I remember when I was named. I was young, barely fourteen, and still had my tedious birth name: a long string of syllables that I never felt any connection to, especially since my mother had her own pet names for me and my father never called me anything. My father took me on a late summer boar hunt, and in the confusion of the dusky half-light, he and I were separated from all but one of his guard.
It was a large, angry boar that came for my father and made his horse throw him, and it was I who dismounted and stuck the boar with my spear before it could hurt him. As soon as my spear found the boar’s underbelly it began to clamber toward me, spitting blood. It didn’t seem to care that it was wedging the point deeper and deeper into itself, and that disregard for its own life was sickening. I was desperate, it was monstrous, and I could tell it hated me.
When I could feel the infernal heat of its mouth I did the only thing I could think of: I pulled out the spear, letting out a gush of innards and buckling the boar’s back legs, then stabbed it again before it could charge. I drove the grotty tip all the way into the grass; I watched it die. But it lived in my nightmares, first as The Boar and then as bigger monsters, cloaked monsters—I would dream about cousins who wished me dead and servants I had sent away and they would turn with a snort into wretched, skewered things.
For this deed they named me Prince Courage, and after my father died when I was twenty-five I became King Courage, Reader of the Secret Atlas.
I’m not a fast reader—I’m a careful reader, and I wanted to be sure of where to take the empire next. The contents of the Atlas were foretold, but the path itself was a mystery. My father had laid rightful claim to the mountain range to the west that he named the Blue Belt, as well as the cold plains to the north that he named the Span—he and his scribes spent many nights sketching rivers and settlements and the final hide-outs of old, undestined peoples into the Atlas. I had visited all the regions of our empire, but when I stood on the Blue Belt watchtower and looked upon our little cities and even smaller villages, I must admit that I had doubt. My visits were always overcast. I felt very far from the light of order.
I could not see the way forward, so my wife Glory—that was not her birth name either, but the lord of her city had introduced her as The Glory of Ellake, and no name suited her better—asked Crossgold for counsel. Crossgold was a friend of my father’s: a wizened man, and a renowned first-explorer of the far reaches of the world. He told vivid stories about wild horses he’d tamed and canoes he’d carved out of trees. My father had shown him the Secret Atlas and now Crossgold went to its alcove all the time; he knew it better than I did. I was so lost in fog when he arrived at the palace that I couldn’t wait to fall in step behind him. I would have followed Crossgold anywhere, just then.
“There is a beautiful forest to the west of the Blue Belt,” said Crossgold. “Trees greener than emeralds. Brisk weather, too chill for disease. Solid timber. Good hunting. Your people would be happy there. Summer is a good season for moving over mountains.” He tapped his folded chin. “Those pines are better than the spruces of Derraba Forest. See my cane?” It was stout and varnished with rosin—rough but noble, like Crossgold himself.
“Better to tame this forest than take the empire south past Ellake?” My children were young, and I thought they might enjoy a warmer, saltier climate. I admit this was selfish, shallow logic, but I had no other logic to rely on.
“Read the Atlas, son. It’s all foretold,” said Crossgold, a smile breaking into his face like a crack in porcelain. “The crowded forest, the wild knot, languishes in need of a marlinspike. You know the page. It’s calling out for order that only you can give. It calls for you. My King.”
I made the announcement within a month, with our black and green banners fluttering two-by-two behind me. I associated that windswept sound with my father, and it made me look westward instead of down at the crowd—for a moment I actually felt lifted up by the spirit of progress and actually believed in my place at the helm of our expansion. People would whisper later that I’d received this plan from a divine dream—that I had seen a starry woman in green point west. I never corrected them.
I had to wait for the mist to lift to see it, but the forest was as beautiful as Crossgold promised. He’d traveled with us over the Blue Belt and the night before the journey’s final leg he raised his canteen to the still-distant trees and said he was leaving, because he had business in Halzi. To me, he whispered “Turn the wheel of order.” That is the mission of kings: to turn the wheel off paved roads and take our chariot into the wild. I couldn’t sleep after that.
The next morning I walked into the rich and fragrant forest, staked a burning torch bearing our banner into the soil next to the violets and bloodroot, and so claimed it as our own.
The forest was teeming with life: large-headed pigs with tusks long or short or helical, wild red dogs with cat-faces, deer with antler prongs knotted together into nets of bone, bears that climbed trees, birds that wept. There was also a tribe of primitives living in the canopy that pelted my men with acorns. These primitives were hard to spot, and skittish—cowardly, unresponsive folk, certainly not civilized, but that was no shock since they lived in a green sea of chaos.
