Yellow bones, yellow bones. So small and frail and sickly. But they spoke to Hesher in whispers while the new city reveled in the growing dark, the red dust of stampeding campaigner boots turning the world into a haze that denied them the stars.
“Fitting, baby-tam,” she said, sitting before the ashfire of her hearth, tiny knotted box on her lap. “The conqueror’s god is a wanderer, they say, walking the night sky from bright to bright. But the blood on the boots blocks them from his light.” She laughed, caressing the box, too scared to touch the bones. “Serves them right, baby-tam.”
Her gnarled finger closed the lid, but a whisper rose from the bones.
Hesher closed the knotted box and exhaled, tasting old rope across her lip as the memory stung deep. The memory of today, of years ago, when they took a small, fragile body from the grave.
“She is yellow, but not sick.”
“That don’t mean we take her, Agrello.”
“She died to help us. They’ll think she’s sick. You’re a Kulat, Hesher. This is a knotted blessing. With her, we will be untouchable.”
“She has no name yet!”
“Call her Vengeance, Kulat. For she alone will shield us so we can strike the outlander when he sleeps tonight on Marsat.”
She closed the lid. “You deserved a better name, baby-tam.”
The bones spoke no more.
She looked at her wall of knots, of hair, of hemp, of leaves. Some loose. Some tight. All waiting to be made and unmade.
A deep red knot of thornwood vine, coiled like a serpent bent on suicide, breathed.
She caressed it, heart aching. “I hear the past is coming.”
Above the red din of Glintono, a canopy of bright stars emerged. They would have recognized Enrick despite his simple attire, the adornment of neither a holy man nor soldier but the scrabbled and stitched clothes of the street urchin. No one else would have. As the Macti said, “everyone is a stranger in Glintono beneath the stars.” Considering what was sold past midnight, it was best that way. Enrick was happy for the heathen custom and hoped he’d find heathen magic.
From the castle-top above the city, the deep evening sounds of the Lord Maestro’s pipe organ snaked through the air to the market, a song of slavery and freedom, the dusk prayer-song like familiar knots in Enrick’s mind as he walked past the geina smoke-dens and their sleeping dead.
Blessed be the Wayfarer, whose foot taps golden shores
For his hands have graced the rising sun and falling moon—
“And a thousand-cunted whores!”
Laughter broke from two Bestorian soldiers in leathers and boots. They cackled and leaned against a stable wall, skins of carabus half-empty, minds swollen with drink. Hike-swords, with hacking blades sheathed, hung like third legs in a drunken dance. Their thundering-irons stayed hidden in the arsenal, where they slept unless the Macti became restless.
Last year, Enrick would have bought them a round and started in on the second dirty verse, and in an older life, he’d have chastised their blasphemy and received a peppering of wounds despite his holy robe. But here and now, in neither a soldier’s armor or a minister’s robes, his contempt was so deep that it swallowed any joy or righteousness that might have once bloomed.
So he walked on.
He hunted the market street, assailed with the pungent stench of sin and avarice as the various skins of nations passed him by: Bestorians, like himself and the soldiers, ranging from traders to administrators; Macti esquires, who had sided with the Bestorians and now ran the local government; Kinma traders in rough cloth and severe looks.
“Comfort?” said a strong, local voice.
The jewel embedded in her skin was bright, hiding as it did the usual scab and wound from hookspiders nettles from the barrowlands. But she was no mere whore. The calluses on her hand were those of a knifer.
Rust dripped off Enrick’s voice. “What makes you think I can afford it?”
Her smile was reptilian. “You’re dirty, but strong. Not broken, like the bowl beggars. And your voice is harmony, deep harmony. Performer? No? Soldier, I take it. Just out of uniform.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Soldiers need comfort.”
Enrick tasted the forewarning threat of her knife in his back but remained still. “No. Information.”
She smiled, and the jewel in her cheek jingled. “I do both.”
“Just want one. The kulat witch Hesher.”
The jeweled girl laughed, but a flicker of terror bit her lips before they started to spew her patter. “I am she, master! You found me at last!” She reached for his arm and pulled him toward the narrow veins of the city archways, farther from the drunk soldiers. “Come and let me show you the lost knowledge of heathen pleasure.”
It was a trap. And he was unarmed.
He did not care.
They stepped between dark and light as the alley narrowed, and the jeweled girl laughed, pulling him further, toward a junction of alleyways in this maze of a city, away from anyone who would hear him scream—
—then her grip vanished as she ran to his right. In the dark, her laughter echoed.
