05/16/2015 § Leave a comment
The last lights of a late autumn day. The is wind loud up among the oak trees, the first real mountain-wind of the year, that causes the entire forest to shudder and moan in a shower of dead leaves. On the forest floor, among the knotted roots and thick, pungent duff, the sound is loud enough to drown out all the others. Even the baying of hounds, and the cries of men behind, sound far-off when they come, as if from another world.
These are ancient trees, the Altwood, much older than the One True God of the Ilmarens and older still than all the disparate gods and goddesses of the Chalchides. The forest belongs to those beings whose names have either been forgotten or never truly known by the world of Man. Gods, demi-gods, spirits that roam the deep woods in bestial hides… The Lords of the Altwood are to be worshipped, feared, but never understood.
No people know this last as well as the kith of Scytae, native to the wind-scoured plains between the Altwood and the river Rhoin. It is what defines them as kith, living so close to a realm that far exceeds any human understanding, and the sense of grim and undeniable awe that has bound them to it for centuries.
The Scytae teach their young to fear the forest, to respect its boundaries, and to accept without qualm all that the Lords may give and take away. Some of the children, those who come of age strong in body and spirit, are made to enter the forest and seek acceptance from the Lords. Many fail and are never seen again. Those who do return, their spirits forever marked by the Altwood, become the kith’s hunters and huntresses, honoured by all.
The Scytae depend on the game from the Altwood for sustenance, for they are not farmers, and the plains are ill-suited for farming. Without the hides and horns and carved bones to barter at the Ilmaren trade posts by the Rhoin, for grain and other goods, the kith would—as they have in the past—starve during the winter.
To beseech the Lords for the allowance of game the kith needs each year, the kith’s seers, hunters and huntresses who have grown too old and weak for the challenge, make sacrifices in a marked grove on the Day of the Long Sun. The sacrifices do not always work. Sometimes the Lords take more than they give, or else withhold from giving altogether. In such times, the families are forced to draw lots, and those who lose must give up one member each to be bartered away at the trade posts, from where they are taken south across the river and sold as slaves in the Empire.
This was the fate that awaited the boy, his father having drawn one of the black stones. It was why he had run away, why he was running now on treacherous ground in wan evening light, alone in the Altwood where he had never been allowed before and had never dared to enter.
He was rightfully afraid of where he was. The very air had changed the moment he’d entered the woods, and there was a weight to it now, and an odour, that reminded him with every breath of the sheer wrongness of his being here. The boy had been raised in the fear and respect of the Altwood, as was proper for all the kith’s children, had listened to countless stories about the perils and mysteries of the forest and its Lords. But now, more than all those stories put together, the boy just knew. This was a hallowed place, a place of unspeakable beauty and terror, that did not suffer lightly to be tread upon by any mortal man, let alone a boy not even of age.
Over and above that primal fear, his anger was the only thing that kept him moving. He was angry with his father for drawing the accursed stone, angry with the kith’s elders for declaring the lot necessary, and in that vein, he was angry even with the Lords themselves for giving the kith so little in the way of game since the end of summer.
The boy was turning fourteen in the coming spring, had been secretly preparing himself to enter the woods and become accepted by the Lords, even though the seers hadn’t marked him for the trial. Was that too proud, perhaps? Was that why his father had drawn the wrong stone? Was this all punishment from the Lords, for his arrogance? It did not seem right to him, it did not feel right, that his whole life could fall apart like this in the course of a single day. He had woken up this morning at dawn feeling proud and sore from the previous night’s spear-practice (thrusting, throwing, with stone-tipped spears he’d fashioned for himself over the past two years), determined as ever to become a hunter worthy of the kith. Now he was to be traded like a bundle of hides for his weight in grain, and become slave to some Ilmaren pig.
No. He would sooner let the whole kith starve than consign himself to a life of bondage without a fight.
In a state of such dumb, raging fury, aggrieved beyond all reason and knowing, he had fled his home and come to the Altwood. Let the Lords decide what may become of him, he thought.
