Science Fiction & Fantasy

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A Moment Before It Struck

He felt death coming a moment before it struck.

In the lingering gray twilight, Smoke lay on his bedding, eyes not quite closed and mind adrift, only half-aware of the sounds of the encampment around him: steel on whetstone, the rattle of dice, a soft song, and loud bragging. The soldiers huddled together under a tent canopy raised against a misty summer rain. From the mountains in the north there came a sound of distant thunder.

When they’d settled in, Ekemion had invited him to play a game of dice, which he usually enjoyed, but this time he’d declined with a sheepish grin. “I don’t have my coin purse. It’s gone.”

“Again?” Ekemion demanded, incredulous. “Smoke, that’s three times now.”

Smoke shrugged. He was just seventeen, tall and lean, with honey-brown hair that he’d left loose around his shoulders after washing it clean of soot and Lutawan blood. His green eyes glittered with their own light as evening shadows gathered. “Fresh coin is easy enough to come by.” In the aftermath of battle, they gathered it from the dead.

“You won’t find any Lutawans to kill tonight,” Ekemion said, reaching into his pocket. “So I’ll give you some of my own coin to play with.”

Smoke arched an eyebrow. “And then complain when I win the rest of it? No. I’ll play another time.”

So Smoke lay alone at the edge of the canopy, his sword in its scabbard cradled in his arm, and the misty rain sometimes wandering in to cool his face of the summer’s heat.

The war had been ongoing for generations, pushed by the Lutawans, whose king was resolved to overrun the Puzzle Lands, and enslave the Koráyos people. Smoke had been sent to war the summer before, when he was sixteen. His demon nature let him slaughter the men of Lutawa with no remorse—and often with pleasure—but whether he liked it or not, it was his duty to fight.

That night his thoughts drifted as he listened to a whispering, pleading murmur of prayers spoken in voices no one else could hear: the voices of women from the borderlands of Lutawa whose lives had grown unbearable.

Lutawa was a vast land, strange and twisted, where women were kept as slaves and traded like coin, and if they protested, their protests were soon silenced, but their hearts still simmered and sometimes overflowed. Then they called to him in prayer: Come, come avenge me.

It was in his demon nature that he could hear them.

On the far side of the tent, Dehan the Trenchant spoke strategy with Chieftain Rennish. His murmured words should have been impossible to pick out past the conversation of the soldiers, but Smoke’s senses were acute, and when Dehan’s voice grew softer still, the shift caught his notice. “And what of my demon son?” Dehan asked Rennish, his distaste plain. “Does he still serve you well? Is he true to his murderous nature?”

Rennish hissed. She was commander of the irregulars, the stealth troop that slipped like ghosts deep into the Borderlands, striking without warning against Lutawan soldiers and any farmers and villagers who supported them. “His sword is chipped and dull from use. Be wary, Dehan, if he ever turns against you.”

Dehan’s chuckle was easy. “He’s a flawed creature, but he’s still Bidden. He exists to serve the Koráyos people as all the Bidden do. There is nothing else for him.”

A torch was lit. Its red flame glistened against Smoke’s eyelashes as he allowed himself to be lulled again by the prayers for vengeance that whispered in his mind. The Trenchant Dehan didn’t know he heard the prayers; no one did. It wasn’t Smoke’s way to reveal what could be hidden. Later tonight, when the Trenchant had returned to the army’s main encampment, and the other soldiers in his troop had given in to sleep, then Smoke would slip away to answer one of the prayers, or maybe two.

Avenge me.

So many prayers, he could never answer them all, but their bloody need entranced him—so much, that he didn’t sense death’s approach until a taut, quivering hate rushed in upon him along the threads of structure that underlay the world.

His eyes opened.

From the misty twilight outside the tent a glint of steel flashed. His hand closed over his scabbard, and as the knife slashed toward his chest he dissolved into a swirl of gray vapor, sliding away from death along the threads that made up the weft and warp of the world-beneath—for that was his nature, a spirit creature who could take a man’s solid form.

The knife struck the mat where he had been. His assailant made a low cry of shock and drew back, stumbling away into darkness while Smoke took a man’s form again, standing poised at the edge of the tent. Ripping his sword from its scabbard he thrust into shadows, feeling the shape of his quarry in the threads. Only as he did so did he realize she was a woman and that she was not alone. His own sister, Takis, stood beside her.

