science fiction and fantasy writer

Rust Night

Standing in the prow of the feast canoe, Anandamar rubbed his thumb across the marbled, ovoid disc nestled in his palm. Behind him, the warriors of his tribe, the Makaed, dug their oars into the waves. Acid spray bit into the exposed skin of Anandamar’s forearms and cheeks, where the coating of bonetree talc had rubbed away, but his skin was so scarred after years of raiding that he barely felt it.

It was the month of Rust, nights of raiding and feasts, when the three moons were all in the sky and the sea was the colour of corroded iron. The ragged cliffs above stood scarlet against the orange sky. Only the brightest stars sprinkled the night with blue-white light. Brightest of all was the Stranger, which had first appeared above the islands of the Sent in the months of hungry nights before Rust. It charted a course in front of the faces of the moons, its path at odds with the turning of the rest of the sky.

Anandamar glanced down and to his left, at his sister-son, Damargael, out with a feasting party for the first time. The boy’s eyes were puffy behind his glass goggles as he bent to his work, his jaw clenched tight under the wet cloth tied over his mouth and nose. His arms and face, unprotected by talc, were flecked with red welts. Anandamar smiled behind his own damp mask, his belly warming with pride, in spite of his worry.

Six more feast canoes followed the vessel that carried their chief, the warriors driving their boats along as close to the surf as they dared, parallel to the beach and the cliffs. Each canoe held over a hundred men, hooded, masked and goggled, their skins pale with talc. Soon, they would come to the cleft in the etched rock face where the goodwater of the tribe of Chirgurtha flowed into the sea. Beside it, he knew, steps zigzagged up the cliff to the watchtower above.

Again, Anandamar rubbed his thumb over the disc he held. It was smooth like a riverbed pebble, but waxier in texture than stone. On one side was a depression that fitted the pad of a man’s thumb. When grasped, it warmed in a way that no rock would. Anandamar remembered his grandmother’s stories of time beyond her memory, of the lore, of Sender artefacts that had heated, or made light, or changed shape when touched, in the days when the Long Silence was still young. By the time of Anandamar’s youth, all such objects had become inert.

That this was a Sender artefact was plain. But the Makaed, greatest of all the tribes of the Sent, were the keepers of Sender lore and guardians of all Sender artefacts, and this had not come from Makaed. Lumin had brought it under a flag of truce. They had taken it from a dead Chirgurtha, killed during a feasting raid the Lumin had beaten back from their fort in the early nights of Rust.

Anandamar tried to set aside his fears. Riding the feast canoes was a moment to savour, the power and endurance of the tribe’s warriors focused with single intent. He pulled down his cloth mask and filled his lungs with the coarse fragrance of the sea, feeling its acrid burn in his nostrils and throat.

His worry refused to leave him, as it had refused since Lumin brought their gift. His gaze strayed upwards, to the bright star between the moons.

Makaed’s elders had debated the Stranger’s import from the night it first appeared. Most had maintained that it was the Senders, returned. But where, Anandamar had asked after the Stranger had hung ten nights overhead, were the Senders? Why had they not descended among the Sent? He clenched his fist around the disc. Lumin had answered those questions. One more remained, and Anandamar feared the answer: why had Chirgurtha kept the Senders to themselves?

The mouth of Chirgurtha’s goodwater came into sight. The corroded frame of the watchtower stair stood black against the red-lit cliff. The stair was a death trap. So too the goodwater, cutting as it did between the cliffs before it led to the landing place where Chirgurtha beached their feast canoes.

Anandamar tucked the marbled disc into his belt pouch. He raised his spear, pointing towards the cliff. The canoe veered abruptly, riding the surf to the beach. Anandamar leapt from the prow, barefoot into the acid waves. Behind him, he heard Damargael swallow a cry as water splashed around his sister-son’s legs. Damargael didn’t hesitate, though, heaving the canoe up onto the sand with the rest of the men. Anandamar returned his spear to its scabbard on his back as the other canoes beached alongside. Damargael passed him his shield from the canoe and he slung that over his shoulder, too.

When Lumin had come, Damargael had been among the young warriors honoured to contest with the escorts of the Lumin elders. During the contest, he had noticed his sister-son’s young wife, watching with her knuckles in her mouth. Sitting with his fellow elders and their guests, he gave no outward sign, but Anandamar was as relieved as she when the contest was over and Damargael was not among the three fallen warriors who would provide the feast that night.

