sword / highlands / romance

Posted on December 18, 2012

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In this session we decided to set three words (object/location/theme) rather as an alternative to our randomly or not-so-randomly chosen topics.

This gave me another opportunity to indulge my predilection for grand, pseudo-Biblical themes. The unseen antagonist probably owes a little to Cliver Barker’s WeaveworldReading it over again, I think it would possibly make quite a nice short film. The romance is possibly a little clumsy, but I’m quite pleased with its awkward sweetness too.

The Penitent

He came to her one evening with her meal as she sat before the meagre light of the small camp fire, hunched over the long, complex shaft of metal that was propped up on her knees. Ardian wondered how Nina could focus on her work in the dim glow. Far below them the valley was clad in darkness, the city lights still burning desperately in parts, other neighbourhoods lit with flames that never seemed to go out. On the breeze Ardian fancied he could hear distant screams, but it must have been the wind whistling over the craggy slopes. Sound couldn’t travel so far, he told himself desperately. His shiver was only partially in response to the chill breeze.

He put the plate down beside her, swallowed and spoke, his voice sounding out loudly across the bare slopes. “How long do you think we’ll be safe up here?”

She turned her face from him, shadows concealing her features. He lingered a while, but although she resumed her work she would not look his way, and he soon retreated to find a place to rest for the night.

All day Nina laboured in her makeshift workshop – a sheltered space made by a tarpaulin stretched between clustered outcroppings – while Ardian helped garden, cook, clean and scrape out a living for the refugees on the heights.

The following night she brought her work back to the fire to continue her fine-tuning. Ardian sought her there again, bringing the last bowl of broth in his rounds of the camp. This time he did not speak, just sat beside her, alternating his gaze between her work, the fire and the tormented capital that stretched out below them.

He pictured the capital as it had been, thick with cars, people and bright neon lights, a bustling metropolis that was hard and harsh, but his home for all that. He tried to imagine it now, a shattered shell taken apart by the thing that walked its broken streets, roadways clogged with smashed automobiles, and found that he could not. The image refused to coalesce. He looked around the sparse hilltop and found himself wishing for a billboard, an advertisement, a handful of crumpled litter – anything to make this place feel like that which he had lost.

In time Nina sighed, laying down her burden on the ground and taking up the bowl, which would have been lukewarm at best by that point. She gestured with her spoon into the broken darkness below. The wind howled.

“That thing is taking the city apart, piece-by-piece,” she said, so quietly he could barely hear her. “When it’s done, it will come for us next. It’s all my fault.” He eyes burned with reflected fire when they met his.

“You can’t blame yourself,” Ardian said. He reached out to comfort her, but she flinched and turned away, and would look at him no more. He waited a time before leaving with their dirty bowls, feeling a fool.

He let her be for a few days, going about his chores in the camp while Nina continued her single-minded pursuit. The other mountainside refugees gave her a wide berth, some out of fear, others hatred or distrust; Ardian understood their feelings, but could not share in the simple logic of action and reaction. The sounds of hammering and tinkering emerged from her workshop at all hours. He wondered if she ever stopped to sleep.

On the third night he brought her food again. She would not collect it otherwise, and he did not imagine that she had eaten properly since the last time he had come. He took a seat across from her as she worked intently on the device, trying to enjoy the quiet and the stillness, watching her now and again as casually as he was able.

The object of her attention was long and edged, like a heavy blade, but not of one piece. Complicated patterns showed beneath its surface, and she worked on an open section where something that was like circuitry but also somehow organic, lay exposed. The thing was very beautiful, but its strangeness disturbed the eye. For the first time, he bothered to ask himself what it might be. No likely answers were forthcoming.

She glanced up at him briefly, her fiery eyes apparently unconcerned by his presence. The look was repeated again a few times, and presently she placed her burden on the ground and took up the chipped plate he had brought her.

“Shouldn’t let this go to waste,” she said and began to eat, her hunger apparent in the speed at which she devoured the food.

Ardian had learned from past mistakes. He said nothing, and offered only the hint of a smile. Silence reigned again, punctuated only by the faint noises of her eating. The food was quickly gone. He watched her with careful casualness as she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Her hair was dark and cropped short, framing a grubby face with dark-ringed eyes that had, beneath the grime and careworn lines, a certain childlike quality. She looked up suddenly and he dropped his eyes, blushing and cursing himself. Her own face showed surprise, which leeched away to leave behind something knowing.

“How much do you know about our enemy?” she said, breaking the silence with words and the pointing of her fork.

He was careful in answering. Words had betrayed him before. “It’s an angel,” he said, his voice uncertain where his heart was not.

She sniffed. “That’s what they call it. It’s some kind of artificial construct – a homunculus, if you will – that was built or grown by a… by –“

“God?”

“– by an advanced race,” she finished, clipping off the words defiantly. “A heretofore unknown civilisation, possibly extraterrestrial in origin. One that was capable of creating an artificial life form of such complexity.”

Ardian leant back, content to let her talk while he did his best to understand.

“It was found buried deep underground while they were putting in the foundations for more social housing. 112 storeys need a strong foundation. They broke through into a sealed chamber. Found it sleeping – not alive, but not dead either.

