by Alexander Léger-Small
Ausme held her mother’s hand, sweat-slicked from the mid-morning heat. She puffed out her lower lip and the sweaty tendrils of hair along her forehead flapped in the artificial breeze.
“Mother,” she whined, “you know I’m not a baby anymore.” She struggled to wring her hand free.
Her mother looked down at the girl and smiled; warm, patient and knowing, the way only a mother can.
“When the city isn’t under siege any longer, Ausme, I’ll stop holding your hand. Eleven years isn’t too old to show your Mother you love her. ” Just an edge of taunt in her rich, loving voice. She changed the topic. “We’ll be to the market soon enough. Just a few more blocks.”
“I know where the market is, Mother.”
She longed to race ahead, determined to wring the most out of this Market Day. They always went by too fast.
Once every five-day, Mother forgot to cry. She didn’t pace or worry and wring her hands about when Father and Ausme’s brother, Gautriz, would come home. Ausme tried to be the helper Mother needed her to be. She got up early each morning and circled the street, looking for discarded tin or scraps of glass for the Tinkerman. She kept her cubby in their single room tenement tidy and her one change of clothes neatly folded. Mostly, she succeeded. But on Market Day, the War slipped into the background and Ausme slipped into wildness. Mother loved her all the more for it.
They wound their way through streets like canyons, buildings choking the sky into slivers of blue and white. Their long shadows like oases.
Ausme looked up at her mother and flashed a smile, ready to forgive the necessity of hand holding. She saw a beautiful woman, with dark ringlets tucked back behind the wide ribbon securing the basket to her head, with a face that was the closest thing to a home she had. Any annoyance that lingered from the hand holding evaporated. Ausme could never stay mad at Mother for long.
They passed an old woman and Mother stopped to exchange a few words.
A neighbor? Ausme wondered. From when we lived at the docks? Or was it before, in the warehouse where we slept next to Sour Benji and his puppy?
Mother placed a hand on the grandmother’s shoulder, nodding her head in agreement.
Seeing her chance, Ausme squirmed free of her Mother’s grip, anxious for the River Market and its wonders. She scampered ahead, sure to stay in Mother’s sight line. Ausme knew she had been allowed to break the rule for now, but once Mother finished talking to their old neighbor, she’d be back to hand-holding.
When the war first started, the worst fear on every adult’s lips had been that the markets would close. Ausme had asked Old Pol Asbuery, the smartest man she knew, if they would. He had spit his black-chaff at her feet and laughed and laughed.
“The heart of Avacine still pumps trade little miss. Not a thing for girls like you to worry about”, he had said. “The city can last for years and years even if all the river-ways are blockaded.”
She hadn’t asked what a blockade was, she thought she knew. And Old Pol liked it when she figured things out on her own. It was like when those men had piled chairs and tables across the streets at High Gate, right before the start of the War. Ausme remembered how quickly the Governor’s Guard had burned those down.
They could do the same thing on the river, couldn’t they? Block it up?
But no one had. And no matter how long the War lasted, Market Day still came.
So the vendors stalls remained stuffed with fresh fish from the bay; amazing animals from swampy Payuta off to the East; and the smooth leather goods from the Stickmen of the North. Ausme had her mind set on provoking those strange birds Mother pointed out on their last visit. One of the boys in their tenement told her that he’d seen the bird talk. She wasn’t sure if he lied or not, but today she was determined to find out.
Maybe I can convince Mother to let me bring one home?
Ausme doubted it. There was no coin for pretty birds that might or might not be able to speak. And Mother would probably want to eat him instead of keeping him in one of the brilliant silver cages, all curlicue lines and graceful arches.
The city shook. A sickening swaying; a tree caught in a gale, creaks warning of the snap that would break its trunk. A deep, grinding crunch. A roll of sound; like thunder, like the River in full flood after a spring storm. All the sounds came forward brightly, rimmed in silver clarity. They billowed outward, grit and dust joining them in a puffy ring, like clouds. Fierce currents buffeted the chasm of the street. Ausme thrust a bare arm in front of her face, desperate to protect her eyes.
Everything was crashing, shattering, wailing. Something rough and sharp raked the skin of Ausme’s eye-shielding arm. She dropped to the ground, curling up tight. Like Mother taught her.
