science fiction and fantasy writer

Angel Dust

It was a day when autumn’s bitter rain swept in off the strait. It rinsed the filth from the streets and beat against the black tower that rose from the heart of the city’s sprawl.

In the plaza before the tower’s gate, a pair of statues stood on man-high plinths, rendered from the same black stone as the tower and overgrown with climbing briars. A female figure and a male, they wore the long-bodied forms of the race of Avalae, the city’s first masters, and had the high-domed skulls and small round ears, set low behind the jaw, distinctive of that vanquished folk. The statues reached, left-handed, towards each other, as though they longed to cross the space between, their unseeing gazes locked together. The woman’s outstretched arm ended in a stump above the wrist.

Had the statues ears to hear, they would have known the cry of dismay that arose from the ghettos, below.

The angel was returned.

Always in the past, the angel’s homecoming had been greeted with joy, and the ears of the city dwellers had pricked up to listen for the strident chorus of the returning songships. But on this day, as copper sunshine found the gap between horizon and clouds, there arose no triumphant song from the harbour. Had the statues eyes to see and legs of muscle and sinew to walk among the people, they might have seen the faces that turned up to watched the angel’s passage, tight with worry, and they would have marked his course, erratic as a butterfly’s, the beat of his grey swan wings laboured and inconstant.

“Where is the fleet?” the people whispered. Their whispers turned to wails, when they saw the scant dozen ships that limped into port, and heard the mournful dirge they sang.

The rest would not return, the statues might have heard the sailors say. They were burned or sunk, along with the armadas of Melkurr and the Gil-Gadin. Melkurr was defeated, its capital sacked, and the sheikdoms were falling one by one.

From their plinths before the gate, the statues could have watched the angel battle to reach his tower roost. Were their eyes acute, they might have seen the trail of blood that mingled with the rain, and seen that, as it fell, it turned to glimmering dust.

Had the statues walked the city streets, they might have witnessed the wonders where the dust alighted. Cobblestones turned to clumps of poppies. Some grew legs and scuttled away. Downpipes turned to twisting vines, or pythons that insinuated themselves through the windows of the houses. A colony of pigeons grew arms, and minds that thought, and plotted war against the rats and starlings who raided their nests. People who were touched by the dust burst apart into clouds of copper bees, or turned inside out, for golden-boughed trees to spring from their quivering guts.

The angel slumped gratefully over the high balustrade of his refuge. Had the statues chanced to look up, they would have seen a last drop of blood turned to dust as it fell.

#

Her eyelids fluttered. She heaved a raw breath, then another. For a long time, that was all she did, her new mind aflood with the sensations of her body, and all the memories of things she would’ve seen and known, had she always had eyes to see, ears to hear.

Centuries of days and nights overlaid the deserted plaza, harvest dances and winter stillness, the red crackle of solstice bonfires and the smoke and clamour of war. Changeless, through it all, was the petrified stare locked on hers, stone fingers always reaching, never touching.

She swayed, wincing as the briars that wreathed her hooked their barbs into newly soft skin. She shifted her arms, to extricate herself, and cried aloud when she saw the flat stump that ended her left arm above the wrist.

A memory swam to the surface, of Yng’finail Reavers fighting the beast-headed slave warriors of Avalae, a massacre dance of iron blades on bronze, swirling about the plinths. A wild-swung halberd struck her wrist, splinters showering the wielder. She remembered the fractures spreading through her arm, as the temperature fell and rose in the nights and days and weeks that followed, until, with a crack one frosted morning, the hand tumbled from her wrist.

Her gasps became sobs. The briars stabbed her anew. Moving slowly, whimpering at every tear of her skin, she freed herself from their embrace and shoved the mess of vines from her plinth. She sank down into a crouch, and shivered in the cold rain. The sounds of the restless city assailed her, disorienting. She crept her toes forward until they found the edge of the plinth, and clung there, vertiginous and confused.

A flicker of lightning caught a glint of wet stone in the edge of the briar patch. With a yell, she leapt from the plinth, powered by muscles that did not know, yet, how to properly obey command. Hip, hand and stump met the cobbles. She lay, winded and gasping, staring up into the rain at the black silhouette of the tower that filled half the sky.

When the breath had found its way back into her lungs, she rolled over and crawled to the spot where she’d seen her severed hand. She cradled it, cold and unfeeling against her breast.

