Vacillian, page 1
Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Burgo
All rights reserved. Published 2016.
Published in the United States by New Rise Press. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without written permission from the publisher.
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This is the first part of a work in progress, a full length fantasy novel to become the opening book in a projected series entitled BlightRise. I’m trying to build an audience for these books. Please help me by leaving a review if you like it. Reviews may be short and anonymous. They’re extremely important for a book’s success. And please take a look at the listing of my other publications following the last page of this one. Thank you!
"Vacillian!" the woman hissed.
It was Manda, little Gianna's mother, naked like all the other women and children at the riverbank. She stood pointing toward her daughter with a face twisted by fear and hatred.
Most of the others hadn't heard, but sunning herself nearby on warm river stones, Devianna saw it happen. Gianna tottered forward on her plump little feet. She wasn’t even two years old and could barely talk. She laughed and pointed toward the soft fold between her legs, at a new stub of flesh growing within the cleft, about the size of her little finger.
"Vacillian!" Manda hissed again, louder, fear tightening her voice so it sounded almost like a shriek. That fearsome word made the other women and children turn to look – about forty of them, all together. Small whimpers of terror rippled through the crowd.
Run! Devianna wanted to scream.
Poor little Gianna had no idea what was coming. Devianna felt desperate to save her. A sharp glance from her own mother warned her to do nothing foolish.
Manda threw the first stone. It struck her daughter in the chest with a muffled thud, weirdly flat against the high notes of wind, rushing water, voices raised in fear and hatred. Gianna looked confused but didn’t cry out. She took another step toward her mother and stumbled on the loose footing. As she dropped onto her knees, more stones began to fly. Some missed their mark but most slammed into her body, one after the other.
"Vacillian!" the women hissed, drawing nearer.
Devianna heard the word all around her, a venomous rush of steam between teeth. Even if they didn’t understand what the word meant, the children echoed their mothers.
There was a sharp cracking sound ... Gianna's skull ... or a bone in her arm. Devianna clenched her eyes shut. When she opened them, blood was oozing from Gianna’s nose and ear. She'd curled into a ball, covering her head with her arms. Soon small patches of red glistened all over her body.
The women tightened their circle around Gianna, hurling their stones at close range. Eyes fierce, teeth bared, hair river-wet and matted to their faces. Devianna chose a stone and threw it high and wide, far from Gianna.
In her thoughts, she said, I'm sorry.
Soon the little body lay still amid the horde of women and children, most of them only a few feet away now. With a look of disgust, Manda crouched down and took hold of Gianna's ankles, slippery with blood, dragged her to the river's edge, and hurled her into the water with a grunt.
Many of the women placed a hand over the hairy cleft between their legs. Others crossed their arms over their breasts. They all watched as edges of the swift current tugged at Gianna's body then took hold, carrying it downstream and through the shallow rapids beneath Castle Inario, its gray battlements ugly and stark against the blue sky.
Manda thrust her hands into the rushing water and rubbed the blood away. Devianna could sense the women and children calming around her. She pictured Gianna’s body carried round the bend and out to sea.
"Vacillian," someone whispered. The danger had passed. Without a word everyone began to dress. The girls and women put on their shapeless gray smocks, cinching them at the waist with rope. The boys slipped on their bulky trousers. Devianna found a single drop of blood on one of her sandals, still wet and vivid.
* * *
Mother had spotted the change in Devianna’s body when she was very young, barely a year old when the first shift took place, and kept it a secret. Her baby might be Vacillian, a dreaded freak of nature, but she’d rather keep her alive if she could. She rarely touched Devianna, rarely even smiled or said her name except when angry or impatient, but she wouldn’t want to see her child stoned to death.
Each time Devianna’s cleft sprouted a worm, Mother kept her away from the bathing. She told her she couldn't join in the mock battle games of the boys, as much as she wanted to, and should make mud cakes like the other girls.
"If they find out, they’ll kill you."
“Why is it bad to be Vacillian?"
Mother shrugged. "You’re different."
It was Devianna’s first true memory of childhood – in the kitchen with mother, five years old and a boy at the time but wearing a gray smock like a girl. Mother’s hands were blood red from the wild boar she was cutting up, killed that morning with her bow and arrow.
“Why am I different? Why am I Vacillian?”
“Born that way. Something wrong with you.”
Mother's strong sinewy hands tore the boar flesh into chunks, slicing into it with her stone knife.
"Why is it wrong to be different?"
"People are scared of what they don't understand."
“Enough of your questions!” she snapped. “Hold your tongue or I might change my mind.”
It became a familiar threat whenever Mother tired of Devianna – that she might tell the others in the village her child was Vacillian.
