Sunday, August 20, 2017

"The Things That Make for Peace"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ eclipse-themed story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more tales.

Then Aarlacrax—the Smiter of the Sun, Scourge of the Six Kingdoms, he who was hated by heaven and feared on the earth, whose name became a curse that would last until seasons ceased and the stars slid from the sky—perished in battle. And behold! the fight was thick as the wild men of the south surged up the dark temple’s mount, and the Blue Fussiliers hammered its ramparts with volley after volley of lead shot, and a sudden explosion rang out as shaped charges blasted the main gate to rubble, and cobalt fire roared up from the wreckage to consume the cultists who stood guard, and a sanity-shattering howl rose as an eldritch SOMETHING the eye could not properly perceive and the mind refused to acknowledge advanced on the gap.

A full account of that conflict has never entered into the Annals of the Wise. But in the end, every source agrees that Aarlacrax lay cold and dead, his body graven with many blows and an expression of such horror fixed on his face that it would have turned the blood of the most doughty soldier to water in his veins. In that very hour, the darkness lifted and the sun appeared once more in the sky. Thus we call the first day of every year in the new calendar Eclipsend.

Yet while the battle itself finds no record in the Annals, there is a mention of the final meeting of the Ruling Council of the Society of Solaire at the estate of Lord and Lady Lexau, Master and Mistress of Captrinia and the High Moors …

“With this cup do we honor those who have given so much for the mutual peace of the Six Kingdoms!” Lady Genevieve Lexau’s voice rang out, proud and uncowed despite years of conflict that had, for all intents and purposes, pared the Six Kingdoms down to four.

Her guests raised their cups, which were filled with an unremarkable vintage (although any vintage seemed miraculous after the years of sunless skies). Even they couldn’t help but notice how her call echoed hollowly in the great hall. The structure had been stripped down to stone, the war effort consuming the tapestries, crests, rugs, and all the furniture save a smattering of hastily hewn tables and benches. Only a single servant remained, a young woman of no more than seventeen summers slipping this way and that amongst the council members with as much efficiency as she could manage.

As Karak Warbringer’s left fist thudded against the table, the girl shuddered and shrunk back. The wild man’s grin stretched into a checkerboard rictus of missing teeth, his face a webwork of white scars, his right sleeve hanging empty. “Zig ari wakip! And none have given more than the Mrucha.”

A ripple of unease rolled through the hall. The serving girl sensed it, her gaze darting this way and that. Then a coughing laugh came from the table beside the wild man.

“How many of your berserkers returned to the Blessed Plains, Karak? Three out of ten? Four even? More than enough for a remnant, I’d say.” The septuagenarian who’d spoken looked as though he’d been carved from sallow ivory. Repeated privation and pain had etched his face with lines deep as hatchet blows. His name was Garrett—just Garrett—once the most renowned thief on any of the seven continents.

Karak made a dismissive noise in the back of this throat. “What are a few years in a hole, little man? They cannot compare to our sufferings.”

“Your warriors fought and died cleanly. They didn’t feel a fraction of my torment. I have lain in the fire that is not quenched. I have known the bite of the worm that does not die. I have seen the ceremonial knife flay my flesh, and I have watched foul magics reknit the wounds before my eyes. There is no pit beneath that blasted hill in which I was not sunk. How do you think I knew how to direct the sappers?”

A shapeless form staggered to its feet. “To feel,” it croaked, and only after a moment did the assembly realize it was Sesquinious the Dire before whom whole battalions had once quavered in fear of her arcane power. “If only … to know the touch of pain or pleasure, sun or frost … To hear music again … To understand sorrow or joy or hate … I would give … I would … I …” She trailed off into silence, and the hall was still as a stone. The serving girl’s face had blanched pale as fresh parchment, because only then did she realize the terrible cost extracted by each act of magik, the price paid for commanding the elements and altering the aether.

A shriek broke the silence, a sobbing howl from some far wing of the estate, wild and crazed and utterly insane, distant but no less horrible for its lack of proximity. Lady Genevieve Lexau twitched at the sound, but her composure held. She was used to her husband’s gibbering by now. Lord Edgar Lexau hadn’t uttered an intelligible sentence since his occult communion had drawn the eldritch SOMETHING from beneath the sea.

“Why are you standing there?” the Lady finally snapped at the serving girl. “Bring our honored guests their meals! Move!

The girl moved, hiding her tears. The official accounts continue on, recording the escalating argument between the surviving members of the Ruling Council, the airing of bitter recriminations in the wake of their triumph. They do not bear repeating. It should surprise no one that this was the last official meeting of the Society of Solaire.

And in the midst of them, the serving girl continued to move, unnoticed and unhallowed. Perhaps she is moving still, always at her work. History has not carried her name down to us. Nor the name of the boy who pledged his troth to her and perished on a cultist’s pike. Nor the names of her parents, who set fire to the farmstead with themselves inside rather than surrender it to Aarlacrax’s forces. Nor the names of the thousand thousands like her, the anonymous sacrificial horde who paid with their husbands, their children, their dignity, their sleepness nights, their futile days, their barren futures—all the things that make for peace.

5 comments:

Patrick Newman said...

Fantastic work, Loren! I was transported into a Tolkienesque world reading that. Most impressive!

Elizabeth Gaucher said...

Oooh ooh! I wonder if your serving girl is the same apparition that shows up in my story!

Connie Kinsey said...

Wow!

Fleur Bradley said...

Really nice, such poetic language.

Loren Eaton said...

:D

Thanks, guys.