The Tome of the Time-Siege
by Joshua Babcock
part 1 of 2
Somna Sleepingskull crouch-stood in the still shadows, before the still-frame torch flames. She slowly strode from the rubble of the meager shed that had stood adjacent to the stables. It was the one place in the city of Aevyr she considered her home. There were bodies fore and aft of her, but the girl’s ash grey eyes, set like soiled gems in her cinder and smoke smeared face, were open wide and dry as timekeeping sands.
She was not shocked by the horrific sights that perforated her shelter, now in a ramshackle state. Nor was she stunned by the inconceivable lack of sound. The paradoxical mixture had sent brave, battle-hardened warriors, and fox-clever rogues winging on fleet feet from other towns and cities akin to hers in size, shape, and predicament.
There were burning bits of thatching hanging in midair about her — one looming dangerously above her head. She was short of stature and ducked below the canopy of frozen flame and sinuous smoke to move beyond them. As she picked her way delicately through the charred and broken bodies — some captured mid-fall amid half-realized fiery death throes — she kept clear in her mind the Elders’ thrice-told forewarnings.
“Make certain you touch not even a mote of the time-stopped matter, else it will prove the death of you, and the enslavement or annihilation of everything you have come to know in these thirteen years of life. The townspeople, the buildings, the farms, the surrounding woodlands, we Wise Ones, and the horses even; all will be left in a ruinous way,” cautioned Vyra, the oldest of even the Elders, the leaders of their small society. Somna nearly smirked at the memory, so recently past.
The girl relished Vyra’s use of language; however, when Vyra spoke to her, Somna never returned any statements of her own. Though she was tempted many a time, Somna knew that words were ties, words were connections, and sometimes words were shackles. Somna had long since decided that she would be neither connected nor bound to another human being in such a frail and precarious manner.
With the exception of the Elders, the rest of the townspeople spoke to her exclusively in monosyllables and simple directive gesticulations. Most people assumed that she was either deaf, dumb, or both, and paid her existence no heed unless they had to. The children were even less understanding. When they were bored, the wee ones would find their way to the stables and hurl sticks, stones, and crude jeers at her while she went about her daily chores.
“Look at stupid Somna, mucking out the stables. Bet she can’t even smell her own stink properly. That girl can’t do anything right,” they would say, their words like thunderbolts in the rainstorm of pebbles.
It was the lowliest of tasks, or so the people around her believed, and therefore it was hers. She knew well enough the odor was unpleasant, but she never made an attempt vocally to parry their sentence thrusts. Often one of the horses would move to take the brunt of the projectiles for her. Then it would rear up on its hind legs, as if possessed by the heart of madness, and kick out with its powerful front hooves. The children scattered like dead leaves in the wake of a maelstrom, without ever being harmed.
The horses were honorable creatures, she thought, and grateful for her simple, stalwart companionship.
Somna always showed her appreciation to the guardian animal, its hide more stern than her own, with ointment to soothe its rock-worn flesh or an extra helping of feed from her palm. There was never any malice in her heart, for to give in to such a temptation as spite was to give her oppressors power over her.
What would they all have done were she a normal human being prone to holding grudges, she wondered. Would they have been able to find a replacement to save them in time, or, as was the fate of the nearby communities, would the entirety of the town cease to exist?
Not once did the waif think about whether or not she was going to succeed. There was no place in her mind for doubt.
With the weightless grace and inexorable confidence of a small cat, she chose her steps and made them quickly. Cautiously, she secured a path to the gravel of Aevyr’s main thoroughfare. She had been holding her breath since the whole world halted. She could not know the outcome of inhaling the hanging flames or motionless smoke. Nonetheless, in the relatively open air of the roadway, she gave in to the tickling claws that scratched at her lungs and drew in a deep and reassuring gulp of air.
Knowing with certainty that she could continue to breathe was one more step towards success. Yet, this knowledge, that one need not suffocate in the midst of the Time-Siege, did not preclude a myriad of other undreamt of deaths. She was glad for the wisdom of the Elders, for their ability to see potential dangers and thwart them before they are given the chance to strike.
“We have made a minor request of the Aerials,” Vyra had informed her while preparing Somna for her mission. The woman, still tall for one so old, looked down upon Somna’s face in a unique way, one which did not make the young girl feel as if she was being looked down upon at all.
“We have made the gestures and spoken the poems that best please the spirits. We have made an offering of the finest feathers, the most gossamery fabrics, and the clearest azure-hued gems. We have freed the fastest, fiercest fliers of our aviary.
“In return, we have asked the Aerials to protect the ether within the limits of our humble village from the tainted torrent of the Time-Siege. We have every faith in their responding positively, though we have not the time to await a formal reply.
“You, brave Somna, will have to remain confident in the actions of we Elders and the deep bond our community shares with the Weightless Ones. If you find yourself able to move after the coming of the great halting, then you can be sure they have agreed to protect you as best they can from the spell and the time-stopped matter.
“Do not grow overconfident, though, for the tome is powerful. Even our friendly spirits can do no more than keep you safe from motes, stones, raindrops, and other such-sized threats. Even we do not know what might happen were you to collide forcibly with the paused fireballs, or larger debris held fast in the air. The Airy Ones will also place their hands beneath your feet — though you will not notice them, no matter how hard you stare — and allow you to safely walk the dirt and cobbled stones of the streets and floorings. And finally, the Aerials will of course make the air blessed and breathable.”
By way of thanking her guardians for their gift, Somna whistled an airy tune. Faith was not one of her skills. Just in case the gods failed to provide her air, she had been practicing the art of not breathing for the past few days,.
Recently, she had demonstrated to the Elders her newfound ability to hold a breath for several hundreds of heartbeats. There had been an unusual amount of child-like pride in her face. They had smiled enthusiastically, but assured her the Aerials would not disappoint.
