By Lauren C. Teffeau
Illustrated by Elizabeth Leggett
My stylus never pauses as I transcribe the simple but earnest words of the villager before me for my report. “And what happened after that?”
“The lindworm attacked, that’s what. Killed my neighbor, her entire family.” He watches me for a reaction I cannot give.
I hum your words to myself. I’ve been interviewing people all day, commandeering the humble common room of the sole inn in Harnsey, a village at a crossroads that appears only on the most detailed maps of the Brance. The rough-hewn tables and benches are better suited to mugs of ale and bowls of stew and good-hearted conversation, but they serve me well enough. After all, the Order’s business is not one of comfort, not when we’re often all that stands between monsters and the people we’ve sworn to protect.
Every witness spoke of the same serpent-like creature that was behind so much devastation just four days ago. There hasn’t been a lindworm attack in this area for decades, but it still looms large in the collective memory. And no wonder considering the destruction they can wield with a swipe of their claws or their sturdy tails.
Each sighting must be carefully documented, including witness accounts, property damage assessments, and other costs incurred so we can better allocate resources in our eternal fight against the cursed beasts from the age before that still haunt the land. And my job is to see it done. May it be enough.
The man cranes his neck, looking over my shoulder. “Say, what’s that noise?”
“You said it looked like an overlarge snake except for its face?”
He turns back to me, his eyes a hard sort of green in a tanned, well-weathered face. Life in this part of the Brance will do that to you. “Almost feline. Oh! And claws, like a hawk’s.” His eyes widen in disbelief then affront. “Are you…humming?”
“What? Oh yes. I do that sometimes,” I say absently. “Don’t mind me. Now what—”
He makes a slashing gesture with his hands—abrupt enough my fighting instincts waken from where they’ve slept these past months. “Humming without concern to the people who died here? And with your Order to blame.” He shakes his head, disgusted.
I owe this man no explanations, but I will not tolerate his criticism. “Sir, need I remind you my Sisters destroyed the creature that attacked your neighbor?”
“Too little, too late. Five people gone—a huge loss.” Margins matter out here, especially at harvest time, though that’s hardly our fault. He fixes me with another disapproving look. “You’re doing it again. Show some respect!”
“I am,” I say sharply. “Just not to you.”
While we glare at one another, Sister Elzanne and Sister Avera join us. They greet me with a civil nod and wait their turn to be interviewed. We may share the streak of white hair that adorns our crowns and marks us as Sisters of the Zasita Order but that is all, I realize as a slight curl of dislike lingers on Sister Avera’s lips. She eyes the crossbow slung across my back with disdain, perhaps knowing how long it has gone unused in my current role as a scribe with the Order.
No matter. I return my attention to the villager, last of the eyewitnesses and verging on the least useful. “Is there anything else you’d like the record to show?” My voice, once warm with inquiry, is now coolly flat like the plains that spread out south of here.
He sputters for a moment, torn with the desire to castigate me further even as he mentally reviews all he’s told me. “No, Sister,” he says finally. “That’s the truth of it.”
I set down my stylus and force my face into something approaching sympathy. It’s hard to tell—everything feels so distant these days. “I am very sorry you had to endure this. Such creatures don’t belong in this world. My report to the Order will help ensure this won’t happen again.”
Then, still humming, I wave Sisters Elzanne and Avera forward. Both of them are easily ten years younger than me, still eager to confront the world’s enemies after their time at the Academy with their swords sheathed at their sides. I feel the same call, but you know why I now serve the Order in other ways.
The heavy doors creak closed behind my last interview subject. It’s early enough in the afternoon, the rest of the locals are still hard at work, leaving the three of us alone in the establishment.
“I need to take both of your statements for the official record.”
Sister Elzanne crosses her arms and leans against the table. Road-weary perhaps. “We came, we killed, with nary a scratch. What more is there to say?”
Sister Avera nudges Elzanne’s shoulder. “Look, she’s writing it down.”
“I take my responsibilities to the Order seriously, Sister Avera.” That they are not doing so, at least Sister Elzanne seems to realize by the sudden scowl darkening her face.
