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Relict- Spring 2024 (excerpt)




Relict /ˈrelik(t)/ a remnant or survivor, a widow






For Henry and Anne~Pick up your souls and fly.









Prologue



Galliana hurried away the wellspring, past the paddocks of sheep and the grainery, the fields of barley and millet, to the river bank. Upstream, the river thundered down the mountain, downstream it tumbled over a waterfall, but here in the bend where the fleeces were washed and the clay was dug, the water was calm. Today she was alone, the only sign of the morning’s activity several dozen bricks drying in the sun. She waded to the other side and climbed the bluff. It was the long way around to be sure, but the only way to avoid the Grigori that lounged in the vineyard, devouring yet another harvest her people scraped from the earth. No one from the wellspring had noticed her leave- most were resting indoors during the heat of the day. Even so she feigned north until she’d put a comforting distance between her and her home. Then she hurried west- to the Garden.


The Garden was forbidden. From her hillside perch behind her father’s house, it looked like a smoldering mirage on the horizon, the towering tree line impenetrable; an overgrown, immense temptation. At night, a light shone from deep within, casting a glow in the night sky to true north. It was the Garden of the Fall and no human was permitted entrance. No one in her memory, nor that of her mother’s, had ever set foot inside. The people of her wellspring preferred to turn a blind eye to the dark silhouette that dominated the western sky. At night, in the glow of the oil lamps, as the donkeys and oxen made contented noises in the lean-to behind her parents’ small earthen hut, her cousins and uncles told tales of a monstrous creature with a sword of fire, a demon of tooth and claw, lightning and thunder, who dwelled within, feasting on any unwitting fool who wandered into his Garden.


Galliana had no patience for superstitious nonsense. For one thing, she reasoned to herself as she crossed the dusty plain, if a monster of such power existed, they would not be bound by a forest. They would do as they liked, as the Grigori did. A monster more fearsome than the Grigori would not wait impotently inside a forest for an unsuspecting fool to feed upon. More likely, it would pillage her wellspring and leave it in flames. Or worse, join the wandering groups of Grigori who stole the grapes, the wine, the harvest, and the women of the wellspring unfortunate enough to catch their attention.


Galliana knew what monsters were. Her village was infested with them, once heavenly creatures who now played at being men. The Grigori were beautiful and dangerous, like a pack of lions. Lounging in the orchards, calling for more food, more wine, always more more more as the farmers and shepherds tried desperately to satiate their enormous appetites, praying at night for their daughters to stay children and for the prowling Grigori to move on. For if they did not move on to another wellspring, theirs could lose an entire generation of daughters to the lusts and the whims of the insatiable Grigori.


She paused a short distance from the Garden at a small altar. Grapes, pretty rocks, intricate carvings of stone and wood, a clay pot of lamb buzzing with flies- offerings to the monster inside. A scattering of footprints wreathed the Garden’s altar. Small footprints, delicate footprints, not one of them bigger than Galliana’s outstretched hand. Her mother had feet like that- her father’s were not much bigger. She had not had feet that size since she was four.


Placing one of her feet alongside the nearest print, she felt a familiar sinking feeling. Nearly double the size. She spread her freckled hands out in the sunlight. Enormous hands, long-fingered hands, attached to arms with a reach far greater than the largest of her family, attached to a body that was forced to crawl and squat in her parents’ earth and thatch hut. She was nothing like the people of her wellspring. She was more like them and she knew it.


Her parents had tried to hide her differences. Covering her bright hair, dusting her face, hands and feet with dirt, feeble attempts to make her light skin appear more like the deep olive skin of everyone else she’d ever met. When she was seven, her height had finally outpaced her father, and they’d sent her to live in a remote stone sheepfold every harvest. It was dangerous to be a curiosity to the Grigori. It was also too dangerous for anyone to visit her during those weeks. Galliana spent her days weaving baskets from grasses she collected at night, sleeping, daydreaming. At night, she would wander the plains, stargazing and exploring, but every path ultimately led her to a rocky outcropping where she would spend hours studying the Garden and its brilliant beacon. Her parents kept her hidden this way from the Grigori’s yearly visits for seventeen years.


This year, however, the Grigori arrived early, the barley and millet still green in the fields, the grapes barely blossoming on the vine. Lucifer Grigori noticed her right away, and no amount of dirt on her skin, covering on her hair, or crouching to make herself small could hide her from his inhuman gaze. Luc was beautiful, bright, majestic- and everywhere she went. He trailed behind her as she did her chores, waited for her at the well each morning, stalking her like prey. He wordlessly pressed her trinkets into her hands; jewelry, lengths of rich cloth, skeins of golden thread, vials of kohl and perfume- all of which she hid from her parents, lest their worry tip over into fear.


