The Dancer in the Dust
Prelude: The Patchwork Man
On the last day of summer, as the sun melted into the savannah, the children of Ellomyr gathered at the edge of the village with paper gliders and reed fans, waiting for the evening wind to spin dust devils off the Brackenridge. Lightning flickered in the distance and the air was thick with the smell of acacia, ravage grass and loam.
The Patchwork Man stood apart, pale and tall, watching as gliders swooped and fans spun, listening as children shouted with delight or cried out in frustration. Soon, most of their toys lay crumpled in the dirt, but some soared in the updrafts, rising higher and higher, chasing the very last moment of summer.
Some of the dust devils picked up a shimmering, metallic dust that sparkled in every colour imaginable; violet and teal, a deep smouldering umber, and colours only abhumans could name. The scintillae writhed and curled, now dazzling now dull, and even as the sunlight failed the motes took on an eerie luminescence.
Peering upward, the Patchwork Man saw a solitary glider, still rising, and wished it well. Then parents called their children into supper and their annual ritual was done.
The Patchwork Man closed his eyes, testing the wind with his long slender fingers. Ellomyr had become a village of strangers, though he could vaguely recall a time when he had called many of them friends. He was conscious of their voices, hushed and strident, hoarse and hollow. Laughter and music crested and receded as the doors to Kaoru’s alehouse banged open and shut. Metal ticked as Reugar the blacksmith’s latest work cooled, his small forge emitting the smell of oil and ozone. The sizzle and hiss of frying fish from the Revell House prompted the faintest smile, though the wind that brought it made him pull his patchwork coat tighter about his thin frame. All distractions, ignored, discarded, as he listened intently for the strange music of the Trilling Shard.
His breath quickened and his eyes opened. Now.
A ribbon of scintillae coiled in the air shimmering like gems crushed and scattered. It drifted languorously into the town square even though the wind had failed. A last ray of sunlight reached out and the Trilling Shard sang. For a moment so brief there was no name for it, the Patchwork Man caught a glimpse of the Dancer in the Dust.
Then she was gone. A single tear, a sob swallowed, and the Patchwork Man turned away, trudging back into the dark savannah, his annual ritual complete.
Misereya’s kite soared and plunged as she wrestled for control with the wind that blustered across the savannah. The twine she had painstakingly spun from frayed rope dug into the flesh of her fingers, and her knee ached where she had outgrown the socket of her makeshift leg. The dust blowing from the Brackenridge helped her to read the wind and she blew a strand of hair from her eyes as she regained control.
The Brackenridge was a tumble of stones choked in thorns that acted as a natural barrier between Ellomyr and the Valley of Sins. At dusk it appeared, to a creative eye, as if a stone titan had fallen on its side before sinking deeply into the land. The Brackenridge was further than Misereya was allowed to roam, but she ached to explore it.
The kite snapped, fluttered and swooped as she tugged on its strings. The prior-world comb she had found after the floods, hummed and keened, purred and growled. It was working. A trail of fine specks was forming behind her kite like a captive rainbow.
Old Gurner called them scintillae but oddly, for such a garrulous teller of tales, he would grow silent when asked about them. Scintillae were tiny motes of metal that infused the drit and dust around Ellomyr, shimmering in a variety of vivid colours, and so fine it could flow like water.
Her father had called the scintillae a nuisance. Even though he had been killed five years ago by the Margr, she still had a clear memory of his voice.
The scintillae worked its way into mechanical parts, like the joints of Misereya’s leg, causing them to wear faster or seize up. Just a month ago she had accidentally some into her eye, which had grown swollen and red and teary. Misereya loathed crying. Yet the scintillae was also coveted by crafters. Her mother mixed it with wood polish for the furniture she sold when riverboats visited Ellomyr, or when traders passed through from Othmar, as rare as those events had become. One such sale could ensure the family was fed for a month.
Misereya had even heard that, if added to food, it became whatever spice the eater desired, vanilla or paprika or saluabh, though she had never dared try it. She was teased enough.
While ubiquitous, the scintillae was painstaking to gather in useful quantities. Tugging on the twine, she turned the kite back on itself in a lazy arc and the wake of scintillae that had been drawn together by the comb was captured by the paper panels.
Abruptly, the wind dropped as if the savannah had held its breath, and Misereya’s kite plummeted. She cried out in frustration as the twine went limp in her hand. Coiling it as fast as she could, she took an awkward step forward, but there was no hope. The kite struck the ground hard enough to raise dust.
Still reeling in the twine, Misereya hobbled forward. Her mother kept carving new legs for her as she grew, but the mechanical joints made by Reugar were more difficult to adjust. She could not run. The best she could manage was a swift hobble.
As the dust settled, she saw a tall, slender man, standing over her kite.
Long braids of grey hair fell over his shoulders to his waist, bound with scraps of cloth embedded with feathers, chips of mica, and the bones of birds. His face was covered in uneven bristles and the skin sagged a little, like slowly melting wax. She could not see his eyes, as he was focussed intently on her fallen kite. His clothes were a patchwork of furs and cloth scavenged from the town scrap heap.
The Patchwork Man. The children of Ellomyr teased one another with his name, telling ghost stories in the saddle of the night when they were meant to be dreaming, daring each other to visit his hovel at the edge of the Brackenridge. Her father had called him a crazy old hermit. Her mother, with a gentle sadness in her eyes, called him a sad old grump and told her to leave him alone.
