Of the Generation

by Therese Arkenberg

The brooding clouds broke as the soldiers returned. They filed through the gate, the portcullis above dripping with rain like blood from the teeth of a monster. Injured men leaned on halberds and pikes and their own companions, peering through the eyeslits of their helmets at nothing.

Of the hundred who had gone out, only these thirty remained.

In the midst of the men, four retainers carried a makeshift stretcher of cloaks and staves with careful anxiety. The body, tied down with bowstrings, twisted and cried out when a weary bearer stumbled over the muddy ground.

Jorin Churnich reached between two of Deirden’s retainers and brushed golden-brown hair damp with sweat from over his lord’s closed eyes. As if sensing his touch—and perhaps he did; they were heart brothers, after all—Deirden calmed.

A woman in a bright violet dress, a flash of color in the growing sunlight, appeared on the steps of the tower as they neared it. Lady Maraia gasped and ran down the steps of the keep, hiking her skirts to a height nearly improper.

No one cared. The soldiers parted for her and waited as she knelt beside her husband. Jorin stood at her side. She wiped her eyes and turned to him. “What happened?”

“The Heart-Drinker,” he said, in a tone that suggested it should be obvious. “It barely touched him…we hacked away one of its claws. But he was too close to another…” He brushed sweat from his forehead. “A splinter stuck in him.” After the Heart-Drinker hauled itself off by its remaining limbs and with a mouth full of men and parts of men, Jorin had held Deirden still while a surgeon pulled out a shard as long as his forearm, inch by painful inch. His lord had lost consciousness partway through.

“He was injured,” Maraia said, as if disbelieving her eyes. “Then the Heart-Drinker has him.” Her face, for a moment white, flushed as tears rolled over her cheeks. She, unlike the grieving widows and soon-to-be widows of song, was not a woman who looked beautiful when she cried.

“I’ll go back,” Jorin said, realizing only as he did that he had made the decision hours ago.

“No! For Astet’s sake, Jorin, the Heart-Drinker still has seven claws! Don’t follow Dei—”

“Would you ask me to watch him die? You may have married him, Maraia, but I have known and loved him before I knew myself.”

“I know you are heart brothers,” she said with only the slightest envy, “but that’s no reason to commit suicide.”

“The Heart-Drinker is sated on more than half a hundred of our men. It will be slow, tired. I think I can kill it if I work quickly.” Seeing that she still hesitated, he insisted, “It’s our only chance.”

Beside them, Deirden blinked bleary gray eyes. They seemed to focus for a moment, first on Maraia, then Jorin, before they closed again.

Maraia sighed. “I would want the same as you if my heart sister was ravaged by the Heart-Drinker. But don’t run off too quickly. The surgeons in the keep can help him, can gain us time…” She frowned and added, “Go to the house of Alumbra before…you try anything. She has made a study of Heart-Drinkers, among other things. She can help you.”

“She…!”

“I know Dierden doesn’t like some of her… more intense experiments, nor approve of her opinions of the Hunt. But her research—could she have made all those tales up? She knows things, about history and science and whatever sort of things you need to know to kill a Heart-Drinker. Maybe if he had listened to her when she came to him, before you all charged off…maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” Maraia faltered and brushed at her face with her sleeve. Her tears had already dried; she succeeded only in further blotching her complexion.

Jorin gave in. “Then I’ll go to her. But I want to see Deirden set up first.”

#

Once in the keep, Jorin washed quickly in his rooms, bandaged his few small cuts, and changed into fresh clothes. He left his page to sand and clean his armor and went to Deirden’s chambers.

He was sitting up in bed, and managed a soft smile as Jorin entered the room. Deirden clasped a battle-scarred hand in his own and frowned at the spiderweb of scratches on it, fresh and scabbing.
“Did the Heart-Drinker injure you, too?”

“A little. I was lucky.” Jorin forced cheer into his voice, but in the stillness of the keep he could hear something, a thrumming mindless music of hunger and anger and triumph. The Heart-Drinker’s hold on him was not strong, not from such small injuries. But still he could hear it.

“Good. That you’re not badly hurt, I mean.”

“I still have a century in me,” Jorin joked. It was true, somewhat—the Heart-Drinker’s power would not overcome him until he was a much older man—but the words suddenly seemed in very bad taste.

