A Matter of Interpretation
By M. Elizabeth Ticknor
Originally published in Flame Tree Publishing’s Heroic Fantasy short story collection; subsequently published in 3rd and Starlight.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Dragonspine Mountains swallowed up the stars in the eastern half of the desert sky. Cers tended the fire at his master’s campsite in an attempt to stave off the darkness. He had never seen anything so massive or imposing. He wished that his master, Tirian, had not insisted on making camp in their shadow the previous evening. The sun-bleached peaks warped the wind into howls that echoed through the air like ravenous beasts.
Tirian exited his tent at dawn and motioned for Cers to approach. “Sit. I want to examine your seamwork.”
The runic tattoos that covered Cers’ body glowed white as Tirian’s command took root. Cers grunted an acknowledgment and knelt at his master’s feet. Even kneeling, Cers’ head was parallel with Tirian’s shoulders.
Had Tirian not taken on the mantle of necromancy, Cers felt he would have made an excellent tailor. He had composed Cers from the choicest parts of a dozen different corpses, woven together with silk thread and spellwork. Cers did not understand why he had been driven to such gruesome work, but appreciated the craftsmanship required to accomplish such a daunting task.
Tirian let out a satisfied sigh as his hands finished tracing the stitches that held Cers’ limbs together. “Good, good. How is your healing? Place your hand in the fire.”
Cers grimaced, but did as Tirian commanded. He sucked in a sharp breath as his hand began to burn. He forced himself to hold it steady until the smell of cooking flesh reached his nostrils.
“Now pull it out.”
Cers followed Tirian’s bidding. Dead nerves tingled back to life as his injury healed over and left fresh, unscarred skin.
“Excellent. You’re complete, or as complete as I can make you. Come morning, we’ll put you to work.”
Cers gave a single nod. Tirian preferred him to speak only when necessary, but this seemed important enough to merit a question. “What would you have me do?”
“I would have you tear down the gates of Risafio.”
The implicit promise of violence made Cers’ scalp prickle. He frowned. “Why?”
“Because the Valdians are losing the war, and I’ve been hired to change that. Taking Risafio should turn the tide. Once you destroy the gates and rout the guards, the Valdian army can take the pass and solidify their supply lines. Lord Irenea will grant me lands and a title once the job is done.”
Cers’ neck and shoulder muscles clenched. Routing the guards meant hurting them at best and killing them at worst. In the weeks after Cers’ creation, Tirian had tested and tweaked his healing abilities extensively. Cers held an intimate knowledge of how it felt to have one’s limbs crushed or skull caved in. He had even hurled himself over a cliff once on Tirian’s orders. The landing shattered most of the bones in his body and crushed a rabbit that had been hiding in the brush. He recovered from the fall, but the rabbit remained limp and broken.
Cers took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I do not want to harm anyone.”
Tirian threw his hands up in the air. “By the Roiling Havoc, you’re not supposed to want anything!” He knitted his brow and shook his head. “I suppose that’s what I get for designing a golem intelligent enough to create adaptive strategies. The anatomists of House Arivess say the brain houses the soul. Perhaps I should have used an animal brain rather than a human one.”
“I am fully functional. My body is strong—”
“Your body is not what I worry about.”
“My mind is sound—”
The command struck Cers like a slap to the face. His tattoos flared to life and clamped his jaw shut so tightly that it ached.
Tirian glared at Cers. “Better.” He stood and circled Cers with narrowed eyes. “Insolence will not be tolerated. You are meant to take orders, not to question them.”
Cers stared into the fire. The sudden inability to speak left him numb and hollow. Tirian might as well have ordered him to rip out his tongue.
♦ ♦ ♦
The village of Risafio pressed tightly against the cliffs and surrounded the only pass between the Dragonspine Mountains for fifty leagues. A pair of blue-flecked granite towers dwarfed the huts and hovels of the common folk. The bloodwood gates that cut off the pass were strong enough to keep an entire Valdian battalion at bay. They were well-manned, and designed to withstand massive onslaughts. They were not, however, fortified against a potential attack from within.
