Papa says often you will be looking for one thing and find another, and Papa is very wise and often right, for I was looking out for trolls in the pasture when I saw the soldiers instead.
We see soldiers often, because the road between Kulosep and the Hado runs along the northeast edge of our farm. The Kuloseppae are very tall and paint their faces in war, and carry long spears. The Suhado wear helmets like birds’ heads and their women fight. We are neither. We are Esh. We were here before the armies came.
These soldiers were Kuloseppae and they were off the road and coming across the field. I could have hidden but three dozen sheep could not, and if all they wanted was provisions and they stole a sheep because there was no-one nearby to buy it from, Papa would be angry. Instead I rang the night bell, and stood in place as they came.
“Where’s your father, boy?” one asked as they stopped just past the sheep fence. His face was unpainted, which I took as a good sign. We had not heard of a war, but one’s first news might well be a night fire or a knife. So Papa says, and so he listens to the wind.
“Coming, honoured sir,” I told the soldier, hoping it was true. For good measure and to seem eager to please I rang the bell again. The sheep stirred uneasily, butting against each other. I felt the same. Sheep are not clever as people are clever, but they are not stupid as city people think. We Esh understand these things. I felt the threat in the wind and the dark, whispering in my ears like a hungry ghost, and I stood and waited longingly for Papa.
He came out from the house soon, his coat over his shoulders and a cudgel swinging from one hand. Once I saw him kill a full-grown troll with it, smashing its ribs with his first blow and then caving in the back of its head as it doubled over. Now as he saw the soldiers his posture shifted a little, became more shuffling and slumped. Just an old farmer, worried about his sheep. We Esh have been here a long, long time.
I went back to watching the sheep, a few of whom had decided to make a foray along the fence toward the trees. As I was urging them back to the flock and away from where trolls could be hiding, I heard Papa sob, once, as though trying not to. They will take one of the sheep without paying, then, I thought. Papa is a great bargainer, but he is wise enough not to argue too far.
“Tekel,” he said to me when I came back within earshot, while the soldiers grinned at each other, “you will go with these men.”
I could not understand. The words were sounds only, without meaning. Papa would not send me away, not ever. I had misunderstood. I touched the fence, the back of one of the sheep, my father’s sleeve, seeking reassurance in solidity. He moved away, and the world shifted.
They told me then that they were a recruiting party, and that the laws had been changed so that Esh and all who lived between Kulosep and the Hado were now citizens of one or the other. As citizens of Kulosep it was the duty of all able-bodied males to serve a term in the army, but in their kindness they would allow one man of the new citizens to serve for all his family.
“You’re lucky you’re not on the Hado side, boy,” the speaker added. “They’d take you both and your mama too. War’s coming.”
“Esh do not fight in wars,” I said numbly, and they laughed again.
“Well, you’ll be the first, then, won’t you? Come on, boy, say goodbye to your daddy and let’s get moving.”
Then I understood, and seeing my father’s face knew I was right. If war was coming, someone would have to keep Mama and my little brothers safe, and if I refused to go, they would take Papa instead. And would I, Tekel, fifteen years old, keep looters from our doorstep or lead our family to safety if the farm burned? No, Papa must stay, and I must go.
Then it was darkness around me and a long walk through the night, and finally a cleared place where other men and other boys slept bewildered sleep. I wondered where we were going, and if I would see the walls and towers of Kulosep tomorrow or in days to come. I had never wanted to leave the farm, but if this was to be my life, let it at least be filled with marvels. Let me yield to fate and be borne up by it, like a plucked leaf that soars far from the tree. It is no disgrace, to yield to fate.
We are Esh, after all. We understand these things.
You’d think the damned greenies would teach these poor kids not to sleep on watch, first thing. He was leaning on his spear when I got up to the sentry-line, and I could tell even in the dark he was a new one, because he was out on his feet and didn’t wake up when I came up behind him. When you’ve been out awhile you learn the trick of sleeping so lightly a dragonfly on your shoulder wakes you.
Not that I ever sleep on watch. No sir.
Didn’t wake up even when I came up behind him and dropped my wire over his head. Garotte’s a quiet way to kill if you can manage it, that or a stab in the kidneys. Don’t ask me what kidneys have to do with not screaming, but it works, ask anybody.
