Courting the Lady Scythe
Jassa son of Noban was a handsome young man of limited ambition, which was to say he had only one‑‑to woo and to win the girl called Lady Scythe. It was a frustrating ambition, to say the very least.
It was noon on Culling Day and the crowd along the Aversan Way was barely a crowd at all, by the standards of the city. Most citizens kept off the streets of Thornall during this time if they could. Those who didn’t were either the unfortunates who had friends and relatives given to Lady Scythe or the unfortunates with business that could not be delayed or the triply unfortunate with lives so wretched they enjoyed the spectacle of any sorrow they did not share. Whatever their reasons, they made way quickly for the Watchers, the traditional Guardians of the Emperor’s Justice.
Jassa sat in a niche high up on the remnants of an ancient wall along the equally ancient street. Hardly anyone remembered why the Aversan Way had been named for a purely mythical creature or why there had once been a massive wall running alongside it. Jassa didn’t know, any more than he knew the tale of how Lady Scythe’s family had become the hereditary Executioners of the Emperor’s Pleasure in Thornall. Nor did Jassa care. All that mattered was that Lady Scythe‑‑whose proper name, rumor had it, was Aserafel‑‑had outlived her father to become the sole descendent of her noble house. All its rights and burdens now fell to her, and today that meant he’d get to see her.
Jassa sighed a lover’s sigh, and the thought returned like a revenant in a particularly stubborn haunting. If only I could speak to her…
It was not possible. The only time Aserafel left her family’s holdings was on Culling Day and, by ancient decree, only representatives of the Emperor himself could approach her then. All others risked instant death. It was for her own protection, Jassa realized, but it certainly did complicate matters. As for appearing at the lady’s door to present his suit, that was unthinkable.
Which is not to say Jassa didn’t try it. The doorkeeper had looked Jassa up and down, made the only judgment possible, and sent him away. Now he sat and waited. Just to see her. It was all he could do.
“Make way!” shouted a Watcher, but his command wasn’t really needed. The street was almost clear now. Most people left had moved off the road and now ringed the ancient common. The Watchers took up their positions at the four corners, gleaming in steel and bronze. Then came the Device, pulled by a matched team of black geldings along the Aversan Way and then into the center of the common by the monumental statue of Somna the Dreamer.
Jassa didn’t have his blacksmith father’s genius for iron and steel, but he had a fair eye for the practical applications of metalwork. The Device consisted of a platform raised to about shoulder height, with a smooth steel framework mounted just beneath a circular opening in the center. The mechanism itself was spring-loaded, though most of the actual working parts were hidden inside the platform itself. The mechanism was armed by a crank mounted on top of the platform near the driver. The victim placed his head within the metal frame underneath the opening and, when the mechanism was triggered, the unfortunate’s neck would be at once stretched to its full length and then neatly severed at the base by a hidden blade. Painless, or at least so quick that it probably didn’t matter. Not that anyone had been able to complain.
Not as clumsy as an axe nor requiring the skill of a swordsman. Consistent. Practical. The same for all who suffered the Emperor’s Justice at Thornall, high or low born alike. The one thing you could say about a machine that you could say about almost nothing else‑‑it was fair.
The condemned arrived first. Three today, two young and one old. That was two more than usual; the troubles in the coastal province at Darsa had raised the level of death across the entire Empire. All of the condemned had been stripped to their breeks, their arms bound behind them. They were paraded through the crowd by a contingent of four more Watchers, who brought them to the base of the Device and left them there, then took up their positions about the execution machine. The prisoners stood blinking in the sunlight, pale and frightened to a man, but they did not try to run. There was nowhere to go.
Jassa’s breath caught in his throat. Lady Scythe.
