By Eilis O'Neal
31 May 2010
He found her inside his house, the pale stone house that perched on the last bit of greenish grass before the Waste, the house that stood so far away from any other house that it might as well have been the only house in the world.
He had gone hunting, as he often did in the morning and at dusk, gone hunting with his bow and his spear, though not his sword. He had been in the Waste that morning, because there had been no rabbits in the hills of tufted grass to the east, and no hill birds either. But there had been tracks leading into the Waste, small paw prints that might belong to one of the striped animals that lived there. He had killed one, caught it against one of the razored rocks of the Waste. And after that, when the sun had begun to burn against his neck, when the heat rose from the ground like perfume from a woman's skin, he opened the door to his house and found her.
She was thin, as thin as a shaft of midwinter sunlight in the forests of the east, and tall, nearly as tall as he was. Black hair hung just past her ears, the edges as sharp as the rocks of the Waste. He could see the tautness of her shoulders, the curve of the muscles of her arms and legs, because she was naked. She stood with her back to him, staring at the back wall of his house. Two empty brackets were set there, and that morning a sword—his own sword, the sword of his father and his father before him—had hung on them. Now they were empty.
The door creaked softly as he pushed it farther open. The sound seemed to fill the house, and then she was moving, moving like water, like the cold rushing of a mountain stream. She whirled, one arm reaching for something near her side that wasn't there, and it made her stumble. But then her fists were up, ready to fight, the stumble forgotten. Her eyes fixed on him, still and hard, and he saw that they were blue.
"This is my house," he said.
Her hands didn't lower, and he could see her bare feet tense against the stone floor. "Where?" The word sliced past him.
"At the edge of the Waste."
Her blue eyes widened. "Which part?"
"The nearest town is Farbrook, and it's fifteen days on a horse. A good horse."
Her mouth opened slightly as she breathed. "Are you alone here?"
He nodded, and her eyes flicked around the house. One of his skinning knives lay on a table near the bed, and she sprang, or flowed, or stalked, across the space to pick it up.
"I won't hurt you," he said. "As long as you aren't here to rob me. Though there's little enough to take." Though perhaps, he thought, she was there to do just that, because it seemed she had already taken his sword, though where she had hidden it he could not see.
She laughed. She threw her head back, showing the long length of her white neck, and she laughed, and when she was done, the tension in her body had fled. She held the knife loosely, at her side.
"What's your name?" she asked.
He tilted his head. "Affric Thalens."
Again her eyes scanned the room, pausing on the trunk in the corner, the one with the insignia of the royal army still etched into its wood. He had once thought to gouge it out, but that had been a long time ago, and as time passed in the silence of the Waste, he had forgotten.
"Is that all?"
He nodded. "Should there be more?"
One side of her mouth pulled in, and she shrugged with one shoulder. "You live alone in the Waste, where few would live without fear. Yet you look unafraid. You might be Affric Silver-Arrow, Affric Flame-Spear, Affric Spinning-Dagger."
He shook his head slowly. "I've never met anyone with a name like that."
He heard the hitch of her breath in her chest. Her forehead creased, and the tip of the knife, which she had been moving in lazy circles, went still.
"I've heard them, in stories, in histories," he said quickly, but the sudden look of fear on her face—an odd, sharp look, as if she had rarely felt such a thing before—did not disappear.
"How long?" she asked, and her voice was ragged.
"How long since what?"
Now she took a step toward him, the knife suddenly raised in her hand, its blade toward him. "How long since names like that were used?"
Affric pursed his lips. "Two hundred years. Since before the empire fell."
The knife did not drop to the flagstone floor. But he saw it tremble in her hand before she raised her chin and snapped, "Get me some clothes."
They ate from the animal he had killed, once he had roasted a bit of it over the fire. She wore one of his shirts, a shirt that had once been blue but had faded until the color could not be named, and a pair of his breeches. Outside the house, night came. Inside, the flames from the hearth fire illuminated his face, but she sat far away from him, on the floor in the shadow of the room's corner.
