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Black Gate Online Fiction: “Niola’s Last Stand”

By Vera Nazarian

This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Vera Nazarian and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.

“Niola, promise me you will not move from this spot until I come back,” said the old woman to the very young one. They were the only two figures paused on the street while other people hurried, and in some cases ran, all around them, burdened with belongings. “I’ll only be gone a short while, and then we will leave the city with the others. Promise me, now! You wait here, girl. I must run to the shrine and pay my last respects to Rohatat. After we’re gone there will be no one left who remembers her. The invader will have no respect for her holy ancient bones.”

Niola watched her grandmother with a frown but said nothing. This was insanity, holy ancient bones and all. Every moment they tarried in the city could be used instead to put distance between them and danger. The merciless Varoh army would soon stand at the gates of Menathis — an army against which there was no defense.

But Grandmother was not to be denied; she was ill enough as it was, and the pain in her ancient gnarled foot that had been damaged in the days of a different war of another generation had flared up worse than usual, apparently in barometric coincidence with the first notice of the enemy invasion. People said that limbs had memories, and if so, this one was a tough old thing, remembering something of its fate with a vengeance… even though the old woman spoke very little of it, and even less of that last war.

To be blunt, there was not much time left to Grandmother in this mortal world. It would break her failing heart not to say her goodbyes to the equally hoary and almost forgotten goddess and her dilapidated shrine covered with dusty rat-infested ivy — wherever it was, hidden away in the rambles of the oldest portion of Menathis. These days it was the city of the impotent; a frightened place of defenseless crumbling walls, ebbing life-will, and no fighting spirit left to muster in order to make a stand.

“You heard me, child?” Grandmother said once again, looking at her with intense living eyes that belied her chronic pain. “No matter what happens, do not go looking for me, do not leave this spot in front of our house except to go inside briefly, if you must, and do not listen to anyone who might try to dissuade you otherwise.”

“Yes, yes, Gran, I heard you the first time, and so did that cart driver across the street. It’s insane, but I’ll do it,” said Niola. “I’ll be waiting here till you come back, but in the name of all divinities, especially your Rohatat, who would not want you to perish on her behalf, please hurry!”

Grandmother nodded, and then began to move in a shaky hobble-gait down the street. First she ran a brave few steps, then slowed to a limping walk, then again gathered breath for a sprint of several paces, leaning on her cane. Her faded kerchief was flapping behind her, and her old shawl barely protected her from the cold autumn wind.

Niola sighed, thinking how her grandmother fancied herself a priestess of that useless old goddess.

And so Niola stood in front of their poor emptied house while grandmother disappeared into the crowd of strangers moving down the street. All their essential belongings were wrapped in two fat sacks, ready to be carried on their backs. In inanimate boredom the sacks sat in the road dust at Niola’s unshod feet. Citizens of Menathis continued to rush about every which way like ants in a disturbed nest, most of them headed for the main gates.

Wind swept Niola’s skinny frame, and brought moisture to her pale eyes. It ripped at the cotton shawl which covered her head over the kerchief and was tied closely about her stooping shoulders. She blinked frequently and found herself nodding off from idleness as she stood swaying on her feet, then jolting with sudden clarity. Strands of her limp mousy hair rose up from underneath the edges of her kerchief with every powerful gust, tangling and drying within minutes into the brittle consistency of hay.

Niola rubbed her nose and tugged at her sleeves and the folds of her skirt in nervous irritation, paced in front of their door, then finally sat down on one of the sacks and continued waiting as long moments swept by. Moments turned to hours. Neighbors hurried by, scolded her for tarrying or being in the way, pushed past her with their goods. The city emptied all around her while the sky turned angry carnelian and topaz at the edges of the western horizon, and the day faded.

Niola was numb and tired and her bladder was full while her stomach was rumbling with hunger. She rubbed her forehead and eyes in exhaustion. She had become a vessel filled to the brim with rising fear, like soup broth threatening to boil out.

This was ridiculous. Where was Grandmother?

There was almost no one left in the streets now. The last stragglers hurried past Niola’s front door, while an occasional donkey or horse-driven cart rolled by with a clatter. They would glance at her briefly and sometimes a stranger would exclaim, “Run, girl! Are you daft? Why do you sit now? Hurry!”

