1.Regards of Forgotten Things

READ ME:

The Great Conflict, and the world, has ended. Magic is forbidden so that the world can heal. I believe it’s stolen your memories, too. Which is why you and I are keeping this journal. You, reading this tomorrow, and me, writing this today.

Remember this if you can:

Your name is Carth. You are a warrior, aged boy. You are in the service to the Warlord’s clan in his mission to restore order to the Realm. Ask daily for your payments. For an index of items, places, people and locations, refer to the scrolls next to this one.

* * *

You were almost speared during your bath in a river near the village of houses you burned yesterday. There were a few others rolling and splashing about in the river. I can’t say how long you’ve been with the Warlord, but I suppose you don’t have much time for baths. Either that, or there’s some leftover magic in the water that could mutate you.

You finally had a chance to scrub away the grime choking your skin. Being freed of it brought a grin to your face. You, to your limited knowledge, hadn’t known the sensation of clean skin, and the feel of it was almost overwhelming.

Your ears were so full of water, however, that you didn’t hear the trample of horses’ hooves until the shouting had started. I suspect your ears filled up because your head is so empty. If you don’t have memories, you could at least fill that had up with water. “Cavalry!” Someone shouted. The word echoed down the line of bathers, uttered through various translations. You were shaking the water out of your ears and eyes. All around you was black mist–like soot curling ever-downstream. Men were reaching for their gear. Spears, pikes and sheathed swords. No one bothered to put on armor. If an company of mutated monsters had found you, you were all as good as dead.

You had just drawn yourself, naked, to the banks of the river as the mounted men reined up.

Their commander’s skin was blacker than his horse’s fur. So dark it was almost purple. There were three others, two flanking and one behind him. You tilted your head at the commander.

He was reaching for his own blade when you threw the point of yours yours up to his horse’s head. “Stop this!” you shouted. “Lay down your arms!”

The men about you grimaced and winced. “Are you in charge here?” the commander asked.

For all you knew you were–so you told him, “Yes!”

“Then what in the name of all gods do you think you’re doing?”

You looked down to the river and then back at him. “I’m…taking a bath?” you said it like a question. You had no idea why this would upset him.

Naked, armed men laughed at that. It was an honest truth, if a little simple. Then again, you’re simple so there weren’t many answers you could give.

“You’re upstream of the watering place!” He fumed, “Do you expect my horses to drink from the same water you lot have been washing your asses in?”

This might shock you, Carth, but being naked and dripping wet in front of black riders in full raiment does not inspire much dignity. But you clung to what little you could and said, “Do you know who you’re speaking to?” Or something just as stupid. You didn’t even know who you were. Why would they?

“At your word, I’m speaking to the leader of this company—though I can’t say it shows at the moment.”

“If you’ll give me a moment to dress myself, mayhaps I can make a better impression.” There were scattered smirks down the line of naked men. There was a grating noise like someone holding back laughter.

The commander rolled his eyes, “Once you put on your armor and your fine regalia, I’ll start calling you commander and captain. Until then, have your men lay down their arms before I decide they’re greater fools than you! Now stop fouling my horses’ drinking water—you’ll make them simple!”

You grinned. Perhaps it was the fact that you’d no idea the danger you were in, but a joke crept up on the fringes of your mind.

You had overheard warriors’ complaints while you bathed. You had taken a mental note of names and places I’ve since written for you in your index.  “A thousand pardons,” you said. “I’m fresh from Ükardhi, far south.” You hoped you were pronouncing that right. “I had upstream baths there and never a problem with those lot turning simple from drinking the bathwater.”

You had begun to laugh. The mounted man’s mouth twitched as he tried not to join in. And then he was laughing, too.

Later you would discover that this man was named Desmon. One of your two friends.

You’ve got two friends, see: Desmon Harcourt (a black rider: the large, rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle), and Aos Varangyan (the yellow-haired woman with a latticework of scars and a longsword that she seems to magic in and out of her hand).

It was Aos who told you this by the cookfires at night. “Why didn’t Desmon say something?” you asked. “Why put on such a show in front of everyone?”

“You were naked and pretending to be the captain of a regiment!” Aos sniggered. “Everyone wanted to see how that would play out. He would have been passing up a better opportunity than the if the Warlord discovered the monsters’ hideaway. Can you blame him?”

You decided you couldn’t, and laughed with her.

When the laughter died down, you noticed that Aos’s smile did not reach her eyes. She took a long pull of her drink. It smelled like honey. “Are you okay?” you asked.

“I just wish your brother could’ve been here to see it,” she told you. “It’s been a hard week for all of us.” Her hand fell on your shoulder and then tightened. “I’m sorry.”

You needn’t concern yourself with that, Carth. I’ve fixed your records. No need to worry.

* * *

I have a fun surprise for you, Carth: you know how to ride a horse.

I know this because you tried to flee your commander just after waking. Burn your blood, you’re an idiot!

You awoke yesterday and tried to run away after seeing a gigantic man with fingers as wide across as your palm and a belt stuffed with swords that looks like small knives pinned against his massive frame.

Unless I’m just being hyperbolic. Not that you’d know.

How were you to know this man was in service to the Warlord? There was just a many-weaponed man standing over you in a tent, and you had no idea how you got there.

So You did what any sane man would do at the sight of such a creature. Once every ounce of courage had trickled down your leg you hopped up on horseback and booted your horse in the ribs. The commander sent men after you and you were almost executed for desertion—until your friends stepped in to explain.

Other warriors, you see, were dragging you back to one of one of the Warlord’s commanders. Desmon and Aos were not far behind.

Look at your legs, Carth. See those scratches and scrapes on all down your shins? That’s from that incident when the warriors dragged you down the road. Proof to you I’m telling the truth.

“We caught him deserting,” one warrior said, “Tried turn cross the river, back there.”

Aos stepped in, “He can’t remember much. He’s simple, really. Watch.” She turned to you and spoke slowly, thumbing back to the big man with gray eyes like two chips of dirty ice. That’s called an commander, Carth. Repeat after me: com-man-der.” she sounded out for you. “Don’t forget to write it down.”

But you will. It’s what you do best.