"What do you know of Maura Bright-Blade?" she asked out of the darkness that surrounded her.
Affric swallowed, taking a drink from his mug to wash down the meat. In his mind, he saw the thick books of his father's study, the fat tomes of combat and histories of warriors.
"She was a swordsman," he said finally. "The best of her time. She served the Emperor Janken, led his warriors into battle. Won the battles, all of them. They say she was like a blade herself, as sharp and keen-edged and quick, as if she were made of steel and lightning. She disappeared. They looked, but they never found her."
She stepped out of the darkness, coming forward to hook her ankle around the empty stool that stood beside his one chair and sit on it. A bit of grease shone on her bottom lip, but she didn't wipe it away.
"She was turned into a sword."
The firelight danced over her face, over the steep lines of her cheekbones. "She knew a man, a wizard. Blaise Vanadric. He was the best wizard and she was the best swordsman. When they were together, it was like a storm, with all the noise and motion and the lovely calm afterward. For a while, it was good. But he began to hate it when she left him, hate the way her eyes shone before a battle, because they weren't shining for him. He asked her—he told her—to stop, to give up her name and be simply Maura.
"She said no. He asked again, and she refused. And then—"
She paused, her eyes behind Affric, on the high, dark corner of the room. "He said it was justice, because I didn't love him. All I loved was killing, so I would kill and kill, forever. As a sword, the perfect sword, one that would never lose a battle, just as I had never lost a battle. That it would only end if someone were willing to lay the sword aside. And who would lay aside a sword that never lost?"
Affric thought of his sword, thought of the runes etched upon it, of how he had never lost a fight, nor his father nor grandfather before him. Then he looked at the wall near his bed, at the place where the empty brackets hung.
He found that she knew how to hunt, knew from countless campaigns waged years before his father's father had been born. But she didn't know how to hunt in the Waste. She didn't know to watch for the rock spiders as large as barn cats, and she didn't know where to look for the brown spotted lizards that sunned on certain rocks. So he taught her, taught her to hunt under the sky that was never gray, under the bright, hot sun. The lizards could be eaten, but hardly fought back; she preferred hunting the striped beasts that crossed from the hills into the Waste or the large-eared deer that sometimes wandered over the grasslands.
She knew how to skin what she caught—the blade flashed in her hands, quicker than even his own—and how to cook it over a fire outdoors. She knew how to mend small tears in the clothes he gave her. But she didn't know how to fix a roof, or keep sand and dirt from the Waste out of the house, or simply sit and watch the evening come down out of the sky.
The silence seemed to weigh on her, there in the house on the edge of the Waste. Only the wind broke it, and the sound of dirt and gravel shifting over the rocks. It had pressed on him, when he first came there, but then he had forgotten it, forgotten to listen to it, or learned how to. He tried to talk, to cover up the silence, but he had been alone a long time. More often he simply watched her.
She reminded him of a cat. Not a house cat, not a mouser in a barn in some green forest town, but a lioness or a jungle panther. Power coiled behind every movement, fearlessness quickened every step. Soon she hunted better than he did, because she held nothing of herself back, even if they merely hunted rabbits.
He learned the sound of her laugh, edged and sharp, then full and low. She was quick to laugh, and quick to yell. He learned to watch for her blue eyes to go dark, nearly black with temper, and to get out of the way if they did. He memorized the scars on her arms, the thin white mark on her cheek, learned their stories.
Sometimes he thought he saw her watching him.
Every day he thought she would leave. He could see that it rubbed at her, the silence, the loneliness, made her seem to itch in her own skin. Every morning, he expected to wake and find her gone.
"Why did you come here?" she asked.
They were harvesting small red fruits from the short, twisted trees that grew along the creek that flowed to the edge of the Waste and then cut away from it, too scared to enter. When they were finished, he would show her how to remove the white seeds, the ones that could cause a large man to fall down frothing. The fruits were good, once the seeds were gone.
