A Lesson of Law

The blackened bark of the sundered faetree accused Alathea. She denied nothing. She knelt at its dead roots and wept.

Parthenos placed a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me,” his deep voice intoned.

“I danced,” she choked out between sobs. “I danced and the thunder danced with me. I laughed. And then the thunder went to dance here.” She placed her hands against the rough bark. Alathea looked up among the darkened branches. “They’re all gone now, aren’t they?”

Parthenos did not answer. The comforting weight of his hand lifted from her shoulder. His robes swished the long green grass as he circled the tree. “Fae do not continue to reside in a dead tree.”

“And without the guardians, this forest will die.”

“Should the fae leave, yes, the woods will wither.”

Alathea drew a deep breath. “What must I do?”

“Do?”

“I did this. My reckless dance. I need to fix it.”

Parthenos smiled at the girl. “You can do nothing.”

“You’re training me to be a paladin! We fight for justice! I have to be able to do something!”

The old man shook his head with a chuckle. “We do not fight for justice, and be glad of it. If we fought for justice, what would happen to you?”

Alathea sank back to her knees.

Parthenos nodded. “Justice sounds good when you can do something to right your wrongs and balance the scales yourself. But if you indeed slew the fae here… there is nothing you can do. And a soul for a soul would leave you very dead indeed.” He paused. “And Alathea, it is what you have earned.” His voice grew very quiet in the still glade. “You should die.”

A tear trickled down her cheek. “I can’t do anything?”

Parthenos shook his shaggy head.

“It’s my fault.”

“It is.”

“What will my punishment be?”

The old man groaned as he knelt down beside the young girl. “It will be more than you can bear.”

Alathea drew a shuddering breath.

“Your punishment has already been given.” Parthenos drew his breath in quickly, peering at the girl for a beat, and then hurled a hearty roar of laughter to the sky.

“No! I should be punished! I did something wrong! I did something horrible!”

“Of course you did, girl. Of course you did! And you can never fix it! Why do you think our God came?” He couldn’t keep the mirth in.

“I killed the woods!”

Parthenos offered a shallow nod. “Perhaps. You have done damage that cannot be undone. The faetree will likely never grow again. But look!”

A door in the bark split open toward Alathea. Fae flooded out of it, their green dresses and vests blackened by soot. They flowed from the tree, fluttering on translucent wings.

And then came the dead. So many dead, carried on charred leaves. The faeries set the dead at Alathea’s knees, looked up at her, and darted away, forming a great sphere of fluttering shapes around her. She counted the dead. Twenty-four lives snuffed out by her carelessness.  By her joy. Her joy had led to death.

A fae in a marred snow-white dress darted toward her face and placed a miniscule hand on Alathea’s nose. It hovered for a moment, and then shot away. The entire circle vanished into the wood.

“I… I don’t understand.”

“The fae serve the Creator, Alathea. They know what grace is. They have shown you the weight of your guilt, and forgiven you.”

“They should be mad at me! They should punish me!”

“Of course, if they followed the ways of the world. I say it again: They serve the Creator.”

“How can they forgive?”

“Long ago, these fae would prey on every human riding through the woods. It was a dark time. Then, a paladin rode forth to defend the humans. He captured every single fae. All of them. He discovered their tree. He held aloft a torch, ready to burn it down. But he set aside the flame. He showed them what forgiveness is. It changed them.” Parthenos grinned. “Grace always changes a person, Alathea, once they grasp what it is.”

Alathea rubbed her tears with her wrist. “So that’s it? No punishment?”

“No. Your punishment, like your guilt, is gone.” Parthenos gestured to the assembled dead. “But, if you would honor your sin, honor these dead. Do you know the burial rites of the fae?”

“I do.”

“Then sing them and dance them in honor. Do not let your sin end your dance. Let grace lift you up and move to its rhythm, Alathea. And learn from the fae. Let grace change you.”

