Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

There is a bar in Farthington
they call the dusty Hush
and only strangers tipple there
not any local lush
who knows the cost, the price to sit
amid the evening rush

-Travelling Coins
Hollen the Bard

Chapter XV

The gates into Ashram stood open through the day and were shut in the twilight, after the High Keeper chanted the seven virtues of Ashar. It was by the grace of Ashar that the monsters of old did not plague the lands of men, for once the darkness had been ruled by them entire, when even the stars had slept. Limp Faugh didn't believe in Ashar. He was a native man of Carrolan after all, but he found himself making the sign of the cross over his breast even when he was a hundred miles from the city, and pausing as if to pray whenever he heard tolling bells. It paid to do these things naturally, for he dealt directly with the priesthood, and they were leery of foreigners. Most of them never left the shadow of the End of the World. He had heard his laborers call the Border Mountains that, and he couldn't blame them. The lesser folk here used the same phrase. Beyond Ashram, beyond the pass, there was nothing of mankind, nothing for it, except for a legendary legion Limp suspected no longer existed, if it ever had.
            Merchants in his home country had laughed at the idea of dragging wares halfway across the realm to sell them to a nation of famously abstemious priests. Wine, of all things. They used it for their rituals, besides communion and baptisms. It had taken him three years of holy bureaucratic warfare to fight his way into the proper permissions and papers, learn all the right handshakes and winks. These people were worse than artificers with their secrets. Limp had been one season away from bankruptcy and his family had nearly abandoned him, but eight years of prosperity had followed.
            The Asharians brewed their own alcohol, but it was too dry this far north and the rains too irregular for them to grow real vineyards. Communion was about sharing the blood of Ashar, and the blood of Ashar was sweet, like his wine. There was a parable in there somewhere.
            He presented his papers to the Keeper of the Gate an hour before sunclose, and was waved through along with his caravan. He was so privileged now that they didn't rifle his cargo. He had to force down the smile at that. These people were a dour lot and didn't take to too much smiling. His oxen went into motion, slowly pushing through the courtyard he always thought of as murder square. The walls were high, the towers fierce, an enemy force could be trapped in here if the main gates were lost, but it was murder square because of the cages.
            There were seven of them, one for each virtue, and they hung from high wooden poles. This afternoon, only two were occupied, but a man had been crucified beneath them. The living prisoners looked like children from a distance, but as he rode beneath the cages Limp saw they were both adults under the law. The clothes they were allowed were no protection from the sun or from the birds that came to peck at them when they tried to sleep. Emaciated, foul, and doomed. He wondered at the crimes they must have committed to deserve this fate, a boy and a girl, so fornication was likely enough. They took genitalia very seriously in the north.
            A huge raven alighted atop the cage with the girl, causing the chain to swing. Rather than harassing the miserable lass, it looked as if it meant to shade her with its wings. Limp had never seen the like.
            Passing beyond the cages and into Ashram proper, he did not see the pale waif slip from under one of his wagons and into the crowd. The child would have been remarked upon, for his face was like that of one already dead, but gazes tended to slide away from him. He was a thing that the men of Ashar would not consciously acknowledge.
            The waif found his way into a temple and listened to the morning sermon. It was full of names and numbers he did not recognize, and stories that had never reached the serfs and slaves of Loesser.
            "Thirteen Princes of Darkness dwell in the lands of death beyond the pass. They are the tempters of men. With honeyed words they sicken the righteous, and turn the innocent away from the light so that they know it not. Though the wall Ashar built, and his sacred Legion, keep them from our holy city, their whispers sometimes come to us in dreams or in the guise of friends. If we listen to those whispers, they will lead us into madness and despite."
            There was a lot of talk of love, of forgiveness, and of horrible demons that hounded the unworthy in the life after this one. The waif shuddered at these tidings, the words of an ignorant priest concerning a horror they could not imagine. It was not demons that waited beyond the gates of life, but a labyrinth with a hungry giant at its center. He feared her more than he feared the thing he had become.