He laid a fruit in his basket, then looked at her. She had split one of the fruits with her nail, so that red juice ran down her hand to her wrist. It made his ears ring, a little, when he thought of the story of himself coming to the Waste, and he thought about not answering. But she was watching him, watching him with her blue eyes, and he knew that if he did not tell her now, she would not ask again.
"I was a soldier," he said finally. "A swordsman. I was good at it, because I trained hard, and because I had a sword that never lost a fight. I fought for the king, fought for him for years. And then, one day, I didn't want to anymore."
Her eyes narrowed, as if she suspected him of lying. How, he thought, was Maura Bright-Blade to understand why he had left behind everything to come and live at the edge of the Waste?
"I didn't lose my wife in a war," he said carefully, "or my child. I didn't watch every friend I had die by swords, or spears, or arrows, though many of them did. I didn't betray my king to another for gold or power." He set his basket down and looked out toward the Waste, feeling the quiet cup around him. "But it was so loud, there on the battlefield. I heard it even when I stood in my own house. I couldn't think, for hearing it. So one day I decided to leave.
"I had money, because I had never been much for spending it. I hired men and wagons, and I made them drive until I came to a place where I couldn't hear the battles anymore. They built my house for me, and then they left. I stayed, here, in the silence. At first it scared me, because it was almost as loud as the battles. But I told myself, over and over, that it was why I had come. One morning I woke up, and I couldn't hear it anymore."
Maura screamed. She screamed a ripping, fearless scream, so loud that it made him jump backward, hitting the basket of fruit and spilling it, his heel coming down and squashing one red piece. She threw her head back and screamed, screamed just to break through the silence that he loved and she hated, and then she started singing. She sang a soldiers' marching chant, and then a dirty tavern song, and then a lullaby. Her voice was not silken or bell-like, but it was lively and strong, and her face seemed to blaze as she sang. The Waste rang with her singing, and he heard it that night, long after she had stopped.
Days passed, and she did not leave.
Then came the day that the bandits attacked.
Affric had been in the hills, the grassy hills to the east of the house that, far from there, led to things like forests, and towns. He had three hill quail hanging from his arm, and he had just come over the last hill before the house when he saw the men.
There were five of them—thin men, with long scraggled hair and tight lips, men with patched clothes and empty bellies. They had come to the Waste not for the silence, but because only jails and nooses awaited them in the forests and towns of the east. They crept toward the house, toward the door. They had long knives out in their hands, and one had a battered sword.
Watching them, Affric's heart seemed to grow smaller, to shrink down until his chest felt hollowed out. He dropped the quail, fitted an arrow into his bow and raised it. But he never let it go, because just then Maura burst from the house.
One of the bandits died then, died from the knife she hurled as she threw open the door. The others startled, but didn't run. Instead, they held their knives higher, swiped at her with them. She rolled, avoiding them all, and then somehow she was near the man with the sword. He swung at her, but she ducked, a hawk diving through the air. And then—he never saw how—she had the sword, and the man holding it was dead. Then Maura Bright-Blade turned to face the living bandits.
Affric hardly even glanced at the men below him on the hill. That they would live and she would die was an impossibility, as foreign as the idea of snow upon the sharp-edged rocks of the Waste. He watched her, watched the blade bright in her hand, watched the way she twirled it, laughing. She spun and whirled, wove and danced with the sword, and when she finished, she let herself spin one more time before slowly coming a halt.
Affric picked the birds up from the ground, and started down the hill.
He opened his mouth when he reached her, to ask her, foolishly, if she were unhurt, but he never had the chance to speak. The sword still in her hand, she took one long step toward him, her free arm going up around his neck and pulling his mouth down to hers.
Fire might have kissed more intensely, or the wind off the Waste, but no human woman. Dropping the sword, Maura twined both arms around him, pressing her long, slender body to his. The quail fell to the ground, and then the bow, and he molded his hands to the small of her back. Strands of her black hair blew around his face. She tasted like fruit, and warmth, and steel.
