by Dan Hiestand
Song of the Lioness
Song of the Lioness
“Time must tend the garden.”
Aquamarine (March) 13, 2013
As Cedwyn entered the room with Isabelle at his back, his attention snapped to Relic and Jace. Both were unharmed – exactly as they’d been before – but a strange, vacant expression stood on Jace’s face. Relic was talking animatedly to the wizardess.
Isabelle surged forward before Cedwyn could determine more.
“Hey!” shouted Isabelle, striding right up to Jaden. “Magic lady!”
Jaden raised her eyebrows in silent acknowledgement.
Oof, went Relic, unnoticed, as Isabelle elbowed him aside to get closer.
“Mind telling us what all that was about?”
Relic looked to Jace, confused; the other returned a fleeting glance: No idea.
“Iz!” Relic said, louder than he intended; then touched her arm gently and tried again, more quietly. “What are you talking about?”
It was Isabelle’s turn to be caught off-guard ... she sputtered wordlessly, attention flicking from Relic to the wizardess and then to Jace so fast she turned in a circle. “What do you mean—?” She rounded on Jaden, raising an accusing finger. “You locked us out!”
“Oh ... that’s right. The door,” Jace said, his voice oddly level and heavy with fatigue. His half-lidded eyes swiveled toward Relic. “They’re talking about the door.” And then he looked to Cedwyn. “She’s talking about when the door ...”
“—closed,” Cedywn volunteered, after two or three seconds had gone by. “Yes, Jace. We—”
“That feels like a long time ago,” Jace said.
“It was,” Jaden responded. “But not for them. Time is more ... personal inside.”
“What was that place?” said Jace. It took Cedwyn and Isabelle a blink to realize he could not have meant the room itself. Jaden closed her eyes to think, choosing her words carefully; the only sound was Isabelle’s strangled huff of aggravation.
“Long ago, the land was littered with these chambers. Most of them connected two locations far apart. Only one – this one – could connect two times.” As she opened her eyes, the room’s strange radiance glowed in them. Now, though, they could all tell the light was fading.
“They were called Communion Vaults,” Relic said softly, and Jaden nodded to him.
“It’s not safe for the uninitiated,” Jaden said. “Precautions had to be taken, my dove.”
“What?” Isabelle snapped. “Not safe for us? What does that say about them?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” Jaden replied; and she stood, making her way down the steps until she was among them. Now, standing between the four Outriders, Isabelle towered over her; yet Jaden’s voice was bright and fearless. “Let’s step outside for some ... fresher air.”
“You owe us answers,” Isabelle said, deathly serious. Even Cedwyn didn’t dare intervene.
“The light’s running out,” said Jaden. “If we’re here when the door closes, it may be some time.”
Isabelle gave Jaden a long, slow blink – but said nothing else as she stepped aside. Her eyes smoldered – and she would have glared daggers at Jaden if not for what she saw from the corner of her vision: Jace stumbled. It was only a step, but she feared the worst.
For the instant she stood, she imagined all sorts of horrors befalling Jace while he was gone.
Those images, though painful, were fleeting; they were not what she would remember most.
No: It was how Relic seemed to know first and rushed to steady Jace – as gentle with him as he’d been with her. Jace was turned toward Relic for a few seconds; his back was to Isabelle, but she could see how Dabriel looked up at Relic and smiled slightly.
In the midst of all they’d seen, it made a profound feeling of relief stir in Isabelle’s chest.
With Cedwyn close by, she followed them – and they followed Jaden.
Into the dark.
The silence of the caverns was its own loudness. Jaden took a different path than Timon had, and it wasn’t long before the ceilings lost their jeweled adornments and started to dip sharply down. The walls closed in, and the light was heavy and harsh. The fumes were faint at first—
Soon, the acrid tang was enough to curdle Isabelle’s expression. Cheap lantern oil, and lots of it.
Isabelle held her tongue with the rest – it was a mighty effort, one she admitted to only in brief glimpses parceled out to Cedwyn. For a while, Jace had seemed to lean on Relic for support, but now they both stood strong and ready. Ready for what, she wondered.
She made sure she was first out when the tunnel emerged into a chamber.
