The Third Omen
Flesh & Steel
The only thing Emmalina wanted was to be loved. But nobody loved her; she was sure of it. Of friends she had none, nor did she understand how friends were made, or why other people seemed to have friends when she did not. There was only one person in her life, the man she called, albeit with little affection, father. Between his strange comings and goings, Emma possessed hours with only herself to talk to, or sing to, and as the years passed she found a kind of solace in loneliness—in that no one could disappoint her with their absence. She became her own friend and sister, and parent. And who better to understand her than Emma? Cloaked in isolation, she felt safe from other human beings. The cloak belonged to her mother and was black as a moonless night. Since her mother had been a tall woman, the sleeves drooped well past Emma’s fingers, and sometimes wrapped around her waist when she was feeling shy, which was almost always.
The world Emmalina knew was gray and cold and hard. But sometimes, after the Thunder God shook the world and split the sky and loosed rain that fell like pebbles, a band of colors would appear bridging the sky. Delians called it Strom’s Bow and it was a good omen, a sign that the god’s anger had abated. But Emma was never satisfied with such explanations and so would sit in wonderment, watching as the last hint of violet faded, dreaming of places strange and ancient and faraway. Occasionally, orchids sprouted between the cracks of the Wall, with blue and red and orange, but this color did not last long either, wilting quickly in the cold.
As far as she knew, there were two seasons in Aenya: high moon and low moon. During high moon, the people of Northendell huddled inside their houses to watch fireballs rain down on them, and men-at-arms returned from the Wall bloodied or broken or carried on the bier. In the peace that followed, the streets became slick with ice, and clumps of frozen sky dropped out of the either to shatter shingles from rooftops. Delians did not dare venture out on such days, but year after year there were those too stubborn for caution, who were later found with their skulls caved in with ice.
When the snow flowed out of the city, the second season began, and the people felt safe enough to set up tents in the market square, to barter and to haggle and to gossip. In the alleyways, boys played at war as girls hop scotched, or together they went into hiding and seeking which was an ideal game in the labyrinthine city. When the snows came down softly to cover the streets like white linen, the children found joy in it, all except Emma. For eight years she’d watched from her tower window, pining, ever pining for play, to explore the city as the other children were wont to do. But the door to the tower was locked from the inside. Father was fond of keys. The iron ring at his belt chimed heavily wherever he went, so Emma could hear him marching downstairs to his study, or out the front door in the pitch of night. By her ninth year, her father relented and Emma came into possession of her own key.
Emma was now ten. She turned the key in the lock twice, put her weight into the door, and looked up. Was it morning or late afternoon? The sky gave no indication, looking gray and bleak and ready to crush her under its weight. There was no horizon in Emma’s world, only a distant haze and the silver outline of the Pewter Mountains poking through it.
She started down the cobblestone path, fingering the gaps in the Wall. Long before she was born, fig trees ripped through the masonry, and no one ever bothered to repair it. Her father had forgotten breakfast years ago, so Emma was fortunate when the fruit was in season. Drop fruit, as Delians called it, littered the cobblestones, dappling the ice and rock with purple splotches. The fuzzy brown ones split into soft sweet clovers like honey. She ate until she was no longer hungry, filling her satchel with as many as she could, and continued down.
She moved sideways where the houses were built too closely together and walked with her palms where the streets tilted. Missing cobblestones sometimes bloodied her feet. But such unforgiving passages were advantageous to one who longed to be lost, who, unlike most children, was never missed. Scrawny enough to disappear beneath her robes, Emma was able to slip through alleyways too narrow for grown women, finding alcoves that even the lords of the city could not lay claim to, finding mysteries she was certain no one knew existed.
Though she had never seen beyond the Wall, Northendell, she knew, was built into the mountain. Where the natural rock tapered off and hand worked stone began was difficult, if not impossible, to discern. Finding remnants of a home or church in what was once believed a boulder was not uncommon. Behind the city, the caves went on forever, or so Emma, unnoticed in the niches above the people’s homes, heard people say. Adventuring locals who went into them were said to be there still, navigating the remainder of their lives to get home. Such stories were enough to frighten children, even many adults, from becoming lost. But Emma was undeterred.
