They appeared at dawn, on the edge of the northern horizon. We watched them glide across the barren plain, swiftly and gracefully as if on the wind itself. Ever closer they came and we saw what they were, three figures and nothing more. No chevox, no traveller’s cart. Yet they wore the dark shrouds of a long and solemn journey.
Suddenly they were within the settlement walls. A man came running, “Ghosts on the market road! To the square! To the square!” But most were there already, eager to begin the business of the day. Before they knew, the strangers were upon them.
The crowd scattered, some falling back behind mounds of sand beans and wheaten fruit, others disappearing into shadowed doorways. A few froze in place, agape.
By the roadside, a young mother stumbled trying to flee with both her boy and a basket of fresh billit eggs in arm. She saved her son from falling, but the eggs flew and cracked on the ground. Her trouble seemed to draw the three, who swooped in close to see.
She sensed them surround her and lifted her gaze from the broken yokes and bits of shell. They were faceless, empty eyed. Quaking, she clutched the child closer and screamed with all her soul. But the terror choked her voice to something squealing and weak. Their shaded shapes pressed closer at the sound and studied her.
Yet the little one was not afraid. He smiled at them.
At that they spun away, the three, with nodding hoods and a wild, unworldly laugh. Then they were gone, speeding eastward down the narrow, rutted road of dirt and stone to the common field. There they circled a great ironwood tree and came to rest beneath it, on the ground, side by side.
Word of evil’s arrival and the threefold visitation spread like skyfire. Over morning and afternoon, many folk gathered at the edges of the field to witness, at a distance, for themselves. The strong came armed with toiling sticks or stones, the curious with a keen eye and a fleet foot pointed home.
“They say there are devils here.”
“Yes old man, look out in the sweetgrass by the Liar’s Tree.”
“I see only rocks.”
“They sit as still as the ironwood itself.”
“Perhaps they nap.”
“Perhaps, dreaming up a nightmare to cast upon us.”
“So strike down these demons as they sleep.”
But no one dared be the first.
Day turned to dusk and the gathered grew to an encampment of hundreds arrayed in a crescent against the three. They made fires of the thick limbs fallen from storm season, mixed of everwoods, iron and rose. The wood was dry and cracked in the heat, throwing off sparks of silver and red that glowed in the heavy smoke. The smell of roasted billit meat soon filled the air.
Then from the deepening haze and flickering firelight came another puzzle.
“What’s this? Look!”
“Who is it?”
“A child. A girl.”
“It’s the orphan Mox.”
“She carries something.”
“What does she do?”
“I’ve always thought her mad.”
Jixy Mox flew across the wide, empty field, the rags of cloth she wore rippling behind like a tattered flag flown into battle. In one hand she clutched a round sack of boven skin. Its contents seemed heavy and important. In the other hand, a talon blade.
Her hair danced wildly to the rhythm of running. Already animal to some, she now took the look of a chevox foal galloping through the grass untamed. As the plainsmen sing:
Mane of straw and strands of gold
Heart of home, unbridled soul
Even before she reached them, she began to call out, breathlessly, “Daddy, is it you?! Have you come back Daddy?!”
The figures did not answer.
“It’s Jixy, Daddy! Mommy’s gone! It’s…”
Jixy halted, feet before them, as the black cloaks rose to tower above her. They rose from the ground, afloat on the air.
She looked down. “Are you hungry, Daddy? You’ve been gone so long. See what I have?” She turned her eyes to the boven sack and smiled to herself. “It’s food, Daddy. I brought you food. Food to eat.”
They drifted nearer.
She held the sack up high and slashed it open with the jagged claw of the talon blade. The contents spilled out on the ground — two loaves of crusted siege bread, a fist of pungent boven cheese, strips of leathered blood snake, and a whole smoked billit.
Suddenly, two of the visitors swooped down, knocking Jixy off her feet. She fell backward into a tuft of tall sweetgrass. When they ascended again, the meats were gone and a horrible high squeal stabbed at the ears of the gawking folk.
