by Ryan J. Southworth
“Smoke rises before the feast. Feast before the flames. Flames before the famine.”
– Proverb etched above the gate to Greystone Castle
The royal carriage clattered and shook. It seemed to bounce from one rock to the next, intent on ignoring the road in favor of its largest obstacles, and with every jolt the old woman’s bones rattled in time to the creaking wood and glass. She found herself wondering –several times–whether the driver was going blind. Or whether perhaps he was taking vengeance for some accidental wrong she’d done him.
Her whole body ached. Dull and throbbing, then sharp; a knife prying her joints apart. Then dull again. Perhaps this had been a poor decision. She should have returned to the palace, where a Queen belonged. Died there with the rest. But Thalin had insisted. When she could not reach the mountains, Greystone was the next best hope for surviving the day.
Perhaps survival was a poor decision as well.
She tried to show a tight-lipped smile to the slave sitting opposite, but a moan escaped her mouth, jostled free by another pumpkin-sized stone.
“Are you all right, my Lady?” The young girl’s voice was flat. She reached a clammy, pale hand across the cramped interior and rested it awkwardly on Queen Adalira’s arm. The monarch shivered. The Chiliogoth slaves were diligent, hard workers; there was no questioning their service. But there was a coldness about them. An ice in their eyes and touch that forever kept their masters distant and uneasy. This one–she was called Elga–had served Adalira for ten years and still the Queen could find neither hatred nor affection in her washed, blue gaze.
Adalira looked over at the girl’s slim figure–long and colorless, like thread being pulled from a spinning wheel–and wondered again what went on beneath the surface. Whether it was a blessing or a curse to have mastered these people.
Whether they would still be slaves at the end of the day.
A bitter smile creased her lips. The Queen leaned back and pressed herself against the thin cushions that lined her seat and the wall behind her. Warm morning sun streamed in through the eastern facing windows, flickering as the accompanying riders moved back and forth around the royal carriage. For a moment, however brief, the road seemed to level and the pain in her joints calmed to a dull roar.
“I am too old for this, Elga. I should have stayed in the city.”
The girl shook her head. “It is not safe, my lady.” Her accent was slow and cumbersome. Somehow the Chiligoth never grew used to the Kingdom Tongue, even those born since the enslavement. Their attempts came out bland and lifeless.
“Far too much of the harvest has been hidden beneath the palace,” the girl said. “It will surely be overrun. It is good that we fled.”
The Queen sighed and stared out the window. It was the answer her son had given as well. Word for word. But a woman should be allowed to die in the place of her choosing. In her home. It would have saved her at least from two days of hard traveling. And to what end? If the Benea did not finish her, age would surely be on their heels. Did an additional week or month or year really matter?
She had no desire to cling to life; not any more. She was too tired to maintain the grip.
The front, right wheel bashed suddenly against a rock, lifting luggage and travelers alike into the air for a moment of painful collision. When things had settled an apology drifted down from the driver, but the oft repeated words had lost their sentiment.
“Elga,” Adalira said. She closed her eyes for a moment and rubbed her wrinkled elbow, aching now both from the joint within and the battered flesh without. “I must rest. Ask the coachman to stop. Just for a moment.”
The girl stood unsteadily in the moving vehicle and slid the panel behind her open to reveal the feet of the driver and guard. She reached her hand through and tugged at one of the leather boots. A face appeared in the opening. The soldier was bearded and tense, constantly bracing for impact. His iron helmet rattled about his skull at a pace to match the carriage wheels.
Elga conveyed the request and the face disappeared. Several bumps and caroms later it returned and shouted through the opening. Adalira tried to listen, but the words were lost in the noise of the gravel and creaking carriage frame.
Their pace did not slow. Instead the driver shouted a command–unintelligible but clearly strained–to the cavalry troop that accompanied them. The clip-clop of the horses increased and the crashing and tumbling of the carriage did likewise. They were speeding up.
