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Earth Chapter 3: Repentance
It came to pass in one of these goldening years that Earth played in the field behind the house, as he often did. Long afternoons in fair seasons made dashing amid rocks and dirt piles the glory of boyish life. Now and then the sway of crops growing well beyond their home under the azure sky, new homesteads, larger farms, caught his eye. For himself, Earth was more than healthy, and not without a special audacity, though from which man in the village he inherited such valiance it was hard to say.
The Mistress was out. His sisters were busy with preparations for the evening meal, the breeze tainted with the hint of lilacs. He dashed beneath the shady branches of overhanging greens, but he knew that he was no longer alone.
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He heard her. Not laugher, but neither crying. Not quite, but neither singing. He only knew she was real, she was a child, and, unlike him, she was very, very alone. With the compassion that only children know, he loved her, this poor, wandering spirit. He ran about the branches, then sought her in the crops at the edge of the yard. She eluded him like the breeze.
He laughed. It was a game, after all. Was it not? A fine chase. But his breath ran out and he called for her.
For reasons he could not explain, he felt he would cry.
He did not. A moment passed. It was all good fantasy. Back to play and dance and slaying the enemies of the Shadowsun wherever they hid with sticks and twigs his mighty weapons of rended steel, like the stories told.
That night, after his sisters were long asleep, while the Mistress bathed and wrapped him with her special poultices, the ones charred in the fire and chanted over with weirded words, the ones he must not speak of, even to his siblings, he remembered the dream well. Though but a boy, he was valiant and whimsical, a small man, near enough, and one not so far removed from the plague of the fool as to be immune to love.
“Do you know who she is, Mistress?” Earth asked as she draped the deep, violet-scorched bandages upon his chest and arms. His dream had visited again, this night as he cut the wood for the hearth before the early seasonal snow set in. The vision came almost daily for a week now, though always fair away, just at the edge of sensing. Clearly there, sitting upon the broad stone beside the new wall running the length of their property, enclosing them and all of Elusa from the ever-stretching farmlands that spread well outside the small city. Her hair was the color of hushed straw. She dressed plainly. But sleek. Bold. Beautiful.
If she was real. She had to be real. How could she not be?
“What are you babbling about?” the Mistress asked, paying him little heed as she focused on her work. She rarely let him talk in the evenings, when she burned him with her secret bandages, dressing his upper body first, then his legs and feet, lastly his head. He tensed as another heated panel draped over his cool, bare skin.
“The girl, Mistress. She comes to our yard.”
She stopped stiff, her hands gripping tongs to pull of the next poultice from the fire. Hesitation. Discomfort. But she only delayed a moment.
“Is that so?” she asked, then returned to her labor unabated.
“Did you speak to her?”
“No,” he said, shocked to think he had not tried such an obvious thing.
“I see,” she said, coming to him again and laying the burning medicine upon his stomach.
“You do not believe me,” he said, anger making him forget to hide the wince.
“You are a child. Children play games.”
“This is no game, Mistress.”
“So you say.”
“I am too old for games. I will be a man soon.”
“You are already a man.”
“Then why don't you believe me,” he asked, sitting up. She pressed him back, leaving the liquid fire to sink into his limbs, never ceasing to her task.
“Earth, should I even want to believe such a silly thing as a girl finding her way into our garden, there is a newly constructed wall, fine as any. Unless she is a mystic or some ghost of unknown paths, she could not possibly have been in our yard.”
“That's just it. A mystic. She’s a mystic.”
This time the Mistress stopped. She left the hearth and returned to him, the son she raised with such intention, whom she weirded so tediously. Every art she ever studied was poured into the balance of this boy. Could he absolve her of her wrongs? He lay upon the work table, covered in those deadly bindings which would one day make him so much more than a mere man.
“Earth,” she said. “I have trained you better than to say such a mindless thing as that.”
“I am not just saying it.”
“Then you have not told me everything.”
“No,” he replied, glancing away.
