Edition 22: Serial Fiction: Stolen Moments (Part 1 of 2) by Lindsey Duncan
Mantisia experiences time differently to everyone else, and it slips away faster than grains of sand. Sacrificing her years, she journeys into a world she barely knows to face a force she cannot possibly understand. First part of Lindsey Duncan’s two-part mythic fantasy. SY
Mantisia, Age Seven
Time is more important to me than it is to anyone else. My mother says that’s impossible because I haven’t had as much of it, but I have. It’s all bunched up into a tiny space, like when you curl in your limbs and tuck your head to hide from the world. You still know you’re there, though. People talk to me about seasons and tell me it’s summer, but that doesn’t really mean anything to me.
I don’t want to talk about me. I want to talk about Sarbeth and his sideways-turned leg and his dog, the pretty hound with silver fur. The hound is important because they’re best friends. They can talk to each other by looking. Anyone can, if you know how to listen to eyes. I’ve been teaching myself, because there’s so much space in my head when I’m the only thing moving.
Sarbeth sounds rusty when he speaks. I picture little wheels turning inside him. He told me he’s going to go away soon.
I thought this was just an adult’s way of not talking about death. I found a bird in the yard and pretended not to see it so my mother could hurry me away and tell me the stories she likes me to hear.
She has trouble with the way I am. I’m going to be an adult before I get to see snow. Tiny white leaves, she says.
Sarbeth and I sat under the shade of a yellow-blossomed tree, not far from the special wall. He, my mother and everyone I know live on this side, away from the rest of the city. Silt—that’s the hound—sat curled at his feet. He smiled and said, “No, not die. Go away.”
I fixed him with a stern look. “Go away where?”
“A castle in the space between the winds,” he said.
I thought it was a riddle, and told him so. I don’t like riddles, because they always refer to things I’ve never heard of in funny words. Like the one about legs.
He laughed, a deep, rumbly sound. “No, it’s not a riddle, Mantisia,” he said. “I made a deal a long time ago, and I have three more days before I have to pay up.”
I counted in my head. I lived two years a day, so in three days, I would be thirteen. It was, maybe, old enough to go with him. “When did you make the deal?”
“Twenty-four years ago.” Sarbeth squinted at me while Silt lifted her head and looked as well. I thought they were talking about what they saw.
“That’s a long time to wait to be paid,” I said.
It was more time than I could imagine. That would be dozens of years for me.
“I promised everything I am.” Sarbeth shook his head. “That’s worth waiting for.”
It might have sounded like showing off from anyone else, but even though he was an old man, he had once been a sorcerer. The powers leeched from his shaky fingers long ago. I pictured them dripping off like raindrops. It’s only rained once since I was born, so that rainstorm is the rainstorm, every one that will ever be.
“Can I come with you?” I asked.
The hound whined. Sarbeth looked worried, his eyes dark and broken—like glass when you drop it. “I’m going to a place no one should follow,” he said.
I asked him if he had to. My mother and the decisions she made controlled my life, but I had never thought adults had the same problems.
“I owe the best years of my life to this deal.” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t be honorable to do otherwise.” He reached over to ruffle my hair. “Don’t worry, Mantisia.”
I had to worry. I had to help him. It isn’t fair.
“I won’t,” I said, smiling for him. Silt turned her head, dark eyes accusing. I felt she knew what I was thinking—but she didn’t tell Sarbeth, so it was either our secret or Silt wasn’t as wise as I had always thought.
Latty Nith washes clothes for the families on our street, and everyone talks to her. She knows when people get sick, when they like each other, when they start a new job—and where they go when they leave the city.
She scrubbed a pile of clothes by the river, beating them against the rocks. Before she noticed me, I counted the buttons, pockets, saw spots that needed patching and realized somebody had left their work in their clothes. It smelled like oil and wood, spreading in black fingers along the shirt.
“Hi, Mantisia,” Latty said. “Did your mother send you with something?”
“No.” I poked my toe in the ground. “Can I help?”
She nodded. “Grab a scrubboard.”
I was a big girl, and a patient one, and even though I get so much more time than anyone else, I waited to ask my question. I made sure it was a clever one. “Will Sarbeth be safe when he travels?”
Latty’s face curled up. “Doesn’t really matter.”
I thought that was a strange thing to say. “Well, will he?”
