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Story 3

Torah Cottrill

A voracious reader from the age of three, Torah Cottrill discovered Robert Heinlein and science fiction and never looked back. But it was the original Women of Wonder anthologies that most influenced her. Her short fiction spans a number of different styles (urban fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale), connected by a focus on strong female protagonists.

In addition to being a writer, Torah also worked as an editor for many years on a diverse range of publications, including the Journal of Democracy, the women's magazine Redfruit, and numerous roleplaying game rulebooks for the Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons brands.

You can reach her at

"I’ve lived on four continents and worked as a house cleaner, a diplomat, and an envelope stuffer at the FDIC. Currently, I’m an editor in the Pacific Northwest, where I live in a house full of unruly teenagers and domestic animals suffering from an assortment of behavioral oddities. I’ve had a dozen short stories published so far, and I’m working on my first novel."
-- Torah Cottrill

Wandering interpreters, members of the Sisterhood, collect information of now-lost technologies in hopes of unlocking their secrets and use ancient, nearly extinct lifeforms to carry out their mission of maintaining the genetic diversity of their world.




The Interpreter

By Torah Cottrill


Pari walked down the dusty road, her shadow sharp against the sunset-bloodied desert rocks. In her dreams, the shapes that the ridges made against the broken sky were a message she could almost decipher, but the meaning always slid away with the dawn.

The road wound out of the the high desert emptiness and into a valley. Dusty grass and defiant fists of weeds gave way to farmland. As Pari approached a small settlement, a sound like roosting birds resolved into the voices of children. Little girls in thick, full skirts and boys in knee pants and heavy brown boots shrieked with tired, evening delight, chasing a hoop rolled one last time down the road through the village.

“Esti pierdut?” one of the little girls stopped to ask.

Pari stared at the child, waiting to hear more. To encourage her, Pari dug a piece of raw-sugar candy out of her pack.

“Va multumesc!” the child mumbled happily, mouth bulging with candy. As Pari listened, the knot of sounds was unraveling. It was an interpreter’s gift, to sense patterns and find meaning.

“Ce este numele tau din sat?” said Pari, the words becoming more familiar as they left her mouth.

“Praf,” the girl told her. The name of the village: Dust. Appropriate, Pari thought, with a glance at her worn boots.

“Esti aici pentru pedure stafii?” the girl asked. “Mananca copii, mama spune ca.”

“Unde?” Pari asked. The girl pointed west, then ran to rejoin her friends. Pari walked on.

That night, Pari lingered over the embers of her campfire, adding the Romanji dialect spoken in the village of Dust to her travel journal by the light of the double moons. After a moment’s thought, Pari also added a note about the girl’s story of child-eating ghosts in the forest. The next time she returned to the chapter house, she would leave this journal behind to be copied and added to the archives, and begin a new one.

Not all interpreters traveled. The oldest sisters and those not physically capable of a life on the road lived and worked in the chapter houses, copying, sharing, and studying the journals of the traveling sisters, teasing knowledge from the confusion of details.

Interpreters tracked the movement of people, languages, and ideas. Recently, the sisterhood watched with concern as Lyudi settlements spread west, and considered how this affected the nomadic Naj tribes the Lyudi encountered. The scholar sisters predicted that the Lyudi would expand through the Lasta Pass and dominate the hereditary Naj grasslands in five decades, and that the Naj language and tribes would die out.

For the sisterhood, charged since the Arrival with maintaining the genetic diversity of this world, the loss of the Naj and their language was unacceptable. The senior sisters wanted to avert a Naj extinction by engineering a gradual assimilation, instead. They wanted a solution to the Lyudi dilemma, and Pari had been sent to find one. 

In the morning, Pari settled her pack across her shoulders and continued west. As she walked, she wondered whether these forest ghosts would be worth investigating. It sounded like a bedtime tale to keep children out of the woods, but the sisters taught that rumors and stories often contain a grain of truth.

A few hours’ walk brought her into the wooded lowlands, carved into sprawling estates by stacked stone walls. It took a lot more land to support a family in the forest than in the farmlands, Pari knew, and this bred a different kind of community, feudal instead of communal. The sisterhood was widely respected, but these hedge lords could be unpredictable.

Pari heard the dogs before she saw the manor. Two dozen men on horseback filled the stone-flagged courtyard of a hacienda in the old style, many dismounting to lead their horses away as she approached. A sea of hunting dogs beat against the knees of men and horses, some still belling their excitement from the morning’s hunt. Pari slowed as she approached the elaborately arched gate, giving the men a chance to study her, as she studied them in return. 

