Liqeni i Zi
Ela and Ismail spent evenings huddled around a crackling radio, drinking thick, sweet coffee with Iliriana and listening to news of the invaders.
Newscasters from the lowland capitol spoke urgently of men who had drilled into their own skulls and cut away parts of themselves, who had grafted bronze masks to their faces in devotion to a nameless god. Of hungry bullets etched with curling script, which burrowed through flesh toward the heart. Of eyeless warlocks chanting soldiers into battle.
Often, in those days, Ela would sit on the bare stony shore of the lake and look out at the ruined temple in the water, columns like broken bones wreathed in mist guarding an altar of black porous stone where the village ancestors had sacrificed sheep and goats and sometimes men. Where, Iliriana told them, men would waken the gods slumbering deep beneath the water.
The previous spring, at Ela’s insistence, brother and sister had gone out to the island. Iliriana’s tales of the old ways did not fire Ismail’s imagination as they did Ela’s and he knew the villagers regarded them with suspicion enough. Thus, going secretly, she could not take Iliriana’s boat, tied in the rushes further down the shore. He worried she might slip from the submerged stone path and fall into the lake, and so he had agreed.
“Don’t be afraid,” Ela said as they stepped carefully along the path, footsteps sending ripples across the black water.
“I’m not,” he lied. He did not look up from his feet. There was something in the way the water lapped around his ankles, the way it bent the edges of his form, that made him shudder.
When they reached the island, the sun was low, washing the temple’s cold dark stones deep crimson. Ela ran her hand along the altar and closed her eyes, listening.
“Do you hear them?” she said.
“The voices on the wind…”
Ismail shivered. He heard only the stillness and the lap of black water. But he felt the eyes of an invisible throng trained on him, and caught his reflection in the water shifting in ways that did not match his movements. He insisted they leave before nightfall.
When Iliriana discovered where they had been, the lines on her face deepened. Ismail braced for a scolding while Ela raised her chin defiantly. But Iliriana only sighed. She hobbled to the other room, and brought back a thick, dusty tome from the locked cupboard filled with old books, carved talismans, jars of herbs, the pistol of a dead invader from years before.
“If you are that curious about the old ways,” she said, “you should understand the dangers.”
The week the post did not come, there was news over the radio that the invaders had swept into the city nearest to Liqeni i Zi. The villagers crowded into the town hall by the lake, hearth and pipe smoke gathering in thick clouds about the rafters, and argued over what was to be done. By custom only men gathered in the hall, to squabble and debate over frothy cups of coffee, but in times of trouble the women and young people joined them and even the men who hewed most strongly to tradition acquiesced.
“We should leave,” said Elder Aleksandr, the potter.
“Hide in the mountains,” said another.
Elder Pjetër, normally so jovial, despaired. “They’re everywhere,” he said. “No place will be safe.”
“If we welcome them, we will survive,” said Elder Gjon, the turnip farmer. He puffed nervously on a long pipe made of the legbone of a chamois. “It will be bad, but it has happened before. We are all still here.”
The last time, the invaders had come in the high summer. They had occupied the village, only moving on when called away to defeat on some distant battlefield. In spring, Ismail and Ela had been born. Ismail swallowed, his neck and forearms prickling at the sidelong glances sent towards them — the twins with the hair and eyes and skin of foreigners, whose mother, it was said, had died of shame soon after giving birth. The children who had been taken in by an old woman most held to be a witch.
“I heard they give their captives a choice,” said Elder Onufri, the carpenter. “Some join their ranks.” Left unspoken: the bronze mask, the cutting away. “Perhaps if a few of us submit, we can buy the safety of us all.”
Ela crossed her arms and her mouth curved down in furious contempt.
“Such is life,” Elder Gjon said. “We have had nearly fourteen years of peace, and no good thing can last forever. There will always be wars, and wicked men to fight them. All we can do is try to survive.”
After long debate and lamentation, still nothing was decided. Some might leave and some might stay.
No one suggested they fight.
That night as they ate a supper of turnips, black bread, and soft cheese from their ill-tempered goat, Ismail said they should take their chances in the mountains.
“We will not be driven from our home,” Ela said fiercely.
“Do you think we will have a choice?”
But Ela only looked long at Iliriana, who turned away and shook her head.
After supper, Ismail ground the coffee as they listened to the radio. The army was fighting the invaders, but the nearest city had fallen, and it was unclear if or when neighboring countries might send help. Ismail glanced at the mantel, where a yellowed lithograph of the city held a place of pride, a souvenir from a journey in Iliriana’s younger days. Since he was small, Ismail had wanted to visit this city. Now, he had an image of the soaring buildings engulfed in flames, the terrible masked figures stalking the streets.
Ordinarily they would pass the grinder from one to another, each taking a turn until the coffee was fine as dust and fragrant, but Ela and Iliriana were deep in a hushed dispute.
“You know what we can do,” Ela said. “We are only defenseless if we choose to be.”
