Then we can all congratulate ourselves on how far we've come.
The Old Man Speaks...
... he says, "Listen...
Listen. This is true:
Have you seen frost caked on a leaf? A brittle sheath that flakes and falls like snow when the leathery surface beneath is flexed or twisted? So did ice rime the cold black wings of the Dragons of Ev as they spiraled out of the darkness between the stars and into the mild moist atmosphere. So did it scatter when they fanned those mighty wings to land.
Children came rarely to the Dragons, and so when Darzarnyenn's belly grew great and her breasts grew turgid, she found herself the object of delighted attention. Despite the honors heaped before her, however, she was not proud. When the vast ebon heads with their lucent eyes bowed before her, she closed her own eyes as if shamed. When the giant wings occluded the moons with their passage, and gifts for the infant's hoard-to-be were presented to her, Darzarnyenn bowed her head and stammered hesitantly, for she was very young, and new to her Soul.
Raefaielle was born in the first days of spring, when grey ice lingered under the evergreens and delicate violet blossoms thrust up through it, as insensate to the cold as was Raefaielle himself. A sprite, a sprig of a thing, his neck graceful as a frond, he nevertheless grew as fast as a fern. And if Darzarnyenn worried that that early day of warmth when he came into the world was as well the dark of the moon, she never spoke of it.
He frolicked and flourished and before long it was time for Dragonet to become Dragon. Still, he showed no signs of yearning, or of questing. So Darzarnyenn instructed her son as best a young mother knew, first wisely chasing away Raefaielle's entourage of advisors, aunts, nannies, worry-warts, well-wishers, and hangers-about.
"What do you feel, Raefaielle?" she asked him, having him at last alone. "Do you feel, perhaps, drawn towards something?"
The young Dragon settled down on his haunches, tail curled neatly as a cat's over his taloned hands. He cocked his head, a barbed arrow on a sinuous shaft, wistfully. "Mother, I feel a sort of hunger. Is that the thing you mean?"
Darzarnyenn flicked her tongue, tasting the air. "After a fashion. Is it a hunger that directs?"
Raefaielle flattened his crest. "Nay." He hesitated and let his tail-tip twitch a fraction before schooling it to immobility. "Should I be a-questing, Mother?"
Darzarnyenn stretched up her wing to cover her son. "You are greater in size than I. It is time you had a Soul, and your adulthood, and so your power."
He twined his neck about hers in affection, and let his forked tongue taste her skin. "Mother, what is a Soul for?"
Darzarnyenn laughed and hugged him close, her voice furred like warm velvet, deep as chasms. "Tenderness," she answered, "Love and concern and sorrow and worry. We, eternal, taste loss through another who will give her life for our completion, and are the gentler for it." She drew back her wing, and turned to face Raefaielle. "It is needful," she said, and her voice lost all laughter, "That we learn longing. That we learn sorrow. Lest we forget the ephemeral ones. Lest we grant them little import, in their brief lives, and grow old and cold and cruel, in our immortal ones."
She settled herself back on her haunches, prepared to lecture. "There was a time before the Souls. We were worldbound, then, poor Wyrms, and we were... well, Draconian. Creatures of lust and flame, when now... we are creatures of the stars."
She sighed. "Also, when you find your Soul, you will find that you are the stronger for it. That you are doubled and redoubled, made brighter. More powerful." She hesitated, as mothers will. "You will find, in your Soul, the fullness of your power."
Raefaielle blinked his slow golden eyes at her. "Then I will go."
Darzarnyenn laughed again, her seriousness falling away. "Go well. Return whole," she blessed him, and so she kissed him, and sent him on his way.
How cold is cold enough to freeze living blood and bone? Have you ever been that cold? Of course not.
Space is that cold. Raefaielle was that cold, on his first flight between the stars, without a Soul to warm him. He might shrug off any merely mortal cold--but this was more, and deeper. He thought the dark would shatter him, that the slow beats of the wings that carried him through the consuming void would crack and craze their delicate membranes like glass, that the emptiness would swallow him. But still he persisted, alone and undirected. Still he struggled on, to win his Soul.
His coming was awaited.
Listen. This is true.
Katherine clenched her cold hands on stone, and thought, I will die alone. She rubbed her hands back and forth on the railing, feeling the scrape and roughness across her palms as she stared down over the mist-shrouded wilderland, and restrained herself from tugging at the slender silver bracelet Mikhail had locked about her wrist.
