Eyeless immortals gathered around Sir Danielle Longbow in their great library miles beneath the surface of the world.
“I know you know something. Tell me. I need to understand.” Danielle begged the uamhith librarians whose heads were twitching in the silent conversation of telepathy.
“You are lucky again, Danielle, for many reasons.” Quick Foot, a young uamhith with just over two centuries beneath his belt put a hand on her shoulder.
“The runes, what do they mean?” She asked. Biting her lips as their heads twitched again, she looked from one grey humanoid to another. Trying not to shout in the depths of her desperation was sapping her energy.
“They are an invitation.” Quick Foot took his clawed hand from her shoulder. “An invitation to a god who must never again receive one.” All the uamhith raised their hands at once. Every long-eared creature simultaneously.
“What do you mean, again?” Danielle inhaled the stale air of the subterranean world. Anything that caught the light of her flaming torch was either orange, grey, or black.
“We told you before that we lived on the surface. Uamhith, cenaga, many more races that are now extinct. An invitation appeared in our greatest city. Three bodies floating out of reach. Dead and decaying as it was in yours. When we finally burnt them as you did the invitation was revealed. Three runes in the sky over Red Home, our capital.
In our innocence, we believed the runes were salvation. We wrote them on our temples to end the sleeplessness.
Fire rained from the sky.” Every uamhith head hung. “An eye of darkness ringed by light spat out the dragons that laid waste to everything we had built over millennia. Our civilisation was destroyed in hours.”
Danielle put her hand on Quick Foot’s shoulder. As a survivor of invaders bent on genocide, she knew the sight of a city in flames. Bodies piled high in her mind.
“No one must ever use those runes again.” Quick Foot’s energy changed from sorrowful to desperate. “You must return to the surface to make sure none of your people ever speak or write those symbols. You must know, our lands never recovered from the desolation brought by that hateful god. Even now they are plagued by vampires and the undead. You call them the Dead Lands now. They were a paradise before three bodies hovered in the sky. We scoured our minds, mutilated ourselves to be sure we would forget those symbols. If you must do the same, it will be a small price to pay. Go.”
With Quick Foot’s words buzzing in her mind Danielle hastened back through endless tunnels. Running mile after mile until her lungs burnt and her legs screamed for relief, she returned to the surface a wreck of herself.
Riding her horse at the gallop all the way back to Leonor, she left from the saddle to the cobbles outside the castle.
“Are the guards showing the papers around the city?” Danielle asked a man by the gate in the bark of a guard dog.
“Yes, Sir Longbow. Every citizen has seen one or more of them. By nightfall we’ll all have seen a dozen. That’s not all of it though, sir. Some have taken to writing the runes in a trance.”
“WHAT?” Danielle’s head snapped to the sky. Tired eyes saw nothing but the dull blue of oncoming night.
“The fliers have done their work. None of the runes were the right ones yet. Those writing them were taken to the castle dungeons.”
“A handful only, raving they were. Lunatics who never woke from the madness cast by the bodies in the sky. The trees Sir Longbow, they’ve been frantic. Screaming. They say we must forget but not why. It’s madness.”
“It’s fear. Thank you soldier.” She nodded to him and handed him the reigns of her horse. “Look after it until I return. It’s tired, shouldn’t give you trouble.” Her weary horse was already lying down on the cobbles, sides heaving from the long ride.
Fanning herself with the sweat soaked green of her tunic, Danielle ran through the castle to the dungeons. Feet clapping on the granite floors and down the steps, she met Catherine Harper.
Catherine wiped the blade of a short knife. Behind the blackened silver mask she wore, it was impossible to see the expression on the assassin’s face. Her yellow eyes narrowed at the sight of Danielle.
“I was hoping never to meet you down here again.”
“I didn’t want to either,” said Sir Longbow. “What did you do?”
“What had to be done, as I will again.” Catherine’s black clad shoulder barged past Danielle and raced up the steps away from the dungeon.
Red was running in the tracks between the floor stones. Open cell doors. Splashes on the walls. Faces split in agonised screams. Throats cut. If Danielle had only been minutes earlier, she could have stopped the killing.
One had two marks on his arm, scratched there with his nails. On the off chance they were correct, she dragged her knife across them. No more could be done for the dead. She feared for the living. One reproduction of the summons was all it would take.
Throwing straw over the bodies she told a man to burn them where they were. No one was to look.
Leaden feet dragged themselves up every step of the castle to the tower where the royal coven met. Shelves covered with beakers and vials on one side faced rows of books on the other. Two dozen witches and warlocks were consulting ancient tomes and penning notes. Lupita Smith was there in the green robes they all wore. Her tight black dreadlocks were unique among the brown and blonde hair of the others.
“Lu?” Danielle wiped sweat from her brow. She wanted to lie down on the floor and sleep.
“Danielle,” her lover turned, relieved smile turning to concern on her face. “Gods, are you alright?”
“Tired from running here. Tired of knowing about this nightmare.” She was about to talk about the uamhith but stopped herself. Exhaustion could not have her break her promise to them. “This all happened long ago in what we call the Dead Lands. People recreated the runes they saw. Dragons poured through an eye in the sky and destroyed a whole kingdom in hours.” Her neck clicked as she bent it from side to side. Groaning, she sat in a creaking chair, subjecting other muscles to the ache of her exhaustion.
“Dragons? The hounds of the gods?”
“The cenaga told you this?” Asked a blonde witch, her face a pale mask of fear.
“I was told that a race called the uamhith were obliterated there, millennia ago.” Danielle tried not to lie. If they made assumptions, it wasn’t her fault.
“Dragons,” said a boy with scars across his neck.
