From the author: The battle is over, the epic has come to an end. But for others, a different kind of war is just beginning.
My father was a wise man to whom many came seeking advice. During his audiences I'd lurk behind his chair or fetch his cup, and they called me fair, even when I was little. I grew to be golden-haired and wary. I was destined for — something.
War overwhelmed us. The Heir to the Fortress was dead — no, in exile, nearly the same. The evil rose, broke the land over an iron knee, and even my father went into hiding.
Then he came.
I was eighteen. The stranger was — hard to say. He looked young but carried such a weight of care, he might have lived many lifetimes already. He came to ask my father how he might make his way along the cursed paths that led to the ancient fortress now held by the enemy.
My father proclaimed, "That way is barred to any who are not of the Heir's blood, but that line is dead. It is useless."
Our gazes met, mine and that stranger's, and I saw in him a shuttered light waiting to blaze forth. I gripped the back of my father's chair to steady myself.
The stranger and I knew in that moment what was destined to be, though our elders needed a bit more persuading.
So it came to pass that the stranger, Evrad — Heir to the Fortress, the true-blooded prince himself — took the cursed paths and led an army to overthrow the stronghold of his enemy and claim the ancient fortress as his own. He married the wizard's daughter and made her — me — his Queen. Happily, the land settled into a long-awaited peace.
The night after the day of his coronation and of our wedding we had alone and to ourselves. When the door closed, we looked at one another for a long time, not believing that this moment had come at last, remembering all the moments we believed it would not come at all. Then, all at once, we fell into each other's arms.
He made love to me as if the world were ending. I drowned in the fury of it, clinging to him like he was a piece of splintered hull after a shipwreck. Exhausted, we rested in each other's arms. I sang him to sleep and, running my fingers through his thick hair, fell asleep myself.
I had dreamed of this, sleeping protected by him. I had dreamed of waking in his arms, sunlight through the window painting our chamber golden, drawing on his warmth in the chill of morning.
Instead, I awoke to the sound of a scream. Evrad's scream. He thrashed, kicking me. I backed away, arms covering my head. Our blankets twisted, pulling away from the bed as he fought with them. When I dared to look, he had curled up, drawing his limbs close. He was trembling so hard I felt it through the bed.
"Evrad?" I whispered. He remained hunched over and shaking, so I reached for him. "Evrad. Please."
I touched his shoulder, the slope of it glowing pale in moonlight shining through the window. It was damp with sweat.
He flinched at the touch and looked at me, his eyes wide and wild. My stomach clenched — he did not seem to see me.
He came to life, returned to himself, and pulled me close in an embrace. I held him as tightly as I could, but my grip seemed so weak compared to his.
"Oh, my love," he said over and over. "I thought it was a dream: you, peace — you. I dreaded waking to find you weren't real."
"Hush. Oh, please hush. You're safe."
I said those words to him many times, on many nights. I kept hoping he would believe me.
Strife lingered in the memory of what we had suffered. He defeated an army of horrors, but the demons may yet overcome him.
He kept the nightmares well-hidden. He always appeared to his men, his guards, his people as the hero, the savior, the King. He looked the part, standing tall, smiling easily and accepting gracefully the adoration of hardened warriors and toddling children alike.
He turned his best face toward the people, keeping his secret soul hidden. But he could not hide it from me. So it fell to me to keep my best face toward him, to be strong for him, and hide my secret soul away.
One night, he came to our chamber carrying an arcane-looking bottle covered with dust, the cap sealed with wax.
"I will sleep through the night," he said in much the same way he'd once said he would defeat the dark army that threatened to overrun him. Liquid sloshed in the bottle when he set it on the table.
"What is it? Rare potion?"
"Rare whiskey," he said with a grunt. "Perhaps it will make me forget the shadows."
I pursed my lips, making a wry smile. "That will inspire sweet dreams, and not the comfort of my arms?"
"Oh, my love." He touched my cheek with all the tenderness I could hope for, though his face was lined with worry. I took his hands, locking their anxious movements in mine.
