Andore and Illiat
The world was a long red-brown hell. Andore knew that, and feared such knowledge even before slipping free of the un-dreaming sleep of wine.
He forced one eye to a slit, cautious of the thin sunlight coming in through the curtained window beside the flimsy bed he’d been provided. He groaned, rolled over, and pulled the woolen blanket up over his face. Light was never a pleasant thing to Andore’s mornings. His nights’ dedicated inebriation saw to that.
As he lay there, head pulsing with the beginnings of a raging headache, he reached for the deep sadness filling his breast. It was there, waiting, a squatting darkness that stank of agony and despair. The sorrow was a special kind of torture, one he willed only on himself. It was loneliness and longing and futility all bunched together, a collaboration that had Andore curled in on himself beneath his blanket, willing the pain to consume him. It never did.
Eyes closed, he watched her dance inside his head, a child of the new world, an untamed wildress that made ghosts of mortal women. Illiat, a creature destined to drive him mad like she’d done so many men throughout the ages.
Even in memory her beauty was fast and sharp. Her limbs were long and supple, the skin pale by millennia spent dancing underneath the heavens. She moved as though donning slippers of air. But there was nothing upon her feet, much to the delight of grasses and dirt and rock. Her hair was colored with sunlight, shot through with glittering beams, and when she would move her head shimmered as though the tresses were braided with the finest, cleanest diamonds. Firm breasts hung upon her chest, rounded and strong. They moved with her as she rolled and turned and swayed, accentuating her lithe frame.
And her face, lovely as adleberry wine was sweet. Cheeks glowing, nose small and straight, eyes . . . Andore could see them clearly. She wore sunbursts in her brown eyes, and the contrast was haunting. He’d once thought they were the color of tree bark after rain. But that wasn’t entirely right. He’d called them overturned soil, hardy and full of life. That too fell flat. Then, last night, the tavern’s sweeping boy Garann, who’d found Andore in a less than cognizant state, had offered that they were the color of a leather strap, quick and wicked. Andore had readily agreed. But he’d been drunk then.
Her eyes were all those things, and still so much more. They pierced him now, watching him from a lost time, from a current nightmare.
Tossing the cover away, he found it wet with tears. He batted at his cheeks petulantly and greeted the small morning light with a snarl.
“You are jealous,” he said, “because you can’t shine as bright as her. Cannot warm a heart as she does. So you pester me!” He growled the last, lifting his flat feather pillow and throwing it at the window. It struck the white curtains tenderly and sent them fluttering.
He moved atop the bed like a broken toy, the hinges weakened or useless, the paint old and worn and chipped. Placing his bare feet upon the wood floor of his small rented room, he lowered his head, cradling it with his palms. He pressed knuckles into his eyes, clearing the remains of heartbreak, then ran fingers through his dark hair, straightening himself to a respectable degree.
“This is not a device of man,” he said to himself as the pain burned hot. “This sting was no mortal mind’s doing.”
There were times when he was uncertain whether or not he’d survive the yearning in his heart, the deep ache that filled him with each new breath. A full year had passed since he’d found her in the Eastern Wilds, and not a single day since had passed without her upon his thoughts. A single day! There was no sober hour that did not see him pining for her. Stories abounded of her curse, of her beauty and mystery that followed men the rest of their days. Those stories had become Andore’s reality.
“Balain shambled across the face of the earth,” Andore whispered to himself while tugging the wrinkles from his gray tunic, “eating and drinking only when hunger and thirst pulled his thoughts from her. He drowned himself in the Far Ocean.
“Judei would cut himself, lining his arms and legs, opening his face and chest, all in an attempt to outweigh the deep pain for Illiat that drew him from the eyes of men. He died in a pool of his own blood, of his own doing.” The names were familiar to him, a recitation that he followed religiously. There were more, of course, but he only said the two in the mornings, the others being hardly palatable at the youth of day. He was determined not to end like those men. He would not grow so weak and weary that life abandoned him.
He would not allow death to let him forget her.
With a tired motion he tugged his boots on. He was always tired now. It was his dreams, he knew. When he dreamed. In them he chased her through wildflower fields, danced with her in the false illumination of night, and made love with her beside blue rivers and vaulting mountains. And they sapped his strength so that upon waking his muscles were as granite blocks, almost worthless in the locomotion of a human body. At times he shambled, much like he pictured Balain had. But he never cut himself. He had a better remedy than that, a far more pleasurable means in which to blunt the hollowness of her distance.
At the foot of his bed stood a dented metal flagon. He reached down and lifted it, feeling the weight of warm mulled wine inside. Pulling it to his lips he drank deeply, forcing the spices down his throat. Red rivulets spilled out around his mouth. He pulled the flagon back and drew a deep breath, choking on the taste of air. Were he but a fish and could constantly drink.
He felt his arm shake, and glanced down at the pitcher held in a tight grip. The red wine rippled. It was like staring at blood. Had Judei seen this very thing as he opened his veins to empty his life out around him?
The flagon fell from his fingers, struck the wooden floor and toppled. Adleberry wine rolled out, pooling along the rough slats. Then, slowly, the liquid drained through the cracks to the room below. Andore’s arm still shook, an uncomfortable shiver that touched his breast.
“Balain could do little other than fawn over her,” he said, watching the wine. “Judei died because of her. What chance do I have?” His drink was smeared across the lifeless wood, an undefined shape, a twisted blob of chance. “I’m as erratic as spilled wine,” he muttered, clutching his arms tight against his chest, eyes searching for some recognizable pattern within the liquid.
Why? he asked himself. Why did they suffer so? Why do I let this be? But he knew. There was no shaking her. Illiat, who stained men’s minds and secured their hearts. “What if I went back to her?” he thought out loud. The idea was madness. It was illogical. But so was this adoration that owned him. Illiat was a wild creature, a child of the fey, a daughter of gods. But the idea stuck with him, a foolish revelation that only madness could conceive. “What if I captured her as she’s captured me?” It was her nearness he craved, that ability to touch her presently denied him. Of course, her touch was fatal to mortal flesh. But a quiver awoke inside him, a timid hope that lit his soul afire. “I will go to her,” he concluded, ignoring the impossibility of the enterprise. “I will take Illiat as my own.” It was an unattainable goal. Illiat wasn’t easily found, she was happened upon; a serendipitous encounter. If it takes the rest of my life, I will find her again. And, deep down, where common sense couldn’t reach, he knew he would die if ever he achieved that goal.
