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Best Not to Know the Names

A string broke, and it startled her.

She had taken time, on the eve of battle, to string the lyra with hairs from her own head, to attune each string of it to one of the soldiers' five senses. But she had lost track of how long ago that had been, how long ago she had sat quiet in the house against the mountainside with the lyrics of her old master a whisper in her ear.

"What is it, Myrta?" Her standard bearer shouted above the din. It must have shown on her face, the sudden loss. The horse skittered nervously beneath her. She squeezed her legs tight, tapping her foot lightly into its flank, urging it to be calm.

"I should not be here," she whispered, and the boy heard her, even as he struggled against the wind that threatened to steal away her flag.

"Myrta," he scolded. "Do not say such things."

But it was one thing to orchestrate the weather so that the crops might have sufficient rain, another to divine the emperor's future children, and another entirely to attempt to control the clamor of this battle.

"I have lost the sense of touch," she said.

She could still taste the sweat and desperate tears, the salt of blood. She could hear the whispered prayers and labored groans of effort and pain. She could smell the sulphur and smoke in the air, the death that followed closely thereafter. And still she could see the banners and where each house made their stand, sprawled out as they were over the gulches and crags of this unforgiving plain, frosted white with snow and ice. But all that she could feel was her own body, the ache in her joints and each crook of her fingers, the sharp strings of her lyra against the pad of her thumb, the bite of the wind on her cheek.

In some small way, it was a relief.

The boy's face, sun-dark, stared up at her, fright in his large eyes.

"We can replace the string," he said, and he reached towards her as if he might take her lyra from her. She felt it then, a premonition, like a trickle of water creeping down her spine. She clutched the instrument close to her, as much a part of her as if it were fashioned from bone and gut.

"It is too late for that," she answered, feeling out the tremor in her own voice, exerting control over the unsteady note. "You cannot prepare an instrument for war when war is already upon you." The words were not her own, but her master's.

She strummed the strings that were left, testing the tension of them, and she felt that the rest were close to breaking as well. There was nothing she could do for it, not here.

"Then what will we do, Myrta?"

"We go on as we have begun." The note she had played, high and lonesome, quavering and unsure, ventured out over the battlefield, searching out the men and women who would embody it and brings its fortune to fruition. She followed after it with her voice, setting the words like links in a chain. Child old and warrior young, your death undone, your body like the land unthawed. Somewhere—and she craned her neck to see it, to peer down into the hollow where a rivulet lay frozen, as if she were on-wing above—a young woman struggled to keep her footing in the churned-up mud. One of the enemy bore down hard, pressing his advantage so that the woman was forced to her knees, her weapon braced above her head against the stroke of his sword.

Myrta could tell when the note reached the woman, when the words settled like seeds into the dark earth of her skin. A flush rose in her cheeks, and her arms gained strength. She struggled to her feet, throwing the enemy back, and pushing forward as he was caught unguarded and surprised. She drove her kopis between the belt of his trousers and the breastplate, and when she drew it back, blood and offal came with it.

Myrta licked her lips and swallowed uneasily. She let the vision lapse. There was sweat on her forehead and on the bridge of her nose.

"Come, Sedi, let us go find a better vantage. My eyes, both in and out, are growing tired."
She straightened her posture and nudged the horse forward. Sedi bounded ahead, the flag bouncing and flapping, so that her insignia was hardly visible—a hand outstretched, each finger stark, against a field of wide eyes. She was not sorry for it, to see it hidden for even a little while.

you will not know it at first
by touching
the rough hair at the base of the
horse's mane

The training is rough at first. If she is honest, it never grows to be anything other.

"Words that predict, they can afford to be kind," he says. "But words that change fortunes, they can spare no one, high or low. Least of all us."

But he spits the words in such a way that she knows there is no us in his mind, not unless he thinks he can get something from her, late at night when he's had too much to drink of the sour wine. At first, she refuses him that, because someone has paid for her to be here, in his apprenticeship, to learn the abilities of the mountain poets.