Once, we needed no words, but I could not read the thoughts that clouded his expression. During the war, he had been proud, his look keen and determined. I had never seen him so careworn.
He kissed my hands and went out of our chambers. At least he left the whiskey behind.
A month passed, then came the night I awoke alone.
Perhaps the stillness woke me. Midnight — the dark chill of night when he usually began sweating, trembling as if all the fears he had kept at bay during the war came on him at once — had passed and no screams woke me. I sat up, felt all around the bed, looked when my sight adjusted to the dark. I was alone.
I searched for him. Wrapping my cloak tight around me, I went along the battlements where I could see half the realm across the plains. I searched the stables, where he might have sought the calm influence of sleeping horses. I carried a lantern through stone corridors where no one had walked since Evrad claimed the fortress.
I found him crouched in a forgotten corner, arms wrapped around his head, face turned to the wall. He had managed to tie a cloak around his middle, but it was slipping off his shoulders.
A guard walking his post from the other end of the corridor found him at the same time. "My liege!" the man cried and rushed toward him.
I interposed, stopping him with a raised hand. "Please. Stay back." Turning to Evrad I said, "My lord? My lord, are you awake?"
I touched his shoulder. He looked at me. The lantern light showed his cheeks wet with tears. "Come, my lord. Let's go to bed." I helped him to his feet, like he was an old man or a child.
To the guard I said, "You will not speak of this. You will keep this secret." And what of the next night? And what of the night the guards found him before I did? I was a wizard's daughter but I still needed sleep. I needed more eyes. "You will help me keep this secret, yes?"
"Yes, my Queen. Oh yes." Wonder and pity filled his gaze. I remembered his face, learned his name, Petro. If I ever heard rumor of the King's illness, this man would answer for it.
We had fair nights. Some nights, he only whimpered in his sleep, in the throes of visions I did not want to imagine. Some nights, drunk on wine, we threw logs on the fire until it blazed, making the room hot, and we played until we wore each other out.
Other nights, I wore my cloak, took another in case he had lost his, and searched deserted corridors by lantern light. I always waited until I had put him back to bed and he slept before I sat by the fire and cried.
At last, weary and despairing, I departed in the shrouded hour before dawn. I used craft that my father taught me: how to move without sound, how to turn aside the curious gaze, how to not leave tracks. I left my own horse behind and took one from the couriers that would not be so quickly missed. I rode hard, turned off the main way, and found the forested path that led through ravine and glen to my father's valley.
After the war, he secluded himself in a valley beyond the line of hills where the city lay, a day's journey away. He said he wished to be out of reach of peaceful folk who would trouble him with petty complaints now that the great matters were over. He said he was finished dispensing wisdom for people simply because they asked for it.
What a gentle place. I had traveled with him when he came to live here, but my heart had been so full of the times, of the ache of war and separation from my beloved, that I hadn't looked around me. Water ran frothing down a rocky hillside and became a stream that flowed through a meadow of tall grass scattered with the color of wildflowers. Late sun shining through pollen turned the air golden. I could smell the light, fresh and fertile.
I made a mistake. I shouldn't have run away. Or better, I should have brought Evrad here, to this peace.
The whitewashed cottage sat where the grass ended and trees began. Smoke rose from a hole in the roof.
My horse, breathing hard and soaked with sweat, sighed deeply and lowered her head to graze. I pulled off her tack, brushed her, and let her roam free. I left my gear by the cottage's door and went inside.
A fire burned at the hearth in the back of the cottage's one room. Near it were a kettle and all manner of cooking implements. A cot occupied one corner, a table and chair another, and the rest of the walls had shelves and shelves of books. My father sat in a great stuffed chair near the fire, wrapped in a blanket, gazing into a shallow bowl of water he held in his lap.
Quietly, I sat at his feet as I had when I was little.
"My Queen, is it?" he said. A smile shifted the wrinkles of his face. He was bald, but for a fringe of white hair.