The lovely thing sent a creeping chill along the skin of her hand, a numbness like pins and needles--a sort of insulation, she supposed. She’d not wear Mikhail’s warm wool cloak--his gift, he insisted--and her tattered gown blew hard against her, and the wind knifed through, but her shiver was not from the rawness of impending winter. Rather, she trembled at what she saw in the mist and the darkness below, trembled at the softness and love in the voices that called her from the unsounded depths.
She thought of Arthur, and bit her lip to hold back a chilly laugh, teetering on her high-heeled court shoes. If my husband has noticed that I am missing, there is no doubt that he has divorced me for abandonment. How pleasant of Mikhail to oblige him so.
Celesti magnus, she prayed, pity me. But there was no pity in the wind, and no pity in the solicitous touch upon her sleeve. "Lady, come inside," the servant whispered. "Come inside. My Lord is looking for you."
"I will come when I am ready, Patrick." She did not turn to him, or otherwise acknowledge his presence. If she had not said his name, he might have sworn her words were for the roiling nightmare far beneath her, the nightmare that spoke her name.
"Lady, my Lord will be angry is you do not attend him."
Katherine smiled without humor. She was a tall, severe woman whose finest feature--in sunnier climes--was her glowing auburn hair. Even that hair could not make her beautiful, however, and here it caught no light to speak of. "Good," she answered. "Let Mikhail rage, an it suit him."
Patrick drew back from his master's name, naked of honorific. "Then I must stay and plead, Lady, and disturb your solitude. For I will not go in without you."
Katherine sighed, and turned from the parapet. She did not like turning her back on what lay below. When she had first come, captive, to the tower of Mikhail Magus, and so become a prisoner of the Dark, the Prince of Mages had brought her to this very parapet and held out his hand. "Look well, my Lady, at what lies before you. What you see will destroy you, should you try to escape."
Katherine had shivered at the plaintive voices calling her name. She did not trust solicitude, not Arthur's, not Mikhail's, and not that in the ragged moving shadows below. "What is it?"
The Magus had smiled in genuine pride and pleasure. "Nightmare. Your deepest horror. Annihilation."
Katherine wrapped her arms about herself, remembering, and followed Patrick down the stair. "Patrick?"
"Why do you serve him?"
Patrick paused in his descent and turned back to her. His moist lips and eyes glittered in the torchlight as he spoke. "Why, Lady. Do you expect me to say that I serve my Lord under some extortion or compulsion?" Patrick smiled, and his eyes grew darker. "I serve him because I choose to, Lady. Because I found in his mirror, as you will one day find, that the darkness is far sweeter--far stronger--than ever the light."
Suddenly, she could no longer meet his gaze.
Mikhail Magus was already at table when she entered. "I hope you will forgive me," he said courteously, rising. "For not waiting for you. But you are extremely tardy, my Lady."
He crossed to pull out her chair with his own hands, and Katherine allowed herself to be seated and served. She had lost that particular battle long since. She ate mechanically, although the food was, as always, excellent. Mikhail re-seated himself, and he did not look up from dissecting his quail when he spoke again. "And have you passed a pleasant afternoon, my Lady?"
Katherine set her knife aside and stared at her plate. "I am not your anything, Mikhail. Except your prisoner, as we both know."
She wondered from whence came the stuffed gilt peacock, when there were no servants in the tower save Patrick, and the tower stood in a wild and lonely place.
The Magus smiled at her over his hovering fork. "Bold, for a lady with such a tainted mind. Perhaps you wish to examine the mirror in my study again?" Katherine shivered at the thought. I am not like that! No!
"No?" He shrugged. "No matter. I believe that you need new clothing, sweet Katherine. That gown of yours is stained and worn..."
Katherine bowed her head over her supper. Bit by bit, he eroded her independence. Bit by bit, he corrupted her will. Still, she could not face the threat of that darkling looking-glass, to be reminded that in her heart of hearts she was as dark a creature as he. Still, she clung to what she could. You will have nothing from me that you do not take, she told herself, a line from some story she remembered from childhood.
She bit into a leg of fowl, chewing the greasy meat without tasting it. Perhaps she had the strength to take her own life? She was not sure. Hesitantly, she reached out and caressed the handle of a carving knife. Mikhail did not seem concerned that she had access to weapons. The wood felt smooth and warm as the strong flesh of Arthur’s shoulders. She had been his third wife.
The sorcerer's head snapped up abruptly, his fork falling to his plate with a clatter. He bolted to his feet, then, and gestured sharply to Patrick. It must have been some pre-arranged signal, for Patrick crossed to room at once and caught Katherine's wrist. "Is he coming?" the servant asked, and Katherine was surprised to hear his silken voice shake with strain.