He rose from the bed, a sudden verve to his motions that had been missing. After tucking his pant legs into his boots, he left the room, shouldering his faded satchel that held his cloak, and descended the tight stairway leading down to the common room.
The Bear and Lion tavern was empty of patrons this early in the morning. Though whether because it was too early to rise or everyone had already risen and left to go about their business, Andore couldn’t say. He’d been granted a room on the second floor, a gracious gesture since the lone inn of the small town was already brimming with cantankerous travelers.
There were but two occupants in the once-packed room, seated together at a long oak table near the quiet hearth. Andore recognized the boy from last night, Garann, the future playwright who had shared Andore’s wine and tale of woe. The man huddled with the youth was the tavern owner, Master Uthen by name. With a thick finger, the owner jabbed at the page of an open book that lay upon the table. Garann leaned in close, peering hard at the book. He shook his head. Master Uthen gave him a sound slap upon the head. Garann’s heavy brown hair jumped at the blow, and the boy cowered into his shoulders. Andore marched steadily across the floor.
“Breakfast?” he asked amicably as he neared, gaining Master Uthen’s attention. The robust man glanced up from the table, frowning with the whole of his pudgy face. A small mustache of brave black hairs lined his lip. As for his head it was mostly removed of hair, shining with sweat and riddled with deep folds of skin. He twisted upon the bench, facing Andore. The apron stretched across his paunch was a dingy yellow splotched in browns and greens.
“An hour ago,” he said shortly. “No doubt cold by now. Probably a bit fly-ridden, too.” He swatted at something before his face.
Andore gave a smile. “Nothing like a few flies to spice up a meal. Besides,” here he took a seat next to Garann and gave the boy a wink, “I’ve seen Bandorian tribesmen eat a paste made from crushed flies. I figure, if one people can subsist on such a diet, why can’t I?”
“It won’t be free,” Master Uthen said.
“Never expected it.” Andore pulled a silver coin from his pocket and slid it across the table. “Some wine, as well? Adleberry.”
Master Uthen peered suspiciously at the coin, as though it were somehow different from all the others Andore had passed out the night before. With a hurmph he nodded, took the coin and stood. “Keep your nose to that page, boy,” he said to Garann as he moved to retrieve Andore’s meal, his steps thumping.
Once the man passed through the door behind the bar, Andore reached for the open book. “What do we have here?” he asked to himself as he pulled it close.
“The Trials,” Garann replied, almost wearily.
Andore took in the page Master Uthen had been so insistent upon. “The Trials?” Andore said mockingly, emphasizing the obvious significance to which the book owed it content.
“Of King Bathen and Queen Yildain,” Garann said.
“The Thousand Swinging Men,” Andore said with a nod. Bathen, whose life Illiat danced for. He bit his tongue to silence the thought.
“Is that a story about the trials?” Garann asked.
Andore shook his head. “No, it’s the reason for the trials.” He skimmed the words with a quick eye. “How much of this have you read?” It was nonsense. A huckster’s product.
“Not much. Master Uthen was just touching upon it. He wanted me to understand King Bathen and Queen Yildain had been given unfair trial.” Garann pulled the book back from Andore’s hand. “See, here.” He pointed to a paragraph. “The magistrate had refused to let either of them speak. Both were bound in heavy chains, and their mouths closed by metal bands.”
“And who should have stepped in to see the trial performed to the standards of the law?”
“Well, because the king and queen had no heir, the Council should have been in charge.”
No heir, Andore thought, because Bathen was numbed to the sight and touch of mortal women; numbed even to his own hand. “And the Council was nowhere to be seen?”
“They weren’t allowed inside the hearing.” Garann turned back to the book, eyes scanning for proofs of his words. Andore snatched the book and closed it. Garann peered up at him, frowning. “Master Uthen will give me the stick if I don’t learn this.”
“Master Uthen will soil your reason with such drivel. King Bathen and Queen Yildain were disallowed defense for an altogether different motivation than a lack of fairness.” Andore turned to the boy, looking him seriously in the eye. “Were you ever told bedtime stories?”
Garann nodded enthusiastically. “Of course. That’s what convinced me I wanted to write plays. Like Tell and his bow of liquid gold. Or Allihandrian—”
“Yes, yes,” Andore said, interceding. “Did you ever hear of the shassans?”
Garann’s face took on a somber cast. “Fairytales.” He reached for the book again, but Andore slid it just out of reach.
“So you did. Good. Then you’re aware of what they were capable?”
“Sure,” Garann said, shrugging. “With a look they could rot apples fresh on the tree, or muddy well water with a breath, or cripple children with a laugh.”
“That’s all?” Andore pressed.
The boy smiled. “You know very well it isn’t.” He straightened an inch. “I see what you’re doing, but the king and queen weren’t addled by myths. They spoke with their own voices, not those of ghouls.”
“You’re certain of this?”
“As certain as gnomes don’t live in gardens, and mares don’t birth foals with horns on their foreheads.” He cracked a condescending smile.
“Interesting examples.” Andore handed Garann back the book. “Have you ever been outside the village?”
Opening the book, Garann searched for his lost place. He shook his head, distracted. “One day I will, though. I’ll travel to a real city and attend university. I’ll learn about all the great playwrights and authors.”
“And from their lives you’ll learn the secrets of grand tales and heroic adventures,” Andore finished for him.
“I will. Yes,” Garann said with a sour twist.
“When there were no universities, where did men go to learn of stories and their makings?”
Garann frowned at the question. “I’m not sure. Nowhere?”
“Perhaps in the case of Casson the Mad,” Andore replied with a smirk. “But, not exactly the answer I was looking for. You see, they lived their tales. How better to describe a city built of gold than to walk its streets? How to show fear and excitement if not to feel them? Lad, the masters didn’t become masters by studying. They did it by living!”
Garann was shaking his head. “They had to have learned their words first.”
“The words came, in time,” Andore explained gently. Here, he hesitated, knowing what he was about to offer was completely irresponsible. But . . . “Do you want a story?” Andore asked, seeing the sudden dejection filling the boy and refusing to be answerable for the dashing of youthful dreams. “A story all your own?”
“More than anything,” the boy said, rapt. He turned on the bench so to face Andore, readying himself for a telling.