She straightens and looks me in the eyes, at least in this moment, as an equal. She must be the leader of the pair, in either age or temperament. “The Order sent us here as soon as they received word of the attack. We traveled to the fields along the outskirts and fought and killed the lindworm that burst from the ground nearby. We worried it from either side until I could perform the killing blow.” Beside her, Avera mimes slitting her throat. “Is that thorough enough for you, Sister?” Sister Elzanne prompts me.
I nod as I commit the last of her testimony, softly humming your words. Always your words. “What do you make of one of the villagers’ assertion that it was a much larger lindworm that attacked them?”
“That a dead monster will always look smaller compared to the one they’ve conjured in their heads, but they wouldn’t dare admit as much to a… representative of the Order,” Avera says.
I am a Sister same as her, but Sister Avera is making it clear she won’t call me that, not with a scribe’s stylus in my hands.
Sister Avera gives Elzanne a loaded look, as if she cannot imagine someone like me can see right into her foolish heart, straight to the arrogance both youth and good fortune foster. Their partnership seems an easy one. What will happen when one falls before the other? When Sister Avera loses Sister Elzanne, the way I lost you? She won’t be so smug then, I think.
Perhaps she’ll be the one to go first, overconfident and eager to meet death, never realizing there’s a future beyond the fight. Or perhaps she does and refuses to greet it the way I have, still humming your song under my breath—sometimes daring full-throated song when I’m alone—to keep the music alive for you.
“Are we done here?” Sister Avera asks, her voice verging on a whine. “I’m hungry.”
I give them both a nod. “Thank you, Sisters, for your time.” With my tablet and stylus tucked in my satchel at my side, I make my way up the stairs to my room on the second floor of the inn to finalize my report.
Their whispers reach me, like the darting strikes of a viper. Sister Elzanne exhorts Sister Avera to lower her voice, that I’ve earned my white hair same as them.
“But she’s always singing to herself. As if we can’t hear it!”
“Perhaps she’s been knocked in the head too many times.”
“Nonsense,” Sister Avera replies. “When’s the last time she’s seen battle?”
“Some Sisters must leave active combat for various reasons,” Sister Elzanne says mildly.
“She couldn’t handle it?”
“That or an injury, perhaps. Keep in mind those assigned crossbows and other ranged weapons are often paired with swordswomen. Perhaps she lost hers.”
“To refuse another partner is to refuse the fight.” I can almost hear the sneer that surely graces Avera’s face at such words.
Or envision Sister Elzanne’s arched brow when she replies, “And if you lost me, would you be so eager to replace me, I wonder?”
“If it meant keeping my pledge to the Order, I would,” Avera insists.
Sister Elzanne chuckles. “Hmm. I see I need to teach you some manners the next time we spar.”
My hums drown out the rest of their words as I close the door to my room, uncaring of everything except my memories of you.
Sunlight dappled the rutted wagon road between Darvet and Venzor. A fragrant breeze off the mountains to the north kept us cool as we marched along. Springtime in the Brance does afford some pleasantries.
You asked me what rhymes with honor that wasn’t wander or squander or yonder. I rolled my eyes at your antics. You’d always figure it out on your own, no matter what I’d say, and make it beautiful. “We should have taken that farmer up on his offer of a ride.”
“And share space with squawking chickens the whole way? No thank you.” You grinned back at me. “Besides, it’s a beautiful day. What good is traveling the world if we don’t stop and enjoy it every now and again?”
“I didn’t join the Order to travel.” I joined it to fight monsters. To battle back the creatures for the good of the rest of the world, my Sisters at my side.
“Maybe not, but you have to admit it’s a nice bonus.” You spread your arms wide and looked up as if you could embrace the sky. “And on a day such as this, it makes all our hard work a bit more bearable, yes?”
I smiled in spite of myself. You always were good at getting me to do that. “But what if we’re too late?”
“Ahh.” You gave me a look that cut right through me. “That’s why you’re so grumpy. Don’t worry. If it were urgent, the Order would have told us as much in the briefing.”
We had been instructed to travel to Venzor after crocutta were sighted in the region. A vicious species of wolf that preyed on all fauna in an area, hunting in packs. Potentially devastating, given Venzor’s over-reliance on their sheep and goats for foodstuffs and trade goods.
“We have plenty of time.” You turned mischievous. “In fact, I finished another stanza last night. Want to hear it?”
