THE REEDS OF TORIN’S FIELD



THE REEDS OF TORIN’S FIELD, by Andrea G. Stewart

Torin’s Field stretches before me like a reedy ocean, the hills forming the crests of waves.  I take a swig of wine from the pouch at my side, and it slides past my tongue, rich and astringent.  My former comrades liked to proclaim wine akin to courage, but it does nothing for me now except settle, warm, into my stomach.  Or maybe I’m too much a coward, past any help, ‘cause all I can do is sit here on a rock, my bum scorching, watching the wind weave in and out of the reeds below.  It’s a bleeding waste of time, but I only come here when I’m looking to waste it.

“Come to take the long road, good sir?”

An old man strides up the path beside me, leaning on a walking stick, his sandaled feet the same dusty brown as the earth.  He’s got the air of a pilgrim–pack strapped to his back, two pans jangling at his side, a bedroll tied on underneath.  He looks worn; they all look worn.  His voice wavers a little when he talks, though I can hear him trying to make it steady.

Funny how someone else’s fear can make yours feel a little less real.

I shake my head and put a hand on one of my daggers.  “Hunting quarry.”  I spit into the dirt beside my rock, trying to clear my mouth of the sour aftertaste.  “Just waiting for nightfall.  I got no reason to speak to dead children.”  It’s a lie, but I’ve grown comfortable with lies.  “You’ll have to take the road alone.”

I watch them sometimes.  Don’t know why some people insist on taking company.  There’s a thousand reeds below–a thousand-thousand.  They never find the ones they’re looking for right next to each other.  I’d bet my bleeding life on it that no one ever does.

The old man doesn’t say anything.  He just stares at me, his dark eyes reflecting the sunset, his lips pursed.  And then, bit by bit, his face crumbles, like a cliff side falling into the sea.  “I had a daughter,” he says.  “She drowned.  She–”

“Keep it to yourself,” I snarl.

He sucks up his tears, his mouth closing, his eyes blinking like I just pulled back the curtain in a dark
room.  He gives me a terse nod before starting down the road again.  I watch him as he wades into the waist-high reeds, as he starts bending his head, whispering to them, trying to find that one reed–the one that’ll let him talk to her.

It’s near night by the time he finds it.  He falls to his knees in the field, so I only see the top of his balding head amongst the plants, like he’s drowning.  The wind carries his sobs back to me on my rock.  They always weep, and I’m sure I’d do the same, but for different reasons.

Doesn’t last long.  The reed dries up, its magic spent, and the old man is clutching it to his chest like the withered thing is his daughter, and not just a plant.  Don’t much see the point, dredging up past pain like that.  Or maybe that’s the fear talking.  I take another pull of wine, then stretch out my legs and hop off my rock.  I got murderers to catch, and a sorceress to kill, and a life to keep on living, no matter how tired of it I am.

#

I track the murderers to the flats outside of Vedas, the cracked earth spotted with twisted trees and thorn bushes.  They’ve been killing any they can get their hands on, and taking the bodies away.  Rumors in the city say they’re working for a sorceress.

I kneel, checking for footprints in the dust.  Not sure why I keep going back to that bleeding field of reeds.  I’m like a man poking a viper with a stick.  There’s no point in it, and it’ll only lead to pain and disappointment.  Not like anyone leaves the field smiling; I’ve watched them.

But the gods take me for a fool–just being there makes me remember Lytash.

A click sounds and before I can think, I’m sprawled on my back, pain spreading out from my shoulder like its taking root.  Crossbow bolt, digging into my left shoulder.  I roll onto my side, spitting dust from my mouth as I grope for my daggers.  Thinking about the past always fogs up my killing edge, makes me miss things I might have otherwise noticed.

When I get my feet beneath me, I see five men stalking toward me, fanning out so they can surround me.  Must have been hiding in the thorn bushes, and me too caught up in thoughts of Lytash to look for them.  I got one dagger in my right hand, but my left fumbles at the hilt of the other, pain tingling to my fingertips.

None of the men say a word as they approach, their blades out, their expressions dark.  The man who shot me calmly pulls another bolt from the quiver at his side and begins reloading, like he’s just getting ready to put down an animal.  He lingers behind, but the other four keep coming, one from each side—North, West, East, South—and I’m the center of the compass, the needle.

I back up a little, try to get a thorn bush behind me and make things more difficult for them.  The space between my shoulder blades itches, like South’s marking it with his eyes as a place to sink a sword into.

Finally manage to get a grip on my other dagger, though pain shoots up my arm as I draw it.  I’m a bleeding idiot, letting myself brood.  Just as I lift both blades, the four of them rush in.

