Special Fiction Feature: “Awakening”
By Judith Berman
Illustrated by Denis Rodier
This is a Special Presentation of a complete work of fiction which originally appeared in Black Gate 10. It appears with the permission of Judith Berman and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2007 by New Epoch Press.
The nightmare began when, thinking someone had called out, she opened her eyes and saw the leathery face of a corpse as close to her as a lover’s. She started up with a cry, heart pounding, certain she would find herself in her bed with her own warm and living lover. But she found only bony hands tangled in her hair, and the smell of cold decay.
She tried to jump to her feet, but beneath her dead men were piled up layer on layer and she could get no purchase. Whimpering, she clawed her way toward the only door of the dim chamber. Bones snagged her skirts, skulls rolled under her hands. At last she reached the doorway and fled up the narrow stair into darkness —
Rubble blocked the stair. She dug at the loose stones, breaking all her nails; she pounded on them, screaming for help. She screamed until she had no more breath. No one came to let her out.
Panting, she slumped against the wall. It had to be a nightmare that she had been walled into a crypt. But what nightmare was like this, with cold grinding into her bones and the smell of the dead as thick in her throat as temple incense?
A corpse shifted on the pile and she spun in terror. But the sound was just the disturbed bodies settling back to equilibrium.
Or was it? She stifled another scream as a skull tumbled down the pile, rolled leering to a stop —
Trembling, hugging herself, she slid down to sit upon a stair. The corpses gazed back at her. It looked as if years had passed since they had been laid here. Only scraps of dried flesh adhered to their faces. Their swords were broken, their armor rusted, the quilted leather of their jackets had rotted to fragments like old leaves. They lay with arms outflung and jaws agape, as if they had fallen in battle and been piled up before the first rigor of death passed off.
The dead lay still now, but as they stared at her, she became ever more certain that she did not imagine their restlessness.
They must, she thought suddenly, have been walled up to stop them walking.
An instant after that terrible realization, a much fiercer panic roared down on her.
Because why else would she have been buried with them?
She herself must be one of the dead, and only dreaming now that she woke alive.
But, but —
She tried to fling logic in the face of her terror: the restless dead could dream only of their former lives. She did not know this place.
And unlike the disconnected landscapes of dream, nothing changed in this crypt, not the blank stone walls, not the jumbled dead receding into shadow, not the pain from her broken nails or the gritty stone under her palms. Not the cold or the awful smell. How could she be dead and feel all that?
No, the dream had been that voice calling out to her, and now she was truly awake — whatever she had woken to.
She tried to calm her racing heartbeat and think. A powerful sorcerer, she had read — somewhere, some time — could create places beyond the Gate of the living world, necromantic tumors grown in the guts of the divine realm. That sort of place might not be governed by nature at all, but only by the sorcerer’s caprice.
But still —
If natural law ruled this tomb, she ought to wonder where the light came from. The illumination was scant, but sufficient to distinguish stone from sword and corpse from corpse. Where daylight found its way in, there ought to be a way out.
The dead faces stared. Finally she gathered the courage to descend back into the tangle of bodies.
At first she held her skirts close to her legs and stepped with panicky care onto shrunken limbs and brittle ribs, but soon, whimpering again from the awfulness of it, she was reduced once more to crawling over the dead men.
When she had gained the brightest part of the tomb, she did indeed find the source of the light. High over her head, a handful of stones had fallen from the vaulted ceiling.
She teetered on the corpses in despair, wondering if she could pile them high enough to reach that tiny glimmer — and wondering how long it would be before one of the dead woke up to clutch at her. Here in their midst, the bated restlessness was like snakes sliding on the soles of her feet.
Then something flickered at the edge of her vision.
A fresh surge of panic swung her around. In a shadowy corner, a dead swordsman leaned against the wall, proffering her a — something — of an improbably bright yellow.
As she waited, transfixed, for him to move again, his posture stirred her memory: the handsome cavalier presenting her with his love-gift, a necklace of tourmalines the colors of sky and sun. How she had loved that trinket, and the one who had given it —
The yellow scrap in the corner trembled once more.
Again she started and nearly lost her footing. But this time she was almost sure the swordsman hadn’t stirred.
Heart pounding, she inched toward him. At last she drew close enough to see that what had caught her eye was not gold, not a shred of cloth or enamelwork miraculously preserving its color. Nor did the swordsman in fact hold it in his hand. Between his dead fingers, a spider had woven a web, and the yellow scrap was caught there.
A newly fallen beech leaf. Dead, too, but right now a more exquisite sight than all the gold in the world.
The leaf shivered, and a draft of fresher air feathered her cheek, smelling not of decay but of damp earth. She peered into the gloom beyond the swordsman. A fall of dirt and rocks covered another heap of corpses, and mixed in the dirt were more leaves, yellow and brown. No light penetrated to this part of the crypt. But the draft, those leaves…
She lifted her skirts and edged gingerly past the swordsman, onto the rock fall. On her first attempt to scrabble up, she dislodged a current of earth that carried her back down. Again she swam up, on all fours now, feet tangling in her skirts, until she could feel a draft blowing on her face. When she thrust an arm into the unseen opening — a rabbit hole? — her hand struck a tree root. Hope gave her the strength to grab the root and haul herself up, pulling soil down on her head, until a cascade of rubble fell away to reveal daylight. She dragged herself over the lip of the hole and collapsed in relief.
Above her hung a cloudy sky bright enough to hurt her eyes. Leaf-strewn snow covered the frozen ground. The air was even colder here.
After a while, brushing off dirt and snow, she climbed to her feet. A maze of ruined walls surrounded her. Bare trees sprouted from what must once have been streets and courtyards. She recognized nothing.
Hugging her jacket around her — its embroidered wool was too thin for this season — she cast about for a way through the ruins. After a few false turns, she reached an avenue mostly free of brush and fallen stones. This led her to a wide, snow-blanketed plaza. On the far side, a tower reared up against the overhanging mountain cliff. The tower stood in far better condition than the surrounding ruins.
At the sight of it, new cold shivered over her skin, and she pulled back into the shadow of a wall.
Suddenly she knew this plaza. Knew this city. How beautiful it had been in spring sunshine: the broad paved streets scrubbed clean, the walls plastered, whitewashed, and hung with colored pennants. Here the cavaliers had paraded on their prancing horses, armor and harness polished mirror-bright. Here peasants and merchants in their red-embroidered best had set up booths, had danced and sung for the God of Flowers, had poured libations of strong liquor onto the ground and down their own throats. How happy her lover had looked that evening as they walked through the festival! He had taken off his armor and garlanded his hair with jonquils, and when he bent his head to murmur in her ear she could smell their sweet perfume.
She strained after his name but could not remember it. But she remembered his funeral. So many had fallen in the battle, they had burned his body with green wood that popped and smoked. In an attempt to escape her unbearable grief she had taken a new lover the same night.
That boy’s name was gone, too.
Terror spiked up in her like grass sprouting as she realized all the names were gone, even her own. It was as if they, too, had been walled into a crypt.
But — was that a voice calling in the distance?
She listened but heard only her own breathing, her own heartbeat.
The tower loomed above the plaza, a blot of cold darkness. She could not remember the name of the sorcerer who had ruled the city from there, but she remembered how much he had terrified her.
She hurried away, turning down the avenue that led to her house. A part of her knew that her home, too, must lie in ruins, but what a shock when she found it utterly tumbled down, not a single stone standing on another —
Her feet carried her onward. The avenue wound down the hill, curving past walls that had once enclosed the gardens of the Temple of the Queen of Heaven’s Mercy. Then the valley below the city came into view.
Shock jolted her again. The landscape her eye expected — villages, fields, hedgerows, the high road unfurling toward the southern hills — had been obliterated by a dark forest unbroken except by the river and its snow-lined banks. She could see not a single building, not a single smudge of smoke. Nothing stirred in an immense silence.
But this was her city. Those mountains blotting out half the sky, habitation of the gods: she had seen them every day of her life. How many years had passed for that forest to grow? How had she come to be the only living creature here? Alone — she, the highborn lady who never sat or walked by herself, never ate or prayed by herself, never willingly slept by herself…
At this moment, she was more alone than she could compass.
Down in the valley, a dark bird like a small, slim hawk soared above the river. As she watched it, memory stirred and brought forth a name: aleya, the black kite.
Aleya had been her own name, given because of her black hair.
And she remembered, then, the siege of the city. In the last days the city had run out of wood to burn its dead and had piled the corpses into cellars. With so much magic loose, they had walled them up in fear the dead would walk.
She must have been placed in one of those cellars before the very end.
But she could not be dead. Look at her breath fogging the air, look at the tracks her feet pressed into the snow. Surely no half-corporeal revenant could make prints so crisp! Aleya bent to scoop the snow and watched it melt on her fingers into muddy droplets. Alive.
As she straightened, she saw another set of footprints.
After a moment Aleya walked toward them, heart jumping. The tracks looked like a woman’s as well and were no larger than her own, although they had been made by heavy brogues in the country style rather than a lady’s demi-boots. The footprints made a double track, entering and leaving, through a gap in the walls of the temple garden.
Who had made the tracks — a peasant stealing from the garden? It was hard to believe that rare medicinal plantings could have survived, when the temple itself had crumbled to rubble.
Surely, though, such a thief would come to her aid, beautiful as she was and schooled in every grace, so obviously highborn — if only out of hope of reward.
Aleya stepped to the gap in the garden wall and peered in. The hair on her nape prickled: here and there amidst the overgrown tangle stood neatly pruned trees and shrubs.
Wind gusted past her, so like human whispers that she swung around.
No one stood there. But Aleya did notice then how the winter afternoon had faded. Purple gloom had gathered under the mountain, and now it was spreading through the city.
Another cold gust of wind soughed down from the heights, bearing more of the wordless whispers. At the foot of the mountain wall, in the darkest shadows, walls and roofs faint as smoke were congealing atop the citadel ruins.
Panic gripped her. Aleya turned and ran after the footprints, down the avenue, down the hill. The twilight deepened as she descended. On all sides now, phantom armories, counting-houses and feasting halls wavered like reflections in an uneasy pool. Shadows of people ghosted into being, warriors in plumed armor, apprentices hurrying with a chest.
