The Valley of Axes was the decrescendo before foothills built up into a spine of mountains that blocked the Eastern sun on a good day. As Eve walked alone, she scratched her head and stumbled.
“Axes… axes… Axzzz…” a cry. “Braximus, Sylvestre, Jarshaun, Axz, and now Cymen. Oh… Oh, Cymen. But you told me to. You told me to live.”
She leaned on a tree in her filched nearly-dry clothesline dress and cried.
What was on the other side of the mountains that made the wind blow always? The Valley was wide, hollow, desolate. Eve felt this in her soul as the chill snatched her tears away. But in the other direction, far behind her and to the West, the range of mountains at the other edge of the world were dark and dung-colored. It smelled close and the people huddled together in the mines. Sweating, working, their lives stifled and as sickly as their bodies. Here was air and vastness, and back in the Forest, or at Sea… that between was vague. And the point of it all?
A woman with a chicken under her arm came up and grabbed Eve. “Are you crazy, being out here like this when there’s a curfew! I came out for a drink, but I’m bad off; what’s your excuse? Child, what can you be thinking? Where is your home?”
Eve pointed West. “I was thinking that life lacked color, and why would it? If it’s on purpose, then how cruel of the Divine to make it so. But if it’s on accident… how much worse. And how cruel of us to be forced to live on in bleakness for no reason at all—”
“Are you loony? Come on!”
As she was grabbed and hurried, bowed, beneath whipping boughs, “My home is a shack in the collapsed ink-thick of the West mountains… poor father Lunden, and blackest heart.”
The two women tramped over stripes of odd ash-scarred grass, then ran and scraped themselves against rattling slat walls of wood houses. Her guide was good, she raised a scraggly veil to cut the bursts of wind between buildings, and then had them run back-side of houses to keep from being swept away. And then suddenly, Eve’s hand was grabbed and into a rabbithole they went. Brown bunnies lifted their heads all around, sniffed, then went back to nursing aromatic scraps.
“What do you drink, girl? Harbringer’s Folly’s got near anything.”
Eve narrowed her eyes as light adjusted. Men and women all as round and fur-covered as rodents, but not exactly. Just cold people. “Oh, anything, if it’s free. If not, then I’m too depressed to drink. Where are we exactly, in the Valley proper, or past Axz?”
People mumbled greetings at the stranger, and Eve gathered her skirts at a warm bench near the fireplace. Her mother-hen came back, but the chicken was gone.
“Well, my old feather-duster paid for it, so that’s alright. Why do you say ‘axes’ like that?”
“Well, because I am not talking about the chopping thing.” Eve rubbed her eye. “Axz is a dragon. Are we past his domain?”
The woman almost didn’t give Eve her mead. “He’s all around us, how can a person not know that? It’s what curfew is for. No wonder you were about, you’re not from here, Miss…”
Eve got shifty-eyed, and drank instead. “If you please, I recently lost a friend. A great deal of friends. They saved my life and I can’t think about my past or any time when I was without them.”
“Oh, it’s alright. The big one, Captain Cymen Ruecross… he was handsome, but he wasn’t going to sleep with me.” For some reason this made Eve cry again more than anything else.
“Oh, horrible man! Death’s everywhere and inevitable, but sex is a fun time at least. And if it’s a break, that makes people think their hearts and souls are a-flying, then it’s like heaven!” She giggled in that mindless way that many people had got up to with so much little hope for anything better. “Well, perhaps he was a gentleman and had the clap? Or, a man lover?”
Silence. Then, the whole place erupted in laughter.
Eve snorted laughter, but then lay her head down and gave away to sobbing. “Oh, but it’s all true. And he told me to save myself… ‘Eve, live at all costs!’ Why yes, Cymen I think I shall, because you are so perfectly handsome, and I am mesmerized. I shall listen to you, yes, and set it all on fire, surely, and then you will teach me more about not-burning-damsels, good fire, how to be a real virgin…”
It was an accusation.
