Can orphan-refugee Sigrun find peace and justice or will she become the enemy?
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The People of Glass
Warded by Gaslight
A rhythm in the darkness brought the pillow into my consciousness. At my window, a bluebird pecked.
In hopes my Aunt and Uncle would sleep through this argument, I whispered to my spirit friends, "Go away! I'm supposed to ignore my pixies." I buried my face in my pillow and covered my ears.
The beat continued.
With a groaning sigh, I brushed the platinum blonde spears of hair out of my eyes and tiptoed to the bedroom window.
The moons, silver Luna and copper Nasa, shone on a silver-tailed squirrel that danced on the leaves. Her tail twitched.
I couldn't help imagining that the spirits I called pixies, for want of a better word, had wiggled that tail, beckoning me out into the wild woods around our farm. A girl of twelve summers, still slight of arm from the dread fever, should never wander alone. Wild wolves and pig-faced-urgan men prowled just outside our castle-strong farmhouse. I, however, had faith; my pixies would shepherd me. Aunt Myrrha always growled at me, saying "How many times I have to tell you. Pixies and ghosts aren't to be believed." But, with the pixies, I felt so safe, how could I listen to an unbeliever, even one that loved me? I could try. I shook my head.
Squirrel's tail bobbed again.
An omen of adventure: Squirrel—or, Squirrel's pixie—urged me onward. No freeman refuses the call of duty—or even mischief. Careful to toe the support boards, I stepped out the window. "I am going to be in so much trouble when I get back. If I get back alive." I smiled and winked at the squirrel, and the pixie above her.
The squirrel bit into a nut and chittered at my joke.
Putting my arms out for balance as I put my weight on the roof ridge, I raced down and jumped. I grabbed the branch I aimed for, and dropped.
The soft, cold earth caught my feet and the tips of my fingers.
The solid presence of the earth holding me reminded me that I had abandoned my post in Mack's fortress, if only for the night. I worried about leaving my sleeping aunt and uncle—they could not hear the voice of the pixies—but once they laid their hands on their weapons, they would be fine. The battering of urgan hammer poles against stonewood doors would thunder through Mack's homestead fortress. I ran to check the locks.
The front door budged a sliver before stopping hard. The back door stood firm as a stone in a castle wall.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my back on the sleeping adults. Each step came faster as I raced in the wet grass by the fence, jumped into sandals I'd hidden and vaulted over the wooden slats without missing a beat.
Birds in the tree scattered.
The vibrant air chilled and stoked my inner fire. My moonlit gaze flitted in the knee-high grass amid the poplars and the elms. I grabbed a glowing orange fireberry from the tree.
It burned going down, but did not bring forth the pixies, as Uncle Mac warned.
What would they lead me to this time? Once I had found a gold-furred puppy starving in a crushed cage, and took it home to nurse it to health. Another time a lost traveler needed directions, being about to wander into 'Uncle' Ker's ambush! Ker, an urgan bandit, would make him regret it if the man even survived. Another day, I found a caravan that fell to a flock of shadow ravens, ghost birds who feasted on the men until they fell under a sleeping curse. I ran off the scavengers until they woke. My body still needed to grow, my arms could not do much, but my pixies watched over me. Not the wild and crazy faeries Mack told about, my so-called pixies were sober messengers of a higher authority and I, their squire. They would see me to a proper end. "Don't forget! Mack and Myrrha don't understand. They'll worry."
Across the bridge at Wilt's Creek, the path branched off a score of times and my steps slowed as I scanned the forest ahead.
A white owl swooped beneath the leaves of the trees.
The owl traced a path where shadows covered as much as the moonlight revealed, leaving me to guess where to put my feet until at last, the forest set me face to the dirt. Rising back to hands and knees, I came face to face with an elder beast. From the pool of shadow beneath a sticker bush two large, yellow-glowing slits—neither cat nor dog—held my gaze.
I stepped back, shivered, wished for the warmth of hand-me-down armor from when Mother or Myrrha had been as small as me, if ever they had. I shook my head and growled to the wise and wild
wolf, "You won't stop me, old man," and turned aside, searching about, and glancing back.
The old wolf watched from his hidden place beneath the sticker bush.