Left him and the next one and the next all in a nice pile under some bushes, after I took the trophies. That part I hate, I’m not ashamed to tell you. Leave a soldier some dignity, let the family have a body to weep over that looks like their boy or girl, not one so hacked up they’ve got only the sergeant’s word who they’re burying. You think when I die I want my mama looking down at me and telling them “No sir, that’s not my daughter, I don’t believe you?” But orders are orders and we were told to scare the bastards, so we did.
No idea why they were out recruiting along the highway anyways. That’s what they were doing, we knew it, we’d been following them for days. I’ve been out with recruiting parties before, yes sir, but the farmers between Kulosep and Hado-home were supposed to be exempt. We’re not stupid; we know who grows our bread. If the damned greenies had been able to offer them something, or threaten them with something, to make them take sides (and I’ve talked to Esh and I can’t for the life of me figure out what that would be) we needed to stamp the whole thing out as hard as possible.
So: the recruits died. By now the rest of our squadron would have done their parts. Adadaro and Omibibiro were sneaking into the camp itself to kill all the new boys who were sleeping, while the rest, me included, took out those on watch. That was most of them. It was part of their training, I get that, but still stupid not to have somebody keeping an eye on them. But by now I don’t expect greenies to be too smart. Tricky, sure, they’re tricky as all hell, but stupid.
So back to our camp I went and what did I find on the way but Madidiyu asleep at her post. Kicked her awake and explained at great length how easily I could have strangled her just like those poor Esh bastards whose tongues and ears I had in my pouch. She was nearly in tears when I finished but trying not to show it, and I pretended not to see. Wasn’t too long ago I was a new girl myself. She had to learn not to be careless, though. Careless gets you killed.
Bek eat you all. Bek eat blood-smell-man and water-smell- woman and angry-short-woman and poke-Bek-with- sticks-man. Bek strong hands. Bek big teeth. Bek break moving wood cave run run eat you all.
Day, night, day, moving. Back and forth, back and forth. Bek stomach hurt. Once Bek sick on angry-short-woman. Other man all laugh. Bek no food, day, night, day. Last good food just before all man came. Iron claw woman, hot salt blood, good good. All gone now. Not even blood left on skin. Bek hungry. No food. Man smell good good. Bek eat you all.
Sleep, blood-smell-man. Sleep, angry-short-woman. Sleep long quiet no wake up. Bek break moving wood cave. Bek sneaky quiet. Eat you all. Eat you all. Eat you all. Then run run far away, never come back never. Never catch Bek again.
How was I supposed to know it was a woman, for God’s sake? They said it was a troll and I swear it looked like one, all matted hair and hooked nails and those stinking hides they tie on themselves to mask their own smell from prey. It tried to bite me when I got near the cage, and the soldiers who brought it in laughed.
“Be careful, Thibo,” their captain warned me. “It killed one of us before we caught it. And ate her. Well, bits of her.”
I was amazed they did catch it. Troll cubs do command high prices, who knows that better than me? But you’d think if it killed one of their own there’d have been a few of them who’d’ve wanted to skewer it. Either they were better disciplined than I gave them credit for, or they were shorter of coin than they looked. I was betting on the latter, and revised my offer downward accordingly.
Even then, the captain’s eyes lit up at the amount I mentioned. I didn’t tell him I could get four times as much from a certain man in Bannertown who trained troll cubs to fight bears and such for show. I’ve never seen such a thing myself, of course, but some people will watch any kind of barbarism.
The purchase concluded, they left the cub and the cage and went off bragging to each other about how many butterfly-girls they’d have tonight. I sent a boy to my warehouse to fetch my cart, then sat down beside the cage to keep an eye on it. People will steal anything in this city. The troll was still muttering and growling to itself in the corner. Yes, a troll, I was sure of it. All right, a she-troll, with dugs nearly down to its waist, but I’ve seen she-trolls before and they do look like that.
The boy came running back to tell me that my foreman, Abiru, said the cart was at the smith’s and did I want him to hire one instead? This on market day when there wouldn’t be a cart for rent in the entire city. I thought about it for a moment, then gave the boy a penny to watch the cage and went off to make some purchases.
When I returned, it was with a waxed paper packet of raw offal from the butcher’s, into which I’d carefully poured a small vial of a certain sedative I knew to work well on trolls. I’d used it before and the apothecary had assured me of this batch’s strength. Once the beast was unconscious, the boy and I could remove it from the cage and carry it home ourselves.