The pigs were brought on skewers and the dogs were brought on leashes and the deer were brought on men’s shoulders and one bear head was placed at my feet, but the birds I only heard. They were too fast for our archers. As for the primitives: a dozen men in my guard, led by my top lieutenant Turner, sniffed out one of the tribe’s dens and came back tired and muddy and satisfied. I was eating breakfast. They presented me with neckwear woven out of leaves and strips of hide. “One of the females was wearing it,” Turner said. I took it in my hands and frowned when I noticed dried blood on the leaves.
“They’re not more than animals,” said Turner. I remembered the wolf that the men in my father’s guard had strung up in the palace grounds when I was a child—it was partially skinned, with its guts hanging out. They said it was a warning to other beasts. My father congratulated them on the successful hunt, because this wolf had eaten two palace fawns and my mother was afraid it would eat me next, but I vomited. I thought about those guts coming out of my father, or out of me.
“Don’t go out of your way to be cruel,” I said, and my guard smiled amongst themselves. “You’re not barbarians.”
“We’ve been traveling for weeks, King Courage. Helping the settlers up and down the mountain. Staking tents. Days and days crossing empty plains. The guard needed some sport. We were losing our minds.”
I understood that. Despite the three months I had spent with our battalion safeguarding a city in Ellake, Turner was the warrior of the two of us. My father always told me, let warriors be the judge of battle. So with another gentle reminder—”brutality is beneath you, we are the people of the Secret Atlas”—I thanked them for their reconnaissance, and decided to give the necklace to my daughter Faith.
Two years passed before I met Isadore the Blue.
I returned to the capital city and held Glory’s hand as she gave birth to our third child, a daughter named Chastity—after Valor and Faith, Glory and I decided to stop waiting for a child’s virtue to define itself. In the forest, our people were busy collecting timber, forging roads, building settlements, drawing and re-drawing maps. Each week I received energetic, anxious updates from the frontier. Glory urged me to pay them another visit to show them solidarity, to boost their morale.
“Who can give them hope but their King?” she said, her voice breaking. She was herself a settler’s daughter—it was during the siege in Ellake, when I wore armor, that she first laid eyes on me. How those eyes had smoldered! But I suspect it led Glory to believe I was a man like my father. She showed me a letter from the governor of a new settlement deep in the heart of the forest (if indeed forests have hearts). The man pled for me to come break its ground, and Glory urged me: “Go.”
So I went. I named the settlement after her. “Glory-Arn,” I called it, and went on, “May it be a prosperous beacon of the Secret Atlas.”
I looked at the settlers because I didn’t want to look at the wall of trees-like-towers surrounding their settlement, and it is true, what they say: settlers love their kings better than do city-folk. Some in the capital derided me, but not here, never here. These people knew what mattered. They understood the simple truth of our mission. They didn’t have the luxury of bickering about irrelevant passages of the Atlas’s appendices—they were living the Secret Atlas simply by planting themselves here, and all they wanted from me was reassurance. Their unquestioning adulation shook my knees. That is love. I told myself protect them, protect them—the weight was terrible. The woods shot up like teeth out of the soft, gummy earth. We were near a massive swamp, the governor told me. “But no need to worry, King Courage,” the little man said, “We will drain it!”
The settlers of Glory-Arn were showing me the wheelbarrows and shovels they would use to dig these drainage ditches when I saw a young girl standing just beyond the circle of cleared earth, under the veil of foliage. There was nothing to her. Just a thin waif, with a blue handprint on her face—it looked like a stain. Long fingers, that handprint. The blue index finger stretched from under her right eye to over her left eyebrow. Her smaller sister had the same mark, only in bright pomegranate red. It was the same hand, I realized. I imagined some occult ceremony where children marched one by one to a painted chieftain, who’d hit them in the face and brand them as his own. What savagery, I thought, what coarseness. I knew immediately that they were part of that primitive tree tribe.
“Oh! Little ferals!” cried the settlers—the sort of coo my children used to call puppies—and several women began trying to coax the two girls to come forward and pay their respects to me. The governor bowed toward me and explained, “You see them from time to time. They’re harmless. The women have been teaching them words. They call themselves Night Deer.”