But Andore shook his head. “Not from me,” he said. “From out there.” He pointed to an opened window, the drab linen curtains flapping beyond the pane. A small wooden building stood across the street, and above its thatch roof lifted distant green hills capped with long-limbed trees. The early morning sky was layered in pastoral colors, yellow and orange and blue and purple. But the beauty was nothing to Andore, a pile of rocks and wood and sunlight.
“Leave?” Garann questioned.
Andore turned back to him, nodding. “With me. We will find you a story.”
The door to the kitchen banged open and Master Uthen stepped through to the common room. One hand balanced a wooden platter, the other held a flagon. He placed them before Andore, then pulled a dirtied cloth across his sweaty brow. “Enjoy.”
“I have no doubt,” Andore replied, reaching for the knife. He plucked a sausage from the platter and put it in his mouth. He tasted wood. A long swallow of wine followed.
Manure and straw filled the air of the stable, Andore’s nostrils, and his throat. A roan mare whinnied and shook her head in the stall beside him as he methodically saddled his mount, Polly, a white mare with a black mane and tail. Beautiful, truthfully, and companionable.
She was pleasant for a beast, neither overeager nor languid, a median that Andore found quite pleasant as he often took to the roads with a head splitting in half. There was a keen companionship between him and Polly, one forged over the present year by late night wanderings and earlier morning excursions. She seemed to understand him, and her slow rolling gait suited his often numbed sense of balance.
He gave her a brisk pat along the neck. “Ready for the road?” he asked. Her dark tail lashed about her flanks, and she snorted in response. “Good. But we won’t be alone.” Her long head twisted, nostrils blowing. “I know you don’t like strangers. Try to be nice.” He gave her one last affectionate slap on the neck, then with a gentle nudge had her clipping upon the straw of the unkempt stable as he led her from her stall.
There in the quiet of day, Illiat came to him in visions. She twirled and stepped and laughed quietly, eyes blazing with a preternatural glow. Desperate, he pulled the wineskin from beside the saddle and squirted a mouthful. It was still cool, and he held it a moment between his cheeks before swallowing. Illiat’s specter spun once, then faded, but not before casting a coy grin over a bared shoulder.
Polly snorted, drawing Andore’s attention. Garann was framed in the opened double doors, looking into the gloom from the afternoon light outside.
“Good to see you, lad,” Andore said, replacing his wineskin.
The youth shuffled in, eyes adjusting to the dimness. “Is it really just like that?” he asked. “We saddle up and leave?”
Andore considered a moment, then nodded. “Just like that. It’s how stories begin, don’t you know?”
“Did you talk with Master Uthen?” Andore asked. Garann shook his head. Good, he thought, wouldn’t want him chasing after. “And your father?” He gave the question a hopeful tone.
Garann glanced down, embarrassed. “He won’t miss me,” he said to the floor.
Andore didn’t press the issue. “Then we ride.”
Outside the stable stood Garann’s mount, a small sorrel gelding thick with dust. “Needs a bit of a brush,” Andore said, “but he’ll do.”
“Makke’s a fine horse,” Garann said proudly. “Never complains.”
Andore passed an eye to Polly. The horse was watching him. “You could learn something, you know.” Her tail swished. “Up, lad. This journey won’t start itself.” Following his own words, Andore climbed and settled into the saddle, drawing Polly’s reins between his fingers.
As they aimed to leave town, Andore detoured from the main road, taking a thin side street that stank of crushed manure. Andore never wrinkled a nose. He stopped at a square building topped with a disarrayed thatch roof and motioned to Garann to wait.
“One moment,” Andore said as he dismounted. Leaving Polly with Garann and Makke, he made his way around the building to the back. There, tethered to a wooden stake, waited a pack mule, baskets settled on each of its flanks. Andore untied the beast’s rope and led him back to the boy and their horses.
“Whose is that?” Garann asked when Andore returned with mule in hand.
“Ours. Who did you think was going to carry the food and wine?” Andore tied the mule’s line to the back of Polly’s saddle and mounted again. He encouraged Polly to a trot. “And now we’re officially off on our adventure.”
High clouds filled the blue sky, shielding the worst of the summer sun, but never truly able to fend off the cursed heat of high day. The earth beyond the village was thick and wooded and green—the village fields grew off to the south, leaving the north untamed—and they rode in the shade as often as not.
The wineskin was a close companion of Andore’s as the day lengthened. More than once he found himself carelessly edging Polly off the road and into the thickets of bramble and stingweed bunching the border of the forest.
“You know,” Garann said as Andore sheepishly moved Polly out of a tangled briar bush, “Farmer Hod once got so drunk he drove his cart, poor horses and all, into Bitler’s Pond. Drew the whole of the town with his screaming and splashing.” Garann gave a laugh, one Andore couldn’t return. But he did set the wineskin aside for the moment.
“Listen,” Andore said, steering the boy’s thoughts elsewhere, and convincing himself of a more sober demeanor, “remember the land and the way the sun moves across the sky. What’s that over there?” He pointed to a windmill spinning atop a near mound.
“The church’s windmill,” Garann answered.
“And there?” Andore asked, finger wagging toward a series of hills humping beyond the windmill.
“The old barrows, where the bones of the dead rest untouched.”
Andore continued his questioning of landmarks as they moved further from Garann’s home. When the boy could no longer answer, Andore provided. In the west there was the Brown River, racing south, the watercourse a favorite of slave haulers. They passed a small hamlet called Willow’s Watch. Then came Cold Dell in the east, the Gray Swamp to the northwest, and the Broken Tower of Far-eyes alongside the road they currently traveled.
“Why are you telling me all this?” Garann asked as they passed the mossy rubble of the once proud tower.
“You should always know the way home. Home, where your feet know where to take you when the wine has taken your head. It’s where help is never more than a spilled cup of milk away. No matter what there is in the world, no matter where you are, home waits patiently for you, even if only in your heart.” Andore thought a moment, then added, “If you ever find yourself alone on the road and a stranger approaches, tell them you’re traveling to the Quiet Monastery.”
“Why?” Garann asked.
“Rape doesn’t seem as appetizing when the prey’s diseased.”
Night came upon them quick that first day. Next to a patient creek they hobbled the horses and mule and unrolled their blankets upon soft grasses. A small fire filled the camp with shifting light, and Andore sought to empty the remainder of his wine and drift into that familiar darkness of rest.
“Talk of heroes,” Garann said. “Of old kings and long forgotten bones.”