I pushed the meat through the bars, keeping my hands well clear. “Good troll,” I coaxed it. “Nice troll. Eat the nice food. That’s right.” The troll sniffed at it suspiciously, then began stuffing the bloody organ meats into its mouth with both hands. The sight made me want to vomit, right there in the street. A crowd had gathered to watch by this time, and a few of the ladies fainted at this new spectacle.
Gradually the troll’s frantic eating slowed. It lifted its head, looking puzzled, then abruptly convulsed, howling, and collapsed to the floor of the cage and began to claw at its stomach and throat. I had never seen that happen before.
Then, by God, the caterwauling turned to words, and I felt my own blood turn to water. “Hurts. Mama, mama, hurts, help me, help meee—” The troll was tearing great rents in its gut, its blood mixing with the mess on the floor. Trolls do not speak. Their throats are made like dogs’ throats, and they don’t speak. But I couldn’t have known, could I? It didn’t try to speak before. All it did was growl.
I didn’t know. May God strike me dead if I lie, I didn’t know.
Adondé vedu how I hate this warm country and all who live in him. Many and many years I have been here and in all this time I have not found one woman of honour or one man of decency. Malu vedu it is enough to make one mad.
The watchman who buys dreams from me, and who thinks therefore that I am like one of the grubbers after coin to whom he is accustomed, brought a prisoner to me some time past noon. He was a murderer, said the watchman, a poisoner, condemned to die and therefore easy to lose. Adondé vedu how he smiled as he spoke, such as a rat clicking her teeth at bound prey. He has been bringing me the forgotten dead for two years and more, and has been as loyal as such men are ever loyal. Malé lisu how I despise him.
The prisoner was sweating despite his nakedness and the pleasant chill of my home. He was fat not only as all in this rich land are fat, but more, a corpulence of soul. He stank of terror. I would not have thought him capable of murder, had I not known that all men are.
“I didn’t mean to,” he was babbling. “Please, God, God, I didn’t know she was human. You have to believe me. It was a mistake.”
“I not to judge you,” I said, and inside myself I sighed. That was not what I had meant to say, but three years is not time enough to learn this language who ties himself in knots around my tongue. He is a legged snake, a leech such as swim in the harbour here, sucking the blood from all hearts and leaving lies. I tried again. “I am not the judge. Not the watchman. Not the executioner. You understand?”
He looked at me, and there was hope in his small round eyes, greedy hope grasping at life with fat fingers. “You’re not going to kill me?”
“Yes, I am not,” I said. I crossed to one of my chests and removed a silver key. She was long and delicate, and the lock for which she was made was three thousand miles away (malé lisu how I weep for Veduhin many-towered, and the sun over Lisun Urach in the morning!) but when I touched her to the man’s fetters they fell away. He stumbled, uncertain as a bird in his first freedom, but no bird, even the most ungainly condor or dying wing-shattered hawk, ever collapsed and blubbered and swore fealty on foreign gods as this creature did. I have soared with birds and though they do not have pride as we know it, nor do they have—this.
“Sit there,” I said, and pointed him to a chair, keeping my skin well clear. There was a worn rug on the chair and he wrapped her convulsively around his lap as though I could have some interest in his genitals. “Stay,” I said. “Do not to touch things. I will come back.”
There were things I had to make ready, and when I returned it was evening and the sun lapped at the far wall of the room. The fat man was seated where I had left him, pretending he had been there all day and not disturbed the contents of the room, who quivered at the touch of a stranger and cried their outrage to me. “Soon,” I soothed them, “soon, soon,” and turning slowly in place I took the blessing of the setting sun until he vanished. As always he left peace behind him, disturbed only by the baffled presence of the murderer in the chair.
I do not explain myself to the people of this warm country, ever, and so I said only, “Lie onto the table, please.”
“What am I doing here?” he burst out. “Listen, I’ve been waiting for you for hours here and you haven’t even told me your name yet. Last thing I knew they were telling me I was condemned to death for killing that unnatural troll woman—” he did not, this time, add that he had not meant to, “—and when that guard took me out of the judge’s chambers I was damned sure that was it, but now I’m here and what I want to know is why? Not that I’m not grateful, you understand,” he added hastily. “But I need to know what you want of me if I’m going to help you out somehow, if you take my meaning.” He winked at me. It was grotesque.
