Saturday, April 19, 2014

When War Came To Town

When she rode into town on the demon horse, nobody knew it would happen. Sure, old Marley had just been ripped from his slumber in the room over the pub, dragged into the streets and flayed to within a half inch of death, but those kinds of things happened sometimes. All it took was a downturn in the economy, a few farms going sour, whispers in the wind of a witch, of black magic… No. That was sad, ludicrous even, to think that people really thought Marley was clever enough for magic, but it wasn’t It.

The bodies lining the street to see her, that was unexpected, the way they thrashed and elbowed and tromped, all try to catch a brush of finger over plate mail, or the sharp, crackling hair of the deep-black horse. Unexpected, but not It. If people had thought hard enough, they might have known she’d draw them to her, and it wouldn’t have been so unexpected. No. Not It.

The body, more meat now than human, with strips that hung from its limbs and a torso that still, days later, shuddered torturously in a parody of breath as it lay in a cage that hung over the town square – that was a pity. Not a tragedy, because Virani had deserved, more or less, what he got – you don’t steal from the Mayor’s own treasury and deflower his teenage daughter without flirting with death as well. The flogging was perhaps a trifle unnecessary, as least to that degree. But: not It.

Because, see, the thing is, all these things are terrible. And if anyone had bothered to stop and look into the eye of the demon horse as it pranced into town on Tuesday at dusk, they would have known immediately by the flicker of fire deep within that bad things were going to happen. And if they’d taken a moment to stare past the woman’s utter beauty with her porcelain skin and hair of flames, they would have seen not the same flicker in her eye, but something worse. Much worse.

And so really, all the violence? While it surely wasn’t expected, it also wasn’t surprising. Not when she could start an argument just by walking into a room, a fist-fight by the lift of one perfectly-sculpted eyebrow. Heaven forbid she flutter her lashes.

No, really: Heaven’s forbidden it. It would cause a nuclear meltdown.

So what, then, was It? That one surprising thing that nobody knew would happen, than nobody could have predicted, that one thing that reminded everybody who they were and what really mattered? It all started with Tikva.

Tikva was only seven when War came to town, and like the others, she’d joined to press and throng in the main street as the glorious woman on the coal black horse had paraded past, a bigger fancy that the town had seen in decades. Like the others, she’d stretched out to catch a glimpse of finger against hair, and because of her small stature and resourcefulness in hiding behind an upturned crate that had forced the horse to weave in its path, Tikva had succeeded where most others had not: she’d touched the demon horse. Her fingers had crackled against the deep black fetlock as though electricity bridged the gap between them, and Tikva was left cradling fingers slightly burned with heat and a memory singed with hatred: it was she who’d first warned her mother that the horse was a devil, and because her mother was the town’s wisest Elder, the rest of the town had listened.

It hadn’t lessened their fascination with the woman, of course, or the horse. But at least afterwards Tikva could stand in the town square with her arms folded over her flat, seven-year-old chest and proclaim with all the sass and certainty of one who has lived nearly a decade that she’d told them so.

It was as she’d crouched behind the upturned crate, nursing injured fingers and blinking away horrors that she couldn’t quite grasp, though, that she first had an inkling of her own future: one day she too would ride into town on a horse, and all the world would come to see her pass. She shook her head, shoved aside memories and burned fingers, and got up. The crowds were closing in around her now that the woman on the horse had passed, and she brushed the dirt from her undyed woollen tunic, she pursed her lips. Mother, who’d been far too sensible to stray from home this morning, needed to know.

That spark of connection when Tikva touched the demon horse was astounding, and by all rights and accounts should never have happened – changing the course of history because it did – but still: not It. It is sometimes possible, after all, for strange coincidences to occur, and in much later times the populations of that world would grow to such enormity that million-to-one chances occurred every hour. So. Not It.

Perhaps it is best to skip the intervening hours wherein Tikva hurried home and consulted with her mother, wherein her mother frowned as though she’d heard Tikva’s father was back in town and left the room abruptly to dig out her best shearing knife from the shed, oiling it with lavender and valerian before returning to sheathe it in the kitchen block, wherein a steady troop of neighbours began and, in fact, continued until the moment Virani was condemned to be flogged in the square, wherein Tikva’s night-time repose was plagued by feverish dreams in which she was torn from herself over and over and over again to be thrown into the heat of battle, and wherein she stood, a calm epicentre in the midst of terror, and let the desire to fight wash over her, and move instead to the moment wherein Tikva next saw the woman.

It was some days since that first meeting when Tikva was sent down to the shop on behalf of her mother, who had run out of the carrier oil for her famous lavender-valerian-lemon balm tonic, so popular was the tonic this week. Tikva eased her way down a street full of scowl-faced people, all ready to bite at each other at the least sideways glance, and climbed the steps to the shopfront with much relief.

Midway along, something nipped at her skirts. Tikva turned to see the demon horse tethered to the hitching post and being given an extra wide berth by patrons and street traffic alike. Tikva craned her neck to and fro, but there was no sign of the red-haired woman who’d brought trouble upon the town – so her mother said, and so Tikva knew to be true.

Lip consideringly between her teeth, Tikva stared at the great black stallion. The electric spark she’d felt last time – had it been a coincidence? And if so, did it still matter? And if not, then… what? Breath held in her too-tight throat, Tivka reached for the horse.

His nostrils flared and his eyes rolled. Great, square teeth the colour of blood-stained bone nipped at her. Tikva sniffed and rapped the stallion’s nose. “No.”

He stilled, snorting and shivering, ears flickering as he waited for her touch.

Tikva gave a satisfied nod and rubbed her thumb over the soft, delicate velvet of his nose. “Much better.”

