Grieving 11-year-old Sigrun must find someone to answer the needs of the innocent.
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Trigger Warnings ▼
The People of Glass
Haunting the cobwebs and rafters, I looked down on my bed and on the little girl that my family called Sigrun. With her moon-white hair gleaming in the gloom, with her pale, fever-stunted body all crumpled up, the colorless thing looked more like a discarded puppet than like my body. Did it even breathe when I stepped out of it?
Because I never felt at home in my own skin–not since the fever dream in the height of my fifth summer–I did not find it odd that an apprentice swordsman in her eleventh summer should be floating about the room like some kind of magician. Instead, I wondered if there might be some way to get back home, beyond the white gates–to finally see my fire-winged mentors and resume my real training.
As if in answer, at the window, an invader–a blue-tailed nightbird with a crown of mystical fire–pecked at the glass.
Unable to resist the call of my pixie friends, I slipped from my point. Helpless, I fell into the pillow and shuddered as my lungs skittered to life, pulling me inside the heavy little body.
My head swam as I forgot the scene in the rafters, remembering only a vague sense of my visitor. Inwardly I demanded they leave but managed only to croak, "Must it always be me?"
The tapping continued.
The fey rhythm reached into me, called me out. I knew the right thing to do but my aunt and uncle demanded I hold my post, like a normal student warrior, in my quarters till dawn. Hoping to block the call, I pulled the cover over my ears.
On and on, the beat overran my useless shield and echoed in my bones.
When pixies brought their heavenly message, arguing made no more sense than shooing away the sun. I opened the window and eyed my nightbird friend.
His dark head barely visible in the moonlight, he shook himself and puffed up.
He seemed far too pleased with himself as I looked out at the forest under the twin moons–pale Luna, and copper Nasa. The local woods, full of clever wolves and hulking, pig-faced bandits, offered no post for a warrior whose dread-fever-stunted muscles still struggled to whip her arming sword into striking space. "I'm supposed to be a little girl–you know that."
Though looking up at me, by bending back his head, officer nightbird managed to look down his nose at me before fluttering off into the tree.
I drew a sigh of relief and shook out the tension in my shoulders. I had never before known my 'imaginary friends' to listen, no matter how much Aunt Myrrha begged me to order them about like some pointy-hatted witch. I reached up to the window and took one last look at the woods outside our farmhouse fortress.
A silver-tailed squirrel danced in the moonlight among the orange and brown leaves. The moon lit up his hair, giving him a subtle crown of light. His tail, beckoning like a finger, twitched.
I shouldn't have to choose between my duty and my family, not yet. "This isn't fair."
Despite my protest, officer squirrel wagged his tail to repeat the summons.
I looked longingly at my bed, where good little Sigrun belonged, and at the open expanse of night, where my imaginary friends led me to my real duty. "Please, don't ask me this."
Seven total pixie-possessed squirrel officers, munching on nuts, fixed their gazes on me.
I looked down. The pixie tribunal would not excuse me, but neither would Myrrha. She could not forgive me following my duty. I had to hold back, to hide in my room.
I slinked back a few steps.
I thought of my helpless family, lost in their dreams and surrounded by enemies at the door. How betrayed they would feel when they knew I'd answered my duty again–risked their daughter's life, my life, at the urging of an imaginary friend. Then I thought of facing Myrrha's smile in the morning, having turned my back on someone in need, of having that sliver of knowledge festering in my chest.
I could never make Myrrha live with a secret coward. Careful to lay my feet where the board supported, I lifted my leg over the window sill and stepped on the roof. Shaking free of the burden of all that, I smirked like my Uncle Mack and quipped, "Going to be in so much trouble. If I make it back."
Officer squirrel chittered at my joke and bit into a walnut.
My pixies knew the way, and I had faith they would shepherd me to a worthy end. Yes, Myrrha would be angry at her insubordinate little warrior, but we were freemen. They say death before dishonor, and–having passed the gates in my fever dreams–I agree. Arms outstretched, I ran, tiptoed, down the beam and leaped to the tree. Soaring down, my fingers wrapped around the delicate branch and slowed my fall.
As the cold, soft earth rose up to grab me, the reality of what I had done hit me again.
Mack's farmhouse fortress allowed for easy exit, but getting in would not be so simple. I needed to get back in.
Despite their adventurer's ears, Mack and Myrrha could not hear the warnings of the pixies. They relied on me to relay that, even over their protest at my imagination. Sure, once they laid hand on their swords, or even a stout broomhandle, they would be fine. And the urgan batteringpoles would raise quite a racket before bringing down the stonewood doors.. Unless…
I ran to the front door, and pushed against it.
It moved the width of my large toe before stopping at the bar and the lock.
I ran to the back door and pushed with all my might.
It held as fast as the cornerstones of Castle Balthispeare.
The walls would hold their place where I could not. As I took a relieved breath, the chill air stoked my inner fires. I looked for the burning wings of my friends from beyond the gates, but only saw the flickering light of the fireberries–the spicy cursed berries that awaken the second sight.
With renewed vigor, I raced along the fence, kicking into the sandals I had hidden in the grass and vaulting over a low slat.
The birds in the glittering tree scattered.
"Do not taste the fireberry," Mack always warned. It will burn you from inside, and they'll take you to the land of the fae, never to be seen again."
The forbidden, flickering fruit popped off in my hand. As I swallowed it, I tasted fever in my throat but never spun the dream of my pixie friends.
Another of Mack's tales that didn't turn out right. Mack and Myrrha thought because I could see them, they had special authority. My pixie friends might be imaginary, but they talk straight–I could trust their guidance to be true, if not ever complete. I huffed. Didn't that just prove I listened to the right voices? I prayed to the pixies, "Don't forget, Mack and Myrrha don't understand. They'll worry."
Two pale wings cast their shadow over Wilt's creek. A hollow screech urged me forward.
I rushed forward, following Owl across the bridge.
The path led deeper into the forest, where Luna's pale shine lit less and less of the path.
I proceeded by the feel in my gut and in my feet, until at last a root grabbed my toe and pitched me forward.
As the forest floor rose up, I stopped it inches from my face. I found myself on all fours.
Twin familiar yellow embers, eyes of neither cat nor dog, stared into mine. A voice growled from beneath that bush.