“At least we took a claw, didn’t we?” Deirden sank back on the pillows. “Something to speak of, for the next generation and their Hunt. Or even for the ones after that. You can tell them…”

Jorin shook his head. “I’d rather you told them yourself.”

“Jorin…” Deirden sighed. “I won’t live to see the next generation’s Hunt. I might not even live to see the next sunset. The Heart-Drinker is waiting for me. It wants my life.”

“I know.” Jorin knelt at the headboard. “And I want its. I will kill it before it has you.”

Deirden’s laughter echoed through the room, sending shards of ice through Jorin. A part of it was still his heart brother’s laugh, but another seemed like a Heart-Drinker’s feeding cry from a human tongue. The sound of the one voice he had known almost before birth and would cling to until his death and beyond had gone suddenly foreign and cold.

The Heart-Drinker heard through his heart brother’s ears, and was mocking him.

Deirden stopped laughing and frowned, bemused. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jorin realized he hadn’t heard the Heart-Drinker’s laugh. There was no sense in mentioning it. “Say nothing. If all goes well, you will be healed and no further generations will have to host the Hunt. If I fail, we die together.”

“That’s a comfort,” Deirden murmured. Jorin waited in silence.

“Go, then,” his lord said at last, softly. “And may Astet go with you.”
“Your wife wants me to see Alumbra before I go.” He paused, unsure how Deirden would react.

His heart brother snorted. It was a bitter sound, but at least it was not the Heart-Drinker’s.

“Maraia thinks her research can help.”

“If it does…I’ll be very grateful.” I’ll also swallow a horse, Deirden seemed ready to say. Jorin recognized his incredulousness, both because he knew him as his lord and because, after all, they were heart brothers, born with their souls bound together. But he also knew his lord was desperate, even if he did not show it, because Jorin was also desperate, and if Alumbra could help them it was worth going to her, no matter how odd or even improper the rest of her ideas might be. And after that…

He rose and kissed Deirden’s wasted hand. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised.

Deirden smiled but said nothing.

#

Alumbra’s house sat in the foothills at the southern end of the valley that was Deirden’s fiefdom. When Jorin arrived, she was sitting on her doorstep shelling peas, slicing them from their pods with one long fingernail. She looked up at his approach and shoved tangled, gray-brown hair from her eyes.

“Returned from the Hunt?” she said.

Jorin nodded, waiting for his breath to return from the long walk. He had taken what he could of it at a run.

“I’ll never understand why you do those things. Charging off on your Hunts, knowing most of you won’t return, trying and failing and telling yourselves that it doesn’t really matter, because it’s a task of generations, after all.” She tossed a peapod in her mouth and began to chew.

Jorin was used to her sort of talk and ignored it. It didn’t annoy him as it did Deirden, who viewed the Hunt as something nearly sacred. “The lady Maraia sent me,” he said. “I’m seeking information on how to kill a Heart-Drinker.”

“Now’s a fine time to ask me that.”

“I’m certain Deirden regrets dismissing you as a madwoman. He recognizes now that your research might have some value. And I’m sure he’ll apologize, and more, if you help me save him now.” In a rush, he explained Deirden’s injury.

She watched him in silence. For a moment, he wondered if Alumbra was jealous of the bond between himself and Deirden, or even Maraia and her Kazhet, never having a heart sister of her own. She certainly didn’t care much for the young lord, now that he had laughed her away, mocking the knowledge she focused her life around collecting. But when at last she spoke, her tone was polite, if not friendly.

“Well, I’d hate to see you claimed by the Heart-Drinker, anyway. You’re a nice boy. And I suppose this will be a chance to show your lord just how mad and useless my knowledge is.” She said it in the tone of a woman observing how many would be at the table for supper. “When I researched Heart-Drinkers some time ago–from the notes of the first men who landed here from the star gulfs–I found two weaknesses in them. The first is pride. They will listen to any praise of them, for a while at least, and will believe anything they find suitably complimentary.” Her lips twisted, not in a smile. Another pod was slit open, another line of peas fell into the basket.

