Edition 30: The Devil’s Bloom by David Cleden
When a childhood prank lands his sister in trouble, Jaran starts along a path that he feels he cannot escape. Evil deeds seem to breed and Jaran is sure he is the cause. Sometimes you can never go home again. – SY
Jaran never forgot the first time he met evil. Not witnessed an evil act, not listened to the unkind gossip he heard the adults mutter when they thought he was sleeping, but saw the very substance of it. Evil in its raw, unrefined state. The kind of evil that only the Black Healers had the skill to extract.
That was the day Aliya turned fifteen. Jaran had contrived to ruin the new dress his sister wore, a gift from the village women to mark her coming of age. It was a fine dress, shimmering white like sunlight reflecting off a lake, and woven from the finest arachia threads painstakingly harvested a few strands at a time each morning while the dew still glistened.
The urge that drove him was more than jealousy, more than his resentment of Aliya’s firstborn privileges though he had no words to explain his feelings, not even to himself. He scraped moss and algae from beneath rotting branches in the forest, forming a little cake of green slime. It was a cruel choice. A splattering of mud might have washed out leaving no stain. But to Jaran that seemed a thing half done; a compromise.
He found a tree with a high branch overhanging the path and waited for his sister to return from the stream where she had gone to swim with her friends.
Afterwards, with Aliya’s screams and curses echoing through the forest, he made his escape springing lightly from branch to branch, knowing he must beat Aliya back to the village and pretend to know nothing of her accusations.
“Jaran! You vile worm! Come back here! You– You’re no better than some turd shat from Odal’s arse!”
He grinned as he fled. This was more fun than he had dared hope. And now a new idea formed in his head, an even better way to land Aliya in trouble.
“Mama! Mama!” he called, bursting through the door of their hut into the communal area. “I heard Aliya say evil words! She used the name of the great protector of the forest in a bad way!” He paused, wanting to make sure he said the adult word right. “She blasphemed!”
His mother, face flushed from raking coals beneath the baking oven that held their supper, tried to shush him and make light of it. “But she did!” Jaran protested. “I heard her say the evil thing!”
His father stirred from the chair nearest the fire. Jaran hadn’t seen him sitting there when he burst in or he might have held his tongue. It was one thing to prick his sister’s little bubble of pride by earning her a scolding from their mother… Quite another to accuse her in front of their father.
“Now Jed, don’t go—” his mother began, but he was already rising from his seat. A look from him was enough to halt her mid-sentence. He gripped both of Jaran’s shoulders firmly. “Tell me,” he said, his face curiously blank. “Word for word.”
After that, things happened quickly. Aliya confessed immediately—a strange and foolish thing to do, Jaran thought—the ruined dress and his part in it somehow overlooked amid Aliya’s sobbing and the quiet pleas of their mother. “She’s just a child, Jed.”
“She comes of age today,” their father replied. “And there’s devil’s bloom inside her. I won’t have it said that one of my own flesh refused the cleansing.”
Soon after, Levi Hobson arrived breathlessly, the Healer’s robe askew from his haste and hands still greasy from butchering a pig for that evening’s celebrations. Aliya, tears running freely down her face, was made to parade slowly past the silent villagers, dressed in a tightly wrapped black sheet that made it hard for her to do more than shuffle along behind the Black Healer. At the edge of the village, they halted while Levi muttered the proper words, seeking Odal’s blessing to approach, and then the two of them moved off down the sacred path and were soon lost from sight.
Most, if not all, of the villages had trod the confessional path from time to time, but who amongst them could remember anyone doing so on their very first day of adulthood?
Jaran watched from the edge of the crowd, uncertain how things had got so badly out of hand so fast. Did mere words really deserve this punishment? Surely words hurt no one, certainly not Odal if he was truly all-powerful. Where was the evil? Aliya should have denied his accusation, told them of Jaran’s part in it and how he had provoked her. Then it would have been Jaran in trouble, Jaran who would face his father’s beating because he was still too young to tread the path himself. That would have been better. He wouldn’t have minded.