* * *

It has come to my attention, Carth, that you do a lot of marching. Your legs feel sore right now, don’t they? Take comfort: I promise they’ll hurt worse tomorrow.

Today you marched through a strange place. Pebbles had wormed their way into your sandals, but any time you stopped to try to remove them, others roughly shoved you forward.

The whole day, you marched, trapped inside a box of men, weary and footsore, trekking through red mists and flashes of glowing purple motes. You were told that the first battle in the Great Conflict began here. The one that ended the world and created the monsters. Rocks bubbled and steamed with heat, and pieces of crowd were fused with the outline of swords.

You marched down the length of a river, choked with magic and thick as molasses. The heat baked you so much you worried your cloak would be set alight.

Desmon and Aos have assured you that this isn’t the case.

You did not stop marching until you were on the other side of the field, beyond the rocks hissing steam the far-off grass that braided itself. Near the evening it began to grow cold, and your box of warriors marched past mud pits filled with grasping hands with fingers broken at strange angles.

Things only got stranger from there: The molasses-thick river picked up spread, but the faster it went the more hands you saw rising up, holding candles that were not affected by winds; gullies and small ponds filled with faces smothered in lacquer masks. Toward the end of the field the grass turned to sand, and each step unearthed thousands upon thousands of teeth and fangs and cracked, black jawbones.

As you crested a hill and cleared the field, a chill whispered down your back and I swear you saw a pair of eyes followed you. You were told not to question it. Never question what you see in the battlefields leftover from the Great Conflict.

That night you huddled into your cloak during the nighttime cold. You kept to yourself, watching various factions under the Warlord’s command speaking in various tongues you couldn’t understand. As you listened, you gathered some names that these creatures used often to refer to themselves. It was as if they were one entity.

When you read this tomorrow, you should find a river just over the hill. You wondered if it had a name. Were you marching toward its source?

Where were you, anyway?

You decided to ask Aos.

“On the road,” she grunted, which you understood well enough, but you could see that for yourself. But it didn’t exactly answer where you were going.

You asked, and she told you that you were chasing a warband of monsters. You needed to intercept them before they found a colony of survivors.

As I write this, the warriors rise for breakfast. You’ve been allowed a short rest for the moment. You observe.

The Warlord’s company tramps down the road for miles. Such a great gathering of folk, isn’t it? You wondered who could possibly oppose this force? Surely there can be no larger gathering of warriors.

You’ve got a long sword at your side. You don’t think you know how to use it, do you? Draw it out of its pouch. Feel that wood-and-bone handle? Feels like a handshake between old friends, right?

You’ll use that sword that kill the monsters. Folk say that creatures like them are mutants with large tusks and vomit-colored flesh.

And you’re all too eager to join the Warlord chasing them. Do you even remember why you’re fighting these thing?

I do. But by the time you read this, you won’t.

But you’ll take up arms against them, anyway, won’t you, Carth? Who knows—maybe victory will make the pain go away.

I know the answer.

You’ll have to find out.

* * *

You’ll never guess what you did all day! You marched. Shocking, I know.

The Warlord’s army camps tonight as I write this. They’re split into groups in accordance with their tribes; all of them huddled by separate cookfires, devouring their rations. Others spoke of gods, their speech littered with curses. It was utterly baffling. These people cursed lightning lords! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does curse them.

And would they be saying such things during a thunderstorm?

You tried to ask Desmon why you want to fight the monstrous warband. He answered by thrusting a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. “Eat,” he said.

You snatched up that strip of meat and tore at its stringy tendons. When you finished it you wiped your mouth with the back of your hand and half-growled, “More.”

“You’re hungry,” Desmon said. “That’s good. You must keep eating much, boy. Keep up your strength.”

He gave you more just like you asked. Strips of meat thick as tree bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse. You’ve probably still got some stuck between your teeth if you’re curious.

Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man was about to put out his cookfire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent.

Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.

You huddled up and scratched out a note. Aos had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.

You heard men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a lightning lord must attend a wedding dressed as a bride in order to retrieve his magic sword.

Desmon and Aos had asked you for own legend. They wanted to know if you could remember anything, or if you could recall enough to event one. So You sewed together scraps of memory, mixed with other legends you heard tonight and gave them the legend of Tinker Taker—he was the first to claim Grayfell as the First Holding of some long-forgotten empire.

He was a reaver before that and had spent six days on stormy seas. On the seventh, he spied the timbered fortifications of Grayfell rising up like an obscene gesture along the coastline. “If there’s a meal on the table and a fire in the hearth,” said Tinker Taker, “I won’t be setting foot in a longship for the rest of my life.”

And there was. And he didn’t.

You’ll notice how the legend doesn’t tell you what happened to those who made the meal and lit the fire. We’re going to do the same—understand me, Carth? There are some things that are best left forgotten.

Next

 

Ash and Cinders: Then and Now

This post is a follow up on this one, where I compare my writing from November of 2017 to something I wrote this month.

On July 29th, 2016, I published In the Caverns of the Rock Lord on The Mythlings. Weeks later, I attempted (and failed) to write a novel expanding on the material (I called it Ash and Cinders) and giving some characters more backstory and more going on before and after the narrative of the short story. I worked on it on and off up to January of 2018. Around November of 2017, I wrote a quick prologue that you’ll see below.

The reason I mention this is because as of April 5th, 2018, I have begun a challenge to rewrite my attempt at a novel–at least up to the point where the original short story, linked above, ends. The contrast between what was written in November of 2017 and April of 2018 is startling, and I believe worth a look.

Special thanks should go to my good friends Amber Richard and Quinn Castine as well as my Mother, my sister Rachel, my friend and mentor Ron Jones, and my girlfriend Kira, all of whom I have spent the past few months inundating with feedback over and over again–especially since November, where I began a concerted effort to improve my prose. Almost half a year later, here are the results so far.

 

ASH AND CINDERS – Chapter One – CIRCA NOVEMBER, 2017

She darted into a sitting position in her bed. Azoc, her younger brother, nudged her awake like child prodding a snake with a stick. “Cinder?” he rasped, “Cinder, wake up. You shouldn’t have nightmares on your birthday.”