She screamed in Macti. Whatever the words, they meant murder.
Three of them. From behind, to his left, and dead ahead. Blades moved in the air, as well as the rush of breath and the heat of movement. But death, he knew, would not free him.
He surrendered to the moment, and began.
Seconds later, a strangled silence remained in the wake of ripped flesh and the last gasps of the wretched and the dying.
Enrick waited in shadow, bodies leaking at his feet, until he heard the jeweled one’s voice call out their names. Her soft feet patted toward the carnage. She’d known them well, he figured. Family. Fighting to survive. Another scar for any god to judge, he thought, as if there were any more room on his flesh.
“Balix?” she whispered. “Agi?”
He gripped her by the mouth and drew her into the dark.
Her blade shimmered out, aiming between his ribs, and he let it jab close before gripping her wrist in an awful twist, and the clank of knives on the stone path sealed her fate.
“I had no wish to kill them,” he said. “Nor you. Take me to the heathen witch, and I will release you back into this den of snakes to live as best you can. Or continue your blade’s journey, and I will crush your jaw so you may never seduce the drunk and foolish again. Your choice.”
She pulled back the blade.
He released her jaw.
She spat, then said a heathen balm for the dead.
He repeated it.
“Why you dare speak our words, Bestorian?” she said. “How do you know them?”
He ground his teeth. “I’ve witnessed too many Macti burials.”
“And why the hell do you want to see our witch?”
Her righteous anger burned low and then retreated as his preacher’s voice swelled within his soldier chest. “My god has abandoned me,” he said. “I’m hoping yours are still here to listen to a dead man’s prayer.”
The Old Walled City was the outskirts of Glintono proper now, after a hundred years of Bestorian rule and governance, and so Enrick’s eyes watched the shadows as he and the jeweled woman walked the broken and crooked path of the thoroughfare, past warped wooden shops filled with smoke and the stench of decay. The original walls, of course, had burned under the iron fire of the Bestorians, so the once-thriving heart of the small capital of old was now desiccated, holding in those who dared not mix with their esquire brethren; holding on to the old ways like a dying man’s hand on a tightened noose.
Old Macti watched from shadow and crook and slit. Their hate for him, his kind and their rule, felt a pox on his skin. It had stung him when he came ashore, so young and rash, as a priest of good intention from the capital, bringing the Wayfaring God to a people whose pantheon seemed small and trite and capricious. Those memories, though, were bled of color and joy.
All that remained was one ghost who prowled his nightmares.
Until, he hoped, tonight.
“Here,” the jeweled girl said, venom in her words for the man who had killed her kin. It was a crushed grippa hut, mashed between two others. If walked past, it would seem as sunken as the rest. But closer... it was made of twisted branches, each shaped like a different creature; crushed together in a mosaic, as though they were all running from the iron fire that had destroyed the fabled walls of the old city.
He tossed her one of his change purses.
Her bitter face loosened with shock as the purse went open. The starlight danced upon the coins, making them shine. “These are pure.”
He shh’d her. “Lest you befall the fate of your kind, close your mouth and purse tight and go.”
She did not thank him, but her knife held fast on her belt, unused, as she took to the shadows.
The grippa hut was slumped, like many of its kin. As a soldier, he’d burned his fair share. But the twisted figures here spoke of flames not yet snuffed out. For a moment, he held himself before it and listened.
“If you are not gone,” he whispered to it, “if you are with me as you were the day I took my robe and chain, if you are truly the wanderer who touches all life, then stop me from stepping upon this pagan home. Speak to me.” He looked above. “Please.”
The red dust blotted out the sky. He was forsaken, beneath the stars.
Silence greeted him.
“I will enter as a guest or an intruder,” Enrick said, voice grated with the old commanding tone of the line. “Your choice.”
From the cracks and dark spaces between the wooden shapes that made the door, a flicker of light grew, and with it he studied the twisted figures.
Ornate. They were etched with sigils and signs of warning and power in the old language of the Macti, but not the hard knotted scraps and scrapes seen on destitute wooden armor, the charms these people had held to as the iron roared and tore through them with righteous predation. These were literate, and considered. Akin to a codex. The language was too old and arcane for Enrick’s limited grasp of Macti scrip, but the detail, and the time that it would have taken, spoke of one thing. Obsession, to the point of madness.
The flicker of light approached the door and opened. “You are expected, but not welcome.” The voice carried the tone of ash. She was dark as most Macti, age lost to her stoic features. A mother of adults, he figured, though that was a rough sketch. “Enrick.”