She screamed; wild, desperate, a little girl lost in a sea of confusion. She screamed for her mother, for help, for all of it to stop!
Pain brought her back to reality. Boots connected with her shoulder, her chest, her lower back. The sounds of people running past her towards the source of the chaos, tripping over the little girl in the middle of the street. Her mind felt like molasses, slow and heavy. Screaming, sobbing, only one thing mattered.
She cracked an eye, slit thin in anticipation of more stinging dust. The towering tenement she rushed past moments before no longer remained. Like a missing tooth, a gap marked where it once stood in the row of slouching brick builds. The street around her, now an impassable sea of wreckage with hillocks of plaster, bricks and splintered wood obstructing her view.
Like a blockade, her mind circled back.
A swirling fog of filth, soot and grit floated over the desolation. People struggled to their feet; dazed, shocked. Mothers clutched at children, examining arms and legs for cuts and bruises. Men, quick to action, already cleared pieces of rubble, but their actions looked small and pathetic.
How can you clear away a whole building!?
Slowly, her mind came back to her. The sound of wailing permeated the choked air. It bored into her head like a drill. All she could hear was sobbing, shrieking.
Her mother was nowhere to be seen.
Ausme rushed up to the row of men, passing pieces of fractured walls steadily along the line until the last man threw the rubble aside. The pile of remains from the building stood the height of at least four men together. Her eyes cast about wildly, sure that her mother was standing in the shadows, or leaning over a crying child, or running down a side street to get help.
Wouldn’t she come for me first?
Ausme felt sick for her touch, the sound of her voice. There, off to the side where Mother should have been, Ausme caught sight of the old woman whom she had been speaking with moments before. A lifetime before. The woman’s face was a death’s mask of white dust, grooved with tear tracks. Recognition flashed across her face when she saw pitiful little Ausme whirling about, screaming for her mother.
“Girl!” She called, “Girl, to me!”
Ausme’s head shot up, wild eyed and furious. “I have to find her!” Squeaking and trilling like a frightened bird.
The old woman shuffled toward the pocket of calm Ausme had wandered into. No men threw bricks here. No bodies were dragged away. Just a little girl, caked in creamy white powder; spinning in circles, reaching out for her missing mother. Leaning on a gnarled stick, the grandmother stretched out a bony hand, inviting Ausme in. Eying the crone like a beast in a trap, Ausme trembled on the precipice of panic. She released a long-held breath and her ferocity evaporated. She gave in to exhaustion; surrendering to any adult who could help navigate the hell she was slipping into.
The unmatched pair crossed to the relative safety on the other side of the street. Panting at the effort, the old woman leaned back against the damaged storefront there. The two caught their breath, Ausme silent and frightfully still.
A pair of men, from somewhere beyond the immediate sphere of catastrophe passed them. Ausme overheard their words.
“Not an attack by the Grand Union’s army,” from one.
“Couldn’t have gotten into the city if they tried,” came the others response. “Just an accident.”
The woman laid a hand on her shoulder.
“I saw her, girl. Your mother. Not a moment before the building fell, she walked right into its shadow. She was coming after . . .” All this, not unkindly, but in the tone of one who has seen the world change, of one who already lost her own kin, and knows there’s nothing to be done about it once the losing has occurred.
Ausme was not an old woman; merely a child of eleven years.
“You’re wrong,” she cried, tears blasting free. “She was right behind me. She ducked into that alley there. Just beyond the building. She had to. What . . . how . . . she did, I, I know she did. We have to go to the River Market. She said there would be fish for dinner. And, the bird . . .”
The old woman cooed softly, and stroked Ausme’s gritty hair, gently brushing it with her withered hands. “No child,” she said softly. “No, she didn’t. I saw the building fall on her.”
Ausme let out a wail. Her voice combined with the chorus of lamentations spiraling up like vultures of loss, riding the shifting dust clouds. The two stood there for a long spell, Ausme crying against the stained apron of the old woman. The crone let the girl take her time.
