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The Burning Path

Calamity tests a mother's resolve in a time out of mind.

The People of the Two Suns were as gods to us. Like us in base, but unlike in all that matters. When I was a girl I would go to the places that they created and marvel in the glory of their works. Their structures touched the clouds, made of stuff from faraway and deep beneath the ground. And everything that came from them we considered holy. I would wake and behold new temples of a greatness that bested the efforts of all my kind as one. And all that they made, they made for us.

“They leave these gifts,” my mother had said when I was young, “for us to know our worth.”

“But why, mother?” I badgered. “They are great and we are small.”

She picked me up and I put my arms around her slender neck. Her long, dark hair was silk against my cheek. We turned to revel in the majesty of the great city upon the hills with its monoliths of tribute, gifted by the ones considered above all others. Their devices of flight speckled the distant sky as dark as ravens, should they fly a path as straight as shadow.

“The answer is in the gift,” she said.

She suffered long in a body that seemed always at odds with her surroundings, dying quietly on a summer day of my fourteenth year. For all the powers the Great Ones had, they seemed not to bother with our mortality.

“Even death is a gift,” my father had taught me. “From it we learn to wonder.”

In my fifteenth year the Great Ones vanished. They left behind none of their implements of building. If ever they had dead, they left no hint. This day became known as the Day of Parting.

To the east, in the endless plains of grass, there stood now an edifice of gold, sized no greater than a coffer; four capped walls of four-barrels width and eight-barrels height. A band of embossed glyphs wrapped the upper periphery depicting a male and female holding hands. The design spanned all four sides, repeating itself in a seamless band—boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl ... The pious and the puzzled gathered around it, calling it the Parting Gift. On the west face was an opening of six-barrels height that led into a darkness from which no light could escape. My father held my hand amidst the crowd keeping us at a distance, as was his cautious way.

The first to enter was a soldier. He was a hero known to all, young and bold. My cousin giggled with her youthful lust as he passed, resplendent in his polished armor. Soon another followed in to retrieve the first. Then two more were sent, trembling, never to be seen again. For nine days, the people ushered all manner of creature into the dark entry of this curious remembrance—fowl and beast, feathered and scaled—yet none returned.

“Around this gift we shall erect a great temple,” the High Prefect declared. “And we shall call it the Gate of the Two Suns. And through it we shall give fine and terrible tribute with each cycle of the seasons.”

And so it was that the offerings began.

My father died in my seventeenth year leaving his business of trade to my husband, to whom I was promised the previous spring. My heart longed for the warmth of my mother’s embrace and the security of my father’s hands, but my new husband was a good man and one day he would give his life in exchange for my own. Textiles and animals were got from little known and far-off lands, made for sale by merchants under employment of my husband. These goods were sent by land and sea to the populations in the north where the appetite for such extravagances was great.

This was the second year of offerings to the new temple and a lottery was to be drawn of all the young between four and eleven years. The inaugural ceremony was given a boy of ten years, with golden locks and fair skin. His hair was adorned with flowers from the temple gardens, grown with care for such occasions. The monks of the Gate of the Two Suns stood the boy before a hushed crowd while the Lord of the Gate spoke words at great length, which I failed to hear from my position. I imagine he spoke of the Great Ones who created our highest temples, then abandoned us in the dead of night, but the zeal he displayed seemed fit more for the coming of war. After he spoke, the monks anointed the boy with oils applied to his brow. A garland was placed around his neck and a bouquet of violet placed within his arms. And all the while the boy stood silent, without a hint of fear. I wondered then, as I do now, what the boy was told. Did he believe that he was going to a land where children were kings and princely was the life of all things? Or was he told that he would play the hero in a story of cretins and beasts, and weapons and great feats? And would each child be told the same tale or would they be told something newly crafted to ease them into submission? Or maybe they would be told nothing at all. Maybe when they turned the golden-haired boy to face the dark entry of the Parting Gift, he was told simply to walk forward—and he did. Now, one could argue that a doorway leading to an infinite nowhere would best serve as a bin for civic waste, not as a graveyard for our children. Yet who could deny the Great Ones their tribute? So, in the boy walked with shoulders back and head held high, never to be seen again. It is rumored that the bereaved family was compensated in some way, but to what degree seems irrelevant. My own girl would be eligible for the lottery in two cycles of the seasons and no amount of gold could mend my ruptured soul should the gods be so inclined to take her.