My heartbeat quickens, my senses sharpen.  I hear the brush of their feet against the ground, feel the rush of air as South lifts his blade to strike.  I slip to the side to avoid the blow from behind, lift a blade to block the one from East.  Just as quickly, I slide my left blade across his throat.

East staggers back, hand to his neck. Not a clean cut; my arm’s too weak for that. But I’ve no time to lament poor work.  South’s now tangled up in the thorn bush, but he won’t be for long.

West attacks, and I block with my uninjured arm.  For a brief moment, we stand locked, and all I can see are the rugged mountains and valleys of his face; all I can smell is his rotten breath.

He lifts a leg to kick me, but I’m quicker. I get my other blade between us, cut the artery in his thigh. No one tells you, when you sign up to kill other men, that they all look the same when they die.  The wide, startled eyes, whitening face, parted lips.  Lytash looked the same, yet I still rushed him to the city healer.  Took my eyes off him for one moment too long.

Lytash passed before I could even knock on the healer’s door.  My son.

I whirl to avoid an attack from North, but his blade catches the bolt in my shoulder.  All the breath goes out of me; my vision goes red.  My foot slips in the dust.

I slide to the ground, get my blades above me in a guard position.  I’m almost disappointed when North’s sword strikes my daggers and not my flesh.  Never can seem to get a clean death.  Been too long I’ve been fighting, too long I’ve been living.

Another click sounds and a bolt whizzes past my ear.  A rustle of brush as South untangles himself.  Three left.

I get a firmer grip on my left dagger, and shove it into North’s gut.  His sword lowers and cuts my scalp, but then he loses his strength, his face pale.

Two.

I barely get my feet beneath me when South attacks.  He’s got his sword in one hand, but he uses the other to grab the bolt in my shoulder.  He yanks on it, his teeth clenched.

Pain blazes across my chest and down my arm.  Can’t breathe.  If the man with the crossbow hadn’t already fired and missed, I’d be dead.  Try to cut South with my left dagger but lift my hand to find it empty, the dagger gone from my grip.  His sword comes down.

I hold my breath, tighten my muscles, and jerk to the side.

I wrench the bolt from his grip, and it feels like I’ve been shot all over again.  But I manage to keep my head as he overbalances.  His sword strikes the dusty ground and my dagger strikes his back.

He lets out his breath in a moan.  None of us are swept away by the gods.  None of us die with such comfort.  We are creatures of flesh and bone, here one moment, winked out in the next.

The ratcheting of a crank sounds as I yank my blade out from between the murderer’s ribs.  The last man stands across from me, fumbling to get another bolt into place.  I stride toward him, and blood trickles from my scalp and into my brows.  He slides the bolt into place and starts to lift the crossbow.  I dart in, slash at his arm.  He drops the weapon and cradles the wounded limb to his chest.  I whip the dagger about, settle it right up against his neck.

He swallows.  “Who are you?”  His gaze flicks to my right wrist and then back to my face.

I let him look, ’cause I have questions to ask, and the more afraid he is of me, the better.  “Just a man trying to scratch a living from the hides of criminals,” I say.

Sweat beads on his forehead, bright as jewels.  “Lutarian,” he says, his gaze flicking, again, to the tattoo on my wrist.

“Nope.  Left the company eight years ago.”

“But you fight with them until you die.”

I am dead.  Dead to my wife, to my former comrades, to the great city of Nimera itself.  “Yes,” I tell him.  “But that doesn’t matter if you kill everyone who thinks you’re still alive, does it?”

He’s pissing himself, I’m sure of it.  Didn’t actually happen that way.  I told my captain I wanted to leave, and they all turned their backs on me, like I wasn’t there any longer.  Spoke not one word more to me.  You can leave the Lutarians and break your oaths, it’s just not pleasant.

“The sorceress,” I say.  “Where does she live?”  You can’t go about terrorizing the countryside, abducting and killing people, and expect no one will notice.  I wish I could say I do this all for Lytash, to make the world a better place for him, but he’s dead and gone and I’m just eager to follow.

The man snorts a laugh through his thick, black beard.  His face is rough-hewn, his eyes large and bright.  Probably has some Gorak blood in him, in some unspoken part of his lineage.  Nobody likes to admit their ancestors once lay with cave-dwellers.  “You think I’ll tell you?” he says.  “What do you think she’d do to me if I did?”

“You’ll tell me what I want,” I say.

“You’d go after her alone?  She’ll kill you.”

“Maybe that’s what I want.”  Please, yes.