When she drew the last tears from the well of her soul, Ausme’s face turned again to the wreckage. The relief efforts progressed quickly. The line of men had tripled, as more came from surrounding streets to do their part. The workers managed to dig a shaky hole in the precariously perched detritus. Bodies, smashed and bloodied were passed reverently down the line. The third to be removed was Ausme’s mother.
The girl let out an otherworldly howl at the sight of her blue skirt, at the bloodstained ribbon hanging limply from her mother’s forehead. Almost, she believed. Almost. It was like a deep sleep. Words tumbled from Ausme’s slack jaw,
“Mommy. Mommy, wake up?” Whimpering, near silent. The old woman rubbed her back. She signaled to the relief workers.
The men who carried her mother worked their way to where the pair stood. Some exchange with the old woman passed, Ausme was too lost to follow along. The still limbs of her mother’s body, hanging unused and floppy, cast a spell over her.
What would it take to wake her up?
As each limp shell of a person was hauled from the wreckage, a rat faced man approached the grieving living who received them. He made his way over to Ausme after the carriers moved on.
“She yours?” He looked bored and annoyed, his voice was curt.
Ausme could only look at the pinched, greasy face and whimper.
“Fine. Your mother then? Half a penny.” He reached into tanned bladder tied to his hip and withdrew a tarnished coin, sliced in half. He grabbed Ausme’s trembling hand and pressed the coin into her palm. Dipping his head in forced respect, he moved on to the next survivors. A crying couple cradling a dead child, only a little younger than herself, in their arms. Ausme heard him offer them a whole penny, as if their loss were greater than hers.
She shook, half penny clenched in her whitening fist.
A half penny? For Mother’s life? Is that all she was worth? What would can I do with half a penny. It can’t buy back Mother’s life. It can’t buy a loaf of Gods-cursed bread!
She felt a twisting in her stomach. Even in their long absence, she could believe that Father and Gautriz were still alive somewhere on the battlefields to the northwest. There was no fooling here.
Mother is dead. Forever. Dead forever.
A thousand fluttering birds seemed to take up residence in her chest, her throat. A scream would not be enough to release what was building within her.
In all of her tiny life, she never imagined something this terrible. The tidal wave of grief crashing over her had no end. There was no release. Collapsing to the ground, her renewed sobs quickly became wincing hiccups. Breath was harder to find and the cramps in her stomach became charlie-horses in her arms and legs, a pounding headache at the forefront of her skull. Everything hurt. The world was hurt. Blinding pain. Little Ausme was sure no one else had ever felt this suffering, even the couple beside her holding their unmoving child.
A cry rose from across the street but Ausme paid it no mind, lost in the world of grief she was coming to inhabit. Her stomach flopped, her guts yanked in one hundred different directions. The sound intensified, becoming a staccato series of sharp yips. She cracked her tear-drenched eyes, uncrossed her arms and slowly unfurled herself from the fetal ball she had curled into. She drifted toward the sound, unsure of how she propelled herself forward.
The sounds came from the stingy man with his half pennies. He crouched, doubled over in pain with fingers digging into his stomach. A wide circle had formed around him; onlookers curious to see what further tragedy might strike the street this day. His pained yelping grew more fevered, took on a higher pitch. Ausme felt the cramps in her stomach lessen. With their release, the man crumpled like a puppet with its strings cut. Sticky, black-red blood oozed from his mouth. Eyes rolled back into his head and twitched to stillness. Sharp gasps from the crowd spelled out the truth.
He was dead. The circle around him dispersed. As the crowd broke up, street-rats darted towards the corpse. They dipped their greedy hands into the money-bladder at his waist. When the crowd saw no resistance, they began to encourage the survivors to take what was theirs. Ausme stood stock still, frozen in shock. The husband of the couple with the dead child rushed forward and clouted a grimy urchin on the ear; knocking him to the ground. He ripped the purse free from the landlord’s belt.
From behind, Ausme heard the old crone mutter, “Stingy bastard got what he deserved.”
Days later, she wandered the streets of Avacine alone. Ausme hadn’t returned to the hovel she shared with Mother. Since the men went to the killing fields, nowhere felt like home. They had moved so many times, there wasn’t a home worth returning to. Mother was the touchstone. Mother had held her world together. Sometimes she worried how they would find her if they returned. The men. Most days it was difficult to think that far ahead.