“If I say no, will you actually keep your infernal lyrics to yourself?”
“Of course not. Torturing you is half the fun.”
Every mission of ours is commemorated in your words from our first assignment together to our latest task in the Southern Reaches seeing to a jaculus infestation. I made the mistake of telling you how endearing it was, and there hadn’t been any peace from your rhymes and practice with meter and tempo since. Things I didn’t have the patience for then, but I mark the moments by them now.
“Don’t you have enough material to fill three epics at this point?”
You shook your head, suddenly serious. “Ours is still a story without an ending. I want it to go on forever.”
Sister Elzanne and Avera are gone the next morning when I join the innkeeper in the common room for breakfast. They’ve probably been sent somewhere else—hopefully into another scribe’s jurisdiction. I hum into my mug of tea, bubbles tickling my nose. A strange mood I’m in.
I must check in with the Order’s section leader in Darvet to the north, but there’s no need to hurry. I can take my time. I can even take the time to walk the site once more, try to quiet the lingering voice in my head that insists we have overlooked something.
Once the Order’s coin is in the innkeeper’s hand, my cloak and satchel and crossbow across my shoulders, I return to the fields where a monstrous beast burst from the ground and ripped a family to shreds.
According to local lore, the lindworms usually live underground, which explains why sightings are so rare, and when they do appear, it’s a portent of some kind. None of the villagers would dare tell me what they thought this one signified. The Order would frown upon such superstition anyway. It is our sacred responsibility to send such beasts into oblivion. One day, by the might of the Sisters following in my footsteps, maybe even extinction. But we cannot be everywhere, no matter how we try.
You know that better than me.
You shook your head, suddenly serious.
“Ours is still a story without an ending. I want it to go on forever.”
One vulture makes a perch on a fence post that somehow remained standing while the rest bordering the field were torn asunder. Stalks of barley bent and broken, leaves still spattered with the same blood that darkens the ground. Bedrock and topsoil has been churned about. The villagers have worked hard to fill in the tunnels the creature made, leaving their footprints and the battered land behind.
A bird screeches overhead, throwing into sharp relief just how quiet it is. I’ve even stopped humming. I start your song from the beginning. It’s always helped me think, did you know that? It’s lonely out here, so I sing in my raspy voice, a shadow of yours no matter how many times I said otherwise. I knit the words together from your beloved verses as if by singing them aloud I can summon you from memory. How I wish it were so.
I follow the tracks of the monster as it attacked, joined by Sister Elzanne and Avera’s bootprints as they met it and dispatched it into the next world. Ichor and scales mark those areas, close to the tree line. A breeze stirs the branches, and I notice a hole the width of a barrel torn through the underbrush.
All the villagers I’d spoken with made a point of saying the carcass Elzanne and Avera delivered was much smaller than the one that had killed their neighbors. My Sisters had fought the beast that confronted them on this very field, but what if there were more than one? Lindworms tend to be solitary, but would my Sisters have investigated to ensure as much? I shake my head. See the thoughts your song conjures?
With apologies to you, I stop singing and release my crossbow from the straps on my back. The weight of the weapon settles into my hands, into calluses time hasn’t yet worn smooth.
Without looking, I slide a bolt from my quiver and cock my crossbow, my gaze on the woods, the secrets it’s hiding. Or not. Won’t know until I venture forth and learn the truth.
Slighted by her own for things out of her control
Sister Kalira carried on, despite her weary soul
Jassan’s song on her lips, ever reverent
Determined to see to her latest assignment
Your lyrics were always more sophisticated than my simple rhymes, but it’s the only way I know how to keep the song alive for you.
Sister Avera would be rolling her eyes at my plan, I’m certain. And you… You would tell me I’m being overly cautious for following up, overly foolish for going alone. But you’d be at my side nonetheless. You’re at my side now, aren’t you?
I hum under my breath to keep you here where you belong as I stalk towards the tree line.
Filled with victory from the beasts they’d slain
Sisters Jassan and Kalira were on the road again
Jassan with her broadsword at the ready
And Kalira with her crossbow ever steady
Your sing-song voice—a blade’s edge away from bursting into laughter at any moment—needled me as I tried and failed to keep a straight face at such a ridiculous verse. Not your usual quality. But that didn’t matter when your purpose was to drive me mad. Passing the time, you’d call it, practice, whenever I complained.
