Authors: Ken Scholes
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For those I’ve lost along the way
A gibbous moon hung in the predawn sky, casting shades of blue and green over a blanket of snow. Fresh from the gloom of the woodlands behind her and not even an hour past the warmth of the thick quilts and crackling fire of her family’s home, Marta clutched her stolen sling and cursed the rabbit for running so far and so fast.
She’d not meant to be gone so long. She’d only meant to quickly and efficiently do her part, proving to her father and her brother that she could. Still, if she caught it, skinned and gutted it, she could have it in the stew pot before the sun rose.
Marta moved slowly, following the slight trail the rabbit left in the thick snow, her sling loaded and ready in her left hand.
“Everyone,” her father had said since her mother died, “must do their part.” She’d been selling fresh produce in Windwir two years ago, same as she’d always done, when the ground shook and the pillar of fire rose up into a Second Summer sky to choke out the sun.
Everything changed that day.
And then kept changing.
First, there had been the armies. Then, eventually, the soldiers had retreated and the Marshers had come, though now they wore black uniforms and called themselves Machtvolk. Now they built schools and encouraged the children to attend, though Marta’s father had not permitted her to. Twice a month, the black-robed evangelist visited their doorstep and entreated Galdus to send at least his daughter so that she might be
Part of her resented that her father held her back, relegating her to do
part, namely sweeping and cleaning and tending the garden during the spring and summer. But another part of Marta reveled in being one of the few children who did not attend the Y’Zirite school.
Still, she heard things through her friends. She knew about the Crimson Empress and the Great Mother and the Child of Promise and how their advent meant the healing of the world. She had heard bits of scripture and had listened to the evangelists expounding upon it in the village square. She’d even seen the Great Mother not long ago, just after the earthquake, riding south in a small company, fast as fast can be on magicked horses. And she’d guessed that the bundle she carried close beneath her winter cloak was the Child of Promise, Jakob.
They’d lined the muddy road to catch a glimpse, though her father’s grim jawline told her that he did so with no sense of the faith or joy the surrounding villagers felt.
Everyone must do their part.
Marta pushed ahead and caught sight of movement near the tree line. Beyond it, she heard the quiet rush of water that marked one of the many creeks that ran into the Third River. She watched her breath gather in a cloud ahead of her face and measured the distance with her eyes. The rabbit was just out of reach.
Picking up her pace, she twirled the sling and listened to its buzzing as it built on the air.
She broke into a run as the rabbit moved into the trees, and gasping in frustration, she loosed the stone. It shot out and hummed across the clearing, cracking against a tree as she fitted another into the sling’s pocket.
Overhead, the sky moved toward gray.
Then, something happened. There was movement—heavy movement—within the tree line and she heard the rabbit scream even as she heard the snap of breaking bones.
She felt a sudden rush of fear and tasted the copper of it in her mouth. But still, her feet carried her forward. She caught a glimpse of something in the trees moving with long, deliberate strides off toward the river. It was tall and looked like a man.
Marta glanced down, saw the speckle of blood on the ground and the large footprint.
I should go back,
I should tell my father there is someone in the woods.
But it would easier to go back with the rabbit in hand. And it would be more efficient to go back with some idea as to who hid in their woods.
It moved faster than a man and she jogged to keep up, staying well behind.
When it paused, she stopped in her tracks. And when it looked over its shoulder in her direction, she felt her mouth go dry.
Eyes that burned the color of blood opened and closed on her. “Do not follow me, little human,” a wheezy, fluid voice said.
She swallowed, then summoned up her own voice, trying hard to not let it shake. “Give me back my rabbit.”
It turned and moved off again. But now it slowed, and she drew closer.
It was a man made of metal, but no metal she’d ever seen before. It was a silver that reflected back their surroundings—the white of the snow, the blue-green of the moonlight, the charcoal shadows of the forest—and it moved with liquid grace, its joints whispering and clicking faintly as they bent.
“Who are you?”
They were near the river now and the cliffs it ran beside. The metal man paused, and she was close enough now to see tears in its red jeweled eyes. “I do not know who I am,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
The metal man looked up, its eyes taking in the moon. “I do not know.” It shuddered slightly as it spoke.