"Your daughter still."
"No, I gave you away."
He sighed. "Why have you come here? What trouble drives you from your home?"
"Perhaps I only wish to visit you."
"I still have sight, girl." He touched the surface of the water in the basin and flicked his fingers at me, sprinkling me. I flinched, then hugged my knees.
He shook his head. "I was supposed to be able to leave the keeping of the world to its heirs."
"If you have your sight, then you know what is wrong."
"Tell me. I want to hear what you think is wrong."
I was Queen of this land, the destined love of the greatest of heroes, fortunate and blessed beyond reason, and he made me feel like a hapless child. Perhaps that was why the heroes in the stories were almost always orphans.
"The war haunts him," I said. "He has nightmares. He cannot sleep. He buries all this deep in his heart, but it is festering there. How long can he survive like this? I am afraid, more afraid than I ever was when he carried his sword against the enemy. I try to comfort him. I don't know what to do."
Grunting with the effort, he leaned over the arm of his chair to set the basin on the floor. "So, are you looking for a potion or a spell that will set all to rights?"
I hadn't thought of that, when I decided to come here. If there were such a thing I would gladly take it. But my coming here was selfish. I wanted to rest in the shelter of another, as tired as I was of being shelter for another.
"Or do you simply flee from what you do not understand?"
I could have cried, but I pretended to be strong. In a world where fate had ordered all our actions and brought us all to this point, I was terrified that it should leave us now. "The evil lingers. I thought he had defeated it for all time."
"He is battle weary. That is no surprise. As for a cure? Time and care. I know no magic to speed it along. We must be vigilant. Each of us has a role in the war. Now, yours has come."
"But he is the warrior and King, I am just a—" I almost said any of a dozen things: woman, child, pawn, symbol. None of the stories prepared me to be anything else.
"He is King, so he must hide his fears. It falls to you, then, to keep him sane."
"This has been a mistake. Would the true Heir of the Fortress suffer so?"
"Would one who was not the Heir have survived to suffer so?"
"I cannot do this," I said, tears falling at last.
My father smiled and touched my hair with his arthritic hand. "He said the same thing to me before he departed for the last battle. I will tell you what I told him." He held my hand. His was warm and dry. "'That may be true,' I said. 'But you must try, because no one else will.'"
I pressed his hand to my face, wishing I was a child again, able to hide behind his chair and take no part in the worries of the world.
He continued, "You may have the hardest battle of all. No one victory will defeat this enemy. This is not a beast to slay and be done with."
"And no one will sing of my battles."
I slept curled in a blanket near the hearth that night—the first night in many I had not been awakened by sleepwalking or nightmare cries. I treasured the peace of the valley. In the morning, I sat in the meadow by the stream. Since settling at the fortress and into my life as Queen, I had seldom touched living earth or smelled grass and wildflowers warmed by the sun. Here, I could pretend none of it had happened.
My father joined me. He spent a long time settling to the ground, leaning on his cane. He'd never used a cane before. Too late, I reached to help him, to give him my arm to lean on. He'd never needed help before, so I didn't think of it. He spent time arranging his cane and robes around him, gazing over the dancing water.
"When will you return to him?" he said at last.
"I don't know." I had to gather my strength. I could spend the rest of my life gathering strength and still not have enough.
"Make it soon."
I'd been picking at grass, weaving something of a tangled wreath. I threw the mess of it into the stream. "If you don't wish me to stay, I can go elsewhere."
"I want you to go to your home. Your child should know his father."
"My—" I flushed, my whole body burning from my scalp to my bare toes. Then the expected movement: I put my hand on my belly. "You don't mean—"
He smiled, a cat-wise smile of secrets. "I still have sight. You—are still learning."
A child. Me—a child. My child. His child. Oh, have mercy. Forgive me.
"Father, I must go."
"Yes, you must."
I caught my horse, saddled her quickly, and fled in a whirlwind. I had galloped a mile when I pulled up suddenly—I was carrying a child. I should be more careful.
