Alicet was a milkmaid and a slave, and so she rose in the cold, foggy darkness each morning to attend to her charges in the fields. Each morning after she finished the milking, she skimmed the cream, set a portion of the milk aside to sour and curdle for cheese, pressed the whey out of the curds from yesterday’s souring, churned the cream into butter, and collected the rest of the milk into pails long before the sun rose, so that every morning just before dawn she might be found at the crossroads high in the dark, misty, witch-haunted hills of Ib-Sata carrying her pails of milk or bundles of soft cheese or butter south to the markets in Ib. There she would sell these wares and then set out to return to the farm with the gold, and if she were cheated at the market or robbed on the way, well, it would go the worse for her when she returned to her master.
Sormen was a slaver and a prominent man in Ib, and so he usually woke in the afternoons to stand at the auction block for just an hour or two making a handsome profit as he trafficked in bodies, and then he spent his nights amidst the brothels and taverns of Ib. In addition to his earnings at the auctions, he collected rent from peasants who farmed his lands north of the city, so occasionally just after dawn he too might be found at the same crossroads high in the dark, misty, witch-haunted hills of Ib-Sata intent on wresting gold from his tenants to pay for a long night of debauchery. A single month’s rent from his tenants could easily make a thief’s fortune, so he dared not send a messenger or servant on this errand, but always saw to it himself. If it happened, as it did this morning, that his fine horse threw him and then bolted back to Ib, then Sormen would continue on foot, cursing the beast and resolving to take a farmer’s horse to get himself home, and the farmer could draw his cart or pull his plow himself, so far as Sormen cared. After all, they lived on his lands, they owed their very being to him, and they should be grateful for that. They always acted as if they were grateful, anyway.
And so it happened that on this morning Alicet passed Sormen as she stepped barefoot through the Witchwater brook that rippled across the road that ran south toward the city and as Sormen trudged along to the north, his face cast down and his fine red leather riding boots dragging through the pebbly stream bed. Alicet blessed the water for cooling her feet, and Sormen cursed the water for staining his boots and he wondered why someone hadn’t built a bridge over the thing, though the Witchwater was barely a foot deep and five steps wide.
The witch-haunted hills of Ib-Sata are not the safest district in which to loiter for the very good reason that the witches do not approve of the city of Ib or its inhabitants, the witches being, after their own fashion, strict moralists. And so it happened that on this morning Liriel, a witch much skilled in the majicks of fire and lightning, was sitting beside the brook watching the rising sun and saw as this young man reached out and snatched a handful of cheese from the milkmaid’s wares.
So Liriel decided to blast these two wayfarers, the young lad because he was a thief and he figured in the miserable life of Ib, and the young maid because she brought them food who should be left to starve. As they passed in the midst of the stream, Liriel raised her right hand to the rising sun, gathered its strength, let fly with a furious chant of power, made a subtle gesture with her left hand, and from her tongue flew a flame of fire and the two travelers were instantly burned to ash, Sormen more quickly than Alicet perhaps, as she was splashed with milk and brook water, and he was filled with Geneva liquor. As a practical matter, however, it made little difference.
The heat of the blast was so intense that the brook was evaporated dry in an instant, but directly the waters continued flowing down from upstream and, after boiling for a time as they passed over the slowly cooling rocks, they bore the ashes of the two travelers away, much as their souls had just been borne away and out of this world. The maid and the lad were transported at once to the land that lay between Heaven and Hell.
Now, the land between Heaven and Hell is a fair, green mead, and there flows through the center of this mead the river Lethe, through which the souls of the dead must pass until they emerge to stand on the grassy banks. Then the souls must decide where to go next, to Heaven, or to Hell. This river, the water of which is Time, which heals all wounds, also removes all sin from the newly emerged dead, but the water does not change the heart, for when the dead emerge from the water, the spirit is not yet in Heaven, nor is it yet in Hell. But very soon it will be. And so it came about in this way for Alicet and Sormen.
Alicet found herself sitting alone in the rich grasses that carpeted the slopes above the rushing stream of Lethe and wishing that her favorite cow, Marmalade, who never kicked over a bucket of milk, could feast here. Alicet’s dark brown skin and black hair glittered with droplets of water from the river Lethe as if she were dusted with jewels, and she marveled at the fact that, for the first time in her life, after passing through the waters of this magic river she felt clean. Clean not just of the sand and silt that splashed her bare, long brown legs when she crossed the Witchwater at the crossroads, but clean of the very thoughts in her heart, the weariness of rising before dawn and the ache of carrying pails of milk and bundles of cheese, and the heavy burden of toil and labor that had come to rest in her young heart, for it is wearying when life is merely work and the scorn of finely clad men and women of the city, who sneered down at her from on high in their coaches and marveled that anything like beauty might be found in such ragged tatters of cast-off dress or under such an unkempt and wild cascade of long black hair. Beauty was not something Alicet could afford, and so she had to make do with what had been given her, and she had little use for that.
But there were no pails to carry here, and her arms now felt marvelously light and strong, no hint remaining of the ache of the long miles she had trudged. Her legs, still glistening from the clear waters of the Lethe, had shed their weariness, and she saw with wonder that even the very soil of this strange valley would not stain her feet, now so clean that she self-consciously curled her legs underneath herself as she sat. Had she thought of it, she would have realized she was also washed clean of the burden of bitterness and hatred she had nursed for so many years for her master and for the slavers, but she was not used to feeling free and at ease like this, and her fear of discovery crowded out any other thought. Certainly, if she were seen to be so much at ease, she would be beaten. There was no one here to chastise her at the moment, but that gave her no comfort. No doubt someone would be along directly. She knew that she was dead and no longer in the world. But Alicet knew little of the world and nothing of Heaven and of Hell, as servants’ souls were reckoned to be of no worth so they were not schooled in matters like this. Dead she might be, but she could not imagine that much else had changed.
Sormen knew that he was dead, but that was no matter because it was all done now, and one could cure a hangover that way but once only. The matter now at hand was to decide what to do next. He had been well prepared for the afterlife by the priests and priestesses of Ib, as the rich frequently were well prepared for the afterlife, being expected to maintain the same high status in paradise that the gods had blessed them with on Earth. He had offered many wonderful gifts to the temples in exchange for indulgences, and now that he was here, he expected to be well rewarded for his charity.
The priests of Ibbor, the snake-headed god, maintained that upon death, one would be faced with immediate judgment, standing before the great trifold scales of Ibbor, who would place your heart on one scale, your head on another, and your hands on yet a third, and Ibbor would then see which of the three was weightiest and so had commanded your life. By some complicated formula that only the most adept of the priests of Ibbor could calculate, one would then be rewarded appropriately. Sormen had thus been very careful even in his young life to balance the deeds of his head, his hands, and his heart according to the prescription of the priests, so that Ibbor should make him a prince, at the very least, in his glorious kingdom.
But there was no snake-headed Ibbor here demanding his hands, his heart, and his head. Only this green and no doubt pleasant enough rural district which looked devoid of snakes even of the ordinary kind. He squinted against the low sun under a strikingly clear, dark azure sky, and shivered at the memory of passing through that river of peculiarly gnawing water behind him, which had the unpleasant effect of rinsing one quite thoroughly of Geneva liquor. He rubbed his arms in a futile attempt to get the last of that awful water off, but as he did, he had the strangest fancy that as it fell to the ground, it took more and more of him off as well, and he didn’t care for the feeling. The priests of Ib had utterly failed to warn him about that odious river.
Sormen walked away from the Lethe aware only that he felt, as indeed he was, completely naked. He turned and looked back at the water of the uncanny river flowing away to the horizon, almost as if he hoped he might catch sight of bits and pieces of himself as they drifted away on the current, but the surface of the stream was covered with a heavy mist, and he saw nothing until his eye followed the stream as far as it might go, and then he paused, for at the very limit of sight, he saw just before the horizon a low, gloomy place, a pit of darkness where the valley fell away to some unimagined depth, and he believed, though it was very far away, that he could see the waters of the stream disappear in a mighty cascade away into the darkness and finally plunge out of sight.
Sormen turned from the dismal pit and looked ahead to a long line of low hills separated by gloomy, dark wooded valleys, their peaks glowing with the radiance of a low sun. The air here felt warm and dry, surely the air of a late afternoon. He saw no fences and he wondered at this, for the rents one might charge for grazing rights here would be truly wonderful. He began to hope that this land might be unclaimed.
He did not recognize Alicet sitting on the grasses some way further up the valley, for he had never noticed Alicet before as they passed over the Witchwater at the crossroads, even on those occasions when he paused beside her long enough to steal a handful of cheese. But he started toward her, confident that he was prepared for anything that might arise here. Dead he might be, but he could not imagine that much else had changed.
Alicet observed the finely formed, clean and attractive young man approaching her from the floor of the valley, and she supposed that this must be the taskmaster of this valley come to direct her to her chores and no doubt beat her for sitting in his presence. She did not recognize Sormen, as her burdens on Earth customarily kept her eyes fixed to the ground lest she trip on a stone and receive a beating for spilling her wares. She rose from the grass as she knew it was not fit for her to sit in the company of a superior, which she had been taught was pretty nearly everyone except Luggald the swineherd, and this fine, handsome young man was certainly not Luggald.
Sormen could see that this was a fair maiden indeed, a rare beauty, and one who might command any number of suitors in Ib. He had seen duels fought to the death for the favor of a princess draped in jewels and silks who, compared to this maid clad in nothing but the sunlight and her long black hair, wouldn’t command a second glance.
He felt a chill of worry on his damp, bare back. He had spent some time as an acolyte in the temple of the tree goddess Dyadni before he had devoted himself to worshiping Ibbor, as the snake god seemed a better bet to ensure a more comfortable life in the next world. As a result of his wide experience in the temples, he knew that there were spirits in the next world—well, in this world, now!—which lay in wait to ensnare and devour the unwary soul. And this beauty was surely a spirit—maybe it was the goddess Dyadni herself. His suspicion grew, and so he approached her warily and made the signs of obeisance due to Dyadni. As he drew to within the sacred six—or was it seven?—paces, he fell on his face before her, entwined his fingers over his head in the correct configuration of a high-born suppliant and temple adept, and cried aloud, “Hail to thee, Lady of the Forest! I cry you mercy, goddess! I am your humble servant.” He was fairly certain that was the correct greeting for Dyadni, anyway.
Alicet couldn’t imagine what he was talking about, and so she said nothing.
Sormen supposed that she was testing him. After all, did not her queenly appearance betray her to him? A goddess would maybe want to pretend that she wasn’t a goddess for reasons that seemed good to her perhaps, but the gods were proud and justifiably haughty and she who possessed such beauty wouldn’t deign to wear the form of a peasant or even a merely human beauty, and this girl was clearly not human. The light in her large black eyes was so luminous he could feel the very heat of them as she gazed steadily at him. Her skin was dark as polished weathered rosewood, and her hair flowed down to her waist as if it were the very curtain drawn across the night. “You mock me, goddess, your humble servant. Command me. I seek only to please and to serve you.”
Alicet was now convinced this handsome young man was speaking to her, but she had scarcely time to consider her answer before he was interrupted by the sound of a rushing storm behind him, as though a blast of wind were weaving itself through the forest ahead of a springtime gale.
Sormen, hearing this terrible sound and imagining the worst, leapt to his feet and turned to face this new horror that he was certain sprang from the wrath of this goddess, whoever she was, evidently not Dyadni after all. He took the time to whisper a quick curse directed at the priests of Ib, and he hoped that some god or other might hear it and take pity on him. Surely there was one up here somewhere.
Far away, the two of them saw a small cloud, dark and dense, rushing up the valley toward them, shadowing perhaps an acre of ground as it sped along, the sound of a whirlwind ahead of it. The shape of the cloud twisted and writhed as it came, yet it did not disperse in the air. Like a swarm of wasps, the cloud came on until it condensed to a mass of opaque blackness scarcely larger than a man and hovered just beside them, buzzing furiously.
The cloud was composed of a swarm of tiny, utterly black flying creatures, each the size of a small fly, each featuring nothing but a tiny mouth, body, and wings, all small and angry, full of energy and fury, and this cloud shaped itself into the rough form of a man, tall and muscular, only the edges of his form were a little blurred, as if the cloud was not yet altogether in agreement that it should take this shape, or as if each of the tiny parts quarreled with the others as to what part of the whole it should be. The head formed last, and only after what appeared to be a furious battle among the tiny flying things, the losers taking their places lower down, snapping and shoving at their neighbors, until after a while the contest was over.
A face shaped itself at the top of the dark cloud. The dark thing addressed Sormen, and though Alicet could see that it was speaking, she could not hear its words.
But Sormen could hear them.
The sooty thing in the shape of a man bowed deeply before Sormen. “Welcome, noble Sormen, to the doorstep of Paradise. Let me clothe you with this magnificent cloak and set this costly ring on your finger, gifts of great honor from my king. You have done well, and now you come into your reward.” The spirit drew forth out of his own dark substance a mass of the tiny black things and they quickly transformed into a cloak of rich scarlet trimmed with gold, and a fine heavy golden ring bearing a green stone carved into the face of a scowling gargoyle. He set the cloak on Sormen’s shoulders and the ring on his finger. Sormen pulled the cloak close about himself, rubbing his arms as if to towel dry some last particles of that burning water from the river Lethe.
