Sun, Moon, Dust

Allpa received the magic sword from his grandmother, as she lay dying.

“I’m afraid I don’t really need a sword, grandma,” he said.

“No, nor do you deserve it,” she snapped at him. She was a fierce old woman with a nose like a hawk’s beak and skin falling away in folds from her cheekbones. “You’re a farmer, not a warrior. They’ll help you.”

“They?” said Allpa. He cradled the sword awkwardly in his arms, as if it were an infant. Normal people did not have swords. Swords weren’t even a normal weapon. Barbarians carried them. Civilized people did not.

His grandmother had never been very good at being normal.

“The spirits in the sword. Great warriors. A barbarian priest bound them to the sword long, long ago. Draw the sword and they’ll fight for you.” She scowled, and the deep lines around her nose grew deeper. “They’ll teach you to fight. I should have done, but I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying, grandma,” he said automatically, even though they both knew she was.

“Goat-shit. Don’t lie to me, boy. I’m dying. It’s fine. It’s about time, even.” She slumped back on the pallet, exhausted by so many words. Her eyes were bright but the rest of her had gone dull. “Go home. Draw the sword. They’ll show you.”

“I don’t need to be a warrior, grandma,” said Allpa. “There are no wars right now. I’m growing potatoes. The little red ones you like. I’ll bring you the first harvest so you can taste them.”

“You’re a good boy,” she said, softening. “I won’t be around for the potatoes. Eat them for me.”

He thought she went to sleep after that. He had been kneeling by her bedside and began to rise. He started to prop the sword against the wall, but she heard him move and woke.

“Take it. I mean it. Remember their names.”

Allpa raised his eyebrows.

“Sun. Moon. Dust.” There were three stones on the hilt of the sword and she tapped each one in turn: yellow, blue, red. She licked dry lips. “Great warriors. They’ll teach you. Now go away. You’re a good grandson, but I’m tired of the lot of you.”

“Yes, grandma,” he said. He turned down the blanket over her and went to get her a cup of water, only to discover that she had waited until he had left the room to die.

When all had been done that was needful, he walked back to his farm with the sword awkward on his shoulder. Probably you were not supposed to carry swords as if they were firewood. It was an uncomfortable object. The stiff leather wrapping dug into his shoulder. He tried switching it to the other shoulder, but it did not help much.

The goat flatly refused to come near it. She was a very opinionated goat and she looked at the sword as if it were a snake.

As legacies went, he had heard of better.

He was glad that his grandmother was no longer in pain, but he would miss her. She had been old and cranky and prone to finding fault, but Allpa was used to her voice.

The woman who cared for her had delivered a ten-minute speech about what an awful, demanding old buzzard she was, and had then burst into tears and fallen on Allpa’s neck during the funeral feast. That had been awkward. He was glad to go back to his little patch of land, even if he had to take the foolish magic sword with him.

He arrived in the hottest part of the day, and beheld his garden wilting under the sun. Then there was nothing for it but to drop everything and grab for the water bucket. Everything wilted a little in the noonday heat, but he had been away for longer than he liked and his plants were thirsty.

Each bucket had to be drawn from the nearby stream. The potatoes that grew along the water—“Golden Fish,” which had slender roots and did not mind being half-waterlogged—were still healthy. It would be a long winter if he had nothing to eat but Golden Fish, though.

It was early evening before he was able to stop. It looked as if no great harm had been done. The squash blossoms were opening up and white moths drifted between them, licking at the pollen. The moonflower vine glowed white and glorious. The goat dozed in the field.

Allpa sighed and sat down. Not really thinking, he picked up the sword and turned it in his hands. Not really thinking, he drew it a little way out of the leather casing.

There was a soundless explosion and three whirlwinds sprang up out of the ground. Allpa dropped the sword and covered his head instinctively. The goat bolted for higher ground and ended up on the roof.

The whirlwinds spun, spun again, and became figures, covered from head to toe in veils. They had tightly bundled reed armor and helms like woven baskets that shadowed their faces. All he could see was the glitter of eyes.

One was slender and wore veils as golden yellow as a sunflower, and that was Sun.

