(Originally written: February 10, 2021)

Author’s Note: In Malazan Book of the Fallen, there exists individuals known as Shield Anvils. I found that concept interesting and felt like writing a story based on it. While the original concept belongs to that author, I have changed aspects of it and the characters, events, and overall world you are about to read about are all mine. 

The setting sun was at Paari’s back. It warmed him with what light it had left, like a campfire on the verge of dying. The emerging dark before him, with its star dusted black tinged with the sun’s purple, brought him chill. He continued on, caught between light and dark, between warmth and cold. No clear border could be found between the two sides of the spectrum, yet Paari found himself there. 

Slowly, the light of the sun left Paari. The moon offered him the sun’s bastard reflection instead. Not enough sight could be gained from moonlight, not with his human eyes. Especially not when the moon was in its waning crescent phase. Two stars twinkled near the crescent, turning that sliver of the sky into a smiling face that offered no brightness and no warmth. 

Paari came upon a caravan that had come to a rest for the day. The four wagons had been maneuvered into a wide circle and the merchants had placed their very own sun in the middle of it all. A scruffy haired child tended to it with a self-satisfied grin. Paari noted it and exhaled, softly, through his nose while smiling knowingly. This caravan wasn’t his destination but he needed to stop for the night anyway. And people who could make a child feel important even when doing a simple chore would likely be good company.

“Ho, traveler.” A woman wearing a long shirt and khaki pants came over to him and his horse. With a thumb in her thick, leather belt, she greeted him with a nod of her blonde head. Her other hand gripped the hilt of a sword. She didn’t loosen it from its scabbard, but her grip was firm. 

“Good evening.” Paari spoke his first words in two days. He had drank plenty of water but his mouth felt dry anyway and the words felt wrong coming out of his lips like he was pronouncing them incorrectly. “I’ll be off before sunrise. I would like some company until then, if you and your companions are willing.” He patted his pack. “I have my own food and water.”

“I see no sword on you.” The woman said. 

“I have none.” Paari said. “Nor do I have hidden daggers.”

“You’re a fool to travel alone without protection.”

“I have my own protections, merchant.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Conjure up some company for yourself then, mage. Why seek it with us?”

“Ah. My protections are not in that realm either.” Paari shook his head. “But I will not press upon your hesitation, as you have a child to protect. Safe travels.”

The woman stopped him as he took his horse’s reins into his hands. “Wait. You’re old enough to be my father. I’ll think of you as him. Please.” She took her hand off her sword. “Join us. Eat our food and drink our wine, Da.”

Paari looked at his hands and saw that they were no longer supple with youth. Wrinkles had arrived and both his hands shook as they hadn’t before. The last town had been too much, evidently. Paying no further heed to this development, he led his horse to where the others had been tied before sitting down at the campfire. The scruffy haired child came running to him with a wooden goblet, splashing most of the wine to the ground. He offered it proudly to Paari. “Here you go.”

“Thank you, blessed one.”  Paari laughed as he took it. “Tell Oda your name.”


“Manners.” The woman smacked the back of Hamish’s head as she walked by. She set up a cast iron pot to be heated over the fire. 

Hamish rubbed at his head and obeyed. “My name is Hamish, Oda.”

“Hamish. Strong name, blessed one.” Paari said. “And your Ma and Da’s name?”

“Ma’s name is Ina.” Hamish sat down. “Da’s name is Aros.”

A large man climbed out of the back of the wagon closest to them, bringing a sack with him. He was his wife’s age, likely at least a year older if they followed tradition, and had thick arms and legs that looked to be enough to pull a wagon all on their own. He deposited the sack next to Ina, then came to greet Paari. “Evenin’, Da.”

“Evening.” Paari left out honorifics despite being younger than the man in front of him. If they all thought him to be old, he would be old. “Aros? Hamish has your eyes.”

“Aye, sir.” Aros sat down beside his son. Unlike the boy, who was captivated by a line of ants, he sat with his legs crossed and his back straight.

“Strong name. Very strong name. Like a sun to your wife’s moon.” Paari said. “Ease up. I don’t have the strength to bend the likes of you over my knees and spank ya for lack of respect. Nor would I, if I did.”

“Thank you, Da.” Aros relaxed, his back bending and tanned face showing how tired he actually was. He took his cap off to scratch his prematurely balding pate before telling Hamish to get him some wine. “And don’t water the grass with it like you did for Da. Slow and steady, son, slow and steady.”

“You can call me Paari.” He noted the hesitation shadow Aros’ eyes. “Or not. I leave it to you.”

Aros nodded. “Where are you headed all on your own, Da?”

“The city of Odos.” 

Ina turned at that and Aros frowned deeply, clefts forming on either side of his mouth. Ina spoke. “Why would you do that, Da? No place for decent folk such as yourself to go.”