Looking back, Anandamar felt a creeping unease, knowing that the Senders had been watching from the sky above. But Damargael had acquitted himself well, as he had this day, too. He would make a fine leader of the Makaed. Anandamar hesitated. He was conscious that his worry was making him maudlin, and he didn’t want to embarrass Damargael in front of the other men, but he felt compelled to show the boy some gesture.

He reached out to grip his sister-son’s arm. Damargael looked at him in surprise. Anandamar held the boy’s gaze a moment, then gave him a slow nod. After a couple of heartbeats’ pause, Damargael’s cheeks creased behind his mask, a flash of a grin.

Anandamar squeezed his bicep and released him.

“Up!”

The warriors of Makaed scaled the cliff, their talc-covered skins and the undyed leather and fabric of their shields, shawls and kilts the same shade as the rock. The cliff slanted back a few degrees, its face pitted by the sea, making convenient holds for hands and feet. Even so, the climb was arduous. Their natural defences were the reason Chirgurtha were rarely raided, and fancied themselves rivals to Makaed.

Sharp hisses of breath alerted Anandamar to a mishap. A warrior fell away from the cliff. He dropped in silence, his shawl and kilt flapping around him. The warriors of the Makaed paused their climb to watch, honouring their comrade’s courage. The sound of his landing was swallowed by the crash of the sea. The dead man’s brothers and cousins would divide his wives and their offspring up among themselves. The women would hear with pride of his valour while they shared his feast. Anandamar felt an unaccustomed disquiet at the prospect.

His muscles burned, his fingers and toes ached as he hauled himself upwards. He listened for a cry from the watchtower, seeing its front edge in the periphery of his vision. The red light of the moons, though bright, obscured movement and made objects difficult to distinguish at a distance. No alarm came from the tower.

Anandamar paused, just below the crest. The warriors of Makaed gathered beside him and below. He brought his feet up, tensing his muscles to spring. He glanced at Damargael. The boy’s gaze was fixed on his uncle, as were the eyes of every warrior about him.

“Now!”

The Makaed surged upwards. Anandamar landed in a crouch, one knee brushing the dirt. He launched himself into a sprint, unlimbering shield and spear as he ran. A startled shout, then a horn blast sounded from the watchtower.

Anandamar bellowed, “Makaed!

His men responded with a roar. They charged through a stand of talc-skinned, leafless bonetrees, setting seed rattles shaking and bark dust swirling in their wake. Anandamar pounded across the barren earth towards the patch of low, dark foliage that surrounded the Chirgurtha fort. The irregular circle of legume vines and black-leafed herbs marked the limit of potency of Chirgurtha’s Makers, beyond which plants that men could eat would not grow.

Leathery leaves crushed beneath Anandamar’s feet. He heard the cries of Chirgurtha’s defenders and their women and children from within the fort.

The warriors of Makaed clambered up the packed earth wall of the fort, reaching the low stockade at its crest at the same time as the defenders. Anandamar stabbed a Chirgurtha warrior in the face and leapt the rough-cut bonewood stakes as his enemy fell away. He raised his shield just in time to deflect the spear-thrust of a second defender. He stabbed at the man’s bare thigh, then again into his chest as the Chirgurtha dropped his guard.

For a moment, Anandamar found himself unopposed. Makaed warriors swarmed over the stockade. Near at hand, Damargael stabbed a fallen opponent’s throat.

A second wave of defenders emerged from among the orchard trees that shaded the interior of the fort, charging up from the entrance pits of the warren of underground dwellings. Chirgurtha women and children crowded at the edge of the orchard to lob rocks over the heads of their men at the Makaed attackers. Anandamar lifted his shield to protect his head.

In the centre of the orchard, rising above the black canopy, a pale teardrop-shaped structure stood on four spindly limbs. It was smaller and of different design to the three that occupied the heart of the fortress of Makaed, slowly corroding away over the generations of the Long Silence, but it was unmistakeably a vessel of the Sending.

The Chirgurtha defenders were closing. With a bellow of fury, Anandamar charged.

#

He crouched in the low doorway of the Sender vessel. A few Chirgurtha still resisted, barricaded underground. Most had surrendered, preferring to sacrifice those already dead for Makaed’s feasting than risk losing more.

Inside the vehicle, the Chirgurtha had hung up three man-shaped costumes to make a shrine. As with the vessel, the costumes resembled the tattered relics of the Sending, guarded for generations by the Makaed. All three costumes were torn and stained with blood. Anandamar felt an unaccustomed tightness in his chest, a burning around his eyes. It seemed his worst fears had been confirmed.

