So then, you’re the filly who left the message at the bar for me to come an’ sit after my performance, yeah? Can’t say I get many fans clamorin’ to share a drink with me these days. Hands don’t play as spry as they used to. So which o’ my songs did you take a likin’ to? None? Well, what the mists did you bother an old man for then? ‘Em stairs ain’ easy on the knees–

Brigantia’s Fool…

Where’d you hear that old name from? S’been decades since anyone’s called me that. Yeah, it’s me all right. An’ a good job findin’ me too. Put all my hard work disappearin’ to waste. I’ve heard o’ you, girl. Botherin’ all my old friends an’ kin in search o’ a story, so the lot o’ ‘em said.

Ho, after the truth are you? An’ I’m sure that a storysmith such as yourself wouldn’t profit none at all from sweepin’ way the myths an’ lies ‘round Brigantia’s adventures. That’s what I thought. Don’t be coy, girl; I prefer the truth too. Especially when that truth’s ‘bout Brigantia. So long as you don’t bother good folk ‘bout it no more, an’ you swear not to tell a soul where you found me–that I’m even alive– I’ll tell you all you need for your story. Deal? Good. Let me just light my pipe. The smell o’ it helps me remember.

It’s been over fifty years now. Not that you’d know it none from how peaceful the skylands are these days, or how no one’s been dyin’ from the air we breathe up here. Yeah, that bit’s true too. The wind currents holdin’ the mists back on Corislai were the same what killed so many back then. Our skylands’re just floatin’ up above that wicked planet; relyin’ on that gravity to hold us down, an’ on the currents to make sure we don’t get none too close. Ho? Been to the edge o’ a skyland have you? Stared down at that gray brack swirlin’ like a storm down there. You might be more fool than I, girl. But Brigantia had a soft spot for fools. Ah, but I’m gettin’ ahead o’ the story, aren’t I?

The venom mists first whispered their way up a rip in the currents just a few weeks after King Soyer had been crowned after a tragic incident killed his folks. Yeah, I say incident–wasn’t no accident, don’t care what you’ve heard contrary. The king an’ queen before him, they were the first to fall by the Miasmeister’s hands. Don’t scoff, girl. You wanted the truth, an’ I was there. I saw it. They were murdered, an’ Soyer only found out why later. You see, they had known–Oh, don’t be daft. Ev’ryone knew the prophecy, even back in those days. No, they knew where the chosen one lived. But why they ne’er told their sons, who can say. Maybe the princes weren’t old enough yet, or the king an’ queen didn’t take much stock in the prophesied doom.

Suha’s always been the largest chunk o’ skyland up over the mists o’ Corislai. An’ the castle what stands there now’s more or less the same as it was then. Ne’er had to worry ‘bout food or water on Suha. Other skyland islands weren’t so lucky then. So there’s this kinglet, just only an adult an’ the second prince, Oliver, not one yet; the Miasmeister rippin’ up the currents an’ pullin’ up those mists. It was all rumors at the start; the folks on so-an’-so skyland all gone missin’, the plants an’ animals too. Back then we didn’t know what the mists did to life, not really. Just knew they were bad news. But it was so much worse than that.

No, I’m not goin’ tell you what happens to someone mist-touched. I’ll not disrespect the dead so. You just use that storysmith imagination o’ yours to think up the most painful torture an’ death you can. The mists–they’re worse than anythin’ you’ll dream up.

But Suha wasn’t immune to the mists, an’ soon enough that Miasmeister drilled a big ditch in the current near halfway ‘round Suha. Half the kingdom was gone before the second moon was ‘round Corislai. Only thing that saved us in those early days was how slow the mist moved an’ the brave souls who took it ‘pon ‘emselves to be mists guards, warnin’ the nearest town or skyland soon as they sighted mist. Didn’t take that fool-king an’ the prince long to figure out the damned prophecy was unfoldin’, an’ ‘em without a single idea where to find the only one who could save ‘em. Only that five-century old rhyme to guide ‘em. You know it, don’t you?

When the skylands choke an’ water dries
Feed the crimson cat to find the woman wise.
Your savior is a’waitin’; a hand ‘pon her breast,
Head o’ silver, eyes o’ rime, an’ e’er blessed.

Not how it goes? It is how it bloody well goes. You think the real prophecy’d be known by ev’ryone? Don’t ask me why ev’ry damned prophecy’s got to rhyme either. I don’t know, save that the gods have shit taste in poetry. Yeah, the bit ‘bout the crimson cat an’ hand ‘pon her breast got left out; didn’t want cats gettin’ painted red or little girls gettin’ branded so their parents can claim some reward for havin’ birthed the chosen one. Messy thing prophecies are. Bring out the worst in people.

Anyways, those two boys spent the better part o’ half a year carryin’ cloudfish to feed the first crimson-bloody-cat they found. Stunk somethin’ foul. Still not forgiven the gods for that bit o’ the prophecy. Well, it happened at last. Up high in the boreal mountains on a remote little skyland called Kogin. Saw the beast soon as they anchored their airship. Just lickin’ its paws like it’d been waitin’ for ‘em to show up an’ they’d come late. That monster o’ a cat. Ne’er liked him an’ he ne’er liked me. So the two royals shimmied down that rope an’ try to cajole the cat into eatin’ those ripe cloudfish they’d caught. Bastard just turned up his nose an’ trotted off. Well, there was nothin’ to do but follow it.