What he hadn’t anticipated, though it was obvious now in hindsight, was that the kith’s hunters would be after him. The drawing lot was a pact, just as sacred, if not as forbidding, as the sacrifices on the Day of the Long Sun. The elders couldn’t just let him disappear into the forest, had no choice but to send in the hunters.
The hunters couldn’t be far behind now. The very fact that he could hear the hounds, however distant and fitful their baying in the thrumming of the forest, told him that. He did not know how to mask his tracks in a forest, hadn’t bothered trying. Sooner or later the hunters were going catch him. He did not know how he was to be dealt with, once they caught him. No one ever tried to defy or run from the result of the lot, as far as he knew. Would the elders feel that they need to make a strong example? He could be killed today, the boy thought, by the very ones he aspired to join.
He had no earthly notion of where he was headed, wasn’t even sure which direction he was running. He had wanted to go north, directly away from the village and into the depth of the Altwood. But here the oaks were dense and the light wan, and the ground was gnarled and uneven, and ferns and moss grew from tree to tree like so much webbing. For all his self-imposed training throwing spears and running distances, the boy had been lost almost as soon as he’d entered the forest. The knowledge of these woods, and the skills to navigate them, were taught only after the trial—after you were accepted by the Lords.
It was only by his anger, made desperate by the chase and the fear of the Altwood, that he kept pushing forward.
He was determined to face the Lords, or die trying. You could call that stubbornness, foolishness, arrogance. He had been called all those things before, mostly by his father, who was a bone-carver and had been trying to teach his only son the trade in earnest. For months they had been arguing, fighting even, about the boy’s lack of enthusiasm at taking up carving and the disrespect that implied. But none of that mattered, now. He had gone to the lot this afternoon and drawn the black stone, his father. Had had a hand across his face, afterwards at home, telling him to pack his cloths. He hadn’t put up a fight when the boy shoved him aside and started running for the forest.
Yes, it was foolish beyond words, what he was trying to do. A selfish thing, a reckless thing. But it was also, to him, an act of faith. You lived your life in the shadow of the Altwood, by the sufferance of its Lords, and all your life you were taught to accept their whims without question. But how did you know what the Lords willed, when they were so clearly beyond any mortal understanding? How did anyone? Even the seers, who spent their entire lives hunting in the Altwood before retiring to pass their knowledge and experience onto the kith’s young, never claimed to know. There was a reason that every one of their stories began with a declamation: “Seek not to understand the Lords of the Forest. Though nothing be certain, believe that their will guides all things.”
And the boy believed. He truly did. He believed that the Lords had willed him here, because he was here. That he didn’t accept what the lot had decided for him, that he couldn’t, because he wasn’t meant to. He believed he would find and be found by the Lords. Always had, for as far back as he could remember. He had been preparing to enter the forest on his next name day, in the spring.
Now bursting through a blanket of fern and moss, the boy found himself in a small clearing. He stopped to see clear sky for the first time since entering the forest. It was almost night. Blue giving way to darker shades.
In the middle of the clearing stood a pale white tree, surrounded by a circle of rocks. Its bark was as smooth as bone and its branches were clustered with bright red leaves. It was a small tree, shorter by half than the oaks and much thinner.
The boy had heard of this place. All the kith’s children had.
He had stumbled onto the sacrificial grove.
The wind had died down. He heard barking close by, thought he could hear people running. He had to keep moving, needed to go now. But he hesitated. Some part of him, the same one that had made him defy the lot and run to the Altwood, was telling him that this was the place. He was meant to be here. He was meant to be here at this very moment.
The first hound entered the clearing from his left, followed by two more. They immediately panned out and forced him toward the middle of the grove, closer to the tree. The hunters came through shortly afterwards. Three from the way the hounds had, and more from the opposite side behind his back.
The boy bit his lip. It was over.
