The Generosity of Spirits
by Luke Thomas
They arrived at the standing stones. Duncan squatted just outside the clearing, and the rest soon joined.
Eiko kept his pulsing anxiety out of his voice. “Dunk, are you still resolved to go first?”
Duncan’s wide, handsome face was pale, but he stood and nodded to each member of his cadre. He made his way into the circle of stones.
“Luck to you, Mathis.” This came from Reis, more solemn than Eiko had ever heard him.
Duncan gained the altar at the clearing’s center. He drew something from his satchel, what must have been the invoker his family had sent him in with. Wordlessly, Eiko and the others crept to the border of the stone ring.
Duncan’s voice was muffled, as if a dense and snowy hedge was between them instead of empty space. This though he was not a dozen yards away and surely orating with everything he had.
“...the scion of House Mathis, I bid you appear if you would taste that which I’ve brought.”
For several heavy heartbeats nothing happened, then a strong sucking assaulted Eiko’s inner ear, pulling him forward. He teetered but quickly reaffirmed his balance, grasping his companions’ shoulders so they wouldn’t fall and disturb the summoning.
The air — or some cold, penetrating current akin to air — was funneling into his spine, up and out the front of his skull and through the perilous border of the stones. A lapse in concentration would send any of them stumbling in, spooking the manifestation to unknowable result.
But no one stumbled. They braced each other and watched. Eiko heard a low, sharp concussion of air currents. With that the unpleasant sensation in his bones ceased. The spirit Duncan had invoked appeared as a mass of dirt and dead leaves, circulating above the altar in an eddy of wind. Eiko wasn’t surprised by the aspect of the thing’s appearance, as House Mathis secured its station by threat of crop-withering.
“Unh... hmmn,” the spirit cooed. “What’s the big man got for us, hmm-eh? Oh gracious, do ye bear ill news? Uffuh.”
Eiko’s lip curled as he listened to its moans. By the size and density of this initial probing, he guessed the spirit to be a formidable toadie, perhaps strong enough to be considered a wote.
“I bear news of a village in Taborstead. A fertile land. Do you know it, spirit?”
“Oh... unh...” the eddy slowed a bit, letting some dirt fall. The thing was losing interest almost as quickly as it had manifested itself. “Yes, I know that place.”
“Spirit, hear me!” Duncan commanded. “Despite all of that land’s plenty, the peasants of this village dared to hunt in the Mathiswood. Ungrateful of them, don’t you agree?”
“Mnnh. Yes, yes. Disobedient to ye, young strong man. Might be I could help ye to tame ’em, if ye had something tasty...”
“Spirit, they are tamed, be assured. I rode out to this village with a detachment of my father’s forces, seconding my noble uncle, Phillip Mathis, whom you know.”
“Phillip Mathis! I know him of whom ye speak. He’s brought me token of ill tidings, indeed. Such, mmmuh, horrors, so terrible—”
“Then hear my news, spirit. My uncle did not stay long. He desiccated the soil for miles around the village until the grass turned to dust under our horses’ hooves. Then he returned home. I — and only I — was left in command of our men.
“I formed a blockade and explained to the peasants that, for stealing the fruit of the Mathiswood, they’d spend autumn in famine, reaping nothing to store away for winter.”
The spirit was by now only half-listening. Such an impatient thing, Eiko thought, had to be strong enough to be considered a wote. Duncan needed to cut to the chase soon or it would gorge itself on his misery instead of that represented by the offering in his satchel.
“We set up a perimeter camp. We lived in comfort while the peasants scrounged for worms in the blighted dirt of their gardens. My men caught two youths trying to steal our provisions in the first week. I hanged them from the great oak at the entrance to town, where their families could see.”
At this the wote bent over Duncan, mewling of its renewed interest. “Men hanged from the village tree, ye say? They lose, unh, precious fluids when they break, betimes. Have ye such fluids for me? How many were hanged, ye say?”