She shrugged, slapping pants against her washboard. “Safe as can be expected. Going with a merchant caravan. Plenty of guards. After that—” she frowned. “He’ll be fine, Mantisia. Don’t worry.”
Why do adults think that all you have to do is say that and it works?
I had a brave idea. I would find the caravan—though first I would have to find out what a caravan was—and I would sneak after it. I would go with Sarbeth, and I would make things right. I didn’t know how, but I knew two things:
Adults made things too confusing, so I had a better chance of solving it.
I had lots of time to think.
Mantisia, Age Eleven
I keep changing my mind about what the best part of time moving faster is. Any part of growing up I don’t like doesn’t last for long. None of my teeth were loose for more than an hour. Because my thoughts move so fast, I easily learned to read, write and do sums—and because I’m the baby of the neighborhood, anyone who has books lets me read them.
Sometimes, I think it’s the fact my mother is never ready for me. I’ve watched other children and their mothers rule them, because they know what to expect. I feel a thrill at this freedom.
Then I think of Sarbeth, and all the things I still can’t do, and I decide what the best part is: sooner than anyone else, I can take on the world.
Tarh the baker, he treated me like his daughter. I sat on his counter, inhaling the scent of cinnamon and yeast, and watched him sideways. Tarh, people said, arrived in the city of Parthis through the Forest of Legends, and he had stories he wouldn’t share with anyone.
“Blueberry muffin for you,” he said. “Berries the color of your eyes and a golden top like your hair.”
Golden was a nice way to describe my hair, but I’d always liked Tarh. My mother kept telling me I would grow into something beautiful—well, there wasn’t much time left.
“Thank you,” I said. “Your son told me a story, and I was wondering something.” I didn’t mind if it got him into trouble—he was just a boy, after all.
“Oh? What’s that?” Tarh leaned against the counter.
“Where is there a castle in the space between the winds?”
“Ah. Just an old superstition.” His eyes were shadowed, and I knew he didn’t believe it. “Do you know what the Valinah is?”
“The gods created her, right? It’s a story to tell people to be happy with what they have, instead of looking for things to be perfect.” That was the only part I remembered. It was difficult to listen to people: I had to memorize each word and piece it together like a puzzle.
“Yes.” Tarh chuckled. “Men such as myself complained about the flaws women had, their quirks and problems. So the gods decided to try again. But something went wrong. Valinah was impossibly beautiful—you couldn’t believe she was real. She never asked for anything; she took it. She never cried or grew weary. There was nothing but the wind in her heart.”
I could see his face clearly, make out changes that would have happened too quickly for someone else to notice. He was too guarded for someone who thought it was just a myth.
“So what then?” I asked.
“The gods had given her life. They couldn’t just unmake her. So they let her go.” Tarh headed to the ovens. “She refused to live as people did. She was above that. Instead, she hunts us. She eats people’s memories in an attempt to understand what she can’t have by devouring their years to keep herself young. Her mindless victims remain as her servants.” He cleared his throat. “So they say.”
I let my tears roll into the muffin and ate more fiercely to disguise them. Valinah—that was who Sarbeth had bargained with. What would she do with a sorcerer’s knowledge? I thought of Silt and their private language, and I hated the idea of that becoming a part of some deathless woman. I couldn’t understand why he had agreed. What could possibly be worth that?
“Why hasn’t someone killed her?” I asked.
“Skin that cannot be cut, bones that do not break, and a body that needs neither breath, food, nor drink.” Tarh made a soft sound—it was like laughter, but not. “How would you kill that?”
How would you? He had no idea how deeply I was thinking about his question.
Mantisia, Age Thirteen
It’s ironic I finally understood the wall around the neighborhood the hour I departed.
It separated the foreign quarter of Parthis from the citizen quarters. Some families had lived here generations, but if you couldn’t prove you had Parthin ancestry—and if you couldn’t get two citizens to speak for you—then you were a foreigner, someone expected to pick up and leave, to never make an impression on Parthis. The wall was just their way of saying that.
So I guess I did what they wanted me to: I left.
I hid under the mercer’s bolts of cloth, apples and bread packed in my tunic. I held my breath as the tramp of feet and Silt barking at pack animals heralded the wagons lurching into motion.
