Empty night again. The wind howled over the Lost Forest and Rowan watched idly as strands of cloud passed over the moon. All the wood seemed dead, the air, its last song, and spreading his wings, Rowan seemed to engulf himself in his own massive yawn. Settling back into his chair he rested his chin against his hand and watched.
A small crow alighted on the barren branch beside his window. Rowan barely even glanced. His eyes seemed fixed on wandering over the land.
The crow cocked his head, hopping impatiently. “Lord Master?” he said, a little more insistently.
Rowan signed and grimaced at Mourner, “What?”
“We’ve found something.”
“You and the rest of the flock. Always finding something here or there. I mean—
Rowan waved toward the dark world spreading like ink outside his window.
“You’re birds for shit’s sake! What doesn’t shine like the devil’s polished buttocks have you not picked off to take to your nests? Goddamn magpies, the lot of you.”
The crow gave off a caw, louder than a battle horn.
“As are you, you no-beaked lord! It’s not as if you’ve never indulged in a little thievery all for the sake of sport.”
Rowan glowered with annoyance at the mean little bird.
“This,” he muttered, “is not the first time you called for my attention, only to lead me on some wild goose chase, have me help steal from farmers, or otherwise flocking together in complete bewilderment at something so simple as a ruined steam engine.”
Mourner again cawed, indignant.
“That may be so, my childish master, but this time it’s something that should interest you and all the flock beyond mere baubles and gawks. It’s something we’ve never seen before—
Rowan smirked, “Really?”
The crow flushed its wings in an angry little dance, “I mean it this time! We’re certain!”
“You and who else came to that decision?”
“I and-and-and Prism and Nightsinger and Bruise—
“Bruise? That little blue jay? The one who always hits his head whenever—
“Yes, yes. The clumsy stone-wing. Him, also.”
“And you…” Rowan paused at this, straightening a crease in his cloak, “trust him?”
There was a pause, pregnant with all the doubt and uncertainty one could fit within two seconds.
“No. As if.”
“I thought not.” Rowan threw his cloak behind him, letting it trail as he glided down the stairs. “In any case, if you’re certain I will trust your judgment.” He then turned abruptly and pointed a dusky finger at Mourner. “But I swear if this is another stupid—
He stopped then and simply shook his head. Descending the stairs, the stone rose and fell to the cadence of his steps. Crumbling apart as he left in impatient bursts, the tower stairs sealed up, camouflaged by its ruined exterior and dissolving into the masonry of the dark wood.
Rowan straightened his collar. He had no reason to be nervous but it was a night for being cautious as, at the very least, he could not see well enough into the night air to guarantee anything. A thick, lifeless smog grappled with the air of the forest. Above in the tower, things seemed still enough but now, without the armor of a high vantage, Rowan felt small.
He fingered a serpentine charm over his breast-pocket.
“Well then Mourner,” he said, unsure if his voice reached too far into the air, “Lead on.”
“As you wish,” muttered the crow.
Mourner flew ahead, gliding slowly, careful not to make even a dent in the air. Rowan followed softly, his boot heels resting hard edges in the loam and dew-steeped leaves. They were powerful enough beings on their own right but despite this power or perhaps because of it, they were careful not to make a sound. Rowan recalled his first encounter with a swamp thresher, here, in this very wood, its dull eyes lit with violence.
It was a hard lesson to learn. He suffered from three cracked ribs, a broken one, and a fractured sternum as well. Mourner was not so lucky, his wing getting bent so badly in an attempt to ward the mindless construct away from his master that Rowan, healing the two of them that night, ground his teeth to a fine dust as he apologized over and over. Even in the haze of pain, Mourner did not enjoy seeing his master like that.
Needless to say, never again. Rowan followed the fog-muffled form of his familiar as Mourner carved a safe path through the unknown mist. They passed a tree with a large gash, a wrecked wagon, other items that came from the countries surrounding this realm. Rowan recognized a few coat-of-arms here and there. The carriages they passed were largely abandoned. Any and all valuables that had once graced the lofty vehicles had been emptied.
“Banditry? Is this what you wanted me to see?”
Mourner shook his head, ruffling, wringing his neck in protest.
“If it were such a trivial thing to report, I would not have allowed it. But this is far more important than mere human greed.”
“What is it then?”
Mourner turned towards the questioning gaze of his master.
“It's a woman in a cage.”
As they headed deeper in the wood, Rowan began to spot the remnants of what appeared to be small skirmishes. Arrows jutting from wagons abandoned at roadside. The odd ware lying abandoned, a barrel of food, wood chests, untouched but empty. It was only until they reached the outermost dark wood that he finally saw bodies.
They were knights of course. Their iron-clad bodies were still sprawled across the scene, like unused props in a movie set. Rowan would not have described them like so, instead, likening it to so many other scenes of battle he had witnessed before. And yet, though he was used to it, the visage of bloodshed and its aftermath, he noted in his mind a chilling detail.
“They're all from the same battalion,” he said. Mourner looked up from Rowan's shoulder.
“Master, are you sure? With the way these bodies are strewn, it should be obvious that they were fighting each other.”
Yes, he agreed, but Rowan knew battles and what happened with this one was that somehow these men, these brothers-at-arms, turned against each other. But why?
“The valuables, perhaps?” suggested Mourner. “They could have been fighting over the loot from before?”
Impossible. The wares they spotted were so far behind them, it was unlikely that a fight broke out over the few supplies and meager treasures that littered the path they came from. Not to mention...