“Doe-in-the-Dark,” said the blue-faced girl, startling all of us. She stepped closer despite her sister’s protests, but hesitated after she put one bare and soiled foot in the clearing. Her eyes were locked on mine. Maybe it was my jeweled crown—no doubt they had no riches of their own. As she stood there frozen, one brave settler grabbed her wrist and wrenched it up and around as if her arm was a boneless vine.
“What’s that on her hand?” I saw a dark glimmer before he threw her wrist back in disgust. “She’s covered in blood!”
The settlers gasped and I first thought that the girl was injured. But she didn’t stumble and she was staring right at me, holding out her hands as if she thought that was what we wanted. The settlers reeled away from her when she showed them her palms, and I saw that the blood couldn’t have been hers. She’d probably killed an animal.
“What’s your name, child?” I said, trying to keep my voice level.
“Isadore the Blue.” Now that she knew that her power was in the blood, she was using it to worm toward me, throwing my people back layer by layer. The settlers of Glory-Arn turned away, covering their mouths with their scarves.
“And what have you been doing, Isadore?” I was nervous too—Glory had picked up a superstition in Ellake about blood being the conduit for spirit—but I ground my boots into the dirt and refused to hide behind my people, because I was their King Courage. I willed myself to believe that I would defeat this child in spiritual battle. She had the black craft of chaos, I had the Secret Atlas. My victory was foretold. “Why is your hand bloody?”
She kept advancing, without answering me. Her eyes were solemn and fully awake—almost as if she had seen something terrible behind me but couldn’t tell me what. I could hear her breathing heavily, like a dog, through her swollen open mouth. Finally I said “Stop!” and one guardsman drew his sword. He swept it toward her neck but I stayed his hand; the blade tapped her skin where her jugular pulsed like a dying fish.
“The forest is full of blood,” she said.
As she spoke my eyes began to ache, and the settlers bundled themselves in their shawls as if assaulted by a stiff wind. My guard chased her away and, after she grabbed her sister’s hand and the two of them started running fleet between the trees, the men lifted their crossbows and shot at the little imps. The younger girl was grazed across the hip, but both climbed like squirrels into trees and were gone.
Glory-Arn survived for a year. Then one afternoon two courier boys completed the three-day trek to the settlement and found all the settlers dead. Not even a single crying child remained. And they were not just dead, as I understood it, but bodily destroyed. I didn’t want to hear the details. Apparently a hideous yellow-eyed monster—half-man, half-lizard, and coated in black and green swamp sludge—was still eating one of the victims. Only one courier boy escaped. He told the woodcutters who rescued him that the monster had flown howling through the trees.
The letter from Turner was tinged with a panic I was not accustomed to reading from my military leaders. With generic enemies he would have sounded angry, calculating, but now he sounded overwhelmed. He went on for pages about all the ways he was trying to maintain control—over the situation, over himself—but control was running off the paper like wet ink:
“We have captured several Doe-in-the-Dark tribesmen. Under duress they told us that the monsters are called Garrow-Low and live in the great swamp at the center of the forest. These Garrow-Low are possessed of black magic from that swamp. The tribesmen say these beings only attack those that bother them, but the savagery at Glory-Arn was clearly unprovoked. I do not know if the Doe-in-the-Dark are in league with the monsters. Can’t be sure. They say they run from Garrow-Low, but why did they not warn us about monsters in the swamp?”
I dreaded evenings, when couriers brought letters from the colonies. Letters from the Span and the Blue Belt and Halzi and Ellake—I could not read them until opening the sloppily-addressed envelope from the forest, still rank with the smell of wet earth.
Each letter was worse than the last—”Three woodcutters were slaughtered by Garrow-Low yesterday, in broad daylight,” “We are temporarily moving women and children out of the forest,” “We set traps but only caught worthless, cowardly Doe-in-the-Darks. The Enemy moves in secret ways. The men have suggested burning the forest to the ground. I have dreamed of this myself, as I hate this forest. But when we launched torches at the swamp, we discovered to our horror that Garrow-Low consume fire!”
I imagined Turner’s scribe huddled over a dying candle as darkness licked their cabin, and when I closed my eyes I saw those enormous pines moving in deep concert with each other like they were all part of one world-swallowing creature’s shaggy coat. It was The Boar, of course, the very same that had haunted me since I took its life as a child. Silent now save for the roaring wind. Running within it was the strange Doe-in-the-Dark girl that had told me the forest was full of blood. Isadore the Blue. If she was afraid of The Boar she did not show it; I chased after her legs and she moved nimble and spry through the Boar’s—the forest’s—denseness. In every dream I was terrified that the trees might shift as the entity turned over and reveal The Boar’s hideous, swampy mouth.
