Thunder’s shaking the whole pub pretty good. Fat raindrops lash the windows so we can’t see out. Not that there’s anything to see. The stores across the road lost power hours ago. The whole street has. But here the lights glow softly pink and the music swoops in a way that brings my tears harder.
For now everyone’s dancing, but in the darkness and tempest—
Will we know when they’ve found us?
Even a witch has to wonder.
I’m old enough to remember when we shared the longest undefended border in the world.
I’m also old enough to remember when it snowed in Toronto. The last snowflake I ever saw fell from the sky like a star cut loose. It drifted past a streetlamp, a sharp glint in the night. I stopped right where I was to watch. My coat gaped open at the throat; my gloveless hands were shoved in pockets. Even then, I suspected this might be it. And so I stared and stared, trying to fix that snowflake in my mind for however long I had left.
Then the clouds opened and warm rain spattered the sidewalk.
Ellie showed up on New Year’s Eve, when heat pressed on Toronto like a dictator’s hand and the crabgrass bristled yellowed and dead. Early twenties, mouth like a slash. She lurched inside like she forgot how her joints bent.
The usual, her handler told me. Keep her a few days. Take her to the rendezvous. Do not let her go until she’s met her contact.
She sat stiffly on my daisy-patterned couch, her fingers locked around a cup of tea. Though we sat up for hours, watching the Free States military parade on TV and waiting for the New Year’s midnight prayer in New Beulah, she never drank from it, not once.
They call me a Waystation. A stop on the New Underground. A beacon of hope for the fleeing desperate.
They also call me an Old Hag. Troublemaker. Witch. Compromiser of relations between Canada and the Free States of America.
They call me lots of things. Most of them are even true. The trick is to not let it get to you.
Someone banged on the front door so loudly, I thought the glass might break. Wrapping my housecoat around myself, I answered it. A grit-faced young man stared back at me, prematurely grey, his hand resting on the holster of his gun. The patch on his shoulder showed two flags, red-white-and-blue stitches intertwining so that it was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began.
A routine inspection, he told me.
I let him in. You always let them in. Even if you’re a witch.
He searched the house without speaking, yanking my heirloom quilt from the couch, stomping on books and ripping the pages beneath his heel. In the kitchen, he emptied the cupboards one by one. He spent longer in the study, leafing through papers. Longest of all upstairs, digging through my drawers and closets, rapping on the walls.
Without a word, he left.
Two hours later, Ellie returned from the backyard. Her black eyes held a walled-off look. No hint of surprise, though. I can’t blame her. If anything, I thought the CAPES would arrive sooner.
By CAPES, I mean the Canadian-American Peace Enforcers.
I feel like peace and enforce probably shouldn’t coexist in the same sentence, but that’s just me.
I always got picked for the high-priority cases because of my treehouse. It stood in the backyard, in a grouchy Douglas fir that stubbornly bore acid rain and clouds of ash. The treehouse was never much to look at, but I made it myself. Two wrinkled hands and a whole lot of magic. It had four grey-peeling walls, a planked floor, and a blue canvas roof that made the whole thing look like a Conestoga wagon.
Plus the rope ladder, of course. It was the kind you pull up after you. Once you did that—once you put your trust entirely in the tree—no one could see you from below. Look and look all you like, the tree was empty. A pretty slick spell, if I say so myself.
This is why every resistance needs a witch or two.
They came to me at all times, at all hours. Young defectors plucked drenched and shivering from the lake. Lone mothers who couldn’t bear to be touched. Doctors, artists, priests, all blank-eyed from shock. How easily it’s all swept away, they whispered, sitting around my kitchen table in the dead of night. How quickly dignity was plucked from between our fingertips. How fast it went, in the end.
I know, I whispered back. I know.
In the moment, that’s all they really wanted. For most, it was all I could give.
Our rendezvous was a pub halfway down Roncesvalles Ave. It was closed on New Year’s Day, so Ellie and I sat at my kitchen table and talked about snow.
“It really was white,” I told her. “Until the cars got to it. Or the dogs.”
She nodded like there’d be a test later.
“And it didn’t hurt?” she asked.