How could I argue with that when you were painstakingly chronicling our exploits so we wouldn’t be lost to time like so many of our Sisters since the Order’s founding years upon years ago? You started the stanza from the beginning, your voice strengthening with each word.
Motion from the left side of the road caught my eye, the skin on the back of my neck prickling like those moments just before a fight.
You wiped the hurt from your face when you saw I had my crossbow out and pointed at the shadows that had gathered just beyond the tree line.
A whisper of steel as you eased your sword from your sheath. “What is it?”
“I thought the briefing said the villagers saw the creatures on the southern edge of Venzor.” If that were true, how had they made their way this far north so soon? We wouldn’t have a chance to set up blinds, monitor their movements, and decide the best course of attack, as we originally thought.
You shrugged, your gaze locked on the trees. “You know how reliable witness accounts are.” The crocutta’s signature high-pitched call shattered the air, silencing the birds, as they took notice of us, sensing our purpose in that place.
“We’ll draw them out, face them on the road,” I said with a frown, already calculating all the things that could go wrong. “In the forest, there’s too much interference. I don’t want to chance hitting you.”
You nodded tightly and turned to me, your dear face hungry for the fight to come. Then you opened your mouth:
With an understanding that comes from sacrifice
Sisters Jassan and Kalira well know the price
Made on the throw of a dice.
Its screams scatter the birds roosting in the tree limbs overhead as I cock my crossbow. My next bolt flies into its torso before it finds me in the underbrush.
My first bolt punches into the lindworm’s underbelly. Not so rusty, Sister Avera.
Its screams scatter the birds roosting in the tree limbs overhead as I cock my crossbow. My next bolt flies into its torso before it finds me in the underbrush. A single swipe of its foreleg, claws extended, knocks aside a young tree, sending it thrashing down to the ground.
I’m already moving, getting off two more bolts before the creature slithers after me, looking like a reptilian hunting cat from the waist up. When I first spied the enormous lindworm’s foul den amongst tree roots, human bones, and a mix of soil and its own excrement, I realized I never expected to find what I was looking for in Harnsey’s woods. Or perhaps more precisely I didn’t particularly care either way. I only wanted to do something to clear my mind of my Sisters’ judgment, my heart of your absence. To determine whether or not I’m capable of feeling anything again that’s not mired in loss or bitterness.
Crashing through the underbrush, my training comes back to me from where it’s lain dormant these long months apart. Each of your stanzas propels me forward, creating a large enough lead I can bury three more bolts into its chest, my arms flexing with the strain of recocking the crossbow each time. The blood dripping from the lindworm’s sides, the quickening of a fight… A language more immediate than those found in your stanzas or my reports. I’ve missed it so. But you know that, your song my lament.
I wrench my left ankle on tree roots, bark my knees in a mad scramble up a stone embankment. Run headlong into brambles, their thorny reach determined to foul up my crossbow. My bolts run low, along with the clearance to use them.
My lead bleeds away. The lindworm swipes at my cloak, jerking me back before its claws tear through the material. I’m still free, but it won’t last. Nothing does—how well I know that now.
Maybe I am no longer fit for the fight. Sister Avera’s disdain wasn’t misplaced because I would rather die here—a product of my foolishness and folly—if it means I’ll be reunited with you.
The next strike sends me tumbling, my crossbow knocked out of my hands, numbing pain shooting up my right forearm at the impact. I swipe leaf litter out of my eyes, draw the dagger I keep in my boot. A last resort. But I didn’t earn my white hair for nothing.
The lindworm bares its fangs. I wait for its strike, dart left, then whirl back, my dagger seeking its throat. If the creature’s teeth and claws find me before the dagger finds its mark, I tell myself at least I’ll no longer be alone.
My bolt felled the crocutta snarling in front of me before it could lunge. “That’s the last of them.” It collapsed with a pitiful whine, the rest of the pack scattered and dying. I pushed myself into motion, gathering up my bolts where they’d flown, deep in gristle, blood, and bone, as well as the ground or the occasional tree trunk.
If there were more of them, we’d be ready, no matter how much my arms shook from the exertion from so many shots, from such an unexpected battle, no matter our training.
