Tyree Campbell is a military retiree with eight novels, four novellas, and over a hundred short stories on his resumé. In addition, he writes three different superheroine series—Bombay Sapphire, Peridot, and Voyeuse. The fourth novel in his female assassin series, Nyx: Pangaea, was published earlier this spring. He also runs Alban Lake Publishing. At present he is working on several different writing projects, including an urban fantasy. His collection Quantum Women, available in print and as an eBook, contains more stories of strong and independent female protagonists.
That I might sleep…
The boulder of white feldspar in the center of the Shavrrna village square was empty of meaning. Neither pictographs nor ideographs did it bear, nor any marks or inscriptions that might serve to convey information. Not ten seasons of rain ago had I visited Shavrrna to leave my own marks. These, too, were gone.
Obliterated? If so, why? To what possible end?
Or had some dark magic swept them away. But again, why?
The sense of foreboding was a lizard scurrying up my spine, its tiny claws raking my scales. I shrugged it off. Things happen for a reason. Even dark magic does not act of its own accord, but is directed, purposeful. The erasure of the feldspar had not been a random, senseless event. Someone had willed it so.
Passing adult Shavarrsh scarcely acknowledged me with a glance, but the young gazed fixedly, their inquisitive vermilion eyes remaining on me until their parents tugged at their tails, urging them away. The season of sun had fallen upon Shavrrna in full force, tanning their wintry olive drab hides to a vivid verdant green, and all around me hung the ripe, intoxicating aroma of old cabbage. The harvest of the season’s first crops had begun, the vegetables and fruits and berries not eaten prepared for storage during the season of the chills, and after long days in the fields and over the hearths, surely the Shavarrsh still had need of quiet moments around the storystone.
I sat on the grass at the base of the feldspar, in the shade of the massive kerka, waiting, but no one stopped to hear my tales or to watch while I recorded them. A light breeze bade the fresh green leaves above speak to me, their rustling reminding me of a tale I had once told, long long ago. From a pouch at my side I withdrew a plume and a welljar of tinte and prepared to inscribe the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw onto the white face of rock worn smooth by the abrasive they had used to eradicate the earlier inscriptions. I remained alone in my task, so I thought, but when I neared the end of the parable, and began to inscribe the explicit lesson–that regardless of the damage inflicted on a flower by those of a mindless, destructive bent, a flower will bloom again the following year–I was startled to hear the tiny, plaintive voice behind me.
“Why are you smearing paint onto that stone?”
I turned around, almost spilling the tinte. The question had been asked of me by a young female Shavarrsh, surely no more than seven or eight seasons of rain on this land. Could she not interpret the ideograms I had so carefully scriven onto the stone? Had the adults not taught her?
I started to respond, but her female parent appeared, tugging at her to draw her from my work. Voices faded as they departed in the direction of the dwellings.
“But mahr, I just want to know why she—“
“I’ve told you time and time again to stay away from…”
It occurred to me, hearing these fragments, that there is nothing so desolate as a storyteller without an audience, nor so plaintive as a tale which reaches no other ears. I felt as if I had carried this boulder on my shoulders, from village to village, for a century of seasons. For reasons not evident, the adults in Shavrrna had stopped listening, and had neglected to teach their young that there was something to be listened to.
What could have happened here?
My stomach began to rumble.
During visits past, the Shavarrsh had brought in the middle of the day and just before dark tureens and ewers and amphora containing nourishment of which I and those gathered around me might partake. Aromas tantalized me, but nothing was brought. If I desired sustenance, I would have to rummage through the kibikopila at my side. I touched the drawstring looped over my shoulder, and thought better. Food might wait, and it is ever useful to assert control over one’s internal functions.
So I sat once more, and waited once more. The leaves above continued to sing. In a sea of movement, of living, I was alone. I recalled some lines lilted to me by my own mahr, further back in years than I cared to remember:
Be not alarmed when troubles come
And you find that I am alone
Please only rock me quietly
That I might sleep until this passes
With another color of tinte I began to inscribe this fragment onto the feldspar. From behind, someone approached. I could hear the blades of grass double and snap under their weight, and feel the vibrations of their footfalls. Finished, I put away the tools of my life, and turned around, my heart beginning to skip like a child on the first day of the season of sun.