Elga resumed her seat. “Your majesty, he says that we haven’t time to stop. The morning is late and we must press on or risk being caught in the open at noon. He assured me that we are nearly there; we should see Greystone any moment, off in the east.”
Adalira sighed and nodded; she hadn’t the heart or energy to argue. Would she have been so easily put off forty years ago? Or even five? Time had stolen more than her vitality; somehow her authority had withered as well. Soon it would disappear entirely, in incompetence if not in death. The sovereign Queen Adalira of Sekaras would be gone and another would begin a powerful reign, destined to end like herself: tired and worn and powerless. Fighting the endless battles of politics and economics and, most of all, the hoarding of the harvests.
To what end?
With effort she slid across the trembling seat and rested her wrinkled face against the glass. Elga watched her, expressionless and unreadable. Outside, the eastern fringe of the Kingdom sped by. The foothills were stony and treeless. They dove downhill like waves, green grass and grey rock, and then rose again to a ridge that stretched north and south. Beyond that and partly hidden by the ridge was a broad plain. The River Ness glistened in the morning light, like a single thread of silver hemming in the plain, and here the Queen’s vision failed her. The great forest that stretched beyond the river, leagues and leagues of untamed wilderness, was but a melded blur of green on the horizon.
Suddenly Elga was beside her on the seat. She held a canteen of cool water and offered it to her mistress, who accepted the refreshment gladly. Then the slave girl pointed past her out the window.
“There, my lady. Greystone Castle.”
Perched on the ridge and just now coming into view as the road twisted and turned East, was a small fortress. From this distance the grey walls were hardly distinguishable from the scattered stones, half buried in the green grass of the landscape. But a single tower rose high above the ground, and from its top a broad pennant furled, red and yellow. The flag of battle, not of welcome.
“I last came here on the anniversary of the Winter War,” the Queen said absently. “Twenty years ago. It was here that your people were conquered.” She looked up at Elga, hoping for some flash of emotion. Sadness, anger, resentment; anything at all. But the girl’s smooth face–like fresh, chilled milk–did not change. Did not even flinch. “Some of your people will enjoy the irony of that, child,” Adalira said. She turned back to the window. “That I may lose my life at this place where they lost their freedom.”
The Queen scowled and watched the old wrinkled reflection of her face scowling back from the window glass. It was no longer the face of the queen who had conquered nations. Just an old woman forced to live past her usefulness.
Elga remained quiet, motionless save for the jostling of the carriage beneath them. It almost made Adalira angry, this dispassionate facade. No fear of the day ahead. No angry resentment over this castle, this symbol of forced servitude. No empathy or affection for her Queen. Nothing.
“Does it mean anything to you, child?” she asked. “This place? Have you not even considered that if things go badly today you Chiligoth may win your freedom?”
Elga turned her eyes slowly from Greystone to her mistress, slumped against the wall. Her gaze was steady and cool. “Freedom to do what, my lady? To starve to death? If your people fail, we fail. We must eat as well.”
The queen turned back to the window and to the old woman looking back at her. Her annoyance passed, unsatisfied, but she hadn’t the energy to maintain it. It was not worth the effort.
She sighed. “Are you terribly hungry, child?”
Flatly the slave replied: “We are all hungry, your Majesty. We will be for a long time.”
* * * *
I am hungry.
I am awake.
Hemmed in close by the earth, by darkness. Closer still by the smells: dirt and mold and tree roots and worms. Insects, thousands of them, all around and on my skin. I could eat them but they would not satisfy.
It is cramped in my hole. Tight and suddenly uncomfortable and I must get out. Must get out! MUST GET OUT!
I push and dig towards the unseen sky; I know it is there, somehow, by some deep and buried memory. Burning muscles, burning joints, warming skin. Skin like fire. My hole–bigger now–is growing hot. The spiders and grubs that cling to me are burnt and scorched.
But there are not enough to fill me up. Not enough anywhere for I have long been in my hole and there is no fat left on my bones. I feel its absence. I feel light. Empty.
