His sobs echo through the corridors of Datheiren Keep. The old stone absorbs its husky tone, the barely-voiced beginnings of words, apologies, curses; they reflect in only a sourceless, pitiable sound of misery. When there are guests, or the servants hear, I claim the cries are my own. I protect the pride of my husband, Valien Godslayer.
After all, though I have reason to weep, so does he, and he came by it all for my sake. He rescued me from the pale and tender hands of Rhiel Ghoulsmother, Goddess of Dust. He murdered Her for me.
And as the months, the years, go by, I begin to wonder if we will ever be able to live with it.
Sometimes I think I loved Rhiel, with the sort of love squires hold for their masters: part devotion and part envy. She was beautiful, in the alien way of newly dead things, as my mother’s face was after her death in childbirth—fragile, composed, without a mark on her. And of course, being a Goddess, Rhiel was powerful.
I was neither. I still am not.
But for a time, I imagined I might stay down there forever; learn Her arts and become part of Her court, the unmarred and beautiful unliving. I could become a demigoddess. I could become a monster. There, in the gray dust in the white arms of the Ghoulsmother, I feared no possibility.
And then he came, Valien, to slay the Ghoulsmother and rescue those of Her captives who could be saved—only Faya, a dark girl from far lands who was stranger in some ways even than Rhiel; and myself, the merchant’s daughter who became his wife. He asked me, and I could not refuse him.
He is not an unhandsome man, with flaxen hair, deep blue eyes—are we not supposed to find these handsome?—and sun-gilded skin, taut over muscle on a somewhat slighter frame than could be expected of a great hero. But that was not my reason.
It was a long journey, from the rotting jungle where we emerged from Rhiel’s realm to the roads and towns of civilized folk. We slept two nights outside. From the first, Valien’s nightmares came. He screamed, in agony, in horror—I had seen Her whisper to him, when his blade cut Her breast; did Her secret last words haunt him still?—screamed in grief and guilt. Perhaps this was justice, since he had killed a Goddess, even if a Goddess of Corpse-Dust and Death. But how terrible, those screams. Faya left us the next day, taking her own path through the forest, to a place only the living Gods must know; perhaps Valien’s screams drove her away.
But they pulled me close, helpless. I knew I was all he had in the world, the only one who might understand his burden, his torture, the punishment for his sin against the divine. So I kept near him on the second night, held him when he screamed; and when, upon returning, he asked me to be his wife, I accepted.
I loved him with gratitude and pity, and in time, as I saw the hero he was, I came to love him with reverence and envy, too. And all the time I hoped I might also do a great deed—that I might cure a hero of his scars.
But my love, and what understanding I can offer, do nothing. Still he writhes, crying out in the night. And sometimes in the day he curls in a corridor, where he believes no one will find him, and sobs.
We make love sometimes. At first I hoped it might be a way to exorcise our demon, to put Rhiel’s ghost to rest. But if anything, our awkward, overly generous passions only awaken Her. I close my eyes, and instead of Valien’s warm, strong embrace I feel Rhiel’s arms around me like a necklace of bones. I smell musk and dust, sweet and dank perfume. I hear voices: Faya’s, my own, the rustling leaflike babble of the unliving court chanting with shriveled tongues behind broken teeth, and Her voice, more beautiful and terrible and strange. I see the caverns sculpted with designs I could not look upon, and even now dare not remember, and sepulcher halls walled with ancient bones.
I taste—but I will not share that. Sometimes, with a mother’s smile, She would offer me metal-tasting water to wash down my meals. And She would sing to me—like a mother singing nursery rhymes, with a sort of lesson in the tune... Faya and I began to learn. I wonder how Faya lives with that. I wonder how I am able to. I still dream of Her. I know Valien does, too.
One night when the dreams come I take him in my arms, stroking back his sweat-damp hair, rocking our bodies on the luxurious down mattress, chanting nonsense as I did to soothe my little brother’s nightmares. It has some effect; he wakes.
“Idaela?” He always says my name as if he is just learning it.
