Je t’aime plus que les framboises

09/23/2015 § Leave a comment

I like you more than raspberries
and all the moon’s faces put together.

I like you more than the tigers in the zoo
(even though they are very very fierce and majestic)
and I like you more than hot chocolate
on a rainy Saturday night. (everyone knows that is the
best time for hot chocolate.)

I like you more than all your previous lovers
because I’m not one of them,
(I’m no pioneer, just a shipwreck)
which is to say I like you more than the sum of you.

Your Jew-nose, Polish chin, dented skull and crooked spine,
your freckles, rambles, tits legs and ass, I like all of it
and more. More and more and more,

I like you more than raspberries
and all the moon’s faces put together.

(2012)

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A Homecoming (5)

09/22/2015 § Leave a comment

At the time when the body slave of the magistrate of Caedis was visiting the town’s smithy about a sword that had been commissioned for an auspicious occasion, his son, whose long-awaited return was that occasion, was riding into town on a brown horse he’d named Kastano.

He was riding in company, and an illustrious one at that: Doux Solon, who was the commander of the Ninth Legion, and who also bore the great distinction of being the Emperor’s nephew, had chosen to accompany him.

They were riding in military formation: three in the front, three in the back, five in the middle. The men riding ahead and behind were the Doux’s personal guards. In the very middle of the formation the Doux himself rode on a magnificent black steed, with his companions riding in pairs on either side of him.

The guards were fully armoured from helmet to greaves; the men in the middle were not, however, though four of them, excluding the Doux’s scribe, were cloaked and hooded in the red and white of the Legion. Swords and throwing spears hung from their saddles.

“Tell me, Markos,” said the Doux, shortly after they had passed through the town’s northern gate. “Has it much changed?”

Having been pondering this very question, Markos of Adenapoils, son of Damaion, gave an honest answer.

“I can see that it has grown, my lord,” he said. “And yet… it also seems much smaller than I recall.”

The Doux nodded, smiling. “I experienced the same, when I first returned home after visiting the City.”

At this, the royal scribe, riding immediately to the Doux’s left, asserted himself: “My lord, are you comparing the Sassoin lands to glorious Szarium?”

The Doux gave a soft laughter. “Only in function, Genon, as it relates to Markos in this particular conversation.” Then, facing Markos again, he said, “Your eyes have seen more than this place can contain. I trust you will give my proposal due consideration, then?”

Markos bowed his head. “Yes, my lord.”

“Good. I am eager to hear your decision.”

Then, granting his attention to his royal scribe, the Doux began with him a debate on the topic of metaphor as a rhetorical device. The scribe was against it, the Doux for. Though much of what was said remained opaque to him, Markos found himself siding with Genon, who argued that metaphor, and other such linguistic devices, were by nature unreliable; and so limited was their chief function, at least in rhetoric, to obfuscation and befuddlement of the very point being debated.

When the debate ended in a stalemate, as was often the case between the two men, one of the Doux’s officers, riding on the far left of their rank, loudly gave thanks for it. “Dear God in Heaven!” Then, talking over the scribe’s usual sermon on the importance of learned debate in bettering one’s mind, the officer asked Markos: “Will this wretched rain ever stop?”

“Not till summer, I’m afraid,” Markos said, suppressing a laughter.

“I shall be miserable here then.”

“Dioclas, I have never known you to be miserable so long as there’s wine and women,” said the Doux.

“And pig’s feet,” the last rider chimed in from Markos’s right.

“Please,” the scribe protested. “Must we go through this again?”

“Oh yes,” the rider called Dioclas replied with old, practised sarcasm. “What better pastime is there, than making fun of the uncouth Cadmoran?”

“Ah, but you see, friend, it isn’t Cadmor I wish to make fun of. As you well know, I have had many a lover from that fine province—”

‘Lover,’ he says.”

“—who were better company then even the most reputable courtesans in the City. I simply find it objectionable that pig’s feet should be considered a delicacy anywhere, by anyone.”

“Get stuffed, Patros. You’re a pompous fool and a bastard. You won’t know good food if it grabbed you by the balls—if you had any, that is.”

At this, Patros, the officer riding on the far right, laughed with delight. “Ah, that was much better than your last attempt, Dioclas! I am almost tempted to applaud. Tell me, have you been practising? You must have been, you goat-faced, pig-maimer of a man!” With that, he flashed a brilliant smile.

“Say that again,” roared Dioclas. “And I’ll make you swallow your damn teeth.”

“Even that, my friend, would be preferable to sucking on pig’s feet.”

“Dioclas! Patros!” The Doux’s voice was soft but stern. “You know very well how much I cherish your company. But if the two of you cannot stop bickering, I swear upon God’s holy name, I shall have no choice but to ask my uncle the Emperor to bind you in marriage. Yes, to each other.”

The Doux’s threat had the desired effect. Still the two officers continued to stare daggers at one another, neither one willing to look away first.