“Now,” the spirit said, “how may I serve my lord Sormen?”
“You’re a servant of this goddess?” Sormen asked, trying to affect nonchalance.
The spirit glanced aside at Alicet, and was careful to bow towards her, though she didn’t notice, distracted as she was with a flight of scarlet birds soaring in the sunlight over the hilltops. “Of course, my lord Sormen. But I am here to serve you.”
“At her command?”
“At yours, my lord. Are you not as worthy as she in Paradise?”
Sormen was more confused than ever, and he feared he might betray some ignorance of protocol that would leave him the worse for it. The priests had never spoken of anything like this.
The spirit had already guessed his plight. “This woman you call a goddess, my lord, is but a slave, and she might have served you in your last country, had you noticed her at all. These precious gifts I give you are tribute from my king. I have other gifts for her, in due course.”
Sormen was astonished. This creature was not a goddess—but was merely a slave? He could never have afforded so fine a mistress as this!
“You think her beauty is astonishing? You yourself are now as she is, my lord. Feel the strength in your arm! Feel the quickness and clarity of your mind! Were your companions of Ib to see you now, they would fall down before you in fear and worship, just as you did her, this simple slave of peasants. And as much as you surpassed the men of your city of Ib when you walked among them, you now surpass yourself, as you once were.”
Then Sormen suddenly understood, and he nearly trembled with joy and fear. But he recovered himself quickly and was careful not to incline his head toward this being. He had learned that lesson early in Ib when dealing with the courtiers of the king, who judged from your reaction to their greeting if they should reverence you or abuse you. He raised his arm and studied its fine, muscular shape, its excellent tone and color, its strength. He felt that, if he wanted to, he could lift a mountain with it and throw it into the sea. Then he realized the spirit was watching him with satisfaction, and Sormen decided he had better risk a slight disdain for the spirit and for this tribute from his king.
“Perhaps my lord hungers?” the shape asked, wringing its vaporous hands. “Perhaps my lord thirsts? Perhaps my lord seeks some other pleasurable diversion?”
With a shock of realization, Sormen perceived that he was indeed very thirsty and hungry. He was surprised at his appetite, in fact. In Ib, Sormen regularly drank fine liquors not to satisfy thirst, and ate dainties not to sate hunger, but rather through pure delight, for in Ib, he had never known hunger or thirst for longer than it took to accost a milkmaid or baker’s maid passing by the way and snatch some of her wares, leaving her to explain the loss to her master as best she could.
But Sormen was hungry now in a way he had never known, and that was exciting—feeding this powerful body was going to be pure joy, so he turned to the spirit and spoke boldly, his voice quavering with appetite. “Yes. Fetch me somewhat to drink.”
Instantly the sooty specter held forth its hand and offered Sormen a golden goblet, conjured out of its own body. Sormen took the cup and drank, and was unable to conceal his astonishment at the waves of soft warm pleasure tinged with the fire of some ethereal spirit that left his mind clearer and more alert yet somehow narrowed to focus only on the pleasure that swept through him. The spirit seemed pleased, and Sormen tried to recover his composure, drinking deeply yet again, for his thirst was oddly persistent.
The spirit bowed. “Is my lord pleased?” For the first time since his arrival here, Sormen saw the unmistakable sign of eagerness on the spirit’s face. Indeed, it looked almost like appetite on his part, even hunger.
“This is no more than my lord Sormen deserves. My lord shall serve none, but my king shall make you as a god unto yourself, if you wish it. You will feast, drink, and receive the worship of all!”
The spirit reached over and plucked loose its own left hand and set it to float before Sormen’s eyes, and the cloud of tiny black things that had formed the hand dissolved and then reassembled themselves into a miniature tableau of visions painted on the air in shades of grey, and Sormen saw Sormen seated on a regal throne attended by lovely maidens loosely draped in samite, and handsome eunuchs shaved, oiled, and dusted with powdered gold, and cringing rivals in iron chains, bruised and awaiting his final judgment. Sormen knew exactly how this would be, for he had seen it often enough in Ib. It was an old game, and one he had long wished to play. The appetite for it never seemed to dull, indeed, the more he watched, the greater his hunger became.
“You shall be as a god,” the spirit repeated softly. “If you desire it.”
And Sormen did desire this greatly. Then Sormen knew that he was to be a god, already recognized as a god by the king of this land! Why else should he be presented with tribute the moment he arrived? He had seen this game played out in Ib, on a pitifully smaller scale, so many times, with kings and their rivals. But here, it was perfected. He had his own right arm to prove it to himself. Even the king of Ib had bowed in fear before the servants of Lagash, for every man has a god, and so it was here.
Sormen blessed the priests of Ibbor for their divine insight! Surely when they advised him to seize the lands of farmers north of Ib and set peasant tenants to work the land, he had thought they advised this only because they desired the tithes that Sormen must give them of the produce. But indeed this was done so that the peasants who worked his lands would come to know Sormen as the source of their very lives, for without him they would starve, just as had the farmers whose lands he had seized when they failed to repay the usurious loans he had forced on them. These peasants owed their very being to Sormen, just as they would to a god. And now was Sormen come into his rightful inheritance, for Ibbor had trained and prepared him to be a god, and now he was.
Sormen reached out his right arm toward a boulder some yards away, and he willed it to come, and it did. He cast it aside as if it were an empty goblet. With that, Sormen did not feel quite so naked, but felt himself slowly clothed with power.
The spirit knew enough to permit Sormen the opportunity to consider all this privately, so it now turned its attentions to Alicet. Sormen was only distantly aware of this as the spirits in the cup and the vision floating before him and the warming, electric feel of the cloak about his shoulders had quite captured his attention, and although he could see the spirit speaking to Alicet, he did not bother to listen to the words it spoke.
But Alicet listened.
“This man fell before you to worship you, Alicet.”
“He shouldn’t because I’m not a goddess,” she said.
“You weren’t, but is that still so? See here, you already have a worshiper, and this man, before you came here, before you were made what you are now, might have sought to purchase you on the block.”
Alicet felt her anger flare at the thought, and the light flashed in her dark eyes. Imagine this handsome dog staring at her as she stood naked on the auction block in Ib! She raised her hand, clenched her tiny fist as he stood distracted by the vision he watched. She felt her grip tighten on the air as she imagined her fingers around his throat.
And as she did, Sormen choked, his cup fumbling, and she stepped back horrified, her open hands to her lips. Sormen recovered without glancing at her, still distracted by the vision and the cup and the drink.
She laughed nervously, a merry bright sound, more musical than she expected, and it startled her. “Enough,” she said. “What do I want with a worshiper?”
“A goddess’s business is to be and to have, Alicet. And to judge and reward and . . . to punish.”
Alicet laughed again, scornfully, and the sound almost frightened her. But she suddenly remembered, as if it had been pointed out to her very much like a slap in her disobedient face by her master’s mistress, that she was a slave, and slaves did not judge and reward and punish. Clearly this spirit was mocking her, and she could see that.
Yet the spirit’s face was open and honest. Then, for the first time in many years, she remembered that she had once had pride. Once she was little and in her father’s house and there was wealth and plenty and play and servants to wait on her, before her city was burned and she was carried away. . . .
“Put away your slavery, Alicet.” The spirit said. “Now, you are here.”
“Where else should I be,” she said suspiciously. “For I did not bring myself here. I go where I am sent.”
The spirit’s face changed, darkened. “Spoken like a true slave caught in a moment of stolen idleness. Was your back marked with the lash before you came here?”
“It was not,” Alicet said, raising her chin defiantly.
“And that was only because your master hoped to sell you to the slavers of Lagash, did he not? And they prefer unmarked wares.”
Her eyes flashed fire, and the spirit approved. “Now, I see your father’s daughter. Imagine what the slavers of Lagash would make of you now. Such beauty at their command. . . .”
She felt her face flush with anger and hatred. “Would they fall on their faces before me and worship me?” she asked, her lips curling in contempt.
“Of course, if you commanded them to do it.” The spirit then seemed to mull this possibility over a bit, as if it hadn’t occurred to it before. “But—that wouldn’t be enough, would it? No, no, that’s not what Alicet wants. Consider now how your very presence, your very being would torment the slavers of Lagash with unsatisfiable want. It wouldn’t matter what they lusted for, flesh or gold, your very being would burn them with fire, now. And that is what Alicet seeks, is it not? Now, you would torment them just by being, just as they tormented you, once.”
She was confused and she stepped back a pace. Tormented! The spirit had rekindled so much in her heart that she had almost forgotten in the short moment she had been here, but now the memory began to flicker like a dark candle in her soul, and the very moment, so long ago, when she was taken from her family and sold into slavery slowly flamed into incandescent clarity, the fury and anger and horror and outrage she had felt, wondering who these men were who could take her from her family for their own base use.
But there was no slave’s brand on her small brown shoulder now. That had been cleansed away, all left behind in the waters of the Lethe. So she was a little surprised to feel it coming back to her now, and she glanced at her shoulder, expecting to see the brand returning. She felt all the warmth growing in her breast, growing into the only thing that she, as a slave, had ever owned—her hatred for these men. But slaves did not judge and reward and punish. . . .
“You sin, Alicet, to hold such pain in your heart. Does your love for your mother and father and brothers give you any choice, Alicet? Justice must be done. It’s the duty of your love. You owe this to your family. Put your petition before my king. He will hear you and bring justice to you and your enemies.”
But Alicet was not schooled in the ways of Paradise, and still she could not suppose that much had changed since she had come here. “Justice?” Again she laughed scornfully. “Where will I find justice?” She looked out to the broad landscape around her, the forest beginning to glow under a rising moon and the bright stars. “Where? Here?”
Perhaps the spirit mistook her. It too turned toward the dark line of forest. “Oh, you will find no justice there, Alicet. This forest and all the lands beyond it are ruled by an unjust king who cares nothing for justice. You must seek what you deserve in another kingdom, from another king. Let me take you there.” The spirit gestured down the valley and beyond his hand she saw the dark pit where the waters of Lethe fell away into blackness. Yet the dark was not so dark there now, for she could see flashes of light as if it were a distant storm, far below the edge of the pit.
“You remember the auction block. Even then, the slaver knew you would be a prize. Imagine what they would feel if they could see you as you now are.”
She remembered the auction block, and her face revealed it.
“In my master’s kingdom, all are rewarded for their deeds.”
The spirit removed its own right hand and set it to drift before Alicet, and she saw in the shifting cloud the vision of all she could have, and it knew her heart, for before her eyes she saw nothing less than the vision she had courted every day of her life since she was sold into slavery. She saw the men who destroyed her family, stole her life, and made her their own.
But now she saw the slavers bound to a stake, and she saw herself kindling the fire under them. She saw them lowered by inches at her command into one of the sulfur crusted boiling mud pots that dotted the volcanic landscape of Kithril where she was born. She saw them, bound tightly and legs broken and immobile, as she rolled them into a pit of Sipa snakes, who crawl only a hand span a minute, and in whose venom lies the most painful and lingering death possible, for Sipa snakes prefer the taste of living flesh that has been seasoned with slow terror, anguish, and paralysis.
Oh, indeed she had administered justice to these men, these thieves of lives, thousands of times, so many times she had begun to fret that none of it would be suffering enough, unless they were immortal. And they were immortal, and now she could have this justice, because there was a king who insisted on it.
She felt her heart being filled again, the hatred and the anger and the pain and the vengeance. Now their lives were hers, she would kill them, and they would worship her as she did. Now she had the chance to do what she had wanted to do for so long.
Now she remembered what the river Lethe had taken away from her.
What was it that made a slaver and a murderer? Only the will to do it and the chance to do it. She had always had the will. Now she had the chance.
Alicet clapped a dark hand to her lips and stepped back, away from the spirit. Without a second word, she turned and fled toward the line of trees at the foot of the black hills. The spirit called to her.
She ran through the dark forest without regard for trees or stones or thorns until she was exhausted and fell onto a carpet of thick mosses that grew at the foot of a white cascade tumbling from the rocks. She put her hand into the pool at the foot of the waterfall and drew the water to her lips, and at once, she felt the water flow through her just as the water in the Lethe had done, cleaning and healing, except that there was nothing to clean or heal in her body, for there were no jagged rocks or thorns or snagging branches here.
But there was plenty to heal in her spirit. She still felt her hands about the throats of the men who had stolen her life, and she was afraid to tighten her grasp. She cradled her face in her arm and lay down to breath the scent of the moss, the vision of their faces, blackened and swollen, still before her eyes.
The spirit said there was no justice to be found in this forest, and she prayed that it was so, hoping no god or goddess would hear her prayer.
The spirit returned to Sormen quietly and put its hand on his shoulder.
“Will you be a god, my lord?”
Sormen smiled hungrily. “I will. Take me.”