That beast had no guidance for me, not from my pixie friends, so I searched for another sign. "Come, friends. Where am I going?"
Bleating echoed in the night.
A lamb in a trap pulled against steel.
My stomach clenched. I rushed toward him.
The poor thing, certain I had come to eat him, thrashed against the hungry steel. I reached for the wounded leg, and felt for the release, but each time I got near the catch, the lamb jerked it away.
"Relax, little one. I'm here to help." I pawed the shadows in the trap until at last, by dumb luck, I triggered the release.
The lamb skipped away, never looking back.
The rush of freedom made me giggle. I had tuned out the lamb's pain—almost. The pleasure of feeling his joy made me not want to ask if this were meant as some kind of warning; sometimes, a rescue is just a rescue. I sighed, and looked around.
Another silver-tailed squirrel danced about in the tree above me. The moonlight formed a fiery crown around his head. Then, for no reason that I could see, he started, and jumped, snapping the twig under his feet. My neck chilled as the branch struck between my eyes.
I leaped up into the tree, grabbed the lowest branch with the tips of my fingers. Hot breath against the back of my feet, more than my own strength, curled my arms, propelled me up into the tree. The yellow eyes from before belonged to a huge wolf, white and gray, though his paws looked to have thumbs. The beast looked up, eyed me, accusing.
Had I done him wrong? "That wasn't yours! The person that set that trap..."
But from the look in his eyes I knew better, or thought I did.
When my voice dried up, he slunk away, laid his massive head on his paws, and watched.
A squirrel might have gotten to the next tree. A girl, though, even as fever-thin as myself, had to be careful when leaving the center. I could not risk falling into the wolf's jaws. I tested one limb after another. "Come on, my friends. I need to get home."
A squirrel wandered up and patted my knee.
The pixies ordered me to hold my position; Mack and Myrrha would find me in time, their swords a match for Old Man Wolf, and for any pack he might summon, by kindred or sorcery. I would be sore come the morning, in more ways than one if Myrrha had her way. For now, the wolf had me A warrior knows when to stop running.
Times like that made me wonder if Myrrha had it right. Having followed orders this far, I might as well make my stand here, rather than down there with the Old Man Wolf. I sighed and picked an apple, bruisey purple in the moonlight, and regarded it. Had the time come to make my own decisions? My mouth watered.
The apple squirmed from my grip to roll at Old Man Wolf's feet. He smiled and kicked it forward.
Before the sunrise drowned out the final stars, a gray and white bearded old man stood in the wolf's place beneath my tree. "Little one, come with me. Myrrha will be very cross—if we stay."
His grizzled hair reminded me of Old Man Wolf, but not so much as the yellow glint under his brows. The man stood alone, without any sign of the wolf other than that in his eyes and spirit. The wolf would never have left without me, so I decided it probably had only taken a change of costume. I shrugged, pushed the tree limb out from under me. I aimed to land in front of him.
He lunged over and caught me, laid me over his shoulder to stare at his heels, and handed me my apple, red in the sunshine..
"Who are you? How do you know my aunt?"
"Hef. Forgetful." As he shook his head, his ragged black and gray hair caught in my belt. "Done plenty damage with so little knowing."
I had seen him, once, before Mom and Dad left. I'd been so sick with the fever, I wriggled free of my body. That's when I met my pixies--the only time I had seen them, tall and powerful, with wings of fire and light, belonging more properly in Father Highly's stories, than the pixie tales Mac would share. "Let me go. Where are you taking me?"
"Irresponsible, even for your age." He huffed. "Did ya never mark the way home?"
I would be led home. My cheeks burned and I pushed against his shoulders, trying to get down.
"They're using you, you know. Don't give a fig for you, for anybody that lives on the earth."
That's a lie! My pixie friends always did nice things, for no other reason than that people needed them. I shook my head in confusion, though; adults never spoke as if they believed. Why did he talk so mean? I squirmed over his shoulder.
"Hold still. Again' my better judgment, I'm going to your farmhouse." He huffed, and pulled me into place. "You should stop your witchery, little one. At least, till you know with whom you speak. Your friends don't belong on this Earth. Right now, neither do you."