He doesn’t laugh at my statement of the obvious; he seems to have no sense of humor. I wonder if he ever did. He presses his face to my shoulder and breathes deeply.
“You’re safe here,” I say, falling easily into this role of protecting him.
“I know. She’s dead. I know She’s dead—” Words chanted like the incantation on a talisman. “Nothing can reach us here. It’s over, far past... And you are safe as well.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You suffer because you rescued me.” He doesn’t reply. “I wish I could....”
Still no reply. It angers me, more than it ought. “Perhaps it was a mistake to marry each other. Now we’re always reminded of....”
In reply, deep, even breathing. I feel ashamed of my bitterness, even as I wonder at the way he so quickly fell asleep. Perhaps he has used this skill before to evade the troubling words of a troubled woman. They say it is a soldier’s skill, to sleep at will. Datheiren Keep is a gift from King Arlin for a great service rendered, not the inheritance of a lord’s son; I know little of Valien’s past before he came to free eastern Ekandria of the Ghoulsmother.
Before I became his wife.
And he knows little of mine. But we share the nightmares. Is there anything more we need to know?
What can cure a Godslayer?
Amaasin priests have told us Valien requires no healing, committed no sin, has no need for forgiveness.
A new cult, that of the Abyss and Great Trees, says there is no such thing as forgiveness, that only actions and not grace determine the health and fate of our souls. But they also see Valien’s action as good, a sprout from the Trees, not something to atone for. I can find no help there.
Rhiel Ghoulsmother has no worshippers left.
Last night I saw Valien standing at the top of the northwest tower, at the very edge, and I realized I was waiting for him to jump.
I pray to the Divinity of Amaas, the Great Trees, the Earth and Sky, the ancient land-soul of Ekandria, to Rhiel’s primordial rivals—anyone who might be glad or grateful for the Ghoulsmother’s death. Send me a miracle. Save him, heal him—or if You will not, at least show me how.
Am I humble, moderating my request? Or do I still seek glory by performing the deed of a hero?
A miracle comes. Perhaps not the one I asked for. One morning, as I ride through the town that has grown before the gates of Datheiren Keep, I see Faya. She is unmistakable, with skin dark as mahogany against a sunset-red dress, black hair caught up in a silver net—she has done well for herself.
Just as I am about to call out to her, she turns, sees me, greets me, and soon we are sitting in the gardens of Datheiren Keep. I am telling her the story of the last four years, perhaps at her prompting. Yes, she does ask if Valien still has nightmares.
Faya takes my hand. “Then perhaps I can help,” she says, sounding almost surprised, but pleasantly so, as if a plan had been fulfilled when she hadn’t expected it to. “That’s why I came back, Idaela.”
“To help us?”
“I have... a certain secret. A gift perhaps. I think that was why Rhiel wanted me.”
Yes, Faya had always been strange, even before the time spent in Rhiel’s halls began to take its toll. Not just because she is foreign.
“There is a place very near my home village, far in the east. Once the home of a God—perhaps it still is. But not one like the Ghoulsmother,” she adds quickly as I pull my hand from hers. “No, perhaps the opposite. This place is a Garden, filled with unusually beautiful trees.”
I think of the cult of the Great Trees and the Abyss and wonder if this is its origin.
“There is a certain red fruit,” Faya says, again sounding introspective, “that will give eternal life to whoever eats it, or will kill an immortal. But only innocents can enter the Garden. I only know of one who ever did....
“My mother sent me in, when I was barely walking. She told me to find the red fruit, and bring it back.” She smiles the way one does at bitter things long past. “But I was young, and hungry, and it was so beautiful... and sweet.” The hand that reaches for mine has a long, jagged white scar along its back, running up the flesh of her arm. The mark of a thorn switch, wielded like a whip. “She was angry when I returned empty-handed.”
“Then... you must....”
“It happened three hundred years ago.”
No wonder she can speak of it so calmly.
We sit in silence for a time. I let her hold my hand again. “You came back to tell me this? So it might... help Valien?”
