A Straight Flight Through Curved Space
July 17, 2014
The boat was a wide, flat barge for goods. A boat that one would see floating lazily down the river, sometimes assisted by canal teams when the river’s flow was timid and unconvinced of its own importance. This barge, however, did not move like that. The Boatmaster had a strange worksong he would hum and stomp out, sometimes joined in verse by Old Crow and, once she knew some of it, Cassie. This song was a Sacred Song, a song that propelled the ship quite quickly across the lake Moonfall, right into the gushing river and over the headwaters of the Moontear river.
Maria, however, was watching the horizon. She kept her eyes sharp for any of the black coats of the Hunters that had plagued her and Cassie since she first rescued the girl. By midday she was still watching while she ate a lunch prepared by Old Crow without prompting. The curious man sat next to her quietly and watched with her. After several minutes, his voice barely a whisper and in a conspiratorial, defensive tone, he asked, “What do we watch for, Defender of the People?”
Maria started to respond, but stopped with her mouth open. “Why the old title, Crow? There have not been Defenders upon the plains since before the Calamity.”
He shook his head slowly and made a soft clicking sound with his tongue. “Oh, the young. How quickly they forget. Do you know why they call me Old Crow?”
Cassie giggled, “It’s because you’re stooped and say silly things.”
He hissed at the child, not like a cat but like a disaffected raven chiding its hatchlings. “No, child, it is because I am old. So old that I remember a time before the herds, a time before the Scourge, a time before the Cull and before the Kingdoms became fiefdoms and the Kings became statues. A time when treachery was but a whispered fear and not a settled fact. I have watched the moon fall and the sun tower in puffy pride, I have seen the fears of those who battled with sharp steel and hallowed bone, I watched the sealing of the Damned, and I have watched the birth of the Blessed. I am old, child, older than bone and blood. Older than dirt and water.”
He turned back to Maria. “I use the title because it is true. You carry the Sigil, you carry the hallowed Bone, and you carry the mantle of Defender. Your mind and heart speak to you like a compass speaks to the traveler of what is right and what is just.”
Maria turned from vigil and narrowed her eyes. “Old Crow, I do think perhaps your memories, dreams, and sight cloud each other. No one carries the Bone and neither I nor my parents nor their parents have seen the Sigil. It has been lost forever to the fallen dirt of the Forgotten Places.”
Old Crow barked a short laugh. “Certainly, Marshal. Certainly. Yet one day you will be called upon to join your siblings in Bone and you shall know that I speak true. I always speak true, even when I am wrong.”
Maria shook her head slowly. “Yes, Old Crow. What I watch for are the dark riders that call themselves Hunters. They seek out the girl.”
He hissed again, this time through his teeth. In the way a man might when seeing that he miscounted those that had arrayed against him. “Ah, yes, yes. That makes sense. They would be following you. Well, her. They would be following the petulant one.”
Cassie kicked the deck. “Hey! I am not petulant. I am just trapped with those below my station!” With a huff she turned back to the Boatmaster and helped him again with the lyrics of his song. Maria, though, shifted so she could look upon Old Crow fully. “Would? What do you know of the Hunters, Old Crow?”
“Many things, child. Many things. I know that they do not ride of their own accord. I know that their eyes burn red and white without the color of free peoples and I know that they speak in shattered tones, like the drones and thralls of the Massani spirit stealers. And I know that they work for a very powerful one of the Damned who was not sealed in the ancient ways. They chase you because of it, that great dark spirit that seeks its final release.” He looked at Cassie and sighed. “Such an unwholesome creature to place such importance in, but these things never enjoyed a certain love of honesty and respect for those that would have to carry them through.”
Maria twisted her mouth around a few times, looking for the words to respond but being stymied by her confusion at every turn. “What do you mean, Crow?”
He laid back against the wood of the boat and stared at the sky. His hands above him, he traced some grand image, like unfurling a map. “Imagine with me, child, a time before the Calamity. Before the Scourge poured their fire over the Many Kingdoms and before time and claimed the Heroes of Legend. There are three castes of the Great Spirits, in the greatest of Lodges, the Lodge of the Gods.”
Maria nodded, “Yes, I know. The Blessed, the Cursed, and the Damned.”
He continued, as if she hadn’t said a thing. “Who filled what seats in the Great Feasthall of the Gods is never, was never, clear. Some seats were Damned and Cursed, or Blessed and Cursed. And one, one very hoary seat, Blessed and Damned.”
Maria grew skeptical. “None of the Damned sit in the Feasthall, Old Crow. Anyone who had grown in the gowns of the Speakers knows that, and you know that I did as I’m a Marshal.”