“These men were guarding something. Here, do you see? Right above the carriage-
There was nothing to indicate that what used to be in the wagon, a plain linen-drawn thing barely fit for barley and apples, was anything of value. But it was well-made, large enough for an entire family to ride in. And with the amount of soldiers guarding the thing...
“It had to have been something they didn't want to risk losing but at the same time didn't want anyone to think was valuable.”
The amount of guards would have given away that whatever this wagon was carrying, whether it was a priceless relic or an ordinary bauble, the owners of such a thing did not want it stolen. Whether potential thieves would find it worth the trouble was another story.
“Let's go find it then.”
“Find what?” asked Mourner. He landed on Rowan's shoulder and starting preening.
“Whatever it is that managed to get all these men killed and get itself stolen at the same time.”
“Oh, that? That's easy.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's the woman. The one we found earlier, Prism, Nightsinger, Bruise, and me.”
A noise sounded from the front of the carriage. Rowan cursed. They were careless. He braced for some attack, some monster to emerge. Nothing happened. Mourner unfroze, drifted to the source of the sound. It was just a loose crate that had fallen over.
“We should get going,” said Rowan.
“Agreed.” They were both uneasy about being out in the open like this. For as long as Rowan had been living in these woods, he still didn't know what was in the darkness beyond the trees. Mourner too, on his countless flights in the clear air above the fog-choked canopy could never tell if something dwelled beneath the flooded, hazy sea of clawing branches and still green. They had to keep moving.
“So where's this woman you keep talking about?” Rowan asked as they moved a safe distance from the ruined cart.
“Just up ahead.”
“And what exactly do you expect me to do about her?”
“To decide what to do, obviously. You're the master, I'm just a familiar.”
They emerged into a clearing, obviously an encampment for ogres. Rowan peered through the dark, barely making out an outline from the darkness of the trees. Suspended in a massive metal birdcage almost twenty feet in the air, hanging from the tallest tree, was a figure vaguely human, wrapped like a nun head to toe. The figure seemed preoccupied with something. Though you could tell it was a woman (the two inert lumps of flesh dangle-hanging from her modest, actually-thin-kind-of chest were either breasts or uncomfortably oversized chestnuts about the size of a baseball, but probably a lot more tender and prone to swelling when hit with a baseball bat, the two said chestnuts being grafted to the skin (with a hot needle) to produce the effect of small, rather-oversized-and-disproportionate-in-relation-to-prior-mentioned-modest-but-not-actually-modest-chest breasts that in all honesty, we should just assume that yeah, they kind of imply she's female) because she had breasts.
“Hey!” Rowan called out. She turned. His jaw dropped.
In the dark it was hard to tell anything (except that she was female and was wearing a hood). When Rowan got a good look at her, his face went slack with wonder (because of the breasts, no, not his wonder or the fact that she was wearing a hood, after all why would anyone wear a hood just because they had breasts, honestly, get your life together, she's female, because breasts).
She was un-forgivingly beautiful, a warrior in her own right. He could see the life behind her eyes and it leapt out at him. When asked for her name, she grunted a sorry syllable to Rowan that sounded like someone asking for time.
“Gwen. God.” She crossed her arms and scrunched her face. It was a heavy night and she felt it in bones already brittle with damp cold, shivering for every ounce of heat (nothing moved, I was kidding, she does not have breasts, they are too small to be considered anything of the sort, like Pluto).
“Um. Hi?” Suspicious.
“Hi.” A bit annoyed.
“Can I help you?” Oblivious.
“...Can you get me out of here?” Very annoyed.
“Uhh...” Very oblivious.
“Yes. Or. No?” Outraged.
Rowan was still gaping at her, mouth open.
“Hello?” Beyond description.
Rowan blinked rapidly.
“What? Oh, yes. Sorry.” Idiot.
She was looking at him like he had said something very insulting. She couldn't read his mind, but if she could she wouldn't be surprised. Or she would be and would proceed to launch into a long and convoluted lecture about men, how “they're all the same”, miscellaneous allusions to unfaithfulness, figurative language incorporating dogs, scattered metaphors using dogs, a veterinary discussion about dogs, their various breeds, the best way to place a dog bowl, the composition of a dog bowl in relation to a water bowl, chairs, stairs, sofa, the legs of the dining room table, about how we should keep men (that is, in relation to the dog bowl). In any case, she was cold and annoyed. Much of the latter was due to Rowan's clumsy fumbling with words and now with the birdcage.
“Any time, mister, any time at all, take,” she breathed, “all of next week if you have to, I ain't got nothing but time here, certainly not a stomach to fill or a bladder to empty.”
As she waited for a response, Rowan gritted his teeth, rattling the chain uselessly. At some point he realized that the door was breakable, more so at least in relation to the chain, and he cringed (at his own stupidity) as he broke the lock.
“Avis,” he muttered under his breath, completely mortified. The sturdy lock rattled, uselessly at first but, as the magic took hold, a thin grain of rust overtook the whole thing, growing like mold, and ate through with ease.
“Done, er, sorry about the wait.”
The woman, Gwen, smiled up, curt, polite. “Thank you. Don't mention it. If you do, I will hit you.”
She dropped down from the high branches, landing on the canopy floor with a hard plush. Her stomach growled a bit, presumably from the impact dislodging whatever was left of her last meal into the empty, swallowing pit of her hungry stomach.
“Ugh,” she said, as if eating was a chore. At this point, Rowan peered down on the queer noises of annoyance she was making and, as he brushed residual strands of magic from his hands, he wondered if there was something wrong with her. For the record, this is how they met. This is how they fall, like idiots, like breathless stars, in love.
