This is one section of a serialized novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It is offered at no cost and appears with the permission of Mark Rigney, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016 by Mark Rigney.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
This is Chapter Fourteen. To read Chapter Thirteen, click HERE.
It took the six of them all night, working in shifts, to load and prime the cannons and to drag them into position in the armory’s front chamber, some forty feet back from the doors. They also brought extra powder and shot, though none of them, after the laborious process of loading and prepping each cannon for its first firing, believed they’d have the time or the wherewithal, once in combat, to prepare a second round. They also brought up dozens of hand-held firearms, mostly long, heavy things, all dark polished wood and mother-of-pearl inlay, their barrels fluted and splayed, the small black pellets of ammunition looking, at least to Urnua, too tiny to be lethal. They had no names for much of what they carried: cannons were cannons, guns were guns. The specific variations, and there were many, required falling back on simpler descriptors like “the longer one there,” or “the heavy one.”
Heavy: everything they needed was heavy, even the black powder, stored in stubby wooden casks, like beer kegs in miniature. The work would have been arduous enough without the constant awareness that when they grew thirsty, they had nothing to drink. Nothing at all. Trudek had insisted that they share and down what supplies of drae they had before beginning their tasks. “Best to have it in you,” he’d said. “The body will keep what it can.”
It was galling, too, that while there were six of them, only four could really work. Mother Fog could lift little more than herself, and Mother Driftwood, though more fit, proved to be spectacularly inefficient, picking up objects at random and putting them down again in all the wrong places. Trudek, though he gave his best effort, suffered every step; he limped more, not less, with every passing hour. Ondehl took every opportunity to rub up against her or share a job that all but guaranteed their hands would brush together, and as for Dobler, he pinched Urnua’s bottom twice, and then, in a moment when they were out of sight of the rest, pinned her against a wall and ran a hand up between her legs. Urnua squirmed and struggled, but he held her fast, pressing his torso into hers. As he did so, he hissed at her, “When the job’s done and we open those doors, we’re all going to die. So let a man have his fun first, hmm? Let a man have his fun.”
She screamed for help, and Mother Driftwood appeared from around the corner as if she’d been stationed there, a fat fifteen-pound cannonball pressed to her belly with both hands. “Devoted,” she said, in a voice as domineering as Mother Coal at her best, “you will unhand my novitiate this instant.”
Dobler peeled himself off Urnua with dawdling, derelict speed. “As you wish,” he said, simpering. “Mother.”
Once he’d moved on, Mother Driftwood looked Urnua up and down, frowning. She said, “Try not to look so pretty,” then turned on her heel and stumped away, lugging her cannonball.
After that, Urnua stuck close to Trudek, and the aging, injured captain, to her relief, made no attempt to shoo her. Indeed, from the cool, contemptuous looks he gave his two subordinates, she began to think he might be the closest thing to a true ally she had. Mother Fog’s suspicions after hearing her pray in Sindarin had surely not been allayed, and there was every reason to think she would have confided her doubts to Mother Driftwood. Urnua thanked God and the salt-wave deep that at least there was work to be done, and plenty of it; she didn’t think she’d have been able to stand the stares, much less her own company, had she not had hard labor to throw herself into.
At last everything was arranged to Trudek’s satisfaction: six blood-red cannons sat in a squat line, their sightless muzzles facing the armory’s massive metal doors. Each had been tamped and loaded according to instructions located and translated by Mother Fog; their wheels were wedged in place with stout wooden shims. Extra balls had been piled next to each, along with pyramidal cones of gravel shot, all dug from barrels found in abundance next to the stored stacks of cannonballs. Shaggy heaps of wadding sat nearby; stubby torches, unlit as yet, waited in metal baskets. A confusion of sponge-poles, tampers, and ramrods lay to the left of each cannon, and these made everyone nervous, especially Trudek, not only because they were so unwieldy––who would trip over them first?––but because if his trusty “soldiers” did gain the opportunity to reload, the hidden armory’s instructions had been very clear: for safety, every fired cannon must be swabbed with a wet sponge prior to reloading, or the crew on hand risked firing early: embers and sparks still hot within the muzzle could ignite the next charge of powder, and blow a hole through the person in charge of loading. No one wanted to imagine that, but they couldn’t help it; it seemed the most likely possible outcome given that dry sponging would be the best method available.