I shivered. The haunted bone-puppets of the harvest festival, trespassers on the land of the living—he couldn't be calling me one of those? He didn't have the right to speak to me like that. "Put me down, you big bully!"
His laugh rang like a howl. "You're not the only one that talks to the outsiders, you know. Your so-called 'pixies' have enemies. Some not so friendly as our Wolf."
I knocked him in the ribs, again and again with both hands together
Old Man Wolf never slowed or huffed at my assault, but trudged onward.
Myrrha would have been embarrassed; she taught me to punch so it bites like a dagger, but knowing how, really knowing, means knowing how to miss. I reckoned Myrrha had taught me well, and thumped him again.
At last, we came upon the reddish-brown logs of Uncle Mack's farm-fortress. The old man carried me up the stone steps and punched at the door.
The stonewood rang like a drum. Quickly, they opened the spyhole.
Sunrise had already woke them. Hoping to charm them, I smiled and shrugged at the eye in the spyhole.
"This belong to you?" The old man lowered me to the deck, gripped my shoulder with hands as hard as a steel chain. "Thank the Wolf, if it does."
Myrrha's eyes growled at me, the roar of a mother at the beast who threatened her dear child. She would have been out hunting me down had she known. I wrapped my arms around her.
She shook me off.
The man strode past her. "We need to talk."
Myrrha slammed the bar back over the door and closed the spyhole.
Mack came down the stairs, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and smiled at my wickedness. "Sigrun, did you go off on one of your adventures again? Surely, you could have been better equipped."
"I warned you to reign the haunt in, so long as she remains here.” The old man glared at Mack.
A smile and a shrug from Mack barely met Myrrha's iron-hard glare.
Old man wolf shook his finger at them. “No peace without sacrifice. I'd think that'd be something warriors would understand."
Mack and Myrrha eyed the old man, who fell silent and pointed to the back room.
Holding the door open, he gave me one last, hungry look, like he meant to devour me. "Did you at least give her the potion I cooked for her?"
Mack winked at me as he followed Myrrha in the secret conference room. "Of course. Guess it didn't work."
I pressed my ear as close as I could. I heard the clicking as they wound their contraption, and then the music of the steel harp drowned out their whispers. Whatever the old man had to say, it had to be serious. After a few minutes, they emerged.
"I warn you, Mack, Myrrha." The old man slouched, defeated. "You are touched. I won't be here for you when the outsiders come."
Outsiders? He had used that to mean my friends, but this hit different. I shuddered.
Myrrha growled under her breath. "I don't care what the portents say, old Wolf. We're no peasants. Unless you've got a royal summons demanding we fall back..." She looked at me and rushed to kneel before me.
Mack winked at me. "And you, young lady. What have I told you about running off? I don't care what your 'imaginary friends' say."
"But, they help me all the time! Myrrha..."
"Don't 'Myrrha' me, Sigrun. We are warriors."
Mack looked away, and Old Man Wolf watched me.
"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, "Too young."
"Tell her, Wolf! You see the pixies too, don't you? You said!"
"I told you, as I recall, you shouldn't trust all you hear." 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? Speechless, I looked at him until my toes began to shake.
He took that as an answer. "Mack, Myrrha, I am honored to have known you. Sigrun, my condolences."
I took a step toward the old man, but Mack held me by the shoulder. "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 securing the door behind him. She leaned against it, shaking. "Good grief."
Mack knelt down and brushed the white golden hair out of my eyes. "So like your great uncle, before...."
"Don't encourage her, Mack." She walked to the counter and picked up a towel to dab her face. "Today, she's staying inside."
I almost had my upstroke with the sword mastered, but every skipped day blunted a week's training, especially with my slight build. I weighed little, like an elf, as if destined to carry a dagger. Fate dominates peasants, but freemen—like real nobles, and kings—our decisions forge our destiny. Either way I had massive work ahead before I made the sword my own. "But, Myrrha..."
She cocked a half smile and shook her head.
My shoulders sagged. Even Ker's men wouldn't push past that look. I bowed my head.
Mack laughed. "Why don't you go start the fire, Sigrun."
As I trudged toward the kitchen, relief flowed into Myrrha. She thought she had done something good by keeping me inside. That made me smile.
