(First published by A Fly In Amber, November 2009, here reprinted in full. None of the text may be copied or reproduced without written permission of the author.)
At the foot of the wall, Nia dug for clams. The smooth gray jewels burrowed away from her probing toes. She scooped fast with her hands before they could escape, then sifted the sea-soaked sand from the shells and dropped them, clattering, into the pail. Hot clam soup would make Mother feel better. They’d have to make do with the cream that the Marauders hadn’t found.
Pail full, Nia walked back to the pier, the slow water sliding over her feet. The sun had set behind the western mountain, and dusk turned the wall’s smoky glass black; its featureless face mirrored the red horizon, a wisp of pink cloud. No one in the village of Summerset dared traversing the wall. The gray glass reached high into the sparse clouds; it melded with the mountain in the west and stretched far out into the eastern sea. The Marauders guarded the mountain as their own, and there were no boats in Summerset. The village elders said all the boats vanished the day the wall appeared. And Black Bavh said evil dwelled beyond the wall. Nia’s people had no choice but to believe her, for who was brave enough to argue with the Marauders’ goddess? And so the lands beyond the wall remained unexplored.
The neglected pier, gray and crooked as driftwood, dipped toward the tide. Nia found her friend still sitting on the farthest end. In the twilight, Jacky’s orange hair shone like the fire in his father’s forge. His face was buried against his knees. He was still crying. That morning, the Marauders had killed his father, put a crossbow’s quarrel through his belly.
Jacky’s fists smeared tears from his cheeks. “I’ll kill ’em! When they come again, I’ll kill ’em all!” Jacky was only eleven, and at least fifty men had raided the town.
Nia didn’t know what to say to her friend. She tugged his sleeve. “C’mon, your mum will want you.”
He followed, bleak-eyed, up the sandy road and into the empty fields. Sprigs flapped shriveled arms atop cracked furrows. Drifts of red dust choked the irrigation channels. Nothing grew here anymore. Even in daytime, the looming wall provided no shade, but reflected the sunlight across the valley and scorched the earth.
Nia left Jacky at the smithy door. She could hear his mother sobbing inside and the low voices of her older sons trying to console her. Nia wanted to cry for Jacky, but she couldn’t muster the tears. She was too tired. Her tummy hurt, and the pail was growing heavy. She ached to curl up in Mother’s arms, but Nia had to take care of Mother tonight. The Marauders had hurt her, too.
Crossing the square, Nia covered her nose against the smoke rising from the ruin of the threshing shed. The stout timbers still smoldered. She drew water from the well and poured it over the clams. They had begun to stink like dead fish already. She dumped the sandy water into the parched earth, and while she drew a second bucket of water, she saw the old woman approaching.
A pail in each hand, she waddled for the well. Nia didn’t like her. When Mother had sent Nia for water this morning, the old woman had gotten to the well first. She made an endless circle from her orchard to the well and back again. And for what? Her trees put on neither leaf nor fruit, but reached desperate fingers toward a sky empty of rain.
Ragged gray robes hung like shadows on the woman’s bony frame. She never spoke, only watched Nia while she turned the winch and smiled as if she knew a secret she couldn’t tell.
Dim light spilled from a cottage window and limned half the old woman’s face. She said nothing, but bared three rotten teeth. Nia turned the winch faster, sloshed half the water into her pail, half on her foot, then hurried home.
Mother was staring into the gloom that gathered in heavy drifts about the cottage. The bruise-colored dusk only darkened the swelling under her eye. She rose gingerly and took the pail. “Good girl.” Together they cracked open the shells and scooped out the flesh. Mother fetched two soft wrinkled potatoes from under her mattress and added them to the clams and set them to boiling in an iron pot over the fire. She’d stashed the cream and butter under the floorboards. Scooping a hefty spoonful of butter into the pot, she cast Nia a small, triumphant smile.