“No wonder the damn things were banned,” Dobler grumbled, on hearing that a proper artillery team was comprised of six men or more. “Anything this complicated, Fengreth. Those Academy idiots couldn’t come up with something better?”
Out from underfoot but never far from hand, loose piles of guns lay in heaps, with each clattery mess apt to slide and rearrange itself like a child’s game of jack straws if any one gun were shifted. Powder horns and all the other required accouterments only added to the mess, and wherever there was room, other weapons had been stowed: daggers, swords, pikes, even a bow for Ondehl, who claimed to know how to shoot.
Everyone had gathered in the front chamber, and they looked expectantly toward Trudek, who licked his chapped lips, rubbed at one dry, irritated eye, and said, “I know you’re thirsty. I know you’re in a rush to get on with it, but we mustn’t rush, not with this. We need practice. Handguns first, and then we’ll try a cannon. No, hold on, I’m not done yet. We’ll try all this in a back gallery. Those doors there look soundproof, but in case they’re not, no sense in giving away what we’re up to any sooner than need be.”
There followed a period of organized confusion, the organization provided by Trudek and the confusion by the arcane nature of the weaponry they were attempting to tame. The noise was terrific, no less so when the guns misfired. Ondehl got a singed cheek, Dobler a burnt hand. Serves you both right, thought Urnua, then wondered if they harbored equally murderous thoughts about her. Desperate times, desperate men. Once the shooting started, there would be no stopping them if they turned their weapons on her.
Only Mother Fog refused a lesson. The rest, one halting step at a time, learned to prime and load, and to accept and absorb the guns’ fearsome recoil without completely spoiling their aim.
“The evidence suggests,” said Trudek, after calling a halt to the firing, “that when targeting anything beyond fifteen yards, we are erratic at best. So, if it comes to it, if we need these, confine yourselves to the shortest possible range. Let the enemy come to us, let them charge. When they’re good and close, well. It seems to me that one good shot should stop a man in his tracks.”
Urnua stared at the wall they’d been firing at, a wall lined with wooden racks from which they’d removed every last one of its fifty shining spears. The wood was now peppered with holes, splintered in more places than she could count. It looked wounded, maimed, as if it were flesh and not pulp. Each individual pebble of shot was tiny, true, but she could see now the damage a gun could deliver. She tried to imagine how it would feel to be fired on, to be hit, and didn’t like what she conjured. Discomfited and squeamish, she imagined instead what Dobler would feel if she, given the chance, shot him.
Next they tried a cannon, a model that matched those they’d dragged to the front room. They loaded it with a fifteen-pound ball fronted by two packets of gravel, each packet bound in a loose mesh of string. They set the cannon in a hallway and aimed it at a wall that stood some sixty yards distant. Using soft wax they’d found in the blackpowder armory (and at first had no idea what do with), they each plugged their ears, then wrapped their heads with torn strips of uniform cloth for a layer of added protection. As Trudek observed, cannons had not, to the best of his knowledge, been designed for indoor use. He expected the concussion to be thunderous.
It was. So were the results. As soon as the ignited fuse burned its way into the touch-hole, the cannon jumped backward as the cannonball roared from the muzzle and rose, careening into the ceiling, then ricocheting its way down the length of the hall, screaming as it spun and striking sparks off every surface it struck until at last it crashed to a halt in the opposite wall, landing with a thud so mighty that rock shards flew in all directions. What became of the muzzle-loaded gravel, they couldn’t tell, but the mere image of it careening through the air, and at such awful speeds, was more than sufficient.