“Oh, it could kill you. But I guess that wasn’t really the snow. It was the cold that’d get you in the end.”
As I fanned myself, her lips pressed together. “I can’t imagine what it was like.”
“I thought about writing a book once. Keeping the memory alive, you know? But it wouldn’t do any good.” I shrugged. “What about you? Where are you from?”
“That narrows it down.”
“I don’t remember.”
Coming from my houseguests, that answer usually meant it was too dangerous to tell the truth. “You know your contact, at least?”
“Roland. I’m supposed to wait for Roland. He’s going to save us.”
Not a name I knew. Probably a codename.
She drummed her fingers on the table, tattoos peeking from the ends of her sleeves. “I’m supposed to bring the Oliphant.”
Oliphant, sometimes spelled Olifant. They’re hunting horns carved from elephant tusks. The most famous belonged to the semi-mythical knight Roland. That’s not Childe Rowland to the dark tower came, by the way. Childe Rowland was Scottish.
Roland from The Song of Roland was French. He served under Charlemagne. Whilst noble, he wasn’t terribly bright.
Though I refrained from saying it to Ellie, Roland and Oliphant didn’t strike me as great codenames.
The next day, I took Ellie to the rendezvous just before noon. She stumped along beside me, her arms swinging rigidly.
With the vitamin deficiencies, plenty of people have joint problems. Even young people. I only get pins-and-needles in my feet after tricky spells, and my magic’s nearly nil these days. I’m too old to qualify for supplements, but I always figured there wasn’t much point anyway.
Ellie gawked like a tourist. “You—you can just walk anywhere you want?”
I shushed her. After that, she stayed quiet, her expression hooded as we slipped into the pub. Lunch service was starting, the first whiffs of oil spitting from the kitchen. Ellie sat at the bar, her hands clasped like she was praying to the beer taps. I took a table along the far wall, the exposed brick nicely cool on my back.
Whenever I dropped refugees at the pub, I ordered the shepherd’s pie with onion rings to start. Their contacts usually arrived before the rings, and then I ate lunch worry-free. Just another neighbourhood eccentric. Nothing worth mentioning to the CAPES.
Plus, I got shepherd’s pie and onion rings for my trouble. A decent deal, all around.
A television blared news over the bar. More refugees snatched at the Saskatchewan border. Another women’s health clinic raided on the West Coast. Fingers getting itchier on the Big Red Button. I wondered what Ellie made of it all—she looked too brittle to bear the weight of all those headlines—but her shoulders stayed stiffly upright.
I finished my onion rings. I finished my pie. I contemplated dessert, but they’d raised prices with the sugar shortage, so I let it go.
Round after round of ice-water went down my gullet while the oversized clock ticked. The lunch crowd swelled, peaked, and drifted away. Servers lounged at empty tables, counting their tips, scratching notes for the incoming dinner crew.
The bartender kept looking at me funny, so I ordered more onion rings.
Christmas lights flicked on, strung high along the brick walls and weaving around the local artists’ paintings. I chased a burnt bit of onion around my plate.
No sign of Saviour Roland.
What the hell, I ordered dinner, too. I made myself stop shredding my napkin, worked on taking deep breaths. A whisper of magic eased the servers’ curiosity, even as it set my feet aflame with prickles.
At closing, I plonked myself next to Ellie. Her knuckles were white on an untasted pint of beer. She looked utterly blank, like uncarved stone.
“Tomorrow,” I whispered. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
The whole point of The Song of Roland is that he waited too late to blow the Oliphant. By the time he did, help was too far away and the battle was lost.
Three more times, we returned to the rendezvous.
Three more times, we went home empty-handed.
“I don’t understand,” Ellie said, her voice deadened. By this point, I’d stopped offering tea. “He’s supposed to meet me. He’s supposed to save us.”
“I know,” I whispered. “I know.”
A crack rent the night. Not thunder. Not gunfire. A thinner sound, a subtler sound. I staggered into the hallway. Ellie was already streaking for the back door and the safety of the treehouse. Tugging my housecoat tight about me, I checked out the front windows first.
No one stood on the porch.
