Hugh went to see Theora, who was outside her home working in a garden.
“Hugh, it’s nice to see you again,” she said.
“I have to leave tomorrow,” said Hugh.
“Let me guess… travel charm?”
“You’ll want a charm to wear for safe passage, right?” she asked, standing and brushing dirt off her hands.
“Um, okay,” he said.
“Sure you do, I’ll prepare one for you, no charge,” she said, disappearing into her house. She came back out with a bag of gems and some metal, sitting on the ground to work. She selected gems and placed them into an oval piece of metal with a slight lip around the outside. When she filled it in, she flipped it over in her hand, set the pendant backing on her knee, and squeezed a semi-translucent brown liquid from what looked like a small animal’s bladder. She then placed the gems back into the setting, embedded in the adhesive.
“Okay, I’ll go heat it to set it, then I’ll grind the face smooth. Do you think you can fit inside?” she asked.
“I think so,” he said. He crawled through her door and sat in a corner.
Theora heated the pendant over her hearth, inspecting it occasionally. The brown turned clear, then white, and she let it cool. She then went over to a contraption where she stepped on a pedal and a wheel spun.
“It has sapphire and ruby dust on it,” she said, grinding the amulet’s face against it. “Those stones are very hard, and this will have a flat surface in no time, then a little polishing and finishing oil…”
Hugh asked her what she did during the battle.
“I was quite busy, quite busy,” she said, still working the amulet. “A lot of people needed reassurance. I was especially busy the morning before the first battle. I had requests for hundreds of charms for the soldiers. I had been making them for weeks in anticipation, but I thought I would have more time, and I wasn’t able to keep up with every request.”
“Do these work?” asked Hugh.
“Not in the way most people imagine they do,” she said. “They provide a person with confidence, and confidence can be priceless in a battle. Sometimes just having the will to stay and fight can prevent a man’s death, either because he stays in formation and keeps it strong or because it saves him from facing the gallows as a deserter.”
She took the amulet away from the wheel and blew dust and grit from it, then began grinding it again.
“The charms provide comfort, that much I do know.”
“You should make more mechanical bows,” said Hugh. “That could provide more than just comfort.”
Theora looked at Hugh with a severe grimace. “I am a healer, Hugh. My goal in life is to make people live longer, not shorter.”
“The people of this city would live longer if they had those bows on the wall next year.”
Theora just kept grinding in silence.
“I’m sorry,” Hugh said. “I understand you completely. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s okay,” Theora replied. “I would expect nothing less from a beast like you.”
Hugh’s bottom lip quivered, he buried his face in his hands, and wept.
“Oh, please,” said Theora. She looked at Hugh, who lowered his hands for a moment to wipe his chin, his cheeks bright red and wet. “You… you really are crying, aren’t you?”
Hugh nodded while sobbing.
Theora got up and walked over to him. She placed her hand on his knee. “I didn’t mean to make you upset, I just… you have a reputation.”
“What sort of reputation?”
“Well you were an executioner in the arena, you killed scores of Otros –”
“I only killed about seven or eight,” he said.
“Okay, well… usually someone who is a killer is…” She grabbed one of his arms and pulled it down, away from his face. She looked into his eye. “Most people aren’t killers.”
“I’m not a killer,” he said. “I never wanted to hurt anyone, ever. I’ve been reassured that everyone I’ve killed deserved it, but that doesn’t make what I’ve done easier to live with. I have nightmares of their faces, of the blood spraying from them all over me. I sometimes hear them begging me for mercy from the grave.”
“I know what you should do,” she said. “After I finish this amulet, I’m going to take you to see a friend of mine.”
She worked a few more minutes on the amulet before it was finished, only interrupted once by someone stopping by to drop off a basket of yellow flowers she had been expecting. When it was done, Theora strung the charm on a chain and gave it to Hugh.
It was in the shape of an eye, with a rainbow of different colored stones making up the iris. Hugh put it on with a smile. They went outside and Theora called out to the twins, who caught the rope she shot over. She and Hugh rode in her boat across the river, and Hugh explained to them that they would be heading out the next day on a short trip. Theora then led Hugh to the woods.
They walked around for a long time, in an aimless sort of way. Hugh was certain they were walking in circles, but Theora assured him it was the most direct route. After a while, she looked at the ground and said, “Ah, see, there.” Hugh looked and saw what looked like a large bird footprint, then another a little ways off. The stride was enormous.
“Just a little way further now,” Theora said, weaving through the trees faster than Hugh. She had to occasionally stop to let him catch up. Before long, he saw… something very strange. It looked like a large cauldron with chicken legs walking through the forest.
