What Life Might Be (short story)
Title: What Life Might Be
Author: player of Charna Ja'Varrel'Kav
Vast and unending, the Shore of Dreams crooned softly beneath a star-speckled sky of velvety blue-black. Ronan's guests lay mired in the sand with his dreams lapping at their bare feet on the cresting waves. These dreamers ranged from age, sex and race, their bodies cushioned on the glittering sands and their eyes distant as they partook of his gifts.
High upon the beach, the edge of the land of waking met the world of night. The partition between the two worlds was a shimmering dark grey veil of mingled light and dark. Near the very edge she sat, her chin cradled in the cup of her hands with her elbows propped on her knees. She perched in slumber at the junction of waking and dreaming. Her hair flowed with the gentle tide of the two worlds. The rust-red tresses swept across her face towards the vast dreamer's ocean, and then back and away from her brow towards the land of waking. The breath of this world, this world that was not hers just as she was not his, pushed and pulled her with the gentle ebb and flow of the cosmic sea of dreams.
As she was not his, she could not fully enter his land. She was not permitted the sweet taste of his pure dreams, but only the tantalizing touch of a possible dream. When she woke she would only be aware of the vague memory of waters and star-lit skies, that was if the other did not find her and drag her from this place that was peaceful and quiet.
So for now she sat, her own words echoing in her mind as the Lord of Dreams kept the great tides of his domain from claiming her fully; their waters tantalizingly close to her brushing her toes, yet leagues away.
Something deep within her stirred at the Arkati's rebuff, some dark secret that had been given to her against her will, and in the star-strewn landscape of silvers, blacks and blues a crimson light began to burn. The light was not her own, but was some lingering taint from an old wound that was freshly heeled. And like the dog that has tasted fresh blood, it darted greedily forward at the first chance it had to taste it again.
And so it was at the very edge of the Shore of Dreams, in the space between waking and dreaming, that Sheru and Ronan met on either end of a haunted young woman. She slept on, oblivious to anything but the images that echoed in her mind when the waters of Dreams lapped at her sand covered feet and the jaws of Nightmares tried to pull her into his embrace.
Sunlight glittered across the hearth of the large family room and quickly became trapped in a layer of dust that clung to the once shinny mane of a war mask tacked to the wall. Beneath the mask hung a beautifully crafted rolaren blade inlaid with a zorchar crescent moon, its luster hidden under an equally as thick layer of dust and grim. The tip of the once majestic blade caressed a marble mantle that was riddled with tiny figurines, sculptures and carvings while an enormous wrought iron arm swung out from the hearth, a bubbling mixture of porridge thickening in the kettle that lazily swung in and out of the hot ambers.
"Gran'ma'ma," cried a chorus of excited voices from an entryway in the northern wall.
Moments later, the source revealed itself as a gaggle of children darted into the room followed closely by grinning adults. The elders scooped up bowls and spoons, while the children arranged themselves on a braided linen rug before an aged woman seated in a rocking chair covered with thick blankets..
She rocked gently, back and forth, her chair making a slow creaking sound that was punctuated by a wheezing crackle of breath. Sagging folds of flesh hung from the underside of her arms as she lifted the trembling mass to point at the mantle.
"Briaernn, its your turn to pick a figurine." She said in a voice that was young despite the layers of aged flesh that ringed her dull eyes.
Obligingly, the child named rose and approached the mantle. She was red of hair, freckled and slight but her eyes shown with the pride that came from being picked for the prized task. Crawling over her siblings, she moved to the step stool and surveyed the marble expanse.
One of her siblings tried to bribe her into picking the grizzled bear figurine, another the maoral fortuneteller statuette, and yet a third the saffron-stained wooden gorse carving. She ignored them all, her fingers moving with determination to a wide-pawed dusky mastiff carving.
Cradling the precious piece to her chest, the child moved to stand before the elderly woman.
As the two faced each other their similarities were magnified. Beneath the blotted skin of the elder they shared the same chin, the same high-cheek bones, and freckled nose. When the elder lifted her eyes to the child they were wide beneath the wrinkles, as wide as the child's. Yet, the child's were filled with wonder and life, while the elder's were filled with sorrow and dull with loss.
"Very well, Briaernn," She said, her voice thick with emotion.
