Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Heartless

O Moon! old boughs lisp forth a holier din
The while they feel thine airy fellowship.
Thou dost bless every where, with silver lip
Kissing dead things to life.

John Keats, from Endymion

Across the landscape of the battlefield, men stared sight­lessly into the sky, their armor black with blood, their steam­ing intestines spread over the ground. Swarms of crows covered them in a jumping, fluttering carpet. Camp women scavenged among the corpses, cutting the throats of the dying and looting the bodies for anything of worth.

Ada bent close to one man, his mouth already darkened like a bruise on his pallid face. For a dizzying moment her sight narrowed until all she could see was a gore-clotted eyelash, a stitch of livery, the twist of a pale worm. She gagged, but a second quick breath steadied her. Ada was surprised the stench could still make her choke. It reminded her that she hadn’t always been a camp follower; her hair hadn’t always hung in knots and the hem of her dress hadn’t always been stiff with filth. It reminded her of things better forgotten.

The army’s food had already been cooked and distributed—boiled horseflesh, cabbages, onions, and what dried stores the Baron’s men had managed to frighten out of the local churls. The camp women had a few hours before they must return to the fire pits, to scour the pots and begin planning for tomorrow. Ada had to move quickly if she wanted her share of what was left on the field.

The dead man had a good set of spurs, new-looking, with bronze details. She stripped them off his sabatons and tied them up in her skirts.

The next man she squatted near was still breathing. His brow was sweaty, and his eyes moved feverishly under closed lids. She held her knife near his throat. She had been warned never to leave a man alive while you robbed him: he might wake at any time, and even a wounded soldier was dangerous. Still, she hesitated. No matter how many times she told herself that it was like killing a sow, it still wasn’t. Maybe it was the memory of compassion that nagged at her, the remembrance of what she had been before she’d bespelled her heart into her finger bone.

“Help me.” The soldier’s mouth began to move before his eyes opened. He spoke in a dreamy monotone.

Ada jumped back, the blade just nicking the flesh of his throat.

“Help me,” he repeated. He didn’t seem to notice that he’d been cut.

“No,” Ada said. She’d had enough of knights and their commands. She had to feed them, to bind their wounds and be bothered by them when she sought only sleep. Just because she hadn’t killed him quickly didn’t mean she owed him anything.

“I am Lord Julian Vrueldegost.”

She wondered whether or not he had been one of the men who had burned her village. At one time, that would have mattered to her.

“I’ll die,” he said. “Please.”

Ada sighed. “And if I help you, what? You’ll go back to your hawks and greyhounds, your hunts and feasts, your feather beds and spiced wines. And what will I go back to?”

He looked confused. “The Count, my father—he would double the size of your land. Please. My side feels as if it is on fire.”

“What land?” She wished that he would just go ahead and die so that she could get back to robbing him, but instead she dipped her finger into a nearby pool of blood and smeared it across his neck. She brought her face close to his. “Play dead, your lordship, and hope none of the other women find you. They are even less kind than I.”

The part of her that would have been pleased by his plead­ing and his fear was long gone, and with it the part that might have pitied him. She reached for the grubby string around her neck and felt the smooth bone hanging there. Her mother had cut off the end of her finger once the spell was complete, but Ada could never bring herself to get rid of it. Her heart.

The wind picked up, whipping at her as she walked back to the encampment. She thought little of it until she noticed that the leaves on the nearby trees remained still. Then some­thing tore at her skirts, ripping them enough so that the spurs dropped onto a carpet of oak leaves and acorns. A cawing started overhead as a mass of black birds circled and began to land around her.

“Stop it!” she called. Her knowledge of magic was poorer than her mother’s, but even she could see this was the work of some spirit. “What are you? What do you want?”

Invisible hands grabbed hers, pulling her in the direction of the battlefield.

“Show yourself,” she demanded, sitting down on the cold ground and ignoring the crows. “I’ll not stir from this place.”

A shape leaped down from the branches above her. It had the head of a raven, but its body had the thin limbs of a boy, dusted here and there with feathers. She had never seen a manes up so close. It must belong to Lord Julian. Only a nobleman could afford the conjuring that trapped an ances­tor into the shifting flesh of a spirit. Manes drank blood from their charges, she knew that much. She had heard that great ladies would sit at tournaments with their manes suckling voluptuously at their wrists.

