Human Remains

Human Remains
by Mischa

Disclaimer: All items contained on these pages are non-profit amateur fiction. The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire and all characters named in those books are the copyright of Storm Constantine and her publishers. No infringement on the copyrights are intended. These stories are for personal enjoyment only and should be reproduced, electronically or otherwise, only for this purpose and never for profit of any sort.

Spoilers: None.

Characters: Not telling. Read it and find out.

Credits and Acknowledgements: Warm fuzzy thanks to Paula and Athena for their kind comments.

Down-on-my-knees mixture of equal parts gratitude and awe to Storm Constantine for;

First; her encouragement and ruthless editorial that leads to this final version.
Second; being an author-without-minions.
Third: For the joy and inspiration the original characters in the original books provide for so many.

(Amended and reposted- 29, Feb. 2001)

Human Remains

It is summer and I am a man. Able at last to join in the defence of our home. With my weapons and my travel pack beside me, I sit at last on the edge of the world, looking down upon that which was once ours and, God willing, shall be again. It is a beautiful sight. Upon approaching this place and seeing for the first time the wavegrass plains below and the sea beyond, I was awestruck, almost to the point of immobility. The plains are so immense, so vast and lonely. How could we possibly endure such endlessness without losing part of our souls to the viewing? My knees trembled with fear and it took all of my strength as a newly-acknowledged adult to stand my ground and look down upon it.

The sea is a wondrous sight. Each day when I rise from my camp bed, it is different. At times, it is mellow and placid, as reflective as the sheet glass in the village temple. At other times, it rages and storms. Even from this distance, I can see the roil and churn of the waves as they fly up, crashing against the rocky shore in plumes of white and silver. Below, the grasslands mirror the sea in its discontented action. The breeze blows the grass before it, parting the stalks and flattening them, whipping them upright again in frivolous patterns of greenish-gold. The wind behaves like a living thing, always dissatisfied, endlessly rearranging.

Truth be, I am glad of the company, even if it is only the wind. My duty as watcher is lonely. I shall be alone here for two full turns of the moon; the journey down to the village and back is too long and strenuous for us to make changeover more often.

Sometimes there are gulls, wheeling on the wind. Their cries come to me like the distant sobbing of a woman. A sad sound, but welcome nonetheless. I see no one else.

With little to occupy my time, I spend much of the day re-reading my journal. Smiling at my youthful fantasies, revisiting the cuts and bruises and the lessons learned on my father’s knee.

My journal recounts the history of our people as he told it to me. The story of how we came to live in the place we call the Cup of Eden was given to me, Nikci, to record. The elders of my village have the knowledge of the written word, but it is not a skill that is useful and I am the only one of my age who can read and write.

Eden is, my father says, the last place of the purely human, those uncorrupted by the fetid stench of the demon’s touch. My mother was killed in the mountains, only weeks after my birth. Taken in a raid by the demons, my people heard her screams long into the night as the demons tortured her, burning her up from the inside with their evil witchery. It is good that I know this, father says, even though it may pain me to hear it. It will make me strong and resistant to the glamour that shoots like icy fire from the eyes of demonkind.

We are safe here in the Cup, surrounded on all sides by tall mountain ranges. There is only one pass into this deep valley, which is temperate and fruitful. We guard it well, always alert for sign of the demons, who have annihilated our race and have poisoned the earth that we once ruled.

My father’s father and his men fought the demons, fiercely and tenaciously, but were eventually swamped by weight of numbers, and overcome by the heinous magics the demons employed to thwart their valiant efforts.

And so they were forced to run, eventually finding this place. Bounded on three sides by impenetrable mountains, the lower side of the Cup leads only to the bare plains and the sea. Its single pass is easy to guard and there are many high places on which to stand watch.

The survivors brought with them what remained of the women and children, as many supplies as they could manage, and the hope of one day re-uniting with our remaining brethren. Perhaps then, they could drive the devils back into the pit from which they came. This hope has faded somewhat. No messengers have come with reports of resistance or of victory. For a long time, no one has come at all.

I sit in the sunshine as the gulls wheel overhead, reading the words of the past that I recorded in this book and peer down over the lip of the Cup. Down there is the world we once owned, but lost.

