Copyright Katherine Dewey. All rights reserved. [last revision August, 2008]

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Digby continued...


Chapter Two

The world is rich in relics, and the Heart of the World possesses many. In this dark forest, ringed by an oxbow loop of a great river, people have stumbled on vine choked wonders only to forget that it was the North fork and not the South that led to this ruin or that monument. Such was the nature of memory in the Heart of the World. . .

Deities and Domains
Rham's Daughter




The air was thick with flies. Lair gnats and blood nymphs, blue bottles and moss flies fought for a single patch of exposed skin. Drawn by the reek of Null pheromones, they picked on the bodies of the four sleepers in vain. Slathered with clay and bound within a dream filled state, the four Nulls were crouched around a campfire long gone to ash. Hands stretched out as if seeking warmth, the sleepers remained in stasis, unaware of the gnats and nymphs or of the two men who had found them.

"Astonishing," said the Mystic. "You know this backwater, Diehl. Why didn't we see this site from the river?"

The Runner Yarhgus Diehl looked round the ancient temple, shrugged and then fixed his gaze on the shut down Nulls. "The Heart is full 'o shunted ruins, Brother Morha."

"This is no ruin! Look at it. It's a rich relic." The young priest's silvery bangles rang like bells as he touched the intricately carved reliefs. "Have you ever seen it's like?"

"Wouldn't know, would I?" grunted the Runner, but he did agree it was extraordinary, what with them chalcedony gods and goddesses holding up the roof with their arms intertwined. It were a find beyond measure, beautifully rendered and meticulously preserved, not that it mattered. In time they would disremember it. It were a gone glimmer sort of place -- out of sight, out of mind.

"Does it stir something in you, Diehl?"

"No." The Runner shook his head. "All I'm feelin'," he said bluntly, "is a need to be gone."

The young Mystic laughed softly, a string of notes that grated on the ear.

Diehl winced at the man's penchant for dissonance. Not for a nineday had the Mystic sought resolution, stability or consonance. Not for a nineday, had he uttered a perfect fourth or fifth. The river man let out a weary groan. He reckoned that Morha were more than a mite reckless, that Morha was, like the others, poxed. Another groan and the Runner crouched down in front of the tallest sleeper. With care he began to peel the dried clay from the man's eyes and forehead.

"What are you doing?"

"Rousing them."

"Don't!" The Mystic laid his whip hand on the Runner's arm, saying, "They're saturated with sin! But for that fire we wouldn't have found this place. Leave them be. Leave them as markers."

The Runner shook his head. "It's you and me what's left, Brother. You and me and three poor sods what I don't trust."

Brother Morha smiled confidently. "Those sods, as you call them, follow my lead. They'll do as they are told."

Diehl laughed. "Since when do the poxed do as they're told?" He jerked a fat thumb at the sleepers. "If I'm right, these here Nulls are river wise, Nulls what can get us back to Ware."

Morha's whip hand uncoiled and recoiled reflexively, threateningly. "As I said, they'll do as they are told, and so will you if you want to keep your precious Ilsidir." The young priest cocked his brow. "We're not going back," he added. As he spoke, the whip continued to move.

The Runner sighed and swore softly. At that moment, he knew he had seen too much of the world. Gods! but he was weary. His fimbria, a large array, often drooped with that same weariness. At that moment, they were rigid with rage. The tattooing on his cheeks and chin darkened visibly. He sighed again, took a deep breath and then picked at the gnats stuck to the tarred ends of his braided beard. He focused on the gnats until his anger was in check. His fimbria drooped and he stood upright. A big, barrelchested man, he towered over the young priest and now used his height to its full advantage. Looking down on Morha, he said, "Oh, we are goin' back. We're goin' back 'cause we're out o' time. The season's shiftin'."

Ever dissonant, Morha scoffed at Diehl. "Nonsense! It's too soon."

"Yer not feelin' a mite restless, a mite achy, a mite prickly? I am."

"With lotions and potions, what does it matter?"

Yarhgus Diehl was stunned. He began to wonder how it was that such an idiot had been given the whip hand. He were a shifty, moody fella, sometimes still water and other times a near raging river, not the sort should wield the rare weapon. It were the genuine article, the severed and still living elanti bone. An extension of self, an expression of will, embedded in the bone, fused to the flesh, such a weapon were reserved for the well tempered, or for the truly high holies and their ilk. But, Brother Morha were none of them, and that's what set the Runner to wondering. Were Morha the Curé of Lugh's own son? Were that it? He were fair as a girl, what with that golden hair an' them delicate fimbria. The Curé of Lugh had that same fair hair. Gods! Were it that stupid and that simple? The Runner swore again, set the wondering aside and fixed his black eyes on Morha. "It matters," he said evenly. "It matters 'cause I'm not wantin' to run the river when the rains come, an' yer not wantin' it neither."

