“The War Of The Wheat Berry Year” by Sarah Avery
“Last chance to change our minds,” Stisele of Imlen said, turning the handle of the borrowed pickaxe in her hands. The wood was worn from long use, and her hands felt the purpose in it.
She stood before the hearthstone among the Augurs’ divinatory bones, a foreigner to be used — as the Augurs used their own people, used everyone. Stisele had lived all of her three decades as a weapon in other people’s hands. At least this time she had chosen who would wield her. The acolytes had swept clean the hearth in preparation. Although the act was hers to commit, it was for the Miaarans to permit or forbid it. She was long past done playing colonial governor in Miaaro.
“Not quite the last chance,” Breeimon replied. The Augur waved the young acolytes away from the hearthstone. “If we are to see this revolt down the forking paths to any good end, we will have to choose again and again, in every city from here to the coast.” With a last griefstricken look at the stone, he said, “I have held the blade for many sacrifices, but this one…I am grateful not to have to strike the blow myself.”
Gallirrim, the best of Stisele’s lieutenants, said, “I didn’t gather an army just so I could watch the weathercallers strike them down with lightning. You were right, Stisele. Break the hearth. Break it, or order the troops to disperse before the storm hits.”
Though they accepted the plan Stisele had proposed, none of the Miaarans could bear to witness the necessary sacrilege. They left her alone in the low earthen dome as the first edge of storm dimmed the slant of sunlight through the oculus.
Alone, Stisele could speak to her ghosts, her long-dead parents. “Wait for me on the road to Braasopuc,” she said.
We’ll be there, replied the faint spectral light that was her mother. At the Augury’s edge, we will find you.
Her father drifted into the last of the sunlight. Just you get there alive, love.
And with that, Stisele’s dead left her to open a wound in the land she hoped to free, the land she had been sent from Beltresa to rule, and to die for ruling.
The vast slate hearthstone clear of its usual runebones looked all wrong — Stisele had never seen one bare, and she couldn’t help thinking of it as naked. The thirty-two runes were carved in a crude border around the stone’s circumference. It was older than any other manmade thing in Miaaro, the first hearth. She knelt to touch it, to let it tell her hands its purpose. Maybe, with this Old Beltresin magic of her father’s, she could understand something of the Augurs’ Sight she could not share.
Warning. That was what it was for. That was what it had to say to her. Warning. And if she meant to prevent what it wanted to warn her of, she knew what she had to do.
One great heave sank the pickaxe deep into the slate, and the purpose in the worn wooden handle drained away from Stisele’s hands. Another heave opened a crack that wandered all the way to the center of the stone. The wound was mortal now.
Stisele took a deep breath and set her foot on the hearthstone. Not a bare and properly consecrated foot, no, but a soldier’s foot. These past three months since her flight from the capital, she wore the same boots she’d worn through the conquest of Miaaro.
We will use the enemy to break the enemy, Breeimon had foretold. Choose this traitor now, or wait for another.
Another would have come along sooner or later, but Stisele had the advantage of her haunting. You chose me because of my mixed blood, she’d guessed. All her first guesses about Miaaro had been wrong.
No, Stisele. We chose you because you’re as bound to the spirits as we are to the bones. The Augur had added with wry fellow-feeling, Why, you’re practically dead already.
Sick at the desecration she committed against Miaaro, the treason she committed against Beltresa, Stisele walked three paces to the center of the stone and struck it one last time.
It was the wailing of the acolytes that told her she had done it, even before the crack reached the far side of the slate.
Outside the dome, Gallirrim stood pale and shaken. “I thought it would be a relief,” he said when she dragged the pickaxe out. “A relief to have it over with.” His Sight had never been strong enough to rely on. “I thought…” He shook his head. “But now my sons will not be slaves.”
Breeimon leaned hard on the bone wall that circled the dome. “I wish I could say so for certain.” The Augur blinked hard against the dull white light that filtered down through the clouds. “How does anyone think straight like this? So this is what you have always lived with, Stisele. This is what it is to be future-blind.”
“No, this isn’t what I’ve always lived with,” she said. “I suffer my share of new losses, too.” That was the point, after all. The hand-sight, the voices of her dead, the very little weatherwork she could do — as long as she sheltered within the borders of the Augury of Joaarsiell, she could use none of it. And no one could use those things against her.
The west wind died down, then reversed into a patient contrary breeze. East of Joaarsiell, it was a fine bluesky day.
