When the screams temporarily end, and the inquisitors are gone for now, Yvexx ushers the children, orphans all, out of the shelter. Every time, she wishes she had more hands, that she could cover every child’s eyes as they pass the broken and bloody bodies of the villagers who could not hide well enough from the inquisitors. But though Yvexx and her deep and well-concealed cellar can protect the orphans from the raiding inquisitors, she knows she cannot protect them from witnessing the destruction the inquisitors bring. She and the children emerge into the incongruously happy sunlight, the bone ants already beginning to clean up the corpses, eating the skeletons, the blood and viscera, creating new nests. On the outskirts of town lies a graveyard of regularly-spaced bone ant colonies, shaped like the bodies of the people that provided their raw materials. The colonies the bone ants build from the corpses are as dynamic as the people they once were. Captured midstride or half-bent as if about to heave a sack of grain. As if, along with the flesh and bones and organs, the bone ants consume their memories, transform it all into colonies akin to statues, upright and proud and strong as stone no matter how pitifully they died or what twisted position their corpses take. Now, too many die too frequently to be laid in the graveyard for the bone ants. Now, the ants build wherever the bodies fall, their bony nests arranged haphazardly, a vivid reminder of the village’s disarray and loss.
‘I feel sick,’ says Bez, her youngest ward, an instant before he vomits on dry yellow grass.
‘Come,’ Yvexx says, placing a hand on his back and steering him to the creche. The rest of the orphans disperse, searching for survivors, tending to wounds. Parents and their children appear from their hiding places. The dead are the ones who could not hide well or who fought back. Yvexx learned long ago not to fight back.
The inquisitors did not come so often then. But, of course, they still came. Always, the inquisitors came, back down the generations, before Yvexx’s time and before her parents’ time, before their parents’ time. And on and on. Perhaps on the day that the village was founded the inquisitors appeared from their distant-but-not-distant-enough palaces to raid it, to take what they wished and slaughter anyone who attempted to deny them.
She remembers hiding in a clay urn, honey-seed oil just below her nostrils, shimmering and sloshing with each panicked breath. Hearing her father shout at the inquisitors, demanding they leave, that they never bother the village again. Iron whispering as he drew his blade. The thick wet sound of the inquisitor striking him. The thud of her father’s arm hitting their house’s dirt floor. His pained and terrified shriek, in chorus with Yvexx’s mother’s. The sudden stop.
She dragged her parents’ bodies to the graveyard. The sculpture-nest that the bone ants built from her father’s body has both arms. They’re lifted toward the sky, along with his beaming face, waiting to catch the daughter he’s thrown in the air. Her mother’s bone ant colony stands next to him, doubled over in laughter. Yet, whenever Yvexx looks, she pictures their faces wracked with agony and grief, and so she averts her eyes whenever she passes the village cemetery.
Yes, Yvexx knows not to fight back.
She also knows the stories of all the village’s orphans, though sometimes she has to fight to keep them separate, to prevent their similar tragedies from melding in her mind into a single vast spiderweb of horror and tears. Bez, she knows, played dead in the graveyard while the inquisitors murdered his parents. Bone ants crawled over his body, and he wished they would swallow him and secrete him anew as something strong enough to fight back. But he was still alive, and they would not take him. Bone ants only eat the dead.
As they walk past villagers already starting to rebuild, Yvexx takes Bez’s hand and squeezes it fiercely.
In the creche, her home and home to her orphan charges, Yvexx stores the ingredients for the medicines she mixes. Rows of clay jars and battered tin boxes line shelves from thatch ceiling to wooden floor. Mortars and pestles and tiny stoves little bigger than candles compete for space with thick, stitch-bound recipe books and tomes of medicinal lore. The inquisitors appear to have passed through her home with as little disturbance as a summer breeze. Small mercies. They could have smashed every jar, stomped every box, burned the dried leaves and spilled her oils in the dirt. It wouldn’t be the first time.
‘Do you need elixir?’ she asks Bez, releasing his hand and moving to the shelf that holds the most common medicines.
Bez shakes his head. ‘Are they coming back?’
She thinks he means the inquisitors, but remembers three raids ago, when he asked the same question about his parents. She’d promised him then that she’d protect him when the inquisitors returned. They always returned. There’s no use hiding the truth from the children. Yvexx tells him the same now, as she does all the orphans.
‘Why do the inquisitors always come back?’ he asks.
‘Because they want things that we have,’ Yvexx answers. It’s the easy answer, and it is true. But it isn’t the real answer. The real answer is, Because nobody stops them.