“There are easier ways to die.”  His hand snakes to a knife at his belt, but I catch his wrist, squeezing until he gasps in pain.

“Yes,” I say slowly, letting it sink in.  “Yes, there are.”  I twist the hand, and then he’s on his knees, mouth agape, eyes wet with unshed tears.  “Tell me where the sorceress lives.”

“In the foothills,” the words trip over one another, “north of Vedas.  A hut.  No path to it ‘cept one that’s used by animals.  Off the main road to Nimera.  Oak stump, split in two at the trailhead.”

“You have my thanks.”

He knows I’m going to kill him.  I know it.  And, like so many others before him, he slides in a few last words.

“She’s bringing them back, you know,” he says, with the tremulous smile that only deranged fanatics seem capable of.  “The Silent Ones.  The Watchers.”

And then I slit his throat and he’s got nothing left on his tongue but choked gurgles.

What he said: it means nothing to me, but I’ve never known a lot about the occult.  I like not knowing.

#

Takes me an entire day to bind my wounds and collect the bounty, and another day to get provisions and get on the road.  I got money enough for a horse, but I swore I’d never ride again, not after what happened to my son.

So I set out on the road from the city, horsemen and wagons kicking dust in my face, my armor and my boots going the same even brown as that pilgrim’s.  Been a lot of times I’ve set out after quarry, thinking they were my last days, only to have my training come through, to save me with the slice of a dagger, the slide of a foot.  This time, though, I think I’ve found quarry I can’t kill.  Hasn’t been a sorcerer round these parts for a hundred years.  I can’t say my like is as rare.

I’m tired and hungover by the time I find the split oak stump, my wounds weeping through their bandages.

Four days on the road and I’m finally out of wine.  No use wishing for more, either, not in the middle of bleeding nowhere, with the sun beating down on my neck with all the heat of a blacksmith’s forge.

The split in the path is easy to find; it’s following it that proves difficult, especially once the sun starts to go down.  I should wait until it’s light out, until I can see the path better and check for sentries.  But I don’t.

The hut’s a thing of weathered wood and thatch, barely held together.  Not a sound comes through the wood, not even the crackling of a fire.  My head pounding, my mouth dry as the dusty earth coating my leather armor, I push open the door and step inside.

My sweaty hand slips free of my dagger’s hilt soon as I do.  It’s not a hut on the inside–it’s a bleeding palace, all black stone with veins of silver.  My single footstep seems to echo a thousand times off the walls, off ceilings and pillars that climb into the sky.  Two sets of stairs hug the walls.  Suppose I should have expected this, fighting a sorceress.  Not sure which one’s real: the hut or the palace.

Doesn’t matter.  I’ve killed hundreds of men these past eight years; if a sorceress can’t put an end to my misery, I’m not sure who can.  Time was when I’d have prayed to the gods to return me home safe.  When I had a wife who loved me, and a son who treasured the trinkets I brought him home.  I’d give anything to go back, to have her kiss my cheek and smile, to ruffle my fingers through Lytash’s chestnut hair.

My younger self would have jumped at the chance to kill a sorceress, to risk his life for his city, his country.  My current self just wants to get the whole thing over with.  I got nothing waiting for me on the other side, but I got nothing waiting for me here.  So I just stroll on in, brash and bold as you please.  If this place is as big as it looks, it’ll take me damn near forever just to find her.

A woman appears at the top of the staircase on the right.  She drips with gold and silver, the chains like shining droplets of dew against her white dress.  She’s not beautiful, and for some reason that surprises me.  Her face looks as though it’s been carved from granite–all sharp cheekbones and chin, with eyes the same golden-brown as her skin.  She’s tall, perhaps even a bit taller than me, and when she moves to descend the stairs, her shoulders do not shift at all.

“So you’ve come to kill me.”  Her voice fills the room.

“Yes.”

She keeps walking down those steps, her blonde hair floating after her, as if she’s underwater.  She tilts her head to the side, like a bird looking for a bug on the ground.  “No.  You’ve come to die.”

“Yes.”  Not sure why I tell her the truth.

“Why?”

I expected a fight, not a conversation.  I keep my hands away from my daggers.  “It’s my own bleeding business.”

She stops at the foot of the steps and neither of us moves.  “I suppose that it is.  But you don’t have to die, Philos.”

I know it’s sorcery, but hearing my name on her lips sends prickles of ice climbing up my spine.  “Could just kill you.”

The corner of her mouth quirks upward.  “Could you?”  She lets that hang in the air for a moment.  If she’s bluffing, it’s a damn good bluff.  Her gaze drops.  “I don’t want to kill you.  I could use you.”

“Like those men I took for bounty?”

