From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

September 3, 2011


Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Vast Horizons, January 2010. Full story behind cut.

* * *
…there would be a great want of water, and many hot suns, which would dry up the fields of maize, from which would follow a great famine; and from the famine, thefts; and from the thefts, slaves, and the selling of those who stole. And from this would follow discords, and wars between themselves…

-Diego de Landa, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan

The old man crouched on a slab of stone, his face hidden behind mats of dusty gray hair. He was one of the kuch, the vultures, who lived in the houses and temples left vacant by the Thirst. Imix had never expected to see one in Ik’Muluk.

“Grandfather,” she repeated, kneeling on the bare rock beside him. Six months ago, when she left Ik’Muluk to search for water, a house had stood in that very spot. There was nothing now: even the soil burned away in the relentless drought. “What happened here?”

He stared at her for a moment, eyes sunken and dark-rimmed with thirst. Then, to her surprise, he laughed.

“Imix Ak’bal!” he cackled, pointing a skeletal finger from Imix the ruins of the palace over her shoulder. “The Queen has returned to her people at last! Tell me, Ak’bal, where is the water you promised us?”

Imix quickly grabbed the small water-skin from her pack and shoved it at him. He snatched it but continued to eye her, as if afraid she might take it back. When she didn’t, he pulled the stopper out with his teeth and squeezed the skin’s contents down his throat.

“Where are all the others?” Imix asked when he’d finished.

“Gone. Taken by raiders.” He laughed again, the sound cracking in the back of his throat. “As if the fools weren’t short on water before they began wasting it on slaves.”

Imix’s heart froze in her chest. “What raiders, Grandfather? Where did they come from?”

“Sak Aktun, of course.” The kuch sucked the last of the water from the skin and tossed it aside. “Those filthy dogs took all our water, all our food, everyone young enough to work. They burned our houses, the imbeciles, too stupid to see what would happen. ” He gestured at the naked limestone at their feet, at the massive trunk of a fallen ceiba tree behind him, its roots turned to ash beneath the surface. “It’s only the old they left behind, the old and the sick. I can’t say where the rest have gone now.”

Hatred made Imix’s already parched tongue feel choked with dust. She stared at the ruin that had been the city of Ik’Muluk, at the bare stone platforms and bruise-black rings of cinder where houses once stood. The trees where women had left their children while they sang to them from the fields; the hollows that filled with water in the rainy season, where grandmothers went to wash their families’ clothing; the ancient palace room where Imix had married Lamat Balam, those three long summers ago—all burned, all crushed into rubble. Imix thought of her husband laboring for those wasteful brutes in Sak Aktun, and the air seemed too thin for her lungs.
“I have to go after them,” she said, more to herself than to the old man, but he nodded anyway.

“That’s the spirit,” he murmured, half-drunk on the unaccustomed water.

Imix was ashamed to see that she still had enough in her to waste on tears.

* * *
Imix had lived her life—all twenty-five years of it—within seven days’ walk of Sak Aktun, but the plce was still a ghost in her mind, misted over by memories of her troubled life with Chikchan Eb. To think of one was to think of the other; in that vague, shadowy city to the north, everyone wore the face of her sister.
She thought of Chikchan now, as she followed the rough remains of the road to Sak Aktun. What happened to her, the fragile young woman Imix banished from Ik’Muluk those seven years ago? Her sister’s presence had been growing in her mind since the beginning of the Thirst; she remembered Chikchan’s frailness, her constant need for water.
And she remembered Sak Aktun.

Filthy dogs, the old man had called them, worse than vultures. Few stories came to Ik’Muluk, but some did, telling of bloody raids and strange sounds heard in the night. Sak Aktun thrived while Ik’Muluk, her prey, sickened and died. Imix could not trust them, could never submit to them. Chikchan Eb demanded she do both.
She drank the last of her water at sundown on her fifth day of travel. Like the water she shared with the kuch man—the only water she could find in six months of searching—it had been dusty and thick, the last dregs of Lake Uchbenbaak. Now, even the lake was gone.
What had Chikchan Eb done, when the water she took into exile finally ran out? How far had she traveled? Imix found herself watching the gray-brown path beneath her feet, afraid to look to either side, as if her sister’s ghost might be waiting for her in the death-dry forest.