“Alright, so,” said the woman after a brief pause, “I have to ask. What's with the bird?”
Rowan looked at Mourner, who looked back at him like a sentient banana in an elaborate ruse. Mourner was a familiar, bound by an oral contract in the ancient language before language. He was capable of performing magic on par with human magisters, which is to say, lots of summoning and explosions that generally weren't necessary to everyday life but for the most part remained very handy in case of monster attacks. However, his ability to articulate meaning was solely limited to Rowan alone. Everyone else saw an ordinary crow, who, while strangely tame, remained a simple wild animal. Who was very loud when angry.
“He's uh...my pet?” muttered Rowan.
“Caw,” said Mourner, sarcastically.
“Caw?” said Mourner, a little less sarcastically.
She blinked. “Rather,” she cleared her throat, “strange choice. For a pet at least.” Looking around, she surveyed the area with a wide sweep of the eyes. She didn't seem at all perturbed by the fog-dense forest. Rowan had assumed this was purely due to her inexperience, perhaps both in traveling and in unfamiliar places, but seeing her calmly assess her surroundings reminded Rowan of a general leading an army. She seemed to exude a rippling peace, taking in the wreckage of the bandwagons and the remnants of the men who guarded it with all the serenity of a ghost drifting through ruins.
Rowan eyed her profile, a thing of still air, “You knew these men,” he offered, “Didn't you?”
She didn't move. She didn't move at all.
“I did. But now,” she said, looking down, closing each hand around the other, “there's no one left on this road for me to know.”
She passed by. Splintered legs of wood, dented plates and suits of armor, the fallen fruit. Everything seemed still. Everything reached out toward the odd woman. At every face and facet of fog, a failure.
Keeping pace with her, Rowan stared idly as Gwen installed a deep silence over their walk. Mourner flew beside them, silent, unwilling to bridge this strange gap, unfamiliar and clumsy with the small keys and locked doors of language. The two desperately wanted something to come. Or was it, perhaps, to go away?
“Do you live here?” she asked. And suddenly the silence—
“Uh, yeah. Just off,” said Rowan, “the next clearing, a large tower, can't miss it.”
The whole fogged world seemed to flood with air. Mourner flew on, uncertain of what just happened. The two were silent. Another strange pause sat itself down in between the two. Like a hairy, one-eyed drawing in a child's sketchbook, all bear fur and unblinking attention. Silence. Squeezed, uncomfortably compressed, still stubborn enough not to move.
“It must be lonely,” she suddenly interjected.
Rowan, his mind rolling from the sudden introduction of sound, was too shocked to say much besides grunt in agreement.
“You're several leagues from any town or city. How do you manage? You a hermit or something?”
“Uhh, yeah,” said Rowan, “Something like that?”
“Hmm, really? How do you get food?
“I make it.”
“Like, from scratch?”
He paused to consider how he virtually molded atoms into other atoms, producing what many practitioners of alchemy sought as the god-like act of true transmutation.
She, assuming he meant that the food was grown and harvested like a normal person without access to god-like power would do it, felt rather uncertain that anything would grow in this awful clime.
“But,” she wondered, “this place is kept in perpetual night. How does anything even grow here?”
“I, uh, have a green thumb?” He saw the disbelief in her face and quickly added, “A really green thumb?”
Sensing a ruse, she narrowed her eyes, “You're not a cannibal, are you?”
His eyes flashed at her in complete bewilderment.
“Like, you wait for little girls to get captured by orcs and then go get them out of the cage. And after they think you're here to rescue them, you're actually trying to get at their sweet, delicious, lamb-like meat. All tender and juicy and—
“Agh! No! What,” he cried, “what would possibly compel you to think up such a thing!”
“Hang on, I haven't even gotten to the best part,” she paused again, licking her lips, whether they were dry or if she truly relished the chance to freak someone out with her disgusting tale is uncertain (sarcasm). “The orcs, having a number of their own stolen and eaten, quickly took action against you. But due to your beast-like cunning, they never managed anything, not even reducing the numbers of their dead. The bodies quickly piled.” She giggled at this, then quickly resumed. “So of course, they offered a truce instead. They would pay homage to you, great killer cannibal of the night, by paying you in flesh.” Her eyes lit up at those last words. She had such an intense inflection, it prompted a slight twinge of revulsion in Rowan. He cringed, stomach churning, but resolved to listen till the end.
“In flesh” could have led to two distinct possibilities. Not knowing which of the two she meant, Rowan waited, albeit queasily, for her story's end. Whether it was truly a tale of horror (or pornography), he listened closely with every forward-leaning fiber of his body.
“So of course, the orcs offered to give you a girl every month on the day of the full moon. A cream-white, lusciously plump, fat-arsed, and voluptuous girl,” her voice went up and dived into a heavy curve at this, “Maidens of such beauty and high-grade protein, they were a fit for any demon king.”
Horror, then. Rowan felt slightly disappointed but he tried not to let it show.
“However!” her voice, gone coarse with excitement, shook him out of his lull, “It wasn't enough! You, the monster-king of the woods, the mad-rabbit-haired cannibal of the fog, He-Who-Sups-On-The-Fat-Elbows-Of-Orcs, wanted more.”
Rowan's eyes widened. He sounded so badass.
Gwen, drawing in a deep breath, roared, “You wanted DICK!”
Bursting into laughter, Rowan bent double, guffawing at the sheer incredulity of her story. But she didn't stop. Waiting for his laughter to die down, Gwen continued.
