The Skareen came for the women of the Duilane the night they met in council, butchering them in their way. Some few were left alive, enrapt, and even fewer fled back toward the village where the men soon mustered in grief and panic. The creatures emerged, the survivors said, in a kind of overflowing from the known things of the sky, the mists and birds, until they were no longer birds, until there were no such thing as birds and never had been.
He retraced the trail for hours, following the things that had dropped from the women in their retreat, shoes and baubles and hairbands strewn in the way of creatures moving in confusion. And it was while he was seeking and finally found his slain wife that the Skareen took the children, but differently, leaving them alive but vacant—all including his own daughter Mira, a child of four, who, like the other children now sat with the colorless gob in her hands, her thumbs lightly rubbing its skinless breast.
The men soon learned it was impossible to separate the children from the creatures by force, that the results were vicious outbursts, not by the Skareen, which sat motionless in odd moist lumps when removed, but by the children themselves, who shrieked and thrashed their arms and snapped their jaws and teeth which became like blades until they found the face or throat of the one who had tried to separate the two, tearing until he were piteously wounded or, in the case of one, dead. The Skareen would return like a pet and the child would resume its ceaseless, gentle ritual.
And so, with his own daughter, rather than attempting to force the two apart, he sought to reach her with the small things that had formerly been the heart of the life they shared together with her mother. On a morning he asked:
—Do you remember the pool at Calkask?
—I think I do.
—We could go today there today. We could play there.
—No thank you, Papa.
—We could hunt for treasure or go exploring for.
—No thank you, Papa.
—Do you miss Mama? I do.
—Oh yes. Oh yes. I miss Mama.
She spoke sedately, her eyes fixed placidly on the Skareen held firmly in her fists. Her pitiless eyes remained fixed on the creature in her hands.
—Shall we go to see her place near the old linden tree? Shall we go see her today and bring flowers and leave notes?
—Oh no. I can’t go, Papa. No thank you, Papa.
—We could go and you could bring. It could be with your. We could sit in the shade by the old tree with Mama.
—No thank you, Papa. I will stay here.
He would accept the child’s refusals quietly, without ill humor, and tend to her as he believed his wife would have wanted him to, wiping her face and changing her garments and cleaning the sores erupting on her skin from the stillness and disuse.
His imaginings of Olim Gor began as something to help him sleep. He wanted to leave no trace, wanted no hope of his body or bones being found or washing onto a beach, nor even a tooth or a garment or a rock stained with his blood that might be brought to a crone or conjurer and identified as a sign of his end. He wanted to crawl into his grave alive and to bring the earth down onto himself still living—and that the grave would erase itself, would cease to be a grave the moment it became his and would become instantly again the unmarked and indifferent earth.
His father who had been to the mountain told him of the treasures left there by the gods—riches beyond imagining that overcame the minds of the those who saw it. But he preferred the other stories his father told of the things he had seen himself—of caves the mountain formed when it vomited a flowing fire called godâzeh, orange and yellow, tracing downward in the dark, flowing like the veins of a man down his arm. His father told of a pitiable mother fox he saw there seeking to save her kits by hiding them so carefully in a den she had built under the surface of the mountain, carrying them one by one by the scruff in her teeth and huddling with them there as the flow moved in upon them and buried them in stone.
He had been the finest stonewright among the Duilane and renowned, too, as expert with the plumbata and kestros and as an imperturbable man, one whom the gods or the fates or what you will had made worthy in both craft and temperament to build the cairns of Aselah at the edge of the western great water. In their grief and bewilderment, the men called for the cairns to be restored and reconsecrated. But he wanted none of it.
He left suddenly for Olim Gor, with little preparation, telling no one after his wife was buried and the children borne away in carts to the east where some said there were sages or healers who might tend them.