Pulling the wineskin from his lips, Andore raised a brow. “A campfire tale? This story of yours is damned before it’s written,” he said, shaking his head.
Tossing a twig into the fire, Garann said over the snapping, “I won’t add this part. Only the exciting parts.”
Andore nodded lazily, feeling the wine start its pilgrimage from stomach to head. “And deny your audience that moment of connection? You can’t just cram all the good parts together and call it a story. There has to be context, emotion, something for the simple folk to understand. You want your audience to feel for your characters, to sympathize with them. How would you accomplish that without proving their humanity?”
“Then I will add it?” Garann questioned slowly.
“No,” Andore replied. He tilted the wineskin up and took the last drops on his tongue, then ran his tongue over his teeth. Licking his lips, he looked into the slender flames rocking over blackened branches, swallowed, then spoke.
“Carlief climbed the icy heights of Mount Veir in the Highlands, seeking the homes of the gods. At the summit of his mountain, he found no palaces, no cottages, no buildings at all, just the range laid out before him, bright snowy peaks and deep dark defiles. He wept in his failure, tears freezing upon his cheeks.
“It was in this moment of anguish that an eagle came to him. The bird’s body was black as the defiles and its head white and marvelous as the mountain peaks.
“‘Why do you cry?’ the eagle asked, coming to perch on a crag, the beating of its wings filling the air with a dusting of snow.
“‘I came in the hopes of seeing where the gods live,’ Carlief answered plainly, ‘but all I see is nothing.’
“The eagle cocked its head, curving beak golden. ‘Nothing?’ it queried. ‘It is no wonder you can’t see the abodes of the gods.’ One clear blue eye blinked.
“Carlief recomposed himself and glanced around again, searching the thick snowdrifts, peering into the hazy clouds bunching around the mountaintops. Once more he despaired.
“‘It is useless,’ he cried. ‘There is but snow and air and rock.’ He brushed at his face and the hard tears fell as frozen beads.
“‘It is useless because you gaze with your eyes,’ the eagle admonished. ‘You try to see what must be there, and overlook what is there.’
“‘I am not of your kind, sagacious bird, so tell me simpler.’
“The eagle shook its snowy head, eyes sharp with anger. ‘A fool does not become a wise man when taken by the hand.’
“‘Then surely I must perish,’ Carlief said, the sting of failure hot in his chest. ‘I devoted my life to this one thing, and it is but a dream still.’
“‘A dream . . .’ the eagle said, contemplating. ‘And what are dreams?’
“‘They are visions,’ answered Carlief. ‘Hopes and desires.’ Then he added, sourly, ‘They are nightmares.’
“‘You are unfulfilled in this dream, so it frightens you?’
“‘A life wasted. I built myself to see the palaces of the gods, and they are but an illusion.’
“The eagle regarded Carlief a moment, its watchful eyes unblinking. ‘Do you know what these palaces look like? Of what material they are constructed?’
“Carlief shook his head. ‘No. But they must be majestic, and tremendous, and opulent. Nothing less for a god.’
“The eagle rocked its head in agreement. ‘And it is this you wish to perceive?’
“‘More than a wish! A need! To take in that which the gods call home would satisfy me in life.’
“The eagle stretched its great wings, the dark feathers hiding the sun, shading Carlief’s sight. The man was momentarily grateful, having been molested to no end by the harsh light at the top of the world. Then something caught his eye. Distant, the snows shimmered myriad hues, sparkling as though dressed in pearls and emeralds and sapphires. The mountains were magnificent, thrusting up from the earth to touch the skies, knowing the tops and bottoms and insides of clouds. A merry whistling found Carlief’s ears then, the wind and crags fashioning a melody often beyond the ears of men.
“‘I can see it now!’ Carlief’s wide eyes drank in the unfathomable scope of the world, of the heights of snow-crested rises to the soft darkness of the lowest vales. ‘It is wonderful.’ And more tears came to his eyes, hardening upon his cheeks until he wore a glittering mask.”
Garann made no move to speak at the tale’s conclusion. “The end,” Andore provided.
“Eagles can’t talk,” Garann said matter-of-factly.
Andore frowned. “That’s not the point of the story.”
“It’s too far-fetched,” the boy added.
Wearily, Andore rubbed at his now itching eyes. “Get some sleep, lad,” he said, gesturing vaguely to Garann’s blanket. He himself stepped away from the fire and made to the mule. Retrieving a second wineskin, he drank deeply and went back to his blanket. There he curled up with the drink, fighting only to bring darkness.
The days that followed were dreary and unpleasant. The first morning out, heavy gray clouds moved in from the west and brought with them an extended family that darkened the sky as far as could be seen. As Andore and Garann moved steadily north, so too did those thunderheads, marching ponderously like malformed leviathans, showering them continuously with cold rain for three days and three nights. It was thick sheets that hid the world beyond Polly. It grew so that Andore forgot the sight and feel of sun, and his sopping cloak was a slowly fading comfort. But the world had finally taken on a vision of his heart, so he complained only mildly, with chattering teeth and a clenching of his cloak beneath his chin. Still he kept up his work pointing out familiar sights to the boy, anything that Garann might be able to latch onto when he had to make his way home alone.
When finally the rains broke, the poet and child stank of mud and horseflesh, and longed for fire and warm food. Their first dry camp in four days was made at the edge of a dark wood, the boughs of which refused even the new-falling sunlight entrance.
Before a crackling fire both had doffed their clothing and sat only in smallclothes, enjoying the heat of the flames while their tunics and breeches and satchels dried on hung lines. The horses were hobbled and nibbled at the high grasses racing away from the forest. Their pack mule stood unmoving, looking at nothing with a dull apathy.
“Not a single town,” Garann grumbled, the line having become a favorite of his during their slog through the country.
“I told you, lad, we’re on a trapper’s road now, not a trader’s.”
The youth was the portrait of misery. Andore knew that if his own heart could be painted, it would be a half-naked sullen boy drying before a sorry fire. There was even a smear of mud upon the boy’s cheek.
Pushing his boots a little closer to the flames, Garann let out a long sigh. “I never imagined it would be like this.” His eyes were shining gold-brown in the firelight.
“Really? What exactly did you imagine?” Andore wrung out his once brilliant emerald cloak and slung it over the cord where the rest of their garments hung drying. It had lost its true color long ago, fading to a gaudy lime. He’d thought of replacing it, but the little coin he managed to collect by telling his stories was better spent on wine.
