The Cycle of the Sun
When Narem's turn to make his petition came, a myriad of winter solstice offerings already covered the altar: fruits and cakes, jewels and coins, shafts of wheat and vials of wine. A glance behind him, and Narem's stomach knotted. The line of petitioners now stretched beyond the enclosed holy alcove, past the priests who stoked the holy fires and into the temple proper, where the music and chatter of the solstice celebration took on a wild air. Would the goddess be able to answer his prayer when so many others demanded her attention?
One of the priests, wrapped from head to foot in a purple cloak, looked up from the fire pit he was tending, and his face twisted with a chastising scowl. "Neither man nor god has time for your dawdling, boy."
Narem snapped his attention back to the altar, cheeks burning. A statue of Ereden, goddess of the sun and renewal, knelt amid the altar's offerings, her sun-crowned head tilted toward the sky, one side of her body pocked and wrinkled, the other youthful and smooth.
"Great Ereden," Narem said, beginning the prayer he had practiced countless times over, "on this eve of the sun's rebirth, from which the days will once again lengthen, bestow upon my mother the protection she once granted to me. As the sun renews each day and each year, so let her health renew with the new day, with the start of the sun's new cycle."
Narem held up his offering: a clay pendant with a lock of his mother's hair embedded within. "For your protection," she had said when giving it to him just before his eighteenth birthday, "from witches and curses and whatever else shrinks from the light." Narem remembered how full of vibrancy and laughter she had seemed that day, and how quickly after her sickness had taken hold. Gift or not, what good was his charm when his mother was the one who needed protection?
Narem laid the pendant on the altar. "Accept this offering, great goddess, in exchange for the aid I seek." A chill shot through him, so biting that he almost snatched the pendant back. But the cold soon subsided, and Narem shook his head, silently chiding himself for such a selfish instinct.
He hurried from the alcove, head bowed, at first to avoid the gaze of the priest who had scolded him, then in a vain attempt to avoid the sights of the temple proper. The domed expanse was filled with people coupling in the open, drunkards vomiting behind marble pillars, and yet others gorging themselves on the roasted meats and sugar-glazed fruits that lined the feast tables. Narem's parents had insisted that he join his friends at the festival and enjoy himself for once, that they could manage one night at home without him, but his mother had looked weaker than ever when she woke that morning--eyes sunken and skin yellow, so thin that Narem could count every bone.
No, he thought, weaving his way through a mass of writhing, half-dressed revelers, toward the arched doorway that would lead him outside and into the city forum. He would take the shortcut through the olive grove and head home.
A man stumbled into his path, wine sloshing over the sides of his goblet. Narem darted out of his way only to collide with a woman instead.
"I'm sorry," Narem said, starting past her. "I didn't mean to--"
The woman touched his arm, and Narem froze. His thoughts clouded, as if from too much drink, and the chill he had felt in the alcove returned.
"Is something wrong?" the woman asked, her voice as thick as the smoke rising from the holy fires.
"I don't know. I..." Narem shivered. But as the woman's hand fell away from his arm, the chill faded and his head cleared. "I mean... no, I'm fine."
"You don't sound so certain."
"I should go," Narem said, though he suddenly found it impossible to do anything but stare at the woman. Her fair complexion marked her as a foreigner like his parents, perhaps only a few years beyond his eighteen. Blonde ringlets fell over one shoulder, and from there Narem's gaze trailed down her arm, where the openwork seam of her sleeve obscured some sort of marking on the skin beneath.
"You should stay," she said, sauntering closer. "It's a night of celebration, after all. A time to escape our troubles and start anew with the sun."
I could stay just a while, Narem thought, though the notion felt as if it were not entirely his own, more like something that had been whispered in his ear. But his parents had told him to stay and enjoy himself. If this woman was willing to indulge him, why should he not?
"What sort of troubles are you trying to escape from?" he asked her.
"It was just before a past winter solstice when I found out my husband had been unfaithful." She smiled, and a hint of wrinkles-to-be tugged at the corners of her eyes. "I thought I could make him jealous at the festival. Make him realize how much he loved me."
"Did it work?"
She trailed one finger along Narem's neck, raising the hairs on his skin. "For a time."
"And are you still married?"
"No. Things were better for a while--at least until he discovered his lover was with child and ran away with her." She slid her hands up Narem's chest, then through his hair. "What's your name?"
"That's a good name." She pressed so close that her sweet-scented breath caressed his neck. "I'm Lynoska."
