Before long the air is full of dust, and not a hand there that is clean. Sweat sticks, hearts hammer, and the sun beats down, heavy and uncaring.
It is Bants who strikes the hard white, pulling back at once like he has been bitten, and giving a cry like a babe. Commander Cross comes a-running, pushing forward while those around draw back.
He reaches down and heaves up the find in one weather-beaten paw...
"Here we have it, lads," says he, waving the thing aloft. "We've found him!"
He turns and starts scraping in the dirt with his own two hands, which is just as well because no one else would go near, for gold or a clean death.
Commander Cross piles them high, one bone on the next, and soon the sorry fellow is out of the earth, skull and scapula, wrist and ankle, a rain of little finger bones, all gnawed white and shining. Not a scrap of flesh is to be seen.
Only when all is found does Commander Cross stop. The air is very still, and the men make not a sound. They are standing there, hands on shovels, tense and full of fear.
"Time for the music," Cross tells them.
The Commander looks around, and not a man of them will meet his eye. Jennings is the first. Slowly, reluctantly, he steps forward and reaches into a deep pocket. He pulls out the bells and starts them to sing.
"That's the way," says the Commander, and all there follow, until the air is full of tinkle and ring, and all the little bells sing their song. It is a music of far away, a music from across the ocean on the other side of the world.
The bones remember the music, as the Commander knew they would. They were bound to those bells under different stars, and the old magic is strong in them. First a shift, then a scrape; the bones twitch and wriggle, moving one to the next, lining up and kissing close.
Commander Cross smiles. He whips his hands about, and the men know what he wants. They ring the bells harder. The music swells in the air, and the sun seems to dim.
Commander Cross watches the bones rise, and remembers the day he was robbed.
* * *
She is long and limber, hair cut short and dark eyes that smile from out her liar's face. Old Tom is a fool, and the woman, she takes him for one.
Cross knows her name, but never will he call her by it, oh not again, oh never again. Once burnt, he thinks to himself, once burnt will not near the fire so eager.
And yet, Cross has what the woman wants; if she can't get it herself, well, maybe Old Tom will do. She speaks soft words in his ears, her breath is warm and her body is warm and her eyes they dance so merry. Old Tom is enchanted and overcome.
He feels young again, a false and rotten flush of youth, six score years departed. The blood is thick in him, the woman has whipped it up. It is Tom who creeps into his Commander's bedroom, who slips a hand beneath that old coat and plucks away the box. And why didn't Cross awake? For the life of him, he couldn't say. No doubt the woman is behind that, too. When he finally shakes the slumber off, Old Tom is gone, and so is the woman. A foul wind blows the wrong way into port, and there is no hope of giving chase that day.
Pursuit, then, was a long, slow, cold thing. Over water countless fathoms deep, through dark days and dry days and days beneath this strange, hot sun, Cross and his men came after. And all the while, the bells sang them the way, as surely as they called to Old Tom now.
* * *
The bones form up, unquiet and sorrowful. The men know well that have a clean death, Old Tom did not. There is no gold here, either, though that is not what the Commander wants. No, what Cross wants is a parley. He waves a hand to all the men, dampening, and they hush their bells. Now Cross pulls out his own bell, a tidy pretty thing all of silver wrought, and with a high, clear sound to it that each man feels cut right to the heart of him.
Old Tom moans, a whisper of dry dust twisting off the ground and out through alabaster jaws, and the men they all step back.
"Hear me now, Old Tom," says Cross, and his words are poisonous sweet. "Your death wasn't clean and your bones are gnawed, and I call you now with my bell."
Dust shimmers in the sun. The eyes of the hollow skull show blue sparks in black shadows.
"Oh, stop the ringing!" pleads the thing that was Tom. "My bones itch and burn with the song. Oh please, oh please!"
"Itch and burn they surely do," says Cross. "What less for a traitor? What less for a thief?"
The skeleton extends a hand, pleading.
"She took it," says Tom. "She took it, and oh, a knife for me! Nothing but a knife for poor Tom."
