a short story by Sam Oliver
They hang from the pommel of my sword. They shine, slick with tears. I raise my head as the sun catches the glint on the metal along its blade, as I stare down my opponent. Arnold stands between us, his good eye on me, then on Trannis before me.
He raises his hand, giving me an almost imperceptible nod.
His gravelly voice rings out. “Let this battle commence, a duel to the death between Rhymerta Craveheart and Trannis Silverblight. Let it be known that this is a duel of honor, and therefore no law is to be invoked by any present, living or dead, that states one or the other should be ruled unlawful and therefore criminal.”
He lowers his hand and gives me the wink I’ve come to recognize, out of sight of Trannis.
Tear him apart.
The meaning behind it this time is different from any other fight.
Red ribbons whirl, and the dance before me blurs with my tears and the rain as I stride forward. The water seems to hang in the air as I bring my blade up, as I roll my shoulders into a tight whirl, spinning on my heel. Trannis, expecting a single thrust, is too late to block. He is an experienced fighter.
I am more so.
My sword arm numbs with the impact, with the force of my own blow. For a moment I am blinded by a flash, and in the next Trannis’s boot has itself on my chest. As my vision clears, I find my arms out, spreadeagled, the point of his sword hanging above me, no, dropping towards me. I lean my head to the side and feel that evil blade drive into the dirt near my head.
The blasted traveler’s pack is being crushed beneath me and a flicker of worry touches my numb heart.
I bring my own sword in close and stab up and forward. I feel the point sink into something and twist the pommel, twist the whole of it, forcing it in deeper, driving it in until hot, red iron splashes against my lips. The tang of it is familiar. I lick it away, and sound rushes back.
I rock the hilt up, twist it again as he screams. Trannis’s panic spills out around me in echoing waves.
“No! Mine!” he screams incoherently. “B-BOUNTY! No!”
I shove him off of me, pushing him over, my blade, having riven through groin and belly, I pull free, wrapping my fingers around the red ribbons tied to both the pommel and my wrist.
With its familiar weight in my hand, I push myself back up to my feet. Slick something– not rain, but curiously cool and sticky– runs down the side of my head.
Trannis is wailing piteously, an animal crying in sick pain and anguish. I put a stop to it, reaching forward, pressing the slick, red metal blade against his throat, drawing my sword back.
Now gurgling, he falls face forward into the ground as it rapidly becomes muck. The rain, freezing cold but like a gift from heaven, doesn’t touch me as I stand there, staring at the man responsible for the murder of my family. Staring at him where he lies in the mud.
Honor? This was no honorable duel.
The corpse of my opponent still warm, Arnold Goodeye gives me a grim smile. “Well done, lass.”
The words echo in my hollow heart, and I let the briefest flick of a smile touch my lips.
I do not answer him. Instead, I turn away and walk the path out of the village.
“Lass!” Arnold calls after me.
I heed him not.
My steps carry me past the old willow tree near the edge of town, past the broken down huts nearby. At the village’s edge, a yawning pit stretches, reaching down into the black abyss below the continent. Were the sun to shine, I am certain I would be able to see the ocean below this vast, floating rock.
Here, at this abyss, I unwrap the pommel of my family sword slowly, unwinding the ribbon from around it. Without the ribbon, it is just a sword. Unremarkable, chipped here and there, with an edge said never to fade with time or with continued use.
It is just a sword.
I stare at the sick red staining its surface, at Trannis’s blood where it mars the metal. Still staring, I let it slip from my fingers and down into the black abyss. The ocean below is too far, I know. I will not hear the splash.
I can still watch it caroming off rock, face to face, spinning down into the darkness. When the silver glints up at me no more, I turn back around and move towards the village again.
I have things I must do.
I enter the smithy first, stepping into the shop and gently closing the door behind me.
“You have much to answer for, Rhymerta Craveheart, and a truly steel nerve to enter here after killing my husband,” Limanda’s soft voice murmurs directly in my ear.
I pay it no heed. The witch herself is standing before me, behind the counter not three feet from me. A crossbow, held in wary but strong hands, is leveled at my breast. I take note of the bodkin headed bolt. It would pass through me and out into the path beyond. Such a tip is meant for piercing armor.
“Your husband slew my children in exchange for a bounty, Limanda,” I say quietly. I feel nothing, even looking at the tip of the bolt meant for my heart. Fear for life is long since past.
“So you took vengeance upon him instead of visiting him with justice?” she asks levelly. “Has slaying him in turn brought your children back to you?”
I ignore that. “His body lies outside, should you wish to bury it.”
“Kind of you to allow me to bury my own husband,” Limanda says without irony. After a moment, she lowers the crossbow. “I will not be joining him today, but one day you will be repaid for the pain you have inflicted on my family. Now this child will be born without a father.”
“That is fine. I came here to ask a commission,” I murmur. “Since Trannis is dead, could you do the deed?”
“What need you forged?” Limanda asks. Her voice, like mine, seems hollow. I can see the beginnings of tears in them, feel the drying ones on my face. The ribbons around my wrist feel heavy.