‘What will we do when you’re gone?’ Bez asks.
Yvexx strokes his hair and gazes out the open door. Quartz-pink legs rise from the ground, bodies being built anew by bone ants, to serve as silent sentinels. The inquisitors try to destroy them sometimes during their raids, but while they can burn huts and knock down walls and kick over gravestones, the bone ant nests are too strong, their roots too deep.
Among the growing nests and those already established, the village’s orphans trudge, scavenging the bodies for anything useful. Bone ants crawl along their arms and legs, trip over knuckles. They won’t bite the children. They have no use for the living.
So many children under her care. More will be added today, and so she rubs Bez’s back and asks him to go retrieve the extra bed linens from the back closet. The newly-orphaned children won’t sleep, but they need to know that she’ll take care of them now, that she’ll keep them as safe as she can. Of course, their parents did the same thing and look where that got them.
When the inquisitors killed her parents, Yvexx was taken in by an older woman. Yvexx and the other village orphans lived in the same creche where they live today. Aunnie Mebbix, the old woman who cared for the orphans back then, taught Yvexx medicine and herbal lore, and eventually Yvexx replaced her savior. One day, one of these orphans – Bez perhaps – will replace Yvexx. Everything will repeat.
‘I won’t leave you,’ she tells Bez before he goes. She wants to believe she’s telling the truth.
Yvexx sighs and begins moving about the front room, picking out bottles and jars of the powders and tinctures she’s most likely to need today. As a child, she was astounded to learn how versatile and powerful everyday items could be, and that astonishment has not abated over the years. Nature provides seemingly everything the village could need. Everything except peace, safety from the inquisitors. She absentmindedly taps a clay jar lid with the bitten nub of a fingernail, her eyes running over the row of books. Combine the knowledge in those books with the bounty of the forest, Aunnie Mebbix had said, and you can accomplish anything. The right combination of minerals and herbs and animal parts may as well be magic.
The thought transforms into a seed and takes root in her brain, so tiny she loses notice of it almost immediately as she goes back to work. Surviving adults hobble and slink into her home, and she stitches shut wounds, applies analgesic salves, sets broken bones. To many, she slips a tincture to mix with grain alcohol, which will help them sleep dreamlessly. Others are already numb to the horror and decline her offer. The hours pass quickly, and though she speaks to her patients, at the end of the day Yvexx cannot recall a single passed word.
The sun sets, candles are lit – they’ll burn until morning; none of her charges wish to face the darkness tonight – and the children with the stomach for it eat watery vegetable soup and dark, pungent bread. Mixed into the soup is a weaker version of the tincture she gives the adults. Yvexx nibbles her own bread, sips some soup. She eats because she knows she must. To keep up her strength. To have enough energy to care for her orphans. And all the orphans to come.
This is what Yvexx can do. Comfort those who have lost, prepare the next generation to do the same. What other option is there? For as long as her people remember, the inquisitors have come, and she is only one woman, and older than she likes to admit. She will do the best she can with the resources she has.
Most nights, she recites the children a story while they all lie in their beds. She wishes them goodnight as a group and snuffs the candles. Tonight, as on every night after the inquisitors come, she tells the story, leaves the candles lit, and says goodnight to each child individually, kissing foreheads, stroking cheeks, spending as much time with each one as she can give. It’s never as much time as they need.
Bez refuses to sleep, clinging to her arm, whimpering.
‘You need to sleep,’ she tells him gently. ‘Each morning that comes, things will be better.’ Until, of course, the inquisitors come again, and everything becomes worse. Because the cycle doesn’t break. But she doesn’t say this to Bez. ‘You won’t dream,’ she promises him.
‘I don’t want to sleep,’ he whispers. ‘What if I don’t wake up?’
‘You’ll wake up.’
‘All the people outside look like they’re sleeping,’ he says, voice breaking. ‘But they won’t wake up.’
It takes Yvexx a moment to realize that he’s talking about the corpses. She has no answer for him. All she can do is repeat herself. ‘You’ll wake up.’
And she sits with him until he falls asleep, though her thoughts are elsewhere, rushing off so fast she can barely keep up. Bez’s words water the seed in her brain, which sprouts and grows faster than any plant she’s ever known. And if there is one thing Yvexx knows, it is the natural world.
She doesn’t sleep that night, and though she is as traumatized as anyone over the carnage left by the inquisitors, that isn’t what keeps her awake. All night long, by the light of the moon through the windows and the flickering candles from the children’s room, she works. Reading and grinding and mixing and testing and hoping. Bone ant-queen jelly and ground stupor-flower petals. A flake of shell from bitterest almond, one drop of purplemint concentrate. She must balance and measure everything precisely; with this elixir, there will be no room for error.
