Can orphan-refugee Sigrun find peace and justice or will she become the enemy?
Table of Contents ▼ |
The People of Glass
Reject this world of glass: destroy all; trust only what endures.
Shaman-King Kroleth of the urga: the driving philosophy of his people.
Their armies swell not with soldiers, but mad throngs of cursed gamblers. The average urgan doesn't want to hurt—they just have to know. Are you going to survive meeting them?
Lady Sigrun, Knight Champion
A rhythm tapped in the darkness, brought the pillow into my consciousness; a bluebird pecked at my window.
In hopes my Aunt and Uncle would sleep through this argument, I angrily whispered, "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 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 pixies had wiggled that tail, beckoning me out into the night.
In the wild woods around our farm, a little girl, like I was, should never wander alone. Wild beasts and pig-faced-urgan men prowled just outside our castle-strong farmhouse. I, however, had faith; my pixies would protect me. Aunt Myrrha always growled at me, saying "How many times I have to tell you. Pixies and ghosts aren't real." But, I felt so safe with the pixies, how could I listen to an unbeliever, even one that loved me? I shook my head.
Squirrel's tail bobbed again.
She urgently called me onward. Besides, that is what adventure is. No freeman refuses the call of duty—or even mischief. I stepped out the window, careful to put my weight on the support boards. "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 that made her tail beckon me.
The squirrel bit into a nut and chittered at my joke.
Putting my arms out for balance as I stepped down 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 then the tips of my fingers.
The solid power of the earth rising up to me reminded me that I was really leaving my place in Mac's fortress, if only for the night. I worried about leaving my sleeping aunt and uncle alone—they could not hear the voice of the pixies—but the stonewood doors would hold against urgan battering poles long enough for Mack and Myrrha to wake. Once they laid their hands on their weapons, they would be fine. I ran to check the locks.
The front door lurched 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. Moving faster with each step as I raced in the wet grass by the fence, I jumped into the 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 it did not bring forth the pixies, as Uncle Mac warned me it would.
What would they lead me to this time? They were not the faeries Mack told about, wild and crazy. The adventures always had a point. 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, who had feasted on them until they fell under the 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. "Don't forget! Mack and Myrrha don't understand. They'll worry."
I passed the iron bridge at Wilts Creek before I slowed. The moment I did, a white owl swooped beneath the leaves of the trees.
The owl traced a path where shadows hid as much as the moonlight revealed, leaving me to guess where to put my feet until at last, the forest tripped me. Rising back to hands and knees, I came face to face with an old one: from beneath a sticker bush, two large, yellow-glowing slits—neither cat nor dog—held my gaze.
I shivered, and stepped back, suddenly wising for some 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, "You won't stop me, old man," and turned aside, searching about, and glancing back.
The old wolf watched from his hidden place.
That beast had no guidance for me, none that I cared to heed, so I searched for another sign. "Come on, friends. Where am I going?"
Bleating. A lamb in a trap pulled against steel. My stomach clenched. I rushed toward it. The poor thing thrashed, certain I had come to eat him. I reached for the trapped 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 searched the shadows in the trap, and 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 almost tuned out the lamb's pain—almost. The pleasure of feeling her 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 halo around his edges. 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 that 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 I knew better, or thought I did, from the look in his eyes.
When my voice dried up, he slinked away, laid his massive head on his paws, and watched.
A squirrel might have gotten to the next tree. A girl, though, even as small as myself, had to be careful when leaving the center. I would 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 to me and patted my knee.
I was being told to hold my position; Mack and Myrrha would find me in time, their swords a match for Old Man Wolf, for all his pack if need be. I would be sore come the morning, in more ways than one if Myrrha had her way. For now, the wolf had me treed. A warrior knows when to stop running, but days like this made me wonder if Myrrha had the right. Would it be better to live and die by your own strength? But I had followed orders this far; might as well make my stand here, rather than down there with the Old Man Wolf. I sighed and picked a blood-red apple.
Before the sunrise washed away the last stars, a man arrived 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 look in his yellow eyes. The wolf had gone. 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.
"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 before Mom and Dad left. I'd been so sick, I wriggled free of my body. That's when I met my pixies--the only time I had seen them, tall and powerful warriors with wings of fire and light. "Let me go. Where are you taking me?"
"Irresponsible, even for your age." He huffed. "Did ya never mark the way home?"
I didn't need to, 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, wait till you know with whom you speak. Your friends don't belong on this Earth. Right now, neither do you."
He didn't have the right to speak to me like that. "Put me down, you big bully!"
His laugh sounded more 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 nice as our Wolf."
I hit him in the ribs, the soft way, again and again with both hands together. The old man never minded, and that was fine—I didn't want to hurt anybody—though Myrrha would have been embarrassed. She taught me to punch, so my knuckles cut like a dagger. If you really know how to do a thing, that means knowing how not to.
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 out 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."
By the time I looked into Myrrha's angry eyes, her face had already skipped fear and shock. I wrapped my arms around her. She ignored me.
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 girl 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. “There can be 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 them winding up 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.
The old man slouched, defeated. "I warn you, Mack, Myrrha. 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 was different. I shuddered.
Myrrha growled under her breath. "I don't care what the portents say, old man. 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. 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 at this, but he let it go with an approving nod.
