Trace

“This way, sir.”

The serving girl’s voice was tremulous as she led the man into a great banquet hall with high ceilings.

What illumination there was came from ensconced torches, but the fires seemed subdued, intimidated, as they made a futile attempt to eradicate the shadows pulsing in their wavering light.

On the dais were the thrones, and on the thrones were the dead king and queen, bedecked in their finest, cold as the fires were hot, and dead as the silence that permeated the place.

Their mouths and eyes were blood filled, their mouths in rictuses, as if they’d just eaten raw lemons.

Overall, the effect was one of scary clowns.

Their crowns reflected amber flares from the torch fires.

As they entered, the serving girl began to cry anew, and turned and ran, leaving the stranger alone to contemplate the bizarre tableau before him.

He looked at them a long moment, and was about to step closer, when to his right, two people entered and stepped up onto the dais.

A boy, and a girl, both finely bedecked as well.

They stopped before the dead couple, and bent to look at their faces.

Reaching out their hands, they touched the wrists to search for signs of life that long departed.

Satisfied there were none, the girl straightened first, and saw him, and touched the boy on the shoulder; he still preoccupied with the king’s face, straightened at her touch and saw her pointing.

They both looked at him with calm curiosity, as if he had a familiar face but they’d forgotten his name.

“Who are you,” the boy said.

“I am Trace.”

“What do you want here, Trace?” the girl asked.

“I’ve come to see who killed the king and queen. Are you their children?”

“We are,” said the boy.

“You don’t seem to be grieving.”

“We’re not,” said the girl. “They were awful to us.”

“And now you stand to inherit their thrones. Did you kill them for that?”

The boy stepped off the dais, the girl trailing, as they approached him, and stopped some five feet away.

“We have no intention of occupying the thrones of the dead; we’re leaving.”

“For where?”

“None of your concern,” the girl said.

“May I ask your names?”

“You may,” she said, “but we won’t answer you.”

“You’re here to investigate the deaths of our parents, and you don’t know our names?” the boy said.

“This is not my homeland,” Trace said.

The boy looked at the girl, and she nodded. “I don’t suppose there’s harm in it.”

“I am Kihari,” the boy said.

“Anjallay.”

Trace looked past them at the thrones with their occupants.

“I would say it’s a pleasure, but given the circumstances…”

Anjallay looked at them too. “Yes, the circumstances.”

“We’ll leave you to it, Trace. We’ll send the servants in to clean up when you’re done.”

“Where can I find you?”

“We’ll find you,” Kihari said. “Let’s go, Anjallay.”

Anjallay took Kihari’s arm, and  turned to smile at Trace as they walked past, and out of the banquet hall.

Trace walked up the dais, walked behind the thrones, placed his right on the king’s, his left on the queen’s, and whispered his spell in the dark.

******************

  Everyone was in high spirits; laughter, dancing, drunkenness, gluttony, groping under skirts, rubbing of raised crotches, moans and grunts from dark corners, and over it all, the light hearted music from musicians who large eyes betrayed they  were fearful of the chaos around them, but dared not play badly for fear of the king’s displeasure.

  A servant girl approached, buxom and golden haired, and the king’s eyes roamed over her as if she were a fertile field, which in his mind, she was.

  The queen looked her daggers and ice at him, but he ignored her.

  The dark wine shimmered in gleaming crystal glasses, and the queen took hers and poured it over the girl’s head.

  The king’s eyes followed the rivulets wine running down into her cleavage.

   She blinked, and though her face twitched to blubber, she dared not under the queen’s murderous glare; she curtsied, whispered, “Your majesties,” and quickly walked away.

  “That wasn’t necessary, Milal.”

  “As was your undressing her with your eyes, my ‘lord.’”

  He turned to her, reached for her hand.

  “You know it is you, and only you, that I truly love.”

  She did not take his, and kept her eyes on the dance floor.

  “I grow bored,” she said, and rose to leave, and could not.

  Her eyes grew large, as she tried again, and barely managed to lift the folds of her gown.

  “Is something wrong, dear?”

  “I can’t get up…my legs…Natay, I can’t move my legs…”

  Natay went to stand up to call out for an attendant, and found he couldn’t stand either.

  “What’s happening?” He looked out over the floor, and the people, obsessed in their festivities, were oblivious.

   He went to shout, and his throat seized, as if a giant had him by the throat.