“And perhaps help yourself,” she says softly. “It is a place of life, not like Rhiel’s.... Yes, that is why I came here. But I wanted to return to Ekandria, anyway. It’s very different from the eastern lands, so much more crowded, fuller.... After a time, you begin to enjoy differences so much.”
I look at Faya, feeling reverence and envy. Her tale is perhaps the strangest of all of ours—yet not unhappy. She seems to have escaped the pall of Rhiel’s ghost. And of course, if she tells the truth—I don’t doubt for a moment that she does—it is far from over yet.
“But neither Valien nor I are innocent as children.”
“Perhaps it won’t be necessary to enter the Garden. Only to be near it.”
“What do you think will happen there?”
“It is a God’s place. Who can say? But I have heard of things—healings, revelations. Miracles.”
One final question flies from my tongue. “If Rhiel wanted you for your immortality—” yes, there is an attraction there for an unliving, undying Goddess—”why did She want me?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think She was teaching me things.”
Faya rises. “She taught me things, too.”
“How glad I ought to be to be immortal,” she says softly. “As to what you might have learned—shouldn’t you yourself know that best?”
I learned of the madness that lurks beneath the world, waiting always to seize us. I learned that even good deeds might deserve punishment. I learned it is a mercy that even gods can die. None of this Rhiel meant to teach me. I have suppressed her words, as much as possible; forgotten her lessons. They surface only in nightmares.
At this, Faya and I part. Somehow I am sure it will be forever. She has left me with a miracle, or at least the hope of one.
Perhaps ironically, Gods have no souls. Upon death, they vanish into nothingness; Rhiel is now no more than the corpse-dust She was birthed from. Valien did not only kill Her, he unmade Her.
She should have no more power over us.
Yet still, after four years, Valien cries out in nightmares—and in the day—and sometimes, quietly, I weep, giving into a grief I fear as much as I am ashamed of.
No longer, I pray. And now my prayer is granted, and I must do more than whisper the psalms I learned on my mother’s worn beads. I must act. We must.
Valien is slender for a man but broad-shouldered, and though I have never been a willow, his spare leathers fit me well enough. I am nowhere near the dashing figure he is as we ride out of the keep, leaving Datheiren behind, heading east. A wind, cool for summer, ruffles my newly shorn hair, cut with Valien’s dagger. The waist-long tangle I’d borne since I was a child would never do on a journey like this.
He watches me strangely. I don’t know if I look so different with my golden-red hair only chin length or if it’s the leather armor. Or the fact that after four years, he is on a quest again—one taken at his wife’s proposal, at that.
I have slept in feather beds for four years, on floor pallets for seventeen, and on piles of rotted-soft bones for one hundred nights, but this is only the third time I have ever slept outside. We curl in Valien’s cloak, his arms around me.
“What do you think awaits us?” he asks the sky.
“I don’t know,” I say, when it makes no reply. “You’re the one who’s done this most often.”
He laughs huskily. I’ve never heard him laugh before. His hands rest beneath my breasts and over my abdomen, close but not touching my most sensitive places. His breath tickles the back of my neck, and his hair, almost as long as mine now, tickles too. I force myself to only notice minutiae.
“What do you think awaits us?” I ask.
I feel the laughter leave his chest, pressed against my back. “Not immortality, whatever you’ve heard about this Garden.”
Of course. Immortality would bring no healing—would only prolong the nights of nightmare, the days of pain that grows until it cannot be held back, and must be let out in screams. But I force myself to smile, defying dark thoughts like the hero Finger-Tall attacking the monster cat with a needle for a sword. “How can you be sure?”
My parry, it seems, is very poor. A shudder runs his length, and Valien whispers, “She told me how we will die.”
My blood turns to ice. “Rhiel.”
Well, I think pragmatically, being a Goddess of Corpse-Dust, She would know. “How?”
“Do you really want to hear it?”
In answer, I kick him gently, as if we were only lovers caught in playful teasing. “How could I not?”
“She said you would die in childbirth.”