“After ravaging their defenses and razing their camps, you ravaged their bodies and razed their asses! Fat, muscled-brained, tone-deaf orcs! All falling! All ripped open, naked and bleeding, at the sheer ravishing power of your cock!”
“Stop it! Oh, god, stop! I'll choke on my own tongue!” laughed Rowan.
“So, of course, after having your way with them, you agreed to their proposal, but only after they sent in at least a battalion of men in accompaniment, each more stallion-like than the last. They would think themselves warriors, but in truth,” her voice went down at this, “they would be nothing more than puppies.”
After his chortling had died down, Rowan shook his head, incredulous, “Why puppies?”
“Because after the ravishing comes the cuddling, the leashes, and of course the dog bowls filled with unnameable fluids,” Rowan gaped at this description, “such is the perversity, the lust, the sick games he plays, none other than, the Dick-Eating Cannibal of the Foggy Forest!” She couldn't say it, not without breaking down into laughter at the end. Before long, they were both on their backs laughing like children at her dirty tale.
As the air filled with sound, Mourner looked on with wonder at the two. His master, so utterly bored and devoid of movement not moments ago, high in that tower of theirs, had seemed to fill out with all the lush and trembling forms of the earth right then, before his eyes.
“Oh God,” moaned Rowan, mouth split wide as watermelon, shoulders trembling with laughter, “God, you're funny.”
Gwen smiled. She smiled knowing that he meant what he said. Knowing that the words were less than words and closer still to their meanings, the meaning itself. She smiled, hearing what he said, smiled and it was a perfect smile.
Rowan slowly panted, drawing out the last of the giggles. “So,” he huffed, “I take it you still believe I might be a cannibal.”
Gwen took one look at Rowan's wry expression and muttered, “Nah, it'd be too easy. I figure you're maybe a vampire in disguise, out to suck my virginal blood through my nipples or something.”
Rowan laughed again, “Virginal? Really?”
Gwen looked at his disbelieving face and smirked, “Nah. But it ain't your business, strange man in the woods talking to his pet bird.”
After a short period of time they made their way back to the tower. She said something and he said something back. Her face was livid with rage and hunger. His face was as dented as the devil's pride. Mourner would be very curious about this very suspicious woman's background, not to mention slightly protective of his master, but not of his pride. Rowan would attempt to make small talk but it should be obvious that he has no idea what he's doing. Maybe occasionally he'll say something sweet enough to make her blush, not that you could tell behind her raging face beet-red from cold, but without fail Rowan would say something highly embarrassing or corny and would show just how out of practice he is in the art of charm and how out of touch he is with the rest of the world to say nothing of women. They would go into the tower. She would be slightly surprised at the complex magic involved in sealing the tower and camouflaging it. Rowan would casually mention something about being a free mage, self-taught and beholden to no school or magister. She would notice the even more complex inner workings of the tower (its defenses, the elaborate system of runes, many of which originate from an old tongue and system of enchantment that predates modern engraving by at least a millennium) and as such would be highly suspicious of this man claiming to be merely “self-taught.” She would notice for the first time, Rowan's wings, slightly spread behind him. “Hey. Village Idiot.” she would call. He would resent her insulting way of getting his attention. “You're not a fallen angel, are you?”
“Angel?” he said, confused. “Oh, you mean one of those new religion beings. Men and women with white wings. But I also heard some of them look like chimeras, with eyes on four pairs of wings and flaming teeth for nuts. Ha, no, I'm nothing of the sort. Why do you ask?”
She pointed to his wings.
“Oh these? They're just, uh, I don't really-
He was embarrassed. Of this, she was sure. Gwen recognized a sort of childish glow on his face, as handsome as it was. Of course, despite the strong cleft in his chin, the short grainy hairs that dusted his jaw, and the unavoidable, piercing blue of his eyes, Gwen still felt vulnerable and terribly hungry. So, it was rather understandable that she wouldn't trust this strange, long-haired, raven-winged man until he had proven himself safe company and in possession of a decent stock of food.
“Obviously, you're not exactly human.”
Rowan's face fell at this. He seemed irked by this slight reminder.
“But I don't care. I need food. Shelter is good, very good, you've got a decent roof over our heads and some incredible defenses.” Gwen gestured at the faint glow and elaborate cosmology on the walls. “But at the same time, it don't mean shit if you're the kind that lives off dew and cosmic energy. I mean,” she was on a roll now, “The decay of carbon-14 is a nice thing to study but I can't eat that shit! So!”
Rowan's eyes widened in alarm. Powered by the increasingly urgent wheedling of her empty stomach, Gwen's voice could have cleaved diamond. She carefully, powerfully, and very urgently placed her hands on Rowan's shoulders.
Grabbing him like a dying octopus, eyes wide with the stare of Death, she said, “Take me to your pantry.”
Rowan couldn't move. He was frozen with fear.
He yelped. After scrambling up the stairs, Rowan quickly brought out a half-eaten loaf of bread and an apple from the shelves. Setting it out, he backed off into a corner as a terrible form devouring doomed bread and torn apple manifested beside his table. She was hungry. Quickly, Gwen scoured the shelves. A hunk of cured meat, a satchel of nuts and mixed berries, and an entire wheel of cheese disappeared from the face of the earth. The one who had brought their oblivion sighed with relief.
“I thought I was gonna die.” She sat down like the Great Slime monster of the Berithian swamp ruins. The wooden chair groaned in protest.
“That statement's coming from the wrong mouth,” muttered Mourner to his mortified master. “Should be you saying that.”