“Hedge-witch,” it said, coming closer on all fours and re­garding her with unblinking eyes.

“Hedge-witch no more,” Ada said. Without her heart, she couldn’t cast even the simplest of spells. There were other, darker enchantments that required a bespelled heart, but she didn’t know any of those.

The manes pointed to the bone around her neck. “I know what that is. You should hide it. One snap and your life is undone.”

Ada touched the string reflexively. “I don’t want to lose it,” she said.

It turned its head quizzically and regarded her with black eyes. “Help my master and I will tell you a place you can hide it where it will be safe always.”

When dealing with spirits, her mother had told her, it was usually easier to acquiesce. Ada picked up the spurs and began to tie them up in the remains of her dress. She made a mental list of what she would need for Julian: a blanket, some water, bindings for his legs, honey to slather over his wounds. Those things were easy to come by, especially with so many men dead.

When Ada returned to the battlefield laden with sup­plies, she found a crone hunched over Lord Julian, stripping off his gauntlets with knobbed fingers.

The woman looked up and Ada recognized her from the camp—Clarisse. People said she’d once been very beautiful. Despite the fact that she was bent with age, she still tied filthy ribbons in her hair and tinted her cheeks with the juice of berries, or sometimes with blood.

“What is this here? A lovely turquoise ring.”

Ada narrowed her eyes. “That’s a signet. If anyone sees you with it, they’ll know it was stolen.”

“Perhaps they’ll mistake me for a duchess.” Clarisse cackled. Then she suddenly clutched her wrist and dropped the ring.

Puzzled, Ada bent closer. Long red marks had appeared on the old woman’s forearm.

“You did it! You summoned spirits to attack me!” Clarisse pulled a crude knife from her belt.

“What?” Ada stepped back. Her own knife was close to hand, but she didn’t want to drop the things she was carry­ing to get to it. She considered explaining about the manes and then decided that would make Clarisse more suspicious rather than less. “If I could summon spirits, I would put them to better use than scratching old women,” Ada said finally.

Clarisse clapped her hand to her cheek as if she’d been struck. “You wretch! I’m not old. She stood up and then looked around her, at the field of the dead and dying, as if she didn’t know how she’d come to be in such a place. “Take him if you want him so much. My other suitors give me plenty of gifts.” She began to stagger off, rubbing her arm.

Ada knelt beside Julian and watched Clarisse go. She was so stunned that she almost forgot about the ring in the dirt. It was the blue of the stone that drew her eye. Gingerly, she picked it up. The gold was heavy in her hand. She smeared away mud to reveal a coat of arms with three ravens on it.

“I’m just holding on to it for him,” she said aloud as she tucked it into the folds of the sash at her waist. Then she started stripping off his gilt-inlaid armor. The leather-and-cloth padding underneath was stained with sweat and blood. He moaned as Ada tugged him onto the blanket. Pulling his body over the field made her muscles ache. By the time they reached the burned village, she was exhausted. He had barely stirred.

Even in the dying light, Ada easily found the way to her mother’s old house. She tugged at the blackened hatch to the root cellar. It opened in a great gust of soot.

“That’s the best I can do,” she said. “I can’t carry him down the stairs, and you don’t want me throwing him down.”

A sudden gust of air made cinders whirl across the floor. The manes appeared and scuttled closer, pressing its beak so close to the wound that she wondered if its tongue would snake out for a taste.

“Julian’s people will come,” it said. “The crows have brought my message. Just get him down there. You only need help a little while longer.”

“As you say.” Ada pressed lightly on the skin just to one side of Julian’s injury, but it was enough to make him awaken with a gasp. The manes cawed loudly, and she wondered what would happen to it if Julian died.

The knight looked up at her, disoriented and afraid. “Your creature wants me to hide you. Can you stand?” He reached up and touched a stray lock of her hair, running it between his fingers as if he were spinning it into thread. “I don’t know your name.”

She narrowed her eyes, confused. “Ada,” she said finally. “Ada,” he repeated. “You have hair like my sister’s. Jeanne. She will be twelve soon.”