   He tried to turn his neck, but could not; from the corner of his eyes, he looked at Milal, and she was convulsing, her fingernails scraping, hands shaking as she trembled.

   Her eyes began to bleed, and she went still, her hands going slack, fingers loose, and a pool of blood filled her mouth and bearded her chin, spilling in rivulets down the elegant gown.

   Natay’s own eyes were growing dim, but unlike her, he didn’t convulse; a massive jolt of pain hit his chest, as if a giant had stepped on his exposed heart; his eyes and mouth spurted red liquid, and he gurgled and moaned, and his death rattle was loud on his trembling lips, which finally grew still.

 

                                                *************

   A scream ripped through the hall, loud and long and high, and as everyone turned to see the screamer, she pointed at the dais.

   At first there was a ripple of laughter, mixed with some confusion, wondering if the royal couple was playing a joke.

  An older nobleman called for the physician; he arrived quickly, his bag in his hand.

  “You won’t be needing that,” the nobleman said, close to his ear.

  The hall was quiet, except for the crackling torch flames.

  The physician approached dais, his eyes searching, but his voice fearful, low so only they would hear his reprimand.

  “If this is a jest, majesties, it is done in poor taste at the expense of your guests.”

  He touched them both, and quickly drew back his hands.

  Turning, his face pale, his voice thick with sadness and anger, he said, “Call the guard. The majesties are dead, murdered on their thrones.”

   Amid screams and cries, the guards entered and cleared the room; it took a long time, but eventually, the hall was empty except for the physician and the Captain of the Guard.

   “What should we do, doctor?”

   “I know a man who can help; he’s in the next town. He will come tonight, if paid well. Send a messenger to get him.

   “His name is Trace. He is a mage, and he will tell us who did this.”

   “The king forbade magic.”

   The doctor sighed. “He is not a position to refuse, and beyond wellness, Captain. I seek his murderer,” then he gestured, taking in the queen. “Their murderer.

   “Send the messenger.”

   The captain nodded, and they walked out together into the hall, where two guards with severe faces, pinched from the fear of things beyond their ability to see or control, kept vigil over the dead.

   “And Captain, send him to me when he arrives.”

  “I will, doctor.”

   They parted in opposite directions.

******************

Trace took his hands off the backs of the thrones.

His palms were crisscrossed with keloidal scars that receded back to smooth flesh even as he looked at them; they always plagued him during a tracing.

The weakness he felt in his legs was dissipating, and he pushed himself away, not having realized he leant against the large, high backing for support.

The blonde serving girl was the only one who’d approached the dais in the time before the poisoning, but the queen did not drink her wine, yet was still struck, and struck first, by whatever spell had killed them.

It was a place to start, and Trace went to inquire of her whereabouts.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

   

Evensong: A Tale of the Aaralyn (A War of Canticles Story)

The last of the notes rang out over the plain, a minor note, mournful and haunting, fitting, given the surroundings.

The Aaralyn Sisters, linked through holding hands, their auras overlapping, stopped their singing and pulled their minds back from the focused blast they collectively sent into the midst of the warriors bearing down on their surviving remnant.

In the waning state of their collective trance, they heard the bodies of men and horses falling, weapons clattering and clanging as they fell from the dead soldiers’ hands, or fell to the ground, tossed from too far away.

They heard the cries and gasps, curses and screams, as men, used to the power of their strong arms and cruel methods, fell like slaughtered bulls at a pagan feast before the power carried in the singing voices of women half their size.

In the moments that followed, as if from a dream, they opened their eyes.

Gradually, the effects of so great an incant took its toll: some collapsed, most began crying, some cheered, others embraced.

Singer Krista, the Elder among them, merely looked out over the carnage, and gave a deep sigh.

She had given everything, and in victory, felt as empty and afraid as when they began fighting.

The multi-sided attacks decimated their numbers, and there were things that now needed doing that took her beyond the immediate sense of relief and celebration.

The priests, the wizards, the witches, the sorcerers and sorceresses had all come a-killing, to take the voices, and power of the Aaralyn, because they dared not abuse it to rule the world.

The warriors were the last.

In not fighting, Krista knew now, the Aaralyn made the world think they could not.

They’d just proven the world wrong, though the cost was dear.

The sun was low in the sky, and the clouds were breaking.

In the distance, the birds began to circle.

