The Cold Wind Oozes
The cold wind oozed over the camp; seeping through the yellow canvas of the commanders’ tents, blowing over the common soldiers huddled for warmth around scant campfire or sleeping under makeshift shelters. The cold wind stirred the tentacle horns of the impaled Viking heads arranged in rows along the perimeter. The cold wind carried the smell of that deep sea blood, ripe and rotted, onwards to the East, beyond Yellow England. The cold wind touched everything in camp. The cold wind knows no boundaries.
Within an unmarked tent—no need to alert the Vikings’ brass periscopes to her presence–sat Mother Commander Clyfaed. She watched Brandon of Cragacre, sprawled naked and sleeping on the bed. Brandon, favoured son of one of Yellow England’s five great families, looked entirely human. The Cragacres took pride in an unadulterated bloodline. They acknowledged no Fladdermus traits in their lineage. But Brandon was young. Some traits revealed themselves later in life. In middle age it was not unknown for a Cragacre to retire to some secluded monastery. Brandon was young, so young, a virgin to the battlefield, if not to the bed. His skin was unblemished, marred by neither Viking sucker, nor scar from a Crab Man’s claw.
A letter of introduction from Duke Archibald Cragacre lay on the side table. In it, Brandon’s uncle begged Mother Commander to pay special attention to his nephew. The Duke suggested Brandon may one day make a fine leader of soldiers. The letter, written in tiny script on vellum, lay curled next to a small statue covered in near-translucent weevil silk.
The wind blew against the tent, stirring the Stranglers’ Monastery tapestries on the wall. Novices had given their eyesight and sometimes their minds to stitch these tapestries in weevil silk. They told of the coming of the High King from the celestial spheres, and the emergence of the Fladdermus from their sinkholes in the forest. To a lesser extent the tapestries told of the awakening of the others: the Viking Fish God and the Abominable Crab of the South. But above all, the tapestries told of the glorious and unrelenting breath of the High King’s mind, blowing over the Yellow Kingdom, over the constant battles with the Viking fish raiders to the East and West, and the Crab Men scuttling on the great fungal plains.
Mother Commander stretched her long fingers, flexing her age-mottled hand membrane. Brandon slept on, blissfully unaware of her scrutiny.
A whisper of cold wind entered the tent and stirred the tapestries. His breath stirred the tapestries. The cold wind knows all secrets.
Mother Commander will still be watching Brandon when he wakes. She will ask him, “Do you think I’m beautiful, Brandon?”
This simple question will make Brandon’s eyes bulge with panic. Potential leader of soldiers he may be, but he’s not overburdened with wit.
The Mother Commander is known for her appreciation of truth. But there is also the undoubted truth that no woman likes to be unbeautiful to her lover. But how could Brandon say that this old woman was beautiful? Age is not beautiful. A body honed to hardness through years of battle, skin turned cold through years prostrate before the altar stone, eyes turned opaque reading old scrolls: all these things are not beautiful.
Brandon of Cragacres will gape at the Mother Commander, rendered speechless by the lie demanded of him.
And Mother Commander will say…
And the wind dies.
* * *
A rap on the tent post outside interrupted Mother Commander’s visions of the future. This was her gift, given to her alone by the High King. The High King who turned the celestial spheres of the all-worlds, who blew through voids of future and past, whispered his visions through Mother Commander’s needle sharp mind. Such a gift should not be used for amusement. Such a gift should not be used to ask what Brandon of Cragacres will say to the Mother Commander when he wakes.
Brother-Adjunct Gwain entered the tent, showing not a flicker of interest in the naked man sleeping in the bed. Gwain was the most ascetic person Mother Commander had ever encountered, only taking lovers on the required Festival days. Ascetic, clean, efficient. Fladdermus blood ran weak in Gwain, although that was by chance rather than design. His family were serfs, like Mother Commander’s own family. In Yellow England, the common folk had married freely with the bat-like Fladdermus. Still, Gwain’s only physical peculiarity was his eyes: one blue and one green.
“Gwain, why are you here? I told you to remain at the castle. With the Queen ailing, the Five Families need to be watched.”
“I’m sorry, Mother Commander. The Queen ordered me to come here. Apparently, you’ve been ignoring her messages. She says she is dying and commands you into her presence.”
