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 Thirteen. To read Chapter Twelve, click HERE.
Real thirst, the thirst of privation, hadn’t yet set in, but Urnua knew it was coming, and she could not stop thinking about water, and drae, and melon juices, and pretty much any other liquid that she might guide down her parched, ravenous throat. She was hungry, too, and her stomach was knotted; she felt weak and impatient, and it was all she could do not to snap at anyone who spoke, whether they addressed her or not.
Most galling of all, she was dressed––if dressed it could be called––in a man’s garb, the shirts and trousers of a Devoted. Her robes had been beyond blood-soaked, and the only options available in the armory were uniforms and protective gear for men. Since the ranks of the Devoted were chosen partly for their size, and because Urnua was slight, the clothes she wore swallowed her, with sleeves and trouser legs flowing in rumpled fabric waterfalls over her feet and hands.
“Makes you look all of three years old,” said one of the on-duty Devoted, Ondehl, at which his partner, Dobler, snickered and slapped his knee.
After making sure that Trudek and the Mothers were out of earshot, Dobler said, “You’d look better with ‘em off, if you want my opinion. Just shuck it all off.”
“That’s a point,” said Ondehl. “If we’re going to die in here anyway, might as well enjoy ourselves.”
Unamused, Urnua removed herself to a different wing of the armory, and sat down in a doorway––there were no chairs or benches anywhere beyond the guard post by the exit––and did her best to take stock. No food, no water. That was the worst of it. Trudek turned out to be more bruised than cut; when he walked, he limped, and he listed to one side, one arm held with the other, but he’d slept through the night, and was now conferring with Mothers Fog and Driftwood. She could well imagine the circular futility of their summit, how they would revisit every hopeless point one after another and then come round again to the beginning, with variations. No food, no water, no way out. Enemies at the gates.
Against her will, Urnua began to weep, and once started, she gave herself over to tears for long, body-shaking minutes. Every sobbing thought she managed only galled her further, leading on to the one that bit the deepest and contained the greatest truth: everything that had happened was her own fault.
At length, once the worst of the tears had ended and she could manage steady breaths, she picked herself up and did her best to wipe her river of a nose. She stood surrounded by rack upon rack of swords and spears, crossbows and halberds, along with dozens of other sharp or heavy looking weaponry for which she had no names, but on the far wall, recessed in an alcove, someone had placed a carving of the Twins. The whole affair was too small to be a chapel––it was hardly more than a shelf––but she went to it anyway and knelt before it, her forehead more or less level with the Twins’ feet.
Offering up a prayer reignited her many hypocrisies (each one bleeding like an open wound), but she went through the motions anyway, murmuring, “I thank you, Lord, I who am made in your image, as one among the people who are your only children, as one among those who are your gift to all creation…”
She stopped, thinking of the Aylis prophet and his claims about Sister Blue. She wondered if the prophet was connected to the mysterious Maer, whoever Maer was. A name on so many lips, at least outside, out in the world beyond the armory.
She began again with her prayer, but again was distracted, this time by the saturnine conviction that none of her entreaties would matter. The Twins and the Unified Church had always been clear about the nature of divinity, and its responsiveness. “The one miracle is creation itself,” that was the watchword of the Mothers, and had been since time immemorial. Prayers asking for intervention were doomed to fall on deaf ears, for the God of the church, the God of the grandmother, almost by decree, was not the sort to intercede. Praying to the Twins would not solve the problem of the armory, or the Sindarin occupation outside. It was, at best, a way to calm and order the mind. A private means by which she might come to terms with her own impending death.
How was it her gran had put it, back on Lemphier, just before she died? “A church that denies the miraculous is a fraud.” Yes, that was it, or close enough. Her gran, even on her last day, had kept right on insisting that the Unified Church was a sham. Between that and her clear Sindarin bloodlines, it had been no surprise to Urnua that her gran’s deathbed ceremonies were not well attended, and afterward, when it was time to cremate her gran’s body, she had been forced to perform that task alone.
She’s never forgiven the other villagers for these snubs, or for continuing, especially in the absence of her parents (drowned in a storm not a hundred yards from shore), to slight and ridicule her for her Sindarin heritage. She was only one-eighth Sindarin, as she’d tried to point out, not then comprehending that reasonable assertions cannot make headway with unreasonable people. All the rest of her was Lemphieri to the core––and why was it her fault that her grandfather had fallen in love with a Sindarin?
She’d learned over long years that the only one of the Sindarin Heresies that could never be forgiven was their unshakable faith that God was always imminent, that miracles were ongoing, part of everyday existence. One might live a long life and witness not a single one, true, but the next miracle was never more than a heartbeat away. So said the Sindarin. So claimed her gran.
Looking again at the Twins, this time with a more critical eye, she resolved to pray again, and to do so this time not as a novitiate of the Unified Church, but as a returning child of Sindar, one who believed, or hoped she believed, in the miraculous.
For a long time she knelt by the Twins, eyes closed more often than not, her hands pressed together in supplication, her voluminous sleeves drooping almost to the floor. Her lips moved in half-whispered, half-silent cadences that matched her thoughts, until at last she could think of nothing more to say, no more sins from which to seek repentance. “God of our grandmother and Lord of the stars,” she finished, mumbling, “hear my prayer.”
A slight noise to her right brought her head around, and she opened her eyes to find Mother Fog leaning on the wall, arms crossed and her aged, puffy face poised somewhere between anger and forbearance.
“That,” said Mother Fog, “was a hash of a prayer if ever I heard one.”
“You abandoned nearly all the forms.”