“Smoke, no!” Takis shouted—too late.

The tip of his blade dived toward the woman’s heart, and as it struck her, a bolt of lightning shot across the sky. Its flickering light caught on the edge of a glittering knife that flew out of the woman’s hand, and revealed to Smoke her familiar face, marked with a dagger-shaped stain on her right cheek.

Thunder slammed down on the camp, demolishing any further protest from Takis and leaving Smoke with ringing ears.

Behind him, someone brought a torch. Its ruddy light fell across a woman coiled in the wet grass: the young wife of a Lutawan farmer, dressed in the same simple skirt and blouse she’d worn that morning when the irregulars had stormed her home and Smoke had slaughtered her husband. He stared at her in astonishment. He’d struck her hard and her shoulders jerked as she fought for breath, but she wasn’t bleeding. A coin purse hung on a string around her neck. The coins in it had stopped the sword from piercing her heart. She’d been knocked down, her breath knocked away, that was all.

Takis reacted first, drawing her own sword, holding it lightly in her experienced hand, her gaze fixed on the fallen woman. She wore brown trousers, a neatly tailored tunic, fine boots, and an etched leather jerkin. Full black hair framed a stern face that reflected her experience on the battlefield. Ten years older than Smoke, she was used to command and would become Trenchant, charged with the defense of the Puzzle Lands, when their father Dehan passed from the world.

“Takis,” Smoke said to her in wonder, “did you see it? The Dread Hammer wouldn’t let me kill her.”

The Lutawan woman struggled to her knees, though she remained hunched over her bruised chest.

Takis turned to Smoke, her head cocked and her gaze suspicious. “She was found by a patrol and brought to me, just another Lutawan woman seeking sanctuary in the Puzzle Lands. So I thought. Then I saw she carries your coin purse, the one I gave you after you lost the other. When I asked how she got it, she begged for a chance to return it to you.”

***

Long ago, the people of the Puzzle Lands had prayed to the Dread Hammer for aid against the cruelties of the Lutawan king. A forest spirit named Koráy heard their prayers and felt bidden to answer them. She devised many spells in defense of the Puzzle Lands, not least that her partly human descendants, who were called the Bidden, would always be bound to serve the Koráyos people.

Smoke was more a spirit creature than any of his Bidden kin. He alone could slide into the world-beneath and ride the threads as Koráy used to do, traversing the land with the speed of the wind . . . and appearing out of nowhere among the enemy—an ability that made him most useful to Chieftain Rennish.

On that morning, very early, Smoke had ridden with the irregulars, following Rennish deep into the Borderlands. As dawn’s first flush brightened the eastern sky, their patrol had stood ready to attack a farmhouse where a troop of Lutawan soldiers had been quartered for the night.

The Koráyos had let it be known that they would kill any farmer who sold food to Lutawan soldiers or gave them shelter, while the Lutawans had promised to kill any farmer who did not. It was a bad time to be a farmer in the Borderlands and many had fled south. More should have.

Smoke had gone in first as he always did, the only sign of his coming a plume of gray vapor that went unnoticed even by the farmer’s dogs. He materialized in the farmhouse, to find the soldiers there still asleep, six on the kitchen floor and nine more in the sitting room. Only a faint light seeped through the shutters. Outside, a single man kept watch, his footsteps a slow rhythm as he paced the porch. Smoke stood in the doorway between the two rooms, his sword in hand, listening. When his keen hearing picked out a distant rumble of hooves, he knew the rest of the irregulars would soon arrive. So he set to work.

He saw well in the dark, and his first stroke neatly removed the head of one of the sleepers in the sitting room. There was no outcry, only the thump of the sword and wet splatter of blood against the walls. His next stroke opened the throat of a man who had just begun to rise, and then he cut down two more before the others were sufficiently awake to arm themselves. When the Koráyos irregulars kicked in the door, Smoke turned to vapor again and moved into the backrooms, where he found two men scrambling to escape through a window. By their look and their plain clothing these were the farmers—not that it mattered to him.

As they vaulted from the window, he reached for the threads, passing as vapor through the wall. Behind the house was a grassy farmyard overrun with worried geese and chickens. Two sheds squatted beside a stable, with several cow pens close by. Farther out, a grove of broad-leafed trees, no doubt kept for firewood, stood dark against a brightening sky.