Fresh air comes suddenly. Hands and head emerge first; getting my body free takes more time but I am driven, wildly, to come out fully into the open air. To come out into the cacophony of smells that speak of food.
Trees, leaves, water, flesh, fish, honey, wheat, and corn. And the others of my own kind whose heads are emerging as well, struggling with the forest floor.
There are many of them.
They are hungry too.
* * * * *
The road improved as the carriage neared the castle, but Adalira felt thoroughly jumbled, as if things had been shaken that would not be put right again. And she still seemed to shake, even after they had pulled through the wooden gates and come to rest in the middle of the grassy courtyard.
A busyness erupted all around them. Riders dismounted and horses were taken and greetings were shouted between friends. Questions were asked as soldiers pointed skyward and to the east. Adalira watched out the window, too tired to take interest in most of what was said, until she saw Greystone Castle’s captain stride across the lawn towards them. Step by step his face grew taut as he appraised the carriage and guessed who must ride within.
His name was Abalar and she remembered clearly the day his appointment had been made. Eighteen years ago he had presented a slimmer figure and a softer face standing on her palace portico. He had smiled boyishly as her fingers brushed his forehead, symbolically promoting his rank to full Captain. Only a child then, really. But she had seen, almost prophetically, that he would become a bastion. And she had been right. After all these years, he had become Greystone Castle; the walls were merely show.
There at least, in her choice of this man, was a lasting benefit of her reign. He would command this province wisely for years after she was gone.
If he survived the day.
Abalar’s presence was imposing and all gave way before him as he approached the carriage. A scar ran from ear to cheek–it had not been there when she had last seen him–and his eyes were quick and perceptive. He was flanked by two pale Chiligoth slaves, one bearing his sword and shield, the other ready to run his messages. They followed dutifully; pale blue eyes surveying the scene but refusing to give any hint as to their feelings about it. Adalira wondered absently if he knew them better than she knew Elga. If he trusted them or hated them.
When the carriage driver intercepted the Captain, the Queen motioned to Elga, and the girl cracked open the carriage door. Such was the confusion and tumult that the two men outside did not realize their proximity to the vehicle; nor perhaps, on this day, would they have cared. Time was running short.
The driver bowed and began a respectful introduction but Abalar cut him off.
“Do you carry the Queen?” The words were short and clipped.
“We do, my Lord,” the driver said and his eyes did not raise from the grass at their feet. Adalira saw that his hands were trembling.
Abalar turned immediately to the carriage and found the Queen’s face, peering out. As one he and his slaves bowed low. Then he turned back to the cowering coachman.
“She should be safe in the mountain hold. Upon whose orders was she brought here?”
“My Lord, Prince Thalin was to lead us and the rest from the capital into the mountains. The road to the caves, however, was impassable to the carriage. The Queen was unable to proceed on foot. By the time we abandoned the effort, it was too late to return her Majesty to the palace. Greystone was the closest….”
“And Prince Thalin?”
“The Prince wanted to come here as well, but her Majesty insisted that he continue to the stronghold. He went on with the Northern Contingent and most of the citizens from the capital. By now they should be well entrenched in the caves. They will be hungry, but should pass the day unmolested.”
Adalira watched Abalar carefully; could almost see the thoughts and plans forming in his mind to deal with this unexpected situation. Briefly he looked above and past the carriage, to the West where the mountains rose sharply from the green foothills. Then higher, above them, into the bright blue sky. Here his gaze settled for some moments.
“Your Majesty,” Elga said. “What is he looking at?”
“The Kiss,” the Queen said softly. She closed her eyes and remembered what it had looked like the last time. So long ago. The sun was now high in the sky, nearly to noon, and closing on its flanks were the moons, Summerrise and Winterfell, drawing together like long-lost friends. When the sun reached its zenith they would meet, greeting each other in a deep, dark kiss. Then it would begin. Just as it had forty years ago, during the first years of her reign. And forty years before that, and forty before that, on back into times immemorial.