By the time the second lottery was drawn I was in a prefecture twenty days north by bridled beast, accompanied by a fair train of servants and cargo. My daughter was left in the care of a nursemaid and my husband was waylaid by a sickness which bound him to our home. He bade me, “Take our goods northward to the Land of Moss and part with all at just price to those known well to this family.” The routine was not unknown to me for I had accompanied my father to the northern lands on two occasions past. Our chief steward managed the caravan and I was to lend a sense of familia to any deals that be made, although I had little experience to offer in matters of such trade. “Not to worry,” my husband assured me. “Jacob is a fine man and will no doubt secure any trade for us at good profit. You need only attend to represent our name.”

“You would send me afar to suffer marauders,” I joked, “when a signet would serve the purpose?”

He laughed and pulled me down to lie upon the bed with him as I feigned a desperate struggle.

“I pity the bandit who would come upon a harpy such as you!” he said, tickling me into submission until a fit of cough drew away his playful spirit.

***

The High Mountain of my home was behind the horizon but a gathering of distant cloud did hint at her position. When I passed this place as a child there had been a great stone archway that spanned the breadth of the road and rose many stories high, capped with pennants to name the many lands that mingle in these parts. The Great Ones had built this many lives ago as a marker to travelers announcing they were entering the lands of the pious counsels, those who above all else gave honor to the Ones from the Sky. The archway stood for a time before my father’s father could remember, but now there stood only a pile of rubble to each side of the road.

“Who could do such a thing,” I asked Jacob as we left the ruins to our backs. “Was there war?”

“Many things have changed since you were a child,” he replied.

I could see a great wall of immeasurable size rise from beyond the hills, far before us.

“What is this?” I asked further. “I don’t recall the city being fortified in such a way?”

“No ma’am. This is new to me, as well. Much has changed, indeed,” Jacob said in matching surprise as we neared the great city of my cousins.

It had been fifteen days journey to reach the Land of Moss, and five more still to come upon the city of Kharal. Once there, I left the beasts under the care of a cousin’s stable on the border of town, taking with me only the personal baggage to bed at a reputable inn near the market square where our business would soon commence. Our steward, Jacob, would lodge with familiars at a humble tenancy known as the Plaza and the twenty-so convoy hands would stay at a servants’ hostel just west of the stables.

Kharal was then a large city of one-hundred and twenty-thousand souls, near thrice the population of my home to the south. Here the streets were wide and straight, and all led like wagon spokes to the civic center. Homes of repute were fed water from aqueducts which stretched some thirty days to the snowy mountains to the east. The refuse of the populous was drawn away at regular intervals, regardless of station, to stave the creatures known to harbor disease. As a result, the quality of air was exceptional for a metropolis, and the envy of all visiting envoys.

Jacob arrived at sunrise with the day’s goods for trade, set upon three of our fifteen wagons. Linens got from the coastal towns of the Southern Sea were rolled tight at twenty-barrels breadth and several hundred of length. A count of fifty such rolls of various shades and hues could stack upon a single cart. All one-hundred and fifty were to be delivered to a notable merchant, and family friend, known formally as “Haegee.” In my time, close friends of parents were addressed as kin, so an extended family could consist of countless “aunts” and “uncles,” given a household’s popularity. My name follows a deep lineage, even more so than my husband’s, and so our bonds are wide.

Haegee greeted us without entourage as our train passed through the gates of his sizeable estate.

“Good graces! Meonas, is that you?” he asked, arms raised in greeting as our wagons came to a stop before him.

“It is, dear uncle. Do you not recognize the daughter of your dearest friend?”

“Nay! I do not!” he shouted playfully, extending a hand to help me from my seat. “I expected to see a funny little girl, with hair braided down to her knees. But you ... you are a woman! And a beauty, at that!”

I took Haegee by the hand and he aided me down to his side.

“And Jacob! My good, good friend!” my honorary uncle continued. “How nice it is to see your face. You, I know well. You look as you did when last we met, some five seasons ago. Old and stiff.”

Jacob, a dour but loyal man, smiled for the first time since setting out.

“Aye, my lord,” he replied. “I was born old and older yet I shall die.”

Haegee turned, taking me by the shoulders.

“My lord, he calls me! I fought alongside his father in the bloodiest battles before time can recall, and he calls me my lord! Now that is a man that lives well within his station!”

