Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
Ana woke. For a moment she did not know what had awakened her. Confused images flickered and faded in her mind.
She sat up. The night was not far gone– it might even still be short of midnight. She had laid aside the book of laws early this evening– it had been a long, long day. Denacles had paraded her for some of his cronies, in a private session. Actually, a second session– in his effort to turn Ana’s gift to his own ends, he had taken to having Ana give selected individuals an initial ‘reading’, emphasizing all the while how ‘fragile’ her abilities were. He then told the persons to come back the next day for their fortunes. Once they were gone Ana would tell Denacles what she had Seen, and Denacles would tell her what portion of the truth she should feed back to the person. In instances where Ana discovered nothing of particular interest, at least to Denacles, he had her spew back vague but happy-sounding generalities.
Ana knew she had no choice, but she hated the fraud. In most instances, what she discovered was not so much the future, but the present, as expressed in the person’s thought and feelings. She continued to hide that aspect of her Gift from Denacles. Either way, she took no joy in crawling through the lives of strangers. In two or three instances she had uncovered sordid truths. This delighted Denacles, but left her shaken and depressed. In most people, there was such a distance between what they appeared to be and what they were. It wore her down– by this past evening, she had not had to pretend to be exhausted.
It only made it worse that Denacles was charging heavily for the fortunes she told– unless, of course, the subject was Highborn or powerful. Then he supplied the reading as a ‘favor’. Who Denacles gifted with a reading was no surprise to Ana– they were almost all men who could help him climb toward citizenship. She sometimes wondered if he would be as keen for that status if he knew the truth about some of these men, how they laughed at him once they were beyond his walls. Other times, though, she was sure he wouldn’t have cared.
There were things about some people Ana did not tell Denacles, however– things she thought might be useful to herself. She wondered if this made her a hypocrite. Perhaps– but she consoled herself with the thought that she did not discover these things from her own design, and that she had little room to be choosy, if she wanted to be free– the slave of a foreigner, in a city that disdained foreigners.
She had expected to sleep through the night, but something had dragged her right out of slumber. She sat and tried to remember. A dream? No– she was certain she had not been dreaming. Perhaps a vision– but, no, she knew what those were like, and this was nothing similar.
Something passed by– very nearly the same as if a person had brushed past her in a crowd. A presence; she hardly had a better word for it. It did not feel malign or a threat, but it had been powerful. It was strange, but, at the same time, oddly familiar. It reminded her of the day she’d received the Gift.
The harvest was in; she and her brother had had a moment away from chores. Corm was four years older, bigger and so much stronger than she. He had insisted on exploring back up into the high barrens behind the family stead, careless of the tales that said they were haunted. Ana had followed him, mostly to show she wasn’t scared, although she was. They had climbed and climbed, until they reached a fold in the hills neither of them recognized. There, beneath twining vines, they’d found what looked at first like the foundations of an old homestead; but when Ana had pulled the vines away, she’d realized that the jagged outline in the ground was not stone. It was some strange material, gray and smoothly slick. It frightened her, and she’d begged her brother to go home. But then Corm had discovered the cavern in the slope above the strange foundations.
Ana had cried, but Corm pushed aside a disk of the same gray material that partly closed off the cave entrance, and crawled in. Ana followed, not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t want to be separated from her brother.
They’d crawled only a few yards when they entered a large chamber and stood up. Somehow, they had no trouble seeing the hulking mass in front of them. The child Ana had been could make no sense of the thing; only later, with the memory burned into her brain, did Ana see it as a great, crystalline mechanism of panels and spheres. Once all of its parts must have been clear, but time and dripping water had dimmed and clouded much of it. She could see the interlocking parts, although its purpose she could not guess. It seemed to have been there a long time.
“Come away, brother,” she’d cried; but Corm had stepped forward, fascinated. Ana had reached and tugged on his arm.
Light engulfed them; Ana could see nothing, but she heard much– voices, the roaring of water, the songs of the stars and the whispering of time. It all crashed in upon her, flooding her, drowning her. She would have screamed, but she could make no sound of her own– she was filled up with other voices, other heartbeats.
When next she knew herself, she lay out on the slope of the hill, under the open sky. Her brother lay beside her; he appeared to be unconscious. She quickly found she could not move, nor speak. How long they lay there she was not sure, but the sun was low in the sky when her brother stirred. He woke; Ana would have cried with happiness, but she still could not move. Her brother, mazed and unsteady, panicked when he could get any response from her. He picked her up and carried her back, weeping the whole way, back to their village. When they arrived the place was in an uproar, looking for them.