The thing lead ‘em to a rickety rain farm, the sheet funnels moldy ‘round the frame an’ rusted at the spout. But at least we knew someone lived there, an’ that was hope. Cat goes an’ walks into a bluestone cottage–It was. I know how much bluestone’s worth an’ no one’d be so loony as to build a house out o’ the stuff, but there it was. Who’s tellin’t this tale? Be quiet an’ stop interruptin’. So there was an impossible bluestone house, the only place to mine ‘em from bein’ the underside o’ a skyland. Even master bluestone miners plummet time to time tryin’ to haul those rocks up. It looked impressive. Definitely a place where a chosen one might live.

We followed that cat right through the door cracked open an’ standin’ with her back to us was a gorgeous woman. Well, both idiot boys fell to their knees right there, beggin’ her aid an’ callin’ her hero o’ the skylands. Then she laughs at us. One o’ the most embarassin’ moments o’ my life, that. I can still remember the sound an’ ev’ry word.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Oh, for pity’s sake–Stand up the both of you. I’m not the one you’re looking for, but I’ll go fetch her. She’ll be glad you’ve arrived.”

The beauty climbed up those bluestone stairs an’ we heard her talkin’ to someone. Soon ‘nough we heard footsteps, slow an’ steady with a sharp clack o’ wood. We saw her in full when she’d come half down. I can still feel how the blood drained from my face an’ my hands tingled numb. Her eyes like frosted water were rheumy; her silver tresses were drained o’ color by time. She stooped ever so, bowed by age; a gentle smile spread on her weathered, wrinkled face an’ she gripped her walkin’ cane ‘til her knuckles went pale.

“Goodness me! I thought I’d have to find a way to fly to Suha before you’d find me. Another ten years and I would’ve been dead. I’m Brigantia, but you can call me Khree.”

I swear it! That’s what she said, askin’ us to call her grandmother. But it was no wonder. She was seventy-two, we found out later. Not that either o’ us believed she was the woman o’ prophecy. An’ we told her so.

“There’s no mistaking me, boys.” Even though her eyes were half-blind they twinkled fierce with life, “I’m the one you’re looking for.”

She unbuttoned the collar o’ her dowdy blouse an’ showed us her chest, much to out protestations. But there it was. Plain as day, though faded an’ wrinkled, between her saggin’ breasts an’ over her heart. The hand that marked the chosen one. Oliver slumped onto the floor. I didn’t move none. I was so sure it was some mad gran’s joke. My anger was just ‘bout to burst when she took my hand in hers, patted it an’ pulled me over to a chair. Staff supportin’ her as she hobbled to a cabinette an’ pulled down a fine crystal amphora filled with some blood-dark syrup. It oozed into a glass an’ she walked it over to me.

“Here you are, dearie,” the glass was in my hands an’ a smile on her face. “You drink a wee drop. It’ll settle your nerves an’ clear your head.”

The air was choked with cinnamon an’ cherries from that brew. But it did smell so nice. I took a generous swig an’ the next second my eyes were waterin’ an’ I was sputterin’ like a dyin’ man. Burned like acid fire all the way down my throat an’ burbled in my gut. Thought the old woman had tried to poison me. But she just laughed, tellin’ us it was her homemade cordial: good for coughs, stress, an’ sleepless nights. She plucked that glass right from my hands an’ swallowed the rest down in a single shot without so much a wince or hiccough. That was Brigantia. Still, we didn’t believe she could be the one who’d stop the Miasmeister.

“Well, this here’s Taliesin,” she nodded politely to the crimson cat that’d lead us to the house. “He brought you to the wise woman with a hand upon her breast, or do you think it’s my granddaughter? Bridget, dear, go on and show the dears your chest.”

I don’t know which o’ us blushed most from that. It was close between Bridget an’ Oliver though. I recall losin’ my temper then. In my mind there was no possibility that hag–no matter how congenial an’ grandmotherly she appeared, could possibly be the chosen one. When I turned to storm out o’ there that blasted Taliesin had put himself ‘tween me an’ the door. I moved a single inch toward him an’ his back arched an’ he spat like a grease fire poppin’. My sword was out o’ its scabbard ‘fore my next breath. It was goin’ to be me or Taliesin left standin’, an’ I sure wasn’t ‘bout to be done in by some flea ridden-squirrel catcher. That is, ‘till Brigantia wallopped me upside my skull. I was down, crouchin’ an’ cursin’ the cat an’ her. Bridget scurried over, scooped up Taliesin. The bastard started cooin’ mews at her an’ garnerin’ pity when he wasn’t the one who’d just been whacked with an old biddy’s walkin’ cane.

“You might not like it and I might not look it, but I am the one you’re looking for. I knew your parents, knew they didn’t leave you any way to find me, but I had hoped they’d at least left you some sense in that pretty head.” That was the first time the kindness went out o’ her gaze; the first time she looked like she might’ve been the one we’d been lookin’ for. “Now you leave Taliesin alone, sweet. He hates menfolk.”

We spent the day there, Oliver an’ I; listenin’ to Brigantia tell us how ev’ry ruler o’ Suha went lookin’ for her when they turned thirty. How my parents had ne’er told me where to look on account o’ me still bein’ a lad. Oh, my blood boiled whene’er she called me boy. All the while she was knittin’ an’ smilin’ just as kind as you can imagine. The black blouse buttoned over her chest, lace at her neck; even an apron tied ‘round her plump waist. Down to her very boots, buckled on over stockin’s we only just caught a glimpse o’ from under her skirts, she was the image o’ a picturesque grandmother. It was impossible.