Mikhail only nodded, and then cast a disapproving glance at Katherine. "What a pity," he remarked, as if thinking aloud, "That you must look so rag-tag for the consummation of your short life, my Lady." Then he shrugged, and smiled. "No matter. Come, Lady Katherine. It is time you earned your keep."
Katherine suffered herself to be shoved willy-nilly up the stair, but at the door to Mikhail's study she balked. "I will not."
Patrick looked at Mikhail then, and Mikhail shrugged again. The servant released her wrist and stepped back. As she was turning toward him, he struck her a blow with a closed fist that loosened her teeth. She rocked back against the wall, slipped, and slid to sit spraddle-legged on the stone, eyes dazed and wide.
Patrick shook his hand. "Jaw like granite. No wonder she has a horse's face." The servant grabbed the stunned woman under the arms and hauled her to her feet, ignoring the blossoming bruise on her face. "Upsa-daisy, my Lady."
Mikhail held open the door. "Set her there." Katherine protested feebly, but her consciousness was dim. Patrick bundled her into the chair and quickly bound her wrists to the arms. She tried to sit up straight, but her head wobbled on her neck. When Mikhail produced a slender key from his pocket and freed her wrist from the bracelet, she groaned, but that was all.
Shaking his head, Mikhail fetched a decanter and cup and gently coaxed her to sip the brandywine. "Come, sweet Katherine. Wake!"
She gasped when the liquor burned her lacerated cheek. Her eyes flipped open--and then she screamed.
She sat opposite a mirrored sheet of some obsidian glass, broad as a man is tall and reaching the vaulted ceiling. Its frame was wrought of tarnished silver, in the shape of a garland of orchids and lilies. Within it, Katherine saw, as she had seen before... herself. Revealed.
It came suddenly, when it came, and Raefaielle beat his wings against the stark nothingness of space in surprise before he veered to follow the unexpected impulse. There could be no mistaking it: at last, some stirring beneath the cold that froze his hide and heart, some hungry tug, direction of desire. He angled his flight toward it, spreading his dark wings ever wider, turning in a place with no up or down, East or South--no orientation, only vector.
Somewhere, that way, not too far--he heard his Soul calling.
The woman slouched in the ornate throne should have been a corpse. Her hair, bound by a crown, was matted and dark with blood. Her skin hung in peeled shreds from her flesh. Over her flayed body, she was garbed in ill-matched pieces of plate and mail that seemed to chafe and bind as much as shield.
But she was not dead. Somehow, she still moved. As Katherine watched in horror and despair, she reached up with twitching, armored fingers to pluck another gobbet from her mutilated face, shrieking with laughter as she peeled meat from bone. Katherine could not look away: the woman's blood-soaked hair was auburn beneath the gore, and her eyes--the eyes behind the bloody lids were Katherine's own.
"The glass shows only the dark truth of what you are," Mikhail has said to her, when he first showed her her own image. "The glass shows you only the truth." And Katherine, for all the coarseness of her physical form, was sensitive enough to know it for no lie.
She tried to divert her attention to the other two figures in the mirror, but she failed, until Mikhail came back to her and turned her head, fingers gentle on her chin. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Patrick's reflection, a man of metal, a gleaming oiled thing with greasy orange eyes. And Mikhail Magus, even in the mirror, smiled at her with his own lips, and seemed only and exactly himself, as he had always seemed before--charming, handsome, precise.
"Sweet Katherine," he whispered in her ear, "Now tell me which of us is revealed a thing of evil?"
"That is not me!" she spat, and tried to jerk her head away, but his fingers tightened on her bruised jaw and she could not bear to struggle against the pain of it. At last, she met his eyes, so as not to have to look into the glass again.
He shook his head softly. "Of course it is, Katherine. You know what you are." And she did: sinking, quailing before the image, she still had to admit to its truth. Outside, she could hear the darkness whispering her name, in just the tone of love that Arthur had used when he wooed her. Wooed her dowry. Wooed her father’s land.
Mikhail smiled at her with compassion and sorrow. "I want to save you, Katherine," he said. "Yes, I stole you away, and yes, I kept you here. But have I ever been other than kind? And what was it I stole you from?"
She closed her eyes, but the pain of his touch brought them open. True, she thought, all true...
"You have seen before what you are," Mikhail said to her softly. "Not let me show you what it is that you could be." He paused, as if considering. "That you ought to be."
