Bells of the Kingdom
Leona R Wisoker
Start with the bells. There were always the bells.
Late summer air, heat-hazed, thick, and sticky, clung to Kolan’s skin. Through the wide, arched window the Arason Church gardens spread out in shades of green, white, and gold: there a row of midseason peas; over further, lines of summerbeans; another, taller section was corn tasselling into a frayed, delicious mess.
His mouth watered as he looked out at that last item.
The resonant braummm of the Arason Church bells, marking two hours before noon, jarred him out of his drowsy survey of the gardens. It was hard to keep a contented contemplation of anything going for long, with those things sounding off seemingly every time one relaxed. It hadn’t been so bad out on the edges of town, where Kolan had grown up; but here, especially in this room, the bells always made his teeth vibrate fit to fall out of his mouth. Not relaxing at all.
But then, as sio Dernhain would have said, Kolan wasn’t supposed to be relaxing. He was supposed to be working at learning to write clean copy. Reluctantly, he brought his attention back to the parchment in front of him. An Accounting of the Life of Tenedal, it read. Head Priest of the Arason Branch of the Northern Church, d.1090-1111. He studied the graceful writing without enthusiasm, then reached for the quill.
With delicate care, he copied the line, his writing stark and clumsy compared to the sample above it. A large blot marked every other letter. He sighed, set the quill aside again, and looked out at the pale blue sky. A large horsefly rattled by, circling, searching for a place to settle; Kolan sent it spinning back out the window with a well-aimed slap and a silent apology to the Four.
Harm no living creature, from beetle to boy: one of the Holy Creeds that Kolan recited, alongside a dozen other novices, every morning. All have their places and purposes in the eyes of the gods.
What purpose a horsefly or tick had, Kolan couldn’t begin to guess. Even sio Ense, the gentlest of the Arason Church siopes, had admitted to difficulty with that one.
“Perhaps,” he’d said thoughtfully, “it’s enough to merely understand that one is doing wrong, and be as gentle as possible in removing the offending creature from one’s person. It’s very difficult not to slap a stinging insect away from one, and it’s very difficult to avoid harm to the insect when removing a tick or mosquito.”
Solian, on the other hand, laughed at Kolan for being concerned over insects.
“They’re bugs,” he always said, usually as he was squashing a beetle underfoot. “There are hundreds and hundreds of them, Kolan! They give birth to dozens more every few days. We’ll be overrun if all we do is shoo them gently outside. The gods don’t care about bugs. They care about us. Otherwise the bugs would be running the world, not humans.”
Even though Solian was only a novice, like Kolan himself, and sio Ense a full senior priest, Kolan couldn’t quite decide who was more right.
The heavy tramp of many booted feet on stone echoed through the window to Kolan’s left, the one that looked out over the main courtyard. Kolan wavered, biting his lip, but stayed stubbornly put. Curiosity wasn’t any part of his duties at the moment. Sio Dernhain had been specific: Not for anything less than a fire do you leave that seat and stop your practicing, he’d said. When you can write a line without a blot, you can get up. Until then, you sleep at that desk!
Sio Dernhain wasn’t particularly noted for his kindness, compassion, or patience.
Kolan looked at the blotchy copy line and grimaced. This was going to be a long day.
A thin, wavering shriek floated up from the courtyard. People began shouting. Kolan stood, then sat, then stood again. He made two steps toward the courtyard window, then retreated to the stool, clenching his hands in frustration.
Another of the Creeds came to mind: Obedience to the gods requires a clean heart and a dedication to one’s given tasks. Seek not the chaos of the world outside, but be content with the inner truth and strength the gods will always give to those who truly seek it.
Kolan sighed deeply and picked up the quill. His next attempt only had four blotches, which counted in his mind as encouraging progress.
Outside, people shouted and bellowed. He resolutely shut his ears to everything and bent over his work. Seek not the chaos of the world outside.
Two blotches. Maybe he could produce a clean line before the commotion died down, and sneak a look out the window as a reward.