He turned to hear a familiar voice call out his name. Saw, in utter disbelief, his father’s face among the hunters, drenched in sweat and looking pallid. That was wrong. A dark foreboding seized him, seeing his father in that moment.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. Then wheeling, he shouted at the hunters. “Why did you let him come? How could you?”
“They didn’t make me,” said his father, stepping forward. The hunters parted to let him through. “I entered of my own will.”
“Go back, abba,” Lorn pleaded. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“And you should? Think about what you are doing, son. Think about where we are.”
Lorn shook his head. “You don’t understand, abba. This is where I am supposed to be. The Lords—”
“Enough! Enough with your–delusions! I raised you better than this, I taught you better than to wrong the kith for your petty pride and foolishness. You shame me, son. You shame your dead mother. And for what? So you can die here? So I can watch the crows feast on your corpse, in the middle of the village?”
Lorn felt the words like lashes on his back. When he hit back, his anger was there for him.
“So why didn’t you stop me? Why did you let me go?”
If there was a satisfaction to be had in seeing his father’s face quiver, Lorn hardly felt it.
“I shouldn’t have,” said his father. “And I’m sorry for it.”
His father stepped forward again, until they were just an arm’s length apart. Then he reached out, slowly, to his son. Lorn flinched. Took a step back, even as he regretted it. They stared at one another like that for a long moment, as they had countless times in the months past; neither knowing what to say or do but aware, acutely so, of their anger and disappointment dissipating into a kind of hopelessness, a sense of something broken that could not be amended.
They would turn their backs on each other and go on with the day in silence, in those times. But it was different now, here in the Altwood, in the sacrificial grove, surrounded by the kith’s hunters. His father spoke again, at length, and when he did it was in a tone that reminded Lorn of the days when his mother still lived.
“Come back, son. I know it won’t be the life you wanted. But you’ll have a life. You’ll live. That is all I want.”
“Listen to you father, child,” a hunter spoke from behind his father. “We are to kill you if you resist. None of us here wants to kill a defenceless boy today, but by the Lords, we will do it if we must. Yield, and live.”
Lorn closed his eyes. He was moved—and horrified—that his father had come into the Altwood after him. For him. He hadn’t expected that, would never have believed his father capable of such a thing. The man was a bone-carver. A quiet, soft-spoken man all the days of his life.
The answer came to him, more readily than he thought was possible. But he knew it to be true, in the inmost part of his soul, no matter how much it ached him to say it.
His father moved as if to embrace him, never had the chance.
The arrow took Lorn in the left shoulder, threw him back whirling from where he stood. He did not feel himself fall until the ground struck him. His whole body shook. There was a roar inside his ears, loud as thunder, full of pain.
Through the tears in his eyes, and dirt and duff, Lorn saw his father step in between him and a huntress, with arms outstretched. He was shouting something at her, at all the hunters. She struck him in the stomach with the nock of her bow and shoved him aside.
Lorn began to scream, called out to his father over and over again, though he could not hear himself.
The huntress grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him so that he was flat on his back. She pinned him down with her knee to his chest and drew a long knife from her vest. She did not look pleased or sorry. Only grim.
He asked her to please see his father back to the village, unharmed. She nodded, then said something back to him. He wished he could hear it.
Lorn closed his eyes shut. His teeth were clenched. A regret came, like a blade in his soul, keen against his faith in the Lords and himself. It seemed he had been a fool after all, a wretched, proud fool, believing he would find and be found by the Lords. He felt himself beginning to shake, was ashamed for it.
As he waited for the knife to fall, the shaking in his body grew and grew, until he was certain it was in fact the ground, and not his fear. He opened his eyes to see the huntress looking behind her shoulder in shock and confusion.
The hounds must have been the first to sense it. They were snarling and snapping at their handlers now, who were trying and failing utterly to calm them down.
Lorn did not so much as hear but feel the sound that engulfed the grove in the next moment. It washed over him, it washed over them all like a great gust. The trees shuddered. He saw, in great awe and terror, as fine red lines began to appear on the bone-white tree, like veins, like gossamer dipped in blood, bursting now into a pattern of such intricacy that he could not bear to look upon it.