Smoke materialized in the middle of the yard, right in front of the farmers as they ran. Two strokes of his sword put them on the ground and then he turned to see if there might be another that he’d missed.

That’s when he saw her standing in the half-light: a young woman, younger than him, with what would have been a strong, comely face, except that her left eye was blackened, her lips were swollen and bruised, and on her cheek, a dagger-shaped mark branded her skin with a color like half-dried blood. Despite this evidence of a recent beating, she was dressed neatly in a pale linen blouse and a full skirt that reached her knees, with her heavy, dark hair pulled back and tied behind her neck. Dust covered her bare feet, but triumph gleamed in her eyes as she looked at the two men bleeding out at Smoke’s feet.

Too soon, a horse came cantering around the farmhouse, carrying Chieftain Rennish on its back. She held in her hand a burning torch that trailed an ugly gyre of black smoke. The young Lutawan woman fled.

Smoke waited several beats of his racing heart to see where she would go. If she made for the fields, he’d let Rennish ride her down—but somehow she knew better. Holding her skirt above her knees, she sprinted hard for the shelter of the stable.

Smoke grinned. “I’ll take care of her!”

Rennish looked at him with a suspicious gaze, and Smoke knew at once what was on her mind. Koráyos soldiers were merciless when it came to dispensing death, and in these raids the Trenchant had ordered that no one be spared—men, women, children—all must be slaughtered, and the buildings and fields burned. Rennish would see to that, but like all Koráyos women, she would not tolerate rape.

Smoke bared his teeth, offended at her suspicion. She just shrugged—“Take this, then”— and tossed him the torch. He caught it. With his bloody sword in one hand and the torch in the other, he strode across the farmyard, a flock of confused chickens fleeing before him.

Dawn’s light had not yet found its way into the stable, but the torch’s uneven flame cast a bloody glow on two plow horses. They tossed their heads and snorted, circling in their stalls. The young Lutawan woman stood beside the farthest stall. The mark on her cheek soaked up shadow, looking darker, grimmer, as she faced Smoke with defiant eyes. “I know who you are, death spirit! I have heard the stories, and I prayed for you to come avenge me, but you would not.”

Her words were an accusation, and they drew from Smoke a fierce scowl. His eyes glittered green despite the torch’s red light. “Your vengeance is done, I think.”

“Only because I invited the Lutawan soldiers to my husband’s house.”

That caught him by surprise. “You wanted the Koráyos to come? You had to know we would kill you too.”

Her shoulders jumped in an angry shrug. “Sometimes there is mercy.”

Smoke eyed her bruised face. “Your husband . . . he beat you when you brought the soldiers home?”

“That’s nothing,” she sneered.

“Did he brand you too?”

Her hand shot to her cheek, gingerly touching the dagger-shaped mark. “I was born with this. But my daughter . . . she was born with a worse mark. He called her cursed and he took her away from me. He took her away! He strangled her. I know he did. If she’d been a boy, he would have let her live.”

Smoke had heard such stories before. He turned to touch the torch to dry hay piled in a manger that was shared between the stalls. Flames crackled and the young wife backed away, looking frightened at last, while the horses threw back their heads and whinnied in panic.

“Open the stalls,” he told her.

With shaking hands she did it and the horses bolted free. Very quickly the fire consumed the hay and then turned its greedy flames to the stalls and the post that held up the ceiling. Gray smoke boiled up, sending small birds fleeing from the rafters. The air became thick and she raised her arm to cover her mouth and nose.

Smoke took his coin purse from his pocket, tossing it to her. She caught it. “They’re all dead now,” he told her. “Just as you wished. You’re free to go north. Maybe you’ll find your way to the Puzzle Lands.”

“I have to find my sister first. She was outside with me, but she ran to hide.”

The fire spoke in a windy voice, but over its dull roar Smoke heard the rhythm of hooves galloping up to the stable. “Smoke!” Rennish shouted. “Don’t toy with her. Finish it now!”

“Go!” Smoke gestured at the windows in back of the stalls, their shutters open to the summer dawn. “Flee to the woods. If you’re seen, you will be killed.”

“I have to find my sister.”

“There are twenty Koráyos soldiers outside. Your sister is dead. Go now, before you die too.”