Wax plugs and all, the echoing, muffled silence that filled Urnua’s head seemed limitless, a muted nothing that might never go away. But, slowly, it did, receding like floodwaters reluctant to give up swallowed, habitable land. The others evidently felt the same. Though there’d been jubilant cheering at the moment the cannon first fired, they were somber now, measured. They unwound their cloth wraps and removed their wax plugs, each one aware that the next steps were to seal the secret armory and open the main doors––that the endgame toward which they’d devoted so much energy was now at hand.
Outside, there was water.
“We’ll have to brace the cannons,” Trudek said, in a voice that sounded to Urnua as if he stood at the far end of a tunnel. “I believe I saw wooden blocks, braces, in the gunpowder armory?”
Ondehl and Dobler hurried off to collect these, and after they’d returned and installed the blocks (one behind each of the cannon’s wagon wheels), Trudek gave his marching orders in clear, direct terms. The doors were designed to be opened by a single man, in case his partner became sick while on duty, so only one of them would need to be spared for that task. Mother Fog lacked the strength, and possibly so did Mother Driftwood. The three Devoted would be needed on the front lines, and so the job fell to Urnua. She was not relieved, nor did Trudek allow her the luxury of thinking she should be. As faced from the inside, the cogs and wheels required to shift the doors were set to the right, leaving her isolated from her companions. Once the doors were partway open, should any of the enemy gain entry, Urnua would make an easy, undefended target.
It was Trudek’s opinion that the doors need not and in fact must not be swung wide. “So long as the gap is narrow,” he said, “we have the advantage. If it opens to its full width, we may not be able to control who gets in, or how many. We have the advantages of surprise, better positioning, and superior firepower. What we do not have are numbers, or time, so we must cast our nets in the right sequence. If they rush us at once, we fall back on cannon, but only if they come with force, in a bunch. In ones and twos, we must rely on smaller fare: our hand guns. Swords.”
He paused, looking each of his motley conscripts in the eye. “Our goal is to get out and get water, food, but that is not our duty. Our duty is to hold the armory. It may well be that our best option is to steal what supplies we can from those on watch duty, to steal them and scurry right back here. Close the doors. Seal ourselves in. Again.”
“Sir, that’s––.” Ondehl’s objections had been building for hours. “Pardon me saying so, but no one can hold out here indefinitely. Given time, they’ll go around the doors. Burrow right through the rock.”
Trudek held any emotion he felt tightly in check. “If it comes to that, and they break through, they’ll find a cannon pointed right at their heads.”
Disgusted, Ondehl swatted the empty air. “Sure,” he said, “we could hold ‘em off for a spell, if we get water. And if we’re fool enough to come back in here.”
Trudek, who’d been holding his head-wrap, reached out and used its dangling ends to strike Ondehl in the face. The younger man shied and cried out; one hand shot to his reddened cheek. Then he whipped his head back around, and one hand reached for his sword. “What’d you do that for?”
Trudek stood his ground. “You’re Devoted. Time to act like it.”
“Listen, I don’t care what rank you are, I don’t have to––”
“Devoted, shut up and attend. Escape is what you want. Water’s what you want. And what you want doesn’t matter. At all. In the least. Do I make myself abundantly clear?”
Chastened at last, Ondehl nodded, and Dobler, unbidden, rendered something approximating a sincere salute.
“All right, then,” said Trudek. “After the Mothers lead us in a prayer, we’ll get this over with.”
Mother Fog did the honors. Her entreaties revolved around the fifty-sixth prayer, but she began and ended on her own terms, and even threw in a single word of Sindarin, anashai, for (Urnua was sure) her particular benefit. The word meant “traitors.”
At long last, they ran out of excuses and delays. Urnua went to the door-wheels. The rest lit torches and extra lanterns, and took up places behind the row of cannons.
“Remember,” said Trudek, pulling at last on the curls of his mustache, “if you see archers, stay as low as you can. Use the cannons as shields.”
Nods, nervous, from all but Mother Driftwood. Eyes turned inward and elsewhere, she was humming to herself, a wandering tune that defied identification.
“Right,” said Trudek. “Wax in, please. Hand signals from here on. Urnua, once you’ve protected your ears, please begin.”