Surprise betrayed him. “We’ve met?”
She nodded, and he saw the spider web of grey in the crease of her black hair. “Before you took to swords and guttings. I knew you at Marsat. Minister Enrick.” The cold memory flooded him. “You were brave that day. To be a man of your word. A man of god, of... peace.”
Anger coiled around fear, and he strangled the urge to run, or to lash out. Holding fast was required. “Were you one of my Macti students?”
The witch laughed, with the cadence of crushed leaves. “Oh no, brave Bestorian, I never abandoned my own gods when you defeated our soldiers. And by the stain of your countenance, I believe you are grateful for it. No, I was no student.” The candle waved under her chin, the yellow scar across her left eye sown shut. “I was one of the bearers.”
They’d come with a coffin. Inside, a child, dead with the yellow pox that ran wild among the newcomers to the archipelago. The Bestorian guards had allowed them passage and stayed away as they had come to Minister Enrick and asked to bury it in the ground where his small church lay. He’d told them they could use it, so long as they lit a candle for the Wayfarer to take the child’s spirit.
Baysha had warned him. “Savages have no god,” she said. “You’re fooling yourself if you think you can reach them. Take the captain’s commission, and we can leave this island of horror for Glintona.”
“One cannot resign one’s faith,” Enrick had said. “They are a good people. But they are lost in a sea of gods almost as numerous as the islands of this archipelago. We will never bring peace by sword and cannon alone. You know this is true.”
“But you’ll catch the pox again!”
“I’ve survived that trial and, as Minister Remus has said, that is a hell you cannot catch again.”
“Remus is a drunken fool and no better a doctor than I am. Do not do this, Enrick.”
He had held her and spoken with the calm of spring rain on dried and cracked soil. “If we never reach out in friendship, in cooperation; if we only force them to march and break their wills and make slaves instead of brothers and sisters, the war here will never end. And the Wayfarer walks with all of us, Baysha. Even those who scorn him.”
He’d dampened her ire. She’d relented. And when he arrived to light the candle for the dead child, he found the procession around the coffin. But beneath the yellow baby was a mass of metal: graven blades as long as a child’s arm, sharp and jagged and soon to be red.
A single blow had stolen the light from his eyes before he could sound an alarm.
When he’d woken... the nightmare was cold. The garrison, slaughtered in their quarters.
“I come here,” he said to the witch Hesher, “for a heathen spell.”
The witch smiled. “Plagued with the sores of that day still, Minister? Has your god not answered your wandering prayers?”
Her laughter died in his grasp. She was off the ground, throat clutched in his hand, while the candle in her fingers shook but did not go out. “My god left me that day, witch, when I cut down all of you that I could find for what you did. I’ve fought on more of these isles of damnation than you have likely seen from your hole in this dead, lost city. I’ve slaughtered more Macti in the name of a cure to what ails me than the twigs you’ve twisted into this hut.”
He dropped her.
“I am godless in your country,” he said. “But still cursed.”
He dropped a sack of coin as large as a child’s head at the feet of the witch.
“I need you to perform an exorcism.”
The gold was heavy and real within the cloth, Hesher could tell. The man before her, though, was rootless and poor. Enrick... she’d heard what had happened to him. The priest who wished to light a candle for the baby-tam. The blood soldier he became, for the army of that wandering god and distant king. The ragged thing now at her door.
“You would trust me to do it?” she said. “I think not, I think not.” But the gold was so solid. “After what we did to your wife.”
Enrick exhaled with bitter control. “Who do you think it is that haunts me?”
She stuffed down the guilt. Hesher knew full well what they would do to that miserable Bestorian princess while her own blade was stabbing a sleeping guard in the throat, the guard’s mouth clamped by her hand as she eased him into the black waters of the afterlife. She knew what Garo and his band would do to a rare creature such as a Bestorian princess while the man of peace lay ghosted on the church floor. “She should have never come to Marsat.”
“On that, we agree.”
Hesher snickered. “Only now, only because you’re broken and damned. Remember your speeches, Minister. About the walk of life, and those who walk with your beggar god and those who fall behind in his shadow? Do you remember those? They’re still chanted in this old city, older than your god.” She spat and dropped the purse. “You undo us. Your words turn a knot into threads... and we either accept your bindings or our own noose. You’re damned for a reason, Minister Enrick. Your knot, I will not untie. Go.”
He bent, retrieved the purse.
And she saw the top of his head.
