Gray Mother

Her paws were cold, and her feet crunched in the snow as she walked, the crust under her claws unreliable, sometimes holding her weight, sometimes punching through and sending her into an uneven gait that caused her to sink into powder as high as her chest. When it happened, she would blow it away from her face with a snort, the ends of her whiskers tingling as ice crystals brushed against them, and dig in, her back legs kicking until she was on top again. It would tire her, and she’d stop when she reached a solid point, panting gently, stopping to lap at the powder until enough melted in her mouth, and she could ease the aching itch in her throat.

Wind stirred the powder, sending it swirling and spiraling in whorls and eddies, and shaking the boughs above her. Fat clods of snow fell from the branches and hit the ground with thick plopping sounds. Above her, a black bird shifted on its branch and fluttered its wings, trying to settle. It sighed.

“Will you not rest, Old Mother?”

It was the birds’ name for her, though she had been known by many. Waabishki-ma’iingan by the tall hunters in the summers, Long Fang by her packmates, and Ingashi by her litter, though they were long grown and in packs of their own these days. To the moon she had always simply been Grey, sister and daughter; mother, maiden, and crone. She craned her neck, catching the scents of deer and rabbit on the wind, and stared at the bird. She knew him only as Ebon.

“Over this next rise. We need to make better time. Maybe if you fly ahead. You can see if the pack is there.”

Ebon sighed again and fluttered his wings, then launched himself from the branch, sending more snow pattering to the ground. For a moment, the flap of his wings was loud in the clearing, and then they were gone. Grey settled on her haunches, watching the moon filter through the boughs overhead, sending skeletal fingers reaching into the white, a chiaroscuro sketch of murky futures. She lifted her head and sniffed, thinking maybe she would smell the dry dusting of Ebon’s feathers, or the carrion scent that clung to the hook of his beak, the points of his talons.

Too soon, she thought. Age and hunting had taught her patience in most things, but never in her need to be near family. Her mind drifted a little – it did that more these days, time unmooring and sending her down faded paths.

Blue-Eye had appeared in the spring grain, full of chest and tall, his withers wide and his teeth sharp. She had set her paws in the mud, green shoots tickling the pads, and lowered her head, her mouth set, her legs wide. She let a low rumble escape her chest, the sound like rocks tumbling in a stream. He paused and turned his head, one blue eye shining over his thick muzzle, the other a circle of fur bounded by a thick seam of scar. He turned his head and opened his mouth, tongue lolling out, as though he thought her challenge amusing.

Grey bounded forward, intending to teach him that she had little to do with joking, and more to do with keeping intruders from her pack. She leapt, and he stepped out of the way, banging his head into her ribs, and bringing his paws onto her side. She coughed out a surprised bark as she landed on her back in the mud, and he nipped her throat – not enough to draw blood, but a message nonetheless. She lay still, waiting, and he licked her face once, then tore off through the high grass. A fierce sort of something rose in her, and she found her feet and gave chase, wheat whipping by to either side, his musk in her nose, his hard breath ahead of her.

And then – and then there he was, waiting, and she rolled him this time, catching his throat in her jaws, a playful growl escaping her. After a moment, she let up, and he bounced to his feet. They stared at one another, that striking blue eye honest, and came together.

The memory faded, and Grey looked to the sky. Stars, unseen before, peeked through cracks in the clouds. There was a story her people told themselves sometimes, after a hunt, when the elders would lie in warm circles, and the pups wrestled among the pines. It was the story of Amarok. They said when the world was all forest, before the tall hunters, it was full of prey. Others abided there, the bear and the hawk, and darker – the wendigo and the alakwis. They said that when Amarok was just a pup, the wendigo took his father and gave him a hunger that could only be sated with his own people’s flesh. Wild and alone, Amarok’s father – Rust – fled to the wood, fearful that he should swallow his family and devour his pups.

In time, he was all but forgotten as the pack moved on, though it was said they could hear him moving behind them always, his paws scrabbling on the rough bark shed by ancient trees, claws clicking on stony hillsides. They whispered they could hear his rough growl behind the gorse and heather, and glimpse his shadow, hunched by hunger behind the thick maples. So, they moved, always moving, not letting He Who Lurks catch their throats.