For the rest of my life, the smell of blue apple pie would bring me back to that day. I closed the oven and breathed the aroma for a boot click. Myrrha sat on one of the battle-scarred wooden blocks that passed for chairs. Mack trained me, but as though he did not remember ever being taught. Myrrha had a better way of explaining the moves. I looked at her, and grabbed the brooms, offering her one.
She shook her head. "You know we can't do real drills in the house."
"Why not? The urgans already broke everything."
"Because you're not an urgan and I said no."
She rolled her eyes and stood up. She drew her pretend sword, and nodded for me to do the same.
This drill called for precision of movement, planning and elegance. That we moved as if under a spell to slow us was the sole clue that we did more than play at fighting. To a swordsman, the elegant interplay of movements and cues made this game a deeply challenging match rather than a lark.
Try as I might, I could not outthink Myrrha. Every move I made, her imaginary blade waited at the end of my stroke. I could never match her, not even if she had been slowed by spell and drink. I hoped only to keep her strikes from cutting as deep as the last time.
A shadow raven screamed out its hunting cry.
The shudder made me mishandle my pretend sword. I dared to look up for a second, through the window.
Above us, a skull-shaped cloud sneered in ominous delight.
My stomach churned at the omen of doom. I had never seen one before. "Ah, Myrrha, please. Do you know when Mother and Father return? Could we possibly summon them?" As in, before disaster strikes?
"Hard to tell." Her imaginary blade, far ahead of my parry, hovered over my throat as she smirked. "What they're doing, almost as dangerous as it is important."
I shoved her blade aside and tried a pointless counter attack to keep her busy. I didn't know what was going on, but could not keep silent. "But, it's only urgans up there. Can't be that dangerous. Mack wouldn't let Ker in here."
"He's no soldier, and decent enough. Pay him his due, he keeps the others in line." She backed away for some simple fencing. "Besides, I've taken down worse than him. Your uncle and I can handle Ker."
I maneuvered around to get a better look at the window.
The cloud's teeth had grown sharper, its leer more pronounced.
The old man's warnings echoed in my head. Had he been speaking truth? Certainly, some threat wandered our way, and Myrrha's ears already had their fill of portents, she had said. Looking for some hint as to how to sound the alarm, I lowered my guard and squinted at Myrrha.
"Pay attention when you're handling a sword—even an imaginary one, Sigrun." She popped off three simple blows to make her point.
I parried each one easily but they were swift and forceful, would have been deadly had they been allowed to connect. I had a dilemma. Something terrible came for her and my uncle, and I alone knew. Not only did she lack the imagination to hear the spirits, she even wanted me to stop. I often thought my fuzzy-headed ways embarrassed her. At that moment, I thought perhaps the crazy old man had said something scary about my friends. For whatever reason, I couldn't up and say it. Instead, "Why do we have to stay in urgan territory?"
"It's not. 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 sorting these adultish games would make things take so much longer when I didn't know how long we had. Having no complaint I could voice, I glared at her.
“Never could put one over on you.” She looked away and laughed. "Our noble blood gives us rights that others don't get, to bear arms and own land. In exchange, when called for, we have to fight."
I knew all that and rolled my eyes. "We're freemen. So?"
"What you don't know, it takes more than rights to survive. We had the reckless habit of doing the right thing, your uncle and I. Made enemies, like Reverend Mayor Kollen."
"He's the one that assigned this place to us?" I groaned inwardly, losing patience with the two fencing matches, verbal and imaginary.
Myrrha swung her sword at my ear. "Now you're getting it. It's our duty to protect it. We do that by the careful balance of friendship and strength that would have earned us a duchy, had we learned our lesson before."
Seems like a terrible thing to do. I didn't have time to parry, so I ducked and made a frowny face at her.
"What would you have us do, run for cover behind the walls of Balthispeare, like a refugee villager? 'Please, Lady Medusa! Can you protect a wayward freeman?'"
We would never dream of that, but I found myself nodding so hard my head ached.
She brought her daydream sword up short, stopped it at my arm, and playfully tapped my breastplate with it. "You'll get over it, kid. One day, after you grow into your sword, no doubt you'll follow your mother's footsteps and have outlandish adventures."