That rumble reached as deep into my bones as the nightbird's drumming. The fear that echoed in the hollows of my body spoke not of the beast's rage but of his wisdom, not of hate or hunger but of his fear for me wandering about among the hungry and sharp children of the forest. Wishing for the warmth of hand-me-down armor from Mother or Myrrha when they were my size, I shivered and looked closer.
The Old Man Wolf–very much like this one–had followed me into my fever dream, beyond the white gates. He had dragged me back to my sick bed, bound me to live with my sweet Uncle Mack and my august Aunt Myrrha. It seemed he wanted to drag me further from my place among the pixies, to burden me with more duties of flesh and family. But the Old Man's wisdom, great as it was, had nothing to do with me or my pixies. I turned my head, scanning for a hint, but dared not look away. "Come, my friends, I need–"
A shiver came in answer to my exaggerated plea.
I rolled my eyes. "Can I have a sign?"
A thin voice bleated.
The clouds parted. A lonely lamb's white wool shone in the moonlit gloom. The poor thing seemed unreal, like a badly sewn toy bouncing about on an unseen string . A steel clamp grasped its bleeding hind leg.
"Oh, you poor thing!" I rushed to it.
The wild lamb struggled in the hungry steel of a trapper's device.
It felt certain that I had come to devour it. The thrill of its fear beating against my chest held me away until I slowed my approach.
Easing up on it, I grabbed it by the fur and felt for the release.
Every time I got close the squirming lamb jerked it away.
Sweat dripped from my forehead and I gritted my teeth against each jolt of the steel against its wound. In the end, my fingers found the catch.
The little one leaped free.
Without looking back, it leaped away.
Such a rush of joy filled me at its freedom that I laughed. In all that, I had blocked out the pain–almost–not appreciating it until it had gone.
The beauty of the escape made me not want to question if this had been a warning. A rescue, after all, usually just is a rescue, isn't it? No sense thinking about what traps I might get caught in, not so long as the pixies were there to shepherd me.
I wandered randomly, enjoying the chill of the night and the dew on my toes.
I stopped under a tree, to look up at the squirrels and wonder when one of them would tell me where to go.
One of them suddenly leaped as the branch below them snapped, flying straight to my forehead.
Before I knew what I had done, I leaped for the lowest branch.
As I hung there, hot breath at my heels–more than the power of my arms–pulled me up into the tree.
Old Man Wolf glared up at me.
He's a wolf, not a man, I thought, despite the intelligence in his eyes. It's not like he'd set that trap. "That wasn't yours. You didn't set…"
Looking into his eyes, I knew better–or thought I did. I didn't know how, but I had underestimated the Wolf.
I looked about for an escape. A squirrel might jump from tree to tree, but a girl–even a wispy little bag of bones like the body I wore–would surely fall into the waiting jaws of Old Man Wolf. Even if he only meant to drag me home again–and I had no guarantee, as I would make an easy replacement for the lamb–I couldn't take that risk. For all I could do, Old Man Wolf had me
A squirrel came to pat me on the knee.
Officer squirrel had ordered me to hold my position. Mack and Myrrha would be along soon enough, and would surely be a match for Old Man Wolf and any pack he might summon–whether by kindred or sorcery. I'd be fine, if sore–and not just from climbing, if Myrrha had her way. I closed my eyes and banged my head against the core of the tree.
Moments like these made me question whether Myrrha had the right of it. Maybe I should be making my own decisions, forging my own path.
Just then, out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a dark purple slithering on a branch. It coiled around the lone fruit on the tree, a luscious, bruisey-purple apple.
I shivered at the serpent's presence–a feeling not of hate but of total lack of warmth.
As it slithered about the stem, the serpent pitched it toward me and she slipped off to the ends of the branch, leaping into the starscape for all I could tell.
Unwilling to let this fruit past me, no matter how wrong it was, I seized the chilled, dark apple and held it in my hands.
The squirrels all dropped their nuts and stared at me, eyes wide, pupils huge and black.
Beneath me, Old Man Wolf tilted his head.
My hand grew numb and my heart raced as I considered, like looking into a glass of spirits… the sunset purple of a wine too rich for even the most naughty of the adults.
One taste; what could it hurt? "It's not forbidden to–?" The shiver of wrongness cut me off.
Officer Squirrel and his regiment looked on in judgment.
I shivered again, from my insolent refusal to let go the fruit.
The apple squirmed out of my hand and rolled on the grass. Old Man Wolf shook his head and uprighted the fruit before laying his head on his paws to watch me.
Filled with regret and confusion, I frowned at the lost fruit. It was not mine to know. I settled back to accept my lot. I had signed on, not with Old Man Wolf, not with the serpent, not even with Mack and Myrrha, but only with the pixies. I looked out at the bright star where the cold serpent leaped, wondering if it had a name.
Hours like minutes swept past as I dreamwalked over the other trees, watching over little Sigrun and thinking about her fragile arms–never recovered from when, in the throes of Dread Fever, I first came apart from her. It has been six–no, only five–summers ago. I wondered if she wouldn't be better off hearing out Old Man Wolf, or even tasting that cold, dark fruit offered by the even colder serpent lady. Her winter's apple could be no more dangerous than the fevers of the storied fireberry.
Much as the little furry child in the trap, Sigrun lived as she did depending on the work of her unseen shepherds. And just like a lamb, she knew so little. Would her guardians ever teach her, or would she remain just a mindless charge–as a lamb grows into an equally helpless sheep? More importantly, just as earthly shepherds sometimes fail their flock, so too the officers from beyond the gates would eventually slip and leave us to harm. That defined this trip–a rescue is not always just a rescue. But the 'pixies' had sharper eyes and a better vantage. They might still be the best shepherds for my human life.
As the sky brightened in thinking of dawn, the Old Man Wolf grew tired of pretending to be a dog and decided to pretend to be a man. I concluded that, no matter the coming danger, I would take Sigrun further down the path of the so-called-pixies.
"Hoo there, little girl,' Old Man Wolf hailed me, now in the form of Mack's witch doctor friend.
I returned, forcing the little one's lungs to take me in.
"Come down," he commanded. "Myrrha will be very cross–if we stay."
The only trace of the Wolf in him was his eyes and his howl, though his hair had the same black and white look about it. I stretched and slipped off, aiming a few feet ahead of the man.
