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Fiction Excerpt: “Holy Places”

By Martha Wells

Illustrated by Storn Cook
from Black Gate 11, copyright © 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.

Ilias didn’t wake early enough and got trapped into being forced to wash and having his hair combed out and rebraided by Amari and other assorted sisters and cousins. That was the problem with having older girls in the house; either they were hostile like Niale or they wanted to treat him like a practice baby. The benefit was that he got to share their breakfast of pomegranates and bread with honey. It was so good he even let Igenia braid in some red clay beads and a feather. Niale looked in once, her face turning stony when she saw him. She twitched the door curtain closed again and they heard her sandals stamp on the portico, causing Amari to mutter, “Bitch.” Igenia and the others giggled in appreciation.

He escaped finally and walked out onto the portico to find his mother, his father, and Niale standing in the atrium and staring at him. He froze, startled, and his mother motioned for him to come to her.

Ilias went reluctantly, dragging his bare feet in the grass. He had obviously done something. He saw Castor, watching from the other side of the portico, and pointed at him, hoping to deflect attention. “He pushed me out of bed.”

Castor just looked away.

His mother lifted one of his braids, looking at the beads and feather. He looked up at her, proud of the fact that she was far more beautiful than the Chosen Vessel’s mother. She wore a light lavender gown, sleeveless to reveal the olive leaf designs on her copper and silver armbands. Her hair was a rich dark brown, caught up with clasps set with polished purple stones. He knew she liked the girls better and that was the way of the world, but he sensed a chance to ingratiate himself and leaned against her skirts. He knew he was too big to be picked up but he was hoping for something. Instead she stepped away, asking him, “Did you eat this morning?”

“No,” Ilias said earnestly. The only good thing about having so many siblings and cousins was that in the general confusion it was sometimes possible to get fed two or three times for a single meal.

But his mother and father only exchanged an opaque look. His father said quietly, “You’re certain? You won’t change your mind?”

His mother’s expression turned cold. “I’ve told you what I want. If you can’t do it, I’ll send you back to your family and find a man who can.”

His father didn’t reply, and his mother drew her skirts up and walked away. Then his father put a hand on Ilias’ shoulder. “Come on, you can come into town with me.”

Ilias threw an arch look at Castor, but his brother was staring at the paving stones between his feet.

He followed his father down the portico and out through the back entrance of the house. Ilias was surprised to see the gelding already saddled and waiting, its reins looped over the gate that kept the goats out of the other cistern. He ran to pet its nose and it dropped its head to investigate his hands for treats. It had a light brown coat, with a dark pattern of spots speckling its back and rear haunches. It was the horse he had had his first riding lessons on, and he dearly wanted it to be his someday, though realistically he knew it would be Castor’s first.

He waited until his father settled into the light saddle, then reached up to be hauled on behind him. They rode out of the yard, past the herd pens and onto the track through the forest.

The sun broke through the scattered beeches and as the trail curved up the hill, Ilias craned his neck for his first view of the sea.

His father, who seldom said anything to him beyond “go here” and “do this,” said suddenly, “You know you’re not my son.”

Ilias nodded, still trying to get a glimpse of blue water and breakers past the trees. “Yes. Castor and I are Timeron’s sons, mother’s second husband that died.” It was why they looked different from all the others, but Ilias had only the vaguest memory of his birth father. Prominent women might have two or even three husbands. Though she wasn’t particularly prominent, Delniea, Amari’s mother, had two, Vendiead and Safronias. Niale has said it was why Delniea had lost her land, but the two men had been a great help in getting the hay in this season. “But there’s always just been you,” he added with a shrug.

His father made a noise as if he was about to speak, but said nothing.

They didn’t take the quick way into town, but a smaller road that went up into the deep forest over the hills. Without a chance of glimpsing a galley on the open sea heading toward Cineth’s harbor, Ilias drifted off, leaning against his father’s back. He woke up when his father reined in.

They were in a clearing near the rocky top of a hill, surrounded by pine on all sides. His father reached back for his arm, sliding him off the horse and depositing him on the gravelly dirt. “I need to do some business with the hunters. You wait for me here.”

“All right.” Ilias looked up at him, shaking the hair out of his eyes. He wanted to see the hunters too, but he knew appeals like that wouldn’t be welcome. He glanced around at the rocky hilltop, at the pines clinging to the slopes above it. “Where are they?”

“Just past that hill there.” His father pointed, but didn’t look down at him, just turning the gelding and walking it away.

Ilias hopped a few steps, brushing the gravel off his feet, realizing that nobody had bothered to make him fetch his sandals. He wandered around a little, but the rock-studded outcrop didn’t have much entertainment value about it. The wind pulled at his hair and blew dust, and it would probably be more comfortable down under the trees, but his father had said to stay here. And he didn’t want to miss a chance to go to the market without Castor. He threw pebbles for a while, bored, then became intrigued by some oddly shaped stones and began to build a fort.

Engrossed in it, he constructed the palisade, the boatsheds and the causeway. Then his stomach grumbled and he noticed the sun had moved to directly overhead. He frowned up at it, squinting, thinking, There’s not going to be much of the day left for the market. And it was time for the noon meal, though he couldn’t smell anything cooking from the direction of the hunters’ camp. His father had probably changed his mind about the market, but Ilias could always lie and tell Castor they went anyway.

Ilias looked around, finding he had run out of stones and pebbles in his immediate area. He dusted his hands off on his equally dusty pants and went to look for sticks to make the war galleys.

He scuffed his feet in the dirt, wandering around the craggy outcrop. Following it around the top of the little hill, he realized he had been in the lee; this side was much windier and seemed to be drawing cold right off the snow-capped tops of the distant mountains. He shivered but the ground here was covered with bleached twigs and sticks, just what he needed.

He stared down for a moment, frowning. No, it’s bones. He sat on his heels, poking at them thoughtfully, picking up one with a delicate curve, like the fastener of a hair clasp. They were animal bones or fish bones, like those the little water lizards left beside streams. He investigated further, poking into nooks and crannies, searching for some evidence of the small predator that lived here. Then he picked up a smooth round rock.

Looking at it, seeing and not seeing the holes for eyes and nose, it seemed a long time before he admitted to himself that what he was holding was a small human skull.

Ilias set it down with care, not wanting to make anything angry. Unburied or unburned bodies meant no rites had been done, and the dead person’s shade must still wander this area. But how could bodies go unburied when the hunters’ camp was so close? He stood up, moving carefully over the gravel and rocks. But he hadn’t heard anyone, couldn’t smell any woodsmoke, and no one had passed by.

He counted six more skulls, none quite as large as his.

He stood still for a long time, biting his lip, then started toward the hill his father had pointed out, where the camp should be. I just want to look at it. I won’t go down and bother him.

It wasn’t a long walk, but the rocks were beginning to hurt his feet, and he should have been wearing boots for it. He had a hand-me-down pair from Castor at home, as useful there as his forgotten sandals. As the hill steepened up into a cliff face the walk became a scramble, and he dug his fingers into the dirt and dried grass. He reached the top, relieved, and looked out over the little valley.

The empty little valley. There was a meadow with high grass, undisturbed by horses or people, and a stream near the far end, spilling over rocks to disappear into the trees down the slope. There hadn’t been a camp here for days, from the look of the undisturbed grass. Ilias shifted uneasily, unwilling to admit that there was a cold chill creeping up his back.

He climbed down and went around the rocks, back to the fort. He sat in the dirt next to it, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. His eyes stung from unshed tears though he wouldn’t tell himself why he wanted to cry. It’s a mistake, he repeated, over and over again. Or you didn’t understand. Adults said things all the time that didn’t mean what you thought they meant. He’ll be back. After a time, when the sun had moved further into afternoon, he wiped his nose on his sleeve and went back to work on the fort.

But the afternoon lengthened into twilight and his father didn’t return.

The light was starting to fail, and Ilias’ stomach was cramping with hunger and his throat was dry. He was still pretending to play with the fort when the breeze turned unexpectedly chill, lifting his hair and cutting right through his lightly woven shirt. He looked up, shivering, and saw another boy crouched in the dirt, not ten paces away.

Something told Ilias immediately that he was looking at a shade. The boy was crouched in the lee of a rock, as if trying to find protection from the wind. He was much younger than Ilias, maybe Taelis’ age, if that. His skin was a pearly pale, like the inside of a seashell, but tinged with blue, his hair dark and matted. He wore only a light tunic, grubby and torn. Ilias met his eyes, and they were old and knowing. Those eyes said, You’re big enough to walk down off this hill. I wasn’t.

Ilias jerked his head away, taking a sharp breath. Numb, he pushed to his feet. He tried not to look at the growing pools of shadow under the rocky crags, not wanting to see more small shades looking back at him.

He stood for a long moment, shivering. The forest was dark, the sharp contrast between the sunlight still lingering on the top of the hill and the shadows under the heavy green branches making it look like another world. Then he started to walk.

The ground was softer, but in the deep green twilight he couldn’t see more than a few paces ahead or behind. Ilias had been out in the meadows near home in the dark, and on the beach and in the orchards, but never in the forest, not alone. He hesitated, but the path his father had used was impossible to see. He started downhill, knowing the road had to be down there somewhere.

Nobody talked about it, but everybody knew people took unwanted babies to a place out in the hills to die. Ilias knew this had to be the place. He paused, one hand on the rough bark of a tree, his bare feet balanced on its thick roots. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he muttered, the unwanted tears stinging his eyes again. His family wasn’t that poor, that they couldn’t afford to feed him. And he wasn’t a baby. He helped with the herding and the feeding and watering. He helped take care of Taelis. When he was older, somebody like Amari would want to buy him for a marriage. And his father had taught him to shear sheep yesterday.

I forgot to sweep out the shed. But he had done it before he went to bed, surely they would have seen it this morning. He gritted his teeth, remembering Castor kicking him out of bed last night, saying he didn’t sleep there anymore. He knew. Amari and the other girls hadn’t known, except for Niale, but Castor had. He knew now that Castor hadn’t been lying when he had said Niale had taken Ilias’ blanket. It was part of making it look like he had never existed.

Maybe Ilias hadn’t done as well at the sheep-shearing as he had thought. Maybe it had been some kind of test that he had failed without knowing it. But he didn’t see how that was possible. He had done well for his size, as good as Castor who was bigger and older. It must have been something else. He pushed off from the tree, wincing as he stepped on a splintered branch.

He walked a long time, long after the night deepened and he could only glimpse patches of moonlight through the branches, until the whole world was darkness and rustling leaves and there had never been anything else. His legs ached and his feet hurt from stumbling on pine cones and hidden rocks. Everything he had ever been punished for as far back as he could remember came back to him in painful detail, but none of it seemed bad enough for this. Maybe they just wanted to scare him.

He barely recognized the stream when he heard it, didn’t realize it was there until he tripped on a root and fell on the muddy bank. He crawled down to it, put both hands in the icy cold water and drank.

The water set heavily in his stomach when he pushed himself up and wiped his mouth. He was shaking with weariness but he didn’t want to sleep here. If I die here no one will find my body and do the rites. He didn’t want to be a shade and he didn’t know how long it would take him to die. He struggled to his feet, waded across the cold stream, and kept walking.


The complete version of “Holy Places” appears in Black Gate 11.
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