Grienne The Lost by Bryan Lincoln
The first rays of sunlight pierced the boxy central room of her cramped wooden home as Siscera gathered water and grain for the morning meal. She could hear a familiar pair of whispers emanating from the next room.
She smiled and hummed as she gathered worn spoons and bowls. “Grienne! Come help your mother mix the porridge!”
The young girl, not long past her eighth birthday, arrived at a sprint.
“Measure with this, dear.”
Her daughter was soon followed by the deeper of the two whispers, a thin man with sharp features. Lestavian was Grienne’s teacher, a luxury normally reserved for the children of nobles. They had been conversing since long before daybreak.
“A pleasant morning, Siscera,” he said with the practiced, formal voice of a tradesman or senator, as if he had not crawled from her bed mere hours before.
“Thank you, Lestavian. Has Grienne behaved this morning?”
“As always. Such a wondrous creature. If only my peers shared her passion for knowledge, we might be free of our endless wars.”
Siscera frowned. If there were no wars, her husband would not earn a wage. Kallick would be home, and Lestavian would not be welcome. And were he not a part of their home, Grienne would not be learning to read and write.
“Why the frightful look, my lovely?”
“Grienne, go fetch some salt from the stores. Just a pinch, mind you.”
Lestavian lifted the salt-bowl that sat by Siscera and peered inside as the girl left the room. He raised a curious eyebrow.
Siscera spoke in a rushed whisper. “I worry my husband will discover you, yet you surprise me with thoughts of him by mentioning the Legions.”
“I was speaking only of war in general. You need not worry. Sure they are overdue, but if the legion returns to the city, their arrival will be trumpeted loud enough for the gods to hear it.”
“You presume victory.”
Grienne returned with a sprinkle of salt across her palm, held as if it were a nest of precious stones.
“Thank you, Grienne. Put it in this bowl, please. Good. Can you stir it for me?”
Lestavian raised a hand in a gesture of excited remembrance and left the room. Siscera smiled at his energy, which she found she preferred over the raw power of her husband.
“That’s enough mixing, dear. We need to heat it now.” She knelt and lit the small fire-pit with a worn flint. An unexpected sneeze threw soot over her thin, white nightshirt.
Siscera’s attempts to brush it off only dirtied herself further.
“You look like the dead man,” Grienne said, still smiling.
Siscera had no idea what that meant. Such an imaginative child, Grienne often spoke words that must only make sense laid alongside her thoughts, which were ever a mystery.
Lestavian returned with an unopened sack she remembered him arriving with the night before. It was red, fringed with with light blue lace, the two colors of his house. He peeled the covering back and revealed a dark mound.
“Sweetbread!” exclaimed Siscera. Grienne clapped as she jumped in place. “You are too kind to us.”
Lestavian waved off his bowl of porridge, as he always did. Grienne toyed with her spoon.
A ringing of bells emerged to batter the calm morning. Siscera’s eyes went to Lestavian in a panic. Trumpets sounded. “The Legion!”
“It appears as though our words were ominous. Relax, my pet. We still have a few moments.” He began to gather his books in a calm circuit around the simple home. Grienne’s eyes followed him everywhere.
“Do not forget to practice your lessons today,” he said to the girl. “And remember the other thing we talked about. He placed a small crown woven from grasses onto her head. Grienne beamed.
“I’m the Queen!”
With a smile, and a pinch for Siscera when Grienne wasn’t looking, Lestavian left them.
“Eat your porridge,” Siscera instructed. “We will save the sweetbread as a special treat for later.”
Grienne ate the hot mixture tentatively as she eyed the bread. Siscera frowned over her bony frame.
“What was ‘the other thing’ you talked about?”
“Lestavian said ‘remember the other thing.’”
“I’m not supposed to say.”
“The rule is not to talk about your learning with your father. You can tell me, remember?”
“We talked about the dead man.”
Siscera’s heart skipped a beat. “Who is dead?”
Siscera shook her head and mumbled to herself. “You are too young to worry about dead things. I will have to talk with Lestavian about that.”
Grienne put down her empty bowl and wandered back to her tiny room.
Siscera cleaned up as she waited for her husband to return. Normally, she would leave for her work, a day spent making tunics and saddles and other things until the sky darkened, but with the Legion returned she was expected to be home to greet her husband.
Yet she was not in the least surprised when much of the day passed without any sign of him. She used to worry, back when Grienne was born, whether he would be among those who survived. After so many years she no longer doubted where he was, visiting an alehouse in celebration of his return to the city.