"Should have tasted this." He stepped forward and plucked me from the air, laid me over his shoulder to stare at his heels, and handed me my apple. "The Fall would do you good. Bring you down to earth."
The rising daylight had warmed it and showed it to be red, not purple. Day had removed all the eerie bits and left it a plain old, boring apple–for which I no longer had any taste. I tossed it aside. "Who are you? How do you know my aunt?"
"Hef. Forgetful little haunt. " He shrugged. "Done a heap of damage for so little knowing. Usually not the way."
Like a shadow raven or a bone puppet? But, haunts are harmful. He's being silly, unless… "Are you going to eat my Aunt?"
"Is that what they've been telling you about me?"
His laugh echoed in the hollows of the woods and in my bones. "Where are you taking me?"
"Irresponsible, even for your age. Did you not mark the path home?"
I was being led; I didn't need to remember. I counted myself lucky he could not see the red in my pale cheeks as I squirmed to get down. When that failed, I knotted my fists together and punched him, wrists and all.
He hardly huffed or even shuffled me around.
Myrrha would be embarrassed; she had taught me to punch so that it dug deep like a dagger. But I figured knowing how–really knowing–meant knowing how to miss. He knew what I was doing, and he knew why; that hit my target. My aunt had taught me well.
"Using ya, you know." He shifted me back up onto the leather pad on his shoulder. "Don't give a fig for ya, for any that live on the earth."
That's a lie, I screamed inside me. The pixies did things, good things for people–no reason other than we needed them. Sure, they could be naughty, but always with a kindness for someone at heart. Why did he talk so mean? The only adult that admitted my friends were real, and he hated them. I squirmed, trying again to get off his shoulder.
"Hold your position, fool haunt." He yanked my ankles back into place. "Agin my better judgment, I'm heading to the farmhouse."
I smacked and kneed him again in protest.
"You should stop your witchery, little haunt, least till you wrap your head round who you're talking to. Your friends don't belong on this earth; right now, neither do you."
He keeps using that word. A haunt, like the shadow ravens that pester a man till he falls in exhaustion, leaving easy prey. A haunt, like the bone puppets that rise at the command of actual witches to do their bidding. But a haunt is dead–I hadn't died–and harmful. Could he really think me poison? That I was the trap, and Myrrha the lamb. "Put me down, ya big bully."
"Not the only one who talks to the outsiders." He shrugged. "Some not so polite as the Wolf you met. Some outsiders not even so warm as the Serpent."
How could anybody badmouth the pixies? I mean, sometimes the right thing hurts, but you still know they're right. "You're an evil man?" I didn't mean it to be a question.
"If only you'd ate her durned apple." He shook his head. "Take the fall. come back to earth, play paladin later. When you're an adult."
We reached the crest of the hill and walked through Mack's fence as if the wood obeyed the Old Man Wolf's wishes. He stamped up the stair, and set me on my feet before pawing at the door.
The small hole opened to look upon us.
"This belong to you? Thank the Wolf if it does."
Myrrha would be already about if she had known; I imagined her orking green with rage upon seeing me out of my proper place. I smiled and looked down, like a normal little girl should.
When she opened the door, face red, I ran to hug her.
She parried my grapple and guided me to the side.
Old Man Wolf strode past her, "We need to talk."
Myrra slammed the door and slapped the bar down behind it.
"Did you go out on one of your adventures again?" Mack came out of his room rubbing his eyes. "You might have been better equipped."
"Don't encourage her."
Mack winked. "And never adventure alone, young lady."
"I warned you," Old Man Wolf scolded them, "to rein in the little haunt. So long as she remains here, she's stirring up the outsiders."
Those words again. He clearly did mean to lump me in with the undead. He was right, I didn't belong but…. he didn't have to say it! Then again, at least he could talk straight.
A smile and a shrug from Mack barely met Myrrha's rage–old news. Mack's words almost never make any difference.
"No peace without sacrifice." Old Man Wolf shook his finger at them. "Ya'd think warriors wouldn't need an old wolf to explain that."
Mack and Myrrha watched him, like children accused of abusing the bulls. Old Man Wolf, for his part, pointed to the back room. They followed him in there.
Once they closed the door the music box clicked as they wound it.
Whatever they had to say wasn't for my ears. I strained to hear over the tinny chimes of the box. After a couple minutes, the Old Man Wolf led them back out, shaking his head. "If only you'd told me about Father Highly." The defeated old man slouched.
That was Mother's preacher, the one that called the fire-winged man to take me beyond the white gates at the beginning of my fever dream. I had followed him and been introduced to my duty, and to the pixies. What did he have to do with all this?
"Things happen for a reason," Mack insisted, standing tall.
"Stupidity is a reason." Old Man Wolf shrugged. His voice dropped to an angry whisper, "I won't be here for you when the outsiders come."
The nightmare hush of his voice warned me these 'outsiders' would be as cold as the serpent lady and far more dangerous than bone puppets. I shuddered.
Myrrha growled under her breath, "Don't care what your portents say, Old Man Wolf. We're no peasants. 'Less you got a royal summons demanding we fall back…?" After staring him down, she crouched before me, poking and checking me over.
"And you, young lady!" Mack winked at me. "What have I told you about running off? Don't care what your 'imaginary friends' say."
Mack didn't believe they were imaginary either. "But, they help me all the time! Myrrha..."
"Don't 'Myrrha' me, Sigrun. We are warriors."
Meaning, we turn a blind eye, leaving the fuzzy-headed stuff to Father Highly and Old Man Wolf. But I couldn't unsee what I saw, could I? I searched the adults for a sign.
Mack looked away, as Old Man Wolf watched us.
"We rely on our arms and our wits, not daydreams. You're too old for such things."
The old man's head tilted back in surprise, but he let it go with an approving nod. He whispered to me, "Too young, rather."
"Tell her, Wolf! You see the pixies too, don't you? You said!"
"I told you, as I recall, never trust all you hear, no matter how nice they smell." Old Man Wolf stroked his beard and looked at me. "Have you ever seen these 'pixies' you put so much faith in?"
Why's that so important? I hadn't, not since my fever dreams. Not since Old Man Wolf had kidnapped me from beyond the gates. Speechless, I looked at him until my toes began to shake.