Her gaze strayed up, to the statue of her mate, like her hand, still etched in stone. He was all but featureless in the gloom. Higher still, to the balcony that marked the angel’s roost, where the mages of Avalae had summoned their fabulous winged beasts to take them hunting, once upon a time. She saw in her mind the angel’s latest, agonised return. The tower gate was closed, and there were no windows in its face to show if light and life existed within, except the balcony, and it was dark.

A hand gripped her arm, hard fingers bruising new skin. A rough voice said, “‘Allo, lovely.” Sniggered.

She twisted, lashing out blindly with her stone hand. Her ears rang with memories of screams cut short, terrible sounds of fright and injury in the shadows at the plaza’s edge.

The man retreated, cursing loudly, cradling a forearm bruised, at least, or fractured.

She registered an answering shout from across the plaza. Another man, or several, she didn’t wait to see. Clutching her stone hand to her chest, she fled.

She ran down well-lit streets, where the private guards of the well-to-do nervously eyed the first nervous citizens ascending from the city below to come demand the angel’s counsel. All stopped to stare, amazed, at the naked woman who sprinted past.

At the foot of the hill, the streets grew darker. She heard the grumble of larger crowds ahead. She slowed, clutching at the stitch in her side, and turned from the main avenue. The cold air burned her lungs, her legs shook and her uncallused heels ached from pounding on the cobbles.

The doorways along this street were alcoved, the frontages colonnaded with the long bones of giants, the doors themselves shrouded in shadow. Blankets spilled into the rain from one, nearby. Shivering violently now, she crept over and reached with tentative fingers. She began to tug at the wet hem of the topmost blanket, then abruptly withdrew her hand. There was a body underneath the covers. She waited, but there came no cry of protest.

She tugged on the blanket again, gathering it into her lap, ready to flee at the first sign of movement. Her hand touched an outflung limb. The flesh was cold.

She drew the first blanket around her shoulders and dragged the remaining covers from the corpse. Bundling them to her chest, she crept to the next alcove along the street. She wrapped herself as tightly as she could, tucking her legs against her chest and pulling the blankets over her head, holding them closed with her single hand. After a time, her shivering stilled and she felt something approaching warmth.

She slept, and her dreams were filled with the black stone features of her mate.

#

Consciousness returned slowly. The clatter of hooves punctured her dreams, then the creak and crack of a cart following, the tap of passing feet, random snatches of conversation. With a start, she came fully awake.

She raised her head to peer beneath the blanket’s fringe, blinking against the morning light. The rain had ceased, but the clouds remained heavy. The street was filled with people.

Most were Yng’finail, the city’s current masters, red of skin and silver-pale of eye and hair. Slight figures wove among them, coal black skins stark against white robes and shining gold-in-gold eyes – Gil-Gadin – she had seen their like beneath the angel’s tower. A trio of brown-skinned warrior women stalked past, their spiny manes held erect, open vests displaying the scars left by severed breasts.

Others in the crowd were stranger and less human. She remembered them, the cruelly fashioned playthings of the Avalae. Folk with the furred heads and naked tails of rats, scuttling on four limbs or two as the need took them, their eyes the glowing gold of Gil-Gadin. A hairless Yng’finail, pushing himself awkwardly along on a serpent’s coils. A gargoyle leaning on a cane, too old to fly anymore, her once powerful wings twisted with arthritis, copper feathers tarnished green.

All of them, human and less so, had an agitation about them. They moved with a step more hurry and a nervous indecision, both, that on a different day might have been absent. Tempers were quick as people got in each other’s way. But only threats and curses were exchanged. It seemed no-one had the stomach for trading blows.

A rumbling beat penetrated the hubbub. It resolved into the sound of dozens of feet – booted, hoofed or clawed – treading in not-quite-unison. A company of soldiers marched by, their armour an irregular assortment of lamellae and baked leather, only a handful with helms of any kind, the rest in felt caps or bareheaded. The weapons on their shoulders made an ugly forest of mismatched steel.

“And what’s this, cluttering my step?” said a deep voice, startlingly close.

The door had opened behind her. A cassocked figure filled the frame. Blue human eyes glared down at her from a horned bovine face. Sparse hair covered a hide as thick and dimpled as citrus pel. She had seen his kind stand like colossi on the last day of Avalae, as Yng’finail Reavers slaughtered their lesser brethren around them, until weight of numbers and iron blades brought them down, too.