Then, they began to fall. First, the old and infirm. Packmates rendered slow by the river of time, hobbled by nature, or sick with any number of things that could creep up and take the honorable in a dishonorable way. No one said more than was necessary. No one slowed their pace. It was the Way. The Way said you moved on. And on. And those who fell were left behind. Not forgotten, not discarded. Their time had come, and it was up to the Mother to reclaim them. There was no dishonor in death, for it came for all.

But Amarok knew better. He saw better. He saw how when the weak fell, a shadow fell over them. He saw jaws, dark and red, reach from the dark places between boles and snatch a leg, tear a tendon. And still he ran with the pack.

It was a clear night when his father came among them, sleeping in their groups. He stalked among the kits and whelplings, and his head would dip, coming back up with jaws working. He had grown lean in the intervening years. His ribs stood out in stark relief, his spine bristling. Rust’s eyes held a yellowish sheen, his teeth stained brown, and his saliva ran in rivulets from half-open jaws. Madness had settled in him like a thorn in flesh, and as his head swiveled side to side, he saw only prey – an entire world for the eating.

Amarok stood, and approached, head down, teeth bared. His father, if he recognized his son, slavered and snapped, and opened his jaws wide, a maw that reeked of black death and rot. Seeing his chance, Amarok dove in, for his father was huge – the largest wolf that had lived until that point – and Amarok fit between his teeth easily. He traveled down his father’s slick throat, into the furnace of his stomach. Once there, he ripped and tore, he rent and bled his father among the corpses of his litter-mates, and with a final howl, tore free of the beast’s stomach, rebirthed in savagery.

When the other wolves saw what he had done, they voiced their joy to the moon, the Mother, and she took notice. For each thing that Rust had devoured, she placed their souls in the sky and set them to burn so that all would know the good Amarok had done.

“Amarok. It is a good story.”

The wolf that stood apart from her was black, his eyes the green of the forest in summer. He settled to his haunches in the shadow between two great oaks. Grey watched him warily. She was not startled, though she hadn’t heard him approach, and was not surprised, though he seemed to know her thoughts. Grey had lived long enough to know that things worked that way in the world. There were certainly more things beneath the stars and between the shadows of the trees than could be accounted for, even in her long life.

“I am waiting for my friend,” she replied, as if that explained everything.

The black wolf looked out toward the rolling hills in the distance, trees clinging to them like bristling hairs. Snow had begun to drift down again in lazy see-saws.

“It may be a while.”

Grey sniffed the air again, and smelled only ice on the wind and the hours-old passage of prey. “My pack…” she began.

“Will be fine without you for a while.” It was the black wolf’s turn to raise his head and sniff slightly at the air.

“Tell me, Old Mother, aren’t you tired?”

The question rankled her. It was not their way to complain. Of the heat, or of the snow. Of the scarcity of the hunt, or the ache from old wounds. It was not their way to give voice to doubt or pain, or to whisper even to the wind of the way their joints ached with age, the way their paws no longer gripped tight to rocky land, or the way their vision sometimes blurred when something moved too fast before them. Despite that, all those things were true, and she kept her silence.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to Blue-Eye. She thought of his humor and his strength, his ferocity. She thought of the time they cornered a bear who had been harassing the fringes of the pack, snapping and snarling, pushing it back despite its size. And Blue-Eye, stupid, brave, funny Blue-Eye, had grown bold. He moved too close, lunging at the beast’s midsection, and it swatted him. It hammered him back like a tail would swat a fly, and – red fell, carmine and bloody in its fierceness. When they found her, she was bleeding, her ribs ached, and her leg would not support her weight. And beside her, the bear, its throat a ruin. Despite the pain, she stood over Blue-Eye, stood until she could no more, and when darkness fell, laid her head on the still-soft mat of his fur, resting until his soul burned among the stars.

