So, I will put it to you, which series on here should I resume?
A Bridge For The Furies
The Wild Man
Comment below with your choice.
So, I will put it to you, which series on here should I resume?
A Bridge For The Furies
The Wild Man
Comment below with your choice.
(Previous episodes are here)
Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.
The djinn, a race of elemental beings who waged a guerilla war against the Caliphate and The Crow King, the Dwarven Realm. The elf kind, carnivorous and insane, remained in the mountains, lost to the madness of their biology.
It fell to a last alliance of men and dwarves to repel the invaders, a final assertion of order against the chaotic innocence of the djinn. Asra had lost her brother, twice in the final battle against the djinn and her mother lapsed into a terrible melancholia which caused her heart to fail. Bawwabat Jinn, where the last rift was, and the djinn sent back into their own dimension.
Mirabelle wondered if she had fled from one horror towards another, but Asra walked ahead, hands on the hilt of her twin scimitars.
‘How far down are we?’ Mirabelle said.
Her voice had a muted quality to it, which provided an answer. Asra raised her hand and stopped.
‘Far enough. If you wish to know The Dust, the djinn will know.’
Mirabelle swallowed and tasted the grit of the desert sand between her teeth. She missed Eilhu but could not allow herself to drink deep of her grief. Shallow sips to see her through the day, but part of her wanted to wail and wallow in the absence. Horror, poised to tear her world apart, and all she wanted was to see her golden-haired lover again.
She put it away. Her leadership demanded courage and she would wield it to light her way through the darkest hours.
A wave of slow warmth rushed down the tunnel and made them stop.
‘Can they get out?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra shook her head. She reached out and touched Mirabelle’s forearm.
They turned the corner to face the heart of Bawwabat Jinn.
It was a scar, forever frozen in the state of febrile infection, lit between its puckered folds by a flickering flame which gave off a persistent and powerful heat. The air prickled and Mirabelle stopped.
‘Our prayers keep the rift stable. I will call one of them to speak with us.’
Asra stepped forwards and drew her scimitars in a gesture as smooth as breath. The light caught the blades, and Mirabelle shielded her eyes from the glare. Asra swung the swords forward as she lunged from her hips and slid her right leg behind for support and balance. She lowered her chin and breathed in harsh, deep lungfuls of air.
The temperature rose a few degrees and Asra sheathed her swords.
‘WHO CALLS US?’
The voice came from Asra, but it was different. A thick, clotted rumbling with a hissing undertone, huge and inhuman. Mirabelle shuddered and stepped forwards.
‘I do. I seek knowledge.’
Asra remained frozen in place. Mirabelle drew closer.
‘YOU TAUNT US WITH YOUR EXISTENCE. WE SHALL NOT SPEAK.’
Mirabelle’s heart thumped against her ribs as she clenched her hands into fists.
‘I COMMAND YOU.’ she said.
Asra shuddered and the air thickened with the rising heat before the temperature dropped into a sharp chill.
A thick chuckle arose from Asra.
‘WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOUR HIGHNESS?’
Asra turned her head, eyes twitching beneath her eyelids and her hijab soaked with sweat.
‘Tell me about The Dust.’
Asra sheathed the scimitar in her right hand with blinding speed. Mirabelle had time to cry out before Asra’s fingers closed on her throat without pressure. The contact was electric, and the edges of Mirabelle’s vision blurred as a series of images rushed into her mind.
Bile-green clouds coat the sky as leprous, twisted things taste the air like maggots in dead flesh. A dying sun smears light on the earth and Mirabelle realises she is somewhere terrible. Every breath tastes of sickness and she spits onto the cracked, yellowing earth.
She sees a mountain in the distance, their outlines blurred by the thick, miasmal fog. There is a break in the cover, and she sees the mountain is moving, shifting with a relentless, orgiastic energy. A tentacle emerges from the mass, its tip blooming like a flower made of meat and a fat, pale tumour swells and bursts into the air. The mucus takes to the air in shuddering droplets which float towards her.
They move against the wind and Mirabelle reaches for the dagger on her hip.
She looks around her for shelter but there is nothing.
Something bellows behind her and she turns.
A giant, covered with dense brown fur looked at her with curiosity. She knew his name, had believed him capable of murdering her father.
The Wild Man.
‘You have no cause to be here yet, your highness.’
His voice boomed as he looked at the shimmering droplets moving towards them.
‘The Dust is the chaos of sickness, a disease with ambitions beyond the flesh. It is not a God but the sickness of Gods and it is patient beyond belief.’
Mirabelle appreciated the poetic but here it did not serve her needs.
‘Were you this obtuse with Eilhu?’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head as he dropped to one knee, still towering over her.
‘We learn through stories and allegories, your highness. This story is the oldest of all stories.’
Mirabelle frowned and drew backwards.
‘I’ve no time for stories, people are dying.’
The Wild Man smiled with all his teeth at Mirabelle. He was the beauty of tree bark and rich, tilled earth. He smelled sweet and each breath she took in his proximity, enamoured her to him.
‘This is the story where order must confront chaos and if it wins, it will create a new world from its remains.’
Mirabelle glanced behind her.
‘Is it chaos or order?’ she said.
The Wild Man chuckled and rose to his full height.
‘I am of nature, which is outside of the games of Gods. But I will tell you what you seek.’
Mirabelle’s stomach fluttered as she glanced up at him.
‘Words, your highness. You must find the words.’
