The Strangers at the Door
“She turned out fine, didn’t she?” said Anjan, carrying her daughter to the cot.
The child stirred as Anjan laid her onto the straw mattress, reaching out with a tiny hand. Her mother’s hand intertwined with hers, and in a moment Jova closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep again. Anjan brushed away a stray lock of hair. “Our little Jova turned out just fine.”
Ell sat beside her, tapping his foot. His face softened when he looked at his daughter, but the worry was still there. “I’m not arguing against that, Anjie,” he said, rubbing tired eyes. “But people are noticing. We can’t hide it much longer.”
“Who’s noticing?” said Anjan. She rose and looked Ell in the eye.
“People are noticing. I see them, whispering when they see her, wondering, asking themselves how long she’s been here. Sooner or later someone’s going to speak up and then all those little doubts that everyone has will be confirmed.”
Anjan brushed her hands on her shirt as she walked away, rough cotton scratching at her palms. Her head was starting to pound, and she didn’t want Jova to be there if she got angry.
She massaged her temples, glowering. She wasn’t angry at Ell, or Jova, or anyone else in the settlement. But she was angry, and that anger had nowhere to go.
She felt a touch on her shoulder, and she jumped, years of harsh living prompting the reflex. It was just Ell, though, his hand light, a concerned look on his face. “Anjie? How are you feeling?”
Anjan sighed. “Restless,” she said, leaning on the doorway of the little hut. “Worried.”
Ell squatted on the ground beside her. “Oh, I know. Six years at a child’s haven. You think anyone else has ever spent six years at one of these places before?”
“Fat rich winterborn who don’t know what to do with their money,” snorted Anjan. “Wrinkled Hak Mat Do bed-slaves that are feeling motherly.”
“Well, I’m not rich yet, and you…” Ell sucked in a breath, giving Anjan an appraising look from his vantage point down below. “…are certainly not wrinkled.” He laughed, and Anjan laughed too, but it was tense laughter. Nervous.
Anjan closed her eyes, listening to the twitter of birds from the slumped oaks and the squall of babes from the huts nearby. Some mothers came to the child’s haven with great bands of fellow travelers beside them, while others came with only the expectant fathers, but by far the most numerous were the ones who staggered into the camp alone. They came and went. Anjan didn’t even know a quarter of the names of the people in the settlement.
Unconsciously, her hands drifted to the pouch around her neck, where she kept her tabula. The first time she had seen the amber disk, it had seemed innocuous enough, but even at the age of four years she had known the power it held.
She looked back at Jova. Ever since her daughter had been born, Anjan had half-feared, half-hoped that she would be summoned early. If, one morning in those four years, Anjan had woken up to see Jova missing, at least she would know her daughter would grow up in civilization. If Jova had been called on the fourth year, though…
Her daughter would have grown up alone, in the wild, with no one to trust. Like her.
Anjan sighed, rubbing her eyes. Yes, she thought, it would have been best if Jova had been taken before.
Ell disagreed. Anjan didn’t understand the man when it came to wild versus slave children; he seemed to think that a wild child like Anjan had it better, that his years of service at the Marble Stronghold had been harder than fighting daily for survival against vicious predators, human and non-human alike.
Anjan jumped, her drifting memories anchored back firmly in reality. “Jova, honey, what are you doing up?” She picked up her daughter, hurrying to get her back inside as Ell rose to block anyone’s line of sight through the door.
“I couldn’t sleep,” muttered Jova.
“You were just sleeping a minute ago,” said Anjan, leading her back to the bed.
“But I’m not sleepy anymore.”
Anjan’s mouth was dry. She had been gutting woodland animals and sleeping in trees when she was that young. No one had ever given her a bed-time. What was she supposed to say?
“Just try to sleep, dear,” said Anjan, brushing down her hair. “You can’t go outside, and da and I have to talk.”
Jova sat on the straw mattress and nodded, although she made no move to lie down.
Biting her lip, Anjan gave Jova a kiss on the forehead and draped the blanket over her daughter’s shoulders. “Mommy loves you,” she said, as she walked away. And it was true, even if Anjan wasn’t sure how to show it.
Four years the goddesses gave them. Four years for the child to grow at the mother’s breast, if another did not claim them first.
Jova had turned six years old last month.
“We can’t keep going like this,” said Ell, standing in front of the closed door.
“Why not?” said Anjan. Her fingers gravitated towards the pouch around her neck again.
Ell gripped the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, Anjie, but I just don’t know how to take care of a little girl…”
“You don’t know? You, the one who grew up with marblewoman caretakers in the barracks of the Stronghold?”