One was tall and broad across the shoulders, broader even than Allpa, who was not a small man. He wore dark blue veils and had tiny bells sewn along the rim of his hat. That was Moon.

The final one was stocky and his veils were the red-orange color of clay. That was Dust.

It was Dust who addressed Allpa, saying “Where are your enemies?”

“I haven’t got any,” said Allpa. “Please, you’re standing on the potatoes!”

The three warriors stared at him, then down at their feet, where they were trampling the tender green shoots under foot. There was a long, awful pause, and then Sun leapt to one side and Moon took a long stride onto the path and Dust said “Potatoes?”

“Please get off them,” said Allpa.

Dust removed his heavy feet from the potatoes, having reduced a promising hill of White Llipya to a mangle of footprints.

“Sorry,” he said, somewhat ungraciously.

“If you have no enemies,” said Sun (and Allpa realized, from her voice, that she was likely a woman) “then why have you summoned us?”

“I’m sorry,” said Allpa. “I didn’t mean—well, I suppose I did. But I didn’t think anything would happen. My grandmother gave me the sword, you understand.”

“Anka the Clear-Eyed,” said Sun. “She is a great friend to us. Where is she?”

Allpa took a deep breath. “She’s gone under the earth,” he said.

They looked at him, all three, and then folded themselves into whirlwinds again and were gone, leaving Allpa alone in his garden with the ruins of White Llipya.

“I made a hash of that,” he said, to no one in particular, and went to go coax the goat down from the roof.

The next time he summoned them, he was well away from anything that could be trampled, and the goat was firmly tied. He had rehearsed what he was going to say, several times, and he only flinched a little when the winds came swirling down around him.

The three warriors lined up before him, their faces deep in shadow.

“I’m sorry,” said Allpa, as he had practiced. “I did not break that to you the way I should have. I was not thinking. My grandmother was very old and she passed away without pain. She was happy.”

They were silent for a moment, and then Dust snorted. “Anka? She was never happy.”

“Still,” said Allpa. “I should have realized that it might grieve you. She did not explain very clearly—that is, she said you were warrior spirits, but I didn’t realize that meant you were…”

He stopped there, because he had been about to say “people” and it seemed very rude to say to someone that you had only just realized that they were a person.

Sun tilted her head. “Time passes strangely in the sword,” she said. “It seemed that a long time had passed, but we were not sure…”

“Yes,” said Allpa. “Ah… you must have known her when she was young. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“And I for yours,” said Sun, and she bowed. After a moment, Moon followed suit. Dust folded his arms and gazed up at the sky.

“Would—would you like some time alone?” asked Allpa.

“We will have much time in the sword,” said Sun.

“It seems too much time has passed already,” said Dust. “What training have you had in war?”

Allpa said “Um.”

“Come!” said Dust. “Do not blush like a maiden! Your grandmother could shoot the eye from a dove in a hawk’s talons. What has she taught you?”

His grandmother had, in fact, taught him archery. They were low enough in the mountains that sometimes there were long-legged wolves that came up, looking for a meal of turkey or goat. Allpa had put an arrow into a few of them, but he didn’t enjoy it. One of his goals was to save up for a llama, which could be relied upon to watch the goats. Goats thought themselves extremely clever and it was always rather a surprise to them when they were wrong.

Llamas were expensive, though. You needed to buy a writ from the priests saying that you were allowed to own the noble animals. Goats were cheap and ate anything, proper barbarian beasts that they were.

“Well?” prodded Dust.

“I can shoot, more or less,” Allpa said. “I’ve killed a few wolves.”

“Not the least of foes,” said Moon, speaking for the first time. His voice was very deep.

Dust seemed less than impressed by wolves, but said “Very well. You are what we have to work with. Take up your sword and your shield, and we shall go forth and conquer.”

“I haven’t got a shield,” said Allpa. “And I can’t go forth anywhere—I’ve already left the farm too long. I’ve still got plants to get in the ground.”

Dust stared at him as if he was speaking in some strange foreign tongue.

“How do you expect to conquer from here?” he asked.

