Song of Stillness by Benjamin Kugler
The creature sang of creaking muscle and rasping flesh. It flowed between the tall trees, more an ocean than a beast, while its many bones clicked and clacked for percussion. Skulls providing choral accompaniment bobbed along the waves. The words quiet and peace, stillness and sleep floated from their lipless jaws with utmost reverence. Witch-lights danced where the eyes had once been, an echo of life now given purpose anew.
There are forces in this world which the wise call spirits. These beings, they say, are a Truth, a perfect personification of a concept. Had the wise seen this creature before them, they would have claimed it to be the embodiment of a desire which all beasts share: the want for nothing more, for one’s young to be safe, one’s food to be ample, one’s foes to be far away. And in saying this, those wise men and women would have been right (in the roundabout way they so often are) but then they would have been consumed all the same, and their bodies added to the tide.
The marriage of force and desire spilled from the woods as a carrion sea, singing its war-song. Hearths and homes now stood in place of wilds. For that there would be blood.
Only two things stood between the maddened spirit and the little settler’s village: an old soldier, and a cat.
Bileyg’s was a grisly work, but he enjoyed it. He beat his own melody into the creature’s hide, chopping up and down and again with a blade that had seen more than its fair share of gore. A cord with maybe a dozen icons of iron and silver was wrapped around the crossguard. Each icon rang and rattled with its own metallic voice and told its own story: unique, secret, known only to Bileyg. He repeated their words under his breath, the names of dead men who lived only in that they had not yet been forgotten.
Groans and whines from a thousand animal throats met with the sound of the icons. Beasts and memories, both kept alive long after their time, sang to the heavens. Below their masters contended on the stained green.
Even as one of the creature’s fingers (the spine of a deer threaded through with ligaments) wrapped around his ankle, Bileyg kept up his liturgy for the fallen. When the sharp peaks of vertebrae tore weeping cuts in his calf he fell and he laughed, congratulating the beast for a good stroke as he hacked and sawed. Its flesh parted easily, but always there seemed to be more.
There was no stopping the creature, not for the soldier. Every torn muscle found new purchase in the end, every shattered bone a new anchor. Main strength could no more halt a spirit than it could the flow of time.
No, he left the stopping of the creature to the cat.
Wounds erupted all down the spirit’s length, sinews snapping, flesh tearing, staining the air with blood. Through the falling mist came a feline shape, at first nothing but a place where the air seemed clear, then the form of a black cat with glowing eyes. It leaped from solid ground to whorl of muscle, to plane of taut skin, to outcrop of jagged bone. Wherever it landed its claws dug deep, and the spirit lost more of itself. The cat-sending was silence where the creature and the soldier were competing songs of battle. In its wake it left numb flesh, truly dead at last.
Bileyg pulled himself to his feet as the cat circled him once, twice, three times. He raised his sword in salute before returning to his work.
The old soldier kept at it long after the task was done. The last notes of the beast’s dirge had faded into the trees, but the ringing of silver and iron memories kept him moving, halving the pieces and then halving them again. The spell only began to dissolve when his wife’s hand slipped into his own.
She said something, but the words slid away like water and left him feeling emptier for it.
He followed dumbly behind her, plodding, led by the hand. She spoke to those they met on the way, the reeve and the constable, the tanner and the baker, the carpenters, others besides. She promised to pass on their thanks and well-wishes as soon as her husband was in a state to hear them once again.
It wasn’t until they were stepping through the door to their own home that the cat found them (and lucky too, because a threshold is no friend of a sending). It leaped to Bileyg’s shoulder and there it perched, weightless.
“You did well today, Bileyg.” The cat spoke with a human voice, the same which normally dwelled in the body of the local wizard, Curen. “Now rest.”
The old soldier’s soul opened as soon as he met the cat-sending’s gaze. A presence crept behind his eyes, slowly, carefully. Something snapped inside him, an inner tension he hadn’t known was there. His knife’s-edge awareness turned to smoke and the world came back into focus.