“I have need of a sword of singing steel,” I answer. “And I have need of it now.”
Limanda stares at me a moment, then gives a bitter laugh. “Singing steel? You trouble me for a tale.”
“I have need of it, nonetheless. Can you create it, Limanda Silverblight?”
“If I had the materials, then of course I could,” she says, then gives me a sharp look, momentarily breaking her grim demeanor. “Have you the materials, then, Rhymerta?”
“No,” I reply. “I do not have all of the materials. I will. And I will return with the rest. For now, here is the Song.”
I pull free a scroll of parchment from my traveler’s pack and lay it on the counter.
She picks it up, reads through it, and pales.
“Such a Song has never been written to a blade before,” she says quietly. “Are you certain this is what you would have me try, though I have never made a blade like this? Can you pay?”
“Limanda, the fame of being the first to create this blade would be enough,” I say hollowly. “Am I not correct?”
Limanda Soulblight gnaws on her thin lip a moment, staring me in the eyes, down at the parchment, back at me again. “Yes. It will be enough.”
“Good.” The word is sharp as it drops from my lips. “Then see to preparations. I will see to collecting the other materials.”
“Know you what all of them are?”
“Yes,” I answer firmly. “Good day to you, Limanda.”
“Curse you for what you have done, but may the Tears bless you for what you are to undertake, and the tragedy my husband inflicted upon you,” she bids to my retreating back. I know without looking that she turns to her work as the door closes again behind me.
The first ingredient to singing steel is a mandrake. There are none nearby, but all know that my husband Ivan is a wizard. Among the magical ingredients upon the shelves, the dried mandrake root shows itself almost prime among the magical items in our home.
Red stains the wood floor still. I have not the heart to wash it free from the house. It is all that I have left of my children.
I think back to Trannis. The look on his face when he had struck down my children before me, when he had walked out of the house, laughing, the mangled manikins that had once been part of my heart spread-eagled, roped to the chairs he had left them in.
Myself, bound and soiled, staring at the floor, forced to listen to the shrieks and the crying and the harsh panting, the terrible laughter. Rage wraps me again, but it is a cool rage, a calculated rage. Arnold had found me and had freed me.
Despite his terrible methods, Trannis had been working within the limits of the law. A bounty hunter need not pay for his victims, so long as they are truly on the lists. It is I who am now to blame. The House will no doubt soon learn of his death, if they do not know already. I can expect his associates to come for me.
I have time still, though. Time to work.
The mandrake root here is not what I came for, however. It is dry, and that will not do for a singing blade. I need living mandrake. And then I need to kill it. A mandrake’s death shriek can penetrate the deepest powers of magic available to man, beast or aberration. Only those touching iron are said to be able to survive it.
I reach instead to the staff, lying still on my husband’s workbench, charged with eldritch powers beyond any reckoning. If there is any way to gather these ingredients with expedience, the secret lies within this wooden husk.
Taking it up, I finger a symbol along its edge. Sung wood is nowhere near as potent as sung steel, but this will do for my purpose. I only hope that my husband will condone my actions when he realizes what Trannis did to our children. I do not feel that I can bear to tell him now, however, even as I see the symbol to reach him engraved upon the staff’s hilt, below the crystal embedded in its top.
The crystal is clouded. Wherever he is, the crystal cannot find him. For that I am thankful, at least. Were he here now, I do doubt he would be able to overcome his rage. The village would not long survive his wrath, for allowing Trannis to murder our children, and I have need of Limanda to create this singing steel for me.
With that in mind, I touch the symbol of the Siren’s Lair, and, with it firmly thought in my head and the image held in my heart, I vanish.
Her song falls around me as I step forth from nothingness, as I stumble into the shallows direct from the air. I catch myself with the staff, rapping its heel against the ground and using it to support me. The Siren is coiled in front of me, watching, singing in her hauntingly beautiful voice. Her tail is coiled and her arms are relaxed, but I am quite aware of the deadly venom contained in those lovely white teeth and the sting hidden within her claws.
After a moment she seems to realize I will not be enchanted; I cannot even understand what it is the words to her sweet song are, only that if I were able to, I would instantly be enthralled. A Siren’s song cares not for whether one prefers men or women– only that they are able to understand the singer. Thwarted thus, the Siren pouts, folding her arms and ceasing her wondrous racket.
Instead, she speaks in plain words. “What dost thou want of me, witch?”
“I came for mandrake,” I reply quietly. “I seek to create a singing steel blade.”
“Fruitless, but sweet a quest, to be sure. Cans’t thou not rest a while here?”
“You have had not my husband, you shall have not me,” I answer, and that puts an end to that.
The Siren sighs and rolls her golden eyes, then flicks a claw away behind me. I carefully move out of the shallows and turn, still keeping my eyes on her, only half-daring to look at where she seems to indicate. When it becomes clear that she is not about to strike at me– at least yet– I risk a quick glance.
It is a garden.
Buried in the ground I can see the tops of mandrake– and other varieties of nightshade. Wolfsbane as well, and I step around it lightly– tales of novice magicians falling prey to the flower still haunt my dreams. I am almost certain my husband was joking about its lashing roots and poisonous pollen, but I have too many things to do now to risk it.