She throws her head back and laughs.  “No, not at all.  They served me well, but you and I both know that you’re different.  Do you think just anyone could walk into my home?”  She beckons to me, the bracelets on her arm clinking together.  “Come, follow me.  I will show you.”

The woman turns her back on me and glides between the two staircases, into an area with a lower ceiling, closer walls.  I could strike her now, have done with it, move on to the next bounty, the next fight, the next day.  One sunrise after the next.

I keep my hand on my dagger, but don’t draw it.  I thought I’d barge in, she’d summon demons, and I’d be a goner.  Instead, I’m walking through her palace like she invited me here.  Maybe she did.  Maybe that’s how magic works, I don’t know.

She leads me to a door at the end of the hall.  With a wave of her hand, the lock clicks and the door opens.  The room inside is vast, as large as Suncourt Square in Vedas.  Torches line the walls, and they burst into flame with another wave of the sorceress’ hand.

“I’m bringing them back,” she says.  “The Silent Ones.  The Watchers.”

I’d have pissed myself if I had a drop left in my bladder.  Men and women stand, shoulder to shoulder in the room, lined up evenly, like pieces on a chessboard.  None of them so much as blink, but they breathe together, as one, and each breath stirs the papery skin around their noses and mouths.  Their breathing fills the room with the faint sound of waves against the shore.  Each stares straight ahead with clouded eyes.

The Silent Ones.  The Watchers.  I suppose all these dead people, together, are very silent, and they do look like they’re watching.  What they’re watching, I’ve no idea.

My mind rambles along in disconnected lines, trying to keep the fear from rising.  Must be a thousand of them in here.  A thousand-thousand, just like those reeds in Torin’s Field.  “What do you mean to do with them?”

“Take Vedas.  Make it my own.”

“And what do you want with me?”

“You’ve the sorcerer’s gift, Philos.  Why do you think you’ve lived so long without intending to?”

All of a sudden, my mouth’s as wet as the space behind a farm boy’s ears.  I want to vomit, but instead I speak.  “Can you teach me this, bringing back the dead?”

She smiles, and it softens all the crags of her face, makes her look like a cat, purring in the sunlight.  She touches the side of my head, a sharp tingle runs across my forehead, and then something in my mind clicks together, like a door closing.  “Yes.  But then you must do something for me.”

Should ask what it is she wants, but she’s holding all the cards. “Anything. I swear it.”

#

Lytash’s death was my fault.  I dream about it nearly every bleeding night, except here in the sorceress’ palace.  Eight days and the place already feels familiar.  Eight days and I’m forgetting that wide-eyed look on Lytash’s face.  Not sure if I’m grateful or sad, ‘cause that’s the last time I saw my son alive.

Trampled.  By my own bedamned horse.

I rise from my cot, trying not to think about what I’m doing, why I’m here, but the question rises to the surface as it does each morning: what in the nine pits of hell does a sorceress want with an entire city?  I shove it to the back of my mind.  It’s her bleeding business, and I’ve got my own concerns.  Even if I could bring Lytash back, what’s the difference between that and the reeds?  He must hate me.  I’d hate me.

My heartbeat quickens as I rest my callused feet on the cold stone floor.  But this way, I’d have the time to explain.  I’d get to tell him how my horse trampling him wasn’t my intention.  He’d get to know how hard I tried to save him, how if I could go back, I’d never have trained the beast to stomp on those that raised a sword against him.  Never would have brought back a wooden sword for Lytash from Kaliphar.  Never would have gotten a horse in the first place.

Just as on the first day, the sorceress appears in my doorway, like she didn’t walk there at all, just flew.  “Good.  You’re awake.  We have fresh bodies.”

She takes me to another room down the hall, with four bodies laid out on the floor.  They’re freshly dead, still stiff, wounds still weeping blood.  Two men and two women, three old and one just barely out of childhood.  I wonder if that one’s got a reed in Torin’s Field.

At least I was defending people when I was a mercenary.  At least I was killing murderers.  But I do as the sorceress bids, kneel, and place my hands on the cold cheeks of the woman nearest me.

If I got a chance to bring Lytash back, I got to take it.

“Take in a breath,” the sorceress says above me.  “Gather it in your belly, think of Nestor the Dead, then breathe it out onto the corpse.  Will her alive again.”

The stone floor makes my knees ache, and I’m reminded again of how old I am.  The breath I take pops my shoulders and ribs.

I think of Nestor the Dead, with his lapis-tipped staff, his black eyes, his ragged gray robes.  And I actually say a little prayer in my head, that’s how bleeding desperate I am.