"But I've been charged by the Curé himself."

"To do what, put down roots in this poxed place fer dad? Is that it?"

Morha clenched his jaw, but said nothing. The whip hand pulsed and then sheathed itself deep in his arm. Save for the thin trickle of blood on his wrist, there weren't no evidence he bore such a weapon. It vanished altogether.

"Thought as much." The Runner smiled. "Well, I'm not wantin' to disappoint dad, but we're outta time."

"But the mission, the prophet--."

"To find the cure, right? To find Hyugh Temllyn 'cause Hyugh Temllyn's the one what's got it. . .ain't that the preachin of yer precious prophet?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'm that sorry 'cause the mission's done for, an' that's the way o' things. Tell that to yer precious prophet."

"You'll lose your boat, Runner."

"Aye, I'll lose my boat, but not my life an' not yorn neither. Like I said, I'm not wantin' to disappoint dad, but losin' you would disappoint him dearly, I think."

"Oh, you don't know my father." Morha laughed and then shifted into Phase, becoming a flickering presence.

The Runner swore. "Cruak's Crack!," he shouted. "Only a fool shifts in the Heart, a fool or a madman. Which one are you?"

Morha shifted into Null and then laughed again. "I'm fine, Diehl."

Diehl was still angry. "Don't shift again, Brother," he said cautiously. "The pox comes to sods what shift in shiftless places."

"I'm no sod," Morha insisted. "The priesthood does not ordain sods."

The Runner shook his head. "So, them poor, poxed holies what came with us aren't sods?"

"A Black Jaw?" Morha sneered. "An Athelan and a Reckoner?"

Diehl winced at the sudden change in timber, raucous and reedy.

"I should have said Brotherhood. There is a difference."

"Oh, really?"

"Besides," Morha said, "the gods will do what the gods will do."

"Aye," said the Runner thoughtfully. "They will. They have. " Indeed, they had. . .

In the hinters and in the Holy City, hallowed reprisal had rained down on all. The gods had seen something dark in the way of things, so said Graff Trial, the Black Jawed Bishop of Scarfa. The High Reckoner of Cruak, Joon Rhee, agreed with him. In rare harmony the two clerics declared the Nisarh Pox was punishment, deserved and divine. Ah, but there was nothing divine about it. Voices hoarse and rasping -- those were the first symptoms. Fever, rash and rage soon followed. Scarred Singers stripped of Phase -- that was the last symptom, if one survived the brain boiling fever. The fortunate few did not.

Yarhgus Diehl had hocked his beloved boat, the Ilsidir, took his wife by the hand, and fled the city. Bribing their way through Ware's endless gates, taking no passengers but their own Nulls, no cargo but what was needed to survive, they ran hard and fast against the currents. Poling east, ever east, in two small kyrhogues they worked their way up river, following one tributary and then another. Seeking sanctuary, they went deep into the earth, deep into the caverns beneath the Scoriad Karst. The pox was waiting for them.

It struck without warning, taking his sweet Mellis as she drifted into Phase. For days she thrashed and moaned as the pox slowly transformed her into a rawboned, raging creature. Toppled him, she did. A tiny fury, she stood over him with her callused, red foot wedged against his throat until he could not breath, until he lost all consciousness. When he woke at last, he found she had trussed him well with strong cord that bit and knots that did not forgive. Helpless and hopeless, he watched and wept as Mellis murdered their beloved Nulls.

In the end he took her life because she asked it of him. In a single lucid moment she untied him and gave him the rope. "Well, luv," she said softly, "best kill me before the madness comes again. Do it now and be done." Her lovely and lilting contralto gone, she chanted in a matter-of-fact drone. The timber was hollow, the rhythm practical and plodding. "In Ware they're sayin' only the lucky are dead. I'm wantin' to be one o' them lucky ones."

The Runner reeled and moaned at the memory of Mellis. He wished he were less of a Singer and more of a sod, one what shifted at the conceit of others, one what couldn't remember shit. Oh, to be like them! And so, he kept a wary eye on Brother Morha and set to work reviving the shutdown Nulls. The Ilsidir needed a crew.

The first Null knew a thing or two about killing, very useful in this place, at this time. The second bore few glyphs, but his tattoos marked him as a truthsayer. The third bore the glyphs of a hundred past masters, many of them notable, and all of them long dead. A storyteller? No, she were more than that, but what she were, he couldn't say. The fourth was a cook. By the Nine! he could use a good cook. All of them bore the scars of a brutal baptism, but the cook had been so thoroughly baptized he'd blubber like a babe when roused, if he could be roused. Pity that.