On the sixth day, the road wound past empty maize fields, their shallow irrigation trenches choked with dried stalks and gray ash. The few plants that managed to grow in the weak season had been lost to locusts or kuch. Not for the first time, Imix wondered how many of her people had survived the Thirst, only to die by hunger or Sak Aktun’s slavers.
She did not want to think of the living; the dead were safer. She thought of Chikchan Eb.
On the seventh day, she saw a footprint.
She didn’t understand, at first, why something so small should make her tremble. It was a sign of men nearby, yes, but that came as no surprise; she had know she was within a day’s walk of Sak Aktun. A small leaf lay trapped in the dirt, and in the scorching midday sun, it glistened wetly.

Like a hunter following the trail of his prey, Imix began to crawl.

The dirt beneath her hands was soft and cool, but in some places, where the soil had washed away, she felt the brittle dryness of limestone. The vegetation around her became thick and scraggly, growing low and tight against the ground. She lessened her pace and felt carefully in front of her before moving ahead.

There. Behind a wall of thick tapir-leaves, the forest floor suddenly dropped off. Imix inched forward until she was staring down a night-black pit, with sides of glistening white lime. Directly beneath her hands, a rough ladder of cedro logs ran down into the darkness.

Not a pit, she realized. A well.

Moving carefully, so as not to make any sound that might echo through the cave, she swung herself over the edge and began climbing down the ladder. The rungs became smoother the lower she went, moistened by a fine mist of water. It was all she could do not to put her lips to them and drink.

As the greenish light from the forest above her began to fade, another light took its place; cool, wavering white, splashing color along the walls like Ix Chel’s rainbows. She clung tightly to the ladder and glanced around, and found herself staring at an intricate web of passages—some obviously carved, others natural—all leading into the shaft of the well. They spilled light like water, reflecting off their clear white walls. The sight was so beautiful, she could not help but gasp.

From the floor below her, someone squeaked in surprise.
Imix lost her grip on the ladder and tumbled the last few feet, landing heavily in a pool of water deep enough to lap at my waist. “Who’s there?” she sputtered.
But before her companion could answer, she began to drink.
When Chikchan Eb was sick, there had been days when she could hardly move from thirst, and if someone placed a bowl of water in front of her, she took it in like a drowning woman gasping for air. Imix was like that now, bending down to place her lips to the surface and lapping it up with her tongue, opening her mouth wide to feel the wetness rush in. She had tasted mango so ripe it melted in her mouth, she had eaten berries dipped in honey at her wedding feast, but none of them could compare to the sweetness of the water in the well of Sak Aktun.

At last, when her throat and tongue felt smooth again and her lips seemed thickened with moisture, she looked up to see the face of her companion.

The woman was clearly a slave. While her skin and hair glistened from the damp, both were rough and plainly unused to washing. Deep lines darkened the skin around her eyes; though she could not be much older than Imix, her hair was streaked with gray.

“Who are—” the stranger began, the cut herself off with a gasp. “Imix? Imix Ak’bal?”

“Yes,” Imix said, because she could think of nothing else. “How…how do you know me?”

“Oh, Imix!” The clay pot she had been holding fell to the ground with a soft splash. “It’s me, Ben Kaban. Don’t you remember, I used to live in the Palace at Ik’Muluk, back before…”

Imix didn’t know if it was something in her face that made Ben Kaban stop, or if she stopped because there was nothing more to say. Imix had known her—well enough, perhaps, to be called her friend. Had the past six months changed her so much?

What have they done to me?