‘I have words. Entire libraries of them, I came to talk to the djinn because there’s so little in the archives. Words won’t do.’
He sighed and gave her a look of concern.
‘You must travel further. When you return, look towards The Eternal City. Asra will help you.’
Her heart sunk at the thought of further travel.
‘The dagger is good, Mirabelle, but you will need more than blades to reach The Eternal City. When you get there, sit beneath the World Tree at fifth sunset and listen.’
She babbled questions, but he reached down and put the tip of his index finger between her eyebrows.
‘He fights for you still, and he loves you.’
Everything went black.
Asra stood over her, wiped her forehead with a damp cloth as Mirabelle blinked and stared at the burnished stone overhead.
‘Mirabelle, I came to and found you like this. Are you sick?’
Mirabelle sat up and sighed.
‘Only of my burdens, Lady Asra. I need your help.’
Once upon a time, Ahmed came back to the fire with a brace of birds, their plucked corpses swinging from his clenched fist as he grinned through a mouthful of broken, yellowing teeth and uneven beard. He tossed them to the dirt and turned his head to spit. The scimitar hung from his left hip was scarred from years of use, spilling the blood of the Caliphate’s enemies.
‘Allah has blessed my aim.’
Rashid stuck his dagger into the breast of a bird and lifted it from the sand, swiped the sand with a lazy swipe of his fingers.
‘It makes up for having to come to this place but only just.’
He glanced over the flames at where the Lady Asra sat with the queen from across the water. She wore the traditional hijab but her pale hands and red hair were visible. The sight of her aroused his flesh, but he held his faith in good standing. He imagined the curves
Asra could also kill him without breaking a sweat, which made his adherence to chastity easier to bear.
They had ridden out before dawn, accompanying the women on a ride out to Bawwabat Jinn. Asra wore a scarlet silk hijab and long skirts. She mounted a brown stallion. Mirabelle wore a hijab in white and had a small dagger sheathed on her hip. Rashid enjoyed how she mounted the horse, lowering her eyes to avoid tempting the men but with a sympathetic light in her eyes which inflamed him all the more.
Asra led them at a charge beyond the high white walls, out into the desert where the blank majestic scale made Mirabelle gasp with wonder. A clear, blue sky hung above them, bright and sharp as a blade and it hurt Mirabelle’s mind to see it.
‘It’s difficult to imagine anything lives out here.’ Mirabelle said.
Her voice was soft, assuaging the headache from too much time squinting beneath the harsh sunshine. Asra grinned as she sat upright in her saddle.
‘The desert is a test for the faithful. His designs are everywhere.’ She said.
Asra pointed out a crepuscular fox, its wide eyes staring at the group with temerity as its tall, wide ears twitched against the desert wind. Mirabelle cooed with delight but the fox wrinkled it’s muzzle and dashed away from them.
‘Have you been tested by the desert, Lady Asra?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra raised her fingers to her forehead and gave a deep nod in the saddle.
‘Many times, which is part of why I’m taking you out here.’
Mirabelle frowned and fought the bubbling unease in her stomach.
‘You said there’s knowledge out here.’ Mirabelle said. ‘Didn’t we leave behind an entire library?’
Asra adjusted her hijab and pointed across the desert.
‘There will be answers at Bawwabat Jinn.’
Mirabelle’s hand went to the hilt of her dagger. Asra had presented it, telling her it was part of her personal armoury. The blade was volcanic glass, its edges honed to a gleam and the blade etched with symbols. The hilt was a single piece of black bone, hard and pitted like iron with leather wrapped around it. Mirabelle curtsied and blushed as she took the gift and placed it in the sheath. Asra did not point out the cultural prohibition within the Caliphate at arming a woman to her, having won the argument through force of arms a long time ago.
They rode through the morning. Mirabelle saw the shimmering sheets of black glass which scarred the sand in jagged patterns and Asra slowed her horse to a trot alongside her.
‘There were battles fought here against the djinn.’
Mirabelle frowned and Asra flung out her hands as though flicking something unpleasant from her fingers.
‘They wielded elemental forces the way we wield swords. We suffered for it.’
Mirabelle wanted to ask more, but Asra’s expression, melancholic and aggrieved, stopped her.
Bawwabat Jinn was over the next bank of dunes. It was the remains of a rift torn between the dimension of the djinn and the human world, held open by powerful, ancient magic and kept as a fortress from which the djinn waged their war.
‘What will we find there?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
Bawwabat Jinn was a structure made of black glass, a permanent wound in the world and left abandoned.
It resembled the intestines of some massive creature, spilling out onto the sand from a wound in the earth, a slick tunnel which went deep into the earth. Ahmed and Rashid guarded the entrance, which pleased both men. Ahmed stood the bow at his feet whilst Rashid wielded a dual-bladed pole arm. The black glass twisted and looped, frozen tongues of fire arranged around the entrance. Mirabelle noted how the soldiers hid their relief at being made to stand outside. Asra adjusted her scimitars on her hips and walked down the tunnel. Mirabelle walked after her.
‘In answer to your question, the Djinn feared The Dust and fought against them.’ Asra said. ‘It means they had weapons, strategies and the will to defeat them.’
Mirabelle frowned and touched the hilt of her dagger for reassurance.
‘We have none of those expect perhaps the latter.’ She said.
Asra glanced over her shoulder and smirked.
‘Then we should get going.’ She said.