He remained on trails that ran through hillside above the villages and encountered no one. Given his purpose, he was ashamed that hunger drove him to track and hunt a blacktail doe on the sixth day, which he field dressed and whose loin he roasted and ate and whose hind and fore quarters he roasted methodically over oakwood and salted and wrapped in broadleaves on the sixth night.
On the ninth day, in a clearing near a circle of aspens, a wedge of iron or rough steel driven into the soft rock in places where it was exposed, barbed upward in the manner of a fishhook to lock into the stone. The wedge was attached by a heavy ring to a chain two or three paces long and on its other end to an implement whose purpose was not clear to him. From his pack he took his sledge and used it to dislodge the spike from the rock.
He found another half a league onward, of similar making and again a third further on. He found the fourth toward dusk on the eleventh day and their purpose became more clear. Under a tall linden like the tree under which he had buried his wife, the barbed spike and chain led to the corpse of a man shackled above the knee, halfway toward complete decay, dead perhaps months, he thought, but not yet a year.
It was a surprise for him to awake on his back in a field of tall grasses, his pack a tangle behind his shoulders, and see over him a young woman speaking.
—Don’t struggle, old fellow. I’m not trying to harm you.
She was accompanied by two others, both women dressed as she was, strangely. His eyes were opened but he could not speak. He lay back while she knelt on her haunches and worked to untangle his pack from around his shoulders and head. She offered him sips from her wineskin.
—I’m not struggling, he said finally. And not so.
—What, old? she said. Well, I mean, you are rather old, yes?
The one who had tended to him and given him sips from her waterskin, seemed to be the leader and spoke for herself and her two companions. She told him he had likely been overcome by the vapors that often seeped from the ground near the mountain, vapors that sometimes created visions, she said, and sometimes killed the unwary outright.
She told him they had come seeking the treasures of Olim Gor not for themselves but so they might ransom the many who had been taken by slavers the winter before; that they, the three of them were forward scouts of a vast army sent deeper into the forests of the foothills to explore the paths and caves, to find what they sought and report back to commanders and a caravan prepared to receive it and transport it back to their villages and thence to the slavers.
She spoke freely and cheerfully in the way of women busied with too many things to do.
—While you were asleep, Alfaea took a shine to you, I daresay. Meg wanted me to slit your throat.
Meg smirked a little and looked down.
—I’m not a slaver, he said, thinking to himself there are no slavers of course.
—And yet you have this.
She showed him the chainpost spike he had dislodged and put into his pack.
—Yes. I pulled it from. I wanted to see what. I’m really not.
—We decided you weren’t. Or I would have done what Meg wanted. And you have these, too, don’t you?
She pulled two of the plumbata from his pack.
—They are for hunting, he said.
—Surely they are, she said.
The slavers, the ransoming, the captivity, the armies, the fairytale gold hidden in caves—he knew it was all nonsense, but he said nothing. As he recovered himself and walked with them deeper into the forests of the foothills, he listened to her quietly and was grateful that she and her companions had tended to him kindly. But as she spoke, he thought of all these things, and it seemed the kind of jumbled foolishness someone would say to you in a dream.
They asked him his name. He was kindly but evasive.
—If he won’t give us a name, we should give him one.
—Oh yes, let’s give him one, Meg said.
They laughed at his black sheepswool cap as he readjusted it on his head and called him ‘Lambkin’ after that. The jest eased them all as they moved through the forest up the mountain.
The next day, as the forest changed from broadleaf trees to pine, he told them he would be going his own way. At this news, Alfaea, who had said nothing since they found him, finally spoke. Her irritation was plain.
—Perhaps before you go you can tell us why you are here at all, Lambkin.
In response, as he had done before, he again mumbled lies and evasions
—There are so many ways to be a coward, old fellow, but when you cannot say your own name out loud.
She listed the kinds of fear and shame he might be running from—a wife betrayed, a lover, a lover’s husband, a bounty hunter, a regiment, a mob—and the things he might have done—murders or thefts, violations, deceptions, poisonings, treasons, heresies—and at last the duties he might be fleeing—duty to a place, to ones people, to a family, to a child, to the gods—and as she spoke, the rhythm of her voice became like a drum.