He nodded, grave. "Mack, Myrrha, I am honored to have known you. Sigrun, my condolences." He turned to leave.
Mack held me by the shoulder as I tried to follow the old man. As he stepped out of sight, I blurted, "Tell the Wolf I'm sorry I took his lunch!"
Myrrha grabbed the bar and shoved the old man out with it before slamming and barring the door behind him. Shaking, she leaned against the door. "Good grief."
By holding the world out she hoped to stop me from being different. If they refused to hear, still they could listen, and we could be a family. I blinked back the tears.
Mack, mirroring my frown, knelt down and brushed the white-shining hair out of my eyes. "So like your great uncle, before–"
"That's why I asked you not to encourage her." She walked to the counter and picked up a towel to dab her face. "Today, she's staying inside."
No! I couldn't. Each day spent inside left me further behind on mastering my upstroke. My arms already seemed barely fit to wield dagger. I couldn't let a long burned-out fever bully me like a peasant when my family of freemen–like real nobles and even kings–worked to reforge their own destinies. But before I took my adult place, I had a lot of work to do. Never the best with words, I whined, "But Myrrha?"
She cocked a half-smile and shook her head.
My shoulders sagged. Even an overgrown green urgan would regret ignoring that look.
Mack laughed and scratched my hair. "Why don't you go start the fire?"
I tried to keep my shoulders straight as I looked about. Seeing not a hint of any other move, I had to admit I had been routed. I trudged toward the kitchen.
She thought she had done me some good, which meant I was still one of the family and lifted some of that burden.
The bitter mist from blueapple pie in its first stage of baking made my eyes and my mouth water as Myrrha sat down for a moment's rest.
I could already cook as well as Mack and better than Myrrha, so the day's activities got me nowhere, so far. But while following my uncle about worked my tiny muscles, Mack had a poor skill for teaching battlecraft–as if he had been born with a sword in his hand. I truly doubt he could even remember learning half the things he tried to teach. I needed to be out there, to ever stand beside them as one of them; but a battle is won where you stand, with what you can lay your hands on. I had Myrrha, the far superior teacher. Ignoring the battle-grade 'pitchfork' we kept in the kitchen, I grabbed the ironwood broom and mop, offering her the choice of sparring weapons.
"Surely, you know we can't. Not in the house."
We could hardly do any damage to this house. "Why not? The urgans already broke everything." I pointed to the steel mending on our wooden table and the half-hewn stumps that passed for chairs.
"How about you're not an urgan and I said no."
I glanced outside, as if something might comment on my dilemma. I had been beaten, yet that only amounted to our first match. A freeman is born to carry a sword, but only in opposition can she grow the warrior within. I nodded, and placed the cleaning tools in the corner across from Myrrha's sword locker. "As you wish, Master Myrrha," I drew an imaginary sword from my belt. I held it in an aggressive manner.
"You dare to challenge me?" She winked and rose, drawing her dream blade and spinning it about her.
Up one side and down the other. Her opening move invited me to defeat, baiting me by pretending to insult my skill. The blurred movements proceeded lazily, far from her full speed, giving the impression of several weak spots–each a different trap. I attacked to catch her blade, to show her I did not fall for her ploy this time.
I leaped back and barely stopped her daydream blade from cutting into my skull. How had she known I would strike there–had she simply fought so long that it didn't matter what I did?
"Good; you ignore the obvious." Myrrha slid back for an easier guard. "But remember: no move is ever safe."
At being part of the family business, a rush flooded me. I did not bother to call it out by its name. One could get to know them in quieter times; Mack taught that the emotions that appear during battle have but one name, soldier. On the field, your job was to appraise their intel and lead them to victory. I allowed a show of my teeth and tested her guard.
But each time I moved she waited in position for a better counter. In this medium, her greater strength counted for nothing; and we moved at an artificially slow pace. But she showed no sign of letting me outthink her either. I wondered if this might be a position in which the only hope was stupidity–an act of desperation so bold that she could not prepare. But what?
Just above us, a shrill shadow raven screamed, "Eat! Eat! Eat!"
I looked out the window, into the mocking eyes of a death's head–a cloud with the evil eyes and jagged teeth of a haunted skull.
Myrrha struck the instant I lowered my guard.
A half-hearted shrug barely stopped Myrrha's attack as I regarded the two-part omen.
The chill in my blood hinted that this was no random haunt but a dire message from my pixies–one I needed my family to heed. I looked up at Myrrha, thinking how she had heard her fill of portents. How could I get her to listen?
"When you are holding a blade, even an imaginary one, you must pay attention." She released me from the compromised position and struck three times.
Each, easily blocked, would have meant death or worse had they been allowed to land, thus driving her point. A point I not only understood, but also the one my pixies demanded I make to her. I lowered my head and offered my sword in surrender.
She accepted my surrender with a scowl.
I walked to the sword cabinet and tried the lock, hoping my fingers would find some hint of its proper combination.
"Sigrun, really?" She scoffed. "I can't trust you with an imaginary blade. We're not playing with the enchanted one."
"I…" The weight of it flooded over me as I looked over my shoulder and locked eyes with her till my toe started tapping. "...know how you feel, but I wish you would wear this. Just for now?"
"Sigrun, where is this coming from?" She grinned and tousled my hair. "Was that bird an omen?"
I turned and stared her down.
She shook her head.
Why did I have to get saddled with the practical one today of all days? "Uncle Mack? Can I…"
"Your uncle is busy and this is your post."
He would listen, at least. He might even humor me. Myrrha's sword might not be appropriate kitchen attire, but the enchantment was civilized as far as I knew; it should be safe to wear. Knowing better than to further antagonize her, I suppressed a groan and thought. Who else? Staring out the window, I asked, "What about Mother and Father. Are they ever coming back? Could we call them home?" As in, before the outsiders come?
"Hard telling." Myrrha's face had gone pale and she dabbed at her mouth with a towel.
"What your mother and father are doing, almost as important as it is dangerous."
I suppressed a smile. I had not seen them once in the five years since the Dread Fever had forced me out of my body. Nor had I asked this question before. Perhaps that might help her see how important this was. "Ah, it's only urgans there. Can't be that dangerous. You allow them in our home." I pointed to her belt, with no sword.
