Sun 1 Jan 2017
by Daniel Ausema
The gods will mock. Give them an opening, a chink in your facade of self-importance, and they’ll slide their spears of mockery into your heart. Or at least into your inflated ego.
Sometimes the jibes came in the form of rain. Thick, heavy drops on a land in desperate need of water. A blessing more than a mockery, but the mockery was never meant for the land. It was meant for two people standing on a ridge just outside the town of Roof.
Sylls and Drabeth stood unmoving beneath the rain, still in full view of the townsfolk who had so recently and solemnly wished them fortune. Lightning flashed overhead, followed immediately by thunder. The sound of gods laughing. Drabeth looked up straight into the drops and let them pour over his face. He was wet through regardless. What point in trying to deflect them? The townsfolk cheered the rain behind them, but wasn’t there also a note of ridicule? He avoided looking that way.
“Well…” Sylls brushed the soaking hair off her face. The rest of her appeared to be nearly dry, protected by some alchemical process. “I suppose we might as well head back.”
“Back? After this?” Drabeth waved a hand at the sky, and the mocking gods hidden beyond it. There was definitely laughter now. Jeers directed at the would-be heroes. Drabeth shivered.
“We’ll say we brought the rain, exactly as we promised.” Sylls took a handful of some powder from within her cloak and flung it at Drabeth. It flashed when it reached him, a bright light that warmed his whole body, though it did nothing to dry him.
“Good luck with that, Sylls. I distinctly recall your last words on the matter. You were addressing the whole town, pretty much.” Drabeth pulled himself into a dramatic pose. “’Bringing the rain by alchemy is perilous work and unpredictable. If all goes well, we may return with it tomorrow.’” Here he held up one hand as if in warning. “’But it is never a simple matter. The alchemical costs…’ You stretched out that word, I believe, made it longer than it usually is.”
“I get the idea,” Sylls tried to interrupt, but Drabeth spoke over her.
“’The alchemical co-osts can be great. You should not expect us back for many days. But by alchemy and poetry, we will bring the rain back with us.’” He brought his hand down emphatically as he finished.
“Are you done?” Sylls flicked water from her face and waited for him to nod. “Fine, what then, if not back?”
Drabeth shrugged. In truth he didn’t care where exactly, as long as it wasn’t back to the sorry little town of Roof. “We were ready to leave anyway, right? That’s why we volunteered.” That and the chance to be heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero of some kind. Little chance they had of that now, at least in their hometown. “And now we have the journey money they gave us. So we’ll just keep going.”
Sylls looked back at the town without answering. It was their home, even if they had both grown weary of it after spending not only their childhoods there, but a dozen years as adults as well. The people were singing and shouting. Happy laughter rose from the streets as the rain poured down. Not cruel laughter, not anymore. Only the joy that came with the longed-for rain. If he didn’t say anything, he’d lose her. Nothing would draw him back to Roof, but it was asking too much for her to leave it behind also. What were a few days of mockery compared to that familiar sense of home, flecked with whatever nuances it might have? He had to say something. Only, nothing came to mind to say. All he could think of was the cruel gods and the need to get as far from Roof as he could.
Drabeth closed his eyes, ready for her to say it. Would she try to convince him to stay too? Would she be glad to see him off? A decade they’d been together, or close enough to it. He’d never assumed they would always be together, but he had always thought, hoped it would be a decade more, at least. To lose her like this, because he didn’t know what to tell her…
When she spoke, though, it was to say, “You’re right. And we’d better get going soon, before they have a chance to think of the money they gave us.” Taking his arm, Sylls led him away down the far side of the ridge. They’d planned to head on straight toward the sea, where her alchemy should have brought the rain, but now she turned aside and set out along the road at the base of the cliff. This way were larger cities, where an alchemist and a poet might find work.
“I don’t really sound like that, do I?” Sylls asked as they walked beneath some sheltering trees. “That was just you being a poet, right? Making my words sound all like…like that, like stuffy poetry or something?”
Drabeth stared at her for a moment before answering. The rain was getting past her alchemical protection, turning her clothes as wet as his already were. Poetry, that? Had the water touched her brain? Was she trying to mock him? But no, she wouldn’t do that, not after choosing to come away with him despite their being made fools.
He tried to keep his voice light when at last he spoke. “That, dear, was the opposite of poetry. Pure bathos. And it’s exactly how you sounded then, or nearly so.” He squeezed her arm playfully to show he was teasing her, though if he were honest, he had done his best to imitate her. When were poets known for honesty, though? No reason to begin now.
The road that ran along the base of the ridge split. One way hugged the ridge to lead to the mills and temple of High Falls. The other wound away toward Tellmac, a smaller but more cosmopolitan city of countless shrines and river trade. The crossroads was flooded.
