by Chris Rogers
A lone youth stood by the river shore, feet shoulder-width apart and ranging two reaches above the ground beneath him. His skin was copper-tone, perhaps a little lighter, and his hair was what his people called Vallecian brown, like the color of fertile soil. The back of his tunic, which might once have passed for white, was likewise tainted in the soil, though the effect was not complete, and a dark spot stood out as sweat between the shoulder blades. Tenoch was how they called him, and though he could not have stated his age precisely, he would have reckoned it to be about his seventeenth year based on having taken up the blackstone blade just that winter. He was, in all these respects, unremarkable among his peers, save that he alone had traded in his blackstone blade in for bronze. He stood now with it in hand, drawn out to one side and shimmering as the sun set across the river. More than anything, he’d wanted this bronze dagger, and yet–
“Tenoch!” he heard Ollin call at his back.
Tenoch sheathed his dagger and turned to face the road. Blood stained the front of his tunic, and there was something strange about his eyes. Apart from the whites, they were the usual shade of brown, but appeared somewhat glazed.
“Admiring your little dagger in the sunlight, eh?” Ollin said.
Tenoch made to wipe the sweat from his eyes–only sweat–and looked to his side. In a steady voice, he began, “No, just–”
Ollin grinned wide. “I didn’t mean that one,” he said with a wink.
“You’re such an ass,” Tenoch laughed.
“Hyperia wants to see you.”
The smile, only lately formed, faded from Tenoch’s lips, the muscles in his chest tightened, and he was reminded of the growing bruise on his chest. His mind began to wander once more to other things, and it took another call from Ollin draw him back again.
“Huh–what?” Tenoch said with a start.
“It’ll be a mark for both of us if you don’t make it before nightfall.” Ollin traced his thumb in vertical line above one eye–as if Tenoch needed the illustration.
Tenoch slowly nodded. “Alright,” he rasped.
They found Hyperia in a grassy meadow reserved for the officers of the Column. Ollin turned to retrace his steps as soon as they laid eyes on her, while Tenoch proceeded to wait patiently outside her tent. He managed for once to keep his knees from knocking in her presence, but it might have been better if he hadn’t: she’d have noticed him sooner then.
After some lengths, with the sun nearly down, he found the temerity to speak. “Ma’am?” he said, hardly more than a whisper.
She looked up from a scroll set out on her camp table, shook her head, and sighed. “The bronze don’t call their officers ma’am. That’s for blackstones.”
“Yes, m–uh, yes.”
“You can call me Hyperia. Or just say ‘okay.'”
Tenoch nodded. “Okay.”
She looked him up and down. “How are you? Can you run?”
“Fine, m–uh, I mean–okay.”
Her eyes narrowed into slits.
“And yes,” he rushed to add.
She pushed aside her scroll and drew out a folded envelope bearing a wax seal. Setting it down before her, she bowed her head and went on deliberately. “I need you to carry one last message for the War Elder. How fast can you make it to Timoria?”
“Three days,” he confidently replied.
She looked him in the eyes; he dared not look away. Some breaths passed in silence before she rose and held out the envelope. Truly, he thought he might need four days to make it to the capital, some two hundred lengths down the valley road, but he didn’t want her to think he was shirking. After all, his wound was slight, little more than a bruise.
“This is a message for His Honor, the Paramount,” she said at last. “It must make it to him with time enough to spare for a double-march before the harvest or this war will drag on for another year. Do you understand?”
Tenoch nodded. He took hold of the message, but she would not let go.
“I need to hear the words,” she said, not taking her eyes off his.
He touched his left hand to the hilt of his dagger. “As They will it, so too will I. This message will be taken to His Honor, the Paramount, with all my speed.”
Hyperia let the message slip away as she nodded. “The Shadows will be ranging beyond the edgewood tonight,” she said. “Best leave with the dawn.”
Silently, obediently, Tenoch bowed his head and departed.
When the sun’s reach was far beyond the evening ridge, and darkness took hold over the valley, the Children of the Valley laid the bodies of their fallen out on funeral pyres erected along the river shore. While the common folk–officers too–formed up between the pyres and the river, the War Elder started down the other side, for he alone had the light within him, he alone could dare to let his shadow fall on the distant edgewood.
The War Elder stopped across from Hyperia and her troop, Tenoch standing in the foremost rank behind her. “Who now speaks for these?” he asked, gesturing to those bodies lain out between them.