Three servants approached and boarded the wagon without a word, knowing their task and their place. Jacob greeted them with a simple nod and let them to their business of assessing the cargo to determine which of the many houses of the estate to send each carriage.

“How is Prumeo, your father?” he asked of Jacob. “Has he breath left in him?”

“Aye, my lord. He will die when he is good and ready and not a moment before.”

“Obstinate to the end, that man,” Haegee laughs, directing the wagon train through the gates with a wave of his hand.

As the cargo moves past, Haegee takes my hand and gestures for me to walk with him. Servants close the iron gates behind. The lane leading to the estate is lined on either side with the most beautiful trees I had ever gazed upon and I inquire as to their type.

“They are blossoms of various breed, I think,” my uncle replies, “imported, of course, from an island on the ass-end of the world. Your aunt can certainly shed a finer light than I. She is versed in all things born of earth, or so one would guess with all the dirt beneath her nails.”

I admired the tiny, pink flowers billowing in the breeze, floating like downy matter to line the path before us. “They are heavenly,” I say, almost below my breath.

“Well, you came at just the time. Like all beautiful things, their life is but a wink. Soon they will be all branch and twig. It’s no wonder why Hermea planted them in so prominent a location, but their luster is fleeting. All of our occasions must be had between the fourth and fifth month or our guests will think I’ve left my home in shambles.”

As we walked I felt comforted by the soft brush of blossom petals over my feet. I looked again to the great home at the end of the lane and remembered of the road to Kharal.

“What has become of the great archway to the city?” I asked. “And of the magnificent temples that stood on the hills? Have they fallen to ruin since I last came? It seems not so long ago.”

Immediately I regretted the subject, seeing Uncle’s mouth turn from smiles to grit. He looked at me then chose to focus on the trees before he spoke.

“You have been away from Kharal for too long, my niece,” he began. “Much has changed in the minds of her people. Since the Great Ones abandoned us we have now the unaccustomed need to protect ourselves.”

“Protect yourselves? From what?” I asked.

“From others, I suppose. From the elements,” he answered, gesturing to the world around us. “But mostly from ourselves.”

I held back a smile, sensing him to be aging and infirm in his sense, but knowing well that Haegee is a man who moves lightly until a hard wind blows. “What is there to be fearful of, dear uncle? Can we not govern ourselves?”

“We have dismantled the old complex of tribute and used the stone to build the great and terrible wall around our city. All of the monuments and all of the temples to the People of the Sky have been scavenged to dust from the collective mistrust of the unknown. The people of Kharal feel as orphans, alone and unsure. In place of temples to honor the Great Protectors we have erected a towering wall to a god called Fear.”

“But how then is tribute given?” I asked. “Who of you calls to the Great Ones to return?”

Haegee lets out a laugh and catches fast my gaze. “Return?” he chides. “Why would they return?”

“But we are their beloved. Else why would they have propped us up above all others?”

He subdues another bout of agitated cheer, but wipes a tear from his eye in restraint. “We mean nothing to them. They have given us more than we could fathom, but took with them more than we could tell. Great canyons lie where earth once lay and hills are bare where only generations lost can recall the woods. They took what they came for, to return here nevermore.”

“How can you know this?” I bade. “What we have been given could not have been wrought by the low. Ever grateful should our people be.”

“My dear girl, they have given a pair of sandals to a one-legged man.”

Just as I thought to inquire of my ‘aunt’, Hermea, she appeared in the portico of the great house before us. She lifted her gown above her feet with one hand and raised the other in greeting as she cared to descend the granite steps. Her beauty and grace would make one think her an empress.

“Meonas, my dearest niece!”

“Most loving aunt!”

At the base of the steps Hermea embraced me and kissed my lips. I took her hands in mine and playfully examined her fingers, then looked to my uncle. “Clean as polished gems,” I played.

Uncle Haegee smiled at me in a disapproving way, but, upon catching the curious look of his wife, ushered us inside.

“You’ll have time for jokes at feast,” he said, slyly poking at my ribs.

***

Three great pillars on each side supported the upper floors of the great hall where the mid-day banquet was held. A “feast”, indeed, of no less than twenty varieties of roasted fowl and cloven beast presented atop a masterfully crafted table, stretching from one end of the hall to the other. Much of the food appeared so ornate in presentation that I questioned whether it was to be eaten at all. The table itself was set with fifteen chairs to each side of mean length (with another on each end), but I counted just as many guests, if not far more, standing about in joyous conversation and manic ingestion as were formally seated. In all, there were in excess of eighty in the hall, with many more lingering about the grounds in various states of merry-making.

