Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chapter One: Part Three

Continued from Chapter One: Part Two found here: http://lithnmark.blogspot.com/2011/11/chapter-one-part-two.html

Trilby closed the door as she walked into the room. She went straight to a rocking chair near the fire. Her grandmother had sat in that chair. When she’d sat, Trilby took a deep breath, relieved to be able to sit. Twig, watching her, superimposed another scene on her. A woman in that chair, in that dress, with that hair, sitting with her fingers wound together, staring out the window. The light in the memory had the dim of midnight moonlight.

Noticing Twig’s gaze on her, Trilby smiled. “Would you be so kind as to bring me a cup of tea?” she said. “This is hers,” Trilby’s mother gestured at a cup of tea already prepared. Twig took the tea up in both his hands, the corpse-white skin of them exposed to sight. He’d taken off the black leather gloves he’d been wearing which had belonged to the Holy Assassin. He’d gotten all of his clothes from the Holy Assassin. The Assassin had stopped needing them.

“Are you a monk? Is that where you’ve been all this time?” Trilby asked. It was a reasonable question to ask. He wore the black leather, covered in mismatched buckles, and the voluminous black cloak that belonged to the Holy Assassins, the Acolytes of Ferryman. The Holy Assassins had been one of the most common and respected religious monastic orders since times of legend. Although no two Holy Assassins wore exactly the same black leather suit the cloak and the overall impression was common enough that they were easily recognized wherever they went. They had been taken from a Holy Assassin a few days earlier. Twig had no clothes of his own to wear. He had needed the clothes. The Assassin no longer needed them anyway.

The sleeves of the leather shirt covered parts of the backs of his hands. The ends were soft and suede with age. As he handed Trilby her tea he saw on one of the sleeves a brown bloodstain, hardly visible on the black leather. He knew it was fresh. Looking up at her face he saw that Trilby had her eyes on his, like the well-bred lady he was glad to see she was. He looked at people’s hands.

When she had taken her tea from him Twig took his hands away hastily. He held the hem of the cloak sleeves to hide his hands and the bloodstains.

“No. I am not a Holy Assassin,” Twig said, turning from Trilby.

“Where have you been, then?” Trilby asked.

“I do not know,” Twig said. “I believe have been asleep.”

“Asleep for forty years?” Trilby said, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“If it has been forty years since I left then I have been asleep for forty years.”

“You don’t know where?”

Twig shook his head. He knew nothing about it. On the day he and the rest of the Zombie Corps graduated from boot camp—Camp Dradel far in the north, the only Zombie Corps boot camp in the world--they had gathered for parade in one of the warehouses. After a speech from Geving, the mastermind behind the Zombie Corps project, Twig remembered a bitter smell. He remembered watching his comrades fall down around him while his body went limp. There had followed rushing, noisome dreams, with no reason in them and no rest to be had. Dreams that, apparently, had lasted for forty years.

He had then awakened in a blizzard, two days earlier. He survived in the blizzard. He did not know how, because he had awakened naked, at the base of a cliff. For hours after that he wandered until he felt some warmth in the distance. It turned out to be a fire and four men—four Holy Assassins.

The Holy Assassins were allies of the Zombie Corps—the Ferryman, the god of death and the lord to which the Holy Assassins swore allegiance, had been the god who had blessed the Zombie Corps as well.

Holy Assassins never yield except to their lord and master, Death himself. Their methods were diverse and their training intense. The Zombies stole many of the techniques used by the Holy Assassins. Twig knew their methods. He knew when he snuck up on them that, if he saw four at camp, at least three others concealed themselves in the forest nearby to keep watch on the camp. They caught sight of him, which he had supposed would not matter. They were allies, and he supposed that making himself visible would save him.

It did not. He heard whistles from the Holy Assassins on watch and the Assassins in camp disappeared in a cloud from smoke pellets, their fire extinguished. It was what they would do if they saw an enemy approach. Rather than wait and be forced to defend himself in the confusion he ran away. That ought to have been enough. The Holy Assassins hunted high profile targets—princes and warlords. As a foot soldier, Twig knew of no reason to attract their attention.

But they pursued him. For the rest of the night and through the next day the Holy Assassins hunted him unshakably through the hills. When he thought he had evaded them two would appear in his path, practically tripping him. When he had found a hiding place he would hear their whistles, signaling to the others that they had found Twig’s trail, and he would be on the move again. For hours he stayed only barely ahead of them. Then he decided to let them catch him. He had announced his identity. From the honesty in their open faces, he knew the recognized his name, the name of the Zombie Corps. They wanted him, and dead. They never took hostages.

