In the Darkness,
amidst hemp woven threads of thoughts and
the shining introspection done, done, and dying,
I sigh in sight the fading light of eternity’s Eye
and question the Questions of the lying beak,
and point to the Dame’s Tower boiling bright,
Its fires fanned by Dragon’s wing and tongue.

—Tomes of the Touched

Night no longer came to Herald’s Watch with the fires of Eliles’ tower burning, nor did the days arrive with a sense of normality. Fire and steam clouds hid the sun, the moon, and the stars. Her entire world was an island, and she its all-powerful goddess, but unlike the gods, who were wise to approaching omniscience, ignorance plagued her every waking thought.

And boredom.

After weeks of eating fish morning, noon, and night… or whatever passed for time these days… it wouldn’t be long before she grew a taste for Artus’ tongue-curling spirits.

Ivin’s cousin had gone straight to the granaries and cobbled up a still, then set to fishing every day. Count one man on the island contented with his peculiar life.

In fact, most folks adapted better than she’d figured. Jinbin tended to the Temple of the High Sun, proclaiming himself high priest of the island while setting about learning to brew in fact rather than in theory. Taking on the temple’s duties wasn’t so much piety as it was claiming the small brew house. The only heated words on the Watch were a war over the virtues of ale versus whiskey, a combat ended with both men snoring rather than dead, and with drool from their lips sufficing for blood on the battlefield.

Seden laughed over her iron stove as she cooked every day at the Salty Frog, serving a warrior’s fiery whiskey and a monk’s latest experimental brew every noon and night. And if she wasn’t there when you arrived, all were welcome to the stove and stores. The Frog had become the center of civilization on the island, with it a rare day everyone didn’t arrive to sup.

Artus and Jinbin, along with Poluk (a man born and raised on the Watch) tracked down the three mules who once worked the mill, and they again had fresh-ground grain. Someone had set the mules free when ships refused to haul them. Poluk cared for the animals and the grindstone, and bragged how he was the only honest miller in the world, seeing as no coins changed hands.

Everyone had something, except her. She could fish, but grew annoyed at the taste of her catch, so most times she walked the island or stared at the flames of her creation.

When Artus Choerkin strolled to her perch on a rock overlooking the harbor, she’d combined two of her pastimes, sitting with a fishing pole, its hook resting on stone, while she stared at the fire. He planted a foot with a stomp to get her attention. “We’s got a problem.”

A groan reached her throat, but she resisted the childish noise. Instead, she gave him a childish glare. “What?”

He jutted his chin and rubbed his whiskers. “They ain’t grown since yer fires went up.”

“You wanted it to grow until you could use it as a belt?”

He arched a brow as if giving it consideration. “I’m thinkin’ that’d be more laughable than useful. No. Not a damned thing’s grown. Not so much as an onion nor flower.”

Sooner or later they’d be down to fish, and that was something she couldn’t stomach. “You expect me to make plants grow?”

“Them gardens, they don’t wilt, nor die, nor grow; budded flowers haven’t bloomed, and those blossomed don’t drop no petals. They don’t change ‘less we pick ‘em.”

“You think the Sliver stopped time?”

He scratched his beard. “We can see the sun and moon cross the sky, sort of like, and we’re damned well moving about. Maybe if I knew a different definition for time I’d say yes, but as it were, I don’t have a word fer it.”

Eliles stood and hopped from her boulder to the shore. “Perhaps we should stroll the gardens?”

She’d spent most of her days around the docks and rocky shore, avoiding the upper city with its fortress and temples. Memories of Ivin, Kotin’s pyre, and walking on ground claimed holy, brought memories to chill or sadden her. It was childish avoidance to stay away, she admitted to herself, but even as they strode through the first gate into the main city, she regretted the steps. Memories are a false pain. Dareun told her this a hundred times as a child, but as now, it did little to assuage the sorrow bringing a curl to the corner of her eyes. She clenched her fists and strode onward with Artus by her side.

They passed through the winding maze of squared gray buildings until they passed Skywatch’s white dome. As holy a place as anywhere on Kaludor, but she avoided it as if it were a fevered rat; a pang of guilt churned her gut, but she stiffened her back and pushed on until they reached their destination.