The Patchwork Man was prodding her kite with his cloth wrapped feet.
“Hoy. Leave that alone. That’s mine.” Misereya tugged on the twine and the kite skittered away from him before catching on a bush. She hobbled faster.
He held out his hands, palms up, as if to ward her away. His fingers were long and tapered and exquisitely callused. “You must be one of Dora’s girls?” His voice was gravelly, as if he was unused to talking above a mutter. “This is yours, yes?”
She stopped, the kite now between them, and though she kept her eyes on his, she continued coiling the twine. “Mine. I made it.”
“You did not make that.” He gestured at the comb suspended on struts within the boxy structure of the kite. “Where did you find it?”
“My comb?” She shifted her weight to her natural leg. He was old, but his legs were long. She was not sure if she would be able to take the kite and run. “It washed up with a bunch of other creft after the storm.” She pinned her lower lip between her teeth and narrowed her eyes. “Why, do you want to trade?”
The Patchwork Man laughed suddenly and his eyes glinted. “Wait here. I will come back.” He turned and walked a few steps, hesitated, then turned back. “Please wait for me?” He seemed to take her steady gaze as a promise and shuffled away, before breaking into a slow jog.
Misereya bent down to her kite and recovered the comb. It was a crescent of smooth coppery metal, as large as her hand, with five small beads on one side that glowed faintly at night. Fifteen tines were set within the crescent made of a translucent material as flexible as fish bones. She blew on the tines and they hummed. Motes of scintillae coalesced around it, spinning in a tiny zephyr.
Glancing up, she saw the Patchwork Man disappear into his hovel. It was built into a crack in the vast tumble of cyclopean stones that made up the Brackenridge. Tucking the comb into her blouse, she looked back toward Ellomyr and the setting sun, and then lowered herself awkwardly to the ground to disassemble her kite.
Dusk was settling gently on the savannah when she heard him huffing and puffing his way toward her. Misereya stood, brushing dust from her shorts. The Patchwork Man’s skin was glistening and his clothes were soaked in sweat. His face was pallid.
“I have…some things…some trinkets…to trade.” He held his cupped hands to his chest but Misereya could see he was clutching an eclectic collection of objects; oddities and creft. As he stumbled closer, a pearlescent shell fell from his grasp, and emitted a single, hollow word in an unfamiliar tongue as it struck the ground.
The Patchwork Man smiled at her wanly, leaned over to pick up the shell, and collapsed face first into the dust.
Warmth, blood warm, this threshold of sleep, a pool in which he might drown. Images, feelings, sensation in the membrane that separated him from harsh reality. A shelf of busts, none of them perfect, smashed and falling. Goat milk cheese, fresh bread, dark ale and Gurner’s laughter. A kite, fluttering, falling, trailing a thread of melody, both compelling and elusive. Her face. Her face, turning to dust that glittered and spun.
He woke, conscious of sweat rolling down his neck and a throbbing pain in his left arm and jaw. He barely had a moment to realise he was in bed, before the small, dark room whirled. He fell back mere millimetres to his pillow and it felt like he was falling into a chasm.
Her face. His eyes closed, the world stopped spinning and his lagging memory returned. The girl, so like his lost Lalitheia, even down to one green and one violet eye. The girl and her kite.
The girl who was looking at him, right now.
Severaixs opened his eyes again and saw her sitting cross legged beside the bed. No, not cross legged. Her artificial leg was propped against a small table.
Misereya leaned forward until her face was level with his. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yes”, Severaixs coughed, and closed his eyes to hide the lie. “I am at your mother’s house, I take it?”
She nodded. “My brother and I brought you here. In a wheelbarrow. You should have seen the look on Gurner’s face. He could have soured milk in Charmonde.” She inched closer, speaking more softly. “Would you like some water?”
Severaixs was suddenly aware of the sandpaper tension in his mouth and throat. “Please.” He propped himself up, trembling. Why was he so weak? “Dora, I mean your mother, would not like seeing me here.”
“You have been here all night.” The girl poured water from a jug into a wooden cup, both lovingly carved and painted, from whole jaravhi seeds. “Mama is not here now. There is some big town meeting. Something about Margr? They would not tell me. Mama does not like me to worry. My name is Misereya by the way.”
He sipped slowly, deferring the implied question. She was watching him intently. As he set the cup down he met her gaze and smiled. “”Sev. Call me Sev if you like. That will do.”
“Oh no.” She absently swept up a stray droplet of water with her finger. “I should call you sir, or elder, or some such.”
“Sev is fine.” He reached for the cup and saw his trade goods set neatly on a shelf. Along with mundane items such as a calyptor horn and a peacock quill, there were his precious oddities; the nonsense shell, the sharpening ring, the far eye glass and the sighing stone. His empty satchel sat neatly folded behind them.
The kite. The scintillae. Memory flooded back. “Thank you for picking up my things.”
Beaming, Misereya pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the bed. Gentle pressure on his shoulders leaned him forward so she could plump the pillows. “You wanted to trade. I say we trade.”
Severaixs took a moment to appraise the room. Dust floated on a beam of light from the window and he was suddenly conscious of the smell of wood polish, sawdust and mineral oil. Lalitheia had loathed those smells. She preferred lavendar and lilac, and saluabh oil for her hair. He dipped his fingers in the cup and wiped it across his forehead, trying to keep his voice even, unexcited. “The thing on the kite. Your comb. Do you have it?”