Footsteps sounded on the wooden steps and Tikva leapt away from the horse. She whirled and entered the shop before she could see who approached, hustling towards the oils with great concentration. It was only when she reached the counter, carefully clutching two large bottles of oil, that she realised the owner of the footsteps had been Mistress Spector, a great, bosomy woman who now leaned over the counter conferring with Mister Avery.

As Tikva neared, Mister Avery lifted his green striped apron from the vast expanse of his belly and wiped his face. “Well,” he said gravely. “That is a concern.”

“What’s a concern?” Tikva asked in the tone of someone ten years older and with as much expectation of being answered. Being her mother’s daughter had its benefits.

“Virani was found with Miss Allum,” Mistress Spector said, bosom heaving as she rearranged it on the counter. “And a rather large suitcase of the Mayor’s own funds. The court has ruled for immediate flogging to be follow by imprisonment in the cage until death.”

Tikva felt the blood drain from her face. This, this was the thing she’d been waiting for all week without ever knowing it; this was the culmination of all the whispered mutterings, the fights, the tiffs, the quarrels; this was the powder keg now lit, and someone had to stop it.

The bottles of oil clunked to the floor and rolled away under a shelf, unheeded.

As Tikva approached the square, she knew she was too late; the shouts of the whip master mingled with the agonised cries of Mister Virani, both a counterpoint to the bass harmony of the crowd’s jeers.

Tikva jostled her way through until she could see the flogging post. For a brief instant, her stomach churned, but then she reminded herself that she’d seen worse out back of the butchers, and almost as bad on her mother’s healing bench, where often she’d assisted. He shouldn’t have tried to run away with Miss Allum; not this week, at any rate. Stupid, stupid man.

The whip master raised his hand to strike again at a thing already more flesh and bone than man. “No. Enough.” Barely anyone heard Tikva, and they never understood the truth of her words until much, much later, but at Tikva’s command, the whip master froze. Beneath him, Virani shuddered and moaned, and for a moment there was a hush.

Then the crowd began to shout. “Why did you stop? Keep going! He’s not had even two hundred yet, come on! Is your arm getting tired? Come on! Flog him some more!”

Tikva closed her eyes against tears that threatened to drown her fury, and reached out to the anger that filled the crowd. Softly, she began to sing.

Peace, my child, now will rest
Upon your head while bluebirds sleep
Close your eyes and be you blessed
For peace abides here river-deep.

The words of the song unfurled through the crowd like blossoms, and slowly, one by one, people began to sing with Tikva.

It was only when the whole crowd lifted their voices together and Tivka could feel the harmony emanating from them that she released the whip master. He collapsed to the ground, shuddering, tears gushing from his guilt.

The demon horse pranced into the middle of the square, and the red-haired woman stared imperiously down from its back. “Who dares halt justice?”

Tikva tossed her head and marched forward, halting in front of the horse she had no fear of and folding her arms. “I am the one you seek.”

The woman on the horse started visible as she stared down at the tiny creature in front of her, thin and small boned. She laughed, a sound that set the men in the crowd on their toes ap-=nd the women on the arms of their men. “You are not the one.”

Tikva tossed her head again for good measure. “Look me in the eye,” she told the woman, “and tell me I am not.”

Still laughing, the woman dismounted and strode forward, reins looped casually in one hand, hair rippling like flames in the breeze. She knelt down in front of Tikva, eyes dancing, and looked deep into Tikva’s eyes.

Tivka knew the moment when the woman recognised her for what she was: her eyes tightened, the fire dampened, and her whole body went stiff. “No,” the woman whispered. “You cannot be she.”

Tivka smiled, and it was the smile of the crocodiles in the swamp when they cornered their unwary prey. “Oh yes,” she whispered. “I am she.”

The woman stumbled in getting to her feet and stepped back a few paces before bowing curtly. “My Sister.”

Tivka nodded in return, for even though her power was newly arrived, it bore with it all the knowledge of the centuries; she could feel all the others before her who had worn the mantle of Peace, and she knew the truth of War’s greeting: they were sisters now indeed. “Sister.” She send a trickle of her power outwards, probing at the edges of War’s defence, and although they were locked as ever in a battle between two equals, she knew that right now, at this time, in this place, the battle was hers to win.

The woman knew it too, and stepped back once again. “What would you have done?” she asked, not deferential, but without the earlier command.

“You will go,” said Tikva, a fact stated as simply as the colour of the sky, not a request, not an order. “And you will not return.”

The woman nodded. “And him?” She gestured to the tattered lump of flesh that once might have been called Virani.

“He will hang in the cage, as the law decided,” Tikva replied.

Around her, people muttered, and the woman called War raised her eyebrows. “From you, Sister? That is not what I would have expected.”

“Peace too has a price,” Tikva said in a voice that could sharpen diamonds, gaze never leaving the red flame eyes of War. “And this is my town.”

War stared back thoughtfully for a long moment, then nodded. “I’ll see you again one day,” she said before swinging up onto her demon stallion.

“When you do,” said Peace, “I will have a horse too. And I’ll know how to fight.”

War chuckled, a sound for their ears alone, and reached out to ruffle Peace’s hair. “I’m sure you will,” she said, not unkindly. “I look forward to it. Until next time, then,” she added as she straightened in the saddle.

Peace nodded, jaw clenched tightly. “Until next time.”

War’s demon stallion reared his farewell, then galloped off into the gathering gloom.

Peace looked around the square at her town, and told them sternly: “Go home, and stop being ridiculous. I’ll deal with you all in the morning.”

The town, bowing to the wishes of a seven-year-old girl, recognising the authority of a millennia-old Power, did, and in the morning Tikva told them off, and that, of course, was It.

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