“Something less insufferable.” Garann sniffled and wiped at his nose with the back of a hand, broadening the line of dirt. “I don’t see Cail the Lengthy sleeping in the rain, or Bern the Brief, or even Casson the Mad.”
“I’ll have you know, Casson invented sleeping in the rain. Why else do you think people called him mad?” Andore grinned, but Garann kept a seriousness about his face. Something really needed to be done about that.
“When are we going to do something I can write about? Something exciting?” Garann said irritably. “If this is how you find stories, I’d prefer to sit dry and content at university. At least there I wouldn’t be wearing mud as a second skin.”
“Right, and you wouldn’t know the smell of it, or how it itches, or how it makes you feel to scrape it off. Can’t you see, lad? I’m giving you things you’ll never discover sitting behind stone walls. Sure, you can assume what mud on your skin might feel like, but what if your audience knows the truth of it? They denounce you as false, as a charlatan. Trust me, you need this.”
Garann scratched a length of dried dirt from his leg with a fingernail, frowning. “Have you ever been denounced?”
Andore paused at the question. Have I? Lad, I’ve been run from towns with torches and pitchforks at my back, locked in dark dungeons and forgotten, and felt the coarseness of hempen rope tight around my neck. “Once,” he lied. “And I don’t mean for you to make the same mistake.”
“What was it for?” the boy asked, a curious light sparking in his sullen eyes. “What was it you didn’t know?”
A town’s inane superstition, a king’s arrogance, and a lord’s failure to find humor in his own shortcomings. “I didn’t account for the simple man, or his simple life, or his simple way of thinking. Too many things are taken for granted or made into japes that farmers and fishwives take to heart.”
Garann’s own simple roots sprang to Andore’s mind. The boy still had the look about him: tanned face that might have been powdered in dirt, heavy hair about his head, and dark eyes that were far too ignorant of the wide world. “Corpses. I made light of the dead.”
Garann gave a disappointed shake of his head. “Bad luck, that.” Then he lowered his eyes, seemingly realizing what he’d walked into.
Andore plucked a length of grass from the ground and stuck it between his teeth. As he mulled over Garann’s indoctrination, he concluded that before the boy ever laid eyes on Illiat, he would first have to lose his superstitions and misunderstandings. Those could be hard things to pry from a mind.
“Do you know where we are?” Andore asked, watching Garann with some interest. He’d purposefully withheld the name of the forest and field, and had purposefully stopped here for camp.
Garann was scratching absently at his toes. He glanced up at Andore, then at the woods, then turned his attention to the rolling land beside them. Shrugging, he said, “North.”
Andore frowned. “North, yes. Generally. But I was looking for something a little more specific.”
The boy bit at his lip, pondering. “Four days out. Uh, the rain made for slow going; there’s no telling how much or how little ground we’ve managed to cover. But if you want an answer, I’ll say Sappenfield.”
“Well guessed, but wrong. Sappenfield is still a few days out. This is Marre Wood,” Andore said, gesturing to the forest. “And that,” he said, pointing to the field, “is Marre Green.”
“Lord Marre?” Garann asked, voice almost picking up. Andore decided then that if Garann’s hair hadn’t been so thick it might have stood on end each time the boy caught a notion.
“Indeed.” Andore watched the boy, hoping a flicker of recognition crossed the youthful face.
“Didn’t he . . .” Garann paused, struggling to find his thoughts. “No, he was the one that brought the slaves from the Black Wastes.”
Andore groaned. “That was Lord Blackflesh.”
“Oh, right. The name,” Garann said. “Then Lord Marre sold his wife for a milk cow? Because his town . . .”
“Are you toying with me?” Andore growled. “Sold his wife for a cow? Lord Anteen Marre burned the old Greenwood with hundreds of his people tied to the trees. What you see of Marre Wood is what’s left of the Greenwood. And what you see of Marre Green is where the trees and living bodies were burned to ashes.”
Garann shivered, and Andore swallowed his elation. It was one thing to educate, another to terrify.
“So, we’re atop their graves?” the boy asked, peering cautiously about.
“In a manner of speaking. Their remains are surely a part of this stretch of earth.” Would he see the poetry in it? Or only the horror?
Garann wavered where he sat, then twisted and retched loudly. Turning back around, wiping at his mouth, eyes wide and frightened, he squeaked, “We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here.” The tan of his face had fallen pasty.
“Calm down. I had not planned to stay but for a spell. Now, I think it best we see the night through.” Soldiers were brought to bear on the battlefield in the heat of war, and there received their truest induction. Garann needed something similar. Initiation by fire.
“The night!” Garann questioned, some heat returning to him. “They will take us. They will come from the earth and carry us away. Everyone knows that. Graveyards are no place for a living body.”
“Do you see any headstones? Do you see any graves? This is a very different place than what you know from home. Tonight, you will see what I mean.”
Garann’s head was shaking wildly. Then all at once went still. “See? What do you mean see?”
“You’re going to get something to write about.” Andore gave a smile that Garann found difficult to take in. The boy turned his hazel eyes upward, toward the slowly falling evening sun. His lips moved in a silent prayer. Andore would have sworn the boy was pleading for the sun to stop in the sky.
It wasn’t long until their fire and a smattering of stars provided a stingy illumination that did not cross into the wood. Andore reclined upon the ground, swilling wine and watching the fearful countenance of the youth who’d somehow managed to edge his way around the fire closer to Andore’s side without notice.
“Are you afraid?” Andore asked, taking another pull from the wineskin.
The boy’s large eyes turned on the poet. “Fear is a wise man’s greatest asset.” He didn’t twitch, but neither was he seated still.
Andore nodded. “And a brave man’s necessity. I did not ask for an adage.”
“It is wise to know fear.”
“Then you are afraid?”
Garann didn’t answer, and Andore took the boy’s reluctance for what it was. Fear is a powerful thing, lad, Andore thought. It’s more potent than love and courage and honor. He would not give his thoughts to Garann, not yet. True fear was what had molded the great warriors. They had been youths once, ignorant of the world. And it was ignorance that killed a man quicker than any weapon fashioned by the hands of men. But fear gave men the hope of the knowledge of death. Andore knew that well. He was consumed with the fear of never seeing Illiat again. That was death to him.
It was some hours before the night finally gave up its secrets. Garann had been on edge, eyes flickering to the shadows of the woods at their side, hands scratching at the bare earth around his legs. He’d found a stick and stone and kept them close at hand. Then, with the first signs of something unnatural, the boy lost himself.
Andore spied it first, the slow coalescing of the distant darkness. The firelight hampered his vision, and he thought it only a trick of the eyes. But that darkness began to shimmer with an ethereal indigo. Faint blue wisps, almost like smoke, danced within the hard shadows.
“Gods!” Garann tried whispering.
Andore glanced at the boy. Garann was watching the west, watching as a hundred shadows moved in step, their cores pulsing with that dim light. His head shook, the mess of brown hair tangling in on itself.
The moving shadows were incomprehensible shapes at first, swaying across the field like billowing sheets on a line until they took their true forms.
Garann lurched toward the fire as the first of the shadows morphed into a woman, her face grim and determined, hair caught in a slow-moving wind so that it swayed about her head. Andore jumped up and tackled the boy. It was a clumsy battle they waged as Garann fought to get to the fire, and Andore drunkenly fought to restrain him.
“Stop it!” Andore said, as Garann struggled in his grip. The boy ran fingernails down Andore’s face. Andore defended himself. He punched Garann, knuckles scraping the boy’s brow. Garann tumbled backward with a cry, away from the flames, and Andore was quickly atop him, pressing him to the earth. “Listen,” Andore said sternly, feeling the alcohol burn in his throat, “the flames will burn you, the ghosts will not. Watch them; it is important. Look at their faces, boy. Remember.”
A line of blood was rolling free of Garann’s split forehead, coursing down his temple. His eyes were unmoving as they stared up at Andore. His mouth was slightly parted as he drew in deep breaths. He gave a curt nod, and Andore slowly released him. Garann pushed himself into a sitting position, but never raised a hand to his face. Instead, he looked to the side, to where a great congregation of spirits shuffled by.
There were no shadows now, only apparitions carrying that luminescent blue. The land beyond the campfire was a sapphire world as an army of the dead made their sorry, directionless march.
“They cannot hurt you,” Andore said quietly as Garann took in the sight. “They wouldn’t want to. These are not hateful creatures. They are a sad and fallen people. They’ve known pain, lad. Pain like you cannot imagine. The dead are not restless souls.”
“If they’re not restless,” Garann asked, turning to look at Andore with concerned eyes, “why are they still here, wandering the world of the living?”
“This world does not belong only to us,” Andore answered. An elderly man, hunch-backed and twisted, walked just at the edge of the firelight. His eyes were empty, his mouth slack. “Never believe that you are privileged simply because you draw breath. There are more things on this earth than you can dare imagine.”
Garann’s eyes followed the old man until he merged with the rest of the dead, losing his uniqueness in the folds of the flock, becoming just another part of that alien world.
“They all look so sad. How am I supposed to have hope?”
Andore ached to have wine in his mouth at that moment. He bit at his tongue. “They do not want to give you hope. The dead want nothing.” Andore watched the boy’s eyes, needing to see something, a flicker of understanding. He was granted a stream of tears that Garann couldn’t blink away quick enough.
With a heavy sigh, Andore laid a hand on Garann’s shoulder. “The first time is always the hardest. Losing anything is difficult.” He took in the scene again, the unreal bodies pushing back the darkness of night. “It is good that your fear has been replaced. Even if it is with grief.”
The two sat through the night, watching. There were no more words to exchange. No looks to pass. Their attention was all for the destroyed lives filling Marre Green. When finally the first light of morning touched the eastern sky, the blue world of the dead faded like a thin mist burning away. The fire snapped and popped, then went cold, the embers snuggling beneath the ashes.
“We can sleep an hour,” Andore said. He stood and went back to his blanket. Lifting his wineskin, he emptied the contents, swishing adleberry wine around in his mouth.
Garann sat unmoving, watching the waking world, as Andore closed his eyes.
When Andore awoke after an hour, his bladder insistent, Garann was scribbling furiously in his pad next to the cold firepit. With a groan, Andore pushed himself to an elbow, then to a knee, then staggered off to relive himself. He watched the boy over his shoulder, noting the unchanging angles of the youth’s face as he worked. He was stern now, a man of long years and hardship. It was just a few ghosts, lad, Andore thought pityingly.
“Stop,” Andore said as he walked back to the small camp.
Garann paused from his work and looked up, frowning. “I have to get it all down, while it’s still vivid in my mind.”
“I know. But give me a moment.” The poet sat on the grass and folded his legs before him. He lifted the wineskin and squirted a red stream into his mouth. It’s going to take more than that. “I have had a woman tell me she loved me, all the way up to the moment I caught her in bed with another man.” The memory crashed down upon him, the twisted sheets, the lengths of skin . . . the smell. “That is a thing to change you.” He held eyes a long moment. “I have seen a father floating face down in a swollen brown river while his wife wept and his children screamed his name. That is a thing to change you.” He swallowed another red line. “Something like last night prepares a man for the horrors life will offer up. And, unfortunately, you cannot refuse these things. They are to be accepted, with tears or with screaming or with hate, but they must be accepted.”Andore had experienced all three, but as he spoke, he realized that the void inside him stemmed more from the memories of pain than it did the memories themselves. Illiat has cured me of their pain, but not pain itself. He wondered if there was humor there. Quickly, as another warm mouthful of wine went to his stomach, he decided there was not.
Garann scanned his pad, considering his notes. When he lifted his head, he was nodding. “I knew when I left the village that I would change.”
“Then you are wise. Most men think themselves immutable.”
“Only,” Garann went on, “I didn’t think I would change like this, or so fast.” He took in the sprawling field, a vast carpet of green grass and wildflowers. No token of last night’s scene visible. “There is so little that I know.”
Andore smiled and felt what could have been pride. How long had it taken me to admit that? “You speak such shrewd words, lad. You will be all right.”
As they set out that morning, Andore considered his companion. The boy wasn’t a stranger in the sense that Andore had never met him; instead, Garann was a different person from the one who’d set out days earlier. The experience at Marre Green had changed him. It had sucked the wonder from his heart, replacing it with an eagerness for knowledge. Part of Andore lamented the loss of the boy’s adolescence, while part of him rejoiced.
They left Marre Green far behind, moving with a steady determination further north. Andore continued to point out landmarks so that Garann could hold a sense of direction. Garann continued to monitor a cold silence.
“That darkness far to the east is Blue Gorge,” Andore said. “Legham the Large supposedly split the earth apart with his ax in an effort to free his brother from a troll queen. Ahead, where those two hills meet, that’s the Red Stand. Three thousand men fought each other there, and three thousand men fell.”
“What did they fight for?” Garann asked, voice thin. He was watching the distant hills with hooded eyes, as though trying to peer across the miles.
Andore shrugged. “What men always fight about: pride, money, power.”
“Men fight for more than that,” Garann responded, never pulling his eyes away from the thrusts of green earth.
“True,” Andore conceded. “Some fight for honor, or vengeance, or love. But hidden behind those most honorable of intentions lies something else, for honor is often pride in disguise, and vengeance is a kind of gain. Then love . . . love is power, lad. Never forget that. Never let a woman convince you otherwise. If you love someone, they have the greatest power over you anyone can ever claim.” Andore’s hand shook as he lifted the wineskin and put the nozzle to his lips. He sucked hard and pressed the sweet drink to all the corners of his mouth.
“You’re putting a blue tint to the world,” Garann said.
When Andore glanced over, the boy’s eyes were accusing. “Eh?” Andore shook his head. “I’ve seen all sides, lad. I’ve heard all sides. I’ve read all sides.” I’ve lived all sides. “I am not trying to scare you; I’m trying to prepare you. That youthful glow surrounding you will one day be threatened. You will know darkness like no cave, emptiness like no desert, and pain like no torture. Believe that. Best you ready yourself now.”
Garann grumbled and cast his eyes away from Andore. Just a while longer, Andore thought, and you’ll be free of my black moods.
Their journey became a month and a half of rain and cloudy days, long nights and little sleep. Both were road-weary when finally Andore recognized the land opening before them as that of the Eastern Wilds. A timid flame woke inside his breast. He felt a tremble come to his skin, as though his bones had woken from a long slumber.
“This is it,” he said, low so only his teeth could hear. The field was sprinkled with rounded boulders, knobs of stone that broke the surface of the earth like old wrinkled heads. The heads of giants. Thin beech trees rose up here and there, branches and green leaves shivering in the small wind from the west. Dismounting, Andore felt a sense of energy for the first time since departing that field a year ago. He hunkered down atop one of the larger boulders, staring out over the land with eyes that knew life. There, he thought, that’s where she danced. It was a clearing ringed in white lilies and brilliant yellow dandelions.
A lark had sung its natural song, perched there on that low branch, he remembered. Five squirrels had come, nuts in hand, to watch. There had been wolves and deer in audience, sitting quietly side-by-side, enraptured by the exquisite beauty that was Illiat. Crows had filled the trees like a dark cloud, their large eyes following the perfect motions of an immaculate form. And the world stirred beneath her, shuddering in ecstasy. Andore had felt it too, had ridden on the pure pleasure of the earth. She had turned to him, her eyes dazzling in the morning sun; tiny suns themselves. Then she had come to him. Limbs never moved as hers had, effortless and sleek and fluid. She raced across the ground as a stone might skip across water.
A space had separated them, a space that could have been traversed by a whisper, or a kiss had Andore thought to move his lips. Then she’d smiled, and the softness of her skin grew softer. The sun did not beat upon her, rather it touched her like a timorous child might brush at a strange dog’s muzzle. And she marveled in such light.
Andore closed his eyes, letting the memory flee. Please, he begged, to gods or demons, whoever would hear, bring her back to me.
It was four days of heavy clouds before the weather turned sour. Morning came dark, and a chilled rain came pissing down. Andore rolled himself up inside his blanket and glanced up, letting the sky wet his face. He couldn’t help but smile. They were watching, he knew. The gods always watched. And apparently they had to relieve themselves like regular men. He twisted and pressed his face to the wet ground, falling back asleep.
The day he awoke to a clear blue sky and a bright sun beaming, Andore frowned. This isn’t good, he thought, eyeing the warm morning with suspicion. The rains had stopped yesterday, suddenly, but the clouds didn’t break. They had lingered across the sky, blotting out the sun, making the world a dull gold. Although he carried misgivings, Andore continued his routine. He took a wineskin out to the field and sat, pulling up the long grasses, watching the wind move across the earth. She will come, he told himself. She will come.
Even with the promise of sunshine and warmth, Illiat did not reveal herself.
Soon the wine ran out, and Andore was forced to confront the sharpness of his mind, and every memory was a haunt that made him restless as he slept. Garann went ignored in those days of terrible cognizance. Andore would see the boy, pad in hand, but he never made an attempt at conversation. He’d already done all he could for the boy, from teaching the way home to protecting him from miscreants on the roads. The boy had to fulfill his role alone, while Andore suffered through a deepening loneliness.
At times, a ball would come to his throat, threatening to choke him, as the days lengthened and died without so much as a fey-stirring. Andore would follow the lines of the distant mountains as they cracked the afternoon sky. When tired of that, he would lie on his stomach and watch the tedious marching of ants through the grasses. When tired of that he would sleep. When tired of sleep he would count stars or birds. He often tired of activity.
Illiat spoke and Casson the Wise went mad. Andore ripped up a tuft of grass, letting the blades slide between his open fingers. The sun was high and hot, and Andore’s tunic was damp with sour sweat. Am I destined for madness? Without ever hearing her voice? The thought frightened him so that the bottoms of his feet ached. But he held steadfast, ate seldom, and hoped for the return of a wild beauty.
Then she was there.
It was that sudden, like a flash of distant lightning that appeared without the smell of rain. Her return was a lover’s gasp.
Andore felt his stomach clench and his heart quiver. There she stood, watching him, large brown eyes shimmering with innocence and wonder.
The warmth that cascaded through Andore’s breast was enough to melt his heart. Her smile was a thousand years of peace, a winter’s blue sky, a man filling his child’s stomach in the morning. It was the first time since their first meeting that Andore was glad he wasn’t drunk because he would never have been able to tell the different between the alcohol and the intoxicating nature of a fey child.
I’ve done it, Andore thought, his mind racing. His face hurt from how he grinned. I’ve made it to her, and her to me.
But she didn’t, truly; the world spun beneath her as she started to dance. Her touch was light, airy, as though there were no weight to her body. Her feet were upon the earth, caressing the grasses and soil. Her legs stretched out, long and milk-white, grabbing the world and pulling it to her, the attraction carrying her from place to place with an effortless ease. There was music in her ears, in her head, in her body. The music of breathing. The melody of life. And every motion of her long legs, along with each slow lift of her arms and angle of her wrists, was in harmony with the wind and the sunlight and living creatures.