He wanted her to live, but he would kill her if he had to, if Rennish started to come in. Maybe she saw it in the green glitter of his eyes, because she moved at last, lunging for the closest window.

Smoke walked outside, igniting more hay on the way.

The farmhouse had been set afire, the cattle let out of their pens. Several of the Koráyos soldiers were working to pile brush and hay around barrels stacked beside a shed when one yelped, “Look! Another one!”

The barrels tumbled, a girl screamed. Two swords flashed in the dawn light, and the screaming stopped. Smoke tensed, reaching out along the threads, seeking for the farm wife while Rennish glared down at him from the saddle. “By Koráy!” she swore. “Didn’t you sense another one here?”

In truth he had not or he would have tried to spare her too. “I was distracted,” he growled. He took a cloth from his pocket to clean the blade of his sword, thinking on the woman he had saved. The threads told him she remained safe, crouched in the brush behind the stable.

He looked up again at the sound of running footsteps. Ekemion came, blood on his face and horror in his eyes at the murder he’d just done. “Chieftain Rennish, the one we killed, she cried out for her sister.”

Smoke shoved his sword into his back scabbard. “I took care of her.”

***

The sun’s arc had just broken the horizon when their troop rode away from the farm. In all the long day since, Smoke hadn’t thought of the woman again. Her bloody prayer had been granted and it was over—but not for her. She must have walked without respite to reach the Koráyos encampment in just one day, driven to find him, the knife and the coin purse her last possessions.

More lightning flickered in the night, though now it was far away. The misty rain faltered, then ceased altogether, leaving everything outside the tent damp and glistening in the torchlight: the grass, the brush, the two silver coins that had spilled from the purse.

The Lutawan farm wife got onto her feet, but she was hurting. She stood hunched, wheezing for breath, her hateful gaze bright above the dagger-shaped mark on her cheek as she glared at Smoke.

Chieftain Rennish stepped up beside him. “You said you took care of her.”

“I thought I did.”

A shadow eclipsed the torchlight. Smoke recoiled as Dehan the Trenchant came to stand at his other side. The Trenchant was a powerful man, both in the world and in the world-beneath. His years showed in his weathered face and in the gray that ran through his heavy black hair, but he remained strong and vital—and the venom that had always existed between them remained vital too. It made Smoke’s skin crawl, to be standing so close beside him.

“Who is she?” Dehan asked.

“A Lutawan. I don’t know her name.”

Rennish expanded on this. “She was one of the women at the farmhouse we visited this morning.”

“Ah,” Dehan said. “Then she should be dead now.”

The woman had hung the coin purse on a string around her neck. Her lips drew back in contempt as she yanked it off. Her scorn was all for Smoke. “You lied about my sister and then you let her die. I don’t want your coins—they won’t buy back her life!”

She hurled the purse at his face, and out of instinct he caught it before it hit, snatching it from the air with his free hand. It had a slit in it, made by the tip of his sword, and as he stuffed the purse into his pocket a coin slipped out and fell, sparkling, to the wet, trampled grass.

Dehan glanced down at it, then up at the woman. “What favor have you done for my demon son that he defied me and let you live?”

“I have done him no favors! And the favor he did for me is worse than nothing.”

“Your life is less than nothing?” Takis asked.

“My life without my sister? Yes.”

Dehan looked to Takis. “Mercy is not in his nature. Why did he let her live?”

Though Takis and Dehan saw eye-to-eye on most things, on the subject of Smoke she was at odds with her father. “He’s standing there beside you,” she said acidly. “Why don’t you ask him?”

So the Trenchant turned to Smoke, his brow cocked in question. Smoke’s grip tightened on the hilt of his sword. Far safer to keep silent—so why did he hear his own voice speaking unforgivable words? “I don’t care for it—the killing of these women and children. They are not the enemy.”

Thunder rumbled in the north, a growling threat that went on for many heartbeats. Dehan waited until it died away before he answered, his voice reduced to hardly more than a whisper by his fury. “You presume to judge our strategy? You, who have been a soldier for all of a year?”

“It’s just they have no choice in their lives. They’re slaves, just as we were before Koráy came.”

“What of it? You have no choice in your life.”

Smoke scowled. That wasn’t true. He made choices all the time: to answer the prayers or not, to spare a woman during the raids . . . or not. To his father he said, “I choose to serve you.”

“That’s not a choice. It’s your role. Koráy made it so when she bound us to the Koráyos people. If you betray those bonds, you betray yourself. Then there will be nothing left of you, my demon son, and you will cease to be.”

Could this be true? Smoke looked to Takis for confirmation, and was startled when she nodded.

Dehan recalled his attention with another question. “How many others have you let escape?”

“I don’t count them.”

Dehan shook his head. “You pretend at mercy, but it doesn’t suit you.” He gestured at Rennish to step aside, then he indicated the Lutawan woman with his chin. “You have your sword in hand. Finish what you started.”

The woman seemed unafraid, her bitter gaze defying him to strike. And why shouldn’t he? She had no claim on him! She, who had betrayed him by coming here, and only because he’d granted her first prayer, but not her second . . . as if it was his fault.

So he resolved to obey his father—that was the easiest thing to do—but to his shock he discovered his will was not his own. He was stymied, caught in some spell, unable to raise his sword against her. He had given this woman the gift of her own life just that morning and now he found he could not undo it. He looked at Dehan in confusion. “The Dread Hammer did not let me kill her before, and I can’t kill her now.”

“Then let her be spared,” Takis said.

Smoke and Dehan were both caught by surprise, so rarely did Takis speak against her father. She settled her sword into its scabbard, then crossed her arms and studied Smoke. “I am not my father. It pleases me to know there’s mercy hiding somewhere inside you, and I honor it now by setting aside the fate she should have met this morning. From that she is spared—”

“Takis!” Dehan objected, but she stopped him with a cold glance.

“From that she is spared,” Takis repeated. “But this evening, this Lutawan woman used my trust and my sympathy to get close to you, my beloved brother, to try to kill you, and that I will not forgive.”

She held Smoke’s gaze for many seconds, while the thunder grumbling in the distant mountains faded into silence, and the spell that restrained him unwound.

“What would you have me do?” he asked at last.

“Finish it. Or I will do it for you.”

The woman recoiled, though she seemed more shocked than frightened . . . as if she’d believed herself safe because this morning Smoke had been bound by her prayer. But Takis required justice, and she was a woman too. Smoke stepped forward so swiftly the farm wife had no chance to turn away before his sword pierced her heart and withdrew.

***

After the body was buried well away from camp and Smoke had washed again in the stream, he returned to his mat at the edge of the tent. The torches and lanterns had been put out, the dice had been put away, and the soldiers were sleeping. Closing his eyes, Smoke let the prayers wash over him.

Avenge me.

He thought of answering one . . . or maybe two.

And then? Tomorrow perhaps, but surely not long after, there would be another farmhouse, or a village whose people had offended the Trenchant. Smoke cared nothing at all for the lives of the Lutawan men he would be asked to kill, but the women bound him with their prayers. Why?

The Trenchant had said Smoke’s role was to serve the Koráyos people, but the women of Lutawa called on him to serve them. How could he do both? It was impossible. Neither could he choose between these obligations, but that didn’t mean there was no choice.

His demon nature let him sense the threads that made up the weft and warp of the world-beneath, reaching farther than even the Trenchant could perceive. If he slid away on those threads, abandoning his duty to the Koráyos people, would he cease to be? If he went so far that he could no longer hear the bloody prayers, would he be free?

He needed to know.

Quietly, he sat up. He shrugged into his coat, strapped his sword to his back, then took up his bow and his quiver. His coin purse was already in his pocket.

Ekemion stirred sleepily, not far away. “Smoke? Where are you going?”

Smoke’s glittering eyes cast a faint glow on Ekemion’s puzzled face. “Tell the Trenchant something for me.”

“I . . . what? What do you mean?”

“When you see him again, tell him I do have a choice, and I choose to serve him no more.”

He reached for the threads, dissolved into gray vapor, and was gone.

© 2012 Linda Nagata

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Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata grew up in a rented beach house on the north shore of Oahu. She graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in zoology and worked for a time at Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. She has been a writer, a mom, and a programmer of database-driven websites. A Nebula and Locus-award-winning author, her more recent work includes short fiction “Nahiku West,” runner up for the 2013 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the novel The Red: First Light, a near-future military thriller that was a finalist for both the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. She lives with her husband in their long-time Maui home.