“Is it finally over, Singer Krista? Do you hear anything?”

The speaker was young, new to them by two years, gifted, but untried, until now.

Krista turned weary eyes to her, and saw the young woman trembling, eyes wide, still fearful, full of nervous energy and adrenaline, but skittish now; the carnage had overwhelmed her resolve.

Had the battle continued, this one would have bolted, or died, but Krista could not hold that against her.

“We are all that remain, Singer Willow.”

Singer Willow embraced Krista tightly, needing something solid to hold onto, physically as well as mentally, and Krista returned the embrace, looking out on the carnage as the girl’s body shivered against hers, her quiet sobs muffled in Krista’s dusty robes.

She cries on me, for she believes me to be strong, but there is no one stronger to comfort me.

I hope the Victory Canticle is completed, or the last thirty years have been for nothing.

 

***************

By the time they returned to Singers Hall, the snow was falling, and they had just made it in before the storm.

Baths ran long, wine flowed freely, sleep ran deep, and as the days passed, the sick were tended, the wounded bound, the dead buried, and those who needed help to deal with what they’d seen and done received it.

In the weeks that followed, as the snow melted, and the roads were muddy and troublesome, but passable, and the sea more or less temperate, if cold, some packed to return home, renouncing the elite sect of Singers.

Singer Krista bade them farewell, and wished them the best, and released them to their destinies outside of the Aaralyn’s ranks.

It was not a calling for everyone, and those who tried to force themselves to be a part of something that went against their better judgment, went against their own souls, were counseled to voluntarily leave.

They forcibly expelled those who did not take that option, but continued to struggle.

******************

Singer Janis knocked on the door, and Krista bade her enter.

“How are you, Krista?”

“I’m tired, Janis, in more ways than I care to count, but we are here. The Canticle…?”

“It’s finished. I saw it personally, looked it over. We tested the incants, and they didn’t penetrate.”

“And the protection?”

“Made from the finest, by the best in the realm; it will be well protected.”

“I’m pleased.”

Janis turned to go.

“Stay a moment, Janis. I need to talk.”

Janis turned, surprised.

“All right.” She sat.

Krista sat up straighter, folded her hands in her lap.

“I’m disbanding the Aaralyn.”

Janis sighed, shifted in her own seat. “I was wondering…”

“You’re not surprised?”

“Not at all. I even understand why.”

“Why?”

“Our numbers are greatly reduced; we lost a lot of power in those battles. We need to replenish, and these young women can’t do that here.”

“Exactly. You do understand.”

“But they will marry common men; there’s no equivalent to our order among men.”

“True, but there is nothing to be done for it; the mothers will recognize the daughters who have the gift. We’ve had Aaralyn who’ve abandoned our ranks throughout history.”

Janis nodded.

“But as for the Canticle of Victory, I have a plan.”

And as the night unfolded, she told Janis about it.

**************

“Seems a bit dramatic, Krista, but all right; you know that even crystal can shatter at the right frequency.”

“That may be true of ordinary crystal; this isn’t.”

“How so?”

“All of the factions have contributed, but we put in the final piece, the key that unlocks the Victory Canticle to draw it out, without shattering the container, and its protector.”

“And what is the key?”

Krista smiled.

“She hasn’t been born yet.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me, Krista…”

“There is, but see it done, Janis. Please.”

Janis took that as her cue, and rose to leave.

“I’ll see it done.”

2)

 

     Toward winter’s end, as the battle weariness began to fade, and the women began to return to a sense of life, if not normalcy, Singer Krista felt the time had come, and called a gathering in the ampitheater.

The Aaralyn came, curious, excited, and nervous, as they’d more or less passed the winter in idleness, left to their own devices.

Some practiced, some studied, some pursued hobbies, and there were the usual amounts of squabbles, clique fighting and infighting, but now they were eager to get on with things.

Krista and Janis had seen to the nobility that called on the Great Hall after the cleanup, seeking their alliance in gaining this throne or that throne.

Krista let it be known that having been attacked from all sides, they would take no sides, since they’d had no allies in their hour of need.

Soon, it wouldn’t matter.

The ampitheater carried sound, so there was no need for her to raise her voice.

When Krista took the stage, the ladies grew quiet.

“Welcome, Singers. There is no easy way to say this, but this will be our final gathering.”

There were some surprised gasps and cries, but the Elder put her hands up for silence.

