Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Salt Warrior

Angela found the saint at the base of the cliffs beneath the old watchtower. She had followed his trail from the village: a line of footprints braided with the chaotic, black-stained tracks of the raiders, leading to the cliffs. There he must have fallen, or leapt away in fear. The crumbling stones of the watchtower were marred with scars from the raiders’ lashing claws and teeth, striped with their fetid black ichor, but there was no sign of them on the switchbacks that wound down to the beach.

The cobbled beach was warm and rough beneath her bare feet. She was not wearing shoes, and she had tied her skirt up, revealing so much leg Skinny Father Mateo would have fainted with horror. The heat of the day was rising, and with it the breeze, carrying a lively smell, a gasp of green untouched by decay. For a moment Angela was giddy with the taste of it.

The moment passed, and despair returned.

“Hello?” said Angela. “Can you hear me? Hello?”

The saint lay facedown at the bottom of the cliff. His head and torso were in shadow, his legs exposed to the morning sun. His brilliant armor of burnished bronze, inlaid with flames of gold, glinted so brightly it stung Angela’s eyes. There was seaweed tangled in the joints and a smear of mud across his bottom. She probably wasn’t supposed to be thinking of a warrior of god as having buttocks. There was no ordinary man beneath the armor, or so the priests claimed. The saints gave up everything—their names, their families, their pasts, their faces, their skin, their flesh, their blood and all of its yearnings—when they chose to serve God.

So the priests claimed. He also wasn’t supposed to be able to die, not in the normal way, yet here he was, facedown in the sand. His sword was a long, dark line beside him. It was speckled with the raiders’ black-tar blood, but only a little. He must have fled more than he fought, running to the sea like a crab scurrying into a burrow, while the villagers screamed and died. The battle had not lasted long. Farmers and fishermen armed with hatchets and kitchen knives were no match for the towering, seething, slickly swift raiders who needed only a single blow to spill a man’s intestines and split his head like a gourd.

The saint was supposed to protect them against all onslaughts of evil, however they appeared. That was his only purpose, and he had failed.

“You were a coward,” Angela rasped, acid in her throat. “I hope the crabs eat you from the inside.”

She turned to leave him. Stopped. Turned again. For three days, she had been alone. The raiders had taken the survivors away in their slave-ships, from the oldest grandmother to the newest squalling babe, and left the dead for the scavengers who would inevitably follow. For three days, her only companions had been the corpses rotting in grotesque heaps, bloating and putrefying beneath clouds of gulls and black flies, with a stink that choked her every time the wind turned.

For three days, she had watched the horizon for the expected scavengers. When they came, they would be ravenous. She had tried to burn the corpses, to give the scavengers no reason to land, but every attempt ended with a splutter of weak flames dying beneath a coil of oily black smoke.

Angela crouched and scooped sand away from the saint’s shoulders and sides until she could turn him over. He was lighter than she expected; he toppled onto his back with a graceless clink. The armor was even more fine up close than it appeared from afar, with the gold inlay seemingly melted into the bronze in patterns so intricate they tricked the eye to follow every labyrinthine curve. There were subtle signs of imperfection: greening at the edges, dimples and dents, pockmarks of orange where the iron rivets were rusting.

With two fingers she scooped sand from the eyeholes of his helmet. She pulled a string of seaweed from the small, perfect circle of the mouth and shuddered when she noticed the reddish-brown stain on it. There had been no such stain when he arrived on the island, but a full year was time enough for her blood, and the blood of other sinners, to paint that gleaming metal.

She wiped her fingers on her skirt and tapped the side of his head, raising a dull metallic echo.

“Hello,” she said again. “Hello?”

From within the armor came a wet sucking noise, like surf dragging across stones. Angela jerked her hand away in surprise as a small crab scrambled out of one eye. It tumbled down the side of the helmet and fled across the sand.

The saint gurgled again, deep and damp and rough, and seawater seeped from the helmet. He made a sound much like a cough, one that shook his suit of armor and made the joints creak. Angela put one hand on his shoulder, the other behind his head, but before she could help him upright he raised one hand and grasped her wrist. His glove was leather beneath the plates of bronze, the fingers stiff and crusted with salt.

