A Siege of Cranes

by Benjamin Rosenbaum

The land around Marish was full of the green stalks of sunflowers: tall as men, with bold yellow faces. Their broad leaves were stained black with blood.

The rustling came again, and Marish squatted down on aching legs to watch. A hedgehog pushed its nose through the stalks. It sniffed in both directions.

Hunger dug at Marish’s stomach like the point of a stick. He hadn’t eaten for three days, not since returning to the crushed and blackened ruins of his house.

The hedgehog bustled through the stalks onto the trail, across the ash, across the trampled corpses of flowers. Marish waited until it was well clear of the stalks before he jumped. He landed with one foot before its nose and one foot behind its tail. The hedgehog, as hedgehogs will, rolled itself into a ball, spines out.

His house: crushed like an egg, smoking, the straw floor soaked with blood. He’d stood there with a trapped rabbit in his hand, alone in the awful silence. Forced himself to call for his wife Temur and his daughter Asza, his voice too loud and too flat. He’d dropped the rabbit somewhere in his haste, running to follow the blackened trail of devastation.

Running for three days, drinking from puddles, sleeping in the sunflowers when he couldn’t stay awake.

Marish held his knifepoint above the hedgehog. They gave wishes, sometimes, in tales. “Speak, if you can,” he said, “and bid me don’t kill you. Grant me a wish! Elsewise, I’ll have you for a dinner.”

Nothing from the hedgehog, or perhaps a twitch.

Marish drove his knife through it and it thrashed, spraying more blood on the bloodstained flowers.

Too tired to light a fire, he ate it raw.

On that trail of tortured earth, wide enough for twenty horses, among the burnt and flattened flowers, Marish found a little doll of rags, the size of a child’s hand.

It was one of the ones Maghd the mad girl made, and offered up, begging for stew meat, or wheedling for old bread behind Lezur’s bakery. He’d given her a coin for one, once.

“Wherecome you’re giving that sow our good coins?” Temur had cried, her bright eyes flashing. None in Ilmak Dale would let a mad girl come near a hearth, and some spit when they passed her. “Bag-Maghd’s good for holding one thing only,” Fazt would call out and they’d laugh their way into the alehouse. Marish laughing too, stopping only when he looked back at her.

Temur had softened, when she saw how Asza took to the doll, holding it, and singing to it, and smearing gruel on its rag-mouth with her fingers to feed it. They called her “little life-light,” and heard her saying it to the doll, “il-ife-ight,” rocking it in her arms.

He pressed his nose into the doll, trying to smell Asza’s baby smell on it, like milk and forest soil and some sweet spice. But he only smelled the acrid stench of burnt cloth.

When he forced his wet eyes open, he saw a blurry figure coming toward him. Cursing himself for a fool, he tossed the doll away and pulled out his knife, holding it at his side. He wiped his face on his sleeve, and stood up straight, to show the man coming down the trail that the folk of Ilmak Dale did no obeisance. Then his mouth went dry and his hair stood up, for the man coming down the trail was no man at all.

It was a little taller than a man, and had the body of a man, though covered with a dark gray fur; but its head was the head of a jackal. It wore armor of bronze and leather, all straps and discs with curious engravings, and carried a great black spear with a vicious point at each end.

Marish had heard that there were all sorts of strange folk in the world, but he had never seen anything like this.

“May you die with great suffering,” the creature said in what seemed to be a calm, friendly tone.

“May you die as soon as may be!” Marish cried, not liking to be threatened.

The creature nodded solemnly. “I am Kadath-Naan of the Empty City,” it announced. “I wonder if I might ask your assistance in a small matter.”

Marish didn’t know what to say to this. The creature waited.

Marish said, “You can ask.”

“I must speak with…” It frowned. “I am not sure how to put this. I do not wish to offend.”

“Then why,” Marish asked before he could stop himself, “did you menace me on a painful death?”

“Menace?” the creature said. “I only greeted you.”

“You said, ‘May you die with great suffering.’ That like to be a threat or a curse, and I truly don’t thank you for it.”

The creature frowned. “No, it is a blessing. Or it is from a blessing: ‘May you die with great suffering, and come to know holy dread and divine terror, stripping away your vain thoughts and fancies until you are fit to meet the Bone-White Fathers face to face; and may you be buried in honor and your name sung until it is forgotten.’ That is the whole passage.”

“Oh,” said Marish. “Well, that sound a bit better, I reckon.”

“We learn that blessing as pups,” said the creature in a wondering tone. “Have you never heard it?”

“No indeed,” said Marish, and put his knife away. “Now what do you need? I can’t think to be much help to you — I don’t know this land here.”

“Excuse my bluntness, but I must speak with an embalmer, or a sepulchrist, or someone of that sort.”

“I’ve no notion what those are,” said Marish.

The creature’s eyes widened. It looked, as much as the face of a jackal could, like someone whose darkest suspicions were in the process of being confirmed.

“What do your people do with the dead?” it said.

“We put them in the ground.”

“With what preparation? With what rites and monuments?” said the thing.

“In a wood box for them as can afford it, and a piece of linen for them as can’t; and we say a prayer to the west wind. We put the stone in with them, what has their soul kept in it.” Marish thought a bit, though he didn’t much like the topic. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. “Sometime we’ll put a pile of stones on the grave, if it were someone famous.”

The jackal-headed man sat heavily on the ground. It put its head in its hands. After a long moment it said, “Perhaps I should kill you now, that I might bury you properly.”

“Now you just try that,” said Marish, taking out his knife again.

“Would you like me to?” said the creature, looking up.

Its face was serene. Marish found he had to look away, and his eyes fell upon the scorched rags of the doll, twisted up in the stalks.

“Forgive me,” said Kadath-Naan of the Empty City. “I should not be so rude as to tempt you. I see that you have duties to fulfill, just as I do, before you are permitted the descent into emptiness. Tell me which way your village lies, and I will see for myself what is done.”

