by Samantha Henderson
Crouching in a cluster of giant ferns, Merea forced herself to inhale slowly, ignoring the ache of her ribs. The damp loam of the forest floor was soft beneath her knees, and she stifled a sneeze brought on by the rich smell of the dirt. It tickled up her nose and dissipated.
Belly brushing the ground like a lizard, she listened for the sounds of pursuit. She supposed there was a certain humor in her position, in the huntress being hunted, but she didn’t find it funny.
Small, think small, and inconspicuous. She thought about the hairy base of the ferns, the fronds waving over her, dotted with their seedpods, the roots of the oak they clustered about, and concentrated on becoming one with them: a plant, still, and silent.
Only the trees were never silent around her.
They’re coming, rumbled the oak.
Oh, damn you, she thought. She usually avoided talking to the trees. It inched her that much further towards the madness that took her mother in the end. Tell me something I don’t know.
There are three. Did you know that? said the oak, taking her at her word.
When Merea first heard them she was in the scullery, up to her elbows in suds and lukewarm water. A silence in the noisy common room two doorways away, then the clatter of steel-topped boots. She closed her eyes and waited, praying that the familiar clatter of the inn would resume.
But it didn’t, and a shiver went up her spine. After all these years, they had come for her.
The Thessa. The Tracker. The Doom of the White Stag of the Narcos Wade.
Merea took a rag and dried her arms methodically, the fabric rough against her chapped skin. She stared at the familiar stone wall and the worn granite sink that took up most of it, where she washed the innumerable mugs and platters that the inn’s business required. There was one large pebble in particular, wedged between the wall and the lip of the sink, marred by a bubble of quartz that had broken open, revealing irregular crystals within. Sometimes, weary at the end of her shift, she would imagine herself tiny, exploring the jeweled cave, safe from pursuit.
Still the inn was silent. Then one man’s voice sounded, indistinct through the walls. She edged through the scullery door, backing against the stonework of the arch that led to the common room, and peeked sideways into the crowded room. She glimpsed men and the occasional woman, merchants and ordinary travelers alike, scattered at their tables, meat and drink frozen halfway to their mouths. She saw the burly left half of Magrid, the innkeeper, with left arm akimbo and a back that seemed to bristle with indignation. And facing him, flanked by a brace of men in the green and black of Hebrai’s guard, was a short man with dark hair and a weather-browned face, clad only in road-spattered black.
Dathan Korinth, the Steward of Cambria. He had come for her himself.
She’d heard he was a good man. A good fighter who never sought a fight, a man with the gift of command who kept the borders strong, a man who foresaw disaster and did his best to circumvent it. A good Steward.
But if he sought her, it wasn’t enough to be Steward.
If he came for her, he wanted to be King.
“What’s the girl done?” growled Magrid, and it was enough to galvanize her into action — she whirled away from the door and fled down the passage past the scullery, past pantry and storage rooms, hearing the clatter of boots behind her. Not looking behind, she ran out the tiny back door of the kitchen, instinctively swerving to the left as always to avoid mud puddled around the water pump, past the chicken coops where the hens cackled at the sight of her, past the pen where the Three Oaks’ sole donkey stared at her with pricked-up ears, down to the grove by the stream, off the path into the thicker woods behind. Within the ice-cold lump of her belly a hot spark danced, a searing flicker of madness that delighted in the chase — hunter or pursued, it didn’t matter.
Her mother had warned her of this as she died.
Get away far and fast as you can, unless you want them to use you like they used your grandmother. Merea was eleven then, sitting cross-legged beside her mother’s sleeping-pallet, only understanding a little of the madness that came on the wind. Her mother had fled to the Sisters of Calum when Merea was in her belly, and they had given them succor freely.
Still, they had taught Merea what she was. In Cambria kings were not born but made by the Hunt and the blood of the Stag, the Deutoroi, and only the Thessa could track the beast through the wilderness of the Narcos Wade, the vast tangle of forest that extended to the Western Sea. Thessa were queens, sometimes, of the men they crowned. Sometimes they were prisoners, hidden away by the Stewards that dared not try the dangers of the hunt and feared that another might have the courage to claim the throne.