The soup worked its magic, for when Mother’s bowl was empty, she sat down at her spinning wheel to sing the thread. Her foot kept a steady rhythm, and her wordless song set the wheel to spinning. The notes trembled from her throat, sweet and somber, and so the cloud of white wool on the distaff turned pale gray as it passed through her fingers. The song was a balm to Nia’s fears. If Mother was well enough to work, things would continue as they always had.
A small pyramid of bobbins had grown beside her chair. When she had sung ten full bobbins, she would sell the thread at market. A few pennies to buy flour; though now that the Marauders had plundered the village’s grain stores, Nia wasn’t sure where they would buy their flour. Mother, however, did not speak of these things. Her song quickened, and the wheel sped up, adding a whisper to the notes. And through the window the wall blotted out the sea of gliding stars.
* * *
“Wake, Nia, hurry!” Mother shook Nia’s shoulder. “They’re coming. Run to the hiding place.” The bell in the square tolled a frantic warning.
Nia flung herself out of bed. Dreams of a man on the water, so bright and glorious, unraveled as she struggled into her dress. Mother slammed the shutters, closing out the red light of dawn. Dread marred her face like ripples in smooth sand. As soon as Nia was dressed, Mother urged her out the door, then dropped to her knees to pry up a floorboard.
Neighbors ran in every direction, arms laden with heirlooms and food. Grandmother Westhill dragged a goat on a rope, and the children gathered across the street. Jacky beckoned Nia to hurry. The cobbler threw open his cellar door, and the older children, desperate to claim the safety of darkness, shoved the younger ones aside. Nia pushed back but still found herself at the end of the line.
Beyond the western end of Artisan’s Way, a cloud of red dust billowed up from the barren field. The thudding of hooves in soft soil rumbled in Nia’s ears. And above the cloud, dark wings spread like a gash upon the sky.
“Black Bavh!” cried Jacky and grabbed Nia’s hand. They dove under the steps of the cobbler’s front stoop. Peering through the rungs, they could see the whole length of the street and most of the square. A stampede of horses’ legs blurred past, choking Nia with dust. The Marauders gathered in the square, swords drawn, crossbows cocked. Black feathers were fixed to the sides of their helms like tattered wings, and bird bones clattered on cords about their necks.
A unnaturally large crow descended among them. The moment the bird’s feet touched the ground, the feathers upon its face sloughed off to reveal the delicate, haughty features of a woman. Her eyes were cold black beads in her pale face, and the wings detached from long spidery arms and trailed in the dust like a blue-black cloak. “Sewers of Summerset!” Her voice crackled across the square. “Where is the tribute you promised us?”
The words echoed back from the wall. She received no other reply.
“We had a bargain. My men and I protect you from the evil beyond the wall and you provide us with sustenance enough to fight. This square should be overflowing! Yet I see not one sack of flour. Not one tub of lard. My men go hungry. Their children starve! But you are content to keep everything for yourselves.”
The baker emerged from his shop door. “Please, Lady Bavh. We told you, we have nothing. Our grain withers in the fields. Our larders are empty, and our children cannot get their fill. The drought brings hardships upon us all.”
Bavh leered. “Fat man . . . why don’t I believe you? You force my hand. My soldiers! Take everything.”
Whooping and flourishing their weapons, the band dispersed. Half rode for the threshing shed, the rest broke down the doors of shops and cottages surrounding the square. Two made for the cobbler’s house. Nia and Jacky ducked deeper into the shadows. Hobnailed boots clomped over them, and the cobbler’s wife screamed.
Across the square, glass shattered, and the smith fended off a host of Marauders with a pair of hammers. Jacky cheered on his father until the melee dragged them farther along the square and out of sight.
Bavh hopped about on crow’s feet, shouting orders and cackling a hoarse laughter.