Then the spirit embraced him, and the spirit and the cloak and the ring and the drink within him dissolved back into the tiny flying things and they wrapped themselves about Sormen and they began to feed on him, holding him erect as he dissolved into them. After a time when there was nothing left, the cloud began to drift back towards the pit, more slowly and heavily, and as it went it passed with a faint wailing from its multitude of mouths that could only have been the voice, or now the many voices, of Sormen.
Alicet woke on the fresh-scented moss and she rose, stopping only to drink from the spring that had bubbled softly at her side all through the night. Again she felt the water wash through her, and again she felt washed of herself. But this time she remembered how easily it all would come back to her if she asked it to. This was nothing new—she had fed this passion often enough in the past. She’d just never known what it was to be free of it before, and seeing it standing beside her like that, a dark shape of herself hungry for murder. The only thing she had ever owned—!
But that was a slave speaking. Was she so afraid to call down vengeance on these men, simply because she had been a slave so long she was trained to suppose she owned nothing, not even her own pain, not even the justice she deserved? If some king did bring her the justice she deserved, would that be so wrong? She would finally be—she would finally be—the same thing that her tormentors were.
She sighed heavily and hung her head.
Naked and alone, she wandered the forest aimlessly. With any luck, she hoped she might be able to hide in this forest, hide from masters and servants and kings alike. After all, there was no hunger in here, no cold, no heat that didn’t feel comfortably cool or warm. There was no thirst. Anytime she wanted, she could eat from the fruit on the trees and drink from the pools. She would pay no price other than seeing the darkness inside standing beside her.
So Alicet began to wander the land. She was not blind to the beauty that surrounded her here, the overarching forest, the great boles of the trees, so large that inside their hollow trunks one might build a house, and the wide branches, the lowest of them sweeping just a few feet above the forest floor, these limbs covered with ferns and mosses and cascades of flowering tangles in hanging gardens, dripping jewels of dew to the forest floor and perfuming the air.
She saw animals, great emerald-eyed cats black as pitch lounging on these low branches, horned white deer or horses, flitting through the darkness, wolves trotting along on some errand, and birds, large and small, rainbow feathered, their songs following her through the woods. Other times there was other music, not the cry of any bird or beast, but a strange sighing music that seemed to drift through the forest, though she could never see the player or the audience.
Although she felt no thirst, every time she passed a pool or brook she would stop to drink just for the luxury of tasting that water, and every time she did, the memory of what she was became sharper, as if she could see it, a murderer with hands stained with the blood of slavers, standing beside her in her own beautiful body. Every time she drank it was clearer, sharper, as it stood beside her.
At night she lay awake to watch the bright stars turn about overhead and shine through the forest cover. There was no weariness, no hunger, no thirst. There was only that vision of the woman at every well or pool or spring, wringing blood-stained hands.
Once, after many nights alone in this vast forest, she woke to hear music in the distance. The night was bright, the great moon filtered through the high arched roof of the forest, so bright that where shafts of its light fell through she could see clusters of flowers and, where it struck the stream she had been following, the light sparkled in the droplets flung high by the ripples and cascades.
Looking about herself, she then saw that the strange music was below her, further down the stream, and seemed to be coming this way. How could she describe the sound of it? She could not decide if the voices of the music were the voices of humans, or some strange animal, or some unknown instrument, or perhaps yet another manifestation of that angelic drifting sound that always seemed to be hovering over the forest. The notes were long and drawn, sustained and reflected by harmonies she had never known.
She did not have to wonder about this for long, for then she saw who was making the music. A train of—she supposed they had to be people like herself, but she had never seen such glorious creatures—progressed along the stream. Some of them were playing musical instruments, others singing, and those who weren’t were gamboling about the forest as they walked or leaped about. Two of them in particular couldn’t be still enough to simply walk or sing or ride the tall horses, but they broke away from the train and raced, hand in hand, a man and a woman, into the wood ahead of the troop.
Alicet watched these two as they each raced up the trunks of the vast trees, climbing hanging vines so high into the canopy that at last they were only black silhouettes against the moonlit sky. Then one of them, Alicet thought it was the man but she wasn’t certain, grasped a vine and vaulted himself into space, the vine swinging him wide across the open space between the trees. Then Alicet saw his companion leap away from her perch high in another tree, higher than the tops of the temples in Ib.
Alicet gasped despite herself, but the girl was not dashed against the rocks on the forest floor—she was caught at the last instant by her partner, and the force of their acrobatics swept them high in an arc up into the trees again. Then they repeated the performance again, slowly moving from tree to tree following the train of riders, never tiring.
One rider, or rather his red horse, heard Alicet gasp, and stopped beside the path while the rest of the train rode on. The animal looked at her sideways—Alicet knew how horses watched you, first from the side, and then straight on, and then from the side again. She knew he was looking straight at her, yet his master did not seem to see her, but sat quite still, stroking the animal’s neck.
And then the end of the train walked up. Alicet was astonished at what she saw. This man—if it were a man—glowed, his very body glowed with a pale golden light bright enough to reflect from the rippled surface of the stream when he stopped beside the horse to look into the forest, straight toward Alicet.
He spoke to the rider, smiled in her direction, and they both turned to her. “Alicet! Come with us. The king is looking for you!”
She turned and fled into the forest.
The dark cloud vomited Sormen up a bite at a time onto the slimy stones that littered the bottom of the deep, vast pit, and slowly the bile covered sludge that was all that was left of him began to draw itself back together, each fragment of himself, belched out of the mouths of the flying things, crawling towards the center of the oozing, stinking mass. Sormen felt the slow painful seeking as each tiny portion of himself touched its kin, as they tried to find their right place, and as some of them decided this was a good time to try to better their position and fought with others to find a place in his head, or his hands, or his heart. But the ambitious fragments of Sormen were pushed away and dragged to their rightful place, and there they finally joined, a little the worse for having been digested in the bellies of the hoard of flies.
Sormen was proud of them, each little particle of himself, as he felt their struggle, his soul divided among everything that was left of him, and he would have wept, if he had had eyes, for the persistence they displayed, the loyalty, the love of what he was, a love for himself so great that they struggled over the filthy stones to put him back together until it was done.
For a long while he lay there too weak to raise himself and move, and he watched the mists crawling about the vast pit that soared away overhead and he watched the lightnings playing high above in the clouds. He wondered how this had happened to him.
When the spirit first enveloped him, Sormen felt the pain as the many mouths of this dark thing began to consume him. He shrieked with pain as he was eaten, and he cursed the dark spirit for lying to him, and even while he was finally borne away toward the dark pit, he cursed himself for letting this spirit deceive him.
But it hadn’t deceived him, and he knew this. Beyond the pain as he dissolved into the multitude of tiny black biting flies, Sormen learned two things. He learned that, even as he filled the maw of this multitude that then began to bear him away, he still was, and he was still Sormen. He was immortal. He also knew that this spirit desired him as he had never been desired before. When he walked the streets of Ib, he was wanted, to be sure, but only for his money, for the flask of drink in his hand, for his introduction to the most favored courtier of the day, and perhaps for access to the choicest slaves from Lagash before they were herded onto the block.
But this dark spirit craved Sormen in a way he had never been craved before, and as it fed on him, he knew the fury of its passion, the devotion of its hunger was aimed solely at him, the spirit knew nothing but Sormen in that moment, wanted nothing but Sormen, like no lover he had ever known. Sormen was its sole end, its sole desire. And so Sormen knew he had the power of a god over it. The spirit had not lied to him.
Sormen now lay on the rocks at the foot of a tremendous waterfall. The waters of Lethe, now heavy and clouded and murky and slimy with the evil washed away from the souls that pass through that awful water cascaded down from a height so far above that it was lost in mist and lightning filled clouds and the waters bathed him in the sins that they had scoured from the dead. He lay washed in these sins, revolted by the stench, but too weak to pull himself away.
Sormen learned from the sins of others as they soaked into his flesh, and for the first time since he had passed through the Lethe, he felt clothed again. He bathed in the sins of petty men, grumbling against one another, the hoarded anger and hatred for petty slights, the furtive thievery, the bitter words behind backs, the rusted blade in the dark. And he learned of high and mighty sins, ruling people because it was your right, not because they needed or wanted it, but because they were yours, and their very substance belonged to you, like a god, taking where you did not create, consuming where you did not grow but simply because it was yours, and it was just and proper that you take it.
Soon, Sormen felt the strength returning to his arms and legs, and he fancied he could crawl about a bit, and he sought to drag himself closer to where the waters of Lethe fell more densely, to soak more thoroughly in the stinking bath of the deeds of others. One arm length at a time, he dragged himself over the sharp and jutting rocks, sometimes leaving behind him a trail of flesh and blood, but he knew that he was growing, and this was more than compensation for the blood he lost.
He slipped into an opaque, stinking pool, the water here swirling thickly with the sins of ministers and mages as if he wrung the king’s tithe himself from the miserable of Ib, with the lusts of the brothel as if he bathed in the wash water wrung from the sheets that covered the bedding of the priests and prostitutes of Ib, and the stink of a blood soaked rack in the king’s dungeon as if he gripped the gore slick handle of the whips and hooks himself, and here Sormen fed richly, and he grew stronger by the moment, for these were sins of dominance, and Sormen had an appetite for those.
Unfortunately for Sormen, there were others constantly cast down into this pit, and they too were strengthening by the moment. Behind him, licking the stones over which he had crawled to feed on the blood he had scraped from himself as he passed, came another spirit, and it slipped into the pool beside him and fastened its long and needle like teeth on his leg as if it were a lamprey and began to suck the blood that oozed from the wound.
Sormen felt it drawing the very being from him, as if it were sucking the very wisdom he had so carefully absorbed in this depraved pool. His strength failed by the moment, and he could only weakly beat against it, until he slumped back into the water, his head falling beneath the thick and sluggishly lapping waves and he looked up through the water to see the filmy tatters of sins drifting above him. Finally, his mind failed, and he felt nothing but the darkness, and his last thought was one of surprised betrayal—this had all been going so well.
After a time, perhaps a very long time, Sormen was taken up by rough claws and brought out of the pool, dragged under a broken stone arch, and then carried far down through tunnels that reeked of rotting flesh and decay. He remembered the alleys of Ib, though this place had perfected what they had only attempted. Along the way, he was constantly pinched and pricked by unseen hands reaching out from the walls of the tunnels until he felt the flesh of his arms and legs picked bare and raw as some creatures fastened to the walls of the tunnel fed from him, again stealing his wisdom, his flesh, his being. After a time, the dark creatures that carried him paused and lay him against the tunnel walls and left him there for a time. Behind him, long thin arms embraced him, thin, coarse lips kissed his shoulders, rough tongues licked at the oozing wounds on his back.
“Is this my Eddwin?” a rheumy voice asked, mocking intimacy. “I taste my own passion in your blood, Eddwin. Do you remember how you took it from me for gold? Have you brought it here with you to share with me again? I taste my lust in you, Eddwin.”
Sormen lay there for a time until she had fed, and he felt his chest caving in, his arms and legs collapsing, his eyelids drawing tight against his sunken eyes.
Sometime later, the dark spirits took him up again and carried him away, and this march was longer, long enough for Sormen to recover some of his strength.
And Sormen almost began to miss the spirit in the dark tunnel. Because Sormen knew that this thing fed on him because it wanted him, it needed him, those unseen claws in the dark that reached out and snatched bits of him for themselves. They all needed him, they all craved him, and Sormen knew that.
He remembered seeing drunkards in Ib, steeped in wine and lying against the weathered brick walls of the alleys, scavengers fingering their purses as their victims lay helplessly, which was lucky for them, for if they lay still, they would possibly not have their throats cut as well as their purses. So Sormen, understanding the way of the world, lay still as he was carried and, from time to time, when they reached out and took a piece of him from his arms or legs or ribs or face, he fed them.
How long this march went on he could not know. He never saw his porters clearly, though he knew they were large, and his skin was abraded against their arms and sides as they carried him as if he were chafing against the hide of a lizard.
Eventually they left the dark tunnel and began to march under a pale sky, and finally he was dropped to rest atop a greasy stone pile, and there he was left to watch the dull yellow sky that never darkened and never lightened. No one came here to abuse him, and he got to wondering about that, after a time. He began to feel lonely, as if he were not wanted anymore.
Sormen never really slept as he lay here, though there were times when he felt as if he were a little less aware of the jutting rocks that prodded his back and the occasional warm, oily, acid mist that drifted down from the yellow sky and the vague hunger and thirst that always burned inside. After the third of these periods of dullness, he gathered his strength and sat up to look about himself.
The landscape was a great plain, and it gave the feel of stretching on for some terrible distance, but he could see only a mile or so in any direction due to the yellowish, stagnant haze. He stood, a bit shakily perhaps, atop a pile of black rocks, a little greasy feeling under his feet and hands, angular and broken, as if some building had once stood here but had collapsed in an earthquake. The pile was perhaps a hundred feet wide and rose forty feet above the level of the plain where dead grasses and bare muddy patches then stretched away. The plain was dotted here and there with other piles of rubble much like his own, dank black stones piled haphazardly on the dull, damp yellow plain.
As he watched these piles, he began to make out movement on some of the nearer ones, and as he peered farther into the distance, he could see some order here and there, stones that had been laid out in walls around a perimeter enclosing the piles of rubble, and further away, he even fancied he saw rude towers rising within the walls, but the stinging mist made it impossible to be certain.