Instead, she goes out at night, when the fog settles close to the grass, and creeps into the stable. Most of the stalls are empty, but there is a horse or two left yet, even in this impoverished borderland, raided incessantly by enemies who come stalking through the hills. She whickers, tucking her tongue into her cheek, and she scratches the horses, behind the ears, along the base of the mane. She feels alone and is glad for it.

Soon the voices will come clamoring, constant and brash.

Sedi found a good vantage point. He clambered up the rocks ahead of her, and the horse picked his way carefully from stone to outcropping. As they moved, Myrta stroked the lyra, and recited under her breath a few lines intended to allow safe passage, to separate the crowds of men and women locked in combat. It was a messy battle if the squadrons had already fragmented into these individual fights, if soldiers had nothing to rely on but their own skills and wits. She felt that she had missed something, some crucial note that could have prevented this. When they reached the top of the slope, she dismounted and walked a few steps away. Sedi stayed near the horse. Her banner snapped in the wind above his head.

There was no shelter from the wind here. It cut her cheeks, flinging ice into her eyes. When she breathed out, the air fogged in front of her lips. She held her hands close to her mouth and tried to warm them, tried to imagine them flexible and fluid on the strings. She stared at them a moment, the hands gnarled under, knuckles round and knobbed. It did not matter, ultimately, how they appeared. It only mattered that the visions moved them still, that they found a tune to suit her words.

She gazed up and out, over the frenetic motion of the warriors, uniforms shredded and flying free. She tucked the neck of the lyra closer under her arm, and rested her fingers across the four remaining strings. They quivered, waiting. She could no longer feel what they felt, the warriors on the field, slipping and toiling over the ice melted slick. But she tasted the desperation on their tongues, the salt crusted on the skin.

She thrummed the strings, and the notes fled, eager to be gone. She chased after them with words, songs sung in kitchens and lullabies at bed. Her fingers lingered close to the strings, trembling and waiting. It came back at her like waves, the tastes on the tongues of her soldiers. Strong, hot tea brewed to bitterness. Delicate crystals of spun sugar. The crack of grain between the teeth and the nutty aftertaste.

She glanced at Sedi. Up here, he needed his whole strength to keep the banner upright. If he was not careful, pole and fabric alike, would be ripped from his hands. She smiled, tucked her chin in close to the high-collared coat she wore, and looked back to the field of battle. It helped, she knew, to taste home in this place. They had been, after all, many days on the march and more days encamped, waiting. The warriors fought better now, as if just fed.

The second string snapped beneath her finger, barely touched. She felt the recoil of it, greater than the physical energy of the string. She stumbled back a step, and Sedi, sharp-eyed, shouted to her. She waved her hand to keep him back. She let the lyra fall to her back and bent forward, resting both hands on her knees.

"I have lost the sense of taste," she said, loud enough for him to hear. It did not matter if he heard, though, because he was not trained in the ways of the mountain poets. There was no one else but her. But even as she thought it, it rang untrue. The voices in her head fell silent, the omens murky, before that lie.

"What is it, Myrta?" said Sedi, ever careful of her, fretful even. So much worry in the forehead of a young boy.

The taste of bread hot off the stone, the acidity of yogurt, these were gone. She could not remember when she had last eaten, and her tongue was dry. Perhaps she tasted blood, perhaps dirt from days of travel. They were hers alone, whatever they may be. She spat on the ground near her foot.

"Water," she asked.

"There is none left," Sedi answered, shamefaced.

She looked at him, her mouth and chin and forehead suddenly heavy from weariness. "Remind me. How long have we been fighting?"

He did not answer aloud, but held up three fingers. She sighed, and the breath rattled in her chest. There was something about telling the future, changing the future, that made the past all the more present, the present all but gone.

"Find us water," she said.

He looked at her, doubt and fear there in his face.