She sighed, eyeing the fire as it crackled with dancing flames. All her labors. Her hopes. Could the blood-weirding have actually mattered? She could not imagine how.
“How long has it been since you first saw her?
“I don’t see her much. I mostly hear her.”
“As long as I can remember remembering.”
Could it possibly be?
“Then, as I said, you must speak with her.” She took her tongs and lifted another drape from the fire. “Ask this ghost her name.”
“Who are you?”
His words startled her. She sat upon the snow-buried stone by the wall in the garden, though she didn’t leave a dent in the drift. Earth’s feet dredged broad, ugly marks in the yard. He intended only to grab a sheaf for the fire. But there she was, amid the drifting snows of high winter as if it were the finest summer’s day.
“Oh!” she said. Her eyes were blue. He knew that blue. “I didn't see you.”
“Didn't see me? I am right in front of your face.”
“Were you? I must admit it is hard to see in this fog. Every so often, if I sit still enough, the sun breaks through and the blue sky and the sparrows and a touch of the breeze come through. But that is very rare.”
“It's snowing. The wind is frigid.”
“Is it?” Her surprise was honest.
“What is your name?”
“It is a fair question,” she answered with a smile. “But first, you must tell me what you are doing here in my fog-bound and dreadful home? You are not so severe as the normal servants my father sends to tend me.”
The question set Earth back, standing as he was in the yard he had known since his first steps. “This is my home,” he said. “I have come out from the house to gather a sheaf for the fire. And you are on my favorite stone, the one I used to leap from as a boy.”
“But you are only a boy,” she laughed. It offended him, though the way she covered her mouth with her hand when she giggled was delightful. It was almost enough to stop him from furrowing his brow, but not quite.
“Oh, do not be angry for what you are.” Her smiled was most winsome. “You are a boy and I am a girl. And, more than that, it would seem that we have the same home, for you are at your house and I am in mine, yet here we sit, conversing as if at a merry town square.”
Earth forgot everything else in that instant. Her loveliness grew more real, her ghostlike form took on firmer flesh, as if their two alternative worlds converged on each other. In her world, a brisk wisp of icy wind and the occasional flake of snow broke the normally doldrum gray of fog and drudgery. But their thoughts were hidden from each other.
“I don’t understand,” Earth said. “I want to believe you. There is weirding at work, or I’m a fool. But if you are no mystic, if this is not your doing, then how are you here. You cannot be both in your home and also in mine unless someone such as you intended it.”
“I do not understand it, either. I am, after all, a little girl. As I told you, I did not even know that I had escaped at all, nor that I had intruded upon your home. I was merely sitting as I always do, looking vainly for some sun.”
Even as she said the words, she began to fade from view. Where moments ago his vision’s own heart had verged on virtual incarnation, so close that he might smell the skin of her neck or feel the ruffle of her hair, now, a bleak spirit with icy eyes and harvest hair all but fades past whisper in her final words. Yet in her world, the fog descending with heady weight, driving away all but itself, as it so often did, she saw the face of the young man receding into its deep clouds, his eyes darting about in earnest search for her, and shouted at the top of her lungs, “I am Lyf!”
Did he hear her? He was gone now.
She jumped up and down and waved her arms at the prison house of an ever dark and stormy sky as she shouted again, and then again, “My name is Lyf!”
“I know who she is, Mistress,” he said. She draped the violet-scorched bandages upon his chest and arms. She did not chide him nor accuse him of babbling this time. But she did stiffen a moment, more solemn even than usual. What was it? Fear? He thought so. But that was not her way.
It did not stop her from burning him further with her secret bandages. She started in again, dressing his upper body first, followed by his legs, then lastly his feet and his head. He tensed as another heated panel draped onto his cool, bare skin.
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“Her name is Lyf.”
“Is it now?” Her eyes squinted to her task. That also was new. “And what is that to me?”
“Must you always be so cold?” He started to rise, but she pressed him back with a firm hand.
Moments passed and he said nothing. Then, at last, “Did you not tell me to ask her name?”