“The ones who whipped me when I took a crumb of bread too many, yes,” snapped Ell. He took a deep breath. “I’m not saying that you should know either, but…look at us. Neither of us know what we’re doing.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that maybe no one ever does?” said Anjan.
As she paced, she took out an amber disk from the pouch, flipping it in her hands neurotically. Jova would be getting hungry soon, but the beast hadn’t been outside nearly long enough for a good hunt…
“She doesn’t know how to defend herself,” said Ell, suddenly.
“The price of learning is steep,” said Anjan.
“The price of not learning is steeper,” growled Ell.
Anjan paused. She looked at her husband. “The first time I saw a person die,” said Anjan, and her voice shook slightly. “I must have been five years old. She was wild like me, and she starved to death. The first time I saw someone killed, I was seven. They broke his legs first, and then they beat his head in, and then they took the bread and cheese in his hand and left the body on the road. The next summer, I was the one who did the killing.”
She met Ell’s eyes, and they didn’t speak for several seconds.
“Jova,” she said, pointing towards the bed. “Doesn’t need that.”
“We can’t always be there to protect her.”
“Who says so?”
Ell crossed his arms. “I’m serious, Anjan.”
“And so am I,” she said. “The Ladies Four must have done this for a reason. They’ll protect us. It can’t just be some random coincidence.”
“Maybe the Ladies didn’t do it,” said Ell, looking away. “Maybe she doesn’t have a tabula because-.”
Anjan stopped her pacing. Her hand fell to her side. “What are you saying, Ell? Every living thing has a tabula.”
Ell gestured in the air as if he could somehow grab the words from around him. “Her tabula should have called to her by now. She should be with it. But she’s not.”
“Every living thing has a tabula,” said Anjan, quietly, forcefully.
“Well, what if it’s not every living thing? What if she-.”
“Don’t, Ell. Don’t say it,” Anjan said, and her voice was dangerously low. She could feel the anger bubbling up again inside her, surging, looking for release. “Don’t say another word, because I don’t want to hear you say that our daughter is a freak.”
Ell stood straight. “Anjan! How dare you? I would never-.”
“Every living thing has a tabula,” Anjan repeated, her voice rising. “Flygnats have tabula, Ell. Rockworms and ironmites have tabula. If Jova doesn’t have one, then she’s missing something. She’d be less than the meanest insect. She’d be a rock, or a river. She wouldn’t even be alive. So don’t say it, Ell. Don’t you dare say it.”
“A rock or a river,” said Ell. “Or a goddess.”
For a moment, Anjan didn’t breathe. She just stood, frozen. “What are you saying, Ell? Goddesses don’t play with little rag dolls. Goddesses don’t have potty issues or tummy aches! Our little girl is not-.”
“Not a goddess,” Ell agreed, and he put his hands on Anjan’s shoulders. There was a light in his eyes Anjan had never seen before. “But maybe something close. Just because she doesn’t have a tabula doesn’t mean she’s less than a living thing. It could mean that she’s something more. Our daughter, our little Lady.”
Anjan wanted to believe him. She wanted to think that the past two years of fear and confusion and worry meant something.
But she couldn’t. She brushed Ell’s hands aside and said, hoarsely, “Yes, well, our little Lady will still be wanting supper, so if you’ll excuse me I need to get it ready.”
Ell’s shoulders slumped. He seemed somehow defeated.
Anjan knew she could have been more comforting to her partner, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it, not when she needed that comfort so much herself. She couldn’t waste time entertaining another one of Ell’s crazy ideas. They were both lost and confused and angry. Brow furrowed, Anjan tried to use that anger.
In that hollow in the jungle all those years ago, Anjan had taken more than just her tabula. From four years old, she had grown up in the wild, yes, but not on her own.
Ell sat to the side, his eyes a little wide. He was used to it by now (or, at least, Anjan assumed he was), but as a slave he had never claimed a tabula and even as a freed man, the only tabula Ell kept was his own. He was more than just a little afraid of Anjan’s friend.
The electric thrum of the disk rippled through Anjan’s fingers. It vibrated with the power she poured into it, responding to her anger and energy tenfold. Even though they were indoors, a wind stirred, making smoke swirl from the fireplace, a dense cloud that obscured the shape emerging within. It was always like that with a summoning; they said the Lady Fall had to hide her work until it was done.
The weaseldog seemed to gain weight all at once, dropping onto the floor and out of the smoke with a leaden thump, a carcass dangling out of his teeth as he landed. He bared yellow teeth, curling around his kill, but when he saw Anjan he relaxed, panting happily.
“Come here, Mo!” she said, squatting down and clapping her hands. “What’d you get for us today? Ell, get over here. He doesn’t bite.”
“Actually, he does,” Ell said, holding his forearms out of reach.