“Be gone,” the minotaur said, lifting an arm to strike backhanded.

She scrambled back, shaking her good arm free of her blankets. She raised the stone hand in warning while she got her feet under her. The minotaur’s eyes widened as she retreated into the sunlight.

He followed, raising his hand again, but palm outward this time. “Wait.”

But she was already running. A carthorse flapped its neck frills in warning as she skipped in front of it. She ducked the half-hearted swipe of the carter’s crop and pushed on through the crowds.

The cobbles were cold and slippery wet, her feet bruised and aching from her running the night before. She soon slowed to a hobbling walk. She had no direction in mind, no knowledge of the city beyond the plaza where she had stood. She passed terraces of shops and houses walled with brick and stone and black iron plate, others roofed in bright canvas to resemble the sails of ships. Others still, grown of living trees woven tight together.

She let the pedestrian tides carry her where they would, until her attention was arrested by the aromas of a pie seller’s stall. His wares were heated over a bed of coals in the iron belly of his spider-legged cart. Her stomach knotted painfully as she watched a man walk away with a steaming pastry. She sidled closer, wondering if she might snatch a pie and run.

She noticed a boy staring at her, narrow-eyed and blunt nosed, a younger, leaner version of the pie seller. He tapped a leather cosh meaningfully against his thigh.

Downcast, she retreated, and walked on.

She passed a golden tree, growing in the centre of the thoroughfare. Beneath it, a trio of hook-beaked gargoyle men confronted a party of soldiers with axes. A gargoyle woman knelt between them, wailing and tearing at her breastfeathers.

The black tower loomed above the rooftops. She turned towards it. Her pulse quickened as she ascended the hill, a twinge of fear as she remembered the man she had injured the night before.

Reaching the plaza, she saw that her anxiety was needless. A mob had gathered before the angel’s keep, demanding entry. Soldiers watched them, but made no move to intervene. No-one had any attention to spare for her.

She stopped beneath the petrified figure of her mate. His features were opaque with the sun behind him. She stretched up, but his outstretched hand was too high for her to reach. She pulled aside the briars that covered his foot and ran her fingertips over the shape of his toes. The stone was as ungiving as the severed hand she clutched against her belly.

A loaded cart arrived, and people started piling wood for a bonfire. She cleared a nest among the briars, on the side of her mate’s plinth that faced the tower. She sank down and curled her limbs around the hollow misery of her belly.

#

She started from a torpid daydream, of her mate smiling, his stone visage turned to flesh, his fingers grasping hers.

The minotaur looked down at her.

She levered herself up, fumbling for her stone hand. Panic made her clumsy, and she dropped it in the briars at her feet. With a yelp, she bent to grab it.

“Be still,” the minotaur said. “I’ll not hurt you.”

She paused, warily, the stone hand half raised. He gazed at her in silence for a time, then his blue eyes shifted to look at the male statue.

“How did this come to be?” he asked.

She opened her mouth, struggling to shape a response. Although she understood him, like a small child, she lacked the skill to form words of her own. She pointed to the grand balcony.

The minotaur gave a bovine snort and took her by the wrist. Dragging her along in his wake, he marched towards the tower.

A few, braver or more angry than their fellows, still beat at the gate with mallets and staves. The blackened iron seemed to drink the sounds of their blows into itself. The hammerers fell back at the minotaur’s arrival. He raised his fist, muttering beneath his breath, then struck the door, three times. With each blow a boom like the striking of a gong echoed inside the tower.

For a time, there was stillness. Then a postern cracked ajar within the surface of the gate and an Yng’finail head peered out. The man’s hair was yellowed with age and his skin a jaundiced orange. His pale eyes blinked and watered in the daylight.

“We seek audience,” said the minotaur.

The old man licked his lips. His eyes flickered to the minotaur’s companion, still caught by the wrist, and back again.

“Forgive me, m’lord,” he said. “There’ll be no audience today.”

He began to withdraw, but the minotaur raised a hand to stay him. “When?” he asked.

The man started an answer, thought the better of it and stuttered to a halt. “I cannot say.”

He shrank back as the minotaur leaned towards him. “If he is hurt, I might aid him.”