“Then she’s dying at an inconvenient time. Tomorrow’s battle might push back the Vikings beyond Wing Valley.”
Gwain helped himself to an apple from a box of sand. “The lines between the Vikings and Yellow England are a meandering stream, changing constantly over the years.” He wiped the sand from the apple and bit into the flesh.
Mother Commander glanced at the tapestries. A small panel showed a battle two centuries ago, where she’d first wet her blade on Viking blood. On that day Yellow England had shrunk. Mother Commander meant to push the Vikings back beyond Wing Valley and reclaim the land. She’d been looking forward to tasting battle again, but it did not do to tell Gwain everything. Of all Yellow Kingdom’s men and women, Gwain was the one whose future she could not read on the High King’s breath.
“This battle is important, Gwain,” she said.
“Did the High King tell you that?”
Mother Commander ignored the question. “Queen Ethelreld is old. She’s been a long time dying. What do her leeches say?”
“They say she stands at the High King’s gates. But there’s more. The Queen commands me to tell you that she’s been touched by the High King’s breath.”
“Does she indeed? And you believe her?”
“It’s known that the High King sometimes touches the dying,” said Gwain. “And they, like you, see where the wind blows.”
“It is known,” agreed the Mother Commander. “Although it is also known that dying people are subject to dreams. This could be nothing more than a dangerous delusion.”
“She says if you do not come, she will tell Duke Archibald about the vision.”
“Does she, indeed? She has chosen a troublesome time to become a politician. And she wouldn’t tell the nature of the vision?”
“No, Mother Commander.”
“I see. Then I’ll consider the Queen’s command. But it would be a nuisance if I were to travel all the way back to the castle only to find her dead.” Mother Commander turned the cloisonné ring on her middle finger, a gift from the Queen.
A whisper of cold caressed Mother Commander’s hands. His breath touched her skin. The cold wind knows all secrets.
Dressed in yellow silk, Mother Commander will wait impatiently outside the Queen’s room. She will enter the chambers and see Queen Ethelred lying close to death in the bed.
”You’ve come at last,” the Queen will say.
”At your command, my Queen.”
With a gesture the Queen will dismiss the servants and the leeches.
Mother Commander looks around the room. It feels cold, despite the fire burning in the massive hearth. On the mantle the candles burn red. It is Sevenday. The leech lingers, thinking to say something but seeing Mother Commander’s face he thinks better of it. He hurries outside, closing the door softly behind him.
”Come closer,” the Queen will say. “I have much to tell you.”
And the wind dies.
Mother Commander sighed. “She will at least be alive on Sevenday.”
“That’s three days from now,” said Gwain. “Time enough to reach Titchmus.”
Mother Commander nodded, but travelling to Titchmus meant missing the Battle of Wing Valley.
* * *
Outside the tent, a soldier stood on guard, a veteran with Viking tentacles braided into a necklace. A common man, his Fladdermus blood showing in the coarse brown fur that covered his neck and served in place of hair.
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Tarn from Gypsumvale, Mother Commander. Artir is my mother. She told me to remember her to you, if I had the chance.”
Mother Commander nodded. She did not remember Artir. In her time, she’d known many soldiers. She reached out and touched Tarn’s arm.
A whisper of cold caressed Tarn, played with his dead tentacle necklace. His breath touched this Yellow England soldier. The cold wind knows all secrets.
Tarn of Gypsumvale will walk along the Wing Shore, mud weighing down his shoes. He will swing his two swords in the air. He will be surrounded by the others in his company, men and women dressed in yellow tunics over boiled leather. All good kingdom folk with the look of their Fladdermus heritage. Soldiers strengthened by the touch of the older race, in their snouts and long ears, in their webbed arms and hands, in the lightness of their step. Good Yellow England soldiers, blended of the earth and of the sky.
”Hoi!” Tarn shouts, when he spots the first Viking men emerging from the River Wing, their gills fluttering, their tentacles thrashing wildly from side to side. “For the High King of Yellow England!” Tarn leads the soldiers forwards.