The third had not stirred at first, hovering apart and watching. But then it descended upon the defenseless girl to the tune of a mournful groan. It swept her up in the dark folds of its shroud and raised her from the bed of blades where she had fallen.
Jixy’s eyes were wide, but her voice calm. “I knew it was you, Daddy. I knew you’d save me. Don’t let go. Hold me forever.”
But from their dimming distance, the folk saw only horror.
“She hangs in mid-air by the grip of that ghost!”
“It wraps her in its death robe.”
“Wasn’t this a prophecy? Does anyone remember?”
“My wife has fainted! Water! Please!”
A young man and woman, both handsome and tall, stepped forward from the ranks of onlookers. Without a word or glance, they set out toward the strange spectacle, walking with purpose yet at a measured pace. Soon they were followed by another man, an older, rounder one, who hurried after them. Each carried a long torch of spun oil.
The woman raised her torch aloft, high above her head. She turned it level against the vanishing horizon and held it there in a fist clenched firm. The warm flame shone against the cascade of golden hair that fell about her shoulders and far down her back.
“Ogdog!” she called out, “Ogdog!” Her voice was clear and strong.
She spoke to the one with the girl, the demon that possessed Jixy. She and the men were nearly upon it now.
“It is done.”
The devil seemed under her spell and bowed to the woman at once, deep and low, as a servant bows before his mistress. Then it obeyed her command without pause. In a swirl of wind and dizzying spin, it cast off the cloak of darkness it wore and cast out the child from its tangled embrace.
The black wrappings drifted away on a waft from the west. But the rapt girl dropped like a rock, down and down, until she landed on the strong right arm of the young man. He had reached her just in time, still holding the glowing torch at his left. The long herder’s hat he wore now tipped back, revealing sky blue eyes set in features of chiseled truthstone.
“Fear not, my dear, fear not at all.” It was the rounder man. He spoke in a soothing way. “All is alright. You are with friends. I am Morio and I shall keep you safe.”
But Jixy turned away and pointed back at the sky. “What is it? Where did Daddy go?”
The curious crowd, suddenly braver, filled the void around them, planting a ring of firestalks in the black soil.
“It’s a bird.”
“It’s a wing without a bird.”
“No, look, it is skin and meat.”
“But alive. A slab of flesh that flies.”
“What beast is sliced knuckle thick and lives?”
It flapped slowly to an entrancing rhythm, holding steady in the air. The other two figures, yet enshrouded, loomed ominously behind.
Morio whispered, “That, my dear, is an og, and a very fine one at that. But I’m afraid that I don’t know your daddy. Perhaps we can find him together.”
He stepped in closer and stroked her cheek with a stubby but gentle hand. “Why, look, you have eyes of tan like mine. What is your name, my little color cousin?”
“Jixy…” She paused for a moment, as if remembering. “Jixy Poxum Mox.”
“Well then, Lady Mox,” he said with a nod, “it is my most pleasurable honor to meet you.”
She couldn’t help but giggle at the sweet, fat face, so softly framed by a mop of curls long and richly brown that sat on his head like a fernage bush. Morio motioned for the young man to put Jixy down and he took her by the hand.
The first edge of moonrise cut the coming night, spilling from the heavens some of summer’s wealth. It washed over all in pale gold and shadow.
Then it glided to the old, gray Liar’s Tree where it wrapped around a twisted bough.
“What trick is this?!” yelled an elderwoman, shaking her toiling stick at the sky.
“Two more of these wing things?”
But these were bigger than the first, and hairy. Free of their disguise, they began to dart in all directions, one with a cackling shriek, the other a low growl. At each pass they took aim at each other, crashing violently over the heads of the folk. They slapped and nipped entangled, tumbling nearly to the ground.
Some boys pushed their way to the front of the crowd for a closer look. Three of them, the brothers Hurx, came with pummel stones and a mind to use them. Pyr was not the oldest, but he had the reddest hair of them all and knew what to do.
He raised his stone high and proclaimed the words he had learned so well. “Strangers die in Syland! Says the Semperor!” Then he fired. And then did his brothers.