The next line had so many blotches as to be nearly illegible. Dedication to one’s given tasks. He scowled at the paper and forced himself to slow down. Pay attention. Focus. Dedication.
Each slight curve seemed to take forever, each loop an eternity of care.
Nothing existed except the quill, the paper, the ink, the motion.
He put the final stop at the end and sat back, blinking: perfect. He’d done it. Not a single smear or blot. He put the quill aside and looked toward the courtyard window, but didn’t climb from the stool. The air hung heavy and silent; whatever had happened, it had finished already. There wouldn’t be anything to see.
Seek not the chaos of the world outside. He studied his copy line, compared it to the original; his version was distinctly clumsier. He reached for the quill, cleaned it carefully, then dipped it back into the ink and began again.
Some time later, Dernhain said, from a scant step behind him, “Not bad, sannio.”
Kolan jerked, startled from a near-trance. He barely managed to avoid knocking the ink pot over, but the quill flew from his hand and clattered onto the floor.
Dernhain covered his broad face with one hand and sighed heavily as Kolan scrambled to retrieve the quill.
“Never mind,” he said in answer to Kolan’s stammered apologies. “Sionno Hagair wants to see you. Now.”
“Now?” Kolan looked down at his inkstained fingers.
“Now,” Dernhain said. “Hurry up. There’s someone in his office that wants to talk to you.”
Kolan stared, bewildered. Dernhain’s glare left no room for questions.
Sionno Hagair’s office always seemed, to Kolan, far too small to accommodate not only the man himself, but the massive piles of stuff that accumulated on the black oak desk. Bound books and piles of precious paper formed one thick tower; bags of mysterious powders and granular substances another tall, sloppy heap. One handwoven mesh bag held what had to be over a hundred glass balls, variously colored and sized.
Kolan tried to avoid looking at that bag. They had been his marbles, the only thing from home he’d been allowed to retain when he entered the novitiate. Sio Dernhain had objected that the small glass toys were far too valuable and constituted a novice holding unacceptable wealth; sionno Hagair, after some thought, and to Kolan’s everlasting gratitude, had firmly overridden Dernhain.
Seeing his marbles here still sent a dull, embarrassed ache through his chest. What had happened to sionno Arenin hadn’t been his fault–but he carried the guilt all the same. Harm no living creature, from beetle to boy.
The tall man standing beside Hagair’s desk coughed and said, impatiently, “Well, boy?”
Kolan darted a quick, nervous glance at the Head Priest’s stern, unsmiling face. Hagair dipped his head in a barely visible nod, granting permission to speak. Kolan gulped and looked back at the tall stranger, who cut an imposing figure even in travel-stained clothing.
The man had introduced himself without waiting for sionno Hagair to do so. “Captain Kullag of Bright Bay,” he’d said curtly. “Here to investigate word of witches in Arason. Do you know any, boy?”
Kolan had opened his mouth, shut it again, and stared at Hagair’s desk to give himself time to think. At the captain’s impatient prompt, he gathered his wits and said, “No, Captain, I don’t.”
A quick glance at Hagair showed the man’s expression held the faintest hint of a frown, but the Head Priest made no open protest.
“I’m told you do,” Kullag said heavily. “I’m assured you do. By a friend of yours. Solian.”
Kolan shot the head priest another, more startled look. Hagair now looked thunderously grim.
“S-Solian?” Kolan stammered. “But he’s in Jion!”
“He was supposed to go to Jion,” sionno Hagair said. “Apparently he decided to travel south instead of north.”
“Solian told me of a witch you’re familiar with,” Kullag interrupted, insinuation heavy in his tone. “Ellemoa.”
Kolan felt color cresting into his face, betraying any blander statement he might have tried. Kullag nodded, his hard face creasing into a satisfied smirk.
“So you do know this witch,” Kullag said.
“Witch isn’t an accurate term, Captain, as I’ve already tried to explain,” Hagair said, scowling.