Tarn slashes through the throat of a Viking, before it has a chance to strike. At his side, a soldier screams. His nickname is Squealer, and his voice is high and unnatural. The Vikings moan, raising their hands to their heads, to stop the ingress of this mad-making noise. Tarn grins; most Fish Men cannot abide Squealer’s song, although it does not bother the Yellow English soldiers. Some Vikings drop their weapons. Tarn’s friends move for the kill, drenching the field in unclean blood that stinks of the ocean and rotted things. Unfortunately not all Fish Men are affected by Squealer. A Viking swings a double-headed axe at Tarn. Tarn parries the blow with his sword. With his other hand Tarn smashes his sword hilt into the Viking’s face. The Viking thing falls backwards into Squealer. Another Viking is upon Tarn. They exchange savage blows. In his side view, Tarn sees Squealer and the Viking rolling in the mud. The Viking’s tentacles quiver and manage to slide down Squealer’s throat. When the squealing stops, the Vikings let out a croaking cheer. The Yellow Kingdom’s advantage is lost. More Vikings emerge from the roiling water of River Wing.
Tarn parries his opponent’s blow, and slides six inches of steel through the Viking’s armour, pushing upwards, spilling ropes of rank guts. And still more Vikings emerge from the river. Another Viking is quickly upon Tarn, screaming, too close for the touch of steel. Tarn’s forehead slams into the Viking’s nose, a lightning strike, but the Viking’s head tentacles lash out. Tarn screams. Instinctively he pulls the tentacle, tearing off half his cheek. Tarn falls, but manages to plunge his sword at an impossible angle into his opponent’s groin. The Viking falls, croaking, clutching his bleeding crotch.
In fever pain, Tarn will roll in the mud, seeding his face with infection, while around him the battle ranges. Yet while he endures, the Viking Men fall, until a low horn sounds retreat. And Tarn’s company will leave him behind as they surge across the River Wing to claim the land and the valley.
And the wind dies.
* * *
“Thank you, soldier,” said Mother Commander. She’d already forgotten his name.
Back in the tent, Brandon was still sleeping.
“The battle will be ours.” Mother Commander shook her head to clear the vision.
“Can you see further?”
“No. The High King’s breath offers only glimpses.”
“A very useful gift,” said Gwain.
“When you are Father Commander you’d better not rely on them, Gwain. For weeks they come not at all. Yet today, I’ve been gifted three times.”
“The High King is changeable,” said Gwain, quoting a popular folk saying. “Does this mean that you go to the Queen?”
“I will,” said Mother Commander. “But say nothing of my vision to anyone. Knowledge of the future has a way of changing it.”
“I’d have thought that knowledge of the victory would aid our soldiers.”
“Then you’d be wrong. The High King moves through changing futures. Perhaps if the soldiers knew my vision, they’d become over-confident and the battle would be lost.”
Gwain nodded. He walked over to Brandon and looked down at him. “Whatever you did to him, you wearied him.”
“Wake him,” said Mother Commander. “He’ll accompany us.” She pulled the silk from the statue on the side table. It was an old thing, a Fladdermus thing, carved from ancient glass never found above ground. She passed her hands over the statue, and when she turned back to Gwain her face was a little younger, and the face of the waking Brandon was marked with a few years. And if he noticed the changes, Gwain said nothing.
* * *
Mother Commander, Gwain and Brandon travelled in a company of ten soldiers, who were glad, no doubt, to have escaped the battle of Wing Valley.
Brandon had attempted to be amusing until Mother Commander sent him to ride with the common soldiers. Mother Commander and Gwain passed the time discussing court politics. Mother Commander was naturally interested in the Queen’s vision.
“And she would not even hint about the revelation?”
“No, except it distressed her deeply.”
Mother Commander shook her head. “It irritates me that she pulls me away from battle. When you’re advisor to the throne, Gwain, you must be more careful than me.”
Gwain smiled. “There are none more careful than you, Mother Commander.”
That was so. That was why she had retained the position of Mother Commander these two centuries, and with the aid of the Fladdermus statue, secured in a leather pouch around her neck, there was no reason she couldn’t reign for decades more. But she’d been foolish. Her sentimentality about Wing Valley had led her away from court at a dangerous time of transition. And there was Gwain to consider. Was he still loyal? Or was the Queen’s vision a subterfuge?