Matching his dusky baritone to the tonal glyphs tattooed on the predator's forehead, the Runner roused the Null called Seine.

The last act before shutdown, the first upon awakening, Seine crushed a gnat between his fingers, then held it up to the Runner's face so that he might see its sharp jaws and understand. "Would you rather it burrowed deep and laid her eggs beneath my skin? Their larvae burrow deeper still," he said, "eating all the while, growing all the while. I remember a lovely Null, her body boiling with larvae, each no bigger than a grain of rice."

Brother Morha turned to the Predator and unsheathed the whip hand. In his darkest, most dissonant voice he said, "You remember too much, Mule."

Seine smiled carelessly and then bowed his head meekly. "It will be the death of me, so says Resolve who knows what's what." The Null bent down, grabbed a handful of mud, then smeared it on his forehead, saying it was "death to flies."

The Runner grunted and then roused the truthsayer, an elderly Null named Resolve.

He moaned as he gazed up at Diehl. His milky eyes were full of puzzlement. "You're not," he said.

"Not?"

"Not the one who shut us down."

"No," the Runner admitted. "I'm the one what roused ye."

Resolve nodded his head in obedience and then turned to Seine. "How long?"

The well muscled hunter bent down and sniffed the ground. He looked up and sniffed the air. "Two," he sniffed the air again and corrected himself, "no, three seasons."

The Runner was astonished. "Three seasons? You've been shut down for three seasons?"

"Seine," the truthsayer commented, "is seldom wrong." He shook his head sadly. "Three seasons." He let out a ragged breath.

There was such pain in the old Null's face, the Runner looked to Morha. "Can you do something for them? You're not without influence."

"Why should I? They're just mules."

"They're people what've been left to molder and rot!"

"No," Resolve corrected him. "It wasn't like that. He saved us. That boy saved us."

"A boy did this?"

"Yes, a boy, our boy."

Suddenly, Brother Morha was curious. "A Temerind? Was he a Temerind?"

The old Null shrugged. "This is the Heart."

The priest lashed out and snared Resolve by the neck. The whip hand held fast.

The Runner took hold of the pulsing bone. "Have a care, Brother." He crooned. "We need them."

A reckless Seine muttered that the boy was punished or poxed. "He would have come back for us otherwise. He was like no other."

Morha ignored Seine. He released the old Null, but kept his whip hand at the ready. "Answer me, you filthy mule. Was he a Temerind?"

And again, Resolve stated, "This is the Heart."

"Did he have red hair?"

Yet again, "This is the Heart."

The whip hand struck home, cracking mud and drawing blood. "Explain yourself," he snarled.

"This is the Heart. Temris weeps for us. We bleed for her."

An exasperated Brother Morha threw up his hands and groaned. "Spare me your mythy metaphors."

Resolve stammered, but could only say, "This is the Heart, the Heart of World." He was insistent and desperate.

Again, Morha reached out with his whip hand, but the Runner was faster. "I'm thinkin' he means they're all Temerinds in this here place, an' red hair's more common than not."

Relieved, the old truthsayer nodded. "Yes!" he cried. "Yes!"

Diehl drew the young priest aside. "Brother," he advised soothingly. "Dear Brother, these here Nulls was baptized, see? They was washed clean and then shut down hard fer three seasons. Seems to me, that's twisted the way of things somewhat. In time, he'll find the right words an' they'll be righter words than you ever heard 'cause he's a truthsayer and can't do otherwise. Just needs time is all, just a bit 'o time."

The Runner's clear tone and rich color had their effect. The young priest relaxed. The long, flexible bone withdrew deep into his arm.

"Got more questions fer them, do ye?"

A becalmed and bemused Morha slowly gathered his wits. "His name?"

"Digby. We called him Digby."

"Digby? But, that's a mule's name. A mule shut you down?"

"This is the Heart."

Brother Morha shook his head sadly and walked away. "This is the Heart? Were that it were Ware," he sighed. "I don't care what you do," he told the Runner. "Rouse them or not, but let me know when you're ready to leave." He stalked out of the temple and hunkered by the entrance to wait.

Resolve leaned toward the Runner and whispered. "I pray the boy was lucky. I pray he's dead."

The Runner nodded and then proceeded to rouse the storyteller, a woman named Liturgy.

"Don't," Seine advised, "unless you're hungry. We gorged ourselves on her words until our bellies ached."

"Her words?"

"Suggestions," Resolve said, "of a fat loag and starchy rhan root, simmered in a sauce of delicious phrases." He smiled, rubbed his scrawny belly and added that Liturgy's words were pearls.