And then? Then would come the Benea; the scourge. And the starving time. And the rebuilding. Always her people were rebuilding what had been destroyed. Planning for the next Kiss and hoping their work would endure.
To what end?
“When the moons and the sun meet,” she continued, almost whispering in the sadness that suddenly gripped her heart, “there is a quick, red light that bathes the world for a moment. And then darkness.”
Elga said nothing and Adalira watched as the girl looked alternately at the Captain, the soldiers bustling about, and then back to the Queen. Blank face; deep eyes, like empty wells. Perhaps she was too young to understand what would happen. Perhaps she did not care.
“Very well,” Captain Abalar said finally to the coachman. “We will see that she is safe.” And then the orders began and he dispensed them with such command and precision that Adalira would have thought he had planned on their arrival from the beginning.
“When the Queen is safely dismounted, take your coach to the center of the lawn,” he said to the driver. “There are two bags of grain there; load them into the carriage.”
“My Lord, what is….”
Abalar raised his hand. His voice was calm when he spoke, but firm. “There is no time. Do as you are told. When it is done, find a sword from the armory and join the men in the chapel antechamber. When the Benea come, I trust you will do your duty for the Queen and the Kingdom.”
Abalar turned away, leaving the man trembling in the bright sunshine. Adalira listened as orders were given to the cavalry but the words were lost in a crash of noise from some unseen point in the castle. The Captain did not flinch and even before the riders had remounted and galloped back out the castle gate, he had turned to his slave for the next order. But this too was lost in the general bustle of the Castle’s preparation.
The slave ran off.
Only then did the Captain turn, slowly, and approach the coach. He adjusted his cape and removed his helmet before personally opening the door. Elga climbed down first and turned, offering her long fingers to the Queen. But exiting proved difficult. Every joint, it seemed, was stiff and rebellious. It took several long moments of maneuvering before Adalira stood in the doorway, ready to step down. The ground looked very far away.
“Please,” Captain Abalar gently moved Elga out of the way and raised his own hands. “Allow me, your Majesty.”
She leaned on him, heavily, and was glad to avoid the girl’s touch. But even with his aid, her knees and feet refused to cooperate. For a moment she stood immobile, still shaking, embarrassed and in pain. Finally, the Captain leaned in and whispered courteously in her ear. She nodded and he lifted her easily to the ground.
“Your Majesty, it has been too long,” he said and bowed again, bringing his head lower than her own. His red cape rustled in the breeze behind him, sunlight dancing off the scarlet threads. The sight and sound of this noble Captain refreshed her. What contrast to the terrified masses streaming to safety in the mountains. Or to these unfeeling slaves. Here was a man who felt the fears and pains of this world, but stood courageously to face them.
“It troubles me that we must serve as your refuge today,” he said, raising to full height. “I’m afraid our hospitality will not be great.”
Adalira smiled and stood as tall as she could muster–her bent form reached only to his elbow–and placed a thin hand on his arm.
“It has been too long,” she said. “A willful neglect on my part. You of all my Captains do not need my watchful eye; I hear only good things about my Eastern province.”
He nodded and she smiled. Elga, standing behind him, looked on, and for a moment there was silence. A somber silence, like those in which goodbyes are shared.
“Are you ready, Captain Abalar?” the Queen asked. “It is almost noon.”
He glanced quickly to the ramparts encircling them, to the high tower, and then to the sky again. Concern passed quickly across his face. When he looked at her again it was with a sad smile.
“There is no ‘ready’ for a day like today, your Majesty. It comes, and we do what we can.”
Suddenly, there was a shout from one of the walls. Adalira looked up to the Eastern rampart and found the man, leaning on a railing and calling for the Captain’s attention.
“Captain! Smoke! There’s smoke in the forest beyond the Ness!”
