A hundred hundred seasons have turned since the Goddess banished the Small Gods to the sky, leaving the land to mankind alone.
For Prince Teryk, life behind the castle walls is boring and uneventful until he stumbles upon an arcane scroll in a long-forgotten chamber. The parchment speaks of Small Gods, the fall of man, and the kingdom's savior—the firstborn child of the rightful king. It's his opportunity to prove himself to his father, the king, and assure his place in history. All he needs to do is find the man from across the sea—a man who can't possibly exist—and save mankind.
But ancient magic has been put in motion by a mysterious cult determined to see the Small Gods reborn. Powerful forces clash, uncaring for the lives of mortals in their struggle to prevent the return of the banished ones, or aid in their rebirth.
“Watch out!” the priestess Rak’bana shouted, ducking behind Love—one of the granite Pillars of Life.
A ball of flame hammered into the earth with a spray of dirt and the stench of burnt grass. She covered her head, waiting for the ground to cease shaking before she peeked out from behind her arm to find her twin brother. Ine’vesi peered back at her from around the corner of the next column in the row of nine—Trust.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
The crackle of flames all but kept his voice from her ears, but they were well enough connected she knew what he’d ask without needing to hear. She nodded in response and he crept out from behind the column, the roll of parchment in his hand.
“Time is short, Vesi,” she said. “The Goddess is angry.”
Ine’vesi made no effort to hide the sneer upon his lips as he hurried across the ruined garden to her side. Before he opened his mouth to spill out the blaspheme imprinted on his brow, she raised her hand and gestured with her fingers. A thick stream of water the height of five men rose from the river and flowed across the air. It splashed into the newly lit fire with a hiss of doused flames and white steam billowing toward the sky. Another ball of fire crashed into the top edge of the nearest wall, sending chunks of stone tumbling to the ground. The twin siblings ducked their heads.
“We have to go,” she urged.
“Out of the city.” Ine’vesi brandished the roll of parchment. “Once we have inscribed the scroll, it will not be safe here. The wrong hands will find it.”
A fiery ball crashed into the base of a towering pine, its flames leaping up the trunk, spreading through its branches, jumping to the next tree like a playful squirrel, then skipping to the next. Rak’bana raised her hand again, intending to call the river and extinguish the fire to save her garden, but Ine’vesi caught her by the wrist.
“Let it burn, Bana. Let it be a testament to the unjust wrath of a jealous Goddess.”
The priestess’ eyes widened and she shook her head, unable to comprehend why he’d speak such blasphemous words. She pulled her hand free of his grip and faltered back a step toward the river.
“You are a priest, Vesi. You know as well as I that we have brought this on ourselves. Righteous anger falls from the sky, not jealousy. The Goddess gives what is deserved.”
Another ball slammed into the pine. The great tree leaned with a creak of wood, bending slowly at first, then the trunk split with a crack louder than thunder, and the tree that had grown in the courtyard for a dozen hundred seasons toppled, spilling flame across the dry grass. The fire raced toward the siblings, fueled by a swirling fireball, then another. A third pelted the ground, the closest yet, and the impact threw Ine’vesi into his sister, his momentum carrying them both into the river.
The frigid water clung to Rak’bana as she clutched her brother, and the red rage of the Goddess’ flames shone through the shimmering river. She understood that, if they surfaced, the fire would hunt them mercilessly, never giving up until the blaze consumed them. Deserving of the Goddess’ wrath or not, the priestess could not let that happen before they’d completed their task.
She held Ine’vesi tight to her chest and swirled her free hand, manipulating the water around them to increase the river’s current. It bore them away from the garden, away from the courtyard, but the red and orange glow above them brightened and the water grew warmer, heated by the anger of the Goddess. Worry burned in Rak’bana’s chest along with her held breath—if they didn’t leave their warning, this would all happen again. They’d both seen it in their dreams.
The water shivered around them as the Pillars of Life toppled, thumping to the ground. Ine’vesi jerked in her grasp, fighting the current and the heat, but she held him and gestured again. The river flowed faster, carrying them along like autumn leaves fallen from a dying tree, dragging them on until the light disappeared.
They’d entered the channel beneath the temple.