A pricking at the back of her neck made her swing around to scan the horizon, but there was nothing there. Galliana knelt quickly and prayed not for deliverance from her cousin’s fairy tale creature of the Garden, but from the real monster that had eyes only for her. She prayed for small hands and small feet. She prayed for hair the color of the dirt her father farmed in, not the color of the noonday sun. She prayed to be small and insignificant instead of being near as tall, near as bright, as the fearsome creatures God had abandoned them to. She prayed God to make her forget what she suspected to be true- what the rest of the wellspring whispered about her. Halfbreed. And finally, she prayed that this gamble would pay off. She could no longer hide in the sheepfold, but maybe, just maybe there was somewhere else. Somewhere no one would look for her.


Standing, she brushed the dirt from her woolen shift and wiped her eyes. Ahead, the Garden loomed and for a moment, she courage faltered, remembering the firelight tales of the beast that lurked inside. Another look back but the warm feelings of hearth and home were tainted now by fear. Gallliana turned back and faced the Garden.

“No worse fate could possibly await me in there,” she thought, and ran into the dark forest.


*


Grapevines hung in heavy curtains from the giant pines that stood sentry where the dust and rock of the plains met the deep loam of the Garden. Meters thick, Galliana crawled through the vines, tearing as big a hole as she dared, hoping to find her way out again. Suddenly, dappled sunlight shone ahead of her. She stood in a forest of sycamore trees, gnarled white arms beseeched the heavens, tortoiseshell leaves drifted in a breeze that rose and fell like breath. The ground was damp and cool beneath her feet, as if it had just rained, the leaf litter soft as sheep wool. In the distance, she could see a clearing, so she picked her way carefully towards it, dropping to her knees just before she reached the edge of the tree line. A meadow stretched out ahead, tall grasses giving way to a bramble heavy with red fruit. And standing in the middle, a man clad in dull armor.


Galliana froze, as if under hunter’s gaze, but the man remained motionless, seemingly unaware of her. Dropping to her stomach, she crawled back and hid behind a tree. She waited an eternity, then peeked around the trunk. He hadn’t moved, he must not have seen her. She leapt to her feet and circled the meadow to the south, hoping to find a place where she could observe this mysterious being with some measure of secrecy. Along the way, she found the ruins of a stone hut surrounded by a kitchen garden not unlike her mother’s. Dates and flax, sage and rosemary grew wild. The door had rotted in its frame, but the timbered roof remained. The inside was dark and still.


“The stories must be true,” she thought. Long ago, an age ago, someone did live in the Garden.


She knelt in a rocky stream and drank deeply, washing the dust of the plains from her face and hands, then continued on her way. She found a spot where the forest narrowed upon the meadow, close but not too close, to the man inside. She was near enough, however, to see his chest rise and fall with each breath, his strong nose in profile, his scabbard green with age, the burnished copper curls that just brushed the back of his breastplate. The leather on his feet was cracked and worn. His attention was on the sky, as if he were listening for something. She held her breath, ready to run if he moved, but he did not. This was no monster, and no Grigori either. He was as tall as they were, to be sure, but lanky where they were hulking, refined where they were coarse. The air around him shimmered like heat on the horizon.


Pausing to tuck a clutch of wildflowers into her belt, Galliana crawled closer, hoping to snatch one of the fruits in the bramble surrounding him. They shone in the sunlight like polished carnelian. The Garden. The Fruit. The Banishment. She told herself she didn’t want to eat one, not really. She just wanted to touch it, to see with her own eyes and feel with her own hands the very thing that had cursed her people to toil and sweat and die, abandoned by God and set upon by his Fallen. They were beautiful, luscious. How ever did Eve resist for so long? She glanced up at the man. Curiouser still, why did he not move? If she had not seen his breathing, she would have thought him a statue. Was this the creature of fire, tooth, and claw her uncles whispered about? He looked more like one of her beardless cousins, young and soft and untried. A sudden movement and Galliana dropped to her stomach. He’d done little more than shift his weight, but now as she watched him through the bramble, she could see his fingers tapping the hilt of his sword. The smallest of movements, but it both frightened and thrilled her. What was he?


Galliana wiped the sweat that beaded her brow, then reached into the thorns to snatch one of the fruits. A small miscalculation and a thorn punctured her fingertip. She stifled a gasp, but reached further until she grasped one of the red fruits. It came free easily. It was heavier than it looked, and redder even then the blood that welled from her finger.


“This dead place is no place to play” His voice was unexpectedly soft, startling her into dropping her prize. She snatched it back, the raised her eyes to his, half hidden behind the bramble. His eyes were unlike any she had ever seen. They flickered with cold fire, emotionless and distant as a star.


I should run, Galliana thought, I should want to run. But I do not. She grabbed another fruit and collected her wits before responding.


“Shouldn’t you kill me?” she asked. “My cousins say you are a monster of fire and eat anyone foolish enough to enter your Garden.”


