"Marching to King Death's Drum"

Copyright © Terry O'Brien

This is how legends begin.

Dirinian slowly raised her hand to knock on the door. She hesitated, shaking her head and clenching her hand into a fist, then breathed deeply and explosively exhaled. She threw back her shoulders, pushed back a stray lock of fair brown hair, then knocked lightly on the door.

At a word from within she opened the door and stepped in. The woman within looked up from behind her desk. She looked faintly annoyed at seeing the tall, slender woman standing stiffly erect before her. "I am Cathari, the headmistress of this orphanage," she said tiredly. "How many more orphans has the civil war created for the Goddess and her servants to care for?"

"How many...?" Dirinian replied, puzzled for a moment. "Oh! Your pardon. I'm not bearing news of any more orphans. I'm ... I'm here because of one of your current charges. A young girl named Lirren," she concluded, with a firmness that she did not feel.

Cathari's expression darkened, then she leaned back into her chair, motioned Dirinian to sit, then folded her hands on her lap. "Just what is your interest in her?" she asked in a cold voice.

Dirinian sat, brushing down her trail leathers as she did. "My name is Dirinian. Lirren's mother Tramarie and I were oath-sisters. By Accaddian custom and law, I am Lirren's closest relation." Her voice gained strength as she concentrated on the bond the two of them shared. "It is my duty to see to her well-being."

Cathari sighed. "I will need to see proof of your claim," she said, then she opened the other door behind her and called out "Tula, would you ask Sulain to come here, please?" Her request was answered by a scrape of a stool on the hard stone floor and the flapping sound of sandled feet receding in the distance.

Cathari turned again to stare at Dirinian. "The Witness will be here shortly. Before she arrives, tell me something about yourself."

Dirinian frowned at the older woman's imperious tone. "What's there to tell? I was an only child. My parents died in a rockslide when I was three winters old, and I spent the next ten winters living with my mother's brother as the unwanted extra mouth.

"We lived so close to the Black Range that everyone learned to fight. I got so good at it that all the rest of the children hated me. The village headman sent me to train with the Ducal Guards to be rid of me, and five winters later I was accepted into the Guards themselves.

"I met Tramarie in training, and afterwards we were both in the Guards along the Parlen River. We saved each other's life from river pirates; that's when we became oath-sisters.

"I left the Guards after serving my five winters and joined a mercenary company, but two summers ago the company broke apart because of the civil war. I joined with the caravan we were guarding at the time, and I've stayed with them ever since."

As Dirinian finished, the door opened, revealing a cloaked and hooded figure, leaning on a walking stick. A curved silver rune, the Witness' sigil, was pinned at one shoulder. Dirinian stood and bowed.

The figure looked her up and down. In the darkness of the hood only two bright eyes could be seen, searching her closely. It reminded Dirinian of her old company's inspection the morning after a night's pass; the thought made her suppress a faint giggle.

"Sit down, girl," the figure commanded in a raspy voice. Dirinian did so, almost overturning her stool in her haste. "So, you don't find me so impressive. My presense must be fading, Cathari," the woman continued, throwing back the hood of her cloak with a hoarse laugh and sitting down stiffly on another stool.

Cathari smiled slightly. "Sulain, this is Dirinian. She says she is the oath-sister of Tramarie, and wants to take custody of Lirren."

"So..." Sulain whispered, then turned her bright gaze on Dirinian again. "Can you prove this, girl?" she rasped.

Dirinian drew from under her tunic an iron medalion hanging on a thong, incised with several characters and marked twice by dark stains. "This is our oath-token," she said, handing it to the Witness. "Tramarie carried its mate. Both her blood and mine are on it, as well as our marks. Our commander witnessed it."

The Witness took the medalion. Closing her eyes and touching the blood stains with her thumb, she reached out and touched Dirinian with her other hand. "On my honor as a Witness, there is truth in what you say," she said after a few moments, her voice faded and remote.

"So you will let me adopt Lirren," said Dirinian hesitantly, as she replaced the token about her neck.