"Ker is no soldier and he's decent enough." Myrrha poured a glass of water for each of us. "Talk his way and he keeps them in line."
"Why do we even live in urgan lands anyhow?"
"We don't. It's human land here, mainly."
My warrior pride bristled at being asked to hide behind peasant-girl stories—I had not yet learned the difference between hope and lies. I wanted the truth, if only because, when I didn't know how long we had, these adultish games would slow my progress like a phalanx of peasants–stopping my campaign not by strength but by number. Having no complaint I could voice, I glared.
"Never could put one over on you." Myrrha laughed. "Our tiny bit of noble blood gives us rights other's don't get, to bear arms and hold land. In exchange, we have duties.
That's called being a freeman. I rolled my eyes and nodded.
"Takes more than rights to survive." She pushed my glass toward me. "We had a penchant for wielding our words the careless way you carry a sword. That earned us enemies, like the Reverend Mayor Kollen."
"So he gifted us this land?" Brutal, nasty. As the doom approached, I groaned with the strain of this losing battle, unable to pass the outer guard.
"It's our duty to protect it. We do that by a careful balance of strength and friendship."
The way that they courted 'Uncle Ker' and helped him maintain his control of the clan.
"It would have earned us a duchy had we learned our lesson before."
I feigned a drink and made a face as if the water had rotted.
"What do you want, for us to run to Balthispeare. 'Queen Medusa, can you help a lost freeman family?'"
We would never do that, but I found myself nodding so hard my head hurt.
"You'll get over it, kiddo. One day, after you grow into your sword, no doubt you'll follow your mother's footsteps and have outlandish adventures."
At the thought of being like Mother, powerful even beyond Myrrha, I puffed up with pride until I looked at the cloud's terrible scowl. I eyed the scar on Myrrha's forearm, supposedly from a 'dragon's tongue.' Mack told me it had been a salamander—a fire-breathing lizard the size of a horse. Mack and Myrrha had faced many such challenges and, in retirement, had only sharpened their power. The omen foretold danger, not destruction—nothing had been carved in stone, regardless of what Old Man Wolf said. Perhaps I overreacted. Still I found myself staring at the sword, wishing for her to have, if not help, then at least a ready weapon.
"I've never lived in fear before, Sigrun." She tussled my head. "I'm not going to arm myself at the word of a hungry ghost."
Under the weight of her words, my shoulders fell. "Please, I know how you feel, but for my sake. Take the sword and wear it." I glared at the skull cloud, which by now looked like it had been molded by an artist out of his nightmares.
"Where is all this coming from?" She followed my eyes, and reached for the sword at her belt–but it wasn't there.
I laid my palm on her arm to give her strength.
She looked to me.
The fear in her eyes told me that she, too, believed–just not in friendly pixies. I felt closer to her than ever before.
Myrrha knocked over her cup as I sprinted toward the stairs.
Halfway up the stairs I stopped to wonder what had spooked me–had the shadow raven screamed again?
In answer, the familiar rhythm of an urgan march in the distance, of Ker's men cursing and beating one another's armor as they marched toward us, rose above the roar of the kitchen fire.
"Get up there," Myrrha gestured with her chin, "and disappear."
"Yes'm," I said, already moving.
"Stay hidden, no matter what."
As I closed and barred the bedroom door, I sighed in relief and rested my back against it, much as Myrrha had, as if I too could hold back the coming tide of nightmares.
Under her breath–I had no earthly idea how I might have heard her–she said, "You don't know how much I love you, kiddo."
The sweetness of her declaration, no doubt carried to my ears by the power of my pixies, played against the stark reality of our doom. The threat my omens had hinted of could not be more real than that posed by Mack's urgan friends. Yet I found myself smiling to know that if things would end for me, they would end with me as a full member of the family.
Mack and Myrrha were more than a match for any three or even five of the urgans, who rarely bothered to gang up but preferred to match one-on-one. Even with their mood stirred, even under a dizzy star like this one, my aunt and uncle could handle themselves.
No, I decided. The pixies had raised the alarm, certainly, but–whatever Old Man Wolf might say–danger did not equal doom. "To cleanse the stink of fear first put out the fires of hope," Uncle Mack told me, "Or better yet, feed them."
I shook it off and looked about.
I had my job of hiding here in the secret parts of the attic, but the bar on the door could dull an ax. There'd be time to join the shadows before anything saw me. I slipped under my bed and pushed the secret section of floor to the side–not enough to crawl in, only enough to get my special, ancient artifact.
My spyglass, a tube holding two little green marbles, allowed me to see the entire kitchen through a knothole in the floor. Unbelievably old, this device survived from the ancient Amerik empire, to prove that glassmakers–and all humans–had once been worthy of more than mockery. If they knew I intended to watch them, Mack would be upset and Myrrha beside herself, but I needed only to stay out of sight. There would be time to slip under the bed and pull the floor over my fugitive's coffin.
I shoved and twisted the spyglass into the knothole as if it were a door and looked into it.
Myrrha set the front door bar to the side and returned to tend the cookfire.
The door slammed against the wall, sending the knob skittering across the way and bouncing against the wall As Ker ducked to enter, his huge shoulders went through the door one at a time. His boar nose tipped back, and his green face curled to better show off his boar tusks.
He thumped his chest and the doorway and his voice boomed, "Hail, thorga! Mock, Mare-rrha!"
Thorga: tho urga, glass maker. 'Glass' as in 'garbage steel.' As in lies and fraud and foolishness. Like every word in urgan, it described us at our worst: humans called out as childish toymakers pretending to be men. To the average urga, humans became the sort of foolish shadow of an urgan that would make armor out of glass and blame the ax.
Ker didn't mean it that way; he had tested Mack and Myrrha and found them worthy of life. Looking into Ker's majestic face, I wanted to slap everyone awake and order them about.
I shuddered and cringed. My body too easily took on the ways of those I looked upon. Struggling to stop Ker's magnificent spirit from possessing the tho-glazed flesh doll my family called Sigrun and driving us to its shattering point, I had to look away.
Behind Ker Vog strutted under the weight of a slain boar. He turned so that Mack and Myrrha could admire what he had, then slammed it against the steel-reinforced table with force that shook the entire house.
When the table held, we grinned in victory–Vog and I.
