This short story first appeared in Separate Worlds as a featured short story (Feb. 2014 issue). It’s a prequel to Scourged in Stone, and the events in this story take place some six hundred years before the events in the novel.
The runaway crawled up the stone steps on bloody hands and bruised knees. The entrance to the temple stood over her, taunting her with its magnificence, its promise of safety. Grit from the stone stung her lacerated palms, but still, she moved.
If she could just reach the entrance, touch the stone altar, press her lips to its power, she would be freed.
“Stand,” a voice commanded.
The girl’s head dropped against the stone, her strength spent. “I can’t.” Every breath pained, never mind the movement it would take to climb to her feet.
“If you are to save your people, you must stand,” the voice insisted.
“I do not wish to save my people!” she spat. “Just myself.”
Hot tears mingled with sweat and blood and fell in drops to the ground. She wanted none of their prophecies. If her people wanted freedom, let them get it themselves. Let them outrun the slavers, fight off the bloodsucking pests, press through slime and brush and thorn bushes in the high summer heat, and then crawl up the stones of the sacred temple themselves. Let them do as she’d done.
They’d never do it, the cowards.
“You are the only coward I see here, Taliah.” The voice came from beside her now. A man’s voice.
Fear hit her as she remembered the temple had long since been abandoned by her people. Who dared trespass on sacred ground? Had the Marashi found her at last?
Her heart quickened, temporarily renewing her strength, and she looked up to see a Chaelic priest sitting beside her on the steps. It was impossible that he should be here. Yet next to her was a man, in a plain linen robe, clean-shaven, wearing a Northern Arrow around his neck, pointing its way toward the Eternal Plane.
“How can this be?” She shuddered in spite of the heat. “The Marashi destroyed the priests.”
“The Marashi can destroy only what they find.”
She knew that too well. If they could not find her, they could not destroy her.
“I am no coward,” she said, straightening a little. Her legs still failed her, but the adrenaline gave her enough strength to sit.
“No? Then why do you sit here, refusing to move forward, not wanting to go back? Only cowards remain frozen in fear.”
Her will resurfaced, as did her desire to fight back. “I made it this far, didn’t I?”
He stood, towering over her, blocking the sun as it peaked in the sky. “You made it this far, only to stop?”
Infuriated, she made a desperate grab for the hem of his robe, but clutched only air. He had taken a step up.
“Oh ho!” Now he taunted her. “You have some strength left, do you? Why use it to fight me? Why not use it to stand and to walk up these steps?”
“Why not just leave me to die, priest?” She returned her head to the ancient dirt-covered stone, ignoring the sting caused by the grime filling the scratches on her face. She hadn’t come to be taunted by imaginary men who worshiped imaginary deities. She had come for power. For freedom.
“Is that your will? To have run through the jungle, chased by slavers, drinking muddy water and eating caral leaves, just to fall a few steps from your goal and die?” He clicked his tongue in the way her father did when she’d told him she’d rather lose a finger to her master than go into the mine another day.
“If that is your will, Taliah, give up,” her father had said. “It’s what they’d expect from a slave, anyway. You give them that. Be a slave, instead of an Annesard.”
She’d unwisely retorted that she already was a slave. That the Annesards were dead. She knew that wasn’t what he meant, and she felt sorry for her disworship. But she couldn’t apologize.
And now, here, this impossible priest looked at her as he had, with eyes of profound disappointment. Why should she care what he thought, this man who served a god who’d left them all to suffer? Had she enough moisture left, she would have spat on his robe.
“You do not seem one who would surrender, Taliah. You were created to be a fighter. No one else could do what you have done, though many have tried.”
She knew this, that she was stronger. It was why she should be saved, while they suffered. She deserved salvation. She had earned it.
“Yes,” he continued, “you have endured much, but no more so than your fellow Annesards. Yet here you are, while they slave in the dust-filled mines. Even if you die on these steps, you have endured far longer than anyone else ever has. They will die there, and you will die on these steps, but at least you will die closer to freedom.”
Her head jolted, a blistered face twisting into a feral snarl. “I…will not…die.”
The priest still towered over her, illumined by light from above. “Yet I can’t help but wonder, Taliah, will you be free?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are here. But the altar is there.” He turned, pointing to where the massive stone dais stood, just inside the opened entrance of the temple.
Strange. She could see into the temple now. No longer did the threshold seem so high and far off. It gaped in front of her, inviting. Taunting.