At this Niola nodded and then rolled her eyes the moment the stranger turned away — really, as if she couldn’t think of such an option herself. What did these people think? How about, she had a good reason for waiting? She continued as she was, feeling herself more and more a dunce for remaining fixed in place.

The last to leave were the city militia forces and the Menathisian army units. As the sunset gave way to night, darkness-cloaked foot soldiers marched past Niola, followed by sudden noise and the rumble of cavalry troops, creaking supply carts and the machinery of war.

In the bluish dusk they looked imposing, their metal armor gleaming dully, and the occasional torches throwing their faces into demonic distortion and chaos. It was said that gods of war congregated around armies on the march, and at times the flicker of fire would reveal them, emaciated and thinner than smoke, waiting for blood to come so that at last they could feed and grow into bloated monsters the size of heaven. Gods marched in step with the soldiers, with the armies, always the vanguard of elemental hunger, the driving force…

One of the unit captains paused before Niola, and drew a torch to illuminate her shawl-covered face. “What’s this? A girl or a wine sack? Can you walk? Why are you still here?” he said, raising the visor of his pointed helmet in order to speak freely. She saw, beyond the joking manner, an earnest face of a brave man resigned to die this very night if necessary.

“I will go soon, sir,” she replied. “I’m all right. As soon as my grandmother comes back, I promise, we’ll run from here! Faster than rabid mongooses!”

The officer frowned, and his dark eyes were remote hollows in the faint light of the torch. He leaned to stare at her once more, levity replaced with pity. And then he straightened in the saddle. “Your grandmother, eh? I hope it’s not too late. Don’t wait too long, girl. Fare thee well, and may the gods watch over you, for we are the last division, and as we leave this city you will be all alone.”

Niola nodded tiredly, and thanked him in a parched whisper, but he was already gone, and his men soon emptied the road. As she rubbed her eyes, Niola could almost see the last straggler behind them, hope, riding a starved mare the color of dust, receding into the distance.

Night came, and with it came silence.

If I sit any more like this, my bladder will burst, thought Niola. This is idiotic, and I hope Grandmother is all right and not hurt, wherever she is. And Niola went inside their house to relieve herself in the bucket closet.

Afterwards she lingered before the shadow mass that was the mostly-emptied pantry box near the hearth, considering what she might eat of the moldy items that they had chosen to leave behind — all the best and perishable stuff was packed away for the road.

Well, there was the dry rice in the box somewhere, and she could boil it quickly — surely Gran would be returning any instant and she wouldn’t mind. But on the other hand, it was unwise to start up the hearth fire, not with such complete lonely darkness all around, and the city all empty…

And suddenly it hit her, the terror.

Niola was all alone. The monolithic city lay around her like a blanket of black wool; no light, no respite. It was all around, night pressing down its pestle, grinding her into the mortar of the earth. The wind swept alone in the silence, slithering and reverberating against stone and thatch and mud clay brick and empty marble, whistling in the structures and making the tree leaves whisper and crinkle… There were also occasional distant sounds of night animals, lonely barks of stray and newly-abandoned dogs, hoots of feral monkeys, bird calls, and the teeming of other creatures whose nature was to came out in the darkness. If anyone else was left here it was only the most criminal-minded, the looters, the infirm, the mad…

The ghosts.

Niola felt a cool breath of wind from the opened door, and suddenly it was all she could do to keep herself from cowering in the corner, throwing herself into the tiniest place against the walls that would serve as her shield from the back, or under the old cot, gripping some bit of dirty floor-burlap to cover herself completely.

And then the terror passed. She blinked, and it was only the wind — stupid, cold night wind — and no, it was unwise indeed to light a fire and invite possible murdering looters and madmen to their poor hut, so she refrained.

Besides, Niola’s eyes had now gotten accustomed to the absolute dark. And as she blinked to clear the veil of dryness, she glanced in the open doorway and could suddenly see the stars.

The stars! Oh, the stars were intense and sharp, and intimate… Never had Niola seen them so bright and solitary and unblemished by the glow of firelight in the city windows. These were beacons of the open desert. A spilled bag of pearls.