Marauders filed from the threshing shed, fat sacks slung over their shoulders. The last emerged with a lantern. He tossed it high, and oil and flame splattered across the thatched roof. Among the howls of protest, Nia heard her mother’s scream. A man in a faded red jerkin held Mother by a handful of her yellow hair. “A pretty one, here,” shouted the man. A voice answered from inside Nia’s house. Someone was tossing Mother’s beautiful rugs and tapestries through the window.
Mother grimaced with the pain in her scalp. “Please, I have butter. It’s . . .”
“It’s not your butter I want.” The man in the red jerkin stepped out of the stirrups and dragged Mother into the cottage.
Nia scrambled from under the steps, but Jacky seized her skirt and pulled her to her knees. “No, I have to stop him,” she cried.
“They’ll do it to you, too.”
In the narrow wedge of sunlight that struck the cottage floor, Mother’s feet kicked wildly, and the man’s boots pushed, pushed, pushed. Nia hid her face in her skirt and sobbed.
“Soldiers!” cawed Bavh. “Grab what you’ve found. We fly.” She leapt skyward and in a whir of wings retreated over the rooftops.
The Marauders thundered after her, over the fields and onto the road that followed the wall’s sweltering boundary. They carried Summerset’s last bags of grain behind their saddles, jugs of ale and goat’s milk under their arms.
Jacky ran to find his father, and Nia hurried across the street. “Mum?” she said, poking her head into the house. Mother sat beside the spinning wheel, legs curled under her, one hand holding her skirts to her ankles, the other pressing her cheekbone. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from a gash in her lip. She didn’t look up, but after a long time she said, “Dearheart, fetch the pail. Go for water. I have to . . .”
“Yes, Mum,” Nia replied, swallowing tears that tasted of dust.
* * *
A crowd watched flames roll up from the threshing shed. They held buckets, but the fire roared defiance, and the earth greedily gulped the small puddles of water. The heat from the fire, from the mid-morning sun, and from the wall soon drove the villagers indoors.
Nia found she couldn’t look them in the eye, even when the cobbler’s wife asked if Mother was all right. Why should she feel ashamed? Was it because of what that man had done to Mother? Or because she had listened to Jacky and done nothing? But, after all, what could she have done? Her hands were so small.
Approaching the well, Nia found the old woman struggling with the winch. Her arms were as wiry and misshapen as the branches of her fruit trees. Nia considered turning back, perhaps hiding until the old woman toddled off to her orchard. But as if she’d divined Nia’s thoughts, the old woman glanced at her and smiled, showing the three brown teeth.
Nia ducked her eyes and continued toward the well. From under her brows, she watched the woman’s wrinkled face squinch up, her thin lip draw taut across naked gums as she strained against the weight of the deep water. The bucket surfaced over the stone rim, but then the woman’s arms stopped, straight and stiff as twigs, and her gaze darted for the sun. She released the winch. The rope unwound. The bucket splashed down. Then she spoke:
“Listen to me, child. You’re the one I’m to tell. The Wheel is stuck.”
Nia glanced at the winch; the well seemed to be working just fine.
“The Wheel, child!” Her voice resembled the creaking of a tree’s limbs, and shadowed deep within her hood, her eyes were the yellow and green of leaves that had seen their summer. Brown, knotted fingers grasped Nia’s shoulders and turned her north toward the wall. Though its face reflected the blinding ball of the sun, the glass itself glowered a grim gray, as if smoke roiled inside. “Barriers obstruct the paths of wheels, and they cannot turn.” Nia struggled against the pinching fingers, but the old woman held her fast. “Be watchful! Do not refuse what he has to give.”
“The man on the water.” The old woman released her, and forgetting her pails, she limped-ran back to her orchard.
Nia decided not to tell her mother what the old woman had said. How had she known about the man in Nia’s dream? He rose out of the sea, shining as golden as the dawn. The waves were silent, as if they too waited for the man to speak. But before the words could cross the water, the Marauders had come and Mother had awakened her.