As Imix looked at her reflection in the dark water, Ben Kaban continued haltingly. “They came right after you left—the raiders, I mean. Sak Aktun. Lamat was furious. He tried to bribe them, to give them the little food we could spare, but they came back two days later and…well, you can see for yourself. How did you know to look here?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You were looking for us, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Imix said again, unable to look away from the ghastly image in the water before her. Her hair and face were both as gray as dust, and her eyes…her eyes were like the eyes of the dead. She knew without thinking that she could easily pass for a slave in the streets of Sak Aktun.

“What are you doing here, Ben Kaban?”

“Fetching water,” she whispered. “For my mistress. She’s…not kind, exactly, but not as cruel as the others. She won’t let her sons touch me.”

“Where does your mistress live?”

“In the Serpent House on the east side of the city.”
Imix knelt down, refilled Ben Kaban’s fallen pot, and hefted it onto her own shoulders. “Let me take your place.” Ben Kaban started to protest, but Imix silenced her with a glance—something she had not been able to do before the Thirst. She wondered what other changes misfortune had wrought in her. “I need to free my people, Ben. And I need to see Lamat.”

“That shouldn’t be hard. He’s in the Queen’s household, not too far from my mistress,” she said, though she still looked doubtful. “But Imix, where will I go?”

“Stay here,” Imix said. Pieces of the plan fell together in her head like stones fitting into a mosaic. “Only slaves are sent for water, yes? Good. We can build a shelter nearby. When I free the others, this is where I’ll send them.”
“Yes,” Ben Kaban said, more certainly this time. “Yes! But you—you’ll be all right, Imix?”

“I have to be,” she said. With no further discourse, Imix leaned over and placed a soft kiss on Ben’s cheek. Then, carefully balancing the water-pot on her shoulder, she started up the ladder.

And so she came to Sak Aktun.

* * * II. * * *

In his mother’s arms, Chinwol began to cry.

“Hush,” Hun Sayab whispered, casting fearful glance in Imix’s direction. “Hush, my little one.”

Imix set her lips in a scowl; it was not her the woman had to fear. Though Imix was certain the majority of Sak Aktun’s warriors had gone with their Queen to raid the village of Tsabanda in the west, three months of escape had taught her caution, and every sound sent a painful shiver down her spine.
The trail was not long from Sak Aktun to the well, and from there to the small cluster of shelters Ben Kaban had built for the escaping slaves, but it seemed to grow longer every time Imix traveled it. Withered, wasting tree-trunks provided little shelter, and a thousand dry branches lay scattered across the ground, snapping at every misstep. It was only a matter of time, she knew, before their captors in Sak Aktun discovered her endeavor and took her to their Queen for justice.

It was not a prospect she relished.

“Imix.” Xaman Ik, Hun Sayab’s husband, laid a firm hand on her shoulder. Slavery had separated him from his wife for the last two months of her pregnancy, and it seemed he was doing everything in his power now to make up for it—even confronting his Queen. You’re not his Queen anymore, part of Imix reminded herself. She silenced it with a scowl. “You know she is doing her best.”

She knew, and yet, the knowledge wasn’t good enough. Long months of drought and fear had left her bitter. Inevitably, she thought of Chikchan Eb.

With every escape, with every beating she received from her new mistress, with every precious drink of water she managed to steal, she thought of her sister and her high hopes for Sak Aktun. Had Chikchan ever made it there? Looking down at the mottled purple bruises on her arms, Imix hoped not.

And then there was the Queen. Imix had seen her three or four times over the past few months; every time, Lamat was with her. Imix’s heart twisted to see the way she looked at him, with those cruel, hard eyes. It did not help to know that very look had once crossed Imix’s own face.

Lamat and Chikchan Eb, her husband and her sister, the greatest victims of her pride. Every night, they haunted her dreams, their two faces blurring into one; and though Imix never dreamt of still water, she saw my reflection everywhere. Some nights, she was a kuch woman in Ik’Muluk. Some nights, she was the Queen of Sak Aktun.

A sharp wail interrupted her thoughts. She turn to see Hun Sayab leaning against a tree, offering her breast to Chinwol, who waved his little fists and refused to suck.