The old man’s eyes went wide. He stepped back abruptly through the door and shut it behind him.

An angry mutter passed through the crowd. The minotaur sighed.

“Go to your homes,” he said, and turned on his heel. He let go her wrist. “Go.”

She stared at his broad back as he strode from the tower. The hammerers closed again towards the gate. She struggled free, buffeted and bumped, and hurried after the minotaur. She tugged at his sleeve to stop him.

She pointed to the male statue.

The slump of his shoulders was answer enough. He said, “Only he who gave life to you can give it to your mate. I cannot help.”

She fought with her tongue. “When?”

The minotaur glanced back at the tower. He shook his head. “Come back tomorrow, and see.” The pocked skin around his eyes was tight, as though something pained him. “Come. I will see you fed. You can bed in front of my hearth. Cassiann, is my name.”

She looked back over her shoulder, at her mate in his cloak of briars. Her gaze travelled up the black face of the tower, to the balcony, silent to the entreaties raised below.

They returned to his house. He had to duck his head to fit through the door, and remain stooped, inside, so as not to scrape his horns on the ribs of the ceiling. Inside, a wooden bench stood along one side of the hall. The door of the front room was open, the room lined with shelves of jars and vials and tins, every one labelled in meticulous script. A high table with an ornate set of scales stood in the centre and, to the rear, a padded couch and scale curtain to pull around it.

He was an apothecary, Cassiann said, and when it was plain she did not know the word, explained that he healed people with magic and medicine. He led her down the hall to the kitchen and parlour in back. He pointed to the stairs, leading up to rooms where he slept and studied, and showed her the larder, the lavatory chute and the water pump. He tossed a fresh log onto the hearth, set out a bowl, and cloths, for her to wash herself, should she wish. Then he said he had customers to prepare for, had missed appointments already. He closed the hallway door, and she was alone.

She wriggled back in the seat of his solitary chair, so that her feet dangled clear of the ground. Her stone hand was cold beneath her living palm. She stared into the flames that licked inside the hearth. Her stomach grumbled, but her hunger lacked the urgency it had before.

Presently, she heard voices, the minotaur’s and another, higher in pitch. She listened for a while, idly trying to discern their words. Her gaze wandered around the room, settled on the staircase, then up the curve of the wall to the joists of timber and giant ivory that crossed the ceiling.

She slipped down from the chair.

The lowest stair creaked beneath her foot. She crept quietly up, across the small landing at the top and into the bedroom. She padded past the long bed, to the window that opened over the street. The panes of polished leviathan scales let in light, but revealed only the murkiest outlines of the world beyond. She examined the latch, gave it an experimental tug. The window swung outward. She pushed it open.

Cool air brushed over her face and arms. She leaned her elbows on the damp sill and gazed up at the dark tower, high on its hill. She saw a black stone face, and fingers reaching for her own.

#

She awoke early the next day, in the dull red light of the coals in the hearth. Her mate’s face faded slowly from her mind’s eye.

Cassian was already in his surgery, mixing powders. He paused when she appeared in the doorway. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”

She shook her head.

The minotaur returned to his work, tipping a measure of pale green powder into a jar already half filled with white. He stoppered the jar and shook it vigorously to mix the powders together, then placed the jar on a shelf. His hand lingered. He seemed to be gazing at something other than the shelves in front of him.

“It is a lonely thing, to be unique,” he said, suddenly. “My people’s shaping occurred elsewhere in the realms of Avalae. Our nation holds the islands to the west of here. It has been a long time, since I was forced to leave them.”

He fell silent again, ordering the ranks of jars. He stopped, faced her. With an abrupt stride, he closed the gap between them. He reached out, jerkily, to touch her cheek. “My people were made to adore those whose shape you wear,” he said.

His fingertips were dry and smooth. He traced the shape of her ear, the rapid pulse that arose in the side of her neck. His hand paused at her collarbone, then slowly eased the blanket from her shoulder.

Carefully, she stepped backwards through the doorway. The minotaur hung his head. His outstretched fingers curled back into his palm.

“Forgive me. I did not think I would be so overcome.”

She fled, out into the morning fog.

The greyness was disorienting, and she stayed close to the buildings as she hurried along. Her heart thumped against her ribs – terror at what he might’ve done during the night, had his compulsion overcome him sooner.