—So many ways to be a coward, Lambkin.
There was again a long silence except for the crunch of their boots on the trail.
—Alfie is just sad you’ll be leaving us, the leader said from the front but without turning her head.
Soon after he left them, he found the place he would do it, where the flow moved slowly but persistently down the hillside in a channel with a lipped edge—a place where it moved down the mountain like his father had described, like veins down the arm of a man.
With the sledge and barbed spike he dislodged from the chainposts, he began creating, on the side of the lip opposite the flow, an indentation in the rock the size of a man. While the flow moved on the other side, he began removing pieces, working downward and inward from the outline, to create a depression protected from the flowing fire only by the lip of the channel on the other side.
He swung the hammer mercilessly, in wide ferocious arcs, spraying shards like blades into his face and against his limbs. He dug the hole the whole length of the fourth day and the fourth night and the fifth day and night and into the sixth day. He swung right to left to make the hole wider and then in massive overhead arcs into the floor of the pit he had created to go deeper, with blows against the shattering rock that became the rhythm of a dream and seemed to shake the earth.
So that, at midday on the sixth day, when the floor of the hole collapsed downward and he fell through to the bottom into the cavern below, he was strangely not astonished, but somehow expecting it as the next turn of a vision. It happened not in pieces, but nearly all at once, a fracture appearing to the left of the sledge head, encircling the perimeter of the pit and swinging down underneath him like the unhinged jaw of a snake.
As he fell through, he expected to feel the hard, sharp stone tear through his sides and perhaps kill him. But the vicious impact did not come. He fell instead onto a warm, damp, fleshy mass underneath him and was instantly enveloped in the smell of filth. He felt the hammer and spike, pack fall onto him and around him.
In the midafternoon sun, the collapse created a skylight into the cave underneath and a diminishing circle of light around the aperture in every direction. He opened his eyes and scanned as much of his surroundings as he could see. Underneath him were the moist, skinless, hairless, eyeless creatures he recognized as Skareen, countless in number, twitching and roiling in lumps, covering the floor of the cavern as it expanded as far as he could see in every direction, making an unsettling wet sound, the sound of an old man eating, he thought.
Taking the sledge in his left hand and began wading through the mass of Skareen, some crushed into a pulpy fluid under his boots, others clinging with a damp suction to his feet as he trod deeper into the cavern. He walked out of the circle of light created by the pit’s collapse, into darkness until he was completely blind. As he felt forward, he came to a wall of the cavern and followed it around a curve until the skylight disappeared behind him entirely.
He walked slowly for a long time in the dark, each wary step following on the next more hesitantly. He followed the wall with his hands and tapping with the handle of the sledge, moving as a blind man, around to the right, walking over and through the damp reeking Skareen which covered the cavern floor, two or three deep everywhere, writhing around his ankles, creating the sloppy sound that accompanied him as he walked deeper into the black.
At last there was the smallest glow ahead of him. As he followed the light it grew slowly, becoming the faintest orange against the wall beside him. He continued forward until he saw its source—a small channel, its mouth roughly round near the floor of the cave, half-clotted with Skareen which dropped out of the hole at his feet. He peered in and saw the orange glow above the creatures inside.
He resolved to crawl through.
He left the hammer and pack behind and pushed through on his belly, twisting ahead with his elbows and knees, the wet odious creatures affixing themselves against his face and pressing against his mouth. He crawled through them slowly, he could not say for how long, spitting and snorting with each held breath to expel their mire from his throat and nostrils until at last the canal opened and he found himself in a chamber lit brightly by he could not say what.
