In the silence of the Temple, they spoke.
A murmur, a sigh, an awakening, a cry.
I moved my cheek from the stone, the pain of the whispers too great to bear.
Although night, the workers — slaves, prisoners of war, many of them mere boys — still pulled and pushed the immense blocks into place, the already overwhelming Temple forever expanding, a veritable mountain of stone at the edge of the city.
For many of them, this was all they knew, their lives after capture, after defeat, one of constant work, nonexistent sleep, and death, quick and inevitable.
Above them all, the Priests watched.
And here, under the light of an almost full moon, the pain, the rage, the powerless despair of all those trapped and troubled bones in the stone surrounded me like a fog.
In the quiet, safe in the dark, far from those who watched and those who worked, I pressed myself to the cool rock.
I would listen.
Yes, I feel you.
I pulled away.
“They know you.”
A small woman stood behind me, her long hair as silver as the light bathing her, the years in her face softened by the glow of the moon.
I glanced around for my guards. But, no, I had left them hours ago, ordering them away before I climbed the hill to the Temple.
“Your guilt needed solitude,” she said. “Your shame too great to share, yes?”
“And this is why you, the Almost King, stand here now, at this hour, under the moon, listening.”
She stepped closer.
Though draped in woolen, the rough fabric scarred by clumsily mended rips and tears, her feet bare, her wiry frame alarmingly thin, she carried herself with an unapologetic sense of majesty and dignity and strength as she moved near.
“Is your power worth all that death?”
“No.” The answer came from me, quick and unthinking. “No.”
“And yet it is not something you can deny, this power. This crown. It will be yours regardless of what you want or what you do. Or what I do. Born into this, you are as trapped as those in the stone.”
The tears threatened to come. I blinked. And blinked again.
“The most powerful of men,” she said, her voice gentle and kind, “utterly powerless to change what must be changed.”
Watching me, she grew silent as if she, too, were listening.
She turned her head, her gaze on the workers in the distance, the sweat on their skin shining under the glow of torchlight.
“Your mother is one with the Dark Gods, yes?”
“There’s no need to answer.” She continued to watch the nameless who toiled under the gaze of the constant moon. “It’s commonly known, understood. We barbarians, as she calls us, here in the city talk of her and the Priests and their ancient religion. Those beliefs from the Time of the Moon. Of their worshipping those who must be paid in blood, in flesh, in fear. In the tears and cries of those they slaughter.”
“This is known?”
Looking at me, she continued.
“It is also known, and spoken of, that once these souls are bled and lifeless and useless, they burn –”
It was my turn to watch the strangers pull and push, the thick, braided rope threatening to split and shred under the weight of the stone.
“The gift you must give,” she said, my mother’s words echoed in hers.
“Is something I regret.” I refused to look this stranger in the eye. “Something I wish I didn’t have to do. Something I wish I had never done.”
“But it’s done.”
I looked at her.
“She’s a very powerful woman, your mother. Not many can deny her. Not many dare. Those who do …. ”
She grew quiet, the thought unfinished.
“And the Priests?” I asked. “What of them? Do the people talk about the Priests?”
“Yes, they do. And they understand what you and your mother do not: these men, these Priests, are more powerful than you know.”
“She believes she’s a God.”
“An easy lie for them to feed her. And her mind …”
Hesitating, she looked for the words.
“Her mind is wounded and hungry. Desperate for comfort, the grief, the guilt, the horror of what she’s done still at war with the tender delusion of her immortality.”
Confused, I watched her, her eyes almost silver under the light of the moon.
“The bones are in the stones, yes?” she asked.
“And what of the flesh? The flesh you burn before they grind these bones?”
She stopped, watching me before asking again.
“What of the flesh?”
— an excerpt from The Martuk Series, A Collection of Short Fiction, Vol. 1