The Thorn Clock

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When her auntie died, far sooner than she should have, Subira inherited three things from her.  One was a blessing.  One was a curse.  The third was a quest.  The curse is what killed her aunt.  And the curse would kill Subira too unless she completed the quest before the number on the clock that her aunt gave her reached one thousand and six.

Subira did not even know she had an auntie.  She had thought her mother an only child.  Her mother gathered Subira and her siblings together on the day they consecrated her aunt’s remains and released her spirit to the afterlife.  And she told her children why their aunt was kept secret from them. 

Her aunt had inherited a curse.  She had done so willingly, knowing that she did not wish to marry or have children, so that Subira’s mother would be free.  The origin of the curse was a mystery.   Family history only spoke of a feud began long ago, a feud that may not have even involved Subira’s kin, but that belonged to some powerful family for whom they once worked.  Having no heirs of their own, this family passed down their feud to Subira’s ancestors.  They passed it down in the form of a deep anger that could not be forgotten even after the feud was long forgotten.  That was all that was left. 

Anger.  Inherited from one generation to the next. 

Subira’s ancestors had tried to break this curse, as they came to call the unwanted inheritance.  But they failed.  Her aunt too had failed.  She had hidden herself away to search for some cure, to delay her own death.  She told her sister not to tell her if she had any children, for Subira’s aunt hoped that if she did not know of any heirs, then her curse would not know, and it would die with her.  Alas, that was not the way of such curses.  So long as there were heirs, the curse would live on.

“The curse has lifted from your aunt,” Subira’s mother said, her eyes sad and serious, “and it has settled on one of you.”

It did not take long for them to realize that the one upon whom the curse had settled was Subira.

***

“This does not make sense,” Subira said when they had returned home.  “Someone wronged us, but we are the ones who suffer a curse?  It is unjust!” 

Suddenly, she felt a piercing in her heart.  Subira cried out as she bent over in pain, clutching her chest.  Her mother rushed to her side.  She placed one hand on her daughter’s shoulder, while the other wrapped a device around Subira’s wrist.  The device ticked many times, then stopped, just as the pain in Subira’s chest began to recede.

Her mother turned the device toward Subira.  She called it a “thorn clock.”  For the device had a face, like a clock, and in that face there shown a beating heart.  And that beating heart was entwined with a vine bearing dozens upon dozens of thorns, all of them piercing the heart, drawing dark fatal blood.

It was Subira’s heart.

“Beware of your anger,” her mother said.  “For it will pierce you.  And now that the curse has claimed you, you will be all the more quick to anger.”

Subira’s aunt had built the thorn clock.  She had not known how many thorns would grow before she died.  But the clock had measured them.  And now Subira would now know how many thorns she could bear before she too perished.  One thousand and six.

Subira wondered if she could bear that many thorns.  The clock numbered a mere few dozen, but she felt an ache in her heart with every beat, and sweat had already formed upon her brow from the effort of bearing that ache.

Her aunt had discovered, though too late for herself, that there might be a way to lift the curse. 

There was a special forge, somewhere deep in the southern mountains.  From this forge flowed fires from the heart of the earth itself, and those fires could remake the feud curse into something else, something harmless, or better yet, advantageous, perhaps even noble and good.  And if the curse-bearer could not manage to harness the forge fires to remake the curse, then the fires would just burn away the curse, along with a good portion of the bearer’s life.  In the second case, Subira would still die sooner than she might have otherwise, but she would live much longer than her aunt had, and much longer than she would if she did nothing. 

***

In one way, misfortune became fortune, for Subira had always wanted to travel.  She resolved to find some enjoyment in her journey, for it might be her last.  But she felt nothing but fear and worry on the night before she embarked, especially after learning that she had to travel alone.  The curse lay upon her, but those close to her were not spared its effects.  The thorns that pierced Subira’s heart were poisonous, and that enchanted poison seeped out and had already begun to sicken the youngest children in the house.