Cinder had almost forgotten her birthday. She didn’t celebrate it often anymore. Three years ago, their Father had married Phira and had a son, Benn. Two years ago, their father had died. Last year, Phira had taken control of management of their father’s inn, which usually consisted of ordering Cinder and Azoc around while she drank with her friends. She didn’t see the point in celebrating birthdays when there wasn’t much left for her to celebrate.  

“I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. But I didn’t want to shout. Benn’s still asleep.”

Cinder giggled. “You think I care if you wake him up?” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “He’s Phira’s son. If he wakes up, she’ll take care of him. He’s her son.”

“He’s father’s son, too,” Azoc said. “He’s like me.”

Cinder went wide-eyed. Deliberately, she sat up in bed and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder. Her eyes glinted. “No,” she said, holding him by the shoulder with one hand while wagging a finger in his face. With the other. “Not like you. Never like you.”

“But why–”

“I want you to promise me you won’t compare yourself to anything related to Phira ever again.”  

“But why–?”

“Just do it.”

Azoc raised his right hand and rolled his eyes. “All right. I promise.” He looked at the hand that held his shoulder.

Azoc glanced at the leaves that banded around around Cinder’s forearm. Their hue darkened to a deeper shade as if a shadow had spread across them and Azoc knitted his brows. “Why does that always happen?” he asked. Azoc had inherited more of his father’s humanity than his Mother’s abilities as a Nymph.

“Mother used to say the leaves get older as you do. Remember how her leaves were fragile and stiff? She was getting old.”

Azoc shook his head. “I wish I could remember her face.”

Cinder hugged him. “Me too.” I remember the leaves. She had promised to remember leaves. She had glimpsed the men who had used her mother for firewood as they fled. She did not remember what they looked like. But she remembered her mother, whose foliage was orange and dead in a pile next to her body, ready to be used as kindling. She vowed she would remember the leaves, at least. Even when she could recall nothing else, she would remember the leaves.

Cinder rose and donned a pair of trousers and a shirt, and two crept out the bedroom door and stalked through the inn.

It was a large structure, consisting of a main building and lounging porch, with two long wings that extended out and back on either side. It was constructed of logs, cut and laced on a high stone foundation.

Cinder and Azoc wound through the wings, past mostly-empty guests rooms. Occasionally she heard a muffled snore from behind closed doors. She winced at every creak and crack the floorboards made as she made her way down the steps toward the common room. In the early morning there was only the light came from the sun filtering through the windows.  

At one point, Azoc had knocked his hip against a chair, causing a too-loud shriek that tied Cinder’s jaw shut with anticipation. She tensed, preparing for Phira; or perhaps Benn’s crying. But nothing came, so the two crept silently over to the door. Cinder was just thinking about what fun it would be to go see Orym and hear all his new tales from his latest venture into the Ever Changing Land. Cinder had her hand on the door handle when—

“Did I tell you that you could leave?” Phira’s shrill voice rang from behind them. There was a rasp to it—a hiss; as she struggled not to wake patrons that Cinder could distantly hear snoring. Or worse: wake the baby. “Cinder! Azoc! Get back here!”

A pang of anger tightened in Cinder’s chest. She turned around, forcing her lips wide in what she hoped was a convincing smile. “I wasn’t leaving,” she lied. “I’m still in here, aren’t I?” I was just checking to see…um…”

“We were checking to see if the doors were creaking,” Azoc finished for her.  

Phira squinted at them, as if gauging their intention. “You two were sneaking about,” she said. “It’s too early for you to two to be up and about. Besides, whenever I ask for help tending to the inn, you’re all complaints. You expect me to believe you do it over your own volition?”

Ask for help? Cinder thought. Help implied that you’re doing work in the first place. But she held her tongue and tightened her jaw.  

When neither of them spoke, Phira continued. “Are you two trying to tell me you’d like to contribute to running the establishment your father left me.”

It’s not like you were his wife or anything, Cinder thought. It’s not like you didn’t know you were marrying an innkeeper with an innkeeper’s responsibilities. But what she spoke amounted to, “I…I’d rather—”

Phira deflated with a heavy sigh that stopped Cinder in mid-sentence. “I try with you, Cinder. I really try. Why do you always feel the need to make things difficult. I can put you to work if you’d really like me to.”

She did not deign to answer that. For half a dozen heartbeats, neither dared to speak; until Cinder broke the silence like a stone thrown through a window. “Don’t treat me like a child.”

Phira’s voice went sickly-sweet. “You can’t expect people to indulge you in your little games just because you’re too young to know better—”

“She knows better than you,” Azoc said, indignantly.  

Phira’s brow cut into a V shape, and her frown was a horseshoe. “You, young man, will hold your tongue. This doesn’t concern you—and keep your voice down. You’ll wake the baby!”

“If you’re afraid we’ll wake him, then just let us leave and we’ll make our noise somewhere else,” Cinder said.

Phira shook her head pinched the corners of her eyes. “I’m not having this conversation. Return to your beds. It’s just past sunrise, and I don’t have the strength to argue with you this early in the morning. You can still sleep before the day’s work.”

Cinder was too old for naps, but she was too young to argue. “Fine,” she spat.

“Watch your tone,” Phira growled. “And you will address me with yes, ma’am or yes, mother.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said and then hated herself for saying it. She and Azoc had just started their defeated climb up the stairs when the double-doored entrance creaked. Cinder’s heart nearly scampered out of her chest, and there came a gravelly, “Ha-ha!” From the other side of the door. Orym Tar burst in, his faded gray cloak a crescent behind him. His black tangle of straw he called a beard was streaked with white and nearly reached his waist. His laugh hoarse and rusted. He carried bottles on his belt that were filled with smoke and ash and dust that clinked together when he walked. “A pint of your finest ale, m’lady!” He said to Phira, “Or sweeter still, bring out the whole barrel! Har!”

He looked up the staircase to Cinder and Azoc. “And how do you fare, children?” he asked. He waved them down from the steps. “Come, come, let’s have a look at you.” The two rushed down the steps to meet him. He ruffled Azoc’s hair and made some small comment about how big he was getting and when he held a hand out for Cinder to shake, she hugged him instead.