For a moment the busyness of the castle stopped. All movement and sound was stayed and everyone–soldiers, slaves, Captain and Queen–looked East. Through the gate Adalira could see the plain stretched out below them and then the blur of green trees beyond. Above that green now drifted smudges of grey, maring the blue sky as they rose into the spring air. A tremor ran through the earth, briefly, and before she could decide whether it were only the remnants of the carriage ride echoing in her bones, another shook the ground, rattling the castle gates in their frame.
Then the frenetic preparation rushed back upon them, two-fold, and all the walls were filled with shouts and commands. Doors slammed heavily shut, shields and swords rang as they were adjusted to readiness. The gate groaned, its hinges resisting as a handful of soldiers pulled it closed. Adalira stood for a moment, transfixed by the chaos around her, until a strong hand took her arm. It was Abalar and his face, if not his eyes, remained calm.
“Your Majesty, you must get below.” He motioned to his remaining slave who was quick to hand over the Captain’s sword and shield. They were bright and heavy; both hilt of sword and face of shield blazed with red and yellow. Abalar turned back to the Queen. “Follow Eege to the cellar. There is water and food. It will be sealed and you will last the day. Someone will come for you by nightfall tomorrow.”
And he was gone.
* * * * *
Too much. Too much sight and smell and touch. The world spins and all I can do is lay here, on my smoldering pile of dirt, and catch my breath. But each wheezing gasp reminds me: empty mouth, empty throat, empty stomach. Even in rest there is no rest. Still I am hemmed in; tight and bound up.
So I stretch. It hurts to unfurl my wings. This I remember clearly. They crack and tear; thin membranes blister when they touch my hot skin. But I stretch anyway, slow and steady. Crying out in pain and anger…crying out because of the hunger that consumes me.
Above me others are already flapping awkwardly about. They are the Strong Ones, the first to emerge because they are the best and will kill any who try and take their place. Fang and claw. A few rest fitfully in the trees; the branches burn without flames under their heat. Smoldering into the air. They are hungry too. But they will wait for the rest of us. They need us.
Now the sound. The vibration; thousands of wings beating the ground. Stopping– as one–and then again, to wake those few who are late to emerge. But there is no more time to wait. I am hungry. Starved and nearly pulled into the air by the smell of food.
It comes from the west.
The Strong Ones smell it, too.
So we fly.
* * * *
The tall slave led Adalira across the courtyard and Elga stayed close behind. It was slow and painful; each step remembering her long and rocky journey, each joint reminding the Queen of her age. There was a door beneath the northern wall, open and torch-lit within. When they finally reached it, Adalira–the Great and Majestic Queen of so many years and lands–was bent double, barely able to breathe. The sight of the steps falling steep and long into the cellar below stole what little breath remained.
“Your Majesty,” the tall slave said. “We must hurry.” He said this deadpan; a statement bearing no relation to the fear that was thick within the castle walls. But his eyes drifted above her head and held there. She followed his gaze, across the courtyard–empty now but for her carriage–and through the last crack between the heavy gates. For an instant she saw the green of the woods, the silver strip of water, the thin wisps of smoke. Then it was all gone, hidden behind a rising curtain of black. Fluttering, shifting, morphing black that rose from the forest to dominate the horizon; like a great flock of birds, moving in concert.
Then, as the gates finally shuddered together, the world was bathed in red.
“The Kiss,” Eege said. Abandoning all decorum, he lifted the queen into his strong, colorless arms and leapt down the stairs, three by three. Adalira cried out in pain at each jolt from the slave’s heavy footfalls; clung to him desperately as the rough stone walls rushed by her head. Vaguely she heard the door slam above them and the pitter-patter of Elga’s feet running behind.
Finally they reached the bottom. Torchlight flickered off stone and brick in a long, narrow space that Adalira guessed had once been a vast storehouse. Now a new wall stood at their face, newly built to protect what lay within. Three more men were here, wide-eyed, two soldiers and another whose only weapon was a trowel and bucket of wet mortar. There was a hole smashed in the new wall, bits of brick and stone scattered about.