“They’ll be coming all the same.” Stisele knew the Beltresin general’s stubbornness. She’d fostered in his house. “Time to ride.” Time to be the general her troops had come to follow.
The Bastard Traitor of Imlen rode at the head of her army to the very edge of the Augury. Let them call her what they would back home in Beltresa, Stisele meant to pay for the wrong she’d done in Miaaro. She unbuckled her helmet, the better to view her troops — mostly a ragged rabble of dirt farmers, their shackle scars barely mended, armed with farm tools and butcher knives, makeshift polearms. Most of Miaaro’s veterans refused the Augurs’ call to arms, swearing they would never be used again, no matter what futures the flames showed. And they were not wrong, those soldiers.
What was she doing, throwing these raw people at the pride of the Beltresin Cavalry? And on the western horizon, thunderheads scudded east; the weathercallers of the Beltresin Royal Weather Agency were hard at work.
Mother, have I been a fool? Father, is this where our vengeance ends?
No answer, this time. Without the voices of her dead, Stisele was truly alone as she had never been before. Alone with six thousand half-trained volunteers, many of whom had never faced a mounted enemy.
She lifted off her helmet, and the Miaarans cheered to see her face. The better to be heard, Stisele urged her horse up a little rise in the green earth. Already they’d made a symbol of her. She reared her horse and brandished her sword, for they demanded these moments of showmanship. It was a small enough thing to ask, considering the risks they bore in return.
They gathered around her, and she shouted for them. “You came to me to plead for justice, and today, together, we will make justice. No more the manor, no more the lords. No more the seven Crown Houses, not here in Miaaro. These were my countrymen, whom we will meet in blood, and I can tell you they have never seen our like. They come to Joaarsiell to smite us with lightning and crush us under hooves. But what do they know about sacrifice? They cannot imagine the price you have already paid.” An uneasy murmur rose among them then. “The Augurs’ Hearth at Joaarsiell is broken. We walk blind into the future. Anything might happen now. Anything but what the enemy expects. No people were ever braver than you. Show them who you are, unchained!”
They cheered themselves hoarse, those six thousand men and women. There was no word they loved so much as unchained.
Stisele’s lieutenants called them into formation, and it was better for her not to look back. It pained her to see how they fell out of line, then remembered what they were about, then forgot again. Too late to do any more about that now.
At the edge of a field within sight of the granary towers of Joaarsiell, a Beltresin herald rode far ahead of the cavalry to meet her under flag of parley and flag of nation. The red banner whipped in the east wind, the leaping dolphin under a crown of gold, rippling over golden waves. I will never see home again. Stisele might march her army of farmers as far as the sea, but to cross water to the spires of Beltresa and free her father’s people from the Crown Houses — that might forever be beyond her. She signaled her army to stop, rode up a little farther ahead of them. “What message, herald?” He was no one she knew. She need feel no shame before him.
“Stisele of Imlen, hear the words of Trebin of Ythrae, General, and by the grace of Her Royal Highness Jrene of Ambra, Sovereign Princess of Beltresa, master of…”
“What does Trebin want?” Stisele did not look forward to meeting the old curmudgeon on the battlefield. She owed him in ways she could never repay. Wronging him was her gravest regret.
“He expects your surrender.”
“He will not have it.”
“Then he will find you on the field of battle to deliver the kin curse you have earned.”
Stisele needn’t fear that anymore, not this close to the broken Hearth. “Anything else?”
The herald cracked the wax seal of a royal edict and read it at the top of his voice for the whole armed rabble to hear. “Know all, that Stisele of Imlen, formerly Her Royal Majesty’s duly appointed Governor of Miaaro, is recalled by order of the Princess and is to be delivered alive into the presence of Her Majesty to give an account of her actions. Stisele of Imlen is hereby stripped of her governorship retroactively on grounds of miscegenation and has no authority to issue commands to any person, whether Crown, commons, or slave.”
Stisele laughed. “Miscegenation? I burn down my foster sister’s counting house, open her granaries, and lead an army against her, and Jrene strips me of my title because she’s just now remembered my father? I hardly think so.” No doubt the particulars of the charge served someone’s interests in the palace on Ambra Islet.
The herald proffered his papers. “You may see for yourself.”
Stisele did not need to see for herself. She reined her horse around and addressed her army. As the thunderheads sped closer to the border, the Miaarans needed all the enthusiasm she could rouse in them. “Jrene’s herald informs me that I have no authority to command anyone. I couldn’t agree more. People of Miaaro, I serve at your pleasure. What answer do you give her?”