I go very still in his arms. I think of my mother as she delivered my brother, his shrieks and her groans and cries, weakening. Her face in death, unmarred, beautiful. And I think, no wonder Valien makes love to me so softly, so reluctantly. Or is the reluctance on my part? Am I perhaps unconsciously aware of my fate?
Is that one of the things I didn’t realize Rhiel taught me?
“What about you?” I ask.
“Poison.” The word said flatly, without emotion. But his arms tighten around me as if to lend comfort. Comforting me. It is exactly the way a hero should speak about his death.
How does a man repent of slaying a God?
How does his wife help him? How does anyone?
What did Faya think we would find in the Garden? Is its God still there, grateful for the death of a rival, willing to work a miracle?
Or will poison be Valien’s best cure? I remember how he walked so close to the edge of the northwest tower—he knew he wouldn’t jump, knew no fall would kill him. Or did he think of leaping, of so boldly challenging fate?
Is that not the sort of thing heroes do?
As we travel east, the landscape grows strange. We leave Ekandria’s emerald forests and golden fields and enter sheer mountains of dark stone and darker pines, more black than green. Past them, the land is flat and dry, as if no God ever bothered to shape this part of the world. The sky is cloudless overheard but not blue, as if it has taken up the gray of the earth, the gray of dust.
It rains once, clouds rushing overhead like charging armies, though there is nowhere to shelter and we are soaked to the skin. More often we are tormented by wind that draws the moisture from our lips as we lick them, sometimes driving grit before it. We begin to travel at night, a trick Valien remembers from his earlier life.
He tells me bits of it. He was indeed a soldier. Leaving home as a youth of sixteen, he dreamed of being a hero. He became one nine years later. In between, he learned how to keep a sword sharp, how to calm an angry drunk, how to cross any terrain, how to detect an ambush, how to find edible mushrooms and cook over an open fire. He uses every one of these skills during our journey.
I share some of my own life: mothering my younger brothers after our mother’s death, mothering my father sometimes, too. At a young age I learned to mend, how to soothe a tearful drunken man, how to start hearth fires despite drafts, how to wash in any possible way and how to live with grime when washing isn’t possible, how to carve up a roast, and how to calm a child—or a man—just awakened from a nightmare. And I too find a use for every one of these skills during our journey.
I ask him once why he did it.
“Set out to slay a Goddess? Well, someone had to, didn’t they? She couldn’t be left to steal young women and desecrate graves. All the others who tried to kill Her had failed....”
“Yes.” I had seen some of them die—if they were permitted to die.
“One of them was a friend of mine. Ojiv Knallisen. We were friends in the army. He’d served twice as long as I had, taught me things.... We both wanted to be heroes. He tried, and in failing, at least he had a hero’s death. I envied him.”
“You killed Rhiel for envy,” I say.
“Not entirely.” He doesn’t sound offended. “I still wanted to be a hero for its own sake.... And I wanted to avenge Ojiv as much as I wanted to surpass him.”
The sweetness of his tone, a sweetness I know he is unaware of, prompts me to say, “You loved him.”
He starts, and I wonder what exactly I have hit upon. But I will not be jealous of a dead man.
I wonder sometimes how closely the relationship of Ojiv and Valien mirrors that of Valien and me. Ojiv taught Valien swordcraft, and at my prompting, he shows me how to thrust and parry, and how to handle a broadsword without cutting myself. My winning argument is that, since by a Goddess’ word I will die in childbed, I have nothing to fear from swords.
What answers for a death? A birth.
The connection comes to me in a dream, a nightmare prompted by Rhiel’s prophecy. A birth. I tell Valien, but I’m not certain he hears me. Now it is his turn to soothe away a nightmare.
His singing is very pleasant. I realize it is a lullaby he learned from me. A lullaby I in turn learned long ago, from Faya.
Rhiel taught me nothing She did not teach the other members of Her court, back when they were alive—before they turned to perfect, gray, unliving tricksters and stewards and other servants of Dust’s Goddess. I was of no significance to Her. She foretold my death, but also Valien’s. We were the only ones in that tomb-hall who had deaths to foretell.