“Well, what do you think?” Sylls pointed down one road and then the other. “Miners, millers, and missionaries? Or the riverboats?”
“Who might need us most?” It was a rhetorical question, simply stating what she’d left unsaid. “The river, I suppose.”
Sylls nodded. “But we should find a place to sleep soon, either way.” After they’d helped each other across the flooded crossroad, Sylls said, “We have the money for now, but once we get there, we’ll have to decide a longer plan. Do you think we should establish ourselves in one place, or keep moving, see what else we can see?”
Find the gods that mocked, Drabeth thought, even if it meant climbing the clouds. Let them know what he thought of their petty ways. Let them know he was not a man to be mocked. But aloud, he said, “We’ll have to see, I guess. Either is fine with me.”
The empty crofter’s hut they found, moss-covered and infested with rats, was ideal. Sylls laid lines of fine powder around the single room to drive the rats out and keep the rain from leaking through, and Drabeth crafted a simple poem of iambs and plain rhymes to keep them safe as they slept. When they made love, it was their own answer to the mocking gods, bodiless spirits in their ephemeral palace of clouds. Let them be jealous.
Before they left in the morning, Sylls spent an hour, as she always did, mixing new powders and arranging them about her person. Drabeth wanted to stay in the blankets and watch her, but he made himself get up and get their gear ready, sneaking glances at her as he did. Such artistry she gave her work, both the mixing and the arranging, a poetry made of potions and subterfuge. The many pockets of her cloak soon filled with tiny paper envelopes of powders. A satchel at her waist held the tinctures and larger pouches. She even hid potent seeds of some sort within the tangles of her dark brown hair and dried pods of another plant within her sleeves where she could quickly grab them.
When he had everything ready to go, Drabeth ran through words until Sylls was set. Sharp pairs of slant rhymes. Useful words for completing and resetting trochees and dactyls. Set lines of pentameter that could be worked in to a wide range of poems.
The path toward Tellmac dropped down soon to the flood plain. A new hint of green already showed through from yesterday’s rain. It wouldn’t last. The ground was scarcely damp. All that mocking rain, drunk thirstily by the soil and gone. Drought-scorched vines drooped from overgrown hedges. The water might be gone, but the memory of the gods’ slight was just as strong, of the need to confront them and make them answer for it. Drabeth traced the loops and kinks of the vines in case he needed to capture them in a poem. White flowers popped out of the tangled hedges, the eyes of some vegetative intelligence. A god’s? He scowled at them, willed every god to go blind.
How does one reach the gods’ palace? There must be old poems that tell, but he couldn’t think of any. Maybe there was a gate somewhere, a shrine among the many in Tellmac that would take them. Or him, at least. Sylls wouldn’t have to come if she didn’t wish to confront those shiftless deities.
Maybe even these hedges hid a gate. They were certainly tangled enough to hide all manner of things. Why not a magical gate too? Drabeth was just wondering what words he might use to uncover a door amidst those brambles when a section slid open and a handful of figures came out. The gods! But no, these were ordinary people, their clothes dirty, weapons in hand.
Wait, weapons? Sylls was already throwing something from her sleeve, and the leading bandit coughed and had to turn aside. She smashed a vial on the hard road, and a curl of poisonous looking smoke rose up between her and the remaining bandits. Pure mummery, that one.
“Hey, poet,” Sylls called back to him. “Could use some help with these. If you’re not too busy composing an epic there, you know.”
“Right.” Drabeth ran up beside her and spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Brambles hide the bandit lair.” The trochaic rhythm, broken at the end, cut into the one man and two woman who were still standing, hesitating behind the snake of smoke. Minor wounds only. He rushed on into another line. “Gone the leader from the band, / where the strength to fight again?”
A fair attack. The tetrameter usually worked well against several people at once. Blank verse, too, was a reliable weapon. The words…well, they served their purpose. The bandits stumbled back in pain. He sent them off in iambic. “The brambles take their dwellers home.” None were terribly hurt, but they’d seen and felt enough to know it wasn’t worth their pain to keep attacking. The gods’ fools he and Sylls might be, but they could take on a few bandits easily enough.
As soon as he was sure they were gone, Drabeth rushed over to Sylls. She was standing with her arms up her sleeves, as if still ready to throw something more.
“You all right?”
Sylls shook herself, startled by the question. She nodded. “You?”
“Yeah.” He coughed as blood filled his mouth, and with it the stinging pain that always came after a round of attack poetry. “Well,” he said when he could talk again, “you know how it is. But normal. They didn’t hurt me at all.”
“How you suffer for your poetry,” she said, that old joke, and stepped close to kiss his cheek.
Drabeth hugged her back. “Shall we continue, then?”
