Pain, true pain, lives outside of time. It arrives in a shear of liminal precognition, the thudding sky before the storm. We formulate routes of escape, believing that the visitor darkening our door could be turned away with the right words. It doesn’t matter what we do, what we say, whether the heart is flooded by prayers or screams.
Pain is patient.
The door always opens.
Col is only an arm’s length away, huddled in his bed, a naked foot dangling over an empty boot, but I can’t hear him. The ringing migraine swallows every word he says.
I press my thumbs to my ears and shake my head until my jaw clicks.
“ … worse today?”
I make my way over to the window and rest my forehead on the cold glass. Outside, the first wisps of snow kick through the leaves. My eyes drift up from a patch of wildflowers sheltering in the lee of the woodpile, over the dawn-gilt crowns of linden, towards the towering heart of Spire Iberos. I squint into the glazed eyes of the keep. Usually they are dead as a fish, but this morning, there is movement. A candle floats from room to room like a stray thought.
“Our guest appears to have settled in,” Col says. “He stopped by last night, while you were out. Nothing like the shaggy weed I remember. Barely recognized him. Twice, I mistook him for Mislav and had to bite my tongue. Remember that one, our bald cousin?”
Of course, I do. Mislav was once a frequent visitor to Iberos, related to us by some stray weave of marriage. His head gleamed like sea-glass. We used to wonder if he shaved it every morning or if that was simply his skull, painted and polished. He vanished out on the Ore-Fist curs a long time back.
In the keep, the candle flickers out.
“If you’re looking for an excuse,” Col says, “the mules he rode in on have been rooting up and down the hill, careless for next season’s crop. Remind him where the stables are, make sure the bolts aren’t rusted.”
“Eir or Adal can take care of it.”
A flash of annoyance crosses his face. He’s always been ambivalent to our huldufólk, giving their ancient, withered bodies no more thought than one would a chair or broom.
“They have their own responsibilities,” he sighs. “And you need a breath of light. Go see him.”
There’s nothing more he’d like than to shove me out the door, into the snow. But he can barely stand. Although we are brothers in decrepitude, his ruin exceeds my own. Instead, he rolls back to his patchwork map of Casses, our domain, our country, an island beset on all compass points by unpassable seas. The map is scored with pale chalk lines, one for each mystic curs seared into the landscape. These invisible rivers of velti old-magic radiate from the wellsprings of the Blessed: Spire Centonica at the tip of the southern archipelago, Spire Palus deep in the wild cliffs, and our home, Spire Iberos, an old iron nail struck into the toes of the northern mountains. Practiced travelers like Col can ride the curses from coast to coast without missing a meal. Used to be he’d be gone for weeks cataloguing those liminal pathways. Wearing his chalks down to the nub. Whenever I assumed the worst, that he’d finally lost himself to the blur of obsession, I’d inevitably find him curled up in bed, snoring that same musical wheeze from the days we shared a twin’s crib, when his lungs were clean and his linens free of red.
The swallowing chain. A fish you cannot see. Yearning for the unlit taper. To crawl beneath your own spine. A long visit from a bad friend. Sleeping in the nailed bed. An argument with birth. The Blessed have a thousand words to describe suffering and just as many reasons given for it to exist. Pain is the cost of vigilance, for we Blessed stand watch on the bridge between Casses and darker countries beyond the sea, under the hills. Others believe that pain is a burden, a punishment, passed down from mark to mark, throat to throat. A reminder that the velti was never meant for us.
I learned most of this from my mother. As she tapped drops of poppy milk onto her lips, I asked how it was possible her Blessing brought her so much misery. After all, she could swim through the air as easily as an otter through the water. How could that be anything but joyful?
She gazed out the window. Her jaw already trembled from the bone-fever.
I yearn to touch the sun, she said. I would give up everything. The desire consumes every spare thought. I dream of plunging my head into its fire, letting it consume me. I’ve flown so high that I could see over the mountains, to the sea. I would have gone further if my body let me, if my waking mind didn’t froth into oblivion. Judoc, my darling, I would stab you in the heart right now if it offered even the slightest chance.
Col was right about the mules. One has already breached the neighboring meadow, its flanks thick with burrs, while the other nearly snapped a leg by lodging its hoof down a rabbit burrow. With a calm but firm hand, I prod them uphill to the stalls. While drawing up a bucket from a well rimed with ice, I become aware of a figure crouched on the hill. He has a feral aspect, like a crow eying the seed in your palm.
“I had forgotten all about the mules,” he says. “Seems I’m a bit fog-brained today.”
“No worries. The curses can suck the wind from you.”
Stig stands and approaches. He seems taller than I remember, or perhaps just thinner, stretched out. A worn cloak drapes off his lanky shoulders like moss from an alder. At the last moment he remembers to raise his chin up for a formal greeting. The mark on his throat is a scorch in the sand, mirrored glyphs of fortune. I desperately want to touch it. Instead, I mirror his posture so that he can acknowledge my own mark.
“My dearest, my Judoc. What brings that look of disbelief? Is it this?” he asks, rubbing his scalp. “Or this?” He taps his mark.
“That you’re here at all.”
“When I heard about Col –”
“Is that the nature of your Blessing? To hear the death clarion from the far side of Casses? Or perhaps you came to spark the kindling on his funeral pyre?”
The stinging words fly faster than I can swallow them back down. Stig accepts each blow.
“That would be something, wouldn’t it? No, my gift deals with the flow of reason. Watch …”
He bends down and plucks a dead leaf off the ground. He makes a fist and crushes it inside, close to my face so that I can hear the dry crackling of its destruction. A pattern of greenish burn scars scores his knuckles and wrists, in some places carved down to the bone.