In walls within walls, Emma found her place of solitude, where she came to poke and prod at life’s queries, to wonder and hear her own voice and feed crumbs to her friends, the ravens perched in the niches above. But she became distracted watching a copper line of ants marching off to battle a horned beetle. Their mandibles clamped against its armored shell, but the beetle kept plodded along. She had never seen such a resilient and stubborn creature among the insect world, and as the ants continued to scurry and fight with increasing urgency, she devised a new story and became a goddess, swooping down to the ant world in an act of divine providence. The horned beetle kicked pairs of chubby thighs helplessly between her fingers, where the birds hovered, crowding about her arm and shoulders. In a snapping of beak too swift to be seen, the beetle’s armor cracked like a walnut. Part of her was saddened by its demise, but the ravens were growing bored with bread. Other Delians shunned the black birds, believed heralds of the Taker. A flock of milling ravens was a sign of imminent death. Families with elders or sick children watched fretfully as the birds lingered about their household. But Emma was skeptical from the time she—not knowing of the omen—spent an entire day in their company, without either herself or her father falling dead. Besides, ravens were beautiful. Their feathers were sleek and black and shimmered in the moons, much like her hair, contrasting sharply against the pallid backdrop of broken masonry. And like her, they were reclusive and unloved.
“But you can fly above these walls,” she murmured. “Above the city. High above the world . . .”
Snickering sounded behind her, and she turned, her heart leaping into her throat. No adult could hope to fit between the narrow passages to her secret place, but she was not the only child in Northendell. The faces confronting her, wide-eyed, bemused, hateful, were not unfamiliar.
“Look at her going on like that . . .,” said the roundest of the three boys, “I knew she was bonkers, but by Strom, she’s downright loony!”
Emma knew him as Bood, the one whom other boys listened, who made friends and managed, beyond her comprehension, to earn respect. Like a dog at his heel was Deed. He was not as well fed and his clothing was always too tight or loose, which was not uncommon for a bastard, a whoreson, as she once heard someone say. Deed clung to Bood’s every word, proving his friendship through acts of cruelty. The third boy, Obi, was younger than the two and finely tailored. Emma did not see him often, knowing only that he fidgeted a lot and spoke rarely and with a stammer.
Deed approached her with an accusing look. “Were you talking to yourself this time or to the birds?”
“I wasn’t—” she started, searching for a believable lie, any justification to alleviate her embarrassment.
“Whadd’ya think?” Bood answered for her, “she talks to both. I would too if I was as ugly as she was.”
Deed gave a nervous chuckle. “Hey, that’s a good point!” Obi stood in their shadows, trying to look large and important.
“You know crows can’t talk, don’t you?” Bood asked her.
“They’re ravens . . .,” she corrected.
“Crows, ravens, who cares . . .? They’re just stupid, ugly birds. Obi, your father’s a knight, right? He kills dragons, right? Show us how he does it.” He presented the boy with a smooth rock, about the size of his fist, as if it were a fine sword.
“I c-c-can do it,” he stammered, squinting at the perches overhead.
Emma followed his aim and her sleeves came up like banners, to shield the birds from harm. “Don’t!”
“What do you care?” said Bood. “Oh, I forgot, they’re your friends, aren’t they?”
“Why won’t you leave me alone?” she replied. “This is my place.”
“Your place? How is it your place? You don’t own the city. You’re not royalty. You’re not even high born. You’re just a wall born girl with a donkey face that nobody can stand to look at, which is why you talk to birds, isn’t that right, Obi?” Insults were Bood’s special talent. It wasn’t just the words, but the inflection of his voice, the emphasis on this or that word, the contortion of his face that cried mockery. The combined effect was like a dagger twisting in her heart. It was why others were eager to be his friend, for fear he might turn his talent against them. When the tears ran from her eyes at the threshold of her father’s study, she never managed to recreate the scene. She could recite the words verbatim, but from her mouth Bood’s insults fell flat, lost all their power to sting.