No one troubled Sormen for the time he sat on his pile of rubble and made a study of his surroundings, and after a time he began to feel a little unease, as if he were missing an opportunity. He watched the crude towers going up in the far distance and decided it was time to build for himself.
He remembered his power, his strength when he had first arrived in the green valley. Did he still have any of that?
He reached out his hand towards a stone and found that it rose instantly at his command to meet his hand. He then flung it away and called another to his hand. Sormen was pleased and relieved. He stacked a great flat rock on the open plain nearby, and then as an experiment, still standing on top of this pile of stone, he reached out towards another massive stone. It rose in the air as if he grasped a pebble, and just moving his hand, he lay it carefully on top of the first. He still had the power.
For the first time in his life, Sormen realized he had made something. He looked on his work and decided it was good. He was learning how to be a god.
But a god needs worshipers, someone to feed, and Sormen had none.
He felt hungry, but then again he always felt hungry. He liked that. It reminded him what his destiny surely was. His worshipers, they would hunger.
Sormen set to work.
After some days Alicet passed out of the deep forest into an open glade carpeted with pale blue flowers gilded to lavender with the reddening afternoon sun, and she raised her bare arms to the sky, astonished at how far away it seemed after so much time under the canopy of the deep forest. She spun about, her arms wide, the flowers brushing her bare feet, and she shouted out to the light and the air until she remembered—she crouched down and looked at the treeline all about her, but the glade was empty, and she was alone—except for a curious tall tree in the center of the glade. This tree was laden with large, heavy violet pendents as lovely in the waning light as great luminous Yule tree ornaments. She walked around this tree carefully, a little suspiciously, because there was something fey about it.
On the far side of the tree she found a well, walled with coarse, sandy red brick, a bucket and roughly twined rope sitting on the brick ledge.
“This is the king’s, but draw from it and drink!” a voice said. Alicet stepped back, her hands to her mouth, and she looked about the glade but saw no one. She looked up into the tree, supposing perhaps someone was up there watching her, but there was not.
The fruit on the tree grew well above her head, out of reach. She wasn’t hungry, but even so she craved to have one of these fruits with a desire beyond appetite.
Again she heard the faint whisper, a mere echo of a voice. After a moment, it spoke again, and she thought the voice might be coming from down in the well. Again it spoke, “This is the king’s, but call to it and take it and eat!”
She stepped closer to the well and peeked down into the dark, but she saw no one.
“Everything here belongs to the king, so you have to take it from him, if you want it,” the voice said. “Now take it!”
“Steal from the king!” Alicet said in a faint whisper. Annoyingly, her desire for this fruit grew. She fretted.
“Call to it and take it,” the voice whispered. “It will obey your command.”
She didn’t want it to obey her command.
She pulled the coarse rope up from the well, set the bucket on the brick rim of the well, dipped in her hand, and cupped the water to her lips. And as always, the water instantly filled her, washing away the guilt she felt for what she hadn’t done yet. And as always, the dark thing appeared now, standing beside her, a hungry look on its face. Alicet was not surprised to see it here. It had been close to her ever since she came, always emerging when she took the water, each time getting stronger. Now it stood beside her for all to see, her own form, but mocking and hateful.
Her hunger grew to something cruel, the first honest pain she had felt since she came here. She began to suspect that it was the tree itself speaking to her. So it would not only obey her command, but it would tempt her to steal from the king in the first place? This was just cruel.
She remembered an apple tree in her master’s yard, and how badly it had gone for her when she was caught taking an apple. She remembered when she had taken it. She hadn’t really been hungry that time. She had just wanted it because she couldn’t have it, so she took it.
There was no voice in the apple tree to tempt her that time. She had thought it up and done it all by herself.
“Do you belong to the king?” She asked the tree.
“Why do you tempt me to steal from the king?”
“How do you dare to steal your next breath?” The tree asked her. “Everything here belongs to the king. How long now have you been stealing from him?”
Alicet called to the fruit without any more hesitation. “Then come.” The nearest limb lowered toward her. She reached out and took the fruit, cool and polished by the sun and rain, and held it in her hand. She put it to her dark lips, and tasted. As the nectar found its way into her mouth it seemed to flow through her body at once in a slow but irresistible cool drift. She felt a soft ecstatic faint, and the forest about her began to spin and the sunlight brought tears to her eyes so that she sat hard on the turf, lay back against the cool grasses, and for several minutes more could not move, but lay still as the ground underneath her seemed to undulate in waves of dizzy pleasure.
She waited for the guilt to come, but it didn’t. She had taken from the tree and eaten from it, and it had been the king’s, but now it was a part of her, because she had taken it. She could feel it in her blood.
But it wasn’t hers, she realized. Not even now. It was still the king’s, even in her blood. Then she felt afraid.
“This tree has snared many a soul before now, and I see it has captured yet one more.”
This was not the voice in the tree. Alicet opened her eyes, suddenly sobered, to see an old man in a coarse hooded cloak, leaning on a heavy stick, its top carved into the head of a dragon. She jumped to her feet, the half eaten fruit still in her hand.
“That,” the old man said, “is the king’s plum, young woman. And now, it would seem, so are you.” He laughed a little.
Alicet wished she had stayed out of the sunny open glade and in the dark, shadowed forest. The fruit there had been more than enough.
But it all belonged to the king there, too. So what was there to gain by hiding? The thought shocked her. She had not been so bold for a very long time. But she thought that she could easily outrun this old man, and that seemed to take away some of the fear. She felt odd, an unaccustomed boldness sweeping through her veins.
“Come with me,” the old man said.
The effect of those words on her was wonderful and terrible at the same time. How many days had it been since she had spoken to anyone? She couldn’t remember. And this was a command. The first she had heard in a very long while.
Who was this old man to command her? Was she still a slave, after all?
Her head spun in confusion. She was a little startled that she had asked herself that question.
The spirit that met her in the valley beside the river never commanded her. He cajoled, he seduced, he promised. And she knew his promises were real, oh, real beyond anything she had ever known before. Whatever she wished for would be hers.
And then she realized something else. She realized that it was she who would decide whether to obey this old man’s command or not to obey him.
Just as it had been when she was a slave.
And she realized that simple fact in an instant of burning realization, as if the light of the glade and the nectar of that fruit had washed through her heart like the water in this land and splashed everything that was foul in her on the ground beside her so she could see it in painful detail. Every cruel order ever given her, every cruel command—she had decided herself to obey them all. Might she not simply have refused? And what could they then do? Strike off her head? Flay her alive? Burn her? And what was that to her? The sooner they had killed her, the sooner she would have come here. And this was a better place to suffer in.
The realization that she had willingly obeyed every evil command ever given her since she had been enslaved struck her dumb with horror at her own perversity. She had never even supposed it could be any other way. And yet there was always, always, a choice. Her suffering was all her own fault. There was no one else to blame. That’s just the way she was. She had hurt herself by hating her masters for what she herself was doing to herself. She fell to her knees in the soft violet flowers, her breath coming in short gasps as she came to know the horror of how depraved she had been. Now she knew good and evil, and she knew where it came from.
“Would you like to come with me now?” the old man asked her.
She nodded, rose, and followed the old man out of the glade and back into the forest.
After a while they emerged from the trees and stood on the edge of a steep walled winding valley, heavily wooded and carpeted with flowers and moss and tumbling brooks on this side, and open grasslands rising up round hills on the other. Down a short slope, perched on the bluff alongside a bright, merry brook, its banks overgrown with flowering roses, she saw a small house, heavy tan stone walls covered with ivy and clematis, and the thickly thatched roof, all turning golden in the last of the sun. The house was built on the slope and the rear of the house merged with the hillside right under the thatch. A spring emerged from the rocky valley side and poured down the slope near her feet and ran right down to the back of the house and into it, and then left through a pebble covered basin near the front door, continuing on down to join the wider stream that ran through the middle of the valley.
The old man started down the slope to the cottage. “So, can you coax the corn from the ground and the wool from the lamb’s back, Alicet?” he asked her.
“No,” Alicet replied, suspiciously. “I can hoe the ground and shear a sheep and see that they both have water enough. Is that the same thing?”
“No,” he said. “I’m looking for something a little bit different.”
He opened the front door, painted a merry pale blue like those flowers back in the glade. She followed him into the house to find a narrow cot along one wall to the left under a north window, a round table and three chairs opposite under the south window, a tiny fireplace and brick oven beside the door on the west, and a cabinet filled with books and cheese and bottles against the east wall, and beside the cabinet, an arched, stone-walled passage leading down stone steps into the side of the hill. From somewhere down below that arch, she could hear the water of the brook splashing. In the center of the room she saw a loom and spinning wheel. Near the oven she saw a butter churn carved from a single tree truck, its base the roots that had spread from the tree when it lived. The outside of the churn had not been varnished or polished—it was just smooth grey bark like an ash tree. There was a little twig sticking from the side and on that twig, a green leaf sprouted. “You’ll sleep here. You know the loom and the wheel and the churn?”
She did. He took her through the stone arch and down the stairs, and the air grew much cooler as they descended, until they stood on a stone pavement in a large domed room. “Butter, potatoes, and cheese down here,” he said. “And the brook.” He pointed along the south wall, where the water cascaded down in a shower from above and disappeared through an iron grate set in the floor. “Your water, if you want it.”
She dipped her hand in the water, and as always, it went right into and through her hand. She stepped back from it quickly, afraid her dark companion would show up, but she did not.
The old man then took her back outside and showed her the sheepfold and the pastures along the far side of the valley, and he showed her the tiny plot of grain and corn and the fruit trees, one of which she had already found. The fields and the orchards were not what you would call organized, nothing ordered in nice neat fields fenced in and arranged about the house, but rather everything was scattered haphazardly around the valley. They walked for a couple of miles, and it was quite dark and the sky jeweled with stars, and she was certain she had not seen everything, before he left her at the door and bade her good night.
Alicet knew what to do well enough, so that in just a couple of days there was milk and butter and cheese and bread and fruit, and soon there was wool and thread and wine and ale and vinegar. The old man stopped in every day to see how she was getting on, and he showed her where to find roots and herbs and leaves that, when boiled or steeped, made dye. On her own, she found a field of flax, and she gathered that and set it to soak in a barrel of water in the basement.
That was all well enough, though it wasn’t quite enough after all, and after a few weeks, Alicet caught herself sitting at the loom and studying the western wall beside the door. She had intended to make herself a robe out of the linen thread she had spun out of the flax, but the blank stone wall was beginning to vex her. It looked much colder, and much more bare, than she felt herself to be.
So she took some of the thread she had spun from wool and flax and dyed it in all the colors she could make and she kept staring at that wall while she sat at the wheel and the loom and she imagined that she saw pictures on it. She imagined a tapestry would look good there, and she could think of nothing she’d rather picture on it than that fruit tree in the glade. A picture began to shape itself in her mind—she saw herself taking the king’s fruit. She saw the king watching her from the edge of the glade as she ate. . . .
She set to work.
The old man, whose name was Daniel, called every day late in the morning and sat in a chair leaned back against the western wall sipping tea and toying with bread and butter and fruit and telling her tales about things he had seen and done. She supposed it all nonsense, for he told her about wandering a desert in this land for twenty years with no water anywhere, and she couldn’t imagine that, especially the bit about going without the water for so long. Never mind thirst—as horrible as it was when the dark spirit appeared, and it always did after she bathed or drank, she still wouldn’t care to be far from the water.
Daniel told her of wandering through forests larger than kingdoms, of seeing no one at all for years at a time. He spoke of forests higher in the mountains where the snow itself glowed at night with a light as if faint stars were buried in the deep drifts. He told her of villages where he would stay for years on end, sitting before flickering candles or oil lamps in taverns drinking ale and beer and wine and listening to the tales of other travelers here, tales of far away plains and mountains and deserts and ice fields and cities so tall the towers were lost in the clouds and the inhabitants there never touched the ground for centuries at a time but simply stepped out of their windows and drifted from tower to tower. And then they would leave their towers after years of living in polished stone magnificence and they would wander the plains barefoot, alone or in groups of two or three or families of ten or twenty and they would sing songs about the ground under their feet. And that seemed to be the lesson he was trying to get across to her. Everyone here was a traveler. You might find a place you liked and stay there for years, or centuries, so he said, but everyone here was a traveler.
Alicet didn’t contradict him, but she didn’t quite believe him either, because he also told her, every day, that everyone here had to produce a harvest for the king. If you kept a vineyard, or wandered the forest, or sailed the warm seas below the deserts or the cold seas beyond the mountains, sooner or later, the king would come to you for the harvest.
Sooner or later, the king was going to come, and when he did, he would ask her for her harvest.
Daniel had not warned her that the cottage was haunted, but it was. Alicet noticed this only a week after she had first come, and it started with, of all things, the butter churn. The churn had begun to fight back. Churning butter out of the cream skimmed from the milk was an old, familiar chore, long practiced to the point where she could, and often enough had, done it in her sleep.
Now, this chore wouldn’t let her do it in her sleep.