The road soon crossed over a tributary, a tumbling and rocky current that cut deep into the floodplain. It ran high and thick with silt. At the head of the stone bridge was a toll house and a sign announcing the price for all manner of farm animals and types of wagons. Banditry of a more civilized sort, but they were only two people, and the cost to cross wasn’t worth arguing.
Across the bridge, Sylls found a shrub of vistlewreath and snipped off several lengths of vine-like branches.
“Good spell material?” he asked as they continued, dodging aside with a laugh when she snapped one branch at him. Would she lecture him again on the difference between alchemy and spells? Or merely chide him for this recurring joke? He waited with another laugh for either one.
This time, she merely gave him her mildly annoyed frown. “For binding things. Straight up like this works well enough. Powdered it does wonders, and I’ve been out for half a year.”
“All magic to me,” Drabeth said and skipped ahead to avoid another switch from the branches.
The playfulness faded as they journeyed on. The leaves beside the road, brown-edged and still thirsty, began to sound much like the laughs of the townsfolk as they rustled against each other. The rain came in patches, never stopping long enough to forget how poorly timed it had begun, but not the steady soaking that they both knew the river plain and all the lands around it needed. They were still townsfolk enough to lament each time the rain let up.
Would the vistlewreath bind the gods? He let himself imagine that; one of Roof’s myriad gods bound hand and foot and imprisoned in some cosmic jail. Better yet, all of them. Doubtful. Unless he could add a powerful poem into the mix and really trap them. But poetry that powerful was surely beyond him.
Tellmac appeared out of the dreary fog: steep roofs and wide alleys.
The biggest thing they could see from their approach was the one flat-roofed building, a covered market so old no one knew who first built it. Strangely angled sluices at the corners of the building turned the rain landing on the roof into four impressive cascades.
Another time it might have inspired them to stop and stare. It was a magnificent building, one they’d often heard of but never seen. After the day’s journey, they had little energy left for the proper sense of wonder.
Sylls took the lead, making for one open side of the market. Drabeth watched the eaves and shadows for the city counterparts to the morning’s bandits, a dactyl ready on his tongue to defend them. His alertness itself probably kept any away.
Before they could duck beneath the shelter of the market, the gods had one more punch to their pride in store. One of the gutters overhead clogged and overflowed as they came close, and a gush of cold water poured over their heads. They entered the market, not as a master alchemist and her poet but as if a pair of dogs, shaking the water from their eyes.
In Tellmac, most of Drabeth’s work was for the shrines, renewing the protective poems that guarded them from looting and lies. The irony was never far from Drabeth’s thoughts as he made his unfamiliar way from one shrine to the next. The spirits and deities worshiped here, though, were surely not the gods who had mocked him and Sylls. As he went about his work, he kept a part of his thoughts always on the more distant gods in their high heaven, plotting how to confront them.
He climbed an old path at the edge of the city to a rundown shrine. Dead grass stuck out from the cracks of the fitted stone wall, and brown moss all over the lowest stones. The rains weren’t yet enough to bring the plants back to life. No holy woman or man was present at the shrine, but Drabeth paused at the low doorway and bowed his head, as if waiting to be invited inside.
The interior was even less impressive than the outside. A small pit in the center of a bare room vented a bare trickle of steam. Drabeth withdrew the most recent poem from an urn in the corner and took it out into the sunshine. He’d grown familiar with the last poet’s writing since arriving here, the quick scrawl she’d used for most of the shrines, the more elaborate calligraphy she gave to the larger shrines and some of the merchants.
This wasn’t her writing at all. In fact, a second look confirmed that it was his own, a poem he had placed in another shrine just the day before. He stared at it.
It had been a different shrine right? Was he confusing one shrine with another? He did still find himself lost in Tellmac at times as he searched for this hidden altar or that. He read through the lines, his own handwriting meticulous but lacking the fluid grace of a good calligrapher. They spoke of the spring in the center of the shrine, of the workers who tended its roses. Clearly meant for that other shrine. Was he so confused that he’d composed the poem for that one and dropped it off here? But no, he could distinctly recall composing the poem while sitting in the shade at that other shrine, and giving it to the workers in person. One of them must have decided to play a trick on him…
A trick, yes, but not one of the holy people at the shrine. Drabeth lifted his eyes up to the clouds and their hidden gods. They weren’t done with him yet.
Sylls felt the sting of the gods’ mockery too. Drabeth saw the fact in her eyes, but only recently had he begun to hear the details from her. This time, he went to find her. His arms swung wildly as he walked, making him a ridiculous figure no doubt, paired with his fierce strides and what he supposed was an angry look on his face. Well, let the people of Tellmac think him a fool; the gods would be pleased by that.
The marketplace bustled with people, hoping already for new life and new goods as the drought eased.
