Orphan-refugee Sigrun's 'pixies' have enemies; guilt and blame bedevil her adventures.
|The countryside sparkled with campfires more numerous than stars, as if urgan warriors plagued the land. Surely these camps had been deserted, I skirted them like a rat in the shadows. The evil smoke did not blot out the smell of danger in the wind. My small fingers gripped the handle of that meat cleaver, squeezing its solidness and sharpness into me as I ran, barefoot into the night. I continued with that until I fancied myself becoming a monster. Not large, like an urgan, but
: small and dangerous like a wicked-clever pixie. The insane game served as my beacon in that disastrous night, wisdom and madness joined like handle and blade. |
The cold of the ground froze my toes. I could not feel whether I ran on the ground or flew above it. In the dark, a bush reached up and swept my feet from under me—at least, that's how it felt. I rolled beneath the leaves. Too weak to push the hold ground away, I accepted the bush as my home and laid my head down.
Next thing, the sunlight warmed the air and pushed the shadows into hiding with me. Beats of horse hooves and wagon wheels gently grew. I snatched up my cleaver and readied myself to ask for help. A thought came in a voice I didn't recognize. Yes, Sigrun. People love to help ax-wielding maniacs.
I watched myself hide the cleaver in my tunic and dust my clothing. Yes, after the previous night, I needed the monster, but hiding my wicked pixie behind the mask of a helpless, little girl horrified me. I wanted nothing to do with the ominous stranger called Sigrun.
Don't hurt my new friends, Sigrun!
One wagon approached, bearing two odd people. The tip of the man's stove pipe hat, if a man he was, barely would stand as tall as me. His beard had only the fewest hairs on his chin. The saber-thin woman next to him had a grace never seen among the noblest of us thorga. I waved at them.
"Hail, little girl. What madness are you after?" Too short to be human, he looked friendly aside from that. "This is no place for people traveling alone. Get on back to your family."
My chin dropped, and I looked back toward the ruins of Mack's home. I shook my head.
"Go on. Your family will worry their death."
"Sweep the glass from your helmet!" An imaginary ghost of Ker stood behind me, blustering like an outraged lawyer before Queen Medusa of Balthispeare. "No huma piglet here roam about without guard! Insane no take her in hand—"
The strange woman's emerald green eyes looked right at my daydream of Ker and cut him off. "Ben, I don't think she can. Let's take her with us."
"You and your ideas, Corielle!" Ben faked a shiver. "You know how the constabulary feels about — what do they call it, kind-napping?"
"We can find her parents later. If the urgans find us, you'll be wishing they were lawmen."
"I don't know. I sleep better after slaying urgans than dusting up constables. Besides, how many raiders have you even seen in these parts?"
She eyed Ker's spirit, pacing back and forth. "I've a feeling we might see some tonight if we wait long enough."
"Well, we can't leave her, I'll warrant. Little girl, why do you travel alone?"
II opened my mouth to speak, but all that came out was a little whine. My face burned; a twelve-year-old freeman girl should be able to answer a simple question.
"That settles it, then. If she'd anywhere to go, suren she would be there. Get up here, little one."
I took Ben's hand and climbed up, grateful for the warm softness of his touch and his spirit. We'll be going nowhere until you tell us why you travel alone.
"She'll answer your questions later, Ben." She grabbed her shirt and shook it like it meant something. "For now, she's under my aegis."
"You canna grant sanctuary here, Corielle."
"Perhaps not, but it will turn the constables away from you."
"Eh, that it will." He shook his head. "This will be trouble, you know."
She smirked and tugged the reins. "That's what we come for, is it not?"
"That we do. And she's a sweet little human." He winked at me and ruffled my hair. "Sure and she'll be no trouble at all."
** ** **
We rode half a day, finding our own way and ignoring the paths that passed for a road. When at last the sky turned orange, Ben pulled the horses to a stop beneath the violet leaves of the fey elm. He grabbed a steel drum and a block of wood, poured wood chips over it. He took a twig of wood with a red tip, and scraped it against the edge of the firedrum, until it lit up like a candle.
"Are you going to sit up there all night?" Corielle said, holding out her hand.
I took her hand and stepped down, trying to warm myself against the barrel as Corielle grabbed a few more things. Not only did the barrel hold in the light, but it also held in the heat, rendering it invisible to the creatures of the night. Very clever, I thought. My new friends were better prepared than I dared imagine. I wondered if they knew Mom and Dad.