They chanted Stisele’s name, barking out its syllables in staccato unison. Stisele had thought her name would be ill-suited to such use, with its soft hissing consonants. No, it turned out the hissing added menace. Jrene had been right all those years ago, when she’d warned Stisele against Miaaran fanaticism. Given time, given a chance to cross the water to her father’s people in Beltresa, that chant would be more dangerous than all the pikes and pitchforks together, whether Stisele lived to cross water with it or not.
“Go tell him what you will,” said Stisele to the herald. After one last appalled look at the rebels, he turned and spurred his horse to a canter. Stisele’s eyes followed him far across the field to Trebin.
Not much longer now. By the number of Beltresin horsemen, she knew Trebin expected little from her new army. Stisele’s own talents, he knew well. The Miaaran rabble, as he called them, he had never understood.
Trebin had taught her everything she knew of warfare. For ten years, he’d instructed her. For three, he had served her, though the reversal at Jrene’s command had embarrassed them both. Now she meant to break him. Was that the best justice she could make?
Having burned one harvest already to starve the Beltresins out of the easternmost provinces, the farmers were inured now to marching over wheat seedlings. Stisele placed the line of pikemen along the rolls and rises of vibrant spring green, arranging her forces in imitation of her own characteristic youthful errors. She’d made her name in the cavalry, but the various geometrical theories of infantry formation had not come easily to her. By the time the herald had delivered his answer, Stisele’s line invited all the old criticisms. You forgot the weathercallers, girl. That was what Trebin would be muttering under his breath on the far side of the field while he waited for his thunderheads to arrive. And waited. And waited.
Those tall clouds fought the prevailing winds as far as the limit of the Augury of Joaarsiell, and could come no farther. There would be no softening up of the Miaarans before the charge.
Stisele smiled to see the restless consternation of the enemy, and settled in to wait for Trebin’s patience to run out. “There’s more than one way to scorch the earth, old man,” she said under her breath. At last, distant trumpets sounded the charge.
Sweet black soil shuddered under hoofstrikes. The Miaarans flinched but did not flee. Just behind the line of mismatched polearms, Stisele steadied her horse. “Hold!” she shouted one last time before the rumble swallowed up all voices.
Far off, over the trees, the thunderheads flashed their menace where they could. The woodlots burned, and the people of Joaarsiell would shiver through the rest of the spring. They would chew last season’s raw wheat berries — and too few of those, with the Millstone River dammed, the woods burnt, and the fields trampled.
But there would be no more manacles.
It was for that hope the line held.
Held against screaming horses and bright sabers, held against the weight of the Beltresin Crown. The farmers roared back at the wave of speed that broke on them, and Stisele rode down the few riders who’d jumped the line or trampled, bleeding, through. The first was a colonel who’d displayed his troops in fancy drill for her in the town square at Braasopuc just last year. What was his name? He fell under the force of Stisele’s saber. The girl Stisele had pinned the medal on in her last ceremony as Royal Governor — the girl had to go. No more bold deeds for her. Stisele rallied her dissident butchers from the abattoir district of Miaaro Great Port to harry the young hero’s horse, and soon there the broken courage lay, crushed under the eighteen-hand gelding Stisele had given her.
Trebin drove his heavy mount through the line where it was thinnest and rushed at Stisele, howling his wrath. She froze a moment. Oh, my dear one. All my dear ones. For a moment, she longed to flee, to take it all back. But her followers were looking. They chanted her name. Why couldn’t Jrene have come? Her, I could kill all day long.
Stisele forced herself to remember the heft of the headsman’s axe in her hands, her last act as the Crown’s hand in Miaaro. No more the lash. No more the lords. No more the seven Crown Houses. She charged to meet Trebin. This is my wooden practice blade. This is our lesson. We are at home in the courtyard on Calnir’s Prize. He wants me to best him. What a fuss he will make if I don’t. She jumped her horse over the dead colonel and swung for the blow.
But one of the pikemen, his weapon a butcher’s knife lashed to half a broken flail, darted up to gut Trebin’s horse. “Stisele!” the pikeman shouted, again and again.
“Mine!” she shouted back, reining in her mount and leaping off. She owed Trebin at least this much. “All the rest are yours. Go.” And the farmers, starved for vengeance, went to claim the rest.
Trebin stood from where his horse had thrown him, shook himself out like the faithful dog he was, and came to obey his orders. “You will die defeated, Stisele.” No earthquake answered his kin curse.