The top of the hill was clear of the mist. The black tower stood stark against the chill blue sky, unrelieved by the bright sunshine. The buildings at the plaza’s edge stuck up like jagged teeth, the city beyond them lost beneath a white blanket of cloud.

Yesterday’s near-riot had become an encampment. Handcarts and wagons did service as sleeping shelters. Would-be supplicants hunched around cookfires. There were soldiers among them, now. A delegation of Reaver captains camped closest to the gate.

She rubbed her mate’s frigid toes.

The Reaver captains thumped on the gate and hollered up to the angel’s balcony. The tower remained silent. The captains argued briefly among themselves, and several left with their men.

A cloud of copper-coloured bees buzzed around her head. She watched them dance patterns in the air. A starling swooped, scattering the cloud. The bird alighted on her mate’s outstretched arm. One beady eye met hers. A bee struggled vainly in its beak. The rest buzzed about erratically. The starling flapped its wings and was gone.

“Bet you’re hungry, eh?”

She jumped. And Yng’finail in mismatched conscript armour held up a torn loaf of bread, just out of her reach. Her stomach grumbled.

“Need to agree on a price first, love,” he said. “It’s not coin I have in mind, you understand.”

She backed away, only to bump into a second man.

He sneered. “Too good for the likes of us, eh?”

She cried out and swatted at him with her stone hand. He caught the blow on the shoulder of his cuirass, cursing. His companion grabbed her arms from behind. The man she’d struck pulled back his fist and punched her in the mouth.

She tasted hot metal and salt. Pain radiated from her crushed lips. They took her by an arm each and began to drag her away. She struggled feebly, dazed from the blow.

The man to her left punched her under the ribs, driving the air from her lungs. She sagged, gasping.

She heard a sharp enquiry. A Reaver captain had risen, over by the tower gate, and stood watching them with hands on hips. His scrutiny was enough to make the two men falter. Their grip on her arms slackened.

She wrenched free. They shouted after her as she tottered into a run. One of them started to pursue, but a bark from the Reaver captain stopped him. Only their curses chased her from the plaza.

She didn’t run far. The press of traffic soon forced her to slow. She found refuge in a doorway alcove. Gradually, her pulse slowed, her panic settled.

A memory floated to the surface of her thoughts, of festival dances beneath the tower: Avalae twirling in silk and gauze, each the focus of a ring of ecstatic slaves, competing for their masters’ attention with the energy of their dancing. Every so often a slave would be chosen, and their masters would lead them by the hand through the black tower’s gate.

She paused, thinking of cold and hunger, curled in her nest of briars and not knowing when the angel might open his gate. She thought of the men who’d seized her today, of the one who’d first found her, and thought of what might have happened had the first man been more wary, or had the Reaver captain not taken an interest.

She weighed the price of Cassiann’s roof and hearth. Made to adore those whose shape you wear, he’d said.

#

She found his door unlocked, the apothecary speaking to a patient in his surgery room. He faltered, as she went past down the hall.

She perched on his tall chair, until she heard the front door shut, and Cassiann came into the kitchen.

“Our angel keeps his tower closed, then,” he said.

She nodded.

Heart hammering, she placed her hand on his belly. She slid her fingers downward, felt him quicken. He grunted and caught her wrist. He touched a finger to her battered lips, questioning. She held his gaze, resolute, for the long moment that he stared.

He swept her up and carried her up the stairs.

He was gentle, but hurried. She cried out in pain when he entered her, wound her one fist in his cassock and buried her face against his chest as he thrust between her thighs.

Afterwards, she felt between her legs, found the blood there. She wiped her fingers on the bedsheet, and for a long time couldn’t sleep.

When at last she did, she dreamed of her mate. He stood with his back to her, and no matter how fast she ran around his plinth, his face remained stubbornly turned away.

#

She awoke to find Cassiann kneeling beside the bed. His mouth was agape, his eyes squinting half shut. She realised he was smiling.

He held up a plain-spun dress. “I got these for you.” He showed her a felted cloak and sheepskin boots.

“And this.” He held out his palm. Across it was draped a simple wire necklace. Twined in its grasp was a small black orb.

Hesitantly, she reached out and touched it with her forefinger.

“It’s a pearl,” he said, then shyly: “I thought it a good name for you, since you lack one.”