A man in a tight, many-buttoned jacket was speaking to an older man in the noontime shade of the hacienda’s deep porch. The younger man’s gestures were emphatic, and Pari heard the words “duty” and “courage” clearly above the noise of dogs and horses. The older man shook his head and turned toward the gate where Pari stood, gesturing her closer.

“Be welcome in my home,” he said as she approached. “I am Don Miguel, the fidalgo of these estates.” Pari inclined her head. In the Yber-derived cultures, men and women did not clasp hands. “You, I imagine, are the interpreter I’ve been hearing rumors of. This is Obregon, my teniente. Please join us.”

The fidalgo gestured Pari before him into the cool dimness of the main house. Don Miguel was just past middle age, with a stout frame still powerful under a layer of fat, his iron gray hair and beard trimmed neatly short. Approaching a buffet covered with cold meats, nuts, and late fruit, he flung his stained hunt jacket onto a bench and poured beer into three wooden cups.

Pari accepted a cup and drank gratefully. The day was hot. As she drank, she studied the vest the fidalgo wore, dark green and heavily woven, but faded and thinned in patches with age. What caught Pari’s eye, however, was the thick tracery of metallic thread woven throughout the fabric, in asymmetrical, geometric patterns that did not repeat. The front of the vest was covered with oddly shaped, reinforced pockets, all empty.

Seeing her gaze, Don Miguel asked, “Can you tell me what this is? For generations, each fidalgo in turn has worn it. But the story of its origin has been lost.”

“It is a relic of the Pre-Departure,” Pari said, setting her cup down. “The tracery was known as ‘circuitry’ and channeled power from artifacts contained in the pockets, although the nature of that power is not known to us.” This was true, although not the entire truth. The sisters knew a great deal more about the time before the Arrival than they spoke of outside the chapter houses, and savant sisters were said to be close to reproducing the lost data retrieval techniques of the Pre-Departure. One day, perhaps, the vast dead libraries slumbering in the deep storage caverns could again be woken. “Would you allow me to copy the pattern in my journal? It is unusual, and quite beautiful.”

“Of course, Sister. I have always been ready to do any service for the interpreters. And,” the fidalgo added, fixing a shrewd gaze on Pari, “I trust the sisterhood stands as ready to do a service for those in need?”

“Of course, Don Miguel,” Pari replied. “What assistance do you require?”

“No, Don Miguel!” broke in Obregon. “This is not a matter for outsiders. Allow me to take some men, myself. I assure you. . .”

Don Miguel raised a hand to silence his teniente. “Obregon, I have made my decision. The interpreters are the ones who deal with infestations. Don Eusebio wrote to me last year about the plague of lung flies in the Eastern Province, and he said the sisters knew of a way to save the cattle. This is what they do, collect bits of old lore and help rid us of the occasional vermin, isn’t it, Sister?”

Pari inclined her head. It was the common misunderstanding, and the sisterhood encouraged it. The savant sisters were particularly interested in reports of unusual life forms surviving so many centuries past the extinctions engineered by the first settlers. Cultivating a reputation as exotic exterminators helped the traveling sisters pursue these rumors.

“I will help you if I can,” she assured Don Miguel. “Tell me what happened.”

“Five months ago, we noticed that the game in the woods was not as plentiful. First the smaller creatures were gone, then the larger. These animals are food for our tables, goods for our traders. I sent men into the forest to investigate, but they found nothing.

“Then we lost two children.”

Don Miguel paused, and took a deep drink from his cup. “We searched all night with torches and dogs. Near dawn we found them, empty sacks of skin still wearing their clothes. But we found no signs of the creatures who had done this.”

“How long ago were the children taken?” Pari asked.

“Two months. We continue to hunt the forest with the dogs, but find nothing. For the past two weeks, though, the dogs have been barking at night, and the men who go outside to investigate have seen . . . something. Dark shapes in the shadows or gliding between the trees. And a sound like, like. . .”

“Like singing,” Obregon finished for him, “from very far away. Jordao Antonio followed the sounds into the forest, and said that he saw the ghost of a woman singing to him.”

“Let me talk to this man,” said Pari.

Jordao Antonio’s story was brief. He told Pari that he followed the dark shapes and the sound of singing into the forest, where, by the light of both moons, he saw the ghost of a beautiful woman flitting from tree to tree, always just ahead of him. The neighbors who hurried after him with torches dragged him back.