Sylls was in a booth, mixing chemicals in an oversized alembic. Pure show. Her real work required no such drama. The liquids swirled and formed globules of changing colors. Perhaps in the chaos of Tellmac’s market she needed that to attract interest. It made her look more refined, anyway, which might bring in certain customers.
No one was waiting for her at the moment. Drabeth vaulted over the counter and flung himself into the chair she kept there but then said nothing as he worked out what to ask her.
She was the one to speak first. “The gods again?”
Drabeth nodded. “You too?”
“Not today. My potions and powders seem to work fine until I have to demonstrate one for a crowd.”
Seem to work fine… He sat up straight. The wording made him wonder. “How exactly are they failing? I mean, do they go off before you want them to or do something different or…”
Sylls stared at Drabeth. “How did you… You’re not doing anything to them are you?”
“No, not at all.”
“Hmm.” She kept eyeing him oddly as she said, “That’s basically it. The concoctions go off before I’m ready or even before I bring the ingredients together. Half the time they must think I don’t know what I’m doing with the ingredients. And half the time that I’m trying to trick them, and the components aren’t even what’s causing the reaction.”
“That’s just the same.” Drabeth rushed to explain before she convinced herself he was the one playing a trick. “I mean, with the rain, they mocked us by sending exactly what we promised. Cruel, to our pride, but nothing else. The water down our necks was just mischief. So far my poems, too. Mischievous but nothing to interfere with their working.”
He hoped. Had he seen anything to indicate his poems weren’t working? He thought back over the past days, but no. “If they were interfering with your spells…potions, I mean, then that would be different. But the gods are doing the exact same as they were with the rain. Using it to mock you.”
Sylls nodded slowly. “Yeah, I suppose that is.” She sifted her fingers through a jar full of some sort of colored sand or seeds. “So what’s it mean?”
If only he knew. Drabeth shook his head and shrugged. “But tell me if anything else changes. I’ll keep looking for a way to…to reach them, talk with them.” Spit in their incorporeal faces, he meant, but he left that unsaid.
Unlike the gods of Tellmac, with their varied names and shrines and individual identities, the gods of Roof were nameless and uncounted. So, if one god had to sleep or journey through the clouds to a distant land to make mischief, there were always a handful more ready to take the first’s place in tormenting mortals.
There was no sense, then, in calling on a certain god or seeking to appease them. If Drabeth and Sylls managed to please one, it would likely forget them immediately, wander off, leave their torment to the others. Others who would gladly rush in to fill that void.
So what else was there to do? He couldn’t well shame them. The gods had no shame, only mischief. He couldn’t well fight them; they had no bodies, only spirits. And even if he were to raise an army, he couldn’t well invade their dwelling place, for they had only the clouds.
Drabath did the only thing he knew. He wrote. “Strike, gods, from your pale clouds in the far sky; / smite me in your deep rage but you won’t win; / sad cowards of deep heaven on high.” A strange meter he was learning from the local poets, alternating spondees and their antithesis. Little good its sharp and uncanny rhythm would be against the incorporeal gods, even in the mouth of a better battle poet than Drabeth. He hoped for some sign, at least, that they heard him. Maybe they would come and defend themselves. But…why would they? To him, a mortal, a poet to be mocked?
The best he could do was wait and watch what else the gods would do against them. Ask around a bit, if they could find anyone who knew more about the gods of Roof. Perhaps a disgraced priest would wander into town, or a lost text show up in the market, or at least someone might know something. If they were lucky, the gods would grow distracted by other mischief and forget him and Sylls. Or maybe they’d do something that opened themselves up to a counter attack, by poem or alchemy or both.
No such opening appeared in the following days. Nor did the gods lose their appetite for mischief. Their tricks on Drabeth’s poetry became more direct. Words changed as he wrote them down, dactyls becoming iambic and filler syllables sneaking in. He’d caught everything so far, he was quite sure, but how long before something slipped through and left a shrine vulnerable?
After some days of this, Drabeth took a job at a small shrine at the edge of the city. Small, but apparently popular. At least two dozen people gathered around the spring at the center of the shrine, and the air was draped in some sort of thick vapor that rose from a cave just beyond the spring. No plants grew close to the water, and where the water lapped against the stone verge, it etched deep lines into the rock. A drizzle was falling as he approached on foot, soaking his ceremonial poet robes.
Drabeth slowed at the sight of the people. Tempting, to a mocking god, no doubt. The air felt thick with a god’s presence, heavy and dizzying. Oh, let it only by the shrine’s deity, not his own gods. As if a prayer like that would do any good. Either it was already his gods, and they’d mock his prayer out of spite, or it was already the shrine’s, and the prayer was pointless.
As he climbed up toward the front of the gathered people, he stumbled. Righting himself, he had to look down at his feet to decide which one needed to move next. The rest of the way he went with his eyes looking downward and telling himself, “Left, right, left, right.”