But it was true.

“I’ve known it was me since I was twelve, dearies,” she told us as she purled faster than I could parry a sword. “I started training immediately for the day the skylands would need me, but no one can hurry time–or slow it. I trained my own girl before she’d even got knee-high; and she trained Bridget until she passed away. That’s when I realized it couldn’t be any kin of mine, it had to be me and no one else. I’m not as strong or swift as I was, but I’m wiser now. And, like it or not, I’m coming with you to protect the skylands.”

Oliver, always loyal an’ a firm believer in the gods, believed her at once. The signs were there an’ they said Brigantia was the woman in the prophecy. That was good ‘nough for him. Not for me though. Oh, I tried to reason with her. Even as infuriatingly kind as she was I couldn’t, in good conscience, take an old woman to die, chosen or no. She wouldn’t hear o’ it though.

“You’ve nothing to lose by taking along an old woman, and you’ll not be keeping me from my destiny. I’ve waited my whole life for this Miasmeister to show up, and even fifty years late I’ll be meeting the cheeky fellow.”

Even Bridget tried to talk some sense into her. Taliesin had curled up on her fat legs an’ only regarded us through an eye blue as the stone o’ the house. Brigantia smiled an’ nodded, her eyes closed behind wire glasses that perched on her nose; she was listenin’, but not a word o’ it would get to her. Oliver an’ I finally gave up. We told her if she was so eager to die then she could come with us. She thanked us; packed her yarn, needles, an’ two bottles o’ that vile cordial into a wicker basket. With that done she teetered over to a wardrobe an’ pulled out a dusty, stiff leather coat that wouldn’t button up over her body anywhere. Damn near dragged on the floor.

You had to see it to really grasp how ridiculous it looked on her. This pudgy grandma, half blind with one foot in the grave; booted up an’ a leather coat fit for an airship pilot that near swallowed her up; a creaky basket swingin’ from the crook o’ her elbow; tall cane in the other hand; an’ that crimson cat pressin’ up ‘gainst her ankles.

Gods, she was magnificent. Even if I didn’t know it yet.

In the end all five o’ us boarded the airship we’d left anchored at the edge o’ Kogin. Bridget had cried ‘bout Brigantia leavin’ to die all alone. An’ who’d make sure Brigantia drank her medicine, or take care o’ her rheumatism, or find things for her when her eyes got bad. There was no end to her wailin’ or tears. I’d figured Brigantia’d be glad to have the girl along, but she refused no matter how pitifully Bridget cried. Brigantia just petted Bridget’s pretty hair an’ tell her to stay safe at home, an’ that she’d be home soon. It was Oliver finally who found a solution. The fool kneeled down right there an’ pledged his sword an’ life to keepin’ Bridget safe from any harm. Brigantia stared at him, hard an’ long. It felt like moons before she bowed her head an’ agreed to Bridget comin’ ‘long. Oliver swore it was his valor an’ determination that won her over; I say it was how he blushed ev’ry time he looked at Bridget that made Brigantia give in.

◊ ◊ ◊

Those first few days aboard the airship were some o’ the worst days o’ my life. An’ not account o’ nothin’ Brigantia did. Mists me–she was a pleasure. Regalin’ us with stories of how she’d trained up as a tot, then when she got to be a lass, an’ when she finally married an’ had her own family, even past that–always preparin’ for the destiny she knew was comin’. ‘Til it didn’t. An’ she kept on trainin’. Had plenty o’ adventures an’ did a good plenty o’ heroic deeds in her youth too. She told us ev’rythin’. An’ I hated her for it.

Here she’d been, knowin’ ‘bout the prophecy an’ who she was the whole time Oliver an’ I’d been runnin’ ‘round near mad with fear an’ worry we’d ne’er find her. It weren’t her fault though. Not really. She was old even back at the start o’ things. Not that you could say it to her face. That stick o’ hers hurt worse than that nasty draught she made us take–for health, she said.

Anyways, we’d been flyin’ out farther an’ farther from the populated skylands day by day. Soon ‘nough we didn’t even see any folk. Just had the skyfish an’ cloud squirrels for company, an’ Bridget always feedin’ the damn pests, an’ Oliver always starin’ at her with stars in his eyes. Oh, it wouldn’t’ve taken a rock to figure out the boy was in love. An’ for the first time too, the worst kind o’ love to be in when you need to be payin’ attention to what’s ‘round you. That was how the mists snuck up on us that first time. Oliver was s’posed to be up in the squirrel’s nest, keepin’ an’ eye out. He was up there all right, but tryin’ to pen a pretty poem for the girl ‘stead o’ watchin’ for the mists.

By the time any o’ us realized it those long, toxic fumes had curled ‘round our vessel an’ already the hull was meltin’ like butter in a hot pan. Nothin’ below us but the wind shield o’ Corislai for all we knew, couldn’t see a foot in front o’ you. An’ you didn’t want to get too close to the mists either. Melted through you faster than it did the hull in the best case scenario, an’ in the worst–we’d made a promise to kill anyone who got mist-touched. That’s the only kindness you can do for ‘em then.