“Of course, I did.” She did not so much as smile. “And now you have it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” There was a pit in his stomach. This meant something more to her than she was letting on. He could feel it. “If there is some mystic or weirding spirit set upon our home, won’t you bye the least bit concerned?”
At this her hands stopped in their place. An audible intake of her breath met the room with a simultaneous flash from the fire, followed by a stunning darkness. Where before the hearth cast light, now it cast only crimson shadows. A pounding rhythm also intruded, like a beating heart deep within the ground, beating against Earth’s chest and arms, as well as ears. At the same time, his surrogate rippled and swelled, her form doubling in size. All these things diminished themselves in contrast with the icy explosion of power that were her eyes. Lightnings. Supernovas. Harsh and terrifying eternities of glory.
“Child of Anirea, who shall never be my own, a mystic and a weirding and something far more severe came upon your home long ago, and your life has ever depended upon it. Your neighbors know it, and they fear, though in their cowardly greed they have never questioned the benefits bestowed by my arts on this sad little town.
“Hear me truly and mark it well. This sad little town is but a moment in time. But I have heard greater words on the wind. It was only a confused pestering against the stubborn mind of a childish girl that night your sisters found me, crippled with self-will. As I held you in my arms through early and desperate years, I could barely make out their tellings. But as you grew, as fate and resolve took the place of my own arrogance, I learned to listen. I heard to see. I remembered what in my folly I too readily ignored and forgot.
“The time is coming, and has now come, when the fortunes of mortal men shall change. More ancient and far darker beasts than mystics walk the bowels beneath the world. They are servants of death, shadows of Reanai the Anarch, the Discontented God, so long oppressed within his watery halls beneath the worlds of men.
“Ever-Deceiver, he is not satisfied to merely twist our hearts with greed and mistrial until decay takes us and we are his. No more. Now, by darker art than I have ever heard studied, an ultimate plague is unleashed. He has more than stirred against the mighty chains which times ago were forged for him by the Forgotten. He has broken them! He has bored a fracture for his release.
“I speak of incarnation. The taking on of flesh. A wound to spell the end of living men.
“I do not know the place, nor do I know how soon we shall feel his reach. But I do know this: it is already on the breeze. You can smell it if you try. You will not need to try for long.”
Her hand still pressed him back. Pressed close. As her words faded with the darkness and the light of the fire began to return, he could feel her warm touch moving up and down with his breath.
“What I have done, even all that I did for you, I first did for myself. That was yet my folly. That was still the child who thought herself wise. But whether by means of the long Forgotten, or by impossible chance and irrational odds, my vanity has not ended without meaning.
“You. You who cannot replace the infant daughter I lost, you have a gift which is given without wise thought, yet not without a grander scheme. Far grander than my own.”
She released him. Turned to the fire and her boiling kettle. With tongs she took another bandage from the frothing, purple stew. Came to him. Draped it upon his face, covering his eyes, scalding his mind. The pain. The blindness that was more than darkness.
Her words were honey smooth as a far off bird song behind the rolling agony.
“You. My son. You were what I had no choice but do. Grudge me not if I cannot bear to think on the horrors of what I long before failed to see done.”
Earth opened his eyes to the gray light of early day. There was no movement in the house. It was an hour or more too early. Staring at the ceiling was cold comfort.
Here, he was born. Here, his mother died. Here, he and his sisters lived good lives. Here, the mystic who suckled him worked her wonders for the good of everyone. Such words! Such omens! What was he to make of her outburst the night before?
He attended to his chores in silence, careful not to wake the others. He thought fondly of each of them, but he was also glad for the quiet moment alone to come to grips with her grim prophecies. To make matters more stark, neither that day, nor for the rest of winter, did Lyf appear. Many a time he stood in the freezing air of afternoon, even in the sleet on two occasions, hoping, waiting. The leafless branches rattled. The snows piled in his hair.
Her sunless home relented not.
An ill portent. A profound pain.
What more did he want? Passion? Glory? Love? What was this hunger rising within him as the end of the world whistled on the winter winds?
The story of Earth continues…