“Where does the wax go?”

Adia peered up from her mending. Cyra leaned over the hardwood table, transfixed by the stuttering flame of a night-black candle. It was the only thing the child had brought when she came knocking seven days ago, ragged and half-starved. She never said how many doors had turned her away before she found Adia’s, but Adia knew what it was to be unbidden trouble on a stranger’s doorstep. Just as she knew the power of kindness in an unkind world.

“Gran?” Cyra said. “The wax. Where does it go?”

“I’m not your gran,” Adia said with a laugh.

“You’re old enough you ought be someone’s gran. Might as well be mine. Where does the wax go?”

“The flame burns it away.”

“I don’t see the wax burning.” Cyra dipped a fingertip into the melted pool at the bottom of the candlestick and watched it drip into small black circles hardening on the table. “I see the wick burning, but not the wax. Where does the wax go?”

“It just goes, child. It just goes.” Adia ran a hand across her face but found a smile there in spite of her weariness. “Aren’t you supposed to be speaking with dead ancestors when you look at that thing?”

“Is Mother an ancestor?”

Adia felt her smile melt away. Her mouth opened, but she found no words to fill it. Only curses rose to mind. For the tyrants of this world, whose wars had forced this girl from whatever life she once had. Who claimed to speak with the voice of God. Who stoked fear and flames in the hearts of fools. And curses, especially, for the tyrants Adia had once served.

A pounding at the door chased away the need for words. Cyra’s face lost its brief malaise and found the fear it had held a week prior. Adia put a finger to her lips. She led the girl to the cupboard across the room. She whispered for her to be strong. To be brave. And to keep silent. Then she hid her away in shadow.

The young man at the door wore the silver-set armor of the Twice-Risen Temple. His hand lay at rest on the hilt of a sword, as though he’d expected some club-wielding brute to answer the door instead of an old woman with a bend in her back. He bore the labored glare of an unblooded babe who knew his eyes weren’t as hard as he wished they were. “Good morrow,” he said. “I’m looking for a girl. Young. Ashen skin. Dark hair.”

“Can’t say as I’ve seen anyone, Sir.” Adia knew at once she’d answered too quickly. Stupid.

“I’ll need to come in and look about.”

She stepped back into the main room of her home, which happened to be the only room. She glanced down at her weary hands, the stalky arms that sprouted them. The wrinkles in her dark flesh betrayed her plentiful years. This young knight would find nothing to fear in her. “If I may, Sir—what’s this girl done? Must be right awful to send one of the anointed looking after her.”

“She’s a trespasser in these lands. Fled from Versa.” He stepped in and peered around, taking measure of the place. “No harm will come to her. She’s to be sent home.”

“Versa? What home would she have then? Won’t the Schism have razed it to the ground?”

“That is not the Temple’s concern. Nor yours.” He strolled around the perimeter of her home, eying its contents. His heavy boots stirred a light waft of dust from the planked wooden floor. When it caught Adia’s eyes, she noticed something else and silently cursed herself. A dotted trail of wax led from the table to the cupboard. One of the dried globs held a long thread of dark hair. It wouldn’t take much for this eager young knight to find it. And it would lead him right to Cyra.

Armor-clad youth. Adia knew his kind well. And how best to draw his attention. She rapped the golden sun on his breastplate. His brows furrowed at the profane gesture, but she spoke before he could chastise her. “Hard to get one of these about your shoulders at your age, isn’t it? You must be quite devout, Sir.”

“It... is an honor rarely bestowed upon—”

“I was religious once, you know. Or fancied myself so. Found faith in the war.”

“The war?” His gaze stopped pulling toward the corners of her home and fixed upon her. “You?”

“Aye, I was young then. Not much older than you, I wager. Still full of hope for the world. The Temple’s campaigns took me to lands I’d only read of as a child—then stuck me ankle-deep in the boring backwaters they don’t bother writing about.

“The day I found my faith, I’d been charged with defending a well in some foreign village, lest the enemy poison the water amid their retreat. Despite orders, one of my companions had himself a drink. In so doing, he sprouted the first seed of belief in me... for the swift penance that fool’s indulgence provoked. They came upon us like lightning, pouring from some dark alley we swore we’d checked twice. They were hardened veterans, a like we green folk had no business crossing steel with—so we knew when we saw their lined foreheads and salt-streaked hair.”

The young knight shook his head. “‘The strongest warrior in your company owns the mistakes of the weakest,’ that’s what my commander always says. How did you survive the assault?”