The former poem was brittle and pocked with tiny holes, worn by the noxious air. Drabeth laid it carefully aside. One of the holy attendants said something to the crowd about watching a warrior poet at work. The last thing he wanted, but he deliberately avoided thinking about them. Maybe if he was less aware of the audience, the gods would also ignore them.
For a poem of defense, it never worked to plan it ahead of time. It had to be composed on location and tie into whatever he happened to see and feel. With a fresh sheet in front of him, Drabeth wrote and spoke at once, “Where the deep mist pools, the grotto…”
But then, like forgetting his right foot and left, he lost track of the rhythm. Was it an iambic shield? No, if he concentrated, he could force the line into a trochaic pattern. Except…it wasn’t quite a natural trochaic either, like it was straining toward some other rhythm. The word “mist” didn’t hide naturally without a stress. He read it through again, and the syllables became a jumble without pattern or meaning. How could such a mess protect anything? He crumpled the paper.
“Poet?” a holy man asked as if afraid to speak. “Is all well?”
“Yes,” Drabeth snapped back. And then more politely, “My apologies. The walk through the rain seems to have muddled my thoughts. Allow me a moment’s peace beside your sacred pool, and I’ll be ready.”
The words scarcely saved his face in the view of those gathered to watch, if at all. What good was a battle poet who needed time to reflect? What if he was hired as a guard and his thoughts became muddled during an attack? Still, he could at least give himself a chance to meet his obligation to the shrine. The gods would surely allow that, since he’d already been shamed in public.
The feeling of right and left returned slowly as he sat within the foul-smelling fumes of the shrine. Only when most of the shrine’s visitors had left or were occupied in other matters did he take out a new paper. Now, the words came easily. He even worked in the original line he’d written, with some small changes. It was good he did–otherwise the unused line would have lingered in the fumes, weakening the poem he did leave behind.
Even so, the central fact was of his public shaming. The gods once again had their fun at his expense.
The riverfront in Tellmac, for most of the river’s transit, was one long dock. Ever busy, both banks swarmed with the business of the river trade, unloading goods to bring them up to the famous market and loading the local wares. On the upriver side of the city, though, the river passed between a narrow set of hills, where the city’s richest houses perched. Where the hills ended on one side, the city’s architects and builders extended the high streets for another block before allowing the city to fall to its natural quay. The high roads left a short stretch of shadowy docks beneath them, heading up to the base of the hill.
Somewhere in there, among the smuggling operations and black markets and assorted criminals, was supposed to be a shrine, one that might have answers about Roof’s gods. Drabeth dragged Sylls with him to visit it.
A young-looking couple watched over the shrine. Probably not their only job down here in the under-dock. She wore the typical clothes of a fisherman–loose robes that fastened tightly at the elbows and knees–as if they were vestments. His clothes looked more like a butcher’s, even to what looked like smears of blood across his belly, but he smiled when they came in.
The shrine smelled of stagnant water and dead fish.
“You the ones asking about the Roof gods?” The woman’s voice rasped like a handheld bark scraper.
No wasting time, then. Drabeth offered her a simple bow, and Sylls said, “We were told you might know something about them.”
“We know things about all gods,” the man answered in a voice that seemed too gentle for that cave. “All gods are the same, only showing different faces to different peoples.”
At the same time, the woman said, “We know nothing about any of the gods. They are so many, and each one is as alien to us as a fish is to a stalagmite.”
Theology. Drabeth had no patience for such debates, unless he could work it into a poem. And then who cared if it was true or false, as long as the lines scanned and the rhymes worked. “How can we reach their palace? How can we make our complaint?”
“You can’t.” The woman seemed ready to say more, so Drabeth waited.
The man continued for her. “The gods of Roof, like all gods, live beyond human access. Else why are they gods?” As he spoke, he took a step back into the cave and scooped up some mud from the floor. He rubbed it into his face.
With another scoop of mud, he sidled over to the woman and kneaded it into her hair. She spoke as if unaware of what he did. “Some gods allow you to think you can approach them, but your gods―-”
“The faces of the gods that they portray as Roof’s.”
“-―they don’t even do that. Rather, you should use your poetry to summon them.” The man moved on to Drabeth and smeared the mud into his clothes. Drabeth kept as still as he could.
“I’ve tried.” Surely his mocking call on the gods to strike him would have worked, if it were possible, and that wasn’t the only time he’d addressed them, called on them to show themselves.
“But have you tried from the rooftops?”
“From the…what?” Because of the name of the town? Is that really what she thought? “That’s not where our town gets its name. It only sounds the same. The name comes from some old word that means hill or highland or something. Some language no one remembers. It has nothing to do with shingles and eaves and all that.” Frauds, clearly. He should have never bothered.