Devianna never knew when the shift would come, how many months or years would pass between changes. The core remained the same but as a boy, he felt a stronger need to stand out, to pit himself against and above others. As a girl, her sense of other people grew sharper - what they felt, what they wanted from her. As a boy, he sometimes noticed the same things but they didn’t matter as much.
She was fifteen years old now and had been a girl for the past three. Her monthly blood had come, her hips were wide and her breasts large ... though lately, she’d sensed them growing smaller. It was nothing anyone else would notice, not yet, but she could feel the shift coming. The flap of flesh within her cleft was thicker and her facial skin felt coarse. Day by day, her mood grew heavier, pierced now and then by the urge to strike out, to hurt someone, to make them feel her pain.
Why should I have been born this way?
* * *
On the path back to the village after Gianna's body had gone downriver, the wind picked up. Mother and Devianna didn’t talk. None of the other women talked. They usually said little to each other, but this silence felt different. A shadow had settled over them. Some of the littlest children skipped ahead or pestered their mothers until they were slapped or told to be still.
Three of the older boys had grouped together and were walking ahead. Ludo, the oldest, stood almost a foot taller than the others, his body showing the first signs of manhood – fine hair on his chest, the beginnings of a beard. Soon he would stop coming to the river. He might run off to join a pack of wildmen, the way many of the young men did. Ludo used to stare at Devianna’s body but lately he seemed to have lost interest. Could he sense she was becoming more manlike?
A coldness like heavy water flowed down through her body. This was the only home she’d ever known. For years she’d hidden her secret under a shapeless gray smock, but soon a man's beard would betray her. Even if nobody else could see it yet, Devianna felt the quiet itchy beginnings of its growth. Her jaw would thicken, her shoulders grow broad like Ludo’s.
Soon she’d have to leave the village. All Devianna had ever known was her village and its farmlands, this winding path from the riverbank, the nearby woods where they hunted. Where could she go?
They hadn’t talked about it but Mother must know she'd wake up one day soon and Devianna would be gone. Mother would think of her from time to time over the years to come but she wouldn’t pine for her.
A horse’s whinny spiked high above the wind. The women and children all drew close together; Ludo and the other boys dropped back. They had no horses of their own – outsiders must be waiting for them within the village. Maybe soldiers from Castle Inario had come again to demand food. Once a year they showed up and carried away some of their livestock and part of the grain. “The king’s portion,” they called it.
Devianna led the group around the bend and into the village. A saddled horse was tethered to the upper rail of a sheep pen. Another pair was harnessed to a wagon with four young women seated in back, all clothed in the same way – dun-colored dresses with deep blue aprons and matching scarfs in their hair. Stefano and a few of the other village men stood around looking confused and useless.
At the stone well, a tall man with large bony hands was drinking from the wooden bucket. Dressed in brown trousers and a leather tunic, he had a sword at his side – a real metal sword, not the crude ones the villagers hewed from hardwood to protect themselves from roving wildmen. Devianna had seen soldiers from Castle Inario with real swords, but they always wore the king’s falcon crest centered on their chests. This man had a bird emblem in white fur below the right shoulder of his tunic.
He dropped the bucket into the well and called out to the villagers. “We are come from the Orphanage.” His deep voice carried above the whistling wind. “We give shelter to unwanted babies and bring them up to useful lives of service. To those wishing to unburden themselves of an infant, we offer three gold pieces. We will feed and care for them until they come of age.”
It sounded to Devianna as if he’d said those same words many times before. These strangers, these people from the “Orphanage” – whatever that might be – had visited many other villages offering to buy babies.
Devianna sensed excitement stirring amongst the women around her. “Take this one!” cried chubby Petra, dragging her chubby toddler forward by the hand. “You can have this one!”
“Too old,” the tall stranger said. “We take only infants not yet able to crawl.”
Petra swatted the toddler’s behind and hissed at him, as if he was to blame for being too old.
A few of the other women hurried to their huts and soon came back with baby crates. Sida brought little Enzo, his tiny fists flailing above the wooden box, his familiar nasal cry carrying on the wind. Sida was first in line. The tall man counted out three gold pieces from a leather bag and placed them in her hand. Then he lifted Enzo’s box over the wagon’s edge and into the waiting arms of those blue-skarfed women.
They had flat, empty faces, all of them. The tall man handing out gold and the women seated in the wagon looked as if they felt nothing, had never felt much of anything.
As she watched the women give over their boxes, Devianna felt an ache in her chest. Around her, many of the other mothers looked as if they couldn’t decide. Should they hold onto a baby who needed food and care or be free and accept the gold pieces?
With a child in her arms, one mother came out from her hut but didn’t stand in line to take gold. Devianna often watched this woman, Nila, as she rocked and cooed to her baby. Devianna felt sure that Mother hadn’t ever looked at her that way. She might have kept Devianna’s secret all these years, but Mother’s face had never looked joyful.
