This story was inspired by a Tumblr post (warning, spoilers).
Reet Moque went wading in the surf and wondered how far out she'd have to swim before she found a sea-death. They sometimes came in as near as the shore, supposedly, but usually not, usually you'd only find any from a boat. Moque wondered how hard it would be to kill a sea-death if she found one.
Probably, however hard it was to find a sea-death, it would be much harder to track down the specific sea-death that had taken her papa.
But she could maybe find another sea-death that would otherwise take somebody else's papa, and somehow overpower a creature bigger than her house. Somehow. And drive a sword into its eye -
Well, nobody was going to sell a deathsbane sword to a twelve-year-old of no family, and she didn't know how to hold one anyway, and stabbing it with anything else would just make more deaths. Which would then eat her. Moque kicked the sand and turned around to go home.
She felt Eypa's shadow on her shoulder before the bird landed. "I haven't seen you," said Eypa. "Where have you been?"
"Papa died," said Moque, in a still, minimal voice. "I had to help our friends bury him, and say the Sendaway, and sit in mourning. What do dunlins do when other dunlins die?"
"Regular ones or me?" peeped Eypa. Eypa produced no comforting gestures; she had no fingers to run through Moque's hair and no pan of sweets to coax down Moque's throat and not enough control over how her voice sounded to lower and smooth it for Moque's ears. After four days of tenderly hovering neighbors, Moque was glad of the variety.
"Well, the answer is nothing either way, the others don't scarcely notice and I am hardly friends with them since they can't speak or think to speak or think of. But if you died I'd make a human teach me the Sendaway to say for you, if you liked."
Moque reached up to pet Eypa's feathers. Eypa permitted it, though as soon as Moque's hand fell away she preened her wing to put everything back in place. "I don't know what I'm going to do now," Moque said.
"Do?" asked Eypa.
"Why not do what you usually do? Make sandcastles and go to the shrine and play with that nasty little boy and talk to me."
"He isn't nasty, he just doesn't like birds."
"But you contradict yourself. Well?"
"I could try just doing that, but I don't have a job, and eventually I wouldn't be able to buy food."
"Oh. And you -"
"I can't eat bugs and snails like you. Even though they're free and even though I'm sure you'd help me find them."
"You could catch fish, you eat those."
"I don't know how to fish. I could learn, I guess, before the money runs out, but I don't think I want to be a fisher really." Not without a deathsbane sword in case of monster attack.
"Oh." Eypa considered this. "I don't know what you're going to do either."
Papa had friends. Moque had friends, too. She could probably get someone to take her in. But none of the friends were so close, or so possessed of spare money and space, that they assumed she would ask them rather than someone else. They hadn't started preemptively moving her things out of Papa's house, started rearranging their chore schedules to include her and set an extra place at the table. So, she had time to think.
Moque could look after herself, but sooner or later a neighbor or a friend would take exception to a twelve-year-old girl living there by herself, would suggest more or less forcefully that she sell it to some nice couple looking to start a family in a place of their own and fold herself into an occupied home.
She sat on her front steps and ate her last little sandwich.
The neighbor dog trotted by. He was a shaggy salt-and-pepper shepherd who, as a one-time wizard's familiar, could speak just like Eypa. He paused, looked at Moque, and went up to lie next to her on the steps and silently invite petting. She scratched him behind the ears.
"We're all going to be the poorer for Cors's loss," he said, after a minute.
"I know," murmured Moque.
"You'll let us know if you need anything, won't you, little miss Moque?" asked the dog.
She nodded. The dog licked her face, then went on about his business.
Moque didn't want to move in with the family the dog lived with, or with the boy who didn't like birds even though he had compensatory virtues, or with Papa's friend from the herring boat who had not been well enough for sailing the day the sea-death swallowed it.
If only Moque had a mother she wouldn't be at such a loss, but Papa had always bizarrely maintained that Moque did not have such a person - not that she was dead, which would have been ordinary enough, but that she did not have one.
Presented with a dilemma that having a mother would solve, Moque suddenly found this absurdity more pressing to investigate than she had before.
Moque went back indoors.