“Lake-born or witch, it all adds up the same for me,” Kullag retorted. “Under your own Church’s edict, she’s a damned creature, and I’m tasked to capture her and bring her to Bright Bay to face the holy judgment of the new n’sion.”
“The edicts from Bright Bay don’t always apply to the northern branches, Captain,” Hagair said promptly. “We do have a certain autonomy–”
“Take that up with the n’sion,” Kullag said. “I’m doing the job given me by King and Church.” He turned a glare on Kolan. “Where is she?”
Gone, thank the gods. “I don’t know, Captain,” Kolan said aloud, quite honestly. “I haven’t been allowed to leave the grounds since becoming a novice here. I haven’t seen her in–” He glanced at the Head Priest.
“Almost two years,” sionno Hagair supplied.
Kullag’s scowl now rivaled Dernhain at his most impatient. “Where does she live, boy?”
“Captain, the proper term is sannio,” Hagair said. “Novice. Boy is disrespectful.”
Kullag ignored the interruption, his attention fixed on Kolan.
Kolan gulped, his composure wavering. “I–I don’t know, Captain,” he said. He couldn’t tell this man where to find Ellemoa’s cottage. Even empty and abandoned, it was hers. And since nobody knew why the lake-born had left, there was nothing saying she mightn’t return one day.
She wasn’t a witch. She wasn’t.
He tried not to think about flames dancing on the tips of her fingers without burning the flesh beneath, and kept his gaze stubbornly on the corner of the head priest’s desk.
“You don’t know?”
“I always met her somewhere,” Kolan said, not looking up. A fine sweat broke out on his forehead, and he didn’t dare look at the head priest. Seek not the chaos of the world outside. Dedication to one’s given tasks. Harm no living creature, from beetle to boy.
Lies harm one’s soul, each one a tiny rip, hard to mend, each one a scar forever.
He’d take the hurt of a lie if it protected Ellemoa from this man.
Hagair shifted his weight restlessly but once more made no open protest.
“I see,” the captain said, his tone black with disapproval and doubt. “Solian seemed quite certain that you would know how to guide us to her.”
Kolan’s heartbeat thudded in his ears.
“Captain,” the Head Priest cut in, “Solian exaggerates. He also lies. He seems to find it amusing. There’s a very good reason he was being sent to Jion for a long meditational retreat.”
Kolan’s gaze slid inexorably sideways to the bag of marbles.
“Since you seem to know Solian so well,” sionno Hagair continued, “perhaps you can tell me what happened to his companions? He was sent north with a senior priest, sio Ense, and another novice named Asrain. Did he happen to mention them at all?”
“Missing priests aren’t my concern,” Kullag snapped. “Witches are my concern. And Solian struck me as surprisingly trustworthy, sionno. All things considered. I’ve gotten quite good at spotting liars.”
Kolan could feel the captain’s glare boring into him.
“Not as good as you think, apparently,” the Head Priest said. “Since Kolan seems unable to help you, is there anything else I can do for you, Captain? It’s almost time for noon services.”
Kullag grunted. The air suddenly felt thick and dry; Kolan glanced up and found the two men glaring at one another with searing intensity.
“No,” Kullag said at last, and with the barest sketch of a bow turned and stormed from the room.
“Gods hold your soul gently, Captain,” sionno Hagair said without the least trace of irony. As the heavy tread of the captain’s booted feet faded along the hallway, he sighed again, rubbing his hands over his face.
“Sannio Kolan, shut the door and sit down. Check that he’s really gone first.”
The hallway was empty. Kolan pushed the heavy wooden door shut, dread coiling in his stomach, and returned to perch on the single chair in front of the head priest’s desk.
“I’m sorry, sionno,” he said, deciding that he might as well get the scolding over with and receive his punishment allotment of Recitations.
To his surprise, Hagair grimaced and settled into his own rather sturdier chair without answering right away. At last he said, “There are gradations to morality in the real world that aren’t always covered in the Creeds, Kolan. You’ve just tripped over one of those, I’m afraid.”