Mirabelle gazed into the darkness, her heart racing in her chest before she followed Asra into the Bawwabat Jinn.
Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.
I write this without expectation you will read it. The control I have is slipping away as my body is changing and along with it, my thoughts are rebellious and demonic creatures now.
Paul’s forearm spasmed and the quill fall from his fingers. He turned his palm outwards, examined the small dark spots underneath his nails and the root-like pattern of infection which blazed underneath the pale, soft skin of his hands. Women endured labour in agonies which lasted days, screaming and hollering until the child was spat out into the air, squalling and bloodied and sometimes died in the aftermath. Paul was subject to an inverted perversion of this, being both infant, vessel and midwife to his own transformation. He crawled from the cell, violated and nauseous as his thoughts clawed at the inside of his skull.
A sick king was a thing of derision, better to die in battle than bed. He laid down and closed his eyes.
The Dust was inside him, mounting an inexorable, silent assault and taking him by inches, merging itself in blood and bone as it altered him whilst maintaining his privilege and position. It had learned a measure of subtlety since transforming Ernst, realising the potential of harnessing a human viewpoint. It had shouted with Ernst, but in its possession of Paul, it had remembered the power of a whisper. By day, it sickened him and at night; it pinned him to the dirt of his soul and showed him the horrors of its world.
Paul awoke to a sky the colour of infected flesh, a liquid, rippling dance of green and yellow, clouds of bruised plum and necrotic black huddled around a malignant, poisoned sun. In the distance, a slick yellow fog blurred the outlines of mountains on the horizon. Beneath his bare feet, damp black sand scratched between his toes and stung the tender webs of flesh. The air stunk of decay, making each breath an insult and recalling long withheld memories of wars he had fought in.
‘Where am I?’ he said.
His voice faltered before the miasmal landscape around him. The air shimmered with heat as he looked around him.
YOU ARE WITHIN ME, AS I AM WITHIN YOU, PAUL.
He narrowed his eyes as he looked at the horizon.
The mountains in the distance shifted. Their outlines expanded, broke apart and reformed like ink in water, stirred by a mighty hand before they elongated into things which reached into the sky and extended barbed, slick tentacles. They danced and wavered in delirious triumph before they walked towards him.
I AM NOT ONE BUT MANY.
Paul turned and fled as the things moved towards him. They did not walk.
Some strode like proud potentates.
Others slid on chains of pendulous teats which oozed black ichor before them, staining and corrupting the sand to ease their passage.
A pair of creatures extended ragged wings and took to the air, spinning and diving with a carnal delight as they grew new limbs and curved claws with which to rend their prey into pieces. They screamed and it made the space behind Paul’s eyes hot with a grotesque pressure. Their throats swelled with a fair of grotesqueries and their new anatomies gave voice to songs which made Paul anxious and prickling with tears. The noise poked dirty fingers beneath his clothes, inside him and tested his wounds, old and new. Paul ran until his legs gave out and rolled onto his back with his hands raised to defend himself but it was too late.
They fell upon him.
Paul recalled rusted blades and the sharp crack of his own bones being reset, the sizzle of cauterised flesh and the dumb tugging of flesh to close his wounds. He tried to scream but a black, dripping tentacle slid between his lips and pumped a thick wad of something wet and wriggling down his throat. Claws tore away his clothes and he enjoyed the brief respite of warm air against bare skin before another chorus of horror fell upon him. His last memory was a blast of fetid breath against his cheek and the drilling sensation of a needle tipped claw spinning against the top of his skull.
He awoke and called for a servant to bring him fresh parchment and ink, water to bathe with and food. The servant remarked at the turn in Paul’s countenance, and how a new zeal had renewed their king.
Paul looked at the incomplete letter and read it as though for the first time. He chuckled and tossed the scroll to the flames. Love was a useful tactic to draw upon and Paul had returned with a grand and awful vision for the world.
Paul returned to the throne anew.
Once upon a time, Eilhu awoke from a thin, restless sleep. Beloved had pointed to a stack of cushions and told him he could sleep there. Her tone was light, but authoritative as she peered through the open door, cautious of more visitors. Her braids fell from her skull like vines as she shook her head and shut the door to the caravan.
‘He sends his troubles as single spies, but they arrive as battalions.’ She said.
Eilhu stooped within the caravan but Beloved negotiated the small space with a graceful ease, aware and cogent as she took a stoppered bottle and offered it to him. He took it and uncorked the bottle. It smelled of liniment and honeycomb, turning his stomach as he shook his head and passed it back. Beloved took a deep draught and swallowed with a deep grunt before she shivered with the bitterness.
‘Breakfast.’ She said.
Eilhu glanced around the caravan, hopeful she would produce a good haunch of meat or a crust of bread as a punch line to the general strangeness of the situation.
‘I’ve drunk my share of breakfasts but it smells potent.’
She smirked and shook her head.
‘It speaks to the second heart within you. We drink it every day.’ She said.
He took the bottle back and poured it into his mouth. It was thick, fermented with the pang of brine underneath the herbs and honey, coating the roof of his mouth as he swallowed it. He bent forward at the waist, struggled not to gag and kept it down. He shuddered before the warmth in his stomach smoothed out, turned the churning affront into a smooth, slow balm which made him glow from within. He stood up, banged the crown of his head against the roof of the caravan and winced. Beloved chuckled and opened the door, letting in the harsh curtain of sunshine as she stepped outside.