Iliriana shook her head sharply. “Such defenses are bought at a terrible cost.”
“And the cost of doing nothing?”
“It may be no worse in the end.”
Ela grimaced, but said no more. Ismail added water and coffee to Iliriana’s battered copper pot and placed it in the embers glowing at the edge of the fire.
The invaders marched on, said the report, into the mountains.
Fear tightened Ismail’s chest. “They’re monsters,” he said.
The coffee bubbled over. Ela watched the liquid hiss and pop on the coals.
“Perhaps they will find monsters here themselves,” she said.
Ela and Ismail went out into the pine woods the following day to gather kindling. It was rare that Ela accompanied Ismail on excursions now. Since the evening at the lake temple, she had spent most of her time studying Iliriana’s books. She thought though that the old woman held some knowledge back from her.
The air was sharp with the beginning of a snowfall, and the scout stood so still that Ismail’s eyes slid past him twice before he realized what he’d seen. He grabbed Ela’s sleeve. The children and the scout stared at each other through the scrim of falling snow.
These scouts, Ismail heard, had traded voices and eyes for silence and concealment. They scouted by sound, by feel, by smell, by arcane senses unnamed by any language.
A thin leather thong stitched the scout’s lips together. A black cloth concealed his eyes. He was barefoot, despite the cold.
The scout’s nostrils flared. He raised his rifle, and Ismail saw his own death staring at him. He felt a swell of shame. If he were dead he could not protect Ela.
But when the shot came, the rifle muzzle did not flash. The man staggered sideways and fell, feet scrawling arcs in the new snow until he lay still. Ela stood silent, holding Iliriana’s pistol, heavy, ugly, and martial in both hands.
Her hands began to shake. Ela dropped the empty pistol and let her arms fall to her sides.
The pines crackled quietly with falling snow.
“They must be close,” she whispered, and pulled away. “We go to the lake.”
Snowflakes hit the lake surface and melted, delicate forms swallowed by the black water.
“Don’t worry,” Ela said, looking back over her shoulder and stepping out onto the lake. “I know what to do.”
She chose her steps confidently, though the path was treacherous even at the best of times. Ismail followed slowly.
Halfway to the temple a rumble of engines carried across the water, followed by panicked shouts and the sounds of shattering glass. Ismail looked back. A truck idled in the village square. A cloaked man was chained to the roof of the cab, and bronze-masked soldiers swarmed from it, kicking down doors, chasing villagers down, smashing windows.
Several men came towards the lake. Ismail quickened his pace, hoping he had not been seen. The snow blew thickly now. Perhaps he and Ela could wait out the attack in the shelter of the temple’s broken columns.
By the time Ismail reached the island, Ela stood eagle-armed before the black and primal altar. Her dress and hair billowed in the cold wind. She chanted in a language he had never heard.
The crack of a gunshot echoed across the lake. Ismail looked back across the water. His stomach dropped. Through the snow, a trio of masks was visible. The invaders had found the path and were drawing toward the temple, stopping to send off shots at them. A fiery glow rose behind them as buildings were set alight.
He shivered as Ela chanted. One of the masked soldiers stumbled and fell into the black water. With the barest splash he sank and did not resurface. His fellows watched the spot a moment, then moved on.
Ela’s voice reached a crescendo, and her prayer ended. Her arms dropped. Wind whistled through the broken columns. She turned to her brother. Her eyes were wide.
“It’s not working,” she said, breathless. “I spoke the words correctly. It’s not working.”
“Words alone are not enough,” said a voice, and Ismail turned to see Iliriana stepping out of her small wood and goatskin coracle. She had crossed unseen from further down the shore.
Iliriana drew a knife from her belt. “The altar is thirsty. It needs blood.”
“No,” Ela whispered. “No.”
Iliriana hefted the knife in her withered hand, then held it out to Ismail. “I have lived long, and the gods need a vessel. Be quick. I do not like pain, and we will not be alone for long.”
Understanding seeped into Ismail’s bones like a winter chill. A noise somewhere between a cry of despair and a yelp of laughter clawed its way from his throat.
“Do it,” she whispered hoarsely, “or everyone you know will die.”
Hand shaking, Ismail took the knife. Beneath its patina of rust, the old blade was sharp. Oh yes, it was sharp. He tried to imagine drawing the blade across Iliriana’s throat, and his hands fell to his sides.
Ela snatched the knife and slashed her palm. Iliriana cried out and moved to stop her, but Ela was already scraping her hand over the altar. The snow swirled patterns around her as she watched her blood disappear into the porous black stone. She stiffened, breathing gone quick and shallow. A black mist rose from the altar, curled around her, and sunk into her skin. She cried out.
Phantom forms emerged from the blowing snow. Eyes burning with pitiless fire through the holes in their bronze masks. Snow clotting on their cloaks.
“No choice now,” Iliriana said. Her lips moved rapidly with the strange language. Thin and wavering, Ela’s voice echoed hers.