“Keep the settlers safe,” I had my own scribe write back, and because I had to show them courage, “I will leave tomorrow.”
By the time I reached the forest, our soldiers had scored a minor victory: they’d found a group of slow, elderly Garrow-Low and succeeded in killing them and dragging the bodies out of the forest. Swanson, a highly intelligent man who kept a catalog of all the animals and vegetation we’d plucked from the forest, poked at the cadavers and concluded that the source of their magic lay in their unnaturally long, stretchy limbs. I went to see the specimens, because I thought I should know the face of the Enemy—my father would have been in there prodding and cutting himself—and immediately wished I hadn’t. Cleaned of swamp sludge they looked like the gray ice mummies that had been found in caves along the Blue Belt.
“They’re all muscle,” said Swanson. “In their prime they must be fantastically strong.” He twirled his obsidian scalpel. “At least now we know what to cut off.”
The Treaty of Cooperation was my idea. I knew the soldiers resented it, because it is a show of weakness to rely on others—especially those whose lives are not foretold in the Secret Atlas—but I did not think we could win the war alone. We did not know the forest or the Garrow-Low half as well as the Does-in-the-Dark did, and if their tribe had managed to avoid annihilation, I wanted to know their secret. Turner said that Does-in-the-Dark had no pride or honor and would betray us in an alliance, but then another unit of our soldiers was swallowed by a pit of black quicksand, a Garrow-Low trap, and their polished bones spat up for other men to find. Turner conceded the issue. My advisors praised my wisdom.
The Does-in-the-Dark refused to leave the forest to meet with us, so we generously agreed to meet them in a little grove that they promised would be safe from Garrow-Low. I would like to say that we strode through the trees with our banners aloft, but we did not; we crept.
It was a night meeting. The Does-in-the-Dark had lit a fire and a whole throng of them were gathered around it—some sitting on the leaf-strewn ground, some hanging from the trees. I made the mistake of looking up. Standing in that grove was like standing at the bottom of a very deep well—I could see stars but I couldn’t feel the escape they promised—except tribesmen came out of these walls. All of their faces, even the chief’s, were marked by the same hand.
This chief’s name was Call the Green. He sat opposite me with the fire between us, and was one of a very few of his people who could look at us without twitching. His fingers were stubbier than those in the handprint, but who else could have marked them? I looked for Isadore the Blue, and to my surprise she was standing behind the chief. Her pose was that of a guardsman—I’d seen it in my own men. She had grown by a whole head since I last saw her, but she was still miniature compared to my guard. The stare she threw my way was colder now.
“I can see that you are a decent man,” I said, although I had no idea. The placidity of Call the Green’s expression left me uncertain that he could even understand me. “I hope that we can find common ground against a common enemy.”
“We have lived with them for ages. Garrow-Low do not hunt us if we stay out of their way,” said Call the Green.
I shook my head. “You deceive yourself. The Garrow-Low are the most brutal race we have ever encountered. They are barbaric, they do not know decency. They’ve killed our children without a thought. I’m sure they’ve done the same to yours. It’s time to put a stop to their evil, because they will destroy you in the end. You must take a stand now. With us.”
“You do not understand. The Garrow-Low do not hunt us if we stay out of their way. But your people do.”
I was so surprised that I was silent, but Turner made a dismissive grunt. Call the Green frowned at him deeply. “My friends were killed by your hand. You or one of these others....” He nodded at the guardsmen standing around me, who narrowed their eyes and ground their teeth. “Garrow-Low do not string their prey up in trees and leave them there.”
I thought again of the dead wolf hanging outside the palace. Call the Green’s face was like rock now, and I wondered if that was what old unvanquished grief looked like: an impassable boulder. Isadore the Blue was, for once, looking away from me. The others didn’t defend themselves, so I had to try my best. Try my best is all I’ve ever done, I’m afraid. “I am sorry,” I said to Call the Green, though my father would have said it was beneath me, “But this is no time to dwell on mistakes. We face a much greater evil now. Innocents are being killed. The Garrow-Low are beyond all—”
“We will not hurt you, King Courage.” He was only imitating the sound of my name, not its meaning. Judging by what he said after this, I did not think he understood the word: “We will not help you either. Same with the Garrow-Low. We have no stake in your war. If you control the forest...,” he held his hand up as if to signify the sky instead, “or if Garrow-Low control the forest, it is the same for us.”