When he opens his hand, there are only flakes of copper.
“What do you see?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, cautiously. “Dust.”
“Then we agree, it was once one thing and now is another. What compelled that transformation?”
“You did. With your hands.”
I sense a child’s trick, such as when Col juggles acorns and they vanish in midair, only to reappear days later in my boots. Velti magic runs through the veins of the Blessed like a translucent thread. Col’s acorns, the suck of breath when my mother’s feet lifted from the ground, every curs weaving its way across the earth, the hum of rooted bones and witch-ravens weeping in the cliffs. I have my own meager gifts, and it appears Stig has found his as well, although I’m at a loss how. The mark is a birthright of the Blessed. It can neither be earned nor forged.
“Before the movement, before the thought, there was the intention. An intention birthed by your presence.”
The migraine, absent until now, begins to make itself known again.
“You’re saying I crushed the leaf.”
“That’s one way of putting it. I could also blame the mules, at which point I would have to blame myself, and then so on, and so forth. We can follow the water upstream and never reach the source.”
“Then what does it matter?”
“Let’s say I returned home a season ago?” He takes my hand, sweeps the remains of the leaf into my palm.
Before I can answer, he covers my hands with his own.
He closes his eyes. Fog drifts from his lips.
When it is over, I am holding neither dust nor the dead leaf reconstituted.
It is a honeybee, shivering in the wind. I protectively cup my fingers around it.
“The sun is peaking,” he says and there’s that half-smile I remember, those exquisite angles hiding under the softness of age. “Best get on with the day. I do promise to keep more watchful eye on the mules.”
“Right. There’s should be some chestnuts in the storehouse that haven’t moldered yet. Keep them away from the western slope, there’s a line of belladonna that’ll turn them into frothing bags. If you want, I can send up a hulda to help. You remember Adal, don’t you? He still has a touch with animals.”
“No. Your huldufólk won’t be necessary.”
As I make my way down the hill, he calls after me.
“I searched for you last night, up in the keep, but the other chambers were all bolted or destitute. If my arrival has brought you any discomfort – ”
A tingling pain flares in the crease of my palm. Stinger torn away, the bee curls up and dies. I scuff a hole in the dirt with my heel and gently place it inside.
“I forgot, you weren’t here,” I answer without turning around. “The bone fever consumed our parents, one after the other. That was a long time ago. Me and Col … we sleep in the common halls now. The keep belongs to the spiders.”
The last time Stig and I spoke, adolescence still dripped from our noses. We were deep in the trenches of another Iberos winter. Despite the freezing bite of the clearing sky, the walls of the kitchens were already sweating. Stig stood at the cutting board, thin as a reed, hunched over a platter of smoked eel. Focused on the sweep of the butcher’s blade, he noted my approach with a sarcastic bob of deference.
I didn’t expect to see you, divine one, he said between decapitations. Rumor was you’d taken to your blankets again.
Most unmarked wouldn’t dare speak to a Blessed with such brazenness; it was only our friendship that granted him protection. As my own parents were often preoccupied and Col had grown bored with entertaining his smaller brother, most of my childhood lingered with Stig and his clan. His uncle especially treated us both like sons. We sat at his feet as he worked the potter’s wheel and regaled us with stories of his people, gods and queens, pirates and demons. Me and Col spent a hundred afternoons staring at the treasures paraded across the shelves of his uncle’s shop, ancient relics to be revered but never touched. Whenever our friendship bore injuries over the jagged shoals of boyhood, his uncle reminded us that good men are strengthened by their scars.
Col must have already been through here, I said. No doubt spreading rumors of my condition while picking bones from his own teeth.
Not my place to say, Stig laughed. Fact is you look rotted. Let’s take care of that.
With three knocks on the wall, Maeija appeared out of the gloom. Like most huldufólk, she was a shrunken, pitiful creature, swathed in linens that barely disguised her oaken complexion and the weeping wounds of blue gaslight. While Spire Iberos may have had many tenants over its life, lore had Maeija a constant fixture, serving drinks and scrubbing floors back to the primordial mud. I would not be surprised if she was there to greet the first Blessed when they descended onto Casses in a storm of falling stars.
Of course, Maeija never bowed to me. A hulda has no need to acknowledge its rung on the ladder. With the buzz of cicadas under her breath, she addressed me in their strange backwards language, where tomorrow has already happened and yesterday is yet to come.
My Blessed, I recalled this threshing in your skull. If I served you better, would the pain have fled more swiftly?
Without another word, she slipped away and returned with an ivory cup. Her tea smelled foul, with bits of unidentifiable gray matter settling to the bottom, and drinking it felt like wires drawn across the tongue.
From one blink to the next, the ringing quieted. Maeija inspected my face. I often wonder what she saw there.
Before I could answer, Stig nudged a bowl of eel bones towards her newly emptied hands.
Well, what are you waiting for, beastie? Ah, never mind, I’ll do it myself.
Stig beckoned me to escort him outside. We walked against the wind, our fists clenched against the warmth of our stomachs. In the shelter of a shivering linden, Stig tossed the bones in the snow and withdrew a clay pipe. I once owned its twin, both sculpted by Stig’s uncle. It’s long gone now. We stood apart from each other, teeth chattering.
Sure you can’t wiggle up a spark of velti fire? He nudged me on the shoulder. I flinched. The tea usually lasts longer, yeah? Or perhaps it’s your brother’s wanderings biting at your ankles? Don’t waste a worry. Col could walk with Death under the hills and find his way back blindfolded.
