For those without e-readers, here is the text of the story.
The Soul Shepherd
The center of the lush meadow was so peaceful, with daisies and yarrow barely waving in the soft morning light; unaware of the roiled and bloody muck they would soon become. Atal sighed, gathering with the others at the sideline. He could see among the war-clad men and women milling at the rise to his left, a number of his kind mingling unseen with the warm-blooded. There was a stir and a shift in attention as boats hove to shore at the river that edged the bottom of the meadow. Dark figures like Atal’s were also among them on the boats, and waiting on the stony shore.
A female voice spoke from behind him. “There are too many of us here, Atal. That means you haven’t told us everything.” Atal turned slightly toward Jahl, a slight crooked grin completing the crooked angle of his long nose.
The warriors at the top of the rise began dinning their spears on their shields and chanting as the ones at the river disembarked and formed tight knots. They crouched and began their own low invocation, staring up the hill from eyes painted to look dark and fierce.
Some of Atal’s tribe were already unhurriedly placing themselves around the meadow. In a few hands, the curved blade glittered in the early sun. Atal’s friend, Hurk, spun and caught his dagger idly. Atal heard a snicker from Jahl. “Show off,” she said, grinning.
The battle lines were coalescing, the black-clad army at the river’s edge into vanguards and the green army to Atal’s left into one long wall of death. The drumming began and the army at the left poured down the hill, screaming. Birds exploded from the grass and flew toward the trees. The armies met with a clang, and the chanting ceased, replaced by grunts and shouted names and shrieks of pain. Already those of Atal’s kind were at their work, cutting here, gathering there. Already, some of them were working their way to the edge of the meadow, daggers bright with ichor in their right hands, their left hands leading the dead; who invariably looked surprised and confused. Some were women. One of them was led by Hurk, who carried the soul of the woman’s unborn child gently in the crook of his arm. As they passed Atal, the baby looked at him with knowing eyes, the umbilicus trailing off into light against Hurk’s dark robe. In moments, it would grow to stature and Hurk would set it down to walk the spirit road with its mother, Atal knew.
The battle was slowing down, the warriors tiring. Atal turned to Jahl. “Follow me, with your followers.” She nodded and turned to the dark figures behind her. Atal nodded to Hurk, who remained behind on the field of battle while the bulk of Atal’s people moved over the rise toward the village several furlongs beyond.
Atal could see the small town first by a smoke rising from between green hills. As they approached the clay tiled roofs were apparent, and individual vegetable patches. Beyond the village were the pastures, but the livestock had been gathered into the common enclosure and the open fallows were empty… except for a dark crowd of warriors, just emerging from the cover of trees, on the opposite side of the village. There was plenty of time, no reason to hurry. Atal and his following rambled easily over the fields, arriving just as the painted warriors descended upon the hamlet with fire and blade upon those too old or young or ill to fight.
Atal entered the home of the chieftain’s family. This one was not fired; the aggressors knew there was treasure within. The doors were barred, but that meant nothing to Atal. Even before he entered, he counted the souls inside. Numerous children, two very old people, two pregnant females. One stood tall over the others, and was clearly the chieftainess. She bore a sword, ready to defend all within—but the mark was already on her. As Atal waited while the screams and shouts outside grew closer, and a banging began on the strong oak door, this woman’s eyes swerved to meet his. Atal felt chilled to the bone.
It happened occasionally. It was usually someone very old or very young, or gravely wounded, who hovered on the edge of life. This woman, though, was strong and vital, standing bravely over her house. As Atal’s eyes met hers, he saw in her everything he was sworn to protect—life, humanity, a strong spirit free from the terror of death and the dead. For a long moment, he took in her green eyes, her dark-blonde braids, the red gown crisscrossed by gold and beads, the shield she clutched in front, the sword she held pointed to the ground at her left—she was left-handed, he noted—the unusual folds in her ears, the curve of her shoulder and the deep and seething breaths she took.
Atal turned to view the men hammering at the door. Their leader, a vast and tall man, stood just behind, ready to charge into the door once it fell. Atal knew men, saw in his eyes the violence and mercilessness he savored in his mind. The prurient cruelty. The contempt for life.
The door hinges shattered and the oak fell inward, thudding on the floor. Atal did the unthinkable.
With the swing of the chieftaness’s sword, Atal reached with his curved blade and severed the silver cord at the heart of the man with a deft flick; the man’s limbs splayed helplessly in mid-strike. The woman’s sword swung upward, catching the artery beneath the jaw line. But as his blood sprayed out, his soul already stood weaponless and bewildered in the dark of the room as his insensate corpse fell forward onto the shattered door.
The woman didn’t waste a moment, but jumped up on the back of the huge man whose corpse filled the doorway and shrieked fiercely at his shocked followers. It was only then that more of Atal’s people appeared within the house, their faces just as confused as those of the men outside; who were now backing away from the door.
But the moment did not last, for the remnant from the battle in the meadow were now returning to the village, screaming revenge. The painted men turned to face this new onslaught while the woman stood berserk at the door, swinging her sword about her. Atal moved away, but not without a backward glance. The mark was still upon her.
Hours later, Atal walked from the village to a nearby hilltop. From there, he could see the spirit road stretching away into the evening sky. A few still walked it, but not in numbers like earlier. He himself had helped many to find the road, and helped with those who stubbornly refused—out of jealousy or unforgiveness—to leave the living and go their way. Atal knew where the road led, and of the fork far away, out of sight; and that none returned who walked it. He knew that their journey was appointed. He knew that a house in the village was filled with living souls who were marked for the road, but there they were.
