My king, he is ailing.
Knees rouge from stone, a bowl of murky water I can taste in the air, a certain emptiness like a shadow over my lord. I am asked once, twice, but not a third time – make sure you test his temperature, rest the paled back of your hand against His Clamminess. When another woman comes, a taller woman with marmalade hair and the breath of root vegetable stew, I repeat what has become a sort of mantra among field mice: he is not improving, but he is the king of Teval. I take but a moment for myself. Dig in soft beetroot flesh. When he begins to stir, I try again to ladle another swallow of his swamplady’s medicinal brew, forcing the stench on his nostrils. Smell leaks onto my fingertips with every spit-up that dribbles down his chin.
I resign to my duty. Even as I aid him when he coughs and splutters, the view out his arched window of the woodland consoles me. I could get lost in counting the number of spires forming a shaken platform at the tops of the pines. Somewhere, beneath them, I like to imagine blossoms the size of both of my palms, slammed together, in thrush. My little untrained eyes trail as far as one of the guards peering out from behind a colour-drained trunk, a smear of brick-red across their forehead. A retreat, then.
An hour later, someone comes to offer me a rest. I feel the King’s sickness crawling into my throat, phlegm festering, and there is an overcrowding in my head. Some part of my mind convincing me to lie down on the cold cobbles and resign. I take a too-long breath from a window in a stairwell. I realise, now, that my hands are shaking.
War has raged between our kingdom and the neighbouring one for a few months now.
I flip through the mellowed pages of something left behind by a former handmaiden. Some sort of religious text, focused on the supposed truths of gods and demons – and demon-gods – that are a shared belief between our kingdom and Aleikka. I waste what little time I have when I am not by our king’s side reading this book, shoveling my tiny face with food, or avoiding the screams of the dying.
When I return to him, the king breathes, then snots, on the back of my hand. The cloth of this dress is stained, crusted over, clinging to my pores from sweat. He coughs out what could have once been a fabled war cry, then he grunts. The king’s thick parsnip eyebrows crawl up and down his face. He blinks his eyes open and glares at me. ‘Your manners go leap out that window then?’
I listen out for each snore, some old-time anthem meshing with a roar. He is well asleep, knocked overboard by a sharp dose of a woodland mushroom the swamp woman said she slipped in his remedy. He sleeps, but he tires again within waking moments. His recovery is too slow for war, for rage. There’s a wind gusting in through the arched window, and it covers my footsteps as I retreat to the door. I almost excuse myself to him, a would-have-been:
I duly wish no one disturb you while you slumber, my lord, but there is something I must attend to.
An all too polite nicety, had I spoken to him, I think, closing the one door in the kingdom said to be impregnable. It shuts with a boompp. Shirking responsibility, I hear, a repetition in my head.
I see myself draped over a compact corner of his bed, a kicked-down blanket coarse against my ear. Last night. Blinking to keep myself awake. Letting an unfocused vision of a one-eyed woman hoisting herself upon a mounting horse pierce in, then out, and then there is double vision of her. Not a splutter for hours.
There is a chapter in the unwanted book I avoided for a time, for it narrows in on the darker amalgamations of gods, of demons, of a class that desire a feast, and then flesh. I would fear my father first, then fear torturous Xe second, an accompaniment to disobedience. The demon of bloodcry. A symbol not merely of war, but of famine – without good – and the bad, pesky, troublesome little children. Xe wears the maroon run-down of a fatal babe like chain-link armour.
My lord, forgive me, for I wish to summon a demonic entity to revive you.
The book is vague on the particulars. It warns, it clutches to a shawl, do not dare to enact the union of yourself with such a beautifully malignant creature-not-creature. I am learning how to read between lines on the fly, eyes narrowing in. If something desires a feast, you provide it. I run three fingers down from my wrist. Tender, soft. Gentle. We must be gentle. There is no incantation written on the page, nor hidden between words. There are herbs that dispel Xe, root vegetables that can cause him to linger, a river to the south that is his claimed birthplace. I pretend I am a girl with some born gift, some reactionary clamber inside me – I am a dream-in-fantasies girl. Nothing happens, of course. I resign to a darkened closet, where we store excess food that will not cram into the kitchen, with a flame-lit candle set down awkwardly, not far from my left knee. Too much kneeling. I cross my legs, hoping I draw him in with a subtle spelling of his name then.
The book is splayed out in front of me. I start to chant his name.
There is a short blade I hid in the only pocket of the cloth I was assigned when my father traded me to the kingdom. This ratty dress, a worn-out uniform. The look of a soldier if I make it so. I hold steady a hand wishing to go limp, the knifehead pricking at the skin.
‘I summon the god of bloodcry – I command him.’ It comes out in a language I do not recognise. The words I intend are coarse, misaligned. Vague. I feel entirely out of my element, and yet I close my eyes, calling up some dead language. I believe in a shaman cottage inside my head, which I am flicking the roof off of. I am barely focused on the trickle of blood careening in trio, the dance of the flame, something dull and grey taking shape in the light of it. I call his name again, and it is as if I stand on the soil, clawing at sloshed-up mud, lining my gums with it. I chew on earthworms.
I see myself briefly enraged in possession, and the king is dead and silent.
A colossal war won, given darkness.
It burdens on me.
Without thought, I smother the little flicker with my clean palm. In new blanketed darkness, I spit out an unevenly formed oval of gunk, barely visible. I imagine it green, the colour of the pines.
I return to myself and offer some form of a prayer to a god I have never worshipped. I have bloodied up the page. I hold crusted fabric to my wrist. I am myself; I am a nothing girl – I repeat it, over, and over, and over again. He’ll wake up and see the stained blood and he’ll snicker.
What is a servant doing, dirtying herself?
What did she think she could achieve?
Author: Keeley Young is a fourth-year creative writing student with his head constantly in the clouds. He is interested in writing everything from fantasy fiction to queer literature to hopefully-engaging pieces about human emotion
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.
Editors: Willow Ward and Hannah Vesey