That’s not an exaggeration. I still remember the first time Col invited me along to walk the curses with him. He made it seem so easy, striding into the unknown, feet barely touching the ground. I only made it a few miles before keeling over to empty the contents of my stomach. He hooted, not out of cruelty but for the simple joy of having me along. I didn’t see it that way. After that, I avoided the curses, which meant avoiding Col. We became strangers to each other.
Which is to say, lingering outside the kitchens on that frozen morning, I wasn’t thinking of my brother at all.
Despite all the tearstained promises made in the summer dark, the inequities between me and Stig had become unavoidable. Our boyish defiance snapped too easily under the heel of that imbalance. Although I reassured him it would be many, many years before I would receive my Blessing – ah, it hurts now to think how wrong I was! – he pled with me to refuse it.
I explained the Blessing was not simply a tradition, that without the mark to give release to the magic burning in my veins, it would eventually curdle both body and soul. Anyone who ignores the velti surrenders to the red hands of disease or despair.
And still, hearing all this, he continued to accuse me of selfish deformity!
We spoke in circles, grinding our arguments down to insults, to venom, to daggers. Did I suggest he should leave the Spire for various hells? And if I did, was it to hurt or liberate? I truly don’t know. The forests of the past are unforgiving.
Well, plenty more fish to gut, Stig mumbled, the unlit pipe bobbing between his teeth. Then he clasped my hand and offered a startlingly genuine bow. The drumbeat of the velti pounded against my ribs. My last memory of him before he left Spire Iberos without word or warning was his gangly body slipping into the labyrinth of massive ovens with the ease of a fawn into the woods.
“I found it! Come on, stop dreaming. Wake up!”
Col stands over me, grinning madly, shards of pinking twilight caught in his hair. Before I can resist, he has me on my feet, a ratty cloak tossed over my shoulders. Insults curdle on my tongue before I remember his condition. Damn it. How is he standing? Where is he going? I push into my boots and chase him outside, past the fences and into the crackling frost. The trees thin out, their branches heavy with black leaves bowing inwards as we pass into the ephemeral corridor of the Grave-Green, one of the oldest curses.
Wheezing, he crouches in the snow. From above, I see lesions snaking down his neck, remnants of the latest huldufólk remedies.
“Let’s go back,” I say. “You can tell me about what you found, and I swear we can come back … later in the season … on a better day …”
Col pulls himself back up. His eyes reflect the blood-dark spectrum of the sky.
He offers me his hand.
How can I refuse?
As we walk into the curs, the ground seems to speed from beneath us, as if every step doubles its distance. The trees whistle a strange tune. Remember to breathe. From Grave-Green, we pivot into other overlapping pathways – Serpents-Feast, Gallow-Seed, Ore-Fist, Tooth-Hook. The world fogs around us as we flicker, ghostlike, through wood and meadow, our feet barely touching the cobbled streets of distant Spires, our eyes blinking from flashing of rivers, lakes, sheets of ice crawling down the mountain. Occasionally, other travelers flit by us, women and men, Blessed and unmarked. I can still smell their skin long after their shades have passed. Perfume. Sweat. Wine. Disease. All of Casses flows through my lungs. Remember to breathe. At Col’s insistence, we move faster and faster, until nothing remains other than buzzing smears of color. I cover my face with my hands, preferring the darkness.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Col says. He coughs into his hand and discretely wipes it under his arms.
The sun, returned a full hands-width up from the horizon, shines from a different direction. Instead of ice, the canopy drips with wet rubies of late autumn. It’s difficult to determine exactly where we have alit; somewhere close to the southern rim I imagine. I begin to unpeel my cloak from the spreading tack of sweat, but Col stops me.
The birds. Their song has changed from melody to keen. And there’s this smell. Burning wood. The trees fall away as we step out onto a wide, rocky beach. The ocean surf inhales and exhales, pulling with it the smoke of a small campfire built at the edge of the tideline. Two figures kneel before the flames, warming themselves. Col strides towards them, palms facing out in in friendly surrender, those damn manic teeth wide and bright.
“You wouldn’t mind if my brother and I join you?”
I shuffle in behind him, an afterthought. As we near the fire, my eyes pull apart more details about the strangers; their odd, hunchbacked posture and stunted proportions.
A moment of panic seizes my chest.
Wild huldufólk. Not the servile creatures of the Spire. No, these hulda are proudly undomesticated — no rags conceal their wizened bodies, no attempt to meet the delicate standards of human agreeability. It is a stark reminder that these are the aboriginal inhabitants of this place, long before the Blessed and the shipwrecked. Their kind were here when Casses was a nameless rock and likely will be when it is again.
The larger hulda, a female, lopes over to Col. She draws a claw across his chest and sniffs it. For his part, he doesn’t flinch.
“My friends, last we met you claimed knowledge of a hidden road,” he says. “A way across the waters?”
Before they can answer, I pull Col aside.
“You’ve been here before? When?”
“I go where the velti leads me, little brother.” He punctuates the last two words with an acidity that leaves me mute. He spins back to the hulda patiently waiting out our human melodrama. “Well? The curs?”
“Whale-Breath,” nods the smaller creature. I notice that the tone and texture of his skin has changed to match the rocks beneath us. “I recall you paid the cheminage this time.”
I watch with increasing trepidation as Col makes a show of wagging his fingers, clucking his tongue. The velti charges with an odor of overripe fruit. The hulda seems not to notice. With a snap, two silver coins appear in the air, already spinning in the light. Col rolls the coins up and down his knuckles like a street performer.
“A trick my mother taught me. Here’s your toll.”