“Demon,” he rasped, his voice weak and wobbling. Within his helmet, his eyes were beetle-black and gleaming. “Demon.”

Angela twisted her hand free of his grip and rose to her feet. Disappointment and dismay were thorns in her throat.

“Well.” She brushed sand from her knees and took a step back. “The tide can have you, then. It’s better than you deserve.”

She strode away, the tightness in her chest caught somewhere between laughter and terror. If she was not doomed already, she had surely sealed her fate by speaking so disrespectfully to a saint. Skinny Father Mateo could have added another sin to her tally; the villagers would have whooped with delight. The healing wound on her forearm where he had spilt her blood into the chalice itched so badly she wanted to claw her skin away.

• • • •

She went about her chores for the day, half of her mind on her tasks, half on the empty horizon. She gathered herbs, collected eggs, turned dried fish in the sun. She carried firewood to her camp on the crest of the island’s highest hill; she had chosen the spot because it gave her a good view of the ocean. She would see the scavengers before they arrived.

Everywhere she walked, she avoided the long furrows the invaders had left behind. She didn’t know if the dark slime they exuded was their blood or some other secretion, and she had no desire to find out; the grass withered and the soil turned to ash everywhere it touched. She no longer looked at the corpses she could not burn; the sight of their torn, charred skin and bruised flesh turned to bloat was seared in her mind. She looked instead at what was left of the village. Burned-out homes, shattered hearths, vegetable carts crushed to splinters. The church was a skeleton of charred limestone. The glorious stained glass window that told the tale of the legendary warrior Caius sacrificing himself to the Green King had been reduced to shards that sparkled in the sun.

The southern well remained untouched and the water clean. For that, she supposed, she ought to give thanks. She owed thanks as well to the quick thinking of Fat Father Mateo, who had thrown the key into the cellar so she might free herself when the fighting began. Later, when silence fell over the town, she had emerged from her prison to find him dead on the church steps, his round, wine-rosy face torn to shreds by a swipe of claws. He might have died only moments after saving her. She had dug a grave for him, but when she tried to move his corpse into a wheelbarrow, black ichor spilled from his wounds, searing her skin with blisters and making her dizzy with its nauseating stench. She did not try to bury anybody else.

She had not found Skinny Father Mateo at all. She supposed he was in chains with all the others. She could only hope he was every day weeping and pissing himself with fear.

The day was waning, the sun sinking into the western sea, when she finally acknowledged the knot of guilt she had been ignoring all day. It was still there, rattling about her insides like a tiny stone in her sister Martina’s shiny wedding shoes, the ones Angela and Paola had sneaked out of her dowry chest and nearly ruined by tottering about the garden while their mother and aunts bent their heads over trousseau embroidery inside.

Paola and her ruddy-cheeked sons had died in the village square. There had been a trail of ichor over both of her legs, eating the flesh to the bone. The boys by her side had been crushed, their little chests caved in, their ribs snapped like splinters. Martina and her family must have been taken away, or rendered unrecognizable beneath wounds and blood. It was hard to look, after a while. Too many times had the release of gasses or settling of flies tricked Angela into seeing a twitching hand or fluttering eye where there was none.

Angela covered her buckets of water with clean cloths. She looked at the horizon one more time and found it empty.

She took the handles of her wheelbarrow and returned to the beach.

• • • •

It was better to think of her sisters as they had lived. She and Paola, so much younger than Martina, had been so jubilant and careless the summer of Martina’s wedding, little wisps of girls browned by the sun and crowned with messy braids, wobbling on the ill-fitting shoes and gasping with laughter as they pointed at each other and said, you’re going to marry Tomas, you’re going to marry Pedro, you’re going to marry Elia, every possibility more ridiculous than the last, until finally Paola had shouted, “You’re going to marry Brother Marco!” And the horror of it, the absurdity of it, the wickedness of it had stunned Angela to silence. Brother Marco was the eldest and blindest of the island’s monks, a man so stooped his spine was shaped as a goatherd’s crook, so ancient he could not remember the name of the bishop who had sent him to the island, and so holy that his gnarled feet rarely touched the ground. His cloudy white eyes glowed with pure light on the shortest and longest nights of the year, and sometimes when he spoke, if the words he mumbled were a blessing or a prayer, honey dripped in golden droplets from his lips. As a young man, Brother Marco had gone to the fog-cloaked islands of the far, far north to fight godless tricksters and barbarians, but unlike so many of that tragic war, he had returned fully human, more righteous than ruined, and beatific in his well-earned peace. A man who had given himself so completely to God would never marry—Paola fell to the floor, overcome with laughter at the very idea—but for a moment between the joke and the laughter, Angela had felt the whispered secrets of womanhood brush so quickly, so gently against the sacred murmurs of priesthood, a tantalizing frisson of forbidden contact between two worlds that could never meet.