The old woman clucked with her tongue and stepped away from the wall. “When I was your age, we had to learn each prayer, and each phrase of each prayer, by heart. Including the long ones. Your generation, I just don’t know. When we’re out of here, I’ll speak to the instructors. They’re getting too soft.”
“Yes, Mother.” Then she caught herself, replaying Mother Fog’s words. “Wait, did you just say ‘when we get out’?”
“I did, yes. So perhaps your prayers have been answered.”
The priest turned away, and Urnua scrambled to her feet, eager to catch up. She said, “But Mother, we can’t just open the doors. We’ll be killed.”
“And we can’t let a bunch of Sindarin hooligans have the armory, I know. But. I happen to be the Keeper of the Armory, a title I’ve held now for, oh, let’s see. Thirty-one years. So make no mistake, I know a thing or two about this place that no one else living has knowledge of. So come along now. Don’t dawdle. Now that Captain Trudek isn’t quite so woozy, you’ll find we have a great deal to do.”
Not long after, Mother Fog had rounded up the entire group and brought them to a low-ceilinged gallery displaying nothing but stout, iron-headed maces, their heads dusted with orange-brown clouds of rust. Once the two Devoted had lit what few lamps there were, Mother Fog gestured to the rows of heavy-looking, unadorned weapons and said, “I’m pleased to say that a few minutes back, I caught young Urnua praying for deliverance. If I’d been her, I’d have prayed first for water, but I suppose we must all have our differences. Myself, I would also have avoided speaking in Sindarin.”
Urnua froze. She hadn’t fallen back on Sindarin––had she?
Before the others could round on Urnua, Mother Fog quashed their questions with a raised hand and a steely eye. “Now, now. Don’t be so quick to judge. Urnua, here, is Mother Sand’s particular favorite, and if my colleague saw fit to tutor this girl in Sindarin, then I’m sure she had good reasons for it.”
Mother Fog swung around to face Urnua with a look so loveless, so laden with contempt, that Urnua shrank away as if dodging a blow.
“Isn’t that right, girl?” Mother Fog demanded. “Mother Sand’s been hounding you to learn the Heresy Tongue so you can better do the church’s work?”
Urnua tried to sputter out an affirmative, but managed little more than a nod.
“Very good, then. Now. As I was beginning to tell Urnua before, there is at any given time only one Keeper of the Armory, and her secrets are passed down only to the next priest to inherit the title. Today, however, is an emergency, and thus I welcome you all into the greatest secret of our fine church armory. Witness!”
With one blue-veined hand, Mother Fog reached up to grab the haft of the third mace from the end of the row, and she hauled it downward from the top, as if it were a lever. There came a loud cracking noise, a stony sound of release. The wall behind the silent row of maces seemed to pop forward, and a long, vertical slit showed in the masonry, rising to the height of an overlarge door. Chips of grout and dust spilled to the floor.
“An unpopular weapon, the mace,” Mother Fog said, with prim satisfaction, “and therefore very useful to architects. Ondehl, Dobler, if you’d be so kind as to pull this door wide?”
The two Devoted stepped forward, jammed their fingers into the crack, and heaved and pulled until what had been a wall groaned outward to reveal a massive, unwilling portal. Cool, musty air swept out as if the room beyond––black, inky black––were breathing.
Trudek pulled at his mustache. “Mother, what exactly is in there?”
“Oh, nothing much.” Mother Fog managed to look triumphant and disheartened at the same time. “Nothing much besides the end of the State’s long-kept peace.”
“Ondehl,” said Trudek, “fetch a lamp. Hold it just inside the door. Let’s see it if goes out.”
It did not.
Hesitating, Trudek looked from Mother Driftwood to Mother Fog. He said, “Except in cases of imminent danger…”
“Exactly so,” said Mother Fog. “No need for you to charge in ahead. Give that lamp over, thank you. Now then. Follow me.”
She and Mother Driftwood led the way. The three Devoted entered next, with Urnua bringing up the rear. The air was chilly but easy to breathe. An odor came with the chill, a musty scent of disuse, yes, but more: a fierceness of forges and patient, waiting iron.
The light from Ondehl’s lantern bobbed ahead, bright in and of itself, but too feeble to do more than suggest the space into which they entered, a long, low chamber with scores of timbers supporting the rough ceiling and, along the receding walls, rows and rows of––what?
“Cannon,” breathed Trudek, his voice reverent. “By God. There must be a hundred of them.”
“More,” said Mother Fog. “Unless some thief has been very enterprising, I believe we’ll find three hundred and forty-two, of various sizes.”
“But I thought…” This from Mother Driftwood, who was at such a loss that she’d come to a complete halt, even as the others wandered farther into the chamber. “The cannons were destroyed. Loaded aboard deep-water ships. Dumped into the sea.”
Mother Fog spread her hands as if so say, perhaps, perhaps. “So the histories insist,” she said. “But now you know better, eh?”
Trudek was the first to approach one of the individual cannons; he ran a wondering hand over the barrel. Urnua did the same with the next cannon down, and thrilled to the touch of the chilly metal in its sheath of blood-red paint. She bent, and peered into the muzzle’s opening, which was big enough to accommodate her head.
“They’re all mounted on wheeled carts,” said Mother Fog, as if that was the most insignificant of details. “Most are too big to be moved, even so. But the smaller ones––I believe the term is smaller caliber––those we might be able to shift, and to place them…well, wherever we wish.”
If she hadn’t ignited Trudek’s sense of strategy before, she had now. “Tell me there’s powder,” he said. “Cannonballs, whatever tools we’d need.”
“Yes to all three, in abundance.”