She reached into her smock and drew out the comb, extended her arm, then drew it back as he reached for it. “This is worth many shins. When I fix my kite I can collect more shiny dust in an hour than my brother can collect in a week. The shiny wood polish fetches a better price with traders.”
“Scintillae,” he murmured. “May I?”
She frowned, theatrically, and then set the comb down in his hand.
It was lighter than he had expected and the metal was warm. Blood warm, and he shook his head to clear the last wisps of his dream. Gently, he pressed on one of the tines, and felt it vibrate so fast, so subtly, it set his nerves tingling. The next tine he pressed resonated at a different frequency, accompanied by a barely audible hum.
The quality of the light in the room shifted as scintillae shimmered in the light that drifted in from the window. He felt a thrill. “How much?”
Her eyes flicked to the bedside table. “All of them.”
Severaixs was shaking his head but found it difficult to suppress a grin. “Show me the two you like the most.”
She pursed her lips then reached out and tapped the far eye glass and the sighing stone.
“Then we have a deal?”
Misereya was slowly shaking her head. “I like these the most, but I still want all six.” Her gaze was steady but she was smiling back.
Severaixs stroked the comb and knew he was beaten. “Done. You drive a hard bargain, young lady.” He pushed himself upright, and then paused. “Ah. And what do you want to return my clothes?”
She chuckled. “Nothing. That is proper courtesy and I told you I am not a thief”. She bounced herself to the bottom of the bed and pointed out the neat pile of laundered and deftly darned clothes. Then she quickly strapped on her leg, stood with a flourish, followed by a wobble and an embarrassed grin. “I should let you dress.”
She swept up her treasures and walked through a curtain that substituted for a door.
Severaixs held up the comb, hummed a few notes, and replicated them on the tines. A few stray motes of scintillae adhered to his fingers. Then he set the comb gently in his satchel and donned his clothes. Even with the homespun laundering, they still smelled a little of old sweat and regret.
Misereya was waiting in the small room beyond the curtain. A homely kitchen brimmed with the smell of dried fish and spices. A small door exited into the Commons. Severaixs could hear the murmur of voices, ebbing and flowing outside. Time to go.
He bowed slightly. “Thank you, Misereya.” He gestured at the satchel and then pressed his palm to his heart.”
She looked down at her feet. “You are welcome.” When she glanced up again her eyes seemed a little sad. “Maybe I can bring you food, some day? It must be lonely out there at the Brackenridge.”
He remembered the way the wind howled and whined, and the way the thorns creaked and crackled. “It is better if I am left alone.”
Bowing his head, he exited through the door. On the street, he shaded his eyes against the sun, peering toward the crowd gathered at the commons, before turning away.
It seemed as if the air was brimming with scintillae and he was certain he could smell lavender, lilac and saluabh oil.
Misereya watched the Patchwork Man stride into the glare. A few minutes later her mama stepped into the kitchen from her workshop. “You should not bother him, Missy. There is no need to bother him.”
“Why?” Miseraya glanced down at her prosthetic leg, so lovingly carved. “He seems so lonely.”
“He chose to set himself apart.” Her mother sighed, and looked down at her hands. “Some still blame him.”
Misereya pinned her lower lip between her teeth and narrowed her eyes. It was her thinking face. “Blame him for what?”
Dora sighed. “Long before you were born, he knew your great aunt Lalitheia. She was young and foolish, and she loved to dance.” Dora looked away and it appeared as if she was trembling. “He took her into the Valley of Sins and she never came back.”
When the wind gusted, it sent long, rolling waves through the grasslands, flicked a loose strand of hair into Misereya’s eyes, and brought the heartless, endless pound of Margr war drums to her ears.
Misereya took a direct path across the plain to Sev’s home, the same path she had walked almost daily for the last few months, but she faltered when the wind blew, feeling exposed. Her stump hurt and her metal knee joint clunked and squeaked with each step, but she focused on the stones of the Brackenridge and endured the pain.
The Margr drums rose and fell with the wind, and with every gust it seemed they were louder, closer.
The elders had tried to stop her from leaving, but in all the chaos of the defensive preparations, she had slipped away. Scouts had been sent to bring in the last, recalcitrant farmers but Misereya none of them had returned with Sev.
Severaixs the killer. Misereya had pieced the story together as best she could, pestering the elders who might have known him. Gurner had been his friend and his rheumy eyes had glittered at the mention of his name. A rebellious daughter. A handsome stranger. A mysterious disappearance.
A bright flash gave her a fleeting, second shadow. It was followed by a snap and a deep rumble that shook her enough to make her stumble to her knees. They had begun testing the lightning tower.
Misereya stood, wobbled, and hesitated. The Brackenridge seemed so far away. She shaded her eyes against the sun and saw a column of smoke rising to the south. As she watched, another puff rose nearer still.
Narrowing her eyes she pondered the smoke, and the distant tree line. The Margr were maybe half a day away. She still had time.
Severaixs’s home appeared as little more than a lean-to set against a deep fissure in the jumble of red stones. Set beside the flap of cloth buttoned over the entrance, were more than a dozen wooden plates. Six still had food scraps on them, scattered by small animals or covered in mould. The half dozen nearest the door had been neatly stacked.
At least he was alive.
Flashboom. Another test. They had been filling the moat as she scurried across the causeway. Someone had told her it would make the lightning more deadly. Her stomach felt suddenly hollow and she struggled to swallow. This was real. The Margr were coming.
Drawing back the flap, she stepped inside.