Cathari and Sulain looked at each other. "She must be told," said Sulain.

"Told? Told what?" interrupted Dirinian.

Cathari paused for a moment, then answered Sulain. "Perhaps it would be better if we showed her, instead." Turning to Dirinian, she said "I had hoped to spare both you and Lirren, especially seeing the relationship you share, but as you said, by custom and law we cannot refuse you. Come with me."

The three entered a small, sun-lit garden behind the orphanage. A young girl of a half-dozen winters was sitting at the other side of the garden under a tall tree, sewing half-heartedly at a hole in her cloak. Dirinian stopped Cathari and Sulain at the entrance, and went forward alone.

Lirren looked up as Dirinian approached. Dirinian knelt in the shade in front of Lirren and smiled. "Lirren, do you remember me? I'm Dirinian. We sang songs by the fireside until almost dawn when the caravan passed through town last year?"

Lirren stared silently at Dirinian for a long moment, then looked back down at her sewing. After searching Lirren's face a few moments more and finding no response, Dirinian stood, brushed the dry grass off her knees, and walked back to the entrance.

"She always laughed, and she never stood still for more than a moment," said Dirinian, looking back over her shoulder, then back to Cathari. "What happened to her?"

Cathari followed Dirinian's look back toward Lirren. "Come," she said, putting her hand on Dirinian's shoulder, "I will explain, but not in her hearing."

The two turned and started walking, Sulain a dark shadow following slowly behind. "As you know, a month ago the Gold Prince's raiders fired the granaries outside of town," began Cathari. "Tramarie led a troop of the Guards after them. They managed to capture the raiders, but Tramarie was mortally wounded.

"Lirren ran ahead of the other villagers to meet her mother, and she fainted when she saw Tramarie's body. She has been withdrawn ever since she awoke. Nothing we have done has roused her."

Dirinian shook her head. "This Goddess-cursed war..." she started, then stopped suddenly, looking in shock at Cathari. "I'm sorry if I offended you. Such words come easily to my tongue after being in the Guards so long."

"It is of no consequence. I've heard far worse in my days," said Cathari. "If it is any comfort," she continued, raising one eyebrow, "I've thought as much about this civil war myself."

"You must let me take her," said Dirinian.

Cathari sighed and looked back at Sulain, who nodded, then she looked back at Dirinian. "Only if we are satisfied that you will provide a good home for her," Cathari pointed out. "That, too, is by custom and law."

"I bought into a share of the caravan instead of taking my pay when the company broke up," replied Dirinian, "so as long as the caravan keeps running year after year it's more than enough to support the two of us. And the caravan cannot be worse than growing up in an orphanage."

"You do not know what it is like growing up in an orphanage," snapped Cathari, speaking in a cold tone, "but I will not dispute the fact that it is meant to be a temporary solution at best." She paused, glancing between the Witness and Dirinian, then continued in a softer voice. "Given the circumstances, it is better for Lirren to be placed in your care."

Dirinian reached into her pouch. "There is still the matter of payment..." she began.

"There is no need," finished Cathari. "It is enough that Lirren is granted a good home. But if you feel the need, we will not be so impolite to refuse your charity."

Dirinian grinned, her first real smile since coming to the orphanage, handing Cathari several small silver coins. "When can the formalities be completed? The caravan is behind schedule, and won't wait more than a day."

Cathari glanced back at Sulain, who smiled slightly. "Given the needs of these two, it would be best if the ceremony were to take place this afternoon. I shall make the preparations."

Sulain led Dirinian to the adjoining shrine of the Mother Goddess to meditate on her new responsbilities.

Dirinian knelt before the altar for what seemed an eternity, then heard a rustle behind her. She glanced back to see Cathari entering the shrine, accompanied by Lirren and an attendant. Sulain followed and stepped to one side, fulfilling her other duty as the Gods' Witness to this ceremony. Cathari stepped before Dirinian, to face the altar. The attendant motioned Lirren to kneel beside Dirinian.

