Dalya stripped the rags from her grandfather's emaciated body. She ripped a tatter from his shirt, soaked it, and gently scrubbed the dirt from the old man's chest and face. She cleaned the edges of the lacerations that ran down his form—a bizarre series of symbols carved cruelly into his flesh—and then dragged the cold corpse into the front bedroom. The first splashes of sunlight colored the early morning sky as she pulled him into bed and drew the sheets up to his stubbly chin. She planted a quick kiss on his forehead and trudged out to the shack behind the cottage.

There she traded shears for shovel and set off for the woods outside of town—the cluster of trees opposite the orchard. As she strolled through acres of twilit fields, her mind rendered numb from last night's raid, she found herself curiously engaged by her grandfather's spade. The old man had owned it for decades, but the tool had acted more like ornament than instrument; elaborate hieroglyphs decorated the dark wood of the shaft, spiraling downward until they dead-ended at the base of the ivory head. The head itself was narrow and acutely pointed, finely etched with patterns of flowers and vines.

It was a striking tool, and in her twelve years, Dalya had never seen her grandfather use it.

She found the clearing just as the sun broke over the mountains. After double-checking her measurements—six feet long, four wide—she buried the ivory spade in the dirt and wrenched free the first shovelful of earth from between her feet. She spent the morning ripping into the forest floor, careful not to break any roots or damage the surrounding flora, chipping away at the soil, sinking deeper and deeper into her grandfather's grave.

At noon, she stopped to rest. She scampered from the hole, strands of hair plastered to her forehead, her face and clothes clotted with dirt. Several minutes passed. She basked in the cool woodland breeze, recouping her energy and meditating to the birdsong. The feeling was short-lived.

The pitter-patter of hurried footfalls and the crackling of the underbrush sent her stomach into knots. She lurched to her feet, spade hefted in defense. Pivoting in the churned soil, she scanned the trees for the source of the sound, eyes flickering between shifting shadows and swaying branches.

Istanten tumbled from the bushes. Dalya flinched and teetered backward, catching her balance near the edge of the hole.

The boy hunkered over to find his breath, sucking air in choppy, guttural wheezes.

Dalya stabbed the shovel into the earth and laid a hand on his shoulder. "What is it?"

He glanced up at her, chest heaving, and pointed west toward town. With his other hand, he pressed two fingers against his throat and emitted a low grumble.

She knelt before him, locating his eyes behind the swath of sweat-slicked hair. "Did they find my grandpa?" The boy did not respond. He only huffed and gasped, his shaking finger still leveled toward Middlewick.

Dalya sprang up and leapt into the thicket, branches and vines tugging at her hair and clothes. She stumbled over rocks and roots but maintained a steady balance while racing toward the village, oblivious to her exhaustion and the fire in her lungs, and erupted from the tree line in a flurry of jerky breaths and churning limbs. She vaulted fences and cleared fields, kicking up earth in her wake. Head down, arms pumping, heart thundering, she moved through the streets, evading people, carts, wagons, and packbeasts until she rounded the corner toward her grandfather's cottage.

The road was empty. The cottage was alone and quiet at the head of the street. A flood of relief washed over her like rain. Dalya's legs liquefied beneath her, and the girl collapsed on the cobbles. There she sat—a mess of hair and tears and heavy breathing—measuring the cottage in wondrous and exhausted respite.

Suddenly a shadow fell across the road, so wide and so large she thought the sun might've disappeared behind the clouds. Dalya turned, a ball of anxious pain growing in her belly.

Stretvanger loomed over her, an oak of a man swaddled in royal robes. His face was hidden beneath the dark folds of his hood, but his chiseled chin jutted out like a slab of stone from the edge of a cliff. The baggy garments betrayed the immensity of his form save the belt fastened round his belly; thick and smooth, the glossy leather strap, when stretched to its maximum length, was taller than she was, Dalya figured. Several soldiers—Harringer and his black-armored compatriot among them—were fanned out behind the gargantuan bishop, stiff and stoic in their posture.

