Blood, Ashes, Wine

Megan M. Davies-Ostrom

The sky was dark and thunderous the day the man on the throne and the general in the wolf’s-head cape drank my wine.

It was thunderous the day I planted those grapes, too, but not with storm clouds. On that day, the heavens were filled with smoke and death, lit from below by flame. That was the day the long siege broke and Ajer, our city, fell.

They spared me when the city fell. Already an old woman, good for nothing but grapes and wine, in their eyes. They spared my vines, too. Ajer’s vintages were famous for leagues and worth their weight in gold and gems. A month’s income might purchase a bottle from a moderate year. Princes vied for the rights to a good one. Of course, they spared the vines and Jacintha, the famous vintner.

They didn’t spare my daughter.

I found her in the Courtyard of Stars, at the foot of the temple stairs. Her clothes were torn. So was her skin, rent by cruel blades and crueler hands. Life and beauty flowing away onto the cobbles.

I clutched her to my chest and howled; what mother wouldn’t? I pleaded with the gods of Air, Earth, and Water to give her back to me. My voice joined a thousand others, ten thousand, a city of grief. Flames leapt, smoke billowed, and the night was full of tears.

It was too late. Air, Earth, and Water couldn’t give her back to me, but they showed me a sign, there in the ruined courtyard. Her blood, pooling on the cobbles, seeping into the deep, rich earth beneath. Feeding the soil.

Life unto life, they said. Life for a life. It will take years, but she will be born again, and when she is, we will come. She will be avenged.

I lifted her in trembling arms and carried her through the crumbling stone and ashes, past the ruins of our life. Ajer was beautiful once, before the trade war that became a real war that became the long siege. A city of white arches and banners. Of gentle men, and girls like jewels, sharp and bright.

My daughter Janilla was the brightest of them all. Her mind was nimble like a mountain fox, full of numbers, letters, and patterns. While Ajer’s vintages flourished under my competent hands, they would have been wondrous under hers.

I brought her through the eastern gate, past the corpses heaped like cordwood.

The long siege had taken its toll, and the battle just ended had finished what it started. Ajer was a city of the dead.

Through the fields and up to the high slopes, I carried her, my back aching with every step. To our little stone house, nestled amid the vines.

Then I did what Air, Earth, and Water had bid me.

Into a wooden tub she went. Her light was gone, her edges dulled. Her cheeks were as pale as the ash on my sleeves.

Crimson replaced grey. I cut her fine and mixed her with limestone, Epsom salts, and bone meal. I sowed her into the empty plot beside the house, and planted new vines on top.

I waited. Three years I tended my daughter’s vines with hands grown gnarled and bent. Fed them the blood and bones of our dead and watered them with my tears, watched them grow strong and lush. The leaves were the same bright green as her eyes, the grapes luxurious auburn like her hair.

When her grapes were ready, I harvested and pressed them and did all the mystic things required to turn fruit into wine. All the things that had saved my life. I put her in my finest barrels to age. And still, I waited.

Our conqueror, the youngest prince of Theis, had set himself on the throne of Ajer, with his general, the man in the wolf’s-head cape, by his side. Gone were the white arches and banners, gone was the laughter and joy. His army ruled, and the gentle men and bright girls were forced into slavery. The city was remade in his image, full of sharp blades and fear and hunger.

The man on the throne and his friend in the wolf’s-head cape called often for wine, and I delivered barrel after barrel to the castle. They drank their way through all my stores, all the vintages they could have sold to feed the starving and make the city bright again. They drank till there were no barrels left, save my daughter.

When they called for wine again, I brought her to them.

The man on the throne and the general in the wolf’s-head cape drank deeply. They drank my daughter and they laughed. I laughed too, because the sky was thunderous and filled with signs. Dark clouds, the sign of death. Lightning, the sign of pain. And–as their laughter turned to coughs and then to screams–rain, the sign of cleansing.

My daughter’s wine scoured them from the inside, stripped them raw and left them bleeding out on the floor, just as a deluge years in the making swept their army from our streets. Air, Earth, and Water rose, and with the man on the throne and the general in the wolf’s-head cape gone, the people of Ajer rose with them.

Ajer will be joyous again. The gentle men will rebuild the white arches, and the bright women will find allies and sign treaties to make sure we are never hurt again.

As for my daughter? She grows still. Her wine is sweet on the lips and music on the tongue. My finest vintage ever.

Megan M. Davies-Ostrom is a Canadian author whose short stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and anthologies such as Dark Waters and Bodies Full of Burning. She lives in Ontario with her husband, daughter, and two (strange) cats. When not writing or carrying out the duties of her civil-servant alter-ego, she enjoys hiking (in canyons, when possible), reading, watching horror movies, and playing board games.

Megan also has a short story in issue 3.