Her mother gave Subira a map, and money hidden in many pockets, and the names of those who might give her shelter in some of the towns that she would pass.  She gave Subira a final bequest from her aunt, a diary filled with advice on how to allay her anger so that she might have enough time to make the long journey to the southern mountains before the curse claimed her life. 

***

In the very first town where Subira stopped, she inquired about finding some way to travel quickly.  There were many a fairy ferry, small carriages that rode upon winds or hopped through enchanted portals.  But these were as unreliable as the fairies who operated them.  And the cost was too great, especially when Subira might end up even farther away from her destination than she was.  But Subira had already grown dozens more thorns, a few from the anger she felt at a stone in her shoe, and many from seething at some noblewomen whose caravan blocked all the streets that Subira had to cross.

Though she would not take a fairy transport, Subira was curious about the fleet-footed fairies who pulled the carriages.  She learned that they were not naturally so quick.  Part of the reason that the transports were irregular was that the fairies who ran them had to wait for storms.  For with the storms came the thunderfaere, horse-like fairies who rode upon lightning.  They possessed magnificent wings bearing silvery bright blue feathers.  If swallowed, just one of their feathers would grant one tremendous speed. 

The fairies who sought her business told Subira there was to be a storm coming that next morning, and their speed would be replenished.  But Subira had her own idea.  She waited near the foot of a hill the next morning just as the storm began to peak, to see if she could catch sight of a thunderfaere.  She did not. 

She waited for a few hours, sheltered but soaked and chilled through by the time the storm abated.  She saw lightning.  She heard thunder.  But she did not see any fairies. 

Once the storm passed, she searched the hill where she had seen lightning strike.  Buried in mud, she found a single feather.  When she pulled it free, the mud burned away, and the feather glowed a white-hot blue.  But she saw with dismay that the feather was as long as her leg.  At its widest point, it was wider than her shoulders.  It was far too large for her to swallow. 

The town fairies—many of whom were smaller than she was—must have had some enchantment to shrink it down.  Subira would arouse too much suspicion from them if she asked about such a spell.  She decided to wait until she arrived at the next town, so she could discover some charm or hex that would allow her to use the feather.  Until then, she would keep it stowed away.  As large as it was, she was able to fold it enough to fit in her satchel.  And upon her satchel, she draped her cloak.

Thus did she hide the feather’s radiance.  And she continued on her way.

***

Subira had been too weary from her watch through the storm to feel angry that her plan had been foiled.  But as she walked along the main road, she remembered conversing with the people and the fairies of the town she had left behind, and she felt an inexplicable annoyance that none had been able to help her.  She was owed not help.  She had not paid for help.  And yet her annoyance grew. 

Why could they not see that she was cursed and in need of aid?  Why did she have to hide her curse?  Why had the curse fallen upon her?  She had done all that was asked of her in life, had she not?

Subira heard a ticking as she seethed.  She stopped walking.  She checked the thorn clock.  Her eyes widened, the number of thorns counted in the hundreds now.  That morning it had not even been close to two hundred.

She took deep breaths and calmed herself with a chant she had read in her aunt’s diary. 

Be curious, not angry.  Be curious, not angry.

When asking herself “why,” she should be curious, not angry.

“Easier said than done, auntie,” Subira muttered, as she continued to walk and breathe.  And when thoughts of “why” arose in her mind, she tried to be curious, not angry.  It was too difficult.  She would start curious, but her thoughts meandered into irritation and from there it was all too easy to stride into anger.

Why did mother not give me enough money to buy a horse?

So Subira took to humming quietly her favorite songs.

She almost did not hear the sounds of lamentation. 

Subira stopped humming but she kept walking.  The lamentations grew louder, and she soon came upon a broken stone marker that looked as if it might have once been a temple marker.  She glanced through the forest and just glimpsed a small hill upon which stood what appeared to be an abandoned temple.

