Twenty-Seven Images of Retribution


 
I.

You don't recognize your father in the broken body hanging on the city wall. Ravens have devoured the eyes and most of the soft tissue from the face. The hair is the right color, what's left of it, but dark hair could belong to anyone, even to one of the invaders. Even to you.

II.

The girl's polecat is eating a mouse. He rips out the belly flesh and innards first, then chews on the tiny rodent's head. He makes a low growl in his throat when he notices you staring.

"Meem is shy," the pigtailed girl tells you. "He doesn't like strangers."

Foul is what Meem is. His scent lingers under the boughs of the oak trees, even when he's sleeping in his burrow in the stream bank below or hunting. You've watched him rub his hindquarters over the gnarled roots, growling.

III.

"I came here to avenge my father."

The old wizard's gray eyes watch you over the rim of his cup.

"I was going to break into the governor's palace and kill him in his sleep. Then take down as many soldiers as I could before they disarmed me."

He takes a loud sip, those eyes still fixed on you. Is he using magic to make you talk? It feels better to imagine that he is, that the stream of words is spilling from your lips through some unnatural cause. Not because you're starving to be heard. 

"I didn't think about how many guards there would be."

IV.

"A good ruler knows what his people want," your mother used to lecture you, when you were a small boy. "Not just those closest to him, or the ones he likes best, but everyone who depends on him for protection. He might not always do what the people want, but if he doesn't, he had better have a good reason. He's ruling because they let him rule."

You would nod, trying to listen and understand. What you wanted was for your mother to hug and kiss you like the other mothers did with their sons. You knew she must have a good reason for not doing so.

V.

None of the guards at the city gate try to stop you as you walk under the stone archway among the morning market crowd. No one notices a resemblance to the disfigured rebel hanging on the wall outside. You wonder if you should thank the ravens.

You walk along a road wider than most you've seen even between cities, flat stones under your feet. Through the marketplace, past carts and wheelbarrows of vegetables and eggs. Temples watch over the business of buying and selling, temples to your god and to those of the invaders.

The inner wall surrounding the governor's palace rises to twice your own height, and no one unknown to the guards at the entrance is allowed through. Neither wall nor guards ever stopped your father and his men, but your father did not come alone, as you have. 

You knew there would be guards, and no chance of walking back out of the city after avenging your father's death. What you realize only now, feeling the weight of the grappling hook in the bag at your side, is that you are not ready to die.

VI.

Your father took you on your first raid when you were thirteen. You had a sword, scaled down to fit your hand, but your father's men huddled around you like hens around their chicks. They couldn't shelter you from the sight of blood, though, or keep you from hearing the groans of the enemy soldiers they felled. You thought they would laugh at you, after it was over, when you leaned against a tree and threw up everything you had eaten that day. But no one did. Your father clapped a rough hand on your shoulder and said, "It's all right, lad. It gets easier."

I don't want it to get easier, you thought, eyes screwed shut. But you didn't dare say it out loud.

VII.

The old wizard and the pigtailed girl live in a large cave hollowed into the side of a hill, in the forest outside the city. The wizard takes you in after you fail to avenge your father. You do not ask why.

The girl is of your own people. The wizard is not, nor does he belong to the invaders. He is of an old race, one that inhabited these lands long before your ancestors walked here. You do not know why he has taken her in, either. 

Men and women come to him for help. All wrinkle their noses at the scent of polecat. The old wizard sends them away with healing potions, or takes them into his workroom for treatment. Some he leads up onto the hillside, and they sit together and talk under the shading limbs of the oaks.

Some turn away in fear at their first sight of his alien features, but fewer than you would have thought. Perhaps they knew before seeking him what to expect.

VIII.

"You don't have to be like your father," your mother would tell you. "You're my son, too. Half of you comes from me."

You used to stare at your two hands and wonder, Which half?

IX.

One evening, the old wizard opens the door to reveal an enemy soldier standing on the threshold. Your hand closes around the hilt of your knife before you realize that he has come alone and wears a sword but no armor. An instant later, you realize that your knife has frozen inside its sheath.

"What did you do to my knife?" you ask, after the wizard has treated the soldier and sent him on his way with additional potions. The knife is loose in its sheath again. You draw it out and re-sheathe it once, to be sure.

"It would do irreparable damage to my reputation for hospitality," he says, "were guests under my roof to start assaulting one another."

"He doesn't belong here," you point out. The soldier is one of the invaders. Maybe even one who helped capture your father under false assurances of a truce, then murdered him and hung him from the city wall for ravens.

The old wizard looks at you, and for a moment you feel the fear that you have seen on the faces of other guests, that you saw on the face of the young enemy soldier with the infected wound. The wizard has no more reason to feel kindly towards you than you have to feel affection towards one of the invaders.

X.

You remember the first time you felt ashamed of your father. You were twelve years old. He and his men were celebrating another assassination of an enemy governor, the second that year alone. They were drunk. Your father had a woman on his knee, a tankard in one hand and the other hand up the woman's blouse. He was laughing incoherently at another man pretending to urinate on the floor of the Great Hall.