When Bridget’s scream cut the air first I just knew I was goin’ have to kill her–I wasn’t ‘bout to make Brigantia kill her granddaughter or Soyer, his first love. Bit ‘fore I even found her there was Oliver, throwin’ buckets o’ water–our drinkin’ water–at those tendrils comin’ her Bridget. Brigantia’d been at the quarterdeck when Oliver had dragged Bridget to the main mast, checkin’ her over for wounds an’ any signs she’d been touched. That’s when a tower o’ a wave rose up. It was a monster. The mists roiled an’ screamed as they swelled up ready to crash down on us. The wave crested an’ charged right for Bridget cocooned up in Oliver’s arms like he could keep her safe through sheer stupidity. Then Brigantia faced it; this tiny, wrinkled, plump granny squared up ‘gainst a swarm o’ mist wraiths. The wraiths tumbled over an’ ate her up. A crack like lightnin’ strikin’ your foot, louder than anythin’ I’d e’er heard before–an’ the boilin’ stew o’ wraiths bubbled up. They exploded, congealed bits o’ wraith an’ mist an’ poison shootin’ away like fireworks. Each aberration peeled off the ship, an’ those that hung on were like slugs under salt.

It was over in less than a minute. They were gone. Oh, our airship was a nasty wound flyin’ in the sky, but we’d lived. An’ down on the deck, standin’ in front o’ Oliver an’ Bridget was Brigantia–her walkin’ stick splintered the boards she’d slammed it so hard on the deck. But whate’er she’d done had worked. She’d protected us from the undefeatable.

Oliver stood an’ helped Bridget to her feet ‘fore he turned to Brigantia. ‘Thank you’ hadn’t even left his lips when she smacked him so hard he’d fallen right down ‘gain. A single slap from her’d sent him sprawlin’. Oh–think it odd, do you? Well if she hadn’t I would’ve. She cursed him for bein’ a right fool, jumpin’ in like that to save Bridget when he’d no way o’ savin’ either o’ ‘em. Tears in her eyes, her voice gone hoarse from shoutin’ at him, she hugged that idiot boy an’ squeezed him tight sayin’ she owed him her life for savin’ her kin. That’s when I decided the old woman wasn’t quite as terrible as I’d thought her. Which sadly did nothin’ to fix the taste o’ her cordial.

◊ ◊ ◊

So we’d survived our first encounter with the mists. Still no sign o’ the Miasmeister, but I was gainin’ confidence in the belief Brigantia could defeat the mists whether or not we found the bastard. But confidence is a dangerous thing.

We’d taken the airship back to a skyland with a proper port for repairs. The damage near warranted us buyin’ another vessel, but Brigantia told us the ship’d flown with us an’ fought off the mists once, an’ it’d do it ‘gain. So I paid for that blighted rotter to be fixed up at the words o’ a woman I’d hated not three days earlier. She was gainin’ somethin’ like saint status in my head. She had become that girl in the prophecy. She’d always been her, but I was finally gettin’ ‘nough sense to accept it an’ see her for who she was.

Repairs were goin’ take three weeks. I didn’t like to lose the time but Brigantia assured us all it’d be time well spent restin’–an’ preparin’. It was clear none o’ us, ‘cept her, were ready for what we’d decided to face up ‘gainst. I’d taken to followin’ Brigantia just as Oliver shadowed Bridget, but just like Bridget didn’t so much as glance at him Brigantia ne’er noticed me none either. I pestered her like a fly on a horse’s arse. Beggin’ her to teach me how she’d smacked those wraiths down or to tell me some way I could fight ‘em–an’ all the time she just smilin’ at me an’ tellin’ me this was her fight, but she was glad for the handsome company. A little spit o’ my hate came back ev’rytime she said somethin’ like that. Me, a healthy man o’ twenty-seven–not able to help an old woman forty-five years older who couldn’t even walk without a cane. An’ the way she doted on Oliver at ev’ry turn. She’d bake him sweets usin’ the kitchen at the inn we stayed at; or knit him some scarf for the journey; or tell him Bridget’s favorite flower. She wasn’t blind to what was happenin’ there, just blind to me. An’ only as much as I was to her.

That’s how things were for a while. The mists stayed still, but they were bubblin’ below us ev’ryday. All o’ us felt it. At the time I thought that was ‘nough–just feelin’ somethin’ ready to pop. It wasn’t though, not by a long shot. When the mist wraiths came the second time–none o’ us were ready. Not even Brigantia. An’ I suspect they knew that too. Only thing that saved our lives that night was Taliesin. The bastard woke us with a howl o’ fury an’ wail like a tempest. Bloody cat well woke the whole island, I reckoned. Not that bein’ awake much changed the fate o’ some folk.

Brigantia was havin’ a rough sleep–saw it soon as she hobbled out o’ her room on that cane. Her knees clickin’ an’ lockin’ with ev’ry step. Bridget was on her elbow, helpin’ her keep balance an’ beggin’ her to leave this one to us. Bridget was no fool, she knew we’d die without Brigantia. An’ Brigantia knew it too. Stubborn old woman practically ripped the hinges off the inn door when she went out to the mists. Death already choked the air. We could taste it, our tongues bathed in it, an’–like it or not–we swallowed it down.

Oliver’d already stuck himself to Bridget’s side; an’ I was with Brigantia. I was goin’ watch her this time. I’d learn how she beat the mists, an’ then I’d do it too. What a bleedin’ fool. The wraiths were thick as clouds in the sky, blotted out the moons, made ev’rythin’ darker than the night it was. We were all blinded by that pitch emptiness. I only managed to move ‘cause I kept a hand on Brigantia’s back to hold her up just as much as to find my way. An’ she moved through that inky waste like it was nothin’. Whate’er she saw–it wasn’t the same for us. But that’s how it goes with heroes chosen by the gods.