The glass shadowed for a moment, and cleared to show the same queen on her throne. But now her hair was bright and braided, her stern features somehow suited to the rich cloak of estate draped over her shining golden mail. There was a slight smile on her lips, and a certain languor in her posture that bespoke perfect satisfaction. Katherine's eyes opened wider, then, and she leaned forward against her bonds. She heard the darkness outside clearly, now, and once again it said her name.
No one can save you but yourself, it whispered, and sometimes not even then.
Katherine turned her mind away. "Untie me," she whispered to Patrick, and when Mikhail nodded it was done. She stood, still dizzy, and took a step toward the mirror. In it, the queen rose to her feet, and echoed Katherine's movement with grace and strength.
And then the great north-facing windows shattered, and Raefaielle came into the room.
Katherine saw him reflected in the darkling glass before she turned. He was a wavering flame, a darkness sweet as welcome slumber. "Katherine," he said when he saw her, and she turned to face him, and he spread his sooty wings beyond the boundaries of the ceiling. The room was never large enough to hold him anyway, but his kind were beyond such inconveniences.
His eyes were a gold like the gold of spring, and her heart filled with his name. "Katherine," he said, softer, "Come to me..."
Go, go to him now!, the darkness bade her, but there was love in Raefaielle's voice and those other voices, and she hesitated a moment, a moment too long. "I'm sorry," Mikhail said softly, stepping in front of Katherine. "You will have to go to her."
For a moment, Katherine thought he addressed her, but then she realized that although he faced her, he was speaking to the Dragon.
This is the story of how Raefaielle fell into darkness, and was not redeemed. Listen. It is a story you will not wish to hear again.
Raefaielle saw Mikhail’s face in the mirror, and his Soul, with her back turned toward him, and--as so often happens--he did not see the real woman for the image.
And Katherine--fool, fool, and more fool--Katherine did not move to stop him or to intervene. Although she saw Raefaielle's lucent eyes go to the mirror and image of the queenly back of her own reflected head, she simply stood and waited while with a glad cry he swirled past her, and came up to the mirror, and was gone, was gone, was gone.
Katherine's eyes flew open wide and she spun away from Mikhail in time to see the last dark flicker of tail fall into the mirror, and the rush of movement as the Dragon whirled within the frame and turned to embrace the mirror-Katherine, who, it must have seemed, had turned away from him again. But his gentle taloned hand went through her once, twice, and he did not try a third time, but sat back, his lovely giant face suddenly puzzled and afraid.
"Katherine?" he said, and the need in his voice called her. She took one more step, and he seemed to look past the glass and see her as her image stepped away.
"Raefaielle," she said to him then, knowing, and knew as well that his name meant Light. The voices from outside rose, and they were frantic now with pleading. Do not, do not, the time is past, the time is gone... It seemed that she could feel Mikhail's triumph, see it in his eyes like a live thing.
It is illusion, said the voices, the other view was the truth...
Katherine took another step toward her Dragon, and raised up her hands to lie on the glass. It was cool and yielding, and she knew she could step into it as easily as walking through a waterfall. Raefaielle's eyes came up to hers, autumn-gold, gold as embers, and he spoke her name once more as she hesitated, as the hands of the image-Katherine pressed hers, palm to palm, dry and strong and warm. "Katherine," said her Dragon, and Katherine, said the darkness, and "Katherine," said Mikhail Magus, with command in his voice "Go to him. He is waiting. Your Dragon awaits you."
"Come into me," he whispered then, "And live forever, never alone, come live forever..." His eyes were dying coals, the color of the setting sun. She looked away, looked into the eyes of her double, prepared to step forward, and jerked her foot, midair, to a halt. The eyes were not her own. The eyes of the corpse-queen had been Katherine's. The eyes of this glorious warrior were black and cruel.
Katherine jerked back and spun away from the glass. An iron grip fell on her shoulder. Patrick twisted her back to face the mirror, and she laughed in startled hopelessness. The woman in the grip of the metal man was again the walking dead, and behind her loomed darkness incarnate. A flickering blackness, a taloned shadow with dead eyes like hot iron. Raefaielle, corrupted. Lost and bent and gone.
She knew then that Raefaielle was lost to her, and she laughed and laughed and laughed, because at last she understood.
Indeed, the time was past.
Her Dragon was lost to her through her own inaction, like so much--so much--that she had lost before.
"In you go, my Lady!" Patrick held her at arm's-length, unwilling to risk touching the mirror himself. Its surface rippled like oily water as the Dragon within it moved, and Katherine recoiled.
"The hell you say!" she spat at him, and twisted in his grasp, her tattered dress shredding in his hands, and tore herself free at the cost of a bit of skin. The room spun about her as she skipped three steps backward, kicking off her crippling shoes, and scrambled away from them until she found herself at bay.
