The Bern Saga: Book 4

by Hugh Howey

A Poem of Madness

Five links stand out in the chain that binds our will. There’s the primal urges, wound tight in nucleotidal strands. There’s the faith that surges through our clasped and superstitious hands. There’s the politics of kings and queens, and their many rules. There’s culture which forms mobs of motley fools. Last comes our decisions, stacked up in piles of regret that we long to forget. These five links stand out in the chain that binds our will. They hold us, guide us, coerce us— And we rattle them still. ~The Bern Seer~

The Rape of the Canyon Queen


The cave hollows thundered with the Wadi’s coming. The great pads of her feet shuddered the rock as claws the size of a lesser Wadi’s tail met the walls of her cave with the crack of shattered stone. When the Canyon Queen moved, the world knew. For in her old age, the great Wadi had done more than forget how to scamper soft and slow—she had outgrown the need.

She came to a stop before one of the great watering shafts, the circumference of the black well wider than the span of her old birth canyon. The Canyon Queen bent her thick neck and drank from the condensation rushing out of side holes and gurgling down the deep shaft. She drank her fill, leapt across the gaping void, and continued her loud passage through the rock. As she bounded forward, her scent tongue picked up the vaporous trails of fear and haste from those scattering before her. None had ever grown to the Canyon Queen’s size, not that any alive could remember. And nobody knew what to do about it but stay out of her way.

The massive Wadi took the last turn in her vast warren, and the round maw of light at its termination came into view. She loped toward it, reaching out with powerful limbs, gripping marble with her claws, pulling herself along in an ecstatic release of energy. She ran with the dizzying might of a thing unopposed and for the pure thrill of it.

At the end of the shaft, she paused to read the air beyond. The wind outside was, as always, a turbulent mess. Her home was situated on the brightest point of them all, where the two great lights stood directly overhead and rarely cast a shadow. It was a very long way from where the Canyon Queen was born—way around where the canyons squeezed tight, where the Wadi holes dwindled to the size of her claw, and where the winds blew strong and steady in the same direction.

Far enough around that way, just past her birth canyon, and a Wadi could escape the light altogether, reaching a flat land of complete shade. The Canyon Queen knew. She knew a Wadi could scamper out into a world of solid cave-dark, spoiled only by the shimmering glimmer caused by the two lights over the horizon. She knew such a place existed, where there were no canyons and no watering shafts and Wadi would freeze if they stayed too long. She knew of such a place, but now lived as far from there as possible. So far—so very far into the light— that she frequently struggled to remember how she had arrived.

The great Wadi tasted the swirling, raucous air outside her warren and tried to sink claws into that long-ago past, remembering.


Where have you been?

The young Wadi flew in agitated circles around the small cave. Dust drifted from the roof, caught in the light from the tunnel’s entrance like a veil of worry. She exuded the same mixture of scents over and over: Where have you been? Wherehaveyoubeen?

Her mate-pair staggered into the cave to join her, his body finally catching up to the scent of his arrival. He rubbed against her, scales scratching scales, but the young Wadi pulled back, leaving room for an answer. Where have you been? Wherehaveyoubeen?

Her mate-pair had been missing for three sleeps, his scents trailing off to a sad nothing. Now he was back, but his smells were agitated and impossible to read. Wherehaveyoubeen?


That single concept pierced the noisy smells, making itself clear in the young Wadi’s mind. She danced back and followed the cave’s turns to their shaft of meager drippings, leading the way. She tasted her mate-pair following close behind. Her brain reeled with the days of sadness mixed with the new joy of his return, all of it jumbled with the confusion of why he’d left and where he’d been. She reached their craggy hole of condensation and rushed to the far side. Her mate-pair leapt eagerly to the drippings. He drank and exuded his story:

Dark, he scented. Dark and cold. A walk so far, the two lights burrow into the rock itself and the land erupts with color.

Her mate-pair seemed to have lost his mind. The young Wadi licked the air, making sure she tasted it properly, wondering if perhaps he had spent three days chin-up to the two lights, roasting his brain.

Where did you go? She couldn’t stop exuding it.

Her mate-pair continued to drink what little water was there. The young Wadi looked over her shoulder, wondering if they would have to break a truce and fight for a bigger stream—

The blue hunters.

The image of large beasts on two legs flashed through her mind, scattering the rest.

The blue hunters came while you slept, a long file of them wrapped in their single silver scale covering all but their faces.

The young Wadi silenced her own worries and latched on to the stream of smells. She bent her head close to her mate-pair’s and breathed in every molecule lest some drift off to waste.

They took eggs from the shafts across the canyon. I followed even bigger hunters deeper while you slept. They took one of the mate-pairs we fought with last season—


The Wadi couldn’t help the interruption. Her body felt full to bursting with a thousand smells to release. Her mate-pair stopped his futile licking on the now-dry rock. He gazed at her, the blacks of his eyes wide in order to see in the dark. Or wider than even that, she saw. They were wide with fear.

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