The lost city of her memory was building itself in the twilight. When Aleya passed the gate to a nobleman’s courtyard, longing almost turned her back. Light spilled from an unseen door, and she half-glimpsed shapes in bright clothing. Her memory added music, laughter and repartee, lovers exchanging hidden smiles. For a moment she was certain that inside that house she would find herself, and her name, and all those she had loved and left behind.
But the only sound from the courtyard now was the wind.
Aleya fled onward, following the prints toward the gate of the city. The wind whipped her hair and rattled the trees, it whined over broken stones, it whispered in her ear with a thousand lost voices. Shadow men and women reached for her. She ran faster. The wind built until it was a rockslide roaring down on her, an avalanche seeking to crush her into its cold belly.
At last the wall of the city rose before her. But the gate was closed, and a troop of silent men raised spears to turn her back. The avalanche roared close above her head. As the momentum of terror carried her forward, Aleya saw, through phantom guards and phantom wood and iron, that the true gate had fallen. Some courage she did not know she possessed gave her strength to shove through the dead men. Their touch was almost solid now, like cold rags clinging to her limbs, but she twisted free to scramble over the fallen lintel-stones of the gate. Beyond lay no more guards, only trees and the snowy high road arrowing away under their branches, and that line of footprints.
As Aleya hesitated for an instant, afraid of what might wait in the forest, a step sounded behind her —
A booted foot crunched on ice-rimed stone.
On hands and knees, she glanced up. The lord of the city stood there, in breeches and jacket and over it, carelessly, a plain brown cloak. The wind that ripped at her hair did not stir his clothing. Beyond, his guards stood at silent attention.
Aleya knew: the shepherd had come for his straying sheep.
“I never gave you my soul,” she whispered.
“Oh, but I took it anyway,” said the sorcerer.
A silver mirror glinted in his hand. He reached toward her. But he had to stoop, and she lay already at the brink of a gate-stone. She slipped over the edge and dropped six feet to the snow. Scrambled to her feet. Ran, glancing wildly backward —
No one stood there, alive or dead. Snow sharp as glass blew across the ruined gap.
Aleya fled along the snowy road, through the brush that now sprouted between its stones. Gusts rattled the treetops. In her mind lingered the image of the sorcerer untouched by the wind. As solid as he had seemed — far solider than his guards — he must be dead too, or something like it.
Dead and commander of the dead: she had, long ago, read about such things. A sorcerer could sustain his existence for centuries on this side of the Gate of the world, so long as he had souls to feed on. Her lord might have gathered to him all who had died during the siege and downfall of his city.
Aleya shivered: she had escaped not from a tomb but a larder.
Luckily, he did not seem to be able to pass the city gate. She wished she could remember the last hours of the city, when their enemies must have breached its walls and overrun the streets. Among the enemy had been mages who feared her lord’s ambitions, and priests and priestesses from many temples. They had defeated him, obviously, but with all the dead he had gathered up, perhaps their united strength had been sufficient only to confine him.
And now the armies of his enemies, too, seemed to have been swallowed by wilderness.
A city of the dead, through his power dreaming that it was still alive — she wondered if she herself had walked in that dream nightly for all the years since the city had fallen. How seductively real it had seemed for a moment, while the ruins and this snow-blanketed forest felt so utterly unreal —
Except that the forest persisted, mile after endless mile. The smell of cold bark and old leaves was stronger than the stink of the crypt that clung to her, and the ache in her legs was also undeniable. She could dance until dawn night after night, but never in her life had she walked so far on her own two feet.
Somewhere in the shadows Aleya lost the footprints. She was too afraid to turn back, wanted only to put as much distance as she could between her and the haunted city, so she trudged onward. And at last the cliffs at the southern end of the valley reared up ahead.
The bridge leading south out of the valley lay in tumbled blocks in the depths of the gorge. And winter had not yet frozen the river, so she could not cross on the ice.
Aleya stood there wearily for a long moment. A lesser road did wind up the steep wall of the valley to the eastern border of her lord’s domain. She had ridden it long ago, in springtime when apple orchards had carpeted the road with petals.
The peasant who had made the footprints might know another way out of the valley. But she did not.
She found a trace of the road where she remembered it, along a stream that here joined the river. It climbed steeply through a deeper, darker forest that had swallowed all trace of the orchards. Switchbacks eventually bore her out of the trees, led her up, trudging ever more slowly, toward the barren and wind-blasted ridge top. The city was now just a pale smudge beneath the mountain wall; strange, after all the years shut up in it by the war, to see it at such a distance.
Near the summit, the tip of a boundary stone pointed into the clouds. Spurred by the thought that she would soon leave her lord’s domain, Aleya quickened her pace. Then the road topped a shoulder of the ridge, revealing what lay beyond: nothing but black forested hills and valleys as far as the eye could see.
She stopped in despair, shivering in the frigid wind. What disaster could have emptied the whole country?
A last switchback led up to where the boundary stone loomed at the summit of the ridge, now only a quarter mile away. Suddenly the shadows swimming around its base, the way the stone seemed to beckon, filled her with a cold dread that might even be one of her true forebodings.
Then Aleya spotted a gleam of yellow light down in the forest below her feet.
She cautioned herself that the light might prove to be another haunting. Still, suppose it was just an ordinary peasant’s hut. O gods and goddesses, what she had endured this day already! She would welcome even the simplest food, even the coarsest, commonest face, as long as it belonged to a living man or woman.
She glanced over her shoulder again at the stone, then headed down toward the light, into the next valley, where hopefully her dead lord could not reach.
When Aleya at last reached the source of the light, she found a quite solid-looking hut of squared timbers and split shingles, very like the peasant houses she had known. Rays of lamplight escaped the shutters to scatter across the snow.
She approached the door, telling herself she had left sorcery and terror behind. These would be simple folk who, despite the dirt on her, would be overawed by her gold and jewels, her lace and brocade, her exquisite beauty.
When she knocked, an exclamation sounded inside. The door jerked open on broken hinges. For an instant everyone in that room froze, and in a single glance she took in the scene:
A handful of armed men sat drinking at a plank table. One of them had answered her knock. The men wore filthy leather cuirasses and breeches strapped over even fouler woolen undergarments, the style of the whole reminding her of a pair of barbarian slaves a merchant had once sold to the lord of her city. Their longswords, together with the crest of a white eagle’s head sewn upon all their cuirasses, told her that despite appearances they were neither slaves nor brigands but some lord’s men-at-arms. As the overpowering reek of their unwashed flesh reached her, Aleya also remembered that her lord had ordered the filthy western slaves bathed, and their clothes burnt, before he sacrificed them and ate their souls.
The soldiers were not the only people in the hut, however. In a corner huddled a peasant family who had been rousted in their night clothes. The husband, a bearded, burly man, bled from scalp and mouth, and rage distorted his face. A little girl sobbed against her mother’s knee, but the mother’s gaze was fixed upon her other daughter. That slight child, who could be no more than eleven or twelve, writhed on the lap of one of the soldiers. He grinned as he fumbled under her shift.
In that scene, Aleya read a story: when her people had died or fled this country, the western savages had invaded. These peasants had no lord now, and no recourse.
Well, she would free that girl from her tormentor.
She did not think of the harm the barbarians might do to her. No one, commoner or cavalier, had ever insulted her. As she edged past the soldier who had opened the door, stepping into the light, she expected only the deference that had always been paid to her, the admiration she had always seen in men’s eyes.
Instead, the soldier’s mouth gaped to reveal a pitiful row of decaying stumps. He began to pant with breath that stank like rotten meat. A thought strayed across Aleya’s mind: he had not cleaned his teeth in his entire life.
Then his face contorted, and a curdled scream burst from his lungs as he staggered back. His fellows scrambled away from the door as well, knocking over stools, a crock of beer.
But the soldier molesting the girl threw her aside, jumped to his feet and, shouting in a language she did not know, pulled a bit of hide out of his shirt. When he spit upon it, out flew a small winged creature with many wriggling heads —
Aleya recognized the wriggler even as it sped toward her: not by its shape, but by the greasy sheen surrounding it, the foul taste in her mouth. It had been made from the flesh and soul of a dead man. Her old lord would have dissolved it with a twitch of one finger. She herself had always tried to avoid magic, although as a child she had been taught a charm — she groped in her memory, but not quickly enough. The wriggler struck her in the chest like a stone and flung her backwards out of the house.
She dropped hard onto the ground. The men-at-arms spewed from the house into the night, some of them sobbing with terror.
When she climbed to her feet and turned once more toward the hut, however, she was met not by the peasants’ gratitude, but by first the husband carrying the younger child, then the wife pulling the older daughter by the hand, as full of haste as the soldiers had been. When she stepped in front of the family, the husband also threw magic at her — not another wriggler but a word, a god’s name, that clamped onto her limbs and rooted her like a tree.
At first Aleya could track the routes of both parties by the racket of their feet in the crusty snow. From the direction the soldiers had fled in came the jingle of harness and the thud of hooves. By the time her paralysis wore off, however, the forest had fallen silent.
She put her hands to her face but felt only her own delicate, winter-chilled features.
She was far too tired to chase the peasants tonight. Aleya stepped into the warm hut and barred the door behind her. First she searched the hut for a mirror to reassure herself, but in vain. Then, ravenous after her long trek, she looked for any food that did not require cooking. The soldiers had left only breadcrumbs and spilled beer.
She hated being alone. How she longed to have those peasants back. The girl would have made a pretty servant.
Aleya found a pitcher of water and managed to drink a few swallows before an irresistible wave of weariness poured over her. Without undressing, she crawled into a bed behind the stove, and as soon as she laid down her head, fell asleep.
In the morning the fire in the stove had gone out and the hut was cold. Aleya set her hair and clothes in order as best she could, drank and rinsed her face. Then she wrapped a rough blanket around her and stepped outside.
A chipmunk chit-chit-chittered from high in a fir tree. The forest otherwise appeared empty of both hauntings and living things. The footprints in the snow told her that the barbarians had ridden south, while the peasants had run away eastward.