Rowan could almost hear the squelching cry of the cheese wheel as it was saturated in the terrible embrace of acid. Help me, help me. Slowly, Row's shocked mouth began to move.
Gwen lifted a heavy eyelid, “Yeah, I'm fine now. Sorry for eating all your cheese.”
“S'fine,” he said, carefully edging around the room, maintaining as much distance as the room would possibly allow. “I'd gladly trade a wheel of cheese for my life, especially from a devouring beast like you.”
She laughed as his fear, much like most monsters. Carefully, she pulled off her hooded cloak. Wearing nothing but the plainest tunic in the world, Rowan wondered why anyone would bother imprisoning an ordinary farm girl. Perhaps they desired the fear she struck in the hearts of men who witnessed her whenever she sat down to sup. At least, that's what he thought before she materialized her armor.
Without even moving her lips, Gwen called out to the empty spaces of the world and from it pulled out the most beautiful set of armor that Rowan had ever seen straight onto her body.
“Radiant. She's radiant,” thought Rowan as he saw the armor she was hiding. A full set of breastplate, armor, leggings, vambrace, and gauntlet, all carved and hammered into vibrant scenes of natural beauty. Twin waterfalls flowed off her shoulders, collecting into springs where the shadows of deer haunted and drank from, drawing out shyly from the forest of her gloved fingers. Her legs were girded in a never ending tree, sprung from her shin guards, spreading its luminous leaves in the form of an elaborate kirtle. And on her chest, the center of all this beauty, was an ornamental goddess of spring, rising from the underworld, faceless with joy, surrounded by the boundless richness of the world.
As the magic that pulled her armor out of the world settled down, Gwen turned, smiling at Rowan, and asked, “Still think I'm a monster?”
He paused. “Yes. Without a doubt.”
“I saw you eat that cheese,” he said, remembering the terrible fear that invaded his body, “It was like watching a starving lion devour its own young.
She laughed. Despite the strangeness of this place, this man, and her circumstance, it seemed clear to Gwen that at the very least she was in safe hands.
“So,” she said, “are you gonna tell me who you are?”
“Rowan,” said Rowan, oblivious as that block of cheese, “what more do you need to know?”
She chuckled to herself, feeling much more friendly now with food in her stomach, “Well, Mister Rowan, perchance I find myself on the road in the company of another man with strange bright eyes and raven's wings spreading on his back like some terrible angel of famine.” Rowan imagined her literally breaking to pieces at the thought. She noticed, as if reading his rudeness off his face, but continued, “I certainly wouldn't want to mistake him for the nice man who got me out of a cage with the most stubborn lock in the world and thus allowed me to clear his pantry after.” Her face was bright with laughter. Either that or the cheese.
“Seriously, I'm just Rowan.” He looked away at the open window, the thin moonlight streaking the floor with watery blue.
“You have to have more than just a name?”
“I had two. Once. The other I lost it.”
“It's a long story. Starts boring too.”
“I bet it gets better towards the end.”
I am as a god of the dead, dwelling among bones.
Surrounded and alone, both empty and full
of emptiness I drop gazes 'tween the silence
of my peers, their closed eyes and unmoving
lips. I dream of the day their bodies fall
as a shroud falls, dispersed into ash by flame
or by lingering flame. Dropped, drowning,
in the night. No world but in this silence, no
existence but in this existence. I sew torn limbs
picked from torn streets, render faces unto
faces split from their parent skulls, I dream up
such stories, their histories, these bright pasts
and futures. I am like a triple-bound god
dripping time at the loom, spinning the wheel,
turning the fragments of these faceless ashworks
into solid teeth and bones. Ever I patch, ever I weave,
desolate spider work in a desolate world.
I am as the last living thing emerging from the dark::
waiting and waiting for an end of my own.
Spleen Sonnet I – Lord of Bones
from Druazale, the temperate demon,
of the drowned city Amantis
Confident and self-assured, Ronan was a warrior of the Durlock clan. One of its greatest. In fact, he was the son of one of the greatest warriors to ever grace the mead-halls of the Nochtian lands. Knowing this, Ronan, like his father, and his father before him, was a fucked-up asshole who only thought about fighting. Like all the tribes in the surrounding area, the Durlock clan prided themselves on being strong and not much else. No livestock. No irrigation systems. Not even domesticated wolves/other miscellaneous hunting animals. You'd think they'd have something cool like that. At the very least. But no. They stupid.
Their economy was composed mostly of internal parties exchanging clothes for a bag of seeds and roots, no more impressive than a neighbor knocking on your door for a cup of sugar, and of course sparse bartering meet-ups with other tribes they weren't trying to kill at the moment, which mostly amounted to a lot of disagreements between the men and both tribes silently resolving to kill each other the next time they meet, whereas the women just exchanged what they came for, ignoring the whole process and electing to ignore it again the next time.
Their metallurgy was perhaps the most sophisticated field of technology they had developed. Unsurprisingly, most of that progress was due to the men wanting better toys to fuck each other up with.
They were still hunter-gatherers, or rather gatherer-hunters as it was the women and children who supplied approximately seventy percent of all the clan's food. But the men (and the boys who wanted to appear grown up) boasted so readily and in such abundance of their supposed hunting prowess that it was like being subject to an Orwellian broadcast propagated by the Ministry of Truth itself. Dominant discourse is a wonderful thing. Needless to say, Ronan was happy where he was.
“Enough waiting! I say we bring a band of our best warriors to the phantom's grave-heap and rip his eyeless face from his restless skull! The monster has plagued us for far too long! Let us take action!”