It was a frame of burnished obsidian, as tall as a man, and wider than it was tall, framing a wall of perfected crystal, as clear as the clearest, stillest pond and still aglow somehow with its own light. He reached out to touch it. Behind the crystal was wealth and artifice beyond anything he had ever imagined, gold in heaps, pure and polished, some wrought into the shapes of rings and flowers, some in small circlets graven with the heads of men and women, some in ornaments of vines, some pressed into arms. He stared blankly at it all for some time.
The room behind the frame and crystal seemed encircled itself, divided into sections on the floor each with an image—of the earth, the heaven, the sea, the sun, the moon. On the ceiling were the constellations he learned in his youth and encircling the walls seemed to be a band engraved into the walls, where the gold flowed into writing of a kind he could not recognize. But interwoven in the text were pictures carved into the walls of stories he had learned by heart and known his whole life.
On one side in half a circle to the left—the tale of the apprehended lotus-beguiled mariners moaning piteously in desolation; of the traveler Landon hunted and captured by apes; of Laeddis expunging the torment of his misdeeds; of the thralls of Euphio who drank the ravishment of starlight; of the dark vengeance of Ratched the cruel; of sad Rose cupping a candle in vain. And on the facing wall, to the right, six others—of the dreamer ElmSelwyn driven wild by love; of the flyer Makwat plummeting into a mountain in grief; of Plath to shun the perpetual marble calm; of Arcady’s daughter who surrendered to the onrush of despair; of old Wemedge the Grey; of Níniel and Túrin at Cabed-en-Aras.
And next through the glowing crystal three others carved into the stone directly before him, higher than the others, each engraved in strokes with an art beyond believing in gold extending in threads from the vast treasure of Olim Gor into and around and through—three others, stories he did not know, stories as yet unwrit.
In the first, now lost to time, he stood again in the pit he had cut into the mountain and from inside looked up in surrender, untroubled and calm. And in that moment, the veil of his malice was taken from him, and he remembered all the days of his life, until at last he swung his sledge one last time onto the slender stone lip above him. At a distance, Alfaea who had heard all, standing stricken upon the edge of ruin, hastened towards him, but coming too late, the sledge came down upon the lip of the pit and he was lost in the molten stone, the fiery godâzeh flowing in, entombing him forever in fulfillment of his grim and dismal purpose.
And in the next, which is the story we yet tell today, echoing through the cavern, he heard the shouts of a struggle and one voice he recognized as the leader’s, in distress and the voices of her companions, and others, men’s voices. Finding his pack at his feet, he drew out four plumbata and stormed into the chamber where they had been taken, the first piercing the eye of the tallest man and dropping him instantly, the others and the women turning in wonder as the second entered the side of the second man. Meg who had slipped her fetters thrust a sword into his chest as the third plumbata shattered the knee of another and the last of the four slavers fled in panic into the dread darkness.
And in the last, a story known only to the mystics of Qel’eh Rudkan but never told, his wife and young daughter prepared to bathe him and salve the sores on his back and thighs:
—Look, Mama. Come look.
The weary woman wiped her cheek and entered at the call of the child.
—Look at Papa. Do you see?
His eyes were closed and at first she believed his time had come, as in her heart she had secretly wished since soon after he had been taken. But she saw him breathing and shifting and his eyes opened, glassy and distant.
—Do you see?
—I do, yes, Mira, I see.
He had laid the creature aside and it sat in a reeking lump at his feet, roiling and moist. Behind his blank and stricken face he could hear and yearned to sing aloud the words of an old song he could not remember:
Fly home, sweet fools, ’tis not so far
Round hearths behind the sea-lashed cliffs
Your darlings await you as you are
What punishments of heaven are not gifts?
He struggled pitifully but he could manage none of it, the grey and pulpy clot squirming on the floor near him until finally:
—Fly, you fools! he cried, and was gone.
About the Author: Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His stories and poetry have appeared or been accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and online outlets, including most recently Apricity, CONSEQUENCE, Master’s Review, Plume, Pulp Literature, San Antonio Review and upstreet.