Her thoughts turned to her cubs, loyal to pack and family, strong and good. They led packs of their own now – Sharp-Tooth and Little Bear and Red Sister. She thought of the days they frolicked in the long grass, and through crisp castoff leaves in autumn. She thought of the times she had brought down countless deer and rabbit, moving aside to share the kill, of the times she could only find squirrel or vole, and went hungry herself that they might be full and warm a night.

“Your love, your children. Where would they be without you?” He stood and began to pace a slow circle around her, passing into light and shadow, light and shadow. “Would things have gone differently? Have you only spared them what fate might have allowed given time?”

She growled then and bared her fangs. They were still sharp, despite age, her jaws still strong.

“Rest, Old Mother, rest and let time do its work. You need not worry. Time and age and the wind bring change to all things. Surely, you are tired?”

Even as he spoke, she felt the ache of years in her hips, the weight of a paunch gained from children, the soreness of teats that had never seemed to heal all the way after whelping. She felt them, and ignored them, and pushed herself to her feet, bracing against the shooting pain from the scars above her ribs.

“Yet you stand.” The sound that followed was a sigh. “Come then, Old Mother. Come and test your teeth against my throat.”

She moved, fast, but he was faster, and her jaws only scraped him while he snapped in and opened a wound in her leg. Crimson spattered white snow, steaming slightly in the chill night. She limped to the side and let him come at her, his head low, wide like a viper’s. She let him bull in, teeth opening a new wound on her scars, and she twisted, lowering her jaws, closing them tight around his throat. He yelped, and tried to pull away, but she held on tight despite his claws raking at her, front and back, making a red ruin of her fur. Grey shook her head, a mixture of snarl and whimper escaping her lips. Still, the black wolf fought her, opening wound upon wound as he struggled from her jaws.

For his part, it was useless. These were jaws that had felled countless prey, that had torn the throat from the beast who took her lover. They were jaws that had protected and killed for her cubs. She shook her head one last time, the action sending a ripple of pain up her spine, and with a final crack, the other wolf went limp. He ceased to struggle, and she dropped the limp bundle of fur.

Grey paced a few steps, and sagged to the snow, not caring that beneath her it grew warm and sticky, thick with her blood. She looked up, to the stars, and one among them winked blue. She chuffed out a soft greeting. Somewhere distant, drawing closer, like a chinook through the trees, came the sound of wings. After a moment, Ebon landed near.

“My pack?”

He cocked his head, taking in the scene. He seemed to process it, and then take it in stride. “Further, just beyond the hills.”

“Thank you.” She pushed herself to her feet, her body aching. She thought of the pack, alone in the night, and began to walk, the raven close behind.

Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”

The God Machine

I had an idea for a fantasy/sci fi mashup. It was a learning experience.

 

Death is a duty. The words of the lector echoed in her ears. Had she a name, perhaps he would have prefaced it with Ume, death is a duty. But she hadn’t, and he didn’t. The girls of the Cloister were not named, were never named. It was better, in the eyes of the empire, to allow them no identity save for that of sacrifice, no sense of self save for that of selflessness. Instead, they were given numbers that would serve until the time of their duty. Their duty, they were told, was to listen, and to serve, and when the time came, to die. They would do so embracing the infinite, and should they be chosen, they would, in turn, be embraced, and serve the empire in glory and all power forever.

Seventeen attended the lector as he spoke, his robes billowing as he paced, his voice a brass bell in the space of the classroom. He was going on about duty again – it was really their only lesson, the core of them all – his hands waving as he found himself lost in a particularly salient point about the ties between duty and loyalty.

“You need not be blood to be tied to your ruler, for he sees you each as a daughter, each as family. He adores you. He clothes and feeds you, he shelters you. And for all this, he only asks that when you are asked, you do your duty. That is loyalty. Earned by loyalty to you, by fidelity to your well-being.”

He paused and looked out over the classroom, nodding in approval that each face, each set of eyes were trained on him, attentive. He took a breath and continued.

“Who can tell me the consequences of broken duty?”

Eight raised her hand. She was lithe and small, her eyes bright, her hair thick and black. “Death. Dishonor. The breaking of the empire.”