***

Strange happenings here on the lip of the world. A few nights past, I was awoken by a scream, unlike anything I had ever heard before. The terror in the voice was palpable, but inhuman. Some large animal in terrible distress. As is my duty, I took my rifle and went to investigate, grateful that my fire had died as I slept, so my eyesight in the darkness was keen.

The wind had reached high this night, swirling through the pass in violent gusts, rending limbs from trees and throwing rocks from the high places into the canyons below. Windblown rain stung my skin as I searched through the dark, ears pricked to hear further sound against the screeching of the wind.

The scream came again, directing me and presently I found its source: a horse, lying on its side, flailing its legs in a futile attempt to rise. This animal would never rise again. I could see that its back was broken from the fall down the mountainside, where it appeared to have slipped from the path and lost its footing in the shifting, treacherous scree.

Sad that there was nothing I could do for the magnificent animal, I raised my rifle, speaking soft, comforting words of nonsense to soothe the distraught beast in its final moments. At the sound of my voice, the animal halted in its efforts and brought its head around to look at me.

Intelligent eyes, painwracked and hopeless, stared into mine and a shuddering thrill of fear went through me as the horse seemed to acknowledge my intent and relaxed almost gratefully, laying its head down upon the rocks. It was as if it recognised the rifle for what it was and was resigned to its fate.

Quickly, almost fearfully, I fired. The shot was true and the animal shuddered. Its eyes glazed over and its body slid another inch down the canyon. It did not move again.

Hesitantly, I approached. The wind stirred the horse’s mane and I saw, in the faint moonlight, the glitter of metal. The animal was haltered, the soft leather, finely tooled, had slipped from its head as it fell and now lay tangled about its neck. Another step, and I could see the blankets and saddle, shredded and torn, lying behind the horses’ back, the cinch broken. A rider, then? But where?

He was not difficult to find, even in the darkness. He lay broken and bleeding not far below the body of his horse. I approached cautiously, rifle at the ready and prepared to shoot if he made a move to attack. The wind played in his pale hair and stirred the torn shreds of his clothing, but he did not move until I was almost upon him. He raised his head to me, and the moonlight illuminated his features.

A devil lay before me.

My stomach tensed and a tremor ran through me. Fear salted my mouth. I raised the rifle to my eye and tightened my finger upon the trigger.

He spoke to me. ‘Freyla?’

A strange word. A question? I lowered the rifle an inch.

The gesture encouraged him to further words. ‘My horse. Please. I heard her scream.’

Now I was confused. His horse? Why I was giving this demonspawn even one extra second of life?

‘I found your horse.’ I said. ‘She suffers no more.’

He nodded, his eyes bright with tears, whether for his horse or for his own pain, I did not know. ‘Thank you,’ he said in a quiet voice.

I did not raise the rifle again as I should have.

The teachings were clear: I should kill him immediately and then ride hard to warn the town quickly that there were demons abroad.

Perhaps I could get information from him? Could that be the lesson my hesitation was trying to teach me?

My finger trembled where it rested on the trigger, indecision sending taut muscle into near spasm.

He stared at me, his eyes hooded in the darkness, the tension wrought by pain in clear evidence about his mouth. He appeared to try and focus on me, which must have been difficult as I stood with the moonlight behind me.

‘You are human?’ he asked.

I nodded, unwilling to speak.

His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. ‘I am further west than I though then.’ He seemed to speak only to himself and reached down with his free hand to cup the wound in his side. ‘You must be one of the mountain men. The barbarians.’

I almost raised the rifle and shot him right then. How dare he call us barbarians! But again, something in his voice stayed my hand. There had been no intent to insult in his tone. Indeed the words had been flat and without emphasis. This use of such a curious appellation for his enemy made me curious as much as it made me angry and I felt that this warranted further investigation.

Without speaking to him, I turned on my heel and walked off into the night. Let him think I was abandoning him to the wolves. Let him think whatever he liked! I would return to my camp to gather my things and then return to this place. The silver-haired demon was not going anywhere. His wound was deep, possibly mortal. It was my duty as sentry to discover as much as I could from a prisoner. This is what I told myself as I strode arrogantly through the darkness, surprised that he did not call after me.

***

When I returned to him, my pack over my shoulder, his eyes were closed. But he opened them and watched silently as I unpacked my things and started another small fire. Down here at the bottom of the canyon, the wind had eased and the fire burned without trouble. Satisfied with my arrangements, I took my rifle and held it loosely in my hands, so as to let him see that if he moved I would be ready to shoot in an instant.