What would Evrad say? Perhaps he would sleep well, with a child in his arms.
Halfway back to the fortress, a thunder of hoofbeats galloped toward me. I waited for the rider to appear around the curve in the road. The horse was a snow white charger, with a gold breastplate and gold fixings on his tack, tail flying, mane rippling. His rider pulled up hard, and his hooves raised dust as he skidded in the road.
I knew this stallion, and I knew the rider who jumped from the saddle and ran toward me.
As I dismounted I stumbled, my grip on the saddle keeping me upright. Here was my hero, my King, face uplifted, striding with strength and determination. Grim and fierce, as I had seen him ride to battle, as I had not seen him in weeks. I had not lost him to the war.
I would have run to meet him, but I had moved just a few steps away from my horse when he reached me. He caught me in his arms and held tight. His leather doublet pressed my flesh, his rough cheek brushed mine.
"I'm sorry," I cried again and again, weeping on his shoulder.
He made soothing noises. "Hush. It's enough that you're safe. I guessed where you had gone, and I meant to go and beg you to return. I meant to make promises—to tie myself to the bed so you wouldn't have to search after me at midnight anymore. To have my guards knock me unconscious every evening so I might sleep through the night."
I laughed. "No guard of yours would even try, my lord."
He touched my cheeks, wiping away tears. "I know you are a wizard's daughter. Your spirit is wild, free as the wind, and your will is strong. I have nothing that can bind you—but tell me you will never leave me again. Promise me."
Oh, how such words would bind me. Did he not know that words are nearly all that will bind a wizard, or his daughter?
"I promise," I said.
Men fight for symbols: a crown, a throne, lines on a map.
When he reclaimed the fortress and we married, our story ended but our lives didn't. None of the old stories prepared me for the battles I now fought.
I remembered the night he left my father's hall to meet the last battle, when all but I believed he was marching to his death.
I held him as long as I could. "I wish I could go with you. I wish I could do more than wait here for news."
"But you're already doing so much."
"What? What am I doing?" I said, smiling with wonder.
"You are the symbol of what we fight for: all that is beautiful."
Men fight for symbols. What do women fight for?
Again I wandered nighttime passages, my way lit by a dim lantern, searching. I moved slowly, some seven months along my child's time. I wore two cloaks and fur boots, because winter was upon us. On bad nights, when the terrors wrenched Evrad to immobility, he found dark passages and shivered there in the cold, fighting demons in his mind. I walked every corridor in the fortress and could not find him. Petro had not seen him either.
On bad nights, he hid in dark passages. This night was worse.
I found him on the battlements of the highest tower. A spire jutting above the sheer wall of the fortress, it served as a watchtower and a place for message fires. He leaned on the stone wall, gazing straight down, a hundred feet to hard earth.
I caught my breath and swallowed a scream.
"My lord? Evrad," I said softly, my voice shaking. "What are you doing?"
He climbed to sit on the lip of the wall. He looked at me; his eyes were feral, shining. He trembled. Sweat matted his hair, and his face was pale, drained of blood. He wore only breeches and gooseflesh covered his arms.
If I reached for him, the gesture might push him over.
"Go back to bed. Why must you follow me?"
Because I loved him. Because I worried about him. Because it was my duty, and I must do it so the secret of his nighttime terrors did not spread. But I didn't say those things.
"I will follow you to the end of the world, over cliffs into fiery rifts that split the earth if I must. But I will follow you."
"Like the demons."
"I'm faster than demons. They will not reach you before I do."
"Will you follow me there?" He nodded over the wall to the long drop.
The moon shone near full, low in the sky, painting the land with shadows. Lurking behind each house and tower and city wall, stretching away from every rise in the land, every tree on the plain, black shapes reached toward the fortress.
"They whisper in my ear, jump. Oh Alida."
My knees gave way and I sat on the stone, lurching with my swollen weight. I couldn't shutter the moon, to chase away the shadows.