The Thessa must surrender to madness to find the Deutoroi, and all Thessa went mad in time. That’s what she had come to understand after her mother died, and what she most feared. The horror of losing herself in the wind that lashed the tops of the trees, or giving in to the voice that called her from the west, from the Narcos Wade. The horror and delight of it. She heard it in the whispering of the plum trees when she was sent to pick their fruit, in the smell of a breeze that brought her up short, prickling all over. One summer’s day she packed what she needed and left before dawn. Maybe the Sisters were glad to lose her.
She could feel the cool moisture of the ground through her skirt, and she shifted slightly, listening for the sound of pursuit. She heard nothing but distant birdsong, and the plash of the stream.
Had she lost them?
She thought of asking the tree. Slowly she rose, her head barely above the pale green fronds, and inched around the trunk.
A hand grasped her around the upper arm and she gasped and tried to twist away. The man who’d seized her was huge; how could he have waited there so quietly? She kicked at his leg, trying to land a blow at his knee but he maintained his grip. Another man, much smaller, with thin features and a mischievous expression appeared from the other side of the trees and seized her other arm. They held her between them and she wriggled like a fish.
Thanks a lot! she thought at the oak.
You didn’t want me to talk, it replied, smugly.
A third man stood before her. She recognized him –he had stood to Dathan Korinth’s right. He was tall where the Steward had been short, with similar dark hair, and his face was twisted by the thick slash of a scar.
Despite his fierce appearance, he spoke gently.
Like calming a horse, she thought angrily. Am I an animal to be tamed?
“Thessa, you must come with us, and if you fight you’ll hurt yourself. That’s the last thing we want.”
With a last effort she wrenched herself free. Sensing that she wouldn’t run, Dathan’s men let her, although she knew they stood ready to track her down again. Relentlessly. Implacable. Like the Thessa tracking the Deutoroi.
She smoothed her apron, wiping off the worst of the dirt, and tucked the loose ends of her hair behind her ears. Let them wait.
“Very well, then,” she said, only when she was ready. “Take me to Dathan.”
As she walked between them back to the inn she kept her head high, like a queen, like a maker of kings. How quickly everything can change, the illusion of safety she built around herself tumbled away, a tower of children’s blocks knocked over by a careless hand.
Dathan smiled at her, a deep real smile that was crooked at one side and she forced herself to look straight at his hazel eyes and not smile back. The common room was still in its strange frozen state, although some of the customers had shifted to get further away from the cluster of guards that stood around Dathan. Counting the three that had hunted her down there were five, all with the sharp eyes and deceptively relaxed demeanor that marked them as picked men. Magrid still stood in the center of the room like an angry bullock, and little Shia stood with her tray of empty beer mugs, clearly unwilling to take them to the kitchen and miss the entertainment.
At her entrance Magrid turned on the Steward, ignoring the half-drawn weapons of his men.
“The girl’s a citizen of this land and under my protection,” he barked. “What crime has she committed? And I don’t care who you are, or how many hired bullies you’ve brought with you,” this for the benefit of the scar-faced man who had returned to Dathan’s right — Merea noticed a long knife sheathed at Dathan’s left, so the scarred man was in a bodyguard’s place. “It doesn’t mean you can take folk away without a by-your-leave.”
In that moment Merea loved the innkeeper with all her heart. He was an ill-tempered old bastard, a slave-driver, gruff, with never a good word for anyone.
Will you have a husband or a father after you then, girl? he’d growled, over a year ago now when she’d come from the North, looking for work. I don’t like trouble in my inn.
No husband, she thought now. Only the Steward. And his kind have burned villages and slaughtered children to have my grand-dams and great-grand-dams at their call. And this one, however kind his face, is no different.
“It’s all right, Magrid,” she said aloud. “In the long run it’ll be good for business.”
“I’m glad to see you at last, Thessa,” said Dathan in a pleasant voice, inclining his head. “I must say you’ve taken some finding.”
She winced at that title, said out loud, and at the murmur that started slow and grew through the room, whispered over and over: Thessa, Thessa. Magrid’s jaw dropped, and Shia’s eyes grew wider.
