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Fiction Excerpt: “Dark of the Year”

By Diana Sherman

Art by Mark Evans

From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.

 

dark_of_year-bigMatai looks at his infant granddaughter and knows that his life is about to change. He must find the child’s name. Before the dark of the year, when Shadows and burnt-mouthed darklings creep down from the mountains to steal the unnamed.

So he becomes a father again well past sixty, and feeds goatsmilk to his dark eyed granddaughter, who in her birth spelled her mother’s death. But he can’t be angry at her, just as he could not be angry at the dark-eyed boy who left his daughter behind to fight the war. There is very little anger left in him, and that he reserves for another day, when it will best serve.

For now he wonders at this child, who in his callused hands seems a creature of infinite delicacy, butterfly wings and farewells. He tells her stories about pixies and widdens, and trades his grapes for a woman to come from the village and tend the child while he works among the vines and hopes that her name will come to him.

The vineyard does not belong to Matai, but to a man who never sees it and lives among white paved roads and buildings of government. This man knows only that his wines are among the finest, that his grapes are among the best in the world, and that pleasing old Matai is a wise business. His family is known for wise business, that’s how they came to own the vineyard, while Matai’s family is known for the pursuit of beauty. Nothing in Matai’s life has prepared him for journeys or the pursuit of names.

When two weeks passed and still no name for the child came to him, the village woman came and pressed, “You need to name that girl, or else she’ll be lost when you need her. What will you call out when you can’t find her among the vines?” Unspoken, what will you do if she has no name when moondark comes?

He admits, now, that waiting will not bring his granddaughter’s name closer. He does not know how to summon her name up. That is a mystery left to women. So he brings her to the village, slung in rough cotton against his chest. He shields her soft cheek from the dust of the road with wine-stained fingers. At the old herbalist’s door, he stops and bows his head.

“Matai,” the old woman’s voice crackles like low fire. He enters her door, still shielding his granddaughter with his hand. By now he does not notice that he does it, but the herbalist does. She breaths in deeply through her nose, then snorts the air out again. She claps her hand down on a dark wooden counter. “Here,” she says. “Put the child here.”

Matai hesitates a moment. To lay her down upon the wooden counter, open to stranger eyes, seems wrong. But if she doesn’t have a name, and soon, she will be susceptible to the Shadows when moondark comes. Less than a fortnight distant, when the year turns on the longest night. The Shadows and their darklings will come creeping through towns and cities, calling for children to come. Most will be safe, their ears cottoned against those whispers by the knowledge of their own true names. But the orphans with no womb names, they’ll be gone of a morning. No sight nor sound of their passing. But someday, some other dark night, you might spy a lost child creeping through the village, a darkling servant now, whispering and beckoning. You know them by their black lips, burnt by the Shadow that stole the souls out of their mouths. That, and their angry eyes.

Matai shudders. His granddaughter will not become one of those black-lipped, soulless things. So he sets her down gently as the herbalist requests, and the chill absence of his arms sets her to murmuring distress.

The herbalist twitches aside the white cotton, which is dusty with the red dirt of the roads now. Liquid dark eyes gaze up at her, and the child stops murmuring. She’s still, no sign of breath or movement, as if she knows in this moment she is hunted. As the herbalist knows in this moment, when she traces, gently now, a sign above the girl’s brow.

“I do not know her name,” she says, and her voice is soft. The fire is merely a hint.

“But—”

“I’m sorry,” she says, then traces the child’s face with the tip of her crooked finger. The girl smiles and giggles, an infant again. “I cannot read her name.”

“What will I do? If she has no name.” Despair rides Matai now. What was only a confusion, an uncertain duty, takes on the urgency of rising dark. He pulls at the skin over his cheeks.

“She has a name.” The herbalist looks at him, away from the child. She keeps her gaze steady, her voice level. “I cannot read it, and if I could, I certainly couldn’t speak it. But she has a name.”

“Then…? She’ll be safe during moondark?” He can give his granddaughter a use name, Matai knows, so long as she has a true name. It does not matter to him that he not know it. He never knew his daughter’s true name, nor his son’s, born and buried within a week in the long afternoon that was youth.

The herbalist shakes her head, brief, sudden. No. “They will come for her in moondark. If not this year, then next. So long as she has no spoken true name, she won’t be safe. And they will come for her.” She floats her fingers above the girl’s brow again, tracing some dark pattern. “It’s here, her name. A strong one. It will call them to her. And the darklings will see it and know it, and if it is still unspoken, if it is still hollow, they’ll take her.”

His hands rest, open, useless against his thighs. The deftness of fingers plucking grapes is gone, the sensitivity of skin to loam means nothing. “My granddaughter,” he says, “my granddaughter.”

The herbalist is motion again, crackling, sharp. She wraps the child tight in the cotton, then wraps dark wool around that. “Take her, and follow the war.” She thrusts the girl into Matai’s arms.

“Take the child, and a skin of goats milk, and whatever you need, and find the war. Find a dying man, or a blood crusted warrior, or a war-mage who can speak the word upon her brow. Find someone who has no fear of blood and pain, and have them name her.” As she speaks she gathers a jar of leaves, paper wrapped packages, a pot of ink, leather laces, and places them in a satchel.

“But—“

“We are too gentle, we know nothing of the sharpness of death out of time. Some words can only be spoken by those who have seen more darkness than we. Some words do not exist for us, but they do for others. Her name is one of those words.” She pushes Matai out the door, hooks the satchel round his neck to dangle at his side. “Go.”