“Quickly, my Lady,” Eege said, and he nearly threw her through the hole. Adalira’s knees, knobby and inflamed, crashed down on the hard dirt floor and bits of brick. She tried to crawl forward but her arms refused to move. Everything hurt and burned and ached. She was too old for this; better to die with the rest.
She didn’t want to rebuild again anyway.
There was a roar from the top of the stair; cries and defiant shouts echoing down the narrow passageway.
The mason let out a groan.
“Hurry,” Elga said.
Adalira’s world faded away. The fear, the pain, the despair of this day all left her in a haze and she felt nothing as the slaves pushed her through the narrow hole. Nothing as the cold and the grain-thick smell of the inner room washed over her; as the bricks were re-laid in the opening and she and the Chiligoth slave girl were entombed in a storage room filled with food.
* * * *
Feeling better. Feeling free. Over water, over plain. A steam rises from the river as some plunge in, sure to drown in their quest for food. Others head north. Others south, smelling distant catches of what we need and want and will have.
But I smell a better way. Some of the Strong Ones lead us across the plain. It withers beneath our heat, but there is nothing there. No food but a few small things that are already eaten, skin and bone. The world is red now and the light will soon be gone. But we do not need it. We have seen the castle up ahead; smelled the barley and the wheat and the corn. Darkness falls but the smells tell us the way.
Light ahead. Fire on the walls. Men there, shining in the flickering light. This, too, I remember. Hard things that crush. Sharp and shining things that kill; bite like tooth and claw. Flying sticks that bring us crashing down.
The men are quick and powerful. Much larger even than the Strong Ones.
But we are many.
Up and over the wall. Scratch and tear through them, burn them with my skin. Fly through a mist of blood as my companions are cut to pieces. But not all. No. I follow behind the first ones and they are killed, but I can strike and gouge. Send the men flying over the sides and to the ground below.
But the food….
Yes, the food.
Below in the wide open space the smell is strongest. We all sense it. Will have to fight each other for it, but tooth and talon work on flesh and wings just fine. I twist and dive–a companion explodes beside me, cut in two by a man I did not see–and towards the smell that drives me.
Small room; ringed in torches on the grass. Food smell pouring from within. I must have it. Must have it. CAN TASTE IT ALREADY!
Now we are on it, five layers deep, crawling and fighting and dying. The room is on fire from our heat. The dust of the grain is everywhere and now I taste it. Really taste it, but just one mouthful before a foot kicks me away. Now a scratch across my back, but I turn and he dies, throat crushed by my jaws that will not stop moving and chewing and biting.
Less smell now, this food is gone, in flames and in our bellies. So we….
A cry. The smell of fear now, from the others. Sharp sticks, racing in from all around. More men out there, hidden and throwing death at us from a distance. Bodies fall, heavy and mounting. Can’t escape, CAN’T ESCAPE!
Through my wing and through my leg. A third piercing blow, within my body and I emerge from the mess, flutter, half-flight, into a stone wall. Behind me a mound of burning, scorching death. Above me still, in the darkness, hundreds fly. Looking for food. Searching every nook and crevasse, digging and burning and smashing. Killing and eating even these men who stand in our way.
But I grow cold. I had my taste. My mouthful of food.
It was not enough.
* * * *
Adalira opened her eyes. Nothing. The room was thick blackness, and without a reference point she could equally have been in a cathedral or a casket. It took some moments for her senses to return. Slowly the smells and the cool of the cellar room began to register. The sound of breathing, soft and steady, whispered nearby.
“Yes, my lady. I am here.”
“Is it over?”
Silence for a moment. Then, “I think so, my lady. The sound stopped long ago.”
For a long time they did not speak again. They only waited, for suffocation or for rescue, and Adalira spent some moments wondering which would be preferable. The world that waited for them outside would not be a kind one. Mutilated bodies. Burned villages. It was always the same. If given the time, the Benea would even have managed to tear down stone walls and empty buried graves. The capital, left undefended but for the food stores, would be a shambles.