I turn my gaze from the Siren, reach down and yank up one of the mandrakes by the hair. It kicks once, dangling from my fist, then is still. I turn back to watch Siren, in time to catch a blur of scaly movement, in time to watch claws dart up towards my face, to see her pretty sharp teeth flash in a snarl.
I shout, raising an arm, crying out as the Siren’s claws sweep toward my face. To my utter surprise, the ribbon wrapped around my arm catches around the Siren’s wrists and draws them taut together, uncurling itself from around my own wrist as it does so.
Shock opens, then shuts my mouth. I cannot believe my luck. The Siren is unable to draw away now, trussed– but for her thrashing tail– and staring up at me with hatred. She says not a word, but she needs not.
The look she gives me is more venomous than the sting hidden in her claws, more poisonous than the wolfsbane trampled beneath her waist as she’d lunged. I contemplate leaving her here and making away– I have the mandrake now. There is no need for me to stay.
I would have, too, I think, but she speaks as I begin to turn.
“So thou art like to abandon me, as thy husband did. If thou hast the heart, why cans’t thou not simply do away with me here? I am at thy full mercy.”
Her voice is strangely pathetic, now that she is out from the shallows of the water. Her eyes are warm, like golden pools, and her tail is invitingly strong. For a very brief– no, the briefest– moment I wonder what it would be like to lay with her as a man. What would my husband see in such a creature, or any other man, for that matter? What would draw them to her? Where is her lure cast? Would to me she promise companionship or carnal pleasure?
These wonders are broken by the realization that curiosity is a form of corruption, and that in this case I am being corrupted by being near her without answers.
A terrible desire comes across me when she speaks next, and it is through sheer force of will that I prevent myself stumbling towards her.
“Come lie with me, Rhyme. You are curious, are you not?” the Siren coos, her voice layered with a heat the likes of which I have never felt. It infiltrates me at odd places; I can feel it tingling along my thighs and arms, belly, under my breasts. It forces a shiver through me. I open my mouth to answer her, but the words will not come out. How long has it been since I have shared a bed with my husband?
Her words weave in and around me, penetrating skin and somewhere inside of me, to something primal in me. Of a sudden I am faced with the images of my dead, mangled children, of Trannis and the coming wrath of the House. Shame, hotter and more dangerous than desire could hope to be, clears my blurring mind. I would lie with this monster and forget the quest which drew me here in the first place. She would have me dead in an instant, and then who would be there to meet the House but poor Ivan?
It is through instinct and that shame that I resist, that when I do manage to speak finally, it is hoarse rebuff.
“Away, temptress, away Siren. I will not submit to your deadly coils; even when your voice is sweet as to make the heavens themselves cry for you. Have gone with you!”
My words manage to make themselves heard, but no sooner have I finished them then she laughs. She laughs and laughs, silvery, light and haunting. “Before I do disappear, as thou wouldst wish– take this final gift, for thy stout heart and chaste ways. The sorcerer Ivan did not last half so long as you!”
Never have I felt so thoroughly mocked, so defeated in victory, as she slips into the water and takes my ribbons with her, unhindered– the ‘gift’ is a brief parting of the legs which make her tail, revealing herself to me briefly like some common harlot- and yet, from the desire that urges me to chase her, I know her skill in teasing is far greater than any harlot available at any guild or house. Near overcome, I manage to press my thumb against the emblem of the Hydra on my staff, praying every moment that she will not sing. The Siren’s Lair is no longer necessary. I hope never to need to return to this place. I envision the dark depths of the Hydra.
I vanish once more.
This time I step from air to sand, from sand to stone, and stare into the gaping jaws of the First Head. Stone teeth hang above me, stone teeth jut up below and before me. I step from the sand and onto the petrified tongue of the First, picking up a booted foot above the forked tongue and laying it down again. Without a blade and without much of a prayer, I enter the darkness of the First of the Hydra’s many throats.
The old stone beast spans much of the southern half of our adrift continent. Its bulk is huge almost beyond measure, and legend has it that its eerily statuesque appearance is solely the work of an incredibly powerful mage. It is in the depths of its massive body that one finds the rarest of luminous iron. Not in ore veins, but in perfect orbs scattered about. It is this that I must hunt, through the serpentine throat of the long-calcified creature.
I am not more than ten feet in when all light fails to penetrate further. I fumble, in the dark, for a symbol my husband had taught me, one engraved into the surface of the staff. In moments the head of the crystal at its tip blazes brilliant.
As I step forward again, a glint of red catches my eye on the ground, and it is with some astonishment that I realize my arm is wrapped in ribbon.
The ribbon that I had kept, on a whim, from the pommel of my family’s old blade. The ribbon which had, a mere minute before, saved my life. I had never had a chance to miss the weight of it. Now in the light of the staff, it seems to glitter and sway against the breeze rather than with it– which itself is drawn in and out again steadily and rhythmically, to give the whole place a sickeningly alive feel.