“My lord, should such a thing come to pass—” ventured the scribe, breaking the silence with a curiosity that almost sounded genuine. “Who would assume the role of the husband?”

“I!” Both officers shouted in unison, then glared at one another, and in a moment began laughing uncontrollably.

Markos laughed as well. It was strange to think that these two officers had once been engaged in a ferocious, almost deadly rivalry under the former Doux. Their duels over the years, many of which were fights to the death that ended prematurely in mutual exhaustion, were stuff of legends among the soldiery of the Ninth. It was only after Solon of Anapolis’s controversial appointment as the new Doux of the Ninth—controversial, for he’d had no prior military experience—that these two officers had put aside their mutual hatred in a bid to undermine a commander they had both deemed unworthy.

Some of that old rivalry was still very much alive between the two of them—they had marked each other permanently, after all, with Dioclas’s thrice-broken nose, and Patros’s disfigured ear and scarred cheek—but for all their constant bickering and griping they had become brothers under Solon’s command, who would gladly die for their Doux and for one another. Indeed Markos had witnessed them standing together in battle: back to back, covering each other’s blind spots and striking down a foe after another, demonstrating an understanding that could only be described as uncanny.

“Now,” The Doux turned to Markos. “I understand there is an Imperial Post in town.”

“My lord?”

“You are eager to see your family, but I think it wise for us to inform the magistrate first. Give him time to prepare, and take time ourselves to rest and dry our cloths.” He paused, and gave a wry smile. “After all, it would hardly do for a Doux to present himself sodden as a rat.”

At this, the scribe groaned and shook his head.

“Of course, my lord.”

Markos spurred Kastano and moved ahead to lead the formation. He took them down the mainway toward the town square, past the chapel and the blacksmith’s. The town really had grown, he saw. The roads were wider and more polished, and there were entire lanes of houses not found in his memory of the place. However provincial it seemed to him now, this was the result of his father’s labour. Something a son could be proud of.

Not many were out and about in the rain—it was Fourthday, after all—but those who were stopped and stared. He knew word would spread; it would reach his father soon. Still he paid the first eager-looking boy he saw to run up to the magistrate’s manor and deliver the news of his, and more importantly the Doux’s, arrival. He had written his father a week ago, from barracks near Sarona, that he would be coming home today. Hadn’t known what company he would be bringing, then—or how temporary his return home would prove to be.

Riding at the head of the formation, away from the Doux’s immediate presence and company, Markos finally allowed himself to relax a little. Honoured as he was by his illustrious companions, riding with them had proved… demanding, in certain ways. Certainly he could not afford to divert his attention from the Doux while he rode next to him. Since the previous evening, when the Doux met his farewell with an unexpected proposal, he had sorely needed a moment away from the man to collect his thoughts.

A position in the Emperor’s court, in Szarium-by-the-sea, the Immortal City. That was the proposal. As a personal aide to Solon of Anapolis, the Emperor’s nephew. “I need men I can trust,” was what the Doux had said, as he laid his hand on Markos’s shoulder. “Men who have shown me the proof of their courage and loyalty. Mark my words, Markos. There is so much that needs to be done in Szarium.”

Markos hadn’t yet given his answer, though his mind was all but made up. It was an easy decision, in truth. The position promised much wealth and power, but more than that, more than any worldly thing, it promised him a chance at becoming someone who truly mattered in the grand scheme of things, in the city that lay at the heart of the known world. All in service, too, of a remarkable man he had come to respect deeply, and the great Empire whose borders he had fought and bled for in these last five years. He would be a fool not to accept.

What held him back from conveying as much to the Doux was his concern for his family. They had worried over him and missed him during his time at war. His father, who had always been a stern and difficult figure for him growing up, had softened considerably toward him in his letters. More than once he had suggested that Markos could work at the magistracy for a year or two after his return, before he began preparing for the civil examination. To leave his family almost immediately after his return, regardless of the cause, seemed to him a callous deed. He wanted to at least consult his father before giving his answer to the Doux. A courtesy, if nothing else.

He knew his parents would understand (one more than the other, perhaps), and even be proud of his position at the Emperor’s court; his elder sister, having been married to a wealthy scholar in faraway Luce, would have little opinion on the matter. But his little sister Zoe… His last memory of her was as a wailing, screaming child running after him as he rode off to join the Legion, who eventually fell and was left thrashing in the mud. His father had written to him that Zoe had become quite a beauty in recent years. Surely a father’s foolishness, he’d thought. It made him smile, now, though his heart sank at the thought of leaving her yet again, a child crying in the mud.

Riding into the Post’s courtyard, then dismounting and handing the reigns over to a stableboy, he was thus distracted by his own thoughts. And as he and his companions entered the warm interior of the Imperial Post, this, and only this, was the reason he failed to recognize the young woman sitting alone by the fireplace.