Even as it pleaded for detail, however, Eiko could see the manifestation becoming denser above and even slightly behind Duncan. It was baiting him, hoping he’d present his token now, after an account of acts that could never satisfy a wote, so it could devour the offering as an appetizer before it authored some grotesque reflection of the hanged boys’ fate on Duncan himself.
But Eiko knew Duncan wouldn’t invoke a wote and offer only the voidances of a pair of executions. Midlander he was, but he knew better than that.
“Two! Damn your ears!” Duncan bellowed. His voice turned ragged for a moment. He must have sensed the manifestation surrounding him. “And no, you low thing. I’ve brought you worse. Now attend me!” He rushed forward with his tale.
“Two thieves hanged in the first week and nearly forty remained to starve out two moons. By the time the rubes grasped their only means of survival, the thieves’ corpses were rotted in the ground. Believe me, spirit, they regretted allowing that chance to slip by.
“It was only a week past the second moon when my men caught the clever beggars at their tricks. Not that it was hard to find them out. You must understand that peasants make a great ceremony of whatever they can. On the muck track that passes for their village square, in the deep hours of the morning, the families muttered holy pleas and exchanged their most frail children. The waifs, sleepy and hungry, went along with their parents’ urging. Never questioned a thing. Went gently into their neighbors’ arms.
“At dawn, the new shift of my men woke, surprised, to the smell of cookery. At first they took it for spitted pig.”
“Ummh-hnnn...” The wote let out a high keening. It solidified toward something like a human outline and gyrated its hips.
“The clever devils didn’t gorge themselves, mind you. They cured the meat, to better last through winter.” The wote’s undulations increased as it savored the news.
“That’s not quite the tale’s end. Hear me well, spirit. Hear all of my news.”
There was no longer any question of inattention. Cannibalism held the wote in thrall. Eiko was chilled and nauseated, but didn’t dare show anything but satisfaction at his cadre’s first success.
“I gave the peasants one final reminder of my family’s power over them. We lifted the blockade after first frost, as we’d promised. But not a week later, I returned. Naturally they were broken and terrified, but I came with a caravan of provisions in tow. I offered all of it in exchange merely for their thanks, a few dozen kisses for my family’s banner, and a single side of their special cured pork.
“And so I offer this meal to you, spirit.” Duncan took off his satchel and drew out something wrapped in waxed cloth.
Eiko wanted to close his eyes, but was paralyzed by revulsion. He didn’t want to see the token, the reification of Duncan’s act.
Fortunately, as Duncan untied the offering the wote brought its entire presence into the circle in order to dine. Eiko’s view was obscured by a veil of rot.
They heard Duncan’s request, uttered in a language comprehensible only to someone who knew the Mathis cipher and tailored to the world spirits who favored their approach. When the air cleared, Duncan emerged. He seemed more than whole.
For a reason he couldn’t define, Eiko was incredibly relieved that Duncan didn’t wither a fern or vine in order to display his new aethereal influence. The image of a sleepy, bony little girl being ushered into the arms of her neighbors... It wasn’t a thought he could banish. Yet he couldn’t picture the neighbors’ faces, the adult villagers who knew what they were doing. They were smudges in his mind’s eye. Relief? Tears? Only animal hunger? Nothing in the ken of what he, even he, could imagine.
Eiko was aware of some hushed discussion. He managed to nod his way through it. Who was next had to be the issue. When he regained his wits, Reis was already at the altar. This had a certain sense. If there was a general notion of what potency of spirit each member of this cadre would be able to appease, he and Otto, hailing from bloody Four Arms, were expected to produce the more effective offerings. Though Duncan could have just proven that a fiction.
“I worry for him,” Duncan said as the three settled in to observe Reis. “How will he make a fit request? Surely, the former Count Waldheim couldn’t have been desperate enough to sell his ciphers along with his title.”
“A commoner should make a common request,” Otto stated, in full earnest. “Wilderness summoners do it without ciphers. With a basic ask he’ll make it through. He must realize that. Right?”
Eiko was aware of a sharp musk that permeated the air when the spirit Reis invoked began to manifest. But as he heard the concern in Otto’s voice, he found it impossible to focus on events in the circle.