Hair could not grow where her blade had cut him. Cut a man of peace. And the other scars upon his skin, fresh and old, were born of the river of that scar.
For twenty years, she’d had no regret for what they had done. She’d killed soldiers by the score in their beds. Poisoned their well with the limbs of the dead.
But it now fell to her to drop the man of peace who’d found the courage to walk into a room he thought plagued. Who lit a candle for baby-tam, who showed compassion for a grieving mother, even if he had come on a conqueror’s boat.
Killed him, she thought. I should have killed him
The sack with the golden innards sat in his palm. When he stood, she saw the void in his eyes reflected by dying specks of light. He turned to the door and let the purse hang in his hand between his fingers.
“Why?” she said, pulling herself up as he stepped further into night. “Why have you not drowned in the black waters?”
The sack swung in his hand as he walked away. “I would take her with me to the guts of the earth. I sought death in the battlefield, and saw it in all but my fate. I was spared a warrior’s clean end. Now, the campaigns are ashes and lies. If you cannot help me find peace for Baysha, I will find someone to end me.”
He took one step before her knotted hand rose. “No.”
“Keep your conqueror’s coin,” she said. “I will draw out the prisoner. But if I fail, rest assured.” His scarred head seemed made of knots. “I will kill you for free.”
Enrick sat before a small wooden table made of oarak wood, the legs twisted shapes of creatures and animals from the far reaches of the Macti pantheons. The fire in her hearth was a dull red and seemed to come from pure ash. On the other side of the table, Hesher the Kulat sat.
“What must I do?” Enrick said.
Hesher rubbed her hands, fingers thick as old kipa branches. “We talk, and draw the damned out,” she said. “Convince them to let go and find their way to their own islands.” She reached into the darkness behind her and brought a dusty bottle with a rag stuffed in its mouth.
“Some heathen elixir?” he said.
Hesher grunted. “Just rupin.”
“It helps some talk.” She lifted her chin to look down her squat nose. “You look disappointed. You would prefer I dress up like a wildling and burn dead sigils on your skin?” She laughed, but the cadence was bitter, like the wine. “Your face holds no lies to me, Minister. You still look down on us, even as you ask for help.”
He exhaled slow. “No. I heard tales of Macti magic on the battlefield. Of animal blood and the healing toad—“
Hesher snickered. “Pretenders. They need colorful glyphs and costumes to sell themselves to the bandits, make themselves fierce. But our magic is older. Our magic is the knot of the world. We will undo the knot in your soul.” A cold relief bit Enrick’s heart, but Hesher’s nostrils flared. “But will you permit me to lead her to a heathen heaven?”
Enrick nodded. “After so long, any heaven will do.” The red ash burned but warmed little. “Do you think your heathen gods will accept her?”
Hesher smiled without joy. “We have safe havens for such women lost in battle.”
Such women? “Then you know what they did to her?”
“Yes.” She took the rag out of the bottle. “And if that cold spot in you wants to lash out, feel free. Remember, though, that you will have killed her last chance for salvation.” She took a swig, and a green dribble swirled down her thin lip. “Now, do we begin? Do we?”
Enrick nodded, thin hair falling in front of his eyes. The scars on his head itched. “We do.”
She wiped rupin from her lips. She stood, and consulted a wall of what he thought was clothing... but as his eyes adjusted, its form emerged. Knots. The wall was a collection of knots.
Her thick fingers plucked a red and black mound, then she sat back before him. “She talks to you?”
She gripped the mess of knots, massaging them, fingers like iron worms, flexing in and out. “In daylight?”
He shook his head.
Her eyes closed. “Night?”
“She comes to me in sleep,” he said. “Always the same.”
“Tell,” Hesher said.
“I am chained with black ropes, in my home. A dozen Macti are inside. I struggle. But the black ropes draw tighter. She screams. I cannot see her. But she screams at me as they all go into our bedroom.”
His vision shook. The words were raw cold meat slithering out of his mouth. He’d never spoken of it. Not a whisper.
Hesher worked her knots, the broken man before her dribbling his story. “What does she say?”
Gripping his knees, Enrick shook his head. “She doesn’t speak—”
The knots of crimson gumroot constricted against Hesher’s fingers. “Don’t lie,” she said, sight turning the same color as the burning ash. “She does not howl like the wilderness at you. The words are sharp. What does she say?” The heart of rope in her hands breathed, looser and then tighter. Her calluses burned as she dug in deeper. “Say it.”
His voice was soft as threshneedle on a summer floor. “She screams.”
