect on the dead.

Damn you Gorgus.  Damn you Petyr.  The breeze is beautiful this day, and you would have loved it.

And I collect my bow from where I left it and retie it to the saddle, and pull sharply upon the lead this time, dragging the mule on behind me. There, ahead, is The Road, finally, and we step upon it and turn north and begin chasing the mountains that will still seem distant when the sun has long gone to sleep.

The mule protests and I pat it gently upon the head. "Paths are to be followed, sturdy one. It is not for us to step aside from them."

Nahhu.


KAL'BARRE RO MYLHA DUR MEDROSA

I am alive, and I know this as certainly as I know that Jen'a is dead.  Jen'a, and Rikart, and Iy'eye, and my mother and all of the others. They are gone, and I must be alive, for the Stoneskins do not share our afterworld. If I were dead I would not see the Kyzanthe bastards milling about, growling and spitting and laughing uproariously. I would not still feel the burning of the slash upon my back, nor the sting and stench of the sloppily applied river mud that the stoneskins and some of the northern tribes use to heal wounds. I would not be able to see the pile of the bodies of my friends and family burning nearby as one of the filthy Kyzanthe stands over me and kicks me into awareness.

"UP!" he growls. I wonder how he got the word around those fangs.

I'm roughly pulled to my feet by the rope tied around my hands. I look before, and behind me, and see the dirty faces of men and women, all tied, all joined together. We're in a chain of humanity, all ragged, all wounded, all bound at the hands to the same rope that connects us. We're all in the tattered remains of our armor, or clothing, some with boots, most without. My own shirt is gone.

I do not recognize any of these people. The woman in front of me stares back, thoughtfully.  She wears a painted face common to the people far to the south. I look at the man behind me; he has the tattooed chest of the tribe far to our east, on the edge of the Chasm. The Easters are wild people, and they never trade with outsiders. They also never fight the stoneskins. The Kyzanthe were always terrified of the Chasm before and never ventured near it. Now, apparently, they raid to its edge.

A whip cracks somewhere ahead, and our line of prisoners moves off. I'm roughly pulled forward and almost lose my balance but the man behind me steadies me.

"Fall, and die," he hisses, glancing nervously at the stoneskin with the whip.

He's proven correct almost immediately as someone further up the line trips over something and goes down. The beast with the whip, larger than the other Kyzanthe I have seen, runs forward, past us, drawing a fierce looking curved blade. It's notched and stained dark, with blood or something worse. I can't see the man he swings at, but I hear the shriek. There's a quick flurry of movement, and then the line moves forward again. The Kyzanthe steps away, a pair of still bleeding hands tied to his belt, gruesome trophies. I can't stop to see, and I almost trip on the man's corpse as we pass it, but Iy'eke's eyes are still open, staring in terror at the doom that claimed him.

His hands are gone, the stumps red and still oozing even in death.

We walk and stumble and it goes on for hours without rest or food or water. We walk and stumble and die. My only rest is when someone else falls, the line stops, and someone else is killed. Then I'm jerked back into motion and I must walk and walk and the hours stretch on and I do not know where we're going, except that we're constantly moving northward. We stop again. Someone dies. We move.

---

Night is falling. Somehow I have survived this far. I cannot go on much longer, and I long for release. I will see my friends, and my family. I will escape from these butchers, these demons made flesh. We stop again. I wait for someone to die.

I'm shoved roughly to the ground.

"SLEEP!" growls a stoneskin, moving down the line shoving us all down. I am too exhausted to argue. I'm too tired to resist sleep's embrace.

I dream of battle, and death, and blood, and my hands around the throat of the huge Kyzanthe with the sword and whip. I strangle the life out of him, and suddenly the sword is in my hand and I am among them all, slicing and dodging and avenging my friends and family. A woman is with me, dark and furious with twin blades spinning in some obscene dance as she cuts down stoneskins en masse. Another man is nearby, rotund and bearded and robed, and he catches my eyes, whispers something under his breath, turns and holds out his hand. A pillar of flame erupts from his palm, enveloping the rushing beasts and they are consumed. I hear a shriek of pain and fear and I'm jolted awake.

Another of the beasts is standing nearby, staring in obvious longing at the woman from the south, the one with the painted face laying nearby. His hands are clenching and unclenching, and whatever hunger rules its dark mind causes it to kneel, grasping. She shrieks again, trying to edge away. A whip catches the Kyzanthe off guard, spinning it about, and it roars in rage. The fierce one with the ugly sword and the whip is there now, roughly pulling the first one to its feet, and the stern glare from the whip wielder stops the other one dead in its tracks. They bark at each other in their horrible language for a moment before the first one slinks off, growling. The one with the whip glares around, then lashes at the woman with its whip a few times before stalking away. She sobs heavily and shudders, lying still and whispering prayers to Meiyou. I say one of my own to Shaiyra, for myself, for death. I don't know if she can hear me this far from the village. She is not as well known as Meiyou, not as powerful, but then, Meiyou did not protect the woman on the ground. I have no energy to pray for her as well, and I tumble back into sleep.

I see a great green ribbon in the sky, flitting from place to place, and it moves towards me from the south. As it approaches, I see that it is not a ribbon at all but a great lizard, a fire breather, one of the ancient wyrms of legend. It falls upon me and I am no longer in the midst of Kyzanthe and warriors and mages but alone upon a vast plain. Fire burns all around me, and the wyrm's eyes bore into me like swords. It stares into my soul.

PERSEVERE.

I fall to the ground, flattened by the force of its thoughts.

MAINTAIN. ENDURE. WAIT.

I writhe, impotent, and it screams at me before launching itself back into the sky, speeding northward.

FOLLOW.

I jolt awake and the Kyzanthe are forcing us to our feet. I shake the dream from my head, confused. The voice still rings in my head, insistent, powerful, feminine, ancient.

ENDURE.

I set my shoulders and face forward.

The southern woman stares back at me, ruefully. I look behind at the Easter, and he arches an eyebrow as he gets to his feet. Too many others do not. Too many died during the night. We stand, helpless as the Kyzanthe kick at them, shake them, and then ultimately fall upon them with gleeful cries. I look away as the dead are consumed by the stoneskins. The sickening crunch of bone and flesh assails me. Hands are claimed and tied to belts, and the rest is devoured.

ENDURE.

The Easter is muttering some kind of prayer. The southern woman is staring at the carnage, memorizing it, enshrining it. She mutters her own prayer.

Meiyou ashkam.

I blink in shock. One does not ask the goddess of life and peace to deliver death, only her consort. The woman looks back at me, as if she hears my silent objection. She looks at me, and at the Easter behind, and then spits. “Meiyou ashkam.”

ENDURE.

The line lurches into motion and I am pulled ahead. Northwards, stumbling over rent and torn bodies who may have well been my friends and family.

FOLLOW. ENDURE.

I shake my head as I step over the defiled, amputated corpses. I envy them, and I think that soon I will join them. They are with their friends, and family, and so soon shall I be. Shaiyra, let it be so. But not before I take that sword from that spit-dribbling Kyanthe and take its own hands for my prize. You are a giver of life, but let me ask for a death. And if you cannot grant it, then I shall go to one higher in the heavens than you.

Meiyou ashkam.

I spend the rest of the day thinking only of my hands upon his neck, and his hands, proud trophies, tied to my own belt. Others fall and die around me, but I maintain. I walk, I dream, I continue. I endure.

Meiyou, I will not leave this world empty-handed.

My bitter laughter sustains me on the slow march northwards.

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