Danielle nodded. “I need water.” Her throat was a desert crying out for water. When she was handed a skin, the liquid seemed to soak into her parched throat before it could go any further. She turned it upside down and gave it a shake, frowning.
“Are you sure you’re alright? We’re doing everything that can be done here. We have a spell to cast when rainy weather comes. Everyone will forget about the runes. There’s not a cloud in the sky though. Whatever taunted us with those corpses seems to have foreseen our resistance.
Danielle. You need to go to your mother.” Lupita’s eyes met the knights as the witch held the warrior’s chin. “She took ill. You have to see her. Rose is with her.”
“What’s wrong with Alexandra?” Sir Longbow asked.
“You need to go and see her, Dan. Right now.” Lupita’s face was doom. Her words were firm and kind in a way only those you love can be.
Her every joint clicked as she stood. Feet padded with blisters commanded she sat back down. Muscles aflame from running begged likewise. Tired from days without sleep her whole body pleaded for rest she could not give it.
Lupita and some knights half carried her to the granite tower where her mother lived with Rose.
Her weary arm struggled to rise before she hammered on the door.
Rose opened the steel-clad pine door. Tears dripped from brown-green eyes. “Danielle. Come in.” Miss Fletcher hauled on the warrior with strength Sir Longbow could no longer resist. Lupita followed, telling the soldiers to leave them.
On a cot by the fire was Alexandra. The stub of her left arm hung at her side. Veins and wrinkles creased the remaining hand as it rested on her chest.
“What happened,” Danielle asked with a trembling voice.
“She collapsed when you set fire to the bodies in the sky. Started twitching and talking funny. She’s been sleepy since. Worse than sleepy. I’m worried Danielle. She’s not talked in two days. Half of her face, look.” Rose pointed a shaking hand at her mother’s face, half limp.
Alexandra’s short silver hair caught the orange of the fireplace. Brown eyes hid behind eyelids closed beneath a frowning brow. Dehydrated breath met her daughter’s nose as the mother showed yellow teeth.
“She’s been like this the whole time?” Sir Longbow asked.
“No. On and off. She was just poorly yesterday. Looking around but mostly asleep and today, nothing.” Rose Fletcher held her lover’s only hand. “Today it looks like… I don’t think she’s… I don’t know.” Rose wiped her eyes and sniffed.
“Alexandra.” Danielle said, then shook her head. “Mother. Wake up. It’s Danielle. I’m here. Please wake up.”
Flickering behind the sleeping woman’s eyelids said something was happening. Miss Fletches let Sir Longbow take her mother’s hand. A gentle squeeze encountered no response.
“I’ve been distant. I’m sorry for that. You’re the only blood family I have. Don’t leave me yet mama. Not before I know you’ve heard me forgive you. I’ve held onto the past for too long now.” Danielle’s strong hand gave her mother’s wrinkled fingers another squeeze.
Whether the twitch she felt in Alexandra’s hand was response or not the knight chose to take it that way.
“Do you want me here, Dan? Should I go?” Lupita asked softly.
“Can you check on Nettle? I don’t want her getting into trouble. Make sure she’s not one of the idiots trying to work out the runes. Catherine Harper’s hunting for anyone trying to write them down.” Her eyes never left her mother’s.
“I will.” Lupita’s hair tickled Danielle’s face as the witch kissed the warrior’s cheek. “I’ll be at the house or the tower if you need me.”
“Alright.” The knight felt the weak beat of her mother’s pulse with fingers delicately but purposefully on the artery in Alexandra’s wrist.
Rose put new logs on the fire as the old ones crumbled to ash.
They sat around a mother and a lover, praying in their own silent ways.
“MAMA PLEASE!” Danielle sobbed when she realised that she couldn’t feel a pulse in the wrist anymore. Letting go of the hand she held the cold cheeks of her mother in her hands.
“She’s still breathing,” said Rose, putting the long fingers of her left hand on the daughter’s shoulder. The other hand took the sleeper’s again.
“I should have come here sooner,” said the distraught daughter.
“Alex knows why you didn’t. She doesn’t blame you. She talks about you every day. She’s proud of you.”
“She does?” Danielle’s teary eyes met Rose’s.
“Every morning she prays for you. Not to a god or to gods. Please look after my Danielle, she says. Please keep her safe. Every night before she sleeps as well. She has a copy of your book as well.” Rose stood and picked a book from a shelf otherwise occupied by cooking implements. “Funny part is neither of us read.” Miss Fletcher shook her head. “She had to have it anyway. When she prays for you, she has it open at your portrait.”
Rose turned the pages to a bookmarked print of Danielle almost as Carl Northman had drawn her in the original copy of the book.
“She gave up religion. This is her holy book now. She doesn’t worship but she loves.”
Danielle smiled a stuttering smile, snot dribbling down her philtrum into her mouth. Wiping her nose on her sleeve the knight looked at her doting mother.
Alexandra was perfectly still.
The hand which had been resting on her chest hung limply at her side. Her tanned skin had already taken on a hint of grey.
“NO!” Danielle shook her. “Mama wake up. WAKE UP. PLEASE. PLEASE.”
Rose let out an anguished groan and wrapped her arms around Sir Longbow. “Stop. Stop it. She’s gone. She’s-” The old woman’s knees gave way. “Why?”
They held each other. With heads locked over each other’s shoulders they let rip with deafening grief. Salty wet patches soaked the fabric on their shoulders. Desperate hands clawed at their clothes. Holding onto the soul which had already left was impossible, so they gripped each other.
By the time she’d stopped crying Danielle’s eyelids stung. Her throat burned with the ache of sobbing. Her head split from her own crying and Rose doing the same by her ear.
All that remained later was silence. Unbelieving silence.