“Lie onto the table,” I repeated. “Things to need to be done.”
He was starting to be afraid again, and the smell of fear made my neck twitch. “You said you weren’t going to hurt me,” he reminded me, though I had not. “You said I wasn’t here to be killed.”
“You will not die,” I said, which seemed to reassure him. Malu vedu these rich ones lack imagination.
But all that mattered was that he climbed gingerly onto the table and lay with his face toward the ceiling, as they always do. I have never yet seen one of them try to fight, at the end. Two years and I have not. There is something in their oily blood that makes them dogs, to cringe and lick the hands of power.
I drew the bronze knife from out of her wards, and began.
There should not have been pain. Pain is a thing of the body, and my body was gone; where then did it come from? I am Esh—I was Esh, and we know something of death, but I did not understand this.
Near me the lights of the living souls shone like guttering candles, fading toward their end. One was almost spent; the other lifted a hand; the knife fell, the light began to fade.
I reached for him and caught hold of him, not knowing what I did. He curled around me, weeping as only the dead weep. I held him as I have held orphaned lambs, as I once held my little brothers and protected them from thunder and ghosts. In memory it seemed we were all ghosts together, white and small. I longed to stretch out a hand to them; but it was illusion, all, all.
Eventually he quieted, and drew away from me. The pain that had faded from me now returned with new force, and I felt myself recoil and fade. Not now, I told myself with what pale anger I could muster, not yet, and held on, and stayed.
—dead, oh God, he’s killed me, I heard as I came back to awareness. Oh God, oh God, he said he wouldn’t, he promised—
He didn’t mean to, I answered, look— and there above or below us a man whose light was both bright and dark was shouting or cursing in a strange language that nonetheless I understood, and cringed to understand. There is no language in which the words of All-that-is cannot be spoken, so the Esh know, and so every language is beautiful, but this, this—I could not bear to hear it.
He promised, mumbled the other ghost, and I knew what he meant, knew that the promise had been kept many times in this room, over many years; the shadows of shadows were burnt into the walls, screams of souls made to walk the borderlands between here and there until they were stretched tight like plaited catgut, and thrummed when plucked to sing with power. I can see them, he said like an echo, or I said, maybe. That’s what he would have done to me. Used me for his—for whatever he’s—
For power, I said, which was all of it, really. Don’t think of it now. Don’t think I saved you, I thought and was not sure if I was silent—because I didn’t, not on purpose, it was only instinct, a drowning man’s grab that pulls his rescuer under. Chance only, that I caught him and severed him from his body, and freed him thereby.
Oh God, he whimpered, it’s not fair, it’s not, I didn’t mean to, he had no right—
We will stop him then, I answered, we will do right, for us who have been wronged, for all the shadows. I do not think he understood me, but I knew that he would follow.
Well, if I’m a traitor then so be it. You’re not the first to call me so, and though I might wish you’d be the last I don’t believe it’s likely. I will pretend not to care, I will hold my head up in the streets and at the gate and I will ignore their looks and mutterings. I have done what I have done.
Tansy and Burdock came to me in the Gardens of Memory, barefoot and clad in white robes, to tell me that the war had started. Twins, they were reflections of each other like the frescoes on the walls of our temple, the home of all the Bound: Life and Death, one red-cheeked and joyful, the other pale, with dark hollows under her eyes. I’d known them for years and still couldn’t tell them apart by sight most days, but I knew Tansy would have wept at the news, and Burdock would have danced.
“Rejoice, Dandelion,” Burdock intoned. “The blasphemous Kuloseppae will soon be swept from the world.”
“Oh?” I said, pretending disinterest because I knew it would madden her.
“Our soldiers have crossed the border and begun to burn their towns and fields,” Tansy said. “It is said they will be in Kulosep in less than a week.” She lowered her voice. “It is said the magician aids them.”
That struck me as nothing else could have, and I sank down onto one of the Garden’s marble benches. The magician. No-one knows where he came from, though he has been coming to Kulosep for as long as anyone remembers, and for the last few years he has stayed here. He is the antithesis of all that the Bound stand for; he is not evil, no more than we are good, but he is unnatural. What he does is against the order of the world. He rarely took a hand in the affairs of our country, keeping to himself and his experiments, and even so the temple trembled sometimes at his work. Small wonder, then, that I was shocked.
Besides, he is my father.