The Devoted captain clapped his hands in delight, and even in the wavering glow of the lantern, Urnua could read the anticipation on his face. “Then we’re saved,” he said. “Saved and armed to the teeth.”
Mother Driftwood gave her fellow priest’s shoulder an affectionate pat. “You sly old thing. ‘All we have left is prayer,’ indeed.”
“Oh, I prayed,” Mother Fog replied. “I prayed for much of the night. One does not open this vault casually, and such a massive breach of the Blackpowder Treaty is not something I take lightly. Nor, I think, are we necessarily saved. Whatever we do with all these munitions, it will take time, and a lack of water grants us very little of that. We shall need a proper plan, and a good one––one that gets us out but does not surrender the armory, not any part of it, and certainly not these chambers here.”
The look of triumph had faded from Trudek’s face, replaced by one of intense concentration. “We’ll need to learn to fire them,” he said. “From what I’ve read, they’re not nearly as simple as they look.”
“Agreed,” said Mother Fog, “and not one person living has direct experience. Certainly not any of the six of us.”
“I suppose this falls to me.” The captain sounded caught between professional pride and outright anxiety.
Her smile benevolent, Mother Fog said, “We may all contribute, of course, but you are the ranking officer in charge.”
Dobler, who’d ventured farther down the long row of cannons and was now no more than a dim outline, swung back around. “What about guns?” he said. “I’ve read, or I’ve heard, that long ago…”
With a sage nod, Mother Fog confirmed all his wildest speculations. “My understanding is they’re unreliable, but yes. They’re here.”
“So,” Urnua said, “the histories lie, but only about certain things.”
She winced as soon as she spoke, and wished she’d kept her mouth shut. To knock such a wide hole in the sanctity of the State, to question so openly its commitment to truth, wasn’t safe. What would she do for an encore? Broadcast her deep, painful knowledge of how the State had treated the Sindarin––her Sindarin––for generations?
Mother Fog folded her arms and regarded Urnua with renewed curiosity. “My dear child,” she said, “governments will tell a lie or two. It’s a necessary art of survival. You mark me, when this business is done, we’ll tell lies ourselves, to explain the bloodshed, to justify the appearance of weaponry long thought to be gone. We’ll tell whatever lies are required to bring and hold the peace, the next peace, the peace we’ll fight for. And you, if you survive, you’ll help. Because that brand of loyalty is what we expect of a novitiate of the Unified Church. Isn’t that right, Mother Driftwood?”
The younger priest stepped into the lamplight, and her eyes glittered. Urnua had always thought her to be the least of the Mothers, the one most prone to crying from a surfeit of emotion, the one who’d never quite shed her childhood vulnerabilities. Now, surrounded by the silent rows of lethal history brought to life, Mother Driftwood stood transformed. She looked, to Urnua’s enormous surprise, dangerous.
“Loyalty always,” she said, her eyes boring holes into Urnua’s heart. “Loyalty to Church and State both, or Mother Fog and I shall know the reason why.”
Urnua swallowed, nodded, and fought back ready tears.
“Right,” said Trudek, in a voice that made it clear he felt it was high time he took control of the situation. “First we need better light. Then we explore, take stock, gather the necessaries. We’ll have to assume they’ve left instructions, or why preserve all this in the first place? After that, well. I can’t wait to see those bastards’ expressions when we open those doors.”
The day was half over before Arjay returned, but Mother Coal forgave the delay; during her first outing, Arjay had been up half the night and brought back not only thumis but the prize of prizes, an Aylis shepherd. The fact that the poor girl needed rest before setting out once more was unavoidable. Not that Mother Coal enjoyed the wait. Wakefulness and all, even with a decent meal in her belly, every minute passed in an agony of tense anticipation. Her four litter-bearers, sensing her mood and no doubt startled by the emerald tint of her eyes, had made sure to keep well out of her way, but at last Arjay had returned, an extricator under her wing.
“Did you bring honeysap?” Mother Coal whispered to Arjay, as soon as she could manage a private moment.
“Couldn’t find any,” said Arjay, and Mother Coal pursed her lips, simmering with the dread prospect that her shoe-making helpmeet had deliberately failed to procure the honeysap.
With business at hand, and no time to dwell, Mother Coal brought her walker around and addressed the young extricator with what she intended as a cheery tone. “If you’re hungry before we begin, we do have fish pies. Also hand-apples, if you’d like one. No?”
The girl, who could not have been more than ten, stood with her mother at the far side of the room and shook her head. She was a shabby creature, her long hair lank, her pale skin dirty. She had an Aylis face, although the mother was harder to reckon. Possibly she was the sort of Middle Islander who was so cross-bred that any specific identity had long since been blended away.
“Well,” said Mother Coal, still straining toward the jovial, “it is nice to see you again. You were very helpful the last time you were here.” With Belner, she added to herself. With the idiot Arjay managed to kill.
The extricator had not made eye contact with Mother Coal once, and the old priest did not expect she would, except perhaps by accident. Congenitally blind, the girl depended on her mother to act as her eyes. So it had been the last time, and so it would be this. Mother Coal didn’t like it, not one bit––the more people involved in an extrication, the more loose tongues might wag, and the harder it would be to control what information came out––but given that only weeks ago, she’d believed that not a single extricator remained on the Middle Isle, it was a drawback not to be helped. Arjay had found what was needed. For that––damn the woman and her honeysap game-playing––she had to give credit.
“Is it another guard?” the girl asked.
“You mean a Senatorial Guard? No. Not today. An unimportant man, really. He’s from Aylis.”