Best as I could I waded out into that deep dark an’ clotted air, keepin’ a hold on her. It was only then it finally hit me how small she really was; how frail she felt ‘neath my palm. Savior o’ the skylands was little more than a wisp compared to the gale o’ the mists. She ne’er even slowed her steps though. When she raised up her cane, that’s when they came at her, at us.

◊ ◊ ◊

“You stay there, sweet,” she murmured it back to me though I was her pet, an’ maybe that’s how she saw me. “And you lot–” her voice dropped to somethin’ low an’ dangerous, “I’ll not be letting you harm anyone else. Go back down where you belong.”

The mist wraiths dived at her an’ she swatted ‘em like they were nothin’ but flies. Each one she struck down brought a little more light back. When I could finally see what she was doin’ I tried the same with my sword. The blade did nothin’ but sizzle like fat in a pan–’til Brigantia put her free hand on my arm. I felt it then–whate’er it was she had that let her strike ‘em down, turn ‘em into paper confetti–she gave me some o’ it. My head dizzied an’ cleared. I saw the world how she saw it. Not in the way o’ dark or light, but threads o’ silver tyin’ ev’ry life to another. The mists were knotted up tangles o’ red, crimson as blood. Any threads the mists touched were cut an’ all the shine went out o’ ‘em.

“Go on,” she squeezed where she was still holdin’ onto me, “you wanted to fight with me, and I could use the help.”

I swung my blade an’ it cut a blood knot to frayed ribbons. The wraith shrieked, but I had no time to listen or cringe at its scream. I was already on the next. An’ the next. All the while I was hackin’ away Brigantia kept one hand on me an’ struck at them with her cane in the other. It didn’t take the two o’ us long to mow the wraiths down. Oliver’d kept Bridget back, away from the wraiths an’ Brigantia. We’d managed to push ‘em back again. An’ I had helped. I’d been useful to her at last. I’d ne’er been so proud an’ happy in my life.

I’d ne’er been so dumb.

No sooner had the last wraith faded to nothin’ had Brigantia fallen to her knees. They cracked loud on the ground as she hit. It was just thanks to her cane she hadn’t fallen prone. That power I’d felt–that’d been her. She’d given a part o’ herself to me. An’ just to soothe my sore ego. Soon as her hand left my arm I’d turned to catch her, but mist is fast–faster than a man could e’er be. An’ without Brigantia I couldn’t see the target. I was blind. One o’ ‘em went for her back. I swung wide, tryin’ my best to knock blade to somethin’. Distracted by the wraith as I was I didn’t notice the one, no bigger than a fist, slip past. Not ‘til Brigantia was screamin’.

Taliesin was on her ‘fore I realized what happened. All spit an’ claws, the cat was. Touchin’ her like that made his talons able to shred the wraith as easy as an old rag.  I dropped to my knees, sword went skitterin’ away, but I didn’t care. Taliesin was lickin’ away her tears an’ mewin’ with her ragged breaths when I took her face into my hands. It was like holdin’ ice–so cold it burned.

Her hand landed on top o’ mine, an’ she smiled through pain, “I’m all right, you sweet boy. I’m not dead yet so don’t you fret.”

But the mist had gone into her eyes. They stared at me, not seein’ a thing. An’ when I started shakin’–knowin’ full well she’d gone weak ‘cause she’d shared her gift with me–she stroked my hand an’ kissed my cheek.

“Now, now,” she said, soothin’ me like a babe, “a king ought not cry over something as minor as this. Stand yourself up, Soyer, and help me to my bed. I need to rest, I think.”

That was the first time she’d e’er used my name. An’ to hear her use it now o’ all times, somethin’ changed that moment. In my heart I swore I’d ne’er see her hurt again. I wasn’t goin’ let her die by breakin’ herself to pieces just so some fool kinglet could play warrior. I was goin’ to protect her. I just didn’t have a bleedin’ idea how to do it yet.

Bridget an’ Oliver were helpin’ the damaged an’ the dyin’ while I walked Brigantia back to the inn. The heap was a mess, but it still stood. I helped her lie down an’ I washed her dirty feet since she’d run out to fight without a care ‘bout herself. I even tucked the blankets tight ‘round her like my mother’d done for me as a boy. But her shiverin’–that’s what had me scared. She couldn’t stop. I brought her my blanket, Oliver’s too. Still she was icy an’ shakin’ like a leaf ‘bout to be blown away. That’s when I got in the bed with her–don’t you look at me like that. That’s how she looked at me.

“My, Soyer, are you trying to seduce an old woman?”

That’s how she said it. Just rememberin’ makes my ears go as hot as the second she said it. My throat went dry an’ my voice died. I was so afraid o’ what I might say. I just held her tight as I dared, an’ hoped I could warm her. Taliesin sat on the headboard above us an’ kept his eyes glued to me. When Brigantia finally put her head ‘gainst my chest I could’ve sworn the beast narrowed his eyes at me. His tail flicked like a man ‘bout to throw a dagger.