The first soldier raised his rifle and Ismail lunged at him, knocking the barrel aside as it fired. The bullet chewed into a pillar.
The soldier gripped his coat and lifted him into the air. Ismail flailed at him but the soldier threw him skidding and tumbling across the cold stones of the temple ground. He slammed against a column and looked up to see the man’s rifle pointing at his heart.
The man laughed as he sighted down his gun.
Ismail closed his eyes and waited, listening to the wind and the low echo of Iliriana and Ela’s chanted prayer.
Snowflakes drifted cold against his face. He remembered how he and Ela would catch them on their tongues when they were little, running through the village with faces to the sky.
Soon this snow would drift over the charred houses and meeting hall. The mill and the coffeehouse and the narrow dirt streets of the village. It would drift through the windows of Iliriana’s little house, settling over her books and the coffee pot in the cold ashes of the fire, the faded photograph of the city, her books, the old radio, the beds they pulled together on the coldest nights. The snow would blanket the frozen dead. A deep and bitter sadness bloomed within him knowing he would lie unburied beside Ela and Iliriana, cold and still, surrounded by the black empty lake. Would someone one day come upon them and wonder who they were, how they had come to die on this stony island with its baleful altar?
The shot came. Iliriana spoke a final word like the crack of breaking ice. The air went still.
A current of voices rose, whispering at first but growing quickly. They spoke the language of the prayer.
Ismail opened his eyes. Snowflakes hung motionless in the air. The cold wind no longer bit at his cheeks, but the voices persisted. The waters of the lake were smooth as a mirror of onyx.
Before him, the soldiers stood as stiff as the temple’s ancient pillars. Their bronze masks shone in the muzzle flash of a rifle, frozen in the instant of the shot.
Ela stood at the altar, a slim dark figure in wet boots and a homespun dress. The wound in her hand did not bleed. She walked to Ismail, her passage leaving an eerie tunnel in the suspended cloud of snowflakes. Her eyes had turned the black of the lake.
She reached out and touched his cheek, briefly, with fingers cold as ice, and though Ela’s lips did not move Ismail heard a voice say, I will protect you. I will protect everyone.
Iliriana watched them with haunted eyes, and Ismail knew this was his sister’s end.
Ela plucked something from the air and held it lightly between finger and thumb. The eldritch bullet from the soldier’s gun. She held it before her eyes a moment and then sent it back at the man. Pale green light flared from the script etched on the bullet, and it buried itself in his chest even as he remained frozen in the act of laughing as he shot.
Ismail watched as Ela, no longer Ela, strode toward these men who had cut away parts of themselves, who on the orders of others had come to kill and burn and enslave, in service to gods whose names he did not know.
The wind rose up again. The black water of the lake frothed and churned, and the snow swirled like ash.
The soldiers shuddered to life. The first looked down at the bullet hole in his chest, pawing at it before crumpling to the ground. Ela crooked a finger at the other soldier, and he fell to his hands and knees, choking. His mask fell to the ground with a dull clang. Ismail expected to see a monster, but saw only a pale, ordinary face. The man retched up green-black lake weeds shimmering with wriggling little silver-grey fish, then pitched forward, and lay still.
With a last black-eyed glance at Ismail and Iliriana, Ela moved out over the lake. Her passage sent ripples across the black water.
Ismail saw what followed, as though through his sister’s eyes. He saw the black waters of the lake raise up shining basalt columns, looming over the village, collapsing over the flames eating up the walls of the houses.
He saw Ela walk up the stony shore. He saw villagers, people he knew, who had looked at them with suspicion and contempt, fall to their knees before her in awe and terror, for they knew the lake’s dark history, though they might deny it.
He saw an invader’s mask melt. The man took a step, another, then stiffened and tipped to the ground like a falling tree. Liquid bronze slid down his pale skin.
He saw rifles turn to twisted pieces of wood in their owners’ hands. The invaders dropped them, and branches shot out, snaking around legs and arms, pulling them to the ground, crushing them against the frozen earth.
Among the bronze-faced men Ela spread wide her arms as though preparing an embrace, heedless of the shots they fired, a voice speaking through her that was not her own. And when the last soldier fell, she stood for a moment in the village center as though reveling in what she had done. A moment later something passed out of her, and her body crumpled to the ground, an empty vessel. The voices fell silent.
Ismail felt Iliriana come up beside him, and he clung to her tightly, shivering. The snow fell, flakes dancing above the water like tiny moths. The wind wound through the temple’s broken stones. The lake gripped the island — vast, rippling now, black as the stone of the altar, black as Ela’s eyes. The water seemed to go on forever, as if he and Iliriana and the temple were all that was left in the world.
Liqeni i Zi © Corey Mallonee
Corey Mallonee is from Maine and lives in upstate New York.
“Long Note Two” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Illustrations Fran Eisemann, background oil painting “Isle of The Dead” by Arnold Böcklin, 1883. Stock from Pixabay and supplied by Omnia.
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