True to form, he arrived home in the late afternoon, reeking of beer, wine, and human sweat.
“I’m the Queen!” Grienne announced to her father.
Kallick’s glazed eyes looked to his daughter. He swayed as he spoke. “Temper that imagination, child. You will become lost.”
Siscera helped him to sit. “What news of the North?”
“Bold as ever, those white faces, but our border holds.” He spotted the sweetbread and tore into it. Siscera saw Grienne’s eyes grow wide and dart to the floor, her lip quivering.
Kallick spoke through heavy chewing. “There was this one morning where we surprised a sleeping convoy. First to rise, last to die, as they say. We got some good weapons out of it. Some fresh meat, too. A rare feast for the Legion, that far out.” He put the last of the bread into his mouth and smiled at the memory. His eyes closed, Siscera wondered for a moment if he was asleep.
Kallick shoved his chair back. “But it is good to be home, back in the city once more.” He rose and stumbled into the bedroom, collapsing into his blankets. Siscera knew she must follow, and rustled Grienne into her own bed.
“First to rise, last to die,” Grienne said as she closed her little eyes.
Siscera lay next to her already snoring husband and found she could not keep her heart from racing. Having lost measure of the passing time, she heard motion in the next room. She suppressed the urge to rise and scold the girl for milling about in the middle of the night after she had already lost her special treat that day. Siscera should have given her the sweetbread the moment the Legion’s trumpets had blared. She lay her head on her husband’s hard, heaving stomach, and fell asleep thinking of Lestavian.
She imagined his touch, his smile, his whispering. She thought of dead men, of why one would mutter about them with a small child in the pre-dawn darkness. The crown had been a nice gesture. Grienne was a queen. But of what, exactly? An imaginary land? Queen of the Legions? Queen of the dead? That thought startled her awake, and Siscera sat upright.
Silence. Siscera pulled herself away from her husband’s snoring form and lit a candle. She sneaked from the room and found the rest of the house empty.
“Grienne?” she hissed, afraid of waking Kallick She looked to the table. The grass crown was gone.
The whispering. The knowing glances. “Lestavian, what have you done?”
A moment of indecision, then. Should she wake her husband and risk his fury or sneak away like a coward? Siscera took a moment to consider her thin nightclothes, and the noise it would make to change them, then slunk out into the city.
Lestavian was wealthy and scholarly, and so lived just inland of the docks, where all of the privileged resided. It was as if, despite ruling the land, the nobility desired to be in sight of the vast ocean to affirm that there was a place teeming with serpents and leviathans that would ever exist beyond their reach.
Siscera feared the shadows as she walked stone roads as quickly as she could. She had no way of knowing if Grienne had come this way. She hoped her instincts were right. She regretted not changing into more suitable clothes.
The wealthy quarter was well lit at night, the job of an army of slow-burning torches. Siscera was certain she would look like a wandering wraith to any who might peer out of a window. Lestavian dwelt in an estate adjacent to the most famous library in the city. Siscera pounded at his door, nearly in tears. There was a long, excruciating silence, and then a door-bolt slid open.
She pressed into the doorway before Lestavian could slam it in her face. “Where is she?”
“Grienne! Where is she?”
“Is she lost?” asked Lestavian as he reluctantly let her in. The receiving room was spacious and dimly lit, with a table arrayed with food against one wall, and a small fountain, decorated with small torches, against another.
“Don’t play games with me. Grienne left. I know you had something to do with it. Where is she?”
Lestavian considered her for a long moment, then let out a breath and gestured for her to sit. “I did not expect you so soon.”
“If I have to ask you again…”
“She is gone, Siscera. She left of her own free will.”
“Free will? She is just a child!”
His stare was hard, his lip turned down. She had never seen him like this. How had she never realized how ugly he was? “She is smarter than you are. She can read and write. Valuable skills these days, especially for a child. You did not deserve her.”
Siscera slapped Lestavian and then spat on the ground. “You pompous snake. Tell me where she is!”
Lestavian walked to the table. It was arrayed mostly with meats and cheeses. “Are you hungry, Siscera?”
“Are you mad? You aim to temp me from thoughts of my only child?”
“Tempt you? This food is not -for- you. I am simply making my point. You are a no-one, woman. You will never rise above that. Grienne is different. She was allowed to eat from this table this very night. She will live a happy life, well fed and well respected.”