The cold wind spat in the shattered windows, and a spatter of rain prickled her skin as she turned back. Raefaielle flowed out of the mirror, glory corrupted, a rippling darkness reaching for her, his soft voice all seduction. "Come, Katherine. Together... think what we could be, together..." He bowed his head to her, lowered it to the stones by her feet, bowed to her. His great eye was level with her head. "Come into me, and know joy for the first time."
Behind her, she heard the ungodly wail of the nightmares as she closed her eyes and braced herself for his touch. She wondered if it would hurt. She suspected it would not, much. Darkness is the painless path... at least for a little while.
Katherine, run! It was a voice out of the darkness, a voice that commanded, a voice that she hated and feared and loved with a love undeserved, that had not died in a dozen empty years. Arthur, she thought, and almost jumped forward into her Dragon's embrace.
Anger flared in her breast, anger at Arthur, anger at Mikhail, anger at herself, but none for Raefaielle, who had been innocent unto the end. She opened her eyes.
He was swift, and as his talons closed lightly about her and he cradled her to the soft, soft scales of his breast, Katherine’s courage came back to her. She wailed, and beat at him with her fists. "Why do you fear me?" he asked her, and as his voice was in her heart, so he knew her response, and he wailed as well. He threw himself back and up, his great wings straining, the walls of the tower not containing him at all.
"It is not so!" he roared, "It is not so! I love you!"
She relaxed in his grasp, then, her arms falling limp at her sides. "Your love consumes," she answered, "Like all the others. It will devour me."
His wings stopped flailing, and he settled down again. "You were born to be devoured," he told her. "You’re only half a thing."
"This is not love!" she screamed, and he held her tighter. "You’re sick! The mirror ruined you!"
"Not so," he answered. "The mirror showed me the truth. It’s sweet, Katherine. Come with me. Be one with me. I need you. I’ll need you forever." His voice became persuasive and soft. "I’ll make you love me. I’ll make you mine. I’ll make you powerful. I’ll make you whole."
And Katherine felt love and pity and desire in her body like a river, and, knowing what could have been, she threw her arms around his mighty neck and held him tight. "I love you," she said, and she felt his grip on her relax. "But I am whole, and if you still were, you would understand that." And she wriggled out of his hand, and let herself tumble to the floor, twisting in the air to land in a crouch, her leg skittering out from under her and her arm striking the floor with a nauseating snap as she sprawled on her face and then dragged herself to her feet, crying softly.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to her Dragon, whom she had been used to damn, and she spun on her heel then and clutched her ruined arm to her breast, laughing again like a cat purring in pain. She threw herself across the shattered glass that tore her bare soft feet, pelted to the broken window and slashed her hand as she grabbed the frame and cast herself into the darkness and the mist, knowing that no-one would catch her, knowing that the nightmares spoke the truth, knowing that she saved only herself, and only for a clean death now, as she fell and fell and heard her name called out with love and grief behind as Raefaielle, too late, too late, came after.
A complete short story, from the trunk. Just say no to frame narratives. Just say no.
I'm actually posting this because I was just chatting with truepenny about how one thing I did not get out of the box was a coherent ability to rub my thoughts together. You know that whole "just stop thinking and write" thing they tell you to do? I can't do it; my thought process is too disjointed, as anybody who has heard me talk in person can attest. I don't get flow. I have to go back and put the line of direction and the narrative connections in. So the middle above is me working as hard as I possibly can to make sense... and about seven tenths of the story just isn't on the page. So sad.
I recycled the mirror in something else, though.
Right, as for why I posted this story, well. After mentioning it to Sarah, I thought some of the aspiring writers out there might find it encouraging. It's terrible. I know it's terrible. (Fortunately for me, this was Roundly Rejected By Everyone. I have an even worse story that saw print, but I won't tell you where or when or what it was called. I have a copy of the anthology, though, as a reminder to myself that I have in fact improved.)
The horrible thing about this story is that I wasn't cynical about it when I wrote it. It was the best I could do. I believed in it. It had an important and complex thematic resolution I was killing myself to get on the page. And you know, that's the really horrible thing about the Million Words of Shit.
See, those words only count if they're your very best words when you write them. You have to believe in them. You have to be spilling your guts. No holding back. No "writing to learn." Writing, with everything you have, even if it's terrible.
If you don't commit, you don't improve. Like any lover, the muse can tell if you're faking it so that it doesn't hurt so much when you fail. And she will scorn you for it.