She was a walking husk. Wandering wore down the days, shaped them into slivers of night that could be lost in sleep. Under a footbridge, behind a parked wagon; there was no pattern to where she slumped into oblivion. Sometimes she begged. When she didn’t, it was just as easy to steal a loaf from an unattended cart. What she ate meant next to nothing, but she knew she needed food. Mother would have been glad to know she was still eating. Her world became a black stain of pain, loss, and despair. But she couldn’t give it up.
What if Father and Gautriz returned?
A pair of guttersnipes raced past. She caught the tail end of their shouted words.
“. . . theif’ll be hung in less than a half hour!”
With nowhere to go, she followed them.
The cleared space was little more than a crossing of streets. Long ago the hangman and his mob claimed it as their own. The cobbles in the center of the once-plaza forever stained brown-red, the feeling of one hundred thousand crimes caught in a bottle, swirling, yearning to escape; this was the legacy of Rope’s End.
Ausme balanced on a shaky tower of empty crates piled against a wall. It was her first time visiting The End. Mother always said it was distasteful, watching another person die.
Does it count anymore? Now that I’ve seen dead bodies? One more can’t hurt, can it?
An expectant mood infused the crowd, a current of excitement and a wish for release. No different than any other hanging. With the War threatening to stretch into autumn and yet another winter, the folk of Avacine leapt at any break from the monotony of the death-tolls. Even if that interruption meant another death. A lawbreaker wasn’t a soldier though; not a man plucked from life and deposited into some noble’s game of charge and retreat. Hangings were true. A sense of justice. Of someone, finally, getting what they deserved.
A lone man stood to be hanged today, head covered with a moldering gunny sack. Gallows of weathered wood sketched a line against the shard of sky cutting through the buildings. The sharp intersections of the gibbet framed a woman, shrieking endlessly and clutching a pair of children.
Family, she thought. The word felt strange, a sheen of bitterness clung to it. She tried very hard not to think of Gautriz.
Without announcement, the hangman ascended the platform. This far down in the city, there were no glamorous black hoods, or wicked axes to mark the man. He wore a strip of soot stained fabric with holes cut out for his eyes; like a bandit.
A thief, she thought. And he gets paid for it.
His arm muscles flexed and bulged when he slipped the noose over the criminal’s sacked face.
There was no telling of the crime. The crowd heard the charges hours before when the condemned was brought to death’s stage. No ceremony would mark this man’s end. No final nod to the value of his life; his crime erased any worth he once had.
One final surge of excitement came from the crowd. A hush followed, descending on the cramped intersection. Rope’s End was still. Ausme leaned back against the building and drew in a sharp breath, holding it tightly, as though it could halt the unfolding event.
But I don’t want it to stop. She thought. It feels right. This feels familiar. She shook her head and focused on the action.
The executioner stepped back. He reached for the worn wooden lever, ready to fling forward the mechanism of the man’s death. The criminal’s soon-to-be-widow cried out a final time. At that moment, Ausme’s eyes fell on the children. They stood, tearless, abused by the relentless loss that defined childhood in Avacine during their Queen’s War.
At least they’ll still have her. But they’ll know. They’ll watch their father go and then someone else will know how it feels. Why should anyone have to feel that?
She heard the wicked snap of the criminal’s neck, the hollow clock of wood against wood when the trapdoor slapped against the underside of the platform. The mob blossomed with cries of righteous release. The executioner stepped forward and took his customary bow.
One hundred. Five thousand. A countless stream of lost souls hammered on Ausme’s chest. The girl had a sense of exposure; as if a greasy sheet of parchment had been peeled back from the world. She felt swept off her feet; disoriented and blind. As lost as she felt the day the building came down on her mother. Her head throbbed to an unearthly rhythm. Her eyes stung with tears.
When will they stop stinging?
An incoherent pain; twisting intestines and cramped organs ripened in her distended belly.
More pain than food in there. All the time, that twisting pain. I wish I could just let it go. GO! She tried to push it out of herself.
Her eyes never left the boys, so still and unflinching in their father’s moment of justice, even as a commotion rose on the gallows. Their mother, a heap on the ground, shuddering violently. A scream sat just behind her steel-trap tightened teeth, desperate for release. Her whole body thrummed with a cry for release.