I puffed up with pride at the thought of being like Mother, powerful even beyond Myrrha, 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 had lost none of their power in retirement. The omen foretold danger, not destruction—nothing had been carved in stone, regardless of what the Old Man Wolf said. They might emerge victorious. Still, I wished for them to have help. If not help, at least a weapon. I fumbled at the lock in the cabinet where Myrrha's sword hung.
Myrrha pulled me away. "I barely can even trust you with an imaginary sword. We're not going to play with a real one."
My shoulders fell the width of a thumb. Perhaps I overstepped. Mack and Myrrha, fully mature, knew the world better than I. Yet, as I tried to keep silent, the pain built. "Please, I know how you feel, but do me a favor. Take the sword and wear it."
She rolled her eyes. "Sigrun, where is this coming from? Another one of your omens? I thought we discussed this." She followed my eyes out the window, and her hand went to where her sword should have been.
I touched her on the arm, to comfort her.
Myrrha's eyes met mine, her expression grim as she held my gaze: she believed, just not in friendly pixies.
Myrrha knocked over the beat up pitcher on the table as a jolt in my stomach sent me halfway up the stairs before I questioned my actions. Had the shadow-raven call repeated?
In answer, the rhythm of Ker's men, drumming against one-another's armor and weapons, grew in the distance. I turned to the loft.
"Get out of sight. Stay down." She slowed her words for emphasis. "No matter what."
"Yes'm." My feet leaped up the stairs without being told. I slapped the door shut.
Myrrha's whisper carried through the door and up the stairs, far beyond its range. "Love you, kiddo."
The door bar clattered against the floor and the door slapped against the wall.
Once upstairs, the urge to hide gave way. They wanted me inside the little smuggler's cabinet beneath the bed. If they knew what I planned, Mack would be angry, and Myrrha beside herself with emotions that squeezed my stomach. Still, I need not cower, only to stay out of sight, and they did not need to know so long as I fell back in time. Under the bed, I pulled at the floorboards and located my knothole and spyglass.
My spyglass, two green marbles in a brass tube, fit well in the pinky-sized knothole. I had a good view of the kitchen. A trinket from the lost Amerik empire, the thing had survived hundreds of years. A small sign that glassmakers—indeed, all humans—had once been worth more than ridicule. I shoved the thing into place.
Ker stormed through the front door, sending the handle skittering across the door as it bounced against the wall. "Hail, thorga! Mack and Myrrha!"
Every word in urgan finds fault. Thorga, roughly glassmaker, meant human in the urgan tongue, describing humans at our worst: fools who care too much about building worthless toys. Looking at Ker, I wanted to scream orders at him and slap him around, to feel the power of my words and arms tested to their limits. The majestic power of his spirit, too strong for my small body, shook me until I looked away.
Behind Ker, another warrior carried a wild boar. He slammed it on the table, with force intended to
snap the steel reinforcements for the third time this year. The rumble shook through Mack's mini-fortress and prompted a smirk and a swell in his chest. The table held; he nodded and grinned.
Mack swaggered in from the conference room, wearing his small sword and clamping down his workaday, plated leather armor, having left the broadsword and war armor locked away. "Stoke up the fire, Myrrha! Looks like we got a pig to roast."
A third urgan followed, thinner than Mack and shorter than Myrrha, dressed in cloth that only looked like armor. As his lips quivered, I made out a few words and nonsense syllables. Black smoke from his mouth pooled around Ker's head. The desire to smash this small urgan, to crush him, wash him away, and burn or bury everything he touched filled me with an urgency that shook my being.
What is wrong with you, Sigrun! Only monsters hate! I turned his disgust toward myself. I closed my eyes for several seconds, and breathed, searching for the peace my spirit friends brought me. When I opened my eyes, everything still seemed coated in filth.
The disgust came, not only from the monster man's heart, but even more from the cloud of smoke about his head. With each breath, his mood soothed, and Ker's worsened. Evidently, Old Man Wolf spoke true. The pixie's world had monsters of its own, and led their earthly friends to visit my family.
Ker snarled and paced as Myrrha lifted the lid from the oven and placed the roasting rack into place. More of the urgans shuffled in behind them. Mack threw several logs into the pit. The monster man continued his work as Mack tended the fire and Myrrha poured some water.