The child returned to her seat under the teasing and taunts of her siblings, while the parents began to pass out porridge bowls.
"Once upon a time," the elder began as she rocked in her chair. "Or roughly eleven decades ago, I knew a young Tehir who traveled with me beyond the port of Solhaven."
"Doesn't this story have Great Great Granda in it?" Piped one of the smaller children who was too young to remember the carving's telling.
"No," she replied softly. "This story begins five years before I met your Great Great Granda.."
"I wish we could have met him, Gran'ma'ma." Chimed a proud boy who was tawny of hair and hazel of eyes; he reminded her instantly of his thrice removed ancestor and she closed her eyes against the shock of it.
"So do I," she replied. "So do I but he passed two generations before you were born and is another story on the mantle now."
A great tug at her shoulders pulled her from the dream waters and filled her mind with silver-etched crimson light. She drifted in slumber to sound of a hundred voices calling... calling...
Fire lanced across the sky momentarily staining the parapets gold and sanguine. The flow of battle was like the ebb of a great tide lapping at the shores of the high stonewalls. Men and woman fought bravely upon these walls, some dieing in the arms or strangers, others dieing in the arms of lovers. Here and there grappling hooks and ladders were shattered under the heavy weight of the defenders' axes, but for every three cast aside one remained.
All along the Demonwall the defenders scurried like a million ants trying to preserve their tiny mound. Here a medic was called for as the crushing weight of an enormous stone was removed from a silver-wrapped man, who lay broken in his own blood; a discarded soldier in a child's game. There a call for more arrows lifted to the noisy air and a boy newly named a man rushed up from the courtyard below to answer the task; dodging invaders and defenders alike as he went.
Crouched behind the crenellation of the western tower a ballista brigade churned the heavy machinations of a mighty contraption. Above them another group hoisted a sharpened log from the courtyard below and began to load it into place.
Working among the men and woman as she was, she could have blended in with them and become unnoticed in the press of bodies, the sweat and the tears. Except for the mask that graced her face.
A wild mane of ebony hair streaked with crimson and cerulean locks rose from the impassive features of the mask, marking her different among her fellow workers. Yet, it was more then the mask that marked her as different, it was the fire in the eyes that were glimpsed through the leather piece.
Gnarled and monstrously huge, a blackened hand cupped the edge of the wall and hoisted itself onto the wooden floor of the tower. Several of the workers recoiled, but many more rushed to the task and clutched the great machinery. Those that shifted in fear were quickly seized by the behemoth and hurled from the walls into the frenzied horde below.
Though the lips of her mask never moved, a thunderous cry issued from deep within her and she flung herself at the leathery beast that threatened the team of workers. At the ballista someone, unnoticed to her, scurried to take her place.
A blurring mass of grey fur joined her frantic struggle to send the demonic messenger back into the writing hordes below, its attacks lightening quick and piercing. Green ichor seeped from a myriad of wounds that riddled its hide, and slowly the creature lost ground before the onslaught of the pair. Launching her body at the demon, she and the mastiff managed to trip it across the crenellation but she was too slow, her footing uncertain upon the blood soaked floorboards and when its clawed hand seized her ankle she felt herself falling from the parapets down into the waiting hordes. Down.... Down... Down...
Chill liquid gobbled up the glittering sands of the Shore in an effort to reach her, soaking her to the waist. Its frothy touch brought with it the Dreams of moonlight through trees, where the wind blew and the leaves swayed back and forth? back and forth?
Silvered light painted the landscape in a vaguely luminous blue hue that shifted and swayed with the light breeze. Trees loomed high into the air, their boughs heavy with freshly fallen snow and speckled with frost-tipped needles. Unseen against the trunk ladders were camouflaged to blend with their anchors, and platforms spread outward in a strange combination of military brilliance and artistry.
Bubbling into the silence of the glade, laughter trickled down from the highest platform only to be quickly smothered by a gentle shush. Shadows blanketed the low walls of the platform, the wooden barriers designed to shield against arrows not sound.
"They will hear you," hissed a quiet voice; but the words were said lightly.
"Let them," came the quiet reply. "Let them hear and when they come let them feel our combined wrath."