She arrived riding a bone white stallion, her one nod to tradition. Jassa was old enough to remember her father making his entrance in a costume that matched the color of his mount, bearing a scythe of polished silver and wearing a death’s‑head mask and a crown of thornwood. None of this for Lady Scythe. Her hair was red gold and unbound; she was dressed in a plain flowing skirt and a laced bodice. A less discerning eye could have mistaken her for a barmaid, if it wasn’t for the chain of gold about her neck and the fine leather boots and gilt spurs she wore as well.
She could make her work more of a spectacle, as her father did. I wonder why she does not.
Such trappings weren’t required, but, when he thought of it, Jassa could see their value. Any ruler would take heads when the need arose. Do it too often‑‑even at need‑‑and discontent could follow. Wrap such in enough legal form, plus a little mystery and ritual and your subjects could almost forget that the real point of this show was to end the lives of three men. But when Lady Scythe was at work, there was no question of why the three wretches in question were present.
She drew rein on the common and said, in a clear sweet voice. “The Emperor has commanded. All will obey.”
No one else spoke or made any more noise than a body must. The occasional cough, or a shifting of feet, or, here and there, muted sobs. The three condemned men turned to face her as she climbed down from her mount. A Watcher took the reins.
Aserafel’s face was unreadable. She did not speak again. She walked briskly to the side of the machine and removed a small cloth that covered the trigger. A Watcher gave the command: “Set!”
The driver turned the crank until it would turn no more. Lady Scythe nodded at a Watcher and he led the first young man to the harness. The condemned man placed his head into the harness; the harness itself was mounted in such a way that the condemned looked full into the eyes of his executioner.
Will it happen?
It did, just as the mystery had occurred with all other executions he had seen his love perform. Just before she pulled the lever, Lady Scythe said something. Jassa did not hear; he could only see her lips move. He wondered if anyone did hear, except the condemned. Jassa was too far away to be sure, but he could almost swore that the man looked, well, astonished. Then Lady Scythe pulled the lever and the man’s headless torso fell on the green. The body twitched once and was still. There was a low moan from the crowd. A young girl fell into the arms of an older woman, who stared with silent grief at the dead man.
Again the preparation was made, again the younger man was taken first, as was the custom. Lady Scythe’s whisper, and then the second man’s body fell alongside the first.
The old man had stood perfectly still all this time, but when the Watcher came for him, he did not move. The Watcher tugged at his arm and the old man pulled away. He stared at the machine, his eyes wild, and he would not take a step farther. The Watcher motioned to two of his comrades and they hurried forward, grabbing the old man from either side.
“No! I’m not ready!”
Jassa shook his head. Do not resist, Old Man. It will only mean more pain for you and might cause my lady grief.
The old man didn’t seem to consider Lady Scythe’s feelings. He was still attached to life and meant to stay that way. He struggled with more and more desperation as the guards pulled him closer and closer to death. He almost broke free, and one guard raised a mailed fist over the poor man’s head.
The fist halted in mid‑strike. Even the condemned man ceased struggling. He watched with the others as Lady Scythe walked up to him and held out her slim hand. The Watchers glanced at each other, then at her, and they let go of the old man and stepped back.
The old man looked confused. He stood unmoving for a moment, then he took her hand and she stood on tiptoe to whisper something in his ear. He drew himself up to his full height; for a moment the years seemed to fall away and Jassa could imagine what he must have been like once. The old man smiled then and let the girl lead him very slowly to the machine. In a moment he was in the harness, stoic and patient as a stone. In another moment he was dead.
Lady Scythe climbed the steps to the top of the machine and the driver bowed low. She reached down and, one after another, lifted the severed heads and held them high for the crowd to see. Then all was done. She climbed down and reclaimed her mount and soon she had disappeared back down the Aversan Way with her execution machine and the Watchers following in her wake.
It was only then that the lamentations began, as the relatives and lovers and friends came to claim the bodies.
“I want what I can never have. It’s foolish.”
Jassa found himself wandering down the Aversan Way in the opposite direction from his love, out toward the ruins of the city walls, out toward the Weslan Gate. He was thinking, what little could be called thinking amidst the brooding, that he would take a long walk in the countryside to clear his head and his mood. It had been some time since Jassa had passed this way; he had quite forgotten about the Storytellers.