“I am a no-one? You were in my bed this very morning!” Siscera rushed Lestavian, knocking him back. He tripped on his robes and fell. She climbed atop him, her face close to his, her hips pressed to his belly, her hand reaching back to clutch his manhood. She would squeeze the information out of him if she must. “Where is…”
The door burst open and Kallick strode into the room, Legionnaire sword drawn and chest heaving. “I knew it.” He waved the red and blue cloth that had held the sweetbread before letting it drop to the floor. “You left something in my home, Lestavian.”
Siscera leaped up and ran to him. “It is not how it looks!”
“Of course it is,” said Kallick, hollow and firm.
“He stole Grienne!”
The Legionnaire lifted the scholar by his robes. “You steal my wife AND my child? Are you daft?”
“I gave her a real life,” said Lestavian. “It was a gift.”
Siscera went to the table. Behind a carving knife, which she allowed her hand to linger on for a thoughtful moment, she found a small leather sack. She teased it open while she listened to Lestavian begging for his life, warning them that the city watch would have heard them and would punish murder without mercy.
Siscera poured the coins onto the floor. “He sold her.”
“To who?” demanded Kallick as he pushed Lestavian against the wall. “Another noble? Northern barbarians? My child is not to be a slave. She is a citizen.”
The sword pressing into him, Lestavian shook his head slowly. “It is forbidden to speak of them.”
Kallick considered him for a moment, then buried the blade into the scholar’s gut. “Arrogant thief,” he muttered. Lestavian fell to the ground in a heap.
Siscera screamed. “Now he can’t tell us where she is!”
“He never would have. Did you see the look in his eyes? He fears them too much, whoever they are. Tell me, wife, did you see Grienne on your way here?”
“Of course not. Do you mock me? I sought her as soon as I found her gone.”
“Which means she was likely taken in the other direction.” He pointed as if they were not indoors. “To the docks.”
Siscera moved for the door, but he blocked her. “You clean this up first,” he said. “If they take long enough to discover him, they won’t ever find out who did this.”
He was gone, leaving her with the dead man. As she considered the room, her breath caught at a slight movement. Lestavian lay face down, arms at his belly, blood pooled around him. Yet he still breathed. Siscera kicked through the scattered coins to get the knife. She returned to Lestavian and rolled him over. He moaned and blinked at her. She brandished her knife.
The slow gurgle must have been a laugh. “What? Are you threatening to kill me? I’m already dying, you peon!”
“Who is the dead man?” She sneered at his sudden idiot grin. “You -know- I’m not talking about you.”
Swallowing hard, Lestavian picked up one of the coins and turned it thoughtfully in his wet fingers. “They are recruiting young minds. They are not truly dead. They can be killed. I think they were dead once, though, and they were living people before that. Someone is making them.”
With a smirk, he said, “Yes. Making them. Someone across the Ocean, I think.”
“Across the…? There is only more water.”
His laugh sounded painful. “Do not believe everything you are told, Siscera.”
She scanned the room.
“What are you looking for? Grienne is not here. She is lost to you.”
“I’m looking for a place to hide your body.”
“No! You have to let the dead men find me!” His panic turned into a growl. “Kallick won’t get away with this, and neither will you.”
“Oh really? Why will anyone come looking for us? I’m a no-one, remember? If you bragged about gaining my bed to your friends, they would lead the city guard straight to our home. And yes, they would even punish a Legionnaire for killing someone such as you. But they won’t, will they? You never told anyone about me, or about Grienne. We are nothing to you, to anyone.”
Lestavian groaned as he held his belly. “The dead men know who you are.”
Siscera drove the knife into his neck. Invigorated, she repeated the motion a few more times, careful not to make noise when she wanted to shout at the sky. His body spewed blood. Siscera went to the table, bloodied hands slipping on the wood of a bench as she dragged it to stand covering Lestavian’s body. Another bench, tucked between the table and the wall, had a decorative skirt over it. She pulled the red cloth with blue trim free and covered bench, body, and blood with it. She kicked the coins underneath as well, then moved a few decorative vases from the table to the new wall display. The room looked orderly enough in the dim torchlight. He would be found, of course, but not right away. Servants in the late morning, perhaps.
Siscera looked down at her bloodied nightclothes. She left hurriedly, heading for the docks. This time she sought the darkest shadows of the city. She no longer feared them.