The ground gives way, after a quarter of an hour travel at least, from unrecognizable and somewhat ridged, rough stone to a long, dark, smooth marble passage downward– likely to the grand Belly of the beast. With no visible luminous iron thus far, I am certain that I will need to turn back and enter another of the mouths. Perhaps my husband took all supplies of luminous iron with him; perhaps no iron existed here in the first place. Regardless, I decide there is no hope of finding it here, and am about to turn away when a screeching creature vaults up the near totally smooth slope.
Two massive hand-claws, stained red with overuse, adorn its horny fists. Its skin is scaled and appears like pebble rather than that which I or my husband are made. Its eyes are a wicked orange, and its tongue, forked, flicks out to taste the air and to taste the scent of me.
It is at least as tall as I, its neck serpentine and coiled, its teeth sharper than the edge of night. Those deadly claws are what have my attention, more than its razor mouth and its hideous snarl, more than its charge, even, and I stand transfixed as it charges me down.
It is old fighter instinct that finally pushes me. I duck away and out. It swings, misses with one claw, turns, and slips.
Somehow my ribbon is responsible. Somehow that scaled foot caught on the tail edge of my ribbon- which then curled and pulled without me willing it.
The serpent-man goes down, but not for long. It uses its flicking tail for leverage, pushing itself back up and hurling itself towards me again. My back is to the wall (which is unpleasantly wet) and I roll left. I manage to stop in time, but now I stand at a precarious edge. Down, and still down, this passage leads to the Belly– where acid and terrible creatures are sure to lie in wait– and before me stands a now furious serpent-man. If the fall would not kill me, I am sure to be slain upon regaining consciousness, or perhaps before. I would lie broken until something worse devoured me or slew me.
Those terrible claws face me again with the serpent-man as it regains its bearings.
It is then, and only then, that I notice a glow from a small pouch at its belt, and my heart skips a long beat. I am certain it carries a luminous iron ob with it.
It approaches more cautiously this time, though, staring me down. I am certain it will attempt to force me to fall down the throat of the Hydra. I am certain it will attempt to push me down, and as I brace myself, I realize I have but one option. I cannot let it and its luminous iron fall into the Belly and be lost. I must deal with it here.
I lift the ribbon on my wrist, unwrap it slowly as the creature approaches, casting the staff aside a moment, letting the brilliance shine here. I can’t afford to use the staff. If it were to be cut then I might never return home. It is a long walk, and I have no wish to die of starvation; to win here would be hollow a victory if I only were to die later.
Without warning, the creature rushes me. It takes two long strides and swipes with the claw- a wicked slash from the left. I duck right, rolling away from its swing. It follows, and as I come up that left metal claw comes down for my head while the right drives for my stomach. I hop back, still rising, but slam into the wall.
Stunned, I stagger away as claws slice the air beside me. I nearly slip, but warrior’s training makes me lash out as I am about to fall. The ribbon, as if guided by an unseen manipulator, arcs through the air and coils around the long, serpentine throat of my assailant. I pull back my arm sharply. The resultant crunch goes far beyond sickening. It makes me downright queasy, and for a few moments I lean against the wall and try not to think about what had once been the serpent-man’s neck. My weapon is slick with green blood. I watch it slip down the edges of my red ribbon. As if bewitched, the green drops all slide away, spattering the floor. My ribbon is once again crimson alone and untainted.
I retrieve the luminous iron- as I had surmised, a sphere rests within the pouch my antagonist had kept. I also retrieve the staff where it rests against the far wall, exactly where I had left it, and, thumbing the symbol for home, I am lost from the sight of all nearby, the light of my husband’s staff retreating with me.
An empty house greets me as I step forth from the space between spaces. The iron in hand and mandrake stowed in my traveler’s pack, I make my way out of the house. As I leave, a biting fly nips at my ankle, of all places, and I note- dimly, through fatigue and emptiness- that I would do well to renew the pest charm. The thought of biting flies– or any other living thing, really– desecrating the space my children once laughed and played in is a numbing one, but intolerably so.
I pass my husband’s workbench, and find there a note addressed to him there. Whoever left it must not know of my husband’s ways– he never returns to the house during the week. It is more likely that I will meet him while I am out, since I am to visit the Artifacte Boutique next. I pick up the note and pocket it.
Stepping out onto the main road, to the cobbles that lead me to Limanda’s Smithy, I see almost immediately that Trannis’s corpse has been moved. I am unsurprised to see a dagger stuck into the post at the edge of my husband’s property, either. Nor am I surprised to read the runes and understand– the House is after me. They mark me for three days hence and advise me to give my regards to my loved ones or arrange for revival. They apologize for the inconvenience.
I take the dagger and stick it in the sheath at my belt. It is the third such dagger I have found, and you never know when you may need another blade. As all I have now is my red ribbon, I am sure that I will need this blade.
I walk down the eerily quiet street and arrive at Limanda’s Smithy. I find it strange, but no one is on the street. Cobbles have been unearthed here or there, and shattered in other places as if by obscene force. The door to the shop across the way appears to have been torn entirely from its hinges. There are signs of struggle all over– but no fires, no corpses. Curious though it may be, it does not penetrate the depressed gloom that surrounds my heart.