She went into Papa's closet, and pulled out the little old box that she'd never been allowed to look inside. She didn't think he'd meant to keep the contents secret forever and now he wasn't alive to locate the edges of not-forever.
The box was nailed shut. She had to detour to the toolbag, and saw off the corners of the lid, but then it lifted easily.
Inside, she found:
A small square of fabric, dyed gold, with a longsword embroidered on it, white-bladed and silver-hilted - the Deathsbane crest.
A travel passbook from Charata City for someone named "Mr. Kelur Antre".
A cable of gold chain, anklet-sized - a wedding bangle, a fancy one.
Moque didn't know exactly what to make of all this, but finding out sounded like a better plan than moping in Papa's empty house until somebody bustled her over to their dinner table, their squishy bedrooms with three children in them already, their hearths kept too cool and their soup served too hot.
Moque got a knapsack and her best shoes. She packed the contents of the little box, and enough food for five days, and all of the money she had left.
And she locked the door, left a note stuck to it for the curious neighbors, and started walking.
She knew where to find Charata City.
Eypa caught up to her when Moque had been hiking south for less than an hour. "Where are you going?" asked the sandpiper.
"Charata City," said Moque. "Do you want to come?"
"Ooh, I don't think so. I've been there before and I came here, didn't I? Even if the only other speaking animal here is that bore of a dog."
"Did I say otherwise? But no, I don't think so. Keep a lookout, will you?"
"Yeah," murmured Moque. She didn't think there were a lot of woods-deaths in the forest she'd need to traverse, but she might not be lucky, and there were lesser dangers than those which could be quite the hazard to a twelve-year-old girl anyway.
But there was no reason deaths couldn't come to the village too.
She petted Eypa and left.
Moque had been to the village just south of hers before, years ago, and Charata City was a few towns beyond that. All she had to do was walk along the beach. The weather was fine, so she slept on the shore rather than trouble the villagers for space on the hearth. The sand was soft enough and she picked up and moved on at dawn. It was - not exactly physically comfortable; her feet ached after the first few hours hiking, the sea was too cold to get sand off of herself with, and her rolls did not stay moist and chewy for long - but soul-comfortable. She was not moping at home because Papa was gone. She was going somewhere, to find something out, and then perhaps do something about it.
There was a cliff that she encountered on the third day of her walk which obliged her to climb up the beach and the hills and go a ways into the woods to get around it. She probably looked like quite the ragamuffin, sandy with tangled hair, but she wasn't planning to stop where anyone would care.
She wasn't planning on it until she heard screaming, and turned to look, and saw more than a dozen people hurtling out of the woods past her. One of them, a large man, spotted her, veered in her direction, and before she could decide which way to try to run, scooped her up with his arm around her waist and kept going in his original direction, stride unbroken.
Moque couldn't protest immediately, because the wind was knocked out of her, but when she'd gotten her breath back, she yelled. "PUT ME DOWN!"
"Woods-death," panted the man. "Got a bunker. Lit the beacon."
Oh. That was an entirely sensible reason to pick up a strange girl and carry her off, really, and explained the other dozen screaming people. Moque couldn't see the woods-death through the trees. It might be in the middle of eating someone who hadn't been fast enough, or it might be up in the canopy -
The man carrying Moque tripped. Moque landed under him and squirmed out of the way to get her own feet under her and tear in the direction of the fleeing people. Probably faster than making him carry her, slight though she was. He was up and following a moment later and made no further attempt to lift her off the ground.
The bunker was only four minutes of desperate running away from where they'd intercepted Moque. It was set into one of those foothills she'd climbed over, but she hadn't noticed the slats of the door at the time.
It was locked. A spindly woman who looked like she'd bolted in the middle of kneading bread, flour on her sleeves and an apron tied around her waist, had a key; soon they were all inside in the dark and the door was locked again.
"Do you think any of the Gressens got out?" someone asked.
"Wouldn't leave the old lady."
"Stay within sight of the door in case, they don't have a key, and I didn't see that merchant fellow either - girl, who are you?"
"I'm Reet Moque," said Moque. "I was on my way to Charata City. Can I watch the door?"
"More power to you," said someone in shuddering tones.