Eilhu followed her. The air hung with the matted warmth of worked horses, the smell of campfires and cooking meat but the sun hung high overhead and Eilhu appreciated the clean beauty of the morning as Beloved performed a series of stretches as other travellers and merchants acknowledged her with greetings in a variety of languages. Eilhu took a deep breath and glanced up at the mountains shrouded in mist.
‘We travelled far last night.’ He said.
Beloved kept her back to him as she dropped into a horse stance and sucked in the clear air, raising her chin to the sky and extended her arms to either side.
‘There’s no money in resting out here, Eilhu. The Wild Man has no use for commerce but us humans need a coin kept aside for food and shelter.’ She said.
Eilhu recalled the pale, fanged children who chased him through the woods. They had no use for commerce either. Beloved turned her shoulders and looked at him.
‘He sent you. I will train you and offer safe passage until we reach the harbour, but there are things you must offer.’ She said.
Beloved’s smile fell away.
‘Your truth. If you are to develop, then I must insist on your truth. Much of our training starts from here.’
She tapped her index finger over her breastbone with a controlled expression.
‘My breath?’ Eilhu said.
Eilhu glanced away and made fists of his hands.
‘There’s no point.’ He said.
Beloved laughed and shook her head.
‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.
Eilhu recalled Paul’s knife, flashing in the afternoon light as it hacked into the Wild Man’s chest, how he had plunged his hands into the wet cavern of his open anatomy and pulled out a thick knot of muscle, dripping with blood. He grimaced and Beloved closed the distance between them and struck him. The blow was too fast to avoid and he staggered back, his sinuses sung with pain as he cried out.
‘What are you doing?’ he said.
She stood and appraised him with care, her hands by her sides.
‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.
‘Can it break?’ she said.
Eilhu fought the threatened thump of his heart, the urge to retaliate charging through his muscles, compelling him to action.
‘You have faced greater odds than grief, Eilhu. The Wild Man raises no fools and I recognise my kin in you.’ She said.
Eilhu frowned as he rubbed his cheek.
‘And hitting me helps?’ he said.
‘Would she want you to devolve into a mewling worm in her absence?’ she said.
He shook his head as an enormous grief weighed on his insides, like a slab dropped onto him from a great height.
‘ You slapping me changes nothing.’ He said.
She raised an eyebrow and stepped backwards.
‘Unless you try hitting me back?’ she said.
He shifted, uncomfortable with the invitation and appraised her with concern. He sighed and brought his left hand up, jabbing at her with a speed which surprised him.
Her hands clamped on either side of his wrist and her fingertips found channels of agony which blazed down his arm. His head filled up with white agony and he fought the urge to cry out as he collapsed onto his knees. His left arm flopped down as Beloved relinquished her grip and stepped back.
‘Did you grieve in the moment, Eilhu?’ she said.
He grunted no and massaged his arm as he struggled to his feet.
‘No, can’t say I did. You said we were kin, what do you mean?’
‘The Wild Man does not restrict his rescue efforts to princes, Eilhu.’
Eilhu flexed his left hand and put his hands up to defend himself.
‘Then show me what you’ve learned.’ He said.
She smiled and began his training.
THE WEIGHT OF EVERYTHING.
Once upon a time the call to prayer awoke Mirabelle. The clean certainty of faith rang out, the notes rising into the sky like morning birds. Shimmering sheets of heat crashed against her skin like waves on the shore, and she reached to the wide flat bowl of water on the pedestal to her left, scooped up cool water and doused her face and neck with it. She threw on the scarf to cover her head and went to find Asra.
Mirabelle had been privy to state visits which were indolent affairs, fat slabs of indulgence and pomp wrapped around a single conversation which could mean shifts in power or deaths on the battlefield. She was not here as a queen, but a student and Asra’s lessons took different shapes. They would meet in the library in the morning and the garden in the afternoon, their routine broken by the regular adherence to prayer. Mirabelle would bow her head and fall silent, whilst people knelt down and prayed to Allah. She strode to the library. Asra was not there, but a servant passed on an instruction to meet her in the second garden.
Asra had buckled her sword belt, the twin scimitars rested on each hip and she grinned at Mirabelle’s confused frown as she wished her good morning. She had high, fine cheekbones and almond shaped eyes, dark with a self-knowledge, the eyebrows shaped to perfect crescents and her skin held a sleek, dusky gleam where the light fell upon it.
‘I’m not a warrior, Asra.’ She said.
She saw a rack of weapons set against the far wall. A bill, the heavy pole arm favoured by the common man rested next to a spear and a rapier with a carved hand guard. A wooden shield, bound with lengths of dark iron leaned at an angle alongside a short sword with a thin double edged blade.
‘You killed a man, Mirabelle to save your own life. What’s the difference?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle wandered over to the rack and picked up the short sword. What sword play she knew came from observation over experience, but the weapon felt good in her hand.
‘Wouldn’t blunt blades be safer?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra smirked and raised an eyebrow.
‘Yes, but who comes at you with a blunt blade?’ she said.
Mirabelle turned to face her, pointed the sword at Asra and fell into a competent stance.
Asra pointed to her shoulders and knees, barked out to relax the former and bend the latter before she slapped Mirabelle in the small of her back to correct her posture. She told Mirabelle to move the blade slow and watched her in silence. Her hands, warm and strong adjusted her arm and wrist which made the blade feel more natural in her grip.