Both mother and daughter stiffened, and Mother Coal studied them with keen attention. The mother kept a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, as if to prevent her from bolting. It seemed to Mother Coal to be a backward arrangement; shouldn’t it have been the blind girl reaching out a hand to her parent for guidance and support? Whatever the case, it made Mother Coal itchy, restless. Incongruities hinted of deeper troubles, swift currents misconstrued. Most likely, it was nothing, but still. “Most likely” wasn’t good enough.
She said, allowing herself to sound imperious, “You don’t like folk from Aylis?”
The girl’s mother, all apologies, shrugged and said, “The fires, Mother. Yesterday was very bad, and the people who set them…well, I’m sure you already know.”
“From Aylis, yes.” She paused, and thought of standing with Trudek, on the docks. Of her having given the order to set the ships alight. “I suspect,” she went on, “that it was all a grave misunderstanding.”
“I could find out,” said the girl, “if you gave me the right person.”
A chill that started at the base of Mother Coal’s spine settled at the nape of her neck, and she had to restrain herself to prevent one hand from reaching back to scratch there, to test to be sure that no one had broken the skin. That no extricator had bitten her.
To the girl, she said, “The fires are part of why you’re here, yes. The man you’ll work on knows how all this started, probably better than anyone. In my capacity as Most Devout, I can assure you that the Unified Church requires a complete picture of what’s happened, both here and on Aylis. Then we can take appropriate steps. Offer restitution to those who’ve lost homes and property. Help those who are injured.”
“Some died,” said the girl’s mother, and Mother Coal noted with a mix of disapproval and respect that the woman saw no need to add that there was nothing the church could do to help the deceased.
“Shall we begin?” she asked, indicating one of the bunker’s thick-set doors. “He’s just through there.”
The girl turned her blind eyes to the ceiling, as if searching its whiteness for something significant. She said, “You’ll pay us, right? Same as before.”
“Of course,” said Arjay, stepping in and shooting Mother Coal a challenging look. Mother Coal knew perfectly well what that meant: having spent on food for seven, they had no coin left. There was plenty at the church, in the bursar’s office, and more besides in her apartments, but Arjay had been very clear: the entire Church Complex was overrun with armed Sindarin. Getting at those reserves was, at least for now, out of the question.
“All right,” said the girl, and she cocked her head the other way, as if listening to very distant music. “I’m ready.”
They proceeded to the next room, Arjay leading, and the mother guiding her spooky, gifted daughter. Mother Coal and her walker clumped in last, after which Arjay closed and locked the door.
Clarus, eyeing them from a straight-backed chair in the center of the room, tried to speak, but his gag prevented anything beyond guttural, unintelligible protests. Arjay had bound him well, with hands tied to the back of the chair and half his torso hidden beneath repeating loops of rope and leather straps. Only his neck had any freedom of movement.
The blind girl and her mother stepped closer, and again it was impossible to be sure who was leading whom. They went around behind Clarus, whose eyes widened, and he began to rock on his chair, trying to tip it over.
“Stop,” said Arjay, in a soothing voice. “This won’t take long, and after, you’ll be good as new.”
The shepherd’s fiercely mumbled protests continued, until the child extricator reached out a skinny finger and brushed the back of his neck. At the touch, he let out a strangled shriek, quivered, and fell silent.
“Hold still,” said the girl.
A single note of pure fright escaped Clarus. He squeezed his eyes shut.
The girl had both her hands on her target’s neck now, testing, preparing, searching out the perfect spot, and then she leaned in with terrible purpose and bit down just below the hairline.
Arjay looked away, swallowing hard. Mother Coal had intended to track every moment, if only as a matter of pride, but when the blood began to leak out around the girl’s clamped lips, she drew a sharp breath and looked instead at Arjay. Belner’s extrication had been bad enough, but at least he’d been guilty of serious crimes, and she’d known this before they’d started. With Clarus? He was, at worst, a dupe, and the pleading terror in his eyes––open now, wide open––ripped holes in her conscience.
At last the girl straightened, and her mouth gave up its purchase with a wet smacking sound. The entire lower half of her face was slimed with blood.
“I will tell,” she said, her voice sing-song and half an octave lower. “My name is Clarus. I live on the slopes south of the String Ponds, a day’s journey from Ferth, on Aylis. I raise sheep. I farm. I have a family. A wife and three children. You will ask. I will tell.”
For this, at least, Mother Coal was prepared. This was how it had begun with Belner, too. She said, “You will tell everything that has happened to you since meeting the man named Vashear, the one you call the prophet.”
Arjay had a quill poised above a sheet of wrinkled, scavenged paper, but for a moment, she had nothing to transcribe. The bloody girl swayed, her arms held slightly out from her body as if she ready to lift off from the floor.
“Vashear,” the girl said at last. “I will tell. He was injured. Babbling. Incoherent. A fever. Red-haired. We had never seen red hair before. I hear it’s rare even on Farehl, and I said to my wife, “Fetch the doctor and the prayer mother.” I told my son to build up the fire. We laid him on a bier and cleaned his wounds. He woke after a time, and he gripped my arm, and he spoke to me. He said, ‘They’re coming. The keeper said so.’ I told him to lie down, I told him he wasn’t well, but he looked at me and said, ‘We are the luckiest of people, for our long drought is over. We were born in fortunate times, for we––you and I and all those with us––we will live to see miracles.’”