She had planned to reach the next town before taking her lunch, but Subira had grown hungry.  She had another idea.  The lamentations were likely coming from a supplicant, likely a poor one.  Perhaps if she showed this person some kindness, she might hold back the curse.  For her recent anger had been triggered by unkind thoughts towards others.

***  

Subira found within the temple of cracked columns and cobwebs, a prone figure at the altar, sobbing in apparent despair.

She realized that what she had taken as the dim light of a torch burning within was actually a dim light emanating from the figure.  When she came closer and glanced between the statue at the altar and the figure lying at the statue’s feet, Subira realized that this was no supplicant. 

This was the god of the temple. 

When the god realized he was not alone, her turned, saw Subira, and rose to his feet.

Subira expected to see what she would see on the face of a mortal, tears, redness, perhaps some puffing of the skin.

But the god—the fallen god, it would seem—smiled and his face was as fresh as if he had woken from a restful sleep and bathed in clear waters.

The scent of mint suffused the air.

“Have you come to pray, my child?” the god asked.

Subira was thrown by the way he addressed her, for he seemed not much older than she was.

“Prayer will do me no good, your brightness, for I am cursed.” 

And the god did indeed seem to brighten a bit as he stepped back and up toward his statue.  “If that is so than you have all the more reason to pray.”

Subira did not recognize this god.  As such, she did not know what would offend him and what would please him.  And as she was cursed anyway, she felt emboldened to ask what she might not have otherwise asked.

“Can you bring me relief from my curse?”  She briefly described her curse to the fallen god.

The god’s smile faded.  “Alas, I have forgotten how to wield my divine powers.”

“Are you cursed as well?”

“No, not as such.  I am weakened by a lack of devotion.”  He sighed.  “My divine powers rely on the prayer and belief of my followers, of which I currently have none.”

Subira frowned.  “Then you are at the mercy of others, just as I am.”  She took a deep breath to stave off the anger that threatened to flare.

The god peered at her.  He stepped down from the altar.  “You carry a heavenly power with you.  I have caught its fragrance.”  He tilted his head.

Subira was puzzled at first, but then she realized that the fallen god must have been sensing the thunderfaere feather she carried.  She pulled it out of her satchel.  It had lost some of its radiance.

The fallen god gaped at the feather.  “What is your name, traveler?”

Subira caught her breath.  She had to answer him.  But a god only asked a mortal’s name for one of two reasons, to offer protection or to bring under dominion.

She gave him her name, and waited.

“If this feather’s power is not properly tapped, it will radiate away,” the god warned, “and all that will be left is dust.” 

“I understand,” Subira said, “but it’s too big for me to swallow.”

The fallen god’s brilliant green eyes widened.  “Swallow!  I should warn you against that, my child.  You are mortal.  You cannot contain the power of a thunderfaere, even the power of a single feather.  In the name of forgotten gods, why were you planning to swallow the feather?”

“I learned it from the fairies. I hoped that if I swallowed the feather, I would become fleet of foot, and could travel to the southern mountains in a fraction of the time if would otherwise take me.  Then I would have plenty of time to puzzle out how to use the forge to lift my curse, before the curse killed me.” 

“The forge!” the fallen god cried.  “I had forgotten about the forge.  I have visited the forge before, long ago.” He tilted his head and furrowed his brow as if in thought.  “The feather in the forge.”

The feather itself would do Subira no good, but perhaps it could still help her.

Subira held out the feather to the fallen god. 

Astonished, the god embraced the feather and it suffused into his form.  He glowed with its power.  Subira hoped that he was a kind and merciful god. 

Without another word or a glance, the fallen god dashed away.   

***

Subira felt angry with the fallen god, but in truth, she felt angry with herself.  She wondered why she had given away her only advantage when she had no reason to.  She felt the pricking of a dozen thorns in her heart.  She had waited in the temple for a while, wondering if the god would return, wondering where he had gone.  But at last, she had left, so that she could reach the next town before nightfall. 