Holy Assassins never yield except to Death himself.

“I woke not far from here,” Twig said to Trilby. He considered making some lie about how he had obtained the Holy Assassin clothes—say something clean and comforting, like that they had been given to him or that he had found them somewhere. He could not bring himself to say anything of the kind. Instead he merely looked at Trilby, his expression completely blank, and hoped she’d stop asking questions. Somehow he preferred hiding that seven Assassins were laying on a wide stone atop a hill, their bones to be picked clean by birds and animals. It was an old tradition sometimes used by his family. Lords of Lithnmark had often been left exposed, their flesh contributing to the continuation of things and then their bones buried in the family cairn. It was the most respectful way that he could leave the bodies of the Assassins in the time he had.

“And you chose to come straight to my home?” Trilby’s mother said, her tone harsh. Twig turned to meet her annoyed gaze.

“Mother, you haven’t introduced yourself to our guest,” Trilby said.

“He may call me Widow Lockwood,” she said. Widow Lockwood—an old woman’s name—the name of a matriarch. Twig heard a whole story in that name, but a story without any middle. A childhood with an incomplete family during a cold war, then a man who came in and out of the story, leaving his name and his daughter behind. Twig played no part in it. The knowledge of it was too much to feel.

“Why have you come here?” Widow Lockwood asked. “Did you expect to find anything here? Anything at all?”

Twig had nothing to say. The moment stretched. Trilby rocked her chair slowly.

“You remain silent,” Widow Lockwood said. Her mouth curled, between a sneer and a grimace. “You are here, forty years wrong, here at all, and you remain silent.” Twig scratched his cheek and averted his eyes from hers; cold and sharp as they were he wished to avoid them. “Gods in hell, you’re an ass,” she said, quiet but her voice cracked. “Say something. I need something from you—lords of chaos and stillness,” she swore, “I need something from you.”

After these revelations, all he could think that remained was the War. The Covenant Army was disbanded, Widow Lockwood had said. The Zombie Corps was missing. He had come back to this house because he wanted to know his family. But they were gone.

All that remained was the War.

“The War,” he began. She interrupted him.

“The War is over,” she said. “It has been over for more than a decade. The wrong side won. The wrong side always wins.”

Twig wondered which side she had taken. He had no reason to think it had been his. There it was. The War had ended. He missed it. His training had been for nothing. The mess of a war that had so upset the fabrics of reality had come to some conclusion. It had been a wretched, twisted affair. People had rarely known who their allies were one day or who would die the next. It had been a bad time. And entirely without his aid, it had come to some conclusion or other.

A profound simplicity rose in him. Not a peaceful simplicity—he felt malcontent and ill at ease, as if he stood fastened to a rock on the coast and a hurricane had just breached the horizon. Still, with no lords to look to for orders and no war to join he could only feel simple.

He misliked the feeling—too pointless.

“I am sorry,” he said.

“For which part?” Widow Lockwood said. She stared at him, and he stared right back. She flinched first.

“I wish you would leave,” she said, her voice dropping and her eyes roving away from Twig. “You are not part of this place.” Twig stared at her cheek, not certain how to proceed.

“I will leave,” he said.

“Not immediately, of course,” Trilby protested. “We can’t throw him out on his ear. He must at least stay the night.”

“No. I will leave now,” Twig said. It was better if he left immediately. He could tell that. Widow Lockwood’s jaw clenched and her hand tightened on the wooden locket she had been fiddling with. Twig had sat for the image in the locket with Trilby’s grandmother. His hair and skin had been colored then, rather than black hair, wild around his white face.

“You’re sure?” Trilby said.

Twig nodded.

“But,” Trilby started. Widow Lockwood interrupted.

“Trilby, take him outside. He can have a horse, if any will carry him,” Widow Lockwood said, looking out the window. Trilby looked to her mother, seeming to decide whether any argument could be made. The set expression on Widow Lockwood’s faced, so limned in growing morning light from the window, denied contradiction.

Though she frowned while she did it, Trilby pushed herself up from her rocking chair and went toward the door. Twig followed.

Through the corner of his eye he watched Widow Lockwood open the wooden locket. She touched the carved image inside with the tips of her fingers.

Continued on December 1...

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