“I’m fifteen,” Ada said. “Now get up.”

He managed a thin smile. She could see his hands trem­ble as he rose. Pressing her shoulder under his arm, she led him down the stairs. He moved slowly, like a sleepwalker. The earthen room still stank of fire, but otherwise it was un­changed from her memory of it. By the dim moonlight, she could see well enough to wash his wound with the water she brought and to smear it with honey. He tried to hold still, but sometimes he shuddered convulsively, or gasped.

“The gash doesn’t stink yet,” she said. “That’s a good sign.” Julian moaned again, flushed with fever, moving rest­lessly into something like sleep.

“Maybe it would be better to be dead,” Ada said to no one in particular.

It was fully dark when she stumbled back to the campsite. Most of the men were sleeping on their pallets of rushes, but a few still argued over dice beside dying fires. As Ada ap­proached her own blankets, she saw that one of the Baron’s men was waiting for her. Her eye was drawn to where his red beard was split by a scar that ran from his chin to his ear.

“You’ve cheated us out of a prisoner, is that correct?”

“No,” Ada lied automatically. She’d seen a girl hanged for stealing a silver cup and did not want to join her.

He snorted. Without warning, he seized her sash and ripped it. Her knife tumbled out, along with a few copper coins and the knight’s signet ring.

The man leaned down and picked up the ring from the dirt.

“I found it,” she said hurriedly.

“That old hag said different.” He shrugged. “Where is the owner of this ring?”

“Dead. Clarisse found it on him, but I scratched her and took it. She means to repay me with trouble.”

He grabbed hold of her hair and pulled her close to him. She could smell the onions on his breath and the rot of his teeth. “His body isn’t on the field. Do you know who this be­longs to, slattern? You’ve hidden the Count’s son. The Baron wants a corpse by dawn.”

She had known as much, but somehow had failed to comprehend the import of it. After all, what would it matter if Julian were the King himself when even a common man-at-arms was so far above her?

“He’s in a root cellar in the village.” She was pleased, just then, that she didn’t have a heart to trouble her.

The man let go of Ada’s hair, and she fell to her knees. He rested the heel of his boot against her throat. She felt her pendant of bone pressing against her skin and knew that it could crack along with her neck. She would die. But still she could not really be afraid.

“He’s alone?” the man demanded.

“Yes,” she gasped.

He removed his foot and she gulped breaths of air.

“Get up,” he said. “You’ll be taking me to him.”

Ada pushed herself to her feet and allowed him to lead her to his horse. The dappled gray courser was chewing on the rope that secured it to a post. She noticed that it had al­ready been saddled and that the man had strapped a sword and a crossbow to the leather belts across its rump. It did not lift its white muzzle as she fitted her wooden shoe into one stirrup and hauled herself onto its back.

The man laughed as he untied the horse and then swung up behind her, pushing his body against her back lewdly. “Through the battlefield,” she said.

“Very well, then.” One of his hands held the reins, but the other snaked around to cup her breast. She knew that should disturb her, but the voice that told her why seemed so distant.

“What did he promise you?” the man asked. “Gold? Riches? A tumble?”

“Nothing,” she said, with a shake of her head.

“You’re a cold one,” he said. His fingers dug painfully into her breast, kneading it. She winced. “Or a bit simple.

“Or maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe you’re one of the Count’s women, a spy. What do you think I would make of that?”

She shook her head again, as though she were simple and didn’t understand him. She considered what would happen when Julian was dead and she was alone in the house with the man-at-arms. Would he kill her? She imagined him heat­ing up her mother’s old fire-tongs to find out for himself if she was a spy. She imagined other things. And still she was numb to dread.

Did she really care for nothing, not even herself?

Ada noticed the lack of a heart in a way she had not before. She pushed around her thoughts like a child pushing her tongue into the sore space left by a missing tooth.

“I know a cure for your silence,” he said as they picked their way over the field of rotting bodies.

She looked down at the field of corpses, their faces turned to burnished silver in the moonlight. They were be­yond caring too. Dead.

Ada remembered how, long before the war, she had cried over the death of a cat that had ranged around their corn­cribs. Yet with the finger bone dangling around her neck, she had buried her mother without a single tear. She could not even remember where she’d dug the grave.