"There will be some," she assured him. "There is some nearby." The voices stirred in her head, reasserting themselves. "Find it."

you will not know it at first
by tasting
the sour and the bitter of an unripe
first-spring grape

She begins to drink when she is older to drown the voices of memory. The taste of it curls her tongue, but there is no better wine in her house. After all, she should not be numbing her senses, forestalling visions of the future. It is upon these visions that she directs and empowers the actions of the emperor. He comes when her training is over, or at least when her master sinks into surly silence and teaches her no more. Installed in one of the outhouses of the emperor's court, she waits for her life to begin. She realizes, with a slow and gradual, a drifting revelation, that it has begun and passed her by simultaneously.

At night, in dreams she cannot control, she sees them all, the faces of memory unfulfilled. A child insubstantial, a mate ethereal.

The water was stale, the canteen stinking and marked with the footprints of soldiers who had trampled it over. The taste of it was all her own, the coolness of it as she swished it around her mouth. She swallowed and handed the canteen to Sedi so he might also drink.

"It happens too quickly." She said the words softly, almost humming them. She had to refrain herself from finding a rhythm in the words.

Sedi cocked his head, like a bird waiting for crumbs.

"The strings. They're under a great strain—but still they break too quickly. With the magic I have weaved into them, a live magic, from my own body. They should last longer." She pulled the lyra round from her back. She placed a hand flat on the wood of its body as she might the flank of a horse. She had carved it herself, from the tough, gnarled wood of the mountain evergreens. The feel of the grain, the waiting hollow beneath, were all as familiar to her as her own limbs. She ran her index finger up one string, along the neck.

There it was, waiting, that note of unease. She realized it slowly, that she could not see what might happen when the other strings broke, or even when the next string might go. She could not see the outcome of the battle, which seemed to her something she should have grasped much earlier.

"Myrta," and there was desperation in Sedi's voice. He was pointing down to the valley below. The banner rattled nervously in the crook of his other arm.

She looked where he was pointing, and saw the cannon being rolled into position on what remained of the enemy's shattered front line. There was a small window of time in which she could react before the potential energy of the gunpowder and cannonball overwhelmed her magic. She breathed in, held her breath, found and played the notes her hands instinctively sought. The words came hard, and rough, and sharp up the alleyways of her throat. She gasped, releasing her breath and the words with it. A poem of rains and rising floodwaters, of sparks uncaught.

A string broke beneath her hand, but she did not move and she did not flinch. She waited to see if her words would reach the front. From here, the men at the wheels of the cannon, the men with the rammer and the linstocks, were small, mere smudges of black and blue against the icy backdrop. The wheels of the cannon were struggling over the slick ground.

The cannon slipped from the control of the soldiers, rumbling backwards and over the men crowded near. She could not feel what they felt, but she knew well enough the agony of bones snapped.

Her shoulders relaxed. There was a pain just at the base of her neck.

"I have lost the sense of smell," she said. It was true. She expected to smell the damp shirts, oily hair, and excrement that was the emperor's encampment. But here, on the slope, she could only smell the wind, the faint vestiges of smoke left on that wind.

"What will happen when all the strings are broken?" Sedi asked. He knew the eventuality as well as she.

"I will still have my words." But she bit the corner of her lip. The poetry almost had a song of its own, without the lyra, without instrument of any sort. Without the music, though, she would need to stand very near whoever's fortune she hoped to change.

"Do you need to rest?" Sedi asked for lack of any better answer.

"No," she said. "No, there is no time for that."

you will not know it at first
by smelling
the rancor and the rot of a dying
rat paw-caught

She feels it first when she is quiet, sitting in a glance of sunlight, warm tiles beneath her. Her body relaxes, each limb loose. She sees the spray of her white hair catching the light, dancing in the corner of her eye. It is a dull ache, so faint that she may have overlooked it in any other moment, when the voices and visions competed for her attention. It is something almost like hunger, but she does not think she can feed it or calm it. And she can see nothing in the future for it, nothing to inform her or inspire action. She cannot feel sad for it or conjure up a fitting response.

She moves to stand and feels it there again, a twinge as she stands straight. A messenger from the emperor, the ribbons of his sleeves dancing behind him, brilliant red and purple, is coming towards her, and she recognizes the echo of the voices, arraying themselves, composing lyrics, in the long hallways of her mind. It is hard to hear the silence and the intake of breath beneath that clamor.