And she did what she should – what an Outrider should. Crossbows in hand, she swept one way and the other to catch any sign of movement. But the chamber they’d reached was too bright and too vast even for her. The first thing she saw almost stopped her short.
Her instincts carried her through the motions until she could stop to look ... then really see.
All around was a vast chamber of rust-red stone, itself divided into smaller rooms. Perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds; there were no divisions between them, and inside of each she could see furnishings intricately carved from the same stone. Tables, shelves, even chairs.
The chamber was round, more or less, but the underlying curves were wild enough so the ground underfoot seemed uncertain. Looking from one side of the space to the other made it ripple like a mirage. Yet, the strangest thing about it was the light. Pale glittering—
Isabelle felt her arm drop in a silent signal that there was no danger.
Everything was silent, she had to admit.
She had no sooner given the all-clear than Relic passed beside her, outpacing Jace – who was looking around with his hat in hand, as if searching for something. It was Relic who first broke the silence. He stared, dumbfounded, at a mound of stones and muttered, “I don’t believe it.”
Cedwyn broke away to join him, pairing up without a conscious thought.
“What is it, buddy?”
Relic gestured vaguely at the heap before them.
The more Cedwyn looked, the more he realized that it was a fountain, though no water ran in it.
Cedwyn turned to where Jaden was inspecting one of the great braziers and the flame dancing within – the flame that threw its endless shadows over the knotty curves of the stones and stoked the glittering blaze overhead. There were dozens of other flames all around the—
Encampment, Cedwyn found himself thinking.
“Jaden,” Relic said, his voice testy for the first time. “This fountain, it’s supposed to be gone.”
“No, Relic,” Jaden chided, drifting over to Avery and regarding the Outriders each in turn. “We are here now. You have to remember. This ...” She opened her arms to encompass it. “This place is here, has been here for millennia. It was used by the Sandians as a place of refuge.”
Relic closed his eyes as if struck by a sudden pain, but Isabelle stepped up.
“Refuge from what?” she asked. “Doesn’t seem like it worked out too well.”
Jaden wafted from one brazier to another, checking the flames in each. Some held only a simple torch; in other places, crackling fire-pits had been dug. It made the place hot, much hotter than any of them imagined it could be this far underground. They were already sweating.
Now and again, the wizardess would throw a pinch of colored dust into a fire—
Only Cedwyn saw Jace’s breath catch the first time he noticed that.
“You probably already suspected that this place was attacked. By a man ...” She paused. “A man who sought the use of that chamber. He isn’t fully sure it’s there, at least not yet. But it won’t be long before he returns. And once he does—”
“Everything here will be destroyed,” Relic said.
Jaden’s silence was grim.
“Is that how it has to be?” Relic asked. “Or how it might be?”
“Time is like a river,” Jaden said, bending down briefly to cup a handful of earth in her elegant hands. On the path they stood upon, the rocks were bleached almost white. “There are many courses, many turning points. But once a decision is made, truly made, some things become—”
“Inevitable?” Jace said archly.
“Immutable,” Jaden responded.
“I’ve done almost all I can do for these people. But with your help, perhaps there’s a bit more.”
“Why the hell would Thean send us to fight a losing battle?” Jace asked. “It makes no sense.”
“Evil cannot always be turned aside with force. Often enough, you cannot triumph over evil with a weapon of any kind. Good may be found not in how you fight a battle, but whether you fight it at all.” She turned to Isabelle, who was looking away. “Is that not right?”
“Yes,” Isabelle breathed – her voice sounded raw, as if she’d been punched in the gut.
“You learned medicine from the Red Moon Monks, did you not?” Jaden went on. At Isabelle’s nod, she turned her attention to Cedwyn. “And you ... well, you’re you. I hardly need say more. You both have skills that are needed, but are you willing to help these people?”
“Yes,” Cedwyn said, without hesitation.
Isabelle looked first to Cedwyn, and then to the others.
“Yes,” she added after a beat of contemplation.
“Then come ...” She glanced to Jace and Relic. “All of you. Your mission awaits you.”
Jaden brought them further into the depths: Far beyond the lighted causeway, to a distant tunnel where the fingers of light at their back became ashy and gray. There, they saw the first signs of life: Carved-out bunker-rooms packed tight with people—
They leaned against the stone furniture or huddled in corners. The rooms were close together and each was large enough to hold a few; but to the Outriders it seemed like each one was enclosed in its own separate existence, unable to see any of the others.