“My village — ” Marish felt a heavy pressure behind his eyes, in his throat, wanting to push through into a sob. He held it back. “My village is gone. Something come and crushed it. I were off hunting, and when I come back, it were all burning, and full of the stink of blood. Whatever did it made this trail through the flowers. I think it went quick; I don’t think I’ll likely catch it. But I hope to.” He knew he sounded absurd: a peasant chasing a demon. He gritted his teeth against it.

“I see,” said the monster. “And where did this something come from? Did the trail come from the North?”

“It didn’t come from nowhere. Just the village torn to pieces and this trail leading out.”

“And the bodies of the dead,” said Kadath-Naan carefully. “You buried them in — wooden boxes?”

“There weren’t no bodies,” Marish said. “Not of people. Just blood, and a few pieces of bone and gristle, and pigs’ and horses’ bodies all charred up. That’s why I’m following.” He looked down. “I mean to find them if I can.”

Kadath-Naan frowned. “Does this happen often?”

Despite himself, Marish laughed. “Not that I ever heard before.”

The jackal-headed creature seemed agitated. “Then you do not know if the bodies received… even what you would consider proper burial.”

“I have a feeling they ain’t received it,” Marish said.

Kadath-Naan looked off in the distance towards Marish’s village, then in the direction Marish was heading. It seemed to come to a decision. “I wonder if you would accept my company in your travels,” it said. “I was on a different errand, but this matter seems to… outweigh it.”

Marish looked at the creature’s spear and said, “You’d be welcome.” He held out the fingers of his hand. “Marish of Ilmak Dale.”

The trail ran through the blackened devastation of another village, drenched with blood but empty of human bodies. The timbers of the houses were crushed to kindling; Marish saw a blacksmith’s anvil twisted like a lock of hair, and plows that had been melted by enormous heat into a pool of iron. They camped beyond the village, in the shade of a twisted hawthorn tree. A wild autumn wind stroked the meadows around them, carrying dandelion seeds and wisps of smoke and the stink of putrefying cattle.

The following evening they reached a hill overlooking a great town curled around a river. Marish had never seen so many houses — almost too many to count. Most were timber and mud like those of his village, but some were great structures of stone, towering three or four stories into the air. House built upon house, with ladders reaching up to the doors of the ones on top. Around the town, fields full of wheat rustled gold in the evening light. Men and women were reaping in the fields, singing work songs as they swung their scythes.

The path of destruction curved around the town, as if avoiding it.

“Perhaps it was too well defended,” said Kadath-Naan.

“May be,” said Marish, but he remembered the pool of iron and the crushed timbers, and doubted. “I think that like to be Nabuz. I never come this far south before, but traders heading this way from the fair at Halde were always going to Nabuz to buy.”

“They will know more of our adversary,” said Kadath-Naan.

“I’ll go,” said Marish. “You might cause a stir; I don’t reckon many of your sort visit Nabuz. You keep to the path.”

“Perhaps I might ask of you…”

“If they are friendly there, I’ll ask how they bury their dead,” Marish said.

Kadath-Naan nodded somberly. “Go to duty and to death,” he said.

Marish thought it must be a blessing, but he shivered all the same.

The light was dimming in the sky. The reapers heaped the sheaves high on the wagon, their songs slow and low, and the city gates swung open for them.

The city wall was stone, mud, and timber, twice as tall as a man, and its great gates were iron. But the wall was not well kept. Marish crept among the stalks to a place where the wall was lower and trash and rubble were heaped high against it.

He heard the creak of the wagon rolling through the gates, the last work song fading away, the men of Nabuz calling out to each other as they made their way home. Then all was still.

Marish scrambled out of the field into a dead run, scrambled up the rubble, leapt atop the wall and lay on its broad top. He peeked over, hoping he had not been seen.

The cobbled street was empty. More than that, the town itself was silent. Even in Ilmak Dale, the evenings had been full of dogs barking, swine grunting, men arguing in the streets and women gossiping and calling the children in. Nabuz was supposed to be a great capital of whoring, drinking and fighting; the traders at Halde had always moaned over the delights that awaited them in the south if they could cheat the villagers well enough. But Marish heard no donkey braying, no baby crying, no cough, no whisper: nothing pierced the night silence.

He dropped over, landed on his feet quiet as he could, and crept along the street’s edge. Before he had gone ten steps, he noticed the lights.

The windows of the houses flickered, but not with candlelight or the light of fires. The light was cold and blue.

He dragged a crate under the high window of the nearest house and clambered up to see.

There was a portly man with a rough beard, perhaps a potter after his day’s work; there was his stout young wife, and a skinny boy of nine or ten. They sat on their low wooden bench, their dinner finished and put to the side (Marish could smell the fresh bread and his stomach cursed him). They were breathing, but their faces were slack, their eyes wide and staring, their lips gently moving. They were bathed in blue light. The potter’s wife was rocking her arms gently as if she were cradling a newborn babe — but the swaddling blankets she held were empty.

And now Marish could hear a low inhuman voice, just at the edge of hearing, like a thought of his own. It whispered in time to the flicker of the blue light, and Marish felt himself drawn by its caress. Why not sit with the potter’s family on the bench? They would take him in. He could stay here, the whispering promised: forget his village, forget his grief. Fresh bread on the hearth, a warm bed next to the coals of the fire. Work the clay, mix the slip for the potter, eat a dinner of bread and cheese, then listen to the blue light and do what it told him. Forget the mud roads of Ilmak Dale, the laughing roar of Perdan and Thin Deri and Chibar and the others in its alehouse, the harsh cough and crow of its roosters at dawn. Forget willowy Temur, her hair smooth as a river and bright as a sheaf of wheat, her proud shoulders and her slender waist, Temur turning her satin cheek away when he tried to kiss it. Forget the creak and splash of the mill, and the soft rushes on the floor of Maghd’s hovel. The potter of Nabuz had a young and willing niece who needed a husband, and the blue light held laughter and love enough for all. Forget the heat and clanging of Fat Deri’s smithy; forget the green stone that held Pa’s soul, that he’d laid upon his shroud. Forget Asza, little Asza whose tiny body he’d held to his heart…

Marish thought of Asza and he saw the potter’s wife’s empty arms and with one flex of his legs, he kicked himself away from the wall, knocking over the crate and landing sprawled among rolling apples.