Phira having yet to get over her initial shock, stood still, mouth open, watching the scene unfold before her. “A happy ten-and-seventh, Cinder,” he said.

“Thank you, Orym.” She mimicked a curtsie.  

Phira, having come to her senses (most likely from Cinder’s horrid attempt at curtsieing), blurted, “What business do you have entering my inn this early, you doddering old fool?”

Cinder swore she saw a smirk beneath Orym’s gigantic beard. “Old fool? Are you dumb, or do you just lack respect for your elders—and if that’s the case, you set a poor example for these two to respect you. That aside, I hear a crying babe that needs be tended to, and I see no one better qualified to take care of him than the gaping woman in front of me!”

Phira matched Orym’s stare for half a heartbeat. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, raising a finger this time, but then stomped off toward Benn’s room looking quite embarassed.  

“Orym?” Cinder said.

“Cinder?”

“Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. I figured you two might like to see me before today’s presentation down by the center river. I’m sorry it had to come on your birthday, Cinder.”  

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know? Haven’t you been outside today?” Orym smacked the heel of his palm to his forehead. “What am I saying? Of course you haven’t. It’s hardly even sunrise! Listen, the Center River is turning to ice every other minute. The forest is going from winter-cold to summer-hot. It’s the Ever Changing Land. It’s creeping back into Tull. Surely you know what that means.”

She knew. The Wizard is coming. “Thavian.”

Orym nodded. “He will be here hours henceforth to Still Tull and collect his reward.” Belatedly he added, “The ale I requested was not wholly in jest.”

ASH AND CINDERS – CHAPTER ONE – AS OF MAY, 2018

Cinder is roused from sleep by the crackle of straw. It sounds like a fire, but Cinder knows better. Phira would never do that.

That means there’s someone tramping over the straw. She bites her lip, hoping it is not her. She can’t see who it is yet. The attic is a maze of cobwebs and boxes. She sits by the only window streaming in light.

Phira is an old woman. She took in Cinder and Myle in after their parents died. She has guarded Cinder and her brother’s treatment closely.

It is summer, and Cinder can see her breath misting in front of her face. She shivers, reaches for a blanket that is not there.

The crackling is closer, now. “Who’s there?” she calls.

“Happy seventeenth, Cinder,” Myle whispers from the other side of the attic. Cinder is not aware she had been holding her breath. Myle must’ve heard her sigh, because he asks, “Is something wrong?”

“I thought you were Phira,” she explains.

“Nope,” says Myle.

“Come here, idiot,” Cinder laughs.

“Don’t wake the baby!” Myle says, wincing at the creak of floorboards as he pads toward Cinder. “Benn’s room is right below us.” He leaps into her arms, as if he’s falling back from a ledge.

“Happy birthday, Cinder. I got you a present.” He hands her a stick.

She exhales her surprise. Her breath mists in the freezing summertime air. “Mother never taught you the woodenlore but…I don’t know. I figured you could try it? Can’t get much worse than the last time, right?”

“She can’t stick us in the attic again,” Cinder laughs. The last time she had tried to tether herself to the woodlore she tore a hole in the house. She remembers what mother told her of the craft, There are many things you must pay attention to. Be careful not to do too much at once. A juggler who takes on too many eggs is like to break one on his head.

But this stick–this small stick–now she can start small. Reshaping the haft until she has a handle on things.

“I know it’s not much.” Myle rubs the back of his neck. He’s only thirteen. Too young to know what he’s given her. “But I hope it–”

Cinder catches him in an embrace, holds him tight, savors the smell of him. Like old soap and dust, she thinks. She wonders if her time in the attic has made her smell this way too.

“Cinder,” Myle says, “You can let go now.”

“No I can’t. You’re freezing.” The words mist as she speaks them.

“You can’t help that.”

Cinder flexes her fingers. They’re both half-breeds. Only she inherited her Mother’s abilities. Only she has the abnormal tolerance for cold that she tells herself over and over again she doesn’t deserve. Her hold on Myle tightens, and when she exhales, goosebumps shiver up her back.

“What are you doing?” Myle asks.

“You deserve some warmth,” Cinder explains. She feels the heels of Myle’s hands digging into her shoulders. Pushing away. “Cinder, no. You need to keep it. Don’t be foolish–”

He breaks her hold, staggers three steps and lands heavily on his back.

Cinder winces. Myle does not dare to move. For three heartbeats the world is still. Her brother watches the ceiling and she watches her brother, hoping against hope.

Beneath the attic floorboards, a baby is crying. Cinder curses. Then below her, another voice echoes that curse. “Myle,” Cinder rasps. “Hide!”

“I can’t–”

“Hide, stupid!” Her brother is only thirteen. He doesn’t know what kind of danger he’s in. Cinder mouths for him to go, and something in her expression compels her.

Footsteps stomp-stomp-stomp up the steps to the attic. Then they stop. Cinder sees the shadows under the door, hears a deep breath on the other side.

“Which one of you,” the voice says, sickly-sweet with an edge, barely sheathed,  “Would like to explain who woke my baby?”

Cinder doesn’t speak. She’s too focused on controlling her breath. It isn’t helped when a key clicks into the lock, turns. The baby is still crying.

The door groans open. Phira’s cane is the first to enter. Cinder knows its knock. That gnarled, knotted scrap of wood, leather corded where it hooks into a handle. Phira’s footsteps are a whisper compared to the cane, almost gliding across the floorboard. “You know I hate it when you’re silent,” Phira says. Her gums smack with every word.

She sees Phira’s long, hobbling shadow from around a stack of boxes. The baby is still crying.

Her cane is the first bit of her to creep around the boxes, gripped tight in a leathery hand with veins like the cords of leather wrapped around the stick it grips. The baby is still crying.

The rest of Phira hobbles forth. Cinder never found her frightening at first. She looks a grandmotherly figure, and is fond of baking tarts for children who are not Cinder or Myle. Her face looks like a bowl of mashed potatoes. It is hard to discern any emotion from that lump of loose flesh. Her voice doesn’t help.