She knew the churn was empty when she cleaned it and poured the cream in this morning. But she worked the plunger and after a bit, just before the butter came, she felt something grab it, something inside.
At first she thought perhaps the churn itself was responsible for this, for she knew the wood in the churn was still alive, despite the fact that it had been taken from the ground, the top cut from the stump, everything hollowed out, and finally fitted with a lid. But she knew green wood when she felt it in her hands, and this wood was still very much alive. For that matter, all of the wood in this house was still alive. The cabinet, the table and the chairs, the very front door, all of this wood was still alive, still green. And she could feel it alive in her hands. But none of it had a mind of its own, at least not as she had noticed until now. Up and down, up and down, for long minutes, easy enough, but now there was something in the churn playing games with her, plucking at the churn and drawing it down when she tried to bring it up, pushing it up when the tried to run it down, shifting it to the side from time to time. So she thought maybe the churn itself was fighting back, but no, only when the cream was in did she feel the unmistakable sensation of something pulling the plunger in her hands. It wasn’t the wood. She couldn’t shake the suspicion that the cream itself was trying to tell her how to go about this chore, as if it was getting impatient with her clumsy efforts to turn it into butter.
She fought with it for several minutes, but it got more and more stubborn about the business, and all she wanted was the butter, so finally, exasperated, she said “Oh, very well. Do it yourself!”
At first it lay still when she let it go. But when she turned to the work again, it fought her again. After she abandoned fighting with it the third time and sat at the wheel to spin and began to sing to herself, she then saw the churn begin to work, behind her back.
At first she hoped it was just a pixy spirit trying to vex her, but she began to play along with it, and quickly discovered that if she let it do all work, the butter came after only five minutes instead of after a half hour of churning. But only if she sang to it.
So when Daniel peered in through the door after just a day or so of this, he saw her sitting at the loom and singing to the churn as it worked all by itself in time to her music. He said nothing about it, as if this were exactly what anyone would expect.
The bread behaved the same way, only better. She kneaded with her hands deep inside the warm dough, feeling the heat growing and smelling the faint aroma of alcohol from the wild yeast, but there was more at work in here, and as if the churn had let her in on the secret of what to look for, she could now feel the life of the leaven growing inside the bread, like a child, or like the spirit of the grain coming to life again when it is tossed on the ground in the spring, but this was bread, and it was growing under her hands into something that it hadn’t been before. And knowing this, she learned that she wasn’t kneading it at all, or churning butter at all, but between the two of them, they were both making something altogether new, and all this just in a loaf of bread and a bit of butter.
Very shortly, Alicet learned that she no longer had to touch anything to grow it into what she wanted, into what it would be, rather, but if she came to it knowing what it was to be, she would have it. So, the house was soon filled with cheese and bread and butter and wine better than that set before any king of Ib. And she couldn’t really claim she had done any of it herself. And yet she felt as if she were making something here, something was with her here, and between the two of them, they were making something new.
There was enough to share with the jugglers and tumblers and wanderers and cloaked scholars and sage men and women who passed through the forest on their way, as they said, to the village or the mountains or the sea, and maybe after that, they said, to the king’s palace high in the hills.
The king’s palace! The joy of the last few days trembled in her mind, replaced now with fear. She had nearly forgot about the unjust king.
She put the question to Daniel when he appeared for breakfast the next morning.
“Does the king ever come this way himself?”
He cut another piece of bread and dragged the butter closer to where he sat. “Yes, of course he does. It’s his land, his farm, his kingdom, everything. He’ll come to collect your harvest, sooner or later.” Daniel looked closely at her. “Everything is his. He reaps where he doesn’t sow.”
He saw the fear on her face.
“But we don’t keep anything that we have made!” She said. “We have given it all away—what you haven’t eaten, I mean! What are we going to do when he comes for his harvest? What with all the travelers through here and their appetite for ale and wine and bread and cheese, I hardly keep anything from one day to the next!”
“It is becoming rather busy out here. I think word is getting about that you set an excellent tea, Alicet.” Daniel sat nodding in his cloak.
She didn’t ask him again. She knew when he didn’t answer, it was because he wasn’t going to answer. She would get more of an answer from the churn or the bread.
She also knew that sooner or later, certainly before the king came here, she was going to have to leave this place and slip away back into the dark forest.
Curiously enough, that thought bothered her as much as the idea of meeting the king.
Sormen had resources—the stone, the land—why, his nearest neighbor was surely no less than a mile away—and he had the strength, the energy and the power. And to be sure, he had the time to do whatever he wished. He had everything a god might need to do anything he wanted to do. He just wasn’t quite certain what he should do with it all. But he knew he would figure that out.
For a day he practiced his art of levitating stones. He found that it wasn’t his will that moved them, it was something else, and that was a relief—he wouldn’t have to squint his eyes and hold his breath just so when he moved a stone about. The priests in Ib could sometimes move things when the air was charged with lightning before a storm, but they invariably had to hold their breath, clamp their eyes shut, and they turned red as beets in the process of moving a straw across a tavern table. But Sormen found he had only to reach for a stone, close his fingers lightly as if he grasped it, and lift his hand. With that, the stone rose. And then by turning his hand he turned the stone, by moving his arm, he moved the stone however much he wished. No matter how large, he could move anything in this way. Whatever he desired, it would come to him. He began to feel he could move a mountain, if he wished.
Sormen began to build, and after a time, he had erected a drystone wall about his land, a rough circle perhaps a mile wide. There were no lines or fences here to mark where his domain ended and his neighbors’ began; apparently the idea of borders here was left a little bit undecided.
Inspecting his wall one day, Sormen strayed across what a newly arrived and nearby neighbor had decided was his own land. This wretched fellow saw Sormen and at once he began to hurl stones at him, casting boulders the size of carts from where he sat atop his pile of stone. The first stone he hurled broke through Sormen’s wall, spilling shattered and loose blocks across the dead grasses, and the second struck Sormen a savage glancing blow on the head—had it landed on him it would have crushed him flat. The wound bled spectacularly, stinging as a sudden shower of the acrid yellow mist began to fall, but the falling mist was welcome because it obscured Sormen from his enemy.
Sormen lay for some time, unconscious, hidden behind the rubble of his wall. His head was matted with blood, crawling things swarmed his scalp searching out bits of dead flesh, but when he came to himself he ignored them as he carefully crept about to a better vantage point so he could see what his neighbor was doing. The man was building a hut of stone, so busy with this work that he didn’t notice his foe watching from behind the broken wall. Sormen supposed he thought him dead. He plucked one of the crawling worms from his head and examined it as he considered what to do next about his neighbor. He meant to crush it between his fingers, but then he saw it wriggle in pain, and he saw the expression on its face, the pain and the longing and—the appetite. That was it. The appetite for Sormen, and that settled it. He set it on the ground and let it crawl away, looking back at him with suspicious gratitude. It was a piece of him now, and because of that, Sormen knew that he was greater now than he had been before.
Sormen looked back at his neighbor toiling away in haste on his hut and walls and realized that his own wall was now much shorter than it had been when he finished it, before he was attacked. This fellow was stealing his stones. And that settled the matter.
Sormen reached out and grasped his unwary opponent, raising him up into the yellow sky. He stepped over the border and walked toward the hut, still holding the man high in the sky until he stood under him and he lowered the thief until he hung only a few feet above the yellow plain. Then Sormen crushed him tightly in his grip, more and more tightly, until he ceased shrieking and his face blackened and the blood began to well out of his mouth and nostrils and through cracks in his skin and he fell limp. Sormen jammed his body into the damp ground and lay a single huge boulder on top of him.
He then moved his neighbor’s entire pile of loose stones to his own, near a low, mist-covered ditch filled with stagnant yellow, acrid liquid. The mud along the walls of this ditch had the peculiar quality of setting up rigidly when dried and he thought it might make a serviceable mortar for his new stonework.
Surveying his new grounds, Sormen realized he could hear the faint cries of his old enemy from under the great boulder. For a day or two he stood by the stone, listening as the muffled curses poured out from below, and he wondered why his enemy didn’t simply pick up the stone and hurl it aside, but he supposed his hands were crushed under the rock and he could not make a fist.
So Sormen leaned close to the stone and spoke. “You! What is your name?”
A hot stream of curses drifted out from under the stone. Sormen didn’t much like this. Sooner or later, this fellow would heal. Things always healed here. And there would be no end to this. He didn’t like that at all. Sormen wanted progress, not endless fighting.
Bracing himself in case his enemy had healed faster than he thought, Sormen raised the stone with his left hand and snatched the man with his right, careful to clamp his arms down so he could not fetch a boulder or grab Sormen himself. He then held him up.
“Your name?” Sormen repeated.
“Know, Rul, that you are mine.”
Rul spat at Sormen, and Sormen crushed him, Rul writhing in pain and fury, kicking and struggling. His face fell forward and Sormen felt the unmistakable sensation of being bitten. A small scratch appeared on his knuckle, about where Rul’s mouth would have been, had a small version of him actually been in Sormen’s grasp.
Sormen clamped more tightly. “Rul, you are mine. If you defy me, I will destroy you.”
“You cannot!” Rul said, licking the blood from his lips. “I am immortal!”
Now Sormen knew he had a real problem. Rul was learning. Indeed he was immortal, and now he knew he could wound Sormen. So Sormen carried him quickly across the land until he came to a pit in the ground, the bottom of this pit a bubbling pool of molten lava. Sormen held Rul over the lava. He could feel the heat on the bottom of his hand even though he stood well clear.
“Indeed you are immortal, Rul. How would you like to spend your eternity encased in rock? For if you refuse to worship and serve me, I will dip you into this pool of molten rock and once you are encased in rock I will set you up as a statue in my palace. And you will live, Rul, enclosed in that rock, and every year I will bring you here again and renew the coating of rock, and so you will spend your eternity. Unless you worship me and serve me, this shall surely be. Speak!”
Again Rul bit Sormen, and again Sormen’s knuckle was marked with a tiny scratch. But Sormen knew he could withstand this pitiful attack. And pain was nothing new.
But Sormen also knew that Rul had swallowed his blood. And this bothered Sormen. Now Rul had made himself a part of him. That complicated things.
Still, it was plain that Rul had no love for Sormen. So Sormen lowered him into the lava. His hand burned, but he persisted, and a great cloud of steam welled up from the lava as Rul was held under, and then Sormen pulled him up and lay him on a stone as the lava cooled about him into solid rock. Rul’s arms and legs moved in spasms as the charred flesh still tried to respond, and Sormen then dipped him again and a third time, until Rul ceased moving and was indeed nothing more to the eye than a rough figure of a man in steaming black rock.
Sormen’s own hand was charred badly, but he still had another, so he raised Rul up and moved him to stand on a stone near his own tower.
He left Rul thus for a long while, but after a time he chipped away a little of the rock around his head until the mouth and the ears were exposed, the flesh within a little healed. Sormen renewed his offer to Rul, and Rul refused again, so once more Sormen dipped him into the pool of lava to renew the rock, each time the man emerging to look a little less like the figure of a man.
The third time Sormen made his offer, Rul agreed. Sormen bound him with oaths to serve and worship him, and Rul accepted all his terms. Then Sormen broke the stone away and released Rul, to discover that Rul’s fingers and his nose and ears had been burned completely away and had not healed. Sormen was shocked to see this. It wasn’t fit that anything that had become a part of him should be disfigured like this. He wished Rul had been a little more careful. Sormen hoped he could find a way to heal this man. Not so much that he could attack him, but certainly enough to make him worth looking at.
Sormen began to build a tower. He didn’t set his servant to this task, because without fingers, Rul could not pick up stones either magically or practically. But Rul bowed low in obedience and sat at Sormen’s feet and worshiped him and even tried to entertain him. Sormen was as pleased as he could be.
What the accommodations in his new tower lacked in quality they made up for in quantity, for he had a house, if not finer, then certainly larger than any in Ib, and considerable lands about it on all sides. He had set every stone himself, and often enough the stones would collapse as he tried to raise the walls higher, but he persevered, and eventually, with Rul’s guidance, for the man knew masonry, Sormen got pretty good at it all, in a rough kind of way. The finery could come later. He set Rul to weaving mats from the coarse, dead grasses of the plain, holding the strands of grass in his teeth and clapping his palms together to push or pull as he needed. Sormen discovered that the dead grasses were not dead at all, for after he picked a muddy patch of ground bare, he discovered that very shortly they had returned, flat and limp on the soggy ground.
For a long while, this was enough. And then Sormen began to wonder about his more distant neighbors. He wondered about Rul, who remained silent much of the time, and watchful. Sormen knew the man was studying him carefully, and that was vexing. He knew there was no point in trying to kill him, and he had no idea how he might send him away. But Sormen knew that Rul sought a way to throw him down and take his place.
Sormen wondered if Rul’s fingers would eventually grow back. He wondered if there were other powers than just hurling stones here. He wondered if Rul had been promised that he was a god, too.
He was afraid it might be so. He was afraid all his neighbors might be gods just like him. Sormen stood on the roof of his high tower and looked about him, and at the very limit of vision he could see other towers, some just beginning to rise, others taller perhaps and more elaborate than his, their polished stone walls rising in almost graceful, if corroded, arches with gates thirty feet high under the arches, for his neighbors had arches, and Sormen was unhappy about that.