Even so, Somna felt it was necessary in such dire times to be prepared for every contingency. The Elders did not inform her that the journey from the stables to their great hall would take far longer than her lungs could withstand inactivity.
Besides giving her breathing room, the wide road allowed Somna to move without tripping over or stumbling into the time-touched debris, which were scattered about the earth and suspended in the air. She recalled clearly the cacophonic clatter that had torn through the timid, placid soundscape of her home, and the wood splintering, brick and mortar shattering havoc that was its physical accompaniment. The memory lay starkly juxtaposed with the present’s ubiquitous silence and stillness.
She strode as slowly as she had to and as quickly as she dared toward her designated destination. She remembered the fear and pain and shock-sprung screams of the villagers as the rain of fire plummeted from the storm-threatened mid-afternoon sky.
The day before the siege was to fall upon them, the Elders invited the population of Aevyr to congregate within the massive expanse of their circular hall. There the Wise Ones took turns clearly and concisely enumerating the steps the besiegers would take to ensure the end of them all. If word of the details were spread through the normal routes of gossip and exaggeration, the pursuant panic would only give further aid to their enemies.
“Some time after the sun reaches its zenith and begins its descent, the skies will dim. This will signal the beginning of the onslaught,” spoke Asimuth, the oldest of the Elders, whose knowledge of the world and its ways was most varied and thorough. He used the same confident, nonchalant voice he would use when announcing the results of a harvest. Somna, though, thought she noticed something that looked to her like wavering surety lurking in the back of his timeworn, coal black eyes.
“Won’t they wait until the darkness falls upon us like a corpse’s shroud? Won’t they have their blockade mage blot out the sun with the arcane words he has found in that damnable book?” called out old lady Landa, the garrulous gatherer of information and proprietor of the village tavern, the village gossip-go-round. To the townspeople it oft appeared that she possessed knowledge rivaling that of the Wise Ones, though its veracity did not often stand up to the same rigors of reality.
“They surely will not,” Asimuth had responded, quick to discourage the dissemination of any misleading theories, “for fear is the most potent aspect of the arsenal they will bring to bear upon us. As tempting as it is to imagine darkness more frightening than the light of day, you must trust me when I tell you that there are visions wicked Malnorant will place before your eyes more terrifying than the lack of sight the black night inflicts. He need not rely upon our imaginations to keep the shiver running down our spines. The weapons of the nation of Naskil are more tangible than nightmares.”
Somna wondered at the memory of the town’s communal silence after that speech, how words could make them all as mute as she always chose to be.
“After the skies darken, the rain and thunder and lightning will begin. Our persecutors have made a deal with the Storm Lords — always eager to take part in any cataclysm they can find. We hope that their participation in the battle will only make the Weightless Ones, our allies, all the more eager to support us. The Aerials and the Storm Lords are ever and always immortal rivals.”
“At the apex of the storm’s violence, the barrage of flame will commence,” said Odaan, for it was he who could best comprehend the workings of the physical and alchemical sciences, “and this is when the real danger begins. The projectiles will be a composite work of stones varying in size and shape, all glued together with a highly flammable mortar. Large as boulders, they will retain their form until impact, at which point the pieces will scatter, sending bits of burning stone in an omni-directional pattern. This fearsome spectacle is meant to rob the protected chosen of the calm required for success.”
“The light ones have chosen young Somna to be their champion in this endeavor,” interjected Adjux, whose melodious voice and incomparable moral fairness had secured him the position of high arbitrator in the village. He spoke for the council when diction needed to be carefully chosen, when the people needed to be persuaded of wisdom beyond their initial comprehension.
“We must support this decision with all the faith we can muster,” Adjux continued, “to lend the power of our hearts and minds to the chosen’s own abilities.” Somna knew this last part to be a fabrication. It was the Elders themselves who had made the decision. Somna knew that without Adjux’s flexing the boundaries of truth the townspeople would have balked at the thought of putting their existences in her tiny hands.
Even with the supposed backing of the air spirits, the audience was not without skeptics. The blacksmith, Morag the Faithless, was foremost among these, and the most outspoken. He himself had never witnessed the wondrous workings of any spirit or so-called god, and he did not believe in their existence. The only faith he had was in forged steel and iron, and in the fortitude and usefulness of the tools made from them.
The idea that one such as Somna, small of frame, weak of muscle, and quiet of mind — at least insofar as he could tell by her eternal silence — could hold any true strength within her was anathema to Morag’s view of the world. “Besides the chimerical backing of spirits, which may or may not exist, can any of you tell me why Somna the Stoic should be the one? What could be so special about a puny, mute stablehand?” Morag disparaged, nervously stroking his burn-scarred chin.
The large man had felt the bite of fiery cinders and the splashing dross of molten metals, and he had no qualms braving such dangers as the village faced. He was in fact eager to test the force of his corded forearms against the wiry wizard’s word-spells.
Somna the Stoic. As she almost playfully hopped around the time-stopped puddles and the wonder of their stilted rippling water, she recalled the years it took her to earn that epithet. The people of her village had no last names that were not worked for. She had many names, some positive, but most negative in implication.
Her mother had died in childbirth. All that Somna knew of her, all that she knew of anything, she had been told by her father. They would speak to one another from daybreak to eventide. But then he died as well, before she had seen as many harvests as she had fingers.
Upon being orphaned, she had decided to stop speaking; that proved easy enough a thing to do. Soon after she stopped babbling like a dried-up river, she also decided to stop feeling. It proved more difficult to keep her heart from being bruised by others and trying to attach itself to her few supporters, than to keep her mouth closed and her tongue immobile.
Copyright © 2007 by Joshua Babcock