His eyes flashed and she saw a muscle in his jaw tighten, but if it was annoyance or mirth, she could not tell. He sighed and she thought it might be something in between.

“This is not my Garden. And I do not kill those who enter the Garden. I am the guardian of the gates of Heaven and Eden, placed here at the dawn of your time, in the age of your ancestors. The Gates of Heaven are now locked tight, and so the dead of your world make their way here, to be weighed and judged worthy of God’s Grace. Go home. Run along to your wellspring, little one.” He turned away from her and stared to the east, as if she had ceased to exist.


Galliana crept backward into the grasses, both hands now full of fruit, never taking her eyes off him. This was no demon, no monster, no Grigori. Something perhaps from the before-Time, when God walked among us and His angels watched over us. Perhaps this guardian was one of God’s angels, the mythic soldiers said to protect the heavens. The sun had fallen farther behind her—she needed to hurry home before she was missed—illuminating his hair and armor in the setting sun.


“But aren’t you lonely? “ she called out. “Here, all by yourself, with only the dead for company?”


His shoulders stiffened, but he did not turn. Her question hung in the air unanswered.

Galliana tucked her handfuls of Eden’s fruit into the pouch at her waist, uncertain if she should turn and run, or stay and coax this expressionless being into talking to her. There was no knowing if the creatures of the before-Time were gentle or cruel; if the Fallen Grigori were cruel because they Fell, or fell because they were cruel. Some even said the Grigori were angels, once. She rose quickly to leave, but a bramble caught her scarf, pulling it from her head. She tried to retrieve it but the thorns held fast.


“I said hurry home, child of Eve, to your mother. This dead place is no place for you.”


“I am hardly a child. But tell me this before I go,” she said, still wrestling with her scarf. “Are you an angel?”


“I am no mere angel.” His eyes flickered at her again, red flames tipping into blue.


Galliana told herself not to be afraid as he closed the distance between them. With one swift movement, he removed her scarf from the thorns and draped it over her head. This close, she could smell him. He did not smell like the men of her wellspring: sweat, toil, and goat. He smelled like the incense the elders burned with the sacrifices, like the sweet date porridge her mother made as a treat, like fresh water and moss from high up the mountain. She leaned forward and breathed him in, overwhelmed with the urge to anoint herself with it, devour it like a starving cat with a bowl of cream.


He took several steps back, and with him the intoxicating scent. The distant look on his face had transformed into something feral; lips drawn back over his teeth, eyes narrowed, the flames inside burned. Galliana should have been afraid but something in his abrupt savagery was mesmerizing, made her chest twist and ache, like she was sick and afraid and happy, all at once, a feeling unfamiliar and unwanted and wonderful. She wanted him to look at her like that forever and ever and never again. A strange notion that she could see the moment itself, that it was an object she could grasp and caress forever if she chose, each moment in Time a fruit she could pick, examine, then tuck away. The urge to reach out her hands to him and do just that vanished as quickly as it came.


“Then…then what are you?” she stammered, blinking the moment away as if she’d stared into the sun. “Perhaps you are Imdugud, son of Siris? Or maybe you are a Mushussu and you have disguised your serpent tail and eagle’s talons with sorcery.” She tried to steady her voice but even she could hear it was over-bright, the words tumbled out of her mouth in a rush.


The savage look was replaced so fluidly with his former empty expression, Galliana wondered if she’d seen it at all. He took another step back, stumbled on a rock, and muttered under his breath. Galliana caught the edge of a curse word she’d heard her father use often enough on his tools or unruly sheep, and this brief, relatable bit of emotion from this stoic being emboldened her.


“I would not blame you” she teased. “Mushussu are ugly.”


“I am none of those things,” he spat. “Imdugud, Siris, and Mushussu are tales born of drink and fear of the night.” He fidgeted with the laces crisscrossing the braces on his forearms. “I am an archangel. Now will you go?”

“Can I come back tomorrow?” she asked.


Silence.


“My name is Galliana. Tell me your name, Archangel, so we may be friends.”


He turned on one heel and walked away.


Frustrated, and before she’d quite thought it through, Galliana grasped the nearest fruit and threw it at the back of the archangel’s head. It connected with unexpected accuracy. He raised a hand to the back of his head and spun around. Galliana did not wait to see what he would do. She ran, suddenly convinced the stories of a monster of fire and tooth and claw might be all too real, that behind that handsome face and lilting voice did indeed lurk a vengeful demon. She reached the stream and jumped it in one fluid leap, letting herself run, really run, the forest a blur all around her, sliding to a stop when a sound rang out behind her, echoing through the woods from the meadow.


Laughter. The archangel was laughing.


Galliana grinned and hurried past the stone hut, into the grapevine tunnel towards home. She’d come back soon. He was lonely, of that much she was certain. She’d finally recognized the look in his eyes. It was the same look in her own.













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