No one knew for how long the men and women who called themselves Storytellers had been meeting by the Weslan Gate. Idlers they were called by many, beggars by those who did not know them. In the late afternoon they would leave their homes and shops and forges and sit in groups on the grass by the ruined stone arch and tell stories. They did not ask for money; they did not ask for anything except time and attention. Needless to say, such were not in abundance. When listeners were scarce, as they often were, the Storytellers would form in circles and tell stories to each other.
They were not necessarily the kindest of listeners.
“Fah! You call that a tale, Lata?” An older man looked with disdain upon a young girl while the others of their circle, men and women, young and old, watched and smiled.
“I serve Somna as best I can, Tobas.” The young girl spread her hands in supplication. There was a twinkle in her eye and she showed no signs of anger.
“You serve the goddess’s aspect of bringer of sleep and ease,” returned the man called Tobas. “A worthy goal, but personally I prefer my listeners to be awake.”
“When was the last time you had a listener, Tobas?” Lata asked sweetly. Laughter all around. Tobas looked outraged, but it was clear that none of them meant a word.
Liars, of a sort. Jassa started to walk by.
“I have a listener now, friends,” Tobas said. He looked right at Jassa. “Hello, young man. Have a seat.”
Jassa blinked. “Ah..no, thank you. I was just out for a walk.”
“But you were listening, at least for a bit.” He smiled at Jassa. “So as long as you’re here, I’d like you to help me settle a difference I’m having with this talentless lot‑‑” he indicated the circle with a wave of his hand. “They say that no one appreciates stories anymore. What say you?”
“Well…I used to,” Jassa answered frankly. “It’s been some time.”
“And why did you stop? Too busy? Too mature? Too much involved with the day to day burden of living your life?”
“All of that,” Jassa said. “And the fact that they were almost never true.”
“They’re almost always true,” Tobas corrected. “They just may not have actually happened. But there are true stories. If you would hear a story, you would rather it be a factual one?”
“Then let me grant your wish. Sit down.”
Maybe because he really had nothing better to do, or maybe because there was no good reason not to, Jassa sat down. “May I choose the story, then?” he asked. He was feeling a little mischievous himself. Tobas nodded, and Jassa went on. “I want to know how the Aversan Way got its name.”
“Well then‑‑if the story will come to me, then I will tell it,” Tobas said, and Jassa just smiled. Tobas returned that smile. “What troubles you, friend? The fact that no one alive knows that particular story?” Jassa nodded, and the girl shook her head. “You’re wrong. Somna does.”
“And does Somna speak to the Storytellers?” Jassa asked.
“Somna speaks to all,” Tobas said. “But sometimes she speaks most clearly through us. Now be silent for a moment. I must see if there is a story for this young man.”
Tobas closed his eyes while the murmur of voices from his circle quieted. Jassa watched, noting that Tobas’s lips were moving.
Doubtless practicing the first lie… Jassa was ashamed of the thought from the moment it was born, for it was clear that Tobas wasn’t trying on words for effect‑‑he was praying. The other members of the circle, eyes closed, heads down, were doing the same. Jassa didn’t move for several long moments from pure astonishment, and by the time it occurred to him to try and slip away, it was too late. Tobas opened his eyes.
“There is a story for you, young sir. A short one, but no less a thing for all that.”
Jassa licked his lips, suddenly dry. “I would like to hear it.”
Tobas nodded. “It was the dawn of the Third Age,” he said, in a tone subtly different from his normal speech. “At this time, men and the Firstborn of Somna, the special ones that we call Aversa, were still sharing the world, although uneasily. Our ancestors’ hate and fear of the Aversa had already begun to show itself, but together one of the Firstborn and those who were our distant fathers raised the stones that were to become Thornall.”
“Why?” asked Lata.