You'd come down from your room to scrounge a late-night snack from one of the covered pots nestled in the ashes of the hearths. It probably wasn't the first time you'd encountered this tableau, but for some reason you noticed this time how tawdry it all was. The descendant of ancient kings, laughing at pissing jokes, groping his latest mistress in front of all his men, vomiting half-digested mead over thousand-year old flagstones.

You stepped back into the stairwell, but not before he noticed you standing there, called affectionately for you to come join them. "We'll make a man out of you!" he bellowed, to a chorus of uproarious laughter.

You didn't see the expression on his face when you fled back up the stairs. You like to imagine that he felt ashamed of himself.

XI.

Meem growls when you interrupt his hunting near the oak grove, growls when you pass his burrow in the stream bank, growls when the pigtailed girl is feeding him table scraps and you come too close.

But one evening you ignore him growling from the undergrowth, and sit on the bench under the oak trees anyway. He growls a bit more, then slinks out into the clearing, sleek and low to the ground. His fur is dark, and instead of the white mask markings of most polecats, the only light patch is around his muzzle and under his throat. He doesn't seem to stink as badly as he did a few days ago.

He rubs himself on one of the bench legs, but he isn't growling. Then, to your surprise, he vaults into your lap and nuzzles at your hand.

XII.

Once you asked your mother why she didn't go out on foraging expeditions with the other mothers and children of the castle. She laughed with what you would later identify as bitterness, and told you that your father was afraid she might not come back.

XIII.

The pigtailed girl has friends who come into the forest to play with her, a dark-haired boy and girl who may or may not be brother and sister. The boy looks like the invaders, though he speaks the language of your people as if born to it.

You wonder about half-breed children, and if that's really any worse than the way you were conceived, a mother held against her will by a father unable to believe that she would never love him.

XIV.

Your father's men killed the first governor in his bed, his wife lying next to him. No one talks about what happened to the wife and you suspect you don't want to know.

At a great banquet, your father had your mother brought down from her rooms to sit at his side in a gown of silk and ermine, the gold and jade crown his craftsmen had fashioned resting upon her brow. During the meal, he stood and presented her with jewelry that had belonged to the governor's wife. 

You were as shocked as anyone when your mother stood as if to thank him, then seized the nearest piece and flung it into the blazing hearth.

XV.

"What will you do next?" the old wizard asks.

You had half-considered staying here, in the south. But you have no trade to practice. All you know how to do is fight.

"My father devoted his life to winning our independence from foreign invaders." You wonder if the old wizard hears the lie in your voice. Or if he knows the truth too well to need to. Your father used to raid his own people as enthusiastically as he raided enemy forts and supply lines, until your mother shamed him into stopping. "I have to choose a path that will honor his memory."

XVI.

Your father killed six enemy governors in eight years. The seventh sent letters, offering to negotiate. 

I want you invaders out of my land or swearing allegiance to me, your father wrote back. 

I want peace between us, the governor replied. I will do whatever it takes.

When your father marched south under a truce flag, the governor's soldiers seized him and killed his men. They cut off his fingers, then his toes, cauterizing the wounds with hot iron so he wouldn't bleed to death before they were through with him. They sent the pieces north, offering to spare what was left of your father's life if the men who hadn't been slaughtered in the truce-breaking turned themselves in and handed the castle over.

You wondered what your mother would have said, had she lived to see this. 

XVII.

They found your mother's body in the courtyard, fallen from a window of her sixth-floor apartments. Your father summoned his wizard, but not even a wizard could raise the dead.

Even in death, your father refused to return her to the town from which she had been stolen. He laid her in the forest among the bones of his ancestors, her gold and jade crown bright against her raven hair.

XVIII.

The pigtailed girl and her friends chase one another with sticks, make-believe swords. You watch them reenact your father's exploits. Meem joins in with glee, throwing himself among their legs in frantic, undulating leaps.

You watch, that is, until you realize that they are acting out your father's rescue of your mother from her own evil father, said to have forbidden their love. 

Alone, deeper in the forest where you can no longer hear their childish shrieks of laughter and pretended fear, you wonder if every heroic legend you have ever heard is as false as this one.

And you wonder what you have done, leaving the north in the hands of the men who helped your father rescue a girl who didn't want him.

XIX.

Your mother's death was an accident. She leaned too far out the window on a stormy day and a gust of wind caught her and sent her tumbling to the ground six floors below.

But you know what happened the night before. You were celebrating in the Great Hall with your father's men, celebrating a successful raid on enemy troops who had been trying to re-provision their northernmost garrison. You'd drunk more than you were accustomed to, and thrown up in an old basin in the corner while your father laughed and drank to your defeat with a cup of the mead that had bested you.

You looked up, wiping your mouth with the end of a dirty sleeve, and saw your mother at the base of the stairwell leading to her apartments. She was watching you with the look of utter contempt she had always reserved for your father.

When you looked again, she was gone.

XX.