It was said in the desert lands of the Compass Rose that one of the stars was in fact the Goddess of Wonder, for she hid in the velvet abyss of night sky from the relentless pursuit of the Lord of Illusion. And sometimes mortals would find her as their gaze searched the heavens, unwitting… And in that moment they would experience a transcendent pang of joy, a reeling sense of the world’s profundity and glory overhead…

Which reminded Niola, the enemy army was right out there — not overhead in profundity of course, but camped nearby in the desert, or on the move — and they would be here any moment, and definitely by dawn.

Where in all grand and blissful creation was that crazy old woman, her grandmother? If she gets back here, I will beat her upside that stupid head of hers myself with her own walking stick, or better yet, her precious holy rattle of Rohatat — respect for the elderly and the divine be damned. And if she turns out to be dead, I will drag her worthless old sack of bones to the marketplace —

Niola took a big shuddering breath, and then stepped outside once again, stopping at the doors of their hut. She was instantly enveloped by the ocean of wind. The two sack-lumps of their belongings sat like sentinels where she’d left them. In the shadows it almost seemed they were moving lightly, taking their own deep slow breaths, as two large beasts.

Supposing Grandmother was in terrible trouble and she could not come to Niola? What if she had collapsed somewhere? What if she had been accosted? Niola considered dragging the sacks back inside, in case ill-meaning strangers came upon them. She also considered picking up her sack and just heading out on her own, getting out of the city gates in the wake of the militia and everyone else in their right mind who had abandoned Menathis.

But that meant abandoning Grandmother, or, to be more precise at this point, the possibility of Grandmother. With each passing moment Grandmother was turning from a living, breathing, haranguing person into a mere possibility of one.

Idiot old woman! Oh, if I get my hands on that wooden prayer rattle —

She just couldn’t.

It also meant wandering through many empty streets alone, unprotected from whatever was possibly out there in the darkness…

And so Niola stood in a furious stupor in the empty street, her stomach rumbling, her eyelids coming glued together with sleep, and all of her buffeted by the cold wind.

The moon rose, a large silver coin of this domain, and the face of the taqavor was etched upon it faintly; yes, she could almost see it if she squinted…

Jackass-stupid moon.

In the moonglow, Niola saw the city acquire a sheen, a glamour, and the roofs of the nearest structures stood forth, prominent, while in the distance the obelisks and towers of abandoned palaces shone against the ebony treetops like slivers cut from the moon’s flesh.

This was just ridiculous, moon-flesh and all. She was in agony and moreover she was bored. Where was the enemy army anyway? They were late! Come hither, barbarians! Come, you flea-infested foreign monkeys! Not that she wanted them to be here or anything, to be sure…

Niola stomped her feet in place, then turned momentarily to glance behind her as she thought she heard a noise. And the next moment, as she turned back to watch the street, suddenly there was someone else.

A man stood in the moonlight before her.

“Aiee!” Niola screamed, then cut herself off just as quickly, putting her palm against her mouth. “Where did you come from?”

“I’ve brought you a sword.”

The man was a vaporous being of moonlight and wind. He stood, edges shimmering, translucent, dressed in a semblance of antique garb, and on the other side of him Niola could see the shadowed structures of the empty street — yes, through him — just faintly, she could see through the moon-flesh that formed him. His voice was hollow, coming half in her mind, half in wind-echoes.

But the object he held in his outstretched hands was solid and real.

A blade of dull metal, its surface without sheen, reflecting neither moon nor stars, only snaking shadows of a thousand ancient battles; longer than the span of her arm it was, with a grip and pommel of dull ornate filigree. A soldier’s sword, to be held with two hands, or one, by a man twice Niola’s height and weight.

“What?” she managed to utter. “Who — what are you?”

“Take it,” the man said, and if she peered closer she could just see his face — or not.

“Take it, and use it this night. You must defend this city, for we have none other.”

The moment was so dreamlike and yet outrageous, that Niola lost all discretion, and snorted in incredulity, then put her hands on her hips.