“See what I mean, Magrid?” Merea said. “Everyone will stop to have a drink at the Three Oaks Inn, where the Thessa was a kitchen maid.”
As they traveled west, towards the source of the wind that whispered to her, she learned the names of the Steward’s men. She sat with them nightly around the campfire, scorning to hide in the tent they put up every night in deference to her modesty. There were Cader and Viggar, who were cousins but looked like twins, and had fought at Dathan Korish’s back at the Battle of Riverwash. Hugh, who had seized her in the woods behind the Three Oaks, was as tall and thick as a bear, not unlike an Eosterling, and never uttered a word. Merit, the one with the face full of mischief, was slender and witty, and quicksilver fast, and treated her with a gently mocking chivalry.
And then there was Eleal, who stood the Steward’s closest companion, whose once-fine features were distorted by the scar skewed across his face. Late one night, as a sleepless Merea pulled aside the flap of her tent to look at the stars, she caught a glimpse of the two of them before the red-dying fire, speaking low and earnestly. Eleal’s head was bent down and Dathan reach out to cup his cheek in his right hand, lifting his face towards his own.
The night was warm, and one of the horses whickered from where it was tethered. Merea closed the flap quickly, leaving them to their privacy. At least he won’t pester me to be his consort, she thought. But then, he might at that, whatever his tastes in men or women, to secure the Kingship.
Their last day of travel, as each breath of the breeze that came from the sea raked her body, Dathan told her how Eleal had been so marked.
“We’ve been friends since we were in diaper-clouts,” he said. “And he’s always kept his own counsel, even as a child.”
They had pulled the horses to a walk to rest them a while, and the looming presence of the Narcos Wade on the horizon made them both nervous and inclined to chat.
“Smartest of us all, much smarter than me, and he knows it,” Dathan continued, watching the scarred man as he ranged ahead, scanning the horizon for danger. “I see it when he looks at me sideways.” He chuckled and adjusted his reins.
“And?” Merea pass her hand slantwise across her face.
“Ah. That.” He frowned at his horse’s twitching ears. “We were overgrown youths then, at Summerfaire in Hebrai, the two of us. We slipped out under the Brothers’ noses and thought none would recognize us. Two Eosterlings picked a fight with me, and suddenly there were more of them, and they went for us with short blades they’d hidden under their vests. Eleal was cut across the face protecting my backside. The Brothers didn’t think he’d pull through.
“My grandfather made a formal complaint to the EosterKing, of course, and he claimed it was a rogue sept trying to make trouble. He was kind enough to send him the heads of the rest of the clan.”
“But my grandfather was a king, you see.” He looked at Merea, and she turned away, staring at the dark cloud of forest ahead.
“Your grandmother made him a king,” he continued. “And now the Eosterlings are saying openly that Cambria has no one with the courage to hunt the White Stag. The stir up the hillfolk and add to their encampments across the river. In the south they’re whispering that when the Steward is no king then there is no true law in Cambria.”
He stirred his horse to a trot. “That’s why I had to find you. If there is no king there will be war.”
Only a few small, scattered clans of fur traders, who hunted fox and badger and sold their skins to the markets inland, lived near the Narcos Wade. Cambria’s folk were not seafarers, and the distant grumble and thump of the sea beyond the Wade was not a comforting sound.
Along the south coast, where the cliffs gentled into smooth beaches there were mussel gatherers, who made their peace with the ocean and understood her ways. But here the sea was not friendly, nor was the forest that clung and puddled along the cliffs. Here the Deutoroi lived, time out of mind.
No matter how often you kill the Deutoroi, there is always a Deutoroi. Every word the Sisters told her about the Stag was burned into her brain. Kings may be lost to history and the Eosterlings, but there was always a Deutoroi, always a Thessa.
A depression in the grass showed where someone had built a fire and extinguished it with damp leaves. Cader — or was it Viggar? — dismounted and felt the spot with a calloused palm.
“Still warm,” he called. “They scarpered off when they heard us.”
Eleal nodded, scanning the forest’s edge, the gnarled trunks and the darkness behind them.
