This is part 10 of a series. Here are Part 1 & Part 2 & Part 3 & Part 4 & Part 5 & Part 6 & Part 7 & Part 8 & Part 9
Wednesday, and we’re tired of waiting. Tired of wondering when the other shoe will drop, when the story will be complete. Forces outside us, circumstances beyond our control, are jerking us around, pushing us this way and that. Tired of trying to keep our heads above water, of all the grinding repetition we must perform in order to stay in place.
It never ends does it?
The things we have to respond to, and the things we can’t do until we get a response, get feedback. Without that, we don’t know where we are. We crave some sense of response, some sense that what we’re doing actually matters. That all this maintenance actually accomplishes something – that we’re not stuck on some cosmic treadmill until the day we die.
And yet, we’ve talked about the power of delay – and the potency of the gap, the pregnant silence, haven’t we? And I’ve been a tease, forever promising the next part of the story – which means that, if I’m not just being a contrary sod, there’s a reason for it, doesn’t it?
(For the record, ‘contrary sod’ is one of the names the gods carved on the inside of my bones, but not the only one, so you’re OK.)
So the reason is that – and you do remember that, don’t you – the story is its own thing. It has a life of its own, and the storyteller knows precisely when to let its internal rhythm dictate the pace:
And back in the inn, here the storyteller leaned forward and tapped his very own seeker on the forehead.
“Do you think you have the guts to dig that far, my friend? To give up what you are, for what you will inevitably become?”
Remember the pause there? Remember the disrupted flow to accomplish something greater? Remember what the seeker replied?:
“I don’t know.” They said.
And the storyteller grinned. “That’s the only answer worth any salt, I’ll give you that. But the story’s not done yet, not by a long chalk, so – Would you know more, or what?”
So, the question hung there in the air, and a lesser seeker might have sought to have halted the hanging, disrupted the slow spin of the wheels. But our seeker was, as ever a quick study – they held the storyteller’s gaze with a smile, refusing to give him an answer, a way to twist and turn and loop the words!
Silence stretched the neck of the conversation; the communication creaked and groaned – would it break, would the moment pass as the swell of the inn’s background noise came to the fore? Would it be the snap and the crackle of the fire in the grate that did it, or perhaps the clink of glasses and the sound of laughter?
Long seemed the look between the two of them, their smiles meeting each other with equal measure. Who would be the first to give? Which of them would be swept under by the sudden mirth that appeared in their guts, threatening to bubble up and flood the world?
Then: “Just so.”
Said so gravely, and yet furnished with a storyteller’s wink, the words broke the tension. Laughter came from both, on the same page at long last.
Sipping his drink as the chuckles died down, so the storyteller commenced anew!
“Now it came to pass,” said he, “That the hero of our tale laboured long beneath that black sun, learning all the mysteries of those small dark spirits whose smithcraft is best of all. Many years passed in the realms of men, years turning to centuries, century upon century – so long in fact that even bone would begin to crumble, were it not wreathed in dark and potent earth.
Now aged well beyond mortal span, our seeker paid time no mind, nor thought much about the circumstances of his predicament. Instead, the Mysteries and Wonders he beheld, and even had a hand in crafting, captivated him wholly. Yet as all know, even those same spirits may be found above the earth on certain nights, collecting materials for their work. It is at these times, and times of feasting, that mankind often encounters them upon the roads and in the woods.
But our seeker did not encounter their former fellows, on that night when they rose above the skin of soil!
Indeed not, for as they rose to forage in the shadow of that tree, beneath the cold bright stars, the moon was brighter still. So bright in fact that the shafts of moonlight formed gleaming paths, roads all pure and and clean, as the Man I’the Moon looked down, clothed in burnished vestments.
And our seeker’s eye fell upon those ethereal roads, made of solid dream, and they conceived a mighty desire to incorporate it into their work. So focused were they on liberating silvered stone for their own ends, that they did not hear the rapid sound of approaching hoofbeats.
For as everyone knows, there are times when the folk of Elphame pass along such roads. Sometimes they come in armour, with the sound of thunder and roaring wind, and on yet other occasions they come in laughter and music, full of bright mischief and uncompromising wisdom.
Alas for our seeker – those that came upon that path were a warrior band, full of grim beauty and sworn eternally to the rulers of that realm through death and even beyond. Swiftly they seized the thief who would pillage the bright roads, gripping tight and raising them up; everso fastly bound and trapped once again, that was our seeker, just as before.
Yet now, well-learnt in smith-lore and the grammar of such fetters as the immortals do deploy, our seeker did not struggle. To be sure, they tested the bindings to their limits in discovery alone, but made no attempt to escape. For they knew that every thrash, every wriggling protest would serve to tighten those bonds, and so contented themselves with the merest study of the same. Wisely, they chose not risk the ire of the elphen horde, instead seeking to see to where they would be borne.
Less of a surprise to you and I perhaps, than the seeker, nonetheless the band bore them to the court of the Queen of Elphame. Some say that court lies amidst the stars and others deep within the hills and mountains. Only those who have been there for certain may say with any certainty, yet all the lanes and paths do lead there, or so it is said – even those who pass between the Gates Of Fear, watched over by the Grey Man himself!
But bound our seeker was, friend. Hand and foot, head and neck – all were enfolded tightly as they were brought before the sister-wife of he who came to rule on the day he cut his first tooth. They say the Lord of that place, who men call King out of ignorance alone, is ever abroad and hunting far and wide, and yet more they speak of Her.
Beautiful and terrible both, older than mortal reckoning and ever youthful, so flesh and blood is hers to witness, to skin and shape. Equally fair of face, she is fine of feather and fettle, and bright of eye with furthest sight, higher in seeing than any of her kin.
“Child of the Black Sun,” said she. “Why do you steal what is not yours? Your skin is darker than night, what need of you of Moon’s light?”
Made canny now was our hero, burnished by long years. “I sought to craft a crown, my Lady. A crown so glorious that it might hang in the horns of the proudest stag in all the forest, yet I see now that it would look better upon your brow, so that even the Man I’the Moon might turn his face away in shame and leave the Darkest Of All Nights to you alone.”
She laughed, a winter’s wind and a summer’s breeze so intertwined. Bright red her lips, red as holly berries; white her teeth, whiter than the most bleached of bone. Gold her hair, reddened as with flame as she tossed her head in mirth.
“Your tongue is swift, thief. Your mind is lively, and yet, for all of that you have overstepped your bounds.”
The seeker bowed their head. “Would that it were so my Lady, for bound I am, now here before you. By my presence alone, in Elphen fetters, is it not true that I am within those very same bounds which it is claimed I overstepped?”
Here, the Queen stood, descending from her throne. She circled our seeker like a cat – once, twice, thrice!
“I do perceive, oh thief,” said she, “That your light burns in, instead of out. Your kind have little need of illumination, for the purposes of sight.”
Here again, with feline grace she came to face the seeker, eyes gleaming amber as cat’s-eye in candleflame. Said the seeker:
“This is true, and this I have learnt, my Lady – coal black burns longer than green wood. I have felt the hard roots of the Ash Beyond All Ashes, and touched the embers of all that has long since burned cool.”
“Yet you do not know all – you did not know of your crime, after all.”
At this, the seeker flexed their bonds, feeling them tighten against skin. Another might say they dared to shrug in the face of the Queen, but I should not do such a disservice to either of them.
“I did not know. I have found the Secret Of All Things, and thus I do not know. Thus shall I know not, either.”
At this, She Who Rules bestowed upon the seeker a kiss, and whispered:
“I know all that you do not know that you know. Would you like to?”
[More next week]