A Homecoming (4)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

The chapel bells were tolling midmorning as they arrived in town. Mist beginning to lift, but rain pouring on; sunlight seeping through cracks and seams in a sea of grey.

The way to the town square was largely deserted. For all its recent growth from increased trade in wool, Caedis was still very much a country town; a hub for smaller villages and hamlets, busy only on market days. They saw only a handful of people, cloaked against the rain, hurrying this way or that on cobbled streets. None paid any mind to the two of them.

There were more people at the square, most of them grocers setting up tents for their stalls. Here a few recognized Zoe and stopped to pay their respects. Many spoke of the feast, praising the magistrate’s generosity for inviting the townsfolk. The young mistress chatted with them amicably enough, even buying a small bag of sugared pears from an old woman. The last of the winter pears, the woman told them.

They walked across the square to the magistracy, which was one of the few buildings in town with outer walls. The guards at the gate bowed to Zoe, and let them through to the courtyard without a fuss. They crossed the courtyard to the vestibule, where they had to wait for someone to receive them. It was the head clerk who came out at last, his uniform in disarray, looking irritated as always. “What is it, boy?” he barked at the sight of Loren. “By God, will he not give us even a day’s rest? I swear, if you’ve brought us more work…”

The clerk’s tirade was cut short as his eyes fell on Zoe. Blood draining from his gaunt face, he stammered a greeting and bowed awkwardly. Zoe replied with a surprising graciousness, asking after the man’s health, and offering him a pear.

Loren uncapped his copper case and produced a roll of documents for the clerk.

“This one bears documents from my master, to be assigned to the clerks as you see fit.”

“Received,” the clerk mumbled.

The clerk bowed again as they left, stooping almost to the ground, not daring to straighten himself until they were gone.

As soon as they were out in the courtyard, Zoe stopped and burst out laughing. “Did you see his face? I—ugh—g-g-g-greetings, lady Zoe. A b-b-beautiful day.”

Loren might have laughed at that too, were he not certain that the head clerk would hold him responsible for whatever humiliation he might have felt before Zoe’s unexpected presence. The man, everyone knew, was deeply infatuated with her.

“What a mouse of a man! I don’t know why papa keeps him.”

Loren said, simply, “He is adept at his task, mistress.”

Their next stop was the Imperial Post, which was also the better and therefore more expensive of the town’s two taverns. Though the Imperial Posts were established to provide safe lodgings and fresh horses for imperial couriers and other government officials travelling on matters of importance, it was almost a universal custom for the owners of the properties to accommodate less-than-official guests at a steep premium.

The owner of Caedis’ Post was a retired legionary by the name of Zelalem, who stood out among town’s populace due to his massive girth and dark skin. It was widely gossipped that the man had been born in the Burning Coast, across the Bithryon sea, when the Empire still held territory in those sun-scorched lands.

“Welcome!” Zelalem stood up and greeted them with a clap, smiling broadly. But the smile diminished rather quickly when he recognized his guests as locals. He managed a formal bow toward Zoe before slumping back down on the stool next to the bar.

“No guests today,” said Loren, after a quick glance around the empty tavern.

“Bad luck.” Zelalem swatted the air with the back of his hand. “The lot from Sarona left yesterday, just before rain got pouring. Could have had them stay for a few more days, if not so. You here for the courier?”

Loren nodded, and produced three sealed letters from his case.

“Already two days late, this courier.” Zelalem took the letters and stashed them in a wooden box under the bar. “Probably busy whoring in Sarona. A pox upon his cock!” Then he added, belatedly: “Pardon my tongue, lady Zoe. It’s the Legion in me.”

Zoe nodded graciously. “I have heard that it never leaves a man.”

“It’s true. A mark upon one’s soul, as some say.”

“I wonder if that means my brother will be as foul-tonged as you are?”

The innkeep laughed at that. “Perhaps yes, perhaps no. It’s different for each man, what the experience does. Ah, he’s coming back soon, no? I hear the magistrate’s been preparing a feast.”

“Yes! This afternoon, as a matter of fact.”

“More bad news for me,” Zelalem said, feigning sullenness that made Zoe laugh. “Might as well close the place for the day.”

“Yes, you should do that. And come to the feast.”

The innkeep shook his head. “Ah, but I cannot. In case this bastard of a courier finally arrives.”

“Speaking of which, are the… whores in Sarona really that much better than the ones we have here? Enough to detain an imperial courier from his duty?”

Loren gave Zelalem a look, but the former legionary shrugged and answered Zoe anyway.

“My girls are cleaner. But in Sarona they wear perfume. Put paint on their faces, too. The expensive ones will sing and dance and speak poetry, before and after…”

“Hmm,” Zoe thought that over for a moment. Then, turning to Loren, she asked, “Is that what men like?” in a tone that was half-jesting, half-probing.

“This one wouldn’t know, mistress.”

“Oh? How not? Are you not a man?”