Aunt Hermea had mentioned earlier that the occasion for such splendid revelry was to celebrate my visitation, but considering that my relation to the countless guests (both familiar and familial) was non-existent, I supposed the truth of the matter was that Hermea simply enjoyed throwing a good party. Excuses be damned. I had little knowledge of who these people were, but I was happy to get to know them. However, the opportunity to make new acquaintances amongst the wealthy of Kharal would never quite present itself.

I had eaten my fill and drank more than planned when I spotted Jacob outside at the edge of the terrace landing, admiring the view of the vineyard countryside which stretched almost to the horizon. Although Jacob was bred a servant, his father’s history with Uncle Haegee spanned greater than fifty years, and those years were born of the kind of perils that form bonds everlasting. To Haegee, Jacob was kin and welcome to join the festivities. But to Jacob, born from generations of servitude, it was old wisdom to keep his hands to his sides and his thoughts to himself. I rose from the table to join Jacob outside when Haegee repeatedly clanked a knife to his glass to gather our attention.

“Friends! Family!” my uncle began, taking a gulp from his glass to finish it off. “Thanks to all, from distant lands and unfamiliar shores ...”

Again, I peered out to Jacob who stood outside, looking away and to the hills. The attention of all was focused in toward Haegee giving his talk of welcome and gratitudes, but the focus of my family steward was fixed upward and to the distance. It was a warm and beautiful day, the light only then beginning to fade to a scheme of soft pinks, much like the blossoms of the lane. The clouds were high and few. I followed Jacob’s gaze to the distance, catching the true object of his thoughts.

The object was without motion in the sky, and distant, before the hills that lined the horizon, but beyond the endless orchard rows and vines of fruit. It was smooth and shaped as almonds are, at a dozen barrels height and twice more for width. It took on the shade of the sky, but I knew its true color to be that of a mirror of polished silver. There could be no doubt as to its nature. This was unnatural art that could only be forged by the People of the Two Suns. I stood to exit the hall, but was met with heavy applause.

“Dear, Meonas! They cheer for you!” Haegee shouted to me from across the table and above the din of clapping (and now laughter). Apparently I missed my gracious introduction as the most honored of guests. I again looked out toward Jacob and, further still, to the orb of silver in the distant sky, neither noticed by any but Jacob and me.

“My niece is overcome with gratitude!” Haegee added, filling in the silence for my lack of reply.

My legs felt to be undone with sudden weakness. The great hall appeared to sway. I thought immediately of the berry wine of which I had two glasses—or was it more? But I am not so susceptible to port as one would think!

A scream was let from across the room, and then another. Then the crowd shifted in attention to the white pillars which began to crack at their length. The ground shifted violently, this way and the next, sending huddled groups to the floor and others running for an exit. More screams cut through the heavy sound of earth, in debilitating flux beneath our feet, with confused shouts as the plaster from the ceiling began to fall as if held too long by warm candle wax.

Many found sanctuary under the great dining table while others in flight were crushed by the collapse of walls or lighting fixtures that detached from the ceiling to impale their targets like iron lances.

I, too, took refuge under the great table as the whole of the estate seemed to be crumbling away into rubble.

***

I felt a rough hand grab firm my arm through the cloud of dirt and plaster dust, then coughed without relent as Jacob pulled me from beneath the table and to my feet. He ushered me out to the yard with great haste, lest the earth begin to quake once more. There I turned back to witness the horror of Haegee’s stately manor, flattened as if stepped on by the foot of the God King himself.

The sky around had darkened in a cloud. Warm, gray flakes settled onto my shoulders from above. Jacob bade me to turn again to the hills in the distance, and so I did. The silver orb hung silent still, beyond the fields, but now aligned with this was a great and fearsome column of black smoke which rose up beyond measure and belief, parting the highest of clouds to form an oaken silhouette energized with the bolts of heaven enraged. I believed then that we stood witness to the end of all time.

Jacob looked at me and braced my arms in his hands to take my attention for himself.

“That is the High Mountain of your home, Madam!” he howled over the din of an angry countryside.

“No, it cannot be,” was my feeble reply.

