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Earth Chapter 2: Hope
The next day brought much and little.
A mother, dearly loved, was dead. A matron, solemn but not severe, rose out of the night to take her place. The eldest daughter washed the body once more for burial. The youngest hurried into town in search of shovels. The third cleared brush and brambles away from the far corner of the yard. Earth slept beneath the sober counsel of his nurse beside the fire.
“Barbus and Philmon demanded payment for the shovels,” Talitha said. “Childra has gone to Ambra with wares. Only Treltin did not shut the door on me. He said, ‘The Forgotten curse me, if I don’t help you he surely will.’”
The shunning was no surprise. But Analia spared a long glance for the lofty mountain rising in the distance. There the ancient Creator was said to have once established his rule among mortal men. Whether the old religion was true or not, she had to admit she was thankful for his memory. Fear of him, if nothing else, made for better men.
She shook the thought and turned to task. They took turns removing the soil from their mothers' final bed. Grave-digging is hard work of teenage girls, but this did not deter them. By sundown the work was complete.
As they stood over the grave, making final esteem of their loss, the woman for the first time emerged from the cottage, Earth still in her arms. They watched, longing, lonely. She knelt to mark a divot in fresh packed silt with her finger. What happened next was as terrifying as it was unexpected.
With a fluid motion to carry the colors of her cape, the stranger swept a dagger from its folds and into the hand which did not hold their brother. Before they could remark their startle, the boy was lain upon the dirt and a slice deep and long split the length of his left forearm. Warm blood ran to puddle in the shallow enclave.
Swift and precise, blue fabric was sliced as neatly into a bandage, wrapped around the injury.
“Who are you?” Analia trembled as she spoke.
No answer came. But beside their brother who lay kicking on their mother’s grave, the dagger swept once more over flesh. This time the child did not bleed. Rather, his nurse split her own forearm with an identical lesion. The hilt then mixed the tiny pool into a thick mud, which the woman used to draw out bizarre markings in long streaks.
Wrapping her arm in the sleeve of her cloak, she took up the child again. Sparing a glance for the sisters, though not a word, she returned to the house. The shadows of dusk now covered entirely.
Talitha was not a dreamer. No seer nor prophetess. But that night she dreamed. She saw Ethos, the Corsair Isle, green rolling hills sprung amid flurried waters. Streams and falls fed by clouds aplenty fed a great city covering its round pinnacles. Spires and steeples rose at their heights. Great halls and libraries housed long-winded men who prided themselves on their ability to sit a year without food while pondering over ancient tomes. Below them guildsmen and crafters blissfully toiled in arts of metal, cloth and husbandry, while the docks saw merchant ships and vessels port and sale with such regular tribute that the man who ruled over it all self-styled himself “the Godking.”
Whether any of it were true or tale, she could not tell. But the entirety was crisp, clear as a fresh spring’s day. Not the least of which the magnificent awnings of a single, vaulted home in which lived a sharp woman of endless study and icy eyes. Quiet, content, she studied every art that could be known over endless years. Never once did she covet more than knowledge. Never once did she question a life pursued in the mind alone. Until one day her reading brought her to an art, mysterious and ancient, which she found she could not learn practice alone: motherhood.
At first she believed she might content herself with reading. But the more she understood the curses of the task, as well as sister attendant blessings, the strangest experience began to tear at her chest. A hasty passion, like a bit of coal escaped from the stove onto the near carpet, caught quickly upon the dry confines of her long years of discipline. This too was true knowledge. This too she must know.
She hurried that day to the market square, center for all the trade of the world, or so the stories told. Frigates and merchantmen were never in short supply, unloading spices, fine jewels, furs and textiles and glorious woods. Among them, she found a handsome youth, a sailor supple and honest, with eyes like the grass in the sun. He was not difficult to woo.
She solicited him back with her to her mansion home where she fed him delicate meats and spicy wine. Few young men can withstand such a feminine onslaught. He was content to stay. Seven months he lived with her. No lasting love was ever spoken of, but the simplicity of lust more than carried them to sleep every night.
In the seventh month the sickness came. Early in the mourning, nausea and hunger mixed. She knew the signs. It had begun.
In full confidence she told her lover of her triumph, with all the diplomacy of a scholar explaining that he was no longer needed and could leave at his leisure.
The youth was crushed, though she did not see it. Without even bread for the road, he left by the gate and did not return. Her attentions were now elsewhere. Preparations had to be made.
Servants were hired, furniture imported, vitamins and herbs brewed into teas and cultures. Three months passed and she was not deterred. Six and she was strong to her task. But in the seventh month another heat awoke, one she had hardly considered she could know. The magic of procreation was changing her in more ways that one.
She ran to the docks, her hand against her weightier belly, icy eyes afire for the only one who could meet this new and bizarre need. Though she searched, though the sailors were handsome and plentiful, to her great dismay they were not him. With dawning horror she returned to her home, weeping. Calculations could not solve this equation. Books would not replace the lost and gentle lover whom she’d dismissed like a common slave.