Heat gathers in my belly.  It’s pleasant–a bit like a good swallow of soup after a cold day.  When I breathe it out, I can see it; it shimmers through the air as it travels into the body of the woman on the floor.  It settles over her graying hair, her chapped fingers, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.

“Good,” the sorceress purrs.  “Now you will help me finish my army. It will go faster with the two of us.”

Wish I could shake off her praise.  I don’t want it.  Shouldn’t care, but I always saw myself as something of a hero.

But I’m sure of this: raising the dead is villain’s work.

The woman’s wounds close, her eyes open–gray, like her brethren.  There’s something between me and her, I can feel it in my head, like there’s a rope between our minds, stretched taut.

Before I can explore it, or even do anything with it, a sharp pain hits the back of my head, and then dissipates.

“Go downstairs,” the sorceress commands.  “Join the others.”

The woman rises and strides away, silent as a ghost.

I rub the back of my head, trying to find the spot where the pain hit.  It’s gone.  Can’t rise to my feet yet ‘cause I’m suddenly tired, my limbs weak and shaking.  “So I get to raise the dead, but I don’t get to control them?” I ask.

She lifts an eyebrow at me.  “Do you hand a child the reins to a stallion?”

I flinch.  Too close to my own situation.  “What do you want Vedas for anyways?”  I wave my hand at the walls of her
palace.  “Just stone and mortar–don’t you have plenty of that already?”

She lifts her chin.  “Perhaps I wish for more power.”

There’s a quiver in her lip, a shine in her eye–tells me she’s not saying everything.  “Does someone say ‘perhaps’ in front of something they actually mean?”

Her lip firms up, and the shine in her eye is gone.  “Perhaps.”

The floor chills my fingers as I push myself to my feet.  “Why don’t you tell me the truth?”

“We all make mistakes, Philos.  Some of them, we spend the rest of our lives trying to fix.”  And then she’s moving from the room, her hair waving a farewell.

#

Twenty-eight.  That’s how many people I’ve raised from the dead.  Makes me feel sick each time I think about it.  I’ve tried talking to them, and sometimes I think they’re listening, but mostly they just stare straight ahead.  Maybe if the sorceress didn’t wrench away the connection each time, I’d be able to make them understand me.  They understand her well enough.

Whatever power we’ve both got in our blood, she’s got it stronger.  Raising the dead doesn’t seem to wind her at all.

“Philos,” her voice cuts through my thoughts.  “The next one.”

I’ve changed in my armor for robes, and I can feel my muscles shriveling, day by day.  This sick and weakly thing isn’t me.  Or I thought it wasn’t.  I put my hands around the forehead of the next body in line, the skin cold and dry.

We buried Lytash in the fields outside Nimera.  He would have wanted his bones to nourish the earth–that was the sort of child he was.  I only remember bits and pieces of that day, my memories fractured as I was.  My wife’s hair catching on my stubble as she wept into my shoulder.  The brown of the earth as Lytash was placed in the ground, dark and endless as the ocean at night.  The hollowness inside me that grew with each passing moment.

The man on the floor rises, the sorceress cuts my connection with him, and the pain strikes the back of my head.

“The next one,” she says.

“How many?” I ask, and my voice is just as rusty as that murderer’s by the fire.  Seems a lifetime ago.  Only I’m the murderer now.  I don’t kill them with my own two hands, but I might as well have.  “How many do you need?”  What I meant to ask was: “When can I leave?  When can I raise my son from the dead?”

“As many as we can get,” she says.  “We’re close, very close.”

I crawl to the next body in line–my pride’s gone the way of my strength.  Somehow I know: I’ll do whatever she says.  I swore to it.  How much can I truly complain?  She’s giving me the chance to fix my life’s greatest mistake.  But my mouth runs off on me.  “Half of the dead below would get you Vedas.  Why do you need so many?”

She approaches, feet near sliding across the floor, that’s how graceful she moves.  When she kneels next to me, I catch a whiff of jasmine and sandalwood.  She stares into my face just above my eyes, and I’m not sure whether she’s figuring if she should confide in me, or if she should kill me.  She takes three even breaths before she speaks.  “I don’t need to just take Vedas.  I need to own it–to control it.”

Maybe I was mistaken, and all she wants is power.  She takes another breath, as if she’s about to say more, but then she stops herself, reaches over, and presses her own hands to the dead woman’s forehead beneath me.

In the next moment, the woman is breathing, moving.

“I’ll take care of the rest.  Go.  Get some sleep.”

#

I don’t sleep, even though my eyelids grow heavy.