Eve dragged her bottom lip against the soiled dress sleeve as she faced her patron. “No. Not if we’re in the Valley of Axes?”
“It’s you! You danced at my cousin’s wedding two springs ago, and she’s not had a single son, or a daughter neither, nor even a litter of piglets to the sow. You call that a fertility dance, we paid you for?!”
“Eve, did you say? Eve the Soothsayer, the tea-reader, the shoe-souper, the Dragonslayer, that Eve?! Are you the very one!”
“Dammit, aren’t there any other people anywhere, who are also named Eve?!”
“Witch! Burn her! Thief!”
Axz the Dragon awoke every spring, as usual, and he burned not their town, as requested of Eve the Witch. But then he flew round and round, burning all the other towns, eating everything that wasn’t a person… All in the Valley hated this village Ever since she spoke with him, what did she do to that dragon? They accused.
In the throes of them shoving her, “Oh, he kept his promise not to eat my customers! Don’t you think it’s at least romantic?”
The people in the Valley of Axes lived in constant—scheduled—but constant terror because of Eve the Witch. And all their neighbors hated them because of it. They insisted, burn, burn, burn.
Now the sound of heavy metal, a blast of fresh air, the huddled humbled people shivered and hopped away from the witch-spectacle.
“Will this cover the amount of damage she’s undoubtedly done?” The stranger wore gold, and threw gold at Eve’s feet. Her yellow irises expanded, her chest swelled with it beneath the bodice.
Well, he was burned, but it was still him. Eve screamed for joy, he left without touching her, and she followed, tugging at his shorn cape, desperate for him to turn around in the wind and embrace her. Wind at last made him gentlemanly, and he gave her an arm to latch onto to prevent from being carried away.
“Is it really you? I can’t see your face for the light—or, are you become an angel and illuminated now?” she yelled into the wind, and by the looks of Cymen, against his ear too.
“Lady Eve, I don’t know what makes me angrier, that you set seven immortal men on fire, or that you wandered off afterwards. Skun, Arth, I’ve got her!”
On the brink of the village, six horses gathered. Eve cheered when she saw all the men unharmed, hopped up and blew them kisses.
“Cymen, come on now, I thought you all were dead?” she danced a circle, then reached arms up around his neck. “Aren’t you the slightest bit happy to see me again?”
He took off his helmet. “If you kiss me, as I think you are going to, then I warn you Lady Eve, I don’t know what I shall do next, I am that angry—”
She turned his cheek instead, licked with the flat of her warm tongue from jaw to temple. Cymen looked up at his men who, at last, began to smile.
“Captain, there is one benefit in this. With the Lady found, we can finally settle someplace decent and rest before the journey home.”
Cymen could not find his coin purse and then covered his eyes. “…unless your Captain bought the very lady’s freedom with the entire company’s store of gold.”
The sort of expectant glares and restrained fury that only Knights of the Harmonic Gold Order could manage.
“Gold? I know someone around here who’s got lots of money. He orders the people’s lives, they say, through curfew, and he has a whole stash full of gold, like a king. I’ve been to his cave before…”
Cymen was asking who when Eve started racing across a singed cowfield, waving her arms. “Axz!”
The bird, which was now clearly not one, turned in the sky high above and stretched its wings wide. Soaring lower… then breathed a stream of fire, at fleeing cattle, the way a man could spit water to pass a lazy summer day.
“Eve!” all the King Over King’s men at once. Cymen was desperate and the loudest. “No! NO more of your old beaus, for the love of God!”
Routing Robin’s men was nothing a fortnight past, and so snatching up a madwoman insistent on eliciting, what she called ‘help’ from a dragon was not hard for Cymen and the others to do now.
“You are really going to do this, aren’t you, Cymen? Kidnap me far and away to the East, in order to save my soul. And all I thought was that you wanted to get me down from the stake-and-pyre, mate and move on.”