His own walls were simple, unpolished stones. This was not what he wanted. He wanted quality, strength, and he wanted people to walk past his tower and say ‘there lives a god.’
One day Sormen had a visitor. He saw a man crossing the plain, and this fellow did not seem to belong to a plot of land of his own but rather was a wanderer, accompanied by a cart drawn by a foul-looking beast, a misshapen ox or something like that. The creature had three legs on one side, the third a limp thing dragging along as the others walked normally. This wanderer seemed to amble aimlessly about from tower to tower, and nobody molested him. Sormen found this very odd.
The traveler stopped at the edge of Sormen’s estate, and hailed him if he might approach. Sormen bade him come. The cart at last stopped before the wall and Sormen met the traveler at his crude gate.
“Hail and well met, Sormen.” The traveler pushed back the hood on his cloak, and Sormen nearly reeled at the face, the half that remained anyway, under the hood. Clearly the stranger had come to some awful accident, the left side of his face burned and decaying, only one eye able to fix on anything. That was a comfort to Sormen, who still worried that Rul’s fingers might grow back.
Sormen rubbed his own face absentmindedly, brushing away another mite that clung to him, leaving a streak of blood down his cheek, and he felt a flush of horror at sweeping away this thing that had fed on him, depended on him for its life, that had looked on him as its very being.
The traveler threw back a covering from off the cart, revealing chests of ornaments and jewels, some very finely wrought. He also had tools and at these Sormen’s eyes lighted.
The traveler noticed this. “Tools for working stone, my lord. And tools for making fire, see here. And tools for digging, that your foundation might be more firm, and tools for mining, for there are things below in the mud that my lord may desire.”
“Gold in plenty, my lord. And silver, and gems, and other things precious besides. And brimstone, always brimstone, if you dig far enough.” The traveler regarded Sormen more closely with his one good eye. “But I see my lord has the strength.”
“What strength?” Sormen asked, too staggered by the terrible face before him to remember his customary scorn and distance.
“Why, the strength of your arm, my lord. Is it not so? I know the look of that power. You have no need of my crude methods and tools.”
Sormen wondered—was his power remarkable after all? After Rul, he supposed that everyone here had this power. He drew hope from this.
Sormen reached out and drew a tremendous stone from the ditch, easily the size of the traveler’s cart. He set it down before the gate, blocking the way out of his courtyard.
“Remarkable!” the traveler exclaimed. “You have no need for my wares, that is plain. What could my lord need from me? What payment could I request for anything my lord required of me?”
“Payment!” Sormen said. “You stand before my throne, on my lands. All that you have and are belongs to me already.”
“Oh, but begging your pardon, lord, there is a king in this land. . . .”
“And there is a god in this land, and your king would give you as a tribute to me if I demanded it. Did you not know that? You shall not go. You shall serve me here.”
The traveler smiled, his forked tongue flickering behind his jagged and broken teeth. “I will not, my lord.”
Sormen reached his hand forth and clenched his fist, and the traveler’s arms suddenly slapped to his sides as if pinned there. Sormen raised his fist, and the traveler rose into the acrid air, shrieking. Sormen squeezed his hand more tightly, and the traveler gasped and groaned, the ribs in his sides creaking and crackling. A trickle of blood seeped from the corner of the traveler’s mouth.
“As my lord commands,” the traveler gasped. “I am tribute to you from the king.”
Sormen placed the traveler in the dungeon for a time and let Rul torment him. Sormen had learned this trick in Ib—the best way to encourage loyalty in a servant is to give him the job of tormenting another servant. After a time, he then set his servants to work digging a foundation for a new tower more magnificent still, and to cutting and shaping stones, and to delving for gold and silver and gems.
Sormen took the chisel and hammer to a stone and began to cut it. Shortly he discovered that he could cut and polish stone beautifully. Then, quite suddenly, he discovered that he no longer needed the chisel and hammer to cut stone, but he could do it by raising the hammer and chisel while sitting on his seat of stone, even as he could move stones with his hands without touching them. So Sormen practiced this art.
Once the traveler submitted to Sormen’s will, he freed him and Rul from the dungeon and set them to building his new tower. Sormen occasionally moved the heavier stones for them, and he still cut and polished stones, but he offered little other help, for he did not want his servants to notice that he wasn’t at all sure about the limits of his strength or his powers. What he had was good, but Sormen knew, as the priests of Ib did not know, that a god has to be very careful to keep the worshipers from seeing too much.
Sometimes Alicet forgot that she was hiding, but not often, after Daniel reminded her that one day the king would come for the harvest. When travelers appeared, sometimes out of the forest, sometimes wandering up or down beside the stream that ran through the center of the valley, she would catch herself hiding in the cottage, hesitating to greet them or invite them in for food or drink, but Daniel would always show up at the door and have them in, and he would make sure he showed her off a little, or so it seemed to her.
One morning Daniel knocked at the door to announce he had arrived for breakfast, and he had a ragged looking fellow in tow, a young man not much older than Alicet it seemed to her, a little heavy looking and bearded, dressed in clean but worn woolen trousers held up with a length of coarse twine and a heavy linen shirt. She noted this because so many people here wore little or nothing, the climate being such that one could rest on the ground through the night, wake covered with the dew, and feel it had been a fine night. One thing she had learned was that the way you looked here meant something about what you were doing, or what you were trying to do, anyway. Not the way you looked as in the features of your face or your body—that was you. But what you wore, and what you carried with you—that meant something. She wondered what this fellow was up to.
The young man carried a canvas sack on a cloth strap over his shoulder, and he dropped it on the floor beside the little table as he sat down.
“Alicet, see, here is our friend Seth, who lives in the mountains beyond the plain and digs in the rocks there.”
Alicet laughed despite herself. “Digs in the rocks? Whatever for?”
“Why, fer iron,” Seth said, and reaching into the bag at his ankle, he pulled forth a heavy lump of dark red brown rock and lay it before them. “This rock holds iron in it, ye see, an’ I can put it to the fire, and the iron’ll come out, if I put some cooked coal in with it an’ some crushed limestone.”
Alicet didn’t bother to wonder what cooked coal or limestone was. She remembered seeing the great iron furnaces of Ib smoking on the horizon when the king was busy preparing swords and hammers and spears for war.
“What in the world do you want with iron here?” she asked.
“Well, I don’ want it, myself. But I carry it to the smith who forges iron in the village. Have ye not been to the village?”
“Not yet,” Daniel said. “She’s just come.”
Seth smiled broadly. “Bless the king! Welcome, Alicet. So, as I was sayin’, the smith’ll take this ore I give ‘im, and he’ll lay it in a furnace with some cooked coal or wood an’ some crushed lime or summit, and he’ll draw the iron right out the stone.”
“And then?” she asked.
“Why, then I’ll go have ale at the tavern, which ‘is wife manages, because she thinks she can learn somethin’ ‘er other about the king by brewing ale. An’ I reckon she has, because that there is excellent ale, an’ she brews better’n any in this valley. Has been doin’ it fer ever so long.” He turned to the old man. “How long would yeh say, Daniel?”
“As long as I’ve known her.”
“Some folk don’t want ter move around much, once they get here and find somethin’ they like, ye sees. They get here an’ they get settled with one thing and they will carry on.” Seth looked up at the roof and the wall and assumed a sort of philosophical look behind his shaggy beard and knitted brows which made Alicet giggle a little. “That’s what yeh do! Now, ye tell me. What do ye know about the king now, Alicet?”
She looked down shyly.
“Hm,” Seth said. “You learnt somethin’ to be sure, when ye called that tapestry on the wall there out of the flax and the acorn dye.”
“How did you know I did that?” She asked, surprised.
“Why? ‘Cause it’s got yerself an’ the king all over it, that’s how. Eh, Daniel?”
But Daniel wasn’t listening, instead he was toying with that iron ore sitting on the table, and his face seemed very intent.
“Yeh can feel the iron in it, can’t ye?”
“I can,” Daniel said. “How very strange.”
“Nothin’ strange about iron,” Seth said, slapping his stomach and reaching for the butter. “It’s in yer blood, after all. There’s blood and breath both in this rock, and yeh got ‘em both from the king, didn’t ye? You keep that’n there, I have plenty. I only need about thirty pounds of it.”
“What will the smith make with your iron?” Alicet asked.
“Swords, I reckon. The king is comin’, and the smith’ll pay his harvest to the king in swords. The smith says yeh can learn a lot about a king from making a sword fer ‘im. And maybe summit about yerself into the bargain.”
Alicet’s mouth went dry. She didn’t doubt for a moment that you can learn a very great deal about a king from a sword. She left the table and disappeared down into the cellar. She stayed there until some time later, after Seth had gone, taking his iron ore with him, or at least all but the piece he had left with Daniel, who kept wandering about the farm for the rest of the day turning it over in his hands and holding it up to the light.
Alicet was horrified. This had brought it all back to her. She knew that sooner or later someone who knew the king would appear in the valley, some sergeant or marshal who would then decide it was his duty to bring her before the king.
But Daniel would always remind her that there was no justice in this land, and she tried to believe him. Even when the visitors seemed to know her name before the old man introduced her, and they often did, she still trusted his assurances that there would be no justice here. And so far, there hadn’t been any.
But there were swords in the land, and where there were swords and kings, there was justice.
When the very next day Daniel announced that it was time to go to the village because the king was coming to claim his portion of the harvest, the old terror filled Alicet’s heart again, newer and fresher and more final than ever before. Despite her pleading to stay on the farm, despite her insistence that the cattle and the sheep would suffer if she left even for a day, let along the three days it would take to walk to the village, visit there, and then return, he was adamant. He must go, and she must go with him. The king was coming to claim the harvest.
“Be sure and wash before you go, Alicet.”
She didn’t reply. She knew there was no point to it. He knew what he was asking her to do.
She knew that there was no need to wash here—nothing ever needed washing except the wooden dishes and the copper pots. That’s not the way it worked here. The house had that wonderful little brook splashing right through the cellar, and that looked like an ideal place to bathe where it tumbled down through the roof beside the wall, yet she did not, for she knew what that water would do to her, and she had no desire to see the black spirit standing beside her accusing her again, not tonight.
But he commanded, and, except when she thought about it, Alicet was still accustomed to obeying orders.
So, the night before they were to leave for the village, Alicet dutifully stepped under the water of the brook, so much like a cascade of golden gems in the candlelight that filled the room. The cool water washed over her, not really carrying away dust or dirt, since that didn’t gather on her here, but just as she expected it would, the water searched through her, found what it was looking for, and left it gathered together at her feet, where it slowly rose in the shape of the dark spirit, now more real and more solid than ever before, as if it too knew that this was the last of it. And now it spoke to her.
“Tomorrow, you will be seen in the village, Alicet. The king will see you there.”
Alicet said nothing, but ran her hands through her long, wet black hair.
“Do you think that the king won’t know what you are? Do you try to wash me away? But here I stand, beside you, forever, for everyone to see. Because I am you.”
Still Alicet said nothing.
“Listen! We still have a chance, Alicet! Let us run away tonight. Disappear into the forest. Let the old man find another slave to tend his cattle. Let the old man find another servant to bring forth the butter and cheese and to sing the songs in the night and to weave the next tapestry and to call the life into the ale and the wine. Quickly, Alicet, while there’s still time. I can lead you to safety. The way is still open to a kingdom where you will be able to hide. But this will be your last chance to escape.”
But the whole point was never to hide. It was to seek, to find, to crush, and to kill. At least it was, once upon a time.
Except every time Alicet bathed or drank the clear waters of this place, the evil that washed out of her for a moment stood before her, just as it was doing now, and she was finally so very tired of it. She knew that whatever her persecutors had done to her, it was nothing to what she had done to herself in hating them. She had obeyed their commands. That was her fault, not their fault. She had made herself a slave. And here the slave stood beside her, the dark thing she had made herself into, and she was so utterly weary of it.
With that Alicet, all of a sudden, knew what she was going to do.
“You will come with me tomorrow,” she said to the dark spirit. “You will stand beside me, and we will see the king.”
Alicet walked through the forest beside Daniel, he pointing out to her the trees and the flowers and the creatures of the wood. Behind her, silently, sullenly, the black spirit walked, obedient, muttering. If the old man saw it or heard it, he made no mention of it.
Daniel had brought nothing of their harvest—they had left the cart behind them at the farm. Only she and he, and the dark spirit beside her, walked along. She did not bother to ask him about this, because as far as she was concerned, it was not likely to matter very much whether there was a harvest or not.
They passed three more farmsteads much like their own as they marched, and at each they stopped, took bread from the farmer, and he or she sang them on their way.
At twilight, they came at last to the village. The twilight found Alicet and Daniel sitting together on a polished wooden bench outside a tavern. He was drinking a glass of deep red wine, and she held a beaker of cider and nibbled on a piece of bread with butter that, she had to admit, was better far than her own. They took a room in the inn, and Alicet found herself sitting up all night listening to the sounds in the street, jugglers and acrobats and singers and players, and, long after midnight when the moon was highest, the sounds of the street died away and left only the sound of someone hammering iron at a forge, and she imagined them fashioning a sword of steel so that tomorrow when the king arrived, he would be able to strike off her head when he found her at last, and found the sins she had brought with her to paradise.