I wasn’t paying attention to you. You’d be scraping your blade off in the grass, wiping it clean with an oiled rag before sheathing it. Perhaps even writing down a few observations or snatches of rhyme in that journal you always had hidden away in the pocket of your cloak. That’s what happened after every encounter. I let my mind fill in the blanks as I wrestled a bolt from the still-warm chest of a crocutta, its black tongue lolling out between its grinning teeth.
“Kalira…” you said in a pained voice.
I turned and saw you as you were, not how I assumed, pale with blood loss, a puzzled look on your face as you fell to your knees. I didn’t understand what was wrong, then I saw the gash across your upper thigh, so deep we both knew what that meant in an instant that felt like forever as I rushed over, gathered you in my arms, and laid you down on the road, your lifeblood painting a starburst around us. “No, no, no.”
“I’m sorry,” you told me as I pressed down on your thigh as if my hands could stop the slippery warmth from escaping.
“What? I should have been faster. I—”
“No, Kalira. This wasn’t your fault.” You struggled against tears, against the certainty of death, as you looked up at me, begging without words to make it easier to let go. But I wouldn’t, not ever, not without a fight.
“You said ours was a story without an ending. I need you here to help me finish it, Jassan. I can’t do it without you.”
You coughed, gripped my hand, and said with the barest hint of a smile, “Now you’ll finally have your peace and quiet.”
“Quiet perhaps, but never peace,” I replied, but you were already gone.
It’s the pain that tells me I haven’t passed on into the next realm where we’ll be reunited. Some of my Sisters don’t believe in such things, but I do. I don’t know how I’d spend my days if I didn’t, not with you gone.
Scattered images and impressions follow. Wet heat saturating my robes, the tree branches waving farewell overhead, inexplicably Elzanne’s disapproving stare, and a male villager shouting and whispering, sometimes both at once, as I drift in and out of awareness. Visions too sensible for hallucinations, too disappointing for the afterlife.
I must remain tethered to this world a bit longer, I’m afraid.
“Sister Kalira, foolish woman, are you with us still?” Sister Elzanne, most assuredly.
“You found me?” I ask in a harsh voice. A wagon of some kind groans underneath me.
“You’re lucky Sister Avera left behind one of her daggers else—”
“Luck?” I repeat the word, hoping for it to make sense. “Luck, made on the throw of a dice.”
“Is she singing again?” someone else whispers. “Perhaps we gave her too much pain medicine.”
No. There’s no medicine that can treat what pains me.
When I wake again, I’m back in Harnsey’s inn, bruised all over with my right arm splinted and bandaged, a foul-smelling poultice secured against my side.
Someone stirs in my periphery, and Sister Avera approaches my bed.
“How…?” I make a weak gesture to my injuries, surprised at how much energy it takes.
“The villagers saw you return to the fields. When Elzanne and I heard, well, we couldn’t let a mere scribe show us up in our sacred duty.”
“She’s no mere scribe. You saw the lindworm she slew, half over the size of the one we fought together,” Elzanne says sharply as she joins us.
Sister Avera nods, chastened. “A poor attempt at humor. Your pardon, Sister Kalira.”
So I’m a Sister to her now. I suppose that is something. The rest…
“We’ve done as the Order instructed in seeing to your injuries. A villager has offered to take you to Darvet to continue your care as thanks for your service here.” She gives me a sad but genuine smile. “I’m sorry we cannot linger.”
“No need to explain, Sister.” They’re probably already late traveling to their next assignment and the people who need their protection.
She waves Sister Avera out of the room. Before Sister Elzanne shuts the door behind her, she turns back to me. “I now know why you sing, Sister Kalira. While you were unconscious…” She shakes her head. “Just don’t let grief dull your blade.”
I arch my brow. “My bolts fly true.”
Sister Elzanne gives me a sharp nod. “So they do, Sister. So they do.”
My simple rhymes can never replace you
But I’ve learned one thing is still true
With whipcord waxed, my bolts sharpened
Wits no longer dulled despite a heart still broken
I can fight without it feeling like betrayal
So I’ll sing and remember our story and hope I do justice to the fable
And my friend, no matter how painful
So we can go on forever
Not a fitting tribute, but the best I am capable