“Why is it I can never read your future, Gwain? Does the wind not blow around you?”
“The breath of the High King touches everyone, Mother Commander. I don’t know why you can’t see my future.”
* * *
On the second day, they rode through Stranglers’ Wood. Mother Commander had been raised in this forest. When she was a child the woods had been oak, but the coming of the High King had brought many new things into the kingdom: animals and plants of a type never described in scrolls, or in the memory of the common kingdom folk.
The travellers wore veils around their faces as the air was cloudy with seed spores. Afterwards they’d need to wash carefully, for it was not unknown for the seeds to root in the eyes, ears, mouth, or other moist places. The tenacious spores also germinated in the cracks and crevices of the oak trees and grew smothering branches that overwhelmed their hosts. The roots of the stifling trees hung in the air, twitching, seeking small animals and the limbs of unwary travellers. Within the trees flitted long-limbed, flying creatures, a cross between a bat and a beetle, a beast only found in Stranglers’ Wood. They watched the travellers from behind glossy green leaves.
At the Wish Tree, Mother Commander halted the party. This was the greatest and oldest tree in Stranglers’ Wood, a monstrous tree covering several hectares. From its high branches, jangled bones, victims of the tree’s questing roots, and sacrifices to the tree from the common folk. Newly emerged leaf buds were encased in scales, patterned like snakeskin and textured like leather. The traveller’s feet crunched the discarded scales to powder.
“In the High King’s realm, the trees are thus,” said Mother Commander.
“Then we’re fortunate to have this glimpse while here on Earth.” Gwain made the half circle sign across his chest.
With great solemnity, the soldiers held a rabbit up as offering to the Wish Tree. The roots snatched the struggling animal and drew it high into the branches to dangle amidst the wooden gibbets.
“There may come a time when there’s only one tree,” said Brandon. “Yggdrasil, the World Tree.”
Mother Commander frowned. “Speak not of Viking stories to me. Is that what your uncle teaches you?”
“No,” said Brandon. “I’m sorry, Mother Commander. I only thought—”
“Don’t think. It’s not your strong point.”
“We are close to Stranglers’ Monastery.” Gwain pointed to the sandstone spires that split the forest vista. “Shall we pay our respects? We have time, I think.”
“What do you think, Brandon?” asked Mother Commander
“If you’re to be a commander of soldiers as your uncle wishes, you must make decisions. Shall we delay our journey to visit the monastery?”
Brandon looked into the sky for help with such a monumental decision. His brow creased, his mouth moved without words as he pondered the question. Mother Commander waited, marvelling that a man could be so stupid and still function. Brandon would never be a great military leader. But he had other qualities, she recalled. Finally, she could bear it no longer. “I think we should go to the monastery. Don’t you agree, Brandon?”
“Yes, Mother Commander, that’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“Your father’s sister is in command there, isn’t she? Cécile of Cragacre. I hear that your aunt examines my judgments and finds them wanting. Have you heard that, Brandon?”
Brandon shook his head furiously. “No. Not at all. I haven’t seen her for many years, but I’m sure she is a loyal subject. For who would put themselves above the will of the High King?”
Built on a sandstone outcrop over honeycomb caves, Stranglers’ Monastery was renowned. From those caves the Fladdermus had first emerged, crawling from their ancient hidey-holes to greet the coming of the High King. It would be politic to visit; the nuns grew fractious under the leadership of Cécile of Cragacre.
The wind stirred the bones in the Wish Tree. His breath stirred the skeletons. The cold wind knows all secrets.
Mother Commander will lead the party to the monastery. Cécile of Cragacre will open the gates herself and welcome them.
Cécile and Mother Commander greet each other warmly and talk pleasantly of inconsequential things. Cécile will invite the travellers to prayer in the High Chapel. With smiles she’ll lead them to the ornate sandstone room, lit with sunlight pouring through the famed chapel window showing the High King emerging from hidden celestial spheres. Cécile of Cragacre bows to the travellers, and leaves them to their contemplation, closing the chapel door behind her. Mother Commander hears the twist of a key turning in the lock. Something is wrong.