“As I said, there is a greater good you must witness. And I am not kidnapping you—in fact, we are on a journey together. When did you begin to twist my words, or that of my men, or our intentions? I daresay the precise moment must have been when I would not sleep with you, or any of mine for that matter, even after returning from the dead.”
“I’ve only got so much of my life left, Cymen Ruecross! Do you think a woman likes having her time wasted—”
“And what would you be doing otherwise?” to her confused hesitation, “Be at peace, sister. I will show you that there is much more to live for, than the things that only distract us from the harsh reality of the current day.”
A dragon-swept sky meant that shelter would be necessary for the group. A lone tent, Eve insisted, was not protection in such wide-open tree-less land, but tempting to a bored, fire-breather. And they’d passed through the lands Axz promised to her, so it would be prudent to do as did the locals and remain indoors.
The land went from green to blue, as they searched for an inn or some place at all that would take well-off travelers who, for some reason, had no money, and refused to part with any of their golden weapons or sanctified regalia. And then she, Even, went and made bad to worse, each matron or tavernkeep there looked wild Eve over, Cymen constantly swatting her eager hands down from touching or sipping this or that. A good, panicked nod, a laughing, hasty shake of their heads at that woman’s weird, yellow irises and each told them, “No room at the inn.”
“But this isn’t even an inn… how did you know we wanted to stay overnight? Maybe we just want to eat and drink for a while?” Cymen told one place—he’d begun to really hear himself by then, almost begging.
But? But? But! No, they meant it in that way, quoting Scripture. One of his men, Clay, complained they were going to have to lay down in a manger for the night. Cymen swore, almost spit on them all in struggling vicious retort. It went from wide, wise, sharp and elegant regarding self-discipline, to a degenerated ‘just shut the hell up.’
Dusk in the Valley was like burnt powder on a Queen’s palette at Easter-tide Cymen asked Eve how she knew what Easter-tide was.
“Can you read?”
“Not really,” said Eve.
“Well then, did the Chapel where you’re from celebrate it? Because I haven’t had a cross-bun or a rose-dyed egg in about a hundred years…”
The other soldiers did not flinch the way Eve did. “You’re cursed, all of you! I knew it. It’s not just that you can’t die, you’ve already been living forever, haven’t you? At the edge of the world, there is some foul ceremony waiting for a sacrifice, isn’t there, and I’m it. I’m the key! And, Cymen, shame on you. You tried to lie earlier, and say we were the same age. No mortal man could ever have such lofty—”
Cymen held her fast though she struggled, and lucky that he was armor-covered, because Eve took her teeth to his arm. “You call a memory for the pristine days cursed? Then, the Chapels were respected not feared, and bread-Sundays made a man’s belly full and warm until sunset if he believed, or when the land was ruled by good kings and not… what did you share with me? Barons, and Commodores, or plagued by Dragons. We seven are all blessed by the King over Kings, and it’s useful considering the work we do, to remain strong and passionate about the right kinds of things, don’t you think so? And I never lied to you. We are about the same season, Eve… I came of age, seeing gold knights everywhere, and here you are being rescued by them. So then, we are contemporaries at heart.”
Eve was red-faced and took a while to calm down. “If you’re going to be fussy, then let’s be clear, Cymen. I do so have good taste. Axz is probably just as much a king as the others were. The Baron of the mountains, my Commodore, the Prince-Thief of the forest… People here fear that dragon, but one day, if your history holds like with my other lovers—people will learn to like him, worship him, even, for not killing them.”
“Who, again? What about axes…?”
Eve put fists on her hips, pursed her lips and raised eyebrows.
The men went, “Axz the dragon!”
Food, fire, and water can make a man go weary, when the search for such things seems endless. And, similarly, it seemed that vows could be a burden as well. The eight people came across an old farmhouse with the curtains drawn. Cymen pointed at the barn, with his sword, and they all dragged themselves in, stealing hay to make beds, and relaxing without the host’s permission.