In wonderment, she turned and looked behind her, down the stone steps, into the tangled brush below. Somehow, perhaps through sheer force of will, she had come to the top, though she did not recall the journey.
“But, priest,” she said, softening her tone to a more respectful one, “how can this be?”
No one answered.
He’d left her at the top, within reach of her goal. For a healthy pilgrim, an unmarred, refreshed one, it would be a simple task to take five long steps through the entrance and press one’s lips to the cold stone. The act of supplication would be enough to grant freedom.
Or so her people said. No one had ever, in fact, done it. But in a country with so harsh a landscape as Marasha, it seemed the only means of escape. Scintilla of hope though it was, she had nothing else. Her cruel overlords had ripped everything else from her weakened grasp.
One hand at a time, she reached, dragging her body on the rough rock. When her abraded hands could no longer take the pain, she pressed her forearms down and tried to gain leverage with them. Her legs had long since given up, and her shoes had been torn until they were comprised of nothing but the threads that had constructed them.
She looked older than her sixteen years, a sight that would have aroused pity in the damned. Having seen her reflection in the last pool, she knew she no longer resembled anything human. Yet, she crawled on. Appearance no longer mattered. Not to an Annesard. Not to a slave. Not to a runaway.
Only her will mattered.
She would not die. She would be free.
This became her mantra as she moved, every agonizing minute moving her one bit closer to her goal. The thick smell of sweat and blood filled her nostrils, spurring her forward. She would not allow her sweat and blood to be expended for no purpose.
I will not die. I will be free.
Over and again, she repeated the words, mouthing them when her throat became too parched. I will not die. I will be free.
And, before she realized she had moved so far, her lips, dry as the Marashi sands, fell against the cold altar.
She felt nothing.
Squeezing her eyes shut, the slave pressed harder, willing some power of freedom to descend upon her broken form.
No such feeling came.
With a sick exhale, she leaned back on her feet. She had no more water to cry more tears. She knew if she did not replenish her supply soon, she would die. And she would not be free.
I will not die, she mouthed once more, but hadn’t the strength or will to finish the mantra.
Minutes passed. Hours, days, weeks, seconds. She didn’t know. She’d forgotten time existed. Where was the damned priest now?
She wanted to laugh at her hardened joke, but the sound that came from her lips was that of a wounded beast. She would die here. Despite the fact she’d reached her goal, she would die a slave.
She fell so lost in her fears, which took her mind to another world, her past world and all its horrors, that she did not hear the temple page until he dropped his filled bucket beside her.
Jolted from the momentary escape, she looked up, her mouth open and eyes blank, to see. The boy had all the markings of a bastard child, a crossbreed. No doubt his mother had been Annesian, and his father, Marashi.
Her chest tightened and she looked away, not wishing to stare longer at his mother’s curly hair darkened by his father’s ancestry. Or his mother’s oval face marred by his father’s obsidian eyes.
She knew the story far too well. He had claimed one night with her, and she would suffer the consequences for eternity.
At least the child served in a temple. It was a better fate for him than what lay beyond the stone towers. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the mother.
“Welcome, mistress!” he greeted, reaching into the bucket for a small wooden ladle and filling it. “It’s my job to greet pilgrims, but you’re the first one we’ve had in an Amaranth’s year!”
Odd expression. She hadn’t heard it since the purge.
“Drink, mistress,” the boy said, holding the crude cup to her cracked lips. The movement to take in the moisture pained her. The tight skin re-opened, and the water, cool as it was, burned. She tasted blood with the first swallow, nearly choking on it. How long had it been since she had drunk? It seemed her body couldn’t remember how to respond.
It took her a moment of coughing before she recovered. When she spoke again, her lubricated speech resounded throughout the temple. She had a voice once more, strong and resilient. “Thank you.”
“You should sleep, mistress. It’s cool here, and you’re safe.”
Sleep. She hadn’t since she’d run away. With what little strength she had, she reached up and grabbed the boy’s wrist. “I’m afraid to sleep.”
The child’s laugh contrasted the mood in a way the girl didn’t like. “What’s so scary about sleep? When you dream, you go on all sorts of adventures!”
“There are no adventures, in this world or in any other. There are only nightmares, filled with abysmal terrors and men with swords. And then should I awaken, the dream’ll become reality. And if I do not awaken, the dream is reality. Death is reality.”