“Aye.” Aros grunted. “The plague hit it hardest for a reason, Da. Punishment for their ways. Don’t think it’ll change’em. People like that don’t change for anything.”

Paari nodded slowly and sighed, long and slow like a bereaved man, then hung his head so his chin touched his shirt. “I’ve got children there, son. What’s a father to do?”

Ina glared at Aros and he silently took the chastisement for his extra commentary. Ina looked at Paari. “Forgive my husband, Da. He often speaks too much. ”

“No harm was done.” Paari waved the apology away. “You’ve got quite the small party.”

“It’s not just us, Da.” Aros said, taking a half full goblet from Hamish’s sticky hand. “My grandmother is resting. And my sister and her husband have gone off out of earshot.” He chuckled and added, “Newlyweds, you see.”

“I will give my congratulations to them when they return. And wish them a blessing to arrive precisely when it’s meant to.” Paari said. “By resting, do you mean to say your grandmother is asleep? I would like to go convey respect if she is awake.”

“Omma is probably awake.” Aros pointed to the wagon closest to the horses. “She likes listening to the beasts.”

“A soft heart, then.” Paari stood, grunting and sighing like a father of middle-aged children. “Without doubt, respect must be given.”

Paari left the man to be scolded, in rapid whispers, by his wife. An old woman was lying in the wagon with her head close to the wagon bed’s entrance. Her white hair was splayed out, some of it hanging off the wagon bed. “Are you awake, Ma?” Paari asked softly. It felt odd to not say Omma to a woman this old. 

The frail woman’s answer came in the form of a sigh and a whimper. Paari frowned and looked closely at the woman’s face. Even in the dim light, the grimace was obvious. He put the back of his hand on her forehead and found that she wasn’t hot or sweaty. A bad dream then. Extremely common among her generation. The charred bead bracelet on her right wrist confirmed his guess. 

He made a gesture to Aros that the woman was sleeping. The man nodded, motioning to Paari to leave her as is. Paari nodded, then went to his horse as if he was checking on the beast. He mindlessly rubbed Rashi’s muzzle and neck while reaching his heart out to the woman in the wagon. The woman’s memories crashed into him like storm waves onto a seawall.

Running through a meadow while the horses grazed. Laughing. Cheering. Tripping over a boy laying in a flower bed and giggling at his shocked face. Paari took sugar cubes out of his pack. A wedding. The boy was older now. Broad shouldered. Thinning hair that she liked for some reason. Bright red beads being tied on her left wrist. Paari fed Rashi a sugar cube, smiling at the horse. In a large, luxurious room. Pregnancy. The husband gone. Off to fight a war that wouldn’t endHis promise repeated in song to her swollen belly. Paari gave Rashi another sugar cube. Red beads being thrown into a fire. Charred beads retrieved from smoking embers and pushed onto a shaking wrist. The right one. Paari looked at the wagon the old woman was in while listening to the cries of her confused toddler son. They were just echoes but Paari felt their full force. Moving constantly. Unable to find work. Refusal to remarry. The war carries on. Paari fed Rashi the last sugar cube in his hand, then leaned his forehead against the horse’s neck. The horse did nothing. The war carries on. Crippled and forgotten homeless everywhere. No employment for women. Paari did not shudder. None of this was new. Different names given to the same story. But to the woman in the wagon, it was a tale she had lived. And for that, he mourned. Stories like hers were tragedies purely due to them being familiar. Employment found. Unplanned pregnancies. Unwanted abortions. The toddler son growing older and understanding what his mother did. The mother knowing that her son knew. Neither saying anything. Paari silently lived through her story, feeling every sob, every blow, every penetration, every hungry night, every laugh, every break, every… Everything. When it was done, when her tale came to present time, Paari did not return her wounds. 

Her memories were given back. Along with every lesson. But not the pain. Not the wounds that continued to reopen and flog the woman and bleed her dry. He kept those to himself deep within his iron heart among the rest. As he passed the wagon, he looked into it. The old woman was relaxed and breathing softly.

“Sleep well until your time comes, Ma Izbeth.” Paari said softly. “I pray that won’t be until, at least, Hamish finds a love of his own. You’ve more than earned the right to see that joy.”

“Must be a good horse, Da.” Ina said when Paari returned to the campfire. “For you to give her that much attention.”

“A very good horse.” Paari nodded. “Her name is Rashi.”

“Rashi.” Ina repeated with approval. “You look starving, Da. Don’t worry. Dinner will be ready soon.”

“I’ve had a long day.” Paari chuckled, patting his stomach. “You may regret offering to feed me.”

“Nonsense. There will be plenty for all.” Ina smiled.

Aros’ sister and brother-in-law returned in time for dinner. They welcomed Paari and smiled happily as he gave them his blessings and well wishes. He held back an awkward chuckle as they fell to his feet for more blessings and gave them like he had the standing to do so. The meal itself was a quiet affair as everyone was too hungry to fill their stomachs with words instead of food. A covered bowl was placed in Izbeth’s wagon for her to eat when she woke up. Aros commented that he had never seen his grandmother sleep so soundly.

