Stars Called In Blood
 

by M P Ericson


She had to get out. Corinna scrabbled at the plank wall. She had to get out now, before the master came for her. Which he would do, in person, he always did. Loved to watch her flinch from him, before he hauled her back to the house for another whipping. And for worse later. She couldn't endure that, not another time.


She'd sworn she'd make it—she'd slipped so quietly away from the house, didn't see how anyone could have spotted her. And maybe they hadn't done so for any fault of hers, maybe he'd set them to watch for her next attempt at escape. Because they'd caught her when she was well away, almost to the edge of the back fields, where rough scrubland scented with wild herbs sloped sharply down to the sea. Which lay peaceful and glittering beyond the chirp of insects and waft of green scents. She'd allowed herself to imagine, just for a moment, that she was safe.


Then hard hands closed on her arms and dragged her back, though she kicked and fought and bit. She'd pay for that, too, wished she hadn't done it now, maybe the master would have gone lighter on her if she'd come quietly. But it wasn't her way, never had been, she'd lost count of the whippings she'd endured. It wasn't kindness that kept him from killing her, she'd lost three of her sister slaves to his harsh discipline. But she was pretty, or so he said, and must be kept for the bedchamber. Which was worse. But only because he wasn't as hard on her as the others, she knew that, she was grateful even as she hated him for it.


After this, though . . .

 

She'd promised herself she wouldn't fail. Not this time. She'd planned it for weeks, chosen her exact moment, when everyone was supposed to doze in their rooms. Except not all of them had done, evidently.


They'd shut her in the shed. Again. She didn't know if it was supposed to be part of her punishment, to roast here quietly while others rested in the cool of the house. But it gave her a little time. And she'd been working on this plan, too, against another moment, if chance or the gods didn't favour her direct path to escape. She'd loosened two of the planks in the back wall, might just be able to squeeze through. For what good it would do her, they'd only catch her again. But she had to try. Had to believe she'd succeed eventually, get out of their reach and stay hidden, make her way to some other, safer, place.


What she would do then, she didn't know. But she could clean and spin and weave and tend fires, care for children too. She didn't mind working, if only she could have her body to herself.


Steps now, and men's voices. The master's voice, she recognised it with a chill of fear. He laughed at something, that chilled her more.


Wait, and face the consequences. Or try the planks and the gap—gods willing. If there were any gods, and if they troubled to listen to a mere girl slave.


She pushed at them, carefully. Then harder, even flung herself at them. They gave abruptly, with a sharp crack, and she fell clear through into a snarl of shrubs behind the shed.


The planks leaned against the branches. Her instinct told her to run at once, but she took a precious moment to lean the planks back against the wall. Hoped fervently that the break might not show too much, not right away. Eyes needed time to adjust to the gloom, as hers did now to cope with the glare of sun outside. Tears welled up and drained onto her cheeks as she squinted against the light.


No one around. She was sure of it. But she'd been sure before.


"Probably trying to break out." The master laughed again. "Never learns, the stupid little bitch. Pretty, though." Wood scraped as he flicked off the bolt.


She ran then, fast as she could, straight for the dip and the cluster of shrubby growth that surrounded the boundary marker. Ducked into shelter, continued out onto rocky ground. Then down, abruptly, as the slope tilted sharp towards the sea. Slipped on a patch of bare rock, tumbled into another shrub that grabbed and held her still. She fought against its grip, fiercely, while it scratched and tore at her tunic and skin. At which point she realised it was thorny limbs that had caught her, not human hands.


Men's shouts from above. Maybe they'd seen her. Spotted her thrashing about—oh, she'd been stupid. She'd die for this, she was sure of it. The master would beat her and beat her until she was no longer breathing, he'd done it to the others, he would do it to her. And then . . .


Then she'd be gone from here, at least. But before that—no, she couldn't endure it. Couldn't die like that, screaming and weeping and pleading.


She held her breath and waited. Shoes slithered on rock.They'd found her, then, were coming after her. She could only run, though she knew they'd catch her at last.
She tore herself free, left drops of blood strung along each branch, they glistened in the sunlight as she turned and stared up the slope. Shadows of men moved down towards her, they knew exactly where she was, she couldn't hope to outrun them. Or outfight them. Or do anything except let them take her back.