“Because the Aversa knew that harmony is pleasing to Somna,” Tobas replied. “She sought to serve. Our ancestors were content to let her.”
“Why?” asked an old man across the circle.
“Because men knew that the powers of the Aversa would make their work go more quickly,” Tobas said. “Then as now, they sought their advantage.”
Jassa could see the stony expressions of the others in the circle and knew that whatever had touched that one storyteller had grasped them all. He spoke carefully. “Why did our people hate and fear the Aversa?”
“Because every one of them had more power than all of our distant fathers combined. Because there was nothing of them that was part of our fathers, save for Somna who created both. While Somna dreams she creates our world. The Aversa share a bit of that sleep, as well as the dream. Any one of them could remake the world, up to a point, and no one of our fathers knew what that point might be. Uncertainty breeds fear like cattle.”
“The walls were finished. The Temple of Somna was finished. Our distant fathers tried to slay the Aversa as soon as this was done. They failed. With a word she broke the temple and then walked out of the city, along the path still called the Aversan Way, through the Weslan gate. When she stood beneath it, the walls fell. All except the Weslan gate, where we gather to this very day.”
“Where did the Aversa go?”
“To Loga’s Well, at the foot the Gralat Mountains, which some call Gahan’s Spine‑‑” Tobas shook himself, and his features relaxed. The others in the circle followed him as if on cue. Perhaps it was planned that way. Jassa did not think so.
“Did I go too far?” Tobas asked the others. He seemed to have forgotten about Jassa.
“The lad’s question was unforeseen and ill‑timed,” said the old man who had spoken before. “but, if you were not meant to speak the answer, it would not have been spoken.”
“You’re a fatalist, Gos,” said another. “I think it was a mistake.”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s done,” Lata said.
“What’s done?” Jassa demanded.
Tobas shrugged. “If you don’t know, then perhaps that’s for the best. Thank you for listening.”
The circle broke apart. Somna’s Storytellers went off alone, in ones and twos and all in silence. After a while Jassa left, too, with the rather strange feeling that, as he passed beneath the Weslan Gate, he was leaving a temple.
Jassa did not go very far in his walk outside the city walls. He soon passed through the Weslan Gate, now deserted, and made his way home. There was no one there to greet him, had not been since his father’s death the month before. The smithy attached to the building was locked tight and shuttered, the forge cold. Jassa gathered what he thought he would need and in the morning he left the city. As he passed the Weslan Gate, Jassa paused for a moment and smiled.
I need a miracle to win Lady Scythe. If there’s any truth at all in what the Storytellers said, now I know where to find one.
It’s not as if he had anything to lose.
The Aversa laughed until Jassa was afraid the roof of the cave would come crashing down on both of them. She finally wiped tears from her eyes and grinned at Jassa. She had a lot of teeth. Sharp, too, he thought.
“They still tell that story in Thornall? Such a paradox, that men’s lives should be so short and their memories so long. For all that they never seem to learn much from either.”
“Then it’s true?” he asked.
The Aversa shrugged. “Truth is a matter of interpretation; if the Storytellers failed to mention that, I will be amazed. Did it actually happen? More or less.”
Jassa had followed the storyteller’s directions and walked for two days, till he came to the foothills of Gahan’s Spine. He followed the only road‑‑more of a goat‑path‑‑and came to a freshwater spring near the end of a narrow box canyon. The cave was just a little farther in.
He found the Aversa sitting on a chair of stone about ten yards from the entrance, at a place where the entrance shaft widened into a high, echoing chamber. For a creature of myth and legend she was surprisingly easy to find and to recognize. She was slim and elegant, but her hair was white and the beautiful proportions of her face were nonetheless covered with skin almost translucent with age, marked with a fine network of lines almost as if she had been woven of spider‑silk. Her eyes were larger than any human woman’s, and the color of amber. She almost appeared to be waiting for him.
“It’s true, then? You can reshape Somna’s Dream?”