He slammed his fist into the table, the immediate effect of which was the surrounding men cheering and throwing their mead tanks into the air. Ronan beamed. He knew his place in this world, this haven of blood brothers and sworn blades. And it was a place he liked.
He went on about the grievances done to them by the monster, the just reparations that such foul deeds must be met with. He described in twenty gruesome and sweat-stained ways how they, even with a minimal party of three men, would eviscerate, butcher, and otherwise divide and bisect the creature in question, whose foul deeds had been overlooked since five minutes ago, forgotten in its entirety and now overshadowed by the zealous fervor Ronan took to describing the imminent gore-fest.
All the while the mead sloshed and poured. Generations of curdled, testosterone-ridden assholes went into perfecting this one perishable, the all-too-essential fuel that enabled the delirious and drunken brutes to perform with neither skill nor memory their violent rampages. The fermentation of wild grains and berries. The exact chemical process necessary to produce such heady brews. These were perhaps the only evidence that the men of the Durlock tribe had brains of any sort. In spite of all the antiquated and positively slovenly progress they had scrimped and scraped together on fields as varied as engineering, agriculture, economics, and social policy, it was only in the highly specific, yet unsurprising sub-field of chemistry known as brewing that these crazy, wino bastards had any interest in.
Subsequently, there were a lot of alcoholic chemists who knew how to use a sword in that mead hall. Funnily enough, though he was definitely one of them, Ronan was no chemist, nor an alcoholic. Though he could chug his way through a burning sensation as well as any Durlockian, though he could swing his sword more skillfully and without breaking even the most shoddy blade, Ronan did not belong as well as he thought.
As the night went on, Ronan and the other men retired to their thatched huts and pelted tents. In his own home, a small abode roofed with bear-pelt that he himself hunted and patched together, his wife, Sula, stood cooking. She was stirring a stew of winter tubers and at the same time working over a rather difficult haunch of deer that refused to cook evenly, unmoved by the wobbling flames yet burning with the slightest heat. Her face had the implacable look of stone, silent, yet as Death she would have compared in the coldness of their faces. Turning to her husband, she smiled.
“Away at the mead hall again? You worthless lout. See if I ever slave away in your house trying to feed a stubborn mouth such as yours ever again.” Her face was still pinched up like a shrunken loincloth. It seemed she had forgotten to set down corners of her lips.
Ronan, upon seeing the awkward expression his wife had mounted and hearing her tuneless objections, broke into a scattered grin. He laughed, rushing up to her with a kiss.
Sula's eyes stayed open, expressionless, yet faint with anger, as Ronan's lips pressed softly against hers. She pulled away and resumed her deadpanned delivery.
“No. No, you don't get no kisses. You get nothing. Not until you clean up that act of yours, you flaccid poke, you limp-tailed pigeon. Get off. No. Stop carrying me.”
Ronan, having hauled her up on his shoulder, was carrying her to the bed with very clear intentions. Sula, being very dense and one-track-minded, complained all the way. The vast majority was her complaining about him being gone too often but she also called him several names, most of which were variations on “limp-dicked bastard child who couldn't hold his weight in crow feathers much less in alcohol” or else something relating to his performance in bed.
None of it was true. And of course, as she laid in the skins of deer, antelope, bear, and oxen, blushing with a feverish pitch that outshone even the brightest pyre of the bloodiest hero, she grumbled about his prick being more important to him than her, despite being so tiny. Which she knew wasn't true, holding his member against her, feeling it rub against her inner thigh, and stiffen. She closed her eyes, tired, both of this routine and this life, but still wanting, this worn cycle, continues, continues. Though she could feel the stars whirling within when she was with him, though she felt her body melt into light when they climaxed (never far from the other), the fact that she was bare never escaped her.
In the warmth of their bed, it may have been easy for another woman to feel differently, to offer up myriad prayers and wishes of forever in place of the lone silence Sula presented before the gods. It might have been easier, different for sure, but Sula knew that this was it. There it was, all there was, laid out before her like the new world before the young, still-beautiful gods. She closed her eyes and wanted to die. She opened them and wanted to live. Ronan, his cheek pressed into the rabbit-skin of their makeshift pillow, breathed softly, his face so young, untouched by doubt or despair or even guilt.
“Monster,” she thought, “you monster. For making me feel this way, for taking me as wife when no one else would, for calling me by a name I chose to stay the friendship of others, to cut their traitor kinship in twain. Monster. You beautiful, innocent, sin-lit monster.”
In the morning, Sula watched as her husband, no, Ronan, rode over the steep hill lands and into the fog-flayed fen, still dark even in the strong, waxing light. Followed by twenty men, Ronan felt sure, full. His breakfast of ox meat and rabbit-stew sat in his gut, firm and unmoving. He was going to lose this battle; he was going to lose more than just a battle. For the monster that lurked within the swamp-land forest was no mere beast. It wasn't even alive.
It was a god. A god named Loss.
And just like that he was the last man standing. Ronan's chest felt like a sob ready to break loose, to flood the room. But no, he was iron, he was steel and stone and broken wire. He was going to fight. Before him stood a figure, inhumanely tall, a tower of blue robes, faceless, the mouth nothing but a thin slit, a snake's eye, sleeping. Waiting to open. Ronan instinctively crunched down. The thing took out three of them with nothing but a wave of its bony hands. The first to fall. Idiots, they rushed the monster, thinking it was as blind as a mad ox with an arrow in both eyes.
No such luck. They were blown back into rock, the snap of spines audible for all to hear. A brief and sudden end. A warning shot.