"Bring the horse, Sedi." The boy did it, as quickly as he could. Myrta stepped into the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle. The hood fell back off her head and her hair blew free from the braids, tangled thickly around her face.

Someone else was using her magic. This was the conclusion she came to. Someone else, perhaps in the tents far off the battlefield, spattered with mud, still proudly bearing the enemy standard. Someone else had hunched against the mountain cold, had struggled to twist her mouth around the dialect of the borderlands, that liminal land and its fluid tongue. The fact of it, the existence of her, made the voices tense and hushed, the strings of the instrument brittle. The air was thick and hard to breathe with it, with her presence, this stranger.

She held the lyra close to her chest, felt the roundness of it pressed against her stomach. She balanced without thinking atop the horse and tried to see as far as she could, through the eyes of the soldiers nearest the enemy line. She tried to hear through them as well, around the rasp of their breath, the creak of the leather armor, the blood rushing in their ears. It was chaotic at first.

Then stillness and focus. And the faint echo of a note fading from the air, of a note linked and bound with an iamb or something not quite so neatly trimmed. There was the lilt, there, though of the mountain dialect. She played without knowing almost, a matching note. She mirrored as best she could that staccato note, sharp and piercing. A note to prod men and women to action.

She had only two strings left. One of them frayed and snapped beneath her fingers. The horse was startled and shuffled back a few steps, slipping and finding its footing again on the slick grass. She was almost unseated, despite the fact that she was an experienced rider. The silence was so deafening. She could not bring herself to even report the fact to Sedi, the fact that hearing was now gone as well. Her voice would sound so tiny against the immensity of that silence.

The clash of sword, kopis, and spear sounded tinny and distant. The only heartbeat she could hear was her own. And with the loss of this sense, she could not hear the prying note of the other poet. She scanned, with her only remaining sense, the line of tents. Through those flaps that were open, she could see desks, papers and maps weighted down with rocks, a teapot gone cold from the look of the frost collected on its side.

Myrta shook her head. Her eyes were wet. She touched her own cheek, surprised and hesitant.

Then she saw her, stepping out from a tent, collar and gloves thick with fur, cheeks dark in the cold. She carried a dizi, a narrow bamboo flute, so the fingers were cut away from her gloves. Her face was different, narrow, thin. Her hair was different, wings of gray above her ears. Her eyes were different, thick-lashed and gray.

Sedi surprised her when he touched her foot.

"There is another one of me," Myrta said.

you will not know it at first
by hearing
the sound of an unrepentant
man confessing

When the emperor tells her they are going to war, she nods her head. The announcement is not unexpected, based as it is on her own words, but she is nonetheless mildly surprised. She had not been bold enough to plant more than a seed of doubt in his mind, but she had hoped it might take firmer root.

That night, she takes her horse from the stables and she rides to the borderlands, a slow climb up the mountain pathways. She is surprised she knows the way so well, as many years as it has been since she traveled it. The lyra bounces at her hip, strapped across her back.

The stable is empty. She visits it first. The hay is matted down and stinking. She leaves it quickly, frightened by the darkness. She goes into the small house. The roof, thin rafters layered with sod and grass, is sinking inwards. There is darkness here as well, and a smell of decay. She does not find him, no live and bow-backed man, no skeleton rotting, nothing even that she can kick and curse at, nothing at which to vent long-locked epithets. It is disappointing, and the pain she can feel when she is alone and quiet mocks her from her stomach and her bones.

She finds only a little book with names scratched into the thick paper. Hers, many before, and one after. She draws her finger over that last name, feels the indentation, the cut of the lead.

She looses her lyra from its casing. In the damp and hollow of the house against the mountain, she strings it, plucking five hairs from her thick braids. She uses what he taught her, attuning each one of the hairs to one of her senses, harnessing the voices and the visions in her head, tying them down. She sings a song, a ditty that she knew best with a drunken lisp.