I could tell where we were in the city by the smells: beef and citrus from the market, ale and salt from the docks, and floral perfume when the caravan skirted the high quarter. The clean, acidic scent of grass told me we had left the city.
Wagon wheels met loose rock, jostling me. I yelped, squirming. Robbed of anything interesting to look at—you can only count threads so many times, and even the most extensive count took only a few minutes—I settled in for a long ride.
I dozed, sometimes awakened by sounds of the caravan. When we halted for the evening, I pulled myself into the corner of the wagon and realized I was bleeding.
I slipped under the wagon flap and rushed down to the river in a panic. I crouched, feeling cool droplets dance across my skin as I washed. I remembered some women’s talk, about cycles and scraps of cloth that were never sent to Latty. I relaxed—and the bleeding stopped after a few minutes.
The camp bustled behind me. I picked my way downstream until I found a bend where I could hide, out of sight of where anyone might come for drinking water or necessary tasks. I listened to bird-song, picking out several kinds. There were berries to taste and voices to listen to, their patter soothing as a lullaby.
The blood did not return, and I felt saddened. Nature, it seemed, had put me outside of her laws—but wasn’t that expected? I didn’t think I could have children, and even if I had outgrown playing with dolls and wanting to be my mother in the space of an afternoon, it left a tightness inside. I wasn’t like other girls, and that didn’t seem like a good thing.
I sketched shapes in the sand, and then laid on the bank, trying to experience as much of my surroundings as possible. I found constellations and counted stars, until it grew dark enough to creep back into camp.
I slid into the wagon, pressing my cheek against rough fabric. Sleep was the one refuge I had where I was entirely like other people: I dreamed only fragments and snatches of life, and remembered, on waking, a hint of another world.
A world where people are young as long as they want to be.
Mantisia, Age Seventeen
I’d been trapped in the wagon for two days. I swelled out of my clothes and filched needles to fix them. How I was getting so fat on leavings, I didn’t know—maybe a lack of activity. I was embarrassed of the mess I must look.
I napped sometimes, but the months of sleep at night made it difficult; I thrashed awake. I knew the voices of every person in the party, their personalities, and a little about them.
Part of me almost believed they were my friends—I had to remind myself it wasn’t true. When we stopped that evening, however, I could bear it no longer: I needed a wash.
The caravan had camped by a stream. I stripped and lost myself in the water, bubbling away days and weeks. I came to the surface, floating with my arms behind my head.
With a bark, an animal launched itself into the water. I kicked upright, spluttering, only to find Silt’s nose in my face. I remembered her with bruising clarity, though I hadn’t seen her in forever, and it was almost as if we spoke with that language I had seen in my youth.
“Hi, girl,” I said, burying my face against her fur.
I looked up, startled. Sarbeth stood on the bank.
“I didn’t realize anyone lived near here. Come, Silt.”
As soon as the hound moved, there would be no barrier between him and everything I possessed except the water.
I yelped and wrapped my arms around her neck. “Stay, girl.” My pleading gaze emphasized the words.
Sarbeth looked angry, his fingers twitching in a spasm I recognized as a spell he could no longer cast. “I’ll thank you to unhand my dog,” he said.
“Only if you turn around until I get dressed,” I said.
He blinked, confused, and then reddened. He turned with a mumbled apology.
I scrambled out, rushing for my clothes. Droplets coated my skin. I tried to shake myself off to dispel them, but Silt took that as an invitation, and I was further sprayed in my attempts. Unable to keep from giggling, I climbed into the too-short skirt and tunic and wrung out my hair.
Inwardly, I rehearsed my story. There was a farm a half-mile across the stream, and I would pretend to return there, then sneak back to camp. I had no intentions of showing myself until it was too late.
This process took only a second.
“Go to him, S—girl,” I said. “You can turn now.”
Sarbeth turned. He rested a hand on the dog’s back as she trotted over. “I trust you’re not far from home, miss? This can be dangerous territory.”
“Just back that way,” I said, “you can almost see—”
He sucked in a breath. “Look at me?” I did, without thinking, and he hmphed in astonishment. “Mantisia? Can that be you?”
The way time moves for me, I was able to think through a dozen lies before I needed to speak, but my first impulse was the truth, and I returned to it. “Yes. I won’t let you walk into this alone, and I’m old enough to make that choice.”