‘You have knowledge, Mirabelle, but it is useless without intention and will. A sword focuses a mind as a book does.’
Mirabelle kept the point of the blade up as she sighed and swung the sword ahead of her in a slow arc.
‘We’ve the knowledge to know it won’t die by a blade, Asra.’ She said.
Asra told her to aim for the largest part of an opponent. The sword was thin and light, designed to stab and slash in quick flurries of skill.
‘A sword is a tool, the killing comes from the heart and mind.’ She said.
Mirabelle’s reserves of strength and stamina waned with the practice. Her arm ached, but, but the tension pooled in her hips and back as Asra checked her posture and moved her into place.
‘I’m not a swordsman. This insults the men who’ve sworn fealty doesn’t it?’ she said.
Asra looked around her.
‘When night fell, and your guards were outside whilst a man came to murder you, where were they?’
Mirabelle grunted and continued to swing.
‘Where was Eilhu?’
Mirabelle stopped and stared at her.
‘Hunting.’ She said.
‘Where was he?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle’s eyes prickled with unshed tears.
‘I sent him out. Away.’
Mirabelle swallowed, her tongue was fat and thick in her mouth.
‘He knew the woods and he was looking for his mentor.’ She said.
Mirabelle thrust the sword ahead of her, the motion came up from her hips and knees and concluded in a strike which had the flowing snap of competence.
‘I suspected him. I didn’t say but Eilhu knew my concerns.’ She said.
‘You abandoned him? Or did he abandon you?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle shook her head with passion.
‘It wasn’t a matter of abandonment. I wanted the assassin found. I never had to ask Eilhu.’ She said.
‘Ask him what?’
Mirabelle repeated the strike with good form but the transition to a parry proved awkward.
‘To act in my interest.’ She said.
‘Even if it meant capture or death?’
Mirabelle swallowed and lowered the blade. Asra’s hand came up and slapped her across the cheek. Mirabelle flinched from the blow, scuttling away from Asra but she followed her. Mirabelle swung the sword in her direction but Asra ducked beneath it and slapped her again. The blows were light but stinging as Asra’s hand circled around the bones of her right wrist and squeezed, which made the sword fall from Mirabelle’s hand.
Mirabelle bit back her cries of pain and reached for the sword but Asra put her hand on her throat, the fingers biting into the arteries on either side.
‘If you love him despite circumstances, if you believe he lives, then you owe it to him to fight, don’t you?’ she said.
Mirabelle pushed back but Asra slipped from her reach and slapped her again. She cried out and held her hands in front of her face.
‘I can’t. I’m bearing the weight of everything–‘
Asra sighed with disdain and went to grab Mirabelle.
They had been in the garden one afternoon, infected with a wriggling restlessness and drunk on the sight and touch of one another. They fought like cubs, and he had let her exhaust herself against him before Eilhu took her to the grass with a liquid ease, one arm beneath her to cushion her fall as he landed with her. The memory inflamed her and she turned her upper body to one side, grabbed Asra and tossed her to the ground. Asra grunted and rolled onto her side, but her eyes glowed with good humour.
‘See. Heart and mind.’ Asra said.
Mirabelle enjoyed learning, but this was a cruel lesson. Her heart sung with loss but she reached and helped Asra to her feet.
‘You made me act upon a cruel memory Asra.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra bowed from the waist and picked up the sword.
‘If it saves your life, then it is not so cruel.’
Mirabelle ran her tongue over her lips and tasted the fading copper of anguish and violence. She took the sword from Asra.
‘Teach me again?’ she said.
The Dust called to him in dreams.
It dry whispers caressed his mind until he woke screaming and sweat dripped from his pores, reaching for the flagon of wine he kept by his bed.
It amused itself by alternating between grand visions of realised ambition and prophecies of agonised failures, perfect recollections of defeat designed to mock him until he would stride down into the bowels of the castle and confront it. Despite the subtle tortures of age, Paul’s capacity for suffering was infinite. He stood in its cell and recited the chants to reinforce the barriers which held it in place until his voice gave out and he carried on in a series of dry, wasted barks.
Laughter drifted to him from the darkness and he stood with his head bowed.
‘You’re not the man we thought you were.’ It said.
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Your wit is invaluable.’ Paul said.
It chuckled like the bubbling of blood from a slit throat.
‘We are searching for them. A little joke at your expense amuses us.’ It said.
Paul breathed in through his nose and glared at the shadows.
‘I thought you might have picked up on how they got past you.’ Paul said.
The Dust lashed out at the barrier which made purple and white lightning crack like a whip against the cobblestones.
‘We could ask you the same thing but we know the answer. Your love of the little blonde boy makes you weak.’ It said.
Paul swallowed and turned away, gritting his teeth to hide his anger and fear.
‘We will find them both, Paul. Our covenant is sacred.’ It said.
Paul’s breath became thick like broth in his lungs as he sucked in the thin, cold air to gain control of his emotions.
‘Don’t hurt Eilhu.’ He said.
The Dust laughed at his request but Paul recited a chant which made The Dust squall with discomfort.
‘We understand. Hurting us does not make us any more compliant.’ It said.
Paul was drunk with exhaustion but his will and fear kept him alert. The Dust was quick to take advantage of any weakness in Paul’s defences.
It was a terrible ally but a wondrous weapon to possess. Paul had scoffed at such things before but time and circumstance had made his words into ashes, bitter to the last swallow.