"Evrad. What did you fight for? Did you fight for this, to cast yourself off a tower? Then they've won. The enemy is dead and gone, but will still win the war. It was all for nothing. What did you fight for?"
"I don't know anymore—"
"Me, Evrad! You fought for me! Now I am yours. You don't have to fight anymore. You've won."
He shook his head. "I'm not worthy of you. You deserve better. Someone who doesn't have nightmares."
I laughed, clapping my hand over my mouth because the sound was so acrid. "I deserve better? Evrad—you are the hero of the age, the king of legends. And I deserve better? Who do you think I am?"
He looked at me. His frown was long, unmovable. "You are everything."
I crawled toward him. "Come down from there, Evrad. Come to me." I stretched my hand to him. I had to be stronger than the shadows. My voice had to be more alluring. "Touch me. Just touch me."
A small goal, an easy quest, well within his reach. A slender hand, poised in the dark. He leaned, lips parted in an expression of longing.
He fell off the lip of the wall and into my arms.
"I don't want better. I don't want the hero and king. I want you." We sat for many hours, hugging each other against the cold.
I brought him to bed and wrapped myself around him. He shivered. I was not blanket enough against the cold.
"Do you see them? In the shadows on the wall," he said. Candle flames flickered in a draft. The warped shadows of a cup, a candlestick, a comb danced and trembled all around.
"It's only light and dark."
"I know that—but I see memories. I see a thousand goblin warriors throwing themselves against the burning ramparts of the city. I see them pulling my men into the flames. And there's nothing I can do. I didn't destroy them. They're still here, watching us."
Almost I could see their red eyes and clawed hands. For all his army had saved, ten thousand men had perished in the war. Goblins shook spears which rippled like ocean waves above their heads. I had not been there, yet I could almost see. He lived with such visions in his waking mind. How did he endure?
I got up and blew out the candle, banishing the shadows. Returning to bed, I pressed myself against his back and whispered in his ear. "They're gone now."
He was crying.
Over time, we learned what sparked the grim memories. Bonfires. Shadows under a full moon. Then, our sons in armor. Oh, were his nightmares fierce after Biron's first day in armor. If I could have changed the world, altered the course of sun and moon, rewritten tales of destiny that had been put down by great unseen hands, our children would never have learned to fight. But they were the children of a King and must learn the ways of arms. Evrad insisted on this. Even after waking in the night and telling me that the faces of his men dying over and over in his dreams had changed, and were now the faces of our children.
Over time, nights became easier. With children to occupy him—first a son, then two daughters, and two more sons—he went to bed happy and weary. He did not notice the shadows so much.
Thus peace ruled the land for our children's time, and our children's children's time, and will rule beyond. Just like in the stories.
I sit by a window, my gray hair braided behind me, my withered hands resting on a worn blanket. Evrad is also old, but he wears his age, his gray, and his wrinkles like a prize. He still rides out, straight as a statue in the saddle, and I still wait for him.
Behind me, a door opens and closes softly. Our youngest son, Perrin, attempts to not disturb me. I don't have to look; I am my father's daughter, and I have acquired some of his sight over the years. My father is long dead.
Perrin comes to my chair and kneels on the rug. This puts him at the height he was as a boy. I look on him as if he is a boy come to beg a favor. But he is a man, with a beard and his father's bold eyes.
"Mother? I've almost finished. But I have one last question."
My other children have become warriors, diplomats, husbands, wives, parents, leaders and healers. Perrin, while he dutifully learned swordplay and manners along with his siblings, has become none of these. He is a scholar, historian, chronicler. A bard.
He has been writing an account of the great War of the Fortress and the turning of the age. I've read parts of it—what he has seen fit to show me—and hardly recognize the events and trials I lived through. It reads like the old stories.
"Oh?" I say. "Why not just invent an answer? It won't sound any more outlandish than what's there already."
"I've written no lies—"
"No, of course not. But you've painted the truth with bold colors indeed." Gah, that's something my father might have said.