“We can make small changes in the world, if that’s what you mean. Trifles. And at very high cost.”
“I’m not a wealthy man, but I have some property to sell‑‑”
The Aversa almost burst out laughing again, but she confined it to a brief chuckle, though it took obvious effort. She shook her head. “Let me show you something, Jassa of Thornall.”
The world changed.
They weren’t in the cave now. They stood in a perfumed garden at the base of a mountain that looked a little like the one where the Aversa made her home now. A waterfall cast rainbows into the air as it fell into a marble basin. Statues of exquisite artistry were set into niches carved in the living stone, in places Jassa remembered seeing as eroded, crumbling rock just a few minutes before. The Aversa sat done on a white stone bench and patted the seat beside her. Jassa sat down, numbly.
“How do you like my home?” the Aversa asked.
“Yes.” She sighed deeply. “It’s also gone.”
They were back in the cave. The Aversa wasn’t smiling now. “Once all my people lived like that. But there never were very many of us, nor did living in peace with your kind work out very well. They’d have us greater demons than Gahan himself when the mood struck them. Use us when they could, kill us or drive us away when they could not. Until what few of us are left hang on in the empty places that no one else has found a use for.”
“With your power, why did you allow this to happen?”
The Aversa smiled again ruefully. “Our power is in the Reshaping of Somna’s Dream, the dream that is the world. But it is still Somna’s dream, not ours. Do you know what happens when someone reshapes the dream in a way she does not like?”
Jassa shook his head, trying not to lose himself in her amber eyes. The Aversa continued. “It disturbs the Goddess’s sleep. Do it often enough and brutally enough and she wakes. The world ends. Do you think the Aversa wanted to do what the Demon Gahan, with all his tricks, has so far failed to accomplish? Your folk have their place in Somna’s dream or they wouldn’t be here; I think ours will soon go away entirely.”
“But…you are Beloved of Somna! First of all the races of the Dream!”
The Aversa looked around at the bare stone walls. “As I said‑‑the cost is high. Only we pay it, Jassa. You do not. You choose your way, and that has its own consequences which have nothing to do with me. Now, then‑‑do you still want me to help you?”
Jassa took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“You’re a fool, but I already knew that. This concerns Lady Aserafel of Thornall, yes?”
Jassa blinked. “How do you know that?”
“I can always tell when the Storytellers have been at work, and whom they’ve touched. Your dreams told me the rest. Call it a whim, but I will help you. What do you want?”
“If you’ve seen my dreams, you should already know.”
The Aversa smiled again. “Clever boy. Dreams at once reveal and obscure. It’s true I know what you want. Do you?”
Jassa shrugged. “I want Lady Scythe to love me. I want to have her lips on my brow. I want her to look into my eyes with such devotion that, in that instant, she is mine and only mine.”
The Aversa nodded. “So I expected. Hand me that stone at your feet.”
Jassa bent down and picked up a piece of dull limestone, little more than a pebble. He handed it to the Aversa, and in a moment she handed it back to him, only now it wasn’t a stone. What she gave him was a small bronze medallion on a leather thong.
“Wear this,” she said. “When you return to Thornall, show it to the Watcher at the gate. You will get your wish. Or…”
Jassa was already tying the cord around his neck. “Or?”
“Or you can toss it in the nearest river, or simply drop it here and now, go home, take up your father’s profession or some other, and build a life for yourself without Lady Scythe. That would be my advice, if you’d asked for it.”
“I can’t do that. I love her.”
The Aversa nodded, and she looked even older than she had before. Older, and infinitely more weary. “I know,” she said.
On the long walk back to Thornall, Jassa took a little time to think. He wondered if it were really possible to do as the Aversa had advised; he would always be a poor substitute for his father at the forge. Oh, he was well‑trained, and Jassa was sure he could earn a decent living at the forge, but not like his father. The man worked art with his steel; where Jassa would make a serviceable sword, Noban would create a master blade, perfect in balance and form. The same for anything Jassa had attempted; what his father had went beyond experience and practice, and Jassa knew that neither one would turn him into the smith his father was.