A figure was approaching—Hurk. He came and stood by Atal and gazed down at the houses.
“Did he at least have the mark upon him?” Hurk murmured.
“You know the answer.” It had not been the big warrior’s time.
“Then he will bring his rightful anger to the Throne. He will be heard. I am sorry, my old friend.”
“I know how far outside the bounds I stepped. I…” Atal sighed deeply. “I am not even sure I can say that I am sorry. I know…” His words fell apart with mixed commitment and regret. Hurk reached over and squeezed his shoulder for a moment before turning away.
For some days, a few of Atal’s people lingered around the village, reaping the souls of those whose injuries were mortal. Some followed the invading tribe on their boats, for the same reason. Atal went to find the one who had been there longer than any of them; Kirkal, the local soul shepherd. Kirkal had arrived more than a century before with the settlers of the area. For generations, he had needed little help overseeing the departures from the tiny farming community as it grew into a town. Kirkal was expecting Atal’s visit, and showed no surprise at his approach. The two bowed respectfully. Kirkal faced Atal squarely.
“Surely you saw that the mark was upon her.” It was a statement, not a question. But then he surprised Atal. “What about the unborn child? Did he bear it?”
Atal was stunned. In the moment, he had not taken notice. The mark was no more than a shadow upon the crown of the head, a smudge as if of ashes, a shadow of an unseen hand. Atal closed his eyes and brought the memory back to mind of that moment in the front room of the chieftainess’s house. Try as he could to see it, there was no shadow beneath the woman’s heart. Instead, two bright lights. Atal’s eyes flew open. How had he not seen it? “Twins, Kirkal! The woman bears twins. And no mark.”
Kirkal nodded knowingly. “Erigal, the woman—her father was a twin, as was his grandfather, and that one’s grandfather—he it was who led the people here from farther south. It may be that she is destined to die, and very soon. But perhaps it was not to be by your hand. No healer here has the skill to be sure of delivering a child from a dead mother’s stomach.”
Atal nodded gratefully. He took a deep breath, perhaps his first in days. “Still, there is the warrior. There was no mark on him. And I cut his silver cord. And others in the house bore the mark. A price will be paid.” He looked at the ground, his face pinched with pain. “How I wish it were mine to pay.”
It was deep in that night that he knew. A celebration had gone long into the night, and one young couple had met in the barn. A lamp had been kicked over and a fire spread in the straw. Meanwhile, Erigal was in labor.
Atal led his people into the flames where children and old people were overcome by smoke. Most of them were led out before the tongues of flame could reach them. Erigal was being led out from the house by the chief, her husband; both of them were badly burned. Every few steps, Erigal stopped and clenched, involuntarily pushing. The mark was very dark upon her now.
Atal followed her closely. Jahl stepped up beside him. They shared a brief gaze, and Jahl nodded. Erigal stopped and clenched one more time; she crouched down, pulling her robe to her waist. Souls were passing by, escorted by Atal’s dark people. Their faces turned towards Erigal, but they did not pause on their way. The woman pulled a shawl from her shoulders and lay it between her feet and with a final scream, her newborn slid onto it.
Her husband supported her by the shoulders while a younger woman wrapped the child in the shawl. The cord still connected the baby to Erigal, whose blood pooled around her feet. She was collapsing, and the second child was not delivered. Kirkal stood at a short distance, watching.
In a few minutes, Atal himself cut the cord connecting Erigal’s life to her magnificent frame, while Jahl waited a few moments for the unborn twin. Erigal stood gazing down upon her former self. Jahl stood up, holding a tiny slip of soul to her chest. Erigal watched her husband trying to revive her, while fruitlessly the village healer attempted to retrieve the dead twin from her belly, pushing down on her flaccid stomach. The living newborn, its cord now cut, mewed in her cousin’s arms.
Erigal then nodded to Atal, and they turned to go. Dawn was breaking over the river, and the spirit road led above the smoke and the terror and the mournful cries.
After some time, Atal was aware that the dead twin was walking beside his mother. Atal looked at the twin, and saw the cost of his impulsive choice. This boy was to be a delight to those who knew him. He would have shot arrows with such piercing accuracy; sang with such a heavenly joy. The girl he would have loved would have been blessed, and their children beautiful. But even now, all that was changing; erased from the future. The bride and children were his brother’s. And his brother would always carry the loss of his twin, a sadness no one could fulfill. His choices would be confused. Within generations, his line, the line of Erigal, would fail. Future paths shifted, this one ending in darkness.
Atal grieved. It suffocated him. Erigal and her people continued on the spirit road, but Atal staggered to a halt. The curved dagger weighed heavy in his hand. He stumbled down to the river’s edge and stared into the water as the sun rose higher. Smoke from the village soured the loveliness of the morning. Atal held the dagger over the shining water, and let it drop.
But it would not. It returned to his hand, where it belonged.
Hurk, Jahl, and the others stood by him. Their faces did not judge him. It was time to go for now, but they would be returning in numbers to this place, he knew. Before they moved away toward their next appointment, Atal looked back up the meadow. From the crushed grasses and dark places where warriors had struggled and spilled blood, from a rut where a body had been dragged away for burial, a daisy had raised its head to the morning sun.