"Tell her, old man! You see them too, don't you? You said!"
"I told you, as I recall, you shouldn't trust all you hear." The old man 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 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. Still, I had massive work ahead before I conquered the sword. "But, Myrrha..."
She cocked a half smile and shook her head.
My shoulders sagged. Even Ker's men wouldn't get past that look. I bowed my head.
Mack laughed. "Why don't you go start the fire, Sigrun."
As I trudged toward the kitchen, I could feel relief flowing 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 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 Myrrha had a better way of explaining the moves, as though Mack did not remember ever being taught. 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. I hoped only to keep her 'strikes' from cutting as deep as the last time.
Then, a shadow raven screamed out its hunting cry, almost making me drop my pretend sword. I dared to look up for a second, through the window. Above us, a skull-shaped cloud smiled in ominous delight.
My stomach churned. I'd never seen an omen of doom before. "Ah, Myrrha, please. Do you know when Mother and Father return? Could we possibly summon them?" As in, before disaster strikes?
Her imaginary blade hovered over my throat, far ahead of my parry, as she smirked. "Hard to tell. 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."
"Ker's no soldier, and decent enough. Pay him his due, and 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 him."
I maneuvered around to get a better look at the window.
The cloud had changed, it's teeth had grown sharper, its smile 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, but 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 stupid things would make things take so much longer, and I didn't know how long we had. Having no complaint I could put to words, 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, we have to fight when called for."
I knew all that. I 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 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 grabbed it 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.
I knew then 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, beating against one-another's armor and weapons, grew in the distance. I turned to the loft.
"Get out of sight, and stay down." She slowed her words for emphasis. "No matter what."
"Yes'm." My feet took me the rest of the way up the stairs without being told, and 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 urgent need to hide gave way. My aunt and uncle 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 I could not describe. They didn't need to know, and I did not need to cower, only to stay out of sight. If need arose, I would fall 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 inspired 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!"
Thorga, roughly 'glassmaker', meant human in the urgan tongue, describing humans at our worst: fools who build worthless toys. Every word in urgan finds fault. 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. I shuddered at the power of his spirit, shaking it off.
Behind Ker, another warrior carried a wild boar. He slammed it on the table, with force sufficient to break 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 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 came from his mouth, pooling 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 the 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, the old man spoke true. The pixie's world had monsters of its own, and sent their earthly friends came 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, acting outwardly 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 soothed urgan paranoia, reminded them that their friendship could survive a few shocks. 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 with all his might, two handed and 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 salt 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 so with thorga. To stifle the rage rising in me to bury that cleaver in Ker's skull, I put my hand over my mouth and clenched my teeth.
Mack parried, could have done so in his sleep. "One chance remains. Face me like an urga, hand to hand, or leave this place."
Ker continued to hack, harder, faster and stupider. He raised his voice even louder until it scraped and failed; an absurd folly for a man who ruled as much by the power of his lungs as his arms—one he would 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 and into Ker's heart. Mack frowned in disgust with what he'd been forced to do.
Ker stumbled back half a step, snarled and grabbed at the blade, then at the handle. Mack let go of the sword. The urgans would cheer for the gory spectacle. Ker's head drooped, nodded as he struggled to regain his bearings. Then his head fell.
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—I understood 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 threw her cleaver at him, scoring a glancing blow against his leg. When the monster man screamed, Ker stumbled, 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 my 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 dropped his chant in a roar of applause from the urga. When the noise died down, Ker landed in a pile on top of Mack, finally dead.
The stranger stood above Mack and kicked his ankles. In broken Krolesh—my first language—he gloated, "Now I rule tribe, how all you glassmaking vampires take payment."
He took a deep breath, and addressed his men, in urgan, "Now, 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 crossed over my head, bending the panel until it pressed against my face.
It had been meant to hide beneath the bed, not to support the weight of a person, let alone the smallest urgan. I held my breath to keep from crying out.
"Unlike you, I have more than the ugly face to prove what I am," the stranger 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 would never have made sense to me any other day. It put form and grace to the elemental disgust that possessed Ker, sheathed in my heart like a special weapon. 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." Korog laughed and stamped away, to the applause and laughter of his fellows.
Vog rose and bashed about, his demonic poetry falling to idiotic screeching as he slammed through the wreckage of my bedroom.
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 started to cry. 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 song drowns my faith and paints the world in scarlet gloom. The smoke of that infernal 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.
Only splinters remained, nothing worth carrying as a weapon. I looked out to 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 could they 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, and pushed against the door to the kitchen.
A few stragglers slept in the kitchen. 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 floorboards. Ker's head, skewered on top, looked blankly at me. The curse smoke from Korog's 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 imaginary friends more than ever. "Take care of them. Even Ker."
At that, Ker's curse smoke halo 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. I thought of his breath, each one leaving the world an uglier place.
Mack's voice whispered from every direction. "Oh, Sigrun, not like this."
An imaginary ghost of my uncle that 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 they seemed so real and refused to obey—like real people, almost. "You know better. You taught me not to listen to my imaginary friends."
He stepped toward me. "That's true. We had our reasons, 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 false Mack watched me.
It wasn't fair, my friends taking the form of Mack. The cleaver wavered. My arm cramped as I fought to steady it. 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 ask you kill him. 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 chanting "Death" with every beat 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"
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