I gave it an hour, and then I opened the door. Broken broomsticks littered the stoop. Not wooden ones, of course, but plastic ones half-melted and warped. Handfuls of handles rattled underfoot. There was a banner too, proclaiming:
Broomsticks. Witch. Real original. Witches don’t have the luxury of mystery these days; the American Split made people wise up. Really, the prank wouldn’t have fazed me. Except for one thing, placed under the broomsticks to give me one last jolt.
A hunting horn split cleanly in two, stained with paint like blood.
I don’t smuggle arms anymore. Only people. Smuggling arms is a good way to get someone killed. It doesn’t take much for nervous fingers to tighten on triggers. Accidents happen.
Accidents break my heart. The clean-ups keep me up at night.
As dawn broke, I sat Ellie on the daisy-patterned couch. I took the armchair opposite, so I could get a good look at her face. She met my probing gaze steadily.
Her forehead curved high and smooth, the lines of her face sharply cut. The tattoos on her arms continued across her collarbone, thin-etched lines that blended into a whirl of fighting animals and rippling hills.
“You’re in danger,” she said, flatly. “Do you want me to leave?”
“Where would you go?”
Her forehead creased, but then she lifted her chin. “Away.”
“What about Roland?”
No response, save a stiffening in her jaw. I leaned back, smoothing the doily on my armrest. “Ellie, the rendezvous is here. The treehouse is here. You’re staying.”
“Tell me one thing, though.” I cleared my throat. “This Oliphant. Is it—I can’t have—in my house, I will not harbour—”
“The Oliphant isn’t a weapon,” she said quietly. “The Oliphant will call for help.”
Young people can often be smoked out of silence. You sit and sit, letting the awkwardness stretch until they crack of their own accord. It works with some CAPES too, though not very many. Peering over Ellie’s shoulder, I watched the sun struggle up the bruised-mustard sky. Gusts rattled the eavestroughs; metal banged against the side of the house.
Another summer storm, and it wasn’t even February.
“I don’t know who’s supposed to help,” Ellie said, at last. I hid a smile. She didn’t fidget, her feet planted on the carpet. “But Roland is supposed to sound the Oliphant. That’s how the story goes.”
The story goes that when he finally raised the Oliphant to his lips, Roland blew the horn for three days and three nights, until a blood vessel burst in his temple and he died.
Have you ever seen a blood vessel burst in someone’s head? The red splashes so vivid, you think it can’t be real. It’s life-coloured, sheer rushing scarlet, and it makes the death that follows even more incomprehensible.
Especially when death takes a while. The longer blood sits out in the air, the stronger it smells. That acrid copper tang sticks in your throat and all the tea and magic in the world can’t scald it out.
The storm broke that night, after Ellie and I trudged home from another fruitless wait at the pub. As much as I reassured her, I worried. How long could I reasonably expect to keep her? What if Roland never came? What if he’d been captured by CAPES and compromised? What if the first warning wasn’t disgruntled neighbours or a punk kid with a lucky guess?
None of this made it past my lips. Engorged with nachos—I’d been working my way through the menu the way CAPES worked through immigration papers—I prepared for bed, accompanied by bellows of thunder. That first roar always felt like someone had taken a pin to the heavens, pricked the clouds swollen and hurting with rain.
The storm lashed the streets in near-horizontal sheets, the streetlamps haloed white through the downpour. I watched through the window as branches snapped, raindrops hammering cars like sprays of bullets.
What I would’ve given for one drifting snowflake. Falling snow has a music all its own. If you’re very quiet, you can hear it: the highest, thinnest bells as the drifts pile up.
Ellie will never hear it. None of her generation will. The thought tore at me as I crawled into bed.
She woke me up around three.
“CAPES?” The word fell out of my mouth.
She shook her head, cringing with another thunder blast.
Lightning clawed the sky. Ellie flinched, her arms rigid at her sides.
I shifted over. “Get in.”
While I dozed, Ellie kept the same position. Turned to the wall, her arms and legs extended, pressed tight to her slightly curved body.
When next she woke me, I couldn’t tell what time it was. Brooding heavy clouds refused to admit the morning. Her eyes looked blank as ivory. “It happened again.”