But she wouldn't. She spun away and ran, headlong, towards the shore. Jumped from each bulge of rock to the next, fought to evade the snarls of growth that grabbed at her. Reached the water's edge, where lazy waves drifted in and soothed green-draped stone, where strange shapes watched her, motionless, from the gloom under the surface.


She couldn't go in the water, she'd drown. Though that was one way out, maybe, if it came to it. If she had no other choice. She'd never been this far before, but here she was now, with one path of escape open to her. It would be quicker at least, less desperately painful, she could drown herself and be at peace.


But she didn't. Not yet. Sped across the stone, slithered and fell and tore open her knee, scrambled to her feet and ran again. Hot blood welled down her shin, and she could taste it in her mouth too, she must have bitten her lip as she fell. Which didn't matter, she didn't care, she just had to get away.


They were there. Right in front of her. Two tall shadowy figures, blocking her path of escape.


Corinna spun around. Men behind her, too. And the master, strolling down the slope as if he did this every day. Close enough for her to look up at him and see that odd smile, the one he'd worn just before he killed each of the other girls. As if he liked the thought of it—looked forward to it, like a tempting dish.


She spun back to the men ahead, she didn't know who they were, hadn't recognised them. From the next estate, maybe, she didn't know how far she'd come, but she was past the boundary marker and this might be another master's land. Whose slaves would be equally willing to catch her and give her back, because it spared their skins and their lives. Because men would never help a girl, not if it cost them. Not even if it didn't—if they could save her life and barely notice, they still wouldn't do it. These two would capture her if she moved, and the others would get her if she didn't, and there was only the sea on one side and the master on the other, and she couldn't move. Just stood there and stared up at the men as they moved forward, slowly, with a strange gliding motion.


Except they weren't men, she realised. They were women. Both of them. Tall and strong, barefoot, wrapped in long tunics. Each carried a whip in one hand. Their hair, what she'd taken for a clout against the sun, was bound up with rope. And their eyes welled dark with blood.


Corinna dashed towards the water. And stopped dead as a third woman loomed before her, balanced right on the edge between the sea and the land. The rope wound in her hair moved and hissed, rippled like water. A snake, long and black and coiled like a whip around her head.

 

"Come here," the woman said, and held out a hand streaked with blood.
 

Corinna backed away. Right into the master, who laid one hand on her shoulder and the other—very gently, like a caress—around her throat.
 

"Why must you be so difficult?" he chided, and tightened his grip just a little.
 

This was where she must beg forgiveness. Beg him, and pleasure him, and maybe he'd let her off . . . just this once. Maybe. If she promised to behave.
 

But she wouldn't. Not this time.
 

She tore away—or tried to, but his fingers clenched hard around her shoulder and throat. Prickles of darkness bloomed from the scrub and fretted away the monstrous women. Only shadows now, unrecognisable—except for their eyes, which she still saw clearly.
 

And she wasn't afraid of any more. They wept tears of blood, as she'd done so many times herself, or at least that was how it had felt.
 

"Let her go," said the one at the water's edge. The master tightened his grip even more.
Vision returned, an odd dark clarity. The women were no longer shadows, but shone like polished night. All around them faded into grey mist, sea mist, the haze that hung over the sea at dawn. The one by the water's edge raised her whip, and held out her hand towards Corinna.
 

"Come." It was a simple command, but it carried the weight of earth and sky. The force of it lifted Corinna from the master's grasp, bore her forward and into the woman's embrace.
 

Screams made her spin around and stare. Men's screams, harsh and shrill. The master collapsed, clawing at his eyes. The other two women glided forward, whips raised, as the men slaves collapsed likewise. Blood poured from their eyes, drenched their tunics and soaked into the rocky ground.
 

Something touched the palm of Corinna's hand. Her fingers closed around it, reflexively. Scaly dry it felt, like a still but living snake. Yet she wasn't afraid.
 