Underneath the chapel the party hear the sound of movement, the sound of many feet. Fladdermus? The party draw their weapons. Gwain bangs against the locked chapel door, demanding release, while Mother Commander scans the chapel for an escape route. There is none. The minor windows are high and narrow. The large altar window is made of ancient glass, unbreakable. The door is iron solid strangler wood.
At the north wall, two doors lead to the chapel crypts and the underground caves. ”Guard the doors,” shouts Mother Commander.
The soldiers divide and run to the two doors as the enemy emerges. It is not the Fladdermus, nor the Viking Fish Men. The Crab Men come, chitin feet clacking on the polished floor.
”Abominations!” shouts Gwain.
The Crab Men swarm forward, a dozen at each door, pushing back the soldiers, while Mother Commander and Gwain beat furiously at the main chapel door, demanding exit from this killing room. The soldiers attempt to contain the Crab Men at the doors to the crypt, but their efforts are futile. Mother Commander sees a soldier snipped clean in half by a massive claw. Mother Commander, Gwain and Brandon alone are left to battle. Mother Commander will have her fight, after all.
Two dozen crab men clatter into the chapel, their heads flickering light in the language of their kind. Her sword unsheathed, Mother Commander steps to the right, in front of Gwain. Screaming she throws herself into the battle, her long sword slicing through the hard skin of the nearest Crab Man, severing its arm. There is no blood. Crab Men are not flesh.
As she fights, Mother Commander’s mind is racing. Crab Men in the heart of Yellow England! It is unheard of! Cécile of Cragacre has made an audacious pact. But the High King is entrenched in this kingdom. It is a foolish ploy. Are the Cragacres seeking to convert Yellow England to a bastion of the Crab? Was this the Queen’s vision? The triumph of the Crab Men, the Mi-Go from the stars.
Brandon is fighting hard. Gwain’s poison blade flashes silver. But this poison does not kill the spongy, fungal flesh of the Crab Men. Mother Commander severs the cauliflower head of her opponent and turns to face the next Crab Man, but as she twists she feels the crushing weight of a claw around her leg. Beheaded but not dead, the fallen Crab Man still moves. Mother Commander stabs downwards, her sword seeking another brain. She wishes desperately for a flamethrower. She would burn Stranglers’ Monastery to the ground, if she had the chance. The crushing pain in her leg intensifies to white burning fire. The Crab Man is still not dead. Mother Commander glances up at the stained glass of the chapel, at the High King surrounded by stars, as he blows through the void and claims Yellow England as his dominion.
The soldiers are dead. Brandon is dead.
”Save yourself, Gwain,” shouts Mother Commander, although she does not know how that can be done, there are too many enemies.
Mother Commander falls. The beheaded Crab Man’s claws leave her foot and close over her wrists, severing her hands. She never knew there could be so much blood. With her last sight Mother Commander will see a Crab Man looming over her, a metal canister held in its claw. In these canisters the Mi-Go take the living brains of their prey to their distant worlds. There are worse things than death.
And the wind dies.
“I’ve reconsidered,” said Mother Commander. “Brandon, you will take my respects to Cécile of Cragacre, and tell her that the Queen commands me to make no delay.”
“As you wish.” Brandon looked pleased to be tasked with such responsibility.
Good. There was no need to alert Cécile to the fact that Mother Commander knew of the treachery. Once she reached Titchmus, Mother Commander would send a hundred soldiers to clear out the nest of Crab Men, and to retrieve Cécile of Cragacre for interrogation.
* * *
Mother Commander set a wild pace leaving Stranglers’ Wood. Once beyond the trees, they continued fast on the road, not stopping for sleep, and the party arrived at Titchmus Castle as dawn broke on Sevenday.
From there it was quick work for Mother Commander to send a hundred soldiers to Stranglers’ Monastery. Then she washed and dressed in yellow silk, and made her way to the Queen’s chamber.
Mother Commander tapped her foot on the stone floor as she waited impatiently outside the Queen’s room. When she entered the chambers she saw Queen Ethelreld, lying listless on the bed.
“You’ve come at last,” said Ethelreld.
“At your command.”
With a gesture, the Queen dismissed the servants and the leeches.
Mother Commander looked around the room. It felt cold, despite the fire burning in the massive hearth. On the mantle the Sevenday candles burned red.