Here’s a fifteen-minute write about Alathea long before the events of The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

Up from the Graveyard

Jeraeden watched the Walls of the World for a week before he gave up. The people of the Graveyard explored the Gray Islands, flitting from place to place, learning to make the reedships of the people there. The sun burned so many of his people!

Jeraeden manufactured a skiff for himself and set out to the east, following the Wall. Here a constant shower of fine mist and rainbows kept him company. The fall of the water reminded him of the sound of the Graveyard, but the lack of the thudding of hulls against each other deafened him.

He found more islands, sandbars, gulls, and fish. Few of the islands were inhabited. Who wanted to live beside the Edge? Only the desperate, simple, and insane.

Days stretched. His people fell far behind. He didn’t need to talk at all. He relaxed into the quiet. The sun rose. The sun set. The novelty of the light never failed to fill him with awe.

Two weeks later he discovered a long, thin island a mile from the Wall. A few stunted trees grew on the patch of land. More reeds. Two people stood in their shade. Jeraeden turned to speak to these lonely few.

When he saw who they were, he barked a laugh.

Matt and Talon ran into the surf toward him, waving their arms. Talon darted into the water, Matt lagging behind. When Talon saw who approached, he tried to stop and fell face-first onto the waves. Matt slowed.

Jeraeden beached the reedship and stepped onto the white sand. He raised an eyebrow.

Matt crossed his arms. “So. You made it.”

The tall man nodded.

Talon wrinkled his nose. “OK. So, did you kill Alathea?”

Jeraeden’s head lowered, his smile evaporating. He closed his eyes.

“You made her jump?” the young thief pressed.

Jeraeden’s slight nod answered him.

A silence stretched between the three men.

Matt burst into laughter. Talon jumped. Jeraeden twitched. Matt’s raucous outburst bent him double.

He reached over to grab Talon’s shoulder. “Don’t you see?” He wheezed between outbursts. “Alathea was right! We burned the Graveyard. It was enough to lift the rest of the ships, since Silent and Creepy’s here. And it was enough to lift us up, too! All the water started going back up and sucked us up with it, right?”

Talon nodded, his brow creased. “Sure…?”

“And if her God was powerful enough to lift the rest of us, don’t you think he’d protect her?”

“He always did before,” Talon answered.

“And if the lift was strong enough to bring us back to the light…” Matt motioned.

Jeraeden’s smile cracked his grief. “It was enough to bring her back.”

Matt’s enthusiastic nod answered. “It’s just a question of where she came back.”

Jeraeden smiled. “Then let’s find her. Come on, we’ll have to build more reedships for you two. And when we find her…” Jeraeden paused. “When we find her, I’m going to have to ask her forgiveness. I should have trusted her. And maybe. Maybe her God.”

Matt’s laugh filled the sky and bounced off the Wall. Talon soon joined in.

Tomorrow their search began.

Thus concludes The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

Restoration

In ages past, the bowl of the earth flooded. The Djarini claim the evil of the ice giants broke the world. The Chattering Women say that it was retribution for the way their children had abandoned them to the forest. The Scarred Pilgrims claim their own evils brought the deluge. All remember the Flood. How could they not? It was the day that shattered the world.

A single boat, or a raft, or a tree, or a serpent (depending whom you ask) held those few righteous who refused guilt the way a kitsune refuses fire. Every other life ended in the cold waters’ embrace. But the walls of the world could not hold the weight of so much guilt, so many waters, so the very walls of the bowl of the world cracked and crumbled. The flood poured over the edge, and ever since the earth has been a disc with no walls to keep its people safe.

Until today.

The Gray Islands saw the change first: wisps rose from the Edge, great tendrils of vapor. A few brave souls set out in their reedships. The boys dared each other to get closer, closer, as they always did. The few men who came with them stayed back. Each had seem someone fall over the edge. They knew. Those who ventured closest saw that the Edge now curved up; instead of falling, the water that came to the Edge plummeted into the sky. The wall of water became thicker and thicker.

And then the first boat from beyond  hauled itself over the edge and floated back into the world.