Mother boiled the water that Nia brought home, then scrubbed her skin with a stiff-bristled brush until it looked raw. She cried more than once, but Nia didn’t think it was because her skin hurt. In the afternoon, they put the cottage back in order and beat the sand from the rugs and tapestries. Mother beat them harder than necessary. When they hung neatly on the racks again, Mother pushed the pail into Nia’s arms. “Go to the beach, dearheart. Dig for clams. We’ve not had clams in ages. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Nia didn’t argue but trudged through the village and down the sandy beach road. All the while, the wall seemed to slide along beside her, unvaried, heavy, like the weariness in her shoulders. She recalled the well woman’s words. A barrier? Was the wheel on this side of the wall or the other?
“Oh, she’s just crazy,” she told herself, swiping sweat from her face with her sleeve. Black Bavh said the wall kept wicked creatures from entering the valley, and Bavh was a goddess. Why would she lie?
The road flattened out upon the beach. At the farthest end of the pier, Jacky whacked at the fat timbers with a driftwood club. His face was red and puffy, and when he saw Nia approaching, he flung the stick into the sea.
Had Nia dreamt this before? That exact wave catching the somersaulting stick, Jacky’s deep wet sniff. Nia even knew what Jacky was going to say.
“They killed my da! They shot him with a crossbow.” He dropped onto his haunches and wept in the hollow of his arms.
Was Nia as mad as the well woman? How could she have predicted these things, even the smallest details? The cry of the gull, now and now. The sudden gust of wind that tousled Jacky’s orange hair like tongues of flame. Nia felt sick to her stomach, and so sat beside her friend in silence, a hand on his shuddering shoulder. The shadow of the bluff grew long over the sand, and when it touched the waterline, Nia decided the clams couldn’t wait any longer. “I’ll be over there, Jacky,” she said; he responded with a hollow-sounding sniff.
Her hunt led her slowly along the shore. The wet cool sand oozed delectably through her toes, and the clams felt like larger pebbles. She scooped up mounds of sand, and it occurred to her that in this handful she would uncover the large pink shell. And, yes, there it was, at the bottom of the mound.
Now she was certain: she had done this before. Countless times.
The Wheel is stuck! She understood now.
From the sea she heard a new sound, not a wave, not a fish, but a pair of splashes almost drowned out by the tumbling of the surf, and looking up she saw someone pulling at the oars of a small boat. He was nothing like the man in her dream. His clothes looked as poor as anyone else’s in the village. A floppy, wide-brimmed hat shaded his face. He rowed the boat right up onto the sand and stepped out. Tall and skinny, he glanced along the beach and at last spotted Nia on her hands and knees, mouth ajar like a dried-up oyster.
“There you are,” he said and beckoned. “Don’t be afraid, child. We haven’t much time.” He glanced toward the lowering sun.
Nia brushed the sand from her knees and approached the stranger. His skin was almost as dark as the bronze bell that hung in the square, and despite his poor garments, glossy golden curls fell past his shoulders. He didn’t belong in these clothes.
“You are the man I’ve seen. Aren’t you?”
His smile was kind. “Once, your people called me Father Summer.”
“Like in the rhyme we learned? ‘Winter’s nights bear icy rain, and Summer’s days sire golden grain’?”
“Just so.” A soft throbbing light made two suns of his eyes.
“Do you have something for me?” Nia asked.
He tossed back his head and laughed. “Wise you are, child. Hold out your hands.”
Nia cupped her hands, and the man opened his fingers over them. A small vial dropped into her palms. Made of dark gray glass, its facets sparkled in the waning light. And inside was not a liquid, but wisps of fog or smoke. Just like the wall. Nia peered up the wall’s sheer unblemished face, then at Father Summer.
“Look closer,” he said and led Nia north along the beach. The wall mirrored their images sharply, but beyond the reflections, past the fog swirling inside, moved shadowy shapes that might’ve been men. “They, too, are waiting.”
“But Black Bavh says only evil things live beyond the wall.”