Upon the floor of the platform shadows parted, ebony skin against freckle-molted white, and revealed the couple as they lie upon a bed of cloaks and clothing. Within easy reach of their hands a khopesh and bow lie dormant among a plethora of daggers. Beyond them, a strange silver mask glittered in the moonlight; its wild mane of crimson and cerulean-tinged raven hair trailing down the ladder.
She gazed up into his shadowed face, her eyes wild and full of the fire of her words. Quirking her mouth into a lopsided grin, she lifted her slender fingers to his thin lips and traced the soft line of them.
Leaning forward, he breathed into the bare skin of her neck; his breath was warm against the chill of the night. "You're mad." He whispered against the flesh at the hollow of her neck.
"No," she hissed quietly, her hands invading the space between their chests.
His hair fell in a curtain of silken silver tress that shielded them from the world beyond. She shivered when the soft strands brushed her cheeks and shoulders to create this cocoon against the world; it was her favorite place. It was their prized space where no one could view their eyes, their heart, or their souls.
Cherishing the security of that space, the quiet and the comfort of it, she whispered upon his lips, and into his mouth.
"I'm enlightened, and her child of Chaos."
Wind swept forward and set the trees to swaying, back and forth? back and forth?
Pain lanced through her shoulder as the waters receded, the jackal at her side heaving her from the chill liquid and up the beach. As the pain spread her blood rushed in her own ears, the sound a dull thrumming. Bump bum? Bump bum?
The rattling staccato of knuckles upon wood drew her from the last dregs of her slumber; the insistent sound a dull thudding.
Opening her eyes slowly, she watched Phoen's fingers tickle the night away on her windowsill and replace it with the golden world of the waking. Tilting her head upon the pillow, she gazed into the aged face of the man at her side.
Grizzled white stubble graced the gentle lines and wrinkles of his cheeks, the night's growth coarse and speckled with grey. His eyes were closed, hiding from her the verdant orbs that remained young despite the eight decades that wrinkled his brow. Wisps of silvery tawny hair stood out upon his head, the tresses long ago having thinned and become untamable.
She brushed her knuckle lightly across the coarse hair that she knew he would shave away when he woke and didn't notice that his breath changed from a man sleeping peacefully to one feigning slumber. He never said a word as she stood from the bed and dressed in the predawn light. He never had.
She slipped the softened suede harness over her shoulder, settled her mask upon her brow and strode with the purposeful steps of the young; a youth he'd not seen in himself in several years. He opened his eyes to watch her go.
As was usual for her odd forays, she never turned to say good-bye. Good-bye would imply that they would never see each other again, but in her heart she always believed that he would be there when she returned. He was grateful this time, though on many occasions he had cursed her for not looking back, that she did not look back now. He was also grateful that he'd been granted as much time with her as he'd had.
When the door closed behind her and the mastiff, his lips parted.
"Good-bye, Shadowling," he said in a voice crackled with age and time.
She would not see his eyes fade from leafy-green to autumn, she would not see that life fled him this last time. When she returned in a fortnight she would note that the fire had not been banked, she would wonder that the cabin was cold. And she would know regret.
Regret that she had never had children to remember him by now that he was gone. Regret that she had not stayed this time. Regret that through all the years she'd never taken his name. Regret that he was finally gone.
Today, though, she stepped into the pre-dawn light with a bundle of cured furs slung over her shoulder and an aging mastiff at her side. She would follow the back of a cloaked man as he led her away from her cabin in the middle of nowhere to a glade where the others waited.
As her feet crunched upon the autumn leaves, she would lift her eyes to the clearing and note that the shadows were different this time. The tall one was not as tall, and the thin not as hidden.
"I brought the furs," She would say to the tallest, only to have the remainder of her words falter upon her lips. Her name for him lost on the wind.
He had always been older, grizzled from the battles he had fought, and rugged from the life he had led, but today he was ancient. His proud shoulders were stooped with the frailties of his mortality, his brow wrinkled more then she'd ever noted before. At his side, his wife too was older.
Her once lustrous hair was dull, the braid frayed and streaked with silvers and greys, and even though she had not wrinkled as most humans of her age did, she looked tired and weary of the world. She did not lift her eyes to the young girl with her bundle of furs, but mutely applied ointment to the joints of the towering man's hand.
The girl remained silent. Her throat constricted with some fear that could not be formed in her mind; that she denied could be possible. At her side, the cloaked man was more withdrawn then she had ever seen him; withdrawn even for him.