As the group of six struggled to pack the wax plugs back in their ears, Urnua thought ahead to when they were free, to when the Sindarin rebels were defeated and she was able to go where she wished. Where would that be? No one but the Sindarin themselves (that bastard Lelanarshik) knew enough of her perfidy to label her a traitor. Let the Mothers suspect all they wanted. She could stay right where she was, surely. Remain a novitiate, climb the ladder, ascend the ranks. Attach herself to Mother Fog instead of Mother Sand and become, in later years, Keeper of the Armory. Or (as a more rabbity line of thought kicked in) she could catch the next ferry to Lemphier or Sindar, and disappear forever from the life of the capital. She was disappointed, though unsurprised, to discover that this latter course, by far the most sensible, held no appeal whatsoever.
After she’d wrapped her head band in a double twist and made sure that it covered her ears, she looked to Trudek, who flicked a finger to signal it was time. She put all her weight into the extended spoke of the door’s enormous lateral wheel. Nothing. It didn’t so much as budge. Feeling very exposed, and aware that the rest were watching her––Ondehl and Dobler in particular would be critical––she braced her feet, leaned against the spoke with all her might, and pushed again.
This time the wheel gave, and her next step was easier. She pictured herself as a mule at a grinding wheel, though she knew the comparison to be inexact––the mule pulled, it didn’t shove––but she liked the image anyway, and around she went, giving the wheel her all. She didn’t take the time to check the results of her labors; she trusted that the doors would be opening. So long as she kept pushing, what choice did they have?
Having begun with her back to her compatriots, she faced them after half a rotation. Ondehl had explained it would take several turns to fully open the doors; she would have to check her progress, which meant checking with Trudek, so see if she should continue. So far, nothing much seemed to have happened. The three Devoted and the two Mothers hovered by their cannons, their eyes trained on the doors’s widening gap, a breach that she herself had no angle to see. Trudek glanced her way and gave an encouraging nod. She was grateful, and amazed that such a small movement could communicate so much: well done, keep going, we’re not there yet, give it your all, I’m cheering you on.
She bent again to her task, her mouth dry as sandpaper, and was gratified that the wheel, ever so grudgingly, continued to yield and spin. After a few more steps, she again had her back to the row of patient cannon, and the impossibility of seeing what was happening made it all the more imperative that she get a better view. This spurred her to her greatest efforts yet, and she was rewarded: as she came full circle once again, she glanced up in time to see Trudek’s raised arm fall. In response, Dobler touched his torch to his cannon’s fuse. It flared like an angry, sparking candle, and then the flame disappeared down the touch hole.
As the flame vanished, a flight of poorly aimed arrows swept in from the corridor, and Dobler ducked behind his cannon. Despite herself, Urnua cried out a warning, but too late: the cannon fired and rocketed backwards, bucking right over its wood blocks and crushing Dobler’s leg against the wall. He shrieked in pain––all but inaudible with the wax plugging her ears––and struggled to free himself, to no avail. The cannon remained where it was. Both Trudek and Ondehl made half-hearted moves to assist, but then Trudek’s hand was up again, and this time it was Ondehl’s turn to fire. Standing to the side of his weapon, he did so just as a host of Sindarin dashed through the door, their doros a swirl of bold color, their swords flashing silver in the dim, flickering light.
Then came the thunder of Ondehl’s cannon blast, and not one but all eight of their assailants dropped, peppered with gravel shot. One man was blown to pieces as the cannonball struck him in the chest. The ball sailed right through, leaving in its wake a rain of spattering blood, the droplets arcing out like a fan.
Under her hands, Urnua felt the wheel slow. Her concentration had wavered, and now it would require another huge effort to get up to speed again. It crossed her mind that perhaps the doors were open wide enough. If that many Sindarin had gotten through, more or less at once, was there any need to continue? She looked to Trudek for confirmation, even as the wheel, slowing but crawling along under its own inertia, forced her toward another lap.
