Mai 21, 1543
Five weeks after the Dawngate opened
The sky to the south flickered with icy light. The ground trembled like the heart of a newborn; the waters of the lake shivered.
A cluster of young stars ascended. She breathed in sharp evening air; their colors were impossible. Seawater and topaz, blood and verdure, the greens and violets after staring into light, the pale haze of sorrow and the forked stagger of terror.
They arced across the darkening sky, splitting apart, trailing rainbows and sparks, spitting, hissing, whistling, shrieking.
One of them, a candle flame spun of moss and water, fell swiftly. It trailed streamers of color, drifting over the wood like the spider silk on the wind. It curved down to the lake, growing in size.
Her breath tripped and halted.
Its light splintered off the waves of its passage. An arrow cut across the waters, a line drawn straight to her.
The washing fell to the stones with a slap. She fumbled backwards, bare feet slipping and splashing, unable to take her eyes off the coming light. The bushes, she had to get in the bushes, it wouldn’t see, it couldn’t, there was no way-
She stumbled over her boots, and the ground jolted painfully into her backside, driving the air from her lungs.
She blinked. Hiding in the bushes?
It was coming straight for her, diving out of a plum sky specked with stars, and she was going to hide in the bushes? She giggled, high and quick, the way she did after too much mead.
Marah levered herself to her feet, knotted her fingers in front of her stomach to quell their vibrations, and waited.
Was she the only soul present? She couldn’t bring herself to look around.
The Spirit flickered over the basket, the rags and blankets spread across the rocks to dry. A ball of lightning spinning and whirling, trailing unnamable colors. A restless bee bouncing among flowers.
Where were the fishermen?
A final hop, and it alighted on the shore, collapsing, dimming, a solid coalescing out of luminous cloud. It was feline, equine, insect and lizard, winged and hoofed, furred and feathered, spotted with blooms and laden with fruit. All at once, never at all. Patterns of color rippled across it, there and not. The distant creak and chirp of innumerable insects pulsed faintly from its restless flesh.
But its eyes. Its eyes were wells of stillness and light; blank, formless.
Were Eddah and Jadi wondering what was taking her so long?
It stepped forward. Each place its hooves/claws/roots touched earth, the grass quivered and strained skyward, rich and green. Flowers erupted from nothing, bursting into bloom, filling the air with sweetness. It trailed pools of life as it strode across the shore, pausing to examine her boots.
It bent in a way it should not have been able to, and peered at the earthenware jar that contained Eddah’s afterbirth.
She stepped forward, unthinking. “That’s-!”Her jaw hung, vacant of words. Sacred? Private? What was a Spirit not entitled to see? What could it not know? The Spirits do as they will.
It turned its regard to her, began to move again. The scent of flowers came closer, sprays of fresh clover and violet welling up from the ground. It stretched upwards to match her height.
She looked into its eyes, and they were not empty after all. They were full, brimming over. An endless coil of vines and flowers, beating hearts and rising lungs, rivers flowing languidly, clouds billowing up from empty air, infinitesimal things skittering in darknesses too small to perceive. There was more than you could count in a thousand lifetimes. All moving together, intertwined, an ocean of life in its eyes.
She staggered, vertiginous, swallowing back the pulse in the back of her throat.
The flesh of the Spirit flickered, and something in the air around it made her hair stand on end. Memories came unbidden; a hand on her belly in the dark. Jadi’s breath on the nape of her neck.
Black earth. Ripe fruit.
“Don’t show me this,” she strangled out, jaw set, eyes searing. “I’ve already – it’s past.” She balled her fists. “There’s nothing to be said.”
The swirling infinities peered through her.
Flowers swelled into bloom.
Early frosts. Blackened petals.
Staggering into Jadi’s arms, doubled over with pain.
Fruit fell early from the tree.
Limp flesh, buried nameless.
“Stop it!” she screamed, and her fist lashed out of its own accord.
The Spirit was no longer where she’d struck. It stood beside her now, as if it had always been there.
“Why would you?” she hissed. Every part of her shook, every limb and organ. Every muscle taut, rigid. Her teeth creaked. “How – how…”
The Spirits do as they will?
She put her palms to her face and savagely ripped the hot blurriness off the world. “You had no right,” she said, low and soft, careful and clear, each word thoroughly meant.
The Spirit dimmed and seemed to contract. Its eyes closed. The air shook.
The afternoon burst back into her eyes and ears, nose and fingertips. The rasp of Eddah’s labored breath and the tauntness of her skin. Her own voice echoed at her, I’d like you to breathe with me for a bit.
The whirlpool eyes reopened and moved close. The luminous form lowered, bent, offered something vaguely like a forehead to lean against.
She stared. “You want me to – what?” It felt like she was falling.
Kel’s face welled up from her memories, unbidden.
“You can’t be – you’re not serious.”
The spirals in its eyes compressed, roiled. Vines became rivers, rivers turned to earthworms. Threads of life overlapping and flowing. The circling migrations of herds. Flocks of geese chaining from lake to pond to river in time with the seasons. Fish, green and heavy, struggling back to a patch of mud and quiet they could scarcely recall. Patterns she’d known since childhood.
Memory trickled upward, burst open. Kel beside her, staring into the sun-dry dust as the ewe bleated. Birds swirling across the empty blue. The echo of her voice, It’ll start getting hot soon.
Kel’s shoulders shaking in the dark as she wrapped a child’s broken leg.
She stepped back. “No.”
A quiet settled over town when he came to market. He held his breath when the sky pealed and quartered. When asked what happened at the stones, dark clouds surged across his face, and his eyes twitched at the snap of lightning only he could see. But he muted the thunder of memory to, “Not much.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want that life.”