He was smiling again, as if mocking my actions and another surge of anger rose in my breast. These animals had used and murdered my mother. They had taked her from me before I could come to know her. How dare he smile and call me barbarian!

‘Put your hands where I can see them.’ I commanded, my voice harsh with old pain.

‘They already are,’ he said quietly, no hint of smile now.

I cursed myself silently for the stupidity of my order. I could plainly see his hands propped in front of him as he lay against the ground on his side.

Not trusting myself to speak again, I retrieved a length of rope from my rear pants pocket and gestured that he should offer his hands for binding.

This he did, holding them out as best he was able, hissing once when the loose rocks beneath him shifted and his torso slipped a little.

As I secured the last of the rope about his wrists, the rifle laid across my knees, I looked up and my eyes met his. I saw his pain, coupled with a wry amusement that I suspect was aimed at my immobilising him, when it was obvious that he was unable to move, much less attack. I knew it and so did he, but I was disquieted by the night’s events, the suddenness with which my world had tipped onto so sharp an angle, and so I felt better for the binding.

Kneeling back on my haunches I now felt safe, and more comfortable with my questions. ‘How many of you are there?’

‘Just me,’ he replied. ‘I was out riding alone. Camping out under the stars, getting away from it all. As I said, I must have come much further west than I thought. The rain blinded me and I didn’t see the shale.’ His eyes dimmed at remembered sadness. His horse, I assumed, and wondered again how it was possible that one of the devils could care so for an animal.

‘What were you getting away from? Who is chasing you? Will they come this way?’

‘You misunderstand. No one is chasing me. I meant getting away from my responsibilities, taking some time off, you know?’

I didn’t. Having responsibilities was the sign of a man. Why would one want to get away from them? I did not voice this question. Instead, I took from my other pocket a bandage I had pulled from the aid pouch. Laying the rifle behind me some distance from him, I leaned down to better see the wound.

When I pulled the shirt away from his torn flesh, he hissed again in pain. The wound was not large, but deep and bleeding darkly. Slivers of wood remained embedded, where the branch had pierced him as he fell. I padded the opening as best I could, but further treatment was beyond my skill.

‘Thank you,’ he said when I was done. ‘It feels better.’

‘You’re going to die.’ I said, a certain amount of satisfaction in my voice.

‘I know,’ he said in a friendly fashion.

My shock at his calm acceptance wiped away my smile and must have shown on my face, for he laughed.

‘You’re only young, aren’t you? I’m not too good with guessing the age of humans, but you have to be. What are you called?’

‘I am a man.’ I answered angrily, refusing his request for my name and, I am ashamed to say, with a huffy, hurt tone to my words.

‘My apologies.’ He bowed his head a little. ‘I meant no disrespect to you. It’s just that, from the standpoint of my great age, you humans all seem young.’

‘How old are you?’ It slipped out before I could halt it and I cursed myself for allowing my curiosity to run away with my tongue.

He cocked his head and looked at me sideways, almost mischievously. ‘Perhaps,’ – he pretended to consider – ‘eight or nine times your age.’ He grinned. ‘I’m old.’

He was so… friendly! I could not reconcile the things I had been taught as a child with the reality of this man lying before me, joking amiably in the face of death. It made no sense. But I could not help but respond to the teasing tone and the bright expression on that battered but still inhumanly attractive face.

‘That is old.’ I grinned back. I couldn’t stop it. ‘You don’t look it. Old, I mean.’

‘No?’ He smiled. Then, a little more seriously, ‘Wraeththu don’t age on the outside. We remain as we are, all our lives, then at the end, we… fade, just a little.’

This time, his smile was wistful, as if memories had been brought forth by those words. The smile was replaced by a wince of pain and I remembered my duty once more. I helped him to move into a more comfortable position, by rolling him carefully over onto his back and propping his head against my horse’s saddle.

“My name is Nikci.” I whispered. He endured the discomfort without speaking, nodding to show he’d heard my disclosure and closing his eyes to the pain as his ruined belly twisted from my actions.