Anandamar turned from the doorway and jumped down to the ground. Chirgurtha’s young chief stood proudly nearby, flanked by two Makaed warriors.

“Karalucien.”

The other inclined his head. “Anandamar.”

Dreading the answer, Anandamar asked, “What have you done with them?”

The Chirgurtha stared back at him, but didn’t answer. The younger man’s silence killed what faint hope Anandamar still held. A pit of anger opened in his belly. He clenched his hands into fists in an effort to still their shaking.

Too young to be wise, he remembered thinking, at the time that Karalucien had murdered his predecessor. A Sender artefact hung from a hemp rope around the Chirgurtha’s neck – the length of a hand, a stick that widened to a flat knuckle, like one end of a thighbone. It was made of the same marbled material as the ovoid disc in Anandamar’s pouch. He reached out a hand, as though to examine it, then yanked sharply, pulling the Chirgurtha chief off balance. One of the Makaed warriors kicked the back of Karalucien’s leg, forcing him to kneel.

“There was a time,” Anandamar said, “back in the days of the Sending, and in the first days of the Long Silence, when men did not feast upon men. In the time of the Sending we were given beasts, to provide our meat. But the Makers in the beasts were not strong enough, and the beasts died.”

He leaned down, bringing his face close to Karalucien’s. “That was the fall of the tribes of the Sent. We feast on each other because we must.”

Anandamar breathed through flared nostrils for a few moments before he was able to speak again. “Makaed are the lorekeepers of the Sending,” he said. “You thought to rival us. The lore says that after the Long Silence, the Senders will return and take all the tribes of the Sent back to the sky.”

He searched Karalucien’s face for some hint of doubt, some spark of comprehension. There was none. Anandamar’s arms shook uncontrollably as he gripped the hemp rope around the kneeling man’s throat, twisting it into a noose. “The Senders have returned. And you have feasted on them.”

He could not find words to capture Chirgurtha’s smallness of mind, their failure of thought.

“You imbeciles.”

Karalucien began to struggle, trying to rise. The two Makaed warriors dropped their spears and shields, restraining the man’s arms while Anandamar strangled him.

Blood vessels burst in Karalucien’s eyes. His tongue lolled from the rictus of his mouth. Anandamar shook his fists free of the rope. The corpse crumpled into the dirt.

He looked around. “Where is Damargael?”

The warrior who’d struck Karalucien shook his head. “He is for the feast, Anandamar. He took two others by his own hand.”

Anandamar swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. The loss to Makaed was acid in the wound of the greater tragedy. The boy had only the one wife, the outcome of their breeding not yet known. Anandamar resolved to take the girl into his own house. The thought of sharing Damargael’s feast with her and the boy’s mother, Anandamar’s sister, was like dust in his mouth.

To the east, the horizon was brightening. The Stranger was there, low in the sky. Were the Senders watching, he wondered, up there in their blue-white star? They had to be.

“We will shelter here for the day,” Anandamar said. “Kill them all. ”

“All?”

Anandamar raised his arm to point to the Stranger. “The Senders have seen,” he said. “Kill every man, every woman and every child of them. Chirgurtha is no more.

“It is the only way.”

When evening fell, the warriors of Makaed emerged again above ground. Their faces as they filed past their chief were empty, eyes hollow, sickened by the waste of what they’d done. The space between the moons was noticeably larger than it had been the night before. Rust was ending. Lean months stretched ahead.

The Stranger was nowhere in the sky.

Anandamar stared at the western horizon, willing the Senders’ star to rise, although it should have been two spans across the sky already. He knew, then, with a yawning horror, that he had only compounded Chirgurtha’s folly. Far from appeasing the Senders, his swift justice had only revolted them further.

Almost, he could have given himself for the feast.

He stood, later, outside the stockade wall and watched the flames spread out across the orchard, the smoke staining the orange night sky. The marbled disc was cool in his fist, inert as a stone.

Anandamar threw back his head and howled at the sky, then he flung the disc into the fire.

He thought perhaps that he might weep, like a wife at her husband’s feast. He refused, and stood a moment longer to be sure. Then he stooped to haul Damargael’s body across his shoulders, and followed his men, similarly burdened, over the trampled crops and the barren dirt beyond, back to the cliff-side stair.

~END~

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