“Me? Defend this city? Whoever you are, baboon-for-brains, you must have the wisdom of a chicken and the eyesight of an old sheep. Do I and my skirts look like the captain of the guard to you? I’m just waiting for my crazy grandmother — gods help me if I get my hands on her — who ran off to Rohatat’s blasted temple, and she ought to be back any moment now, and then we will run like a rabid pair of mongooses to the city gates –”

“Take it,” the man repeated. “I will not speak another time. They are coming.”

Niola’s jaw was slack, but something about the grim, terrible sense of the inevitable in his words prompted her to reach forward with her right hand and take the sword by its grip.

The damned thing was cold and heavy as an anvil, and she immediately felt it sag in her grasp, its point dragging in the road.

Niola gasped, sputtered, put both her hands on the grip and raised the monstrosity up to the level of her waist. At the same time she looked up at the man before her, ready to harangue him… but he was gone.

Just like that.

The street was empty all around, except for this thing in her hands, and the two large sacks.

And the wind.

And yet, there was something else, for the wind was howling now, and it seemed to come from a great distance, many streets away, and yet, from all directions.

“Well, a stinking garlic-ridden blight upon them!” Niola exclaimed, then took several steps forward and kicked one of the sacks in futility. “Now what?” she spoke out loud, because it seemed to reassure her, the sound of her own voice.

It must have been a god who had just visited her, of that she had no doubt. Some minor brain-addled one, she thought, else why would he talk all ceremonial, like some old demented priest and not directly answer any of her questions? And think she could handle a battle sword? And assume she could defend anyone from anything?

It was amazing how many minor idiot deities there were in the world — seemed like every well and street corner and chamberpot was possessed of a divine patron of one stature or another. Not that she’d had the misfortune of actually encountering one before this moment, or anything, but just so… Grandmother always talked of… well, variously-challenged gods of here and there and everywhere, and of this and that.

Oh, bother. I am babbling. And talking about — where was that accursed hag?

Niola gripped the sword, and oddly enough she felt a little better as though, indeed, if someone were to come at her down the street, she could at least bash them in the brains with this thing. That is, if she could lift it higher than her shoulders.

“So here I am, and here we are,” she said, addressing the sacks. “Do you suppose the god has given me a sword with a will of its own? An enslaved demon spirit maybe, who resides inside it and could be invoked to battle all enemies? Oh, that would be exciting and helpful. Hello, sword? Can you hear me? Hello? Hellooo! HELLOOO! Speak, you dratted anvil! Speak in tongues, if you must!”

No answer. Only echoes of her own voice.

Niola stepped back and forth, then tried swinging the sword as she had seen old Dirag the soldier do it, the one who’d lived two houses down and was a veteran of many paid campaigns in the service of the taqavor. As she did this, soon panting, she threw nervous expectant glances down the street.

Overhead, the moon continued to traverse the sky. It was near zenith now, and the street gradually filled with silver, as though the glamour was spilled over all things, coating them with a bright living sheen.

Niola stumbled around, practicing with the sword, periodically calling it the offspring of a chamberpot, feeling rather aggressive and invincible, as does any young fool before the first battle. At one point she backed herself up against the sacks, tripped, and ended up sitting down in the dirt. As she clambered up, huffing with indignation, there was, out of nowhere, someone before her.

A woman, poured from the tender blood of the moon, stood in front of her, in a long raiment of ages past, and a band of precious metal clasped around her temples. Her features were dreamlike and unclear, and yet there was beauty, of that Niola was sure; there was always beauty in such circumstances.

“I’ve brought you a shield.”

Niola blinked. “And so, once again I am blessed,” she said. “How lovely, thank you — and if I turn it over I can serve flatbread. Now I’ve got a matching pair of useless items beyond my ability to wield them. And who are you?”

The Goddess — yes, must be another one of those ninnies — simply proffered a wide object of beaten metal plate, rounded like a shallow bowl and angled to a sharp point in the center on the outside, with a grip on the inside, and covered with mythic designs such as Niola had seen decorating temple walls. Patterns of warriors and armies and ancient kings clashed along the perimeter of the shield, in an eternal circle. If she’d blink, they seemed to move, tiny teeming things, describing the history of the great city Menathis in concentric layers of time.

“Take this shield to protect yourself,” said the goddess.