She raised her hand, and the snake uncoiled, rose in her grasp like a whip. Watched the men writhe on the ground, shrieking still, intent on nothing but their own pain. As the girls had done, her sister slaves, before they fell silent, before they ceased to breathe.
The woman laid a hand on each of Corinna's shoulders, a firm but gentle touch. Leaned down until the snake in her hair brushed Corinna's ear. Whispered words in some strange language like the swish of waves against the shore.
 

The world melted away, dissolved into that eerie haze and then faded entirely. Corinna stood on black rock, sure and certain, with a cascade of stars across the night sky. Ahead of her, gleaming faintly, a temple rose. Snakes rippled from a low doorway, gathered around her feet, touched their tongues to her skin as if in greeting. Then slithered away, she heard the rustle as they vanished in the scrub.
 

And then silence. Utter silence, such as she had never known.

"You may remain with us, if you wish." The woman spoke, she had a clear and steady voice, oddly comforting. "This is our home."

Corinna stared at the temple. It didn't look frightening. But then the master's house didn't either, until you knew.

"What if I don't want to?"

The touch of the woman's hands disappeared from her shoulders. Corinna stood entirely free, unheld and unburdened.

"There are a thousand stars," the woman said. "Pick one."
 

Corinna tipped her head back, saw each star flicker and grow, to become a tiny temple waiting for her choice.
 

"I'd like to stay here," she decided. "For now."
 

She walked forward, lighter of step than ever before in her life, towards the temple doorway. Snakes slithered out and coiled around her feet, as if guiding her. Inside, she found a small hearth laden with glowing embers, and the sweet smoke of incense wafting through the air.
 

A peaceful place. She had dreamed of that, all her life. Never truly believed that one existed, until now.
 

"What happened?" she asked.
 

The woman had followed her in. Stood in the shadows now, wreathed by scented smoke. "You called us."
 

Corinna thought of the thousands of times she'd prayed for escape, and never once been heard. "Why not before?"

"We are only three. There are so many children to hear, so many calls. We try. We'll reach them all, in time. But not soon enough for most. We know this. Still we listen, and we reach for all those we can find."
 

Thousands of stars. Each a temple to some lost and wandering soul, who had finally reached a safe place, a home.
 

"Who are you?" Corinna asked.
 

She could feel the woman's smile, though she couldn't see it. "You may call us by whatever names you choose. We are . . . Helpers, you might say. We create a place of safety, for every soul who needs it. And we travel, constantly. Listen, and attempt to hear. Who are you, apart from one who called us?"
 

Corinna was on the point of speaking her name. Then hesitated. Because she hadn't chosen it: the master had, and she wanted nothing of his. She didn't remember what her name had been before.
 

"I am me," she said.
 

"That's a good start." The woman blew out breath. Smoke coiled around Corinna's body, rested on it like a raiment. She felt utterly at peace.
 

"I'd like to see my friends," she said. Remembered them as they had been in stolen moments, cuddled together for comfort, seeking assurance from each other that it would end eventually, that the pain and the horror couldn't last.
 

"They will find you," the woman said. "From their own stars. Or you will find them. In time."
 

She had that, now. Her own life, her own time. For as long as that might be.
Scales caressed her feet. The snakes nudged her, until she moved forward again, towards the hearth. Laid her hands across the embers, and felt no pain.
 

"Am I alive?" she asked.
 

"Yes." The woman stood beside her. "For as long as you choose. In any way you choose. No harm can ever come to you here."
 

Corinna—or no, not Corinna any more—Me breathed in the smoke, fragrant and fresh. It coursed through her body, nurtured and sustained it, better than bread or water had ever done.
 

She wanted the sea, she thought. And stars. So she moved her hands over the embers in a gesture that felt strange but right. A vast glittering sea unrolled all around her, and above the temple roof dissolved to reveal the night sky.
 

She could live here. Forever.
 

Snakes settled against her skin. Immortal spirits, ageless, endlessly renewed. She was one of them now.
 

She moved her hands again, changed the embers into the semblance of land. Bent over it, watchful. Searched for other sparks, alone and far away, calling for her aid.


 

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M P Ericson lives on the edge of a moor in Yorkshire, England, with an assortment of spiders and mice. Visit her website at http://www.mpericson.com for more stories.