He sprang to his feet. There was no sound around him. He stuffed five apples in his pack, and hurried towards the center of Nabuz.

The sun had set, and the moon washed the streets in silver. From every window streamed the cold blue light.

Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a shadow dart behind him, and he turned and took out his knife. But he saw nothing, and though his good sense told him five apples and no answers was as much as he should expect from Nabuz, he kept on.

He came to a great square full of shadows, and at first he thought of trees. But it was tall iron frames, and men and women bolted to them upside down. The bolts went through their bodies, crusty with dried blood.

One man nearby was live enough to moan. Marish poured a little water into the man’s mouth, and held his head up, but the man could not swallow; he coughed and spluttered, and the water ran down his face and over the bloody holes where his eyes had been.

“But the babies,” the man rasped, “how could you let her have the babies?”

“Let who?” said Marish.

“The White Witch!” the man roared in a whisper. “The White Witch, you bastards! If you’d but let us fight her — ”

“Why…” Marish began.

“Lie again, say the babies will live forever — lie again, you cowardly blue-blood maggots in the corpse of Nabuz…” He coughed and blood ran over his face.

The bolts were fast into the frame. “I’ll get a tool,” Marish said, “you won’t — ”

From behind him came an awful scream.

He turned and saw the shadow that had followed him: it was a white cat with fine soft fur and green eyes that blazed in the darkness. It shrieked, its fur standing on end, its tail high, staring at him, and his good sense told him it was raising an alarm.

Marish ran, and the cat ran after him, shrieking. Nabuz was a vast pile of looming shadows. As he passed through the empty city gates he heard a grinding sound and a whinny. As he raced into the moonlit dusk of open land, down the road to where Kadath-Naan’s shadow crossed the demon’s path, he heard hoofbeats galloping behind him.

Kadath-Naan had just reached a field of tall barley. He turned to look back at the sound of the hoofbeats and the shrieking of the devil cat. “Into the grain!” Marish yelled. “Hide in the grain!” He passed Kadath-Naan and dived into the barley, the cat racing behind him.

Suddenly he spun and dropped and grabbed the white cat, meaning to get one hand on it and get his knife with the other and shut it up by killing it. But the cat fought like a devil and it was all he could do to hold on to it with both hands. And he saw, behind him on the trail, Kadath-Naan standing calmly, his hand on his spear, facing three knights armored every inch in white, galloping towards them on great chargers.

“You damned dog-man,” Marish screamed. “I know you want to die, but get into the grain!”

Kadath-Naan stood perfectly still. The first knight bore down on him, and the moon flashed from the knight’s sword. The blade was no more than a handsbreadth from Kadath-Naan’s neck when he sprang to the side of it, into the path of the second charger.

As the first knight’s charge carried him past, Kadath-Naan knelt, and drove the base of his great spear into the ground. Too late, the second knight made a desperate yank on the horse’s reins, but the great beast’s momentum carried him into the pike. It tore through the neck of the horse and through the armored chest of the knight riding him, and the two of them reared up and thrashed once like a dying centaur, then crashed to the ground.

The first knight wheeled around. The third met Kadath-Naan. The beast-man stood barehanded, the muscles of his shoulders and chest relaxed. He cocked his jackal head to one side, as if wondering: Is it here at last? The moment when I am granted release?

But Marish finally had the cat by its tail, and flung that wild white thing, that frenzy of claws and spit and hissing, into the face of the third knight’s steed.

The horse reared and threw its rider; the knight let go of his sword as he crashed to the ground. Quick as a hummingbird, Kadath-Naan leapt and caught it in midair. He spun to face the last rider.

Marish drew his knife and charged through the barley. He was on the fallen knight just as he got to his knees.

The crash against armor took Marish’s wind away. The man was twice as strong as Marish was, and his arm went around Marish’s chest like a crushing band of iron. But Marish had both hands free, and with a twist of the knight’s helmet he exposed a bit of neck, and in Marish’s knife went, and then the man’s hot blood was spurting out.

The knight convulsed as he died and grabbed Marish in a desperate embrace, coating him with blood, and sobbing once: and Marish held him, for the voice of his heart told him it was a shame to have to die such a way. Marish was shocked at this, for the man was a murderous slave of the White Witch; but still he held the quaking body in his arms, until it moved no more.

Then Marish, soaked with salty blood, staggered to his feet and remembered the last knight with a start; but of course Kadath-Naan had killed him in the meantime. Three knights’ bodies lay on the ruined ground, and two living horses snorted and pawed the dirt like awkward mourners. Kadath-Naan freed his spear with a great yank from the horse and man it had transfixed. The devil cat was a sodden blur of white fur and blood; a falling horse had crushed it.

Marish caught the reins of the nearest steed, a huge fine creature, and gentled it with a hand behind its ears. When he had his breath again, Marish said, “We got horses now. Can you ride?”

Kadath-Naan nodded.

“Let’s go then; there like to be more coming.”

Kadath-Naan frowned a deep frown. He gestured to the bodies.

“What?” said Marish.

“We have no embalmer or sepulchrist, it is true; yet I am trained in the funereal rites for military expeditions and emergencies. I have the necessary tools; in a matter of a day I can raise small monuments. At least they died aware and with suffering; this must compensate for the rudimentary nature of the rites.”

“You can’t be in earnest,” said Marish. “And what of the White Witch?”

“Who is the White Witch?” Kadath-Naan asked.

“The demon; turns out she’s somebody what’s called the White Witch. She spared Nabuz, for they said they’d serve her, and give her their babies.”

“We will follow her afterwards,” said Kadath-Naan.

“She’s ahead of us as it is! We leave now on horseback, we might have a chance. There be a whole lot more bodies with her unburied or buried wrong, less I mistake.”

Kadath-Naan leaned on his spear. “Marish of Ilmak Dale,” he said, “here we must part ways. I cannot steel myself to follow such logic as you declare, abandoning these three burials before me now for the chance of others elsewhere, if we can catch and defeat a witch. My duty does not lie that way.” He searched Marish’s face. “You do not have the words for it, but if these men are left unburied, they are tanzadi. If I bury them with what little honor I can provide, they are tazrash. They spent only a little while alive, but they will be tanzadi or tazrash forever.”