“Cinder. Dear.” She is either patient or angry. Cinder isn’t sure. Phira’s beady old eyes don’t tell her much more. The baby is still crying. “Did you wake the baby?”

“I…I…” She makes the mistake of looking at the cane, sees veiny old hands wringing the grip. Her throat ties itself in knots. “I…I…”

“You, you, you,” Phira blubbers in mockery. There’s a sea of saliva in her mouth spewing spittle. “All you talk about is you! It’s a simple question. Yes or no. There is no I to this.”

Cinder hangs her head. Her breath is misting. It’s summertime. The baby is still crying. “Yes.”

“That’s not true!” Myle says from behind his shelter of boxes. He leaps over them, pounding hard on the floorboard. Cinder cringes.

Myle squares himself between Phira and Cinder. He’s too young to notice how she wrings her cane. Too young to know the patterns yet. Too young to know there’s no such thing as heroes.

The mass of wrinkles that is Phira’s face has distorted, but Cinder’s not sure what it’s trying to say.

“Myle,” Phira says, stroking his cheek. Cinder shudders when she touches him. Her breath mists in the air. The baby is crying. “Did you wake Benn? Did you make him cry?” She pulls her cane back an inch, knuckles bone-white around it.

“I won’t let you hurt my sister,” he says.

“What is it with you children and yes or no answers? It’s only one word! Pick one!” Phira snaps.

“Fine,” Myle says, “You’re right, Phira.”

“You’ll address me as Mother,” Phira says, gums smacking.

“I will?” Myle asks. Cinder feels him smiling the way only a mischievous teenage boy can.

“You must.”

Must I?”

Cinder watches Phira’s hand crawling down the haft of her cane, fingers spindly as a spider. She grips the haft.

Cinder reaches for the woodenlore inside her. I have a stick of my own now, she thinks. But because it is new and because she knows Phira’s better, the tether’s she’s gathered in her mind reach for that. Invisible threads of things she can do branch up and down its haft.

She hates the cane.

Hates how it’s crooked.

Hates the wooden gnarled knuckles.

Hates how it cracks against the floorboards.

She hates it so much that she tries to pull it from Phira’s hand. But she doesn’t want to touch it, doesn’t want to knock it back, or against the boxes, or pull it anywhere near Myle, so she pulls it everywhere, at once.

The cane shatters to splinters. Not in an explosive way. For a moment, the pieces hang in the air, hovering over where Phira had held it as she stares, aghast as it crumples to the floor.

There is a moment of stunned silence. Phira looked from the cane to Cinder, back and forth and back and forth. Her breath is misting.

The baby is silent, beneath the floorboards they hear: “Yes, that’ll do. That’ll certainly do.”

There differences are forgotten, the three dash down the steps that squeal and scream at every foot that presses down on them. Ragged and panting, leaving Phira behind, the siblings burst into Benn’s room.

Orym Tar sits in a rocking chair, watching the baby. He curls his waistlong beard around his index finger, careful not to disturb the bottles of ash and smoke tied to his belt that clink softly together as he walks. He sees the children and puts a finger to his lips.

“The baby is sleeping,” he whispers. “And we must away.”

“Where?”

“The old woman is waking with the summertime cold. You know what that means, don’t you?”

Cinder knows. The Wizard is coming. “Thavian.”

Orym nods. “I’ve fetched him. He’ll be here in an hour. We’ve got to convene in the market square.”  

“Why stop for us?” Myle asks the old man.

Orym shrugs. “I haven’t seen you two in years. I thought I’d escort you myself.” They can hear Phira stomping down the steps. Orym’s mustaches twitch when he smiles. “Follow me quickly,” he says. “Oh, and happy birthday, Cinder.”

Gateways

The princess’s Father always said that she should’ve been born with hooves. Except wasn’t a princess anymore. And her Father was dead. The revolution killed everyone in the palace. All except her and me.

She swayed, back braced against me, in my horse’s saddle—Stinger has always been gentle when a member of the Varangyan House sits on her back.

I could smell the leaves of rust as they peeled away from the gate to Aysgarth in the light breeze. It was a solid and impenetrable wall. We followed the cobbled road to the edifice. The princess studied the dark grey, rectangular container that housed the wraith that guarded the walls. “They say that Aysgarth is full of gateway ghosts,” the princess murmured.

“Don’t worry, Aos,” I told her. “The ghosts won’t hurt you. Watch.” I booted Stinger on just a little further forward, close enough to the stone wall that her movement made the gateway ghost stir: her glowing green light passing back and forth along her flat, grey prison.

“Welcome to Aysgarth,” the ghost said. A woman’s voice. The light of her Being bled onto us. I shielded my eyes. “Identification, please.”

“Do you have access?” Aos asked me, whispering, so that the ghost could not hear.

I told her to take the reins and swung down from Stinger’s saddle, kicking up dust with my landing. ““The ghosts may yet  respond to someone who represents the Imperium.” So I stepped up to the ghost’s, her green glow searching for me. I stood still in front of the shimmering specter and waited for her proclamation. “Well?” I asked the ghost. “Do you?”

The ghost spoke again: “Identified: Sir Desmon Harcourt, Chief Imperial Guard to the Varangyan House. Your authority is recognized. Access is granted.” The gates slid open with with a sound like grinding doors of stone. I walked alongside Aos as she led Stinger within at a canter. I hooked my arm against the horse to keep from stumbling.

It had been a long journey.

The people of Aysgarth were a mass of flesh crowding the streets, stinking of a siege whose effects had not left them. It would return soon, with more revolutionaries. The common folk sluiced around either side of Stinger.

“The men on the watchtower have crossbows,” Aos told me. Before my hand could close around my hilt, she ordered me against it, “Don’t reach for your weapon. Are you foolhardy enough to think you could take down a few crossbowmen with a sword? You of all people should remember the folly of that.”

“I remember, dammit,” I told her. “Bloody cowards.”

A smirk played across her Grace’s lips. “Don’t go cursing them for being smarter than you.”