Narem's breath quickened as sounds he had been trying to ignore forced their way into his awareness--grunts and moans buried beneath laughter and music.
"How old are you?" Lynoska asked, unclasping the brooch that held his tunic in place at his shoulder. The cloth dropped down around his arm.
Narem swallowed. "Eighteen at the last harvest."
"That's when I arrived here in Corlith." Lynoska stroked his cheek. "You don't look as if you're from this far south. Too pale."
"Like you." The desire to touch her became unbearable, and Narem slid his hands up her arms, the soft fabric of her gown bunching beneath his fingers. "My parents came here from Mascarjun, just before I was born."
"Mascarjun's beautiful," Lynoska said, leaning so close that their faces touched. "What made them leave such a place behind?"
"My mother told me..."
His mother. Narem recalled how thin her voice had sounded that morning, how a rattling cough had punctuated her every word. His desire for Lynoska waned at the thought, fading until it seemed like no more than a half-remembered dream.
"I need to go," he said, but Lynoska kissed him hard on the lips. Warmth spread through him, as if she were a glass of wine pouring down his throat, washing away worries about his mother as quickly as they had returned. Narem clutched at Lynoska's arms--he couldn't seem to draw her close enough--but she broke off the kiss.
"The solstice is a night of beginnings and endings," she whispered, loosening the belt at his waist, trailing her lips along his neck. "A night when our lives renew as the sun does."
Her hands slipped beneath his tunic, and Narem arched his head back, his breath coming faster. Something in the back of his mind told him to go, but his body yielded to the more insistent urges Lynoska had stirred.
"It's time for a new cycle to begin," she said as she eased him to the floor, every motion one of sinuous grace. "For us and the sun."
Narem woke on the temple floor and breathed in a mouthful of the festival's leftover scents: urine and vomit, sweat and stale wine. He clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from retching, then scrambled to his feet, muscles aching in protest after a night spent on cold, hard marble. A crowd of slumbering revelers surrounded him, half-dressed with limbs entangled. Lynoska, though, was nowhere to be seen. Narem snatched his clothing from the floor and hastily redressed, struggling to remember exactly what had happened between them, but their tryst was a blur of pleasurable sensations and half-remembered words.
By the gods, what got into me? he thought as he hurried out of Ereden's temple and across the city forum. How could I have forgotten my mother so quickly?
He darted past the fluted pillars of the forum's western gate, past shops closed in deference to the solstice holiday, then into the olive grove, the winter frost crunching beneath his sandals. Would he find his mother better when he reached home? Or had Ereden shunned his prayer, perhaps in favor of one not so easily forgotten?
Once clear of the trees at the grove's eastern end, Narem all but tumbled down the hillside into the valley below, where white-washed homes lined dusty streets. He ran, faster and faster until he was throwing open the door of his family's small dwelling to the usual rattle of pots hanging by the fireplace.
Inside, all was still. Too still, and not quite as he had left it. Everything occupied its customary place: urns full of flour and grain in the corner, the ratty curtains that hid the sleeping area drawn, an unlit oil lamp at the center of the fireside table, beside it a basket and the short, curved blade he used for cutting grape clusters free in the vineyard. But his mother's raspy breaths were absent, his father nowhere in sight.
Narem called out to them. When he received no reply, he opened the shutters of the room's only window and peered outside. He spied his parents sitting arm-in-arm by a stream, too far away to have heard his call. Narem laughed in relief; his mother hadn't been out of bed since the start of the last harvest, when she first fell ill. A deep inhale, and he realized that the rotten, sour scent of her sickness was gone as well. Ereden had answered his prayer.
Narem leaned against the window, laughing again as he imagined their lives returning to normal--his mother well enough to care for herself, his father able to work alongside him in the vineyards once more, Narem's pay no longer needing to support them all.
The door opened, and Narem whirled away from the window. The pots jangled overhead, but more jarring was the sight of Lynoska strolling into his home as if it were her own. In the daylight, her skin looked waxen, her lips and cheeks too red, reminding Narem of the paintings his mother had once shown him of corpses prepared for burial in Mascarjun--beauty preserved, but lifeless. The door closed behind her, and Narem's nerves rattled along with the pots.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"You're not so difficult to follow." Lynoska smiled, the skin at her cheeks as thin as parchment, veins showing through. She joined Narem by the window, then drew a finger through the dust on its sill. "Your mother's been ill, hasn't she? Since the last harvest."
A chill crept over Narem's skin. Until now, he hadn't realized how dark Lynoska's eyes were, like amber glazed with shadow. "How did you know that?"