Deed was nowhere near as clever, but no less cruel, mimicking Bood’s every action. “Donkey face!” he half cried, half laughed.
“Stop it!” she insisted, as if they could be reasoned with. “Stop saying that!” Each outburst brought lumps of sorrow to her throat, but she could not swallow down the pain. She wanted to say more, but found that she couldn’t.
Obi’s rock missed its mark, clacking against a third floor parapet. Dozens of ravens spread wing, abandoning their perches to circle above. Deed picked up another rock.
“Stop it!” she cried. “Leave them alone!”
“Or you’ll what?” Bood threatened. “What are you going to do to me, princess?”
“More like princess of donkeys,” Deed added, throwing and missing.
All three boys were focused on the birds now, on their aim, not seeing the slender stone slip beneath her sleeve. She eyed Bood’s forehead with intense hatred, but Emma lived in the mind, in a world of imagined feats, and she drew first blood, instead, across Obi’s eyebrow. The youngest of the three boys, who’d never spoken unkindly to her, crumpled against the wall and started weeping.
“Dammit!” Bood cried. “His father’s gonna thrash us!”
“Get her!” Deed shouted.
Emma dashed between the walls as the rocks began to fly. She could hear them THUD against the buildings, heavy enough to open her skull. Bood squeezed through the passage in pursuit, his gut flattening, with Deed close behind, leaving Obi alone with his tears.
The panic went to her limbs as Emma pulled herself around corners, clamored up, ever up the sloping streets, tripping over the hem of her robes and bruising her palms, on her feet again and running blindly, things catching and tearing at her sleeves, shouts and the clack-clack-clack of stones following her. Walls came at her like battering rams, every which way, leading her, pressing her to the shoulder, twisting her heels, expanding onto broad courtyards in a kaleidoscope of possible directions. Her thoughts came in fragmented bursts. Which way? Not a creature of instinct, she hesitated, without knowing how closely the boys followed. Should she hide? Slip into a side passage in the hope they not see her?
In a dead-end alcove, she would be trapped and they would kill her. What she wanted more than anything was to feel safe. Was home. Father would know what to do with these bullies, she assured herself. He can’t be too busy to help you at a time like this, can he? But Northendell was a mountain city, built in levels, and her tower was on the highest tier, on the outer edges of the Wall. The steps, having become dilapidated and uneven over the centuries, grew higher and further apart, and her legs began to ache. Exhaustion drove her to her knees. As she gathered up her robes to lift herself again, she wondered why Bood and Deed were not yet upon her, and then something white whizzed past her cheek. They had been stupid enough to stop and scoop up stones, and it had given her the advantage. A second stone ruffled her cloak, but the third crashed under her knee. She managed to limp to a courtyard where the cobblestones formed a circular pattern about an olive tree, just as Bood overtook her, knocking her onto the rough pavement. Despite his rotund belly, the boy moved quickly, at least more quickly than his waif partner, who caught up to them, panting.
No amount of imagination could help Emma escape her impending reality. She could only watch, beaten and bruised by the city’s hard edges, her breathing sharp and burning, a mix of exhaustion and fear rooting her to the spot. Bood tugged at the olive tree where she lay, littering the ground with dark green leaves. The makeshift sword in his meaty fingers swished to and fro.
He fancies himself a knight, a man-at-arms!
Her eyes darted between the two boys, desperately seeking a passerby. Even her father would suffice. Homes scattered around them, in tiers above and below, but no one would hear her screams but the ravens perched at the windowsills and banner masts.
“Please!” She was trembling, her sleeve masking her like a veil. “I didn’t mean to hurt Obi—honest!”