“Talie,” the cat’s name was a whisper on her lips, “you go and keep them safe.” Just like that the cat’s eyes shot from me to her. The sweetest chirrup came out o’ that foul monster, the likes you’d expect from a pretty kitten. Brigantia just buried her head ‘gainst me more like she was tryin’ to take all the heat I had to offer, which was fine by me. “We had a deal, Taliesin. That’s my wish. You protect them. I’ll keep my end of the bargain.”

An’ just like that the cat hopped off an’ was out the door like a shadow. By the time I’d thought to ask her what she’d meant Brigantia was already in a deep sleep. Her soft breath ticklin’ my chest an’ the heart poundin’ inside.

I told you to hold your questions. I’ll get there soon ‘nough. Ne’er rush the old when they’re rememberin’.

◊ ◊ ◊

Well, it took a good three weeks ‘fore Brigantia could manage to scuffle ‘cross the floor with her cane. I ne’er left her side durin’ that time. Oh, but she wanted me to–told me I was like a fly stickin’ to shit. I didn’t much care for the comparison as she was the shit in that scenario. But I had stopped arguin’ with her, stopped doubtin’ her, I just wanted to be there to support her an’ help her in whate’er pathetic way a fool king could. Bridget hovered there with me. ‘Tween the two o’ us Brigantia barely had a private moment to herself, save in the privy.

So I ended up spendin’ more time with Bridget than Oliver had since we’d met the two o’ ‘em. An’ with Bridget an’ me fumblin’ over Brigantia ev’ry moment I ne’er noticed the toll it was takin’ o’ my lovestruck brother. But Brigantia did. Brigantia saw ev’rythin’. She saw the way Bridget had startin’ lookin’ at me when I didn’t see a thing. When I went to pick flowers for Brigantia’s bedside table Bridget came with me. Brigantia ne’er said a thing to me ‘til long after, but I caught on well ‘nough when Bridget kissed me one afternoon. Brigantia had just gone to sleep an’ we were leavin’ her room.

“Call me when she wakes,” I said an’ turned to leave. That was when Bridget took my hand an’ held it tight. Her eyes sparklin’ an’ lookin’ at me in a way I didn’t understand. “What is it?”

She took a step closer to me, still holdin’ my hand an’ lowered her pretty lashes. I’m sure any man would’ve been smarter than me in that situation, but for all o’ the signs I honestly had no idea. No room in my fool head for anythin’ or anyone but Brigantia. So I asked her again. That’s when she lifted up on her toes an’ kissed me, just a soft brush on my lips. But it damn near knocked me back.

“Thank you, for all you’re doing. I wanted to tell you that before I told you that I–”

I didn’t let her finish the rest. I’d already spun on my heels an’ headed for my room. It was plain as day Oliver’d fallen for her, an’ I…well, I had no such feelin’ for the girl. Kind an’ pretty as she was she was Brigantia’s granddaughter to me an’ nothin’ else. Stop lookin’ at me like I was bein’ cruel. It’d have been crueler to let her say words I couldn’t return. Best she save ‘em for someone who could. Anyways, after that I let Bridget take care o’ Brigantia in the mornin’s an’ I relieved her in the eves. Neither o’ us ever mentioned it: Not the kiss or what she’d almost said or how I’d walked ‘way. Thankful for that much at least.

It was that fourth week when things changed. Brigantia’s eyes’d still not cleared, rheumy as they’d been ‘fore I knew she didn’t see anythin’ now. She was walkin’ better each day, but she had to hold on to someone. Left on her own she used that cane o’ hers sightin’ the ground for her, then hobblin’ forward with a stumble. It was clear time had caught up with her, even if the mists had had a hand in helpin’ time find her. She told us we had to get a move on an’ it didn’t seem like her sight was to be joinin’ us so we might as well leave without it. She had a way o’ makin’ the bleak into a smile, even when none o’ us could share that smile.

We boarded the airship all the same. Left on a westerly wind ‘cause Brigantia said that was the way to go. We flew for days. All the while Brigantia stayed underdeck; Oliver eased himself back to Bridget’s side; an’ Taliesin wouldn’t give me a mistdamned moment o’ quiet. Always yowlin’ an’ dancin’ ‘tween my feet. Tripped me a good dozen times. He’d jump on me as soon as I’d started fallin’ ‘sleep at night an’ be at my ear first thing in the morn, just yowlin’ ‘gain. I’d’ve strangled him if Brigantia didn’t love the mangy thing so.

It was durin’ the eighteenth day–dawn was silterin’ through the high clouds an’ bouncin’ off the mists–I’d gotten used to Taliesin wakin’ me an’ started to rouse ‘fore the siren cat began. ‘Cept that mornin’ he wasn’t there. Nowhere in my cabin. The winds’d gone quiet an’ our engines were barely steamin’. But there was a ringin’ hum in the air–an’ the taste o’ rancid death. I’d left the door ajar when I’d gone to bed. Now it was closed. An’ barred from the outside. My feet were on the cool wood an’ ‘fore I’d even thought to dress proper. Soon as I had a hand on the door I heard ‘em.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last,” that was Brigantia soundin’ kind as e’er, “you’ve kept me waiting an awful long time.”

{{I bided my time–growing stronger while you grew feeble, O’ chosen one.}}

That voice though…that voice was ice an’ murder. An’ there was no doubt as to who it belonged to. I could just see over the barrels an’ crates stacked in front o’ my door. The figure was facin’ toward my deck room, but Brigantia stood square ‘tween. Still the Miasmeister wasn’t hidden; no, the bastard was the sky. He stretched in all directions. There was no face, no eyes, no mouth, but there was energy. Terrible energy ready to snap an’ destroy whatever was fool ‘nough to be in its way.