Twisting his arm from the girl’s feeble grasp, the boy laughed again. “But mistress,” he said, “how do you know that this is reality, and not a dream? What if you’ve been asleep this long while? How can you know the difference between what’s real, and what isn’t?”
A profound sense of hopelessness washed over her and her battered hand fell to the unyielding flagstones. The child was right. How could she discern reality from fantasy if every waking moment, and every sleeping moment, consisted of nightmarish apparitions? If she was a slave in dreams, as well as a slave in truth?
“In my dreams, the pain exists, but I only feel it in my soul. When I’m awake, I feel it everywhere.”
Setting down the ladle, the child frowned, as though he pondered her words.
She shook her head at the thought. He was only a child. He could not think so deeply.
“Surely you feel something other than pain. Why, there are so many other things to feel!” A fist in the air punctuated his statement while he set his lips in a hard line. The voice sounded young, but the face seemed so old.
For some reason, his sapience grated on her. “What would you know of it? You’re a boy!”
She could tell by his face she’d offended him. Though he did not like being called a child, he looked very childish at her condescension.
In reply, he reached down and lifted up the edge of his tunic to reveal a scabbed knee. “Yesterday, the priestess called for me, and I ran to answer. I flew too fast and there’s a stone, just by the door to the sanctum, it sticks up. I tripped.” As if he had just answered all of her life’s questions, he dropped his well-worn tunic and straightened, tossing his chin in the air as he did so.
Taliah’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Well, what does that have to do with anything?”
The boy wrinkled his nose. Now was his turn to be condescending. “It hurt!”
She laughed, the first one in years, and it sounded so unnatural. She’d forgotten how. Still, the release of breath and energy felt good. Right, somehow. Recalling the last time she’d laughed, on a summer night ages ago, she rolled over and leaned against the altar, with a wounded sigh. Joy only reminded her more of the pain.
If the boy noticed her change in demeanor, he didn’t mention it, instead keeping on with his babbling. “But I got up, and maybe I cried a little, but I still went to the priestess anyway. She’d called me. Once she saw I’d hurt myself, she helped me wash it off and put a cloth over it and prayed.”
Here, she felt the need to interject. To perhaps inflict more pain. “And I suppose it didn’t hurt anymore after that?” She couldn’t feel sorry for the unkind question. It was reality.
“Course it hurt,” came the child’s innocent response. “Only, it made me not think so much about it anymore.”
She fell silent, looking out from her place of rest to the miles of jungle that grew wildly below. She’d fought through it. The fight had hurt, had exhausted her. For the first time since she’d run, she allowed the fatigue to surface, growing ever more conscious of its effects. Her head rolled onto her shoulder, her eyelids dropped, and every muscle in her body released its last bit of self-aware tension, the boy fading to a blur.
She didn’t sleep right away. First, came the strange thoughts, the fears that had plagued her, mixing in absurdity. She saw her master’s face on the body of a snake as it crawled up her leg. Her near-unconscious body jerked, and the image changed. The snake grew and became a Marashi boy who held a warrior’s sword. He held it out to her, and she screamed.
At some point between the scream and the darkness, she succumbed to the exhaustion and slept. As she slept, she dreamt.
She dreamt of war that ended with victory and her people boarding flying ships that would sail through the clouds into cool, green mountains. Into freedom and security. Back to the land of their forefathers. But as the ships flew away, she stood on the brush-covered beaches yelling for them to return, that they had forgotten something.
They ignored her pleas.
They must return.
No, that couldn’t be right. Why would they return to the land that caused them so much pain?
Yet there, on the edge of the horizon, where the water met the sky, she saw a ship. This one sailed on water, not air, and standing in the prow, she thought she saw her son. Only, he wasn’t a child. He was a man.
She cried out that he should turn around, go back. That nothing was so important he should risk his freedom. Her voice drifted over the waves and was drowned by the sea.
Perhaps she could find someone to help her get a ship. She could row to him and warn him. She turned, only to be met by a line of Marashi warriors, swords gleaming in the hot sun, saliva dripping down their battle-hungry faces, tear-shaped shields beating time on the fiery sands. They waited for him, but did not see her. Their bloodlust blinded them.
The ship sailed swiftly to the beach, as though it had some flight left in it from before, and ran aground. The young man jumped from the deck, careless, oblivious to the danger.