Lynoska gave a soft, throaty laugh. She reached up to stroke his cheek, and the sleeve of her gown fell back, revealing the mark on her arm that had been obscured the night before: a ram's head with a snake curled around each horn.
Narem took a step back. "You're a witch."
With another throaty laugh, Lynoska pressed close and slid her hands up his chest. "Did your parents tell you to avoid people like me?"
"Yes," Narem said, and though he knew he should heed that warning now, his body flushed with warmth, drunk on Lynoska's touch alone.
"Last night..." She brushed her hands along his face and neck. Cool air blew in through the window, but her fingers felt hot against his skin. "You never finished telling me why your parents left Mascarjun to come here."
"My father was accused of something he didn't do." The scent of Lynoska's hair filled Narem's nose, rosemary tinged with incense. His head grew so heavy that his words slurred, pouring from his mouth before he could think better of them. "I don't know, stealing a neighbor's cow or something. He doesn't like to talk about it."
"Perhaps because he truly is guilty. An innocent man would have faced his accuser and trusted the gods to mete out justice."
"No." Narem backed away, shaking his head to clear it of the cloudy feeling Lynoska's closeness inspired. "No, my father's a good man."
"A good man would not have wronged me as he did."
"What are you talking about?"
"Such a crime that he never told you the truth."
Narem backed further away, around the table, wanting something more than distance between them. To stare at Lynoska now, with her skin so pallid and her eyes so full of empty darkness, he suspected that magic was the only reason he felt any attraction at all. "I think you should leave."
"Not until I claim what is mine." Lynoska's expression hardened into a cold, hateful look, and her voice carried a bitterness that made Narem shiver. "My husband was your age when he betrayed me. He thought running away and changing his name would be enough to escape his crime--that I would not find him when his harlot's child came of age. But he couldn't seem to leave his old life behind completely. He passed his true name on to his son. Called him Narem."
Narem's body clenched with fear, so paralyzing that he made no move as Lynoska circled the table, drawing closer. With her fair complexion, she could easily be from Mascarjun, like his parents. And the night before, she said her husband had run away with another lover, one who was with child. She looked too young to have been more than a child herself when Narem was born, let alone his father's wife, but she was a witch. Could her youth be an illusion, a work of magic?
Lynoska's smile returned, cold and covetous. "Your father should have told you of my curse. We are bound now, Narem."
Narem pushed her toward the doorway. "Get out," he said, but the door swung open before they could reach it. His father stepped inside, and the scent of olive trees wafted in with him.
"Narem, who are you--" His father blanched. The door fell shut behind him, but he offered no curse at the rattling pots as he normally would have.
"Your son has your eyes," Lynoska said to him. "And a few skills you lacked, I'm pleased to say."
"No." His father's eyes grew wide, and panic seeped into his voice. "No, you're dead. I killed you."
Dead. The word struck Narem like an icy wind, biting at his skin and ripping the breath from his lungs.
"Death cannot stand in the way of the gods," Lynoska said. "Thiren will see my curse fulfilled." She took Narem by the arm. "Your son and his sons after--they are mine now."
Narem yanked his arm away. Thiren, the god of revenge--if he had lent his power to a curse, there would no breaking it. "Tell me it's not true," Narem said, looking to his father, his breath quickening with desperation. "Please, just tell me it's not true."
His father shoved Lynoska aside and positioned himself between them. "You stay away from my son."
Lynoska laughed. "You've kept me from him long enough already. Whatever you were using to protect him was strong, but not strong enough."
Narem's hand shot to his chest and clutched the spot where his mother's pendant normally would have rested. Only now, the pendant sat among the solstice offerings on Ereden's altar, protecting his mother instead of him.
She knew, he thought, stomach knotting. My mother knew about the curse.
"Your son will come with me," Lynoska said, sauntering toward the window. "And if he refuses..." She gazed outside, toward the stream where Narem's mother still sat. "I'm surprised to see you helped her out of bed. After all, it must be maddening, hearing her breaths grow thinner as she sleeps, seeing her skin become more sallow each day. I could release her from my spell, or I could make her suffer far worse than a cough, perhaps end her misery altogether. It's your son's choice."
With a rage-filled cry, Narem's father grabbed a pot from the fireside and struck Lynoska on the head, again and again while Narem watched in horror, too shocked to move, his only thought, This isn't happening. Lynoska crumpled to the floor without shout or struggle, and Narem's throat grew thick at the sight of her still form. This was the woman he had lain with only the night before, dead at his father's hands, blood smeared across her face and hair. A woman who claimed to be his father's wife. A woman who was supposed to have been dead already.