The executioner weaved back and forth on the platform. His hands, blister-bumped and thick with muscle, clawed at his throat. Sickening, choke-gasps lurched from his throat. His face turned sunset-pink, then fiery-red, and finally bruise-purple. Terror danced in his eyes even as they surged from their sockets. The crowd, suddenly silent once more, made no move to help him. The only sounds were the executioners death rattles and the continued sobbing of the newly christened widow. As quickly as it began, the executioner collapsed lifeless in a pile below the still swinging body of his victim.
All of the pain left Ausme. Release came and she was left deflated. She braced herself against the cool stones of the building in frenzied wonder. She felt empty. Spent.
Who saw that? What was there to see?
And then she knew.
It was like that day, when the building came down. When Mother died. How? Why? Why would it feel the same? Did I . . .
She had seen herself in those two little boys. It came to her. Somehow, she killed the executioner. In all the furious, tortured loss, and pain, and hate that lingered at Rope’s End she found a way to take the pain she felt and put it into the executioner.
And then, relief.
I never thought I would lose that. Never thought I could give it away.
Her brain whirled. The crowd, thrilled in their extra helping of death, shuffled away from Rope’s End. Ausme was frozen in her newly acquired truth.
I did this. Not just here, but that day. I killed the rat-faced man. The landlord. I killed them both!
Slowly, she regained awareness of her body. She flexed her hands, rubbed her palms against her bare arms, and took in the sense of newness that washed over her body. There was a lightness now. The feeling of something revealed, a shiny new secret all her own. She scrambled down from the pile of crates, feet connecting solidly to cobbles when she dropped through the air.
I did this. And they deserved it.
Days stretched into five-days. Five-days fell back upon themselves, five in a row, and stretched into a turn. Ausme became an arrow of hate aimed at the black-beating heart of Avacine. She wrapped herself in a death-shroud woven of each petty loss, of every night whimper that escaped a child’s lips in the Lower City.
Not knowing wasn't enough for her now. After her awakening at Rope’s End she tried to puzzle out her newly discovered powers.
Was it a charm? Some gift given by a ragged God; always hungry for more. Or something else? Is it a place inside me? A place that has always been there? Was it a beast, anxious to be touched? To be released from its cage and left to ravage those who deserved it?
After that first five-day she stopped caring where the magic came from. She embraced the pain. If it was hers, she was meant to use it.
She tested the limits of what she could do. At first she sought out those with wrongs to be righted. Little things; easy things; things that wouldn’t scare her as much as the taking the landlord’s life or the executioner’s. She listened to tales of evictions, of stolen goods, of petty wrongs between neighbors. But with those souls, no matter how poetic their descriptions of tragedy, Ausme’s talent could not be awakened.
So she taught herself to witness.
When she saw it for herself, as with the children at the gallows, the pain became her own. In those first days, she hoped to punish some lightly, others more harshly. It didn’t take long to learn that intention was useless. The power within her just didn’t work that way. When she turned the pain on one who enacted it, they could only die. For Ausme, there could be no half way. She was a black and white being now. The only grey in her life, the city of Avacine.
When she learned this, truly learned it, after pushing too hard and killing a boy who spent his days kicking dogs on the Boucharn Way, Ausme felt she knew her purpose. A full turn after her mother’s passing it came to her.
She took to skulking in the worst parts of Low Avacine. She punished pimps, she sought out murders, and searched for a rapist whose picture was plastered on wall after wall. The hunger within grew. That thing inside her begged for more. Another turn passed, the Low City could no longer satiate the pangs of Ausme’s magic.
There must be worse wrongs, she mused, curious for a way to stretch the space that lived between the moments when she submitted to the hunger.
The need brought her further uptown, to the manses and palisades that divided Low Avacine from the Noble Quarter. It was only an inkling, her plan to feed the beast that emerged more and more every day. The hunger drove her on. She stalked the manicured streets; devoid of trash, marble walls scrubbed clean from the smoke of mills and workshops that blackened the Low City. Her goal was elusive. Overheard from the beggars in the Carding Market, she sought a lane that adventurous panhandlers claimed could supply as much as a whole mark a day. One hundred times the amount the ill fated landlord had offered her.
