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No Esteemed Deed
And on the twentieth day there came another man from out of the wastes.
The people of the village regarded him warily as he approached. There were already fears of plague from other towns. Who knew what he might bring with him?
He stumbled as he walked and they called out to him while he was still a distance away. “Who goes there? What is your sickness?”
The man froze, his gaze lingering on the small crowd at the village border. He said something but it was too quiet for them to hear. Then again, this time shouting: “Water!”
He fell to his knees. “Wat—“ he began again, but he fell face first into the sands before he could complete the word.
One of the women sent for one of the eldersmen. The others waited until he came, holding a long stick at his side, and then followed the elderman out to where the stranger lay. The elderman flipped him onto his back with the stick and poked him here and there. Patches of the man’s hair were missing. His skin was an angry, blistering red in many places including, the elderman noted, where his clothing should have protected him from the sun.
“He needs food and water,” he finally said. “This is no sickness that I recognize. Certainly none as they are speaking of inrealm.” He unwrapped his cloak from around himself and draped it over the other man. “We claim him as our guest, with all the rights thereof.” He looked around at the others that were with him. Satisfied that there was no dissent, he departed.
The man awoke in half-light and coolness relative to the heat that had beating on him for weeks. He allowed himself to relax on the bedroll and adjust to his new conditions.
Someone handed him a clay vessel. It smelled mostly like water but with a few underlying scents that he couldn’t recognize. He still couldn’t see clearly, he suddenly realized. He had hoped that had been an effect of the sunglare but it seemed otherwise.
“Drink,” they commanded him. He didn’t need telling twice. The man shivered as the water ran down his throat. He drank as only dying men could and some spilled around his lips and over his chin and neck. He took two more vessels before he could drink no more.
“What is your name?”
“Arnelle,” he said. He could barely hear his voice himself but the figure was apparently satisfied.
“My name is Tiffaris. I’m the bloodwoman here.” She paused. “Rest. We can at least make you comfortable.”
“Cursed…” he whispered.
Tiffaris was there when he returned to consciousness again. There was someone else too, but Arnelle’s sight, which blurred and cleared in cycles, was still too poor for him to tell who it was. Tiffaris he could only recognize dimly by her voice. He hadn’t seen her face either.
“The man… The man with me…”
“Ssshhh,” Tiffaris said. “You’re running a bad fever. Drink.” She pressed the vessel into his hands again and laid a damp cloth over his forehead. “The broth is good for giving you your strength. I don’t know if you could eat anything else.”
Arnelle’s chest hurt.
“Curse. No. Where… Where is he?”
“The man who was… was with me.”
His vision was good enough that he could tell she shook her head at this. “There wasn’t anyone with you.”
Arnelle fell back from his sitting position. “He must… fallen ‘way.”
“Must be,” the other figure said. Arnelle tried to look at him again but found that he didn’t have the strength.
“Who?” he asked. That voice. It was so familiar.
Light spilled into the room and burned his eyes as the figure left. The pain lingered even after the light went away, and so did the figure’s voice, which tugged at his clouded memory even as he slipped back into a state of nod.
The next time Arnelle awoke his vision was a little blurrier. He drank more of the broth but Tiffaris had judged that he could progress to a handful of seeds ground-up to thicken and flavor the admixture.
“Nobody’s getting sick yet,” she said to him. “That’s good.”
He tried to shake his head but could only move it by the barest amount before agony flooded his senses. His sight went out completely for a second. The vessel fell from his hands and bounced on the floor and, as if it were happening to someone else, he could feel the broth soaking through the sheet that covered him.
Arnelle’s vision started to come back in time for him to see the figure from before enter the room. As before, it took its place on a stool in the corner.
“Afternoon, Arnelle.” There it was again. Arnelle knew this man. “You’re looking worse for wear since I saw you.”
“When? When’d you see me?”
“Oh, I reckon when you upleft me for dead with two canteens of water and a pack of granola. Yeah, you were mighty healthy then, sure were.”
“Palinda…” he whispered. “You’re alive.”
“More than you, anyway. Hawbuzzard tried to get my eye when I was passed out for want of water. He succeeded more than I’d like by the time that these folks found me.”
“Don’t try to excuse yourself. It was foul business you did on me, Arnelle.”
Arnelle closed his eyes. “Black deed.”
“Who was the other one with you?”
Palinda seemed to take this in. “What happened to the others? You abandon them too?”