“They’re not—” I began, but I saw them fidgeting with their weapons from the corner of my eye. Best not to cause a scene, I decided. “As you say, your Grace.” I stole of look at the watchtowers. They were built atop pieces of statue welded together: a torso here, an arm there. Two legs melted into one pillar. And atop all that: the crossbowmen, guarded by thin fencewire. They were skeletons with only a shadow of skin that pocketed deep-sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. Part of me pitied them.

“We need to find Lord Musa,” I told Aos.

“Help me down. I can walk the rest of the way.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “There are so many people. If you fall, you’ll be trampled.”

Aos laughed. “I’m more like to trip over a tree root than let myself be felled by someone else. Do you honestly think after all these years I haven’t learned to be aware of my surroundings?”

She leaned in the saddle until I could reach her. With a grunt, she pulled one leg free of its stirrup and I eased her to the ground. She had to crane her neck to look up at me. She was seventeen and still only just taller than a dwarf.

“I brought your cane,” I told her.

“I know.”

“I know you know, I just thought—”

“I’m not a child. I can remember this information, you see.”

“It’s just—”

“My ability to walk does not affect my ability to remember.”

“Apologies, your Grace.” I pulled her cane from the saddlebags. And the dagger. I knelt to give it to her.

As soon as she held her cane, her knuckles turned white around it. I pressed the dagger into her hand. “In case you need it,” I told her, and closed her hand around it.

“Focus on walking Stinger,” she said.

So I curled the reins around my fist and led my horse after us. Much of Aysgarth was made up of slithering worms of metal carts, each with two aisles for the chambers within that housed two beds. The merchants set up shop in their own wheeled metal carts, offering thaumaturgical artifacts that most were not like to have the license to sell.

Aos lurched as folks dropped down from the metal carts, maneuvering about the town. She pressed forward, careful with every step to be sure her footing was firm, always watching for others.

Her Father had always danced around calling her affliction palsy; as if naming her condition might strike him with it—the same way superstitious men avoid naming the Lord of Bones. “She was born to be a faun,” he had told me once. “How else could you explain her height? Her love of tea? She is a faun, I tell you.”

I’d never been sure how she would take the jape if she’d heard it herself, so I never bothered to repeat it.

She snapped an order that wrenched me out of my own thoughts: “Stop touching your blade.”

I didn’t realize I’d been cradling the pommel in my palm. Deliberately, I let my arm fall to my side. “I wasn’t,” I lied.

“You want to be prepared for any threat that comes our way, as if you could not kill an oncoming man in the same moment you free your sword from its scabbard.”

“That’s not a skill you should be voicing aloud.” She listened to my caution, and we walked together in silence. It took a conscious effort to match her pace. At length, I asked, “Do you know where we’re going?”

“We’re trying to be noticed by the right individuals.”

Which individuals? Can you at least be specific?”

“You haven’t heard them?” She asked.

On instinct, my hand twitched to touch the pommel of my sword, but as I paused to correct my mistake, I knocked the sheath toward the princess, who shoved it aside. She let out an involuntary whoop as she teetered on the edge of her balance.

I reached out to catch her, cradling the small of her back until she found her footing. She shoved at me, uselessly. “Dammit,” she cursed. “I know how to keep my own balance. I don’t need your help,” she spat.

“Isn’t that the reason I’m here?” I asked with a smirk.

“I require your skill with a blade, Sir Desmon,” she said. “…And mayhaps your legs, should we need a fast getaway,” she added. After a beat, she mused, smirking “Though I suppose Stinger is of just as much use in that regard, if not more useful. And a charging horse surely works just as well as a sword. I can’t quite say why I keep you around to be honest.”

“I can leave—” I began, playfully turning.

She seized my cloak with her free hand as the one holding the cane came down into the dirt, hard as a hammer. “I’m kidding, you fool,” she said as I turned around.

“So was I. Now what were you saying about being noticed by the right individuals?”

“Ah yes,” she said. “That. They should be here shortly. Or did you think I cursed at you for my own amusement?”

“No,” I told her. “That was your Father’s job.”

I checked the road ahead. It was a mass of grimy, greasy faces with hollow eyes and sallow cheeks. All around us was the sound of grumbling stomachs…and then came a clatter coming closer with a sound like an avalanche of colanders.

“They’re here,” she said, as the crowd broke apart. The sight of it reminded me of arrows tearing through flesh—three days of raining arrows down, down, down—

Just as I wrung the thought at the neck, Aos and I found ourselves surrounded by pikemen. They maneuvered us until we were back-to-back with our hands in the air. I surveyed the pikemen shelled in armor. Their captain was on horseback, behind them. “May I touch my sword now?” I asked Aos.

“You may not,” she told me. To the pikemen, she said, “You serve Lord Musa, yes?”

They did not answer. Mail and armor clattered as they fidgeted with their pikes.

“I see,” Aos said. “We’re going to do things this way. Very well: I wish an audience with Lord Musa.”

“Lord Musa does not wish to be disturbed,” their captain said.

“I shall only be a small disturbance, sirs,” she said. “I cannot say the same of my friend, but he is familiar with court etiquette. He knows when he is allowed to speak.”

“Lord Musa does not wish to be disturbed,” their leader said again.

Aos sighed through her nose and sheathed her patience. “Then you may tell him,” she explained slowly, “That he has an audience, and we will await him in his hall.”

“Lord Musa does not wi—”

“Have I asked what Lord Musa wishes?” The pikemen bristled at that. My hand went to my sword and stayed there. “Lord Musa has an audience with the Lady Aos of the Varangyan House.”

More bristling. More eyes, all on us. Cormag was coming. We didn’t need this attention. Foolish little girl, I thought. Your pride won’t buckle until your life does. But I stayed my tongue. I was the Chief of the Varangyan House’s Imperial Guard. It was not my place to speak.

“The princess is dead,” said the captain.

“Is she?” Aos asked. She made a show of checking her hands, then running them alone the seal etched into her cane. “Well…someone forgot to tell me.”

“Cormag’s revolutionaries besieged the palace. They rained down arrows for three days. She managed to escape for a short while, but Cormag has caught and killed her. Her body lies on a stake outside the palace walls.”  

Screams of slaughter echoed through my head. I choked down the bile of my thoughts, and  waited for my Grace’s response.