Seeing the two adult males, my heart thudded into the pit of my first stomach. Already I knew that nothing good could come of this.
The closest one said, “You are being detained. Come with us. Do not resist.”
Armed with only a kibikopila of dried fruit and vegetable matter and some scrivener’s tools, I had scant means of resistance. At least, I thought, as they led me away, I might in time learn the facts as they pertained to the erasure of the storystone.
* * *
But they told me nothing helpful. Thrust into a dank cavern in the north face of a limestone cliff, and secured within by a portcullis whose counterweight was a boulder of approximately my size, I was reduced to simple meditations upon the tales I told and to waiting for someone to explain the need for my incarceration. The orientation of the entrance denied me direct sunlight in which I might warm myself for the coming cool night, but I found that, late in the day, I might capture the energy I needed in a sliver of light from the west.
Unfortunately, that spot had already been taken.
Her name, she said, was Mashrrv, and she had been in this cell since the onset of the season of chills–a circumstance which moved me to allow her first turn in the warmth, what there was of it. I did not think her so old, but after a speculative tilting of her head, an appraisal of eyes pale yellow in this dim light, she concluded that she remembered me.
“I was but a nestling at the time, Storyteller,” she told me, “only recently come from the egg, clumsy and without guile. My mahr brought me to the storystone the night before your arrival, to await your coming. There were fresh berries from the mountain shrubs, and tubers from the soil moistened by the last of the seasonal rains, and much gaiety. We had gathered in circles, the shorter of stature in front the better so as to see and hear you…and oh, as the disk of light arose from the horizon you came, on foot, as if you had just emerged from that disk. Did you intend that effect, I wonder? I’ve always wondered that.”
“It is customary for the storyteller to approach from the east at the birth of the day,” I said. “I do not know the origin or purpose of the custom.”
“You are the only storyteller I have ever seen,” said Mashrrv. “No others have come after you.”
I could scarcely credit the sounds which reached my timpana. “Oh, surely not! What about Glembethth? And Orrthag? And I know Ffazgl spent a full season of sun in this region.”
Mashrrv’s tailtip fluttered in distress. “None of them, Storyteller, oh, none know I. Nor have I heard these names. None has visited since you.”
“And why have they placed you in here, Mashrrv?”
Her green skin paled to chartreuse, and she averted her eyes. Again her tailtip tattooed the dirt. “I invoked the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw to demonstrate the futility of fighting,” she confided.
I wondered whether we were being overheard. Though I saw not so much as a shadow outside, I began to suspect as much when Mashrrv led me to the cool rear of the cavern, and I kept my voice low. “Which fighting is this you speak of?”
“Many villages have we fought, Storyteller, in these few seasons. Urtha’s Ford at the great bend of the Savernon. And as far away as Windscape, at the edge of the great Cornukibi plains. Even tiny Uthrrvna at the first cataract up the Savernon—“
I was unable to contain my horror. “In the name of the Light of the First Day, why?“ Mashrrv withdrew a pace; I had frightened her. I slipped my tail over and under hers, reassuring with coils. “Forgive me, young one. I meant no trembling.”
“No one asks why,” she replied. “No one dares. But I know why.”
“You must tell me.”
Mashrrv gave me a sidelong, upward glance. Now her eyes were darker than the tartfruit which flourishes along the banks of the Savernon. Her voice dropped. “It is said that at Urtha’s Ford it is possible to impede the flow of water. It is said that the Urthash could do this.” And she cast her eyes about furtively, fearing ears in the limestone.
“It is said?”
“It is what is heard.”
Scant light of day remained. In our sliver of warmth our shadows had lengthened to the east wall of the cavern, and now they were dying, as was the day. I felt a chill, but there was nothing to be done about it. Mashrrv trudged to the west wall and curled into a ball there, to preserve what warmth she might until indirect light of the next sun roused her. I might have followed her example, for surely she knew the caveways.