The lean-to turned out to be an antechamber lined with buckets, baskets and pots filled with refuse. Sev’s home extend back into the fissure. A narrow passage was lit by a few dim glowglobes, of orange, violet and blue. Faintly, she heard a hissing, ticking sound interspersed with mutters and flurries of music from a stringed instrument.
Setting her hand on the cool red stone, she walked slowly into the dimness.
Soon, the passage grew broader. Wedges had been pounded into the stone to support haphazard shelving bearing a mixture of creft and wonders. Mouldering books slowly compressed into pulp under layers of dust. A line of perfect jade spheres rocked back and forth so slightly it caused her eyes to tear up watching them. One set of shelves had collapsed and a pile of clay fragments were scattered on the floor below. She recognised the arc of a cheekbone, a sliver of lip, and long shards of hair. Shattered busts of a woman, and the occasional eye gazed up at her as she hobbled by.
The next room was lit by candles, some tallow, some wax, and their smell mingled rotten vegetables and sweat. Severaixs sat on a hassock in the middle of the room with a dulcimer crooked in his forearm and a bow held in his hand. A cloud of scintillae filled the room, and Misereya had to push aside the thought that she had stepped into a snow globe. The cloud was thicker in front of Severaixs, swirling and pulsing as he breathed. She took a step nearer and felt a gentle pressure pushing her away, as if the scintillae thickened the air.
Severaixs glanced at chalk marks on the floor, lifted the dulcimer and played a succession of notes, an alien melody. The scintillae flowed toward him and shapes coalesced in the cloud. An arc of cheekbone, a sliver of lip, and long shards of hair.
Her comb had been fashioned to the headstock of the dulcimer, each tine fixed to a string. Misereya felt her skin tingle, as if lightly touched and she smelled lilac and lavender. The face grew more distinct. The mouth trembled, and then opened and Misereya expected words, but the only sound was the dulcimer, and the tick and hiss of the confined scintillae.
Thunder rumbled, felt as a ripple through her skin. The image in the scintillae dissolved and Severaixs cursed.
Misereya sensed her moment. “Sev. Sir. We need to go now. The Margr are coming.”
He did not seem startled, but turned slowly to face her, shaking his head slightly. He blinked once, twice, then yawned. “The young trader. Misereya. What do you want?”
“To tell you about the Margr. They will be here tonight, maybe tomorrow. You have to come home.”
“Did you not see?” The words tumbled out. “I am so close. She was here. All along, in the dust.” His gaze was intense. “I can bring her back. I can fix it.”
“Fix what?” She narrowed her eyes. “You can…”. Boom. Dust, ordinary drab dust, fell from the roof.
“When will they stop that racket?”
Misereya set her lips, and took a deep breath. “You can finish this in Ellomyr. There are walls and many strangers have come to help. Please come with me.”
“My notes.” He gestured at the chalk marks. Setting down the dulcimer, he rubbed his left arm. His lips moved, but he did not speak aloud. When he had finished he glanced up, eyes wide, as if seeing her for the first time. “Wait. What is making that racket?”
“They have lightning stored in a tower like water. It goes flashboom when they let it out.”
He chuckled and closed his eyes. “Flashboom. Descriptive enough, child.” His eyes flicked open and his expression was suddenly so fierce that Misereya took an involuntary step backwards.
“Of course,” Severaixs cried. “I must have tulk for brains. A flash then a boom.” He stood gingerly, joints popping, stooped down to sweep up his dulcimer, and vainly brushed dust from his patchwork clothes. “The notes you hear from the trilling shard. I can use them as a catalyst but it’s too far away. Sound is slower than light. Flashboom, you say?”
Relief set her trembling. “We must hurry.”
“Of course. We must not dawdle.” He looked around his hovel, patted his pockets, shrugged. “I suppose there is nothing else I need. Come along, little trader.” He led her back outside.
Another column of smoke stained the sky and now the drums could be heard without the wind.
The Trilling Shard. Severaixs wondered who had coined the phrase. In his youth, there was a cook on one of the caravans with a penchant for naming every small landmark they passed, regardless whether there were names already on the map. Widow’s Peek, the Snarling Rock, the Trilling Shard. Perhaps that was how it had been named? A random traveler, an appropriate name that simply stuck and became so careworn with use that people no longer truly saw the thing behind the words.
Chaos, distraction, fear. Severaixs closed his eyes and gripped the dulcimer more tightly. Proximity to the Trilling Shard enhanced the music that manipulated the scintillae causing it to respond more precisely, more swiftly to the notes. It was the human element that was failing.
Focus. The exquisite tension of the strings on his fingers. Each note, perfect in his mind, aloof to the dismay of the looming battle. Sequences of notes, forming phrases, passages, counterpoints; mathematical more than melodic. Her face, memorised over the brief few months they had been lovers, by sun and candle light.
It had never occurred to him that perhaps he had idealised her over the decades since he had activated, and then lost control of the scintillae in her tattoos.
Strangers had constructed platforms around the Trilling Shard and applied all manner of exotic devices, hoping fathom its purpose. Hoping to prod it to assist in the defence of Ellomyr he supposed. He had found a spot out of the way and settled down on the cobbles. Nobody seemed to notice him. For his purpose, the Trilling Shard was merely a catalyst. For Ellomyr it was a waypoint for caravans, shade for a seasonal market, and founding stone for a small village. If Ellomyr survived perhaps one day the Trilling Shard would be a curiosity, in a forgotten square of a town or even a city. That did not matter to Severaixs. It was a catalyst for his music, a tool he could use to save his lost Lalitheia.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm, he focused his effort on a new iteration of the music.