We pretend we have no parents, we Bound, as though we sprang from the same ground as the plants they name us for. Most of the Bound don’t know theirs, it’s true, so perhaps that’s easier. What use, after all, to know that your mother was So-and-so the dyer of Such-and-such Lane, and that she abandoned you in the woods to be found or to die? (Or worse; there are always stories of children raised by trolls or wolves, growing up monsters. I don’t know that I believe them, but it could be true.)
I was somewhat different. I knew my parents, I remember their faces. My mother was a crusher at the quarry near Stonegate, three hours’ hard ride from Hado-home. My first memories are of dust, dust in everything: the fine yellow dust of the road kicked up by the gravel-wagons, the white dust lying in the lines of my mother’s face. Everyone coughed, all the time. When I came to the city, later, I would lie awake in the dormitory of the Bound children and wonder at the silence.
When my mother was young and pretty she served awhile in a teahouse in Hado-home, and there she met the magician. I don’t know why he came there then; he never did when I was old enough to hear anything of him. But he was there then and she was pretty, and she bore him a daughter soon.
I don’t think he ever meant me to live. But his magic is the magic of boundaries and borders, of things confused with each other: dawn, twilight, the breaths of birth and dying. A baby trembles on the edge of possibility, and there’s power there for the taking. My mother had word of this from some friends of hers, sooner or later, and fled with me in her belly, and her friends laid a trail of misdirection that took him five years to unravel. When he found us at last I was a full person and no more use to him.
He killed her for betraying him, of course, and might have killed me for spite, but when I fled our burning house—stone, but burning anyway—it was into the arms of a caravan of Esh, making pilgrimage to one of their sacred places, and Esh are old, and have their own magic. Somehow they hid me from him, and in due course delivered me up to the Bound, who take in orphans.
So; and so there I stood in the Garden of Memory with the news of war burning holes in my heart. Tansy was watching me with sympathy, and Burdock with confusion. I forced a smile. “Well, let’s pray for our soldiers’ safe return, then,” I said.
“And glory,” Burdock added.
“Glory will take care of itself,” I said.
I knew already, then, what needed doing, though not how to do it. I’d long since decided that the magician should die, but I had held off for years, questioning my motives. The Bound teach that right actions proceed only from right thought, and vengeance for my mother’s death, while it may have been justified, could not be called right thought. Not according to our rules, anyway. Now, I had another reason. It would be called treason, to destroy what aided our soldiers in this latest of our series of stupid, pointless wars, but I would not consider that. Let them earn their glory honestly.
White-robed and hooded I made my way through the streets of Hado-home, and hurrying tradesmen and labourers parted respectfully before me. We Bound are known in the city; I would not be impeded. We are mostly anonymous too, making few friends outside our order, a fact I gave silent thanks for now.
I headed for the magician’s home, a walled estate near the foot of Gods’ Hill, just inside the eastern gate. It was a short walk, mostly on cobblestones, and I imagined I could feel the ground thrumming under my rope sandals as I neared the profane place. Nerves only; I have no magic.
The wall was well-built from local limestone, and was easily twice my height. There was one gate, a solid pair of iron doors worked with a tracery of vines and oak leaves. I put my eye to the crack between them, but they were so well fitted that I couldn’t see a thing. The whole construction spoke of understated expense. Hardly surprising, from the rumours I’d heard about what the magician did for money. Even if only a quarter of them were true.
None of which helped me at the moment. Even if I managed to climb over the wall without being noticed from the street (highly unlikely) it was inconceivable that the magician wouldn’t have spells of some sort protecting his property. I thought briefly of hiding myself in a laundry basket or a vegetable-cart, and other such nonsense, and then stood for awhile, stumped. Finally I decided to return to the temple and ask someone’s help—Tansy, probably, as she was clever and hated him as I did.
I began to turn and then stopped mid-step as a voice whispered out of the air no, no, wait—
“Who’s there?” I asked aloud, attracting a curious glance from a passing ribbon-seller.
Thibo, the voice said after a pause, but hesitantly, as though the speaker wasn’t quite sure and was desperately afraid of being called on it. Thibo. I was—
We are his dead, a second voice interjected. This one was stronger, surer. You must come. You must stop him.
“The gate—” I began.
He will not see you. Come.