The gourd-shaped stones traced a crude arc to their target, lurching head over handle at the nearest og. One fell short, another long, but Pyr’s was true and strong.
The pummel stone splintered, raining shards on the folk of the field. The og, unhurt, flapped furiously and turned back at the boys.
“What armor wears that warbird?” wondered Pyr’s elder brother Ayr.
“I think we’re soon to learn,” said Pyr, squinting at the sky. “It comes.”
The angry og dove and the crowd fell back in a great commotion. But the brothers, though defenseless, held their ground.
Suddenly Pyr was on his back looking starward. His ringing hands held half of the broken toiling stick. He shook his head, confused. “Brothers, did I slay it? Is it killed?”
“No Pyr, no,” answered Ayron, the youngest. “It wheels for more… its twin too.”
“Rise brother,” said Ayr, pulling Pyr to his feet. “Together we face these headless hunters, live or die!” Each took grip of the shattered stick and they held it up against their foe.
Someone screamed. “Please don’t harm them! Please!” It was Jixy. She bounded away from Morio and into the fray between the boys and beasts.
“Careful dear! Those are from the wild.” Morio turned quickly to the young man. “John Cap?”
But John Cap was not there. He had shadowed Jixy’s jump and now stood guard, towering over her and the sons of Hurx on the field of battle. There they watched him draw his mighty right forearm to his own lips and softly speak four words of a tongue they did not know. And then before their wide eyes, a blade-thin shield unfolded from that limb, springing into form as a curved oval shell that parried the ogs’ aerial blows just as they were landed to the sound of hard, heavy thuds.
“He is well armed,” said Ayron innocently.
“Who is this warrior?” questioned Ayr.
“No Sylander,” muttered Pyr under his breath.
The assault was over. John Cap’s armor rolled up and vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, and the two wild ogs came to land in the sweetgrass and half-light just behind the commanding young woman. They seemed even more imposing on the ground, quivering masses of muscle and flesh as wide as a plainsman’s reach.
She turned to them and spoke with the tone of a mother to her wayward boys. “You’ve had your sport. Now off with you,” and she pointed to the north. “Go.”
The pair took flight again, but this time whimpering away into the night sky. At last sight, before the far had swallowed them whole, they soared side by side, still poking and prodding one at the other, though maybe now more gently.
“Your help will not be forgotten,” said the young woman quietly.
“Goodbye friends!” called Jixy. “I’ll see you again.”
A blanket of silence fell upon the field as all wondered what they had witnessed. But from that muffled moment a foul murmur rose.
“We’ve been played for fools.”
“If only the Guard were here.”
“But maybe it’s them. Maybe they test us.”
“You are the fool, Boxbo. How could that be?”
“They are in disguise.”
“What, as flappy flying things?”
“No, you woodwit. Them. Do you recognize those three?”
“Well, not the tall ones.”
“Isn’t the other your cousin Yoz?”
“Shhh! Do not speak that name. He was a leaver.”
“Oh! Forgive me, Ixit. I didn’t know. How long?”
“A score of seasons. Five years past the Treasuror’s fall.”
“Then we shall not meet him again.”
“Shut up all of you! These are strangers.”
“Mother Mayly may be right. She knows her beans from stones.”
“Though if that’s so, then what’s to do?”
“And how, who?”
“Who knows?! But someone should do something soon.”
“Or the Guard will have us in a stew…”
“Boiled to hell with your cousin’s bones and a cabbage head or two like you.”
“Then this is it.”
“Yes, surely so.”
“The time is here.”
“Here we go.”
“But where are my manners…”
“Please, be my guest…”
“No, after you…”
“Oh, I insist…”
“Hold on. Could it be? What luck!”
“Here comes Bylo Hamyx. Look!”
“Good for him!”
“Bless the Finder!”
“Get them, Bylo!”
“We’re right behind you!”
A fleshy bald man had shoved his way clear and into the middle of things. He staggered, out of breath and blood-flushed, the red of a rutting snarl hog. Sweat streamed from the blotchy dome atop his head, as drops of it dripped from a furrowed brow to wet his huffing, puffy face.