Aleya set out on aching feet after the peasant family, following their tracks through the forest for miles without encountering another sign of a human being. None of the peasants, she decided, could have made the prints she had seen yesterday. As the day warmed, the snow melted and the ground turned to mud. The tracks joined another old road, this one more or less tended, that cut across the sides of the hills, affording her views of the lower-lying countryside to the south. Then a bend in the road revealed, about twenty miles distant, a stone-crested knob like a captain’s helmet rearing up from the forest.
Remembrance seared her. Behind that knoll lay the site of her father’s manor, burned to the ground the year she had married. Further south, along the river misnamed the Fortunate, loomed the stronghold of her lord’s ally turned savage enemy, whose soldiers had killed her husband, and in the broad valleys beyond rose the fortresses of the ever-warring great lords, who had at last appeared united at the gates of her city —
All gone now. The light of day did reveal scattered bare patches marking villages or isolated farms, but only at the base of the eastern mountains could Aleya spot anything like the cultivated landscape of her childhood. Luckily the road was leading her in that direction.
Or… it was not lucky at all.
The eastern edge of her lord’s domain was bordered in part by the lands of the Temple of the Oracle, a sacred wood that was never cut or hunted in. The temple itself lay as far east and north as one could go before all roads climbed toward heaven. Even her lord, whose name she would surely remember soon, who had destroyed the greatest mages of the Rich Lands, had taken care not to provoke the Oracle, one of the most powerful and secretive of the old orders. Its priestesses had nevertheless raised a wall of magic and prayer between his lands and theirs. They searched out, even kidnapped, women and girls with the sort of foresight that Aleya owned a bit of — but had always kept secret in fear of them. No one else could pass through that wall uninvited, except for orphaned girls, impoverished widows — women with no other recourse. In exchange for shelter, the priestesses would bind them in living servitude to the Oracle, just as her lord bound the dead in order to feed on their soul-stuff.
The boundary stone last night had been the Temple’s. Last night Aleya had possessed the good sense to turn away from it. Today she was stupidly walking east, straight toward the Oracle.
She tried to remind herself that her old world was gone. Even the great Temple of the Oracle might lie in ruins, engulfed by its own forest.
But once awakened, her lifelong dread that the Temple would discover her could not be contained. Those priestesses would chain her in a windowless cell, they would suck away her soul until she was gibbering and incontinent. She might already have crossed into Temple lands; it might already be too late to escape.
As Aleya skidded toward panic, a sharp thud made her glance wildly around. A second thud and a crack! followed.
The source of the noise proved entirely mundane. A farmstead abutted the road ahead, just visible through the trees. There a peasant woman had begun splitting wood. The woman was plain, dumpy, and middle-aged, dressed in the most rustic parti-colored wool, and she swung her axe with the ease of one accustomed to hard labor. Her shoes were the right sort to have made yesterday’s footprints in the city, but her feet were far too big, nearly as large as a man’s. A pair of turkeys pecked the ground beside her, gobbling.
Aleya straightened her stolen blanket-cloak and stepped nearer. Before she reached the gate, the peasant jerked erect, wide-eyed. At least this one did not scream or flee.
Aleya knew she was less than perfectly groomed, but she was still beautiful, and her bearing was always graceful. “A good day, mistress,” she said, in the cool, musical tones she liked to cultivate.
The peasant slowly lowered her axe. As Aleya continued forward, the turkeys flapped their wings in agitation. Then the peasant woman hissed a god’s name, a searing bolt of light that slammed Aleya down into the mud of the path.
How did these peasants know such magic?
Astounded and enraged, Aleya struggled to her feet. The peasant woman was still spitting out words in her rustic accent: “Go back! Go back to Lord Reyzmon, dead creature, and leave the living alone!”
Reyozem Ahon — this woman knew the sorcerer’s name, though she did not pronounce it correctly.
Go back to your lord, dead creature.
Terror reared up in Aleya again. And then the peasant began droning a prayer. A prayer! As if this ugly commoner were handmaiden to a god!
Perhaps she was one of the Oracle’s snares, though, because that tuneless song sliced through Aleya’s flesh like knives, it choked the air from her lungs. The pain was so intense she nearly fainted from it. O gods and goddesses, the prayer was a supplication to the God of the Gate: open the Gate of the world, lord, let this lost spirit pass out to heaven… Aleya barely managed to gasp out, “What are you doing? I’m alive! Stop it now!”
The peasant sang on. Aleya did not know how long she could survive. To show that she was alive, and that neither prayer nor pain ruled her, she stepped forward again. But the witch hefted her axe, and Aleya, shocked even in her agony by this crudest of threats, once more stopped in her tracks.
“I am not dead!” she gasped. And then, pushing out the words against the weight that crushed her lungs, “Whatever you think — I don’t mean any harm! I just need — I need…” What did she want? A refuge? Rest? An explanation for her long sleep and terrible awakening?
She was so tired, so alone, as pitiful as a beggar. At last she whispered, “I need your help.”
The other woman’s eyes flicked wide and she abruptly stopped her prayer. Aleya’s agony drained away and, dizzy with relief, she sucked in great lungfuls of air.
After a moment the peasant shook her head and muttered, as if talking to herself, “It’s true you’re solider than most of them. And you even have speech. I suppose you’ve been eating the living to keep your thoughts — ”
“I have not!” Aleya cried out in horror.
” — and of course you’ve forgotten what you are already. But you must be full of blood to be walking in daylight and looking at me as if you can even take in my words.” The peasant witch grimaced in perplexity, scratching the back of her neck.
But Aleya moaned, “No, no,” because she didn’t remember well, and she had utterly lost all the years since the city’s downfall. Once more she put her hands to her face and felt only her own smooth cheeks. A landslide of terror and panic was nevertheless roaring down on her. She cast her denials at the peasant, trying to convince herself: “I feel hunger and thirst, and cold and weariness. How could I be dead?”
The witch, or disguised priestess or whatever she was, shrugged. “You hunger for the living, you thirst for their souls, you’re cold from the grave, you’re tired because you’re two hundred years dead, creature, and you should have lain down to rest long ago. You just dress those appetites in the memories of your life.”
“No!” cried Aleya.
But she had longed for living people, and the people at the hut had fled from her in terror.
She had drunk water, and a fire in the stove, a blanket — ordinary things had warmed her. And what about the blue sky just now gleaming through the clouds, what about the smells of cold mud and newly split pine, what about the fluttering turkeys, the crows squawking in the peasant’s apple trees? She felt these things to her bones.
As she had always been able to do with her little bit of magic, Aleya could also taste the glow of the peasant’s soul. Now the thought came unbidden: that would warm her, too… Although the witch was not beautiful and Aleya did not want to touch her, much less eat her life.
“I feel so much,” Aleya whispered. A lump swelled in her throat. She wanted to cry, but no tears would flow. Was that because she was highborn, and no matter what her fear or her suffering, she would not disgrace herself before this muddy, ugly, insolent, blasphemous peasant?
Or was it because the lady Aleya was dead and had no tears?
“You are dead as dead, creature,” said the peasant. “Your soul is just stuck on the wrong side of the Gate, see?” She sighed deeply. “You’ve claimed my help and I seem bound to your claim, though I never knew a person could owe a debt to one of Reyzmon’s slaves. You must be that dead woman who chased the Governor’s soldiers from my brother’s house; I suppose that’s the reason for my obligation to you.”
The peasant witch rested her axe in the mud. “All right, dead thing, stand where you are and listen, and try to remember what I say, though I know it’s not the way of your kind. You are one of Reyzmon’s ghost-slaves. I know his mark, and I see his spells all over you. Reyzmon the lord of Shenna gathered so many slaves to him that when he was killed he was able to stand fast on this side of the Gate. The nariyo say his power shrinks as the years pass, and maybe that’s how you escaped his grip. Maybe that’s how you got your own will back. But escaping your master doesn’t make you less dead.”
Part of Aleya still clung desperately to disbelief. “How can you know these things?”
“We know the story,” said the peasant. “We know it’s death to go to the city of Shenna, or to stay in that valley at night. The lord Reyzmon will eat your soul. The nariyo guard the bounds, but his creatures sometimes find their way out. We here in Ediyan don’t forget the haunted city.”
The peasant woman shook her head again. “Creature, you claimed my help. The best help I could give would be to break your master’s binding and push you through the Gate to heaven. But that seems beyond my power. I will send you to the nariyo — ”
“No,” whispered Aleya. She did not know who these nariyo might be, but the word meant wise people and she did not doubt they would be terrible old sorcerers. “No, I want to live!”
“You aren’t alive now. You just remember being alive. You can keep as you are if you feed on the lives of others — ”
“I’m not a monster!” Aleya wailed. “I would feel it! I would feel dead.”
The witch sighed deeply. “Stay there, creature. I’ll fetch a mirror. Not that you’ll remember what I show you — ”
The woman returned from around the corner of her porch not with the circle of quicksilvered glass Aleya expected, but a simple bowl of water. “Look in,” she said.
Terrified to look, terrified not to, Aleya took the bowl. At first she saw only sky and the outline of her head. Then —
The bowl fell to the ground. “That’s not me!” she screamed.
But as she brought up her hands to conceal her face, this time she saw her withered corpse fingers, and whatever the peasant said about the faulty memory of the restless dead, she would never, ever scour that other image from her soul, that dead woman’s face with its shadowed orbits and sunken nose, the dried lips grimacing over long teeth, black hair straggling from a scalp as hard and shiny as a steel helmet…
The image pierced her like a sword. Dry sobs convulsed her. No shame, not even that of weeping in front of a commoner, was worse than the hideous thing she had become.
The peasant knelt to pick up the bowl. Heat radiated from her flesh and her pulse throbbed like a drumbeat inside Aleya’s own skin. She thought: how easy for one like me to rip open her throat and pull out her heart.
But her anger sank away and left behind only the bitterest loathing. I could drink her blood, she thought, I could eat her soul if I knew how, if I were a great sorcerer I could even shape my appearance. But I could never again be as beautiful as even this ugly commoner, because she is alive. She has blood and tears, she has guts that turn bread into shit. I never thought that was beautiful, but oh, it’s sweeter than honey.
I couldn’t do more than rouge a corpse.