The river cooled again, but Rak’bana held them under, allowing the raging current to carry them deep into the heart of the temple and away from the Goddess’ fury. Only when her breath threatened to explode in her lungs did she allow the river to bear them to the surface. Ine’vesi’s head emerged from the water and he gasped a ragged, angry breath.
“Are you trying to aid the Goddess in killing me?”
“I saved you, ingrate.” The priestess stroked toward the side of the channel, pulling her brother along behind. “You should thank me for not letting you burn.”
They reached the side and she hooked her arm over the edge, pulled Ine’vesi close to allow him to do the same. No light penetrated so far into the tunnel, leaving them in utter darkness, but she knew the door to be directly in front of them; she sensed it as surely as she sensed her brother at her side.
“One way or another, you were going to get me here, weren’t you?” he said, pulling himself out of the water to stand on the narrow stone path beside the channel.
“You know it must be here.” She climbed up alongside him, rested the palm of her hand against the door.
“It won’t be safe here, Bana. The scroll might fall into any hands. It must go to Teva Stavoklis.”
Rak’bana hesitated before opening the door. They’d had this discussion and thought they’d decided the matter, but it appeared Ine’vesi remained unconvinced. Her mouth opened to argue the point, but the stone of the tunnel shook minutely with an impact to the building above them, stopping her.
“Come,” she said instead, and pushed the door open.
The pristine chamber beyond gleamed, its white marble walls and soaring granite pillars flickering with the orange light shining through the high windows. Rak’bana hurried into the room and down the three steps to the floor, sparing a brief glimpse for the massive suits of armor standing guard beside each of the four columns.
“Hurry,” she said as she swept across the chamber toward her goal at the far end: a marble lectern that sprang up out of the floor as though carved of the same block of stone.
Droplets of water fell from her hair and dress, spattering on the smooth marble. The air in the room smelled old and unused, as well it should; no one had entered this room since the building of the temple. Thousands upon thousands of times the sun had risen and set, shining its light through the high windows, and the Sek’bala had stood watch beside the gray and white flecked granite columns, but no foot had touched the floor until Rak’bana’s. The immensity of it was not lost on her but, with fire falling from the sky to spread the Goddess’ punishment, no time for emotion and awe remained.
She reached the podium and glanced back across the room at her brother near the entrance. Ine’vesi stood motionless, staring at the imposing guards with their horned helmets and gleaming weapons.
“Vesi,” she cried, waving for him to join her. “Bring the parchment.”
He set one foot in front of the other and crossed the room slowly without tearing his gaze away from the Sek’bala. Outside the sanctuary, something rumbled. Rak’bana raised her eyes to the high windows, the flicker of flames shining through the narrow frames. Vesi had paused halfway to her, the roll of paper dripping as he held it out toward her.
Time is running short.
The priestess came around the lectern and jumped down the three stairs to the floor, her sandals slapping wetly on the white marble. The time for waiting and marveling had passed.
“Give it to me, Vesi.” She held out her hand, expectant. “We must speak the words to prevent this from happening again.”
Her fingers brushed the edge of the paper, felt its roughness, its power, but then it disappeared. Ine’vesi pulled it away and glared at her, his brows drawn together.
“Prevent it?” he asked, incredulous. The priest shook his head without removing his gaze from her eyes. “We must take this to Teva Stavoklis and leave instructions on how to bring us back.”
Rak’bana’s mouth fell open. How did she not see this coming? She’d heard his words bordering on sacrilege, seen his disdain toward the Goddess in this time of judgment. But her sight had been clouded by the dreams, her mind filled with visions of the gray man, the Mother, the man from across the sea. She’d neglected to think for a moment that her twin brother—the man with whom she shared the priesthood and trusted more than anyone short of the Goddess herself—could have anything but the same goal as her.
How wrong she’d been.
“We can’t let this happen again, Vesi.” She despised the desperation creeping into her voice. “The generations that come after us must know.”
Another rumble echoed through the chamber, this one louder than the last. Ine’vesi sneered. “We are in agreement, sister. This cannot happen again. The Goddess cannot be allowed to treat her loyal subjects in this manner. They must be given a way to prevent it, and bringing us back is the way.”
“No. We deserve it. The Goddess never intended us to live this way. We—”
The priest took a step back and her gaze fell to the parchment he held in his right hand, out of her reach. The visions that visited her dreams meant nothing if she did not set them to words on the scroll, left them to be found when the time they were needed came. If she didn’t, she’d have failed the Goddess.
