Sticks, Stones and Monsters
by Nathan Elberg
It was well past mid-day when the sisters reached the main road into the village. Like most of the streets there, it led to the wharves; the town had grown around the river trade. It was where the delta began, splitting the water into the shallow streams that fed the marshes, before entering the sea.
The houses were mostly simple wattle and daub, with roof frames supported by thick corner posts. Many had little gardens; a few had sheds for small animals.
The streets were hard-packed dust and rocks, wide enough in most places for a couple of wagons to pass each other. Trees were haphazardly scattered in front of homes, off to the side, or in the middle of the road.
The streets were mostly empty now, except for insects and the occasional bird. It wasn’t the heat. There was disquiet in the air. Furtive eyes looked out at the twins from behind sheds, behind doors. Anybody who passed them eyed the girls suspiciously or looked the other way as they went by. One woman with a streak of blue paint on her forehead stared at them, before turning and running away.
“Something’s very wrong, Ana.” Tamsyn shivered, and squeezed Anahita’s hand tightly. They kept walking.
The painted woman was soon back, this time accompanied by a couple of armed men. “They murdered my husband. Kill them! Kill them before they murder the rest of us.”
The soldiers looked puzzled.
“Don’t you know who they are? These are the twins my husband warned everybody about. They murdered him to protect themselves.”
The taller one fidgeted with his beard. “You said you went to his temple and found him dead on the floor, without any marks. So how can you say it was these two?”
“Temple?” The shorter man chuckled. “You mean his hut.”
“That proves it,” the painted woman said.
“These two killed my husband with their dark talents. If someone else had killed him, there would be visible wounds.”
“So why would they come here, and walk calmly down the street?”
“To boast of their powers, to find more victims. You’re wasting time. Kill them now. If you’re afraid, I’ll do it.” She pulled a dagger and lunged at Tamsyn.
Tamsyn swiftly swept the painted woman’s feet from under her, took the dagger, twisted the woman’s arms behind her back, and pinned her to the ground. Tamsyn knelt over the woman, her knee pressing between her shoulders. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead, and nobody would fault me for defending myself.”
She rose, turned to the soldier who had laughed, and gave him the knife. “Can we be on our way?”
“Where are you two going? Why are you here?”
“This morning some people who were our friends all of our lives tried to kill us. We came to speak to her husband” — Anahita pointed — “to ask him to stop telling lies about us.”
“Well, he’s not going to listen now,” the soldier said. “He’s dead.”
“I don’t think that’s going to make a difference to how much he’d have listened to us.” Anahita sighed. “We had to try.”
The painted woman pushed herself up from the ground. “Are you going to let them go? I tell you, they killed my husband.”
“If you don’t keep quiet, I’m going to give your knife back to the girl and walk away.” The man turned to Tamsyn. “We’ll bring you to the Chief; he’ll decide what to do. Don’t make any trouble.”
This could be bad. Pinning a woman armed with a knife wasn’t the same as dealing with a soldier carrying a sword. There would probably be lots of those guarding the Chief, who was known to have a quick temper and to be given to random violence. Anahita wished she had learned to fight like her sister.
They were being taken to the leader of a potential enemy. They were being taken as prisoners, accused of the murder of a leading member of the enemy community. To make things worse, the Chief’s brother was known to say he was a war-god; one who ate the hearts of living people. If the twins ever had need of dark powers, it was now. Failing that, they’d have to use their wits.
Most of the village homes and plots were haphazardly scattered along the roads, with odd-shaped yards and gardens. Not so the Chief’s. It was circled by a large plaza with a high stone wall at its perimeter. It was attached to the large meeting house, where the dry-landers held their ceremonial war dances.
The Marsh People said the Chief’s authority didn’t extend to their home, and so they never took part in his dance. One day, the Marsh People knew, that war dance might be the prelude to an attack on them.
Chief Taiku was sitting at the table with one of his men; a couple more leaned against the wall behind him. He didn’t look especially fierce. He didn’t seem especially interested as the soldier who had arrested them whispered in his ear. When the Chief recognized the priest’s wife, he whispered something back, and then stood up.
“I was surprised by your husband’s death. Is there anything I can do to console you?”
Anahita could feel her sister tensing, her muscles coiling for action.
“I would be greatly consoled if you killed his murderers.”
“Of course. These two?”
Anahita looked around anxiously for an escape.
“My husband was trying to warn everyone about their dark powers, so they killed him.”
“How do you know that?”
“All of a sudden he dies, and then these two are found walking through town.”
He turned to the twins. “Is it true?”
“Well, we...” Anahita said.
She looked down at her feet. “Yes.”
His eyes opened wider. “You killed him?”
Anahita held her hands up in front of her. “No, no, not that! It’s true that we were walking through town after he died. But that doesn’t mean we killed him.”
“Why did you come?”
“We wanted to talk to him. We hoped—”
Taiku scowled. “I don’t care what you hoped. Better if you keep quiet now.” He motioned to his men to surround the girls. Taiku pointed at the painted woman as he spoke to the sisters. “Use a spell to kill her.”
“What?” Anahita flinched.
“If you want to live, use your powers to end her life. Do it now, or I’m going to let her end yours.”
Trembling, Tamsyn clutched her sister’s forearm.
“If you kill her, I let you go on your way. If not, I let her kill you.” The Chief scowled at the girls.