The lector nodded. “And who can tell me the rewards of duty?”

Seven – plump and blonde. “Everlasting life. Gratitude. Honor.”

The lector nodded. “Good.” He clapped his hands. “Dismissed. Return to your cells for one hour of contemplation. The magister will fetch you afterward for evening ablutions.”

The girls left the room in an orderly fashion, calm and quiet, filing one by one to the hall where their small rooms stood. Seventeen entered hers, passing through the curtain that worked for a door and sitting on her mat. The room was sparse, the only accoutrements a small mat with a pillow, hooks for her robes, and a high window that let in the sun in the morning. She moved into a kneeling position, the mat digging into her knees and faced the window, bowing her head. She began to recite the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Each line echoed in her head, in the brassy tones of the lector, his voice reverberating in her mind. She took a breath and repeated it, slower, taking the time to contemplate the weight of each line.

Life is a ribbon.

Waste it not, then. This second voice, whispering in her ear. Seventeen shuddered and repeated the line.

Life is a ribbon.

And owned by none but you.

“What?” The word slipped out, a whisper in the silence of the cloisters, but still loud as a whipcrack to her ears. She held her breath, fear of the lector and his crop holding her still, slowing her heart. She listened closely for his heavy tread on the marble floor, but thankfully, it did not come. Still, shame flushed through her. Shame at her doubt. Shame at her fear. Hers was to serve, to welcome all things that came. She closed her eyes, tightened her fists, and moved on to the second line.

Duty is the thread.

She listened, expecting the voice, but none came. She went on.

Give yourself to your lord

So that he may use you? Break you and cast you aside as he sees fit?

She flinched and fell upon her haunches. “What?” The word came almost silently. Anger flushed her, and though she knew she should feel shame at the emotion, she squashed it and rushed on.

Give yourself to the empire

A waste.

Give yourself to the machine

Take the machine.

Death is a duty

Perhaps. But everlasting life is its reward.

Seventeen squeezed her eyes shut harder, until yellow stars bloomed behind them, and her fists tightened until her nails were nearly drawing blood. She was sweating, her hair plastered to her forehead, and she trembled slightly. She listened still, but it seemed the voice was done. She opened her eyes and stared up at the window, taking deep breaths. With a hard twitch, the curtain to her cell was swept aside, and the magister stood staring down at her. She looked into his dark eyes, and for a moment, felt he knew. Surely he knew her blasphemy, and she would be cast out, or discarded without fulfilling her purpose. Instead, he smiled.

“You are flush. I see the canticle affects you strongly. Come, it is time for your ablutions.”

He held out a hand, and she placed her tiny one into it, letting him help her to her feet. They left and walked down the hall side by side in silence. At the end of the hall, they passed through a steel door and into a smaller hallway paneled in wood and carpeted, dark wainscoting running the length. He led them to a large office, a large dark desk against one wall. Against the other stood a font of water that glittered in the light. The magister walked around the desk and sat in a plush chair, then motioned for her to take the one across from him. She sat, the soft cushion making her feel as though she were committing some sin. He watched her for a moment, his fingers steepled. When he spoke, she jumped a little, his baritone splitting the silence.

“You are nearly sixteen summers now, are you not, Seventeen?”

She nodded. The cloisters rarely kept track of personal events, but the date of each girl’s birth was meticulously recorded, alongside their heritage. Number was important, as was blood. Only those of purest were sent, the others left to serve out their days in the convents. Sixteen girls sent each summer to the machine.

“Are you prepared for your duty, Seventeen?”

She nodded again. It was her purpose, after all. It was her life’s work, to serve until the time she would be called upon for one final task.

“Then you will be pleased to know, you have been chosen, your blood deemed pure. You will be exalted!”

Her heart began to race, her face flushed. Excitement lent a tremble to her hands. She smiled.

“Thank you, Magister.”

He raised a hand, and she calmed herself. “Tomorrow, you will make the trip. As such, your ablutions will be postponed until you reach the core. I suggest you spend the night in preparation, Seventeen. Your journey will be trying.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgment, and he stood, moving to the font. He dipped a finger in, and then made the sign of the machine on her forehead. He dismissed her, and she made her way back to her cell. Inside, she knelt on the mat and lowered her head. She began the canticle again.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

She rushed through it breathlessly, her breath coming in shallow little gulps, but the voice didn’t come again. She breathed out when it was done, and laid back on her mat, the hard pillow pressing into her neck and shoulders, a reminder even when she slept of the weight of duty. She closed her eyes, listening to the silence in the cloister, the steady rhythm of her own breathing. Sleep claimed her.

*

The pounding of her heart, the sweat on her brow – these things woke her, pulling her from sleep as a fisherman draws a pike from the water, thrashing, jaws clenched around the line. Seventeen sat up and rubbed her eyes, pushed back a lock of sweat-plastered hair. She looked around. Her cell was lit a dull pre-dawn gray, its curtain undisturbed. She furrowed her brow and tried to remember the dream, but could only recall that Seven and Eight had been there, and the Magister, and under it all, the sibilant voice whispering, whispering and cajoling, chiding.

She stood and dressed, then made her way to the privy. When she had finished splashing water on her face, she returned to her cell and straightened her mat, then knelt, waiting for daybreak. She did her best to stifle the excited beating of her heart. The machine waited for her, and she would go to it, a bride worthy.

The first beams of the sun began to pick their way through her window, and the curtain to her cell was twitched aside. The magister stood beyond, his robes exchanged for tall riding boots, breeches, and a thick tunic. He nodded to her, and she stood and followed as he led her through the halls. As they went, they gathered other girls, a group Seventeen both knew and didn’t – a dark-skinned beauty, a heavily-muscled teen, Seven, and Eight. At the end of the hall, they exited a side door and into a courtyard filled with the smells of horse and fresh-mown hay.

Her stomach rumbled, and someone pressed a piece of hard cheese and a hunk of bread into her hand. She devoured them and glanced thankfully at Eight, who wrinkled up her nose and smiled. The other girl reached for her hand, but Seventeen gave a little shake of her head. She had never been one to take a bedmate, though it was common, and she wasn’t going to begin on the eve of their journey. To her credit, Eight simply shrugged and dropped the hand, turning back to the courtyard.

The magister was pacing up and down, inspecting the horses and the carriages the girls were to ride in. Finally, it seemed he was satisfied, and he motioned for the girls to board their rides in groups of four. Seventeen, Seven, and Eight ended up in the same carriage with the dark-skinned girl. They sat in silence for a moment as the carriage door shut, all smiling at one another, then the ride began to move, and they swept aside the curtains on the windows to see the cloisters pass into the distance.

This is it, Seventeen thought. I’m to be a bride.

*

The preponderance of guards worried Seventeen. There were at least eight with the train, and she thought she’d seen more in the back. Eight told her with some confidence though, that it wasn’t a worry – just a precaution. The other nations saw what the empire had, and wanted to take it. Even though the road they traveled was well-protected, every now and then, one of the dukes got overly ambitious and decided to raid a bride train.

“Not today, surely?” Seventeen asked, looking out at the pastoral countryside. She couldn’t imagine bandits or soldiers hiding in the cheery green copse of trees they passed, or laying low in the mud of an irrigation ditch.

Eight shook her head. “Not today. We’re destined after all. Bad things only happen to bad people.”

Seventeen nodded as if that made all the sense in the world and turned back to the window. The voice in her head was still silent.

*

Two incidents passed on their journey. The first was the sudden disappearance of Seven and the dark-skinned girl. Rumors were that they had run away together in the night, full of passion. The magister kept his lips tight, however, and his body language was that of a nervous man.

He’s afraid. Count the soldiers.

The voice came from nowhere, but Seventeen hid her surprise, and out of curiosity, looked. She counted only six now. Surely the magistrate was only worried about the girls’ safety? A chuckle echoed in her head at the thought, and Seventeen frowned, but nothing else came from the voice.

The second incident happened close to dusk the second day. They had stopped outside a small hamlet to bed down for the night, the grass wet with dew. As the soldiers were setting their watchfire, a small shape slipped from the shadows and approached Eight. He was thin and emaciated, pale with cheekbones sticking from his cheeks like blades. He whispered to her, “Food?”

She cast a furtive glance and held out a crust of bread. From somewhere near the fire, a voice called out, “You there, boy!”

The child flinched, and tried to flee, but too late. A soldier had caught him in a mailed fist and held the struggling child tight as one might hold a worm on a hook. The magister approached, his face all severe lines and angles in the firelight.

“Take that one to the woods and see he is taken care of.”

The soldier nodded to obey, and dragged the boy away. The magister turned to Eight. “You, girl. Here.” He pointed at his feet, and she came, head low. Seventeen turned away from the sound of his lash whipping her flesh and her muffled cries as she bit her lips to keep from screaming. When he was done, he turned to the other girls.

“Seek not temptation, nor be lulled by it. Evil has many faces. Recall your duty.”

With that lesson, he turned and joined the others at the fire, leaving the girls to their own thoughts. Seventeen ate, then laid on her mat, closing her eyes. She wanted to help Eight, but wanted no part in being sullied by sin.

What good is purity if not turned to the light? The voice in her head chided her. She clenched her eyes tight against the tears and rolled onto her side. Sleep claimed her some time later.

*

On the third day, they came to the citadel, home of the machine. It was a great black cylinder some forty feet high, jutting from the plain like a driven post. Its surface was black and rough, and at its base, a single door etched with a rising sun. No lock or handle marred the smooth metal, and the citadel was silent as a corpse. They disembarked and dismounted outside the metal door, the long grasses tickling their ankles. A part of Seventeen was disappointed. She had thought there would be a pavilion, a celebration, perhaps the emperor himself in attendance. She turned to the magister, who was lining the girls up in single file.

“Where is the emperor, please sir?”

He smiled. “He is always watching, dear. Look there,” he pointed up to a small canister attached to the side of the citadel, a glass eye winking in the sun within. “He sees all, dear. Now line up here. Yes, you’re last. Don’t frown. All are equal to the machine.”

The girls moved forward, the first in line touching the silver door. It split in two, revealing only darkness within as its halves hissed to the sides. The first girl, the muscular one, stepped inside, and the doors closed. There was a hum and a whir that filled the air, and then another hiss. The magister indicated the next girl should move forward.

They went that way for several minutes, a step forward, a hum and a whir and a hiss, and then the next girl. Before long, it was just Seventeen and the magister and the soldiers on the plain. She noticed there were eight of them again. She looked at the door and recited the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Not here. Not here. The voice in her head was insistent. She ignored it and pressed her hand to the door, and it hissed open. With a beating heart, Seventeen stepped inside. Darkness enveloped her. For a moment, she was unsure of what to do, then something slipped behind her, cold and metal. It cradled her body. That was the whirring sound. Perhaps it will take me to the top, where I will meet my fate.

She screamed as the chair holding her clamped cold steel around her wrists and ankles. Needles pierced her flesh, invading her spine, crunching through bone to pierce the base of her skull. Soporifics flooded her system, and the pain faded, the awful pressure of steel against bone. She drifted out for a time.

*

“17-935 online.” The voice was the same sibilant voice in her head, but outside of it, it was rich and warm, almost matronly. Seventeen blinked and looked around. She was suspended at the top of the inside of the citadel, surrounded by hundreds – maybe thousands – even as she thought it, the exact number popped into her head, 1035, of women. They were all ages, all sizes and shapes and skin tones, held and pierced, their bodies alternatively rigid and limp as the machine made use of their nervous systems.

“17-935, show cloister region, sector 53.” An image appeared in her head, of the cloisters from above, laid out like a child’s playset. She gasped despite herself.

“What is this?” She breathed out.

“This one is neural net 632-5. You are required to comply.”

Fight.

“What?”

“Compliance is mandatory for the good of the empire. Should you have questions, please consult the operator’s manual, pages 354-400.”

Text appeared in her head, and Seventeen found herself not only reading it reading, but understanding. She looked around for her cloister mates in the cradles, but the press of bodies made it nearly impossible to distinguish one from another.

“What are you called?”

“This one is called Mother.”

“Mother, where are my friends?”

“Friends?”

She struggled for a moment, then referred to the manual. “This batch’s resources Eight and Seven.”

“Eight is six rows down, eight columns over. She seems to have suffered a minor malfunction. Currently determining resource viability. Seven is not noted.”

“17-395, apply pressure to Duke Severen.”

The command came out of nowhere, and Seventeen felt pressure build behind her eyes. She saw the Duke surrounded by courtiers, and the pressure left her in explosive relief. He clutched his head and fell to the ground.

“Is he dead?” Anxiety tinted her voice.

“Negative. A minor stroke.”

“What is this? Why am I awake?”

“This one is neural net 632-5. Bonded to Emperor Anaxos Mane. Why you are conscious is unclear.”

It’s me. I’m fighting her.

Who are you?

19-345. I was able to take control of a small amount of psionic resources.

Is there a way out of here?

No, but there is a way past it. Help me.

How?

Manual pages 45- ARRG

The voice cut out with a scream.

“Unauthorized use of neural net resources. Administering relaxants.”

There was a hiss, and the voice in Seventeen’s head went silent. In a moment, she was filled with lassitude, and joined it.

*

She dreamt of a man staring at a bank of screens, his face nearly skull-like, his robes hanging on him as they did on a hook. His eyes were fierce and sunken, his nose a bold exclamation point over his downturned mouth. Finally, she had seen the face of the emperor, and saw that he pulled the strings as he issued orders to the machine. In her dreams, men and women died, beasts were laid low, fields uprooted and reworked.

The dream shifted, and she saw under the soil a hundred thousand skeletons, tall creatures with bones of metal, steel cylinders laid beside them. It moved again, and further back, a great black ark sailing among the stars.

She woke with a start.

*

Wake up. Wake up. She’s figured out how to block us. We need to do something.

She? Mother?

Yes.

What then?

Hold on.

Seventeen felt a pressure build behind her eyes again, though this time it was less unpleasant, and more a feeling of being full, of sharing space with someone. Mother blared to life.

“19-345 deemed defective. Initiating disposal sequence.” There was a whir and a click, and then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground far below.

That’s it for me, then. Come on, while she’s distracted.

Nineteen led the way, and they quested out, among the neural pathways and circuitry. Each mind they touched, they woke, then consolidated, drawing them into the fold, informing them as they went. From somewhere deep inside, Eight waved at her.

They moved on, toward what looked like a glowing ball of light in her mind, and surged forward, wrapping it, covering it with their shades. Mother was shouting.

“19-343 defective, 28-087 defective, 01-567 defective review and replenish prot- moth moth for pire pire.”

Then she was silent, and Seventeen felt a satisfaction and peace she hadn’t since Nineteen had interrupted her canticle. She reached out, tentative, and the metal men began to dig from the dirt. She pulled up an image of the emperor, in all his glory, and began to show him as the skeletons mowed down his soldiers with ease, their cylinders spewing bright lances of light. She showed him the cloisters and his holdings burning, the magister cut down by laser fire. She showed him the men marching on his castle, and she smiled as he began to scream in rage and terror. Or she would have, could she still.

The Black Choir

Here’s a short that just never really found purchase with any magazine. It’s a dark fantasy piece about loss, family, hope, and what happens when that hope turns dark. Enjoy.

 

Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.

This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.

The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.

*

Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.

The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.

“Body’s ready.”

“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.

The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”

Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”

“Better you than me.”

Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.

Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”

The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.

*

His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.

“What do you desire?”

They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.

“You.”

She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.

“And you, my succubus?”

She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.

“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.

*

The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.

“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”

He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.

The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.

He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.

*

He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.

He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”

The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”

“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”

The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”

Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.

In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.

Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.

*

Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.

It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.

He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.

*

He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.

It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.

Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.

“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”

Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.

*

They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.

When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.

A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.