“The scroll will go to Teva Stavoklis, to be used when the Goddess again over-steps her bounds. To ensure her subjects are never again punished for being human.”
Rak’bana narrowed her eyes. “We are no longer human, Vesi.”
“No, I suppose not,” he conceded and took another step back. “We are closer to gods, aren’t we? Small gods, perhaps.”
She bit down hard and fought against the oncoming tears choking her throat. A louder rumble, and this time the walls trembled. The long pike of one of the Sek’bala warriors shivered in its hand, the metal shaft rattling against its gauntleted fingers. Rak’bana directed her gaze toward the massive suit of plate, lowered her chin and raised her hand. She wiggled her fingers the way she did when she called the water to her bidding and her brother realized her intent. Ine’vesi’s head snapped to the side, eyes wide as he looked to the Sek’bala, expecting it to come to life.
Rak’bana leaped toward him and snatched at the roll of parchment, her fingers grasping the edge. It took only an instant for Ine’vesi to realize she’d tricked him. The priest danced back two steps, but she’d gotten a grip on the scroll and it unrolled between them. They both stared at its blank surface as another ball of fire struck the building and a shower of sparks spilled through one of the high windows.
They raised their heads; their eyes met.
“Bana,” he said, voice calm and even, though his eyes reflected different emotions. “Don’t do—”
“When days of peace approach their end.”
“And wounds inflicted are too deep to mend.” Fear and disappointment surged through her, but she forced herself to speak clearly, drawing out the words to their full power, ensuring the parchment heard her over the reverberating impacts shuddering the walls. “A sign shall come, a lock with no key.”
“Borne by a man from across the sea.”
The wavering light of the flames licking the world flashed on Ine’vesi’s blade. Rak’bana had an instant to recognize the slender knife before he jerked her toward him and plunged the tip between her ribs.
The wicked point tore through her flesh, found its way between the bones, and pressed against her heart. The agony of the wound stole her breath, but the anguish of her brother’s betrayal crushed her soul. He pulled her close, the loose parchment folding between them, and a fresh wave of pain crashed through her, transported along her veins to the tips of her fingers.
“I am sorry, Bana, but it must be this way” he said, his tone quiet amongst the thunder of the Goddess’ judgment. “We are gods.”
Unable to do anything more, she stared, open-mouthed, at her twin brother, the priest to her priestess, the man for whom she’d always thought she’d give her life if necessary, and now he’d taken it.
Ine’vesi pressed harder on the stiletto and the point pricked her heart. The priestess gasped; her skin went cold as hoarfrost. Her brother pulled the knife out and jerked away, attempting to wrench the parchment’s edge from her grasp, but her fingers held fast. The paper stretched, then tore, the sound of it ripping echoing through the marble chamber. Ine’vesi stumbled back, caught his balance, and advanced on her, his expression pulled into an angry shape that made him nearly unrecognizable to her.
Another fireball struck the temple. Then another, and another. The armor of the Sek’bala shivered and rattled, their weapons clattered in their grips. Ine’vesi glanced away from his sister at the towering guards, the sparks cascading through the high widows, and stopped, the anger on his face melting to fear.
He brandished the half of the parchment he still held. “This is all I need,” he said, backing toward the door.
“Vesi.” Rak’bana reached her hand out toward her brother. “Please.”
The priest stopped short of the doorway, gazed back at his sister. For a second, his expression appeared regretful, and she thought he might return to her, help her complete what must be done. Instead, he shook his head.
“This wasn’t what I dreamed, Bana. I saw a world where we can be what we are, and not be judged by a jealous Goddess. I dreamed of becoming the Small Gods we are meant to be.”
He hesitated a second before disappearing through the doorway and into the channel beneath the temple. Rak’bana stared after him, her belly clenching at the thought of losing him, but soon, it would no longer matter. Soon, they’d all be gone, but she had one last task to perform before the end.
She glanced at the red stain spreading across the front of her dress, the droplets falling to the white marble floor, running along its veins, filling them. The temple shuddered under the Goddess’ wrath and the priestess raised her head, gazed toward the lectern.
It seemed so far away.