“Probably just shy,” he said. “But ‘ware arrows anyhow.” Merea had heard of the fur hunters’ wicked, small arrows, sharp and slim to prevent damage to hides, and how they could stand still and invisible between the trees. Did they ever see the Stag, she wondered, as they crept along its haunts? Did they see a flash of white sometimes in the twilight? Did they ever come face to face?
Did they go mad, seeing it?
Thessa. A salt-tang wind touched her face, making her shiver. The trees, and something that dwelt behind them, knew she was here.
A shout and a curse from Viggar at the rim of the forest, and sick-sweetness in the air that made the horses skitter and flinch so they had to dismount and leave them with the silent Hugh.
Merea could smell it long before she saw the horror pinned against the trunk. A whiff of fresh meat, and the tang of blood, and beneath that the stink of the bowels and their contents. The hunter was small and sinewy, naked, the lean knots and ropes of his body exposed. His hands and feet had been pierced through with his own arrows. He had been gutted from throat to groin like a deer, and his innards were piled at his feet. Viggar turned away and spat in the grass to keep himself from vomiting. Dathan looked up at the ruin of a man in the trees unblinking, a long time. His once-brown face was pale.
Merea lowered her eyes, not because she was sickened. She was fighting a small part of herself, a fiery spark in her belly. The part that desired the speech of wind and trees, the part that ran blind through the forest.
The part that would to plunge her hands into the warm body of the hunter, and devour his heart, finding it sweet.
She was dimly aware of the men moving around her, preparing for the hunt — Hugh to stay with the heavy gear and the animals, Merit to scout ahead until she caught the scent. As if she didn’t smell it right now, surrounded by the essence of the Stag, as if the air was made of musk.
It rose inside her like a shriek and in a burning instant she couldn’t take it anymore, the sweet salt madness, and she dashed into the darkness between the trees. She heard shouts behind her, and a strangled curse, and laughed, uncaring.
Inside the Wade it was lighter than it seemed from without — twilight sliced though by dusty shafts of light from the sun overhead. With each step Merea felt the thin layers of her humanity peeling away, leaving the core of her raw and trembling. The leaved underfoot smelled like rot and damp, new roots and sex. It was a heady mix, like old wine spilled across a wooden table.
Dathan’s men crashed on behind her, nose blind and tree deaf, alien in this place. She plunged deeper between the moss-rooted trees, and caught a bright glimpse of water to her left. She swerved towards the small stream and ran in its narrow, pebbled bed. The water was ankle-deep and numbing-cold, soaking through the soles of her worn boots. She let the stones wrench them off her feet, feeling her flesh bruise, not caring, liking the pain. The stream-bed gave her head-space to run and she bent to go faster, skipping over jagged rocks and jutting, slick roots like a dancer. Something clattered to her right — one of the men, weighed down by weapons. Merea laughed out loud. Let them chase her. The forest would not give her up until she chose.
The path of the stream narrowed, forcing the water deeper on its journey to the sea. The chill of it rose past her knees, her thighs.
He’s here. The flat voice of a birch.
Merea froze. The water kissed the backs of her knees. The only sound was the trickle of the stream. Between the trees was a flash of white.
She crouched, her skirts sodden, tasting the air. Unconsciously, her right hand flattened, feeling the surface of the water, a slippery stone embedded in the bank. There — was that a dead branch, or an antler?
She didn’t stir at the clatter as Dathan’s men burst through the trees behind her, Eleal at the fore. She didn’t stir as he grasped her shoulder.
“Bind her hands,” he said, fighting to regain his breath.
“No.” Dathan voice, tense and measured behind him. “Can’t you see? The Thessa has his trail.”
She ignored them. There was nothing here for her but the Stag.
Again a glimpse of white. Shoving Eleal away, Merea leapt from the stream and gave chase. Behind her she heard the steel-on-steel of a drawn sword, and Dathan snapping at his men to sheath their weapons.
They followed, and she didn’t care. Now she was hunting, darting between thick trunks and papery saplings, reaching out as she ran to touch their rough bark, skinning her fingers. They called to her, guiding her as she wove through them.