‘Any more than mocking me will allow me to loosen your bonds. This aperture is enough for the both of us.’ He said.
He smiled at the shadows.
‘I have given you my children, Paul. Will you give me yours?’ it said.
Paul shook his head. Ernst had crossed the borders of their lands, or the thing Ernst had become and with it had gone Paul’s hopes for a subtle, quiet resolution to their troubles.
They had not acted within the borders of his lands. His arrangement protected the people from the worst depredations of The Dust and it was one of the slender notions which allowed him to believe himself in control of the situation.
The wound in his shoulder throbbed and as he pressed his palm against it, it gave off a suckling, damp heat.
‘I’ve given enough.’ He said.
The Dust laughed.
‘We decide.’ It said.
Its voice was not singular. Paul heard a choir of different ages and pitches. The frail pleading of an elderly supplicant, the shrill calls of a cornered child and amongst them, some of the sacrifices made on his path to the present.
The Dust knew when to place them ahead.
He heard his brother’s voice now, set like an insect in amber to the volume and tone he used before he died.
Calling his wife’s name as his brother watched the poison take effect.
Her voice was a mocking chime of denial. Laughter at his passion and presumption. She had seen through his use of pity as a weapon to the glacial ambition underneath too late.
She died first because he loved her more than his brother. He wept for them at his coronation.
Fatherhood changed a man. Not for the better, in Paul’s case. A single spark of joy set him ablaze and the years in secret had stolen the light from his soul, made him into the man who would find the names of great and terrible powers and make deals with them.
Paul walked out of the cell. He vowed to find his son and bring him home.
Eilhu would succeed him, even if Paul had to destroy a kingdom to do it.
The call came to him in his dreams and he went down to the cell, eager for news.
‘They found his friend but Eilhu got away.’ It said.
Paul’s heart leapt with hope and he asked if they had captured the Wild Man. He wanted to know the trick of resurrection performed before his eyes.
‘And did your by-blows bring him to ground?’ he said.
The Dust told him no, they had not. Paul’s hands clenched with thwarted ambition.
‘One forest spirit resisted your weapons.’ He said.
The Dust roared with petulance and anger, tested the wards against it until the air shook with its anger.
‘A forest spirit? Do you believe it’s all He is?’ it said.
His sister-in-law’s voice. Beneath its bonds, the Dust knew how to hurt him. Much like she did.
Paul gasped as a bolt of pain travelled up his arm and went into his head, slapping him to the ground beneath its force.
When he awoke, he was not alone in his head anymore.
The Dust was with him.
He tried to speak the wards but his lips sealed shut.
The Dust giggled, close as a lover inside his head. Paul wept but his eyes were dry and when he left the room, something else looked through his eyes.
It’s terrible ambition dwarfed Paul’s and its love, black as pitch, was waiting for this moment. Paul watched it all happen and hoped Eilhu would escape over service to the things which lived beneath his skin.
Paul had sought to rule Hell itself but not become it.
He stared into the water and hacked at his hair with a knife. He grunted when the blade cut too close to his scalp. The Wild Man plucked leaves and put them into his hand. Eilhu felt the warm sting of the cut on his head as he grimaced.
‘I remember the taste of these.’ he said.
The Wild Man grinned but his eyes were dull with fatigue. There was silver in his fur which caught the glimmering light of the afternoon and glowed like white hot embers.
‘You rub it into your head and they won’t get infected. Makes the blade easier to bear.’
Eilhu sighed and put a leaf to his lips. He closed his eyes and wrinkled his nose at the bitter, dark scent of the leaf. He popped it into his mouth and chewed with a shudder which went deep into the pit of his stomach. Once he had chewed it to a fine paste, he spat into his palm and rubbed it into his scalp.
He finished before dark and rinsed his head then ran his fingers over his scalp and shaved his cheeks and chin. He had not eaten, and the thought made his stomach rumble with hunger.
‘I look like a baby’s ass.’ he said.
The Wild Man chuckled and shook his head.
‘ I have an idea on where you can go.’ he said.
Eilhu stood up, put his hand on his stomach and narrowed his eyes against the last of the light.
‘You’re not coming with me, are you?’ he said.
The Wild Man’s mouth went down at the corners as he shook his head.
‘Your uncle brought something terrible into the world.’ he said.
Eilhu folded his arms and strode towards The Wild Man.
‘You’re abandoning me.’ he said.
The Wild Man leaned forwards and stared into Eilhu’s eyes. The fatigue was there, at war with the determination and all of set into a mind as infinite and expansive as the sky.
‘No. I trust you will follow my instructions but I must gather allies.’ he said.
Eilhu raised his eyebrows and was about to speak when he turned his head.
The Wild Man growled from deep within his throat, alarm flaring in an instant as he reared back and glared around him.
‘North. The caravan which goes to The Black River, get on and find Benevolence. Tell her I remember the taste of sheep’s face and stay with her until I get word to you.’
Eilhu’s heart thumped against his ribs. There were wet growls coming from the woods and the sound of scratching, rapid pattering.
‘I didn’t think it would end this way.’ he said.
The Wild Man lowered his chin and blessed Eilhu with a flicker of a smile before he pushed his chest out and pushed Eilhu behind him.
‘No one does.’ The Wild Man.
Eilhu saw the gleam of something wet in the darkness before he touched The Wild Man’s forearm.
‘I will see you soon, my friend.’ he said.