“Surely he isn’t!” Zelalem bellowed, with a deep chuckle that shook the flesh of his cheeks. “Some of my girls have been trying to get him upstairs for a very long time! Yet he is like stone, your man. Says “No,” every time. Now the girls think he is a…”

The innkeep clicked his tongue, searching for the right word. Then he tilted his head back and barked a summon upstairs, where a red-haired girl appeared by the railing momentarily.

“Agi, what is it you and others call our friend here?”

The girl grimaced at the sight of Loren, and then uttered with clear disdain a single word—“Eunuch,” before disappearing back into her room.

“Yes, they think he is that. Eunuch.”

Loren waited for the young mistress’s laughter to follow. It never came. Instead she moved away from the bar and seated herself at a table by the fireplace. “I would like a fire, Zelalem, if you would be so kind. And some wine.”

“Of course, my lady.” Zelalem barked an order upstairs and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon a girl came down—a different girl this time, with flaxen hair—and rushed to start a fire.

Loren followed Zoe to the table.

“Do you know he has never written to me?” she asked.

“Mistress?”

“My brother, of course. Not once during the whole time he’s been gone. Always only to papa, with just a single line asking after mother and I. I mean to punish him for it. Do you have any notion what it is like to have—”

Then she checked herself, as if struck by whatever thought her words had led her to. Zelalem returned with a platter, bearing a jug of wine and a pitcher of water to mix it with. There was only one cup. He bowed and withdrew, along with the girl, who smiled at Loren shyly and in passing.

“Pour,” Zoe commanded, peering into the flame.

Loren bit his lower lip. Said, reluctantly, “Mistress, this one still has more of master’s business to attend to.”

At his, Zoe glared at him. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but did not. A flicker of irritation crossed her eyes, and then they were suddenly tired, empty. She looked again into the flame. “Then go,” she said, her voice very low. “Leave me here to dry myself.”

“This one cannot, mistress. Master’s orders were clear.”

“Yes, yes. You are to conduct his business, and I am to stay with you. You will go and do as you were commanded, since you must. I, however, am soaked and weary, and will stay here and rest awhile.”

“Mistress, this one must insist—”

“Leave now, slave,” she said without looking at him. “Consider it your penance.”

That was that. There was no point refuting. Loren bowed and left her side, and heard, as he stepped past the Post’s doorway, Zelalem hurrying over to serve her wine.

Once outside, back again in the rain, he took a deep breath to calm himself. Anger and humiliation swirled within him, but only briefly, and ever so faintly. And in a breath or two they were gone, made flat and still like all else, swallowed up by the numbness inside him. He was a slave. He knew his place. He pulled up the hood of his cloak and stepped into the street.

As he made his way toward the smithy, he began to wonder, with detached curiosity, about the young mistress’s sudden change of mood in the tavern. Something had upset her—but what? She hadn’t minded Zelalem’s vulgar talk, had in fact participated in it brazenly. The mention of her brother’s lack of communication, too, seemed to him now more a result of the change in her mood than the cause of it, given how happy she had been about her brother’s imminent return all morning. And if it was his being called a eunuch that had offended her… but that, he knew, was beyond ludicrous. He was only a slave in her father’s household. A tool like any other, though cast in human shape. So he did not matter in her eyes—as she had just reminded him with the dismissal.

Unable to think of a reason, Loren put the issue out of his mind. The young mistress was what she was. Old Ionava said that of her often, and usually in a tone that fell somewhere between bemusement and resignation. Capricious, impetuous, heedless of any but the swift and sweeping motions of her own desires…

Not unlike, Loren thought, the thought racing to the fore of his mind before he could stop it, already loud in his head: not unlike a fool boy running into an ancient forest, knowing nothing, hearing nothing, driven only by the tumult in his soul.

And if that boy still lived today, the thought went on—if he could still feel, and so name the feeling, he might have called it hatred.

A Homecoming (3)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

The drizzling rain turned into a shower soon after their departure. They were on foot, each wearing a hooded cloak, on a downward path toward the town of Caedis. The young mistress had refused to ride, though he had warned her the path would be muddy. “But I feel like walking,” was all she had said, as if there was no better explanation, which was typical of her.

They were treading on slippery mud, in rain and mist, and several times the young mistress nearly fell but for his arm to grab onto. If she regretted not taking a horse, she never showed it. Instead she barked a laughter after each slip and wobble—a triumphant Ha!—like someone who only narrowly avoided a good-humoured prank. Nothing seemed remotely able to dampen her mood today. Not the weather, not the mud, and certainly not, Loren thought, a less-than-talkative slave by her side.

Indeed she hadn’t stopped talking since leaving the house, but not so much to him as at him, which required mercifully little from him in way of replies. That too was typical of her. He half-listened as she fluttered from one topic to another with a hummingbird’s alacrity, and uttered at intervals “Yes, mistress,” or “No, mistress,” whenever there seemed to be a pause.