The hulda pass the coins between themselves. Appeased, they snuff the fire and lead further along the coast, into the marshlands. It occurs to me that the landscape’s contours are not entirely natural. What initially appears to be a mound of earth transforms into the underbelly of an overturned ship. The further inland we push, the more displaced vessels we pass, like abandoned toys in a dredged pond. I can trace the outline of their unusual prows beneath the vines, intricate sculptures of wood and iron — the fangs of serpents, the talons of eagles, a wyrm caught in metamorphosis. We hike around the broken face of an angel, slugs and beetles cozying between her stoic lips.
The migraine returns, pressing the thumbs of my eyes into my brain. I grab a branch from the ground and nervously roll it between my thumb and forefinger. My Blessing, brought to boiling by the velti fires in my skull, whittles away the wood like an axe, sharpening it to a knitting needle, a porcupine quill, a surgeon’s pin. I hone it down to nothing, and the ache whittles away with it.
We arrive at a pair of obsidian sarsens rising out of the earth like the fingers of a buried god. Weathered runes swirl across them, a language I don’t recognize. The hulda fall to their knobby knees and offer petitions to the massive stones. The sun is now just an amber shard snagged on dimming felt.
“Now what?” Col asks.
“You stepped between them.”
Grinning madly, his molars grinding, Col walks forward between the sarsens. I wait for the bitter tang of the curs to sweep him away.
Col looks around, confused.
Then the hulda do something I’ve never seen before. They laugh.
Infuriated, Col tears the scarf away to reveal his mark. “I demand you reveal the curs to me. We are the Blessed. The open wounds of heaven!”
This only makes them cackle harder. They remind me of imps scribbled in the margins of a holy text.
“What do you want?” Col snarls. “What is it? More silver?”
His hands clench tight, gripping the velti so hard I feel it shift in my marrow. A coin falls from the sky and hits the sand with soft thud. Then another. And another. A clamor of raining metal fills the air as Col’s deluge crashes around us, bouncing off the sarsens, breaking through the trees, pelting the shoulders and backs of the hulda. Their merriment pitches into hysterics as the rain becomes a gale, then a hurricane of silver.
I should try to pull Col away. I should beg him to stop.
With a word, I could end this.
Wait. Listen to the velti delighting in the music of its own song.
How could I ever deny him this moment of rapture?
Instead, I find a half-buried wreck and cower in its berth. I close my eyes and pretend the drum of coins against the wooden beams is the thunder of a summer squall.
The heavy rain slows, stops. A lone crow coughs into the widening silence.
“Judoc,” Col says after some interminable time.
As we make our way back to the homeward curs, I hazard a quick glance back. The sarsens stand against the night like silent judges, passively watching over the unmoving shapes of the hulda. Then I turn my gaze back to Col, carefully reading the tremors rippling outward from the marrow of his shoulders, the rasping of his chest, the blood freckling across his chin. Ironic that for a miraculous moment, my own head is clean from pain. I can see every leaf turning white in the moonlight. I hear the pads of our feet, the movement of tiny insects, the fading breath of the endless, unrelenting sea.
While my mother accepted the pains, named them like pets, my father refused to acknowledge them.
His mark granted the gift of prosperity. Anything he touched thrived. Fruit trees. Wheat. Horses. Exotic orchids that had no right surviving through the Casses winters. His own children, born dark-haired and opal-eyed. He inherited a crumbling outpost and nurtured it into a beacon of opulence. Both Blessed and unmarked came to tend their gardens within our walls.
How quickly fecundity can turn cancerous.
Within a few years, thorny vines strangled the orchards. Gluttonous rats ate through our granary. The horses tore their ropes and disappeared into the woods. The orchids, so frail and delicate, gave birth to evil smelling tumors.
We had to burn it all.
Stig watches with curiosity as I light the candles, set out the linens and washing basins, wave away the cobwebs. Eir scuttles in with a decanter of wine, pungent with acorns and cloves.
Eir fills my glass, but ignores the other.
I raise my hand to the reprimand the hulda, but Stig gently restrains me.
“Come now, poor Adal is nearly blind with age.”
“Oh, well, I could never tell them apart.” He toasts me with his empty glass. “Now, I thought you didn’t come up into the keep anymore. Just me and the spiders?”
A second pouring loosens my voice enough to tell Stig everything; the cackling hulda, the forest of shipwrecks, the storm of coins. He listens carefully until it’s all spilled.
“You see … Col’s gift is to surface the lost and forgotten … could be anything … but he always comes back to the curses.”
“Yeah, even as a wild-runt, I remember him being waist-deep in those weird roads. Can only imagine how it was after a Blessing like that. Did he find what he was looking for?”
“Yes,” I say. “All of them. A completed map of Casses sits in his brain like a pulsing rot. So … I suggested that perhaps there were some secret curs leading … elsewhere. The gamble worked … for a while … but … my efforts may have only thickened the poison …”
“Easy, easy. You stutter as if you plucked the strings of his fate.”
He means it as an absolution but it only pricks my temper.
As if cued, Eir returns with a pewter serving dishes balanced on root-gnarled elbows. The hulda spoons out fragrant servings of cooked fruit, again only for me, before scuttling back downstairs. I slide my plate over to Stig.
He smiles, teeth jeweled by candlelight. “I have something to show you.”
He pulls a figurine from his pocket, a primitive bird-like totem, its silver feathers smoothed away by the centuries. His uncle claimed it was an ancestral heirloom, passed down from the survivors of the apocryphal landfall that introduced their bloodline to Casses. When no one was looking, Stig would steal it from its high shelf for our garden games.
“I took it before I left,” Stig says. “Do you recall the hours we spent play acting with clay dolls from uncle’s scraps? I would pluck a cob-spider to play the álfar, wicked prince of the small folk, and this was its witch-raven. And you would be the great and powerful sorcerer from the wild cliffs … what was his name?”