A burning anger rose within him. How dare this man take his sister down the confessional path! And how could his parents stand to let him? She was just a girl. He came to a decision. Well if they wouldn’t, he must be the one to protect her and see that no harm came to her.
Jaran slipped away, dodging between the rough bark cladding of hut walls, stepping round fire-pits, pushing past pens where guinea-fowl and chickens clucked their indignation, until at last he could vanish into the dense forest undergrowth. Moving swiftly yet silently just as he had been taught, he pushed through the tangled undergrowth in a wide arc that would take him down into the sacred valley. He had grown up a child of the forest and knew every path and clearing for miles around—but not this valley. It was forbidden to go there except in the presence of a Black Healer. Well, he told himself, I will be in his presence. He just won’t know it, that’s all.
Tangles of whip-thorn tugged at his clothing and pulled at his hair. In places the ground felt soft and treacherous and he trod as lightly as he could lest the boggy ground draw him in. He stumbled once into the tall, stinging fronds of a widow’s kiss and felt the skin of his face start to smart and blister. Yet still he wasn’t deterred. After ten minutes of so, just when he was beginning to doubt his sense of direction, he crested a low rise and almost stumbled into the clearing.
The ground fell away steeply to form a natural bowl no more than forty or fifty yards across. The trees and undergrowth abruptly stopped at the lip of the bowl as if in mutual agreement that none should approach closer. Bare sandy soil sloped downwards to the little pool at the center of the hollow, a pool of utter blackness.
Jaran knew plenty of pools and lakes in the forest, secret places to fish or bathe, but this one was so still and dark, quite unlike anything he had seen before. No ripples stirred its surface. Nothing moving in or around it, not even insects. When he felt the soft breeze against the side of his face, there was no answering ruffling of its surface. And it was so black the light was swallowed whole, returning no reflection though the bright morning sun shone down into the clearing.
Jaran scrabbled back into the cover of the trees just as his sister and the Black Healer came into view down the path on the other side of the clearing. They made for the little wooden platform built out a yard or two over the pool’s dark surface. The Healer nudged Aliya forward until she was kneeling at the very edge, gazing down into the blackness. “Confess,” the Healer said. “Confess, child, so all can be purified.”
Aliya leant forward. She seemed to choke, her neck straining in a strangely sinuous motion but Jaran saw only tears glittering for an instant as they fell into the pool. They left no trace or ripple.
The Healer sighed. He reached beneath his robes and withdrew a small bottle. “Here,” he said, a trace of exasperation in his voice. “Sip this, and try again.”
Aliya touched the bottle to her lips. Jaran saw her face twist in disgust. The Black Healer snatched it back just in time as Aliya rocked forward, throat spasming. A moan rose from deep inside her. Then her body jerked and a single drop of some dark liquid—as dark as the pool itself—hung from her lower lip as if reluctant to let go. Jaran knew its name, the same name the elders muttered late at night as the fires turned to embers: devil’s bloom. With a shudder Aliya spat the thing away and it fell, but more slowly than any drop of water would, a tiny black jewel drifting downwards even as the pool seemed to reach up to embrace it. Still no ripple disturbed its surface.
The Black Healer let her stand, tossing her a plain white shift he carried in his shoulder bag. Legs still trembling, Aliya slipped out of the black confessional sheet into the shift, bright in the sunlight but a plain thing compared to the beautiful dress Jaran had so thoughtlessly ruined.
Jaran watched it all, fascinated. He saw the colour returning to his sister’s cheeks. He saw the way the Black Healer stole covert glances at her nakedness as she changed. And he saw the faintest of tremors at the edge of the pool, almost as if it strained to climb out of the hollow, wanting more. He saw everything—and understood nothing.