Devianna searched for her in the crowd but she must’ve gone back to their hut.
In the end, five mothers traded their babies for gold. With the last of the crates loaded into the wagon, the tall stranger untied his horse and climbed on. One of the blue-skarfed women clambered onto the wagon seat, took the reins, and clucked the horses forward. Most of the women of the village had already gone home by then but Devianna stood with a few of the others and watched the strangers leave. Sida’s face had a confused, halfway sad look. Devianna knew she wouldn’t miss Enzo for long.
* * *
That afternoon, she went alone into the woods with her quiver and bow. The urge to stalk and kill game had grown stronger during the last few weeks, another sign of the coming shift. She wandered far from the village, bent on finding prey. She promised herself not to go back until she had killed something.
Maybe she could hide out in these woods until the shift was over then join with a pack of wildmen … at least until the next shift. Then what would she do, a woman alone in the wild? Would she ever find another place to call home? She felt a sob rising in her throat and hated herself for it. It was foolish to feel so much.
At last, she came onto a meadow and saw a spotted doe at its far edge. Carefully fitting an arrow into her bowstring, she planted her feet wide and drew the string back. The doe nibbled at a willow branch. Devianna’s heart leapt and the bowstring sang out as she released it.
The arrow pierced the deer in its chest; she toppled over and lay dead. Devianna’s eyes suddenly filled with tears.
“Idiot,” she said aloud.
It was foolish to cry over a dead animal, foolish to cry for babies who would soon forget their mothers, foolish to cry for poor Gianna who was dead now and couldn’t suffer.
Why should I have been born this way?
Silvana shivered and raised the fur collar of her cloak high around her neck. The shop was extremely cold … filthy, too, and the dark little merchant made the place seem even more squalid. So far, Silvana had said nothing. She usually allowed Pio to do the talking because the thieves and shady dealers with whom they occasionally did business took him more seriously. Tall and muscular with a blunt brutish face, he looked like a fighter, the sort of man who’d take an interest in forbidden weaponry.
Silvana studied the cache upon the merchant’s table: four swords, two battle-axes with their crescent blades intact, several chipped daggers, and one mace with a splendid spherical head.
Such treasure! A cache like this rarely came on the black market.
Seated in a shadowy corner, the merchant picked at his teeth, probing his gums with a long dirty fingernail. He wasn’t the actual seller, of course. Probably working for someone from the Guild. If caught violating the king’s decree, even a powerful Guild member would be put to death.
“My source also spoke of a halberd,” Pio said, his voice a rumbling bass. “I don’t see it here.”
“You are misinformed,” wheezed the merchant. “There is no halberd.”
“And how did you come by these weapons?” Pio asked.
“My cousin the farmer was clearing a new field and found an old warrior’s barrow.”
An unlikely story. Which member of the Guild was pulling the strings? She hoped it wasn’t Lukah. She’d cheat Lukah if necessary but she wouldn’t like it.
“And is this all your cousin found?” Pio asked
“Some broken glassware and a leather belt, nothing else that would interest you.”
“How many gold pieces are you asking?”
The merchant named his price. Silvana could easily give him the price he’d demanded and more. Two trusted guards just outside the little shop carried four times that much in their saddlebags. Whenever an important opportunity such as this arose, she always came prepared to pay.
And rarely did.
She gave Pio the signal – a slight nod of her head – and stepped back to watch.
None of his victims was ever prepared for the extreme speed of Pio’s assault. He was unusually agile for such a large man. He sprang forward, took the merchant’s head between two massive hands, and with a satisfying crack, broke his neck. The man crumpled to the floor and did not move.
Swift, brutal, and surprisingly graceful. With an army of such men, she could have ruled Estneva.
“Guards!” she called.
Within a few minutes, the trove of weapons was bundled out and lashed to the horses. Silvana and Pio stood alone in the merchant’s squalid little shop. He was gazing at her with a boyish innocence that looked odd upon his brutish face.
“Well done,” she said.
Pio lit up with undisguised joy. She marveled again that such a powerful man could allow another person to hold this much sway over his feelings. He’d always been this way, ever since he’d first laid eyes upon her at the Orphanage, fixing upon her the way a newborn duckling does with its mother.
“Let’s get back home and I’ll see to your reward,” she said. “You’ve earned it.”
* * *
The Orphanage had once been a working farm just outside the town walls of Sudana, but its large stone barn and slate-roofed farmhouse had since been converted into dormitories, one for the girls and a much larger one for the boys – larger because it also held the kitchens, the dining hall, and Silvana’s private quarters. The pens and stables stood so close that the smell of urine-soaked hay and pig waste was inescapable.