Tirian led Cers into town at midday, dressed in the fine dyed linens of a merchant. Cers dragged a wooden cart that contained Tirian’s traveling supplies, as well as two dozen bolts of cloth should they need to validate their cover story as textile merchants.
Cers’ muscles burned with every step as he strained to slow his pace. He lurched onward, shoulders slumped, head hung low. His tattoos flickered every time he hesitated. He hoped the glow was dim enough in the daylight that Tirian would not take notice.
Tirian strutted confidently beside him, spine military-drill straight. “Don’t shamble so. I built you better than that.”
The tattoos that covered Cers’ body blazed. The compulsion to obey was overwhelming. Cers straightened his posture and steadied his gait, but kept his pace methodical and slow.
The stares of the people on the street pricked and needled at Cers as he walked through town. Even slumped forward, cloaked and cowled, he stood taller than anyone in the crowd. His shoulders stretched broad as the yokes of the oxen that pulled the traders’ wagons.
Tirian surveyed Risafio like a wildcat ready to pounce. “Smash the gates, then knock down the towers. If anyone gets in your way, kill them.”
Cers’ tattoos flared. He ground his teeth and clenched his fists tightly around the cart’s handle grips. No matter how much he focused, his legs drove him forward.
Cers abandoned the cart when he reached the gates. His muscles rippled as he pushed against doors that were meant to be pulled. Steel-braced wood creaked, groaned, and splintered. Cers pressed unrelentingly against the doors until the gate’s hinges cracked, then snapped under the pressure. Cries of alarm rang out across the plaza as the two halves of the gate toppled to the ground.
A trio of guards rushed Cers at the base of the northernmost tower. He tossed them aside like rag dolls. His tattoos flared and urged him to ensure their demise, but he focused instead on collapsing the towers. The guards were not presently in his way, and the orders for destruction had come first.
The tower’s stonework was solid and well-fitted. If Cers charged it full-force he would be lucky to even crack the stone. There was, however, a wooden door, and in the end all doors were meant to be opened.
Cers rammed the door, shoulder-first, until he broke it down. Guards clambered down the stairs. He ignored them. They were not yet in his way.
There. The support beams.
Cers slammed into the closest beam with all of his weight. It cracked from the force. One of the guards charged him, but he sidestepped and shoved the man into the wall. He flung the bloody guard into the arms of his fellows and stalked toward the next beam.
The guards bolted for the exit. Cers gave them time to flee before he shattered the remaining supports.
The tower collapsed around him. A deluge of stone, wood, and mortar poured down on his head and shoulders. His back snapped under the strain. Sharp, jarring agony surged through his body. Then death embraced him.
♦ ♦ ♦
Cers screamed as Tirian’s magic dragged him back to sentience. Flesh knitted together despite the unrelenting press of the rubble above him. Bones healed in excruciatingly wrong positions, then broke again every time he tried to move. Cers thrashed and writhed, desperate for relief.
After what seemed like an eternity, his body repaired itself sufficiently for him to push away the stones that trapped him. He crawled out from under the debris and lay on his back, panting. Bones snapped back into their proper positions and muscles slithered into place around them. A surge of panicked voices enveloped him.
“It can’t be human! No one could survive that.”
“The whole tower landed on its head!”
“Look at its arm—”
Cers’ shoulder popped back into place. He staggered to his feet. A dozen guardsmen surrounded him, shields and spears at the ready. They were poised to fight, but their eyes were wide and their limbs trembled. Cers made eye contact with each of them in turn.
If he were careful, he should be able to push through the crowd. As long as he could get through, they were not in his way.
His body ached from the tower’s collapse. His muscles were barely responsive, his movements jerky. It took most of his energy to brush the guards aside before they surrounded him. The magic-borne inclination toward mayhem and slaughter surged through him anew. He clenched his jaw, shook his head to clear it, and pushed on toward the southern tower.