“And if more slaves of the White Witch come along to pay you back for killing these?”

But try as he might, Marish could not dissuade him, and at last he mounted one of the chargers and rode onwards, towards the cold white moon, away from the whispering city.

The flowers were gone, the fields were gone. The ashy light of the horizon framed the ferns and stunted trees of a black fen full of buzzing flies. The trail was wider; thirty horses could have passed side by side over the blasted ground. But the marshy ground was treacherous, and Marish’s mount sank to its fetlocks with each careful step.

A siege of cranes launched themselves from the marsh into the moon-abandoned sky. Marish had never seen so many. Bone-white, fragile, soundless, they ascended like snowflakes seeking the cold womb of heaven. Or a river of souls. None looked back at him. The voice of doubt told him: You will never know what became of Asza and Temur.

The apples were long gone, and Marish was growing light-headed from hunger. He reined the horse in and dismounted; he would have to hunt off the trail. In the bracken, he tied the charger to a great black fern as tall as a house. In a drier spot near its base was the footprint of a rabbit. He felt the indentation; it was fresh. He followed the rabbit deeper into the fen.

His was thinking of Temur and her caresses. The nights she’d turn away from him, back straight as a spear, and the space of rushes between them would be like a frozen desert, and he’d huddle unsleeping beneath skins and woolen blankets, stiff from cold, arguing silently with her in his spirit; and the nights when she’d turn to him, her soft skin hot and alive against his, seeking him silently, almost vengefully, as if showing him — see? This is what you can have. This is what I am.

And then the image of those rushes charred and brown with blood and covered with chips of broken stone and mortar came to him, and he forced himself to think of nothing: breathing his thoughts out to the west wind, forcing his mind clear as a spring stream. And he stepped forward in the marsh.

And stood in a street of blue and purple tile, in a fantastic city.

He stood for a moment wondering, and then he carefully took a step back.

And he was in a black swamp with croaking toads and nothing to eat.

The voice of doubt told him he was mad from hunger; the voice of hope told him he would find the White Witch here and kill her; and thinking a thousand things, he stepped forward again and found himself still in the swamp.

Marish thought for a while, and then he stepped back, and, thinking of nothing, stepped forward.

The tiles of the street were a wild mosaic — some had glittering jewels; some had writing in a strange flowing script; some seemed to have tiny windows into tiny rooms. Houses, tiled with the same profusion, towered like columns, bulged like mushrooms, melted like wax. Some danced. He heard soft murmurs of conversation, footfalls, and the rush of a river.

In the street, dressed in feathers or gold plates or swirls of shadow, blue-skinned people passed. One such creature, dressed in fine silk, was just passing Marish.

“Your pardon,” said Marish, “what place be this here?”

The man looked at Marish slowly. He had a red jewel in the center of his forehead, and it flickered as he talked. “That depends on how you enter it,” he said, “and who you are, but for you, catarrhine, its name is Zimzarkanthitrugenia-fenstok, not least because that is easy for you to pronounce. And now I have given you one thing free, as you are a guest of the city.”

“How many free things do I get?” said Marish.

“Three. And now I have given you two.”

Marish thought about this for a moment. “I’d favor something to eat,” he said.

The man looked surprised. He led Marish into a building that looked like a blur of spinning triangles, through a dark room lit by candles, to a table piled with capon and custard and razor-thin slices of ham and lamb’s foot jelly and candied apricots and goatsmilk yogurt and hard cheese and yams and turnips and olives and fish cured in strange spices; and those were just the things Marish recognized.

“I don’t reckon I ought to eat fairy food,” said Marish, though he could hardly speak from all the spit that was suddenly in his mouth.

“That is true, but from the food of the djinn you have nothing to fear. And now I have given you three things,” said the djinn, and he bowed and made as if to leave.

“Hold on,” said Marish (as he followed some candied apricots down his gullet with a fistful of cured fish). “That be all the free things, but say I got something to sell?”

The djinn was silent.

“I need to kill the White Witch,” Marish said, eating an olive. The voice of doubt asked him why he was telling the truth, if this city might also serve her; but he told it to hush up. “Have you got aught to help me?”

The djinn still said nothing, but he cocked an eyebrow.

“I’ve got a horse, a real fighting horse,” Marish said, around a piece of cheese.

“What is its name?” said the djinn. “You cannot sell anything to a djinn unless you know its name.”

Marish wanted to lie about the name, but he found he could not. He swallowed. “I don’t know its name,” he admitted.

“Well then,” said the djinn.

“I killed the fellow what was on it,” Marish said, by way of explanation.

“Who,” said the djinn.

“Who what?” said Marish.

“Who was on it,” said the djinn.

“I don’t know his name either,” said Marish, picking up a yam.

“No, I am not asking that,” said the djinn crossly, “I am telling you to say, ‘I killed the fellow who was on it.’”

Marish set the yam back on the table.

“Now that’s enough,” Marish said. “I thank you for the fine food and I thank you for the three free things, but I do not thank you for telling me how to talk. How I talk is how we talk in Ilmak Dale, or how we did talk when there were an Ilmak Dale, and just because the White Witch blasted Ilmak Dale to splinters don’t mean I am going to talk like folk do in some magic city.”

“I will buy that from you,” said the djinn.

“What?” said Marish, and wondered so much at this that he forgot to pick up another thing to eat.

“The way you talked in Ilmak Dale,” the djinn said.

“All right,” Marish said, “and for it, I crave to know the thing what will help me mostways, for killing the White Witch.”

“I have a carpet that flies faster than the wind,” said the djinn. “I think it is the only way you can catch the Witch, and unless you catch her, you cannot kill her.”

“Wonderful,” Marish cried with glee. “And you’ll trade me that carpet for how we talk in Ilmak Dale?”

“No,” said the djinn, “I told you which thing would help you most, and in return for that, I took the way you talked in Ilmak Dale and put it in the Great Library.”