Grief flooded Father Summer’s brown face. “Bavh has always served her own agenda. She feeds off suffering. Yours and theirs.” His gesture encompassed the wall and everything beyond it. “So you mustn’t lose the vial. And don’t open it until exactly the right moment.”
“You will know.”
Nia looked at the vial, at the shadow-shapes on the other side of the wall, and fear writhed like an eel her belly. What did this tiny vial have to do with the Wheel that the well woman had mentioned? What would happen if she opened it at the wrong time? At last, she asked simply, “Why me?”
But the sun had set, and Father Summer had gone with it.
Nia raced back to the pier. “Jacky! Did you see the man on the beach? Look what he gave me.” Panting, she held out the vial.
Jacky raised his head. “I’ll kill ’em! When they come again, I’ll kill ’em all!”
Nia stared at him. Had he even heard her? He just looked out upon the gray sea through eyelashes glazed in tears and flecks of sand. Ah, Nia realized, he was waiting for her to urge him to come home. Isn’t that what she’d always done before?
“Yes, you’re right, Jacky,” she said instead. “When they come again, we’ll stop them. Somehow.” She tucked the vial into her dress pocket and tugged Jacky’s sleeve. He followed obediently.
Walking the same steps that she had walked before, Nia felt her skin crawl. She skipped, just to vary things. Jacky plodded along at the same miserable pace and turned into the smithy without a word. Nia pressed a hand to an ear to dampen the sound of his mother wailing the same heartbroken cries.
At the well, Nia looked for the old woman. She ought to be coming along any moment now. Nia rinsed the clams once, twice, a third time, but the old woman didn’t come. Her pails sat against the stone wall, abandoned.
More frightened now than she’d ever been of the old woman’s presence, Nia ran home, sloshing water all the way. Should she tell Mother about the man on the beach? When the soup bowls had been cleared away and Mother sat down to sing the thread, Nia tried. “There was a stranger in town today.”
Mother hummed her wordless song as if her daughter hadn’t spoken. Nia brought the vial out of her pocket, put it before Mother’s battered face. For an instant, she raised brown eyes and looked upon the vial. A hint of a smile, sweet and brief, graced swollen lips, then she resumed her spinning.
Nia sank onto a stool, at a loss. Near her feet, she counted nine full bobbins of thread stacked in an unfinished pyramid. Night after night, Mother spun the same length of thread. Why? Did Black Bavh have anything to do with it? Did Father Summer feud with Lady Snow? Had the people of the valley done something to displease the gods? Nia decided she might never understand why her mother had to suffer the same violation over and over, and a desperate rage bloomed hot in her face.
“They’ll come again tomorrow,” she said. “Only . . . it won’t be tomorrow. It’s always today. And they’ll keep on coming. You have to hide with me.”
Mother’s song stopped. Fear surged into her eyes. They welled heavy and a dim tear slid down a purple cheek. Slowly her foot picked up the rhythm, though her song now carried a dark note of hopelessness, and the thread turned black.
* * *
“Wake, Nia, hurry!” Mother shouted. But Nia was already awake. She sat on the edge of her bed, fully dressed, trembling now that she heard the bell clanging. She’d hardly slept, praying through the night that she was wrong, that Black Bavh and her band would leave them alone today. But why should they? To the Marauders–perhaps even to Bavh–it was a new day.
“They’re coming. Run to the hiding place.” In the thin red light seeping through the windows, Mother’s face was smooth and even-colored, healed while the Wheel had turned backward.
Nia grabbed her hand. “Come with me. You have to! They’ll hurt you.”
The sorrow of awareness surfaced in Mother’s face. “I’ll come, dearheart. Run ahead. I have to hide the food. Then I’ll follow you.” She freed her hand and shoved Nia into the street and shut the door. She slid the bolt home.
“No, Mother!” Nia screamed, palms slapping the door.
The vial . . . should she open it now? She pressed the cold bulge in her pocket.