Her eyes felt suddenly hot. She tried it out, under her breath, “Purr.”

“Here.”

He held the wire loop to her throat and clasped it behind her neck. She held the pearl between her fingertips and let him nuzzle at her neck, as his arms came around her.

#

Snowflakes greeted her when she pushed the window open. The street was clogged with wagons and handcarts and families afoot. A flock of gargoyles flew low over the rooftops, bearing infants and bundles of trinkets. Soldiers passed along the traffic jam, dragging men and boys from the line.

She felt the boards beneath her feet shift with the weight of Cassiann’s tread. His hand clasped her shoulder. He peered down into the chaos below.

“Come,” he said.

He tarried only long enough for them both to dress. She had to run to keep up with him as the minotaur ploughed through the press. She tucked her stone hand into the crook of her stump and hooked her fingers through his.

She felt a guilty relief when he turned downhill instead of up. She’d lost count of the days since she’d last gone back to the tower. The guilt she felt, standing beside her mate’s plinth, touching him, had been too much to bear. She’d taken to lingering at the edge of the plaza, just long enough to see that the gate remained closed, and to drink in the sight of her mate. Then she’d stopped doing even that.

Cassiann’s hurried pace brought them quickly to the harbour, emerging onto the waterfront near the city’s arsenal.

The songships, few that survived, slept in a row, hulls bumping gently together as they rocked on the tide, their figureheads with faces bowed, arms folded across their wooden chests. They awoke a bitter longing in her, who would awake from their stillness, where her mate would not. But the songships were guarded by soldiers in armour and helms of good steel. She averted her eyes from their unfriendly regard, and hurried after Cassiann.

Further on, the docks became crowded. Gil-Gadin dhows lined the piers. Quar-Akech was fallen, were the words on many lips – the last of the sheikdoms, these ships escaped from the jaws of the invading fleet. Cassiann stopped to question some sailors. “Grahodden”, she heard, in regard to the conquerors, and “Uiggrahodd”, from whence they came, terms she did not know but she heard the fear and hate they owned when spoken.

These dhows were not staying, save a handful of battered warships. People on the docks shouted their bids for passage to the crews. A few were allowed to board. Other merchantmen were readying to flee as well, offering refuge on their decks for a price. A pair of Melkurran triremes remained aloof, their crews of flat-chested warrior women treating the goings on about them with stoic indifference.

All along the harbourfront, soldiers were fortifying buildings and barricading streets. Cassiann led her past one such barrier, through a gap left just wide enough to allow foot traffic, past an angry carriage driver and his passengers, arguing with soldiers who wanted to divert them two streets over.

The minotaur did not speak until they were back inside his house. He went straight into his surgery and started filling a long wooden case with jars. She put her stone hand on the bench beside the scales and watched.

“The city will fall,” he said. “If the angel will not come from his tower, the city’s mages will not suffice to turn the invaders back. I must flee while I can. The Grahodden slaughter magic users in all the realms they conquer. And those who rule in Uiggrahodd have styled themselves as gods, and tolerate no other shapings of men, so I am doubly damned.”

He stopped his packing and took her flesh hand in both of his. “Come with me. We’ll take the East Road, through the mountains. Winter will not have closed the passes, yet.”

She looked into his human eyes, sincere in his inhuman face. She thought of her mate, still stone, and the angel in his tower – and her hope, the same – alive or dead, she did not know. And though she could form its sound upon her tongue, she could not bring herself to say the word, “Yes.”

Cassiann withdrew his hand, and smiled, sadly, insomuch as his face allowed. He rummaged in the pockets of his cassock, and placed on the table beside her stone hand the key for his house, and a drawstring purse that clinked, full of coin. She knew, then, that he had expected no different answer.

She followed him about the house as he gathered food and a few small, precious things. He tied them in a bundle and slung it from his shoulder, then stood, his head bowed beneath the ceiling, and looked down at her once more.

He brushed his fingers on her cheek. “Live, Pearl,” he said.

He turned away abruptly, and strode down the hall. He scooped up his case of medicines as he ducked to get through the front door, and was gone.

She sat alone for a while, touching the key, and the purse, and her stone hand. Then she too, went to the larder, and made a bundle of food. Upstairs, to find a blanket to supplement her cloak. Then she picked up the key and the hand from the table and went out, locking the door behind her, and up the hill, to wait for one last time.