Drabeth pushed the man away from him, realizing only then how filthy the mud had turned his clothing. He brushed at the mud on his chest, for all the good it would do.
“You think the gods didn’t know that, though? What the name sounds like now? They probably knew what it would one day mean, long before they allowed the first people to come and settle there.”
“And even if not,” the man spoke from the back of the cave where he was gathering more mud, “the faces of the gods turned toward Roof would enjoy the way its name has turned out. Surely it must tickle their fancy. There’s so little to smile about, when you’re a god.”
“Fine, thanks.” Drabeth took Sylls by the hand and began to lead her out, before the holy man could start pawing at her as he anointed her in mud. “We may give that a try.” And all the gods would do is mock them for it.
Drabeth pulled up as the thought sunk in. Mock them. Exactly. Summon the gods in public, and they would surely mock him…and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Not if it meant they would still come. Much as the gods had made fools of them, they had always allowed his poems and her potions to have their effect…or to fulfill what the effect would have been.
“Try the roof of the market,” the woman called to them as they left.
Drabeth stopped. Frauds or not, they’d been helpful. Facing the shrine, he said, “May river waters bring you joy / and Tellmac’s riches fall your way.”
This time the gods allowed the simple poem to take effect without interfering. Lacking a significant audience, he supposed. The walls of the cave shimmered briefly with the blessing.
Sylls bent over a collection of powders and tinctures that she’d brought up to the roof. Drabeth had nothing to do for the moment but wait. Poetry was rarely a dramatic, public performance, at least not the poetry Drabeth practiced. But once Sylls said she was almost ready, he went to the edge and called to the people below.
“Come and observe a wonder! The powers of alchemy and poetry unite.” After he repeated this several times, a handful of people were lingering below to watch. He moved on to the next part of his pitch. “The gods of Roof have mocked us. They have mocked the people of this city. They have mocked your shrines.” He and Sylls had been the true target of their mockery, not Tellmac or its shrines, but why quibble? It was now clear that the gods would never leave them alone unless forced to, and if that took some stretching of the truth, so be it. “Come and see the gods made to answer for their actions.”
Drabeth paused for a few minutes as the people below reacted to this claim. Then he repeated it more loudly still. The crowd was still not huge, but it was growing as he spoke. Should be enough to draw the gods’ mockery.
He signaled for Sylls to begin. Alchemy was too practical, far too concrete for anything like summoning gods. She could create impressive billows of smoke and fog, though. Just the thing to satisfy a god’s ego.
The first pinches of powder she tossed expanded into smoke in the normal way. Drabeth moved in closer to see better. This was the key to the timing. There. The smoke appeared to hesitate a moment, fighting the flow of cause and effect.
The crowd would lose patience if it had to wait too long. To them he called out, “The smoke of the sandalwood tree calls to the gods. The smoke of the souls of salamanders. The smoke of burnt shadows and charred dreams.” Another anomaly. The smoke appeared too soon. The powder was still between her fingers as they made their motion toward the spot where the smoke appeared. The powder arrived a moment later and flared up within the smoke.
The gods were aware. Excellent, but Drabeth waited for a little longer to be sure their attention was fully fixed here.
Lightning flashed out from the smoke. A small fire smoldered in the market roof where the lightning struck, but Sylls put it out by flinging some yellowish paste over it. The gods allowed that mixture to work. Sylls could make something that approximated lightning, but the plan had been to do only smoke. Perfect. It was time.
Drabeth stepped to the edge of the roof and took a big breath, imagining the words and rhythms of a poem filling him along with the oxygen.
Before he could speak the first word, the air sizzled, and beings appeared before him. Uncountable, not because there were so many, but because there was no way to focus on them enough to see. A definite number around eight or so, but a number that wasn’t nine or eight or seven. A god number.
Drabeth held his head straight, fighting to keep his body from kneeling or bowing to them.
“Fool,” the gods spoke with a single voice. Then their voice split in two to say, “Mortal” and respond, “Which is the same thing.” “Why do you think you can control us?”
“I don’t.” Drabeth gave himself a breath to collect his thoughts and words. “The…the gods of Roof have mocked my friend and I. / I do not seek to test my will to yours, / impose my wish, nor summon greater powers; / I only ask for words from you. Explain.”
“Enough. Your poetry might constrain mortals―” the voice split again, and the second said “―fools―” at the same time, “but it cannot compel us. If we choose to punish you―” this time the choice split into three: “―mock you―” “―toy with you―” rounded out the others, “then what standing do you have to complain?”
Drabeth held his pose and said nothing. His complaint was made, what use in repeating it? Sylls came up from behind him and stood at his side, just as defiant, just as silent.
The gods, too, said nothing, but they didn’t leave.