His father raised the pot to strike again, but Narem held him back. "Haven't you done enough?"
"She tried to kill your mother," his father said, breathing hard, struggling against him. "That witch tried to kill her when she was carrying you." His face twisted with a fury so violent that Narem swore this couldn't be the man who had lavished so much care on his mother, who had seldom raised a hand to him. Soon, though, the fury vanished, and his father's heavy, seething breaths broke into sobs. He dropped the pot and threw his arms around Narem, burying his face against his shoulder. "I never meant this to happen. I thought she was dead."
Narem returned the embrace with hesitation, his thoughts a whirl of confusion and betrayal. His father, the man with whom he had spent so many quiet days working in the vineyard, an adulterer and a murderer.
"She was your wife," Narem said. "How could you--"
From the floor, Lynoska laughed--a sound dripping with so much menace that Narem felt as if it were crawling up his spine. Lynoska rose with snake-like grace, as if the air were the ground on which she slithered. Her wounds closed on their own, flesh squelching, and her skin soaked up the blood like a sponge.
Narem broke from his father's embrace and grabbed his vineyard knife from the table.
"You can't kill me," Lynoska said. "And there is nowhere you can run that I will not be able to follow. We are bound by Thiren's power, Narem, and he will see my curse fulfilled."
Narem's father dropped to his knees, shoulders sagging, his face red with the shame that choked his words. "I've cursed you, boy. I've cursed you."
"And yet it's such a blessing for me," Lynoska said. She rubbed her hands over her stomach, a knowing smile on her lips. "He's going to make an excellent father."
Narem's legs threatened to buckle beneath him. He clutched the knife tighter with one hand, grasped the nearby windowsill with the other. Where before Lynoska's death-like beauty had roused his desire, it now conjured nightmarish images of a desiccated corpse rising from the soil, flesh and muscle knitting together so that it could seek him out.
"Oh, don't worry," she said. "Our son will be as human as you are. Just as handsome too, I hope."
Through the window, Narem spied his mother standing with her head tilted toward the sky, arms outstretched as if to soak up the sun, so much stronger than he had seen her in months.
Whatever you were using to protect him was strong, Lynoska had said, but not strong enough.
A faint yet undeniable sense of hope took hold of Narem's thoughts. If Lynoska didn't know what had been protecting him, then she didn't know the same power now protected his mother, or else she would have realized that her threats to harm her were empty. If Lynoska learned about the pendant, she might call upon Thiren to counter its power, but for now, his mother was safe from her magic. And if she was safe, Narem could run, lead Lynoska far from his parents, perhaps even find a way to escape her curse.
"I'll go with you," he said quickly. "Let my parents be, and I'll go with you."
"No," his father said, jumping to his feet. He clutched at Narem's arm, but Narem shook him off.
"It's my choice." Narem swallowed hard and took a step toward Lynoska. "Promise me you won't harm them."
"Of course." Lynoska cast a cold glance at his father. "And unlike some, I keep my promises."
Narem's father reached for his arm again. "Narem, please--"
"Someone needs to pay the price for what you did," Narem snapped. He nodded toward the window, toward his mother's distant figure, then added in a softer voice, "And someone needs to take care of her."
Narem rushed across the room to grab his cloak--all he had time for if he wanted to leave before his mother wondered at his father's absence and decided to head inside. And while Lynoska regarded his father with a gloating smile, Narem slipped his vineyard knife into a pouch belted at his waist. Little use against Lynoska, but if she wasn't lying about her pregnancy, if she truly carried a child as human as him...
Narem rested a hand on his father's shoulder. "Tell mother I love her," he said, then hurried out the door with Lynoska.
One way or another, he would make certain her curse ended with him.
While Narem's mind whirled in search of some way out of his situation--a reason not to use the knife he carried--Lynoska led him into a part of the city his parents had warned him to avoid. The solstice holiday had left other parts of Corlith shrouded in quiet, but here every turn brought Narem past a fistfight or a brothel where women loitered outside in their tawdry gowns, cooing at passersby. Some people scuttled past with bowed heads and their cloaks pulled tight; others hovered near alleyways, their looks as uninviting as the dark passages they guarded.