Tamsyn’s energy seemed to have drained away. Anahita was terrified. Had they escaped their tormentors this morning, only to deliver themselves into the hands of a different executioner? She stood frozen, as her sister’s eyes darted around the room. The men seemed eager for blood, and the painted woman had a broad smile.
“Well?” he said.
Tamsyn shook her head.
Taiku spoke to the man who had whispered to him earlier. “Give the lady back her knife.”
The painted woman smirked as she shoved the dagger back in her belt.
“No, keep it out. Use it,” the Chief said.
“Thank you, but I’d be satisfied if you did the job.”
“No. You have a knife. Neither of them do.” He waved at the twins.
Anahita’s legs were trembling. She felt nauseous. She felt like crying. She was too young to be executed like this. Why did her sister suddenly look so calm? When the Chief had waved his arm towards them, she had even smiled for an instant. “Tammy,” she whispered. “What’s going on?”
“The Chief knows—”
“Hold them,” the painted woman told the soldiers. They looked towards the Chief. He shook his head.
“Which one of you does she try to kill first?” the Chief asked. Tamsyn immediately stepped forward, staring intently at him.
What was it that he knew, Anahita wondered. What was her sister up to? More climbing in windows? Things were moving too fast for that.
“Wait!” The painted woman backed away. “They have to hold her.”
Anahita also looked at the Chief.
“No,” he said.
The painted woman chewed her lip. “She might try to defend herself.”
“I’m sure she will.”
It was the painted woman whose legs now trembled. She started to step backwards. Taiku waved a finger at his men, who moved behind her, weapons drawn.
“Your husband’s blood cries for vengeance. You have to kill her yourself.”
“What if she tries to hurt me? You... you have to make your men hold her. These girls are Marsh People; they’re not ours.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. The Marsh People may not be yours, but I’m the Chief, not you. You’re the wife of a dead troublemaker, who made the lives of these girls miserable just so he could get support for his temple.”
Anahita heard these words at the same time as Tamsyn. She was still digesting them when her sister took to the air. Not flying like a bird. More like an arrow, coming relentlessly towards its target. Too fast for the target to move out of the way. Tamsyn’s foot struck the painted woman’s chin, knocking her down to the floor. She stomped on the woman’s neck, crushing her windpipe.
The painted woman gasped, flailed her arms, and kicked her feet as her skin started to turn blue. Her head turned a few times from side to side, as if there was a position that would enable her to breathe. There wasn’t.
The soldiers had also heard the Chief’s words at the same time as Tamsyn. Startled, they looked at the woman, barely quivering now, as they began to understand what Taiku had done.
Tamsyn turned to him and lowered her head. A bow, but not quite. “My Chief...” She extended her arm, palm upward, and gestured towards the body, as if she were presenting a gift.
The men shifted nervously, looking for some clue as to the proper response.
The Chief laughed. “I expected you to wait for her to attack.”
“Her demanding that you kill me was the attack. I don’t believe in delaying till the blade is coming at me.”
“Did you see how fast she moved?” one of the soldiers said. “Only a demon could kill that quickly.”
“I am fast, you’re right. I’m young, and I run a lot. I’m not a demon,” Tamsyn said
He sneered. “You were able to murder a widow. Your speed wouldn’t help if you’d tried that on one of us.”
Anahita furrowed her brow and wagged a finger. “It’s not murder. The Chief allowed my sister to defend herself.”
Tamsyn folded her arms over her chest. “Just because I come from the Marshes doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I would never want to fight a skilled warrior like you. You’re a strong, experienced killer; I’m a young girl who spends most of her time cleaning fish or weaving mats. I’m fast, yes, but you’re a warrior.”
The men all stood a little taller. The Chief wiped the grin on his face with the back of his hand, as if trying to replace it with a scowl. The smile in his eyes kept him from succeeding.
“Can we go home now?” Anahita said. “Our mother will be worried.”
Tamsyn scratched at her wrist. “We need to—”
“My brother will see you home,” Taiku said. One of the men held the door open for them.
“I don’t like this. He’s going to kill us on the way,” Anahita whispered into her sister’s ear.
Tamsyn glanced at Taiku, and shook her head lightly. “The Chief wants—”
Taiku pointed, and his men shooed them towards the door. “I want you girls to be safe. Remember that.”
* * *
The dwarf rat had escaped. There was a small, ragged hole in the boy’s abdomen where it had dug its way out. They found their tormentor lying on a large, flat rock about twenty paces from where they had fed him the rat, meaning that he had regained consciousness while the animal was ripping at his guts. One could see the wide path of the boy’s blood as it had flowed down the rock to the nearby water.
Tamsyn took his arms as they brought his body to their little skiff.
Anahita had his legs. “Are we going to carry all of them back?”
“I don’t think we should. It would be too suspicious; make us look like monsters. The scavengers will take care of them.”
They dropped the body in the center, barely leaving themselves room. Anahita pushed off the shore, and then knelt in the bow. Tamsyn sat at the stern.
“Are we monsters, Tammy? Are we? I don’t want to be a monster.”
“The Chief doesn’t think we are. We aren’t.” Tamsyn started to paddle; Anahita followed.
“How are you so sure about the Chief?”
“He let me kill that lady. The Chief saw her smile when he told us to kill her. She should have been terrified. She knew we couldn’t kill her with a spell.”
Anahita turned to look back at her sister. “I was trying, Tammy. I was trying.”
Tamsyn arched her eyebrows. “Do you think we really...? We have to practice, Ana. Until we know, we’ll keep using our fists and feet.”
Copyright © 2013 by Nathan Elberg