The gardens stood green and full, rows pruned and weeded to a perfection which should require a dozen monks tending the soil every day. Vines were tied to trellising with a scant finger’s new growth beyond the tie strings. Eliles leaned, cupping a bunch of grapes, the tiny fruit still green. They were a hardy varietal called Fedud, sometimes grown on the southern tip of Kaludor. She recalled them from when she arrived on the island, the first time she’d seen grape vines in her life, and they had changed little.

“Wilu and her boys tend the gardens?”

“Aye, they do. They’re the ones who came to tell me  they’d been watering the damned things, but otherwise hadn’t any work to do.”

She stared, willing elemental Life to flow into the fruit. Healing had never been a strength, but she could staunch the flow of blood in a minor wound and heal it to a scar, and a plant was simpler because it didn’t require Spirit.

If the tiny thing had shriveled, split, or popped it wouldn’t have surprised her, but doing nothing did.

She gave the thing a squeeze for no good reason. “I don’t know what to think.”

Artus whistled. “A damned shame, that. You and me could’ve made us some wine. Then I’d be one up on that damned monk.”

Eliles giggled and let go the cluster as she stood. “These are for eating, a poor wine grape I’ve heard.” She turned in a slow circle observing the garden. “I’ll find an answer, my belly depends on it.”

Seden trotted through a gate, and she turned soon as she saw them. “Eliles! Artus! I found a body.”

She spun on the woman. “Who’s dead?”

Seden waved for them to follow her. “I don’t know. A child I think.”

“There aren’t any children on the island.” The youngest was Wilu’s boy, Kavlin, and he was near twenty.

Seden gave her a straight-lipped stare before speaking. “That’s what makes it all the more peculiar, ain’t it?”

She lead them to the keep, through its main doors, and into the hall where Kotin died. Eliles held her breath and wiped memories from her mind the best she could as they crossed the maple floor and entered the corridor leading into the great kitchens. Seden didn’t pause a twitch before striding through an open door leading down a steep set of stairs into a cellar.

The chamber was thirty paces long and twenty wide, with a high arching ceiling. The shelves were barren, and only half a dozen empty barrels and a couple cracked crates sat stacked in a corner.

Seden said, “I was looking to see what food stores we might’ve missed, any kinda supplies, really. I didn’t find much, but this door under the stair here was locked, then I found the key hanging behind the stovepipe in the kitchen.” She turned and pointed at a door half open, but at first all Eliles saw were large bags marked “wheat flour” sitting in a pile of tiny white and tan crystals. Then she noticed a booted foot jutting between two sacks.

Artus said, “Lord of the Forge. Found just like this?”

“No, I moved that sack of flour, uncovering the foot.”

Eliles kneeled, but got no closer. “The body… covered in salt?”

Artus nabbed a single crystal half the size of his pinkie’s nail. “Aye, there’s an exit from this cellar leadin’ to several towers on the eastern side of the island, salt here’s for melting the paths, come ice in the winter. Ain’t no place I ever seen flour… nor a body.” He lifted the sacks and took a shovel hanging from the wall, hesitating to scoop the salt away. “Should we say a prayer, quick like?”

Both their eyes landed on her. As if she were an actual priestess. “Save our prayers for the pyre, seems this soul has been wandering for a while now.”

Artus shrugged and pointed the shovel, then flipped it and scraped salt away instead of jamming the blade in the heap. First, hair appeared, then the shriveled face of a boy.

Artus muttered, “Damned to the hells.”

It took Eliles several flickers before she could put a name to the familiar face. “Joslin.”

Seden said, “His parents wouldn’t have left without him, not without saying something.” She kissed two fingers and placed them to her forehead.

Artus exhaled and shook as if chasing off a chill. “I’ve known him since he were a suckling babe, his parents, grandparents…”

Eliles said, “How?”

Artus pointed. “Some bastard done broke his neck, I’d wager, by the crook there.”

“I mean… How do parents leave their child? No one mentioned anyone missing.”

“Them days were crazy… Maybe he was to travel with the clan while his kin sailed? Can we say for certain they aren’t hidden, dead somewhere on this island? Hells if I know the truth. No way to tell even how long the boy’s been dead, salted as he is.”

Seden stood with her back to the body. “Why would anybody kill a child?”

“Aye, that’s a question, ain’t it? Folks don’t go about killin’ youngins for no damned reason. He saw something. Knew something.”

 “Joslin was in the hall when Tokodin poisoned Kotin.” When the words passed from Eliles’ lips they brough a chill deeper than the cellar’s cold.