“We’ve known this day was coming for some time.

“Look around you.”

She gave them a moment as they did.

“These are all that remain.”

She let that sink in.

“The time has come for us to rejoin the world.”

More cries of resistance peppered the air.

“Singers…sisters…we must be realistic; our times and purposes have been fulfilled, and the Aaralyn have emerged victorious.

“But we must ever be present in the world, lest these times come again.

“And for that, we need children, and for that, we must rejoin the world.

“My own time is past, my children long taken from this world at the war’s beginning, to break me. To stop me. And it almost did.

“But those of you who remain are young, fertile, and for the most part…”

She smiled.

“…beautiful.”

There was a ripple of laughter, as intended, and she waited until it passed.

“And then, there are the Canticles.”

They once more gave her their attention.

“The books have survived, and been copied. There are compendiums, hidden, and individual copies, the ones you received. The ones you used to ensure our survival.

“When we depart, you will have these books among you, so they will be scattered throughout the world as we know it. Guard them well, with your lives if need be.

“But as you leave to start your lives over, and start your families, there is one Canticle that will remain here, buried and unmarked.”

Murmurs of surprise filled the theater.

“This Canticle will be used to defeat any more factions that may gather in the future; it is the most potent of all. It will supersede all others, even those written by the factions against us.

“It was worked on in secret by the most gifted Aaralyn, centuries before most of your births.

“We had to search for it, and in the searching, we lost more of us, even as we were devastated in the killing that almost consumed us.

“The remnant of factions against us that survive already works its opposite to counter, but as yet have not succeeded, according to such spies as remain among them.”

She noticed them beginning to shift, and knew she had to close.

“This is the last piece that needs to be done before we go.”

She removed from beneath the podium an ornate teak box with bronze reinforcements and locks.

Opening it, she removed a faceted crystal, light blue, with an opalescent vapor slowly swirling about within it.

The women admired its beauty as Krista held it in sure hands.

“This is the Canticle of Victory.”

She placed it back in the box, and removed another; this one was black with silver reinforcements and locks.

From that, she removed a coiled serpent, wrapped three times, also of crystal.

Some of the women murmured at that, some looked away.

She then took the crystal out again, and placed it in the serpent’s coils.

The opalescent vapor in the crystal came out, and entered into the coils of the snake.

As it filled, the snake’s hood spread, revealing it to be a cobra.

Krista could sense the repulsed fascination, and indeed, as Janis said, it was dramatic.

Her audience gasped.

“The Canticle of Victory is now sealed, until the next time it is needed. It will be left in a mountain cave with nothing to mark it, the passing of time burying it further still, but don’t worry, Singers.

“Whoever needs to use it, they will find it. She will be told of its existence, and if she is the right one, at the right time, she will find it on her own.”

Another silence, but this one was heavy, as the Elder began to weep.

“It has been my life’s honor to fight beside you.

“Your bravery, though unrecorded, will live on in the fact that the world still exists, tattered and bruised though it may be.

“Our power, and our unity, did that.

“The earth you now walk is the one you helped save, and as we depart from here…”

   She sniffled, and dabbed at her eyes.

“May your daughters be blessed to fill our Great Halls once more with song, and our world with peace.”

“We are adjourned.”

She put the serpent and crystal in the black and silver box, and sealed it with an incant.

Her attendant came, took it, gave a brief nod, and left to start toward the mountain cave.

Applause thundered, tears flowed, cries, songs, and ululations rocked the ampitheatre as the women hugged, kissed, and embraced each other.

Krista moved among them, smiling, blessing, and as the sky darkened and the theater emptied, the sun set and the moon rose, and the chill winds blew snow from the peaks, the age of the Aaralyn passed into history, faded with time.

And the final notes of their farewells soaked into the stars above, to disappear in the light of a new dawn.

**************************

When Singer Lisa arrived at the cave, the moon was high.
The horse was somewhat winded, but she’d explored the mountains often as she hunted, and she’d remembered to bring oats, carrots, and let it drink from the stream where she’d spent many an afternoon poring over her Canticles.
With deft movements she exposed the cave’s covering.
When a gust of wind blew sparkling virgin snow, she placed her scarf over her mouth and nose as she retrieved a lantern from another pack she’d fastened to the saddle.
This needs to be done quickly.
She left the pack with the box on her back; she’d endured its discomfort there for the sake of its importance for the whole ride; a few more minutes wouldn’t make a difference.