The child was born, a daughter beautiful as the starry night, with the dark southern skin of her father and the mystic icy eyes of her mother. But the mother could hardly look on her. For all her preparations, she was not ready to ply this art alone. Though her breasts swelled painfully, she hired a nurse, expressing only for science's cold comfort. While her daughter cried throughout the day, she forced herself to other studies, new tasks and novelties. She had been wrong all along. This was not a science worth pursuing. The world did not need such distractions. The world needed higher arts. Not a child. Not a husband.
Such drunkenness proved futile. Not a fortnight passed and she stood on the docks’ market, with servants and nurse, a man-at-arms and trunks. She hired the fastest ship available to make sail that day as her charter.
She did not know where to go, but as they put out to sea the salty air brought the first taste of hope she had felt in months.
The captain suggested they visit three lesser trade islands on their way to the cities on the Ambra Coast. She bade him choose the nearest. As the pilot set the course she retreated to a seat set up for her on the bow. The task was daunting. Impossible. But, for what might have been the first time, she took her infant daughter from the nurse, and loved her. At last the pain in her bosom found comfort and release. The child ate and was content, and she too believed this was an art she might yet learn as she watched the sun sink into the horizon.
It was not to be….
Talitha's dream became chaotic and broken from this point on. A cry from the crow’s next. Raiders’ sails. Terror in the darkness. Talitha tossed in her covers, near to waking. Fifteen-gun ships. Savage marines. Worshippers of Reanai and other dark gods.
The crew was dismantled. Her man-at-arms disemboweled before her eyes. Servants slaughtered. The nurse raped. She, taken captive as hostage and concubine to the vile leader, and her infant, greatest horror, left to drop into the sea aboard the burning merchant ship.
What happened next made little sense to Talitha. She did not understand how it could be so. Aching rage burned in the woman with icy eyes, perverting her vast knowledge gleaned from years of study into something more, something primal. A dark portal, a storm without an eye, swirled change within her.
That night, the lord of the reaving armada, who had taken her for his own, came to know her. But the moment his skin touched hers, the fury of blurred and broken weirding unleashed by the searing pain of her heart manifested in the unnatural.
In the morning, the crew found him dead, without a mark on his body. Their superstition kept them from the woman huddled in the corner, endlessly weeping. Whether her body had truly become a poison to mortal men they would never know. Her bloodshot eyes were enough to stave off even the most gruesome among them. Their master had not been loved so much as feared. Now the fear of her crept over them.
Worse still, the sun did not rise so much as pretend to exist behind a fog that never lifted and darkened the hearts of them all. As both the morning and the darkness grew, a scream broke out somewhere above decks. Though many rushed toward it, no man was found, dead or alive. Soon, more shouts could be heard from the other ships in the fleet. Calls to them went unanswered. Before long, the shadow had taken them all. Madness, too, overtook them, as small skirmishes led to one man or other being cast overboard. Then a throat was slit. Then a man’s head bashed in.
By midday, the woman had been pressed into a dingy at spearpoint and lowered over the side, left adrift in the mists behind them. This did not sway the lightning which now descended. Winds of a gale, the ensign of a much deeper storm.
All these may or may not have taken the crew to the depths. But they passed the woman by. A day and a night she drifted alone on the lonely sea, until at the second dawn, she came to land on sands unknown.
A blind wraith, without purpose or goal, she wandered inland. In the distance a singular mountain rose. It called her, for reasons she did not care to understand. She did not know it as the home of the Forgotten.
But Talitha did.
Talitha woke with a start. It was morning. She spoke nothing of her dream. But she eyed the woman resting paces away, her brother to the breast and suckling well. Everything about her was both terrible and magnificent. She said nothing, but rose to her chores and sought her best to please the new mistress of the home.
To the surprise of the populace of Elusa, perhaps even to their chagrin, pleasant times soon descended upon the little house at their edge. The first time the woman with the icy eyes walked into the Philmon's forge to purchase an iron hoe for the field behind the home, he played gruff and indomitable as he always did. Busy to his task, tired as the day, he intended to let this odd newcomer know how the town ran its business.
“What want ye?” he said, not bothering to look up, pounding out the fire in his metal work and casting it into the barrel of water at his side. The silence which met him left him cold. Anxiety, like the poorly smelted crack in iron, crept up his spine. It did not leave until he set the tool aside and turned to her. But he found his lips struck dumb until a single word arose from his mouth. “Mistress?”
So she came to be known, the Mistress who took in the virgin daughters of Anirea, who raised the late whore’s son as her own. Her silver was good, though never marked by seals as it should be. Yet it always bought more than was expected both of the stock sold to her, as well as of all things later purchased with it from traders and merchants. Soon, her business was not feared but coveted. Prosperity itself descended on the hamlet tenfold. The fields were more fertile, game was more fine, and in a few years no one questioned if it had ever been otherwise. Mourning had come to the little town under the shadow of the Forgotten, but with it had come the even more unexpected.
The story of Earth continues…