She could no longer stand the touch of her dead hands and dropped them to her side. At last her sobs fell away, stranding her in a wilderness of despair.
“I am sorry, creature,” said the peasant. “I am sure the nariyo could help. In Leyothan they could help you.”
Leyothan! Aleya knew that name: the valley of the Oracle. “The priestesses will enslave what’s left of me.”
The witch gestured impatiently. “Priestesses! A few wise old people. Let them help you.”
“No,” whispered Aleya. “Better I stay with my lord and dream.”
She fled back the way she had come, back toward Shenna. Oh, she could not ignore the truth now. Her bony hands, her tattered clothes, that face in the mirror — no wonder peasants and soldiers alike had fled from her, who had been the most beautiful, the most desired lady Aleya.
In Shenna she could have her beauty back. She would let her lord bind her again and she would pull dreams over her ugliness like a veil. She would sleep away the centuries in the ghost-city of Shenna until he consumed her soul at the last.
She stopped. That wasn’t what he would do.
She had shown that she could pass through the spells that confined him. And his strength was waning, the witch had said.
He would send her out to replenish his larder. She knew who she would kill for him. They would be the ones she had loved in life: laughing children, the young men with their strong limbs and unguarded hearts, the ones fated to ride to war and never return. The ones she had most wanted to protect from hurt. She could not bear to feed them to Reyozem Ahon.
But if she did not go to Shenna, hunger would overwhelm her eventually. She might feel horror now at the notion, but soon she would murder to assuage her own appetite.
In Leyothan, the priestesses could no doubt help her die for good, if they chose. But she could not bear, either, to surrender the semblance of life she now possessed.
Perhaps she could bargain with Reyozem Ahon.
The mere thought turned her knees to jelly. But there were ways, she recalled from long-ago lessons, to extract favors from an unwilling sorcerer — not that she had ever tried them in life.
She started walking again, more slowly. Both mages and priests dealt with the divine realm, and whatever that fundament of creation touched, it governed. The divine power that imparted efficacy to a mage’s spells or a priest’s prayers bled into all his words, acts, obligations, and affections, infusing them with a reality separate from his own being and resistant to his will. The more magic a mage worked, the more he had to suffer that governance. If a mage tried to withdraw from a promise or ignore a passion, he might choke off his magic, perhaps fatally. Even the lowly peasant had found herself ruled by an obligation to Aleya, simply because the witch loved her brother’s family and Aleya had rescued them.
Thus an ordinary person, if careful and lucky, could sometimes find the means to compel a mage. Of course mages guarded assiduously against such plots, and Aleya could not think of any clever traps or obligating favors except for that service, purveyor of fresh provisions, which she could never suggest. And surely she did not have the luxury of time to consider the problem. Her wakefulness might end as abruptly as it had begun, and then she would sink once more into the dreams of the dead.
Aleya paused, thinking she had heard a voice call out. But when she looked around, she was alone on the road.
No, of course: someone was trying to spell her. Reyozem Ahon must be summoning her back.
The bed of the old road, here entirely unused, began to climb in steep switchbacks. The high, treeless ridge she had crossed last night came into view, but standing almost south of her now. This was the road she had turned away from before, the one that ran past the boundary stone into Leyothan.
Which meant Aleya must be walking inside Leyothan now.
But the witch had said she lived in Ediyan, which Aleya recalled as the country south of Leyothan and southeast of her lord’s domain. The road must wander back and forth between Leyothan and Ediyan, with the border marked only at the stone. The priestesses would have known the moment Aleya first stepped over their boundary. Still, they did not seem to be hindering her passage back to Shenna.
She trudged onward, groping for a plan. She should have conquered her fear of her own magic long ago, her fear of discovery by the Oracle. She was tired, so tired, she wanted only to lie down and sleep in darkness, but the almost-heard call grew louder, now unmistakably summoning her, and her bruised feet bore her forward.
At last the tip of the Oracle’s boundary stone reared above her. As she rounded the last switchback, a horse whinnied, and the next moment she walked right into a barbarian camp.
Soldiers cringed from her; their horses reared and plunged at the end of the picket ropes. The soldiers were the very men she had encountered last night, but today they did not flee. One shouted over his shoulder.
In panic, and full of shame that these savages should see her ugliness, Aleya started to hurry past them over the rough ground. But the horses, who had been picketed just beside the road, were plunging and sidling, blocking her way, and then a man came striding down from the boundary stone. “Stop!” he shouted.
The command jerked Aleya’s body as if with a leash. “Stay, revenant!” the mage shouted as he approached her. “I, Guribast, your master am who summon you! I to you ask question!”
Aleya stared at him, heart pounding. First peasants, now barbarians owned such magic?
Powerful this Guribast might be, but his lisping was almost unintelligible. And so pompous in his ignorance, thinking he had summoned her!
His commands did hold her, though, at least for the moment. She tried to step away from the panicking horses but could only shuffle her feet.
Guribast himself stopped at a safe distance from the horses. Although the peasant witch had called the men-at-arms the Governor’s soldiers, Aleya did not think this mage could be the Governor. While his clothes were cleaner than the soldiers’, they were plain and worn. He was somewhat stout, with several days’ beard on his chin. Smile lines creased a good-humored face, but his eyes seemed to belong to an entirely different person. The air around him had a greasy sheen.
And he smelled of fresh blood. A spray of droplets spotted his cheek. Guribast had just sacrificed, or else set out still-living bait for the unquiet dead like her… Perhaps he had come here to steal her lord’s food.
“You to me will answer!” he commanded.
He spoke the language of his betters so laughably. But his voice was rich and compelling. She loathed his necromancy, she hated the touch of his commands. Nevertheless, deep inside her, the sight of him brought a strange relief.
Memory stirred. Aleya had heard his voice before. Guribast had spoken into the darkness of her dreams.
He had summoned her.
He had awakened her.
Her lord had bound her soul in death, but this mage had raised her out of the tomb. And called her here today.
Awe and fear struggled with anger, and anger won. At least she had once owed the lord of Shenna obedience. This barbarian was nothing but a trespasser and a thief.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Guribast frowned. After a long moment he said, “I for vanished wisdom am seek, for hidden wisdom of nariyo.”
“Why did you call me?”
His frown deepened. “I to you am give the question — ”
He stared at her a bit longer, then turned to shout at the men-at-arms in the barbarian gabble. The men had been cowering by the pickets, trying to soothe the horses. Now they retreated down the road Aleya had come along, further into Leyothan. When they had disappeared around a bend, Guribast spoke again:
“Given to our temples is a prophecy,” he said to Aleya. “In Leyothan a secret, a weapon lie, will undo the plan of all who it oppose. My divining to this place led me, to call up the one who can the treasure reveal. Now answer, revenant! And to me this secret tell!”
His command was like a hand poking through all the cupboards of her mind. She felt a compulsion to reply even though she had no idea what he was talking about.
She did not want to help this blood-spattered savage loot the treasures of her people, even if the people in question were the prophetesses of Leyothan whom she had always feared.
Fortunately the commands of mages were like their promises. What compelled her was not his desire but the divine power Guribast had placed in his words, which gave them their own existence in the world, a reality as solid as a stone’s. If he had spelled her to find the treasure for him, she would have no choice but to search until she discovered it. But he had said, Answer, tell me the secret.
“Speak, revenant! Your master answer!”
“Master,” she began, doubting he would notice the irony with which she spoke the title. “Master, my lord was Reyozem Ahon and I died at the fall of Shenna, his city. I was never in Leyothan! Reyozem Ahon offended the Oracle with his sacrifices and his necromancy, and the priestesses raised the boundary against him and all his people.”
“But where Leyothan lie, you know.”
“There is the boundary stone between the three domains,” she said. “You have found that, master. Here we stand at the edge of Leyothan. To the southeast is Ediyan, and westward, over there, is the valley of Shenna.”
“But where,” demanded Guribast angrily, “lie the great Temple of the Oracle of Maro, all-seeing goddess of truth?”
At that, Aleya almost laughed out loud. The rudest peasant in Ediyan could doubtless have informed him, but he, self-styled seeker after wisdom, thought he had to interrogate the dead.
Absurd or not, his words squeezed her mouth and lungs, compelling her to answer something.
From those long-ago lessons in her father’s sunlit manor, she remembered: “The sanctuary of Maro has no roof or walls.”
“You claim the Oracle was not?” He punished her with those words so painfully that she regretted her evasion.
Still, she did not want to enlighten his ignorance in any little thing. She was not going to tell him that the Oracle of Leyothan was not a place but a person, or rather, people — the Abbess and the other prophetesses who sat in the Oracle’s chair.
“I don’t know where the Temple lies, master! I was never there. Everything I knew in life lies in ruins, and wilderness has swallowed the ruins. How could I direct you even if I once knew the way? Go east from this boundary stone. I can give you no better guidance than that.”
From his expression she could tell that he still did not like her answer. Perhaps the priestesses retained power to keep the likes of him from penetrating further into their domain. She would be happy if that were so.
The horses had not ceased their agitated milling. She glanced at them. In life, she had always been a little afraid of all but the gentlest mounts: so big, so unpredictable. But she was not alive. Strong men quailed in her presence. What could a horse do to her now?
She tested the strength of Guribast’s commands and this time managed a step toward the horses. “Stay,” he ordered.
“I have answered your questions, master,” she said, moving even closer to put them between her and the mage. The resulting whinnies and thudding hooves nearly drowned her words.
She took a few more quick steps. Horses reared and screamed all around her; pickets snapped or pulled from the ground. Then they stampeded.
Since it was she the horses fled from, she was able to herd them like sheep toward the mage, slapping rumps, waving her dead hands in their faces. Guribast shouted, but he seemed to own no horse-magic and had to scramble to escape their sudden headlong galloping. It broke his concentration, releasing her completely.
Aleya ran over snow and stone, crossing the top of the ridge. And then she was scrambling down the far side into the valley of Shenna. She felt Guribast’s commands Stop! Stop! flying after her like crossbow bolts, but every one of them missed its mark.
She skidded down a bank and found herself on a traverse of the road. A stream of rampaging horses bore down on her. She waved her arms and was secretly thrilled to see the great animals rear, whinny, and gallop back the way they had come.