Panicked civilians swarmed the road between the towers. Some rushed toward the gates, others sought to flee them, and even more simply stood in place and gawked at the wreckage.
Murderous intent surged within Cers, but he fought it desperately. He did not want to kill. He did not want to kill. He ran down his list of orders: Silence. Break the gates. Destroy the towers. Kill anyone who got in his way.
Tirian couldn’t have meant him to be silent forever.
Cers’ tattoos flared as he bellowed a wordless warning cry toward the crowd. The act of rebellion burned like fire.
Cers charged toward the crowd, yelling all the way. People scrambled away, but some did not move fast enough. Cers gritted his teeth and slowed down to avoid them.
The guards caught up and surrounded him. Their formation was tighter, this time. They glared at him with eyes like steel.
Cers balked. His tattoos seethed with arcane energy. Tirian’s words burned into his mind. Kill them! The guards were in his way. There was no way through. He had to kill them. He had to!
The repercussions of disobedience scorched him like an inferno. White-hot magic blazed from every tattoo and stitched seam. Even so, the pain did not compare to the torture of having been trapped alive, body shattered, under the weight of the collapsed tower. If he had pushed through that, he could push through this.
Through the searing thrum of energy he heard one of the guards demand his surrender. He ground his teeth, bowed his head, and placed his hands behind his neck.
Tirian’s voice rang out over the throng. “What are you doing? I did not bid you to surrender!”
Cers spotted Tirian in a matter of moments. He had been blending in with the crowd, most likely playing the part of a panicked citizen. Cers’ stomach clenched.
“Kill them! Kill them all!”
Cers howled as the order tore into him and filled his mind with anguish. He collapsed to the ground, clutching his head. He wanted to ease the pain, even if that meant crushing his own skull.
No. He could live with pain. He was designed to live with pain. If that was all defiance brought, he was not truly obligated to obey. He ground his teeth together and took steady, measured breaths. The longer it continued, the more he was able to bear it.
He stood and glared at Tirian. “No.”
Tirian stared at him, wide-eyed. “What?”
Cers roared, “No!”
Tirian flinched and stepped back. He pulled an obsidian focus stone from the folds of his cloak and began to chant. Two guards lunged for him. He spat a command. A crackling ball of energy shot from the focus orb and enveloped the more muscular of the guards. The man fell to the ground, screaming, as flesh melted from his bones. His fellow guardsman swore and backed away.
Cers snarled, bore down on Tirian like an avalanche, and grabbed the mage by the throat. Tirian dropped his focus orb and scrabbled frantically to loosen Cers’ grip, but Cers lifted him into the air with one hand.
Tirian pried at Cers’ fingers. He tried to choke out a phrase—an order? a spell?—but could not draw enough air to speak.
It would be so easy to end him. To snap Tirian’s neck, smash open his skull, and watch his brains leak out onto the cobblestones.
But Cers did not want to kill.
He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “No.” He brought a foot down on the focus orb and crushed it to powder. Then he dropped Tirian like a pile of wet rags. Tirian collapsed on the hard-packed earth, gasping and clutching at his throat.
The guards glanced between Cers and Tirian, uncertain of who to target. “Surrender!” the captain bellowed. “Hands on the back of your head!”
Cers almost gave in out of sheer exhaustion, but he forced himself to think. Surrender might leave him bound to the will of the guards, perhaps even the will of Tirian. He wanted no part of that.
Cers ran toward the broken gates. Spears whistled through the air. Two tore into his back; a third embedded itself in his left shoulder. He pulled them out and kept running. The damage was not sufficient to slow him.
He pressed on long after the shattered gates disappeared behind the cliffs.
The pangs from his disobeyed orders softened over time. The burning light of his tattoos dimmed to a soft blue glow, then faded away.
Cers smiled. He did not know what lay on the other side of the pass, but whatever dangers he faced, he would face them of his own volition.
♦ ♦ ♦