He hadn’t seemed like a shameful man, but Glory said I gave people too much credit. I didn’t understand what was wrong with this man and his handprinted people that they could put us and the Garrow-Low in the same sentence, give us the same weight. Some things—like waving bloody hands at a king—can be excused, attributed to pure primitivity. But being unable to distinguish between good and bad? Living in the chaos of the forest must have damaged these people’s moral compass. Damaged it, or prevented them from developing one at all.
Turner spat in their fire. “You’re dishonorable cowards,” he said, glaring at the colorful faces that surrounded us. “You’d rather sit in your trees and hide. Wait the war out instead of fighting in it. Well, God judges. Men judge too.”
“Yes,” said Call the Green, staring at Turner.
Isadore the Blue led us out of the grove. My guard ignored her and stomped ahead into the maze of trees—all the trunks were black in the dark—where they waited for me, because I was waiting for her. She was still a girl. I wanted so much to rescue her from this depraved life where the Secret Atlas was no different from viscous swamp magic. “You must tell him to change his mind,” I said, “or you must leave. Just you. If the Garrow-Low don’t kill you....”
“You will?” she said, and then her voice sank to a growl. “I hope you kill each other off.” She jutted her chin at three guardsmen who were mumbling to each other and hissed at them: “Ay. Take one step back, you’ll be bones in a Garrow-Low pond.” The three lifted their heels in a hurry. Isadore the Blue gave me a stare harder than her little body should have been capable of and then loped back to her people.
Crossgold, the great explorer, had a winter homecoming. He had become very ill at last, and when Glory and I went to him his skin was yellowed and loose and reeking of the animal oils he’d used in Halzi to keep himself young. Glory sat at Crossgold’s left side and did not speak, because she knew I was angry with the man and wanted me to have the first word. But it was Crossgold, as always, who spoke first.
“Pardon me for missing your daughter’s wedding,” he wheezed. “I hear it was joyous.” Maybe; it was as joyous as weddings could be under the war’s rain cloud. Faith had certainly been radiant, standing under the globe-shaped chandelier that signified the promise of an ordered world. But even then I could feel the threat of violence coursing beneath, like a snake under a blanket. All my thoughts were with that forest. Always, with the pine trees. By the time Crossgold’s caravan arrived, fighting had resumed again. I was always glad to have it in the open, to have people in the city be quiet and understand the smallness of their lives compared to this War of Our Time, as the poets were calling it.
“You said nothing about monsters in the swamp,” I said. “Did you know they were there? Did you know how strong and ruthless they are, when you told me to move settlers in?”
“It was foretold,” Crossgold said, closing his eyes. I hissed. Glory and I did not speak anymore of anything being foretold—the Atlas had not been added to for years, except where diamonds marked battlefields—we spoke solely the language of loss and slippage. “Not all is bad. Timber is still extracted, sometimes.”
“Five soldiers were ambushed last week. Only their heads were untouched. We are being mocked. We are being killed.” It was a pity, Turner wrote, as it always is, because they had been crawling along the edge of the swamp for weeks, taking out the enemy where they could, and were finally on their way home. They’d been boys when the Garrow-Low destroyed Glory-Arn. “That is where you sent us. That is your beautiful forest.”
“Nothing is easy, King Courage,” Crossgold whispered. “Sometimes you have to stick the boar over and over. I thought you understood this. Your father did.”
“And yet you lacked the wisdom to see that I am not my father. I cannot see us through this. I will lead us into ruin, I will lose us everything!”
Crossgold groaned and ceased to respond. He was pretending to have died; Glory saw through it and did not make the appropriate gestures. Instead she said to me, “The Atlas can never be undone. No enemy, no death, can ever erase what our people have accomplished.”
“Yes,” I said, bitterly. It was the War of Yes—”yes, burn it,” “yes, seize them,” “yes, attack.” Yes, yes, yes, and it never seemed to be enough. Just recently I’d said Yes to our soldiers destroying a Garrow-Low nest filled with squealing young. Glory said, “fewer left to fight,” and I said Yes to that too. I felt as if I was hurtling through the air toward some dark point I couldn’t see and I couldn’t stop myself, not even to fall.