He looked at her from beneath his glasses, letting her see his milky-black eyes for the first time. Swirling like the night sky changing the seasons every moment without hesitation. “No, child, they know what the Lodge has told them, under a great curse from this of the Damned. The one Damned who has kept its seat regardless of its crimes because the Way has not been made known yet. Not even the Ancients knew how to bind it here, in the Great Plain, and we were sealed forever until the Way was made known. I am one of a handful that may see the Time-Without and the Time-Within to know it. Just as you know not to stare too long into any shard of topaz lest it steal your mind because you are not meant to see the Time-Without.”
“The time-with…what? The topaz curse is from the Damned who live there, Aslain the Crystal-Shaper. She’s trapped there and wants a way out through us, through the Cloth.”
He shook his head again, gazing upon her like a student that refuses to believe the words she just read in the book she refuses to open. “All things are so much more complicated than that, child. So much more complicated. What matters is that this Damned has set his sights on sealing the Way. He has done so many times before. So many times before. His sealing of the Way brought the Calamity and brought the great evils before. The dragon raids, the stone-peoples, even Drakir the Lifedrinker and Foldis Who’s Crime Is Forgotten were his doing.”
Maria rolled her eyes. “Half of those are just stories, Old Crow, and I have seen Drakir the Lifedrinker. It’s something every student of the Spire does at some point. He gave me tea and let me play with one of his shamblers.”
Old Crow chuckled. “He would, he was always a gentle soul. Despite what He would have him do. No, even old Drakir wouldn’t stand up to Him in his full glory, though. It’s why Drakir became the Lifedrinker. A fool’s quest to find the Way before, a fool’s quest perverted by glory and by necessity. None of these are stories, Maria Defender of the People. Once again it has come that the Way seeks to bind Him, to banish forever the Curse of Topaz, but he seeks to thwart it. He can’t pervert you, since you’re too damn stubborn and you carry the Bone and Sigil. He doesn’t need to, though, since Cassandra of the Blood and Wind is needed to Bind Him. He just needs to kill her at the right place so that her power doesn’t flow to another before the time passed.”
“Of the…Old Crow, you’re using weird titles again. I know what Bone and Sigil are, from the histories, but what in the name of the Blessed is Blood and Wind?” Maria began her search again, fingering the longarm stashed against the side of the boat, waiting for a Hunter to use it against.
“Blood and Wind. There were six forms to the Ancient’s ways, the power of the Six that first made the Kingdoms. The Six who were its first protectors. Shadow and Steel, Bone and Sigil, Blood and Wind, Light and Thought, Leather and Thunder, Word and Earth. The only that is still known to the histories is Bone and Sigil, since the Youngest who was the strongest could only instil her power into those who wore her Cloth if they carried her signs so that all could see. Cassie is the waking keeper of the Blood and Wind, though. The Second who left beyond the Topaz and who brought back with him the strength of What Should Be over What Is.”
“What do you mean, Old Crow?” Maria had lost interest in her task then. The boat was moving into the rapids, descending into the receiving levees of Old Bardisholm. No Hunter dared go there, as the Wallkeepers would shoot any down who were not known to them.
“To fix the world, child, you have to find the Way. Each of the Damned could only be bound by two of the Six working together. Half of the Binding was laid already by the Second and the Youngest, who were the clearest and most powerful of the Six once the First went mad with grief. She carries the Blood of the explorer and the Wind of the oceans. While you carry the power to enforce what is Right, only she may grant or deny freedom. Liberty. The virtues of doing without needing to ask or seek right and just ways first. She is the Explorer, in flesh, just as you are the Enforcer, in flesh. Just as I am the Truth given flesh, at least that is what the Stormcrow tells me.”
Maria chuckled. “Well far be it for me to go telling the Lady of Ravens what is and is not true. And if this is true, Old Crow, where will we find the Way you speak of?”
Old Crow tilted his head upward, as if listening to something snatched by the wind and brought right to his ears. “That is for you to do, young one. This is your quest, not mine. You just needed to know what quest you were on first.” With that he stood and gave the traditional greeting to the Wallkeepers, leapt into the air, and became a large, graceful blackbird in a flash without light or sound. Soon he was careening into the sky, held aloft by something only he knew.
“Quest?” Maria hadn’t thought of it that way. “I don’t want no damn quest with this girl, she’s bad enough without making her any more important.”
The Boatmaster’s song slowly dwindled as the levees rose and fell around the boat then, and the Wallkeepers lifted the great iron gate into Old Bardisholm. Orders were being shouted down at them from above in Carril, the language of the Bardisholm peoples. Each time it came down, the Boatmaster turned the ship this way and that, slowly creeping up on the network of docks and houses that made up Bardhisholm, the city on the edge of the world. Deep in its swampy jungle, safe from fire but not from darkness or the other things that grow there.
Maria sighed. Her diversion to help some poor, kidnapped girl would be going on much longer than she thought. Or wanted.