Seden’s stare was aghast, and Artus’ cold before he spoke. “They said a boy found Meris’ body the day she jumped, too.”

Eliles remembered it well, it’d been the first time she met Artus. “Saw her jump, as I recall. What are you suggesting?”

“Ain’t suggestin’, just observing. A hells kissin’ coincidence, don’t you think?”

“We need to search the keep and towers, make sure we don’t have more surprises. Seden, you fetch everyone.”

The woman trotted for the stairs, eager to get out this place.

Artus eyeballed her. “When Kotin and Rikis were poisoned… What the hells could the boy have seen that he wouldn’t have told? From what I heard, Pikarn scared the piss right out of the boy, he weren’t keeping nothin’ back.”

“Did you ever see Joslin after Meris jumped?”

“Godsdamned hard to be certain. Not once I remember, nohow.”

“Me neither. But we weren’t looking for him. For now, we assume he died because of something he saw at the time Meris jumped.”

“If she jumped.”

“If.” She scrunched her nose. “I’ll feel better waiting for the others upstairs.”

* * *

Jinbin and two other men exhumed Joslin’s shriveled body and hauled the child away. Artus handed a horn from the keep’s store to a member of each search group. Artus directed each group to a wing of the keep in addition to outbuildings, hoping to leave no door unopened this time around. “Anyone sees anything, blow the horn, then head for this hall. As we now know, watch for locked doors. You hear a horn, you come back to this hall and we gather up. Be careful, I don’t think there’s a soul outside ourselves on this godsdamned island, but…”

Jinbin patted a long knife at his belt, and Wilu’s boys both carried axes. It was the first time since their first exploring the island she’d seen folks armed, and she held no doubt other weapons were hidden.

Eliles said, “Anything at all suspicious, don’t keep quiet.” Folks muttered and gathered into their groups, wandering off in all directions. Artus hung tight by her side. She glared with pursed lips. “I don’t need a guard.”

“Aye, but I just might.” He raised his quivering hands and gave a frightened whimper, then a smirk as she giggled. “How many crooks and crannies of this keep do you know? There’re four levels, including cellars, but not including a dozen towers, and passages I’d wager weren’t walked more than twice a year when folks lived here.”

“Fine. I’ll protect you.”

Several candles later, not a horn had blown, and she began to believe she knew what lay through every arch and behind every door in Herald’s Keep. They crisscrossed paths with other groups off and on, until they found themselves trudging the stair to the roof of the First Tower, from which Meris leaped to her end. Talking kept her from counting the steps.

“So, you grew up in these halls?”

“More ‘r less, aye. When my mother passed she sent me to the Fost, and Olvin patted my head and sent me here.”

“What haven’t we seen yet?”

“Aside from the top of this tower, not much.” He scratched an ear. “There is a shrine.”

Eliles stopped cold in her tracks. “A shrine?”

“Not to worry girl, I’m just sayin’… When Peneluple died, folks said Kotin sealed the door to some tunnel. A shrine sat carved in the stone, as I heard them say, a shrine to Bontore.”

Minor shrines lay scattered across Kaludor, and she’d been forced to memorize many of their locations. But others, like the Fifth Shrine to Burdenis, were kept secret. She’d never heard of a shrine to Bontore on Herald’s Watch. “Where?”

Artus laughed. “Oh, hells if I know. We Choerkin were never the zealot sorts. Rumor, a story, all kinds of horseshit flew after the lady’s death.”

“I suppose that’s true. Still, we shouldn’t neglect rumors.”

“We ain’t leavin’ this here island no time soon, so I’ll work my noggin on where it might be.” He grinned and huffed. “Gettin’ old for this climb.”

Eliles smiled, she was too used to tunnels and climbs to be winded. Still, conversation was a distraction. “What branch of the Choerkin tree are you from?”

“The wrong-eyed one.” He chortled. “My mother was a cook at the Fost. She bedded Olvin Choerkin one or two, maybe several dozen, cold afternoons, and she were run out of the Fost by the ladies of the clan. Which didn’t keep me from having a full-blooded sister some years later. Olvin knew how to ride a horse as well as a woman, my mother reminded me, when I asked who the father of m’ baby sis was.” He laughed.

“And you were given the clan name?”

“Aye, Othar saw to that, with Kotin’s blessing, on my turning sixteen. Othar were Olvin’s brother and headed Herald’s Watch at the time; he didn’t give no two pisses about who my mother was or weren’t, we were blood. More a father than Olvin, and Kotin like a brother, once Olvin sent him here to prepare for the day he took the Watch. And later, Peneluple? A right sweet woman. She was a special lady.”