Her face and body formed quickly, the scintillae flowing easily into the shade of the Trilling Shard and details were evoked in shimmering motes. She moved now, unbidden by the song, turning her head slightly as she always did when she disagreed, curling her lips in a mischievous smile when she thought of some new folly, narrowing her eyes when she was thinking. Her lips moved and Severaixs felt or imagined her breath on his face, but could not hear her words.
The scintillae ghost of Lalitheia glanced over his shoulder and dissipated.
A sudden rage filled him and he turned, ready to snap at the intruder.
Misereya stood close by, hand held out, hesitating to touch. The light around her was diffuse with smoke. She wore a carpenter’s apron with panels of wood crudely fixed to it. He realised she was gripping long-bladed pruning shears with knuckles turned white.
He gulped back his anger. “Please. I am busy.”
She turned her head slightly away. “Do you not hear the Margr? The battle is about to begin.” She blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Is there nothing you can do?”
The anger returned, burning him, consuming him. “Why should I help them? They did nothing for me?”
“No?” Blood trickled from Misereya’s lips where she had them pinned between her teeth before she yelled above the noise. “Nieten has kept the wild animals away from your door. All of us have left food and clothes for you at one time or another. You exiled yourself.”
In her anger, Severaixs could see the young woman she would become. Strong and wilful. If she survived the next few hours.
He looked down at the dulcimer. “No. There is nothing I can do. I am sorry.”
“Are you?” She shook her head. “Nobody will let me fight. I am going to fight anyway. My brothers and sisters are behind these walls. I will not live to see a Margr make trophies of them.” Even now, she hesitated, seeking some response from him but he did not know what to say.
A strange chord wafted over them from the Trilling Shard. Severaixs turned away. He wanted to wish her well, but he could not find the words. Lalitheia was close, and that was all that mattered.
A large column of dust was rising across the plain between Ellomyr and the Brackenridge hiding the Margr horde. There was no doubt the abhumans were coming. Their war chant was growing louder, a living avalanche of screams and howls and drums, and a chittering moan that set Misereya’s nerves jangling.
Ahead of the veil of dust, the last of the skirmishers were limping home alone or in pairs and always covered in blood. The metal-faced man was carrying a woman who had lost an arm and her face was pallid, lifeless. The dust had effectively grounded the flyers who had retreated earlier, soaring overhead, whooping and laughing. Misereya envied them and wished she had been old enough to learn to fly.
Flames flickered at the leading edge of the crowd prompting cheers, but soon enough the last of the skirmishers appeared, riding a beast that was half ox and half serpent, covered in metallic scales. A man running beside the beast, hand extended to catch a ride, fell suddenly with a spear through his chest.
Misereya watched as the last of the skirmishers crossed the temporary causeway across the new, shallow moat. The gate was closed. The outer defences had failed.
Fear shrunk her skin, lit her veins afire, and made her want to pee. She clung to the shearing prunes she had taken from a pile of makeshift weapons, and wondered what it would be like, to lose an arm or feel a spear pierce her body.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to be still. Twice, elders had told her to go back to the hostel and hide with the other children. Twice, she had refused. If it had been her mother she might not have been able to resist the request, but her mother was busy helping to brace the hastily constructed wall.
Actually, wall was a generous name. Outside the moat were thickets of spears set into the ground, designed to crowd the Margr together. Inside the moat was a berm, with a barricade atop it made from hastily chopped tree trunks.
When she had first climbed the platform behind the wall she had found a living leaf on a branch that had not been properly stripped. She rested her fingers on the leaf, from time to time, felt its smooth texture, felt its stolid indifference to death, and was comforted.
Now the Margr horde was wheeling, emerging from the dust cloud. They were humanoid creatures, with goat-like heads and thick, stringy beards. No two Margr looked alike. Some had extra arms, or serpentine hair, or overlapping chitinous scales. All of them wore trophies, some still fresh and bleeding, but most were rotted and grey.
At the head of column was a Margr tall enough that he could look Misereya directly in the eyes if he made it as far as the barricade. This one, their leader, raised a heavy staff made of articulated metal with a hook at one end and a spiked chain trailing from the other.
The Margr fell silent.
Misereya shivered. After days of ceaseless chanting the silence was terrifying. A metallic taste filled her mouth and she swallowed bile. Now she could hear the gentle hum of the lightning tower, the muted chatter of the defenders, the cries of the wounded and the occasional, diffident note from the Trilling Shard.
Even though Severaixs was old, even though he had ignored her when she had taken his sword, she wished he was standing beside her now.
The Margr leader howled and brought down his weapon. The other Margr screamed and chittered, clashing their spears and thumping their shields, and the sound rolled across the plain and punched Misereya hard in the chest. She took a step backward and saw others do the same. The shears almost slipped from her sweaty fingers.
Somehow, Nieten’s voice cut through the cacophony. “Is that it? Is that all they have? I have heard worst sounds coming from the privy behind the alehouse.”
There were some nervous laughs. “They have come for our homes. They have come for our flesh and blood and bone.” She paused, turning to catch the eyes of those on the barricade. “If they win all of our stories will be gone forever. The time Gurner locked himself in that self-same privy. The time that Viel’s aneen herd was trapped in the floods and we formed a human chain to save them.