Marta took another step forward and the metal man spun suddenly, moving off in the direction of the cliffside, the rabbit hanging loosely in one slender, silver hand. Again, she jogged to catch up.
She’d heard tales of mechanicals though she’d never seen one, and an idea crept to mind.
“Are you from Windwir?”
This time, its movements were violent, and she leaped back when it spun toward her. “I told you I do not know, little human. It is not safe for you to follow me.”
She gritted her teeth. “Then give me back my rabbit.”
He looked down at the rabbit and then looked at her. “The human body contains on average two congius of blood.” He leaned forward. “You are not fully grown, but you would suffice.”
She felt herself go pale. She even willed her feet to carry her backward, to fly her home to the warmth of her waiting house and bed. But they refused her. Instead, she stood transfixed by the creature that towered over her now, the sling dangling powerlessly from her hand. She wanted to ask him what she would suffice for, but couldn’t make her tongue work either.
When he turned away just as suddenly, she heard her breath release. Striding to the cliffside, he disappeared behind a boulder.
Shaking, she followed slowly this time.
When Marta reached the boulder, she saw that it hid a crack in the granite wall, and just within that crack, she saw the metal man crouching over a battered wooden pail. She winced as those bare metal hands ripped open the rabbit’s throat and upended it so that its blood could drip into the bucket.
I should be silent,
I should flee now and get the others, tell them what hides here.
But as she watched, she saw the metal shoulders begin to shake, and she saw silver tears roll down silver cheeks to mix with the rabbit’s blood.
“Why do you need blood?” the girl asked in a quiet voice, though she wasn’t certain she wanted to know.
The metal man looked up and raised a tattered brush in his other hand.
“To paint the violence of my dreams,” he said. And in the dim red light of his eyes, Marta saw the words and symbols that covered the walls of his cave and she gasped.
Outside, a cold wind picked up as the moon began its slow slide downward into the horizon and the sky went purple with morning.
Outside, a cold wind muttered along the edge of the Prairie Sea, whispering over the canvas of a hundred tents. Inside, Rudolfo waited for a meeting he could not bear to hold but could not avoid.
“They are nearly here, General,” said the Gypsy Scout at the entrance of his tent.
Rudolfo looked up from his work table. He’d reached his western border just three days earlier and had whiled away the days going through yet more reports and communications.
Much had happened since he’d left the north and their exploration of the Beneath Places. The magnitude of it all left his head aching.
First, there had been the earthquake. It was slight on the surface, but many of the tunnels far below them had collapsed. Tunnels that Rudolfo’s scouts and miners had been mapping. The tunnels that Isaak and Charles had taken to follow the other mechoservitors west.
Next, Aedric’s birds and runners had reached them with warnings about what they’d found in the Watcher’s cave, followed soon after by word that Winters was returning with an unknown number of Marsher refugees. And though he’d assumed Jin and Jakob and their entourage would return with them, he’d heard no word from any of them, and that perplexed him greatly. Still, he’d convinced himself it had to do with the difficulty they’d had with the birds of late.
Then, most recently, all communication out of Pylos had suddenly ceased, followed by a flurry of birds that bore dark tidings of a desolation larger even than that of Windwir.
An entire nation lost.
Every man, woman and child.
he thought. It couldn’t possibly be true. But Rudolfo knew in his bones that it was.
And now this.
He looked up at the young lieutenant framed in the morning light. Nearly two thousand of his kin, his people, approached on foot, and he would have words with one of them. “When will they arrive?”
“Within the hour,” the scout answered.
Rudolfo nodded. “I will meet with Kember alone,” he said. “Bring him to the watchtower when he arrives.”
The officer inclined his head. “Yes, General.”
When he was alone again, Rudolfo turned to the plate his cook had left for him and scanned reports while picking at bits of chilled rabbit, pickled asparagus and rice. Between bites, he sipped cold, sweet chai and tried to imagine what he would say to the man who’d been a father to him since the first days of his orphanhood.
He waited until the last minute to dress, then slipped out of his tent to stride through frozen blades of grass and snowdrifts to the skeletal wood tower that stood watch over the Western Steppes. Around the tower, hasty structures and tents formed a small town with the first soldiers of his standing army taking up their posts to guard the closed borders of the Ninefold Forest, there at the edge of the Prairie Sea.