That night she could not sleep.  She felt the bitterness dripping from those thorns.  Her heart quivered, and then she wept in despair.  But at least she was not angry, at least the thorns had stopped growing.

***

For the next few months, Subira kept moving southward.  She grew many thorns in her heart, but she also studied the diary that her aunt bequeathed her.  It contained practices to calm herself and to cultivate patience. 

Anger was like lightning, her aunt had written.  Sometimes it could be seen coming.  Sometimes it struck as if out of nowhere.  If it came without warning, so too would come the thorns, but if Subira calmed herself quickly, she would slow the growth of the thorny vine that choked her heart. 

Once it stuck her, anger, like lightning, would scorch her and scar her.  The pain and bitterness in her heart would abide, unless she learned how to let it drain away. 

In this way, Subira learned to manage her ordinary anger.  But she was cursed.  And the curse would have its way. 

If she grew too comfortable, the curse would strike.  Even with the help and counsel of the wise, listeners and seers whose aid she sought, her anger would flare.  Even with calming meditations, she could not escape the end to which the curse drove her.  She could only delay it.

So she continued her travels.  And she continued to seek a way to travel faster. 

She encountered setbacks, and she encountered help.  Sometimes both, as when she traveled for half a year aboard a middling ship to cross the “neverending waters,” a vast lake that separated the northern lands from the southern lands.  Most of the crew abandoned the ship after learning that Subira was cursed, and suffering the lashes of her anger. 

But Subira was steadfast.  She took charge of the few who had remained with her, and together, they were able to right the ship.  They sent messages to other ships to recruit new crew members, and they received aid. 

Subira had believed she must journey alone, that there were none she could count on to assist her and aid her.  But she learned that she was wrong.  The new crew was as steadfast as she.  They were better.  They rebuilt the broken parts of the ship.  Storm and surge came, but did not deter her crew.  Subira’s anger would flare every now and then.  The thorns would grow.  For she would remember old hurts and old betrayals.  But though she felt anger, she would not express it.  She would instead ask herself why.  And her answers helped her to calm herself whenever she observed that her anger had no reason to be.  

The ship, repaired and improved by an ingenious and kindhearted crew, sped across the lake. 

Soon they made landfall.  Once upon the shore, Subira thanked her crew, and wished them well.  They had made her captain, but she passed the task on to another.  And she carried on with her quest.

***

In the southern lands, when Subira mentioned she was cursed, every other person to whom she mentioned it would claim they too were cursed.  Cursed and cured.  Subira felt hope.  She sought a cure, and she sought more knowledge of the forge in the mountains that still and always seemed half a world away. 

Subira learned that she would have to step into the forge and its enchanted fires.  To keep her mortal body from burning away, she was told she would need to be magically shielded.  And such a shield would come at a great cost.

Wary of swindlers, Subira did not jump into purchasing a magical shield.  Instead, she collected more knowledge.  More rumors, more deceptions, more facts.  And though she tried her best, she also collected more thorns, hundreds upon hundreds.

As she had first suspected, there was no spell or magic that would shield her from the mountain forge.  She would indeed die, whether taken by the curse or the forge fire.  But if she entered the forge fire, she could at least try and re-forge the curse into something harmless, or even something good…perhaps she could forge herself a new body.  She would not be flesh and blood, but she would be alive. 

She shared her idea with those were practiced in such magic, but all were skeptical.  For even one experienced in forging and casting magic would not be able to manage the primal energies of the mountain forge.  There was great power in the forge, but it was like the power of lightning, no mortal human could manage it.  And so, only the most desperate sought the forge. 

Subira learned that the stories of the forge that trickled into the northern lands were stories stripped of truth, so that only hope remained.  But it was a false hope.

Still, Subira was determined to try.  Seeing this, a witch whom she had befriended told her of an enchanted tunnel of brambles that would lead Subira directly to the foot of the mountains.  From there, it would be only a few days of climbing up and a few hours of climbing down into the mountain’s hollow center, for Submira to reach the forge.  As she had also learned, the forge was neither hidden nor guarded.  There was no need.  For its power was too great for any to harness.