Marish frowned. “All right, what do you want for the carpet?”

The djinn was silent.

“I’ll give you the White Witch for it,” Marish said.

“You must possess the thing you sell,” the djinn said.

“Oh, I’ll get her,” Marish said. “You can be sure of that.” His hand had found a boiled egg, and the shell crunched in his palm as he said it.

The djinn looked at Marish carefully, and then he said, “The use of the carpet, for three days, in return for the White Witch, if you can conquer her.”

“Agreed,” said Marish.

They had to bind the horse’s eyes; otherwise it would rear and kick, when the carpet rose into the air. Horse, man, djinn: all perched on a span of cloth. As they sped back to Nabuz like a mad wind, Marish tried not to watch the solid fields flying beneath, and regretted the candied apricots.

The voice of doubt told him that his companion must be slain by now, but his heart wanted to see Kadath-Naan again; but for the jackal-man, Marish was friendless.

Among the barley stalks, three man-high plinths of black stone, painted with white glyphs, marked three graves. Kadath-Naan had only traveled a little ways beyond them before the ambush. How long the emissary of the Empty City had been fighting, Marish could not tell; but he staggered and weaved like a man drunk with wine or exhaustion. His gray fur was matted with blood and sweat.

An army of children in white armor surrounded Kadath-Naan. As the carpet swung closer, Marish could see their gray faces and blank eyes. Some crawled, some tottered: none seemed to have lived more than six years of mortal life. They held daggers. One clung to the jackal-man’s back, digging canals of blood.

Two of the babies were impaled on the point of the great black spear. Hand over hand, daggers held in their mouths, they dragged themselves down the shaft towards Kadath-Naan’s hands. Hundreds more surrounded him, closing in.

Kadath-Naan swung his spear, knocking the slack-eyed creatures back. He struck with enough force to shatter human skulls, but the horrors only rolled, and scampered giggling back to stab his legs. With each swing, the spear was slower. Kadath-Naan’s eyes rolled back into their sockets. His great frame shuddered from weariness and pain.

The carpet swung low over the battle, and Marish lay on his belly, dangling his arms down to the jackal-headed warrior. He shouted: “Jump! Kadath-Naan, jump!”

Kadath-Naan looked up and, gripping his spear in both hands, he tensed his legs to jump. But the pause gave the tiny servitors of the White Witch their chance; they swarmed over his body, stabbing with their daggers, and he collapsed under the writhing mass of his enemies.

“Down further! We can haul him aboard!” yelled Marish.

“I sold you the use of my carpet, not the destruction of it,” said the djinn.

With a snarl of rage, and before the voice of his good sense could speak, Marish leapt from the carpet. He landed amidst the fray, and began tearing the small bodies from Kadath-Naan and flinging them into the fields. Then daggers found his calves, and small bodies crashed into his sides, and he tumbled, covered with the white-armored hell-children. The carpet sailed up lazily into the summer sky.

Marish thrashed, but soon he was pinned under a mass of small bodies. Their daggers probed his sides, drawing blood, and he gritted his teeth against a scream; they pulled at his hair and ears and pulled open his mouth to look inside. As if they were playing. One gray-skinned suckling child, its scalp peeled half away to reveal the white bone of its skull, nuzzled at his neck, seeking the nipple it would never find again.

So had Asza nuzzled against him. So had been her heft, then, light and snug as five apples in a bag. But her live eyes saw the world, took it in and made it better than it was. In those eyes he was a hero, a giant to lift her, honest and gentle and brave. When Temur looked into those otter-brown, mischievous eyes, her mouth softened from its hard line, and she sang fairy songs.

A dagger split the skin of his forehead, bathing him in blood. Another dug between his ribs, another popped the skin of his thigh. Another pushed against his gut, but hadn’t broken through. He closed his eyes. They weighed heavier on him now; his throat tensed to scream, but he could not catch his breath.

Marish’s arms ached for Asza and Temur — ached that he would die here, without them. Wasn’t it right, though, that they be taken from him? The little girl who ran to him across the fields of an evening, a funny hopping run, her arms flung wide, waving that rag doll; no trace of doubt in her. And the beautiful wife who stiffened when she saw him, but smiled one-edged, despite herself, as he lifted apple-smelling Asza in his arms. He had not deserved them.

His face, his skin were hot and slick with salty blood. He saw, not felt, the daggers digging deeper — arcs of light across a great darkness. He wished he could comfort Asza one last time, across that darkness. As when she would awaken in the night, afraid of witches: now a witch had come.

He found breath, he forced his mouth open, and he sang through sobs to Asza, his song to lull her back to sleep:

“Now sleep, my love, now sleep —
      The moon is in the sky —
The clouds have fled like sheep —
      You’re in your papa’s eye.
“Sleep now, my love, sleep now —
      The bitter wind is gone —
The calf sleeps with the cow —
      Now sleep my love ’til dawn.”

He freed his left hand from the press of bodies. He wiped blood and tears from his eyes. He pushed his head up, dizzy, flowers of light still exploding across his vision. The small bodies were still. Carefully, he eased them to the ground.

The carpet descended, and Marish hauled Kadath-Naan onto it. Then he forced himself to turn, swaying, and look at each of the gray-skinned babies sleeping peacefully on the ground. None of them was Asza.

He took one of the smallest and swaddled it with rags and bridle leather. His blood made his fingers slick, and the noon sun seemed as gray as a stone. When he was sure the creature could not move, he put it in his pack and slung the pack upon his back. Then he fell onto the carpet. He felt it lift up under him, and like a cradled child, he slept.

He awoke to see clouds sailing above him. The pain was gone. He sat up and looked at his arms: they were whole and unscarred. Even the old scar from Thin Deri’s careless scythe was gone.

“You taught us how to defeat the Children of Despair,” said the djinn. “That required recompense. I have treated your wounds and those of your companion. Is the debt clear?”

“Answer me one question,” Marish said.

“And the debt will be clear?” said the djinn.

“Yes, may the west wind take you, it’ll be clear!”

The djinn blinked in assent.

“Can they be brought back?” Marish asked. “Can they be made into living children again?”

“They cannot,” said the djinn. “They can neither live nor die, nor be harmed at all unless they will it. Their hearts have been replaced with sand.”

They flew in silence, and Marish’s pack seemed heavier.

The land flew by beneath them as fast as a cracking whip; Marish stared as green fields gave way to swamp, swamp to marsh, marsh to rough pastureland. The devastation left by the White Witch seemed gradually newer; the trail here was still smoking, and Marish thought it might be too hot to walk on. They passed many a blasted village, and each time Marish looked away.

At last they began to hear a sound on the wind, a sound that chilled Marish’s heart. It was not a wail, it was not a grinding, it was not a shriek of pain, nor the wet crunch of breaking bones, nor was it an obscene grunting; but it had something of all of these. The jackal-man’s ears were perked, and his gray fur stood on end.

The path was now truly still burning; they flew high above it, and the rolling smoke underneath was like a fog over the land. But there ahead they saw the monstrous thing that was leaving the trail; and Marish could hardly think any thought at all as they approached, but only stare, bile burning his throat.

It was a great chariot, perhaps eight times the height of a man, as wide as the trail, constructed of parts of living human bodies welded together in an obscene tangle. A thousand legs and arms pawed the ground; a thousand more beat the trail with whips and scythes, or clawed the air. A thick skein of hearts, livers, and stomachs pulsed through the center of the thing, and a great assemblage of lungs breathed at its core. Heads rolled like wheels at the bottom of the chariot, or were stuck here and there along the surface of the thing as slack-eyed, gibbering ornaments. A thousand spines and torsos built a great chamber at the top of the chariot, shielded with webs of skin and hair; there perhaps hid the White Witch. From the pinnacle of the monstrous thing flew a great flag made of writhing tongues. Before the awful chariot rode a company of ten knights in white armor, with visored helms.

At the very peak sat a great headless hulking beast, larger than a bear, with the skin of a lizard, great yellow globes of eyes set on its shoulders and a wide mouth in its belly. As they watched, it vomited a gout of flame that set the path behind the chariot ablaze. Then it noticed them, and lifted the great plume of flame in their direction. At a swift word from the djinn, the carpet veered, but it was a close enough thing that Marish felt an oven’s blast of heat on his skin. He grabbed the horse by its reins as it made to rear, and whispered soothing sounds in its ear.

“Abomination!” cried Kadath-Naan. “Djinn, will you send word to the Empty City? You will be well rewarded.”

The djinn nodded.

“It is Kadath-Naan, lesser scout of the Endless Inquiry, who speaks. Let Bars-Kardereth, Commander of the Silent Legion, be told to hasten here. Here is an obscenity beyond compass, far more horrible than the innocent errors of savages; here Chaos blocks the descent into the Darkness entirely, and a whole land may fall to corruption.”

The jewel in the djinn’s forehead flashed once. “It is done,” he said.

Kadath-Naan turned to Marish. “From the Empty City to this place is four days’ travel for a Ghomlu Legion; let us find a place in their path where we can wait to join them.”

Marish forced himself to close his eyes. But still he saw it — hands, tongues, guts, skin, woven into a moving mountain. He still heard the squelching, grinding, snapping sounds, the sea-roar of the thousand lungs. What had he imagined? Asza and Temur in a prison somewhere, waiting to be freed? Fool. “All right,” he said.

Then he opened his eyes, and saw something that made him say, “No.”

Before them, not ten minutes’ ride from the awful chariot of the White Witch, was a whitewashed village, peaceful in the afternoon sun. Arrayed before it were a score of its men and young women. A few had proper swords or spears; one of the women carried a bow. The others had hoes, scythes, and staves. One woman sat astride a horse; the rest were on foot. From their perch in the air, Marish could see distant figures — families, stooped grandmothers, children in their mothers’ arms — crawling like beetles up the faces of hills.

“Down,” said Marish, and they landed before the village’s defenders, who raised their weapons.

“You’ve got to run,” he said, “you can make it to the hills. You haven’t seen that thing — you haven’t any chance against it.”

A dark man spat on the ground. “We tried that in Gravenge.”

“It splits up,” said a black-bearded man. “Sends littler horrors, and they tear folks up and make them part of it, and you see your fellows’ limbs, come after you as part of the thing. And they’re fast. Too fast for us.”

“We just busy it a while,” another man said, “our folk can get far enough away.” But he had a wild look in his eye: the voice of doubt was in him.

“We stop it here,” said the woman on horseback.

Marish led the horse off the carpet, took its blinders off and mounted it. “I’ll stand with you,” he said.

“And welcome,” said the woman on horseback, and her plain face broke into a nervous smile. It was almost pretty that way.

Kadath-Naan stepped off the carpet, and the villagers shied back, readying their weapons.

“This is Kadath-Naan, and you’ll be damned glad you have him,” said Marish.

“Where’s your manners?” snapped the woman on horseback to her people. “I’m Asza,” she said.

No, Marish thought, staring at her. No, but you could have been. He looked away, and after a while they left him alone.

The carpet rose silently off into the air, and soon there was smoke on the horizon, and the knights rode at them, and the chariot rose behind.

“Here we are,” said Asza of the rocky lands, “now make a good accounting of yourselves.”

An arrow sang; a white knight’s horse collapsed. Marish cried “Ha!” and his mount surged forward. The villagers charged, but Kadath-Naan outpaced them all, springing between a pair of knights. He shattered the forelegs of one horse with his spear’s shaft, drove its point through the side of the other rider. Villagers fell on the fallen knight with their scythes.

It was a heady wild thing for Marish, to be galloping on such a horse, a far finer horse than ever Redlegs had been, for all Pa’s proud and vain attention to her. The warmth of its flanks, the rhythm of posting into its stride. Marish of Ilmak Dale, riding into a charge of knights: miserable addle-witted fool.

Asza flicked her whip at the eyes of a knight’s horse, veering away. The knight wheeled to follow her, and Marish came on after him. He heard the hooves of another knight pounding the plain behind him in turn.

Ahead the first knight gained on Asza of the rocky plains. Marish took his knife in one hand, and bent his head to his horse’s ear, and whispered to it in wordless murmurs: Fine creature, give me everything. And his horse pulled even with Asza’s knight.

Marish swung down, hanging from his pommel — the ground flew by beneath him. He reached across and slipped his knife under the girth that held the knight’s saddle. The knight swiveled, raising his blade to strike — then the girth parted, and he flew from his mount.

Marish struggled up into the saddle, and the second knight was there, armor blazing in the sun. This time Marish was on the sword-arm’s side, and his horse had slowed, and that blade swung up and it could strike Marish’s head from his neck like snapping off a sunflower; time for the peasant to die.

Asza’s whip lashed around the knight’s sword-arm. The knight seized the whip in his other hand. Marish sprang from the saddle. He struck a wall of chainmail and fell with the knight.

The ground was an anvil, the knight a hammer, Marish a rag doll sewn by a poor mad girl and mistaken for a horseshoe. He couldn’t breathe; the world was a ringing blur. The knight found his throat with one mailed glove, and hissed with rage, and pulling himself up drew a dagger from his belt. Marish tried to lift his arms.

Then he saw Asza’s hands fitting a leather noose around the knight’s neck. The knight turned his visored head to see, and Asza yelled, “Yah!” An armored knee cracked against Marish’s head, and then the knight was gone, dragged off over the rocky plains behind Asza’s galloping mare.

Asza of the rocky lands helped Marish to his feet. She had a wild smile, and she hugged him to her breast; pain shot through him, as did the shock of her soft body. Then she pulled away, grinning, and looked over his shoulder back towards the village. And then the grin was gone.

Marish turned. He saw the man with the beard torn apart by a hundred grasping arms and legs. Two bending arms covered with eyes watched carefully as his organs were woven into the chariot. The village burned. A knight leaned from his saddle to cut a fleeing woman down, harvesting her like a stalk of wheat.

“No!” shrieked Asza, and ran towards the village.

Marish tried to run, but he could only hobble, gasping, pain tearing through his side. Asza snatched a spear from the ground and swung up onto a horse. Her hair was like Temur’s, flowing gold. My Asza, my Temur, he thought. I must protect her.

Marish fell; he hit the ground and held onto it like a lover, as if he might fall into the sky. Fool, fool, said the voice of his good sense. That is not your Asza, or your Temur either. She is not yours at all.

He heaved himself up again and lurched on, as Asza of the rocky plains reached the chariot. From above, a lazy plume of flame expanded. The horse reared. The cloud of fire enveloped the woman, the horse, and then was sucked away; the blackened corpses fell to the ground steaming.

Marish stopped running.

The headless creature of fire fell from the chariot — Kadath-Naan was there at the summit of the horror, his spear sunk in the its flesh as a lever. But the fire-beast turned as it toppled, and a pillar of fire engulfed the jackal-man. The molten iron of his spear and armor coated his body, and he fell into the grasping arms of the chariot.

Marish lay down on his belly in the grass.

Maybe they will not find me here, said the voice of hope. But it was like listening to idiot words spoken by the wind blowing through a forest. Marish lay on the ground and he hurt. The hurt was a song, and it sang him. Everything was lost and far away. No Asza, no Temur, no Maghd; no quest, no hero, no trickster, no hunter, no father, no groom. The wind came down from the mountains and stirred the grass beside Marish’s nose, where beetles walked.

There was a rustling in the short grass, and a hedgehog came out of it and stood nose to nose with Marish.

“Speak if you can,” Marish whispered, “and grant me a wish.”

The hedgehog snorted. “I’ll not do you any favors, after what you did to Teodor!”

Marish swallowed. “The hedgehog in the sunflowers?”

“Obviously. Murderer.”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know he was magic! I thought he was just a hedgehog!”

“Just a hedgehog! Just a hedgehog!” It narrowed its eyes, and its prickers stood on end. “Be careful what you call things, Marish of Ilmak Dale. When you name a thing, you say what it is in the world. Names mean more than you know.”

Marish was silent.

“Teodor didn’t like threats, that’s all… the stubborn old idiot.”

“I’m sorry about Teodor,” said Marish.

“Yes, well,” said the hedgehog. “I’ll help you, but it will cost you dear.”

“What do you want?”

“How about your soul?” said the hedgehog.

“I’d do that, sure,” said Marish. “It’s not like I need it. But I don’t have it.”

The hedgehog narrowed its eyes again. From the village, a few thin screams and the soft crackle of flames. It smelled like autumn, and butchering hogs.

“It’s true,” said Marish. “The priest of Ilmak Dale took all our souls and put them in little stones, and hid them. He didn’t want us making bargains like these.”

“Wise man,” said the hedgehog. “But I’ll have to have something. What have you got in you, besides a soul?”

“What do you mean, like, my wits? But I’ll need those.”

“Yes, you will,” said the hedgehog.

“Hope? Not much of that left, though.”

“Not to my taste anyway,” said the hedgehog. “Hope is foolish, doubts are wise.”

“Doubts?” said Marish.

“That’ll do,” said the hedgehog. “But I want them all.”

“All… all right,” said Marish. “And now you’re going to help me against the White Witch?”

“I already have,” said the hedgehog.

“You have? Have I got some magic power or other now?” asked Marish. He sat up. The screaming was over: he heard nothing but the fire, and the crunching and squelching and slithering and grinding of the chariot.

“Certainly not,” said the hedgehog. “I haven’t done anything you didn’t see or didn’t hear. But perhaps you weren’t listening.” And it waddled off into the green blades of the grass.

Marish stood and looked after it. He picked at his teeth with a thumbnail, and thought, but he had no idea what the hedgehog meant. But he had no doubts, either, so he started toward the village.

Halfway there, he noticed the dead baby in his pack wriggling, so he took it out and held it in his arms.

As he came into the burning village, he found himself just behind the great fire-spouting lizard-skinned headless thing. It turned and took a breath to burn him alive, and he tossed the baby down its throat. There was a choking sound, and the huge thing shuddered and twitched, and Marish walked on by it.

