Keepstones

The little boy led his older sister up the path to the trove. It was under an old pine tree that had been split long ago. One trunk was surviving, more or less, while the other was a mass of kindling suspended in the air. He crawled under the tattered canopy and beckoned her in. “See what I found, Evvie?” he said, pointing at the a pile of glassy black shards mixed with more ordinary pebbles. “I think they must be arrowheads.”
Evelyn sighed. “No, stupid. That’s just keepstone.” She was tired of always having to explain the simplest things to her little brother.

“What’s keepstone?” he asked.

“It’s old, and it’s boring.” Evelyn started walking back down the path to their parents’ hut. Dad had netted two pigeons that morning and she had the juniper berries for the stew in her apron. Cole scampered up behind and asked, “How old?”

“Older than grandpa’s grandpa. It’s from before, when there were armies and things.”

Cole’s eyes flashed. “Do you think there’s a sword in there?”

It was too much. Evelyn turned and swatted at Cole. “No, stupid! Leave me alone,” and she ran off faster than he could follow. All the swords (and nails and cart-axles, for that matter) had been carried off by scavengers long ago, no more than a year or two after the Keep fell. “Fell” probably wasn’t the right word for it, though, since piles of keepstone could be found miles away from the lake where it used to stand. “Exploded” would probably be better, although Evelyn had never seen anything actually explode. She had once seen a lampglass break when it got too hot, and a few bits of glass shot away from the flame. It was enough for her to imagine what had happened, or so she told herself. And she thought, “All the swords but one.”

She opened the door to the cabin and smelled the stew already cooking. Mother had put spring onions and yellow tuberoot in with the birds. “I’ve got the berries, Ma,” she said. “Thank you, dear,” said her mother, taking the berries in one hand and patting her on the head with the other. “Run go get some more wood for the breadoven.” Evelyn walked off toward the woodshed.

When she got to the shed she looked around to be sure that her mother wasn’t paying attention. Her father wouldn’t be back until suppertime; he went to smoke with the men at the brewery in the afternoons. She climbed up onto the woodpile and reached above the third rafter from the end of the shed roof. She would need a different hiding place once winter came, but for now nobody had found the bundle. She took it down and opened up the dirty chamois cloth. The hilt of the dagger shone, the silver matching the trim on the scabbard, which was made from a heavy black wood like ebony but harder. She eased back the latch that held the dagger safely shut and drew out the blade. She turned it in the light, watching the runes etched into the blade come in and out of relief.

Was it from the Fourth Onslaught? She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t wondered what it must have been like to be part of that attack, when the besieging armies had finally breached the Citadel wall. The outer chambers of the keep had fallen first, the defenders retreating to the central tower before Daniel’s soldiers. They barricaded themselves within while the attackers looted the stores of food that had been left behind. For weeks they’d had to live off the land, stripping it bare of what livestock and game the defending Servants of Matthew hadn’t hoarded in the time before the First Onslaught. On their night of victory they could think of no sweeter reward than oat porridge spiced with goatgrass and honey. But they knew they needed strength for the final assault.

“What’s that?” asked Cole, startling her. She turned to see him standing not two feet away. He must have seen everything. “Cole! What are you doing?”

Cole looked worried, and not at all interested in the dagger she was clumsily wrapping back into its cloth. “There’s men on the road,” he said.

“What men?” she asked.

“Men on horses,” he said, and inexplicably broke out in tears. He ran off to the cabin sobbing, arms reaching out for Mother’s legs long before he reached the door.

Evelyn tucked the dagger into her apron and walked around to the side of the woodshed. She could see the cart-track that led down to the mill and the brewery. There were indeed four men on horseback, dressed like penitents in grey woolen sacks. But she was more startled by the men who walked alongside, leading the horses by the reins. They were wearing armor — black armor, like in the stories.

It was the color of the final guard who defended the Keep during the Fifth Onslaught. Daniel’s soldiers had battered down the great door to the inner Citadel, swarming in to exterminate the Servants of Matthew. The battle had raged for a day and a half in tight corridors, the dead propped up by those behind them, men hewing into each other through shields of meat and bone. Finally they came to the tower sanctum where Matthew himself was surrounded by the black-armored Marchers of the East. Daniel’s soldiers seemed like a ragged group of farmhand conscripts in comparison, motley arms and armor against an elite cadre of trained warriors. But they had lost brothers and fathers and sons in the fields outside the wall, and their numbers carried the day. The fell on the Marchers and then Matthew himself, hacking into him and pulling his corpse to shreds.

In that chamber their bloodlust exceeded all reason and became an orgy of violence. Men coupled with organs or the blood-slick stones of the Citadel itself. Soldiers who had once been priests defiled the fallen bodies of the Marchers. Matthew’s severed head was hoisted on a pike to observe his final defeat. When the rage finally subsided the victors couldn’t believe what they had done. Nor could they understand why the walls of the Citadel seemed to be glowing red, as if they had become penetrable to the light of the sun which shone through their thick coating of blood. And they certainly could not understand how Matthew’s ruined skull was now laughing, the dangling eyes weaving and mad. And then they knew nothing, for the keep was broken and scattered.

Of this last assault Evelyn knew almost nothing, other than that Daniel has won but had his army destroyed when the Citadel erupted in a fountain of blood, metal, and stone. It was the story that explained why there were no more armies in the land, and why the black stones of the bridges were so strong and so strange. But before her on the road were these four penitents and their warders who looked to be soldiers. When she saw the smoke from where the millhouse stood she wondered if it all could happen again.

–Steve Kilian

Sweet Nothings
Globama

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