***

Subira found the tunnel of brambles and she began to walk through it.  She expected to feel some surge of magic, or to see the landscape around her change.  But nothing changed, even as she emerged on the other side of the tunnel after less than an hour of walking.  She appeared to be in the same place, having just clumsily stumbled through a tunnel of brambles, picking up thorns and thistles in her cloak, and hair, and dozens of scratches on her face, despite her attempts to shield herself.

Have I been cheated once again? she thought.  And anger flared within her as she thought of all the betrayals she had suffered on her journey.  And her heart bled from the piercing of a hundred thorns.

And then, she felt a different piercing.  Subira cried out and opened her right hand, inspecting her palm. 

A bee lay in the hollow of her palm, a dying bee, its stinger embedded in the flesh just below her thumb.

Sorrow swept aside the anger that threatened to flare, as Subira gazed down at the bee. 

“She’s dying,” Subira whispered to herself.  “Why?  Why must you die for merely defending yourself?”

Other creatures could sting without dying.  Why should the bee die? 

Why should I die?

And the asking “why” did not bring anger, only more sorrow, and more regret.  The bee grew still, even as Subira wished she could give the stinger back.  If only she could give the stinger back.

As Subira gazed down at the bee, it began to shiver, a new stinger appeared in place of the one it had lost. 

Subira felt a sharp pain in her chest.  She collapsed to the ground.  She had learned to bear the pain of the thorns growing in her heart as a constant ache that hunched her back and dulled her senses.  But this did not feel like a thorn piercing her heart, but a dagger stabbing it.

The bee sprung back to life, rolling to its feet and launching into the air with a startled buzz.  It hovered before Subira for a moment, as if it dazed, and then flew away.  Subira tried to calm herself, for she was only a few dozen thorns away from death.  But she heard the thorn clock ticking. 

She checked the clock and saw the thorn count change.  But for the first time, the count decreased, by one. 

Subira gasped. 

She stared at the clock, blinking, rubbing her eyes.  But the number did not change.  One of the thorns in her heart was gone. 

She thought of how the bee’s stinger had reappeared and the bee had sprung back to life.  No bee survived if it spent its stinger.  Did it?  And as the stinger was restored, a thorn vanished.

“Could it be?” Subira wondered.  “Is there another way?” 

She reasoned out why and how it had happened.  The bee spent its stinger in anger.  So the thorn that grew from anger restored that stinger, and the bee’s life.  Perhaps?  Or perhaps it was a fluke.  But if it was not a fluke, would being stung again remove another one of her thorns, and another?  All of them?

But the pain of the sting and the pain of the thorn receding from her heart had almost knocked her out.  To bear that almost a thousand times over was unthinkable.   

After several moments, Subira recovered herself.  She nursed her throbbing hand, and she looked ahead on the path. 

She realized that she was at the foot of the southern mountains.

***

Subira spent a day camped at the foot of the mountains, wondering if she should risk being burned to death in the forge fire when she could perhaps just encourage a few bees to sting her every now and then to bring the thorn count down.  But the counter would no doubt continue ticking up as well.  It was a race that she might not win.  Though she was far, far from seeing the first gray in her hair or the first wrinkle upon her brow, Subira was near death now.  She was only twelve thorns away in fact.

She decided that if she has come that far, she should at least gaze upon the forge.

The trek was not easy, but Subira took many rests.  She nourished herself with food.  She let herself stop to examine any interesting or lovely sights.  She encountered no one.  She remained calm. 

And soon, she was standing before the forge.

Its beautiful golden-red fire spouted up and cascaded down like a fountain in the middle of a spacious cavern.  As she stood before it, Subira felt its enchanted heat, not upon her skin, but within her. 

She approached as close as she could bear.

And she decided that she would not enter the forge. 

By chance, she had stumbled upon another way.  At the very threshold of the mountains, she had found another way to break the curse.  A painful and painstaking way.  But she was certain it would work. 