Aleya ran down the road until she could no longer suck in breath (although, she reminded herself, she only dreamed that her dead lungs needed air). She did not allow herself to rest even then. Guribast was still calling her back, a silent voice shouting in her ears. She hoped that winter’s early sundown would protect her from pursuit; the peasant witch had said that it would be death for the living to come to Shenna’s valley at night.
It occurred to her then that if Reyozem Ahon could, in the nighttime, send his power beyond the city, she could not have escaped last night. He must have let her go, confident that Guribast would not be able to hold her.
Darkness was falling when Aleya reached the city gate. No snow had melted here. Somewhere she had lost her stolen blanket, and now, as she stared up at the iron-dark mountains, at the tower under the cliffs, she began to shiver in the evening chill. Did the walking dead always feel so cold?
Only the thought that she was one of Shenna’s dead made her able to step through the gate.
Her lord did not greet her at the gate. As she climbed the avenue, limping and exhausted, wind began to pour down from the heights. By the time she reached the plaza, she was so cold it was as if she no longer had any flesh, dead or alive, and there was only pain where her body had been. She walked along the citadel wall that bounded one side of the plaza. When she reached the shattered citadel gate, a jangle of harness caused her to turn in panic. But it was not the barbarian men-at-arms; Shenna’s soldiers were returning from battle with bowed heads.
Phantoms — but already more real-seeming than the true city.
She shook her head to clear it. She had to stay awake to bargain with Reyozem Ahon.
Inside the wall the fortress was reassembling: companies of soldiers hurrying; horses, goats, hay, clanging anvils, glowing foundries, shouts and curses; slaves hauling charcoal; wagon-loads of fallen soldiers awaiting the pyre; and in the distance, temple chimes ringing, ringing.
Plumed guards wordlessly swung open a gate in front of her. Aleya entered, wondering why she had come to the inner fortress. She looked down at herself: brocaded skirts, fresh lace at her bodice and on her wrists, rings adorning her smooth and slender fingers. She wore her beloved necklace of tourmalines. Of course: the annual feast of the court of Shenna. But where was her maid, or even the few doddering lackeys the lord had not required her to release to the defense of the city?
Or, no — the feast would not be held this year, because of the siege —
No, the city had already fallen.
She wrenched herself out of the dream, made herself see the rubble. Wind skittered a leaf over old bones.
But there again, at her lord’s hall, guards were holding open the doors. She stepped closer. Inside, a thousand honey-scented candles shone on the bright clothes of the feasters, on the great tapestries like windows into other lands, on the high table set with porcelain and glass. Garlands of fragrant pine hung everywhere, and the smells of the feast wound through the hall: roast meat, wine, baking apples, oranges and cinnamon from the southlands. The unearthly singing of priestly novices rose up to the rafters.
Gazes followed her as she approached the high table, as if she were a wind and those men and women grass bending in the wake of her passage. She knew herself in their eyes: knew her full, pushed-up breasts, her slim and graceful body, her shining black hair, her pale skin smooth as cream, her faintly smiling ruby lips. Her anticipation was theirs: how that night her maid would pull off her clothes in front of her lover, first her cloak of crimson velvet, then her gown, the pins in her hair, the jewels at her neck and on her fingers, the laces fastening her bodice and tying up her hose, until she stood in candlelight wearing only a lace chemise that slipped from one shoulder…
Did they not, every one of them, want to be that lover?
All the seats at the high table were occupied except for hers and the lord’s, who alone never noticed her. Suddenly she remembered this night, this feast. He had not come. Had stayed in his tower.
The boy, the one she had taken home that night; he had died scarcely a month later. His name had been Veydan. His family had burned their furniture to cremate him properly, hoping thereby to keep his soul from the grasp of Reyozem Ahon. Aleya had given her last scion of silk-rose to the Queen of Heaven’s temple to be planted in his memory.
This had happened already.
Veydan sat at one of the tables, a sweet good-looking boy, gazing at her with a boy’s yearning. He had already died. An ambush at the bridge. Sharp grief pierced her. What was she doing in the past, in this dream?
She was searching for something. For the lord of Shenna? Surely not; she would never seek him out. But —
She found herself at the doors behind the high table. Guards opened them for her as well, and she continued into the corridor beyond. Now she moved uncertainly, peering into shadowed doorways and courtyards. She had never been to Reyozem Ahon’s tower and was not sure where its door lay; word had it that not even his body servants set foot inside.
She had always been terrified of him, though he was a cousin and a bit of his magic flowed in her own bloodline. But all she owned were fleeting moments of true vision, and childhood lessons scarcely attended to. She had lived for music, dancing, and beautiful clothes, while he was a learned man who had traded all earthly pleasures for the disciplines of power. An unforgiving man, too: this lady, this merchant, this captain-at-arms would speak against the war or some injustice, would be stripped suddenly of all property and exiled, or worse. And his sacrifices: he needed more power and still more, he told the priests, to fight the enemies who would destroy the city. When they at last began to demur, he fought the temples, too.
She remembered the shaved, tattooed priestly heads impaled on pikes in the great plaza, whispering in her ear as she walked through the market. It had pleased the lord Reyozem Ahon to create a horde of little sendings, green and gold maggots with tiny human faces, to feed upon the decaying heads. They ate the bound souls, and when gorged, changed to green-gold flies that buzzed away to be eaten by him in turn.
A fierce pang of grief and hatred wracked Aleya; so many men dead, so many children fatherless, so many women left, as she once had been, widowed and alone. And the one whose ambition caused it always hungered for more.
A single guard, face hidden by his helmet, held open the last door. The bitterest cold blew from its dark mouth. As she passed over the threshold, a sharp tingle, like the touch of silk on a dry winter day, coursed up and down her limbs.
When the door closed softly behind her, terror overwhelmed her for a moment.
But then she remembered that this, too, had already happened. The night he had summoned her, the lower city had been burning and the air full of acrid smoke. A flock of tiny golden birds, her lord’s messengers, had launched themselves shrieking from the tower roof.
Now she listened hard until all she heard were the whispers on the wind. Tonight the air smelled only of dank stone.
After all the misery, all that was left of the city were the ghosts and Reyozem Ahon, and her own dead self.
She climbed up. The back of her neck crawled until she thought it might cramp, but at each landing she encountered only an open doorway, and beyond it a bare, darkened room.
Could his tower really be empty?
Step after step she climbed upward. When at last she reached the top, she found herself on a platform with a waist-high wall of stone, ceilinged only by a skeleton of beams. The platform was empty, too, except for the wind.
She waited, shivering. No one came.
The platform floated high above the darkened valley of Shenna. She could see past the rough country along the lower river all the way to the lowlands, where the earth sank into blue-grey shadow, merging with the sky.
No wonder Reyozem Ahon dreamed bloody dreams of kingship in this spot. Of descending from his cold fortress on the mountain trade roads and ruling all the Rich Lands from the sunny valleys at their heart. But did he ever look up the sheer walls of the mountains, to the ice-mantled bulwark of heaven? Didn’t he know the gods looked down on him? How small every human being must seem from that height. How humble it should make you. What gratitude it should give you for small and human joys, the scent of jonquils, the warmth of a lover’s hand.
No, Aleya thought, that was the worm eating his heart: that to be human was to be small and fleeting.
She found comfort in the smallness. How tiny one’s own griefs were beneath such immensity. The city was just a jumble of pebbles at the foot of the great wall. And the eternal mountains; against them even the centuries since the founding of Shenna were a blink of an eye. In heaven the only voices in the wind were the gods’, singing clean and pure over stone.
She sat down on a stair, cold, cold, the bitterness of dead Shenna gripping her bones like a vise. Straight above, by the overhanging peaks, the sky had cleared and the jeweled ceiling of heaven shone bright and beautiful, sharp as a sword in her heart.
Down below, a foot shuffled on stone.
Another step echoed up the stairwell, and another. And with those footsteps rose a gust of whispers.
Aleya stood in alarm, gathering her weapons around her — her grace, her perfect beauty. He might have burnt all his earthly passions to ash, but he still had his sight. He would have to look at her.
Then she remembered that she had no beauty. She was a shamefully ugly corpse-thing, conjured from sleep by an ignorant barbarian. To the great sorcerer who had made her this way, she would be merely contemptible.
She had come to bargain with her master. But she had no knowledge of a secret weakness, no more than scraps of a plan. She did not even have courage. She was here only because every other choice was a worse one.
But she could stand straight as if she did have courage. Clasp her corpse-hands together to hide their trembling.
The footsteps mounted the stairs. Wind ripped at her hair, ghost whispers grew into voices wailing in torment and desire as the avalanche of power roared upward through the stairwell. And finally the lord Reyozem Ahon himself rose into view, climbing the last few steps to the platform.
The wind and the voices poured around them. He raised a hand, and a nest of white flames sprouted on his gloved palm like the flower of a water lily. This he transferred to the low wall beside him. In its light he appeared as he had when alive: tall, lean, heavy-browed, clean-shaven, with a long face and too-large head. His clothes were unchanged as well, all sober and without ornament, and without any sign of wear, either. The wind that whipped through Aleya’s ragged clothes did not stir anything of his.
“Why,” he said in his deep voice, “do you intrude here, slave?”
How foolish to think she could bargain with this terrible sorcerer.
Aleya took a deep breath, pulling back her wind-snarled hair. “I came back, my lord, to see if we could deal together.”
“Deal? You are my milk-cow. You are the salt venison in my cellar. That barbarian opened the cellar door and conjured you legs to walk on, but you are still nothing but dead meat.”
She said, trying to keep her voice steady, “This meat can walk out of the city again, should you let me, my lord, but you cannot do the same.”
A frown creased his forehead. In the old days she would have found that a terrifying sight: her head shortly to find itself atop a pike, gnawed by sorcerous maggots.
“Perhaps,” he said, “but I can reach forth my power.”
“Of course, my lord,” Aleya said. “And you could have prevented me from leaving last night. But you wanted to see how far I could go, didn’t you? And I left the valley. Do you know where I went? I crossed into Leyothan in daylight and returned. You can reach forth your power, but can you reach into Leyothan? Can you send out your power when the sun is in the sky?”