Dirinian looked to her right at Lirren. In the bright light shining above the altar could be seen recently cried tears on Lirren's face. Before Dirinian could mention anything, Cathari turned and raised her arms, invoking the spirit of the Mother Goddess over the ceremony and the participants; long shadows stretched over them both.

"By this ceremony, you shall be known before all temporal and spiritual authority as mother and daughter," said Cathari. "To be a mother without a child is to be without purpose, to be a child without a mother is to be without guidance. By this ceremony, you both will know fulfilment."

Cathari looked down at Dirinian. "Dirinian, oath-sister of Tramarie, closest relative of Lirren, do you agree to become the mother of Lirren?"

Dirinian nodded.

"Do you promise to love and protect her, to the best of your ability, in the Goddess' name?"

Dirinian replied in a hushed voice "Yes."

Cathari turned to Lirren. "Lirren, daughter of Tramarie, do you agree to become the daughter of Dirinian?"

Lirren said nothing, but nodded once when prodded by the attendant behind her.

"Do you promise to love and obey her, to the best of your ability, by the Goddess?"

Lirren bit her lip, looking down and away. Only after a second prodding did she nod again.

Cathari reached back to the altar and took up a freshly-cut vine. It was a fahva vine, which grew and flowered almost everywhere. She took it both hands, invoked the name of the Mother Goddess over it, and bound the right wrist of Dirinian and the left of Lirren with it. "By this token you are bound; bound by life, which, though frail and easily severed, will grow in any soil. May your lives grow together as this vine grows, through adversity and trials, through hope and longing, through happiness and satisfaction."

Dirinian and Lirren stood at Cathari's direction. Cathari embraced Dirinian. "Now, Dirinian, receive this child Lirren, daughter of your oath-sister, as your own child, to raise and cherish as your own."

Cathari turned to embrace Lirren. "Now, Lirren, receive this woman Dirinian, oath-sister of your mother, as your mother, to love and obey as if she truly birthed you."

At the last of Cathari's words, Lirren grimaced and shouted "No!" She pulled away from Cathari, beginning to turn and flee. Dirinian turned and reached out with her left hand, pulling back her other arm. The vine binding the two broke, separating with a wet snapping sound. The pull and its sudden release threw Lirren off-balance. She fell, striking her head on the altar step, then rolled limply to the floor.

Dirinian carried Lirren to the small infirmary. The physicians came hurridly, and they examined Lirren. One by one they shook their heads. "There is no real damage," said the master physician, "but her spirit has been set free, and now refuses to return. Without it, the body is but an empty shell, and will soon die. We do not expect her to live past another sunrise."

Cathari took Dirinian by the shoulder and led her out of the infirmary. "She follows her mother, marching to King Death's drum," said Cathari as they walked. "She never made peace with the thought of Tramarie's death. Their attachment has not lessened; Lirren will go to Tramarie since Tramarie cannot return to her."

Dirinian looked over at Cathari and was surprised to see tears softening Cathari's hard eyes. "What can be done?" asked Dirinian.

"There is but one thing that can be done. You are newly bonded to her. You could use that bond to follow her spirit into the Shadowed Land and convince her to return before her body dies, or else she will join the other dead spirits marching to King Death's drumming.

"I warn you: this is not an easy task. There are powers abroad within the Shadowed Land that could trap and confuse you, making you lose your will to continue or forget your way back. You must not let them stop you, or you, too, will be lost, and then both you and Lirren will die."

Cathari shook her head grimly. "But the worst is if Lirren's body does die before you return her spirit to it. Then only by the price of another life can it be returned, and the only life that you will have to pay will be your own."

She looked hardly at Dirinian. "That is what can be done. Are you still willing to do this?"

Dirinian smiled a grim smile. "By custom and law, and, yes," she continued, her smile growing more wistful, "love, I can do nothing else. When do we begin?"

"At sunset. Until then, wait in the shrine."

Dirinian waited in the shrine, pacing in a circle about the small chamber. Just before sunset, the physicians carried Lirren in and gently laid her on the floor of the shrine. Three priestesses followed, and sat in a triangle around her. As Dirinian stood beside the doorway, Cathari and Sulain entered. Sulain went to sit beside the altar, for this ceremony, too, must be Witnessed. Cathari stopped beside Dirinian.