Surely it was better not to feel. What was the purpose in courting pain?

But then she thought of all the different sorts of pain, all the ones she hadn’t been able to avoid.

She imagined taking the finger bone off her neck and snapping it in two. Even though that would kill her, she could not bring herself to care. That troubled her. She knew she should care. She shouldn’t stand by and allow her own death. She didn’t want to be dead.

Her heart was still missing, so she wasn’t afraid when she broke the string around her neck with a sharp tug. The method for undoing the spell was simple. She didn’t even flinch as she swallowed the bone whole.

Pain stabbed her chest, a thousand sharp needles, as in a foot kept too long in one position. She pressed her hands between her breasts and felt a steady drumming. Tears burned in her eyes.

Then, abruptly, she was overwhelmed by fear, fear that bit through her flesh to bury itself in her marrow

This was a mistake, she thought. I can’t do this. She started to shake.

The man-at-arms tightened his grip on her and laughed. She thought of Julian, of the way that he had touched her hair. She didn’t want him to die. She didn’t want anyone to die anymore.

“You know where we’re going, don’t you? You haven’t lost your way?”

They had come to the edge of the village without her noticing. Looking out at the remains of the houses, black and indistinguishable, she knew what she had to do.

“He’s in there,” she said. Pointing to where a neighbor had once brewed ale and kept chickens, she found that she could hardly breathe. It was harder to lie now, when she was afraid.

“Is he armed?” The man-at-arms shifted on the saddle. She shook her head. “He’s badly hurt. Defenseless.”

“Dismount,” he ordered.

She climbed off the horse. He drew his sword and jumped down after her. Trailing him to the house, Ada hoped he would go in first, hoped he would give her a moment to get away from him.

He signaled with his chin for her to go through the door. Once inside, he would see that she had lied. She hesitated. “Get in there,” he whispered.

She had hoped for more of an advantage, but there was no more time. Ducking away from his arm, she ran back to the horse and pulled the crossbow from the horse’s rump. The bow was drawn tight, but she fumbled getting the bolt in place.

A loud shout came from the doorway. The manes had appeared, cawing and capering, surprising the man-at-arms into giving her another few moments of time. She slammed the bolt into the notch and pointed it in his direction.

His eyes went wide and his mouth curled into a sneer. “Don’t be stupid.”

“I want to live,” she said, and shot him.

The bolt hit him just below the throat. His scream stut­tered as blood stained the front of his leather doublet. He reached up a hand and staggered toward her. Then he fell heavily onto the dirt.

Tears burned her eyes, streaking her cheeks with lines of salt.

She didn’t know how long she had been there when she noticed Lord Julian stood behind her. His fingers touched her shoulder as she turned. He still looked pale, but his fever seemed to have broken. She noticed for the first time that he was young and that he needed a haircut. “Thank you,” he said softly. She nodded. She wanted to say something—to tell him that she hadn’t done it for him, to ask about his sister, or to say that she was glad that he was awake—but she didn’t know how to say all of those things at once, so she was silent. The manes settled near the man-at-arms and began to tear at his wound with its beak.

“It’s hard to see so much death.” Lord Julian looked off into the deep shadows. “Was he the first man you’ve killed?”

“No,” she said. “He was the last.”

Julian paused at that. After a moment, he spoke again. “Do you recall when I offered to double your land?”

“You said your father would double it.”

He smiled. “But you refused me. Let me make you an­other offer. Anything. A position in the castle? A commis­sion? Tell me what it is that you want.”

She wanted her mother to be alive again, for the war to end, for everything to be as it had once been. She wanted to scream, to weep, to shout.

Ada laughed out loud even as tears stung her eyes. “Yes, that’s it,” she said, leaning back to look up at the stars. “That’s exactly it. I want.

© 2005 by Holly Black.
Originally published in Young Warriors: Stories of Strength,
edited by Tamora Pierce & Josepha Sherman.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Holly Black

Holly BlackHolly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), The Modern Faerie Tale series, The Good Neighbors graphic novel trilogy (with Ted Naifeh), and her new Curse Workers series, which includes White Cat and Red Glove. She has been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award, a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award. She currently lives in New England with her husband, Theo, in a house with a secret door.