As they passed a room where a man lay, stripped to the breeches and convulsing soundlessly, they drew together more closely, defending Jaden on three sides. A woman piled with makeshift blankets was the first to look up at them—
She lolled to and fro in private agony, skin crusted with sores—
Isabelle found her hand rising toward the threshold of that room, that cage.
“Don’t,” Jaden whispered, and Isabelle shivered before sharing a glimpse with her.
But something had changed ...
Through that one word, perhaps, or through the women’s attention, more and more of the people were looking up. Relic gulped as he recognized the styles of Sandia: Practical, travel-worn garb slashed with colorful touches of the desert’s near-forgotten past.
He began to fear that if he looked too hard, he would see someone he knew.
He would see ...
With unsteady movements and uneven tread, still more of the people were rising; their breathing was quick and shallow, yet even that made no sound. Neither did their footsteps. It occurred to Relic that, whatever they were suffering, a man could break his own skull open and they ...
Just wouldn’t hear it.
Relic looked to Jace, who was turning to him, his storm-gray eyes bright with similar thoughts.
But it was Isabelle who stopped; Isabelle who knelt down, careful of the exact place in the stone that would mark the threshold between the passage and the room she gazed into. There was a child there, no more than eight, whose hands wrung the air in an ever-repeating gesture.
Isabelle’s nimble fingers answered back—
The girl was signing the same word again and again.
Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.
They spoke together like that for a few seconds – it was so quick, not even the other Outriders could discern it all from where they stood – and when Isabelle found her feet again, her face was as pale as a sheet. She looked to Jaden. “What happened here?”
“This was the form of the attack on Sandia,” Jaden said sadly. “And these people ... they fared better than the ones who went into the desert. There was—”
“A sandstorm,” Isabelle concluded, rolling her head to gesture behind her. “It swallowed them all up, didn’t it?” Jaden hesitated, and Isabelle was about to press for more, but Cedwyn stepped up side by side with the two of them.
“What can we do for them?”
“They’re ill,” said Jaden. “But the fire brings safety. They can be helped, if you can trust me.”
“We’ll do what we have to do,” said Isabelle, and Cedwyn nodded a little.
“Some can answer you, as you saw,” said Jaden. “You can thank Timon’s cleverness for that. But most cannot communicate at all. You’ll have to be very careful, do exactly what I do. It’s not without risk, even for those as strong as you are. This isn’t just a fever. It longs to go free.”
Jace and Relic had been whispering privately to each other, but now Jace looked up.
“We’ll do what we have to do,” he said, echoing Isabelle.
“Then let us begin. We’ve only until night falls before we must go.”
Jace grunted, but Isabelle looked to him, prompting him to put his thoughts into words.
“It looks like, for whatever reason, Thean – and maybe even Creed – sent us here to follow the directions of ...” And he nodded appreciatively at Jaden. “This woman. We all know the only real medics here are Iz and maybe the lady herself, so keep that in mind.”
He reached down and pulled his waterskin free, then knelt to hand it across the threshold—
Where the child grasped it eagerly in soot-stained fingers and began to drink.
“Keep it in mind,” Jace said again, his voice a hollow echo of what it had been.
The hours passed in a blurry haze none of them could call back to mind even if they had written it all down. And Relic, at least, tried; but it wasn’t long before his neat handwriting ran in spirals, ideas of words instead of words themselves. It looked like the page was melting.
He stopped taking breaks, then stopped trying to record anything.
Some of it was simple first aid, known even to him and Jace: Bandaging wounds, lancing and draining growths. The smell of infection drew up into the air and joined the reeking oil. Jaden did most of all: She seemed to be everywhere at once. With a basin at her side, she drew symbols on the foreheads of those who had been hurt the worst; they were covered in great gashes.
Claw marks, Relic realized – the sixth or seventh or eighth time he saw them.
Those are claw marks.
The wizardess rarely stopped, but sometimes she would gather someone up and lend a supportive shoulder as they walked the long distance from the makeshift infirmaries to the central chamber and its bonfires. Each patient who returned from there looked flush with life and vitality—
But had they all come back? He could not say for sure.