Men and women so pale that the elders thought them the dead danced and sang. They squinted in the sunlight.

The men on the reedships fled back to the islands. The boys, curious, crept closer.

Mnesthe, oldest boy on the reedships, hailed the boats, his left hand extended in peaceful greeting as his right arm flexed outward to ward off any curses.

A tall, tall man came to the rail of the boat. He raised a single eyebrow.

Mnesthe’s voice cracked as he shouted, “You come to the Gray Islands. Come in peace, and we welcome you.”

The tall, tall man lowered his head into a graceful nod.

Behind him, the deck of the tall boat crowded with people. Some wept. Some laughed. The tall, tall man alone did not express joy.

A shadow rose in the new wall of water. It broke through the rising wave and skidded down, splashing onto the Sweetwater Sea. Shouts of mirth erupted from within it. Soon more boats came from beyond the edge of the world.

The Edge?

No, now it was the Wall of the World, as far as the horizon stretched, a wall of water fifty paces high and rising.

Mnesthe led the reedships to the boats and welcomed them all in peace, warding off any curse that might be uttered. That night, those who had known the Graveyard for many, many years dined on fresh cocoanut and slaughtered pig. The young ones refused to eat the strange fare.

Jeraeden also refused to eat, though he sat in silent approval of the festivities.

He kept glancing to the new wall that encircled the world, waiting, waiting.

Whatever he waited for did not come that night.

The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World nears its conclusion. 

The Creak of the Hull

A ring of fire writhed around the bottom of the world. Jaraeden watched as the horizon lit. Flaming masts pointed burning fingers toward a dark undersky. Hulls broke apart and tumbled in flaming ruins into the abyss. The sound of hissing filled the air as the mists that plummeted from the edge of the world above struck fire and turned to steam.

A shadow approached beside him at the rail. He turned and lifted an eyebrow.

“Everyone we know of made it out. A flotilla of seventeen boats have joined us inside the ring.” The young man bit his lip. Good lad. Controlling himself as he watches the only home he’s known fall apart.

“Everyone?”

“They all saw the flames coming. Everyone got out into the middle, away from everything else.”

Jaraeden gripped the rail before him. He pressed his lips together.

“Sir, everyone we know of. Yeah, we never really explored the other side of the ring too much, but everyone we know of is safe.’

The tall, quiet man straightened and gestured down to the darkness below. He raised his eyebrow again.

“Well, yeah, the paladin died. But she earned it, didn’t she?”

Jaraeden turned away. He paced the deck. More and more hulks fell, tumbling stars in a dark undersky. The population of the graveyard pointed and gasped as their homes burned to ash, one by one by one. Men turned away, fists balled, arms shaking. Women gasped. The sailors busied themselves with whatever tasks they could find.

The hull creaked.

He stopped his pacing, looking at the deck. Several of his sailors raced below to the hold. A few threw rope overboard and rappelled to see what might be making the sound.

The hull moaned.

Jaraeden knelt on the planking and put his ear to the wood. He glanced up, all around.

More moans sounded from the flotilla.

The burning ring flickered. More and more ships fell, their bright comets tapering until nothing was left. It almost looked like the ring itself ascended, leaving behind scattered boats too damaged to rise to the skies.

No.

That’s what it was. The ring actually rose!

Jaraeden lifted his hand. The top cooled in a slight breeze.

His brow creased. Was it true? Could it be?

His heartbeat quickened. He marched to the side and peered over at a sailor there.

The man saw him. “Sir! We’re creaking because. Because! We’re moving!” He shook his head, placing his hand flat against the hull. “She’s rising, sir! There’s nothing wrong with her! She’s rising!” His smile lit his face.

Jaraeden gazed out across to the rest of the flotilla. Yes. They moved at different rates, but they were all floating upward. Toward the light. To the land never forsaken by gods.

Cheers rose from the other boats. His sailors raised fists in joy. Someone produced a fiddle. Dancing broke out across the ascending fleet.

Jaraeden peered into the darkness again.

Alathea…

 So continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

Burn the Graveyard

Talon scrambled out of the darkened hold. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Nope.” Matt spun more of the fuse from the spool he carried.

“We’re doomed to stay down here forever.”

“Pretty much.”

“Except when they catch us, they’re going to throw us down there.” Talon peered over the rail to the endless abyss.

“That’s what I reckon.”

“I wonder what it’s like, starving to death in a fall that never ends?”

Matt grunted, “Get to the next ship. We need to get this done before they throw Alathea over.”

“How do you know it’s not too late?”

“I don’t.” Matt wrinkled his nose and shook a fist to the darkness above. “Stupid sky with no sun!”

“You’re talking to the sky. The sky under the world. Beyond the edge of creation. Like, the anti-sky. Or the under-sky. Or something stupid like that. And you’re talking to it.”

“Are you going to get to the next boat on your own, or am I going to throw you?”

They moved from ship to ship, connected each one with a line of fuse. Matt took care to leave enough leeway so the shuddering vessels wouldn’t snap the line. On each boat, they gathered material around the fuse – sails, or old barrels, or discarded rags. Something that would keep a fire burning a little longer, until the deck-planking caught.

“Well, you think that’s enough?”

Talon poked the empty spool. “If not, we’re not going to get another chance.”

Matt nodded. “All right, then. Get to the other end. I’ll wait ten minutes and take care of my side.”

“I thought you couldn’t tell time without the sun?”

Matt glared at him.

Talon dashed off, flitting from one ship to the next.

Matt counted the time, his eyes on a boat far in the distant fog of the Graveyard. Boats kept clattering against each other. This entire time, they had seen no one. They were all there for Alathea’s trial.

And her useless god wouldn’t save her, of course.

She’d say some water-soaked thing like, “He already saved me.”

Matt spat.

Time’s up. He lit his end of the fuse and ran.

The sparks caught sail they had draped nearby. Soon the entire deck was aflame. The sparks followed the fuse to the next boat. And to the next.

Soon an entire line of boats burned. They shuddered into nearby ships, spreading the flames. The inferno grew.

Matt chuckled as he sped on his way. “Well, the Graveyard’s not going to make it past tonight, one way or another.”

So continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

With No Sign to Save

They would have flung their torches and let the ship’s deck light around her as a pyre had Jaraeden not strode to her side.

The crowd, the residents of the Graveyard, shouted at her.

“Burn our homes?”

“False paladin!”

“Insane!”

Yet there were some in the crowd. The ones who had seen her light. They didn’t scream for her blood, but they didn’t protect her, either. They merely watched, morose.

Jaraeden held his arms up for silence. “Let her god save her if he can.” He prodded her toward the rail.

“You’re going to make me walk the plank?”

She felt rather than saw him nod.

The crowds on the decks booed and cheered and laughed and cried over their lost hope.

“I checked your calculations last night. You’re right; another few boats, and the buoyancy caused by the rising mists will be lost. It can only push up so much. But if you burn enough ships all at once, the force will push the remaining boats up like a cork.”

Jaraeden set is hands on her wrists as he marched her to the side of the ship. “You didn’t need your god to save us.”

“He’s the one who blessed me with the intellect to figure out your scrawling.”

“They’re screaming for your blood. They wanted a miracle.” He shoved her, gently, against the rail.

“My God doesn’t need miracles to save you. He just needs fire.”

The crowd’s screams grew.

Jaraeden muttered, “There isn’t enough buoyancy to keep you up once you go over.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. God’ll raise up another.” She pressed her lips together to hide the quiver in her voice.

He will. He promised. He won’t leave the world without a light. I don’t matter.

She clenched her jaw.

Father, you created me. Brother, you cleansed me. Spirit, you claimed me. Keep those I leave behind.

“Why’d you tell me?”

“Because even if I die, I don’t want to see the rest of you die.”

“If you perform a sign, I might be able to save you from the crowd.”

“I told you, I can’t do signs. My God uses me, not the other way around.” She closed her eyes. Father, do as you will.

“Get up on the rail. If your god won’t save you, if you’re that worthless to him, I can’t help you.”

She tried not to listen.

The crowd cried out for her blood. Men spat at her.

Her hands took the rail, worn smooth with age. Her knees creaked a little as she climbed up on it, taking a line from the rigging to steady herself. She breathed. Another breath.

Fine.

Your will be done.

She dove face-first into the abyss below the Graveyard. She embraced whatever awaited below with one last bitter laugh.

Thus continues the Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

A Choice of Truth or Salvation

Across the clatter of hulls ramming each other, the patter of feet on decks wafted through the night. So many bare feet, dirty toes, ragged boots, sandals worn smooth with time, they slipped across the distance between ships. They gathered around Jaraeden’s boat, watching, waiting.

They had heard the promise: a paladin whose god had not abandoned her.

Now came the test they awaited. Soon, they would leave. Soon they would go to a land where a great light shone in the sky. A place without the constant wetness. A fabled city.

Through the night, Alathea prayed. She read all of Jaraeden’s calculations, catching what he had missed. She planned. She prayed more. She itched for her Scriptures, but they were left back with the captain who had carried her here.

Were they safe back on that boat?

She didn’t matter, she reminded herself. Her God promised that if she died, another would rise up to take her place. It freed her to fail.

It chained her as well.

It didn’t matter. As long as the shard was returned to the glass princess.

She prayed for her kingdom, too. So many enemies… had the wars already started?

She absently ticked the boats off. Each model on Jaraeden’s table had a name. She memorized them. She prayed she had the pronunciations right.

These people were used to fakes. But enough had seen her God work through her. They thought she was like any other paladin. And that meant they would listen if she spoke their language.

But it would make her God seem like one of their fake gods.

But it would bring them all home.

If she didn’t speak their language, they wouldn’t listen. She’d fail. She’d be killed. They’d all still be marooned down here, including Matt and Talon. And the shard.

What was more important: To do the right thing by her God, or by these people?

Her mentor had told her once: The most difficult thing is not to decide between right and wrong. That decision is always easy. The hardest decision is to decide between right and right.

And what was most right here?

The door swung open. Jaraeden stepped in. He gestured to the door, both eyebrows up.

“Do you want to go home?” Alathea’s voice trembled. It always did when she lacked sleep. Of course she’d seem weak when she had to be strong. Why should she be surprised? She should have slept.

Jaraeden nodded.

“What do you value more: Truth or going home?” Stupid tremor.

Jaraeden shook his head. “If it takes us home, it is the truth.”

Fine then. The truth it is. She won’t demand the sacrifice. They’ll balk. What god would give anything without payment? And they’ll stay down here.

Alathea stepped out onto the misty deck. This deck stood clear; she and Jaraeden alone occupied its space. But people crowded the raised decks to either side, illuminated by countless torches. The surrounding ships likewise appeared crammed with many men and women. Whispers shot through them. Some took to their knees as Alathea appeared.

Jaraeden strode to the center of the deck and gestured to Alathea. He bowed at the waist and stepped away from her.

Well. Show time.

“People of the Graveyard, I didn’t know what I’d find when I came here.” Speak louder! How could they hear her? Stupid voice! Behave! “But my God has not abandoned me. He has not abandoned you, though you didn’t know it. I can tell you this: No payment will ever be enough to free you. He demands no sacrifice from you. He chose himself to become the sacrifice you needed.” She licked her lips.

The people glanced at each other. Whispers muttered through the assembly.

“She’s a fraud.”

“She can’t do it.”

“Her god’s useless!”

“If he won’t be paid, he’ll never help us. Forget it!”

She shouted over the clamor. “But if you would rise from this graveyard, you will burn these ships.” Yes. Burn your homes. For some of you, all you’ve ever known. “They weigh you down. Burn these ships, and you will return to the place you fell from. For you to go home, let the Graveyard burn.”

And so continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.