Shattered windows, this time, water-beaded glass strewn across my living room. Bricks too, fever-brown dust catching in the carpet. Clammy air blew through the hole.
“Ellie. The treehouse. Now.”
She bolted, as quickly as her stiff, awkward gait allowed. For a moment, I debated using magic to deal with the glass, but the tingling had spread from my toes to my shins. I felt nearly as clumsy as Ellie.
A mundane broom, then, the glass tinkling as I swept it up. I was not surprised to find leaflets wrapped around some of the bricks. Xenophobic propaganda, mostly. KEEP CANADA FOR CANADIANS. ONE WEAK BOLT BRINGS DOWN THE BRIDGE. HONOR THE FREE STATES DEAL.
No “u” in honour? They must have been terrified.
The last leaflet read: SECOND WARNING.
I’ve ignored warnings before. For example, I was told not to take two refugees at a time. But they looked so helpless, so scared, the young man and woman I let into my old house in Sarnia. Not married. Not even friends. Just two quaking youths swept in the tide of madness surging from the south.
Two quaking youths and a shipment of weaponry.
But I ignored warnings from myself, too. I never liked the look in that young man’s eyes. Too self-possessed for a defector on the run. The fear fell away too easily; cunning glinted underneath. I caught him testing locks, counting windows when he thought I wasn’t looking.
I’ll never know if he tipped the CAPES, of course. It all moved too quickly for that.
Ellie refused to leave the treehouse. Refused to even let the ladder down. I looked like an idiot: standing out there in my pyjamas, arguing with an empty tree.
“You can’t stay up there!”
“Yes,” came her calm, cool voice. “I can.”
The Douglas fir shifted. There was another band of storm cells coming. Worse than this one had been. It wanted me to know. Also it wished to complain that the soil was supersaturated and its roots had contracted fungus.
I sympathized, but had no time for its troubles.
“Ellie. Get down. It’s time to go to the pub, anyway. What if Roland comes today?”
“I don’t think he’s coming at all.”
A long time ago, the winter nights were clear and cold as glass. When I was young, I walked the streets wrapped in falling snow. Drifts mantled the streetlights and the fences, muffled the cars, and feathered the world with magic.
Under deep winter, we slept for a time.
I am so sick of heat. My heart is sore with rain.
In the end, the Douglas fir’s warning was just another I ignored. When the tempest came the next day, it shattered the city. Rain punched through the cardboard taped to my windows. It drenched the carpet, my books swelling before my eyes. In the thunder, I almost missed the third brick that smashed another window—in the study, this time—and ricocheted across my antique desk.
Ellie’s name was on my lips when a crash shook the house.
The storm had toppled the Douglas fir. Needle-sharp splinters poked from its snapped trunk; sap glistened on scorched bark. As I gaped, the thunder gave a triumphant roar that hollowed out my chest.
The treehouse lay devastated, the canvas roof flung atop the neighbours’ house. Scraps of cracked wood littered the mud. But even more—the magic was broken. Completely, utterly gone, washing away from the tree’s corpse like blood.
I couldn’t move. Not until Ellie crawled from beneath the wreckage. Her clothes hung in tatters and mud smeared her face, but she was miraculously unhurt.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It was a good tree.”
Sirens wailed through the rain. Car doors slammed, boots tromped. A helicopter growled overhead.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
ATTENTION OCCUPANT. THIS IS CANADIAN-AMERICAN PEACE ENFORCEMENT.
More wood groaned as they kicked my front door in. Ellie wiped mud from her shoulder. Still awkward. Stiff as bone.
“The pub,” I said. “We have to go. One last time.”
“What good will that do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, because that’s all I could give.
I know. I know.
So Sir Olivier crooned, holding Roland as the horn slipped from his grasp at last.
So I mumbled years ago, cradling a girl with a small round hole in her head.
I know it hurts. I know you’re scared.
I didn’t have enough magic to heal her wound. Not nearly enough. I had only enough to reach inside, to gently caress the heart. To squeeze it until the pain stopped.
What good did it do? I don’t know. I really don’t.
In the raging storm we battled up Roncesvalles Ave. Blocks of Edwardian buildings loomed to either side of us. Too many storefronts had flags festooned across their windows, the cold stars of the Free States. Rain lashed my face, blurring my vision until the street dissolved to fury and shadow.