That night Crossgold truly did die, and I received another letter from the front. A Doe-in-the-Dark under interrogation had let slip the name of the soldiers’ killer, and it was no Garrow-Low. It was Isadore the Blue. Their coward-chief’s guardswoman, as Turner wrote, but first she had been my darling. When Turner and his men stormed the Doe-in-the-Dark hamlets she disappeared into the topmost tree branches, because she had no honor as Turner said, but he swore—to me, to the soldiers’ families—that he’d find her. I didn’t doubt him.
When I read this terrible news I tried to drop the letter, but it clung to my fingers like a spiderweb. The ache in my eyes was back, hammer-pounding with every blow this child must have thrown, and now my neck was pulp as well. Glory asked, “Are you all right?” from the divan—I could barely hear her over the trumpets of mourning and the clamor in my own head—and I had to answer, “No. I am not.”
I spent years hoping she would never be found. I imagined her crossing the Span, swimming across the waters of Ellake, finding her way to a land we somehow had not touched. A land that was Unforetold, if such a place was possible. My children did say I was losing my mind.
After Turner died of liver poisoning without having found her I thought maybe she had escaped. I should have known she would not leave her people, just as I would never leave mine. Three months after our settlers turned the forest into timber, Turner’s replacement, Porter, wrote to inform me that she had been found. At last.
When they brought her to the capital courthouse I could still see the handprint on her face under the grime and dried blood earned in the prison carriage. All her limbs were still attached, at least, and she could still stand, although not without rocking back and forth as if on the deck of a ship. I looked at her when she was brought onto the courtroom floor, and she returned my gaze. I expected to see hatred in her eyes because I didn’t know how she could have killed those men without it, but there was only fatigue. Her eyes did not have their old penetrative glare; I was afraid her will was gone. I wondered if she didn’t recognize me anymore. I barely recognized myself.
They had refurnished the courthouse when the war ended. The inquisitor’s new seat was carved from the resinous pinewood of what we now called Gloria Forest. I didn’t know the inquisitor, although my son Valor assured me that he was very shrewd and had peered down at many a murderer and traitor. Valor didn’t understand why I had dragged myself out of bed to attend the trial. “She’s just a mad Doe-in-the-Dark,” he said. “I must learn how to handle these rebels, but you shouldn’t trouble yourself with it anymore.” How Glory would have praised him, if she had been with us.
Valor wanted the Does-in-the-Dark relocated—to where, he never said—but I had made them a permanent preserve in the grove where Call the Green had rebuked me. I’d visited this preserve—to pay penance, I suppose—and seen them pacing, picking at their sores and sharpening their daggers, as great trees fell around them.
The inquisitor began, “Isadore the Blue—”
“Princess Courage!” someone shouted in the gallery. It was a Doe-in-the-Dark who had snuck into court by dressing nicely and covering his handprint with a hood. “Princess Courage, we believe in you! Fight forever!” I recognized the adoration on his face as the same love the settlers at Glory-Arn had shown me when they clasped their hands, gazed up at me, and hoped....
The Doe-in-the-Dark was seized and removed. My son shook his head in disbelief, muttering, “They are so disrespectful of you, father,” although I did not feel disrespected. Several nobles I couldn’t identify laughed on beaded cushions. Isadore the Blue didn’t respond. She continued to rock, toes to heels. What was she dwelling on? The trees she could no longer climb?
The inquisitor began again, “Isadore the Blue, we accuse you of conspiring with the Enemy to murder five of our soldiers. What do you say?”
At first she didn’t say anything, but the guards tapped her with spears and after a sharp inhale she said, “Yes, I killed them.” She certainly sounded like she had been put through the wheel of order—she sounded crushed up, ground up. “But not for Garrow-Low.”
“They were eaten by Garrow-Low. Do you disagree?”
“Garrow-Low ate them because I did not bury them. They did not deserve to be buried.”
“I told you, she’s mad,” muttered my son.
“Why?” asked the inquisitor, his voice curling. “Do you feel pity for the Garrow-Low? Do you hate the Secret Atlas?”
“Because they killed my partner.” Her voice broke. “Owen the Blue. When I saw him dead I knew it was one of you. He was strung up between two trees. Cut open. The way you do. So I hunted your soldiers, as was my right and Owen’s right. When I found them his blood was still on their hands... oh.”