“Yes! Serpent-Tongue! And you hunted down the álfar, threw it in uncles’ kiln. We watched it burn until we couldn’t take the heat. Remember? So, tell me, what is your Blessing, divine one? Can you drag down the stars? Can you reduce men to their bloody bones?”
I explain my gift to sharpen a thing to its finest edge. Metal, yes, glass, wood, a knife, a sword, a needle. Also, sight, a dream, a song. Joy. Grief.
“Ah, what a waste!” he exclaims. “So many dull knives could have used your attention back when I worked the kitchens. I snuck down there today, you know. Thought I’d pinch a flask of gray tea for you. What a sight. Ovens dead, pantries furred with dust.”
His mention of Maeija’s tea rattles craving’s cage. I ease the conversation back to the missing years.
“I meant to prove my own way in the world,” he says, biting into a steaming pear. “I was an idiot. Barely a month on the road and I blistered through two pairs of boots and nearly starved. It was a miracle that your cousin stumbled over me.”
Bells ring deep in my ears, metal on bone.
“Mislav found you?”
He laughs. “Even before taking pity on my empty stomach, the old man shaved my head to clean out the ticks. When he realized I wouldn’t be whimpering back home, he let me wander the wilderness with him. In return I shouldered his library and offered up my meager culinary skills. But, Judoc, let’s not be coy. You don’t really care about all that. You want to know about my mark. Been staring at it all night.”
No reason to deny it. “Yes.”
“I don’t know if you recall the huldufólk Mislav traveled with. Vile, scheming little beasts. No doubt relatives of your tricksters in the woods. One night, I caught them sitting on his chest, suckling the velti from his mark as he slept. I had just been working a rabbit, still carrying the butcher knife. And. Well.” He glances down at his scarred hands. The smile remains, but his words struggle like a moth in the rain. “You’ve not felt pain until you’ve been kissed by that blue fire they bleed.”
Stig refuses to divulge any details, other than that when it was all over, the impossible had happened; his throat burned with the mark. Since then he’s been traveling between the Spires, unlocking the secrets of this strange and inexplicable Blessing.
I ask him if the Blessing hurts. How he deals with the pain.
He acts as if he can’t hear me. A sour draft whistles through cracks in the wall.
“Look. Here I am, to rescue you from this dour pile of rocks. Don’t you see? We’re the same now, nothing left to stop — oy! Be careful! Your hand!”
Did I spill the wine? Bright drops of red roll off my fingers. No, not wine. There’s a flap of skin hanging off my thumb, sliced neatly by the lip of the glass, whose edge I’ve idly sharpened to a near invisibility. Strange, how it doesn’t hurt. The cut is too clean. Stig leaps from his chair and quickly wraps the wound with linen. Roses soak through.
“Here, let me help,” he says, grabbing my hand. He concentrates on the injury. The velti gathers around him, not naturally like iron to the lodestone, but with great resistance. I can taste its resentment. Its loathing.
Finally, Stig gives up and runs downstairs, calling my brother’s name. I try to follow him, but somehow end up going the wrong way, stumbling down the steps leading out into the courtyard. The frigid night jabs through the bloodied linen. I thrust my hand into the frost to numb the wound. Framed in the windows of the keep, the hulda glare down at me. From here, their faces are unreadable, statues in the moonlight.
When the paradise of Iberos began to rot, my family followed close behind.
Our father withdrew into himself, hoping that his inattention might restore nature’s balance. But even abstinence tills our flesh into fertile soil for all manner of affliction. As with my mother, bone-fever took root in his velti’s abscesses. As winter crept in, they became haunts of themselves, Lord and Lady of a fallen Spire.
Col spent more and more time away from home, walking the curses.
Stig and I remained inseparable, even as our quarrels grew teeth. Weeks went by without me speaking a single word to my parents.
When our cousin Mislav offered to relieve us of a few hulda, the decision was easy. At a whim, my mother gave him Vigdis, a spry imp from the gardens, and Maeija. From what I heard, they did not complain as he led them into the woods.
I was not there, of course.
It was the evening of Stig’s disappearance.
I had retreated to the darkness of the keep, heartache and hatred crashing through me like lightning and thunder.
With the caress of morning’s cold incandescence, Spire Iberos shudders into snappish wakefulness like a dog yet to slip into its housebroken mask. The few remaining inhabitants amble outside, women and men, half-dressed, snorting clouds of vapor, to dump the contents of their night buckets into the weeds or knock the icicles from their roofs. Some face down the rising sun with clenched lips. With neither Blessed nor hulda in sight, the unmarked bask in a world where merely human is enough.
Stig joins me at the window. He follows the activity below us with the genial indifference you might have for an ant crawling across your arm.
“Col is waiting for us in the next chamber.”
“Then you’ve seen him in the daylight. The shaking, the bruises? It’s just how my mother was, at the end.”
“And when he’s gone, what will you do?”
A roar kindles in my head, bells within bells. I grab Stig by the shoulders and shove him towards the exit. It’s shocking to feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt.
“You haven’t asked about your uncle.”
“Ulcer-blossoms of the stomach,” I sneer, tongue sharpened for cruelty. “Died sobbing and alone.”
He flinches but doesn’t budge. “Join us at the hearth. Bring your blankets. Col could use some more.”
When our mother died, my father stood with us at the edge of the cremation pit. As both flesh and disease burned away, he refused to watch as Col breathed in the smoke, sucking it deep into his lungs, blacking his teeth to ashen gravestones. His eyes were showing their whites when the smoldering mark finally appeared on his throat. First, the stave for hunter, overlapped by the sign of the underground. Finder of the hidden and lost. His Blessing.