The golden streaks in her hair twinkled, and her eyes were deep russet worlds where stars and laughter played. Andore laughed in his throat. I had sought to describe them. Easier I portray a dead man dancing. He laughed all the more at the image.
She was upon him, again, when her dance ended. Her path to him had been long and twisting and brief. The effort had done nothing to her; her shoulders were impossibly still, a sculpture’s marble body. Andore could not take his eyes from her. The vision that filled them removed the world and all its trivialities. There was nothing beyond her, beyond that small space containing the two of them, beyond the amusing scent of her. In that moment he longed to taste her sapid flesh, burn beneath the warmth of her immortal body. His arm rose, slow and shy, nearly reaching for her. No, I cannot love her cautiously. But she frowned, turning her eyes to watch his upraised hand, and the volume of the action was enough to shake the foundation of existence. Andore stumbled back, arm frozen in its intention. Illiat, who no mortal hand can touch without being burned away.
He realized then why she was frowning. Those brown eyes of hers were considering his hand, his fingers. The look was not of disapproval, but rather of sadness. She wanted to be touched, wanted his touch, but could not accept it for what it meant. She had danced for Bathen, and had not known him. The story was so clear inside his mind.
Bathen opened his eyes, looking once more upon the living world. Illiat still danced, whirling in the moon shadows that shaped her body in pale perfection. He stirred, as only living men can stir, and rose from his stone bed. Life anew set his body aflame, but he was unfaltering as he moved toward her, fingers aching to know the softness of that shifting flesh.
But when she saw him, returned from where the dead slept, she fled on shoes of air. All Bathen knew after was torment.
Andore stared at this creature of gods and earth. Her as well, he thought, knowing she too suffered at the denial of intimacy.
“Do you want to hear a story?” Andore asked, his voice seeming to thunder from his throat. For a moment he thought she might sprint away, frightened off like some wary animal before a storm. But she nodded once, her eyes watching him hungrily.
Settling himself on the head of a nearby stone, he motioned for her to follow. She folded long legs upon the ground before him, staring up with such wonderment that Andore felt the faltering of his heart. I have spoken before kings and queens, he thought. I have defended murderers and rapists. Yet, before her, I am like a babe before his father.
When the air deigned to move, her hair danced out around her face, spider-webbing across her parted lips.
“Seven armored men moved,” Andore began, before his voice could betray him, “and seven naked men rested. Four homely girls sang, and four beautiful girls held silent. Between them all lifted a pole of clearest ice wrapped in ribbons of red and blue and white. Within that length of frozen water were six ravens trapped in flight. Fourteen men lifted arms of bronze. Eight girls lowered trembling palms. And the ravens imprisoned knew it was wrong to pine for freedom. Still, six captives longed. The men and the girls, with helmets and curls, breathed and gave air to the world. The heat of their life melted the ice, and one raven exploded to night. The remaining five took to their wings, entering their brother as midnight kings.”
Illiat gave a small, disapproving frown. Andore laughed at the sight. “I know,” he said, “but it’s short. The Birth of the Black Gods doesn’t have to be true. Stories don’t have to be true to be enjoyed.”
As she watched him, her glittering eyes drinking all the light of the afternoon, Andore climbed from the stone and sat upon the grasses in front of her. Every mortal instinct told him to reach for her, to embrace her. To kiss her. The way she looked at him, the way her lips were parted ever so slightly as she breathed, brought a lightness to his heart, an indifference to his mind. I don’t care if I die. I have to touch her. The realization overwhelmed his feelings of affection. He could not leave her. Not again.
Hours came and hours went. The day turned night. Even beneath the stars, Illiat was majesty. Andore knew nothing of sleep or fatigue or want.
They sat together, Andore sharing every story tucked within his heart; Illiat holding her summery smile.
How many times the sun passed, Andore could not say; how many times the stars came out, alone or accompanied by the moon, Andore never knew. Time was Illiat.
“Can I kiss you?” Andore asked, glancing quickly to her lips, that inviting line of her mouth. He wasn’t there for a dalliance. He wasn’t there to achieve something ephemeral. Whatever came about would last the rest of his life.
She did not answer him. Her gaze was resolute.
“I have missed you,” Andore said, the words bleeding from his heart. “I have cursed the light and cursed the dark. I have tried filling the emptiness with everything around me. I want nothing but you.” It felt like the ramblings of a smitten child. Do I not possess better words? But he didn’t. There was nothing more he could fashion that would prove himself.
Illiat blinked, then stood, her lissome frame delicate and straight.
Andore followed the long march of her body, stopping at her eyes. They were two brilliant circles, holding a deep promise. He stood, facing her, fearful of what she might do, fearful of what he might do. This is what I want.
Illiat wore not but skin, the most remarkable skin. Andore peeled his old tunic free, stepped from his breeches, and cast his smallclothes aside. He stood as naked as she, the sun lapping in waves across him.
He went to her, unhesitant, and they collided with a storm of flesh. Their bodies came together, his arms wrapping around her, his hands winding through her hair of gold and earth. He closed his eyes as his lips slammed into the soft cloud of her lips, and felt . . . everything. The world went white, blindingly white. Then the flames were upon him, riding his bones, his skin, the very sweat clinging to his brow. But he was alive with the fires, with her arms clenched around him, pulling him impossibly close. He kissed her all the deeper, feeling as the world around him burned away like the dry thing it was. Their tongues moved as one in that small space between their teeth.
The rise of her breasts against him was monstrous and sweltering. He could feel every curve of her body as his hands raced across her with a terrible urgency. And she mimicked him, searching his mortal body, knowing its strengths and failings.
Then came the unalterable silence. He opened his eyes and she was before him, smiling gloriously.
I am home, he thought.
Then there was nothing but those brown eyes of hers, aglow with such magic, watching him, gleaming with the lights of infinity.
When Illiat and Adore vanished, Garann finally took a breath. How long had he held it? From the ache in his chest it must have been a goodly span. But who could breathe at such a sight? Garann was moved, both to inspiration and despair. Hard fast tears came to his eyes as the responsibility settled upon his shoulders. He could pen this story, would pen this story, but there was no way in all the hells or heavens he would do it justice.