                                                                                        *         *         *

            Hamlet bent the manacle around the girl criminal’s ankle. It wasn't as tight as it should have been, but he didn't have a mind for chaining young women under the barracks. They wouldn't be staying long anyhow.
            "We'll get word to the Guild," he said. "They'll sort it out."
            "We didn't steal those swords!" Kerrigan said. "You've got to listen!"
            "Not in my hands." Hamlet shrugged, and the clop of his boots on the stone stairs receded into silence. Aric and Kerrigan were chained to the wall of the same large cell, close enough that they could touch, barely. Aric had been quiet since their arrest, the depth of their plight drowning him only gradually. On some level he had known that Guild weapons were all marked. He had seen the marks countless times on his own sword. It had not occurred to him that the system was closely accounted, or that they would be tracked as far as the End of the World. He had joined in the Keepholds, and thought the Guild would forget about him quickly enough after his party didn't return from its mission. Deserting the Guild wasn't a serious offense if you were dead. There was a slit of a window where the wall met the ceiling above them, and the cell dimmed as the sunflower closed.
            "It's my fault," he said. "I let you have Artur's swords after he died. That's looting, and they were too well made to pass off as our own."
            "What?" Kerrigan said.
            "I'm a deserter." Aric couldn't look at her. "It's my fault we're here. You don't have to be a part of what they do to me."
            "Don't be ridiculous," Kerrigan said. "I'm not going to let them separate us, and you didn't loot anything. Bawn gave me those swords."
            "No one is going to believe about Bawn."
            "We didn't cause any wrong," Kerrigan said. "Bawn killed those people when they attacked him, but he helped us. There isn't another side to tell. They'll let us out of here soon."
            Apart from their confinement, they were not treated harshly. They were allowed plain but ample food, and Hamlet brought them washbasins. The cell was warm, and they were given a partial copy of the Asharian gospel carved into a tablet. Kerrigan read it aloud as the city bells rang to pass the hours. She stumbled over words, but she was passingly familiar with the tongue from her childhood lessons. It was a more archaic form of Valar, which was spoken in all three kingdoms.
            A representative of the Guild arrived two days later. He was a sinewy creature with the gait of a crab and twice the charm. He brought a stool into the cell just out of their reach and sat. "I've heard the charges," he said. "So what do you have to say?"
            Aric rose, and made the sign he had been taught to use when addressing a superior from an different branch. "I joined in the Keepholds, sir. I was a member of a party sent to investigate bandits in Ten Towers. We found them, and the other members of my party lost their lives in the fight. I was captured. Kerrigan was a captive as well. We escaped together."
            "Everyone fell," the Guild man said, "save you." He waited for a response, and hearing none, stood.
            "My name is Cavil. I am a Hero, and a rogue of the fifth order. Interrogations, I have done, but I do not believe any advanced techniques will be necessary here. You say you hail from the Keepholds. It will take many days to confirm what of your story can be confirmed. You may or may not be accepted back into the Guild. Punishment will be for your own house to decide. You, however," he turned his attention to Kerrigan, "are not within the Guild's purview. It is a rare beauty you have, no doubt the bandits made sore use of it." He smiled at her. "Asharian women cover themselves so decently it’s hard for a man to remember there is such a thing as beauty here. If you would consent, I can have you freed and a place set for you here. It doesn't matter where you came from, no proper man would have you now. Better than being a whore, which is the craft left open to you, and I will take care of you, assuming your more significant bits haven't been too badly damaged by overwork."
            Kerrigan's face was shocked into blankness. She almost didn't see the small stone punch into the side of Cavil's head. Aric had been working loose a long chip from the floor out of boredom over the past two days. Striking with it had extended his range by a thumb's breadth, and now the chip was stuck into Cavil just above his temple.
            "Fucking coitus!" Cavil pulled the chip free and held his hand over the cut to stem the bleeding. "You have no idea, no idea, young man! Do you love the little girl? Do you love the bandit's whore? So you betrayed your party for the bandits, and betrayed the bandits for her. You can watch each other die."
            Kerrigan's eyes were fixed on the man. She felt that if he moved to harm Aric, she would kill him, though she could not say how. She imagined her fear and her anger were like the special tallows brought out of the mountains in stories and that she could forge them together into a lance.
            Cavil's nose began to bleed. He dabbed at it in confusion, saw Kerrigan's expression, and fled the cell.
            "I'm sorry," Aric said.
            "Don't be."