My father whispered something into the ear of his eldest son. Then he walked down into the fire. He didn’t scream and he didn’t look back.
Col rested his hands on my shoulders.
It was my turn.
I wasn’t ready. I tried to run away, to do what Stig had begged of me so many times, to forgo family, destiny, to remain a child.
Col braced me and held my head into the grim cloud that my father was becoming.
Breathe, he commanded.
I struggled to twist out of his grip.
He jammed his fingers into my mouth, gagging me. In that moment, with ashes crusting in my nose, I hated Col, a hate that still scratches at the back of my throat.
I had no choice but to relent to the fire and the cinders and the heat of velti released with my father’s final heartbeats. His ashes filled me, Blessed me, marked me, and when I was sure I couldn’t take any more was when my brother urged me to breathe deeper.
“And here comes our little Lord Serpent-Tongue,” Col says.
Stig offers me a half-empty bottle of wine like the taper of a supplicant. When I don’t move to take it, Col smirks and draws the blankets tighter around him. A bruise spreads across his face, dark as ink in the dim firelight. Several more of his teeth have fallen out.
Spots of dread whirl at the edge of my vision. How long have they been conspiring? A tight knot cannot be unraveled in the dark, but if enough hands tug the strings it may be undone by accident.
“Brother, let me help you back downstairs —”
Col glares at me. “No. You need to listen.”
“To him?” I try to hide the urgency in my voice, even as the edges brighten, the pressure builds. “He’s a kitchen boy who stumbled his way into his mark.”
Stig runs a scarred finger around the bottles lip, making it sing. The spots pulse faster, dark feathers against my temple. “Transiency is the natural state of all things,” he says. “Even the hardest, oldest stone is remade by a single drop of rain. It’s a difficult lesson to learn.” He passes his hand over the bottle, and the velti reduces it to a pile of quartz-glinted sand. “Or that might all be poetic nonsense. What do I know? Maybe you’re right and all I’m good at is scaling a fish before it stops gulping for air.”
Despair slips into the room like a ghost. It stares into the fire. Finally. I’ve been waiting for you. I don’t care if the velti starves for attention, if it eternally pries its fingernails into the seams of my skull.
Nothing would make me happier.
Then another coughing fit rakes out from Col’s lungs. Before his voice falls apart, he manages a hoarse whisper into my ear. “Don’t you dare give up on me. Not yet.”
After finally convincing Col to return to his bed, I peel back the wrappings around my thumb. The cut shines in its rawness. Some scabbing at the edges, the rest gapes like a drowning fish. Without asking, Stig inspects the wound for any slickness of infection. Why does such a simple act nearly bring me to tears?
I take my hand back and ask Stig why he believes he can save Col rather than be the final tap of false hope that nudges him over the edge.
As an answer, he produces a slight book, clasped in bronze, bound in pebble-gray reptilian leather. If my face betrays any reaction, he doesn’t notice.
“It’s an ancient war-tongue,” he explains, tracing its spidery script. “Mislav claimed no knowledge of this book, that he had never set eyes on it before. Must have been a lie. Right? Yes. That’s how I knew it was important.”
“And he taught you how to read it?”
“No, he never had the chance. I taught myself – or, rather, I used my Blessing to transform into someone who always could read it. A small adjustment, really.”
A small adjustment. That’s how it always starts. Maybe just a taste, enough to prove it to yourself. A taste leads to a morsel to a meal to a bottomless feast, eat, eat or ache, eat or wither, until you realize, too late, that perhaps it’s you that the velti has been devouring all along.
“There’s a ritual described inside,” Stig continues. “To carve out a new curs. It requires certain forms of velti, which we have between the three of us. And I know the perfect place to try it.” He picked at the scars on his hands. “I’m sorry, should have told you right away. Not sure why I didn’t.”
“Judoc, don’t you think, now that we are both Blessed, there shouldn’t be any more secrets between us? There doesn’t need to be. Right? There’s something I should tell you, about your cousin. Mislav, he didn’t find me. I was waiting for him. I swear, I only wanted his guidance –”
Before he can speak another word, I take his damaged hands in mine. “It’s fine.”
With enough practice, any lie can be sharpened into the truth.
In all those years, away, did I think of you?
Stig, why don’t you ask?
Then I could tell you.
I obsessed over you the way Col does his maps.
What you might look like, what you might be doing, where you might be. I saw you sleeping in a night-blue forest of pines. I heard you walking the marble streets of Spire Palus. I tasted the salt of the western sea on your teeth.
Visions of you sparked against a constantly spinning whetstone of resentment. I would wake up in the middle of the night, velti currents knotted in my hands.
I would tell you how strange it was, as Iberos collapsed, as my parents burned and my brother sank into desolation, that I remained healthy, even as I rarely exercised my Blessing.
How, in all that time, I never felt a drop of pain.
Not until the day you returned.
The tall grass snaps underfoot as we march through the fields. Our boots glitter with ice. We suck cold air through our teeth, where it warms along the roof of our mouths before rolling down into our lungs. Stig pauses occasionally to tug his cap back over his reddening scalp.
“Almost there,” he says, multiple times, first as a joke, then more serious as familiar woodlands thin out to a horizon of cobalt stone. There is nothing alive out here, not a single sparrow, hare or beetle.
Col seems oblivious to the cold. Hope rouges his cheeks. I bet he’s already imagining names for this new curs.
Approaching the mountains, the trail shakes off its snowpack to reveal crests of shale, uneven steps as likely to cast an unlucky traveler off as carry them forward. Up here, the hissing wind becomes more insistent. It seeks out any patch of exposed skin, groping at us, promising cool, dry kisses, if we only take off our cloaks, our scarves, our boots.