“You were here when she died?”

“I was at that, though I were at the docks, nowhere nearby when I learned of the sadness.” He reached a landing, unlatched and opened the door, and climbed into the constant bright of her flaming tower. 

The winds were warm, nothing like she imagined Meris must’ve felt the day she made this climb. The view from these heights must’ve been spectacular before fire blocked the world. She wandered the circle, gazing at the city, the harbor, and the rocky crags below. She stopped and leaned to look at the stones, and remembered with clarity the spot they’d found the old woman’s body. Flowers still bloomed nearby. “She could’ve jumped from here.”

“Aye, though the wind maybe… still, close, no matter.”

Eliles gazed out over the harbor. “She would’ve had a view of the ships with but a tilt of her head.” Her eyes turned to streets below, a high wall, and buildings; the way they were situated she saw their tops but not the nearby streets. Her head cocked. “From where would a child have seen her jump?”

“Well, High Street down there.” He pointed, then sucked his teeth. Turned. “Maybe… No. Can’t be sure from here.”

“Seems to me the boy would have to be in a right unusual spot to—” 

“Boys are boys, and love climbing rocks. Don’t let yer imagination run too wild. No matter how godsdamned tempting.”

She meandered to the western edge, facing the city. “You’re right, I suppose. But hard to keep your thoughts in a straight line these days.” Her eye caught a flash of movement on a distant street. She pointed. “You see that?”

“No, what the hells you talkin’ about?”

“Someone moving between buildings. Maybe.”

“Someone coulda left the tow—” A shadow skulked across what she figured was Januel’s Way, heading for the Temple and Pyre Rock. A second figure followed. Artus snorted. “I’ll be godsdamned.”

They raced through and slammed shut the door before Artus blew his horn. Twice. The third time, with her ears ringing, she swatted him in the back of his head. “Don’t deafen the both of us!”

They trotted into the main hall to find Jinbin, Seden, and several others already here. And Artus blew the horn again.

Jinbin said, “What’d you find?”

Eliles caught her breath, counted as more folks arrived. Fifteen so far. “We were atop the tower and saw two people in the streets.”

“Just now? I don’t think a soul has left this tower since we got back. And we searched the whole blessed city after your tower lit.”

“And we just today found a body we missed. The living hide as well as the dead.”

Artus said, “Even from your prayers? Feral magic I mean.”

She admitted to herself he had a point, but: “I didn’t cover every stride of this island, and the Sliver’s power, it’s everywhere. Nothing’s so certain.”

Jinbin said, “No need to get jittery until everyone shows up.”

And within a few wicks, everyone who stepped off the Entiyu Montoeno with her stood in the great hall. She looked each one in the eye before speaking. “Has anyone been down by Januel’s Way in the last ten wicks?”

No one answered in the affirmative, and Artus sighed. “Well, Forges be damned.  We got company on the Watch, folks.”

Wilu, a late arrival with her boys, gasped. “Shadows? Taken?”

Eliles said, “No, they’re the living.”

Jinbin muttered, “Why the hells stay hidden?”

Artus said, “Frightened? Shy? Up to no godsdamned good? We gotta find ‘em to ask.”

Eliles said, “We didn’t find no one but the mules when we trekked the island the last time. We missed a body, and the living; gods only know what else our eyes passed over. But, whoever they are, they haven’t done us no harm. Everyone keep your eyes wide and travel in groups for a time. Otherwise, everything as normal, except Artus and I will sweep the city little by little. Don’t want them knowing we know.”

Artus said, “Maybe we should all be sleepin’ at the inn, you think?”

Jinbin groaned. “I brew in the temple.”

Eliles cast him a sideways glance. “You sleep there too?”

He shrugged with a grin. “Always share a bed with the love of your life.”

“Until we know who’s out there, keep your affair to the daylight hours, and not alone.” Eliles cast her eyes around the room. “We all agreed?” It wasn’t the happiest she’d seen folks, but none dissented. “Jinbin, you and Poluk see to Joslin, prepare his body for the pyre. His ignoble end deserves an honorable fire.” Everyone’s gazes cast to the floor, the new worry having driven out the old. Or maybe they’re one and the same. I pray not.

She preferred boredom and the taste of fish to the island’s new reality.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice