The Lighthouse Duet
Flesh and Spirit
by Carol Berg
On my seventh birthday, my father swore, for the first of many times, that I would die face down in a cesspool. On that same occasion, my mother, with all the accompanying mystery and elevated language appropriate for a prominent diviner, turned her cards, screamed delicately, and proclaimed that my doom was written in water and blood and ice. As for me, from about that time and for the twenty years since, I had spat on my middle finger and slapped the rump of every aingerou I noticed, murmuring the sincerest, devoutest prayer that I might prove my parents' predictions wrong. Not so much that I feared the doom itself - doom is just the hind-end of living, after all - but to see the two who birthed me confounded.
Sadly, as with so many of my devotions, some to greater gods than those friendly imps carved into the arches and drain-pipes of palaces, hovels, latrines, and sop-houses, my fervent petition had come to naught. I'd been bloody for two days now; the rain was quickly turning to sleet; and I seemed to have reached the hind end of everything…
"I've no quarrel with ye, Valen, ye know that." The hairy brute stuffed my sweetly chinking leather purse into the folds of his cloak and returned to burrowing in my rucksack. "Ye've been a fine comrade these months. But ye've need of more care than I can give ye, and I've told ye, I can't be hallooing with no monkish folk. If I thought so much as a slavey's hovel lay within thirty quellae, I'd drag ye there."
"And as you're going to abandon me here, well…no use wasting good plunder on maggot fodder," I said bitterly, teeth chattering, lips numb. The cold rain sluiced down the neck of my sodden jaque and collected about my knees in the ruts of the ancient road. My elbows quivered as I tried to hold my chest above the muddy water. This damnable goat track had likely not been used since they hauled in stone and wood to build the ghostly abbey tucked into the misty, folded land below us. "I've watched your back for a twelvemonth, you devil. Not a scratch have you suffered since Arin Fay."
One by one Boreas pulled out the remaining carefully wrapped bundles: the onyx jewel case crammed with chains, bracelets, and jeweled brooches, the gold calyx, two daggers with ruby-encrusted hilts - the finest prizes of our infamy. Just one of the daggers could outfit a man with a decent horse, a sword, a thick wool cloak with no holes in it, and a pleasant tri-month of meat, drink, and fair companionship. I'd paid a pretty price in blood and flesh for collecting this bit of plunder, and - Magrog's demons devour this beast I'd foolishly called friend - I wasn't even to profit from it.
He stuffed my goods into his already bulging sack. "None o' this lot'll do ye no good. Wasn't a monk bred won't steal whatever he lays an eye on. And yer in no fit state to argue with them…or me neither, come to that."
The arrow-point embedded deep in my thigh and the fist-sized gouge that had started seeping warm blood on my back again bore ample witness to his verity on the last point. I did need help more than I needed my booty, and a wounded man could do far worse than a monastery. These concessions did nothing to ease my mind, however, as I was not yet at the abbey gates and not at all sure anyone would be traveling this particular road with night coming on and a three-year civil war and a sevenday's deluge to keep folk by their own hearths.
I ought to have been angrier with Boreas. But gods knew I'd have done the same were he the one collapsed in the muck, wailing that fire-eyed Magrog himself could not make him take one more step. And I was certainly in no fit state to forcibly reclaim my belongings.
"Just get me down to the gate," I croaked, another wave of chills washing me closer to the grave. "My share ought to pay you for that at least. And leave me one luné for an offering."
"I daren't. The bald-pates'll have me swinging ere I kiss ye farewell. No worry, lad. One of ‘em'll pass by here and see to ye. And their Karish god teaches ‘em to give alms to them with naught, so you're better off with no silver in your pocket."
He shook his head and shrugged his massive shoulders as if the entire mystery of the holy universe was puzzling him at that moment. Then he pulled one last bundle from my rucksack - a flat, squarish parcel, two handspans on a side, wrapped in multiple layers of oiled cloth - and peeled open one flap.
"Have a care, the rain will ruin that," I said, attempting to draw one knee up high enough that I could slide my foot underneath me. If I could just get back to my feet, find a thick branch to lean on, perhaps I could stagger down the hill a little farther on my own.
"Is it plate?" he asked, shaking the bundle and getting no sound. "Heavy enough, but it don't feel right. I don't remember nothing this shape."
My left boot squelched into place under my hip, jarring the festering wound in my thigh, shooting bolts of white-hot fire up and down my leg. "Aagh! It's a book. More valuable than plate. More valuable than those daggers to the right people. And I can send you to the right people if you'll just get me to a leech."
Boreas shifted backward, just out of my reach. "A book! Ye're twinking me, right?"
He poked his dirty fingers into the corner of the parcel, and then glared down at me dumbfounded. "You donkey's ass! Have ye an arrow planted between yer ears as well? All the rich stuff we had to leave behind and ye hauled out a blighting book?"
He threw the parcel and the empty rucksack to the ground and laid his boot into my backside. My shaking elbows collapsed, and I fell forward into the mud hole. Though I twisted enough to avoid a direct hit, I jarred the broken-off arrow shaft protruding from my thigh. Lifting my face from the muck and spewing mud from my mouth, I bellowed like a speared boar.
Unconcerned, Boreas crouched beside me, rifling my clothes. He tossed aside my bracers and the rag I had used to dry my long-lost bow, stuffed my knife into his own belt, and unwrapped the last bite of sour bread I'd hoarded for more than a day and crammed it into his mouth. Fumbling at the waist of my braies, he pulled out a small bag the size of my palm - a scrap of green wool I'd sewn myself and soaked in tallow until it was stiff. "What's this?"
I grabbed for the little bag, but he snatched his hand out of my reach. "By Mother Samele's tits, Boreas, you've got to leave me something."
He yanked it open, sniffed at its contents, and then gaped at me as if I had sprouted three arms of a sudden, shaking his shaggy head until the drips flew off it. "Nivat seeds! But you've no bent to use such stuff…"
"Of course not, you clod wit. Would we have scraped and starved this year past if I were some misbegotten spellcaster?"
Lips curled in disgust, he pulled the silver needle and the jagged fragment of mirror glass from the little bag. "By the night lords - "
"The bag was hid in the jewel box." I jumped in quickly to stop his thick head pondering too much. "The nob was surely pureblood. Richer than a prince. And surely Magrog's henchman to practice such perversion." I could stanch my babbling no better than I could stanch the blood from my shoulder.
He dropped the things back into the little green bag and crammed the bag into his pocket. "So you decided to sell the nivat on your own and jupe me out of my share. I thought I knew you, Valen. I thought you were my comrade."
Rain pounded the soggy ground. My gut sent a warning, like a lightning flash beyond the hills. "I thought we could use the seeds to make feast bread come season's turn. Offer it to the Danae. Change our luck. Come, you wouldn't take everything."
"Ye said yerself a man makes his own luck. I'm making mine."
No plea could induce him to leave anything he thought he could sell. Nivat was very expensive, as were the quickened spells worked from it. Only nobles, pureblood sorcerers, or desperate twist-minds without any choice could afford either one.
Boreas straightened up and kicked the book parcel and the ragged rucksack toward my head. "The monks'll heal your hurts if anyone can. Pay ‘em with your valuable book."
I dragged the rucksack under me, lest the slug-witted ox change his mind.
"You're a coward and a thief, Boreas!" I shouted as he trudged off. "You stink like a pureblood's midden!"
Only moments and he was gone, the heavy footsteps and ponderous breathing that had been a passing comfort at my side for a year's turn were swallowed up by the pounding deluge. He couldn't go far. The light was failing. I could scarcely see the slender arches of the abbey church through the sheets of rain. Monks - especially these pious fellows out in the wilderness - put themselves to bed before a meadowlark could sing. Before a whore had her skirts up. Before an owl had its eyes open. Before…
Alehouse riddling threatened to squeeze out more useful thoughts. Shaking my head, I stretched out my forearms, dug my elbows into the muck, and dragged myself forward on my side perhaps one quat - the length of a man's knucklebone. Ominous warmth oozed out of the gouge on my back. My leg felt like a molten sword blank awaiting the smith's hammer.
I rested my head on crossed forearms. One moment to catch my breath…
Much as I pretended elsewise, even to myself, I could shape spells, of course. Mostly destructive things, minor illusions, a child's wickedness. Nothing that could heal a wound. Nothing that could summon help. Nothing useful.
The driving rain splashed mud in my face. Sleet stung the back of my neck. The cold settled deep in my bones until I wasn't even shivering anymore. I hated the cold.
"Magrog take you, Boreas," I mumbled, "and give you boils on your backside and a prick like a feather."
Groaning shamelessly, I jammed my left foot into the rut and rolled onto my back. The dark world spun like soup in a kettle, yet I felt modestly satisfied. I might be doomed to blood and water and ice - madness, too, if breeding held true - but by Iero's holy angels, I would die face up in this cesspool.
Rain spattered softly on my cheeks and the ground, on the puddles, the leaves, and a large rock, each surface producing a slight variant of the sound, defining the world on the far side of my eyelids. The scents of rotted leaves and good loam filled my nose…my lungs…seeped into my pores. My body blemished that vast landscape like a fallen tree, soon to be rotted, dissolved, and completely one with that cold, dark, and very wet place.
Soft padding steps rustled the wet leaves, stirring up smells of grass and moss and sea wrack, everything green or wet in the world. Paused. Fox? Rabbit? Mmm…bigger. Cold rain and warm blood had long washed away fear. Moments more and I wouldn't care what kind of beast it was. A faint shudder rippled through my depths. Terrible…wonderful…to dissolve in the rain…
Creaking wood and iron sent the beast scuttering away. Soft yellow light leaked around my eyelids - a lamp spitting and sprizzling in the rain.
"You heard him at the sanctuary gate? From all the way up here?"
"By Iero's holy Name, Brother Sebastian. His cry sounded like the seven torments of the end times. When I poked my head out the shutters and saw none lay at the gate, conscience forbade me lie down again without a search."
"Never use the One God's Name lightly, boy. And in future you must seek Father Prior's permission to go beyond the walls, even when on duty."
A warm weight, smelling of woodsmoke and onions, pressed lightly on my chest. If I could have moved, I would have wrapped my arms about it. Kissed it even.
The weight lifted. "He breathes. I'd call it a miracle you found him, but now I look, I'm coming to believe you heard the fellow, after all. For certain he's been through the seven torments. Here, lend me your hand."
Hands grabbed me behind my left shoulder, where Boreas had extracted a second arrow and a sizable hunk of flesh. I left off any thought of joining the conversation. Breathing seemed enough. Keeping some wit about me. Listening…
The two mumbled of Iero and Father Prior and Saint Gillare the Wise, as they laid me on my side on a wooden platform that stank like a pig wallow, and then proceeded to tilt it at such an angle that all my painful parts slid together in one wretched lump. The cart bumped forward, causing me to bite my tongue.
"Was he left by highwaymen, do you think, Brother?" The eager young speaker labored somewhere in front of me, expelling short puffs of effort.
"Highwaymen don't leave boots with a man, even boots with soles thin as vellum. No, as his outfit's plain and sturdy underneath the blood, I'd name him a soldier come from battle. Doesn't look as if he's eaten in a twelvemonth, for all he's tall as a spar oak."
"A soldier…" The word expressed a wonder that only comes when the speaker can't tell a pike from a poker or a battle from a broomdance. "One of Prince Bayard's men, do you think?"
"He might serve any one of the three, or this mysterious Pretender, or the Emperor of Aurellia himself. Such matters of the world should not concern you. Once Brother Infirmarian sees to the fellow, Father Abbot will question him as to his loyalties and purposes."
Bones of Hell…one would think an abbey so out of the way as this one might not care which of the three sons of King Eodward juped his brothers out of the throne.
The cart jounced through a pothole. The older man grunted. I sank into mindless misery.