There were only a few hundred – only, his mind informed him, as if the five of them could tend to a community this size in even a week. Despite his fears, he never saw anyone he recognized.
His mind went numb when he considered what that might mean.
He was bandaging the leg of a young man who tried to converse with him in broken finger-talk. Like the little girl, he seemed desperate – in shock – stuck in the course of a single thought.
Sheriff. The sheriff. Okay? Sheriff okay?
“Try to be still,” Relic said, long and slow so his lips could be read.
And then Jaden was by his side again, her hand on his shoulder—
“Music,” Relic said. “I swear I keep hearing music.”
“Timon again,” Jaden said. She bowed her head close to speak in private. “We’re running out of time, Relic. He is trying to – to remind them. If they simply remember, they will be able to fight on their own. But so much has been taken from them. So much.”
“What if—” Relic’s throat closed – he realized he was tearing up. “And what if there’s no time?”
“When we leave,” Jaden said, “the one who did this will follow us. Sandia will never be the same, but it can still rebuild.” She waited until he looked up again and found her gaze. “All we can do right now is plant the seed. Time must tend the garden.”
“We’re bait,” Relic said miserably. “Nothing more.”
“Sometimes bait is a good fertilizer,” Jaden said.
It was, perhaps, the darkest thing Relic had ever heard. He laughed bitterly.
But when he closed his eyes, he saw this place as it would be—shattered, littered with bodies.
Jaden got up to join another patient, and Relic was left alone, thinking only of how warm his shoulder felt. Then his gaze fell on Isabelle – the one among them who knew the body and its ailments the best – who had not slowed down for even the span of a breath.
She was murmuring almost soundlessly to herself, reminding herself what to do, sometimes leaning over to check on Jace’s work. Jace. His hands were quick, more subtle than anyone thought. When Isabelle’s words turned now and then to prayer, he barely flinched.
It was hours later – perhaps a whole day – when Relic stepped out and saw Timon.
The kid didn’t notice him at first. Gazing steadily downward, he tested out his callused fingertips on the holes of his ocarina. The amber necklace he wore jigged back and forth as he silently practiced, rehearsing from memory and reminding his muscles what to do.
There was a pallor to his skin, like the others – but he looked serious and solemn.
“Amber,” Relic said half to himself. “A piece of the past, preserved exactly as it was.”
Timon glanced up, nodded, and began to play something new—
Up against a corner of stone, Relic let himself lean back, then slide to the ground.
All the energy left him when he realized he was listening to a song of Bridgewater.
Isabelle wasn’t sure she had heard it. Wouldn’t have been sure if she hadn’t been looking down. It felt like days now that only that girl – the same frail thing from before – had been all she could see. She could feel Jace’s breath on her skin, hear his voice, but she couldn’t turn away.
Not until the fever was broken.
And now it was.
The girl’s lips moved again: “Thank you.”
Isabelle placed a hand on her to gauge her breathing – and as the girl’s eyes slipped closed, she wondered if it would stop. But no: The fits and catches Isabelle knew were there had begun to melt away. Something had changed. Deep in her breath, more than anything else.
The triage was coming to an end.
And if Isabelle had to think about it, she would guess they had seen hundreds ...
... of people.
The Outriders had gotten some sleep in shifts, though they were told only the places near the big bonfires were safe. Now, they stumbled out one by one – Jaden’s relieving hand telling them when it was time, at last, to go. The people of Sandia lay mostly asleep.
Their breathing was a soft rustling with only an occasional wheeze.
Isabelle came out to join the others, finding Jace and Relic awake. They stared at each other over the bonfire for a while until Jaden emerged, too. The lady had not rested at any time. For a moment, it looked like she might collapse. She sat down in their midst and no one said a word.
Jace was first to speak.
“We can’t abandon these people here.”
“The future of this place has already been written,” Jaden said. “It’s not yours to change.”
“Be that as it may – or not – this is still part of the Republic.”
“And we’re sworn to defend it,” Relic added.
Jaden took one long breath.
“Do you all feel the same way?”
“Yes,” said Isabelle.
“Yes,” Cedwyn echoed.
“If that is your will,” said Jaden, “I can only help. But you must know what is to be: You’ll face an enemy the likes of whom you’ve never seen before.” Peering at each of them in turn, she seemed to have some silent inkling of what images those words called to mind for each of them.