Most of the crowds had fled. The tower gate stood unscarred by their efforts. She stroked her mate’s petrified ankle, gazed up at cold stone features, male mirror of her own. She cringed from the disdain she saw there.

Her fingers strayed to the black pearl at her throat as she lowered herself into her briar nest.

After a time, the wind brought the brave chorus of the songships, leading the war fleet out to meet the enemy. She heard the song disintegrate, before it faded, into the bitter laments of the dying. She twisted to peer around the plinth’s edge. In the spaces the streets made between the buildings, she saw galleys beaching outside the city walls.

Too soon, the sounds of battle reached her ears: the clatter of steel and the hoarse shouts of officers rallying their men, the whine of killing spells and the wails of the injured.

She remembered those sounds, covered her ears with hand and stump, unwilling, yet, to abandon her mate, as the last diehards fled the plaza. Defenders ran past, few of them armed. Arrows cut some down. A rat-headed soldier dodged around the plinth, barely an arm’s length away, and sprawled, a white-feathered shaft between his shoulder blades. He reached out, to drag himself onward with his fingers. He spat blood and shuddered violently, his jaw smacking the cobbles, and was still.

A rock smashed into the tower’s face. Another followed, then a barrage. She screamed in terror. Missiles lit with magic were tossed among the stones. They spattered on impact, their fires eating gouges in the tower’s face. Some fell short. A rock hit the cobbles only yards away, showering her with splinters of stone.

It was too much. With a howl, she broke from the shelter of the plinth. A spinning rock bounced in front of her. She tripped and fell. Her stone hand slipped from her grasp. She watched helplessly as it arced to strike the cobbles, broken pieces skittering apart.

A fireball detonated near her mate’s plinth. Its flaming offspring rained around her. She thrashed and rolled as the magic flame ate through her cloak and into tender flesh beneath. Sobbing and wailing, trailing embers from her hair, she fled.

She ran through streets already littered with corpses, houses already aflame. Hulking figures loomed out of the smoke. She reached Cassiann’s house. Mad with fear and grief, she gave no thought to the key tucked into her waistband. She sat, moaning more than weeping, rocking herself back and forth, in the alcove before the door.

#

In time, she calmed, but remained where she was, shocked and numb, feeling keenly the absence of the cold weight from her lap.

Ash-blackened snow began to fall. People slunk past, hollow-faced and cowed, snowmelt leaving streaks of soot on their faces. Others emerged from the houses, to ask where they were going.

“They’ve brought our angel from his tower,” was the reply.

Her heart thudded. She joined the flow. The snow settled as slush, soaking through her boots and freezing her toes. Only those of fully human shape were abroad. Which others who survived had gone to ground.

She got her first clear sight of the city’s conquerors, squads of Grahodden soldiers guarding the intersections of major streets. They were huge men, Cassian’s size, and as burly, with skins like brown citrus peel. Their bulk was made greater by the cloaks of mottled feathers and fur caps they wore against the cold. In their fists they gripped halberds and glaives with cruel curved blades.

She stumbled past the ruined barricades that had walled the harbour. A great throng was gathered on the waterfront, its focus a gigantic quinquereme, pulled tight against the wharf. The bare masts of other war galleys filled the harbour, a skeleton forest through swirling snow.

The crowd was packed tight, but she threaded through, crawling in the slush when she could find no other way, desperate to see the angel. A voice rang out, unnaturally amplified, but she did not know its language. She wriggled between the last few rows of legs, heedless of the curses and kicks she earned. She tucked her burning cold fingers beneath her cloak and peered past the kilted thighs of a Grahodden soldier.

The angel knelt in the centre of a wide semi-circle of clear ground, the crowd held back by a ring of halberd blades. A wooden block was set before him, and a basket. A giant Grahodden stood over him, stripped to the waist to reveal the slabbed muscle beneath his pocked hide, a headsman’s axe in his hands.

The angel’s back was bowed, his complexion drained from Yng’finail red to leprous yellow. Shudders wracked his limbs. His grey swan wings drooped behind him, broken and roughly plucked.

Gazing down at him from the rail of the ship sat three lords of Uiggrahodd. They wore the heads of Grahodden folk, but outsized. Their bodies were those of lions. One raised a prehensile paw, a black talon springing from the thumbtip.