Moque pressed her face to the peephole. Woods. Woods and more woods. She didn't hear much of anything, but deaths were shockingly quiet for their size.
And then she spotted it.
It was completely black. There was blood dripping from its jaws, and when it touched one of its six clawed feet to a tree or scraped yard-deep furrows in the ground it left bloody footprints, but just from being in contact with the death's exoskeleton the blood had gone black, too. She could see almost nothing but its silhouette and its eye.
She looked the death right in the pulsing blue glow of its eye and she wanted to stab it, it was a huge target, Moque could have stood upright in its eye socket, she could stab if it she had half a chance but she didn't have a sword she wanted a sword -
"Do we think this thing will hold?" wondered a boy. "The other bunker, will that one hold -? My mother -"
"This one has held before," said the man who'd carried Moque, if she didn't miss her guess about his voice, "so's the other. Just wait for the Deathsbane. They'll see the beacon, they'll follow the footprints, they'll get it."
And then it would be gotten, which Moque admitted to herself was the important thing.
The death approached the bunker. Moque knew that it could have crossed the distance faster than she could scream, but it wasn't in a hurry; it slunk. It dragged its jaws along the ground and made a wet inhaling noise. Smelling their trail. Smelling them. Its eye shone like the sky on a clear day and did not blink.
And then she heard hoofbeats.
The other people in the bunker with her made whimpering noises of hope.
Moque squinted through the peephole, shaking with envy for whoever was on that horse.
The death snapped its head up and moved.
And so did the armored knight on her armored horse, sword flashing. She leapt off her horse in some gymnastic maneuver and made it onto the broad flat plate of the death's upper back. The death rolled; the knight clung to a plate-edge. When it had its claws under it again the death unpeeled a forked tail from its underbelly and whipped it up towards the knight, but she was already climbing onto its head, out of the tail's reach. Its head tossed, its eye shone, and the knight was flung against the hillside so hard that Moque could feel the impact, against her cheek, through the door.
The woods-death was distracted by the horse, flailing and neighing either in a trained maneuver to divert deathly attention or in natural fear. The death closed its teeth, each as long as one of the horse's legs, on the top half of the rearing animal. Fangs screeched awfully against barding; blackened blood or spittle smeared on the exposed mane where it peeked through the wide-spaced needles.
The knight lopped the death's tail off and the death spat out the limp horse and spun to face her.
And she plunged her sword into its eye, and the glow snuffed out.
The villagers wouldn't let Moque open the bunker door immediately, even though she assured them the death was no longer moving or glowing. They waited, and Moque pressed her face to her peephole. Finally, after waiting for a few minutes, watching the death, the knight set down her sword and took her armor off, piece by piece, wincing, hissing. She limped over to her horse and confirmed that it was dead. And at last the knight called, "Anyone in there?"
"Yes!" said Moque. "A bunch of us!"
"You can come out now!"
And with that someone finally unlocked the door, and everyone came out, squinting, into the light.
Moque ran right up to the knight, who was trying to roll her left shoulder and not getting far, and prodding her ribs with her right hand. "That was amazing," Moque said. "I watched the whole thing. Where did you get your sword? Can I hold it?"
The knight looked at her, half-smiling, then - gestured invitingly to the sword where it lay black-stained in the grass.
It was very heavy, and much of the weight was feet away from the hilt; Moque had to grip it with both hands to keep it under control. The knight had wielded it one-handed. "Wow."
"You can wipe it off on the grass for me if you like."
Moque did not do this as smoothly as she supposed the knight would have done if uninjured, but she got the death's blood off of the bone-white blade eventually, dragging it after her to fresh patches of grass twice. "I want a sword."
"Well," said the knight, "you might need to save up a bit and start with a smaller one."
"Will they just sell deathsbane swords? In stores? To anybody?"
"Oh, you want a deathsbane sword -" Someone from the village tapped the knight on her good shoulder. "Yes?"
"All our thanks, Lady. May we have your name? Is it safe to burn the death here? What about your animal?"