She slipped inside the cave.
In the narrow tunnel she had to bend, but it would open back up to where she could stand again.
She reached the space, allowing the lantern light to fill the space and her eyes to adjust.
A figure in a black robe lined with silver sat on a rock, and turned to look at Lisa.
Its eyes were blood red, and glowing, and its skin white as the virgin snow surrounding them.
It stood up, and in its left hand was a walking stick of old bone.
Its lips were thin, and flushed with red as well, darker than its eyes, but stark in contrast against its face.
Langorously, it extended its right arm, and the hand, with long fingers and hooked red nails, was palm up.
It spoke to Lisa in a woman’s voice, low, almost sultry, belying its bizarre appearance.
“Ah, welcome, Singer…” it tilted its head a bit, “…Lisa, is it? I see you’ve come to return my pet.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Mist Eri

I was dying.

Cold, hungry, thirsty, and weak, lost in the mountains, with no stars to guide as the rain fell, and fell, and fell.

I slipped, staggered, stepped into mud, cut my fingers, wrists and arms fighting for life on the sharp crags that seemed determined to defeat me.

When night came, I was blessed with a shallow ledge that had some cover above it, and I rested, sure that this night was to be my last, hoping too, that the indifferent god I served heard at least this one prayer, and granted me leave to depart.

He did not.

**********************

I woke before the sun, and the rain had stopped.

Not in a hurry to start another weary journey to get nowhere, I took a moment, in spite of my dire needs, to admire the grim, sodden beauty of the view.

Mist was everywhere, gray and somber, moving across the valley like spirits in purgatory, neither light nor dark, trapped in a slender slice of the bleak void where nothing laid claim to anything.

It wrapped around the mountains too, like soiled white banners, and as I rose and stretched, something cold seemed to touch me.
A patch of skin on my forearm grew wet from the contact.

I gasped, and turned, and there she was, insubstantial as the wind, and present as the rocks all around me.

“What?”

I dared not move, lest it shove me from the ledge.

I am no ‘what’, but ‘who?’

I could see the shape of her, white in contrast to the gray, but there was no face to speak of; I could see through where the eyes should have been, and what would have been her hair kept bunching and dropping across her what would have been her shoulders, all of mist, all rolling like the banners and spirits, spreading apart, and gelling together in a rhythmic cycle, as if hands were moving it, as if in tandem with a heartbeat.

Human shaped, but nothing close to human.

“Has my rest here disturbed you, spirit?”

No. Indeed, it has given me company through the night. You are far from home.

A hole again, where the mouth was, but the mist moved around it like living flesh, in the manner of a woman speaking.

“I do not know which way my home lies.”

Then I will guide you.

“I am too weak to descend, now. I won’t survive the journey down.”

Then I must make you strong.

“How will you accomplish that?” My voice grew annoyed; I just waste

If you but follow, I will make you strong. Come.

“Very well. You said that you were ‘who,’ not ‘what.’ May I know the name of my savior.

I am called Eri. It has been long since I last saw men here. They passed through in days of old, with instruments of harm. We did not let them cross, and they rest below these paths you trod.

“The mist in the valley below…”

The shape gave a single nod. “They are the souls of men, unable to find respite, desperate to attain peace, but their many victims pursue. The valley is ever shrouded with their hunting.”

I shuddered at the thought.

How many? How long?

The sun rises, and I will leave you then, despite my will to stay. I cannot fight the sun. Will you follow?

“Yes, Eri, I will follow.”

She engulfed me, and the coolness of the droplets that made her refreshed me; my bones were free of pain, and my muscles of stiffness. My vision sharpened, as did the contrasting shades of pewter and silver, iron and lead, metal and steel, and she appeared again in front of me now, and began to glide over the narrow path.

The sun began to glow on the eastern horizon.

I could feel my mouth smiling in amazement.

“Follow. We don’t have long.”

And I followed her.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Move Ye Not the Ancient Stone

Move ye not the ancient stone

Things beneath best left alone

Wait upon thy freeing hand

So they walk upon the land

Once to fright us

Twice to kill

Thrice the darkened void

to fill

Stay thy hand

from ancient stone

Guard of spirit

flesh and bone

Me and thee

and everyone

til the rising

of the sun

Move ye not the ancient stone

Move ye not the ancient stone

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015