After what seemed like days but must have only been several hours, there was noise on the other side of the wall. Banging and dragging and digging. Voices, muffled and unintelligible. This went on for some time and neither Queen nor slave could guess exactly what was happening. Then a more focused noise came from one end of the wall; the clang and scrape of a shovel and axe laid to the brick. A pinprick of light, then a shaft, and then a torch, held inside the opening.
“Your Majesty? Queen Adalira?”
“We’re coming to get you, your Majesty.” A soldier struggled through the small hole, still holding the torch aloft with one hand. The room flickered into view: barrels and boxes and bags stretched along either wall as far as the light would reach. It was an immense quantity of food; enough for an army. But Adalira knew from experience that it would disappear quickly, before the next harvest if they weren’t careful. No celebratory feast this night; only rationed nibbles, just enough to keep life in their blood.
“Are you all right, your Majesty?” the soldier was soaked in sweat and blood, caked in soot. He crouched before her and gingerly helped her sit up. Elga was there as well, at her other elbow, and already holding a ladle of water, filled from a bucket she had found by the torchlight.
Adalira ignored his question. Who could be all right in this world? Today of all days?
“I need air,” she whispered and took a sip from the ladle. “Please, can we go above?
“I’m afraid we haven’t cleaned up the mess on the stair and landing yet, my lady. I would hate for you to see….”
“What is your name?” she interrupted.
“Calix, my lady.”
She sighed and tried to will some strength into her voice. “Calix, this is not the first time I have been forced to see blood spilled to protect me or my kingdom. I must have air.”
“Of course, your Majesty.” Very slowly they helped Adalira to her feet, then in shuffling steps they crossed the dirt floor to the hole in the wall. Already the smells from outside invaded the cellar’s cool air: burnt flesh, the metallic bite of blood. An animal smell, wild and dirty. A flood of memories washed the Queen’s mind, of the last Kiss and the strength that had been needed to get through those first days.
A strength she no longer had.
Elga scrambled through the opening first then turned to help Adalira. Hands and knees, scraping again on the hard floor, the Queen managed to emerge and stand, all the time keeping her eyes fixed rigidly on the feet of her slave. Only when she had gathered herself and breathed several slow breaths did she dare look around.
There were many bodies, crammed and stacked like cordwood at each end of the narrow room and pushed to the right side of the stair from the floor to the bright patch of light at the top. But though the number must have been great, there were few distinguishable entities; just a mass of legs and wings and arms and hair. Faces, both of man and beast, burnt and cleaved beyond recognition. The brick wall was black with soot and streaked with rivulets of blood.
Many corpses were piled in front of what had been the first opening smashed in the wall, a weak point that had taken human flesh to supplement. Beneath this pile a hand stuck stiffly out, dead muscles still clinging tenaciously to a bent trowel.
For a moment Adalira stood still. The soldier Calix stood nearby, waiting, his eyes roaming the carnage. Perhaps he saw friends among the ruin. Elga stood by as well, dispassionately, staring at the bodies and blinking in the torchlight.
Finally, the slave girl spoke.
“My lady, please. You must reach the top; the air is cleaner up there.”
It took a full twenty minutes to traverse the tall stair. Calix led them and every few steps he had to stop and move some obstacle from their path. Twice one of the Benea shuddered and gasped, still clinging to life and snapping at food, but the soldier dispatched them quickly. Mostly, it was quiet. Besides their rescuer, they had seen only one other survivor, stacking bodies below.
It was early morning on the day after The Kiss when they emerged. The sun was rising and bright. It sent out long shafts of light, as if waving a fond farewell to the moons that had wandered away, running north and south across the sky. There was more activity here, of a slow and plodding kind. A dozen or so soldiers and slaves gathered the dead into piles: one for burial, one for burning. Several wooden structures within the castle were still aflame. Above, fluttering from the tower, the flag of war was a tattered rag.