Rak’bana put her left hand on the wound in her chest, felt her life force pulsing out of it, making her fingers sticky. With careful, plodding steps, she crossed the smooth floor, smearing her blood behind her as she went. It spread out along the stone, coloring it red; the Sek’bala watched, unconcerned.
A few paces from the goal, the fingers of her left hand tingled briefly, and then she lost feeling in them. The tingling climbed up her arm, racing toward her chest. Her breath shortened, cold sweat fell like winter dew on her brow, her knees trembled. She stumbled the last few steps, caught herself on the lectern’s edge before her legs gave way and spilled her to the floor.
The priestess spread the parchment across the podium, holding one edge with shaking fingers, weighing the other down with her dead hand. The blood of her heart smeared across the paper, sticking in its texture. Thunder shook the walls, lightning flashed, tears streaked paths along her cheeks. Rak’bana drew her dry tongue across her icy lips and spoke the words given her by the Goddess in her dreams.
“When days of peace approach their end,
And wounds inflicted are too deep to mend,
A sign shall come, a lock with no key,
Borne by a man from across the sea.
A barren Mother, the seed of life,
Living statue, treacherous knife.
To raise the Small Gods, a Small God must die,
When the stars go out, the end is nigh.”
She paused to draw a weak breath and watched her blood etching the cursive lines of her words across the paper. The walls shook and she raised her gaze for an instant to see the marble had gone red with the life dripping from her heart. She returned her attention to the final stanza required on the scroll.
“One must die to raise them all,
Should Small Gods rise, man will fall.
One can stop them, on darken’d wing,
The firstborn child of the rightful king.”
As the last word crossed her lips, a wind carrying swirling flames howled through the high windows. Rak’bana titled her head back, watched the fire snake toward her and closed her eyes, waiting for the Goddess to cleanse her and free her from her sorrow and pain.
And the flames consumed her.
Original Publication Date: February 16, 2015
When shadows fall, the darkness comes...
A disgraced Goddess Mother wanders blind and alone, praying for her agony to end. When a helpful apostle finds her, could it truly be salvation, or does worse torment lie ahead?
A sister struggles to understand a prophecy that may not be meant for her while her brother fights for his life. If the firstborn child of the rightful king dies, will it spell the end for everyone?
Darkness and shadow creep across the land in the form of a fierce clay golem animated by its sculptor's blood. It seeks a mythical creature whose sacrifice portends the return of ancient evil banished from the world long ago. With its return will come the fall of man.
As the game unfolds, the Small Gods watch from the sky, waiting for their time to come and their chance to rise again. They wait for the fall of shadows, the coming of the darkness.
They wait for night to descend.
Am I ready to kill?
A cloud of swirling mist sighed out between Kuneprius’ lips, rising into the night to smear the glow of the winter moon. He watched it dissipate, then exhaled another long plume, blowing it out the way he’d seen the Brothers do when they smoked their pipes filled with sweetweed. Instead of swirling like the wreaths he’d watched them create, his breath came out a ragged column.
Kuneprius cocked his head toward the urgent sound, an apology teetering on the tip of his tongue. At the last instant, he remembered himself and said nothing, pressing himself flatter against the side of the hill. Fildrian lay less than ten man-lengths away, but the Brother’s black hood and robe hid him in the darkness; despite his proximity, empty loneliness ached in Kuneprius’ chest.
The lad grasped the short sword’s hilt tighter, testing its uncomfortable weight. Though he’d seen the seasons turn but twelve times, he’d trained with this very sword for six of them. The temple blacksmith formed it with him in mind, the grip molded to the shape of his fingers. Its length and weight had proved too much for him when he first held it, but he’d grown into it, its size ideal for a boy of his age. He shifted minutely, searching for comfort and understanding that the prospect of swinging the weapon to wound rather than in practice caused his unease, not the sword itself.
Will I be able to wield it when the time comes? Can I kill if I need to?
He’d never been sent on a hunt, so the sword’s edge hadn’t tasted blood other than his own when he got clumsy or distracted while sharpening the blade. He shifted his grip on the leather-wrapped hilt, hand slipping with the slickness of the sweat on his palm. For so many seasons, he’d trained for this moment; he knew he’d kill if the need arose.
I hope it doesn’t.
The rattle-clunk of wooden wheels on dirt track rolled along the shallow valley and up the hill to Kuneprius’ ears. Soon, he’d need wonder no more.