Hyperia took one step forward and placed her hand on the nearest. “I will speak for all of them,” she said.
“Will you swear that they have been good and faithful servants in this life, and will continue to serve Them faithfully in the life beyond?”
She set her other hand down on the hilt of her own bronze dagger, showing somewhat more of a patina than Tenoch’s, and swore, “As They will it, so too will I.”
“Then pass beyond and into starlight,” the War Elder said.
Hyperia stepped back and the War Elder touched a corner of the pyre with one hand to set it all alight. He went on, “As They will it, we are born of the valley, and as we are faithful to Them, They call us when our time is done. Let Morning give up her sons, let Father give up his daughters, and let all who have served faithfully among us continue to serve Them forevermore among the stars. No Child of the Valley weeps for death, for to die in Their service is to pass beyond the corruption of this world and feel the warmth of Their embrace.”
Tenoch, with his clear view of the pyre, had his eyes locked on one called Liang, with whom he had shared a meal of corn just that morning. He could feel the heat of the fire that consumed him, could see his skin shrivel up and peel away, and could only watch as he was borne off into the night to join the stars in Their domain. He had hollow eyes…
Tenoch’s mind turned to another pair of eyes, the first to fall beneath his blade in single combat. He had cut them out and cast them onto the morning ridge in ritual fashion. And then again in ritual fashion, he had mutilated what was left of the body that had borne them into battle and set it to rot among the edgewood, to be claimed by Shadows that very night and damned to wander the morning ridge forever without so much as the comfort of tears…
Tenoch felt a crushing pain in his chest. He felt suddenly as if there was a weight on it, as if his body was just one more added beneath the pile of burning flesh before him. He struggled to breathe, and then there was a stone mace, ready to fall. His hand was empty. He looked, anxiously, for his blackstone. He had been holding onto it as he ran, but the first blow–
“Tenoch?” he heard Ollin say.
Tenoch looked to Ollin at his side. “What?”
Ollin looked down. Tenoch followed his gaze to his bronze dagger, drawn out at the ready. Ollin’s hand was on his wrist to stay it.
Tenoch pulled away and drove the dagger back into its sheath. “I–I wanted Liang to see it as he passed beyond,” he said, searching for an explanation.
Ollin nodded. “Sure…”
“No talking in ranks,” Hyperia growled over her shoulder.
Without another word, Tenoch turned his attention back to the funeral pyre, but tried a little harder not to look at the eyes of those upon it.
When the bodies of the Vallecian dead were reduced to char and ash, the common folk pushed the remnants into the river and set to building fires for themselves. Tenoch stayed with Ollin, and together with Ollin’s mate, Miho, they picked out a spot far away from the edgewood. But even by the river, they could hear the Shadows starting in to work on those bodies left among the trees. It was something like the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, only there was no wind to speak of.
Miho shuddered as the rustling crescendoed into a deafening roar, followed by a sudden silence. It was a warm night, but Tenoch added another piece of wood to the fire for peace of mind–his own as much as hers. The act sent a stream of embers swirling high off into the night, and he closed his eyes with the hope that his mind might take flight with them too.
“So what was it like?” Miho asked.
Tenoch allowed one eye to open. “What was what like?”
She nodded to his dagger.
“Oh…” Tenoch hesitated, “well, the War Elder just had me kneel and–”
“No, I mean the kill.”
Tenoch closed his eyes again, then took a deep breath. “Nothing special, just a lot of blood,” he said, trying to keep from quivering. So much blood…
“Couldn’t tell by looking at you,” Ollin snickered.
Tenoch looked to see how Ollin pointed–to his chest. His muscles tightened, and then, without willing it, he looked down at his hands, worn and bloody too–still bloody. He knew the tunic was hopeless, but he’d at least tried to wash his hands off in the river. The trouble was he’d gone from hauling a plow one day, to driving a dagger into a man’s throat the next, and the blisters formed from one endeavor had broken with the next so that it was as much his blood as the other’s on his hands, maybe more by now.
Tenoch slowly nodded and, to himself, mumbled, “His and mine…”
Tenoch looked up not knowing who’d called–had someone called? He cut his eyes to Ollin, looking back at him like he didn’t understand. But what was there to understand? Had he said something? Had he said something?
“Huh?” Tenoch grunted.