“I don’t know you can ever say those words.” His voice was gentle. “Mantisia, I’m paying the price for something I freely accepted. There’s nothing you can do—nothing I would allow. It’s a matter of honor.”
“You’ve been my friend,” I said. “Let me go with you.”
“I’ve got to send you back to your mother,” he said, “she must be—”
“She knows how old I am, and if you want me to go back, you’ll have to drag me.” I met his eyes, searching inky green depths. “It’s two days to Parthis, another two days back, without a caravan for company.”
“Mantisia…” He pulled himself upright, though his mangled right leg gave him trouble. “When did you get to be so stubborn?”
“I’ve been determined to do this for years.” I smiled wryly. “You know that.”
Sarbeth chuckled, and his eyes lightened. “I can’t call you a child any more, can I? I should know that, looking at how you’ve grown—”
“Stop it!” I couldn’t stop the angry flush on my cheeks. “I know I’m not the pretty child I used to be, but you don’t need to talk about it.”
His brows went up. “Mantisia,” he said, “have you looked at yourself?” He limped forward, putting an arm around my shoulder. “Come with me.”
We walked to camp, earning curious looks. Sarbeth pulled aside a dowdy widow who had been with the caravan two decades. He asked a question in a low voice. She glanced at me, eyes assessing, and then laughed and nodded.
Sarbeth guided me into the wagon. A mirror hung on the crossbeam, cracked and aged, but meticulously polished. There is a moment, at the first glimpse of your reflection, when that person is a stranger. The lady I saw was golden-haired, a garden of riotous curls blooming along caramel skin, framing a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were the color of soot—a dash of darkness, wild. Her shoulders were wide and strong, their lines flowing into generous curves. I was, I realized with a bright blush, as well-endowed as some of the exiled noblewomen I had seen strutting around the foreign quarter, and without the corset to amplify it.
“You’re a lovely young woman, Mantisia,” Sarbeth said, “and some day, some young man will—” He stopped, awkwardly.
I knew what he was thinking: there was no such thing as some day, for me. What man would be drawn to someone who would be old and faded in another week? I hated that I thought it, for I didn’t want to place importance on such things…but it hurt.
“I don’t look much like my mother,” I said instead.
He squeezed my shoulder. “Whoever your father was, he gave you an inheritance of looks.”
Looks, and whatever enchantment sped my years. I had left Parthis too young to be entrusted with the truth about my father, but I knew he had not married my mother, and I suspected he too was a sorcerer. In the foolishness of my early years, I had imagined Sarbeth was my father, but our faces were too different.
“Come on, Mantisia,” Sarbeth said. “I’ll explain you to the caravan master.”
Mantisia, Age Nineteen
I turned my face to the skies and felt my world expand. Once, there had been the storm, the only one that ever was: now there were two, each different, this one scouring away everything in its path.
I laughed and called out. I thought we could have a conversation, the thunder and I—its short-lived voice and mine. It would be unlike the endless dialogues with the people around me.
“Mantisia, come back in the wagon,” Sarbeth said. “I don’t know how long it would last if you caught cold.”
A flash of lightning grounded in my soul. I walked on, staring at nature’s hand for a little longer, before climbing inside.
“You’re drenched.” He draped his cloak around me. Silt contributed, too, trying to lick my face dry.
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I’m so glad it rained again.”
Sarbeth stretched out, his leg canted on a barrel, watching me with a curious expression. “Have you ever thought of learning magic?”
I blinked, startled. I studied him in turn. I had once thought him old—now I could see his years weren’t so advanced. The hints of grey suggested some seniority, but the limp notwithstanding, he couldn’t yet be fifty. It made a puzzle of his retirement.
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
Sarbeth scratched the hound behind the ears. “When I made my bargain, I was given magic for two decades. I have no inborn talent, but I’ve learned enough to sense it around me, like an itch. I think you might have the knack.”
Maybe that would be the tool with which I could free him. I knew he wouldn’t teach me anything he thought would affect his bargain—but I might be able to use it in a way he hadn’t expected. And besides that, few people could become sorcerers. My heart picked up pace at the thought of such secrets beneath my fingers.
“I’d be honored,” I said.
Concluded in SQ Mag 23, November 2015
Lindsey Duncan is a chef/pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer, and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com. Her blog can be found at: http://lindseyduncan.blogspot.com/
Her Twitter handle is: @LindseyCDuncan