There’s no window in my room, but I know it’s night.  How many days have I been here? Fourteen? Thirty?  My shoulder has healed into a reddened scar.  Each time I try to count the days, even lying still in my bed, the numbers slip away from me.  Other than my room, the room where we raise the dead, and the big room below, I haven’t seen the rest of the palace.

“What are you hiding?” I whisper into the darkness, and as the words slide from my mouth, I realize I don’t even know her name.

With shaking fingers, I find my armor and daggers on the floor next to the bed.  I touch them, run my fingers over the hilts of my daggers.  It’s like that door in my mind opens a crack.  I am–was–a Lutarian.

Putting on my armor is a struggle.  My hands don’t want to obey.  They fumble at the straps, making threading the buckles an exhausting chore.  But with every step I manage, that door opens farther–it feels like I’m pushing it open against a strong wind.

It isn’t until I’ve strapped on my daggers that I realize she’s put a spell on me to keep me complacent.  And with that realization, the door opens the rest of the way, and my fingers can move again, of their own accord.  Maybe I’m a sorcerer now, but I was a fighter first, a hero.

I make my way into the hall.  Moonlight creeps in from the window at the end, as though afraid to venture too far into the sorceress’ home.  I wait for a moment, but hear nothing.  She might be asleep, or she might not be.

The first door I open reveals only an empty room.  The second one reveals some sort of alchemical operation–bottles and bubbling concoctions, pipes and tubes.  The third one is a study, books lined on the shelves and papers spread across a desk.  Here, I linger.

With a wave of my hand, the torches on the walls light up.  A map of Vedas is painted on one black wall, the details too small and too accurate for human creation.  If I squint, I can make out tiny, individual cobbles on the streets.  She must know everything about the city.

A quick glance at the desk confirms this.  Page after page of genealogies, of all the families in the city–from noble to common.  Lines and letters drawn off the pages, connecting lineages.  Some of the names are marked with red dots and neatly-written numbers.  “3.125” “25” “6.25.”

In the top drawer of the desk, I find more pieces of paper, all of them with the names marked in red.  New genealogies.

Breeding papers.

Don’t even realize I’m sweating until I lift a hand to wipe it from my forehead.  This is why she needs to control Vedas: to make sure that no one enters and no one leaves.  To make sure they heed her every command.  Even who they will marry, who they will have children with.

“I told you to sleep.”

I got both my daggers in hand before I can remember touching them.  She stands in the doorway, her gown draping from one shoulder, her face hard and craggy as stone.  No cat-softness to it now.  She’s carrying a small skeleton in her arms.  Another one of her exhumed dead.  Another to join her army.

“Didn’t much feel like sleeping,” I say.  If we were to fight, which magic would win out–hers or mine?  I wave one of my blades in the direction of the open drawer.  “What’s all this about?”

“Power,” she says.

“You’re lying.”  I want to throw a dagger at her, just to shake her off balance, just to get her to talk.  “You said you made a mistake.  What kind of mistake requires taking over a city to fix it?”

She sweeps a hand and the torches flare higher, hotter.  Bright as day inside the room, and just as warm.  “I am one thousand, fifty-six years old.”  If she meant to silence me, it works.  “If you think you’ve been living for too long, Philos, think how I must feel.”

“But why the city?”  She starts to stride closer, but I lift the dagger in my right hand as if to throw it, and she stops.  “Tell me.  Please.”

It’s that last word that does it.  Her eyes shift, from deadly anger to grief.  She clutches the skeleton to her chest, the dusty bones smudging her white dress with gray.  “When I was young, and just discovering my gift, I killed an entire species.  One of them hurt me, so I wished a pestilence upon her entire race.”  Her eyebrows lift in the way one might shrug–a helpless gesture.  “It worked.  I didn’t know then, the extent of my power, or what would happen.  I acted thoughtlessly, without contemplating the consequences.

“The few who survived interbred with the humans in Vedas.  I’ve tried offering them money to marry one another; I’ve tried offering them power.  I’ve even tried casting my spells on them, as I have with you, but I can’t make them do things they were never inclined to do in the first place.  In the end, the only thing people respect is fear.  If I conquer the city and breed their descendents, just so, I can bring the Ilyanoras back.  I can fix the wrong I did, all those years ago.”

How can she not see?  “Do you think that’s what they would want?  For you to control their few descendents, to force them to interbreed?”

She shakes her head at me.  “It doesn’t matter.”

What have I done, helping this woman, all on the promise of being able to raise my son from the dead?  “Then it isn’t about them, it’s about you.  You made a mistake.  You’re the one that’s got to live with it.  Not everyone else.”