“Did I do all that too? Well, I must be a very busy woman, so if you’ll excuse us—” She stepped forward and I whirled around, freeing my sword from its scabbard and placing my arms in front of her. The pikemen crossed their weapons to block our way.

“I tried playing nice,” Aos said. “but I no longer have time for these games. Cormag’s revolutionaries are on their way here. And when they bypass the ghost at the main gate, as they have done before, this entire town will be put to the torch. Your wives will be raped. Your men will be murdered. Your food and coin will be stolen. I would like to prevent that. If you refuse, then we will be on our way. But if you think even an inkling of what I said is true, then I suggest you take us to Lord Musa with all haste.”

Mail clattered as knights tensed. I tensed. Every muscle ached to spring into action. I watched their captain, his jaw set, staring down at the princess; her knotted hair; her ragged cloak and clothes; the stains on her tunic that might’ve been dirt or splashes of rainwater or something far, far worse. I waited for his order.

“All haste,” he said, then nodded.

It was the last thing I’d ever hear him say.

* * *

Lord Musa’s court was guarded by three gateway-ghosts, I put Stinger in the stables between the first two, then followed the company within; where Lord Musa sat upon a humble chair. Most Lords would use something more extravagant. But his hall was tall and plain, with leftover walls of chewed-up glass and steel from the time when the ghosts still lived. The door to his court was sealed shut by the sliding door of an old wheeler.

A pikeman pulled it aside, and I had to push past a tangle of vines–an overgrown garden neglected by his servants that blocked our way. I made sure to tramp down on anything Aos might not be able to step over.

I came to face Lord Musa, and found that he was not a man overly concerned with the latest of court fashions. He preferred a simple tunic and cloak, and a circlet around his shiny bald head. His face was wrinkled in a way that made him look like a bowl of mashed potatoes, save black, beady eyes deep-set beneath all that loose flesh.  The captain of his guard stood next to him

Aos hobbled into the room, after me. Lord Musa raised his eyebrows at her. “Do you know what they’ve been calling you of late?” he croaked. He had a rusty voice, as if he’d spent so long speaking that he had worn it thin. “The Princess of Goats. The Cobweb Emperiess…” he regarded her a moment, almost looking through her. As if he expected her legs were a ruse, and she would leap at him with furious vengeance. “…The Cripple Queen,” he finished.

She smacked her cane against my wrist without bothering to look. “Don’t,” she told me, swaying only slightly, before settling on her cane.

I lowered my hand away from my blade.

“You make a wonderful host, Lord Musa. Has your captain told you of the treatment we received?”

“No matter,” Lord Musa said. He waved the matter aside with a gnarled, long-fingered hand that looked like the end of a tree branch. “To hear it told, Cormag put you on a spike.”

“So I’ve been told,” Aos said. “But let’s not pretend you’ve seen it yourself.”

“How–”

“I know,” she said, “Because no Lord in the land would dare set foot in Cormag’s territory. The people have taken it for themselves. They’d hardly suffer your presence with impunity. Cormag is an intelligent man, and a spreader of rumors.”

“And now the Emperion’s daughter comes to grovel for help in reclaiming her Father’s throne.” The wrinkles on his face twisted, but all that loose flesh could only move so much. Whatever emotion played across his face was difficult to discern.

“Grovel?” Aos echoed. “Hardly!” She gestured at her legs. “My knees were not meant to kneel, you understand. I’ve not come here to grovel my Lord. As much as you would enjoy the sight, I’ll not beg you for help with my cause.”

“Then why have you come?”

“My Lord,” she offered the stiffest and curtest of bows. “My only aim is to save you. Cormag’s men sweep the land as his message grows. I trust you wish to maintain your power?”

He squinted, so that his face was an indiscernible mass of wrinkles. “Set aside the formalities. Tell me: is there anything you can do to save me from your fate?”

She shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose.” Lord Musa opened his mouth to call for his guards, but Aos interrupted. “Save one thing: you can give them my head. That would surely appease them.”

“Aos,” I breathed.

“You aren’t giving me much cause to help you,” Lord Musa said.

Or,” she stretched out the word, “Instead of giving them ideas for what they can do to you when they breach your gates…and they will breach your gates…have you considered that I may still wield power?”

Lord Musa laughed aloud at that, for a long time, such that even his pikemen began to wring their hands and look at each other. “What power do you have, little girl? Your are the last of a broken line. Your father–the Emperion–is dead. You are nothing.”

“As long as their is a royal ass to sit the throne their will be soldiers there to kiss it,” she told Lord Musa. “I may not have the throne in my reach, but my station is known. Cormag’s men were half a day behind us. They will be upon you by nightfall. Your city has just lifted their last siege. You cannot survive another one. Do not draw this out. Sending my head might ease their desire to overthrow you. Maybe. But only for a time. Eventually they will return.”

He stirred in his chair, smacking his lips and now sounding like mashed potatoes, too. “You say this is all but inevitable, yes?” he asked. “Then what is your solution?”

“Send out the white raven. Act quickly, before the revolutionaries are here to shoot them down, and tell the nearby Lords who yet cling to their power who you hold in your possession: the Emperiess. The only surviving heir to the Empire. You now have two options: First, you can give the revolutionaries my head and possibly keep yours on your shoulders…until they return. Second, you can send white ravens to other Lords, now, before there are men to shoot them down, and tell them you have the heir to the Imperium and the only way to keep her alive is with their aid. As I said–as long as there is a royal ass to sit the throne there will be folk to kiss it. Cormag’s men are not like to return after such a show of force.”

Lord Musa was silent for a long while, hrming and hming. After some time, he turned to a servant, said, “Fetch a scribe and some white ravens. We must act quickly.”

The pikemen turned to lead us away. One of them tried to push Aos past her walking pace. I pushed him back in turn. “We’re going,” I told him. “We still have time.”

“I’m surprised you said nothing, Sir Desmon,” Aos said.

“I’m not some nobleman,” I told her. “I’m only a sword.”

* * *

The wind blustered my cloak as I stood vigilant. Lord Musa had decided to hide Lady Aos in the worm of metal carts. He had decided no one would look for her there. I guarded the door to her chambers. The thunder of boots had long since passed. There was now shouting as the men atop the watchtower attempted to negotiate with the revolutionaries.