Time drew the line of the sun across the glade as they waited to the sound of leaves falling. When the couple was ready they rose slowly to their once agile feet. She curved her arm about his waist; he ran his fingers through her hair in a ritual that would forever be imprinted on the young girl's mind. The mastiff that was equally as old as the girl padded to the giant's side and set his head beneath the four-fingered scarred hand.
As one, and in a silence so vast it was echoing, they began their stately trek north. The journey would take two days. They would cut through the landscape subdued and silent. The only words spoken were by those of the cloaked man and the young girl. He would bid her to scout, since that was her nature, and admonish her to not allow anything to disturb their companion's travel.
During these times the mastiff would stay beneath the withered hand of the giant, his own pace equally slow and his joints aching as frequently. When they stopped he would sit beside the giant and beg with his large cocoa-brown eyes for the same ointments and care that the giant got.
The autumn-kissed lands gave way to rugged trails and snow touched grounds. Ahead of them a cavern opened in the ground, a fire burning within. Not a soul was there to great the strange quintet at the entrance, just the crackle of a warm fire.
"Go lay out the furs in the depression near the back wall, little one" he asked of her. They were the first words he'd spoken since they had met two days previously in the glade, and she marveled at the false strength in his voice.
Nodding, she entered the cavern with the aged woman at her side. Both of their hands trembled, but they worked in silence each with tears in their eyes. Once the furs were laid out in the stone bed, they turned to watch the towering man that they both loved make his way to them. Behind him, the cloaked man turned his back on the cavern and waited in silence.
She watched as the giant lay in his hollow. Watched as the older woman curled up against his side and laid her head in the hollow of his shoulder to rest. And watched as the mastiff curled up on the other side of him, his graying muzzle resting upon the giant's chest.
Time ticked by, her hands curled in that of the giant's and the woman's. They said nothing there was no need.
The sound of steady dripping and the taste of salt in her mouth made her aware that she had begun to quietly weep. She let their hands fall from hers and lifted her mask from her face, her features blotched and swollen from the grief she was consumed with.
"Go, Little One," He told her quietly, his arms curling around his treasured bride. "I want to be alone now."
She nodded mutely and called to the mastiff.
"Come Cosain," She admonished him but even as she called the light faded from his cocoa brown eyes.
Grief gripped her heart, and as she turned from the cave the mask slipped from her fingers to shatter like heart into a million pieces upon the ground. She knelt at the cloaked man's side, and for the first time in five decades he laid a hand upon her shoulders.
Her lips parted with a cry of pure agony, the sound of it echoed? echoed? echoed.
Upon the Shore of Dreams the sound of bubbling laughter took the shape of a million fireflies and gave pause to the strange combatants that fought over a sleeping young woman. As the treble and tone changed so too did the light the tiny insects gave off. They rippled from silver to ebon, ruby to malachite.
"Sorry boys," a silver voice said to the combatants, the mocking tone translating that the apology was false. "This one is mine."
From the sky a pair of argent ribbons fluttered to caress the face of the sleeping woman. She mutely lifted her hands to the silken banners and was instantly free of the chill waters of Dreams.
"And mine," Said a second feminine voice, her tone colder then the grave and bereft of any emotion or light. As the sound of the chill voice faded the grip of the jackal of Nightmares loosened and a shower of dull grey feathers drifted from the sky to make scythe-shaped rungs between the ribbons.
The girl rose to her feet, the fingers of her left hand curling around the first feathery rung, while her right clung to the argent ribbon.
"And mine," came the only male voice of the trio, his somber town taking the shape of a crystal ball at the young woman's feet. Stepping upon the object she was lifted from the Shore of Dreams into the waking world where
She gasped lightly, her fingers curled around air and her body drenched in sweat. Upon her sill the triple moons of Elanthia gave one mighty wink and faded before Phoen's anxious rising. Deep in her stomach she felt a rolling chill replaced by warmth. The warmth spread to flood her limbs and she felt her throat constrict until her lips parted with a bubbling laughter that was only partially her own.
No matter what she lost, no matter where she was, no matter what war she fought, no matter what call she answered, no matter who she lost, that morning she woke with the certainty that she was never truly alone.