Mo gave a comfortable growl, curling his slender body over Anjan’s knees. He was the closest thing she had had to family, after the Four Year’s Fallow.
Anjan had heard of men who had to fight to control the animals bound to their tabula, where every summoning and every order was an up-hill battle, but she couldn’t imagine it. Since she had first summoned the blind pup in that hollow in the wild so long ago, the two had stood together, fighting tooth and nail to survive.
“Spring rabbit,” said Ell, picking up the limp body. His knife slid out of his belt. “I’ll cut it and clean it.”
“You with your cutting and cleaning,” said Anjan, brushing Mo off. The weaseldog whined, but then slinked away, pawing at the blood around his muzzle. “You always take out the good parts.”
“The marble soldiers only eat one meal a day, you know that?” said Ell, as he set to work skinning the rabbit. “And as enlightening an experience in gluttony as it has been these past few years, I still don’t think I’m ready for your good parts.”
“Don’t be snooty,” said Anjan, deliberately lowering her voice. “You talking civilized. My poor poor wild brain don’t un’erstand a word you saying.”
Ell straightened, holding a hand to his chest like he was about to deliver an oration, but he was interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. Two short hard raps.
“We just want to talk!” said the voice from outside. “Come out, please!”
The rabbit slid out of Ell’s hand, the knife twisted in his grip, and the smile vanished from his face. Mo straightened, his ears stiff and his snout pointed toward the door.
“I told you people were noticing,” said Ell.
“What people?” hissed Anjan. She whistled to Mo, edging closer to the door. The weaseldog prowled forward, hackles raised. “If the bastards try anything in a child’s haven…”
“Then no one will bat an eye if they’re all in on it,” whispered Ell. He stamped his foot and swore under his breath. “I told you, Anjan, I told you.”
“The folks have just been wondering,” said the voice. “See, you two have been here longer than any of us. Maybe a bit too long. You keep to yourselves so much.”
“I’ll get Jova, you stay here in case they try anything.” Anjan backed away, running to her daughter. “Jova! Jova, dear, we have to go.”
“But you said it was time for me to go to sleep…”
“I know what I said!” Anjan breathed deep. “Just come along, Jova, OK?”
The little girl took little, stumbling steps as she walked, wrapping her blanket around her shoulders like a cloak. Anjan turned back to Ell. “They still there?”
“What do you think?” he whispered, leaning on the door. “Only way out is through here or the damn chimney.”
The voice was still talking. “We just want to see the kid. Now, I don’t care if you found a wild child in the woods and took her in, or if you just need a place to stay.” He paused. “But it’s bad luck to stay in a child’s haven if you’re not waiting for the Fallow, right? So we just want to see the kid- and her tabula. That’s it.”
Anjan’s heart dropped. They could come up with as many excuses as they liked, but the fact remained that Jova had never been summoned to her tabula, which meant she never had her tabula, which meant it was still sitting in a tree anywhere on Albumere. They wouldn’t be able to produce it. Eventually someone would get nervous. They’d do something drastic.
Anjan’s fists tightened. By all the Ladies Four, if she didn’t know how to care for her daughter, at least she knew how to protect her.
“Open the door!” The gentleness in the voice disappeared. Dust from cheap brick and straw showered around the doorframe as something hammered on it from the other side. More than a fist. That qualified as something drastic. “Make this easy and open the door!”
Anjan licked dry lips. The door wouldn’t hold for long, especially not if more than just men were on the other side. “Your things,” she said, grabbing Ell’s sparse satchel. She shouldered her own. People like them never carried many belongings. “Run for it, Ell?” she said, cradling Jova close.
He nodded. “To the woods. I’ll go first, you keep Jova safe.”
“Ma, what’s happening?”
“Quiet, dear,” said Anjan, brushing down her hair. She picked up Jova in her arms. So little, so vulnerable, yet with none of the anger Anjan carried, with none of the fear Ell still had. Jova was neither wild nor slave. She was something else. Perhaps she was a little goddess, in her own way.
Either way, no one would touch her.
The door shook again. Mo snarled. His fur puffed up in agitation, so that his long body looked twice as big. Anjan tensed, getting ready to run. The moment that door fell, she would have to be ready to break past whatever was standing in its place.
Anjan squinted. Was it just her imagination, or were the edges of the door glowing?
The shock wave threw her backwards so fast and so hard that for a moment she thought she had broken her spine. Flaming wood splinters scattered around her as she tried to reorient herself. There was distant noise, as if from underwater, but Anjan could not hear anything through her bleeding ears but a wavering, metallic tone.
Jova. Where was Jova?
Knocked down by the blast, the little girl was lying prone on the ground. Anjan’s legs gave way; she crumpled to her knees, reaching for her daughter.