"I'm Deathsbane Intara. Make a firebreak, but yes, burn it here," advised the knight. "Don't let animals graze where the death has passed until after the next frost has been and gone. The bigger plates might survive the fire, and after the frost you can take them safely, if you have a use for such things. I've seen people use them in furniture and such. I'll get the armor off my horse before I go. Burn the horse too, unless you want to eat her. The ichor on her isn't going to poison you or your dogs, our horses are almost as warded as we are, it's neutralized, but it won't taste very good. Leave my armor and the horse's somewhere safe in your village. Someone will be by to pick it up within the fortnight."
"Yes, Lady Intara," said the villager.
Moque was sitting on the grass, sword propped with its hilt on her thigh, looking raptly at Lady Intara, still, who looked back down at her. "As I was saying," Intara said. "Most of the deathsbane swords in this part of the world are made for the Deathsbane family, by the family wizards - Deathsbanes who can't do field work pick up magic. I'm not even sure how much a sword like mine would cost on the open market if you found one. It might be a matter of more than saving up, at least unless you want to move all the way out of the country."
"Oh," said Moque.
"What's your name? Do you live here?"
"Reet Moque. I live three days' north. I'm going to Charata City."
"All by yourself?"
"Well," said Lady Intara, "I'm going back to Charata City myself. That's where Deathsbanes live when we aren't at outposts to respond to beacons like the one that brought me here, so it's where I need to be to recover from all my injuries. We might as well walk together, especially since you look about ten and I have a broken shoulder."
"I'm twelve," said Moque.
"Oh? When will you be thirteen?"
"Midwinter," said Moque.
"Hm," said Intara. "But in any case, do you want to come with me?"
"Yes," said Moque at once.
Without Intara's horse, it was two days on foot to Charata City; luckily the lady knight could still walk. Moque accompanied her, sometimes carried the sword (in its scabbard) for her, and asked questions every time Intara paused in describing the Deathsbane compound.
"There are a lot of us," Intara explained. "More every generation. Fifty years ago we could fit snugly in one big house, as long as we weren't all home at the same time, and we never are, because we have to spread out to be ready for deaths. Now we have four houses that size, and more buildings besides - training grounds and the stables and such."
"And it's only Deathsbanes who live there?" asked Moque.
"Some people marry Deathsbanes and take the name, and they can live in the compound with us," said Intara. "And we hire people to do things like cook, and fetch armor we have to leave behind like I just did, and maintain the beacons, and they aren't Deathsbanes at all. But only born Deathsbanes get the training and swords."
"Still stuck on that, huh?"
"You killed it," said Moque fervently, as they approached a farmhouse. Lady Intara, unlike a wandering girl of no particular family, had a good chance of being offered a place by the hearth for herself and a traveling companion if she knocked on any door. "If you hadn't killed it it would've just - kept going. A sea-death killed my papa," Moque added, as though she needed additional reason to hero-worship Deathsbanes. "They all need swords in their eye and you got hurt and you could've died but you showed up anyway."
"We don't have a very good way to hunt down sea-deaths, yet," said Intara.
"Hm," said Intara, and she knocked at the farmhouse, and talked to the woman who answered the door, and they were indeed offered pallets near the fire ("for you and your little squire", and Intara was kind enough not to correct her).
Moque lay awake staring at the rafters in the firelight and wanting the weight of the sword to belong to her.
They reached the city the following dusk, just as the city lanterns were being lit. Intara was recognized, greeted: "Thank you Lady!" "Knight! Look, darling, a knight!" "My lady, some water for you?" She nodded at everyone, took the water, led Moque through winding streets that were knobbly under their feet.
Moque looked at a juggler, a busker, a cart selling baked apples - and wrenched her eyes away to jog after the knight.
"What were you going to do once you got to the city?" asked Intara. "If it's not eat baked apples."
"I - I don't know," said Moque. "When Papa died I went through some of his things, and there was a passbook for somebody I never heard of, from here."
"Who?" wondered Intara.
"I don't know how to pronounce it exactly -" Moque dug out the passbook. "Kelur Antre? Do you know a Kelur family?"
"I... don't know the family," said Intara. "But I've heard of one person by that name. Your family is Reet, right?"
"Do you know Reets?"