“I don’t expect to conquer anything,” said Allpa. “I mean, we could conquer the neighbors, but that seems a little unkind. I trade seeds with them every spring. Their goat covered mine last month, and they didn’t ask for payment because I’m just getting started here. Well, and you can’t really keep goats from doing that, but…” He trailed off. Something about the angle of Dust’s head made him think that the warrior was not interested in the details of goat husbandry.

“We shall not consider the neighbors as candidates for conquest then,” said Sun, and though Allpa couldn’t see her face, he was sure that she was smiling.

“Let your housecarl tend the plants!” said Dust impatiently.

“My what?”

“Your housecarl. Your servant. The one who makes your place for you.”

Allpa rubbed the back of his neck. It sounded almost like Dust was talking about a wife, but he was not particularly interested in such, and also if you called a wife servant, you tended to end up with fewer body parts than you started with. “I haven’t got one,” he said.

“Anka did not have one either,” said Sun. “Remember?”

“Yes, but she didn’t have a—a—field such as this!” Dust gestured at the farm in dismay.

“It would have been her sister’s,” said Allpa. “My great-aunt. She died without children, though, so it went to my grandmother. It’s good land.” He felt an urge to defend it in the face of Dust’s scorn.

“It is beautiful land,” said Moon, in his deep, slow voice.

Allpa looked up at the blue-veiled figure gratefully. “It really is. I’m only one farmer, so I can’t work it as well as it deserves to be worked, but I’ll get there. And it’s doing its best for me.”

Moon nodded. “Good earth knows when it is loved.”

He stripped off one blue glove. His skin was very dark, much darker than Allpa’s, with pale half-moons on the nails. Moon lifted a handful of dirt in his fingers. The earth was dark gray-brown, a shade lighter than Moon’s skin, and only Allpa knew how much work had been required to make soil that color.

“In my land, the earth is red,” said Moon.

“In mine, it is black,” said Sun.

“It’s dirt!” shouted Dust. “You walk on it! You bury your enemies in it! Enough!”

Little dust-devils twisted around his feet. Sun turned her head.

“I think perhaps we should confer,” she said. “Will you draw the sword tomorrow, Allpa?”

“I—yes, certainly,” said Allpa. “Ah—I mean, you don’t have to go back in, if you don’t want to—“

“We are used to it,” said Sun.

“Can I offer you a meal before you go?” asked Allpa. Here they were, three visitors and they had been here for more than a day and he hadn’t even fed them. In his head, a legion of aunts and maternal relatives shouted at him for his utter failure of hospitality.

“Battle is our bread and meat,” said Dust.

“Oh…” said Allpa faintly. “I… um… have stew?”

Sun was definitely smiling behind her veil. “It is a kind offer,” she said. “But we do not eat. Tomorrow, draw the sword.”

“I will.”

Moon nodded to him and let the earth trickle through his fingers. Three whirlwinds spun up from the ground and spun away, and left Allpa with a sheathed sword and a goat that was pointedly ignoring him.

He drew the sword the next morning after breakfast, feeling a sense of dread. Dust was going to yell at him again. His grandmother had yelled a great deal too, but she hadn’t meant anything by it. Allpa had the feeling that Dust meant a great deal by it.

But Dust did not yell. Instead he stood in front of Allpa and said, “I see that I must teach you. Cut two staves for us, and we will begin.”

Allpa was grateful for the respite. He went into the woods that curved around the side of the hill and cut two wooden poles as long as his arm.

Sun stood beside him, showing him where to put his feet. Dust stood in front of him. “Strike!” he bellowed. “Again! Not like that! You mean to kill me, not knock the dust from my boots! Again!”

Moon stood at the edge of the field, looking at the stream.

After an hour or so of this, Allpa called a halt. “Will we be much longer?” he asked. “I need to work.”

Dust looked at the field of potatoes. Allpa thought he could hear teeth grinding behind the red-orange veils.

“Very well,” said the warrior sourly. “Tend your… plants.”

Allpa ate lunch first, which felt very awkward.

“Are you certain that I can’t feed you something?”

Dust shook his head. Allpa set the bowl aside, barely touched, feeling obscurely as if he had failed.

The potatoes had their third set of leaves, and that meant it was time to mound the earth up around the base. Allpa moved from plant to plant on his knees, gently folding the soil up around the stems.

