“It isn’t a story,” I complained.
“Don’t need to be a story,” snorted the man everyone called Gov. “Just needs translated.”
Gov was a beast of a man. Privately, I suspected there was a gorilla in his close ancestral heritage, given the forest of wiry hair covering every inch of his skin. Tufts even sprouted between the knuckles of his thick, gnarled fingers. His mannerisms were as about as refined as an agitated bear. Gov was the one left in charge after Alpha left, and for as creepy and mysterious as Alpha could be, I wished now that he’d stayed. Alpha fed me well at the least. Gov scratched his thick beard, doubtless chasing after an unfortunate creature living in there, and studied the carvings I’d been charged to translate.
“That there looks like the moon, and under it some form of octopus or some such. Don’t seem too hard.”
“The moon is a pronunciation guide,” I sighed, “telling you that the object at the other end of that tether is pronounced with a long face.”
Gov scowled at the images. “And I say you’re a charlatan, getting free meat while sellin’ riddles.”
My spine straightened, but it had nothing to do with Gov’s dig. He’d been hovering over my shoulder all day, pressing the limits of his creativity to insult me in as many ways as he could find. The list had proved short. Unwittingly, though, he’d struck upon what was bothering me about this project.
The canvas I’d been ordered to translate was the outer rim of an enormous disk of stone. I tried not to think about what it was – well, what it had been. Azminan’s council had once ruled this world; literally controlled the very substance of reality, if gossip was to be believed. And they had done it from this room. Twelve shattered thrones littered the feet of the outer walls. Pieces of the twelve statues that had stood behind them were everywhere. The only part of the room that remained unblemished was the perfect sphere centered under the empty skylights. The platform that had balanced upon it lay in pieces now like a skirt that had turned cookie, and crumbled. It was the outer rim of this skirt that so interested Alpha. Carvings from every culture in the world lined the walls of the chamber, but it was the carvings of the underground historians that lined the platform that he insisted he must have. He referred to the carvers as Shevus, which was also my nickname, thanks to my project. Gov and Alpha were nicknames, too. No one seemed much interested in real names here, which suited me fine.
According to Alpha, my understanding of Shevus storytelling made me a rarity. He saw to my well-being like I was an honored guest. I’d lived on fine, juicy steaks since my arrival, and Alpha had insisted that the injury on my ankle be dressed and treated with herbs twice a day by a mute woman with frightening eyes and an unsettling aroma. She knew her trade, though, and the wound had healed faster than I’d have thought possible. It was little more than a series of red marks and a constant ache now. I limped a little, which inspired Gov and the others to make up less savory nicknames for me around the night fires.
‘A riddle,’ Gov had said. A riddle. Of course! I’d struggled with the translation right away, because Shevus carvings recorded the events in the world. A Shevus story depicted the patterns of a person’s life and the tethers that connected them to the lives of those around them in swirls of detailed carvings. The Shevus were unsurpassed in weaving the many, rippling stories of peoples’ lives together onto stone, and half the technique of reading their work was being able to intuit where to seek out and pick up a tether that interested you. There were no webs here, but a single strand of symbols that failed to flow one to the next. There were pronunciation keys throughout; another oddity. Those were generally found when introducing a new character or place, and didn’t play a significant role otherwise. Here, they stood between every second or third carving.
“It’s a riddle,” I breathed, checking over my notes again. “It’s not a story at all!”
Gov snorted. “Coulda told you that weeks ago,” he sneered. “But ’no,’ he says, give Shevus the prime cuts. See she’s comftrable so she can read, his favorite little…”
“Gov, can you get a message to Alpha?” I interrupted. He’d been taking the prime cuts for himself since Alpha left, but I didn’t mind. His temper, on the other hand, worried me quite a lot, and he’d been bubbling up to a good steam all morning. “I know he trusts you with things like that,” I added. Flattery worked more often than not.
Gov spat and eyed me distrustfully. “Tell him what?” he asked.
“You should tell him that you discovered that it’s a riddle,” I said carefully. He’d take credit anyway, so why not give it up front? “And now that we know what it is, I’ll have an easier time translating it for you.”
Gov ran my suggestion through whatever cogs and wheels governed the space between his ears and found my request sound. With a nod, he stalked out of the chamber. I listened to his footfalls diminishing down the outer halls until they blended into the low rumble of activity in the courtyards below before breathing a deep sigh of relief. Gov’s attention was oppressive, and I relished the relative silence and lightness of the room in the wake of his departure.
