The Ghost of a Guilty Hand – a fantasy short story

Posted: July 16, 2021 in story
Tags: , , ,

Sunan hefted a lump of stone from her barrow onto the steadily rising wall, then turned the stone until it fitted into place. She wanted to be able to say that this was half the struggle, finding pieces that held so snug together they needed no mortar, but almost all the struggle came in the building itself, pushing rocks around with one good hand and the stump of her other elbow.

As the rocks ground against each other, they released sparks of residual magic from the battle that had levelled the town. She remembered striding up the beach, a sword in one hand and a fireball flying from the other, certain that victory was worth more than its cost. She could almost see that lost hand, a ghostly after image.

A crunch drew her out of her reverie. Prasert had landed his boat and was ambling up the shingle.

“You’ll never finish it at this rate,” he said. “Not before the locusts arrive.”

“What would you know?” Sunan heaved another stone one-handed onto the wall. Its course surface pressed uncomfortably against her stump as she pushed it into place.

“I know that, without a shelter, no one can stay here through swarm season, and without that time to finish, you can’t make anything that will last the winter winds.” He pointed to  rows of scattered rocks, the rubble of her previous efforts. “You know that too.”

He deposited a sack of supplies next to her tent: grain, dried cod, lime juice, other essentials. A pouch was waiting there for him, filled with currency of all shapes and sizes, the dwindling fortune of a former mercenary.

“Trade’s quiet at the moment,” he said. “I could help if you want, just for a few weeks, to get that first shelter built.”

“No.” Sunan heaved another block into place, her anger lending her strength. She felt a little of the old magic flow.

“It’s no sacrifice. Having a port here would be good for—”

“I said no!” She spun around, clutching a rock, and glared at him. “This is my penance, to rebuild what I broke. No one gets to bear it for me.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Like demon fire you didn’t.” She slammed the rock into place, sparks flying as the stones cracked together. “I see you pitying the poor cripple, but I don’t need your charity. If I could kill for this place, then I can live for it.”

Muscles strained as she lifted another rock, and another, and another, smashing them into place in swift succession, barely looking at what she did. She would straighten them later. For now, she would show what she could do.

The magic flowed through her, a power flung about this place so wildly it would linger forever. Once, she would have bent it to her will. Now she endured it, like the sand between her toes and the course grass that scratched her skin.

“Sunan,” Prasert whispered. “Your hand.”

“Yes, my poor hand, it must be so worn from all this work. Gods forbid that I labour.”

“No, look, your other hand!”

“I don’t have another…” Sunan stopped and stared at the rock she was holding. Two hands gripped it, one calloused and sun-darkened, the other a ghostly haze of magic stretching from her stump.

She set the stone down and held the ghost hand up. The more she thought about it, the less it seemed like it was hers, and the harder it was to control. Still, she curled her fingers in, one at a time, each bending knuckle an effort of will.

“You’ve tamed the magic,” Prasert said.

“Yes…” Sunan stiffened as she stared at the hand, so familiar and yet so alien. “But it’s not mine.”

“It is now!” Prasert laughed. “And with two hands you can finish the shelter before swarm season. Isn’t that fantastic?”

“No! I have to do this through my own effort.”

She waved the hand away from her, trying to shake off the magic.

“You were a wizard. This is your effort.”

“No! This is cheating!”

“This is applying your gifts.”

“This isn’t… this isn’t… this isn’t how it’s meant to work.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Even as she said it, she knew how patronising she sounded, but she didn’t have the words she needed. There was a right way to do this, and a wrong way. The magic hand was wrong.

“Do you even want to finish?” Prasert asked.

“Of course.” She folded her arms. This was a ridiculous question.

“Do you? Because I think there are ways you could have finished by now, with better tools, or better plans, or just a little help. But maybe you want to labour here forever, punishing yourself in public view.”

“That’s absurd. And even if it was true, what business of yours would it be?”

“There was a port here once, well placed for traders and for locals. Since you helped destroy it, we’ve all gone without, and now the big bad mercenary is up here, saying hers is the only way to rebuild. Where do you think that leaves us?”

Every summer for ten years, he’d been bringing her supplies, but she’d never seen him like this; red-faced, brow crumpled, hands planted on his hips. He saw her looking at him, and he sagged as righteous indignation gave way to fear or guilt or something else she didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll be back next month. Still time for more building before swarm season.”

He walked down the beach, shingle crunching beneath his feet, and climbed into his boat.

Sunan looked at her ghost had. She still had a wizard’s skills, even if they had been neglected. With focus, she could make this go away. Then she could return to the work as she had been doing, the work she deserved. Instead, she picked up a stone with both hands and placed it on the wall.

***

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***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

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