“Where are you all headed?” Paari asked. 

“North to Waytory.” Aros’ sister, Lila, said. “Omma wanted to see her hometown again.”

“Beautiful town.” Paari said. “And its meadows were spared from the war. Hamish will have fun running amidst its flowers.”

“Have you been there, Da?” Aros asked.

“Yes. Not long ago.” Paari said. “And I’m headed East. What luck for our paths to intersect.”

“The best luck.” Aros raised his goblet to toast Paari. “Odos isn’t far, Da. Not even half a day on foot. You’ll make it in no time at all with a horse like Rashi.”

“You’ve an eye for horses, Aros?” 

“Somewhat.” Aros shrugged modestly. “I know enough to feel some envy at her not being one of mine. But knowing she belongs to a man such as yourself puts the envy at ease.”

“I will sleep very well with that compliment.” Paari laughed. 

Despite his hosts’ insistence, Paari slept outside beside the fire. Saying that he slept better with the stars above him convinced them, along with their need to show respect outweighing their need to be good hosts. They all said goodnight, and then goodbye since Paari reminded them he would be gone before they woke up. He added that he was eager to get to his children before they could insist that he at least stay for breakfast.

Paari arose two hours before sunset. He rolled up the bedroll he had been given and leaned it against the wheel of Aros and Ina’s wagon. Then he retrieved parchment and a charcoal pencil from one of his packs. To Aros and Ina for your generosity. Rashi likes sugar cubes but give her too much and she’ll be too spoiled to listen to you without them. She is good with children, so Hamish can learn to ride on her. From Da. Paari assumed that at least one of them could read. If they couldn’t, it was a wonder they were able to manage as merchants. He rolled the parchment up and carefully tied it to Rashi’s reins. 

“Goodbye, dear friend.” Paari whispered, kissing the horse on her nose. “I leave you in good hands. Treat them well.”

She nuzzled him.

Paari took a single coin from his coin purse, for passage, then set off east to Odos with all that he owned left with Rashi. Just as Aros said, Odos was just a few hours away even on foot. He refrained from jogging though he feared Aros or one of the others riding out to him to refuse his gift. Instead he chose to trust in their willingness to accept a gift from an elder. That thought made him laugh. Aros, my friend, Paari thought, if only you knew that I can’t be more than a younger brother to you. Despite that, my blessings were earnest.

Paari arrived outside Odos an hour before noon. The walled city was at the bottom of the valley, a wide road winding down from where Paari stood. He took in the sight of massive stone walls and buildings amidst verdant green trees before breaking off the road and into the forest. The city remained to his left as he walked, occasionally visible through breaks between the trees. Eventually he came to an overhang he could sit on while overlooking the city.

He placed the coin on his tongue and clenched his mouth shut. The sun was directly overhead now, shining with full force onto the plague ravaged city. The stench of torment was strong, staggering him before he even reached out with his heart. He steeled it in preparation, and began. 

If Izbeth’s memories were storm waves against a seawall, this was the full might of the ocean unleashed on a single point. Paari was battered into paralysis by the onslaught. Unlike flotsam lost at sea, that was tossed this way and that by roiling waves, Paari was still. With forces of equal power and fury pressing on him from all sides, Paari could only take it and not move. The pressure did not allow him to open his eyes or draw in breath. It did not allow him thought of his own. The only movement in Paari was the cascade of agony he took from every citizen of Odos. No discerning eye was cast upon the souls he was relieving. All hurt, sinner or victim, was taken deep into Paari’s heart.

Over 800,000 people lived in Odos. Paari learned every name and the story behind each one. He cried, with no tears to moisten the wrinkles on his face, at the sheer familiarity of it all. Nothing he felt was new. No betrayal, no impassioned murder, no rape, no desperate gamble, no revenge, no escapist alcoholism or drug addiction, no bloodthirst, no illness, no… Anything. Every tragedy dealt to humanity could be found in Odos and all of it had been seen before. All of it would be seen again. On and on until humanity was gone. This awareness hadn’t escaped Paari. It nearly beat him into apathy. But Paari held on because that wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter that it had happened before and that it would happen again. What mattered was that people in front of him had been tormented. And Paari could, at the very least, relieve these sorry few.

The cascade of souls stopped at midnight. The new moon gave nothing to the land below. Not even a barren sliver of a smile for the desiccated husk sitting in the cold, spine bent to its limit. Wind came from the south, sent to play through Odos and revive what it could find with its fresh breath. The husk was taken by the wind, pushed off the overhang along with the fallen leaves it was sitting on. It tumbled down the valley without surcease until the bole of a tree finally stopped it.

And there it lay, embraced by roots.