The apprentice angled his head to peer down the weed-clogged road, squinting as he attempted to pick out the wagons in the darkness. The lanterns hanging at the front of each, bobbing and swinging with the horses’ gaits, made it easy. He counted them silently.
One, two, three…four?
His heart lurched. Brother Fildrian had said to expect three—two carts and a covered wagon. Kuneprius’ gaze flickered to the spot where he expected to find the expedition leader’s dark shape, but he saw nothing. He glanced back to the track, the horse-drawn vehicles drawing closer and, in the glow of their lanterns, he counted two covered wagons.
A horse nickered and a high-pitched voice spoke words to calm the animal, their meaning lost in the rumble of the wheels, but the intent clear in their timbre. This must be the tone of a woman’s voice, the first he’d heard.
Kuneprius wiped his slick palm on the front of his coat, hand pressing against the hard, smooth surface of the leather chest piece hidden beneath. When he breathed in through his nose, he inhaled the tang of the oil used to keep it supple.
Brother Fildrian faced Kuneprius, his pale cheek a faint smudge beneath the dark hood. Moving precisely, carefully, the expedition leader stood and gestured for the apprentice to do the same. Kuneprius obeyed. Around them, cloth stirred against skin and sandals scuffed in frozen grass as the others rose, as well.
Fildrian descended the hill deftly, traversing from one narrow tree trunk to the next, leaving Kuneprius to wait as the other Brothers followed. A thrill of fearful excitement stirred in his gut. He tightened his grip on the short sword’s hilt, licked his lips, and swallowed the excess of saliva flooding his mouth.
Tonight I become a Brother. Tonight I become a man.
When the last of the ten robed men passed him, Kuneprius followed, concentrating on the placement of his feet, moving with the stealth he’d learned from Fildrian during training. Truthfully, the racket made by the clatter of horses’ hooves and wheels on stones and dirt would have hidden the tuneless din should he break into song and dance a jig. He’d do neither, but the thought made him stifle a nervous chuckle.
Brother Fildrian arrived at the bottom of the hill and crouched in the tall weeds beside the cart track. The others arrayed themselves on either side of the leader and Kuneprius stopped well back, secreted behind a tree. He hefted the sword, ready to fulfill his role to catch any who got through his companions in an attempt to flee.
But which wagon contains our prize?
He shouldn’t concern himself—Fildrian knew. Twelve turns of the seasons before, the expedition leader had been involved in the raid which brought Kuneprius himself into the Fatherhood; one of many times he’d liberated male children from a Goddess’ caravan. If anyone knew the ways of the Mothers, Brother Fildrian did. Kuneprius passed the time by counting his heartbeats.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
The lead cart drew close enough for him to see the sleek lines of the horse pulling it. Beyond the animal, the lantern hanging beside the cart’s driver shone on her face, reflecting in the woman’s eyes and outlining her features in its warm glow. Kuneprius swallowed hard.
He didn’t expect a woman to be so different from men.
Her hair—the deep red-brown of a chestnut in the moonlight—hung well past her shoulders in a manner not permitted of a Brother. Many of the apprentices, like Kuneprius himself, wore their hair longer, but not so long as hers. Small nose, smooth skin, full lips. The sight of her caused a flutter in the lad’s gut he’d never experienced.
What’s wrong with me?
His inexplicably dry lips parted and his sandpaper tongue brushed their surface. As he gazed upon the woman—girl, really; she didn’t appear many turns older than Kuneprius—the stirring in his gut spread. It spilled into his chest, speeding his breath, and crept into his loins. His man-thing began to harden, the way it often was when he woke in the mornings, prepared to make his offering to the Small Gods. He glanced at his breeches, then back at the girl, who was closer now, and noticed gentle curves hidden beneath her smock. His confused feelings grew. He crossed his legs to hide his confusion, but doing so increased his discomfort.
The girl’s cart rumbled past the spot where Brother Fildrian and the others hid, and the men remained secreted in the tall grass, waiting. The wheels of the first covered wagon clattered past; the second drew even with them. Brother Fildrian raised his hand, signaling the attack party, and they sprang out of the weeds.
Horses whinnied, one of the drivers screamed—not a shriek of fear, but a signal, Kuneprius realized. At the sound of her call, two armed warriors of the Goddess burst out of the first covered wagon, four more out of the second, catching the Fatherhood’s raiders by surprise.