"Where?" says Cross.
The jawbone sighs, and more dust spills out.
There is only silence.
"Tell!" Cross shouts, holding up his silver bell.
"Not so far," croaks the skull at last. "Oh, but won't you give me peace? Won't you promise Old Tom that?"
Cross shows his teeth, but the smile he gives is cold.
"Once I have the woman, and once I have my box, then we can talk of peace," Cross tells the bones. "Now, where?"
The thing that was Old Tom is silent; but one skeletal arm reaches out, a finger pointing, up into the hills.
"Good," says Cross, and lets down his bell. The bones tumble to the ground, the strings cut, silent and still.
"Into the chest and away!" Commander Cross tells the men, and the men jump to. By the time the sun is red and sinking, they are looking smart, marching up towards the hills. Cross leads them, his eyes flashing, his mind weighing heavy on what was stolen.
* * *
The box itself is very fine, varnished wood and pretty brass hinges, a padded space of soft velvet inside. But it is just a box, bartered from some sailor or taken from a corpse, Cross himself cannot remember. But, oh, what is in the box...
Small white crystals, a rare stash of them. And with just one of those crystals, a man whose will is strong can see and do a great many things. A man...or a woman, of course.
It was how Cross made the magic in the bells, how he bound his men to him, one dark night beneath a fire heaped up high. Just one of the precious crystals, some spilled blood and all the right words. The sound of bells, and a sharp knife that cut each man to the bone. Cross can still taste it whenever the bells sound, exotic and awful, like lightning. It sticks to his tongue and floods his mouth.
Why did he ever let the woman see it? She talked to him, all slick words and soft beguiling. She is someone in whom the old music rings true, and his bells will never work on her. She knew the value of what Cross carried. She knew it, and she wanted it from the first.
She has taken it, but soon it will be his again.
* * *
First they climb the hills, then they reach the trees beyond as dusk is gathering. Some of the men are for staying outside the forest until morning, but Cross will have none of that.
"Are you a-feared, boys?" he taunts them. "After all these leagues, all these days and months, you would sit and shiver here?"
The men grumble, but not one will stand against Cross. Hard words are one thing, and the bells are another; but Commander Cross is the devil himself when roused, and he carries two wicked knives at his belt, always thirsty.
They pass beneath the eaves, and the forest swallows them up. It is dark and damp inside. The air is heavy with rot and musk and the weight of green things, growing silently. They follow a path, Cross leading the way, and soon it is so dark that each man must keep a hand on the shoulder of the one in front. There are noises in the darkness, snuffling and sighing, and bright eyes peering out at them.
Hours pass, and at last the men are so tired they are stumbling. Cross is loth to stop, but the men plead and beg, and at last he relents.
"Eat your meat and rest your legs," he tells them. "But not for long. And no fire!"
The men throw themselves down, grateful and ravenous. They eat meat and drink sour wine. Cross sits by himself, and eats nothing, and broods.
* * *
Cross is remembering the day the crystals came to him. It was many moons gone by, in a far corner of the world, when Cross was a much younger man. When he closes his eyes, he can see his own face as it used to be, fresh and hungry, with no lines of age nor scars of woe. It was a jail where he found the broken man, a cell delved deep in the earth, in an old city whose name he never knew. He had just been Cross then, no commander of men, and no man cared if he told them to jump, or if he rang a bell, or if he lived or died. He had dreams, though. He had plans.
Songs and old stories pointed him the way. No one else believed; but Cross, he had a hunger. He had to believe. He had tracked the broken man across the maps and out of their margins, following the rumours until he found this place, the ruins of an old manse. Cross had bribed the jailers to let him in, even though their master forbade visitors. Their master wanted only to be left to rot in his cell, deep down under the earth, for it was his prison and he paid the jailers. He wanted only to be left alone, and keep the whole wide world beyond his bars.
"Are you him, my dear?" Cross had asked the broken man, though he had known he had found the old general, knew it beyond a doubt. The man drooled through broken teeth and had eyes all of white. The crystals had given him glory, then taken their toll, burnt him out, burnt away the heart of him. His will had been measured, and he had been found wanting.