Withdrawing her hand from the pocket of her robe, Cathari placed in Dirinian's hands the broken vine used in the bonding cermony. "This will be your guide to finding Lirren." Dirinian took the vine in both hands, cradling it. Cathari stepped away from Dirinian, and stood beside Sulain.

One priestess gestured to Dirinian. Dirinian walked across the shrine to enter the triangle and stood before her.

"Are you ready?" the priestess asked Dirinian.

"I believe so," she replied, nodding.

"Then lie down beside Lirren."

Dirinian laid herself down and closed her eyes. She half-listened to the priestesses' chanting, thinking more of Lirren.

The chanting faded away. Dirinian quickly opened her eyes and looked around, but all she could see was a dense grey mist. She stood and looked from side to side, but all around her was a landscape of grey sand. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.

"You killed Lirren trying to save her," whispered a voice behind her. Dirinian turned about and looked, but could not see who had spoken.

"She was better off where she was," sang another beside her. She turned her head, but nothing was there.

"No one leaves the Shadowed Land," growled a third.

Dirinian reached to her side, but her sword did not hang there in its familiar place. She looked down at her empty hand, taking deep, shuddering breaths.

"You killed Lirren!" the one voice hissed, sounding like a fall of sand over rocks.

"She doesn't belong with you," the second sang, with a mocking lilt to its voice.

"You'll never leave!" shouted the third voice triumphantly.

Dirinian turned in a circle, eyes darting from side to side, seeing only the grey mist wavering in some unknown pattern. "Show yourselves!" she shouted, and heard only mocking laughter from all sides in response.

"You killed her!" hissed the one voice. "You don't love her!" sang the second. "You'll fail!" shouted the third. Again and again they repeated the words, the chorus driving her to her knees.

"I won't listen!" Desperately, Dirinian squeezed her eyes tight and held her hands over her ears, trying to block the voices. "Think about Lirren," she said repeatedly, "don't forget Lirren. Think only about Lirren."

The voices all laughed, and unbidden, images formed in her mind: Lirren silently patching her cloak, all the while ignoring Dirinian; Lirren falling and striking her head, while Dirinian helplessly looked on. Desperately, she concentrated on other memories: Tramarie holding Lirren as she and Dirinian told tales around the campfire; Lirren laughing as she and Dirinian sang and clapped an old sheepherder's counting song. Dirinian started to sing the counting song to herself, shutting out the other images and voices.

Gradually, the voices faded away. Only after a long silence did she uncover her ears and open her eyes again.

The grey mist still surrounded her, but now it wasthinner, moving in some unfelt breeze. Dirinian turned her head back and forth, listening. In the silence could be heard the slow beating of a great drum; it sounded through the mist like a heartbeat. The vine pulled in the same direction, gently tugging in her hand like a small bird. She turned in that direction and started walking.

As Dirinian walked she began to notice figures, fanning out from all directions beside her; shadowy figures pacing in time to the beat of the drum. She walked forward, easily walking faster than their slow, measured tread. None looked aside to see her; all were looking towards the far-off sounding of the drum.

Suddenly, the grey mist parted. A short distance away, a line of shadowy figures could be seen, marching towards Dirinian in time to the drumbeat. Leading them was King Death.

King Death was arrayed in glistening black armor, and his helmet was the shape of a great skull crowned with spikes, crudely fashioned out of black iron. The red glow from his eyes lit the ground a dozen paces ahead of him. Both hands held great padded drumsticks, pounding the drum hanging before him with a grim, relentless rhythm.

Dirinian hesitated as King Death approached, but he marched by her without looking aside, followed by the line of spirits. Dirinian waited, until she saw two familiar figures.

The spirits of Lirren and Tramarie were close to the front of the line, walking hand in hand. Dirinian stepped forward and touched them both on the shoulders. "Tramarie, your daughter must leave this place; she is not dead and does not belong here."