The girl kept up her stream of memories, and Arjay kept pace as best she could with her transcription, but Mother Coal was surprised to discover that she’d already heard what she needed most to hear. The events were important, yes, but there’d be time enough, in review with Arjay, to place the necessary facts in their correct order, to piece together what history she’d so far missed. Karai’s involvement, for example. Her progress from loyal novitiate to bed-slave turncoat. No, the salient point had already been made, that Vashear had from the first been either savvy or addled enough to take advantage of the one great gap in the achievements of the Unified Church, its failure to deal in the miraculous. No wonder he’d attracted followers. No wonder he had them still.
Long minutes later, Mother Coal was proven wrong in thinking this extrication had no additional surprises in store (a mistake she took note of with wry dismay; she was beginning to think she’d been more wrong of late than right), for it turned out that the child extricator, by disinterring Clarus’s memories, did have unexpected news to reveal: the prophet himself had submitted to an extrication, and Clarus had stood in attendance. Good, thought Mother Coal, as this chapter unfolded, first because it meant that perhaps the Aylis folk weren’t as credulous as she’d thought, and second, that she might hear a perspective other than Belner’s to explain what had happed on the night of Elsbeth’s demise.
Sure enough, she heard it all. No, the killings at the Beacon Tower hadn’t been an accident; they hadn’t been prompted by some vague, half-panicked, misunderstood command; nor had it been Vashear himself who started the massacre. No, that honor belonged to Mother Sand and Mother Sand alone. She felt cold just in the hearing, in the memory of Clarus re-telling in turn what Vashear and Belner had told before, of Mother Sand saying, “Devoted, kill them. Kill them all.”
A further sickening surprise awaited, for it seemed that the extricator who’d worked on the prophet had been found the very next day at the bottom of a high cliff, broken on rocks at least as jagged as those below the Spur. Clarus didn’t know whether she’d taken her own life or been thrown from the top. Either way, the child extricator hesitated in the telling, as if realizing for the first time that hers was a profession fraught with danger, both from without and within.
Bad luck, thought Mother Coal. Bad luck and worse. What good is a prophet who brings so much death in his wake?
As if to underscore her mordant turn of thought, the room rumbled and shook, shivering and groaning as, in the distance, Grandfather Mountain shuddered in sleep. The extricator paused in her testimony, and everyone looked to the ceiling––everyone except for Clarus, whose chin rested on his chest, looking for all the world as if he was dead. Which, Mother Coal thought, he had best not be. All the research she’d been able to discover claimed that extrications left its victims sleepy and confused, and sometimes even comatose, as with Belner, but that in only the rarest cases was it lethal.
An hour passed, and still the child extricator kept speaking, pausing on occasion to lick the blood from her lips. Sure enough, Karai soon entered the story, and Selnin with her, and Clarus’s opinion of her was just as conflicted as it was about everything else. He admired Vashear, but feared him more. He was in awe of Karai––a little in love, even––but horrified by her nominal, apparently immediate conversion to the prophet’s cause, and unconvinced of her loyalties. He was flattered by the prophet’s attentions, his willingness to ask seek out counsel, and hated himself for being so easy to seduce. He hated himself all the more for abandoning his family to go on a fool’s journey to Squall, and then to the Middle Isle, but by then, the prophet’s hold was deep. The adventure had to be seen through.
He regretted that now, of course. The fires in the harbor––he hadn’t seen who loosed the arrows, or who gave the order––and the pandemonium that followed, these had left him disheartened, shaken. The fighting that followed had been ten times worse. His friend Trelloy, they’d been separated, and that, too, weighed heavily on his heart. And then there were the injuries he’d sustained, purely (or so he prayed) in self-defense.
A second tremor passed through the chamber, and plaster dust shook free of the ceiling, falling like a visible apparition to the floor. The extricator paused, and her arms sagged to her sides. Clarus remained motionless on his chair, his chin down, the top of his head more visible than his face.
“Arjay,” said Mother Coal, after the tremor subsided, “is Clarus all right?”
Arjay set down her quill and went to Clarus. She inspected him, then gave his cheek two light taps. When she received no response, she pressed her thumb to his neck, just under the base of his jaw. After a moment, she shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it shouldn’t be, but this man is dead.”
Mother Coal’s eyes widened, and she stared first at Arjay, then at the child extricator, at the bloody rictus of her mouth. The girl stared back, unmoved, unwavering, unseeing, and the room shook with a fresh jolt. More puffs of plaster rained down.
“God forgive me,” Mother Coal whispered, her eyes still locked on the staring, wide-eyed child. “God forgive us all.”
Late in the day, the ragtag Aylis bodyguard escorted a visitor into Oratory Hall, a lone Sindarin, his limbs clacking with bracelets and his head held high. Clearly not a prisoner, thought Karai; even surrounded by armed men, this Sindarin walked as if he owned not just the building, but everyone in it, and everyone beyond, the Middle Isle itself. And no wonder. He was enormous.
Vashear had curled up for a nap in one of the massive stone seats at the lip of the stage, and Karai went to him and shook him by the shoulder. He shot awake with a yell––something he often did, even waking on his own––and swatted her away with one arm.
“Sorry to wake you,” she said, stepping out of range, “but you have a visitor.”
“No visitors,” Vashear muttered, blinking back sleep and wagging his head from side to side. His carroty hair jounced, and a trail of drool slathered his chin. He smelled (and this was unwelcome but not unexpected) of ammonia; once again, in his sleep, he’d wet himself.
“Come on,” she said. “Up you get.”
Again, he pushed her away. “Don’t want visitors. Want to sleep.”
“He looks important.”
“You deal with him. Isn’t that why you’re Queen?”