Ana had lain paralyzed in her father’s house for three days. She obviously lived, but her father and aunt despaired of her, believing she was dying or damaged in her mind. Her brother seemed unharmed, but he professed to remember nothing of what had happened, despite their father’s threats of heavy-handed punishment. Ana tried to tell her father not to blame Corm, but she couldn’t speak.
Until, on the third morning, it was as if a constricting cord was suddenly cut from her throat and her body. She sat up in her bed and asked her aunt for water. Her aunt ran screaming from the room, to bring back her father. In the celebration that followed it was a little while before Ana got that drink.
Whereas her brother could not remember anything about the cave or the machine, Ana could remember everything. But when she tried to speak of it, her throat constricted and the power of speech left her until she spoke of something else. It frustrated her father and aunt, but in the end they stopped asking. The haunted reputation of the barrens, however, was enhanced.
It was three weeks later when she had her first vision.
It came to her as a dream, from which she woke crying. Her father had passed it off as a nightmare, but it was far more vivid than any mere dream Ana had ever known. She told him of it, but he didn’t believe her. Then, two days later, their neighbor Pasdan lost his leg when the cart ran over him, just as Ana had foreseen. Her father had been disturbed, but tried to explain it away.
Too soon, though, Ana was warning of things to come nearly every day, the visions coming to her in her waking hours. When the swans came to the lake, when Gerta’s baby would come, when the hailstorm would strike. By that time the whole village was listening to her, and the barley was brought in and stored safe before the storm descended from the mountains.
She became famous, at least as famous as a young girl in a remote village in the Kyr back-country could be. Elders from other villages came to see her, and the local Protector sent scribes to write about her in the canton chronicles. Even one of the gethwyn came from Kyrtelam– a severe woman with hard features, who spoke to her and asked her questions she either couldn’t answer, past the constriction of her throat, or truly didn’t know how to answer.
One thing Ana did not tell her– had, in fact, told no one. From the time of her first vision onward, she began to sense the very thoughts and feelings of people close by. It frightened and confused her, but somehow she knew not to say anything about it. Prophecy was one thing– her whole life she’d heard of seer-women and how people revered and feared them. But to know others’ thoughts would have smacked of black sorcery, something that might make friends and neighbors willing to cut your throat and bury your body in a bog. By the time the gethwyn rode into the village, this secret ability had grown in Ana to the point that she could immediately tell, when ushered into the officer’s presence, that the woman was filled with hard skepticism and resented being sent on what she considered a fool’s errand. Her questioning hid an impatience, and a mind already made up. Ana made no efforts to change the gethwyn‘s mind– she quite happy to see the woman ride back out of the village the next morning.
Over the next few months Ana learned, by trial-and-error, how to shield herself from all the voices and feelings around her. It saved her sanity, but she knew she had lost something she had never known she possessed. Seeing the raw, underlying passions and thoughts people normally hid behind their faces was a curse. It hurt, for instance, to glimpse her father’s roiling mix of feelings– he loved her, but now he feared her, too, while being paradoxically proud of her. He feared for her, as well, an emotion Ana did not come to understand until months later.
That moment came the next summer, when she discovered that her Gift was not perfect. A feverish flux struck the village, weeks before the harvest. Ana had no inkling of it. In a matter of days, it took her father and her aunt both, and dozens of their neighbors. For many days the hale worked to bury the dead; the countryside was dotted with plumes of smoke, as the Protector sent men to burn the steads of those who had died, in an effort to control the plague.
In the end, Ana and Corm were left in the care of their uncle, Rou. He was a angry, heavy-handed man, frequently befuddled with wine– but not befuddled enough to keep him from selling Ana to a man from the Empire, who came and laid more gold before him than anyone in the village had ever seen. Very early one morning the man took her away, before she could even say goodbye to Corm. She had not seen him since.
That was how Ana came to the household of Vyrkanus. In many ways he was a man like Denacles, except that Vyrkanus’ ambitions were of a much smaller scale. He only wanted to be important in Bharu; Denacles wanted power and prominence in the heart of the Empire. Some people, Ana supposed, would think coming to this household a step up in the world. Ana, personally, doubted it.
She lay back down. She did not know what had awakened her. She did know Denacles had her doing another set of initial readings tomorrow. She needed rest. Her old friend, the Moon, had already risen high enough to shine down through her slatted window. Sleep beckoned.
It did no good, remembering the past.