"Only you, little squire. But we can ask the other Deathsbanes, how does that sound? All together we know a whole lot of people."
"Do you really not want a baked apple, or did you just not want to lose me in the crowd?" Intara added, with a faint, warm smile.
"I kind of want a baked apple," Moque admitted.
Intara bought her one. Moque savored the treat and followed Intara as they cut through the heart of the city to reach the Deathsbane compound.
It was beautiful. Not opulent, nor even particularly cunningly designed - Moque doubted very much that people went to stare at it for its architecture. It was plain and the corners were sharp and the layout was simple. It was a set of buildings designed, with ruthless clarity, for its efficiency at housing and supporting Deathsbanes so that they could efficiently kill deaths.
There were a few people crisscrossing the yard. Someone with a basket of laundry. Someone with a horse on a longe line, in a fenced section by the stable. Someone leading a group of little Deathsbane children, all younger than Moque, all going for a jog, chanting call-and-responses together as they went.
The man with the laundry stumbled and scrambled to catch a square of fabric. Pale gold. Embroidered with a sword.
Intara led Moque to a front entrance of one of the buildings. There was no entryway, they just stepped immediately into what looked like a living room - fire in the middle, roaring high and hot, and knights and children and old mages resting around it.
"Family," Intara said, addressing them all with one fell swoop. "This is Moque. She's looking for someone who might have known a Kelur Antre."
The Deathsbanes all looked at Moque. Moque stood up taller and held out the passbook.
And then she got out her fabric square, and her wedding bangle.
And a woman sitting close to the fire got up, and came close, and knelt so she was eye to eye with Moque.
"Go get patched up, Intara," she told the lady knight. "I'll take it from here."
"Of course," said Intara, and she went back out the door again.
"H-hello," said Moque.
"Hello," said the woman, taking the passbook, the fabric, the bangle. "Where did you find these?"
"In Papa's secret box. After he died."
"Come sit by the fire with us." She led her to the couch; it had just the right amount of squash in the cushions. "Where did you grow up, Moque?"
"Five days' walking north of here. On the beach. What does this have to do with anything?"
"It might have a lot to do with everything. How old are you exactly?"
"I'll be thirteen Midwinter. Lady."
"No need to be so formal." But she didn't give Moque another name to use. "What did your papa look like?"
"Like me. Well, but taller and a man, and he had his hair longer. I have his eyes."
"Moque," said the woman, "will you bear with me for a minute if I tell you a story?"
"All right," allowed Moque.
"About fourteen years ago a Deathsbane lady knight named Mirials wed outside the family. She married a fellow named Kelur Antre and they were very happy and soon enough they had a little daughter and named her Alcessa. And it is customary for newborn Deathsbanes like Alcessa to be knighted right away, even though they won't be full knights until later. But Antre didn't like that at all. He wasn't supposed to find out - it's a Deathsbane thing and he wasn't supposed to see. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when he saw, he decided to kidnap Alcessa and run away with her and go into hiding. Mirials looked - and so did her brothers and sisters and cousins and parents. It took months to track Antre down."
There was a shiver creeping up Moque's spine. "Then what?"
"I was the one who cornered him, and it was way up north, at a huge waterfall. And I said, 'Give back the baby, Antre, and we'll have no quarrel', and Antre held the baby over the edge of the river."
Moque gulped. "Wh-why didn't he want to give her back," she murmured.
"He didn't say. He just said that the Deathsbanes had better stop looking for him, that he wasn't letting us get Alcessa back, not ever, no matter what."
The shiver was turning into a spider of ice across Moque's back. "Did he mean it?"
"We don't know," said the knight. "Maybe it was an empty threat. But we let him go."
Moque clenched the bangle and the golden blanket in her fist. "And he moved to a fishing village and changed their names and told her she didn't have a mother, until a sea-death ate him."
"Hello, daughter," said the woman, and without either of them clearly deciding to do it first, they embraced.
Deathsbane Alcessa, Moque to her friends, had a sword on its way.
