The Turning of the Earth
A SotC fanfiction by Tobu Ishi
- written for the (4purposes) community on LiveJournal -
i am stretched on your grave
and will lie there forever
if your hands were in mine
then i know we'd not sever
my appletree, my brightness
tis time we were together
for i smell of the earth
and i'm worn by the weather
/the blossoms made garlands in their hair/
it was innocence in the meadow, transient and lovely.
theirs was a living world and a pure one, in the season of new things rising, and they made every place in it a courting-ground for that one bright springtime. their people had rules about such things and they did not dare to break them--he would not ask for her honor, and she had so much more to give, and all of creation stretched out waiting before them.
so they walked it together, one safe step apart, his horse's reins held loose in his hands and she at his side plucking the occasional flower to tuck among the strands of her dark hair. some days she perched small in the saddle with both her hands clinging tight to the harness, swaying with the horse's gentle steps. and the newborn season pushed up in thin green strands around them, rising through the loam of the forest floor and the damp brownish thatch of last year's perished grasses.
there came a morning when they walked far, past greening groves where the ferns nodded by the brackish watersides, until at last the trees opened up before them in a rush of liquid sunlight. at their feet lay a vast green expanse of meadow, verdant and wide with pale blossoms scattered down the slope. her face alight, she slid from the saddle and into the whispering blades of grass with a cry of delight, burying her hands in a wealth of wildflowers. she felt the warmth of him standing behind her, imagined him shading his eyes with one arm to take in the rolling view...
at the snap of reins and a soft triple thud of shuffling hooves, and a whicker from the horse, she looked up and found a ton of dark beast reared up and towering above her, with him shooting her a quick proud arresting look as he clung to its back, saddle gripped tight to stay ahorse, and then the great hooves struck earth and they were off down the hill at a thundering gallop with dust and scraps of grass floating down in their wake.
she scrambled to her feet again, running a few steps after them, and realized with a shock that he had pulled one foot up onto the saddle in an awkward swayingcrouch, barely half-balanced on the verge of tumbling off, synchronizing his own body as best he could to the bunching and stretching of his mount's back as if about to...
she stopped, hands flying to cover her mouth as she realized his intentions, and in the same moment he was up, feet braced on the saddle and shoulders thrown back, all lithe muscles and grace with the reins in one hand and his face lifted to the sun in a triumphant grin.
a brief gust of wind ruffled her hair and tossed her skirt helter-skelter around her legs as she stood watching from the top of the slope; and then she saw him haul the reins to one side, wheeling his steed around in a wide arc until they thundered back up to her in a rush of hooves and dust and glossy dark horse and him, braced for the slowdown with his hair whipping around his face like autumn leaves in a wind. he dropped back into the saddle with the reins pulled tight as his horse splayed its long limbs and skidded to a stop.
she flung her arms up to clutch at his tunic, pulling at his sleeve. 'oh, you reckless fool!' she admonished him, in just the right breathless tones of admiration and delight and dismay--how long had he practiced that, had it been all to show her?--and he obligingly slid from the horse's back, rolling down into the grass to sprawl at her feet. laughing, she tumbled after him, in among the waving stems to face him with her cheek pillowed in the curve of her hand. he had flung out his arms wide as if to embrace the sky; his breathing was still ragged and shallow.
puzzled, the horse stretched its neck down to whuffle at their hair with curious lips. he gently pushed its nose away, and it sneezed and ambled off to graze. for a long time they lay with the sun warm on their skin, and watched the clouds pass overhead, and listened as their breathing rose and fell together, his gradually slowing to match hers. silence settled around them with the last of the dust, comfortable and light.
thoughtfully, she plucked a long strand of grass, turning it over in her fingers. reaching across the space between them, she touched his sandaled foot with it, lightly, running it along the callused arch and up to brush his toes. he propped himself up on his elbows to give her a bemused look. she dimpled back at him, loving the smell of the damp earth rising around them and green growing things under her hands and the moist crunching sounds of his horse cropping the grass nearby, new sprouts and the sky and him.
'how do you love me?'
he tossed his head back slightly at that question, for all the world like his own horse startling. it was easy to surprise him--neither of them had been in love before--and she enjoyed it, the widening of his pale eyes, the blush that brightened his cheeks.
'how should i?' he asked at last, bewildered but hoping to please despite all.
she turned the question in her mind, absently tying the stem of grass into a knot, then another. 'with your heart,' she said, slowly piecing the words together as she spoke. 'make a...a place for me there, where i can stay.' there was more to it than that, she was sure, and thought again before continuing. 'with your mind. think of me always.' she pondered another moment. 'with your hands.'
he blushed hotly at that, turning his face away, and she laughed helplessly among the new-opened wildflowers.
'not like that,' she said. 'love me with all that they do. if i am in every pull of your bow, then i will never leave you.'
looking up from the tangled grass stem she held, she saw that warmth had crept back into his eyes. he rolled onto his stomach, propping his chin on his arms to face her. flowers and last year's brown bracken rose around them, closing out all except the sky. somewhere nearby, she heard his horse, softly breathing.
'i should hate to leave you,' she whispered, half teasing.
'i will never give you cause,' he whispered back, fervent and dear. drawing up a hand between them, he counted off on his fingers. 'my heart, my mind, and my hands? all of them yours.' he paused, and bit his lip at a sudden thought. '...and what of my soul?'
her own eyes widened in surprise, and then she laughed, flicking her fingers at him to dismiss the joke.
'that is blasphemy,' she said, amused in spite of it. 'keep your soul to yourself, and my blessing on it, or Lord Emon will die of shock at the both of us.'
he chuckled outright at that, resting his cheek on his arm. his hair had gotten longer lately, trailing into his eyes so that he had to brush it aside with one hand to gaze at her.
the flax was coming into season; she decided she would have to keep a little back from her next gathering and weave him something, to hold his growing locks back out of the way. blue, she thought, for luck, and to match his eyes; a warrior ought to wear as much woad as he could. gazing back at him now, she imagined his pleasure at the small gift, and how he might smile over it before he put it on.
he had been solemn all the time she had known him, quiet and meditative, a solitary island among the other boisterous young hunters; but he would smile for his horse, and for her; and that was a comfort to know.
when my family thinks
i am safe in my bed
from night until morning
i lie by your head
crying out to the earth
with tears hot and wild
for the loss of the girl
whom i loved as a child
/a look like white heat/
the sky was a harsh, perfect blue that day, a thin shell of beaten metal, faded pale in the furnace blast of late summer. she could feel the humming strain of it overhead, struggling to hold together against the night that pressed close against the other side, waiting to crack it open bleeding scarlet and fall on them all.
she wondered that day, as she waited, if anyone else knew this; how thin the summer sky is, how close it is to the delicate azure shell of an egg, to the fragile attempts at endurance in a beloved's blue eyes. how easily it shatters, like perfection.
they had bound her hands behind her before they left her to prepare the way, as if they expected her to flee like a deer at the first opportunity. she wished they hadn't--it bespoke their lack of faith in her, their belief only in her weakness and fear--and wondered at the same time what they had done to him, to keep him from coming to her where she sat alone at the fringe of the woods.
a warm breeze tugged at the hem of her gown, stark white against the rich green of mossy summer grass. her shoulders were sore, from the pull of the twine wrapped from elbows to wrists and lashed back around the tree at whose roots she sat. she would have given it a rueful look, if she could have turned her head far enough to see it.
in a way, she was grateful to them for giving her at least this last peaceful time to reflect, there in the sunlight. she didn't know if it was tradition, or expedience, keeping her out of the way in case she dissolved into hysteria in the midst of sacred ritual. they had explained very little to her, beyond the first burst of accusation, and she had no experience to reach out to, for hers was to be the first blood sacrifice in their village since anyone but the templars themselves could remember, and they had only ancient tales to draw upon.
turning her face up to the sun, she wondered exactly why the curse had chosen her. had she been too proud or vain? curses seemed to strike such women in the tales, but if she had been proud of anything, it had been his skill in the hunt; vain of nothing more than perhaps her light, quick feet in the seasonal dances. could vanity and pride as simple and small as that truly bring down the wrath of the gods?
perhaps it was chance, she thought, because continuing to think was the best defense; because she refused to go to her end weeping or screaming, without dignity, with her arms rubbed raw and bleeding through her snowy gown from panicking against the harsh ropes that held her, and she felt that panic crowding close all around her, murmuring and plucking at her skin. perhaps it was fate. perhaps it was jealousy--even a dark god could envy happiness, could it not?
and they had been so happy. she kept her eyes open, gazing nearly into the bright disc of the sun, feeling the heat of it on her cheeks. if she closed them, the tears would spill over; but perhaps the sun would burn them away in time.
she wished they would hurry. she had waited long enough, and while she would not flee and consign her village to a spreading evil even were they to cut her bonds and tell her to go, her hands were pale and shaking despite the warmth of the day. her endurance would not last forever.
hoofbeats sounded behind her, soft on the carpet of moss between the trees. she bowed her head as they approached her. the sound of a dismount, of weary breathing, and then work-roughened hands brushed her sleeves as a knife sawed carefully through the heavy twine. he would not spill her blood here; she knew that much. there was an evil in it that was not to touch the forest that she loved, the places that they protected.
'on your feet,' the man said, gruffly, and she recognized the voice of one of the elder hunters before she turned to see him, looking reluctant and half-ashamed of himself as he offered his linked hands to boost her into his saddle. her fingers were still numb and stiff, but she accepted the well-meant offer, gripping the saddlebow as best she could and trying not to sway dizzily or slide from her seat as she settled herself. he swung up behind her, and flicked the reins gently; and with her eyes closed she could almost imagine his warmth behind her to be another's, someone who had never presumed to ride like this with her, on a horse far more familiar. this was the privilege of father and daughter, or those already pledged; but the man behind her was not her father, and if the pledging she had promised her hand to was to be broken before it began, they would have to forgive her for dreaming of it now.
the horse plodded steadily forward, down the ancient and overgrown trail; the trees slid slowly past on either side, like twigs swirling in an eddy, and she let herself float away with them, beyond terror and apprehension and the sly whisper of fear waiting to sink its teeth into her pale throat, and saw only his strong hands on the reins, his thin proud face, the rare light of his smile.
if she could keep his face in her thoughts, perhaps she could pass through this trial with her honor intact. even cursed as she was, she could go bravely.
oh, do you remember
the night we were lost
in the shade of the blackthorn
and the chill the of frost
and thanks be to heaven
we did all that was right
yet my maiden is still
as a pillar of light
/falling leaves are whispering/
not for her the chill ground, damp and dirty with the ghosts of old rains. he gathered the fallen leaves to make a pallet for her, as he did every night, piling it thick to keep down the wet and the mud. into its deep crackling embrace he placed her, lifting her from off his horse's back as it stood patiently, breathing mist into the crisp evening air.
she was a cold and heavy burden in his arms, a silent gray bundle wrapped close in the burial cloth he'd stolen with her. his weary arms and back strained at the unwieldy maneuvering, but he took tender care with her, setting her down as softly as if she might bruise on the stones in the earth, should he let her fall.
crouched beside her, he brushed one pale cheek with a curled knuckle. every dark eyelash perfect, featherlight against her skin.
she seemed as if she slept. this was the mercy allowed him by the rags of their luck. he had made a bed for her, and now if he chose, he might think she slept.
he had never carried much with him in his days as a hunter. the only familiarities were the light touch of his bow across his back, the hollow tapping of it against his arrow quiver, the swing at his belt of a pouch for a few chipped bone blades. his horse would never bear the body of a deer, shying away with dancing hooves and head thrown back, eyes rolling white at the smell of blood so much like its own. a brace of partridges or brake-hens, strung together to dangle from his saddlehorn, was a nothing in his hands, all hollow bones and feathers.
when first he had prepared to lift her from the slab of cold gray stone where they had laid her, she had seemed cool and empty at the touch of his hands. they had washed her clean, smoothed the shining dark hair and dressed her to hide the terrible wound. his fingers had slid beneath her, the hollows of her knees and her shoulderblades slim and hard, as he begged forgiveness in a whisper for the presumption of touch.
he thought perhaps she would not have minded. they were handfast at last, after all, for all the good it had been worth in the end. it was his right to sit behind her on the saddle, and at last he had exercised it, gathering her limp frame into his arms and staggering back. the sword in its scabbard slapped against his bare leg, another unfamiliar stolen shape to carry with him.
he had, that first time, barely made it to his waiting horse. he could not rig a drag for her, slim limbs bound like a doe's, thumping and bumping over the miles of terrain. the thought was unthinkable. instead he struggled, and heaved, and prayed for the safety of the most precious burden that ever was.
he was learning to stagger less beneath her weight, as the days went on. they had told him as a child that loss would make him stronger, and he relearned that lesson now in practical terms.
brushing a strand of dark hair from her eyes, he stood, and listened. for following hoofbeats. for anything. there was nothing but the wind in the boughs.
the dim and waning light filtered through the trees overhead in faint rays, illuminating the droplets of water that hung among the branches in tiny bright points. he stood gazing up at them for a long moment, breathing deep as they trembled, every one seemingly on the verge of letting go and falling...
the soft warmth of his horse's nose pushed at his shoulder, huffing softly, and he turned and leaned his brow against its velvety cheek with his eyes tight shut, and swallowed hard.
then, kneeling beside her without regard for the wet earth, he tucked down the soft gray cloth with the gentle touch of a brother, afraid to leave the delicate features exposed, pulling a fold out to cover her bare feet as though she might catch cold, though in truth it was the flies and the foxes he feared. catching cold was easier to let himself think of than such things, and how he thought was desperately important; he could go mad with too much dwelling on the stillness of her breath and the cold stiffness of her fingers, too much gratefulness for the chill in the autumn air.
only after she was taken care of did he gather his own heap of leaves, and settle into it beside her, with his horse at his back to keep him warm. he slept without dreams, which was preferable.
his failure lay heavy and cruel on her small body. he could not stop her falling then. he was learning instead to carry them now, love and failure alike.
his care would preserve her until they reached the forbidden lands.
once there, he would have to trust to the gods to do the rest.
the priests and the friars
regard me with dread
because i still love you
my love, though you're dead
and would still be your shelter
through wind and through storm
for with you in the cold earth
i cannot sleep warm
/the sky is a hazy shade/
the stone vaults echo somewhere below her with the high thin singing of the wind. she wakes shivering in the dark, curled up fetal on cold stone and dry grass, and for a moment she doesn't know why.
something nickers softly in the dark. gentle horse lips tug at her hair, and she remembers where she is and uncurls slightly, reaching up a hand to discourage the questing teeth. a dark room is no place for an animal, and its patience, its willingness to fold its great body onto the floor and let her press close to share its musky warmth, astounds her.
perhaps it knows, like her, that they have no choice. all the cramped, narrow chambers that honeycomb the temple's highest floors are cold and dark, but they have no windows and she has piled brush by the door to keep out the deathsong of the wind. this is their best chance.
a tiny hand stirs from the tattered bundle of gray cloth in her arms, and she hears the familiar mewling cry. it sounds like the wind, thin and miserable. she closes her eyes, no longer able to forget; this is the sound that awakened her, as it does every night, though every night it grows softer, thinner.
the baby. her baby. she doesn't know how she knows this, but it has his very eyes, blue as steel and too lonely for such a small face. she holds it close to her, as much for warmth as for comfort, and fumbles at the neck of her gown.
when it would not stop crying in the early days, loud frantic demands for something she could not forage, she gave the poor thing suck at her small, empty breasts and it would quiet for a time, before frustration and hunger made it weep again. she knew it took nothing good from her--it was such a bitter sight that she only bore it for the brief peace it gave them both--until the day, wonder of wonders, when the child lay quiet and contented in her arms, and she watched it for long bewildered moments, then gently nudged its little mouth loose and stared in shock at the welling drops of milk.
she is a virgin, and no true mother--she is sure of that. but if the gods grant that she shall feed this child, she can summon nothing but gratitude...
and now, fear, for what little milk she has is drying up, and she sat at her mother's feet and listened well enough to know why. the bones of her wrists are visible under the thin skin, and her face has lost its gentle softness, so that when she presses her hand to her cheek, the plane of the bone beneath is sharp against her palm.
winter stooped on the valley with terrible speed, dusting the high cliffsides with snow, and what stock she was able to gather before the frosts struck has dwindled to nothing. she knows little of the plants here, the roots and fruits she should have foraged, and she did not dare try this and that until she found what was good.
and now it is winter, and the wind sings high in the stone vaults below, and she is starving and the baby with her.