Afterward, they lay in his bed in the house on the edge of the Waste. Maura was grinning at him, pulling sections of his hair through her fingers, her face damp with sweat but not at all sleepy. He felt himself smiling back at her.
"So you can be moved," she said teasingly. "I'd been wondering."
Affric swallowed and ran his thumb across her face, across the white scar on her cheek. "I can be. I had forgotten that I could be, but you reminded me."
"Good." She sat up, stretched her arms above her head. "Then you'll come with me."
Outside, a wind off the Waste buffeted the house. "You're leaving." He did not ask it.
Maura nodded. Her eyes drifted through the open doorway to the bandit's sword, lying on the grass outside, and they gleamed. "There may be no empire, and I may be two hundred years old, but there are still battles. I still want them." Her lips curled upward. "You'll come with me, back to the east, but you won't have to fight in them. You can live in a house there, and I'll come home to it and—"
Her fingers tightened in his hair. "What do you mean, no? You want this instead?" He nodded and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, she flung an arm wide toward the house. "You aren't living out here. You have no passions, no desires, just your damned silence!"
"You're right. I wasn't—I didn't—until I met you."
"Then why won't you come with me?" she cried. "I can't stay here, not even for you."
Affric gazed around the room. Outside, the sun still shone bright, blinding almost. He could smell the wind blowing off the Waste, the dry, hot scent of it mixing with the last bit of grass on the hills. He imagined Maura singing, her voice mingling with the silence. He imagined the towns and forests of the east, the noise in them.
He didn't speak for a long time, so long that she pushed herself up and away from him.
"Blaise Vanadric changed you into a sword," he said finally, "because you would not change for him. Would you make me into one as well?"
"What do you know about swords?" She spat the words at him as if they hurt her.
"Some," he said softly.
"Not like me," she said darkly. "I know what a sword knows. Blood. The hotness of it, the wetness, the brightness. And muscle, and bone, yes, those too. But there's more. The sting of the wind, when it's ripped apart by the blade. The softness of a cloth, cleaning and polishing. The darkness of a scabbard. A sword knows all that. But mostly, a sword knows waiting."
She pushed herself up from the bed, as naked as the day she had appeared in his house. She took a long breath, so that her breasts rose and fell, and then another. "I have waited," she said. "For two hundred years I waited. I can't wait anymore. I have to go, Affric."
She was like a flame, like a bright star winking out in front of his eyes. "I know," he said.
The next morning, she was gone.
He burned the bodies of the bandits, and when that was done, it was almost as though she had never been there. Except for the empty place on the wall, the place where his sword had once hung, the sword that had been Maura.
The silence seemed louder without her. He tried to remember what it had sounded like before, but instead he remembered her songs.
Some days, when he stalked game through the rocks of the Waste or the last green hills, he thought about leaving, about going to find her. But the thought of the towns she must be in, of the sounds of them, left him panting and tired, so that he had to walk deep into the Waste to stop hearing them.
He told himself that it was enough, that it was enough to have held her once, to have held Maura Bright-Blade and heard her sing.
And then one day, he found her again, inside his house. He had gone hunting, and when he came back, he opened the door to his house and she was there.
It had been almost a year. Her skin was darker, browned by the sun, but her eyes were still blue. A sword hung at her side, not the battered sword of the bandit, but a long, fine sword, sharp and deadly.
"I tried not to hear it," she said when he stepped into the house. "But your silence kept following me. Every wind seemed to bring it. I didn't want to listen, but I couldn't help it."
"I heard you here," he said. "Over the silence. I heard you singing. I didn't think you would come back."
She stepped closer to him, her mouth drawn, her breath hard. "I will leave you again and again," she said. "You are enough to make me return, but not enough to make me stay. And some day I might not come back at all."
"I know," he told her. "Even if someday you do not, I will wait. I will wait."
She came to him then, and he wrapped his arms around her. It was as grand and terrifying as gathering a knife to him, a sword, as hugging the razor edge of the Waste.