With a sigh of annoyance, and not a whit of alarm, Niola tightened her grip on the sword with her right hand, and stretched out her left to receive this latest divine gift. “Why me? Why couldn’t it be Krikor the blacksmith three doors down from us, with big bulging muscles and a fat head?” she said, for the shield felt heavy as a rock, expansive as the very foundation of the mountain on which the city stood. Then, “Never mind, yes, I know, I am the only one left — except for Gran, I suppose. Well, maybe she can hold this damn thing when she gets back.”

The woman before her nodded once, slowly, then turned her face to glance down the road.

“Be ready,” she said, soft as the wafting perfume of the midnight rose in Niola’s mind. “They are coming.”

And as Niola turned to look in the direction, the woman too was gone.

“They, they — they are always coming, according to you people. Hey, wait!” Niola snorted in disgust, then yelled, “Oh, no! Oh, please come back! Do you mind explaining just a little bit what I’m supposed to do exactly? I’m not a soldier! Just take a damn look at me! Now, granted, I can cook the best curry soup and wash extremely delicate linen with never a hole from scrubbing, and I’ve cared for a pair of very fine and healthy goats for the last three years until we had to sell them, but –”

Again there was only night silence, and from the distance the howling on the wind increased.

Niola paced before the two sacks, swinging the sword like a log and then practicing to shield herself while her arm muscles trembled in pain, then letting the point of the heavy blade drag on the ground, leaving shallow scratch-gullies in the beaten dirt.

“Oh, Grandmother! Oh, oh, Mother of my blessed Mother!” she wailed, after several long and futile moments. “What am I going to do? Why did you abandon me here to wait for you? It’s that accursed Rohatat, isn’t it? Why doesn’t she herself show her sorry flea-infested –”

Never accursed, child. Only forgotten.

The words entered her mind, and Niola squinted, and there was another form, made of otherworldly luminosity, standing just before her.

The Goddess wore the shape of a stooped old woman, pale as vapor, and so very translucent that there was almost nothing material about her, only an exhalation. The stars poured themselves into tattered cobwebs to shape her. And the moon must have only cast a faint breath in her making.

“Rohatat!” Niola said in a peculiar instant of recognition. Then pretended to cough, in order to dissipate the unsavory tone of her earlier words. And despite herself, there was a stab of awe that entered her, unlike the mildly gassy sensation she felt from coming in contact with the other two deities that had come before.

It is I, child. You called me, and for that reason alone I could appear before you. So few are left that know of me, that I have no strength left to take on flesh. Your grandmother has singlehandedly kept me anchored in the mortal plane, and for that I am grateful, and I come now to you — not to bring anything, for I cannot — but to warn you. On her behalf I come, to tell you to forget all things told to you. Abandon these divine weapons, and run for your life! Run, child! For you will not survive this night!

“What are you saying?” whispered Niola. “Where is she, my senile grandmother? Why did she not come herself to tell me this? What is happening here?”

But the form of Rohatat wavered, and in moments wind blew to dissolve the decrepit goddess, until there was nothing but a flickering whiteness of mist that dissipated even as Niola watched it swirl.

“But –” Niola stared at the two objects in her hands. She was torn with sudden panic, an urge to run, indeed, to get as far away from this city, now…

But something kept her rooted to the spot. She just couldn’t leave Grandmother, not even when directed by a venerable deity to do so. Indeed, there was a sinking moment of suspicion that the old hag Rohatat was perversely goading her into something.

And as Niola mused, filled once again with uncertainty, anxiety, mortal weakness and self-doubt, there was another someone on the street before her.

“Oh, in all heaven’s name, now what?” Niola cried, staring at the man who was shimmering and near-solid, and who held a long object of metal.

“I bring you a spear.”

“Oh, is that so? Am I a monkey? How many arms do you think I have?” Niola brandished the sword and shield in his direction.

“Take the spear, for you will need it first. You will not draw the sword until the very end. Tie it at your waist.”

