Iron and Ash by Aaron Emmel

Where the Tenas’ heads had been smashed with maces and their ornamented houses burned to the ground, the valley was filled with flowers, purple and orange oblivions, a profusion of blossoms, an orchestra of colors. Thousands upon thousands of butterflies swarmed the air in shimmering clouds, like blossoms borne by wind. It was a beautiful land, shaped by fire, fertilized by its ashes, cleared by its hurricanes of heat. The black bones of vanished houses still jutted from grasses and between oblivion stems. The Myrisans’ fire had destroyed most of the village, but life had reclaimed the void.

Jhere pounded fence posts into the ground to make sure that outsiders like himself could never enter Tena uninvited again. Tenas beside him used picks, shovels, and iron screws to dig out the holes, while Loua collected the oblivion bulbs that would be planted in the fence’s shadow. Jhere didn’t blame her and her people for never wanting to be found again. And now that he was with her, he had no desire to return to the outside world himself.

At night, the fragrance of the flowers rushing in with the wind through open windows soothed them to sleep. It helped them to forget. So that when Loua walked through the house in the morning, if she didn’t glimpse the bloodstains that weren’t entirely covered by the furniture or rugs, she couldn’t recall which room her mother and sisters had been killed in.

Gradually, however, Jhere began to wonder whether it wasn’t something else the Tenas wanted to forget.

How had they survived, when the rest of the villagers hadn’t?

“Were you victims?” he asked his sleeping wife, careful not to wake her. “Or did your people take this valley from its rightful owners?”

His suspicions had an origin. Sometimes at night, he heard his wife walking through the darkness. Cautious of her footing, careful not to wake him. When he investigated, during daylight when she was at the river, he found a chest hidden behind rolls of blankets. It was locked. The lock could easily be broken, but how would he explain that to her afterward?

The chest began to fill his thoughts. When he nailed rails to the fence. When he and Loua ate dinner. When he pretended to sleep beside her and heard her creep out of bed.

Until, one night, before Loua walked to the chest, he heard rustling in her clothing where her fingers must be groping for the key. Jhere searched her clothes for the key the next day while she was gone, and couldn’t find it, so he knew she must keep it on herself, except when they were in bed together.

That night, he slipped out of bed and fumbled blindly with the seams of her dress until he found the hidden pocket. He paused. Her breathing was even, just a foot away. He removed the key: a thin, serrated blade of metal that was cold and sharp in his hand.

By the thin light of the moon, in the back room, he uncovered the chest and found the black mouth of the lock. He fitted in the key, turned it, and heard the ‘click.’

“What are you doing?” Loua demanded.

He stood up quickly and turned to her.

“You think I’m one of them. You think I’m one of the killers,” she hissed, looking into his eyes.

He tried to read her expression, and couldn’t. Her face was occluded by shadow. He wanted to say no, but she would hear the lie and that would be worse, so he just stared back at her, his tongue heavy and dry.

He couldn’t see her features, but he could hear her breath. First quick and loud, and then slower, deeper. She had made a decision. She leaned forward. “Yes,” she whispered, her eyes catching the moonlight, “we killed them. They were weak, and we killed them. They deserved it.”

Jhere pushed her aside and surged past her. He tossed on his clothes, ran out the door and slammed it behind him—to signal finality, but also to put something between himself and her fury. He kept running. Up out of the valley, past the river, past the gate, past the smell of the flowers. He grew dizzy and sank to the dirt. His head began to clear, and he began to remember—himself and his mercenaries, setting the fires, driving Loua’s people out of their homes, wielding the maces.

It was nearly dawn by the time he pulled himself back onto his feet and tried to retrace his steps, but he got turned around in the darkness. He spent days wandering, but he couldn’t find the valley again. For years afterward, he was certain he kept catching the scent of its flowers, and out of the corners of his eyes, he sometimes glimpsed clouds of familiar butterflies.

Aaron Emmel’s stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, sub-Q Magazine and many other excellent magazines and anthologies. He also writes essays, graphic novels and interactive fiction. Find him online at his website.