The dogs turned and ran. A rank odour hung in the air now. The huntress stood up from him and joined the others to form a tight circle, with weapons drawn.
Lorn crawled over to where his father lay on his side. He was in pain, they both were. His father’s hand came up sought his face. Lorn draped his body over him and cried, not quite understanding why.
“Run, if you want to live!” The huntress yelled at them.
They got up, the father and the son, leaning on each other. They began to edge toward the tree line. But the sound came again, and this time Lorn heard it—a low, guttural howl, impossibly loud, that seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth. The force of it knocked them back.
It seemed to last an eternity to Lorn, that howl, as did the rumbling of the earth and the choking fear in his heart. But it did come to a stop, eventually. The earth grew still. The trees righted themselves. Breath came.
In the silence that followed, which was utter and whole, there came the unmistakable taint of a wild animal, of wet fur and rotting leaves, of blood and piss and dung.
Something huge and black emerged from the treeline, revealed itself to them from one moment to the next.
“It’s the Uberac,” someone whispered.
As one, the hunters dropped their weapons and fell to their knees, putting their hands and faces on the ground in prostration.
His father did the same, with one trembling hand tugging at Lorn’s tunic. Lorn looked at his father, at the back of his stooped head, feeling strangely detached. There was so much grey in it now. He hadn’t noticed, before.
He shivered. He shook off his father’s hand, got up, and walked toward a god that had come to him in the shape of a great boar.
The Uberac towered over him. Its tusks were enormous, carved with the shapes of the animals of the forest in staggering detail. One was broken halfway; there were stories about that. Lorn placed himself between the tusks, and bowed. Felt the god’s breath, wet and rank, on the back of his head. He waited, face down, for what felt like a very long time. Then, at last, he felt himself touched by something cool and smooth, on the side of his face. He looked up. The Uberac had touched him with its broken tusk.
He felt the impossible smallness of his own being, but he was unafraid, unfeeling. He looked into the eyes of the Uberac. They were black, so very black, unfathomable as night sky without moon and stars. But Lorn saw in them—was allowed to see in them—what he had needed to know.
The Uberac turned, with a surprising grace, and moved back toward the trees.
“Why?” Lorn asked after it. He hadn’t known he was going to.
No answer came. And none would, until a lifetime after. The Uberac did not pause. Just as it had come, in perfectly wrought silence, the boar-god disappeared back into the forest.
05/05/2015 § Leave a comment
All is quiet tonight
in the small, inverted space
of my soul.
Once, I listened to invisible frogs
on a spring night near a bog
and wept for a joy I could not explain.
they were crying
in exultation of themselves.
With such wondrous confusion
my soul then was filled,
with wildness and trepidation
and endless fumbling
of senses. Life seemed to be
a poem, always unraveling,
arcane in its beauty,
every word like a match struck darkling
in a room full of metals
and glittering things.
to look upon the world
with love, sought to find beauty
in all things and people.
And, failing both, turned my gaze
inward at last.
in a catastrophe of desire and volition,
the pettiness of my soul
04/27/2015 § Leave a comment
He has not been down in the cellar in a long while. It is a dank, dark place marked with a thick odour of salt fish and sour cheese, which makes him think of women, somehow, and so isn’t altogether unpleasant.
He finds his way further in, treading carefully, toward the lone jail cell in the back of the cellar. He has less than a quarter of an hour before two of his men will make their way down for another bout of questioning. It’s more than enough time for what needs to be done, but he is nervous, beyond nervous, because everything depends on this. His position. His future. Fail, and he will have neither. All the work and money he has put toward them will be for naught. And he will leave the Watch dishonoured and mostly likely crippled, if he is allowed to leave it alive at all. That much has been made perfectly clear to him.
Garrick feels the beginnings of another curse forming inside his chest, but stops himself short this time. He might, it occurs to him, just need the Lady’s grace, after all.