Somewhere along a very one-sided conversation about the merits of sheep’s milk compared to goat’s, his thoughts began to wander. They often did that on mornings like this, in spring, the air damp with mist and rain. He vaguely remembered being led up this very hill, in a kind of stupor, weak and feverish from the long winter voyage. Four years ago, it had been. Rain and mist then too, and the mud-slicked path. Spring in Caedis.

It was all a blur, that winter, that journey. A hundred days of despair and loathing lapsed into a single blind forever. There were roughly twenty slaves on the slavers’ boat, packed into a dank hull and let out only in pairs at a time for feeding and exercise. Men and women alike were raped and beaten regularly, but seldom to lasting harm; the slavers knew their work. They knew how to keep their merchandise in check.

There were nine of them. Savage, brutal men with long, braided beards. They were not Ilmaren, Loren learned later; they came from a place much further up the great river, and sailed it all year long trading slaves for Ilmaren coin.

At first Loren tried escaping. He tried fighting back. Then, when it became clear that he could do neither, he tried to take his own life. But even that, as it happened, was denied him. This latest act of rebellion, which came after so many instances of the usual punishment, brought forth a measure of inventiveness from the slave-merchants. They stripped him naked and tied him to the bowspirit. Behold our figurehead, they joked. The Spirit of Rebellion!

There, hanging above the dark-green waters of the Rhoin, he cursed the Lords. A god had come to him in the sacred grove, in the shape of a great boar, and had touched him on the cheek with its carved tusk. And an entire world had been taken away with that touch, everything he had ever known and loved and hated and hoped for—with nothing offered in return but a life in bondage, in a land that could never be home.

It was that bitter, black rage that kept him alive during the journey—alive, but not whole. By the time the slavers bartered him away as a makewight in a deal at a harbourside market in Sarona, he was not the same person he had been. Something in him had broken. It was as if a fire had gone out from his soul.

It all seemed so very long ago, now. Of course he hadn’t forgotten the Uldwood—he would remember that day in the grove as long as he drew breath. But the memory of that place was so far from where—and who—he was now. His world had changed. Immutably so. And it had changed him with it. He was living in another time, another place. Another life.

“You’re not listening to me at all, are you?” The young mistress’s voice came sharp, ringing, catching him by surprise. He turned to see her standing with her hands on her waist.

He bowed his head. It seemed he had been wrong about her mood after all. “Apologies, mistress.”

“Really. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother speaking at all. Since not even a slave will deign to listen!”

“You were speaking very quickly, mistress. It is hard for this one to… keep up, when you do.”

“Oh, have done! You have been with us long enough. Papa would never have picked you as a body slave if you were a dimwit. Tell me, are you a dimwit? Isn’t Sindaros teaching you the letters?”

“Yes, mistress.”

“Well, which is it?”

“Mistress?”

“Are you admitting to being a dimwit? Or are you saying that you are learning letters?”

“The letters, mistress.”

“So you were simply not paying attention to our conversation, then, as you should have been.”

“This one begs your forgiveness, mistress.”

“Do you? Truly?”

He glanced up. Under the hood, he saw that she was smiling the same smile as she had earlier in her father’s study—sweet, with a hint of mischief about it. Something lurched in his stomach then. He closed his eyes, bowing deeper.

“You’ll have to earn it, then,” she said after a time.

“Mistress—”

“No, not with words. After all, true penitence is found only in deeds, as the clerics teach us.”

Before he could respond, the girl turned away from him and started downhill again. “Come,” she said over her shoulder. “Let us not dally. I’m getting soaked!”

A Homecoming (2)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

“When will he be home?”

Damaion of Adenapolis, or of Caedis, as people were beginning to call him these days, looked up from the letter he’d been writing to see his youngest daughter standing in the doorway of his study.

She was a sight to behold, a glorious mess. Her hair a veritable crow’s nest, her dress wet and clinging to a point of indecency, her cheeks red as sunset from running about the house in slippers… And all of it brought into sharp relief by the bright green of her eyes—her mother’s eyes—beaming as if with some huge, irrepressible joy…

He did not know whether to laugh or frown, looking at her. He knew he ought to scold the girl. She was the lady of the house, after all, during her mother’s absence. There were responsibilities that came with that, not least of which was to present yourself with dignity and authority, so as to instill the proper respect in those bound to your servitude. But no one in the whole household had ever expected Zoe to fulfil those responsibilities, and at any rate he was never any good at scolding the girl, so he let it pass. He knew full well he was being lenient with her, overly so. Not at all like he had been with Ianna and Markos, his older children. It had something to do with her being the youngest of the three by nearly a decade; something about the way her tiny hands had reached for his face when he first held her all those years ago, a sickly infant born before her time, but alive, blessedly alive, after two stillborn babes. He could never be hard with her, and Zoe knew it as well—too well, as a matter of fact, much to his wife’s chagrin.