Here — to me! Then behind.
Under. Over the root. There!
Axehand. Foot here, then high.
And then, an ancient, moss-tangled walnut: you’ve waited too long.
She ignored that one, the wild heart of her that had no part of the Sisters or the scullery ascendant.
There, the snow-white flank of the beast, eluding her but never too far, teasing her, wanting her to chase it. There, a flash of eye like a clear fist of agate.
Dathan and his men were tracking her, not the Stag. This was an intimate chase, just her and the beast. It could go on forever; it had gone on forever. Out of breath, she still laughed and crashed through a flimsy wall of leaves, staggering to a stop in the unexpected dazzle of sun. Ahead of her the Stag bounded through the long grass and she stumbled after, pawing at her eyes as if the light was a tangible thing.
A thick spine of rock underlay the clearing and rose through the earth, splitting it and forming a sheer wall, worn but solid. The Stag skidded against it, blocked on one side by a tangle of brambles. It recovered, stamping its front feet, and faced her. The creature was enormous, and the antlers that swept up from its massive head dwarfed the festival headgear of the priests in Hebrai. They were a tangle of bone, branching like a thornbush, following no logic but their own cryptic geometry.
A small smile bent the sides of its mouth, an expression too human to be anything else but a joke. Her pursuers caught up with her and stopped, stunned, to either side — men clustered about her, but she knew: the smile was for her, his Doom.
She took a step towards the Deutoroi, but the touch of a hand on her shoulder stopped her. Dathan stood beside her, eyes wide, Eleal flanking him as always. He’d unsheathed his knife and held it loosely in his left hand: it was longer than average, unadorned, simple and deadly. The sweat-smell of his fear cut through the tangy funk of the Stag, and something else as well. Eagerness. Anticipation.
She stepped back, giving Dathan the clearing. Thessa had tracked her quarry, bringing it into existence by the act of hunting it. Now let the men go about their business of death.
Dathan moved towards the Stag. Merea saw Eleal tense and lift a hand involuntarily, as if he would stop him or stay by his side. Behind her she heard Viggar mutter and Merit laugh nervously. Eleal was silent, and Merea felt a stab of pity as he watched his lover go to meet the Deutoroi.
Dathan kept his stance wide as he approached, his knife low, ready to sweep across and under. A breeze dipped into the clearing, cold and smelling of the sea. It stirred leaves too damp to fly and chilled Merea’s skin. More, too: she blinked at the Deutoroi, seeing as well as sensing. Involuntarily, she reached out to Eleal beside her, wondering if he could see it too. His flesh was hot and hard beneath her fingers, and she could feel him stifle a flinch, although he didn’t move.
The Stag was no animal but a man — huge, albino, with antlers sprouting from its forehead. He shone with his own silver light against the black, lichen-crusted rock.
Dathan advanced on him — did he see the Stag or the man? She felt she must warn them, Stag or Man, King or Quarry, against this course, this deadly play across the centuries, but she was frozen. The sight of that pale flesh, like a solid, shifting vapor, paralyzed her.
He was in range of the antlers, and he crouched low, holding his knife parallel to the ground. The Deutoroi stamped its hoof — his foot — and made a sudden feint right towards the Protector’s empty hand, and then as Dathan shifted to meet him doubled back with a sweep of his antlers. Dathan dodged back out of range and regained his balance, switching his knife from hand to hand, knees bent as if ready to spring. Mera saw now that his comparatively short stature could be an advantage in hand-to-hand combat, since his center of gravity was so low.
Again the animal feinted, and Dathan backpedaled, and Mera saw that they were dancing – a dance as old as time, older than death. It seemed to her that several times the Stag could have slashed Dathan’s belly open with his tangled antlers, despite the man’s quick-footedness, but held back just that fraction between life and death.
Under her hand Eleal stilled himself by sheer will. The kill must be the King’s alone, or else all of this was for nothing.
The sparring pair was almost to the center of the clearing now, but the Stag began to give way, step by slashing step, until he was backed against the upthrust rock again. Cornered, the beast reared, striking out with its fore-hooves, exposing its silver underbelly. Dathan saw his chance and stepped in for the kill.
