Note: I have been under the weather recently, thus am posting an entire week’s flash fiction at once. Enjoy!
CONTENT WARNING: Violence against children
Qaansoole the archer made her way carefully and quickly through the watery tunnel. She knew that the champions behind her relied upon her leadership, but they were strong. Her son, Qays, had been with Allamu—whose scream had already echoed through the tight space. Sabit had charged after him only to let forth a cry of anguish as well. Qaansoole’s heart filled with dread.
Despite her fear and worry, Qaansoole moved with care, making certain her sandals did not slip on the wet stones. She had learned the hunting arts at her father’s knee and knew that skill filled more cookpots than did strength or speed. Even Qaansoole’s marriage to the warlord Athar—Qays’ father—had arisen from a skillful negotiation. Her voluntary sacrifice had kept his rampaging war-band away from the forested home of her people. Qaansoole could feel the smooth bark on her bare feet as she recalled perching on a tree branch, talking down to the mounted warlord below.
Qaansoole was several years and hundreds of parasangs away from her homeland when she learned the true character of Athar. Qays was just mastering the use of his legs when the war-band held its first culling. All the children who had seen six summers were gathered, armed with knives crafted for their tiny hands, and herded into a corral. Only when half the young lay slain upon the ground was the corral opened and the survivors welcomed to the war-band. Athar rejoiced that his son would know his mother’s fierceness and prosper in the culling.
During the culling festival, Qaansoole had taken Qays and fled—across plain and forest and desert to ensure that no son of hers would hold murder in his heart. Qaansoole felt once more every struggle and sacrifice she had made for her beloved son.
Catching sight of him ahead, she hurried to his side. Qays turned to her, bloody knife held high, a grin of joy on the boy’s face.
In the delirium of his twisted memory, Allamu fell to his knees, awash in horror at his deeds. The foul tricks and wicked lies he had used to steer Sabit to this wretched city of Vert weighed upon his heart like a stone dragging him to the unfathomable depths of the ocean.
Before his fevered eyes, Allamu saw Sabit’s body aflame as she fought in the arena as one of the Magistrate’s champions.* The numberless crowds of spectators roared their adulation like surf pounding on a rocky shore. He could not pull his gaze away from the feats of strength and skill she performed, although her every moment was wracked by fiery suffering.
And yet, no flame bit deeper than the betrayal Allamu could see in Sabit’s eyes when his grandest lie played out before her. As Allamu posed as Qaansoole’s lover, he could see Sabit’s face consumed by more than just the flame. The agony in her eyes burned like acid, dissolving Sabit from within.
Allamu had been the one to put it there. It was his fault their group had ever come to Vert. After all the times Sabit had saved Allamu’s worthless life, he repaid her heroism with lies and betrayal. The exultant crowds at her toppling of the Magistrate let out cheers that rang out hollow.
«What does a man deserve when he has betrayed those he loves ?» came a voice formed of roaring crowds and churning waters and ancient hate.
Allamu had no words weighty enough to answer—only action. Pitching forward in the waist-deep waters of the narrow tunnel beneath the Magistrate’s house, Allamu threw himself beneath the surface, the silence engulfing him. He felt metal bars ahead.
Wedging his head beneath the bars, Allamu waited to end the curse of his betrayal, to drown, to join the hungry ghosts that whispered in his ears.
*-Sabit’s time as a champion is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Broken Justice.
Qaansoole leaped through her twisted memory, arms reaching for her son, Qays. Taking the boy in her arms, she tried to pry the bloody knife from his grasp. Qays’ small fingers held the weapon with the strength of stone. Qaansoole’s grip could find no purchase, her hands slipping in the gouts of blood covering the boy’s hands.
“Qays, you are no murderer,” Qaansoole cried out, trying to reach the kind soul that she knew lay behind the boy’s hate-filled smile.
“Of course I am,” replied Qays, gleefully. “I am my mother’s son. I have learned your ways well.”
In a flash, Qays hurled the bloody knife. Qaansoole recognized the grace and power of the movement: they were her own. The flying blade lodged itself in the Magistrate’s neck, and he crumpled to the ground.
Qays lifted Qaansoole’s bow and let loose an arrow. Embedding deep in Sabit’s eye, the shaft drove the spear woman backward until she landed on the hard stone, unmoving. The next arrow struck Allamu through the heart.
As Qaansoole’s former betrothed collapsed in bloody, twitching agony, she heard a watery voice—thick with agony and envy. «What else could the boy have learned from you besides the art of killing? How much more murder do you want to teach him?»