The woman saw her, saw Myrta atop the slope, atop her horse. Myrta knew she had. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. There was a chance that the woman had attuned her own instrument to her senses, though it would take something more than hair—blood perhaps—with a dizi. If that were the case, she might feel the sinking weight in Myrta's stomach, hear the pulse ticking behind her ear, taste the fear like copper on her tongue. She wrapped her arms around herself, defensively, as if that would ward off the woman's intuitions.

"What do we do?" Sedi asked.

For a moment, she did not answer, not because she did not know.

"Myrta," Sedi's voice was insistent.

She did not want to fight her.

"We go down to her."

Before she moved, however, she tried to see her again, as close as she might. She studied every part of the woman, avoiding the eyes that understood what she was doing. The mud, the ice, the weeds matted into the thick weave of her cloak, the fragile slender wrist that looked as if it might be easily broken, the fingernails filed down flat to the pad of the fingers. As Myrta looked and as she studied, the last string of her lyra quivered in the assault of the wind at her back. It snapped free, floated on the wind, attached but useless. The woman became small and distant. The change in focus dizzied Myrta.

She dismounted, took the horse by the halter, and led it on foot as she began to descend the slope.

"Your instrument," Sedi said, fear at the edge of his voice.

She could not spare words to answer him. She began to whisper, to hum, so low that the voice was more in her throat than in her mouth. She was afraid to pause, to hesitate, to trip over the rhythm of the poetry. It was all that kept her and the boy safe as they descended into the battle. Men and women stepped around them as if they were immoveable objects, rocks and trees unassailable in battle.

The walk felt long, and Myrta imagined that she could see the shadows shift with the sun's path across the sky. The woman must know they were coming, but she did not move. From what Myrta could see between the elbows, arms, heads, and swords, she stood still before the tents, her black clothes marking her out. When Sedi and she broke free of the battle, walked past the cannons and the maps marked out in stones and dirt at the enemy's front line, the woman waited for them. And, finally, Myrta stopped and grew quiet. She closed her lips, felt them cracked and raw from the cold.

She could see nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing. Nothing that was not in front of her, beside her, next to her. Myrta was alone, and she looked across a space of grass the length of a man, to see the woman who was her and not her. She spoke the last name in her master's book, the name below her own, the name she had read in the shifting shadows in the house against the mountain.

"Who are you?" she asked then.

The woman did not smile, did not change her posture. "Best not to know the names of those you must kill."

Myrta dropped the reins of the horse. She did not know if Sedi was still behind her. The lyra hung silent and heavy off her back. "He knew ours."

The woman did not answer. She lifted the flute to her mouth, and the notes she played were tremulous, careful, wild. Myrta could feel them burrowing into her skin, uprooting it from the muscles and the bones. The notes stilled, and the woman lowered the flute. She braced herself, moving one hand just below her mouth, just as he had taught them, just as he had trained them, to focus herself. She began to speak and to sing. It was both at once.

The hollowness, the pain, that Myrta had felt in her stomach, it danced up to meet the words as if welcoming home a long-expected guest. She tried to find words of her own, but she was tired. The spells of protection she had spun for her and the boy as they crossed the field, without the aid of her instrument, had cut runnels in her throat. And when she looked at the woman, with her hand cupped beneath her mouth, her words overflowing, Myrta imagined she saw some reluctance in those eyes, a hesitancy or nervousness in the tremble of the lips. But without her lyra, she could not know this for sure. She could only take one step forward, and reach out her hand, and feel the blood jumping in her veins.

you will not know it at first
by any sense
the loss of everything
you knew

About the Author
E. K. Wagner is a speculative fiction writer, interested in examining how the human responds to the inhuman. She grew up in southeast Ohio on the border of Appalachia, but now lives in central New York, where she hikes in the Catskills and listens for ghostly games of nine-pins. She holds her Ph.D. in medieval literature and teaches literature and writing in the SUNY system. She splits her time between academic research, investigating how medieval English writers navigated their own religious identities, and creative writing. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, from Apex to Luna Station Quarterly, and her novella The Green and Growing is forthcoming with Aqueduct Press. Find her online at erinkwagner.com.