He finds the assassin chained to the wall, just where he is supposed to be. Only a pale mass of naked flesh, in darkness, reeking of human filth. Garrick has heard about this one, how stubborn he’s been, how outrageously defiant. The lad’s either a dullard or a bold little bugger, or possibly both. A single stroke of luck in this wholly unfortunate mess, for Garrick Bann. For if the lad had talked and gave up the name of his employer…
The assassin isn’t moving. His form appears limp, sagged, bent… lifeless. For half an instant Garrick finds himself hoping, relief already flooding his nervous mind—but then there comes a harrowing cough that wracks the man’s entire body, followed by a ragged inward breath.
The assassin lifts his head.
“You… Want… More…?”
The voice gives him a shiver. Garrick takes a deep breath to calm himself. He knows what he is here to do, what he must do. Which is a mercy, truly, yes, compared to what awaits the lad in the torturers’ chambers.
He takes a step closer, takes out his leather flask.
“I’m only here to feed you some wine,” he says in a flat, taut voice. “You’re no good to us dead.”
The assassin does not answer, but doesn’t object either, when Garrick brings the flask to his mouth and gently tilts his head back.
04/23/2015 § Leave a comment
“Fuck the Lady.”
So curses Garrick Bann, sergeant of the Watch and the officer-in-command of Havertham’s westernmost land gate, as he steps down into the cellar of the guardhouse where the prisoner is kept. He guides the door shut behind him, gently, contrary to his mood, and then, bearing no light, stops and waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It occurs to him, ever so briefly in that waiting, that he is standing at one of life’s so-called junctures—a fork in the path, a threshold about to be crossed.
The thought does not linger long, for Garrick Bann, for all the qualities that define him as a leader of men (one well-married cousin and many, many bribes), is not a man given to self-reflection. He is a man who gets things done, as he likes repeating when his spirits are high on ale and dice: leave the thinking to philosophers and poets, and leave it to the real men (he’d be thumbing himself in the chest) to get things done.
That is what he’s doing, here and now, descending the steps into a dark corridor. Doing what needs to be done, to clean up a mess that some ill-gotten luck has brought quite literally to his gate. Just how in the Lady’s light was he supposed to know that an exile would show up at the gate, with an assassin in tow, just after he’d left the post for some well-deserved relaxation? Or that a justiciar would be dragged into the mess, who’d laugh scornfully at his suggestion of… a gift of friendship? Or, worst of all, that his old-blooded patron would take such an interest in the matter?
So, in truth, Garrick can tell himself without deceit or cowardice that there really wasn’t a choice to begin with. Certainly not one where he had any say in. His being here, his carrying what he carries… It’s almost predetermined, seen in that light. Any further thought is just useless pussyfooting.
“Fuck Her in the arse,” he mutters again, finding as before no satisfaction in swearing.
04/17/2015 § Leave a comment
At last, the pain stops.
“Tough son of a whore, this one.”
Chest heaving, the Watcher spits on the floor and takes two steps back. His comrade offers him a leather flask. He grabs and drinks in big gulps, the pit of his throat moving needfully.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to start talking now,” says the other one, the one who watches and asks questions. “Your name. The name of the man who hired you. That’s all we need.”
Moss hears the man only faintly, the blood hammering in his ears like so many drums. His own breathing is thin and ragged, each inward breath coming with a sharp pain in the chest.
In the brief reprieve from the constant thrashing, his thoughts begin to flow back to him. But slowly, muddily, for he has never been one for cleverness. His own mother, who had indeed been a whore, had told him as much, and worse. Yet why did she not just smother him as a babe, as she’d said she should have done many, many times, if he had been nothing but a misfortune? Why not spare the both of them the misery?
“Tell us the names, and it can all end.”
There is a bitter, metallic taste in the back of his throat. Moss opens his mouth to curse the man, but what comes out isn’t words. A rush of bile and blood, hot and slippery against his own naked skin.
The Watcher clicks his tongue.
“It’s going to be much worse for you, you know, when the torturers come.”