He had found something that passed the test, something that would survive in his presence, even at his worst. For an urgan, nothing else could compare. The shared experience lifted my spirits as well.
Mack swaggered in from the conference room, wearing his arming sword and clamping down his workaday, plated-leather armor, leaving in storage the broadsword and war armor. "Stoke up the fire, Myrrha! Looks like we got pig to roast."
A third urgan, nearly as thin as Mack and no taller than Myrrha, sported cloth sewn to look like rusted armor. His skin paled from apple green to almost pink at the snout, almost more of an upturned human nose, and his tusks fit behind his lips. As the lips under that boarsnout quivered, black smoke sputtered out from no pipe.
The urge to crush this urgan, to wash him away, and burn everything he touched filled me like toxic smoke from a forbidden pyre. "What is wrong with you, Sigrun! Only monsters hate."
The disgust came from the stranger, but in a way more real than my own feelings. I could only turn it on itself, and struggled to believe that it was separate from me. I closed my eyes against the spell he worked on me, and breathed in the fresh air, seeking out the peace my spirit friends brought me.
When I opened my eyes, the world seemed even more coated in this urgan's filth. With a heart seven times blacker than my worst nightmares, this was the one Old Man Wolf had foreseen.
Worse yet, the disgust came not from the stranger's heart but from the smoke about his head. With each breath, a puff of blackness came to haunt Ker's head, forming a crown of horror. As it gathered there, the stranger's mood sweetened and Ker's soured.
This proved Old Man Wolf correct: The monsters of the pixie world had arrived.
Ker snarled and paced as Myrrha removed the top from the stove and put on the roasting rack. As the stranger further cursed Ker, Myrrha poured water and Mack threw logs on the fire.
A stray spark landed on Mack's hand. Mack pulled his hand away.
Ker stomped into Mack's space. "Back off, thorga."
Mack slapped his forearm against Ker's breastplate with clang. "Mind how you speak to me, you urgan filth." Mack grinned.
I dared to share Mack's grin. I'd seen this a dozen times; the men trade insults and slaps, then, happy that no amount of rudeness could damage their friendship, they stop off. Myrrha might be right. Just my imagination.
But Ker instead batted the smoke from about his head. "No! Me pig. You no cook. No thwack in face of tribe."
"And what, exactly," Mack shoved him playfully, "are you gonna do about it, Ker?"
Ker stepped back and batted his head again. "No. Ha said no. Thorga stop or Ker mek dead." Ker pulled out his beat up sword.
A weapon? To stop myself from screaming, I put my hand over my mouth. Drawing his sword changed everything.
Mack turned his head away, just slightly, and drew his sword pointed away from Ker, toward the ground. "This way invites destruction. What say we put away our toys and settle this like real urga."
As the urgan gang stomped and beat each other's chests, Myrrha picked up her cleaver and hid it under her apron.
Myrrha wouldn't need her cleaver except to cheat. A lesser man would have killed Ker already. Still lesser, another man might have needed to do so–to get the drop on Ker. But even if Ker got lucky and brought Mack down on top of him, that would end it.
Nothing much had changed. I told myself that urga were urga. Ordinarily, urga could not rouse themselves to fight for or even talk about vengeance. So no matter who won, Myrrha need not raise a finger except to wipe away the red and green blood.
"No care. No urga. Vampire glaze everything." Ker lunged like a child striking at a mouse, with none of the savage grace one expected of his kind.
He had thought of us as strong and proud, not as evil humans trying to cover them in our glass and drain the life out of them. What had changed? Only the smoke from the stranger. Were these his words?
Mack slapped it away–even I could have done so.
"Must have death," he cried, voice raising louder with each word. Finally, he squeaked, "Death, death, death."
For one such as Ker–who lived by the power of his voice even more than the force of his arms–such a mistake would cost him dearly, if he lived.
The other urgans slapped and clanged and hopped in rhythm to his scream, giving backup to his chant of "Death, Death, death."
Mack put his hand on the bridge of his nose. "Very well, my dear friend." He ran his sword through a rusthole in the center of Ker's breastplate, through the man's heart, leaving the sword buried halfway.
As Ker stumbled back, and Myrrha backed against the wall, the stranger muttered on, sending plumes of smoke to surround Ker.
When Ker's head lolled back, the stranger's voice rose to an incoherent scream that I heard in my bones. As the head rolled side to side, Ker's off hand grasped for Mack's weapon by the blade as his main one swung the flat end toward Mack's forehead, forcing Mack away.
The stranger stood in reach of Myrrha's sword cabinet.
Myrrha pointed to the pitchfork that had been laid near the door and buried her cleaver in Ker's swordarm shoulder.
That threw Ker's swing off long enough for Mack to roll back and grab a broom–which he threw like a spear to Myrrha–and grab the pitchfork in time to parry Ker's next swing.
Ker's shoulder flesh hung loose and useless from hacking, but the swordarm did not seem to care as it flailed about.
The other hand had grabbed Mack's sword by the blade, in an idiotic halfswording style, and swung the pommel at Myrrha.
Myrrha batted the sword handle away with the broomhandle between desperate glances at the sword cabinet.
The remains of Ker fought with no hint of Mack's friend, or anything urgan, in perfect rhythm to the stranger's howling. The other urgans hooted and stomped, shaking the floor.
"Don't you see?" I cried. "The smoke is your enemy. It's the stranger!"
But they continued to trade blows with Ker and ignore the real foe.
Now that, at last, I had a true role to play in my family, I had sworn to stand aside. They truly lacked the imagination to see what was going on. Perhaps the head of battle had blurred their thoughts. "Should I run down there? Please, I need a sign."
Through the smoke of hate that burned my eyes and coated my tongue, my pixie friends could barely even be remembered. For the first time, I–like Mack and Myrrha–found myself truly alone, as were Mack and Myrrha.
I had to risk it; only with my insight could they hope to kill the stranger and lift the curse. I ran to the door and prepared to lift the bar.
Etched into the wood of the bar, on each side, I read the words, "No matter what." Even before I could read, Myrrha had drilled me on the meaning of that sign, the only sign I had, the only hint of truth.
Her last request had not been some random thought, but something deeper. The code of my family, by which I lived.
As much as it hurt, I pulled myself from the door and returned to the knothole.
I returned to see Myrrha throw her cleaver at the stranger, where it bounced off his forearm and struck the sword cabinet.