“Oh, now we’re really sinning aren’t we?”
“Shh! Eve… I don’t want to have to threaten them in exchange for a little compassion.” A grunt, “Never did like the Western Kingdoms, even less now.”
Eve leaned on a cow that was up eating hay at this hour. Curiously, the animal didn’t stir, so Eve petted it. She asked the cow its name, and then gave it a name. Next she went around the barn and tried on each of the men’s names, one with passion, another with guile, a third with a swoon, a fourth with finesse and the fifth, exasperated. The last, Skun, was a plea for mercy, and he sort of liked that.
She continued with her strange way of making peace. “All so handsome, and available?”
Each man indicated that he was, in various stages of lounging and covering their faces with an arm. Cymen glared at Eve in the fading evening light, and pulled a piece of wood from his bag, started to whittle.
“…But also not! Chaste as bleached sheets during Lint. Ha!”
“Yet another holiday that’s not been celebrated for five generations. Eve, you never did tell me how you knew about Eventide.”
She shrugged and chewed on a bit of something Arth sneaked her when she wandered over. “It’s my birthday, Father said so every year. And for all of Lint he made me fast while he prayed and went to Chapel, but all I could think of was the cake at the end! And then I couldn’t even say that, because Lint was just for us, Father used to say. Funny, these almonds are a lot like the sort I used to eat while Father wasn’t looking during Lint. Poor him, I never did get ‘saved’. I hope it wasn’t because of the almonds… no, that would make the Almighty very incredibly picky.”
“Don’t speak of the Father thus.” Cymen cut off a large chunk of bark, it went flying a bit, catching Roland nearly in the face. He pressed a finger to his cheek and showed them all that it’d drawn blood. Cymen and the rest were reverently quiet after that.
Sleep came, but Eve, was it seemed, interminably restless in all her states of being. Cymen turned over on the hay and it made a crackling noise all along the woman whom he had not remembered laying down so close to him.
“Eve… your lack of compassion for the human condition—or, rather, incapacity to achieve true feeling for the plight of humanity, the disregard for yourself and the misfortune you bring to others with your carelessness, it’s insufferable!”
“I just don’t sleep very well. And now you’re accusing me of being some kind of hell-bent monster. Unless, you like that sort of thing. Tell me, do you believe in it so desperately because you like the idea of being seduced, possessed… obsessed with a feral hellion!”
“No—” until Eve licked her warm tongue along the side of his face, again. Cymen lay very still, containing rage, or passion, Eve teased him over which. “Will you stop licking me? You, Eve, are not a person. That is the conclusion I have come to. That is how I intend to continue this journey, and bolster my men. But nevermind that, we will heal you, or exorcise you, whichever is deemed best. King Micco will confirm it for all of us, I’m sure, so forgive me if it sounds like an accusation, but you are not a normal mortal human person. So, from now on, if you will contain your urges as much as possible, I think we can regain the ground we lost in the Forest, and also fleeing from your other toothy beau, and still make it to GAFE without much more difficulty.”
“I am offended.” Now crinkling on Eve’s side. Someone in the next stall shushed them. So next she whispered, “Nor am I a witch or anything like that. I thought you understood. Isn’t that what you said, about bringing me along? That we would be friends, and I happen to know that true friends are equals. Just because I am carefree—”
“No, it’s more like you’re free of… Well, either way, we’re going to baptize you, at least, once we arrive. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Baptize—I am already baptized! Did you not listen to a thing I said about my father, and Eventide, and fasting, or rather, gorging on almonds? Of course, I’ve been baptized.”
Cymen sat up suddenly and obscured moonlight. Something crashed just near him. “Did you just throw something at me?”
“It was a shoe!” Skun yelled, and then the other one.