She wandered the streets, foreign; caked in grime.
More an avenue than a lane, she stumbled into The Beggar’s Boon shortly after midday. Fruiting tree branches swayed in a gentle wind that kept the dust moving down the avenue. Boxed in with smooth white walls, the street was dotted every five or ten feet with beggars. They sat on threadbare carpets, dented spittoons and tin cups placed before them for the requested alms.
Most were missing limbs. Or an eye. Or any number of other pressing, visual afflictions. Here, in the Noble Quarter it was best to grab attention and try to tell your tale of woe when they were placing the coin in your cup. The prancing princelings needed good stories to tell at their card games later that evening. My charity is unchallenged! Why just today I helped a man missing both his feet! They didn’t care about the beggars. It was all for appearances.
Ausme found a section of wall, shaded by a broad yaw-yaw tree. She plucked one of the creamy, oblong fruits and rolled it between her palms. Sinking her teeth into the sweet, bready flesh she settled in to watch.
The afternoon unfurled.
For every beggar there must have been ten citizens just in the first hour. Of all of them, Ausme saw a single woman stoop and place a half mark in the basket of a blind girl. Like a spinning coin she vacillated between silent pleading for anyone to help the beggars and snide assurance that none would.
The hunger demanded to be fed.
Only after hours passed did the truth settle on her like a mantle; the beggars were just another feature of Greater Avacine, no different than a decorative fountain or pile of trash left to be collected. To the wealthy, they were an afterthought. Beggar’s Boon would be here tomorrow. And the day after. Like the War, an unfortunate fact that marred their resplendent days.
She fumed under her tree. Although the rabble on the street played on the sympathies of the nobles, they deserved relief.
Shouldn’t they feel the touch of a perfumed hand, just once in their miserable lives?
She watched befeathered men drop entire skewers of grilled meat and vegetables into the gutter, while a woman with no legs or arms eyed the refuse hungrily. She saw a group of young women, laughing and mock kicking an elderly man, too simple to realize they were not giving help until it was too late. And she saw face upon face walk by as if none of the needy existed, intent on their own world.
Sunset came, and with it, the final straw. The avenue was crowded with gentlemen and women out for a stroll after their evening meal. Most of the beggars had crawled or limped their way back to whatever passed for home. A few remained, hopeful that in their blissful fullness some would be more generous now than earlier in the day.
A family sailed by. The woman grand in her trailing gown, her man a tasteful accent to her manicured beauty, their young son a confection of ribbons and ruffles. A miniature dog yipped and pulled at his cord, propelling them along. They neared a young girl, her face horribly scarred and no older than Ausme herself. Craters and sinuous scars blighted the skin around her eyes, the bridge of her nose. She was missing an ear. Taking up a prancing, practiced walk; the dog put on a show for the child, eager for treats of his own. The girl’s mangled eyes sparkled. She rose from her mat and reached out for the performing pup. Her hand came close to the curling beige fur, fingers arched to scratch the dog’s ear when the blow slammed her back into the white plaster wall. The man stood above her, his ebony and silver cane gripped tightly in hand.
“My family members are not your supper, trollop,” he fumed. The lady with him had a horrified look on her face, as if she had just discovered an intruder in their home. The little boy’s eyes were full of fat, wet tears.
“I, I just wanted to pet the pup,” the little girl stammered.
“Lies,” he scoffed. “That hungry look in your eye gives you away, you little bitch. Keep your hands off my dog or you’ll get another.” He menaced with the walking stick and she winced back, desperate to sink into the wall.
Ausme watched the scene unfold in silence, hidden in the lengthening dark. Silent and furious, she felt the familiar pain twisting her insides. The now welcome percussion in her head. She restrained a shout. Her mind raced.
Nothing for her! Not even the soothing of an animal, no sweet puppy kisses for her. What would it have cost him, to let the girl have a scratch at the little lad’s ears? How much more does that man need that this girl has to go without?
The wrenching within became worse and worse. She began to sweat, despite the cool of the evening. Her teeth ached from clenching, nails drew blood from the palms of her curled fists.