When she was of age, Paolo had married Elia after all, happily, on a spring day, with a blush on her cheeks and ribbons in her hair. He was a good husband, a good father, a good brother to Angela when so many others had turned away from her. She had not found him among the dead. The invaders must have taken him away. He would hate himself for surviving his wife and sons. Perhaps that was the source of the raiders’ greatest victories: the hate that ate a survivor from the inside, as sour as the black slime that burnt through flesh and poisoned rich earth, with no way to free it but outward, in anger.

Only later, years after she lost interest in girlish games of make-believe, had Angela learned that there was no barrier of lace and silk, no wall of whispers and blood, that could keep the priests from prying into the domain of wives and daughters, however much they disdained it. Skinny Father Mateo had spoken on the matter at great length during Angela’s trial and sentencing, when she had been bound and kneeling on the flat paving stones in the village square. The day had been hot and cloudless, the air stirred only by the splayed fans of the old women in the audience. Angela’s knees had already been bruised and bloodied from kneeling through the accusation, the days of interrogation, the nights of imprisonment, and she had been so hungry and thirsty she had swayed in time with Mateo’s words, hearing them not as any language of man she knew but the dull roar of an animal out of a fable, with only choice accusations slipping through: seductress, temptress, devil, whore. Skinny Father Mateo, it had to be said, knew a great deal of very intimate detail regarding the particulars of Angela’s sin, the extent of her supposed devilry, the effect it had on good but unwary men. If Angela could do even one of the things Skinny Father Mateo had claimed, she would have struck him down with a lightning bolt right there in the square while he questioned the Bianchi boys so thoroughly one might have thought it was he, not they, who had stumbled upon Angela and Francesco in the olive grove, he who had hidden himself behind the summer-lush branches to watch the rise and fall of their bare skin, to hear the pant of their breath, to turn and run when it overwhelmed him, to tell everybody who would listen.

Skinny Father Mateo had smiled when he brandished the knife and sliced her arm open. The chalice had caught her blood, and overflowed, and still he smiled.

Francesco had left the island weeks ago, gone to sea with his uncle’s trading ship, which would spend the summer sailing between ports on the mainland. He was probably out there somewhere, alive, careless, not knowing the island had been attacked. Angela tried to remember why his smile had so enticed her. He was not the first man she had met in the olive grove. He was only the first who was so afraid of his mother that he lied and said she bewitched him and ran away to sea after they were caught.

It had not been his smile, Angela recalled, but his hands. Strong, large hands, warm and calloused when they touched her skin. He had hid his face in those hands throughout her trial. He had let Skinny Father Mateo speak for him.

• • • •

The wheelbarrow hit a stone and tilted to the side. Angela cursed mildly and righted it. She had reached the top of the slope, where the path rounded the watchtower. The sun was setting, casting the sea and land in burnt hues of red and orange.

She had thought, when she was imprisoned, that she would never see another sunset. Never see the shearwaters dipping and whirling over the shore. Never see the waves curl and spread as they crawled up the sand. She had thought her eyes would forget how to see color, her skin would forget the kiss of warmth, her belly would forget the contentment of a good meal.

She had thought she would die in the darkness until Fat Father Mateo had thrown the keys down the stone steps with the whispered warning: “The island is overrun, girl! Free yourself but stay hidden!” She loathed her own cowardice but heeded his words. She had stayed in the dungeon until the screams ended.