The king was to come through the town at noon, and Daniel made Alicet wait beside the street as the morning wore slowly on. The dark spirit stood beside her, wringing its sooty hands in panic.
“Soon the king will arrive,” Alicet said to the spirit aside, “and claim his harvest.”
“Indeed he will,” the dark spirit whispered hatefully in her ear. “And you’re a murderer, and a coward, and worse.”
She flushed. “Yes.”
“And you’ll be punished for your crimes when you’re discovered!”
“Would any of that matter to an unjust king? I didn’t actually do anything, after all.”
The spirit whispered hotly. “It wasn’t what you did that mattered. It was what you were. What you still are.”
“I could always say that my persecutors deserved it, though.”
“Oh, yes, you can always use one sin to justify another. You and your master deserved each other.”
Alicet flushed again, feeling the truth of that. “And I deserve you, too. So maybe there is justice here, after all.”
Then there was no time for more talk, for with no fanfare at all, the king had arrived. He stopped and he stood before Alicet, and the street seemed empty and deserted and very light, filled with light.
Alicet was not certain what she was seeing, or rather, she was not certain that she was seeing everything that stood before her. A man, to be sure, but more than a man, a king, to be sure, but in some ways she felt as if she had been swept away from the village street to stand at the foot of a vast mountain, its painfully bright heights lost in distant clouds so high in the sky that the stars shone around but below the brilliant slopes that continued to rise until lost in darkness far above. Down its snow covered sides before its heights disappeared out of sight into dark clouds there poured great tracts of water in enormous cascades that fell down the far slopes in every direction throughout this entire land and fell on her like the rain, washing everything hidden out of her so that nothing of it was left. All the evil in her now stood black and cruel at her side. It was all out now, and she knew there was nothing standing here but her, the king, and the evil she had brought with her.
The king bore a sword on his belt. He asked her what this thing was that she had brought to him.
“My harvest, my lord king,” she said. She gestured to the dark figure standing beside her, though she kept her face to the ground. “I would hide it from you, for I do a greater wrong to give it to you, but this is my only harvest. And you have commanded me.”
“Who tells you it is wrong to give this thing to me? Where are your accusers?” he asked her.
The dark spirit stepped forward briskly. “Accusers!” it wailed. “Rather ask us where are our tormenters! How this child has suffered unjustly, lord! We deserve justice from your hand!” The dark thing began to shriek out a tale of Alicet’s sufferings, first at the hands of slavers, but it couldn’t stop there, and then began to recount the sins committed against her by her own family, her father’s indifference to a girl child, her mother’s neglect of her after her brother was born, her younger brother’s lording it over her despite his youth and vulgar ignorance, the shopkeepers in Ib cheating her, anything that had remained in her head of the countless ills she had suffered, the great and the small, forgetting nothing. Alicet stood listening in horror as her life of suffering was recounted to her in exquisite detail. So also did the king.
Finally Alicet raised her hand, her face still turned in shame to the ground, because as her sufferings were recalled, all she could remember was that she had let these petty evils fret her, that her suffering had been her choice and that was what had turned her into a monster. Now, it all seemed so little. She simply wanted to be rid of it. “Let that be, my lord king,” she said. “They owe me nothing.”
But the king was adamant. “Where are your accusers?” he asked her a second time.
“Her own conscience accuses her, my lord king! Can what she did be called right? And well she knows it!” The dark thing shrieked, turning on her. “She has left her family to languish in death unavenged! She has left the evil that men do to continue, unpunished!” And then the dark thing began to mutter a long list of Alicet’s sins of ingratitude, and she stood and listened to the catalog, and it was all of it true. Alicet said nothing.
“And much more than that, my lord king, she has destroyed lives herself. Ask her how many times she has cut the throat of her master, her mistress, and their children for no sin greater than demanding of her their rights of ownership! She is a slave! Ask her about her duty to avenge her family and herself, and her duty to her master and owner!”
The king listened in silence. The dark spirit recalled her life of slavery, and how many times Alicet had buried her master and her captors to their necks in the lava pools of Mhurr. No sin was too small to be recalled, and she heard them all, from the great to the small, even to the earliest she could remember, when she had chased a kitten up a tree and frightened it, just because she could. Oddly enough, Alicet noticed that none of her sins were forgotten ones. She remember each and every one.
Alicet heard the king’s sword coming out of its sheath.
“She has eaten from your garden, lord,” the spirit finished. “And she is not yours.”
Alicet paled with horror at the recitation of this last sin, somehow the worst of all. Dimly, she remembered the king’s question to her, and finally she answered him. “Where are my accusers? Only me,” she said.
At least that felt clean, a little like the way the waters of Lethe cleaned her of her sins, but somehow left them pooled at her feet in the dark spirit that had dogged her since she had passed through the water. But now, for the first time, standing beside her and speaking for her, they felt as if they were truly no longer a part of her.
But they were still a part of her, indeed they seemed to be the only part of her that had any life and energy left, for Alicet stood paralyzed as she heard the spirit, wailing and shrieking at her side, her very own life and being, finally raise its claws against this king in furious frustration and, without any other argument, lunge toward him, an animal growl in its dark throat. She heard it strike and rend him, she heard it shriek hatefully, “Why do you stand here in judgment over me? You are my accuser! You would condemn me for the faults you yourself created in me! You might have saved me, but you left me to die in that place, to be condemned, to be sold into slavery, to be ground into the dust! You! All my sins are yours!”
“So be it,” the king said, his voice full of a terrible sadness and triumph.
Alicet, eyes closed in mortal shame and horror, heard the hiss of the blade through the air, felt the wind of its rushing, and then a flash of fire in her open heart. Then she felt the spatter of moisture on her face and throat. She touched her tongue to her lips and tasted blood.
But Alicet did not weaken and fall to the ground as she expected. The stabbing pain in her breast faded at once.
She opened her eyes. Though covered with blood, there was no gaping sword wound in her breast. She looked up to see where the sword blow had fallen and who was bleeding—was the dark spirit finally slain? No—the king stood before her with his unstained sword in his hand, but his own side was dark with welling blood from an awful injury, as if the terrible dark spirit, the thing that had come out of her, had thrown itself at him and wounded him with its bare claws and teeth. But now it was gone. Alicet felt weak with fear and horror at the sight of his terrible wound, and her legs gave way and she slipped to the ground.
“Where are your accusers?” he asked her a third time.
She shook her head. There was none now, unless. . . .
“Then neither do I accuse you.”
And with that, the king was gone.
A great cloud moved over the village as the street began to reappear around her, and the people and the shops and Daniel, and though half the sky was ablaze with sunlight, it began to rain on them all, and as the water fell, Alicet felt the familiar feeling as it searched through her once more. But there was nothing dark to leave in the street to accuse her anymore, nothing dark beside her, except her graceful, simple shadow dappled by the golden raindrops and the light.
In time, Sormen came to have a tower more magnificent than any of his neighbors, the arches high and polished of black stone, the roof high and vaulted, and his gate adorned with jewels that his servants had dug from the mud below the deep foundations, strange jewels of scarlet that radiated a heat and dull red light. He now had four servants, having thrown down the walls and towers of two more of his neighbors, and the last of them languished in his dungeon where the other three occupied themselves with flaying him when Sormen had no chores for them.
He could have had all of this finery much faster than he did, for he had discovered that with nothing more than a gesture, he could raise a stone from the ground, cut it to the shape he desired, polish it like a mirror, and set it in place. He could hold as many as he wished at a single moment and lay them atop one another with hair’s breadth precision.
But he made his servants do it all, and he forbade their use of anything like magic. Instead, they used ropes which he commanded they weave from the coarse dried grasses, and they used that monstrous ox-like creature to raise the burdens. Sormen carved himself a magnificent throne of dense black rock and set it on a small hill so he could watch the progress. All day, through the yellowish rains and the acrid mists that drifted across the plain, Sormen watched the work. He noticed with some annoyance that the acid yellow rains eroded the stones very quickly, rounding his nice sharp corners and pitting the smooth polished stones even before a single wing to his castle could be completed.
But Sormen sat still on his throne and watched. He tried to move as little as he could, in fact, for he had become covered with a host of biting mites that infested the plains here, little grey creatures about the size of a tick before they bit, somewhat larger soon after. Their bites were septic and Sormen was covered with pustules that healed only slowly and, like those gems under the ground, radiated a heat and light of their own.
At first Sormen hated the biting, sucking things, though he did his best to bear with them, for it would not do for his servants to see him in discomfort. Lur fancied the mites could be warded away if Sormen would just apply a paste of mud from the ditch mixed with the acidic water that gathered in stagnant pools from the constant mist, but he refused this, mostly because he was certain this paste would burn what little skin he still had, and because it wouldn’t do for his servants to see their god uncomfortable.
Instead, Sormen commanded his servants to adore these mites, and he required they apply them to themselves to honor their god.
Rul, speaking for the servants, said they would look to it at once, and they started this new worship with that new servant in the dungeon.
But in truth, Sormen didn’t want rid of the things. True, they were filthy and revolting, but they drew their nourishment from him, and as they drank his life which he knew could not be exhausted by them, he began to realize that not only did they need him and want him and were utterly dependent on him for their life, but also, after they had fed, they now were a part of him. After all, was not his own heart’s blood in their bellies now? And when they dropped off, dribbling his blood out of the corners of their filthy mouths, did he not increase as they wandered away? Now Sormen was so much more than he had been before, because they carried him to the far corners of this land, and he was a part of them forever. That was why they existed.
They increased, and thus so did he.
The higher his tower grew, the further Sormen could see, and eventually he saw that he was not alone, but far across the plain he could see three other towers as high as his own, and maybe even finer. While his servants worked below, he moved his throne to the topmost room of his tower where he watched his neighbors through high arched windows curtained with drapes woven of the chafing grasses, and he wondered when he should call on these neighbors.
The day came when his neighbors, spying his work from their towers, became jealous of him, and they came to demand his subjection to them or they would throw his tower down. Sormen, knowing the ways of the world, especially of this one after his long experience here, had expected this, and so he was prepared for them.
He had instructed his servants from the beginning to prepare the foundation of his great tower according to his own directions, and he let his neighbors gather about his tower and prepare to lay siege to him. They did not hurl stones at him, for he had built too strongly for that to have any effect, but they arrayed their servants to shoot arrows, though that too accomplished nothing, even when they struck him or his servants. Eventually they dug about the foundations, supposing they were weakening the walls, and so it did, but when the tower was nearly ready to fall, Sormen reached out his hand and took hold of the landscape and pulled his tower in the direction he chose, so the tower fell on his enemies and they were crushed under the massive stones.
And that was all Sormen’s purpose. He then went and threw down their towers, claiming their stones and building on his enemies’ bodies a grand new castle, and he lived in some peace, his servants with him and those of his enemies’ servants that he had not plucked from the mud under the fallen stones and encased in lava. Often he would sit before the open windows of his new tower and listen to the cries of his enemies far below him in the foundation of his castle, still buried under the terrible weight of the stones they had brought down on themselves.
Sormen set the arched roof of the topmost level of his highest tower to sit atop great columns of polished black stone, each column carved by his own hand in his own likeness. Sormen commanded his servants to worship before the twelve columns, and they did as they were commanded.
But Sormen knew his servants worshiped him only because they feared him, and that bothered him, because they should have known by now how precious they were to him, and how they depended upon him for their very life, their very being. They were him, and if they had any existence other than what they got through him, he could not remember it. The very blood in their veins was his own, for he had commanded the mites to infest his servants and mingle his blood with theirs, replacing theirs with his, and they did this, and so Sormen began to crave his servants because they were a part of him.
Everything was more and more a part of him. The entire landscape became more and more a part of him with every passing moment, as his very life’s blood was carried to and fro about the land. Everything needed him, everything hungered for him, and he fed them all and became the greater for it.
The figures carved in the columns looked a little less like Sormen every day however, mostly because of the mites, and that was unfortunate, because after a little time longer, everything Sormen saw, he knew, was now him—the rocks, the pools, the mites, the stones, the very air that his precious breath exhaled into. It was all him, all alive with him. The images on the stone columns were only such a small part of what he had become, and he began to wonder if only there were a way to capture all of what he now was in stone, if only there were some way he could do that. . . .
Alicet walked home from the village alone, Daniel staying in the village to study the work going on at the forge, and she dallied on the way, her mind full of the king and the mountain and how he stood right before her and how she would raise her eyes and climb forever and yet never see the end of what he was.
The forest was very dark this night, no moon in the sky, only the stars, and although they were much brighter than any stars she had known before coming here, each brighter than the evening star, the forest canopy was dense and little of the light made it through to the ground. Instead, she followed a little brook which she knew would lead eventually to the stream that passed in front of the farm, and its bright cheery water kept her good company. Not that she needed company, really. After all, this land, everything right to the waters of the Lethe, all of it was but foothills, the beginning, the lowest slopes of the great mountain that she had stood before and that had given her life to her when she was trying so hard to destroy herself. These very stones that the brook leapt over, and the brook itself as well, and everything else, were bright with his life.