The captain stood with both arms up and his hands raised, as if conducting a choir. The two Mothers held firm, watching him with expectant, ready faces, while Ondehl squirmed in place and stole glances at Dobler, who at that moment slumped over the back of his cannon, insensible. As his face pressed against the heated metal of the muzzle, he reared up, screaming all over again. Even from her position at the wheel, Urnua could see the angry red blotch of seared skin that had once been the right side of Dobler’s face.
This time, Ondehl moved to help his friend, and though Trudek made a grab for him––the captain was yelling something at his subordinate––Ondehl got away, put his shoulder to the back of Dobler’s cannon, and tried to heave it away from the wall. It wouldn’t budge.
In the confusion, Trudek still hadn’t looked Urnua’s way, and she had no idea what to do: put the brakes on, or keep the doors swinging wide? She had half a mind to run and help Ondehl, even though it was Dobler she’d be rescuing. Dobler who, only minutes before, she would have thought deserved any fate.
At last, Trudek remembered her. He waved in a frantic gesture that could only mean stop, and she spun around, seized the spoke behind her, and shoved in the other direction. The wheel fought back, as she’d known it would, but even so, she was astonished at how much force she’d set in motion, and how it was now arrayed against her. She was halfway around again before she managed to stop the wheel and lock it off with an anchor pin, and by then, a fresh set of Sindarin had charged in and another cannon had been fired (Mother Driftwood’s). This time, several made it past the initial blast, closing with lethal purpose at the line of defenders. One of them spotted Urnua, peeled off from the rest, and rushed her.
For her own defense, she’d been given two primed pistols, and these she’d placed on a ledge in easy reach––or what would have been easy reach, provided she was on the opposite side of the wheel from where she now was. Cursing herself for a fool—again!––she leaped atop the wheel, scrambled across it, and lunged for the nearer of the two guns. She got it up and aimed just as the Sindarin arrived, and she fired as his sword arm swung to deliver a downward, skull-splitting blow. She squeezed her eyes shut in the act of pulling the trigger, and the kick was terrific; she hadn’t gotten properly braced. As she fell back, the onrushing Sindarin crashed into her and toppled them both to the ground. Her head smacked off the flagstones, and for an instant, darkness crept into her vision from all sides, but then the tendrils of ink cleared, chased off by the awful, weighty sensation of her attacker now lying splayed across her, pressing her into the floor. For the second time in as many days, she felt warm blood seeping into her clothes.
Hollering in fright, she rolled clear, kicking and beating at the man who’d landed on her, but once she was out from under, he made no move to pursue. Face-down and twitching, he lay on the floor and made a half-hearted attempt to push himself onto hands and knees. Before he could manage this, Urnua swung the gun around, grasped it by its barrel, and clubbed the man once, twice, three times hard on the back of his head. With the third hit, bloody droplets flew, and the man collapsed, limbs splayed.
Another cannon boomed, much louder than before. Belatedly, Urnua realized her head-wrap had dropped away. Worse, somewhere during her struggle, her wax earplugs had fallen out. The noise now was indescribable; it filled her head and overwhelmed all her other senses. She covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut as another cannon shot roared, and the booming reverberated around her skull as if the fusillade had become ceaseless, a caroming cacophony that would never, could never, let up. At last, the crashing and crescendos flattened into one long tonal hum, a roomy undersea whisper not unlike what she’d heard as a child when she’d spent her days diving for pearls in the deep azure coves of Lemphier.
Sitting now, her back to the wall, she opened her eyes, half-expecting to see water, the ocean, reefs and fish and wavering beams of ocean-borne sunlight. Instead she saw chaos, and carnage.
Ondehl staggered, a gun in one hand and a spear through his chest. Dobler had slumped once more across his own cannon, and this time, he wasn’t moving. A skinny Sindarin had Mother Fog by the throat and was choking her, and while Mother Driftwood fired a gun at the man’s back, her efforts had no effect: the powder didn’t ignite. After tossing the useless weapon away, she dove for a replacement.