Both Lirren and Tramarie stopped. Tramarie looked silently at Dirinian, trying to speak to her but unable to do so. She simply stared at Dirinian, holding Lirren close. Dirinian looked down at Lirren.

"Lirren, you cannot stay. This is the place for the dead, and you are not dead; not yet. Yet if you stay you will die, and it will be because of your own choosing." Dirinian gently turned Lirren's head around to look her full in the face. "You know that suicides are never granted peace at Mid-Winter's Night. You will be parted from your mother for all time.

"You cannot want that to happen, Tramarie," Dirinian continued, looking hard at Tramarie.

Lirren looked up to her mother. Tramarie sadly shook her head and let go of Lirren's hand. Lirren stepped back a pace, and glanced back and forth between her mother and Dirinian.

"Come, Lirren. We must leave this place now," said Dirinian.

Lirren looked up at her mother, who silently said "Yes", and nodded. Dirinian turned and started re-tracing her steps. Lirren followed a few paces behind, looking back over her shoulder.

As Dirinian passed King Death, though, he did something he had never done before.

He stopped his drumming.

The drum quieted, its heavy cadence fading into the air. The silent figures halted. Dirinian stopped and turned around to see King Death hold one heavy drumstick before Lirren. Dirinian breathed a long breath of disbelief.

"You're dead, Lirren," said Dirinian. "You've stayed too long, and your body has died. King Death will not permit you to return." Cathari's words rang in her mind: Only by the price of another life can she be returned. "Not without payment."

Lirren trembled, starting to turn and flee, but Tramarie was there, gently taking Lirren by the shoulders. She turned Lirren around to look her full in the face, then held her close and spoke softly to her, looking directly up at Dirinian. "Be not so hasty, my daughter. Dirinian carries your rescue price, if she is wise enough to see it."

Dirinian looked at Tramarie, then down at her hands, and at the broken vine she carried. She stepped forward and presented it to King Death. "King Death, you are the ultimate balance in the world. If it is life you must have, then take this token of our bonding. The death of it will balance the scales of life and death in favor of Lirren."

King Death glanced down at the vine in her hand. His red gaze seemed to shrivel it, but it stayed fresh and whole when he turned away. The great helmet nodded, once. Taking both drumsticks in one gauntleted hand, he took the vine with the other and set it on his helmet. The vine wove itself around the crown of spikes and bloomed. The green of the vine and gold of its blossoms shone against the dark iron.

"Come, you're standing on the sword's edge between life and death," said Dirinian. "I've bought your way back, but it will not last long."

Tramarie smiled gravely and put Lirren's hand into Dirinian's. Together, Dirinian and Lirren turned and started walking into the mist.

As they walked, Lirren paused and looked back. King Death had taken the drumsticks in each gauntleted hand and had restarted his drumming, marching into the mist. The figures followed, Tramarie included, though she gave Dirinian and Lirren one last look over her shoulder as she marched away.

"She'll forget me. She won't remember me when I come back," said Lirren, wiping away the shadow of a tear.

"Time has no meaning to the dead, and who can forget when there is no time? It will be as though you had just left, whenever you return. But let's not think about that now. Let's think about living."

The two of them awoke, lying on the cold floor of the shrine. As they awoke, Dirinian and Lirren noticed that their hands had crept silently together, and were holding fast.

Lirren looked up and smiled shyly. "Mother went away, but she still cared enough for me to put me in your care," she said, slow tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "You were Mother's sister, so you are my aunt. May I call you that? Aunt Nian?"

Dirinian said nothing, and held Lirren close, brushing the dust of the floor from Lirren's hair, ignoring the happy tears they both cried.

In the centuries to come, the story of how Dirinian rescued Lirren will be repeated, until it becomes a folk tale; a tale about the heroine who storms the Shadowed Land to win back the soul of her daughter, and how King Death came to wear a living flower twisted in his cold iron crown.

This is how legends begin.

Copyright © 1998 Terry O'Brien {dragonmage@sprynet}