“Where is it?” he growled, yellowed eye whites wide, flashing this way then that. “Where is it?”
Someone called from the crowd, “Bylo! What do you seek?”
He paid no heed and lurched ahead to search the circle of souls before him. “Weeds, all of you. Weeds to pluck from this blood-fed field.” He cast his glare across the lot of them, face to face to face. The tall ones. The fruit of Hurx. He spit on the ground. He spat at their feet.
“Weeds to pluck and boil…” He paused, then suddenly raised a quaking hand and with one foul finger, gnarled and encrusted in a bark of scab and sallow pus, stabbed at the air.
“You!” he roared, baring a row of broken black teeth. “You are the thief!” Again he jabbed a pointy nail and jerked himself that way, lumbering over a lonely wildflower of gold. “Now for your crimes you shall pay.”
Jixy backed away and looked for a gap to slip through the wall of watchers. But there was no escape from the ring of lights and lives that surrounded her. She cut behind John Cap and the boys and broke for the circle’s empty center. Bylo the Finder followed.
“Useless scrub! Soiled seed!”
“Quickly girl,” guided the tall young woman of gilded tresses. “Come here.” Her bright green eyes sparkled like precious jewelstones in the flickering torch light. “Stand at my side.”
Jixy ran to her as if they had known each other forever. As if they were blood.
“Surrender the sneak!” hissed the steaming Hamyx. “It belongs to me.”
The woman raised an open palm against Bylo’s charge. He halted and slid on the soft sweetgrass, landing hard on his hefty buttocks. “Oof!” Before he could pick himself up again, her two companions arrived as reinforcements. Morio planted himself on Jixy’s other side, John Cap three steps behind watching their backs.
The woman lowered her hand. “No harm shall come to this child.” Jixy gazed up at her with a look of wonder.
Bylo shook with anger, flinging droplets of stinking sweat all about him. “So this is the smelly cheese you sell? Well, as you wish. But know that the Guard have a garden of thorns ready for robbers of the Keep and those who harbor them.” He laughed bitterly and spit again, just short of the woman and girl.
“Oh I’m glad that’s settled!” chirped Morio, pulling out the boven sack of foods that Jixy had left on the ground. “Let’s all celebrate with a snack. I must say that I am most hungry after such a long journey.”
Suddenly, Bylo looked puzzled. “Journey?” he mumbled to himself.
Morio reached deep into the torn sack, but to his dismay came up with only a small Treasure Pie and a pickled billit egg. “It is somewhat short of a feast,” he sighed, pondering the items. “No matter.” A warm smile spread across his face as he turned to Jixy and handed her the golden, crusty pie. “This, my dear, is for you.”
Her innocent eyes grew wide, as if she had never seen such a delicacy. She looked up at Morio and back to the pie. Then she snatched it from his soft, meaty hand and gobbled it gone in three wolfish bites.
Bylo’s jaw dropped. His oozing eyes bulged.
Morio displayed the egg to the young woman, then held it out to John Cap. “My friends?” The woman stared back, expressionless. John Cap shook his head. “If you are sure,” said Morio lifting the shiny reddish orb to his mouth, “then don’t mind if I… Ouch!”
Something hard and heavy sailed past Morio’s nose and knocked the billit fruit from his grasp. It rolled away into a thicket of long blades, lost.
“Stop!” screamed Bylo, scarlet as the egg itself. “Accomplice! Leech! Caught red-handed. You mock me to my face, gorging on the very meal this runt stole from behind my back.”
Jixy picked up the broken chunk of pummel stone that had landed at her feet.
“Now, now. There must be some misunderstanding,” assured Morio calmingly as he rubbed his sore fingers. “Let’s have a drink together and everything will become more clear. Does anyone have a drink? Some brewn ale, perhaps?”