She was halfway to a laugh before she checked herself. Vashear wasn’t speaking loudly, but the building had extraordinary acoustics, and it was just possible that someone might overhear. He’d referred to her as queen before––over the course of the day, he’d done it dozens of times––but for her to be caught laughing at her status would be to undercut the entire charade, and that would never do, because it wasn’t a charade, and never would be, not for so long as she had anything to say about it.
In any case, Vashear had resettled himself, mumbling about reports and depositions. Seeing nothing else for it, she drew herself to her fullest height, which was not inconsiderable for a D’rekaani, and presented herself to the waiting Sindarin. “The prophet offers his apologies,” she said, “and bids that I speak in his place. My name is Karai, and I welcome you to Oratory Hall.”
The Sindarin gazed in impassive silence for a long moment, then inclined his chin ever so slightly. “Dowerin Rennafrin of the House Emflen Shuslan, First of the Houses of Old, Warden of the Flint Ridges, and appointed Sindarin Ambassador to Vagen. To hear, to speak, to see: a blessing and a privilege.”
Karai understood perfectly well that there was a proper and expected response, but she didn’t know what those words might be. Keenly aware of her ignorance, she fell back on what she thought Mother Coal might say. “You are welcome in these halls, Ambassador. How may we assist you?”
His smile flirted with becoming a smirk, but he gave a calm, measured reply. “The prophet is now the governor of the Middle Isle, and hence the Six Lands entire. It is mete and proper that I present myself, for what treaties my people have with the State are meaningless unless they are renewed here, in the eyes of Vagen’s new commander.”
Clever, she thought. He’d avoided the term “ruler” with great care. She wondered if he’d already heard that the prophet had named her queen, and that she was to be crowned, formally, with an actual ceremony, as soon as an event of such pomp could be arranged.
To the ambassador, she said, “I’m sure that all fair and just portions of the treaties will continue to be enforced.” Then she stopped herself––no more words, no risk of waffling––a test of her own resolve, and of his.
For a moment, Dowerin said nothing. Around him, various bodyguards tried to look important, official, and dangerous, with varying degrees of success. None of them were anywhere near his size. Their clothes ranged from uninspiring to insufficient. Not one of them, armed or not, could have prevented the Sindarin from reaching out and breaking, in an instant, their nascent queen’s neck.
“A dialogue, then,” the Ambassador said. “Ongoing.”
“Absolutely. You have my complete assurance.”
“But this dialogue would be with you. Not with the prophet.”
She allowed her head to tilt in a languid, non-committal way, a gesture that gave her, in the doing, more power than she’d ever assumed before. “I speak,” she said, “for the prophet. In all things.”
The Sindarin grinned abruptly. “I’m sure you do. But let’s be frank. You and your prophet sit astride a city that’s been put to the torch, however unintentionally. On the south side of the island, almost a third of the buildings have been damaged. Worse, a rebel faction of my people has taken control of the Church Complex. You know this, surely. They need to be rooted out and brought to trial for their crimes. Unlike the majority of we Sindarin, who are sober, peace-loving people, this particular minority is dangerous, known for their aggressive and erratic behavior. It would be wise for us to ally and drive them out before they can sink roots.”
This time, it was Karai who paused, weighing, assessing.
Dowerin went on, cajoling,. “It would send a strong signal to the rest of the city, A strong message that you Aylis folk are on the side of stability. Continuity.”
Was that the side she stood on? Karai wondered. She’d arrived as a helpmeet, an advisor and, yes, a paramour to a man who could best be described as a messenger. The message, at least in any organized fashion, had yet to be delivered. If she had any mandate, it was to disseminate the knowledge of what Vashear had seen, and his prediction of what the future would bring. Did the doing of this require stability? Continuity? She thought perhaps it did.
“Very well,” she said. “We will join you in unseating the Sindarin that hold the Unified Church––and again, please bear in mind that I speak for the prophet.”
“When do you propose we begin?”
The Ambassador knitted his fingers. “Tonight, if possible. They are not a large force. I will be happy to lead the attack myself, and after, to deal justice to any survivors according to Sindarin law.”
Karai thought of the armory, which by all accounts remained untaken, and frowned. “So I would be exchanging one Sindarin force for another,” she said. “Explain to me again how this is wise?”
At this, the Ambassador let out a booming guffaw. “Good!” he said. “You’re learning.”
With skin so dark, it wasn’t easy for Karai to blush, but the blood rushed to her face, and her eyelids felt suddenly full and heavy, ready to well tears. She took refuge in anger, and orders. “I will send my people, as well. The best fighters we have.”
His raised eyebrow clearly displayed his opinion of her “best fighters,” but she raised an imperial finger and cut him off before she could speak.
“Not only that,” she said, “but I will send the best of my Devoted as co-commander.” Turning, swinging her gaze around the stadium seats, she called out, “Selnin!” at the top of her voice.
From midway back in the long, curving lines of benches, a figure rose. She smiled, though not with any warmth, only from the pleasure of having correctly guessed that Selnin was still somewhere near, shadowing her.
He said, as he placed one booted foot on the bench ahead of him, “Here, Lady. What sort of reckless mess are you planning now?”
This time, the Ambassador had to choke back his laughter. As Karai struggled to maintain her regality, he said, under his breath, “A Devoted who dares to backtalk, and has a sense of humor. If I must have a co-commander, I think that this one, I can work with.”
“Selnin,” Karai called, “come down, and I’ll explain.”
“Oh, on the double, your majesty. Or, wait. Sorry. Had you not told your visitor yet that you’re a queen? Queen of Vagen? Queen Karai the First?”
Now giggles and whispers were coming at her from all directions. The loose band of the prophet’s watchers and fans had not shrunk with the hours; if anything, their numbers had swelled.
