Tales Of The Dawnline: Older Sister
Originally, I had planned to write every story appearing in the Tales Of anthology myself. However, due to the campaign's success, I've added a spot to the budget for more fiction.
These extra stories will add to the total length of the Tales Of anthology, not replacing any other planned pieces, and they will give the reader a glimpse of the setting through the eyes of other writers.
This is something I had wanted to do at the outset, but I didn't think I would have the funding for it. I am quite happy to have been proven so thoroughly wrong.
These stories will also be going into the Tales Of anthology, but I wanted to share a few of them with all of you first.
This one is by the talented Gillian Daniels, whose biography can be found at the end.
Now, I've talked long enough about this.
Without further ado, I'd like to present:
By Gillian Daniels
Older Sister and I walk darkwards. Our backs are to the twilight where my village waits for us to return, either with the baby that’s gone or the creature that took it. Either way, if the light creeps too closely to them, they’ll leave the spot without us.
We walk toward cold that bites my cheeks. I breathe out steam and pull the scarf that Father knit me over my mouth.
Older Sister breathes out nothing. She doesn’t need to. She’s as cold as the woods.
“Older Sister” is not my older sister. I don’t have a real older sister. That’s just what the village calls her because she’s been a sister to us since our Great Great Grandmothers--though they ought to have many more “Greats” attached to their name than that--first walked into the twilight, away from the burn of the punishing dawn.
This is farther away from my people than I’ve ever been.
It’s so cold in the darkness, I only pull down the scarf to eat the jerky Father gave me.
I hate the silence. In our village, noise is life. The liveable twilight, roots found in the soil for stew, honeyed wine ready to drink, men singing, children screaming with laughter, and fires lit in the open that Older Sister makes sure draw the attention of no one but other humans looking to barter before the dawn chases us once more.
Silence is death. Though I don’t pretend Older Sister is anything else, I still don’t like it. We have moved into the land of death by moving beyond the twilight. She’s grim, silent company.
“It smells like frost,” I manage to say.
She turns and arches a thick, wing black brow. “What did you say?”
I push down my scarf, annoyed. Certainly, her keen hearing means she knows what I said. “It smells like frost.”
“Because there’s frost on the trees here,” says Older Sister, patiently.
“I mean, do you think the bairn’s alive? Or do you think it froze?”
“It’s not an ‘it.’ It’s a ‘him.’ His name is Sam.”
“It’s ‘Salm,’” I say. “I’ve never heard of anyone named ‘Sam,’ at least not in the village. Is Sam an old name, from the world before?”
Older Sister turns away. “Let’s be quiet for a little while.”
I keep chewing the jerky. I helped Father salt and store it in our wagon so it smells of smoke and home.
To Older Sister, I know I am without purpose, a mortal gone as quickly as a fly. So when I break the silence, I ask, “Do you need to feed soon?”
I prepare to offer my wrist and the green-blue vein that sits thickly beneath the skin. My pulse jumps under it. The strongest men and women, the ones who have ox muscles and broad shoulders, the ones who drive the caravans, offer their wrists and necks to Older Sister when she needs to eat.
I’m here because I’m small, fast, can tolerate the cold well, and can offer the warmth of my life for Older Sister’s sustenance. And if something happens, the Grandmothers of the village know that Mother and Father have three younger children. Our line will survive.
She huffs and I realize it’s a laugh. It’s hard to tell because I’ve never seen her smile. “Not for a while.”
Even in the cold, I can feel my face heat with shame for my ignorance and uselessness. “My apologies for not knowing how often you eat.”
Older Sister’s dark eyes reflect a sliver of moon each. I wonder if the Older Brothers and Sisters of other villages, whatever they choose to call them, are as striking as she, with her set jaw and her thick brows that nearly meet in the middle. “No, you shouldn’t keep track of that. You have other things to worry about.”
“Exactly,” she says. “I suggest you take your fur-lined boots out of your pack soon and put them on. It only gets colder from here.”
“So you’ve been out this far before?”
We would be lost without Older Sister. Long ago, we would have fallen prey to Sirens, Lurks, and all manner of night-stomping beasts. Older Sister, without us, would be lost, too. I forget, sometimes, that this goes both ways.
When sweet Alliston saw her baby was missing, Older Sister immediately looked for his scent. She used a shirt with holes in it.
Alliston’s cousin, Lizbet, was supposed to be minding the child as he sat in his tilted chair. Lizbet, a quiet girl who had just reached her majority, told the Grandmothers she saw nothing. One moment, the baby was cooing, the next, the chair was empty.
The Grandmothers are angry with Lizbet. I think that’s why she left the village soon after, her face red. I wonder if she’s joined a new caravan.
We walk and purple, glowing blossoms push out of the frost. This is, indeed, the land of the dark.
A willow weeps with leaves that cast a blue light. I pluck one off a vine, but the leaf immediately turns dark gray. When I release the vine again, it shivers and murmurs against the others, creating waves of blue light.
In the glow, I can see Older Sister glare. “You reached your majority last New Year. Please act like it.”
I throw away the leaf. “Only the Grandmothers know what ‘New Year’ means. Do you?”
“Yes,” she says. “It’s an old thing, like the ruins.”
“And like the ruins, it’s of no use to anyone.” The ruins are their own form of death, worse than the dark when we come upon them. They show the world used to be different. According to the Grandmothers, people used to build homes without wheels and live in them, not moving, letting the hot sun run over them like water. Mother says to me, quietly, that it’s wise not to believe everything they say.
“If you’re bored, I’ll speak to you.” Her voice is soft but something about it makes me fear her more. “Only if you’re respectful.”