Corielle took a bag that opened with a whoosh and poured its contents into a cone shaped pan, which she held over the fire. She looked at me, intently, and as she did I felt myself desiring to know her story.
As we did this, Ben grabbed a stringed instrument from the side of the wagon. He strummed it a few times before settling against some mushrooms growing under the tree. It rested against his knee as the music massaged the aching bits of the world.
"Go, sit down, little warrior. Enjoy the music."
I shook my head, wanting to stay by the fire.
At last, when everything felt normal, Ben began to weave a story into his music, of the Wicked Erinos who had narrowly escaped justice to hide in the Great Maze Beyond. He wandered for many years, fleeing each time he saw a face he recognized.
The walls were marked, images that reminded Erinos of things he had done in life, of kindness and thievery, bravery and betrayal. Each day he grew more tired, but fear and hope drove him deeper into the dark, disgusting maze.
One day he met with Medregor, who had known him in life.
The heaviness in his arms grew stronger than the fire in his belly, and he fell to his knees. "Of all who I wronged, you above all deserve your vengeance. I can run no longer. It might as well be you who captures me."
Medregor smiled and opened his arms. "I left thoughts of vengeance in the world of the living. I have come to take you home."
Medregor and Erinos clasped hands and took to the sky, finally free.
With that final line, Ben raised his eyebrows as if it had been a question, as if he meant for me to answer. I heard his question as clearly as if he had yelled it. "Why don't you want to go home?"
Corielle brushed strands of straw-white hair out of my eyes and waited.
In that moment, I was back in the kitchen, looking back into Ker's dead eyes; watching him slaughter my Aunt and Uncle; screaming at Myrrha to take out Korog. All of that came out at once, in a babbling whine.
Her eyes smiled at me, even as her lips trembled in pain. She touched my shoulder and made a prayer. With that, a cool white fog covered the images, and all I could see was the depths of her emerald eyes. "All wounds heal, little warrior. This closes the matter, Ben. She comes with us."
"You do like trouble, don't you?"
She turned and looked at him. "Not as much as you do."
Just then, the clacking and howling began. Not Korog's men, but another band, howling at everything they feared, daring it to test them. I scrambled into the back of the wagon, hoping to hide. Ben threw up his instrument and drew a small sword that might be strong enough to punch through the rusted armor of an urgan. Corielle grabbed a sinewy staff, deadly thin. It would deflect a sword and was thin enough to cut through flesh, but would snap at the first contact with the weight of an urgan axe, and would bounce off all but ruined iron sleeves.
My two rescuers held their heads held high as they scanned the night for their enemies. My own head still swam from the events of the previous evening. The world had been reduced to ruin, and read their courage to mean that they hoped to join people they had lost in the recent apocalypse. I was old enough to die, saw no reason left to live. For that moment, facing death with friends seemed better.
To my surprise, one of the urga yelled in Krolesh so that we could understand. "Hail Thorga! Shatter well tonight. Resist, and we roast your cores!"
Ben scoffed, his blade raised high. "I would love to see you try!"
"Thorga not like this!" The speaker lowered his spear and charged at Ben.
Ben stood like a scarecrow. At the last instant, he slipped to the side, the point of the spear scraping at his breastplate. Then he pulled the sword down, hacking the upper arm plate on the downstroke, striking the other side on the upstroke, and pulling under the armpit as the spearman stumbled by. Ben kicked him in the ankle, sending him stumbling.
Corielle finished the job with a stroke first to his nose and then to his shin, knocking him to the ground.
He planted his spear with his off hand and struggled to get up by pulling on it. When finally he did, he limped back into the fight.
Two more urgan marauders marched behind him, and three behind that.
Corielle ducked the ax and took out two urgans, hitting them simultaneously in the helmets. Ben struck the nearest one in the side with his sword.
Ben nodded behind him, indicating the wounded spearman trying to sneak up on her.
She glanced back. A swift kick to his knee bent it backward and laid him out in time for her to catch an axe headed for her head. She didn't try to stop it but raised the staff up to catch it under the blade. It struck a glancing blow and slid toward the end. Corielle yanked it away from him, and it slipped out of his grip. He still had one hand on it, but not enough to attack. She crushed his toes and knocked his legs out from under him, sending him sprawling away from his ax. A few more strokes ended his interest in breath and battle alike.
