James Axler

Neutron Solstice


A glistening pearl of sweat ran down between the woman's breasts, across the flat stomach, into the vee of curling dark hair. Another drop slid past her parted lips, over her chin, hung suspended for a moment, then fell through the smoky air and landed with delicate precision on the polished blade of the tiny silver dagger.

Her dark skin was smooth, her tumbling hair as black as the wing of a raven at midnight. She was naked, sitting cross-legged in the dirt, a yard from a smoldering fire of hewn cottonwood branches. It was difficult to guess her age. From her body you might have thought she was in her early twenties. Then you might have looked into her face.

The cheeks were pocked and scarred, with open sores weeping around her mouth. The lips were full, slightly parted as she panted in the heat. Most of her teeth were missing, and those that remained were yellow and chipped, jostling each other for space, like tumbled gravestones.

But it was her eyes that held you like an insect trapped in a web.

They were pale as watered milk, with a thin membrane drawn across each cornea, like a veil of finest lace. Beneath the pallid shroud the eyes moved, darting and jerking.

Her right hand gripped the knife, the hilt made from the middle finger of a man, the joints bound with silver filigree, an uncut ruby set at its pommel. The blade was about four inches long, razored on both edges, the tip needle-sharp. The flickering light in the reed-roofed hut revealed lettering engraved along the blade in twining, ornate script.

La Mort Lente.

The slow death.

In her left hand the blind woman clutched a small fluttering feathered creature. A red-winged blackbird, head turning from side to side, its tiny bright eyes rolling against the sheen of its plumage.

Inside the hut were more than a dozen men, most wearing cotton trousers, some with ragged shirts. Nearly all of them had tightly-curled cropped hair, with faces that betrayed an African ancestry. They knelt in the dirt, eyes locked on the woman's mutilated face, hands folded in their laps, as if in prayer.

One of them rose and scattered a handful of dry powder on the glowing ashes of the fire, sending a cloud of dense white smoke toward the hole in the roof that served as a chimney. White smoke tinged with scarlet filled the hut with a bittersweet scent.

The woman lifted her hands, bringing both the silver knife and the fluttering bird nearer the blind eyes. She breathed in deeply, her body trembling, the nipples becoming erect, fire-tipped, like cherries. She opened her mouth, whispering to the waiting men in a voice harsh and grating. The language was a sort of French, a debased and corrupt form of the tongue that had originated four hundred of years before with Creole settlers from Haiti.

'As I see, so shall this far-flying singer upon wings see.'

The hut was silent and still, and only the frail scratchings of the bird's claws upon the skin of the woman's hand betrayed movement. Outside, the wind had fallen away as night set its grip tighter upon the land.

'For us and for the baron and for life beyond and life within, I do this thing.'

'Do this thing,' came the mumbled chorus from the watchers.

The hands came together, the point of the knife seeking the gleaming eyes of the blackbird. Slowly, with the care and skill of long practice, the woman pricked out both of the creature's eyes, blinding it. A thread of bright blood streaked the feathers of its chest as it opened its beak and gave out a piercing screech of pain and black terror. But the woman held tight.

'Sing not and speak not and see not. But let the pinions bear upward that we might see where hope shall beckon.'

She lowered her head and breathed on the injured bird, soothing it, stroking the feathers at the nape of its neck with her fingers. Opening her right hand and letting the stiletto fall in the dirt, she cupped the left hand so that the bird nestled there, unmoving. Then she raised her arms toward the hole on the roof.

'Fly free! 'she cried.

For a frozen moment, nothing happened. The loops of graying smoke curled lazily up toward the sky. The bird turned its head from side to side, as if desperately seeking a salvation from its darkness. Minute specks of blood dappled the woman's forearm.

'Fly free,' she repeated.

The red-winged blackbird finally made a feeble halfhearted effort to fly, beating its wings in a flurry of motion. It rose halfway toward the chimney hole, then faltered. There was a gasp of horror from the men as it fell, then rose again, and finally fell a second and final time. It plunged into the fire, flailing as the air filled with the stench of burned feathers. No one tried to save it. That would not have been appropriate.

It was a balding, wizened man who broke the shocked silence. 'Why? Why did it not show the road that must be taken?'

The woman turned her opaque, sightless eyes toward the speaker, and he took a hesitant step back, as though he'd been struck across the face.

'There is a season for all things. A season to live and a season to die. Even the proudest of men must one day fall into decay. Stay quiet while I look inward.'

She began to rock slowly back and forth on her heels, her hands weaving an intricate pattern in the smoke- filled air. Quietly she started to hum a queer, keening tune that had no words. Then gradually the harsh Creole lyrics came through, telling of a land where there was only honor, humility, truth and courage. Yet a land where the shadows roamed, even in the brightness of dawn. Where a midsummer banquet was darkened by the whispering of distant thunder.

The song ended, and they all heard the rising wind outside the hut. The blind woman stopped rocking, stretching out her arms, jerking her head back so the sinews in her throat stood out like cords of wire. Her breath came fast, her body shook as if gripped by fever.

Suddenly she relaxed, gazed across the room, over the fire. Her mouth dropped, and for a moment her face held an expression of simpering idiocy. That, too, passed and she spoke.

'As stands the baron high, so shall he be brought low. Not from within but from without. He...' Her voice faded.

'What? What will ail him?' whispered the bald man.

The woman trembled, mouth sagging. Her eyes gaped wide in terror, the whiteness dreadful, as if someone pressed them from behind. Then she screamed.

And again. A rasping, high noise, like a stallion being put to the gelding.

'They come!'

The voice filled the hut, spilled out through the thin walls into the moist warmth of the surrounding land. It hung in the air like a raised fist.

She screamed again, locked into her trance. 'They come!'

'Who? Who comes?'

She ignored the question, once more screaming the same two words. 'They come, they come, they come!'

Outside, the swamp stretched limitlessly in all directions as far as man could know. Within its depths there was a slow stirring, as if it could sense something happening, something utterly new.

Chapter One

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