I followed it (followed what, exactly? I don’t know) back to the gate and through it then, the twin portals swinging inward at my touch. The grass beyond was level and unbroken, and lapped at my ankles like a sea. Come, follow, the voice urged, hurry, and led me forward, until suddenly the house appeared before me and had always been there. There was a murmur of approval from the air. Steadfastly I followed the two voices, the strong one and the frightened one, through illusion after illusion, until at last I stood at the bottom of a flight of stairs, facing a copper-sheathed door.
The door was slick and cold to the touch, and as I opened it a sudden reddish light poured over me, and I knew with sick certainty that all that had come before was a trap, that I was betrayed and had now been lost. I froze in place, terrified. Then my sight shifted, and I realized that the light was only sunset, filtered through leaded glass windows set high in the heavy walls, and that the magician sat motionless on the floor of this his workroom, eyes closed and unaware.
“What’s wrong with him?” I whispered, my lips barely moving.
We do not cooperate, the strong voice answered, sounding strained. He tries to make us. The other was whimpering: oh God oh God it hurts make it stop I shouldn’t be here I didn’t do it stop—
I had to hurry, but I couldn’t think what to do. My eyes fell on a bronze-bladed knife, lying on a table near me. Kill him, then, I thought, and reached for it, but was stopped by a sharp No! from the strong voice, now tight with agony. No, he’ll—just—his power is— It broke off with a peculiar kind of grunt, and was silent.
Magic, I thought despairingly, what do I know about magic? The magician’s shoulders were tight and his fists clenched as he bent all his energy to the control of his unruly spirits. Any moment now it would all be over. Time was slipping away from me. If I couldn’t just kill him—and I did understand what the ghost had been trying to say; if the magician’s power came from boundaries and borders, liminal spaces, then how much stronger would the nearness of his own death make him?—then what was I to do? I knew nothing about magic. I had spent almost my entire life in the temple, and there was no magic of his kind on holy ground.
Cautiously, I bent down and laid my hands on the stone floor. There was no warning from the ghost this time, so either I was doing the right thing or he had been wholly subdued. I began to speak the holy words and I think it was only then that the magician noticed me, as I began to try to consecrate the earth on which I stood. I would make it pure and holy; I doubted few things could be more anathema to a practitioner of border magic than that. I don’t claim the supremacy of God in this; had I known a way to make it entirely unholy, that probably would have worked just as well.
He sent his shadows against me like a swarm of biting insects, like a cloud of darkness, and in their whining voices I could hear the strong one and the frightened one, two notes in the chorus, under his control again at last. They still fought against him, though, and that blunted their attacks, and I was able to continue with the prayers and the rituals and all the rest of what makes a place pleasing to God. I kept one eye on the magician, whenever I was not blinded, but he never moved. I don’t know why. Maybe the magic prevented him, or the ghosts; I don’t understand magic and I don’t intend to. I will never be in such a place again if I can help it.
The ghosts were fighting him as much as me, and that was all that allowed me to keep going, that and the sheer familiarity of the rituals that had been part of my life since I was given to the Bound and that I probably could have recited sleeping or dead. As a child I had chafed at the endless rounds of prayers and resented the other children who had never known anything different and so didn’t mind, but now the words flowed from me like water and I was grateful.
It was dark outside when I finished and so the light that poured through the room, dark gold and thick like maple syrup, was all the more shocking. I had not been ready to expect a miracle. The magician lifted his head and for the first time stared at me, his face twisted with terror. His mouth shaped words I couldn’t read, and then he stiffened and collapsed forward, his face striking the stone. Blood seeped out around him, only a little.
“What happened?” I whispered.
He had to choose a side, the strong voice whispered, now barely more than a flutter of the air. You cannot be both alive and dead in a holy place, and we—we chose for him, dragged him with us. The light was fading, thinning. Tell my family, Priestess, if you would. I was called Tekel, before. They are Esh, near Stonegate on the Kulosep highway. Tell them what happened. Please.
As though in a trance I stood and went out from that place. The house was quiet now in the centre of its green lawn and its walls, only an ordinary house. I would come back, I decided. I would go to the Esh family and give them the news of their son (brother? husband?) and then I would return, and build a chapel here, and spend my life in contemplation of this miracle.