She felt a slow pulse under her fingertips. Alive. Jova was alive.
Her instincts took her the rest of the way, as Anjan heaved Jova in her arms. Mo was turning over, the fur on the side of his face scorched and burned, and that ringing…it was turning into words…
“Anjan! Anjan, it’s a boar! A summer boar!” screamed Ell, staggering forward with a knife in hand.
A burly shadow blocked the doorway, but as Ell made his way towards it, knife drawn, a gush of hot flames intercepted his path and he stumbled backwards.
The boar snorted, pawing at the cinders on the ground, as the straw walls of the hut burned. Its long, yellow tusks shimmered in the heat, while bristly whiskers stirred the embers. It swung its snout back and forth, glaring with evil yellow eyes.
All of that paled to the fact that the boar’s back was on fire.
“We know what you’re hiding. It might look like a girl, but we ain’t ever seen its tabula,” the man said, stepping in through the hole the boar had made. “Now I don’t know what kind of demon you found out there, but if the gods themselves won’t take her, then-.”
Anjan did not wait for him to finish. She caught him in the gut, then brought her knee twice into his face as he bent double. His nose bent and bloody, the man swung a wild fist at Anjan that she had not the time to dodge. The impact left her dazed and stunned, staggering backward as she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the boar turn…
Mo barreled out of the shadows, snapping at the boar’s throat before twisting out of the trajectory of its flames, which swelled on the boar’s back as the creature snorted and bellowed.
There was shouting from outside the doorway, as the group that came with the man swelled into a mob. Anjan grit her teeth, coughing from the smoke, as the man advanced.
Then a knife appeared in the small of his back. The man choked once and tumbled over. There was an audible crack, as his tabula split before he even hit the floor. The summer boar’s violent attacks ceased; the creature stumbled, stunned, as death severed the bond between it and its owner. It only lasted for a moment, but that moment was all Mo needed to slip under the boar and go for the throat.
The fire on the boar’s back dimmed, and blood put out what embers remained.
Ell bent over the body, drawing out the knife while checking over his shoulder. No one else dared come any closer to the burning hut. “Come on, Anjan, we have to move,” he hissed.
“You take Jova,” she muttered. Her head spun from the smoke, but her eyes focused easily on the square of light and cool air ahead of her. “Mo and I’ll clear a path.”
Ell did not argue; he scooped up his prone daughter as Anjan staggered outside.
There had been a demon in that hut, she thought, as she emerged out of the smoke and flames. But it sure as hell wasn’t the little girl.
They kept their distance out of shock, at the sight of the weaseldog with the half-burned face and blood dribbling down its fangs. Anjan knew it wouldn’t last long; she had to capitalize on what time she had.
So she screamed and ran, plowing forward, daring anyone to get in her way.
Ell, carrying Jova, was close behind her. Anjan had to move fast, before the crowd had a chance to think, a chance to get their collective courage together and mob them as one. She was already fatigued, the smoke clogging up her wheezing lungs, and Ell wouldn’t be able to fight back. If the mob attacked, it would be many against one, and many always won.
Someone thought to grab her; Anjan snatched the hand and twisted, hard, until she heard bones crack. There was a press of bodies around her, threatening to suffocate her, but Anjan lashed out. Every part of her body was a weapon, and every part of theirs was a target. Screams began and were cut short as Mo found throats.
She didn’t look back. She never had. There was only the next step, and whatever thing stood in her way.
“We can lose them in the woods, come on!” Anjan shouted, her eyes set on the tree line. If they wanted them gone, then that was fine. They would go. But they would not lay a finger on her daughter.
The birds had stopped their songs, but the babes were crying even louder.
Anjan and Ell sprinted past the haven boundaries, into the dark of the wood beyond, trading the certainty of the settlement for the uncertainty of the wilds of Albumere once more. There were screams and shouts behind them, but in seconds they had disappeared into the dense wood.
“Where do we go now?” gasped Anjan. She felt suddenly drained, staring at the ash and soot and blood coating her hands.
“Anywhere they’ll take us,” said Ell, short of breath as well. “Anywhere we can go.”
“Maybe a place for gods,” said Anjan, thinking of the temples dedicated to the Ladies Four, far in the south. She whistled for Mo as she limped on, one shoulder supporting Ell as he carried their child. “A place to get answers for our little Lady.”
Ell looked up, and he dared a little smile. “Yes. For our little Lady.”
And they staggered away together, hunted and tired, the only real family in all of Albumere.
Posted on August 1, 2013, in Chapter 0 (Prologue), The Strangers at the Door and tagged adventure, Anjan, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Jova, Mo, novel, original characters, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.