“The great mark of your country is no more. The gods have split the earth at the seams. We must look to your home without delay.”

Thoughts of my daughter and husband heated my mind. I could not believe from this sight that any would survive such hell-wrought calamity as the forceful disruption of an entire mountain. Wiping the dirt from my eyes, I replied, “Yes, Jacob, we must see to our families. Yours and mine.” I then turned back toward the destruction that was once the great and noble estate of a dear family friend. “But first we will tend to those near.”

The silver orb had vanished from the sky, and I would never see another.

***

Haegee was dead. Like many others in the city of Kharal, he was crushed by the artificial surroundings they created to protect themselves. More still had been burned alive in the maelstrom of fire and violence that followed. All that stood were the few structures left by the People of the Two Suns, now protruding triumphantly from the wreckage of the once great city as a reminder of our inferiority. The magnificent defensive wall erected by the denizens of Kharal had fallen in the course of a breath.

Jacob and I traveled south on bridled beast. With nothing left of our merchandise to barter (and hardly a soul alive to barter with), my resourceful family steward managed, miraculously, to procure our transport and enough rations to last five days. I did not ask Jacob how he came about our necessities and I did not question the road ahead. And we did not discuss the dismal odds of ever reaching my home alive.

Our food was no more after only four days slow travel, not from gluttony but from spoil. The rank cloud of darkness that enveloped the land had seeped into our goods and turned them to poison. Our faces were covered by scarves of tattered linen and the linen covered in a gray soot that had repeatedly dampened, then hardened, from the morning mists. The air thickened with ash each day, aggravating the senses, leaving navigation a matter of blind memory. None of the constructed landmarks lay bare to mark the way. Our only fortune was the river that ran from the north along our route. With cloth to strain the debris, we had ample enough water to keep us. There was little sense to clean our clothes with the ashen sky at a persistent downfall (and the mud provided a layer of gate against the chill). I left my life to the wisdom of Jacob, who I obeyed without question in these matters of survival.

We had not set eyes on the sun since the High Mountain erupted. An accurate account of days was nearly impossible with the perpetual night that engulfed and confounded us. We sustained ourselves by siphoning the blood of our weakest beast through a cut made along the neck, then bandaged and re-opened when thirst and want had overcome us. With the mercy of the gods, the animal lived to provide us comestible enough for several days before it could walk no more. Jacob cooked and dried the beast in fillets a size to travel and we continued on after two or more days. My companion and guide seemed to me too generous in his aid and took little for himself in all things of need. And after more days than I care to know, and the fall and rationing of our second bridled beast, we reached the edge my lands.

The indestructible invention of the People of the Two Suns were the only structures which still stood. All else, the low craft of mortals, had disappeared beneath a sea of ashen spew, deeper than a temple’s spire.

We could proceed no farther. Beneath the deep soot lay a sort of liquid earth which burned red, then cooled to a smooth rock that emitted a poisonous smoke. I could only guess at the hill that held my home by relating the position of the remaining monuments of the Sky Folk. And on that hill, nothing lay but ruin.

“There is nothing left for me here, dear friend,” I said to Jacob as he took my hand to comfort me. “We should leave at once to your father’s land and pray he fares better.”

“Aye, Madam,” he replied, tenderly wiping the ash from my hand. He must have expected my tears to follow, but none did. I have had many days to contemplate the fate of my husband and daughter on this long journey home, and so the truth brought no surprise. My land was razed with such ferocity and haste that none within its borders could escape. Yet ...

At that moment we could hear the faint, but continual ring of a bell, such that is worn by cattle. But it was not beast that sounded the call, but a man (from what I could tell at my vantage) standing on a distant plateau where the Gate of the Two Suns once lay. His arm was raised high, clanging for our attention. I turned again to Jacob whose brows furrowed and lips formed something of a smile. What an unexpected thing, he must have thought.

We maneuvered two or three fields east on the periphery of the city to reach the buried trail to the top of the plateau. At this higher point the soot came only above my feet and was moved upon with little effort, and the soft warmth of the ash felt oddly comforting, for the morning air was cold. I could see the dark gray mounds created by the settlement of mountain spew atop the ruins of the temple, once called the Gate of the Two Suns. And at the center of the ruins was the little man, still ringing his bell in steady time to guide our way through the smoldering decay.

The bellman’s cloak was black, but, curiously, not from ash. His hands were impossibly free of grime; his skin, alabaster and feminine. With the removal of his hood, I recognized him at once to be the golden-haired boy who was made sacrifice, here at the Gate of the Two Suns over a year ago. He wore, still, the garland placed around his neck by the Keepers of the Gate, just before they ushered him inside the golden entryway, never to be seen again.

Well, “never” until now.

It was then that I noticed the faint shine of metal hidden below the ash and debris that covered the golden doorway—or Parting Gift. Like all else composed by the People of the Two Suns, it had withstood heavenly catastrophe.

“How did you come to be here, boy?” Jacob inquired, turning his attention to the unholy darkness of the Gift.

Ash continued to settle lightly on the boy’s golden hair, but he paid no mind. He smiled and looked into my eyes.

“This one is Meonas,” he stated plainly. “I have come for her.”

Jacob turned and met my surprise.

“Me?” I replied, quite unsure of the boy’s intentions.

“Who has sent you?” Jacob added.

“Have you come from beyond the gate?” I asked, examining again his unsoiled vestments. “The falling earth has not yet found you.”

The golden-haired boy extended his smile, and his thoughts seemed older than his years. “Your daughter waits for you, Meonas.”

Daughter? My heart raced. I nearly lost my legs, but Jacob took my arm to keep me still.

To my protector, the prospect of commuting through a dark, uncharted void to reunite with loved ones must have seemed suspect, and Jacob let his mind be known.

“Madam, think on it a while,” he urged, looking again to the boy. “Many have entered that infernal hole, chosen and beast, yet none have since returned.”

The boy, with his smile subdued, looked about at the ruins of the once great land and saw nothing but ash and smoke blowing from a mountain alight with fire.

“Would you?” he asked, with a sensible quality of voice that set my thoughts at ease. “This world is fouled.”

“But, Madam ...” Jacob began, searching for his words or waiting for mine.

“Know this, Meonas,” the boy addressed me, emanating a tangible aura as if unnaturally laden with wisdom. “The High Mountain has not yet completed its death knell. In short order it will again put forth a mighty throw that will bury this realm in stone and coal, and shroud the door for a time much beyond telling.”

Jacob squeezed my hand to speak his mind without wasting words.

“The time to reunite with your daughter is now,” the boy urged with sincerity. “Or never again.”

I looked to Jacob. The apprehension in his gaze gave way to understanding. How could he ask me to keep from my daughter? This golden-haired boy was proof enough that the dark gateway, given by the People of the Two Suns, was more than just a pit for sacrifice to appease and plead to a race of beings beyond our comprehension. I had witnessed this very boy ushered into the Gift more than a year past, yet here he stands before me, lucid and unharmed. This doorway was a means to save my people, but little did we know. And now, with a way in hand, what mother would not risk life to save her child? To nurture family? To be with the ones they love? Those who need them most.

I looked to the boy and he returned my smile as if knowing my mind. I looked to the sky above, roiling in thunder and devilish hue. I looked to the High Mountain, blowing at the air with fire and cinder. The ancient lands of my kin, covered in ash and liquid rock. And I looked finally to my dear friend and companion who has served my family at the expense of his own.

My hand held Jacob’s and I walked onward, toward the Parting Gift and nearer to my daughter. The cloaked boy stepped aside to open my way, but Jacob gently released his hand from mine, letting our fingers slide apart. He stopped as I turned back to ask the matter, and he just looked into my eyes with that stone gaze that never gave his mind.

“This one cannot enter,” the golden-haired boy said, looking to me but speaking of my companion. “He is not of our kind.”

Jacob did not speak to defend himself, which was just his quiet way, as the consummate attendant.

“Rubbish!” I exclaimed, louder than warranted. “Jacob is not merely a servant, he is a dear friend and my great protector on this terrible quest. He stands before me in all things. Station be damned!” I smiled just slightly, a bit ashamed of my enthusiasm for I lacked the flare for the dramatic. But heavens be bled if it were not true, and more. I turned to Jacob, half expecting him to blush from such affections, although I knew better than to want for displays of emotion from such a stern man.

“The boy is correct, My Lady,” Jacob began, before I could let my feelings take control.

“Rubbish!” slipped again from my lips. “None of this ‘My Lady’ nonsense today. I will not leave you to suffer a lung full of ash and cinder. We shall leave this place together.”

Impervious to my rants, the boy looked to Jacob with brows high, meeting his gaze with a subtle familiarity. “She does not know?”

I too, turned to my friend, never being one for secrets. “Know what?”

Before Jacob could speak, the boy gave answer. “By design, the gate can only be crossed by living flesh. Your companion,” he paused, looking to Jacob as if asking permission to continue, “is Diord-na.”

All went silent to me, as if the gods themselves had held my ears between their palms and squeezed. My mind sped to other times when the People of the Two Suns populated the land with their fantastic devices of motion and flight. They erected towers that could eat the sun’s grace and shine throughout the night, and tiles as hard as stone that were invisible to the eye. I had been told stories of the Diord-na as a girl, but it seemed too surreal to believe, even for a child. They were not as we are, spawn of this earth from mother and father, but wrought by the masterly hands of the Great Ones themselves. In visage they are more like than unlike, but in mind they are the effect of their masters. What purpose they serve is not to my understanding. These are fables. I cannot believe it.

“Rubbish,” I said, wondering when I last spoke that word so often.

“It is true, My Lady,” Jacob replied softly, pulling up the sleeves of his cloak. Between the thumb and finger of his left hand he pinched the middle finger of the other. A quick twist and his finger was knuckle-side down. He pushed it back, with a truly unnerving, fleshy ratcheting sound, until it lay fully against the back of his hand.

What is this gruesome sight?! Jacob’s finger was nearly broke free, without so much as a grimace on his face.

“Rubb—”

Jacob then detached his right hand with a quick turn at the wrist and, as a courtesy, held it out for me to see. Heavens be felled! I witnessed no blood dripping to the ground. His detached hand lay in the palm of the other, yet the fingers wiggled about with unnerving intention, not in displays of painful spasm, but neatly tapping each finger to the tip of the thumb with the rhythm of counting. One, two, three, four, three, two, one, two, three, four ... until I could look no more and raised my gaze to Jacob’s.

“Diord-na,” he said to me, raising his handless arm a bit to give me a good (if not wholly unsolicited) look inside the disjoined ending.

I did not know what I witnessed, and still do not. Jacob did not bleed. It was not bone. It was not flesh. But it moved ever-so slightly as if wanting for its departed hand.

“Diord-na, indeed,” I replied, before losing my legs and falling into temporary darkness.

I will posit here, and leave it be, that I would not have fainted had I been well nourished. And, moreover, the perpetual fall of ash had affected my sense. Can any challenge this? Aye, but with little heart. It can be argued that the rank air and graying meats did more to unbalance me than the sight of Jacob’s dancing severed hand. Know, I once stood witness to three soldiers beheaded on a summer day with a blunt axe, and as gruesome as it was, it failed to reverse my digestion. As for this spell upon me now, it lasted only moments before my sense was righted and questions rose to center.

“But you have a father and a mother?” I began my inquiry as Jacob lifted me to my feet. “How can you be a device of the People of the Two Suns? I have known you since I was a girl. I have seen you age!”

“You are still a girl,” Jacob replied, with no harm in his voice. “Have you really seen me age? You are not yet twenty years. Much less. I have been known to you and your husband’s family not yet nine years. Even a man of flesh would have changed little in this time.”

“But you have an earthly father, Prumeo, who is like kin to Haegee, my bon-uncle. They have known great fear together and great love, through many ages. Do not disclose that I know not what I know.” I did not want to hear what I guessed would be a very vexing reply.

“Prumeo and Haegee shared a true bond of many years, and to that I do not contradict. But Prumeo is not my father, for my kind are not born of earth and water. I am, many years times many, greater in age then both Haegee and Prumeo combined. I was wrought when those you call the People of the Two Suns first made their existence known to this world. A time out of mind to you and yours. As I said to Haegee, ‘I was born old and older yet I shall die,’” Jacob reminded.

The golden-haired boy stood patiently at the entrance to the Parting Gift, sensing well that I would never follow him into the gate with a mystery so great before me. I must know the truth of this, at the err of myself and kin. The mountain ash continued to fall, as it would so for many months, yet the boy did not don his hood. The earth-spew settled quietly upon his golden locks.

I was relieved to see that Jacob had placed his hand back where it belonged, attached to his arm, and beneath his sleeve.

“But why in heaven’s balls have you spent these past years looking to my stables and washing my family’s soiled beddings? Surely there are greater tasks at hand for the manufactured progeny of the Great People.” I nearly yelled, so perplexed I was by this development.

“I am your steward, My Lady. I do not directly care for the family stables or soiled beddings, but I see your meaning.”

“Oh, rubbish! Get on with it.”

Jacob shook the ash from his shoulders. “The family of Prumeo had served the Great Ones well through the line of many descendants. In return, I was given to serve the father of Prumeo’s father. Upon his passing, I served the father of Prumeo, then Prumeo. And in his late age, Prumeo did instruct me to serve the family of his dear friend, Haegee, for Prumeo has no true heirs. Prumeo thinks more for his friends than for himself. He wished to see me serve your family well before passing. And he has, I believe.”

“So, my uncle Haegee knew of your deep origins?”

“No, My Lady. Haegee did only know me as the son of Prumeo, his friend in war and in peace. But Haegee, being one of magnificent wealth, had little need for another steward. Although, had he known my making he may have thought differently. So I was bade to call upon your husband’s family to do them aid so, through me, Haegee could keep loving watch over his distant cousin, your father by marriage.”

“I confess that without you as steward my husband could not have had the means or the cunning to advance his trade. He is a kind man, with many fine qualities, but he has no head for business. He has spoken of your contributions many times with great affection.” I noticed again the chill of the air and saw that the light of the sky had dimmed with the hour. For all his good manner, I sensed that the golden-haired boy must be growing weary of my delay.

I continued my interrogation. “But how, by the gods, have you not been found out? If you do not age as we do, I can hardly believe ...”

“I am believed to be the son of a servant, who is born to a long line of servants,” Jacob answered. “None of high station care to know my family line. In ten generations, no noble or high caste has ever asked of my history, save for you now.”

I pondered this a moment. I knew Jacob’s “father,” Prumeo, only by name, but to my dire recollection, I never spoke to Jacob much beyond platitudes.

“In due time, if not for the events that thrust this world into darkness, I would have disclosed my true self to your family,” he continued, “and together it would be no great matter to pass me as someone new every twenty years or so. The family of Prumeo is only one of many that I have served over the centuries. A man of low station goes unseen in high places.”

Damn the gods, for I knew this to be true. I could not recall, if ever I had asked, the names of my servant’s children.

Then the earth shook. My legs felt weak and I held out my arm hoping to catch hold of a thing to brace. And, as he had many times in my youth and of late through this terrible time, Jacob came forward and held me steady.

But although the ground did quake with a temper to match the fall of Haegee’s home, here there were no buildings left to topple. And so I stood, with not so much fear as before, until the hard movement below my feet subsided. And as if to beckon my tardy heart forward, the quake had shaken loose the heavy ash that covered the Parting Gift, revealing a glimmering monolith of ageless gold that sparkled red against the fiery sky.

Jolted from his patience the golden-haired boy resumed his solicitations. “Madam, we must not linger. I cannot hold the heavens back.”

Even as the earth trembled I found it difficult to think of little more than the personage of loyalty who had guided me back to my daughter. “What are you to do, Jacob, my dearest friend?”

“I will go to where Prumeo last stood, and if he still breathes I will usher him to safer ground, if any there be. If he has fallen, I will bring him to the land of his fathers and lay him beneath the earth, as is your custom.”

“I will come with you,” I said stepping nearer to my friend, placing my hands in his. “Together we will claim dear Prumeo.”

Jacob squeezed my fingers then let them slide free for the second time. “You would not survive the journey, My Lady. I am made of tougher stuff than you and need little in the way of sustenance. But you are flesh. The dark sky falls hard about us. There is no game or plant left to feed upon. Out here, in this world, you will not live beyond this day.”

My soul felt to spill from my body, but I knew Jacob was right. What choice do I have?

“Go into the gate,” he said. “Follow this boy. But be wary of what you find. Find your daughter and keep her close. Question those around you. Deny offers that seem more than deserved, for all that glitters is not gold.”

I kept my eyes hard upon Jacob’s and almost swear that he met my smile with his own. He guessed, I suppose, that I would not leave him without that most cherished of gifts to remember him by. I turned finally to the golden-haired boy (whose hair was now gray with heavy soot) and removed the linen scarf from around my head. I fought hard against turning back for one last look at the friend who gave himself freely to generations of my kin. Instead I held my hand out to the patient boy and offered him a thankful smile and my humbled life. Saying simply, “Lead the way.”

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