“Is that so?”  Her mouth breaks into a sneer, turning her face into a landscape of jagged cliffs.  “You and I are the same, Philos.  I thought to bring you a gift, while you slept.  Foolish of me, I suppose.”  She proffers the skeleton and dread sinks its claws into my bones, locking my joints.  I thought the skeleton just another desecrated corpse, but from the look in her eye, I know who it is.

Lytash.

I forget about my dagger and take an involuntary step forward.  “Don’t–”  Too late.  Always too goddamned late.

She presses a hand to his forehead and breathes out.

Dry, papery flesh winds around his bones, filling out the space, and dry, papery skin covers it.  He’s missing the chestnut hair, but it’s him all right.  And then Lytash opens eyes gray as the ashes in a fire, and I can’t think at all.

The sorceress sets him on his feet.

“Papa?”  The voice that emerges is thick and raspy, as though he’s swallowed cobwebs.

I’m kneeling, I’m opening my arms, my heart fixing fast and hard as a thousand feet rushing into battle.  Don’t care that his skin doesn’t look quite real.  It’s my boy.  “I’m here, Lytash.”

“You,” he looks at me but doesn’t move.  “You killed me.”

All the explanations I’ve had holed up in my chest pour from my throat, overflowing.  “I tried to save you.  I tried so hard.  I’ve wished every day that I never got a horse, that I never got you that wooden sword.”

“Stop.”

I do.

Lytash tilts his head, and the motion jerks and stutters.  “It was your fault.  You did this to me.”

“I know, I know.”  Tears choke my voice.  “Please, son.  Forgive me.”

He takes a step toward me.  “Forgive you?  Do you know how much it hurts to die?  You could have stopped it.  You should have latched the gate tighter, should have taught me never to raise the sword against your horse.  I thought you were supposed to protect me.”

Each word he speaks feels like a hammer, and I’m the nail, being pounded into the ground.  Never welcomed death quite like this.  Wish I could take a dagger to the heart, right now.  It’s what I deserve.

The rustle of skirts sounds from behind me.  The sorceress.  She’s whispering something beneath her breath.  The whole place trembles.  And then I hear the march of a thousand-thousand feet, all in time.

My breath catches.  The connection–that thing that binds her to the dead, that makes them do her bidding–it’s still there between her and Lytash.  It’s not my son I’m talking to.  It’s her.  The hiss of a blade sounds in my right ear.

My hand’s on my dagger, the blade drawn before I can remember reaching for it.  I whirl, and my dagger clashes against hers.

She’s got her teeth bared, her eyes wild with anticipation for the kill.  I’d tell her I’m sorry to disappoint, but she bears down on me, her strength more than I expect, and mine waned more than I’d like.

“Papa,” Lytash’s plaintive voice echoes from the walls.  “You murdered me.”

It makes my hands tremble, and she pushes me back.  She lashes out and scores a stinging cut across my chest.  I leap back just in time to stop her from gutting me.  The pounding feet grow louder, as the dead climb the stairs–toward where we’re fighting.

A thousand fifty-six years is enough time to learn a lot, it seems.  The sorceress moves with the grace of a hunting cat–silent, liquid.  I draw my other dagger, but then she’s on me, all glinting blade and teeth and eyes.  My arms are heavy; my breathing aches past my throat.  Can barely block her attacks, much less fight back.  Might as well just give in, get that death I’ve been waiting for.

And if I die?  She’ll still have Lytash, bound to her, his old bones doing her bidding.  I cast out a hand and close the door with the force of my will, holding it shut.  It won’t keep the dead out for long, but maybe it’ll keep them out for long enough.

I push past the pain, the weakness, find that reserve of strength burning in the pit of my belly.  She can have me, but she won’t have him.  I’ve failed him enough in one lifetime.  Won’t let him down in the next.  My blade locks with hers.

“You can’t win this,” she says.

I kick at her belly and she whirls away from the blow, taking her dagger with her, leaving me stumbling.

“Papa,” Lytash says.  He’s reaching for me, fingers curled, nails long as claws, and my lips go numb.

“Not this.”  The words escape my mouth in a moan.  “Please.”

“Not what?” the sorceress says, her voice mocking.  Lytash’s cold hands paw at my armor, his feet tangle with my own.  I’m helpless to stop him.

The dead begin to pound at the door, and my will is barely strong enough to hold it shut.  I imagine the door bursting open, the dead flowing over me like a wave, drowning me.  The sorceress, sensing my weakness, circles, seeking an opening to plunge her dagger into my neck.  I’m trying to keep my guard up, but Lytash sinks his nails into my leg, and they’re sharp as daggers.  It would be fitting for me to die because of my son, when my son died because of me.