When someone finally spoke into that silence, the voice came from the people below. “Even so, you came to his poetry, to her magic. So maybe they did compel you.”
The gods snarled, their voice going from one to many in the midst of the inhuman cry. One god sent lightning at the man who’d spoken, striking him down in the square. One sent streams of pebbles down on the crowd, dispersing them quickly, amid shouts and cries of pain. A few were gathered around the body of the lightning-struck man, but just as they were picking him up, another god summoned a wind that blew Drabeth and Sylls right off the roof. They spun in the air, and Drabeth reached out to hold Sylls. Embracing, they tumbled through the air and struck the wall of a building.
Before Drabeth lost consciousness, flames caught the edge of his sight. Another god―or maybe all of them―called down fire on the marketplace. The ancient structure burned hot and fast.
Shame. That’s what it came down to. Drabeth rolled onto his other side to stare at the other wall of his narrow cell and contemplate the caprices of the gods. Shame was the heart of it, the central fact of their hardships. Why? The wall on this side of his cell had three prominent water spots, leaking down from the bare-rafter ceiling. Three was the number of answers to his question as well. In his head, he linked the spots and the gods’ reasons. If he could have, he would have spat on each water spot in turn as he thought them through, but his captors had gagged him so he couldn’t speak any poetry.
The first he named Punishment. It was a wide spot on the wall, dark with mildew. General punishment aimed at all humans. Drabeth and Sylls were simply the unlucky targets of the gods’ message to everyone. A message saying, well, that was the problem with that reasoning. If the gods meant to send a message, they could have been more clear about what that message was.
If that was the answer, it implied an ungodlike level of incompetence.
Drabeth dismissed the first water spot from his mind. The second one, lighter in color and reaching lower down the wall, he named Mockery. It was a punishment of sorts, but a directed one, taunting and frustrating them at every turn for something they had done to insult the gods.
Yet when had he ever done anything to anger the gods? He’d honored them, in his way. Until the stunt on the marketplace, at least. Would they punish him, knowing already what he would do in the future? But without their goading mockery, he never would have done it. An even deeper incompetence.
Dismissed as well, which left only the third water spot. Something more than mold grew in that spot, turning its edges green and orange. It was the smallest of the spots but the most visible. This he named foolery, Godfoolery. It was the best fit for the behavior of the gods, the idea that they targeted Drabeth and Sylls out of whimsy, pure and cruel. In the boredom of eternity, they decided to amuse themselves by turning these two humans into jokes. Ha ha, and how long would it last? Probably until they both died.
Such gods were no gods at all, only tricksters. Demigods who merited no respect of any kind. Drabeth tried to spit at the water spot. Nothing came out past the gag, but he felt the cloth move. Maybe he could work on that.
Either way, he had no more use for explanations. No more use for water spots or gods. No matter which reason was true, it was shame that lay at the heart. He and Sylls both, shamed by the dictates of unworthy gods.
He rolled away from that wall, but as it was disappearing from his sight, an odd thing happened. The water spots shimmered for a moment, undulated, merged with each other. He stopped and tried to make the shapes continue their dance. In vain. They were mere water spots again, static and unimpressive. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that the illusion had been telling him that he was missing a part of the truth.
The turnout for the execution could barely be called a crowd. Drabeth walked as slowly as possible past hesitant spectators, still working at the gag in his mouth. If he could just get a corner of the gag open, then he might do something, speak some sort of escape.
Not that the gods would allow it.
Rain came down on them, of course. The gods of Roof couldn’t pass up another chance to remind them of their first mockery.
Sylls stumbled along behind him as armed guards drove them past the ruins of the old market. He managed to turn his head enough to see her. She wore a plain robe provided to her: one that wouldn’t have any secret pockets or stores of powders. Her arms were bound with what looked like her own store of vistlewreath vines. The gods’ mockery wasn’t enough; their human captors had to shame them, too. She didn’t meet his gaze, so if she was planning something, he couldn’t guess what.
As if the gods would allow her it. Wait. Of course they would. Or not allow it to take effect, exactly, but shame her with failure and then cause it to happen anyway.
That’s what he’d been missing. Shame wasn’t the heart of it at all. It came down to this: victory despite shame. He’d said as much earlier, and it had been his reason for the stunt on the marketplace, but he hadn’t put the last pieces together in his head. The gods were mocking them, no doubt, but for whatever reason, they were still compelled to allow Drabeth and Sylls to succeed.
And if compelled, then how were they even gods at all? Subordinate to other gods, or the laws of the world itself. No reason to fear them, no reason to honor them, no reason to even permit them into this city of shrines.
With a subvocal couplet, he got the corner of the gag out of his mouth as they mounted the stage. He stopped at the edge of the stage, nooses to his right, Sylls coming up beside him on the left. Drawing all the power of poetics that he could handle, he spoke.