Kuneprius’ eyes widened as he watched the women pounce on his companions. Metal clanged against metal, horses pranced and neighed. A tall Goddess warrior with a shaved head knocked Brother Imir’s sword from his hand, then skewered him. She pulled her blade free and a gout of dark blood spilled from the young man’s gut before he slumped to the dirt.
Hand gripping his sword’s hilt tighter than it should, Kuneprius took one step toward the fight, then hesitated. In his head, he heard Fildrian’s instructions: guard the flank; let no one pass; do not desert your post. But did he foresee the women bearing weapons? Was this the way it always happened?
Kuneprius slid forward another step. A woman screamed and fell, a gash on her leg; Brother Xeoru swung his sword two-handed and split her skull. Kuneprius flinched and looked away, found the cart driver’s gaze upon him. She climbed out of her seat, pulled a long dagger from a fold in her smock.
Panicked, Kuneprius returned his attention to the fight and realized the other drivers had abandoned their seats, too. Weapons filled their hands as they stalked toward the skirmish. Their addition to the warriors of the Goddess evened the numbers, swung favor away from the Brothers and squarely to the middle.
Until an axe separated Brother Xeoru’s head from his shoulders and a spear poked a hole through Brother Ategar’s chest.
For a space of heartbeats he forgot to count, Kuneprius watched, feet acting as though frozen to the ground. Blood spilled on the frosted dirt, painted the weeds beside the track the color of rust. One after another the fighters fell, Brothers and women alike, until three remained: Brother Fildrian; the tall, bald warrior woman; and the pretty cart driver.
The two Sisters stalked Fildrian, spinning him in a tight circle. One lunged, setting him off balance. He flailed and the tip of his sword caught the young one, opening a slash across her forearm. Kuneprius gasped. The girl dropped her dagger and clutched the wound, a pained expression creasing her smooth brow.
Finally, Kuneprius wrested control of his feet back from the grip of fear. He took a step toward the fray as Fildrian engaged the bald woman, his back turned toward the injured cart driver.
The warriors’ swords met, the clang of their blades reverberating in the chill night air. Kuneprius forced himself another pace, his sandal-clad feet whispering in the tall grass. His heart pulsed in his ears, loud and painful, distracting. He blinked hard to dispel the discomfort. When his eyes opened, the cart driver had retrieved a sword from the ground and crept up behind Brother Fildrian.
“Brother,” Kuneprius called, but his voice caught in his dry throat, cracked and fell to pieces.
Fildrian parried an attack from the warrior and lunged, running his blade through her gut. They stood frozen for a heartbeat, the two combatants staring into each other’s eyes as though sharing a final moment, a sliver of respect, then he wrenched his sword free with a twist. The woman’s knees buckled, spilling her to the ground. Fildrian turned, a smile on his lips.
And the cart driver slashed his throat.
Kuneprius rushed forward, realizing he’d waited too long. When he needed it most, his courage failed him, and now ten Brothers lay dead with no one to blame but him. He gritted his teeth and growled in the back of his throat as he raced for the girl, using anger to drown his fear.
She spun at the sound of his approach, Fildrian’s blood dripping from her borrowed blade. Kuneprius swung for her head, driving her back, and the girl’s feet tangled. She stumbled, heel catching on dead Brother Ategar’s arm, and she went to the ground.
Kuneprius growled again, the end of it fading to a squeak of sorrow and loss. The girl scrambled away, hands and feet digging furrows in the dirt track, but the bodies cluttering the road trapped her from getting far. The young lad caught up to her, put the point of his short sword to her throat. Staring up at him, she froze, the fear of death shining in her eyes.
He hesitated, blinked. A tear ran along his cheek and he sniffed back the snot threatening to spill out of his nose.
“You killed him.”
“Please,” the girl said. It surprised him she spoke the same language as he did, though he knew of no reason for her to speak any other. “Please.”
The point of the short sword wavered and Kuneprius struggled to keep it from drooping. The anger burning within him after watching Fildrian, Ategar, and the others die melted away, dissolved by the blue of her eyes, the smoothness of her pink cheeks. Kuneprius’ mind flashed away, wondering why Brothers were permitted only to spill their seed on the ground when such beauty existed in the world. An out-of-place sound brought him back to the moment.
