I want to thank you ALL for helping me celebrate Claire De Lunacy’s First Blogoversary! Special thanks to my guest bloggers, who were willing to have their names associated with this shady enterprise, as well as to you, my readers, without whom this would all be sort of pointless. You rock, and I plan to continue trying to be worthy of the attention and friendship you’ve bestowed upon me.
[Today’s post is, as promised, a short story from the Circe universe. Cleo and Meander is nearing completion (please, God, let that be true!) and I’ve started the second book, entitled La Barceloneta. The story below takes place a few decades before the events of that book, but should serve as both a glimpse into the world I’m attempting to create and a preview of things to come. Thanks for reading, and as always, your comments are welcome and appreciated!]
They came for her at dawn.
The hut where she’d been sleeping, cramped with the other children, was filthy and cold. They’d been sleeping in a squirming knot near the hut’s flickering brazier, trying to conserve what little heat they could, but on this particular morning she found herself relegated to the outermost layer, her back to the unshuttered window. She’d no more than sat up when they grabbed her, the bigger one’s knife cutting through the heavy rope they’d used to tie her to the ring set in the floor. Her ankles burned, the flesh tender and pink where the coarse hemp had bitten into them, and she stumbled against the smaller man when his companion shoved her forward. He laughed and slapped her with careless ease, knocking her to the ground. The other man knelt, picking her up and holding her shoulders. “Little field mouse gonna be a big-big treat fer da Rainmaker,” he said, his fetid breath mixing with the scents of salt and sea. “Gonna bring da big catch, you bet.” He ran a scaly finger down her cheek, and she turned away, shuddering. “Why, Luc, I tink our lil’ ratonelle don’t care for you one bit,” laughed the smaller man. The grip on her shoulder tightened for a moment, then eased. Luc stood, shoving her toward the door again, this time more gently. “I doan care if she do or not, Martin…the only one we worried ’bout pleasin’ is Papa Chauc.” Martin snorted and grabbed the girl’s shoulder, pausing to kick one of the sleeping children out of his way as they moved to the door. The boy groaned, but didn’t awaken, and the two corsairs stepped into the misty morning air, their captive trudging listlessly between them.
The hike to the cave was not a long one, but the grade was steep and the girl was exhausted. Within ten minutes, she was limping; within fifteen, Luc had scooped her up from the ground, carrying her over his shoulder like a sack of corn. Despite Martin’s frequent goading, the girl never made a sound. Frustrated at being denied his fun, the Legartine poked her in the ribs with the butt of his knife, which elicited a grunt from the girl and a much harder jab from Luc’s knife handle to his head. “You doan wanna do that, heah? You can’t be pokin’ at her just cause she woan squeak.” Martin rubbed his head, checking for loose scales and glaring up at his companion “Why not? It not like she goan give us any trouble for it.” Luc turned, fixing the other man with a glance. “She may not, but I guarantee He will.” He jerked his head toward a nearby clearing, smirking. “A sacrifice wit no wriggle left is no good to Him nor us.”
The crested the hill and entered the clearing, which was actually more of a widening in the path, the scrub pines and lizardgrass thinning out as the loam was replaced by the rocky soil of the coast. To the left, the path continued on, hugging the coast for a short time before curving inland and re-entering the forest. To the right lay a jagged cave, the rocks outside it littered with bones of various kinds. “Well, here we are, little mouse. Ready to meet da Rainmaker?” asked Martin with a grin. Whether from the sight of the cave or Martin’s unfortunate collection of bent and broken fangs, the girl finally lost the eerie composure she’d held and began to cry. Luc shushed her, almost gently, and set her down. He ran his finger across her cheek once more, gathering her tears, and wiped them onto a cloth he pulled from his pocket, startlingly white in the noontime sun. “That’s it, little one. Your tears for His. Your life so that we may all live.” He knelt, his leathery hide creaking as he lowered himself to look at her, face to face. Her tears were still falling, but her eyes remained closed. “C’mon, xere. Nothin’ personal, eh? You gonna go to the Green Heaven, and not gonna be hungry, nor thirsty never again! Doan that sound nice?”