“You have nothing to give him,” Imix whispered. Hun Sayab looked at her helplessly, shaking her head.

Imix sighed and glanced at the shadowy form of Sak Aktun in the clearing behind her; all was dark. They were not being followed. “Here,” she said, handing her torch to Xaman Ik and crouching low to the ground. “Some of these plants still hold water. Give him a leaf to chew on.”

Hun Sayab lowered herself beside Imix, Chinwol clutched in one arm, and began riffling through the dry sticks and withered seed-stalks on the ground. At last she found something, a blackish stem with a branching leaf at the top, spreading out like a nine-fingered hand.
“No!” Imix cried, far too loudly. Hun Sayab dropped the leaf with a little yelp. “Bitter manioc,” Imix explained, dropping her voice to a whisper. The forest around them had gone eerily quiet, as though even the wind held its breath. “It turns poisonous during drought years.”

“Oh!” Hun Sayab leapt to her feet, all thoughts of leaf-gathering abandoned. Chinwol, at least, had fallen silent, probably frightened by Imix’s shout.

“Will he stay quiet now?” Imix meant to keep her voice gentle, but fear gave it an edge. “I’m afraid I may have given us away—”

“ You did.”
Imix twirled in the direction of the voice, pulling her small knife from its place at her hip, when something hard and cold struck her in the back of the head. She fell heavily to the forest floor. Another rock smashed onto her fingers, breaking her grip on the blade. Somewhere in the darkness behind me, she heard Hun Sayab scream.
“Don’t hurt her!” Xaman Ik shouted. Imix tried to turn her neck to see what was happening, but strong hands clasped around her shoulders, pressing her into the ground. A cut had opened along the back of her neck, stinging with dry forest dust.
A loud cracking sound echoed through the night, and she heard Hun Sayab moan like an injured dog. Chinwol raised his shrill voice in a scream, which ending abruptly in another sickening crack. Imix pressed her face into the dust and sobbed.
“So,” someone murmured, the same someone who had spoken before. The voice was low and steady, and despite the words, the tone held no cruelty. “Imix Ak’bal. I never thought to see you in Sak Aktun.” The speaker laughed, a soft, strangely moist sound. “I certainly never thought to find you helping slaves escape.”
Imix tried again to face the speaker, but her captor struck her hard across the face. The blow aggravated the wound on the back of her head. “Please,” she moaned, flinging her hands up. “No more.”

He struck her again.

“You were too proud to beg for water, Imix,” the voice continued. It had moved around to her other shoulder. Imix noticed, with growing terror, that she could no longer hear Xaman Ik’s labored breathing. “Before I am through with you, we will see if you are too proud to beg for death.”
“How do you know my name?”
Her captor hesitated for a moment, and Imix winced, preparing for the blow. It didn’t come. The rough hands suddenly vanished from her shoulders, and she opened my eyes to see a hard, beautiful face just inches from her own. The Queen’s red lips glistened wetly as she spoke, and if her cruel brown eyes were dry, Imix knew it was not from thirst.

“ Imix,” Chikchan Eb whispered, “have you forgotten your sister so quickly?”
If her captors struck me again, or if the pain and fear finally caught up with her, Imix did not know. She only knew that Chikchan Eb’s voice was the last thing she heard as the world vanished behind a wall of blackness.

* * *

She woke in pain.

From the nauseous, overpowering burn in her side, she knew a rib had been broken—probably more than one. Her lips, already cracked and swollen from thirst, felt bruised and tender beneath her tongue. To take her mind from her tortured body, she reached out into the darkness in search of some clue as to where she was being kept. Her fingers encountered a shell of rough plaster curving all around her body, as if the room had been molded around her.

Not a room, she realized. A cistern.

“Hello?” It felt as though a thousand obsidian knives were digging into her lungs, but the panic building in her chest hurt more. “Is anyone there?”