“Don’t be insolent to your master, dog,” he said, and the stoniness in his voice made her tremble all over again. “You slipped your leash is all. I don’t care where you wandered. It won’t happen again.”
She tried to calm her racing heart. “‘In Leyothan,'” she said, “‘there is a weapon that will undo all who oppose it.'”
“Oh, yes,” said the lord Reyozem Ahon, “yes: the naked truth of the goddess Maro, her of the All-Seeing Eye. What is this to me, milk-cow?”
Aleya stared at him. It had never occurred to her that this so-called prophecy might not be prophecy at all, but an old and tired aphorism. The barbarian mage had taken it so seriously, but — so ignorant — !
She caught herself short. The lord of Shenna had always played a dozen or a hundred tangled intrigues at once, within his court and amongst his enemies. She should not take anything he told her to be true. He would not be talking to her now unless he had a reason to let her remain free a little longer.
“It is, my lord,” she said, “a prophecy among the barbarian priests, who consider that it refers to an earthly weapon. It’s why that barbarian sorcerer came to Shenna. I was the one his spells awoke, he says, because I am the one who can reveal this weapon of invincibility to him. Are you certain the barbarians are mistaken and it means only divine truth?”
“Priests!” the lord said. “Those savages have no priests! They are filthy, illiterate pig-herders ignorant of the divine realm. If they had any true learning they would know there is no earthly weapon in Leyothan. Those priestesses disdain the world.”
Aleya said, “Perhaps this weapon is something made since we were alive?”
He blinked, looking for a moment as if he had been thrust suddenly into the light of day. And she thought, he does not understand how the years have piled up beyond his city. Or he knows, but he finds it hard to think about.
“The barbarians rule our land now, my lord. They know the prophecy, or some of them do. Soon they will all be here to search for this weapon of invincibility. But if you get it first, you will triumph. You will have the means to dissolve the spells that confine you to this valley.”
He blinked again, masking his thoughts this time. “What deal do you propose, dog? You will fetch this great weapon for me? Why should I let you run free to get it? You might just think to use it against me.”
She chose her words carefully. “Deal with me, my lord, and you will hold my promise that I will not use it against you. That promise will mean you have nothing to fear from me.”
“And what do you want from me in exchange?” he asked. “You want your beauty back, I suppose.”
He lifted a negligent hand. A tingling passed over her cold-numbed skin; in the corner of her eye, her wind-whipped rags changed to the lace and brocade of her memories. Her hands — she lifted them and saw slender, smooth fingers.
Oh, she did want her beauty back, her one power over the world, the one consolation the war had not been able to take from her. But when you bargained with sorcerers, you had to be as careful with your words as with theirs.
She also wanted to be away from him and his city. She wanted not to be cold anymore. She wanted… she was tired beyond bearing. She wanted to lie down and sleep, but she wanted to wake up in sunshine. She yearned to smell the first roses of summer, to make a young man smile, hear a child laugh…
Reyozem Ahon would know how to grant her both beauty and a semblance of life in such a way she would not have to prey upon the living to sustain them. Of course the only way he could do that would be to share his food. She would perhaps have to eat the souls of people she had known. But they were already dead, those shadows populating Shenna. And she had no other choice except to die for good. Even the temples consumed soul-stuff; they only shunned murdering to obtain it.
She would stoop that low to cling to the living world. But she would never bestow upon Reyozem Ahon the power to break out of Shenna. She had promised him, “I will not use it against you”; she was free to find someone who could.
Anxiety that she would say the wrong words nearly prevented her from speaking. “I want… to live as I was, like a natural, living person again, with a natural span of years from this day forward, free of hunger for the souls of the living, and free to leave this city and your service without prejudice or harm.”
A smile spread across his face. On another man it would have reassured her. She wondered, frantically, what her mistake had been. “If you bring this weapon of invincibility to me,” he said, “and it is a real thing and not some philosophical rubbish of the priestesses, I promise to do as you ask.”
Why that smile? What had she omitted? What actions had she left open to him? Free to leave the city without harm — ought she to have said valley instead, or free to live wherever I go?
Then the smile vanished and he stared at her with his usual cold gaze. “Don’t think to deceive me and go over to my enemies. I leashed you before Shenna fell so I would always have at least one dog to do my bidding. I chose you not because you have any special talent, but because you will never serve a better purpose. You are a hindrance to the defense of the city, a fatal distraction to my captains, weakening them when they need to be merciless. Maybe such as you are tolerable in peacetime, leeches feeding off men’s souls, but in the stern work of war, you are worse than nothing. So I will have no compunction about swatting you like a dung-fly. If you break your compact with me, your sacrifice and your torment will last centuries. Do not try to betray me.”
“I never fed — ” Aleya stared at him, stunned. She had had no idea of the depth of his hatred. No idea he had noticed her at all. The notion that she fed on her lovers was profoundly horrifying. She was nothing like him. She had wanted — she had wanted —
She had wanted to build a wall around those young men where death and suffering held no sway. She had wanted to protect them while the enemy raged outside… although she had always known that they could stay only a brief time in her fortress.
She had never bound a lover to her and she had never cast one off. They had all left her. They had all died, one after the other.
Now he was saying that she had caused it. Had she truly spoiled them for war, had it been her touch that marked them out for death?
She struggled to remind herself that the lord of Shenna was always full of lies. Though it might not all be lies.
But… he spoke as if the battle were still raging. He knew the city had fallen, and yet in his mind his captains still led out his soldiers against the enemy.
If he had leashed her before the fall of Shenna, as he said, why had he never used the tool he had created in the hundreds of years since she and he had died? It was the barbarian mage who had awakened her. A living person.
The spells that bound Reyozem Ahon in this city must have made him unable to loose her and send her out himself.
But perhaps also…
It’s not the way of your kind to remember, the peasant witch had said.
Perhaps he had thought that, dead, he could live off his storerooms of sacrifices. What he had now — and therefore all he could offer her, although she would not think about that right now — was only something like life. His mind could take in nothing new, or at least not well. He could not compass the passage of time. Despite his great power, he, too, could not help but dream of the dead past.
The lord Reyozem Ahon was still, however, a cold and terrible presence. He stood waiting for her reply. Starlight fell through the roof beams brightly enough to cast criss-crossing shadows. But he cast no shadow.
She made a deep courtesy to him. “My lord, I will not break this compact if you do not.”
He said, “You will nevertheless carry this with you, so I will know what you do and say.”
He summoned a glittering disk out of the air and thrust it in front of her face. In the instant before Aleya recognized what it was, the reflection caught her gaze: beautiful Aleya, the old living Aleya, the lie.
She cursed herself. The mirror had to be the one he had tried to force on her when she first fled Shenna. Of course it was ensorcelled, and by looking in, she had become subject to the spells he had placed on it.
“Take it,” he commanded, dangling the mirror by its silver chain.
It was clear that he would not let her leave otherwise. After a moment, she reached out her hand.
The mirror was as cold as ice and no bigger than her palm. Its silver frame tingled against her skin. Circling the glass were gods’ names and divine sigils inlaid in gold: of the God of the Gate, the Queen of Heaven, the Lord of Wisdom, She of the All-Seeing Eye. Strange — the mirror looked more like a temple artifact than a spell of Reyozem Ahon’s making. Now Aleya’s false reflection was rippling like smoke. A hole tore open like a rock smashing thin ice; she was falling. Darkness and light rushed toward her —
“Put it on, dog,” Reyozem Ahon said. “You can make love to yourself later.”
She wrenched her gaze from the depths of the mirror. On his face she saw both the contempt evident in his voice, and a certain satisfaction.
She slipped the chain over her head, carefully tucking the mirror between her jacket and her bodice so it did not lie against her skin. Only then did he step aside from the stairs.
Again she departed Shenna, again she stumbled through the forest on feet numb with fatigue and cold. She began dreaming in snatches of the long-ago summer day when she had first met her husband. When she found herself on the ridge top, struggling up the last rise below the boundary stone, she did try to summon wakefulness, in order to keep watch for the barbarians. But she saw no sign of them.
Then the high glaciers on the mountains turned blue-silver, and a waning moon welled above the peaks. In the moonlight, the boundary stone cast an inky stripe across the road. She halted, although she told herself her fear of the stone was foolish. Yesterday she had walked inside Leyothan’s borders for at least a little while without coming to harm.
Then she saw that the rocks at its base were in fact sprawled corpses.
She edged closer. Their blood stained the snow black. One, naked, might have been yesterday’s sacrifice. The others all wore cuirasses and swords, so Guribast must have escaped the lord of Shenna’s appetite. The horses had probably scattered in terror. She would be pleased if the mage had had to make his escape on foot, and even better pleased if his journey proved long and arduous.
The black stone loomed over her. At last she made herself step past the stone and the corpses. Strange: the dead men lay scattered on all three sides of the boundary marker. Could Reyozem Ahon cross the border after all?
She was headed downhill into Leyothan when a spell slammed down on her. “Stop!”
Guribast’s command gripped her by the bones. This time she could not even turn to face him, could hardly draw breath. She could only listen as his feet clomped toward her across the snow.
It was not the lord of Shenna who had fattened his power on the dead soldiers, but this loathsome man.
“Listen you well, revenant,” he said, in front of her now. The rotten taste of his necromancy seeped into the air. “I your master am now, and no other. All those old spell that guard you I have surmount.”
He took a step closer. “This I upon you place. You, who I awaken, you who I raise so to me to reveal the weapon of Leyothan, you will go search it out. All the snare which your dead lord place when he was alive upon this land, all the illusion of the old Temple, you, dead one, you through it all will pass. You for me will find the treasure and you to me will bring it. Now go!”
The command struck her like a fist even as the spell locking her in place broke apart. Her feet carried her away from him, down the road into Leyothan.
The rest of the moonlit night she stumbled along the road, barely able to lift her feet but unable to stop them moving. Reyozem Ahon did not act to help her through the mirror. Perhaps he could no longer do so. She did not look at her hands, but her clothing was in tatters again, and she was certain Guribast had destroyed the illusion of beauty the lord of Shenna had dressed her in.