Her shadow stretched long and lanky on the beach, slithering beside her with a silhouetted wheelbarrow of its own, her constant companion until together they reached the saint. He lay on his side now, legs bent, arms sagging, as though even his armor had grown soft and pliable during the day. Angela rolled him onto his back; seawater dribbled from the gaps in his armor.

Demon,” he rasped. His voice was weaker than it had been that morning. She wondered if he could feel thirst and hunger. “Demon.”

“Oh, shut up.” The thrill she felt at hushing the saint was small but satisfying. Angela sat back on her heels to contemplate the best way of lifting him. “Be quiet a moment while I think.”

In the end, she decided there was nothing for it but to heave him into the wheelbarrow like a lumpy sack of grain. He did not fit well; one arm and both legs hung over the sides, and his head was bent awkwardly to his shoulder. She wondered what happened to the body of a saint after death. They were not anymore men of lowly flesh and blood, or so the priests claimed, but she did not think that meant they were seaweed and sand. She placed his sword across his chest.

Whatever he was beneath his armor, he was heavy enough that pushing him across the cobbled beach and up the footpath took her so long that the sun was setting before she reached the old watchtower. With sunset came a cool ocean breeze that whispered gently through the fields and olive groves. When she reached her campsite above the village, Angela left him in the wheelbarrow to light her fire. Only when it is crackling and bright did she dump him to the ground.

He said nothing as she moved him around, nothing except gurgles and gasps of pain. She dragged him upright to slump against an orange tree with his hands open at his sides, both palms facing the sky, like the blind beggar from the Parable of the Queen of Mists. Angela left him there—as ignored as the bewitched beggar in the tale, until his own mother had spotted him on the roadside—while she put together her own meal. Olives, cured pork, apricots just shy of perfectly ripe. Red wine from Pia Annunciata’s deep, cool cellar. She had victuals enough to last her months, should she survive that long. The raiders had no use for food or drink; they wanted only slaves. Fat Father Mateo had once told her it was because they had been waging war for so long nothing but pain could satiate them. She drank wine directly from the bottle. She drank again. The night was dark now, the ocean a swath of silken black beneath the stars. The moon was a delicate silver eyelash; the raiders had attacked on the dark of the new moon.

“You want some?” She offered the wine to the saint.

His black eyes shifted in the depths of his helmet.

She lowered her hand to rest the bottle on the ground beside her. “Do you even need to eat and drink like a common man? Or does your faith and the blood of sinners sustain you?”

The saint coughed, twice, and made a sound like the beginning of a word, “ah, ah, ah.” He raised one hand and gestured.

Angela eyed him warily. “What? What do you want?”

Another cough, then he said, clearly, “Water.”

“Ah! So you can speak other words.”

She brought a bucket and ladle to the saint and set them aside to remove his helmet.

He grasped her wrists, and she startled, for his leather gloves were cool and damp and gritty. But his fingers were weak, and it took no effort at all to dislodge his grip and remove the helmet. The jaw dangled as she lifted it, squeaking on rusty hinges, and his face was revealed.

Eyes of a shimmering beetle-black. Long, girlish lashes of pure white, and untrimmed hair of the same color. A strong patrician nose. Surprisingly mulish lips, twisted in a scowl. A scattering of whiskers on his chin. His teeth were somehow too small and too sharp.

Something cracked inside of Angela, shock opening into dismay.

He was only a boy. No more than fourteen or fifteen. A hermit crab scurried out of the white hair above his brow; a clutch of sand flies fled from his right ear. He was only a child.

With shaking hands, Angela held the ladle to his cracked lips, but he tried to take it himself. His fingers were too clumsy in the armor, so she removed the glove to reveal pale and wrinkled skin beneath. He was missing his smallest finger. The wound was old, the scar uneven and knobby.

She handed him the ladle and sat again, a few feet away, where she had left her wine and the remains of her dinner. Her appetite was gone. She had never had cause to wonder before how the saints were selected, or if they were given a choice. The hermit crab raced into the grass and darkness. She did not think it would find its way to the ocean from here.