"If her words are pearls," Seine scowled, "my stomach is full of vinegar."

"They were better than your scorched sinaque," Resolve reminded him.

The Runner was intrigued. "What's a sinaque?"

Liturgy opened her eyes. "A frilled primate," she explained, "native to the Heart. It was a youngling. Seine caught it with his bare hands, tore off the lacy fimbria, ripped open the belly, discarded the innards and then threw the poor thing onto the fire. Its fur ignited and the thing burnt."

This was a Null with music in her! A truly rare creature -- her words evoked images and aromas of scorched fur and burnt flesh. The Runner was enthralled. "How would you have cooked it?"

Liturgy smiled maliciously, deliciously. "Skinned," she said. "Stewed," she added, "in an iron pot rubbed with rask butter, the meat seasoned with sorhim and sea salt, the belly stuffed with black truffles swollen in sweet water, the sauce--."

"No!" Seine took hold of her wrist, twisted it and then begged the Runner to shut her down. "I'm not eating her words again," he hissed. "We have no pots. Don't let her speak of pots. We have nothing. Don't let her speak at all."

Liturgy wriggled free and away from Seine, but stopped at the iridescent circle of Ghostfire drawn on the floor. It marked a boundary the Nulls could not cross. She looked at the Runner and then asked, "How long?"

"Three seasons."

Her pale eyes grew wide. "Gods!" She looked at her arms, considered the tarry, cracked mud that covered them. "I'm surprised things have not taken root on us! Grassy arms," she mused, "shrubby legs."

To Runner Diehl it seemed things had taken root. Shoots as green as marsh grass sprouted from her arms. Ropy vines coiled round her thin legs.

"Shut her down!" shrieked Seine.

With a sharp gesture the Runner silenced her. The illusion faded. "Is she always--?"

"Like that? Yes." The predator nodded. "Since the baptism, yes." He added that, "Scarfa prods her."

Resolve gave Seine a sidelong glance and frowned. "I've seen his black tongue wagging in your mouth, too, Seine. When that god's not prodding you, he's prodding me."

"Proddin' the whole world, he is," said the Runner. "Him and the others, they're proddin' it hard." Oh, but he were feeling the urge and itch to go forward, to go back, to be gone. "Brother Morha," he shouted, "we're ready. We're leavin'. Now!"

He scraped his foot across the Ghostfire boundary that had held the Nulls in check and the wilderness at bay. He shouted again for Morha, but the Mystic brother had vanished. He swore and then looked to Seine. "Can you find him?"

Seine grinned recklessly.

"Only," advised Resolve, "if you want him dead."

"I need the good brother alive." He fixed his black eyes on Seine. "Alive," he sang, his voice reverberating within the relic walls. The timbre was true, the color dark, the tone threatening.

Seine bowed his head and then ran after Morha.

Gods! but the Runner ached. The need to move was absolute. Even in this shunted place, Spring had reached out, touched him. The wound was deep, and no lotion nor potion could ease his pain. The whip hand of the gods struck home.

* * *

Brax was dead. Digby found his body tied to a limb that hung low over the river. Daimuns and marle had nibbled at the old Mindsinger's feet, taking what they could before a river worm drove them away and waited for the rest to drop. Grubs nested in the skull. The boy tried to brush them away, but they lingered, crawled about in the open skull, polishing it clean. When he could not lift the body, Digby cut the rope, let it fall.  "You should have come with us, Brax. There's strength in numbers, and I could have used your strength."

But the old Mindsinger wouldn't leave the river, would he? A bit of a stick in the mud, was Brax. Hadn't moved his barge more than cable length in decades. Up river one season and down river the next, just enough to soothe the urge and itch. He was a solitary soul, too, with not a single Null to serve him, not since Amity. Now, that was the talk of the river -- how the old man had let her come into her own and then set her free. Everyone knew the way of things after that. Brax was no simple Singer. He was a Mindsinger and more. He was Yscaga, bound to no one, not even the Singermind. A solitary, stubborn old stick in the mud, that was Brax.

Still, Digby had prayed the old man would change his mind and his ways, but the prayer went unanswered. "It won't do." That's what Brax said. He wouldn't have a gaggle of freshly baptized Nulls underfoot, disturbing and distorting Phase. "Listen to me, Hyugh. You'll do fine on your own, you will." Brax had said that, too.

Ah, but he didn't do fine. Digby sat on the gunwale and wept for shame. "I lost them, Brax," he said. "I lost the Nulls and then I lost myself. I couldn't remember was it the North fork or the South, upstream or down?"

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