She passed the peasant witch’s house as dawn was lighting the sky; crossed a stream, where she drank. On the far side she began to encounter smaller paths feeding into the road. The paving stones grew ever more bare and worn. Then the way split. A muddy track carrying most signs of traffic headed downhill. The old roadbed, however, curved away to vanish into forest. Only a trace of a footpath continued in that direction.
To find an ancient place, she should follow the old road. She did not want to search for the treasure, but she was too exhausted to fight Guribast’s spells, and her feet carried her onward.
The path burrowed through a tangle of young trees, then ended abruptly at a hilltop meadow. And there, still shadowed by the eastern mountains, another valley opened up beneath her.
This valley was not as broad or long as that of Shenna, and was more protected from the weather. But it resembled the landscape of her childhood: stubbled fields and muddy fields planted for winter; stone-fenced pastures holding the half-wild flocks brought down from mountain pastures; hamlets of stone-and-timber houses; a mill beside a swift-rushing river.
And ordinary people lived here. A woman scattered maize for her turkeys beside a dyeing shed. Children chased a dog through an orchard.
Aleya shivered suddenly. A valley walled in the north and east by mountains, a valley from which all roads headed up toward heaven: this peaceful place had to be the dread and mysterious Leyothan, home of the pitiless Oracle.
But the big temple compounds in Shenna had been the size of small villages. Leyothan lay spread out before her, and she could not see so much as a roadside shrine. The largest building was an elegant stone manor about a mile away.
Another cold shiver crawled over Aleya’s scalp. The priestesses of the Oracle of Maro were not, from all she had heard, given to public displays of magic other than prophecy, but their power to wall out the lord of Shenna told its own story. Aleya did not doubt that priestesses who could see every path into the future, and perhaps had foreseen her coming for years, would be able to conceal their entire compound in broad daylight if they chose.
She was so tired it took a moment to realize that her feet had stopped walking. The spell, it seemed, could not force her to move if she did not know which way to go.
But the valley of Leyothan drew her. War and suffering seemed never to have come here. Perhaps that was evidence of the Temple’s weapon of invincibility. Or perhaps it was merely the Abbess’ illusion: another dream like the ghost-city of Shenna, also meant to ensnare her.
Then the sun finally peered over the mountains. Its light threw the landscape into relief, casting a shadow from the road that wound up from the valley entrance. Now Aleya could see that the road had once aimed straight toward the hillside on which she stood, although what remained of it above the manor was grassy and neglected.
Aleya crossed the meadow to look down on the road and discovered an overgrown stairway climbing toward her. At the top of the hill, the stairs vanished under grass and fallen leaves. But a path continued into the heart of the meadow, across sunny stretches or through patches where trees and brush grew wild.
The great temple in ruins like Shenna? Another illusion of the Abbess?
There was magic of a sort here, now that she paid attention. It tingled faintly under her feet, but it also extended beyond the hilltop, a crystalline web of spells woven into the very soil of this valley. It no more resembled the temple magic of her experience than a feather did a longsword.
And then Aleya noticed something else. A woman had recently walked this way, pressing new-fallen leaves into the mud. Her feet, shod in heavy brogues, were no larger than Aleya’s.
She did not know how she could be mistaken about any woman’s shoes. These were the very footprints she had followed out of Shenna two days ago.
Aleya’s heart began to pound violently. An intuition she could not name brought Guribast’s spells to life again, and her aching feet began to stumble after those tracks.
Then she heard singing from deeper in the meadow. Aleya followed the prints past a maple shedding flame-red leaves, over a mound of stones. On the far side she found a girl cutting seedheads into a basket. The girl did not look older than sixteen.
When she saw Aleya, she stopped singing and set her gardening knife in the basket. “There you are,” she said.
Aleya could only blurt out, “You were in Shenna!”
“Yes,” said the girl, as if there were nothing remarkable about the fact. She was gazing calmly at Aleya. “The garden needs tending. Medicines grow there that won’t root any place else.”
“But how do you go there and, and leave?”
The girl shrugged. “The priestesses of Mercy got the lord of Shenna to promise that he wouldn’t interfere in their affairs if they cared for his wounded soldiers. His promise won’t let him touch the person who tends the garden.”
Then, before Aleya could say or do anything more, the girl pressed her palms together in front of her and began to pray.
Her voice was clear, but not loud and penetrating like the singing of temple officiants. Still, the prayer sank into Aleya’s chest like water into dry soil, like molten gold spilling on straw, like a knife ripping rotten fabric to shreds.
Shocked to her core, Aleya could not move. This country girl with twigs in her hair was more unlikely as one of the terrible priestesses of Leyothan than the peasant witch. Even as the girl’s prayer tore her apart, Aleya heard the words:
O Queen of Heaven, whose breath creates our souls, unbind what is bound, restore rightness to the world, give life to what is living; what has passed out of nature, give to him who guards the Gate…
How dare this muddy girl cast into the void the beautiful and highborn Aleya, whom everyone, lords and ladies together, had desired? How dare she be young and, o gods and goddesses, beautiful herself; or at least she would be if she spent an hour of her day on it. She did not deserve that transparent, milk-white complexion, not when she let it freckle so carelessly, nor that hair, near-black where shadow fell on it, dark red where the sunlight dappled it, which she hid in an ugly braid as if she were a temple novice.
She did not deserve to live when Aleya could not. This girl could have everything: a husband whom bloody steel would never take from her, children to run laughing through her house —
She would have no war, no grief, no lord whose ambition would drag her and everyone she loved into ruin. She could have this peaceful valley lying at the foot of heaven.
Sharp hatred surged through Aleya. This girl she could eat. She took a step forward through the pain of dissolution. The girl hadn’t even put a word on her to keep her still!
She reached toward the girl’s neck where her blood pulsed, and the warmth of life rose up like perfume. Then she saw her dead hand against the girl’s smooth skin.
She yanked it away in horror. She tried to stumble back, to run away so she could hide in darkness, but Guribast’s spells would not let her.
The girl just went on singing. Her prayer was like a hard, swift current that tugged at Aleya until the very foundation of her soul seemed to crumble, and she toppled into the flood. The current rushing her along tore her apart, piece by piece, and every break in her soul hurt so much. Aleya knew where the prayer was sweeping her: toward the Gate of the world.
This time she could not fight it. She was so hungry, so thirsty, so weary and steeped in despair. The air was darkening fast, and a fierce pain burned in her chest. Maybe she should go. She was a monster, and nothing could redeem that but a true death.
The burning in Aleya’s chest turned to white-hot fire. In the deepening shadows between her and the girl, a hole ripped open like the one Aleya had glimpsed in the mirror, and out of it, on the wings of an icy wind, rushed a void both bright and dark.
The Gate of the world. Except — all around the void hung sigils and gods’ names, exactly like the ones on the mirror —
And suddenly Reyozem Ahon stood beside Aleya. The girl inhaled sharply, and her song faltered.
“You barking, mangy cur,” Reyozem Ahon said to Aleya. “Couldn’t you keep from stirring up the priestesses for even an hour?” He stepped forward.
But it wasn’t Aleya he reached for. It was the girl.
In that eyeblink something twisted inside Aleya. O gods and goddesses, how she hated him. His works had made her heartsick beyond heartsick. The thought of Reyozem Ahon bringing his ruin to this valley, of him so much as touching that girl, filled her with more loathing and rage than she could endure.
And she had opened the way for him. She had carried the mirror here.
Twisting the fabric of the world through the mirror was a feat of magic so great that it made Guribast’s spells look like a child poking in the mud. But Aleya knew how to stop it.
She walked toward the Gate, bearing the mirror and Reyozem Ahon’s spells with her. She was so tired, she had walked so far, she did not know how she could take these last few steps out of the world. But she had to do it. The god-names ringed her now. As Aleya whispered them, they brightened, vanished. And then she crossed the threshold of the void. Darkness like ink poured on all her senses. Time and space dropped away —
She wished she could have said her own prayers before dying, said goodbye to everything she had ever had to leave behind: her mother and father, her sisters and childhood home, all left smoking under the winter sky by enemy raiders. Her husband, whose face she could no longer remember — dark hair, his eyes had been dark, but his face… She never had his portrait painted because it had not been possible that he would lie dead on the battlefield six months after their wedding.
Goodbye to the children she had never borne, because she could not stand to bring them into the world made by the lord of Shenna.
Goodbye to every lover who had ridden out to die — at this moment, she knew she had not caused their deaths. She only saw in a man’s face when he was going to die and could not help but want to comfort him. The God of the Gate’s breath had always been so cold on her soul.
And now the vast swelling presence of that god approached her. The cold sword of Judgment swept down, for her —
But lightning pierced her instead, and the darkness shattered around her like breaking glass.
And then, inexplicably, she was back in the sunlit garden. The lord of Shenna had vanished, and the girl was singing as if he had never interrupted her.
The blue sky arched over them. A bumblebee, heavy with pollen and slowed by the autumn chill, lit on the girl’s green jacket. The last of Aleya’s bitterness dissolved into longing, and she began to weep. The stinging in her dry sockets felt like acid.
After a while she became aware that the girl had stopped her prayer. Aleya wiped her face. She was surprised to touch real moisture. “Where did he go?” she asked.
The girl shrugged, but she was watching Aleya with that sharp dispassion. “Back to Shenna. Could I see how he came here?”
Aleya pulled the chain over her head and handed it over. Broken glass rained to the ground.
“A Temple mirror!” the girl exclaimed. “They used them for prophecy. I’ve never seen one with the glass still in.”
But she turned the mirror away from her and knocked out the remaining shards before she inspected the inscription on the front. “There was a mirror they sent to Shenna,” she said, “long ago, to bring a prophetess to them. It never came back. This must be the one. It’s too bad it’s ruined.”
Sent to bring a prophetess from Shenna? A shiver crawled over Aleya’s scalp. “I broke it because — he was trying — you — ”
“Oh, he couldn’t touch me because of his promise about the garden of Mercy. But you did the right thing. What I meant was that he was the one who ruined it.” The girl laid the frame in her basket among the seedheads and sticks. “So why did he send you?”