Kolan glanced up, startled. “You’re not angry?”
“I’m furious. But not at you. You handled that very well.” Hagair pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then dropped his hand to the desk and looked at Kolan again. “Now you tell me the real truth. Do you know where she lives?”
“Yes, sionno,” Kolan said promptly. “But she’s gone, with all the other lake-born.” He caught himself and added, hastily, “Isn’t she?”
Hagair’s eyes creased as though he were restraining a smile.
“No,” he said. “She stayed behind when they left. I spoke to her once or twice in the following months.”
Kolan’s mouth dropped open. “But her cottage was emp-hhmmphm.” He bit his tongue and shut his eyes, feeling hot color flooding into his face again.
Hagair coughed a few times, then said, “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen her in some time, myself. Perhaps she left and followed her people after all. I don’t know why she stayed, so I don’t know why she would leave.”
I know why she stayed, Kolan thought dismally. He rubbed the fingertips of his right hand against the palm of his left without really thinking about it; glanced up to find the head priest watching him with a canny, perceptive stare.
“I think that perhaps if Ellemoa is indeed still in the area,” Hagair said in an abstracted, distant tone, “someone ought to warn her that this captain is hunting her. Don’t you think?”
Kolan nodded fervently and hoped that Hagair wouldn’t send sio Dernhain. Ellemoa would hide from most of the senior priests, and then there would be no warning given.
In fact, Kolan couldn’t think of anyone that Ellemoa, if she was still present, wouldn’t run from–except himself. He met Hagair’s mild gaze, watched the man’s right eyebrow arch slowly, and felt a jolt of breathless excitement slam through his stomach.
“Sionno?” he said, hardly daring to believe the hint he saw before him. Novices–sannio–weren’t allowed to leave the grounds. Only junior priests–siolle–and above could leave the grounds. Was the head priest going to break that rule? Was this another one of the gradations of morality he’d mentioned?
“Sio Dernhain has you training as a scribe, I believe?” Hagair said. “Tedious work, that. Why don’t you take the afternoon off and take a walk to clear your mind, siolle Kolan?”
Kolan opened his mouth to correct the head priest, then stopped. He blinked once, then again, his eyes feeling larger each time. He thought his stomach might turn inside out from sheer excitement. Siolle. Hagair hadn’t said that by mistake. Kolan had just been promoted to junior priest.
Dedication. The gods were rewarding him for his dedication. Praise the Four, praise them loud. He would be sure to sing with more attentiveness during the next service, to let them know his gratitude.
“You’re still here, siolle Kolan?” Hagair said mildly.
Caught out of his dazed wonder, Kolan jolted to his feet. “Thank you, sionno! Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he blurted, and fled on the wings of the man’s laughter.
As he ran, the church bells embarked on their hourly, doleful announcement of time passing.
Start with the breath. There is always the breath.
The infant smelled like peaches and slightly sour milk, although Ellemoa couldn’t remember having fed it recently. She couldn’t remember anything beyond the warm grey mist around her and the thin whistling sound of her firstborn breathing. Something had happened, something terrible and frightening, out beyond the mist, but she didn’t need to remember that now.
She wasn’t alone any longer. She would never be alone again. That was the only thing that mattered. I have a son. He would stay with her forever. He would never abandon her without warning. He would never betray her.
You must leave the lake, Ellemoa, her lover said. She felt the mist stir around her, lifting her hair in a gentle caress. It is not good for you to stay here so long. It is not good for the child.
“I want to stay with you,” she said absently, her attention on the infant. “He wants to stay with you. We love you. Don’t you love us? Don’t you want us to stay?”
The mist swirled in a subtle sigh, currents of heat threading across her skin. You do not hear me, her lover said. You cannot stay with me. You must go back to the air, to the human side of the world.
The word cannot caught her attention. She looked up, frowning; in her arms, the infant stirred restlessly, whimpering a little. A vague dread settled thickly into her chest.