After a little time, Moon knelt down beside him and set two fingers on the back of his hand.

The touch was not unpleasant, but unexpectedly jarring, as if he had been digging and had struck a rock with his shovel. It seemed to travel all the way up to his teeth.

Is it the magic? Is that what it is?

No, Sun had touched him, moving his arms forcibly into position, setting his fingers correctly on the mock-sword.

He looked up, and Moon had pulled his veils down a little. His eyes were darker than his skin, framed with small lines.

“I do not know this plant,” said Moon. “Will you tell me what you are doing?”

“I—yes, certainly.” Allpa scooped dirt up, feeling suddenly clumsy. “They will grow upward as far as they can. If you put the dirt around them, they grow outward, into the dirt, and make more potatoes along the stem you covered. You could grow them up forever, I suppose, but I only mound them twice because I don’t have that much dirt.”

“It is a tuber?” said Moon.

“Yes. Well. There’s a lot of tubers. A good plant will make dozens. Hundreds, even, if the gods are kind.” He sighed. He had excavated a few plants last fall that had produced a single potato, barely larger than the lump he had started with. No one starved in the empire, but Allpa wanted to be someone who put in more food than he took out again. The priests said that there were higher causes than feeding people, but Allpa had yet to find one. Service to the emperor, perhaps, but if you were a farmer, you served the emperor by feeding people, so there you were back where you started.

“Show me?” said Moon, breaking into his thoughts.

Allpa nodded. He showed the sword-warrior how the soil was loose in a little trench on either side of the potato mound, and you scooped it upward into a hill. The last set of leaves waved bravely from the top.

Moon nodded and began to work beside him.

“My people build our farms in mounds as well,” he said, after they had reached the end of one row and begun another. “But it is because of the rains. If they were laid flat on the ground, the rain would drown the seeds and wash them away. So we must raise them up.”

“Where do your people live?” asked Allpa.

Moon’s large hands stilled. “I do not know,” he said. He sat back on his heels. “A long way away, I think, or a long time ago. The stars are different than those over my land. I recognize a few, but not all of them.”

“I’m sorry,” said Allpa. “That must be hard.”

Moon scooped up more earth and cradled it around the leaves of the next plant. “It was easy when I was young,” he said finally. “I knew my land and it did not interest me. I was thirsty for new places. Now…” He shrugged. “I have been centuries in the sword. If I went back, perhaps the land would not know me any longer.”

The idea of the land not knowing him struck Allpa with the nausea of a bone breaking. It had never occurred to him that land might forget someone. But it had also never occurred to him that a man might live for a thousand years in a sword, either.

“You can stay here,” he said. The offer was purely instinctive, as if Moon was bleeding and he had lifted his hands to staunch the flow. “It’s a good place. It’s getting better. I wouldn’t mind.”

“Would this land learn me, in time, do you think?”

Allpa tried to nod and shake his head and shrug all at once. He found that he was blushing for no reason at all.

Moon lifted his head and looked over at Sun and Dust. The two warriors sat in the shade, Sun slender and erect as a sapling, Dust hunched with his elbows on his knees.

“I will think on it,” he said finally, and the two of them returned to working in the earth, but it was a long time before Allpa’s flush cooled away.

“You are hopeless,” said Dust, throwing down his wooden pole. “Utterly hopeless. If you were one of my sons, I would send you out to herd the cattle and hope that my wife bore me less useless sons!”

Allpa fought back a sigh. He suspected that he would have much preferred herding cattle. He had only ever seen them, great broad-shouldered beasts with savage horns. They had run wild for years and caused a few minor wars in the lowlands, but the emperor had sorted things out by virtue of holding the owners accountable for their damage.

Allpa could not have afforded to pay for damage from cattle, though. Even the goat worried him a bit. It had been quite placid for days, which was probably a sign that it was planning something.

“I am sorry that I cannot do this for you,” said Allpa. “I think perhaps your time would be better spent doing something else.” (He hoped desperately that this was true. He had spent every morning for the last week being hit with a stick and all that he had to show for it was bruises and a badly disordered schedule.)

“Time!” roared Dust. “I have nothing but time! I have all the time until you die and the sword goes to someone else!”