The Wild Man reached out and pulled a birch from the ground, showering the twilight air with clods of dirt as he clasped it between both hands and swung it before him. Eilhu backed against a tree and searched for a weapon.
It came out of the trees at speed, leaping with a shriek like a boiling child as it reached out for the Wild Man with long, clawed fingers and a mouth open to show its needle teeth. The Wild Man struck the creature with the branches and sent it flying. Eilhu heard the moist splatter of the creature breaking against the trunk of the tree and watched it kick and mewl before falling silent. Another had scaled a tree and leapt between the branches, coming at The Wild Man and screaming its hate for him.
Eilhu found a rock in the dirt and picked it up. It held a good weight and he tossed it into the air before catching it in his palm and bringing his arm back to throw it. He took a deep breath and flicked the stone forwards, putting his entire body behind the action.
The stone caught the creature in the bridge of its nose and sent it falling through the trees.
‘I’ll send word.’ he said.
Eilhu looked for another rock but The Wild Man bellowed as another pair of the creatures leapt towards him.
The dirt offered no solution, so he turned and ran north.
Nothing followed him, good or bad.
He limped into the path of the caravan, carrying goods and travellers from the West on a series of connected platforms, lashed together with rope ladders and led by a pack of horses which were twenty hands at the shoulder, swollen with muscle and breathing thick plumes of air into the night. They had stopped for the night.
Eilhu got directions from a guard and found the platform where Benevolence stayed. He reached for the knocker, a heavy iron thing in the shape of an open hand and slapped it against the door.
The door opened and a pair of clear blue eyes peered out from the darkness.
‘May I help you?’
A woman’s voice, amused but even.
‘He said he remembers the taste of sheep’s face.’ Eilhu said.
She opened the door. Her white blonde hair fell around her shoulders, she had a sharp nose and full lips with golden skin. She wore a woollen robe and her hands were dark with scar tissue across the backs of her hands, across the knuckles. She had the beauty of a winter sunrise, hard and glorious.
‘That’s the most romantic thing a stranger’s said in a long time.’ she said.
Eilhu blinked and staggered against the door as exhaustion overwhelmed him.
‘He sent me to you, Benevolence. I’m running from something terrible.’ he said.
Benevolence glanced to each side before she pulled him into the caravan.
Once Upon a Time, Mirabelle sat in The Grand Library of The Caliphate and stared at the growing stack of books which Asra deposited on the table in front of her.
‘Isn’t there a way you could just tell me what to do?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra beamed and shook her head. She deposited the last four volumes of Riz Al-Jabar’s diaries and stood back with her arms folded across her chest.
‘You will tell others what to do Mirabelle, but you will understand why.’ She said.
The rigours of the library were the work of The High Colleges across the water, men who sacrificed land and title to further knowledge but she noted the shimmer of headscarves as men and women acted on Asra’s will. She reached to retrieve a book but Asra shook her head and passed over a pair of black velvet gloves to her. Mirabelle slipped the gloves on and flexed her fingers.
‘These books must be old.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra swept to Mirabelle’s right-hand side and put her mouth to Mirabelle’s ear.
‘Poisonous too.’ She said.
Mirabelle shivered and folded her arms across her chest.
‘I’m not sure about this.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra untied the ribbon around a sheaf of papers and uncurled them onto the desk.
‘Always a good place to begin.’ She said.
Mirabelle peered at the writing, symbols arranged into groups of three or four, surrounded by ornate patterns of single slashes and dots which drew the eye with their intense detail. She looked up, feeling her cheeks flush as Asra traced along the patterns with her index finger.
‘I don’t understand it. I can read and write but this is High College work.’ She said.
Asra sighed and shook her head.
‘Knowledge is too precious.’ Asra said.
Her knowing smirk made Mirabelle’s cheeks hot. Mirabelle followed Asra’s finger as she translated the patterns.
They left the library, squinting against the light of the afternoon so Asra could partake of her prayers and then a light lunch served in the gardens. Mirabelle’s head swum with the dense, accumulated knowledge. A procession of horrors and myths which had reached out from the past to gouge their names onto the present. Mirabelle thought the food was delicious, but it turned to ashes in her mouth as she remembered the sick, ugly light of the arrow and the afterimages of the symbols carved into it.
She remembered her father’s final expression of shock and disbelief.
Asra noted how she pushed her plate away and gestured to the food.
‘My fears used to go to my stomach too.’ She said.
Mirabelle blustered and picked up a cube of beef, dripping with a fragrant pomegranate and cumin sauce.
‘I’m sorry.’ She said.
Asra rested her hand on top of Mirabelle’s and gazed into her eyes. Mirabelle stared back, the dark, almond shaped eyes fringed with long curled lashes set into her fine, strong features were beguiling.
‘A coward and a hero have the same fear. Which are you?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle set the meat down and slipped her hand from Asra’s.
‘I’m neither.’ She said.
Asra tutted and shook her head.
‘In private yes, but before your people, you must appear to know the way of things.’ She said
Mirabelle looked away and Asra’s hand reached out to take hers again.
‘There is something else, isn’t there?’ she said.
Mirabelle swallowed and gave a small, tight nod.
She told Asra about Eilhu. To her surprise, she watched a slow wave of heat travel up her throat and into her cheeks.
Asra sat back and put her fingertips together.
‘Well that is fascinating. Did your father know?’ she said.