“Thank you,” Bileyg said.
The cat blinked once, severing their connection, then bounded away to the spot where its true shape lay waiting.
“Are you back?” Fulla asked, pulling him a little closer.
Bileyg smiled at the look in her green eyes and put one hand on the side of her face. She mirrored the gesture, which made him smile all the more.
“I’m right here.”
The wizard’s calming words faded with the rising of the moon and at once the dreams descended like wolves. Bileyg heard again the old camp sounds and the call to battle. He lived again the slow loss of his friends and, through their deaths, the slow collection of his icons.
Fulla sensed the return to the old ways in the hard planes of muscle which rose from her husband’s shoulders and chest.
Once upon a time there had been hope for them.
“We should leave here,” she had said. The village was new then, the first year’s harvest not yet in the ground. Priests had come to hallow the place in an effort to stave off the wild spirits, and they left as quickly as they could afterward. “You served your lord well enough already. He owes you years of quiet, not… this.”
“This is where I’m needed,” Bileyg replied. “There’re few enough willing to live near a haunted wood, and fewer who can protect them.”
“Curen protects them.” She felt the words’ sting as soon as they left her lips, winced. Bileyg only frowned and gently pushed her away when she reached for him.
“Aye,” he said. “And Curen does it well. But he’s a wizard, not a soldier.”
“And there’s magic in the woods. Let the wizard tend to it.”
Bileyg sighed. “When rats eat your stores, you get a cat. Because cats do as they please, and it pleases them to hunt.
“But if you want to be certain, you also find yourself a dog. Because if you tell a dog to kill a rat, it will. And if the cat takes to biting your family, the dog’ll kill it, too.”
Fulla stopped asking after that. She’d wondered why he carried a silvered knife on his belt, and now wished she didn’t know.
Bileyg shivered despite the furs piled atop them both. She tried to reach out to comfort him, but her hand stopped on the cold sword he had placed in the bed between them. Even in sleep he kept it close.
Every night brought a new temptation to reach across the blade.
The icons jingled as she ran her fingers across their cool surfaces. She’d found no surer way for her Bileyg to lose himself than to hear the sound, and more than once had contemplated throwing the whole lot of them away. But each had its own name and sometimes she found him whispering those names to himself.
Vili was the first name, his friend since the two of them had been boys, killed so young. She didn’t know the others.
Perhaps the gods would help bring peace to their household if she went to the shrines early and offered sacrifices.
Fulla’s hand hovered again over the sword.
Bileyg awoke to blood. The iron smell sent him flying out of bed, sword held ready as he felt for his shield. He kept his breath steady, even, and scanned the darkness for signs of the enemy. Why wasn’t the alarm being raised?
No, he wasn’t with the company anymore. There was no battle, no enemy. But the blood…
By the light of a taper he fell again into the old habits of war. His eyes drooped, he caught himself rocking forward and back, forward and back, with the familiar motions of dressing a wound. He might have fallen asleep had his mind not been racing.
A long cut. Shallow. How had he let this happen? The wound split her thigh. The cloth was more than tight enough to staunch the bleeding. Had she rolled toward him in the night? Tried to move the sword out of the way?
Fulla said something, but he heard only noise. She tried to hold him close but he pushed her hands away.
Stupid, that’s what it was. His discipline had slipped. Fulla didn’t know how to respect a weapon, she had never held one. His fault.
If only he were still with his company. They knew how to sleep with a sword.
Had Bileyg been a different sort of man—one who valued love above all else, say, or who was less suited to immediate action—things may have turned out differently for him. But Bileyg was a simple man, and this was unacceptable.
As soon as his ministrations were done he fled into the night.
Curen the wizard answered the pounding at his door to find Bileyg, scowling and shivering against the cold. He barely had time to take in the old soldier’s wide, wild eyes before the bigger man pushed his way inside and slammed the door behind him.