“Feeble I may be, but I’m real. Even as master of the mists that’s all you are,” Brigantia said it almost with pity in her voice. Sometimes I wonder if she was cryin’ for the Miasmeister then. “I’ve been tasked with sending you back to the mists. I was chosen to lock you away again, back with the miasma you escaped from. And I will do it.”

{{You will try.}} A wheezin’ howl o’ wind whistled through ev’ry board o’ the airship ‘til it felt like we’d come apart plank by plank. {{But I will keep my freedom and I will spread over the skylands when I have left you a corpse, small Brigantia.}}

It was that–sayin’ her name like that what finally ripped the spell from me. I rammed my bare shoulder into the door, ‘gain an’ ‘gain ‘til splinters were buried in my skin. Brigantia ne’er flinched, ne’er even turned toward all the noise I was makin’. She knew. She always knew.

“Oh, Soyer dear, stay there. It will be over soon.”

She didn’t need to say anythin’ more than that for me to realize she meant to die fightin’. An’ not volleys o’ mist wraiths nor the blighted Miasmeister was goin’ to stop me from stoppin’ her. I didn’t even watch the fight. I couldn’t. I had to get out o’ that room if I was goin’ to anythin’ more than watch her die.

I’d worn both my shoulders to raw rags o’ flesh ‘fore I leaned ‘gainst the door. Then that gods awful meow was at my ear. Taliesin had those terrible ugly eyes focused on me. She’d asked him to protect the lot o’ us, but now there was no one to shield her. I saw her jump away from a claw made o’ mists, raked deep fissures into the deck ‘fore it was up an’ reachin’ for her ‘gain. She wasn’t goin’ to last long on her legs an’ without any sight.

“I have to help her. I have to.”

I stared hard at Taliesin, willin’ it to understand me–to do somethin’. The cat’s crimson tail flicked an’ he hopped down without another glance back at me or his mistress. I cursed the bastard loud as I could ‘fore I kicked the door. An’ just like that, the barrels an’ crates, the lock an’ the door–they all just went hurtlin’ from me. I didn’t give it a second thought. I was out the door, flyin’ to Brigantia’s side with nothin’ but my trousers an’ the sword I’d managed to kill the wraiths with ‘fore.

Just as the mist talons raked ‘cross the decks once more I was at Brigantia’s side an’ helpin’ her to her feet, narrowly avoidin’ a swipe made by a second conjured hand. The mists hissed an’ slashed at the both o’ us then. But I didn’t care. So long as I kept her safe I didn’t care. Brigantia didn’t see it my way though.

“You fool king!” She pushed herself out o’ my grip. “Taliesin! I made my wish–we had a deal!”

I’d ne’er seen her so angry, ne’er heard her shout like she meant murder. The Miasmeister rippled with laughter. It was a terrible sound: blades crashin’ ‘gainst one another an’ lightnin’ crackin’ bones while ev’ry voice that e’er was an’ e’er will be were tortured. I thought that laugh was goin’ to split my soul an’ shatter my mind. It would’ve if Brigantia hadn’t smacked me with that cane o’ hers.

“You look at me, Soyer; this is not your fight. It is mine. This is not where you die.”

Ev’rythin’ in my world became Brigantia at the moment. The mists, the Meister, the crumblin’ airship–nothin’ else mattered anymore but her. An’ for a blink I swore she saw me, saw what was in my heart, an’ she smiled. That’s when I saw lightnin’ energy buildin’ up in the maw o’ the poisoned sky. Aimed at Brigantia. It shot out like a beam from a magnifyin’ glass–hot an’ angry. An’ my body was over hers ‘fore I so much as had time to put the thoughts together. Went right through me. For a second I felt nothin’, but I smelled it–my flesh burnin’ an’ curlin’ away from the heat o’ that concentrated mist. Then the fire spilled through me. The poison o’ the miasma rippin’ through my veins. I didn’t know which was goin’ to kill me–the mist venom or the hole in my chest–but it’d be one or the other.

Brigantia rolled me off her. Tears in her eyes an’ tryin’ to see me, to see the damage. I was glad she wouldn’t be able to watch me die. I just took her hand an’ pressed my lips to her knuckles, frail an’ beautiful an’ strong. I couldn’t say anythin’, but she knew what I wanted to say. She took her hand back from me an’ brushed my hair out o’ my eyes with such grace I realized that somehow…somehow she could see.

“I told you this is not where you die. Fool.”

She was up, ‘tween me lyin’ dyin’ an’ the Miasmeister, still cacklin’ with ire an’ wicked pride. She lifted up that old cane o’ hers an’ circled it in the air ‘bove her head. Winds, gentle like spring, rolled ‘round us. The mist wraiths circlin’ the airship went out like a candle bein’ blown out–just a puff o’ sweet air left behind. The Miasmeister shrieked an’ charged at her, but she just smacked the force o’ its approach. Halted, floatin’ there in the sky, the monster billowed out like a silk shroud coverin’ a coffin. But she wasn’t havin’ it. Brigantia stepped toward the Miasmeister in steady even paces. Each one sent a shudder through the expanse o’ that creature. She lifted up her cane ‘gain. I knew soon as it hit the deck she’d win–but it ne’er came. The claws. We’d forgotten ‘bout those claws.