the baby. his baby. where is he, now? she cannot imagine that he is alive and has not come for her, but she cannot believe that he could be dead without her knowing, without an instinctual mourning in every pulse of her purified blood.
she has found clues, traces left behind on the landscape that she knows for his deeds without being told.
the burial shroud was caught on the exposed roots of a tree, flapping wildly in the wind. she saw it at a distance, the first day, and went to it with his horse limping at her heels; pulled it loose and tore a broad swath away with her teeth and the aid of a broken stone, to wrap the squalling infant. the rest she saved, knowing the value of good sturdy cloth, and left the thought of omens and ill luck to fend for itself.
wandering over the low hills with her skirts full of withered roots and dry bracken, she found arrows here and there, sunk deep among the grass or buried in trees. she knows the fletching--some of it is her own work, and she saved them all, running her thumb over the soft feathers damaged by rain and wind. she prays for flax and soapweed to come with the spring, and young green wood, and only wishes she had learned to pull a bow as well as craft it. the women of her people never set nock to string. there has never been a need. she will have to teach herself, if she lives so long.
when she found the jumbled footprints in the wet earth, running in and out of craters she was too afraid to interpret, she knelt down and wept until the baby began to whimper in her arms. she was unsure even then whether her tears sprang from relief or fear, but something went out of her with them and has not returned. she has found other footprints since then, scattered here and there with hoofprints following, but she has not wept again.
this is the only thing worth knowing: he has saved her once, but wherever he is, he cannot help her now.
the wind shrieks in the vaults, and settles. the baby has fallen asleep, sucking his fingers instead of a breast drawn dry. she touches his soft hair and the tiny nubs of his horns, and listens to the small plaintive noises he makes in his sleep. she clutches the solid warmth of him to her body and thinks of his wide inquisitive blue eyes, his lusty yell, his tiny fingers.
someday those hands might hold a bow, and draw it.
but if she does not get up, go out, and eat, they never will.
slowly, she puts out an arm, braces it against the smooth stone and raises herself to her knees. the baby whimpers once and is still. she pushes the loose grass into a mound, settles him into it and tucks him close against Agro's soft, warm flank. she takes the horse's nose in both hands and looks into its eyes, breathing its breath.
keep him safe, she thinks. if he could trust you, so can I.
then she stands, and pulls the torn gray cloth from the door where it flutters against the heaps of brush. she wraps up as best as she can in her own shroud and pushes the windbreak aside, replacing it when she's through.
there was shriveled fruit on the trees when she foraged across the hills. she remembers it, though she has never climbed a tree in her life and did not wish to learn.
the first step into the thin sunlight hurts her unaccustomed eyes and steals the frozen breath from her lips. even wrapped in makeshift strips of cloth, her feet are bitten by the cold ground. the sky is deathly gray and the wind pulls her hair and tries to strip her cloak away, but she walks until she finds a tree, stops beneath it and raises her gaze to its dizzying black heights and the dull spots of color tucked among them.
she will not let go of his final gift. no templar, no dead stone pillars, no screaming winter wind will tear it from her fingers. whatever may come of her refusal will have to see to itself without her help. she must learn to think of only the next branch, the next dried winter fruit, the next pigeon's egg. she will, it seems, be doing a lot of climbing.
the bark is rough under her soft fingers, tearing at her skin. she grips it hard anyway and pulls herself up, bracing one bare foot against the gnarled trunk, then the other, eyes narrowed and hair whipping around her face.
the baby--their baby--will not die.
she will learn to provide. she will do what she must.
her other foot braced, she stands, and reaches for the next branch, and the next, muscles straining, legs pushing and scrabbling, fingers slipping, scratched skin bleeding, until at last her hand fumbles and clutches at the wrinkled brown skin of the first fruit. the brittle stem snaps at her touch.
still clinging to the swaying branches, she crams the curve of it into her mouth, and breaks the leathery skin with her teeth. sweet juice floods over her tongue.
it tastes like next year's sunshine, with a papery hint of autumn leaves.
like life put on hold for a time.
she smiles, defying the wind that chills her lips, and reaches for another.
this is a beginning.
i am stretched on your grave
and will lie there forever
if your hands were in mine
then i know we'd not sever
my appletree, my brightness
tis time we were together
for i smell of the earth
and am worn by the weather...