Matai stands in the suddenness of sunlight, his granddaughter warm against his chest. He looks to the mountains, to the slashes of green that are his vineyards, to the cottage that holds his rocking chair, his wife’s hope chest, and his daughter’s last breath. Fourteen days, he thinks, to find the war and name the child. To walk farther than he has ever walked.

He stops for only a moment, to gather milk and food at the market square, and then he’s gone, following the road out of the village. Following his son-in-law’s footsteps to war.

· · ·

In his granddaughter, Matai knows himself to be lucky. She does not cry as he walks, she does not fuss overmuch at the jostling unevenness of his pace. Cursed, she may be, orphan, as well, but a child that does not fuss is a wonder of nature. It does not occur to him at first that this silence of hers is part and parcel of her hidden name. He cradles her face against him, shielding her always from the dust of the road, and sings small pieces of melody he remembers from his daughter’s infancy. The stream of sound seems to please the child, and she dozes with her pink lips curved in pleasure.

For the first four days, the way is simple enough. He knows the recruiters’ path to battle, and he knows the towns along the way. Perhaps more importantly, they know him. The vintner is given a place to sleep each night, food each morning before he leaves, and the request, only, that the kindness be remembered when the next season’s harvest ships out. It is easy enough to promise, and easy enough for him to remember. He writes their names into the white cotton swaddling cloth that he wraps around his granddaughter, and so she comes to carry the names with her along their journey.

He imagines finding her name from a war-mage. A man wise and powerful, who will read her secret name at once, and who will appreciate the fine vintage Matai sends as thanks. Then he will find his son-in-law, weary of war and willing to come home. They all three will return to the grapes hanging purple on the vines and filling the air with sweetness. He dreams of plucking those grapes, his granddaughter against his heart as she is now. He will sing to her, he thinks, and give her the first bright taste of the season’s harvest as he squeezes drops from a ripe grape into her mouth.

Six days out he no longer knows the roads. He remembers maps, knows the routes the wine goes to city, but he has not walked or ridden these roads since his childhood. The people he passes no longer know him. The first time he walks into a market square and asks after a place to stay, the merchants there close round him and ask what he has to pay.

He caresses his granddaughter’s head, and answers, “Very little.”

Three men snort and walk away, leaving the fourth and fifth weighing him.

“How much?” the fifth asks, pressing his slender hands together.

“Four penny.”

The two merchants shake their heads. “It costs five to pass through the village,” they tell him. “But we will take four, since it’s all you have. And you may drink from the well, since we are generous men.”

Matai almost speaks out. Almost tells them that this is a free road, kept so by the King’s grace. There is no cost to pass through the villages. That’s why his master ships along these roads. But the fourth merchant, thick of build, squares his shoulders, leans in closer. Matai can tell, looking in his eyes, that this is a man who would enjoy breaking the bones of birds. And old men, too. He hands them the coins and does not drink from the well.

He leaves the town walking slowly. Once past sight he speeds his pace, apologizing silently to his granddaughter, who gasps at his jarring pace. Old men do not move fast enough, he thinks, and I am such an old man. He hears them following close. The grass about the town is man-tall and sharp, dry with the turning of the season so the blades cut him as he burrows into it. He shields the child with his body, with the thick wool blanket, then breathes a quiet warning to hold still.

“Here,” cries one of the merchants, nearing. “The grass is broken. He’s hiding here!”

Not fast enough, not fast enough, Matai mourns. He unslings the child, sets her upon the ground, pulling the brown wool to hide her pale face. They may not see her among the grass and dirt.

He drops the herbalists pack beside her. Then he runs.

He breaks the blades of grass so there is no doubt of his path. Sure enough, the two merchants follow him. They curse as the blades cut their faces and hands.

“Stop running, you Shadow-taken bastard!”

But he continues to run. The farther the better. His hands are slick with blood from pushing his way through the grass blades. His chest feels hollow and rough. Each breath rattles sandpaper against his ribs. It does not surprise him when he stumbles and falls. It’s a relief, almost.

It does not surprise him, either, when the two merchants take hold of him and pull him to his knees.

“That was very foolish,” the slender one tells him.

He nods.

The slender one’s eyes narrow. “Then why did you run, old man?”

He says nothing. Again, he is not surprised when the thick one’s fist takes him in the mouth. More pain, more blood. But at least he’s not running.

They drop him to the ground when they grow tired of his silence. The slender one rifles through his pockets.

“Nothing.”

Silence.

“There’s nothing on him.”

It takes a long time for him to realize they’re gone. The sky is dark when he opens his eyes and pushes himself up. How long?

He finds his balance and goes back to where he left her. She has to be there. They can’t have found her.

He finds her by the sound of her whimpering. Quiet, lost. He sits on the ground, cradles her in his lap. She quiets in his arms, reaches a hand to touch his chin. He winces at the touch, discovering yet another cut – be it from blade of grass or merchant fist, he doesn’t know. The child stares at her hand, stares at the deep red blood on her fingers, and Matai begins to laugh weakly as he rocks her back and forth.

When the night is almost day bright to his eyes, he rises and carries her onward. His steps lag, his body aches, and his blood crusts upon his skin, but he will not stop. The image of her, mouth burnt black and eyes filled with anger, haunts the edges of his mind.


The complete version of “Dark of the Moon” appears in Black Gate 14.

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