Even with so many ominous sights to command his attention, Narem's gaze always returned to Lynoska, smiling with such triumph at his side. A small, frightened voice within his head prayed that his father would come after them, that he would not be so cowardly as to let his own son suffer for his mistakes. But when Narem imagined what kind of magic Lynoska might call upon in response, perhaps a spell that would rot his father from the inside out, he shuddered, certain his father's intervention would only make matters worse. His father may have brought the curse upon them, but Narem couldn't bear the thought of his mother losing them both.
At the end of a wide alley, Lynoska opened a door carved with the same image she bore on her arm: a ram's head with a snake curled around each horn. The ram's stare was so dark and intense that Narem hurried in after Lynoska, eager to be free of those eyes before they sucked him in.
Inside, the scent of herbs struck him with dizzying intensity. Incense lingered in the air, stinging his eyes and drying his mouth. Gourds hung from the ceiling, hollowed out and filled with earthy mixtures, and bowls of crushed powder and dried animal's feet littered a table at the room's center.
Just beyond the table, a curse tablet had been nailed to the wall. Narem stepped closer to read the inscription, and dread gripped his heart. Carved into the tablet's lead sheeting was an appeal to the revenge god, Thiren--words confirming that all Lynoska had said was true, that having lain together, they would be bound until his death. Narem let out a quavering breath. For him, there would be no escape.
Lynoska turned him away from the tablet. She ran her hands through his hair, and Narem shivered in remembrance at what they had shared the night before, all the while hating himself for having taken any pleasure in it.
"You have so much more courage than your father." Lynoska unfastened his cloak, and the garment dropped to the floor. "But staying with me isn't enough. I want more than that from you, Narem. For the sake of our child, I want the husband your father was too weak to be."
Incense mingled with the rosemary scent of her hair, the effect so dizzying that Narem cupped her face between his hands, for a moment overwhelmed by desire. But anger cut through the magic--he would not play slave to a witch's twisted revenge. All he had wanted to do was protect his mother, yet now he had to leave her and everything he knew behind to pay for his father's crime.
I won't do the same. I won't let my own child become a part of this curse.
Lynoska brushed her lips against his, lightly, though the touch was searing. Narem gripped her arms and kissed her harder, skin bristling, as sickened by his arousal as he was tempted to give into it. He eased Lynoska onto the table's edge and slid one hand beneath her dress, the other into the pouch at his waist. His fingers closed around the handle of his knife.
Lynoska broke off the kiss and pulled him closer. "I've made my promise, and now I need yours. You'll stay with me as your father did not--forever."
With a trembling hand, Narem slipped the knife from its pouch. "No," he said, and drove the blade into her stomach.
Lynoska's nails dug into his back, and she bit into her lip, hard enough to draw blood. "Don't make the same mistake as your father," she said, eyes narrowing. She licked the blood from her lips and laughed, though the sound was not so bold as before. "You can't kill me."
She reached for the knife, slowly, like someone ready to snatch a bone from a hungry dog. Narem drove his knee into her stomach.
"You told me the child would be as human as I am," he said, twisting the blade in further. Nausea seized him, but he yanked the knife free, thrust it in again. "You may not die, but I suspect he will."
Lynoska clawed at him, her nails ripping through the flesh on his arms and neck until he lost his grip and staggered back. She started to pull the blade free, but Narem darted forward and grabbed her by the wrists.
"A murderer like your father," Lynoska said, teeth clenched as she struggled against his grasp. "Is that what you want to be?"
Warm blood flowed over Narem's hands, slick as sweat. I can't do it, he thought. I can't kill my own child. But with one look into Lynoska's shadowy eyes, so full of a deadness he should have seen when they first met, rage surged within him--this was the woman who had tried to kill his mother, who was using him to punish his father. Narem shoved forward, all his weight on the knife, and the blade sank in further.
Lynoska shrieked, a sound so anguished and inhuman that Narem wanted to clap his hands over his ears and run, to leave that terrible sound far behind. But he had to be certain. One more twist, then he pulled the knife free and backed away.
Lynoska lunged at Narem, but doubled over after only a step, clutching her stomach. Blood soaked her gown and dripped down her legs. "What have you done?" she said, her voice soft yet seething, a dreadful accompaniment to the squelching sound of her wounds healing.
Tears cut hot swathes down Narem's cheeks. He backed further away, sick and trembling at the sight of blood he had spilled. His own flesh and blood.
"Your curse ends with me," he said.
Narem snatched his cloak from the floor and ran out the door, giving only one thought to his destination: it would be far from Corlith, and far from his family. For by the binding of her own curse, it was only a matter of time before Lynoska would follow.