The door to the Smithy itself is partially ajar, and so I crack it open the whole of the way.
A tableau of mayhem reaches me, and a hundred little niggling signs now suddenly make sense.
I have not heard a thing– not a whisper, not a yell, no noise whatsoever, since I arrived here.
I realize then, as I shout, that no noise is escaping my head.
Standing there, lifting Limanda by both arms and busy tearing a ragged line through her clothes with a razor sharp nail, is a massive, terrible troll. Scabbed and scarred in a dozen places, bristling with almost half-a-dozen useless feathered shafts, its broad, tall form turns to look at me and lets out a silent, terrifying roar.
It is naked, and I realize with a sickening clench in my gut that I have saved Lima from one terrible fate only to join her in it.
With that yawning pit in my stomach, I snap free the ribbon from my wrist once more. Iron in one hand, ribbon in the other, I stand stock still, fright making me quake.
The troll’s scream is felt rather than heard as it hurls Limanda against the far wall in a silent crash of metal and splintering wood. Of a sudden, fury fills me up.
It cannot compare to the terrible fury that once ran through me as I struck down Trannis.
It cannot compare to that. It is enough, however, to make me shake with rage.
The troll charges, stooped low, swiping forth with a long dirty hand tipped with razor nails. Barely aware of my action, I spin inward along the edge of its arm and flick up with the ribbon. It tears a wicked line up through the troll’s leathery belly, breaking scars and through an arrow shaft on its way up through the troll’s jaw and neck.
Gurgling and hissing silently, it sweeps me aside with one long, bony arm.
I tumble out the door. Everything blurs. The ribbon flees my arm, curls under me, trapped under the traveler’s pack as I slam onto my back, forced to stare up at the overcast eye through eyes blurring with tears of pain.
I feel the vibrations of the troll’s approach, feel its heavy footsteps, and I cannot, I simply cannot make myself move. I brace myself for the end and, as it steps on my chest and grinds me into the dirt, crushes the air from my lungs, I only hope it desecrates me while I’m dead and not while I’m alive–
A voice inside of me, quiet as a feather’s touch, whispers that. No.
No divine strength gives me power beyond my endurance. No terrible demon hides in my heart. Nothing in me but my own stubbornness forces my hand free from its position underneath me. With all my force and all my heart, I grit my teeth and, drawing the marked dagger from my belt sheath, I pull it free and jab it into the troll’s leg. It barely even feels it. It must not feel it. A hideous finger is busying itself cutting through the padded leather of my old armor– the armor I’d worn to the duel, the armor I’d killed Trannis in, the armor I’d trained my children in.
Tears help me, I drive that dagger in past the hilt, carving a hideous track through the troll’s knobbly flesh. I force it to pay attention to me, wrenching the dagger down with all of my waning strength. A ragged cut spills hot yellow-green blood everywhere.
Of a sudden, the troll lifts its foot and kicks me.
The dagger is wrenched free from my grip, but it seems stuck in the troll’s leg and does not fly loose as I do.
I do not know how long I roll, only that after I come to a halt, there is sound. Sound ungodly terrible, sound like the world is ripping itself apart. The shriek goes on and on, ceaseless, and it is then that I remember the mandrake. I also remember the sphere of iron clenched in my hand and nearly cry myself to death. It is all that saved me, and yet it has doomed me. The mandrake is ruined now– the trip was for naught, and the troll will kill me and Limanda and the rest of my villagers, my husband will return to find our maimed and defiled bodies and–
–and it is then that I see Limanda standing over me.
The wailing has ceased.
She is clutching her arm, which hangs loose against her side- not her dominant left, thank the Tears. She reaches down and helps me to my feet, lifting me onto unstable legs.
The troll, where it lies, is dead. Yellow-green blood runs from its ears, and its eyes are open and unseeing. The mandrake had done its work.
“Villagers?” I ask weakly, when I can talk at all. “Arnold?”
“Smithy cellar,” Limanda replies shakily. “Are you well?”
“I am– I have had better days,” I mutter, and then I collapse against her, and she against me, and for a time we are content with that, hugging each other, friendship renewed, baptized again by tragedy.
“What a dark day this has been,” I remark hollowly. “The mandrake is spoiled now.”
“I have been meaning to ask you, Rhyme, but for what reason do you seek to allow me to create this singing sword?”
“Singing steel is required to revive the dead,” I reply softly, with a sigh. “I hoped to bring back my children.”
Limanda blinks, at that, then gives me a sharp look I know very well. “Hoped?”
“I have lost the mandrake, and the Siren surely waits for my return now. All is for naught without mandrake to infuse the blade with song, and the luminous iron to forge the connection between blade and magic.”
“Have you no luminous iron with you, then?” Limanda asks. “I thought you would return only when you had gathered the ingredients– though I mean no disrespect. Your timely arrival brought us salvation.”
I laugh bitterly. “At a cost.”
Lima narrows her eyes, then. “Rhymerta Craveheart– do you mean to tell me that you believe the lives of your children are more important than the lives of all those who live within this village?”
I pause. What mother would declare anything other than ‘yes!’? Why then, do I have this sinking feeling in my heart?
“You don’t believe that. You have lived in this village forever, and to gather another mandrake is a matter of swallowing your pride. You know your children will be returned to you.”
I stop, at that, staring Limanda down, feeling a cold rage running through me. What could she know of loss? Of the anguish I feel?
And yet– I realize that I have done nothing yet to ease it for either of us; I killed her husband and– justified as it may have been– I have thus killed a part of her, as her husband killed two pieces of me in slaughtering my children.
My heart aches horribly.
“My husband deserved to die,” Limanda says flatly. “Anyone who murders children deserves to die. It does not ease the pain of his passing; he was kind to me when he was alive. But it justifies it in my eyes, and I bear you no true ill will for his death. He brought it down upon himself.”
“You are wrong,” I say suddenly. In the silence that follows, the only true noise is the pit-pat of yellow-green troll blood running down and sliding off of my ribbon, until only red remains. I clutch it tighter. “No one deserves to die. Not truly. We live and suffer here, and none of us, not one of us is safe from that suffering.”
I look away as Limanda fixes me with a critical stare, and then I continue.
“We are the toys of cruel fate and fortune. They fight over us and favor one of us or the other with small petty things. But we all die in the end, though no one deserves it. The death, true death, is the end of choices.”
Limanda Silverblight walks to the dagger where it sticks up from the troll’s leg and tugs it free. Even one completely without magical talent can see that it is ablaze with power.
“Do trolls too deserve choices?” she asks. “Would you grant the troll life again if you could?”
“Then your system is corrupt,” Limanda says flatly.
“I know, but-“
“I never said I didn’t like it. Come here. This blade will do.”
I follow Limanda as she walks into the Smithy.
Already charged with the death of the troll and the mandrake, all Limanda needs to do is mold the luminous iron in with the blade. Somewhat serendipitously, the steel dagger accepts the added metal and swiftly takes shape as a short sword.
Limanda works her magic over the forge, as I work muscle on the bellows. At times she needs me to lift things, and directs me here or there. Twice she calls me ‘Trannis’, but I bear it.
It is an odd time, and when the blade is finished, a day after we started, we are both exhausted.
We sleep then, back to back, before our work, resting our heads one against the other, both worn beyond belief. It is only now that I feel terrible pain in my ribs, and a weakness in my body I cannot fully explain. The troll had kicked me, but so absorbed had we been in our work, I had not thought to check.
It is Limanda who lifts my armor away, traces a finger down twin ragged lines of pus and crusted blood along my ribs. The touch is like fire. At first the heat is inescapably painful, and my breath rolls free of my lungs in a harsh gasp. Then her fingers touch my cheek instead.
For a moment I meet her grey eyes with mine.
Her eyes turn stonier than ever, though, and she looks away. I can see tears in them before she turns. She wraps my ribs, bandaging them up as best as she can.
The other villagers give us both a wide berth, even Arnold leaving us both alone. For a time, the solitude is beautiful beyond words. Despite the mixed cold and hot messages from Limanda, I feel safer here than in my own home. The singing sword is still cooling, but finally I feel close to my ultimate goal.
I will have my children back.
It is day three, and the sword still is not cool enough to touch. This is also the day I am sure the House will strike at me, and, coincidentally, the day my husband is sure to be back in town.
I had been unable to visit the Artifacte shop– it had been destroyed almost entirely by the troll.
It is then that my husband contacts me. The staff glows, a fire rolling along its edges. From its crystal tip, it projects an image of my husband– his white hair, his shaven face and warm brown eyes. He smiles at me– well, at the far wall. It is only a projection, after all.
Then he speaks.
“Trannis! I hope this finds you in good health. I trust with that meddling bitch and those brats out of the way we will be able to enact our overall plan. The hag had the plans for a singing steel sword. Well, you know House policy. Find them on her corpse– I trust she hid them well. Burn them. The House already knows how to make them. We don’t need any of that. Oh, and if anyone at the village asks, do tell them I’m dead. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise, now would we? I’ll be back in force in about three days time on the pretense of collecting bounty on my dear darling wife. That should do, eh? Anyway, have a blast if you haven’t already. Just don’t mess around with my research stuff, alright? I will see you in the flesh, as it were, in three-“
The staff shatters into a hundred thousand shards. The projection vanishes. I’m barely aware of my ribbon crawling back into place. My heart screams out, my fingers curled against my palms, my eyes shut tight. I hug my knees and take a deep, shuddering breath, trying to make sense of the dizzying message. No matter how many times I replay it, no matter how many times I push it or twist it or recite it mentally, the evidence, the terrible, horrible evidence is apparent.
The bounty on myself and my children was offered up by my husband, Ivan. Ivan.
The word echoes in my mind, bounces in the hollow confines of my heart until I know it will break.
Limanda enters the room at a run. A glance passes between the singing sword, the shards of the staff, and me.
“What happened?” she asks. “I heard some of that. Who was it? Who was trying to contact you?”
I cannot answer her.
I rise to my feet slowly, reach out to the anvil and lift up the forged singing steel short sword. I feel its balance and know it to be perfect. I twirl it in my fingers, staring at nothing. Then I stand and, ignoring the blazing, terrible pain as the sword marks my right hand with some of the inlaid script of the song, I begin to sing.
Those of earth too weak to see
The world that yet was made for thee
Come forth now and find thy home
Within the arms of your mother, your own
Children made to die untime
Children lost, daughters of Rhyme
Rise again and learn anew
The ways the earth had taught to you.
It is Kimberlin who forms first, appearing from the swirling air and rapidly taking form, confused, terrified, tears coursing down her face. When she can see again, when she can move again, she shuts her eyes against the glow of the forge, blinking.
Imberann forms second, and, being elder, rapidly goes from confusion, to terror, to confusion again– and then, as her eyes meet mine, she lets out a shriek, rushing to my side.
Kim soon follows.
The sword drops from nerveless, burned fingers, and ignoring the agony in my hand, I hold my children close again. The moment lasts forever, and it still is not long enough. I can see Limanda crying too. I can feel Kimberlin crying, can feel Imberann whimpering, feel both of their trembling, warm forms, feel their tears and their hopes and dreams all fragile and confused, emotions tangled into a massive knot, the scarcely remembered ghosts of pain nevertheless haunting them. I can feel all this and more from those of my blood.
And so, it is with heaviest heart, it is with the grace of the Tears that I manage to calm them both down enough to listen to me.
“Listen to me– Kim, Imber. Both of you. Listen to me.”
Arnold is at the door to the Smithy, and he listens too. The other villagers I’m sure are too busy making repairs to bother with us.
“Your father is the one who ordered you killed,” I say quietly. The words seem surreal, coming from my mouth. Even for me, my world goes hazy, blurred with stronger sorrow and compassion than I can bear. I hold my children close.
“We know,” Imber says solemnly. “We know all of it, mother. We saw you kill Trannis.”
For a moment it takes me aback. “You… saw me kill Trannis? While in the void?”
“We’ve always been with you, mommy,” Kim whispers. “Helping.”
“How-?” I ask, but stop. The ribbon.
“You needed our help,” Imberann says, when she sees my expression. “Don’t argue. We’re old enough. We’re not innocent anymore.”
“I–“ it is very nearly too much for me. I shake my head helplessly. “I thought Kimberlin at least might–“
“That man did terrible things to us, mother,” Imberann whispers. Kim nods weakly, and I see tears in both of their eyes and then it really is too much to bear. I’m strong for their sake, but inside my heart breaks and my resolve hardens.
“Are you going to kill daddy?” Kim asks quietly.
Limanda stares at me from across the anvil and then shakes her head slowly.
I turn my gaze on Arnold, and he shrugs helplessly. It’s all beyond him, I’m sure.
“No,” I say, and it is a struggle to keep my voice soft. “I am going to stop him.”
A voice calls out, then, as if fate crafted it.
“Raiders! They come from the north!”
Arnold curses and moves into the Smithy, towards the weapons rack.
I stand straight, however, giving him a look.
“This is my fight and mine alone. Limanda, Arnold, keep my children safe.”
I reach down and take the singing steel sword. It hisses in my grip, but I find it a comfort.
Then I walk out the front door to find my monstrous husband.
My feet carry my numb body out into the cold of a northern afternoon. The overcast sky brings down snow. I am in nothing but furs, bandages and breeches– Arnold’s breeches, in fact. They are a size too small.
The streets are crowded with panicked villagers– running to and fro, from one another’s houses or huts, almost all of them moving away from the approaching shadows at the edge of the village.
“Move,” I say softly. “Invisible.”
An almost imperceptible ripple passes through them as they part, consciously or not, to give me room to walk through them. It is a short walk from the Smithy to the edge of town, to the place I slew Trannis.
Four men stand at its outskirts– raiders? Well, they may well be. They are fully armored, chain mail hauberks and shirts, greaves and gauntlets. On their chests and on their shields– those that have them– is the emblazoned emblem of the House. Wolfsbane crossed with a dagger rampant on a black background.
One carries a longsword, gleaming with runes. One carries a greataxe, glistening with poison. One carries longbow and wears a quiver of arrows. At his belt is also a short sword. The last one holds a glaive, and it strikes me as an odd weapon for fighting a mark. Behind them all marches my husband, Ivan. He carries nothing at all.
“Calm down!” he shouts, ignoring me entirely. “We are not robbers! We are the House! We just came by to pick up the body of Rhymerta Craveheart.”
“Visible,” I murmur quietly.
I appear from the air.
“That should be interesting,” I say loudly, staring into his shocked brown eyes. “Since I am not dead, and Trannis the traitor is.”
“Rhyme,” he gasps. It’s almost inaudible, but my sword lets me hear it. “Rhyme, are you– you’re alive!”
“I may be a hag, but I know how to survive,” I whisper, just loud enough for them to hear me. I see him stiffen. I know he hears me. “Which is more than I can say for Trannis. Now, I will give you a choice, because I loved you. You may turn around now, and leave, never to return. Or we will fight, and I will kill you.”