Just as the cursed screaming gave way to a yelp, Ker stumbled.
Had Myrrha actually done it? Had she found the secret? I praised my pixies for bringing her the message that I had no right to give.
But she continued to draw Ker's attacks, feinting and parrying with her ironwood broom, angling toward the sword locker.
"No, you don't need to cut the hydra deeper," I said, referring to one of Mack's odder stories. "You need to cut off the secret head."
Ker's off-hand did not bother to half-sword properly, but bashed and sliced with both ends of Mack's blade, doing even more damage to his hand than to Myrrha.
Myrrha could not hear me and could not see reason. Between the stranger and Ker blocking her path, she made no progress toward the sword cabinet. Meanwhile, she stumbled about on a wounded foot, sprinkling blood everywhere, getting nowhere near the sword cabinet through Ker's guard.
The stranger grinned and turned toward her.
Both of Ker's weapons came upon Myrrha, bashing aside her defenses and skewering her.
Mack nodded. "So this is how my friendship is repaid." He took the pitchfork and rammed Ker from behind, lifting the beast up into the air, and tapping the handle into the floorboards.
Coated in the black smoke, Ker's swords reached backwards, attacking with the same rough zeal that they had used since his death.
In seconds, Mack dropped to the ground and Ker came tumbling after.
As the urga crowd cheered the stranger's screaming fell silent.
The stranger kicked at Ker and Mack. In broken Krolesh–huma language–he gloated, "Behold! Now I rule tribe, how all glassmaking vampire take pay."
After allowing the crowd to enjoy their victory, he addressed them in urga, "Huma beauty comes at the cost of their strength, and ours if we allow it. Rejoice that we have the strength to be ugly."
The cheer rang out, but not as hearty as before.
"Before this evil spreads, we seek out the children and put them to their final test." The stranger took to the stairs.
The white heat drenched my face as I turned to slip under my bed. My heart hurt and I forced myself to breathe, throwing up the panel of wood. The beveled edges snagged at my pants as I kicked painfully against the bed above me–forgetting the drills. My heart beat thundered in time with the batteringpole against the door as my hands, slick with sweat, fumbled for the leather pull string.
I knew in my bones that the door would shatter long before I had myself in place, allowing the stranger to see me and pull me to my death.
The wood of the door creaked as my fingers found their place.
Splinters flew everywhere as the panel slid. I had one, maybe two strikes before I was revealed.
The panel clicked and locked into place and I hit the inner lock as a chunk of door bounced under the bed. A heartbeat later, the door came crashing down.
A distant voice came from Myrrha's bedroom, "Nothing here!"
"Shake the glass from your helmet," the stranger cried out, "And find their hiding holes."
Terrible noise above as they shattered my bed and tossed my chest against the wall until all had gone broken.
"Nothing here," Vog laughed. "Look like thorga eat their piglets."
The others chortled.
A sickening thud as wood struck flesh. "Thorga are not like us. Their young wither and fever to death."
"I will stop you, rules-changer Korog."
Footsteps over my head bent the panel, pressing the wood into my cheek.
Fearing to cry out, against my training I held my breath.
The wood pressed harder against my cheek.
Myrrha had given her life for me. The phrase, "no matter what" ingraved itself in my mind as much as the splintered wood. My hands could not hold up the urgan, if the wood–which had been meant to support only itself–could not, but I forced myself to breathe and pushed against it with all the silent might I could muster.
"Unlike you, I've more than an ugly face to prove my lineage," the stranger, Korog, said. "I can make you thorgabent as Ker."
At the strange word, 'thorgabent,' Korog's disgust made my skin crawl.
Korog's sneering voice continued, "Won't take a man like Mack to take you down. A huma piglet could do it. By accident."
Even in a language dripping with a thousand rancid insults, no word ever struck so foul. I shuddered for Vog.
Vog cursed, stamped, grunted and huffed. He must have been attacking, but no strike ever landed. The cowardly Korog did not feel the need to stand against Vog's assault.
Vog described his desire to destroy Korog with such poetry that it put a name to the horror that drove Korog and Ker, sheathed in my heart like the enchantment on the dread sword Lumoc. It took all I had not to rise out of my wooden grave to cut through them like so much wheat standing, helpless, in the field—or gleefully die trying. My hands searched in vain for a sword.
Korog snorted at that. "That's more like it. If I don't make you dead, I may make you apprentice." His stick hit metal then floor. Vog's body fell a click after.
He stepped away. "First lesson: stop hitting the floor with your face
At the applause of his fellows, Korog stepped out of the room.
Vog swore and stamped and threw things to the delight of his chortling fellows, then finally walked away.
As he did, he pressed the wood into my face. The others followed.
As they left, crippling fear passed out of me in a long, sweet sigh, followed by a shudder. Myrrha and Mack lie dead–hopefully–on the kitchen floor, and there I was, thinking of my stupid, pathetic self. As they thudded down the stairs, I curled up as best I could in the cramped box and surrendered to crying. I had no wish to survive, but out of duty, I muffled my sobs.
Some time later, when crying had left me sore and dry, a smoke rose in the air to bite at my lungs. Korog shouted out, and the others repeated his call, again and again, in rhythm like their beating and slapping.
Even now, the memory of that blood-soaked, urgan shanty drowns my faith and paints the world in scarlet gloom. The smoke of that nightmarish roast burned my lungs, even without the thought of loved ones on the pyre. I never dreamed so many tears could come from one little girl.
Over the course of the day, the songs grew distant. The smoke from the oven fires cleared. I dared hope the monster men had gone from my home to cavort in the fields. I never wondered if it had been a day or longer. I stank and shook with hunger as I crept about, sifting through the wreckage in the moonlight.
Among the splinters, nothing remained worth calling a weapon. I looked out the window, searching for a sign.
Fires dotted the countryside, though Korog's gang numbered fewer than a dozen. They must have done that to make themselves appear larger and more powerful. Either that, I whispered, "or to announce that they intend to destroy the world."
That crazy thought struck me so hard, I laughed. My family lay dead; my home, in ruins. What more to destroy? I don't know what passed for reason in my head at that moment. Perhaps I wanted to fight, thought they had left, or maybe just desired to join my aunt and uncle. Probably all of those went through me when I decided not to escape by the roof but pushed against the door to the kitchen.