“I… was asking if that’s why you were down by the river,” Ollin said.
Once more, Ollin indicated Tenoch’s tunic. “To get the blood out.”
“Oh–yeah, I guess.” But it wasn’t really. He drew out his new dagger and examined it against the flames. It was a pretty little thing, but so much heavier than a blackstone blade…
“Can I see it?” Miho asked.
Tenoch didn’t know what she meant at first. He heard the words, but he couldn’t make sense of them, and she was smiling. How could she be smiling? She reached for the blade, and after an awkward pause he spun it around and offered it up by the handle. She took it, and her eyes lit up, giddy with excitement. Her teeth flashed, grinning fierce, and she played at stabbing at the air.
“Careful,” Ollin said.
“I won’t hurt–” she started.
“I mean them.” Ollin jerked his head to a line of old and worn-out veterans, sitting at another nearby fire. One sent a long look their way.
“Okay, okay.” Miho held the blade by the handle and offered it to Tenoch, but Tenoch hesitated to take it back. “Oh, right,” she chuckled. She flipped it around to return it by the hilt instead.
Still, Tenoch hesitated.
“Well?” she asked, a bit of a smirk on her face.
Finally, Tenoch took back the dagger, but drove it deep into its sheath without looking. As he did so, it was like some other dagger, invisible, was driven into his chest, this stabbing pain again. It was like he was still–
“So what’s in the message?” Ollin asked.
Tenoch seethed, then looked down at his satchel with the message. “I don’t know,” he gritted with his pain. “Something for the Paramount.”
“Off with the dawn?” Miho asked.
“Well,” Ollin yawned, “if you’re still here when I wake up, I’ll give you a nudge. Otherwise… may They keep you.”
Miho lay back with Ollin and sang softly by the fire. “I dreamt I stood a hundred lengths above the river, and the world was my see, with all Their meadows for my bed, and Their mountains for my…”
Miho’s soothing song fell away to nothing in Tenoch’s ears. His eyes were fixed now on the morning ridge, somewhere beyond the wall of darkness. Long into the night, when all the fires had been reduced to the glow of embers, and starlight shone through the thinning smoke, he thought he heard a voice call out from the edgewood. He rose, he stood and listened. Then it was a chant, rising and falling with his breath, but somehow undecipherable in the darkness.
Trying to make out what was said, Tenoch took up a branch and set it to light. He walked, slowly, and approached to within a double-reach of the edgewood, almost closer than he dared against the threat of Shadows. There again was that chant, taken up louder than before, but still it remained beyond his comprehension, as much a mystery to his ears as the wall of darkness to his eyes.
The sun bore down on Tenoch and the pain in his chest grew more intense with the heat of day. His breathing was heavy, and by about mid-morning it seemed that every other breath he took was split between two worlds. In one there was the road, with the river to one side and the well-kept fields of Vallecian towns to the other, and then in another he was at the edge of the field of battle, with its tall grass and shaggy trees strewn about uneven ground. The nearest patch of grass swayed with a sudden gust of wind, and he caught a glimpse of something dark out of the corner of his eye. He let his feet slip out from under him, and he arched back as a stone mace glanced his unprotected chest, only narrowly missing his jaw as it continued on its swing.
Scraping and skidding through the dirt, Tenoch reached for his blackstone blade, but stopped, bewildered, as it came up bronze. Once more, he had the road beneath him, once more the air was still. He lay there, listening for a time, but the only sound to reach his ears was his own breathing, all the heavier as fear layered on with exhaustion. Satisfied that he was alone, he came to his feet and found himself standing before a walled town.
Then he heard a voice from morning, and he had a thought–just a thought–that he could almost make it out. He strained to listen, and with the sun tending towards midday he started towards it, fading in and out from the edgewood. As he approached, the weight grew heavy on his chest and he was reminded of his growing bruise. He stopped for a moment to examine it, then unfastened his belt, unslung his satchel, and started to pull off his tunic to get a better look.
“You there, boy!” came a voice, resounding and commanding from the direction of town.
Tenoch turned to face the challenge, the back of his tunic drawn partly over his head with hands crossed awkwardly behind his neck.
A fieldwarden strode towards him with cane raised high to strike–he certainly didn’t need the thing for walking. “What are you doing here?” the fieldwarden demanded.
Tenoch took one step back. “Uh, I got–”
“Hey, move away from there,” the fieldwarden insisted, beckoning for him to come forward.