The Spirit stared at her, eyes whirling. The grass at its feet was turning to seed.
The past seeped up from behind. Her voice echoed through the silence of her mind, Nine times in ten, I’m only a calm voice and a hand to hold. Nine times in ten.
Nine times in ten.
The air sang, and ones-in-ten crowded forward. Waves of tears and blood surged through her mind. Life cut off in so many ways. Lives that could never have been. Lives lost by happenstance and accident. Lives lost because of a mistake. Eighteen years of harrowed eyes looking to her for comfort, for good news when there was none. Times when all she could do was hold those who wept for lives that should have been.
“I could – you could help them?”
The whirlpool eyes stared.
Why didn’t it speak? “If you were – could I save those lives? All of them? Some of them?”
The grass beneath it had grown thick and tall, rustling in the wind off the lake. She looked around, but there was no one. No place to turn for counsel. The only light in the darkness stood before her, asking the impossible.
“How do I..?” she swallowed, a deep, cold terror settling in her gut. “What do I do?”
The hearts of her teeth throbbed, enamel ringing on enamel as tides rose and fell in the Spirit’s eyes. The memory of her hands, draped with soft blankets, ready to catch a falling life. Whenever it feels right, her own voice echoed.
She closed her eyes, shaking and unsure, and tried to breathe slowly.
Red light burst through her eyelids, revealing the tracery of blood coursing through. Careless thought lingered, and the eyelash-fine was suddenly enormous. It surged and thundered, deafening. Discs bounced and stormed through the rapids, red wheels spinning and tumbling endlessly.
No. That was – she was seeing an actual river now, viewed from high above. A blue ribbon curling through the flesh of the land, born from peaks dusted white by northern wind. An age of waiting, compressing. Spring sun changing crystal to fluid, and falling – one among many, always falling. Falling in ever-growing numbers. Trickling, streaming, flowing, becoming a torrent. Digging the paths they found ever deeper.
Mud skirled along the belly of the mass. The kick and flicker of fish piercing the painful dryness above, to suck down whirling, whining, spun-glass insects that knew nothing more than the moment they lived in. No memory, no dreams.
She was walking, staggering. Where?
A tree. Solid. Immovable. She clung to it, dug panic-seared fingertips into its solidity, placed her cheek against the dry bark and breathed in the scent of it.
She heard them within. The trampling of a herd. A thousand lives beating up and down paths chewed through the living wood, blind to light, alive to touch and smell. She could feel them passing memories to one another on whispers of scent. The location of a mouse’s corpse, struck and killed by an owl, threaded its way through the mass, each tiny mind in turn remembering the metal taste of blood in the air. A hundred lives turned to hew and carry and store.
She pushed away from the tree, stumbling over her own feet. They weren’t where they’d always been.
The woods deafened her with chorales of life. Millions of voices called from the dark. Cricket and owl, fox and badger. Worms chewing blindly through the black earth. Blighted leaves falling away, swaying to earth, landing with a whisper. Water welling up from springs, pooling in a dark sacred lake thick with green clouds and flickers of silver-flanked lightning. The four great rivers laughing along mud banks where ottrekin hooted and drank and clung to one another against the absence of light and the hate of men, out of fear and sometimes love.
She could feel them moving, circling, playing their own small roles in the great dance of life. She could feel all of them. The forest spread across her mind, a web of lives great and small breathing together, growing in the spring of the world.
No. Not the world. Just a part.
Far off, beyond lands overgrown by violent green, beyond wastelands of dust, across oceans dark, cold, and terrible, there were other forests. Stark and creaking, sleeping under blankets of snow. Shaggy creatures she had no name for wandered through forests grown of a single seed, gnawing the bark to keep moving.
She pulled back to herself, felt the air rushing in and out of her own lungs, air swarming with life infinitesimal.
It went on forever. Layers within layers. Worlds within worlds.
There was a scratching at the door.
He set his bowl down and thought on it. Most would knock. Someone with a mind for harm would break in. Earlier he’d felt Spirits passing over, going to find whoever they’d find. Maybe someone hereabouts had seen them, thought they should come ask him about it. But maybe they were afraid of him, so they didn’t knock all the way, and it came out like a scratch.
Most seemed to be afraid now, a little bit. Though he was pretty much what he always was. Except for having a cat that wasn’t a cat.
The thought of talking made him weary, but if it made someone sleep better, that was probably important. Anyway, maybe it was a sheep. Sometimes they got it in their minds for company.
Marah leaned against the door frame, fighting for air. She was overgrown with vines and blossoms, budding straight out of her skin. Her shape was shifting, changing, and her insides shimmered with new light.
“Help,” she whimpered, in a voice totally unlike her own.
He held her hands as her skin turned to tree bark, then peeled and fell away, revealing the same old mortal flesh beneath. She stepped across the threshold, and grass sprouted from the unfinished planks of the floor.
“I can see it,” she panted. “I can see it and I can’t stop.” Breath jerked from her lungs, and she stared at the space it passed into, her eyes going every which way. Not crazy-like. Looking at something. Whatever it was, she looked like it might make her lose her stomach. “I close my eyes but it’s still there,” she said, clutching at her head. Vines snaked from the tips of her fingers. A carpet of shoots erupted from her back, buds swelling into snow-colored flowers that smelled like a childhood memory he couldn’t quite place.
“It won’t stop, Kel,” she groaned into her hands. The flowers on her back wilted and dropped away as if they’d never been. “Can’t stop seeing it.”
“What?” Kel said. Grass, fur, and scales ebbed and flowed across her, swelling and flaking, coming and going. “What do you see?”
She turned wide, shocked green eyes to him. In their depths, he saw a coil of vines, twined and woven, endless.