Or, more probably, I would be denied entrance to Hado-home, or arrested as a traitor. Life is strange, I thought, but I was more willing now to put it in the hands of God than I would ever have been before. I looked back over my shoulder one last time, and then headed for the city gate.
strange cub is gone. howl, weep, cry to the hills and stones, they have taken strange cub away. followed them, followed them far, but when they left the woods, safe trees broken by scar of road, stayed. weep alone now, weep alone forever.
dark now and under hill silence of small things, small fears running from tree to tree. hunger, blood smell. could chase but why? not enough now.
down scar in backbone of hills one comes riding. no smell of fear. only ones with claws of iron smell brave and calm as she smells brave and calm. but she is alone and no smell of metal. do not understand.
do not understand, should pass her by. should stay in trees, find small wet delicious, fill belly, sleep. but strange cub gone, last cub. others long dead, dead on riverbank or by claws of iron or belly-tearing sickness. wander alone until strange cub crying under tree. not food. iron claws never good to eat. iron claw woman die near once, find strange cub soon after.
kill iron claw woman now, other iron claws bring strange cub back?
I have never told Daphel just how frightened I am of the dark. I was born in the city amid lamps and walls, and the wide blackness of the fields and woods is fearsome to me even after thirty years of nights.
But Daphel is ill and Nicos and Tamevall are not yet grown, and Tekel has gone for a soldier. If Daphel knew the night frightened me he would get up from his sickbed and stand the watch himself, and so I say nothing and sit here in the field, my back to the lantern so as not to blind myself and the bleating of the flock all around me. Two more weeks until the lambing is done and the dogs will be enough to care for the sheep. I am so tired.
A sudden movement in the dark jerks me fully awake, and I stare out into the dark, lifting the lantern high overhead, careful not to look directly at it. Nothing. Shadows. The sheep mill uneasily, a few of them lifting their heads to smell at the air. The dogs lie at my feet, asleep.
There it is again: motion at the edge of sight, out near the road. A man-high figure creeping from tree to tree. It could be a lone traveller, a refugee from the war maybe (more and more common on our highway of late), but no man or woman ever walked with that peculiar shambling gait. My skin prickles: troll.
I nudge the dogs awake with my foot and take a firmer grip on my quarterstaff. No reason to panic, or to react even, not unless it comes into our field. We will have to get up a hunting party with our neighbours eventually if there is a troll nosing around who has lost his fear of humans, but it does not need to be tonight. No fear of falling asleep now. I watch.
Then I hear the screams and am halfway across the field before I know it, staff in one hand, lantern in the other and both dogs yipping at my heels. Terrible screams from the road: horse, rider. I swing the lantern in wide arcs, trying to frighten the troll away, though they have been less afraid of fire in recent years. They learn, Daphel says. They are almost people, that way.
The troll turns and flees, arms dragging, full of prizes. Horseflesh, I see as I come to the road: huge bloody chunks have been torn from the horse’s belly and hindquarters, and it thrashes in the road, screaming, still horribly alive. I bring down the end of my staff solidly on its skull. To ease its suffering, I tell myself, knowing it cannot live, but I think I might have done the same even for a lesser wound, just to make it quiet. I do not know.
The rider was a woman, white robes stained now with blood—the horse’s only, I think at first, and perhaps she has merely been thrown. Then I shine the lantern on her face and see bloody froth at her lips, blood bubbling from the gashes along her ribs: lung wounds then, and beyond my help. Trolls kill messily but surely.
She looks up at me, tries to form words. “Hush,” I tell her. “Rest now.” Her face is slack with pain. “It’s gone,” I say.
“Too late,” she manages.
I nod. “Yes.” We are Esh; we do not lie to the dying. “But I can make you comfortable at least. I’ll bring you back to the house; you can sleep by the fire.” There is little enough else that can be done; I have none of the herbs that ease pain or send souls on. If by some miracle she lives until dawn I will send one of the children for the healer then, and he can smooth her passing.
She smiles, shakes her head. “No use.” Her lips are blue under the blood. She knows. “Esh,” she says. “Tekel,” she says, and dies.
Shaken, I reach for her arm as though to pull her back, and feel rough skin under the robes: old scars, burns, long healed. For some reason I am reminded of another traveller, long ago, a little girl fleeing a burning house, running out into our pilgrim-train. She would have become a priestess when she grew up, I think. It is not impossible.
Tekel, she said, and I wonder what she shares with my son. Perhaps he will come riding home along this road someday, and wonder where this priestess is. We are borne up by fate like leaves on the wind, and sometimes carried home.