About a handsbreadth above her head, the ceiling vanished suddenly in a circle of brownish light. A young man peered in with a scowl.

“Good, you’re awake,” he said. “My orders are to bring you to the Queen.”

He leaned over to grab her wrists, but Imix pulled away. “Please,” she whispered, “I think…my ribs…they need to be bound…”
“Shut up.”

“But I think—”

The sound of his blow echoed in the tiny chamber. Choking back a sob, Imix felt something hot and sticky dripping down her chin. Her nose throbbed fiercely.

“Here,” the guard said, stuffing a rough cloth into her hand. “Clean that up.”
She dabbed at the blood, which was disconcertingly bright, and pulled herself up out of the cistern. They were standing in the corner of a narrow courtyard, with its dusty floor slanting down towards them to better channel rain water. One of the four sides opened up to the white and ashen landscape of Sak Aktun. To Imix’s surprise, the sun hung low in the sky. Very early, or very late; she couldn’t guess which.

The guard grabbed her wrists—less roughly then before, as if he meant to compensate for striking her—and dragged her into the nearest outbuilding. The corridor was crowded with men and women, all as smooth and slippery-looking as a nest of bloated water bugs. Imix winced away from them and kept her eyes on the floor.

When at last they stopped walking, the guard aimed a blow at the backs of her knees, knocking her down into a kneeling position. The floor here was cleaner than the others, smooth and white and bare of all dust and ash—and for that reason, Imix knew whose room they were in.

“Your breath still troubles you, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Chikchan Eb said. Imix heard the slap of her sandals against the stone as she walked closer and pressed one hand beneath her chin, raising Imix’s face to hers. “Yes, it does.” She turned to the guard. “You are dismissed. See to it that I am not disturbed.”

When the sound of his footsteps died away, she turned again to Imix. “You know, sister,” she said, then stopped. A smile played across her lips—wet lips, bright lips, red against the paleness of her face, like my blood on the guard’s rag. Imix was still holding the cloth, she realized belatedly, and let it drop from her fist.

“You know, sister, I never thought I’d see you again.”

There was no sentimentality in it, no emotion, no regret. Imix cleared her throat. “I never thought I’d see you again, either. When you left, I was afraid…I thought maybe…”
“You thought I’d died. You thought you’d kill me.” A flicker of pain, there, but it passed quickly. “For the longest time, I thought so, too.”

She turned her back on Imix and walked to the other side of the room, where a low dais stretched the length of the wall. A low throne, carved and painted to look like a mother jaguar and her cub, stood in the middle of the platform.

Kneeling beside it, one arm tied to a rope around the queen jaguar’s neck, was Imix’s husband Lamat Balam.
“Oh!” Her breath caught painfully in her chest.

He looked up at her, his dark eyes wide and unreadable. For a moment, he said nothing. Was it fear—or anger? Perhaps he blamed her for what happened at Ik’Muluk. Perhaps…

But the moment passed, and a soft smile crossed his face. Not a pleasant smile; I mix would know that for a lie. But a gentle one, a smile meant to comfort. “Imix,” he whispered. The sound of his voice was as blessed and welcome as a long rain.
Chikchan Eb slapped her hand against her thigh, jolting Imix back into reality. With a thrill of terror, Imix noticed the shard of black obsidian in her hand.

“Sister,” she said quickly. “You were young then, you didn’t understand what you were asking! Your words were treason! You must know that. I had to send you away.”
Chikchan Eb took a step closer to Imix. Her dark eyebrows arched sharply across her forehead, giving her a mad, unfocused expression.
“A Queen must do things,” Imix said, “terrible things, cruel things—things she doesn’t wish to do, sometimes.”
“I know,” Chikchan said. “And sometimes, she does cruel things she wants to do very much.”
With one flick of her wrist, the blade was at Imix’s throat. But it didn’t stay there; Chikchan watched as Imix held her breath, struggling to keep her neck motionless, then moved her hand up along Imix’s jaw, dragging the obsidian up over her cheek and across the bridge of her nose. It toyed along her hairline, moving in to circle the dark and tender skin around her eyelids. Though my entire her body shook with fear, Imix forced myself not to blink.