Mirabelle shook her head and blushed as hard as Asra. Asra leaned forwards, her full lips curved into a warm smile.
‘We go to such pains to deceive our fathers when we become women. Father had no choice to accept me as I am.’ She said.
Mirabelle agreed but her mind was awash with memories of Eilhu, whispered touches and the grand, rolling heat of desire.
She had known such warmth with him, and despite the distance, his attention still spoke to the hidden places within herself. Not a princess, not a queen but a woman.
She wondered if she would have his forgiveness if they survived these events.
‘Would you tell me about this man?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle’s mouth was dry and she gulped from the goblet of water to her right before she nodded.
‘Oh Asra, I’m sure your stories are more entertaining than mine.’ She said.
Asra gave a soft chuckle and leaned into Mirabelle’s space.
‘Yes, but I’ve heard all mine. Come, if we are to face darkness then we must know the flavour of light, do you agree?’ she said.
Mirabelle’s heart thumped, the internal conflict of grief, guilt and desire spun gossamer webs within her bones as she took a deep breath and spoke.
THREE DAYS, THEN A FOURTH.
Once Upon a Time, Eilhu laid in the garden and stared at the sky. His insides hummed with a persistent fear, an acidic burst of hot, squalling concern which made itself known with each breath he took but he willed his face to remain calm, even bored. The servants had instructions not to disturb him, handed down from the king, but they watched him with a growing unease. For three days, he exuded a cold silence which stopped anyone from approaching him as he laid in the garden.
The sounds of his grief travelled across the castle like migrating birds.
Eilhu laid in the same spot each day beneath the largest willow, staring up at the gentle dance of the branches as petals made wistful arcs of descent into the ground beneath. The good, soft earth bore the outline of where he laid, blades of grass flattened in all directions and underneath it, a small divot of earth replaced by hand. Eilhu laid atop it each day as his head throbbed with the weight of secrets and a child’s faith.
Dusk fell on the garden, made the shadows thick and strong as Eilhu sat up and patted the ground underneath him before he got up. He glanced around, saw he was alone and allowed himself the grim luxury of a smile before he turned on his heel and spat onto the ground then worked the saliva with the heel of his boot before walking away with his hands behind his back.
The courtyard stunk of burned hair and flesh. Eilhu held his breath until he was back in his chambers and closed the door behind him. He washed his hands and face and walked over to the window which looked out onto the garden. Paul had The Wild Man’s corpse tied to chains and dragged up through the castle, teams of soldiers working in concert before being hung by the ankles from a large wooden frame. Eilhu turned his gaze at the first flash of the blade and the joyous howl of the court made him nauseous. Paul pronounced the sentence, but he knew the crowd were beyond the call of reason so he played to the theatre of the event, talking about the Wild Man’s crimes against the kingdom. He retold the story of Eilhu’s abduction, emphasising his brother’s grief and how it had stolen the breath from their lungs.
Eilhu held himself in check as he watched his uncle. His teeth gritted together and his hands were fists, bouncing against his lean thighs as he played the grieving, wounded son. His hand strayed to the tuft of hair held in the pocket of the tunic as he waited for the celebration to conclude. He made himself watch it all, including the point where they decapitated him, two soldiers with axes who worked in concert to compensate for The Wild Man’s thick neck. His insides were ash by the end of it, but he made himself walk to the garden afterwards and stand underneath the willow tree.
He dropped into a crouch and with his right hand, dug his fingers into the earth and pulled the grass up, tossing it aside before he scraped into the dirt with his fingernails. He buried the tuft of hair in the hole and covered it with a sweep of his hand then laid down, covering it with his body as he stared up at the sky.
The anger was bitter medicine, boiled on the fires of his grief for Mirabelle, blended with the bitter berries of suspicion and sweetened by the promise of revenge.
Justice was for kings and courts. Eilhu’s need was base and crude, but it gave him the will to get up and fight.
On the fourth day, he did not go to the garden but instead joined Paul at petitions, which drew concerned glances from the court but his presence lent Paul vigour and generosity of spirit. Eilhu joined him for a cup of wine afterwards, asking questions which showed his understanding of the questions and decisions made during the hour. He followed Paul for the rest of the day, retiring to the garden at sunset to sit in his usual spot before he went to his chambers for the rest of the night.
Paul laid on his narrow bed, tracing the silver scar where the arrow had punched into him all those years, the flesh puckered and warped from where the shit had gotten into the wound, ravaging his body and eating tissues like a starved man at a feast. It ached at night alongside his other injuries but this held special associations for him. It had been mortality’s first and lasting gift to him, a transition for boorish warrior to the man he was now. He laid there, awash with a cautious optimism which he forced himself to deny to avoid disappointment during the last few years.
The rumbling began and Paul got up from the bed, staggered over to the window and saw a column of earth shoot upwards, filling the twilit sky with clouds of spilled earth. He bellowed for his guards and shielded his eyes from the dirt which flew in every direction. He thought it sounded like a roar, such was its volume. He accompanied his guards to see what had happened.
The garden was a crater which went deep into the earth. All the plants and earth evaporated into dust. Paul took charge and assigned soldiers to clear it away. He retired at dawn, tight and fragile with pain.
An hour passed when Paul heard the rap of knuckles on his door. A guard entered with fearful eyes as he bowed to his king and when he gave his news, his voice was a broken, fragile thing.
‘Eilhu isn’t in his chamber.’