“Of course we can stay,” she said. “We’re ha’ra’hain. We belong here, with you. You love us. You want us here.”
No, her lover said. You are far, far from the place where I live, Ellemoa. To me, this place is cold and unpleasant. You could not endure my true bed, and the child is too tender yet to even try. You only endure this much because of my support, and I grow tired. I am old, Ellemoa. I must rest. You must seek out lessers for your support for a time. You must go back to the air.
“No,” she said, dread spidering through her entire body. The infant burped, then began whimpering more loudly. “No, I can’t. They left me. They abandoned me! I only have the humans now, and they hate me. They’ll hurt me. You can’t send me back!”
You must go back, her lover said, unrelenting, and the warm haze thinned rapidly.
Protect the child, her lover said. It will be my last. I do not have the strength for another. It will be the one to come after me, in time. Protect the child, Ellemoa, so that it may protect this area.
Before she could protest again, the mists disappeared under a flood of sunlight. She staggered, throwing up one arm to shield her dazzled eyes. The infant, jolted into a less secure hold, wailed furiously.
Eerie mist lapped like iridescent water along the improbably thin strip of pebble-sand shore. Icy air slapped against her skin. She adjusted internal temperatures reflexively, and the shivering stopped.
How could you? she railed, glaring at the diaphanous waters. How dare you? To leave me alone again, alone with the humans–I trusted you!
There was no response. She could sense her lover sinking further into the scalding depths of the lake, indifferent to her rage.
The child’s wail abruptly took on a more startled pitch. Moments later, a hard grip closed around each of Ellemoa’s upper arms.
“Here she is, Captain!” a coarse voice crowed. “With a witch whelp, no less!”
Humans. Rage frothed through her instantly. They were threatening her child. Herself. No! She would kill them all, squash them like the rude insects they really were–
Something struck the back of her head, and she pitched forward to her knees, hovering on the fringes of a hazy near-darkness. A moment later a rough hand pulled her head back and a stinging, gritty powder drifted onto her face. The very touch of it felt obscene.
She tried to shake it off, but it clung, searing like tiny drops of acid. Her screams of protest drew laughter from the humans around her, then another voice joined hers: “You’re hurting her! Stop it! She hasn’t done anything wrong!”
Kolan. Kolan. She opened her eyes, blinking; for a moment she saw him, hands bound, on his knees as well, shouting at the men around them. Then the grit blew into her eyes, and she screamed, her vision blurring into agonized, fractured shapes.
“We don’t have orders about a child,” someone said. “Damned if I’m hauling a witch-brat back to Bright Bay.”
“How can you do this to me?” she shrieked. “How can you do this to my child?”
“It’s demon-spawn!” a man yelled back.
“Burn it!” someone else shouted.
“Drown it!” a third voice suggested.
“It’s a child! How can you harm a child?”
“It’s a damned creature,” said a voice much closer to hand. “You’ll be joining it in due time, woman, never fear!”
Her temper snapped. Humans. They were all insane. “The hells you say!” she shouted in his general direction. “No! You won’t lay a hand on either one of us!”
She tried to surge to her feet, calling on the strength she’d been cautioned never to reveal to the humans—and found herself unable to rise from her knees. Her vision and senses were too blurred from that noxious powder to allow direct attack; she screamed again, incensed and, finally, frightened.
Focusing her attention on the lake, on her lover, she threw all the power she had into a desperate, silent scream: Help me! A few of the men around her swore and shuffled back a few hasty steps. Kolan cried out in pain; he’d felt the call more clearly than the soldiers. Not surprising. She’d given him more than he would probably ever realize before his choice to abandon her in favor of the hypocrites he called holy men.
Pity she couldn’t take back any of the deeper aspects of what she’d given him. She could have used the extra strength at the moment.
Far away, far below, something rolled and shifted uneasily, then subsided to silence: refusing to answer the call.