Someone had to answer for it all.
Before she truly understood what she unleashed, both the man and the woman were flat on the ground. There was no gasping, no choking this time. One moment they were striding away from the unseemly girl and the next they were corpse stiff in the dust. She watched as the woman fell, dropping the little boy’s hand. His cry went up like a siren.
Ausme clenched her eyes, as if that would stop the sound.
What did I do? His . . . mother?
After a day of such disdain for humanity, only one thing made sense to Ausme. Her mind became wide, expansive. Somehow, she knew she could touch every wanting soul on the street that evening. Without judgment, she let them call out to her, taking their pain and investing it in the boiling hate, the embarrassment, the confusion, that populated her gut. Surrendering to it, letting it break like a wave against rocks, Ausme released. It sprayed. It flung in all directions. Pain filled the air. The pain was all.
She watched from a place of voided emotion. What unfolded could not be stopped. One after another of the noble-folk strutting in the street slumped to the cobblestones. They clutched at faces, stomachs, and chests, shrieking in agony. Some screamed of acid burning their flesh, others at the hunger that gnawed at their guts. The chorus of cries echoed off the white walls of the avenue, bouncing back and forth. Amplifying. Ausme caught her head whipping from one death to the next. In less than five minutes it ended. Not a wealthy soul stood alive on Beggar’s Boon.
Ausme slunk from her hiding place and made her way to the little girl with the scarred face, hidden in her hands. She placed a palm on the child’s shoulder. When the girl looked up, her lumpy skin red and blotchy, Ausme held the tiny dog in her arms. The child-beggar trembled, confused.
“Keep him. As a friend. Or eat him. Either way, you need him more than that man ever did.”
The little boy stood by his fallen parents, bewildered and forgotten, tugging at his mother’s hand for her to rise.
She walked away to the sounds of the remaining beggars scrambling forward to pick the pockets of the bodies she left behind. She was glad for it. Those troubled souls deserved what they could get.
After the evening on Beggar’s Boon, Ausme had a clear vision of what needed to be done. Power rang through her, as if she were a harp string plucked. There was a sense of balancing that carried on long after the events of that day.
I am chosen. I am blessed.
With the ability to affect so many at once, Ausme felt she could do anything. She could even stop the War.
These thoughts brought her to the bluff she now stood upon. A handful of leagues outside of the city, surrounded on all sides by a checkerboard of family farms, the rocky outcrop thrust upward from the fertile plain. Far below the two grand armies prepared for another day of battle. More death. The network of ditches and earthen ramparts tore through the fields, crosshatching and squaring the landscape.
Good squares and bad squares. Our side. Theirs. Is my father out there? Gautriz?
She stared down at the field of battle and opened herself to the fury of the world.
A breath of decay rode the winds that buffeted her. It whipped her greasy black hair around her face, sticking it in her open mouth and boxing her freezing ears. The shredded rags that were her clothing disintegrated a little more in the wind’s fury. She stood alone, a dark Goddess, a force of nature. Today there would be a sacrifice to honor her; the supplicants devotional without intent, the lamb to be slaughtered unknowing.
The very soil brought its pain to her. The wounds piercing the fertile farmland screamed their anguish, her ears the only ones ready to hear. Rotting corpses of fallen soldiers from both sides implored her. Behind the main lines, in their cutters-carts and sick tents, the wounded added their lament to the symphony of sorrow she conducted. Festering wounds reeked, and she could smell them. Boys no older than she wailed for their mothers, and she heard them.
I knew that pain once. I can make it so none will ever know it again.
Closing her eyes, the image of the battlefield was etched in her mind, stark and superimposed on the backside of her lids. She could not escape it. Nor did she want to. That wasn’t why she came.
Heavy, throbbing explosions. A change in the air. A transition from decay to sharp, alkaline hostility. She opened her eyes, the scene below now different than moments before. Thick, blue-green whorls of gas floated across the field like clouds. The fabled Breath of Death, a weapon so terrible both sides were wary of its use.
Until today, she thought. For me?