“And the second you may find more interesting. The Heart-Drinker’s underbelly is weak–because it often drags on the ground, they grow only a few smooth, broad scales there, and no spines. But for that reason, they have nothing worth protecting down there. When their Astet shaped them, She placed their heart and vitals just below the spine. Very close to the surface.”

“So if I stab one on the back…”

“If you could get on it, and avoid the spines…”

“I could kill it.”

“Perhaps stab at an angle. There’s the backbone, of course, and their ribs, and maybe one of their pelvises…” She frowned and seemed to study a Heart-Drinker’s anatomy hanging in the air before her. “Yes, that’s how they killed the first Heart-Drinker. Stabbed in the back. My resource, unfortunately, neglected to tell how they got up there. Surely the Heart-Drinker wouldn’t let them…perhaps it didn’t notice?”

“Perhaps,” Jorin said weakly.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Alumbra added. “Against a Heart-Drinker, steel is…unreliable. As Hunt after Hunt has realized, though few lords seem inclined to hear why that might be. But never mind that. Steel is almost useless, but Heart-Drinkers’ claws can piece their flesh every time. Their Astet gave them weapons against each other, for when they fight over mates and food…barbaric race.” She sighed, and something that might have been a smile ghosted across her lips. It quickly vanished. “That’s what I know. I hope it helps.”

“Well…” Jorin rubbed the back of his neck. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure. Be careful.” As he turned away, she added, “You may have the right idea. A single man could take a Heart-Drinker where many could not. But remember—even if it hasn’t injured you directly, it can torment you through your heart brother. After all, it is bound to him by shed blood, and he is bound to you by the choice of Astet, who shared out your souls between you. Bonds between bonds. Interesting…but very dangerous for you. I can only hope the bond through your lord does not enable the Heart-Drinker to hear me through your ears…” She shrugged and nibbled another peapod. “Well, good luck.”

“Thank you,” he repeated, not knowing what else to say.

#

Evening found Jorin climbing a cliff just before the Heart-Drinker’s lair. He wore simple outdoors clothes, not bothering with armor; it was practically useless against a Heart-Drinker, anyway, and didn’t fit with the cover he was trying to project. He could only hope the knife at his side would pass as a simple precaution.

As he reached the top he saw the ravens, and the wind carried a stench that made him gag. He hauled himself up from the ledge and looked into the Heart-Drinker’s valley.

The black birds flew in circles around a vast clump of rotting meat. As he watched, one stubborn crow wrenched a thin blue scale from the leg and pecked at the flesh beneath. One of the black claws hung by a scale and a thread, and another’s shards lay spread on the ground.
Jorin climbed slowly into the valley, near choking on the smell. Living Heart-Drinker flesh was unpleasant, but dead and quickly rotting…

He took up one of the smaller claw-shards and tested its heft and grip. It was heavy, but not beyond his strength, and already clean of any old flesh. The sharp end was sticky, though, and he wondered if this was the one they had pulled from the screaming Deirden not six hours before. A fitting irony, if it was.

It was not much longer before he found the entrance to the Heart-Drinker’s lair. A narrow cleft in the rock of the mountainside, it looked too small for the creature to fit through. But pass through it must, because when they had arrived that morning it had been waiting for them, and this was the only opening in the valley.

A blast of cold air struck him and shrieked through the rock overhead. The entrance chamber was black as ghoul’s blood after only a few paces, but there was a weird light ahead. Jorin had to inch forward farther before he could even decide on its color–a cold white-blue.

The chamber turned into a tunnel, and he worked his way down it slowly. Expecting a trap, though what sort of trap a creature like the Heart-Drinker might construct he couldn’t image, he scratched at the rock before him with the claw in all directions before moving forward.
There was no trap–nothing so crude. After about fifty paces, he realized that he could hear the Heart-Drinker again.

At first it seemed unaware of his presence, humming cheerfully about blood-soaked gravel and human flesh rotted until it was ripe. Then he pictured suddenly, with mind-numbing clarity, Deirden’s hair gone ice-white and his sea-colored eyes closing forever. The Heart-Drinker was saying the life of the man he loved above his soul could be ended with less than a thought from that towering, alien mind. And he knew that the Heart-Drinker did not aim this message at him. It was using the blood-bond from Deirden’s injuries on the young lord and Jorin was only a captive audience through his own tie with his heart brother.