Tenoch stopped as he was and looked, astonished, to one side as he saw that he was nearly among the edgewood. He retraced his steps towards town and the fieldwarden lowered his cane.
“I just got turned around,” Tenoch said, adjusting his tunic. “I–I thought this was the river shore. It’s just–for some water, I–”
“But what are you doing here?” The fieldwarden swept his cane back towards town.
“I’m a messenger,” Tenoch hastily replied, refastening his belt.
“Don’t give me the lie, boy.”
Tenoch reached into his satchel. “From–from the War Elder,” he said, trembling as he offered up the sealed envelope.
The fieldwarden took it and turned it over. He whistled, then looked once more to Tenoch. “Will this be for the town elder?”
Tenoch shook his head. “N–no sir. For the Paramount.”
“Then I shouldn’t keep you,” the fieldwarden said, his expression softening. “And I apologize: it’s a man you are.” He slapped one end of his cane against the flat of Tenoch’s bronze dagger. “Get that in your first battle?”
Tenoch averted his eyes. He knew he was supposed to be proud of what he’d done, to be honored to have another who bore the bronze give him a chance to tell the tale, but somehow he couldn’t find the words. It was like there was a block in his mind.
“Aye,” Tenoch said, almost inaudibly.
The fieldwarden chuckled. “Well what was it? Something like a tribute?”
“No, a proper kill. He…”
In a blink, he was there. The dark mass sprang from cover, must have seen him coming. If he’d kept his wits about him, or if the wind hadn’t betrayed his position, he might have got the drop on him–it might be Tenoch’s body rotting among the edgewood today. And it was… was that the wind?
Tenoch looked over his shoulder to the edgewood, so close…
“Eh, what’s that?” the fieldwarden asked.
“Uh, a scout,” Tenoch spluttered. “He–we–I think it was just another scout and we sort of… ran into each other.” Dumb luck.
“That’s well met,” the fieldwarden said with an approving nod. “Truth be told, I never did much care for tributes. No honor in the killing if the man can’t fight back, eh?”
Tenoch allowed his head to bob just a little. It certainly wasn’t so clean as a tribute’s slaughter. After he’d succeeded in knocking his man’s legs out from under him, they’d rolled together in the dirt for some breaths, and when they finally stopped Tenoch came out on top. The man held the mace as a bar across his chest then, arms locked, and Tenoch had slashed and slashed and slashed with his blackstone blade, first at his hands, then at his arms, and then at last at his throat as he let the mace fall to rest on his chest. Once, twice–how many times had it been? It took a firm grip to do a thing like that, and they tumbled once more before the struggle was over. In the end Tenoch rolled off and laid out on his back, exhausted, while the other tried to claw his way back into his hiding place, even as blood gushed from his–
“Say,” the fieldwarden said.
Tenoch looked up from his blood-stained tunic. “Eh?”
He held up the message. “You must be tired, and anyway this is blackstone’s work. What say you I have one of my sixteens carry this thing on to the capital and you wait here for the reply, take it easy for a few days?”
“I–” Tenoch looked down again, couldn’t keep his eyes off his tunic anymore, “I…”–he felt nauseous, almost gagged–“I should be getting on. I swore to see to it myself.”
“Of course,” the fieldwarden said, quite affably. “And best remember,” he raised his cane and made to point out the directions as he spoke, “that way’s the capital, that there’s morning, and the river is all along towards evening.”
Tenoch forced himself to smile. “Aye, thank you,” he said, starting towards the road.
“Hey–what’s your name, anyway?” the fieldwarden called after.
He stopped. “Oh, uh, Tenoch,” he replied.
The fieldwarden came jogging up. “Well I’m Warren, and I suspect you’ll be needing this.” He passed the message back with a wink.
“Heh–right,” Tenoch said. He bid farewell, then turned and started down the road again.
It was some lengths before Tenoch heard the voice again, well into the afternoon, but once more he heard it, and once more it came from morning. Though he did not stop to listen, hoping to make the next town before nightfall, he devoted so much of his attention to trying to make the voice out that he missed his footing and stumbled down on all fours.
He wasn’t quite dead yet. Tenoch crawled back on top of him, looked down at his chest and saw the bruise, and then there was that voice telling him what to do. It wasn’t enough just to kill him. He had to mutilate him.