Stig pauses to gauge the way ahead.
“See those twin ridges of rock jutting out? My uncle called them the Sleeping Dogs. First time he brought me out here, I was certain that wolves or mud-snakes would devour us in the night. Nothing happened though. I suppose even devils find it too cold up here to bother.”
Evening drops quickly. Other than a hazel shaft of sunlight pricking over the mountains, nightfall drains the world of color.
A coin flashes in Col’s palm, then disappears again.
We reach a flattened palm of untouched snow sheltered between a copse of ice-heavy alder on one side and the elbow of a Sleeping Dog on the other. There’s a stillness here, the quietude of an ancient chapel, present and sacred, nature holding its breath.
We are exactly where we need to be.
“We best start,” Stig says. “Before we lose the light entirely.”
Col tastes the air. Nods. The lines of his body grow rigid, even the creases on his face, his grimace sharp as a scythe.
Stig sidles up to me and pulls my face close to his.
“Are you ready, divine one?”
He’s giving me one more chance. To stop everything, to turn around and trudge back down the mountain and let events unfold as they should, a story already written where the Blessed of Spire Iberos fade away, our inheritance reclaimed by the ivy, the moss, the worms, our lineage forgotten to everyone except the huldufólk who had yet to meet us. Before our extinction, there might even be a time of warmth, rising from the decay in a rush of wine and tea, blood to blood, the sighs of aging friends.
And if I can see that possibility, so can Stig.
Above us, dark clouds churn through each other, trapped between the dusk and the mountains. As if driven by instinct, we concentrate our Blessings. The velti responds. Even as the pain flickers away, I start to say something, I can’t even tell what, a dozen shapeless words rising from my ribs, when the sun goes rust and velti wildfire leaps from Col’s throat, to Stig’s, to mine. Magic pops and spurts between us, burning away our emotions, its alchemy shifting the elements to air, to water, to glass.
I was a babe when Maeija came to me.
She looked then exactly as she does now, as she probably did when the earth itself slipped the fiery cowl of its birth. She crept into my chambers in the middle of a moonless night with what would be the first of many cups of gray tea. As my headache dulled, she climbed up onto my bed. I will never forget the jab of her knees through the blankets. The smell of her breath, like the heavy air from a cavern deep underground. The rough brush of her bark-scaled lips against my ear.
There, as I laid in the darkness, paralyzed by terror, she related the entirety of my life, backwards.
You rose from a broken corpse, she said, up, up, into the keep, through that very window on the other side of this room. The sickness shook you like a doll, softer and softer, through a winter and a summer. Then you barely felt the fever at all, other than a twinge in your jaw. Yes, just like you see in your mother’s jaw now. Then, your brother walked out of the ocean, relief turned to anger, to despondency. He can barely remember being dead, all those guts eaten by crabs. He rejoined you here in the Spire for many years, some happy, others less so. The bone-fever burned brightly in him, before fading, before your mother and father pulled themselves out of the ashes …
Please, enough, I wept. I don’t want to know this.
Don’t be frightened, mayfly. It is a story already told, a stone resting at the bottom of the sea.
She drew her claws through my hair, gentle as a kitten.
Perhaps, together, we tipped the stone as it settled? Speak truthfully. What else could you have done for your own blood? Was it all worth it to take away their pain?
All I had was family. They were my whole world. Even Stig, despite all his charms, could never grasp the beautiful and terrible magic that stitched the Blessed together in threads of white and black.
Anything, I said. I would do anything to save them.
In that way, we were the same. She pressed a thin book into my hands. It felt oddly alive. I swear there was a fading pulse under its skin. This came back to me in the cage of a corpse. It wrote itself. You slipped it in with others of its kind. You chose a darling of unlike blood carry it. You kept it hidden for a hundred turns of the moon.
As she climbed off my bed, I asked her how this could possibly save my family.
Left alone, a quiet love retained its simple form. Hit with an axe, it shattered to dust. But, carefully fletched, whittled over time, you turned a green sapling to a needle, its life sharpened to pierce the world’s skin.
Me? I will cure them? That is to be my Blessing?
It was too dark to see, yet I knew she was grinning.
Mayfly, that was my weapon.
Stig screams into the unnatural gale swirling around us.
My brother, weak, skeletal, raises his hands into the velti. It appears first as a smudge, then a shadow, then a shape. Massive. Dark. It crashes to the ground and I recognize it as one of the obsidian sarsens from the forest of shipwrecks. It totters precipitously over us like a finger about to crush a beetle, before settling into the snow. The second sarsen arrives with a thunderclap, taking its place by its twin.
Col collapses in exhaustion, tongue lolling.
I look over to Stig. He’s concentrating on the empty space between the sarsens. Under his guidance, the air dulls like a cataract, softening the sharp angles of the mountains beyond. With a final grunt of effort, he becomes midwife to a shivering curs that limps and lurches out from the gap.
The velti seethes around us. Col grimaces, lips wet with bile.
“Behold,” he cries triumphantly, “I name thee the Broken-World curs.”
It is not complete. To enter now would be like walking into oblivion.
A tempting thought.
According to the book, three Blessings are required to create a new curs. Col’s gift of finding brought the sarsens to this location. Stig changed history, making it as if this end of the curs were always tethered to the stones.
As for reaching the other side …
Stig hands me the bird-like totem, our witch-raven, the relic of a distant continent. Sparks roll down its silver wings.
I take the totem and roll it between my velti-slicked palms until it softens like wax, keep spinning until it forms a rod, then a spear. With shaking hands, I aim the tip towards the curs. The velti wind draws it forward as if pulled by a string.
The curs ripples at the impact. But it does not open.