At a word from the Healer, Aliya walked unsteadily back down the path to the village. The Black Healer lingered on the little platform, staring down into the depths of the pool. His lips moved silently: a prayer perhaps for all who had vomited up their evil and been cleansed. How many confessions had fed this pool, Jaran wondered? A hundred million drops for a hundred million sins.
The man turned to leave. Then with a grunt, he seemed to remember something. He stood at the edge of the little platform where Aliya had knelt, unfastened himself, and a moment later a little golden stream fell soundlessly into the pool. Then he too was gone, following the winding path back to the village.
Only when the shadows had crept several inches across the rim of the hollow, when Jaran was sure no one would return, did he scrabble down the slope and warily approach the pool. The lack of a reflection from its surface played tricks with his eyes. The longer he stared, the less he seemed to see. One moment its surface was distant and out of reach; the next it was right there within touching distance. Yet always it was as still and silent as black marble.
He squatted at its edge, opposite the little platform and the place where the Healer had pissed into it. He was powerfully reminded of the thick, dark treacle his mother boiled up in a big cooking pot on long winter nights. Sometimes she would let him dip a ladle and draw out a spoonful of the syrup. Too impatient to let it cool, he would always scald his tongue, suffering numbness and blisters in the following days. He never minded that. It was a price worth paying for that wonderful sugary taste.
Jaran leaned forward until his nose was almost touching the surface, but if devil’s bloom had an odour, he could not detect it. Curiosity and caution fought a brief internal skirmish, before he dipped the tip of his forefinger into the blackness. It felt cool, oily even, but nothing more.
When he withdrew his finger he thought he saw the pool’s surface tremble; a little shiver passing across it. Some of the blackness remained on his fingertip but before he could shake it off, it shrank to nothing, evaporating. It left him with the briefest sensation of pain—either burning heat or icy cold; he could not tell which. Reflexively, he sucked his finger to soothe it. He tasted…Nothing. Certainly no treacly sweetness. No bitterness either, just the faint salty tang of his own skin and a lingering coldness where the devil’s bloom had touched him.
When he returned unseen to the village, preparations for that evening’s feast were well advanced. There were smiles on the villagers’ faces as they built the spit for the hog roast, raked the fire pit or rolled barrels of ale out from the stores. Children chased madly in between, raising good-natured rebukes from those they caused to stumble. The shame of Aliya’s confession was forgotten—and that was rather the point. A sin had been confessed; an evil expunged. Now life continued, pure and untroubled.
Aliya though, had not forgotten. She had barricaded herself in her room, refusing to attend the feast, and for that Jaran felt a stab of guilt. Soon though, he became caught up in the festivities. He joined in chasing games with the younger children and when everyone’s back was turned, he stole a chicken wing from one of the huge casserole pots. The cooking juices scalded his fingers—all except for the very tip of one finger where strangely, he felt nothing at all. He scrubbed his hands clean of the grease in a water trough—something he had not thought to do since returning from the pool—and thought no more of it.
Much later, when the celebration fires had faded to embers, he woke feeling a powerful throbbing in that finger. By moonlight, the skin looked grey and puffy, a patch of discolouration spreading almost to the knuckle. He lay awake a long time regretting his foolishness, wishing he could somehow live the day again and make different decisions.
But when he woke at first light, his hand looked normal and healthy in the weak sunlight, and those regrets were forgotten.
Often in the months that followed, Jaran slipped away to his secret vantage point. As penitents knelt at the edge of the platform coughing up their transgressions, Jaran watched. Some vomited long streams of the devil’s bloom into the depths of the pool, others no more than a trickle. But something had changed. What they lacked in quantity, the villagers made up for in frequency. Jaran heard the talk amongst the elders. Not so long ago, they grumbled, Levi Hobson donned the robes no more than three or four times in a season. Now it could be that number in a week.