“Do you wish to sit, my Lady?” Elga asked. But everywhere the grass was either burnt or slick with filth and Adalira shook her head.
She turned to Calix. “Were the other storehouses saved?” she asked and startled at the sound of her own voice. Old. So very old. It seemed to crack and shrivel like the timbers burning around them.
“All but one, your Majesty.” He pointed a dirty finger across the courtyard to a doorway set in the western wall. The door itself was gone; black smoke poured from the opening and a lone soldier stood guard, presumably to kill any creature that might have survived the tumult within. “They broke through there just after the trap on your carriage was sprung. Somehow got beneath the brick wall down below. Once the grain was reached they became frenzied. Someone managed to roll a barrel of lantern oil down the stair and their heat ignited it.”
“And your Captain? Abalar?”
Calix coughed and wiped his face, streaking sweat and ash across his cheek and forehead. For a moment he said nothing and she wondered if he knew the answer to her question.
“He’s below, my Lady,” he pointed back down the stair from which they had come. “When the first storehouse was taken, he led his slaves and myself–several others as well–down to guard your hold. I did not see.… There were many Benea. All was confusion. I’m sorry….”
She put a hand on his arm and stopped him. Then smiled as best she could. “Between the two of us, Calix, you are not the one who has need of apology.” He nodded graciously and wiped his face again. This time, tears were mixed with the sweat.
“Your Majesty, there is much to be done. Your slave will care for you? I really must help the others.”
“I’ll be fine,” she lied. “Please, go.”
And he was gone. The Queen stood still for many moments, staring about her. Wondering how the rest of the castles had fared. If those in the mountains had been safe. If enough had been done to save as many as possible.
If it all mattered.
And always, always, she thought of the next time, when her people would have to survive this again. When the children hiding in the caves would be standing on ramparts and piled, smoking, in great heaps. When her own son would lead the recovery and the old would starve and die.
“To what end?” she whispered aloud, speaking more to herself than to the Chiligoth girl who stood quietly by. “To what end do these men die, generation upon generation? To what end do some live?”
“For something greater, my Lady,” Elga whispered back. “For the Kingdom or family or each other. Or for you.”
Adalira looked at the girl who stared back, unflinching. But Elga’s eyes, so pale and lifeless, had grown dark. Blue and grey like a thunderstorm. From the corner of her eye a tear emerged to run down her long cheek.
“Is it worth such suffering” Adalira asked. “Am I, this withered old hag, worth the life of even one of these men? Is my Kingdom worth preserving?”
Elga the slave girl wiped another tear from her face. Then another. She shook her head. “I don’t know, my lady. Perhaps men die in hopes of finding something more; some meaningful end.” She paused and took the Queen’s hand in her own long, slim fingers. She looked at the ground, red and black. “But death seems to end meaning, not bring it.”
There was a pause between them, a stalemate of feeling and thought. Finally, Elga said, “We Chiligoth do not act like your people, my Lady, but our questions are the same. Life is painful. Perhaps that’s why my people stand apart from it.”
Adalira bowed her head, weary with age in both body and mind. “Please do not stand apart today,” she said.
Elga stepped closer and took the queen in her arms. They were not stiff this time, not cold, and for many hours they wept together, common sufferers in a world aflame.
* * * * *
Smolder and burning, but not my own heat. Piles of us, torn and shattered, half-satisfied. Or less than half; my stomach is still empty. Darkness comes, across my eyes and across my mind.
What now, when the light is gone? Hopefully, more than food.
Ryan J. Southworth is a high school teacher in Cincinnati, OH. He lives there with his wife and two young children. He recently graduated with a Master’s of English from Northern Kentucky University and has been published in Alienskin Magazine, Bewildering Stories, and Abandoned Towers Magazine (upcoming). Many of his stories, including this one, come directly or indirectly from his Christian faith and its outworking in his life.