Adia smiled. She had him. She stoked the dramatics. “We nearly didn’t, but for an odd turn of fate. The engagement turned chaotic almost at once. What little training we’d had fled our minds as soon as the first drop of red hit the dirt. I eventually managed to turn the tide myself, but not by any great skill or valor. My foe suddenly fell to the ground. He crumpled straight down, as though his legs had ceased being his own. I took advantage and struck a killing blow. When it was over, I looked for the friendly bowman who’d sent an arrow his way, but I found none. Nor did I find a single wound on his corpse beyond the one I’d given him. Even the ground beneath him remained unmarred, no skids in the dirt where his foot might have slipped amid all the chaos. The man had simply collapsed, assailed by some invisible force. Like in the old stories. The old scriptures.”

“You’re telling me God struck him down?”

“So I believed. ‘Grand plans God must have for me,’ I thought. Became as devout as a water-bearer. Even considered becoming one for a time.

“After the battle, I gathered the memory coins of those soldiers we’d killed. For even then, faith welled inside me. And I knew the Temple taught forgiveness of the dead. I saw to it those coins found their way back to an enemy outpost, so whatever family they had might know they died bravely. All but the man I’d first killed—the man God helped me slay. That one I kept, determined to travel to the city scratched on the coin and find his family myself. I would tell them of my newfound faith, confess my deeds, and beg their forgiveness.”

The young knight let out an incredulous laugh. “And did you?”

Adia slid her hands into her kirtle pockets, letting them rest there, hoping. “It took years, aye, but I made the journey after the war’s end. I met the man’s widow. How she wept when I placed that coin in her hand. Then, to my shock, she invited me into her home. She fed me at her own table. Told me how her husband had lived his life before I’d taken it. And in the telling, she shook my newfound faith by the ears.

“When we saw the age clinging to that band of soldiers, we’d taken them for battle-worn veterans. Hard as steel. Full of grit and experience. But that was just a lie we told ourselves to excuse the trouble we’d had with them. Truth was, they hadn’t even been soldiers. Just old folk drafted into service by a lord who’d run out of babes to levy. In his youth, the man I’d killed had been a sportsman. A runner. He traveled from town to town with a troupe, winning local races, gathering up some small amount of fame as ‘the fastest man in the westerlands.’ When that youth left him, he put his talent to work running messages for merchants. Cheaper than a horse and twice as fast—or so his sign claimed.”

“I don’t understand. What’s this got to do with anything?”

Adia sighed. Perhaps this had all been for nothing. “His knees were shot, boy. That’s all. There’d been no divine intervention that day. No godly hammer smiting my foe so I might claim some grand destiny. Just an old man on weary legs. He made a lunge. His knee buckled. And I killed him for it.”

The young knight’s gaze drifted downward. Adia’s lungs froze when it passed over her concealed hands. “So you lost your faith.”

“You might say that. I prefer to think I found it elsewhere.”

He looked at Adia no longer. His eyes found the table in the back of the room. The candle upon it. His face darkened. “Odd time of day to burn a light.”

Adia’s fingers found the blade hidden in the folds of her kirtle. She’d failed. She dismissed the pang of guilt that rose in her heart at the thought of what she now must do. “I have poor eyesight, I’m afraid. Need all the light I can get. I’m old enough to be your gran, after all.”

“They burn morrow candles in Versa.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Black ones. Like that.”

“So I’ve heard.”

He stared at the floor now. Adia followed his gaze to the trail of dried wax that led to the cupboard. “Tell me then, Gran. Where is it you find your faith now?”

Adia squeezed the rough hilt of her dagger. “People.”

When he found her eyes again, she thought for certain he’d draw steel. Any other time that thought had gripped her, she’d been the first to strike. But something stayed her hand this time... a foolish hope perhaps, of the kind she’d thought long dead within her. Perhaps she saw a bit of herself reflected in the sheen of this silver-wrought youth. Instead of drawing her dagger, she drew a breath. And held it.

The young knight peered again at the table. The candle. Down again at the dried wax. At last, his gaze settled on the cupboard, and he held it there so long Adia wondered if he might have heard the frightened gasps of the poor girl within. It didn’t seem such a foolish notion when held against the taut silence that gripped them both. He stared another moment longer, then looked one last time at Adia.

“Do tell us if you see the girl,” he said.

He turned and walked away. When the door closed behind him, Adia flung open the cupboard and took Cyra into her arms. She held her, rocked her, whispered promises she had no business making. The girl shivered. The girl wept.

Adia told her to be strong. To be brave. And to keep faith.

Read Comments on this Story (4 Comments)

J.W. Alden is a 1st Place winner of Writers of the Future, a graduate of Odyssey Writing Workshop, and an active member of SFWA. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and various other publications. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is trying desperately to understand the difference between a state and a commonwealth. To read more from him, visit AuthorAlden.com

Return to Issue #247