I think at that moment she and I both remembered the day we met at Glory-Arn, when blood had coated her hands. She tugged on the chains that bound her wrists to her ankles, and the sound rang through the courthouse. “Blood on their hands. I heard them say they thought the war had no meaning. What does it matter, they said. They missed their families. They did not think the Garrow-Low would ever be defeated. They were afraid they would die alone in the forest, and Garrow-Low would eat their guts. And I thought, Owen died alone. His life had meaning and they took it from him. Why? Did they need to hurt something?” The taut line that was her mouth crumpled suddenly.
The inquisitor squinted as if it was the sun he stared at, though only a familiar gray fog seeped through the windows. “You could not have killed five of our men on your own.”
Isadore the Blue shrugged. “They were tired. They were unfocused. Sometimes that happens after killing.” She looked at her calloused feet and I wondered if she was as tired as I, if we toiled under the same burden after all.
I closed my eyes and had a vision of Isadore the Blue breaking into my chambers in the dead of night. First she was just a black shadow of a self, and then my eyes adjusted and I saw the handprint on her face—with the curtains billowing, it looked like the hand of retribution as divine as the Secret Atlas, the hand of Stop, the hand of No.
I tried to explain that I had wanted to stop for years, but my lips rebelled and I said nothing. In truth I wanted her to show me her pain, to make a monument out of me. Her hunting knife lit up the room, and then she was stabbing, stabbing, cutting me down. It was a relief. I searched her eyes for relief as well but there was none, for her. She pulled the knife out—I saw it covered in blood and hair and I realized who I was: The Boar. I was the fiend. And she, my hallowed vanquisher. Princess Courage, I heard voices saying, Princess Courage has slain the Boar.
“I had the strangest dream,” I said, upon waking. Valor whispered, uncomfortably, “Father, you have been ill.”
The inquisitor was saying, “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve driven your people mad. Look at that agitator that called you that ridiculous name. If the Garrow-Low had won the war those brutes would have thanked you.”
Another Doe-in-the-Dark shook off her disguise and shouted, “Princess Courage! Tell them they have no right to speak to you about brutality! Or madness!” She faced the inquisitor; her handprint was red. I leaned forward, remembering a younger sister with a red handprint staying back in the trees. The little one’s right hip had been skimmed by an arrow that day. I leaned further. Did she limp? Valor put his hand on my shoulder as if he was afraid I would tumble over the banister. The Doe-in-the-Dark girl shouted, “You are all—” but with everyone else shouting, I couldn’t hear what we all were.
She jumped over the railing into the well of the court to escape our spectators’ punches—she did limp, just a little—and ran toward her sister, who averted her eyes. “Isadore, tell them!” The guards grabbed her before she could touch her sister’s chains and pulled her away, her heels sliding against the new turquoise tiles. “Say this is just the beginning!”
Isadore the Blue lifted her chin and said, “There are some things bigger than your war.”
Her sister’s face went blank and the inquisitor widened his eyes, but I felt in the echoing cavern where my heart belonged that she was speaking to me. The Boar. My head swung away like a ball on a tether. A bolt of sunlight came blazing through a clerestory window and I stared into the heat until all I could see was light. I felt for my son, to tell him to look, but I slipped. All around me were whispers and shouts of “Courage” but who were they calling? Who would answer to that name now?
The only thing I asked for when I woke from my long gauzy sleep was to see her, and indeed I woke just in time, because she was to be executed the next day. I would have gone to see her in the dungeons—I would have endured the stink of pus and miserable howling of amputated Garrow-Low prisoners, kept alive for reasons unknown to me—but I was too close to death myself. The ashen people who hovered where the curtains used to be said, “No, King Courage. We will bring the prisoner.”
When I opened my eyes again she was on the floor beside my bed. “My child,” I said, and someone ran weeping from the room.
“I am not yours.” I could see her teeth glowing.
“Your people call you Princess Courage now.”
“My name is Isadore the Blue.”
I could already tell her that her name would be forgotten. Her partner would be forgotten. I knew by the passion on the faces of her compatriots that they had already claimed her as a myth. “I did not choose my name either,” I said. “And I earned it by killing, too. What stories we live, Princess.”
She looked at me at last. “Our stories are over, King.”
I thought I had only blinked but when I opened my eyes she was gone, and the sun was shining. I thought of the gallows, the coir ropes swinging in the sweet morning breeze, and then closed my eyes again. The ropes became pine trees: great churning spindles of that terrifying forest that would never sway to the name of Gloria, not in its deepest of hearts.