It was as though they were in the grip of some sickness that drove the men and women of the village to sin. Some claimed the peaceful ways of their existence were being tested. They blamed the winds that blew from the ocean far beyond their mountain home, or the seasons of the moon, which were surely growing shorter, or the insects that brought disease from the lowlands—though never themselves.
But as long as they had the resolve to walk the path of forgiveness under the guidance of a Black Healer, they had the means to rid themselves of evil. The village would prosper yet.
Jaran continued to watch closely, but still did not fully understand. He listened to the words the Healer spoke, saw the little dribble of blackness coaxed from within, observed the rapturous expression at the moment of release—and could make no sense of it. Many seemed to find it no trial at all, others had to sip from the Healer’s little bottle before they could bring forth the bloom. Was there some part to this that he was missing, he wondered? His father might know, but he dared not ask.
Should a day or two happen to pass with no confession, Jaran would find a way to help matters along. Small things, to be sure. Not what he thought of as evil but…it seemed to be enough. A neighbour’s fat cockerel was found, neck wrung and pot-ready, stuffed behind another’s woodpile. Clothes disappeared from washing lines and were found later hanging in some other closet. Cured meat or a bladder of wine vanished from the stone larders dug into the cool earth. And always there were rumours and gossip to be spread: a word or two in the right place was all it took. Sometimes the accusations became so heated the Black Healer walked the path twice in the same day with both accused and accuser.
Levi Hobson was himself caught with the daughter of a village elder, lying in a quiet clearing where they had not thought to be disturbed. Like Jaran, the girl was not yet of an age to confess her own sins. So it was Jaran’s father who donned the black robes and led Levi down the path of forgiveness. The black bile he brought forth was a spew more prolific than any Jaran had witnessed before. Afterwards, the man seemed visibly shrunken as though the devil’s bloom within had knitted his bones and tissues together.
Though he watched it all, Jaran felt no desire to approach any closer to the pool. He shuddered when he remembered how he had dipped a finger in and tasted. On many nights when sleep refused to come, he thought he saw by the soft starlight how the greyness spread across his skin, a canker creeping up his arms and across his shoulders and chest. Then, fearing the poison was within him—had become him somehow—he imagined his father dragging him down the path to stand in judgement like the god Odal himself, towering over Jaran as he cowered at the edge of the little wooden platform. His father would throw back his hood and Jaran would see that his eyes were ablaze with flames, his gaze turning on Jaran with such intensity that he felt his skin began to blacken and smoulder until Jaran woke screaming from the dream, not trusting for long minutes in the softness of the sleeping pallet beneath him and the quietness of the night.
Always, come morning, he could find no marks on his skin.
Sometimes though, he caught his father regarding him with cold, unblinking eyes as he sat by the fire of an evening. Or Jaran would look up from his work in the fields to catch his father in the act of turning away. How long he had been observed, or for what reason, Jaran could never be sure. The punishment he had expected for ruining Aliya’s dress had not come. Instead, his father’s watchfulness had settled on him like a morning mist that the sun’s heat could never entirely burn away—and that was much worse. When his father took up the black robes, Jaran found it impossible to meet his gaze. My time will come soon enough, he thought. And if he could not confess? If whatever evil that lurked inside him had calcified and could not be expelled, what then?
Of course Aliya would not speak to him, even as the months passed. It made little difference to Jaran. He did not need her company or companionship. Then, with no word of warning and no goodbyes, one morning Aliya and their father stepped out on the ridgeline track at first light while Jaran slept. It was dark by the time his father returned and he was alone.
“What match was there for her in the village?” his mother complained. “Not after… She’ll be happy up on the high plains. Plenty of rich farmers’ sons to court. She’ll be happier there.” Yet her voice sounded strained and it was weeks before the tears ceased and her eyes became something other than red, puffy hollows.
The next two years brought hardship to the village. The weather was unkind during the growing seasons and with food in short supply, tensions grew between neighbours as the long winters drew in. Men argued and fought, often as not over trivialities, needing some form of release. Afterwards, they stepped willingly enough down the confessional path.