In fact, this water was curiously bright. Alicet knelt down on the moss covered stones and looked more closely. She could see the starlight glinting on the ripples, but there was more—the very water itself was glowing with a faint cool light. She dipped in her hand and, raising it before her face, she saw that her skin glowed ever so faintly from the water, her dark fingers shimmering like a faint spirit.
Then Alicet heard the sound. There was always music here, except in the few places in the deepest part of the forest where there was a silence so perfect she could hear her heart beating. But now there was a faint music, and she rose from beside the luminous water and began to follow it, droplets of light falling absently from her still damp hand.
After an hour, she found the music. In a great amphitheater-like open glade on the side of a long gentle slope, she found the singers.
There must have been a thousand women here. They sat on the starlit grass of the slope, and they were singing. There was no melody to this song, but it was a soft, constant drone of voices, echoing off the trees of the forest that bordered the slope. Alicet sat at the back of the gathering and listened, and after an hour, she too began to sing.
The night wore on and grew cool, and then the dew began to fall and gather on the singers, in their hair and on their faces and arms and legs, and as the song grew, the beads of moisture began to glow, just as had the water in the brook, even as far from the sound of these voices as it had been. But here, so close to the source, the women began to flame with beads of cool golden light so that the light of them shone on the trees and into the sky.
Alicet left the singers in the morning when the sun rose, and a few others did as well, and some new singers arrived. But she remembered this place, because she would come back.
The twilight of the next day found Alicet and Daniel at the farm, sitting on the top of the bluff overlooking the stream as the red light of early twilight flashed on the ripples. Alicet sang, and as she did, the water in the brook glowed with a cool, pale light.
“You can coax the corn from the ground now, Alicet. And the wool from the sheep’s back.”
“What’s so funny about that?”
“You should ask the butter and the corn.”
“You sound like a man I once met high in a range of mountains to the east of here. A wise man, they called him, a great sage, though he was a mystery to me. Maybe I’ll go back one day. I wonder if he’ll still be there. Anyway, he wore his beard very long, grey and wispy, and he had a red silk cap on his head, embroidered with the strangest design in gold thread. I still don’t know what it was, though I can see it still as clear as if I were looking at him now. Well, anyway, it’s unusual to see people here who present the appearance of great age, but some of them do, at least some of the time, I guess. Maybe he was an angel. Maybe the king. I don’t know. Anyway, he always said things that sounded like both sides of an answer at the same time. I spent a long time in his company.”
“What did you learn?”
“How the corn grows on the stalk, the grape on the vine, and the milk in the breast. How to feel their life in the bread and the wine and the butter and the flesh. Why things don’t stay the same, because they always are becoming.”
“So now you know what conjuring is,” she said.
“Conjuring! You can conjure the light out of the water. Light’s the first thing the king ever made, did you know that? Hm. I am going to do some conjuring of my own soon. Do you see that ledge of rock over there, on the other side of the bluff?”
She did, a shelf of red brown rock jutting from the middle of the bluff, a little dark in the shadows from the twilight, but quite distinct. “Have you spent any time looking at the rocks since you came, Alicet? No, I don’t think you have. That rock has iron in it, did you know? I first noticed it some little time ago, and as the time has passed, I’ve begun to wonder more and more about that iron. Did you ever stop and wonder about iron?”
“Not since Seth was here. So, what did you learn at that forge in the village, anyway?” She rubbed her wrists, remembering, without a trace of pain or bitterness, wearing iron shackles once, long ago. She knew a little bit about iron. It had been a valuable lesson, in its way.
“Yesterday I dug a piece of that ore out of the ground, held it in my hand, and I could feel the iron singing in it, humming with strength, even though the rock crumbled in my hand. There’s a kind of strength in things that are weak, and the fire can bring the strength out of them.”
She understood that.
“I’m going to take some of that iron and fire it in charcoal until the heat sweats the iron out of the rocks, drives away the air—did you know there is air in that iron rock? Iron and air. Like your blood, Alicet. Here, give me your hand.”
She took his hand. And she could feel it. She could feel the pulse, and she could feel the singing blood, and just as he said, there was iron in it, and there was breath, in his hand and in the rocks, where the spirit and the body both were.
“I wonder why iron is red in the ground. Like rust, or blood. I want to shape iron into a sword. I’ve been thinking about swords a lot lately.”
She felt a faint flutter in her stomach. “What could you want with a sword on a farm? You can’t reap grain with it. A sword makes a bad scythe.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Not so bad as all that. And so now you understand, Alicet. The harvest was you.”
He slipped off the bluff and started walking down the stream to the edge of the forest. She followed and stayed by his side.
“Couldn’t you make your sword here?” she asked. “And stay?”
“Why would I want to do that? It would be so lonely. . . .”
“Without you here? Yes. Very lonely here without you.” He swept his arm about the land, the sky, and the nighted forest and the stars above. “Because you will be gone. Did you think you were going to stay here? Not hardly. I heard you sing, Alicet.”
They came to the edge of the wood in silence.
“I will see you again, soon.” With that, he walked into the forest, and Alicet watched him disappear, and as she did so, she saw him lean his dragon headed stick against a tree and walk on, setting his cloak aside as well, and then he turned back to her, a young and radiant youth, waved good bye, and was gone.
She watched until he was out of sight, and then she collected the stick and the cloak and she turned back to the house. But she didn’t want to walk alone, this time.
She threw the cloak over her shoulders, the first time they had been covered since she had come through the water and arrived here. For a long moment she considered the feeling of the heavy cloth around her neck and shoulders. She missed the feeling of the light breeze on her back—but she could feel the crosswise weave of the heavy threads of the still living flax in the cloth, each with a memory of where it had been, and she could feel Daniel’s travels in the back and forth of the cloth like a maze, like a map of what he had seen and had done that he had passed on to her.
She raised her dark arms into the night and she rose into the sky and into the night, singing Daniel out of sight. She rose above the valley walls, saw the forest stretching away and the stream glimmering like a moonlit ribbon, and then higher she saw the village far away, a topaz of golden light from the cook fires and and chimneys and forges—she laughed aloud at the thought of the forges where you can burn something strong out of the weak—and the windows, and beyond that other villages, some greater, some smaller, and the glade where the singers still sat singing a hymn of praise, and farther beyond, she saw a desert, and another way, a range of towering mountains capped with snow, and beyond all this, more forest, more desert, more mountains, more seas, more jungles, more cities, and it went on forever, every one a place where she was weak, and every one the king’s forge. Yet in every direction, it all rose slowly toward the peak of the one great mountain, because that was the way toward which everything here led, finally. You couldn’t help but climb it, and every step was a forge and a harvest, and you would never see the top.
Still she rose, and finally she was lost in the deepening sky among the stars. And the higher she went and the more she saw, the more she knew how small she was and how much of this there was to learn and to be, and it would take her an ecstasy of forever seeking.
Finally the day came when the king of Hell called to see Sormen, and Sormen remembered with a slight shock once hearing about this king long ago, though he had nearly forgot there was a throne here other than his own, or that there was anything at all here other than him. Being a god is a distracting business.
But there was another throne in this land, and this king called upon Sormen and sat in Sormen’s chair at the top of Sormen’s tower and demanded of him his harvest. Sormen realized with a slight shock that he could sense nothing of himself in the king. Nothing at all. This king wore a crown of iron, and where it sat on his brow it had rusted, and streaks of red covered his creased and furrowed brow and ran down so that it seemed as if the iron crown had cut into his head and the wounds bled and his dark eyes wept tears of blood that sank into the hollows of his gaunt cheeks.
At first, Sormen felt offended that this king should sit on his throne on the topmost level of his greatest tower, surrounded by the images of Sormen carved into the stones. At the foot of each column lay wreathes of dead grasses cut and woven by his servants in worship. But as Sormen raised his hand against this king, the king, making no gesture that Sormen could see, but simply exerting less than a whisper of his will, left Sormen powerless and frozen, capable only of thought and speech. The king then demanded his harvest of Sormen.
Sormen offered the king a captured tower, but the king would not have it, declaring he had enough towers already, including the very one he sat in now. The king said surely a god could offer a better harvest. Sormen offered him slaves and servants, but the king would not have those either, declaring that he already owned the servants that he saw standing before him, and all other slaves besides in his kingdom. Again, the king said surely a god could offer a better harvest. Sormen began to feel vexed, wondering what this king expected of him. Outside, beyond the tower arches, Sormen and the king could hear the endless cries of Sormen’s enemies still pinned under the foundation of Sormen’s tower.
At last Sormen asked him in frustration, what harvest could a god offer a king? What harvest would a god present?
And the devil, being compelled to answer with the truth, said that Sormen had long known the complete answer to this one question, and that the only prize a true god could ever offer was nothing less than himself.
After a time, the witch Liriel desired a change from the hills of Ib-Sata, and so she decided to visit Heaven and Hell and see how Alicet and Sormen were getting on.
She decided first to visit Hell to see what had become of Sormen, the wastrel and drunkard and slaver, and so she descended into the pit paved with those who relish the sins of others, and made her way through the dark tunnels filled with the damned who feed on the lives and works of others, and then she walked across the vast yellow plain peopled with the lost who seek to rule and own others, until at last she saw the towers that Sormen had thrown down and heard the voices of the fallen shrieking curses at him from deep under the stones where they lay pinned. But she did not see Sormen, and though she spoke with his victims, calling to them where they lay buried, they could not say what had become of him. So she then went to the king of Hell.
The king sat on a black throne of his own, more magnificent than Sormen’s perhaps, but finally, it too was but carved black stone. The king’s hall was vast, furlongs in length, so high the roof was lost in smoke and darkness, the crowded towering columns arrayed by thousands of millions lit along both aisles with the frozen faces of the most evil of daemons and sinners jutting from the stone, their living mouths open in rage where they had been frozen into the stone, and on each living tongue lay a burning ember of brimstone, the flame blue and flickering, to illuminate the hall with a pale blue corpse light and perfume the air with the acid reek of sulfur and burning lips and tongues.
“How do you find Sormen, my tithe to you, lord?” She asked.
The king did not smile under his crown of iron. But he looked to the top of a column set far, far down the hall and many, many rows back, and the witch followed his eye, and there she saw Sormen at last, his mouth frozen open and filled with the blue flame of brimstone laid burning on his living tongue. At the foot of the column she saw Sormen’s servants, bowed before him and worshiping, their hands and lips frozen to the stone pillar.
She wondered why the king kept this thing here, for it could not be a comfort to this king, who demanded all worship for himself.
And then she went to Heaven to see what had become of Alicet, the slave and milkmaid who had fed the sinners of Ib and who hated them while she did it. So Liriel rose through the pit and crossed the valley being careful to avoid the waters of Lethe, and she crossed into the dark forests and the deserts and the high mountains until at last she came to Alicet, and she watched from a great distance as Alicet crossed a desert, a sword of black iron at her side, a plain brown cloak over her bare shoulders, and a staff in her hand, the head of which was carved in the likeness of a dragon. Alicet sang high into the night sky, and often the lightning would flash and thunder beside her as she walked far into this vast desert.
Alicet was looking for something. Liriel could see that. Yet as she watched, Alicet walked past a firestone, then another, and yet another in the space of a single day. Firestones! Liriel marked their place and wondered if she might be able to fetch one and return it to her home. And Alicet ignored them all, except once just before night, when she called down the lightning to strike one and watched as it flashed into a star and soared into the sky.
As the sun fell, Liriel watched Alicet sitting beside a pool of water in the center of this vast desert, with no company but a single phoenix, the fire of his red feathers warm against the sapphire twilight on the golden sands. A phoenix! And she spoke with it as if it were nothing but a traveling companion! And still Alicet seemed to be searching for something, something more.
Liriel was afraid of Alicet, and she stayed at a safe distance.
Most curious of all, Alicet seemed afraid herself, even now, and that frightened Liriel most of all.
So Liriel turned away from Alicet and went to the castle of the king, and she walked hesitantly through the great arches, as high as any mountain on Earth, and entered the great hall, where the columns were living, flaming angels, each the size of a titan, each holding a great bronze lamp in one hand and the other hand raised to effortlessly support the roof, under which swirled the sky and the stars, and these angels sang as they stood, a strange drifting music that moved like a swan on the sea waves and never ceased.
Liriel came at last to the throne of the king of Heaven, a seat carved of shining crystal water that flowed through him out into the world, and surrounded by a ring of purest white fire, through which his subjects walked when they approached his throne. Where the water and the fire met, vast clouds of white billowed up into the air, lit golden by him, and the air around him was a perpetual spring afternoon, the air of every beginning, for this was where everything began. Liriel could only envy what she saw and she wished she knew the secret of it.
“How do you find Alicet, my tithe to you, lord?” she asked, staying safely out of reach of the ring of fire.
The king did not speak. But he wore a crown woven of thorns, and one thorn had flowered, and Liriel knew that that flower was Alicet.
© 2013 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs. All rights reserved.
Categories: Short Stories