Nieten raised her stronglass sword. “Our tragedies, like the Red River. Our ghost stories, like the Dancer in the Dust. Our births, our weddings, our honoured dead. These Margr would wipe them from memory forever.”
Nieten paused again, turning her gaze to the enemy. The cries of the Margr were fading to a mutter and a clatter. Everyone that could see her was looking at Nieten, and for the first time it seemed as if the shy, soft-spoken Glaive was not diminished by the attention. “If we allow it. Only we can stop them and stop them we will. Behind us are our homes. Ahead of us, our enemy. We stand between. Let us make sure the two never meet. Let us give Gurner some real stories to tell. Are you with me?”
The defenders roared, and Misereya raised her shears with the others and felt a giddy energy suffuse her.
Then the Margr charged and the smell of rotten flesh rolled ahead of the vanguard in a palpable wave. Misereya wished her mother was beside her, and wondered if she might be with her father soon, but she stood her ground.
Oblivious. Is that the word? Oblivion? No, they had different meanings. On one level, Severaixs was conscious of the shouts and cries, the clatter and grate of saws, the resonating impact of hammers. He could hear the hum of the lightning tower, and feel the hair on his forearms bristle in response. As the skirmishers returned, he could almost taste their blood.
Yet he set all that aside. He drew the bow across his makeshift dulcimer and felt the alien notes as pressure on his fingertips. Whenever the Trilling Shard sang, he felt the strings of his dulcimer respond. Indifferent, it acted as a catalyst for Misereya’s comb.
In the air ahead of him, Lalitheia’s body was forming from the spinning, shimmering scintillae. Still as ephemeral as dust on the wind, there were enough details now that he could see the scar on her lip, the birthmark on her thigh. Soon, his mistake would be unmade and Lalitheia would return to him.
Lalitheia’s lips were moving but he could not discern her meaning.
Violet light suffused the square, followed almost immediately by a snap of thunder so close, so loud, it made his bones ache. For a moment, Lalitheia faded, but he bent to his bow in an effort to restore her. She was gesturing now, toward the barricade and the battle, her mouth moving again, and perhaps he imagined her voice.
“Go. Help them.” She reached out and her slender fingers stroked his cheek, the slightest pressure, then she turned away, shimmering hair covering her face. “Help her,” he thought she said.
Then a cry pierced the illusion. Dora’s voice. “Misereya!”
Severaixs’ heart thudded and fluttered. Lalitheia smiled, slightly, and started to dissipate. Severaixs reached out but felt only the tickle of dust on his fingers. “Misereya,” the cry came again.
Lalitheia was gone. Severaixs stood, trembling, and almost dropped the dulcimer. The scintillae were swirling around him now, filling the air with their shimmering iridescence. At first stumbling, then walking, and then running, Severaixs headed for the Barricade.
Standing on the parapet, Severaixs tried to comprehend the battle and failed. It was too chaotic. There were still-living Margr flailing about on stakes and many lay dead in the moat. The mechanism to collapse the wooden causeway had failed and a large group of invaders were piled up against the gate. One was tall enough that his chainstaff slashed and snapped across the rough parapet.
There was no sign of Misereya. Some defenders lay dead at the base of the barricade and some lay wounded, untended, on the wall itself. Fliers, on strange metallic boards, swooped over the battlefield firing bows or dropping rocks but they were lightly armoured and he saw two of them fall. One was snatched from the air by the Margr leader’s chain, another came too close to the lightning tower when it fired. Ozone, and decayed flesh, blood and bile and a deep loamy smell from the moat, combined the make him gag.
He saw a leaf fluttering in the breeze, rising, drifting away and wondered where it had originated in all this maelstrom of blood and fear.
The people of Elloymyr had not given up – they were fighting back, along with the strangers who had come to assist. The metal-faced man ducked the great chain and tried to entangle it with a wooden staff. Violet flames erupted from his left, and a woman laughed, as a group of Margr who had been attempting to breach the barricade fell back, blackened and smoking. Nieten was bloodied, using a pike to fend off Margr that were piling their dead into a ramp against the barricade. A strange, hairy creature dropped barrels of water which instantly froze on contact with flesh.
Where was Misereya? He hoped she was not lying in the mud but there was no time to find her. In moments, Ellomyr could fall.
And what could he do? The scintillae swirled around him and the Trilling Shard sang, a deep, thrumming note that set the strings of his dulcimer vibrating.
He knew. Lalitheia’s voice echoed in his memory. “Help them. Help her.”
Lifting the dulcimer he drew his bow across the strings.
The scintillae pulsed in tune with the alien notes. He urged them outwards and they billowed over the barricade. More scintillae rose from the mud, from the wooden stakes and logs, and drifted inwards against the breeze. They thickened into coils and ribbons and translucent sheets, a living aurora.
Through the gathering scintillae, he saw a group of Margr readying their spears. Projecting his will through the dulcimer, he thickened and turned the shimmering sheets of iridescent dust. Their spears struck the scintillae, and were slowed just enough that they fall short of the wall.
Severaixs felt a moment of elation. He may have lived apart from Ellomyr for forty years, but it was still his home. And Lalitheia’s. And Misereya’s.
The bow hummed in his hands and he found himself humming back. Startled, a hunter fell back as a rock narrowly missed her face. The scintillae cushioned her fall and in moments she had darted back up a ladder bemused but unharmed.