There's a mouse lying among the stones of the dry creek bed. At first you think it's dead, then you notice a faint quivering of its gray fur. When you crouch down and turn it over with a stick, you see a round, bloody hole in the back of its head.

The reek of polecat is especially strong, but it's the middle of the day and you don't see Meem anywhere.

XXI.

The second time you enter the city, you avoid the palace district. You sit on a stone bench next to a fountain and watch the women come for water. 

Most are of your own people, their hair and eyes every imaginable color, their brown or gray or blue dresses simply yet elegantly fashioned, even those that have been mended and patched and re-worked a dozen times. There are women of the invaders too, darker than your people, swathed in layer after modest layer of shapeless white woolen fabric. The foreigners chat companionably with the local women while waiting their turn at the fountain, using an awkward hybrid of their two languages, with much giggling and shrugging. Almost everyone uses the foreign terracotta water jugs.

It is the same throughout the city. You see locals buying olive oil from foreign merchants, foreigners carrying home wheels of local cheese. Not every foreigner is a soldier, though your father would have treated them as such. As will those your father leaves behind, if you fail to return.

Not all is well. You see a double row of shackled, gaunt men being marched towards the river docks by a whip-wielding overseer. There are rich men among the locals and some even own slaves, but no invaders' children have been reduced to begging in the streets. You walk past a shoemaker's shop and through the open windows you see foreign soldiers demanding an impromptu tax.

Your ancestors once ruled these lands. Perhaps the stories of their beneficent rule are no truer than the stories of your father. But it doesn't matter. You will not leave the people of this city either to a governor who sells slaves and breaks sworn truces, or to those who would judge them by where they were born and to whom.

XXII.

You had wanted to be at your father's side when he met with the governor but he refused to take you. "One of us needs to stay here and keep the men from drinking all the mead," he joked.

As he was leaving, he embraced you and said, "You'll be a better king than I was."

You remembered this, when word came.

XXIII.

"Are you going to stay here and live with us now?" the pigtailed girl asks.

You tell her no, you're going home soon.

"To your mama and papa?"

You tell her you have no mama or papa, they've both died. You tell her you have to look after yourself now.

"Oh," she says. "How old are you?"

"Sixteen," you say.

XXIV.

You felt closest to your mother in the library. She taught you to read almost as soon as you could walk, and the two of you spent many wonderful hours in the book-lined tower, reading old tomes and admiring ancient illustrations so real that you used to think they might step off the page into the room with you. Your father and his men didn't care for the library but your father was proud to have one. When one of the men was caught defacing an old book, drawing crude penises on the fragile paintings inside with a bit of charcoal from the hearth, your father had him thrown over the castle wall.

You remember a day, reading aloud to your mother from a book in the old language, now and then pointing to ask about a word you didn't understand. You were sharing a bench and you could feel the warmth of your mother's leg against yours, her arm around your shoulders. You looked up, and saw your father standing in the doorway, watching the two of you.

"Papa! Come read with us."

He shook his head. "I can hardly read the new language, never mind the old."

"It's never too late to learn," your mother said. You were surprised, because it was uncommon enough to hear your mother speak to your father, and unheard of for her to speak to him without sounding as if she wanted to throw him over the castle wall.

He shook his head again. "It's too late for me."

XXV.

"Will you visit us again?" the pigtailed girl asks. She reaches to pet Meem, who has curled up on your lap with one eye half open. 

"I might," you say. One visit won't be enough to figure out the city's weaknesses, and staying with the old wizard outside the city is safer than an inn within the walls. 

"You should," the girl says. "Meem likes you."

A moment later you say, "You know, that game you and your friends play about the rebel leader and the girl he loved is all wrong. Her father wasn't keeping her against her will. The rebel leader took her away against her will." Your throat is oddly tight as you speak these words, even though you've known the truth of them for years.

The girl is staring at you with wide blue eyes. You're not sure how old she is. Perhaps the same age as you were that day you were reading in the library with your mother, your father looking on.

XXVI.

"I'm old," your father said, a few months after your mother's death. "Not many of my ancestors have lived this long, not in recent years." He was forty-two.

"When it's your turn to rule," he said, "don't go back to the way we were. Don't go back to raiding our own people as if we were common bandits. I'd rather you gave the castle to the invaders.

"I've done things I'm not proud of," he said. "But I've tried to go down a better road, and even if I'm not very far along it, I raised a son who's starting out ahead of where I'll end up."

XXVII.

The road home is a long one, and you have nothing to carry back that you did not bring with you. Your father's sword, the sword of his ancestors, is in enemy hands. You have heard that the governor displays it as a trophy on the wall of his formal dining room. Your father's body rots on the wall of the governor's city, too foul now even for ravens.

Following your father into death would have been easier than the burden he left for you to take up. Less chance of failure, of dishonor. 

But you will take up that burden now, and lead the people your father left behind, those within the castle and those without. You will continue along the road that your father, after many mistakes and failures, started on.

The scent of polecat lingers on your clothes for days.