He reached down, his body creaking and popping, and wrapped a gentle hand around Dalya's arm. With a tender tug, he lifted her to her feet. "Little girl," he said, a brooding impatience dripping in his voice. "Is your grandfather home?"

Dalya raked a strand of hair from her eyes. The burn of Stretvanger's gaze wilted her confidence, and all she could muster was a shake of her head. When the weak rebuttal failed to break his stare, Dalya pointed with trembling fingers toward the western wood. "He's in the orchard," she squeaked. "Where you left him."

"A clever answer, child, but a wrong one. Your grandfather wandered off last night." His eyes flicked toward the cottage door. "But death makes for a vicious handicap. I suspect he didn't get far." He pinched Dalya's soil-stained sleeve between two fingers and ogled the veins of cakey dirt that streaked across her tunic and trousers. His lips narrowed into a tight grin. "Have you seen him?"

"No, I think—"

Stretvanger nodded toward the cottage. "Might we have a look around, then?"

Dalya stepped warily toward the house, out of the bishop's enormous shadow. "No."

"Such discourtesy!" he jested, a syrupy chuckle rumbling out from the darkness of his hood. He turned and woofed an order at the throng of soldiers locked in formation. They percolated toward the cottage; Stretvanger followed, stepping nonchalantly around the small girl in his path.

A flush of angry, panicked heat rose in Dalya's throat. "This..." she started, "this isn't right! What you're doing to these people—what you're doing to us—isn't right!"

Stretvanger called a halt. He half-turned, eyeing Dalya from over his shoulder. "Sheep need not be privy to the shepherd's motives. Just rest easy. We're cleansing this country."

The trepidation in her heart boiled over, steaming into ire and lacing her words with bitter rancor. "You're wrong."

The giant shrugged. He mumbled, "Children have no place in politics," and gave a signal to his soldiers. The air hummed with the ring of steel; soldiers crowded the cottage, swords raised and spines rigid as the front door was kicked from its hinges. "Search the wardrobes. Raid the attic. Check the outhouse. The body is here, and I want it back."

The militia charged through the doorway.

"Blood!" he hollered at their backs. "The bastard's still bleeding. Look for dark, sour blood."

From the street, Dalya heard the shattering of pottery and the sharp splintering of wood. Arms crossed, sun on his back, Stretvanger watched his men scour the cottage from his spot on the lawn as he rocked unsteadily on his heels.

Droplets of sweat dripped into Dalya's eyes. Numb with fury, she did not blink them away. The salt stung and muddied her vision, but she never lost focus on the lumbering man in the heavy robes overseeing the ravaging of her grandfather's house. Her house. She listened as they ransacked her vault of memories, the font of her solace—the only place ever worthy of being called her home. And she trembled with rage.

She pried a pointed cobble from the road. Teeth gritted and brow narrowed, she measured Stretvanger's back and, knuckles white around the rock, stalked toward him, eyes locked to the space just inches below his belt—the base of the giant's spine. She moved rapidly, betraying stealth as her footsteps smacked the street, but Stretvanger never turned. When she was within arm's length, Dalya hefted the rock, tightened her grip, and zeroed in on her target.

But before she struck, Harringer lurched through the doorway. His sword was tucked into his scabbard and his fingers were riddled with cuts and splinters. "We found blood on the old man's sheets," he said.

The bishop's lips parted slightly. "Blood?" The word rumbled from the hood like a drumroll. "Yes?"

Harringer did not match gazes with Stretvanger, opting instead to study the ground between the giant's feet. "But there's no body. We looked absolutely everywhere."

Dalya's brow furrowed. She dropped the stone and staggered backward. Stretvanger was silent for several seconds before pivoting on his heel and peering at the child. He tore into her with his cold stare for a few tense moments, his emotions concealed behind the shadows of his hood, before swallowing hard and offering a subtle nod.

"Right," the bishop mumbled, pushing past the girl and hurrying into town.



Download the story in PDF format