Somehow, two-footed, the Stag managed to sidestep and Dathan’s strike sent him off-balance. Before he could recoil the Deutoroi grasped the wrist of his knife-hand.
Dathan must know now. Did the others?
Startled, Dathan brought up the left hand and the Deutoroi grabbed that one too, tugging Dathan forward so that he staggered, off-balance.
The antlered albino, gripping both of Dathan’s hands with the knife still between them, pulled the smaller man to him, gathering him in. Dathan seemed helpless to resist. Over the Protector’s shoulder, the Deutoroi looked straight at Mera, and smiled a lipless smile.
He didn’t take his eyes off Mera as he pulled Dathan closer, closer, and still holding Dathan’s hands in that implacable grip, plunged the knife straight into his chest. Dathan could only look up at him helplessly, like a child.
It was if a bag of grain had been slit open, but what spilled out now was light. The albino man, the Deutoroi, was becoming a vapor, a swirl of alien mist.
The light poured into Dathan, and he glowed like a coal. Eleal ran to him then, calling out. The knife dropped from Dathan’s glowing hands. It shone briefly on the wet grass. His eyes blazed with a light that was never earthly, never of this place. Some small part of Merea recognized it: a light from a place of boiling stars, and terrifying seas, and forces that could tear this world of refuge apart if allowed to fester and grow. A vapor rose from the ground around Dathan’s feet and thickened around him, so bright from reflected silver light it looked as if he was burning alive. Eleal held out his hand to him, as if he were a frightened horse she could gentle.
Too late. One of the old trees, ancient, that usually slept and couldn’t be bothered to talk to her. He’s waited for you too long, waited too long to die and be reborn. The sea and the wind have made him mad. He has bonded with your king, but the human cannot master the beast now.
Why? Merea threw back the question, uncaring if it opened her mind to the mad-making murmur of the trees and their intercourse with the wind.
You and your line. You are to hunt the Stag before it changes, before madness takes it as it must in each generation. The madness will spread like a canker if the Thessa doesn’t stop it. It wasn’t the Deutoroi that killed the little man of the woods and pinned him to a tree.
I don’t want to be a part of this dance, thought Merea.
None can help that. It’s been so since Deutoroi and Thessa came from across the sea.
But her people hated the sea.
Dathan pawed suddenly at his forehead. Antlers sprouted from his temples, fast-growing like a fungus in the night. He threw back his head and howled, and when Eleal reached for him he recoiled and darted for the trees.
Mad as the other, commented the old oak, and in her mind she snarled a curse at it, and felt it retreat from her and sink back into an ageless sleep. Eleal looked as if he was about to run after Dathan – what Dathan had become – and she seized his arm. He whirled on her, fist raised, ready to strike her down. She forced herself not to flinch.
“You saw,” she said.
“You must kill him,” she said, pulling him to her. “I know it tears you apart, but you must. The Deutoroi lived too long, and gave its madness to Dathan. He’s not him anymore. The man you love is dead. What’s left is alien to our land, and will destroy it in time.”
“The king…” Eleal snarled down at her. “He was to be our king.”
He grasped her around the throat, his hands spanning her neck. His thumb pressed brutally around her windpipe and bright spots floated before her eyes. She didn’t move.
“You must be the king, Eleal,” she rasped. “The Thessa will witness — the Deutoroi killed Dathan, and you killed it in turn. It will be the truth, after all.”
His eyes, still angry, filled with tears, and the grip on her neck eased slightly.
She bent forward and whispered hoarsely in his ear, still fighting to breathe. “I’m so sorry.”
He released her, and the marks of his fingers around her neck burned. How quickly everything can change, she wanted to say. Tumbled away like children’s blocks. Where Dathan…the Deutoroi…plunged into the wood she could see a path she know the others couldn’t, marked with unearthly fire. His scent was on the breeze, and the trees were starting to whisper.
“I’ll find him for you,” she said flatly. There was no expression in his eyes as he looked over her shoulder at the other men.
She glanced back at them. Cader and Viggar stood in shock; Viggar had drawn his sword and it hung loose and useless in his hand. Merit crouched on the ground, weeping.