Wizards had been killed like this before. He tried to reach for words to save himself, but there were none. He had forgotten them all.
“You have to calm me again,” Bileyg said.
Curen’s shoulders fell. Lord Burr hadn’t grown tired of him just yet. “That’s no small effort.”
“I can’t. This place still doesn’t know us. The spirits are restless, the land balks at my presence. I could wake them… Or lose myself.”
Bileyg snarled and raised the sword he hadn’t realized he still held. Something like a conscience squirmed, but the soldier still knew his trade. His hand kept steady even as a shiver raced through the rest of his body. The tip of the blade hovered inches from the wizard’s throat.
“Yesterday was the last day I go to war. Lord Burr will have to find a new dog.”
Curen’s eyes fell to the line of red staining the blade’s edge and he bristled. The candle in his hand was still, but its flame danced to a song somewhere behind the air. Shadows wrapped around both of them like a shroud.
Curen laced his next words with power. “Put that heavy thing down.”
A wizard’s voice is not a thing to go unheeded, because they speak the language of Truth. Perhaps Bileyg’s sword growing too heavy to hold was only a figment of his imagination, or perhaps the spirit of the blade heard Curen’s words and, now believing that it had erred, rushed to correct the mistake. In either case Bileyg let the weight fall from his hand.
But in the same instant he stepped forward, throwing his shoulder into the smaller man and drawing the knife he always kept at his side.
The candle fell to the ground and light and shadow (chagrined at being caught up in all this) returned to their natural mannerisms. Curen gasped as he felt something sharp press against his chest, just below the sternum.
“It’s silvered,” Bileyg whispered. “If I must leave another body behind me, so be it. There’s peace enough at the gallows.”
Silver has no love for wizards, or their words.
Curen tried not to breathe. “I will do what I can.”
The soldier at once threw the knife away and wrapped the smaller man in an embrace so tight it had Curen wondering if Bileyg was still trying to kill him. That is, until the old soldier started crying.
Curen took his place atop the ritual platform in the center of a circle of six candles, one for each of the cardinal directions: four for the compass winds, one for the way to fairy-land, and one for the paths of the dead. He reached into a bag at his belt and withdrew six runestones, then three, then six, then three. He recited the name and the story of each and cast around the circle’s edge.
“I am Curen,” said the wizard. “I am named Magus, born in the last days of Lady Spring.”
The candles flickered. Or perhaps that was only Curen’s breath.
“I am cat. I am knowledge and subtle power, as ancient as any beast.”
When Bileyg blinked he could almost make out a feline silhouette against the dark of his eyelids, standing at Curen’s feet. The image—the sending—grew more distinct with every passing moment.
The ritual words made a drone. “I am Curen. I am cat.” Only when he believed both, with every fiber of his being, would he allow the magic to be released.
“I am Curen. I am cat.”
This time there was no mistaking when the candle-flames flickered and danced. Curen’s human shape slumped to the side, nearly falling into the candles (Bileyg caught the old man just in time, eased him down while muttering curses about impractical wizards). The cat watched, apparently unconcerned, as cats so often are.
No preamble this time: the cat-sending met Bileyg’s gaze, and at once he felt a presence behind his eyes.
No gentleness this time, either. The wizard took to thoughts like a crazed gardener to an unkempt garden, tearing and uprooting anything even the least bit offensive. Bileyg felt his mind corrode. Thoughts of danger, of readiness, came unmoored and floated into the void. Wool poured into his head, soft and empty, drowning the sharp-edged thoughts until there was nothing left.
The soldier’s instincts awakened one final time, panicked, screaming that something was wrong. He no longer paid any mind to the nearest exit. He stopped listening for the sounds of an oncoming ambush. Details that his eyes had once caught now skated past his gaze and were lost.