I returned to my notes, scanning again over the carvings to see if I’d missed anything in my assumption that it was a story I sought. What sort of riddle could it be? And for what purpose? Alpha didn’t seem much like an interested historian. The courtyards below already buzzed with the industry of war preparations between weapon-smiths and carpenters beating rafters from nearby homes into trebuchets, spiked wagons and crossbows. Other courtyards rang with the clang of sword practice. Most of the soldiers were myir, but more men were joining their ranks by the day, and silent wolves patrolled like shadows. They gave me the crawlies.
I glanced up, thinking there had been movement, or a noise. Slices of light danced around the walls, no doubt picking up the midday light from a shard of glass from the skylights. ‘Jumpy,’ I teased, returning to my notes. Not a minute later, though, I could have sworn that I heard laughing. It wasn’t the laughter of the men from below. It was small. Tiny. High, shrill voices tinkling together like a wind chime. The light refractions glittered around, in greater plenty, and I frowned as I studied the room for their source. I couldn’t hope to see if something rested atop the sphere. I wasn’t half its height. I took a few steps toward it anyhow and the light shifted with my movement. I studied my clothing. There wasn’t a scrap on me that could reflect light. Nonetheless, the tiny sparks shifted and shimmered with each move, and I heard the laughter again. The chamber was lighter now, covered nearly to the ceiling by the little scraps of light.
“What’s happening?” I asked the room shakily.
I heard giggling, but nothing else. At a loss, I returned to the carving before me; hyper-aware and waiting to catch movement. The face of one of the carvings was well-lit now, and I noticed that it was smiling. I updated my drawing accordingly, wondering what other small details I’d missed with my lack of proper lighting. I’d have to talk to Gov once he was in a better mood. Perhaps tonight. He always cheered after his afternoon sparring in the weapons field. I’d wait until he’d had his supper and was enjoying a drink before one of the roaring nightly bonfires. Thanks to the presence of so many myir they burned blue and gave little heat, but it was something to watch, and we did.
I looked back at the carving. The face was smooth and featureless again. The light had shifted, and now the figure to its right was smiling, and blinking at me. I took a step back, wincing when the dull ache in my ankle reminded me that my wound was not yet healed.
“Mother wants a word with you,” said the little face.
“What?” I gasped.
The laughter was louder now, and the tiny wisps of light skittered down the walls toward me, ending in a pool around me.
“Mother says you won’t want to put the world in danger,” said the little face.
“Of course I don’t,” I said, shifting nervously. The shadows in the chamber had shifted, and I now had none.
“Good,” nodded the small figure. “You’ll want to come with us.”
The giggling increased in volume as the spot of light covering the figure’s face danced down to the floor, and the pool of light at my feet strengthened into a blinding spot on the floor beside me. Heavy footsteps approached in the hall. Gov returning with news, no doubt.
“Quickly,” urged the little voice.
I stepped onto the spot and bright light consumed me. I closed my eyes against it but my eyelids blazed such ferocious orange that it was little relief. Then, darkness. When I opened my eyes again tiny points of light pricked holes in endless black. Stars? Yes, stars. Moons, suns and planets twirled past in busy self-contained dances, comets blazed fiery trails and dark clouds drifted past, momentarily obscuring galaxies from view.
“I’ll take that,” said a woman’s voice.
She stood behind me, every bit of her luminescent.
“You’re the woman who lights the world,” I breathed.
“I am,” she smiled. “Not many know of me. Even less know of the riddle you hold.” She reached toward the parchment in my grasp and I released it to her. “In the wrong hands this could destroy worlds,” she said, glancing over my notes. “You’re quite good.”
“I didn’t manage to translate it,” I said.
“Not yet,” she sighed, “but you will, someday.” She studied me, and though her gaze was not unkind, it held worry. “With light comes shadow,” she said. “The balance of the two is important. A shadow is growing that defies the light, and it has swept you up in its current. I can pull you out from the rushing waters, as it were, but you will be left to find higher land on your own, unguided.”
“Can you get me away from Alpha’s camp?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Interference has consequences.”
“You will miss many of the teachers who are currently on your path. No one can say what that will cost. It will be you who pays.”
“But you can take me away from Alpha? And Gov?”
“I can put you anywhere there is light,” she answered carefully.
I didn’t need to think it through. “Then yes please,” I said.
She studied me carefully, and finding something in her thoughts finally that decreased her frown, stepped forward.
“When you solve the riddle,” she said, “be careful who you tell. Worlds can unravel at a word.”
Her shimmering eyes remained for some time in the light that surrounded me.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!