My will slips, just a little.  Gray fingers squirm into the gap between the door and the wall, writhing like so many worms.

“Your fault,” Lytash mutters, plaintive.

I squeeze my eyes shut for just a moment.  The sorceress darts in, and her blade scores a deep gash across my collarbone. I try to move away, but Lytash is ripping into my arms; each wound burns and weeps trails of blood.  The sorceress aims again for my neck, and I barely block her blow.  I shove her away, as hard as I can.  “Yes,” I gasp out.  “It was my fault.”  I know it’s the sorceress speaking through his mouth, but maybe he can still hear me.  “But this isn’t you.”

My heart clenches as I strike my son’s gray face with the back of my hand.  His nails scrape at my skin as he falls.  And then I’m kicking him, sobbing, wishing this wasn’t my life, that this wasn’t me.  I feel bones crack beneath my feet, but he keeps coming, fingers outstretched and red with my blood.

In my mind, I’m watching my horse rear up again, hooves glinting in the sunlight.  Lytash beneath him, hands upraised, wooden sword still in his grip, too small and frail to stop what’s happening.  And me, running, screaming words I can’t even hear because I know what’s coming, because I can’t do a bleeding thing about it.

Fists pound at the door, louder, like the pounding of hooves against hard-packed earth.

Today is not that day.  That day is dead and buried.  Like my son.

I trample him one last time, pray that he stays down, and then whirl to find the sorceress crouched and ready to leap.  It happens quickly.  I catch the sorceress’ dagger beneath the hilt, send it skittering across the floor.  I have my other blade at her neck before she can draw her next breath.

“If you kill me,” she pants, “you lose him, all over again.  You can’t raise the dead twice.”

I want, so badly, to look back at Lytash, to take in the sight of my son–gray-eyed and thin-skinned, and some semblance of alive.  But I won’t take my eyes off the sorceress.  “It’s my mistake,” I say.  “I’m the one that’s got to live with it.”

She relaxes and closes her eyes.  Been too long she’s been living. She knows it and I know it too.  I draw the blade across her throat.

Behind me, Lytash falls into a pile of rattling bones.  Just outside the door, I hear a rumbling like thunder as the sorceress’ army crumbles.

No one’s going to take Vedas.  No one’s going to breed its people to bring back a long-forgotten race.

And no one’s going to bring Lytash back to life.

I know I’ve done hero’s work, but I’m too bleeding sad and tired to care.

#

I get my two hundred gold slips, from a man in Vedas who barely even glances at my face as he pays the bounty.  He doesn’t know what it’s cost me, or what the sorceress had planned for his city.  To him, it’s just one more villain dead and gone, and more gold leaking from the city’s coffers.

Lytash’s bones rattle a bit when I move, though I got them packed up nice and tight.  Sometimes I think he’s trying to tell me something, but I know it’s all in my head.  It’s ten days by foot back to Nimera, and if there’s one thing left I got to do, it’s to bury my son’s bones where they belong.

Sun’s starting to set by the time I leave Vedas, glazing the fields with orange and pink.  I got a lot of ground to cover, but when I reach the first dusty fork in the road, I stop.  The way straight ahead leads to Nimera, and so does the path to the right.  But the path to the right is the long road, the one that curves past my rock on the hill, the one that cuts through Torin’s Field.

Now I swear, by all the gods above and below, that I’m standing stock-still in the fork, so still I don’t even breathe.  But something in my pack rattles a little.  Two dirt-smudged bones, clanking against one another.

Those accusations, the terrible words coming from Lytash’s mouth?  They weren’t his.  I wish I could say that Lytash would never say those things, that he was a sweet boy who would forgive anyone, even his papa for causing his death.  But the truth is, I don’t know what he’d say to me if he had the chance.  That’s what scares me, more than anything else.

I reach, reflexively, for the wine pouch at my belt.  It’s empty, and I’ve been so preoccupied I didn’t think to get any more.  If I do this, I got to do it alone, no wine in my belly and no other pilgrims to keep me company.

I shift my pack, whisper a prayer, and set my feet toward Torin’s Field.

Been a long time coming.

___________________________________________________

Andrea G. Stewart lives in Northern California and gardens year-round in her tiny backyard, an activity that allows for copious daydreams of distant lands and planets.  Her fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Volume 29Beneath Ceaseless SkiesOrson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge.  When she’s not writing, working her day job, or chasing chickens out of her vegetables, she hangs around the house with her trusty dog, her loud cat, and her endlessly patient husband. You can find her on the web at http://www.andreagstewart.com.


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