“Go find Hugh and the horses,” said Eleal. “And wait for me and the Thessa at the edge of the Wade.”
Merit flung up his head and look as if he would argue, but Eleal stared him down. Viggar sheathed his weapon and they turned away, walking like men wounded.
“Find him,” said Eleal, and Merea obeyed, trotting blind, guided only by the forest, aware of him close behind. The sun had dropped far behind the trees by the time she found him, in a cluster of birch thick with white, peeling bark. She paused and listened. From the thicket came a dry, bewildered weeping.
Eleal brushed past her. “Wait here,” he said in a voice that brooked no argument. He did touch his sword but drew a short sturdy blade from his belt. Merea obeyed, and when the Deutoroi screamed, a sound that tore the woods apart, she turned her face aside. In the thicket of birch something gurgled, then was silent.
This time Eleal led her out of the woods, for her senses were muffled and the trees were silent. Her bare feet stung where rock and branch had torn them. It was dusk when they found the others with the horses at the forest’s edge. There was a fresh mound of dirt heaped a distance from the campfire; they had buried the hunter. In the dim light she couldn’t see the stains on the tree where he had been hung.
They crowned the king in Hebrai. She stood at his side, the grim, silent king with the mutilated face, with the Sisters and Brothers in their black-clad ranks and the priests with their headgear that now seemed a mockery of the Stag’s antlers and the Eosterling emissaries in sullen attendance. Merea didn’t look at the Sisters’ faces. She didn’t want to see anyone who had known her mother.
Long before dawn she packed a satchel with food and a change of clothes; some coin; a tooth-cloth. Little more than she had when she left the Sisters. Always running away, Merea, she mocked. But she didn’t know what Eleal intended for her and she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his still, scarred face again, ravaged by heartbreak.
Before he was King, when he was Dathan’s friend and more, he would have let her go where she would, her duty done. Now he had put aside mercy and love to wear the crown, and he would keep her close — caged, even, to prevent a rival from challenging him. He saw her hunting blind, gripped in the Thessa’s need, single-minded as a bitch in heat. He knew that in time, when the Deutoroi was reborn, he would call her and she must go to him.
If Eleal was now a man who would imprison her, she had made him so. In her heart she knew: were the Stag not lost to madness, had he been killed in his time and season, Dathan would be King. Eleal would hate himself, hate her, forever. She didn’t blame him.
The sleepy stable boy looked at her in askance, but he didn’t dare stop the Thessa. She quickly found the gelding she’d rode on that gloomy trip to Hebrai and he mumbled at her fingers familiarly. He wasn’t fast but perhaps for now Eleal would be glad to see her gone, a constant reminder of what he had done. As if the crown on his head weren’t enough. As if the antlers of the priests weren’t enough.
Short of the Wade she dismounted. The gelding whinnied and shifted nervously. She tied up his bridle so he wouldn’t trip and shooed him away. He bounded a few yards and stopped, ears pricked up at her.
A gift for whoever might find him.
She couldn’t feel anything in the forest, only the vague whisper of the trees. The Deutoroi was destroyed, its white fire dispersed in the Wade, waiting for strength and time to gather itself together.
No matter how often you kill the Deutoroi, there is always a Deutoroi.
She would walk through the Wade and find the sea beyond, the sea shunned by her people, and find a cave, crystal-studded like the pebble in her scullery sink. Perhaps the voices of the trees couldn’t find her there. If they did she could go further, and cross the sea and find where they had come from, Thessa and Deutoroi, and puzzle out the pattern of their ancient dance. When it was time, a new Thessa would come – or else perhaps Cambria must have no king.
She drew a deep breath and walked between the trees.
Samantha Henderson’s short fiction and poetry has been published in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Clarkesworld as well as Abyss & Apex. Her dark Victorian fantasy, Heaven’s Bones, was published in 2008 and she has stories upcoming in the anthologies Running with the Pack and Lace and Blade III. Her flash fiction “East of Chula Vista,” first published in Abyss & Apex, can be heard in podcast form at Podcastle.
Story © 2010 Samantha Henderson. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish