ON FIRE'S WINGS
Copyright, 2004 by Christie Golden
The wind, cold and scented with death, seized the queen's hair with cruel fingers and set it to dancing. Two weeks before, despite the queen's years and the children she had borne, that long, thick hair had been only touched with gray. Now, there was little ebony left in the mane. The white of fear and resignation had swallowed the black, as the Shadow that loomed on the horizon had swallowed everything in the world save this lone castle and the few terrified souls it still housed.
She was tall, and stood tall even now, staring not at the rolling fields and forests and streams that would have met her gaze a fortnight past but at a pulsing blackness that mocked her defiance. She leaned forward, resting her hands on the cool strength of the stones that formed the wall of the parapet's balcony. This, at least, was real, was solid--for the moment.
"It's only been two weeks," came a soft voice. The queen glanced down at the beggar boy who stood beside her, staring as raptly at the Shadow as she. There was puzzlement in the young voice, as if he, like the queen, could not truly believe that so much had happened in so brief a time. She closed her eyes, straightened, and her hands left the reassuring stone to wrap the thick embroidered cloak more closely about her frame.
"Less than that, little Lorekeeper," she replied.
He did not say anything further, but she knew what he was thinking as if he had shouted it aloud: I didn't know in time. Etched upon her memory, for the brief while she had left to live, was the look on the boy's grimy face as he forced his way through crowds and guards with reckless determination. He had clutched desperately at her robe, uttering the words that chilled her to the bone: The Dancer needs help!
But the warning from the suddenly awakened memory of the base-born Lorekeeper had come too late, the queen thought bitterly, though it was no fault of the child's. The wind stung her face, brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them back. Too late to save the Dancer, too late to salvage their own existence; too late, too late.
Following the boy, the king, accompanied by an elite group of guardsmen and his best healers, had stumbled across the body in an alleyway exactly as it had appeared to the boy in his vision. The Dancer, a youth as well-born as the Lorekeeper was base, had been robbed and murdered. His powers--probably unknown to him yet, he was terribly young--had not been sufficient to protect him. But he had rallied enough to exact revenge upon his slayer, it appeared, for the killer's body was little more than a charred skeleton. The Dancer's pouch, still filled with coins, lay a little distance away.
The king returned from his grim mission, seeming to her suddenly old, to tell his wife the story. With him was the boy, still clad in the vermin-riddled clothes of the streets, his thin body shaking and bowed with the weight of the world.
"It is not your fault, my child," the queen had soothed, fighting back her own rage and despair. "You went for help as soon as you knew. The blame for...for what will come must lie with the man who murdered the Dancer."
And who had, in that one greedy, violent act, destroyed their only hope to avert oblivion.
Not long after that, the king had ridden off to fight the Shadow, their son, still young, still unbloodied by war, at his side. The queen had kissed the hollow-eyed man who had once been passionate and proud; kissed her round-cheeked son, who was naive enough to think this a real battle, not a suicide.
And as they rode off, the queen thought with a spark of contempt: Cowards!
They did not have to sit and mind a castle full of terrified merchants, farmers, and beggars. They did not have to watch the death of everything creep closer by the hour. They ran to meet their doom, thus cheating it of the terror it doubtless craved.
The queen's eyes narrowed and she stuck out her sharp chin defiantly.
She was the last queen of the world. It was up to her now, how they would all die. She reached out to the Lorekeeper, slipping her arm around his shoulders. By the hitching and shuddering of those shoulders, she knew he wept.
"You alone will remember," she said softly.
The Shadow pulsed, coming nearer. It stretched upward, seething. Soon even the sky would be gone.
"I--I don't want to," the little Lorekeeper whispered. He dragged an oft-mended sleeve across his wet face.
"But you must," she continued, her voice still quiet, still calm. "You are a Lorekeeper. You remember all that has gone before--all the other times when the Dancers have come and lost, or won. You would have been drawn to that Dancer had he lived, even as you were drawn to him in his death. You would have been able to help and guide him, but...This time, they have failed. Yet there were times when they succeeded, and their success has bought us a final chance."
The wind picked up. For an instant, forgetting herself, the queen reached up to smooth her tousled hair. The knots will take Ahli hours to untangle, came the simple, everyday thought. But Ahli tended the princess now, caring faithfully for the mad girl whose mind would not let her see the Shadow. The queen would not look upon her daughter again. That last time had been enough. She could not bear to watch the gentle, once-intelligent girl sit and babble, rubbing her swollen stomach and chirping happily of the son-to-be. The son who would, now, never be born.
Such simple problems as tangled hair were things of the past. The queen let the wind have its way with her once-raven locks.
Her seneschal. The queen turned. "Yes?"
He stood in the doorway, clasping and unclasping his hands as he searched for the words. As it turned out, they were simple enough, if brutal. "The well...it's gone dry."
The queen closed her eyes, forcing her face to be tranquil.
"Then let us open the wine cellars. I would not see my people without something to wet their throats." And perhaps the drunkenness would take away the sting. Not long, not long now.
"And light all the torches," she added. "Build fires." She turned again, her gaze drawn to the encroaching Shadow. "Let us keep the light as long as we may."
The man bowed, retreated. They were alone again on the parapet, beggar and queen, staring out as if mesmerized at their approaching destruction.
"Twice failed," whispered the Lorekeeper in a voice that cracked with fear and an ancient grief. "Twice succeeded. Only one more chance."
"The fifth time the Dancers come," agreed the queen, "will be our final chance. Eternal salvation...or nothing at all, ever again. It may well fall to you," she said with a quiet urgency. "Do not forget."
"I won't," the boy promised. "I won't."
She folded him close, held him, as she would her own son. He was their hope. He, and the other Lorekeepers, and the Dancers who would not yet be born for another five thousand years.
The Shadow stretched, languidly.
The twin suns went out.