A large black urgan snorted, "I'd no idea they were so thorgabent. I'd have killed them myself."
"Ha," a white one cried. "You'd have died trying."
"Save the little one for last," another urga barked. "They make the best stew."
Ben and Corielle didn't miss a beat. I took comfort in the idea that they did not speak urgan, had no idea the barbarism they chewed on about. Hope flared like mad, warring against the sight of the urgans marching in ever increasing numbers as I watched my heroes. Ben and Corielle fought like badgers, striking deep twice for every wild swing they dodged or glancing blow they deflected. At no time would they be truly outnumbered, as only so many urgans could crowd in about these elite warriors before they began to wound one another. The night, however, stretched beyond the horizon and swelled with urgans. Where one pig-faced monster could be seen, a hundred more might crawl under the blanket of darkness.
Suddenly a new fire flared beneath my ribs. Not fear or disgust or anything I bothered to name. I tired of awaiting fate. I had hidden like a rat in the rafters before, but these monsters did not know us. They would soon butcher my new friends and search the loot for treasures to destroy. It no longer made sense for me to hide among pots and blankets. I wanted to face fate with my friends.
My legs and arms quivered in terror or rage; they would be totally useless to me. As I stepped forward, I accepted the loss of my body, in the coming seconds. After that, fear crawled out of the cocoon, to spread her fiery wings of confidence. At the depths of disaster, when you can do no harm, you can do anything you wish.
Power came into my throat, a burning smoke. My breath seemed white in the chill air. I remembered what it felt like to be Ker, king among beasts, to have a voice that made men tremble. I raised my hands, open, to get their attention. It was he, more than me, that spoke the words: "Tho! Mek medkek. Ha mek thorgabent!" Roughly, I taunted them thus: "Fools, listen like prisoners. I will make you thorgabent!"
I could hold the stance no longer. The boldness of my words threatened to cut me in half, and I cackled like a homeless preacher in the city streets. The urgans, for their part, stared in silence, mouths agape, whether from surprise or miracle.
Ben and Corielle seized the moment to destroy several more of our assailants before any of them moved.
"Shaman!" One of them cried, running from the place. "She'll burn us all!"
Ben's sword slashed two more.
When Ben's latest victim hit the sand, another Urgan dropped his ax and ran.
The battle inside me grew and swallowed my mind. Like a giant snake, laughter squeezed breath from my chest. Arms reached under my ribs and grabbed me, the last thing I remember from that fight.
** ** **
Next thing I knew, my head rested in a lap. I looked up to see Corielle's face as we rode toward the sunrise. The marble walls of Balthispeare rose to greet us, even as we looked upon the far distant, glistening-glass towers of the ruined Amerik city in the urgan mountains.
A crystal statue of Medusa, Sorcerer Queen of Balthispeare, looked down upon us, her hair dancing about like serpents. As we fell under her shadow, I remembered the nightmare of the past few days. Finally, the plight of my Mother and Father became clear.
Crazy brave, my family was. I had never understood what made them flee me, the look of horror and sadness in their eyes. I had fallen ill, it was true. Their priest had been able to do nothing but comfort me, to lift my spirit from my body. I had not been able to talk to them, or even move, so bad the illness had been, before the Wolf's Old Man had come for me. I had never understood what had made Mother and Father flee my sick bed and run to the mountains, to choose war over parenthood.
In that moment, I realized the weakness had not been my own, but mother's. She and Father could face an army of dragons with empty hands and a song in their heart. Death comes for everybody, and as warriors, that knowing set them free to do whatever duty might ask. Yet, as parents, it cut into them like a bedsheet of thorns, forcing them to desertion.
They were right to do so. Given the choice, I would run down the stairs and face Korog and Ker empty handed. If they meant to destroy life, I would demand they destroy me first, out of sheer pig-headed selfishness. Unable to right that mistake, I planned the only thing I could, to prevent a torture greater than my twelve-year-old heart had ever imagined: to flee my new friends.
When the shadows of the statue and the arches passed, and our wheels skittered over the cobblestones of Balthispeare, I squirmed and slipped from the wagon. The instant my toes felt stone, I stole away like a pickpocket. In two hoofbeats, they disappeared into the crowd. I heard my friends calling for the little girl that had faced destiny's test with them only the night before.
That's how it had to be. The monsters of the world could not reach me by threatening my body, but friends? Only alone could I even hope to feel safe.