The forges were hot and her grandfather was hammering it into shape while her third cousin, once removed, layered spells into its blade. She would be old enough to really use it in five or six years, but old enough to start catching up on learning how as soon as it was cooled. Moque had her own room in the dormitory wing with the other Deathsbane children and she ate three meals a day all of which were delicious and none of which she had to cook. She was studying like mad, because there was a curriculum and she'd only get busier once she had her sword, and she'd missed twelve years of it thanks to Kelur Antre.
Deathsbane Alcessa, Moque to herself, had a mother.
Mirials loved her and wanted to hug her, rocking, and sing her a song - "Just once, please? I know you're a little old for it but I never got to" - and showed her where everything was and introduced her to all the Family and brought her along to convey their joint gratitude to Intara, laid up with her broken ribs and shoulder in the infirmary. Mirials started teaching her to ride a horse and assemble a suit of armor and memorize how to get to all the outposts in the country for when she was sent, one day, to park close to a far-off cluster of villages in case one of their beacons went up in flames.
Deathsbane Alcessa, Moque to her papa - did not see how this added up.
"I don't understand why he would take me," she told Mirials, sitting beside her at supper after having raced the other children all afternoon to improve her conditioning. "What's so bad about knighting a baby Deathsbane?"
"Oh," sighed Mirials. "...Perhaps I'd better just show you."
"Show me what?"
"The sword we use to knight the new ones."
They finished their dinner and Moque dragged tired feet after her mother and they went up to the highest part of the oldest building in the compound.
The attic was low-ceilinged, but clean, and there was a cloth-draped table dominating the space, and on it was a Deathsbane sword. Unremarkable as those went.
Until it spoke.
"Mirials. Alcessa," rumbled the sword.
Moque knew that animals could talk, if wizards used them as familiars. She did not know that swords could talk.
"I've brought Alcessa here to explain about knighting," Mirials said.
"Talking sword," Moque mouthed but didn't voice.
"I will tell you the story," the sword said. "Sit, children."
Mirials sat at once. Moque followed after a moment's stunned hesitation.
"The first Deathsbane was born almost two hundred years ago," said the sword. "He was a mage as well as a knight, and he had already performed a great triumph in making a weapon that could kill deaths without multiplying them. But he saw how few people wanted this task. He could have made a dozen more swords, and those willing to take them up even in crisis, let alone make themselves ready to fight deaths, would have been few, perhaps none. And he would not live forever."
Mirials had her eyes closed and nodded along to the story. She had heard it before. She liked this story.
"And so he worked a still greater magic. Animals may become people, exposed to magic, but they are new people. The first Deathsbane wished for his sword to become him and give his drive and his will to those who took it up, because every death slain was dozens, even hundreds of lives saved."
Moque closed her eyes too.
"He succeeded. His personality was copied into me. And when an unformed mind contacts me, the same personality goes into them. The first Deathsbane's three daughters were the next generation, and their children the next, and on and on, until now."
"So what Papa saw," Moque murmured, "was -"
"Was me holding a sword over you and saying part of the Sendaway. It's only one verse. You didn't die," Mirials said, just as softly. "You were never even scratched. A Deathsbane sword only cuts what its wielder wants cut. But it's part of the ceremony out of respect for who you would have been unknighted. Antre came in at just the wrong moment, and he didn't understand, when I explained."
"Oh," said Moque.
"Depart now," said the sword. "I will hear the evening's reports soon in privacy."
"Yes, Grandfather," said Mirials.
Mirials took Moque's hand and pulled her to her feet and led her out of the attic.
The new sword was ready.
She could collect it and turn up for her lesson at six in the morning and learn to make it part of her arm. She could stay, where everyone knew just how to teach kids like her, just what temperature she thought soup should be served at, just how she'd like her hair cut, because for two hundred years, these things had all been just so, and she was just the same.
She could run away like Papa. She could wait a week, for her new cousin to be delivered, and snatch the babe before he or she was sent away in favor of a new Deathsbane.
A new baby who'd pick up their own sword and wait in outposts far from home for weeks on end just in case someone needed Deathsbane expertise to kill a death that would otherwise eat their babies. She could stop the baby from growing up like that and instead she could put it on a doorstep in the middle of nowhere and it could farm oats.
In the end it wasn't much of a choice.
Deathsbane Alcessa took up her sword.