A random spark from the fire landed on Mack's hand, and he pulled back.
"Back off, thorga!" Ker swaggered into Mack's personal space, like always.
Mack slapped Ker across the chest. "Mind how you speak in my home, ignorant pig!"
I breathed a sigh of relief. Insults and roughness reminded them that friendship could survive a few shocks and soothed urgan paranoia. I told myself, Myrrha might be right. I'm imagining things again. Everything will turn out like normal.
But Ker didn't return the slap. Instead, he stepped back, drew his sword. "Me pig. You no cook. No thwack me in face of tribe."
Drawing a weapon crossed a dangerous line. A lesser man than Mack would have killed Ker then. Mack drew his own sword, held it behind him, pointed it to the ground. That signaled equal parts readiness to fight, and readiness to back down. Ker swung, two handed, sending his full weight
stabbing straight at Mack's chest. The stranger raised his voice; even I could hear it. The dark cloud gathering around Ker's head made me want to vomit and cleanse myself with boiling salted vinegar. Meanwhile, Myrrha stood back, grabbed the meat cleaver from the counter and hid it under her apron.
Surely, she wouldn't need it, except for revenge, or to cheat. Urgans blame the victim, be it a table or a beloved chieftain. No matter who lived, a duel would end the thing, not like with thorga. To stifle the rage rising in me to bury that cleaver in Ker's skull, I clenched my teeth and covered my mouth.
Mack parried, could have done so in his sleep. "One chance remains. Face me like an urga man, hand to hand, or leave this place."
Ker continued to hack, harder, faster and sloppier. He raised his voice louder until it scraped and failed; an absurd folly for a man who ruled as much by the power of lungs as arms—one he could never survive. "No talk, no chance. Mack like thorga die, begging for life!"
Mack shook his head, deflecting the blows as if I made them after pickling my brain in a bottle of rum. "You know I beg for nothing. This path you're on invites destruction."
"No care. Must have death. Death! Death!"
The rhythm matched the stranger's chant. The several urgan bandits clapped and stamped in rhythm, hollering with him. "Death! Death! Death!"
Mack pinched the bridge of his nose. "Very well, my friend." His small sword plunged through the thick, rusted breastplate, into Ker's heart. Mack frowned in disgust.
Ker stumbled back half a step, snarled and grabbed at the blade, then at the handle. Stumbling back, he pulled it from Mack's grip to the cheers of his urgan audience. Ker's head drooped, nodded as he struggled to regain his bearings, then fell to roll at his shoulders.
The monster man raised his voice again, to a shout. Instead of falling, Ker raised his blade and charged at Mack. Myrrha screamed and buried the meat cleaver in Ker's shoulder, three times. Ker slapped Mack's hand away from the sword in his chest and grabbed for it himself. Head lolling about like a stray tassel, he trained his off hand toward Myrrha.
Unable to grab his sword, Mack fell back to grab a pitchfork that leaned near the door.
It's the stranger! Can't you see what he's doing? They lacked the imagination to see the other world, or the sense to know when to pay attention. Maybe the pressure of battle prevented them from thinking. My eyes filled with tears. I had been ordered to hide, no matter what—that meant even if the urgans killed my aunt and uncle. Did that mean I had to let them die when I knew what they had to do to save themselves? What do I do? I need a sign. Please, give me a sign!
Nothing came but the disgust and horror of the monster man's spirit friend, wielding Mack's friend Ker like a broken sword.
Myrrha glared at the monster man and raised her cleaver over her shoulder, alerting the monster man. He only allowed her to score a glancing blow against his leg. When the monster man screamed, Ker stumbled and sagged, but only for a beat. When the chant resumed, Ker's arms sprung back to life. Both arms swung their blades at Myrrha.
Myrrha ducked and weaved like a carnival fight-dancer, staying at least a finger's breadth from the cutting edge as she backed toward the cabinet where her sword waited. Her fingers worked at the lock as Mack grabbed the pitchfork and pushed himself back to his feet.
Myrrha groaned and slumped against the open sword cabinet.
"This is how you repay friendship?" He charged, skewered Ker, and lifted the hulking beast up by his ribs.