The great chariot saw him and it swung toward him, a vast mountain of writhing, humming, stinking flesh, a hundred arms reaching. Fists grabbed his shirt, his hair, his trousers, and they lifted him into the air.

He looked at the hand closed around his collar. It was a woman’s hand, fine and fair, and it was wearing the copper ring he’d bought at Halde.

“Temur!” he said in shock.

The arm twitched and slackened; it went white. It reached out, the fingers spread wide; it caressed his cheek gently. And then it dropped from the chariot and lay on the ground beneath.

He knew the hands pulling him aloft. “Lezur the baker!” he whispered, and a pair of doughy hands dropped from the chariot. “Silbon and Felbon!” he cried. “Ter the blind! Sela the blue-eyed!” Marish’s lips trembled to say the names, and the hands slackened and fell to the ground, and away on other parts of the chariot the other parts fell off too; he saw a blue eye roll down from above him and fall to the ground.

“Perdan! Mardid! Pilg and his old mother! Fazt — oh Fazt, you’ll tell no more jokes! Chibar and his wife, the pretty foreign one!” His face was wet; with every name, a bubble popped open in Marish’s chest, and his throat was thick with some strange feeling. “Pizdar the priest! Fat Deri, far from your smithy! Thin Deri!” When all the hands and arms of Ilmak Dale had fallen off, he was left standing free. He looked at the strange hands coming toward him. “You were a potter,” he said to hands with clay under the nails, and they fell off the chariot. “And you were a butcher,” he said to bloody ones, and they fell too. “A fat farmer, a beautiful young girl, a grandmother, a harlot, a brawler,” he said, and enough hands and feet and heads and organs had slid off the chariot now that it sagged in the middle and pieces of it strove with each other blindly. “Men and women of Eckdale,” Marish said, “men and women of Halde, of Gravenge, of the fields and the swamps and the rocky plains.”

The chariot fell to pieces; some lay silent and still, others which Marish had not named had lost their purchase and thrashed on the ground.

The skin of the great chamber atop the chariot peeled away and the White Witch leapt into the sky. She was three times as tall as any woman; her skin was bone white; one eye was blood red and the other emerald green; her mouth was full of black fangs, and her hair of snakes and lizards. Her hands were full of lightning, and she sailed onto Marish with her fangs wide open.

And around her neck, on a leather thong, she wore a little doll of rags, the size of a child’s hand.

“Maghd of Ilmak Dale,” Marish said, and she was also a young woman with muddy hair and an uncertain smile, and that’s how she landed before Marish.

“Well done, Marish,” said Maghd, and pulled at a muddy lock of her hair, and laughed, and looked at the ground. “Well done! Oh, I’m glad. I’m glad you’ve come.”

“Why did you do it, Maghd?” Marish said. “Oh, why?”

She looked up and her lips twitched and her jaw set. “Can you ask me that? You, Marish?”

She reached across, slowly, and took his hand. She pulled him, and he took a step towards her. She put the back of his hand against her cheek.

“You’d gone out hunting,” she said. “And that Temur of yours” — she said the name as if it tasted of vinegar — “she seen me back of Lezur’s, and for one time I didn’t look down. I looked at her eyes, and she named me a foul witch. And then they were all crowding round — ” She shrugged. “And I don’t like that. Fussing and crowding and one against the other.” She let go his hand and stooped to pick up a clot of earth, and she crumbled it in her hands. “So I knit them all together. All one thing. They did like it. And they were so fine and great and happy, I forgave them. Even Temur.”

The limbs lay unmoving on the ground; the guts were piled in soft unbreathing hills, like drifts of snow. Maghd’s hands were coated with black crumbs of dust.

“I reckon they’re done of playing now,” Maghd said, and sighed.

“How?” Marish said. “How’d you do it? Maghd, what are you?”

“Don’t fool so! I’m Maghd, same as ever. I found the souls, that’s all. Dug them up from Pizdar’s garden, sold them to the Spirit of Unwinding Things.” She brushed the dirt from her hands.

“And… the children, then? Maghd, the babes?”

She took his hand again, but she didn’t look at him. She laid her cheek against her shoulder and watched the ground. “Babes shouldn’t grow,” she said. “No call to be big and hateful.” She swallowed. “I made them perfect. That’s all.”

Marish’s chest tightened. “And what now?”

She looked at him, and a slow grin crept across her face. “Well now,” she said. “That’s on you, ain’t it, Marish? I got plenty of tricks yet, if you want to keep fighting.” She stepped close to him, and rested her cheek on his chest. Her hair smelled like home: rushes and fire smoke, cold mornings and sheep’s milk. “Or we can gather close. No one to shame us now.” She wrapped her arms around his waist. “It’s all new, Marish, but it ain’t all bad.”

A shadow drifted over them, and Marish looked up to see the djinn on his carpet, peering down. Marish cleared his throat. “Well… I suppose we’re all we have left, aren’t we?”

“That’s so,” Maghd breathed softly.

He took her hands in his, and drew back to look at her. “Will you be mine, Maghd?” he said.

“Oh yes,” said Maghd, and smiled the biggest smile of her life.

“Very good,” Marish said, and looked up. “You can take her now.”

The djinn opened the little bottle that was in his hand and Maghd the White Witch flew into it, and he put the cap on. He bowed to Marish, and then he flew away.

Behind Marish the fire beast exploded with a dull boom.

Marish walked out of the village a little ways and sat, and after sitting a while he slept. And then he woke and sat, and then he slept some more. Perhaps he ate as well; he wasn’t sure what. Mostly he looked at his hands; they were rough and callused, with dirt under the nails. He watched the wind painting waves in the short grass, around the rocks and bodies lying there.

One morning he woke, and the ruined village was full of jackal-headed men in armor made of discs who were mounted on great red cats with pointed ears, and jackal-headed men in black robes who were measuring for monuments, and jackal-headed men dressed only in loincloths who were digging in the ground.

Marish went to the ones in loincloths and said, “I want to help bury them,” and they gave him a shovel.✪

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