There is fear in him, hearing that.
“They’ll put you on the wheel and break every last bone in your body. And if you’re still alive after that…”
“Slice off your nipples, they will,” says the other one. “And feed ‘em to you. That what you want?”
“The names. Yours, and the one who hired you.”
Moss hesitates, in the silence that follows. The temptation is real. He has heard the stories, whispered among those in his line of work as warnings against failure. Of the torturers who dwell in the shadow of Red Hall, in the abandoned cistern underground. Better to kill yourself, it is said, than let yourself be taken to their lair. A fate worse than hundred deaths.
It’s utter foolishness, then. Madness. But Moss cannot let himself be defeated by these Watchers. Or any Watcher, for that matter. There is power in denial. He understands it now. A truth. He will not give them what they want. Will not—cannot—go back to who he was before.
The Watchers give up, after a time. Before leaving him in darkness, one of them tells him:
“Think on it. You only have a little time.”
04/16/2015 § 1 Comment
Admit hurt. It doesn’t have to be difficult. Say to your loved ones “This is where I’m hurt,” “Right here is where I’m sort of broken,” or “Can you hold me? I think I might be falling to pieces.”
Do not resent your loved ones for trying to fix you. Thank them no matter how spectacular, valiant, and disastrous their failure. Remind them politely to love you in spite your brokenness.
And stop trying to fix yourself. You are, for better or worse, who you are. You can’t go back in time and kiss that girl or boy you loved or stop your parents from falling out of love. Give a proper burial to your past if need be, but leave the self-help books for the self-absorbed. Move on.
Make art. Do it with courage and honesty, do it any way you can. Use everything you have—even pain. Scrub out the lies you’ve carved into yourself all these years. Make yourself be known to yourself in the process.
But don’t think for a moment that suffering is a necessity. This is a lie. Do not, under any circumstances, invent suffering where there is none.
Share what you have made with the ones you love, with love. Share it loudly, proudly, and without apology.
Repeat. Do it better. Do it in your own way.
04/15/2015 § Leave a comment
Chained up against a cold stone wall, naked and covered in his own filth from waist down, Shane Moss knows that his life is coming to an end.
The awareness is… surprisingly clear. Not a bitter thing at all, not something to rail against. It is only a fact, a knowing, familiar in the clarity of the moment. You lived your life one way, could hardly complain if and when it ended the same.
“The sergeant just got back.”
A voice, directly ahead, not far.
Moss lifts his chin, tries to look up. His vision is a slit, the eye of a needle, both his own swollen and bloodied shut.
At first there is only the orange glow of a torch, too bright for his battered eyes. Then, in a moment, a sudden shadowing: two human shapes, dark against the light. Two Watchers. One who does the beating, and one who watches, asks questions. There are always two of them.
“How pissed is he?”
“Pissing, more like. The poor bastard’s got to report to Red Hall and explain his absence.”
“I would pay to see that.”
“Aye. Shorey says he found him in a poppy den. You believe that? The man wasn’t sober enough to mount a horse, or he could’ve gotten here in time.”
“Deserves whatever’s coming to him, if you ask me.”
“Shorey’s already got a pool going about that. My bet’s on two ranks and forty lashes.”
“You know he’s got ties to the Sirramarks. The only reason he made sergeant in the first place.”
With that, their conversation ends. Something lurches in Moss’s stomach in the ensuing silence, but the beating doesn’t begin. Questions do not come. Moss can see the two of them standing directly ahead of him, within an arm’s reach. Can hear their breathing, mask-muffled, over and above his own.
They want me to wait for it. The understanding comes to him like a firebrand, bearing its own kind of light. It shows him… anger, defiance, deep within. Not against the certainty of a bad death, no, but against these Watchers, who would try and frighten him toward it.
He was very nearly one of them. Would have made a better Watcher, too, than both of these combined.
With that thought, Moss opens his mouth, summons his best smirk.
“Gentlemen… Here to… suck my cock?”