Martin leaned over and wiped her tears away on another white cloth, not bothering to be gentle. “Yeah, she just gonna take a lil’ swim first!” He laughed again, a smaller roar against the boom of the sea on the rocks beyond the cave. “Gonna stop and have herself a chat with Papa Chauc, yes indeed!” He walked to the cave and pressed the white cloth against the carved wheel that blocked the entrance, stepping back as it rumbled open. He stepped inside to begin the preparations, waving the cloth like a flag before blowing the girl a kiss. Luc rolled his eyes and was muttering about Martin and where he could put his oarman’s wit when the girl suddenly reached out toward him, eyes squeezed shut.
She’d been much the same when they’d taken her, along with the rest of the brats, from that trumped-up fishing village on the northern coast. Flower Wars were long since out of fashion in the civilized world, but in the islands and along the coast, the old ways still held, and of course everywhere the ocean touched, the ways of Papa Chauc held firmest. The parents had squawked to the local alcalde about kidnapping and murder, but he had declared (after a clarifying “conference” with Luc, Martin, and a priest being ridden by the god Himself) that the prosperity of all could not be sacrificed for the safety of the few, especially when those few were going on to eternal glory and reward for their services. And so Luc and Martin had loaded their captives into the wagon and driven away under the hateful stares of a dozen mothers and fathers, their cries so anguished that Luc had been forced to look away. That’s when he’d noticed the girl, curled into a protective ball, the feathers and shells of her sacrificial raiment set aside, eyes squeezed shut. She’d never made a sound, not one, and he was surprised to realize she could make sounds; he’d assumed she was a mute.
He’d seen this before, of course; some of ’em, they just couldn’t be made to take the steps themselves. Sometimes, their little hearts and bodies were too slender a thread from which to dangle the responsibility they carried. He’d carry her, if he had to; unlike his shipmate, he didn’t relish this work. It was necessary, of course – no sacrifice meant a poor catch and even poorer hunting – but that didn’t mean he was unfeeling toward the children he’d brought to this cave over the years. On the contrary (he’d sometimes say after a few too many ales), he was probably far kinder than anyone else they’d met, ‘sides their parents, and in some cases, even then. He was bringing them to eternal comfort and rest, free from storms and privation. He was (and this thought he never shared aloud with others – he did have a reputation to uphold, after all) a sort of angel, bringing blessings to his people and release to his captives. So, now, when the girl reached out, he leaned forward to embrace her and offer whatever comfort he could before he took her to the well and tossed her in. “That’s it, xere, just -”
Then her eyes opened, and in those black pools he saw not fear, but his own death waiting.
Her gaze was hot, somehow, and before it his thoughts of angels and necessary sacrifice withered and turned to ash. He slashed at her, his hand curled to maximize the damage from his claws, but she was fast, so fast. He opened his mouth to yell for Martin, but somehow his voice was gone, he couldn’t breathe. Then he saw the handle of his own knife standing out from the soft flesh of his throat, and the girl was standing over him. Her eyes, they blazed, he was burning up, why didn’t she say something? His body felt remote and cold despite the fury of that gaze, his body jittering the last of its life out on the clearing floor.
“The knife hit your brain stem, I think.” This from the girl, in a whispery voice that belied her raging eyes. “It’ll be quick. You were kinder than you had to be, and for that I thank you, Luc D’Argent. Now, go to your god, and find peace.” His eyes widened – how did she know his name? – but black waves were crashing around the edges of his vision, smothering thought, drawing him deep. The last thing he saw was her eyes, so bright and yet so black, shining like the sun behind unwept tears.