I knew it wouldn’t.
“Oh,” Stig says.
“Your uncle probably thought it was real.”
Col has curled up in a soft pile of snow rusted with vomit. He’s barely breathing.
“It’s over,” I say. “Help me carry him home. Better to die in his own bed than out here.”
Stig looks to Col, then to me.
Many strains of acquaintance may sprout in the thin soil of our footsteps; comradery, love, lust. Friendships blossom like wildflowers. However, a perfect bond, a heart that returns to your side through seasons of pain and selfishness? One that, when presented with the opportunity, would choose to sacrifice itself for your own happiness? Infinitesimally rare. Like my father’s impossible gardens, it must be meticulously cultivated. Take a scythe to the weeds, to the stragglers, to the less desirable offshoots. Creation is an act of cutting away all other possibilities.
“Something else we can try …”
There’s a thousand things I should say now. I have been practicing them all my life.
Stig, perhaps, once, you truly were a friend to a monk who found you in the woods. Perhaps, once, he died peacefully in his sleep, and you stood too close to his funeral pyre. A smudge of the velti singed your throat. Enough to taste. To want more. To abandon what you were and eventually, through slaughter and desperation, to dream yourself to my equal.
Stig, you always were my equal.
Stig, don’t make me choose.
Stig, the truth is, I chose this a long time ago.
My lips refuse to speak, even as Stig embraces me and his mouth covers mine, as his breath fills my lungs, as he draws the velti from me, Ormstunga, Serpent-Tongue. He already understands. Perhaps he knew from the moment I agreed to come to this barren place. What portion of our lives is constructed from such feints to ignorance, burying our wet natures to play the roles required? We tell ourselves we can step off the stage at any time. But controlling our story takes an act of creative violence, one whose expanding design refuses easy perception, even as it alters everything it touches.
While it’s undeniable that all humans are alien to Casses, via some unnatural symbiosis the Blessed anchored themselves to this rock. Stig’s people never had that chance. We bound their identity to exclusion. Their blood. Shipwrecked. Unmarked.
He is the shape hidden in the wood.
I am the blade with which to carve it out.
“Wait,” is all I manage to say before the velti reads our intent and explodes with a prehistoric wail, rooting out from the marks in our throats, encircling us, forcing us closer, pressing my hands to his chest, then sinking into his chest, one knuckle, two. He buckles as his knees fuse together. His ribs explode outward, the bones jutting from the skin in a spray of red. A sheen of moss crawls upwards from where his feet used to be, bursting from the muscles beneath. That’s when he finally screams.
Ever since Maeija’s prophecy, I have only prayed for one thing; that this moment would be painless.
I should have known better.
Stig, my darling. This is our Blessing.
His face is last to transform. His eye sockets pinch shut. Teeth crack. Muscles harden. He has become a milestone of bone and flesh. As the velti lifts him up and carries him into the white maw of the curs, I can still see a hint of his smile in the scratching runes.
The Broken-World curs erupts into brilliance. A corridor of light pours out like a crimson thread from the needles eye. It effortlessly flows across the rough, between the ears of the Sleeping Dogs, presumably crossing the mountains and the ice freckled waters beyond.
Through the warped glass of the curs, plagues of flies rumble over a wasteland of sand and vermillion scrub. No, not flies, distant warships, floating in the air. Entire armadas of those carved totems skate across the surface of a burning horizon, just as my mother did, that effortless glide. Will they become the wrecks in the marshlands? Am I seeing the past or the future?
It doesn’t matter.
Pain exists outside of time.
The curs warbles. Something emerges from the other side. It is difficult to look at. My eyes slide off its shifting collection of limbs, arms and legs, intertwined with serpentine roots of gaslight. It takes no heed of me or Col as it picks through the snow, constantly changing shape, shrinking, hardening, a liquid mandala becoming stone.
I know what this is.
Prince of the small folk. Mythic creature of pure velti.
It pauses at the bloody pile of rags that were Stig’s clothes. A sinuous claw plucks the leather book out from the carnage and gently attaches it to a weeping sore of matching shape on its flank.
Then it sees me.
Orbs of blue flame flicker in its sockets.
“Judoc of Iberos. Your life made a nice splash dropping into the pond of time, mayfly.”
My mouth goes numb with the taste of gray tea.
“A good name. Perhaps I will take it one day.”
A thousand questions sting my tongue to silence. All I can manage is stutter.
The álfar whispers into my ear.
“The knife in its velvet sheath needed not know why it was made, or in whose forge it was birthed. It only needed to know how to cut.”
A second phantom steps through the curs, then a dozen more, a hundred, an upended waterfall of thrashing shadows pouring from the curs and spilling across the mountains. Horror clamps my ribs. Is this an invasion? A plague?
An invisible wind takes them up, light as spiderlings, and carries them into the night. As fast as they arrived, they are gone. Gone into our dead past, their future.
Stars prick through the thin clouds.
I crawl over to Col and press my ear to his chest. Still breathing. I leverage him over my shoulder and make my way towards the curs. My arms brush against the milestone. It is warm, slightly yielding. It reminds me of when Stig and I sat on our hands and watched his uncle work the sculptor’s wheel. It always fascinated me to see a simple lump of clay transformed by nothing other than his naked hands. He didn’t need the velti to infuse the inanimate with grace and beauty. Once, he sculpted us miniature replicas of ourselves, perfectly detailed down to the fingernails. I remember Stig cradling his brittle boy in his hands. I remember crushing mine under my heel, not for the sin of accepting gifts from the unmarked, but for the unfairness of it being unfeeling clay all the way through.
I drag my brother’s limp body past the milestones, into the curs, toward the ragged dawn of a distant shore.