If he gave Otto some clue now to what his offering was, would it matter? Would the freia know, with the revelation of his and Nina’s plan so close at hand, that Otto had been tipped off a few minutes early? He’d never observed anyone invoking such a major force of aether as a freia, not his uncle Luther who tutored him, not anyone. Really, Duncan’s wote was not far from the strongest spirit he’d ever seen.
He wondered if he was mad to try for a freia. If things went poorly, what would it do to him? His was an offering founded on love, on sex, in a very real way. What would a freia do to pervert his wishes if it was bored by his talk of alliances and peacetime? The speculation sent a cold, sharp twinge through his groin.
As if to offer an example for his tormented mind, Reis Waldheim screamed.
* * *
Reis had hobbled out of the circle, bent double and shielding his right side. He’d entered the woods opposite the three of them and hadn’t looked back. Worst of all he’d wept openly the whole time, his anguish audible well after they lost sight of him among the trees. But Eiko, clammy in his tunic and cloak, did not begrudge Reis his tears. Could he even go on living if his own try failed?
“Damn him.” Otto pounded a gloved fist on the dirt. “Why would a merchant’s son ask to be made into some master swordsman? What possible use would that have for his family? He should have consulted us, damn him. And that toadie, it was too much for someone with no history to stand on.”
Duncan nodded. “He should have started small. Maybe he’ll find a way to send word to his brothers. No doubt Melkor Waldheim will just send them one after another until they’re used up. Usurious bastard.”
Otto pounded a fist into the dirt. “Dammit, Reis! To expect to be imbued with skill like that just over — what was it? — some seed spilt during the rape of some supposed witches? It’s damn ludicrous!”
“It was on holy ground.” Duncan sighed. “But you’re right.”
Eiko, dreading up to this moment his own failure, suddenly realized that his plan could come crashing down for another reason. If Otto went first and failed as Reis had, a major player in the scheme of his offering would be disowned from the Montserrat family. His and Nina’s plan would unravel.
He stood, but Otto was already stepping into the circle. Eiko blanched. How could he be so hopelessly lost in his head tonight, the most important of his life?
“I’ll go,” Otto said as he glanced back at Eiko. The anger over Reis’s ambition had fallen from his face, replaced by something inscrutable.
“Luck,” Duncan said.
Eiko had no words. The aethereal border of the circle was already stirring up, sealing.
How could he have let this happen? Everything could fall apart.
“Luck, Otto,” he finally croaked.
* * *
He was physically unable to watch. He turned away, pacing and waiting for it to be over. Blame, desperation, worst of all an acute knowledge that he might have failed Nina for the most idiotic of oversights. His mind raced.
A banal question came to him. Based on what Otto had said of Reis’s offering, a request of swordsmanship from a toadie didn’t seem inordinate. Reis was decent with a rapier to begin with, so the influence required to add certain excesses of speed and awareness wouldn’t be so heavy. “Duncan,” he said over his shoulder, “What happened to turn the spirit against Reis?”
“Oh,” Duncan replied, distracted by proceeding inside the circle, “He had a clod of seed spilled in rape on holy earth, which might on the face of things have been enough. But the spirit sniffed out his past. It found out he’d only watched.”
“Oh, Reis...” Eiko groaned.
Failure was such a likelihood with these offerings, yet they’d all treated it as impossible. Four aristos from up and down the confederacy: they’d considered themselves invincible. In truth, a displeased world spirit could rip any one of them apart. There’d be no regard for birthright if such a failure came to pass.
Eiko ground a clump of moss under his boot. At that moment something else took all of his attention. A low, slow sensation emanated from his crotch, for a moment attributable to his raw nerves. Until it flared. His spine arched. He reflexively slapped at the front of his breeches. That only doubled the pain as it condensed from something general to a sharp, hot searing.
His testicles were boiling. He whirled round out of agony, confusion, and desperation. He saw a reddish suggestion of a winged shape in the circle, with Otto behind it, pointing at him, speaking incomprehensible words in his family’s cipher.
Otto was commanding the spirit to geld him.
Copyright © 2014 by Luke Thomas