“Fine, you camel riddled with saddle-sores, I will do just as you say, but only this once… and not because you tell me to but because I deem it prudent by the will of heaven and the glory of mortal man’s impunity.” Niola was muttering mixed up phrases she’d heard spoken in the local temples as she removed her long shawl, exposing her kerchief-bound messy head to the chill, and feeling the wind immediately sweep down her neck. Drawing the shawl to her waist, she belted it, tying the fabric into a thick bulky knot. Then, grunting with effort of her skinny arms, she raised the long blade of lackluster metal, and slowly inched it, point down, between the shawl and her skirt, until it was stopped by the grip, resting firmly against her bony hip.

“Now, give me that thing,” she said, snatching the tall spear out of the god’s hand. Oof, but it was impossible to balance, as though she held a tree trunk that reached all the way up to the gates of heaven…

“Are you happy now, Fool of the Gods?” She glared at him, wobbling under the weight of the divine spear. “Say, do you happen to have any goat cheese on you, by any chance? And maybe a couple of chunks of bread? I haven’t had anything to eat for supper, nor, now that I think about it, for noon meal. And we only had a quick bite of oat and date porridge for breakfast, and just about three or four moldy figs, though there was some leftover fried yams and rice from the night before –”

But before she was done speaking, the god was gone.

“Hey! You of the Paradise-scented armpits! Aren’t you going to tell me ‘They are coming?'” she cried in his wake. “So, where are they? This has got to be the longest night of my sorry life! Why, oh why?”

The wind heard her. It picked up, angry gusts of cold, and the sound of an approaching army came closing in at last.

Niola could feel it…

The street, though still empty, was somehow filled with menace. Shadows seemed to move, and the moon’s glow did not serve to give them true definition.

Niola paced before her doorway, then ventured several steps into the middle of the street, to peer into the darkness. She dragged the bottom of the spear on the ground while the heavy shield clattered against the sword blade at her waist. The sacks now sat behind her, huge shapeless lumps — filled with their clothing and house wares, several coins sewn into discreet places, and that good ripe goat cheese, no doubt, but still, lumps —

And then, just as she took another deep cold wind-breath, she thought she heard them move.

Yes, the sacks.

The two forms shifted, and flowed before her eyes into two seated fat beasts, a boar and a lion. The boar moved slightly, bristling its massive hide, and the lion lay back on its belly, four paws against the road, tail twitching.

Niola screamed and jumped away in reflex, clanking together the weapons in her arms like so much kitchen cutlery. But the two former sacks seemed to regard her as master, and observed her with eyelids blinking in familiarity.

“Oh, not the goat cheese…” Niola whispered wistfully, staring at the huge boar.

She was so tired and hungry and disgusted with it all that there wasn’t the least bit of surprise left.

And then the world convulsed.

The street before her thundered, and a gale wind pounded her, while in its wake came a cavalry of pure darkness, man or demon-shapes mounted on great horses.

Niola swung around to look, as this army — this monster of many beings and limbs — came at her down the street. Behind her the two beasts that had been sacks suddenly roared to life. The boar scrambled to stand next to her on the right, baring terrifying tusks, and its cloven feet kicked the dust up into wind-funnels. The lion came from her left, pouncing, coiled and massive, its jaws unhinged, while from its maw issued a furnace-roar.

Niola took a solid grip on the spear, and pressed the width of the shield in front of her, and stood her ground in the middle of the road.

Underneath her threadbare skirt, her knees were shaking.

The riders were almost upon her, pounding the ground, when their leader, a shadowed outline of a man in a horned helmet, raised his great gauntlet to signal a stop, and then his voice blasted Niola like the great horn of kings.

“Who stands in the way of the gods of Varoh?”

“What’s that? What did you just say? You tell me!” Niola yelled, pitching her voice to sound louder than three men bidding for goats and more imposing — mimicking rather well that shameless trollop, that food-stall fury, Mariza who sold overpriced produce in the markets. “Who would you say it looks like? I am Niola, you mounted baboon! And this city, Menathis, is my home, the place of my birth!”

“Out of our way, mortal! Or this will be the place of your death!”

But Niola made a slurping sound with her nose, then angled the great spear in his direction, and threw it like a head of lettuce.

The spear clattered only a few steps past her, heavy and cumbersome, and it struck the road dust, sending up a great cloud. Niola exclaimed in frustration and stomped her foot, for where the spear lay, the earth appeared to sing, to roar with potential leashed power — yet it was all in futility. It was obvious the spear had been meant for a different champion, not her sorry weakling self.