A vile sickness came and the fever took more than a dozen men and women, with three times that number confined to their beds for weeks at a time. Folk helped their neighbours when they could but there was little enough left of anything to spare a thought for others. It wasn’t that they lacked kindness; it was energy and spirit they lacked for. Something had changed. Everyone felt it, though no one could put a name to it.
One thing they did not run short of was penitents.
Jaran’s father took a deputy and both walked the confessional path regularly, sometimes twice in one day. Jaran had taken to avoiding his father whenever he could. He would feel his skin prickling and, turning, see his father regarding him through half-closed eyelids. Nothing was ever said to Jaran but he seemed to see…something. He was biding his time, waiting until he could lead his son down the confessional path, make him kneel at the platform’s edge and stare into the bottomless black pool.
Jaran’s nightmares became a nightly occurrence. On the eve of his own coming-of-age day, he packed a shoulder bag with provisions and a few belongings and walked out of the village before dawn, much as his sister had done many seasons before.
He did not plan to return.
The forest provided. Jaran had learnt to hunt and fish almost before he could run. He knew which fruits to pick, the best tubers to add to his stew-pot, recognized the wild berries that held poison rather than sweetness, and always retraced his steps whenever he spotted the tell-tale signs of arachia nests. He stayed close to the streams of clear ice-melt that gushed from the high peaks and sought out their shady pools where crayfish could sometimes be found. But the mountain forests could not provide company.
The villages of the high plains never turned him away but neither were they welcoming of a stranger; another mouth to feed. Nevertheless, if he passed muster, a village elder would solemnly shake his hand and offer him shelter for the night, as was the custom. Jaran wondered if he might find his sister in one of these villages. He puzzled over what he would say to her but his meandering track must have taken him in a different direction and the opportunity never arose.
He stayed for a night or a week or a month, depending on how his sense of the place directed him. He traded hard labour for food and shelter. He was a willing worker, strong and able, which made it easier for the villagers to accept him when he chose to stay. Yet he couldn’t help noticing that his arrival was often the harbinger of trouble. Grumbling disputes and long-held grievances would suddenly erupt in his presence. Some casual remark made in harmless conversation with Jaran would lead to unintended revelations: this man was cheating on his wife; that child was fathered by another. Business dealings between villagers would turn sour in his presence. Petty rivalries would suddenly erupt into violence. Occasionally some astute villager would comment on how the sudden upturn in wickedness coincided with the arrival of the young boy who, himself, never did anything to upset anyone. And yet…
More than once he found himself hurriedly gathering his belongings and leaving under cover of darkness.
Jaran made sure he was scrupulously honest in all his dealings with the villagers he met. Never once did he cheat or deceive them. He worked long, hard days and asked only what was fair in return for his labour. If evil seemed to dog his footsteps, it was not of his doing.
He was shocked to discover these villages had no Black Healer of their own, not a single one. Most commonly elders sat in judgement when it became necessary, sanctioning hard, physical punishment if it seemed justified, a process that struck Jaran as faintly barbaric.
In one village he met a girl called Sarwal. Her hair was long and fine, falling across her face in a very pleasing fashion that stirred thoughts deep within Jaran he had not experienced before. But it was her eyes that captivated him; clear pools of emerald green that he felt he could drown in if he gazed at her for too long. When she smiled shyly at him, the day seemed to grow brighter around him and the sun warmer.
They walked out together on those bright days for mile after mile, following narrow paths through the forest, skirting the stepped clearings where the crops grew and the cattle grazed, all the while Jaran wondering if he dared ask to hold her hand. Instead, a question came unbidden to his lips. “Why don’t you have a Black Healer?”
When he tried to explain what that was, Sarwal looked puzzled. “Are your people so full of evil that you need such a thing?” she asked. Though he tried to explain, he couldn’t seem to get her to understand.