Her accent was much easier to understand than the peasants’. Now Aleya saw the gold in the girl’s ears and the embroidery on her jacket and skirt, but how could her maids allow her to go around with that dreadful braid and those ugly, muddy, heavy shoes —
The girl waited on her answer, her gray-green stare piercing Aleya through and through. No sixteen-year-old girl, Aleya thought, should look on the world from such a distance and at the same time as if everything was naked.
“I came to steal your treasure,” Aleya admitted.
The girl frowned. “Treasure?”
“A barbarian sorcerer raised me out of the crypt and spelled me to find it. The lord of Shenna also wants the treasure. I offered to bring it to him, you see, in exchange for a semblance of life — ”
“A semblance — !” the girl said. “You’re not dead and he knows it. He was the one who disguised you!”
Aleya gaped at her. “Not dead?”
“Someone might have thought so at first glance. He put many spells on you. But I’ve untied them all. Come with me.”
The girl was already walking away. Aleya limped after her as quickly as she could, across another grassy stretch and into a stand of immense old pines.
Here there were no fallen walls. Instead, a part of the mountain, a sheer mossy outcropping untouched by stonecutters’ chisels, rose up through the forest canopy. A spring burbled out of a crack in the cliff to run into a stone-lined pool.
Power shivered over Aleya’s skin as she stepped toward the pool. This must be the inner sanctuary of the old Temple. The sanctuary of Maro has no roof or walls: not philosophy but plain description.
Aleya expected the girl to genuflect and pray, but she merely crouched down and drank from cupped palms. Then the girl surprised her once more by taking Aleya’s hands in her own cold wet grasp, plunging them into the basin, and lifting them to Aleya’s mouth. Aleya averted her gaze and tried to twist away from her corpse-fingers, but the girl insisted, “Drink.”
The water, heavy with the power of the sanctuary, was bitterly cold and burned all the way down. Aleya’s gut cramped and for a moment she thought she might expel the water the way it had come. But after a moment the pain eased.
“Look with me into the water,” the girl said.
“Please,” said Aleya, more tears spilling down her cheeks. “Don’t be cruel.”
The girl just repeated, “Look!”
Her clear-eyed gaze did not waver from Aleya’s corpse-face. By her tone the girl might be urging her to try a gown of a color she usually shunned… a sister’s voice, a lover’s voice, a daughter’s voice. Longing rose up in Aleya again, and grief she could not bear. She squeezed her eyes shut. It was so quiet in that place that she heard her tears plinking one by one into the basin.
The girl’s hands did not release her own, and finally Aleya dared open her eyes again.
A stranger leaned over the glass-smooth water of the basin. The woman was gaunt, lined, worn down by years, and gray streaked her black hair. Her dark eyes glittered with tears. She had no beauty, but she was —
She was alive.
Aleya looked at her hands imprisoned in the girl’s grip; an aging woman’s fingers, but not a dead woman’s. “How — ?”
“You were never dead. Reyozem Ahon tied up your life, but he never took it from you. I suppose he conceived some plan for you before he died — ”
“To send me to Leyothan, past the spells of the Temple,” Aleya whispered. “He must have known the prophecy all along. Maybe he learned it from one of the Shenna temples.”
She had been lying in the tomb like an enchanted maiden, not even her fingernails growing. Except that unlike a heroine of story, she had aged…
“What prophecy?” demanded the girl.
“About the treasure. ‘In Leyothan is a weapon that will undo all who oppose it.’ The barbarian, the one who summoned me out of Shenna – he told me about it. He said his spells had raised me because I was the one who could find it — ”
The girl was frowning again, but at the basin. Aleya followed her gaze and, with a chill, saw reflected in the basin an image of Guribast beneath the boundary stone, as clear as if he stood beside her.
But the girl said, with irritation, “What treasure? The priestesses owned some books. They never had weapons. The Temple didn’t even keep men-at-arms. Everything else left behind was just — dishes, linens, kitchen stores.” She shook her head. “‘Stupid people rely on prophecies; the future is not yet written.’ The Abbess wrote that in her pillow-book — she, the great Oracle whose prophecies they all sought out. Is that the secret of Leyothan?”
She released Aleya’s hands and turned restlessly toward the entrance of the sanctuary. “But the mage laid a command on me to — ” Aleya said.
“I told you,” the girl said, looking back, “I took all the spells off.” And then, when Aleya tried to speak further, “You’re safe here, for the moment. The nariyo do pretty well at keeping him lost.”
Aleya barely heard those last words, because all at once the reflection in the water changed. A hole opened, obliterating the image of Guribast, and the void rushed toward her. As before, time and space fell away, blackness swallowed all her senses, and the God of the Gate’s cold sword swept toward her.
But this time Aleya remembered that he who wields the sword of Judgment is master only of the dead who pass through the Gate. The one who rules the Gate is the goddess sometimes named Maro, which means divine truth, and the door into the mansions of heaven is also called the Gate to vision.
Once again brightness pierced her, and this time —
“You are the Oracle,” Aleya whispered.
The girl jerked as if slapped. “There’s no Oracle. The Temple has been empty for a hundred years.”
“No,” said Aleya, “you are the Abbess, the Abbess’s — who are you?”
“The last Abbess’s great-great-granddaughter,” said the girl, angry now. “She opened the doors of the Temple. She said the cloister was a great evil and no one should ever be bound to the service of prayer, and she left the Temple herself. It doesn’t mean anything. The talent isn’t passed down — ”
“No,” said Aleya. “The Temple is still here — the peasants who know so much — the nariyo, whoever they are — it’s just spread out, growing up through the grass and the trees. The Temple has no walls or roof.”
The girl pressed her lips together. Aleya recognized the fear in her eyes, and just as Aleya had always felt the cold wind of death blowing out of a doomed man’s future, now her newly sharpened sight showed how there was neither Gate nor wall between this girl and the mansions of the gods. No fleeting visions for her; only her angry refusal to look kept her from seeing all the time.
At least in Aleya’s former life, she had known how to delight in beauty, how to seize moments of joy despite the terrible war that, one by one, took everyone she loved. Aleya saw how this girl had all the things she herself longed for, but owned none of them. The girl wandered old ruins because she preferred things with no future.
And Aleya knew — the way she had always seen approaching death in the eyes of those doomed young men, her lovers — she knew that this girl was the weapon of Leyothan. She came and went from Shenna, and Reyozem Ahon had never suspected. To discover her, temples pored over old prophecies, the barbarian summoned the dead, all so far in vain.
Aleya was not going to speak about it. It was as if the goddess herself laid hands upon her lips.
The girl turned toward Aleya again. “My grandmother expects me,” she said. And then, formally, “You are welcome to stay in our house. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the priestesses ruled Leyothan. Any woman in distress or with no other recourse can live here, though there’s no room for idle hands.” She sighed. “If you really are the one who will find this supposed weapon of Leyothan, we can’t let the barbarians have you.”
Aleya watched the still-nameless girl, daughter of the manor, depart through the ruins. Now what?
The mirror the priestesses had sent to Shenna had, after all these years, found her and worked its change on her.
The girl had untied knots from the past but had left the straggling threads in the road.
Aleya did not know how to gather herself up and proceed. Still, she remembered her childhood lessons: magic and prayer, dust drifting out of the divine realm, have their ineluctable laws. Like the peasant woman, Aleya was now left with a spiritual debt that she must repay.
And as surely as she had divined the girl’s nature, she knew what task the goddess Maro demanded of her. Reyozem Ahon was banished safely back to Shenna, but there were plenty of living people to come searching for the weapon of the prophecies. Her own gift remained so much less than the girl’s, but she had to learn to use it so she could guard the girl from them.
Aleya had been afraid her whole life that because of her gift she would be taken to serve the Oracle, and now it was her fate.
With some trepidation, Aleya looked again into the stone basin. For a moment she did see more fragments of vision: Guribast gloved in blood; a young cavalier on a black horse, hunting him through a maze of stone, a maze of spells; barbarian temples; armies marching to war; Reyozem Ahon; a cliff face shattering into ruin.
Then the fragments dissolved and left only a strange woman’s haggard face. She would have to work to recognize the face as her own.
Aleya genuflected before the spring of the Oracle and followed the girl out of the ruined temple, as she had once followed her out of Shenna.
The cold mountains, iron-dark and ice-pale, towered over the valley. How small Leyothan was, for a sanctuary against the haunted past and the barbarian present.
Aleya descended the temple hill and trudged toward the manor. Peasants at a smithy glanced at her with desultory interest, as if she were no more than a hopeful beggar. Didn’t they know she was a revenant from the tombs of Reyozem Ahon, dead lord of Shenna?
Didn’t they know, she mocked herself, she had once been beautiful and highborn, needing no one’s pity?
Her first unthinking impulse was to seek the front door of the manor, but she turned instead to the kitchens as a beggar would. The middle-aged woman who answered her knock seemed to find Aleya, two hundred years old, as unremarkable as the peasants had. “Oh, yes, miss told us you might be coming.”
The servant led her to the bathing rooms behind the kitchen stoves. Steaming water out of the stove tank, soap scented with balsam: o gods, how that bath soothed her to her bones. The clothes they gave her were coarse-woven in the country style, dyed a plain brown and lacking embroidery, but they were clean and nearly new.
When Aleya returned to the kitchen, the servant who had admitted her sat her at a trestle table, below hanging bunches of onions. It would no doubt be the lady Aleya’s fate to chop the onions, and to scrub the pots as well.
But the kitchen was clean and warm, and Aleya had stopped feeling cold altogether. Apples and a round of cheese waited on the table. From a big copper pot rose the smell of sage and turkey, and someone had just removed fresh-baked bread from the oven.
Small and human things; what reverence they were due, o gods and goddesses, with more holiness in them than all the prayer-ridden temples in the world.
“What did you say your name was?”
Aleya looked up to see the plump head cook offering her a plate. “You look more than half-starved,” the cook said. “We don’t dine for an hour. Why don’t you warm yourself meantime with this?”
On the plate sat a slice of buttered bread. It was darker and denser than what Aleya would have expected in a manor house, but its rich fragrance rose up with the steam, headier than incense. “Thank you.” Her words emerged in a whisper. She took the plate and lifted the slice for a tiny bite.
“It’s good,” she said.