Hunger gnawed at my insides and crawled on my skin even as despair drug me down. In a gloomy alley, I found a broken crate crawling with rats and the ratspiders that ate them. I could not bear to keep my head away from the cobblestones for much longer, so I sat down in the box and dropped my eyelids.
When I awoke, rain had washed away the tears and the green blood on my feet, soaked my clothes. I pulled my cleaver from its hiding hole, nicking myself with the edge that Myrrha buried in Ker's shoulder. I suppose that makes Ker my brother. If the things Korog did to our minds had not done so already.
My stomach had long given up on food when at long last, I decided to hunt. Black, furry and as large as Ker's right hand, the ratspiders in the country had been a good meal. They had been the violet breed, sweet and slightly intoxicating. Here, the violets had been hunted to extinction. The smaller reds that haunted my alley would leave a bitter aftertaste and a pain in the gut, or so I'd been taught. For the determined survivalist, however, they would maintain strength in the smallest portions.
"Don't hurt me!" A fat young man in a light blue coat, carried a delicious chicken leg. His eyes stared at my cleaver, and his hand shook. He threw his chicken at me. "I'm sorry. It's okay. You - you can have it."
My heart leaped with joy, then stumbled and fell when I saw myself through the boy's eyes. To him, I was another Ker, a monster who could take whatever she wanted. If I was a monster, I couldn't do anything about that. But my actions, I could control.
"Hey, no! That's not right." I ran after him. My throat clenched with what I planned to say. The stitching in Oliver's suit probably took a month to do, and the fabric was smoother than the Duke wore when holding court. Oliver hadn't missed any meals, could afford to share, but that had to be his choice. "This, it's yours."
He slowed down. "Really? Why do you have your ax out?"
"Hunting spiders." I held out his chicken.
He stared at my cleaver. "Why are you giving it to me?"
"It isn't right, robbing."
He reached for his treat from as far away as he could stand. "Oh, um. That makes sense." He snatched his treat and ran as fast as he could.
I whined as I licked my fingers. It really wouldn't have hurt him. I pulled out my cleaver and climbed up on the rotten wooden crate where I had slept the night before, trying to make myself look small.
Just then, another fat boy came along, this one not so privileged. Collen's leather armor seemed three sizes too large to be useful. His club looked like had been part of a table. He licked his lips as he eyed my cleaver. "Heard what you said. Noble. But if robbing ain't right, kid, you won't be needing an ax."
I faced many dilemmas in life, and this was not one of them. He stood a head taller than me, and weighed twice as much, but his eyes barely looked at me, too busy keeping his chin up and puffing out his chest. His hands had scars, showing he had tried to train himself, but his face and shoulders looked like the pampered rich boy's. Collen had no experience with people who fought back. Warriors don't cut up unarmed targets, and I had run out of table legs. "Yes I will!"
He watched me run out of chasing range before his club even moved. His stubby legs churned after me for a stone's throw, but useless muscle strained to move ill-gotten fat. "Yeah, well —! I better not see you 'round here. Take your precious ax and I'll thump you one for running!"
Finally back at my alley, I missed the ratspiders a score of times. I decided that I'd rather starve on my back than die of a broken skull when I collapsed on the cobblestones. Fatigue and hunger drove me to sit down, then lay back against the wall. The rats came nearer, crawled on my toes. Clearly I no longer threatened them. One black and white one reminded me of a puppy, the orphan puppy I'd found in the cage by the side of the road.
He looked at me, and I at him.
Then I saw my quarry: a huge ratspider, two hands across, crawled down from above me, intending to have my new friend for lunch. My eyes opened wide as my eyebrows clenched together. Vog's oath of vengeance flashed through my mind. That spider carried a bit of Korog. Despite my failure, I knew how to wield a blade. I changed Vog's oath in form, if not in spirit. I will stop you, by any means, no matter the cost. My blade flew true, sliced off three of the spider's legs and sent it fleeing.
Had it been doing anything different from me? Had I been any different than the Wolf, or Ker, even Korog? More than anything, it hurt that there seemed to be no authority, not even a lackluster watchman to hear my grievance. I put my head in my hands for a moment before resolving to cook my meal.
I balanced the cleaver like a skillet over the fire until the meat shrank inside the shell. I swallowed both of the pieces. Pain in my stomach made me want to spit it up, but the hunger kept it down.