The being seemed to smile back at Ronan. All around them, the bodies of men flickered into view. Some frozen, some charred like the roast of a young wife, others seemed completely untouched, laying about as if in sleep, merely empty, soulless, unmoving. Over half of them could have rose up any minute, at least, it seemed so.
But Ronan knew better. The thing knew death magic. It had charmed the foolhardy into an enchanted sleep. In their slumber, the monster stopped their hearts.
A motion. Ronan's eyes snapped back in place. The monster was smiling, its lips, thinner than leaves, drawing back to open. To his astonishment, the monster spoke:
“Whatever has been lost, ever shall I receive. Thus is my privilege, my burden too, as lord over lost things. The light of August. The flowers of spring. The flown tears of winter. The blown leaves in May.”
Ronan trembled. It was an incantation. A battle cry. The thing was going to murder him. It knew magic. The men of his tribe always despised practitioners and other such stuff. Cowardly, they called it. A fool's life and work, concerning such things. How they would have run, seeing that godawful, empty smile, those hands, the ease with which the thing cast death. Throwing it upon them as a child throws a stone. As a fisherman casts his net. The floor bearing all the evidence of his harvest.
“I shall defeat you! I will bring glory to my tribe! This is the last day you dwell upon the good earth! Whatever you are. You. Are. Nothing to me!” A good battle cry. A fitting deathsong.
“How,” the god whispered, “can you be so certain?”
“It is predestined!” he roared. He clutched his sword, hard enough that his trembling was half-mixed with anger.
“Whose god?” asked the ageless one, “Your god? Or mine?”
Ronan stared up, confused. Surely, such a creature didn't have a god. No, that wasn't it. What he was really shocked at was the idea that—
“There are all sorts of gods,” Loss murmured, “I am only one of many. Before me lies a god far older than time or memory, beyond both in weight and gravity the golden face that you tout as 'true', as 'one'. Oh, my little fool. God is nothing but myriads. Subjective, relative. No absolutes.”
“I don't believe you.”
“Wrong. You know it to be true. The doubt in your heart rings in its hollow chasm. It shines for you. You do not heed it. You bury it under words like 'grace', like 'destiny', those words too under 'glory', 'triumph', and 'death-price'. Do you think me blind? I'll not indulge your fantasy. I have no eyes because I can already see your for what you are. Child.”
“See what, you blind beast?” His voice was shaking.
“Love,” he whispered, “fear of dying, typical human, nobility, though, it is so faint I can thread it through the pores of your skin. Oh, and what's this? Longing. Longing for words.”
“What—what in heaven's great—
“Save. Your. Breath. You aren't stupid, like the boys whose hollow shells now litter this floor. You figured it out. You play soldier. You think it best. But what you really want? Now, look. What am I holding behind my mouth?”
Ronan raised his sword. But before he could strike, the creature lunged forward, mouth open wide.
Nothing came. Ronan gazed into a deep hole.
“Words,” came the voice, “are cheap rides compared to what we once spoke. They are loose, the seats coming apart, they ring and tinkle like a poor man's cup compared to what we once had.”
Ronan looked away. He couldn't bear to see it. Everything within him, his body, his eyes, his mind too, disobeyed. He wanted to refuse, his body could not turn away.
“Death,” said the voice, “comes to us in ways you'd least expect.”
—learning the secret to evaporation,
how water haunts a place, rests
and makes it yours.
Ronan collapsed on the floor, his entire body shaking. Tears were running down his eyes. The men around him were dead, they could not mutter 'coward', no, they couldn't even think it.
He knew now, what exactly stood before him, hands folded, floating politely, waiting for the answer.
“Oh god,” muttered Ronan, “oh god.”
Loss smiled. It knew what he saw. There. In the void. The emptiness that swallows, the earth that holds everything aloft. And the space, the sky closing in. Beyond it. Within.
“I was smiling,” said Ronan, “I couldn't believe it. I was smiling.”
“What you saw was a district,” came the voice of Loss, “one of many in the cities of possibility. They mill about always, not existing, never quite real, but there nonetheless. They are ghosts. Waiting to be born.”
“Who was that staring back at me?” asked Ronan. “He looked...exactly like me.”
The god did not answer. His lips looked like they hadn't parted in a thousand years.
“Answer me.” The god did not answer.
“Answer me!” The god did not move.
“Tell me who that was! Was it me?” The god did not answer.
“Tell me! Tell me, you faceless monster!”
Ronan lunged at the god. But before he could even reach him, the words of an unknown place, an unknown world sounded out. His limbs fell slack. Almost every muscle in his body refused to contract.
“I could stop your heart,” muttered the god, “if I wanted to.”
Ronan cringed, certain now that he would die.
“Tell your arms 'reach out' to throttle me from life,” he said, “and I will have them shut up, slacken at your side so that they may limp and shudder useless.” Ronan stared up, the fear splashing uselessly in his stomach like a cut fish. “Before me, who commands such armies as you never can imagine, what hope have you? You. Who cannot even will your disobeying body to stand, nay, to cease its kneel, its prostration?”
“Before me, you,” he said, leaning into his ear, “are nothing.”
“Shackled by a cloud and blinded by its mist, what is this fate to you other than a rusted nail twined in your gut?”
“Oh Arrogance, oh thin-winged pride-holder, bear your subject self like the crude-hewn mail it is, let it shield you from all death but no death. Let thine eyes fail in the fading light, let thy memory flake and depart in the wind-wound world. It is only fair to give you the death-price you've so clamored for, is it not?” The god of loss leaned forward, bending Ronan into his fathomless gaze.