Something was different this time, he could sense it. There would be no coming back from this. Bileyg the soldier managed only three more words, spoken with shock but also with relief: “I’ve killed myself.”
That part of him died.
He allowed himself to sit. He had half a mind to go to sleep, seeing how his own slumber had been interrupted. He would apologize to Fulla tomorrow, after they’d both had some much-needed rest.
The soldier’s instincts were gone, and with them his awareness. As Bileyg let himself sink into his new, woolen thoughts he failed to notice the cat perched atop Curen’s chest. He failed to heed how it spoke, reassuring itself that it was both Curen and a cat. He failed to hear the sound of a mouse scampering outside the cottage, or the cat’s voice stumbling.
“I am Cu—I am cat.”
Though it is no small feat to hold onto two beliefs which cannot both be true, we all do so, every day of our lives. It is simpler for us, and makes us happier. At times it may prove dangerous but sometimes the danger comes only when we lose the balance we have struck.
“I am cat. I am cat.”
Bileyg did not see the thing which had once been Curen slip from the cottage and disappear into the night.
Bileyg awoke to screams.
For a moment he wondered how he had slept past dawn—something he hadn’t done for many years—but then calls for help drove out all else. The droning song of rattling bones and rasping skin made his hackles raise. He shouted at Curen to wake up, but the wizard didn’t seem to hear.
Memory of the night before only returned when Bileyg took up his sword and found it alien in his hand. He stared at his closed fist, but couldn’t quite make his fingers fall into their natural places.
Curen wouldn’t stir, no matter the shouting or the blows.
Billeyg felt his gorge rise. Of all the things which had been torn from his mind, somehow the memory of dead eyes remained. The stare of the fallen is a special torture, and all the moreso when their body yet breathes. So it was with the wizard.
What had Curen said of losing himself?
“I’m sorry.” Bileyg’s hand shook like a boy’s as he tried to position his blade above the sternum. The point slipped and traced a long red line down the chest. The once-soldier had to steady the sword with his other hand.
The body seemed to sigh as the blade slid home.
Curen had always carried an amulet, a silver eye, around his neck. This newest addition to Bileyg’s icons now clicked against its fellows: another brother-in-arms dead, another memory Bileyg swore he would keep alive. He wound the cord tight around his wrist.
Outside there was fear and there was death. Wheat bent the knee to flesh as the creature swept over the outlying farms, rolling into view out of the woods, across field and dell.
Bileyg had faced fear and death before. He must have, though he couldn’t remember when. He had once been a soldier, hadn’t he?
When the tanner and his sons came sprinting over the hill Bileyg broke into a run.
The spirit had grown since the last time, and as it found the tanner’s livestock it swelled still larger. The animals panicked but the enemy was already all around, lashing at them, leaving them bleeding. Only when the animal laid itself down—accepting its fate, maybe, or just too tired to fight—did the spirit draw the carcass into itself.
To his credit, Bileyg’s charge lasted longer than an ordinary man’s might have. Even with the soldier carved from his mind, the thing in him which had led him down that path still survived. It gave him hope that he could make some difference against this monster, even if it only meant the tanner’s family would have time to escape. It spurred him to raise his voice in one last war-cry.
But there are some sights which will make even the stoutest man stumble. A still-living beast riding to the fore of an ocean of carrion only to be torn asunder, its flesh and bones becoming the crest of the oncoming wave, is one such sight.
Legs (his own? he hoped so) tangled under him and he fell into the spirit’s embrace.
Underneath there was chaos. That dreadful song hammered him, the bones dancing, the skulls singing their atonal notes, wet flesh and disintegrating hides sliding over him. Only panic gave him the strength to push off the ground and find the surface. His sword stayed behind.
The mad spirit washed over the plain like a new sea, carrying a gasping Bileyg along its surface. In the middle of it all stood a lone island, a hillock where the fourteen shrines to the gods rose up like outstretched fingers. On the hill, a flash of white.
Fulla, dressed for prayer.