“I was one of the ones they called in from the university when they realised they were dealing with something partially mechanical in nature. You knew that I worked on the project?” He nodded. Everyone knew, which was precisely why they stayed away.

“We opened it up. The creature is incredibly sophisticated. There was so much to understand. The things we learned were fantastic.” The light in her eyes was no longer solely that reflected from the fire. “The advances born from those early investigations…” She trailed off, eyes to the night, hand running idly along her work.

“But what was the… creature? What was something like that made for?”

“As far as we can tell – this involves a lot of guesswork, and some of my colleagues would have disagreed strenuously – but it seemed to me that it was some kind of judicial system. Incredibly sensitive devices for gathering information, vast memory banks to store and process it. And the weapons to carry out its judgements. I believe it was made to serve as judge, jury and executioner.”

He spoke without thinking. “And now it’s judging us.”

She spoke no more that night.

He came every night after that. Something that divided them had fallen, and he was no longer afraid to speak to her. She never mentioned the vengeful angel, the broken instrument of justice that haunted the husk of the capital, but would ask him questions about himself, and though she bent to her work she was always listening, her words displaying clearly that she had heard his.

He spoke about his job in the capital, a trainee chef in an expensive restaurant on the Avenue of the Gods, about the frightening head chef and the pranks they would play on him, blunting his knives, filling his hat with flour and the other stupid things that amuse the young. And further back, to uneventful school years, the names of long-lost friends, of eccentric teachers and even more tricks played. Of his family life, raised by a single father after his mother passed away, of being the closest thing to a mum his young sisters had had. Nina demanded every detail and he gave them gladly. Each word grounded him, bringing him back to his old world, making him feel that it was possible to have a real life again. He had let circumstances make a zombie of him, but no longer.

Nina was more sparing with the details of her past. She offered them when she felt comfortable and he knew not to push her. Eventually, he felt him knew her well enough without them.

Time passed, and there were few in the camp who felt the need to mark the date. The days were long and the nights were warm, and while they were safe from the carnage below they could find some kind of brutal contentment in that. Roadways and transport links had been destroyed with a mindless precision, so they had nothing to do but wait.

One evening, Nina put her burden aside, and Ardian sensed a finality in the action that he had not before. Perhaps there was a new quality to her sigh, a signal that a phase in her life was coming to an end.

She surprised him by broaching the forbidden subject, her voice calm.

“You know that I told you this situation is my fault? Well, it is, you know. Not entirely, but I played a part that was plenty big enough.

“You’ve got to understand how wonderful the creature was to us. Ancient, advanced, a treasure trove of technology perfectly preserved and apparently in good working order. We learned so much from it. Amazing advances were born of our researches. We thought we understood it.

“We were wrong. Or not right enough, at least. I was one of the ones who pushed to turn it to its original purpose. I spoke about ‘enforcing peace’. I know now that weapons can only make war; I wish I’d known then.

“We performed… surgery on it. We thought we could bring it under our control. Suffice to say, it all went horribly wrong.” She hesitated.

He reached out for her and she did not move away. “Listen,” he said. “You don’t have to say it. Not if you don’t want to.”

She shook her head. “I have to. I have to confess. Don’t you see what we did? Do you understand?

“We lobotomised an angel.”

He looked away and the silence fell between them. He had known what had happened, in the rough way they all did, but when the words lined up like that it all felt too horrible. Ardian shivered.

“It is a broken thing, now,” she continued, her voice sounding very faint. “It judges, but finds all it sees wanting. Maybe we are. Either way, it will take us apart, piece by piece. Except…”

She left the word hanging. Ardian looked over at her, and was surprised to see a smile playing over her fire-lit lips. She reached down to the object at her feet, lifting it by one end from the dry earth. There was a gentle click, so unobtrusive, so insignificant. Light bloomed along its length, twisting like fire along its patterns, hurting the eye but refusing to let it go. The ground beneath it flashed into glass, but though he smelled the earthy burning scent he felt no heat from the device. Only the fire warmed the coolness of the night.

Nina gripped it by the handle, which glowed with a kinder light, and lifted it above her head with as much ease as she held up her soldering iron. She was dwarfed by the two metres of burning blade, casting its light upon the hillside like a sliver of day. An experimental slash was executed with speed and utter silence. Her joy shone forth, saved throughout the days of misery and guilt. She looked him in the eye and lowered the blade. Another click and flame was extinguished; it hit the ground, suddenly heavy.

“What do you think? What is an angel without its sword? Will I be forgiven when I cut the thing down?”

“You don’t need forgiveness.”

“Not from you.” She stepped in close, looking up at him.

He was uncomfortably aware of his breathing. The spaces between them had been reduced to this. She gazed back at him, unblinking. He moved closer, downwards, but she stopped him with a finger on his lips. “When I come back,” she said.

A crowd gathered to watch her go. Whatever they felt – hope, relief, hatred – they held in silence as she took her first steps down the slope, blade and pack strapped to her back. Long after she had passed from sight, and the voices began to murmur to each other, Ardian still followed the ornate handle as it weaved its way towards the ruined city.

He crossed his fingers. He would hold his breath until she returned.

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