“Grandmama!” Theora shouted.
“That’s your grandma?” asked Hugh
“Well, she’s not my grandma, she just has everyone call her Grandmama.” Theora shouted up at the cauldron a few more times, and an old woman peaked out over the edge.
“Theora, my dear!” The legs of the cauldron bent and it rested on the ground. “How can I be of service, darling?”
“We need to talk to the dead,” said Theora.
“Talk to the dead? You come to me empty handed, and you want to talk to the dead?”
“You should know how hard you can be to find,” Theora said. “I couldn’t be dragging a ram through the woods looking for you.”
Grandmama nodded, muttering to herself.
“There was a battle recently,” Theora said, smiling.
“Impossible, I would have heard.”
“The birds don’t share all of their secrets with you, Grandmama.”
Grandmama cawed a few times and crows flocked to her. They tittered back and forth a bit, and the crows flew away. “Fine, I will help you. Bring a black ram to the battlefield tonight.”
Theora nodded and led Hugh out of the forest. Hugh bought a black ram from a shepherd on their way back to town, and they led it to the battlefield just as the sun was going down. As the stars came out, Hugh spotted Grandmama hobbling about the battlefield, leaning over and picking things up.
They approached Grandmama to find her sorting through the rotting remains of a soldier. She took various parts and put them in a satchel; the tongue, the eyes, fingers, toes, a couple ribs, teeth… when she was finished, she turned towards them. “A corpse is a horrible thing to waste,” she said.
Grandmama stepped away from the body, dug her hand into the dirt, and created a shallow trough in the ground about half a meter long. She went over to the black ram, led it to the trough, and faster than Hugh could even see, slit it’s throat with a knife. She held it fast over the little ditch, which pooled with blood from the struggling animal.
Grandmama wailed over the blood. She sang, screamed, whispered, rasped, and even at one point seemed to gargle. Then, she grew silent, and the blood began to bubble. She motioned for Hugh to look closer. From the blood stepped a little man. He looked at Grandmama and shook his fist.
“Oh just relax, you weren’t even using it anymore,” she said. She pointed to the corpse nearby. “That was him.”
Another figure emerged from the blood, then another, each no larger than a finger.
“Okay, so… who are we trying to contact?” asked Grandmama.
“Who is it you feel most sorry for killing?” Theora asked Hugh.
Hugh was silent.
“Hugh?” Theora nudged him with her elbow.
“My mother,” he said.
A female voice called out, “Hugh?” It was not the voice of Grandmama or Theora. From the blood, a woman crawled up onto the dirt. As the blood dripped away, Hugh saw his mother, looking exactly as he remembered her.
“Mom?” asked Hugh.
“My son, this is wrong. This is unnatural. You shouldn’t be here,” said his mother.
“I’m so sorry, you shouldn’t be dead.”
“Don’t be sorry, Hugh. I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. I’m not upset about what happened. Death is part of life… but this… this is not. You should not be here.”
Hugh looked at Grandmama, but he could barely see her in the light of the small lantern.
“Hugh, just keep doing what I taught you to do. Keep helping people and things will turn out as they should. I must go.”
“No, wait, mother… I have so much I want to say to you,” Hugh said, on the verge of tears, his voice cracking.
“I love you, Hugh. I have always loved you and will always love you. There is nothing you need to say to me. I am proud of you.” With that, she walked back into the blood and disappeared.
Numerous little figures were around the blood now, stooping down to drink from it. Hugh felt happy, upset, and confused. Theora rubbed his back as he knelt in front of the blood.
“Why aren’t you sorry for me?” asked one of the figures. Hugh did not recognize him.
“Here let me refresh your memory,” said the little spirit. “Stop, don’t, please, AHHHH!” He raised his arms in the air and ran around a bit. “You killed me in the arena, you big oaf.”
“I’m sorry, I was told you were all criminals,” said Hugh.
“My crime was sleeping with the wife of a council member. They planted some jewelry in my home, said I stole it, then tortured me until I confessed to all kinds of crimes that had gone unsolved.”
“That’s awful,” said Hugh.
“No, what’s awful is what happened to my family,” the spirit said. “My young siblings are starving, my sick mother is dying, and no one is taking care of them. They beg in the streets just to get by.”
Hugh stood up. “I swear to you, I will make sure your family is cared for. How can I find them?”
“If you’ll help them, I’ll come to them in a dream and they’ll find you,” said the spirit.
“I’ll be ready,” said Hugh.
To be continued…