Bileyg the soldier had gone to war for the last time, killed in the end by a wizard’s magic. He could do nothing more. Bileyg the husband, however, still lived. He could not fight as his predecessor could, but he knew how to run to his wife’s side. Bones snapped underfoot.
The sea parted for an instant and then crashed over him once again.
Falling, falling, never finding earth. Beneath the spirit there was only more sinew, more skin, more bone. Down in those world-spanning depths, all light faded and the song took on a new shape. Falling into that Between place it was impossible not to hear the voice of the spirit, coursing through the abyss as blood through a living body. Be still, the voices whispered. Skulls, some animal and some quite human, nipped at anything which passed by.
In the world above, Bileyg had seen witch-lights where the eyes had once been. But in the gloaming he saw instead the amber eyes of a wolf.
With every bite, the spirit buried its voice deeper into his flesh. Why won’t you be still? Rest. I only want rest. Let me sleep.
He fought as best he could, but that was not well. He was no more than a beast here, tearing with hands and teeth and panic. He fought only because he was not yet dead.
Why the sound and the fury? I only want peace.
Whatever blood and flesh the spirit took from him, it gave back. He was healed as quickly as he was harmed. Something new stalked behind his eyes, trying to take hold of him. No graceful, cat-like movements this time, only a deluge of will. A mind which had existed since before the first man. It tried to make him see.
You came here. You broke the stillness. I thought the noise was over.
There is something to be said for human defiance, for the ability to fight not for survival but for spite; not because it will make a difference, but because to do otherwise is to surrender. It is the last possible defense against the call for stillness. It gave Bileyg the last surge of energy he needed to wrest a nearby skull from its controlling muscles and put his thumbs into the hateful thing’s eyes.
The spirit’s whispers became screams.
Blood and rot bloomed in his mouth.
Up, up, out of the impossible distance between the spirit’s flesh and the ground below. Back to the world of mortals.
Fulla ran unheeding across the back of the retreating spirit to reach him. The sea slunk away from her in its flight to the woods, no fight left in it. Somewhere else a cheer went up from the bedraggled village, but that could have been a whole world away.
She collapsed on top of him. “We’re safe now.”
He felt her arms around him, and for the first time in a long time he held onto her with both hands. He buried his face in her neck and wept.
His sword was somewhere else, and there it could stay.
“We should leave here,” he said.
Fulla laughed, though it was half a sob. “We will.”
“I’ve served Lord Burr enough, I think.”
Bileyg pulled away so he could see her smile again, and he screamed. The amber eyes of a wolf stared back at him from his wife’s face.
The voice which called to him as he ran was still Fulla’s. The hands were hers, but perhaps they felt a little dry. Perhaps her motions were a little stiff—even unnatural—as she ran after him across the stained green.
Or perhaps he was only dreaming, or living some dying vision, or finally mad.
Bileyg the soldier was dead, and Bileyg the husband now had nothing. That left only Bileyg the dog, and a mad dog knows only how to kill.
A wizard’s voice is not a thing to go unheeded, but neither is that of a man who doesn’t know he can’t succeed. The words came to his lips as he ran, unbidden, in time with his strides.
“I am Bileyg. I am dog. I am Bileyg. I am dog.” Over and over again, until he knew them both to be absolute truth. The dog-sending exploded from his chest and took his mind with it. Even as his true shape fell away his four new legs propelled him ever faster into the woods.
The creature had not fled far, and this time Bileyg dove into its center willingly. He passed without a sound from the world above into the world below, and once again down into that impossible darkness.
His spectral eyes saw what a mortal’s could not. At the edge of the black the walls of a charnel house rose around him, higher and higher as he dove ever downward. Carcasses (or things near enough to them) stretched out around him in all directions, caught in a spider’s web of creaking muscle.