In the end, taking the crystals from the broken man had not been hard. He had screamed and raved, and fought with tooth and nail. But Cross had been young and strong; he would have what he wanted. When Cross finally took the little bag of crystals for his own, the man had shrieked and fallen to the floor. Those screams had followed Cross up the twisting stair and away into the night. Much later, Cross would wonder, though. It might have been screams. Maybe it was laughter.
* * *
A redness flickers, and Cross surfaces. He swims up from the depths of memory, and realises what is happening. It is too late to stop them, too late to undo their folly.
The men did not listen. They have built a fire, not high, but ravishingly beautiful in the deep darkness. Cross cannot see the eyes beyond the path any more, but he can feel them. There are bodies out there, vast bodies moving beneath the trees, claws creeping, great muscles coiling, sharp teeth and hungry gullets all a-churn.
The men have doomed themselves, and they don't even know it. But not Cross, oh no, the Commander will not be caught so
* * *
Cross rises on his haunches, tense and ready. Next to him, Bants is laid flat, sleeping and oblivious. Cross can't save them all, but a friend would be useful indeed. He reaches out and shakes Bants. When he stirs, Cross claps a hand to his mouth, and pulls them both to their feet. Bants' eyes are wide and full of fear.
Cross waits. And he waits. And he waits...
The things from the woods fall out of the darkness. They are silent and deadly, and the men have no time even to scream. At the first stir of air, Cross is away. Bants is left to come after, and come he does, scrambling and desperate, for he has caught a glimpse as the creatures closed. He would not see that again, not for gold, not for a clean death, which he certainly will not get if he tarries. Behind them, the crunch of bones, and slavering, and chewing; before them, the silent darkness of the ancient trees.
Cross keeps to the path. He runs and runs. At last, morning overtakes them.
* * *
The trees have thinned. Sunlight shimmers down through the leaves and dapples the path.
"What of the others?" Bants wants to know. "What of the bones of Old Tom?"
"Old Tom has other bones to keep him company," Cross tells him. "Worry about your own bones."
On they travel, walking now. They are getting close. Cross can feel the woman. He can feel the crystals. They sing to him. He thinks of that first night, many moons ago, the night they spent together. He thinks of her face.
She was more than pretty, of course. She was beautiful, with her short hair and long legs, eyes that swam with darkness and secrets. She was merry and fey; Cross had to have her. But he had been deceived. He had thought he was the one doing the chasing. He had been wrong. He had shown her his treasure, shown her the wonderful crystals, and he thought he was wooing her, trying to impress. And then he had made the mistake of letting her take a crystal and put it in her own mouth. He thought of the way she had fought him, will against will beneath a sky that crackled with strange energies, and the lines she had gouged deep in his mind moan at the memory...
"What's that?" says Bants, pointing a hand. Cross looks ahead, and sees very well. It is a shack, a wooden house built all aslant and tumble. Smoke rises from a chimney, thick and dark.
"We've found her," says Cross.
On he walks, neither hurrying nor halting, right up to the door. He raises his hand, and knocks.
All around, there is deep silence. The birds have stopped their singing, the crickets in the grass are still. Of a sudden, Cross wonders if he has not made a mistake. After all, the advantage is hers: it is her house, and she has all the crystals. He barely hurled her away before, and that had taken more than a few of the precious things. His mouth had felt full of lightning for a month.
"Maybe she is not to be found," suggests the coward Bants, and Cross spits and makes up his mind.
"We should turn back," presses Bants. "There's no clean death to be found behind that door."
"I'm taking back what she stole," Cross tells Bants flatly.
The door is not locked. It creaks open, and Cross peers inside. There is darkness here, so thick it is like the flesh of a living thing. But Cross is no coward, oh no. He bears his teeth and pushes forward, parting the inky blackness before him.
He has stepped only a little way, when the door behind him slams shut. Cross can feel his heart hammering, but he forces a smile.