They both heard it—a mewling from within the first covered wagon. The girl’s eyes flickered toward it; Kuneprius raised his head. The small sound grew—a whimper to a whine, then to the full-throated cry of a tiny mouth that reminded Kuneprius why he was there.
A yell broke from the girl’s lips and she swung the sword tainted with Fildrian’s blood. Her grip slipped, the weapon twisted. The flat of the blade bounced off the leather chest piece hidden beneath the apprentice’s robe.
Time stopped for an instant, the baby’s siren cry filling the night. They stared at each other, each knowing what must come next. Kuneprius gulped around a lump solidifying in his throat and leaned forward on his sword. The tip sank into the girl’s neck.
She gasped, coughed. Blood burbled over her lips, ran along her cheek and into her ear. Her eyes found the young lad’s, a last plea shining in them, quickly fading. He turned away, unable to gaze upon her sorrow.
When her body went limp, he released his grip on the sword and stumbled away to retch on the ground beside the covered wagon. The baby wailed, beseeching him to come to it, take care of it. Kuneprius knew he needed to do just that, but his heaving gut and clenching throat prevented him.
Bent at the waist and breathing hard, he leaned against the wagon wheel. Sweat and snot and tears dripped from his nose and cheeks, the droplets pattering on the frozen dirt the same way as the blood of the Brothers as they lost their lives.
I should have aided them.
He coughed and spat bitter chunks of spew, wished for water to wash the horrid flavor off his tongue. The baby’s crying continued, assaulting his ears and rattling in his head until he could bear it no longer. With a shuddering breath, he forced himself upright and dragged his aching body to the back of the wagon.
Kuneprius pushed the flap aside a crack and peeked inside.
The babe lay on the wagon’s floor, a blanket tucked under its chin. Alone.
He clambered up, arms and legs exhausted as though he’d crawled here from the temple. On his second attempt, he struggled his way in and flopped on the deck beside the child. The baby ceased bellowing, eyes wide with wonder finding him. A few seconds passed as Kuneprius stared at the child’s tear-stained cheeks, its plump lips, and thin wisps of hair, then the wailing began anew.
Kuneprius wrestled himself to his knees and pulled the blanket off the baby, revealing a cloth wrapped around its groin and tied on either side. He fumbled with the knots, his numb fingers slipping until one knot came undone. If it wasn’t the right child, Fildrian and the others had sacrificed themselves for nothing. The thought weighing on him, Kuneprius hesitated a half-dozen heartbeats before pulling the diaper aside.
The stink of the baby’s soiled cloth made him gag. He raised his arm to cover his nose and undid the other knot. Beneath, he saw the baby’s tiny man-thing, and Kuneprius breathed a sigh of relief.
The Brothers were dead, but he’d accomplished what they’d come for: the babe was his.
Bruce Blake lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. When pressing issues like shovelling snow and building igloos don't take up his spare time, Bruce can be found taking the dog sled to the nearest coffee shop to work on his short stories and novels.
Actually, Victoria, B.C. is only a couple hours north of Seattle, Wash., where more rain is seen than snow. Since snow isn't really a pressing issue, Bruce spends more time trying to remember to leave the "u" out of words like "colour" and "neighbour" than he does shovelling (and watch out for those pesky double l's). The father of two, Bruce is also the trophy husband of a burlesque diva.
Bruce's first short story, "Another Man's Shoes" was published in the Winter 2008 edition of Cemetery Moon. Another short, "Yardwork," was made into a podcast in Oct., 2011 by Pseudopod. Bruce's first Icarus Fell novel, "On Unfaithful Wings", was published in Dec., 2011 while the follow up, "All Who Wander Are Lost", came out in July, 2012. The third in the series, "Secrets of the Hanged Man", came out in July, 2013. The first part of his Khirro's Journey epic fantasy trilogy, "Blood of the King", was released Sept., 2012, book 2, "Spirit of the King," in Dec., 2012, and book 3, "Heart of the King," in Feb., 2013.
The two books in the Small Gods series, "When Shadows Fall" and "The Darkness Comes", were released in 2013, after which Bruce took a year out to concentrate on his family and career. Book three in the Small Gods series is Bruce Blake's current project.