“They say that I fought them,” Antonio admitted with embarrassment, “that I shouted at them to let me go, beat them with my fists. But I remember nothing of this! Only,” he smiled, remembering, “only the most beautiful woman, and the song.”

In the afternoon, Obregon and a group of armed men escorted Pari into the forest. It was oddly quiet, the small noises of scurry and chirp absent. Pari kept a wary eye on the taller trees. Once, she stopped by the decaying trunk of a fallen tree and probed the soil beneath with a stick.

When they returned to the main house, Don Miguel met them in the courtyard. “I need a goat,” she told him, and explained her plan.

That evening, the fidalgo hosted a plain but generous dinner, attended by his extensive family and several important locals who wavered between courtesy and the desire to press the interpreter for news. Pari passed along information the sisterhood wanted disseminated, and gathered what there was to be learned.

Pari sat in the deeply shadowed porch after nightfall. Across the moonlit courtyard, a goat stood, tied to a stake. It bleated its confusion, the only sound in the night. Pari waited to see what would come out of the forest, hiding the glint of her long knife under a fold of her coat.

Shadows, flickering through the treetops, snagged Pari’s peripheral vision. The goat fell silent.

Pari held her breath, absolutely still. Dark shapes hunched across the open ground between the village and the edge of the forest. They could be mistaken for shadows on the grass, but Pari watched one intently until she saw it move. She counted eight shadows, but she was certain there were more she couldn’t see from her position on the porch. The goat, frantic, strained against the rope.

The dark forms converged on the goat. After a fluttering, silent scuffle in which the first to arrive fended off challenges for its prize, one of the shadows wrapped itself around the goat, which struggled only briefly beneath the dark shroud. The other forms hunched away, leaving the feeder alone in the grass. Quickly, Pari rose from hiding to approach it.

As she stepped off of the porch, Pari heard a low hiss. She spun to her right in time to see one of the shadows flow from the ground up the wall of the manor and disappear. Looking more closely, Pari saw an elongated oval outline, as tall as she, flattened against the rough stone. Its color and texture mimicked the wall perfectly; it was all but invisible.

At her movement, the oval changed color, becoming a smudged shadowy black. The outline of a pale human face began to form on the black surface. Variable chromatophore coloration, Pari thought, but was it mimicking its predators or its prey? The face shape took on more texture, while the rest of the black oval shaped itself into something that resembled a human body wearing dark robes. Pari now faced what seemed to be a human of indistinct gender, eerily beautiful.

Then it began to sing.

Although Pari had read the ancient reports about hypersonic hypnosis in indigenous life forms, she was unprepared for the mind-fogging song, the size of the dark shape looming over her, and the strangely compelling miasma of musk and decay that surrounded the creature. Pari found herself approaching the singing shape before she realized that she had moved.

With a cry, Pari flung herself backward, stumbled, and fell. Dark folds closed on the empty air above her. The outside of the creature still appeared to be a mesmeric human figure, but inside the folds of darkness twisted dozens of ropy, grasping tendrils and a sharpened proboscis for injecting digestive enzymes into its meal. Pari leapt to her feet and backed away, lifting her knife in numb fingers. Finding its meal resistant to the opiate effects of its song and apparently unwilling to wrestle such large prey, the creature collapsed to the grass and disappeared into the shadows of the trees.

Pari stood trembling for a moment, then vomited on the ground.

The next morning, Pari took Don Miguel and his tienente into the woods. “Here, and here,” she showed them the knots of wriggling white worms beneath rocks and fallen trees. “These are the larvae. Find them all, and burn them out. These are nat’nissarna, the night elves. The mature forms, the ghosts that have eaten the game and the children, will die over the winter. Destroy the larvae, keep your people out of the woods until spring, and this will end.”

The fidalgo nodded to Obregon, “Gather your men.” The teniente hurried away. “We owe the sisterhood a debt,” he said. “How may we repay it?”

“Next summer, when your hunts prosper again, Elder Sister Isolde enjoys smoked deer beyond reason. Send her a portion at the chapter house, with the story of your winter, and give her my obedience.”

Don Miguel nodded. “As you wish. Will you stay as our guest for a while?”

“No,” Pari said, “although I thank you. I have other places I must be.”

The next morning, Pari shouldered her pack, heavier now with supplies from the fidalgo, and with a wax-sealed flask of pale larvae. The savant sisters would be very interested to know that these creatures were not, after all, extinct. Seeded in the right locations, the night elves could close the Lasta Pass for generations. She had found the solution to the Lyudi dilemma.

Pari lengthened her steps, and headed east.




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