The knots breathed deeper. She pulled, eyes on him. “Screams what?”
Twitches bit his eyes with the random fleck of a dewbug. “Coward. She... she screams coward.”
The knots untangled before her hand. Hesher held them to the ashlight. The creature would be revealed from the space in the knot. It cannot avoid looking into a Kulat’s eye, especially one so skilled as Hesher herself. The dull silver glow of a spirit trapped awaited her verdict. Hesher had pulled them free for her people so many times, the tortured souls. She would see a dull silver essence that needed to be drawn out like puss from a sore....
She peered within the knot’s empty mouth.
The Minister writhed before her.
Nothing. Within the knot, no silver shimmer, no ghost of the dead.
Hesher betrayed no horror at the empty sight, but part of her screamed.
His wife, she thought. She... she is not in him.
“Please,” said the Minister. “Is she free?”
“Shh,” she said, staring at the void. But not an unnatural one, for the ashfire light did touch it. It was the emptiness. That was the heart of it.
She was gone, Hesher knew. She died under our blades and anger and went wherever those people go, to wander with their Wayfarer and conquer the world with iron. Part of Hesher cackled at the tortured mind before her. It had forged chains of painful memories upon itself. A little man of spiritual weakness, who failed to save his own, and tortures himself with that memory as he carves out a life of blood and suffering....
The whisper of yellow bones were a breeze against her ear.
He is ours.
We made him, Hesher thought. Just as surely as he made us that day, coffin of weapons upon our shoulder. We made him. A man of vagrant god; ambassador of a ludicrous faith... we laughed at him as he tried to walk among us with courage into a poisoned house. We made him.
Through the knot, the suffering on his face had a taste. Bitter root and ash.
Hesher steeled herself. We cannot help him, baby-tam. There is no ghost to chase.
But can we unmake him?
His bones hollowed from the pull of memory, Enrick gripped his skull with what strength he had. The dim ashlight made shadows ripple. “What do you see?”
The witch’s face was hidden by the crimson knots in her hand. “Everything and nothing.”
He tore his hair. “No parables! No riddles. She must be free. I have marched awake for days so that I could get here and have her removed to safety! What do you see?”
“A whisper,” she said, eye through the knots. “Of an old promise. From an old god.”
Terror forced his eyes open, meeting hers through the knots. “No... he has forsaken me. He has—”
“He is a wanderer. How hard have you tried to find him? When the anger at your weakness cooled, you became a soldier, a monster of blood and iron. But he is elsewhere. That is why you have not found him.” The final notes of the midnight prayer tickled the air from distant brass pipes. “That is a song of your nomadic god?”
His jaw shook, but he coughed out “Yes.”
With her left hand, she rummaged through a mound of cloth and animal totems. “Here,” she said, then tossed something.
It jangled as he caught it. A leather purse, rivers of cracks. “What is this?”
She grimaced. “I believe you’d call it a donation. Your faith has never lasted long in the old city. But your forefathers certainly tried. There is a resting house for your god and his people at the far end of this road. If you can arrive there, and light a candle, she will be free.” She tossed the knots into the ashfire, and there was a flare of dull red flame.
He huffed, eyes wild. “Are you sure? Are you sure he waits for me?”
She watched the flame of old blood burn. “This is your last chance, Minister. I suggest you take it.”
He stood, holding the purse with both hands, coins clanking loudly. “I... thank you.”
She nodded. “Go on. From what you people say, your god does not tarry. Go as a man of peace, not of the blade. Go and be returned to him.”
Enrick nodded, a blister of hope in his heart, then tore open the door and walked into the night while the last of the evening song played.
He walked the path, words coming from a guttural place inside him:
“Blessed be the Wafarer, who rides on wind... and sea. The light of hope, our intrepid captain, bound... to eternity.”
Hesher watched him scurry down the path, prayer song muttered beneath his whiskers, the jangle of his coin purse loud enough to wake the poor and the dead.
He walked onward, singing a tune of salvation and bound for a church that had burned down before Hesher had ever touched a knot.
Shadows followed. And grew.
One had a jeweled face and blade in hand. It looked back at Hesher.
Hesher caressed the knotted box at her breast, and nodded.
The shadows descended, but he walked on, bleeding with prayer and wound, bound around the curve of the city, out of sight.
Hesher turned to the ashfire and the heart of rope she’d tossed. Smoke was all that remained. And her memory.
She closed the door and said the Macti prayer for the damned, then cried upon the yellow bones.