But she knew the caveways. She had accepted her incarceration. This I could not do, for two reasons. First, to accept my circumstance without question gave my imprisoners sanction, for I would then have been placed here by my own permission. And second…
Second came my duty as a Storyteller. I had now an audience–a captive one, true, but an audience nevertheless.
On most rock the dark colors of tinte show best. With light, they would show on the limestone. But light and warmth were denied me. I selected a broad plume and a fresh welljar of tinte and a vial of pulverized vozvor, a difficult substance to work with because it will burn through scales on contact. Carefully I tapped three measures of vozvor into the tinte, capped it tightly, and shook it quickly. In the confined space, and without sufficient air, the burning soon ceased. The welljar felt warm in my hand.
In the now-almost-dark I cautiously approached the back wall of the cavern, and began to inscribe my tale. Alive with vozvor, the pictographs and ideographs glowed, and gave me just enough illumination to finish my task.
* * *
At the next light Mashrrv clapped her hands together and crowed, at first in pleasure, then in dismay. “They will see it,” she cried, with furtive glances over her shoulder. “You must remove it. Quickly!”
I began putting away the tools of my craft. “No such thing will I do.”
She continued to fret. “For this defiance they will not feed us.”
“And should we dwindle our days here, eating?” But my presumption was improper: alone, I might protest in my manner, accepting consequences. But Mashrrv had neither been informed of my choices, nor had she acquiesced in them.
“Forgive me,” I said, and prepared an erasive solution which reeked faintly in the cave.
Her hand on mine stayed me. “Perhaps you are correct, Storyteller. The village would speak with one voice, muting ours in here. About that, we can do nothing. But we need not be silent for our own sakes. Leave the story, please.”
I led Mashrrv toward the opening of the cave, there to absorb as much warmth as possible. When we were comfortable, I said, “Tell me of your sight of the parable. How came you to be here for it?”
Mashrrv flicked her tongue, uncomfortable with our possible proximity to the ears of others. I nuzzled her with my nose, a reminder that our voices would not be stilled. “The interpretation upon which I drew is standard,” she said slowly, thinking her way through it. “Destroying the flower over and over again will not diminish it, for it returns each season. Accommodation, with the flower here and you there, allows both to thrive.”
“Such a lesson we impart to the young.”
“But it was said the parable warns that we cannot defeat our enemies,” she continued. “In this, it opposed the wishes of our village.”
“Of the leaders of the village.”
“But if the young do not learn of the storyways, how will the leaders themselves grow differently?” Her tail thumped against the wall of the cave, and she made a gurgling sound of mirth. “So I asked them if they were at war with flowers,” she said. “And after some consternation, they confined me within. Storyteller…I’m hungry.”
I shared my morsels with Mashrrv, while the light brightened, and faded, and died. We drew what warmth we could, and curled up together, still hungry. Our captors had seen the glowing inscription on the wall, perhaps, and had condemned us to silence, condemning our words as well. I touched my hand to Mashrrv’s neck and felt the life coursing, but slower than it should have coursed. The strength of her voice had concealed her true weakness. Deprived of warmth, of light, and now of food, she was falling into that ultimate torpidity. Long ago our ancestors had survived the seasons of chills through such torpor, but they had done so on bodies filled with nutrients in preparation for that deep slumber. For us, our hunger remained, the ache of stone on raw bone.
She would not awaken, come the next light.
* * *
Two lights have passed and Mashrrv remains still, her life coursing so feebly that this time I scarcely could find it. When I touched her neck, I thought to hear a sound from her, but perhaps it was the settling of the stone around us, no more.
And so I resumed my task. Tinte remains, and ought be used. I have inscribed on these walls the Tale of Mashrrv and the Storyteller, the lines of words coming to a close on the wall above where I sit holding Mashrrv, sharing with her what little warmth remains. Presently my hand will move, and inscribe a final word, and will then fall to my side as I curl around her and sigh the very last of my words with the very last of my strength. One day, perhaps, the Tale will be found, and perhaps read, so that the readers will know that we clung to our ways and our truth—and perhaps the power of our truth will give them strength in their own times of troubles…for leaders cannot lead when no one will follow.
“Oh, Mashrrv,” I will whisper, and, gently rocking her, lay my face across her body, and bring my last story to an end.