She’d kicked the knife too hard, and the tip was embedded in the corsair’s spine. After several useless attempts to free it, she stood on the dead Legartine’s chest and, digging her heels into the scaly muscles of his broad chest, jerked the knife free. Blood gouted from the wound briefly, but he’d already lost so much that the gush became a trickle within seconds, and with his heart stilled, it stopped soon after. She wiped the knife clean on the edge of Luc’s tunic, reaching up to close his eyes with a silent prayer. Rummaging through his belt pouch, she found tinder, some a few lucifers, and, as she had hoped, the length of rope meant to lower her into the cave for her “chat” with the thing inside. She had no sooner fastened the pouch around her own waist when Martin emerged from the cave, looking over his shoulder.
“Luc, we’d best hurry. I’d say Papa Chauc is big-big hongry, eh? Time to..” Despite his girth, the squat sailor was nimble, and the stone that was meant to blind him merely stunned him instead. He roared, dashing behind a boulder just as another jagged stone smashed into the wall behind him, shattering. “Well, well, what have we heah?” he said, a terrible good humor in his voice. “Looks like our little mouse has some teeth after all!” When there was no response to this sally, Martin popped his head from cover to evaluate the situation, then drew back as another stone shattered on the rim of the boulder. His captain was down, and judging by the ichor soaking the sand around him, very dead. The girl was nowhere to be seen, but the only possible cover was the tall boulder across the clearing from his own. “Girly, we gonna have a chat of our own, and I doan think you gonna like it! No sir, you gonna BEG me to introduce you to Papa Chauc befo’ I’m through!” He kept it up, a steady stream of threats and imprecations designed to keep her attention on where she thought he was, rather than where he was gonna be. The heavy rock walls around the clearing made his voice a crash of echoes, and he knew she’d never be able to see him coming if he stayed low and moved slowly. He was a third of the way around the clearing when the sound of stones skipping and shattering all over the clearing stopped. He froze, certain she’d be on him in an instant, but there was nothing…not even the wind. He craned his neck and peered out from behind the low rock he was using for cover. The sun was burning high and hot, but nothing cast a shadow in the clearing.
He grinned, confident she had either fled, in which case he would soon chase her down, or run out of ammo, in which case he would leap from cover and rip out her throat before tossing her body into the Well. “Xere, you just about outta time! Tell you what – if you give up nice and quiet, maybe I’ll just take your legs befo’ I give you to da Rainmaker.” There – a scuffling in the sand. He leapt up with a roar, diving behind the tall boulder, ready to savage her and satisfy his own bloodlust along with his god’s.
She wasn’t there. Nothing but sand and the sacrifice rope, neatly tied to the tip of the bould –
Dust roiled, sparkling in the sunlight. She leapt down, the rope now coiled over her shoulder. She winced at the pain in her still-tender ankles, then blinked and steadied herself. As she came around the far side of the fallen boulder, headed for the cave, a hand shot from the sand, the claws broken, the armored skin rent and bloody. It grasped her ankle, a leathery manacle, and she forced herself to stand there, calmly counting the minutes, until at last the hand twitched and relaxed, releasing her. She spit, just once, and then kicked sand over it until nothing remained but a vaguely misshappen lump in a chrystalline blanket.
She stood before the cave, hair gleaming like a raven’s wing in the sun, thirteen years old but already carrying herself with the deadly ease of a seasoned campaigner. She stood there, listening to the roar of the sea, letting the sun soak her with its strength. Then, as she had been taught, she drew her knife across her forearm, her blood dimpling the bonedust that had accumulated into drifts over the milennia. She slapped a bloody handprint on the doorwheel, whispering “Blood calls to blood, tears to tears.” Immediately, the walls of the cave began to shake, the earth shifting as something made its way up from beneath. He was coming, full of rage and hunger and – could it be? – fear.
“Uncle, are you home? My father sends his regards.”
And smiling ever so slightly, eyes flashing like obsidian mirrors, the girl from Barcelona made her sacrifice.