The voice told him to take out the eyes, and so he did.
The voice told him to take his head off, and he did.
“Cut out his guts.” He did.
What the voice had him do–what he did to the first to fall beneath his blade–was make a wardspirit of him. Not only did it prevent his spirit from gaining revenge in the life beyond, it denied him any chance of an afterlife altogether. Set out among the edgewood in the spirit realm, his mutilated carcass would stand as a warning to all those that followed that they dared not seek revenge against the man who could do such a thing. For he, Tenoch, was a fearsome warrior, and they would hazards their own souls to haunt him. After all, to kill a man in desperation was one thing, but to see a man damned forever…
Tenoch felt his lips curl into a snarl, and there he was, down in the road again. He noticed his satchel, crumpled beside him, then drew out the message and saw that its seal had broken in the fall. Once more he heard the voice from morning; though barely literate, he felt compelled to open the message and gleam what information from it he could. Among those few symbols he recognized, was one that sent a chill down his spine: the Avalanche. His face tingled as his eyes passed over it, for it was more than just a word, it was a judgement, meaning the fullest atonement that could be demanded for a sin, one which swept away the wicked with the just, all together as one for having suffered the wicked to live among them. In short, it was the nearest his people had to a word for genocide.
Tenoch set down the message and had this vision, then, not of a wall of snow, but of a roll of crushing black. He saw those young and infirm, those too weak and helpless to defend themselves, being swept up and crushed along with all those who had taken up arms against the Children of the Valley. He thought of how terrible it was, just the day before, to have taken one man, a warrior proud, and left him to rot among the edgewood, to make him food for Shadows, and, though he tried, he could not bring himself to imagine how it would feel to do the same to a whole race of people. For he felt that if he carried the message onward, on to its destination, it would be as if he had a whole tribe lined up before him, and each step he took was another body left to rot, as surely as if he held the knife to each passing throat and cut them down in stride.
Tenoch touched a hand to his face and the tingling sensation spread to his hand, then down his arms and into his stomach. He had this feeling that his whole body was rot and he was rotting away.
He started to heave, but he was so dehydrated from the run that nothing came up.
He crawled to the river, still heaving, and thought of how the man he’d killed had tried to crawl away himself, one hand to his throat and clutching at his wound as blood poured out between the fingers.
He thought of how he’d pulled him back to finish him.
At the river, he scooped up a handful of water and drank it, but then he looked down into the stillness of the water. He did not see the other man’s face, reflected back as he feared he might, but his own. And yet somehow that was worse. Seeing himself, the killer that he was, it sent a wave of revulsion throughout his body that set him heaving again. This time, he coughed up sticky, yellow bile. As it dribbled out of him, his reflection distorted into something else, something unrecognizable.
He screamed, and he screamed, and he screamed. He screamed so loud that the water rippled beneath him. He kept on screaming until he was hoarse in the throat and he could scream no more. And then, when the water was still and calm and he saw himself reflect once more in its surface, he took out his dagger and thrashed. He thrashed, and he thrashed, and he thrashed at his reflection, this false reflection of what he was supposed to be, to keep it all away, the pain, and the feeling, and the memory of what he’d done.
Then he felt a breath of wind on his back and was gripped by a sudden calm. He rose swiftly to his feet, swept back the hand that held the blade, and did what he could not bring himself to do the day before: he sent his precious dagger flying into the river. Next he went back to the road, took up the War Elder’s message, and set it down gently on the surface of water. If They truly willed it to find the Paramount Elder, as he reasoned, then surely They would see it to him. If They willed it not… then he was no more bound to carry it than They were. Finally, long after the message disappeared downstream, he stood there by the river shore and pondered.
Then it came to him. With the sun low down over the evening ridge and his shadow long towards morning, he heard that voice. Though he still could not make out the words, somehow he understood what it meant for him to do, and why he must do it. He followed it away from the river, across the road, and clear on to the other side of the valley. There, he stopped before the edgewood and tore off his tunic–his last mark of his service to the Children of the Valley–and a chill wind came up from morning. While he shivered, he took one step beneath the canopy of trees and the feeling left him, then a second step and his flesh was gone, and with a third step he was only bone. Before a fourth step could be landed, he faded away–all but disappeared–and only that innermost part of him remained, his very essence. He carried on into the night as a Shadow, free at last from the corruption of the valley, and free at last to roam.