“Is there not some way we can-“ he starts. I hear his magic words as he uses them to speak with the man directly to his left, the one wielding the bow. It is near simultaneous with his normal speech, making it hard to pick out, but the singing blade resonates with them all the same.
Shoot her when I say. I don’t know how she survived-
“You murdered our children,” I interrupt him. I know not how I keep my voice level. “There is nothing more we have to say.”
“Sword, resonate,” I whisper. I’m not ready to tip my hand.
The longbowman draws and fires in the blink of an eye, but my sword lets out a piercing shriek far faster than that. I realize that I am the only one who can hear it only after I clap my hands over my ears and realize they are simply standing in dumb amazement. The longbowman’s bow is in pieces.
Incredulous, he removes his quiver and empties it. Shards of wood, feathers and barbed arrowheads fall to the snow.
Circle left, Eric and John. Barris and I will go right. Isaac, take a retreat for now, but be ready on my signal.
The words vibrate through the hilt of my sword, and before they can enter their formation, I step forward into the dance.
All strategy forgotten, they close in on me all at once. I spin, and the sword draws a neat line through the air, cleaving through the longswordsman, separating neck and shoulder from his body.
Moving with the momentum of that spin, I bring the blade around to engage Ivan, but my blow rebounds from a hastily created shield. Momentarily caught off guard, I find my momentum again as the House-man holding the glaive brings the pole around and tries to catch me with the curved blade at its tip, moving in a broad sweep. Ribbon unraveling from my wrist, I wrap it around the shaft as it moves and twist to the side, pull it past me, easily tugging him a step forward and forcing his glaive to punch into the longbowman, who was attempting to flank with the short sword.
In this silent dance, I turn, draw the edge of my singing steel sword through the haft of the glaive-wielder’s weapon, then onward, barely pausing to deliver a powerful kick to his chest. I turn to find the greataxe swinging towards me, the man having stepped around the longbowman. The edge of the greataxe catches my arm, and something truly nasty stings abominably in the dripping track it leaves as it passes. He is too slow on the backswing, and it was not my dominant arm he struck– with the flick of my wrist, I bring my shortsword around and, taking a step as light as feather inward, I take both his arms at the elbow. All of this leaves Ivan.
Sound rushes back.
Screams. Wet thumps. The sound of blood pattering on the snow. Four men fall back from me. The gash on my arm is the only blood that is mine.
All of this, leaves Ivan. He stands there in his glimmering magic shield, shaking in fake-terror, staring me down with brown eyes that show vulnerability and hide calculation and deceit.
But not from me, not anymore.
I am not fooled.
“Suffer!” he snaps, and the word jumps like lightning from his lips.
“Solace,” I murmur, and the sword in my hand generates a hot glow that surrounds me in soft energy. The bolt of red lightning rebounds and hurtles off into the open air before exploding magnificently, raining sparks of red agony.
“Die!” he growls. The word turns ashen as it leaves his mouth and forms itself into a deadly bolt, which hurtles towards me.
“Day,” I whisper.
A shield of light and the rebirth of dawn washes over me. The death bolt enters it, but gradually disintegrates and slows until it is but a puff of bad air by the time it reaches me.
“Fall!” he shouts, pointing at the ground beneath my feet.
A rumbling beneath me nearly causes me to lose my footing.
“Fool,” I say flatly.
The ground drops out from underneath him. It literally crumbles away in a circle around him, exposing the dark abyss below, all the way to the depths of the invisible black ocean. He only has a precious second to react.
Before he can open his mouth, I interrupt him.
The world is quiet. His scream is silent, and he descends like a stone.
Actually, like an old family sword. He caroms from edge to edge, and I watch. I force myself to see his shield shatter, force myself to watch until I can see him no more, and all that remains is me, the red of my ribbons, my sword and the village.
I refute my statement inwardly, and sound returns.
“Heal,” I murmur to the earth. The singing sword closes the ruined hole at the edge of the village, and then the shine leaves it, and it is a dull sword once more. Perhaps only for today, but it is done, nonetheless.
And I am done.
There is a graveyard, on the farthest side of town, that I visit with my children every year. It holds Trannis, and a coffin for Ivan. Not the Ivan I knew at his end, but the Ivan I spent so many years with before. Next to them both are the graves for Kimberlin and Imberann. There is a grave for Limanda and me too. It feels… better that way. A piece of me died, a piece of them died– some part of us died that day, some part of all of us. And we share that, Limanda, me and the children, for better or worse.
I tie a red ribbon to each grave every year. So that I remember.
So that others will never forget.
So that all of us– all parts of us, are connected. The bad and the good, the irredeemable and the redeemed. We are all of us a family.
We are all of us moving on, one day and one life at a time.
©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)
Hey. This one took two days (and interest). I started it yesterday (roughly!) and finished it prolly around twelve fifty five. Like most of my work, it started off fairly small and then just snowballed into something. I started with the words ‘Red Ribbons’ as the title, and just started writing from there. Enjoy!
Decidedly darker than usual. I always say that, but this time I mean it.