The blood from Qays’ slaughter ran deep and strangely cool around Qaansoole’s waist. She had poisoned her son’s heart with her each word and every touch. Qaansoole would set him free. Throwing herself head-first into the coursing stream of blood, Qaansoole buried herself beneath the heap of corpses and waited to die.
Sabit’s twisted memory of holding Ishum’s skull in her hands was filled with cacophony. Her throat ached from screaming. The roar of the wind surrounded her—howling through the rocky badlands where Ishum had died. The churn and splash and gurgle of the water flowing around her legs echoed in the tight tunnel beneath the Magistrate’s house. Sobbing and screams from her fellow champions and the former hostages seemed to reach her ears from an unfathomable distance.
Pulling the skull up from its undignified grave amidst the roots, Sabit begged for that which could never be. “Ishum, you must not love me. I betray all who trust in me.”
The roaring of the water grew louder, like the flooding caverns of the god Batuul beneath a distant island.* Washing past her feet, Sabit saw the drowned corpse of stubborn Wensa, who had never been tempted by Batuul’s empty promises. Sabit had led the young woman into danger and it was at Sabit’s feet that the blame of her death came to rest.
Stumbling backward, Sabit fell upon Qaansoole. Her lifeless body was curled around the innocent corpse of her son—the archer was another who had often questioned Sabit and was now condemned to die for Sabit’s failure; her son was another innocent youth whose life Sabit had snipped before it could blossom.
“Allamu!” Sabit cried. A strangled cry of agony answered. Turning, Sabit saw the prince of Urom’s face twist into a mask of agony as a mercenary cut him down from behind. The bald warrior with the long moustaches—the one Sabit had failed to kill during the siege—stepped over Allamu’s bloody corpse.
«You fail to defeat your enemies, and visit suffering upon your friends. Is it any wonder you are hated and feared by all?» came a voice as old and warped as the stones themselves.
Sabit fell upon her back before the approaching foe, into the rushing water. Her arms flailed blindly behind her, the spear woman’s hands seeking a weapon, a tool, a rock—anything to fend off her attacker and his dead-eyed stare.
Her hands found neither spear nor sword nor stone. But each stretch of her arms pulled Sabit deeper beneath the water, every effort to protect herself drew her closer to a watery grave.
*-Sabit’s encounter with Batuul is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Isle of the Wicked.
Vert had not always been the city of justice. Tribes of fishermen and herdsmen had made their homes in this valley for ages unnumbered before the tradesmen brought coin and commerce from afar. When the trade had grown lucrative enough, the Vertan invaders caught the scent of wealth. Conquering the expanse of the valley, the foreigners constructed the splendor of the city and enshrined Verq, their patron lady of justice, as the true and only goddess.
For the simple folk whose roots in this land went deep, the broad, paved thoroughfares and glittering arcades and bustling forum held no place for them. Those people and their old gods were not welcome upon the surface. Far from the sight of the lady of justice and her rich, fat followers, the old ways found a new home—in the deep places, in sewers and catacombs and stinking piles of offal.
Even the gods and their ways change with time. The richer the Vertan conquerors grew, the more spiteful grew the teachings of the old gods, and the more envious grew the hearts of the conquered people. While Vert was at its height, they buried their dead in the secret, sacred places, deep beneath the city. Consecrating their graves with stark songs of hatred, they buried the wasted bones of their families, and kindled an unending hunger in their restless ghosts.
As Vert fell, the hungry ghosts relished every ounce of suffering wrung from their oppressors. But a thirst for suffering cannot be slaked by something so simple as the fall of a city, the collapse of a civilization, of an enemy’s defeat. The desperate need for pain goes on, ceaseless in its yearning.
Now, this fresh crop of outsiders suffered well. Long-dead ghosts feasted upon their fears, cracked open their hearts to devour the doubts within like the rich marrow of bones. Some were young, crackling with strong, bright terrors. Some were old, steeped in decades of regret. Some were strong, but their strength only fed their despair. Some were clever, but their skill only sharpened the barbs of hopelessness.
As this fresh crop of outsiders huddled in the murk of the tunnel, the hungry ghosts feasted. A banquet of anguish lay spread before the hungry ghosts as the living crawled under one another in the stream under the Magistrate’s house–bodies crushing bodies against the metal grate stretched across the opening to the river, nothing but thin bars blocking their way to the open sky. The dark dreams of the living kept them from seeing their plight, and drove them relentlessly toward the gullets of the hungry ghosts.
Wayfarings of Sabit: Tumult is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/