“Selnin,” she said, “stop wagging your tongue and come down. Now.”
He bowed, a grand, sweeping gesture that had his hair brushing the floor like a delicate broom. “At once, my queen. At once and with great, servile pleasure.”
Karai rolled her eyes. The titters of laughter that gamboled around the hall were hidden by cupped hands and turned-away faces, but she could see that the situation was deteriorating, and that it might be beyond her to save it. She had a strong urge to call out an order that the next man to laugh would lose his head, that the head would be stuck on a pike in the square outside, and that she would go right on with the decapitations until the hall was silent. Instead, she held herself in check. It was a funny idea, she supposed, that she (or anyone) should be queen. Notions of monarchy were so new, so foreign, so antique, that of course they were funny. And where was the harm in a little wit? How was she injured? Not at all. It would take time to show them what her rulership meant; it would take time to demonstrate what her new monarchy could be. Any respect she got, she would have to earn. Sfo be it. And for now––she could all but hear Mother Coal tossing out this exact advice––it would never do to lose one’s sense of humor.
The Ambassador interrupted her thoughts. “So,” he said, musing, “it’s true, then. You really do intend to establish yourself as Queen.”
She favored him with an indifferent shrug. “It’s already happened,” she said, “but it wasn’t my doing.” She indicated Vashear, curled like a newborn on his grand stone seat, and once again fast asleep. “I only accept the will of the prophet.”
With an inscrutable smile, Dowerin said, “As should we all. Now, here’s your man Selnin. Time to hatch a plan, one that rids us of needless discord and terrorism.” He paused, sized up Selnin and the sword at his side, and then looked again to Karai. With a look of wry apology, he said, “I have nothing to toast with, but in the spirit of the thing, may I be the first to say: to the health of Queen Karai, and the most lasting of peaceful alliances.”
Flattery, as Karai well knew, was among the most sinister of weapons, but she found herself helpless against it. Once again, she felt herself flushing. Be gracious, she told herself. That was what Mother Coal would advise. Be gracious, but never give ground.
To the Ambassador she said, “As you would put it, to hear, to speak, to see: a blessing and a privilege. As I would say: to the alliance ahead, Godspeed and every success.”
This time, no laughter sounded. Instead, there was silence. Respectful, anticipatory silence.
Good, thought Karai. I will win them one step at a time. Hearts, minds, and the armory into the bargain. One step at a time.
As if in response to her reverie, Vashear let out a ragged, reverberating snore.
In the last twilight glow of sunset, Maer was doing her best to pick out the towering cone of Grandfather Mountain, so distant now that it looked very much like a giant barnacle jutting above the ever-restless ocean. Higher still, she could just make out the peak’s trail of feathery, ashen smoke, wandering far northward, at least for now. It was a beautiful scene, and a reenactment of one she’d witnessed on her inbound trip to Vagen, a journey that now seemed a part of some long ago, barely relevant past. Her adventures on the Middle Isle, and her memories of them, threatened to crowd out everything else.
How long had it been since she’d slept? She no longer knew. What she did know was that sleep would take her soon, whether she wished it or not. She had no love for the hammocks and cots waiting in the ship’s hold, but she knew they would do in a pinch, and experience told her that once asleep, the swells would rock her, cradle-like, for long, undisturbed hours. Reaching that place of rest, however, that had so far proven to be a trick: even the gentle slap of the waves against the hull felt, after the many long days on land, intrusive, unnaturally loud. As for the constant motion, she’d never fully learned to bear it, at least not on her two journeys so far, the first from the Spur to Farehl, and then from Farehl to Vagen.
Worst of all was the stench of ripe, rotting fish. Felson and Rinehl, having been in a fearsome rush when they’d first weighed anchor, had not taken the time to shovel Cullen’s exceptional catch overboard, and then, during the long hours anchored in the Sindarin Port, they’d feared that tossing the stinking silver corpses overboard would attract the attention of the harbor patrol. Thus the eventual purge had had to wait until they were all aboard and well out to sea, and their efforts had left every crewmember and passenger aboard, even Bethanian, reeking of fish. The odor had bled into their clothes and melded itself to their skin, especially their hands. Of course they’d washed and washed, using buckets of salty seawater, but the Star Of the North, in its hurry to leave, had not taken on adequate supplies, at least not of all kinds, and they were low, then out, of soap.
Doss had been furious, of course, but what could he do? Turn around, dock, go shopping?
Twilight turned to night. Rivers of stars rode overhead. Somewhere in the prow, Felson stood watch. Cullen, Bethanian, and Rinehl were below, resting if not sleeping. That left Doss to helm the tiller, and he’d ordered the sails to stay up until they were a good deal farther out than the range of any plausible patrol boat. Maer had no wish to talk to him or to anyone else, and had been doing her best to wrap herself in a cocoon of anonymity, the kind that would be shattered if she shifted herself in any way. For a while, the captain had been content to let her be––he’d been singing to himself, or perhaps to the waves––
“I’ve lived a life of dancing feet
I’ve lived a life of weather
My heart’s unguarded by design
My mood floats on a feather.”
––but at last Doss locked the tiller in place and joined her at the rail. For a time, she managed to ignore him, but when he spoke, breaking the strained silence, she was forced to acknowledge his presence.
“Not a bad night,” he said. “The look of it, I mean. Decent sunset. Comfortable.”
“You have a wife,” Maer replied. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
For once, he didn’t shrug. He said, “I didn’t tell because at first, it didn’t seem relevant, and then later, after, well. Too late then, wasn’t it?”