In answer, the mounted horseman laughed, a dark deep rumbling thunder. His horse stepped forward, and he struck Niola from above with a cold long blade that cut into her right shoulder, then, dragging, scraped against her collar bone.

If she hadn’t somehow moved the shield to block the strike, balancing it as she would a water kettle, Niola would have been without an arm. But miraculously it held, and the blade only sliced shallow.

She could feel the warm welling of blood, and the razor-agony, echoing just below the collar bone. The wind beat at her, and her kerchief and dingy hair were a tangled mess in her face, while tears pooled in her eyes.

But in that moment her two huge allies, the beasts at her sides, attacked the enemy. The boar hurtled at the feet of the demonic horses, and the lion became quicksilver. Its fair massive form lunged upward, from the coiled-spring position, and it was atop the mounted being, roaring and tearing…

There was chaos.

Niola staggered forward, and somehow managed to dislodge the great dull sword from her waist, panting with effort. As demon-figures lunged at her from all sides and her two loyal beasts fought in divine fury, Niola swung the blade overhead and around as though it were that big grain-pounding stick from the kitchen of old Rouben the baker…

“You… are… not… getting through!” Niola screamed, waving the blade sometimes like a broom, at other times like a poker; clobbering someone, something with it regardless of aim, direction, blade’s edge, or flat side; feeling that something clash against it, the resistance, then the give of flesh… In those amazing several moments that seemed to last for eternities it was indeed true that not a single rider was able to breach the defenses put up by her and the lion and the boar, in order to continue along the street past her house.

“Stand back! Surrender, and live, mortal!” Voices of another darker realm filtered into this reality, and she could hear them, wailing, gnashing unseen teeth, a whirling maelstrom of eyes and claws and swords of hell…

“No!” she cried, covered with slashes and bleeding from all sides, panting between clumsy but relentless strikes, pounding the moving seething mass before her. She heard the agonized roar of the lion as he fell at last before the enemy, seeming to still into his former condition of a sack.

“For the second time, stand aside and live!”

There was a hot burst of agony in her shield hand, as she felt something latch onto her fingers, and she pulled away, freeing her hand — but no, one of the fingers came off, muscle and bone ripping, and then a hot fountain of blood…

It hurt, oh gods, it hurt!

“No, I will not, so you might as well stop your idiot jaws from flapping for nothing, you lousy, pus-dripping, addled excuses for demon spawn!”

Another insane moment, and the boar too was felled by one of the long spears of the supernatural enemy, and he grunted his last loyal breath at her feet, for a moment shuddering then going still. He too seemed to become a sack…

“For the third time, let us pass, mortal! This is your last chance! Surrender!”

And Niola, who felt the world recede as blood rushed in her temples in the greatest flood, cried, gasped through sobbing tears, “Never, you rotting maggots in camel dung! This… is… my city… I will not move… and you will not pass…”

The last thing she knew was the act of swinging the sword, for in that instant all hell screamed in defeated fury, and in parting she was pierced with many blades and many lance points from all directions until she bristled like a pin cushion. In the coming darkness, as all things became soft and remote — gentle as a dream — she felt herself lighter than an ostrich feather, the kind they sold in the merchant row, decorated with lapis and gold thread; she always wanted to have one of those. And as she sank, she never felt herself touch the ground…


“Niola! Wake up!”

With a shudder, Niola sucked in her breath, opened her eyes, and nearly fell off the sack of… dried walnuts and dates?

From all directions, noisy city clamor filled the air — not the world of the dead but the loud, ordinary din of humanity.

Overhead, the sky was mostly blue but rosy orange and bright angry white at the western horizon over the city rooftops, and it was near sunset. Her grandmother was leaning over her, shaking her by the shoulders while all around them people gathered, strangers and familiar faces alike, everyone shoving to get the best viewing spots along the route. The whole neighborhood had turned out to watch the parade, to wave and bless and salute the troops as they marched to the battlements to defend the city.

“Grandmother? Huh? What?”

There was her grandmother’s wrinkled face, floating over her.