Trudek, sword out, was battling an older Sindarin, a distinguished, grim-faced man with a shaved head and a trim goatee: Lelanarshik. Even stunned and deafened, Urnua recognized him instantly. Was the armory really so important? The Mothers thought so; Trudek thought so; evidently so did Lelanarshik. Trudek had technique on his side, but his injuries from the day before hampered his every move, and Lelanarshik was on the offensive, driving the captain back. Trudek, aware that he had to give ground, wasn’t playing along; he kept himself going in a circle, refusing to be backed against the wall.
As if these sights weren’t bad enough––defeat imminent, the armory taken––a fresh wave of Sindarin was pouring through the doors, and Urnua gave up thinking about the battle, or the fates of those involved, and focused instead on the one sensation that even her ringing ears could no longer crowd out: her all-pervading, overriding thirst.
But something was not right about this latest crew of attackers. They weren’t dressed the same, not all, no copper-colored breastplates, no pot-top helmets––no uniformity at all, really––and they were led by a Sindarin so large that he was surely the biggest man she’d ever seen. And with him came a motley band of a dozen men who looked more like shepherds than soldiers, and not one of them was Sindarin––they looked, if anything, to be Aylis islanders––and these were led by a man with a church-issued sword who charged straight for the two embattled Mothers, decapitated Mother Fog’s attacker with a single swing, and brought Mother Driftwood around behind him just as another opponent tried to skewer her with a pole-arm.
Sindarin battling Sindarin. With shepherds to help. What in the name of bloody Fengreth?
Too much light, too much sensation. Urnua shut her eyes. Her ears had again gone from ringing to a deadening, ongoing boom, the reverberation of giants stomping through drifts of cavernous, underwater snow. She felt herself leaning toward, then tumbling headlong into this sea of mighty echoes, and she was sure that if she could stay there just a little while longer, that everything––everything in this life and then the world beyond––might at last take care of itself.
Then someone shook her by the shoulders. Startled, she blinked and raised her head. It was the man who’d run to save Mother Fog, and he was right there in front of her, talking. Yelling, perhaps. It didn’t seem to matter, either way. His lips were moving, but she couldn’t make out a single, peeping syllable.
Deaf, she thought. I’ve gone totally deaf.
As with Lelanarshik only moments before, she realized she recognized this man. He was Devoted, or had been––where in God’s name was his uniform?––and his name…curse it all, she couldn’t remember. And no wonder; he’d been gone for weeks. Mother Coal had ordered this man to sea with Karai, some sort of fact-finding expedition to Aylis, the Spur––ah, she had it. Selnin. The annoying man who insisted on continuing to shake her was Selnin.
“I’m sorry,” she responded, yelling to overcome the silence in her skull, “I can’t hear a word!” Even her own speech sounded strange. She could feel the resonance of her voice just as she always had, but its actual timbre was entirely absent. Absent, at least, for her.
Selnin looked at her with a quizzical, sidelong stare, then asked her a question. She gave him a shrug in response, and asked for water. “The more,” she said, “the better.” Mindful that this might show a lack of good form, a paucity of concern and empathy, she added, “Are the Mothers all right? And Trudek?”
Trudek was once again none the worse for wear. He sat astride the muzzle of the one unfired cannon, deep in conference with the enormous, bracelet-wearing Sindarin. Mother Driftwood was being led out of the armory by a motley assortment of Sindarin and others, and so was Lelanarshik, the latter defiant and yelling, with his hands bound by stiff leather straps. Of Mother Fog, she could see no sign. Ondehl lay where he’d fallen, the spear still through his chest. A trio of burly, sweating Sindarin were shifting the cannon off of Dobler, who woke long enough to scream once before surrendering again to unconsciousness. It was a scream inaudible to Urnua, who watched it happen in a state of withdrawn amazement. How could such a noise be made, and yet not reach her?
Water. Someone brought her water. Water in a dented tin cup, and she drank it with a greedy sucking sound that she supposed others could hear, and might think rude. She didn’t care. The first cup disappeared; a second took its place.
With a great deal of encouragement, a number of strangers convinced her to rise, and she did so, exiting the armory as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. Outside, the Church Complex was just as she’d remembered it, except for the area immediately beyond the armory doors, where stone had shattered and pillars had fallen, where bodies were being lugged by legs and armpits to places elsewhere and distant. A floor sticky with blood. A cannonball embedded high in a cracked, long-suffering wall and looking not unlike an egg, lumpy and black, arrested in the business of hatching.
Time became as imprecise and dreamlike as her sense of sound. Younger novitiates led her to her apartment, undressed her, bathed her, and decked her once more in white. She knew them, and they knew her, but cocooned in her deafness, they seemed like strangers. She submitted to their sponges and towels and struggled-on clothing as if they didn’t exist––as if nothing existed anywhere beyond the empty echoes (the giants, still softly stomping) in her head.
She was left alone. Food came. She ate with absent-minded inattention, forgot what she was doing, lay down, slept. When she awoke, it was still daylight, but she realized she had no idea what day it was. She felt rested and restless in equal measure, and she rose, ready to do––what? Did she have duties? If so, what were they?
Mother Sand. Where was Mother Sand?
At that, the miasma in her head cleared enough to allow for an alarming, cogent thought: the secret passage in Mother Sand’s apartments. Was it still open? Had it been discovered?
Spurred by this new urgency, she left her apartments and did her best to blend with the foot traffic of the Church Complex. The warren of halls, courtyards, and stairs seemed even busier than usual (more harried, too) and why in God’s name was everyone staring at her? She kept on, eyes down, eyes averted, until she reached Mother Sand’s apartments. Guards, two Devoted, stood by the open doors. One had his left arm in a make-shift sling; the other had a fresh scar, livid and moist, that paralleled his jawline and ran to his ear.
She kept walking, collecting her thoughts. The doors were open, the rooms were guarded. Clearly they knew something. They. The Mothers. What was left of them. But if they’d actually found the passage, and remembered how much time she’d spent of late in the absent Mother Sand’s apartments, then surely they would have arrested her, or at least detained her for questioning?
They didn’t know. They didn’t know about the passage. So far as she could discern, there was no other possible explanation.
She turned around and marched right up to the two stoic Devoted. She announced her intention to enter. The one with the broken arm gave her a withering look and asked some sort of question; to judge by his expression, it was rhetorical and cutting. When she didn’t respond, he drew a long-suffering sigh and went back to watching the hallways, the other passersby. Since neither he nor his companion made any move to block her way, Urnua went inside.
The apartments had been transformed, converted into a command post. Every available surface was strewn with maps, charts, loose sheets of notations and estimates. Expeditionary equipment littered the corners, and jackets and shirts had been left draped over chairs, cushions, and couches. Clearly, Lelanarshik and his followers had not expected to lose their grip on the Church Complex so soon, or at all.
Nor were the rooms deserted. Mothers Coral and Shade were supervising a harried team of junior novitiates, ordering them hither and yon, carry this, remove that, study those, and the farther from the main doors Urnua ventured, the greater the bedlam. A novitiate so new she didn’t even know the girl’s name waddled past, staggered by the weight of Durnian’s collected trial records, and it was all Urnua could do not to reach out and stop her.
The parlor. She had to see Mother Sand’s parlor.
She got there just as Mother Shade registered her presence, and though she couldn’t hear the old woman calling her, she felt her attention just the same. Even from across the room, it was as if Mother Shade had reached out, laid a hand on her shoulder, and demanded that she turn and face her. Urnua did the opposite. She took a fortifying breath, the kind that could ready even the worst of turncoats to accept their own execution, and turned to face the parlor.
The secret door was shut.
Urnua, who’d been expecting to find it gaping wide open––laughing at her, even, signaling her downfall and doom––burst into a relieved flood of noisy, inaudible tears.
Once, it was said, pirates had come to Vagen in the wake of a storm, all for the sake of plunder and hoard. Most Middle Islanders believed this without question. Pirates were ubiquitous on the Outer Shores; the State said so, and made it clear they could one day come again. The solution was not and had never been a standing army––no, those backward days were long over––but simple law and order. If every citizen would only do their part to uphold the values of hard work and duty, if everyone played their part in the day-to-day business of ordinary, civil society, peace would take care of itself. The pirates would forever be held at bay.