I was stolen at random, as other girls were stolen when they wandered too far in the forest or dark alleys, or stayed too long in graveyards at dusk. It meant nothing.
Did this revelation come from a dream, or arise naturally over long days of traveling and thinking? Does it matter? At least, unlike the other, it causes me no nightmares.
Rhiel knew my death. Did She also know what would come before it? Did She see my future as Valien’s bride? What else might She have seen?
Did She steal me out of vengeance for it? Or was that, the captivity that led to my meeting Valien and Faya, to marrying him and learning from her of a Garden, to walking across the eastern deserts in search of redemption for a Godslayer, only an inevitable part of my fate?
A dust storm blows up, golden sand driven by a greater wind than I have ever seen—if Rhiel still had any existence, any power in the world, I would say She sent it as revenge. Though the storm is not made of powdered corpses—so I hope.
Valien and I shelter behind a great rock, a bone of the earth sticking up like a vast splinter. In its shade he steps on something. A dark, slender something that writhes beneath his boot, lashes out, strikes. It slithers away as he slumps against the stone with a cry more of surprise than pain. Our gazes meet through the blowing dust and his is wide with fear.
Along with mother, I was also physician to my family. I am at his side in instants, drawing my knife, cutting a cross over the dark pinprick of the serpent’s bite. I put my lips to the wound and suck. Blood fills my mouth, but the taste doesn’t bother me. More troublesome is the bitter aftertang when I spit it out. I suck again, spit again. Over and over.
The venom is drawn out. As the storm continues, he sleeps curled beside me.
He is more surprised than I am when he awakens. Alive.
We come upon the Garden suddenly. It rises from the yellow dust, an emerald forest with jewel-bright fruits on its highest branches. A river flows out of it, scented like flowers and whispering as it runs over sand—a sound I have never heard before, almost like words. As we drink the sweet water, I look around for a village. There is none in sight—but then, Faya did leave it three hundred years ago.
Just being around the place, drinking its water, breathing the spicy living scent the wind draws off it, seems good for Valien, still recovering from the snake’s bite. And it aids me as well. For the first time I can remember, we both sleep without nightmares.
What answers to death? Life.
The Garden is life, that much is clear. Its fruit can grant life eternally. Even its waters summon life forth from a desert. Its God is a God of Life.
The answer is near. I can feel it close.
What answers for a death? A birth.
But how are Gods made?
I ask Valien. He doesn’t know. But then, does any mortal?
“Is the answer important?” he asks. I cannot see his face. We haven’t lit a fire, since there is no wood to use—we wouldn’t take it from the Garden even if we could. But the night is warm enough.
“I don’t know,” I say. “But I think....”
I hear him leaning forward. As a girl I would never have imagined this, a hero leaning close to hear my words. But then, Valien is more than a hero. He is my husband and my companion on this quest.
“To be free of Rhiel’s death we must atone for it. And atonement... well, what is the opposite of a death?”
“Saving a life,” he says. A hero’s answer, as valid as mine, perhaps. But not, I feel, the right one.
“A birth,” I say. “And the opposite of a Goddess of Corpse-Dust, of Death, is....”
“A God of Life?” He looks to the Garden. “I tried to enter... the branches are too thick. And then I called, but with no answer. No one came.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” I say.
My eyes are growing used to the dark; I see him turn back to me and shake his head. “You want to create a God.”
“To give birth to one.”
He shakes his head again. Now mixed with incredulity is horror. “Where would we even begin? And that’s not even the most important....”
I nod, knowing his thoughts. “I imagine birthing a God could be hard on the mother.”
“You would do it?”
“Of course.” I do not tell him why. Perhaps he already knows. After all, after Ojiv Knallisen’s death Valien killed Rhiel Ghoulsmother, and not just for revenge.
He pays me the greatest compliment one like him can, that of not questioning me further.
The Garden works miracles. Cures. Revelations.
The answer to a killing is a birth. The answer to death is life. Gods are created, I come to believe, the same way they die: much like mortals.