I don’t like her but I do respect her. “I’m just tired, Sister. There’s only one time before I’ve been this cold.”
I pause. I thought everyone in the village knew the story. “I fell through the ice on a pond when I was small. I lost the hole I made to fish and had to find another. I broke through the ice and was blue when I came out.” I don’t remember being blue, but I remember the cold feeling like fire. “I lost three toes to frostbite.”
Her brow furrows. “That was you?”
“Not your great-aunt?”
“No, Older Sister. I can take off my shoe and show you my foot for proof.”
“If you’re the one who fell through the lake, are you also the one that never cries?”
My mother and father speak at length of me to others in the village, often laughing. I cried as a baby and never after. “You don’t cry, either.”
The vines sway again. This time, it’s not me.
I reach for the sharpened knife at my belt. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to cry that I don’t properly know how to fear, either.
Older Sister moves quickly to block me.
A woman parts the vines of the willow. She looks like Alliston in the caravan, peering out from curtains made of clicking beads. As the woman draws forward, the light catches an unsmiling mouth, then the folds of robes that do not move, tightly braided hair that seems of one mass, and a shoulder where an arm has been broken free.
I say “broken” because the place on her shoulder is rough hewed.
The woman is made of stone. Not in the way I am made of stone because I don’t cry or how Older Sister is made of stone because she doesn’t age. Some who drink blood look like her, but she is different in other ways from Older Sister.
Lurks are Older Sisters and Brothers who don’t have villages or anywhere to feed. They’re not as cruel as Sirens, but they are just as dangerous because they’re hungry.
Older Sister keeps me still.
What would I do? Let my knife grind against the thick stone neck?
It would do no good and blunt the blade, besides.
“Lady,” says Older Sister. “We apologize for walking through your home.”
The stone woman lifts her good arm toward us.
Older Sister moves forward and grabs it. Where she squeezes, hairline cracks grow in the stone.
“Do not test me.” Older Sister grunts. “I’m stronger than you. It’s cold and we’re running out of time. We’re looking for one from the caravan I protect. A baby.”
I hold my breath. What if the Lurk takes offense? What will happen if the Lurk fights back and succeeds in killing Older Sister? What will happen to me?
The Lurk moves her head. The stone grinds once more, and I realize there’s a seam at her neck. She pulls her good arm out of Older Sister’s grasp and points through the luminous neon willow vines. She then holds up two fingers.
“Ah,” says Older Sister. “Thank you, Lady.”
The Lurk, without regarding me, moves away. On her back, I see she has small, stone wings, one of which is smaller than the other. The vines sway and close behind her, hiding her in blue light.
I exhale. “How did you convince her?”
“A lie. I don’t think I’m much stronger than her, really.” Older Sister shrugs one shoulder. “Their lineage is so strange. Cold.”
I try to joke with her. “Colder than yours?”
She nods. “It’s a difficult contest, but one we’re resigned to losing.”
I laugh. Something of my fear of her melts, though not all.
“Come,” says Older Sister. “It will be two miles. Then we’ll find what we find.”
By my count, it’s only a mile and a half. We first hear a sound like a lamb crying. Then, through the glow of the trees, I see another woman. This time, she isn’t made of stone.
Lizbet, ruddy-faced. It looks like she’s been crying.
And in front of her is the baby, Salm, face ugly and wrinkled with sorrow. He lies in his wool wrappings on the ground. He wails. I doubt he likes the cold, either.
Damn. I had hoped it wasn’t another human, but I take out my knife.
Older Sister puts a hand on my shoulder. “Oh, Lizbet. What have you done?”
“Stay right there!” Lizbet holds a knife of her own. Rather than pointing it at me, or, more stupidly, Older Sister, she presses it to the stomach of the baby. “I have to give Alliston’s child until I have my own.”
Older Sister snarls. “First you hid Salm, didn’t you? Then you took him away with you into the forest. You lied.”
“Have you dipped yourself in the dawn?” I ask Lizbet. “Have you gone drunk with madness?”
“They asked me to bring the baby. I had to comply.”
“Who asked? The Sirens?” I demand.
“Yes! The Sirens! The goddesses!” She stands boldly. “They have visited me in my dreams! They say I may be immortal as they!”
“They are not immortal,” says Older Sister. “They are not goddesses.”
Lizbet, incensed, runs to Older Sister. She sinks the knife in under the collar bone.
Older Sister makes a sound like exhaling if she ever needed to exhale.
I reply instantly. Whatever my feelings about Older Sister being death, she is the death that belongs to the village.
I know where Lizbet’s heart is. I push the knife through there with effort.
Older Sister only stumbles forward.
Lizbet falls down and stays there.
To my surprise, Older Sister asks that we bury Lizbet. I convince her to have some of my blood, first, so that her flesh may heal.
When we are done digging, our fingers are creased in dirt. I’m not convinced the Sirens won’t still find, dig up, and eat Lizbet, but we cover her and pat the earth flat.
On the way back to the village, Older Sister asks that I carry the baby. “My skin’s too cold to warm him.” To my surprise, she looks sad.
For her sake, I carry the baby so he can look back over my shoulder at her. She follows me, this time, and when I look back, I see her making faces for Salm so that he trills and laughs. Her look is that of love, I realize, for the baby, the village, and all that is mortal that she’s able to protect. It must be lonely for her to watch the entire world grow, age, and die as she remains stone still, always Older Sister.
Gillian Daniels writes, works, and haunts the streets of Boston, MA. Since attending the 2011 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. She currently reviews for The New England Theatre Geek and plays with Catalyze, a group based out of Central Square Theater. She can be found at your house party, petting your cat.