“Then it won’t be today that I die.” Over the burning woods, a dozen thunderheads dissolved in abandoned swirls. Somewhere, an exhausted contingent of weathercallers was in retreat.
He closed with her, sank into his sword stance. “History will remember you as mad. Centuries hence, your name will be an insult among schoolchildren.” Still no earthquake. Now, perhaps, he understood what she had accomplished.
“I am not mad anymore. I have set down the lash and the headsman’s axe.”
His blade mocked her with a feint. “How did you do it?”
She answered his feint with a beat attack that drove him back four steps on the bloodied ground. He was stronger, but she’d always been faster. “All I had to do was leave the mansion. Everything after was easier.” Everything but this.
“No. The thunderheads. How did you do it?” His low swing grazed her hip.
In the years when he’d called her daughter, she could have confided in him about the hearthstone, could have wept to him about it. Breaking it was the closest thing she’d ever done to cold-blooded murder. She circled left, seeking drier footing. “Failing to curse me, you demand my confession? No, Trebin. For what it’s worth, you were the best of us. Would that you had joined me when I called for you. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, dear heart.”
All she wanted was for it to be over. In that, they were of one mind. All around them, the bodies of dead and dying soldiers and horses bled into the crushed early wheat. He could not possibly escape the Augurs’ peasants, and it was clear enough the end would go worse for him if he fell to them than to her. Still, he loosed killing blow after killing blow at her parries. He was the greatest living exemplar of the House of Ythrae’s stubbornness. Trebin would never weary.
But he could be provoked into losing his patience. He’d been the one to warn her against all the failings in form that crept up on a soldier in extremities of exhaustion or injury. She let him think he’d done better than graze her with that last blow. How many times had he told her to keep her stance low? She rose, even locked her front knee for a moment, and habit made him say it again. “What are you doing with your feet, girl?” A weary extension of her sword arm lured him closer. He was about to show her what happened to pupils who did not aim before lunging, when she lunged with a precision he would have praised just two seasons ago.
She sank low and drove her saber up under his cuirass. It would at least be quick. Nothing could be clean anymore. He fell, but did not stoop. He gave her no more last words, though she wept over him and laid him out with dignity on the ground.
That was how her lieutenants found her, bent over the enemy general to close his eyes.
Gallirrim knelt down close by her. “We have won the day, Stisele.”
She put aside her grief to do what needed doing. “Prisoners?”
“Maybe half their numbers lived to retreat. I think it will be some time before you can convince the ranks to take Beltresins alive.”
“You took me alive.”
“You ambushed me with intent to defect. It’s not the same. And you never looked like them.”
She stood to survey the battlefield. Steps away, her horse swished its tail at the spring flies. “Have the scavengers collect any horses the enemy’s left. The dragoons of Seventh Company were here. They’re sure to have lost a few when the weathercallers retreated. When you see which of your old bandits survived, find me a good scout to put on a good mare. We need to get word to the Braasopuc Augurs. Send someone to see what Breeimon wants to tell them.”
“Consider it done.”
“And after that, to Miaaro Great Port.” Where they would have to choose again.
“What about the dams on the Millstone?”
“Hearthstones before millstones. One year of living on wheat berries won’t kill us. The weathercallers might. Now, have someone get the wounded back into town, and leave me to my funerals. I’m not in charge again of anything else until Breeimon says so.”
It took all night to wash and anoint the Beltresin dead, and most of the next day, too. The Miaarans buried their own in haste, but Stisele waited for sunset, as was proper, to burn her fallen countrymen by a little stream. The stream was as near as she could get Trebin to the sea. He had nothing to say to her. In the broken Augury of Joaarsiell, the dead would not speak, not ever again.
“The War Of The Wheat Berry Year” is best experienced in the Great Jones Street free mobile app, Jonesin’.
Sarah Avery won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, which follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic, an anthology she coedited with David Sklar, includes stories from James Enge, Darrell Schweitzer, and Elizabeth Bear. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she has also been a columnist for many years. She’s an escaped academic with a Ph.D. in English Literature and a private practice as a writing coach. Her newest book, The Imlen Brat, debuts in October 2016. Alfie Award winning editor John O’Neill describes The Imlen Brat as “a tale of court intrigue, fast-changing alliances, and the constant subtle peril of being an adopted daughter in an enemy royal house … a compact Game of Thrones, with mighty pirate kingdoms, weather wizards, quarrelsome ghosts, curses, and secret magics.” She lives in Maryland with her husband and sons. You can find out more and download free reads at her website.