So said the Unified Church. So said the Senate. So said the Academy.
So said the new queen, at her coronation.
For the occasion, the Oratory Hall was packed. Functionaries of all stripes had been invited, and they brought their families, their children, their in-laws. For the first time in living memory and beyond, seating was open, with no thought given to rank or appointment. Mother Coal, resurrected from who knew where, led the opening prayer without once acknowledging or even making eye contact with Karai, and as the tap and squeak of her walker receded, Vashear the Prophet bounded on to the stage, joined shortly after by Lehnier, the Academy favorite, and together, hand in reluctant hand, they announced to the world what so many had already heard, or thought they’d heard––rumors on the wind––that Sister Blue was now a force to be reckoned with, an inhabited force, a sister more truly named than any had ever believed.
“The way forward,” cried the prophet, “lies in cooperation!”
“The road ahead,” echoed Lehnier, “will explore the boundary of truth.”
“For the sake of all,” proclaimed Queen Karai the First, “the monarchy is restored.”
Reasons were given, long cascades of arduous justification: the inability of the present government to work quickly under pressure; the need to be nimble; the specific nature of the times; the necessity of rooting out the Grandfather Mountain cultists; and, of course, the greater good.
The new monarch even noted, with all due humility, that she was not really a queen, that her title bore no historical scrutiny, that her lineage afforded no actual claim. “I don’t have a throne,” she said, “or even a crown. I have three things: prophecy, proximity to these already devastating events, and the backing of both Senate and Unified Church. I swear to you, I will not seek to dismantle either institution, or to curb their activities. And if you choose to call me despot or tyrant, so be it. To prove you wrong, I’ll make no examples of those who say so, and we won’t have corpses swinging from ropes in the name of treason. But think: names have power, and titles most of all. Wouldn’t you prefer, in these great days leading up to our communing with Sister Blue, to be led by the implied benevolence of a queen?”
The answer, to the shock of hoary Mothers and the dismay of venerable Senators, was a jubilant roar of approval.
Continuity, that would be the watchword of the new ruler and her many experienced advisors. Rebuilding, that would be her first priority, and the promise that the fires and those harmed by them would not soon be forgotten. Progress, that was the goal, to be achieved by a steady series of advancing steps, each leading toward a lasting connection with their cousins in the skies.
Appointments were made in conjunction with the crowning: a replacement for Davleen, for one. Absences were noted: the whereabouts and status of Mother Sand remained unknown. Memorial services were observed, including for Mother Fog (the Keeper of the Armory had died defending it). Promotions were in order: Mother Driftwood would be the newest Keeper of the Armory, and Trudek, though he tried to refuse the honor, was elevated to a newly created position, Chief Commander of the Devoted. It was a title bestowed by the new queen, and Trudek refused, even as she set a medal around his neck, to look her in the eye.
As to the term of rule and a set of conditions by which authority would be returned to the traditional powers of the State, not a word was mentioned. Pomp and ceremony dictated otherwise; end points were for another day.
In closing, Queen Karai said, “Friends––I will not say ‘subjects’––let us always remember the best of our inherited scripture, ‘The truth can never be heretical.’ Never.”
It was, said most who’d attended, a good ceremony. Successful in that it was encouraging. There was every hope, said most, for the future.
As for the past, it was said that once, pirates had come to Vagen, though from where, and how many, were matters of debate. Who led them? Why at that moment? And what, exactly, was a pirate? One who lives outside the law, said various wizened barristers and near-sighted scholars. One who steals money from others, said the bankers, with their chubby, grasping fingers. One who wields a tremendous sword, wears big black boots, and bestrides the wide deck of a great ship, said the children––the older children who, like Maer, had read a book or two in their time. Pirates, they said, didn’t give a silver fish for the State, and never would. They were unconquered, lived free, did as they wished.
When, precisely, had the pirates come to Vagen? About this, there was much debate. But come they had, no one doubted this. The pirates had come to Vagen.
The final installment, Chapter Fifteen, can be read HERE!
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.