She began to turn away.

“Wait!”

Subira turned back to the forge, for the voice seemed to have come from that direction.

“You must help me get free,” the voice said.  Subira realized that the voice was not just coming from the direction of the forge but from within the forge.

And she recognized that voice.  It was the fallen god. 

She came closer.  She announced herself, but he knew who she was. 

He told her that he had meant to replenish himself in the forge and then return to his temple to help her in her quest.  But he became trapped inside the forge. 

He needed her to reach into the forge and pull him out.  Subira informed him that that the forge fire would burn her mortal body, but the god assured her that he could protect her from the fire.  He just needed someone to pull him out. 

Subira braced herself.  She favored her right hand, so she decided to sacrifice her left.  She plunged it into the forge fire.  She felt no pain, only the rushing of the fire around her arm.  She felt a hand wrap around hers.  She grasped it and pulled.

The fallen god emerged from the forge fire.

Absorbing the power of the thunderfaere’s feather had made the god glow brightly.  But absorbing the forge fire made him radiant.    

He told her that he had regained his powers from the forge.  And as for that feather, he forged it into a pair of boots that would make him fleet of foot.  He wouldn’t be able to fly, but he would be able to run as fast as lightning.

So, the forge fire was not meant for mortals like Subira, but for beings like the fallen god. 

The god insisted that he could shield her from the fire if she wanted to try using it.  But she asked him if he could let the forge fire reach her heart, her curse, while keeping it from reaching the rest of her.  If the fire did not reach her heart, then it could not burn away the curse.

The fallen god was not certain if he could do as she described.  But he seemed eager to help her.  He offered to practice his powers so he could help her find some way to use the forge. 

“I thank you, your brightness,” Subira said.  “But I haven’t much time left.  And I believe I have another way.”  She told him about the bee sting and the vanishing thorn.

The fallen god beamed then.  He smiled and he radiated.  “Then I can help you.”  With his powers restored, the fallen god said he could bear the pain of the thousand stings for Subira, and for the thousand bees. 

They returned to the tunnel of brambles, where Subira found the beehive.  And the god angered the bees by kidnapping their queen and holding her hostage, right above Subira’s head.  The bees stung, but they felt no pain or fear, and neither did Subira.  The thorns vanished from her heart.  She watched the number on the thorn clock fall and fall, and she watched the thorn vine around her heart wither away until not a single thorn was left. 

The curse was lifted.

But the vanishing thorns left tiny little hollows in Subira’s heart.

***

As they rested in a tavern that very morning, the fallen god having dimmed his radiance, Subira stared at her hole-filled heart on the face of the thorn clock.  Every now and then, she felt a jolt of cold in her heart, as if a chill breeze were blowing through all those holes.

“It feels uncomfortable,” she said.

“You must fill them with something, something quite the opposite of those poisonous thorns,” the fallen god advised. 

After she had rested, the fallen god carried Subira back to her home in moments.  Before he left her, he told her his name, or rather, one of his names, the one he had called himself when first they met.  He told her to call upon him whenever she needed.  He would answer, any time.

Subira bid him farewell.  She began the walk back to her house, filled with calm and hope.

As she thought about seeing her mother and her siblings, she felt her heart fill up. The clock upon her wrist began to tick.  The sound chilled Subira.  She stopped and checked the clock. 

The meter now displayed a golden drop where once it had shown a thorn.  Next to the drop was a number that now reached the hundreds.  Some of the hollows in her heart had filled with something, some liquid that flowed like blood, but thicker.  Something that shone a dark golden color.   

“It can’t be,” Subira thought, gazing at the golden droplet.  “Honey?  My heart is filling with honey?”  She shook her head and smiled.  “I suppose I’m a sweetheart now.” 

Subira laughed at her own jest.  And the counter on the clock, the honey clock, ticked upwards.

 

Copyright © 2020  Nila L. Patel

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