The docks stretched out before her. Their city was the trade capital of the empire. The armada of high-masted ships brought in spices, skins, and ivory, and doled out war and gold. They bobbed like a swaying, sleeping forest. It was too big. Grienne could be anywhere.
To her great relief, she heard a distant yell calling out her daughter’s name. It was Kallick. ”Where are you?” she screamed. Another yell, wailing and sorrowful. It was coming from the water. Siscera ran the length of the nearest pier, a jagged string of black boards, moist and patched with soft green-glowing moss. At the end of it she called again. “Kallick!”
He was far from the pier’s edge, but he had heard her. He was waving at her in the early dawn light, a small shadow on black water. “Don’t come in, wife! There are sharks here!”
She looked down at her blood-covered nightclothes. “Where is Grienne?” she yelled back to him. He pointed out in the direction he was swimming. Siscera blinked away the sea-mist in her eyes and saw a feint blue glow skimming the surface of the water. It was a small boat. Several figures moved within the light, undulating. They were rowing out to sea and away from Kallick.
“Father?” Grienne’s soft voice echoed faintly, full of surprise.
“Grienne!” Siscera dove into the water and headed for her husband. Her arms burned as she swam as hard as she could. Her splashing buried the sound of her husband’s calls, but her daughter’s voice carried clean through the sea air.
“Go away, father. I’m the Queen, now. The Dead Man is my friend. He gives me food. Good food, just for me. His friends do, too. They love me, father. They won’t go away like you do.”
Siscera spit water. “Don’t believe them! They are lying to you. Grienne, we love you. Come home, child!” She had no idea if she had been heard. She swam harder, aware that she wasn’t alone in the water. Something large pushed at her leg, but she forced her terror down and kept swimming.
“Grienne,” she heard Kallick say, as if exhausted, ready for the waves to pull him down. “Grienne, please come back to us. Please…” He thrashed violently, fighting with something. Siscera neared him at long last. She could see a sleek back, then several fins breaking the surface of the water around him. Kallick fought, punching at them, but kept being pushed back. Siscera grabbed him as they came together at last and used all of her might to try to help him stay above water. If they went under, she knew it would be forever.
“Grienne,” she heard him whisper. “We will be here if you ever come back.”
Siscera put her mouth to his ear as she kicked to keep them afloat. “You will find her. You will never stop looking.”
“I can’t go where she is going,” he said.
The fins converged and Siscera recoiled from a hard push. She screamed, but Kallick covered her mouth. She fought him, but he held her tight, his weight working to pull her under the water. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes found his. They were strangely calm. She fought harder, trying to free her pinned arms. She wasn’t going to let him kill her out here, to punish her for Lestavian.
“Hold still. Don’t fight them,” he whispered. “They are not sharks.”
He released her. Once they had relaxed, the shadows in the water converged once more and they were pushed more steadily for the shore. One nose broke the surface and clicked at them before gliding away. It was a dolphin. A pier rose above them; not the same one she had leaped from, this one was newer and painted white. The other dolphins broke off, slapped the water, and disappeared. Siscera and Kallick floated in helpless, stunned silence.
“Grienne,” said Siscera finally, as if in a trance.
“Grienne is lost,” said Kallick.
“The dead men took her. We have to get her back from them.”
“They are not dead,” said Kallick through heavy breaths. “I fought one. They are not dead. Their eyes are full of life. They are…confident. Aware. Loyal.”
“Where are they taking her?”
He pointed. “Out to sea? Beyond our reach. I am sorry, Siscera. I am a Legionnaire, not a god. I am only a man. I cannot even afford to hire a boat to go after them. I cannot make things right.”
Siscera thought of the coins, the blood money used to purchase Grienne. If she went back and got them, they could buy a damned boat. But if she were caught, they would both die for the murder of Lestavian.
They climbed the white ladder never taking their eyes from the shrinking boat that held their daughter. Early risers arriving to the docks gave them a wide berth. They couldn’t call to the city guard for help while covered in the blood of a nobleman. They needed to disappear back into anonymity. Siscera shivered in the ocean breeze. She cried. Kallick put her head to his shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said to him. “This is my fault. I wanted her to be able to learn things. I gave myself to Lestavian so she could be better than us, and he took her away. You must hate me.”
Kallick swallowed, and spoke more directly to her than he ever had before. “You are brave, wife. My anger died when you dove into the water and swam to me.”
“I love you, Grienne,” whispered Siscera.
She and her husband looked out over the water as a massive dark mound swelled up and swallowed the small blue glow that had escaped them.