He kept walking. Wind whistled down the passage to tug at his hair and tunic. Then it whistled back again, pulling him along. The walls seemed to moan and pulse beneath his fingertips. It was as if the cave was breathing.

So, a voice echoed bringing with it a smell like a burning charnel house, the Lordling of Churnich has arrived. For a moment, a softer tone entered the Heart-Drinker’s voice–Deirden, using the affectionate nickname he had created when they first met. Jorin wiped away tears, some of them from the Heart-Drinker’s acid breath.

The Lord Deirden’s heart brother, it continued. A peasant from Churnich holding born miraculously for better things, raised through ties of the soul, and now come to see me. How…interesting.

It was a voice beyond nightmare; vocal cords thick as a ship’s rigging flexed in a mocking attempt at human speech. The stinging wind grew stronger with it, and Jorin’s eyes streamed as he continued down the passage. The light grew brighter, and the corridor suddenly opened up to reveal a vast stone chamber, with walls that dwindled into the dark and a floor covered with a steaming lake. The light seemed to come from within the water.

On the far end of the cavern, something separated itself from the shadows of the rock. Scales glinted in midnight hues as muscle and hide rippled. Seven claws sank into the lake, raising clouds of steam.

The Heart-Drinker’s rot-black eyes glinted. Jagged teeth, gore-stained ivory, glistened with yellow saliva. Its nostrils flared. Your heart brother’s life is exquisite, Lordling of Churnich.I may keep him alive just to savor this suffering for a long, long time…

Jorin forced himself to hold still, not to strike at it. Not to give it an excuse for anger.

What do you want, Lordling?

He wasn’t sure where his next words came from, but he was glad of them. “I’m here to plead for my heart brother’s life.”

As the Heart-Drinker’s laughter had echoed in Deirden’s, now Jorin heard his lord’s echoed in the Heart-Drinker’s. Beg, then. It is…entertaining. The massive head drew closer, a massive eye blinked horny lids.

He swallowed, mouth dry. “In Astet’s name…”

Our Astets are different, Lordling.

“I…” The back. He needed to get to the creature’s back. His hand on the claw shard shook, and the Heart-Drinker’s gaze was drawn to it.

What’s that you have there, Lordling?

“Nothing,” he lied weakly.

A claw. My claw! It laughed. The petty thing thinks he can kill me the way my brethren would, if they could! Hilarious! Drop it, it added in a low tone.

Jorin wondered if he could launch himself at it before the great jaws snapped. Probably not. And it still had Deirden under its power. He dropped the claw.

The Heart-Drinker sat back, and he saw for the first time the oozing stump where it had lost the limb mere hours before. It didn’t seem to care, though as he watched it bent its head and lapped away the worst of the ooze.

Is that all you have for me? it said between licks. Should I kill you now?

“Not yet,” he said, mind racing. Strangely, the Heart-Drinker accepted his answer, and continued nursing its injury.

Interesting. I may spare your heart brother, you know, or at least lessen his misery, if you will do me a favor.

Jorin dropped to his knees. The Heart-Drinker might have taken it for obeisance; licking its claw, it didn’t notice him removing his dagger. “Anything.”

Excellent. The black eye fastened on him suddenly. Let me take you for a ride.

“What?”

The vast creature drew closer and turned so the spines on its back were easily reachable. Climb on. The tone, though it was hard to tell with that immense, horrible voice, was almost playful.

Jorin could see that this request, however strange it might be, was not one he could turn down. He carefully climbed onto the Heart-Drinker’s dorsal ridge.

Something pulsed beneath his legs, faint from layers of flesh and scale, but powerful–unless it was only his imagination. Could he really feel its heartbeat? Did the Heart-Drinker know how dangerous he could be from his position?

As if it knew his thoughts, the creature rumbled, Drop your weapon.

Obediently, he tossed the steel dagger onto the ledge behind him.

As the Heart-Drinker’s muscles bunched beneath him, it added, Now might be the time to warn you that this ride will probably cost you your life. And, with cold relish, It’s been a long time since I’ve killed this way.