“Keep going,” I muttered, grabbing Ellie’s hand. “Almost there.”
Her skin was hard against mine, cool and smooth.
The wind howled so that each step took the strength of ten. I have some heft to me, and even I had to plant my feet to keep from flying down the sidewalks. If not for my fingers wrapped around Ellie’s wrist, she would’ve been tossed over the lake.
Some shops had lights. Through the darkness, they vanished one by one until we were alone. Soaked to the skin, I pushed Ellie ahead of me. Her legs seemed even stiffer. She hardly bent her knees, her hips creaking.
The pub’s lights remained on, warm and hazy. We fell inside with a gasp. Tables stood stacked against the windows; a crowd of people huddled at the back. From downstairs, I heard shouting, and I imagined more, crammed into supply closets and the unplugged walk-in fridge, and the mildewed bathrooms.
“He’s not here,” Ellie said.
“Do you have the Oliphant?”
She turned to me. Her eyes went blanker yet. The tattoos glowed on her arms, her collarbones, all those intricate scenes of fighting animals and hills, the half-forgotten valley where she had stood so long ago in the heat and dust.
“Yes,” she said. “Always.”
She raised one hand. Inflexible. Unyielding. Like something carved from an elephant’s tusk.
“Roland will sound the Oliphant.” Her voice was lower, richened with resonance that buzzed up my breastbone. “He will call for help.”
“Ellie, how much longer can we wait?”
“I don’t know,” she said, as the bartender urged us to hide. “I just don’t.”
After Roland died at the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass, his Oliphant was broken and his sword Durendal hidden against future need.
Or so the story went.
The TV stayed on for a while. Itchy fingers prevailed, in the end. Like I said, it’s easy for them to tighten a little too much.
When people started crying, the bartender turned the TV off. I found a quarter in my pocket and pumped it into the jukebox. Better than nothing, right? When treehouses fail, when magic fails, when reason fails, music plays on.
Ellie stood by the window, watching the devastation outside.
“Call,” I told her. “Call for help.”
“It’s too late.” She turned to me with tears in her eyes. “What happens when it’s too late?”
“You sound the horn anyway.”
In a soft-glowing pub on Roncesvalles, waiting for a saviour who would never come, surrounded by people grooving to an ancient jukebox, Ellie threw back her head and sang—
—a high, driving line that drowned out the thunder—
—desperate rage against the falling dark—
—defiance that soared on and on and on—
—until it felt like we might win after all. It felt like we could do anything, all of us together, dancing against the night and the fire and the storm.
Too late, the Oliphant sang. She sang until she wavered on her feet. She sang until she clutched at her head. She sang until the blood dripped from her lips and her eyes rolled back.
Like Roland, she went down suddenly. More blood leaked from her ear. Even as the last echoes died away, the dancing continued. I lifted the Oliphant into my lap as I’d cradled the other girl, touching my forehead to hers. I held her until the trickling blood ran cold, and the silence could no longer be broken.
Did anyone hear the Oliphant, except us? Did it do any good?
My pen’s nearly out of ink. The rain’s broken the windows; I’m not sure where to leave these pages. There’s no place in this pub that won’t get soaked, or shattered, or burned to the ground.
How easily it’s all swept away. How quickly dignity was plucked from between our fingertips. How fast it went, in the end.
You know. You know.
We can only dance on. Defy the night, and remember the snow’s soft music. That’s all the Oliphant could give us, in the end.
I hope it’s enough.
Story copyright © 2018 by KT Bryski
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Grace P. Fong
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, podcaster, and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She is a Parsec winner, Sunburst finalist, and Stonecoast MFA alum. She lives in Toronto with a strongly opinionated cat.
Grace P. Fong or “Fictograph” is a Philadelphia-raised illustrator and technical artist living in Vancouver, Canada. She illustrates for speculative fiction and has made personal and promotional work in partnership with a number of bestselling authors. In 2018, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist for her work with Alyssa Wong and Uncanny Magazine. She also likes to write, travel, eat, and annoy her cat.