I returned to the fire to stoke it. I was confused, feeling every bit as young as he had said. I wondered what my father would do in my situation, then discarded the thought. If he had been here instead of me, this Wraeththu would already be dead and Papa would be snug asleep by his own fire. Why had I not done the same? Curiosity? The desire to extract information? Yes, but not entirely. I forced myself to acknowledge the truth that had been before me since the first moment of our encounter and that I had tried so frantically to ignore. Humanity. This was no devil-driven creature with eyes of fire and poisoned flesh, as I had been taught. He was as human as I, albeit in a different way. The pain from this self-revelation was intense. For the first time, I was questioning the very tenets by which my people lived, and finding the answers not to my liking.

Someone had not told me the truth, and I could not discern how it could be the dying man by the fire. What did he have to gain? Nothing. He knew nothing of me and my people, so how could he be attempting to subvert me? Logic, taught so carefully in the valley as a tool to help us survive our harsh world, was now aiding me in my first attempts at independent thought.

Why had he called my people the barbarians? What did he know of us? This I needed to find out before I could reach any firm conclusions.

I turned to find him once again watching me. Embarrassed, worried that the turn my thought had taken showed on my face, I looked down and poked the fire with a stick, searching for something to break the silence. ‘Would you like something to drink?’ I asked.

‘I would. My mouth is full of shale dust. But it’s not a good idea. Adding water to the mess in my gut is only going to speed my demise.’

I hadn’t thought of that. ‘How about a damp cloth then. You could suck the moisture from it.’

He nodded and I took a clean wash rag from my pack and poured a little of the contents of my canteen over it. He took it from me with a grateful smile and I settled on my haunches next to him. The fire was burning well now, enough for me to see his features clearly. He wasn’t so different from me. Pale from the blood loss and somewhat gaunt of feature, but the face had been beautiful before he fell, almost like a woman’s. His hair was longer than we would wear it, tangled silver in the moonlight with the remains of a leather tie that trapped in the strands. The clothing was well made: to tell the truth, it was better than we were capable of producing. The material of the shirt beneath the jerkin was fine woven and soft. I could tell that once it must have draped across his tall frame in a most pleasing fashion.

By contrast, my appearance was rough and rustic. My leathers were old, cut and recut to fit as I grew. A patchwork of additions and subtractions as the leather wore out and was replaced. My shirt was deer hide, my boots the same and my hair roughly butchered into submission, cut short for ease of care. My plain face was no prize to any race. Yet, I was alive and he was dying: slowly and gracefully, submitting to death by inches and moments, but dying all the same. I should have felt triumph, yet all I felt was pity and a strange, stirring sorrow.

He was lying back against the saddle now, his strength waning as the night drew on and I could see that he would be gone by morning’s light. So much for the vaunted magic of the demons.

‘Why did you call my people barbarians?’ I asked with none of the sting of my earlier anger.

He opened his eyes again and lifted the cloth from his lips where it had dropped.

‘We know you’re up here, of course,’ he replied, smiling at my surprise. ‘But every time we tried to establish contact, our messengers died. So, we let you be and avoid your territory. You kill every time you see one of us, without questions asked. That is why we call you barbarians.’

‘But we’re not!’ I blurted out. ‘It is you, your people…’ I stumbled to a halt, not knowing what to say next.

‘My people who what, Nikci?’ he enquired gently.

‘Kill us. Raid our settlement murder our women. Your kind killed my mother!’

‘This is surprising news,’ he said, turning his head the better to see me. ‘I had thought the raiders were wiped out long ago. When were you last attacked? Recently?’

‘No.’ I admitted. ‘It has been many years. But my father says that this is because we are no longer a soft target.’

‘Ah, you refer to history.’ He nodded, then continued. ‘In the beginning we were fierce and predatory in establishing ourselves as humankind’s successors. But those days are long past. Nowadays, we have cities and society. The remainder of humanity live amongst us, or trade and work with us and beside us. There has been no conflict for years, boy. Your people are isolated and ignorant of the changes. If your parent was killed by one of us then it was just a plain evil, not some plot of conquest.’

That stung, being called ignorant. Even though I could see in what context he applied the word, it still felt like an insult. ‘I don’t believe you!’ My cheeks felt hot with more than just the warmth of the fire heating them.

‘Yes, you do,’ he said quietly. ‘Your ears hear the truth; it is your heart that rejects it. I admire your loyalty, even if it is misplaced. Your people can come down from their stronghold and move amongst us in perfect safety. No Har will harm them and they would be welcome to trade.’