Jorin grasped the spine in front of him with one hand and said nothing.
The Heart-Drinker’s gait was uneven from its missing front claw. At times its back came dangerously close to the ceiling, and once Jorin had to duck as the spines around him gouged into the rock above. The crawl through the passage was a nightmare.

Somehow they came through the cave entrance, and the Heart-Drinker broke into a run. It could slither down a cliff face as easily as most men would walk a level road. Jorin swallowed and wished he could close his eyes, but the creature had already made it clear that it did not mean for him to survive this ride, and he needed to stay alert for an attack. He thought one was coming when the Heart-Drinker seemed ready to roll over in a broad meadow–but it changed its mind and instead veered in the opposite direction.

This is different, it mused. My last rider trusted me. She laughed at the dangers. Of course, she thought I was joking…until the last moment. It slowed its running and stretched, strong flesh rippling beneath Jorin like a wave. Enjoy yourself, Lordling of Churnich. For this I will spare your heart brother’s life, and it is not so bad a way to die–running.

“No,” Jorin said, in a tone the Heart-Drinker took for agreement. As it began to trot again, it mused on all the ways one could kill such a vulnerable, unarmed rider, being sure to share these thoughts with its rider and his heart brother through the blood-bond. Rolling over, crushing, leaping into open space and turning in midair, spearing on one of the dorsal spikes–tricky, but well worth the effort–swinging through a deep lake, or just turning around and snatching the creature off its back…

It was still imagining when Jorin pulled the shard of Heart-Drinker’s claw from his dagger sheath and struck down into the flesh before him. The scales parted easily, and the Heart-Drinker stumbled midlope. As a shiver crept down its spine, it turned its head, and Jorin thought he was finished, that it would take him with it. But the massive head stopped, ridiculously, before it could even turn to face him—the massive neck was neither long nor limber enough to reach anything on its back. And, it reflected bitterly, there probably weren’t any lakes near enough to drown him in.

But it could roll over.

Jorin leapt to his feet as the mountain of flesh began to topple. The scales were slick with blood. Each beat of the massive heart forced more up around the claw, like ghastly coal oil. He felt himself begin to fall, and dropped to his knees, grasping the spine before him and–
–when the Heart-Drinker came to rest he was, miraculously, if not on top of it, at least not beneath. He climbed down from his bloody perch and looked up. An eye, dark and half-open, watched him. It saw nothing. The Heart-Drinker’s heart was pierced. It was dead.

#

Jorin returned to Deirden’s keep sometime past midnight. The guard let him through, sending a message ahead to the Lady Maraia, but he went to his lord’s chambers alone.

Deirden lay back on the cushions, eyes closed, not quite asleep. He didn’t hear his heart brother enter, or know he was in the room at all until Jorin knelt beside him and gently touched his hand. He opened his eyes a crack, then let them fall closed.

“You made it.”

“The Heart-Drinker is dead. Can’t you feel it?”

“Is that what this is? I thought…so empty…I thought it was you.” He opened his eyes, rimmed with tears, and clasped Jorin’s hand. “I’m glad I was wrong.”

“So am I.”

“This…” he stopped, took a breath before continuing, “This is a feat the generations will sing about.”

“It’s the end of the Hunt. I’m afraid I’ve robbed later generations of their own heroic feat.” Alumbra, he supposed, would be proud.

“So many…and just one, only you, you were able to end it. How?”

“Maybe it needed to be one. Maybe the Heart-Drinker felt proud, overconfident. Safe. And…I had some advice. From Alumbra,” he said, knowing Deirden wouldn’t like it.

“Alum…” He threw back his head and laughed. Not strong, not yet, but it was his true laugh, the laugh Jorin loved. “I’ll have to thank her.”

“Thank your wife. She sent me to her.”

“Yes, I remember that…” Deirden’s laughter trailed off, and he rested his head in the hollow of Jorin’s shoulder. “But here I am, forcing details out of you when you should be asleep.”

“I’m never too tired to stay by you.”

“Even after slaying Heart-Drinkers?” Deirden lay back on the cushions. “Go. We can talk about it in the morning.” He closed his eyes and did not open them again. Jorin waited until his breathing had deepened, then he knelt beside the bed and rested against his heart brother, hand in hand, until they both were asleep.

The End