From high above, the details were vague, but Ausme was tied to the land and could sense all that occurred below. She felt the grasses wither and burn at the merest touch of the smoke. The earth turned brittle and cracked. Cries carried on currents of air reached her ears. Fierce, agonized pleas and sharper, accented shrieks of terror. She could make out the vague forms of soldiers stumbling inside the clouds, upright for only moments before collapsing. She felt their skin boiling, sloughing off in slimy sheets.
She blinked. When she opened her eyes once more, an answering salvo of noxious death wafted from the opposing side. The battlefield quickly became a labyrinth of vaporous ruination, twisting and snaking over every living thing unfortunate enough to be in its way.
How long will this last? Will they do my work for me today?
There could be no more tolerance. The earth, imploring before, now demanded her response. The knots tightened in her abdomen. Searing headache mingled with bone snapping cracks. Somewhere, a door opened and a whirlwind of loss blew in, lacerating her soul. She felt possessed, enacting the murderous magic within her through some involuntary, primal place.
Ausme lost control.
A final thought, Did I ever hold it?
Glimmers of her consciousness flickered behind the tsunami of hate. She watched from some secret corner of her mind as the scene played out below her.
The gases were shunted away. One malicious moment they blistered and burned, the next they were banished, as if a giant’s broom had come and swept the field clear. The body that had been Ausme trembled. It pulsated with all of the atrocity that could be laid at the feet of war.
The child in her mind screamed, No more! All the pain, all the fear, let me have it! No more!
A black brightness rushed from her form. Shimmering like hateful stars in the inky coal of the night, it flowed from her chest, filling the sky with dark energy. It built. It layered. A swirl of energy that hung like thunderclouds over the battlefield. All of the madness that was the War became the girl Ausme. The girl embodied all the hate that was death. Scared and weak, she stretched from that corner of her mind. Ausme clawed her way forward for one last moment. The pain slipped and snaked through her mind’s grasp. She grasped at it, desperate, determined to hurl it down onto the besieging army.
I will defend my city. I will save my Father! I will . . .
Blackness. A void unlike any other.
Whatever remained of Ausme collapsed. Spent. Perished.
Stories from that day were as varied as the women in a Ukueteer whorehouse. All agreed that something had intervened in the battle; how else to explain the way the Breath of Death simply vanished from the field. And those sinister black thunderheads that had come and gone so quickly. Commanders of each side saw the banishment of their weapons as a sign from their Gods. After that day, the jars that held the Breath of Death were taken far from the battlefield. Slaves drove carts into the wild hinterlands beyond Avacine’s borders and buried the vessels. When they returned the commanders themselves sliced each and every slave’s throat. None now knew where the deadliest weapons of man were hidden. The commanders shook hands and patted themselves on the back.
Some swear they saw a geyser of liquid midnight spouting from the a bluff above the River Plain, feeding the black clouds. The Grand Union forces attacking the Avacine armies claimed to have heard a girl’s voice, beseeching them to surrender. The Avacine asserted that a Goddess herself walked the Plain that day. She sucked the gases into her bottomless lungs, she drank the blood from the slick ground. The Avacine swore she gave them hope to fight. Men from both sides told tales of an unknown power, intent on tearing them apart. Countless soldiers lay dead, limbs ripped from torsos. A plausible truth.
The fighting ended for that day after those strange events. The soldiers retreated to their foxholes, the warrens of their ditches. Tomorrow, they urged, tomorrow we will win. Wasn’t that what the Goddess had wanted them to know? That their cause was the way of righteousness? That victory was close, and that they deserved it?
Alexander Leger-Small lives and writes in the hills of Western Massachusetts. He believes in good coffee, detail, and knowing when to ignore your writing group. 'For Those Who Deserve It' is his first published piece, but he looks forward to sharing many more with you.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Wherever I can. I read a lot, and try to read a lot of different mediums. Listening to NPR absolutely sets balls rolling - sometimes a report about a culture half way across the world opens a door to 'Well what if these people were like this . . ." and then a story is born. Most of my stories start with world building so historical records, documentaries, podcasts all of these are places where ideas sprout. My husband is my best friend and we talk a lot about things that could be - if I'm stuck on an idea he's the person I bounce things off of, and his ideas invariably turn into mine. I'm not picky, if there's an idea hanging around I'll try it out.