The smoking cloud hovered on Ker's arms, which, acting on their own, hacked at Mack, again and again until he fell. With that, the monster-man's chant fell beneath a roar of applause from the urga. When the noise died down, Ker, finally dead, landed in a pile on top of Mack.
The stranger stood above Mack and kicked his ankles. In broken Krolesh—my first language—he gloated, "Now I rule tribe, how all glassmaking vampires take payment."
He took a deep breath, and addressed his men, in urgan, "We commence the search for their spawn. Sanitize the place before the disease spreads."
As my chest cramped, I held my breath and I scrambled under the bed, into my cubby hole. As they stomped up the stairs, my fingers, slick with sweat, tugged it closed. The monster man likely would enter before I hid. As the door creaked open, my panel clicked into place, like any other piece of floor.
"Check for hiding spots!"
Terrible noise shook the building as our beds and chests shattered between the walls and their axes.
"That's the last room. Look like these thorga eat their piglets."
The other urgans laughed.
I heard a sickening thud—sound of skin struck by a stick—drawing a yelp from the joker's voice. "Shake the glass from your helmet, Vog. Thorga are not like us. The piglets sicken and die."
"Stop that, shaman Korog!"
Footsteps over my head bent the panel, pressing the wood against my cheek.
It had been meant to hide beneath the bed, not to support the weight of a person, let alone the smallest urgan. To keep from crying out, I held my breath.
"Unlike you, I have more than the ugly face to prove what I am," the monster man Korog replied. "I do as I like, no matter what someone might say. I can make you thorgabent as Ker."
At the strange word, "thorgabent," Korog's disgusted voice made my skin crawl. "Won't need a man like Mack to take you down. A piglet could do you in."
Vog cursed, grunted, stamped and huffed. I thought he must be attacking Korog, though no blows resounded against the weaselly urgan as Vog described his desire to destroy Korog with a poetry and precision that outside of that day would have meant nothing. It put form and grace to the elemental disgust that possessed Korog and Ker, sheathed in my heart like a weapon of enchantment. 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 laughed. His stick struck metal, then floor. Someone flopped against the floor. "That's more like it. In fact, if I don't kill you, I may just make you my apprentice. First lesson: stop hitting the floor with your snout."
At the applause and laughter of his fellows, Korog snorted and stamped away.
Vog rose and bashed about, his venomous poetry falling to idiotic screeching as he slammed through the wreckage.
When Vog crossed over my grave on his way out, the panel pressed against my nose. Myrrha had ordered me to hide, to do what I could, no matter what. My arms could not hold up an armored urgan of any size, if the wood itself could not, but I pressed my small hands against the wood, struggling in vain to hold it up.
When Vog stepped off my panel and shut the door, the wood regained its shape.
The crippling fear passed out of me in a long, sweet sigh, followed by a shudder. Myrrha and Mack lie dead or worse on the kitchen floor, and there I was, thinking of my stupid, pathetic self. As he stomped down the stairs, I curled up and surrendered to crying. Though I had no wish to survive, out of duty to Myrrha, I muffled my sobs.
Even now, the memory of the 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 men numbered fewer than a dozen. They must do 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 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. Terror cut through my chest and burned in my stomach as the warrior snorted, gasped and rolled over.
The urgan beast could not have slept through my assault. My jaw dropped and my arms shook, gathering all the power they had, though against an urgan thwack they would snap 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 monster man, 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. The curse smoke from Korog still floated about his head like a black halo. Beneath him, two human heads—Mack's platinum 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. Bones off to the left 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 for a moment 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."
"That's true. We had our reasons." He stepped toward me. "But those are past us. If you do this, I don't know if you will ever be free again."
"You're just fear, giving me 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 had thought of Ker as a friend, perhaps thought that Korog should have rights. No lawmaker, human or urgan, would agree. "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've 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."
"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. 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. "The time for justice is when you have gained balance. If that path belongs to you."
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 synch 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 rolled the handle in my hands, and looked Korog up and down. "I want to destroy that part."
"Yes, now, you feel that way. But think: is that what Sigrun would do?"
My lips curled in disgust and my toes shook. "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 out of, let alone standing in judgment over another life. "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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