“Why throw old muddy farm-boots when dung is better, and there’s got to be more of it—”
Cymen raged, and grabbed for the wild woman. He had a time of finding her wrists, or shoulders, something. He just grunted and hugged her tight against him, when he found her in the hay, restraining both slender arms.
“Stop incensing them. Do you know that, we’ve been doing this for about a hundred years, many generations, and never once has the Order broken its harmony? My men are at their limit, and I assure you that cohesion of the last knights is far more important than any woman. Thus is my advice. Do not test me further, woman.”
“This is not my fault, and we’d have no trouble at all if you’d stop insisting that it was, and so kept on and on, testing me! Do you think I like being called unholy, or looked at like a divine project of salvation? I am your friend,” her voice broke, “isn’t that what you promised me?”
“Eve, I didn’t mean to—”
She wrestled out of his grasp, “Had it never occurred to you, Cymen Ruecross, that men had changed since you were last in the world? A hundred years, you said it was, since you last truly kissed a woman, or really broke wind, and you think I’m the one gone crazy? No, it couldn’t possibly be you, who serves this King over Kings that no one else has ever heard of, walks the earth sexless and deathless, and hunts a tin goblet as if it were the only way he could ever get another drink. Are your own soft, perfumed hands not good enough to dish the water up? Your own mortal lips not ordained enough to take it in—”
He let her loose. “You’re babbling nonsense again, as always.”
“Why wouldn’t we be the same, deep down? We are driven by the same impulses, and you saw, this morning, that I do as everyone else does. It’s just… very funny to me that I thought I’d killed you all and now you’re alive. It doesn’t make me sad for very long. How can one really be sad, when we’re all heading that way anyway, to the grave? And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone else in that tavern was laughing, roaring with laughter when I told them that you’d died a virgin.”
“Will you all go to sleep, when I’m trying to make an effort for you? Eve, for the last time, go to sleep.”
“It is very hard to sleep with hard angles of your body all pressed into mine. I don’t share your joy in this moment, Cymen.”
He shifted away from her. “Better?”
“That dish is a piece of junk. Or, cup, whatever. I filched it and I looked it over, so there. And it’s what I think of this whole thing, Cymen.”
“Why am I not surprised to hear such sacrilege coming from your mouth—”
“No one cares anymore. That is what I’ve been trying to say! The world you knew is clearly dead and gone, and there is no bringing it back. Admit it. The Harmonic Gold Order—knights that come riding in the dusk to chop off the heads of sinners? My father told me a story like that about a hundred times. It’s just a myth mommies and daddies use to scare their children into behaving. But that’s useless because everyone is naughty in the end. And the real Kingdom of Heaven? Here? No, that’s impossible. It’s up there, it always has been. Every story I’ve ever heard is that it’s way up there, and no one can ever touch it. How can I cry for someone else dying and going to heaven when they can’t get there. We’re all of us already going to hell, or else already living in it. Either way, them burning up against a tree is a sweet release. And as for myself, in my life, I’ve been passed from one man to the next—I can’t even survive on my own, and the people who have mercy on me are also judges and executioners. No, I don’t feel sorry for you! You and all the people like you, who look down on us for trying to eek out an existence, you should have been on that stake, and as fate would have it, I put you there!”
Surely, there was silence afterward. Cymen recovered from it first, before any of his men could. “Eve, love… no one here hates you. You are a child of the Divine, like every blessed member of his creation.”
“And so then he created you too. And you are also a child. Morality is just a game. Win or lose, it’s pointless practice. That is what it means to be human. All of us are silly participants in a grand and frivolous effort.”
“How did you know that?”
“Huh? Know what? I’m right about everything, aren’t I!”
Cymen sniffed a sharp breath, and did not let it back out, until after careful thought. “What I always, ever meant was that you are beloved in life, Eve. As if you were the very daughter of the Divine himself. And you are among so many other daughters and sons, like me. All the living world.”
Eve was very still before long. Like a child who’d exhausted herself and then quit the anger without regret, she fell asleep first.