“If that’s what you want to tell yourself.”
“Oh, I see. We’re going to play the game of let’s-make-this-harder-than-it-has-to-be. Aye, punish old Doss, that’s the ticket. Always a popular one, that.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“Sure. But just so long as you remember you’re the one that brought it up.”
Silence overtook them again, uglier this time, pregnant with recrimination. Again it was Doss who surrendered. “Tell me this, at least. Where are we going?”
“You make it sound like that’s my decision, when we both know perfectly well I don’t know how to sail.”
Chuckling, Doss ran a hand back through his hair. “You know more than you think. All the time you’ve spent on this tub, it wears off. Whether you want it to or not.”
“But the idea that I’m the one to decide…”
“Somebody’s got to, hey? And you’re the one everybody’s gone and anointed.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…”
Doss cut her off by wagging a raised finger in her face. “I’ll own that you never wanted any of this. Okay and all right. But don’t you dare tell me that you’re not up to the task. Don’t you dare tell me that.”
“I want to go home. I want to go back to the Spur.”
“Sure, and I want this disgusting fish-stink off my boat, but here we are.” He spread his hands, a sweeping gesture of futility. “Which way, Maer? Do we go to Sindar, like the Ambassador said? Look up his brother, take shelter where no one would think to look? Or do we try some safer harbor?”
Frowning down at the swells, Maer could think of no response. What, indeed, were her options? All the main islands were equidistant, more or less, from Vagen. What other criteria mattered? Dowerin’s letter of introduction was all very well, and it would pave the way toward one particular port, but was he to be trusted? And even if he was, who could vouch, sight unseen, for his brother?
She ticked off each of the Six Lands, one by one, to see if any could stake a claim to the pole position. The Middle Isle was out, leaving five. Her homeland, D’rekaan, was a distant memory, pre-Spur, pre-orphanage, gone. Mostly she remembered it as hot, the sort of place where rain came as a welcome relief. Sindar (if maps were any guide) was as large as D’rekaan, but wilder, more rugged, and its people were kept under the tightest supervision by what amounted to an occupying army of state functionaries. That was a strike against Sindar, no question. Farehl was familiar, or at least the miniscule acreage around Brokerudder Bay, and that felt attractive, but illusory, too. So what if she knew what one small smidgen of its forests might be like? And then there was temperature, for Farehl could be cold––colder even than Aylis, with its windswept moors and endless bleating sheep. She’d hardly ever explored the land she’d called home; the Spur had had to stand for the whole. That left Lemphier in the northwest, a desert from end to end, with oases a rarity, and rain that fell only on the stoniest of trackless, wasteland mountains.
And what lay on the outer shores of all the five great islands? Lawlessness. Anarchy. Pirates.
“I don’t know how to choose,” she muttered at last. “And I don’t see why I should.”
“Right. Because all you want is to plunge a knife into good old Mother Sand.”
“That’s not all I want.”
“No, hey, I’m sure. You’ve got room in your heart for hate in all directions.”
Bridling, she pushed away from the rail. “I had her right there. In my sights. And she got away.”
“Oh, please. She didn’t get away, she was taken away. Not your fault.”
Maer refused to be consoled. “I had my chance. I lost it. And don’t tell me what I do and don’t hate. That’s my business. And you’re right, maybe the list is getting long. Maybe you’re even on it.”
Hands spread as if to ask the very heavens to see the abuse he had to suffer, Doss backed away, a star-lit smile on his face. “Bad day, I know, and for that, I’m sorry. My advice? Get some sleep.”
“Advice. Exactly what I need.” She gave up, and headed below.
Doss returned to the tiller and made a quick adjustment, then called to Maer’s retreating back. “Hey. You asked why I didn’t tell you I was married. Do you want the real answer?”
Maer stopped dead. Without moving her feet, she looked over her shoulder toward Doss, and gave an all but imperceptible nod.
“It’s simple. I’m like you.”
He shrugged, as she’d known he would, but there was no mistaking his tone: serious, down to earth, stripped to the bone. “Maer, you just told me you can hate more than one person. Easy, right? Obvious. Doesn’t even bear thinking about. But if you believe that, then what about the opposite? Don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, it might be possible for a person––a man, maybe, a man such as myself––to have more than one love?”
Slowly, with animal caution, Maer turned to face Doss. Given the distance between them, he was little more than a shadow, an extension of the ship, just one more blackness wrapped into a host of other blackened, salt-spray darknesses. She felt cold and tingly all at once.
“Don’t,” she said, and then had to stop. She knew without trying further that her voice would not behave.
“Don’t?” came Doss’s reply, and even the blackness of night couldn’t quite disguise the hint of bitterness, the overtone of reflexive mockery. “Don’t what?”
“Don’t toy with me.”
From his seat at the tiller, Doss leaned toward her, a shift of shadows that blended first this way, then that. His voice, when he spoke, had grown husky, earnest in a way she’d never heard before. “No tricks,” he said. “With you, I’m long past toying.”
She nodded, not because she wanted to, but because a feeling of deep affirmation had stolen over her. What he said was all but unbelievable, but even so, she wanted to believe––of that, there could be no doubt.
“All right,” she said. “I hear you.”
The shadow that was Doss slouched back in its seat. “I hope so,” he said. “A man can’t say a thing like that just any old day.”
Again, she nodded. “I’m going below. Time to get some rest.”
“Before you do, I don’t suppose you’d care to weigh in on where we’re headed?”
She paused, but only because she was surprised to discover that she knew the answer. “Sindar,” she said. “Take us to Sindar.”
To read Chapter Fourteen, click 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.