“They died. All dying.” Arnelle shuddered and turned to the side. His insides burned and seemed to tear each other apart.
He vomited, and once his stomach was empty he simply gagged.
The pain. The pain.
It drove his sight away again while his world collapsed into an empty awareness of his convulsions. By the time that he could think and see again, Palinda was gone.
It was a whole day or more before Palinda came back. Arnelle’s vision was as good at that point as it had ever been since the curse had come down on him, and he wondered if he would have recognized Palinda by sight alone. His left eye was missing— whatever the bird hadn’t gotten must have gotten the infection. His cheeks were hollow and his arms thin; he still bore the signs of recovery from starvation and dehydration. His beard was tangled.
“How do you feel?” Palinda asked him eventually.
“It only hurts when I pee. Haaa…” He moaned. “And when I laugh.”
“You did a thing worthy of Blackhall,” Palinda said later. “We were kith and kin and all you upleft me. What’re you going to do when I speak against you at the board of hosts?”
Despite himself, Arnelle found himself shivering.
Palinda pulled up a chair beside Arnelle. “You went to the onkalo?” he asked, and Arnelle nodded as best as he could. “Tell me what you found. And I will absolve you.” He placed a hand on Arnelle’s shoulder. “None of the others. But you will be found guiltless.”
It was a long time before Arnelle felt ready to speak. Ready to go back to those memories. He needed more than physical strength to speak of them, but he needed physical strength too. “It was two days more afore we reached the onkalo. Black spires and walls with screaming faces. The ground was made of a stone like none we’d seen before and the air itself seemed to burn. It was… It was like we’d stumbled up upon the Blackhall itself.”
“You went in anyway.”
“We knew what they’d said. We all did. You did. But it was something else to see it with our own eyes.” Arnelle wrapped his arms around himself. “There really was a curse. We shoulda known it when we saw the symbols. But we thought it was superstition.”
“Twisted shapes, like the rays of the sun. The power of the place, but we didn’t realize that its power couldn’t be handled. And inside, maps.” A strange look crossed on his face. “The world is so much bigger than we ever thought, Palinda.”
Arnelle was silent for a time, and Palinda granted him respite until he could speak again.
“We found everything there. Knowledge. Maps and other pictures, like an ancient library. There were so many scripts on the walls. They must have known many languages, this place’s builders. You would have loved it.”
“I think I would have died. Perhaps it is better that I was upleft.”
“You will forgive them, then?”
Palinda laughed like a dog. “You upleft me to die, not to spare me. I’ll let your kith be judged as they merit.”
“Please. At least Odustine…” Arnelle pleaded.
“Continue,” Palinda ordered. “Or you’ll have reneged on your own side of the bargain and there will be no mercy at the board for you either. I know the words to condemn you at the Rowland’s bar. You know I do.”
Arnelle turned his face away. He swallowed involuntarily and regretted it immediately. It hurt. “We found relics there. Metal, even, and stone that neither man nor woman has ever been able to fashion in these days. But we grew sick within a few hours. Walkob started purging water first of all, and then I began spewing. Walkob died but it mostly passed from the rest of us. Until it started to come back.”
“Nothing is valued here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us,” Palinda whispered, as if to himself. The barest hint of a smile crept onto his face. “There were other symbols, weren’t there?” He laughed softly for just a moment. “You shouldn’t have taken an old historian’s misgivings and frailties for reason to upleave him. Tell me what else you saw,” he snarled.
“Seraphims. Marks of the seraphims, cast on yellow and purple. Abstract and like no others that I had ever seen before, but we recognized them. With a wing they covered their feet, and with a wing they covered their faces, and with a wing they flew. We thought it was a sign.”
Palinda’s laughter nearly turned to coughing. “You found trefoils there. Trefoils.” His smile looked wide enough to almost divide his face in two. “It was an armory of the old times that you found there, Arnelle. One of the hiding places, kept away from us by superstitions for all this time. But now that I know the sign, I know.”
“What I need to look for, to learn how we can access the armory in safety. Curses can be broken when you know their signs. The signs are the key to it.” He smiled again. “Goodbye, Arnelle. I will speak for you at the bar when I die.”
As the last days of his life drew to a close, when the pain was not too great for him to think, Arnelle found himself frequently wondering just what it was that he had told Palinda, and what Palinda intended to do with the knowledge.
His last coherent thought was whether there were other reasons that they never should have upleft Palinda in the wastes.
Notes for this story