Her child wailed again, preternaturally aware that it was helpless in a very dangerous situation. Protect the child. Her lover might not return for her–faithless monster–but he would for the child. She reached out to the child, slid inside its awareness, and channeled her demand through its cries.
The child’s shrieks held agonizing pain this time, as the last of her strength tore through it and forced connections that wouldn’t have formed naturally for a dozen years at least.
The vast bulk of her lover’s awareness rolled and grumbled, then began ascending rapidly.
Ellemoa threw her head back and began to laugh, high and shrill: sheer relief from the fear, and a savage satisfaction that now these humans would pay for their aggression.
The men backed away, their own fear cascading from them like a waterfall. Kolan’s shrieks seemed to fall into a strange rhythm with those of her child, as though he’d somehow locked onto or into the infant’s pain.
My child. Mine! Not yours. Without moving a muscle, she thrust between them, severing the tenuous connection; felt Kolan fall sideways, convulsing and gagging. Her child’s now razor-edged wails sliced into her. She forced herself to endure the noise only because binding it silent risked losing her lover’s attention.
“Captain,” someone said, voice thick with alarm. “The lake–look!”
Ellemoa bared her teeth and shrieked, “You will all die for daring to threaten us!”
“Ellemoa, no,” Kolan hollered. “Don’t do this to yourself! Harm none, harm none!”
She spat in his direction and laughed again.
The air changed: pressure whomped across her in a great, molten shock. You are not protecting the child well, her lover said disapprovingly, a great presence even to her blurred vision. Around her, humans screamed.
They’re hurting us! Kill them! Kill them!
She felt the massive regard turn from her to the soldiers, felt her lover sorting swiftly through their minds, assessing the situation. No, he said at last. His words flickered in the not-space between moments, taking less than a human blink to convey. If I kill these, humans will send more to damage this area that I protect. They will harm those who have done nothing to earn that hurt. I cannot kill these men for you.
Unable to believe his refusal, she let out a wordless howl of protest. He was siding with the humans?
I will send you to safety instead, he said. I will send you to a place where a younger relative has the strength to protect you while my last child grows to replace me. My relative will keep you safe and teach the child, as I lack the strength to do. You will return here when it is safe.
“No!” she screamed aloud. “Kill them, gods damn you, kill them!”
Men shouted around her, dim animal noises she ignored as pointless–they were merely screaming and running about in stunned confusion.
There are many ways to do a thing, her lover said, and not all of them require violence to a lesser form of life. You are too young yet. You will learn. He paused; she felt him examining those around her again. I will send this young human with you, he decided. He understands the way of things already. He can teach you. Let him help you with the child. Let him teach it restraint and discipline, and learn from him yourself.
Heat built and thundered around her. Men screamed. Her child screamed. Kolan screamed. There came the sharp scent of urine, the bitter musk of sweat, and a twisting that threatened to rip her apart.
Something dark and rancid filled her senses. Threads of green and gold whipped through the not-space and twined around her in an unbreakable grip. Mine, a thin, slippery voice whispered. Mine now. Mine!
No, her lover said, sounding startled. Who are you? You are not my cousin! Who are you?
MINE. MINE now! Give! GIVE!
The threads tightened and sharpened around her.
Help me! she screamed. My love, help me!
She sensed a horrible, wrenching hesitation. Abruptly, her child’s screams redoubled, then inverted to a resounding silence.
I cannot save you this time, her lover said.
My child! My child! Where is he?
The darkness whispered angry echo: Where did you send it? It is mine. Mine! Bring it back, give it to me, mine!
I am sorry, Ellemoa, her lover said. I failed you. The child is safe. The child is safe. I am sorry. I love–
The word trailed into a broken silence.
She hung in fetid darkness, unable even to thrash against the cocoon of bindings, and listened to Kolan’s agonized howls with a savage sense of satisfaction.
This is all your fault, she told him. Yours. All yours.
He was too busy screaming to answer.
For more on the series, go here.