Later, when they did walk the forest paths holding hands (and even began to steal kisses in quiet, shady places), he wondered if it was wrong to keep secrets from her. Only visible at night, the creeping grey affliction now covered him from head to toe. By moonlight he would stare at his pallid skin, so puckered and coarse it scarcely seemed to be his own, wondering what kind of sickness he carried within. These villagers had medicines and the knowledge to apply them. Perhaps they would help if he asked. But come the morning, the greyness always vanished, his skin looking healthy and normal again, so he said nothing.
Jaran had grown tall and strong by now; no longer a boy. On a warm summer’s afternoon Sarwal led him by the hand into the forest, skipping along, turning to taunt him playfully before darting ahead laughing. This time when they kissed it was different. He felt Sarwal gently part his lips with her tongue, probing his mouth like a creature burrowing into a warm nest. He responded at once. Yet when the tip of his tongue met hers he felt a sudden jolt. He remembered the time long ago when he once touched a finger to his tongue—a finger dipped in that pool of blackness. He had tasted a dry, empty nothingness, an absence of all taste and sensation. So it was now.
Sarwal felt his hesitation and pulled away. “What is it, Jaran? Have I shocked you?”
Jaran said nothing. What could he tell her? What was there to explain? She had no understanding of devil’s bloom—and the truth was, neither did he.
Sarwal sat back on a fallen log, the sun lighting her hair as if it was ablaze. She looked puzzled and unhappy. What am I doing? he thought. Would he not rest until he had corrupted all that was good and beautiful in this world?
He left that night without saying goodbye, turning back the way he had first come, towards a village he knew to be many days’ trek away. It was time. And when he reached his own village, he would follow his black-robed father down the path. He would do the thing he feared most. He would kneel in front of that pool of darkness and confess.
And all would be well.
The years had changed the once familiar landscape more than he cared for but as he drew closer he recognised the landmarks of his youth. He smiled as he imagined the shriek his mother would give and her vice-like grip as she crushed her son to her bosom. His father’s reaction he preferred not to imagine.
But all he found were broken timbers and ashes. Stubby foundations marked where buildings used to stand, weeds and saplings grew up where sloping fields had once been cultivated. He stood for a long time trying to marry the pictures in his mind with this scene of devastation, preferring to believe he had taken a wrong turning, that this could not possibly be the ruins of his childhood village.
Gone. All of it.
Its ending had been violent: buildings razed, the earth scorched, crops burnt. But no people, not anywhere.
He knew the way, feet leading without the need for conscious thought–which was just as well because he was still too numb with shock to properly know what he was doing or where he was going.
The pool had become an empty hollow again, no different from a hundred others to be found in sheltered valleys across the forest, lined by sun-baked mud cracked into irregularly shaped tiles. The platform was still there, jutting out over empty space. Right in the centre of the hollow he found a tiny piece of black nothingness, thin as a crust of frost. It turned to dust and blew away on the breeze the instant Jaran touched it. With that, the last trace of devil’s bloom was gone.
The hollow seemed smaller than he recalled, but steep-sided. He saw now that the pool would have been very deep at its centre. Deep enough for a million upon a million drops.
Perhaps without the people, there was no reason for evil to exist, he thought.
He returned along the confessional path—not the triumphant return he had imagined—to survey the remains of the village. Even though there was barely anything left, he felt the compulsion to destroy, to leave no trace behind. To eradicate.
But it was too late. They had already done that themselves.
Always he moved south, no destination in mind, just following the flow of water where he could, letting the gentle fall of land lead him into the foothills, his machete carving out the only path he needed, though its blade had grown pitted and blunt of late.
Abruptly he stumbled out of the half-light of the forest onto a ridge above a deep gorge. He cursed. The descent was too steep; it would mean retracing his steps a half a day or more to find the head of the valley and the long way round.