“Calm yourself,” said Sun. “Allpa, walk with me a moment, will you?”

Allpa followed obediently. He kept one eye on the garden. One or two of the leaves were starting to look moth-eaten, and he was going to have to check the undersides for insect eggs.

Moon was gazing over the stream again. Occasionally he would move a few feet downstream, studying the water like a man with a problem.

“You truly have no desire to be a warrior, do you?” said Sun.

“None,” said Allpa. “I’m sorry.”

Sun shook her head. “Normally there is a spark,” she said. “A tiny bit that fantasizes about saving the world or routing out bandits or overthrowing the throne. A bit that craves adventure. But you don’t feel that, do you?”

“I would rather be useful,” said Allpa. “I’m sorry.”

Sun nodded. “Well,” she said. “There you have it. A thousand years in a sword, and at last, I have found a man who does not long for power.” She laughed, a wild soaring sound like a bird calling in the jungle. “Very well!”

She put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him toward the house. “Dust,” she said. “We have done all that Anka Clear-Eyes could ask and more. I think the debt is settled.”

“Settled and more than settled,” groused Dust. “Shall we kill him?”

Allpa blinked.

“You shall not,” said Moon, turning away from the stream. “He need not draw the sword again. We will sleep in the blade until another champion comes.”

“I’d rather kill him,” said Dust. “I am tired of sleeping. And look at him, the wretch, you know he’ll live to be ninety!”

“Errr… sorry?” said Allpa, who was not sure how he had gotten in the position of apologizing for not dying young.

“Don’t be an ass,” said Sun. “You can’t kill Anka’s grandson, even if he’ll never wield us properly. Get back in the sword and it’ll be over before you know it.”

Dust grunted. He gave Allpa a single, scathing glance, then turned into a whirlwind of orange and melted into the blade.

Sun, to his surprise, pulled down her veil. Her face was much older than Allpa had expected from her voice, an old woman’s face, with lined skin and silver in her hair. “Dust,” she said, “is a bit of an idiot. Forgive him. Or forgive us, anyway.”

She turned her head and looked at Moon. “I will go into the blade,” she said. “You won’t, though, will you?”

Moon stood, unmoving, for a long time. Then he shook his head and Allpa felt his heart leap for no particular reason.

“You could stay too,” said Allpa to Sun, surprising himself.

She shook her head. “I have never much wished to be a farmer,” she said, “and the older I get, the less I wish it! But there are all kinds in this world, and sometimes it is good to be reminded of that.”

She picked up the sword. The three stones on the hilt winked at her, yellow, red and blue.

“I won’t forgive you for this,” she said to Moon, conversationally. “Eternity with Dust was tiresome enough when there was someone else to talk to. But I do understand.”

She stripped off her glove and slid her nails under the blue stone on the hilt. It popped out with surprising ease, as if it had barely been held in at all.

Sun tossed the stone to Moon, who caught it and tucked it away.

They looked at each other for a little while, and then Sun nodded once, sharply, and she too melted away into the sword. The hilt clicked against the sheath.

Allpa looked over, but Moon was still there.

Slowly the other man took off his gloves and his veil. He looked at Allpa and then away, and Allpa felt himself blush again and thought how stupid it was to be doing so.

“There is a way that my people irrigate,” said Moon. “We used hollow wooden pipes and clay. I do not know if you have the same types of wood, but perhaps we can find something similar.”

“We’ll go into the forest and look,” said Allpa.

Moon reached out his ungloved hand and took Allpa’s. The sensation of having struck an unexpected stone went up Allpa’s hand and buzzed pleasantly around in his brain.

“First, though…” said Allpa shyly. “Can I make you something to eat?”

Moon smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I think I’d like that.”

On the roof, the goat looked at them both in disgust, but neither one of them minded at all.

(Editors’ Note: “Sun, Moon, Dust” is read by Amal El-Mohtar and Ursula Vernon is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 16A.)

Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is a children’s book author. She also writes for adults as T. Kingfisher. Her work has won the Nebula, Hugo, Sequoyah, and Mythopoeic Awards. More information can be found at redwombatstudio.com

One Response to “Sun, Moon, Dust”

  1. Letsbarnes

    This is so wonderful!

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