Now she was nearly a woman grown, his Zoe, and a beautiful one at that, by some miracle of the god. Once coltish and scrawny as a bog-child, she had come into possession of a rare kind of beauty in the few short years since her flowering, even as to lead many a young shepherd in the hills of Caedis to pine after the magistrate’s beautiful daughter. There were even songs about her now, praising her many virtues while likening her—favourably, of course—to the river and tree Zynyas from the Chalchidean myths, famed for their beauty but also known for their penchant for copulating with lesser mortals—who more often than not happened to be some hapless shepherd boy.

His wife had raged about the songs when they first began to make rounds in town and had asked him to find and punish those responsible, but he’d thought them woefully and amusingly misinformed, and had not minded too much. Yes, it was true that Zoe was the very picture of youth and beauty as such things were in women. And yet, as evidenced by her present state, there was no amount of grace in the girl to command what she had been given, which indeed was a gift from God, neither he nor his wife (insofar as he knew) having been the subject of any shepherds’ song in their youth. It was something a woman of noble birth ought to learn to use, to elevate her station and that of her family in the world. But Zoe remained, despite her mother’s best efforts, more or less oblivious to her own beauty—and in fact her obliviousness was the very thing that rarefied it all the more.

Like a wild horse, was his wife’s way of putting it, whenever they discussed Zoe’s future. They were doing much of that as of late; she was of age to be married, or near enough. He had in fact just been writing to a friend in the capital to enquire about a potential match, and the conventions for a formal portrait for ladies at the Emperor’s court.

“Good morrow, daughter.”

Zoe produced a half-hearted curtsy and strode forward and sat in a chair across from him. “When will he be home, papa?” she asked again.

Damaion shook his head and gestured to a woolen cloak hanging from the wall to his right. His body slave promptly took it and offered it to Zoe, who pouted a little, but did accept the cloak and wrapped it about her.

“Have you said your morning prayers?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“Lying is a sin, daughter.”

Zoe sat up straight and made the holy symbol in what he knew to be mock seriousness. “I object to your implication, sir,” she said. “On my father’s good name, I swear I have said my prayers.”

“This morning?”

“Pardon?”

“You have said your prayers this morning, when you awoke?”

The girl would not answer. Damaion smiled at that, in spite of himself. “Your brother will be here by midday, or thereabouts.”

“Will he come through the town?”

“I imagine he will, yes.”

Papa, I’d like to greet him there. As a surprise.”

“And tell me, who among the household must I burden with the honour of your company?”

“There’s no need—”

“Oh, I rather think there is, daughter. I haven’t forgotten what happened the last time I let you roam free in town. Have you?”

Zoe flushed at that, deeply. “I am perfectly capable of handling myself!”

He laughed aloud this time. “I’ll have to tell that to your mother when she gets back. Besides, even were I inclined to allow you—which I am not—you know very well we haven’t anyone to spare today.”

“Papa, please, I do not need a—” she began to protest, but stopped herself short. A sweet little smile came to her lips. “What about him?” she asked, glancing at his body slave. “He’s served you for the morning, has he not? Surely you can spare him for a few hours, to watch over your own flesh and blood?”

Damaion turned his gaze to his body slave, who stood by the wall next to him with arms behind his back, impassive as a statue, eyes fixed straight ahead. He had been meaning to send the boy to town with the letters for the courier, and to settle a business with the town’s blacksmith.

As Zoe sat waiting for his answer with a knowing smile, he weighed his options. If denied and left at home, Zoe would surely find a way—no, ways—to be a hindrance to the servants and slaves, which would necessitate a real scolding, which he rather dreaded giving. The harm in letting her have her way, on the other hand, was probable but not certain in any way. And it would be a pleasant surprise to Markos, he thought, to be greeted by his sister before he reached home.

So, in the end, Damaion sighed his consent—but not altogether without a sense of misgiving.

“You are to stay with him at all times, and he will conduct my business first. I do not wish to hear of how the magistrate’s daughter started another tavern brawl. Am I understood?”

The girl clapped her hands in delight. “Yes, father.”

“Now go dress. Brush your hair. And say your morning prayers.”

Zoe got up, nodding mindlessly, and turned to go.

“Walk,” he said after her, going back to his letter.

She left the study in measured, soft steps, still wearing his cloak. Damaion began counting inwardly, and heard, scarcely as he reached three, the girl break into a run with a bright laughter.

“Loren,” he called his body slave.

“Yes, master.”

“Never have a daughter. Not if you can help it.”

A Homecoming (1)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

It was a wet spring in the district of Caedis, in the prefecture of Sirmion, in the western half of the glorious Empire of All Man under the august rule of Theodosius the second of his name, God’s chosen servant under Heaven, in the fourteenth year of his blessed reign.

For the people of Caedis, most of them farmers and herders in the gently-sloping lowlands near Lake Eris, the rain was simply a fact of life during this time of year. The sky opened with a downpour at each winter’s end, and remained so all through the spring until summer came hot on easterly winds. And along with the rain came the mist also, rising each morning in the pall before daybreak from the lake’s surface like a kind of exhalation, that would sidle up the slopes and swaddle the hamlets and villages by first light.

The resulting humidity could drown a person standing—or so it was said. Herodias the Younger, of Prabaltar, who had famously chronicled the early expansion of the Empire, had once written of Caedis in a letter to the senate: “The humidity of this place, wretched in spring, makes it unfit for a permanent colony; it would best be left to fish, toads, and such creatures as those that crawl in the mud.”

And so began the day in the house of Damaion of Adenapolis, the magistrate of Caedis, in mist and rain, and broken-down sunlight shining through in patches.

It was going to be a busy day. All the household slaves and servants had been up since dawn, called to rise by the steward’s bell. They all knew what day it was; they had been preparing for it for nearly a week now. A homecoming for the master’s only son, returning at last from a long campaign in barbarian lands.

The preparation was nearly complete: logs were split and stacked high, jugs of water and wine were cooling in the cellar, and canvas tents were set up in the courtyard, with tables and stools for commonfolk. Most of the work that needed doing today was going to be in and around the kitchen.

So the kitchen-fires were already burning in full, iron pots boiling over them with water and broth. The space was filled with the smell of fresh bread wafting from the stone oven in the back, mixing with the aromas of various herbs and spices. There were some fifteen men and women busy at work, peeling and chopping, mixing and stirring.

“He’s coming home!” cried the girl as she ran into the kitchen, in her nightdress, her hair bouncing in great tangled ringlets. She spun, almost knocking down a basket of eggs in the process, and cried again, to everyone and no one in particular. “He’s coming home!”

“We know, young mistress,” said old Ionava, who ruled over the kitchen with equal measures of fiery temper and common sense, who had been a slave—and now a freedwoman—to Damaion of Adenapolis since before he was named a magistrate. “Now be off with you, you’re bothering us.”

As always, Zoe, daughter of Damion, the youngest of his three children, completely ignored the old cook’s admonishment. She did make for the open door, however, but clearly of her own accord, pilfering an apple along the way. But she stopped suddenly at the threshold, as if she had forgotten something, almost falling in the process. Then she spun toward the kitchen and cried once more. “He’s coming home!”

The slaves and servants in the kitchen chuckled as the young mistress ran off into the misty courtyard. Old Ionava clicked her tongue and shook her head, before ushering everyone back to work with a stern rap from her iron ladle.

They had a feast to prepare.

The Bone-Carver’s Son

09/17/2015 § 2 Comments

The last lights of a late autumn day. The 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. The oak-song, his people call it, though it isn’t like any song he knows, it’s something more, something else. An ache deep within the earth, declaring itself through the wind and the trees.

Now 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 sounds far-off when it comes, as if from another world.

And that is precisely what this place is—another world. These are ancient trees, the oaks of Uldwood, much older than the One God of the Ilmarens and older still than all the disparate gods and goddesses from Chalchides. The forest belongs to those beings whose names have long been forgotten or never truly known by the world of Man. Gods, demi-gods, spirits that roam the mossy depth in bestial hides… The Lords of the Uldwood are to be worshipped, feared, but never understood.

No people know this last as well as the kith of Sitae, native to the wind-scoured plains between the Uldwood 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 comes from it, and has bound them to the Uldwood for centuries.

The Sitae 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. Most of the children grow old and die without ever setting a foot in the Uldwood. But some, those who come of age strong in body and spirit, are made to enter the forest and seek acceptance from the Lords. Many who enter are never seen again—but those who do return, their spirits forever marked by the Uldwood, become the kith’s hunters and huntresses.

The hunters and huntresses are much honoured by all, for the Sitae depend on the game from the Uldwood 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 months.

To beseech the Lords for the allowance of game the kith needs each year, the 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. These sacrifices, however, do not guarantee the Lords’ favour. Sometimes the Lords take more than they give, or else withhold from giving altogether. In such times, families are forced to draw lots. Those who lose, those who draw black, must then give up one member of their family 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 Uldwood 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 Uldwood, as was proper for all the kith’s children; he’d listened to—and believed in—countless stories about the perils and mysteries of the Forest and its Lords. But now, more than all those stories put together, the boy simply 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. The boy 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 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, who thought him too wilful for his own good, 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 a punishment from the Lords, for his arrogance? 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. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t right at all. That his whole life could fall apart like so in the course of a single day. He could not accept it, would not. He would sooner let the whole kith starve than consign himself to a life of bondage.

In a state of such dumb, raging fury, aggrieved beyond all reason and knowing, he had fled his home and come to the Uldwood. Let the Lords decide what may become of him, he thought.