A few stragglers slept in the kitchen and on the stairs.
Gingerly, I stepped over the arm of one of the warriors. As my foot landed, the beast shifted, catching the second ankle with his wrist. I fell, hands grabbing at his boots to shove them away from my face.
I blushed as I stood, glad I wore pants and not a dress—as though the urgans threatened nothing worse than embarrassment.
Greenish blood trickled from his nose and stained my feet. The warrior snorted, gasped, and rolled over.
Terror cut through my chest and burned in my stomach. He could not sleep through being kicked in the nose! I reached for a blade at my belt but found none. My cry for help gurgled in my throat as I choked it off.
Yet he began to snore.
Impossibly, the urgan beast still slept. My jaw dropped, and my arms shook, gathering all the power they had, though, against an urgan thwack, they would shatter like butterfly wings. After a few rushed breaths, I realized that he had, in fact, completely ignored my disastrous climb. I surveyed the kitchen.
Korog, the stranger, slept in front of Myrrha's sword cabinet. The door hung loose, her sword missing. Nothing else of value caught my eye save the meat cleaver sitting in a puddle of blood. I snatched it with a fierce grin. The cool grip of the handle soothed me as I looked toward the door.
Just outside the house, Mack's pitchfork stood, tines in the patio floorboards. Ker's head, skewered on top, looked blankly at me. Like a black halo, the curse-smoke still floated about Ker's head. Beneath him, two human heads—Mack's silver-white hair, and Myrrha's red—mercifully faced down. I stroked their heads, glad to see that their suffering had completed. I screwed up my face to a mask of anger, but rage fizzled; my body ached to lie down. I needed my friends more than ever. "Take care of them. Even Ker."
At that, Ker's curse-smoke crown left him and slithered down the staff of the pitchfork, gathered at my feet, and wrapped itself about me.
The inhuman memorial shook. Ker's mouth flapped. Off to the left, bones rattled. My throat itched, and my stomach burned with the desire to spit acid. How did I almost forgive this atrocity? I raced toward Korog's sleeping body with glorious murder burning in my heaving ribs.
I paused while I prepared to butcher the sleeping stranger before me. Would I take the time to add his bones to the smoldering flames in the pit, or would I run to give me more time to enjoy the vengeance? Nausea gripped my beltline as each of Korog's breaths stained the world in filth.
Mack's voice whispered from every direction. "Oh, Sigrun, not like this."
The ghost of my uncle Mack stood on the stairs.
My eyes opened wide as my eyebrows pressed down in rage. I glanced at him, shook my head, and willed him to turn into my mother. Sometimes the daydreams seemed so real and refused to obey—like real people, almost. "You know better. You taught me not to listen to my imaginary friends."
"We had our reasons." He stepped toward me. "But those are past us. If you do this, I don't know if you ever will know freedom again."
"You're just fear, an excuse to act like a coward. Little thorga girl wants to run away."
"Take your time. There's nothing you could do here that would get you killed."
I dropped my blade away from Korog's throat. Mack thought of Ker as a friend, perhaps thought that Korog should have rights. No lawmaker, human or urgan, would agree; urgans would say the only right for anybody is to fight, and humans would deny him that. "So, you have regrets. You are a sympathizer, so obsessed with peace that you can't see justice."
He shook his head. "No, you know me better. I killed my share of urgans, most of whom used their gift of life far better than this one. I reckon you saw me kill Gilkesh and Narath with your little spyglass."
He knew? But, no. Lying pixie! "Why didn't you give me a sign? What to do?"
The image of Mack watched me.
It wasn't fair, taking the form of Mack. Or was it him, really? He had always been so much like them at heart, I couldn't tell. In the end, it didn't matter; I know he spoke the higher truth. My arm wavered and cramped as I fought to steady the cleaver. I wiped away a tear. "Why can't I kill this..."
"You didn't need a sign." He stepped closer to me. "Justice cannot be dispensed in the throes of horror. You must sober your passions, regain balance first–if that path is for you."
What? There would never be another chance. I shook my head and readied my cleaver over my shoulder, the dull edge against my jaw. I grinned, and cold joy pulsed through my body in sync to my heartbeat, which in turn echoed the urgan holy hymn: "Deadly death. Deadly death."
"This path you're on invites destruction, Sigrun. Perhaps not as swiftly as Ker." He shrugged sadly. "Your new friends will help you destroy Korog and carry you to countless victories. Even in death, I imagine, you will inspire horror among all who cross you. If...."
"Korog! Tell him!" Black smoke came out of my mouth with each breath. Then, in unison, Korog and I said, "I am nothing like Ker!"
I jumped and clapped my mouth shut with both hands. The cleaver landed blade down, a finger's breadth from my toe. Then I sneered and picked up the cleaver. "So, I do have the power to make a difference."
"If I thought that you had any control, I would task you to kill him. But look at this helpless thrall. Can you see the part of you inside of him?"
I could have been just like him. A rancid heart, just as infected with hate. More than anything, I wanted to be. More than a warrior. More than life itself. "I don't understand what you're talking about."
"It's hard to admit, I know."
I rolled the handle in my hands and looked Korog up and down. I whispered, "I want to destroy that part."
"Yes, now, you feel that way. But think: is that what Sigrun would want?"
My lips curled in disgust, and my toes shook. Was I in my right mind, or was I under a spell? It didn't matter; any decent person would cut this evil out, even if it were too late. "Absolutely." As I raised the cleaver, a terrible thrill ripped clean to my bones.
Mack shook his head. "Really?"
There was no way to know if I would normally do this, or if it would set right with me. "I don't know."
"Then how can you do it?"
I stood and breathed. The smoke burned in my lungs and squeezed at my stomach. I could not hear my thoughts over the chant of "Death" with every thump of my lifeblood. I had no business deciding what cup to drink from, let alone standing in judgment. "Why does it fall to me? Isn't somebody supposed to take care of these things?"
He nodded. "Trust me. Ignore the urge. Walk out the door."
Nothing ever felt so wrong as sparing Korog's life. Every inch of my body screamed for me to stop as I walked past the cursed memorial and into the urgan-infested night of the apocalypse.
Read on! Second entry: "Section 2: Into the Night of Dizzy Stars"
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