Anyone might have mistaken the cold uncomfortable journey for the everlasting downward path. One of the two fellows - the younger one, I guessed, not the wise Brother Sebastian - chirruped a psalm about running with Iero's children in sunlit fields, a performance so cheery it could serve as proper torment on such a road.
Eventually we jolted to a stop. Above my head arched a stone vault of uncertain height, not an ever-raining sky, though a round-cheeked aingerou carved into a corner spat a little dribble of rain water onto the wagon bed. The yellow lamplight danced on the pale stone.
"Run for Brother Robierre, boy, and tell him bring a litter."
"But I'm posted sanctuary, so I must give - "
"You've walked me halfway to Elanus. I'll stay right here and give the fellow his blessing."
Elanus. A small market town. South? West? Ought to know. How far had we run? I'd been more than half delirious on the road.
Bells clanged and clamored from the church towers, and out of the night rose the sound of men singing, plainsong, clear and strong like a river of music, quickening my blood like a fiery kiss.
"Brother, it's the call to Matins!" said the boy. "You have to go!"
"All right, all right, my hearing's not so bad as that."
Matins - morning at midnight. A perverse custom.
The wind shifted the lantern, so that its beams nearly blinded me. I squeezed my eyes shut again. The night's edge seemed sharp as a razor knife. I'd always heard the Ferryman's mortal breath dulled the senses.
A dreadful thought shivered my bones: Had the Ferryman himself been breathing at my ear? He'd even smelled of sea wrack. I'd never truly believed…
"I'll send Brother Infirmarian," said Brother Sebastian. "When he no longer requires you, hie you to prayers yourself. The good god excuses no green aspirants."
"Of course, Brother."
Footsteps trudged away. A warm hand touched my brow. "By Iero's grace, find safety here, thou who fleest sword or hangman. By the saint's hand, find healing here, thou who sufferest wound or sickness. By gift of holy earth, find strength here, thou who comest parched or weak. And by King Eodward's grant and his servants' labor, find nourishment for thy flesh and spirit. God grant thee ease, traveler."
An interesting prayer…gift of holy earth…King Eodward's grant…all mixed in with the Karish god Iero and one of his saints. For the most part, the Karish dwelt peaceably side-by-side with the elder gods, but I'd never before heard a joint invocation.
I lifted my head. "Perhaps, if you could just help me out of this corner…"
An uncomfortable ricketing tilt of the cart brought a pale, narrow face above me. The lamplight revealed the thickening brows and downy upper lip of oncoming manhood, and such delight and amazement as could only emanate from the same soul that sang cheery psalms while slogging a manure cart down a mountainside in the rain. "You're alive!"
I didn't feel at all sure about that, having come so close as to hear the Ferryman's footsteps. "Not dead. Thank you."
"No need to thank me, sir. It's my duty, you see, assigned me by the prior, who was given the task by the abbot, whose authority is from the hierarch and the One God in Heaven. I sleep above the sanctuary gate, ready to hear the bell and open the gate for any who come. You're the first since I was given the task. You do beg sanctuary, don't you?"
His eagerness exhausted me.
"Thus you must have broken the law of God or king, or someone believes it so…" He tilted his head and drew his brows together. Clearly his excitement at receiving a supplicant was now tempered with consideration of my soul's peril. My offenses were, indeed, countless, my peril ever present.
"If you could just help me sit up." So long tipped downward in the stinking cart had my belly mightily unsettled, not that there was aught left in it to spew.
The untonsured boy was as diligent with his wiry arms and gentle hands as with his words. By the time a gray-haired monk with darkish skin about his eyes, something like a badger's markings, arrived and dropped a bundle of long poles on the paving, I sat across the lip of the three-sided cart, my head bent almost to my knees and my lip bloody from biting it.
"Jullian, unfold the litter. Let me examine what we have here. Ooh…" A glimpse of the broken, dark-stained shaft protruding from my black and swollen thigh was clearly the most interesting thing the fellow had seen that day.
"I hope you've a sharp knife, Brother," I said, my voice shaking, "and a steady hand."
Then he touched it, and the world slipped out of my grasp.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2017
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