From the screams that followed, I don’t suppose it went well. I was the last of the Varangyan House’s Imperial Guard. I was all the stood between Aos and the end of her line.

So when I heard the bloody wails; the terrified screams and calls for mother and mercy, I stayed where I was. I’d already heard them before, back in the capital. I knew the sight each scream belonged to.

Aos sat in her small chambers. She began the night strong enough, tall and regal. She knew what to expect, unlike her time in the palace. But each battle brings with it different horrors. She had yet to learn that.

This time she could not see who the screams belonged to.

She produced her dagger, which gave her strength in the beginning. After an hour, her hands started trembling around its hilt. She was crying, snot and tears running down her face. Her eyes were wet and beady. But I turned my head and faced the door. I couldn’t help her. I had to save her.

I heard the ground shake even louder than before. I knew the sound of cavalry, too. Lordess Janna held the nearest fief, and was most likely to have cavalry at her command. I knew which screams belonged to men cut down by cavalry. I heard cries of surrender that were ignored.

The wet sounds were the worst. Squelching over things with the sound like boots through mud, a sound like a bucket falling into a well, like fish dumped out of a barrel.

And a stink that rankled and brought back battle-memories I had long forgotten.

Still the princess cried. But she had only my back for comfort. She was seventeen. I tried to remember what battles I had seen at her age. I told myself that I would have acted differently in her position. That my generation was raised to be stronger.

But all through the night, my fingers flexed on the hilt of my sword. How far is it between a flex and a tremble? I maintained my composure, but I’d been a sword for years. I’d honed my edge for years. Her edges were rounded and unwieldy. She needed to hone herself. I wished it weren’t so.

Sometime in the night, she started pounding on the door. She was screaming for me to open it. She was a little girl who needed comfort, and my rebukes had left her cold.

The night wore on, and the Lords Derrion and Veris came to the aid of Aysgarth. In our little cart, Aos’s screams turned into demands, turned into threats. She told me she would have me beheaded if I didn’t come inside.

But I didn’t. And the night dragged on. Until there were only the embers of shrieks and scattered moans.

I remembered a similar sound after Cormag’s soldiers had raided the palace. I hid with Aos and what few company survived. I had given her the knife she held again that night in the cart. I left her in an empty hearth and told her to stay put.

But she saw a revolutionary advance on me from behind, axe raised. She had seized him by the ankle and pulled from where she sat, unsteadying him. And with a feral growl she had plunged the knife into the back of his leg and out through his kneecap. And when he fell she dragged it unsteadily along his throat as she cried–with shaky hands that were not sure how much pressure to apply. The palsy did not help in this regard. She had wailed more then than in the cart.

When the deed was done I had scooped her up and fled the palace amidst the chaos. I carried her away as she sniveled and cried. And I told her the only words of comfort I’ve ever known.

I was pulled from my thoughts when a figure burst into the cart. I raised my sword, but his shield was ready, and as he stepped forward I saw Lord Musa’s sigil displayed on his breast. “It’s over,” he told me. “Bring her out.” He turned to leave.

When I opened the door she threw herself at me, punching uselessly on her knees, soft as hitting a pillow. I let her continue until her knuckles were blue and purple. Then I carried her out of the cart and into the morning sun. Her face was red, but the tears had stopped. “Desmon?” she asked. “Was I a good soldier?”

“Yes,” I told her. “You were very brave. You were a good soldier.”

Crow Fodder

The girl watched the man in black, who was kneeling in a small clearing choked with dead leaves. He had been urging her to move for days now. He did not seem to concern himself with how her legs were sore and her feet hurt. She had wished nothing more than to rest. And the man had given her that, but on his terms.

He opened his mouth, and a raven crawed in the distance.

The girl sat down and rubbed her feet. She wanted to go back to her mother. But she recalled her urging that she follow the man in black. There had been fire and smoke and…no. She couldn’t let herself think about that. The man had said not to worry over a maybe.

The raven’s craw came closer now, and then there were two, and then three. The gathering of ravens settled on the man’s shoulders, forming a cloak about him, with the occasional flutter of wings.

The man stood, longsword rattling against his thigh. “Imogen,” he barked. The girl’s heart leapt. “Stand up. We need to keep moving.”

She did as he bid her. “Cormag?”

“Imogen?”

“What did you see?”

He was silent for a moment as Imogen squinted at him. “The conqueror comes, bringing men shelled in steel.”

“Are they going to kill us?”

Cormag stiffened, and then plucked up Imogen’s hand and led her along. It was scratchy, and when she tried to pull free he only tightened his grip. “All will be well,” he whispered.

#

The man was three days dying when they found him. He was slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass bloodied and one arm swollen and disjointed.

“Do you see him too?” Imogen pointed to the dying man.

“Yes,” Cormag said. One hand on his longsword, he waded off the path toward him.

Imogen shadowed Cormag through the tall grass. As she drew closer, she glimpsed a long cut from shoulder to collarbone. Every breath wept blood.

“That’s not going to get better,” Cormag said.

“I know,” the man answered. “Damn conquerors in their craven’s clothes. Damn them twice-over!” He grunted. “I don’t suppose you know how to use that blade?”

Cormag nodded yes.

He motioned with his head to the girl “Is she yours?”

“No,” the man said. “Just a girl.”

“But you’re looking after her?”

Ravens wings bristled on his cloak. “Aye, that’s what I’m doing.”

“Do it well,” the man said. “And strike true.”

Cormag stood erect to give himself space to draw his longsword. Imogen couldn’t see beyond his implacable back. But she heard a grunt and a wet noise like a bucket falling into a well.

Cormag turned and stomped back onto the path. “Follow me, Imogen.”

She did. “Who was that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cormag said. And then: “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re stuck in the midst of war. With me.”

Imogen wrinkled her nose. It was how she used to tell her mother she was upset, but Cormag didn’t seem to notice. Crestfallen, she said, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t understand.”

Ravens wings fidgeted on Cormag’s back. “We should keep moving,” he said.