The servants left the room. The leech lingered, as if he thought to say something but, seeing Mother Commander’s face, thought better of it. He hurried outside and closed the door softly behind him.
“Come closer,” the Queen said. “I have much to tell you.”
Mother Commander took the chair beside the bed. She leaned close to the Queen. “What was your vision?”
“I’m dying, and I’m consumed by regrets, Mother Commander.”
“You’ve been a good queen. You’ve been a good servant of the High King.” That much was true. Ethelreld had established garrisons on the borders, repaired the castle walls of Titchmus, and converted it into a fortress that would not be taken easily. “When Lethreld of Davidbrethren was abducted by the Viking men and murdered, you avenged that death in full. You’ve formed alliance with the Seven Cities, and bought the Viking Hauntminster into the kingdom. The common folk of Yellow England love you and pledge their loyalty to you. You’ve been a good Queen, and now you stand at the High King’s gate.” The yellow silk of Mother Commander’s veil clung to her face, as if her very skin was made of yellow fabric.
“I have done what was expected,” said Ethelreld. “But as I stand at death’s gate, I’ve been touched by horror.”
“Everything is a lie,” whispered the Queen. Her hand clutched convulsively at the bedclothes. “The first Queen, Laeigratha, came to me in vision, all dressed in yellow tatters. She spoke to me of the after world. It is no place of ease, Mother Commander. It is a strange place of enduring agonies, where the dead dance in pain to the High King’s pleasure.”
“What else did she tell you?
“Isn’t that enough? The High King’s realm is not joy, but an abyss. You must make this known to the people, Mother Commander. We worship malice.”
“This is the bargain we have made,” said Mother Commander. “When the Fish God rose in the Northern lands, the Viking men threatened to drown England. And from the stars came the repugnant Crab Men, seeding the South with spreading fungus. I was young then, but ambitious. I made my way to the castle scriptorium and found old scrolls, written in the Fladdermus tongue, and a priest who could still read the words. I said the High King’s words and pledged this land to Him. Then the Fladdermus emerged from their caves and strengthened us. And the High King rode the winds over this Yellow England, and we were pledged to enter his Kingdom. It was the only way, when enemies encroached from all sides.”
“No!” said the Ethelfeld. “We must rid ourselves of the High King.”
“And then what would happen?” asked Mother Commander. “We cannot fight our enemies without him. The gods are risen, the Fish of the Viking North, the Mi-Go Crabs in the South. They do not look to the welfare of our people. Would you see the people of Yellow England subjugated to the Fish Men, or to the Crabs? Would that be better?”
“The price is too high,” insisted the Queen.
“This life is but a pleasant interlude before the eternal,” said Mother Commander.
“This cannot be. Everything is a lie.”
“It can be and it is, and it will be forever.”
“I will make this known,” said the Queen, struggling to rise from her bed. She coughed, staining the sheets with a splatter of blood. “This cannot remain a secret.”
“There are no secrets from the cold wind,” said Mother Commander. “Or from me.” She took a pillow from the bed and held it over Ethelred’s face. A matter of minutes only, before the frail Queen was dead. She was not the first sovereign that Mother Commander had murdered. They waited for her in the High King’s realm.
Mother Commander sat watching the dead Queen, considering politics. A new ruler must be selected from the Five Families. The Cragacres had moved against the Kingdom. How should they be controlled? Mother Commander reached for a vision of the future, but it did not come. The cold wind knew all, but it did not always share its secrets.
She would discuss the matter with Gwain.
She considered the options, but sitting in the room with the dead Queen, Mother Commander’s thoughts turned to the time she would enter the High King’s realm. Thousands would be waiting for her. They would tear off her silks, and she would scream for a thousand years. This the cold wind knows, and it has shown her many times.
Yet, in those long years of after death in the High King’s realm, she will from time to time be sustained by hope. The cold wind does not know all. There is Gwain, whom the cold wind cannot touch. In the cold aeons of the High Kingdom, Mother Commander will think of Gwain, and she will know that all things pass, and that some things are not touched by His breath.
And that even to the cold wind, there are secrets.
This story originally appeared in the 2013 anthology Fight like a Girl.