The headsman pushed down the angel’s unresisting neck, then stepped back and took a grip on his axe.

The moment dilated. The thumb turned down.

The crowd groaned and surged at the soldiers’ line. The Grahodden kept their discipline, laying about the rioters with the butts of their weapons as they closed ranks.

Like a rabbit breaking from cover, she sprang past the soldiers’ legs and dashed across the space. Deep voices bellowed behind her.

She skidded to her knees in front of the angel. Holding hand and stump before his face, she shaped a word: “Please.”

The angel raised his head, looked at her through a veil of filthy feather-hair. Grey eyes, half-mad with pain, stared into hers. The brows above them creased, as he recognised the shape of those his Reavers had vanquished, generations before. The frown cleared, eyes widened, as he perceived the stuff of his own self that animated her.

“Please,” she said again.

His cracked lips worked. An incantation. A string of blood-flecked drool fell. She caught the precious spittle in her palm, closed her fingers around it as the headsman’s boot came up under her ribs.

She balled around her hurt, rolling away through the slush. Rough fingers caught her hair and dragged her by it. She gritted her teeth against the pain, clutching her hand against her chest as she felt the phlegm become dust. She saw a halberd silhouetted against the sky.

A voice rose above the melee, a roar of command. It came from the ship. The command repeated. The soldier who held her lowered his weapon. Again, the sphinx spoke, and the noise of the crowd stilled.

The soldier jerked into motion, towing her backwards across the cobbles. The angel was forced down again. The axe rose, fell. The basket rocked. The broken body flexed, a pump of blood from the severed neck. A gasp and a sigh from the crowd. The tattered wings folded limply around the corpse.

The soldier deposited her at the feet of the mob, delivered a casual thump from the butt of his halberd as she found her feet. She averted her face from wondering eyes, pushed past the front rows, moving then in the roil of the crowd, toward and away, the collective beast suddenly lacking its head. She kept her fist pressed tight against her.

She trekked alone up the hill to the tower, past splintered doors and smouldering frames, Grahodden soldiers and defenders’ corpses already vanishing under drifts of snow. The black tower’s gate hung twisted on its hinges, rent aside by magic, the stone face a mess of scars. Soldiers leaning in the shelter of the arch glanced at her, and away, dismissive.

Her mate was gone from his plinth. Only the stumps of his legs remained. Her stomach convulsed, she dry-retched. The dust in her palm felt like ash.

She crossed the space to the plinth at a faltering run, tripping once but catching herself, the ground turned unsteady beneath her. She slowed, had to force her feet to take her around the plinth, visions of her hand shattering on the cobbles replaying before her eyes.

She heaved again, this time with a sob of bittersweet relief. Her mate lay on a bed of briars, broken off whole above the knees, his left arm raised plaintive to the sky. Scars from magic fire pocked the length of his right side, a finger gone from the hand and his ear ruined in the mess along his neck and jaw. She sank to her knees beside him.

She caressed his undamaged cheek with her stump. Her fist ached, closed tight around the angel’s dust.

Her hand shook as she held it over his chest.

She lowered her arm.

Unbidden, her stump brushed the necklace at her throat.

“Pearl,” she whispered.

She wondered where Cassiann was, if he was safe.

Her clenched fingers began to cramp in the cold. Snowflakes drifted down. Her gaze fell on black stone shards, still lying where her stone hand had slipped her grasp. She looked at the broken stumps of her mate’s legs. Could she do it to him? Bring him into this world, a cripple?

Could she not?

Made to adore him.

But did that mean she had no choice? Cassiann had made a choice: to leave, and live, when his compulsion would have bid him stay with her and die. His choice must have hurt him, but he had made it even so, and he was better for it.

The East Road, he’d said. To the mountains.

But did she want to follow? Did she need to? Her gaze fell on the soldiers, over by the tower gate. What better did Cassiann offer but a measure of gentleness?

Live, he had bid her. She touched the roll of her waistband, felt the key still there.

Pearl bent and touched her lips to cold stone. She tasted the salt warmth of her own tears. Gritting her teeth against a cry, she pushed herself away, and up.

With unsteady steps, she walked from the plaza.

Glittering dust trailed from her fingers. Poppies sprang from the cobbles in her wake.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2007

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