“Weak gods-―” his voice was strangled by the rest of the gag and dry, but it sparked with energy. “Weak gods of Roof your rule is at an end.” Beside him, Sylls began shaking her head violently. Did she went him to stop? Never. He only hoped the officials of Tellmac wouldn’t manage to silence him with an arrow before he could finish. Or before the minor gods could fulfill his poem’s purpose for him.
They would rave, when they realized his plan, but they would be forced to do it.
“The Tellmac shrines refuse your waning power, / so too the market ash, the river bend.”
“Stop,” one of the officials called from his chair across the stage. “Silent, poet.” To one of the guards, he said, “Silence him.”
Before the guard could throw a spear, Sylls managed to shake something from her hair. A seed fell to her feet. Too focused on Drabeth’s poem, perhaps, the gods allowed the seed to take effect immediately. Black smoke rose up quickly, blocking out the officials, the guards, the small crowd. More than just smoke, too. At its edges, the air shimmered, like light seen through wavy glass.
Drabeth continued his poem, a terza rima attack sprinkled with the local poets’ spondees. He spared one line to free his hands and Sylls’s from their bonds and then focused on evicting the gods of Roof from the city and hiding Drabeth and Sylls forever from their eyes. The familiar pains of battle poetry wracked him, but he pressed on through the taste of blood and iambs.
They would still shame him, if they could, but already the poem took effect. Perhaps the very poem itself would prevent anything.
As he spoke the final line, “…confined to those of Roof, in Roof alone,” he felt a wash of some strange power come over him, against him. The flames along the insides of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth became subsumed in a much deeper pain. Waves of wrenching agony twisted his muscles.
The gods’ attention was noticeably withdrawing from the city, a sensation like the air after a lightning storm, but it was all he could do to notice that fact before he lost consciousness.
Sylls pushed a mug of some hot beverage into Drabeth’s hands before he was fully alert. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. They were sheltered beside the river, above the city, most likely. He could still sense the gods’ absence. Other deities and powers might remain, but not the gods of Roof. Drabeth touched the sheltering wall of the riverbank behind them with one hand. Cool mud, thick like clay. The movement awoke the pains in his muscles, and he quickly drank from the mug, hoping Sylls had put painkillers in there.
Perhaps the pain wouldn’t fade anymore. That might well be the gods’ work, leaving him with one last mockery before they were blocked from touching him. Well, Sylls could help him, if so. Or was she also…
He looked quickly at her, sitting beside the bank but still not looking at him directly. “Are you all right, Sylls? Did the gods leave you hurting, too?”
“The…? No, no. I’m fine, no pain at all. I think the gods decided they were already done with mocking me.” She shook her head and looked in his direction, but still not at his face. “You mean you’re still in pain?”
Well, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about some final punishment from the gods. That was good. Drabeth waved his free hand vaguely through the air. “The gods’ last gift, I suppose.” A life of chronic pain, but one free of the whims of minor gods. He’d take it.
Sylls mumbled something in response.
“I said it’s not. Or at least not the only gift they left you with.” Drabeth took another drink to steady himself. The beverage tasted of herbs and grass and little else. “What did they do? What do you mean?”
“Your face.” She gestured toward him without looking directly at him. “It’s…it just looks wrong.”
“Wrong how?” He touched his face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth―-all in the usual places. Had his skin turned sickly pale? His hair some strange color?
“It’s…I don’t know how to describe it. The light’s wrong, no matter what the real light is. It hurts to look at. Not sick, exactly, only wrong, uncanny, not exactly human. And it’s…” Finally, she met his eyes. “I can see. It’s some sort of sign, everyone will see. They’ll know you defied the gods.”
Sylls’s eyes looked frightened, but Drabeth laughed. “Let them see. I’ll wear it proudly. The poet who defied the gods. Who wouldn’t want to hire him? Especially…” he paused and looked Sylls over, wondering what she would say, “especially if he’s accompanied by a powerful alchemist.”
Sylls said nothing for a moment and clearly struggled to look directly at him. The struggle ended and she cracked a smile. “Yes, that would be a powerful pair, wouldn’t it?” She picked up some fruit from a pile on the ground and handed him a small plum, deep red that edged toward purple. Its juice spilled down his chin.
After a few moments of them both eating in silence, she said, “I may try to disguise it somehow, though. At least a little, since I’m the one who has to see you so often.”
“I’ll even do that myself, if you want.” He rubbed the plum juice from his lips up into his cheeks and gave her a ghastly grin.
“Stick to the poetry, pretty boy. Let me handle the rest.”
Copyright 2017 Daniel Ausema
A writer, runner, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and the Journal of Unlikely Stories, among many others. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial-fiction project Spire City. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies, and can be found online at http://danielausema.blogspot.com