“I would just as soon shrink to a bloodless prune as drink with the likes of you. Ha! Or dine on a menu of maggots as sup at your side…” Bylo squinted suspiciously. “And these two, these pretty treelings…” he sneered, turning to the crowd and bending both of his snaky arms to mark the young woman and man. “Ask yourselves… whenever did such tall and fair ones spring from the soil of Syland?”
The swarm of folk began to buzz, like a poked pod of stingle wings. Then they and the night closed in tighter, breaching the arc of firestalks to flood the space with lightless heat.
“The Finder is wise!”
“He speaks an ugly truth!”
A gust of wind blew away the smoke of oil, wood, and meat that hung on the air.
“What is the wormy fruit you serve?”
“Why weave this web of deceptions?”
The young woman stepped forward. “It was the only way. We had to be certain.”
“Reek and rot! This is grubbish you talk,” grunted Bylo. “Certain of what?”
“Listen and you’ll see!” chimed in Morio from behind. “Oh, you will not believe…”
John Cap cleared his throat hard and Morio turned to see him shaking his head.
“Oops… well…” he continued in a whisper, “She’ll tell it.”
“I’m waiting!” fumed the Finder. “Spew!”
The young woman spoke again, her words measured, her voice clear and strong. “We bring news of the world and of worlds beyond. Long and far have we traveled to find you, but find you we did. Now there are tales you must hear, tales we must tell, before others find you too.
“A great peril comes to all who yet live, the last children of the morning dew, masters of wood and field, elders of the hearth. We are few. The free, fewer still. Even here in this forbidding wilderness, lost in the heart of a floating land vast and forbidden, guarded forever by the seas of Syar and Mer’n, evil comes for us. It comes for you…”
“Says who?” bellowed Bylo.
“Tall tales!” a second sang amidst a chorus of qualms.
“We don’t want or care for worlds.”
“Or evil things and such.”
“And if the Guard hear…”
“What we’ve heard…”
“Just tuck your tales…”
Suddenly a brilliant flare erupted from the crowded grounds, shooting high into the night sky a silvery stream of dazzling sparks, lighting the faces of all who stood witness. “Wait!” called a voice, its owner obscured by a glowing cloud at the source. Quickly the flare faded, and out from the blinding haze stepped Pyr of Hurx, still clutching the broken ironwood of the elderwoman, now ablaze on one end. “In the name of my father and my uncle, I ask you please!”
All went quiet but for the cracks and pops of the irony firebrand. Pyr stuck the emberred end into a mound of soil and turned to look the angry Hamyx in the eye. “With all due respect, Finder…” He nodded ceremoniously and Bylo, baffled, wiped the tip of his clotted crimson snout and returned a halting half-nod.
Ayron and Ayr came to stand behind their brother as Pyr faced the great gathering with a quiver in his voice but purpose in his eyes. “Treasured ones, after all we have seen this day — ghosts that turn to battle birds, arms that turn to armor, saviors turned to strangers… now only blood can write the truth. Blood spilled or blood sworn, that is our choice. But it must be written and written red.”
He shifted his gaze to the tall young woman and their eyes briefly met. “The Semperors taught us to turn from the foreign face, even the most beautiful. But where did we learn to turn from the moment in fear? Or to turn blind to revelations that may save our Keep? These are not lessons known to my brothers and me.”
Bylo looked sideways at Pyr. “So what would young master Hurx have us do now?” He gestured toward the strangers with a slow sweep of his hand.
The elderwoman answered for him, elbowing her way out from behind the meater, who carried a long carcass knife, and his apprentice. “Isn’t it obvious, Finder? Ah, this boy is every bit his father’s son. Ayryx would be proud indeed.”
“Um, perhaps so,” said Bylo, “but what…”
“If I might make a suggestion,” offered a voice politely. Morio waved his hand to catch their eye. “Yes, over here. Do you think it possible to take a brief break from these proceedings? I find myself in need of… forgive me… a personal moment of relief.”
“Really?” whispered John Cap. “Right now? Really?”
The elderwoman seemed not to hear or not to understand. Bylo grinned and curled his lips to respond, when suddenly…
Next: Chapter 2