Her sight of him was fleeting. The young man was no older than she, yet she knew in the depths of her gut it was her son. It was his obsidian eyes. And her auburn hair that curled around his ears. He had the bearing of a warrior, but the mark of a slave.
She could not watch them take him. Crying out, she fell on her face in the sand as the warriors rushed forward with their ghostly cries. Only, as her head touched the ground, the sand felt smooth and solid, not grainy and supple.
The beach had turned to stone. Everything around her had turned to stone.
Panicked, she grabbed for something to ground her, to remind her of where she was, but felt the coldness of granite. The unmovable, eternal, unfeeling stone.
One last desperate reach for flesh, and she grasped a hand. Warm, with blood that still coursed through it. She had found the living in a world of statues. It was how she knew she still lived, as well.
Her eyes fluttered open. It took her a moment to get her bearing. One hand pressed against the stone altar. The other gripped the hand of a priestess. The boy had mentioned a priestess. Was this she?
“If you wish, I can help you.”
The grip tightened, and the girl withdrew her hand. She had no wish to be helped by priestesses who hid in abandoned temples while the rest of the world suffered.
“You still do not trust, Taliah? After all you have done, and after all I’ve done for you.”
At this, the girl’s nose twitched in disgust. “Done for me? What has anyone ever done for me?”
The priestess knelt on the floor to face her, dirtying her pure white robes. “You kissed my altar for freedom. You drank my water for life. You are free; you are alive. That is what you prayed, isn’t it?”
A wave of nausea overcame her. “Only Chael can grant — why must you bother me? Why can’t I just be free?” A priest who knew her name. A boy in an abandoned temple. Had she not felt the warmth of the hand she’d grabbed, she would think she dreamed still. But she knew this was reality. The voice that spoke to her now seemed more real than her own.
“You are free,” the priestess replied. “But not in the way you imagined.”
Why must these voices torture her with riddles? She wanted answers, not more questions.
“I felt no power, nothing coursing through me. No freedom in my veins, in my thoughts. I kissed the altar, but I felt nothing!” The tears threatened to flow again, but she forced them to return to their source. She’d had done with crying. Weeping didn’t free her, either.
“I wonder,” said the priestess, placing a delicate thumb to her unblemished cheek, “if freedom is a feeling, or something else altogether.”
“I must feel free,” she insisted.
“But does it make you so?” She dropped her hand. “A Marashi peasant feels free. They are not, after all, a bondsman. So, by the rules of their society, they are free. But a Marashi peasant cannot leave the land when he wishes. He must ask permission before disposing of any of his property, or gaining new property. He serves a lord and master, just as a bondsman, and yet, you say, he is free. And he feels it. But is he free in reality? Or only in his own mind?”
The girl had no response. She wanted to reply with scorn, but her scorn was unfounded. Still, if she felt free, wouldn’t it mean that she was? And how could she be free if she did not feel it? Her journey now seemed in vain, and what a fool she was! To think kissing a rock would set her free.
She laid her head against the dais and looked to the magnificent vaulted ceiling. Could she ever attain such heights?
“I’ll die a slave. All my hope . . . dead.”
“Taliah. Why did you come here?”
She didn’t know. She thought she knew. But, she’d been wrong. “I thought I came . . . I needed to come . . . that is, I can’t take this world any longer. To the Marashi, I am their property, to be used. To my own people, I belong to the Marashi and am not theirs at all.”
The anger, which she had for so many years kept at bay rushed in full force as she rolled herself onto her hands and knees, shredded hands clawing at the flagstones. “They stood by! My own people, my own family, would have let me die to save themselves! Twenty Annesards against one Marashi warlord, and they refused to stand for me. How could they let a child be taken? Cowards, all of them! May they spend eternity searching for an end that will never come!” The tears came now, falling free, like the springs in the rainy season. Her sobs reverberating against the temple walls became the thunder. “They should suffer as I have suffered. Death should never be allowed to give their souls rest!”
“And you would expend such energy in hating those who did not have the power to save you?”
“And if they’d had the power? What would they have done?” People only fought for themselves. No one had ever truly cared for another.
They pretended to. Her father pretended when he swore a sacred oath no ill would come to her. Her mother pretended as she’d rocked her child to sleep. Her brothers and sisters had pretended, too. All a façade. A false gem, masquerading as something precious and desirable, but having no worth.
“The world, Taliah, is not so cruel as you imagine. Love comes in many forms.”
She shook her head. Love was the most radiant false stone of all. “Unless you can show me that sort of love, I can’t believe in it.”
“I offer it to you now, and you refuse it? Stand, Taliah. Save your people as they were unable to save you. They had no choice, but you have the choice. Destruction was not the plan, but when life comes from death, creation is reborn.”
The words resounded within her. She recognized them, words from her childhood. From some legend heard long ago around a fire, her father’s voice low and reverent, as he told of long dead Annesian kings and dragons and powers not of this world. This priestess knew the stories, then, too.
Her breaths quickened. Suddenly, she knew, and fear gripped her in a part of her gut she had never known existed. “You want me to die.”
“I want the Annesards to live. It lies in your power to grant life or destruction. It is your choice. Only those who are free may choose.” The priestess closed her eyes and tried to force a comforting smile. “No one said freedom was an easy path.”
At that moment, the runaway felt free. And the burden threatened to crush her soul.
“They are my people.”
“And they will remember you.”
Such a thing was truth without being spoken. Her people did not forget their past.
“They will remember you, and your name will be their war cry. They will not abandon you again because you will give them the power to make their own choices once more.”
For her decision to grant them freedom, as well, seemed too overwhelming an idea to consider. She was sixteen. What power did she have?
One other thing worried her still. Her child bore a greater burden. He needed her protection. She did not ask only for herself. “What will happen to my son when I am gone? My child and his children will be pariahs to the Annesards, slaves to the Marashi. Their mixed blood makes them unclean. What hope do they have?”
The priestess knelt by the altar and cupped the girl’s chin in her hand.
Touch frightened her still. A shudder ran down her spine, yet the earnestness in the woman’s gaze kept her frozen.
She wanted to run.
“Your children’s children will be heroes in their own right and will one day be royalty. They will not only defeat the Marashi, but an enemy so great the world has not yet imagined him. You did not birth a slave, Taliah. You birthed a father of kings.”
The old scorn resurfaced. “And what are you? A prophetess, as well as a priestess?”
Surely this woman did not expect her to believe such claims.
“I never said what I am. And whether to put your belief in me is your choice. I only tell what I know. And I only speak what is true.”
Taliah knew. It wasn’t the sort of knowledge she’d learned from her father, reciting the stories or drawing symbols in the dirt. It wasn’t the knowledge she’d gained from her time in the mines, repeating over and again the sorting of riches that would never be hers. And it wasn’t the secure knowledge one had in being assured of love, or safety, or hope. This knowledge had no parallel and no depth. She did not learn it from being taught; but she knew, nonetheless. She knew how to trust, and she sat for a moment with held breath, wondering how such things were possible.
Shouting from the forest called her back to herself, and she looked out across the jungle. The bushes moved and the voices grew. The slavers still tracked her. She was yet a slave.
And yet, no longer a slave. She had a choice.
“If I stand, will my people be free?”
“But I will die?”
The priestess did not answer right away. When she did, her voice soothed her fears in a way even her mother’s voice never had. Perhaps because her mother’s voice had always been tinged with worry and uncertainty; the priestess’ voice was full of knowing. “All people die, Taliah. Whether you die an Annesard or a slave is up to you. But perhaps to die an Annesard, you must be a slave.”
She understood. It would have made no sense to her yesterday, or a week ago, or even two years ago. In order to free her people, she must die. She had come there, seeking to save herself, and would leave having saved a nation. She had attained freedom that tasted far better than the freedom she had sought.
For the first time in her life, she stood of her own free will.
The cries of the slavers grew louder as the dying sun’s rays poured through the casement behind the altar, lighting the Annesian slave girl in a fiery glow. The light did not even touch the priestess, who remained on its outskirts. The slavers had not come for the priestess. They had eyes only for Taliah.
She heard them, but their voices belonged to that far-off world where ships flew and beaches turned to stone. She did not move.
Nor did she move when the rattling of chains grew closer and heavy boots charged up the steps.
She did not even move as the first hand grabbed her. She looked only at the altar, eyes searching for the priestess, her page, or the priest, but no one came. It was all right. She didn’t need them anymore. She would die with dignity.
Her people would be free. No more literal chains, but none of the other kind, either.
She felt the familiar leather strap wind about her wrists before they attached the chain. After they lashed her hands behind her back, they dragged her down the steps by her hair.
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