                                                                                      *         *        *

            Hamlet brought two other guards with him the next morning.
            "You're getting out," he said, wielding the tool that unbent their manacles.
            "Released?" Kerrigan said.
            "To Ashar." Hamlet grimaced when he turned away from her. "Come up."
Aric and Kerrigan were brought to the courtyard beyond Ashram's main gates. Seven cages swung from tall poles. One of them was occupied by a fat man in a thin tunic. He was gently weeping.
            "You're to wear these." Hamlet gave them fresh long shirts to wear, nothing else. They were made to dress in the street. The gates had been opened minutes ago, so there was a line of waggoneers ready to enter the city. Those who passed by looked at them curiously, not with compassion.
            "What is this?" Aric said.
            "The Guild said you were murderers." Hamlet looked unhappy with the judgement. "Left you to Ashar. You'll wait for a priest to judge you in the cage."
            Aric looked at Kerrigan in anguish.
            "It isn't your fault," Kerrigan said.
             They were winched up, an empty cage between them, the fat man on the far end of the line. Their prisons were all bars, designed so that whatever waste they had would fall below them. Not all would, it was clear, as stains and brittle coatings testified to the torture of previous occupants. There were smells, dry but pungent, stale, and hopeless. They were not told how long they would have to wait, and the feeling of exposure reduced their desire to talk.
            Kerrigan hated Aric's apologies, because she was the one who had insisted they come here. They could have gone home. He had suggested that. If she had not wanted to see more of the world, if she had not been afraid to see what had become of her mother in her absence. This had been her adventure from the beginning, and she had not wanted her adventure to end just because Bawn had to leave them.
            There was no way to sit where she didn't feel revealed, with the long shirt alone to protect her from passersby, so she turned her back on the gates and sat on the tail of the shirt, doing her best to prevent the cage from swinging overmuch. It was humiliating. Her hair covered her face, and she tried not to think on how thirsty she was. The morning quickly grew hot, and she sweated into the shirt, especially where the bars pressed against her. There was no room to stand or lay. Crouching was a relief from sitting, and sitting from crouching, and the cycle between them carried on until an old man chanted something over the walls in an archaic dialect, and the gates were shut for the night.
            It was a relief to no longer be looked at, and she was grateful for the cool light of the star flowers and the night moon. Her arms and the tops of her feet were reddened and stinging, and she shivered when the night breeze grazed them.
            "It's going to be okay," Aric said. His voice was loud in the emptiness.
            "You think so?" The fat man had heard him. "They're going to kill you both! Do you know that? They're going to make you ask for it!"
            A guard shook the man's cage to quiet him, and he screamed in response. More guards moved over, and he was winched down. The fat man was beaten until he was quiet, and hoisted up once more.
            "Ashar," he said. "I found Ashar."
            The following day the man was lowered and seen by a priest. They talked for long minutes and snatches were caught on the wind and carried up to Kerrigan.
            "The choice of a soul fulfilled-"
            "I want to die, father-"
            "In the pass. would you seek redemption?"
            "Give me death!"
            The priest stepped away from the force of the man's plea. Soon, an X cross was erected just below the swinging cages. They chained the man to it, and pierced his heart with a metal spike, as a mercy.
            Kerrigan had been given nothing to eat or drink, and was given nothing for the rest of the day. Blisters were forming from the unrelenting kiss of the sun. When she turned to Aric she saw his face and neck were badly burned and he was unconscious. There was a shadow standing over him, the shape of an armored man. She blinked, and it was gone.
            The bells rang the hours. It was evening, and then it was night. There was a child in a cloak, holding a burning knife, standing below her cage. Then there wasn't. A woman was floating outside the cage, and her face was shrouded in shadows. Her body was as white as a cooked egg, and her breasts were full with milk.
            "My child, sweet child, how you suffer."
            Kerrigan tried to speak, but it was too painful, her lips were cracked plaster, and her throat was lined with dust. She knew that she was dying.
            "Come to me, sweetling, and I will give you life again. Promise me, that you will find me and return the gift to me, and you can drink."
            Kerrigan moved her lips.
            "Yes," the woman said, "your Aric is already safe. He is protected by my husband, for they have long been friends."
            Kerrigan shivered, and the woman reached through the bars to bring her to her chest. Milk ran over Kerrigan’s lips, it was so rich she could not swallow at first, but as she suckled all pain left her, and sleep soon came.
            When she woke, Kerrigan found a raven perched over her cage. There had been many birds feeding on the body on the cross below. Some of them had pecked at her when she was still, but this raven was huge. Its wings were spread to shield her from the sun. She wiped her mouth, and drew away acrid dark phlegm. Two glossy black eyes regarded her, and she nodded in thanks. The thirst had gone from her, so perhaps she was dying. A gleeful energy was building in her stomach, so perhaps she was mad.
            "The third day, bring them down."