"Stupid kid! You can't be starting fires." A man in dark blue dress clothes stood over me and stamped it out, smiling at me against his will. I'd seen his uniform before. He struck me as a watchman. "Now get out of here, get on home, varmint."
I left as fast as I could. The more I tried to skitter away, the heavier became the eerie calm, slowing me like a ball and chain. Fortunately, he didn't chase me.
** ** **
Before I made camp there, only birds had been to that wood-and-stone balcony overlooking a seedy market square. I kept a small pile of stones on which to cook my kill, usually the foulest ratspider meat I could find. It seemed right that a castoff deserter should eat like that. In truth, the meals weren't the only thing sickening me. Every time I relaxed, the question of Mack and Ker's ordeal nagged at me. So, I occupied my mind by watching the street. Everyone moved too fast and their faces scowled too much for me to approach. I guessed they didn't even realize that things should be any different, and took to the business of looking after themselves. Either way, they had no time for the likes of me.
As my meal cut into me and I watched the flow of people like angry sheep to and fro, Oliver walked past, squinting at one of his scrolls and muttering under his breath. Across the way, the sad blond boy called Dust watched Oliver and muttered, looking on occasion to an empty spot beside him. Too far away, I couldn't make out what he would say even if I had the talent for lip-reading. I imagined a fire-haired elf standing over him, shaking her head, waving her finger.
Nobody else seemed to notice that we lived in a broken world, except Dust. I couldn't account for my feeling that, if anybody understood my anguish, Dust did.
At last, the fat rich boy returned, carrying a large stick of meat perfectly roasted and covered in sauces that would make my meal taste good, glaring at his stupid scroll and never looking up. Dust walked out of the crowd, slowly stalking Oliver.
I fumbled, had not learned the kid's name yet. "Hey, dumb kid, with the scroll! You're making it too easy! Run!"
Oliver dropped his scroll and looked up.
Dust grabbed the kebab like a falcon gliding by. "Thanks, dumb girl!"
I ducked down, banged the back of my head against the wall. The pain of robbery stung, even if it wasn't really me. Nothing I did turned out right. I had done it again, in reverse, spoke up when the time called for silence. I didn't want to take the blame for this, but who else could? It no longer mattered if they could help or not; somebody had to be at fault.
Not long after, Dust climbed up and peeked at me. "Nice job, but I already had him."
"You didn't have to steal, you know. It ain't right, robbing."
"Collen told me all about that, dumb girl. Says you owe him a meat cleaver." He had both hands on the wall to hold himself up.
I looked at him and shrugged.
"I'll tell you what ain't right. It's rich boys running walking about like they own everything. He didn't need that. I did."
"There's ways to survive. You didn't have to."
"What ain't right, is you butting in where you don't belong. That's my place out there, but there's room for both of us. I need kids like you. I could cut you in."
"I'll take care of myself."
"My plans are bigger than a few street grabs."
Life already made me too much like Ker. "I said no."
"All right, but stay out of my business."
I shrugged, leaning back again. "No promises."
"Then you'd better watch yourself. I can't control everything." He slid down, then released.
It felt like I had let him steal from me, then failed even to complain. Sadness and despair bled the life from me, and I let my eyelids drop, and my chin roll to my shoulder.
Ker and Mack's heads stood on separate tines of the pitchfork outside Korog's camp.
It hadn't happened like this dream, but I seized my chance. "What happened? Why didn't anybody come? Whose job was it, to make sure things went right?"
Ker huffed. "It did. When a man is foolish and weak, he dies. Life wasn't meant for those who can't survive."
"No, that's not right!" I said, stamping my feet. "When something's important, you protect it. Whose job is that? Who do I blame, for you dying. You couldn't stop it, and neither could Ker. So who?"
"Oh, little Sigrun, don't you see? You should not ask that."
"It's all I have, this quest, question. I have to know before it eats me alive."
"I know it's hurting you. Don't you see, that's why you have to stop."
"I don't understand. What can I do?"
As if in answer, stones bounced off the wall and onto my face. The first one erased the dream. Each one hit harder until I woke up. I covered my face and looked about.
Dust looked down on me from over the balcony wall. "Hey, Watch Girl, wake up."
I think he did that to seem less threatening. "What? Is your problem."
"If I read you right, I've got the cure for what ails you." He paused. "Want to protect Oliver? Follow me."
Find out what Dust has planned for me: "Section 3: The Change You Wish to See"