These were not the dry and lifeless fragments the spirit employed above. There was blood here, fresh and living and stinking. These carcasses lived, caught in that last moment of acceptance before their death. All of them now stared at him with burning amber eyes. They spoke with one voice: I am stillness.
He responded in kind. I am Bileyg. I am dog. I am violence.
He set to work with tooth and claw. Eyes burst and flesh parted beneath him.
I am Bileyg. I am dog. I am destruction.
There was no end to it, and by steady degrees he slowed. Not once had the spirit attacked him.
I am Bileyg. I am dog. I am devastation.
He ripped, he tore, he maimed, he bit. Whatever host of foes awaited him beyond the gates of death, it was dwarfed by the heap he made of the spirit’s body. But onward it stretched, everywhere, forever.
In the end he could only lie down and wait to be devoured.
All around him was stillness. Bileyg looked for the amber eyes of his enemy and found only two.
The world twisted, reformed around their locked gaze. A different time, a different place. An old memory, or something like it.
The snow fell. Where it found blood it turned to vapor, like the first vestiges of the ghost already yearning to break free.
Bileyg lay on his side. He could feel his life pouring out from a thousand wounds, and the force of that pull drew a moan from his lips.
By his foot he saw the dark shape of Vili, his friend and comrade, reaching out in his final moments. His blood had already cooled, the red now shrinking, slowly buried beneath the growing white.
Bileyg the dog watched himself from afar. He remembered this night.
When the young soldier lifted his gaze he found the she-wolf staring back at him.
“A good fight,” the younger Bileyg said. His voice was harsh in his throat, but he welcomed the ache as a sign his heart was still beating. “Two of Lord Burr’s finest, and you with nothing but fangs and claws.” He tried to chuckle, coughed instead. “When you meet your wolf gods, you tell them this: we are no easy prey.”
The wolf huffed a steaming breath into the air. Whether death always took so long or if it was simply a case of neither side being willing to die until they had seen the other go, he couldn’t be certain.
“I understand. Truly. You only want to survive.”
Resignation in the beast’s eyes, and something else. Satisfaction, maybe. Or acceptance.
A voice broke the silence, and the sound of someone running over snow. Bileyg felt hands close around his shoulders and lift him up. For a moment the young man felt a wave of regret; he had found stillness at last, an end to worry, and now it had all been dashed. He envied the wolf.
Then he caught a glimpse of the woman holding him, her beautiful face and her bright green eyes, and he thought perhaps he had something to live for after all.
(Young men will be young men.)
Before they left the clearing, Bileyg stopped by Vili’s body. He pried from the dead man’s fingers a tiny iron bell, holy symbol of He Who Waits After. The first of many icons to come.
“I won’t let your memory die.”
The elder Bileyg watched the young couple limp away through the trees. Only when they disappeared from sight did he turn to the wolf. She still breathed, but only just.
Her eyes were the same as those of the mad spirit.
I am Bileyg. I am dog.
The dog-sending spoke with Bileyg’s voice. “I think I understand now.”
I am Bileyg.
That impossible place where spirits lived did away with the old memory. The snow melted away, leaving only the old soldier lying with his head on the she-wolf’s flank. Around him lay the dying forms of countless others, caught in that one final, glorious moment when there is nothing else to be done.
He had seen acceptance in the she-wolf’s eyes, and now he knew the same could be seen in his.
“I am Bileyg.”
He withdrew an iron bell from a cord around his wrist. His first icon.
“I am Vili.”
For a long time, the only sound was the rattle of silver and iron and Bileyg, giving voice to the names of all those who had fallen beside him, one last time.
With each icon Bileyg faded. At last he reached the end: a silver amulet in the shape of an eye.
“I am Curen.”
Only a breath remained.
Somewhere far away tears fell from green eyes onto a body breathing, but dead.
“I am done.”
Benjamin Kugler lives in Bloomington, Indiana where he spends most of his time writing, programming, or making a fool of himself on the hurdy-gurdy. Find more of his work at his website.