The children wake and still she works. When they ask her what she’s doing, she murmurs platitudes, sends them scurrying off on their daily chores. Even orphans must do their part to keep the village running.
In some ways, the days after an attack are the most peaceful. Everyone knows that while the inquisitors always come back, it’s never so soon. They need to give the village time to recover, to rebuild things for them to destroy, accumulate items for them to steal. Heal enough to make the slaughter worthwhile.
Anger kindles deep within Yvexx as the works. At the inquisitors, of course, for who wouldn’t feel angry at their sweeping and pitiless devastation? But at herself as well, at everyone like her who never fought back, who believed it wasn’t even worth trying. She is supposed to protect the children. She keeps them alive; she tends their wounds and soothes their frayed spirits. There must be something more she can do. Can’t she keep them from getting hurt in the first place? Isn’t there something in this world stronger than the inquisitors’ hate? More powerful than their weapons? Can she be that thing? She isn’t, but what if she could be?
It’s a gauzy, dreamlike plan that solidifies as she watches the children shuffle through their chores. A foolhardy, desperate, wishful plan that requires ingredients that she keeps hidden away for their rarity and danger. Nature is beauty, but nature is violence as well. Bone ants embody this truth, their structures testament to both.
A finger taps her shoulder and her eyelids fly open. Outside, the sun dips behind the trees. Has she been working so long? Did she fall asleep on her feet?
‘Aunnie Yvexx, you need to go to bed,’ Bez says. Concern wrinkles his little brow.
‘You need supper,’ Yvexx says, stretching cramped muscles, shaking the cobwebs from her head. ‘I’m sorry. I forgot to make anything…’ There must be something in the larder that she can serve the children. Yesterday’s bread, dried strips of screw-kiwi, a few handfuls of crispy roasted saffron crickets. Enough to fill their stomachs, at least.
‘It’s okay. We made supper tonight.’ Bez takes Yvexx by the hand and leads her to the dining room, seats her at one of the rough-hewn wooden tables amidst all of the children. Yvexx remembers her own childhood, eating meals at this very table, one ear ever-open for the sounds of the inquisitors’ approach. She remembers Aunnie Mebbix telling her not to worry, that everything would be okay. Sometimes it was, but never for long enough.
The children surround her as she eats, chattering about their days, asking if she feels alright, what she has been doing all day. She answers them as best she can without telling them the whole truth, the way all adults speak to the children in the village.
Tonight, the children take care of themselves. Tonight, they take care of Yvexx. When she is finished eating, they climb into their beds. Bez sits on his bed next to Yvexx and tells a story that they all love and have heard many times before, about a pack of brave kangaroo mice that battle back a fearsome eagle. When he finishes the story, he kisses Yvexx on the cheek and crawls under his blanket. Yvexx circles the room, tucking in, stroking cheeks, kissing noses. She snuffs the candle and returns to work. The children will be fine.
The next morning, Yvexx doesn’t hear the cries of dismay that come when the village’s earliest-rising farmer wakes and discovers her lying on the dirt. It’s understandable that he would think her dead. The bone ants do. She needs them to believe it. They swarm her body, crawling into her mouth, her nostrils, her ears. They eat and they secrete and what they build is a figure in the shape of Yvexx but stronger than any flesh, as near to indestructible as anything in the world. They will build her the way she was in life, constructing her from her memories the way they always do, and when the elixir of false death that Yvexx concocted and ingested wears off, she will wake not in her fragile fleshy form but rebuilt by the bone ants as something as indestructible and implacable as their nests. But she has faith that her heart will remain her own. She knows that she will do anything to protect the children.
Because the children can’t hide forever. The inquisitors will come back. They will ride into the village, weapons drawn, armor clanking, shrieking murder. Greeting them will be a bone ant nest that walks, that fights, that loves the village and the children and cannot be stopped by iron weapons.
The bone ants finish their work, the first time in the village’s history that they have eaten a living person. The new Yvexx opens quartzite eyes, flexes stony muscles. The children flock to her, and though she can no longer speak, she can show them how much she cares for them. She can ensure that they grow up safe, that none of them will need to take care of orphans when they are grown.
For now, they listen for approaching hoofbeats. Because the inquisitors always come back. But maybe not forever.
Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and LeVar Burton Reads. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at timothymudie.com or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.
Vinayak Varma writes and draws stuff, some of which is up on www.mixtape.in and vvarma.com.
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