I could settle for less.
Only it was a lie. That was one thing Jassa could never do. Just as with Lady Scythe; there was no one to compare to her, and no point in trying. All or nothing; if there was a middle way he could never quite see it.
Jassa looked at the medallion. It was a simple disk of bronze with a carved sigil that looked like a closed eye. He dimly recognized it as one of the ancient symbols for Somna the Dreamer; beyond that it meant nothing to him. He wondered what it would mean to the Watcher.
He didn’t have to wait long to find out. Jassa approached the gate and the Watcher on duty there. Jassa didn’t show him the medallion; Jassa didn’t have to. The Watcher glanced at it as Jassa approached and in an instant the man’s sword was at Jassa’s throat.
“In the Name of the Emperor, I apprehend thee.”
In a dirty, damp cell that night Jassa reached fitful sleep. The Aversa was waiting for him in his dreams.
“You betrayed me!” he shouted, though no one not on the stage of dreams heard him.
The Aversa shook her head. “I have done something, yes, but not that.”
“They wouldn’t even tell me what the medallion means.”
“To the Watchers it means you are a man who helped lead the revolt against the Emperor in the city of Darsa. A revolt that is spreading. Now they will stop looking for that man for a while. We all serve Somna with what we have, and the Emperor’s reign has been bad for all of the Dream. You aren’t the man they were looking for, of course, but the Watchers believe otherwise.”
“Then I’ll tell them!”
She nodded. “I suppose so.”
They both knew it wouldn’t make any difference. “Why?” he asked, finally. “What did I do to you?”
“You asked my help,” she said. “And did not understand what that meant. That understanding is coming.” Then Jassa was left alone in a dream that was no more than a dream. In the morning he did not remember.
Jassa walked with three younger men along the Aversan Way; his arms bound behind his back. In time he came into the presence of Lady Scythe.
Jassa almost smiled. At least no one can deny me this much.
One by one the others died. Soon it was his turn. He looked right at Lady Scythe and said, “I love you.”
The Watchers just stared. Lady Scythe’s sweet face had a quizzical look, but she didn’t say anything. Jassa drew himself to his full height and waited for the Watchers to try and force him, as they had the old man. It didn’t happen. Lady Scythe stepped forward immediately and took his hand. She led him to the device.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I love you.”
She smiled at him. “I do understand,” she said, and then Jassa was in the harness. Her smiled flirted with madness. “Of all those I have loved, you were the only one to speak first of love to me. Thank you.”
Lady Scythe took her place by the lever and then Jassa saw her lips move, as they always did. Only now he was close enough to hear. Now he was close enough to see the look of joy and devotion in his Lady’s eyes; the recognition that was always there when she pulled the lever and looked into the eyes of Death itself. And, at that instant, it was all for Jassa.
“I love you,” she said.
Jassa wanted to laugh, but he had no time.
When the Storytellers gather at the Weslan gate, every now and then someone tells the story of how Lady Scythe took an unclaimed head lying by the statue of Somna the Dreamer and made the skull into a gilt drinking cup. They would tell of how she would smile to herself as her lips brushed its cold brow and she gazed into its empty eyes. No one really knew if this actually occurred, but like any good story it grew enough in the telling that, in time, more than one good meaning found haven in the shade of it.
Such as the version in which, a few years later with both the Empire and the need for her services in decline, Lady Scythe married the governor of the frontier province of Lyrsa and moved far away from Thornall. Her clothes, her gold, and the skull cup were all she took from the city. The execution machine fell to rot and rust beneath the statue of Somna the Dreamer who, with closed eyes, saw all.
“Courting the Lady Scythe” first appeared in Paper Cities, edited by Ekaterina Sedia, Senses Five Press, 2008
Story © 2008 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.