“Daylight’s wasting, Jaden,” Jace deadpanned. “If you’re right, then we need to get ready.”
“There is someone here who can help you,” Jaden said.
“Timon,” Relic interjected, and all eyes turned to him. “I saw the little stone he wears – amber. There are writings that hint at how it can be used. And that song ... that song is older than him by a long way.” When no one spoke up, he began to grow nervous. “And I just thought—”
“Older’n me?” Relic rose and looked to where Timon had been sitting unnoticed. “Not hardly, son.” He bounced up to his feet, all spindly limbs not yet grown into. One hand wrapped around his amber jewel while he slipped the ocarina into his coat. “I think you’ll actually find ...”
In a blaze of greenish light, the silhouette of Timon began to change—
“I was the one who wrote that song ...”
“You!” Relic gasped.
“Me,” said the spry old man who stood in Timon’s place. “Really, I thought of all of you, you’d be the one to know better, Bookshelf. It’s true, yes – a bit of amber, done right, can preserve a piece of you ... just the way you were. Seems a mean thing to do to yourself, I say.”
Foy pulled an apple from the depths of his tattered old coat and took a big CRUNCH.
“I thought it was strange ...” Relic’s head whipped to the others. “B-but ...”
“But you had to do a lotta readin’ in things you’re better off not knowing to learn that, didn’t you?” Foy swatted the top of Relic’s head with his palm, making the Outrider yelp. “That’ll bring you nothing but misery, ‘specially considering all you really had to do was ...”
“Look it up,” Cedwyn said. “Gabriel Timon Foy.”
“The legendary Outrider,” Isabelle gasped.
“One an’ the same. An’ the same.”
Foy reached up to doff his straw hat.
“I thought you were dead,” Cedwyn pointed out.
“Don’t believe everything you think, kid. A little mystery is part of the job. So let’s get to that, eh? Since you’re all so eager t’help Sandia, here’s how you go about it. First off, stop casting about for answers that aren’t here. They’ll come in due time – and if you’re fortunate enough to survive the night unscathed, you’ll have more of ‘em than you know what to do with.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” Jace said, mimicking Foy’s earlier gesture with his own hat.
“None a’ that sir business,” said Foy, his eyes twinkling. “Technically, I’m retired. But I guess that wouldn’t make you lot feel any better about this, would it?” He paused to pull his hat straighter. “At least one of you had some rope. That’s a start, anyway.”
“Gabriel ...” Jaden chided gently. “You shouldn’t be making fun of them.”
“Right, then. Second, you go off with me an’ my boys and make damn sure the lady here gets where she’s going – back to your camp. Then – and only then – will the lot of us be able to make sure the rest of these good people get to a place of safety. And I don’t mean down here.”
“Are you nuts, old man? There’s nobody here well enough to raise a weapon,” said Jace.
“My boys ain’t from around here, tin-head. And thanks to you lot, you might just find that these people can take care of themselves a bit better’n you think. More to the point, though, it’s going to take all of us together if we want to bring the fight to the enemy.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Jace.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” said Foy to Jaden, “It’s time to go and make introductions. It’s gonna be a long, long night – twice as much for those payin’ any attention.” When Jaden raised a hand to give her leave, Foy rounded in place and began to walk—
Pausing only a moment later to slip his apple onto an altar beneath a great statue of an axolotl.
“Right,” he said to it. “Good on ye, fotamecus.” Then, over his shoulder: “Outriders, on me.”
As they began to walk, the Outriders whispered among themselves.
“How can we really be sure this guy is really Gabriel Foy?” Isabelle asked.
“You should’ve looked it up,” Jace said to Relic, but the joke went flat—
“That’s the thing, Jace,” Relic said gravely. “Gabriel Foy isn’t written of in any history books.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone want to cut a whole Outrider from the record?”
“I imagine it’s because of what he found,” Relic said. “And what he wrote.”
“I saw his name on a statue once,” Cedwyn said.
“Oh, yeah?” Jace asked. “Made by who?”
“The monks,” Cedwyn admitted.
They said nothing more after that—
But the sound of their breath was the most reassuring thing in the world.
Only Relic found himself thinking when people breathe together, it’s called a conspiracy.