"Show yourself, my thieving lady," he says, voice low and fingers on his knives. "Or are you a-feared?"
Only silence greets him, a great weight of it in the utter dark.
"We should go," says Bants.
"Go, then," says Cross, scorning. "I do not need you."
Bants turns to scramble away, but Cross is very fast. The darkness here is so raw that not a glint or glimmer betrays the blade as Cross dances round and plunges it into Bants' neck.
Bants howls and crumples to the floor. Cross takes the measure, and ends the screaming with his second knife. He doesn't need Bants, that is true. What he needs is blood. What he needs is a death.
Taking out his silver bell - the selfsame bell he bound long ago with the crystals - Cross rings it and says the right words and licks the blood from his blades.
"You should have come quicker," says Cross, and his voice is deeper, darker, filled with the strange echoes that Bants' death has bought. "Might have been you had a chance; now there is none."
For a moment, silence. Then a note sounds; and with the note, the darkness is diminished, pulled back, folded on itself, tucked away in the corners of the room.
Light shimmers, Cross blinks, and then//
//she has come. The woman is there, short hair and her eyes are dreadful fell. And round her neck, she wears a jewel made of crystals Cross knows well. He grins.
"I've come for what is mine," he tells the woman. "Give it, now, for I am tired of games."
The woman looks amused, though in the deepness of her eyes there is something hard.
"And if I don't?" she asks. "Is it death for me?"
Cross gives a short laugh. His eyes flash.
"Death for you comes either way," he says. "If you want it clean, though, best return what you stole."
The woman moves closer.
"I have nothing of yours, as I've told you a thousand times." She comes close, and Cross can feel the heat of her, can taste the strange scent of her on his tongue. The crystals are very close now, glinting round her neck. He could just reach out a hand and...
But he cannot move. Every muscle in him feels as if it is melting. Pain is screaming through his body. Cross opens his mouth, but no sound will come.
"Will I get tired of this?" the woman says, as if talking to herself. "Perhaps. Perhaps when the world has changed again, and I wish for a different dream, for a different Telling. For now though, I find this fitting. What better punishment for one who dared to steal magic from one who was old when this world was young?"
"What...what are you?" Cross tries to say, but the words shuffle out of his mouth like broken soldiers, twisted and ugly.
The woman seems to hear him anyway, and it is then that Cross remembers the dreadful trick of understanding she always has.
She always hears his words, said or otherwise. Always. And he only remembers it now, here at the end which is also the beginning.
"You could never understand what I am," the woman tells him. Her voice is flat. "Nor what I was. What I turned my back on. No, a Sheriff's life was not for me. Power that was also a cage, folded back on itself."
"The crystals...my crystals..." Cross hisses the words. His desire is so close. So far out of reach.
"Not yours," she says, and now she just sounds bored. "A parting gift, they were. They might cast me out, but I would not leave the Academy empty-handed, would I? Not after so many lost years...so many lost cycles..."
Cross wants to know more, he wants to understand. But already she is walking away.
The walls of the cottage begin to fade, replaced by an endless expanse of dust; and in the dust, falling, mote-small and filled with horror, Cross remembers all. He remembers the night she took the crystals from him, he remembers the way they fought, mind on mind, will on will...and he remembers that he lost. He never left that room. He is there still, has been there ever since, trapped inside his broken mind.
For one terrible moment, the expanse of his misery is stark before him, and Cross screams for the woman to kill him, to give him a clean death. But she just laughs and looks at him with those merry eyes a-dancing.
Then Cross falls through the navel of the world, through darkness that lasts for a thousand years and then//
//it is gone. His mind reels, steadies, patches holes around something fearful, something he half-remembers. He clutches for it, but it is gone.
He sighs. What is he doing? He feels the heat of the sun beating down, looks at the faces staring back at him, waiting for his command.
Yes, thinks Cross. Soon, I will have her. Soon, she will be mine.
"Dig for the bones!" shouts Commander Cross, and the men do as they are bid.