For a few seconds, fear was all she felt. Then the pain came, sharp and stinging, flowing along the blade’s path like water filling a dry river bed. Imix felt the flesh parting and the blood dripping down from the wounds. Lamat’s cry of horror sounded as though it came from very far away.
“Chikchan,” she whispered, barely daring to move her lips. It was the first time she had said the name aloud in over seven years. “What do you want?”
The blade had moved back into her hairline, brushing along the ridge of her ear. “I want your pain,” Chikchan said. The blade nicked into Imix’s earlobe—not sharp enough to sever it, but deep enough to make her cry out. “I want you to suffer as you made me suffer.”

“You already did.”
Chikchan Eb arched her eyebrows again and held her hand still.
“You took away my city, my people, my husband—” Imix gestured tightly to Lamat—“Everything that I held dear. You took away my freedom! What does a little pain matter to me now?”

“Oh?” Chikchan Eb took a step back. “Is that really how you feel? There is nothing more I can do to you?”

Smiling once again, Chikchan Eb turned to Lamat.
“No!” Imix cried. “You can’t!”
Chikchan glanced back over her shoulder. “Yes, I can,” she said. “I am Queen here, and you—both of you—belong to me!”
And she laid the blade against his throat.
Imix leapt to her feet, drawing on strength she didn’t know she had, and flung herself across the room. Her hands were around Chikchan’s neck before she could begin to cut. It was easier than Imix expected to pull the blade from her hands and drive it into her own throat; so easy to take it and sever the ropes around Lamat’s wrists; so easy to take him by the hand and run out of the chamber, ducking through the nest of bloated nobles.

But it was hard, so hard, to hear Chikchan crying as her life drained out of her:

“Imix! Sister! Imix!”

* * *

They couldn’t keep running: Imix had known it even as she left Chikchan Eb’s chamber. Her chest ached from the broken ribs, and she was becoming dizzy from loss of blood. It was only a matter of time before the guards of Sak Aktun discovered them.
She had pushed forward as far as she could take them, drawing the pursuit away from the cenote and Ben Kaban’s camp. They lay now in a hollow in the middle of the forest, where the leaves were still faintly green and the earth was still soft. Even the sky seemed…darker, somehow, as if a wall of clouds were gathering overhead. But that, Imix knew, was just a trick of her eyes.
Lamat’s head rested on her knee. His eyes were closed, but his irregular breathing told her he was still very much awake, very much afraid. Imix stroked his hair with both hands and hummed a lullaby under her breath. It was no use telling him they would be all right; already, she could hear the faint sounds of their pursuit.
“Love?” she whispered.
He sighed softly in answer.

“Would you like to go to sleep now?”

He smiled and turned his head to kiss her hand. “Of course,” he murmured. Then, more clearly, “They’re going to kill us, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Imix said, and leaned down to kiss his forehead.

“Then yes, I’d like to go to sleep.”

Imix reached over his body and plucked one of the few leaves that was still lush and moist. It spread out in her palm, opening like a nine-fingered hand.

“Chew on this,” she said. “It will help you rest.”
While her husband sucked the poison from the bitter manioc, Imix picked another leaf for herself and began to chew.

Her hands started shaking even before she took the second leaf. By the third, she could no longer hold her head up. She lay down on the ground beside Lamat, who had already fallen unconscious, his breathing slow and faint. “My love,” she murmured. “My love, my love, my love.”

The leaves around her rattled and shook, and she heard angry voices moving closer. It didn’t matter. She turned her face just enough to let her press her lips against Lamat’s cheek, and then she could move no more. Her eyes closed heavily. As she stopped fighting for breath and let her body fend for itself, she felt something soft brushing against the wound on her cheek. Soft and cool, and impossibly wet.

Then the last of her was gone, vanished into the darkness.

There was nothing left but the rain.


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