He looks away, smirking. Like I might have done, kneeling at my father's chair. "I have a question about a thing I am not sure even happened."
He paused, wincing in difficult thought, trying to speak—my son the bard, tongue tied. I might have laughed, but he looked to be in pain. Finally, he said,
"When I was young, quite small, a noise woke me, and I was afraid. I thought to go to your chamber to seek comfort. The passages were very dark. I crept along the walls like a mouse, fearful of losing my way in my own home. Then, I heard crying. I turned a corner and saw a lantern. In the circle of light I saw you and Father sitting on the floor. You held him in your arms, and he was crying. I thought his heart would break. And I realized—he was afraid of something, more afraid than I was or had ever been. That sight. . .terrified me. I ran back to my own bed. I trembled under my blankets until dawn, and never spoke of it until now.
"Tell me: what I saw—was it real? Did it happen?"
Evrad and I have even managed to keep our troubles from our children. Mostly. He walks in his sleep rarely these days. No reason anyone should know.
"Yes. It happened that night and many others. The horrors of that war have haunted him for many years. It may be that the enemy left him with such visions as revenge, as a final defiance. Or perhaps it is the price for victory." I shake my head. I have invented many excuses, but the simplest is probably the truest: his memory haunts him, and there is no one to blame.
I lean forward and rest my hand on Perrin's shoulder. "You must not write of this. You must not add this to your chronicle."
"But—it means the hero's journey is not ended. It adds all the more to his victory, that he has continued to struggle and continued to win—"
"The hero must be strong, more than human, and when he becomes King, his struggles should be over. That is the end of the story. That is the law of stories, Perrin, however else the rest of us must live. If people saw him any different—some spirit would go out of the world, I think. People would believe in him less." I sit back and take a tired breath.
"Believe in him less because he is human?"
I watch Perrin thinking. As a child, his questions went on longer than any of the others' did. He was the one who wanted to know why different birds had different songs, and why water could not flow uphill. He exhausted my ability to make answers. Even now, I hope he has no more questions.
"I understand, I think," he says at last. "The war ends, the age ends, the story ends."
"So the children can make their own stories."
He nods, and wonder of wonders I think he does understand. "One more question," he says, and I brace. "Which was harder? The battles leading into the new age, or the ones after?"
Strange. Looking back now, I only remember the ones after. The ones before happened to someone else, in another age.
I click my tongue and think of what my father might have said. "That's not a fair question. It doesn't matter which is harder, because no one will ever know of the battles after."
Shadows writhe across the floor and climb to the ceiling. They swim around the bed and my sleeping lord. One is like a laughing mouth, another like a reaching hand that touches the slope of his shoulder.
"Get away from him." I have drunk too much wine and my vision is spinning. I throw the cup. Wine flies in a spray of droplets across the floor. The silver cup drops with a ringing noise. The sound of swords striking or inhuman teeth gnashing in a cry of victory.
"He is mine!" I cry, standing. "You cannot have him."
Blood rushes in my ears like laughter. I want to scream, I open my mouth to scream, and then--
"Dear heart? What are you doing?" Sitting up, he rubs sleep from his eyes, his brow furrowed with curiosity.
"It's the light," I say in a fey mood. "You were right all along. The demons have come for us."
He searches the room, his eyes gold in the candle's glow. His face is calm, but he takes a trembling breath before saying, "It's only light. Come to bed."
"I must win you back. You fought a war and won. Now it's my turn. I will win you back!"
I clench my fists at my sides. My jaw trembles with an unsounded scream. My King watches me. Soon, the wrinkled brow eases, the tired face softens into a smile. To see him smile so, at night—but then, I must look amusing, in a rage, wine spilled around me, shift falling off my shoulders.
He says, simply as grass in summer, "I know you will. Come to bed, love."
I go to him, wrap my arms around him and kiss him, deeply, longingly. His hands press against me, inviting and warm. So warm.
He pulls away for just a moment. "I know how to chase away the shadows," he says, and blows out the candle.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy, December 2002.