            The priest was back, red robes, a golden chain and a golden X cross at his throat. Hamlet and the others worked the winch to drop them to the earth. The cages jarred, and they were brought to kneel before the priest. Aric appeared feverish. His burns were worse than hers, and he didn't seem lucid when he looked at her.
            "Listen to me, Children of the Light," the priest said. "You have sinned against Ashar and must face judgement. Have you anything to say?"
            The priest was wearing sandals.
            "Good, you should not speak in your defense. There is none. Ashar has given us the power of choice, of freedom and will, and that is the burden we must bear, even in punishment. The choice for you now is between a swift death and the promise of damnation to follow, or an arduous trial that may end in the hope of redemption."
            "What trial?" Kerrigan said.
            "I am coming to that, child." The priest clutched his X cross in one hand, looking to the sky as if asking whatever dwelled there for the strength of patience to deal with infidels.         "The trial is to be sent into the Devil's Pass, to walk through it alive and join the holy Legion in their struggles on the other side. A soldier who fights with the Legion for one thousand years is cleansed of all sin, and can go to the arms of Ashar in love and in peace."
            Kerrigan hesitated, knowing Aric would follow her, whatever she chose. He had to be in agony, why wasn't she?
            "Life," she said, "I choose life."
            "It is a difficult path," the priest said.
            "I go with her." The firmness in Aric's voice surprised everyone.
            The priest laid a hand softly upon them. "Three days you labored under the eye of judgement, three days shall you rest and be cleansed before your journey into the land of the dead."
            Hamlet helped Kerrigan to stand, and two other guards carried Aric under his arms. There was a small building beside the barracks with a heavy stone door, they were left inside. The cots were also of stone, with a thin pillow for their heads. Neither of them could lie down.
            "We should be dead," Kerrigan said. "Three days in those cages." She touched her lips, healed and smooth. "Did you have any strange dreams?"
            "Having one now." Aric rasped out the words. She went to him, but there was nothing she knew to do. His face and hands were speckled with blister constellations, he was fevered, slipping in and out of awareness.
            "I'm sorry," she said, "this is my fault. You joined the guild to rescue me, didn't you? And this is how I repay your heroism."
            "My fault." Aric took short, harsh breaths. "You didn't need rescuing."
            "Shut up," she said. "You shouldn't talk."
            Aric's shadow stretched out behind him and rose up the wall in the shape of a heavily armored man. It was gone as soon as she noticed it.
            A junior priest gave them water and treated their burns with prayer and a salve.
            "Ashar dealt easily with you." He remarked at the lightness of her exposure. He plucked a feather from her hair.
            "The raven is an omen of good fortune."
            Aric was finally able to sleep on his stomach, and he slept most of the three days that had been allotted them. His fever remained, and he was occasionally delirious, but Kerrigan was able to help him eat and clean himself. Dead skin sloughed off of him in worrying quantities, leaving fresh pink layers open to the air. Whatever power had protected her was aiding him as well. The priest was exclaiming over the speed of his recovery by the second day.
            On their last night in that room he woke fully himself, and felt her beside him on the cot. He stared into the darkness, listening to her breathe.
            "This is new," he said.
            She stiffened at his voice, relaxing only gradually.
            "Babbling in your fever," she said.
            "I feel alright."
            "You shouldn't. We're going into the pass tomorrow."
            "I dreamed about a man who was chained to a cross," Aric said. "There was a stake driven through his heart."
            "That was the man they killed while we were in the cages."
            Aric raised himself on his elbow so he could look at her, but all he saw was a vague outline in grey and black.
            "It wasn't him," he said, "the man I dreamed about was a giant in black chains, and he was wearing gold plate armor. He spoke to me, but I can't remember what he said."
            "A woman came to me." Kerrigan said. "She kept me alive. I think they both kept us alive."
            "More than that," she said. "Spirits. Friends."
            Aric lay his forehead against hers, feeling slightly feverish again. "Do you think this happens to everyone who disobeys their mothers?"
            Kerrigan laughed, wrapping her arms around Aric and pressing her face into his chest. He smelled like the herbal paste the priests had used on them. There was an electric joy trying to escape her heart and race out of her mouth. She hadn't ever felt that way before. Was this just being alive? Was it dying?
            "We should be married," she said.
            "That would break your mother’s heart." Aric didn't let her go.
            "I mean it," she said. "We're about to go into the land of the dead together. Why don't we go into it together together?"
            "We could ask the priest to do it."
            "No," Kerrigan said. "I want the spirits to marry us."
            "The spirits?"
            "The ones that saved us." Her heart was pounding. There was something real here, not just between them, but in the ritual. It was like something that would have happened in old histories, written when the gods were closer to the world.
            "Lady," she addressed the darkness, "Lord, if you can hear me, bless our union, from now until the end of our lives."
            Silence answered her.
            "Did you expect something to happen?" Aric said.
            Kerrigan kissed him.
            "Shut up," she said, "it's our wedding night."

© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl​

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