“Do you know what Father Mateo told us before you came here?” she said. She raised the wine jug, lowered it without drinking. “Fat Father Mateo, the kind one. Not the one who held my trial. He said no weapon of man or nature or the forces of evil could destroy what God had forged in the fires of His holy city. That is why, he said, that is why some towns believed it a blessing to be granted a saint, while others believed it a curse. And they were both right. He said—”

Angela lifted the wine jug to her lips and drank deeply. A year ago the villagers had gathered to watch the priests uncrate their new warrior. Skinny Mateo’s thin-lipped smile had been triumphant, but it was Fat Mateo who spoke the blessing as he pried the coffin-like box open and cleared the straw and sawdust away. When the holy warrior stood before them, gleaming and tall, no islander dared utter a word, not until Grandmother Magda, who had not spoken in years, had dropped to her knees, closed her eyes, and begun to pray loudly. Everybody else soon followed suit. Even Angela, and she had meant it at the time, meant it more than she had ever meant any prayer, although she did not close her eyes. She had not wanted to take her eyes off the gleaming metal man. In a moment of wild madness, she had been convinced that if she did, if she looked away for even a second, he would transform into a pillar of flame, and the flame would spread, would engulf the entire village, the vineyards and fields, the whole of the island, and burn until the sea boiled at the shores.

“He said you would prove a blessing for the good and a curse for the evil. Is that true? Have you been a blessing for the good people of this island? For my sister Paola and her little boys?”

The boy’s mouth quivered. His eyes were narrow and dark.

“Have you been a blessing for me? Did you cleanse my blood when you drank it down and pissed it out?”

Demon,” he hissed. A dribble of spittle trailed from his lips.

Angela sighed. She wiped tears from her cheeks. She drank more wine and tossed another stick onto the fire. “I thought you might say that.”

She was still drinking, and he still drooling, when the night wind turned and brought a new scent over the island. It was not the scent of the burnt and rotting village, nor the scent of the sea, but something fouler, from festering wounds far older, and seas far deeper. With the odor came broken wails, a drift of laughter, a tendril of voices that curled and echoed like songs sung by a choir whose throats had long since forgotten the languages of mankind.

Angela stepped away from the fire to look over the sea. The scavengers came from the west, following the oily flotsam of the raiders. At night, from afar, the flotilla was a dark smear spotted with light. She could not see how far it stretched. She could not see if the edges churned and roiled where the scavengers took to the sea and swam for shore.

She could make to the caves at the base of the cliffs before they landed. She could make it to the cellar of the church. She could hide in the vineyard. She could hide in the crypts. She knew this island well. In the stories, the scavengers were always ravenous and animalistic, more hungry than clever. They followed their masters as mindless beasts, because there was nothing else they knew how to do. In the stories, they devoured the corpses of the dead and cracked the bones of children between their teeth.

In the stories, no village protected by a saint ever fell to the raiders.

She leaned down to pick up the saint’s glove. It was too large for her, but not as large as it had been on him; when she moved her fingers the metal plates clacked like the wings of fat summer beetles. The fit was almost comfortable. Sea salt had dried in the leather creases. She touched the white crust with the tip of her tongue.

“I’m going to need your sword as well,” said Angela.

The saint did not respond. His head lolled to the side; the spit on his lip had dried to a smear. The sand flies returned, speckling his face like a pox.

“Ah,” she said softly. “I don’t suppose you’ll miss it, then.”

His eyelashes, as white as his hair, curled over the purple smudges beneath his eyes. She had the sudden urge to lean over and kiss his forehead. She wondered if he had ever had a mother to do that for him. She had never thought about the mothers of saints before; they were supposed to belong to God and no one else. There were tracks of tears on his pale cheeks. She felt a pang of guilt at the pain she must have caused him, manhandling him into the wheelbarrow, dumping him to the ground.

“Rest well,” she whispered. She touched her thumb to his brow in a blessing.

She made no promises to the dead boy or to herself. She peeled the armor from his body piece by piece. With every dancing twist of the wind, the wails of the scavengers grew louder. They sounded human, then animal, then human again. It was better not to imagine what they might look like, or how their hunger drove them. Angela hummed to drown out their cries as she dressed herself in gold and bronze. It was a song she knew, from long ago, one she and her sisters used to sing while stomping grapes after the harvest. She could not remember the words.

Kali Wallace

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for adults, teens, and children, as well as a number of short stories and essays. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.