Then he raised his eyes beyond the gorge to the meadows beyond and saw the distant town. He saw the smoke rising from communal baking ovens, clearings where crops grew in orderly rows each with their own irrigation channel, jumbles of thatched roofs, two hundred or more. There was even a little marketplace with stalls displaying colourful wares: lengths of cloth, trays of glazed meats, vegetables and fruits—though distance made his eyes water and it was hard to be certain. He heard the faint shouts and squeals of children playing chasing games in the meadows beyond. Such a scene of beauty and tranquillity could hardly fail to lighten even the hardest of hearts.
It was, he supposed, a happy place. Not perfect by any means because nowhere could claim that, but harmonious in its own way. He wondered if the people had ever been tested as his own village had, and how they would fare.
Jaran camped that night on the ridge. The chill night air seemed to find a way through his clothes and he stayed awake long into the night, the hard rocky ground pressing into him until his bones felt joined to the rock. On the breeze came faint sounds of song from distant taverns. Far away across the gorge he saw the bright flicker of guard fires burning at the edge of the town, and the fainter glimmer of candle-lit windows, and bobbing lanterns of late night revellers stumbling home.
He slept not at all that night.
He searched for most of the next day until he found a place; not too close, not too far away. A shallow depression, well hidden by forest undergrowth. A cavity left behind when some great tree had toppled, widened and expanded by wind and rain over the years. Nothing much seemed to grow within.
Jaran knelt. He summoned memories that he barely knew existed. All the times he had played tricks on his friends, stolen treats from the table when his mother’s back had been turned and, of course, the wrongs he had done his sister. But it was not enough. Nowhere near enough. Too… insubstantial.
Then he thought of the future: a half-imagined life seen through a grey mist, of forks in the road and things only dimly grasped. There were possibilities here, if he chose correctly.
Leaning forward, he retched. A thin dark stream issued forth, just dribbles at first but then his stomach muscles spasmed and the stream became a black torrent; an endless river, thick as tar, pooling on the ground in front of him. More and more of it spilled from his gaping mouth. As the minutes passed, the black bile spread to fill the shallow basin, becoming a dark swirling mass. It crept up the sides of the hollow, taking on a life of its own; becoming something where before there had been nothing.
When at last he was done, Jaran fell back, just the shell of a man.
The black pool lay silent and still.
The path was steep and narrow, zigzagging down the side of the gorge towards the town. Little used, Jaran guessed, which is why he had chosen it. The young woman didn’t notice him until they came upon each other suddenly, her eyes on the rocky path as she climbed. She carried a wicker basket of the kind used to gather mushrooms and berries.
“Pardon me,” she said. “I did not expect to meet a stranger on this path.” Her smile was warm yet neutral. She raised one hand to shade her eyes from the dazzling sun.
“Might I find a place to stay in this town?” Jaran asked. “Some bread fresh from the ovens perhaps, and a fire to warm myself by? I’m not afraid of hard work to pay for these things.”
“Of course,” she laughed. “But it’s nearly summer and surely warm enough without the need of a fire.”
“Is it?” He hadn’t noticed the change of seasons in a long while. Deep inside, it always felt like winter. “I also know the ways of the Black Brethren. I could serve as your priest. Lead those who require it to confession.”
She frowned. “That’s something I haven’t heard spoken of in a very long time. We have no need of that custom here. Once though…”
Jaran reached forward and gently brushed away a fleck of dandelion seed that had caught in the woman’s hair. She didn’t flinch, not even as the tip of his finger gently brushed her cheek.
She had changed so much, but then so had he.
“There is always a need, Aliya,” he said softly.
David Cleden lives in the UK, works in London on vaguely IT-related things, and is the 2016 winner of the James White Award, with published work in Interzone, Betwixt, Electric Spec, The Colored Lens and other venues. He holds a degree in physics from Imperial College, London—although whether this has been put to good use by writing science fiction and fantasy is still up for debate. One day he will have a proper author’s website and write something intelligent on it, but for now he can be found on Facebook and Twitter as @davidcleden