One swooped in from her left an’ sent her sprawlin’ while the mate grabbed her cane an’ snapped it in half like fire kindlin’. Each half dropped to the deck in front o’ her while blood dribbled from her lips an’ fell on the wooden twigs. It’d won. Brigantia’d lost. We’d all lost. The–

Is that when she fell? Mists, girl! Let a man finish his story. An’ no, that’s not when Brigantia died. Listen here–when the gods choose you to save the world they’ve got a certain responsibility to see you through. The gods hate to lose face. Remember that.

As I was sayin’–The Miasmeister set to laughin’. Worse than ‘fore. It kept on crowin’ at the sky, shatterin’ the world with that terrible laugh. Didn’t notice the woman it’s so easily squashed pick up half that broken cane an’ peel back the wood like it was nothin’. It was barely a gleam when I saw it from ‘tween her fingers. Looked like nothin’ more than a silver rod. ‘Til she pulled the thing loose o’ the sheath it’d been placed in. The cane had been nothin’ but a holster for that wand. It was barely longer than her hand, but when she pointed it at the Miasmeister the laughter silenced. Ev’rythin’ was silent. That little silver wand in her hand rippled like starlight on water. It looked frail as she did, an’ ev’ry bit as divine–a perfect reflection o’ Brigantia’s heart.

She barely pointed it at the Miasmeister when the silvery light o’ it stretched an’ circled ‘round the intangible mists. Lassoed the air together an’ started wrappin’ it in a ball, just like the balls o’ yarn I’d seen her knittin’ with on our journey. Tighter an’ tighter it wrapped the Miasmeister, an’ for all the fury in that howlin’ terror there was no sound. Brigantia tied up the voice o’ the mist too. An’ then–with a spark like a comet hittin’ the atmosphere–the Miasmeister, the ethereal strings, all the poison–it was all just gone.

Brigantia was at my side ‘fore the sky had e’en settled back to its usual color. Her tears fallin’ on me an’ her just tellin’ me over an’ over what a fool I was. An’ me, lyin’ there dyin’, just agreein’ with ev’ry word she said. It didn’t matter to me no more. Brigantia was alive an’ whate’er she’d done to the Miasmeister I knew the skylands were safe. That was ‘nough for me. ‘Til Oliver an’ Bridget came boltin’ up the stairwell an’ onto deck. Taliesin boundin’ ahead o’ ‘em. Soon as he was in arm’s reach Brigantia grabbed the cat by the scruff of his collar an’ stared him in the eyes, tears streamin’ down her face.

“Our deal, Taliesin,” she sounded thrice as deadly as she had fightin’ the Miasmeister, “I kept my end of our arrangement–now you keep yours.”

You e’er seen a cat groan, mumble, an’ let out a sigh like it’s exasperated just by bein’? No. Well, that’s what Taliesin did. Then he twisted out o’ Brigantia’s hold an’ jumped down, right where I’d been shot through just like he’d been doin’ each mornin’ to wake me up. E’en savin’ my life the bastard was ne’er delicate. But soon as he’d hopped off me I could breathe ‘gain. An’ nothin’ to show for that hole in me ‘cept the imprint o’ a cat’s foot on my bare chest. So that’s it. That’s ev’rythin’ ‘bout Brigantia an’ how she saved our skylands.

All right–yes, I loved her. Still do. Doesn’t matter to me she’s been gone thirty years. She’s the only woman I’ve e’er loved, an’ the only one I e’er will. I asked her to marry me countless times after we’d both recovered from the battle. An’ ev’ry time she told me to go back to my castle an’ be a good king ‘cause she didn’t need some fool caretaker, no matter how easy on the eyes. After a few years o’ that I just up an’ abdicated the throne–Oliver’s been a better king than I e’er could’ve been. An’ with Bridget at his side we had the perfect story to tell ev’ryone; how his pretty bride was the chosen one an’ how she’d defeated the mists to save the world. It was Brigantia’s idea. She wanted to live out the rest o’ her days in quiet an’ she didn’t want no hero’s parade or thanks. So I stayed with her in that little bluestone house an’ played the harp for her pleasure an’ sang when she asked. She always said she loved my singin’ an’ harpin’. An’ I kept on, ev’ryday.

Right up ‘til the gods finally took their chosen one back. They came for her in her sleep; I know they’d ne’er have gotten her when she was ‘wake. An’ Taliesin disappeared the same day she died. That cat–I know well ‘nough now to know who he was. An’ I know he gave her more time than he should’ve. I just hope she was happy, there with me. I was. It was the happiest I’d e’er been, her callin’ me her fool ev’ryday.

What if the Miasmeister returns? Mists me, I half-wish they would if it meant I could see her for just a minute ‘gain. To hear her call me her fool. I’ll always be her fool.

Hoh? Not goin’ to publish the adventures o’ Brigantia after all? Well I’m much obliged, Storysmith; an’ I wager Brigantia would be too. She was just a woman, a brilliant woman, but e’en now I know she’d want to rest in peace an’ hope all o’ us here were lovin’ life. Now if you’ll excuse me my next set’ll start in another five minutes an’ I need a drink o’ cordial ‘fore I sing ‘gain. Stay an’ listen if you like, or not. Don’t you pay any mind to that cat, he just likes to hear the story still.

The cordial? ‘Course it’s her recipe. She taught me how to make it.

That’s how I know she loved me too.

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