Another group of Margr surged forward, and the scintillae swooped and formed a mirror, briefly dazzling them, long enough for the defenders to rally, and push them back into the moat where the lightning tower finished the job.
Dust devils were forming on the plains, drawing out more scintillae and Severaixs blinked away tears. For a moment, dancing among them, he though he glimpsed Lalitheia – the Dancer in the Dust.
There was a roar and a shudder ran through the barricade, followed by a crunching, splintering sound as the gate collapsed. The leader of the Margr was missing an ear, and had been disarmed, but his mighty claws were more than enough to maim and kill. The defenders fell back to the inner defences and, for a moment, the two groups simply glared at each other. Then Nieten cried out and the defenders charged.
Severaixs turned his attention to the melee, but the scintillae were learning. The metal-faced man leaped to strike the leader of the Margr, and the scintillae formed enhanced muscles around his weapon arm. The nano he had seen on the wall could barely stand. The scintillae gently lifted her and then focussed her flames so that it would only strike her enemies.
Severaixs was no long playing the dulcimer. The scintillae was conducting its own defence of the town, enhancing, shielding, but never directly attacking, and in all the confusion Severaixs did not believe that anyone realised it was there, helping. That she was there, helping.
He fell to his knees, weeping. I am sorry, so sorry. He did not see the Margr leader fall, and did not see the defenders surge, or the route of the horde. He did not hear the ragged cheers, or see the heroes lifted on the shoulders of the villagers.
His awareness returned with a gentle touch on his shoulder. He looked up and saw Gurner. Tears had drawn tracks through dried blood, all the way down to his neck, and his eyes were red and swollen.
Gurner’s voice cracked as he spoke. “Misereya is asking for you. We have to hurry.”
The room was full of silhouettes, wispy shadows of people she loved. Her mother, sobbed on Nieten’s shoulder. Her siblings stood behind her and little Filionne waved shyly when Misereya tried to smile. But where was Tiris? Mama had sent for Staven and he had treated her wounds so surely she would be fine?
And where was Sev?
Misereya had only the vaguest memory of the battle. Clutching her shears, she had faced the Margr horde as they thundered across the plains. She remembered the dust rolling over the palisade, and the stench. Then she was on her knees and hot liquid was flowing over her face. She could no longer see through her left eye. Oddly, that had not hurt. Presumably one of the Margr had thrown a stone.
Then the slim, barbed pilum had struck her in the chest. If the stone had missed her, the spear might have struck her makeshift leg. A feeling like wax melting filled her lungs followed by an exquisite sensation so far beyond her experience it could not be called pain.
A moment later, consciousness had been sucked away like water down a drain.
For a time, she could only remember moments, between blinks of her good eye.
“Misereya!” Her mama’s voice.
Gentle hands lifting her onto a blanket. Her eyes had filled with blood but someone sopped it up with a rag.
In the commons, now. The light was suffused with a violet glow and strange music chased her from the palisade as if it wanted to tell her something important.
A loud crackle. An avalanche? Was the Brackenridge coming to help? It amused her to think of it as a sleeping giant, annoyed with the noise of battle. She coughed.
Home, and Filionne running to fetch Staven.
Now her mother sobbing after quiet words from Staven. Misereya felt a moment of deep satisfaction at finishing the memory puzzle. She tried to move but her muscles only twitched. A dull ache filled her head, and it felt as if a weight was slowly settling on her chest.
“Sev,” she mumbled. Her mama turned to face her, puzzled. She gestured, and Nieten led the other children from the room.
Then mama kneeled by the bed and forced a smile “You need to rest, Missy. To sleep.”
That smile, a thin veneer over fear and grief. Not her mama’s best work. Misereya blinked but her mother still looked strange. Then she remembered the stone and felt the gentle pressure of a bandage over her left eye. Had she lost her eye? Is that why mama had been crying? Now she would be Misereya One-Eye. Misereya the pirate.
It hurt when she chuckled. “Can you fetch Sev?”
“Hush, darling. You must rest.” She glanced toward the door.
Misereya struggled to sit but a roar like a waterfall filled her ears and she started to cough. Mama patted her, and wiped blood from her lips with a handkerchief.
“Is he alright?” she murmured.
“I saw him on the walls, playing that damned dulcimer. The Margr may have been too amused to kill him.”
“Fetch him. I have to talk to him. Then I promise I will go to sleep.”
Mama turned away, her chest heaving, as if she could not breathe, but her voice was even when she finally spoke. “I will send someone to fetch him.”
The weight on her chest had grown heavier. Why would nobody remove it?
In a corner, indistinct, her father waited though she could no longer remember the sound of his voice.
“Hello, little trader.” Severaixs was kneeling by her bedside, his face so pale it might have been spun from moonlight. “Did you have another deal to make?”
Even through the medicine, she felt a little knot of joy. “Mama says she saw you on the wall. Did you bring her back?”
“Yes, of course.” He closed his eyes to hide the lie. “In a sense. I could not save her, but she was there, on the battlefield, guiding the scintillae at the end.”
A deep lassitude was spreading through her body, the aches fading. “But you know what to do now. You can try again.”
“So I will. You will meet her soon. She would like you a great deal.
Blink, long and languid this time. When her good eye opened again, she saw Sev leaning close, the dulcimer cradled in his arms. It was difficult to be sure, but there was only the faintest flicker in the fifth bead on the comb. The others were dark.
She was struggling to catch her breath. “What…will you trade for it?”