The cloud of dust rolled across the field, led by the sweeping wings. Grandmother Westhill tugged the same stubborn goat toward the shelter. Nia cried new tears. She didn’t know what to do! And she hated the man in the floppy hat for choosing her.
Across the street, the older boys shoved the smaller children aside and vanished into the cobbler’s cellar. Nia didn’t bother with the line of panicked youngsters, but went straight to the cobbler’s front stoop and crawled under the steps.
Jacky dove in beside her. “What’re you doing under here?”
The Marauders galloped past and formed up in the square. Nia smashed her hands over her ears. She couldn’t stand to hear the same taunting anger in Bavh’s voice or the baker’s plea. She fished the vial from her pocket. Father Summer had said Nia would know when to open it, but she didn’t. Mist churned inside the gray glass, darker and thicker than she remembered. Could a storm build inside so small a space?
“My soldiers!” said Black Bavh. “Take everything.”
Sounding like wolves on the hunt, the Marauders dispersed in the same pattern as before. The same windows shattered. Bavh cackled the same hoarse laughter, and Jacky shouted the same encouragement for his father. Up the street, Nia’s glance arrested upon the rider wearing the faded red jerkin. “Mum!” she cried. “Hurry!” The cottage door cracked open and Mother peered up and down the street, then darted into the open. Nia stuck an arm through the rungs and beckoned wildly. Mother saw her and ran toward the steps. She was halfway across the street when a horse swept into view, obstructing her path. Nia knew those scuffed black boots. Mother shrieked. The man in the red jerkin held her by the hair.
“No!” Nia sobbed and scrambled from under the steps. Jacky reached for her, but Nia shook him off.
“Please, I have butter. . .”
Nia examined the vial. No lid, no cork, all one solid piece of glass. How was she to open it?
Mother scratched at the man’s face. His fist cracked across her cheekbone, then he dragged her toward the cottage.
Nia flung down the vial. The glass splintered into fine black shards on the roadway, and a cloud-like sphere spun high up over the roofs of Summerset. When Nia could barely see it against the brightening sky, the sphere exploded in a tremulous wave, and a thunderclap shook the ground. The cottages swayed; the horses reared, spilling their riders. And the man in the red jerkin dropped Mother on the threshold to bury his head in his arms.
In the square, Black Bavh stared at the cloud-ring spreading away over the valley and leapt to her feet. “Devilry!” she cawed, assuming the crow’s shape. Her soldiers tossed aside their plunder, scrambled for their mounts, and raced after her.
They did not notice the crack in the wall until boulder-sized chunks of gray glass came tumbling down around them. The Marauders reined in. Some tried to turn their mounts back toward safety, others stood amid the road and watched the shattered section of wall avalanche over them.
The villagers gathered on the western edge of town to gaze upon the glass-fall. The red dust settled out of the air. Mangled limbs of men and horses protruded from the wreckage. Not one bandit seemed to have escaped. But broad black wings circled once, twice, before retreating west for the mountain.
Through the wall’s jagged gap glared a strange whiteness. Nia didn’t understand until the baker said, “Snow. Well, what d’ya make of that?”
Someone took up Nia’s hand and squeezed hard. Awe filled Mother’s face. Her cheekbone swelled a garish red, but her lip was unbroken, and she was not ashamed.
* * *
The next morning, Nia woke to silence. She waited for the bell, but it did not toll. In the kitchen, Mother measured out flour for bread. She smiled at Nia as if she had a secret she longed to tell. “I’ll need water for dough,” she said.
Pail in hand, Nia emerged from the cottage into a world swathed in cool drifts of fog. The street was damp under her toes. On her way to the well, Nia saw that the sacks of grain had been stacked in the threshing shed, and the tink-tink of a small hammer echoed from the smithy. Nia looked for the old woman at the well. She wasn’t there, but her pails were gone, and in the orchard, white petals opened to catch the dew.
copyright 2009 Court Ellyn
None of the text above may be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the author.