“You fell asleep, girl — gods only know how, at such a time as this. Wake up, or you’ll miss the procession!” grandmother said, her eyes filled with amusement. “At least you saved me a spot to sit on that sack, good clever girl! I just came back from Rohatat’s immense temple, barely made my way through the crowds packed inside there, and may the great Goddess hear my feeble prayers among the chorus of many, for I also tried — yes, useless and used-up as I am — I tried to pray with all my heart on behalf of us all, of Menathis… It is now up to her, the ancient one, the Goddess of Standing Still, to save the city, to deliver us as always, oh, blessed Rohatat –”

“But –” Niola sat up, then rose from the sack, frowning, getting ready to argue. “What in the world has happened — to the world itself? I mean, the city was falling, you told me to wait but you were gone, I was fighting — demons, baboons, whatever I know not, they were all trying to make me go away and I wouldn’t, because I promised — and in the end I was slain, I think? And there were gods and goddesses with sword and spear and maybe goat cheese, and the sacks came alive and fought, and even Rohatat was there –”

“Pah! Silly dream nonsense! Menathis, falling? The city is triumphant! Never mind, child,” grandmother continued, her face composed in a remarkably placid — one might say, extremely deadpan expression. Grunting, she bent to sit down on the tall sack right next to her, then grimaced in pain from her old injured foot. “You just move over a bit, and we can watch together. Look, here they come! Our good brave soldiers go to make a fine stand, to defeat those cowards, the Varoh, and their impotent gods.”

And it seemed in that moment Grandmother winked. Or maybe she was just clearing a bit of road dust from her eyes — Niola couldn’t be sure.

Trumpets and drums resounded from up the street as the proud vanguard of the defending Menathis army came into view at last, and the crowd roared, sending up a great spirited cheer at the sight of the purple and gold banner of the Boar and the Lion.

Niola began to sputter some smart retort about not dreaming at all, really, as she moved to make room for Grandmother. But as she reached to pat down the sack, she felt a sharp peculiar twinge of pain in her left hand, the strange impossible pull of a phantom limb.

What?

In place of her third finger was a newly-healed stump.

Niola stared at her mutilated hand in shock.

In that same moment, without taking her gaze off the spectacle of the procession route, the old woman elbowed her granddaughter in the ribs.

Niola looked at her, then something made her gaze continue downward to the old one’s twisted lame foot.

“In the direst times,” Grandmother whispered close to her ear, “battles are fought first in the realm of the soul. And if the final reckoning requires a change in the fabric of the world, the gods demand both intangible and physical sustenance from us, child.

“Rohatat is merciful but no different, when hungry. She takes two keepsakes, one of each kind, spirit and corporeal, from those whom she chooses as her own — lives and limbs. What’s better to lose — a phantom life or a phantom limb? Truly, both of us have been lucky in what we paid for the privilege of great change that comes from standing still.”


Vera Nazarian

Vera Nazarian is a two-time Nebula Award® Finalist and a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She immigrated to the USA as a refugee from the former USSR by way of Lebanon, Greece, and Italy, as a kid, sold her first story at 17, and has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, honorably mentioned in Year’s Best volumes, and translated into eight languages.

Vera made her novelist debut with the critically acclaimed Dreams of the Compass Rose (set in the same ancient world universe as this story) in 2002, followed by epic fantasy Lords of Rainbow about a world without color, in 2003. Her novella The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass made the 2005 Locus Recommended Reading List. Her debut collection Salt of the Air contains the 2007 Nebula Award-nominated “The Story of Love.”

Recent work includes the 2008 Nebula Finalist novella The Duke in His Castle, science fiction collection After the Sundial (2010), The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration (2010), and three humorous fantasy Jane Austen parodies, Mansfield Park and Mummies (2009), Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons (2010), and Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret (2012), all part of her Supernatural Jane Austen Series.

After many years in Los Angeles, Vera now lives in a small town in Vermont. She uses her Armenian sense of humor and her Russian sense of suffering to bake conflicted pirozhki and make art. In addition to being a writer, philosopher, and award-winning artist, she is also the publisher of Norilana Books. Her official website is www.veranazarian.com

Author photo by John Lucas.

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