“But, what little remains,” he said, looking, plunging deep into the shocked depth, into Ronan's still protest, his disbelieving and his shattered disbelieving...
The god seemed sad. He seemed to see something in Ronan that not only surprised him, but broke his heart.
“What little remains must survive. Warrior, you are an ill-fit for this world whether you long for the fact to render itself reduced to falsehood or not. Fate will hold you rooted, swallowing you graceless and without arms to bear against it. Faith will have you kept, sucking on its teat. Forever and ever, turning out its measureless rewards, its hollow worlds of gold-wrought sands. Will you surrender? You, proud lord, overflowing with youth? I have enjoyed countless many like you, thinking-deluding themselves immortal. Their youths, their wasted years, and countless, ever-blooming boasts smear my lips like honey. They are gone now. But I ask. Will you follow? Do you choose this death? This many? These deaths that fall like leaves, over and over, one self lost to time, to the trust of fame, and others still, small and effortlessly blown away by the capricious wind?”
“No...” Ronan murmured.
“What was that?”
“No. Lord,” he said, looking up, “Lord Loss, I beg of you. Give me...no. Grant me some small reprieve. Tell me, what must I do to escape this fear, this labyrinth?”
“I thought,” said the ageless god, “you'd never ask.”
The god of loss pressed a thumb onto Ronan's forehead. In his fear, the unknowing warrior prepared himself for some terrible fate to befall him. Even now, as he surrendered to his ignorance, he couldn't help but imagine what terrible curse was to follow, what devilish price to pay.
“Give up your name,” said he, “Let go of the past that formed you, accept it as unchanging and unalterable, but yea, as no herald for things to come.”
“That's it? Is that all I must surrender?”
“It is more than you can imagine and all you have to give.”
“Then, I do.” Ronan's eyes stuttered open.
Their gazes locked, Ronan's dark-mist eyes in Loss' emptied eyes, the god whispered. Deathly quiet, yet the words rang like a battle-cry in the cavern of Ronan's heart.
“If you are willing, I shall grant thee both blessing and curse. The curse shall be within the blessing, as the blessing within the curse. I grant thee the lasting language of gods, magic, and with it, the immortality of sages, cycles, and air. May you bear the brunt of this flowing world with as much grace as your humanity allows. I rename you: Rowan.”
A great surge roared through Ronan, now Rowan, now assaulted by the force of magic entering in through his temples. Had he not been kneeling before the god of loss, the once-prideful warrior would surely have been sundered like air before the roll of thunder. But he held on, charged with new energy, filling with the endless light of an unknown world. And all at once it was over. Before the god of loss, Rowan was born. He shuddered as the last snatches of energy crackled over his tender body, clutching the ground on all fours and gasping for air. Steam rose from his body as did something else.
The man opened his eyes. They were no longer dark, but a bright, piercing blue. Overhead, he unfurled great wings of jet black, darker than night. He had confronted the despair of his world. In turn, before his change of will, it was transformed into wings. Rowan stood, shakily at first, but before the gentle smile of the god of loss, he rose.
“What is this? I...” he looked at his hands, the edges hard as pewter, fingertips dark as ink, sharp as iron-tipped quills. He felt strange too, too different from his past self. He felt...not quite human anymore. Flexing his new wings, he asked, “I am not the same as before, am I?”
He looked sad, for a moment. Rowan might have realized then, that in his fear of death he had gotten far more than he had bargained for. It felt like no victory but a defeat. Was this truly a rebirth? Or merely the realization of his own smallness, his own minute existence? In spite of immortality, in spite of the tremendous power now afforded to him, he felt smaller than ever before.
“What am I?” he asked.
“What we all are,” replied Loss, “a work of god. That amalgam of coincidence.”
“I might have stayed where I was. I could have left and lied. You would be dead, if only in words, and I...I would not feel this way. I would have still felt-
“Like a balloon,” said the god. Rowan, looking up with devastated eyes, lowered them in a changed glare. He was right.
“What happens now?”
“You leave,” Loss replied simply, “like all others, you must leave. If you allow me, I shall accompany you till the end of days. You will know me as a friend, one who comforts you in times of loss. Cruel at times, but you will need such cruelty, these bones of mine pulling you upwards and ever onward through the winding cycle. I shall be with you and one day I will have to take you as one among my own. You will know me then as you know me now.”
“As a god?”
“As a friend,” he replied. The god reached out a hand. Rowan flinched. He had already lost his name, the man before had gone into the god's keeping. He was still afraid to lose more. But the god of loss merely smoothed his brow, brushing Rowan's exhausted face with a bone-white hand.
“May you know me forever, may you come to know us all,” he said, so gently, with so tender a note that Rowan wondered how many mothers had come into Loss' embrace. How many ages had been filled to the heavens with struggling selves, desperately striving towards some beautiful nothing?
“What has been lost, ever shall I receive. Thus is my privilege, nay, my burden too, as lord over all that is loss.”
Rowan returned home. Or rather he slowly made his way back, as a soldier limps home after losing a war, knowing he couldn't call this tribe, this little collection of huts and tents, a home anymore. He knew what they knew. A man with black wings on his back? With cold fire in his eyes? He wouldn't be allowed to stay. He wouldn't even be allowed to set foot within the perimeter. No one would let him see his wife. Not even to say goodbye.
Let the darkness cast its shadow, let the light extend its ray.
It was quite a tale. She needed time to digest the whole thing. They sat together, Rowan feeling strange and vulnerable, Gwen looking the other way or down to the floor, or else pressing her arm close to her chest.