What he hadn’t thought of, though it was obvious now in hindsight, was that the kith’s hunters would come after him. The drawing lot was a pact, just as sacred, if not as forbidding, as the sacrifices made on the Day of the Long Sun. The kith’s elders couldn’t just let him disappear into the forest—of course they would call for the hunters.

They couldn’t be far behind now. The very fact that he could hear the hounds, however distantly and fitfully in the thrumming of the forest, told him that. He knew little about masking his tracks in a forest, hadn’t bothered trying. He had no hope of evading the hunters; sooner or later they were going catch him.

He did not know how he was to be dealt with once he was caught. No one he knew had ever tried to defy or run from the result of the lot. The elders might feel they need to make a strong example. He could be killed, he thought, bitterly, by the very ones he had so aspired to join.

Truth be told, the boy 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 Uldwood. 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 things that could only be taught after the trial—after you were accepted by its Lords.

It was only by his anger, made desperate by the chase and the fear of the Uldwood, 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 of late to teach his only son the craft in earnest. For months they had been arguing 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 even 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 Uldwood, 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 mortal understanding? How did anyone? Even the seers, who had spent their entire lives hunting in the Uldwood before retiring to pass their knowledge onto the 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 paused to see clear sky for the first time since entering the forest. It was almost night. The moon had risen early, slender as an eyelash.

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, especially in comparison to the ancient oaks that towered over the grove.

The boy stood as if transfixed at the sight of the pale tree. As with all the kith’s children, he had heard of this place, had heard of the Bone Tree. It was here that the Lords first made pact with his ancestors, a hundred lifetimes ago; this was where the seers came on the Day of the Long Sun to beggar the Lords with the blood and flesh and bones of one of their own.

For how long he stood like that, still as a heron, the boy could not say. He started only when he heard the hounds again. Louder and closer, not far away at all. He could even hear—or so he thought—the low whistles the hunters used to communicate with each other in the forest. The mountain-wind, the boy realized belatedly, had died down. The oaks had stopped singing.

He knew he had to keep moving, told himself as much. But he could not. Some part of him, indeed the same one that had made him defy the lot and run to the Uldwood, was telling him that this was the place. It could not be coincidence that he stumbled onto the Bone Tree. He was sure of it. He was meant to be here, had been led here. Here at this very moment, as the Lords would have it.

“I am here!” he shouted into still air, lifting his arms in a gesture that was at once supplication and a beckoning.

The first hound entered the clearing from his left, followed by two more. Snarling, growling, they immediately panned out and forced him toward the middle of the grove, closer to the Bone 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 lower lip. The chase was over. “I am here!” he shouted once again, looking straight up.

“Lorn!”

The voice that called out his name in response was not a divine one. He turned and saw, in utter disbelief, his father’s face among the hunters, drenched in sweat yet looking much too pale. 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 do this? How could you?”

“They didn’t make me,” said his father, wheezing a little, trying to catch his breath. “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 petty pride and foolishness. You shame me, son. You shame your dead mother. And for what? So you can throw your life away? 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 opened his mouth to reply, his anger was there for him.

“If you care about me so deeply, then why didn’t you stop me, hmm? Why did you let me go?”

His father’s eyes shook at his words. But there was no satisfaction.

“I shouldn’t have,” his father said. “And that is why I’ve come.”

His father stepped forward until they were just an arm’s length apart. Then he reached out toward him, slowly. Lorn hesitated, then in the very last moment he flinched and took a step back, regretting it even as he did so. 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 at one another dissipating into a kind of hopelessness, a sense of something broken that could not be amended. Back then, they would turn their backs on each other and go on with the day in silence. But this was different now, here in the Uldwood, in the sacrificial grove, surrounded by the kith’s hunters and huntresses.

When his father spoke again, at length, it was in a different 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 wants to kill a defenceless boy, but trust me, 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 Uldwood 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 frightened him to say it.

“No.”

His father moved as if to embrace him, but the arrow was quicker.

It 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 welling up 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. Then 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. Regret came, like a blade in his soul, keen against his faith in the Lords and in 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. He felt shame.

As he waited for the knife to fall, as he waited for his life to end, the shaking in his body grew and grew until he was certain it wasn’t him. It was the ground. He opened his eyes to see the huntress looking behind her shoulder in dismay.

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, made to sing—scream—once again. 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 into a pattern of such intricacy that he could not bear to look upon it.

The hounds turned and ran. A rank odour hung in the air now. The huntress stood up and left him to join the others, who had formed 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 and 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 limp 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 once more.

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, revealing 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 began moving back toward the oaks.

“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.

Moments pass, from one to the next. Night comes and fills the canopied sky. Up above, far beyond the reaches of human figures passing through the darkness of the Uldwood, the mountain-wind resumes its course. And the oaks of Uldwood begin their song once more, their voices loud as ever, as if they had never stopped singing.

Read the next chapter: A Homecoming

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