What is the key difference, the catalyst? How can we be sure it will be present? Perhaps that will be another of the Garden’s miracles. But first, I must convince Valien to try.
He fears for me, and I can’t blame him. I don’t know why I don’t fear for myself.
But—another revelation—what is to death as the truth is to life? Lies. Does fate even exist? Not even the Gods have been able to prove that. And a lie would serve Rhiel’s purpose just as well.
What purpose? Revenge, for the blade in her breast. She foretold for Valien a death that might come from any source—a feast given by an enemy, a cup of wine from a false friend, a pricked fingertip, a rotting wound, the shadow of a rock. A fact that could only lead to constant fear. For a hero, an ignoble destiny.
And by claiming I would die in childbed, what did She do but seek to prevent my ever having a child? It would hurt me, of course, and harm my marriage with Valien, mar our most tender moments and place a wall between us, that his love might be the source of my death. It is a risk run by any woman, but to know that it is more than a risk....
Also, there is the fact that She was a Goddess of Dust, of Death. Does it not make sense She would strike out at birth, at life? Perhaps at this birth particularly, at the Life I am contemplating?
Or perhaps She wasn’t lying. Valien will die by poison, and I by giving birth.
But Valien has survived poison once. He might again, many times, before the end. Likewise, there is no certainty that this will be the birth that kills me.
Perhaps fate does not exist, but it will kill me anyway.
I try to explain all this to Valien, and he does listen, striving to understand.
“This is your choice?” he says at last.
“Valien.” I sit beside him, lean close. “There’s something more you aren’t considering.”
“If you believe a child conceived between us will kill me, how can we ever bear to touch again?” Voice straining, urging, I demand, “Do you mean for us to stay forever celibate? An ignoble fate for heroes!”
I am rewarded with his second-ever burst of laughter. Then in the dark his callused fingers reach out, comb through my hair. It is shoulder length now; I am debating cutting it again. I decide I will wait a little longer.
“I remember when I saw you,” he said. “It was your hair first. Flame-bright in that gray place. And all of you—so vibrant, so alive. I knew then that if you let me, I’d never part from you.”
“You married me....”
“For your hair, yes.” He doesn’t quite sound embarrassed. “Though I’ve come to be glad of my choice, for... other reasons.”
“You married me to remember. To remember that first sight....”
“Of life, yes. Of life in that place—or perhaps anywhere. Until I faced a Goddess of Death I never thought so much about living.”
To remember. He knew that living at my side would remind me of everything, and he chose to anyway—no, because of it.
“We’ve been strangers for four years,” I say.
“I know. I’m sorry for that, truly....”
“As am I.” I can barely form the words. It is far easier to let my lips work in another way, as I bring them to his.
We are still gentle with one another, but no longer so cautious and generous. We dare to be selfish. Kindling something between us, something we can only guess at, we cry out our triumph across the sweet river, over the Garden, to every corner of the desert.
I am bearing a child. I didn’t bleed for the two months of our return journey, or the two months since we arrived home. My stomach is starting to grow. I haven’t been ill. A blessing—or perhaps something more than that. In fact, I feel curiously healthy.
Valien and I sleep well most nights, and as for our few nightmares—we are only mortal. We have our uncertainties, our fears as well as our joys. And some nights I still dream of Rhiel. I think he might, too.
But we also dream of a new Goddess—or God, it is hard to tell from the face of a child in dreams, though it hardly matters. Our child is coming, and it might shape the destiny of the world.
If there is such a thing as destiny.
What is the answer to fate? A choice.
Four months yet. Sometimes I feel I cannot wait. I so look forward to seeing that face in the flesh.
Sometimes—rarely, it must be admitted, but sometimes—a burst of bright laughter echoes through the corridors of Datheiren Keep. The stone walls absorb its husky tone, the occasional catch that might betray inexperience with hilarity; the effect is only a sourceless, almost enviable sound of joy.
Knowing that my guests and servants wouldn’t understand, I tell them the laughter is my own.More and more often, this is not entirely untrue—because if Valien has reason for joy, then so do I.