“What was that?” Bood cried, brandishing his stick. “Did you hear something, Deed?”
The boy shrugged, not catching on to the joke. “Uh . . . no?”
“Well I heard something,” said Bood, “and it went hee-haw, hee-haw!”
Deed shared a chuckle with his friend, adding his own, albeit poorly imitated, donkey sounds.
Emma’s eyes swam and as the tears made their way to her cheeks, she knew she would have preferred the beating to their mockery.
“Let me the stick,” Deed blurted, “and I’ll teach this donkey some obedience!” Deed’s cruelty was blunt, more brutal than his friend’s. She shut her eyes as something hard splintered against her lips and chin. It was like nothing she had felt before, a lightning bolt in the face, followed by throbbing and stinging. She awaited a successive blow, all quivering, but it did not come.
A heavy voice rang in the air and when she dared to look, a copper helm shone in her eyes. She could hear the marching boots, their orange breast plates clanking atop their shoulders. The stick spotted with her blood was in the hands of a man-at-arms, a copperhead, whose lip and jaw were squarely framed by the thick hairs of his mustache.
“Bohemond,” the man-at-arms admonished, his face-plate retracting into his armored collar, “you’re the butcher’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Bood answered, trying his best to look mature, though his voice was that of a frightened boy.
“And you,” he said, directing a furrowed eyebrow toward Obi, whom Emma had not noticed arrive, “I know your father. You’re Ovulus’ youngest, aren’t you?”
“Ovulus j-j-junior, sir,” he admitted, “Ovulus the s-s-second.”
“Explain yourselves.” His words and his looks were like the blows of a hammer on an anvil.
“W-W-Well, sir,” Ovulus said with his usual stammer, “I—we—I mean m-m-my friends and I, well we—”
“Out with it, boy, or I’ll beat it of you.”
“Well, we met this g-g-girl, you see, and then she hit me, so we ch-ch-chased her, and now we’re here and . . .”
“I can see that!” the soldier replied. “By Strom’s surly beard, they’ll be calling you Ovulus the Obvious someday! But what I don’t understand is what you’re doing here with this riff-raff. Your father is a knight. Someday you will be a knight. You’d best start acting like one. Understood?”
“Now run off and tell your father what you’ve been doing. Or I will. And as for you boys,” he said, turning to Bood and Deed, “I don’t want you crossing my sight again.”
Both saluted him, Bood showing a modicum of sincerity, but Emma saw nothing but spite in Deed’s eyes. The man-at-arms glared back, his eyes an icy blue, and he sent them scurrying with a smack to their behinds.
Emma tried to speak, finding it painful, feeling her lip doubled in size.
“You girl,” said the man-at-arms, “Don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
She was afraid to answer, as if she might get a beating for saying the wrong thing, but seeing she was without choice in the matter, broke the silence at last. “People usually . . . don’t see me, sir,” she said, searching for patterns in the cobblestones, unable to look at him, as she was unable to look at anyone.
“Well, you must have somewhere better to be than here. Where’s your mother?”
“Dead, sir,” she answered, matter-of-factly.
“I see,” he said. “And your father, what of him?”
“Don’t know,” she replied.
“You’re no vagabond?” he half asked, studying the cut of her robes.
“No—No. He’s busy. He has . . . important work.”
“I see,” he said, working his mustache. “I take it you live somewhere, then?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I live up there, on the Wall.” She considered pointing it out, but worried she might look foolish.
“Wall born, eh?” he replied. “No shame in that. I know plenty of good men born on the Wall. And you’d best get back there and stay put. Streets are no place for a girl your age.”
“Truly, sir, and I-I thank you . . .”
“Duncan,” he said. “My name’s Duncan. Now see to it we never meet again.”
Strolling back to his regiment, the man-at-arms noted the black feathers littering the stones under his boots. They were everywhere, perched all along the rooftops, some circling, others waiting. “Damn birds,” he grumbled, “worst omen I’ve ever seen!”