I knew it was the truth: his words rang with sincerity. But more than that, there was logic in what he said. We had not been attacked for years. Even the death of my mother could be attributed to other things. Perhaps it had been just the act of one renegade. What did he call them, Har? It could just as easily have been a bear or a wolf. My people, a superstitious and fearful group huddled together by the safety of their fire, could have misinterpreted her dying cries. And it was true that we killed any demon we saw as quickly as we were able. There had been no contact between us for decades and no contact with any of the other supposed ‘free humans’ either.

‘Any more questions?’ he asked softly. ‘Time is ebbing over here.’

I looked up from my musings. Yes, he was weaker. I examined his bandage and found it soaked in his lifeblood.

‘Take care,’ he said. ‘If my blood mingles with yours, it will make you ill.’

‘Doesn’t it bother you?’ I asked. ‘Dying?’

He grinned weakly. ‘Of course it does. I may be old by your standards but there was some life left in me yet. But, I suppose, if it’s my time to go, then this is the place to do it.’ He waved one hand around at the night and the mountains and the sky.

I didn’t understand and told him so.

‘Beginnings,’ he said. ‘I spent many years of my youth in places precisely like this one. I love mountains. The crisp air, the stars above my head at night and the smell of pine in my nostrils. If I had to choose a place to die, it would be remarkably like this one. And it seems this place has chosen me. And so,’ – he shrugged carefully – ‘I am content.’

I felt moved by this simple admission and tears welled in my eyes. No, not so different after all. I, too, loved it up here on the Lip of the World and had never thought to leave it. But now I was beginning to see it would be my duty to do just that, to leave and go down into the world, and to make of it what I could just as the Wraeththu had done.

He nodded as if he understood my thoughts, his eyes closing. But he continued to speak. ‘I did some of the bad things you spoke of. In the beginning. I messed up big time, over and over again. But I made the best of it and it was good. Don’t you see? Hiding and fighting doesn’t save you from mistakes. No matter where you are, you have to live with them, and eventually die with them and just hope that that’s enough.’

‘Enough?’

‘For someone to say, “It was a good life. And he lived it well.” I hope someone says that of me.’ He smiled sadly.

‘Is… is there someone?’ I asked, tentatively.

A cough wracked his body and he shuddered. I put my hand to his brow and found it cold and clammy. I reached for my blanket draped it over him. The hour was late and the chill of pre-dawn had descended.

‘You’re going down there, aren’t you?’ he said.

‘I don’t know.’

‘If you do, remember this: you don’t have to be one of us to make something of yourself. Although, being one of us is pretty nice.’ His tone became serious again. ‘Remember that. You can remain human always, if you choose to, and still lead a good life. Don’t let the glamour fool you. We can have it as tough and be as petty as any human. Let it be your choice, Nikci, and think it through.’

I nodded my agreement but he didn’t see it, his eyes were closing. I moved closer, sensing the approach of Death on his black horse. Leaning down close to his ear, I asked, ‘Does it hurt?’

He shook his head. ‘Not anymore.’

‘You didn’t answer me.’ I said. ‘Is there someone?’

He was silent for a moment, then he nodded. ‘Yes. In the city beyond the plain, Immanion. Tell him…’ He coughed again and blood seeped from his pale lips. ‘Tell Pell…them all…. Tell them Cal loved them.’

And he died.

It was past noon when I was done. I dug the grave deep, choosing a spot on the rise overlooking the plains in which to bury him. I dug deep into the hard packed soil and laid him reverently and carefully within, wrapped in my blanket.

I kept only a few things from his pack, personal objects that I hoped to give to his loved ones when I found them. I buried everything else, including the halter from the horse, Freyla, with him.

At my campsite I have constructed a cairn, in which to leave the things I cannot carry with me. There is one stone remaining to be placed on the top and then I can ride away.

This journal, this precious paper I will place within and then seal it over.

When I do not return at the time of the full moon, they will come searching for me and find this cairn and its contents.

Let the elders make of these words what they will. I hope that with them they will make peace and a future for us all. But I will not wait for that future.

It calls me now. The grass dances and, as the wind ripples through it, it resembles skeins of silver hair.

The End

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