Sev chuckled, sadly. “It is almost spent. But I will play again, for you.”
Beautiful, haunting notes filled the room as it grew dark, and it seemed as if shimmering motes were emerging from every item of furniture and flowing in through every window. They smelled of lavender and lilac.
The sun was smeared by smoke when Severaixs stepped out of the Redmire house. Gurner was waiting. He gripped Severaixs’s shoulder, nodded then turned and shuffled away without saying a word.
There were scintillae in the air but they drifted now with the wind, empty of purpose.
Severaixs had never felt more weary. He looked down at his hands and realised he was still holding the ruined dulcimer. Tossing it aside, he set his shoulders, and walked toward the fallen gate.
People had gathered in small groups, the survivors, brimming with nervous energy, drinking and telling their tales. A row of blankets marked the bodies of the fallen. None of it made sense. Surely if he made his way and home, and slept long and deep, when he woke the tiny village of Ellomyr, would still revile him and Misereya would still be offering her ridiculous trades.
Nobody noticed as he walked by and crossed the causeway. The piles of Margr had been shoved aside so that Kelem’s riders could enter. A small pen had been hastily constructed for their aneen mounts nearby. The saviours of Ellomyr, he supposed and in many ways he was diffident about the tales they would tell. His only friend lay dying and his lover was dead. Decades dead, he knew that now. If her consciousness still resided in the scintillae that had consumed her, Severaixs no longer had a way of giving it form.
All this obsession, for nothing.
A pyre had been built for the Margr, some distance from the city. Villagers and newcomers alike toiled to pull bodies from the moat, or from snapped and splintered stakes. It was as if the battle would not be truly over until all trace of the enemy had been removed.
His jaw was aching again and his left arm felt numb, but a sense of peace settled over him. Perhaps it was not for nothing. He had burned out the comb, but he had used his only remaining skill to aid in the defence. He recalled the woman who fell from the wall, her surprise at being unharmed. Severaixs was unsure how many were alive now because of his virtuoso performance with the scintillae.
He was certain, nobody was aware of his sacrifice but Misereya. He was certain Lalitheia approved.
Shadows filled the rills, flowing into the vale and across the savannah. The red stone of the Brackenridge caught the high sunlight. Dusk came swiftly, brimming with smoke.
Severaixs coughed. A heavy weight pressed on his chest, crushing his heart. He clutched his arm and fell into the dust.
A gentle touch on his shoulder, a whisper in his ear, and the smell of lilac and lavender. “I forgive you.”
He smiled and the pain was gone. Something floated high in the fading light. A leaf or perhaps a kite. Sheets, like a living aurora, flowing toward Ellomyr and the dying girl.
Dancer in the DustCoda: The Patchwork Girl
Misereya dashed across the savannah trailing a kite. Aemark, a shy Othmari woman, had shown her how to make one in the shape of a queb. The kite coiled and rippled through the air, tiny bells tinkling as it soared.
Her hair was full of sawdust, but as she ran, it fell behind her, until all she could smell was the lavender blooming after the rain.
Misereya paused by the graves of the fallen. All who had died in the defence of Ellomyr had been buried in a place of honour on a small hill overlooking the village. At dawn, the shadow of the Trilling Shard reached out and touched the new graveyard.
Her mother said it was the least the survivors could do for those who had given their lives. Severaixs would call it foolish while nodding in respect. Misereya did not linger. Now the sun was high, and wind was blustering across the plains, lifting her kite ever higher.
It was not long before she reached a solitary grave in the shadow of the Brackenridge. She paused to reel in and capture her kite then sat down on the stool she had salvaged from the ruins. At Gurner’s insistence, Severaixs had been buried close to his home. At Misereya’s insistence, mama had made a grave marker.
“I have a great deal to tell you, Sev.” She stretched out the new leg Severaixs had shaped with his dulcimer. It moved just like a real leg, but appeared as if made of glass filled with shimmering, roiling motes. The same substance flowed up her body in coiling tendrils, covered the left half of her face and infused her hair. Her left eye was no longer green, but black and filled with stars. With the tip of a perfectly formed toe, she flicked dry leaves away from the grave.
“I am well, thank you for asking.” She drew a sandwich from her satchel. “Some of the Othmari have decided to stay. I might have another mother soon if mama gets up the nerve to ask Aemark to stay for dinner.” She took another bite of her sandwich. Tiris was on kitchen detail until he fully healed. His scars were ugly, horrifying, and completely impressive but his cooking had improved.
Leaves skittered by and the Breckenridge creaked. “Of course, I almost forgot again.” She reached into her satchel and drew out the comb. All of the beads were dark now but it was still a pretty thing. She tied it to the grave marker and leaned back.
The wind gusted again and Misereya looked up, shading her eyes. Dust devils were flowing across the plains. “We had another navarac fly out of the Valley of Sins last night. It flew around the town, screeching, but it came no closer than the wall. Gurner says the aurora came down from the sky and confused the poor thing.” She leaned closer and whispered. “We know better.”
Soon enough the wind grew chilly, Misereya pulled a woolen wrap from her satchel and stood, stretching, her new leg revelling in its grace. “I will be back in a day or so to check on you.” She tossed her satchel over her shoulder and picked up her kite. “Oh, before I forget. Aemark is going to teach me to dance.”
She whirled away, laughing.
Behind her, in the dust, glittering motes formed in a vortex from the grave marker, and a tiny figure flowed in a graceful complex dance, before dissipating into the dust.